Tag Archives: literary criticism

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

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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is characteristic of Shakespeare’s contemporaries – particularly Ben Jonson – but it is contrary to why Shakespeare has superseded his peers.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

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

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


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



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



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



Here come the lovers, full of joy and mirth.


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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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






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






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






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


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

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

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

It is impossible to look at the meta-play, “Pyramus and Thisbe) (Pyr) and not see it as a parallel to Mid itself. Pyr is a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (and ancient mythology): it is a tragedy. In brief: Pyramus and Thisbe are in love but are forbidden to see each other. They meet at night, separated by a wall. They are forbidden to wed because of their families’ rivalry (remember, this was written at the same time as Romeo and Juliet.) One night they arrange to meet under a mulberry tree. Thisbe arrives and is scared off by a lion. Pyramus arrives, finds Thisbe’s veil that she left behind, assumed she was killed, and stabs himself. Thisbe returns, sees dead Pyramus and stabs herself. It is tragic, and in Romeo and Juliet the scene is does in a sublimely tragic manner (Romeo’s death is my second favourite Shakespearean death). And yet Peter Quince calls the play “the most lamentable comedy and the most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe” (I.ii) and Bottom notes that it is a “merry” play. This is an extremely bizarre and fascinating blend of comedy and tragedy.  If we take Pyr as a mirror of Mid we see that Shakespeare, like Peter Quince, is taking what could be a series of tragic situations (scorned love, sinister plots &c.) and demonstrating what happens when they are transformed into a comedy. Pyr is meant to be played – and is often played – as an absolutely ridiculous farce. The lines are intentionally poorly written, the characters provide too much exposition as to what they are doing, everything is melodramatic to the point of absurdity. The characters take pains to explain to us that although what we are witnessing is tragic and frightening, there are no consequences in Pyr because they are just actors. The lion is not a fierce lion but an actor playing a lion. Pyr does not die, but rather the fictional character being portrayed by an actor dies. All this is done, as Bottom points out, to not offend or frighten the ladies in the audience. Was this the same reason for the consequence free nature of Mid itself? Or is Shakespeare writing this play to make fun of the nature of theatre altogether? Is Mid intentionally bad? And if so, does this make it good? I will end here, and leave you, as Shakespeare does, with this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbqq77AEN_8

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Filed under Comedies, Pre-Hamlet


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright ©; 2012 Alex Benarzi – All Rights Reserved

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All’s Well That Ends Well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Bertram leaves, with some advice from his mother:

Love all, trust a few,

Do wrong to none. Be able for thine enemy

Rather in power than use, and keep thy friend

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

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

That thee may furnish, and my prayers pluck down,

Fall on thy head” (1.1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She had her breeding at my father’s charge

A poor physician’s daughter my wife! Disdain

Rather corrupt me ever!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But enough of that. I want to, in this long discourse, turn finally to Parolles, for his plot gets lost somewhere in the mess. He is in the Tuscan wars with Bertram and his fellow lords hate him, for being a coward and a liar. They devise a plan in which they will capture him, pretending to be the enemy, and get him to betray his own men. Without needing to read anything else in the play, I suggest you read Act 4, scene 1: it’s delightful: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/allswell/allswell.4.1.html

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Comedies, Post-Hamlet

Comedy of Errors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Then she bears some breadth?

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


In what part of her body stands Ireland?

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


Where Scotland?

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


Where France?

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


Where England?

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


Where Spain?

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


Where America, the Indies?

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


Where stood Belgia, the Netherlands?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright ©; 2012 Alex Benarzi – All Rights Reserved

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The Drowned Book

O! For a Muse of Water! Or a glass – I’ll take a glass.

Some time ago, never mind how long exactly, I decided that I wanted to read or re-read all of Shakespeare’s plays, and I started to do so. Then I realized, why just read them when I could also deconstruct them?

There are so many books on Shakespeare, and I’ve been reading a lot of them. But the more I read the texts themselves the more I find my opinions differing from certain critics. That is why I figured I would codify my own views on the Bard’s texts. Which brings us to this blog.

Over the course of the next few months, I will be sharing my views of the plays; approaching them from both a literary and theatrical perspective. A bit of deconstruction, a bit of reflection – whatever strikes me as important. It won’t be objective, because that’s boring. And while I may reference certain critics, it will not just be a rehashing of their works (so Harold Bloom, if for whatever reason you are reading this, I am not stealing your work!)

I think this is a way to codify my thoughts and to maybe bring to a group of readers some manageable knowledge about the plays. I am not writing these for only those familiar with Shakespeare or his works. Of course, if you have read the work you will have a deeper understanding of what I write and be able to disagree with me, but I will provide all knowledge needed.

These blogs will not be pedantic, but they will be on the academic side – and hopefully enjoyable. So I hope you will take the time and peruse what is here, or what will be here.

I was originally going to go in some form of chronological order, or by genre as most critics do. Marjorie Garber, in her excellent work Shakespeare After All, points to the fact that we should consider Shakespeare’s works in chronological order because one builds upon the others and we see how he develops tropes throughout his writing career. There is certainly a truth to this.

But I don’t really want to do that. So I’m going to go in a random order, whatever I feel like. That way we get a nice blend of comedy, tragedy, history, early, late &c.

I will be starting with The Comedy of Errors: which is coming off the presses soon and should be posted shortly. Stay tuned.

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