Author Archives: Alex Benarzi

About Alex Benarzi

I am a teacher, writer, and actor - which a passion for the confluence of these elements. I obsess over Shakespeare, and dabble in matters of the absurd.

Shakespeare Short: Ariel’s story

While I take a bit longer with my long form Shakespeare essays (I’m attempting to refocus my interpretive efforts) I thought I would throw out a few, more frequent Shakespeare Shorts. These are examinations of a passage or section of a scene that I have been mulling over, or find something odd about them and wish to probe further. And, as I often do, I here begin with The Tempest.

In the long, expositional Act I, scene 2, Prospero scolds his spirit-servant Ariel. Ariel grows fed up with the amount of toil that Prospero places on him, and decides to remind Prospero of their deal.

                                                        I prithee,
Remember I have done thee worthy service;
Told thee no lies, made thee no mistakings, served
Without or grudge or grumblings: thou didst promise
To bate me a full year.

Ariel expresses his servitude to Prospero in a manner befitting a prisoner serving time. For good behaviour, Prospero agreed to “bate,” or deduct, a full year off Ariel’s sentence. Prospero seizes this metaphor to remind Ariel of the literal prison that he freed Ariel from. Here’s where it gets interesting.


Hast thou forgot
The foul witch Sycorax, who with age and envy
Was grown into a hoop? hast thou forgot her?


No, sir.


Thou hast. Where was she born? speak; tell me.


Sir, in Argier.


O, was she so? I must
Once in a month recount what thou hast been,
Which thou forget’st. This damn’d witch Sycorax,
For mischiefs manifold and sorceries terrible
To enter human hearing, from Argier,
Thou know’st, was banish’d: for one thing she did
They would not take her life. Is not this true?


Ay, sir.


This blue-eyed hag was hither brought with child
And here was left by the sailors. Thou, my slave,
As thou report’st thyself, wast then her servant;
And, for thou wast a spirit too delicate
To act her earthy and abhorr’d commands,
Refusing her grand hests, she did confine thee,
By help of her more potent ministers
And in her most unmitigable rage,
Into a cloven pine; within which rift
Imprison’d thou didst painfully remain
A dozen years; within which space she died
And left thee there; where thou didst vent thy groans
As fast as mill-wheels strike. […]

It was mine art,
When I arrived and heard thee, that made gape
The pine and let thee out.


I thank thee, master.


If thou more murmur’st, I will rend an oak
And peg thee in his knotty entrails till
Thou hast howl’d away twelve winters.


Pardon, master;
I will be correspondent to command
And do my spiriting gently.

Like so much in this play, Ariel is merely n earpiece for Prospero to tell his tale to us. But taking it for what it is, this section shows Prospero’s power to render everyone around him submissive to his will. While I find most fascinating is how Prospero came to know this story. He wasn’t around while Sycorax was alive: he was told this story. “thou, my slave, as thou report’st theyself.” This story that gives him so much power over Ariel was told to him by Ariel. Just like Caliban

show’d [Prospero] all the qualities o’ the isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile:

Giving him the means to survive and dominant him, so too did Ariel give him the means to be enslaved.

This reinforces the theme of colonization that many look at when examining this play. The native peoples of whatever land, welcome the newcomers, teach them how to survive, and are soon supplanted by them and relegated to second class citizens. Caliban clearly shows this, but Ariel is a far more interesting example. Prospero’s speech to Ariel gains so much more weight when we realize that we are hearing Ariel’s words turned against him, and accusing Ariel of forgetting the story which he initially told.

Prospero has many “arts” or powers: one of theme seems to be taking over someone’s story and claiming it for his own. How very Shakespearean.


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Filed under Shakespeare Shorts

As You Like It: The Story of Arden

A new year, and with it brings a new set of Shakespeare based blogs. I have chosen this time to present As You Like It with a focus on escape, understanding, and idleness. Idleness, the luxuriating in comfort. Idleness, the antithesis to the New Year’s resolution. Idleness, the most natural stance we can take. We must be aware of when we are binging on idleness. Sure, we will make New Year’s resolutions, and then drop them off in favour of the everyday goals and trials – but we can at least take this time to take stock of our idleness consumption and reflect on our goals. Travel? Career change? Health? Personality? Or maybe, read more Shakespeare!



Why do we watch TV, movies, or plays? Why do we read (for pleasure)? Why do we play video games? In short, why do we consume stories? The obvious answer: it’s enjoyable. An idealist answer: it’s an escape. A scientific answer: beyond exciting the Broca and Wernicke areas of the cerebral cortex, stories engage the entire brain, expanding our creative and cognitive potential. The cynical answer: it is a way to “spend time.” Let’s scratch off the lackluster obvious example, and leave the cynical one for a moment, and focus on the idealist and scientist. Stories (in whatever medium) are an engagement and an escape from our world, our lives. We engage in stories to remove ourselves from “the pangs of despised love” and the “fardels bear[ing], to grunt and sweat under a weary life,” while at the same time we read and watch to better relate to and understanding such slings and arrows.
We could place these objectives on all of Shakespeare’s plays, but As You Like It fulfills a more meta role. The play itself acts as an engagement with the nature of stories, as I hope to demonstrate.
As You Like It is very dividing; some people (for transparency sake, myself included) place it toward the top of their lists for favourite play, while others hate it. I believe this divide arises from the play’s lack of plot. Very little happens in this play: even less between Act I and the final scene. As You Like It may rival Hamlet for the most inactive play, but unlike the latter, this play does not centre on the inward conflict of a central character. The play lingers, as we meander from one conversation to another, we receive witty homilies on the Big Themes (Time, Nature, Love &c.) At times, this play reads more like a Platonic dialogue than a work for the stage. This becomes more evident when you contrast this play to its closest predecessors: Much Ado About Nothing, with its redundant “plots”, Henry V with its many battles, and Julius Caesar (although some sources put this h2_53.225.3after As You Like It.)

Shakespeare turns away from conspiracy and plots to the pastoral, where men wander and talk. And we sit and watch, or sit and read: we think, we escape, and upon reflection, we are keenly aware that we are participating in the act of story. The lack of motion is intentional: it slowly lures us in before we know it.

The play opens with the protagonist, Orlando. He is kind, stronger than any man and lioness, and quite naïve. Even Adam, the family servant, can’t figure him out: asking:

Why are you virtuous? why do people love you?
And wherefore are you gentle, strong and valiant? (II.iii)

In the opening scene, we learn about Orlando’s central problem: one that serves as a roadmap to the play.

Now, sir! what make you here?
Nothing: I am not taught to make any thing.
What mar you then, sir?
Marry, sir, I am helping you to mar that which God
made, a poor unworthy brother of yours, with idleness (I.i)

Orlando has no opportunity for growth. He is in the prime of his life, and cannot make or mar because his brother is keeping him in idleness.

At a time when so many young adults are coming out of school to find minimal opportunities, we can look back on Orlando’s struggles and relate. Sometimes we stress out about money, relationships, or the plethora of worldly problems – but sometimes we just want to do something meaningful. This is Orlando’s problem at the start. And this is not simply a comic problem, a representation of the Aristotelian “ridiculous”, but rather Shakespeare is in line with our current reality. In Hamlet, we witness the desire for suicide brought on by depression, and the internal psychological struggle it creates. In Orlando, we see the precursor to this maturity.

But let
your fair eyes and gentle wishes go with me to my
trial: wherein if I be foiled, there is but one
shamed that was never gracious; if killed, but one
dead that was willing to be so: I shall do my
friends no wrong, for I have none to lament me, the
world no injury, for in it I have nothing; only in
the world I fill up a place, which may be better
supplied when I have made it empty. (I.ii)

Orlando is, in every way, far more rash than Hamlet. He has the youthful spirit of Romeo, but the state of Hamlet. He does not desire that his “too too solid flesh would melt” but seeks out death to end his suffering. It is a great tragedy that, today, there is a positive correlation between youth unemployment and thoughts of suicide, and as we escape into our own Forest of Ardens (or stories) we cannot lose sight of this Orlando.
Orlando is not killed by the wrestler, as both he and his brother desired. But when he returns home, he does not return to his life of idleness. His brother, hating him for no other reason than Orlando is a better person, decides to set fire to his cabin while he is asleep. Adam warns Orlando, and the two escape into the Forest of Arden.
While imagesKBUMCZN4 While this is happening, we meet Rosalind. Rosalind’s problem is a bit more align with what we might expect from drama. Her father, Duke Senior, was not killed like many fathers in Shakespeare, but he was exiled by his brother. Rosalind is living with her uncle, the one who exiled her father, because her cousin, Celia, insisted on it. Celia is a character who loves to play the game “anything you have I have too,” which places her in the annoying little sister role which she plays well.

Dear Celia, I show more mirth than I am mistress of;
and would you yet I were merrier? Unless you could
teach me to forget a banished father, you must not
learn me how to remember any extraordinary pleasure.
Herein I see thou lovest me not with the full weight
that I love thee. If my uncle, thy banished father,
had banished thy uncle, the duke my father, so thou
hadst been still with me, I could have taught my
love to take thy father for mine: so wouldst thou,
if the truth of thy love to me were so righteously
tempered as mine is to thee. (I.ii)

After the wrestling match, at which Rosalind falls in love with Orlando, the new Duke banishes Rosalind, for no other reason than he hates her. And of course, if Rosalind is going to run away, Celia goes too. Rosalind disguises herself as a man, Ganymede, to protect them. So naturally Celia disguises herself too, as Aliena. Cajoling their fool, Touchstone, to go with them, they flee to the Forest of Arden to, according to Celia, find Rosalind’s father. They do go to the forest, but they don’t bother to find the Duke.

Act II opens with both our introduction to Duke Senior and the Forest of Arden. And before I continue, I think this is a fair time to travel on a tangent about Shakespeare’s locations.

untitled (2)Renaissance theatre was minimalistic when it came to setting. The Globe offered some interesting aspects due to its levels and the cosmos depicted around the ceiling. However, the specifics of where a play took place could not be well replicated on the Renaissance stage, as Shakespeare famously bemoans in his prologue to Henry V. The history plays all take place in and around England, so the plays are rooted in those locations. The tragedies all draw on some historic context as well, so where the play takes place has an impact on the action. This is not so much the case with the more domestic comedies. Unless a fan of “Kiss Me Kate”, who knows where Taming of the Shrew takes place?

Measure for Measure is set in Vienna, but a Vienna that strikingly resembles London. In Twelfth Night, he abandons the whole idea and sets it in the fictitious island of Illyria. Arden is interesting. There is an article here that traces the real Forest of Arden: an old forest not far off from where Shakespeare grew up in Warwickshire. Meanwhile, there was also a Forest of Ardenne in France, where Act I takes place. Marjorie Garber, in Shakespeare After All, takes a structuralism view and looks at the name itself: Arden = Arcadia/Eden. Arcadia, by 1600, was a well-established pastoral landscape, and of course, Eden refers to the garden. Garber’s theory is well reinforced in the play: the pastoral life is constantly lauded by the shepherd, Corin, as well as by Jaques, the melancholy courtier who falls in love with the pastoral life; while Duke Senior’s first speech links Arden to a prelapsarian paradise. This is certainly a fortunate combination, and maybe, whoever named the real Forest of Arden, picked up on this as well. Shakespeare, growing up in the forest’s shadow, had plenty of time to make this connection before writing As You Like It. So why set the court in France, when the forest is an ambiguous French/English landscape? The court is both a place of sinister plots and fops – when criticizing or lampooning court life, Shakespeare liked to use other nations, particularly the French. He is participating in the long tradition of denigrating the French. It is a common belief that the name Jaques would not be pronounced as a modern reader with even a limited understanding of French would pronounce it, but rather how it reads phonetically to an English reader (Ja-kw-es).

Whatever belief you subscribe to when it comes to the naming of Arden, the important point is that Arden, more than other Shakespearean locations, is layered. In its naming, and also how the characters view it.

First, the untamed and dangerous land as expressed by Orlando.

I thought that all things had been savage here;
And therefore put I on the countenance
Of stern commandment. (II.vii)

Then, the prelapsarian land as expressed by the Duke (although there is something troubling about his description.)

Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we but the penalty of Adam,
The seasons’ difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind,
Which, when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
‘This is no flattery: these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.’
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
I would not change it. (II.i)

And the base setting as compared to the court, as Touchstone relates every time he matches his wits with one of Arden’s natives (mainly Corin and his bride Audrey.)

untitled (3) Sometimes Arden is called a forest, other times a desert, depending on the speaker’s mood. In short, Arden possesses a personality because it is the reflection of a myriad of personalities.

But mostly, Arden is idleness. Orlando’s frustrations at the start of the play come from his idleness, his inability to make (or mar) anything. “Are not these woods/More free from peril than the envious court?” Duke Senior asks: the woods are free from everything. The peril of court, the change of seasons to icy winter – and yet, the flip side to that is that the woods are free of all that is good.

There are two types of idleness: that which is forced upon us by circumstance and that which we choose. Sometimes, when I am feeling stress as a result of “idleness” – or the lack of momentum – I seek comfort in reading, watching Netflix, or playing a video games Are these not idle acts? I am escaping idleness with idleness. Rosalind and Celia go into the forest to find Rosalind’s father, but the first thing they do is buy a cottage: why?

Corin, the old shepherd, works the cottage but does not have access to his flock. The goods belong to a churlish master, whose lack of care has bankrupt the estate. Rosalind offers to give Corin the money to buy the property, thus improving his lot. Celia quickly follows with:

I like this place.
And willingly could waste my time in it. (II.iv)

Is this charity, or the pursuit of idleness? Why confront your problem if you can hide out in your own forest? The Duke and his men could have challenged his brother. Orlando could have sought the Duke’s help in attacking Oliver. Rosalind could have reunited with her father. All this would have advanced a plot: no one had any interest in doing so. So the Duke’s men turn to singing and hunting, Rosalind and Celia buy a cottage, and Orlando wanders the woods posting love notes on trees to his beloved Rosalind.

untitled (4)

I’m about 2300 words into this thing and I haven’t mentioned the love story – what is really the crux of this play! Probably because the love story is as inconsequential as the “All the World’s a Stage” speech which occurs towards the middle of the play. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great speech: here it is if you are unaware.

Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy:
This wide and universal theatre
Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. (II.vii)

It is as though the mere word “pageant” set Jaques off on this rant, and Jaques knows how to rant. There is a moment in the 2012 film Lincoln, in which, while strategizing over the conquest of a fort, Lincoln interrupts the men with a history lesson. One of the men cuts him off, saying “No, no you’re going to tell a story. I don’t believe I can listen to another one of your stories right now!” and then storms off. This is how I see Jaques’ speech being played. His speeches are an act of idleness: Jaques is caught up in his own words so he doesn’t have to be caught up in the words of others.

Screenshot (1)

(I here acknowledge the practical purpose of the above speech, which is to give Orlando time to go away and to come back. As well as the comedic purpose – framing the stages of life in Jaques’ signature melancholic wit, but I would love to see a production in which Amiens storms off before the speech.)

Oh yes, the love story. Orlando loves Rosalind, Rosalind loves Orlando. As Ganymede, Rosalind has many private conversations with Orlando, at which point she could have revealed her true identity. There is no further impediment to their love. No warring families (Romeo and Juliet), no vow of celibacy (Love’s Labour’s Lost), no mismatched lovers (A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night), no pride getting in the way (Much Ado About Nothing).

The only thing stopping their love is Rosalind’s idleness, and her insecurity. She needs to know that Orlando truly loves her, and so she tests him.

Love is merely a madness, and, I tell you, deserves
as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do: and
the reason why they are not so punished and cured
is, that the lunacy is so ordinary that the whippers
are in love too. Yet I profess curing it by counsel.
Did you ever cure any so?
Yes, one, and in this manner. He was to imagine me
his love, his mistress; and I set him every day to
woo me: at which time would I, being but a moonish
youth, grieve, be effeminate, changeable, longing
and liking, proud, fantastical, apish, shallow,
inconstant, full of tears, full of smiles, for every
passion something and for no passion truly any
thing, as boys and women are for the most part
cattle of this colour; would now like him, now loathe
him; then entertain him, then forswear him; now weep
for him, then spit at him; that I drave my suitor
from his mad humour of love to a living humour of
madness; which was, to forswear the full stream of
the world, and to live in a nook merely monastic.
And thus I cured him; and this way will I take upon
me to wash your liver as clean as a sound sheep’s
heart, that there shall not be one spot of love in’t. (III.ii)

Orlando is to woo Ganymede as if he were Rosalind. Through this test, Rosalind will determine whether Orlando loves her, and we get to luxuriate in a fine discourse on Love.

What makes Rosalind fantastic is that she possesses the wit and power that ordinary women were not allowed to possess. Of course, she can only do this as Ganymede in the forest. That is why I believe the reconciliation and marriage that the comedic genre demands is as unsettled in this play as in the later “problem plays.”

Then is there mirth in heaven,
When earthly things made even
Atone together.
Good duke, receive thy daughter
Hymen from heaven brought her,
Yea, brought her hither,
That thou mightst join her hand with his
Whose heart within his bosom is.
[To DUKE SENIOR] To you I give myself, for I am yours.
To you I give myself, for I am yours. (V.iv)

First, Shakespeare employs the deus ex machina through the god Hymen, because in this world of idleness only a supernatural power could push the plot forward. Then there is Rosalind’s declarations. After gaining power over everyone in the forest, after shaping her world to her design, she gives herself to the men in her life.

Sometimes we can get caught up in our idleness, drow ourselves in stories to escape or understand. It is good to always try to advance our plot, and temper our idleness. To be comfortable, but not too much to hinder us from bettering ourselves. But when we come out of it, shouldn’t we try come out on top? Does Rosalind gain anything through her marriage? Was her only goal to get Orlando? Can she still be Ganymede in her father’s court? As the characters dance at the end of the play, we become painfully aware that, as much as we enjoyed watching or reading the play, we have to head back into the world – embracing the good and the bad, and all the rest.

2004_0106Image0008 It is fitting that I wrote most of this while on vacation. Surrounded by the ocean on three sides as far as I could see, I had no other thought at the moment than to keep my head above the waves. Somewhere in the back of my mind, the idea lingered that I would soon be here: back in the cold, staring anxiously into an uncertain future.

Written at the turn of the millennium, after decades of turbulence in England, and an aging monarch, was Shakespeare’s audience experience the same anxiety?

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Filed under Comedies, Pre-Hamlet

The Shifting Sands of Morality in Measure For Measure


One reason for why Hamlet is worthy of the inexhaustible attention it receives is because it is a play of questions, most of them unanswerable, and most of them iconic of the human condition (I mean, who isn’t wondering where the Polonius is at supper?)
Measure For Measure was written approximately three years following Hamlet, and it is one of Shakespeare’s underrated plays. It is designated a “problem play” because people cannot come to terms with the corrupted comedies Shakespeare wrote following Hamlet’s influence. Like its predecessor, Measure For Measure is defined by the questions it asks, rather than its characters or plots. So, to understand Measure For Measure we don’t need themes, or symbols, but the right questions to ask.

• Why does Duke Vincentio leave Vienna and return as a Friar?
• Why does Isabella leave the convent?

And the most famous question:

• Why is Isabella silent following the Duke’s “proposal?”

The third question has been written about extensively. I can provide my own take, but would rather put my current efforts toward the first two. By exploring the paths of Vincentio and Isabella, I hope to show how any simple reading of this play is problematic.

Why does Duke Vincentio leave Vienna and return as a Friar?

The play begins with Duke Vincentio clandestinely leaving Vienna and placing all his power in the hands of Lord Angelo, a man who can fittingly be described as Malvolio following our last glimpse of him at the end of Twelfth Night. Angelo (and others) are led to believe that the Duke has gone to Poland for some arbitrary Duke business that is never expanded upon. He has gone to Friar Thomas to obtain the necessary disguise so that he may return to the city as a Friar. Why? The answer is seemingly simple.

We have strict statutes and most biting laws.
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,
Which for this nineteen years we have let slip;
Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave,
That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up the threatening twigs of birch,
Only to stick it in their children’s sight
For terror, not to use, in time the rod
Becomes more mock’d than fear’d; so our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead;
And liberty plucks justice by the nose;
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum.

It rested in your grace
To unloose this tied-up justice when you pleased:
And it in you more dreadful would have seem’d
Than in Lord Angelo.

I do fear, too dreadful:
Sith ’twas my fault to give the people scope,
‘Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them
For what I bid them do: for we bid this be done,
When evil deeds have their permissive pass
And not the punishment. Therefore indeed, my father,
I have on Angelo imposed the office;
Who may, in the ambush of my name, strike home,
And yet my nature never in the fight
To do in slander. And to behold his sway,
I will, as ’twere a brother of your order,
Visit both prince and people: therefore, I prithee,
Supply me with the habit and instruct me
How I may formally in person bear me
Like a true friar. More reasons for this action
At our more leisure shall I render you;
Only, this one: Lord Angelo is precise;
Stands at a guard with envy; scarce confesses
That his blood flows, or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone: hence shall we see,
If power change purpose, what our seemers be. (I.iii)

If we believe exactly what is presented here, the Duke leaves the city because he has let the laws become too relaxed, and they must be reinforced. This, understandably, will anger the people who have been enjoying their unparalleled liberties. The Duke does not want to be hated, or slandered, and figures that if Angelo acts as the enforcer, which he knows Angelo will, the citizenry will turn loose their ire on Angelo not the Duke. Meanwhile, he returns as a Friar so he can enjoy watching the plan he has set in motion, and to satisfy his philosophic curiosity as to whether “power change purpose.” If we accept this picture, then the Duke is a terrible ruler, putting him alongside King Ferdinand (Love’s Labour’s Lost) and Prospero (The Tempest) in regards to rulers more concerned with their intellectual quests than the governing of their state. If he only wanted to spy on Angelo, why disguise as a Friar and not an inconspicuous man? And we quickly see that he has no intention of watching from the shadows. The Duke becomes muddled in everyone’s affairs as soon as he enters the city. At the end of the above passage, the Duke says:

More reasons for this action
At our more leisure shall I render you

This phrase (not word for word) appears throughout Shakespeare’s cannon. In certain plays, such as Romeo and Juliet, this turn of phrase suggests that the characters will be informed of events that the audience has already witnessed (and subsequently retold by the “brief” Friar Lawrence.) A characteristic of Shakespeare’s later plays such as this one, involves information that is not explicitly told but alluded to, forcing the reader/audience to piece things together. So “I’ll hammer it out.”
If we accept this play as a comedy, through and through, then the Friar’s position is simply to keep the train on its track. As we watch the misfortunes of the play’s “heroes” unfold, we know, knowing that this is a comedy, that despite what happens, all must end well. Claudio cannot die, Isabella cannot be so wronged, and Angelo must be punished: the trope demands it and the Friar will see it done. This is why he does everything in his power to undermine Angelo’s actions.
But this is flat and stale, and unworthy of a post-Hamlet world.
Perhaps the Friar is not simply the Deus ex machina present to provide a convenient comic ending. Instead of seeing him as the image of a benevolent Being, why not view him as the wrath of an angered Being? Why not shift the focus from protecting Claudio, Juliet, Isabella, and Mariana to punishing the wrong-doers, Angelo and Lucio? This would lend more clarity to the final scene.
In V.i, the Duke “returns” to Vienna, gathers everyone together at the city gate in order to witness a game of “he said, she said” between Escalus and Angelo, and Isabella and Mariana. Lucio (the bawd and wit of the play) pipes in once in a while with a helpful comment to defend the women, and is constantly berated by the Duke. The Duke takes Angelo’s side, deems the women mad, and the villainous plot devised by the Friar. He orders the Friar brought forth for punishment, and conveniently slips off to allow Angelo to meet out justice. He returns as the Friar, and attacks Angelo with more verbal force than he attached Isabella and Mariana as the Duke.

But, O, poor souls,
Come you to seek the lamb here of the fox?
Good night to your redress! Is the duke gone?
Then is your cause gone too. The duke’s unjust,
Thus to retort your manifest appeal,
And put your trial in the villain’s mouth
Which here you come to accuse. (V.i)
My business in this state
Made me a looker on here in Vienna,
Where I have seen corruption boil and bubble
Till it o’er-run the stew; laws for all faults,
But faults so countenanced, that the strong statutes
Stand like the forfeits in a barber’s shop,
As much in mock as mark. (V.i)

This last passage reveals his full purpose as returning as the Friar, to satisfy his curiosity that power indeed does corrupt. Sure, he may have let the state grow like Hamlet’s unweeded garden, but Anglo is the thing rank and gross that possesses it by trying to enforce the laws as he did.
So why pull this final trick? Why not confront Angelo as the Duke to begin with instead of putting Isabella and Mariana through the ringer? As I’ll explore in a bit more detail later, this scene (and perhaps this play?) has nothing to do with Isabella and Mariana, but they are the pawns in the game between the Duke and Angelo.

In The Merchant of Venice, Portia comes to the trial disguised as a learned doctor. She knows exactly how the events will play out. She allows Antonio to get to the brink of death before she turns the tables on Shylock. Is this to test Antonio? No. It is to provide Shylock with every possibility for redemption. She uses the defense of Christian mercy to persuade Shylock to give up his case, and then she uses money. When all opportunities are spent, when he has sealed his fate, then, and only then, does she condemn him. Some see Portia as the epitome of Christian virtue – I will challenge this at another time.
This exact scene plays itself out again at the city gate of Vienna. Here, however, the banner of Christian mercy has been abandoned. Portia may have been satisfied if Shylock took her initial offer – probably not – but Vincentio certainly has no intention of allowing Angelo to redeem himself. The Duke helps Angelo dig himself further into sin while playing the Duke, incites Angelo and Lucio further as the Friar, so that when he is unhooded, the guilty parties know for certain that they are truly guilty, and truly condemned. The Duke did not return as a Friar to simply witness the corruption of the state, or even to save Claudio and Isabella, but to prove to all the lords he gathered around for this last scene that, despite any flaws in the state, he is a good ruler when contrasted to Angelo, who was once regarded as the most virtuous:

Thyself and thy belongings
Are not thine own so proper as to waste
Thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee. (I.i)

The farther Angelo falls, the higher Vincentio rises. What does that say about him as a ruler or the future of his state? He may have spared lives, and restored order, but in the theoretically tragic Act VI, the citizenry shall be as silent as Isabella in the wake of his philosophic tyranny.


The Trials of Isabella

I have given Vincentio his due, let’s shift to the tertiary focus of this play: Isabella. She has been viewed heavily through a feminism theory lens, which is understandable. She is certainly an interesting Shakespeare female. Her closest Shakespearean partner in chronology and likeness is Helena from All’s Well That Ends Well, with one key difference. Helena, like Rosalind from As You Like It, has a strong influence over the action of the play and the surrounding characters. Isabella has little to no external agency, which, with a statement like that, may make it seem as though she is a weak or secondary character. And indeed, as I have tried to illustrate, she is a secondary character, used to prop other characters up rather than further her own goals. The only agency Isabella has is over her own body and her own virtue. In the end, because this is a comedy, she doesn’t have to follow through with her decision: this does not, however, take away from the fact that she must make a decision to willingly surrender her body, and everything that comes with it in a Christian society, to a man she despises.

In a black and white reading of the play, she must agree to be raped. In any reading of the play, she must surrender all power she has.

In any modern context, and in many modern adaptations of this play (of which there are too few, and fewer good ones) this becomes a primary focus of the play. Whatever comedic tropes Shakespeare throws at this play, and whatever cat and mouse game the Duke plays with Angelo, Isabella’s internal struggles stand out as the most human.

I can honestly accuse myself of looking too close into Shakespeare, and making a mountain out of a mud hill: this may be such a case. You have been warned.
I am fascinated by characters’ first lines (or first appearance) and how that sets their path for the play. We first see Isabella as she is about to enter into a nunnery, as a nun – removing herself from the earthly world to devote herself to God.

And have you nuns no farther privileges?
Are not these large enough?
Yes, truly; I speak not as desiring more;
But rather wishing a more strict restraint
Upon the sisterhood, the votarists of Saint Clare.

Knowing nothing about Isabella at this point, how can we not have the same reaction as Francisca when Isabella asks if the nuns have no further privileges? However strong her piety is, however well-intentioned Isabella may be as a character, Shakespeare begins her journey with this greedy question (even if misinterpreted). I like to think that this moment, as well as a few others sprinkled throughout the play, is meant to save Isabella from being a cardboard cutout: the one-note voice of Christian virtue. Or perhaps this first glimpse serves as a synecdoche of her character and indeed the play: a world caught between the seven deadly sins and seven heavenly virtues. Isabella’s initial question may suggest Patience, but it comes across as Greed.

Isabella is thrown off her course when Lucio informs her of her brother’s imprisonment. Isabella must now team up with a bawd in order to save her brother. Lucio tells her to persuade Lord Angelo to free Claudio: “Assay the power you have” (I.iv). Given Luccio’s character, and the following speech:

when maidens sue,
Men give like gods; but when they weep and kneel,
All their petitions are as freely theirs
As they themselves would owe them.

It is clear that Luccio wants Isabella to win Angelo over with her body, which we know by her “cheek-roses” is virginal.

I am not suggesting any form of victim blaming here. I do not mean that Isabella’s initial greed and her body are what set her up to be abused by all the men around her. But I do not agree with those who hold her up as the pinnacle of virtue and purity. Ophelia, the dutiful daughter went mad and drowned, and with her drowned the imperfect perfect woman. Desdemona, Helena, Cressida, Cordelia, Hermione: Isabella joins in the cast of great three dimensional Shakespeare women, but can only do so with a tinge of humanity: a tinge of imperfection.

So where is Isabella’s humanity? It is not, like Angelo’s, in any sexual desire. Nor is it, like her brother’s, a longing for freedom. She demonstrates no craving for power or material goods. The ends of her questioning of whether the nuns have more privileges are for the desire to ask questions. Isabella is like the Duke in this regard: she is driven by curiosity. She is an intellect: her speeches more eloquent than the others in the play. Portia played the lawyer, and did it quite cheaply: Isabella uses her brother’s case to be a lawyer – to argue the philosophical and ethical matters that drive the law.

Well; what’s your suit?
There is a vice that most I do abhor,
And most desire should meet the blow of justice;
For which I would not plead, but that I must;
For which I must not plead, but that I am
At war ‘twixt will and will not.
Well; the matter?
I have a brother is condemn’d to die:
I do beseech you, let it be his fault,
And not my brother.
[Aside] Heaven give thee moving graces!
Condemn the fault and not the actor of it?
Why, every fault’s condemn’d ere it be done:
Mine were the very cipher of a function,
To fine the faults whose fine stands in record,
And let go by the actor.
O just but severe law!
I had a brother, then. Heaven keep your honour! (II.ii)

Isabella seems to lose her sortie. There are faults in the world and it is the fault not the man that must be condemned. Angelo cannot buy into the logic of this seemingly absurd suit and tells her so. And yet, what Isabella goes on to demonstrate is that sometimes the action can be separated from the man. Angelo can pardon Claudio but he doesn’t, and is justified in this decision because he has removed himself from the laws and his actions in executing them. If Angelo is separated from the action, why not Claudio?
But this is a play, ad not a great philosophic treatise – so something has to happen.

[Aside to ISABELLA]
Ay, touch him; there’s the vein.

It is unclear whether Isabella actually touches Angelo, or if Lucio is speaking metaphorically: given Lucio’s character, and his persuasions for Isabella to better persuade Angelo, a literal touch is not so unbelievable. Isabella reaches for intellectual debate, but in her either naiveté or realization of her power, does not win Angelo over with her words, but with her body. She has persuaded him: he will free Claudio, if she sleeps with him.
What resolves the plot and provides the comedic ending is the classic bed trick. Isabella switches places with Marianna, who Angelo promised to marry but abandoned. But as I stated, the simple comic tropes are unimportant in this play. The questions that are stirred in the audience’s mind as they read or watch Isabella try to determine which path is the lesser of two evils – or the questions stirred by the Duke/Friar’s morally ambiguous plots of political retribution: this the heart of the play.
Measure for Measure is a world of shifting sands. No one has a clear path: no decision is clear-cut. The Duke is not perfect, Angelo is not wholly evil, and Isabella is not full of maidenly purity. The world is inherently corrupt and we must navigate our way through it with no clear directive.
Most of Shakespeare’s play presuppose the idea of Fate or some divine Being. Despite the heavy Christian undertone of this play, including the fact that the title is a scriptural reference: this is perhaps his most secular play. What happens when Man is the highest authority: what happens when we realizes that the rule of God has no sway? The inability to place this play as a clear comedy reflects this very chaos: the world isn’t a comedy or tragedy – not since Hamlet: it is a mess.
Draw a line from Hamlet’s breakdown of the natural order and King Lear’s vision of nihilism, and Measure for Measure stands in the centre: people clinging to their compass to navigate the shifting sands.

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Filed under Comedies, Post-Hamlet

Where is the fault in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar



The line “The fault in our stars” is today most commonly linked with the bestseller YA novel of that name by author John Green: or soon to be the successful film adaptation of said novel. And it may just be an act of self-aggrandizing to piggyback of this popular franchise in order to launch into my reflection of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (Caesar), but it is a fitting starting place for the question of power in this play. With a subtle pen, John Green touches on the point I wish to start with. At the end of chapter seven of The Fault in our Stars, through the character of Van Houten (not Millhouse), John Green alludes to the reference that gave his book its name.

Men at some time are masters of their fates: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings. (Caesar I.ii)

In this quote Cassius tells Brutus that the reason they are underlings is due to their own shortcomings: fate/destiny/gods/some higher power has nothing to do with it. Van Houten calls Shakespeare out on this notion, saying that any of our faults (including those of the two lovers in the novel) can be blamed on “our stars.” If you want the exact quote, consult the end of chapter seven of The Fault in our Stars. And if you do not have the book to do so, it is in itself a fault that is not in our stars. But I digress.

Is Cassius right or is he wrong? Does Caesar make the case that our power (and subsequent) faults are written in the stars, or derived from ourselves? Shakespeare presented a clear answer to this question in his earlier tragedy Romeo and Juliet. The Prologue introduces the lovers as “star-cross’d,” and indeed there is no shortage of fortune’s presence on the stage. Everything is stacked against the lovers – and their only fault is that fate gets in their way. Sure they may be

too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;

Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be

Ere one can say ‘It lightens. (Romeo and Juliet II.ii)

but let’s face it – if it were not for the random plague all would have worked out well. Maybe. Either way, some elements of Romeo and Juliet linger on into Caesar: the relationship between Cassius and Brutus takes on a Romeo and Juliet quality towards the end of the play (I’ll get back to that), but moreover, the idea of the story being written before it begins hangs over the play. The acknowledged, but often dismissed, supernatural elements are sprinkled throughout this play. What is the most famous moment of this play? The one that supersedes the play and has become ingrained into popular culture. No, it is not Mark Antony’s speech. It is the moment in I.ii:




Ha! who calls?


Bid every noise be still: peace yet again!


Who is it in the press that calls on me? I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music, Cry ‘Caesar!’ Speak; Caesar is turn’d to hear.


Beware the ides of March.


What man is that?


A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.


Set him before me; let me see his face.


Fellow, come from the throng; look upon Caesar.


What say’st thou to me now? speak once again.


Beware the ides of March.


He is a dreamer; let us leave him: pass. (Caesar I.ii)


Shakespeare did not invent the soothsayer, or the date of Caesar’s death – he is simply credited with the famous line. Both were derived from the primary source material of the play: Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. Whether Plutarch invented the story of the soothsayer (or seer), whether it came from an earlier source, or whether there was a seer who accurately predicted the future is irrelevant. By introducing the supernatural element into the story – by informing Caesar that something will happen on the Ides of March, coupled with Shakespeare playing upon our retrospective knowledge – he condemns his play to the stars. Cassius is wrong – Caesar’s fault is in his stars. Sort of.

Let’s first build up the case by focusing on the character of Julius Caesar




Caesar is very quick to dismiss the soothsayer as a dreamer, but just a few lines earlier he says to Antony:

Forget not, in your speed, Antonius,

To touch Calpurnia; for our elders say,

The barren, touched in this holy chase,

Shake off their sterile curse. (I.ii)

Antony is racing during the Feast of the Lupercal: a feast dedicated to fertility and fruitfulness. According to legend, if touched during the race, a barren woman may become pregnant. Caesar wants an heir (though it is not the subject of the play, and really just a wink and a nod to Shakespeare’s contemporary monarchy), but in his desire for an heir, he turns to the supernatural as quickly as he rejects the supernatural when it is not in his favour.

In Caesar’s first scene, we see the supernatural in elements that we commonly associate with the ancient Roman customs. In his second scene – Act II, scene ii – we see the supernatural – or “the stars” –presented in a different light. In this scene, the supernatural is intertwined with revisionist retellings: or (as we see time and time again in Shakespeare) the corruption of words.

We begin the scene with simple words. Caesar informs us that Calpurnia (Caesar’s wife) cried thrice in her sleep: “Help, ho! They murdered Caesar” (II.ii). Is she worried about the soothsayer’s words, or can she herself see the future? Next, we have Calpurnia reporting someone else reporting the watch as having seen: 

A lioness hath whelped in the streets;

And graves have yawn’d, and yielded up their dead;

Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds,

In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,

Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;

The noise of battle hurtled in the air,

Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,

And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets. (II.ii)

Surely this apocalyptic scene did not happen (unless there are some very unobservant Romans about), and who knows how distorted the witness became throughout the game of broken telephone. Caesar gives another dismissive response: “What can be avoided/Whose end is purposed by the mighty gods?” However, Caesar is convinced (at first) that he will not go forth to the capitol. When giving his excuse to Decius Brutus (a different Brutus), he transforms this abstract vision into one of his own machination:

Calpurnia here, my wife, stays me at home: She dreamt to-night she saw my statua, Which, like a fountain with an hundred spouts, Did run pure blood: and many lusty Romans Came smiling, and did bathe their hands in it: And these does she apply for warnings, and portents, And evils imminent; and on her knee Hath begg’d that I will stay at home to-day. (II.ii)


He lies to Decius Brutus, and speaks of a general distrust he has for the “lusty Romans,” but again, Shakespeare plays upon our historic knowledge and turns Caesar’s revision into something resembling a future event (Caesar being stabbed on the capitol) rather than an abstract doomsday.

Ultimately, this is a confusing scene. All that needs to be understood from it to comprehend the play is that Caesar is determined not to go to the Capitol until he becomes Marty McFly and commits to something stupid because someone called him a chicken. However, what we see here is that no matter how abstract it begins – whether by five simple words, or yawning graves – the abstract will manifest itself as the stars have prescribed. Caesar does die. We know this. The gods know this. Caesar knows this? After all, he is one of the few characters that has command over his own death. 

Et tu, Brute! Then fall, Caesar. (III.i)

This is a revisiting of the idea of not being able to escape what the gods have laid down, or what is written in the stars. Caesar sees his end for what it is, and rather than shirking from it, gives the command, proving himself “a man, he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a Colossus” (I.ii) until the very end.

There is a certainly a case to be made for Caesar’s relation to the stars. Shakespeare was no stranger to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as he references the work in Titus. Metamorphoses ends with a wink and nod to Augustus Caesar: that is the placing of Julius Caesar as a star. Venus, knowing what is to come of Caesar, begs the fates to change their course. When they do not, she conjures up a series of portents to warn men: this is from where Shakespeare drew the whelping lioness, yawning graves, and fiery skies. When this too fails and Caesar is killed, Venus collects his soul and places him among the stars. Given all of this, how can the play not support the idea that our lives are written for us – our fault are in our stars? Cassius must be, as Van Houten suggests, wrong. But let’s look at Cassius’ side.




What exactly is Cassius’ complaint in this play? Many peg him as a pre-Iago, and there are certainly some comparisons to be made. Like Iago, Cassius is motivated by jealousy: he is jealous that someone inferior to him is receiving higher honour. In I.ii, just prior to the central quote, Cassius relates a story in which he saves Caesar from drowning, thereby making him the better man (somehow). Thus, it is not through any great providence that Caesar has all the power and not Cassius. And yet, it is not through any great fault on Cassius’ part that he doesn’t have Caesar’s power. For all the supernatural spirit that hangs around Julius Caesar, Caesar presents a chaotic view of the world. This is particularly true in the latter half of the play: if the gods were instrumental in Caesar’s death, they left a pretty large power vacuum that nearly everyone rushes to fill.

The chaos left behind following the death of Caesar is made immediately evident in the dark comic scene following Caesar’s funeral. The scene begins with more of the same: Cinna the Poet (who is not the same Cinna that stabbed Caesar earlier that day) says to us

I dreamt to-night that I did feast with Caesar,

And things unlucky charge my fantasy:

I have no will to wander forth of doors,

Yet something leads me forth. (III.iii)

This is reminiscent of Calpurnia’s dream, and its resulting consequences. By this point in the play, we know something bad is about to happen to Cinna the Poet: the gods decree it. Yet, what happens to him is too absurd to have the stars’ influence behind it. Cinna is stopped by a group of Plebeians, an uneducated mob. They question Cinna and when they learn his name immediately declare that he is the Cinna that killed Caesar, and must die.

First Citizen

Tear him to pieces; he’s a conspirator.


I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet.

Fourth Citizen

Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses.


I am not Cinna the conspirator.

Fourth Citizen

It is no matter, his name’s Cinna; pluck but his name out of his heart, and turn him going. (III.iii)

The comedy here resides in the “tear him for his bad verses” line: the mob, so hungry for death, will kill Cinna regardless of any factor. His name is Cinnia, therefore he must die. There is no justice here – this is not an act of vengeance. The fault, dear audience, is not in Cinna’s stars, or himself, that he is underground: it is in a disordered world.



In Act IV, we see the major players vying for power, and the resurgence of Cassius’ philosophy. In the first scene, the triumvirate of Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus debate over who shall be marked down for death.


Your brother too must die; consent you, Lepidus?


I do consent–


Prick him down, Antony.


Upon condition Publius shall not live, Who is your sister’s son, Mark Antony. (IV.i)

Octavius is quick to silence Lepidus following his consenting. I always enjoy when Shakespeare splits a line of perfect iambic pentameter between two characters. It is an instruction for the actor playing Octavius to jump directly on top of Lepidus’ line. Furthermore, if you accept my interpretation that the word condition would have been a four syllable word in Shakespeare’s tongue (con-di-si-on), then Lepidus’ intended line, “I do consent, upon condition” would have also been a perfect iambic pentameter, robbed by Octavius. Perhaps this is close reading gone too far, but Octavius is very much trying to place himself above the others – which he continues to do until the Battle of Actium. As soon as Lepidus leaves, Antony turns on the old man, launching into a tirade about Lepidus being the useful ass to bear their treasure, but:

Then take we down his load, and turn him off,

Like to the empty ass, to shake his ears,

And graze in commons. (Iv.i)

Antony is engaging in the same rhetoric that Cassius accuses Caesar of at the start of the play. It is not the fault in any stars that Lepidus is made to be an underling, but in himself – for letting Octavius and Antony treat him this way.


Act IV, scene iii is one of the scenes which prove that Brutus is the strongest pillar of this play, and often the central theme of analyses. The reason I have avoided Brutus for the most part is because I have little to say that has not been more strongly expressed elsewhere. It is in this scene that we also see Cassius following his own advice. It may have been his fault that he was Caesar’s underling, but now he would ensure that he was no one else’s. 

Brutus arrives at the camp, and is none too pleased. After some odd pleasantries, and a desire not to fight in front of the kids (soldiers), Brutus finally airs his grievances.

Let me tell you, Cassius, you yourself

Are much condemn’d to have an itching palm;

To sell and mart your offices for gold

To undeservers. (IV.iii)

Apparently, Cassius has been taking bribes. He has been selling honours for gold: essentially a politicians’ trick. Why is Brutus upset? Is it because Cassius hasn’t included Brutus in the deal, given him a cut? No. Brutus is an honourable man – as much as Antony’s famous speech tries to undercut the fact.

Remember March, the ides of March remember:

Did not great Julius bleed for justice’ sake?

What villain touch’d his body, that did stab,

And not for justice? What, shall one of us

That struck the foremost man of all this world

But for supporting robbers, shall we now

Contaminate our fingers with base bribes,

And sell the mighty space of our large honours

For so much trash as may be grasped thus?

I had rather be a dog, and bay the moon,

Than such a Roman. (IV.iii)

How could they kill Caesar in order to save Rome (as Brutus believed he did) only to succumb to corruption? Cassius will not be abused by Brutus. He was silent during Caesar’s abuses but not Brutus’. Brutus calls him out on this:


When Caesar lived, he durst not thus have moved me.


Peace, peace! you durst not so have tempted him.


I durst not!



What, durst not tempt him!


For your life you durst not!


Do not presume too much upon my love. (IV.iii)

Is Cassius so blunt with Brutus, does he tempt him, out of love or desire for power? Cassius would have us believe it is the former. Borrowing from Iago’s future tricks, he gives up his life to Brutus’ disposal (knowing full well that Brutus will not kill him) in order to prove his love for Brutus. I cannot believe that at this point Cassius has any real love for Brutus, but is simply trying to maintain his own power. Like the relation between Antony and Lepidus in IV.i, Cassius needs Brutus to carry his load, but once delivered has every intention of relieving him. This has been Cassius’ game since he first recruited Brutus in Act I. This is what makes his anagnorisis and pitiful death more satisfying. 

Cassius has tried being master of his own fate, and all that it got him was the ability to manipulate Brutus and a bit of gold. As soon as he finds himself in battle, in an uncertain position, he is ready to abandon his philosophy and transfer fault back into the stars.


You know that I held Epicurus strong

And his opinion: now I change my mind,

And partly credit things that do presage.

Coming from Sardis, on our former ensign

Two mighty eagles fell, and there they perch’d,

Gorging and feeding from our soldiers’ hands;

Who to Philippi here consorted us:

This morning are they fled away and gone;

And in their steads do ravens, crows and kites,

Fly o’er our heads and downward look on us,

As we were sickly prey: their shadows seem

A canopy most fatal, under which

Our army lies, ready to give up the ghost. (V.i)


Brutus is given the final death in this play, just as Juliet and Cleopatra in their respective plays. And yet, like Romeo’s death, and Antony’s death, I think I prefer Cassius’ death to that of Brutus. Just as Romeo rushes to Juliet to find her “dead” and, without question, drinks his poison, so does Cassius perceive Brutus to be overtaken and so takes his own life.

Come down, behold no more. O, coward that

I am, to live so long,

To see my best friend ta’en before my face!


PINDARUS descends


Come hither, sirrah: In Parthia did I take thee prisoner;

And then I swore thee, saving of thy life,

That whatsoever I did bid thee do,

Thou shouldst attempt it. Come now, keep thine oath;

Now be a freeman: and with this good sword,

That ran through Caesar’s bowels, search this bosom.

Stand not to answer: here, take thou the hilts;

And, when my face is cover’d, as ’tis now,

Guide thou the sword.


PINDARUS stabs him


Caesar, thou art revenged, Even with the sword that kill’d thee.


Dies (V.iii)

Shortly after, we learn that his men were triumphant in battle, Brutus, like Juliet, was not yet dead. But it ididnt matter: Cassius was caught up in his stars. He makes several mentions in this act that it is his birthday, and attributes his good and bad fortune to this fact. He blames his cowardice (his fault) for his downfall, but it was really poor perception on the messenger’s part.

If my chaotic roaming through this aspect of the play has proven anything, it is that the faults of the characters in this play cannot be traced to a single, simple source. While this may seem like a simple statement, it is actually unusual in the world of Shakespearean tragedy. In Hamlet, Claudius is the source of all tragedy. In Othello it is Iago. In Romeo and Juliet it is fortune. I could go on, but in Caesar, the tapestry woven leaves no easy answer.

How did Caesar come to power? Was it right for the conspirators to kill him? These are questions asked long before Shakespeare, these are questions that had a great impact on the Roman world and subsequently our world. And these are questions which Shakespeare plays around with but offers no clarification. And that is why we read or watch this play over and over – yes, it is an entertaining play, but it is one of the few plays where the philosophy – the questions – take centre stage.

 Noli mirabilis esse oblivisci!



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The Winter’s Tale: Art v. Time


The Winter’s Tale is a divisive play on many levels. The plot is literally divided in half. First we have Leontes, King of Sicilia, who believes his wife Hermione (not that one) is having an affair with his best friend, and according to some, lover, Polixenes. The second half jumps sixteen years ahead and is the pastoral tale of Leontes’ lost daughter, Perdita, now a shepherd’s daughter, and her secret love with Polixenes’ son, Florizel, amidst a grand sheep-shearing festival. Sprung from this, we have the division of genre: the first half is a tragedy and the second is a comedy, but both have elements of the others embedded within their façade, like the yin and yang.

Harmony is only maintained if, within light there is dark, and within dark there is light. So in The Winter’s Tale is there comedy embedded in the depths of Leontes’ madness and its tragic consequence. Paulina, bringing the news of Hermione’s “death” to Leontes, transforms into the Nurse from Romeo and Juliet.


Woe the while!
O, cut my lace, lest my heart, cracking it,
Break too.

First Lord

What fit is this, good lady?


What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me?
What wheels? racks? fires? what flaying? boiling?
In leads or oils? what old or newer torture
Must I receive, whose every word deserves
To taste of thy most worst? Thy tyranny
Together working with thy jealousies,
Fancies too weak for boys, too green and idle
For girls of nine, O, think what they have done
And then run mad indeed, stark mad! for all
Thy by-gone fooleries were but spices of it.
That thou betray’dst Polixenes,’twas nothing;
That did but show thee, of a fool, inconstant
And damnable ingrateful: nor was’t much,
Thou wouldst have poison’d good Camillo’s honour,
To have him kill a king: poor trespasses,
More monstrous standing by: whereof I reckon
The casting forth to crows thy baby-daughter
To be or none or little; though a devil
Would have shed water out of fire ere done’t:
Nor is’t directly laid to thee, the death
Of the young prince, whose honourable thoughts,
Thoughts high for one so tender, cleft the heart
That could conceive a gross and foolish sire
Blemish’d his gracious dam: this is not, no,
Laid to thy answer: but the last,–O lords,
When I have said, cry ‘woe!’ the queen, the queen,
The sweet’st, dear’st creature’s dead,
and vengeance for’t
Not dropp’d down yet.

First Lord

The higher powers forbid!


I say she’s dead; I’ll swear’t. If word nor oath
Prevail not, go and see: if you can bring
Tincture or lustre in her lip, her eye,
Heat outwardly or breath within, I’ll serve you
As I would do the gods. But, O thou tyrant!
Do not repent these things, for they are heavier
Than all thy woes can stir; therefore betake thee
To nothing but despair. A thousand knees
Ten thousand years together, naked, fasting,
Upon a barren mountain and still winter
In storm perpetual, could not move the gods
To look that way thou wert. (Winter’s Tale III.ii)

It is too much, it is overdone in Shakespeare’s recognizable style suggesting that it is not as it is. We cannot listen to the Nurse’s woes and wails without our minds screaming at us that we know Juliet is alive (for now). Here, we do not actually know at this point that Hermione is alive, but the language delivers the same clue. It is too bathetic to be otherwise. A comic undertone must exist to make this speech what it is – enjoyable and pleasing to the ear. This the most troubling point of all.

And without having to quote specific lines, we have the circle of yin in the yang that is Bohemia in this play. As with all of Shakespeare’s green spaces (even the Forest of Arden), there is a dark, corrupting (or tragic) force. Autolycus is such a force: a disingenuous thief in a perfect world, but his acts bring too little consequence. It is Polixenes that corrupts his world as Leontes corrupted Sicilia, or more specifically, it is a class division that tears the veil in this pastoral harmony.

A final divisive element – this one may be superficial – is the critical reception of this play. Some praise this as one of Shakespeare’s great achievements: his most inventive work, his most real, or his most mature. Others consider this a fumble: an older Shakespeare trying to play catch-up in a changing world of theatre, throwing together a flimsy tragicomedy because this is the style at the time. A sign that he needs to step aside and make room for Fletcher.


The Winter’s Tale is an aesthetic play, one in which Art (in particular, the visual arts) is supreme. In the first half, Shakespeare continues the thread began in Hamlet and expanded in Othello: that is, the flaws of empiricism. We must trust our eyes to give us a sense of the world around us, but our eyes are imperfect. In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare shows this imperfection by presenting a world of warped reality. Archdamus, Polixenes’ man, plays with this idea in one of the first lines of the play. In response to Camillo’s announcement that Leontes will be visiting Bohemia the follow summer, Archdamus says:

We will give you sleepy drinks,
that your senses, unintelligent of our insufficience,
may, though they cannot praise us, as little accuse
us. (Winter’s Tale I.i)

A playful mockery of the dull state that he sees Bohemia in, but also a great wink and nod to us (reader/audience) that we are dealing with a distortion of senses – we are all given the sleepy drink while watching/reading this play.

This idea is given free rein in Act I, scene ii – a long scene in which Leontes dissolves to the same extent that Othello did in three acts. Leontes is his own Iago, whispering in his own ear about his wife’s infidelity. And Shakespeare presents this to us by establishing Leontes as the looker, framing the scene to his view as if creating a gallery of paintings. After urging Hermione to convince Polixenes not to leave, he watches her carry out this action. In an aside he speaks to us, while the implicit stage directions urge Polixenes and Hermione to hold hands and mime a friendly conversation.

[Aside] Too hot, too hot!
To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.
I have tremor cordis on me: my heart dances;
But not for joy; not joy. This entertainment
May a free face put on, derive a liberty
From heartiness, from bounty, fertile bosom,
And well become the agent; ‘t may, I grant;
But to be paddling palms and pinching fingers,
As now they are, and making practised smiles,
As in a looking-glass, and then to sigh, as ’twere
The mort o’ the deer; O, that is entertainment
My bosom likes not, nor my brows! (I.ii)

Whatever Polixenes and Hermione may be discussing is irrelevant. We are forced into Leontes’ head and must see things through his eyes – where the sight alone of the others smiling and holding hands are damning. His use of “practiced smiles” suggests that these are not humans bound by context, but actors or models, figures placed there to torment him. Reality shifts to art.

At the end of this same speech, Leontes turns to Mamillius, his son. Leontes is suddenly suspicious that his son is not his. In order to reconcile this allegation, he transfomrs his son into a model of his past self.


Art thou my boy?


Ay, my good lord.


I’ fecks!
Why, that’s my bawcock. What, hast
smutch’d thy nose?
They say it is a copy out of mine. Come, captain,
We must be neat; not neat, but cleanly, captain: (I.ii)

But he cannot maintain the image. He is interrupted by the sight of Hermione and Polixenes still holding hands. And so the play follows his mind, interrupted speeches flicking between the two “lovers” and his attempts to frame Mamillius as a younger Leontes: two works of art thrust on the stage. One we see, Hermione’s mimed (albeit innocent) flirtation: the other we do not, a younger Leontes in his proper militaristic form. What is missing from this scene (aside from Hermione’s futile pleas) is a sense of reality. What Hermione and Polixeens are discussing – whether Mamillius is indeed Leontes’ son – is as inconsequential as Bohemia having a seacoast (which, in our world, it does not). Art has reshaped reality.

In the midst of Leontes’ madness, jealousy, and tyranny, we have a short scene in which two messengers return to the court from Delphi, where they consulted the Oracle about the matter. Leading up to the suspenseful trail, the two messengers discuss the aesthetics of their travels.


The climate’s delicate, the air most sweet,
Fertile the isle, the temple much surpassing
The common praise it bears.


I shall report,
For most it caught me, the celestial habits,
Methinks I so should term them, and the reverence
Of the grave wearers. O, the sacrifice!
How ceremonious, solemn and unearthly
It was i’ the offering!


But of all, the burst
And the ear-deafening voice o’ the oracle,
Kin to Jove’s thunder, so surprised my sense.
That I was nothing. (III.i)

What ought to be most striking to the messengers is the Oracle and her ruling. And yet, it is the scenery – conjured straight out of Ancient Greek texts – that appeals most. The two men have (figuratively) traveled back in time: away from the near reality of a psychologically disturbed king to the days of ancient glory when the Oracle was relevant. On their journey, there is no Leontes or Hermione – not until the return home and reality comes rushing back. When we are consumed by Art – as these men are – we have no need for reality, and can find those proverbial lounges in trees. But it is – as always – an illusion.

Just as Bohemia is an illusion. We do not know why Shakespeare placed the landlocked Bohemia on the coast in his play. Was it pure ignorance? Probably not, considering his otherwise accurate sense of geography. It was, like everything else, an aesthetic decision – an illusion to draw us away from reality. Not only is Bohemia’s geography an illusion, but the country itself. Everyone is someone else. Perdita – in truth a princess – is a shepherd’s daughter dressed as a queen. A fun irony I suppose. Autolycus – a low theif – is the most humble bard and beggar in the land. Florizel and Polixenes disguise themselves as ambiguous men. The sheep-shearing festival – a great pastoral feast – masks the class division that prevents Florizel from marrying Perdita. Act IV is almost wholly crammed into one scene – Iv.iv – and it is the longest scene in any Shakespeare play (beating out Hamlet II.ii by a small margin). There is more “action” in one of the scenes from the first half of the play than in this long scene. The scene is meant to lull us into an artistic sleep, where we indulge in Perdita’s dolling of flowers, and satyrs dancing. We drown in colours and sounds until it comes crashing down – when Polixenes reveals himself and starts handing out death penalties. The illusion collapses, and we must free ourselves from the artistic world – finding salvation back in Sicilia. But before the close: Time.


In order to bridge the division of plots, and genres, Shakespeare brings forth the figure of Time – the old winged man with the hourglass.


I, that please some, try all, both joy and terror
Of good and bad, that makes and unfolds error,
Now take upon me, in the name of Time,
To use my wings. Impute it not a crime
To me or my swift passage, that I slide
O’er sixteen years and leave the growth untried
Of that wide gap, since it is in my power
To o’erthrow law and in one self-born hour
To plant and o’erwhelm custom. Let me pass
The same I am, ere ancient’st order was
Or what is now received: I witness to
The times that brought them in; so shall I do
To the freshest things now reigning and make stale
The glistering of this present, as my tale
Now seems to it. Your patience this allowing,
I turn my glass and give my scene such growing
As you had slept between: Leontes leaving,
The effects of his fond jealousies so grieving
That he shuts up himself, imagine me,
Gentle spectators, that I now may be
In fair Bohemia, and remember well,
I mentioned a son o’ the king’s, which Florizel
I now name to you; and with speed so pace
To speak of Perdita, now grown in grace
Equal with wondering: what of her ensues
I list not prophecy; but let Time’s news
Be known when ’tis brought forth.
A shepherd’s daughter,
And what to her adheres, which follows after,
Is the argument of Time. Of this allow,
If ever you have spent time worse ere now;
If never, yet that Time himself doth say
He wishes earnestly you never may. (IV.i)

Given the last few lines of this monologue, we get the sense that the initial audience members may have been irked by this sudden intrusion. Some critics certainly see it this way today. This is a cheap mechanism: a deus ex machina – in order to resolve the gap between two fragmented stories – a duct-taped tale.

What interests me most about the speech is the beginning. The speaker takes it upon himself in the name of Time to speed us over sixteen years. Who is the speaker? In the later plays, Shakespeare brought other deities on stage. In Cymbeline, Jupiter is Jupiter. The goddesses Irish, Ceres, and Juno in The Tempest are who they are (or are they figments created by Prospero?). So why does someone have to speak in the name of Time? Is this Time as Chorus, or Chorus as Time? The complication involved here stretches through the divide and affects both halves of the play. The struggle between Time and Chorus signifies a struggle between Time (as entity) and Art. Is the figure with the hourglass an entity or an Art? The answer must be Art.

Over the course of his works, Shakespeare has challenged most entities and transformed them with his Art. Time’s monologue here is reminiscent of such a subjugation, as found in the more famous choral monologue that opens Henry V

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play. (Henry V Prologue)

Here, the Chorus is pleading with us to see the Place as he sees it, in the process subjugating the great battlefield of Agincourt to the uninspiring wooden O that is the theatre. So to, does the chorus as Time plea with us to accept sixteen years condensed into his art, his monologue.

For further subjugation, we turn to Shakespeare’s greatest power – his sonnets. In Sonnet 60, Shakespeare spends three quatrains exploring the destructive power that Time has over everything – almost everything. The concluding couplet of the sonnet is:

And yet, in times of hope my verse shall stand

Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand. (Sonnet 60)

Those who look at this couplet with the same naïveté that many do while looking at the “romantic” Sonnet 18 (shall I compare thee to a summer’s day) may say: “it is the loved one: that’s what stands against Time’s destruction.” No. It is Art. It is the poet’s art that stands against Time, and it is the poet’s art that can bend and shape Time to rush us through three eventful acts in Sicilia, and allow us to linger in the pastoral Bohemia. But Time cannot be beaten down so easily. Act V of The Winter’s Tale is a final blow-by-blow battle of Art and Time.


                In Act V, everyone from both halves of the play – with the exception of the two deceased characters – finds themselves in Leontes’ court. Florizel seeks asylum: Polixenes chases his son: Leontes and Perdita reunite in an anti-climactic, off-stage moment: all rushes towards the grand finale. We learn that Paulina, following Hermione’s “death”, commissioned a statue, which all  the characters rush to see.

a piece many
years in doing and now newly performed by that rare
Italian master, Julio Romano, who, had he himself
eternity and could put breath into his work, would
beguile Nature of her custom, so perfectly he is her
ape: he so near to Hermione hath done Hermione that
they say one would speak to her and stand in hope of
answer (The Winter’s Tale V.ii)

This little passage created one of the most prominent micro-criticisms in Shakespeare. The fact that Romano created the sculpture is of no consequence to the play itself, and yet, this tidbit stands out for this is the only instance where Shakespeare directly references a near contemporary artist. Julio (or Guilio) Romano (1499~1546) was a painter, not a sculptor, but many critics have resolved this discrepancy. Shakespeare would not have seen his works directly, but he became a major influence in European art so Shakespeare would have been familiar with the works.

So why Romano, in my opinion?

Shakespeare could have left it at a “rare Italian master” and the play would be unchanged. After all, Romano never sculpted Hermione, or anything like her. Furthermore, the sculpture is an illusion (most likely, although some debate it). What Paulina presents as a sculpture is really Hermione, who has been hidden away for sixteen years. Yet, Art has a such a strong presence and does everything in its power to encroach upon reality, that even the illusion of a sculpture must be given a name. We are more apt to believe such a sculpture could exist if done by a renowned artist as opposed to a hypothetical one. Let’s call this Art’s first thrust.

Time is quick to strike back. As soon as Leontes is presented with the statue he notes that:

But yet, Paulina,
Hermione was not so much wrinkled, nothing
So aged as this seems. (V.iii)

We may call this a critical hit. For all its struggles, all its submissions, Time leaves its imprints on Art. Illusions can create wonders, but Time will have its due. Families can be happily reunited – but sixteen years passed regardless. Hermione lost sixteen years of life, and returns from the grave wrinkled. Never mind that Mamillius had no protection from Art. He remains dead. Art tries to regain its footing. Paulina brushes off Leontes’ concerns saying:

So much the more our carver’s excellence;
Which lets go by some sixteen years and makes her
As she lived now. (V.iii)

It was Romano’s intent to make her not as she was, but as she is now. In this, Romano (Art) regains control of Time. Paulina then proceeds with a grand ceremony that “brings the statue to life.” Hermione reunites with her daughter, and noticeably says nothing to Leontes. We are left with one of the more inconclusive endings in Shakespeare: Time has been beaten down, but not defeated.

And so Art and Time rage on.

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Othello, a world of words



At its core, Othello is a revenge tragedy. By 1604, this was no strange genre for Shakespeare, having written both Titus Andronicus and of course Hamlet, as well as other works which dabble in revenge: Twelfth Night, Merchant of Venice, and with a different tone, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. By focusing on the contrast to the two more pure revenge tragedies, we can see the impact that Hamlet had on Shakespeare’s unwillingness to create a traditional revenge tragedy as he did with Titus. For Titus falls in line with the traditional revenge tragedy made popular by Kyd, and picked up by Marlowe in the 1590s. These are plays of action, which beget retaliatory actions, and the cycle progresses. Hamlet refused to partake in this tradition.

We cannot doubt Hamlet’s love for his father – even if it was simply the love of a dutiful son.

’A was a man, take him for all in all,

I shall ot look upon his like again. (Hamlet I.ii)

This does not suggest love as we immediately conjure at the sound of the word, but surely affection, and surely as much affection as Titus had for his sons (let’s discount the one he kills himself). But Hamlet would not undertake the immediacy of action that Titus does. There is no way Hamlet would be fooled by Aaron into chopping off his finger, even if he thought he could save his father, nor would Hamlet be foul enough to bake his enemies into a pie. Confronting his ghost-father, Hamlet says:


Speak, I am bound to hear.


So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.” (I.v)

at which point Hamlet does not act, but seeks out rational proof. No one in the corrupt world of Titus Andronicus would need pressing from a ghost to act, the revenge would be instinctive. Hamlet takes the gut reaction of revenge and mixes it in with that human quality – rational thought, which leads to inaction until the matter is thrust upon him. So what happens after Hamlet? When Shakespeare cannot go back to the traditional form of revenge, but cannot recreate Hamlet either? Let’s follow the trajectory: in Titus actions supersede all: in Hamlet actions and thoughts dual each other for supremacy in Hamlet’s mind: in Othello, thought has not only won out, but become action itself. “There is nothing either good or bad,” Hamlet says, “but thinking makes it so” (II.ii), but even Hamlet is not yet ready for his own mantra. His first “action” – killing Polonius – is not produced in a moment of thought, nor does his thinking make it happen – it is an irrational, Titus-like gesture. The remnants of a tradition he longed to shake off. But this thought sets Shakespeare on his course for Othello, where thoughts turn to words, words to speech, and speech governs action. Language governs everything in Othello, and is the instrument of revenge.

As Hamlet notably opens with a question, setting the web that is to follow, Othello begins with a refutation of speech:

Tush! Never tell me (Othello I.i)

Colloquially, this is an inconsequential “you’re kidding me,” but expressed in this way – the desire not to hear – it strikes as an ominous foreshadow. For we may take Roderigo’s meaning as friendly, albeit, worried, but when Othello says –

Avaunt, be gone! Thou hast set me on the rack.

I swear ‘tis better to be much abus’d

Than but to know’t a little (III.iii)

he is sincere. He then goes on to bid farewell to all in one of the more notable speeches in the play:

I had been happy, if the general camp,

Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body,

So I had nothing known. O now, forever

Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!

Farewell the lumed troops and the big wars

That makes ambitions virtue! O, farewell!

Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,

The spirit-stirring drum, th’ear-piercing fife,

The royal banner, and all quality.

Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!

And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats

Th’immortal Jove’s dread clamors counterfeit,

Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone. (III.iii)

Yes, probably the most striking part of the speech – what students love to pick up on – is the sensory imagery. Othello, the pure empiricist – Locke pre-Locke – is ruled by hard evidence. He shall not judge without ocular proof, and yet here, as he begins to doubt, he bids farewell to all that he is –and to all the sights and sounds around him, reducing him to….. Well, he is not fully parted with himself yet. Taking Iago by the throat, Othello demands ocular proof:

Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore. (III.iii)

There are two interesting speech acts presented here. The first is that while Othello is bidding farewell to his sensory world, he begins that speech with the echo of Roderigo’s first line. Even if the entire camp was taking advantage of Desdemona (Othello’s wife), it would be fine so long as Othello did not know. “Tush! Never tell me” – you’re kidding but more than that – do not tell me. Where would Hamlet be if the ghost had not told him what he did? Still mourning away? Where would Macbeth be if the witches did not poison his mind? A content Thane? Words, post-Hamlet do what only hands could do in the world of Titus, and what only deceptive acts could do in the world of The Spanish Tragedy. So long as words are not spoken – all is well.

As for Othello calling his love a whore – and let’s for the sake of there being too many tangents ignore the bitter irony of “my love” and “a whore” in the same breath – I think it is worth noting here that this is the first insulting name Othello attaches to her, even in an indirect way. In the first half of the play, Othello refers to his wife as “my love” or “sweet” or “chuck” (which is indeed affectionate, for some reason), but those are taken over by whore and a series of synonyms of whore. And this was exactly as Iago planned. While Iago’s (and later Othello’s) victims find pleasure in ignorance, Iago uses words to orchestrate his revenge. But why?

At the end of Act I, Iago, forming his plan, advises his “friend” Roderigo to “put money in thy purse” and follow him to Cyprus. Winning over the reluctant Roderigo, Iago beats the refrain in almost every line – “fill thy purse with money”. Alone with us, Iago delivers one of his famous “look at how evil I am” soliloquies.

Thus do I ever make my fool my purse:
For I mine own gain’d knowledge should profane,
If I would time expend with such a snipe.
But for my sport and profit. I hate the Moor:
And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety. He holds me well;
The better shall my purpose work on him.
Cassio’s a proper man: let me see now:
To get his place and to plume up my will
In double knavery–How, how? Let’s see:–
After some time, to abuse Othello’s ear
That he is too familiar with his wife.
He hath a person and a smooth dispose
To be suspected, framed to make women false.
The Moor is of a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by the nose
As asses are.
I have’t. It is engender’d. Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light. (I.iii)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, while working on his lectures on Shakespeare, scribbled a note in response to this part of the play:

The triumph! again, put money after the effect has been fully produced.–The last Speech, the motive-hunting of motiveless Malignity–how awful! (Coleridge Lectures, 1808-1819)

This has led to an unfortunate misinterpretation which states that Iago has no motives for any of his actions. Some, reading Coleridge’s quote beyond the word motiveless, at least recognize that Coleridge states that Iago hunts for motives after the deed: thus his motives are no more than rationalities. This is, I think, a fair reading, for the section that the note was scribbled in, but should not be confused with every one of Iago’s actions. In this matter, Iago has convinced Roderigo to fill his purse with money and follow him to the wars. He does not give a clear motive (action) for the demand, but convinces Rodergio with rhetoric and promises (words): how Desdemona will fall out of love as quickly as she fell in it: how the Moor is changeable: how he (Iago) is always looking out for Rodergio. Roderigo needs not direct action to be motivated, but the words alone sustain him – at least until the end of the play. It is after Rodergio is gone that Iago tries to “suit the action to the word” – Coleridge’s “hunting of motiveless Malignity”. What Coleridge strikes on is my very theme – Othello is a world in which words alone suffice as deeds.

So if we are taking Coleridge’s note as a reflection of the lines which Coleridge refers to and not the play as a whole, what then are (the no longer motiveless) Iago’s motives? It should not be surprising that in the world of words, Iago’s hate springs from the many-tongued one. For that particular reference, let’s jump back a few years, when Shakespeare wrote 2 Henry IV. Here is the opening.

Enter RUMOUR, painted full of tongues


Open your ears; for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?
I, from the orient to the drooping west,
Making the wind my post-horse, still unfold
The acts commenced on this ball of earth:
Upon my tongues continual slanders ride,
The which in every language I pronounce,
Stuffing the ears of men with false reports. (2 Henry IV prologue)

The play is driven by rumours, false reports spawn false deeds – here Shakespeare dips his toe into what Hamlet will become. Again, Hamlet’s motive – his reason for (in)action spawns from words: true or false? We never know. In Iago, Shakespeare brings back the Prologue painted full of tongues.

 I hate the Moor:
And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety. (Othello I.iii)

The truth is irrelevant: the rumour will suffice. And Iago, affected by the rumour, inhabits the rumour to plant the very idea in Othello’s mind in regards to Desdemona. Beyond Rumour driving Iago to revenge, he expresses his feelings at the opening of the play in regards to him being passed over for lieutenant, a position given to Michael Cassio.


‘I have already chose my officer.’
And what was he?
Forsooth, a great arithmetician,
One Michael Cassio, a Florentine,
A fellow almost damn’d in a fair wife;
That never set a squadron in the field,
Nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster; unless the bookish theoric,
Wherein the toged consuls can propose
As masterly as he: mere prattle, without practise,
Is all his soldiership. But he, sir, had the election:
And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof
At Rhodes, at Cyprus and on other grounds
Christian and heathen, must be be-lee’d and calm’d
By debitor and creditor: this counter-caster,
He, in good time, must his lieutenant be,
And I–God bless the mark!–his Moorship’s ancient.


By heaven, I rather would have been his hangman.


Why, there’s no remedy; ’tis the curse of service,
Preferment goes by letter and affection. (I.i)

Iago’s complaint is that he – a man of practical experience – was passed over for an academic – one who had never seen battle: “mere prattle without practise”. This very reason Iago gives to supplant Cassio becomes the act by which he does it – resigned that he, a reasonably experienced soldier, gains nothing by his deeds in the world of words, throws down his militaristic might and picks out the very rhetoric he curses Cassio for. Iago’s soliloquy at the end of Act I is his very own “farewell to arms”.

Having circled around the same message for some time now, I would like to shift to the finer intricacies of this world of words, patterns that highlight the contrast of how Othello progresses, particularly in comparison to the large and garish Titus Andronicus. I’ll begin with how Shakespeare weaves the character of Desdemona. Montano, governor of Cyprus, asks Cassio if Othello wived, to which Cassio provides the following praise:

He hath achieved a maid

That paragons description and wild fame,

One that excels the quirks of blazoning pens,

And in th’essential vesture of creation

Does tire the engineer. (II.i)

Desdemona cannot be praised in simple terms, and would a poet attempt it, he would tire himself out before reaching his full potential. In the world of words – according to Cassio – Desdemona cannot be named. Immediately following, Desdemona enters with Iago and Emilia (Iago’s wife). Iago’s character in this moment is a strange one, even for the changeable Iago. He is not the humble ensign, nor “honest Iago” nor the villain we see in private – in this scene he takes the shape more akin to Feste before him and Lear’s Fool after him. Playing around with Desdemona and Emelia, he “praises” women as a fool would. Desdemona draws attention to this. “These are old fond paradoxes, to make fools laugh I’the alehouse” (II.i) conjures up the image of Feste entertaining Sir Toby and Sir Andrew in Twelfth Night, or Falstaff in 1 Henry IV or Merry Wives of Windsor. The more relevant conclusion is that, through his superior wit and command of language (again, the qualities of a Shakespearean Fool) Iago has distorted and destroyed Cassio’s bathetic praise of Desdemona. After all, corrupting words is part of Iago’s business.

And what’s he then that says I play the villain,

When this advice is free I give, and honest,

Probal to thinking, and indeed the course

To win the Moor again? For ‘tis most easy

Th’inclining Desdemona to subdue

In any honest suit. She’s framed as fruitful

As the free elements; and then for her

To win the Moor, were’t to renounce his baptism,

All seals and symbols of redeemed sin,

His soul is so enfettered to her love

That she may make, unmake, do what she list,

Even as her appetite shall play the god

With his weak function. How am I then a villain,

To counsel Cassio to this parallel course

Directly to his good? Divinity of hell:

When devils will the blackest sins put on,

They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,

As I do now’ for whiles this honest fool

Plies Desdemona to repair his fortune,

And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,

I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear:

That she reals him for her body’s lust,

And by how much she strives to do him good

She shall undo her credit with the Moor.

So will I turn her virtue into pitch,

And out of her own goodness make the net

That shall enmesh them all. (II.iii)

This is psychological – linguistic – revenge that goes even beyond Hamlet’s capabilities. Actually I should not be over-estimating Hamlet, he was pretty terrible at revenge, as good as he was at thought. Moreover, not even Aaron – the real motiveless Malignant – creates such a devilish plan. First Iago enmeshes us with two elements we cannot resist: sublime poetic rhetoric, and the truth. How is he a villain in this moment? Cassio falls out of favour with Othello due to his drunken conduct, and so Iago suggests a good plan to get Cassio back in Othello’s favour. He is right in that Othello would deny Desdemona nothing: if Cassio wins over Desdemona, Desdemona will win over Othello. This is true, and we cannot deny it. Yes, we know that Iago set up Cassio’s actions (although this does raise an important question about how far a drunk person’s responsibilities extend – one better suited for other places). Yes, we know that Iago will use Desdemona’s pleas against her by poisoning Othello’s mind – these are acts of villainy sure, but they do not discount the fact that Iago is speaking the truth at the beginning of the speech, do they? We are as much victims here as Cassio, Desdemona, and Othello: trapped in the world of words. So who are we to side with in the end? I’ll come back to that in a moment.

There is a wonderful moment at the beginning of Act IV when we see the physical consequences of the world of words when Iago is control of it.


Hath he said any thing?


He hath, my lord; but be you well assured,
No more than he’ll unswear.


What hath he said?


‘Faith, that he did–I know not what he did.


What? what?




With her?


With her, on her; what you will.


Lie with her! lie on her! We say lie on her, when
they belie her. Lie with her! that’s fulsome.
confess, and be hanged for his labour;–first, to be
hanged, and then to confess.–I tremble at it.
Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing
passion without some instruction. It is not words
that shake me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips.
–Is’t possible?–Confess–handkerchief!–O devil!–

Falls in a trance


Work on,
My medicine, work! Thus credulous fools are caught;
And many worthy and chaste dames even thus,
All guiltless, meet reproach. (IV.i)

Othello falls into a trance, literally collapses, from an over-exertion of words, a tumult of thoughts. And all it took to spark this incident was a double-meaning of “lie”: a nudge from Iago and Othello did the rest. “Work on, my medicine, work!” His medicine is a double-entendre: a play of words.

Now we come to the final act: the night, as Iago says, “that either makes me or fordoes me quite” (V.i). There is a certain brilliance for a play which deal in part with the degeneration of empiricism to have a penultimate scene consumed by the lack of sight. We are presented with a scene in which the characters have, as their only cues, sounds, or words. I would love to see a production in which this scene takes place in a total blackout. The actors don’t even need to be present, just their voices echoing in the theatre. Roderigo, under Iago’s instruction, attempts to kill Cassio, but is instead killed by Cassio. Iago, under cover of night, chops Cassio’s leg in two and runs away. Cassio and Roderigo, both bleeding to death, call for help. Graziano (Desdemona’s uncle) and Lodovico (a kinsman) hear the cries – voices in the night and come to the conclusion that

‘Tis heavy night.

These may be counterfeits. Let’s think’t unsafe

To come into the cry without more help. (V.i)

Roderigo, Cassio, Othello, Desdemona, and Emelia – all are willing to rush into something without proof, to mostly tragic ends. Here we have to lords who are so much the contrary that they are unwilling to help two dying men because it is too dark, they cannot know anything their eyes cannot tell them. Thus the hyper-empiricism is just as harmful (albeit not to Graziano or Lodovico) as the loss of rationality. Iago uses the darkness and chaos to rid himself of Roderigo, and blame Cassio’s wounds on Bianca: a courtesan who followed Cassio from Venice, and one of the rather pointless foils in Shakespeare, taking her place beside Lady Macduff and Octavia.

Following this plot line to its end, we have Iago’s undoing in his own world of words. Here we realize the power struggle that exists in this world: the spoken words (which Rumour and Iago rule) and the written word. It is Roderigo’s letters – a confession of everything Iago did – that fordoes Iago. Spoken words can be twisted easily, but when words are cemented on paper and can be passed around and spoken by anyone, they are hard to tame. Combine that with Emelia’s shrewishness (another form of words that cannot be tamed) and Iago is finished: choosing as his end – silence.

Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.

From this time forth, I never will speak word. (V.ii)

And so for the last few moments of the play, Iago becomes a mute, a silent figure standing on stage. I love that, after speaking approximately 28% of the lines in this play, his final word is word: this is Shakespeare’s subtle genius.

Desdemona is a wonderful character, and her death is one of those great moments of the dark sublime that Burke writes of. Othello was originally going to poison her, but Iago suggests smothering instead. What is the great impact of smothering? There are a few. Othello notes that he will kill her but not stain the white sheets with blood or ruin her fair, white skin. What I find most horrific and incredible about this form of murder is that it is the one that could be presented most realistically on stage. On stage stabbings are fun to watch, particularly when done properly, but the theatre in a stabbing, or such death, has such a great presence that we cannot for a second be fooled into thinking there is a threat of danger. Smothering is slow, and (if acted well) can trick out minds in ways false blood never can. There is a famous story of an audience member standing up and trying to save Desdemona – and if watching the play, I don’t think it is hard to see why. It is the perfect death. But I would require nine more pages just to explore the character of Desdemona, an underrated Shakespeare female character – reduced to an object even as she rejects it: more powerful than Lady Macbeth and simultaneously powerless as Lady Macduff.

But to close, I return for a last time to the world of words. Othello’s speech before killing himself includes these lines.

When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,

Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,

Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak

Of one that loved not wisely but too well,

Of one not easily jealous but, being wrought,

Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,

Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away

Richer than all his tribe, of one whose subdued eyes,

Albeit unused to the melting mood,

Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees

Their medicinable gum. (V.ii)

This is a typical tragic end for Shakespeare: a character passing on his story for someone to pass on to us. Yet here we see Othello pick up the reins of this world of words, and end his life by stressing how he wishes to be spoken of – transforming his body, his deeds, his triumphs – into words.

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Should we avert our minds when it comes to Titus Andronicus? Should we avert our minds when it comes to any horror?

In his introduction to Shakespeare the Thinker, A.D Nuttall writes about his time at a conference in Stratford, at which point he left the group and wandered through Shakespeare’s hometown, ruminating. I could not help conjure up, as I read this section around midnight while waiting for a bus, a kindly old man with white hair leaning on his walking stick. I never met the late scholar: he may have very well been kindly: he did not have white hair: and there was no mention of a walking stick. But throughout his work (written towards the end of his life) we are presented with a sentimental man. And I do not mention all of this to provide any critique of Nuttall, or to muse on a great scholar, but to provide some initial impressions to Shakespeare’s first tragedy Titus Andronicus (Titus). Nuttall spends roughly a page discussing this play, and most of that is taken up by Marlowe’s influence. Nuttall mentions the disgustingness of the play, likening it to modern film or TV, and at the end of this he writes “I wish at once to avert my mind” before shifting quickly to Love’s Labour’s Lost – which is very clever as I will show in my follow up post on Love’s Labour’s Lost. So either Titus affronts Nuttall’s sensibilities to such an extreme he cannot write about it, or, like Harold Bloom, he doesn’t consider the play worth his time. I’m inclined to believe it is the latter, except for his use of the word “avert”. Not only does he have to avert his mind, like someone stumbling upon a horrible scene (incidentally, Marcus did anything but avert his mind when he came upon Lavinia, but I’ll get to that) but he must at once avert his mind – Titus presents an immediate threat that cannot be considered. Titus presents a gut reaction that cannot be tolerated – it violates the sanctity of tragedy by eliminating catharsis! But of course I can’t claim to know the veracity of this thought because the scholar so abruptly averted his mind. Bloom is a little more detailed in his analysis of Titus, while he slightly shifts in his position, wrestling with disgust (intellectually rather than viscerally) but acknowledging fascination at times – he finally concludes with the thought.

Titus Andronicus performed an essential function for Shakespeare, but cannot do very much for the rest of us. – Bloom, Shakespeare: Invention of the Human.

So what exactly are we dealing with when it comes to Titus? For those not familiar with the play, here it is.

In a slightly fictional period of late Roman history, Titus Andronicus – great warrior and great procreator – returns to Rome with Tamora Queen of Goths, her three sons, and secret lover Aaron (the Moor) as captives. In a relatively few lines, Titus has his sons sacrifice one of Tamora’s sons: has his brother Marcus, Tribune of the People, proclaim Saturninus Emperor of Rome: pledges his daughter Lavinia to the new emperor: finds out Lavinia is in a relationship behind his back with Saturninus’ brother: kills one of his own sons for supporting this relationship: pisses everyone off. At the end of this scene Tamora swears vengeance for her dead son, but does little. It is Aaron (the Moor) who seems to take the initiative, for no more reason that he enjoys it. Iago has more motive for vengeance than Aaron does, but his character gets mixed in with Tamora’s so most people assume his acts are a reflection of her desires. It is not hard to draw such a conclusion with such lines as:

So Tamora:
Upon her wit doth earthly honour wait,
And virtue stoops and trembles at her frown.
Then, Aaron, arm thy heart, and fit thy thoughts,
To mount aloft with thy imperial mistress,
And mount her pitch, whom thou in triumph long
Hast prisoner held, fetter’d in amorous chains
And faster bound to Aaron’s charming eyes
Than is Prometheus tied to Caucasus.
Away with slavish weeds and servile thoughts!
I will be bright, and shine in pearl and gold,
To wait upon this new-made empress.
To wait, said I? to wanton with this queen,
This goddess, this Semiramis, this nymph,
This siren, that will charm Rome’s Saturnine,
And see his shipwreck and his commonweal’s.
Holloa! what storm is this? (Titus II.i)

Aaron is trying to be the orchestrator of her desires because his one desire is her.
So the revenge begins with Aaron and Tamora killing Bassianus and Lavinia because they know about Tamora and Aaron (who doesn’t though?). Tamora has her two living sons – Demetrius and Chiron – stab Bassainus and kill Lavinia. They do stab Bassianus but don’t kill Lavinia. Instead they rape her and cut of her arms and tongue – you can see why Nuttall loved this play.
Next, through one of Aaron’s convoluted plots, two of three of Titus’ remaining sons are accused of killing Bassianus. Aaron tells Titus that for one of his hands he can save his sons. Titus sends his chopped off hand and a messenger sends back his hand with his sons’ heads. This prompts one of the most gruesome lines in the play:

Come, brother, take a head;
And in this hand the other I will bear.
Lavinia, thou shalt be employ’d: these arms!
Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth. (Titus III.i)

Bloom points to this as clear evidence that the play is a parody. We shall see. Also, Titus’ remaining son, Lucius, is banished and goes to the Goths to raise an army.

Act IV is a strange one and can be summed up with: Aaron (the Moor) goes through great lengths to protect his (and Tamora’s) lovechild. This also prompts one of the most mature lines in Shakespeare’s works:

Thou hast undone our mother.
Villain, I have done thy mother. (Titus IV.2)

While this is happening, Titus – who has learned the truth about Lavinia’s rape, orchestrates a plea to the gods in the form of arrows with messages reigning down on Rome. Saturninus is none too pleased, but Tamora urges him to smooth things over because news of Lucius’ march on Rome has come. She arranged for a great feast to be held in Titus’ house. Next Act.

The one time when Tamora tries to take revenge into her own hands, she dresses herself up as Revenge, and her sons as Murder and Rape, and goes to provoke Titus in his madness. He plays along but is not fooled. He agrees to the banquet, keeps Tamora’s sons, kills them, bakes them into a pie, feeds that pie to Tamora before killing her, but not before he has killed Lavinia, Saturninus is none too pleased so he kills Titus, Lucius kills the emperor (who was not guarded?) and is the new emperor. In some editions the stage direction indicate, after Lucius killed Saturninus, “confusion follows” – because everything up to this point has been nice and calm.

The play finishes with the following speech, delivered by Lucius:

Some loving friends convey the emperor hence,
And give him burial in his father’s grave:
My father and Lavinia shall forthwith
Be closed in our household’s monument.
As for that heinous tiger, Tamora,
No funeral rite, nor man m mourning weeds,
No mournful bell shall ring her burial;
But throw her forth to beasts and birds of prey:
Her life was beast-like, and devoid of pity;
And, being so, shall have like want of pity.
See justice done on Aaron, that damn’d Moor,
By whom our heavy haps had their beginning:
Then, afterwards, to order well the state,
That like events may ne’er it ruinate. (Titus V.iii)

Here’s the interesting part: the final four lines do not appear in the first quarto (considered the authentic version of c. 1594). They were added in the second quarto of 1600, and their validity is questionable. Still, the compositors of the third quarto, the first folio, and most subsequent editions print these final lines. Why? Probably because “Her life was beast-like, and devoid of pity;/And, being so, shall have like want of pity” is the worst end couplet you can find in Shakespeare. The added lines are not much better, but they are better.

To bring everything together: at first glance, we have a play that has the most gruesome act (rape): the most immature line (did you pick up on my sarcasm earlier?) and the worst final couplet – you might be able to see why Nuttall averts his mind, and Bloom dismisses the play’s value. It’s an early work – it shows where Shakespeare came from, not what he is capable of. Enough said.


There’s one thing that really intrigues me about Titus. There is an intriguing relation between parents and children in this play. Shakespeare centres a few plots on the relation of parent to child: Henry IV, Hamlet (sort of), King Lear, Tempest to name a few. Titus explores the relation in an interesting way.

I think we can agree that there is no one in the older generation in this play that is truly innocent, and not a little bit monstrous. Even Marcus, the voice of reason and sentimentality, savagely murders the fly.

MARCUS strikes the dish with a knife

What dost thou strike at, Marcus, with thy knife?


At that that I have kill’d, my lord; a fly.

Out on thee, murderer! thou kill’st my heart;
Mine eyes are cloy’d with view of tyranny:
A deed of death done on the innocent
Becomes not Titus’ brother: get thee gone:
I see thou art not for my company.

Alas, my lord, I have but kill’d a fly.

But how, if that fly had a father and mother?
How would he hang his slender gilded wings,
And buzz lamenting doings in the air!
Poor harmless fly,
That, with his pretty buzzing melody,
Came here to make us merry! and thou hast
kill’d him. (Titus III.ii)

and then of course, they launch into racism – but that is another matter. Marcus, as intent on revenge as Titus, is not above the murder of the innocent (even a fly). When it comes to their children, however, these villains are protective, and at their most genuine and sincere.

The play opens with a contrast to this idea: two brothers (Saturninus and Bassianus) argue over their father’s legacy (the crown) with no regard to the man. The first mention of the late emperor comes early enough, in line 5, but in the lines

I am his first-born son, that was the last
That wore the imperial diadem of Rome (Titus I.i)

The late emperor is reduced to the subject of his son. He is further reduced to a pronoun. We never learn the emperor’s name. Bassianus is even worse

If ever Bassianus, Caesar’s son,
Were gracious in the eyes of royal Rome (Titus I.i)

Here the father is dissolved into Rome itself. He is, as they all are, Caesar, and Bassianus is not concerned with his favour or honour, bot Rome’s. While the sons have no respect for the father, fathers (and mother) place their children (for the most part) above all. When Titus returns to Rome, he does not speak of his victories, but says:

Romans, of five and twenty valiant sons,
Half of the number that King Priam had,
Behold the poor remains, alive and dead!
These that survive let Rome reward with love;
These that I bring unto their latest home,
With burial amongst their ancestors: (Titus I.i)

Only a few moments later, we shift back to the beginning, with a son (Mutius) disrespecting his father (Titus). Yes, Mutius is probably in the right here, but he, like Bassianus, places his father below his state – and is stabbed for it.
In between Titus praising his sons and killing his son, we have Tamora’s first speech – a plea for her son:

Stay, Roman brethren! Gracious conqueror,
Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed,
A mother’s tears in passion for her son:
And if thy sons were ever dear to thee,
O, think my son to be as dear to me!
Sufficeth not that we are brought to Rome,
To beautify thy triumphs and return,
Captive to thee and to thy Roman yoke,
But must my sons be slaughter’d in the streets,
For valiant doings in their country’s cause?
O, if to fight for king and commonweal
Were piety in thine, it is in these.
Andronicus, stain not thy tomb with blood:
Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods?
Draw near them then in being merciful:
Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge:
Thrice noble Titus, spare my first-born son. (I.i)


We have no impression of Tamora prior to these lines, except that she is a Goth, the enemy of Rome, and is conquered. Still, it is hard not to find some sincerity in her pleas. She can swear revenge, and order to the deaths of Bassianus and Lavinia quite easily, but she is not heartless. Titus stabbed his son, but he was willing to chop of his hand to save his other two. There is a strange dichotomy between the villainy of these characters and the humanity they display when their children are in danger. Or maybe it is a synecdoche. If you are in a war, and kill an “other”: this is a casualty of war, and an unavoidable reality of the situation. If you kill your own, this is murder – a heinous crime. What is the difference in the act? Why is one so quickly brushed off and the other received with a visceral reaction? And consider the fact that we have Romans, Goths, and a Moor crammed on the same stage: and the majority of killings are by an “other.” Is Lavinia’s rape a casualty of war?

The most drastic dichotomy of character is Aaron (the Moor). He, who when asked if he is not sorry for his heinous deeds, says:

Ay, that I had not done a thousand more.
Even now I curse the day–and yet, I think,
Few come within the compass of my curse,–
Wherein I did not some notorious ill,
As kill a man, or else devise his death,
Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it,
Accuse some innocent and forswear myself,
Set deadly enmity between two friends,
Make poor men’s cattle break their necks;
Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night,
And bid the owners quench them with their tears.
Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves,
And set them upright at their dear friends’ doors,
Even when their sorrows almost were forgot;
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
‘Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.’
Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more. (Titus V.i)

Just a few lines before, however, he makes Lucius swear to God that his child will be safe. Why?

Stay, murderous villains! will you kill your brother?
Now, by the burning tapers of the sky,
That shone so brightly when this boy was got,
He dies upon my scimitar’s sharp point
That touches this my first-born son and heir!
I tell you, younglings, not Enceladus,
With all his threatening band of Typhon’s brood,
Nor great Alcides, nor the god of war,
Shall seize this prey out of his father’s hands.
What, what, ye sanguine, shallow-hearted boys!
Ye white-limed walls! ye alehouse painted signs!
Coal-black is better than another hue,
In that it scorns to bear another hue;
For all the water in the ocean
Can never turn the swan’s black legs to white,
Although she lave them hourly in the flood. (Titus IV.ii)

Can we trust these lines? Tamora seems sincere in her pleas, we have seen Aaron do too much to believe this to be anything but empty rhetoric. But there is no arguing the truth in the lines. He would kill all of Rome’s children, but his child must live. This is a perversion of humanity.
In a year or so, Shakespeare will reiterate the sentiment, through Old Capulet in Romeo and Juliet:

An you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend;

And you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in
the streets,
For, by my soul, I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee,
Nor what is mine shall never do thee good: (Rom. III.v)

So long as the victim is an “other”, the limits of one can do to them is endless. The rape of Lavinia is gruesome, but Tamora does not need to feel any pity, because she is not hers. Tamora is as distant as we are: guiltless. Even Marcus reduces her to an “other” in his ekphrastic speech. He talks about Lavinia in the same way Shakespeare will later write about his mistress’ eyes and lips in Sonnet 130. Toward the end of the speech, Marcus says

Come, let us go, and make thy father blind;
For such a sight will blind a father’s eye (Titus II.iv)

He did not say that he was made blind, or overcome by sorrow – she is not his. The horror of Lavinia’s rape can only be felt by a parent. As long as there is some othering, there is safety and freedom from blame.

What are the possible consequences of these thoughts? There are two that I have touched on: the political, and the theatrical.

The political consequence is simpler. The Spanish Armada, and its defeat, was fresh in Shakespeare’s (and England’s) mind when this play was written. By great luck (let’s call it what it is), the Spanish Armada sunk and there was much rejoicing. This was a glorious victory. Who made up this Armada? Who cares? They were the enemy, and they are dead. Shakespeare was not silent about the casualties of the ordinary man in the face of the rhetoric of war. It appears as early as I Henry VI, and is reinforced in Henry V, and Hamlet. As long as we allow ourselves to be swept in the rhetoric of our state, we will continue to overlook the death, murder, and rape of the ordinary subservient people of this state. It would not be until Napoleon’s campaigns that such a notion was considered on a larger political scale – and not until WWI that was treated with any concern.

But the theatrical notion is more interesting. As audience members, we are blameless for anything that occurs on stage. We watch the tragedy in order to expel our own guilt and concerns. We seek catharsis at the cost of (albeit fictional) suffering. What does this say about us? We are able to watch Lavinia hobbling around after being raped and, some may avert their minds, but many will be fascinated as Marcus was. We see Titus plot to chop Tamora’s sons into a pie and then feed it to her and we are filled with such sadistic pleasure. They are the others, we cannot help them, so we might as well enjoy the show, right? Who are we? Marcus or Aaron?

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