Category Archives: Tragedies

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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Filed under Post-Hamlet, Tragedies

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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Filed under Post-Hamlet, Tragedies

The Tragedy of Antony, and Cleopatra

The above is the first page of the play taken from the First Folio printed in 1623: it is also Antony and Cleopatra’s (Ant) first appearance in print. Take a close look at the title: “The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra” – you may be wondering “why is there a comma between ‘Anthonie’ and ‘and’?” Some say that the comma is a mistake, a compositor was not careful enough. This is not an unreasonable claim, the Folio is by no means a perfect document and the comma could be a careless error, making any speculation about it as valid as a coffee spill on a Turner painting. But I choose not to believe that it was a mistake, and that the comma is there for a reason. And what is that reason? Take a look at this:

Unlike Ant, the folio of Romeo and Juliet does not have a comma between the two names. This is very telling. Romeo and Juliet are two characters whose fates are intrinsically linked. They are “star-crossed” lovers: this suggests a physical intertwining of the spirits that govern them. Add to this the fact that at the end of Act II of Romeo and Juliet the two get married: marriage seen as the strongest bond that can tie two people together. As Romeo suffers at the start of the play, Juliet suffers at the start of the play. As Romeo is thrown into the ecstasies of love, so is Juliet. As Romeo suffers, so does Juliet, and as Romeo dies so does Juliet. You cannot speak of one without the other and as characters, neither has the power to exist without the other. None of this can be said about Mark Antony and Cleopatra. They are in love, or least lust, as Romeo and Juliet are, but they are never married (a very important point), and they are not reliant on each other to exist. So the “Tragedy” in Romeo and Juliet refers to the events that cause the downfall of the singular entity that is Romeo+Juliet, whereas the “Tragedy” is Ant refers to the events which cause the downfall of two people, Antony, and Cleopatra. This is the purpose of the comma, to show that within one play we are dealing with two events. The title of this play is actually: “The Tragedie of Anthonie, and the Tragedie of Cleopatra” – the comma serves to shorten it to “The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra”. Two characters, competing for the spot of tragic hero, and the question becomes, “who achieves it?”

First a bit of “the story thus far…” so some of this makes sense. It has been about four years since Julius Caesar died. The Roman world is controlled by three men: Octavian (Caesar), Mark Antony, and Lepidus. Caesar and Lepidus are in Rome, Antony is in Egypt with Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. Meanwhile in Rome, both Antony’s wife and brother attacked Caesar to try to gain power – Caesar was displeased. Furthermore, Pompey is amassing a force at sea in order to gain what he considers his lands. Now on to the play itself.

Act 1 of Ant answers the central question by saying “of course this is Antony’s tragedy!” The play opens with Philo talking about Antony, before Antony and Cleopatra burst prematurely onto the scene – not even letting Philo finish. I always like to picture Antony and Cleopatra drunk in this opening scene but there is nothing to support this. At any rate, Philo says:

Nay, but this dotage of our general’s
O’erflows the measure: those his goodly eyes,
That o’er the files and musters of the war
Have glow’d like plated Mars, now bend, now turn,
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front: his captain’s heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper,
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gipsy’s lust. (I.i)

Flourish. Enter ANTONY, CLEOPATRA, her Ladies, the Train, with Eunuchs fanning her

Look, where they come:
Take but good note, and you shall see in him.
The triple pillar of the world transform’d
Into a strumpet’s fool: behold and see.

Cleopatra is mentioned in these lines as a gypsy and a strumpet, but more so, she is not the subject of these lines. The opening of the play is about Antony, how great Antony was, and how much Antony has fallen. Now granted this speech is made by Antony’s man so we can forgive him for his singular focus, but based on what audiences have come to expect from Shakespeare by 1607, the stage is set for a play about the fall of Antony.

The rest of the act only serves to confirm this. The focus throughout the act is on Antony. Antony must decide whether he is to go to Rome or not, Antony learns of his wife’s death, Antony leaves for Rome, Caesar and Lepidus discuss Antony’s situation &c. When Antony is off-stage and Cleopatra is the central focus, all she does in this act is talk about Antony. In scene 2, the first time Cleopatra enters without Antony, she asks the assembled group: “saw you my lord?” Meanwhile Antony enters a few lines later and Cleopatra and the others flee. He speaks with the messenger about news from Rome. He urges the messenger to “name Cleopatra as she is called at home. Rail in Fulvia’s [Antony’s wife] phrase.” In Act 1, scene 5, Cleopatra becomes angry when her servant Charmian praises Julius Caesar instead of Antony – Cleopatra cannot bear to hear anything bad said about Antony, nor anyone praised higher than he. Yet Antony is urging the messenger to call Cleopatra a whore, or strumpet, or temptress or whatever unflattering names are given to her in Rome. The result is that Act 1 sets up the contrast between Antony and Cleopatra, in which Cleopatra as a character is dependent on Antony but Antony is not dependent on Cleopatra, he has other matters to tend to, Cleopatra can only praise or lament Antony.

In Act 2 we get a distinct shift in the play, one which further squeezes Cleopatra out. The Act opens with Pompey making ready to attack, talking about how advantageous it is that Antony is out of the picture (the audience is aware that Antony is on his way to meet Caesar, Pompey is not at this point). This act is primarily concerned with the reconciliation of Antony and Caesar and the defeat of Pompey. Antony and Caesar meet in Act 2 scene 2 and play a game of “I can one up you!”.




Welcome to Rome.


Thank you.




Sit, sir.


Nay, then. (II.ii)

The spacing of these lines (which WordPress does not allow me to maintain) suggests that they are spoken in rapid succession in a case of who can have the last line. Both are trying to outdo each other in generosity until Caesar calls a halt to it with his “nay, then” or “screw it, neither of us will sit!” Antony and Caesar have a good session of airing their grievances while Lepidus, Mecaenas (Caesar’s man) and Enobarbus (Antony’s man) try to smooth things out and get the two to focus on the present danger: Pompey. Eventually it is Agrippa (all around good guy) who proposes a solution – Antony, newly widowed, will marry Octavia, Caesar’s sister, therefore binding the two men together. Caesar jokingly responds: “Say not so, Agrippa: if Cleopatra heard you, your reproof were well deserved of rashness” and Antony goes on the defensive by stressing that he is not married to Cleopatra. This Antony is not the same Antony in Act 1, who initially said that he would see Rome sink into the Tiber before he left Cleopatra. The Antony of Act 2 is the Roman General who Philo spoke of in the opening lines. Antony’s men, Caesar, Pompey and even Cleopatra talk about Antony being himself, or not being himself. There is some residue of Hamlet that has dripped into Antony and he is having a great existential crisis of who he is. According to those around him, Antony being himself means that he is the great, manly Roman General, and Antony not being himself means that he is Cleopatra’s puppet. So it would seem that the Antony of Act 2, the one who immediately reminds everyone that he is not married to Cleopatra, the one who married Octavia – this is Antony being himself. And yet, we know full well that Antony does not wish to marry Octavia and does it for political reasons alone.

But the marriage happens and everything is grand between the three rulers, who then go to face Pompey. Instead of fighting they make peace and have a manly party on Pompey’s boat!

But we must first back up. What about Cleopatra? Act 2 shows that she suffers the same fate as Lady Macbeth, who comes out the gates strong at the start but disappears after the death of King Duncan. But Cleopatra will not be silenced – she will fight for that spot in the title of the play, she will prove herself a tragic figure! Aside from that quick joke by Caesar, Cleopatra only takes centre stage twice in Act 2 – and she is not even present for the first one. Enobarbus delivers to Agrippa and Menaecas the famous “barge speech”:

I will tell you.
The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion–cloth-of-gold of tissue–
O’er-picturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-colour’d fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did.


Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her i’ the eyes,
And made their bends adornings: at the helm
A seeming mermaid steers: the silken tackle
Swell with the touches of those flower-soft hands,
That yarely frame the office. From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharfs. The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony,
Enthroned i’ the market-place, did sit alone,
Whistling to the air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in nature. (II.ii)

There are a few reasons for why this speech stands out. First, it is the only part in this otherwise militaristic play in which lyrical or “poetic” language is used. It is like when directors use red in a black and white film – it will stand out. Also, post-colonial and Orientalism scholars love this speech for it is representative of how Renaissance England viewed the “east” – this land of gold and purple and exotic extravagance. For my purposes, this speech further illustrates the objectification of Cleopatra, as we see in Philo’s opening lines, since she is reduced to Antony’s object (of desire) she is pushed further away from the spot of tragic heroine.

Cleopatra does not help herself in her one scene of the act. We once again see her lamenting that Antony is not with her, because she could do nothing else. She is bored without Antony and begs her servants to play with her, they don’t. There is nothing pleasing about Cleopatra in this scene – she is has lost any force she had when with Antony in Act 1. She is a child begging for attention. Then a messenger comes in to report that Antony has married Octavia and she continuously beats the messenger for reporting what she demands him to report. Even her faithful servants are disgusted by this scene. As an audience we have no choice at this point to see her as the Romans see her, we are not given any other view. This play cannot be a tragedy of Cleopatra; no one in their right mind would be saddened if she died at the end of Act 2. But there is still a ways to go before we are through.

What about Octavia, so often overlooked in analyses of this play. True, like Hippolyta of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Octavia exists in the play for the sole purpose of being married to Antony. When the marriage is described in the play it is described by those in Rome as a marriage between Antony and Caesar (Octavian Caesar) – Octavia really just becomes the metaphorical knot to tie the two men into their asexual bond. In this way, the manly party boat at the end of Act 2 is like the honeymoon of Antony and Caesar – and suddenly it’s a whole new play! Getting away from a queer theory analysis of this play that I am sure already exists – you may think that Octavia should be put in the same category as Hippolyta and Lady Macduff: that is the category of useless female characters.

(On a side note: if anyone wonders why I don’t talk about useless male characters it is because there are too many of them to take note of in any given play, but there are only up to four women in any Shakespeare play that when a useless one comes along, it is worth noting. Thank you.)

But Octavia has a much greater purpose in the play than the other two. First she does help create a peace, as short lasting as it may be, between Antony and Caesar. More importantly, she is a foil to Cleopatra. We see very little of her on stage: she appears briefly in Act 2 following the wedding, and twice more in Act 3. More importantly is when, in Act 3, the messenger reports to Cleopatra about having seen Octavia. Since this is the same messenger who was just beaten for telling her about Octavia, and being a wise fellow, he is very careful to downplay Octavia’s character. The result is that we end up with very little knowledge about Octavia that we can actually trust. One telling piece of information the messenger provides is: “She shows a body rather than a life, a statue than a breather.” As false as his physical reports of Octavia’s beauty, or lack thereof, may be, he is very correct in saying that Octavia is more a statue than a living person. This is a complete contrast to Cleopatra herself, and an important one. Cleopatra as Enobarbus describes her in the barge speech is little more than an exotic statue or painting, but we know otherwise. Even if she is not a strong character in the first two acts, she is certainly more alive than Octavia is. She is full of passion, Octavia has none. And from the point where Cleopatra hears the messenger’s report, she begins to become even more alive, not only lamenting and loving Antony but taking action that could potentially earn her a spot in the title of the play.

There is an ambiguous passage of time that happens in this play. It is not specified how much, but there is a distinct shift. Caesar has taken it upon himself to convince Lepidus to once again attack Pompey. Caesar then deemed Lepidus’ actions cruel and disposed of him. Meanwhile he has once again returned to his smear campaign against Antony. Octavia tells Antony that she will go to Rome and make peace between him and Caesar, but by the time she gets there, Antony has already fled back to Egypt, where Caesar will pursue him. And that’s the end of Octavia, she no longer has a purpose and disappears from the play.

This time Cleopatra refuses to stay on the sidelines. She tells Enobarbus “I will be even with thee, doubt it not.” Enobarbus does not like this idea: believing that women have no place in battle and that Cleopatra’s presence will distract Antony. And he’s right. There are two and a half battles of Actium that take up the rest of Act 3 and a good part of Act 4. In brief: Caesar dares Antony to a sea battle. Enobarbus reminds Antony that Antony is much stronger on land and Caesar has the upper hand at sea. But Antony pulls a Marty McFly and in the face of being called a coward fights Biff – I mean Caesar – by sea. Cleopatra brings her fleet to join the battle but when things don’t go so well she retreats. Antony, consumed by love and not being able to die without Cleopatra, follows her and leaves his men to die. He berates her for making him a coward but then says something to the effect of “give me a kiss and all is forgiven.” He prepares for a second battle – this time on land. Enobarbus decides he has had enough of Antony and defects to Caesar, a decision he immediately regrets and eventually kills himself for. Antony wins the first part of the second battle of Actium, but then Cleopatra once again brings her naval forces out, creating another battle by sea, at which point she surrenders the fleets to Caesar. Losing the battle, Antony cries that “the foul Egyptian has betrayed me!” He resolves to kill Cleopatra.

But she will not be another Desdemona. So she creates a plan which she seals herself and her servants in her monument and writes a letter to Antony telling him that she killed herself: that’ll give her the upper hand. He will run to her and pledge his love and all will be well! Instead he kills himself.

Antony’s death is probably my favourite out of any Shakespearean death. It is so wonderfully tragicomic. Antony, believing that Cleopatra is dead, tells his servant, Eros, to kill him. He repeats the name Eros an absurd amount of times in this scene, which, as Emma Smith illustrates in her lecture on this play, is meant to really hammer the point that the servant’s name is Eros, the Greek word for and the god of love. Antony is asking, he is begging for love to kill him. Antony wants to die by love, as Romeo did when he thought Juliet was dead. But Antony is not Romeo and is not capable of Romeo’s love. So when he begs for love to kill him, what does love do? Eros kills himself! It is such a wonderful moment, made comedic by the fact that it is drawn out. Also, after Eros dies Antony tries to stab himself but screws it up. So he is left to slowly bleed to death on the floor. In this final moment he becomes the pathetic figure that Philo painted at the opening of this long play. Is this the way a tragic hero should go? While slowly dying he is brought to Cleopatra, where he at least gets a decent final speech:

The miserable change now at my end
Lament nor sorrow at; but please your thoughts
In feeding them with those my former fortunes
Wherein I lived, the greatest prince o’ the world,
The noblest; and do now not basely die,
Not cowardly put off my helmet to
My countryman,–a Roman by a Roman
Valiantly vanquish’d. Now my spirit is going;
I can no more. (V.i)

If this were the “Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra” and not “The Tragedy of Antony, and Cleopatra”, Cleopatra would die then and there for her love, but she doesn’t. She faints, but she doesn’t die. Antony has run his tragedy – he was on top of the world (literally) and was brought down by his own cowardice and crippled by his lust for Cleopatra. Cleopatra doesn’t want her tragedy to be so intermingled with his. She wants to prove that she has her own tragedy to run. She is Queen of Egypt, raised to the highest point by Julius Caesar and then by Antony, now she faces her tragic end as Octavian Caesar comes to conquer her. He demands her surrender and she fears she is to be paraded around Rome, a humiliation she cannot bear. In the final scene she a Clown bring her a basket with asps hidden in it, and when she faces Caesar she knows that she still has the power to die. Cleopatra’s death is the antithesis of Antony’s death. She is in full control of her own death. She opts for the feminine poison as opposed to the masculine sword. Her final speeches are dignified and in no way comedic. We leave this play seeing Cleopatra as the tragic heroine, almost forgetting that about Antony. In Caesar’s final speech that closes the play, Antony is now the object to Cleopatra.

Take up her bed;
And bear her women from the monument:
She shall be buried by her Antony:
No grave upon the earth shall clip in it
A pair so famous. High events as these
Strike those that make them; and their story is
No less in pity than his glory which
Brought them to be lamented. Our army shall
In solemn show attend this funeral;
And then to Rome. Come, Dolabella, see
High order in this great solemnity. (V.ii)

More than any other play with the possible exception of The Winter’s Tale, Ant is a play divided. Act 3, scenes 3-4 witness not only a shift in time and in tone, but a shift in focus. What was clearly Antony’s tragedy at the start, becomes the tragedies of Antony and Cleopatra. And it is Cleopatra who outlasts Antony in the end, claiming that coveted spot of the final one to die: a spot held by Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Juliet, and now Cleopatra. If I had to pick one, I would say that Antony is the greater focus of the play despite the ending, but this shift that happens in Act 3 at least justifies the place of the comma, and shows that it can easily be seen as “The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra”


Copyright ©; 2012 Alex Benarzi – All Rights Reserved

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Macbeth, Makers, “The Scottish Play”, “The Porter Show”: Macbeth (Mac) goes by many names and comes in many forms. I would argue that Mac enjoys the widest range of persons amongst all of Shakespeare’s plays. People who don’t necessarily like Shakespeare will still get excited about this play. It is the biggest hit (usually) with high school students who have the “great tragedies” (and Romeo and Juliet) thrust upon them. And why not? With witches, ghosts, invisible daggers, murder most foul (or is that just Hamlet?), revenge – Mac is an explosion of excitement! It is also one of the shortest plays, which means that beyond a bit of a lull in Act IV, there is not much taking away from the

good bits. The language is also quite captivating, unlike All’s Well That Ends Well, which would have Bartlett scratching his head looking for a good quote, in Mac they constantly jump out at you. Lines like: “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly” (I.vii): lines that do not carry much meaning but have a great sound to them. And you don’t need to have any knowledge of the play to love Lady Macbeth’s speech:

“Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry ‘Hold, hold!’” (I.v)

And then there’s the opposing view: those “great Shakespeare scholars” who hide in their metaphorical tower looking down on the rest of us. I tried to get into the tower once or twice to use the washroom but was pointed out by old men with large beards. At any rate, they claim that Mac is for the lowest of the low, a piece of populist drivel, the shallowest of Shakespeare’s works since Two Gentlemen of Verona. There is nothing to get out of it but cheap entertainment. This may be an extreme, but I have seen and heard this view expressed many times. I will grant these scholars that Mac may not have the same web-like structure of Hamlet, where when you begin to pull one thread, a hundred more spawn. With Mac there is a bit of “what you see is what you get” happening. Wilson Knight in this excellent, albeit out-dated, book The Wheel of Fire, does a good job of disproving the point I just made. He points to the vagueness that runs through the play that makes us question how much we really know about what is happening. Incidentally, if you ever wanted to read an essay that makes you think: “wow, Timon of Athens is a great play,” look at The Wheel of Fire because that is the only place (that I have found so far) that you will find it. In what follows I want to demonstrate that just because Mac is a popular work, perhaps at times full of sound and fury but signifying nothing, it still has the greatness and depth that the five High Tragedies are celebrated for.

Now, it is true, or mostly likely true, that Mac was put on to impress the new king, James I. In this way it has a lot in common with Vergil’s Aeneid: Vergil was told to write an epic that glorified Augustus Caesar. Similarly, Shakespeare tries to glorify his King through the character of Banquo. Banquo was Macbeth’s faithful companion in battle, and a great soldier, and a great man. King James I claimed that his lineage could be traced back to Banquo, as Augustus claimed his lineage back to Aeneas. Now, according to the source of Mac, Banquo was a bloody warrior – as was Macbeth, as well as Duncan – everyone in Scotland who vied for power was ruthless. But Shakespeare wanted to please his king so he made Banquo a more saintly man. But this is really the only concession that Shakespeare makes in an otherwise brilliant play.

The play famously starts with the three witches talking about when they will meet again: “in thunder, lighting, or in rain” – why not all three? Having the power to forecast the weather they decide that their meeting will be later that day, and they will go to meet Macbeth. Then they leave. Yes, they leave. The thing is that in several productions, as well as according to many people who describe the play, being only slightly familiar with it, Macbeth and Banquo appear right at the start and are confronted by the witches. Many cut out the scene between the two scenes with the witches – the one where King Duncan is talking with his men. And why not? It is a boring scene in between two exciting ones. However, there is a really interesting element to this oft lost scene. In Act I, scene ii we learn that the Thane of Cawdor is a coward. Duncan removes his title and says to present it to Macbeth. In the next scene, the witches “foretell” that Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor (and then of course it happens). So because of the dramatic irony, we know what is going to happen even before the witches do. We are given the same prophetic power that they are – and we don’t even have to handle the eye of newt! What does this say about the witches’ powers? Should we think less of them because they aren’t really prophesizing anything? Some people are like Macbeth, whose mind is rapt by the fact that the witches have accurately “prophesized” that he will be Thane of Cawdor, and who further prophesize that he will be King. Others are like Banquo, who is more sceptical of the witches. Banquo is told by them that “Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none” (I.iii). They are of course referring to the eventual ascendency of King James I. This blending of fact and fiction, as well as the witches foretelling what we already know makes them more interesting than just weird women with beards, meant to entertain the lowest common denominator. They are not characters in the play but the directors of Macbeth’s actions. They control how Macbeth acts, and by extension they also control how Lady Macbeth acts. They create in these two characters that poor player who “struts and frets his hour upon the stage”: they anticipate what Pirandello will do in the 20th century and trap his characters in a play. And there are consequences to this – which I will get to shortly. But when it comes down to it, Mac is really a meta-theatrical work.

So, Macbeth has been named Thane of Cawsor and believes that he soon will be king. He sends a letter home to his wife about everything that has happened thus far, and she immediately decides that Duncan must die so her husband can be king (see her speech that I posted earlier). Much has been made of L. Macbeth, some say she is a product of misogyny, some say she is wonderful. It is hard to explain why she so quickly bends her thoughts to murdering the king. All she has is a letter about an encounter with witches who said that her husband would be king. I would think that she might want to wait until Macbeth gets home, get him to explain this a bit more, maybe decide where she stands on witches; but no, she goes straight to scheming about murder. I can’t decide if this is brilliance or poor character development. Her rashness either makes her more of a villain than Iago or Edmund – who are cruel for the sake of being cruel – or demonstrates some weakness in women. I’m not sure. But Macbeth gets home and she lays out her plan. He is sceptical but says he will go with it. Duncan comes and there is a feast for him and then we learn that Macbeth is having second thoughts. Duncan has been so good to him, given him so much – why should he kill him? L. Macbeth scolds him, questions his manhood, and convinces him to carry forward with the plan. They will murder Duncan in his sleep, drug his two guards and place the bloody dagger on their bodies (smeared with blood). So Macbeth finally “screws his courage to the sticking-place” and after a wonderful monologue with an invisible dagger, he goes to kill the king. He comes back and tells his wife about the deed and she scolds him for not leaving the dagger. He, immediately filled with remorse will not go back to return the dagger so she does it, and she too is now sickened by the whole thing. They go off to bed and immediately there is a knocking at the door, and we meet the Porter – a drunk gatekeeper. Much has been made about the Porter’s rant, but I don’t really want to go into it. Essentially he talks about being the gatekeeper of Hell, and invites all manner of professional scoundrels into Hell and mocks them in that comic style you find in the eighth circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno. Many actors have given an astounding performance in this role, and succeeded in bringing the one moment of laughter to this dark play. Thomas De Quincey, in an essay which I will post at the bottom, focuses on the act of knocking in this scene. He explores the idea of knocking as a transition from pre-Duncan’s death to post-Duncan’s death. Duncan’s death causes this ripple of death and lamentation, as Lennox explains:

“The night has been unruly: where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’ the air; strange screams of death,
And prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatch’d to the woeful time: the obscure bird
Clamour’d the livelong night: some say, the earth
Was feverous and did shake” (II.iii).

And Macduff’s knocking and entrance is the entrance of life into death – the progression of the play after this halting act. Of course, there is another way to view this scene, and it goes back to my meta-theatrical point.

Macbeth is promised in I.iii that he will be King. This becomes his ambition, his goal – and his wife’s as well. We may think back to an earlier work of Shakespeare: Richard III. From the start of that play Richard schemes on how to be king. He completes a series of plots and eventually gets the crown: in Act IV, over halfway through the play. And even after he gets the crown he is not satisfied, but continues to scheme.All Macbeth really wanted was to be king, or least that’s all he was told that he was going to be. The problem is that he becomes king part way through Act II. The dead Duncan’s sons – Malcolm and Donalbain – flee the scene and are because of this suspected of planning to murder their father. Macbeth conveniently kills the two guards before they can deny anything and so things are wrapped up neatly: Macbeth is king! Yay! But he quickly realizes that he is trapped. He is a character in a play who senses the end of the play is at hand. Or perhaps he realizes that the play the witches have written for him is a tragedy: he knows that he is at his height and he can only go down from here. Either way, he tries to take control of his own play: if the witches will not give him any more direction, he will direct himself. He decides that he needs to kill Banquo: his reasoning is that he did not want to go through all of that just to see Banquo’s offspring become king. You would think that he might try to remedy this by planting a child in his wife, but the thought never really occurred to him. Why not? That would solve everything! Oh well, might as well kill Banquo. And so he does, or gets some murderers to do it. Banquo’s son, Fleance, escapes murder and eventually goes on to father a line of failed English kings: well James I was alright I suppose. And Macbeth is left wondering, “now what?” Once again, he is a character in a play without direction. He just cannot accept that his play is done. He cannot take his bow, he continues to strut and fret his hour upon the stage. And the more he does, the worse it gets. He is haunted by the ghost of Banquo at a banquet, has a freak-out which his wife tries to cover up, and makes some of his lords suspicious. Macbeth decides that in order for his play to continue he needs to go speak to the directors: “give me the rest of my script,” he wishes to say.

We then get an interesting scene with the witches and Hecate – the “leader” of the witches. Hecate seems to be mad because the witches convinced Macbeth to kill Duncan without consulting her. Hecate could be seen as the overbearing Producer, who needs to have a strong hold over the Director of the play because it is her money and reputation on the line. “What have you done,” she seems to say to the witches, “I told you that Duncan has to die towards the end of the play! You’ve gone and finished this whole show off in half an hour! What are we going to do now?” She then leaves, telling them that they must speak with Macbeth again in order to keep this show going.

What follows next is the same thing that happened at the start of the play. In IV.i Macbeth goes back to the witches and learns – amongst other things – that he should fear Macduff. Macduff is a threat. What is often forgotten is the previous scene,, in which we learn that Macduff has gone to England – where Duncan’s son Malcolm is – to treat with Edward, King of England. So when the witches, through an apparition, tell Macbeth: “Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! beware Macduff; beware the thane of Fife” (Iv.i), we already know that he is a threat. These witches can really only see into the present, not the future. This once again established the witches not as supernatural beings, but as directors of the play – pushing Macbeth onward. Macbeth also learns that none of woman born could ever harm him, and that he would never fall until Birnam Wood moves to Dunsinane Hill. Macbeth is quite pleased because of course there is no such thing as a man not born of woman, and the thought of a wood moving is absurd – he is untouchable! And he is also happy because he once again has direction: his play now has a plot and can move forward. He will conquer his enemy Macduff, and the English forces that come against him.

Macbeth sends a murderer to Macduff’s home in Fife: Macduff is not home. The murder kills Lady Macduff, Macduff’s children, and everyone else in the home. In England, Malcolm and Macduff receive word of what is happening and prepare for battle. Back in Scotland, Macbeth also prepares for battle, confident that he could never fall. Also, Lady Macbeth dies – I’ll get back to that. Malcolm comes up with the plan that all his men should cut down a tree and hide behind it to conceal their numbers. Macbeth receives report that Birnam Wood is moving towards them at Dunsinane Hill. Macbeth finds himself severely outnumbered and trapped in his castle. He meets Young Siward, a young man (probably 16), and kills him – this bolsters his confidence; killing children will do that, or something. He is resolved that no one of woman born will kill him. Macduff finally meets up with them and they have a good old fashioned fight. During the battle Macduff reveals that “Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripp’d” (V.viii). This detail has always been a bit iffy for me – I mean he still came from his mother, does it really matter that he wasn’t born vaginally? Written in the 20th century, Macduff would probably be a test-tube baby. But the prophecy had to be fulfilled. So Macbeth immediately loses his confidence, but he refuses to yield. They exit fighting and Macduff returns a bit later with Macbeth’s head. Malcolm is proclaimed King and all is well!

Why wasn’t Macbeth killed on stage? Claudius gets to die twice on stage but Macbeth, twice the villain as Claudius does not get that honour? During the interval between Macduff’s exit and entrance, Malcolm, Ross, and Siward talk of Young Siward’s death, and how honourable it was. The fact that we see this insignificant character die on stage but not Macbeth seems to be part of the glorifying James I’s past – Macbeth is a stain upon Scotland’s past and does not even deserve to be shown dying. He must be wiped away from history.

Just a quick jump-back to the ladies before I wrap-up. We do not see much of Lady Macbeth after the murder of Duncan. She has that one moment during the banquet where she tries to keep order while Macbeth talks to the ghost of Banquo, and then the next time we see her, a doctor is talking with her gentlewoman about how she sleepwalks and talks in her sleep, confessing the evil deeds done. We see her famously wringing her hands, saying “out damn spot” and trying to wash the invisible blood from her hands. Shortly after, there is a scream from off-stage and Macbeth is told that his wife is dead. His response:

“She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing” (V.v)

He just doesn’t have the time to process this information, and neither do we as audience members. We seem to lose all care for Lady Macbeth after the murder of Duncan. And despite the infamy of her madness, it does not produce the same effect as Ophelia’s madness. Her death just seems meaningless and is so quickly taken over by the battle at hand. Macbeth has realized the way his play is going, and has even accepted that he and his wife are poor players who will come to nothing. But he is in too deep to turn back so he continues to the fight. Once again, I don’t know what to make of Lady Macbeth. Given her attitude in Act 1 you’d think she would be fighting with Macbeth at the end, continuing to fill herself with blackness – but instead she goes mad. I can’t help but think this is a cop-out.

A very forgettable character in this play is Lady Macduff, who appears for one scene and is killed. She is everything Lady Macbeth (at least Act 1 and 2 Lady Macbeth) isn’t. She is weak, she is defeated in a battle of wits by her son, and she scorns her husband for leaving them and calls him a traitor: she is all-in-all unpleasing. I can’t help but wonder why Shakespeare did not draw out her character further, as well as Lady Macbeth’s, in order to really present them as foils and demonstrate how great a character Lady Macbeth is, sort of like Octavia to Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra. Then again, if we accept the fact that this is the witches’ play, then we can accept that the singular focus is on the fall of Macbeth. Lady Macbeth is really just a casualty by association, as is Lady Macduff. I think what I have decided is that Macbeth is like the anti-Truman Show. In The Truman Show, Jim Carey is a free agent in a scripted world, in Macbeth, Macbeth is a scripted character (scripted by the witches) in a free world, and his scripted actions have natural consequences on those around him. The witches did not direct Malcolm and Donalbain to flee after the murder of Duncan. They did not direct Macduff to side with England, these happened naturally. All they did was get Macbeth to kill the King and get him to stand his ground so that he may die. They gave him his hour (or two) on stage so that he may strut and fret, knowing full well that it signified nothing. I keep coming back to that speech because it really is the thesis of the play.

So for those who criticize Mac for not being deep enough, they are both right and wrong. The complexity of Mac lies in the fact that it is full of sound and fury and signifies nothing – and all the inherit consequences that this entails.

*Here is a link to De Quincey’s essay:

Copyright ©; 2012 Alex Benarzi – All Rights Reserved

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