Category Archives: Post-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

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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The source of Prospero’s power in The Tempest

       A bit of personal history. When I was in grade eight, my teacher wanted us to study a play by Shakespeare: she was torn between Hamlet and Temp. At this point I had absolutely no knowledge of Temp and all I knew about Hamlet was it was about a guy who goes crazy, everyone dies, and there was a famous speech that started with “to be or not to be.” So naturally, my pretentious self decided that we had to do Hamlet because it was awesome, whereas Temp was awful. Whether or not my forged testimony had any influence, we studied Hamlet. It would be another five years or so until I read Temp. Of course, I learned that Temp is a wonderful play, and to this day, it doesn’t matter how many times I read it or see it, I enjoy it every time, but I do not regret my pretentious self’s decision. Temp is a play that grows the more you understand about Shakespeare and the theatre in general. Yes, there are many entertaining elements on the surface, but so much is hidden within this short play. Shakespeare turns to tropes already established, only to distort them.

The first predecessor that becomes apparent in Temp is Comedy of Errors. These two plays share a few things in common. They are the only two plays that utilize unified time and space. There is no shift in time or location in either play: the timeframes of both plays are equal to the run of the show (around three hours), and the location is confined to a city (Ephesus) or an island. It is interesting that after all his inventiveness, all his ingenuity, Shakespeare returns to the ancient model of drama. Perhaps he chose such a simple model to stress his complex drama; for there is very little in Temp that a Roman audience would recognize (unlike Comedy of Errors, which draws heavily on the Roman tradition). Beyond this, Temp and Comedy of Errors share common openings. Both begin with a storm and a long exposition in order to bring everyone up to speed. In Comedy of Errors we do not see the storm, but it is part of the exposition. Temp famously opens with the storm and the panic of the sinking sailors. Shakespeare could have alluded to the storm as he does in Comedy of Errors, or he could have begun following the storm as he does in Twelfth Night and lost nothing: so why show the storm and the sinking ship? The obvious reason is: why not? He finally had the means to create a storm on stage and the spectacle was all the rage – and Temp is not short of spectacle. Furthermore, it draws us in to Prospero’s world and puts us aboard the ship with the rest of them. We begin in chaos and remain so until Prospero explains matters to us in the exposition. We are immediately at Prospero’s mercy, just as much as everyone else – but I will return to this. Let’s compare the two expositions. I will not post both of them here: they are too long. The differences in them show Prospero’s departure from earlier Shakespearean traditions. Aegeon tells the duke his long tale of how he and his wife were separated by the storm, each having with them one of the Antipholi and Dromios. After the tragedy of the storm, he says:

“O, let me say no more!
Gather the sequel by that went before.” (Com. I.i)

At which point the Duke begs him to continue, and so he does. Aegeon has no intention in his exposition other than to tell his story and explain why he has broken the law. He desires nothing more than to hopefully spare his life – but he is not even pushy about that. Meanwhile, Prospero interrupts his own exposition by scolding his daughter, and by extension, us:

“Dost thou attend me?”


“Thou attend’st not”


“Dost thou hear?” (Temp I.ii)

Like Aegeon, Prospero wants us to sympathize with him and his suffering. But Prospero is so concerned that we are not ready to sympathize with him and that our minds wander off during his speech. What has changed from Aegeon to Prospero? Long expositions were becoming less common in drama. In 1594-95 people were perfectly willing to listen to Aegeon’s story and find pleasure in the poetry of his suffering. Or what about Friar Laurence’s long tirade at the end of Romeo and Juliet, in which he recaps everything we just saw: audiences were perfectly content to listen to that. But as spectacle came, the long exposition left: we find it less and less in Shakespeare’s works and the works of his contemporaries. But Prospero needs to get his story across and he needs to control us, so he makes us feel guilty if our minds begin to wander and, through Miranda, makes us listen to his every word. So Prospero is both responsible for the storm – the spectacle that replaces the exposition of the storm – and the long story which spectacle was driving out. He is in control of everything and he could play his games any way he wants.

Gonzalo manages to sum up pretty well Prospero’s power:


I’ the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty;–


Yet he would be king on’t.


The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the


All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people. (II.i)

Antonio and Sebastian’s interjection make the matter pretty clear. Gonzalo’s utopia (a slight parody of More’s Utopia) demands an absolute ruler to keep all else idle. At first we are inclined to side with Antonio and Sebastian in making fun of Gonzalo and his absurd notions, but Prospero (through Ariel, who we must see as an extension of Prospero) proves Gonzalo’s theory. Ariel, the unseen sprite whose power uses no weapons or materials, but nature alone, thwarts the usurper’s plots again and again, until the end when they are literally left idle and

“Confined together
In the same fashion as you gave in charge,
Just as you left them; all prisoners, sir,
In the line-grove which weather-fends your cell;
They cannot budge till your release.” (V.i)

Let us leave them confined and move on to the next major plotline: the love story.

I am often tempted to believe that Temp has the worst love story, for both Miranda and Ferdinand are such empty characters. There are similarities between their love and Hermia and Lysander’s, insofar as two lovers are thwarted by a meddlesome father. But Prospero has too much emotional control over Miranda and physical control over Ferdinand to let them elope. Besides, he ultimately wants them to be together. The only obstacle to their loves comes in Prospero’s aside:

“They are both in either’s powers; but this swift business
I must uneasy make, lest too light winning
Make the prize light” (I.ii)

This seems like a shallow trial for a love story – and nothing like the sublime love of Romeo and Juliet or the trials that must be overcome in Twelfth Night. And yet, we must always remember that everything about this play is Prospero, Prospero, Prospero. Why should the love story be any different? Temp is unique in that is does not have a real love story between two lovers, but a father and his daughter. As much control Prospero has over Miranda, he is very much dependent on her. It should not be surprising: Prospero has no inherit power. He initially depended on Caliban for survival, for it was Caliban who showed the newly arrived Prospero

“all the qualities o’ the isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile” (I.ii)

Prospero is reliant on Ariel and the other spirits to perform his invisible tricks. The power he uses to control Caliban and the spirits does not come from him, but from his robe (“Lie there, my art.” (I.ii) he says when Miranda removes his robe from him. And most of all, of course, his books for, as Caliban informs Stephano and Trinculo, without his books

“He’s but a sot, as I am, nor hath not
One spirit to command: they all do hate him
As rootedly as I.” (III.ii)

So if his sustenance comes from a slave (Caliban), his actions from his spirits, his art from a robe, and his ability to control from books: what purpose does Miranda serve in the grand design? Let’s return to the long exposition. Prospero begins by saying:

“I have done nothing but in care of thee,
Of thee, my dear one, thee, my daughter,” (I.ii)

If we are to believe him then the reason he brought his enemies to his island via the storm, the reason he hopes to take his kingdom back is not for him, but for his daughter. Let’s face it: Prospero wasn’t a very good ruler, nor did he have interest in ruling.

“The government I cast upon my brother
And to my state grew stranger, being transported
And rapt in secret studies.” (I.ii)

Here Miranda serves a dual purpose for Prospero in relation to the audience. If Miranda is his sole reason for his actions, then Miranda is the sole reason for this play: with no Miranda, there would be no Prospero to care about and be controlled by. Furthermore, as Prospero was not a good ruler, the story of his usurpation is hard to sympathize with except for the fact that he was expelled with a crying infant. Miranda is the humanity to an otherwise cold magician and the only reason we are willing to give him any consideration is because of the love he has for Miranda. If, without his robe and his books, he is nothing but a sot, a weak man with no power, then without Miranda he has no purpose. Bearing this in mind allows us to see the beauty in the trials Prospero sets between Miranda and Ferdinand, and how tragic his acquiescence is.


If I have too austerely punish’d you,
Your compensation makes amends, for I
Have given you here a third of mine own life,
Or that for which I live; who once again
I tender to thy hand: all thy vexations
Were but my trials of thy love and thou
Hast strangely stood the test here, afore Heaven,
I ratify this my rich gift. O Ferdinand,
Do not smile at me that I boast her off,
For thou shalt find she will outstrip all praise
And make it halt behind her.” (IV.i)

Prospero says he gives up one third of his life, but what are the other two thirds? His magic might make up another, and I suppose his physical existence the final. Yes, following the relinquishing of his daughter, he begins to unravel. He does manage to thwart all his enemies, and get his dukedom back in order to give it to Miranda and Ferdinand. After this he breaks his staff and drowns his books, frees his spirits and Caliban, and is left alone on stage, begging to relieve him.

“Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint: now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon’d the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free.” (Epilogue)

Some have said that this is Shakespeare bidding farewell to the stage, even though he will remain in London for 2-3 more years and collaborate on 2 plays, and potentially write The Winter’s Tale (it may or may not have followed Temp). No. The epilogue is an old man bidding farewell to everything. Yes Prospero has more control than any other character in Shakespeare’s works, but the only reason he uses it is for the betterment of his daughter. For a play filled with absurd plots, magic, and revenge, spirits and monsters – the heart of Temp is a father trying to protect his daughter, and doting on her. Many have also said that this play is a commentary on art: Prospero’s power being the symbol of all creative. And it is. For what is the purpose of Art is not to create in in the service of someone you love? I’ll leave it there. Until next time good reader: great power is found in books, great inspiration in love.

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King Lear (or what happens when you divide yourself from yourself)


Above is Ford Maddox Brown’s “Lear and Cordelia.” I could just leave it at that: say to whoever may read this: “what are you doing? Look up! There you will find all you need!” But I will get over my Pre-Raphaelite obsession and progress. But I will get back to the painting in its time.

I was reading King Lear last week and trying to create a series of tableaux for a class of grade 12 students. You would think it is an easy task. Take Hamlet for example – I could come up with ten visual scenes standing on my head….it would hurt but I could do it. How many visual scenes are there in King Lear? Lear in front of the map, the plucking out of Gloucester’s eye, Lear bearing Cordelia at the end – that’s about it. Granted, Brown thought of one I did not. The image above of Cordelia watching over Lear as he sleeps is wonderful. Given her expression and the placement of her hands, you could almost hear:

O my dear father! Restoration hang
Thy medicine on my lips; and let this kiss
Repair those violent harms that my two sisters
Have in thy reverence made!” (IV.vii)

The point I was driving at before Brown distracted me (again!) is that when compared to Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus or Hamlet, Lear comes across as a very auditory play. Blindness is a key topos in this play – whether Lear’s metaphorical blindness, or Gloucester’s metaphorical and then literal blindness – there is a severe lack of sight taking place in this play. Why shouldn’t Shakespeare play around with this idea and create a play that could be as enjoyed with one’s eyes shut as when they are open. I think that Lear makes a better radio play than stage production, even given the advances in modern theatrical technology. It all comes around to Addisonian philosophy – that when deprived of sight our minds have the power to create the most beautiful images. And Lear is certainly beautiful – grotesque, but beautiful. How fierce a storm would 1607 audiences have been exposed to in the theatre? How realistic would Cornwall look as he plucked out Gloucester’s eye and stepped on it? But in the mind, these images have power. Furthermore, the scene when Lear carries in Cordelia is sublime in the mind, reduced to mere pathos or physical beauty on the stage (particularly when you consider that it was not really a young girl carried on stage.) Paintings and etchings of this final moment of Lear’s life tend to focus on Lear himself, his wild expression or tattered looks, but little give attention to Cordelia. She is depicted as the girl in white, the pure innocence: but this is not who she is. I really like that Brown does not paint Cordelia as such, but rather Brown’s Cordelia has a wold-wearied way about her. But can you imagine Brown’s Lear carrying his Cordelia? It would make a strange image and not one that is intended.

In short – Lear works better in the mind than in the eye. It is one of the few plays that I find contests that unfortunately oft-quoted line “Shakespeare is meant to be seen not read.” Lear, Hamlet, and The Winter’s Tale all contest this notion and for different reasons.

But let’s leave the aesthetic world for a bit. Edmund! Edmund? Edmund. King Lear is a distinctly divided play when it comes to the plot. You have Lear’s plot and you have Gloucester’s plot. Lear is king of his own plot, but it is Edmund who is king of the other plot. What a disgusting word: plot. It’s unpleasant, conjuring up too much phlegm. Plot. Say it ten times fast and you will wish hadn’t when the pool of spit gathers. Plot.

As with most concurrent story lines you would imagine that the two stories interact at some point. And they do in King Lear, several times. They are so intrinsically connected, considering they are concerned with the same time, place, and series of actions. And it’s it great when the two kings of the two stories interact. That scene with Lear and Edmund is so – non-existent. Lear, the tragic hero (sort of) and Edmund, the great villain (sort of) – they never interact with each other.

“Aha,” you say, “I’ve one-uped this guy. I know more about Lear than he does. What an idiot! Lear and Edmund are together at the beginning of the last scene!” Bravo, person who sounds strangely like me: bravo!

Here is the interaction between Lear and Edmund:


Some officers take them away: good guard,
Until their greater pleasures first be known
That are to censure them.


We are not the first
Who, with best meaning, have incurr’d the worst.
For thee, oppressed king, am I cast down;
Myself could else out-frown false fortune’s frown.
Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?


No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.


Take them away.

In these lines, Edmund speaks exclusively to his officers: Lear and Cordelia to each other. They are far away as if a scene separated them. This is no accident. This is Shakespeare at his height – this is just brilliance! It is also another reason why an auditory version of this play works really well – it is hard to capture the distance between Edmund and Lear when they are placed together on a stage. It would have to be carefully and artistically done to represent it properly.

But Edmund. He is held up as one of the great villains – alongside Richard III, Aron the Moor, and most notably Iago (who he is closest to chronologically speaking.) Edmund is a bastard like the Bastard Faulconbridge, Don John and Thersites before him. In the Folio, the character in the stage directions is not Edmund, but Bastard, same as the Bastard Faulconbridge. The Bastardy of Edmund is as much a part of his character as is his name. But unlike Phillip, who is called Bastard, by the other characters, Edmund is rarely referred to as Bastard in the play proper. This is because, like Iago, he wears the noble disguise. But he is a Bastard, and like all Shakespeare Bastards who are denied any control in a play, they try to claim it for themselves. Edmund’s opening lines are almost Romantic. Actually they are Romantic – I could imagine Shelley saying them:

Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of Nations to deprive me, (I.ii)

He forswears customs in favour of a purer Nature, what’s wrong with that. He then builds up sympathy:

Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam’s issue? Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base?

This is very different from Iago’s opening in which he delights in being a villain. He is far closer to Richard III – “since I cannot prove a lover…I am determined to prove a villain.” If Edmund must be a Bastard

Well, then,
Legitimate Edgar, I must have your land:
Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word,–legitimate!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top the legitimate. I grow; I prosper:
Now, gods, stand up for bastards!

From this point on we do not see this side of Edmund again. It’s now just plots and schemes, treating people like crap and playing them off one-another. That is, until Edgar kills him at the end, at which point he becomes a little repentant.

As far as Edmund goes, I have mixed feelings about him. His plots to rid himself of Edgar and then Gloucester seem too easy. He does not have the artfulness that Iago has, or Richard III to a lesser degree. He is king in a world of idiots. Edgar is naive until he becomes Poor Tom and Gloucester as big a fool as Lear when it comes to Edmund. Goneril and Regan, who both fall in love with Edmund, end up killing each other for him, which he is quite pleased with. Put Edmund in a room with Hamlet or Iago and he wouldn’t stand a chance, but he is delightful in his nonchalant way.

While Edmund may surpass everyone in intellect, he is a perfect fit for this all-hating play, ruled by himself, Goneril, Regan, Oswald, and Cornwall. Edgar alone is the voice of sentimentality until Cordelia returns at the end of Act IV. This is the case in the Folio edition. Apparently in the 1st quarto there was another moment of tenderness but the compilers of the Folio (or Shakespeare himself) decided that the play was not dark enough so he removed it. Incidentally, since 1623 many editions restored it because they disagreed with the Folio. It is the moment following the blinding of Gloucester. The 1st Quarto version, and modern versions look like this:


Go thrust him out at gates, and let him smell
His way to Dover.

Exit one with GLOUCESTER

How is’t, my lord? how look you?


I have received a hurt: follow me, lady.
Turn out that eyeless villain; throw this slave
Upon the dunghill. Regan, I bleed apace:
Untimely comes this hurt: give me your arm.


Second Servant

I’ll never care what wickedness I do,
If this man come to good.

Third Servant

If she live long,
And in the end meet the old course of death,
Women will all turn monsters.

Second Servant

Let’s follow the old earl, and get the Bedlam
To lead him where he would: his roguish madness
Allows itself to any thing.

Third Servant

Go thou: I’ll fetch some flax and whites of eggs
To apply to his bleeding face. Now, heaven help him! (III.vii)

In the Folio, the scene between the servants is cut and the scene ends with Cornwall’s line, and we are left to imagine Gloucester struggling in the dark, alone, until he is rescued by Edgar(Poor Tom). That moment I think surpasses the rape of Lavinia in sheer grotesqueness in Shakespeare. The servants at least redeem it, allowing us to bear with this play. Catharsis brought on by tragedy is good, but blind Gloucester being tossed out the door is too much. But it prepares us for that greatest of Shakespeare’s horrors – Lear carrying in dead Cordelia.

But yes, Edgar is the sentimental saviour of this distressing play. I had a professor who loved to talk about the scene where Edgar(Poor Tom) leads Gloucester to the “cliff.”


Come on, sir; here’s the place: stand still. How fearful
And dizzy ’tis, to cast one’s eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles: half way down
Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head:
The fishermen, that walk upon the beach,
Appear like mice; and yond tall anchoring bark,
Diminish’d to her cock; her cock, a buoy
Almost too small for sight: the murmuring surge,
That on the unnumber’d idle pebbles chafes,
Cannot be heard so high. I’ll look no more;
Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong.


Set me where you stand.


Give me your hand: you are now within a foot
Of the extreme verge: for all beneath the moon
Would I not leap upright.


Let go my hand.
Here, friend, ‘s another purse; in it a jewel
Well worth a poor man’s taking: fairies and gods
Prosper it with thee! Go thou farther off;
Bid me farewell, and let me hear thee going.


Now fare you well, good sir.


With all my heart.


Why I do trifle thus with his despair
Is done to cure it.


[Kneeling] O you mighty gods!
This world I do renounce, and, in your sights,
Shake patiently my great affliction off:
If I could bear it longer, and not fall
To quarrel with your great opposeless wills,
My snuff and loathed part of nature should
Burn itself out. If Edgar live, O, bless him!
Now, fellow, fare thee well.

He falls forward (

In actuality the “cliff” was a foot or so off the ground. Visually, there is something incredible funny about this moment. The reason my professor likes it so much is because of the play between comedy and tragedy. The speech is said and full of pathos, but the act of falling on your face (when there is no real harm) looks comical. There is something to be said about this moment – and how inevitable laughter would completely derail the audience. Perhaps this is a good thing: the audience is afforded so little laughter in this play. Even the Fool ceases to be funny after Act I, scene iv. But imagine my auditory version where we are robbed of the humour of the visual act of Gloucester falling on his face. We are still told by Edgar that he is not taking Gloucester to a cliff but rather to a small ledge, so there is no fear that Gloucester will die here. Yet, without the physical sight impeding us, we can indulge ourselves in Gloucester’s words

“O you mighty gods!
This world I do renounce, and, in your sights,
Shake patiently my great affliction off:
If I could bear it longer, and not fall
To quarrel with your great opposeless wills,
My snuff and loathed part of nature should
Burn itself out. If Edgar live, O, bless him!
Now, fellow, fare thee well.”

We can luxuriate in the depths of the tragedy and believe for that moment that Gloucester is about to die, that as he screams after leaping off the “cliff” he is truly leaping off a cliff. We are given a moment of silence. All is lost. This play is too much. Too tragic. Then Edgar frees us:

“Gone, sir: farewell.
And yet I know not how conceit may rob
The treasury of life, when life itself
Yields to the theft: had he been where he thought,
By this, had thought been past.”

Not a comic relief by an means but one that smooths us over. Visual or auditory, this scene is the height of the play for me – rivaled only by the carrying in of Cordelia.

Cordelia is, as I mentioned, often portrayed as the epitome of virtue and innocence. She is Desdemona as a young girl. But even Desdemona was rebellious in her youth – strange how quickly we forget this. One of the more famous moments of this play, also captured by Ford Maddox Brown, occurs at the opening of the play, while Lear divides his kingdom.


Now, our joy,
Although the last, not least; to whose young love
The vines of France and milk of Burgundy
Strive to be interess’d; what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.


Nothing, my lord.






Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.


Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave
My heart into my mouth: I love your majesty
According to my bond; nor more nor less.


How, how, Cordelia! mend your speech a little,
Lest it may mar your fortunes.


Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.


But goes thy heart with this?


Ay, good my lord.


So young, and so untender?


So young, my lord, and true.


Let it be so; thy truth, then, be thy dower:
For, by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecate, and the night;
By all the operation of the orbs
From whom we do exist, and cease to be;
Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee, from this, for ever. The barbarous Scythian,
Or he that makes his generation messes
To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom
Be as well neighbour’d, pitied, and relieved,
As thou my sometime daughter.

And Brown’s version:


As with the other Brown painting, Cordelia is not the virtuous maiden in white. Nor is she in the text. She is flippant. As much as we all love Cordelia and hate Lear for what he does to her, she is just as bad as her sisters in this moment. There, I’ve said it. Pelt away. Goneril and Regan are insincere, but Cordelia is withholding. She thinks she is being smart by playing the “honesty card” but her honesty is framed in such a manner that I find it hard to sympathize with her. But then she is harshly treated and the sympathy rushes in as Cordelia is rushed out.

She returns in Act IV and suddenly she is no longer cold and curt. She is as full of love as her sisters claimed to be, but now she seems sincere. The Cordelia of Act IV is not the Cordelia who said.

You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.”

So what happens to Cordelia between Act I and IV to soften her heart? She becomes the Fool. As soon as Cordelia leaves the Fool comes in and as soon as Cordelia returns the Fool goes out. This is not the same as the reasoning for why Edmund and Lear never interact. It is quite likely that Cordelia and the Fool would be played by the same actor: and this is how I would cast the play were I to direct it. The Fool is the child that Lear feels he does not have. Yet, unlike Cordelia, the Fool is allowed to tell the truth. The Fool can insult Lear in ways Cordelia never got away with.

If you accept that on some level Cordelia and the Fool are the same, the we see the development of the relationship between Cordelia and Lear throughout the play that justifies the change in her from Act I to IV. By being able to engage with her father honestly without fear of reprisal, she goes from “you are my father, I must honour you” to something deeper, to a genuine love of two people. And this is how we see her when she comes to the sleeping Lear (as seen in the top painting.) Next time you read this play, keep in mind that Cordelia is the Fool – it becomes quite interesting. And with all the disguising that happens – Kent to Caius, Edgar to Tom – why shouldn’t Cordelia be disguised. The rational answer is “because she is in France” – but who said that this play operated on reason. Reason holds as little sway as vision in this play.

To bring this cruelest play to a close, I will touch on that cruelest moment. Kent, Edgar, and Albany have just learned from Edmund that an assassin was sent to kill Lear and Cordelia in prison. Edgar is about to run to save them when Lear enters, bearing Cordelia in his arms.


Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’ld use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone for ever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking-glass;
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why, then she lives.


Is this the promised end


Or image of that horror?


Fall, and cease!


This feather stirs; she lives! if it be so,
It is a chance which does redeem all sorrows
That ever I have felt.


[Kneeling] O my good master!


Prithee, away.


‘Tis noble Kent, your friend.


A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!
I might have saved her; now she’s gone for ever!
Cordelia, Cordelia! stay a little. Ha!
What is’t thou say’st? Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.
I kill’d the slave that was a-hanging thee.


‘Tis true, my lords, he did.


Did I not, fellow?
I have seen the day, with my good biting falchion
I would have made them skip: I am old now,
And these same crosses spoil me. Who are you?
Mine eyes are not o’ the best: I’ll tell you straight.



And my poor fool is hang’d! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!



He faints! My lord, my lord!


Break, heart; I prithee, break!


Look up, my lord.


Vex not his ghost: O, let him pass! he hates him much
That would upon the rack of this tough world
Stretch him out longer.


He is gone, indeed.

Why does the Fool die? Because he cannot live while Cordelia does not. Who hanged him? This is something we will never know. Just another tragedy to pile on top. But why is this moment so much more tragic than the deaths of Romeo and Juliet? The death of Hamlet? of Cleopatra?

First is the shock of her being brought on stage. Then their is the realization of how senseless this was. Cordelia did not bring this upon herself. There was really no motive to kill them. It is this one act that gained Edmund the reputation he has. Thrid, there is the idea that this is the first and only time we see Lear with his wits about him. We see Lear in his perfect form, in the form he once had before old age and greed consumed him. Here was a King who we could believe led a Pre-Christian Britain. A King who did not come to us until he had everything removed from him.

A final thought – when Lear faints and dies, what happens to Cordelia? I would love to see a Pre-Raphaelite take on this.

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What can you say about Troilus and Cressida? A lot, but does any of it make sense?

There is a popular conception of Shakespeare’s works that we teach our students; that is, Shakespeare is universal. Whether you were an educated lord or an illiterate groundling, everyone could go and enjoy a Shakespeare play. And that is one reason why, we say, Shakespeare is appreciated by thousands 400 years later, and why we continue to teach him in schools. But find me an English teacher brave enough to teach Troilus and Cressida (Troi)! Troi is considered, with reason, to be Shakespeare’s most elitist play: supported by the scholarly opinion that this play was never publicly performed in Shakespeare’s time. The theory is that it was performed for a private group of educated persons, probably Cambridge lawyers. Was he making amends for Dick’s quip in 2 Henry VI: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” (IV.ii)? Either way, the elitism of this play is held up by two pillars. Troi, more than any other of Shakespeare’s plays, relies on a Latinate vocabulary that only the educated at the time (and now?) would possess. Second, the audience must have some familiarity with Homer’s Iliad to fully appreciate this play. Both then and now, familiarity with Homer was not universal.

Personally I found Troi to be the most difficult of Shakespeare’s plays that I have read thus far. The reason for this is not in its plot or characters, or even Shakespeare’s complex webs such as we find in Hamlet, but more due to the question of comedy. Is this play a comedy as so many claim? How far does the comedy go to mask the tragedy? Post-Hamlet, Shakespeare plays around with genre far more than has been seen both his plays and the plays of his contemporaries. Despite the tensions in genre that we find in plays like Twelfth Night, Measure For Measure, All’s Well That Ends Well, and the later Romances, nothing surpasses Troi in its ambiguity when it comes to genre. The compilers of Shakespeare’s First Folio in 1623 categorized the plays into the banners of Comedy, History, Tragedy – and even they couldn’t figure out where to stick Troilus and Cressida: it is noticeably absent from the Catalogue (Table of Contents.)

Like Antony and Cleopatra will do a few years later, Troi splits the focus between two plotlines: I will very quickly outline both. The titular plot – that of Troilus and Cressida – is based on the medieval story Troilus & Criseyde, made most popular by Chaucer: this is probably the source Shakespeare used. Troilus is a young Trojan prince. Cressida is the daughter of a Trojan priest who defects to the Greeks because he knows Troy will fall. Cressida remains in Troy but is viewed as a traitor. Troilus is madly in love with Cressida but she spurns his advances. We quickly learn that she is doing this because of the belief that men prefer women who play hard to get: she really does love him. Eventually (at the half-way point of this play) Troilus and Cressida meet, declare their love for each other and bind themselves together under the guidance of their go-between, Pandarus (Cressida’s uncle). Their quick meeting and hasty union are very reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. Troilus and Cressida too suffer their tragedy shortly following the union. In the scene following the lovers’ meeting and union, Cressida’s father, Calchas, urges the Greek leaders to get his daughter from Troy. He suggests an exchange of prisoners – Cressida for a Trojan prisoner captured by the Greeks. They agree, as do the Trojans and this goes forth. Troilus and Cressida have another Romeo and Juliet moment when they are in Cressida’s room saying their final farewells to each other. Cressida is taken by Diomed, the Greek solider, to her father. In a later scene Troilus spies on Cressida as Diomed comes to meet her. Diomed flirts with her and eventually Cressida gives in to his advances, to the great displeasure of Troilus. Cressida gives Diomed the very sleeve that Troilus had asked Cressida to keep as a token of his love. This further enrages the young prince. Later Troilus engages in two fights with Diomed – neither of them kills the other. In the last scene, Pandarus comes to give Troilus some news: Troilus strikes him and leaves: Pandarus alone remains on stage to give the epilogue.

The second plotline follows Homer’s Iliad. After a day of fighting, Hector proposes a challenge for the strongest Greek to fight him one-on-one to settle the ongoing war. Achilles has secluded himself and refuses to participate in the war – Shakespeare does not give the same reason for this act as Homer does at the start of the Iliad. The reason Shakespeare gives is that Achilles is in love with Cassandra – Priam’s daughter – who is in this version still in Troy, and mad. Meanwhile Ajax is mad at Achilles supposedly because Achilles inveigled Ajax’s fool, Thersites. Meanwhile, Ulysses and Nestor come up with a secret plan to goad on the argument between Ajax and Achilles in order to get Achilles back into the war. It works, sort of. Achilles is put off by the fact that the rest of the Greeks are praising Ajax’s strength over his and he urges a peaceful meeting between Hector and the Greeks. Ajax is chosen and goes to fight Hector, but Hector is hesitant to fight Ajax because Ajax is actually Hector’s first cousin, and thus part Trojan. They break off the fight and all meet peacefully. Hector and Achilles exchange some haughty words and the decision is that they will celebrate tonight and kill each other tomorrow. The next day the war resumes. Hector is the only one to suffer: he is confronted by Achilles and Achilles’ myrmidons kill him.


I am unarm’d; forego this vantage, Greek.


Strike, fellows, strike; this is the man I seek.

HECTOR falls

So, Ilion, fall thou next! now, Troy, sink down!
Here lies thy heart, thy sinews, and thy bone.
On, Myrmidons, and cry you all amain,
‘Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain.’ (V.viii)

Anyone familiar with the Iliad will notice the distinct shift in Achilles’ character: here he is far more a coward than in Homer’s text – this lack of heroism persists throughout. After Hector’s death, the Greeks prepare to advance and the Trojans prepare to stand their ground – as with Homer’s text the fall of Troy is implied.

You can probably tell at this point that the story is somewhat more complex than the more popular plays. Troi falls in with Antony and Cleopatra as well as some of the Histories for not having a unified story. But there is far more than the plot that makes this play so difficult to dissect.

The comedy seems to reside in the question of expectations. Everyone familiar with the Iliad knows that honour and glory is the driving force behind the action. Shakespeare, searching for the humanity in these near-mythic figures, plays with this question of honour and glory, with a comedic purpose. In Act II, scene ii Priam, Hector, Paris, and Troilus review the Greeks’ offer that if they return Helen to them, all will be forgiven and the war would end. Hector takes the side of “reason” and calls for an end to the bloodshed. Paris and Troilus take the opposing view:


Paris and Troilus, you have both said well,
And on the cause and question now in hand
Have glozed, but superficially: not much
Unlike young men, whom Aristotle thought
Unfit to hear moral philosophy:
The reasons you allege do more conduce
To the hot passion of distemper’d blood
Than to make up a free determination
‘Twixt right and wrong, for pleasure and revenge
Have ears more deaf than adders to the voice
Of any true decision. Nature craves
All dues be render’d to their owners: now,
What nearer debt in all humanity
Than wife is to the husband? If this law
Of nature be corrupted through affection,
And that great minds, of partial indulgence
To their benumbed wills, resist the same,
There is a law in each well-order’d nation
To curb those raging appetites that are
Most disobedient and refractory.
If Helen then be wife to Sparta’s king,
As it is known she is, these moral laws
Of nature and of nations speak aloud
To have her back return’d: thus to persist
In doing wrong extenuates not wrong,
But makes it much more heavy. Hector’s opinion
Is this in way of truth; yet ne’ertheless,
My spritely brethren, I propend to you
In resolution to keep Helen still,
For ’tis a cause that hath no mean dependance
Upon our joint and several dignities.


Why, there you touch’d the life of our design:
Were it not glory that we more affected
Than the performance of our heaving spleens,
I would not wish a drop of Trojan blood
Spent more in her defence. But, worthy Hector,
She is a theme of honour and renown,
A spur to valiant and magnanimous deeds,
Whose present courage may beat down our foes,
And fame in time to come canonize us;
For, I presume, brave Hector would not lose
So rich advantage of a promised glory
As smiles upon the forehead of this action
For the wide world’s revenue. (II.ii)

They both agree that returning Helen is the “right” thing to do: Hector anachronistically points to Aristotelian morals to demonstrate his point. But they also both agree that glory and honour is more favourable than morals. Troilus’ final liens touch upon the crux of the conflict that is the Trojan War or any war in general: “Brave Hector would not lose/ so rich advantage of a promised glory…For the wide world’s revenue.” “Sure we can give Helen back,” Troilus seems to say, “If we want to be seen as women.” This piece of biting anti-war satire is wholly relevant today – the same rhetoric holding true in the early 21st century when the Western powers were thrown into an unfavourable war.

Tied to this is the issue of “womanishness”: seeing these epitomes of valour and glory – the great heroes of the Trojan War! – reduced to womanish acts can certainly give us – or at least an elitist 17th century audience – something to laugh. At one point or another, all the principal characters are referred to as women, meaning weak. The comedy or the satire, as with the scene quoted above, lies in the fact that the derogatory deeds that make these characters “womanish” are peaceful acts.

Troilus speaks these lines because he is too much in love to fight.

The Greeks are strong and skilful to their strength,
Fierce to their skill and to their fierceness valiant;
But I am weaker than a woman’s tear. (I.i)

Patroclus says to Achilles, when the latter refuses to fight:

To this effect, Achilles, have I moved you:
A woman impudent and mannish grown
Is not more loathed than an effeminate man. (III.iii)

And in the same scene Achilles says:

I have a woman’s longing,
An appetite that I am sick withal,
To see great Hector in his weeds of peace. (III.iii)

This almost sexual depiction of Achilles (his woman’s longing to see Hector) is so grossly altered from the Achilles Homer paints that we cannot help but laugh. And upon reflection we discover that we are laughing at, or perhaps put off by, the idea that these brave heroes are discussing peace and cordiality – that they dare bring Aristotelian morals into the Trojan War! What does this say about us?

Before I further this trajectory, I want to make a brief foray into the subject of women, the actual women of this play, not the feminine qualities of the men. There are two major female characters – Helen of Troy, and Cressida – and two minor ones – Cassandra and Andromache. And while the men are bemoaning their womanish states, the women either have power in this play or long for it.

In the first scene, the bitter Troilus remarks, after hearing once more of Helen’s fairness:

Fools on both sides! Helen must needs be fair,
When with your blood you daily paint her thus. (I.i)

Troilus is here picking up a common conception: blame Helen. She is the cause of the Trojan War: she is the reason so many die. But this notion of Helen elevates her above all the supposedly superior men in this play, past manhood to a god-like status. She seems to command all around her, they do as she wishes. Only Hector in Act II, scene ii briefly suggests surrendering her.

Cressida is the most interesting of the four females. She is often overlooked in discussions of Shakespeare’s women. She does not manage to reach as high as Viola and Rosalind, despite that her wit is as sharp as Violas (she does not match Rosalind.) I think it is her inconstancy, particularly when she so blatantly betrays Troilus that turns us away from her. She is Desdemona if Desdemona was as Iago paints her. But she is a wit, and outwits all the men around her, until she finally succumbs to Diomed.


Do you know a
man if you see him?


Ay, if I ever saw him before and knew him.


Well, I say Troilus is Troilus.


Then you say as I say; for, I am sure, he is not Hector.


No, nor Hector is not Troilus in some degrees.


‘Tis just to each of them; he is himself.


Himself! Alas, poor Troilus! I would he were.


So he is. (II.ii)

This banter continues for some time as Cressida parries Pandarus’ foolish remarks. When she is alone she is able to be a woman and admits her true feelings to us, but in the presence of men she must arm herself and prove (successfully) that she is stronger than they are.


May I, sweet lady, beg a kiss of you?


You may.


I do desire it.


Why, beg, then.


Why then for Venus’ sake, give me a kiss,
When Helen is a maid again, and his.


I am your debtor, claim it when ’tis due.


Never’s my day, and then a kiss of you. (IV.v)

Here she is presented to the Greeks, and outwits them all, including Ulysses is Homer what Falstaff is to Shakespeare.

But then of course Cressida falls: she betrays her love and promise to Troilus and blames the act on the fact that she is a woman.

Helen surpasses the men by spurring on their sense of glory and honour: Cressida outwits them. The other two women derive their power through prophecy. The mad Cassandra raves about the destruction of Troy: she is dismissed for being mad. Andromache tells Hector she had a dream that he would die: she is dismissed for being a woman. As with all prophecies and curses in Shakespeare, the audience knows that what is said will come true, despite how much the characters may doubt it. “Beware the Ides of March” says the Soothsayer: we know then that Caesar will fall. The fact that these prophecies are given to the women furthers this play’s attempt to reverse the established notions of power that exists within the world of the Iliad.

With weak men and strong women we begin to say that Shakespeare has turned the battlefield of Troy into a topsy-turvy world in order to strike blows against the baser parts of humanity, but also to bring some comedy into what should be a tragic story. We might liken the nature of this play to Twelfth Night, composed immediately before or after Troi. Twelfth Night: where servants rise beyond their means, where stewards can dream of being counts, where a fool is a priest &c. Troi: where Achilles and Hector are cowards, where Cressida can outwit Ulysses, where the Aeneas and Diomed can praise each other and swear good fortune to the other &c. When we are dealing with a world flipped on its head, what happens to the Fool: the notorious outsider who is supposed to bring chaos into order? Feste remains on the side of light-heartedness but is he? Spurned by Malvolio in Act I, he successfully gets revenge the end of Act IV:

But do you remember? ‘Madam, why laugh you at such
a barren rascal? an you smile not, he’s gagged:’
and thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges. (V.i)

It is as if Feste were the mastermind behind everything that happened to Malvolio – despite the fact that we know otherwise. If this makes Feste seem to have a spark of maliciousness, we need only to turn to Thersites to see how malicious a fool can be.

Ten points for anyone who can place Thersities within Homer’s Iliad! He appears once, in Book II, accompanied by this description:

A man of many words, and those unseemly; a monger of sedition, a
railer against all who were in authority, who cared not what he
said, so that he might set the Achaeans in a laugh. He was the ugliest man of all those that came before Troy- bandy-legged, lame of one
foot, with his two shoulders rounded and hunched over his chest. His
head ran up to a point, but there was little hair on the top of it. (Iliad Book II)

Shakespeare took this figure and, picking up on the line “who cared not what he said, so that he might set the Achaeans in a laugh” he turned Thersites into his fool, maintaining his deformity and obscene nature. Thersites is the most bitter of Shakespeare’s fools, exceeding Barnadine in Measure For Measure. Interestingly, Homer does not give Thersities a father’s name that he ascribes to most of the characters. In Ancient Greece this meant that he was a commoner as opposed to a noble, but Shakespeare takes this piece of information and decides that Thersities is a Bastard. And so he joins the ranks of the Bastard Faulconbridge, the Bastard John, and the Bastard Edmund. He is probably closest to John, but he does possess Edmund’s nihilism. He is also like Faulconbridge of Act II in King John, the Bastard who urged the kings to war and scorned the peaceful arrangement made at the end of the act. For in a world where the heroes struggle towards peace in the face of their already prescribed polemic fate, Thersites must be the outsider who hates peace.

We first see Thersites in Act II, scene i:




Agamemnon, how if he had boils? full, all over,




And those boils did run? say so: did not the
general run then? were not that a botchy core?




Then would come some matter from him; I see none now.


Thou bitch-wolf’s son, canst thou not hear?

Beating him

Feel, then.


The plague of Greece upon thee, thou mongrel
beef-witted lord!


Speak then, thou vinewedst leaven, speak: I will
beat thee into handsomeness.


I shall sooner rail thee into wit and holiness: but,
I think, thy horse will sooner con an oration than
thou learn a prayer without book. Thou canst strike,
canst thou? a red murrain o’ thy jade’s tricks!


Toadstool, learn me the proclamation. (II.i)

This is not Touchstone or Feste: this is not the Fool who makes us laugh. This is the bitter Fool who hates all those around him. Agamemnon is incompetent and a coward; Ajax is beef-witted. The comedy comes, as it is does with the Fools, in the fact that he is right. Bitter and obscene as he is, the Fool speaks the truth. We might see Thersities as representing us, the audience. He puts into words our thoughts as we read/watch this play. “No! This is not Agamemnon, this is not Ajax! This is not how the story is supposed to be!”

We encounter this again in the scene between Cressida and Diomed. Thersities spies on Troilus as Troilus spies on Cressida, placing himself in the same seat as us, the observers. His lines are such: “How the devil Luxury, with his fat rump and
potato-finger, tickles these together! Fry, lechery, fry!” and “Now the pledge; now, now, now!” (V.ii). Even as Cressida tries to fight against Diomed and reject him, we are meant to know that this is not how the story ends, and that she does indeed give in to Diomed. Thersites is there urging the “natural order” on, filling in for our expectations.

Thersites is the fool – albeit a bitter fool – and thus he must make us laugh, right? He does not do so through wordplay as other fools do (including a servant in this play), but through his insults. And who doesn’t love a barrage of Shakespearean insults?


How now, thou core of envy!
Thou crusty batch of nature, what’s the news?


Why, thou picture of what thou seemest, and idol
of idiot worshippers, here’s a letter for thee.


From whence, fragment?


Why, thou full dish of fool, from Troy.


Who keeps the tent now?


The surgeon’s box, or the patient’s wound.


Well said, adversity! and what need these tricks?


Prithee, be silent, boy; I profit not by thy talk:
thou art thought to be Achilles’ male varlet.


Male varlet, you rogue! what’s that?


Why, his masculine whore. Now, the rotten diseases
of the south, the guts-griping, ruptures, catarrhs,
loads o’ gravel i’ the back, lethargies, cold
palsies, raw eyes, dirt-rotten livers, wheezing
lungs, bladders full of imposthume, sciaticas,
limekilns i’ the palm, incurable bone-ache, and the
rivelled fee-simple of the tetter, take and take
again such preposterous discoveries!


Why thou damnable box of envy, thou, what meanest
thou to curse thus?


Do I curse thee?


Why no, you ruinous butt, you whoreson
indistinguishable cur, no.


No! why art thou then exasperate, thou idle
immaterial skein of sleave-silk, thou green sarcenet
flap for a sore eye, thou tassel of a prodigal’s
purse, thou? Ah, how the poor world is pestered
with such waterflies, diminutives of nature! (V.i)

Despite his position, Thersites is still a Greek and still a part of the war. So there are places where he is forced into the action of the play, and here he becomes as cowardice as those he accuses.


Hold thy whore, Grecian!–now for thy whore,
Trojan!–now the sleeve, now the sleeve!

Exeunt TROILUS and DIOMEDES, fighting



What art thou, Greek? art thou for Hector’s match?
Art thou of blood and honour?


No, no, I am a rascal; a scurvy railing knave:
a very filthy rogue.


I do believe thee: live. (V.iv)

This is a far more classic form of fooling, designed to make us laugh in the midst of a series of more tragic scenes.

In a chaotic world, the fool, instead of brining chaos to order, urges order to chaos. He makes laugh through his obscenities – as Homer describes – but his bitterness helps us to bear in mind that we expect tragedy and the comedy of this play is out of place.

Forgive the jumbled nature of these analyses, but they are meant to show how difficult it is to piece this play together. The central conceit of everything presented here is expectations and what happens when they are shattered. We know that the characters cannot escape their fates – those that Homer and Chaucer prescribed for them – but they do try. Cressida tries to be faithful; Hector and Achilles try to be peaceful. And this attempt to rail against their “Creator” so to speak is both comedic and off-putting, and we must rely on Thersites to remind us of how things ought to be. For we do not like to have our assumptions disturbed, we do not want Achilles to be a coward. And we do not want Hector to relent in the face of the Greeks, despite the fact that he presents an excellent case for doing so. So we may laugh at the foolishness of the characters in this play, but we are laughing at peace and righteousness. And then we find, upon reflection that is indeed the satire that courses through this play – that when we stop to think, we are all as bitter as Thersites.

Copyright ©, 2012 Alex Benarzi – All Rights Reserved

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Filed under Comedies, Post-Hamlet

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night, or What You Will (Twelfth) is Shakespeare’s last “pure comedy.” Following this play, first performed in either late 1601, or more probable 1602, the plays that fall in the comedy category are the three problem plays (Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure For Measure) and the Romances (Pericles, Winter’s Tale, Tempest, Two Noble Kinsmen). Incidentally, Troilus and Cressida could very well have been written before Twelfth. There is a debate about this (isn’t there always!), but since Feste references Troilus and Cressida in Act III, scene I – “I would play Lord Pandarus of Phrygia, sir, to bring a Cressida to this Troilus” – I choose to believe that Twelfth followed closely after Troilus and Cressida. To play Devil’s Advocate however, Shakespeare also references the characters of Troilus and Cressida in Merchant of Venice, a play certainly written before Troilus and Cressida: all this goes to show how fickle these debates on dates truly are.

And yet, the implication in believing that Twelfth was written after Troilus and Cressida is that Twelfth becomes placed in the centre of the problem plays. Is it a problem play? It is not often thought so. But it is agreed upon that there is a distinction between Twelfth and the other “pure comedies”: Twelfth is most often compared to As You Like It due to similarities that I will touch upon. As You Like It was written shortly before Twelfth, but there is a key factor separating the two plays, and his name is Hamlet. I do not like to speculate on who Shakespeare was, and I find the “real author debates” so tiresome, but it is hard to ignore the fact that Hamlet marked a major transition in his writing. Taking what we have on paper as our only source, something happened to him while writing Hamlet. As Hamlet himself is bewildered after seeing the Ghost and, though he says he feigns it, goes mad, so is Shakespeare affected by Hamlet. He does not go mad, certainly, but the heaviness of the play, the depth of the tragedy, and the monumental nature of the Prince, who even then leaped out of the theatre and into the world – all this amounted to Shakespeare no longer able to create the type of plays he did before Hamlet. Shakespeare’s pre-Hamlet career was marked by histories and “pure comedies”: there were only three tragedies. Post-Hamlet we get tragedies, Romances, and problem plays – with Twelfth lingering in a crowd that it does not seem to belong to. So while Twelfth reaches for earlier comedies like Comedy of Errors, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or most notably As You Like It, it cannot get past the sheer darkness that is Hamlet. As with Hamlet, Twelfth is preoccupied with death. We first hear about Olivia as she is in an Hamlet-like state of mourning for a dead father and brother. Viola and Sebastian as well are in deep mourning for each other (as both think the other is dead until the very end of the play). Pretence, and the fine line between being one person or another is a commonality shared between Hamlet and Viola. Madness of course, and its tragic consequences – albeit less tragic in Twelfth than in Hamlet – is another tie. The world is out of order in both plays – and with a very different tone than the chaos that hangs over Midsummer Night’s Dream. As far as Twelfth tries to push itself towards As You Like It, we are never free of the darkness that looms in Illyria. Thus, Twelfth is a marriage of As You Like It, and Hamlet.

At the same time, I will argue that Twelfth is Shakespeare’s funniest play on paper. I mentioned in my post about Comedy of Errors, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse’s shtick about the geography of the fat kitchen maid, and how this outright comedy is a rare moment in Shakespeare. Generally speaking, in classical theatre tragedies (or histories) exist in the lines, comedies exist in the acting. This is true of Shakespeare. There is plenty of laughter to be had in Shakespeare’s comedies but often they require a good actor to convey the comedy. Take this example from Merchant of Venice, a speech by Launcelot the Clown.

Certainly my conscience will serve me to run from
this Jew my master. The fiend is at mine elbow and
tempts me saying to me ‘Gobbo, Launcelot Gobbo, good
Launcelot,’ or ‘good Gobbo,’ or good Launcelot
Gobbo, use your legs, take the start, run away. My
conscience says ‘No; take heed,’ honest Launcelot;
take heed, honest Gobbo, or, as aforesaid, ‘honest
Launcelot Gobbo; do not run; scorn running with thy
heels.’ Well, the most courageous fiend bids me
pack: ‘Via!’ says the fiend; ‘away!’ says the
fiend; ‘for the heavens, rouse up a brave mind,’
says the fiend, ‘and run.’ Well, my conscience,
hanging about the neck of my heart, says very wisely
to me ‘My honest friend Launcelot, being an honest
man’s son,’ or rather an honest woman’s son; for,
indeed, my father did something smack, something
grow to, he had a kind of taste; well, my conscience
says ‘Launcelot, budge not.’ ‘Budge,’ says the
fiend. ‘Budge not,’ says my conscience… (II.ii)

Reading this to yourself probably did not make you laugh, but if acted in a certain way, this speech can garner quite a bit of laughter. Now compare that with:


Wilt thou go to bed, Malvolio?


To bed! ay, sweet-heart, and I’ll come to thee. (III.iv)

You can see that Twelfth is more apt to cause laughter without an actor needing to push it. This is one reason why, in high school, we teach the tragedies more than the comedies, and when we do teach a comedy it is Twelfth: comedies really need to be seen properly staged to appreciate. But that is another matter entirely.

The point I wish to make when embarking through this play is that unlike tragicomedies, which blend tragedy and comedy into a unified experience, Twelfth presents us with a struggle between the two forces. Take the following exchange:


Good madonna, why mournest thou?


Good fool, for my brother’s death.


I think his soul is in hell, madonna.


I know his soul is in heaven, fool.c2c


The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s
soul being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen. (I.v)

When Claudius accuses Hamlet of mourning his father too much, Hamlet pushes him away for nothing shall clear the presence of death in Hamlet’s mind. Feste, reaching for Hamlet’s wit to battle Olivia, moves her (and the audience) to laughter. But Feste is not Theseus from Midsummer Night’s Dream, who with a word dispels the presence of death. Olivia laughs but a moment later she orders her veil before she meets Viola: she cannot throw off her mourning – that is until she falls in love with Viola. A constant struggle exists in Olivia between mourning and merriment.

Perhaps the greatest way to view the marriage of As You Like It and Hamlet, and the greatest way to view most of the key issues of interest in this play, is through the central character Viola/Cesario: central to the action despite the fact that she only speaks 12.5% of the lines in the play. Viola ends up on the strange shores of Illyria (a made-up country somewhere on the Adriatic) after she and her twin brother Sebastion are shipwrecked. She thinks her brother is dead and we first encounter her in a state of mourning: “And what should I do in Illyria?
My brother he is in Elysium” (I.ii). When she is told about Olivia she immediately recognizes herself in Olivia (and of course Viola is literally in Olivia, but I will get back to that) and longs to be with her. The captain informs her that Olivia will admit no one, so instead Viola has him present her in men’s clothing to the Duke Orsino, telling the Duke that she is a eunuch named Cesario. Viola/Caesario is often compared to Rosalind from As You Like It: they are both women who disguise themselves as men in order to blend into a foreign place, and once there both help a love-sick man attain the love of the woman he desires. The grand difference between the two is that Rosalind helps Orlando attain the love of Rosalind (herself), whereas Caesario helps Orsino to attain the love of Olivia. Meanwhile, Viola/Caesario loves Orisno – creating the problematic love triangle that is Twelfth.

But first: names. The first interesting point is Rosalind and Viola’s chosen pseudonyms. Rosalind chooses the name of Ganymede – kidnapped by Zeus and made the cup-bearer of the gods. Viola chooses the name Cesario, or little Caesar. Yet, in the realities of the plays Rosalind is in complete control of her world and everyone in it, but Viola has no real power and is a relatively passive character, acting as a conduit for the action to flow through. So Rosalind is the Caesar of her world and Viola the Ganymede of hers, yet the names are as they are to ask why they are not reversed is futile. Just an interesting point.

The more relevant point about names is that if you are watching the play (and do not have a programme in hand) you do not find out that the central character is named Viola until act V.

Were you a woman, as the rest goes even,
I should my tears let fall upon your cheek,
And say ‘Thrice-welcome, drowned Viola! (V.i)

The fact that we do not know her real name until the end of the play puts us at a distance from Viola. Yes we know a fair bit about her before this point but since we only know her as Cesario it is hard to distinguish Viola from Cesario beyond their physical barriers (their genders). Rosalind/Ganymede had a partner to confide in: because she is with her cousin Celia, also in disguise, her character shifts between Rosalind and Ganymede. She is Rosalind with Celia, Ganymede with everyone else. Viola does not have this partner. The only other person who knows who she truly is is the sea captain and he disappears after Act I, scene ii, and for whatever reason is arrested by Malvolio. Therefore, she is Cesario and only Cesario until the end. Yes, Viola slips through the cracks when Cesario speaks with Orsino, but not enough that we can truly distinguish the two. She is a mistress of disguise, second only to Hamlet. In this way she is Rosalind in her predicament: Hamlet in her distancing, and her tragedy. Furthermore, you really have to wonder why Shakespeare created the relationship in names between Viola and Olivia only to conceal Viola’s name. Is this meant to inspire reflection? Are you supposed to realize, after watching the play, that Cesario’s real name is so close to Olivia’s and this really strengthens the parallels drawn between the two characters throughout the play? I don’t know.

There certainly are connections between Viola and Olivia. The first one, as I mentioned, is their shared losses. Of course Cesario never lost a brother and is not in mourning, Viola did. So this is a connection that Viola immediately recognizes but hides from Olivia. Cesario could have expressed to Olivia that he understands her pains, but Cesario is the dutiful servant to Orsino and thus was very careful to speak only within her text – that is say only what Orsino sent her to say:


Whence came you, sir?


I can say little more than I have studied, and that
question’s out of my part. (V.i)

As the scene progresses Viola does go “out of her text” as Olivia points out, but she is very careful to keep Viola protected and present only Cesario. That being said, the two characters blend further into each other in Act III.


I prithee, tell me what thou thinkest of me.


That you do think you are not what you are.


If I think so, I think the same of you.


Then think you right: I am not what I am.


I would you were as I would have you be!

“I am not what I am” is the truest statement we receive from Viola until she is unmasked at the end of the play. And it is a very Hamlet-like statement, for surely Hamlet is rarely who he is. Harold Bloom points to this statement in connection with Iago’s similar remark to Roderigo: “I am not what I am” (Othello I.i). But I do not believe that there is any real connection between the sinister Iago and Viola – just a recycling of lines. Going back to Rosalind in As You Like It: Rosalind fled the to the forest because she was threatened by the usurper, and she chose her male disguise because she thought that two women would not be safe in the forest. Viola does not find herself in this predicament. Viola is the daughter of a fairly wealthy man from Messaline, Sebastian, dead for some years. She arrives safely on the shores of a country ruled by a man who, as she informs us, her father was on good terms with. So why does she disguise herself? Why not just go to Orsino and explain the situation? The simple answer is – where is the comedy in that? But it is not until Act III, scene iv that we get a good insight to why Viola is not who she is, or why she continues her pretence.

He named Sebastian: I my brother know
Yet living in my glass; even such and so
In favour was my brother, and he went
Still in this fashion, colour, ornament,
For him I imitate: (III.iv)

Viola maintains her disguise so she could keep her brother alive in herself. This prevents her from revealing herself to Orsino. This prevents her from confessing her love. This prevents her from escaping the awkward situation with Olivia. The need to keep Sebastian alive prevents her from living her own life. This is reminiscent of Hamlet.

Remember thee!
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there;
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix’d with baser matter: yes, by heaven! (I.v)

Hamlet cannot live his own life because he has sworn to abandon it in favour of his father’s cause: revenge. The difference between Viola and Hamlet is that Hamlet’s father is dead: Viola’s brother is not, and it is he alone that can unmask her at the end of the play. Sebastian is a relief for Viola at the end of the play, as he is a relief for the audience earlier on.

Sebastian arrives on the scene at the start of Act II much in the same way Viola arrived at the start of Act I. He is in mourning for a dead sister and he goes to seek out Orsino. But while he is in his tragic state, a remotely educated audience knows that his arrival means the solution to the central issue of the love triangle. We know that Olivia will satisfy her love for Viola by getting Sebastian and Viola will be free to get Orsino. The only one who doesn’t get what he wants is Orsino, but he seems perfectly content with Viola. So while the dark moments hang over this play, we know by the start of Act II that all will be well and that we are indeed in a comedy. Sort of. Sebastian solves the love triangle, but what about the other threads of this play. It is about time we look at that.

Shakespeare presents us with an interesting world in Illyria. Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and As You Like It all deal with two worlds – the “civilized worlds” (Venice, Athens, the French court respectively) and what Northrop Frye termed the “green world” (Belmont, the forest, the forest of Arden respectively). Two Gentlemen of Verona, Merry Wives of Windsor, and The Winter’s Tale also display this contrast. The way Frye descries the “green world” as working is:

The action of the comedy begins in a world represented as a normal world, moves into the green world, goes into a metamorphosis there in which the comic resolution is achieved, and returns to the normal world. (Anatomy of Criticism)

Do we get this in Twelfth. The play seems to take place in a unified location – Illyria. There are people who move from the “normal world” into Illyria: Viola, Sebastian, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and Antonio, but we do not see them before they come to Illyria, so there is no transition there. And yet, Illyria itself is a divided place. The action of the play takes place in Orsino’s court or Olivia’s house. There are only two characters – Viola and Feste – who are able to move between the two houses. There are scenes that happen on the street, and two scenes on the sea coast, but only Viola and Feste breech the doors of both houses. Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Maria, and Malvolio have no place in Orsino’s palace, just as Orsino or his nobles have no place in Olivia’s house. Feste explains his ability to travel between the two houses when he says: “Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines every where” (III.i). What he is alluding to is the common notion that the character of the Fool is an outsider, the basis of his comedy is that he is able to provide commentary into a world in which he doesn’t belong. Viola is also an outsider, in a more literal sense. But she is able to travel between the two houses due to her disguise. The fact that she is not who she is allows her to be whoever she wants to be, and this gives her access to both houses. Unlike Andrew Aguecheek who is only who he is and is tied to Sir Toby. Even Sebastian, another physical outsider, says he will go to Orsino but never seems to make it there, and is trapped in Olivia’s world.

But do the two houses constitute two worlds? Is one, as Frye would say, a normal world and one a “green world”? If anything, Orsino’s court is the civilized world, and Oliva’s house the “green world”. Melancholy holds sway in Orsion’s court. Even the Fool is subdued. The song Feste sings for Orsino is this: Ben Kingsley, who would have thought? This is the tone of Orsino’s court: nothing loud or excited happens there. The famous opening line of the play – “if music be the food of love, play on” – seems to set his court up as a place of music and merriment, but Orsino quickly dispels this and the court just becomes mellow.

Olivia’s house on the other hand is a place of pure chaos. While Olivia tries to live in a state of silent mourning, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew turn her house into an Alehouse, drinking and singing until all hours of the morning. Feste’s songs are more lively, or at least happier – Sir Toby’s jests are outrageous and even the steward, Malvolio, becomes a madman. On the one hand, Olivia’s house is meant to be a place of harmless fun – like Puck’s jests, Sir Toby is cautious to play pranks that don’t have any real consequences. Even when urging a fight between Cesario and Andrew Aguecheek, Sir Toby and his accomplice Fabian are always mindful of the law, and push the scene towards harmless fun.


‘Youth, whatsoever thou art, thou art but a scurvy fellow.’


Good, and valiant.


[Reads] ‘Wonder not, nor admire not in thy mind,
why I do call thee so, for I will show thee no reason for’t.’


A good note; that keeps you from the blow of the law.


[Reads] ‘Thou comest to the lady Olivia, and in my
sight she uses thee kindly: but thou liest in thy
throat; that is not the matter I challenge thee for.’


Very brief, and to exceeding good sense–less.


[Reads] ‘I will waylay thee going home; where if it
be thy chance to kill me,’–




[Reads] ‘Thou killest me like a rogue and a villain.’


Still you keep o’ the windy side of the law: good. (III.iv)

In this sense, Olivia’s house is much like the forest in Midsummer Night’s Dream – Malvolio is transformed into an ass, and Cesario and Andrew Aguecheek are set against each other as Lysander and Demitri were. However, Sir Toby is not Puck and there is no magic involved – so unlike the events in the forest, the events in Twelfth do not become a dream and have real consequences. The fight between Cesario and Andrew, initially harmless, becomes out of control when Andrew and Sir Toby confuse Sebastian with Cesario. Cesario, as Sir Toby rightly judges, is not prepared to fight and thus there is no harm – but Sebastian seems quick to anger and draws his sword against his two attackers the first chance he gets. He wounds both Sir Toby and Andrew – turning the harmless fun into near death. And yet, no one is actually punished for this act. The incident is quickly taken over by the revelation of Viola’s identity and we forget that Sir Toby is hurt, or that the doctor is drunk in the morning. We kind of assume that everything on that end will work out fine. The other incident however, the one with Malvolio, has darker consequences. Malvolio was humiliated and imprisoned because of Toby’s harmless fun. His final words, hanging so close onto the end of the play, are: “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” (V.i). We never do find out what happens with this. Olivia sends someone to fetch him to smooth the matter out, but will it be? If we were to have the hypothetical Act VI of this play, would we have a revenge tragedy on our hands? Olivia’s house is a “green world” as Frye defines it because Viola undergoes “a metamorphosis there in which the comic resolution is achieved, and returns to the normal world [Orsion’s court]”, but at the same time it is not because Sebastian was only able to bring a resolution to the love triangle – Sir Toby’s acts have unresolved consequences, and there really is no metamorphosis. So as Malvolio’s curse silences the audience shortly after the joyous reunion of Viola and Sebastion, we see the struggle between comedy and tragedy – between As You Like It and Hamlet at its height. And we are unsure of how we should feel at the end. Ten years later, Shakespeare will heighten this feeling at the end of The Winter’s Tale – but we will get to that.

The final moment of the play is another Feste song, which only serves to add to the confusion and struggle of comedy and tragedy. I’d once again present Ben Kingsley, but the director of that version works against the text of the final song in order to present Twelfth as a neatly-wrapped up comedy. So here is Alfred Deller:

The song is not really a joyous one. It is not as melancholy as the one Feste sings to Orsino, but its leaves us puzzled. He says “we’ll strive to please you every day” – but does he?

(There are several other issues I could have explored in this play, but chose not to. One such issue is with Antonio, a seemingly minor character with a big impact; also one who really forces the question of sexuality in this play. Emma Smith, Oxford University professor, gives a great lecture on Twelfth, focusing in on the character of Antonio. It is free to download on iTunes U and I highly recommend it.)


Copyright ©; 2012 Alex Benarzi – All Rights Reserved

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Filed under Comedies, Post-Hamlet