Category Archives: Pre-Hamlet

As You Like It: The Story of Arden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Comedies, Pre-Hamlet

The Shifting Sands of Morality in Measure For Measure

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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.

DUKE VINCENTIO
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.

FRIAR THOMAS
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.

DUKE VINCENTIO
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)
And
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.

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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.

ISABELLA
And have you nuns no farther privileges?
FRANCISCA
Are not these large enough?
ISABELLA
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.

ANGELO
Well; what’s your suit?
ISABELLA
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.
ANGELO
Well; the matter?
ISABELLA
I have a brother is condemn’d to die:
I do beseech you, let it be his fault,
And not my brother.
Provost
[Aside] Heaven give thee moving graces!
ANGELO
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.
ISABELLA
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.

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

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

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Filed under Comedies, Post-Hamlet

Where is the fault in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar

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

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

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

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

too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;

Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be

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

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

Soothsayer

Caesar!

CAESAR

Ha! who calls?

CASCA

Bid every noise be still: peace yet again!

CAESAR

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

Soothsayer

Beware the ides of March.

CAESAR

What man is that?

BRUTUS

A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.

CAESAR

Set him before me; let me see his face.

CASSIUS

Fellow, come from the throng; look upon Caesar.

CAESAR

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

Soothsayer

Beware the ides of March.

CAESAR

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

 

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

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

 

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JULIUS CAESAR

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

Forget not, in your speed, Antonius,

To touch Calpurnia; for our elders say,

The barren, touched in this holy chase,

Shake off their sterile curse. (I.ii)

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

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

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

A lioness hath whelped in the streets;

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

Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds,

In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,

Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;

The noise of battle hurtled in the air,

Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

COUNTERPOINT

 

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

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

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

And things unlucky charge my fantasy:

I have no will to wander forth of doors,

Yet something leads me forth. (III.iii)

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

First Citizen

Tear him to pieces; he’s a conspirator.

CINNA THE POET

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

Fourth Citizen

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

CINNA THE POET

I am not Cinna the conspirator.

Fourth Citizen

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

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

 

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

OCTAVIUS

Your brother too must die; consent you, Lepidus?

LEPIDUS

I do consent–

OCTAVIUS

Prick him down, Antony.

LEPIDUS

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

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

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

Like to the empty ass, to shake his ears,

And graze in commons. (Iv.i)

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

 

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

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

Let me tell you, Cassius, you yourself

Are much condemn’d to have an itching palm;

To sell and mart your offices for gold

To undeservers. (IV.iii)

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

Remember March, the ides of March remember:

Did not great Julius bleed for justice’ sake?

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

And not for justice? What, shall one of us

That struck the foremost man of all this world

But for supporting robbers, shall we now

Contaminate our fingers with base bribes,

And sell the mighty space of our large honours

For so much trash as may be grasped thus?

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

Than such a Roman. (IV.iii)

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

CASSIUS

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

BRUTUS

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

CASSIUS

I durst not!

BRUTUS

CASSIUS

What, durst not tempt him!

BRUTUS

For your life you durst not!

CASSIUS

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

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

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

 

You know that I held Epicurus strong

And his opinion: now I change my mind,

And partly credit things that do presage.

Coming from Sardis, on our former ensign

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

Gorging and feeding from our soldiers’ hands;

Who to Philippi here consorted us:

This morning are they fled away and gone;

And in their steads do ravens, crows and kites,

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

As we were sickly prey: their shadows seem

A canopy most fatal, under which

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

 

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

Come down, behold no more. O, coward that

I am, to live so long,

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

 

PINDARUS descends

 

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

And then I swore thee, saving of thy life,

That whatsoever I did bid thee do,

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

Now be a freeman: and with this good sword,

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

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

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

Guide thou the sword.

 

PINDARUS stabs him

 

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

 

Dies (V.iii)

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

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

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

 Noli mirabilis esse oblivisci!

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But…..

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

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

MARCUS strikes the dish with a knife

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

MARCUS ANDRONICUS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A righteous coup? The puzzle of Richard II

Who says Shakespeare is not relevant today? Who says only Hamlet plays to our modern perspectives, while the other plays fall in to the contextual quagmire fitted for the works of Fletcher and Jonson?

Earlier this month, now former President of Egypt, Morsi, was deposed by the military with a mandate from the people. According to the BBC, his government was accused of spying, destroying the economy, and attacking military barracks amongst other offenses. Naturally, there was those opposed to this action, and since 3 July, 2013 riots have broken out between Morsi supporters and those who ousted him, while political wrangling continues about how to sort out the country. This is not a political piece, and my only stance on the matter at the time is that I hope a resolution is reached that prevents further innocent deaths. The part that interests me, and the connections that form between this current affair and Shakespeare is the external reactions. The US (and others) have carefully tiptoed around the word coup, being careful to not use it because the great democratic world does not support the coup of a democratically elected official – which Morsi objectively was, rightfully or wrongfully. This was, objectively again, a coup. The question is: was it a rightful coup? Is there such a thing?

Let’s look at IV.i in Richard II (R2). As soon as Henry Bolingbroke announces that he will ascend the throne as King Henry, fourth of that name, we see a rebuke from the Bishop of Carlisle; probably the most scathing critique in this play of critical rhetoric:

“Marry. God forbid!
Worst in this royal presence may I speak,
Yet best beseeming me to speak the truth.
Would God that any in this noble presence
Were enough noble to be upright judge
Of noble Richard! then true noblesse would
Learn him forbearance from so foul a wrong.
What subject can give sentence on his king?
And who sits here that is not Richard’s subject?
Thieves are not judged but they are by to hear,
Although apparent guilt be seen in them;
And shall the figure of God’s majesty,
His captain, steward, deputy-elect,
Anointed, crowned, planted many years,
Be judged by subject and inferior breath,
And he himself not present? O, forfend it, God,
That in a Christian climate souls refined
Should show so heinous, black, obscene a deed!
I speak to subjects, and a subject speaks,
Stirr’d up by God, thus boldly for his king:
My Lord of Hereford here, whom you call king,
Is a foul traitor to proud Hereford’s king:
And if you crown him, let me prophesy:
The blood of English shall manure the ground,
And future ages groan for this foul act;
Peace shall go sleep with Turks and infidels,
And in this seat of peace tumultuous wars
Shall kin with kin and kind with kind confound;
Disorder, horror, fear and mutiny
Shall here inhabit, and this land be call’d
The field of Golgotha and dead men’s skulls.
O, if you raise this house against this house,
It will the woefullest division prove
That ever fell upon this cursed earth.
Prevent it, resist it, let it not be so,
Lest child, child’s children, cry against you woe!” (Richard II, IV.i)

Carlisle does not think there is any justification for usurpation. He “prophetically” alludes to the troubles that the usurping dynasty will bring to England, which would last until the death of Richard III almost two centuries later. Someone could have stood up and said a very similar speech in defense of Morsi, or the many others, deemed tyrants, that were deposed by a rival power. The central conceit of R2 is usurpation justifiable – is just as relevant today as it was in c. 1595 when this play was written. Is Henry Bolingbroke the hero who ushers in a glorious future for England, or a traitor who breaks the law by returning to England before his banishment is passed, massing an army, forcing the king to abdicate, and sending someone to kill said deposed king?

Who has the power to decide who has the power?

This play of questioning rhetoric begins with a high debate, which forces the audience from the outset to pick sides: to decide for themselves who is right and who is wrong. The debate is not between the foils of this play – Henry Bolingbroke (sometimes called Henry Hereford, later called King Henry IV) and King Richard II – but rather Henry and Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. In this first scene, Henry accuses Mowbray of plotting treason against King Richard, as well as having a part in the death of the Duke of Gloucester. Now, we must always remember that the audience of 1595 was for the most part far more acquainted with the history than we are (save for historians specializing in 13th and 14th century English politics). So if we take only what Shakespeare presents us, we have Henry Hereford, at this father’s behest, accusing Mowbray of treason, and Mowbray denying it. Henry is the better speaker of the two, and he has his father to back his case, so even though neither combatant backs down and it almost results in a duel (wait for it), Henry earns more of the king’s favour – he is less in the wrong than Mowbray and is thus sentenced to a banishment of ten years (later reduced after pleas from his father), while Mowbray is permanently exiled. If we look at the scoreboard: we should sympathize more with Henry because he did nothing wrong, he was just hot-headed: we should despite Mowbray for plotting treason and trying to deny it: we should see King Richard II as a just man who spares their lives and imposes banishment instead (there art they happy?).

But let us for a moment throw history into the mix and try to puzzle this out. Henry and Mowbray were both part of the Lords Appellant: without getting into too much back story, they both has a part in a treasonous plot. Henry’s father, Gaunt, became aware of this and begged his son to inform the king – and the rest follows pretty much as Shakespeare wrote it. The key piece of information here is that knowledgeable people going into this play can watch the first scene knowing full well that Henry is no less guilty than Mowbray, he just played the game better. Incidentally, it was also well known that King Richard was the one who had Gloucester killed, which muddies up the waters even further.

Sure, Shakespeare may have revised history to portray the Lancaster family in a better light; while Henry was not Queen Elizabeth I’s direct ancestor, John of Gaunt was. However, the muddling of history, the initial debate, and sudden banishment of the two combatants could underscore everything that follows in this play.

John of Gaunt dies following the banishment of his son, Henry. Before his death he delivers a solemn speech on the state of England, this one most likely is a token to Elizabeth’s grandmother. Then everything goes to pieces. Richard steals all of Gaunt’s lands and titles that should have gone to Henry, ships off to Ireland to quell a rebellion, meanwhile a group of his lords defect to Henry’s camp. Henry has come back prematurely to England and is massing an army in order to gain his lands and titles back. The events move in quick succession as Richard loses and Henry gains. As he gives his crown to Henry, Richard symbolizes the events of the play through one of his metaphors – as he is prone to.

Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another,
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen and full of water:
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high. (IV.i)

I don’t need to describe the transfer of power in any great detail, but suffice it to say that as the transfer of power shifts, so does the Author’s sympathy. If we are supposed to see Henry as the victim in the first scene, Richard attempts to gain our sympathy throughout Act III, as he loses more and more, until he is reduced to his last stronghold, crying out that he is the rightful king, that he is being usurped, and that what is happening is an affront to God. And while Richard remains unlikable at this point, and surely not a good king, we cannot deny the truth in his sentiments.

Because we thought ourself thy lawful king:
And if we be, how dare thy joints forget
To pay their awful duty to our presence?
If we be not, show us the hand of God
That hath dismissed us from our stewardship;
For well we know, no hand of blood and bone
Can gripe the sacred handle of our sceptre,
Unless he do profane, steal, or usurp.
And though you think that all, as you have done,
Have torn their souls by turning them from us,
And we are barren and bereft of friends;
Yet know, my master, God omnipotent,
Is mustering in his clouds on our behalf
Armies of pestilence; and they shall strike
Your children yet unborn and unbegot,
That lift your vassal hands against my head
And threat the glory of my precious crown.
Tell Bolingbroke–for yond methinks he stands–
That every stride he makes upon my land
Is dangerous treason: he is come to open
The purple testament of bleeding war;
But ere the crown he looks for live in peace,
Ten thousand bloody crowns of mothers’ sons
Shall ill become the flower of England’s face,
Change the complexion of her maid-pale peace
To scarlet indignation and bedew
Her pastures’ grass with faithful English blood. (III.iii)

Again, we can hear Morsi’s voice, and the voice of many other deposed rulers before him. Richard stole from his subjects, bestowed favours on personal friends, disregarded the well-being of his kingdom: does that make him any less a legitimate king? Who is Henry to take what is his right (thought to be right handed down form God)? Shakespeare forces this question on us: forces us to consider the limitations of power, and tackles the question that political philosophers have tackled since – let’s say – Plato: what to do with an unjust monarch.

If Shakespeare offers an answer to this problem, it is found in Richard’s final soliloquy in Act V, scene v: in my opinion, one of the best soliloquies in Shakespeare. At this point, Richard has lost the crown and has been arrested and locked in the Pomfret Castle. Having nothing, he, for the first time, speaks to us directly:

I have been studying how I may compare
This prison where I live unto the world:
And for because the world is populous
And here is not a creature but myself,
I cannot do it; yet I’ll hammer it out.
My brain I’ll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father; and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts,
And these same thoughts people this little world,
In humours like the people of this world,
For no thought is contented. The better sort,
As thoughts of things divine, are intermix’d
With scruples and do set the word itself
Against the word:
As thus, ‘Come, little ones,’ and then again,
‘It is as hard to come as for a camel
To thread the postern of a small needle’s eye.’
Thoughts tending to ambition, they do plot
Unlikely wonders; how these vain weak nails
May tear a passage through the flinty ribs
Of this hard world, my ragged prison walls,
And, for they cannot, die in their own pride.
Thoughts tending to content flatter themselves
That they are not the first of fortune’s slaves,
Nor shall not be the last; like silly beggars
Who sitting in the stocks refuge their shame,
That many have and others must sit there;
And in this thought they find a kind of ease,
Bearing their own misfortunes on the back
Of such as have before endured the like.
Thus play I in one person many people,
And none contented: sometimes am I king;
Then treasons make me wish myself a beggar,
And so I am: then crushing penury
Persuades me I was better when a king;
Then am I king’d again: and by and by
Think that I am unking’d by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing: but whate’er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing. Music do I hear?

Music

Ha, ha! keep time: how sour sweet music is,
When time is broke and no proportion kept!
So is it in the music of men’s lives.
And here have I the daintiness of ear
To cheque time broke in a disorder’d string;
But for the concord of my state and time
Had not an ear to hear my true time broke.
I wasted time, and now doth time waste me;
For now hath time made me his numbering clock:
My thoughts are minutes; and with sighs they jar
Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch,
Whereto my finger, like a dial’s point,
Is pointing still, in cleansing them from tears.
Now sir, the sound that tells what hour it is
Are clamorous groans, which strike upon my heart,
Which is the bell: so sighs and tears and groans
Show minutes, times, and hours: but my time
Runs posting on in Bolingbroke’s proud joy,
While I stand fooling here, his Jack o’ the clock.
This music mads me; let it sound no more;
For though it have holp madmen to their wits,
In me it seems it will make wise men mad.
Yet blessing on his heart that gives it me!
For ’tis a sign of love; and love to Richard
Is a strange brooch in this all-hating world. (V.v)

What is Richard’s conclusion? Time alone has power. That we are all fleeting, changing metaphors, and power is an external force that disregards the physical form it inhabits? Why not? Rulers are always simultaneously good and bad – it’s just a matter of perspective, isn’t it?

Disappointed? Shakespeare wrote plays – the human aspect of life was always the most important. Richard was not a good king, but he also had a country crumbling around him when he took the throne. Henry had everything taken from him and simply wanted to get it back. These are human actions. Shakespeare doesn’t take sides or solve the world’s problems, he writes plays. This is why the common people’s voices are excluded from this play. This is why this lyrical history is consumed by metaphors. There is no answer, only symbol and perspective. So I will leave you with Mark Rylance’s performance of the above quoted soliloquy.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6M775evBE8A

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Why does Lady Montague die at the end of Romeo And Juliet?

 

It is difficult to begin formulating opinions of Romeo and Juliet (Rom): the play has grown to such a height, and built up so many expectations and assumptions – what more can be said? Stephen Greenblatt begins his exploration of this play by likening Rom to Plato’s Symposium. Harold Bloom, in his analysis, brings in the rivaling philosophies of Heraclitus and Empedocles in order to establish the tensions of Rom. Granted Shakespeare may have been drawing form Greek influence in writing this play, but it seems to me that  the aim on both Bloom and Greenblatt’s part is to bring this most popular (in the broadest sense) play into an academic and esoteric sphere: to bring the two lovers, who have run so far away from “Shakespeare” back into the world of Shakespeare, so they may approach it on the same level as other plays. And I must say that I am not claiming to do a better job than either of them.

For Romeo and Juliet – as an entity – have ascended their play in the same way Hamlet rises above his. They have become Love incarnate, a paragon of youth, the symbol for struggle in an oppressive society – they have transformed into paintings, ballets, musicals, zombies &c. Even before their revitalization in the 19th century, the two star-crossed lovers were a success and helped propel Shakespeare into the world as a tragedian (Titus Andronicus was not entirely successful at this, as popular as it was). Dr. Samuel Johnson comments on the sensory success of the play in his Prefaces:

“The play is one of the most pleasing of our Author’s performances. The scenes are busy and various, the incidents numerous and important, the catastrophe irresistibly affecting and the process of the actions carried on with such probability at least with such congruity to popular opinions, as tragedy requires.”

Even Shakespeare seems to reflect on the success of the two larger-than-stage lovers: in Antony and Cleopatra, the eponymous characters try to achieve this status, and outgrow their play, their world. Antony tries to die as Romeo does – at the hand of love (Eros) – but fails. Cleopatra may have a bit more success. Regardless, Shakespeare recognizes that Antony and Cleopatra are not Romeo and Juliet, for Romeo and Juliet are bigger than their play. Shakespeare even prophesies this success at the end of the play:

 

MONTAGUE

While Verona by that name is known,
There shall no figure at such rate be set
As that of true and faithful Juliet.

CAPULET

As rich shall Romeo’s by his lady’s lie;
Poor sacrifices of our enmity! (V.iii)

Verona today is still Verona: and if we follow Montague’s economic example, nothing has risen in value in Verona above Romeo and Juliet.

This is, however, a double-edged sword. If the lovers have outgrown their play, so has their love outgrown its context. The love of these two have risen above its lyric roots, its satirical element, and its careful construction: for these reasons, it is often misconstrued. The most prevalent complaint I hear from students who have studied this play is that it is too fake, that “people don’t talk like that.” I have to explain that, even in 1595, people didn’t talk to each other in sonnets (see Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting in I.v). Teachers, directors, and people in general all have a tendency to take this play too seriously, and to ignore the constructed nature of it. Of course the opposite can be equality damaging: look no further than Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. And so I want to take this opportunity to place the two lovers in their proper context, exploring the play as it was before it grew to its present height. To do this, I wish to use as my jumping off point a seemingly minor detail about a very minor character – that is the death of Lady Montague.

Lady Montague dies at the end of the play, concurrently to the climatic catastrophe. We learn of her death from Old Montague. Of course, the simple answer to the question of why does Lady Montague die is given to us by Old Montague:

PRINCE

Come, Montague; for thou art early up,
To see thy son and heir more early down.

MONTAGUE

Alas, my liege, my wife is dead to-night;
Grief of my son’s exile hath stopp’d her breath:
What further woe conspires against mine age? (V.iiii)

Simple enough. But it seems to come out of left field at first, doesn’t it? After all that has happened, can the death of a character who is in two scenes (silent in one of them), and has a grand total of three lines – can she inspire the necessary pathos that a tragic death demands? But we when examine this moment in the context of the play, it begins to fit into place.

In Rom, we are dealing with a heightened reality. The play is set in contemporary Verona (that is, around 1595), but it is not a world audience goers would have recognized. Here is just a quick list of some of the heightened reality in this play

There are three sonnets: We have two prologues, both in sonnet form. As well, there is the famous meeting between Romeo and Juliet, here transcribed into its sonnet form:

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.
Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take (I.v)

Not only does the rhyme scheme fit into this most constructed form, but there is a volta in which the tone shifts, and the rhyming couplet to bring it to a conclusion: albeit a different conclusion than most sonnets.

Lyrical language: Rom is one of Shakespeare’s three “lyrical plays” written around 1595. The language is almost exclusively verse, but not only that, is grander than you find in his other plays. Such lines as –

But all so soon as the all-cheering sun
Should in the furthest east begin to draw
The shady curtains from Aurora’s bed,
Away from the light steals home my heavy son,
And private in his chamber pens himself,
Shuts up his windows, locks far daylight out
And makes himself an artificial night:
Black and portentous must this humour prove,
Unless good counsel may the cause remove. (I.i)

Which are beautiful poetry, but out of place in the context of contemporary drama.

Petrarch Satire: Romeo beings the play as a satire of Petrarch’s poet. He makes use of Petrarch’s paradoxes, such as –

Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O any thing, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness! serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire,
sick health!
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is! (I.i)

which lack the context that Petrarch places them in. Romeo is prompted to this speech by the remains of a previous fight: a fight that has far more to do with hate – and vanity – than love. The idea that everything prompts him to feel the dualistic forces of love would have provoked laughter in an audience forced to study Petrarch in school: this is why Romeo asks Benvolio “dost thou not laugh?” Benvolio is probably the only one not laughing. Mercutio draws this comparison when he notes that Romeo out Petrarchs Petrarch: “Laura to his lady [Rosaline] was but a kitchen wench” (II.iv). While Romeo pines for Rosaline – or when his friends think he pines for Rosaline – he is not a tragic figure, nor one that inspires pity: the Romeo of the first two acts is a comic lover – much in the same as Orlando is in As You Like It.

The time-frame: If you know this play, you probably know the exaggerated time-frame (another aspect that has to be explained to students). Romeo and Juliet meet on a Sunday evening, propose on Sunday night, marry Monday afternoon, part forever Monday evening, and die together Wednesday night. This is not a normal relationship nor is it meant to be. For all the meticulous timekeeping that goes on in this play, there is a lot of muddling of time. Old Capulet bumbles over what day it is at any given point, probably because he doesn’t seem to sleep at all during the play. There is some confusion of whether the final actions of the play take place on Wednesday or Thursday night (it’s Wednesday) because Old Capulet constantly changes what day it is, or on what day the wedding is supposed to happen. Romeo and Juliet too fumble over the hours. After she learns that Romeo slew Tybalt, Juliet laments:

“Ah, poor my lord, what tongue shall smooth thy name,
When I, thy three-hours wife, have mangled it?” (III.ii)

In the next scene, which takes place at the same time or just after III.ii, Romeo laments:

“Thou canst not speak of that thou dost not feel:
Wert thou as young as I, Juliet thy love,
An hour but married, Tybalt murdered” (III.iii)

Indecently, I am inclined to believe Juliet here because she has done nothing but wait and count the hours at this point. The discrepancy may be an error, but more likely, it shows how fickle time is in the heat of such passion. Romeo and Juliet, just like their play, overcomes time: forcing eternity into four short days.

Given all of this, why should death reflect a natural reality? After the climactic tragedy, should there not be more woe? Should not the grief be as heightened as everything else? Such is why the death – the tragedy – does not end where we expect it to, but continues with one final death.

Fair enough, but why Lady Montague? Why not Lady Capulet (who we see more of) or the Nurse (who we are more attached to)? For this, we must again look at the construction of the play. There is constructed language (the use of lyricism) and constructed reality, but the play itself is also very carefully crafted. There are a lot of parallels that exist in this play – everything seems to be in balance. Fate and Fortune play a large role in the play: we have, after all, star-crossed lovers. There is a sense that someone, some external force, is controlling everything. In The Tempest this force is Prospero, in Rom it is an unseen Author. Or it is the Prologue and the whole thing is meant to be seen as a story: such metafictional interpretations are not too farfetched.

Let’s start with the first prologue. Imagine you are seeing this play for the first time and know nothing about Rom. The Prologue steps on stage and begins his speech:

“Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life” (Prologue)

YOU: Wait, what?

OTHER: What’s wrong?

YOU: He just gave away the ending! Now we know that Romeo and Juliet kill themselves.

OTHER: Are you really surprised? It’s a tragedy, you knew they would die. That would be like being shocked at the happy ending of a Disney movie.

YOU: So – are we supposed to be in 1595 right now, or 2013?

OTHER: …………

You get the idea. The prologue points out the inherit constructed nature of theatre and genre. We are dealing with The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet – we know that convention dictates that Romeo and Juliet will die. Being so explicitly reminded of this fact at the start of the play does not ruin the play, but adds an exciting element to it. Their death – their suicides – hang over everything that happens in the play: including the first comedic half.

That’s right – the first half of this play is a comedy. In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare uses the figure of Time to transform a clear-cut tragedy (the first three acts of the play) into a pastoral comedy (Act IV), before muddling up the waters of comedy and tragedy. In Rom the transition is more seamless, but the arc of both comedy and tragedy are present. In “The Comedy of Romeo and Juliet” two lovers have a problem that they must overcome. Romeo is saddened because Rosaline will not return his love. Juliet is troubled over the fact that her parents are trying to force a marriage on her. When they meet and fall in love, they are faced with a new problem – they are supposed to be enemies. They overcome their trials and the whole thing ends in a marriage. A straightforward comedy. The first half also contains the prevalent comedic characters of the play: The Nurse, and Mercutio. The Nurse cuts the tension that is the conflict between Juliet and her mother by providing bawdy stories and crude humour.

“’dost thou fall upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit;
Wilt thou not, Jule?’ and, by my holidame,
The pretty wretch left crying and said ‘Ay.’
To see, now, how a jest shall come about!
I warrant, an I should live a thousand years,
I never should forget it: ‘Wilt thou not, Jule?’ quoth he;
And, pretty fool, it stinted and said ‘Ay.’” (I.iii)

Trust me: it’s funny.

Mercutio is one of the greatest wits in Shakespeare, and a precursor to Falstaff. The 17th century poet, Dryden, mused about how Shakespeare had to kill Mercutio before Mercutio killed him. People foolishly think that Shakespeare himself said this, and it is certainly not true. Shakespeare was able to control greater wits than Mercutio: mainly Falstaff and Hamlet (although it can be argued that Shakespeare was killed off by the latter). However, Rom. as a play would have been destroyed if Mercutio was allowed to live. Mercutio is right at home in the Comedy of Romeo and Juliet, but would never be able to survive in the Tragedy. But I must move away from Mercutio before he kills this post.

So when Romeo and Juliet profess their love and engage in the sublime “balcony scene” – we may luxuriate in their love and their poetry, but the ending – the tragedy – looms.

“But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
It is my lady, O, it is my love!
O, that she knew she were!
She speaks yet she says nothing: what of that?
Her eye discourses; I will answer it.
I am too bold, ’tis not to me she speaks:
Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
Having some business, do entreat her eyes
To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through the airy region stream so bright
That birds would sing and think it were not night.
See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand!
O, that I were a glove upon that hand,
That I might touch that cheek!” (II.ii)

Not much needs to be said here: this is some of the finest poetry written in the English language: heightened only by the fact that we know that it is fleeting: this love is doomed before it began. If we thought that they would have a happy ending then this speech and others might just be sentimental bathetic drivel – but here, this is such unfulfilled yearning that we may smile at the poetry and weep at what we know will happen, and these chaotic emotions fuel this play.

Following the comedic half, we have the tragic half of the play, which begins with the death of Mercutio. Here we begin to see some of the parallels between the two halves. Both begin with a brawl in the street between Montague and Capulet, one that draws the citizens and the Prince. In the comic half, no one is hurt and no consequences are laid. In the tragic half, Mercutio and Tybalt are slain and Romeo is banished. Also, both Old Montague and Capulet are given a hefty fine for their part in the tragedy:

“But I’ll amerce you with so strong a fine
That you shall all repent the loss of mine:” (III.i)

Just so I don’t get called out by anyone who thinks the Prince is being metaphorical here, amerce denotes a pecuniary penalty. This point is often downplayed in respect to the human tragedy of the scene, but the economic status of the two households does play a role, and is mentioned before all else – in the first line of the play.

At the end of the comedic brawl, Romeo comments that “Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love” (I.i). This is not true of the comedic brawl, but it is of the tragic one. Mercutio is slain because Romeo’s love of Juliet prompts him to try to stop the fight. Tybalt is slain because of Romeo’s love for Mercutio. The first fight shows a comic satire of love’s destructive power: the second fight shows the tragic realization.

When we are introduced to Romeo in the comedic half of the play, we learn that he wanders at night and during the day shuts himself up and creates an artificial night. Romeo seeks to the night to compliment his “inky cloak” as Hamlet would say. Again, we are meant to see this as a satire of a man destroyed by a love he never had. Picture a teenager hiding out in his room listening to Radiohead because the girl he has been dating for a month broke up with him – the times have not changed. You try to feel bad for him, but you don’t. But when we are introduced to Juliet in the tragic half of the play, she is “singing” her aubade – her morning love song. She calls out for the night:

“And bring in cloudy night immediately.
Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night,
That runaway’s eyes may wink and Romeo
Leap to these arms, untalk’d of and unseen.” (III.ii)

Juliet, too, rejects the day, and wishes for an artificial night: not to escape the pains of love, but night is when she and Romeo will be together again. Of course, the tragedy is we know that Romeo has already been banished, even if Juliet does not.

The Nurse serves as a third parallel for the two halves of the play. In the tragic half, she has lost her mirth after she witnesses Tybalt’s dead body. Her comic stumbling over words and drawn out tales are turned to tragic stumbling over words and drawn out tales. The Nurse is a character that really needs to be produced visually: she must be over the top in her comedy and her tragedy. In Act Iv, scene v she wails the loudest and fiercest of all the Capulets upon finding Juliet “dead”. Her incessant laughter while telling the story of Juliet falling on her back is turned to incessant tears.

“Lady! lady! lady!
Alas, alas! Help, help! my lady’s dead!
O, well-a-day, that ever I was born!
Some aqua vitae, ho! My lord! my lady!” (Iv.v)

When she calls for her alcohol (aqua vitae) in II.v is it part of the comedy of her “aching bones.” Here, she probably needs it to steady herself so she doesn’t pass out. The remainder of her lines in the scene devolve in cries.

“O woe! O woful, woful, woful day!
Most lamentable day, most woful day,
That ever, ever, I did yet behold!
O day! O day! O day! O hateful day!
Never was seen so black a day as this:
O woful day, O woful day!” (IV.v)

She is still over the top, but the comedy has become tragedy.

While I am on the subject of this scene: this is the height of genre bending in this play. We have an over-the-top tragedy that can be played very garishly. It is tempered by the fact that Juliet is not really dead,  but has just taken a potion to simulate death. This allows us some respite and even to find a bit of comedy in the “woes” until we again realize that Juliet will, in the end, kill herself. Thus this moment is transformed internally, and perhaps subconsciously from garish, to comedic, to sublime.

Let us come full circle before I overdo myself. This play is very carefully constructed and relies on a sense of balance or fate. So here is the roster of deaths at the point where Juliet takes her life

CAPULETS – Tybalt, Juliet

MONTAGUES – Romeo

Related to THE PRINCE – Mercutio, Paris

It seems a little off-balance doesn’t it? Balance must be preserved and everything must be in order according to this unseen force. Add to this that I have already highlighted two instances where we see human life treated as economic property (at the end of III.i and at the end of V.iiii) and it makes sense that things should equal out for all three “houses” involved. So the Montagues must lose one more to even the score: Benvolio would have been a possible and interesting choice – but Shakespeare chose Lady Montague. Why?

 

We know that the tragedy had to overextend the climactic finale. We know that the death had to be from the Montage side. Why Lady Montague instead of Benvolio? Is it possible that the whole matter comes down to a practical reason? This is a play, and a play is, to an extent, confined to its physical limitations. You must be able to stage it. One such limitation at the time was the amount of actors Shakespeare had at his disposal. There are only a certain amount of principal actors in Shakespeare’s company in c. 1595. There may have been day labourers hired to hold a spear or trumpet, or be part of a crowd, but if a character spoke a solo line he (for it was only he) was part of the principal cast. If we looked at the stage at the close of the show, we would see:

Romeo (dead)

Juliet (dead)

Paris (dead)

Old Montague

Old Capulet

Lady Capulet

Prince

Friar Laurence

Balthasar

Paris’ Page

1st Watchman

2nd Watchman

3rd Watchman

It is very rare that you find this many principal characters (they all have a least one solo line) on stage at the same time, and you never find more at this time period. The most likely scenario is that the actor who played Lady Montague is on stage. I have read a suggestion that the actor who played Lady Montague was also Paris – it makes sense but I cannot confirm it either way. In the reality of the play, it makes sense for the parents of Romeo and Juliet to rush to the scene. There is no reason Lady Montague would have been absent, but because she could not be physically present, she must be dead.

This may not be the most satisfying conclusion, but on the whole we see how carefully everything is done in this play. This is why, when Romeo and Juliet leap from their play and take their place in popular culture, there i much lost. Artistic interpretations of this play can be wonderful, but there is no substitute for the intricacies of one of Shakespeare’s greatest achievements.

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Far too Much Ado About Nothing

I came to Much Ado About Nothing (Ado) relatively late in my Shakespeare reading: that is, I considered myself seasoned in Shakespeare before coming to this play. At that point I knew many who were in love with Ado. I have read it a few times now, and seen a few productions: unlike most Shakespeare plays in which the more I read it the more I discover and thereby the more a like it, with Ado I find I like it less and less each time I read it. Beatrice – the reason why people love this play – is a great character, but unlike Rosalind, whose wit and charm grows with rereading, or Viola/Cesario, who herself grows the more you read into her, Beatrice seems to tire herself (and us) out the more time we spend with her. But still she and Dogberry (yes, Dogberry) are the best parts of Ado, and worth the most consideration in what will prove to be a short exploration of this tedious play.

Tedious, what Dogberry ironically considers himself too poor to possess, is the trope of Ado. Dogberry says to Leonato, when the later calls him tedious:

It pleases your worship to say so, but we are the
poor duke’s officers; but truly, for mine own part,
if I were as tedious as a king, I could find it in
my heart to bestow it all of your worship. (III.v)

The play itself wears tediousness as great an honour as Dogberry himself. Tediousness, the repetition of a single point until it wears us thin. Tediousness, the hammering of a joke until the humour is as flat as the metaphorical nail. Tediousness….

But what do I mean by it? Take this drawn out conversation between the two bros – Claudio and Don Pedro – and their mutual target of amusement – Benedick.

BENEDICK: Gallants, I am not as I have been.

LEONATO: So say I methinks you are sadder.

CLAUDIO: I hope he be in love.

DON PEDRO: Hang him, truant! there’s no true drop of blood in
him, to be truly touched with love: if he be sad,
he wants money.

BENEDICK: I have the toothache.

DON PEDRO: Draw it.

BENEDICK: Hang it!

CLAUDIO: You must hang it first, and draw it afterwards.

DON PEDRO: What! sigh for the toothache?

LEONATO: Where is but a humour or a worm.

BENEDICK: Well, every one can master a grief but he that has
it.

CLAUDIO: Yet say I, he is in love.

DON PEDRO: There is no appearance of fancy in him, unless it be
a fancy that he hath to strange disguises; as, to be
a Dutchman today, a Frenchman to-morrow, or in the
shape of two countries at once, as, a German from
the waist downward, all slops, and a Spaniard from
the hip upward, no doublet. Unless he have a fancy
to this foolery, as it appears he hath, he is no
fool for fancy, as you would have it appear he is.

CLAUDIO: If he be not in love with some woman, there is no
believing old signs: a’ brushes his hat o’
mornings; what should that bode?

DON PEDRO: Hath any man seen him at the barber’s?

CLAUDIO: No, but the barber’s man hath been seen with him,
and the old ornament of his cheek hath already
stuffed tennis-balls.

LEONATO: Indeed, he looks younger than he did, by the loss of a beard.

DON PEDRO: Nay, a’ rubs himself with civet: can you smell him
out by that?

CLAUDIO: That’s as much as to say, the sweet youth’s in love.

DON PEDRO: The greatest note of it is his melancholy.

CLAUDIO: And when was he wont to wash his face?

DON PEDRO: Yea, or to paint himself? for the which, I hear
what they say of him.

CLAUDIO: Nay, but his jesting spirit; which is now crept into
a lute-string and now governed by stops.

DON PEDRO: Indeed, that tells a heavy tale for him: conclude,
conclude he is in love.

CLAUDIO: Nay, but I know who loves him.

DON PEDRO: That would I know too: I warrant, one that knows him not.

CLAUDIO: Yes, and his ill conditions; and, in despite of
all, dies for him.

DON PEDRO: She shall be buried with her face upwards.

BENEDICK: Yet is this no charm for the toothache. (III.ii)

I have decided to copy this out in full to stress the point. What starts off as a charming attack on the headstrong and cocksure (or is it the other way around?) Benedick overstays its welcome and becomes annoying and tedious. Claudio and Don Pedro have no understanding of when to wrap up a joke and amuse each other because they are both horribly unfunny. In Act V, scene I, Benedick says to Claudio (but implying both Claudio and Don Predro): “you break jests
as braggarts do their blades.” This is perhaps the greatest truth stated in this play. It also sets up an interesting question: is the tediousness caused largely by Claudio and Don Pedro a lapse on Shakespeare’s part or is it intentional? Of course the question of intention is a dangerous one, but in this case it is just bothersome. If Shakespeare did intend for Claudio and Don Pedro to serve as foils for the two wits (Beatrice and Benedick) I think he missed his mark. Rather than heightening the two wits, they suck the humour out of the play so thoroughly.

Add to the tedium the abundance of plots in this play. A good comedy (Shakespeare or otherwise) has its plots. The ring trick is a classic plot that we see in Shakespeare (most notably in Merchant of Venice) and the bed trick another (as seen in Measure for Measure, and All’s Well That Ends Well). We love to be in on the joke and laugh at the character’s expense. Or, as in the case of Ado, be present to a “tragedy” that we know is a trick. The Friar’s plot to convince Claudio and Don Pedro that Hero is “dead” only to reveal her living at the end (also used in All’s Well that Ends Well) is a good one – one that creates a sense of tragedy without any fear for the audience, who knows full well that a comic ending will occur. However, this is not the only plot in Ado. There is Don John’s failed plot to break up Claudio and Hero, Borachio’s successful plot to break up Claudio and Hero, the plot to snare Beatrice, the plot to snare Benedick, the Friar’s plot (described above), and Leonato’s plot to marry Claudio and Hero. Add to this that the plots to snare Benedick and Beatrice are mirrors of each other and occur one after the other, and the result is tiresome. We have no time to discover the characters in this play because we are caught up in the plethora of zany plots. Yes, everyone is always trying to outwit everyone else, and this is the underlying theme of the play, but it is done as the sacrifice of what makes Shakespeare plays what they are – works with exquisite characters and relationships. Aside from the allowances I will make for Beatrice and Dogberry, the most human character in this play is wit, but without a Falstaff, Rosalind, or Hamlet to give it corporeal form, we cannot identify with Wit in this play as much as we should.

Now that that is out of the way I must speak to this play’s merits, for it does have merits. Ado in my opinion stands towards the bottom of the High Comedies, but certainly rises above the travesty that is Merry Wives of Windsor, as well as the earlier comedies Two Gentlemen of Verona and Taming of the Shrew. Beatrice is the primary reason for this. She does succeed to an extent at containing Wit, her fault is that she is not as present as Falstaff, Rosalind, or Hamlet are to their respective plays. Beatrice is more than the token of wit; she has a coldness in her which foreshadows Hamlet. It is not until the last scene that we can begin to puzzle out the oddity that is Beatrice. When Benedick asks her if she loves him her response, most often played playfully, is: “Why, no; no more than reason” (V.iv). Beatrice is a woman who loves reason more than she loves people in general. For all her command of wit, she is governed by logic as opposed to her cousin who is governed by her heart, so much so that she faints because of the false accusation made against her. Beatrice is cold, she is the lady of disdain as Benedick greets her: “What my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living” (I.i). Beatrice parries his blow with her wit:

Is it possible disdain should die while she hath
such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick?
Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come
in her presence.

But she is still disdain. Benedick is not intelligent enough to invent such a character for Beatrice if it were not as plain as the nose on her face. Thus we may see Beatrice’s jab in the same way we see Hamlet’s “I am too much in the sun,” wit as a mask for the cold bitterness within. We are well aware of Hamlet’s bitterness – the death of his father and hasty marriage that followed – but what about Beatrice? Where does her “disdain” stem from?

To answer this I think we must turn to Don John, the purported dark character of this play. But as Benedick cannot hold a candle to Beatrice’s wit, so Don John cannot hold a candle to Beatrice’s bitterness. The extent of Don John’s villainy is at the start of Act II when he tries to convince Claudio that Don Pedro is stealing Hero for himself. The rest of his malicious activities are of Boarchio’s making, even though he takes the credit for them and then flees. But Beatrice is manipulative enough to bring about potential death (if a comic ending did not thwart her attempt):

BEATRICE: I love you with so much of my heart that none is
left to protest.

BENEDICK: Come, bid me do any thing for thee.

BEATRICE: Kill Claudio. (IV.i)

Benedick refuses at first, but the cold-hearted Beatrice disarms him to the point where she does not allow him to speak, and Benedick, so changed by his love of Beatrice – or just as helpless as any man is against Beatrice – eventually consents to kill his friend. Don John could not have orchestrated such an event.

This was of course a digression to show how even in villainy, Beatrice surpasses the villain. Don John is a “villain” for the same reason that Edmund is: he is a Bastard. Don John has no claim to the titles that Don Pedro had, so he rebelled. We are never given the specific nature of his transgression, but by the start of the play Don Pedro has welcomed his brother back into his grace. This does not satisfy Don John, who feels trapped by his position. In his only good speech in the play he says:

I cannot hide
what I am: I must be sad when I have cause and smile
at no man’s jests, eat when I have stomach and wait
for no man’s leisure, sleep when I am drowsy and
tend on no man’s business, laugh when I am merry and
claw no man in his humour. (I.iii)

He, like Edmund, longs for chaos because he cannot achieve any power through order. Beatrice does not desire chaos: she thrives on reason. However, like Don John, she is in an inferior position. She lives under the protection of her uncle Leonato, and has been the bedfellow of Hero since they were girls. It is, however, Hero that will inherit everything – all titles and fortunes Leonato leaves. It is Hero who is seen as the better prospect for marriage; despite her apparently small stature, according to Benedick. Beatrice has no fortunes and no means of gaining power.

More interesting is Beatrice’s parentage. The play introduces one brother to Leonato, Antonio, and yet Antonio is not Beatrice’s father. In Act V, while putting his plan in motion, Leonato says to Claudio:

My brother hath a daughter,
Almost the copy of my child that’s dead,
And she alone is heir to both of us:
Give her the right you should have given her cousin,
And so dies my revenge. (V.i)

The brother here is Antonio, and the daughter is the fake Hero. Antonio is not Beatrice’s father, so who is? An absent figure who we must assume, along with her mother, to be dead: such is why she is under the care of Leonato. And suddenly the Hamlet comparisons come rushing back: is Beatrice Lady Disdain for the same reason Hamlet is Sir Melancholy? Did she love her parents and was affected so much by their death? Perhaps, but such information has no place in a comedy. So why introduce the question at all. Would the play in of itself be any different if Beatrice was a younger sister? For me, this is what gives Beatrice enough of a “character” to salvage this play: she is a mystery to us as much as she is to those around her.

Finally, I wish to touch on Dogberry. Harold Bloom, whose opinion of Shakespeare’s works I hold with the highest esteem, derides Dogberry for his tedium. He is, as Bloom notes, a one-note character whose reliance on malapropisms for humour grows old quickly and does not cease. I cannot argue with this: it is true. More than any Fool, (except maybe the gravediggers in Hamlet, but they have such a short appearance) Dogberry’s speech is riddled with malapropisms that must have been funnier in 1598 than they are today. And this might have been a deciding fault for me if it was not in line with the other tedious parts that score this play. But let’s look past this flaw and see Dogberry’s sentimentalism. Dogberry, as fool, comes from the same tradition as Launce, who transformed into Dromio, Bottom, Launcelot, and even to an extent, Falstaff. They all have about them a certain sentimentalism to them that allows them to be the light in a dark world. Dogberry, and to a lesser extent his shadow Verges, are the only characters who are not self-centred. Every character has his or her own motives and seems to be focused solely on his or her own particular plot, but Dogberry genuinely cares about his fellow human beings. His logic may be muddled and comical, but it is honest and caring.

DOGBERRY: you are to call at all the
ale-houses, and bid those that are drunk get them to bed.

Watchman: How if they will not?

DOGBERRY: Why, then, let them alone till they are sober: if
they make you not then the better answer, you may
say they are not the men you took them for.

Watchman: Well, sir.

DOGBERRY: If you meet a thief, you may suspect him, by virtue
of your office, to be no true man; and, for such
kind of men, the less you meddle or make with them,
why the more is for your honesty.

Watchman: If we know him to be a thief, shall we not lay
hands on him?

DOGBERRY: Truly, by your office, you may; but I think they
that touch pitch will be defiled: the most peaceable
way for you, if you do take a thief, is to let him
show himself what he is and steal out of your company. (III.iii)

The world would be kinder if it was run by Dogberry: not better, but kinder. He attempts to bring

the news of Borachio’s plot to Leonato, but the old man doesn’t have time for a tottering

sentimentalist like Dogberry. If he had, then Claudio would have never accused Hero and we

would not have an act IV or V of this play.

Dogberry becomes buried in the game of wits for he is certainly a weak player in the game and

thus the play has no time or patience for him. He is simply meant to provide some comic relief

and accidentally bring about the comic resolution. Certainly, Beatrice and Benedick command

the show, and this is why they are awarded the honour of final marriage. Like final death, final

marriage is a mark of the true Heroes (no pun intended.) Such is why Berlioz, when creating an

operatic adaption of his play, named it Beatrice et Benedict: even though, oddly enough, the

parts of the opera belong to Hero, such as: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JtZleGpT9Gk

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Filed under Comedies, Pre-Hamlet