A righteous coup? The puzzle of Richard II

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

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

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

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

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

Who has the power to decide who has the power?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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



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


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

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

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

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



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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YOU: Wait, what?

OTHER: What’s wrong?

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

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

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

OTHER: …………

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

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

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

Trust me: it’s funny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CAPULETS – Tybalt, Juliet


Related to THE PRINCE – Mercutio, Paris

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


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

Romeo (dead)

Juliet (dead)

Paris (dead)

Old Montague

Old Capulet

Lady Capulet


Friar Laurence


Paris’ Page

1st Watchman

2nd Watchman

3rd Watchman

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

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


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The source of Prospero’s power in The Tempest

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

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

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

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

“Dost thou attend me?”


“Thou attend’st not”


“Dost thou hear?” (Temp I.ii)

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

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


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


Yet he would be king on’t.


The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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Shakespeare at the Opera

(The following is a cross-post from Shakespeare In Action’s blog. Click link for some wonderful insights in the wonderful world of the Bard)

Shakespeare’s works on their own can be daunting for many, as can the opera. Combine the two and you may see people running for the hills (woe to those in the Prairies!) But Shakespeare and opera are a wonderful match, and there have been a few composers who took the bard’s masterful storytelling and set it to music as strong as the characters themselves.

I think the greatest success story is Verdi’s opera Otello, based on Shakespeare’s Othello. The silence that consumes the theatre as Othello smothers his wife is harrowing, but when set to powerful music, it evokes the sublime passion in the audience that words alone cannot. Here is the finale from Domingo’s 1992 performance. You do not have to speak Italian to feel the horror that Shakespeare evoked at the end of this tragedy.

Finale from Otello

Othello lends itself quite well to the opera form. Librettist Arrigo Boito notes that he did not have to force Shakespeare’s work into a foreign style, but that Shakespeare wrote in the convention of Italian operas. Othello, perhaps more than any other Shakespeare play, fits the bill for traditional Italian opera: it is unified, it is melodramatic, and it demonstrates the fall of a great man. Iago, a larger than life villain, is right at home in Verdi’s world, as Dmitri Hvorostovsky demonstrates here. Or, as Placido Domingo illustrates, opera can show how truly far Othello must fall to meet his tragic end.

Let us move now to a lighter note. From the strong tragedian, Verdi, to the lyrical composer, Hector Berlioz. Most noted for his Symphonie Fantastique, Berlioz ventured into the operatic world and took Shakespeare with him. Beatrice et Benedict, which Berlioz wrote both the music and libretto for, is largely based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Of course Berlioz realized what Shakespeare may or may not have known when writing the play at the end of the 16th century; that the the heart of the play is the wit and relationship of Beatrice and Benedick, and so Berlioz afforded these two the centre stage of the opera.

The comic opera had great initial successes. Audiences in France and Germany were won over by the beautiful duets, and Beatrice’s Aria. Certain Parisian critics decided that the spoken words were “lacking in wit”, and yet the the dialogue that Berlioz inserted almost verbatim into the opera was Shakespeare’s text. Perhaps the wit of Beatrice and Benedick does not translate well into French? Or maybe these critics were harboring a grudge for Shakespeare’s treatment of the French in such plays as Henry V.

One of the crowning achievements of the opera is actually a scene that does not appear in Shakespeare’s text. About to be married, and knowing nothing of the impending tragedy that Don John and Borrachio have put in place, Hero and Ursula sit under the moonlight and sing a sensational nocturne of love:

In his memoirs, Hector Berlioz records a conversation he had with the Grand Duke of Wiemar about this piece:

DUKE: You must have written this, he said, by moonlight in some romantic place…

BERLIOZ: Sire, this is one of those of impressions of nature that artists store in their memory and which emerge from their creative mind without warning and in the most unpredictable circumstances. I sketched the music of this duet one day at the Institut, while one of my colleagues was delivering a speech.

DUKE: Good for the speaker! the Grand Duke replied. He must have been a man of exceptional eloquence!”

So we see two contrasting operas, in libretto and score, drawn from Shakespeare. His musical influence is far greater than this brief aperitif, but I wanted to share my two favourites here. As well as composing Otello, Verdi composed Falstaffe. Unfortunately Verdi is not as strong a comic composer as he is a tragic one, and the libretto comes largely from the anti-Falstaffian Merry Wives of Windsor, so this opera does not match up to Otello despite Falstaff’s natural presence in the opera world. A Midsummer Night’s Dream has also inspired a few operas. It is not hard to imagine the musically faerie world of the forest of Athens, sometimes made haunting by modernists like Benjamin Britten.

And so I close my curtain, hopefully leaving a lingering appreciation for the grand scope of Shakespeare’s works, the power of opera, or both.

Valeo amici!

Alex Benarzi

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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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JtZleGpT9Gk

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Filed under Comedies, Pre-Hamlet

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the interaction between Lear and Edmund:


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


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


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


Take them away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Exit one with GLOUCESTER

How is’t, my lord? how look you?


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


Second Servant

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

Third Servant

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

Second Servant

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

Third Servant

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

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

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


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


Set me where you stand.


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


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


Now fare you well, good sir.


With all my heart.


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


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

He falls forward (IV.vi)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Nothing, my lord.






Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.


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


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


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


But goes thy heart with this?


Ay, good my lord.


So young, and so untender?


So young, my lord, and true.


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

And Brown’s version:


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Is this the promised end


Or image of that horror?


Fall, and cease!


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


[Kneeling] O my good master!


Prithee, away.


‘Tis noble Kent, your friend.


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


‘Tis true, my lords, he did.


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



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



He faints! My lord, my lord!


Break, heart; I prithee, break!


Look up, my lord.


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


He is gone, indeed.

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

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

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

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Filed under Post-Hamlet, Tragedies

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

HECTOR falls

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And in the same scene Achilles says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Do you know a
man if you see him?


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


Well, I say Troilus is Troilus.


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


No, nor Hector is not Troilus in some degrees.


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


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


So he is. (II.ii)

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


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


You may.


I do desire it.


Why, beg, then.


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We first see Thersites in Act II, scene i:




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




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




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


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

Beating him

Feel, then.


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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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


From whence, fragment?


Why, thou full dish of fool, from Troy.


Who keeps the tent now?


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


Well said, adversity! and what need these tricks?


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


Male varlet, you rogue! what’s that?


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


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


Do I curse thee?


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


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

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


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

Exeunt TROILUS and DIOMEDES, fighting



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


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


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

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

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

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

Copyright ©, 2012 Alex Benarzi – All Rights Reserved

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Filed under Comedies, Post-Hamlet