Category Archives: Comedies

As You Like It: The Story of Arden

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

untitled (4)

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

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

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

Screenshot (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Filed under Comedies, Pre-Hamlet

The Shifting Sands of Morality in Measure For Measure


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

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

And the most famous question:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Trials of Isabella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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:

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Mid), the lyric comedy, is like Macbeth in that it is both immensely popular and scorned by a group of snooty Shakespeare scholars. The difference in this one is that I tend to side more with the snooty professors. I have seen quite a few productions of this play, and while I enjoy watching it, I do not think that this play keeps pace with the ranks of Shakespeare’s great works. It is by no means at the bottom of the pile, but it struggles around the middle. The great fault of this play can be explained with the anti-Aristotelian sentiment: “the whole is lesser than the sum of its parts.” This can be found in two aspects of the play, both which I will explore here. The first is that there are many subtleties to this play; intricacies that when explored on their own are interesting, but that come to nothing. The second is that there is very little “true” character interaction in this play. Aside from Nick Bottom in his transformative state, every character is in it for themselves and addresses the audience more than the other characters. This is characteristic of Shakespeare’s contemporaries – particularly Ben Jonson – but it is contrary to why Shakespeare has superseded his peers. The result of these two points is an entertaining play, but not a great one. The question to consider as you read through this is: amongst the play’s faults, how much is intentional and how much is an example of Shakespeare not at his best?

I am going to take the Roland Barthes route and discount the supposed historical context of this play, but I will here admit that if the story is true, that Mid was written to be performed as part of a wedding ceremony for some noble in his country house, this alters how we should view the play slightly. However, since this play has moved from its possible context to be part of Shakespeare’s cannon, I think it is fair to consider it in the light of his other plays.

Instead of progressing through the plot chronologically as I have done, I will group this analysis by its characters in order to draw out the two points I will be focusing on. Let’s start with Egeus, Theseus, and Hippolyta: the mortal figures of authority in the play. Let’s start with Hippolyta, who is betrothed to Theseus, Duke of Athens. Now, in Greek mythology, Hippolyta is Queen of the Amazons. Heracles comes with Theseus (and some others depending on the version you read) to steal Hippolyta’s girdle. From here, the versions differ greatly. Some say that Hippolyta led her Amazons in an attack against Athens. Some say that Heracles and Theseus kidnap Antiope, Hippolyta’s sister. Others say that Theseus kidnap Hippolyta herself. Whatever version you read, Hippolyta is pissed and goes on a male-killing spree. Shakespeare takes this well-known Queen and reduces her to absolutely nothing. In Mid, Hippolyta exists only to provide the wedding between her and the Duke that underscores the play. Some try to redeem her by saying “but in Act V she stands up to Theseus and changes his mind and this is really important”: this is not so. Here is the lines such people are referring to:


‘Tis strange my Theseus, that these
lovers speak of.



More strange than true: I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!



But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images
And grows to something of great constancy;
But, howsoever, strange and admirable.



Here come the lovers, full of joy and mirth.


Joy, gentle friends! joy and fresh days of love
Accompany your hearts! (V.i)


Yes, she does express a contrary opinion to Theseus, but Theseus is not the tyrant that Hippolyta supporters claim him to be. He says “I never may believe these antique fables, nor these fairy toys” but he does hint that he will take any action against the lovers. His exclamation of “joy, gentle friends!” is not because Hippolyta made him see that he was wrong – he is just good enough to badmouth people behind their backs and not to their faces. So Hippolyta as a character remains unnecessary and is a strong contender for the female division of “Shakespeare’s most useless character” but Lady Macduff would probably win the title.

Theseus and Egeus (Hermia’s father) represent the law of Athens. Egeus comes to Theseus and says that he wants Demetrius to marry Hermia, but Hermia does not want to because she loves Lysander. Egeus cries for the law, which states that a daughter is the property of the father and can be given in marriage to whomever the father wishes. If the daughter refuses she is either killed or forced to be celibate. The idea of the unbendable law standing in the way of a character’s happiness is common in Shakespeare’s comedies: we see it in Comedy of Errors, Merchant of Venice, and Measure for Measure. This aspect of the play is one of those interesting parts that come to nothing, because by half an hour into the play, you forget that this is a stipulation. Unlike Merchant of Venice in which Shylock is constantly reminding us that the law must be upheld, Hermia (and the audience) pays no attention to the law, and when we are reminded of this law in Act V, it is casually thrown out the window and Egeus is pretty much told to piss off. Compare this to Merchant of Venice and Measure by Measure where in order to subvert the law to save a life, a character or characters must create an elaborate plan. Even in Comedy of Errors, Egeon is saved from the unbendable law by luck. In Mid the throwing out of the law just seems like a way to brush aside something that is not really at the centre of the play.

Speaking of the centre of the play, let’s get to the four lovers: Hermia, Helena, Demetrius, and Lysander. On the surface we are presented with the following situation: Demetrius loves Hermia, Helena loves Demetrius, Hermia and Lysander are in love with each other. Due to a magical flower sprinkled in the men’s eyes, both Demetrius and Lysander fall in love with Helena and hate Hermia. After all the magic is sorted out, Demetrius admits that he loves Helena and marries her, Hermia and Lysander get married. Due to the use of the magic flower, the relationships between the pairs of lovers and their swift transition from love to hate disallows us to see these relationships as real, creating that lack of involvement between characters that hinders this play. Actors often painfully melodramatize these characters to the point that you wish Theseus would kill the lot of them. Even the wonderfully written Helena is torn to shreds by over-zealous actresses. In a production I saw recently, Demetrius and Lysander were dressed in identical costumes. I think this was a great choice on the director’s part – at least I hope it was a choice and not a matter of “we don’t have a large budget so we bought costumes in bulk.” It really shows how interchangeable the two male lovers are. Neither of them have distinct personalities, and we know (and often care) very little about them. Many productions will have Demetrius as a well-dressed proper male and Lysander as more of a laid back hippy. But the only thing that could even justify such a portrayal is that Hermia’s father favours Demetrius and hates Lysander. Lysander is (as Theseus agrees) as fair as Demetrius, and Lysander protests that he is as wealthy (if not more so) than Demetrius, but he is portrayed as the lover type. He stood outside Hermia’s window and sung to her, wrote her poetry, and gave her gifts. However, during the course of the play he does not display the sentimental tendencies, but is equally as rash as Demetrius.

Hermia and Helena have a bit more life to them. For whatever reason, I do not know why, Shakespeare hammers the point that Helena is taller than Hermia. In Act III, it becomes a point of contention.


Puppet? why so? ay, that way goes the game.
Now I perceive that she hath made compare
Between our statures; she hath urged her height;
And with her personage, her tall personage,
Her height, forsooth, she hath prevail’d with him.
And are you grown so high in his esteem;
Because I am so dwarfish and so low?
How low am I, thou painted maypole? speak;
How low am I? I am not yet so low
But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.” (III.ii)


Despite the fact that Helena is the taller of the two, Helena says that Hermia is the prettier: did the conception of tall girls as beautiful not exist yet? Or is this just Helena putting herself down because Demetrius loves Hermia and not her?

There is a bit in common with the Helena of this play and the Helena of All’s Well That Ends Well. Both Helenas are desperately in love with a man who treats her like garbage. Demetrius comes across a bit better than Bertram, but not by much. Time for another subtle aspect of the play that is completely overlooked and comes to nothing. Before the action of the play, Demetrius loved Helena and dumped her as soon as he met Hermia:

“For ere Demetrius look’d on Hermia’s eyne,
He hail’d down oaths that he was only mine;
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt,
So he dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt.” (I.i)

Doesn’t this make him so much more of a jerk? But the interesting part that is always overlooked is that Demetrius does exactly what the two lovers do under the influence of the magic flower, without the magic flower. This demonstrates (or could if this point was not overthrown) that the magic flower is not as fantastical as it seems but rather mirrors what happens naturally amongst fickle lovers. You might compare Demetrius to Romeo (Romeo and Juliet is said to have been written alongside Mid): Romeo’s love for Rosaline melted as soon as he saw Juliet. The only difference is that Rosaline did not love Romeo back, but we get the idea that Helena and Demetrius were in a good relationship until he saw Hermia and dumped Helena. But, like the Helena of All’s Well That Ends Well, this does not dissuade our Helena from pursuing a man that is not worthy of her. Unlike Bertram who takes Helena because he is defeated, Demetrius decides that because of everything that happened, he actually does love Helena – this change of heart is very consistent with Demetrius’ actions, but makes of a very unsatisfying conclusion. Helena of Mid did not have to work to get her man, unlike the other Helena who had to convince everyone that she was dead, dress as a man, get a local girl to say she would sleep with Bertram, and all that. Hermia and Lysander as well do not have to work for their love because Theseus decides that the law (the obstacle standing in their way) doesn’t matter. So when comparing Mid with All’s Well That Ends Well, even though Mid is a more entertaining play, the lack of problems such as we see in All’s makes Mid little more than entertainment.

I’ll touch briefly on the supernatural characters before moving on to the real star of the show, Nick Bottom. We have Oberon, the king of the fairies, Titania, his queen, Robin Goodfellow but more commonly known as Puck, and Titania’s entourage of fairies. The relationship between Oberon and Titania contribute to a play without consequences. The scene starts off with the problem: Titania has a boy, born of a woman in her service, and Oberon wants this boy. We don’t find out much more about this, and we quickly lose any interest in this boy. But the quarrel is enough for Oberon to get his faithful servant Puck to get the magical flower and make Titania fall in love with some random beast. This happens, and eventually Oberon has him reverse the magic and all is well between king and queen. There’s really not much more to say about this plotline.

A group of random labourers have decided to put on a play for the Duke’s wedding: the play is “Pyramus and Thisbe.” I will get to the meta-play (the most interesting part of Mid) in a bit. Nick Bottom is the epitome of a show-stealer. While, as I mentioned, every character in this play is concerned with themselves alone, Bottom makes this the most apparent. Despite the fact that Peter Quince is the director of the play, Bottom quickly takes control and is eventually seen by the others as their leader. Bottom the character tries to claim all parts for himself and cannot help but giving his opinions about everything. Bottom as a character played by an actor, steals the show – always. Bottom always gets the most laughs, and he is one of the few characters people not too familiar with the play can name in the end. Who the hell knows any of the other mechanicals? Flute? Who is Flute? It’s Bottom, Bottom, Bottom. Puck agrees with me that this man is nothing but an ass, so what does he do? He turns Bottom’s head into an ass’s head. He then puts him next to Titania who wakes up and falls in love with the ass-man. Not only in Bottom physically transformed, but his character is reversed: instead of being the epitome of self-centredness in a cast of self-centred characters, Bottom in ass-form is the only character who truly interacts with other characters. And it’s not Titania. Poor directors have tried to sexualize their Bottom and forced him to reciprocate Titania’s lusty advances. But this is not what Shakespeare wrote, as Harold Bloom illustrates in Shakespeare: Invention of the Human. While Titania is advancing on him, Bottom befriends her fairies, the supernatural equivalent of young boys. Once again, poor directors will sexualize this and turn him into some form of pedophile – this is not the case. Nick Bottom has sex nowhere near his mind. He is content with his natural setting, with nuts (that’s literal nuts not the metaphorical one you dirty-minded people) and hay, and keeping the pleasant company of the young fairies. He is a sentimental ass-man of nature, a true pastoral hero.


I cry your worship’s mercy, heartily: I beseech your
worship’s name.






I shall desire you of more acquaintance, good Master
Cobweb: if I cut my finger, I shall make bold with
you. Your name, honest gentleman?






I pray you, commend me to Mistress Squash, your
mother, and to Master Peascod, your father. Good
Master Peaseblossom, I shall desire you of more
acquaintance too. Your name, I beseech you, sir?






Good Master Mustardseed, I know your patience well:
that same cowardly, giant-like ox-beef hath
devoured many a gentleman of your house: I promise
you your kindred had made my eyes water ere now. I
desire your more acquaintance, good Master
Mustardseed. (III.i)


This is the only part in the play where one character is genuinely interested in another and not out for his own gains. Then he is transformed back to human and goes back to his old ways. You would think that Bottom would learn something from his experience, but no. Once again, this play is free of consequence, and everything goes back to the way it was before the play started (depending on how you interpret Demetrius, I suppose).

So you can see how this play is entertaining and has a few really interesting points to it, but the lack of consequences seems to derail it. The fact that it is all “a midsummer night’s dream” (as reinforced by the title and Puck’s epilogue) means that nothing that happens in the play matters: it is just a frivolous comedy. I find this detrimental to the work, but perhaps I am just a cynical person who needs his drama to have “drama” in it. This play has often been equated with those light Romantic comedies that earn so much scorn from those who cannot buy into them. I’m not judging anyone who likes this play – there is much to like in it – but I cannot help but compare it to the rest of Shakespeare’s cannon, and on this scale the lack of consequence and lack of character interaction lowers its stature.

I could end my analysis here, but I would be doing myself a disservice. I will now demonstrate how everything I have written about this play was actually all part of Shakespeare’s brilliant plan.

It is impossible to look at the meta-play, “Pyramus and Thisbe) (Pyr) and not see it as a parallel to Mid itself. Pyr is a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (and ancient mythology): it is a tragedy. In brief: Pyramus and Thisbe are in love but are forbidden to see each other. They meet at night, separated by a wall. They are forbidden to wed because of their families’ rivalry (remember, this was written at the same time as Romeo and Juliet.) One night they arrange to meet under a mulberry tree. Thisbe arrives and is scared off by a lion. Pyramus arrives, finds Thisbe’s veil that she left behind, assumed she was killed, and stabs himself. Thisbe returns, sees dead Pyramus and stabs herself. It is tragic, and in Romeo and Juliet the scene is does in a sublimely tragic manner (Romeo’s death is my second favourite Shakespearean death). And yet Peter Quince calls the play “the most lamentable comedy and the most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe” (I.ii) and Bottom notes that it is a “merry” play. This is an extremely bizarre and fascinating blend of comedy and tragedy.  If we take Pyr as a mirror of Mid we see that Shakespeare, like Peter Quince, is taking what could be a series of tragic situations (scorned love, sinister plots &c.) and demonstrating what happens when they are transformed into a comedy. Pyr is meant to be played – and is often played – as an absolutely ridiculous farce. The lines are intentionally poorly written, the characters provide too much exposition as to what they are doing, everything is melodramatic to the point of absurdity. The characters take pains to explain to us that although what we are witnessing is tragic and frightening, there are no consequences in Pyr because they are just actors. The lion is not a fierce lion but an actor playing a lion. Pyr does not die, but rather the fictional character being portrayed by an actor dies. All this is done, as Bottom points out, to not offend or frighten the ladies in the audience. Was this the same reason for the consequence free nature of Mid itself? Or is Shakespeare writing this play to make fun of the nature of theatre altogether? Is Mid intentionally bad? And if so, does this make it good? I will end here, and leave you, as Shakespeare does, with this:

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All’s Well That Ends Well

Harold Bloom refers to All’s Well that Ends Well (All’s) as Shakespeare’s “most undervalued comedy” in his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (one of the best books on Shakespeare you will find). I would personally give this title to Comedy of Errors, or even Measure for Measure which seems to not get the appreciation that it deserves. I will admit that I do not like All’s that much: the first time I read it I did not have the time to give it its full consideration, so I re-read it recently and still cannot say that I love it. I think it boils down to this play is severely lacking in language and character: there are no great moments of literary passion that you find in many of Shakespeare’s works, and there are really only three characters that can come close to surviving in a Shakespeare character death match.

While touching on these complaints, I will focus on All’s redeeming qualities as well, which can be summarized in two and half words: it’s different. Yes, as a Romantic comedy All’s is inevitably placed against the two champions of the genre – As You Like It and Twelfth Night – and while there are some similarities, there are more differences. All’s offers a clash of genres and contemporary dramatic tropes, woven into one story. It offers a relationship that is unlike those in previous comedies. And it offers a mother. Think of how many Shakespeare plays have a mother figure – then think of how many have a strong mother figure and you can cross off Gertrude and Amelia. We are left with the nameless Queen from Cymbeline, Volumnia from Coriolanus, and the one that precedes them both – the Countess Rossillion from All’s. But we’ll get back to her.

For the male readers/audience of All’s, the play addresses that phenomenon of women who go after a guy despite the fact that he is no good for her and you cannot fathom what she sees in him. For the female readers/audience of All’s, the play asks: “why would you do that? What do you see in him?” Or as W.B Yeats, puts it:

“It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.” – A Prayer For My Daughter

The reason for this is because the primary relationship in the play is between Bertram, Count Rossillion, and Helena. In any other Shakespearean primary character, you can find some redeeming qualities: “yeah, he’s an idiot, but he represents sentimentalism at its height” or “he’s not a well-developed character, but he’s funny.” There is nothing redeeming about Bertram. As the play opens, his father has died, leaving him as Count Rossillion. But he is too young to assume his title, so the King of France adopts him as a ward. “I must attend his majesty’s command, to whom I am now in ward, evermore in subjection” (1.i). He just becomes more and more of a spoiled brat as the play goes on.

Then there is Helena. Helena is an interesting character. She is often compared to Rosalind from As You Like It for her control over of the situation, and ability to scheme. Helena does not have nearly as much wit as Rosalind and is more like a whiny little sister (not Celia). And yet, Helena has a formal education, sort of. Her father was a great doctor and before he died he passed on all his knowledge to Helena. It is very rare that you find an educated female character. Despite her education, since her father died she has become an orphan and was taken in by the Countess as a “favour.” So she is lower class, as Bertram is so quick to point out. Helena loves Bertram: as mentioned the crux of the play is “why?” Why does she, a good-natured, smart young lady love that horrible person?” Let’s see…

The play opens with Bertram leaving for France to attend the King. We learn from Lafew, a Lord, that the King has a anal fistula…can’t sit down very well. This little piece of information is not present in any of the source material for All’s and so Shakespeare looked at this story and said “there is really not enough butt jokes in here…I can fix that.” But this disease of the rectum becomes a major plot point in the story.

So Bertram leaves, with some advice from his mother:

Love all, trust a few,

Do wrong to none. Be able for thine enemy

Rather in power than use, and keep thy friend

Under thy own life’s key. Be check’d for silence,

But never tax’d for speech. What heaven more will,

That thee may furnish, and my prayers pluck down,

Fall on thy head” (1.1)

Anyone familiar with Hamlet will recognize Polonius’ advice to his son in these lines. However instead of an incompetent father, we here have an incompetent son. Bertram will do none of these things that his mother tells him, because Bertram looks out for number one.

Just before he leaves he tells Helena to be good to his mother, that’s all. So as soon as Helena’s alone of course she will launch into the “O! I am unhappy” routine – “I cannot live if he is gone…what am I going to do?” WHY?

Helena is interrupted form her thoughts when Parolles enters. Parolles, along with Helena and the Countess, is the redeeming character of this play. He’s like Falstaff, but not good enough to be Falstaff. But he is a scoundrel, and he is funny, and has a sharp-tongue, so there is much to like in him. Helena announces his entrance by telling the audience that he is a “notorious liar” and a “great way fool, soly a coward” – all which is true. The two have a fun banter about virginity and how to seduce a man. He is then called away to join Bertram and Helena is once again left alone to torture us. She delivers a sonnet-like-thing that is just…awful. I will always give Shakespeare the benefit of the doubt and say it is intentionally awful – but it illustrates that we are dealing with a play in which we should not expect any bon mots, or sweet phrases.

“Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven: the fated sky
Gives us free scope, only doth backward pull
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.
What power is it which mounts my love so high,
That makes me see, and cannot feed mine eye?
The mightiest space in fortune nature brings
To join like likes and kiss like native things.
Impossible be strange attempts to those
That weigh their pains in sense and do suppose
What hath been cannot be: who ever strove
So show her merit, that did miss her love?
The king’s disease–my project may deceive me,
But my intents are fix’d and will not leave me” (1.1)

The first major development in the paly comes in I.iii when the Countess calls Helena before her, after dismissing a Clown who I will not write about because he is not funny, nor adds anything to the play, and is an embarrassment to the great clowns that came before him. So Helena and the Countess go round and round as the Countess tries to draw out that Helena loves Bertram. Helena is being coy and the Countess – who I picture as Maggie Smith – finally says for Helena to just admit she loves Bertram. Helena does and the controlling mother starts forming her plan to get the two married. She gets Helena to admit that she wishes to go to Paris and we learn that Helena believes she has a cure for the King’s troubles. She goes off to Paris to win the favour of the King, all according to the Countess’ plan.

And of course she succeeds in curing the King. So happy is he that he gathers a group of his young lords and says to her: “pick one.” And of course in a long-winded manner – because she is ever so happy! – she picks Bertram. But she does not even pick Bertram, but says: “I dare not say I take you, but I give me and my service, ever whilst I live, into your guiding power” (2.3). She gives herself completely to him – an absolutely obedient wife falls right into his hands, and he says “I don’t want to marry her.” “But she saved my life,” says the king. “Yeah, well why should I suffer for that?” said the brat….and he continues.

“She had her breeding at my father’s charge

A poor physician’s daughter my wife! Disdain

Rather corrupt me ever!”

Translation: I don’t want no poor girl to muck up my title!

The King becomes very wise and philosophic and says that if the only thing stopping him is her title that is silly because he is the king and he can raise her title to whatever he wants. He then waxes poetic about the nature of goodness and how good is good and virtue is virtue and the class distinction is arbitrary and meaningless. It’s great! Let’s tear down those class barriers and see people for who they really are! Bertram replies:

“I cannot love her no will strive to do’t”

Helena tries to save face – because who would love being told she is unworthy to her face and says that she doesn’t care anymore, it is enough that the king is well, let the rest go. But the King flips out and starts berating Bertram. Interestingly enough, he begins his tirade with “my honour’s at the stake” – so we might ask how much he really cares about Helena, and how much he cares about looking like a weak man in front of his lords? He concludes by saying that Bertram must take her as wife or he will be cast out and left a beggar, so of course the goat’s end says: “Oh, yes, I have been so foolish. I thought she was base but now, if I look at her from this angle, yes as long as you, King sire, say so, she is beautiful!”

So that’s settled, and Bertram confides to Parolles that, yes they forced him to marry, he will never bed her: “I’ll to the Tuscan wars, and never bed her.” What? He would rather go die in the wars than have his wife? Why? But this is what he does and writes a letter to send to his mother and Helena saying that he is so sorry but he had to go to war.

So you would think that Helena, having suffered so much from this guy, would realize that he is not worth her time, and that there are so many lords who would love to have a treasure like her, right? No. Well, actually she comes home pretty defeated, but the Countess will not give up, and doesn’t really care for people’s emotions.

Now Bertram, or Shakespeare, created this caveat to the situation. Bertram says

“When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband” (3.2)

Most audience members would have been familiar with the two classic “tricks” – the “ring trick” and the “bed trick.” Over the course of his career, Shakespeare uses both – in All’s he uses both at the same time. Not only does Helena have to get Bertram’s ring off him, but she has to sleep with him. In brief: she runs away, disguising herself as a pilgrim (a male pilgrim), goes on pilgrimage to St. Jacques, meets a widow and her daughter Diana, devises a plan in which she gets Diana to seduce Bertram and have sex with him in the dark (so that Helena can take Diana’s place), and Diana also gets the ring. By the way, it is Diana’s mother who Helena arranges all this with, Diana is as much a pawn to her mother as Bertram and Helena are to the Countess – mothers are evil.

So the plan goes off, somewhat smoothly. And of course “All’s well that ends well” – sort of. In the last half of the play, the amount of times that a character says a variance of “All’s well that ends well” is quiet absurd. It is like Keats’ use of “happy” in Ode to a Nightingale – clearly he is not happy. We really have to question how well everything ends by the amount of times it is affirmed. There is a complex plot involving Diana and the ring which almost gets her killed until Helena shows up, reveals her plot and shows Bertram that she has both gotten his ring and is pregnant by him. And in a Shylock-like moment he says something to the effect of “I am content” and then takes Helena for his wife. To which Helena says something to the effect of “if I am ever untrue, leave me or kill me.” So everyone is happy…but something is wrong. Shakespeare never answered the question: why? Why does Helena submit, after everything she went through, to this man who is really the same man? He will go on being a spoiled child and she will be submissive – and this is a happy ending? The lesson: girls will find themselves attracted to spoiled jerks, plain and simple – nothing you can do about it. So don’t try to be intelligent, or chivalrous – just be a rich spoiled jerk.

But enough of that. I want to, in this long discourse, turn finally to Parolles, for his plot gets lost somewhere in the mess. He is in the Tuscan wars with Bertram and his fellow lords hate him, for being a coward and a liar. They devise a plan in which they will capture him, pretending to be the enemy, and get him to betray his own men. Without needing to read anything else in the play, I suggest you read Act 4, scene 1: it’s delightful:

They blindfold Parolles and use a made up language to sound like the enemy. Then a “translator” gets Parolles to talk, and he reveals secrets about the men who are standing around listening to him. A key joke is Parolles’ line:

“I shall lose my life for want of language” (4.1). He means that he shall die because he cannot understand them. But the joke is that his name means words and it is words that are responsible for his downfall. So they go through the whole bit – reading the made-up language aloud is fun – and then they take off the blindfold and reveal the plot, at which point Parolles becomes suddenly serious, like Malvolio at the end of Twelfth Night, but more dejected than vindictive.

“Who cannot be crushed with a plot?” he says: and this is really true for everything in the play. Bertram is crushed with a plot. Helena is crushed with a plot. Parolles is crushed with a plot. Diana is almost crushed with a plot. There is a danger in scheming: this is really the only surety that Shakespeare delivers in this play.

We may not know why Helena loves Bertram, but we do know that her plots, like the plot against Parolles, is meant to humble everyone around her, not satisfy. No one is truly happy at the end of the play despite what they may think: except the Countess, who got exactly what she wanted, and maybe Diana and her mother who after all is done, the King offers one of his lords to marry. The fact that this king reverses the whole suitor role is a matter left for a further time.

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Filed under Comedies, Post-Hamlet

Comedy of Errors

I want to start with Comedy of Errors (Com.) because it is often overlooked in the Shakespeare cannon. I will be addressing two main complaints that are often lodged against this play, and a how this play can work in the 21st century, with the benefit of modern theories in theatre.

The first compliant: “Com. is an early play and therefore Shakespeare is not as mature as he is in his later works.” This is a dreadful argument. First, while it is only his third comedy, it is (according to most scholars) his eighth play. Before Com. you have the entire York tetralogy. And despite what Mr. Bloom would argue, I think that Richard III is a testament to Shakespeare’s maturity. The faults that can be found in some “early works” such as Titus Andronicus and Two Gentlemen of Verona have nothing to do with the fact that they are “early works.” So no more of that.

The second complaint: “Com. is full of flat characters, a stale plot, and is predictable at every turn.” This complaint is at least something to sink our teeth into. I will address these issues in their own right, but summarize here before I go further. Com. is analogous to The Artist: that soon to be winner of the 2012 Academy Award for Best Picture – if I’m wrong about that prediction I will eat my hat (NB: my hat may be made out of a Twix bar). Just as The Artist takes us to a time of the silent picture, all the while making it fresh and enjoyable for today’s viewers, so Com. takes us back to the glory days of Roman comedy, while at the same time making it fresh and enjoyable for contemporary and modern viewers/readers. C

Com. begins much like Act 1, scene 2 of The Tempest, or the original Star Wars if you will: that is, Shakespeare clears away all the exposition at the start so we are not bogged down with it during the play. The play takes place is Ephesus, and we learn almost immediately that there is enmity between Ephesus and nearby Syracuse, and that anyone from one city found in the other would be put to death (unless they can pay a certain sum). This is the law: and like the laws in Merchant of Venice or Measure for Measure, it helps keep everyone (including the Duke) in check. So of course we have a hapless Syracuse merchant, Egeon, thrown before the Duke who informs Egeon that he is to be put to death if he cannot produce his bail by this night. Egeon replies:

“Yet this my comfort, when your words are done,

My woes end likewise with the evening sun.” (I.i)

“Go ahead,” he says, “kill me; it will only bring me comfort.” And the Duke takes the bait. “Why/” he asks, which launches Egeon into his life story. In brief it is thus: Egeon and his wife are in an inn and his wife gives birth to two twins, both named Antipholus. At that very moment a poor woman also gives birth to two twins, both named Dromio. Egeon buys the poor woman’s twins and decides that they are to be the servants of his twins – what a nice man. A storm hits them on the way home and Egeon’s ship is torn apart, and everyone is separated. Egeon, one of his sons, and his son’s servants make it back to Syracuse. Years later, Antipholus, goes with Dromio, to find his long lost mother and brother. He does not come back, so Egeon goes looking for his son and that’s why he’s in Ephesus – all that in one speech! So the sentimental Duke starts crying and says how piteous the whole affair is but he is bound by law. He never thinks to offer to pay Egeon’s bail himself. “I wish there was something I could do.” he says fanning himself with money, “but my hands are tied.” So that ends and we don’t see Egeon again until the end of the play.

We quickly learn that not only are Egeon’s Antipholus and Dromio in Ephesus, but the other set of twins are there as well. The remainder of the play is taken up with the exploits of two Antipholi and two Dromios. Antipholus of Syracuse will go tell his Dromio to do something, Dromio leaves, and then Dromio of Ephesus comes and fails to understand what his “master” is talking about, and gets beaten for it. It is pure Roman anarchic comedy, full of slapstick humour and silly plots. This is what angers certain critics and makes the play seem “immature.”

And yet, there are a couple of things in this play that are interestingly Shakespearean, and exist beyond the surface. Some critics will tell you that the Antipholi lack any character to distinguish themselves, that they are placeholders rather than characters. This claim can be made about the Dromios, but it is a lazy reader who says this about the Antipholi. We have two brothers who look the same in every way, but they grew up in completely different circumstances. While we do not learn too much about them as characters it is true, there is a major distinction. Antipholus of Syracuse is very philosophic, likes to ruminate, almost a dreamer character – he might find himself in good company with Orlando, or Sebastian. Antipholus of Ephesus is more like Timon before his fall: he is a businessman who has grown wealthy and established a great reputation in the city. Everyone loves him. But he is also very prone to anger, and far rasher than his twin: although both of them never pass up an opportunity to beat their Dromio. Not only do we have two distinct characters who enter and exit the stage throughout the play, but the way these two characters view Ephesus is wonderful, and provides a completely different perspective for the audience depending on who’s talking. For the businessman of Ephesus, his city is like Venice from Merchant of Venice: a place to buy and sell, and to gain wealth and pleasure.  We do not see him as much as we see Antipholus of Syracuse. Remember, we are dealing with a man who comes to a strange city and is suddenly both recognized and renowned as a great man by people he has never seen. So he starts to think he is in a strange city filled with magic – it’s great. We are thrown between these two versions of the same city as we switch between the two versions of the same man (physically): there is so much happening here beyond “flat characters.”

Usually the way comedy works in Shakespeare is that there is a fool or clown and he uses his wit to outsmart a more stoic character and thus plays jokes for the audience’s delight. How often in Shakespeare do you get honest schtick? I can only think of a few examples where both characters are in on the fun. Com. has probably the best example of schtick, real Abbot and Costello material. The set-up is that the Syracuse Antipholus and Dromio go to the Ephesus Antipholus’ house for lunch. There they meet E. Antipholus’ wife and single sister (who of course S. Antipholus will fall in love with). We also learn that E. Dromio is engaged to the fat kitchen wench. Here is a conversation about the maid.


Then she bears some breadth?

No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip:
she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out
countries in her.


In what part of her body stands Ireland?

Marry, in her buttocks: I found it out by the bogs.


Where Scotland?

I found it by the barrenness; hard in the palm of the hand.


Where France?

In her forehead; armed and reverted, making war
against her heir.


Where England?

I looked for the chalky cliffs, but I could find no
whiteness in them; but I guess it stood in her chin,
by the salt rheum that ran between France and it.


Where Spain?

Faith, I saw it not; but I felt it hot in her breath.


Where America, the Indies?

Oh, sir, upon her nose all o’er embellished with
rubies, carbuncles, sapphires, declining their rich
aspect to the hot breath of Spain; who sent whole
armadoes of caracks to be ballast at her nose.


Where stood Belgia, the Netherlands?

Oh, sir, I did not look so low. To conclude, this
drudge, or diviner, laid claim to me, call’d me
Dromio; swore I was assured to her; told me what
privy marks I had about me, as, the mark of my
shoulder, the mole in my neck, the great wart on my
left arm, that I amazed ran from her as a witch:
And, I think, if my breast had not been made of
faith and my heart of steel,
She had transform’d me to a curtal dog and made
me turn i’ the wheel. (III.ii)

What is a Shakespeare comedy without drama – what is a drama without drama? The main problem in the play occurs when Angelo the goldsmith makes a chain for E. Antipholus, gives it to S. Antipholus and demands payment of it from whichever Antipholus he happens to be talking to, but neither of them will pay: one claims he never received the chain, the other that he never ordered it. So E. Antipholus is taken to prison and a doctor tries to “cure” him of his madness. In a post-psychology world, the idea of multiple-personality would be played up in what I’m sure would be a Freud type doctor. Antipholus is suffering from committing acts and then having no knowledge of committing the acts (BECAUSE THERE ARE TWO OF THEM!) Just in case you didn’t get it. Of course the tragedy does not last long, and the only one who gets severely hurt in this play is the Doctor no one cares about: he gets his beard burned off by enraged E. Antipholus.

And of course a reunion scene must happen at the very end. Like Twelfth Night nothing could be solved until the twins are both on stage at the same time. E. Antipholus and E. Dromio escape from the prison and end up in front of an abbey, where S. Antipholus and S. Dromio are taking sanctuary. The entire cast (not a very large one) starts to gather on the street. The Duke and Egeon (remember them) arrive for Egeon’s execution, and there is a painful scene where Egeon cries out to E. Antipholus:

“Unless the fear of death doth make me dote,
I see my son Antipholus and Dromio.”

He thinks this is S. Antipholus who he spent years looking for and as a result is about to be executed. And of course, E. Antipholus has never seen this man and denies him the money for his bail. This is the most “tragic” part of the play – but we know that everything will turn out right: and it does.

The Abbess, Amelia, walks out with S. Antipholus and S. Dromio and makes sense of the whole matter. Everyone meets everyone, everything is explained, the bail is paid and what is more is that Amelia (character who does not appear until the last scene) reveals that she is Egeon’s wif and the boys’ mother! A random twist, but it serves a purpose beyond adding to a happy ending. In a play full of predictable plot points, where the comedy relies on dramatic irony, Shakespeare still manages to say “ha! Didn’t see that coming, did you?”

So the play ends, in this wonderful scene where the two Dromios are deciding who should walk before who, and then decide to exit hand in hand beside each other. This is a stark contrast to the two Antipholi who barely acknowledge each other when they finally meet. Shakespeare loves showing how humbleness produces better people. And I guess the Dromios had to get something for all the beating they suffered.

The relation between the characters and the audience is interesting in this play. The audience is both invited into the action and alienated from it at the same time. Due to the heavy reliance on Dramatic irony, we are always in on the joke – we know what the characters do not. And yet for the comedy to “work” we must accept the state of perpetual chaos that this play demands. That is why so many do not like it: they are thinking at every moment “yeah, yeah, we know that there is a confusion of twins and that they will eventually figure everything out: so what?” As an audience member you must create a disconnect between what you know and what you see. The characters do not give a damn what you are thinking: unlike Hamlet, Richard III, or Iago for example. They don’t need you. So a modern director can have a really fun time finding ways to alienate the audience, or to get them to see their insignificance as audience members.

Romeo and Juliet, written very shortly after Com. is a tragedy in which we know how it ends from the start: it’s told to us in the prologue. But it doesn’t affect us too much, for we can still feel the necessary pathos for the lovers. But Com. as a comedy in which we know the end from the start and this does affect us, and if you rely too much on your own knowledge, you will not enjoy this play. But if you can alienate yourself from the action and take it for what it is – it is a wonderful play.

Copyright ©; 2012 Alex Benarzi – All Rights Reserved

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Filed under Comedies, Pre-Hamlet