Tag Archives: tragedy

Where is the fault in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar

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

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

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

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

too rash, too unadvised, too sudden;

Too like the lightning, which doth cease to be

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

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

Soothsayer

Caesar!

CAESAR

Ha! who calls?

CASCA

Bid every noise be still: peace yet again!

CAESAR

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

Soothsayer

Beware the ides of March.

CAESAR

What man is that?

BRUTUS

A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March.

CAESAR

Set him before me; let me see his face.

CASSIUS

Fellow, come from the throng; look upon Caesar.

CAESAR

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

Soothsayer

Beware the ides of March.

CAESAR

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

 

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

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

 

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JULIUS CAESAR

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

Forget not, in your speed, Antonius,

To touch Calpurnia; for our elders say,

The barren, touched in this holy chase,

Shake off their sterile curse. (I.ii)

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

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

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

A lioness hath whelped in the streets;

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

Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds,

In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,

Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;

The noise of battle hurtled in the air,

Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

COUNTERPOINT

 

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

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

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

And things unlucky charge my fantasy:

I have no will to wander forth of doors,

Yet something leads me forth. (III.iii)

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

First Citizen

Tear him to pieces; he’s a conspirator.

CINNA THE POET

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

Fourth Citizen

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

CINNA THE POET

I am not Cinna the conspirator.

Fourth Citizen

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

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

 

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

OCTAVIUS

Your brother too must die; consent you, Lepidus?

LEPIDUS

I do consent–

OCTAVIUS

Prick him down, Antony.

LEPIDUS

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

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

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

Like to the empty ass, to shake his ears,

And graze in commons. (Iv.i)

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

 

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

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

Let me tell you, Cassius, you yourself

Are much condemn’d to have an itching palm;

To sell and mart your offices for gold

To undeservers. (IV.iii)

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

Remember March, the ides of March remember:

Did not great Julius bleed for justice’ sake?

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

And not for justice? What, shall one of us

That struck the foremost man of all this world

But for supporting robbers, shall we now

Contaminate our fingers with base bribes,

And sell the mighty space of our large honours

For so much trash as may be grasped thus?

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

Than such a Roman. (IV.iii)

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

CASSIUS

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

BRUTUS

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

CASSIUS

I durst not!

BRUTUS

CASSIUS

What, durst not tempt him!

BRUTUS

For your life you durst not!

CASSIUS

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

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

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

 

You know that I held Epicurus strong

And his opinion: now I change my mind,

And partly credit things that do presage.

Coming from Sardis, on our former ensign

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

Gorging and feeding from our soldiers’ hands;

Who to Philippi here consorted us:

This morning are they fled away and gone;

And in their steads do ravens, crows and kites,

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

As we were sickly prey: their shadows seem

A canopy most fatal, under which

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

 

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

Come down, behold no more. O, coward that

I am, to live so long,

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

 

PINDARUS descends

 

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

And then I swore thee, saving of thy life,

That whatsoever I did bid thee do,

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

Now be a freeman: and with this good sword,

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

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

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

Guide thou the sword.

 

PINDARUS stabs him

 

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

 

Dies (V.iii)

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

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

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

 Noli mirabilis esse oblivisci!

 

 

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Filed under Pre-Hamlet, Tragedies

The Winter’s Tale: Art v. Time

I.

The Winter’s Tale is a divisive play on many levels. The plot is literally divided in half. First we have Leontes, King of Sicilia, who believes his wife Hermione (not that one) is having an affair with his best friend, and according to some, lover, Polixenes. The second half jumps sixteen years ahead and is the pastoral tale of Leontes’ lost daughter, Perdita, now a shepherd’s daughter, and her secret love with Polixenes’ son, Florizel, amidst a grand sheep-shearing festival. Sprung from this, we have the division of genre: the first half is a tragedy and the second is a comedy, but both have elements of the others embedded within their façade, like the yin and yang.

Harmony is only maintained if, within light there is dark, and within dark there is light. So in The Winter’s Tale is there comedy embedded in the depths of Leontes’ madness and its tragic consequence. Paulina, bringing the news of Hermione’s “death” to Leontes, transforms into the Nurse from Romeo and Juliet.

PAULINA

Woe the while!
O, cut my lace, lest my heart, cracking it,
Break too.

First Lord

What fit is this, good lady?

PAULINA

What studied torments, tyrant, hast for me?
What wheels? racks? fires? what flaying? boiling?
In leads or oils? what old or newer torture
Must I receive, whose every word deserves
To taste of thy most worst? Thy tyranny
Together working with thy jealousies,
Fancies too weak for boys, too green and idle
For girls of nine, O, think what they have done
And then run mad indeed, stark mad! for all
Thy by-gone fooleries were but spices of it.
That thou betray’dst Polixenes,’twas nothing;
That did but show thee, of a fool, inconstant
And damnable ingrateful: nor was’t much,
Thou wouldst have poison’d good Camillo’s honour,
To have him kill a king: poor trespasses,
More monstrous standing by: whereof I reckon
The casting forth to crows thy baby-daughter
To be or none or little; though a devil
Would have shed water out of fire ere done’t:
Nor is’t directly laid to thee, the death
Of the young prince, whose honourable thoughts,
Thoughts high for one so tender, cleft the heart
That could conceive a gross and foolish sire
Blemish’d his gracious dam: this is not, no,
Laid to thy answer: but the last,–O lords,
When I have said, cry ‘woe!’ the queen, the queen,
The sweet’st, dear’st creature’s dead,
and vengeance for’t
Not dropp’d down yet.

First Lord

The higher powers forbid!

PAULINA

I say she’s dead; I’ll swear’t. If word nor oath
Prevail not, go and see: if you can bring
Tincture or lustre in her lip, her eye,
Heat outwardly or breath within, I’ll serve you
As I would do the gods. But, O thou tyrant!
Do not repent these things, for they are heavier
Than all thy woes can stir; therefore betake thee
To nothing but despair. A thousand knees
Ten thousand years together, naked, fasting,
Upon a barren mountain and still winter
In storm perpetual, could not move the gods
To look that way thou wert. (Winter’s Tale III.ii)

It is too much, it is overdone in Shakespeare’s recognizable style suggesting that it is not as it is. We cannot listen to the Nurse’s woes and wails without our minds screaming at us that we know Juliet is alive (for now). Here, we do not actually know at this point that Hermione is alive, but the language delivers the same clue. It is too bathetic to be otherwise. A comic undertone must exist to make this speech what it is – enjoyable and pleasing to the ear. This the most troubling point of all.

And without having to quote specific lines, we have the circle of yin in the yang that is Bohemia in this play. As with all of Shakespeare’s green spaces (even the Forest of Arden), there is a dark, corrupting (or tragic) force. Autolycus is such a force: a disingenuous thief in a perfect world, but his acts bring too little consequence. It is Polixenes that corrupts his world as Leontes corrupted Sicilia, or more specifically, it is a class division that tears the veil in this pastoral harmony.

A final divisive element – this one may be superficial – is the critical reception of this play. Some praise this as one of Shakespeare’s great achievements: his most inventive work, his most real, or his most mature. Others consider this a fumble: an older Shakespeare trying to play catch-up in a changing world of theatre, throwing together a flimsy tragicomedy because this is the style at the time. A sign that he needs to step aside and make room for Fletcher.

II.

The Winter’s Tale is an aesthetic play, one in which Art (in particular, the visual arts) is supreme. In the first half, Shakespeare continues the thread began in Hamlet and expanded in Othello: that is, the flaws of empiricism. We must trust our eyes to give us a sense of the world around us, but our eyes are imperfect. In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare shows this imperfection by presenting a world of warped reality. Archdamus, Polixenes’ man, plays with this idea in one of the first lines of the play. In response to Camillo’s announcement that Leontes will be visiting Bohemia the follow summer, Archdamus says:

We will give you sleepy drinks,
that your senses, unintelligent of our insufficience,
may, though they cannot praise us, as little accuse
us. (Winter’s Tale I.i)

A playful mockery of the dull state that he sees Bohemia in, but also a great wink and nod to us (reader/audience) that we are dealing with a distortion of senses – we are all given the sleepy drink while watching/reading this play.

This idea is given free rein in Act I, scene ii – a long scene in which Leontes dissolves to the same extent that Othello did in three acts. Leontes is his own Iago, whispering in his own ear about his wife’s infidelity. And Shakespeare presents this to us by establishing Leontes as the looker, framing the scene to his view as if creating a gallery of paintings. After urging Hermione to convince Polixenes not to leave, he watches her carry out this action. In an aside he speaks to us, while the implicit stage directions urge Polixenes and Hermione to hold hands and mime a friendly conversation.

[Aside] Too hot, too hot!
To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.
I have tremor cordis on me: my heart dances;
But not for joy; not joy. This entertainment
May a free face put on, derive a liberty
From heartiness, from bounty, fertile bosom,
And well become the agent; ‘t may, I grant;
But to be paddling palms and pinching fingers,
As now they are, and making practised smiles,
As in a looking-glass, and then to sigh, as ’twere
The mort o’ the deer; O, that is entertainment
My bosom likes not, nor my brows! (I.ii)

Whatever Polixenes and Hermione may be discussing is irrelevant. We are forced into Leontes’ head and must see things through his eyes – where the sight alone of the others smiling and holding hands are damning. His use of “practiced smiles” suggests that these are not humans bound by context, but actors or models, figures placed there to torment him. Reality shifts to art.

At the end of this same speech, Leontes turns to Mamillius, his son. Leontes is suddenly suspicious that his son is not his. In order to reconcile this allegation, he transfomrs his son into a model of his past self.

LEONTES

Mamillius,
Art thou my boy?

MAMILLIUS

Ay, my good lord.

LEONTES

I’ fecks!
Why, that’s my bawcock. What, hast
smutch’d thy nose?
They say it is a copy out of mine. Come, captain,
We must be neat; not neat, but cleanly, captain: (I.ii)

But he cannot maintain the image. He is interrupted by the sight of Hermione and Polixenes still holding hands. And so the play follows his mind, interrupted speeches flicking between the two “lovers” and his attempts to frame Mamillius as a younger Leontes: two works of art thrust on the stage. One we see, Hermione’s mimed (albeit innocent) flirtation: the other we do not, a younger Leontes in his proper militaristic form. What is missing from this scene (aside from Hermione’s futile pleas) is a sense of reality. What Hermione and Polixeens are discussing – whether Mamillius is indeed Leontes’ son – is as inconsequential as Bohemia having a seacoast (which, in our world, it does not). Art has reshaped reality.

In the midst of Leontes’ madness, jealousy, and tyranny, we have a short scene in which two messengers return to the court from Delphi, where they consulted the Oracle about the matter. Leading up to the suspenseful trail, the two messengers discuss the aesthetics of their travels.

CLEOMENES

The climate’s delicate, the air most sweet,
Fertile the isle, the temple much surpassing
The common praise it bears.

DION

I shall report,
For most it caught me, the celestial habits,
Methinks I so should term them, and the reverence
Of the grave wearers. O, the sacrifice!
How ceremonious, solemn and unearthly
It was i’ the offering!

CLEOMENES

But of all, the burst
And the ear-deafening voice o’ the oracle,
Kin to Jove’s thunder, so surprised my sense.
That I was nothing. (III.i)

What ought to be most striking to the messengers is the Oracle and her ruling. And yet, it is the scenery – conjured straight out of Ancient Greek texts – that appeals most. The two men have (figuratively) traveled back in time: away from the near reality of a psychologically disturbed king to the days of ancient glory when the Oracle was relevant. On their journey, there is no Leontes or Hermione – not until the return home and reality comes rushing back. When we are consumed by Art – as these men are – we have no need for reality, and can find those proverbial lounges in trees. But it is – as always – an illusion.

Just as Bohemia is an illusion. We do not know why Shakespeare placed the landlocked Bohemia on the coast in his play. Was it pure ignorance? Probably not, considering his otherwise accurate sense of geography. It was, like everything else, an aesthetic decision – an illusion to draw us away from reality. Not only is Bohemia’s geography an illusion, but the country itself. Everyone is someone else. Perdita – in truth a princess – is a shepherd’s daughter dressed as a queen. A fun irony I suppose. Autolycus – a low theif – is the most humble bard and beggar in the land. Florizel and Polixenes disguise themselves as ambiguous men. The sheep-shearing festival – a great pastoral feast – masks the class division that prevents Florizel from marrying Perdita. Act IV is almost wholly crammed into one scene – Iv.iv – and it is the longest scene in any Shakespeare play (beating out Hamlet II.ii by a small margin). There is more “action” in one of the scenes from the first half of the play than in this long scene. The scene is meant to lull us into an artistic sleep, where we indulge in Perdita’s dolling of flowers, and satyrs dancing. We drown in colours and sounds until it comes crashing down – when Polixenes reveals himself and starts handing out death penalties. The illusion collapses, and we must free ourselves from the artistic world – finding salvation back in Sicilia. But before the close: Time.

III.

In order to bridge the division of plots, and genres, Shakespeare brings forth the figure of Time – the old winged man with the hourglass.

Time

I, that please some, try all, both joy and terror
Of good and bad, that makes and unfolds error,
Now take upon me, in the name of Time,
To use my wings. Impute it not a crime
To me or my swift passage, that I slide
O’er sixteen years and leave the growth untried
Of that wide gap, since it is in my power
To o’erthrow law and in one self-born hour
To plant and o’erwhelm custom. Let me pass
The same I am, ere ancient’st order was
Or what is now received: I witness to
The times that brought them in; so shall I do
To the freshest things now reigning and make stale
The glistering of this present, as my tale
Now seems to it. Your patience this allowing,
I turn my glass and give my scene such growing
As you had slept between: Leontes leaving,
The effects of his fond jealousies so grieving
That he shuts up himself, imagine me,
Gentle spectators, that I now may be
In fair Bohemia, and remember well,
I mentioned a son o’ the king’s, which Florizel
I now name to you; and with speed so pace
To speak of Perdita, now grown in grace
Equal with wondering: what of her ensues
I list not prophecy; but let Time’s news
Be known when ’tis brought forth.
A shepherd’s daughter,
And what to her adheres, which follows after,
Is the argument of Time. Of this allow,
If ever you have spent time worse ere now;
If never, yet that Time himself doth say
He wishes earnestly you never may. (IV.i)

Given the last few lines of this monologue, we get the sense that the initial audience members may have been irked by this sudden intrusion. Some critics certainly see it this way today. This is a cheap mechanism: a deus ex machina – in order to resolve the gap between two fragmented stories – a duct-taped tale.

What interests me most about the speech is the beginning. The speaker takes it upon himself in the name of Time to speed us over sixteen years. Who is the speaker? In the later plays, Shakespeare brought other deities on stage. In Cymbeline, Jupiter is Jupiter. The goddesses Irish, Ceres, and Juno in The Tempest are who they are (or are they figments created by Prospero?). So why does someone have to speak in the name of Time? Is this Time as Chorus, or Chorus as Time? The complication involved here stretches through the divide and affects both halves of the play. The struggle between Time and Chorus signifies a struggle between Time (as entity) and Art. Is the figure with the hourglass an entity or an Art? The answer must be Art.

Over the course of his works, Shakespeare has challenged most entities and transformed them with his Art. Time’s monologue here is reminiscent of such a subjugation, as found in the more famous choral monologue that opens Henry V

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play. (Henry V Prologue)

Here, the Chorus is pleading with us to see the Place as he sees it, in the process subjugating the great battlefield of Agincourt to the uninspiring wooden O that is the theatre. So to, does the chorus as Time plea with us to accept sixteen years condensed into his art, his monologue.

For further subjugation, we turn to Shakespeare’s greatest power – his sonnets. In Sonnet 60, Shakespeare spends three quatrains exploring the destructive power that Time has over everything – almost everything. The concluding couplet of the sonnet is:

And yet, in times of hope my verse shall stand

Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand. (Sonnet 60)

Those who look at this couplet with the same naïveté that many do while looking at the “romantic” Sonnet 18 (shall I compare thee to a summer’s day) may say: “it is the loved one: that’s what stands against Time’s destruction.” No. It is Art. It is the poet’s art that stands against Time, and it is the poet’s art that can bend and shape Time to rush us through three eventful acts in Sicilia, and allow us to linger in the pastoral Bohemia. But Time cannot be beaten down so easily. Act V of The Winter’s Tale is a final blow-by-blow battle of Art and Time.

V

                In Act V, everyone from both halves of the play – with the exception of the two deceased characters – finds themselves in Leontes’ court. Florizel seeks asylum: Polixenes chases his son: Leontes and Perdita reunite in an anti-climactic, off-stage moment: all rushes towards the grand finale. We learn that Paulina, following Hermione’s “death”, commissioned a statue, which all  the characters rush to see.

a piece many
years in doing and now newly performed by that rare
Italian master, Julio Romano, who, had he himself
eternity and could put breath into his work, would
beguile Nature of her custom, so perfectly he is her
ape: he so near to Hermione hath done Hermione that
they say one would speak to her and stand in hope of
answer (The Winter’s Tale V.ii)

This little passage created one of the most prominent micro-criticisms in Shakespeare. The fact that Romano created the sculpture is of no consequence to the play itself, and yet, this tidbit stands out for this is the only instance where Shakespeare directly references a near contemporary artist. Julio (or Guilio) Romano (1499~1546) was a painter, not a sculptor, but many critics have resolved this discrepancy. Shakespeare would not have seen his works directly, but he became a major influence in European art so Shakespeare would have been familiar with the works.

So why Romano, in my opinion?

Shakespeare could have left it at a “rare Italian master” and the play would be unchanged. After all, Romano never sculpted Hermione, or anything like her. Furthermore, the sculpture is an illusion (most likely, although some debate it). What Paulina presents as a sculpture is really Hermione, who has been hidden away for sixteen years. Yet, Art has a such a strong presence and does everything in its power to encroach upon reality, that even the illusion of a sculpture must be given a name. We are more apt to believe such a sculpture could exist if done by a renowned artist as opposed to a hypothetical one. Let’s call this Art’s first thrust.

Time is quick to strike back. As soon as Leontes is presented with the statue he notes that:

But yet, Paulina,
Hermione was not so much wrinkled, nothing
So aged as this seems. (V.iii)

We may call this a critical hit. For all its struggles, all its submissions, Time leaves its imprints on Art. Illusions can create wonders, but Time will have its due. Families can be happily reunited – but sixteen years passed regardless. Hermione lost sixteen years of life, and returns from the grave wrinkled. Never mind that Mamillius had no protection from Art. He remains dead. Art tries to regain its footing. Paulina brushes off Leontes’ concerns saying:

So much the more our carver’s excellence;
Which lets go by some sixteen years and makes her
As she lived now. (V.iii)

It was Romano’s intent to make her not as she was, but as she is now. In this, Romano (Art) regains control of Time. Paulina then proceeds with a grand ceremony that “brings the statue to life.” Hermione reunites with her daughter, and noticeably says nothing to Leontes. We are left with one of the more inconclusive endings in Shakespeare: Time has been beaten down, but not defeated.

And so Art and Time rage on.

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Othello, a world of words

 

 

At its core, Othello is a revenge tragedy. By 1604, this was no strange genre for Shakespeare, having written both Titus Andronicus and of course Hamlet, as well as other works which dabble in revenge: Twelfth Night, Merchant of Venice, and with a different tone, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. By focusing on the contrast to the two more pure revenge tragedies, we can see the impact that Hamlet had on Shakespeare’s unwillingness to create a traditional revenge tragedy as he did with Titus. For Titus falls in line with the traditional revenge tragedy made popular by Kyd, and picked up by Marlowe in the 1590s. These are plays of action, which beget retaliatory actions, and the cycle progresses. Hamlet refused to partake in this tradition.

We cannot doubt Hamlet’s love for his father – even if it was simply the love of a dutiful son.

’A was a man, take him for all in all,

I shall ot look upon his like again. (Hamlet I.ii)

This does not suggest love as we immediately conjure at the sound of the word, but surely affection, and surely as much affection as Titus had for his sons (let’s discount the one he kills himself). But Hamlet would not undertake the immediacy of action that Titus does. There is no way Hamlet would be fooled by Aaron into chopping off his finger, even if he thought he could save his father, nor would Hamlet be foul enough to bake his enemies into a pie. Confronting his ghost-father, Hamlet says:

Hamlet:

Speak, I am bound to hear.

Ghost

So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.” (I.v)

at which point Hamlet does not act, but seeks out rational proof. No one in the corrupt world of Titus Andronicus would need pressing from a ghost to act, the revenge would be instinctive. Hamlet takes the gut reaction of revenge and mixes it in with that human quality – rational thought, which leads to inaction until the matter is thrust upon him. So what happens after Hamlet? When Shakespeare cannot go back to the traditional form of revenge, but cannot recreate Hamlet either? Let’s follow the trajectory: in Titus actions supersede all: in Hamlet actions and thoughts dual each other for supremacy in Hamlet’s mind: in Othello, thought has not only won out, but become action itself. “There is nothing either good or bad,” Hamlet says, “but thinking makes it so” (II.ii), but even Hamlet is not yet ready for his own mantra. His first “action” – killing Polonius – is not produced in a moment of thought, nor does his thinking make it happen – it is an irrational, Titus-like gesture. The remnants of a tradition he longed to shake off. But this thought sets Shakespeare on his course for Othello, where thoughts turn to words, words to speech, and speech governs action. Language governs everything in Othello, and is the instrument of revenge.

As Hamlet notably opens with a question, setting the web that is to follow, Othello begins with a refutation of speech:

Tush! Never tell me (Othello I.i)

Colloquially, this is an inconsequential “you’re kidding me,” but expressed in this way – the desire not to hear – it strikes as an ominous foreshadow. For we may take Roderigo’s meaning as friendly, albeit, worried, but when Othello says –

Avaunt, be gone! Thou hast set me on the rack.

I swear ‘tis better to be much abus’d

Than but to know’t a little (III.iii)

he is sincere. He then goes on to bid farewell to all in one of the more notable speeches in the play:

I had been happy, if the general camp,

Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body,

So I had nothing known. O now, forever

Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!

Farewell the lumed troops and the big wars

That makes ambitions virtue! O, farewell!

Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,

The spirit-stirring drum, th’ear-piercing fife,

The royal banner, and all quality.

Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!

And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats

Th’immortal Jove’s dread clamors counterfeit,

Farewell! Othello’s occupation’s gone. (III.iii)

Yes, probably the most striking part of the speech – what students love to pick up on – is the sensory imagery. Othello, the pure empiricist – Locke pre-Locke – is ruled by hard evidence. He shall not judge without ocular proof, and yet here, as he begins to doubt, he bids farewell to all that he is –and to all the sights and sounds around him, reducing him to….. Well, he is not fully parted with himself yet. Taking Iago by the throat, Othello demands ocular proof:

Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore. (III.iii)

There are two interesting speech acts presented here. The first is that while Othello is bidding farewell to his sensory world, he begins that speech with the echo of Roderigo’s first line. Even if the entire camp was taking advantage of Desdemona (Othello’s wife), it would be fine so long as Othello did not know. “Tush! Never tell me” – you’re kidding but more than that – do not tell me. Where would Hamlet be if the ghost had not told him what he did? Still mourning away? Where would Macbeth be if the witches did not poison his mind? A content Thane? Words, post-Hamlet do what only hands could do in the world of Titus, and what only deceptive acts could do in the world of The Spanish Tragedy. So long as words are not spoken – all is well.

As for Othello calling his love a whore – and let’s for the sake of there being too many tangents ignore the bitter irony of “my love” and “a whore” in the same breath – I think it is worth noting here that this is the first insulting name Othello attaches to her, even in an indirect way. In the first half of the play, Othello refers to his wife as “my love” or “sweet” or “chuck” (which is indeed affectionate, for some reason), but those are taken over by whore and a series of synonyms of whore. And this was exactly as Iago planned. While Iago’s (and later Othello’s) victims find pleasure in ignorance, Iago uses words to orchestrate his revenge. But why?

At the end of Act I, Iago, forming his plan, advises his “friend” Roderigo to “put money in thy purse” and follow him to Cyprus. Winning over the reluctant Roderigo, Iago beats the refrain in almost every line – “fill thy purse with money”. Alone with us, Iago delivers one of his famous “look at how evil I am” soliloquies.

Thus do I ever make my fool my purse:
For I mine own gain’d knowledge should profane,
If I would time expend with such a snipe.
But for my sport and profit. I hate the Moor:
And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety. He holds me well;
The better shall my purpose work on him.
Cassio’s a proper man: let me see now:
To get his place and to plume up my will
In double knavery–How, how? Let’s see:–
After some time, to abuse Othello’s ear
That he is too familiar with his wife.
He hath a person and a smooth dispose
To be suspected, framed to make women false.
The Moor is of a free and open nature,
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by the nose
As asses are.
I have’t. It is engender’d. Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light. (I.iii)

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, while working on his lectures on Shakespeare, scribbled a note in response to this part of the play:

The triumph! again, put money after the effect has been fully produced.–The last Speech, the motive-hunting of motiveless Malignity–how awful! (Coleridge Lectures, 1808-1819)

This has led to an unfortunate misinterpretation which states that Iago has no motives for any of his actions. Some, reading Coleridge’s quote beyond the word motiveless, at least recognize that Coleridge states that Iago hunts for motives after the deed: thus his motives are no more than rationalities. This is, I think, a fair reading, for the section that the note was scribbled in, but should not be confused with every one of Iago’s actions. In this matter, Iago has convinced Roderigo to fill his purse with money and follow him to the wars. He does not give a clear motive (action) for the demand, but convinces Rodergio with rhetoric and promises (words): how Desdemona will fall out of love as quickly as she fell in it: how the Moor is changeable: how he (Iago) is always looking out for Rodergio. Roderigo needs not direct action to be motivated, but the words alone sustain him – at least until the end of the play. It is after Rodergio is gone that Iago tries to “suit the action to the word” – Coleridge’s “hunting of motiveless Malignity”. What Coleridge strikes on is my very theme – Othello is a world in which words alone suffice as deeds.

So if we are taking Coleridge’s note as a reflection of the lines which Coleridge refers to and not the play as a whole, what then are (the no longer motiveless) Iago’s motives? It should not be surprising that in the world of words, Iago’s hate springs from the many-tongued one. For that particular reference, let’s jump back a few years, when Shakespeare wrote 2 Henry IV. Here is the opening.

Enter RUMOUR, painted full of tongues

RUMOUR

Open your ears; for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?
I, from the orient to the drooping west,
Making the wind my post-horse, still unfold
The acts commenced on this ball of earth:
Upon my tongues continual slanders ride,
The which in every language I pronounce,
Stuffing the ears of men with false reports. (2 Henry IV prologue)

The play is driven by rumours, false reports spawn false deeds – here Shakespeare dips his toe into what Hamlet will become. Again, Hamlet’s motive – his reason for (in)action spawns from words: true or false? We never know. In Iago, Shakespeare brings back the Prologue painted full of tongues.

 I hate the Moor:
And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety. (Othello I.iii)

The truth is irrelevant: the rumour will suffice. And Iago, affected by the rumour, inhabits the rumour to plant the very idea in Othello’s mind in regards to Desdemona. Beyond Rumour driving Iago to revenge, he expresses his feelings at the opening of the play in regards to him being passed over for lieutenant, a position given to Michael Cassio.

IAGO

‘I have already chose my officer.’
And what was he?
Forsooth, a great arithmetician,
One Michael Cassio, a Florentine,
A fellow almost damn’d in a fair wife;
That never set a squadron in the field,
Nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster; unless the bookish theoric,
Wherein the toged consuls can propose
As masterly as he: mere prattle, without practise,
Is all his soldiership. But he, sir, had the election:
And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof
At Rhodes, at Cyprus and on other grounds
Christian and heathen, must be be-lee’d and calm’d
By debitor and creditor: this counter-caster,
He, in good time, must his lieutenant be,
And I–God bless the mark!–his Moorship’s ancient.

RODERIGO

By heaven, I rather would have been his hangman.

IAGO

Why, there’s no remedy; ’tis the curse of service,
Preferment goes by letter and affection. (I.i)

Iago’s complaint is that he – a man of practical experience – was passed over for an academic – one who had never seen battle: “mere prattle without practise”. This very reason Iago gives to supplant Cassio becomes the act by which he does it – resigned that he, a reasonably experienced soldier, gains nothing by his deeds in the world of words, throws down his militaristic might and picks out the very rhetoric he curses Cassio for. Iago’s soliloquy at the end of Act I is his very own “farewell to arms”.

Having circled around the same message for some time now, I would like to shift to the finer intricacies of this world of words, patterns that highlight the contrast of how Othello progresses, particularly in comparison to the large and garish Titus Andronicus. I’ll begin with how Shakespeare weaves the character of Desdemona. Montano, governor of Cyprus, asks Cassio if Othello wived, to which Cassio provides the following praise:

He hath achieved a maid

That paragons description and wild fame,

One that excels the quirks of blazoning pens,

And in th’essential vesture of creation

Does tire the engineer. (II.i)

Desdemona cannot be praised in simple terms, and would a poet attempt it, he would tire himself out before reaching his full potential. In the world of words – according to Cassio – Desdemona cannot be named. Immediately following, Desdemona enters with Iago and Emilia (Iago’s wife). Iago’s character in this moment is a strange one, even for the changeable Iago. He is not the humble ensign, nor “honest Iago” nor the villain we see in private – in this scene he takes the shape more akin to Feste before him and Lear’s Fool after him. Playing around with Desdemona and Emelia, he “praises” women as a fool would. Desdemona draws attention to this. “These are old fond paradoxes, to make fools laugh I’the alehouse” (II.i) conjures up the image of Feste entertaining Sir Toby and Sir Andrew in Twelfth Night, or Falstaff in 1 Henry IV or Merry Wives of Windsor. The more relevant conclusion is that, through his superior wit and command of language (again, the qualities of a Shakespearean Fool) Iago has distorted and destroyed Cassio’s bathetic praise of Desdemona. After all, corrupting words is part of Iago’s business.

And what’s he then that says I play the villain,

When this advice is free I give, and honest,

Probal to thinking, and indeed the course

To win the Moor again? For ‘tis most easy

Th’inclining Desdemona to subdue

In any honest suit. She’s framed as fruitful

As the free elements; and then for her

To win the Moor, were’t to renounce his baptism,

All seals and symbols of redeemed sin,

His soul is so enfettered to her love

That she may make, unmake, do what she list,

Even as her appetite shall play the god

With his weak function. How am I then a villain,

To counsel Cassio to this parallel course

Directly to his good? Divinity of hell:

When devils will the blackest sins put on,

They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,

As I do now’ for whiles this honest fool

Plies Desdemona to repair his fortune,

And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,

I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear:

That she reals him for her body’s lust,

And by how much she strives to do him good

She shall undo her credit with the Moor.

So will I turn her virtue into pitch,

And out of her own goodness make the net

That shall enmesh them all. (II.iii)

This is psychological – linguistic – revenge that goes even beyond Hamlet’s capabilities. Actually I should not be over-estimating Hamlet, he was pretty terrible at revenge, as good as he was at thought. Moreover, not even Aaron – the real motiveless Malignant – creates such a devilish plan. First Iago enmeshes us with two elements we cannot resist: sublime poetic rhetoric, and the truth. How is he a villain in this moment? Cassio falls out of favour with Othello due to his drunken conduct, and so Iago suggests a good plan to get Cassio back in Othello’s favour. He is right in that Othello would deny Desdemona nothing: if Cassio wins over Desdemona, Desdemona will win over Othello. This is true, and we cannot deny it. Yes, we know that Iago set up Cassio’s actions (although this does raise an important question about how far a drunk person’s responsibilities extend – one better suited for other places). Yes, we know that Iago will use Desdemona’s pleas against her by poisoning Othello’s mind – these are acts of villainy sure, but they do not discount the fact that Iago is speaking the truth at the beginning of the speech, do they? We are as much victims here as Cassio, Desdemona, and Othello: trapped in the world of words. So who are we to side with in the end? I’ll come back to that in a moment.

There is a wonderful moment at the beginning of Act IV when we see the physical consequences of the world of words when Iago is control of it.

OTHELLO

Hath he said any thing?

IAGO

He hath, my lord; but be you well assured,
No more than he’ll unswear.

OTHELLO

What hath he said?

IAGO

‘Faith, that he did–I know not what he did.

OTHELLO

What? what?

IAGO

Lie–

OTHELLO

With her?

IAGO

With her, on her; what you will.

OTHELLO

Lie with her! lie on her! We say lie on her, when
they belie her. Lie with her! that’s fulsome.
–Handkerchief–confessions–handkerchief!–To
confess, and be hanged for his labour;–first, to be
hanged, and then to confess.–I tremble at it.
Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing
passion without some instruction. It is not words
that shake me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips.
–Is’t possible?–Confess–handkerchief!–O devil!–

Falls in a trance

IAGO

Work on,
My medicine, work! Thus credulous fools are caught;
And many worthy and chaste dames even thus,
All guiltless, meet reproach. (IV.i)

Othello falls into a trance, literally collapses, from an over-exertion of words, a tumult of thoughts. And all it took to spark this incident was a double-meaning of “lie”: a nudge from Iago and Othello did the rest. “Work on, my medicine, work!” His medicine is a double-entendre: a play of words.

Now we come to the final act: the night, as Iago says, “that either makes me or fordoes me quite” (V.i). There is a certain brilliance for a play which deal in part with the degeneration of empiricism to have a penultimate scene consumed by the lack of sight. We are presented with a scene in which the characters have, as their only cues, sounds, or words. I would love to see a production in which this scene takes place in a total blackout. The actors don’t even need to be present, just their voices echoing in the theatre. Roderigo, under Iago’s instruction, attempts to kill Cassio, but is instead killed by Cassio. Iago, under cover of night, chops Cassio’s leg in two and runs away. Cassio and Roderigo, both bleeding to death, call for help. Graziano (Desdemona’s uncle) and Lodovico (a kinsman) hear the cries – voices in the night and come to the conclusion that

‘Tis heavy night.

These may be counterfeits. Let’s think’t unsafe

To come into the cry without more help. (V.i)

Roderigo, Cassio, Othello, Desdemona, and Emelia – all are willing to rush into something without proof, to mostly tragic ends. Here we have to lords who are so much the contrary that they are unwilling to help two dying men because it is too dark, they cannot know anything their eyes cannot tell them. Thus the hyper-empiricism is just as harmful (albeit not to Graziano or Lodovico) as the loss of rationality. Iago uses the darkness and chaos to rid himself of Roderigo, and blame Cassio’s wounds on Bianca: a courtesan who followed Cassio from Venice, and one of the rather pointless foils in Shakespeare, taking her place beside Lady Macduff and Octavia.

Following this plot line to its end, we have Iago’s undoing in his own world of words. Here we realize the power struggle that exists in this world: the spoken words (which Rumour and Iago rule) and the written word. It is Roderigo’s letters – a confession of everything Iago did – that fordoes Iago. Spoken words can be twisted easily, but when words are cemented on paper and can be passed around and spoken by anyone, they are hard to tame. Combine that with Emelia’s shrewishness (another form of words that cannot be tamed) and Iago is finished: choosing as his end – silence.

Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.

From this time forth, I never will speak word. (V.ii)

And so for the last few moments of the play, Iago becomes a mute, a silent figure standing on stage. I love that, after speaking approximately 28% of the lines in this play, his final word is word: this is Shakespeare’s subtle genius.

Desdemona is a wonderful character, and her death is one of those great moments of the dark sublime that Burke writes of. Othello was originally going to poison her, but Iago suggests smothering instead. What is the great impact of smothering? There are a few. Othello notes that he will kill her but not stain the white sheets with blood or ruin her fair, white skin. What I find most horrific and incredible about this form of murder is that it is the one that could be presented most realistically on stage. On stage stabbings are fun to watch, particularly when done properly, but the theatre in a stabbing, or such death, has such a great presence that we cannot for a second be fooled into thinking there is a threat of danger. Smothering is slow, and (if acted well) can trick out minds in ways false blood never can. There is a famous story of an audience member standing up and trying to save Desdemona – and if watching the play, I don’t think it is hard to see why. It is the perfect death. But I would require nine more pages just to explore the character of Desdemona, an underrated Shakespeare female character – reduced to an object even as she rejects it: more powerful than Lady Macbeth and simultaneously powerless as Lady Macduff.

But to close, I return for a last time to the world of words. Othello’s speech before killing himself includes these lines.

When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,

Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate,

Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak

Of one that loved not wisely but too well,

Of one not easily jealous but, being wrought,

Perplexed in the extreme; of one whose hand,

Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away

Richer than all his tribe, of one whose subdued eyes,

Albeit unused to the melting mood,

Drops tears as fast as the Arabian trees

Their medicinable gum. (V.ii)

This is a typical tragic end for Shakespeare: a character passing on his story for someone to pass on to us. Yet here we see Othello pick up the reins of this world of words, and end his life by stressing how he wishes to be spoken of – transforming his body, his deeds, his triumphs – into words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But…..

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

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

MARCUS strikes the dish with a knife

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

MARCUS ANDRONICUS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

MONTAGUE

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

CAPULET

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

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

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

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

PRINCE

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

MONTAGUE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YOU: Wait, what?

OTHER: What’s wrong?

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

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

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

OTHER: …………

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

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

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

Trust me: it’s funny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CAPULETS – Tybalt, Juliet

MONTAGUES – Romeo

Related to THE PRINCE – Mercutio, Paris

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

 

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

Romeo (dead)

Juliet (dead)

Paris (dead)

Old Montague

Old Capulet

Lady Capulet

Prince

Friar Laurence

Balthasar

Paris’ Page

1st Watchman

2nd Watchman

3rd Watchman

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

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

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

Image

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:

EDMUND

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

CORDELIA

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?

KING LEAR

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.

EDMUND

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:


REGAN

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?

CORNWALL

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.

Exit CORNWALL, led by REGAN

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.”

EDGAR

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.

GLOUCESTER

Set me where you stand.

EDGAR

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

GLOUCESTER

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.

EDGAR

Now fare you well, good sir.

GLOUCESTER

With all my heart.

EDGAR

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

GLOUCESTER

[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.

KING LEAR

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.

CORDELIA

Nothing, my lord.

KING LEAR

Nothing!

CORDELIA

Nothing.

KING LEAR

Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.

CORDELIA

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

KING LEAR

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

CORDELIA

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.

KING LEAR

But goes thy heart with this?

CORDELIA

Ay, good my lord.

KING LEAR

So young, and so untender?

CORDELIA

So young, my lord, and true.

KING LEAR

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:

Image

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.

KING LEAR

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.

KENT

Is this the promised end

EDGAR

Or image of that horror?

ALBANY

Fall, and cease!

KING LEAR

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

KENT

[Kneeling] O my good master!

KING LEAR

Prithee, away.

EDGAR

‘Tis noble Kent, your friend.

KING LEAR

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.

Captain

‘Tis true, my lords, he did.

KING LEAR

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.

……………….

KING LEAR

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!

Dies

EDGAR

He faints! My lord, my lord!

KENT

Break, heart; I prithee, break!

EDGAR

Look up, my lord.

KENT

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.

EDGAR

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