from Eugene Delacroix)
Shakespeare also spelled Shakspere, byname Bard of Avon or Swan of Avon
baptized April 26, 1564, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England
died April 23, 1616, Stratford-upon-Avon
English poet and playwright, often considered the greatest writer in
He spent his early life in Stratford-upon-Avon, receiving at most a
grammar-school education, and at age 18 he married a local woman, Anne
Hathaway. By 1594 he was apparently a rising playwright in London and an
actor in a leading theatre company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later
King’s Men); the company performed at the Globe Theatre from 1599. The
order in which his plays were written and performed is highly uncertain.
His earliest plays seem to date from the late 1580s to the mid-1590s and
include the comedies Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Comedy of Errors, The
Taming of the Shrew, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; history plays based
on the lives of the English kings, including Henry VI (parts 1, 2, and
3), Richard III, and Richard II; and the tragedy Romeo and Juliet. The
plays apparently written between 1596 and 1600 are mostly comedies,
including The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado
About Nothing, and As You Like It, and histories, including Henry IV
(parts 1 and 2), Henry V, and Julius Caesar. Approximately between 1600
and 1607 he wrote the comedies Twelfth Night, All’s Well That Ends Well,
and Measure for Measure, as well as the great tragedies Hamlet (probably
begun in 1599), Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear, which mark the summit
of his art. Among his later works (about 1607 to 1614) are the tragedies
Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and Timon of Athens, as well as the
fantastical romances The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. He probably also
is responsible for some sections of the plays Edward III and The Two
Shakespeare’s plays, all of them written largely in iambic pentameter
verse, are marked by extraordinary poetry; vivid, subtle, and complex
characterizations; and a highly inventive use of English. His 154
sonnets, published in 1609 but apparently written mostly in the 1590s,
often express strong feeling within an exquisitely controlled form.
Shakespeare retired to Stratford before 1610 and lived as a country
gentleman until his death. The first collected edition of his plays, or
First Folio, was published in 1623. As with most writers of the time,
little is known about his life and work, and other writers, particularly
the 17th earl of Oxford, have frequently been proposed as the actual
authors of his plays and poems.
English poet, dramatist, and actor, often called the English national
poet and considered by many to be the greatest dramatist of all time.
Shakespeare occupies a position unique in world literature. Other
poets, such as Homer and Dante, and novelists, such as Leo Tolstoy and
Charles Dickens, have transcended national barriers; but no writer’s
living reputation can compare to that of Shakespeare, whose plays,
written in the late 16th and early 17th centuries for a small repertory
theatre, are now performed and read more often and in more countries
than ever before. The prophecy of his great contemporary, the poet and
dramatist Ben Jonson, that Shakespeare “was not of an age, but for all
time,” has been fulfilled.
It may be audacious even to attempt a definition of his greatness,
but it is not so difficult to describe the gifts that enabled him to
create imaginative visions of pathos and mirth that, whether read or
witnessed in the theatre, fill the mind and linger there. He is a writer
of great intellectual rapidity, perceptiveness, and poetic power. Other
writers have had these qualities, but with Shakespeare the keenness of
mind was applied not to abstruse or remote subjects but to human beings
and their complete range of emotions and conflicts. Other writers have
applied their keenness of mind in this way, but Shakespeare is
astonishingly clever with words and images, so that his mental energy,
when applied to intelligible human situations, finds full and memorable
expression, convincing and imaginatively stimulating. As if this were
not enough, the art form into which his creative energies went was not
remote and bookish but involved the vivid stage impersonation of human
beings, commanding sympathy and inviting vicarious participation. Thus
Shakespeare’s merits can survive translation into other languages and
into cultures remote from that of Elizabethan England.
Shakespeare the man » Life
Although the amount of factual knowledge available about Shakespeare is
surprisingly large for one of his station in life, many find it a little
disappointing, for it is mostly gleaned from documents of an official
character. Dates of baptisms, marriages, deaths, and burials; wills,
conveyances, legal processes, and payments by the court—these are the
dusty details. There are, however, many contemporary allusions to him as
a writer, and these add a reasonable amount of flesh and blood to the
Shakespeare the man » Life » Early life in Stratford
The parish register of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon,
Warwickshire, shows that he was baptized there on April 26, 1564; his
birthday is traditionally celebrated on April 23. His father, John
Shakespeare, was a burgess of the borough, who in 1565 was chosen an
alderman and in 1568 bailiff (the position corresponding to mayor,
before the grant of a further charter to Stratford in 1664). He was
engaged in various kinds of trade and appears to have suffered some
fluctuations in prosperity. His wife, Mary Arden, of Wilmcote,
Warwickshire, came from an ancient family and was the heiress to some
land. (Given the somewhat rigid social distinctions of the 16th century,
this marriage must have been a step up the social scale for John
Stratford enjoyed a grammar school of good quality, and the education
there was free, the schoolmaster’s salary being paid by the borough. No
lists of the pupils who were at the school in the 16th century have
survived, but it would be absurd to suppose the bailiff of the town did
not send his son there. The boy’s education would consist mostly of
Latin studies—learning to read, write, and speak the language fairly
well and studying some of the Classical historians, moralists, and
poets. Shakespeare did not go on to the university, and indeed it is
unlikely that the scholarly round of logic, rhetoric, and other studies
then followed there would have interested him.
Instead, at age 18 he married. Where and exactly when are not known,
but the episcopal registry at Worcester preserves a bond dated November
28, 1582, and executed by two yeomen of Stratford, named Sandells and
Richardson, as a security to the bishop for the issue of a license for
the marriage of William Shakespeare and “Anne Hathaway of Stratford,”
upon the consent of her friends and upon once asking of the banns. (Anne
died in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare. There is good evidence to
associate her with a family of Hathaways who inhabited a beautiful
farmhouse, now much visited, 2 miles [3.2 km] from Stratford.) The next
date of interest is found in the records of the Stratford church, where
a daughter, named Susanna, born to William Shakespeare, was baptized on
May 26, 1583. On February 2, 1585, twins were baptized, Hamnet and
Judith. (Hamnet, Shakespeare’s only son, died 11 years later.)
How Shakespeare spent the next eight years or so, until his name
begins to appear in London theatre records, is not known. There are
stories—given currency long after his death—of stealing deer and getting
into trouble with a local magnate, Sir Thomas Lucy of Charlecote, near
Stratford; of earning his living as a schoolmaster in the country; of
going to London and gaining entry to the world of theatre by minding the
horses of theatregoers. It has also been conjectured that Shakespeare
spent some time as a member of a great household and that he was a
soldier, perhaps in the Low Countries. In lieu of external evidence,
such extrapolations about Shakespeare’s life have often been made from
the internal “evidence” of his writings. But this method is
unsatisfactory: one cannot conclude, for example, from his allusions to
the law that Shakespeare was a lawyer, for he was clearly a writer who
without difficulty could get whatever knowledge he needed for the
composition of his plays.
Shakespeare the man » Life » Career in the theatre
The first reference to Shakespeare in the literary world of London comes
in 1592, when a fellow dramatist, Robert Greene, declared in a pamphlet
written on his deathbed:
There is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his
Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide supposes he is as well able to
bombast out a blank verse as the best of you; and, being an absolute
Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a
What these words mean is difficult to determine, but clearly they are
insulting, and clearly Shakespeare is the object of the sarcasms. When
the book in which they appear (Greenes, groats-worth of witte, bought
with a million of Repentance, 1592) was published after Greene’s death,
a mutual acquaintance wrote a preface offering an apology to Shakespeare
and testifying to his worth. This preface also indicates that
Shakespeare was by then making important friends. For, although the
puritanical city of London was generally hostile to the theatre, many of
the nobility were good patrons of the drama and friends of the actors.
Shakespeare seems to have attracted the attention of the young Henry
Wriothesley, the 3rd earl of Southampton, and to this nobleman were
dedicated his first published poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of
One striking piece of evidence that Shakespeare began to prosper
early and tried to retrieve the family’s fortunes and establish its
gentility is the fact that a coat of arms was granted to John
Shakespeare in 1596. Rough drafts of this grant have been preserved in
the College of Arms, London, though the final document, which must have
been handed to the Shakespeares, has not survived. Almost certainly
William himself took the initiative and paid the fees. The coat of arms
appears on Shakespeare’s monument (constructed before 1623) in the
Stratford church. Equally interesting as evidence of Shakespeare’s
worldly success was his purchase in 1597 of New Place, a large house in
Stratford, which he as a boy must have passed every day in walking to
How his career in the theatre began is unclear, but from roughly 1594
onward he was an important member of the Lord Chamberlain’s company of
players (called the King’s Men after the accession of James I in 1603).
They had the best actor, Richard Burbage; they had the best theatre, the
Globe (finished by the autumn of 1599); they had the best dramatist,
Shakespeare. It is no wonder that the company prospered. Shakespeare
became a full-time professional man of his own theatre, sharing in a
cooperative enterprise and intimately concerned with the financial
success of the plays he wrote.
Unfortunately, written records give little indication of the way in
which Shakespeare’s professional life molded his marvelous artistry. All
that can be deduced is that for 20 years Shakespeare devoted himself
assiduously to his art, writing more than a million words of poetic
drama of the highest quality.
Shakespeare the man » Life » Private life
Shakespeare had little contact with officialdom, apart from
walking—dressed in the royal livery as a member of the King’s Men—at the
coronation of King James I in 1604. He continued to look after his
financial interests. He bought properties in London and in Stratford. In
1605 he purchased a share (about one-fifth) of the Stratford tithes—a
fact that explains why he was eventually buried in the chancel of its
parish church. For some time he lodged with a French Huguenot family
called Mountjoy, who lived near St. Olave’s Church in Cripplegate,
London. The records of a lawsuit in May 1612, resulting from a Mountjoy
family quarrel, show Shakespeare as giving evidence in a genial way
(though unable to remember certain important facts that would have
decided the case) and as interesting himself generally in the family’s
No letters written by Shakespeare have survived, but a private letter
to him happened to get caught up with some official transactions of the
town of Stratford and so has been preserved in the borough archives. It
was written by one Richard Quiney and addressed by him from the Bell Inn
in Carter Lane, London, whither he had gone from Stratford on business.
On one side of the paper is inscribed: “To my loving good friend and
countryman, Mr. Wm. Shakespeare, deliver these.” Apparently Quiney
thought his fellow Stratfordian a person to whom he could apply for the
loan of £30—a large sum in Elizabethan times. Nothing further is known
about the transaction, but, because so few opportunities of seeing into
Shakespeare’s private life present themselves, this begging letter
becomes a touching document. It is of some interest, moreover, that 18
years later Quiney’s son Thomas became the husband of Judith,
Shakespeare’s second daughter.
Shakespeare’s will (made on March 25, 1616) is a long and detailed
document. It entailed his quite ample property on the male heirs of his
elder daughter, Susanna. (Both his daughters were then married, one to
the aforementioned Thomas Quiney and the other to John Hall, a respected
physician of Stratford.) As an afterthought, he bequeathed his
“second-best bed” to his wife; no one can be certain what this notorious
legacy means. The testator’s signatures to the will are apparently in a
shaky hand. Perhaps Shakespeare was already ill. He died on April 23,
1616. No name was inscribed on his gravestone in the chancel of the
parish church of Stratford-upon-Avon. Instead these lines, possibly his
Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.
John Russell Brown
Terence John Bew Spencer
Shakespeare the man » Life » Sexuality
Like so many circumstances of Shakespeare’s personal life, the question
of his sexual nature is shrouded in uncertainty. At age 18, in 1582, he
married Anne Hathaway, a woman who was eight years older than he. Their
first child, Susanna, was born on May 26, 1583, about six months after
the marriage ceremony. A license had been issued for the marriage on
November 27, 1582, with only one reading (instead of the usual three) of
the banns, or announcement of the intent to marry in order to give any
party the opportunity to raise any potential legal objections. This
procedure and the swift arrival of the couple’s first child suggest that
the pregnancy was unplanned, as it was certainly premarital. The
marriage thus appears to have been a “shotgun” wedding. Anne gave birth
some 21 months after the arrival of Susanna to twins, named Hamnet and
Judith, who were christened on February 2, 1585. Thereafter William and
Anne had no more children. They remained married until his death in
Were they compatible, or did William prefer to live apart from Anne
for most of this time? When he moved to London at some point between
1585 and 1592, he did not take his family with him. Divorce was nearly
impossible in this era. Were there medical or other reasons for the
absence of any more children? Was he present in Stratford when Hamnet,
his only son, died in 1596 at age 11? He bought a fine house for his
family in Stratford and acquired real estate in the vicinity. He was
eventually buried in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, where Anne joined
him in 1623. He seems to have retired to Stratford from London about
1612. He had lived apart from his wife and children, except presumably
for occasional visits in the course of a very busy professional life,
for at least two decades. His bequeathing in his last will and testament
of his “second best bed” to Anne, with no further mention of her name in
that document, has suggested to many scholars that the marriage was a
disappointment necessitated by an unplanned pregnancy.
What was Shakespeare’s love life like during those decades in London,
apart from his family? Knowledge on this subject is uncertain at best.
According to an entry dated March 13, 1602, in the commonplace book of a
law student named John Manningham, Shakespeare had a brief affair after
he happened to overhear a female citizen at a performance of Richard III
making an assignation with Richard Burbage, the leading actor of the
acting company to which Shakespeare also belonged. Taking advantage of
having overheard their conversation, Shakespeare allegedly hastened to
the place where the assignation had been arranged, was “entertained” by
the woman, and was “at his game” when Burbage showed up. When a message
was brought that “Richard the Third” had arrived, Shakespeare is
supposed to have “caused return to be made that William the Conqueror
was before Richard the Third. Shakespeare’s name William.” This diary
entry of Manningham’s must be regarded with much skepticism, since it is
verified by no other evidence and since it may simply speak to the
timeless truth that actors are regarded as free spirits and bohemians.
Indeed, the story was so amusing that it was retold, embellished, and
printed in Thomas Likes’s A General View of the Stage (1759) well before
Manningham’s diary was discovered. It does at least suggest, at any
rate, that Manningham imagined it to be true that Shakespeare was
heterosexual and not averse to an occasional infidelity to his marriage
vows. The film Shakespeare in Love (1998) plays amusedly with this idea
in its purely fictional presentation of Shakespeare’s torchy affair with
a young woman named Viola De Lesseps, who was eager to become a player
in a professional acting company and who inspired Shakespeare in his
writing of Romeo and Juliet—indeed, giving him some of his best lines.
Apart from these intriguing circumstances, little evidence survives
other than the poems and plays that Shakespeare wrote. Can anything be
learned from them? The sonnets, written perhaps over an extended period
from the early 1590s into the 1600s, chronicle a deeply loving
relationship between the speaker of the sonnets and a well-born young
man. At times the poet-speaker is greatly sustained and comforted by a
love that seems reciprocal. More often, the relationship is one that is
troubled by painful absences, by jealousies, by the poet’s perception
that other writers are winning the young man’s affection, and finally by
the deep unhappiness of an outright desertion in which the young man
takes away from the poet-speaker the dark-haired beauty whose sexual
favours the poet-speaker has enjoyed (though not without some revulsion
at his own unbridled lust; see Sonnet 129). This narrative would seem to
posit heterosexual desire in the poet-speaker, even if of a troubled and
guilty sort; but do the earlier sonnets suggest also a desire for the
young man? The relationship is portrayed as indeed deeply emotional and
dependent; the poet-speaker cannot live without his friend and that
friend’s returning the love that the poet-speaker so ardently feels. Yet
readers today cannot easily tell whether that love is aimed at physical
completion. Indeed, Sonnet 20 seems to deny that possibility by
insisting that Nature’s having equipped the friend with “one thing to my
purpose nothing”—that is, a penis—means that physical sex must be
regarded as solely in the province of the friend’s relationship with
women: “But since she [Nature] pricked thee out for women’s pleasure, /
Mine be thy love and thy love’s use their treasure.” The bawdy pun on
“pricked” underscores the sexual meaning of the sonnet’s concluding
couplet. Critic Joseph Pequigney has argued at length that the sonnets
nonetheless do commemorate a consummated physical relationship between
the poet-speaker and the friend, but most commentators have backed away
from such a bold assertion.
A significant difficulty is that one cannot be sure that the sonnets
are autobiographical. Shakespeare is such a masterful dramatist that one
can easily imagine him creating such an intriguing story line as the
basis for his sonnet sequence. Then, too, are the sonnets printed in the
order that Shakespeare would have intended? He seems not to have been
involved in their publication in 1609, long after most of them had been
written. Even so, one can perhaps ask why such a story would have
appealed to Shakespeare. Is there a level at which fantasy and dreamwork
may be involved?
The plays and other poems lend themselves uncertainly to such
speculation. Loving relationships between two men are sometimes
portrayed as extraordinarily deep. Antonio in Twelfth Night protests to
Sebastian that he needs to accompany Sebastian on his adventures even at
great personal risk: “If you will not murder me for my love, let me be
your servant” (Act II, scene 1, lines 33–34). That is to say, I will die
if you leave me behind. Another Antonio, in The Merchant of Venice,
risks his life for his loving friend Bassanio. Actors in today’s theatre
regularly portray these relationships as homosexual, and indeed actors
are often incredulous toward anyone who doubts that to be the case. In
Troilus and Cressida, Patroclus is rumoured to be Achilles’ “masculine
whore” (V, 1, line 17), as is suggested in Homer, and certainly the two
are very close in friendship, though Patroclus does admonish Achilles to
engage in battle by saying,
A woman impudent and mannish grown
Is not more loathed than an effeminate man
In time of action
Again, on the modern stage this relationship is often portrayed as
obviously, even flagrantly, sexual; but whether Shakespeare saw it as
such, or the play valorizes homosexuality or bisexuality, is another
Certainly his plays contain many warmly positive depictions of
heterosexuality, in the loves of Romeo and Juliet, Orlando and Rosalind,
and Henry V and Katharine of France, among many others. At the same
time, Shakespeare is astute in his representations of sexual ambiguity.
Viola—in disguise as a young man, Cesario, in Twelfth Night—wins the
love of Duke Orsino in such a delicate way that what appears to be the
love between two men morphs into the heterosexual mating of Orsino and
Viola. The ambiguity is reinforced by the audience’s knowledge that in
Shakespeare’s theatre Viola/Cesario was portrayed by a boy actor of
perhaps 16. All the cross-dressing situations in the comedies, involving
Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Rosalind/Ganymede in As You Like It,
Imogen in Cymbeline, and many others, playfully explore the uncertain
boundaries between the genders. Rosalind’s male disguise name in As You
Like It, Ganymede, is that of the cupbearer to Zeus with whom the god
was enamoured; the ancient legends assume that Ganymede was Zeus’s
catamite. Shakespeare is characteristically delicate on that score, but
he does seem to delight in the frisson of sexual suggestion.
Shakespeare the man » Early posthumous documentation
Shakespeare’s family or friends, however, were not content with a simple
gravestone, and, within a few years, a monument was erected on the
chancel wall. It seems to have existed by 1623. Its epitaph, written in
Latin and inscribed immediately below the bust, attributes to
Shakespeare the worldly wisdom of Nestor, the genius of Socrates, and
the poetic art of Virgil. This apparently was how his contemporaries in
Stratford-upon-Avon wished their fellow citizen to be remembered.
Shakespeare the man » Early posthumous documentation » The tributes of
The memory of Shakespeare survived long in theatrical circles, for his
plays remained a major part of the repertory of the King’s Men until the
closing of the theatres in 1642. The greatest of Shakespeare’s great
contemporaries in the theatre, Ben Jonson, had a good deal to say about
him. To William Drummond of Hawthornden in 1619 he said that Shakespeare
“wanted art.” But, when Jonson came to write his splendid poem prefixed
to the Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623, he rose to the
occasion with stirring words of praise:
Triumph, my Britain, thou hast one to show
To whom all scenes of Europe homage owe.
He was not of an age, but for all time!
Besides almost retracting his earlier gibe about Shakespeare’s lack
of art, he gives testimony that Shakespeare’s personality was to be
felt, by those who knew him, in his poetry—that the style was the man.
Jonson also reminded his readers of the strong impression the plays had
made upon Queen Elizabeth I and King James I at court performances:
Sweet Swan of Avon, what a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appear,
And make those flights upon the banks of Thames
That so did take Eliza and our James!
Shakespeare seems to have been on affectionate terms with his theatre
colleagues. His fellow actors John Heminge and Henry Condell (who, with
Burbage, were remembered in his will) dedicated the First Folio of 1623
to the earl of Pembroke and the earl of Montgomery, explaining that they
had collected the plays “without ambition either of self-profit or fame;
only to keep the memory of so worthy a friend and fellow alive as was
Shakespeare the man » Early posthumous documentation » Anecdotes and
Seventeenth-century antiquaries began to collect anecdotes about
Shakespeare, but no serious life was written until 1709, when Nicholas
Rowe tried to assemble information from all available sources with the
aim of producing a connected narrative. There were local traditions at
Stratford: witticisms and lampoons of local characters; scandalous
stories of drunkenness and sexual escapades. About 1661 the vicar of
Stratford wrote in his diary: “Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had
a merry meeting, and it seems drank too hard; for Shakespeare died of a
fever there contracted.” On the other hand, the antiquary John Aubrey
wrote in some notes about Shakespeare: “He was not a company keeper;
lived in Shoreditch; wouldn’t be debauched, and, if invited to, writ he
was in pain.” Richard Davies, archdeacon of Lichfield, reported, “He
died a papist.” How much trust can be put in such a story is uncertain.
In the early 18th century a story appeared that Queen Elizabeth had
obliged Shakespeare “to write a play of Sir John Falstaff in love” and
that he had performed the task (The Merry Wives of Windsor) in a
fortnight. There are other stories, all of uncertain authenticity and
some mere fabrications.
When serious scholarship began in the 18th century, it was too late
to gain anything from traditions. But documents began to be discovered.
Shakespeare’s will was found in 1747 and his marriage license in 1836.
The documents relating to the Mountjoy lawsuit already mentioned were
found and printed in 1910. It is conceivable that further documents of a
legal nature may yet be discovered, but as time passes the hope becomes
more remote. Modern scholarship is more concerned to study Shakespeare
in relation to his social environment, both in Stratford and in London.
This is not easy, because the author and actor lived a somewhat detached
life: a respected tithe-owning country gentleman in Stratford, perhaps,
but a rather rootless artist in London.
John Russell Brown
Terence John Bew Spencer
Shakespeare the poet and dramatist » The intellectual background
Shakespeare lived at a time when ideas and social structures established
in the Middle Ages still informed human thought and behaviour. Queen
Elizabeth I was God’s deputy on earth, and lords and commoners had their
due places in society under her, with responsibilities up through her to
God and down to those of more humble rank. The order of things, however,
did not go unquestioned. Atheism was still considered a challenge to the
beliefs and way of life of a majority of Elizabethans, but the Christian
faith was no longer single. Rome’s authority had been challenged by
Martin Luther, John Calvin, a multitude of small religious sects, and,
indeed, the English church itself. Royal prerogative was challenged in
Parliament; the economic and social orders were disturbed by the rise of
capitalism, by the redistribution of monastic lands under Henry VIII, by
the expansion of education, and by the influx of new wealth from
discovery of new lands.
An interplay of new and old ideas was typical of the time: official
homilies exhorted the people to obedience; the Italian political
theorist Niccolò Machiavelli was expounding a new, practical code of
politics that caused Englishmen to fear the Italian “Machiavillain” and
yet prompted them to ask what men do, rather than what they should do.
In Hamlet, disquisitions—on man, belief, a “rotten” state, and times
“out of joint”—clearly reflect a growing disquiet and skepticism. The
translation of Montaigne’s Essays in 1603 gave further currency, range,
and finesse to such thought, and Shakespeare was one of many who read
them, making direct and significant quotations in The Tempest. In
philosophical inquiry the question “How?” became the impulse for
advance, rather than the traditional “Why?” of Aristotle. Shakespeare’s
plays written between 1603 and 1606 unmistakably reflect a new, Jacobean
distrust. James I, who, like Elizabeth, claimed divine authority, was
far less able than she to maintain the authority of the throne. The
so-called Gunpowder Plot (1605) showed a determined challenge by a small
minority in the state; James’s struggles with the House of Commons in
successive Parliaments, in addition to indicating the strength of the
“new men,” also revealed the inadequacies of the administration.
Shakespeare the poet and dramatist » Poetic conventions and dramatic
The Latin comedies of Plautus and Terence were familiar in Elizabethan
schools and universities, and English translations or adaptations of
them were occasionally performed by students. Seneca’s rhetorical and
sensational tragedies, too, had been translated and often imitated. But
there was also a strong native dramatic tradition deriving from the
medieval miracle plays, which had continued to be performed in various
towns until forbidden during Elizabeth’s reign. This native drama had
been able to assimilate French popular farce, clerically inspired
morality plays on abstract themes, and interludes or short
entertainments that made use of the “turns” of individual clowns and
actors. Although Shakespeare’s immediate predecessors were known as
University wits, their plays were seldom structured in the manner of
those they had studied at Oxford or Cambridge; instead, they used and
developed the more popular narrative forms.
Shakespeare the poet and dramatist » Poetic conventions and dramatic
traditions » Changes in language
The English language at this time was changing and extending its range.
The poet Edmund Spenser led with the restoration of old words, and
schoolmasters, poets, sophisticated courtiers, and travelers all brought
further contributions from France, Italy, and the Roman classics, as
well as from farther afield. Helped by the growing availability of
cheaper, printed books, the language began to become standardized in
grammar and vocabulary and, more slowly, in spelling. Ambitious for a
European and permanent reputation, the essayist and philosopher Francis
Bacon wrote in Latin as well as in English; but, if he had lived only a
few decades later, even he might have had total confidence in his own
Shakespeare the poet and dramatist » Poetic conventions and dramatic
traditions » Shakespeare’s literary debts
Shakespeare’s most obvious debt was to Raphael Holinshed, whose
Chronicles (the second edition, published in 1587) furnished story
material for several plays, including Macbeth and King Lear. In
Shakespeare’s earlier works other debts stand out clearly: to Plautus
for the structure of The Comedy of Errors; to the poet Ovid and to
Seneca for rhetoric and incident in Titus Andronicus; to morality drama
for a scene in which a father mourns his dead son and a son his father,
in Henry VI, Part 3; to Christopher Marlowe for sentiments and
characterization in Richard III and The Merchant of Venice; to the
Italian popular tradition of commedia dell’arte for characterization and
dramatic style in The Taming of the Shrew; and so on. Soon, however,
there was no line between their effects and his. In The Tempest (perhaps
the most original of all his plays in form, theme, language, and
setting) folk influences may also be traced, together with a newer and
more obvious debt to a courtly diversion known as the masque, as
developed by Ben Jonson and others at the court of King James.
Shakespeare the poet and dramatist » Theatrical conditions
hereThe Globe and its predecessor, the Theatre, were public playhouses
run by the Chamberlain’s Men, a leading theatre company of which
Shakespeare was a member. Almost all classes of citizens, excepting many
Puritans and like-minded Reformers, came to them for afternoon
entertainment. The players were also summoned to court, to perform
before the monarch and assembled nobility. In times of plague, usually
in the summer, they might tour the provinces, and on occasion they
performed at London’s Inns of Court (associations of law students), at
universities, and in great houses. Popularity led to an insatiable
demand for plays: early in 1613 the King’s Men—as the Chamberlain’s Men
were then known—could present “fourteen several plays.” The theatre soon
became fashionable, too, and in 1608–09 the King’s Men started to
perform on a regular basis at the Blackfriars, a “private” indoor
theatre where high admission charges assured the company a more select
and sophisticated audience for their performances. (For more on theatre
in Shakespeare’s day, see Sidebar: Shakespeare and the Liberties.)
Shakespeare’s first associations with the Chamberlain’s Men seem to
have been as an actor. He is not known to have acted after 1603, and
tradition gives him only secondary roles, such as the ghost in Hamlet
and Adam in As You Like It, but his continuous association must have
given him direct working knowledge of all aspects of theatre. Numerous
passages in his plays show conscious concern for theatre arts and
audience reactions. Hamlet gives expert advice to visiting actors in the
art of playing. Prospero in The Tempest speaks of the whole of life as a
kind of “revels,” or theatrical show, that, like a dream, will soon be
over. The Duke of York in Richard II is conscious of how
…in a theatre, the eyes of men,
After a well-graced actor leaves the stage
Are idly bent on him that enters next,
Thinking his prattle to be tedious.
(For more about Shakespeare and dramatic performance in his day, see
Sidebar: Shakespeare on Theatre.)
In Shakespeare’s day there was little time for group rehearsals, and
actors were given the words of only their own parts. The crucial scenes
in Shakespeare’s plays, therefore, are between two or three characters
only or else are played with one character dominating a crowded stage.
Most female parts were written for young male actors or boys, so
Shakespeare did not often write big roles for them or keep them actively
engaged onstage for lengthy periods. Writing for the clowns of the
company—who were important popular attractions in any play—presented the
problem of allowing them to use their comic personalities and tricks and
yet have them serve the immediate interests of theme and action. (For a
discussion of music in Shakespeare’s plays, see Sidebar: Music in
Shakespeare the poet and dramatist » The chronology of Shakespeare’s
Despite much scholarly argument, it is often impossible to date a given
play precisely. But there is a general consensus, especially for plays
written in 1588–1601, in 1605–07, and from 1609 onward. The following
list of dates of composition is based on external and internal evidence,
on general stylistic and thematic considerations, and on the observation
that an output of no more than two plays a year seems to have been
established in those periods when dating is rather clearer than others.
1588–97 Love’s Labour’s Lost 1589–92 Henry VI, Part 1; Titus
Andronicus 1589–94 The Comedy of Errors 1590–92 Henry VI, Part 2 1590–93
Henry VI, Part 3 1590–94 The Taming of the Shrew, The Two Gentlemen of
Verona 1590–95 Edward III 1592–94 Richard III 1594–96 King John, Romeo
and Juliet 1595–96 A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard II 1596–97 The
Merchant of Venice; Henry IV, Part 1 1597–98 Henry IV, Part 2 1597–1601
The Merry Wives of Windsor 1598–99 Much Ado About Nothing 1598–1600 As
You Like It 1599 Henry V 1599–1600 Julius Caesar 1599–1601 Hamlet
1600–02 Twelfth Night 1601–02 Troilus and Cressida 1601–05 All’s Well
That Ends Well 1603–04 Measure for Measure, Othello 1605–06 King Lear
1605–08 Timon of Athens 1606–07 Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra 1606–08
Pericles 1608 Coriolanus 1608–10 Cymbeline 1609–11 The Winter’s Tale
1611 The Tempest 1612–14 The Two Noble Kinsmen 1613 Henry VIII
Shakespeare’s two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of
Lucrece, can be dated with certainty to the years when the plague
stopped dramatic performances in London, in 1592–93 and 1593–94,
respectively, just before their publication. But the sonnets offer many
and various problems; they cannot have been written all at one time, and
most scholars set them within the period 1593–1600. The Phoenix and the
Turtle can be dated 1600–01.
Shakespeare the poet and dramatist » Publication
Acting companies in London during the Renaissance were perennially in
search of new plays. They usually paid on a piecework basis, to
freelance writers. Shakespeare was an important exception; as a member
of Lord Chamberlain’s Men and then the King’s Men, he wrote for his
company as a sharer in their capitalist enterprise.
The companies were not eager to sell their plays to publishers,
especially when the plays were still popular and in the repertory. At
certain times, however, the companies might be impelled to do so: when a
company disbanded or when it was put into enforced inactivity by
visitations of the plague or when the plays were no longer current. (The
companies owned the plays; the individual authors had no intellectual
property rights once the plays had been sold to the actors.)
Such plays were usually published in quarto form—that is, printed on
both sides of large sheets of paper with four printed pages on each
side. When the sheet was folded twice and bound, it yielded eight
printed pages to each “gathering.” A few plays were printed in octavo,
with the sheet being folded thrice and yielding 16 smaller printed pages
to each gathering.
Half of Shakespeare’s plays were printed in quarto (at least one in
octavo) during his lifetime. Occasionally a play was issued in a
seemingly unauthorized volume—that is, not having been regularly sold by
the company to the publisher. The acting company might then commission
its own authorized version. The quarto title page of Romeo and Juliet
(1599), known today as the second quarto, declares that it is “Newly
corrected, augmented, and amended, as it hath been sundry times publicly
acted by the Right Honorable the Lord Chamberlain His Servants.” The
second quarto of Hamlet (1604–05) similarly advertises itself as “Newly
imprinted and enlarged to almost as much again as it was, according to
the true and perfect copy.” Indeed, the first quarto of Hamlet (1603) is
considerably shorter than the second, and the first quarto of Romeo and
Juliet lacks some 800 lines found in its successor. Both contain what
appear to be misprints or other errors that are then corrected in the
second quarto. The first quarto of Love’s Labour’s Lost (1598) presents
itself as “Newly corrected and augmented,” implying perhaps that it,
too, corrects an earlier, unauthorized version of the play, though none
today is known to exist.
The status of these and other seemingly unauthorized editions is much
debated today. The older view of A.W. Pollard, W.W. Greg, Fredson
Bowers, and other practitioners of the so-called New Bibliography
generally regards these texts as suspect and perhaps pirated, either by
unscrupulous visitors to the theatre or by minor actors who took part in
performance and who then were paid to reconstruct the plays from memory.
The unauthorized texts do contain elements that sound like the work of
eyewitnesses or actors (and are valuable for that reason). In some
instances, the unauthorized text is notably closer to the authorized
text when certain minor actors are onstage than at other times,
suggesting that these actors may have been involved in a memorial
reconstruction. The plays Henry VI, Part 2 and Henry VI, Part 3
originally appeared in shorter versions that may have been memorially
reconstructed by actors.
A revisionary school of textual criticism that gained favour in the
latter part of the 20th century argued that these texts might have been
earlier versions with their own theatrical rationale and that they
should be regarded as part of a theatrical process by which the plays
evolved onstage. Certainly the situation varies from quarto to quarto,
and unquestionably the unauthorized quartos are valuable to the
understanding of stage history.
Several years after Shakespeare died in 1616, colleagues of his in
the King’s Men, John Heminge and Henry Condell, undertook the assembling
of a collected edition. It appeared in 1623 as Mr. William Shakespeare’s
Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies, Published According to the True
Original Copies. It did not contain the poems and left out Pericles as
perhaps of uncertain authorship; nor did it include The Two Noble
Kinsmen, Edward III, or the portion of The Book of Sir Thomas More that
Shakespeare may have contributed. It did nonetheless include 36 plays,
half of them appearing in print for the first time.
Heminge and Condell had the burdensome task of choosing what
materials to present to the printer, for they had on hand a number of
authorial manuscripts, other documents that had served as promptbooks
for performance (these were especially valuable since they bore the
license for performance), and some 18 plays that had appeared in print.
Fourteen of these had been published in what the editors regarded as
more or less reliable texts (though only two were used unaltered): Titus
Andronicus; Romeo and Juliet (the second quarto); Richard II; Richard
III; Love’s Labour’s Lost; Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; A
Midsummer Night’s Dream; The Merchant of Venice; Much Ado About Nothing;
Hamlet; King Lear; Troilus and Cressida; and Othello. Henry VI, Part 1
and Henry VI, Part 2 had been published in quarto in shortened form and
under different titles (The First Part of the Contention Betwixt the Two
Famous Houses of York and Lancaster and The True Tragedy of Richard Duke
of York) but were not used in this form by Heminge and Condell for the
Much was discovered by textual scholarship after Heminge and Condell
did their original work, and the result was a considerable revision in
what came to be regarded as the best choice of original text from which
an editor ought to work. In plays published both in folio and quarto (or
octavo) format, the task of choosing was immensely complicated. King
Lear especially became a critical battleground in which editors argued
for the superiority of various features of the 1608 quarto or the folio
text. The two differ substantially and must indeed represent different
stages of composition and of staging, so that both are germane to an
understanding of the play’s textual and theatrical history. The same is
true of Hamlet, with its unauthorized quarto of 1603, its corrected
quarto of 1604–05, and the folio text, all significantly at variance
with one another. Other plays in which the textual relationship of
quarto to folio is highly problematic include Troilus and Cressida;
Othello; Henry IV, Part 2; Henry VI, Part 1 and Henry VI, Part 2; The
Merry Wives of Windsor; Henry V; and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Most of
the cases where there are both quarto and folio originals are
problematic in some interesting way. Individual situations are too
complex to be described here, but information is readily available in
critical editions of Shakespeare’s plays and poems, especially in The
Oxford Shakespeare, in a collected edition and in individual critical
editions; The New Cambridge Shakespeare; and the third series of The
John Russell Brown
Terence John Bew Spencer
Shakespeare’s plays and poems » The early plays
Shakespeare arrived in London probably sometime in the late 1580s. He
was in his mid-20s. It is not known how he got started in the theatre or
for what acting companies he wrote his early plays, which are not easy
to date. Indicating a time of apprenticeship, these plays show a more
direct debt to London dramatists of the 1580s and to Classical examples
than do his later works. He learned a great deal about writing plays by
imitating the successes of the London theatre, as any young poet and
budding dramatist might do.
Shakespeare’s plays and poems » The early plays » Titus Andronicus
Titus Andronicus (c. 1589–92) is a case in point. As Shakespeare’s first
full-length tragedy, it owes much of its theme, structure, and language
to Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, which was a huge success in the
late 1580s. Kyd had hit on the formula of adopting the dramaturgy of
Seneca (the younger), the great Stoic philosopher and statesman, to the
needs of a burgeoning new London theatre. The result was the revenge
tragedy, an astonishingly successful genre that was to be refigured in
Hamlet and many other revenge plays. Shakespeare also borrowed a leaf
from his great contemporary Christopher Marlowe. The Vice-like
protagonist of Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, Barabas, may have inspired
Shakespeare in his depiction of the villainous Aaron the Moor in Titus
Andronicus, though other Vice figures were available to him as well.
The Senecan model offered Kyd, and then Shakespeare, a story of
bloody revenge, occasioned originally by the murder or rape of a person
whose near relatives (fathers, sons, brothers) are bound by sacred oath
to revenge the atrocity. The avenger must proceed with caution, since
his opponent is canny, secretive, and ruthless. The avenger becomes mad
or feigns madness to cover his intent. He becomes more and more ruthless
himself as he moves toward his goal of vengeance. At the same time he is
hesitant, being deeply distressed by ethical considerations. An ethos of
revenge is opposed to one of Christian forbearance. The avenger may see
the spirit of the person whose wrongful death he must avenge. He employs
the device of a play within the play in order to accomplish his aims.
The play ends in a bloodbath and a vindication of the avenger. Evident
in this model is the story of Titus Andronicus, whose sons are butchered
and whose daughter is raped and mutilated, as well as the story of
Hamlet and still others.
Shakespeare’s plays and poems » The early plays » The early romantic
Other than Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare did not experiment with formal
tragedy in his early years. (Though his English history plays from this
period portrayed tragic events, their theme was focused elsewhere.) The
young playwright was drawn more quickly into comedy, and with more
immediate success. For this his models include the dramatists Robert
Greene and John Lyly, along with Thomas Nashe. The result is a genre
recognizably and distinctively Shakespearean, even if he learned a lot
from Greene and Lyly: the romantic comedy. As in the work of his models,
Shakespeare’s early comedies revel in stories of amorous courtship in
which a plucky and admirable young woman (played by a boy actor) is
paired off against her male wooer. Julia, one of two young heroines in
The Two Gentlemen of Verona (c. 1590–94), disguises herself as a man in
order to follow her lover, Proteus, when he is sent from Verona to
Milan. Proteus (appropriately named for the changeable Proteus of Greek
myth), she discovers, is paying far too much attention to Sylvia, the
beloved of Proteus’s best friend, Valentine. Love and friendship thus do
battle for the divided loyalties of the erring male until the generosity
of his friend and, most of all, the enduring chaste loyalty of the two
women bring Proteus to his senses. The motif of the young woman
disguised as a male was to prove invaluable to Shakespeare in subsequent
romantic comedies, including The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and
Twelfth Night. As is generally true of Shakespeare, he derived the
essentials of his plot from a narrative source, in this case a long
Spanish prose romance, the Diana of Jorge de Montemayor.
Shakespeare’s most classically inspired early comedy is The Comedy of
Errors (c. 1589–94). Here he turned particularly to Plautus’s farcical
play called the Menaechmi (Twins). The story of one twin (Antipholus)
looking for his lost brother, accompanied by a clever servant (Dromio)
whose twin has also disappeared, results in a farce of mistaken
identities that also thoughtfully explores issues of identity and
self-knowing. The young women of the play, one the wife of Antipholus of
Ephesus (Adriana) and the other her sister (Luciana), engage in
meaningful dialogue on issues of wifely obedience and autonomy. Marriage
resolves these difficulties at the end, as is routinely the case in
Shakespearean romantic comedy, but not before the plot complications
have tested the characters’ needs to know who they are and what men and
women ought to expect from one another.
Shakespeare’s early romantic comedy most indebted to John Lyly is
Love’s Labour’s Lost (c. 1588–97), a confection set in the never-never
land of Navarre where the King and his companions are visited by the
Princess of France and her ladies-in-waiting on a diplomatic mission
that soon devolves into a game of courtship. As is often the case in
Shakespearean romantic comedy, the young women are sure of who they are
and whom they intend to marry; one cannot be certain that they ever
really fall in love, since they begin by knowing what they want. The
young men, conversely, fall all over themselves in their comically
futile attempts to eschew romantic love in favour of more serious
pursuits. They perjure themselves, are shamed and put down, and are
finally forgiven their follies by the women. Shakespeare brilliantly
portrays male discomfiture and female self-assurance as he explores the
treacherous but desirable world of sexual attraction, while the verbal
gymnastics of the play emphasize the wonder and the delicious
foolishness of falling in love.
In The Taming of the Shrew (c. 1590–94), Shakespeare employs a device
of multiple plotting that is to become a standard feature of his
romantic comedies. In one plot, derived from Ludovico Ariosto’s I
suppositi (Supposes, as it had been translated into English by George
Gascoigne), a young woman (Bianca) carries on a risky courtship with a
young man who appears to be a tutor, much to the dismay of her father,
who hopes to marry her to a wealthy suitor of his own choosing.
Eventually the mistaken identities are straightened out, establishing
the presumed tutor as Lucentio, wealthy and suitable enough.
Simultaneously, Bianca’s shrewish sister Kate denounces (and terrorizes)
all men. Bianca’s suitors commission the self-assured Petruchio to
pursue Kate so that Bianca, the younger sister, will be free to wed. The
wife-taming plot is itself based on folktale and ballad tradition in
which men assure their ascendancy in the marriage relationship by
beating their wives into submission. Shakespeare transforms this raw,
antifeminist material into a study of the struggle for dominance in the
marriage relationship. And, whereas he does opt in this play for male
triumph over the female, he gives to Kate a sense of humour that enables
her to see how she is to play the game to her own advantage as well. She
is, arguably, happy at the end with a relationship based on wit and
companionship, whereas her sister Bianca turns out to be simply spoiled.
Shakespeare’s plays and poems » The early plays » The early histories
In Shakespeare’s explorations of English history, as in romantic comedy,
he put his distinctive mark on a genre and made it his. The genre was,
moreover, an unusual one. There was as yet no definition of an English
history play, and there were no aesthetic rules regarding its shaping.
The ancient Classical world had recognized two broad categories of
genre, comedy and tragedy. (This account leaves out more specialized
genres like the satyr play.) Aristotle and other critics, including
Horace, had evolved, over centuries, Classical definitions. Tragedy
dealt with the disaster-struck lives of great persons, was written in
elevated verse, and took as its setting a mythological and ancient world
of gods and heroes: Agamemnon, Theseus, Oedipus, Medea, and the rest.
Pity and terror were the prevailing emotional responses in plays that
sought to understand, however imperfectly, the will of the supreme gods.
Classical comedy, conversely, dramatized the everyday. Its chief figures
were citizens of Athens and Rome—householders, courtesans, slaves,
scoundrels, and so forth. The humour was immediate, contemporary,
topical; the lampooning was satirical, even savage. Members of the
audience were invited to look at mimetic representations of their own
daily lives and to laugh at greed and folly.
The English history play had no such ideal theoretical structure. It
was an existential invention: the dramatic treatment of recent English
history. It might be tragic or comic or, more commonly, a hybrid.
Polonius’s list of generic possibilities captures the ludicrous
potential for endless hybridizations: “tragedy, comedy, history,
pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical,
tragical-comical-historical-pastoral,” and so on (Hamlet, Act II, scene
2, lines 397–399). (By “pastoral,” Polonius presumably means a play
based on romances telling of shepherds and rural life, as contrasted
with the corruptions of city and court.) Shakespeare’s history plays
were so successful in the 1590s’ London theatre that the editors of
Shakespeare’s complete works, in 1623, chose to group his dramatic
output under three headings: comedies, histories, and tragedies. The
genre established itself by sheer force of its compelling popularity.
Shakespeare in 1590 or thereabouts had really only one viable model
for the English history play, an anonymous and sprawling drama called
The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth (1583–88) that told the saga of
Henry IV’s son, Prince Hal, from the days of his adolescent rebellion
down through his victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt in
1415—in other words, the material that Shakespeare would later use in
writing three major plays, Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part 2; and Henry
V. Shakespeare chose to start not with Prince Hal but with more recent
history in the reign of Henry V’s son Henry VI and with the civil wars
that saw the overthrow of Henry VI by Edward IV and then the accession
to power in 1483 of Richard III. This material proved to be so rich in
themes and dramatic conflicts that he wrote four plays on it, a
“tetralogy” extending from Henry VI in three parts (c. 1589–93) to
Richard III (c. 1592–94).
These plays were immediately successful. Contemporary references
indicate that audiences of the early 1590s thrilled to the story (in
Henry VI, Part 1) of the brave Lord Talbot doing battle in France
against the witch Joan of Arc and her lover, the French Dauphin, but
being undermined in his heroic effort by effeminacy and corruption at
home. Henry VI himself is, as Shakespeare portrays him, a weak king,
raised to the kingship by the early death of his father, incapable of
controlling factionalism in his court, and enervated personally by his
infatuation with a dangerous Frenchwoman, Margaret of Anjou. Henry VI is
cuckolded by his wife and her lover, the Duke of Suffolk, and (in Henry
VI, Part 2) proves unable to defend his virtuous uncle, the Duke of
Gloucester, against opportunistic enemies. The result is civil unrest,
lower-class rebellion (led by Jack Cade), and eventually all-out civil
war between the Lancastrian faction, nominally headed by Henry VI, and
the Yorkist claimants under the leadership of Edward IV and his
brothers. Richard III completes the saga with its account of the baleful
rise of Richard of Gloucester through the murdering of his brother the
Duke of Clarence and of Edward IV’s two sons, who were also Richard’s
nephews. Richard’s tyrannical reign yields eventually and inevitably to
the newest and most successful claimant of the throne, Henry Tudor, earl
of Richmond. This is the man who becomes Henry VII, scion of the Tudor
dynasty and grandfather of Queen Elizabeth I, who reigned from 1558 to
1603 and hence during the entire first decade and more of Shakespeare’s
The Shakespearean English history play told of the country’s history
at a time when the English nation was struggling with its own sense of
national identity and experiencing a new sense of power. Queen Elizabeth
had brought stability and a relative freedom from war to her decades of
rule. She had held at bay the Roman Catholic powers of the Continent,
notably Philip II of Spain, and, with the help of a storm at sea, had
fought off Philip’s attempts to invade her kingdom with the great
Spanish Armada of 1588. In England the triumph of the nation was viewed
universally as a divine deliverance. The second edition of Holinshed’s
Chronicles was at hand as a vast source for Shakespeare’s historical
playwriting. It, too, celebrated the emergence of England as a major
Protestant power, led by a popular and astute monarch.
From the perspective of the 1590s, the history of the 15th century
also seemed newly pertinent. England had emerged from a terrible civil
war in 1485, with Henry Tudor’s victory over Richard III at the Battle
of Bosworth Field. The chief personages of these wars, known as the Wars
of the Roses—Henry Tudor, Richard III, the duke of Buckingham, Hastings,
Rivers, Gray, and many more—were very familiar to contemporary English
Because these historical plays of Shakespeare in the early 1590s were
so intent on telling the saga of emergent nationhood, they exhibit a
strong tendency to identify villains and heroes. Shakespeare is writing
dramas, not schoolbook texts, and he freely alters dates and facts and
emphases. Lord Talbot in Henry VI, Part 1 is a hero because he dies
defending English interests against the corrupt French. In Henry VI,
Part 2 Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, is cut down by opportunists because
he represents the best interests of the commoners and the nation as a
whole. Most of all, Richard of Gloucester is made out to be a villain
epitomizing the very worst features of a chaotic century of civil
strife. He foments strife, lies, and murders and makes outrageous
promises he has no intention of keeping. He is a brilliantly theatrical
figure because he is so inventive and clever, but he is also deeply
threatening. Shakespeare gives him every defect that popular tradition
imagined: a hunchback, a baleful glittering eye, a conspiratorial
genius. The real Richard was no such villain, it seems; at least, his
politically inspired murders were no worse than the systematic
elimination of all opposition by his successor, the historical Henry
VII. The difference is that Henry VII lived to commission historians to
tell the story his way, whereas Richard lost everything through defeat.
As founder of the Tudor dynasty and grandfather of Queen Elizabeth,
Henry VII could command a respect that even Shakespeare was bound to
honour, and accordingly the Henry Tudor that he portrays at the end of
Richard III is a God-fearing patriot and loving husband of the Yorkist
princess who is to give birth to the next generation of Tudor monarchs.
Richard III is a tremendous play, both in length and in the bravura
depiction of its titular protagonist. It is called a tragedy on its
original title page, as are other of these early English history plays.
Certainly they present us with brutal deaths and with instructive falls
of great men from positions of high authority to degradation and misery.
Yet these plays are not tragedies in the Classical sense of the term.
They contain so much else, and notably they end on a major key: the
accession to power of the Tudor dynasty that will give England its great
years under Elizabeth. The story line is one of suffering and of
eventual salvation, of deliverance by mighty forces of history and of
divine oversight that will not allow England to continue to suffer once
she has returned to the true path of duty and decency. In this important
sense, the early history plays are like tragicomedies or romances.
Shakespeare’s plays and poems » The poems
Shakespeare seems to have wanted to be a poet as much as he sought to
succeed in the theatre. His plays are wonderfully and poetically
written, often in blank verse. And when he experienced a pause in his
theatrical career about 1592–94, the plague having closed down much
theatrical activity, he wrote poems. Venus and Adonis (1593) and The
Rape of Lucrece (1594) are the only works that Shakespeare seems to have
shepherded through the printing process. Both owe a good deal to Ovid,
the Classical poet whose writings Shakespeare encountered repeatedly in
school. These two poems are the only works for which he wrote dedicatory
prefaces. Both are to Henry Wriothesley, earl of Southampton. This young
man, a favourite at court, seems to have encouraged Shakespeare and to
have served for a brief time at least as his sponsor. The dedication to
the second poem is measurably warmer than the first. An unreliable
tradition supposes that Southampton gave Shakespeare the stake he needed
to buy into the newly formed Lord Chamberlain’s acting company in 1594.
Shakespeare became an actor-sharer, one of the owners in a capitalist
enterprise that shared the risks and the gains among them. This company
succeeded brilliantly; Shakespeare and his colleagues, including Richard
Burbage, John Heminge, Henry Condell, and Will Sly, became wealthy
through their dramatic presentations.
Shakespeare may also have written at least some of his sonnets to
Southampton, beginning in these same years of 1593–94 and continuing on
through the decade and later. The question of autobiographical basis in
the sonnets is much debated, but Southampton at least fits the portrait
of a young gentleman who is being urged to marry and produce a family.
(Southampton’s family was eager that he do just this.) Whether the
account of a strong, loving relationship between the poet and his
gentleman friend is autobiographical is more difficult still to
determine. As a narrative, the sonnet sequence tells of strong
attachment, of jealousy, of grief at separation, of joy at being
together and sharing beautiful experiences. The emphasis on the
importance of poetry as a way of eternizing human achievement and of
creating a lasting memory for the poet himself is appropriate to a
friendship between a poet of modest social station and a friend who is
better-born. When the sonnet sequence introduces the so-called “Dark
Lady,” the narrative becomes one of painful and destructive jealousy.
Scholars do not know the order in which the sonnets were
composed—Shakespeare seems to have had no part in publishing them—but no
order other than the order of publication has been proposed, and, as the
sonnets stand, they tell a coherent and disturbing tale. The poet
experiences sex as something that fills him with revulsion and remorse,
at least in the lustful circumstances in which he encounters it. His
attachment to the young man is a love relationship that sustains him at
times more than the love of the Dark Lady can do, and yet this loving
friendship also dooms the poet to disappointment and self-hatred.
Whether the sequence reflects any circumstances in Shakespeare’s
personal life, it certainly is told with an immediacy and dramatic power
that bespeak an extraordinary gift for seeing into the human heart and
Shakespeare’s plays and poems » Plays of the middle and late years »
In the second half of the 1590s, Shakespeare brought to perfection the
genre of romantic comedy that he had helped to invent. A Midsummer
Night’s Dream (c. 1595–96), one of the most successful of all his plays,
displays the kind of multiple plotting he had practiced in The Taming of
the Shrew and other earlier comedies. The overarching plot is of Duke
Theseus of Athens and his impending marriage to an Amazonian warrior,
Hippolyta, whom Theseus has recently conquered and brought back to
Athens to be his bride. Their marriage ends the play. They share this
concluding ceremony with the four young lovers Hermia and Lysander,
Helena and Demetrius, who have fled into the forest nearby to escape the
Athenian law and to pursue one another, whereupon they are subjected to
a complicated series of mix-ups. Eventually all is righted by fairy
magic, though the fairies are no less at strife. Oberon, king of the
fairies, quarrels with his Queen Titania over a changeling boy and
punishes her by causing her to fall in love with an Athenian artisan who
wears an ass’s head. The artisans are in the forest to rehearse a play
for the forthcoming marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta. Thus four
separate strands or plots interact with one another. Despite the play’s
brevity, it is a masterpiece of artful construction.
The use of multiple plots encourages a varied treatment of the
experiencing of love. For the two young human couples, falling in love
is quite hazardous; the long-standing friendship between the two young
women is threatened and almost destroyed by the rivalries of
heterosexual encounter. The eventual transition to heterosexual marriage
seems to them to have been a process of dreaming, indeed of nightmare,
from which they emerge miraculously restored to their best selves.
Meantime the marital strife of Oberon and Titania is, more disturbingly,
one in which the female is humiliated until she submits to the will of
her husband. Similarly, Hippolyta is an Amazon warrior queen who has had
to submit to the authority of a husband. Fathers and daughters are no
less at strife until, as in a dream, all is resolved by the magic of
Puck and Oberon. Love is ambivalently both an enduring ideal
relationship and a struggle for mastery in which the male has the upper
The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596–97) uses a double plot structure to
contrast a tale of romantic wooing with one that comes close to tragedy.
Portia is a fine example of a romantic heroine in Shakespeare’s mature
comedies: she is witty, rich, exacting in what she expects of men, and
adept at putting herself in a male disguise to make her presence felt.
She is loyally obedient to her father’s will and yet determined that she
shall have Bassanio. She triumphantly resolves the murky legal affairs
of Venice when the men have all failed. Shylock, the Jewish moneylender,
is at the point of exacting a pound of flesh from Bassanio’s friend
Antonio as payment for a forfeited loan. Portia foils him in his attempt
in a way that is both clever and shystering. Sympathy is uneasily
balanced in Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock, who is both persecuted
by his Christian opponents and all too ready to demand an eye for an eye
according to ancient law. Ultimately Portia triumphs, not only with
Shylock in the court of law but in her marriage with Bassanio.
Much Ado About Nothing (c. 1598–99) revisits the issue of power
struggles in courtship, again in a revealingly double plot. The young
heroine of the more conventional story, derived from Italianate fiction,
is wooed by a respectable young aristocrat named Claudio who has won his
spurs and now considers it his pleasant duty to take a wife. He knows so
little about Hero (as she is named) that he gullibly credits the
contrived evidence of the play’s villain, Don John, that she has had
many lovers, including one on the evening before the intended wedding.
Other men as well, including Claudio’s senior officer, Don Pedro, and
Hero’s father, Leonato, are all too ready to believe the slanderous
accusation. Only comic circumstances rescue Hero from her accusers and
reveal to the men that they have been fools. Meantime, Hero’s cousin,
Beatrice, finds it hard to overcome her skepticism about men, even when
she is wooed by Benedick, who is also a skeptic about marriage. Here the
barriers to romantic understanding are inner and psychological and must
be defeated by the good-natured plotting of their friends, who see that
Beatrice and Benedick are truly made for one another in their wit and
candour if they can only overcome their fear of being outwitted by each
other. In what could be regarded as a brilliant rewriting of The Taming
of the Shrew, the witty battle of the sexes is no less amusing and
complicated, but the eventual accommodation finds something much closer
to mutual respect and equality between men and women.
Rosalind, in As You Like It (c. 1598–1600), makes use of the by-now
familiar device of disguise as a young man in order to pursue the ends
of promoting a rich and substantial relationship between the sexes. As
in other of these plays, Rosalind is more emotionally stable and mature
than her young man, Orlando. He lacks formal education and is all rough
edges, though fundamentally decent and attractive. She is the daughter
of the banished Duke who finds herself obliged, in turn, to go into
banishment with her dear cousin Celia and the court fool, Touchstone.
Although Rosalind’s male disguise is at first a means of survival in a
seemingly inhospitable forest, it soon serves a more interesting
function. As “Ganymede,” Rosalind befriends Orlando, offering him
counseling in the affairs of love. Orlando, much in need of such advice,
readily accepts and proceeds to woo his “Rosalind” (“Ganymede” playing
her own self) as though she were indeed a woman. Her wryly amusing
perspectives on the follies of young love helpfully puncture Orlando’s
inflated and unrealistic “Petrarchan” stance as the young lover who
writes poems to his mistress and sticks them up on trees. Once he has
learned that love is not a fantasy of invented attitudes, Orlando is
ready to be the husband of the real young woman (actually a boy actor,
of course) who is presented to him as the transformed Ganymede-Rosalind.
Other figures in the play further an understanding of love’s glorious
foolishness by their various attitudes: Silvius, the pale-faced wooer
out of pastoral romance; Phoebe, the disdainful mistress whom he
worships; William, the country bumpkin, and Audrey, the country wench;
and, surveying and commenting on every imaginable kind of human folly,
the clown Touchstone and the malcontent traveler Jaques.
Twelfth Night (c. 1600–02) pursues a similar motif of female
disguise. Viola, cast ashore in Illyria by a shipwreck and obliged to
disguise herself as a young man in order to gain a place in the court of
Duke Orsino, falls in love with the duke and uses her disguise as a
cover for an educational process not unlike that given by Rosalind to
Orlando. Orsino is as unrealistic a lover as one could hope to imagine;
he pays fruitless court to the Countess Olivia and seems content with
the unproductive love melancholy in which he wallows. Only Viola, as
“Cesario,” is able to awaken in him a genuine feeling for friendship and
love. They become inseparable companions and then seeming rivals for the
hand of Olivia until the presto change of Shakespeare’s stage magic is
able to restore “Cesario” to her woman’s garments and thus present to
Orsino the flesh-and-blood woman whom he has only distantly imagined.
The transition from same-sex friendship to heterosexual union is a
constant in Shakespearean comedy. The woman is the self-knowing,
constant, loyal one; the man needs to learn a lot from the woman. As in
the other plays as well, Twelfth Night neatly plays off this courtship
theme with a second plot, of Malvolio’s self-deception that he is
desired by Olivia—an illusion that can be addressed only by the
satirical devices of exposure and humiliation.
The Merry Wives of Windsor (c. 1597–1601) is an interesting deviation
from the usual Shakespearean romantic comedy in that it is set not in
some imagined far-off place like Illyria or Belmont or the forest of
Athens but in Windsor, a solidly bourgeois village near Windsor Castle
in the heart of England. Uncertain tradition has it that Queen Elizabeth
wanted to see Falstaff in love. There is little, however, in the way of
romantic wooing (the story of Anne Page and her suitor Fenton is rather
buried in the midst of so many other goings-on), but the play’s
portrayal of women, and especially of the two “merry wives,” Mistress
Alice Ford and Mistress Margaret Page, reaffirms what is so often true
of women in these early plays, that they are good-hearted, chastely
loyal, and wittily self-possessed. Falstaff, a suitable butt for their
cleverness, is a scapegoat figure who must be publicly humiliated as a
way of transferring onto him the human frailties that Windsor society
wishes to expunge.
Shakespeare’s plays and poems » Plays of the middle and late years »
Completion of the histories
Concurrent with his writing of these fine romantic comedies, Shakespeare
also brought to completion (for the time being, at least) his project of
writing 15th-century English history. After having finished in 1589–94
the tetralogy about Henry VI, Edward IV, and Richard III, bringing the
story down to 1485, and then circa 1594–96 a play about John that deals
with a chronological period (the 13th century) that sets it quite apart
from his other history plays, Shakespeare turned to the late 14th and
early 15th centuries and to the chronicle of Richard II, Henry IV, and
Henry’s legendary son Henry V. This inversion of historical order in the
two tetralogies allowed Shakespeare to finish his sweep of late medieval
English history with Henry V, a hero king in a way that Richard III
could never pretend to be.
Richard II (c. 1595–96), written throughout in blank verse, is a
sombre play about political impasse. It contains almost no humour, other
than a wry scene in which the new king, Henry IV, must adjudicate the
competing claims of the Duke of York and his Duchess, the first of whom
wishes to see his son Aumerle executed for treason and the second of
whom begs for mercy. Henry is able to be merciful on this occasion,
since he has now won the kingship, and thus gives to this scene an
upbeat movement. Earlier, however, the mood is grim. Richard, installed
at an early age into the kingship, proves irresponsible as a ruler. He
unfairly banishes his own first cousin, Henry Bolingbroke (later to be
Henry IV), whereas the king himself appears to be guilty of ordering the
murder of an uncle. When Richard keeps the dukedom of Lancaster from
Bolingbroke without proper legal authority, he manages to alienate many
nobles and to encourage Bolingbroke’s return from exile. That return,
too, is illegal, but it is a fact, and, when several of the nobles
(including York) come over to Bolingbroke’s side, Richard is forced to
abdicate. The rights and wrongs of this power struggle are masterfully
ambiguous. History proceeds without any sense of moral imperative. Henry
IV is a more capable ruler, but his authority is tarnished by his crimes
(including his seeming assent to the execution of Richard), and his own
rebellion appears to teach the barons to rebel against him in turn.
Henry eventually dies a disappointed man.
The dying king Henry IV must turn royal authority over to young Hal,
or Henry, now Henry V. The prospect is dismal both to the dying king and
to the members of his court, for Prince Hal has distinguished himself to
this point mainly by his penchant for keeping company with the
disreputable if engaging Falstaff. The son’s attempts at reconciliation
with the father succeed temporarily, especially when Hal saves his
father’s life at the battle of Shrewsbury, but (especially in Henry IV,
Part 2) his reputation as wastrel will not leave him. Everyone expects
from him a reign of irresponsible license, with Falstaff in an
influential position. It is for these reasons that the young king must
publicly repudiate his old companion of the tavern and the highway,
however much that repudiation tugs at his heart and the audience’s.
Falstaff, for all his debauchery and irresponsibility, is infectiously
amusing and delightful; he represents in Hal a spirit of youthful
vitality that is left behind only with the greatest of regret as the
young man assumes manhood and the role of crown prince. Hal manages all
this with aplomb and goes on to defeat the French mightily at the Battle
of Agincourt. Even his high jinks are a part of what is so attractive in
him. Maturity and position come at a great personal cost: Hal becomes
less a frail human being and more the figure of royal authority.
Thus, in his plays of the 1590s, the young Shakespeare concentrated
to a remarkable extent on romantic comedies and English history plays.
The two genres are nicely complementary: the one deals with courtship
and marriage, while the other examines the career of a young man growing
up to be a worthy king. Only at the end of the history plays does Henry
V have any kind of romantic relationship with a woman, and this one
instance is quite unlike courtships in the romantic comedies: Hal is
given the Princess of France as his prize, his reward for sturdy
manhood. He takes the lead in the wooing scene in which he invites her
to join him in a political marriage. In both romantic comedies and
English history plays, a young man successfully negotiates the hazardous
and potentially rewarding paths of sexual and social maturation.
Shakespeare’s plays and poems » Plays of the middle and late years »
Romeo and Juliet
Apart from the early Titus Andronicus, the only other play that
Shakespeare wrote prior to 1599 that is classified as a tragedy is Romeo
and Juliet (c. 1594–96), which is quite untypical of the tragedies that
are to follow. Written more or less at the time when Shakespeare was
writing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet shares many of the
characteristics of romantic comedy. Romeo and Juliet are not persons of
extraordinary social rank or position, like Hamlet, Othello, King Lear,
and Macbeth. They are the boy and girl next door, interesting not for
their philosophical ideas but for their appealing love for each other.
They are character types more suited to Classical comedy in that they do
not derive from the upper class. Their wealthy families are essentially
bourgeois. The eagerness with which Capulet and his wife court Count
Paris as their prospective son-in-law bespeaks their desire for social
Accordingly, the first half of Romeo and Juliet is very funny, while
its delight in verse forms reminds us of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The
bawdry of Mercutio and of the Nurse is richly suited to the comic
texture of the opening scenes. Romeo, haplessly in love with a Rosaline
whom we never meet, is a partly comic figure like Silvius in As You Like
It. The plucky and self-knowing Juliet is much like the heroines of
romantic comedies. She is able to instruct Romeo in the ways of speaking
candidly and unaffectedly about their love rather than in the frayed
cadences of the Petrarchan wooer.
The play is ultimately a tragedy, of course, and indeed warns its
audience at the start that the lovers are “star-crossed.” Yet the tragic
vision is not remotely that of Hamlet or King Lear. Romeo and Juliet are
unremarkable, nice young people doomed by a host of considerations
outside themselves: the enmity of their two families, the
misunderstandings that prevent Juliet from being able to tell her
parents whom it is that she has married, and even unfortunate
coincidence (such as the misdirection of the letter sent to Romeo to
warn him of the Friar’s plan for Juliet’s recovery from a deathlike
sleep). Yet there is the element of personal responsibility upon which
most mature tragedy rests when Romeo chooses to avenge the death of
Mercutio by killing Tybalt, knowing that this deed will undo the soft
graces of forbearance that Juliet has taught him. Romeo succumbs to the
macho peer pressure of his male companions, and tragedy results in part
from this choice. Yet so much is at work that the reader ultimately sees
Romeo and Juliet as a love tragedy—celebrating the exquisite brevity of
young love, regretting an unfeeling world, and evoking an emotional
response that differs from that produced by the other tragedies. Romeo
and Juliet are, at last, “Poor sacrifices of our enmity” (Act V, scene
3, line 304). The emotional response the play evokes is a strong one,
but it is not like the response called forth by the tragedies after
Shakespeare’s plays and poems » Plays of the middle and late years » The
Whatever his reasons, about 1599–1600 Shakespeare turned with unsparing
intensity to the exploration of darker issues such as revenge, sexual
jealousy, aging, midlife crisis, and death. Perhaps he saw that his own
life was moving into a new phase of more complex and vexing experiences.
Perhaps he felt, or sensed, that he had worked through the romantic
comedy and history play and the emotional trajectories of maturation
that they encompassed. At any event, he began writing not only his great
tragedies but a group of plays that are hard to classify in terms of
genre. They are sometimes grouped today as “problem” plays or “problem”
comedies. An examination of these plays is crucial to understanding this
period of transition from 1599 to 1605.
The three problem plays dating from these years are All’s Well That
Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Troilus and Cressida. All’s Well is
a comedy ending in acceptance of marriage, but in a way that poses
thorny ethical issues. Count Bertram cannot initially accept his
marriage to Helena, a woman of lower social station who has grown up in
his noble household and has won Bertram as her husband by her seemingly
miraculous cure of the French king. Bertram’s reluctance to face the
responsibilities of marriage is all the more dismaying when he turns his
amorous intentions to a Florentine maiden, Diana, whom he wishes to
seduce without marriage. Helena’s stratagem to resolve this difficulty
is the so-called bed trick, substituting herself in Bertram’s bed for
the arranged assignation and then calling her wayward husband to account
when she is pregnant with his child. Her ends are achieved by such
morally ambiguous means that marriage seems at best a precarious
institution on which to base the presumed reassurances of romantic
comedy. The pathway toward resolution and emotional maturity is not
easy; Helena is a more ambiguous heroine than Rosalind or Viola.
Measure for Measure (c. 1603–04) similarly employs the bed trick, and
for a similar purpose, though in even murkier circumstances. Isabella,
on the verge of becoming a nun, learns that she has attracted the sexual
desire of Lord Angelo, the deputy ruler of Vienna serving in the
mysterious absence of the Duke. Her plea to Angelo for her brother’s
life, when that brother (Claudio) has been sentenced to die for
fornication with his fiancée, is met with a demand that she sleep with
Angelo or forfeit Claudio’s life. This ethical dilemma is resolved by a
trick (devised by the Duke, in disguise) to substitute for Isabella a
woman (Mariana) whom Angelo was supposed to marry but refused when she
could produce no dowry. The Duke’s motivations in manipulating these
substitutions and false appearances are unclear, though arguably his
wish is to see what the various characters of this play will do when
faced with seemingly impossible choices. Angelo is revealed as a morally
fallen man, a would-be seducer and murderer who is nonetheless
remorseful and ultimately glad to have been prevented from carrying out
his intended crimes; Claudio learns that he is coward enough to wish to
live by any means, including the emotional and physical blackmail of his
sister; and Isabella learns that she is capable of bitterness and
hatred, even if, crucially, she finally discovers that she can and must
forgive her enemy. Her charity, and the Duke’s stratagems, make possible
an ending in forgiveness and marriage, but in that process the nature
and meaning of marriage are severely tested.
Troilus and Cressida (c. 1601–02) is the most experimental and
puzzling of these three plays. Simply in terms of genre, it is virtually
unclassifiable. It can hardly be a comedy, ending as it does in the
deaths of Patroclus and Hector and the looming defeat of the Trojans.
Nor is the ending normative in terms of romantic comedy: the lovers,
Troilus and Cressida, are separated from one another and embittered by
the failure of their relationship. The play is a history play in a
sense, dealing as it does with the great Trojan War celebrated in
Homer’s Iliad, and yet its purpose is hardly that of telling the story
of the war. As a tragedy, it is perplexing in that the chief figures of
the play (apart from Hector) do not die at the end, and the mood is one
of desolation and even disgust rather than tragic catharsis. Perhaps the
play should be thought of as a satire; the choric observations of
Thersites and Pandarus serve throughout as a mordant commentary on the
interconnectedness of war and lechery. With fitting ambiguity, the play
was placed in the Folio of 1623 between the histories and the tragedies,
in a category all by itself. Clearly, in these problem plays Shakespeare
was opening up for himself a host of new problems in terms of genre and
Shakespeare’s plays and poems » Plays of the middle and late years »
Written in 1599 (the same year as Henry V) or 1600, probably for the
opening of the Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames, Julius
Caesar illustrates similarly the transition in Shakespeare’s writing
toward darker themes and tragedy. It, too, is a history play in a sense,
dealing with a non-Christian civilization existing 16 centuries before
Shakespeare wrote his plays. Roman history opened up for Shakespeare a
world in which divine purpose could not be easily ascertained. (Click
here for a video clip of Caesar’s well-known speech.) The characters of
Julius Caesar variously interpret the great event of the assassination
of Caesar as one in which the gods are angry or disinterested or
capricious or simply not there. The wise Cicero observes, “Men may
construe things after their fashion, / Clean from the purpose of the
things themselves” (Act I, scene 3, lines 34–35).
Human history in Julius Caesar seems to follow a pattern of rise and
fall, in a way that is cyclical rather than divinely purposeful. Caesar
enjoys his days of triumph, until he is cut down by the conspirators;
Brutus and Cassius succeed to power, but not for long. Brutus’s attempts
to protect Roman republicanism and the freedom of the city’s citizens to
govern themselves through senatorial tradition end up in the destruction
of the very liberties he most cherished. He and Cassius meet their
destiny at the Battle of Philippi. They are truly tragic figures,
especially Brutus, in that their essential characters are their fate;
Brutus is a good man but also proud and stubborn, and these latter
qualities ultimately bring about his death. Shakespeare’s first major
tragedy is Roman in spirit and Classical in its notion of tragic
character. It shows what Shakespeare had to learn from Classical
precedent as he set about looking for workable models in tragedy.
Shakespeare’s plays and poems » Plays of the middle and late years » The
Hamlet (c. 1599–1601), on the other hand, chooses a tragic model closer
to that of Titus Andronicus and Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. In form,
Hamlet is a revenge tragedy. It features characteristics found in Titus
as well: a protagonist charged with the responsibility of avenging a
heinous crime against the protagonist’s family, a cunning antagonist,
the appearance of the ghost of the murdered person, the feigning of
madness to throw off the villain’s suspicions, the play within the play
as a means of testing the villain, and still more.
Yet to search out these comparisons is to highlight what is so
extraordinary about Hamlet, for it refuses to be merely a revenge
tragedy. Shakespeare’s protagonist is unique in the genre in his moral
qualms, and most of all in his finding a way to carry out his dread
command without becoming a cold-blooded murderer. Hamlet does act
bloodily, especially when he kills Polonius, thinking that the old man
hidden in Gertrude’s chambers must be the King whom Hamlet is
commissioned to kill. The act seems plausible and strongly motivated,
and yet Hamlet sees at once that he has erred. He has killed the wrong
man, even if Polonius has brought this on himself with his incessant
spying. Hamlet sees that he has offended heaven and that he will have to
pay for his act. When, at the play’s end, Hamlet encounters his fate in
a duel with Polonius’s son, Laertes, Hamlet interprets his own tragic
story as one that Providence has made meaningful. By placing himself in
the hands of Providence and believing devoutly that “There’s a divinity
that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will” (Act V, scene 2,
lines 10–11), Hamlet finds himself ready for a death that he has longed
for. He also finds an opportunity for killing Claudius almost
unpremeditatedly, spontaneously, as an act of reprisal for all that
Claudius has done.
Hamlet thus finds tragic meaning in his own story. More broadly, too,
he has searched for meaning in dilemmas of all sorts: his mother’s
overhasty marriage, Ophelia’s weak-willed succumbing to the will of her
father and brother, his being spied on by his erstwhile friends
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and much more. His utterances are often
despondent, relentlessly honest, and philosophically profound, as he
ponders the nature of friendship, memory, romantic attachment, filial
love, sensuous enslavement, corrupting habits (drinking, sexual lust),
and almost every phase of human experience.
One remarkable aspect about Shakespeare’s great tragedies (Hamlet,
Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra most of all) is
that they proceed through such a staggering range of human emotions, and
especially the emotions that are appropriate to the mature years of the
human cycle. Hamlet is 30, one learns—an age when a person is apt to
perceive that the world around him is “an unweeded garden / That grows
to seed. Things rank and gross in nature / Possess it merely” (Act I,
scene 2, lines 135–137). Shakespeare was about 36 when he wrote this
play. Othello (c. 1603–04) centres on sexual jealousy in marriage. King
Lear (c. 1605–06) is about aging, generational conflict, and feelings of
ingratitude. Macbeth (c. 1606–07) explores ambition mad enough to kill a
father figure who stands in the way. Antony and Cleopatra, written about
1606–07 when Shakespeare was 42 or thereabouts, studies the exhilarating
but ultimately dismaying phenomenon of midlife crisis. Shakespeare moves
his readers vicariously through these life experiences while he himself
struggles to capture, in tragic form, their terrors and challenges.
These plays are deeply concerned with domestic and family
relationships. In Othello Desdemona is the only daughter of Brabantio,
an aging senator of Venice, who dies heartbroken because his daughter
has eloped with a dark-skinned man who is her senior by many years and
is of another culture. With Othello, Desdemona is briefly happy, despite
her filial disobedience, until a terrible sexual jealousy is awakened in
him, quite without cause other than his own fears and susceptibility to
Iago’s insinuations that it is only “natural” for Desdemona to seek
erotic pleasure with a young man who shares her background. Driven by
his own deeply irrational fear and hatred of women and seemingly
mistrustful of his own masculinity, Iago can assuage his own inner
torment only by persuading other men like Othello that their inevitable
fate is to be cuckolded. As a tragedy, the play adroitly exemplifies the
traditional Classical model of a good man brought to misfortune by
hamartia, or tragic flaw; as Othello grieves, he is one who has “loved
not wisely, but too well” (Act V, scene 2, line 354). It bears
remembering, however, that Shakespeare owed no loyalty to this Classical
model. Hamlet, for one, is a play that does not work well in
Aristotelian terms. The search for an Aristotelian hamartia has led all
too often to the trite argument that Hamlet suffers from melancholia and
a tragic inability to act, whereas a more plausible reading of the play
argues that finding the right course of action is highly problematic for
him and for everyone. Hamlet sees examples on all sides of those whose
forthright actions lead to fatal mistakes or absurd ironies (Laertes,
Fortinbras), and indeed his own swift killing of the man he assumes to
be Claudius hidden in his mother’s chambers turns out to be a mistake
for which he realizes heaven will hold him accountable.
Daughters and fathers are also at the heart of the major dilemma in
King Lear. In this configuration, Shakespeare does what he often does in
his late plays: erase the wife from the picture, so that father and
daughter(s) are left to deal with one another. (Compare Othello, The
Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, The Tempest, and perhaps the circumstances of
Shakespeare’s own life, in which his relations with his daughter Susanna
especially seem to have meant more to him than his partly estranged
marriage with Anne.) Lear’s banishing of his favourite daughter,
Cordelia, because of her laconic refusal to proclaim a love for him as
the essence of her being, brings upon this aging king the terrible
punishment of being belittled and rejected by his ungrateful daughters,
Goneril and Regan. Concurrently, in the play’s second plot, the Earl of
Gloucester makes a similar mistake with his good-hearted son, Edgar, and
thereby delivers himself into the hands of his scheming bastard son,
Edmund. Both these erring elderly fathers are ultimately nurtured by the
loyal children they have banished, but not before the play has tested to
its absolute limit the proposition that evil can flourish in a bad
The gods seem indifferent, perhaps absent entirely; pleas to them for
assistance go unheeded while the storm of fortune rains down on the
heads of those who have trusted in conventional pieties. Part of what is
so great in this play is that its testing of the major characters
requires them to seek out philosophical answers that can arm the
resolute heart against ingratitude and misfortune by constantly pointing
out that life owes one nothing. The consolations of philosophy
preciously found out by Edgar and Cordelia are those that rely not on
the suppositious gods but on an inner moral strength demanding that one
be charitable and honest because life is otherwise monstrous and
subhuman. The play exacts terrible prices of those who persevere in
goodness, but it leaves them and the reader, or audience, with the
reassurance that it is simply better to be a Cordelia than to be a
Goneril, to be an Edgar than to be an Edmund.
Macbeth is in some ways Shakespeare’s most unsettling tragedy,
because it invites the intense examination of the heart of a man who is
well-intentioned in most ways but who discovers that he cannot resist
the temptation to achieve power at any cost. (Click here for a video
clip of the opening scene from Macbeth.) Macbeth is a sensitive, even
poetic person, and as such he understands with frightening clarity the
stakes that are involved in his contemplated deed of murder. Duncan is a
virtuous king and his guest. The deed is regicide and murder and a
violation of the sacred obligations of hospitality. Macbeth knows that
Duncan’s virtues, like angels, “trumpet-tongued,” will plead against
“the deep damnation of his taking-off” (Act I, scene 7, lines 19–20).
The only factor weighing on the other side is personal ambition, which
Macbeth understands to be a moral failing. The question of why he
proceeds to murder is partly answered by the insidious temptations of
the three Weird Sisters, who sense Macbeth’s vulnerability to their
prophecies, and the terrifying strength of his wife, who drives him on
to the murder by describing his reluctance as unmanliness. (Click here
for a video clip of Lady Macbeth goading her husband.) Ultimately,
though, the responsibility lies with Macbeth. His collapse of moral
integrity confronts the audience and perhaps implicates it. The loyalty
and decency of such characters as Macduff hardly offset what is so
painfully weak in the play’s protagonist.
Antony and Cleopatra approaches human frailty in terms that are less
spiritually terrifying. The story of the lovers is certainly one of
worldly failure. Plutarch’s Lives gave to Shakespeare the object lesson
of a brave general who lost his reputation and sense of self-worth
through his infatuation with an admittedly attractive but nonetheless
dangerous woman. Shakespeare changes none of the circumstances: Antony
hates himself for dallying in Egypt with Cleopatra, agrees to marry with
Octavius Caesar’s sister Octavia as a way of recovering his status in
the Roman triumvirate, cheats on Octavia eventually, loses the battle of
Actium because of his fatal attraction for Cleopatra, and dies in Egypt
a defeated, aging warrior. Shakespeare adds to this narrative a
compelling portrait of midlife crisis. Antony is deeply anxious about
his loss of sexual potency and position in the world of affairs. His
amorous life in Egypt is manifestly an attempt to affirm and recover his
dwindling male power.
Yet the Roman model is not in Shakespeare’s play the unassailably
virtuous choice that it is in Plutarch. In Antony and Cleopatra Roman
behaviour does promote attentiveness to duty and worldly achievement,
but, as embodied in young Octavius, it is also obsessively male and
cynical about women. Octavius is intent on capturing Cleopatra and
leading her in triumph back to Rome—that is, to cage the unruly woman
and place her under male control. When Cleopatra perceives that aim, she
chooses a noble suicide rather than humiliation by a patriarchal male.
In her suicide, Cleopatra avers that she has called “great Caesar ass /
Unpolicied” (Act V, scene 2, lines 307–308). Vastly to be preferred is
the fleeting dream of greatness with Antony, both of them unfettered,
godlike, like Isis and Osiris, immortalized as heroic lovers even if the
actual circumstances of their lives were often disappointing and even
tawdry. The vision in this tragedy is deliberately unstable, but at its
most ethereal it encourages a vision of human greatness that is distant
from the soul-corrupting evil of Macbeth or King Lear.
Two late tragedies also choose the ancient Classical world as their
setting but do so in a deeply dispiriting way. Shakespeare appears to
have been much preoccupied with ingratitude and human greed in these
years. Timon of Athens (c. 1605–08), probably an unfinished play and
possibly never produced, initially shows us a prosperous man fabled for
his generosity. When he discovers that he has exceeded his means, he
turns to his seeming friends for the kinds of assistance he has given
them, only to discover that their memories are short. Retiring to a
bitter isolation, Timon rails against all humanity and refuses every
sort of consolation, even that of well-meant companionship and sympathy
from a former servant. He dies in isolation. The unrelieved bitterness
of this account is only partly ameliorated by the story of the military
captain Alcibiades, who has also been the subject of Athenian
ingratitude and forgetfulness but who manages to reassert his authority
at the end. Alcibiades resolves to make some accommodation with the
wretched condition of humanity; Timon will have none of it. Seldom has a
more unrelievedly embittered play been written.
Coriolanus (c. 1608) similarly portrays the ungrateful responses of a
city toward its military hero. The problem is complicated by the fact
that Coriolanus, egged on by his mother and his conservative allies,
undertakes a political role in Rome for which he is not temperamentally
fitted. His friends urge him to hold off his intemperate speech until he
is voted into office, but Coriolanus is too plainspoken to be tactful in
this way. His contempt for the plebeians and their political leaders,
the tribunes, is unsparing. His political philosophy, while relentlessly
aristocratic and snobbish, is consistent and theoretically
sophisticated; the citizens are, as he argues, incapable of governing
themselves judiciously. Yet his fury only makes matters worse and leads
to an exile from which he returns to conquer his own city, in league
with his old enemy and friend, Aufidius. When his mother comes out for
the city to plead for her life and that of other Romans, he relents and
thereupon falls into defeat as a kind of mother’s boy, unable to assert
his own sense of self. As a tragedy, Coriolanus is again bitter,
satirical, ending in defeat and humiliation. It is an immensely powerful
play, and it captures a philosophical mood of nihilism and bitterness
that hovers over Shakespeare’s writings throughout these years in the
first decade of the 1600s.
Shakespeare’s plays and poems » Plays of the middle and late years » The
Concurrently, nonetheless, and then in the years that followed,
Shakespeare turned again to the writing of comedy. The late comedies are
usually called romances or tragicomedies because they tell stories of
wandering and separation leading eventually to tearful and joyous
reunion. They are suffused with a bittersweet mood that seems eloquently
appropriate to a writer who has explored with such unsparing honesty the
depths of human suffering and degradation in the great tragedies.
Pericles, written perhaps in 1606–08 and based on the familiar tale
of Apollonius of Tyre, may involve some collaboration of authorship; the
text is unusually imperfect, and it did not appear in the Folio of 1623.
It employs a chorus figure, John Gower (author of an earlier version of
this story), to guide the reader or viewer around the Mediterranean on
Pericles’ various travels, as he avoids marriage with the daughter of
the incestuous King Antiochus of Antioch; marries Thaisa, the daughter
of King Simonides of Pentapolis; has a child by her; believes his wife
to have died in childbirth during a storm at sea and has her body thrown
overboard to quiet the superstitious fears of the sailors; puts his
daughter Marina in the care of Cleon of Tarsus and his wicked wife,
Dionyza; and is eventually restored to his wife and child after many
years. The story is typical romance. Shakespeare adds touching scenes of
reunion and a perception that beneath the naive account of travel lies a
subtle dramatization of separation, loss, and recovery. Pericles is
deeply burdened by his loss and perhaps, too, a sense of guilt for
having consented to consign his wife’s body to the sea. He is recovered
from his despair only by the ministrations of a loving daughter, who is
able to give him a reason to live again and then to be reunited with his
The Winter’s Tale (c. 1609–11) is in some ways a replaying of this
same story, in that King Leontes of Sicilia, smitten by an irrational
jealousy of his wife, Hermione, brings about the seeming death of that
wife and the real death of their son. The resulting guilt is unbearable
for Leontes and yet ultimately curative over a period of many years that
are required for his only daughter, Perdita (whom he has nearly killed
also), to grow to maturity in distant Bohemia. This story, too, is based
on a prose romance, in this case Robert Greene’s Pandosto. The reunion
with daughter and then wife is deeply touching as in Pericles, with the
added magical touch that the audience does not know that Hermione is
alive and in fact has been told that she is dead. Her wonderfully staged
appearance as a statue coming to life is one of the great theatrical
coups in Shakespeare, playing as it does with favourite Shakespearean
themes in these late plays of the ministering daughter, the guilt-ridden
husband, and the miraculously recovered wife. The story is all the more
moving when one considers that Shakespeare may have had, or imagined, a
similar experience of attempting to recover a relationship with his
wife, Anne, whom he had left in Stratford during his many years in
In Cymbeline (c. 1608–10) King Cymbeline drives his virtuous daughter
Imogen into exile by his opposition to her marriage with Posthumus
Leonatus. The wife in this case is Cymbeline’s baleful Queen, a
stereotypical wicked stepmother whose witless and lecherous son Cloten
(Imogen’s half brother) is the embodiment of everything that threatens
and postpones the eventual happy ending of this tale. Posthumus, too,
fails Imogen by being irrationally jealous of her, but he is eventually
recovered to a belief in her goodness. The dark portraiture of the Queen
illustrates how ambivalent is Shakespeare’s view of the mother in his
late plays. This Queen is the wicked stepmother, like Dionyza in
Pericles; in her relentless desire for control, she also brings to mind
Lady Macbeth and the Weird Sisters in Macbeth, as well as Coriolanus’s
mother, Volumnia. The devouring mother is a forbidding presence in the
late plays, though she is counterbalanced by redeeming maternal figures
such as Hermione in The Winter’s Tale and Thaisa in Pericles.
The Tempest (c. 1611) sums up much of what Shakespeare’s mature art
was all about. Once again we find a wifeless father with a daughter, in
this case on a deserted island where the father, Prospero, is entirely
responsible for his daughter’s education. He behaves like a dramatist in
charge of the whole play as well, arranging her life and that of the
other characters. He employs a storm at sea to bring young Ferdinand
into the company of his daughter; Ferdinand is Prospero’s choice,
because such a marriage will resolve the bitter dispute between Milan
and Naples—arising after the latter supported Prospero’s usurping
brother Antonio in his claim to the dukedom of Milan—that has led to
Prospero’s banishment. At the same time, Ferdinand is certainly
Miranda’s choice as well; the two fall instantly in love, anticipating
the desired romantic happy ending. The ending will also mean an end to
Prospero’s career as artist and dramatist, for he is nearing retirement
and senses that his gift will not stay with him forever. The imprisoned
spirit Ariel, embodiment of that temporary and precious gift, must be
freed in the play’s closing moments. Caliban, too, must be freed, since
Prospero has done what he could to educate and civilize this Natural
Man. Art can only go so far.
The Tempest seems to have been intended as Shakespeare’s farewell to
the theatre. It contains moving passages of reflection on what his
powers as artist have been able to accomplish, and valedictory themes of
closure. As a comedy, it demonstrates perfectly the way that Shakespeare
was able to combine precise artistic construction (the play chooses on
this farewell occasion to observe the Classical unities of time, place,
and action) with his special flair for stories that transcend the merely
human and physical: The Tempest is peopled with spirits, monsters, and
drolleries. This, it seems, is Shakespeare’s summation of his art as
But The Tempest proved not to be Shakespeare’s last play after all.
Perhaps he discovered, as many people do, that he was bored in
retirement in 1613 or thereabouts. No doubt his acting company was eager
to have him back. He wrote a history play titled Henry VIII (1613),
which is extraordinary in a number of ways: it relates historical events
substantially later chronologically than those of the 15th century that
had been his subject in his earlier historical plays; it is separated
from the last of those plays by perhaps 14 years; and, perhaps most
significant, it is as much romance as history play. History in this
instance is really about the birth of Elizabeth I, who was to become
England’s great queen. The circumstances of Henry VIII’s troubled
marital affairs, his meeting with Anne Boleyn, his confrontation with
the papacy, and all the rest turn out to be the humanly unpredictable
ways by which Providence engineers the miracle of Elizabeth’s birth. The
play ends with this great event and sees in it a justification and
necessity of all that has proceeded. Thus history yields its
providential meaning in the shape of a play that is both history and
Shakespeare’s plays and poems » Plays of the middle and late years »
Collaborations and spurious attributions
The Two Noble Kinsmen (c. 1612–14) brought Shakespeare into
collaboration with John Fletcher, his successor as chief playwright for
the King’s Men. (Fletcher is sometimes thought also to have helped
Shakespeare with Henry VIII.) The story, taken out of Chaucer’s Knight’s
Tale, is essentially another romance, in which two young gallants
compete for the hand of Emilia and in which deities preside over the
choice. Shakespeare may have had a hand earlier as well in Edward III, a
history play of about 1590–95, and he seems to have provided a scene or
so for The Book of Sir Thomas More (c. 1593–1601) when that play
encountered trouble with the censor. Collaborative writing was common in
the Renaissance English stage, and it is not surprising that Shakespeare
was called upon to do some of it. Nor is it surprising that, given his
towering reputation, he was credited with having written a number of
plays that he had nothing to do with, including those that were
spuriously added to the third edition of the Folio in 1664: Locrine
(1591–95), Sir John Oldcastle (1599–1600), Thomas Lord Cromwell
(1599–1602), The London Prodigal (1603–05), The Puritan (1606), and A
Yorkshire Tragedy (1605–08). To a remarkable extent, nonetheless, his
corpus stands as a coherent body of his own work. The shape of the
career has a symmetry and internal beauty not unlike that of the
individual plays and poems.
With a few exceptions, Shakespeare did not invent the plots of his
plays. Sometimes he used old stories (Hamlet, Pericles). Sometimes he
worked from the stories of comparatively recent Italian writers, such as
Giovanni Boccaccio—using both well-known stories (Romeo and Juliet, Much
Ado About Nothing) and little-known ones (Othello). He used the popular
prose fictions of his contemporaries in As You Like It and The Winter’s
Tale. In writing his historical plays, he drew largely from Sir Thomas
North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans
for the Roman plays and the chronicles of Edward Hall and Holinshed for
the plays based upon English history. Some plays deal with rather remote
and legendary history (King Lear, Cymbeline, Macbeth). Earlier
dramatists had occasionally used the same material (there were, for
example, the earlier plays called The Famous Victories of Henry the
Fifth and King Leir). But, because many plays of Shakespeare’s time have
been lost, it is impossible to be sure of the relation between an
earlier, lost play and Shakespeare’s surviving one: in the case of
Hamlet it has been plausibly argued that an “old play,” known to have
existed, was merely an early version of Shakespeare’s own.
Shakespeare was probably too busy for prolonged study. He had to read
what books he could, when he needed them. His enormous vocabulary could
only be derived from a mind of great celerity, responding to the
literary as well as the spoken language. It is not known what libraries
were available to him. The Huguenot family of Mountjoys, with whom he
lodged in London, presumably possessed French books. Moreover, he seems
to have enjoyed an interesting connection with the London book trade.
The Richard Field who published Shakespeare’s two poems Venus and Adonis
and The Rape of Lucrece, in 1593–94, seems to have been (as an
apprenticeship record describes him) the “son of Henry Field of
Stratford-upon-Avon in the County of Warwick, tanner.” When Henry Field
the tanner died in 1592, John Shakespeare the glover was one of the
three appointed to value his goods and chattels. Field’s son, bound
apprentice in 1579, was probably about the same age as Shakespeare. From
1587 he steadily established himself as a printer of serious
literature—notably of North’s translation of Plutarch (1595, reprinted
in 1603 and 1610). There is no direct evidence of any close friendship
between Field and Shakespeare. Still, it cannot escape notice that one
of the important printer-publishers in London at the time was an exact
contemporary of Shakespeare at Stratford, that he can hardly have been
other than a schoolmate, that he was the son of a close associate of
John Shakespeare, and that he published Shakespeare’s first poems.
Clearly, a considerable number of literary contacts were available to
Shakespeare, and many books were accessible.
That Shakespeare’s plays had “sources” was already apparent in his
own time. An interesting contemporary description of a performance is to
be found in the diary of a young lawyer of the Middle Temple, John
Manningham, who kept a record of his experiences in 1602 and 1603. On
February 2, 1602, he wrote:
At our feast we had a play called Twelfth Night; or, What You Will,
much like The Comedy of Errors, or Menaechmi in Plautus, but most like
and near to that in Italian called Inganni.
The first collection of information about sources of Elizabethan
plays was published in the 17th century—Gerard Langbaine’s Account of
the English Dramatick Poets (1691) briefly indicated where Shakespeare
found materials for some plays. But, during the course of the 17th
century, it came to be felt that Shakespeare was an outstandingly
“natural” writer, whose intellectual background was of comparatively
little significance: “he was naturally learn’d; he needed not the
spectacles of books to read nature,” wrote John Dryden in 1668. It was
nevertheless obvious that the intellectual quality of Shakespeare’s
writings was high and revealed a remarkably perceptive mind. The Roman
plays, in particular, gave evidence of careful reconstruction of the
The first collection of source materials, arranged so that they could
be read and closely compared with Shakespeare’s plays, was made by
Charlotte Lennox in the 18th century. More complete collections appeared
later, notably those of John Payne Collier (Shakespeare’s Library, 1843;
revised by W. Carew Hazlitt, 1875). These earlier collections have been
superseded by a seven-volume version edited by Geoffrey Bullough as
Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (1957–72).
It has become steadily more possible to see what was original in
Shakespeare’s dramatic art. He achieved compression and economy by the
exclusion of undramatic material. He developed characters from brief
suggestions in his source (Mercutio, Touchstone, Falstaff, Pandarus),
and he developed entirely new characters (the Dromio brothers, Beatrice
and Benedick, Sir Toby Belch, Malvolio, Paulina, Roderigo, Lear’s fool).
He rearranged the plot with a view to more-effective contrasts of
character, climaxes, and conclusions (Macbeth, Othello, The Winter’s
Tale, As You Like It). A wider philosophical outlook was introduced
(Hamlet, Coriolanus, All’s Well That Ends Well, Troilus and Cressida).
And everywhere an intensification of the dialogue and an altogether
higher level of imaginative writing transformed the older work.
But, quite apart from evidence of the sources of his plays, it is not
difficult to get a fair impression of Shakespeare as a reader, feeding
his own imagination by a moderate acquaintance with the literary
achievements of other men and of other ages. He quotes his contemporary
Christopher Marlowe in As You Like It. He casually refers to the
Aethiopica (“Ethiopian History”) of Heliodorus (which had been
translated by Thomas Underdown in 1569) in Twelfth Night. He read the
translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by Arthur Golding, which went
through seven editions between 1567 and 1612. George Chapman’s vigorous
translation of Homer’s Iliad impressed him, though he used some of the
material rather sardonically in Troilus and Cressida. He derived the
ironical account of an ideal republic in The Tempest from one of
Montaigne’s essays. He read (in part, at least) Samuel Harsnett’s
Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostors and remembered lively passages
from it when he was writing King Lear. The beginning lines of one sonnet
(106) indicate that he had read Edmund Spenser’s poem The Faerie Queene
or comparable romantic literature.
He was acutely aware of the varieties of poetic style that
characterized the work of other authors. A brilliant little poem he
composed for Prince Hamlet (Act V, scene 2, line 115) shows how
ironically he perceived the qualities of poetry in the last years of the
16th century, when poets such as John Donne were writing love poems
uniting astronomical and cosmogenic imagery with skepticism and moral
paradoxes. The eight-syllable lines in an archaic mode written for the
14th-century poet John Gower in Pericles show his reading of that poet’s
Confessio amantis. The influence of the great figure of Sir Philip
Sidney, whose Arcadia was first printed in 1590 and was widely read for
generations, is frequently felt in Shakespeare’s writings. Finally, the
importance of the Bible for Shakespeare’s style and range of allusion is
not to be underestimated. His works show a pervasive familiarity with
the passages appointed to be read in church on each Sunday throughout
the year, and a large number of allusions to passages in Ecclesiasticus
(Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach) indicates a personal interest in one
of the deuterocanonical books.
John Russell Brown
Terence John Bew Spencer
Understanding Shakespeare » Questions of authorship
Readers and playgoers in Shakespeare’s own lifetime, and indeed until
the late 18th century, never questioned Shakespeare’s authorship of his
plays. He was a well-known actor from Stratford who performed in
London’s premier acting company, among the great actors of his day. He
was widely known by the leading writers of his time as well, including
Ben Jonson and John Webster, both of whom praised him as a dramatist.
Many other tributes to him as a great writer appeared during his
lifetime. Any theory that supposes him not to have been the writer of
the plays and poems attributed to him must suppose that Shakespeare’s
contemporaries were universally fooled by some kind of secret
Yet suspicions on the subject gained increasing force in the mid-19th
century. One Delia Bacon proposed that the author was her claimed
ancestor Sir Francis Bacon, Viscount St. Albans, who was indeed a
prominent writer of the Elizabethan era. What had prompted this theory?
The chief considerations seem to have been that little is known about
Shakespeare’s life (though in fact more is known about him than about
his contemporary writers), that he was from the country town of
Stratford-upon-Avon, that he never attended one of the universities, and
that therefore it would have been impossible for him to write
knowledgeably about the great affairs of English courtly life such as we
find in the plays.
The theory is suspect on a number of counts. University training in
Shakespeare’s day centred on theology and on Latin, Greek, and Hebrew
texts of a sort that would not have greatly improved Shakespeare’s
knowledge of contemporary English life. By the 19th century, a
university education was becoming more and more the mark of a broadly
educated person, but university training in the 16th century was quite a
different matter. The notion that only a university-educated person
could write of life at court and among the gentry is an erroneous and
indeed a snobbish assumption. Shakespeare was better off going to London
as he did, seeing and writing plays, listening to how people talked. He
was a reporter, in effect. The great writers of his era (or indeed of
most eras) are not usually aristocrats, who have no need to earn a
living by their pens. Shakespeare’s social background is essentially
like that of his best contemporaries. Edmund Spenser went to Cambridge,
it is true, but he came from a sail-making family. Christopher Marlowe
also attended Cambridge, but his kindred were shoemakers in Canterbury.
John Webster, Thomas Dekker, and Thomas Middleton came from similar
backgrounds. They discovered that they were writers, able to make a
living off their talent, and they (excluding the poet Spenser) flocked
to the London theatres where customers for their wares were to be found.
Like them, Shakespeare was a man of the commercial theatre.
Other candidates—William Stanley, 6th earl of Derby, and Christopher
Marlowe among them—have been proposed, and indeed the very fact of so
many candidates makes one suspicious of the claims of any one person.
The late 20th-century candidate for the writing of Shakespeare’s plays,
other than Shakespeare himself, was Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford.
Oxford did indeed write verse, as did other gentlemen; sonneteering was
a mark of gentlemanly distinction. Oxford was also a wretched man who
abused his wife and drove his father-in-law to distraction. Most
seriously damaging to Oxford’s candidacy is the fact that he died in
1604. The chronology presented here, summarizing perhaps 200 years of
assiduous scholarship, establishes a professional career for Shakespeare
as dramatist that extends from about 1589 to 1614. Many of his greatest
plays—King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, and The Tempest, to name but
three—were written after 1604. To suppose that the dating of the canon
is totally out of whack and that all the plays and poems were written
before 1604 is a desperate argument. Some individual dates are
uncertain, but the overall pattern is coherent. The growth in poetic and
dramatic styles, the development of themes and subjects, along with
objective evidence, all support a chronology that extends to about 1614.
To suppose alternatively that Oxford wrote the plays and poems before
1604 and then put them away in a drawer, to be brought out after his
death and updated to make them appear timely, is to invent an answer to
a nonexistent problem.
When all is said, the sensible question one must ask is, why would
Oxford want to write the plays and poems and then not claim them for
himself? The answer given is that he was an aristocrat and that writing
for the theatre was not elegant; hence he needed a front man, an alias.
Shakespeare, the actor, was a suitable choice. But is it plausible that
a cover-up like this could have succeeded?
Shakespeare’s contemporaries, after all, wrote of him unequivocally
as the author of the plays. Ben Jonson, who knew him well, contributed
verses to the First Folio of 1623, where (as elsewhere) he criticizes
and praises Shakespeare as the author. John Heminge and Henry Condell,
fellow actors and theatre owners with Shakespeare, signed the dedication
and a foreword to the First Folio and described their methods as
editors. In his own day, therefore, he was accepted as the author of the
plays. In an age that loved gossip and mystery as much as any, it seems
hardly conceivable that Jonson and Shakespeare’s theatrical associates
shared the secret of a gigantic literary hoax without a single leak or
that they could have been imposed upon without suspicion. Unsupported
assertions that the author of the plays was a man of great learning and
that Shakespeare of Stratford was an illiterate rustic no longer carry
weight, and only when a believer in Bacon or Oxford or Marlowe produces
sound evidence will scholars pay close attention.
Understanding Shakespeare » Linguistic, historical, textual, and
Since the days of Shakespeare, the English language has changed, and so
have audiences, theatres, actors, and customary patterns of thought and
feeling. Time has placed an ever-increasing cloud before the mirror he
held up to life, and it is here that scholarship can help.
Problems are most obvious in single words. In the 21st century,
presently, for instance, does not mean “immediately,” as it usually did
for Shakespeare, or will mean “lust,” or rage mean “folly,” or silly
denote “innocence” and “purity.” In Shakespeare’s day, words sounded
different, too, so that ably could rhyme with eye or tomb with dumb.
Syntax was often different, and, far more difficult to define, so was
response to metre and phrase. What sounds formal and stiff to a modern
hearer might have sounded fresh and gay to an Elizabethan.
Ideas have changed, too, most obviously political ones. Shakespeare’s
contemporaries almost unanimously believed in authoritarian monarchy and
recognized divine intervention in history. Most of them would have
agreed that a man should be burned for ultimate religious heresies. It
is the office of linguistic and historical scholarship to aid the
understanding of the multitude of factors that have significantly
affected the impressions made by Shakespeare’s plays.
None of Shakespeare’s plays has survived in his handwritten
manuscript, and, in the printed texts of some plays, notably King Lear
and Richard III, there are passages that are manifestly corrupt, with
only an uncertain relationship to the words Shakespeare once wrote. Even
if the printer received a good manuscript, small errors could still be
introduced. Compositors were less than perfect; they often “regularized”
the readings of their copy, altered punctuation in accordance with their
own preferences or “house” style or because they lacked the necessary
pieces of type, or made mistakes because they had to work too hurriedly.
Even the correction of proof sheets in the printing house could further
corrupt the text, since such correction was usually effected without
reference to the author or to the manuscript copy; when both corrected
and uncorrected states are still available, it is sometimes the
uncorrected version that is preferable. Correctors are responsible for
some errors now impossible to right.
John Russell Brown
Terence John Bew Spencer
Understanding Shakespeare » Literary criticism
During his own lifetime and shortly afterward, Shakespeare enjoyed fame
and considerable critical attention. The English writer Francis Meres,
in 1598, declared him to be England’s greatest writer in comedy and
tragedy. Writer and poet John Weever lauded “honey-tongued Shakespeare.”
Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s contemporary and a literary critic in his own
right, granted that Shakespeare had no rival in the writing of comedy,
even in the ancient Classical world, and that he equaled the ancients in
tragedy as well, but Jonson also faulted Shakespeare for having a
mediocre command of the Classical languages and for ignoring Classical
rules. Jonson objected when Shakespeare dramatized history extending
over many years and moved his dramatic scene around from country to
country, rather than focusing on 24 hours or so in a single location.
Shakespeare wrote too glibly, in Jonson’s view, mixing kings and clowns,
lofty verse with vulgarity, mortals with fairies.
Understanding Shakespeare » Literary criticism » Seventeenth century
Jonson’s Neoclassical perspective on Shakespeare was to govern the
literary criticism of the later 17th century as well. John Dryden, in
his essay Of Dramatick Poesie (1668) and other essays, condemned the
improbabilities of Shakespeare’s late romances. Shakespeare lacked
decorum, in Dryden’s view, largely because he had written for an
ignorant age and poorly educated audiences. Shakespeare excelled in
“fancy” or imagination, but he lagged behind in “judgment.” He was a
native genius, untaught, whose plays needed to be extensively rewritten
to clear them of the impurities of their frequently vulgar style. And in
fact most productions of Shakespeare on the London stage during the
Restoration did just that: they rewrote Shakespeare to make him more
Understanding Shakespeare » Literary criticism » Eighteenth century
This critical view persisted into the 18th century as well. Alexander
Pope undertook to edit Shakespeare in 1725, expurgating his language and
“correcting” supposedly infelicitous phrases. Samuel Johnson also edited
Shakespeare’s works (1765), defending his author as one who “holds up to
his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life”; but, though he
pronounced Shakespeare an “ancient” (supreme praise from Johnson), he
found Shakespeare’s plays full of implausible plots quickly huddled
together at the end, and he deplored Shakespeare’s fondness for punning.
Even in his defense of Shakespeare as a great English writer, Johnson
lauded him in classical terms, for his universality, his ability to
offer a “just representation of general nature” that could stand the
test of time.
Understanding Shakespeare » Literary criticism » Romantic critics
For Romantic critics such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the early 19th
century, Shakespeare deserved to be appreciated most of all for his
creative genius and his spontaneity. For Goethe in Germany as well,
Shakespeare was a bard, a mystical seer. Most of all, Shakespeare was
considered supreme as a creator of character. Maurice Morgann wrote such
character-based analyses as appear in his book An Essay on the Dramatic
Character of Sir John Falstaff (1777), where Falstaff is envisaged as
larger than life, a humane wit and humorist who is no coward or liar in
fact but a player of inspired games. Romantic critics, including Charles
Lamb, Thomas De Quincey (who wrote Encyclopædia Britannica’s article on
Shakespeare for the eighth edition), and William Hazlitt, extolled
Shakespeare as a genius able to create an imaginative world of his own,
even if Hazlitt was disturbed by what he took to be Shakespeare’s
political conservatism. In the theatre of the Romantic era, Shakespeare
fared less well, but as an author he was much touted and even venerated.
In 1769 the famous actor David Garrick had instituted a Shakespeare
Jubilee at Stratford-upon-Avon to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday.
Shakespeare had become England’s national poet.
Understanding Shakespeare » Literary criticism » Twentieth century and
beyond » Increasing importance of scholarship
The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw major increases in the
systematic and scholarly exploration of Shakespeare’s life and works.
Philological research established a more reliable chronology of the work
than had been hitherto available. Edward Dowden, in his Shakspere: A
Critical Study of His Mind and Art (1875), analyzed the shape of
Shakespeare’s career in a way that had not been possible earlier. A.C.
Bradley’s magisterial Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), a book that remains
highly readable, showed how the achievements of scholarship could be
applied to a humane and moving interpretation of Shakespeare’s greatest
work. As in earlier studies of the 19th century, Bradley’s approach
focused largely on character.
Understanding Shakespeare » Literary criticism » Twentieth century
and beyond » Historical criticism
Increasingly in the 20th century, scholarship furthered an understanding
of Shakespeare’s social, political, economic, and theatrical milieu.
Shakespeare’s sources came under new and intense scrutiny. Elmer Edgar
Stoll, in Art and Artifice in Shakespeare (1933), stressed the ways in
which the plays could be seen as constructs intimately connected with
their historical environment. Playacting depends on conventions, which
must be understood in their historical context. Costuming signals
meaning to the audience; so does the theatre building, the props, the
Accordingly, historical critics sought to know more about the history
of London’s theatres (as in John Cranford Adams’s well-known model of
the Globe playhouse or in C. Walter Hodges’s The Globe Restored ),
about audiences (Alfred Harbage, As They Liked It ; and Ann
Jennalie Cook, The Privileged Playgoers of Shakespeare’s London,
1576–1642 ), about staging methods (Bernard Beckerman, Shakespeare
at the Globe 1599–1609 ), and much more. Other scholarly studies
examined censorship, the religious controversies of the Elizabethan era
and how they affected playwriting, and the heritage of native medieval
English drama. Studies in the history of ideas have examined Elizabethan
cosmology, astrology, philosophical ideas such as the Great Chain of
Being, physiological theories about the four bodily humours, political
theories of Machiavelli and others, the skepticism of Montaigne, and
much more. See also Sidebar: Shakespeare on Theatre; Sidebar:
Shakespeare and the Liberties; and Sidebar: Music in Shakespeare’s
Understanding Shakespeare » Literary criticism » Twentieth century
and beyond » New Criticism
As valuable as it is, historical criticism has not been without its
opponents. A major critical movement of the 1930s and ’40s was the
so-called New Criticism of F.R. Leavis, L.C. Knights, Derek Traversi,
Robert Heilman, and many others, urging a more formalist approach to the
poetry. “Close reading” became the mantra of this movement. At its most
extreme, it urged the ignoring of historical background in favour of an
intense and personal engagement with Shakespeare’s language: tone,
speaker, image patterns, and verbal repetitions and rhythms. Studies of
imagery, rhetorical patterns, wordplay, and still more gave support to
the movement. At the commencement of the 21st century, close reading
remained an acceptable approach to the Shakespearean text.
Understanding Shakespeare » Literary criticism » Twentieth century
and beyond » New interpretive approaches
Shakespeare criticism of the 20th and 21st centuries has seen an
extraordinary flourishing of new schools of critical approach.
Psychological and psychoanalytic critics such as Ernest Jones have
explored questions of character in terms of Oedipal complexes,
narcissism, and psychotic behaviour or, more simply, in terms of the
conflicting needs in any relationship for autonomy and dependence.
Mythological and archetypal criticism, especially in the influential
work of Northrop Frye, has examined myths of vegetation having to do
with the death and rebirth of nature as a basis for great cycles in the
creative process. Christian interpretation seeks to find in
Shakespeare’s plays a series of deep analogies to the Christian story of
sacrifice and redemption.
Conversely, some criticism has pursued a vigorously iconoclastic line
of interpretation. Jan Kott, writing in the disillusioning aftermath of
World War II and from an eastern European perspective, reshaped
Shakespeare as a dramatist of the absurd, skeptical, ridiculing, and
antiauthoritarian. Kott’s deeply ironic view of the political process
impressed filmmakers and theatre directors such as Peter Brook (King
Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream). (For further discussion of later
interpretations of Shakespeare, see Sidebar: Viewing Shakespeare on Film
and Sidebar: Shakespeare and Opera.) He also caught the imagination of
many academic critics who were chafing at a modern political world
increasingly caught up in image making and the various other
manipulations of the powerful new media of television and electronic
A number of the so-called New Historicists (among them Stephen
Greenblatt, Stephen Orgel, and Richard Helgerson) read avidly in
cultural anthropology, learning from Clifford Geertz and others how to
analyze literary production as a part of a cultural exchange through
which a society fashions itself by means of its political ceremonials.
Stephen Greenblatt’s Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980) provided an
energizing model for the ways in which literary criticism could analyze
the process. Mikhail Bakhtin was another dominant influence. In Britain
the movement came to be known as Cultural Materialism; it was a first
cousin to American New Historicism, though often with a more
class-conscious and Marxist ideology. The chief proponents of this
movement with regard to Shakespeare criticism are Jonathan Dollimore,
Alan Sinfield, John Drakakis, and Terry Eagleton.
Understanding Shakespeare » Literary criticism » Twentieth century
and beyond » Feminist criticism and gender studies
Feminist and gender-study approaches to Shakespeare criticism made
significant gains after 1980. Feminists, like New Historicists, were
interested in contextualizing Shakespeare’s writings rather than
subjecting them to ahistorical formalist analysis. Turning to
anthropologists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, feminist critics
illuminated the extent to which Shakespeare inhabited a patriarchal
world dominated by men and fathers, in which women were essentially the
means of exchange in power relationships among those men. Feminist
criticism is deeply interested in marriage and courtship customs, gender
relations, and family structures. In The Tempest, for example, feminist
interest tends to centre on Prospero’s dominating role as father and on
the way in which Ferdinand and Miranda become engaged and, in effect,
married when they pledge their love to one another in the presence of a
witness—Miranda’s father. Plays and poems dealing with domestic strife
(such as Shakespeare’s The Rape of Lucrece) take on a new centrality in
this criticism. Diaries, marriage-counseling manuals, and other such
documents become important to feminist study. Revealing patterns emerge
in Shakespeare’s plays as to male insecurities about women, men’s need
to dominate and possess women, their fears of growing old, and the like.
Much Ado About Nothing can be seen as about men’s fears of being
cuckolded; Othello treats the same male weakness with deeply tragic
consequences. The tragedy in Romeo and Juliet depends in part on Romeo’s
sensitivity to peer pressure that seemingly obliges him to kill Tybalt
and thus choose macho male loyalties over the more gentle and forgiving
model of behaviour he has learned from Juliet. These are only a few
examples. Feminist critics of the late 20th and early 21st centuries
included, among many others, Lynda Boose, Lisa Jardine, Gail Paster,
Jean Howard, Karen Newman, Carol Neely, Peter Erickson, and Madelon
Gender studies such as those of Bruce R. Smith and Valerie Traub also
dealt importantly with issues of gender as a social construction and
with changing social attitudes toward “deviant” sexual behaviour:
cross-dressing, same-sex relationships, and bisexuality.
Understanding Shakespeare » Literary criticism » Twentieth century
and beyond » Deconstruction
The critical movement generally known as deconstruction centred on the
instability and protean ambiguity of language. It owed its origins in
part to the linguistic and other work of French philosophers and critics
such as Ferdinand de Saussure, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida.
Some of the earliest practitioners and devotees of the method in the
United States were Geoffrey Hartmann, J. Hillis Miller, and Paul de Man,
all of Yale University. Deconstruction stressed the extent to which
“meaning” and “authorial intention” are virtually impossible to fix
precisely. Translation and paraphrase are exercises in approximation at
The implications of deconstruction for Shakespeare criticism have to
do with language and its protean flexibility of meanings. Patricia
Parker’s Shakespeare from the Margins: Language, Culture, Context
(1996), for example, offers many brilliant demonstrations of this, one
of which is her study of the word preposterous, a word she finds
throughout the plays. It means literally behind for before, back for
front, second for first, end or sequel for beginning. It suggests the
cart before the horse, the last first, and “arsie versie,” with obscene
overtones. It is thus a term for disorder in discourse, in sexual
relationships, in rights of inheritance, and much more. Deconstruction
as a philosophical and critical movement aroused a good deal of
animosity because it questioned the fixity of meaning in language. At
the same time, however, deconstruction attuned readers to verbal
niceties, to layers of meaning, to nuance.
Late 20th-century and early 21st-century scholars were often
revolutionary in their criticism of Shakespeare. To readers the result
frequently appeared overly postmodern and trendy, presenting Shakespeare
as a contemporary at the expense of more traditional values of tragic
intensity, comic delight, and pure insight into the human condition. No
doubt some of this criticism, as well as some older criticism, was too
obscure and ideologically driven. Yet deconstructionists and feminists,
for example, at their best portray a Shakespeare of enduring greatness.
His durability is demonstrable in the very fact that so much modern
criticism, despite its mistrust of canonical texts written by “dead
white European males,” turns to Shakespeare again and again. He is dead,
white, European, and male, and yet he appeals irresistibly to readers
and theatre audiences all over the world. In the eyes of many feminist
critics, he portrays women with the kind of fullness and depth found in
authors such as Virginia Woolf and George Eliot.
ALL'S WELL THAT ENDS WELL
Type of work: Drama
Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Type of plot: Romantic comedy
Time of plot: Sixteenth century
Locale: France and Italy
First presented: ñ 1602
Uneven in tone, All's Well That Ends Well ranges from scenes of farce
to moments of serious insight. Helena's character, of rather dubious
virtue in terms of her tactics with Bertram, sheds interesting ambiguity
on the play's general theme of the blindness of prejudice and unreason.
Helena (hel'3-ïý), the orphaned daughter of Gerard de Narbon, a
distinguished physician, and the ward of the Countess of Rousillon. She
at first regards her love for Bertram, the countess' son, as hopeless;
then, with the independence characteristic of the heroines of
Shakespeare's comedies, she resolves to try to win him with her father's
one legacy to her, a cure for the ailing king's mysterious malady. Her
charm and sincerity win the love and admiration of all who see her
except Bertram himself. Hurt but undaunted by his flight from her on
their wedding day, she mourns chiefly that she has sent him into danger
in the Florentine war and deprived his mother of his presence. She
leaves the countess without farewell, hoping at least to free her
husband to return to his home if she is not successful in fulfilling his
seemingly impossible conditions for a reconciliation. She contrives
through an ingenious trick, substituting herself for the Florentine girl
he is trying to seduce, to obtain his ring and conceive his child. Thus
she wins for herself a loving and repentant husband.
Bertram (ber'trem), Count Rousillon (roo-sil'yan, roo-se-yoh'), a rather
arrogant, self-satisfied, impulsive young man. Proud of his noble blood,
he feels degraded by the king's command that he marry Helena, and after
the ceremony he flees with his dissolute companion, Par-olles, to the
army of the Duke of Florence to escape such ignominy. He wins fame as a
soldier, but he fares less well in his personal relationships. First,
Parolles' essential cowardice and disloyalty are exposed by his fellow
soldiers to the young count who had trusted him. Then his attempt to
seduce Diana brings about the very end he is trying to escape, union
with his own wife. His antagonism for Helena melts when he hears reports
of her death and recognizes the depth of the love he has lost, and he is
willingly reconciled to her when she is restored to him.
The Countess of Rousillon, Bertram's mother, a wise and gracious woman
who is devoted to both Bertram and Helena and welcomes the idea of their
son's calloused rejection of his virtuous wife appalls her, and she
grieves deeply for his folly, in spite of her protest to Helena that she
looks upon her as her only remaining child. After Helena's reported
death and Bertram's return, she begs the king to forgive her son's
Parolles (pa-roTes), Bertram's follower and fellow soldier, who has no
illusions about his own character: "Simply the thing I am shall make me
live . . . every braggart shall be found an ass." His romantic illusions
are nonexistent; he encourages Bertram to be off to the wars with him,
and he aids and abets the attempted seduction of Diana. The quality of
his loyalty to his patron becomes all too obvious in the hilarious drum
scene, when he, blindfolded, insults and offers to betray all his
countrymen to free himself from the enemies into whose hands he thinks
he has fallen.
The King of France, a kindly old man who has almost resigned himself to
the fact that his illness is incurable when Helena comes to court with
her father's prescription, which heals him. He believes her the equal of
any man in the kingdom and readily agrees to reward her service to him
by letting her choose her husband from among the noblemen of the
kingdom. Only the pleas of Lafeu and the countess and Bertram's late
recognition of Helena's virtues prevent him from punishing the young man
severely for his rebellious flight.
Lafeu (la'fu'). an old lord, counselor to the king and the countess'
friend. He is as much captivated by Helena's grace as his king is, but
he blames Parolles chiefly for Bertram's ungentle desertion of his wife.
Out of friendship for the countess, he arranges a marriage between
Bertram and his own daughter in an attempt to assuage the king's anger
against the count.
Lavache (la-vash'), the countess' servant, a witty clown who is expert
in the nonsensical trains of logic spun by characters such as Touchstone
Diana Capilet (dl-àï'ý kap'Het), the attractive, virtuous daughter of a
Florentine widow. She willingly agrees
to help Helena win Bertram when she hears her story, and she wins a rich
husband for herself as a reward from the king for her honesty.
A Widow, Diana's mother, who is concerned about the honor of her
daughter and her house.
Violenta (ve-o-l'en'ta) and Mariana (ma-re-a'na), the widow's honest
The Duke of Florence, the general whose army Bertram joins.
Rinaldo (ri-nal'do), the countess' steward, who first tells her of
Helena's love for Bertram.
Bertram, the Count of Rousillon, had been called to the court to serve
the king of France, who was ill of a disease that all the royal
physicians had failed to cure. The only doctor in the entire country who
might have cured the king was now dead. On his deathbed he had
bequeathed to his daughter Helena his books and papers describing cures
for all common and rare diseases, among them the one suffered by the
Helena was now the ward of the Countess of Rousillon, who thought of her
as a daughter. Helena loved young Count Bertram and wanted him for a
husband, not a brother. Bertram considered Helena only slightly above a
servant, however, and would not consider her for a wife. Through her
knowledge of the king's illness, Helena at last hit upon a plot to gain
the spoiled young man for her mate, in such fashion as to leave him no
choice in the decision. She journeyed to the court and, offering her
life as forfeit if she failed, gained the king's consent to try her
father's cure on him. If she won, the young lord of her choice was to be
given to her in marriage.
Her sincerity won the king's confidence. She cured him by means of her
father's prescription and as her boon asked for Bertram for her husband.
That young man protested to the king, but the ruler kept his promise,
not only because he had given his word but also because Helena had won
him over completely.
The king ordered the marriage to be performed at once, yet Bertram,
although bowing to the king's will, would not have Helena for a wife in
any but a legal way. Pleading the excuse of urgent business elsewhere,
he deserted her after the ceremony and sent messages to her and to his
mother saying he would never belong to a wife forced upon him. He told
Helena that she would not really be his wife until she wore on her
finger a ring he now wore on his and carried in her body a child that
was his; and these two things would never come to pass, for he would
never see Helena again. He was encouraged in his hatred for Helena by
his follower, Parolles, a scoundrel and a coward who would as soon
betray one person as another. Helena had reproached him for his vulgar
ways, and he wanted vengeance on her.
Helena returned to the Countess of Rousillon, as Bertram had commanded.
The countess heard of her son's actions with horror, and when she read
the letter he had written her, restating his hatred for Helena, she
disowned her son, for she loved Helena as her own child. When Helena
learned that Bertram had said he would never
return to France until he no longer had a wife there, she sadly decided
to leave the home of her benefactress. Loving Bertram, she vowed that
she would not keep him from his home.
Disguising herself as a religious pilgrim, Helena followed Bertram to
Italy, where he had gone to fight for the Duke of Florence. While
lodging with a widow and her daughter, a beautiful young girl named
Diana, Helena learned that Bertram had seduced a number of young
Florentine girls. Lately he had turned his attention to Diana, but she,
a pure and virtuous girl, would not accept his attentions. Then Helena
told the widow and Diana that she was Bertram's wife, and by bribery and
a show of friendliness she persuaded them to join her in a plot against
Bertram. Diana listened again to his vows of love for her and agreed to
let him come to her rooms, provided he first gave her a ring from his
finger to prove the constancy of his love. Bertram, overcome with
passion, gave her the ring, and that night, as he kept the appointment
in her room, the girl he thought Diana slipped a ring on his finger as
they lay in bed together.
News came to the countess in France and to Bertram in Italy that Helena
had died of grief and love for Bertram. Bertram returned to France to
face his mother's and the king's displeasure, but first he discovered
that Parolles was the knave everyone else knew him to be. When Bertram
held him up to public ridicule, Parolles vowed he would be revenged on
his former benefactor.
When the king visited the Countess of Rousillon, she begged him to
restore her son to favor. Bertram protested that he really loved Helena,
though he had not recognized that love until after he had lost her
forever through death. His humility so pleased the king that his
confession of love, coupled with his exploits in the Italian wars, won
him a royal pardon for his offense against his wife. Then the king,
about to betroth him to another wife, the lovely and wealthy daughter of
a favorite lord, noticed the ring Bertram was wearing. It was the ring
given to him the night he went to Diana's rooms; the king in turn
recognized it as a jewel he had given to Helena. Bertram tried to
pretend that it had been thrown to him in Florence by a high-born lady
who loved him. He said that he had told the lady he was not free to wed,
but that she had refused to take back her gift.
At that moment Diana appeared as a petitioner to the king and demanded
that Bertram fulfill his pledge to recognize her as his wife. When
Bertram tried to pretend
that she was no more than a prostitute he had visited, she produced the
ring he had given her. That ring convinced everyone present, especially
his mother, that Diana was really Bertram's wife. Parolles added to the
evidence against Bertram by testifying that he had heard his former
master promise to marry the girl. Bertram persisted in his denials.
Diana then asked for the ring she had given to him, the ring which the
king thought to be Helena's. The king asked Diana where she had gotten
the ring. When she refused to tell on penalty of her life, he ordered
her taken to prison. Diana then declared that she would sent for her
bail. Her bail was Helena, now carrying Bertram's child within her, for
it was she, of course, who had received him in Diana's rooms that
fateful night. To her Diana gave the ring. The two requirements for his
real wife being now fulfilled, Bertram promised to love Helena as a true
and faithful husband. Diana received from the king a promise to give her
any young man of her choice for her husband, with the king to provide
the dowry. Thus the bitter events of the past made sweeter the happiness
All's Well That Ends Well belongs to the set of "problem plays" of
Shakespeare—those works which approach traditional dramatic themes in an
unconventional fashion, or which combine the outward forms of comedy
with an inner sense of unease and disquiet. Undoubtedly the most famous
and successful of these troubling comedies is Measure for Measure, and
it is worth noting that it and All's Well That Ends Well were almost
certainly written about the same time. This was also the period of
Shakespeare's great tragedies, such as Hamlet, Othello, and King Lear.
All's Well That Ends Well stands as the weakest work of the period; it
is a masterpiece, but a flawed one.
Two major reasons contribute to the relative thinness of the play: Its
characters are sketchily drawn and, with the exception of Helena, do not
fully engage the audience's sympathies; the plot, taken from ancient
folktales by way of Boccaccio, retains many of its magical aspects— such
as Helena's miraculous cure of the king—yet these elements do not fit
well with the spare, unromantic style of the play.
The language of All's Well That Ends Well is suited to the intelligent,
skeptical view of this period of Shakespeare's art, but it is not lively
enough for a true comedy, or elaborate enough for a fantasy based on
folklore. There are moments of ribald interchange, including the one at
the beginning of the play between Parolles and Helena, and there are the
finely elegiac lines of the ill French king, when he speaks of old men
"whose judgments are mere fathers of their garments." These and numerous
other remarkable passages reveal that any fault lies not in
Shakespeare's linguistic resources but in the link between language and
the characters and actions of the play.
The prime weakness of the plot must consist in its brevity, a normal
feature of folktales but one which makes it difficult to sustain action
throughout a five-act play. Shakespeare's mastery of invention, so amply
demonstrated in other works, seems to have been held in check here,
perhaps deliberately so, according to many critics. While it is possible
to speculate on his motives for restraining his plot, one should note
that a conscious limitation of invention is typical of the problem
The basic situation of the plot is familiar to any reader of folktales:
A woman is set what seems to be an impossible task, which, if she
completes it, will win her a desired reward. In All's Well That Ends
Well, the reward for Helena will be Bertram as her true husband; to win
him she must wear a ring from his finger and bear his child. Bertram
attempts to forestall these actions by deserting Helena in France while
he travels to Italy with his bombastic companion, Parolles. Such a task
as Helena is given makes sense in a folktale, but in a full-length play
it must be made believable through the nature of the characters.
Helena, a strong, capable, and lively young woman, is one of
Shakespeare's most engaging heroines. Yet she has one inexplicable
trait—perhaps even a flaw—in that she desires Bertram for her husband.
Bertram, a self-centered, snobbish young nobleman, enters the play with
no apparent qualities to recommend him to a generous woman such as
Helena. Perhaps she sees in him some nature that is capable of being
renewed: this is suggested during the play's Italian episodes, in which
Bertram seems to redeem himself through personal valor in battle, and in
which his conscience is stirred by a justly reproachful letter from his
mother. Yet it is also in Italy that Bertram barters away his precious
ring for a moment of lewd pleasure; back in France, he will promptly and
ineptly lie about the exchange. This moral seesawing raises questions
about Bertram's basic character. Still, without the love of Helena for
Bertram, there would be no play, and as Helena remarks, "All's well that
ends well yet Though time seem so adverse and means unfit." Perhaps here
we should understand "time" as being the events of the play and Bertram
as the "means unfit."
The other particularly notable character in the play is Parolles, a
braggart soldier whose valor is all in the sound of his voice, and who
carries into battle. tellingK enough. not a musket but a drum. Once
again, there is the inevitable tendency to contrast characters, but
between Sir John Falstaff and the rogue of this pla\ there is no
contest. Parolles is neither witty nor humorous in Falstaff's sense,
although he is gifted with great verbal ingenuity, especially of the
coarse and mocking sort—parolles means "words"—but his language repels
rather than attracts the audience or reader.
Yet, in the end, Parolles speaks the lines that sum up the central
mystery of All's Well That Ends Well, and of all the problem plays, when
he defines his character and fate: "Simply the thing I am shall make me
live." The supposedly simple thing that Shakespeare hints at throughout
the play is the one point that he never fully reveals.
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA
Type of work: Drama
Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Type of plot: Romantic tragedy
Time of plot: About 30 B.C.
Locale: Egypt and various parts of the Roman Empire
First presented: 1606-1607
Antony and Cleopatra is the tragedy of a man destined to rule the
world who instead brings himself to ruin through capitulation to desires
of the flesh; deserted by friends and subjects, he is forced to seek the
escape of ignoble suicide. Shakespeare's source for the play was Sir
Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives. It is interesting to
note that for many years Dryden's version of the story, All for Love,
was the more frequently performed of the two plays.
Mark Antony (mark an'ta-ne), also Marcus Anton-ius, the majestic ruin of
a great general and political leader, a Triumvir of Rome. Enthralled by
Cleopatra, he sometimes seems about to desert her for her real and
dangerous rival: Rome. He marries Caesar's sister Octa-via for political
reasons, but returns to Cleopatra. His greatness is shown as much by his
effect on others as by his own actions. His cynical, realistic follower
Enobar-bus is deeply moved by him; his soldier's adore him even in
defeat; his armor-bearer remains with him to the death; even his enemy
Octavius Caesar praises him in life and is shocked into heightened
eulogy when he hears of his death. Antony is capable of jealous fury and
reckless indiscretion; but he bears the aura of greatness. He dies by
his own hand after hearing the false report of Cleopatra's death, but
lives long enough to see her once more and bid her farewell.
Cleopatra (kle-o-pa'tre), queen of Egypt. Considered by many critics
Shakespeare's greatest feminine creation, she has the complexity and
inconsistency of real life. Like Antony, she is displayed much through
the eyes of others. Even the hard-bitten realist Enobarbus is moved to
lavish poetic splendor by her charm and beauty. Only Octavius Caesar, of
all those who come in contact with her, is impervious to her charms, but
the nobility of her death moves even him. She is mercurial and
self-centered, and there is some ambiguity in her love of Antony. It is
difficult to be certain that her tragic death would have taken place had
cold Octavius Caesar been tony's favor. Caesar's affection for his
sister Octavia is almost the only warm note in his character; but his
comments on the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra show unexpected
generosity and magnanimity.
Domitius Enobarbus (do-mish'yus e-nobar'bus), Antony's friend and
follower. Of the family of Shakespeare's loyal Horatio and Kent, he is a
strong individual within the type. Though given to the disillusioned
cynicism of the veteran soldier, he has a splendid poetic vein which is
stimulated by Cleopatra. He knows his master well and leaves him only
when Antony seems to have left himself. Miserable as a deserter,
Enobarbus is moved so deeply by Antony's generosity that he dies of
grief. He serves as a keen, critical chorus for about three-fourths of
Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (mf'kus emil'I-dus), the third Triumvir, a "poor
third," as Enobarbus calls him. He tries to bring together Antony and
Octavius and to quell the thunderstorms which their rivalry frequently
engenders. He is the butt of some teasing by Antony when they are both
drinking heavily on Pompey's galley. After the defeat of Pompey,
Octavius Caesar destroys Lepidus, leaving himself and Antony to fight
for control of the world.
Sextus Pompeius (Pompey) (seks'tus ðáò-pe'yus; 'pam-ð¸), the son of
Pompey the Great. Ambitious and power-hungry, he has a vein of chivalric
honor which prevents his consenting to the murder of his guests, the
Triumvirs, aboard his galley. He makes a peace with the Triumvirs,
largely because of Antony, but is later attacked and defeated by Caesar
and loses not only his power but his life as well.
Octavia (ak-'ta-ves), sister of Octavius Caesar. A virtuous widow, fond
of her brother and strangely fond of Antony after their marriage, she
serves as a foil to Cleopatra. She is not necessarily as dull as
Cleopatra thinks her. There is pathos in her situation, but she lacks
Charmian, a pert, charming girl attending Cleopatra. Gay, witty, and
risque, she maintains a tragic dignity during the death of her queen.
She tends Cleopatra's body, closes the eyes, delivers a touching eulogy,
and then joins her mistress in death.
Iras, another of Cleopatra's charming attendants. Much like Charmian,
but not quite so fully drawn, she dies just before Cleopatra.
Mardian, a eunuch, servant of Cleopatra. He bears the false message of
Cleopatra's death to Antony, which leads Antony to kill himself.
Alexas, an attendant to Cleopatra. He jests wittily with Charmian, Iras,
and the Soothsayer. Deserting Cleopatra and joining Caesar, he is hanged
by Caesar's orders.
A Soothsayer. He serves two functions: one to make satirical prophecies
to Charmian and Iras, which turn out to be literally true; the other to
warn Antony against remaining near Caesar, whose fortune will always
predominate. The second helps Antony to make firm his decision to leave
Octavia and return to Egypt.
Seleucus (se-ldo'kus), Cleopatra's treasurer. He betrays to Caesar the
information that Cleopatra is holding back the greater part of her
treasure. She indulges in a public temper tantrum when he discloses
this; but since the information apparently lulls Caesar into thinking
that the queen is not planning suicide, perhaps Seleucus is really
aiding, not betraying, her.
A Clown, who brings a basket of figs to the captured queen. In the
basket are concealed the poisonous asps. The clown's language is a
mixture of simpleminded philosophy and mistaken meanings. The
juxtaposition of his unconscious humor and Cleopatra's tragic death is
reminiscent of the scene between Hamlet and the gravedigger.
Ventidius (ven-tid'i-us), one of Antony's able subordinates. A practical
soldier, he realizes that it is best to be reasonably effective, but not
spectacular enough to arouse the envy of his superiors; therefore, he
does not push his victory to the extreme.
Eros (e'ros), Antony's loyal bodyguard and armor bearer. He remains with
his leader to final defeat. Rather than carry out Antony's command to
deliver him a death stroke, he kills himself.
Scarus (ska'ras, ska'rus), one of Antony's tough veterans. Fighting
heroically against Caesar's forces in spite of severe wounds, he rouses
Antony's admiration. In partial payment, Antony requests the queen to
offer him her hand to kiss.
Canidius (ca-nid'i-us), Antony's lieutenant general. When Antony refuses
his advice and indiscreetly chooses to fight Caesar's forces on sea
rather than on land, and consequently meets defeat, Canidius deserts to
Dercetas (der'ce-ta s), a loyal follower of Antony. He takes the sword
stained with Antony's blood to Caesar. announces his leader's death, and
offers either to serve Caesar or die.
Demetrius (ds-me'tri-us) and Philo (fi'lo). followers of Antony. They
open the play with comments on Antony's "dotage" on the Queen of Egypt.
Euphronius (u-fro'm-us), Antony's old schoolmaster. He is Antony's
emissary to Caesar asking for generous terms of surrender. Caesar
refuses his requests.
Silius (sll'yus), an officer in Ventidius' army.
Menas (me'nas), a pirate in the service of Pompey. He remains sober at
the drinking bout on board Pompey "s galley and offers Pompey the world.
He intends to cut the cable of the galley and then cut the throats of
the Triumvirs and their followers. Angered at Pompey's rejection of his
proposal, he joins Enobarbus in drunken revelry and withdraws his
support from Pompey.
Menecrates (ò¸ï-¸ê'ãý-tez) and Varrius (va'ri-us). followers of Pompey.
Maecenas (me-se'nas), Caesar's friend and follower. He supports Agrippa
and Lepidus in arranging the alliance between Caesar and Antony.
Agrippa (ý-grip's), Caesar's follower. He is responsible for the
proposal that Antony and Octavia be married to cement the alliance. His
curiosity about Cleopatra leads to Enobarbus' magnificent description of
her on her royal barge.
Dolabella (dol-ý-Ü¸Ãý), one of Caesar's emissaries to Cleopatra.
Enchanted by her, he reveals Caesar's plan to display her in a Roman
triumph. This information strengthens her resolution to take her own
Proculeius (ðãá-êï-le'us), the only one of Caesar's followers whom
Antony advises Cleopatra to trust. She wisely withholds the trust, for
Proculeius is sent by Caesar to lull her into a false sense of security.
Thyreus (thi're-us), an emissary of Caesar. Antony catches him kissing
Cleopatra's hand and has him whipped and sent back to Caesar with
Gallus (gal'us), another of Caesar's followers. He captures Cleopatra
and her maids in the monument and leaves them guarded.
Taurus (to'rus), Caesar's lieutenant general.
After the murder of Julius Caesar, the Roman Empire was ruled by three
men, the noble triumvirs, Mark Antony, Lepidus, and Octavius, Caesar's
nephew. Antony, having been given the Eastern sphere to rule, had gone
to Alexandria and there he had seen and fallen passionately in love with
Cleopatra, queen of Egypt. She was the flower of the Nile, but a wanton
who had been the mistress of Julius Caesar and of many others. Antony
was so filled with lust for her that he ignored his own counsel and the
warnings of his friends, and as long as possible he ignored also a
request from Octavius Caesar that he return to Rome. Sextus Pompeius,
son of Pompey the Great, and a powerful leader, was gathering troops to
seize Rome from the rule of the triumvirs, and Octavius Caesar wished to
confer with the other two, Antony and Lepidus. At last the danger of a
victory by Sextus Pompeius, coupled with the news that his wife Fulvia
was dead, forced Antony to leave Egypt and Cleopatra and journey to
Pompeius was confident of victory so long as Antony stayed in Egypt, for
Antony was a better general than either Lepidus or Octavius. When
Pompeius heard that Antony was headed toward Rome, his hope was that
Octavius and Antony would not mend their quarrels but would continue to
fight each other as they had in the past. Lepidus did not matter; he
sided with neither of the other two, and cared little for conquest and
glory. Pompeius faced disappointment however, for Antony and Octavius
mended their quarrels in the face of common danger. To seal their
renewed friendship, Antony married Octavia, the sister of Octavius;
through her, each general would be bound to the other. Thus it seemed
that Pompeius' scheme to separate Antony and Octavius would fail. His
last hope was that Antony's lust would send him back to Cleopatra; then
he and Octavius would battle each other and Pompeius would conquer Rome.
To stall for time, he sealed a treaty with the triumvirs. Antony, with
his wife, went to Athens on business for the Empire, There word reached
him that Lepidus and Octavius had waged war in spite of the treaty they
had signed, and Pompeius had been killed. Octavius' next move was to
seize Lepidus on the pretext that he had aided Pompeius. Now the Roman
world had but two rulers, Octavius and Antony.
But Antony could not resist the lure of Cleopatra. Sending Octavia, his
wife, home from Athens, he hurried back to Egypt. His return ended all
pretense of friendship between him and Octavius. Each man prepared for
battle, the winner to be the sole ruler of the world. Cleopatra joined
her forces with those of Antony. At first Antony was supreme on the
land, but Octavius ruled the sea and lured Antony to fight him there.
Antony's friends and captains, particularly loyal Enobarbus, begged him
not to risk his forces on the sea, but Antony, confident of victory,
prepared to match his ships with those of Octavius at Actium. But in the
decisive hour of the great sea fight Cleopatra ordered her fleet to
leave the battle, and sail for home. Antony, leaving the battle and his
honor and his glory, followed her. Because he had set the example for
desertion, many of his men left his forces and joined the standard of
Antony was sunk in gloom at the folly of his own actions, but his lust
had made him drunk with desire, and everything, even honor, must bow to
Cleopatra. She protested that she did not know that Antony would follow
her when she sailed away. Antony had reason enough to know she lied, but
he still wanted the fickle wanton at any cost.
Octavius sent word to Cleopatra that she might have all her wishes
granted if she would surrender Antony to Octavius. Knowing that Octavius
was likely to be the victor in the struggle, she sent him a message of
loyalty and of admiration for his greatness. Although Antony had seen
her receive the addresses of Octavius' messenger, and even though he
ranted and stormed at her for her faithlessness, she was easily able to
dispel his fears and jealousy and make him hers again. After a failure
to sue for peace, Antony decided to march again against his enemy. At
this decision even the faithful Enobarbus left him and went over to
Octavius, for he thought Antony had lost his reason as well as his
honor. But Enobarbus too was an honorable man who shortly afterward died
of shame for deserting his general.
On the day of the battle, victory was in sight for Antony, in spite of
overwhelming odds. But once more the flight of the Egyptian fleet
betrayed him. His defeat left Octavius master of the world. Antony was
like a madman, seeking nothing but revenge on treacherous Cleopatra.
When the queen heard of his rage, she had word sent to him that she was
dead, killed by her own hand out of love for him. Convinced once more
that Cleopatra had been true to him, Antony called on Eros, his one
remaining follower, to kill him so that he could join Cleopatra in
death. But faithful Eros killed himself rather than stab his beloved
general. Determined to die, Antony fell on his own sword. Even that
desperate act was without dignity or honor, for he did not die
immediately and he could find no one who loved him enough to end his
pain and misery. While he lay there, a messenger brought word that
Cleopatra still lived. He ordered his servants to carry him to her.
There he died in her arms, each proclaiming eternal love for the other.
When Octavius Caesar heard the news of Antony's death, he grieved.
Although he had fought and conquered Antony, he lamented the sorry fate
of a great man turned weakling, ruined by his own lust. He sent a
messenger to assure Cleopatra that she would be treated royally, that
she should be ruler of her own fate. But the queen learned, as Antony
had warned her, that Octavius would take her to Rome to march behind him
in his triumphant procession, where she, a queen and mistress to two
former rulers of the world, would be pinched and spat upon by rabble and
slaves. To cheat him of his triumph, she put on her crown and all her
royal garb, placed a poisonous asp on her breast, and lay down to die.
Charmian and Iras, her loyal attendants, died the same death. Octavius
Caesar, entering her chamber, saw her dead, but as beautiful and
desirable as in life. There was only one thing he could do for his
one-time friend and the dead queen: He ordered their burial in a common
grave, so they were together in death as they had wished to be in life.
In Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare is not bound by the Aristotelian
unities. He moves swiftly across the whole of the civilized world with a
panorama of scenes and characters; he creates a majestic expanse
suitable to the broad significance of the tragedy. The play,
Shakespeare's longest, is broken up into small units which intensify the
impression of rapid movement. Written immediately after the four great
tragedies—Julius Caesar, Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth—it rivals them
in tragic effect even though it has no plot which Aristotle would
recognize. The story is taken from North's translation of Plutarch, but
is refashioned into a complex rendering of a corruption which enobles as
it destroys. It may lack the poignantly representative character of the
great tragedies, but it extends its significance by taking the whole
world for its canvas.
As a standard tragic figure, Antony leaves much to be desired. His
actions are little more than a series of vacillations between commitment
to a set of responsibilities, which are his by virtue of his person and
his office, and submission to the overpowering passion which repeatedly
draws him back to the fatal influence of Cleopatra. His nobility is of
an odd sort. He commands respect and admiration as one of the two great
rulers of the world, but we merely are told of his greatness; we do not
see it represented in his actions. Antony travels, but he does not
really do anything until his suicide—and he does not even do that very
efficiently. His nobility, attested by his past deeds and his
association with the glories of Rome, is a quality of which we are
frequently reminded, but it is not something earned within the play.
Antony has another impediment to tragic stature: He is somewhat too
intelligent and aware of what he is doing. Although it is true that he
behaves irresponsibly, the fact remains, as Mark Van Doren has noted,
that he lives "in the full light of accepted illusion." There is no
duping of the hero: Cleopatra is not Antony's Iago. Nor is there any
self-deception; Antony does not cheer himself up by pretending that
their love is anything more than it is.
Nevertheless, their love is sufficiently great to endow Antony with
whatever nobility he salvages in the play. It is not simply that he is a
hero brought to disgrace by lust, although that much is true. Viewed
from another angle, he is a hero set free from the limits of heroism by
a love which frees him from a commitment to honor for a commitment to
life. Of course, his liberation is also his humiliation and destruction
because he is a Roman hero of great power and historical significance.
Both noble and depraved, both consequential and trivial, Antony finds
new greatness in the intense passion which simultaneously lays him low.
Cleopatra is an equally complex character, but her complexity is less
the result of paradox than of infinite variation. Throughout the first
four acts she lies, poses, cajoles, and entices, ringing manifold
changes on her powers to attract. Yet she is not a coarse temptress, not
a personification of evil loosed upon a helpless victim. As her behavior
in the last act reminds us, she is also an empress, whose dignity should
be recalled throughout her machinations. For Cleopatra too is swept
along by overwhelming passion. She is not only a proud queen and
conniving seducer, but a sincere and passionate lover. Despite her
tarnished past, her plottings in Antony and Cleopatra are given the
dignity of underlying love. Like Antony, she is not the sort of
character who challenges the universe and transcends personal
destruction. Rather. her dignity lies somewhere beyond, or outside,
The complexity of Cleopatra is most apparent in the motivation for her
suicide. Certainly one motive is the desire to avoid the humiliation of
being led in a triumph through Rome by the victorious Octavius Caesar.
But if that were all, then she would be nothing more than an egoistic
conniver. However, she is also motivated by her sincere unwillingness to
survive Antony. The two motives become intertwined, since the
humiliation of slavery would also extend to Antony and taint his
reputation. This mixture of motives is a model of the way in which the
two lovers are simultaneously the undoing and the salvation of each
other. Their mutual destruction springs from the same love that provides
them with their antiheroic greatness. Love is lower than honor in the
Roman world, but it can generate an intensity which makes heroism
irrelevant. Antony is too intelligent, Cleopatra is too witty, and their
love is too intricate for ordinary tragedy.
The structure of the plot also departs from the tragic norm. There is
almost none of the complication and unraveling which we expect in
tragedy. Rather, the action moves in fits and starts through the
forty-two scenes of the play. These brief segments appear to be a series
of unequal waves, sweeping over the characters and finally carrying them
to destruction. The plethora of scenes and the rapid shifting of
locations create a jerky dramatic movement. Although the action of the
play must extend over a long period of time, the quick succession of
scenes suggests an unsteady hurtling toward a conclusion.
The helter-skelter quality is reinforced by the language of the play.
Few speeches are long, and there are many abrupt exchanges; there are
also many quick, wide-ranging allusions. Finally, in his versification,
Shakespeare uses feminine endings which metrically recreate the nervous
vitality of the action. Thus, plot and language spread the drama over
the whole world and hasten its conclusion in order to maximize the
tensions of a "world well lost" for love.
AS YOU LIKE IT
Type of work: Drama
Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Type of plot: Pastoral romance
Time of plot: The Middle Ages
Locale: The Forest of Arden in medieval France
First presented: ñ 1590-1600
A pastoral romantic comedy set in the Middle Ages, As You Like It
takes its plot from Thomas Lodge's popular romance, Rosalyde (1590).
Involving the eventual union of four very different pairs of lovers who
represent the diverse faces of love, the story is marked by its mood of
kindliness, fellowship, and good humor.
Rosalind (roz's-Hnd)—disguised as Ganymede (gan's-med) in the forest
scenes—the daughter of the banished Duke Senior. A witty, self-possessed
young woman, she accepts whatever fortune brings, be it love or exile,
with gaiety and good sense. She is amused by the ironic situations
arising from her disguise as a youth, and she wryly recognizes the
humorous aspects of her growing love for Orlando, whose passion she
pretends to be curing. Her central place in the lives of her companions
is epitomized in the final scene where she sorts out the tangled skeins
of romance and, with Orlando, joins three other couples before Hymen,
the god of marriage.
Orlando (or-lan'do). youngest son of Sir Rowland de Boys, the late ally
of Rosalind's father. Although his elder brother mistreats him and
neglects his education, he reveals his gentle birth in his manner and
appearance. His love for Rosalind provokes extravagantly romantic
gestures, but the deeper feeling of which he is capable is evident in
his concern for his faithful old servant Adam, as well as in his
fidelity to his sweetheart.
Celia (se'li-ý), Rosalind's gentle cousin, who refuses to let her depart
alone for the Forest of Arden. She, too, is gay and witty, ready to
exchange quips with Touchstone and tease Rosalind about her love for
Orlando. When she meets Orlando's brother Oliver, however, she succumbs
to Cupid even more rapidly than did her cousin.
Touchstone, Duke Frederick's clever fool, who accompanies his master's
daughter Celia and Rosalind into the Forest of Arden, much to the
amusement of Jaques and to the consternation of the old shepherd Corin,
who finds himself damned for never having been at court, according to
Touchstone's logic. The fool, more than any of the other characters,
remains at heart a courtier, even in Arcadia, but he returns from the
forest with a country wench as his bride.
Jaques (ja'kwez), a hanger-on of Duke Senior's court in Arden, a
professional man of melancholy who philosophizes on the "seven ages of
man." He is fascinated by
the presence in the forest of a "motley fool," and he delights in
Touchstone's explanations of court formalities. He remains in the forest
when his lord recovers his dukedom, and he goes off to observe and
comment on the unexpected conversion of Duke Frederick.
Oliver (ol'I-var), Orlando's greedy, tyrannical brother, who tries to
deprive him of both wealth and life. Sent by Duke Frederick to find his
brother or forfeit all his lands, he is rescued by Orlando from a
lioness. This kindness from his mistreated brother gives him new
humanity, and he becomes a worthy husband for Celia.
Duke Frederick, Celia's strong, self-centered father, the usurper.
Fearing her popularity with the people, he arbitrarily sends Rosalind
away to her exiled father. Later, equally unreasonably, he banishes
Orlando for being the son of an old enemy and then sets Oliver wandering
in search of the brother he despises. He is reported at the end of the
play to have retired from the world with an old hermit.
Duke Senior, Rosalind's genial father, banished by his brother Duke
Frederick, who holds court under the greenwood trees, drawing amusement
from hunting, singing, and listening to Jaques' melancholy philosophy in
the golden world of Arden.
Silvius (sil' vi-us), a lovesick young shepherd. He asks "Ganymede" to
help him win his scornful sweetheart Phebe.
Phebe (fe'be), a disdainful shepherdess. Rebuked by "Ganymede" for her
cruelty to Silvius, she promptly becomes enamored of the youth. She
promises, however, to wed Silvius if she is refused Ganymede, and. of
course, she does so once Rosalind reveals her identity.
Audrey (6'dri), Touchstone's homely, stupid, good-hearted country wench.
William, Audrey's equally simple-minded rustic suitor.
Corin (kor'in), a wide, well-meaning old shepherd. He gives good counsel
to William and expresses the virtues of the simple life in his
cross-purposes discussion of court and country with Touchstone.
Adam, a faithful old servant of Orlando's family. He accompanies his
young master into the forest.
Jaques (ja'kwez, jak), the brother of Orlando and Oliver. He brings the
news of Duke Frederick's retirement to the forest.
Sir Oliver Martext, a "hedge-priest" hired by Touchstone to marry him to
Audrey in somewhat dubious rites.
Le Beau (1ý bo), Duke Frederick's pompous attendant. Charles, a champion
wrestler challenged and defeated by Orlando.
Amiens (a'ml-enz), one of Duke Senior's lords.
Dennis, Oliver's servant.
Hymen (Û'òýï), the god of marriage.
A long time ago the elder and lawful ruler of a French province had been
deposed by his younger brother, Frederick. The old duke, driven from his
dominions, fled with several faithful followers to the Forest of Arden.
There he lived a happy life, free from the cares of the court and able
to devote himself at last to learning the lessons nature had to teach.
His daughter Rosalind, however, remained at court as a companion to her
cousin Celia, the usurping Duke Frederick's daughter. The two girls were
inseparable, and nothing her father said or did could make Celia part
from her dearest friend.
One day Duke Frederick commanded the two girls to attend a wrestling
match between the duke's champion, Charles, and a young man named
Orlando, the special object of Duke Frederick's hatred. Orlando was the
son of Sir Rowland de Boys, who in his lifetime had been one of the
banished duke's most loyal supporters. When Sir Rowland died, he had
charged his oldest son, Oliver, with the task of looking after his
younger brother's education, but Oliver had neglected his father's
charge. The moment Rosalind laid eyes on Orlando she fell in love with
him, and he with her. She tried to dissuade him from an unequal contest
with a champion so much more powerful than he, but the more she pleaded
the more determined Orlando was to distinguish himself in his lady's
eyes. In the end he completely conquered his antagonist, and was
rewarded for his prowess by a chain from Rosalind's own neck.
When Duke Frederick discovered his niece's interest in Sir Rowland's
son, he banished Rosalind immediately from the court. His daughter Celia
announced her intention of following her cousin. As a consequence,
Rosalind disguised herself as a boy and set out for the Forest of Arden,
and Celia and the faithful Touchstone (the false duke's jester) went
with her. In the meantime, Orlando also found it necessary to flee
because of his brother's harsh treatment. He was accompanied by his
faithful servant, Adam, an old man who willingly turned over his life
savings of five hundred crowns for the privilege of following his young
Orlando and Adam also set out for the Forest of Arden, but before they
had traveled very far they were both weary and hungry. While Adam rested
in the shade of some trees, Orlando wandered into that part of the
forest where the old duke was, and came upon the outlaws at their meal.
Desperate from hunger, Orlando rushed upon the duke with a drawn sword
and demanded food. The duke immediately offered to share the hospitality
of his table, and Orlando blushed with shame over his rude manner.
Moreover, he would not touch a mouthful until Adam had been fed. When
the old duke found that Orlando was the son of his friend, Sir Rowland
de Boys, he took Orlando and Adam under his protection and made them
members of his band of foresters.
In the meantime, Rosalind and Celia also arrived in the Forest of Arden,
where they bought a flock of sheep and proceeded to live the life of
shepherds. Rosalind passed as Ganymede, Celia, as a sister, Aliena. In
this adventure they encountered some real Arcadians—Silvius, a shepherd,
and Phebe, a dainty shepherdess with whom Silvius was in love. But the
moment Phebe laid eyes on the disguised Rosalind she fell in love with
the supposed young shepherd and would have nothing further to do with
Silvius. As Ganymede, Rosalind also met Orlando in the forest and
twitted him on his practice of writing verses in praise of Rosalind and
hanging them on the trees. Touchstone displayed, in the forest, the same
willfulness and whimsicality he showed at court, even to his love
Audrey, a country wench whose sole appeal was her unloveliness.
One morning, as Orlando was on his way to visit Ganymede, he saw a man
lying asleep under an oak tree. A snake was coiled about the sleeper's
neck, and a hungry lioness crouched nearby ready to spring. He
recognized the man as his own brother, Oliver, and for a moment Orlando
was tempted to leave him to his fate. But he drew his sword and killed
the snake and the lioness. In the encounter he himself was wounded by
the lioness. Because Orlando had saved his life, Oliver was duly
repentant, and the two brothers were joyfully reunited.
His wound having bled profusely, Orlando was too weak to visit Ganymede,
and he sent Oliver instead with a bloody handkerchief as proof of his
wounded condition. When Ganymede saw the handkerchief, the supposed
shepherd promptly fainted. The disguised Celia was so impressed by
Oliver's concern for his brother that she fell in love with him, and
they made plans to be married on the following day. Orlando was so
overwhelmed by this news that he was a little envious. But when Ganymede
came to call upon Orlando, the young shepherd promised to produce the
lady Rosalind the next day. Meanwhile Phebe came to renew her ardent
declaration of love for Ganymede, who promised on the morrow to unravel
the love tangle of everyone.
In the meantime, Duke Frederick, enraged at the flight of his daughter,
Celia, had set out at the head of an expedition to capture his elder
brother and put him and all his followers to death. But on the outskirts
of the Forest of Arden he met an old hermit who turned Frederick's head
from his evil design. On the day following, as Ganymede had promised,
with the banished duke and his followers as guests, Rosalind appeared as
herself and explained how she and Celia had posed as the shepherd
Ganymede and his sister Aliena. Four marriages took place with great
rejoicing that day—Orlando to Rosalind, Oliver to Celia, Silvius to
Phebe, and Touchstone to Audrey. Moreover, Frederick was so completely
converted by the hermit that he resolved to take religious orders, and
he straightway dispatched a messenger to the Forest of Arden to restore
his brother's lands and those of all his followers.
As You Like It is a splendid comedy on love and alternate life-styles
that more than fulfills the promise of its title. Its characters are,
for the most part, wonderfully enamored of love, one another, and
themselves. The play has a feeling of freshness and vitality, and
although adapted from an older story full of artifice, suggests a world
of spontaneity and life.
To understand As You Like It, one must understand the conventions it
uses. As You Like It is often called a pastoral comedy because it
engages the conventions of pastoral literature. Pastoral literature,
beginning in the third century B.C. and popular in the late sixteenth
century, enabled poets, novelists, and dramatists to contrast trie
everyday world's fears, anxieties, disloyalties, uncertainties, and
tensions with the imagined, mythical world of a previous age when peace,
longevity, contentment, and fulfillment reigned in men's lives. Each age
develops its own manner of describing lost happiness, far removed from
the normal toil of human existence. The pastoral was the dominant such
vision in the late sixteenth century.
In the pastoral, the mythic, lost, "golden" world is set in a simple,
rural environment, which then becomes the image of all things desirable
to honest men. As You Like It is typical of this convention and it
contains two contrasting worlds: the world of the court and the rural
world— in this case the Forest of Arden. The court is inhabited by
corrupt men; namely, Duke Frederick and Oliver. It is not significant
that the gentle Duke, Orlando, Rosalind, and Celia once resided there.
Rather, as the play develops, the court is the natural home of the
wicked and ambitious. Yet, we do not witness the degeneration of Duke
Frederick and Oliver; they are naturally wicked, and the court is their
The elder Duke, Orlando, Rosalind, and Celia, on the other hand, are
naturally good, and the forest is their natural milieu. If the court
represents elaborate artifice, ambition, avarice, cruelty, and
deception, the forest represents openness, tolerance, simplicity, and
freedom. In the pastoral, one does not find immensely complex characters
such as Hamlet, who like most humans has both good and bad
characteristics; instead, good and bad traits are apportioned to
separate characters. This allocation imposes a necessary artifice upon
the play, which colors all actions, from falling in love to hating or
helping a brother. In a play such as As You Like It. one docs not expect
naturalistic behavior. On the other hand, by using the conventions and
artifice adroitly, Shakespeare achieved a remarkable exploration of love
and its attendant values.
In the opening scene, Orlando, who has been denied an education and kept
like an animal by his brother, is seen to be naturally good and decent.
Talking to his brother Oliver, Orlando says, "You have train'd me like a
peasant, obscuring and hiding from me all gentleman-like qualities. The
spirit of my father grows strong in me. and I will no longer endure it:
therefore allow me such exercises as may become a gentleman . . ." (I. i.
71 - 7 61. Oliver, on the other hand, is just as naturally wicked as
Orlando is decent. He says, "for my soul—yet I know not why—hates
nothing more than he" (I.i.171-172). Logic has no necessary place in
this world. Love, however, does.
Love is a natural part of the pastoral world. Practically at first
glance, Rosalind and Orlando are in love. Shakespeare's magic in As You
Like It is to take the contrived love that is the expected part of the
pastoral convention. and make of it a deeply felt experience that the
audience can understand and to which it can react. Shakespeare manages
this not only through the extraordinary beauty of his language but also
through the structure of his play.
As You Like It is full of parallel actions. Orlando and Rosalind meet
and immediately fall in love. Silvius and Phebe are in love. Touchstone
meets Audrey in the forest, and they fall in love. At the end of the
play Celia meets the reformed Oliver, and they fall in love just as
quickly as Rosalind and Orlando had at the beginning of the play. The
love match at the play's end nicely sets off the love match at the
Each love pairing serves a particular purpose. The focus of the play is
primarily upon the Rosalind-Orlando match. Rosalind is the more
interesting of the pair, for while she recognizes the silliness of the
lover's ardor, she is as much victim as those she scorns. In Act IV,
while in boy's disguise, she pretends to Orlando that his Rosalind will
not have him. He says, "Then ... I die" (IV.i.93). Her response pokes
fun at the expiring love: "No, faith, die by attorney. The poor world is
almost six thousand years old, and in all this time there was not any
man died in his own person, videlicet, in a love-cause. . . . Men have
died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love"
(IV.i.93-108). She can toy with Orlando in her disguise as Ganymede, yet
she is completely dominated by her love passion. Strong passion is a
part of the love experience, but Rosalind's and Orlando's passion is
highly refined; the passion others know is more earthly.
Touchstone, in his quest for Audrey, exemplifies this side of love. He
at first wants to marry her out of church so when he tires of her, he
can claim their marriage was invalid. The kind of love he represents is
physical passion. The Phebe-Silvius pairing shows yet another face of
love. Silvius exemplifies the typical pastoral lover, hopelessly in love
with a fickle mistress. He sighs on his pillow and breaks off from
company, forlornly calling out his mistress' name. Touchstone's and
Silvius' brands of love are extreme versions of qualities in Rosalind's
love. In the comedies Shakespeare often used this device of apportioning
diverse characteristics to multiple characters rather than building one
complete character. Without Touchstone, love in the play may be too
sentimental to take seriously. Without Silvius, it may be too crude.
With both, love as exemplified by Rosalind and Orlando becomes a
precious balance of substance and nonsense, spirituality and silliness.
Curious things happen in As You Like It. Good men leave the honorable
forest to return to the wicked court. Wicked men who enter the forest
are instantly converted in their ways. At the end of the play Oliver,
who came to the Forest of Arden to hunt down his brother Orlando, gives
his estate to Orlando and marries Celia, vowing to remain in the forest
and live and die a shepherd. Duke Frederick also came to the Forest of
Arden in order to kill his brother. Meeting "an old religious man" in
the forest. Duke Frederick "was converted Both from his enterprise and
from the world." He too gives up his estate, and his crown, to his
brother. The forest, the pastoral world, has the power to convert.
Why, then, do the elder Duke, Orlando, and Rosalind elect to return to
the court, home of wickedness? They do so because in the end As You Like
It is not a fairy tale, but an expression of humanly felt experiences.
The forest ultimately is to be used as a cleansing and regenerative
experience, a place to which one may retire in order to renew
simplicity, honesty, and virtue. It is not, however, to be a permanent
retreat. Good men stained by labor and trouble in their everyday world
in the end must still participate in that world. They can retreat to the
pastoral world in order to renew and reinvigorate themselves, but
finally they must return, refreshed and fortified, to the community of
men, to take on the responsibilities all must face.
THE COMEDY OF ERRORS
Type of work: Drama
Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Type of plot: Comedy
Time of plot: First century B.C.
Locale: Ancient Greece
First presented: ñ 1592
The Comedy of Errors is a farce-comedy bordering at times on
slapstick. The basic plot, inherently confusing, involves two sets of
twins and a family, separated for years, which is reunited at last in
court. For his sources in this play, Shakespeare used The Twin Menaechmi
of the Roman playwright Plautus, and perhaps Plautus' Amphitryon as
Antipholus of Syracuse (an-tif á-lus of sfr's-kus), the son of Aegeon
and Aemilia. Separated from his twin brother in his childhood, he meets
him again under the most baffling circumstances. Shortly after he and
his servant, Dromio of Syracuse, land in Ephesus, the whole series of
comic errors begins. Antipholus meets his servant's lost twin brother,
who is also bewildered by the ensuing conversation. Thinking this Dromio
to be his own servant, Antipholus belabors the mystified man about his
pate with great vigor. Finally, at the end, the puzzle is solved when he
recognizes that he has found his identical twin.
Antipholus of Ephesus (efesus), the identical twin brother of Antipholus
of Syracuse. Equally bewildered by his mishaps, he is disgruntled when
his wife locks him out of his house; she is blissfully unaware of the
truth—that the man in her house is not her husband. In addition, a purse
of money is received by the wrong man. Never having seen his own father,
or at least not aware of the relationship, he is even more amazed when
the old man calls him son. By this time the entire town believes him to
be mad, and he, like his twin, is beginning to think that he is
bewitched. It is with great relief that he finally learns the true
situation and is reunited with his family.
Dromio of Syracuse (dro'mi'6), the twin brother to Dromio of Ephesus and
attendant to Antipholus of Syracuse. He is as much bewildered as his
master, who, in the mix-up, beats both Dromios. To add to his misery, a
serving wench takes him for her Dromio and makes unwanted advances. Much
to his chagrin, she is "no longer from head to foot than from hip to
hip. She is spherical, like a globe. . . ."
Dromio of Ephesus. When the two Antipholi were separated during a
shipwreck, he, too, was separated from his identical twin. As is his
brother, he is often drubbed by his master. In this case, if his master
does not pummel him, his mistress will perform the same office. During
all this time he is involved in many cases of mistaken identity. Sent
for a piece of rope, he is amazed when his supposed master knows nothing
of the transaction.
Aegeon (¸-je'on), a merchant of Syracuse. Many years before, he had lost
his beloved wife and one son. Since then, his other son has left home to
find his twin brother. Now Aegeon is searching for all his family.
Landing in Ephesus, he finds that merchants from Syracuse are not
allowed there on penalty of death or payment of a large ransom; the duke
gives the old man a one-day reprieve. He finds his sons just in time,
the ransom is paid, and the family is reunited.
Adriana (a-dri-àïý), the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus. When her husband
denies his relationship to her, she (unaware that he is the wrong man)
thinks he is insane. Already suspicious of her husband because of
supposed infidelities, she suspects him even more.
Aemilia (¸-ãïÏÒý), the wife of Aegeon, and abbess at Ephesus. In the
recognition scene she finds her husband, who has been separated from her
for many years.
Solinus (so-M'nus), duke of Ephesus.
Luciana (loo-she-à'ïý), Adriana's sister, wooed by Antipholus of
Angelo (an'je-lo), a goldsmith.
Pinch, a schoolmaster, "a hungry lean-fac'd villain, a mere anatomy."
Aegeon, a merchant of Syracuse recently arrived in Ephesus, was to be
put to death because he could not raise a thousand marks for payment of
his fine. The law of the time was that a native of either land must not
journey to the other on penalty of his life or the ransom of a thousand
marks. When Solinus, duke of Ephesus,
heard Aegeon's story, however, he gave the merchant one more day to try
to raise the money.
It was a sad and strange tale Aegeon told. He had, many years ago,
journeyed to Epidamnum. Shortly after his wife joined him there she was
delivered of identical twins. Strangely enough, at the same time and in
the same house, another woman also bore twin boys, both identical. The
second wife and her husband were so poor that they could not care for
their children, and so they gave them to Aegeon and his wife Aemilia, to
be attendants to their two sons. On their way home to Syracuse, the six
were shipwrecked. Aemilia and the two with her were rescued by one ship,
Aegeon and the other two by a different ship. Aegeon did not see his
wife and the two children in her company again. When he reached eighteen
years of age, Antipholus, the son reared by his father, grew anxious to
find his brother, and he and his attendant set out to find their missing
twins. Now they too were lost to Aegeon, and he had come to Syracuse to
Unknown to Aegeon, his son and his attendant had just arrived in
Ephesus. Antipholus and Dromio, his attendant, met first a merchant of
the city, who warned them to say that they came from somewhere other
than Syracuse, lest they suffer the penalty already meted out to Aegeon.
Antipholus, having sent Dromio to find lodging for them, was utterly
bewildered when the servant returned and said that Antipholus' wife
waited dinner for him. What had happened was that the Dromio who came
now to Antipholus was Dromio of Ephesus, servant and attendant to
Antipholus of Ephesus. Antipholus of Syracuse had given his Dromio money
to pay for lodging, and when he heard a tale of a wife about whom he
knew nothing he thought his servant was trying to trick him. He asked
the servant to return his money, but Dromio of Ephesus had been given no
money and professed no knowledge of the sum. He was beaten soundly for
dishonesty. Antipholus of Syracuse later heard that his money had been
delivered to the inn; he could not understand his servant's joke.
A short time later, the wife and sister-in-law of Antipholus of Ephesus
met Antipholus of Syracuse and, after berating him for refusing to come
home to dinner, accused him of unfaithfulness with another woman. Not
understanding a thing of which Adriana spoke, Antipholus of Syracuse
went to her home to dinner, Dromio being assigned by her to guard the
gate and allow no one to enter. Thus it was that Antipholus of Ephesus
arrived at his home with his Dromio and was refused admittance. So
incensed was he that he left his house and went to an inn. There he
dined with a courtesan and gave her gifts intended for his wife.
In the meantime Antipholus of Syracuse, even though almost believing
that he must be the husband of Adriana, fell in love with her sister
Luciana. When he told her of his love, she called him an unfaithful
husband and begged
him to remain true to his wife. Dromio of Syracuse was pursued by a
kitchen maid whom he abhorred; the poor girl mistook him for Dromio of
Ephesus, who loved her.
Even the townspeople and merchants were bewildered. A goldsmith
delivered to Antipholus of Syracuse a chain meant for Antipholus of
Ephesus and then tried to collect from the latter, who in turn stated
that he had received no chain and accused the merchant of trying to rob
Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse decided to get out of the seemingly
mad town as soon as possible, and the servant was sent to book passage
on the first ship leaving the city. Dromio of Syracuse brought back the
news of the sailing, however, to Antipholus of Ephesus, who by that time
had been arrested for refusing to pay the merchant for the chain he had
not received. Antipholus of Ephesus, believing the servant to be his
own, sent Dromio of Syracuse to his house to get money for his bail.
Before that Dromio returned with the money, Dromio of Ephesus came to
Antipholus of Ephesus, naturally without the desired money. Meanwhile,
Dromio of Syracuse took the money to Antipholus of Syracuse, who had not
sent for money and could not understand what his servant was talking
about. To make matters worse, the courtesan with whom Antipholus of
Ephesus had dined had given him a ring. Now she approached the other
Antipholus and demanded the ring. Knowing nothing about the ring, he
angrily dismissed the wench, who decided to go to his house and tell his
wife of his betrayal.
On his way to jail for the debt he did not owe, Antipholus of Ephesus
met his wife. Wild with rage, he accused her of locking him out of his
own house and of refusing him his own money for bail. She was so
frightened that she asked the police first to make sure that he was
securely bound and then to imprison him in their home so that she could
care for him.
At the same time, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse were making their
way toward the ship that would carry them away from this mad city.
Antipholus was wearing the gold chain. The merchant, meeting them,
demanded that Antipholus be arrested. To escape, Antipholus of Syracuse
and his Dromio fled into an abbey. To the same abbey came Aegeon, the
duke, and the executioners, for Aegeon had not raised the money for his
ransom. Adriana and Luciana also appeared, demanding the release to them
of Adriana's husband and his servant. Adriana, seeing the two men take
refuge in the convent, thought they were Antipholus and Dromio of
Ephesus. At that instant a servant ran in to tell Adriana that her
husband and Dromio had escaped from the house and were even now on the
way to the abbey. Adriana did not believe the servant, for she herself
had seen her husband and Dromio enter the abbey. Then Antipholus and
Dromio of Ephesus appeared before the abbey. Aegeon thought he
recognized the son and servant he had been seeking, but they denied any
knowledge of him. The confusion grew worse until the abbess brought from
the convent Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, who instantly recognized
Aegeon. Then all the mysteries were solved. Adriana was reunited with
her husband, Antipholus of Ephesus, and his Dromio had the kitchen maid
once more. Antipholus of Syracuse was free to make love to Luciana. His
Dromio was merely freed. Still more surprising, the abbess turned out to
be Aegeon's wife, the mother of the Antipholi. So the happy family was
together again. Lastly, Antipholus of Ephesus paid his father's ransom
and brought to an end all the errors of that unhappy day.
The Comedy of Errors is not a subtle play. Although it is well
constructed and highly amusing, it never really rises above the level of
farce, largely because its characters remain the stock figures of
traditional low comedy and exhibit none of the individual touches and
personalities of Shakespeare's later characters. The humor of the play
is broad, both in action and in language. These facts have caused many
to see The Comedy of Errors as Shakespeare's first comedy, a work of
genius perhaps, but of apprentice genius. To support this conjecture it
should be noted that this is his shortest play in number of lines, and
one of only two comedies without songs; the other is All's Well That
Ends Well, another play which does not quite fit into the traditional
The plot of The Comedy of Errors was taken from the Latin New Comedy
farce by Plautus, The Twin Menae-chimi, which follows the misadventures
of identical twins separated at birth. In Shakespeare's comedy, these
are the two brothers who share the name Antipholus. Shakespeare also
borrowed from another of Plautus' plays, Amphitryon, for a second set of
separated twins, the Dromio brothers, servants to the Antipholi. This
doubling of twins and the confusions which result constitute almost the
sole comic resources of the play.
In adapting the Plautine comedy, Shakespeare made a number of telling
changes. He greatly softened the coarse, satirical approach of the
ancient Roman farce, placing less emphasis on sexual gibes and more on
witty wordplay. He was also more sympathetic and original with his
characters; even as broadly drawn as Shakespeare's figures are in this
work, they have much more life and appeal than the characters of Plautus.
The two Antipholi are certainly not well-rounded persons, but they can
be distinguished from one another: The brother from Syracuse is the more
thoughtful of the two, while his Ephe-sian brother is a hardheaded
businessman. Another change: Plautus had the twins' father die of grief
over their loss, while Shakespeare keeps Aegeon and his wife alive so
the family can be reunited at play's end. In these and numerous other
touches, Shakespeare made the rough texture of his source more appealing
Still, the play is a comedy of events rather than characters, and the
humor springs from situations which are often bizarre or outrageous. The
Comedy of Errors is heavily dependent upon two staples of much
Elizabethan comedy, and indeed all broad comedy: wordplay and physical
cruelty. The cruelty is humorous precisely because the characters are
not individuals but only clowns, and the numerous beatings administered
to the bewildered Dromios are laughable since no real pain is inflicted.
The verbal repartee, based on quibbles, puns, and feigned mistakings, is
a central technique in Shakespeare, and in this play appears in its
obvious forms; the lengthy exchange between Antipholus of Syracuse and
his Dromio in act 2, scene 2 is typical. While these exchanges are
amusing, they lack the linguistic energy and sustained intelligence of
Shakespeare's later plays.
The genius of The Comedy of Errors is not, then, in its characters or
language but rather in the deftness of its plot and the fast-paced
perfection of its action. In addition to the basic situation of the
play, Shakespeare brought from Plautus many of the conventions of this
particular type of comedy; chief among these was that no character move
beyond his or her role. On the most obvious level, this means that until
the very end of the play, the characters never learn what the audience
knows from the start; if they possessed such knowledge, there could be
no misunderstandings and therefore no play. On a deeper level, adherence
to this convention means that no character can assume a dominant role,
either by having a superior knowledge of events (as Prospero does in The
Tempest) or by possessing a more generous character (as Rosalind does in
As You Like It). Since precisely such a situation is brilliantly created
and then masterfully exploited in Shakespeare's later comedies, its
omission in The Comedy of Errors is especially striking.
There can be no doubt, however, that this play is Shakespeare's. Its
first performance, at the Gray's Inn Christmas Revels on December 28,
1594, is well documented; the play was also published in the Folio of
1623, so the text is considered to be as good as any we have for
Shakespeare. Furthermore, this play introduces a theme which was to
occupy Shakespeare throughout his dramatic career: a shipwreck which
separates families or lovers, who must then pass through trials before a
final reunion. From The Comedy of Errors to The Tempest, this shipwreck
motif exerted a powerful, mysterious hold over Shakespeare's
In a sense, it is unfair to compare this early work with the
masterpieces of Shakespeare's later career. The Comedy of Errors has
many virtues, and its defects are perceived largely in retrospect.
Further, even if we acknowledge that Shakespeare was working within a
limited compass and at the start of his career, it must be admitted that
The Comedy of Errors is filled with touches of genius and moments of
greatness that are uniquely his.
from Eugene Delacroix)
HAMLET, PRINCE OF DENMARK
Type of work: Drama
Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Type of plot: Romantic tragedy
Time of plot: ñ 1200
Locale: Elsinore, Denmark
First presented: 1602
One of the most popular and highly respected plays ever written,
Hamlet owes its greatness to the character of the Prince, a man of
thought rather than action, a philosophical, introspective hero who is
swept along by events rather than exercising control of them. Through
the medium of some of the most profound and superb poetry ever composed,
Shakespeare transforms a conventional revenge tragedy into a gripping
exploration of the universal problems of mankind. In Hamlet's struggle
with duty, morality, and ethics are mirrored the hopes, fears, and
despair of all mankind.
Hamlet (ham'tot), prince of Denmark. Generally agreed to be
Shakespeare's most fascinating hero, Hamlet has been buried under
volumes of interpretation, much of it conflicting. No brief sketch can
satisfy his host of admirers nor take into account more than a minute
fraction of the commentary now in print. The character is a mysterious
combination of a series of literary sources and the phenomenal genius of
Shakespeare. Orestes in Greek tragedy is probably his ultimate
progenitor, not Oedipus, as some critics have suggested. The Greek
original has been altered and augmented by medieval saga and Renaissance
romance; perhaps an earlier "Hamlet," written by Thomas Kyd, furnished
important material; however, the existence of such a play has been
disputed. A mixture of tenderness and violence, a scholar, lover,
friend, athlete, philosopher, satirist, and deadly enemy, Hamlet is
larger than life itself. Torn by grief for his dead father and
disappointment in the conduct of his beloved mother, Hamlet desires a
revenge so complete that it will reach the soul as well as the body of
his villainous uncle. His attempt to usurp God's prerogative of judgment
leads to all the deaths in the play. Before his death he reaches a state
of resignation and acceptance of God's will. He gains his revenge but
loses his life.
Claudius (klo'di-us), king of Denmark, husband of his brother's widow,
Hamlet's uncle. A shrewd and capable politician and administrator, he is
courageous and self-confident; but he is tainted by mortal sin. He has
murdered his brother and married his queen very soon thereafter.
Although his conscience torments him with remorse, he is unable to
repent or to give up the throne or the woman that his murderous act
brought him. He has unusual self-knowledge and recognizes his
unrepentant state. He is a worthy and mighty antagonist for Hamlet, and
they destroy each other.
Gertrude, queen of Denmark, Hamlet's mother. Warmhearted but weak, she
shows deep affection for Hamlet and tenderness for Ophelia. There are
strong indications that she and Claudius have been engaged in an
adulterous affair before the death of the older Hamlet. She loves
Claudius, but she respects Hamlet's confidence and does not betray him
to his uncle when he tells her of the murder, of which she has been
obviously innocent and ignorant. Her death occurs after she drinks the
poison prepared by Claudius for Hamlet.
Polonius (ðý-16'ni-us), Lord Chamberlain under Claudius, whom he has
apparently helped to the throne. An affectionate but meddlesome father
to Laertes and Ophelia, he tries to control their lives, He is garrulous
and self-important, always seeking the devious rather than the direct
method in politics or family relationships. Hamlet jestingly baits him
but he apparently has some affection for the officious old man and shows
real regret at killing him. Polonius' deviousness and eavesdropping
bring on his death; Hamlet stabs him through the tapestry in the
mistaken belief that Claudius is concealed there.
Ophelia, Polonius' daughter and Hamlet's love. A sweet, docile girl, she
is easily dominated by her father. She loves Hamlet but never seems to
realize that she is imperiling his life by helping her father spy on
him. Her gentle nature being unable to stand the shock of her father's
death at her lover's hands, she loses her mind and is drowned.
Laertes (la-flr'tez), Polonius' son. He is in many ways a foil to
Hamlet. He also hungers for revenge for a slain father. Loving his dead
father and sister, he succumbs to Claudius' temptation to use fraud in
gaining his revenge. This plotting brings about his own death but also
Horatio (ho-ra'-shi-á), Hamlet's former schoolmate and loyal friend.
Well balanced, having a quiet sense of humor, he is thoroughly reliable.
Hamlet trusts him implicitly and confides in him freely. At Hamlet's
death, he wishes to play the antique Roman and die by his own hand; but
he yields to Hamlet's entreaty and consents to remain alive to tell
Hamlet's story and to clear his name.
Ghost of King Hamlet. Appearing first to the watch, he later appears to
Horatio and to Hamlet. He leads Hamlet away from the others and tells
him of Claudius' foul crime. His second appearance to Hamlet occurs
during the interview with the queen, to whom he remains invisible,
causing her to think that Hamlet is having hallucinations. In spite of
Gertrude's betrayal of him, the ghost of murdered Hamlet shows great
tenderness for her in both of his appearances.
Fortinbras (for'tin-bras), prince of Norway, son of old Fortinbras, the
former king of Norway, nephew of the present regent. Another foil to
Hamlet, he is resentful of his father's death at old Hamlet's hands and
the consequent loss of territory. He plans an attack on Denmark, which
is averted by his uncle after diplomatic negotiations between him and
Claudius. He is much more the man of action than the man of thought.
Hamlet chooses him as the next king of Denmark and expresses the hope
and belief that he will be chosen. Fortinbras delivers a brief but
emphatic eulogy over Hamlet's body.
Rosencrantz (ro-zen'kranz) and Guildenstern (gil'dan-stern), the
schoolmates of Hamlet summoned to Denmark by Claudius to act as spies on
Hamlet. Though hypocritical and treacherous, they are no match for him,
and in trying to betray him they go to their own deaths.
Old Norway, uncle of Fortinbras. Although he never appears on the stage,
he is important in that he diverts young Fortinbras from his planned
attack on Denmark.
Yorick (yor'ik), King Hamlet's jester. Dead some years before the action
of the play begins, he makes his brief appearance in the final act when
his skull is thrown up by a sexton digging Ophelia's grave. Prince
Hamlet reminisces and moralizes while holding the skull in his hands. At
the time he is ignorant of whose grave the sexton is digging.
Reynaldo (ra-nol'do), Polonius' servant. Polonius sends him to Paris on
business, incidentally to spy on Laertes. He illustrates Polonius'
deviousness and unwillingness to make a direct approach to anything.
First Clown, a gravedigger. Having been sexton for many years, he knows
personally the skulls of those he has buried. He greets with particular
affection the skull of Yorick, which he identifies for Hamlet. He is an
earthy humorist, quick with a witty reply.
Second Clown, a stupid straight man for the wit of the First Clown.
Osric (oz'rik), a mincing courtier. Hamlet baits him in much the same
manner as he does Polonius, but without the concealed affection he has
for the old man. He brings Hamlet word of the fencing match arranged
between him and Laertes and serves as a referee of the match.
Marcellus (mar-seTus) and Bernardo (Üýã-nar'do), officers of the watch
who first see the Ghost of King Hamlet and report it to Horatio, who
shares a watch with them. After the appearance of the Ghost to them and
Horatio, they all agree to report the matter to Prince Hamlet, who then
shares a watch with the three.
Francisco (fran-sis'ko), a soldier on watch at the play's opening. He
sets the tone of the play by imparting a feeling of suspense and
First Player, the leader of a troop of actors. He produces "The Murder
of Gonzago" with certain alterations furnished by Hamlet to trap King
Claudius into displaying his guilty conscience.
A Priest, who officiates at Ophelia's abbreviated funeral. He refuses
Laertes' request for more ceremony, since he believes Ophelia has
Voltimand (vol'M-mand) and Cornelius (kor-neTyus), ambassadors sent to
Norway by Claudius.
Three times the ghost of Denmark's dead king had stalked the battlements
of Elsinore Castle. On the fourth night Horatio, Hamlet's friend,
brought the young prince to see the specter of his father, two months
dead. Since his father's untimely death, Hamlet had been grief-stricken
and in an exceedingly melancholy frame of mind. The mysterious
circumstances surrounding the death of his father had perplexed him;
then too, his mother had married Claudius, the dead king's brother, much
too hurriedly to suit Hamlet's sense of decency.
That night Hamlet saw his father's ghost and listened in horror to what
it had to say. He learned that his father had not died from the sting of
a serpent, as had been supposed, but that he had been murdered by his
own brother. Claudius, the present king. The ghost added that Claudius
was guilty not only of murder but also of incest and adultery. But the
spirit cautioned Hamlet to spare Queen Gertrude, his mother, so that
heaven could punish her.
The ghost's disclosures should have left no doubt in Hamlet's mind that
Claudius must be killed. But the introspective prince was not quite sure
that the ghost was his father's spirit, for he feared it might have been
a devil sent to torment him. Debating with himself the problem of
whether or not to carry out the spirit's commands, Hamlet swore his
friends, including Horatio, to secrecy concerning the appearance of the
ghost, and he told them not to consider him mad if his behavior seemed
strange to them.
Meanwhile Claudius was facing not only the possibility of war with
Norway, but also, and much worse, his own conscience, which had been
much troubled since his hasty marriage to Gertrude. In addition, he did
not like the melancholia of the prince, who, he knew, resented the
king's hasty marriage. Claudius feared that Hamlet would take his throne
away from him. The prince's strange behavior and wild talk made the king
think that perhaps Hamlet was mad, but he was not sure. To learn the
cause of Hamlet's actions—madness or ambition—Claudius commissioned two
of Hamlet's friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to spy on the prince.
But Hamlet saw through their clumsy efforts and confused them with his
answers to their questions.
Polonius, the garrulous old chamberlain, believed that Hamlet's behavior
resulted from lovesickness for his daughter, Ophelia. Hamlet, meanwhile,
had become increasingly melancholy. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as
well as Polonius, were constantly spying on him. Even Ophelia, he
thought, had turned against him. The thought of deliberate murder was
revolting to him, and he was constantly plagued by uncertainty as to
whether the ghost were good or bad. When a troupe of actors visited
Elsi-nore, Hamlet saw in them a chance to discover whether Claudius were
guilty. He planned to have the players enact before the king and the
court a scene like that which, according to the ghost, took place the
day the old king died. By watching Claudius during the performance,
Hamlet hoped to discover for himself signs of Claudius' guilt.
His plan worked. Claudius became so unnerved during the performance that
he walked out before the end of the scene. Convinced by the king's
actions that the ghost was right, Hamlet had no reason to delay in
carrying out the wishes of his dead father. Even so, Hamlet failed to
take advantage of his first real chance after the play to kill Claudius.
He came upon the king in an attitude of prayer and could have stabbed
him in the back. Hamlet did not strike because he believed that the king
would die in grace at his devotions.
The queen summoned Hamlet to her chamber to reprimand him for his
insolence to Claudius. Hamlet, remembering what the ghost had told him,
spoke to her so violently that she screamed for help. A noise behind a
curtain followed her cries, and Hamlet, suspecting that Claudius was
eavesdropping, plunged his sword through the curtain, killing old
Polonius. Fearing an attack on his own life, the king hastily ordered
Hamlet to England in company with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who
carried a warrant for Hamlet's death. But the prince discovered the
orders and altered them so that the bearers should be killed on their
arrival in England. Hamlet then returned to Denmark.
Much had happened in that unhappy land during Hamlet's absence. Because
Ophelia had been rejected by her former lover, she went mad and later
drowned. Laertes, Polonius' hot-tempered son, returned from France and
collected a band of malcontents to avenge the death of his father. He
thought that Claudius had killed Polonius, but the king told him that
Hamlet was the murderer and even persuaded Laertes to take part in a
plot to murder the prince.
Claudius arranged for a duel between Hamlet and Laertes. To allay
suspicion of foul play, the king placed bets on Hamlet, who was an
expert swordsman. At the same time, he had poison placed on the tip of
Laertes' weapon and put a cup of poison within Hamlet's reach in the
event that the prince became thirsty during the duel. Unfortunately,
Gertrude, who knew nothing of the king's treachery, drank from the
poisoned cup and died. During the contest, Hamlet was mortally wounded
with the poisoned rapier, but the two contestants exchanged foils in a
scuffle, and Laertes himself received a fatal wound. Before he died,
Laertes was filled with remorse and told Hamlet that Claudius was
responsible for the poisoned sword. Hesitating no longer, Hamlet seized
his opportunity to act, and fatally stabbed the king. Then the prince
himself died. But the ghost was avenged.
Hamlet has remained the most perplexing, as well as the most popular, of
Shakespeare's major tragedies. Performed frequently, the play has
tantalized critics with what has become known as the Hamlet mystery. The
mystery resides in Hamlet's complex behavior, most notably his
indecision and his reluctance to act.
Freudian critics have located his motivation in the psy-chodynamic triad
of the father-mother-son relationship. According to this view, Hamlet is
disturbed and eventually deranged by his Oedipal jealousy of the uncle
who has done what, we are to believe, all sons long to do themselves.
Other critics have taken the more conventional tack of identifying
Hamlet's tragic flaw as a lack of courage or moral resolution. In this
view, Hamlet's indecision is a sign of moral ambivalence which he
overcomes too late.
The trouble with both of these views is that they presuppose a precise
discovery of Hamlet's motivation. However, Renaissance drama is not
generally a drama of motivation either by psychological set or moral
predetermination. Rather, the tendency is to present characters, with
well delineated moral and ethical dispositions, who are faced with
dilemmas. It is the outcome of these conflicts, the consequences, which
normally hold center stage. What we watch in Hamlet is an agonizing
confrontation between the will of a good and intelligent man and the
uncongenial role which circumstance calls upon him to play.
The disagreeable role is a familiar one in Renaissance drama—the
revenger. The early description of Hamlet, bereft by the death of his
father and the hasty marriage of his mother, makes him a prime candidate
to assume such a role. One need not conclude that his despondency is
Oedipal in order to sympathize with the extremity of his grief. His
father, whom he deeply loved and admired, is recently deceased and he
himself seems to have been finessed out of his birthright. Shakespeare,
in his unfortunate ignorance of Freud, emphasized Hamlet's shock at
Gertrude's disrespect to the memory of his father rather than love of
mother as the prime source of his distress. The very situation breeds
suspicion, which is reinforced by the ghastly visitation by the elder
Hamlet's ghost and the ghost's disquieting revelation. The ingredients
are all there for bloody revenge.
However, if Hamlet were simply to act out the role that has been thrust
upon him, the play would be just another sanguinary potboiler without
the moral and theological complexity which provides its special
fascination. Hamlet has, after all, been a student of theology at
Wittenberg. Hamlet's knowledge complicates the situation. First of all,
he is aware of the fundamental immorality of the liaison between
Gertrude and Claudius. Hamlet's accusation of incest is not an
adolescent excess but an accurate theological description of a marriage
between a widow and her dead husband's brother.
Hamlet's theological accomplishments do more than exacerbate his
feelings. For the ordinary revenger, the commission from the ghost of
the murdered father would be more than enough to start the bloodletting.
But Hamlet is aware of the unreliability of otherworldly apparitions,
and consequently he is reluctant to heed the ghost's injunction to
perform an action which is objectively evil. In addition, the fear that
his father was murdered in a state of sin and is condemned to hell not
only increases Hamlet's sense of injustice but also, paradoxically,
casts further doubt on the reliability of the ghost's exhortation. Is
the ghost, Hamlet wonders, merely an infernal spirit goading him to sin?
Thus, Hamlet's indecision is not an indication of weakness, but the
result of his complex understanding of the moral dilemma with which he
is faced. He is unwilling to act unjustly, yet he is afraid that he is
failing to exact a deserved retribution. He debates the murky issue and
becomes unsure himself whether his behavior is caused by moral scruple
or cowardice. He is in sharp contrast with the cynicism of Claudius and
the verbose moral platitudes of Polonius. The play is in sharp contrast
with the moral simplicity of the ordinary revenge tragedy. Hamlet's
intelligence has transformed a stock situation into a unique internal
He believes that he must have greater certitude of Claudius' guilt if he
is to take action. The device of the play within a play provides greater
assurance that Claudius is suffering from a guilty conscience, but it
simultaneously sharpens Hamlet's anguish. Having seen a re-creation of
his father's death and Claudius' response, Hamlet is able to summon the
determination to act. However, he once again hesitates when he sees
Claudius in prayer because he believes that the king is repenting and,
if murdered at that moment, will go directly to heaven. Here Hamlet's
inaction is not the result of cowardice nor even of a perception of
moral ambiguity. Rather, after all of his agonizing, Hamlet once decided
on revenge is so thoroughly committed that his passion cannot be
satiated except by destroying his uncle body and soul. It is ironic that
Claudius has been unable to repent and that Hamlet is thwarted this time
by the combination of his theological insight with the extreme ferocity
of his vengeful intention.
That Hamlet loses his mental stability is clear in his behavior toward
Ophelia and in his subsequent mean-derings. Circumstance had enforced a
role whose enormity has overwhelmed the fine emotional and intellectual
balance of a sensitive, well-educated young man. Gradually he regains
control of himself and is armed with a cold determination to do what he
decides is the just thing. Yet, even then, it is only in the carnage of
the concluding scenes that Hamlet finally carries out his intention.
Having concluded that "the readiness is all," he strikes his uncle only
after he has discovered Claudius' final scheme to kill him and Laertes,
but by then he is mortally wounded.
The arrival of Fortinbras, who has been lurking in the background
throughout the play, superficially seems to indicate that a new, more
direct and courageous order will prevail in the place of the evil of
Claudius and the weakness of Hamlet. But Fortinbras' superiority is only
apparent. He brings stasis and stability back to a disordered kingdom,
but he does not have the self-consciousness and moral sensitivity which
destroy and redeem Hamlet.
Gerald Else has interpreted Aristotle's notion of katharsis to be not a
purging of the emotions but a purging of a role of the moral horror, the
pity and fear, ordinarily associated with it. If that is so, then
Hamlet, by the conflict of his ethical will with his role, has purged
the revenger of his horrific bloodthirstiness and turned the stock
figure into a self-conscious hero in moral conflict.
HENRY THE FOURTH, PART ONE
Type of work: Drama
Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Type of plot: Historical chronicle
Time of plot: 1400-1405
First presented: 1596
Through the antics of Falstaff and his mates, comedy and history
join in this play. Woven into scenes of court and military matters, the
humorous sequences are used to reveal Prince Hal's character and to
bring into sharp relief the serious affairs of honor and history.
King Henry the Fourth, England's troubled ruler. Haunted by his action
in the deposition and indirectly in the death of his predecessor and
kinsman, Richard II, and deeply disturbed by the apparent unworthiness
of his irresponsible eldest son, he also faces the external problem of
rebellion. He wishes to join a crusade to clear his conscience and to
carry out a prophecy that he is to die in Jerusalem; it turns out that
he dies in the Jerusalem chamber in Westminster.
Henry, Prince of Wales (Prince Hal, Harry Mon-mouth), later King Henry
V. A boisterous youth surrounded by bad companions, he matures rapidly
with responsibility, saves his father's life in battle, and kills the
dangerous rebel, Hotspur. When he comes to the throne, he repudiates his
Sir John Falstaff, a comical, down-at-the-heels follower of Prince Hal.
Considered by many to be one of Shakespeare's finest creations, by some
to be his greatest, Falstaff is a plump fruit from the stem of the
"Miles Gloriosus" of Plautus. He is the typical braggart soldier with
many individualizing traits. As he says, he is not only witty himself,
but the cause of wit in other men. Innumerable pages have been written
on whether or not he is a coward. He is a cynical realist, a fantastic
liar, a persuasive rascal. Also, he is apparently a successful combat
soldier. His colossal body, which "lards the lean earth as he walks
along," appropriately houses his colossal personality. In the second
part of the play, there is some decline of his character, perhaps to
prepare the way for Prince Hal, as King Henry V, to cast him off.
Prince John of Lancaster, another of King Henry's sons, who also bears
himself well in battle at Shrewsbury. He commands part of his father's
forces in Yorkshire and arranges a false peace with the Archbishop of
York and other rebels. When their troops are dismissed, he has them
arrested and executed.
Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester, a leading rebel against King Henry IV.
He conceals the king's offer of generous terms from his nephew Hotspur,
thereby causing the young warrior's death. He is executed for treason.
Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, Worcester's brother. Having had an
important share in the deposition of Richard II and the enthronement of
Henry IV, he feels that he and his family are entitled to more power and
wealth than they receive. He is also influenced to rebellion by his
crafty brother and his fiery son. He fails his cause by falling ill or
feigning illness before the Battle of Shrewsbury, and he does not appear
there. Later he disconcerts Mowbray by withdrawing to Scotland, where he
Hotspur (Henry Percy), son of Northumberland. A courageous, hot-tempered
youth, he seeks to pluck glory from the moon. He is a loving, teasing
husband, but his heart is more on the battlefield than in the boudoir.
He rages helplessly at the absence of his father and Glen-dower from the
Battle of Shrewsbury. In the battle he falls by Prince Henry's hand.
Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, Hotspur's brother-in-law, designated
heir to the English throne by Richard II. Captured while fighting
against Glendower, he marries his captor's daughter. King Henry's
refusal to ransom him leads to the rebellion of the Percys. He too fails
to join Hotspur at Shrewsbury.
Owen Glendower, the Welsh leader. Hotspur finds his mystical
self-importance irritating and almost precipitates internal strife among
King Henry's opponents. Glendower also fails Hotspur at Shrewsbury. Some
time later, Warwick reports Glendower's death to the ailing king.
Sir Richard Vernon, another rebel. He is with the Earl of Worcester when
King Henry offers his terms for peace, and with great reluctance he
agrees to conceal the terms from Hotspur.
Archibald, Earl of Douglas, a noble Scottish rebel. After killing Sir
Walter Blunt and two others whom he mistakes for King Henry at
Shrewsbury, he is prevented from killing the king by Prince Hal. After
the battle, Prince Hal generously releases him without ransom.
Richard Scroop, Archbishop of York, a principal rebel. He thinks to make
peace with King Henry and take later advantage of his weakness, but is
tricked by Prince John and executed.
Sir Walter Blunt, a heroic follower of the king. At the Battle of
Shrewsbury, he pretends to Douglas that he is the King, thus bringing
death on himself.
Mistress Quickly, hostess of the Boar's Head Tavern in Eastcheap. She is
a silly, voluble woman with a stupendous fund of malapropisms. Easily
angered, but gullible, she is a frequent victim of Falstaff's chicanery.
Bardolph, the red-nosed right-hand man of Falstaff. His fiery nose makes
him the butt of many witticisms. Like Falstaff, he is capable of sudden
and violent action.
Poins, Prince Hal's confidant. Masked, he and the Prince rob Falstaff
and the other robbers at Gadshill and endeavor to discountenance
Falstaff at the Boar's Head Tavern afterward.
Gadshill and Peto, other members of the Prince's scapegrace following.
The Sheriff, who seeks Falstaff after the robbery. Prince Hal sends him
away with the promise that Sir John will answer for his behavior.
Lady Percy, Hotspur's wife, Mortimer's sister. A charming and playful
girl, she is deeply in love with her fiery husband and tragically moved
by his death.
Lady Mortimer, daughter of Glendower. Speaking only Welsh, she is unable
to understand her husband, to whom she is married as a political pawn.
Sir Michael, a follower of the Archbishop of York, for whom he delivers
secret messages to important rebels.
King Henry, conscience-stricken because of his part in the murder of
King Richard Ï, his predecessor, planned a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
He declared to his lords that war had been banished from England and
that peace would reign throughout the kingdom.
But there were those of differing opinions. Powerful barons in the North
remained disaffected after the accession of the new king. Antagonized by
his failure to keep promises made when he claimed the throne, they
recruited forces to maintain their feudal rights. In fact, as Henry
announced plans for his expedition to the Holy Land, he was informed of
the brutal murder of a thousand persons in a fray between Edmund
Mortimer, proclaimed by Richard as heir to the crown, and Glendower, a
Welsh rebel. Mortimer was taken prisoner. A messenger also brought word
of Hotspur's success against the Scots at Holmedon Hill. The king
expressed his commendation of the young knight and his regrets that his
own son, Prince Henry, was so irresponsible and carefree.
But King Henry, piqued by Hotspur's refusal to release to him more than
one prisoner, ordered a council meeting to bring the overzealous Hotspur
to terms. At the meeting Henry refused to ransom Mortimer, the pretender
to the throne, held by Glendower. In turn, Hotspur refused to release
the prisoners taken at Holmedon Hill, and Henry threatened more
strenuous action against Hotspur and his kinsmen.
In a rousing speech Hotspur appealed to the power and nobility of
Northumberland and Worcester and urged that they undo the wrongs of
which they were guilty in the dethronement and murder of Richard and in
aiding Henry instead of Mortimer to the crown. Worcester promised to
help Hotspur in his cause against Henry. Worcester's plan would involve
the aid of Douglas of Scotland, to be sought after by Hotspur, of
Glendower and Mortimer, to be won over through Worcester's efforts, and
of the Archbishop of York, to be approached by Northumberland.
Hotspur's boldness and impatience were shown in his dealing with
Glendower as they, Mortimer, and Worcester discussed the future division
of the kingdom. Hotspur, annoyed by the tedium of Glendower's personal
account of his own ill-fated birth and by the uneven distribution of
land, was impudent and rude. Hotspur was first a soldier, then a
In the king's opinion, Prince Henry was quite lacking in either of these
attributes. In one of their foolish pranks Sir John Falstaff and his
riotous band had robbed some travelers at Gadshill, only to be set upon
and put to flight by the prince and one companion. Summoning the prince
from the Boar's Head Tavern, the king urged his son to break with the
undesirable company he kept, chiefly the ne'er-do-well Falstaff.
Contrasting young Henry with Hotspur, the king pointed out the military
achievements of Northumberland's heir. Congenial, high-spirited Prince
Henry, remorseful because of his father's lack of confidence in him,
swore his allegiance to his father and declared he would show the king
that in time of crisis Hotspur's glorious deeds would prove Hotspur no
better soldier than Prince Henry. To substantiate his pledge, the prince
took command of a detachment that would join ranks with other units of
the royal army—Blunt's, Prince John's, Westmoreland's, and the king's—in
Prince Henry's conduct seemed to change very little. He continued his
buffoonery with Falstaff, who had recruited a handful of bedraggled,
nondescript foot soldiers. Falstaff's contention was that, despite their
physical condition, they were food for powder and that little more could
be said for any soldier.
Hotspur's forces suffered gross reverses through Northumberland's
failure, because of illness, to organize an army. Also, Hotspur's ranks
were reduced because Glendower believed the stars not propitious for him
to march at that time. Undaunted by the news of his reduced forces,
Hotspur pressed on to meet Henry's army of thirty thousand.
At Shrewsbury, the scene of the battle, Sir Walter Blunt carried to
Hotspur the king's offer that the rebels' grievances would be righted
and that anyone involved in the revolt would be pardoned if he chose a
peaceful settlement. In answer to the king's message Hotspur reviewed
the history of Henry's double-dealing and scheming in the past.
Declaring that Henry's lineage should not continue on the throne,
Hotspur finally promised Blunt that Worcester would wait upon the king
to give him an answer to his offer.
Henry repeated his offer of amnesty to Worcester and Vernon, Hotspur's
ambassadors. Because Worcester doubted the king's sincerity, because of
previous betrayals, he lied to Hotspur on his return to the rebel camp
and reported that the king in abusive terms had announced his
determination to march at once against Hotspur. Worcester also reported
Prince Henry's invitation to Hotspur that they fight a duel. Hotspur
gladly accepted the challenge.
As the two armies moved into battle, Blunt, mistaken for the king, was
slain by Douglas, who, learning his error, was sorely grieved that he
had not killed Henry. Douglas, declaring that he would yet murder the
king, accosted him after a long search over the field. He would have
been successful in his threat had it not been for the intervention of
Prince Henry, who engaged Douglas and allowed the king to withdraw from
In the fighting Hotspur descended upon Prince Henry, exhausted from an
earlier wound and his recent skirmish with Douglas. When the two young
knights fought, Hotspur was wounded. Douglas again appeared, fighting
with Falstaff, and departed after Falstaff had fallen to the ground as
if he were dead. Hotspur died of his wounds and Prince Henry, before
going off to join Prince John, his brother, eulogized Hotspur and
Falstaff. The two benedictions were quite different. But Falstaff had
only pretended life-lessness to save his life. After the prince's
departure, he stabbed Hotspur. He declared that he would swear before
any council that he had killed the young rebel.
Worcester and Vernon were taken prisoners. Because they had not relayed
to Hotspur the peace terms offered by the king, they were sentenced to
death. Douglas, in flight after Hotspur's death, was taken prisoner.
Given the king's permission to dispose of Douglas, Prince Henry ordered
that the valiant Scottish knight be freed.
The king sent Prince John to march against the forces of Northumberland
and the Archbishop of York. He and Prince Henry took the field against
Glendower and Mortimer, in Wales. Falstaff had the honor of carrying off
the slain Hotspur.
Although there is no evidence that the cycle of plays including Richard
the Second, Henry the Fourth, Part One and Part Two, and Henry the Fifth
were intended by Shakespeare to form a unit, there is much continuity,
of theme as well as of personages. There is a movement from one grand
epoch to another, from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. The main
aspects of his transition implied at the end of each play are projected
into the next, where they are developed and explored.
The reader of Henry the Fourth, Part One, should be familiar with some
aspects of Richard the Second, for in that play the broad lines of the
entire cycle are drawn and the immediate base of Henry the Fourth, Part
One, is formed. In Richard the Second, the legitimate king, Richard II,
is deposed by Bolingbroke, who becomes Henry IV. This event, to include
both historical perspectives, must be viewed as at once a usurpation and
a necessary political expediency. It is a usurpation because
unjustifiable, indeed unthinkable, from the strictly medieval view of
what has been called "the great chain of being." This notion postulates
that the universe is ordered, hierarchical, that everything is given a
place by God, from angels to ants, and that station is immutable. In
this world, formed by ritual, an anointed king is representative of
God's Order. To depose him is to call in question all order in the
world. Tradition, especially ritual, presupposed and supported fixed
order. Ritual in this larger sense is broken in Richard the Second first
by the excesses of Richard himself and then, in a more definitive sense,
by the usurping Bolingbroke. The irony of Bolingbroke's act, and the
subject of Henry the Fourth, Part One, is the consequences of what was
to have been a momentary departure from ordained ritual. As with Eve,
the gesture of self-initiative was irrevocable, the knowledge and
correlative responsibility gained at that moment inescapable. At the
opening of Henry the Fourth, Part One, then, we see the results of
rebellion already installed; the security of the old system of feudal
trust is forever lost. Those who helped the king to power are men
instead of God, the guarantors of the "sacredness" (the term already
anachronistic) of the crown. This means political indebtedness and, at
this point in history, with the anxiety of lost certainty still sharp,
terrible doubt as to whence truth, power, and justice rightfully
emanate. The king is no longer sovereign as he must negotiate, in the
payment of his political debts, the very essence of his station. At the
historical moment of the play, distrust predictably triumphs. Men are
guided by the most available counsel, & personal sense of justice, or
merely, perhaps, their own interests and passions.
In the void left by the fallen hierarchical order Shakespeare dramatizes
the birth of modern individualism and, as a model for this, the
formation of a Renaissance king (Prince Hal), an entity now of
uncertain, largely self-created identity.
Prince Hal's position in the play is central. He represents a future
unstigmatized by the actual usurpation. However, he inherits, to be
sure, the new political and moral climate created by it. Yet while
Henry's planned crusade to the Holy Land will be forever postponed in
order to defend his rule from his former collaborators, Hal looks to the
It is characteristic of Henry's uncertain world that he knows his son
only through hearsay, rumor, and slander. Even the Prince of Wales is
suspect. He is widely thought a wastrel, and the king even suspects his
son would like him dead. But where is the pattern of virtue for Hal? The
king, the usurper, is tainted, of ambiguous virtue at best. He has
betrayed, perhaps out of political necessity, even those who helped him
to the throne.
In this play Hal is clearly attracted to two figures, Hotspur and
Falstaff. Both of these are removed from the medieval ritualistic
structures that had once tended to integrate disparate aspects of life:
courtesy, valor, honest exchange, loyalty, and the like. A new synthesis
of this sort is symbolically enacted in Hal's procession through the
experience of, and choices between, the worlds of Hotspur and Falstaff.
For Hotspur life is a constant striving for glory in battle. As has been
remarked, time for him presses implacably, considered wasted if not
intensely devoted to the achievement of fame. But his is an assertion of
the individual enacted outside a traditional frame such as the medieval
"quest." Hotspur's character is seen to be extremely limited, however
breathtaking his elan may be. For it is finally morbid, loveless,
incourteous, and even sexually impotent. He has not the patience to
humor the tediousness of Glendower (which costs him, perhaps, his
support); his speech is full of death and death's images; he mocks the
love of Mortimer and has banished his wife from his bed, too absorbed by
his planned rebellion.
Falstaff, on the other hand, is as quick to lie, to steal, to waste time
with a whore or drinking wine, as Hotspur is to risk his life for a
point of honor. Hal spends most of his time with him, and he seems at
times a sort of apprentice to the older man in the "art" of tavern
living. This means, for Hal, living intimately with common people, who
naively call him "boy," and whose unpreten-tiousness strips him of the
artificial defenses he would have among people who understand protocol.
The adventure with the robbery is the image of cowardice as the
reputation of Hotspur is the image of valor. Yet both stories are in
their ways celebrative. Falstaff's flexible ways are more human,
certainly kinder than Hotspur's, kinder even than Hal's. Hal is awkward
at joking sometimes, not being sensitive enough to know what is serious,
what light. Hotspur has renounced sensitivity to human love; Falstaff
has abandoned honor. In schematic terms, it is a synthesis of these two
perspectives that Hal must, and in a way does, achieve.
HENRY THE FOURTH, PART TWO
Type of work: Drama
Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Type of plot: Historical chronicle
Time of plot: 1405-1413
First presented: 1597
As in Henry the Fourth, Part One, comedy is an outstanding feature
of this play, with Falstaff continuing to promise great things for his
friends until the touching moment of his death. The pomp and drama
common to Shakespeare's historical chronicles permeate the serious parts
of the play, and the deathbed scene between Henry IV and Prince Henry is
considered among the best in dramatic literature.
King Henry IV, England's troubled ruler. Haunted by his action in the
deposition and indirectly in the death of his predecessor and kinsman,
Richard II, and deeply disturbed by the apparent unworthiness of his
irresponsible eldest son, he also faces the external problem of
rebellion. He wishes to join a crusade to clear his conscience and to
carry out a prophecy that he is to die in Jerusalem; it turns out that
he dies in the Jerusalem chamber in Westminster.
Henry, Prince of Wales (Prince Hal, Harry Mon-mouth), later King Henry
V. A boisterous youth surrounded by bad companions, he matures rapidly
with responsibility, saves his father's life in battle, and kills the
dangerous rebel Hotspur. When he comes to the throne, he repudiates his
Sir John Falstaff, a comical, down-at-the-heels follower of Prince Hal.
Considered by many to be one of Shakespeare's finest creations, by some
to be his greatest, Falstaff is a plump fruit from the stem of the
"Miles Gloriosus" of Plautus. He is the typical braggart soldier with
many individualizing traits. As he says, he is not only witty himself
but the cause of wit in other men. Innumerable pages have been written
on whether or not he is a coward. He is a cynical realist, a fantastic
liar, a persuasive rascal. Also, he apparently a successful combat
soldier. His colossal body, which "lards the lean earth as he walks
along," appropriately houses his colossal personality. In the second
part of the play, there is some decline of his character, perhaps to
prepare the way for Prince Hal, as King Henry V, to cast him off.
Prince John of Lancaster, another of King Henry's sons, who also bears
himself well in battle at Shrewsbury. He commands part of his father's
forces in Yorkshire and arranges a false peace with the Archbishop of
York and other rebels. When their troops are dismissed, he has them
arrested and executed.
Humphrey of Gloucester and Thomas of Clarence, other sons of Henry IV,
brothers of Henry V.
Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, Worcester's brother. Having had an
important share in the deposition of Richard II and the enthronement of
Henry IV, he feels that he and his family are entitled to more power and
wealth than they receive. He is also influenced to rebellion by his
crafty brother and his fiery son. He fails his cause by falling ill or
feigning illness before the Battle of Shrewsbury, and he does not appear
there. Later he disconcerts Mowbray by withdrawing to Scotland, where he
Richard Scroop, Archbishop of York, a principal rebel. He thinks to make
peace with King Henry and take later advantage of his weakness, but is
tricked by Prince John and executed.
Sir Walter Blunt, a heroic follower of the king. At the Battle of
Shrewsbury he pretends to Douglas that he is the king, thus bringing
death on himself.
Mistress Quickly, hostess of the Boar's Head Tavern in Eastcheap. She is
a silly, voluble woman with a stupendous fund of malapropisms. Easily
angered, but gullible, she is a frequent victim of Falstaff's chicanery.
Bardolph, the right-hand man of Falstaff. His fiery nose makes him the
butt of many witticisms. Like Falstaff, he is capable of sudden and
Poins, Prince Hal's confidant. Masked, he and the Prince rob Falstaff
and the other robbers at Gadshill and endeavor to discountenance
Falstaff at the Boar's Head Tavern afterward.
Peto, another member of the Prince's scapegrace following.
Pistol, a cowardly, loud-mouthed soldier who has a habit of quoting or
misquoting snatches of drama. He swaggers and roars until Falstaff is
forced to pink him in the shoulder, and Bardolph ejects him from the
Page, a tiny and witty boy given to Falstaff, apparently to make a
ridiculous contrast. He makes impudent and spicy remarks on several of
Doll Tearsheet, a frowzy companion of Sir John Falstaff. She flatters
and caresses the old knight, but cannot abide Pistol.
The Lord Chief Justice, a stern man who has dared even to commit the
Prince. After Mistress Quickly's complaints, he rebukes Falstaff and
demands that he make restitution. Because Falstaff's reputation has
increased since the Battle of Shrewsbury, the justice is more lenient
Justice Shallow, a garrulous old man. Before furnishing Falstaff with a
roll of soldiers from his district, he pours out a flood of
reminiscences about their wild youth.
Justice Silence, Shallow's cousin.
Davy, Shallow's servant.
Fang and Snare, two sergeants called in by the hostess to arrest
Ralph Mouldy, Simon Shadow, Thomas Wart, Francis Feeble, and Peter
Bullcalf, country soldiers furnished to Falstaff's company.
Rumour, an abstraction who presents exposition at the beginning of the
Second Part of "King Henry the Fourth."
Lady Northumberland, Hotspur's mother, Northumberland's troubled wife.
Lady Percy, Hotspur's wife and Mortimer's sister. A charming and playful
girl, she is deeply in love with her fiery husband and tragically moved
by his death.
Sir John Colville (Colville of the Dale), Lord Mow-bray, Lord Hastings,
Lord Bardolph, Travers, and Morton, rebels against King Henry IV.
The Earl of Westmoreland, The Earl of Warwick, The Earl of Surrey,
Gower, and Harcourt, followers of King Henry IV.
After the battle of Shrewsbury many false reports were circulated among
the peasants. At last they reached Northumberland, who believed for a
time that the rebel forces had been victorious. But his retainers,
fleeing from that stricken field, brought a true account of the death of
Hotspur, Northumberland's valiant son, at the hands of Prince Henry, and
of King Henry's avowal to put down rebellion by crushing those forces
still opposing him. Northumberland, sorely grieved by news of his son's
death, prepared to avenge that loss. Hope lay in the fact that the
Archbishop of York had mustered an army, because soldiers so organized,
being responsible to the church rather than to a military leader, would
prove better fighters than those who had fled from Shrewsbury field.
News that the king's forces of twenty-five thousand men had been divided
into three units was encouraging to his enemies.
In spite of Northumberland's grief for his slain son and his impassioned
threat against the king and Prince Henry, he was easily persuaded by his
wife and Hotspur's widow to flee to Scotland, there to await the success
of his confederates before he would consent to join them with his army.
Meanwhile, Falstaff delayed in carrying out his orders to proceed north
and recruit troops for the king. Deeply involved with Mistress Quickly,
he used his royal commission to avoid being imprisoned for debt. With
Prince Henry, who had paid little heed to the conduct of the war, he
continued his riotous feasting and jesting until both were summoned to
join the army marching against the rebels.
King Henry, aging and weary, had been ill for two weeks. Sleepless
nights had taken their toll on him, and in his restlessness he reviewed
his ascent to the throne and denied, to his lords, the accusation of
unscrupu-lousness brought against him by the rebels. He was somewhat
heartened by the news of Glendower's death.
In Gloucestershire, recruiting troops at the house of Justice Shallow,
Falstaff grossly accepted bribes and let able-bodied men buy themselves
out of service. The soldiers he took to the war were a raggle-taggle
Prince John of Lancaster, taking the field against the rebels, sent word
by Westmoreland to the archbishop that the king's forces were willing to
make peace, and he asked that the rebel leaders make known their
grievances so that they might be corrected.
When John and the archbishop met for a conference, John questioned and
criticized the archbishop's dual role as churchman and warrior. Because
the rebels announced their intention to fight until their wrongs were
righted, John promised redress for all. Then he suggested that the
archbishop's troops be disbanded after a formal review; he wished to see
the stalwart soldiers that his army would have fought if a truce had not
His request was granted, but the men, excited by the prospect of their
release, scattered so rapidly that inspection was impossible.
Westmoreland, sent to disband John's army, returned to report that the
soldiers would take orders only from the prince. With his troops
assembled and the enemy's disbanded, John ordered some of the opposing
leaders arrested for high treason and others, including the archbishop,
for capital treason. John explained that his action was in keeping with
his promise to improve conditions and that to remove rebellious factions
was the first step in his campaign. The enemy leaders were sentenced to
death. Falstaff took Coleville, the fourth of the rebel leaders, who was
sentenced to execution with the others.
News of John's success was brought to King Henry as he lay dying, but
the victory could not gladden the sad, old king. His chief concern lay
in advice and admonition to his younger sons, Gloucester and Clarence,
regarding their future conduct, and he asked for unity among his sons.
Spent by his long discourse, the king lapsed into unconsciousness.
Prince Henry, summoned to his dying father's bedside, found the king in
a stupor, with the crown beside him. The prince, remorseful and
compassionate, expressed regret that the king had lived such a
tempestuous existence because of the crown and promised, in his turn, to
wear the crown graciously. As he spoke, he placed the crown on his head
and left the room. Awaking and learning that the prince had donned the
crown, King Henry immediately assumed that his son wished him dead in
order to inherit the kingdom. Consoled by the prince's strong denial of
such wishful thinking, the king confessed his own unprincipled behavior
in gaining the crown. Asking God's forgiveness, he repeated his plan to
journey to the Holy Land to divert his subjects from revolt, and he
advised the prince, when he should become king, to involve his powerful
lords in wars with foreign powers, thereby relieving the country of
The king's death caused great sorrow among those who loved him and to
those who feared the prince, now Henry V. A short time before, the Lord
Chief Justice, acting on the command of Henry IV, had alienated the
prince by banishing Falstaff and his band, but the newly crowned king
accepted the Chief Justice's explanation for his treatment of Falstaff
and restored his judicial powers.
Falstaff was rebuked for his conduct by Henry, who stated that he was no
longer the person Falstaff had known him to be. Until the old knight
learned to correct his ways, the king banished him, on pain of death, to
a distance ten miles away from Henry's person. He promised, however,
that if amends were made Falstaff would return by degrees to the king's
good graces. Undaunted by that reproof, Falstaff explained to his
cronies that he yet would make them great, that the king's reprimand was
only a front, and that the king would send for him and in the secrecy of
the court chambers they would indulge in their old foolishness and plan
the advancement of Falstaff's followers.
Prince John, expressing his admiration for Henry's public display of his
changed attitude, prophesied that England would be at war with France
before a year had passed.
The third play in Shakespeare's second tetralogy, Henry the Fourth, Part
Two, is based primarily upon Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles and an
anonymous play, The Famous Victories of Henry V. Yet it offers a galaxy
of well-rounded characters for whom Shakespeare makes slender use of
sources. Clearly a sequel to Part One, the play resolves the conflict
between the king and the rebellious nobles, a struggle between local and
national rule, and continues the development of Prince Hal as an ideal
future king. The denial of characters' expectations and assumptions,
often marked by dramatic reversals, represents a unifying motif of the
Retaining the main plot of the rebellion and the subplot involving
Falstaff and his companions found in Part One, the drama limits action
in favor of rhetoric. As the rebels, under the able leadership of the
Archbishop of York, regroup following Shrewsbury, the king's divided
army prepares to move against two centers of rebel strength, York and
Wales, arousing expectations of decisive battles. Instead, the king
returns to London, grievously ill, and later learns that his Welsh enemy
Glendower has died, ending the threat in the west. In York, Prince John,
a capable but ruthless general, forces the rebels into a deceptive truce
and sends their leaders, including the archbishop, to immediate
execution. The expected military actions having been averted, the king
consolidates his rule, only to discover that he is too ill to continue.
An important theme of the play concerns orderly succession, and while
the major characters are troubled by the prospect of Hal as king, their
pessimistic expectations prove groundless. Except for Warwick, the
king's counselors fear disorder and chaos when Hal succeeds his father.
In an early scene (act 1, scene 2), Falstaff, who has escaped punishment
for theft only through holding a military commission, attempts to
intimidate the Chief Justice, who has sought to admonish Falstaff about
his behavior. The Chief Justice, who sent Hal to prison and thus expects
least from his reign, represents a father figure in the drama.
Courageous, loyal, and devoid of self-interest, he is the antithesis of
Falstaff, a pseudo-father figure. Falstaff, as witty, fertile, and
energetic as ever, continues to intimidate and outwit those of his own
class, the frequenters of the Boar's Head Tavern and the country
bumpkins led by Justice Shallow, yet when he attempts to hold his own
with those connected with the court, he is clearly beyond his depth.
Falstaff intimates that the king is dying, that Hal will be the next
king, and that Hal as Falstaff's friend will act against the Chief
Justice. Unmoved by any personal threat, the Chief Justice demonstrates
his commitment to law as an ideal. This scene enables the reader to
assess the mettle of the Chief Justice and anticipates Prince Hal's
three important rhetorical confrontations: with the king, his real
father; with the Chief Justice, a just and wise father figure; and with
Falstaff, a pseudo-father figure who must be rejected.
In the climactic (act 4, scene 4), Hal is summoned to the- dying king's
bedside. The king's doubts about him are reinforced when Hal, thinking
his father dead, takes the crown from the pillow to meditate on the pain
and grief it has brought. Regaining consciousness, the king notices that
the crown is missing and concludes that Hal has seized it prematurely.
When he returns, the king denounces him for ingratitude, citing numerous
instances from the past. But his sense of personal injury gives way to a
more important concern—the future of the nation under Hal's rule. He has
long considered Hal as foolish and indiscreet as the deposed Richard,
and he fears that Hal will recklessly give power and office to Falstaff
and friends like him. As a consequence, the unity that the king has
achieved will degenerate into riot and anarchy. In an eloquent response,
Hal convinces the dying king that he is mistaken about the crown and
about Hal's intentions, assuring the king that he intends to follow his
example. Following the speech, the king gives Hal advice about
governance, urging him to retain trusted counselors like Warwick and the
Chief Justice and to involve the nation in a foreign war in order to
As if to demonstrate how mistaken the king has been in his expectations,
Shakespeare introduces an old prophecy. The king has always believed
that he would die in Jerusalem. He casually inquires the name of the
chamber where he first collapsed and learns that it is called Jerusalem.
Recognizing that the prophecy meant something other than he thought, he
orders that he be returned there to die.
Following the king's death, all those around Hal, especially the
princes, express fear of the future. To reassure them, he deliberately
singles out the Chief Justice, who is convinced that he has the most to
lose. Formally, he greets the new king. Now assuming the role of the
injured party, that of his father in the earlier confrontation, Hal asks
whether he can be expected to forget the indignity suffered at the hands
of the Chief Justice. The Chief Justice recounts the episode in detail
and argues that authority and justice demanded Hal's commitment to
prison. Pointedly, he asks Hal to explain how his sentence was unjust.
The king's response, moving in its dignity, reassures the Chief Justice
that he was correct, confirms him in his office, retains him as
counselor, and assures those present that Hal will follow the example of
In remote Gloucestershire, visiting Justice Shallow to extort money from
him, Falstaff learns of Hal's succession and immediately sets out with
his companions to see the king, assuming that the king longs for him and
confidently offering Justice Shallow his choice of offices. Arriving in
time for the coronation procession, Falstaff thrusts himself forward and
addresses the king with impudent familiarity: "God save thee, my sweet
boy!" Hal coldly turns aside and asks the Chief Justice to speak to him.
This move astonishes Falstaff, who is confident that the Chief Justice
will be punished for his transgressions, and he again directs his speech
to Hal. Speaking in his royal person, the king denounces Falstaff as a
misleader of youth with too many appetites and banishes him from his
company. Incredulous at this reversal and denial of his expectations,
Falstaff thinks that the king will send for him in private, but even
Justice Shallow discerns the finality of the king's tone.
At the drama's end, the Chief Justice and Prince John approve the
handling of Falstaff and suggest that Hal will lead the nation to war
with France in order to unify it, as the former king had advised. Hal
faces an aristocracy united in support of the monarch, now that the
rebel threat has been eliminated. He has separated himself from those
who would weaken his authority internally and has gained the loyalty of
the king's counselors. It remains for him to unite the commoners through
a foreign war, as his father had recommended and as he will do in Henry
HENRY THE FIFTH
Tyðå of work: Drama
Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Type of plot: Historical romance
Time of plot: Early part of the fifteenth century
Locale: England and France
First presented: 1600
In The Life of Henry the Fifth, Shakespeare skillfully combined
poetry, pageantry, and history in his effort to glorify England and
Englishmen. Although the characters are larger than life, they also are
shown to be flawed like other men; even Henry at last achieves a
necessary element of humility.
Henry the Fifth, king of England from 1413 to 1422, the wild "Prince
Hal" of the "Henry IV" plays. Since his accession to the throne, he has
grown into a capable monarch whose sagacity astonishes his advisers. The
question of state that most concerns him is that of his right, through
his grandfather, Edward Ø, to certain French duchies and ultimately to
the French crown. His claim to the duchies is haughtily answered by the
Dauphin of France, who sends Henry a barrel of tennis balls, a jibe at
the English king's misspent youth. Having crushed at home a plot against
his life fomented by his cousin, the Earl of Cambridge, abetted by Lord
Scroop and Sir Thomas Gray, and having been assured by the Archbishop of
Canterbury that his claim to the French crown is valid, Henry invades
France. After the capture of Harfleur, at which victory he shows mercy
to the inhabitants of the town, the king meets the French at Agincourt
in Picardy. The French take the impending battle very lightly, since
they outnumber the English. Henry spends the night wandering in disguise
around his camp, talking to the soldiers to test their feelings and to
muse on the responsibilities of kingship, In the battle on the following
day, the English win a great victory. The peace is concluded by the
betrothal of Henry to the Princess Katharine, daughter of the French
king, and the recognition of his claim to the French throne. To
Shakespeare, as to most of his contemporaries, Henry was a great
national hero, whose exploits of two centuries earlier fitted in well
with the patriotic fervor of a generation that had seen the defeat of
the Spanish Armada.
Charles the Sixth, the weak-minded king of France.
Queen Isabel, his wife.
Lewis, the dauphin of France, whose pride is humbled at Agincourt.
Katharine of France, daughter of Charles VI. As part of the treaty of
peace, she is betrothed to Henry V, who woos her in a mixture of blunt
English and mangled French.
Edward, duke of York, the cousin of the king, though called "uncle" in
the play. He dies a hero's death at Agincourt.
Richard, Earl of Cambridge, the younger brother of York. Corrupted by
French gold, he plots against the life of Henry and is executed for
Lord Scroop and Sir Thomas Gray, fellow conspirators of Cambridge.
Philip, duke of Burgundy, the intermediary between Charles VI and Henry
V. He draws up the treaty of peace and forces it on Charles.
Montjoy, the French herald who carries the haughty messages from the
French to Henry.
Pistol, a soldier, addicted to high-flown language and married to
Mistress Quickly, once hostess of a tavern in Eastcheap. Later, Fluellen
proves him a coward. When he learns of his wife's death, he resolves to
return to England to become a cutpurse.
Nell Quickly, once hostess of the Boar's Head Tavern in Eastcheap and
now married to Pistol. It is she who gives the famous account of the
death of Falstaff. She dies while Pistol is in France.
Bardolph, now a soldier, formerly one of Henry's companions in his wild
youth. In France, his is sentenced to be hanged for stealing a pax.
Fluellen, a Welsh soldier, tedious and long-winded. By a trick, the king
forces him into a fight with Williams.
Michael Williams, a soldier who quarrels with Henry while the king is
wandering incognito through the camp. They exchange gages to guarantee a
duel when they next meet. When the meeting occurs, the king forgives
Williams for the quarrel.
John, duke of Bedford, the "John of Lancaster" of the "Henry IV" plays
and the younger brother of Henry V.
Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, youngest brother of Henry V.
Once the toss-pot prince of Falstaff 's tavern brawls, Henry V was now
king at Westminster, a stern but just monarch concerned with his
hereditary claim to the crown of France. Before the arrival of the
French ambassadors, the young king asked for legal advice from the
Archbishop of Canterbury. The king thought that he was the legal heir to
the throne of France through Edward III, whose claim to the French
throne was, at best, questionable. The Archbishop assured Henry that he
had as much right to the French throne as did the French king;
consequently, both the Archbishop and the Bishop of Ely urged Henry to
press his demands against the French.
When the ambassadors from France arrived, they came, not from Charles,
the king, but from his arrogant eldest son, the Dauphin. According to
the ambassadors, the Dauphin considered the English monarch the same
hotheaded, irresponsible youth he had been before he ascended the
throne. To show that he considered Henry an unfit ruler whose demands
were ridiculous, the Dauphin presented Henry with some tennis balls.
Enraged by the insult, Henry told the French messengers to warn their
master that the tennis balls would be turned into gun-stones for use
against the French.
The English prepared for war. The Dauphin remained contemptuous of
Henry, but others, including the French Constable and the ambassadors
who had seen Henry in his wrath, were not so confident. Henry's army
landed to lay siege to Harfleur, and the king threatened to destroy the
city, together with its inhabitants, unless it surrendered. The French
governor had to capitulate because help promised by the Dauphin never
arrived. The French, meanwhile, were—with the exception of King Charles—
alarmed by the rapid progress of the English through France. That ruler,
however, was so sure of victory that he sent his herald, Montjoy, to
Henry to demand that the English king pay a ransom to the French, give
himself up, and have his soldiers withdraw from France. Henry was not
impressed by this bold gesture, and retorted that if King Charles wanted
him, the Frenchman should come to get him.
On the eve of the decisive battle of Agincourt, the English were
outnumbered five to one. Henry's troops were on foreign soil and ridden
with disease. To encourage them, and also to sound out their morale, the
king borrowed a cloak and in this disguise walked out among his troops,
from watch to watch and from tent to tent. As he talked with his men, he
told them that a king is but a man like other men, and that if he were a
king he would not want to be anywhere except where he was, in battle
with his soldiers. To himself, Henry mused over the cares and
responsibilities of kingship. Again he thought of himself simply as a
man who differed from other men only in ceremony, itself an empty thing.
Henry's sober reflections on the eve of a great battle, in which he
thought much English blood would be shed, were quite different from
those of the French, who were exceedingly confident of their ability to
defeat their enemy. Shortly before the conflict began, Montjoy again
appeared before Henry to give the English one last chance to surrender.
Henry again refused to be intimidated. He was not discouraged by the
numerical inferiority of his troops, for, as he reasoned in speaking
with one of his officers, the fewer troops the English had, the greater
would be the honor to them when they won.
The following day the battle began. Because of Henry's leadership, the
English held their own. When French reinforcements arrived at a crucial
point in the battle, Henry ordered his men to kill all their prisoners
so that the energies of the English might be directed entirely against
the enemy in front of them, not behind. Soon the tide turned. A much
humbler Montjoy approached Henry to request a truce for burying the
French dead. Henry granted the herald's request, and at the same time
learned from him that the French had conceded defeat. Ten thousand
French had been killed, and only twenty-nine English.
The battle over, nothing remained for Henry to do but to discuss with
the French king terms of peace. Katharine, Charles's beautiful daughter,
was Henry's chief demand, and while his lieutenants settled the details
of surrender with the French, Henry made love to the princess and asked
her to marry him. Though Katharine's knowledge of English was slight and
Henry's knowledge of French little better, they were both acquainted
with the universal language of love. French Katharine consented to
become English Kate and Henry's bride.
Henry the Fifth is the last play in the cycle including Richard the
Second, Henry the Fourth, Part One and Part Two, and Henry the Fifth.
The three plays dealing with the reign of King Henry VI, mentioned in
the epilogue of Henry the Fifth, were written much earlier and are not
ordinarily grouped with this cycle. Henry the Fifth is itself almost a
break with this cycle. However, there are important, if in some ways
superficial, elements of continuity.
These elements of continuity are the great historical transition
represented by the movement from the reign of Richard II to that of
Henry V. Richard and, progressively, the two Henrys, are associated by
Shakespeare with the medieval, then the Renaissance, even modern,
worldviews. The second dominant element is the formation of Prince Hal,
who becomes Henry V, as a Renaissance king.
In Richard the Second, the king, Richard, is deposed by Bolingbroke, who
becomes Henry IV. What is important is the act of rupturing, symbolized
by this usurpation, of an entire conception of humanity governed by
ritual and tradition. This conception is sometimes referred to as "the
great chain of being." It asserts an utterly planned cosmos which is
considered the manifestation of God. To challenge and finally replace
this world is a force not clearly understood by its protagonists, but
nevertheless defines their own practical and political ambitions as
The two Henry the Fourth plays are continuations of Shakespeare's
exploration of the shift in political perspective. The rebellions which
follow Henry IV 's usurpation had been predicted by Richard Ï, and seem,
indeed, a kind of natural consequence to the break in the structure of
But while his father is engaged morally by that break even to a death
troubled by remorse for his "crime," the education of Prince Hal is
pursued in a subplot mainly situated in taverns and places of public
amusement. Hal's progress, in a few words, is between two extremes of
individualism (characteristic of the Renaissance): the obsessive and
bloody quest for glory in the person of Hotspur, and the
pleasure-seeking, nearly total, incontinence of Falstaff. What he learns
from each of them could be said to be the sense of valor and honor of
the one, and the wittiness and humanity of the other. But this is so, in
a way, only "theoretically," for the nature of the prince in Henry the
Fifth, as king, is quite removed from either the thesis or the
antithesis which precedes him.
An explanation for this can be found symbolically in the two scenes at
the end of Henry the Fourth, Part Two, where Hal, after his father's
death but before his own coronation, takes as his own his father's Lord
High Justice, and banishes Falstaff. The Chief Justice had
expected—among all who feared Hal would become an irresponsible king—the
worst personal damage, as he had punished Hal's rebels in the name of
Henry IV. Shakespeare seems to imply, in a very modern sense, that Hal
was assuming fully his father's Law. In the historical perspective it is
secular law, in contrast to the divine mandate of Richard II.
The opening scenes of Henry the Fifth show how secular, indeed, how free
and easy, the new law has become. Individualism, in the form of
self-interest, rules, but in an orderly, legalistic way. The bishops
made the ancient laws fit the needs of their own financial interests and
the ambition (concerning the French throne) of King Henry V.
These scenes already suggest a sense of fait accompli to the broad
transitional process which is, at base, the rise of the bourgeoisie.
Thus the play is a kind of break with the others. As a whole it is a
kind of apotheosis of the powerful though incipient undercurrent of the
times, the collective mentality we have come to ascribe to the
bourgeoisie. This play has a lack of moral depth, which derives,
perhaps, from a contradiction in bourgeois society. There is the
economic base of cutthroat competition and an ideological superstructure
of supposedly harmonious relations between men and nations. The loss of
the sacred system of exploitation made the contradiction more apparent.
The dynamic individualism of the new culture takes on the authority of
the old order but sublimates the sense of responsibility into platitudes
of doubtful logic.
The bishop is one example of this. The ease with which Henry allows his
conscience to be soothed in those scenes is another. Later, he rather
cavalierly blames the citizens of Harfleur for the impending destruction
of their city, with all the barbaric effects he will not even try to
control, by his invading army. Likewise, he shuns, by pure sophistry,
any responsibility for the deaths, or souls, of his soldiers. He skirts
the question of the justice of the king's cause with the assertion that,
in any case, each man's soul is his own worry before God.
Shakespeare presents, then, a society in triumph, but one of atrophied
moral sensitivity, escaping always in bad faith. The need to compensate
for inner insecurity is shown in the aggressive, even hostile and
puerile, clumsiness of Henry's wooing of Katharine. He tells her, on the
one hand, that he will not be very hurt if she rejects him, and on the
other hand, that she and her father are, in effect, his conquered
subjects and have no real choice in the matter. This does not constitute
a definite condemnation by Shakespeare of this society, but he does not
wholly praise it either. In Henry the Fifth, more than in the other
plays of the cycle, the moral opacity of the action leaves judgment to
the reader's, or spectator's, understanding of history.
Òóðå of work: Drama
Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Type of plot: Romantic tragedy
Time of plot: 44 B.C.
First presented: 1601
The story of Brutus rather than of Caesar, this drama transforms
history into a tragedy of character. Brutus emerges as a forerunner of
Hamlet, while Caesar appears as a rather shallow individual and the
so-called villain Cassius develops into a sympathetic figure.
Marcus Brutus (mar'kus broo'tus), one of the leading conspirators who
intend to kill Julius Caesar. Although defeated in the end, Brutus is
idealistic and honorable, for he hopes to do what is best for Rome.
Under Caesar, he fears, the Empire will have merely a tyrant. Something
of a dreamer, he, unlike the more practical Cassius, makes a number of
tactical errors, such as allowing Marcus Antonius to speak to the
citizens of Rome. Finally, defeated by the forces under young Octavius
and Antonius, Brutus commits suicide. He would rather accept death than
be driven, caged, through the streets of Rome.
Caius Cassius (ka'yus kasTus), another leading conspirator, one of the
prime movers in the scheme. A practical man, and a jealous one, he is a
lean and ambitious person. Some of his advice to Brutus is good. He
tells Brutus to have Antonius killed. When this is not done, the
conspirators are doomed to defeat. Like Brutus, Cassius commits suicide
when his forces are routed at Phi-lippi. To the last a brave man, he has
fought well and courageously.
Julius Caesar (jool'yus se'zsr), the mighty ruler of Rome, who hopes to
gain even more power. As portrayed in the play, he is a somewhat
bombastic and arrogant man, possibly even a cowardly one. From the first
he mistrusts men who, like Cassius, have "a lean and hungry look."
Finally reaching for too much power, he is stabbed by a large number of
conspirators led by Brutus and Cassius.
Marcus Antonius (mar'kus an-td'm-us), also Mark Antony, the close friend
of Caesar. Although he denies it, he has a great ability to sway a mob
and rouse them to a feverish pitch. As a result of his oratorical
abilities, he, with the help of a mob, forces the conspirators to ride
for their lives to escape the maddened crowd. Later, along with Octavius
and Lepidus, he is to rule Rome.
Calpurnia (kal-per'nl-ý), the wife of Caesar. Afraid because she has had
frightful dreams about yawning graveyards and lions whelping in the
streets, she begs her arrogant husband not to go to the Capitol on the
day of the assassination.
Portia (por'sha), wife of Brutus. When she learns that her husband has
been forced to flee for his life, she becomes frightened for his safety.
As matters worsen, she swallows hot coals and dies.
Decius Brutus (de'shus broo'tus), one of the conspirators against Julius
Caesar. When the others are doubtful that the superstitious Caesar will
not come to the Capitol, Decius volunteers to bring him to the
slaughter; for he knows Caesar's vanities and will play upon them until
he leaves the security of his house.
Publius (pub'll-us), Cicero (sis'a-ro), and Popilius Lena (po-pil'i-us
A Soothsayer. At the beginning of the play, he warns Caesar to beware
the Ides of March. For his trouble he is called a dreamer.
Artemidorus of Cnidos (ar'ta-ml-do'rus of nl'dos), a teacher of rhetoric
who tries to warn Caesar to beware of the conspirators led by Brutus and
Cassius. Like the soothsayer, he is ignored.
Casca (êàÓêý), Caius Ligarius (ka'yus li-ga'ri-us), Cinna (sin'a), and
Metellus Cimber (ò¸-teTus sim'bar), the other conspirators.
Flavius (fla'vi-us) and Marullus (ma-rul'us), tribunes who speak to the
crowd at the beginning of the play.
Pindarus (pfn'daa-rus), Cassius' servant. At his master's orders he runs
Cassius through with a sword.
Strato (stra'to), servant and friend to Brutus. He holds Brutus' sword
so that the latter could run upon it and commit suicide.
Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (mar'kus e-mfl'i-us lep'i-dus), the weakest
member of the triumvirate after the deaths of Brutus and Cassius.
Lucius (loo'shl-us), Brutus' servant.
Young Cato, Messala (me-sa'la), and Titinius (trtin'rus), friends of
Brutus and Cassius.
At the feast of Lupercalia all Rome rejoiced, for the latest military
triumphs of Julius Caesar were being celebrated during that holiday. Yet
tempers flared and jealousies seethed beneath this public gaiety.
Flavius and Marallus, two tribunes, coming upon a group of citizens
gathered to praise Caesar, tore down their trophies and ordered the
people to go home and remember Pompey's fate at the hands of Caesar.
Other dissatisfied noblemen discussed with concern Caesar's growing
power and his incurable ambition. A soothsayer, following Caesar in his
triumphal procession, warned him to beware the Ides of March. Cassius,
one of the most violent of Caesar's critics, spoke at length to Brutus
of the dictator's unworthiness to rule the state. Why, he demanded,
should the name of Caesar have become synonymous with that of Rome when
there were so many other worthy men in the city?
While Cassius and Brutus were speaking, they heard a tremendous shouting
from the crowd. From aristocratic Casca they learned that before the mob
Marcus Antonius had three times offered a crown to Caesar and three
times the dictator had refused it. Thus did the wily Antonius and Caesar
catch and hold the devotion of the multitude. Fully aware of Caesar's
methods and the potential danger that he embodied, Cassius and Brutus,
disturbed by this new turn of events, agreed to meet again to discuss
the affairs of Rome. As they parted, Caesar arrived in time to see them,
and he became suspicious of Cassius. Cassius did not look content; he
was too lean and nervous to be satisfied with life. Caesar much
preferred to have fat, jolly men about him.
Cassius' plan was to enlist Brutus in a plot to overthrow Caesar. Brutus
himself was one of the most respected and beloved citizens of Rome; if
he were in league against Caesar, the dictator's power could by curbed
easily. But it would be difficult to turn Brutus completely against
Caesar, for Brutus was an honorable man and not given to treason, so
that only the most drastic circumstances would make him forego his
loyalty. Cassius plotted to have certain false papers denoting
widespread public alarm over Caesar's rapidly growing power put into
Brutus' hands. Then Brutus might put Rome's interests above his own
Secretly, at night, Cassius had the papers laid at Brutus' door. Their
purport was that Brutus must strike at once against Caesar to save Rome.
The conflict within Brutus was great. His wife Portia complained that he
had not slept at all during the night and that she had found him
wandering, restless and unhappy, about the house. At last he reached a
decision. Remembering Tarquin, the tyrant whom his ancestors had
banished from Rome, Brutus agreed to join Cassius and his conspirators
in their attempt to save Rome from Caesar. He refused, however, to
sanction the murder of Antonius, planned at the same time as the
assassination of Caesar. The plan was to kill Caesar on the following
morning, March fifteenth.
On the night of March fourteenth, all nature seemed to misbehave.
Strange lights appeared in the sky, graves yawned, ghosts walked, and an
atmosphere of terror pervaded the city. Caesar's wife Calpurnia dreamed
she saw her husband's statue with a hundred wounds spouting blood. In
the morning she told him of the dream and pleaded that he not go to the
Senate that morning. When she had almost convinced him to remain at
home, one of the conspirators arrived and persuaded the dictator that
Calpurnia was unduly nervous, that the dream was actually an omen of
Caesar's tremendous popularity in Rome, the bleeding wounds a symbol of
Caesar's power going out to all Romans. The other conspirators then
arrived to allay any suspicion that Caesar might have of them and to
make sure that he attended the Senate that day.
As Caesar made his way through the city, more omens of evil appeared to
him. A paper detailing the plot against him was thrust into his hands,
but he neglected to read it. When the soothsayer again cried out against
the Ides of March, Caesar paid no attention to the warning.
At the Senate chamber Antonius was drawn to one side. Then the
conspirators crowded about Caesar as if to second a petition for the
repealing of an order banishing Publius Cimber. When he refused the
petition, the conspirators attacked him, and he fell dead of
twenty-three knife wounds.
Craftily pretending to side with the conspirators, Antonius was able to
reinstate himself in their good graces, and in spite of Cassius' warning
he was granted permission to speak at Caesar's funeral after Brutus had
delivered his oration. Before the populace Brutus, frankly and honestly
explaining his part in Caesar's murder, declared that his love for Rome
had prompted him to turn against his friend. Cheering him, the mob
agreed that Caesar was a tyrant who deserved death. Then Antonius rose
to speak. Cleverly and forcefully he turned the temper of the crowd
against the conspirators by explaining that even when Caesar was most
tyrannical, everything he did was for the people's welfare. Soon the mob
became so enraged over the assassination that the conspirators were
forced to flee from Rome.
Gradually the temper of the people changed, and they became aligned in
two camps. One group supported the new triumvirate of Marcus Antonius,
Octavius Caesar, and Aemilius Lepidus. The other group followed Brutus
and Cassius to their military camp at Sardis.
At Sardis, Brutus and Cassius quarreled constantly over various small
matters. In the course of one violent disagreement Brutus told Cassius
that Portia, despondent over the outcome of the civil war, had killed
herself. Cassius, shocked by this news of his sister's death, allowed
himself to be persuaded to leave the safety of the camp at Sardis and
meet the enemy on the plains of Philippi. The night before the battle
Caesar's ghost appeared to Brutus in his tent and announced that they
would meet at Philippi.
At the beginning of the battle the forces of Brutus were at first
successful against those of Octavius. Cassius, however, was driven back
by Antonius. One morning Cassius sent one of his followers, Titinius, to
learn if approaching troops were the enemy or the soldiers of Brutus.
When Cassius saw Titinius unseated from his horse by the strangers, he
assumed that everything was lost and ordered his servant Pindarus to
kill him. Actually, the troops had been sent by Brutus. Rejoicing over
the defeat of Octavius, they were having rude sport with Titinius. When
they returned to Cassius and found him dead, Titinius also killed
himself. In the last charge against Antonius, the soldiers of Brutus,
tired and discouraged by these new events, were defeated. Brutus,
heartbroken, asked his friends to kill him. When they refused, he
commanded his servant to hold his sword and turn his face away. Then
Brutus fell upon his sword and died.
The first of Shakespeare's so-called "Roman plays"— which include
Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra— Julius Caesar also heralds the
great period of his tragedies. The sharply dramatic and delicately
portrayed character of Brutus is a clear predecessor of Hamlet and
Othello. With Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar is
one of the three tragedies written before the beginning of the sixteenth
century. It is, however, more historical than the four great
tragedies—Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and King Lear—being drawn in large
part from Sir Thomas North's wonderfully idiomatic translation of
Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (1579). A comparison
of the Shakespearean text with the passages from North's chapters on
Caesar, Brutus, and Antony reveals the remarkable truth of T. S. Eliot's
statement: "Immature poets borrow; mature poets steal." For in example
after example, Shakespeare has done little more than rephrase the words
of North's exuberant prose to fit the rhythm of his own blank verse. The
thievery is nonetheless a brilliant one, and not without originality on
Shakespeare's originality, found in all his "historical" plays, is
analogous to that of the great classical Greek playwrights. Aeschylus,
Sophocles, and Euripides faced a dramatic challenge very unlike that
offered to modern writers, who are judged by their capacity for sheer
invention. Just as the Greek audience came to the play with full
knowledge of the particular myth involved in the tragedy to be
presented, so the Elizabethan audience knew the story of the
assassination of Julius Caesar. Shakespeare, like his classical
predecessors, had to work his dramatic art within the restrictions of
known history. He accomplished this by writing "between the lines" of
Plutarch, offering insights into the mind of the characters that
Plutarch does not mention—insights which become, on the stage, dramatic
motivations. An example is Caesar's revealing hesitation about going to
the Senate because of Calpurnia's dream, and the way he is swayed by
Decius into going after all. This scene shows the weakness of Caesar's
character in a way not found in a literal reading of Plutarch. A second
major "adaptation" by Shakespeare is a daring, dramatically effective
telescoping of historical time. The historical events associated with
the death of Caesar and the defeat of the conspirators actually took
three years; Shakespeare condenses them into three tense days, following
the Castolvetrian unity of time (though not of place).
Although prose is used in the play by comic and less important
characters or in purely informative speeches or documents, the general
mode of expression is Shakespeare's characteristic blank verse, with
five stressed syllables per line and generally unrhymed. The iambic
pentameter, a rhythm natural to English speech, has the effect of making
more memorable lines such as Flavius' comment about the commoners ("They
vanish tongue-tied in their guiltiness") or Brutus' observation, "Men at
some time are masters of their fates." As in most of the tragedies,
Shakespeare here follows a five-part dramatic structure, consisting of
the exposition (to act 1, scene 2), complication (1.2 to 2.4), climax
(3.1), consequence (3.1-5.2), and denouement (5.3-5.5).
The primary theme of Julius Caesar is a combination of political and
personal concerns, the first dealing with the question of justifiable
revolutions—revealing with the effectiveness of concentrated action the
transition from a republic of equals to an empire dominated by great
individuals (like Antony, influenced by the example of Caesar himself,
and Octavius, who comes to his own at the end of the play). The personal
complication is the tragedy of a noble spirit involved in matters it
does not comprehend; that is, the tragedy of Brutus. For, despite the
title, Brutus, not Caesar, is the hero of this play. It is true that
Caesar's influence motivates the straightforward and ultimately
victorious actions of Antony throughout the play, accounting for
Antony's transformation from an apparently secondary figure into one of
solid stature. But it is the presence of Brutus before the eyes of the
audience as he gradually learns to distinguish ideals from reality that
dominates the sympathy of the audience. Around his gentle character,
praised at last even by Antony, Shakespeare weaves the recurrent motifs
of honor and honesty, freedom and fortune, ambition and pride. Honor is
the theme of Brutus' speech to the crowd in the Forum, honor as it
interacts with ambition: "As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was
fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him, but, as he
was ambitious, I slew him." After the deed Brutus comments, "Ambition's
debt is paid." One of the great, dramatically successful ironies of the
play is that Antony's Forum speech juxtaposes the same two themes: "Yet
Brutus says he was ambitious/ And Brutus is an honourable man." By the
time Antony is finished, the term "honour" has been twisted by his
accelerating sarcasm until it becomes a curse, moving the fickle crowd
to change their opinion entirely and call for death to the conspirators.
The conjunction of Brutus and Antony in this particular scene (act 3,
scene 2) reveals the telling difference between their dramatic
characterizations. Though Caesar may have had too much ambition, Brutus'
problem is that he has too little; Brutus is a man of ideals and words,
and therefore cannot succeed in the corridors of power. Cassius and
Antony, in contrast, have no such concern with idealistic concepts or
words like honor and ambition; yet there is a distinction even between
them. Cassius is a pure doer, a man of action, almost entirely devoid of
sentiment or principle; Antony, however, is both a doer of deeds and a
speaker of words—and therefore prevails over all in the end, following
in the footsteps of his model, Caesar. To underline the relationships
among these similar yet different characters and the themes that
dominate their actions Shakespeare weaves a complicated net of striking
images: monetary (creating a tension between Brutus and Cassius); the
tide image ("Thou are the ruins of the noblest man/ That ever lived in
the tide of times") connected with the theme of fortune; the stars
(Caesar compares himself, like Marlowe's Tamburlaine, to a fixed star
while Cassius says, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/ But
in ourselves, that we are underlings"); and the wood and stones used to
describe the common people by those who would move them to their own
will. Julius Caesar, in yet another way, marks the advance of
Shakespeare's artistry in its use of dramatic irony. In this play the
Shakespearean audience becomes almost a character in the drama, as it is
made privy to knowledge and sympathies not yet shared by all the
characters on the stage. This pattern occurs most notably in Decius'
speech interpreting Calpurnia's dream, showing the ability of an actor
to move men to action by duplicity that is well managed. The pattern is
also evident when Cinna mistakes Cassius for Metellus Cimber,
foreshadowing the mistaken identity scene that ends in his own death;
when Cassius, on two occasions, gives in to Brutus' refusal to do away
with Mark Antony; and, most effectively of all, in the two Forum
speeches when Antony addresses two audiences, the one in the theater
(that knows his true intentions), and the other the Roman crowd whose
ironic whimsicality is marked by the startling shift of sentiment, from
admiration following Brutus' speech ("Let him be Caesar!") to the
immediate and very opposite feeling after Antony's ("Die, honourable
men!"). The effect of the irony is to suggest the close connection
between functional politics and the art of acting. Antony, in the end,
wins out over Brutus—as Bolingbroke does over Richard II—because he can
put on a more compelling act.
Type of work: Drama
Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Type of plot: Romantic tragedy
Time of plot: First century B.C.
First presented: ñ 1605
The theme of filial ingratitude is portrayed in two parallel
stories with overwhelming pathos in this majestic achieve-ment,
considered by many the greatest of Shakespeare's tragedies. The heights
of terror and pity achieved through the poet's treatment of his story
equal those of the great tragedies of antiquity. Although generally
considered one of the noblest utterances of the human spirit, the play
often proves to be difficult to stage. Its world is more legendary than
concrete and its figures larger than life, although they are vehicles
for universal feelings.
Lear (ler), king of Britain. Obstinate, arrogant, and hot-tempered, he
indiscreetly plans to divide his king¬dom among his daughters, giving
the best and largest portion to Cordelia, his youngest and best-loved.
When she refuses to flatter him with lavish and public protes¬tations of
love, he casts her off with unreasoning fury. Disillusioned and
abandoned by his older daughters, his age and exposure to internal and
external tempests drive him to madness. During his suffering, signs of
unsel-fishness appear, and his character changes from arro-gance and
bitterness to love and tenderness. He is reu-nited with his true and
loving daughter until her untimely murder parts them again.
Goneril (gon's-ril), Lear's eldest daughter. Savage and blunt as a wild
boar, she wears the mask of hypocritical affection to gain a kingdom.
She has contempt for her aged father, her honest sister, and her
kindhearted hus-band. Her illicit passion for Edmund, handsome bastard
son of the Earl of Gloucester, leads to Edmund's, Regan's, and her own
Regan (re'gsn), Lear's second daughter. Treacherous in a catlike manner,
she seldom initiates the action of the evil sisters, but often goes a
step further in cruelty. She gloats over Gloucester when his eyes are
torn out and unintentionally helps him to see the light of truth. Her
early widowhood gives her some advantage over Goneril in their rivalry
for the person of Edmund, but she is poisoned by Goneril, who then
Cordelia (kor-deTya), Lear's youngest daughter. Endowed with her
father's stubbornness, she refuses to flatter him as her sisters have
done. In his adversity she returns to him with love and forgiveness,
restoring his sanity and redeeming him from bitterness. Her untimely
death brings about Lear's death.
The Earl of Kent, Lear's frank and loyal follower. Risking Lear's anger
to avert his impetuous unreason, he accepts banishment as payment for
truth. Like Cordelia, but even before her, he returns to aid
Lear—necessarily in disguise—as the servant Caius. The impudence of
Oswald arouses violent anger in him. For his master no service is too
menial or too perilous.
The Earl of Gloucester, another father with good and evil children, a
parallel to Lear and his daughters. Having had a gay past, about which
he speaks frankly and with some pride, he believes himself a man of the
world and a practical politician. He is gullible and superstitious and,
deceived by Edmund, he casts off his loyal, legitimate son Edgar. His
loyalty to the persecuted king leads to the loss of his eyes; but his
inner sight is made whole by his blinding. He dies happily reconciled to
Edgar (in disguise Tom o' Bedlam), Gloucester's legitimate son. He is
forced into hiding by his credulous father and the machinations of his
evil half brother. As Tom o' Bedlam he is with the king during the
tempest, and later he cares for his eyeless father both physically and
spiritually. Finally he reveals himself to Gloucester just before
engaging in mortal combat with Edmund, who dies as a result of Edgar's
Edmund, Gloucester's illegitimate younger son. A Machiavellian villain
governed by insatiable ambition, he attempts to destroy his half brother
and his father for his own advancement. Without passion himself, he
rejoices in his ability to arouse it in others, particularly Lear's two
evil daughters. He has a grim and cynical sense of humor. His
heartlessness is demonstrated by his plotting the murders of Lear and
Cordelia, in which he is only half successful. He shows signs of
repentance at the time of his death, but hardly enough to color his
The Duke of Cornwall, Regan's husband. An inhuman monster, he aids in
heaping hardships on the aged king and tears out Gloucester's eyes when
the Earl is discovered aiding the distressed monarch. His death, brought
on by his cruelty, leaves Regan free to pursue Edmund as a potential
The Duke of Albany, Goneril's husband. Noble and kind, he is revolted by
Goneril's behavior toward her father, by Gloucester's blinding, and by
the murder of Cordelia. He repudiates Goneril and Regan and restores
order to the kingdom.
The Fool, Lear's jester but "not altogether a fool." A mixture of
cleverness, bitterness, and touching loyalty, he remains with the old
king in his terrible adversity. His suffering rouses Lear's pity and
leads to the major change from selfish arrogance to unselfish love in
the old king. The fool's end is obscure; he simply vanishes from the
play. The line which says "My poor fool is hanged" may refer to Cordelia.
Oswald, Goneril's doglike servant. Insolent, cowardly, and evil, he is
still devoted to his mistress, whom ironically he destroys. His last act
of devotion to her is to urge his slayer to deliver a letter from her to
Edmund. Since the slayer is Edgar, the letter goes to the Duke of Albany
as evidence of Goneril's and Edmund's falsehood.
The King of France, a suitor of Cordelia. Captivated by her character
and loveliness, he marries her with only her father's curse for dowry.
He sets up an invasion of England to restore the old king but is called
back to France before the decisive battle, leaving the responsi-bility
on his young queen.
The Duke of Burgundy, a suitor of Cordelia. Cautious and selfish, he
rejects Cordelia when he finds out that she has been cast off by her
First Servant of Cornwall. Moved by Cornwall's inhuman cruelty, he
endeavors to save Gloucester from being blinded. Although his appearance
is brief, he makes a profound impression as a character, and his action
in mortally wounding Cornwall alters the course of events and leads to
the overthrow of the evil forces.
An Old Man, Gloucester's tenant. Helping the blinded man, he delivers
him to the care of the supposed mad beggar, actually Edgar.
A Captain, employed by Edmund to murder Lear and Cordelia in prison. He
hangs Cordelia but later is killed by the aged king, who is too late to
save his beloved daughter.
A Doctor, employed by Cordelia to treat her father in his illness and
madness. He aids in restoring Lear to partial health.
Curan, a courtier.
King Lear, in foolish fondness for his children, decided to divide his
kingdom among his three daughters. Grown senile, he scoffed at the
foresight of his advisers and declared that each girl's statement of her
love for him would determine the portion of the kingdom she would
receive as her dowry.
Goneril, the oldest and the duchess of Albany, spoke first. She said
that she loved her father more than eyesight, space, liberty, or life
itself. Regan, Duchess of Cornwall, announced that the sentiment of her
love had been expressed by Goneril, but that Goneril had stopped short
of the statement of Regan's real love. Cordelia, who had secretly
confided that her love was more ponderous than her tongue, told her
father that because her love was in her heart, not in her mouth, she was
willing to sacrifice eloquence for truth. Lear angrily told her that
truth alone could be her dowry and ordered that her part of the kingdom
be divided between Goneril and Regan. Lear's disappointment in
Cordelia's statement grew into a rage against Kent, who tried to reason
Cordelia's case with his foolish king. Because of Kent's blunt speech he
was given ten days to leave the country. Loving his sovereign, he risked
death by disguising himself and remaining in Britain to care for Lear in
When Burgundy and France came as suitors to ask Cordelia's hand in
marriage. Burgundy, learning of her dowerless fate, rejected her.
France, honoring Cordelia for her virtues, took her as his wife, but
Lear dismissed Cordelia and France without his benediction. Goneril and
Regan, wary of their father's vacillation in his weakened mental state,
set about to establish their kingdoms against change.
Lear was not long in learning what Goneril's and Regan's statements of
their love for him had really meant. Their caustic comments about the
old man's feebleness, both mental and physical, furnished Lear's Fool
with many points for his philosophical recriminations against the king.
Realizing that his charity to his daughters had made him homeless, Lear
cried in anguish against his fate. His prayers went unanswered, and the
abuse he received from his daughters hastened his derangement.
The Earl of Gloucester, like Lear, was fond of his two sons. Edmund, a
bastard, afraid that his illegitimacy would deprive him of his share of
Gloucester's estate, forged a letter over Edgar's signature, stating
that the sons should not have to wait for their fortunes until they were
too old to enjoy them. Gloucester, refusing to believe that Edgar
desired his father's death, was told by Edmund to wait in hiding and
hear Edgar make assertions which could easily be misinterpreted against
him. Edmund, furthering his scheme, told Edgar that villainy was afoot
and that Edgar should not go unarmed at any time.
To complete his evil design, he later advised Edgar to flee for his own
safety. After cutting his arm, he then told his father that he had been
wounded while he and Edgar fought over Gloucester's honor. Gloucester,
swearing that Edgar would not escape justice, had his son's description
circulated so that he might be apprehended.
Edmund, meanwhile, allied himself with Cornwall and Albany to defend
Britain against the French army mobilized by Cordelia and her husband to
avenge Lear's cruel treatment. He won Regan and Goneril completely by
his personal attentions to them and set the sisters against each other
by arousing their jealousy.
Lear, wandering as an outcast on the stormy heath, was aided by Kent,
disguised as a peasant. Seeking protection from the storm, they found a
hut where Edgar, pretending to be a madman, had already taken refuge.
Gloucester, searching for the king, found them there and urged them to
hurry to Dover, where Cordelia and her husband would protect Lear from
the wrath of his unnatural daughters.
For attempting to give succor and condolence to the outcast Lear,
Gloucester was blinded when Cornwall, acting on information furnished by
Edmund, gouged out his eyes. While he was at his grisly work, a servant,
rebelling against the cruel deed, wounded Cornwall. Regan killed the
servant. Cornwall died later as the result of his wound. Edgar, still
playing the part of a madman, found his father wandering the fields with
an old retainer. Without revealing his identity, Edgar promised to guide
his father to Dover, where Gloucester planned to die by throwing himself
from the high cliffs.
Goneril was bitterly jealous because widowed Regan could receive the
full attention of Edmund, who had been made Earl of Gloucester. She
declared that she would rather lose the battle to France than to lose
Edmund to Regan. Goneril's hatred became more venomous when Albany, whom
she detested because of his kindliness toward Lear and his pity for
Gloucester, announced that he would try to right the wrongs done by
Goneril, Regan, and Edmund.
Cordelia, informed by messenger of her father's fate, was in the French
camp near Dover. When the mad old king was brought to her by faithful
Kent, she cared for her father tenderly and put him in the care of a
doctor skilled in curing many kinds of ills. Regaining his reason, Lear
recognized Cordelia, but the joy of their reunion was clouded by his
repentance for his misunderstanding and mistreatment of his only loyal
Edgar, protecting Gloucester, was accosted by Oswald, Goneril's steward,
on his way to deliver a note to Edmund. After Edgar had killed Oswald in
the fight which fol¬lowed, Edgar delivered the letter to Albany. In it
Goneril declared her love for Edmund and asked that he kill her husband.
Gloucester died, feeble and brokenhearted after Edgar had revealed
himself to his father.
Edmund, commanding the British forces, took Lear and Cordelia prisoners.
As they were taken off to prison, he sent written instructions for their
Albany was aware of Edmund's ambition for personal glory and arrested
him on a charge of high treason. Regan, interceding for her lover, was
rebuffed by Goneril. Regan, suddenly taken ill, was carried to Albany's
tent. When Edmund, as was his right, demanded a trial by combat, Albany
agreed. Edgar, still in disguise, appeared and in the fight mortally
wounded his false brother. Learning from Albany that he knew of her plot
against his life, Goneril was desperate. She went to their tent,
poisoned Regan, and killed herself.
Edmund, dying, revealed that he and Goneril had ordered Cordelia to be
hanged and her death to be announced as suicide because of her
despondency over her father's plight. Edmund, fiendish and diabolical
always, was also vain. While he lay dying he looked upon the bodies of
Goneril and Regan and expressed pleasure that two women were dead
because of their jealous love for him.
Albany dispatched Edgar to prevent Cordelia's death, but he arrived too
late. Lear refused all assistance when he appeared carrying her dead
body in his arms. After asking forgiveness of heartbroken Kent, whom he
recognized at last, Lear, a broken, confused old man, died in anguish.
Edgar and Albany alone were left to rebuild a country ravaged by
bloodshed and war.
King Lear's first entrance in act 1 is replete with ritual and ceremony.
He is full of antiquity, authority, and assurance as he makes his regal
way through the ordered court. When he reveals his intention to divide
his kingdom into three parts for his daughters, he exudes the confidence
generated by his long reign. The crispness and directness of his
language suggest a power, if not imperiousness, which, far from
senility, demonstrate the stability and certainty of long, unchallenged
sway. The rest of the play acts out the destruction of that fixed order
and the emergence of a new, tentative balance.
In the opening scene Lear speaks as king and father. The absolute ruler
has decided to apportion his kingdom as a gift rather than as a bequest
to his three heirs. In performing this act, which superficially seems
both reasonable and generous, Lear sets in motion a chain of events
which lay bare his primary vulnerabilities not only as a king and a
father but also as a man. In retrospect it is foolish to expect to
divest oneself of power and responsibility and yet retain the trappings
of authority. However, this is exactly what Lear anticipates because of
his excessive confidence in the love of his daughters. He asks too much,
he acts too precipitately, but he is punished, by an inexorable
universe, out of all proportion to his errors in judgment.
When he asks his daughters for a declaration of love, as a prerequisite
for a share of the kingdom, he is as self-assured and overbearing a
parent as he is a monarch. It is thus partly his own fault that the
facile protestations of love by Goneril and Regan are credited; they are
what he wants to hear because they conform to the ceremonial necessities
of the occasion. Cordelia's honest response, born of a genuine love, are
out of keeping with the formalities. Lear has not looked beneath the
surface. He has let the ritual appearances replace the internal reality
or he has at least refused to distinguish between the two.
The asseverations of Goneril and Regan soon emerge as the cynical
conceits that they are, but by then Lear has banished Cordelia and the
loyal Kent, who saw through the sham. Lear is successively and
ruthlessly divested of all the accoutrements of kingship by the
villainous daughters, who finally reduce him to the condition of a
ragged, homeless madman. Paradoxically, it is in this extremity, on the
heath with Edgar and the Fool, that Lear comes to a knowledge of himself
and of his community with all humanity that he had never achieved amid
the glories of power. Buffeted by the natural fury of the storm, which
is symbolic of the chaos and danger that come with the passing of the
old order, Lear sees through his madness the common bond of humanity.
The experience of Lear is mirrored in the Gloucester subplot on a more
manageable, human level. Gloucester too suffers filial ingratitude but
it is not raised to a cosmic level. He too mistakes appearance for
reality in trusting the duplicitous Edmund and disinheriting the honest
Edgar, but his behavior is more clearly the outgrowth of an existing
moral confusion reflected in his ambivalent and unrepentant affection
for his bastard. His moral blindness leads to physical blindness when
his faulty judgment makes him vulnerable to the villains. In his
blindness he finally sees the truth of his situation, but his experience
is merely as a father and a man.
Lear's experience parallels Gloucester's in that his figurative madness
leads to a real madness in which he finally recognizes what he has
lacked. He sees in Edgar, himself a victim of Gloucester's moral
blindness, the natural state of man, stripped of all external
decoration, and he realizes that he has ignored the basic realities of
the human condition. His experience finally transcends Gloucester's
because he is a king, preeminent among men. He not only represents the
occupational hazards of kingship but also the broadly human disposition
to prefer pleasant appearances to troubling realities. However, because
of his position, Lear's failure brings down the whole political and
social order with him.
Lear has violated nature by a culpable ignorance of it. The result is
familial discord, physical suffering, and existential confusion. Brought
low, Lear begins to fashion a new view of himself, of human love, and of
human nature. In his insanity, Lear assembles the bizarre court of mad
king, beggar, and fool which reasserts the common bonds of all men. Once
these realizations have come, the evil characters, so carefully balanced
against the good in this precarious world, begin to kill each other off
and succumb to the vengeance of regenerated justice.
However, it is a mark of Shakespeare's uncompromising view of reality
that there is no simple application of poetic justice to reward the good
and punish the wicked, for the good die too. It is true that Edgar
finishes off his brother in trial by combat and that the machinations of
Goneril and Regan result in the destruction of both, but the redeemed
Lear and Cordelia, the perfection of selfless love, also die. That Lear
should die is perhaps no surprise. The suffering that he has endured in
his con-frontation with the primal elements does not allow an optimistic
return to normal life and prosperity. He has, on our behalf, looked into
the eye of nature and there is nothing left but to die.
The death of Cordelia is more troublesome, at least tonally, because she
is a perfectly innocent victim of the evil and madness that surround
her. But Shakespeare refuses to save her. She dies gratuitously, not
because of any internal necessity of the plot, but because the message
to save her is too late. The dramatist has created his own inevitability
in order to represent the ruthless consequences of the evil and chaos
that have been loosed. When Lear enters with the dead Cordelia, he
accomplishes the final expiation of his unknowing.
Out of these sufferings and recognitions comes a new moral stasis. Yet
the purged world does not leave us with great confidence in future
stability. Kent is old and refuses kingship. Edgar assumes authority
but, despite his rectitude, there is an unsettling doubt that he has the
force or stature to maintain the new order in a volatile world where
evil and chaos are always rumbling beneath the surface.
Type of Work: Drama
Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Type of plot: Romantic tragedy
Time of plot: Eleventh century
First presented: 1606
This shortest of Shakespeare's four major tragedies was written to
be performed for King James I and was designed to appeal to the
monarch's fascination with witchcraft and supernatural phenomena. The
play explores the nature of ambition and the complexities of moral
responsibility through the story of a nobleman driven to murder at the
instigation of his power-hungry wife. Macbeth's doom is fixed at this
first evil act, after which he descends deeper and deeper into
degradation in an attempt to conceal the crime and guarantee the
invulnerability of his new position of power
Macbeth (mak-beth'), thane of Glamis, later thane of Cawdor and king of
Scotland. A brave and successful military leader, potentially a good and
great man, he wins general admiration as well as the particular
gratitude of King Duncan, whose kinsman he is. Meeting the three weird
sisters, he succumbs to their tempting prophecies; but he also needs the
urging of his wife to become a traitor, a murderer, and a usurper. He is
gifted, or cursed, with a powerful and vivid imagination and with fiery,
poetic language. Gaining power, he grows more and more ruthless, until
finally he loses even the vestiges of humanity. He dies desperately,
cheated by the ambiguous prophecies, in full realization of the
worthlessness of the fruits of his ambition.
Lady Macbeth, the strong-willed, persuasive, and charming wife of
Macbeth. Ambitious for her husband's glory, she finds herself unable to
kill King Duncan in his sleep, because he resembles her father. As
Macbeth becomes more inhuman, she becomes remorseful and breaks under
the strain. In her sleepwalking, she relives the events of the night of
the king's murder and tries to wash her hands clean of imaginary
Banquo (ban'kwo, bang'ko), Macbeth's fellow commander. A man of noble
character, seemingly unmoved by the prophecy of the three weird sisters
that he will beget kings, he is not completely innocent; he does not
disclose his suspicions of Macbeth, and he accepts a place in Macbeth's
court. After being murdered by Macbeth's assassins, Banquo appears at a
ceremonial banquet. His blood-spattered ghost, visible only to Macbeth,
unnerves the king completely. In the final vision shown Macbeth by the
three weird sisters, Banquo and his line of kings appear.
The Three Weird Sisters, the three witches, sinister hags who seem more
closely allied to the Norns or Fates than to conventional witches. To
Macbeth they make prophetic statements which are true but deceptive.
Their prophecy of his becoming thane of Cawdor is immediately fulfilled,
tempting him to take direct action to carry out the second prophecy,
that he shall be king. They lull him into false security by telling him
that he has nothing to fear until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, and
that he cannot be killed by any man born of woman.
Macduff (mk-duf), thane of Fife. He and Lennox arrive at Macbeth's
castle just after the murder of King Duncan, and Macduff discovers the
body. A brave but prudent man, he flees Scotland and offers his help to
Malcolm. Underestimating the villainy of Macbeth's character, he is
thunderstruck at hearing of the atrocious murder of his wife and
children. He becomes a steel-hearted avenger. Before killing Macbeth, he
deprives him of his last symbol of security, for as a Cesarean child he
was not actually born of woman. He presents Macbeth's head to Malcolm
and proclaims the young prince king of Scotland.
Duncan (dung'kan), king of Scotland. Gentle and trusting, he shows great
kindness to Macbeth. His murder by Macbeth is therefore almost
Malcolm (ml'kam), King Duncan's eldest son. Far more cautious and shrewd
than his father, he leaves for England to escape possible assassination.
He is reluctant to give his trust to Macduff but finally, realizing his
loyalty, accepts his aid in taking the throne of Scotland.
Donalbain (don'sl-ban), King Duncan's younger son. After consulting with
Malcolm, he agrees to take a separate path, going to Ireland so that the
potential heirs to the throne would not be accessible to a common
Fleance (fle'sns), the son of Banquo. He escapes the murderers who kill
his father and lives to haunt Macbeth with the three weird sisters'
prophecy that kings will spring from Banquo's line.
Ross, a nobleman of Scotland. He is Duncan's messenger to Macbeth,
bringing him word of his new title, Thane of Cawdor. He also bears news
to his kinswoman, Lady Macduff, of her husband's departure from
Scotland. His third and most terrible office as messenger is to carry
word to Macduff of the destruction of his entire family. He fights in
Malcolm's army against Macbeth.
Lennox, a nobleman of Scotland. He is Macduff's companion when the
latter brings the message to King Duncan at Macbeth's castle. He also
deserts Macbeth and joins forces with Malcolm.
Lady Macduff, a victim of Macbeth's most horrible atrocity. She is human
A Boy, the son of Macduff, a brave and precocious child. He faces
Macbeth's hired murderers without flinching and dies calling to his
mother to save herself.
Siward (se'wsrd, se'srd), earl of Northumberland, the general of the
English forces supporting Malcolm. He is the type of the noble father
accepting stoically the death of a heroic son.
Young Siward, the general's courageous son. He dies fighting Macbeth
hand to hand.
A Scottish Doctor. Called in to minister to Lady Macbeth, he is witness
of her sleepwalking in which she relives the night of the murder.
A Gentlewoman, an attendant to Lady Macbeth. She is with the Doctor and
observes Lady Macbeth during the sleepwalking scene.
A Sergeant (also called Captain in the Folio text), a wounded survivor
of the battle at the beginning of the play. He reports to King Duncan
the heroism of Macbeth and Banquo.
A Porter, a comical drunkard. Roused by the knocking on the castle door,
he pretends to be the gatekeeper of Hell and imagines various candidates
clamoring for admission. The audience, knowing of Duncan's murder, can
realize how ironically near the truth is the idea of the castle as Hell.
Hecate (heVg-te, hek'st), patroness of the Witches. It is generally
accepted among Shakespearean scholars that Hecate is an addition to the
play by another author, perhaps Thomas Middleton, author of "The Witch."
A Messenger. He brings word that Birnam Wood is apparently moving. His
message destroys one of Macbeth's illusions of safety.
Seyton, an officer attending Macbeth. He brings word of Lady Macbeth's
Menteith, Angus, and Caithness, Scottish noblemen who join Malcolm
On a lonely heath in Scotland, three witches sang their riddling runes
and said that soon they would meet Macbeth.
Macbeth was the noble thane of Glamis, recently victorious in a great
battle against Vikings and Scottish rebels. For his brave deeds, King
Duncan intended to confer upon him the lands of the rebellious thane of
Cawdor. But before Macbeth saw the king, he and his friend Ban-quo met
the three weird witches upon the dark moor. The wild and frightful women
greeted Macbeth by first calling him thane of Glamis, then thane of
Cawdor, and finally, King of Scotland. Too, they prophesied that
Ban-quo's heirs would reign in Scotland in years to come.
When Macbeth tried to question the three hags, they vanished. Macbeth
thought very little about the strange prophecy until he met one of
Duncan's messengers, who told him that he was now thane of Cawdor. This
piece of news stunned Macbeth, and he turned to Banquo to confirm the
witches' prophecy. But Banquo, unduped by the witches, thought them evil
enough to betray Macbeth by whetting his ambition and tricking him into
fulfilling the prophecy. Macbeth did not heed Banquo's warning; the
words of the witches as they called him king had gone deep into his
soul. He pondered over the possibility of becoming a monarch and set his
whole heart on the attainment of this goal. If he could be thane of
Cawdor, perhaps he could rule all of Scotland as well. But as it was
now, Duncan was king, with two sons to rule after him. The problem was
great. Macbeth shook off his ambitious dreams to go with Banquo to greet
A perfect ruler, Duncan was kind, majestic, gentle, strong; Macbeth was
fond of him. But when Duncan mentioned that his son Malcolm would
succeed him on the throne, Macbeth saw the boy as an obstacle in his own
path, and he hardly dared admit to himself how this impediment disturbed
On a royal procession, Duncan announced that he would spend one night at
Macbeth's castle. Lady Macbeth, who knew of the witches' prophecy, was
even more ambitious than her husband, and she saw Duncan's visit as a
perfect opportunity for Macbeth to become king. She determined that he
should murder Duncan and usurp the throne.
That night there was much feasting in the castle. After everyone was
asleep, Lady Macbeth told her husband of her plan for the king's murder.
Horrified at first, Macbeth refused to do the deed. But on being accused
of cowardice by his wife, and having bright prospects of his future
dangled before his eyes, Macbeth finally succumbed to her demands. He
stole into the sleeping king's chamber and plunged a knife into his
The murder was blamed on two grooms whom Lady Macbeth had smeared with
Duncan's blood while they were asleep. But the deed was hardly without
suspicion in the castle, and when the murder was revealed, the dead
king's sons fled, Malcolm to England, Donalbain to Ireland. Macbeth was
proclaimed king. But Macduff, a nobleman who had been Duncan's close
friend, also carefully noted the murder, and when Macbeth was crowned
king, Macduff suspected him of the bloody killing.
Macbeth began to have horrible dreams; his mind was never free from
fear. Often he thought of the witches' second prophecy, that Banquo's
heirs would hold the throne, and the prediction tormented him. Macbeth
was so determined that Banquo would never share in his own hard-earned
glory that he resolved to murder Banquo and his son, Fleance.
Lady Macbeth and her husband gave a great banquet for the noble thanes
of Scotland. At the same time, Macbeth sent murderers to waylay Banquo
and his son before they could reach the palace. Banquo was slain in the
scuffle, but Fleance escaped. Meanwhile in the large banquet hall
Macbeth pretended great sorrow that Ban-quo was not present. But Banquo
was present in spirit, and his ghost majestically appeared in Macbeth's
own seat. The startled king was so frightened that he almost betrayed
his guilt when he alone saw the apparition. Lady Macbeth quickly led him
away and dismissed the guests.
More frightened than ever, thinking of Banquo's ghost which had returned
to haunt him, and of Fleance who had escaped but might one day claim the
throne, Macbeth was so troubled that he determined to seek solace from
the witches on the dismal heath. They assured Macbeth that he would not
be overcome by man born of woman, nor until the forest of Birnam came to
Dunsinane Hill. They warned him to beware of Macduff. When Macbeth asked
if Banquo's children would reign over the kingdom, the witches
disappeared. The news they gave him brought him cheer. Macbeth felt he
need fear no man, since all were born of women, and certainly the great
Birnam forest could not be moved by human power.
Then Macbeth heard that Macduff was gathering a hostile army in England,
an army to be led by Malcolm, Duncan's son, who was determined to avenge
his father's murder. So terrified was Macbeth that he resolved to murder
Macduff's wife and children in order to bring the rebel to submission.
After this slaughter, however, Macbeth was more than ever tormented by
fear; his twisted mind had almost reached the breaking point, and he
longed for death to release him from his nightmarish existence.
Before long Lady Macbeth's strong will broke. Dark dreams of murder and
violence drove her to madness. The horror of her crimes and the agony of
being hated and feared by all of Macbeth's subjects made her so ill that
her death seemed imminent.
On the eve of Macduff's attack on Macbeth's castle, Lady Macbeth died,
depriving her husband of all courage she had given him in the past.
Rallying, Macbeth summoned strength to meet his enemy. Meanwhile, Birnam
Wood had moved, for Malcolm's soldiers were hidden behind cut green
boughs, which from a distance appeared to be a moving forest. Macduff,
enraged by the slaughter of his innocent family, was determined to meet
Macbeth in hand-to-hand conflict.
Macbeth went to battle filled with the false courage given him by the
witches' prophecy that no man born of woman would overthrow him. Meeting
Macduff, Macbeth began to fight him, taunting him at the same time about
his having been born of woman. But Macduff had been ripped alive from
his mother's womb. The prophecy was fulfilled. Macbeth fought with
waning strength, all hope of victory gone, and Macduff, with a flourish,
severed the head of the bloody King of Scotland.
Not only is Macbeth by far the shortest of William Shakespeare's great
tragedies but also it is anomalous in several structural respects. Like
Othello, and very few other Shakespearean plays, Macbeth is without the
complications of a subplot. Consequently, the action moves forward in a
swift and inexorable rush. More significantly, the climax, the murder of
Duncan, takes place very early in the play. The result is that attention
is focused on the manifold consequences of the crime rather than on the
ambiguities or moral dilemmas which precede or occasion it.
Thus, the play is not like Othello, where the hero commits murder only
after long plotting by the villain, nor is it like Hamlet, where the
hero spends most of the play in moral indecision. It is more like King
Lear, where destructive action flows from the central premise of the
division of the kingdom. But Macbeth is much different from King Lear in
that it does not raise monumental, cosmic questions of good and evil in
nature; instead it explores the moral and psychological effects of evil
in the life of one man. For all the power and prominence of Lady
Macbeth, the drama remains essentially the story of the lord, who
commits regicide and thereby enmeshes himself in a complex web of
When Macbeth first enters, he is far from the villain whose experiences
the play subsequently describes. He has just returned from a military
success that has covered him with glory in defense of the crown. He is
rewarded by the grateful Duncan, with preferment as thane of Caw-dor.
This excellence and honor, which initially qualify him for the role of
hero, ironically intensify the horror of the murder Macbeth soon
His fall is rapid, and his crime is more clearly a sin than is usually
the case in tragedy. It is not mitigated by mixed motives or
insufficient knowledge. Moreover, the sin is regicide, an action viewed
by the Renaissance audience as exceptionally foul since it struck at
God's representative on earth. The sin is so boldly offensive that many
have tried to find extenuation in the impetus given Macbeth by the
witches. However, the witches do not control behavior in the play. They
are symbolic of evil and prescient of crimes which are to come, but they
neither encourage nor facilitate Macbeth's actions. They are merely a
reminder of the ambition which is already within Macbeth. Indeed, when
he discusses the witches' prophecy with Lady Macbeth, it is clear that
the possibility has been discussed before.
Nor can we shift responsibility to Lady Macbeth, despite her goading of
her husband. In one, perhaps amoral, way, she is merely acting out the
role of the good wife, encouraging her husband to do what she believes
is in his best interests. In any case, she is rather a catalyst and
supporter; she does not make the grim decision for Macbeth, and he never
tries to lay the blame on her.
When Macbeth proceeds on his bloody course, there is little extenuation
in his brief failure of nerve. He is an ambitious man, overpowered by
his high aspirations. Nevertheless, we view Macbeth with much sympathy.
Despite the clearcut evil of his actions, we never feel the distaste we
deserve for villains such as Iago or Cornwall, perhaps because Macbeth
is not evil incarnate, but a human being who has sinned, no matter how
serious the transgression. In addition, we are as much affected by what
Macbeth says about his actions as by the deeds themselves. Both
substance and setting emphasize the great evil, but Macbeth does not go
about his foul business easily. He knows what he is doing, but his
agonizing reflections show a man increasingly out of control of his own
Although Lady Macbeth demonstrated greater courage and resolution at the
time of the murder of Duncan, it is she who falls victim to the physical
manifestations of remorse and literally dies of guilt. Macbeth, who
starts more tentatively, becomes stronger, or perhaps more inured, as he
faces the consequences of his initial crime. The play examines the
effects of evil on Macbeth's character and on his subsequent moral
behaviour. The later murders flow naturally out of the first. Evil
breeds evil in that, to protect himself and consolidate his position,
Macbeth is almost forced to murder again. Successively, he kills Banquo,
attempts to murder Fleance, and brutally exterminates Macduff's family.
As his crimes increase, Macbeth's freedom seems to decrease, but his
moral responsibility does not. His actions become more coldblooded as
his options disappear. His growing resolution and steadfastness in a
precarious predicament are admirable, but his specific actions are
Shakespeare does not allow Macbeth any convenient moral excuses. The
dramatist is aware of the notion, from contemporary faculty psychology,
of the dominant inclination. The idea is that any action performed makes
it more likely that the person will perform other such actions. The
operation of this phenomenon is apparent as, in the face of
complications, Macbeth finds it increasingly easier to rise to the
gruesome occasion. However, the dominant inclination never becomes a
total determinant of behavior, so Macbeth is left without the excuse of
loss of free will. But it does become ever more difficult to break the
chain of events which are rushing him toward moral and physical
As he degenerates, he becomes more deluded about his invulnerability and
more emboldened. What he gains in will and confidence is counterbalanced
and eventually toppled by the iniquitous weight of the events he set in
motion and felt he had to perpetuate. When he dies, he seems almost to
be released from the imprisonment of his own evil.
MEASURE FOR MEASURE
Type of work: Drama
Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Type of plot: Tragicomedy
Time of plot: Sixteenth century
First presented: ñ 1603
Written when Shakespeare was also creating his major tragedies,
Measure for Measure has been called the darkest of his dark comedies.
The shape of the play is comic, but its substance veers very close to
tragedy. Before they are allowed a happy ending, the characters must all
face the truth of their own morality and the fact of their personal
Angelo (an'je-lo), a Viennese nobleman, the duke's deputy, a man who is
cold, arrogant, and unbending in the certainty of his own virtuous life.
He refuses to look with sympathy upon the offense of Claudio and stands
firm, like Shylock, for justice untempered with mercy. He is shocked to
find himself tempted by Isabella, but he dismisses all moral scruples
and attempts to seduce her, promising to free her brother if she will
yield to him. Once he thinks he has had his will he orders Claudio's
execution to take place. Faced with the duke's knowledge of his
behavior, he, still in character, asks death as the fitting recompense
for his sins; mercy is still no part of his character, although it is
that quality, meted out by the duke in accord with the pleas of Isabella
and Mariana, which ultimately saves him.
Vincentio (ven-chen'se-o), Duke of Vienna, a rather ambiguous figure who
acts at times as a force of divine destiny in the lives of his subjects.
He has wavered in the enforcement of his state's unjust laws, and,
pretending to go on a trip to Poland, he leaves the government in
Angelo's hands to try to remedy this laxity as well as to test Angelo's
"pale and cloistered virtue." He himself moves quietly to counteract the
effects of Angelo's strict law enforcement on Isabella, Claudio, and
Isabella (ez-ý-Ü¸Ãý), a young noblewoman who emerges from the nunnery
where she is a postulant to try to save the life of her condemned
brother. Her moral standards, like Angelo's, are absolute; she is
appalled to find herself faced with two equally dreadful alternatives:
to watch her brother die, knowing that it is in her power to save him,
or to surrender herself to Angelo. She cannot entirely comprehend
Claudio's passionate desire to live, no matter what the cost. Virtue is,
for her, more alive than life itself, and she cannot help feeling a
certain sense of justice in his condemnation, although she would save
him if she could do so without causing her own damnation. She learns, as
Angelo does not, to value mercy, and she is able at the end of the play
to join Mariana on her knees to plead for the deputy's life.
Claudio (klo'di-á), Isabella's brother, condemned to death for getting
his fiancee with child. He finds small consolation in the duke's
description of death, and he makes a passionate defense of life,
describing the horrors of the unknown.
Escalus (¸Óêý-lus), a wise old Viennese counselor, left by the duke as
Angelo's adviser. He deals humorously and sympathetically with the
rather incoherent testimony of Elbow, the volunteer constable.
Mariana (òàò¸-a'na), a young woman betrothed to Angelo and legally his
wife when he rejected her because of difficulties over her dowry. She
agrees, at the duke's request, to take Isabella's place in the garden
house where Angelo had arranged to meet her. Claiming him as her husband
at the duke's reentry into the city, she asks mercy for his betrayal of
Claudio and Isabella.
Lucio (lu'shi-o), a dissolute young man who brags of his desertion of
his mistress and gives the disguised duke bits of malicious gossip about
himself. He is condemned for his boasting and his slander to marry the
prostitute he has abandoned.
Mrs. Overdone, a bawd.
Pompey, her servant.
Juliet, Claudio's fiancee.
Elbow, a clownish volunteer constable whose mala-propisms make
enforcement of the law more than difficult.
Francisca (fran-sisf'kg), a nun of the order Isabella is entering.
Froth, a laconic patron of Mrs. Overdone's establishment.
Provost (prov'sst), an officer of the state who pities Claudio and helps
the duke save him, thus disobeying Angelo's orders.
Abhorson, the hangman, a man of rather macabre humor.
Barnardine, a long-term prisoner freed by the merciful duke.
Friar Thomas and Friar Peter, religious men who aid the duke.
The growing political and moral corruption of Vienna were a great worry
to its kindly, temperate ruler, Duke Vincentio. Knowing that he himself
was as much to blame for the troubles as anyone because he had been lax
in the enforcement of existing laws, the duke tried to devise a scheme
whereby the old discipline of civic authority could be successfully
Fearing that reforms instituted by himself might seem too harsh for his
people to accept without protest, he decided to appoint a deputy
governor and to leave the country for a while. Angelo, a respected and
intelligent city official, seemed just the man for the job. The duke
turned over the affairs of Vienna to Angelo for a time and appointed
Escalus, a trustworthy old official, second in command. The duke than
pretended to leave for Poland, but actually he disguised himself in the
habit of a friar and returned to the city to watch the outcome of
Angelo's first act was to imprison Claudio, a young nobleman who had
gotten his betrothed, Juliet, with child. Under an old statute, now
revived, Claudio's offense was punishable by death. The young man was
paraded through the streets in disgrace and finally sent to prison. At
his request, Lucio, a rakish friend, went to the nunnery where Isabella,
Claudio's sister, was a young novice about to take her vows. Through his
messenger, Claudio asked Isabella to plead with the new governor for his
release. At the same time Escalus, who had known Claudio's father well,
begged Angelo not to execute the young man. But the new deputy remained
firm in carrying out the duties of his office, and Claudio's
well-wishers held little hope for their friend's release.
The duke, disguised as a friar, visited Juliet and learned that the
punishment of her lover was extremely unfair, even under the ancient
statutes. The young couple had been very much in love, had been formally
engaged, and would have been married, except for the fact that Juliet's
dowry had become a matter of legal dispute. There was no question of
seduction in the case at all.
Isabella, going before Angelo to plead her brother's cause, met with
little success at first, even though she had been thoroughly coached by
the wily Lucio. Nevertheless, the cold heart of Angelo was somewhat
touched by Isabella's beauty, and by the time of the second interview he
had become so passionately aroused as to forget his reputation for
saintly behavior. After telling Isabella frankly that she could obtain
her brother's release only by yielding herself to his lustful desires,
Angelo threatened Claudio's death otherwise.
Shocked at these words from the deputy, Isabella asserted that she would
expose him in public. Angelo, amused, asked who would believe her story.
At her wit's end, Isabella rushed to the prison, where she told Claudio
of Angelo's disgraceful proposition. When he first heard the deputy's
proposal, Claudio was also revolted by the idea, but as images of death
continued to terrify him he finally begged Isabella to placate Angelo
and give herself to him. Isabella, horrified by her brother's cowardly
attitude, lashed out at him with a scornful speech, but was interrupted
by the duke in his disguise as a friar. Having overheard much of the
conversation, he drew Isabella aside from her brother and confided that
it would still be possible for her to save Claudio without shaming
The friar told Isabella that, five years before, Angelo had been
betrothed to Mariana, a high-born lady. The marriage had not taken
place, however, because Mariana's brother, with her dowry, had been lost
at sea. Angelo had consequently broken off his vows and hinted at
supposed dishonor in the poor young woman. The friar suggested to
Isabella that she plan the requested rendezvous with Angelo in a dark
and quiet place and then let Mariana act as her substitute. Angelo would
be satisfied, Claudio released, Isabella still chaste, and Mariana
provided with the means to force Angelo into marriage.
Everything went as arranged, with Mariana taking Isabella's place at the
assignation, but cowardly Angelo, fearing public exposure, broke his
promise to release Claudio and ordered the young man's execution. Once
again the good friar intervened. He persuaded the provost to hide
Claudio and then to announce his death by sending Angelo the head of
another prisoner who had died of natural causes.
On the day before the execution a crowd gathered outside the prison and
discussed the coming events. One of the group was Lucio, who accosted
the disguised duke as he wandered down the street. Very furtively Lucio
told the friar that nothing like Claudio's execution would have taken
place if the duke had been ruler. Lucio went on confidentially to say
that the duke cared as much for the ladies as any other man and also
drank in private. In fact, said Lucio, the duke bedded about as much as
any man in Vienna. Amused, the friar protested against this gossip, but
Lucio angrily asserted that every word was true.
To arouse Isabella so that she would publicly accuse Angelo of
wrongdoing, the duke allowed her to believe that Claudio was dead. Then
the duke sent letters to the deputy informing him that the royal party
would arrive on the following day at the gates of Vienna and would
expect a welcoming party there. Also, the command ordered that anyone
who had had grievances against the government while the duke was absent
should be allowed to make public pronouncement of them at that time and
Angelo grew nervous upon receipt of these papers from the duke. The next
day, however, he organized a great crowd and a celebration of welcome at
the gates of the city. In the middle of the crowd were Isabella and
Mariana, heavily veiled. At the proper time the two women stepped
forward to denounce Angelo. Isabella called him a traitor and
virgin-violator; Mariana claimed that he would not admit her as his
wife. The duke, pretending to be angry at these tirades against his
deputy, ordered the women to prison and asked that someone apprehend the
rascally friar who had often been seen in their company. Then the duke
went to his palace and quickly changed to his disguise as a friar.
Appearing before the crowd at the gates, he criticized the government of
Vienna severely. Escalus, horrified at the fanatical comments of the
friar, ordered his arrest and was seconded by Lucio, who maintained that
the friar had told him only the day before that the duke was a drunkard
and a frequenter of bawdy houses.
At last, to display his own bravado, Lucio tore away the friar's hood.
When the friar stood revealed as Duke Vin-centio, the crowd fell back in
Angelo, realizing that his crimes would now be exposed, asked simply to
be put to death without trial. The duke ordered him first to marry
Mariana. After telling Mariana that Angelo's goods, legally hers, would
secure her a better husband, the duke was surprised when she entreated
for Angelo's pardon. Finally, because Isabella also pleaded for Angelo's
freedom, the duke relented. He did, however, send Lucio to prison.
Claudio was released and married to Juliet. The duke himself asked
Isabella for her hand.
Measure for Measure is one of those troubled plays, like All's Well That
Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida, composed during the same years that
Shakespeare was writing his greatest tragedies. Not tragedies, or
comedies, or histories, these dark and often bitter dramas have
frequently been described as problem plays. Not the least of the
problems is that of literary classification, but the term generally
refers to plays which examine a thesis. The main concern in this play is
a rather grim consideration of the nature of justice and morality in
both civic and psychological contexts.
The tone of this and the other problem plays is so gloomy and
pessimistic that critics have tended to try to find biographical or
historical causes for their bleakness. Some have argued that they
reflect a period of personal disillusionment for the playwright, but
there is no external evidence to corroborate this supposition. Others
have laid the blame on the ghastly decadence of the Jacobean period.
However, although other dramatists, such as Marston and Dekker, did
write comparable plays around the same time, the historical evidence
suggests that the period was, on the contrary, rather optimistic. What
is clear is that Shakespeare has created a world as rotten as Denmark
but without a tragic figure sufficient to purge and redeem it. The
result is a threatened world, supported by comic remedies rather than
purified by tragic suffering. Consequently, Measure for Measure remains
a shadowy, ambiguous, and disquieting world even though it ends with
political and personal resolutions.
The immediate source of the play seems to be George Whetstone's History
of Promos and Cassandra or Whetstone's narrative version of the same
story in his Hep-tameron of Civil Discourses. Behind Whetstone are
narrative and dramatic versions by Cinthio, from whom Shakespeare
derived the plot of Othello. However, Measure for Measure is such an
eclectic amalgamation of items from a wide variety of literary and
historical loci that a precise identification of sources is impossible.
Indeed, the plot is essentially a conflation of three ancient folk
tales, which J. W. Lever calls the Corrupt Magistrate, the Disguised
Ruler, and the Substituted Bedmate. Shakespeare integrates these with
disparate other materials into a disturbing, indeterminate analysis of
justice, morality, and integrity.
The title of the play comes from the biblical text: "With what measure
ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." As the play develops and
expands on this quotation, we find that we cannot be satisfied with a
simple but generous resolution "to do unto others what you would have
them do unto you," because the play pursues its text so relentlessly
that any easy confidence in poetic justice is undermined. We cannot be
sure that good intentions and a clean heart will preserve us. In the
final analysis, the action tends to support the admonition to "judge not
that ye be not judged," a sentiment which can express either Christian
charity or cynical irresponsibility.
Yet, we are in a world in which the civil authorities must judge others.
Indeed, that is where the play begins. Vienna, as the duke himself
realizes, is in a moral shambles. Bawdry and licentiousness of all sorts
are rampant in the city, and the duke accepts responsibility for laxity
in enforcing the law. Corruption seethes through the whole society down
to the base characters, who are engaged less in a comic subplot than in
a series of vulgar exemplifications of a pervasive moral decay. The duke
intends to let Angelo, renowned for probity and puritanical stringency,
act as vice-regent and, through stern measures, set the state right.
The chilling irony is that Angelo almost immediately falls victim to the
sexual license he is supposed to eliminate. To compound the irony,
Claudio, whom Angelo condemns for impregnating Juliet, had at least
acted out of love with a full intention to marry. Things do not turn out
to be as they seemed. Not only is justice not done, it is itself
threatened and mocked. Perfect justice yields to temptation while
apparent vice is extenuated by circumstances.
Isabella also does not behave as we would expect.
Called upon to intercede for her brother, she is faced with Angelo's
harsh proposition. The dilemma is especially nasty since the choice is
between her honor and Ñ (audio's life. For her, neither is a noble
alternative and, of course, Claudio is not strong enough to offer
himself up for her and turn the play into a tragedy. Unfortunately, when
Claudio is reluctant, she behaves petulantly rather than graciously.
True, her position is intolerable, but she does spend more time speaking
in defense of her virtue than acting virtuously. For all her religious
aspirations, which are eventually abandoned, she is not large enough to
ennoble her moral context.
The duke is always lurking in the background, watching developments,
capable of intervening so as to avoid disaster. Indeed, we are tempted
to blame him for being so slow to step in. Of course, if the duke had
intervened earlier, or had never withdrawn, we would have had "business
as usual" rather than a play which examines the ambiguities of guilt and
extenuation, justice and mercy. He allows the characters to act out the
complex patterns of moral responsibility which are the heart of the
For example, when Angelo, thinking that he is with Isabella, is in fact
with Mariana, his act is objectively less evil than he thinks because he
is really with the woman to whom he had earlier plighted troth. Yet, in
intention, he is more culpable than Claudio, whom he had imprisoned.
Such are the intricate complications of behavior in the flawed world of
Measure for Measure.
The justice that the duke finally administers brings about a comic
resolution. Pardons and marriages unravel the complications which
varying degrees of evil have occasioned, but no one in the play escapes
untainted. The duke, after a period of moral spectatorship which borders
on irresponsibility, restores order. Angelo loses his virtue and
reputation but gains a wife. Isabella abandons her extreme religious
commitment but finds herself more human, and is rewarded with a marriage
proposal. Everything works out—justice prevails, tempered with mercy—but
we are left with the unsettling suggestion that tendencies toward
corruption and excess may be inextricably blended with what is best and
most noble in humankind.
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
Type of work: Drama
Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Type of plot: Tragicomedy
Time of plot: Sixteenth century
First presented: ñ 1596
In The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare fuses a number of diverse,
even contradictory, dramatic styles, ranging from folktale to romantic
comedy to borderline tragedy, to create one of his most popular and
moving plays. The encounter between the greedy Jew Shylock and the wise,
fine Portia gives the play a grave beauty.
Shylock (shi'lok), a rich Jewish moneylender. He hates Antonio for often
lending money at lower interest than the usurer demands; hence, when
Antonio wishes to borrow three thousand ducats to help Bassanio, Shylock
prepares a trap. Seemingly in jest, he persuades Antonio to sign a bond
stating that, should the loan not be repaid within three months, a pound
of flesh from any part of his body will be forfeited to Shylock. Next,
Shylock has bad news when he learns that his daughter, Jessica, has
eloped with Lorenzo, taking with her much of his money; good news when
he learns that Antonio's ships have been lost at sea. Antonio being
ruined and the loan due, Shylock brings the case before the duke. He
refuses Bassa-nio's offer of six thousand ducats and demands his pound
of flesh. But Portia, Bassanio's wife, disguised as a lawyer, claims
that Shylock must have the flesh but can take not a single drop of blood
with it. Further, she maintains that Shylock, an alien, has threatened
the life of a Venetian; therefore, half of his fortune goes to Antonio,
the , other half to the state. However, Shylock is allowed to keep half
for Jessica and Lorenzo if he will become a Christian. The character of
Shylock has become one of the most controversial in Shakespearian drama.
Is he a villain or a tragic figure? Does the author intend the audience
to regard him as an example of Jewish malevolence or to sympathize with
him as a persecuted man?
Portia (por'sha), an heiress whose father had stipulated in his will
that any suitor must win her by choosing from among three caskets of
gold, silver, and lead the one containing her portrait. The Prince of
Morocco and the Prince of Aragon choose respectively the gold and the
silver casket and find only mocking messages; Bassanio, whom she loves,
selects the lead casket and wins her. Learning of Antonio's misfortune,
she offers her dowry to buy off Shylock and goes to Venice disguised as
a lawyer. When Shylock refuses the money and rejects her plea for mercy,
she outwits him by showing that he is entitled to a pound of Antonio's
flesh but cannot shed any blood in obtaining it, thus saving Antonio and
Antonio (an-to'ni-á), the merchant of Venice. Rich and generous, he
wishes to aid his impecunious friend Bassanio to woo Portia. Having no
ready money, he borrows three thousand ducats from Shylock with the
proviso that if the debt cannot be repaid within three months, Shylock
can have a pound of his flesh. His ships are apparently lost at sea, and
he is saved from death only by Portia's cleverness. At the end of the
play, he learns that some of his ships have returned and that he is not
Bassanio (ba-sa'm-o), the friend of Antonio, in need of money in order
to woo Portia. To help him, Antonio concludes his almost fatal bargain
with Shylock. Bassanio chooses the right casket at Portia's home and
thus is able to marry her.
Gratiano (gra-shra'no, gra-tya'no), a friend of Bassanio. He marries
Nerissa, Portia's waiting woman.
Nerissa (ne-ris'a), Portia's clever waiting woman. She marries Gratiano.
Jessica (jes-1'êý), the daughter of Shylock. She elopes with Lorenzo,
taking with her much of Shylock's money and jewels. Her marriage is a
heavy blow to her father.
Lorenzo (16-ren'zd), a Venetian who marries Jessica.
The Prince of Morocco, a tawny Moor, one of Portia's suitors. He chooses
the gold casket, in which he finds a skull and some mocking verses.
The Prince of Aragon, another of Portia's wooers. He chooses the silver
casket, in which he finds the portrait of a blinking idiot.
Tubal (tu'bal), a Jew and friend of Shylock.
Launcelot Gobbo (lon'sa-lot gob'bo), a clown, Shy-lock's comic servant.
Hating his master, he changes to the service of Bassanio. He acts as a
messenger between Jessica and Lorenzo.
Old Gobbo, Launcelot's father, "sand-blind."
Bassanio, meeting his wealthy friend Antonio, revealed that he had a
plan for restoring his fortune, carelessly spent, and for paying the
debts he had incurred. In the town of Belmont, not far from Venice,
there lived a wealthy young woman named Portia, who was famous for her
beauty. If he could secure some money, Bassanio declared, he was sure he
could win her as his wife.
Antonio replied that he had no funds at hand with which to supply his
friend, as they were all invested in the ships which he had at sea, but
he would attempt to borrow some money in Venice.
Portia had many suitors for her hand. According to the strange
conditions of her father's will, however, anyone who wished her for his
wife had to choose among three caskets of silver, gold, and lead the one
which contained a message that she was his. Four of her suitors, seeing
that they could not win her except under the conditions of the will,
departed. A fifth, a Moor, decided to take his chances. The unfortunate
man chose the golden casket, which contained only a skull and a mocking
message. For his failure he was compelled to swear never to reveal the
casket he had chosen and never to woo another woman.
The Prince of Aragon was the next suitor to try his luck. In his turn he
chose the silver casket, only to learn from the note it bore that he was
True to his promise to Bassanio, Antonio arranged to borrow three
thousand ducats from Shylock, a wealthy Jew. Antonio was to have the use
of the money for three months. If he should be unable to return the loan
at the end of that time, Shylock was to have the right to cut a pound of
flesh from any part of Antonio's body. In spite of Bassanio's
objections, Antonio insisted on accepting the terms, for he was sure his
ships would return a month before the payment would be due. He was
confident that he would never fall into the power of the Jew, who hated
Antonio because he often lent money to others without charging the
interest Shylock demanded.
That night Bassanio planned a feast and a masque. In conspiracy with his
friend Lorenzo, he invited Shylock to be his guest. Lorenzo, taking
advantage of her father's absence, ran off with the Jew's daughter,
Jessica, who did not hesitate to take part of Shylock's fortune with
Shylock was cheated not only of his daughter and his ducats but also of
his entertainment, for the wind suddenly changed and Bassanio set sail
As the days passed, the Jew began to hear news of mingled good and bad
fortune. In Genoa, Jessica and Lorenzo were making lavish use of the
money she had taken with her. The miser flinched at the reports of his
daughter's extravagance, but for compensation he had the news that
Antonio's ships, on which the latter's fortune depended, had been
wrecked at sea.
Portia, much taken with Bassanio when he came to woo her, would have had
him wait before he tried to pick the right casket. Sure that he would
fail as the others had, she hoped to have his company a little while
longer. Bassanio, however, was impatient to try his luck. Not deceived
by the ornateness of the gold and silver caskets, but philosophizing
that true virtue is inward virtue, he chose the lead box. In it was a
portrait of Portia. He had chosen correctly.
To seal their engagement, Portia gave Bassanio a ring. She declared he
must never part with it, for if he did it would signify the end of their
Gratiano, a friend who had accompanied Bassanio to Belmont, spoke up. He
was in love with Portia's waiting woman, Nerissa. With Portia's
delighted approval, Gratiano planned that both couples should be married
at the same time.
Bassanio's joy at his good fortune was soon blighted. Antonio wrote that
he was ruined, all his ships having failed to return. The time for
payment of the loan being past due, Shylock was demanding his pound of
flesh. In closing, Antonio declared that he cleared Bassanio of his debt
to him. He wished only to see his friend once more before his death.
Portia declared that the double wedding should take place at once. Then
her husband, with her dowry of six thousand ducats, should set out for
Venice in an attempt to buy off the Jew.
After Bassanio and Gratiano had gone, Portia declared to Lorenzo and
Jessica, who had come to Belmont, that she and Nerissa were going to a
nunnery, where they would live in seclusion until their husbands
returned. She committed the charge of her house and servants to Jessica
Instead of taking the course she had described, however, Portia set
about executing other plans. She gave her servant, Balthasar, orders to
take a note to her cousin, Doctor Bellario, a famous lawyer of Padue, in
order to secure a message and some clothes from him. She explained to
Nerissa that they would go to Venice disguised as men.
The Duke of Venice, before whom Antonio's case was tried, was reluctant
to exact the penalty which was in Shylock's terms. When his appeals to
the Jew's better feelings went unheeded, he could see no course before
him except to give the money-lender his due. Bassanio also tried to make
Shylock relent by offering him the six thousand ducats, but, like the
duke, he met with only a firm refusal.
Portia, dressed as a lawyer, and Nerissa, disguised as her clerk,
appeared in the court. Nerissa offered the duke a letter from Doctor
Bellario. The doctor explained that he was very ill, but that Balthasar,
his young representative, would present his opinion in the dispute.
When Portia appealed to the Jew's mercy, Shy lock answered with a demand
for the penalty. Portia then declared that the Jew, under the letter of
the contract, could not be offered money in exchange for Antonio's
release. The only alternative was for the merchant to forfeit his flesh.
Antonio prepared his bosom for the knife, for Shylock was determined to
take his portion as close to his enemy's heart as he could cut. Before
the operation could begin, however, Portia, examining the contract,
declared that it contained no clause stating that Shylock could have any
blood with the flesh.
The Jew, realizing that he was defeated, offered at once to accept the
six thousand ducats, but Portia declared that he was not entitled to the
money he had already refused. She stated also that Shylock, an alien,
had threatened the life of a Venetian citizen. For that crime Antonio
had the right to seize half of his property and the state the remainder.
Antonio refused that penalty, but it was agreed that one half of
Shylock's fortune should go at once to Jessica and Lorenzo. Shylock was
to keep the remainder, but it too was to be willed the couple. In
addition, Shylock was to undergo conversion. The defeated man agreed to
Pressed to accept a reward, Portia took only a pair of Antonio's gloves
and the ring which she herself had given Bassanio. Nerissa, likewise,
managed to secure Gra-tiano's ring. Then the pair started back for
Belmont, to be there when their husbands returned.
Portia and Nerissa arrived home shortly before Bassanio and Gratiano
appeared in company with Antonio. Pretending to discover that their
husbands' rings were missing, Portia and Nerissa at first accused
Bassanio and Gratiano of unfaithfulness. At last, to the surprise of
all, they revealed their secret, which was vouched for by a letter from
Doctor Bellario. For Jessica and Lorenzo they had the good news of their
future inheritance, and for Antonio a letter, secured by chance,
announcing that some of his ships had arrived safely in port.
Through the years The Merchant of Venice has been one of Shakespeare's
most popular and most frequently acted plays. Not only has it an
interesting and fast-moving plot, but also it evokes an idyllic,
uncorrupted world reminiscent of folktale and romance. From the
beginning, the play is bathed in light and music. The insistently
improbable plot is complicated only by the evil influence of Shylock,
and he is disposed of by the end of act 4. Yet Shakespeare uses this
fragile vehicle to make some significant points about justice, mercy,
and friendship, three typical topics of conversation during the
Renaissance. Although some critics have suggested that the play contains
all of the elements of tragedy only to be rescued by a comic resolution,
the tone of the whole play creates a benevolent world in which, despite
some opposition, we are always sure that things will work out for the
The story is based on ancient tales, which could have been drawn from
many sources. It is actually two stories—the casket-plot, involving the
choice by the suitor and his reward with Portia, and the bond-plot,
involving the loan and the attempt to exact a pound of flesh.
Shakespeare's genius here lies in the combination of the two. Although
they intersect from the start in the character of Bassanio, who
occasions Antonio's debt and is a suitor, they fully coalesce when
Portia comes to Venice in disguise to make her plea and judgment for
Antonio. At that point the bond-plot is unraveled by the casket-heroine
and we have only the celebratory conclusion of the fifth act still to
The most fascinating character to both audiences and critics has always
been Shylock, the outsider, the anomaly in this felicitous world.
Controversy rages over just what kind of villain Shylock is and just how
villainous Shakespeare intended him to be. The matter has been
complicated by a contemporary desire to try to absolve Shakespeare of
the common medieval and Renaissance malady of anti-Semitism.
Consequently, some commentators on the play have argued that in Shylock
Shakespeare takes the stock character of the Jew, like Marlowe's Barabas
in The Jew of Malta, and fleshes him out with complicating human
characteristics. Some have gone so far as to argue that even in villainy
he is represented as a victim of the Christian society, the grotesque
product of hatred and ostracism. Regardless of Shakespeare's personal
views, the fact remains that in his hands Shylock becomes much more than
a stock character.
The more significant dramatic question is: just what sort of character
is Shylock and what sort of role is he called upon to play? Certainly he
is an outsider both in appearance and action, a stranger to the light
and gracious world of Venice and Belmont. His language has a stridency
and an unabashed materialism which isolate him from the other
characters. He has no part in the network of beautiful friendships which
unite the rest of the characters in the play. He is not wholly a comic
character; despite his often appearing ridiculous, he poses too serious
a threat to be dismissed lightly. Nor is he a cold and terrifying
villain like Iago or Edmund, or even an engaging villain like Richard
III; he is too ineffectual and too grotesque. He is a malevolent force,
but he is finally overcome by the more generous world in which he lives.
That he is treated so badly by the Christians is the kind of irony that
ultimately protects Shakespeare from charges of mindless anti-Semitism.
Still, on the level of the romantic plot, he is also the serpent in the
garden, deserving summary expulsion and the forced conversion which is,
ironically, both a punishment and a charity.
The rest of the major characters have much more in common with each
other as sharers in the common civilization of Venice. As they come into
conflict with Shy-lock and form relationships with one another, they act
out the ideals and commonplaces of high Renaissance culture. Antonio, in
his small but pivotal role, is afflicted with a fashionable melancholy
and a gift for friendship. It is a casually generous act of friendship
which sets the bond-plot in motion. Bassanio frequently comments on
friendship and knows how to accept generosity gracefully. But Bassanio
is also a Renaissance lover as well as a model Renaissance friend. He is
quite frankly as interested in Portia's money as in her wit and beauty;
he unselfconsciously represents a cultural integration of love and gain
quite different from Shylock's materialism. And when he chooses the
leaden casket, he does so for precisely the right traditional reason—a
distrust of appearances, a recognition that the reality does not always
correspond. To be sure, his success as suitor is never really in doubt,
but is rather danced out like a ballet. Everyone knows, or ought to
know, that lead should be preferred to gaudy gold and silver, and indeed
the greatest treasure of all, a portrait of Portia, is inside. In
addition, the third suitor is always the successful one in folktale.
What the ballet provides is another opportunity for the expression of
the culturally correct sentiments.
Portia too is a culture heroine. She is not merely an object of love,
but a witty and intelligent woman whose ingenuity resolves the central
dilemma. That she too is not what she seems to be in the trial scene is
another reminder of the familiar appearance/reality theme. More
important, she has the opportunity to discourse on the nature of mercy
as opposed to strict justice and to give an object lesson that he who
lives by the letter of the law will perish by it.
With Shylock safely, if a bit harshly, out of the way, the last act is
an amusing festival of vindication of the cultural values. The
characters have had their opportunity to comment on the proper
issues—love, friendship, justice, and the disparity between appearance
and reality. Now each receives his appropriate reward as the play
concludes with marriages, reunions, and the pleasantly gratuitous
recovery of Antonio's fortune. There is no more trouble in paradise
among the people of grace.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM
Òóðå of work: Drama
Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Type of plot: Romantic comedy
Time of plot: Remote antiquity
First presented: 1595
A Midsummer Night's Dream is probably the most purely romantic of
Shakespeare's comedies. Although the magic of Puck explains the lovers'
erratic behavior, they are really responding to the essential
capriciousness of young love in this pastoral romp that spoofs not only
the vagaries of romance but the nature of reality itself.
Theseus (the'se-us), duke of Athens, a wise, temperate ruler, Although
he mistrusts the fantasy and imagination of "lunatics, lovers and
poets," he can perceive with good humor the love and duty inspiring the
abortive dramatic efforts of his subjects, and he tries to teach his
bride and queen, Hippolyta, the value of their good intentions.
Hippolyta (Û-ðáÃÍý), Theseus' bride, queen of the Amazons, the maiden
warriors whom he has conquered. She is a woman of regal dignity, less
willing than her lord to be tolerant of the faults of Peter Quince's
play, although she is more ready than he to believe the lovers'
description of their night in the forest.
Titania (fl-ta'ni-ý), the imperious queen of the fairies. She feuds with
her husband Oberon over her "little changeling boy," whom the king wants
as his page. Enchanted by Oberon's flower, "love in idleness," she
becomes enamored of Bottom the Weaver in his ass's head and dotes on him
until her husband takes pity on her and frees her from the spell. She is
quickly reconciled with him and they join in blessing the marriage of
Theseus and Hippolyta, their favorites among mortals.
Oberon (á'Üýòáï), king of the fairies, who gleefully plots with Puck to
cast a spell on the fairy queen and take away her changeling. Once he
has stolen the child, he repents his mischief and frees Titania from her
ridiculous dotage. He teases her for her fondness for Theseus and is, in
return, forced to confess his own affection for Hippolyta.
Puck (puk), the merry, mischievous elf, Robin Good-fellow, of English
folk legend and Oberon's servant. He brings about the confusion of the
young Athenians on Midsummer Eve as he tries to carry out Oberon's
wishes; the king has taken pity on Helena and hopes to turn Demetrius'
scorn for her into love. Puck simply enchants the first Athenian he
sees, Lysander, and with great amusement watches the confusion which
follows, commenting, "Lord, what fools these mortals be!"
Hermia (her'mi-ý), a bright, bold young Athenian maiden. She defies her
father and flees into the Athenian wood to elope with her beloved
Lysander. She shows herself a small spitfire when she finds Demetrius
and Lysander, through Puck's machinations, suddenly rivaling each other
for Helena's affection rather than hers.
Helena (Ú¸Òý-ïý), a maiden who mournfully follows Demetrius,
spaniel-like, in spite of the scorn with which he repulses her
affection. When she suddenly finds both Demetrius and Lysander at her
feet, she can only believe that they are teasing her.
Demetrius (ds-me'trf-us), a rather fickle Athenian youth. He deserts his
first love, Helena, to win the approval of Hermia's father for marriage
with her, but he cannot win Hermia herself. His affections are returned,
by Oberon's herb, to Helena, and he is wed to her on his duke's marriage
Lysander (ll-san'dar), Hermia's sweetheart, who plans their elopement to
escape Theseus' decree that the girl must follow her father's will or
enter a nunnery. He brashly argues with Demetrius, first over Hermia,
then over Helena, before he is happily wed to his first love.
Nick Bottom, a good-natured craftsman and weaver. He is so enthralled by
the prospect of Quince's play, "Pyramus and Thisbe," that he longs to
play all the other parts in addition to his assigned role of the hero.
He is supremely complacent as Titania's paramour and takes for granted
the services of the fairies, who scratch the ass's ears placed on his
head by Puck. He marvels at his "most rare vision" after his release
from the fairy spell.
Peter Quince, a carpenter, director of the infamous play of "tragical
mirth" presented in honor of Theseus' wedding. Completely well-meaning,
he illustrates, as he mangles his prologue, the "love and tongue-tied
simplicity" of which Theseus speaks.
Snug, a joiner, Snout, a tinker, Flute, a bellows-maker, and Starveling,
a tailor, the other craftsmen-actors who portray, respectively, Lion,
Wall, Thisbe, and Moonshine.
Egeus (¸-je'us), Hermia's father. He is determined that his daughter
shall marry Demetrius, not Lysander, whom she loves.
Philostrate(fl'los-trat), Theseus' master of the revels. Peaseblossom,
Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed,
Titania's fairy attendants, who wait on Bottom.
Theseus, the Duke of Athens, was to be married in four days to
Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and he ordered his Master of the Revels
to prepare suitable entertainment for the nuptials. But other lovers of
ancient Athens were not so happy as their ruler. Hermia, in love with
Lysander, was loved also by Demetrius, who had her father's permission
to marry her. When she refused his suit, Demetrius took his case to
Theseus and demanded that the law be invoked. Theseus upheld the father,
which meant that Hermia must marry Demetrius, be placed in a nunnery, or
be put to death. Hermia swore that she would enter a convent before she
would consent to become Demetrius' bride.
Lysander plotted with Hermia to steal her away from Athens, take her to
the home of his aunt, and there marry her. They were to meet the
following night in a woods outside the city. Hermia confided the plan to
her good friend Helena. Demetrius had formerly been betrothed to Helena,
and although he had switched his love to Hermia he was still desperately
loved by the scorned Helena. Helena, willing to do anything to gain even
a smile from Demetrius, told him of his rival's plan to elope with
Unknown to any of the four young people, there were to be others in that
same woods on the appointed night, Midsummer Eve. A guild of Athenian
laborers was to meet there to practice a play the members hoped to
present in honor of Theseus and Hippolyta's wedding. The fairies also
held their midnight revels in the woods. Oberon, king of the fairies,
desired for his page a little Indian prince, but Oberon's queen,
Titania, had the boy. Loving him like a son, she refused to give him up
to her husband. In order to force Titania to do his bidding, Oberon
ordered his mischievous page, called Puck or Robin Goodfellow, to secure
the juice of "love in idleness," a purple flower once hit by Cupid's
dart. This juice, when placed in the eyes of anyone sleeping, caused
that person to fall in love with the first creature seen on awakening.
Oberon planned to drop some of the juice in Titania's eyes and then
refuse to lift the charm until she gave him the boy.
While Puck was on his errand, Demetrius and Helena entered the woods.
Making himself invisible, Oberon heard Helena plead her love for
Demetrius and heard the young man scorn and berate her. They had come to
the woods to find the fleeing lovers, Lysander and Hermia. Oberon,
pitying Helena, determined to aid her. When Puck returned with the
juice, Oberon ordered him to find the Athenian and place some of the
juice in his eyes so that he would love the girl who doted on him.
Puck went to do as he was ordered, while Oberon squeezed the juice of
the flower into the eyes of Titania as she slept. But Puck, coming upon
Lysander and Hermia as they slept in the woods, mistook Lysander's
Athenian dress for that of Demetrius and poured the charmed juice into
Lysander's eyes. Lysander was awakened by Helena, who had been abandoned
deep in the woods by Demetrius. The charm worked perfectly; Lysander
fell in love with Helena. That poor girl, thinking that he was mocking
her with his ardent protestations of love, begged him to stop his
teasing and return to the sleeping Hermia. But Lysander, pursuing
Helena, left Hermia alone in the forest. When she awakened she feared
that Lysander had been killed, for she believed that he would never have
deserted her otherwise.
Titania, in the meantime, awakened to a strange sight. The laborers,
practicing for their play, had paused not far from the sleeping fairy
queen. Bottom, the comical but stupid weaver who was to play the leading
role, became the butt of another of Puck's jokes. The prankster clapped
an ass's head over Bottom's own foolish pate and led the poor fool a
merry chase until the weaver was at the spot where Titania lay sleeping.
Thus when she awakened she looked at Bottom, still wearing the head of
an ass. She fell instantly in love with him and ordered the fairies to
tend his every want. This turn pleased Oberon mightily. When he learned
of the mistake Puck had made in placing the juice in Lysander's eyes,
however, he tried to right the wrong by placing love juice also in
Demetrius' eyes, and he ordered Puck to have Helena close by when
Demetrius awakened. His act made both girls unhappy and forlorn. When
Demetrius, who she knew hated her, also began to make love to her,
Helena thought that both men were taunting and ridiculing her. And poor
Hermia, encountering Lysander, could not understand why he tried to
drive her away, all the time protesting that he loved only Helena.
Again Oberon tried to set matters straight. He ordered Puck to lead the
two men in circles until weariness forced them to lie down and go to
sleep. Then a potion to remove the charm and make the whole affair seem
like a dream was to be placed in Lysander's eyes. Afterward he would
again love Hermia, and all the young people would be united in proper
pairs. Titania, too, was to have the charm removed, for Oberon had
taunted her about loving an ass until she had given up the prince to
him. Puck obeyed the orders and placed the potion in Lysander's eyes.
The four lovers were awakened by Theseus, Hippolyta, and Hermia's
father, who had gone into the woods to watch Theseus' hounds perform.
Lysander again loved Hermia and Demetrius still loved Helena, for the
love juice remained in his eyes. Hermia's father persisted in his demand
that his daughter marry Demetrius, but since that young man no longer
wanted her and all four were happy with their partners, he ceased to
oppose LySander's suit. Theseus gave them permission to marry on the day
set for his own wedding to Hippolyta.
Titania also awakened and, like the others, thought that she had been
dreaming. Puck removed the ass's head from Bottom and that poor
bewildered weaver made his way back to Athens, reaching there just in
time to save the play from ruin, for he was to play Pyramus, the hero.
The Master of the Revels tried to dissuade Theseus from choosing the
laborer's play for the wedding night. Theseus, however, was intrigued by
a play that was announced as both tedious and brief as well as merry and
tragic. So Bottom and his troupe presented Pyramus and Thisbe, much to
the merriment of all the guests.
After the play all the bridal couples retired to their suites, and
Oberon and Titania sang a fairy song over them, promising that they and
all their children would be blessed.
Written at the same time as many of Shakespeare's sonnets (1594 -1595),
A Midsummer Night's Dream shares with them the dual concerns of love and
poetry. Like the sonnets, too, the play examines these issues from a
variety of perspectives, though always with a light touch, in keeping
with the festive mood of Midsummer Night (June 23).
Shakespeare's genius delights in variety. Romeo and Juliet (1594-1595)
treats the tragedy of a pair of star-crossed lovers; here Shakespeare
explores the comic possibilities of a similar situation. A Midsummer
Night's Dream offers not one but five sets of ill-sorted lovers, their
very multiplicity a comic device. Theseus has won Hippolyta in battle,
wooing her with his sword. For him the four days before their marriage
seem endless, but she, less eager to wed, fears that the time will pass
all too quickly. Demetrius and Lysander both love Hermia, while Helena,
in love with Demetrius, lacks a suitor. The fairy king and queen, Oberon
and Titania, have become estranged, and Pyramus and Thisbe of the
play-within-the-play are divided by parental animosity. Before the true
lovers can be united, Shakespeare will reveal the odd metamorphoses,
aptly symbolized by the transformation of Bottom into an ass, that love
For love can, as readily as Puck, set an ass's head on anyone, or like a
false light in the darkness waylay the unwary. Before the play ends
Demetrius will pursue Hermia while Lysander seeks Helena, both men will
woo Helena and flee from Hermia, and Titania will fall in love with a
very odd-looking mortal. There is no logic to these shifts of fancy,
for, as Lysander points out in the case of human lovers, the men are
equal in birth and fortune, while Hermia and Helena differ only in
height. In the typical Greek New Comedy (and its Roman counterparts)
from which this play derives, a father wants to marry his child to a
rich old suitor, while the child loves a poor, good-looking, young one.
In such cases one can understand the motivation of each party. The
parent seeks money, the son or daughter love. Here, however, Egeus
behaves as arbitrarily as Helena or Demetrius, whimsically choosing one
suitor over the other. Aptly, Theseus finally tells Egeus, "I will
overbear your will." since it is mere willfulness that has prompted him
to prefer Demetrius. As Titania's falling in love with the
transmogrified Bottom reveals, under love's spell reason vanishes, and
one behaves as if asleep.
Other images reinforce this message. Most of the action unfolds at
night, when the rational world of daylight yields to dream. Just as
Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet equates love with the enchantment of Queen
Mab, so here the spells of Puck and Oberon. relying of drops squeezed
into sleepers' eyes, highlight love's blindness. As Helena remarks on
the traditional iconography of Cupid,
Nor hath Love's mind of any judgement taste;
Wings and no eyes figure
And therefore is Love said to be a child.
choice he is so oft beguil'd.
The thick fogs that Puck raises to mislead the quarreling lovers in act
3 provide yet another objective correlative to the lovers' muddled state
of mind. Over all shines that symbol of fickleness, mutability, and
lunacy, the moon, which in this play changes even more rapidly than
usual— now full, now dark, now new.
Hearing the strange account of the night's adventures, Theseus rejects
the story with the comment that "the lunatic, the lover and the poet/
Are of imagination all compact." Certainly that view has some merit, but
so has Hippolyta's; she sees that from these strange fancies emerges
"something of great constancy." In Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio puns on
the fact "that dreamers often lie," to which Romeo replies, "In bed
asleep, while they do dream things true." Though Helena is right when
she says, "Love looks not with the eyes," from this confusion and
seeming blindness the proper couples emerge united, and the fairy masque
at the play's conclusion mirrors the dance of life that results. Even
the dead lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe, revive, for in the comic world
death holds no sway; the very "graves all gaping wide,/ Every one lets
forth his sprite,/ In the church-way paths to glide." As Theseus'
comment about the lunacy of lovers is a valid but partial view, so, too,
is his association of poets and madness. In literature as in love, he is
a realist who regards even the finest theater as "but shadows." For the
rude mechanicals, on the other hand, these shadows are reality. Bottom
and Starveling worry that the staged death of Pyramus will be too
gruesome for the spectators. Snout is concerned lest the lion frighten
the ladies, and Peter Quince will not let Bottom have that part because
he would roar so fiercely that he "would fight the duchess and the
ladies, that they would shriek; and that were enough to hang us all."
Since their play calls for moonlight, the would-be actors consult an
almanac to be sure that the moon will shine on the night of the
performance. Such literal-mindedness seems as foolishly naive as Theseus'
utter rejection of illusion and imagination, but both attitudes confront
the audience with the question of what is reality. Bottom wonders
whether he was turned into an ass, whether he has been the lover of the
fairy queen, or whether all that was a dream. The spectators feel more
certain; after all, they have seen the action unfold. Or have they? In
his last speech, Puck dismisses all that has happened as a sleeper's
vision. The play's very title embodies this ambiguity. Is it a midsummer
night's dream or A Midsummer Night's Dream, something that exists apart
from the spectator's imagination or not? Theseus, that arch-rejecter of
illusion, is himself the product of the poet's brain. And what of the
spectators of the spectators of Peter Quince's play? Already in this
early comedy Shakespeare suggests the view that Prospero will express in
The Tempest (1611) when he rejects any distinction between fact and
fancy: "We are such stuff/ As dreams are made on, and our little life/
Is rounded with a sleep."
In Shakespeare's capacious soul, and in the plays that emanate from it,
contraries coexist. The title of the mechanicals' play, "The Most
Lamentable Comedy, and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe," is but
another indication of life's, and art's, motley web. Yet from such
contradictions of comedy and tragedy, dream and reality, emerges
something of great constancy, at once an entertainment and a view of
life as a midsummer night's dream.
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING
Type of work: Drama
Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Type of plot: Romantic comedy
Time of plot: Thirteenth century
First presented: 1598
Much Ado About Nothing focuses on two love affairs, the rivalry
between the reluctant Beatrice and the confirmed bachelor Benedick, and
the more serious courtship between Hero and Claudio. The former is one
of the wittiest romantic conflicts in dramatic literature; the latter
narrowly avoids catastrophe by means of a necessary, if contrived,
manipulation of the plot to achieve a happy ending.
Don Pedro (pa'dro, pe'dro), Prince of Aragon. A victorious leader, he
has respect and affection for his follower Claudio, for whom he asks the
hand of Hero. Deceived like Claudio into thinking Hero false, he angrily
shares in the painful repudiation of her at the altar. On learning of
her innocence, he is deeply penitent.
Don John, the bastard brother of Don Pedro. A malcontent and a defeated
rebel, he broods on possible revenge and decides to strike Don Pedro
through his favorite, Claudio. He arranges to have Don Pedro and Claudio
witness what they think is a love scene between Hero and Borachio. When
his evil plot is exposed, he shows his guilt by flight. All in all, he
is a rather ineffectual villain, though his plot almost has tragic
Claudio (klo'dl-á), a young lord of Florence. A conventional hero of the
sort no longer appealing to theater audiences, he behaves in an
unforgivable manner to Hero when he thinks she is faithless; however,
she—and apparently the Elizabethan audience—forgives him. He is properly
repentant when he learns of her innocence, and he is rewarded by being
allowed to marry her.
Benedick (Ü¸ï'ý-dik), a witty young woman-hater. A voluble and
attractive young man, he steals the leading role from Claudio. He spends
much of his time exchanging sharp remarks with Beatrice. After being
tricked by the Prince and Claudio into believing that Beatrice is in
love with him, he becomes devoted to her. After Clau-dio's rejection of
Hero, Benedick challenges him; but the duel never takes place. His witty
encounters with Beatrice end in marriage.
Hero (he'ro), the daughter of Leonato. A pure and gentle girl, extremely
sensitive, she is stunned by the false accusation delivered against her
and by Claudio's harsh repudiation of her in the church. Her swooning is
reported by Leonato as death. Her character contains humor and
generosity. She forgives Claudio when he repents.
Beatrice (Ü¸'ý-tris), Hero's cousin. Although sprightly and witty, she
has a serious side. Her loyal devotion to Hero permits no doubt of her
cousin to enter her mind; she turns to her former antagonist, Benedick,
for help when Hero is slandered and insists that he kill his friend
Claudio. When all is clear and forgiven, she agrees to marry Benedick,
but with the face-saving declaration that she does so for pity only.
Leonato (le-o-na'to), Governor of Messina, father of Hero. A good old
man, he welcomes Claudio as a prospective son-in-law. He is shocked by
the devastating treatment of his daughter at her wedding. Deeply angry
with the Prince and Claudio, he at first considers trying to kill them
but later consents to Friar Francis' plan to humble them. When Hero is
vindicated, he forgives them and allows the delayed marriage to take
Conrade (kon'rad), a tale-bearing, unpleasant follower of Don John.
Borachio (bo-ra'ke-6), another of Don John's followers. He is
responsible for the idea of rousing Claudio's jealousy by making him
think Hero has received a lover at her bedroom window. He persuades
Margaret to wear Hero's gown and pretend to be Hero. His telling Conrade
of his exploit is overheard by the watch and leads to the vindication of
Hero. Borachio is much disgruntled at being overreached by the stupid
members of the watch; however, he confesses and clears Margaret of any
willful complicity in his plot.
Friar Francis, a kindly, scheming cleric. He recommends that Hero
pretend to be dead. His plan is successful in bringing about the
repentance of Don Pedro and Claudio and in preparing the way for the
Dogberry, a self-important constable. Pompous, verbose, and prone to
solecisms, he fails to communicate properly with Leonato; hence he does
not prevent Hero's humiliation, though his watchmen have already
uncovered the villains.
Verges (ver'jes), a headborough. An elderly, bumbling man and a great
admirer of his superior, the constable, he seconds the latter in all
Margaret, the innocent betrayer of her mistress, Hero. She does not
understand Borachio's plot and therefore is exonerated, escaping
Ursula (er'su-ls), a gentlewoman attending Hero. She is one of the
plotters who trick the sharp-tongued Beatrice into falling in love with
First Watchman and Second Watchman, plain, simple-minded men.
Overhearing Borachio's boastful confession to Conrade, they apprehend
both and bring them before the constable, thereby overthrowing clever
malice and radically changing the course of events.
Antonio (an-to'm-o), Leonato's brother. He plays the role of father to
Leonato's supposed niece (actually Hero), whom Claudio agrees to marry
in place of his lost Hero.
Balthasar (bal'ths-zar), an attendant to Don Pedro.
A Sexton, who serves as recorder for Dogberry and the watch during the
examination of Conrade and Borachio.
Don Pedro, Prince of Arragon, arrived in Messina accompanied by his
bastard brother, Don John, and his two friends, Claudio and Benedick,
young Italian noblemen. Don Pedro had been successful over his brother
in battle. Reconciled, the brothers planned to visit Leonato before
returning to their homeland. On their arrival in Messina, young Claudio
was immediately smitten by the lovely Hero, daughter of Leonato. In
order to help his faithful young friend in his suit, Don Pedro assumed
the guise of Claudio at a masked ball and wooed Hero in Claudio's name.
Thus he gained Leonato's consent for Claudio and Hero to marry. The
bastard Don John tried to cause trouble by persuading Claudio that Don
Pedro meant to betray him and keep Hero for himself, but the villain was
foiled in his plot and Claudio remained faithful to Don Pedro.
Benedick, the other young follower of Don Pedro, was a confirmed and
bitter bachelor who scorned all men willing to enter the married state.
No less opposed to men and matrimony was Leonato's niece, Beatrice.
These two were at each other constantly, each one trying to gain
supremacy by insulting the other. Don Pedro, with the help of Hero,
Claudio, and Leonato, undertook the seemingly impossible task of
bringing Benedick and Beatrice together in matrimony in the seven days
remaining before the marriage of Hero and Claudio.
Don John, thwarted in his first attempt to cause disharmony, now formed
another plot. With the help of a servingman, he arranged to make it
appear that Hero was unfaithful to Claudio. The servingman was to gain
entrance to Hero's chambers when she was away. In her place would be her
attendant, assuming Hero's clothes. Don John, posing as Claudio's true
friend, would inform him of her unfaithfulness and lead him to Hero's
window to witness her wanton disloyalty.
In the meantime Don Pedro carried out his plan to get Benedick and
Beatrice to stop quarreling and fall in love with each other. When
Benedick was close by, thinking himself unseen, Don Pedro, Claudio, and
Leonato would talk of their great sympathy for Beatrice, who loved
Benedick but was unloved by him. To each other, the three told sorrowful
tales of the love letters Beatrice wrote to Benedick and then tore up.
Sadly they said that Beatrice beat her breast and sobbed over her
unrequited love for Benedick. Meanwhile Hero and her servingwoman would,
when Beatrice was nearby but thought herself unseen, tell tales of poor
Benedick, who pined and sighed for the heartless Beatrice. Thus both the
unsuspecting young people decided not to let the other suffer. Each
would sacrifice principles and accept the other's love.
As Benedick and Beatrice were ready to admit their love for each other,
Don John was successful in his base plot to ruin Hero. He told Claudio
that he had learned of Hero's duplicity and he arranged to take him and
Don Pedro to her window that very night, when they might witness her
unfaithfulness. Dogberry, a constable, and the watch apprehended Don
John's followers and overheard the truth of the plot, but in their
stupidity the petty officials could not get their story told in time to
prevent Hero's disgrace. Although Don Pedro and Claudio did indeed
witness the feigned betrayal, Claudio determined to let her get to the
church on the next day still thinking herself beloved. There, instead of
marrying her, he would shame her before all the wedding guests.
All happened as Don John had hoped. Before the priest and all the guests
Claudio called Hero a wanton and forswore her love for all time. The
poor girl protested her innocence, but to no avail. Claudio said that he
had seen with his own eyes her foul act. Then Hero swooned and lay as if
dead. Claudio and Don Pedro left her thus with Leonato, who also
believed the story and wished his daughter really dead in her shame. But
the priest, believing the girl guiltless, persuaded Leonato to believe
in her too. The priest told Leonato to let the world believe Hero dead
while they worked to prove her innocent. Benedick, also believing in her
innocence, promised to help unravel the mystery. Then Beatrice told
Benedick of her love for him and asked him to kill Claudio and so prove
his love for her. Benedick challenged Claudio to a duel. Don John fled
the country after the successful outcome of his plot, but Benedick swore
that he would find Don John and kill him as well as Claudio.
At last Dogberry and the watch got to Leonato and told their story.
Claudio and Don Pedro heard it also, and Claudio wanted to die and to be
with his wronged Hero. Leonato allowed the two sorrowful men to continue
to think Hero dead. In fact, they all attended her funeral. Leonato said
that he would be avenged if Claudio would marry his niece, a girl who
much resembled Hero. Although Claudio still loved the dead Hero, he
agreed to marry the other girl in order to let Leonato have the favor he
had so much right to ask.
When Don Pedro and Claudio arrived at Leonato's house for the ceremony,
Leonato had all the ladies masked. He brought forth one of them and told
Claudio that she was to be his wife. After Claudio promised to be her
husband, the girl unmasked. She was, of course, Hero. At first Claudio
could not believe his senses, but after he was convinced of the truth he
took her to the church immediately. Then Benedick and Beatrice finally
declared their true love for each other. They too went to the church
after a dance in celebration of the double nuptials to be performed.
Best of all, word came that Don John had been captured and was being
brought back to Messina to face his brother, Don Pedro. But his
punishment must wait the morrow. Tonight all would be joy and happiness.
Much Ado About Nothing has in fact very much to do with "noting" (an
intended pun on "nothing") or with half seeing, with perceiving dimly or
not at all. Out of all the misperceptions arises the comedy of
Shakespeare's drama. Indeed if it can be said that one theme preoccupies
Shakespeare more than any other it is that of perception. It informs not
only his great histories and tragedies but his comedies as well. For
example, an early history such as Richard II, which also involves tragic
elements, proceeds not only from the title character's inability to
function as a king but also from his failure to apprehend the nature of
the new politics. Both Othello and King Lear are perfect representatives
of the tragic consequences of the inability to see. Hindered by their
egos they act in their own small worlds, oblivious to the reality that
demands recognition. When they fail to take the real into account,
whether it is the nature of evil or their own limitation, they must pay
the full cost—their lives.
Although in Much Ado About Nothing the blindness of Leonato, Don Pedro,
Claudio and Benedick very nearly results in tragedy, it is the comic
implications that emerge from mere noting rather than clear seeing which
Shakespeare is concerned with. Yet if his mode is comic, his intention
is serious. Besides the characters' inability to perceive Don John's
obvious villainy, their superficial grasp of love, their failure to
understand the nature of courtship and marriage, reveal their moral
stupidity. Going further we see that the whole society is filled with a
kind of civilized shallowness. The play begins as an unspecified war
ends, and immediately we are struck by Leonato's and the messenger's
lack of response to the casualty report. To the governor of Messina's
question "How many gentlemen have you lost in this action?" the
messenger replies "But few of any sort, and none of name." Leonato
comments that "A victory is twice itself, when the achiever brings home
full numbers." The heroes of the war, Don Pedro, Claudio, and Benedick,
return in high spirits and good humor, seemingly untouched by their
experiences, seeking comfort, games, and diversion.
Only Beatrice is unimpressed by the soldiers' grand entrance, for she
knows what they are. Between their "noble" actions, they, like Benedick,
are no more than seducers, "valiant trencher" men, or gluttons and
leeches. Or like Claudio they are vain young boys ready to fall in love
on a whim. Even the stately Don Pedro is a fool who proposes to Beatrice
on impulse after he has wooed the childish Hero for the inarticulate
Claudio. After witnessing their behavior we look back to Beatrice's
initial cynicism—"I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man
swear he loves me"—and applaud it as wisdom.
Yet at last, Beatrice is as susceptible to flattery as Benedick. Like
her eventual lover and husband, she is seduced by Don Pedro's deception,
the masque he arranges to lead both Beatrice and Benedick to the altar.
Both of them, after hearing that they are adored by the other, pledge
their love and devotion. To be sure the scenes in which they are duped
are full of innocent humor; but the comedy must not lead us astray of
Shakespeare's rather bitter observations on the foppery of human love—or
at least courtship as it is pursued in Messina.
Nor is their foppery and foolishness the end of the matter. Don John
realizes that a vain lover betrayed is a cruel and indeed inhuman
tyrant. With little effort he convinces Claudio and Don Pedro that the
innocent Hero is no more than a common jade. Yet rather than break off
the engagement in private, they wait until all meet at the altar to
accuse the girl of "savage sensuality." Without compunction they leave
her in a swoon believing her dead. Even the father, Leonato, would have
her dead rather than shamed. It is at this moment that the witty and
sophisticated aristocrats of Messina are revealed as grossly
hypocritical, for beneath their glittering and refined manners lies a
moronic and vicious ethic.
In vivid contrast to the decorous soldiers and politicians are Dogberry
and his watchmen, who function— we are well reminded—as more than a
slapstick diversion. Hilarious clowns as they attempt to ape their
social betters in manner and speech, they are yet possessed by a common
sense or—as one critic has observed—by an instinctual morality that
enable them immediately to uncover the villainy of Don John's henchmen,
Conrade and Borachio. As the latter says to the nobleman, Don Pedro, "I
have deceived even your very eyes: what your wisdoms could not discover,
these shallow fools have brought to light." Like the outspoken and bawdy
Margaret, who knows that underlying the aristocrats' courtly manners in
the game of love is an unacknowledged lust, Dogberry and his bumbling
followers get immediately to the issue and recognize villainy—even if
they use the wrong words to describe it.
Still, Shakespeare does not force the point to any great conclusion.
After all, we are not dealing here with characters of monumental
stature; certainly they cannot bear revelations of substantial moral
consequence. If they show compunction for their errors, they exhibit no
significant remorse and are quite ready to get on with the rituals of
their class. It finally does not seem to matter to Claudio that he
marries Hero or someone who looks very much like her. And even Beatrice
has apparently, once and for all, lost her maverick edge and joins the
strutting Benedick in the marriage dance. At least all ends well for
those involved, if through no very great fault of their own—for
everyone, that is, except Don John; and one suspects he should be
concerned, for Benedick promises "brave punishments." If our illustrious
heroes can be cruel to a young virgin, what can a real villain hope for?
Òóðå of work: Drama
Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Type of plot: Romantic tragedy
Time of plot: Early sixteenth century
Locale: Venice and Cyprus
First presented: 1604
The Tragedy of Othello: The Moor of Venice is concerned with the
nature of good and evil and the struggle between the two forces in the
human soul. Alone of the four great tragedies, this play is weakly
motivated in the sense that the obsessive hatred of the villain lago,
perhaps the most sadistic and consummately evil character in any
literature, is not sufficiently explained by his having been passed over
for a promotion in Othello's army. Despite its tragic ending, Othello
displays some optimism in its depiction of the triumph of love over hate
and of the love of one woman for another, which is instrumental in
bringing the villain to poetic justice.
Othello (6-ø¸Ãá), a Moorish general in the service of Venice. A romantic
and heroic warrior with a frank and honest nature, he has a weakness
which makes him vulnerable to Iago's diabolic temptation. He becomes
furiously jealous of his innocent wife and his loyal lieutenant. His
judgment decays, and he connives with lago to have his lieutenant
murdered. Finally he decides to execute his wife with his own hands.
After killing her, he learns of her innocence, and he judges and
lago (¸-a'go), Othello's ancient (ensign). A satirical malcontent, he is
envious of the appointment of Michael Cassio to the position of
Othello's lieutenant. He at least pretends to suspect his wife Emilia of
having an illicit affair with the Moor. A demi-devil, as Othello calls
him, he destroys Othello, Desdemona, Roderigo, his own wife, and
himself. He is Shakespeare's most consummate villain, perhaps sketched
in Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus, Richard of Gloucester in Henry VI
and Richard III, and Don John in Much Ado about Nothing; and he is
echoed in Edmund in King Lear and Iachimo in Cymbeline. He contains
strong elements of the Devil and the Vice in the medieval morality
Desdemona (dez-de-òî'ïý), daughter of Brabantio and wife of Othello. An
idealistic, romantic girl, she gives her love completely to her warrior
husband. In her fear and shock at his violent behavior, she lies to him
about her lost handkerchief, thus convincing him of her guilt. Even when
she is dying, she tries to protect him from her kinsmen. One scholar has
called her a touchstone in the play; each character can be judged by his
attitude toward her.
Emilia (¸-òÏ'1-ý), Iago's plainspoken wife. Intensely loyal to her
mistress, Desdemona, she is certain that some malicious villain has
belied her to the Moor. She does not suspect that her husband is that
villain until too late to save her mistress. She is unwittingly the
cause of Desdemona 's death; when she finds the lost handkerchief and
gives it to lago, he uses it to inflame the Moor's insane jealousy.
Emilia grows in stature throughout the play and reaches tragic dignity
when she refuses to remain silent about Iago's villainy, even though her
speaking the truth costs her her life. Her dying words, clearing
Desdemona of infidelity, drive Othello to his self-inflicted death.
Michael Cassio (kas'1-á), Othello's lieutenant. Devoted to his commander
and Desdemona, he is impervious to Iago's temptations where either is
concerned. He is, however, given to loose living, and his behavior when
discussing Bianca with lago fires Othello's suspicions, after lago has
made Othello believe they are discussing Desdemona. Cassio's drinking on
duty and becoming involved in a brawl lead to his replacement by lago.
He escapes the plot of lago and Othello to murder him, and he succeeds
Othello as Governor of Cyprus.
Brabantio (braban'shl-á), a Venetian senator. Infuriated by his
daughter's elopement with the Moor, he appeals to the senate to recover
her. Losing his appeal, he publicly casts her off and warns Othello that
a daughter who deceives her father may well be a wife who deceives her
husband. This warning plants a small seed of uncertainty in Othello's
heart, which lago waters diligently. Brabantio dies brokenhearted at
losing Desdemona and does not learn of her horrible death.
Roderigo (rodare'go), a young Venetian suitor of Desdemona. The gullible
victim of lago, who promises him Desdemona's person, he aids in bringing
about the catastrophe and earns a well-deserved violent death,
ironically inflicted by lago, whose cat's-paw he is. The degradation of
Roderigo is in striking contrast to the growth of Cassio. lago, who
makes use of Roderigo, has profound contempt for him.
Bianca (be-àï'êý), a courtesan in Cyprus. Cassio gives her Desdemona's
handkerchief, which Iago has planted in his chambers. She thus serves
doubly in rousing Othello's fury.
Montano (mon-ta'no), former Governor of Cyprus. He and Cassio quarrel in
their cups (by Iago's machinations), and Montano is seriously wounded.
This event causes Cassio's removal. Montano recovers and aids in
apprehending Iago when his villainy is revealed.
Gratiano (gra-shi-a'no, gra-tya'no), the brother of Brabantio. He and
Lodovico come to Cyprus from Venice and aid in restoring order and
Lodovico (lo-do-ve'ko), a kinsman of Brabantio. As the man of most
authority from Venice, he ends the play after appointing Cassio Governor
of Cyprus to succeed the Othello.
The Clown, a servant of Othello. Among Shakespeare's clowns he has
perhaps the weakest and briefest role.
Iago, an ensign serving under Othello, Moorish commander of the armed
forces of Venice, was passed over in promotion, Othello having chosen
Cassio to be his chief of staff. In revenge, Iago and his follower,
Rode-rigo, aroused from his sleep Brabantio, senator of Venice, to tell
him that his daughter Desdemona had stolen away and married Othello.
Brabantio, incensed that his daughter would marry a Moor, led his
serving-men to Othello's quarters.
Meanwhile, the Duke of Venice had learned that armed Turkish galleys
were preparing to attack the island of Cyprus, and in this emergency he
had summoned Othello to the senate chambers. Brabantio and Othello met
in the streets, but postponed any violence in the national interest.
Othello, upon arriving at the senate, was commanded by the duke to lead
the Venetian forces to Cyprus. Then Brabantio told the duke that Othello
had beguiled his daughter into marriage without her father's consent.
When Brabantio asked the duke for redress, Othello vigorously defended
his honor and reputation, and he was seconded by Desdemona, who appeared
during the proceedings. Othello, cleared of all suspicion, prepared to
sail for Cyprus immediately. For the moment, he placed Desdemona in the
care of Iago, with Iago's wife, Emilia, to be attendant upon her during
the voyage to Cyprus.
A great storm destroyed the Turkish fleet and scattered the Venetians.
One by one the ships under Othello's command put in to Cyprus until all
were safely ashore and Othello and Desdemona were once again united.
Still vowing revenge, Iago told Roderigo that Desdemona was in love with
Cassio. Roderigo, himself in love with Desdemona, was promised all of
his desires by Iago if he would engage Cassio, who did not know him, in
a personal brawl while Cassio was officer of the guard.
Othello declared the night dedicated to celebrating the destruction of
the enemy, but he cautioned Cassio to keep a careful watch on Venetian
troops in the city. Iago talked Cassio into drinking too much, so that
when the lieutenant was provoked later by Roderigo, Cassio lost control
of himself and engaged Roderigo. Cries of riot and mutiny spread through
the streets. Othello, aroused by the commotion, demoted Cassio for
permitting a fight to start. Cassio, his reputation all but ruined,
welcomed Iago's promise to secure Desdemona's goodwill and through her
have Othello restore Cassio's rank.
Cassio impatiently importuned Iago to arrange a meeting between him and
Desdemona. While Cassio and Desdemona were talking, Iago brought Othello
into view of the pair and spoke vague innuendoes to his commander.
Afterward Iago would, from time to time, ask questions of Othello in
such manner that he led Othello to believe that there may have been some
intimacy between Cassio and Desdemona before Desdemona had married him.
These seeds of jealousy having been sown, Othello began to doubt the
honesty of his wife.
When Othello complained to Desdemona of a headache, she offered to bind
his head with the handkerchief which had been Othello's first gift to
her. She dropped the handkerchief, inadvertently, and Emilia picked it
up. Iago, seeing an opportunity to further his scheme, took the
handkerchief from his wife and hid it later in Cassio's room. When
Othello asked Iago for proof that Desdemona was untrue to him,
threatening his life if he could not produce any evidence, Iago said
that he had slept in Cassio's room and had heard Cassio speak sweet
words in his sleep to Desdemona. He reminded Othello of the handkerchief
and said that he had seen Cassio wipe his beard that day with the very
handkerchief. Othello, completely overcome by passion, vowed revenge. He
ordered Iago to kill Cassio, and he appointed the ensign his new
Othello asked Desdemona to account for the loss of the handkerchief, but
she was unable to explain its disappearance. She was mystified by
Othello's shortness of speech and his dark moods.
Iago continued to work his treachery on Othello to the extent that the
Moor fell into fits resembling epilepsy. He goaded Othello by every
possible means into mad rages of jealousy. In the presence of an envoy
from Venice, Othello struck Desdemona, to the consternation of all
except Iago. Emilia swore to the honesty of her mistress, but Othello,
in his madness, could no longer believe anything good of Desdemona, and
he reviled and insulted her with harsh words.
One night Othello ordered Desdemona to dismiss her attendant and to go
to bed immediately. That same night Iago persuaded Roderigo to waylay
Cassio. When Rode-rigo was wounded by Cassio, Iago, who had been
standing nearby, stabbed Cassio. In the scuffle Iago stabbed Roderigo to
death as well, so as to be rid of his dupe. Then a strumpet friend of
Cassio came upon the scene of the killing and revealed to the assembled
crowd her relationship with Cassio. Although Cassio was not dead, Iago
hoped to use this woman to defame Cassio beyond all hope of regaining
his former reputation. Pretending friendship, he assisted the wounded
Cassio to return to Othello's house. They were accompanied by Venetian
noblemen who had gathered after the fight.
Othello, meanwhile, entered his wife's bedchamber and smothered her,
after telling her, mistakenly, that Cassio had confessed his love for
her and had been killed. Then Emilia entered the bedchamber and reported
that Roderigo had been killed, but not Cassio. This information was made
doubly bitter for Othello his murder of his wife. Othello told Emilia
that he had learned of Des-demona's guilt from Iago. Emilia could not
believe that Iago had made such charges.
When Iago and other Venetians arrived at Othello's house, Emilio asked
Iago to refute Othello's statement. Then the great wickedness of Iago
came to light and Othello learned how the handkerchief had come into
Cas-sio's possession. When Emilia gave further proof of her husband's
villainy, Iago stabbed her. Othello lunged at Iago and managed to wound
him before the Venetian gentlemen could seize the Moor. Emilia died,
still protesting the innocence of Desdemona. Mad with grief, Othello
plunged a dagger into his own heart. The Venetian envoy promised that
Iago would be tortured to death at the hand of the governor-general of
Although Othello has frequently been praised as Shakespeare's most
unified tragedy, uncluttered with subplots, many critics have found the
central character to be the most unheroic of Shakespeare's heroes. Some
have found him stupid beyond redemption; others have described him as a
passionate being overwhelmed by powerful emotion; still others have
found him self-pitying and insensitive to the enormity of his actions.
But all of these denigrations pale before the excitement and sympathy
generated in the action of the play for the noble Moor.
Othello is an exotic. It is unlikely that Shakespeare would have cared
whether or not Othello was black. More to the point is the fact that he
is a foreigner from a fascinating and mysterious land. Certainly he is a
passionate man, but he is not devoid of sensitivity. Rather, his problem
is that he is thrust into the sophisticated and highly cultivated
context of Renaissance Italy, a land which had a reputation in
Shakespeare's England for connivance and intrigue. If anything, Othello
is natural man confronted with the machinations and contrivances of a
super-civilized society. His instincts are to be loving and trusting,
but he is cast into a society where these natural virtues make one
The prime source of that vulnerability is personified in the figure of
Iago, perhaps Shakespeare's consummate villain. Iago is so evil, by
nature, that he does not even need any motivation for his antagonism
toward Othello. He has been passed over for promotion, but that is
clearly a pretext for a malignant nature whose hatred for Othello needs
no specific grounds. It is Othello, with his candor, his openness, his
spontaneous and generous love, that Iago finds offensive. His suggestion
that Othello has seduced his wife is an even flimsier fabrication to
cover the essential corruption of his nature.
Iago sees other human beings only as victims or tools. He is the classic
Renaissance atheist—an intelligent man, beyond moral scruple, who finds
pleasure in the corruption of the virtuous and the abuse of the pliable.
That he brings himself into danger is of no consequence, because,
relying on wit, he believes that all can be duped and destroyed—and
there is no further purpose to his life. For such a manipulator,
Othello, a good man out of his cultural element, is the perfect target.
More so than in any other Shakespearean play, one character, Iago, is
the stage manager of the whole action. Once he sets out to destroy
Othello, he proceeds by plot and by innuendo to achieve his goal. He
tells others just what he wishes them to know, sets one character
against another, and develops an elaborate web of circumstantial
evidence to dupe the vulnerable Moor. Edgar Stoll has argued that the
extraordinary success of Iago in convincing other characters of his
fabrications is simply a matter of the conventional ability of the
Renaissance villain. Yet, there is more to the conflict than Iago's
abilities, conventional or natural, for Othello is his perfect prey.
Othello bases his opinions and his human relationships on intuition
rather than reason. His courtship with Desdemona is brief and his
devotion absolute. His trust of his comrades, including Iago, is
complete. It is not simply that Iago is universally believed.
Ironically, he is able to fool everyone about everything except on the
subject of Desdemona's chastity. On that subject it is only Othello that
he is able to deceive. Roderigo, Cassio, and Emilia all reject Iago's
allegations that Desdemona has been unfaithful. Only Othello is
deceived, and he because Iago is able to make him play the game with
Iago entices Othello to use Venetian criteria of truth rather than the
intuition on which he should rely. Iago plants doubts in Othello's mind,
but his decisive success comes when he gets Othello to demand "ocular
proof." Although it seems that Othello is demanding conclusive evidence
before jumping to the conclusion that his wife has been unfaithful, it
is more important that he has accepted Iago's idea of concrete evidence.
From that point on, it is easy for Iago to falsify evidence and create
appearances that will lead to erroneous judgments. To be fair, Othello
does not easily allow his jealousy to overpower his better judgment.
Certainly, he gives vent to violent emotions in his rantings and his
fits, but these are the result of his acceptance of what seems
indisputable proof, documentary evidence. It takes a long time, and many
falsifications, before Othello finally abandons his intuitive perception
of the truth of his domestic situation. As Othello himself recognizes,
he is not quick to anger, but, once angered, his natural passion takes
over. Iago's contrivances eventually loose that force.
The crime that Othello commits is made to appear all the more heinous
because of the extreme loyalty of his wife. It is not that she is an
innocent. Her conversation reflects that she is a sophisticate, but
there is no question of her total fidelity to her husband. The moral
horror of the murder is intensified by the contrast between our
perception of the extreme virtue of the victim with Othello's perception
of himself as an instrument of justice. His chilling conviction reminds
us of the essential probity of a man deranged by confrontation with an
evil he cannot comprehend.
Some critics, such as T. S. Eliot, have argued that Othello never comes
to an understanding of the gravity of his crime—that he realizes his
error, but consoles himself in his final speech with cheering reminders
of his own virtue. But that does not seem consistent with the valiant
and honest military character who has thus far been depicted. Othello
may have been grossly deceived, and he may be responsible for not
clinging to the truth of his mutual love with Desemona, but, in his
final speech, he does seem to face up to his error with the same passion
that had followed his earlier misconception. As he had believed that his
murder of Desdemona was divine retribution, he believes that his suicide
is a just act. His passionate nature believes it is meting out justice
for the earlier transgression. We are promised that Iago will be
tortured unto death, but Shakespeare dismisses Iago's punishment in
order to focus on Othello's final act of expiation.
Òyðå of work: Drama
Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Type of plot: Historical tragedy
Time of plot: Fourteenth century
First presented: ñ 1595
Richard II is profound both as a political vision and as a
personal tragedy. Richard is an inept king—erratic, willful, arrogant,
susceptible to flattery, blind to good advice—but a sensitive, deeply
moving poet. The play demonstrates the inevitable result of his bad
qualities (his dethroning by Bolingbroke), yet also reveals his growth
as a human being. Richard II contains some of Shakespeare's most
beautiful and moving verse.
King Richard II, a self-indulgent and irresponsible ruler. He neglects
the welfare of his country and brings on his own downfall. He is
insolent in his treatment of his dying uncle, John of Gaunt, and greedy
in his seizure of the property of his banished cousin, Henry
Bolingbroke. To his lovely young queen he gives sentimental devotion.
Being forced to give up the crown, he wallows in poetic self-pity,
playing with his sorrow and theatrically portraying himself as a
Christ-figure. But he dies well.
Henry Bolingbroke (bol'nv brook), duke of Hereford (afterward King Henry
IV), the son of John of Gaunt. Able and ambitious, roused to anger by
Richard's injustice and ineptitude, he forces the latter to abdicate.
Although as king he desires the death of his deposed and imprisoned
cousin, he laments the death and banishes the murderer permanently from
John of Gaunt (gant, g6nt), duke of Lancaster, the uncle of King
Richard. Grieved by the banishment of his son and his country's decline,
he delivers a beautiful and impassioned praise of England and a lament
for its degradation under Richard. Angered by Richard's insulting
behavior, he dies delivering a curse on the young king which is later
Edmund of Langley, duke of York, uncle of the king. Eager to do right
and imbued with patriotism and loyalty, he is torn and troubled by the
behavior of Richard as king and Bolingbroke as rebel. As Protector of
the Realm in Richard's absence, he is helpless before Bolingbroke's
power and yields to him. He bestows his loyalty on Bolingbroke when he
becomes King Henry IV.
Queen to King Richard, a gentle, loving wife. Grief-stricken, she
angrily wishes that her gardener, from whom she hears the news of
Richard's downfall, may henceforth labor in vain. She shares with the
king a tender and sorrowful parting.
The Gardener, a truly Shakespearean creation, unlike any character in
Marlowe's Edward the Second, source of much in Shakespeare's play. A
homely philosopher, he comments on the king's faults and his downfall
and is overheard by the queen. Tenderly sympathetic, he wishes the
queen's curse on his green thumb might be carried out if it could give
her any comfort; however, confident that it will not be, he memorializes
her sorrow by planting flowers where her tears fell.
The Duke of Aumerle (6-ò¸ãÃ), son of the duke of York. One of Richard's
favorites, scornful of Bolingbroke, he is accused of complicity in the
murder of the Duke of Gloucester. His father discovers a document
linking him to a plot to assassinate King Henry IV. Aumerle outrides his
father to King Henry and gains promise of pardon, which is confirmed
after the duchess pleads for her son.
The Duchess of York, the indulgent mother of Aumerle. She is frantic at
her husband's determination to report their son's treason, and she
pleads to King Henry on her knees.
Thomas Mowbray, duke of Norfolk, an enemy of Bolingbroke. Accused of
plotting the Duke of Gloucester's death, he and Bolingbroke are prepared
for combat in the lists when Richard breaks off the combat and banishes
both. Mowbray dies in exile.
The Duchess of Gloucester, widow of the murdered duke. She pleads with
John of Gaunt to avenge his dead brother and prays that Bolingbroke may
destroy Mowbray as part of the revenge. York receives news of her death.
Bushy and Green, unpopular favorites of King Richard. They are captured
and executed by Bolingbroke's followers.
Bagot (bag'at), another of the king's unpopular favorites. At his trial
before Bolingbroke, he declares Aumerle guilty of having Gloucester
The Earl of Northumberland, a strong supporter of Bolingbroke. He aids
in the overthrow of Richard.
Henry Percy (Hotspur), the son of Northumberland.
At Bagot's trial he challenges Aumerle to combat, but nothing comes of
The Lord Marshall, who officiates at the abortive duel of Mowbray and
The Bishop of Carlisle, a supporter of King Richard. Objecting to
Bolingbroke's seizure of the crown, he is accused of treason and
The Abbot of Westminster, a conspirator against King Henry IV. He dies
before he can be tried.
Sir Stephen Scroop, a loyal follower of King Richard. He brings
unwelcome tidings of Bolingbroke's success to the king.
A Keeper, King Richard's jailer, who angers the king and is beaten by
A Groom, a devoted servant of King Richard who visits the deposed
monarch in prison.
The Earl of Salisbury, a follower of Richard executed by Northumberland.
The Duke of Surrey, a Yorkist and a friend of Aumerle.
Lord Berkeley, a follower of the Duke of York.
Lord Fitzwater, Lord Ross, and Lord Willoughby, supporters of
Sir Pierce of Exton, a savage and ambitious knight. He kills King
Richard in hope of a splendid career under King Henry IV, but is
disappointed, cast off, and banished by the king.
During the reign of Richard Ï, two young dukes, Henry Bolingbroke and
Thomas Mowbray, quarreled bitterly; and in the end the king summoned
them into his presence to settle their differences publicly. Although
Bolingbroke was the oldest son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and
therefore a cousin of the king, Richard was perfectly fair in his
interview with the two men and showed neither any favoritism.
Bolingbroke accused Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, of mismanaging military
funds and of helping to plot the murder of the dead Duke of Gloucester,
another of the king's uncles. All these charges Mowbray forcefully
denied. At last Richard decided that to settle the dispute the men
should have a trial by combat at Coventry, and the court adjourned there
to witness the tournament.
Richard, ever nervous and suspicious, grew uneasy as the contest began.
Suddenly, just after the beginning trumpet sounded, the king declared
that the combat should not take place. Instead, calling the two men to
him, he banished them from the country. Bolingbroke was to be exiled for
six years and Mowbray for the rest of his life. At the same time Richard
exacted promises from them that they would never plot against him. Still
persistent in his accusations, Bolingbroke tried to persuade Mowbray to
plead guilty, before he left England, to the charges against him.
Mowbray, refusing to do so, warned Richard against the cleverness of
Not long after his son had been banished, John of Gaunt, Duke of
Lancaster, became ill and sent for Richard to give him his dying advice.
Although the Duke of York pointed out that giving advice to Richard was
too often a waste of time, John of Gaunt felt that perhaps a dying man
would be heeded while a living one would not. From his deathbed he
criticized Richard's extravagance, for the mishandling of public funds
had almost impoverished the nation. John of Gaunt warned Richard also
that the kingdom would suffer for his selfishness.
Richard paid no attention to his uncle's advice. After the death of John
of Gaunt, the king seized his lands and wealth to use for capital in
backing his Irish wars. His uncle, the aged Duke of York, attempted to
dissuade the king from these moves because of Bolingbroke's anger and
influence among the people. York's fears were soon confirmed.
Bolingbroke, hearing that his father's lands had been seized by the
king's officers, used the information as an excuse to terminate his
period of banishment. Gathering about him troops and supplies, he landed
in the north of England. There other unruly lords, the Earl of
Northumberland and his son, Henry Percy (known as Hotspur) Lord Ross,
and Lord Willoughby joined him.
Richard, heedless of all warnings, had set off for Ireland to pursue his
foreign war. He left his tottering kingdom in the hands of the weak Duke
of York, who was no match for the wily Bolingbroke. When the exiled
traitor reached Gloucestershire, the Duke of York visited him at his
camp. Caught between loyalty to Richard and his despair over the
bankrupt state of the country, York finally yielded his troops to
Bolingbroke. Richard, returning to England and expecting to find an army
of Welshmen under his command, learned that they, after hearing false
reports of his death, had gone over to Bolingbroke. Moreover, the strong
men of his court, the Earl of Wiltshire, Bushy, and Green, had all been
Destitute of friends and without an army, the sorrowing Richard took
refuge in Flint Castle, where Bolingbroke went pretending to pay homage
to the king. Making his usurped titles and estates his excuse,
Bolingbroke took Richard prisoner and carried him to London. There
Richard broke completely, showing little interest in anything,
philosophizing constantly on his own downfall. Brought before
Bolingbroke and the cruel and unfeeling Earl of Northumberland, Richard
was forced to abdicate his throne and sign papers confessing his
political crimes. Bolingbroke, assuming royal authority, ordered Richard
imprisoned in the Tower of London.
During a quarrel among the young dukes of the court, the Bishop of
Carlisle announced that Mowbray had made a name for himself while
fighting in the Holy Land, had then retired to Venice, and had died
there. When Bol-ingbroke affected great concern over that news, the
Bishop of Carlisle turned on him and denounced him for his part in
depriving Richard of the throne. Nevertheless, Bol-ingbroke, armed with
numerous legal documents he had collected to prove his rights, ascended
the throne. Richard predicted to the Earl of Northumberland that
Bolingbroke would soon distrust his old aide because the nobleman had
practice in unseating a king. Soon afterward Richard was sent to the
dungeons at Pomfret Castle and his queen was banished to France.
At the Duke of York's palace the aging duke sorrowfully related to his
duchess the details of the coronation procession of Henry IV. When the
duke discovered, however, that his son Aumerle and other loyal followers
of Richard were planning to assassinate Henry IV at Oxford, York
immediately started for the palace to warn the new monarch. The duchess,
frantic because of her son's danger, advised him to reach the palace
ahead of his father, reveal his treachery to the king, and ask the royal
She herself finally pleaded for her son before the king and won
Having punished the conspirators, Henry IV grew uneasy at the prospect
of other treasonable activities, for while Richard lived there was
always danger that he might be restored to power. Henry IV, plotting the
death of the deposed monarch, suggested casually to Sir Pierce Exton, a
faithful servant and courtier, that he murder Richard at Pomfret.
There in his dungeon Richard quarreled with his keeper, according to
Exton's plan, and in the struggle that ensued the knight drew his sword
and struck down his unhappy prisoner. He then placed Richard's body in a
coffin, carried it to Windsor Castle, and there presented it to Henry
IV. Distressed over the news of mounting insurrection in the country,
King Henry pretended innocence of the murder of Richard and vowed to
make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land to atone for the death of his fallen
Part of Shakespeare's second tetralogy of historical plays (with 1-2
Henry IV and Henry V), Richard II is also his second experiment in the
de casibus genre of tragedy—dealing with the fall of an incompetent but
not unsympathetic king. It is also part of the "lyrical group" of plays
written between 1593 and 1596, in which Shakespeare's gradual
transformation from poet to playwright can be traced. The sources of the
play include The Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland by Raphael
Hol-inshed (second edition, 1587); the chronicles of Frois-sart, and
Edward Hall; the Mirror for Magistrates; Samuel Daniels' poetic account,
The Civil Wars; and an earlier play by an unknown author, Thomas of
Woodstock. Nonetheless, RichardIIdemonstrates Shakespeare's own
inventiveness, especially in the female roles.
Thematic interests in the play are associated, in one way or another,
with the question of sovereignty. Bol-ingbroke's challenge to Richard
brings into focus the divine right of kings, its historical basis, its
social implications. Connected with this is the matter of a subject's
duty of passive obedience, especially as seen in the character of Gaunt
and of York. Richard's arbitrariness in the opening scenes suggests the
dangers of irresponsible despotism; as we follow his thoughts and
strange behavior through the play, contrasted with the caginess and
certainty of Bolingbroke (whose thoughts are seen only as translated
into effective action), he becomes a study of the complex qualities of
the ideal ruler. In this last respect the play reflects the Renaissance
fascination with defining optimum behavior in various social roles (for
example, Machiavelli's The Prince, Ascham's The Schoolmaster, Elyot's
The Governour). Yet Shakespeare's psychological realism does not reach a
falsely definitive conclusion. This uncertainty creates a tragic aura
around Richard which makes him a most attractive character. In many
ways, the play is not so much a contest for power as a struggle within
Richard himself to adjust to his situation.
In this first play where Shakespeare makes his central figure an
introspective, imaginative, and eloquent man, it is not surprising that
some of his finest lyrical passages appear. Richard II is the only play
Shakespeare wrote entirely in verse, supported by a regal formality of
design and manner and a profuse and delicate metaphorical base.
Intricately interwoven throughout the play are image-patterns centered
on the eagle, the lion, the rose, the sun (which begins with Richard but
moves to Bolingbroke), the state as theater, the earth as a neglected or
well-tended garden, and the rise and fall of Fortune's buckets. The
complicated imagery illustrates the subconscious workings of
Shakespeare's imagination that will enrich the great tragedies to
follow. As Henry Morley comments, the play is "full of passages that
have floated out of their place in the drama to live in the minds of the
people"— including Gaunt's great apostrophe to England (act 2, scene 1),
York's description of "our two cousins coming into London," Richard's
prison soliloquy (5,4), and his monologues on divine right (3,2) and on
the irony of kingship (3,2).
So poetic is Richard II that critics speculate Shakespeare may have
written the part for himself. As a lover of music, spectacle, domestic
courtesy, and dignified luxury, Richard would be the ideal host to
Castiglione's courtier. His whimsical personality is balanced, to great
dramatic effect, by his self-awareness. Richard seems fascinated with
the contradictory flow of his own emotions; and this very fascination is
a large part of his tragic flaw. Similarly, Richard's sensitivity is
combined with a flair for self-dramatization that reveals only too
clearly his ineptitude as a strong ruler. He plays to the wrong
audience, seeking the approval of his court rather than of the common
people; he seems to shun the "vulgar crowd" in preference to the refined
taste of a court that can appreciate his delicate character. The last
three acts, emphasizing Richard's charm as a man, are obviously more
central to the play's aesthetic than the first two, which reveal his
weakness as a king. His sentimental vanity in the abdication scene is so
effective that it was censored during Elizabeth's lifetime. The
alternation of courage and despair in Richard's mind sets the rhythm of
the play; Coleridge observes that "the play throughout is a history of
the human mind." Richard's character is drawn with a skill equaled only
by Shakespeare's depiction of King Lear.
When the king speaks of "the unstooping firmness of my upright soul" we
understand that he is compensating verbally for his inability to act.
Richard insists upon the sacramental nature of kingship, depending for
his support on the formal, legal rituals associated with the throne; he
is all ceremony and pathetically fatal pomp. Yet, from the outset,
Richard contradicts even the logic of sovereign ceremony when he
arbitrarily changes his decision and banishes the two opponents in the
joust. Bolingbroke is quick to note the king's weakness, and steps into
the power vacuum it creates. For Bolingbroke is the consummate actor who
can be all things to all men by seeming so. He is impressed by the
kingly power Richard wields: "Four lagging winters and four wanton
springs/ End in a word: such is the breath of kings." He likes what he
sees and, in deciding to imitate it, surpasses Richard. Even when
Bolingbroke is ceremonious, as he is when he bows his knee to Richard
before the abdication, he is acting. And the difference is that he knows
the most effective audience. Richard laments that he has seen
Bolingbroke's courtship of the common people, "how he did seem to dive
into their hearts." He recognizes the actor in Bolingbroke and fears its
power. It is not coincidental that York compares the commoners to the
fickle theater audience. As in so many plays of Shakespeare—Hamlet,
Richard III, King Lear—the theater itself becomes a central image;
Richard's monologues are a stark contrast to Bolingbroke's speeches not
only because they reveal internal states but also because they are
narcissistically oriented. They reach inward, toward secrecy and
communicative impotency; Bolingbroke speaks actively, reaching outward
toward the audience he wishes to influence . His role can be compared
usefully to that of Antony inJulius Caesar, Richard's to that of Brutus.
The tension between the two styles of speaking, moreover, no doubt
reflects the transformation in Shakespeare himself that will make the
plays to follow much more strikingly dramatic then they are sheerly
poetic. The Bolingbroke of Henry IV is born in Richard II, his
realistic, calculating, efficient, politically astute performance
directly antithetical to Richard's impractical, mercurial, meditative,
and inept behavior. Bolingbroke is an opportunist, favored by fortune. A
man of action and of few words, Bolingbroke presents a clear alternative
to Richard, when the two men appear together. If Richard is the actor as
prima donna, Bolingbroke is the actor as director.
Òóðå of work: Drama
Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Type of plot: Historical chronicle
Time of plot: Fifteenth century
First presented: ñ 1593
Richard III is one of the most fascinating villains in all
literature. Despite his personal deformity, he exudes charm and wit,
demonstrates a potent rhetorical power, and possesses a tactical ability
that deceives and manipulates his adversaries with an ease that is as
awesome as his ruthlessness is repugnant. In the end he is doomed by his
own excessive ambition, but even in defeat his courage and style are
Richard, Duke of Gloucester, afterward King Richard Ø, sinister and
Machiavellian brother of King Edward IV. A fiendish and ambitious
monster, he shows the grisly humor of the medieval Devil or the Vice of
the morality plays. An effective hypocrite, he successfully dissembles
his ambition and his ruthlessness until he has won his kingdom. His
character in this play is consistent with that established in King Henry
VI. The role furnishes great opportunities for an acting virtuoso and
has long been a favorite with great actors.
King Edward IV, eldest son of the deceased Duke of York. An aging and
ailing monarch with a sin-laden past and a remorseful present, he
struggles futilely to bring about peace between the hostile factions of
this court. Tricked by Richard into ordering the death of his brother
Clarence, he tries too late to countermand the order. His grief over
Clarence's death hastens his own.
George, Duke of Clarence, brother of King Edward and Richard. Guilty of
treachery and perjury in placing his brother Edward on the throne, he is
bewildered by his imprisonment and death. In prison he is troubled by
terrible dreams, partly begotten by his guilty conscience, and he fears
being alone. He has no idea that his fair-seeming brother Richard is
responsible for his miseries until his murderers tell him so at the
moment of his death.
Queen Margaret, the maleficent widow of the murdered King Henry VI. Her
long curse delivered near the beginning of the play, in which she
singles out her enemies, is almost a scenario of the play, which might
well bear the subtitle of "The Widowed Queen's Curse."
The Duke of Buckingham, Richard's kinsman and powerful supporter. A cold
and masterful politician, he is instrumental in placing Richard on the
throne. Unwilling to consent to the murder of the helpless young
princes, he loses favor, flees the court, rebels, and is captured and
executed. As he goes to his death, he recalls the curses and prophecies
of Queen Margaret, whose warning to him he has earlier ignored.
Edward, Prince of Wales, afterward King Edward V,
older son of King Edward IV. A bright and brave boy, he furnishes pathos
by his conduct and by his early violent death.
Richard, Duke of York, King Edward's second son. Impish and precocious,
he bandies words even with his sinister uncle. He dies with his brother
in the Tower of London.
Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, afterward King Henry VII, King Richard's
major antagonist. A heroic figure, he leads a successful invasion
against King Richard and kills him in hand-to-hand combat at the Battle
of Bos worth Field. His concluding speech promises the healing of the
wounds of civil war and the union of the houses of York and Lancaster by
his forthcoming marriage with Elizabeth, daughter of King Edward IV.
Lord Thomas Stanley, Earl of Derby, stepfather of Richmond. Suspicious
of Richard of Gloucester from the beginning, he remains a token
supporter through fear. His heart is with Richmond; at the Battle of
Bosworth Field he risks the life of his son George, a hostage to
Richard, by failing to bring up his troops against Richmond. George
Stanley's death is prevented by the killing of King Richard.
Lord Hastings, Lord Chamberlain under Edward IV. He is devoted to King
Edward and his sons, though an enemy to Queen Elizabeth and her family.
His loyalty prevents his becoming a tool of Richard in the campaign to
set aside the claims of small Edward V. He trusts Richard to the point
of gullibility and pays for his trust and his loyalty to Edward with his
Queen Elizabeth, wife of King Edward IV. A haughty and self-willed woman
during her husband's reign, she has powerful enemies at court, including
Hastings and Richard of Gloucester. After the murder of her small sons,
she is a grieving, almost deranged mother. Her terror for her daughter's
safety drives her to appear to consent to Richard's monstrous proposal
for the hand of her daughter, his niece. The horrible match is prevented
by Richard's death.
Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV. Although she is not listed in the cast
and has no lines, she is an important political pawn in the play.
Richard seeks her hand to clinch his claim to the throne, and Richmond
announces his forthcoming union with her.
Lady Anne, daughter-in-law of Henry VI. Although she hates Richard,
murderer of her father-in-law and her husband, she succumbs to his wiles
and marries him, becoming a pale, wretched victim. She shares sympathy
with the Duchess of York and Queen Elizabeth. After Richard has had her
murdered, her ghost appears to him and to Richmond, to daunt the one and
encourage the other.
The Duchess of York, mother of Edward IV, Clarence, and Richard III. A
loving grandmother to the children of Edward and Clarence, she hates and
despises her son Richard, whom she sends to his last battle with a heavy
curse, prophesying and wishing for him a shameful death.
Cardinal Bourchier (bou'chsr, boor'-shl-a), Archbishop of Canterbury. He
enables Richard to gain possession of the little Duke of York in order
to confine him in the Tower with his brother.
Thomas Rotherham (roth'er'sm), Archbishop of York. He conducts Queen
Elizabeth and the little Duke of York to sanctuary, but his kind action
turns out to be in vain.
John Morton, Bishop of Ely. His gift to King Richard of strawberries
from his garden is in grim contrast to the immediately following arrest
and execution of Hastings.
The Duke of Norfolk (Jockey of Norfolk), a loyal follower of Richard
III. In spite of a warning that Richard has been betrayed, Norfolk
remains faithful and dies in battle.
Anthony Woodville (Earl Rivers), brother of Queen Elizabeth. An enemy of
Hastings, he becomes reconciled with him at King Edward's entreaty. He
is arrested and executed at Richard's commands.
The Marquess of Dorset and Lord Grey, Queen Elizabeth's sons by her
first husband. Dorset escapes to join Richmond; Grey is executed by
Sir Thomas Vaughan, one of Richard's victims. He is beheaded with Earl
Rivers and Lord Grey.
Sir Thomas, Lord Lovel, Sir Richard Ratcliff, and Sir William Catesby,
Richard's loyal henchmen. Catesby remains with the king almost to his
death, leaving him only to try to find a horse for him.
Sir James Tyrrel, a malcontent. Ambitious and haughty, he engineers for
Richard the murder of the little princes in the Tower. He is later
remorseful for his crime.
Sir Robert Brackenbury, Lieutenant of the Tower. He resigns the keys to
the murderers of Clarence when he sees their warrant. He is killed at
The Keeper in the Tower, a kind man. He does his best to ease Clarence's
Christopher Urswick, a priest. He acts as a messenger from Lord Derby to
Richmond to inform him that young George Stanley is held as a hostage by
The Lord Mayor of London. He allows himself to be used by Richard and
his followers to help replace Edward V with Richard III.
Edward Plantagenet, Earl of Warwick, the young son of Clarence.
Margaret Plantagenet, the young daughter of Clarence.
The Earl of Surrey, the son of the Duke of Norfolk. He remains with King
The Earl of Oxford (John De Vere), one of the lords who join Richmond in
The Sheriff of Wiltshire. He conducts Buckingham to execution.
Tressel and Berkeley, gentlemen attending Lady Anne and the body of
Sir William Brandon, Sir James Blunt, and Sir Walter Herbert, supporters
Ghosts of Richard's Victims. These include, in addition to the
characters killed in this play, King Henry VI and his son Edward, Prince
of Wales. All appear to both Richard and Richmond. They rouse
uncharacteristic terror in Richard and give refreshing encouragement to
After the conclusion of the wars between the Houses of York and
Lancaster, Edward IV was firmly established on the throne once again.
Before long, however, his treacherous brother Richard, the hunchbacked
Duke of Gloucester, resumed his own plans for gaining the throne.
Craftily he removed one obstacle in his path when he turned the king's
hatred against the third brother, the Duke of Clarence. Telling the king
of an ancient prophecy that his issue would be disinherited by one of
the royal line whose name began with the letter G, Richard directed
suspicion against the Duke of Clarence, whose name was George.
Immediately Clarence was arrested and taken to the Tower. Richard,
pretending sympathy, advised him that the jealousy and hatred of Queen
Elizabeth were responsible for his imprisonment. After promising every
aid in helping his brother to secure his freedom, Richard, as false in
word as he was cruel in deed, gave orders that Clarence be stabbed in
his cell and his body placed in a barrel of malmsey wine.
Hoping to insure his position more definitely, Richard then made plans
to marry Lady Anne, widow of Prince Edward, son of the murdered Henry
VI. The young Prince of Wales had also been slain by Richard and his
brothers after the battles had ended; Lady Anne and Queen Margaret,
Henry's widow, were the only remaining members of the once powerful
House of Lancaster still living in England. Intercepting Lady Anne at
the funeral procession of Henry VI, Richard attempted to woo her. In
spite of her hatred and fear of her husband's murderer, she was finally
persuaded to accept an engagement ring when Richard insisted that it was
for love of her that he had murdered the Prince of Wales.
Richard went to the court, where Edward IV lay ill. There he affected
great sorrow and indignation over the news of the death of Clarence,
thus endearing himself to Lord Hastings and the Duke of Buckingham, who
were friends of Clarence. Insinuating that Queen Elizabeth and her
followers had turned the wrath of the king against Clarence and thus
brought about his death, Richard managed to convince everyone except
Queen Margaret, who knew well what had really happened. Openly accusing
him, she attempted to warn Buckingham and the others against Richard,
but they ignored her.
Edward IV, meanwhile, ailing and depressed, tried to make peace among
the enemy factions in his realm, but before this end could be
accomplished he died. His son, Prince Edward, was sent for from Ludlow
to take his father's place. At the same time Richard imprisoned Lord
Grey, Lord Rivers, and Lord Vaughan, followers and relatives of the
queen, and subsequently had them executed.
Queen Elizabeth, frightened, sought refuge for herself and her second
son, the young Duke of York, with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Richard,
upon hearing of the queen's action, pretended much concern over the
welfare of his brother's children and set himself up as their guardian.
Managing to remove young York from the care of his mother, he had him
placed in the Tower, along with Prince Edward. He announced that they
were under his protection and that they would remain there only until
Prince Edward had been crowned.
Learning from Sir William Catesby, a court toady, that Lord Hastings was
a loyal adherent of the young prince, Richard contrived to remove the
influential nobleman from the court. He summoned Hastings to a meeting
called supposedly to discuss plans for the coronation of the new king.
Although Lord Stanley warned Hastings that ill luck awaited him if he
went to the meeting, the trusting nobleman paid no attention but kept
his appointment with Richard in the Tower. There, in a trumped-up scene,
Richard accused Hastings of treason and ordered his immediate execution.
Then Richard and Buckingham dressed themselves in rusty old armor and
pretended to the lord mayor that Hastings had been plotting against
them; the lord mayor was convinced by their false protestations that the
execution was justified.
Richard, with Buckingham, plotted to seize the throne for himself.
Buckingham, speaking in the Guildhall of the great immorality of the
late King Edward, hinted that both the king and his children were
illegitimate. Shocked, a citizens' committee headed by the lord mayor
approached Richard and begged him to accept the crown. They found him,
well coached by Buckingham, in the company of two priests, with a prayer
book in his hand. So impressed were they with his seeming piety that
they repeated their offer after he had hypocritically refused it.
Pretending great reluctance, Richard finally accepted, after being urged
by Buckingham, the lord mayor, and Catesby. Immediate plans for the
coronation were made.
Lady Anne, interrupted during a visit to the Tower with Queen Elizabeth
and the old Duchess of York, was ordered to Westminster to be crowned
Richard's queen. The three women heard with horror that Richard had
ascended the throne, and they were all the more suspicious of him
because they had been refused entrance to see the young princes. Fearing
the worst, they sorrowed among themselves and saw only doom for the
Soon after his coronation Richard suggested to Buckingham that the two
princes must be killed. When Buckingham balked at the order, Richard
refused to consider his request for elevation to the earldom of
Hereford. Proceeding alone to secure the safety of his position, he
hired Sir James Tyrrel, a discontented nobleman, to smother the children
in their sleep. Then, to make his position still more secure, Richard
planned to marry Elizabeth of York, his own niece and daughter of the
deceased Edward IV. Spreading the news that Queen Anne was mortally ill,
he had her secretly murdered. He then removed the threat from Clarence's
heirs by imprisoning his son and by arranging a marriage for the
daughter whereby her social position was considerably lowered.
But all these precautions could not stem the tide of threats that were
beginning to endanger Richard. In Brittany, the Earl of Richmond, Henry
Tudor, gathered an army and invaded the country. When news of Richmond's
landing at Milford reached London, Buckingham fled from Richard, whose
cruelty and guilt were finally becoming apparent to his closest friends
and associates. Buckingham joined the forces of Richmond, but shortly
afterward he was captured and executed by Richard.
In a tremendous final battle, the armies of Richmond and Richard met on
Bos worth Field. There, on the night before the encounter, all the
ghosts of Richard's victims appeared to him in his sleep and prophesied
his defeat. At the same time they foretold the coming victory and
success of the Earl of Richmond. These predictions held true, for the
next day Richard, fighting desperately, was slain in battle by Richmond,
after crying out the offer of his ill-gotten kingdom for a horse, his
own having been killed under him. The earl mounted the throne and
married Elizabeth of York, thus uniting the houses of York and Lancaster
and ending the feud of those noble families forever.
Richard III is the last of a series of four plays which began with the
three parts of Henry VI. These plays, though not strictly speaking a
tetralogy, trace the bloody conflicts between the Houses of Lancaster
and York and interpret the events leading up to the establishment of the
Tudor dynasty. Despite the painful experiences of Richard, the drama
remains a history rather than a tragedy. Richard does not have the moral
stature to be a tragic hero. A tragic hero may murder, but he does so in
violation of his own nature; Richard, however, is quite at home when
intriguing and slaughtering. Even as bloody a character as Macbeth
implies an earlier Macbeth of nobler behavior. Richard is too
intelligent and self-aware, too much in control of himself and those
around him to raise any of the moral ambiguities or dilemmas which are
necessary to tragedy. Nor does Richard come to any transcendent
understanding of his actions.
Richard is, nevertheless, the dominating figure in the play and a
fascinating character. All the other characters pale before him, and the
play becomes primarily a series of encounters between Richard and the
opponents who surround him. Physically, Richard is a small man with a
humpback. Many commentators have suggested that his behavior is a
compensation for his physical deformity. But Richard is not a paranoid;
everyone really does hate him. The deformity, which is a gross
exaggeration of the historical reality, is more likely a physical
representation of the grotesque shape of Richard's soul in a Renaissance
world which took seriously such correspondences. In any case, it makes
for good theater by representing Richard and his plots as all the more
Richard is also the master rhetorician in a play in which Shakespeare
shows for the first time the full power of his language. In Richard's
speeches and in the staccato exchanges among characters, there appears
the nervous energy that informs the more ambitious later plays. From his
opening soliloquy, Richard fascinates us not only with his language but
also with his intelligence and candor. Up until the very end, he is the
stage manager of all that occurs. As a villain, he is unique in his
total control and in the virtuosity of his performance. Even Iago pales
before him, for Richard, in soliloquies and asides, explains to the
audience exactly what he is going to do and then carries it off
In his opening speech it is immediately clear that Richard will preside
if not eventually prevail. He reveals not only his self-confident
awareness of his own physical limitations and intellectual superiority,
but also a disarming perception of his own evil and isolation. His
honest villainy is more total than lago's both in the way that he is
able to convince every character that he is his only friend and in the
full step-by-step disclosure of his intentions to the audience. Since
everyone is against him, he almost generates our sympathy against our
will. Anyway, there is no one else in the play to turn to.
The plot is the relentless working out of Richard's schemes to his final
destruction. His first confrontation, with Anne, the widow of Henry VI's
son, whom Richard had killed, is a model for Richard's abilities. The
exchange begins with Anne heaping abuse on her husband's murderer and
ends with Richard extracting from her a promise of marriage. Anne is
overwhelmed more by the brilliance and audacity of Richard's rhetorical
wit than by the logic of his arguments. Yet, the audience is left with
the extreme improbability of the short time it takes Richard to be
successful. The violation of probability, however, is as much a
convention as Richard's speaking to the audience in soliloquy. It is one
of the givens of the play. It is part of the definition of this villain
that he could succeed in such a wildly improbable adventure. And
repeatedly Richard is able to put those who hate him to his own uses in
a perverse gratification of his ostensible desire for power and his
submerged desire to be loved. Only his own mother is painfully able to
see through to the total corruption of his heart.
For Richard, the path to kingship is clear: it is simply a matter of
ingratiating himself to the right people and of murdering all of those
who stand in his way. He contracts the murder of Clarence in the tower
amid a good bit of gallows humor, which appropriately sets the grim
tone. Like a good Machiavel, he both builds on past success and takes
advantage of any fortuitous circumstances. Thus, he uses the death of
Clarence to cast suspicion on Elizabeth and her party and to get the
support of Buckingham, and he seizes on the death of Edward IV to have
the influential nobles imprisoned and killed. Richard is clearing the
political scene and the stage of obstacles. Nothing happens except at
Richard's instigation, except for coincidences which he turns to his
advantage. He eliminates Hastings and choreographs his own reluctant
acceptance of the throne by implying that Edward's sons are bastards.
Then he accomplishes the murder of the boys of his wife, Anne, the
imprisonment of Clarence's son, and the discrediting of his daughter. He
has efficiently removed all near claims to the throne by lies,
innuendoes, and vigorous action.
So appealing is his virtuosity and so faithful is he in informing the
audience of his plans that we share his apprehension as the tide of
opposition swells under the leadership of Richmond. Shakespeare neatly
figures the balance of power by setting up the opposing camps on
opposite sides of the stage. The ominous appearances of the ghosts, to
Richmond as well as Richard, portend that retribution is at hand.
Although he is unnerved for the first time, Richard behaves with martial
valor and struggles determinedly to the last. This show of courage, amid
all of the recognitions of evil, is the final complication of our
complex admiration for a consummate villain.
ROMEO AND JULIET
Type of work: Drama
Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Òyðå of plot: Romantic tragedy
Time of plot: Fifteenth century
Locale: Verona, Italy
First presented: ñ 1595
This famous story of star-crossed lovers, one of Shakespeare's
most popular, is his great youthful tragedy. The play is passionate,
witty, rapid, intensely lyrical, and romantically beautiful. Romeo and
Juliet are personifications of young love; they are also the innocent
victims of an angry, foolish society, embodied in the feuding families,
and a malevolent providence that uses their deaths to force the feuding
factions to reconciliation.
Romeo (ro'mro), the only son of old Montague, a nobleman of Verona. A
romantic youth, inclined to be in love with love, he gives up his
idealized passion for Rosaline when Juliet rouses in him a lasting
devotion. His star-crossed young life ends in suicide.
Juliet (joo'lret), the only daughter of old Capulet. Little more than a
child at the beginning of the play, she is quickly matured by love and
grief into a young woman of profound grace and tragic dignity. Unable to
find sympathy in her family and unable to trust her nurse, she risks
death to avoid a forced marriage, which would be bigamous. Awakening in
the tomb to find Romeo's body, she too commits suicide.
Montague (mon'ta'gu), Romeo's father, head of the house of Montague. An
enemy of the Capulets, he is a good, reasonable man and father. In the
family feud he seems more provoked than provoking. After the deaths of
Romeo and Juliet he becomes reconciled with the Capulets.
Lady Montague, Romeo's gentle mother. Tenderhearted and peace-loving,
she breaks down under the fury of the clashing houses and the banishment
of her son and dies of grief.
Capulet (êàð'ï-let), Juliet's fiery father. Essentially good-hearted but
furiously unreasonable when thwarted in the slightest thing, he destroys
the happiness and the life of his dearly loved daughter. He joins his
former enemy in grief and friendship after her death.
Lady Capulet, Juliet's mother. Dominated by her husband, she fails to
offer Juliet the understanding and affection the girl desperately needs.
The Nurse, Juliet's good-hearted, bawdy-tongued mentor. She aids the
young lovers to consummate their marriage; but, lacking in moral
principle, when Romeo is banished, she urges Juliet to marry Paris.
Hence, Juliet has no one to turn to in her great distress and need.
Friar Laurence, a kindly, timorous priest. He marries the young lovers
and tries to help them in their fearful adversity, but fails, thwarted
Benvolio (ben-vo'li 6), old Montague's nephew, the friend of Romeo and
Mercutio. Less hot-headed than Mercutio, he tries to avoid quarrels even
with the irreconcilable Tybalt. His account of the deaths of Mercutio
and Tybalt saves Romeo from execution, but not from banishment.
Mercutio (mer-ku'shl-o), Romeo's volatile and witty friend. Poetically
fanciful and teasing, he can be a savage foe. His angry challenge to
Tybalt after Romeo has behaved with humility leads to various deaths and
the final catastrophe. He has a superb death scene.
Paris (pa'rls), a young nobleman in love with Juliet. The hasty marriage
planned by the Capulets between Paris and Juliet forces her to
counterfeit death in order to avoid a bigamous union. The counterfeit
becomes real for her—and for Paris and Romeo.
Escalus (es'ks-lus), Duke of Verona, kinsman of Mercutio and Paris. A
just, merciful ruler, he tries to arrange a peace between the feuding
families. He joins them at the tomb which holds their dead children and
presides over their reconciliation.
Peter, Capulet's stupid servant. Unable to read, he asks Romeo and
Mercutio to help him with Capulet's invitation list, thus bringing about
the meeting between Romeo and Juliet.
Friar John, a friend of Friar Laurence. Caught in a home visited by the
plague, he is delayed too long to deliver Friar Laurence's letter to
Romeo informing him about Juliet's counterfeit death. This is another of
the fatal events that work constantly against the young lovers.
An Apothecary, a poverty-stricken old wretch. He illegally sells Romeo
Balthasar (bal'ths-zar), Romeo's servant. He brings Romeo news of
Juliet's supposed death and actual interment in the Capulet vault. He
accompanies Romeo to the tomb and remains nearby, though ordered to
leave the area by Romeo. His testimony added to that of Friar Laurence
and Paris' page enables Duke Escalus and the others to reconstruct the
Long ago in Verona, Italy, there lived two famous families, the
Montagues and the Capulets. These two houses were deadly enemies, and
their enmity did not stop at harsh words, but extended to bloody duels
and sometimes death.
Romeo, son of old Montague, thought himself in love with haughty
Rosaline, a beautiful girl who did not return his affection. Hearing
that Rosaline was to attend a great feast at the house of Capulet, Romeo
and his trusted friend, Mercutio, donned masks and entered the great
hall as invited guests. But Romeo was no sooner in the ballroom than he
noticed the exquisite Juliet, Capulet's daughter, and instantly forgot
his disdainful Rosaline. Romeo had never seen Juliet before, and in
asking her name he aroused the suspicion of Tybalt, a fiery member of
the Capulet clan. Tybalt drew his sword and faced Romeo. But old
Capulet, coming upon the two men, parted them, and with the gentility
that comes with age requested that they have no bloodshed at the feast.
Tybalt, however, was angered that a Montaque should take part in Capulet
festivities, and afterward nursed a grudge against Romeo.
Romeo spoke in urgent courtliness to Juliet and asked if he might kiss
her hand. She gave her permission, much impressed by this unknown
gentleman whose affection for her was so evident. Romeo then begged to
kiss her lips and when she had no breath to object, he pressed her to
him. They were interrupted by Juliet's nurse, who sent the young girl
off to her mother. When she had gone, Romeo learned from the nurse that
Juliet was a Capulet. He was stunned, for he was certain that this fact
would mean his death. He could never give her up. Juliet, who had fallen
instantly in love with Romeo, discovered that he was a Montague, the son
of a hated house.
That night Romeo, too much in love to go home to sleep, stole to
Juliet's house and stood in the orchard beneath a balcony that led to
her room. To his surprise, he saw Juliet leaning over the railing above
him. Thinking herself alone, she began to talk of Romeo and wished aloud
that he were not a Montague. Hearing her words, Romeo could contain
himself no longer but spoke to her. She was frightened at first, and
when she saw who it was she was confused and ashamed that he had
overheard her confession. But it was too late to pretend reluctance, as
was the fashion for sweethearts in those days. Juliet freely admitted
her passion, and the two exchanged vows of love. Juliet told Romeo that
she would marry him and would send him word by nine o'clock the next
morning to arrange for their wedding.
Romeo then went off to the monastery cell of Friar Laurence to enlist
his help in the ceremony. The good friar was much impressed with Romeo's
devotion. Thinking that the union of a Montague and a Capulet would
dissolve the enmity between the two houses, he promised to marry Romeo
Early the next morning, while he was in company with his two friends,
Benvolio and Mercutio, Romeo received Juliet's message, brought by her
nurse. He told the old woman of his arrangement with Friar Laurence and
bade her carry the word back to Juliet. The nurse kept the secret and
gave his mistress the message. When Juliet appeared at the friar's cell
at the appointed time, she and Romeo were married. But the time was
short and Juliet had to hurry home. Before she left, Romeo promised that
he would meet her in the orchard underneath the balcony after dark that
That same day, Romeo's friends Mercutio and Benvolio were loitering in
the streets when Tybalt came by with some other members of the Capulet
house. Tybalt, still holding his grudge against Romeo, accused Mercutio
of keeping company with the hateful and villainous young Montague.
Mercutio, proud of his friendship with Romeo, could not take insult
lightly, for he was as hot-tempered when provoked as Tybalt himself. The
two were beginning their heated quarrel when Romeo, who had just
returned from his wedding, appeared. He was appalled at the situation
because he knew that Juliet was fond of Tybalt, and he wished no injury
to his wife's people. He tried in vain to settle the argument peaceably.
Mercutio was infuriated by Romeo's soft words, and when Tybalt called
Romeo a villain, Mercutio drew his sword and rushed to his friend's
defense. But Tybalt, the better swordsman, gave Mercutio a mortal wound.
Romeo could ignore the fight no longer. Enraged at the death of his
friend, he rushed at Tybalt with drawn sword and killed him quickly. The
fight soon brought crowds of people to the spot. For his part in the
fray, Romeo was banished from Verona.
Hiding out from the police, he went, grief-stricken, to Friar Laurence's
cell. The friar advised him to go to his wife that night, and then at
dawn to flee to Mantua until the friar saw fit to publish the news of
the wedding. Romeo consented to follow this good advice. As darkness
fell, he went to meet Juliet. When dawn appeared, heartsick Romeo left
Meanwhile, Juliet's father decided that it was time for his daughter to
marry. Having not the slightest idea of her love for Romeo, the old man
demanded that she accept her handsome and wealthy suitor, Paris. Juliet
was horrified at her father's proposal but dared not tell him of her
marriage because of Romeo's part in Tybalt's death. She feared that her
husband would be instantly sought out and killed if her family learned
of the marriage.
At first she tried to put off her father with excuses. Failing to
persuade him, she went in dread to Friar Laurence to ask the good monk
what she could do. Telling her to be brave, the friar gave her a small
flask of liquid which he told her to swallow the night before her
wedding to Paris. This liquid would make her appear to be dead for a
certain length of time; her seemingly lifeless body would then be placed
in an open tomb for a day or two, and during that time the friar would
send for Romeo, who should rescue his bride when she awoke from the
powerful effects of the draught. Then, together, the two would be able
to flee Verona. Juliet almost lost courage over this desperate venture,
but she promised to obey the friar. On the way home she met Paris and
modestly promised to be his bride.
The great house of the Capulets had no sooner prepared for a lavish
wedding than it became the scene of a mournful funeral. For Juliet
swallowed the strong liquid and seemed as lifeless as death itself. Her
anguished family sadly placed her body in the tomb.
Meanwhile Friar Laurence wrote to Romeo in Mantua, telling him of the
plan by which the lovers could make their escape together. But these
letters failed to reach Romeo before word of Juliet's death arrived. He
determined to go to Verona and take his last farewell of her as she lay
in her tomb and there, with the help of poison procured from an
apothecary, to die by her side.
Reaching the tomb at night, Romeo was surprised to find a young man
there. It was Paris, who had come to weep over his lost bride. Thinking
Romeo a grave robber, he drew his sword. Romeo, mistaking Paris for a
hated Capulet, warned him that he was desperate and armed.
Paris, in loyalty to Juliet, fell upon Romeo, but Romeo with all the
fury of his desperation killed him. By the light of a lantern, Romeo
recognized Paris and, taking pity on one who had also loved Juliet, drew
him into the tomb so that Paris too could be near her. Then Romeo went
to the bier of his beautiful bride. Taking leave of her with a kiss, he
drank the poison he had brought with him and soon died by her side.
It was near the time for Juliet to awaken from her deathlike sleep.The
friar, hearing that Romeo had never received his letters, went himself
to deliver Juliet from the tomb. When he arrived, he found Romeo dead.
Juliet, waking, asked for her husband. Then, seeing him lying near her
with an empty cup in his hands, she guessed what he had done. She tried
to kiss some of the poison from his lips that she too might die, but
failing in this, she unsheathed his dagger and without hesitation
plunged it into her breast.
By this time a guard had come up. Seeing the dead lovers and the body of
Paris, he rushed off in horror to spread the news. When the Capulets and
Montagues arrived at the tomb, the friar told them of the unhappy fate
which had befallen Romeo and Juliet, whose only sin had been to love.
His account of their tender and beautiful romance shamed the two
families, and over the bodies of their dead children they swore to end
the feud of many years.
One of the most popular plays of all time, Romeo and Juliet was
Shakespeare's second tragedy (after Titus Andronicus, 1594, a failure),
written during his first transitional period. Consequently, the play
shows the sometimes artificial lyricism of early comedies such as Love's
Labour's Lost (c. 1594) and A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595) while its
character development predicts the direction of the playwright's
artistic maturity. In his usual fashion, he bases his story on common
sources: Ma-succio Salernitano's Novellino (1476), William Painter's The
Palace of Pleasure (1566-1567), and, especially, Arthur Brooke's poetic
The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet (1562). Shakespeare reduces
the time of the action from the months it takes in Brooke to a few days.
In addition to following the conventional five-part structure of a
tragedy, Shakespeare also employs his characteristic alternation, from
scene to scene, between taking the action forward and retarding it,
often with comic relief (as when the ribald musicians follow the "death"
scene in act 4, scene 5), to heighten the dramatic impact. Although in
many respects the structure recalls that of the de casibus genre
(dealing with the fall of powerful men), its true prototype is Boethian
tragedy as employed by Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde—a fall into
unhappiness, on the part of more or less ordinary people, after a
fleeting period of happiness. The fall is caused both traditionally and
in the play by the workings of fortune. Insofar as Romeo and Juliet is a
tragedy, it is a tragedy of fate rather than of tragic flaw. Although
the two lovers have weaknesses, it is not their faults but their unlucky
stars that destroy them. As the friar comments at the end, "A greater
power than we can contradict/ Hath thwarted our intents."
Shakespeare succeeds in having the thematic structure closely parallel
the dramatic form of the play. The principal theme is that of the
tension between the two houses, and all the other oppositions of the
play derive from that central one. Thus romance is set against revenge,
love against hate, day against night, sex against war, youth against
age, and "tears to fire." Juliet's soliloquy in act 3, scene 2 makes it
clear that it is the strife between her family and Romeo's that has
turned Romeo's love to death. If at times Shakespeare seems to forget
the family theme in his lyrical fascination with the lovers, that fact
only sets off their suffering all the more poignantly against the
background of the senseless and arbitrary strife between the Capulets
and Montagues. For the families, after all, the story has a classically
comic ending; their feud is buried with the lovers—which seems to be the
intention of the indefinite fate that compels the action.
The lovers, of course, never forget their families; their consciousness
of the conflict leads to another central theme in the play, that of
identity. Romeo questions his identity to Benvolio early in the play,
and Juliet asks him, "Wherefore art thou Romeo?" At her request he
offers to change his name and to be defined only as one star-crossed
with her. Juliet, too, questions her identity, when she speaks to the
slaying of Tybalt. Romeo later asks the friar to help him locate the
lodging of his name so that he may cast it from his "hateful mansion,"
bringing a plague upon his own house in an ironic fulfillment of
Mercutio's dying curse. Only when they are in their graves together, do
the two lovers find peace from the persecution of being Capulet and
Montague; they are remembered by their first names only, an ironic proof
that their story had the beneficial political influence the prince
wishes at the end.
Likewise, the style of the play alternates between poetic gymnastics and
pure and simple lines of deep emotion. The unrhymed iambic pentameter is
filled with conceits, puns, and wordplays, presenting both lovers as
very literate youngsters. Their verbal wit, in fact, is not
Shakespeare's rhetorical excess but part of their characters. It
fortifies the impression we have of their spiritual natures, showing
their love as an intellectual appreciation of beauty combined with a
pure physical passion. Their first dialogue, for example, is a sonnet
divided between them. In no other early play is the imagery as lush and
complex, making unforgettable the balcony speech in which Romeo
describes Juliet as the sun, Juliet's nightingale-lark speech, her
comparison of Romeo to the "day in night," which Romeo then develops as
he observes, at dawn, "more light and light, more dark and dark our
At the beginning of the play Benvolio describes Romeo as a "love-struck
swain" in the typical pastoral fashion. He is, as the cliche has it, in
love with love (Rosaline's name is not even mentioned until much later).
He is sheer energy seeking an outlet, sensitive appreciation seeking a
beautiful object. Both Mercutio and the friar comment on his fickleness.
But the sight of Juliet immediately transforms Romeo's immature and
purely erotic infatuation to true and constant love. He matures more
quickly than anyone around him realizes; only the audience understands
the process, since Shakespeare makes Romeo as introspective and verbal
as Hamlet in his monologues. Even in love, however, Romeo does not
reject his former romantic ideals. When Juliet comments, "You kiss by th'
book," she is being astutely perceptive; Romeo's death is the death of
an idealist, though not of a foolhardy youth. He knows what he is doing,
his awareness growing from his comment after slaying Tybalt, "O, I am
Juliet is equally quick-witted, and also has early premonitions of their
sudden love's end. She is made uniquely charming by her combination of
girlish innocence with a winsome foresight that is "wise" when compared
to the superficial feelings expressed by her father, mother, and Count
Paris. Juliet, moreover, is realistic as well as romantic. She knows how
to exploit her womanly softness, making the audience feel both poignancy
and irony when the friar remarks at her arrival in the wedding chapel
"O, so light a foot/ Will ne'er wear out the everlasting flint!" It
takes a strong person to carry out the friar's strategem after all;
Juliet succeeds in the ruse partly because everyone else considers her
weak both in body and will. She is a subtle actress, telling us after
dismissing her mother and the nurse, "My dismal scene I needs must act
alone." Her quiet intelligence makes our tragic pity all the stronger
when her "scene" becomes reality.
Shakespeare provides his lovers with effective dramatic foils in the
characters of Mercutio, the nurse, and the friar, but the play remains
forever that of "Juliet and her Romeo."
THE TAMING OF THE SHREW
Type of work: Drama
Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Type of plot: Comedy
Time of plot: Sixteenth century
Locale: Padua, Italy
First presented: ñ 1593
A lusty, witty, well-crafted comedy, The Taming of the Shrew
abounds in vigorous, often ribald wordplay. Too farcical to be taken
seriously as antifeminist, the work is a romp on the hoary subject of
the battle of the sexes.
Katharina (kat-ýò¸'ïý), the shrew, the spirited elder daughter of
Baptista, a well-to-do Paduan gentleman. She storms at her father, her
mild young sister, and her tutors until she meets Petruchio, who ignores
her protests of rage and marries her while she stands by in stunned
amazement. She continues to assert her will, but she finds her husband's
even stronger than her own and learns that submission is the surest
means to a quiet life. Her transformation is a painful revelation to
Lucentio and Hortensio, who must pay Petruchio their wagers and, in
addition, live with wives who are less dutiful than they supposed.
Petruchio (ð¸-troochTo, pe-troo'ke-o), her masterful husband, who comes
from Verona to Padua frankly in search of a wealthy wife. He is easily
persuaded by his friend Hortensio to court Katharina and pave the way
for her younger sister's marriage. Katharine's manners do not daunt him;
in truth, his are little better than hers, as his long-suffering
servants could testify. He meets insult with insult, storm with storm,
humiliating his bride by appearing at the altar in his oldest garments
and keeping her starving and sleepless, all the while pretending the
greatest solicitude for her welfare. Using the methods of training
hawks, he tames a wife and ensures a happy married life for himself.
Bianca (Ü¸-àï'êý, Ü¸-an'ka), Katharina's pretty, gentle younger sister,
for whose hand Lucentio, Hortensio, and Gremio are rivals. Although she
is completely charming to her suitors, she is, in her own way, clever
and strong-willed, and she chides her bridegroom for being so foolish as
to lay wagers on her dutifulness.
Baptista (bap-tes'ta), her father, a wealthy Paduan. Determined to treat
his shrewish daughter fairly, he refuses to let Bianca marry before her.
Petruchio's courtship is welcome, even though its unorthodoxy disturbs
him, and he offers a handsome dowry with Katharina, doubling it when he
sees the results of his son-in-law's "taming," which gives him "another
daughter." Bianca's marriage without his consent distresses and angers
him, but his good nature wins out and he quickly forgives her, watching
with delight as Petruchio demonstrates his success with Katharina.
Lucentio (loo-chen'se-o), the son of a Pisan merchant, who comes to
Padua to study. He falls in love with Bianca when he first hears her
speak and disguises himself as Cambio, a schoolmaster, in order to gain
access to her, while his servant masquerades as Lucentio. He reveals his
identity to his lady and persuades her to wed him secretly, but he finds
his happiness somewhat marred when she costs him one hundred crowns by
refusing to come at his call.
Hortensio (hor-ten'shi-o), Petruchio's friend, who presents himself,
disguised as a musician, as a teacher for Bianca. Convinced that
Katharina is incorrigible, he watches Petruchio's taming of his wife
with amusement and skepticism. He weds a rich widow after becoming
disillusioned when he sees Bianca embracing the supposed Cambio. Thus he
finds himself, like Lucentio, with a wife more willful than he has
Gremio (gre'ml-o, gre'me-6), an aging Paduan who hires the disguised
Lucentio to forward his courtship of Bianca. His hopes are dashed when
Tranio, as Lucentio, offers Baptista a large settlement for his
daughter, and he is forced to become an observer of others' romances.
Vincentio (ven-chen'se-o), Lucentio's father. He is first bewildered,
then angry, when he arrives in Padua to find an impostor claiming his
name, his son missing, and his servant Tranio calling himself Lucentio.
Overjoyed to find the real Lucentio alive, he quickly reassures Baptista
that an appropriate settlement will be made for Bianca's marriage,
saving his anger for the impostors who tried to have him imprisoned.
Tranio (tra'ne-á), Lucentio's servant, who advises his master to follow
his inclinations for pleasure, rather than study. He plays his master's
part skillfully, courting Bianca to draw her father's attention away
from her tutor and even providing himself with a father to approve his
courtship. He recognizes trouble in the form of the real Vincentio and
attempts to avert it by refusing to recognize his old master and
ordering him off to jail. His ruse is unsuccessful, and only nuptial
gaiety saves him from the force of Vincentio's wrath.
Grumio (groo'me-6) and Curtis (kar'tis), Petruchio's long-suffering
Biondello (be-dn-deTo), Lucentio's servant, who aids in the conspiracy
for Bianca's hand.
A Pedant, an unsuspecting traveler who is persuaded by Tranio to
Christopher Sly, a drunken countryman, found unconscious at a tavern by
a lord and his huntsmen. They amuse themselves by dressing him in fine
clothes and greeting him as a nobleman, newly recovered from insanity.
Sly readily accepts their explanations, settles himself in his new
luxury, and watches the play of Katharina and Petruchio with waning
A Lord, the eloquent nobleman who arranges the jest.
Bartholomew, his page, who pretends to be Sly's noble wife.
As a joke, a beggar was carried, while asleep, to the house of a noble
lord and there dressed in fine clothes and waited on by many servants.
The beggar was told that he was a rich man who in a demented state had
imagined himself to be a beggar, but who was now restored to his senses.
The lord and his court had great sport with the poor fellow, to the
extent of dressing a page as the beggar's rich and beautiful wife and
presenting the supposed woman to him as his dutiful and obedient spouse.
The beggar, in his stupidity, assumed his new role as though it were his
own, and he and his lady settled down to watch a play prepared for their
Lucentio and Tranio, his serving man, had journeyed to Padua so that
Lucentio could study in that ancient city. Tranio persuaded his master,
however, that life was not all study and work and that he should find
pleasures also in his new residence. On their arrival in the city,
Lucentio and Tranio encountered Baptista and his daughters, Katharina
and Bianca. These three were accompanied by Gremio and Hortensio, young
gentlemen both in love with gentle Bianca. Baptista would not permit his
younger daughter to marry, however, until someone should take Katharina
off his hands. Although Katharina was wealthy and beautiful, she was
such a shrew that no suitor would have her. Baptista, not knowing how to
control his sharp-tongued daughter, announced that Gremio or Hortensio
must find a husband for Katharina before either could woo Bianca. He
charged them also to find tutors for the two girls, that they might be
skilled in music and poetry.
Unobserved, Lucentio and Tranio witnessed this scene. At first sight
Lucentio also fell in love with Bianca and determined to have her for
himself. His first act was to change clothes with Tranio, so that the
servant appeared to be the master. Lucentio then disguised himself as a
tutor in order to woo Bianca without her father's knowledge.
About the same time, Petruchio came to Padua. He was a rich and noble
man of Verona, come to Padua to visit his friend Hortensio and to find
for himself a rich wife. Hortensio told Petruchio of his love for Bianca
and of her father's decree that she could not marry until a husband had
been found for Katharina. Petruchio declared that the stories told about
spirited Katharina were to his liking, particularly the account of her
great wealth, and he expressed a desire to meet her. Hortensio proposed
that Petruchio seek Katharina's father and present his family's name and
history. Hortensio, meanwhile, planned to disguise himself as a tutor
and thus plead his own cause with Bianca.
The situation grew confused. Lucentio was disguised as a tutor and his
servant Tranio was dressed as Lucentio. Hortensio was also disguised as
a tutor. Petruchio was to ask for Katharina's hand. Also, unknown to
anyone but Katharina, Bianca loved neither Gremio nor Hortensio and
swore that she would never marry rather than accept one or the other as
Petruchio easily secured Baptista's permission to marry Katharina, for
the poor man was only too glad to have his older daughter off his hands.
Petruchio's courtship was a strange one indeed, a battle of wits, words,
and wills. Petruchio was determined to bend Katharina to his will, but
Katharina scorned and berated him with a vicious tongue. Nevertheless,
she was obliged to obey her father's wish and marry him, and the nuptial
day was set. Then Gremio and Tranio, the latter still believed to be
Lucentio, vied with each other for Baptista's permission to marry
Bianca. Tranio won because he claimed more gold and vaster lands than
Gremio could declare. In the meantime, Hortensio and Lucentio, both
disguised as tutors, wooed Bianca.
As part of the taming process, Petruchio arrived late for his wedding,
and when he did appear he wore old and tattered clothes. Even during the
wedding ceremony Petruchio acted like a madman, stamping, swearing,
cuffing the priest. Immediately afterward, he dragged Katharina away
from the wedding feast and took her to his country home, there to
continue his scheme to break her to his will. He gave her no food and no
time for sleep, while always pretending that nothing was good enough for
her. In fact, he all but killed her with kindness. Before he was
through, Katharina agreed that the moon was the sun, and that an old man
was a woman.
Bianca fell in love with Lucentio, whom she thought to be her tutor. In
chagrin, Hortensio threw off his disguise, and he and Gremio forswore
their love for any woman so fickle. Tranio, still hoping to win her for
himself, found an old pedant to act the part of Vincentio, Lucentio's
father. The pretended father argued his son's cause with Baptista until
that lover of gold promised his daughter's hand to Lucentio, as he
thought, but in reality to Tranio. When Lucentio's true father appeared
on the scene, he was considered an impostor and almost put in jail for
his deceit. The real Lucentio and Bianca, meanwhile, had been secretly
married. Returning from the church with his bride, he revealed the whole
plot to Baptista and the others. At first Baptista was angry at the way
in which he had been duped, but Vincentio spoke soothingly and soon
cooled his rage.
Hortensio, in the meantime, had married a rich widow. To celebrate these
weddings, Lucentio gave a feast for all the couples and the fathers.
After the ladies had retired, the three newly married men wagered one
hundred pounds each that his own wife would most quickly obey his
commands. Lucentio sent first for Bianca, but she sent word that she
would not come. Then Hortensio sent for his wife, but she too refused to
obey his summons. Petru-chio then ordered Katharina to appear, and she
came instantly to do his bidding. At his request, she also forced Bianca
and Hortensio's wife to go to their husbands. Baptista was so delighted
with his daughter's meekness and willing submission that he added
another twenty thousand crowns to her dowry. Katharina told them all
that a wife should live only to serve her husband and that a woman's
heart and tongue ought to be as soft as her body. Petruchio's work had
been well done. He had tamed the shrew forever.
The Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare's most popular plays. The
reasons for its enduring appeal are simple to determine: It has a
well-crafted plot which moves briskly and engagingly through a variety
of entertaining circumstances; its language is brilliant and witty,
abounding with the wordplay and verbal virtuosity so characteristic of
Shakespearean comedy; and its characters are appealing and believable,
drawn from life and based on a keen understanding of human nature.
The plot of The Taming of the Shrew is more complex than many believe.
The "taming" of Katharina (also called Kate) is not a simple matter of
male dominance over the female through the institution of marriage but
is rather related to the intricate Renaissance concern with degree,
order, and the proper arrangement of the entire cosmos. E. M. W.
Tillyard's classic study Elizabethan World Picture demonstrated that the
Elizabethans were firmly committed to a belief in a hierarchy that ran
through the entire course of nature. This hierarchy was mirrored in the
larger world of politics and in the more intimate sphere of marriage:
Just as the prince was ruler of the realm, so the husband was
predestined to be lord of the family. In this sense, Petruchio's taming
of Kate is actually her return into the proper order of things, and so,
far from breaking her spirit, Petruchio actually frees her to achieve
the utmost of her nature.
Petruchio's method was one that Shakespeare's audience would have found
familiar; today we would call it "fighting fire with fire." Since Kate
is willful, ill-tempered, and difficult, Petruchio pretends to be even
more willful, more ill-tempered, and more difficult than she could ever
conceive of being. At the same time, he counterpoises this approach by
constant praise of those virtues which she conspicuously lacks during
most of the play: patience, modesty, and gentleness. Once again, the
title of the play can mislead, for Kate is not so much tamed as
educated, and in the end she is a better and more fulfilled person for
This development is paralleled in the plot of Lucentio and Bianca,
Katharina's sister, as they struggle through difficulties to become and
remain wed. The ironic counterpoint here is that while Kate is rather
easily wed but slowly tamed, Bianca, who needs no taming, is a difficult
marital prize for Lucentio to seize and hold. The expert fashion in
which Shakespeare weaves these parallel plots closely together and has
them comment upon one another is one of his finest dramatic
The plot of The Taming of the Shrew is not without its quirks, however,
and the attentive reader will note numerous instances where the overt
message of order and decorum is subverted. The questions must arise: Is
Kate really "tamed?" Is Bianca actually the dutiful wife she appears to
be? While subtle touches throughout the play cause doubts on these
points, the most telling undercutting comes in the induction to the
play, in which a beggar, Christopher Sly, is made to believe that he is
a nobleman who has been out of his wits for fourteen years. This
gulling, or fooling, of Christopher Sly frames the entire play and so
casts doubts on the validity of the concepts of order and degree. If
beggars can become lords, even in jest, then where is proper place,
where is the great chain of being? Certainly it raises the possibility
that Kate, while seeming to be tamed and submissive to Petruchio, might
actually retain control of the situation.
The induction also includes two elements that will interest the careful
reader of Shakespeare: It is a sequence of a play within (or actually
before) a play, performed by a company of strolling actors, and thus
looks forward to a similar but tragic performance in Hamlet; it contains
numerous references to magic, dreams, and fairyland, themes which
constitute the very atmosphere of Shakespearean comedy.
The language of The Taming of the Shrew is Shakespeare at his antic,
comic acme. The words wing across the stage with a lively and darting
air, as in act 2, scene 1, where Petruchio and Katharina exchange
insults, or in the marvelous scene of act 4, scene 5, where the taming
is complete and Katharina accepts her lord's assertion that the sun is
the moon and a man is a woman. The verbal artistry alone rates The
Taming of the Shrew as one of Shakespeare's prime accomplishments.
Highest accolades, however, must be awarded to Shakespeare's fashioning
of the characters of this drama. Petruchio and Kate stamp themselves
indelibly upon the reader or viewer, and even Christopher Sly, in his
relatively brief moment upon the stage, becomes a full-blooded and
believable figure. With Kate, in particular, Shakespeare has achieved
the most difficult task of a dramatist, that of altering a person's
character during the course of a play. The transformation of Kate from a
shrew to a loving wife can be explained in many ways, from the
Elizabethan love of order to the necessities of a five-act drama, but in
the end the change can only be regarded as the finest example of the
perfect control Shakespeare exercised over his noisy, wonderful play.
Type of work: Drama
Author: William Shakespeare
Type of plot: Romantic fantasy
Time of plot: Fifteenth century
Locale: An island in the sea
First presented: 1611
The Tempest, written toward the end of Shakespeare's career, is a
work of fantasy and courtly romance. The story of a wise old magician,
his beautiful, unworldly daughter, a gallant young prince, and a cruel,
scheming brother, it contains all the elements of a fairy tale in which
ancient wrongs are righted and true lovers live happily ever after. The
play is also one of poetic atmosphere and allegory. Beginning with a
storm and peril at sea, it ends on a note of serenity and joy. No other
of Shakespeare's dramas holds so much of the author's mature reflection
Prospero, the former and rightful duke of Milan, now living on an island
in the distant seas. Years before, he was deposed by his treacherous
younger brother, Antonio, to whom he gave too much power, for Prospero
was always more interested in his books of philosophy and magic than in
affairs of state. Antonio had the aid of Alonso, the equally treacherous
king of Naples, in his plot against his brother, and the conspirators
set Prospero and his infant daughter, Miranda, adrift in a small boat.
They were saved from certain death by the faithful Gon-zalo, who
provided the boat with food and Prospero's books. Eventually the craft
drifted to an island which was formerly the domain of the witch Sycorax,
whose son, the monster Caliban, still lived there. Through the power of
his magic, Prospero subdued Caliban and freed certain good spirits,
particularly Ariel, whom Sycorax had imprisoned. Now in a terrible storm
the ship, carrying the treacherous king of Naples, his son Ferdinand,
and Antonio, is wrecked; they with their companions are brought ashore
by Ariel. Using Ariel as an instrument, Prospero frustrates the plots of
Antonio and Sebastian against the king and of Caliban, Trinculo, and
Stephano against himself. He also furthers the romance between Miranda
and Ferdinand. Convinced at last that Antonio and Alonso have repented
of the wrongs they have done him Prospero has them brought to his cell,
where he reveals his identity and reclaims his dukedom. At the end of
the story he has the satisfaction of releasing Ariel, abandoning his
magic, and returning to Milan for the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand.
In the figure of Prospero, some readers have found Shakespeare's
self-portrait; and in Prospero's burying of his books on magic, they
have found a symbol of Shakespeare's renunciation of the stage.
Miranda, Prospero's daughter. Brought up on the island where her aged
father is the only man she has ever seen, she falls instantly in love
with Ferdinand. At the end of the play, they are to be married. The
character of Miranda has often been taken as the depiction of complete
innocence, untouched by the corruption of sophisticated life.
Ferdinand, prince of Naples, son of King Alonso. Separated from his
father when they reach the island, he is capture by Prospero, who, to
test him, puts him at menial tasks. He falls in love with Miranda and
she with him. Prospero finally permits their marriage.
Alonso, king of Naples and father of Ferdinand. He aided the treacherous
Antonio in deposing Prospero. When the castaways reach Prospero's
island, Alonso is so grief-stricken by the supposed loss of his son that
he repents of his wickedness and is forgiven by Prospero.
Antonio, Prospero's treacherous brother, who has usurped the dukedom of
Milan. He is finally forgiven for his crime.
Sebastian, brother of Alonso. On the island he plots with Antonio to
usurp the throne of Naples. Prospero discovers and frustrates the plot.
Gonzalo, a faithful courtier who saved the lives of Prospero and
Ariel, a spirit imprisoned by Sycorax and released by Prospero, whom he
serves faithfully. At the conclusion of the play, having carried out all
Prospero's commands, he is given complete freedom.
Caliban, the monstrous son of Sycorax, now a servant of Prospero. He
represents brute force without intelligence and can be held in check
only by Prospero's magic. Some have seen in him Shakespeare's conception
of the "natural man."
Stephano, a drunken butler who plots with Caliban and Trinculo against
Prospero and is foiled by Ariel.
Trinculo, a clown, a companion of Stephano and later of Caliban.
When Alonso, king of Naples, was returning from the wedding of his
daughter to a foreign prince, his ship was overtaken by a terrible
storm. In his company were Duke Antonio of Milan and other gentlemen of
the court. As the gale rose in fury, and it seemed certain the vessel
would split and sink, the noble travelers were forced to abandon ship
and trust to fortune in the open sea.
The tempest was no chance disturbance of wind and wave. It had been
raised by a wise magician Prospero, as the ship sailed close to an
enchanted island on which he and his lovely daughter Miranda were the
only human inhabitants. Theirs had been a sad and curious history.
Prospero was rightful duke of Milan. Being devoted more to the study of
philosophy and magic than to affairs of state, he had given much power
to ambitious Antonio, his brother, who twelve years before had seized
the dukedom with the aid of the crafty Neapolitan king. The conspirators
set Prospero and his small daughter adrift in a boat, and they would
have perished miserably had not Gonzalo, an honest counselor, secretly
stocked the frail craft with food, clothing, and the books Prospero
The helpless exiles drifted at last to an island which had been the
refuge of Sycorax, an evil sorceress. There Prospero found Caliban, her
son, a strange, misshapen creature of brute intelligence, able only to
hew wood and draw water. Also obedient to Prospero's will were many good
spirits of air and water, whom he had freed from torments to which the
sorceress Sycorax had condemned them earlier. Ariel, a lively sprite,
was chief of these.
Prospero, having used his magic arts to draw the ship bearing King
Alonso and Duke Antonio close to his enchanted island, ordered Ariel to
bring the whole party safely ashore, singly or in scattered groups.
Ferdinand, King Alonso's son, was moved by Ariel's singing to follow the
sprite to Prospero's rocky cell. Miranda, who remembered seeing no human
face but her father's bearded one, at first sight fell deeply in love
with the handsome young prince, and he with her. Prospero was pleased to
see the young people so attracted to each other, but he concealed his
pleasure, spoke harshly to them, and to test Ferdinand's mettle
commanded him to perform menial tasks.
Meanwhile Alonso, Sebastian, Antonio, and Gonzalo wandered sadly along
the beach, the king in despair because he believed his son drowned.
Ariel, invisible in air, played solemn music, lulling to sleep all
except Sebastian and Antonio. Drawing apart, they planned to kill the
king and his counselor and make Sebastian tyrant of Naples. Watchful
Ariel awakened the sleepers before the plotters could act. On another
part of the island Caliban, carrying a load of wood, met Trinculo, the
king's jester, and Ste-phano, the royal butler, both drunk. In rude
sport they offered drink to Caliban. Tipsy, the loutish monster bewailed
his thralldom to the "tyrant," Prospero. Caliban, Trinculo, and Stephano
then schemed to kill Prospero and become rulers of the island—just as
Sebastian and Antonio had plotted to murder Alonso. Stephano was to be
king, Miranda his consort; Trinculo and Caliban would be viceroys.
Unseen, Ariel listened to their evil designs and reported the plan to
Meanwhile Miranda had disobeyed her father to interrupt Ferdinand's task
of rolling logs and, the hidden magician's commands forgotten, the two
exchanged lovers' vows. Satisfied by the prince's declarations of
devotion and constancy, Prospero left them to their own happy company.
He, with Ariel, went to mock Alonso and his followers by showing them a
banquet which vanished before the hungry castaways could taste the rich
dishes. Then Ariel, disguised as a harpy, reproached them for their
conspiracy against Prospero. Convinced that Ferdinand's death was
punishment for his own crime, Alonso was moved to repentance for his
Returning to his cave, Prospero released Ferdinand from his hard toil.
While spirits dressed as Ceres, Iris, Juno, nymphs, and reapers
entertained Miranda and the prince with a pastoral masque, Prospero
suddenly remembered the schemes which had been devised by Caliban and
the drunken servants. Told to punish the plotters, Ariel first tempted
them with a display of kingly garments; then, urging on his fellow
spirits in the shapes of fierce hunting dogs, he drove them howling with
pain and rage through bogs and brier patches.
Convinced at last that the king of Naples and his false brother Antonio
had repented their evil deed of years before, Prospero commanded Ariel
to bring them into the enchanted circle before the magician's cell.
Ariel soon returned, luring by strange, beautiful music the king,
Antonio, Sebastian, and Gonzalo. At first they were astonished to see
Prospero in the appearance and dress of the wronged duke of Milan.
Prospero confirmed his identity, ordered Antonio to restore his dukedom,
and severely warned Sebastian not to plot further against the king.
Finally, he took the repentant Alonso into the cave, where Ferdinand and
Miranda sat playing chess. There was a joyful reunion between father and
son at this unexpected meeting, and the king was completely captivated
by the beauty and grace of Miranda. During this scene of reconciliation
and rejoicing, Ariel appeared with the master and boatswain of the
wrecked ship; they reported the vessel safe and ready to continue the
voyage. The three grotesque conspirators were driven in by Ariel, and
Prospero released them from their spell. Caliban was ordered to prepare
food and set it before the guests. Prospero invited his brother and the
king of Naples and his train to spend the night in his cave.
Before he left the island, Prospero dismissed Ariel from his service,
leaving that sprite free to wander as he wished. Ariel promised calm
seas and auspicious winds for the voyage back to Naples and Milan, where
Prospero would journey to take possession of his lost dukedom and to
witness the marriage of his daughter and Prince Ferdinand.
Earlier critics of The Tempest concerned themselves with meaning and
attempted to establish symbolic representations for Prospero, Ariel,
Caliban, and Miranda, suggesting such qualities as imagination, fancy,
brute man, and innocence. Many considered the play in terms of its
spectacle and music, comparing it to the masque or commedia del I'arte.
A major group have read into Prospero's control and direction of all the
characters, climaxed by the famous speech in which he gives up his magic
wand, Shakespeare's own dramatic progress and final farewell to the
Contemporary criticism seems to explore different levels of both action
and meaning. Attention has been directed to various themes, such as
illusion-reality, freedom-slavery, revenge-forgiveness, time and
self-knowledge. Some Shakespearean scholars of the latter half of the
twentieth century suggest that the enchanted isle upon which the
shipwreck occurs is a symbol of life itself: an enclosed arena wherein
are enacted the passions, dreams, conflicts, and self-discoveries of
man. Such a wide-angled perspective satisfies both the casual reader who
wishes to be entertained and the serious scholar who desires to examine
different aspects of Shakespeare's art and philosophy.
This latter view is consonant with one of Shakespeare's major techniques
in all his work: the microcosm-macrocosm analogy. The Elizabethans
believed that the world of man (microcosm) mirrored the universe
(macrocosm). In the major tragedies, this correspondence is shown in the
pattern of order-disorder, usually with man's violent acts (such as
Brutus' murder of Caesar, the usurpation of the throne by Richard III,
Claudius' murder of Hamlet's father, Macbeth's killing of Duncan) being
mirrored by a sympathetic disruption of order in the world of nature.
Attendant upon such events are happenings such as unnatural earthquakes,
appearance of strange beasts at midday, unaccountable storms, voices
from the sky, witches, and other strange phenomena.
The idea that the world is but an extension of man's mind, and that the
cosmic order in turn is reflected in man himself, gives validity to
diverse interpretations of The Tempest. The initial storm, or "tempest,"
invoked by Prospero, which wrecks the ship, finds analogy in Antonio's
long-past usurpation of Prospero's dukedom and his setting Prospero and
his small daughter, Miranda, adrift at sea in a storm in the hope they
would perish. Now, years later, the court party, including Alonso,
Sebastian, Antonio, and Ferdinand, along with the drunken Ste-phano and
Trinculo, are cast upon the island which will prove, with its
"meanderings," pitfalls, and enchantments, a place where everyone will
go through a learning process and most will come to greater
Illusions upon this island, such as Ariel's disguises, the disappearing
banquet, and the line of glittering costumes deluding Stephano, Trinculo,
and Caliban, find counterparts in the characters' illusions about
themselves. Antonio has come to believe he is the rightful duke;
Sebastian and Antonio, deluded by ambition, plan to kill Alonso and
Gonzalo and make Sebastian tyrant of Naples. The drunken trio of court
jester, butler, and Caliban falsely see themselves as future conquerors
and rulers of the island. Ferdinand is tricked into believing his father
is drowned and that Miranda is a goddess. Miranda, in turn, nurtured
upon illusions by her father, knows little of human beings and their
evil. Even Prospero must come to see he is not master of the universe,
and that revenge is no answer for injustice but that justice must be
tempted by mercy.
It has been noted that the island is different things to different
people. Here again is an illustration of the microcosm-macrocosm
analogy. The characters of integrity see it as a beautiful place; for
honest Gonzalo it is a possible Utopia. Sebastian and Antonio, whose
outlook is soured by their villainy, characterize the island's air as
perfumed by a rotten swamp. In like manner, the sense of freedom or
slavery each character feels is again conditioned by his view of the
island and his own makeup as well as by Prospero's magic. The most
lovely expressions of the island's beauty and enchantment come from the
half-human Caliban, who knew its offering far better than any before his
enslavement by Prospero.
In few of his other plays has Shakespeare effected a closer relationship
between the human and natural universe. Human beauty and ugliness, good
and evil, gentleness and cruelty are matched with the external
environment. Fortunately, in The Tempest, everything works toward a
reconciliation of the best in both man and nature. This harmony is
expressed, for example, by the delightful pastoral masque Prospero
stages for the young lovers, Ferdinand and Miranda. In this
entertainment, reapers and nymphs join in dancing, indicating the union
of natural and supernatural, the coming marriage of Ferdinand and
Miranda—the union of the children of two former enemies, signifying
reunion, reconciliation, and a return to order after chaos—also
foreshadows such harmony, as do the general repentance and forgiveness
among the major characters. It may be true, as Prospero states in act 5,
that upon the island "no man was his own," but he also confirms that
understanding has come like a 'swelling tide'; and promises calm seas
for the homeward journey, after which each man will take up the tasks
and responsibilities of his station with improved perspective. As
Prospero renounces his magic, Ariel is free to return to the elements,
and Caliban, true child of nature, is left to regain harmony with his
unspoiled world. Perhaps the satisfaction Shakespeare's audience feels
results from the harmony between man and nature that illumines the close
of the play—a figurative return to innocence after the sins of the Fall.
In this latter sense, The Tempest is Shakespeare's most idealistic play:
a plea for the forgiveness, mercy, and love which are the only forces
that can absolve man's sins and set the world right again.
Type of work: Drama
Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Type of plot: Romantic comedy
Time of plot: Sixteenth century
First presented: 1600
The principal charm of Twelfth Night, one of Shakespeare's most
delightful comedies, lies in its gallery of characters; the dour Puritan
Malvolio; the clownish Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek; and the
witty Maria. The original source of the plot was a novella by Bandello,
based on an earlier work by Cinthio, but the story was translated into
various secondary sources which Shakespeare probably used.
Viola (ve'o-b), who, with her twin brother Sebastian, is shipwrecked
upon the coast of Ilyria. The twins are separated, and a friendly sea
captain helps Viola to assume male clothes and to find service as the
page Cesario (se-za'ri-o), with Orsino, duke of Ilyria. Her new master
is pleased with her and sends the disguised girl to press his suit for
the hand of the Countess Olivia, with whom the duke is in love. Olivia,
who has been in mourning for her brother, finally admits the page and
instantly falls in love with the supposed young man. Cesario, meanwhile,
has been falling in love with Orsino. So apparent is Olivia's feeling
for Cesario that the countess' admirer, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, is
persuaded that he must send a challenge to the page, which challenge
Cesario reluctantly accepts. A sea captain, Antonio, a friend of
Sebastian, chances upon the duel and rescues Viola, mistaking her for
her brother whom he had found after the wreck and to whom he had
entrusted his purse. In the ensuing confusion, Olivia marries the real
Sebastian, thinking him to be Cesario. Viola and her brother are finally
reunited. Viola marries Orsino, and all ends happily.
Sebastian (se-bas'tyan), Viola's twin brother. Separated from her during
the shipwreck, he makes his way to Duke Orsino's court, where he is
befriended by Antonio. He is involved in a fight with Sir Andrew
Aguecheek, who mistakes him for Cesario. When Olivia interferes and
takes Sebastian to her home, she marries him, also thinking him to be
Cesario. Thus he and Viola are reunited.
Orsino (or-se'no), duke of Ilyria (HIr'-I-ý), in love with Olivia. He
sends the disguised Viola to press his suit, not realizing that Viola is
falling in love with him. But when Viola reveals herself as a girl, the
duke returns her love and marries her.
Olivia (d-lJv'i-ý), a rich countess, living in retirement because of the
death of her brother. Orsino courts her through Cesario, but she rejects
his suit and falls in love with the disguised Viola. When Sebastian,
whom she mistakes for Cesario, is brought to her after the fight with
Sir Andrew, she marries him.
Malvolio (mal-vo'11-á), Olivia's pompous steward. Considering himself
far above his station, he dreams of marrying the countess. He so angers
the other members of her household by his arrogance that they play a
trick on him. Maria, imitating Olivia's handwriting, plants a note
telling him that to please the countess he must appear always smiling
and wearing yellow stocking cross-gartered, affectations that Olivia
hates. The countess considers him insane and has him locked in a dark
room. He is finally released and leaves the stage vowing revenge. Some
critics have seen Malvolio as Shakespeare's satiric portrait of the
Puritan, but this interpretation is disputed by others.
Maria (òàò¸'ý), Olivia's lively waiting woman. It is she who, angered by
the vanity of Malvolio, imitates Olivia's handwriting in the note that
leads him to make a fool of himself. She marries Sir Toby Belch.
Sir Toby Belch (to'bi belsh), Olivia's uncle and a member of her
household. His conviviality is constantly threatened by Malvolio so that
he gladly joins in the plot against the steward. Sir Toby marries Maria.
Sir Andrew Aguecheek (agu'chek), a cowardly, foolish drinking companion
of Sir Toby and suitor of Olivia. He is forced into a duel with Cesario
but mistakenly becomes involved with Sebastian, who wounds him.
Antonio (an-to'ni-o), a sea captain who befriends Sebastian, though at
great risk, for he has been forbidden to enter Ilyria. Having entrusted
Sebastian with his purse, he is involved in the confusion of identities
between Sebastian and Cesario. When he is confronted with the twins,
Antonio helps to clear up the mystery of the mistaken identities.
Feste (fes'ta), a clown. He teases Malvolio during his confinement, but
brings to Olivia the steward's letter explaining the trick that had been
played on him.
Viola and Sebastian, identical twin brother and sister, were separated
when the ship on which they were passengers was wrecked during a great
storm at sea. Each, thinking the other dead, set out into the world
alone, with no hope of being reunited.
The lovely and charming Viola was cast upon the shores of Ilyria, where
she was befriended by a kind sea captain. Together they planned to dress
Viola in men's clothing and have her take service as a page in the
household of young Duke Orsino. This course was decided on because there
was no chance of her entering the service of the Countess Olivia, a rich
noblewoman of the duchy. Olivia, in deep mourning for the death of her
young brother, would admit no one to her palace and would never think of
interviewing a servant. So Viola, dressed in man's garb, called herself
Cesario and became the duke's personal attendant. Orsino, impressed by
the youth's good looks and pert but courtly speech, sent him as his
envoy of love to woo the countess Olivia.
That wealthy noblewoman lived in a splendid palace with a servant,
Maria, a drunken old uncle, Sir Toby Belch, and her steward, Malvolio.
These three made a strange combination. Maria and Sir Toby were a
happy-go-lucky pair who drank and caroused with Sir Andrew Aguecheek, an
ancient nobleman who was much enamored of Olivia. In return for the grog
supplied by Sir Andrew, Sir Toby was supposed to press Sir Andrew's suit
of love with Olivia. Actually, however, Sir Toby never sobered up long
enough to maintain his part of the bargain. All these affairs were
observed with a great deal of disapproval by Malvolio, the ambitious,
narrow-minded steward. This irritable, pompous individual could brook no
jollity in those about him.
When Cesario arrived at the palace, Olivia finally decided to receive a
messenger from Orsino. Instantly Olivia was attracted to Cesario and
paid close attention to the page's addresses, but it was not love for
Orsino that caused Olivia to listen so carefully. When Cesario left, the
countess, feeling in a flirtatious mood, sent Malvolio after the page
with a ring. With an abrupt shock, Viola, who enjoyed playing the part
of Cesario, realized that Olivia had fallen in love with her disguise.
Meanwhile Maria with Sir Toby and Sir Andrew decided to stop Malvolio's
constant prying into their affairs. Maria devised a scheme whereby
Malvolio would find a note, supposedly written by Olivia, in which she
confessed her secret love for the steward and asked him to wear yellow
stockings tied with cross garters and to smile continually in her
presence. Malvolio, discovering the note, was overjoyed. Soon he
appeared in his strange dress, capering and bowing before the countess.
Olivia, startled by the sight of her usually dignified steward behaving
in such a peculiar fashion, decided he had lost his wits. Much to the
amusement of the three conspirators, she had him confined to a dark
As the days went by in the duke's service, Viola fell deeply in love
with that sentimental nobleman, but he had eyes only for Olivia and
pressed the page to renew his suit with the countess. When Cesario
returned with another message from the duke, Olivia openly declared her
love for the young page. Cesario insisted, however, that his heart could
never be won by any woman. So obvious were Olivia's feelings for Cesario
that Sir Andrew became jealous. Sir Toby and Maria insisted that Sir
Andrew's only course was to fight a duel with the page. Sir Toby
delivered Sir Andrew's blustering challenge, which Cesario reluctantly
While these events were taking place, Sebastian, Viola's twin brother,
had been rescued by Antonio, a sea captain, and the two had become close
friends. When Sebastian decided to visit the court of Duke Orsino at
Ilyria, Antonio, although he feared that he might be arrested because he
was the duke's enemy and had once fought a duel with Orsino, decided to
accompany his young friend. Upon arrival in Ilyria, Antonio gave
Sebastian his purse for safekeeping, and the two men separated for
During his wanderings about the city, Antonio happened upon the
trumped-up duel between the unwilling Cesario and Sir Andrew. Mistaking
the page for Sebastian, Antonio immediately went to the rescue of his
supposed friend. When police officers arrived on the scene, one of them
recognized Antonio and arrested him in the name of the duke.
Antonio, mistaking Viola in disguise for Sebastian, asked for the return
of his purse, only to be surprised and hurt because the page disclaimed
all knowledge of the captain's money. As Antonio was dragged protesting
to jail, he shouted invectives at Sebastian for refusing him his purse.
Thus Viola learned for the first time that her brother still lived.
The real Sebastian, meanwhile, had been followed by Sir Andrew, who
never dreamed that the young man was not the same Cesario with whom he
had just been fighting. Egged on by Sir Toby and Maria, Sir Andrew
engaged Sebastian in a duel and was promptly wounded, along with Sir
Toby. Olivia then interfered and had Sebastian taken to her home. There,
having sent for a priest, she married the surprised but not unwilling
The officers were escorting Antonio past Olivia's house as Duke Orsino,
accompanied by Cesario, appeared at the gates. Instantly Orsino
recognized Antonio and demanded to know why the sailor had returned to
Ilyria, a city filled with his enemies. Antonio explained that he had
rescued and befriended the duke's present companion Sebastian, and
because of his deep friendship for the lad had accompanied him to Ilyria
despite the danger his visit involved. Then pointing to Cesario, he
sorrowfully accused the supposed Sebastian of violating their friendship
by not returning his purse.
The duke was protesting against this accusation when Olivia appeared and
saluted Cesario as her husband. The duke also began to think his page
ungrateful, especially since Cesario had been told to press Orsino's
suit with Olivia. Just then Sir Andrew and Sir Toby came running looking
for a doctor because Sebastian had wounded them. Seeing Cesario, Sir
Andrew began to rail at him for his violence. Olivia dismissed the two
old men quickly. As they left, the real Sebastian appeared and
apologized for the wounds he had given the old men.
Spying Antonio, Sebastian joyfully greeted his friend. Antonio and the
rest of the amazed group, unable to believe what they saw, stared from
Cesario to Sebastian. Viola then revealed her true identity, explained
her disguise, and told how she and her brother had been separated. The
mystery cleared up, Sebastian and Viola affectionately greeted each
other. The duke, seeing the page whom he had grown so fond was in
reality a woman, asked that Viola dress again in feminine attire. She
was unable to do as he desired, she explained, because the kind sea
captain to whom she had entrusted her clothes was held in prison through
the orders of Malvolio. This difficulty was cleared up quickly, for
Olivia's clown, Feste, pitying Malvolio, visited him in his confinement
and secured a long letter in which the steward explained the reasons for
his actions. The plot against him revealed, Malvolio was released. Then
followed the freeing of the sea captain, the marriage of Viola and
Orsino, and also that of Sir Toby and Maria. Only Malvolio, unhappy in
the happiness of others remained peevish and disgruntled.
Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will, was apparently written to be performed
on that feast day, the joyous climax of the Renaissance Christmas
season, although the feast has nothing intrinsic to do with the
substance of the play. The subtitle perhaps suggests that it is a
festive bagatelle to be lightly, but artfully, tossed off. Indeed, the
play may have been written earlier and revised for the occasion; surely
there are many signs of revision, as in the assignment of some songs to
Feste which must originally have been intended for Viola. The tone of
the play is consistently appropriate to the high merriment of the
season. This is Shakespeare at the height of his comic powers, with nine
comedies behind him, in an exalted mood to which he never returned, for
this play immediately precedes the great tragedies and the problem
plays. In Twelfth Night, he recombines many elements and devices from
earlier plays, particularly Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Comedy of
Errors, into a new triumph, unsurpassed in its deft execution.
It is a brilliant irony that this most joyous play should be compounded
out of the sadnesses of the principal characters. Yet the sadnesses are,
for the most part, the mannered sadnesses that the Elizabethans so much
savored. Orsino particularly revels in a sweet melancholy which is
reminiscent of that which afflicted Antonio at the beginning of The
Merchant of Venice. His opening speech, which has often been taken too
seriously, is not a grief-stricken condemnation of love. It owes much
more to Petrarch. Orsino revels in love-longing and the bittersweet
satiety of his romantic self-indulgence. He is in love with love, and he
is loving every minute of it.
Set up at the other end of town, in balance with Orsino and his
establishment, is the household of Olivia. Although her sadness for her
brother's death initially seems more substantial than Orsino's airy
fantasies, the fact is that she too is a Renaissance melancholic who is
wringing the last ounce of enjoyment out of her grief. Her plan to
isolate herself for seven years of mourning is an excess, as is wittily
pointed out by Feste among others. This plan, though, does provide an
excellent counterbalance to Orsino's fancy and sets the plot in motion,
since Orsino's love-longing is frustrated, or should we say gratified,
by Olivia's being a recluse.
The point of contact, ferrying back and forth between the two, is
Viola—as Cesario. She too is sad, but her sadness, like the rest of her
behavior, is more direct and human. The sweet beauty which shines
through her disguise is elevated beyond a vulgar joke by the immediate,
though circumstantially ridiculous, response of Olivia to her human
appeal. Viola's grief is not stylized and her love is for human beings
rather than abstractions. She seems destined to unite the two melancholy
dreamers, but what the play in fact accomplishes is the infusion of
Viola, in her own person and in her alter ego, her brother, into both
households. The outcome is a glorious resolution. It is, of course
immaterial to the dreamy Orsino that he gets Viola instead of Olivia—the
emotion is more important than the person. And Olivia, already drawn out
of her study by the disguised Viola, gets the next best thing—Sebastian.
The glittering plot is reinforced by some of Shakespeare's best, most
delicate dramatic poetry. Moreover, the drama is suffused with
bittersweet music. The idyllic setting in Ilyria cooperates with
language and imagery to create a most delightful atmosphere wholly
appropriate to the celebration of love and the enjoyment of this world.
There is one notable briar in the rose garden, Malvolio, but he is
perhaps the most interesting character in the play. Malvolio is called a
puritan, and, though he is not a type, he does betray characteristics
contemporarily associated with that sect. He is the sort of
self-important, serious-minded person with high ideals who cannot bear
the happiness of others. As Sir Toby puts it, "Dost thou think because
thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?" Malvolio is in
a tough spot in this joyous world and, against his will, he becomes part
of the fun when he is duped and made to appear ridiculous. He is,
however, the representative of a group, growing in power, whose
earnestness threatened to take the joy out of life (and, incidentally,
close the theaters). Yet, Shakespeare does not indulge in a satire on
puritanism. As Dover Wilson has noted, he does not characteristically,
avail himself of the critical powers of comedy except in a most indirect
Malvolio is ridiculous, but so are the cavaliers who surround him. The
absurd Aguecheek and the usually drunken Sir Toby Belch are the
representatives, on the political level, of the old order which
Malvolio's confreres in the real world were soon to topple. Yet, if
these characters are flawed, they are certainly more engaging
than the inflated Malvolio. Shakespeare does not set up the contrast as
a political allegory, with right on one side and wrong on the other.
Nevertheless, Malvolio is an intrusion in the idyllic world of the play.
He cannot love; his desire for the hand of Olivia is grounded in an
earnest will to get ahead. He cannot celebrate; he is too pious and
self-involved. What is left for him but to be the butt of the joke? That
is his role in the celebration. Some critics have suggested that he has
been treated too harshly. However, a Renaissance audience would have
understood how ludicrous and indecorous it was for a man of his class to
think for a moment of courting Olivia. His pompous and blustery language
are the key to how alien he is to this festive context. When he has done
his bit, Olivia casually mentions that perhaps he has been put upon, but
this is the only gesture he deserves. He is the force that can ruin the
celebration of all that is good and refined and joyful in Elizabethan
THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA
Type of work: Drama
Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Type of plot: Romantic comedy
Time of plot: Sixteenth century
First presented: 1594
An early and comparatively immature romantic comedy, The Two
Gentlemen of Verona is charming and witty; but the characters seem
superficial, and the hero's quick and sympathetic forgiveness of the
friend who had betrayed him strikes a false note.
Valentine (val'sn-tin), a witty young gentleman of Verona. Scoffing at
his lovesick friend Proteus, he goes with his father to Milan, where he
enters the court of the duke and promptly falls in love with Silvia, the
ruler's daughter. Planning to elope with her, he finds his plot betrayed
to the duke, and he flees to a nearby forest to save his life. There he
joins a band of outlaws and becomes their leader, a sort of Robin Hood.
His concept of the superior claims of friendship over love is
uncongenial to the modern reader, who finds it hard to forgive him when
he calmly bestows Silvia upon Proteus, from whose clutches he has just
rescued her, to testify to the depth of his renewed friendship for the
Proteus (pro'te-us), his friend, a self-centered youth who fancies
himself a lover in the best euphuistic tradition. He forgets his strong
protestations of undying affection for Julia when he meets Valentine's
Silvia in Milan. No loyalties deter him from betraying his friend's
planned elopement to the duke, then deceiving the latter by trying to
win the girl for himself while he pretends to be furthering the
courtship of Sir Thurio. When Silvia resists his advances, he carries
her off by force. Stricken with remorse when Valentine intervenes to
protect her, he promises to reform. The constancy of his cast-off
sweetheart, Julia, makes him recognize his faithlessness and her virtue,
and they are happily reunited.
Julia (jool'ya), a young noblewoman of Verona. She criticizes her
suitors with the humorous detachment of a Portia before she confesses to
her maid her fondness for Proteus. She follows him to Milan in the
disguise of the page Sebastian, and with dogged devotion she even
carries Proteus' messages to her rival Silvia, in order to be near him.
She reveals her identity almost unwittingly by fainting when Valentine
relinquishes Silvia to Proteus as a token of his friendship. She regains
the love of her fiance by this demonstration of her love.
Silvia (sil'vi-ý), daughter of the Duke of Milan. She falls in love with
Valentine and encourages his suit; she asks him to copy a love letter
for her—directed to himself, although he does not realize this fact at
first. Proteus' fickle admiration annoys rather than pleases her, and
she stands so firm in her love for Valentine that his generous offer of
her to Proteus seems almost intolerable.
Speed, Valentine's exuberant, loquacious servant, cleverer than his
master at seeing through Silvia's device of the love letter. He is one
of the earliest of Shakespeare's witty clowns, the predecessor of
Touchstone, Feste, and the Fool in King Lear.
Launce (lans), Proteus' man, a simple soul, given to malapropisms and
faux pas, in spite of his excellent intentions. His presentation to
Silvia, in Proteus' name, of his treasured mongrel, Crab, a dog "as big
as ten" of the creature sent by his master as a gift, does little to
further Proteus' courtship. Inspired by his master's gallantry, he pays
court to a milkmaid and gives great amusement to Speed by his
enumeration of her virtues.
The Duke of Milan, Silvia's father, a strong-willed man who attempts to
control his rash impulses. He welcomes and trusts Valentine, although he
suspects his love for Silvia, until Proteus reveals the proposed
elopement; then he cleverly forces Valentine into a position in which he
must reveal his treachery. He finally consents to his daughter's
marriage to Valentine as gracefully as possible, but one cannot forget
that he is at this time the prisoner of the prospective bridegroom's
Sir Thurio (toori-o, thoo'n-o), a vain, unsuccessful suitor for the hand
of Silvia, who despises him. Although he is willing to follow Proteus'
expert instruction in the manners of courtship, he has no desire to risk
his life for a woman who cares nothing for him, and he hastily departs
when Valentine stands ready to defend his claim to Silvia's hand.
Lucetta (loo-eet's), a clever, bright young woman who delights in
teasing her mistress Julia, for whom she is friend and confidante as
well as servant.
Sir Eglamour (Sg'la-moor), an elderly courtier. He serves as Silvia's
protector when she prepares to flee from her father and marriage to Sir
Valentine and Proteus, two longtime friends of great understanding,
disagreed heartily on one point. Valentine thought the most important
thing in life was to travel and learn the wonders of the world. Proteus,
on the other hand, thought love the only thing worthwhile. The two
friends parted for a time when Valentine traveled to Milan, to seek
advancement and honor in the palace of the duke. He pleaded with Proteus
to join him in the venture, but Proteus was too much in love with Julia
to leave her side for even a short time. Julia was a noble and pure
young girl, pursued by many, but Proteus at last won her heart, and the
two were happy in their love.
Valentine journeyed to Milan, and there he learned his friend had been
right in believing love to be all that is worthwhile. In Milan Valentine
met the duke's daughter Silvia and fell instantly in love with her.
Silvia returned his love, but her father wanted her to marry Thurio, a
foolish man who had no charm but owned much land and gold. Valentine
longed for Silvia, but he saw no chance of getting her father's consent
to his suit. Then he learned that his friend Proteus was soon to arrive
in Milan, sent there by his father, who, ignorant of Proteus' love
affair, wished his son to educate himself by travel.
The two friends had a joyful reunion. Valentine proudly presented his
friend to Silvia, and to Proteus he highly praised the virtue and beauty
of his beloved. When they were alone, Valentine confided to Proteus that
he planned to fashion a rope ladder and steal Silvia from her room and
marry her, for her father would give her to no one but Thurio.
Valentine, asking his friend to help him in his plan, was too absorbed
to notice that Proteus remained strangely silent. The truth was that, at
the first sight of Silvia, Proteus had forgotten his solemn vows to
Julia, sealed before he left her with the double giving of rings, and he
had forgotten too his oath of friendship with Valentine. He determined
to have Silvia for his own. So, with protestations of self-hatred for
the betrayal of his friend, Proteus told the duke of Valentine's plan to
escape with Silvia from the palace and carry her away to be married in
another land. The duke, forewarned, tricked Valentine into revealing the
plot and banished him from Milan, on penalty of his life should he not
leave at once.
While these events were taking place, Julia, thinking that Proteus still
loved her and grieving over his absence, disguised herself as a page and
traveled to Milan to see her love. She was on her way to Milan when
Valentine was forced to leave that city and Silvia. Valentine, not
knowing that his onetime friend had betrayed him, believed Proteus'
promise that he would carry letters back and forth between the exile and
With Valentine out of the way, Proteus next proceeded to get rid of
Thurio as a rival. Thurio, foolish and gullible, was an easy man to
trick. One night Proteus and Thurio went to Silvia's window to serenade
her in Thurio 's name but Proteus sang to her and made love speeches
also. Unknown to him, Julia, in the disguise of a page, stood in the
shadows and heard him disown his love for her and proclaim his love for
Silvia. Silvia scorned him, however, and swore that she would love no
one but Valentine. She also accused him of playing false with Julia, for
Valentine had told her the story of his friend's betrothal.
Calling herself Sebastian, Julia, still in the dress of a page, was
employed by Proteus to carry messages to Silvia. One day he gave her the
ring which Julia herself had given him and told her to deliver it to
Silvia. When Silvia refused the ring and sent it back to Proteus, Julia
loved her rival and blessed her.
Valentine, in the meantime, had been captured by outlaws, once-honorable
men who had been banished for petty crimes and had taken refuge in the
woods near Mantua. In order to save his own life, Valentine joined the
band and soon became their leader. A short time later, Silvia, hoping to
find Valentine, escaped from the palace and with the help of an agent
arrived at an abbey near Milan. There she was captured by the outlaws.
When her father heard of her flight, he took Thurio and Proteus,
followed by Julia, to the abbey to look for her. Proteus, arriving first
on the scene, rescued her from the outlaws before they were able to take
her to their leader. Again Proteus proclaimed his love for her. When she
scornfully berated him, he seized her and tried to force his attentions
upon her. Unknown to Proteus, however, Valentine had overheard all that
was said. He sprang upon Proteus and pulled him away from the frightened
Valentine was more hurt and wounded by his friend's duplicity than by
anything else that had happened. Yet such was Valentine's forgiving
nature that when Proteus confessed his guilt and his shame over his
betrayal, Valentine forgave him and received him again as his friend. In
order to prove his friendship, he gave up his claim on Silvia. At that
moment, Julia, still disguised, fainted away. When she was revived, she
pretended to hand over to Silvia the ring Proteus had ordered her to
deliver. Instead, however, she offered the ring Proteus had given her
when they parted in Verona. Than Julia was recognized by all, and
Proteus professed that he still loved her.
The outlaws appeared with the duke and Thurio, whom they had captured in
the forest. Thurio gave up all claim to Silvia, for he thought a girl
who would run off into the woods to pursue another man much too foolish
for him to marry. Then her father, convinced at last of Valentine's
worth, gave that young man permission to marry Silvia. During the
general rejoicing Valentine begged one more boon. He asked the duke to
pardon the outlaws, all brave men who would serve the duke faithfully if
he would return them from exile. The duke granted the boon, and the
whole party made its way back to Milan. There the two happy couples
would share one wedding day.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a play about love. The major source of
conflict in the play is the dispute caused by the friction between two
differing varieties of love: the attraction between man and woman
(romantic love) and the bond between man and man (friendship). Even in
modern times there is debate as to which of these types of love is the
higher—the more refined, the more pure variety—and during the
Renaissance this question was debated endlessly in a series of
philosophical and artistic works which form the essential backdrop for
Shakespeare's play. In a sense, The Two Gentlemen of Verona is
Shakespeare's contribution to and comment upon an ongoing controversy
over human affections and their proper place within a universal order.
Although The Two Gentlemen of Verona is one of Shakespeare's shorter
plays, a glance at a Shakespearean concordance reveals that it uses this
very word "love" more than does any other—even more than that supposedly
most romantic of his works, Romeo and Juliet. Yet the love that runs
through The Two Gentlemen of Verona is at first glance a puzzling one,
for what sort of affection must Valentine have in order to offer Silvia
to Proteus? In turn, what is Silvia's love that she seems silently to
accept the barter? Moreover, if love is indeed the central theme of the
play, why is Proteus so laggard in discovering not only Julia's devotion
to him but his appreciation for her? On the one hand there is a simple
enough answer: If these were not the complications involved, there would
be no play. On the other hand, there is the matter of the contemporary
worldview from which Shakespeare fashioned his comedy.
The series of changes in thought and attitudes so conveniently jumbled
together and labeled as the Renaissance came to England at a relatively
late date, and when it arrived it carried contradictory strains, two of
the most prominent being courtly love and its counterpart, Neo-platonic
love. Courtly love, as expressed most notably by Dante in his Vita
nuova, emphasized the ennobling and uplifting effects of romantic love,
the powerful and positive impact that a virtuous, usually virginal,
woman could have on a lowly and often sinful male. Its underlying theme,
explicit in Dante and always implicit in Shakespearean comedy, is that
man is incomplete and imperfect without the love of a worthy woman.
Critics have often speculated as to why Julia is so attracted to Proteus
and why Silvia accepts the less-than-perfect and certainly
less-than-appreciative Valentine. In the same vein, it could be asked of
another of Shakespeare's plays, All's Well That Ends Well, why the
clearly superior Helena so determinedly woos, outwits, and wins the
undeserving Bertram. Such questions miss an essential point: According
to the tenets of courtly love, it is precisely the fact that a virtuous
woman chooses a man—however many or serious his faults—that ennobles him
and raises him, despite those faults, to something approaching her
level. This theme is clearly present in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and
Julia is the forerunner of her equally virtuous and even more
accomplished sister Portia (A Merchant of Venice) and Viola (As You Like
It). Indeed, like Viola, Julia disguises herself as a man in order to
follow her lover on his adventures. So accomplished are Shakespeare's
heroines in these comedies that they can embrace the social role of
either sex and outshine men in their own sphere.
This view of relationships is one pole of the magnetic word "love" as it
appears in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. The second pole concentrates on
male friendship, a theme which was well known in Shakespeare's time
because of the philosophy of Neoplatonism. Perhaps the most widely known
exponent of this thought in Shakespeare's England was the Italian writer
Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), who developed and elaborated upon the
concept of the ladder of love. According to Ficino, the truly noble mind
progresses through a series of upward steps, beginning with earthly,
physical love and leading ultimately to that final, transcendent love
which can be equated with God. In such a system, the love between man
and man, expressed as a friendship of souls, was higher than romantic
love between man and woman, because it had no (or little) physical
attraction and instead concentrated upon intellectual and spiritual
affinities. This enabled the soul to mount the ladder toward
contemplation of true, divine love. Within such a philosophy, it is
allowable that Valentine could openly offer Silvia to his friend
Proteus, without either shame or regret.
Yet this philosophy is not the one which guides The Two Gentlemen of
Verona. It has enough potency to shape the play's plot, but it cannot
determine its outcome or control its theme. A tough-minded sense of
romantic, courtly love, embodied in Julia, is capable of outdueling the
somewhat fragile male friendship of Valentine and Proteus. The triumph
of Julia, however, is more than the victory of one philosophical system
over another; instead, it is the triumph of common sense over all
abstract forms of thought. In its ending, as in its characters and
style, The Two Gentlemen of Verona looks forward to Shakespeare's later
comedies, which are cast in the golden light of his deep understanding
of human faults, needs, and values.
THE WINTER'S TALE
Type of Work: Drama
Author: William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
Type of plot: Tragicomedy
Time of plot: The legendary past
Locale: Sicilia and Bohemia
First presented: 1611
The motivating passion of this late Shakespearean play, a
tragicomedy suffused by gentle melancholy, is unreasonable and cruel
jealousy, the effects of which are moderated by the charming romance of
the young lovers, Perdita and Florizel.
Leontes (le-on'tez), king of Sicilia. For many years a close friend of
King Polixenes of Bohemia, Leontes, curiously, becomes insanely jealous
of him. Afraid of becoming a cuckold, he imprisons Hermione, wrests her
son away from her, and attempts to murder Polixenes. When he learns that
Hermione is pregnant, he rails; he calls his daughter a bastard and
forces Antigonus to leave the child alone in a deserted area. Finally,
coming to his senses, he realizes the awful truth. Through his jealousy,
he loses child, wife and friends.
Polixenes (po-liks's-nez), king of Bohemia. The innocent victim of
Leontes' wrath, he flees to his kingdom, bewildered by his friend's
outburst. Many years later he is to meet Leontes under much happier
Hermione (her-òÃý-ï¸), queen to Leontes and one of the noblest women in
Shakespearean drama. Like Polixenes, she is baffled by Leontes'
jealousy. Imprisoned, her children snatched away from her, she remains
in hiding with Paulina, his devoted friend, until she is reunited with
her family after sixteen years.
Perdita (per'dl-ta), daughter of Leontes and Hermione. Luckily for her,
after she has been abandoned she is found by an old shepherd who
protects her as his own child until she is of marriageable age. Meeting
young Prince Florizel of Bohemia, she falls in love with him. Later she
and her repentant father are reunited.
Paulina (ðî-1¸'ïý), wife of Antigonus and lady in waiting to Hermione.
Realizing the absurdity of Leontes' accusations, the courageous woman
upbraids him unmercifully for his blind cruelty to Hermione, whom she
keeps hidden for sixteen years. Finally, through her efforts, husband
and wife meet on a much happier note.
Camillo (êà-òÏ'á), a lord of Sicilia and Leontes' trusted adviser, who
realizes that Hermione is completely innocent of adultery. When ordered
by Leontes to kill Polixenes, loyal, steadfast Camillo cannot murder a
good king. Instead, he sails with Polixenes and serves him well for many
years. Later, he returns to his beloved Sicilia.
Antigonus (an-tig'3-nus), a lord of Sicilia and Paulina's husband. Much
against his will, this unhappy man is forced to abandon Perdita in a
deserted wasteland. Unfortunately for this good man, who is aware of the
king's irrationality, he is killed and eaten by a bear; hence the fate
and whereabouts of Perdita remain unknown for many years.
Autolycus (o-tol'ikus), a rogue. A balladist, he is a delightful
scoundrel. Quick with a song, he is equally adept at stealing purses
and, in general, at living by his quick wit.
Florizel (flor'i-zel), prince of Bohemia. In love with Perdita, he
refuses to give her up, even though, in so doing, he angers his
hot-tempered father who does not want to see his son marry a girl of
apparent low birth.
An Old Shepherd, the reputed father of Perdita.
A Clown, his oafish son.
Dion (dlon) and Cleomenes (È¸-áò'ý-nez), lords of Sicilia.
Mamillius (ma-nuTl-us), the young prince of Sicilia, son of Leontes and
Polixenes, king of Bohemia, was the guest of Leontes, king of Sicilia.
The two men had been friends since boyhood, and there was much
celebrating and joyousness during the visit. At last Polixenes decided
that he must return to his home country. Although Leontes urged him to
extend his visit, Polixenes refused, saying that he had not seen his
young son for a long time. Then Leontes asked Hermione, his wife, to do
her part in persuading Polixenes to remain. Hermione did as her husband
asked and finally Polixenes yielded to her pleas. The fact that
Polixenes had listened to Hermione's request after refusing his own
urgings aroused Leontes' suspicion. Quickly he decided that Hermione and
Polixenes were lovers and that he had been cuckolded.
Leontes was of a jealous disposition, even seeking constant reassurance
that his son Mamillius was his own offspring. Jealously misjudging his
wife and his old friend, Leontes was so angered by this latest turn of
events that he ordered Camillo, his chief counselor, to poison Polixenes.
All Camillo's attempts to dissuade Leontes from his scheme only
strengthened the jealous man's feelings of hate. Nothing could persuade
the king that Hermione was true to him. Eventually Camillo agreed to
poison Polixenes, but only on condition that Leontes return to Hermione
with no more distrust.
Polixenes himself had noticed a change in Leontes' attitude toward him.
When he questioned Camillo, the sympathetic lord revealed the whole plot
to poison him. Together they hastily embarked for Bohemia.
Upon learning that Polixenes and Camillo had fled, Leontes was more than
ever convinced that his guest and his wife had been guilty of carrying
on an affair. He conjectured that Polixenes and Camillo had been
plotting together all the while and planning his murder. Moreover, he
decided that Hermione, who was pregnant, was in all likelihood bearing
Polixenes' child and not his. Publicly he accused Hermione of adultery
and commanded that her son be taken from her. She herself was put into
prison. Although his servants protested the order, Leontes' mind could
not be changed.
In prison Hermione gave birth to a baby girl. Paulina, her attendant,
thought that the sight of the baby girl might cause Leontes to relent in
his harshness, and so she carried the child to the palace. Instead of
forgiving his wife, Leontes became more incensed and demanded that the
child be put to death. He instructed Antigonus, Paulina's husband, to
take the baby to a far-off desert shore and there abandon it. Although
the lord pleaded release from this cruel command, he was at length
forced to put out to sea with the intention of leaving the child to
perish on some lonely coast.
Leontes had sent two messengers to consult the Oracle of Delphi to
determine Hermione's guilt. When the men returned, Leontes summoned his
wife and the whole court to hear the verdict. The messengers read a
scroll that stated that Hermione was innocent, as well as Polixenes and
Camillo, that Leontes was a tyrant, and that he would live without an
heir until that which was lost was found.
The king, refusing to believe the oracle, declared its findings false,
and again accused Hermione of infidelity. In the midst of his tirade a
servant rushed in to say that young Mamillius had died because of sorrow
and anxiety over his mother's plight. On hearing this news Hermione fell
into a swoon and was carried to her chambers. Soon afterward Paulina
returned to say that her mistress was dead. At this news Leontes. who
had already begun to believe the oracle after news of his son's death,
beat his breast with self-rage. He reproached himself bitterly for his
insane jealousy which had led to these unhappy events. In repentance the
king swore that he would have the legend of the deaths of his son and
wife engraved on then-tombstones and that he himself would do penance
Meanwhile Antigonus took the baby girl to a desert country near the sea.
Heartsick at having to abandon her, the old courtier laid a bag of gold
and jewels by her with instructions that she should be called Perdita, a
name revealed to him in a dream. After Antigonus completed these tasks,
he was attacked and killed by a bear. Later his ship was wrecked in a
storm and all hands were lost. Thus no news of the expedition reached
Sicilia. A kind shepherd who had found Perdita watched, however, the
deaths of Antigonus and his men.
Sixteen years passed, bringing with them many changes. Leontes was a
broken man, grieving alone in his palace. Little Perdita had grown into
a beautiful and charming young woman under the care of the shepherd. So
lovely was she that Prince Florizel, heir to the throne of Bohemia and
the son of Polixenes, had fallen madly in love with her.
Unaware of the girl's background, and knowing only that his son was in
love with a young shepherdess, Polixenes and Camillo, now his most
trusted servant, disguised themselves and visited a sheep-shearing
festival, where they saw Florizel, dressed as a shepherd, dancing with a
lovely young woman. Although he realized that the shepherdess was of
noble bearing, Polixenes revealed himself when Florizel was about to
become engaged to Perdita, and in great rage he forbade the marriage and
threatened to punish his son.
Florizel then made secret plans to elope with Perdita to a foreign
country in order to escape his father's wrath. Camillo, pitying the
young couple, advised Florizel to embark for Sicilia and to pretend that
he was a messenger of goodwill from the king of Bohemia. Camillo
supplied the young man with letters of introduction to Leontes.
Camillo's plan was also to inform Polixenes of the lovers' escape,
travel to Sicilia to find them, and thus enable himself to return home
The poor shepherd, frightened by the king's wrath, decided to tell
Polixenes how, years before, he had found the baby and a bag of gold and
jewels by her side. Fate intervened, however, and the shepherd never
reached the royal palace. Intercepted by the rogue Autolycus, he was put
aboard the ship sailing to Sicilia.
Soon Florizel and Perdita arrived in Sicilia, followed by Polixenes and
Camillo. When the old shepherd heard how Leontes had lost a daughter, he
described the finding of Perdita. Leontes, convinced that Perdita and
his own abandoned infant were the same, was joyfully reunited with his
daughter. Polixenes immediately gave his consent to the marriage of
Florizel and Perdita. The only sorrowful circumstance to mar the
happiness of all concerned was the tragic death of Hermione.
One day Paulina asked Leontes to visit a newly erected statue of the
dead woman in Hermione's chapel. Leontes, ever faithful to the memory of
his dead wife—even to the point of promising Paulina never to marry
again— gathered his guests and took them to view the statue. Standing in
the chapel, amazed at the wonderful lifelike quality of the work, they
heard strains of soft music. Suddenly the statue descended from its
pedestal and was revealed as the living Hermione. She had spent sixteen
years in seclusion while awaiting some word of her daughter. The happy
family once more united, Hermione completely forgave her repentant
husband. He and Polixenes were again the best of friends, rejoicing in
the happiness of Perdita and Florizel.
Written after Cymbeline and before The Tempest, The Winter's Tale is as
hard to classify generically as is the fully mature dramatic genius of
its author. Partaking of the elements of tragedy, the play yet ends in
sheer comedy, just as it mingles elements of realism and romance.
Shakespeare took his usual free hand with his source, Robert Greene's
euphuistic romance Pandosto: The Triumph of Time (1588). Yet time
remains the most crucial element in the play's structure, its clearest
break with the pseudo-Aristotelian unities. The effect of time on
Hermione, moreover, when the statue is revealed to be wrinkled and aged,
heightens the pathos and credibility of the triumphant discovery and
recognition scene. In order to allow that final scene full effect,
Shakespeare wisely has Perdita's discovery and recognition reported to
the audience secondhand in act 5, scene 2. In keeping with the maturity
of Shakespeare's dramatic talent, the poetic style of this play is
clear, rarely rhetorical, sparse in its imagery, but metaphorically
sharp. Verse alternates with prose as court characters alternate with
Mamillius tells his mother, who asks him for a story, that "a sad tale's
best for winter." Ironically the little boy's story is never told; the
entrance of Leontes interrupts it, and Hermione's son, his role as
storyteller once defined, strangely disappears. In his place the play
itself takes over, invigorated by Mamillius' uncanny innocent wisdom
that reflects a Platonic view of childhood. The story that unfolds winds
within its skeins a multitude of themes, without losing sight of any of
them. It presents two views of honor, a wholesome one represented by
Hermione, and a demented view represented by Leontes. Like many of
Shakespeare's plays, it treats of the unholy power of kings, kings who
can be mistaken, but whose power, however mistaken, is final. Yet the
finality here is spared, the tragic ending avoided. For the absolute
goodness of Hermione, Paulina, Cammilo, the shepherd, and Florizel
proves to be enough to overcome the evil of Leontes. Moving from the
older generation's inability to love to the reflowering of love in the
younger, the play spins out into a truly comic ending, with the
reestablish-ment of community, royal authority, and general happiness in
a triple gamos. The balance of tension between youth and age, guilt and
innocence, death and rebirth, is decided in favor of life and the play
escapes the clutches of remorseless tragedy in a kind of ultimate
mystical vision of human life made ideal through suffering.
Leontes is a most puzzling character. His antifemin-ism, as expressed in
his cynical speech on cuckoldry (act 1, scene 2), seems more fashionable
than felt. He resembles, in his determined jealousy, Othello, and in his
self-inflicted insanity, Lear. In fact, the words of Lear to Cordelia
resound in Leontes' great speech, beginning, "Is whispering nothing?"
and concluding, "My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings,/
If this be nothing" (act 1, scene 2. It is almost impossible to
sympathize with him further when he condemns even his helpless child in
the face of Paulina's gentle pleas (act 2, scene 3); and we are not
surprised that he at first denies the oracle itself (act 3, scene 2).
Yet his sudden recognition of culpability is no more convincing than the
unmoti-vated jealousy with which he begins the play. It is as if he
changes too quickly for belief; and perhaps this is the reason for
Hermione's decision to test his penitence with time, until it ripens
into sincerity. Certainly his reaction to his wife's faint shows only a
superficial emotion. Leontes is still self-centered, still regally
assured that all can be put right with the proper words. Only after the
years have passed in his loneliness does he realize it takes more than
orderly words to undo the damage wrought by disorderly royal commands.
His admission to Paulina that his words killed Hermione, in act 5, scene
1, paves the way for the happy ending.
Even the minor characters are drawn well and vividly. Camillo is the
ideal courtier who chooses virtue in favor of favor. Paulina, like the
nurse Anna in Euripides' Hip-polytus, is the staunch helpmate of her
mistress, especially in adversity, aided by magical powers that seem to
spring from her own determined character. Her philosophy is also that of
the classical Greeks: "What's gone and what's past help/ Should be past
grief." But this play does not have the tragic Greek ending, because
Paulina preserves her mistress rather than assisting her to destroy
herself. Even the rogue Autolycus is beguiling, with his verbal
witticisms, his frank pursuit of self-betterment, and his lusty and
delightful songs. His sign is Mercury, the thief of the gods, and he
follows his sign like the best rascals in Renaissance tradition,
Boccaccio's Friar Onion, Rabelais' Panurge, and Shakespeare's own
In Hermione and Perdita, Shakespeare achieves two of his greatest
portraits of women. Hermione's speech reflects her personality,
straightforward, without embroidery, as pure as virtue itself. Her
reaction to Leontes' suspicion and condemnation is brief, but telling,
"Adieu, my lord," she says, "I never wish'd to see you sorry; now/1
trust I shall." She combines the hardness of Portia with the gentleness
of Desdemona—and Antigonus' oath in her defense recalls the character of
Othello's wife. Like Chaucer's patient Griselda, Hermione loses all; but
she strikes back with the most devastating weapon of all: time. Yet in
the final scene of the play it is clear that her punishment of Leontes
has made Hermione suffer no less than him. Perdita personifies, though
never in a stereotypical way, gentle innocence: "Nothing she does or
seems/ But smacks of something greater than herself/ Too noble for this
place." Indeed, when Polixenes' wrath, paralleling Leontes' previous
folly, threatens Perdita's life for a second time, the audience holds
its breath because she is too good to be safe. When Shakespeare saves
her, we rejoice, and the play abruptly ends on its highest note.
In its theme and structure, The Winter's Tale bears a striking
resemblance to Euripides' Alcestis. In both plays, the "death" of the
queen threatens the stability and happiness of society and, in both, her
restoration, which is miraculous and ambiguous, restores order to the
world of the court. Shakespeare, however, widens the comic theme by
adding the love of the younger generation. So The Winter's Tale defies
the forces of death and hatred both romantically and realistically. The
sad tale becomes happy, as winter becomes spring.