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Document Timestamp: 5/10/2024 at 11:37 a.m.

The Winter’s Tale

Questions on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

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Shakespeare, William. The Winter’s Tale. (Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd edition, pp. 303-86).


1. In Act 1, Scene 1, how does Camillo describe to Archidamus the relationship between King Leontes of Sicilia and his old friend King Polixenes of Bohemia? What mood is set, and what expectations are raised, by the brief conversation between these two lords, and by the references they make to Leontes’s son and heir Mamillius?

2. In Act 1, Scene 2, what help does Leontes solicit from Hermione in his attempt to get Polixenes to prolong his visit to Sicilia a while longer? In what way, and to what extent, does Hermione’s lively conversation with Polixenes, while innocent and partly focused on his boyhood friendship with Leontes, nonetheless set the stage for the mad rush of jealousy that will soon come over Leontes?

3. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does the text represent the onset of Leontes’s jealousy? First, at what point might we say he begins experiencing jealousy, even if only mildly? What additional markers (words, gestures, etc.) soon suggest that Leontes’s affliction is intensifying during and immediately after the “pleading” interaction involving Hermione, Polixenes, and himself?

4. In Act 1, Scene 2, after the part of the scene in which Hermione “woos” Polixenes to stay and then exchanges pleasantries with Leontes, how does Leontes’s interpretation of nearly everything he sees and hears change? In particular, what does he begin to think about Hermione, Mamillius, Polixenes, Camillo, and his own newborn child?

5. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does Camillo handle the dangerous dilemma that Leontes’s deranged assumptions and irrational behavior now cause for him, as the king’s counselor? How does Camillo try to deal with the enraged king, and then break the dreadful news to Polixenes that his oldest friend wants to have him killed?


6. In Act 2, Scene 1, how does Hermione defend herself against the wild and very public charges that Leontes levels against her when they confront each other in the palace? What seems to be the king’s state of mind immediately before and during this distressing confrontation? In particular, what might be made of Leontes’s claim to have “drunk and seen the spider” (329, 2.1.46) at the bottom of his cup?

7. In Act 2, Scene 1, Antigonus, like Camillo before him, is faced with a thoroughly irrational master in Leontes. What is Antigonus’s strategy for turning aside Leontes’s bizarre accusations against Hermione: what strong metaphors and other devices does he employ against the king’s ranting? How does Leontes counter Antigonus? What good does he believe will come from calling upon the oracle of Apollo at Delphi? 

8. In Act 2, Scenes 2-3, what necessary role does Paulina play with respect to Hermione and even Leontes? How do her speech and attitude towards the king contrast with those of the lords and of Antigonus, men who wait upon him? At 334, 2.2.40-41, she tells Emilia that she hopes the sight of his newborn child will “soften” the enraged Leontes, but in this she is disappointed. What seems like the best explanation for this failure?

9. In Act 2, Scene 3, Leontes, in response to all the pleading and criticism that come his way, decides that Hermione’s newborn child must be taken “To some remote and desert place” (225, 2.3.175), its survival left to chance. What considerations play upon Leontes in making this terrible decision, and how does Antigonus, who undertakes to carry out the deranged king’s will, construe what has just happened? In spite of the awfulness of Leontes’s decision, in what sense does it seem allied with the play’s ultimately redemptive sense of time?

10. In Act 2, Scenes 1 and 3, how does King Leontes’s brand of tyranny compare to the injustices done by one or two other misguided or authoritarian rulers in Shakespeare’s plays? How do Acts 1 and 2 of The Winter’s Tale testify to the breakdown of the legitimate authority that Leontes so recently wielded? In your view, what exactly has gone wrong, and why is it impossible to fix the problem in a timely manner?


11. In Act 3, Scene 1, Dion and Cleomenes return to Sicilia with what they hope is good news from Apollo’s oracle. In Act 3, Scene 2, Hermione goes on trial and, while she knows the outcome is predetermined, vigorously defends herself before finally declaring, “Apollo be my judge” (343, 3.2.114). What is the basis of her self-defense? To what principle, above all, does Hermione appeal in the face of Leontes’s injustice?

12. In Act 3, Scene 2, Hermione is absolved by the god Apollo’s joltingly unambiguous oracle. What exactly does the oracle say, and how does Leontes at first respond to it? What two events finally cure the king of his jealous derangement and drive him to express remorse? What resolution does he make? While this change of attitude and understanding may seem abrupt, how might it still be said to ring true?

13. In Act 3, Scene 2, what role does Paulina play with respect to the at first arrogant but then abject Leontes? How does she react to what she believes to be the death of Queen Hermione? What does this belief initially lead her to say to the miserable Leontes? How and upon what prompting does she subsequently transform her anger into more merciful speech? Is there perhaps more to this transformation than a simple change of heart? Explain your view.

14. In Act 3, Scene 3, as Antigonus stands on the spot where he will deposit the infant Perdita upon the seacoast of Bohemia (Bohemia, now the western part of the Czech Republic, has no such coast, but no matter that), he relates to us the sad, harrowing dream that came to him the night before, in which an apparition of the supposedly dead Hermione spoke to him. What has she told him, and how does Antigonus interpret her pronouncements? What assumptions does he make about Hermione and about his own present mission as the executor of Leontes’s frightful command?

15. In Act 3, Scene 3, Antigonus, immediately after setting down the infant Perdita on a patch of coast where her survival will depend on fate, himself meets a bad end, as we learn from the famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear.” What justification is there for the fate Antigonus suffers? Does Antigonus deserve his painful demise, or is he, to borrow a phrase from King Lear, “more sinned against than sinning”? Whatever your response, explain the reasons that lead you to make your claim.

16. In Act 3, Scene 3, the rustic clown relates Antigonus’s death in the same way that ancient tragedy made known its harshest events: as offstage occurrences. Does the clown’s narration amount to more than comic relief? Why or why not? How does the death of Antigonus, combined with his abandonment of Perdita and her discovery by an old shepherd, advance the play’s action? Moreover, how does the old shepherd (the clown’s father) understand the meaning of his own discovery of an abandoned child endowed with a letter and a considerable quantity of gold?


17. In Act 4, Scene 1, to what point in the story’s development does the character Time bring us? What power does Time claim with regard to the necessities of dramatic representation, and what does this character ask of the audience? How do you suppose a playwright such as Shakespeare would respond to neoclassical critics who insist on fidelity to the “unity of time” (i.e. who say that a play’s stage time should equal the amount of time that would pass for a similar action in real life)?

18. In Act 4, Scene 3, the itinerant trickster Autolycus enters the play with a song. What is the theme of the twenty-line song he sings, and how does it connect him to the spring festivities of Scene 4? In the prose passage below the song, what rationale does he offer us for the life he leads?

19. In Act 4, Scene 3, Autolycus cozens the shepherd’s son, the clown, stealing the money the young man carries to buy various items for the upcoming festival. Aside from the fact that he is a skillful pickpocket, what do we learn about Autolycus’s sensibilities and ethos from his interaction with the clown and from the quatrain he sings thereafter? How, for example, does he use the terms “virtue” and “vice”? And what might we make of Autolycus’s use of his own name and (perhaps) earlier circumstances during his conversation with the shepherd’s credulous son?

20. In Act 4, Scene 4, Florizel (Polixenes’s son) courts Perdita in a rustic setting. Describe the style of their courting: how do they describe each other and express their affections? What are their concerns for the present and their hopes for the future? What is the source of the difference in perspective that at once becomes apparent between them? Differences aside, how does their interaction offer us a counter-vision of courtship and sexuality, one that opposes Leontes’s dark imaginings about Hermione in Act 2?

21. In Act 4, Scene 4 (line 55ff), the old shepherd encourages Perdita to be bolder in acting the role of mistress of the spring festival (or May Queen) since he fears that she is too bashful to pull it off. How does Perdita “blossom” into the perfect hostess for the occasion? Describe her performance in conversation with the disguised visitors Polixenes and Camillo and consider as well her newly confident manner of courtship with Florizel (disguised as “Doricles” the shepherd). In what sense does she distinguish herself even as she fulfills the duties of her role as hostess to the disguised noblemen around her?

22. In Act 4, Scene 4, part of the flower-driven conversation between the disguised Polixenes and Perdita as mistress of the spring festival concerns the relative standing of artifice and nature (lines 79-103). What positions do Perdita and Polixenes, respectively, hold on the relationship between art or artifice (in the sense of human craft or design) and “nature”? Why doesn’t Perdita care to breed gillyvor flowers (streaked carnations), and what argument does Polixenes make against her view? What larger implications might this conversation have for the redemptive role Perdita plays in The Winter’s Tale?

23. In Act 4, Scene 4 (lines 182-333), after a dance and a servant’s excited introduction, Autolycus is ushered in and begins peddling his wares to the festival’s participants. Describe the actions and language that together make up his sales pitch: what is he selling, and how does he calibrate his pitch to his customers the shepherdesses Mopsa and Dorcas as well as the clown (the old shepherd’s son) he robbed a little while ago? What drives their interest in Autolycus’s performance?

24. In Act 4, Scene 4 (lines 334-440), Polixenes, upon witnessing the marriage promise between Florizel and Perdita, forbids the intended wedding. Why does this king (who had earlier spoken so positively about mixing plant stocks) object to the proposed marriage? Explain his dynastic concerns. Moreover, what claim does Polixenes make regarding his rights as a father? Finally, when you have read to the end of Scene 4, explain the simple plot function of this section in which Polixenes instantly turns into the well-worn figure of the senex iratus, or angry old man.

25. In Act 4, Scene 4 (lines 441-586), as Perdita despairs and Florizel waxes reckless, Camillo sees a way he can help himself even as he assists the two lovers. What is his plan? How will it help him, and how will it help Perdita and Florizel? Why does Camillo believe his plan will be so successful with the grieving King Leontes?

26. In Act 4, Scene 4 (lines 587-820), how does Autolycus benefit from his encounters first with Camillo, Florizel, and Perdita and then with the old shepherd and his son? How does he intend to profit from each encounter? In addition, how does Autolycus understand the principle underlying his sudden receipt of two unexpected windfalls? If The Winter’s Tale often evokes the regenerative powers of the natural world, what is the role of the rascal Autolycus within the play’s concept of nature?


27. In Act 5, Scene 1, what evolution has Paulina’s relationship with Leontes undergone by this late stage of the play? Why does she continue to trouble the repentant king’s already troubled conscience about what he has done to his wife and child? What promise does she extract from him?

28. In Act 5, Scene 1, how do the newly arrived Florizel and Perdita represent themselves to Leontes? How does he receive them—with pure joy or more bittersweet affection? Explain. What news soon arrives to undermine Florizel’s claim, and how do the interested parties plan to overcome this potentially disastrous development?

29. In Act 5, Scene 1, how, in the play’s broader context of regeneration and redemption, should we interpret the significance of Leontes’s remark in reply to Florizel that if he could have anything he wanted from Polixenes, he would “beg … [Florizel’s] precious mistress” (5.1.222)? What does Leontes’s interaction with Paulina (5.1.223-27) over this remark add to our understanding of this moment in the play?

30. In Act 5, Scene 2, how many of the play’s uncertainties are resolved during the conversation between the three gentlemen as Autolycus listens in? How, in particular, does Leontes learn the true identity of Perdita? Of what quality is his reconciliation with Polixenes after so long an absence? How do these narrative revelations prepare the way for the climactic third scene, in which Hermione is restored to Leontes and Perdita?

31. In Act 5, Scene 2, how is the conversation between the shepherd, the clown, and Autolycus connected to the play’s significant resolutions in this final act? In what sense do the shepherd and the clown now have the upper hand over Autolycus? How does the clown define the term “gentleman” now that he has been elevated to that status? And finally, how does Autolycus deal with his diminished standing towards the end of the play? What mistakes does he acknowledge, and what does he plan to do going forward?

32. In Act 5, Scene 3, Paulina, ever the skillful playwright in The Winter’s Tale, stages the marvelous (but not miraculous) transformation of a supposed statue made by the Renaissance Italian Mannerist Giulio Romano into the living Hermione. Describe the emotional journey through which Paulina takes the remorseful Leontes until she at last summons Hermione back to life, and then persuades her to speak not yet to Leontes but to Perdita. Why is Perdita accorded this privilege of being addressed first?

33. With regard to the end of Act 5, Scene 3, what significance does the statue device hold? What does this device, reminiscent of ancient fables like that of Pygmalion and his beloved statue, explain about the nature of Leontes’s error and his redemption that a less exotic strategy could not have explained so effectively? Even though the statue device is just that—something wrought by Paulina and not a miracle per se—why do the fundamental conditions of dramatic experience lead audiences to process the event as if it were miraculous? In light of the play’s romance themes and interests, in what sense might the ending be said to be miraculous or magical after all?

34. The last point of order in Act 5, Scene 3 is Leontes’s presentation of Paulina, who now knows her husband Antigonus is long dead, with an excellent new husband in Camillo. Now we have two marriages to celebrate, and effectively three since Leontes and Hermione are together again. So The Winter’s Tale ends with happy marriages, as a comedy generally does, thereby effecting the social and individual renewal that seemed so far away at the play’s beginning. Even so, we moderns classify the play as a “romance” for a reason. In what sense does The Winter’s Tale offer us a different sensibility than a rollicking farce like The Taming of the Shrew or a sunny comedy such as As You Like It? What lies beyond the reach of comic recovery in this play: what damage and loss cannot be undone or made whole?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

Pericles, Prince of Tyre

Commentaries on
Shakespeare’s Romance Plays


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Shakespeare, William. The Play of Pericles, Prince of Tyre. (The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 150-206).

Of Interest: RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Gower’s Confessio Bk 8| Twine’s Pattern… | Scanlon’s “Apollonius” Plot Summary | Continual Riddle… (New Yorker) | Folger Pub. History


In Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy, Northrop Frye writes with precision about the defining characteristics of tragic vision; what underlies this vision, he posits, “… is being in time, the sense of the one-directional quality of life, where everything happens once and for all, where every act brings unavoidable and fateful consequences, and where all experience vanishes, not simply into the past, but into nothingness, annihilation. In the tragic vision death is … the essential event that gives shape and form to life.”[1] By contrast, in Frye’s schema, the romance pattern is cyclical, not linear; death does not define life but rather the characters in the romance will have a chance to redeem themselves and the order within which they function. The social order in Shakespeare’s romance plays and comedies borrows from the stability and perpetuity of the great seasonal cycles that literary cultures have envied and invoked for thousands of years.

Shakespearean romance (Pericles, Prince of Tyre; Cymbeline; The Winter’s Tale; The Tempest; The Two Noble Kinsmen) clearly differs from the straightforwardly tragic mode of action and perception, but it isn’t identical with comedy, either. While both comedy and romance depend partly on the renovation of a corrupt social order, often by temporary removal into a green world of nature where magic rules and things can be turned around for the better, romance is to be distinguished from tragedy and comedy in its Janus-like quality, its ambivalence about even the bittersweet endings it supplies. In The Tempest, for instance, we enjoy a felicitous ending with the expectation of a marriage between Ferdinand and Miranda back in Naples and a return to power for Prospero as Duke of Milan. The old wizard shows himself a benevolent ruler on his island and, we presume, he will be equally benevolent when he returns to his Italian duchy. All of that sounds comic enough. Still, it is easy to see that Prospero is potentially a tyrant who could plausibly misuse his powers: death, disorder, and tyranny are real threats in The Tempest, even though things turn out well. 

A key point is that in Shakespeare’s romance plays, we get not simple second chances or “do-overs” but rather second chances in altered circumstances. Events and persons may come full circle, but there is loss and sorrow along the way, leaving even triumphant conclusions with a bittersweet taste. Still, in the end, the romance plays are uplifting. Then, too—and in spite of their fantastical plot twists and settings—they offer what may well be the most realistic orientation towards life with its recurrent opportunities and travails: not a proffer of ultimate insight and intense clarity near the point of being crushed by inexorable forces, as in tragedy; not a sunny representation of individual satisfaction and happy communities, as in Shakespeare’s lighter comedies; but a kind of wisdom that allows us to abide in uncertainty, accept the changes and losses that time brings, and be thankful for the rare and all but miraculous second chances we may receive, however partial the outcome. When my father was growing up during the Great Depression, his father used to take him on weekly visits to an ice-cream parlor, and in those bleak times, the son’s choice was “plain, white, or vanilla.” My dad assured me that he enjoyed all three flavors. It took him a good while to figure out that the choice wasn’t quite what it seemed. It’s a silly anecdote from a lifetime ago, perhaps, but the point is that the best romance characters have much the same capacity, much the same grace, to see wonder in things even when they fall short of cornucopia or perfection. And to bear the necessary suffering, as Apollo tells the other gods towards the end of Homer’s Iliad, “a steadfast spirit have the Fates given unto men.”[2]

Pericles, Prince of Tyre, based on the story of Apollonius within the medieval poet John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (and Lawrence Twine’s prose version of that text, The Pattern of Painful Adventures) and co-written most likely with the not exactly reputable George Wilkins (author of The Painful Adventures of Pericles), is the earliest of Shakespeare’s attempts in what we now call the romance genre.[3] Despite its rough edges stylistically, the play turned out to be popular on the stage. Wilkins seems to have written the first two acts, and Shakespeare most or all of the final three acts.

It is easy to tell when we arrive at Shakespeare’s handiwork: the opening of Act 3, Scene 1 is magnificent in its dramatic staging and in the beauty of its language. One can hardly miss the Shakespearean energy of these lines spoken by Pericles during a storm at sea: “Thou god of this great vast, rebuke these surges, / Which wash both heaven and hell!” (176, 3.1.1-2) This popular play appears to have begun performance around 1609, making it a later work in spite of its complicated textual history.[4] It is, however, Shakespeare’s first play in the romance genre, and its characters do not achieve the distinctiveness, for the most part, as those in the more well-rounded romance efforts do. All the same, with its dangerous sea ventures and wonderful turnarounds of fortune, it’s a moving and dramatically effective play.


Act 1, Prologue (pp. 151-152, John Gower sets the stage: King Antiochus of Antioch lost his wife and is now in an incestuous relationship with his daughter; blunt introduction of the incest theme; Gower points the scene to Prince Pericles.)

The real John Gower (c. 1330-1408), whom Shakespeare and Wilkins have enlisted as their Prologue, was a medieval poet and contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, and the author of the Confessio Amantis, one of the sources for Pericles. For more on Gower’s function in the play, see my comments on the Epilogue.

Act 1, Scene 1 (pp. 152-156, Pericles discerns the king’s scandal but decides not to reveal its details in the court’s presence; Antiochus offers him forty days of entertainment, but plots to kill him forthwith; Pericles, wise to this, flees first; Thaliart is sent after him.)

The Norton editors offer useful information about Shakespeare’s interweaving of sources. He borrowed from John Gower himself, but also from medieval Christian accounts involving women condemned to brothels, as well as from ancient Greek romance.[5] The editors also point out that Gower adds a certain medieval quality to the whole affair, thereby keeping us at some emotional distance from the unfolding story, at least for a while. In the end, the play turns out to be effective in terms of its emotional impact. In his book Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom writes that only the brothel characters come across as authentically human—Marina and Pericles himself, says Bloom, are narratival and moral abstractions.[6] The term “ethical universe” describes the world in which the characters in Pericles live. That is, of course, a feature of many medieval narratives and dramas. The play Everyman, for example, represents the protagonist as moving through just such a grayscape towards salvation.

It may be that Gower’s reference to the medicinal qualities of his tale, his description of it as a “restorative,” fits well with the thesis that from time to time or eventually, value systems need to be restored, renewed. So often in Shakespeare, a society seems to have become a hollow place for hollow men and women, emptied of anything like truly animating moral values and passions. Discourse, language, will play a vital role in the restoration of Pericles to Marina, and in his recovery of Thaisa.

The action opens with Prince Pericles having just arrived in Antioch to take his chances with the king’s guilty riddle, marriage to the king’s beautiful daughter being the prize. Antiochus offers what sounds like the ancient version of a legal disclaimer regarding the trial Pericles is about to undergo. The young man is quite the romance hero at this point, all fired up to put his life on the line for supreme beauty and eros. Antiochus’s arrogance shows already when he refers to his daughter as fit for “the embracements even of Jove himself” (152, 1.1.8). Is he comparing himself to Zeus, i.e. to Jove, who married his own sister Hera? In any case, the young lady is characterized as a wondrous, perfect work of nature.

The girl is also likened to the Hesperides who lived in a garden filled with golden apples. Again, her beauty is supreme, but dangerous and forbidden. Almost everything either Pericles or Antiochus says about her bespeaks this forbidden quality. The myth of the Hesperides is that they were tasked with guarding the golden apples in the gardens commemorating the marriage of Zeus and Hera. A dragon kept them from stealing the apples themselves, but one of the apples makes its way to the destructive scene of the Judgment of Paris. The goddess Strife made one of these apples the prize for judging which of three goddesses was the most beautiful: Hera, Athena, or Aphrodite. The outcome of that contest was the Trojan War.[7]

In any case, Antiochus’s daughter is, according to him, quite irresistible. I think we may take as projection both this assertion and the attribution of haughtiness or arrogance to Pericles and his fellow princes who have sought her favors. Pericles professes to take Antiochus’s warnings to heart, and declares himself “ready for the way of life or death” (153, 1.1.55). Antiochus seems angry that yet another young challenger has insisted upon competing with him for his daughter’s love. In this regard, he is a typical Freudian jealous father. The daughter declares that of all the men who have sought marriage to her, she wishes most of all that he should succeed. Perhaps it is cynical to say this, but it is difficult to avoid thinking that she says this to all the applicants. There is something ritualistic about the pronouncement. She must be quite used to this whole rigmarole by now. Should we suppose that she is desperate to escape the clutches of her wicked father? It is impossible to say, but we are told by Gower that over time, habit or custom took over, and neither party to the sin felt the sting of conscience.

As for the riddle itself, part of it leads obviously to the life-preserving answer, and part is confusing or muddled: we can see how Antiochus makes his daughter his wife and himself her husband, but how does he become her son and she his mother? Perhaps the Freudian framework will be of service here: in rejecting his daughter as a daughter, we might say, Antiochus deranges the temporal scheme of his relationship, and opens the door to the family secret that the male child desires his mother first of all. In this sense, every woman he sleeps with is his mother, just as every man the daughter sleeps with is symbolically her father. The glaringly obvious part of the riddle remains unspoken to the king’s face.

In a sense, this is a power play on Antiochus’s part: like a typical bully, he tosses out damning information and double-dares anyone to make it plain in his angry, forbidding presence. When bullies tell obvious lies to their hearers, they are really saying, “I know I’m lying and I know you know that, and you know that I know you know it, etc.” There’s a mise-en-abîme quality to this operation. Since none of Pericles’s predecessor knights answered the riddle correctly, we may assume that even if they did figure out the riddle, they blinked, just as Pericles himself now does. He knows the answer, but it’s taboo to blurt it out. Either way, he’s at grave risk of losing his life. That’s the Freudian interdiction at work: a dark, unsettling truth that may be glimpsed in distorted or screened form, but never revealed in its simplicity.[8]

With regard to the political-theory dimension that we find in many of Shakespeare’s plays, Antiochus’s sexual secret may parallel a secret regarding governance and authority, one not unrelated to the Platonic dilemma of rulership: he has guilty knowledge of human nature and of the realities involved in keeping control of his realm. He is daring subjects and foreigners alike to make this knowledge common, knowing that they won’t reveal the taboo from sheer terror. The riddle, then, aside from its incest dimension, involves the nature of political authority and the capacity to govern. I would remind us of Aeschylus’ carefully articulated renaming and relegation of the Furies to the Eumenides (well-abiding, well-attending, or perhaps even “they who bide their time”).[9] There is also the scandalous truth in Plato’s Republic that it is acceptable for rulers to lie to their subjects so long as the purpose is governance itself, the maintenance of order.[10]

Pericles, upon solving the riddle, is immediately put off at the thought of romance with the king’s daughter. He sees her as a “glorious casket stored with ill” (153, 1.1.78). Antiochus demands an answer, forbidding Pericles to touch his daughter at this point. Pericles addresses the king directly, and seems to say enough to anger him. Pericles shrinks back in fear from doing more than hinting that he knows the true secret the king hides. Essentially, he declares that he knows the truth, but will not make it manifest. It is bold enough that he should say, “And, if Jove stray, who dares say Jove doth ill?” (154, 1.1.105) but he will not speak the word “incest.” He will not reveal the scandal itself, but his boldness consists in a species of counter-bullying whereby he makes the king understand that he knows the secret. Pericles himself is a ruler, and is at least in that the equal of Antiochus.

Antiochus doesn’t quite know what to do with this bold foreigner, and offers him forty days of delay, time in which he might yet reveal the secret. But we know that he will not do that, and Antiochus surely has no intention of keeping his word. The king decides to temporize and dissemble by means of decorous entertainment. Pericles sees through this false politeness, and decides to flee from Antioch. He characterizes what the daughter is doing as being like the action of a serpent, “an eater of her mother’s flesh” (155, 1.1.131), with the daughter cannibalizing and replacing the mother. It may be, too, that in “replacing” the mother in this destructive way, the daughter thus abused destroys the mother-principle itself, and since this principle must function together with the patrilineal, patriarchal principal that guarantees the male sovereign’s futurity and royal line, Antiochus’s corruption of his daughter turns her into the means whereby his own political dynasty, his futurity, is destroyed. It is a justly humiliating way for an exalted man to prove that he is not immortal after all.[11]

How right Pericles is about Antiochus’s devious intentions we see immediately when the king, like the stage-villain he is, tells us he plans to kill Pericles as soon as possible, and summons his chamberlain Thaliart. This man is so obedient to the king that he even plans to use a pistol to do the job—an invention still far in the future. Evidently, George Wilkins, who seems to have written the first couple of acts of the play, shares Shakespeare’s penchant for anachronisms. As Thomas Love Peacock writes in his satirical essay “The Four Ages of Poetry,” the Elizabethans “made no scruple of deposing a Roman Emperor by an Italian Count, and sending him off in the disguise of a French pilgrim to be shot with a blunderbuss by an English archer.”[12]

Act 1, Scene 2 (pp. 156-158, Pericles is distressed over the threat to Tyre from his solving the riddle, showing political realism and compassion for his subjects; Pericles tells Helicanus what happened at Antioch, and receives earnest counsel: travel; the prince will sail for Tarsus, and Helicanus will rule in his stead.)

From lines 1.2.1-33, Pericles explains how his anxiety about the threat posed by Antiochus grew upon him until at last it now seems he must do something to relieve it. Pericles understands the logic and realities of power: princes who fail to pass “Machiavelli 101” seldom last long in Shakespeare’s works. Antiochus is quite capable of making good on his need to eliminate the one man who could reveal his guilty secret. The prince also reveals to us that his seeming near-paranoia about the punitive reach of Antiochus is really about the welfare of his subjects, not a dread selfishly felt for his own safety alone.

Pericles demands honesty from Helicanus, who disclaims all pretense of flattery. He tells Pericles that flattery is the last thing he needs, and implies that his disturbed state threatens both his own welfare and that of the kingdom. (157, 1.2.52) Pericles is impressed, and agrees with the sentiment expressed. This is an interesting contrast from the court of Antiochus, where Pericles offered himself counsel of a more Machiavellian nature, advice rendered entirely appropriate due to the quality of Antiochus’s court, which was unhealthy, even deranged. Pericles’s realm, by contrast, is ordered properly, with Pericles a true prince and Helicanus a loyal, capable subject who treats his prince with reverence and honesty.

Helicanus shifts his counsel from patience to travel. He will go to Tarsus, which we might observe with our editors is St. Paul’s city of birth. While the play is set in pre-Christian times, the place probably still indicates to Shakespeare’s audience that Pericles the traveler is about to undergo a spiritual transformation under the pressure of harsh experience. At this point, the reference works at a general level of significance.

Act 1, Scene 3 (pp. 158-159, Thaliart arrives at Tyre to kill Pericles, and reflects on his situation as a servant; Helicanus tells him Pericles has penitently gone traveling, thanks to Antiochus’s disapproval of him; Helicanus and the lords offer to entertain Thaliart before he supposedly returns home.)

This scene is very brief, but it introduces us to Thaliart, who seems like a capable rascal, even if this play offers him no hope of developing into an irrepressible Iago. Thaliart seems like a standard Machiavellian operator: he keeps his eyes and ears open, and rolls with the punches. At Tyre, he at least gets enough information to spin a narrative for Antiochus that might keep an enterprising servant out of trouble. Helicanus easily discerns why this chamberlain has really traveled to Tyre, but he keeps up the appearance of civility.

Act 1, Scene 4 (pp. 159-162, Governor Cleon vents his grief to Dionyza over the plight of once-opulent Tarsus; he greets Pericles’ approach with fear, but greets his arrival with joy when the prince explains that he has come to relieve Tarsus’s hunger.)

It’s worth noting with a look forward that Pericles, when met with such terrible misfortunes, falls silent, but here in the fourth scene, Cleon expresses to his wife Dionyza a strong faith in the therapeutic power of lamentation. Tarsus, it seems, was once a wealthy, prideful city that disdained the very thought of ever needing assistance. Its citizens, suggests Cleon, were more concerned with fashion and the competitive delights of what today we might call “conspicuous consumption” than with anything like mere utility and sufficiency. But those days are gone, and all he can do is hope the advancing fleet means the city no harm. Famine has made even him, Tarsus’s governor, altogether desperate: “bring they what they will, and what they can, / What need we fear?” (161, 1.4.75-76).

Pericles sets Cleon’s mind at ease, telling him that Tarsus’s suffering has been known for a while even as far as Tyre. This is no Greek assault on Troy, says Pericles, but a mission of mercy: he has brought grain to fortify the starving people of Tarsus, and asks only “for love, / And harborage” (161, 1.4.98-99). Cleon offers both in effusively grateful terms, even calling down a curse on himself and his city if Pericles should ever find they’ve broken their bond.


Act 2, Prologue (pp. 162-163, Gower explains that Pericles, called home to Tyre by Helicanus, has suffered a shipwreck, washing up on Pentapolis, where fishermen find him.

Gower promises a full-on morality tale, with Pericles sure to gain from the series of adversities he is about to undergo. On comes the shipwreck, and Pericles drifts until, says Gower, “Fortune, tired with doing bad, / Threw him ashore to give him glad” (162, 2.0.37-38).

Indeed, this should remind us that Pericles’s misfortunes throughout the play are not brought on by error or flaw—they’re due to bad luck, or chance, or perhaps providence. The play is not suffused with the sensibility or ambience of classical tragedy: Pericles has done nothing wrong, has not made a mistake: what in Poetics Aristotle calls hamartía[13] is not in play in Pericles, Prince of Tyre. The protagonist has simply run up against the chaotic powers of elemental humanity (Antiochus) and the natural world (the rough ocean with its pulverizing storms).

Act 2, Scene 1 (pp. 163-166, Pericles washes ashore, and accepts his mortality; he meets some fishermen as they describe their country, and they soon tell him of the upcoming tournament for Thaisa’s hand; The fishermen have discovered Pericles’ rusty armor, and he gets them to give it to him for the joust.)

Shipwrecks are metaphoric of the travails of life in the time between the ultimate passage from birth to death. The sea and its storms are an alien realm that threatens to cast all that’s dear to humanity into the void. Until modern times, any kind of prolonged travel was apt to be treacherous and uncertain, with sea voyages probably inspiring the greatest fear of all. In Homer’s Odyssey, the narrator describes the coming on of night with the wonderful line, “The sun went down, and all the world’s paths turned dark.”[14] Even on land, the dark reduces humanity to the level of raw nature. Here in an Elizabethan play, the ocean takes on something like that leveling power, along with a sense of profound uncertainty and violence. The sea is a roadway for the realization of desire, but it is also a place of peril, a resetting track for past woes and felicities alike. It’s the great equalizer in the play in that even princes are subject to its vicissitudes.

Pericles humbly wishes for little but a dry death after his ordeal at sea, saying to the elements, “I, as fits my nature, do obey you” (163, 2.1.4). But soon, he’s in the company of some comic fishermen as they serve one another a prose-helping of their views on relations between the realm’s social classes, the sum total of it being that, like the fishes, “the great ones eat up the little ones” (163, 2.1.28-29). Pericles reveals himself to these rustics, and reduces himself to a key of begging suitable to his plight. He is received kindly, and the fishermen inform him of the upcoming tournament whereby a skillful and fortunate knight at arms will win the hand of Thaisa, daughter of the virtuous King Simonides, whose “peaceable reign and good government” (165, 2.1.100) the First Fisherman praises. When a rusty suit of armor is spied in the nets, Pericles hails its appearance since, he informs the fishermen, it was given to him by his father, and it is such a precious artifact to him that it all but banishes the shipwreck and other losses from his mind. The fishermen gladly turn the armor over to Pericles, and even agree to make him a garment to wear underneath it. They hope to be gainers along with him should he win, but their deed is generous in any case.

Act 2, Scene 2 (pp. 166-168, Pericles reaches the court of King Simonides of Pentapolis and his daughter Thaisa, the antidotes to Antiochus and his ruined daughter; the five knights present their mottos in chivalric sequence, and Pericles, lowly attired and professing only his dependence on Thaisa, wins the joust.)

In this scene, Simonides and his daughter Thaisa are introduced to us, while Pericles is introduced as the last of a series of knights seeking the hand of Thaisa. What we begin to see is an appropriate courtly spectacle, and what seems to be a healthy relationship between a father and his daughter. This is not a court dominated by secrecy and intrigue. Whatever dark Freudian jealousy may lie within King Simonides is kept firmly where it belongs: beneath the level of consciousness.

Each seeker marches forth on his horse to display his emblem in hopes of success. The king and his daughter will judge the contest partly on the basis of each man’s ingenuity. The first knight, a Spartan, presents as his Latin motto, “Your light is life to me.” The second knight is a Macedonian prince, and his motto translated from the Italian is “More by sweetness than by force.” The third knight comes from Antioch, and his device is “The summit of glory has led me on.” Then comes a knight from Athens, whose device is, “Who nourishes me extinguishes me.” The fifth knight hails from Corinth, and his motto is “Thus is faith to be regarded.”

Pericles is the final contestant, and his appearance is hardly promising, what with his rusty suit of armor and lack of assistants in proffering his device. All he has is “A withered branch that’s only green at top,” and his motto is “In hac spe vivo,” or in English, “In this hope I live” (167, 2.2.43). There is nothing inappropriate about the display and motto of the first five gentlemen, but Pericles is the only one among them whose situation really matches his motto and self-presentation. All he has going for him is hope. He lacks resources at present, and is dependent for his future upon the outcome of the contest. With regard to the other five men, the mottos they present are standard and conventional. None of these men are impoverished and desperate, but rather each is wealthy and privileged. The stakes are not the same for them as they are for Pericles. There is in Pericles’s case, that is, a perfect adequation between symbol and reality, between situation and display.

King Simonides picks up on this fact, and gently rebukes the three fashionable lords with whom he is holding converse, saying, “Opinion’s but a fool that makes us scan / The outward habit for the inward man” (168, 2.2.54-55). They were looking for a precise match between the knight’s attire and his personal worth, but the king sees the more important “match” that lies beyond such facile observation. Pericles goes on to win the contest, thus ending the scene.

Act 2, Scene 3 (pp. 168-171, King Simonides and Thaisa host a banquet for the knights, above all for the champion Pericles; a courtly dance ensues, with asides carrying much of the dialogue.)

Together, Simonides and Thaisa constitute a guest-host antidote to Antiochus and his ruined daughter. Leaving Freudian readings aside for the time being, we see that everything they do is gracious and appropriately decorous rather than garish, narcissistic, or lewd. The knights are equally gracious in their appreciation of the seemingly lowly Pericles.

Pericles himself shows a great deal of humility in this scene, and a certain amount of melancholy as well. It’s as if he can’t help being a bit overshadowed by his previous experience with a kingly father and daughter back in Antioch. In beholding Simonides, he is prompted to thoughts of his own departed father, whom he describes in terms almost reminiscent of Hamlet’s high praise of his father. What kind of protagonist succeeds in a romance of any sort? We might expect that the protagonist would need a combination of energy, boldness, and openness to experience (an ancient value found in heroes such as Odysseus). There are times when something like this might be true. But Pericles, who has already shown himself capable of audacity as when he pursued the daughter of Antiochus, shows a Christian-like degree of humility and patience: “I see that Time’s the king of men: / He’s both their parent and he is their grave, / And gives them what he will, not what they crave” (169, 2.3.44-46). In Shakespeare’s romance plays, this quality of admitting one’s limitations seems to be as important as any other quality we could name.

Both Simonides and Thaisa show themselves to be honest characters, but the conversation between them reveals a certain complexity in their decorous relationship. As the asides indicate, the main characters in this scene are capable of keeping their own counsel even as they engage in fit conversation with others. Simonides seems to be already trying to temper what he must suppose is the passion beginning to stir in Thaisa for Pericles, while Thaisa herself shows a maiden’s regard for her chaste reputation. When the king tells Thaisa to bring Pericles a bowl of wine, she responds hesitantly: “it befits not me / Unto a stranger knight to be so bold” (169, 2.3.64-65). Yet to herself, she admits that she is very pleased with Pericles. These asides are by no means dishonest; they are instead signs of a need to shape appropriate social and romantic outcomes, and to avoid some of the pitfalls of courtship. This is part of the work of society, of civilization itself: honesty does not always require full disclosure of one’s entire intent. Characters who show themselves to be too blunt with their words (think Cordelia and Kent in King Lear) often run into trouble, even though their moral character may be spotless and their intentions good.

Having been asked in classical fashion his birth and purpose here in Pentapolis, Pericles casts himself as quite the knight errant, a man “looking for adventures in the world” (170, 2.3.80), even though that description doesn’t fit his present circumstances well—it wasn’t pure wanderlust that drove him from Tyre to Tarsus and thence to Pentapolis. He was fleeing a political enemy, bringing aid to Tarsus, and then, as he admits to the king, barely surviving a disaster at sea. The king significantly offers gifts and personal friendship to Pericles, then orders up a dance for the still-armored knights. He teases Pericles and Thaisa into pairing off on the dance floor, thereby continuing the decorous pursuit of Thaisa that the now-completed joust began. At last the dancing is done and the hour is late, so it’s time for everyone to take their rest.

Act 2, Scene 4 (pp. 171-172, Helicanus reports to Aeschines that Antiochus and his daughter have been struck by lightning in their chariot; the lords of Pericles’s kingdom are concerned about his absence, and Helicanus puts off for a year their request that he accept the top position; the lords agree to seek out the absent prince.)

The scandal of Antiochus and his daughter is “illuminated” in a terrible way, at least for those in the know already, brought to light by a bolt of lightning that strikes their carriage one day, out of the blue. The foulness of the bodies, says Helicanus, so offended the common people that no one would give the two burial.

There are usually Machiavellian concerns in any Shakespeare play with a political dimension. The lords in Pericles’s realm are beginning to worry that the prince came to a bad end in his oceangoing travels—hardly an unreasonable supposition. The lords know that power hates a vacuum, and an absent prince is bad for them and the whole realm, conducive as such absence is to instability and the threat of foreign invasion. Helicanus is able to put them off for twelve months, but he understands that their patience is not infinite: it’s all he can do to prevent them from anointing him ruler, which of course he swore to Pericles he would never allow to happen. But in the end, the lords agree to go in search of their absent leader. The voyage should keep their energies occupied for a time.

Act 2, Scene 5 (pp. 172-174, King Simonides tells the knights that Thaisa has declared she will remain a virgin for another year, so they depart; the king approves of her actual decision to wed Pericles: he dissembles his approval of the match, but just as quickly brings them together as partners.)

King Simonides briefly dissembles his intention to allow the match between his daughter Thaisa and Pericles, putting on a stormy show for them and even threatening the life of Pericles, but with comical celerity he ends up revealing his true intentions that they should soon be wed. We can connect this scene with Prospero’s gruffness in The Tempest towards young Prince Ferdinand of Naples when he takes an interest in the old duke’s daughter, Miranda. For that matter, there was the comic menace of Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream against his daughter, which Duke Theseus of Athens at first supported and then utterly disregarded. There’s probably some real paternal jealousy involved in the behavior of both Simonides and Prospero, but in truth, neither man is doing more than ensuring as best he can that his daughter doesn’t wind up married to an unworthy suitor. There seems to be some idea that, as Lysander says in Midsummer, true love should not run too smoothly.[15] Some obstacle, even if it be a contrived one, seems necessary. In the course of this manufactured trial, Pericles shows courage over and above his alarm, while Thaisa stands up admirably towards Simonides.


Act 3, Prologue (pp. 174-175, Gower says Pericles’s bride is expecting; report comes to Pentapolis that Antiochus and his daughter are dead and that in Tyre, Helicanus is being pressured to accept the crown; Pericles sails for home with Thaisa, but at the halfway point, his ship runs into a storm.)

John Gower offers a dumb show and a bit of explanation. Thaisa is expecting a child, and Pericles receives from the king a message that Antiochus and his daughter are dead and that the lords back in Tyre are pressuring Helicanus to accept the crown. So the prince decides he must voyage back to Tyre and take care of business. Thaisa insists upon traveling with her husband, and brings along her nurse Lychorida. Pericles soon faces his second storm at sea.

Act 3, Scene 1 (pp. 176-177, Thaisa appears to die in childbirth during a storm when Pericles’s ship is halfway to Tyre; the prince wonders at the daughter born in such travail, and names her Marina in tribute; Pericles grieves for Thaisa, but, at the superstitious sailors’ insistence, commits her body to the sea in a pitch-coated coffin.)

Act 3, Scene 1 reveals Shakespeare’s authentic voice through the cry of storm-tossed Pericles: “Thou god of this great vast, rebuke these surges / Which wash both heaven and hell!” (176, 3.1.1-2). This passage, along with Lychorida’s heartrending utterance, “Take in your arms this piece / Of your dead queen” (176, 3.1.17-18) is unmistakably Shakespearean.

This whole scene is dramatically superb, and what’s more, it may lead us to broaden Coleridge’s claim that Shakespeare’s characters are most universal when they are most fully individuated. Pericles is not the most sharply drawn or particularized of Shakespeare’s protagonists, but at this point his grief and tenderness seem like the universal responses of anyone who has ever lost someone. He even challenges the gods on a point of honor: they take back the good things they give, which is something even lowly humans usually scorn to do. The lines “Even at the first, thy loss is more than can / Thy portage quit, with all thou canst find here” (176, 3.1.35-36), offer an observation similar to King Lear’s complaint that he is “a man / More sinned against than sinning.”[16] Pericles is constrained to deliver up the seemingly dead Thaisa to the stormy sea in a pitch-caulked coffin to satisfy the sailors’ superstition, but his acquiescence is by no means a mark of weakness. He delivers striking elegiac remarks directly to his departed wife: “the belching whale, / And humming water must o’erwhelm thy corpse, / Lying with simple shells” (177, 3.1.61-63). After Act 3, Scene 3, in which he speaks briefly to Cleon in handing over the infant Marina to that ruler’s care, we will not hear from Pericles again until much later in the play.

Act 3, Scene 2 (pp. 178-180, Pericles sails for Tarsus because his newborn child won’t make it to Tyre in such rough weather; Thaisa’s still-sealed coffin washes ashore in Ephesus, where the physician Cerimon revives her.)

The early-morning conversation between Cerimon and a couple of visiting gentlemen tells us a good deal about the physician: “I held it ever, / Virtue and cunning were endowments greater / Than nobleness and riches” (178, 3.2.24-26). Cerimon is a true scientist, adept in “the disturbances / That nature works” (178-79, 3.2.35-36) and in the properties of the natural substances that can remedy them, and he doesn’t much care for honor or suchlike baubles. This is in accord with the principles of the ancient Hippocratic Oath.[17] While we are accustomed to more or less dismissing the assumptions and practices of ancient medicine, the profession was more respected then than we might suppose. Ephesus, where Cerimon practices, was a Greek city along the Ionian coast in what is now Turkey, and among the Greeks, medicine had mainly broken free from domination by ritual and religion.[18]

It seems reasonably clear that Thaisa is not actually brought back from death, but is rather brought back from a hypothermic state of unconsciousness. How else are we to take, for example, “They were too rough / That threw her in the sea” (180, 3.2.77-78)? Or, “She hath not been entranced / Above five hours” (180, 3.2.91-92)?[19] The emphasis on how tightly caulked the coffin is with pitch lends itself to a naturalistic interpretation. Thaisa is alive by the end of Act 3, Scene 2: she has most likely had what we would call a near-death experience. When we consider how limited the ordinary ancient physician’s means were to cure even conditions that pose few problems for modern doctors, Cerimon’s wise restoration of Thaisa from severe difficulty in childbirth and exposure at sea seems all but miraculous, and the play’s general fairy-tale ambience encourages a feeling of wonder in such cases.

Act 3, Scene 3 (pg. 181, Pericles reaches Tarsus and entrusts Cleon and Dionyza with the princely care and education of Marina; Pericles vows to the goddess Diana that he will not cut his hair until he knows Marina is married.)

Pericles gives Marina, named such, as he says, because of her birth at sea, to Governor of Tarsus Cleon and his wife Dionyza, asking that she be brought up in a manner befitting her true station as a princess. Cleon eagerly approves, and Dionyza promises that Marina will be as dear to her as her own daughter. Nurse Lychorida will stay behind to help raise the child. The pair see Pericles off to the harbor, where he will begin his journey back to Tyre, which threatens to break out into political discord in his absence.

Act 3, Scene 4 (pg. 182, Cerimon asks Thaisa if she remembers anything from her ordeal, but she can recall only being about to deliver a child; she now desires to join the nearest vestal order since she believes she will never see Pericles again; Cerimon says he knows the place.)

In this short scene, Cerimon asks Thaisa what she remembers from her ordeal. She knows she was on board a ship and that she was about to deliver a child, but that is all. She recognizes her husband’s handwriting on the note left within the coffin along with some jewels. Thaisa doesn’t expect ever to see her husband again, so she immediately decides it will be best to sign on with the nearest vestal order. Conveniently, Cerimon has a niece at the Temple of Diana in Ephesus who can serve as her attendant.


Act 4.0, Prologue (pp. 182-183, Marina is now a young woman, thanks to our passage through time with Gower; he says that Dionyza, envious of Marina for stealing praise from her daughter Philoten, plots to kill her, with Leonine as the instrument.)

John Gower again sets the scene for us, this time at Ephesus, where Dionyza is about to betray Pericles by plotting to kill his daughter Marina. The deed takes shape out of Dionyza’s “rare” (i.e. intense) envy for the gifts that allow the girl to outshine her daughter Philoten.

Act 4, Scene 1 (pp. 183-185, Marina grieves at Lychorida’s grave, and Dionyza urges her to take a seaside walk with the servant Leonine; just as he is about to kill her at Dionyza’s prior bidding, pirates abduct her.)

Dionyza is envious, as Gower already told us in his prologue, because Marina wins all the praise that would otherwise go to daughter Philoten. Using the excuse that Marina is discomposed due to her grief over the death of Lychorida, Dionyza sets her servant Leonine the task of cutting the young woman down while they are walking along the shore. She pleads with him to no avail. But just then, pirates conveniently turn up and relieve Leonine of the need to kill Marina. Ironically saving her life, they abduct her. As for Leonine, he is as villainous as one can imagine, in spite of his seemingly soft manners: he lurks in the background, on the off chance that the pirates “will but please themselves” (186, 4.1.98) by raping Marina rather than killing her, in which case he will still have to carry out his murderous commission.

Act 4, Scene 2 (pp. 186-189, The pirates who abducted Marina sell her to brothel-keepers Pander, Bawd, and Bolt in Mytilene on Lesbos; much banter ensues between the brothel-keepers, but Marina stands upon her virgin honor even as they prepare to talk up her chaste condition with prospective customers.)

The Norton editors point out that this scene has a distinctly English feel, and critic Harold Bloom is probably right to suggest in Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human that Pander, Bawd, and Bolt are the liveliest and most carefully individuated characters in Pericles, Prince of Tyre.[20] Indeed, they hardly come across as ancient denizens of Tarsus—they seem like a quintessential London pimp, madam, and scout. Shakespeare’s Mistress Quickly from the Henry IV plays comes to mind, as does Mistress Overdone in Measure for Measure. In any case, Pander and Bawd discuss their trade frankly, lamenting that venereal disease is continually damaging and diminishing their stable of prostitutes and their customers alike. Ironically, their business entails hawking and vending innocence or chastity itself because that—and not simply sexual license—is what sells. Young virgins appeal to the clientele, of course, in part because they’re unlikely to cast the user straight into the maw of syphilis or some other dread STI, but also because so many men apparently fantasize about recovering their own youth and maximum sexual potency by deflowering a young maiden.

In this regard, Bolt is quite important to Pander and Bawd’s success—he operates as a public relations professional, a Jacobean-style “mad man” (after the phrase coined by Madison Avenue advertising agents to describe themselves) whose task it is to sell an image of beauty combined with flawless virtue. We can say “image” because, as we can see, Bolt has no intention of allowing Marina to begin her duties in the chaste condition he’s talking up. After receiving his advertising instructions from Bawd (187, 4.2.52-56), he insinuates that he wants to break in Marina as the newest member of team prostitute: since Bolt, as he puts it, has “bargained for the joint” (188, 4.2.119), Bawd offers first use to him: “Thou mayst cut a morsel off the spit” (188, 4.2.120).

Bawd has her own job to do in convincing the impossibly virtuous Marina that the attractions of her new role in life merit the inconveniences: she tries to sell the young woman on an image of cosmopolitanism and sexual variety. Bawd promises her, “you shall live in pleasure” (187, 4.2.70) and “you shall have the difference of all / complexions” (187, 4.2.73-74). That is, she will experience sex with men from all over the world. None of this claptrap impresses Marina, who peppers the scene with verbal indications that she is more than a match for her disreputable keepers, so Bawd & Co. have their work cut out for them.

In truth, to judge from the early part of Pander and Bawd’s conversation, the business has begun to lose its appeal for them, or at least it has for Pander, who worries about its disreputable standing with gods and men. Bawd pitches in that she has raised eleven illegitimate children born to customers, and Pander reminds her that she has recycled them into the trade as prostitutes. This is no “calling” (186, 4.2.35), no proper religious mystery sect, nothing hale or holy, as was sometimes held to be the case with ancient temple prostitutes. It’s just commerce, like almost everything else, only dirtier and (we can recognize, even if Pander, Bawd and Bolt may not) even dehumanizing. As Shakespeare, his probable collaborator George Wilkins, and his audience must have known, it wasn’t as if humane care and consideration awaited women trapped in this terrible cycle of abuse and then cast out when disease stripped them of their ability to contribute.[21]

Act 4, Scene 3 (189-190, Cleon of Tarsus deplores what Dionyza has done to Marina; Dionyza defends her wicked deed; reluctantly, Cleon goes along with Dionyza’s cover-up.)

Dionyza is a bit like a lesser Lady Macbeth, goading her husband into complicity with her depraved attempt to have Marina killed. As she says to him, “I do shame / To think of what a noble strain you are, / And of how coward a spirit” (189, 4.3.22-24). Just as Antiochus and his daughter’s lives were shaped and cut short by a guilty secret, envious Dionyza and cowardly Cleon will have to live with the knowledge of what she has done. Cleon is what we might call an “accessory after the fact” in modern legal terms, but perhaps his biggest sin is how unheroic and ordinary, even petty, he seems when placed next to characters such as Pericles, Thaisa, Marina, Cerimon, and Simonides, or even the honest fishermen of Pentapolis.

Act 4, Scene 4.0, Prologue (pp. 190-191, Gower says Pericles has sailed to Tarsus to see what has become of Marina, whom he hasn’t seen since her infancy; Pericles is devastated at Marina’s supposed death; in Gower’s telling, he seems to abandon his faith in the gods and yield his course to fate.)

This scene consisting only of Gower’s narration shows Shakespeare acknowledging the need to do psychological and emotional justice to his characters. The main characters in Pericles have been described by some critics as overly universalized and insufficiently particularized, but consider a modern television series like Star Trek. So many traumatic things happen to most of the characters in the space of one or two episodes that if one-tenth of it happened to real-life individuals, they would doubtless slip into a permanent catatonic stupor. But the interstellar show must go on, so they don’t. By contrast, when Pericles thinks he’s lost Marina on top of his loss of Thaisa, he goes numb and becomes listless, vacant. The prince (rather like King Lear at his nadir) really does slip into a profound depression. There’s a great deal of psychological realism in Shakespeare: he isn’t afraid to dramatize a character’s emotional and spiritual breakdown. Pericles apparently becomes unreachable to everyone around him.

Act 4, Scene 5 (pg. 191, Two gentlemen, amazed at their turn towards virtuous living after their encounters with Marina, head for church.)

Two gentlemen, now former clients of Pander and Bawd, share their astonishment at the transformation wrought in them by the angelic Marina.

Act 4, Scene 6 (pp. 192-196, Pander and Bawd try to win Marina to the role of a prostitute, and Bolt tries to ravish her, but she overcomes them with her virtue and conquers Lysimachus, the Governor of Mytilene, too.)

The three brothel-keepers are at their wits’ end as to how they can overcome Marina’s virtue and chastity. The Bawd says, “she would make a puritan of the / devil if he should cheapen a kiss of her” (192, 4.6.8-9). By this point, that scarcely seems an exaggeration. Things only get worse for them in this scene since Marina resists not only the brothel-keepers but the governor of Mytilene, Lysimachus. Well, she does more than simply resist—she transforms them and gets them working on her side. Marina has the poise of a biblical figure such as Daniel in the lions’ den, preserved from harm by his faith in God.[22] What we are getting in the present play, then, seems like the comic version of Christian ordeal and captivity narratives. Marina easily fends off Bolt’s attempt to rape her, and her magic works wonderfully on the rakish Lysimachus, who gives her plenty of gold and promises that if she hears from him again, “it shall be for thy good” (194, 4.6.105). At the end of the scene, Bolt himself dutifully scampers off to find Marina an honest position of just the sort she wants: one where she can make herself useful by teaching various arts. She tells him that she can “sing, weave, sew, and dance” (195, 4.6.168), among other honorable talents.


Act 5.0, Prologue (pg. 196, While Marina makes money for her keepers by honest means, says Gower, Pericles’ black-trimmed ship has been driven by ocean winds to Mytilene’s harbor during a holiday dedicated to Neptune; Lysimachus goes to meet Pericles on the latter’s richly trimmed ship.)

 We have heard nothing directly from Pericles for some time now, and Gower prepares us for our meeting with him again in the next scene simply by calling him “heavy” or sad (5.0.22), which, as we will soon find out, is quite an understatement. The restless ocean, the pontos atrúgetos or trackless sea of Homeric lore,[23] has allowed one further twist in Pericles’ strange odyssey. On the ocean, Pericles has already suffered one outright shipwreck and one costly near-shipwreck, along with a few smooth conveyances. Now he is swept into Mytilene’s harbor at the mercy of the winds, a passive, worn-out traveler rather than a chivalric knight or lord of heroic cast.

Act 5, Scene 1 (pp. 196-203, Pericles miraculously recovers his lost Marina, who guides him towards recognition of the truth, in the process fully realizing her own identity; Pericles has a dream vision of the goddess Diana, who instructs him on what to do next.)

This is perhaps the best time to remind ourselves that while the name Marina means “of the sea” (as Pericles said when he named her during an ocean storm), as a common noun it also means “harbor”: a safe place at which to moor one’s ship. This second meaning is significant here in the play’s longest and most important scene. Marina serves as an inspired guide for Pericles, leading him back from storm and lassitude to a firm grounding in his true nature and identity. She is the harbor for his life’s voyage, as symbolized by many ocean crossings and hardships throughout the play.

In the tragedies, the bedrock of human nature—the “thing itself” in King Lear’s phrase, or at least as close as we can get to it—is someplace one doesn’t want to be for long, if at all. Getting there only leads to disaster, along with any insight one may gain. In the present romance play, the Prince of Tyre has been exiled into the void, and it seems as if the experience leads to something very like madness, not of the howling kind but instead a period of silence and nearly complete loss of self. That is Pericles’s condition as his ship enters Mytilene’s harbor.

At this point, Shakespeare dramatizes a miraculous recovery that seems all the more powerful because of Gower’s and Helicanus’s narrations of the emotional devastation Pericles has suffered. This formulation differs from what we find in Shakespeare’s comedies, in which extreme loss is seldom more than gestured at, not delivered as it is in tragedy. In comic plays, the threat can even border on the cartoonish—think of Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, stormily threatening to have his daughter banished or even executed if she fails to heed his will in marriage matters. For the present romance play, Shakespeare crafts an exquisitely moving recognition scene that depends on, but does not overemphasize, our knowledge of Pericles’s genuine trauma and loss. Pericles was convinced that both his wife and daughter were dead, Thaisa for many years and Marina by very strong circumstantial evidence. Pericles has felt these supposed losses deeply and over considerable time, and now at least his loss of Marina is about to be made whole. How, then, does Shakespeare manage the revelation?

Lysimachus takes a barge to satisfy his curiosity as to who the traveler at harbor in Mytilene might be. Helicanus informs the governor that Pericles “for this three months hath not spoken / To anyone, nor taken sustenance / But to prorogue his grief” (197, 5.1.20-22). Lysimachus has no luck in getting the silent sufferer to speak, but a lord reminds him that there’s “a maid in Mytilene” (197, 5.1.35) who might be able to wring some words from Pericles.

Just when Lysimachus is about to hear Helicanus’s tale about the prince’s sorrows, the lord re-enters with Marina and her maids. The governor praises Marina, admitting that if only she were nobly born, she should be his choice for a wife. The young woman’s one condition for her attempt is that only she and her maids should be in the room with the sufferer. Song and instrumental music have no effect on Pericles, and he rudely “pushes her back,” according to the stage directions just after Marina says, “Hail, sir! My lord, lend ear!” (198, 5.1.74). Neither music nor the promise of discourse, then, does more than provoke Pericles’s anger. But something in the one-way conversation finally catches the prince’s attention, and he blurts out, “My fortunes, parentage—good parentage, / To equal mine…” (199, 5.1.88-89). Marina has dared to place her own sufferings, and possibly even her lineage, on a par with those of the princely stranger.

Pericles comes nearer to his vital recognition soon thereafter, when Marina (whose name he still does not know), responding to a question about her nationality, offers the strange response that she is not “of any shores” (199, 5.1.94). But so far, all he can prove to himself is a likeness to the lost Thaisa in stature, countenance, voice, and stride. Might not his daughter, had she survived, have been just like this maid in all ways? In any event, he tells her, “thou lookest / Like one I loved indeed” (199, 5.1.115-16). Much has been made of this passage as supposedly implying or reinvoking the possibility of incest between the stricken father and his daughter, but the main point seems to be that no such thing is in the offing: this father and this child are nothing like King Antiochus and his much-abused daughter.[24] The selfish and destructive relation between the former pair will not be replicated here, but will instead be replaced by a relationship grounded in genuine, respectful, and chaste love: what in biblical times would be called charitas or charity, not cupiditas or covetousness.

Now Pericles is truly on fire to know this young maid’s parentage, even if she fears she’ll be branded a liar for her efforts in explaining it to him. He learns at 200, 5.1.133 that her name is Marina, and a little below that she is the daughter of a king, and so was her mother. Pericles’s responses to all this seem uncomfortably close to the skepticism that Marina fears will be her reward for telling her tale, but Pericles—daring to believe only that he must be experiencing “the rarest dream” (200, 5.1.151)—convinces her to continue with her astonishing relation, and it all comes to light: how she was left in Tarsus and narrowly escaped death by Dionyza’s plot (though she doesn’t know that Cleon was an accessory after the fact), from thence by express pirate delivery to Mytilene. She leaves out the part of the story that involves a brothel, presumably so as not to distress Pericles still more. Her final pronouncement to him is, “I am the daughter to King Pericles…” (201, 5.1.169).

What is Pericles to do with all this information? He first asks Helicanus for counsel, but the wise counselor simply doesn’t know, and neither does Lysimachus because Marina never revealed her parentage to him, either. At this, Pericles implores Helicanus to strike him physically into his senses: “put me to present pain, / Lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me / O’erbear the shores of my mortality / And drown me with their sweetness” (201, 5.1.181-84). These are not only beautiful lines, but revealing ones, too: it seems fitting that the consummate expression of joy from a man who has suffered so much in and because of the sea should involve a metaphor involving the great movements of the ocean itself. Pericles is transformed by this strange knowledge, even reborn, as we can understand from his joyful address to Marina as “Thou that begett’st him that did thee beget” (201, 5.1.185). The last jewel in the revelatory crown is the name of Marina’s mother. At the sound of “Thaisa was my mother” (201, 5.1.200), the truth for Pericles is undeniable and complete.

The end of the first scene in Act 5 is taken up with Pericles’s rapt hearing of the Music of the Spheres (see onsite guide and Sensory Studies’ Music of the Spheres), which flows from the celestial harmony ordinarily imperceptible to mortal humankind. At last, an exhausted Pericles sleeps, only to receive a vision of the chaste goddess Diana. Her command is that Pericles should go to her temple at Ephesus and sacrifice, and when the priestesses are nearby, he is to give an accurate and moving recounting of his sorrowful experiences. The course is set for Ephesus, Lysimachus’s inevitable suit for Marina’s hand is granted even before he can get the words out of his mouth, and all that’s left is the carrying-out of Diana’s instructions for Pericles’s happiness to be complete.

Act 5, Scene 2 Prologue (pg. 203, Gower asks his hearers to imagine the celebration at Mytilene and skip forward to the final scene at Ephesus.)

John Gower again exercises his magical ability to whisk us through time and space to where the characters, and we, need to be. More about Gower follows in my comments on the play’s Epilogue. Lysimachus’s wedding to Marina is still pending since the goddess Diana’s commands must be carried out first.

Act 5, Scene 3 (203-205, Pericles obeys his dream vision of Diana and travels to the goddess’s temple at Ephesus; here, Pericles recounts his losses as ordered, and Thaisa faints; full and mutual recognitions follow all around; Pericles and Thaisa will rule in Pentapolis, while Lysimachus and Marina are bound for Tyre, where they will rule.

While Pericles recounts his tale as ordered by the goddess Diana, Thaisa faints because she recognizes her husband by his voice and appearance. Cerimon steps up to tell Pericles that this priestess is the very Thaisa of whom he has just spoken. The pair embrace joyfully, and Marina, kneeling, is revealed to Thaisa as her now-grown daughter. The transfiguration of Pericles’s attitude to pure joy is evident, and remarkably unalloyed for a romance play: he exclaims to the gods, “your present kindness / Makes my past miseries sports (204, 5.3.40-41), and tells Thaisa, “Oh, come, be buried / A second time within these arms” (204, 5.3.43-44). This seems like a total, if temporary, overcoming of the dreaded power of death, not a bittersweet utterance of the sort we will see in Shakespeare’s subsequent romance plays. Helicanus is duly recognized as a loyal substitute for Pericles, too, and Cerimon is honored for the excellent role he played in reviving Thaisa. Since King Simonides has recently died, Pericles decides that he and Thaisa will be sovereigns in Pentapolis, while Lysimachus and Marina will travel to Tyre and establish themselves on the throne there.

With this conclusion, we are as far as we can get from the selfish, wicked liaison of Antiochus and his daughter at the play’s outset. The frame story of Gower’s Confessio Amantis entails a long recounting of the sins committed by the protagonist Amans (the lover) against Venus, or love itself, so it makes sense that Shakespeare and Wilkins should shape Pericles, Prince of Tyre as a story that moves its protagonist from his initially showy, chivalric pursuit of a terribly flawed companion to the holy, divinely sanctified love of a good woman and his beloved daughter. In Tyre and Pentapolis, two happy, generous, and public-spirited couples will serve at the helm of their respective governments. This is Shakespeare’s basic comedic framework, and it lends the play’s conclusion a sunnier disposition than we might have thought possible.

Epilogue (pp. 205-206, Gower caps off the play by reminding us of his own medieval moralist framework, which has seen the wicked punished and the good richly rewarded.)

Gower points to the distribution of rewards and punishments by the play’s end: the two happy couples, Helicanus, and Cerimon are all recognized as embodiments or emblems of their virtues, with Helicanus praised as “A figure of truth, of faith, of loyalty” (Epilogue 8), and Cerimon for his “learnèd charity” (10). Antiochus and his daughter, of course, died horribly, and so did Cleon and Dionyza for her wicked attempt on Marina’s life and his participation after the attempt. Gower’s final prayer is that the joy that reigns supreme at the play’s end should transfer itself to the audience. The last couplet runs “So, on your patience evermore attending, / New joy wait on you. Here our play has ending” (Epilogue 17-18). There is at least a hint here that as the audience has indulged the theater company’s need for its patience, part of the “new joy” for the audience might consist in an opportunity for them to behold yet another such play as Pericles, Prince of Tyre.

Finally, by his ghostly performance throughout Pericles, Prince of Tyre, John Gower joins the company of Shakespeare’s famous prologue- and epilogue-speakers: among others, the Prologue of Henry the Fifth with his stirring cry, “O for a Muse of fire that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention”[25]; the concluding song of Feste the wise clown in Twelfth Night: “We’ll strive to please you every day”[26]; Prospero in The Tempest with his plea, “Gentle breath of yours my sails / Must fill or else my project fails, / Which was to please”[27]; and Rosalind of As You Like It, with her admission, “It is not the fashion to see the lady the epilogue.”[28] The general request among such figures is that we, the audience, should do our best to repair the limitations or defects of Shakespeare’s staged representations with our own imaginations and, perhaps just as important, with our charitable spirit, our “patience.”

Still, there is more to these first and last words in Shakespeare’s plays, and all of them repay close attention for the insight they provide regarding the nature and purpose of the theater, the standing of the audience, and other matters. Feste’s song lyric as quoted above can serve as an instance of such insight: he implies something about the value an audience might find in its theater-going experiences. Yes, we must leave the theater when the play is done, but we can always come back another day as “the whirligig of time” (to borrow Feste’s earlier expression) spins round and onward: the theater, then, serves as an inexhaustible wellspring of refreshing departures from the sordidness and tedium of the everyday world. There is not such a tragically permanent scission between “make-believe” and the real as some dour critics suggest there is and ought to be. Perhaps John Gower’s contribution as a speaker of first and last words has been to testify to the enduring power of poetry itself. He has returned to us in ghostly form to help tell what Shakespeare’s friend and competitor Ben Jonson will call “a moldy tale” in a way that Shakespeare’s modern audiences can still learn from and appreciate.


[1] Frye, Northrop. Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy. Toronto: U of Toronto Press, 1967, repr. 1985. Pg. 3.

[2] Homer. The Iliad. 24.49; in Greek, τλητὸν γὰρ Μοῖραι θυμὸν θέσαν ἀνθρώποισιν, tlēton gar Moirai thumon thesan anthrōpoisin. My translation. Accessed 2/19/2024.

[3] For the main source text, see John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, Bk 8and the “Apollonius” Plot Summary from Larry Scanlon’s “The Riddle of Incest: John Gower and the Problem of Medieval Sexuality” in R. F. Yeager (ed.), Re-Visioning Gower. Asheville, N.C., 1998, pp. 93-128. As for the term “romance play,” the Victorian critic Edward Dowden is usually credited with that coinage. See his Shakspere: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art (Google Books).

[4] By comparison, King Lear was performed first in December of 1606, and Antony and Cleopatra around 1607.

[5] See Walter Cohen’s excellent introduction to Pericles, Prince of Tyre in The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 150-206. Introduction, pp. 139-45.

[6] Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. See the chapter on Pericles, pp. 603-13.

[7] See’s account of the Hesperides. Accessed 2/19/2024.

[8] In John Gower’s original of the story, Pericles’s wife isn’t named, and the daughter called Marina in the present play is named by Gower “Thais,” which of course in the play would be Pericles’s wife. That would seem to implicate Prince Pericles himself, at least indirectly or unconsciously, in the same taboo sin of which Antiochus is guilty.

[9] Aeschylus. The Oresteia. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1984.

[10] Plato. Republic. Trans. Allan Bloom. New York: Basic Books, 1968. See Book 3, 389B-C, where Socrates says, “Then, it’s appropriate for the rulers, if for anyone at all, to lie for the benefit of the city in cases involving enemies or citizens….” The rulers may deal in untruths somewhat, suggests Socrates, in the manner of a doctor prescribing remedies.

[11] The best example of how an ancient poet shows the self-destructive nature of men who mishandle and damage this principle may be Ovid’s telling of the gruesome story of Tereus, Procne, and Philomela. Tereus, King of Thrace, marries Procne and has a son by her, but then he is taken with lust for her lovely sister Philomela when (partly at his own devious request) the girl’s father is convinced to allow her to sail back to Thrace with Tereus and visit Procne there. Once in Thrace, the vicious king imprisons and rapes Philomela, then cuts out her tongue so she can’t reveal what he has done. But she embroiders the truth into a tapestry for Procne. The latter woman is enraged at this treatment of her sister, so she kills her own son, Itys, and together the sisters serve up the flesh of Itys cooked in a pot. They present King Tereus with the severed head of the son and heir he has just eaten, and he chases after them in fury. The chase ends with Philomela being transformed into a nightingale, Procne into a swallow, and Tereus into a hoopoe. Ovid’s full tale is more complex than this outline: for example, Tereus’s lust for Philomela is kindled partly by seeing her embrace her father fondly, so here, too, there is an “incest theme” by indirection. See Ovid, Metamorphoses Book 6, Fables 5-6. (Gutenberg). Accessed 2/24/2024.

[12] Peacock, Thomas Love. “The Four Ages of Poetry,” excerpts at The Poetry Foundation. Accessed 2/19/2024. Of course, what the humorous friend of Percy Bysshe Shelley has to say about his romantic contemporaries isn’t much more respectful: he accuses nearly all poets of “raking up the ashes of dead savages to find gewgaws and rattles for the grown babies of the age.”

[13] The Greek term is ἁμαρτία, a mistake, error, or missing of the mark.

[14] In Homer’s Greek text, the stock phrase is δύσετό τ’ ἠέλιος σκιόωντό τε πᾶσαι ἀγυιαί, dusetó t’ēélio skiontó te pāsai aguiaí. Odyssey 3.397 and elsewhere.

[15] Shakespeare. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Quarto. (The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 406-53). Pp. 409, 1.1.134.

[16] Shakespeare. King Lear. Folio with additions from the Quarto. (The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 764-840). See 801, 3.2.59-60.

[17] For a translation of the Hippocratic oath, see Accessed 2/19/2024.

[18] See, for example, Paul Carrick’s Medical Ethics in the Ancient World. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown UP, 2001.

[19] Admittedly, the utterance, “Death may usurp on nature many hours” (180, 3.2.80) may strike some hearers as moving in the opposite direction, but perhaps we should take it to mean instead that a person may appear to be dead for some time and yet not actually be so.

[20] Bloom, ibid. 609-11.

[21] See the Wikipedia entry on George Wilkins.

[22] See the Bishop’s Bible, Daniel 6.1ff. Accessed 2/19/2024.

[23] In Homeric Greek, πόντος ἀτρύγετος or ἅλς ἀτρυγέτη (hals atrugétē). In Homer’s oceanic references, there is often a suggestion of vastness, of a body of water that seems to absorb whatever passion one brings to it. For example, at Odyssey 5.84, the despondent Odysseus, trapped with Calypso on her island, is said to be away from the cave he now calls home, staring disconsolately at the empty ocean: πόντον ἐπ’ ἀτρύγετον δερκέσκετο δάκρυα λείβων (pónton ep’ atrúgeton derkésketo dákrua leíbon); translated, “he gazed upon the trackless ocean, shedding tears.”

[24] But see note 8 above, concerning Shakespeare’s renaming of Thaisa from Gower’s original. See also note 10, which affines the possibility of a proto-Freudian reading of the incest theme in this play with a taboo that seems to structure some theories of governance.

[25] Shakespeare. The Life of Henry the Fifth. Folio. The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 790-857. Pg. 791, Prologue 1-2.

[26] Shakespeare. Twelfth Night, or What You Will. The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 743-97. Pg. 797, Epilogue or 5.1.394.

[27] Shakespeare. The Tempest. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 397-448. Pg. 448, Epilogue 11-13.

[28] Shakespeare. As You Like It. The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 673-731. Pg. 730, Epilogue 190.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2023 Alfred J. Drake

The Tempest

Commentaries on
Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

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Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. (The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 397-448).

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Shakespeare’s Romance Mode

The Shakespeare plays to which since the nineteenth century we have given the name “romance” (Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and The Two Noble Kinsmen) were not so called by Shakespeare or his contemporaries. In the Shakespeare First Folio of 1623, as put together by Shakespeare’s friends and fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell, The Tempest is listed first among the comedies, and The Winter’s Tale is listed last in the same category. Cymbeline is included among the tragedies, and neither Pericles nor The Two Noble Kinsmen is included at all. (Pericles was included in the Shakespeare Third Folio of 1663-64, and Kinsmen appeared in the Beaumont & Fletcher Second Folio of 1679.) The seeming solidity of the romance play genre, then, is a product of modern critical study, and in truth, Shakespeare is difficult to confine within such terms. He was a master of what one of his characters, Polonius in Hamlet, calls the “poem unlimited” (2.2), or rather the play unlimited.

Still, there are some things we can reasonably say about this modern, constructed genre within the Shakespearean canon. Northrop Frye writes with precision about the defining characteristics of the tragic vision. What underlies this vision, he posits, “is being in time, the sense of the one-directional quality of life, where everything happens once and for all, where every act brings unavoidable and fateful consequences, and where all experience vanishes, not simply into the past, but into nothingness, annihilation. In the tragic vision death is … the essential event that gives shape and form to life” (3).[1] By contrast, in Frye’s schema, the romance pattern is cyclical, not linear. In romance plays, death does not define life; instead, romance characters get a chance to recover what they have lost and to redeem themselves and the order within which they function. In Shakespeare’s romance plays (and comedies), the social order borrows from the stability and perpetuity of the great seasonal cycles that literary cultures have invoked for thousands of years.

The romance mode, as we have come to understand it, differs from the tragic mode of action and perception, but it isn’t identical with comedy, either. While both comedy and romance depend partly on the renovation of a corrupt social order, sometimes by temporary removal into a green world of nature where magic can happen and where restorations and reunions are possible, romance is to be distinguished from tragedy and comedy in its strongly Janus-like quality, its ambivalence about the positive endings it supplies. In a romance play, the characters don’t get “do-overs” in the purest sense; they get second chances in altered circumstances, following temporal gaps or delays. Events and persons may come full circle, but there will be loss and sorrow along the way, and the situation can’t be repaired in a way that altogether removes the loss or sorrow, or annuls the time a person has spent on selfish or otherwise misguided obsessions and pursuits.

It’s worth suggesting, too, that Shakespeare’s romance plays offer the most realistic or naturalistic orientation towards life—not an offer of ultimate insight and intense clarity near the point of being crushed by inexorable forces, as in tragedy; not a sunny representation of individual satisfaction and happy communities, as in the lighter Shakespearean comedies; but a kind of experiential wisdom through recurrence that—if we live long enough—allows us to abide in uncertainty, accept the changes and loss that time brings, and be thankful for the rare and all but miraculous second chances we may receive. Towards the end of Homer’s Iliad, Apollo offers an insight that we might apply to romance as well as tragedy: “a steadfast spirit have the Fates given unto men” (24.49).[2]

Act 1, Scene 1 (397-99, A tempest replete with St. Elmo’s Fire drives King Alonso and the other passengers to abandon ship.)

The first thing we see is that authority is the matter in question. That is often the case in Shakespeare’s dramas, especially in the history plays and tragedies but also even in some comedies, such as Measure for Measure. As the sea rages and his ship sinks, the Boatswain is not interested in paying homage to King Alonso of Naples at the bidding of decorum-minded counselor Gonzalo; he has more important things to do. To the imperious order, “remember whom thou hast aboard” (398, 1.1.17), the Boatswain replies only, “if you can command these elements to silence and / work the peace of the present, we will not hand a rope more. / Use your authority!” (398, 1.1.19-21) The storm, therefore, functions as a great leveling influence.

Shakespeare is not about to ratify anarchy, but the basis of the social order is about to come under scrutiny. This order has for the time being been thrown into productive disarray by Prospero’s tempest. Gonzalo takes comfort in the traditional belief that the cheeky Boatswain “hath no drowning mark upon him; his complexion is perfect / gallows” (398, 1.1.26-27). In a terrible storm, even such tenuous intimations of fate offer something to hold on to. Gonzalo’s closing words in this scene testify not only to his humility and patience in the face of death but also to the terror that must have filled sea-travelers before the age of modern transportation: “Now would I give a thousand furlongs of sea for an / acre of barren ground: long heath, brown furze, anything. / The wills above be done, but I would fain die a dry death” (399, 1.1.59-61).

Act 1, Scene 2 (399-412, Miranda learns who she is, and who Prospero was: his story of secret studies, exile and miraculous survival; Prospero explains that his enemies are now on the island due to fortune and his own active pursuit of the opportunity fortune has given him; Prospero’s threats against and use for Ariel, Caliban, and Ferdinand; Ferdinand meets the “wonder” Miranda and both show patience with imperious Prospero.)

In this scene, we see that there is need for a movement from ignorance to knowledge on the part of Miranda, Prospero’s fifteen-year-old daughter. On this island since she was three years old, she does not know that her father was once Duke of Milan. Miranda possesses a power of her own, one grounded in empathy. She feels the suffering of those who have been shipwrecked, and begs Prospero to keep them safe: “If by your art … you have / Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them” (399, 1.2.1-2). Prospero reassures her that no harm has been done and that the shipwreck was arranged for her sake (399, 1.2.15-16).

No more avoiding the issue: the adolescent Miranda, Prospero knows, is entitled to discover her true identity. She must learn about her former place in the social order and prepare for her future role. Prospero begins to inform her by way of posing questions, the first of which elicits some remembrance of childhood attendants in Milan and the second of which, the beautifully phrased, “What seest thou else / In the dark backward and abysm of time?” (400, 1.2.49-50), draws no further recollections. Prospero must supply Miranda with some key information: namely, that a dozen years previously he was Duke of Milan, only to be exiled by his brother Antonio and Alonso, King of Naples. In Prospero’s proud declaration, “Thy father was the Duke of Milan and / A prince of power” (400, 1.2.54-55), we can already hear the stirrings of a fine revenge tragedy: the exiled duke (and current island wizard) will surely demand his political authority back from the men who stole it from him.

As Prospero goes on to explain to Miranda, he is not without blame for his own exile. This duke devoted himself to the liberal arts, which for a busy prince might be a problem even if by that phrase we refer only to the traditional trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, astronomy, music, geometry). But there is some hint that Prospero went beyond those licit subjects: “rapt in secret studies,” he confesses, he neglected the needs of his dukedom, becoming like a “stranger” to those needs (401, 1.2.77; see 75-78). Perhaps by “secret” Prospero only means private and personal rather than public-directed[3], but given what we will later find out about his magical powers (and simply from the fact that at the point of exile back in Milan, Gonzalo furnished him with the books he would later use to instantiate those magical powers), “secret” might plausibly be said to bear another, less traditional, meaning.

It makes sense to refer along with Harold Bloom[4] and other critics to the admonitory career of Simon Magus as told in Acts 8:9-24. Simon, a renowned magician in Samaria, is rebuked sternly by the Apostle Peter when he seeks to buy the apostolic power of instilling the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. Coveting magical powers is a risky business for mere mortals—transgression and condemnation are always just around the corner. Prospero was stripped of civil power and exiled largely for pursuing learning that, at some point, may have gone beyond the standard Renaissance liberal arts.[5]

In any event, Prospero explains to Miranda that his beloved “secret” studies and consequent alienation from public responsibility led him to transfer control of daily operations to his brother Antonio. Clearly, governance was not Prospero’s highest priority. It may not have been a priority at all. The upshot of this transferal was, says Prospero, that Antonio learned the ropes of governing and began to consider himself the rightful duke (402, 1.2.102-05). Antonio is a Machiavellian of the bad sort. Possessed of a newly awakened “evil nature” (401, 1.2.93) and misled by Prospero’s trust and by all the power he now exercised, he came to believe in his own authority-steeped words, his “story,” so to speak. What happened to Antonio in Milan sounds almost like a species of intoxication, a drunkenness that led him to take his own and others’ grandiose words and images for truth.

Even so, Antonio’s career of usurpation bespeaks a certain political realism. Shakespeare consistently emphasizes that a good ruler must be shrewd, active, decisive, and, when possible, magnanimous. In consequence, wherever we find a self-absorbed, irresponsible poet-king like Richard II, we are sure to find him pushed out of the way by a Henry Bolingbroke, just as surely as the brilliant but wild Mark Antony meets his match in Octavius, the future Augustus Caesar. At base, Prospero wanted to lead the life contemplative or vita contemplativa to the neglect of the active life, or vita activa.[6] He sought knowledge for personal and private reasons, and grew indifferent to the charitable exercise of power. The results not only for Prospero but for Milan were dire, if predictable: Antonio’s corrupt usurpation made Milan a tributary of the scheming King Alonso of Naples.

Prospero rounds off his lecture to Miranda by reassuring her that far from being a burden to him, she was a great comfort during the perilous exile, and has become all his care. There is a civil imperative in his encapsulation of the education he has given his daughter: “here / Have I, thy schoolmaster, made thee more profit / Than other princes can, that have more time / For vainer hours, and tutors not so careful” (403, 1.2.171-74).

We also find that for all his charms and incantations, Prospero is not all-powerful beyond the island. He tells Miranda, whose mind quickly turns towards the reason for the tempest she has seen, that an accident or fortune has brought his enemies within his power. Once this seemingly providential event occurs, he begins to operate on his own under an “auspicious star” (403-04, 1.2.181-84). As always, “There is a tide in the affairs of men” (Norton Tragedies 333, 4.3.219), as Brutus tells Cassius in Julius Caesar, and failing to run with it brings only frustration and ruin. Prospero must act now or lose his chance forever. When he has imparted what he considers sufficient information to Miranda, he casts a spell to end her questioning: “Thou art inclined to sleep. ‘Tis a good dullness, / And give it way. I know thou can’st not choose” (404, 1.2.185-86).

His lecture for Miranda’s benefit concluded, Prospero summons Ariel for a progress report on the tempest’s human effects. Ariel dutifully provides his report, taking considerable pride in his loving attention to detail. He speaks not so much of a plain sea-storm, but instead of creating fantastical atmospheric effects that drove the passengers and sailors half-mad with fright. “St. Elmo’s fire,” as our Norton editors point out on pg. 404, pretty much covers Ariel’s performance. We find out, too, that King Alonso’s son Ferdinand was the first man to jump ship, crying out “Hell is empty, / And all the devils are here!” (404, 1.2.214-15) Ferdinand, says Ariel, has been placed in a corner of the island, while the mariners are all asleep aboard the main ship, which waits undamaged in the harbor. The rest of the fleet’s ships have sailed with heavy hearts towards Naples. (Later, we will learn that Alonso’s party and Stefano and Trinculo have been isolated into logical groups as well.) In sum, Ariel has arranged matters well, with no harm done. (See 404-05, 1.2.217-37).

With all storm details precisely reported, Ariel chafes to gain his freedom, saying, “Let me remember thee what thou hast promised, / Which is not yet performed me” (405, 1.2.243-44). Prospero testily reminds Ariel that he had been imprisoned for his reluctance to serve the powerful witch Sycorax from Algiers, who died and left him trapped and moaning in a pine tree (405-06, 1.2.258-93). Prospero has made an oral contract with Ariel to free him from human control at the end of a certain time, and the old duke reminds him that the time of liberation is near. There’s just a bit more work to do, he says, and his promise to Ariel is, “after two days / I will discharge thee” (406, 1.2.298-99). It’s easy to see why Ariel wants his freedom: he seems to represent imagination or the finer and more sensitive of nature’s powers, so he longs to run free. But if we care to impose a Renaissance-humanist-style reading, the play is in part about how humanity can and must maintain control over the forces within itself (the fantasy or imagination, strong emotions, etc.) and beyond itself (material nature).[7]

In any case, before offering Ariel a solid promise of discharge, Prospero threatens him in a way that suggests potential tyranny. If the spirit does not obey, Prospero thunders, he will punish him severely: “I will rend an oak / And peg thee in his knotty entrails till / Thou hast howled away twelve winters” (406, 1.2.294-96). In other words, Prospero will treat him exactly as the witch Sycorax did. Obviously, this is not a democratic island. Ariel is much better (and much better off) than Caliban (Sycorax’s son and therefore the natural heir of this island kingdom), but both feel the power and strong displeasure of Prospero. It is mainly due to this treatment of Ariel and Caliban that, at least since early in the twentieth century, critics and artists have so often given The Tempest a “colonialist” inflection that questions Prospero’s authority to treat the island’s inhabitants as he does, and takes that treatment of them as an instance of the misconduct of oppressive historical interlopers.[8]

Indeed, and by way of introduction to Caliban since we will soon encounter him in Act 1, Scene 2, Shakespeare’s was a great age of exploration, and European countries were busily colonizing and exploiting the New World. The quest motif is very strong in romance generally, and a sense of adventure, magic, wonder, and strangeness pervades the entire genre. Exploration is itself matter for exploration, which in part explains why many critics writing about The Tempest have seen Ariel and Caliban’s circumstances in terms of colonial discourse and practice. This isn’t to say that the play itself comes down in favor of Caliban’s perspective, but there’s little doubt that this romance play catches some of the enthusiasm in the air of Elizabethan-Jacobean England for exploration, and just as little doubt that Shakespeare’s representation of Caliban can plausibly be taken partly as a thoughtful consideration of how “natives” might process the approach of European cultures, with their imperious claims of superiority and their demands for permanent submission. With the firm establishment of cultural studies and colonial/postcolonial studies, these readings will continue to be a force in the criticism on The Tempest.

When Prospero is nearly done giving orders and promises to Ariel, we are treated to our first encounter with Caliban, and he does not disappoint. At his hostile best, he speaks spitefully in response to Prospero’s demand to fetch wood: “There’s wood enough within!” (407, 1.2.314) he rasps, which earns him threats of lesser torture from Prospero, including pinching by spirits in the form of hedgehogs (called “urchins” in line 326). Defiantly, Caliban insists that the island belongs to him: “This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother, / Which thou tak’st from me” (407, 1.2.331-32), and he testifies to his gratitude for the affection, food, and language given to him by Prospero and Miranda: “And then I loved thee / And showed thee all the qualities o’th’ isle…” (407, 1.2.336-37). But now, he says, he is a prisoner, an exile in his own land, and he curses himself for believing in their goodness. This, then, is Caliban’s narrative about the coming of these two Europeans to his native island.

There are two “native encounter” narratives at work here, one in which Caliban graciously welcomes Prospero and Miranda, and one in which he foully betrays them when they try to pass along to him their ways and language. We soon hear Prospero and Miranda’s counternarrative, and it isn’t pretty. The old duke, who seems to associate Caliban with the devil or with unregenerate man, upbraids him with the epithets “lying slave” and “Filth” (408, 1.2.344, 346), and between him and Miranda, the story is that Caliban was at first invited to share their quarters and was treated with “humane care” (408, 1.2.346), right up to the point where Caliban attempted to rape Miranda—an attempt that Caliban admits—and only then was he shut up in an open-air prison to keep him from repeating this outrage. Miranda’s address to Caliban is furious and condemnatory: she calls him an “Abhorrèd slave” (408, 1.2.350), and seems particularly incensed that her gift of language to what she considered a childish intellect did so little good. Her pedagogical efforts, she suggests, came to naught because of the pupil’s inherent temperamental inferiority: “But thy vile race, / Though thou didst learn, had that in’t which good natures / Could not abide to be with…” (408, 1.2.357-59).

Caliban’s retort to this stinging reproach is magnificent: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you / For learning me your language!” (408, 1.2.362-64) It’s reasonable to suggest that Prospero and his daughter are unfair to Caliban—to say that he is “capable of all ill,” as Miranda does (408, 1.2.352), is to say something of him that is true of humanity in general: everyone is susceptible to all sorts of impulses, be they good or bad. Caliban is not simply “malice” (408, 1.2.366), as Prospero calls him in morality-play fashion. All in all, this native islander has resources within himself that his European captors do not recognize, and this failure will later put Prospero at some risk.

Even so, for now the bitter argument between masters and servant ends with Caliban’s abject submission. He is terrified of the pain that he knows—and that Prospero harshly reminds him presently—can always be inflicted upon him at the magician’s merest whim: “I must obey,” says Caliban in an aside, “His art is of such power / It would control my damn’s god Setebos / And make a vassal of him” (408, 1.2.371-73). To Caliban, deep down, Prospero seems all but omnipotent. In The Prince, Machiavelli insists that a prince should rule so as to be respected and even feared, but not hated.[9] The exchange we have just covered suggests that here on the island Shakespeare has conjured for us, that is not the relationship that exists between ruler and ruled. Caliban, it’s plain to see, loathes Prospero, and he feels contempt for Miranda, too.

Once Prospero has finished scolding Caliban, it’s time to bring Ferdinand into the picture. The young prince is enchanted by the music of Ariel and drawn on by it. According to Marjorie Garber, Ariel’s first bit of song, “Come unto these yellow sands, / And then take hands …” (408, 1.2.374-75), can be read as encapsulating the action of the entire play, in part from Ferdinand’s perspective: he comes ashore and joins hands with Miranda, thereby quelling the chaos of the storm; then, the spirits work to facilitate the play’s decorous conclusion.[10] If we read the song that way, we will get the strongest possible sense of how firmly in control Ariel and his fellow sprites are when it comes to executing Prospero’s master plan. The music, we might add, comes to Ferdinand at a supremely vulnerable moment, a moment in which, he says, he was “Sitting on a bank, / Weeping again the King my father’s wreck” (409, 1.2.388-89).

Ariel’s next effort is among the most haunting of Shakespeare’s songs, beginning with “Full fathom five thy father lies; / Of his bones are coral made…” (409, 1.2.395-96). This song is certainly not an accurate description of King Alonso of Naples at the time of its singing: although Ferdinand doesn’t know it yet, and won’t until the end of the play, Alonso isn’t drowned, and even if he were lying thirty feet (five fathoms) underwater, he wouldn’t yet be transformed in the fantastical and complete manner implied by the song’s lyrics: “Those are pearls that were his eyes” (409, 1.2.397), and so forth. Ferdinand doesn’t know what to make of it, other than that it is a memorial to his supposedly dead father and is “no mortal business” (409, 1.2.405).

What should we make of it, then? Perhaps the aim of the song is to transform the image of the king in his son’s imagination so strongly that he begins to understand the need to let him go—a point that Ferdinand soon comes round to since he starts describing himself as the new King of Naples. So in part, the song may distance Ferdinand from his father’s death, perhaps because the trials and transformation he is to undergo on the island leave him little time to grieve for a royal father lost. In a sense, Ferdinand, too, is about to undergo a “sea-change / Into something rich and strange” (409, 1.2.400-01): when his elders actually die, he is going to become a king. But in the simplest, plot-driven sense, Ariel’s aim is probably to draw Ferdinand away from the shore and towards his fateful meeting with Miranda.

Ferdinand’s central question to Miranda when he meets her is whether she is human, and, if we read “maid” for its sexual connotation, a virgin: “My prime request, / … is—O you wonder!— / If you be maid or no?” (410, 1.2.424-26). That is a question with institutional significance: Ferdinand wants to make her his queen. As for the term “wonder,” the prince unwittingly lights upon the etymological significance of Miranda’s name, which in its Latin passive periphrastic form miranda est (from the verb miror, wonder at) can be translated “she who must be wondered at or marveled at.”

Prospero, while inwardly delighted, knows that the prize must not be won too easily and that the young man has not yet earned the right to reenter the social order and partly succeed him in his daughter’s affections. So he will test Ferdinand, even appearing to threaten him by accusing him of usurpation, something obviously of concern to Prospero since he has been the victim of that particular offense at the hands of a pair of intriguers. Aside from stealing the King of Naples’s title, blusters Prospero to Ferdinand, “Thou … / … hast put thyself / Upon this island as a spy to win it / From me, the lord on’t” (410, 1.2.452-55). The prince draws his sword against Prospero, though ineffectually, in despite of the old man’s magic (411, 1.2.464), and realizes that violence is not the way to get out of this fix. In fact, his attitude takes a turn as he observes that all his present losses and concerns “are but light to me, / Might I but through my prison once a day / Behold this maid” (411, 1.2.488-90). This quick adjustment shows patience, self-restraint, and nobility of character.

As for Miranda, she is as taken with Ferdinand as he is with her, so much so that it’s hard not to be reminded by this scene of Christopher Marlowe’s famous line from Hero and Leander, “Whoever loved, that loved not at first sight?” At first, she is nearly certain that Ferdinand is no mortal but “a spirit” (409, 1.2.410). Like a good Renaissance Neoplatonist, she is sure that such a handsome prince could not possibly mean anyone harm: “There’s nothing ill can dwell in such a temple” (411, 1.2.456). In Ferdinand’s case, that seems true enough—he is a fine young man—but if Miranda is to become a proper Neapolitan queen when the time comes, she must learn that the good and the beautiful don’t always coincide. That she shows promise is obvious from her remark to Ferdinand just before he is ordered to follow along after Prospero: “Be of comfort; / My father’s of a better nature, sir, / Than he appears by speech” (412, 1.2.495-97). She has already learned that her father is not facilely reducible to the man he seems to be, and that his mercurial moods are not so easy to scan.

Act 2, Scene 1 (412-20, Gonzalo tries to console King Alonso and then entertains Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian with his naïve utopia; Antonio suborns Sebastian to murder the sleeping King Alonso and usurp his Neapolitan crown, but Ariel foils the attempt and the party goes off in search of Ferdinand.)

Ariel has worked his magic so that King Alonso and his company are together on the island: his brother Sebastian, Prospero’s brother Antonio, the Neapolitan counselor Gonzalo, and two Neapolitan lords named Adrian and Francisco. Gonzalo begins the second act by advising Alonso not to be swallowed up by grief; we must “weigh / Our sorrow with our comfort,” he tells the disconsolate king (412, 2.1.8-9). This may be good advice, but it is also a painfully abstract and dry piece of philosophy when spoken to a freshly grieving man. We may remember Leonato’s wise putdown of Stoicism in Much Ado about Nothing that “there was never yet philosopher / That could endure the toothache patiently” (Norton Comedies 578, 5.1.435-36). But Gonzalo is actually more of an optimist than a Stoic: he notices how green the island is, and claims to know that it has “everything advantageous to life” (413, 2.1.48). Such observations provide Antonio, Sebastian, and Adrian matter for their sardonic jests, but all the same, Gonzalo is quite observant—he has noticed something odd about their garments: how is it, he asks, that they are not soaked through but are instead “as fresh as when / we put them on first in Africa …” (413, 2.1.65-66) for Claribel’s wedding?

King Alonso not only must swipe away Gonzalo’s kindly but ineffectual attempts at consolation, he must deal with Francisco’s claim that Ferdinand may have survived and then, in quick succession, with Sebastian’s snappish criticism that Ferdinand’s supposed demise is Alonso’s own fault for contriving a wedding so far from Naples. Alonso is a guilty man, but one may well feel sorry for him as he despairs over the loss of his son. He wonders to the absent Ferdinand, “what strange fish / Hath made his meal on thee?” (414, 2.1.107-08) Gonzalo’s utopian musings follow the king’s expressions of despair and the other men’s silly word-wrangling. These musings amount to yet a second attempt to improve the king’s mood. What Gonzalo serves up is a slightly comical, pre-tech communist fantasy: a place wherein there would be no commerce, no magistrates, and above all, “No occupation, all men idle, all; / And women too—but innocent and pure; / No sovereignty—” (415, 2.1.149-51; see 142-51, 154-59, and 416, 2.1.162-63). Gonzalo would undo the punishments stemming from original sin: no labor but everything brought forth by generous Mother Nature, and no menacing authority figures to deal with. Sebastian is right to point out the irony that Gonzalo still “would be king” of his imaginary utopian isle (415, 2.1.151).

This vision, which, the Norton editors point out, derives from descriptions of native life by Montaigne in his essay “Of Cannibals,”[11] is pleasant to contemplate, but also fundamentally flawed—by Christian lights, how would fallen humankind thrive and keep the peace by sitting around doing nothing all day?[12] In any case, Gonzalo’s vision scarcely equals Prospero’s magic and foresight as the island’s governor. Gonzalo is too ready to live within the confines of his natural surroundings rather than transforming them into something more civil, so it seems that this little group of stranded Milanese and Neapolitans doesn’t have all the answers to questions about maintaining civil society. Gonzalo is surrounded by people such as Sebastian and Antonio, who do not appreciate his wisdom. Wisdom appears to be separated from rank at the moment, whereas both are required to keep firm order.

When old Gonzalo and King Alonso fall fast asleep, the talk between Antonio and Sebastian turns serious and treasonous. Antonio, who himself usurped Prospero’s dukedom, declares to Sebastian, brother of King Alonso, “My strong imagination sees a crown / Dropping upon thy head” (417, 2.1.201-02). Sebastian doesn’t follow, so Antonio spells it out for him: both of them believe Ferdinand is drowned, and Claribel is queen of far-flung Tunis, so she’s in no position to inherit Naples. These realizations lead to Antonio’s stage-Machiavel conclusion regarding the innocent sleepers they are supposed to be protecting, “Say this were death / That now hath seized them: why, they were no worse / Than now they are” (418, 2.1.253-55). Once others at court realize what’s happened, says Antonio, they’ll quickly accommodate the new order of things. Antonio openly invites Sebastian to follow his example as usurper of Milan, and the gambit works: Sebastian declares, “As thou gott’st Milan, / I’ll come by Naples” (419, 2.1.284-85). So we have passed from Gonzalo’s unworkable but harmless utopia to a potentially lethal political intrigue by the wicked brothers of two respective rulers. Antonio is certainly a moral imbecile, but his characterization of just how fast a legitimate political order can be taken down and replaced with a far less appealing one is chilling, and on the mark.

Antonio, who says to Sebastian of the recent events including their supposed shipwreck, “what’s past is prologue” (418, 2.1.246), sees only the operation of random chance in the coming-on of the storm. He does not know that Prospero has used Ariel to generate the tempest. As always, the category of nature is not to be taken simply in Shakespeare. We are not dealing with an ordinary natural storm; this is a thing of nature brought on by human and superhuman magic. The storm is even associated with providence since Prospero believes he was steered during his own perilous sea-voyage by the divine will. Antonio mistakenly sees Sebastian triumphing over friends and potential subjects as passive men just waiting to take orders,[13] but this evil scheme is foiled by Ariel, who warns Gonzalo to “Shake off slumber and beware” (419, 2.1.297). With Gonzalo and King Alonso now awake, talk of conspiracy is silenced for the moment, and everyone in Alonso’s group sets out to look for Ferdinand.

Act 2, Scene 2 (420-423, Caliban’s fear of Prospero’s spirit-ministers gives way to exuberant worship of Stefano as the prospective new lord of the island: a parodic usurpation to match the more serious plot of Antonio and Sebastian in the previous scene.)

The scene opens with Caliban, alone, describing his reaction to the torments Prospero’s spirit-agents visit upon him because of his misbehavior: “For every trifle are they set upon me …” (420, 2.2.8), and the torments include apes that grimace and bite, snakes that twine themselves around him and hiss, and hedgehogs that block his way forward with their painful spines. When Caliban meets up with Stefano and Trinculo, we will get a chance to see how he imagines the island’s potential new order, but for now we are left with his abject fear of punishment at Prospero’s hands: “I’ll fall flat. / Perchance he will not mind me” (420, 2.2.16-17).

The jester Trinculo and the butler Stefano will develop their own ideas about paradise soon enough, but at first, Trinculo is frightened at the sound of the thunder he hears and amazed at the sight of the “strange fish” (420, 2.2.26) Caliban. Trinculo muses in the manner of Hamlet’s gravedigger about the peculiarities of the English, and in particular their love of exotic displays: “any strange beast there makes a man” (420, 2.2.29-30), meaning both “makes a man rich” and “might be taken for a man.” There might be some money in this so-called monster, thinks Trinculo. But for now, he chooses to hide from the terrors of the storm under the “monster’s” cloak. Not long afterwards, in comes Stefano singing a bawdy sailor’s tune most unlike the wonderful things we have heard from Ariel. He hears Caliban cry out, and seeing the strangely composed doubling of Caliban and Trinculo, turns his mind to a showman’s profit: “If I can recover him and keep him tame and get to / Naples with him, he’s a present for any emperor…” (421, 2.2.64-65). What follows is an attempt to ply Caliban with liquor and a strange, drawn-out recognition scene between Stefano and Trinculo, who slowly emerges from combination with Caliban and is perceivable as simply himself.

Stefano’s gift of alcohol turns Caliban into an ardent worshiper: “That’s a brave god, and bears celestial liquor. / I will kneel to him” (422, 2.2.108-09). Already a willing subject, Caliban promises to uncover for his new masters “every fertile inch o’th’ island” along with the best of many things the place has to offer (423, 2.2.139ff). Stefano is not slow to see the potential in this encounter with such a knowledgeable native guide: “the King and all our company else being drowned, we will inherit here,” thinks His Royal Highness the onetime butler. (423, 2.2.165-66) Caliban, for his part, sees the arrival of Stefano and Trinculo as his best chance to attain the ultimate freedom, which, paradoxically, will involve trading one harsh master for two drunken fools. He chants gleefully, “’Ban, ‘Ban, Ca-Caliban / Has a new master: get a new man. / Freedom, high-day…” (423, 2.2.174-75). Prospero can go find himself a new servant to bully: Caliban has found lords more to his liking, and the bar is always open.

On the whole, the second act is parodic in its aims and structure: it chronicles the beginning of a pair of attempts to set up a new kingdom over what appears to be the wreck of the old, with Sebastian, under Antonio’s tutelage, plotting to make his own providence by bashing in a skull or two, and Stefano and Trinculo (along with Caliban) vowing to set up their own madcap anti-government.

Act 3, Scene 1 (424-26, The Courtship of Ferdinand and Miranda advances; Prospero goes to his book to prepare for his triumph over Antonio, Alonso, and Sebastian.)

The third act transitions to more legitimate attempts at self-discovery on the part of Ferdinand and Miranda. In turn, this focus will gesture towards a future that includes a regenerated dukedom of Milan and Naples. The developing affection between Ferdinand and Miranda is central in this scene. Ferdinand performs his difficult labors mindful of Miranda and in hopes of better times. For him, love makes labor redemptive—it is not something to be avoided so that one can set up a fool’s paradise. In soliloquy he says, “The mistress which I serve quickens what’s dead / And makes my labors pleasures” (424, 3.1.6-7). By his patience, Ferdinand reveals his genuine nobility. We are being encouraged to note the contrast with Caliban here since that character grumbled darkly when Prospero laid upon him the same task of fetching wood. To be fair, though, Ferdinand actually has something great to look forward to, while Caliban does not.

Miranda, as we know, has plenty of fine qualities, above all empathy and a strong intellect. At no point does she seem merely passive, even when her imperious wizard of a father is holding forth for her benefit, or when she sees an opportunity to lessen Ferdinand’s heavy burden of labor. She has a bit of the rebel in her, as indicated by the following advice she gives Ferdinand: “My father / Is hard at study. Pray now, rest yourself. / He’s safe for these three hours” (424, 2.1.19-21). Caliban might appreciate that kind of teen spirit. All in all, Miranda’s words and actions show that she is ready to hear the information her father has imparted to her.

When Miranda reveals her name to Ferdinand, he again plays upon the etymology of it, exclaiming: “Admired Miranda!” (425, 3.1.37) It seems that Ferdinand has spent a fair amount of time at his father’s court in Naples and is nowhere near as inexperienced in love matters as Miranda. He tells her that he has “liked several women,” but “never any / With so full soul but some defect in her / Did quarrel with the noblest grace she owed / And put it to the foil” (425, 3.1.43-46). But in Miranda, he says in Petrarchan mode, he has discovered a woman “created / Of every creature’s best” (425, 3.1.47-48).

From here it’s on to Miranda’s admission that while she has seen only one other man (her father; she leaves Caliban out), at first espial of Ferdinand she has seen enough to know that he’s the only man for her. (425, 3.1.50-55) From thence it’s only a hop-skip to pledges of loyalty that in Elizabethan-Jacobean times basically amount to marriage vows. Ferdinand declares himself perpetually devoted to Miranda, and she boldly asks him, “My husband, then?” (426, 3.1.88) and receives the desired answer “Here’s my hand” (426, 3.1.89). The entire scene should demonstrate that the two lovers are quickly mastering the fitting and at times decorous language essential to a proper match between them. Marriage is an institution—and a political one at that, in their case—but Ferdinand and Miranda’s passionate and yet nuanced conversation shows that they have made an excellent start. These two are, after all, the future of governance in Naples and Milan.

Prospero, ever solicitous about what Miranda is up to, is of course secretly listening in on her and Ferdinand throughout their charming courtship encounter and their marriage pledge. As before, he blesses this union to himself since he is convinced that Ferdinand and Miranda will prove compatible. There is a hint of the father’s jealousy à la Freud in Prospero’s observation, “So glad of this as they I cannot be” (426, 3.1.92), but even so, he says, “my rejoicing / At nothing can be more” (426, 3.1.93-94). He takes his leave with the reminder to himself that it’s time now to go back to his magic book and work up appropriate spells to complete his triumph over his enemies. This will require delaying Ferdinand and Miranda’s courtship for a while even as he blesses and furthers it: “I’ll to my book,” says Prospero, “For yet ere suppertime must I perform / Much business appertaining” (403, 3.1.94-96). Based on what follows, he probably refers here to the device he is preparing to spring against King Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian.

Act 3, Scene 2 (426-29, Caliban encourages Stefano to murder Prospero as he sleeps; Stefano flatters himself with plans for governing his kingdom; Ariel frustrates the conspiracy.)

Caliban, meanwhile, is courting Stefano as his master and chafing at Trinculo’s bad manners and disrespectful treatment of a faithful servant: “How does thy honor? Let me lick thy shoe. / I’ll not serve him; he is not valiant” (426, 3.2.21-22). Caliban is too easily won over to servitude. To him, government is a protection racket. We notice that he describes himself rather like Prospero, as someone exiled by a tyrant and cheated of his inheritance by evil powers: “I say by sorcery he got this isle …” (427, 3.2.49). Caliban’s plan is to surprise Prospero and make away with him: “‘tis a custom with him / I’th’ afternoon to sleep. / There thou mayst brain him…” (428, 3.2.81-82). Stefano, as usual, is spinning a storyline from his own base desires—once having seized Prospero’s books and murdered the man, he thinks, he will be free to marry Miranda: “Monster, I will kill this man. His daughter and I will / be king and queen …” (428, 3.2.100-01).

They all serve their own base material desires, these parodic conspirators. Ariel, however, is looking over them even as they devise their plot (429, 3.2.108), and the would-be ruler ends up following the “monster” Caliban (429, 3.2.143). Well, Caliban does know his island, which is “full of noises, / Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not” (429, 3.2.128-29). The entire passage near the end of the second scene is among the most haunting and lyrical in all of Shakespeare: “and then, in dreaming, / The clouds methought would open and show riches / Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked / I cried to dream again” (429, 3.2.134-36). In any event, the die is cast: Caliban, Stefano, and Trinculo have planned their attack on the old magus who stands in the way of their dominion.

Act 3, Scene 3 (429-32, King Alonso’s despair over Ferdinand begins and ends the scene; Prospero is nearing the pinnacle of his power: spirits lay out a banquet for Antonio, Alonso, and Sebastian; Ariel, in the form of a harpy, promptly snatches it away and admonishes these bewitched “men of sin.”)

King Alonso is ready to give up the search for his lost son Ferdinand, saying “Even here I will put off my hope …” (429, 3.2.7). The conspirators Antonio and Sebastian, however, are as determined as before to see their plot through to success. As Prospero looks on from a height, Ariel’s “strange shapes” enter to music and dance around a banquet that they then invite Alonso’s party to enjoy. As the banquet is brought in, Sebastian sees only “drollery” in this miraculous sight (430, 3.3.22), but Gonzalo sees the excellence and civility of this strange island: though the inhabitants are monstrous-seeming, he says, “yet note / Their manners are more gentle, kind, than of / Our human generation …” (430, 3.3.33-34). The wonder of exploration is part of romance, and Antonio testifies (even if sardonically) to his own sense of wonder: “Travelers ne’er did lie, / Though fools at home condemn ‘em” (430, 3.3.27-28). Just as the men pluck up the courage to step forward and eat, Ariel swoops down in the form of a harpy, and with a clap of his wings, makes the banquet vanish.

This “Harpy” episode has a classical precedent in Virgil’s Aeneid, Book 3, where the Harpies snatch away the Trojan remnant’s feast and Celaeno, the Harpies’ chief, warns the beleaguered Trojans that they will suffer famine before they reach their destined home in Italy.[14] The reason for this is that, like Odysseus and his crew on their way home to Ithaca, they killed animals from herds belonging to a divine being without asking permission. In Odysseus’s case the offended deity was Helios the sun god, while with regard to Aeneas, it was the Harpies, and they demanded strict retribution for his breach of hospitality.

When Shakespeare works these ancient emblems of revenge into a key scene in The Tempest, he is most likely reminding us how serious a fix Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian might be in if they weren’t dealing with a reasonable governor like Prospero. “Justice” was no delicate matter in the time of Elizabeth I or James I: in cases of treason, it tended to involve prolonged torture and horrible forms of execution. Merely being beheaded with an axe instead of hanging or worse was considered a favor to guilty noblemen—people convicted of serious crimes against the state usually didn’t get such a quick death. Prospero’s enemies are lucky, then, that his invocation of revenge is aethereal and ceremonial rather than material. The Tempest as a whole is, among other things, a fable of power and authority: the play is much concerned with how power is won, maintained, and lost, and how authority ought to be wielded by fallible human beings. So the reminder of how violent and sudden retribution can be is salutary for Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian.

Once Ariel has snatched away his carefully prepared fool’s banquet, in the name of “destiny” and “fate” he aims a stern address at the “three men of sin” (431, 3.3.54). Ere now, he says, men have been driven to suicide by the type of madness with which he has afflicted them. (431, 3.3.59-61) They have been driven here to a lonely island to be punished for their sins in exiling Prospero (431, 3.3.69-76), and for this offense, they are threatened with “Ling’ring perdition” (432, 3.3.78), unless they feel “heart’s sorrow” and demonstrate “a clear life ensuing” (432, 3.3.82-83). Failure to accept this penitential program would leave them only an anti-romance pattern, a futile life of repetitious action stripped of meaning and redemptive quality.

This is the first of two high points in Prospero’s wielding of power: delighted with the performance of Ariel and his other ministers, he says, “My high charms work, / And these mine enemies are all knit up / In their distractions. They now are in my power; / And in these fits I leave them…” (432, 3.3.89-92). Soon thereafter, Prospero goes off to see Ferdinand and Miranda. At present, the “men of sin” still think Ferdinand is dead, and Alonso, hearing the very waves, winds and thunder speak “The name of Prosper” (432, 3.3.100), feels bitter remorse at the loss of his son and wishes only for a watery death. Sebastian and Antonio wander off, thinking somehow to wage war against the spirit host “one fiend at a time” (432, 3.3.103). Gonzalo alone sees what’s happening to these desperate souls: “their great guilt, / Like poison given to work a great time after, / Now gins to bite the spirits” (432, 3.3.105-07). The old counselor therefore orders others in the party to follow after them and keep them from further harm.

Act 4, Scene 1 (432-39, Prospero urges restraint on Ferdinand, summons spirits to prepare a show for Ferdinand and Miranda: Juno and Ceres bless their coming union; Prospero sums up the vision — “we are such stuff …” and is overcome with thoughts of Caliban’s conspiracy: he is tempted to act tyrannically against the conspirators.)

Prospero, who now apologizes to Ferdinand for the severity of the trials imposed upon him, informs the young man that he has admirably “stood the test” (433, 4.1.7) and won himself a matchless wife. Still, Prospero insists that Ferdinand must not behave like Caliban and spoil the honor of his daughter, lest, he says, “discord, shall bestrew / The union of your bed with weeds …” (433, 4.1.20-21). Ceremony must be attended to, and custom obeyed. These are the time-honored means of blessing a socially and politically significant union, and marriage, we are to understand, is part of the magic of civilization. As usual, Ferdinand speaks skillfully, replying to Prospero, “the strong’st suggestion / Our worser genius can, shall never melt / Mine honor into lust, to take away / The edge of that day’s celebration” (433, 4.1.26-29).

Momentarily, Prospero summons Ariel and orders him to bring the lesser-spirit “rabble” (an important word here in terms of governance: the lower orders amongst the spirits, so to speak, are enlisted to help bring order from chaos) so that he may give the young couple a demonstration of his powers, saying, “I must / Bestow upon the eyes of this young couple / Some vanity of mine art. It is my promise, / And they expect it from me” (433, 4.1.39-42). Perhaps Prospero has made just such a promise to the young couple out of our hearing, but in any case, as the Norton editors point out, the term “vanity” is rich with connotations.

Which of the four possibilities laid out by the editors—“Trifle; conceit; illusion; display”—does the magician intend? He may well mean all of them in some combination: we have already seen evidence of Prospero’s great power, and he will tell us still more about that power’s various workings in Act 5. By comparison to the tempest he has stirred up, or the way he has wielded his force against Caliban and even Ferdinand, the courtly, aethereal masque that is about to be enacted might indeed be taken as a mere “trifle,” a pretty fireworks display or feast for the eyes, so to speak, of an awesome power that the wizard himself struggles to refrain from using in more heavy-handed, darker ways. Ariel and Prospero exchange their mutual affection for each other, with the spirit asking Prospero, “Do you love me, master? No?” and receiving the touching reply, “Dearly, my delicate Ariel” (434, 4.1.49-50). Given the at times tense dialogue between these two up to now, this brief exchange is pleasing to hear.

Soon, the masque unfolds. Iris, the rainbow-goddess and messenger of Juno, goddess of marriage and childbirth and all-powerful Jupiter’s wife, opens the display. In Juno’s name she bids Ceres, a fertility and agricultural goddess, to leave her rich dominions and come entertain Juno by sporting with her for the mortal lovers’ pleasure. Ceres is also being summoned for another purpose: there is “A contract of true love to celebrate / And some donation freely to estate / On the blessed lovers” (435, 4.1.84-86). Ceres will offer up her own special gift of abundance in perpetuity and, therefore, a secure future, for Ferdinand and Miranda.

The presence of this goddess may also remind us, though in a way not immediately available to the young couple, of Prospero’s distress at the reality of losing his daughter to the Prince of Naples. Ceres was the mother of Proserpina, the beautiful girl who was abducted by the god of the Underworld, Pluto (or Hades in the story’s Greek version), to be his queen.[15] But the only present menace, at least in the masque itself, is the mention of Cupid, son of the love goddess Venus, both of whom (as the Norton editors point out) were responsible for Pluto’s falling in love with Proserpina. But Iris reports that no such mischief will come from that quarter respecting Ferdinand and Miranda, so the couple are safe.

Next, at Juno’s own request, Juno and Ceres celebrate the coming marriage contract of Miranda and Ferdinand, and Ceres details the beneficence of nature that she brings: ”Earth’s increase, and foison plenty …” are available for the enjoying (435, 4.1.110; see 435-36, 4.1.106-17). Ferdinand, for his part, is amazed at all this spectacle and music, exclaiming “Let me live here ever! / So rare a wondered father and a wise / Makes this place paradise” (436, 4.1.122-24).[16] Possibly because Ferdinand’s word “paradise” is ringing in his ears even as the show goes on, Prospero suddenly remembers the “foul conspiracy / Of the beast Caliban and his confederates” (436, 4.1.139-40). As soon as he speaks these and a few more lines, the spirit-masquers decamp: they must be disappointed at being rushed so unceremoniously out of view.

It may seem odd that Prospero would forget a vile plot against his life even for a moment; but then, he spent a good deal of time “rapt in secret studies” back in Milan even when he was tasked with governing, so perhaps his latest use of such erudition—a lovely masque enacted by the airy spirits he controls—has had a similar effect on him, much to his discomfiture. Ferdinand and Miranda are almost as amazed at Prospero’s sudden crestfallenness as they were by the masque itself, and by way of reassuring them, the old wizard follows up with one of the most lyrical and profound passages in the whole of Shakespeare’s works, beginning with “Our revels now are ended…” (437, 4.1.148; see especially lines 148-58).

The upshot of Prospero’s description of the “revels” and their conclusion is that not only the masque and the players, but everything and everyone, is transitory: there is no substance to anything, and all of it—including the audience—will pass, leaving “not a rack behind” (437, 4.1.156; “rack,” the editors explain, means “wisp of cloud”). One is reminded of Edmund Spenser’s Mutabilitie Cantos in The Faerie Queene, with their long analysis of “the ever-whirling wheele / Of Change, the which all mortall things doth sway”or the later poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s observation that “Nought may endure but Mutability.” Prospero sums up human life, and perhaps everything his wizardry and art have accomplished, by saying that we are “such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (437, 4.1.156-58).  These are beautiful lines, even if, in context, it is a little hard to imagine them bringing much cheer to Ferdinand and Miranda.

Prospero’s observations at this point in the play have sometimes been taken as Shakespeare’s farewell speech as a dramatist, even though The Tempest isn’t his last project—after its November 1, 1611 performance by the King’s Men at Whitehall Palace’s Banqueting House for King James I, over the next few years he collaborated with John Fletcher on Henry VIII, a lost play called Cardenio (the plot of which was apparently drawn from Don Quixote), and The Two Noble Kinsmen. Whatever the status of the “revels” speech, there is a parallel between art and life to be drawn from it, and from The Tempest in its entire action. Art has much to tell us about life, and—notwithstanding claims like that of W. H. Auden’s speaker in the elegy “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” that poetry “makes nothing happen”—one of its functions is to serve as a kind of magic that participates in and lends decorous approval to the necessary activities of civic life and the fulfillment of individual desire. A key purpose of Prospero’s elegant spirit-masque, in fact, is to bless the future union of Miranda and Ferdinand.

No sooner does Prospero speak his most philosophical lines than he confesses to Ferdinand that he feels confused and enfeebled: “Sir, I am vexed. / Bear with my weakness: my old brain is troubled” (437, 4.1.158-60). He must get the young couple safely out of the way for a while, so he can take care of the unfinished business that he had temporarily forgotten. In effect, the courtly spirit-masque put on for Miranda and Ferdinand amounts to something like the “false catastrophe” often seen in classical comic structure. Prospero’s magical island is not paradise after all: the consequences of human error, of human fallenness if we want the theological overtones of that word, impend even in this strange, lovely place somewhere in the Mediterranean that has traces of tropical ultra-green.[17] Ariel is summoned, and he delivers an update on what he has done to frustrate and annoy Caliban, his arrogant new master Stefano, and second-in-command Trinculo, any one of whom would try the patience of a saint. Prospero, we know, isn’t quite that. That the old man is once again tempted to turn tyrant is at least hinted at in his pronouncement, “I will plague them all, / Even to roaring” (438, 4.1.192-93). 

The scene ends with Stefano, Trinculo and Caliban being hunted down like wild animals by Prospero’s spirits, now morphed into vicious canines. We are getting near thehigh point of Prospero’s demonstration of power, the apex of the ultimately benevolent plot he has stirred up by magic and with help from Fortune: “At this hour,” observes Prospero, “Lies at my mercy all mine enemies” (439, 4.1.259-60). This is the moment he has waited for and worked for. What will he do with it?

Act 5, Scene 1 and Epilogue (439-48, Prospero forgoes vengeance: both sets of conspirators are trapped, there are faults called out and forgiven; King Alonso is reunited with Ferdinand; the Boatswain reports that the ship is ready; Prospero will sail to Naples for Miranda’s wedding, then go home to rule Milan and study the art of dying well; Ariel is finally set free.)

It doesn’t take long for us to realize that Prospero will make the right and merciful call in dealing with his enemies. Even Ariel is moved at the plight of Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian, who, sitting in a lime garden near Prospero’s cell, “abide all three distracted, / And the remainder mourning over them…” (440, 5.1.12-13). Upon hearing this, Prospero sums up his reaction as follows: “Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick, / Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury / Do I take part. The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance” (440, 5.1.25-28). Virtue, as the Renaissance humanist commonplace goes, will always prove productive of still greater good, while vengeance is destructive and de-creative, tending to chaos instead of order. Prospero will unsay the spells he has laid upon the three sinful men, and “they shall be themselves” (440, 5.1.32) so that they may receive their just reckoning.

Immediately after letting us in on his decision to exercise genuine authority rather than play the tyrant with his now hapless enemies, Prospero details the stunning reach of the powers he has long exercised and now proposes to let go once and for all. As the Norton editors point out, the description he gives us is adapted from Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses 7.265-77).[18] Aside from consorting with fairies and elves, controlling nature in impressive ways, and the like, the most startling claim Prospero advances is that by his “so potent art,” graves have “waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth…” (441, 5.1.48-50).[19]

Most readers and audience members probably won’t have seen this claim coming: raising the dead is a frightening power steeped in divinity; it is not something that anyone would consider “white magic,” as opposed to darker occult practices. All the same, as Sean Benson points out,[20] references to something like such activity are hardly lacking in Shakespeare’s later plays. Pericles, Prince of Tyre, The Winter’s Tale, and Cymbeline also gesture towards the resurrection of the dead, whether real or apparent. Whatever may be the case about this startling claim, Prospero makes a tough decision: he will forswear any such “rough magic” (441, 5.1.50) and return to his old life as a mere mortal, even though a rather important one as Duke of Milan. He pledges, “I’ll break my staff, / Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, / And deeper than did ever plummet sound / I’ll drown my book” (441, 5.1.54-57).

Upon the entrance of the guilty Alonso, Antonio, and Sebastian into the magic circle that Prospero has drawn, he waits for the spell he had cast on them earlier to wear off. To himself (since they cannot hear or see him yet), he proceeds to sketch the fault of each man: “Most cruelly / Didst thou, Alonso, use me and my daughter. / Thy brother [Sebastian] was a furtherer in the act” (441, 5.1.71-73). As for Antonio, he stands accused most recently of egging Sebastian on to murder Alonso and thereby repeating by Neapolitan proxy his initial usurpation of Milan (441, 5.1.74-79). But even Antonio is forgiven, though neither he nor Sebastian will bother to apologize.

Prospero realizes that he should dress himself so as to be recognizable to his onetime abusers. Ariel, sensing freedom to be near, can hardly contain his glee as he helps dress Prospero in his proper attire as Duke of Milan: “Merrily, merrily shall I live now, / Under the blossom that hangs on the bough” (442, 5.1.93-94), sings this innocent, natural creature even as he invests a mortal man in robes of state. To move things along, Prospero tells Ariel to summon the Boatswain and the ship’s Master to the scene. When Prospero finally addresses King Alonso audibly and allows himself to appear to him, Alonso promptly agrees to forget his insistence on Milanese tribute for Naples and asks forgiveness for his complicity in the exiling of Prospero, saying, “Thy dukedom I resign and do entreat / Thou pardon me my wrongs” (442, 5.1.118-19). Next, the magician embraces his loyal friend Gonzalo and, in an aside to Sebastian and Antonio, promises not to reveal to Alonso their conspiracy against him, at least for the time being. He then demands his state back from his brother Antonio: “I do forgive / Thy rankest fault—all of them—and require / My dukedom of thee…” (443, 5.1.131-33).

King Alonso is amazed to see Prospero still alive, but his chief care is still, of course, for his lost son: “I wish / Myself were mudded in that oozy bed / Where my son lies” (443, 5.1.150-52). To this despairing monarch, Prospero at first commiserates as one who has, in a sense, also lost his child; he has had to give her to Ferdinand. But it would be wrong to toy with a grief-stricken father, so Prospero has one last wonder to reveal to Alonso and the whole party: he shows them Ferdinand and Miranda playing that ancient game of royal strategy, chess (444, 5.1.171ff). Even Sebastian must admit that this is “A most high miracle” (444, 5.1.177).

The game itself seems to entail some contention between the two lovers, with Miranda accusing Ferdinand of making tricky moves on the chess board: “Sweet lord, you play me false” (444, 5.1.172). This possible act of cheating would seem to transition Ferdinand out of the play’s dream world (in which he has played the romance quester in a short space) and initiate him into the guileful realm of politics and statecraft, but his reaction to the sight of King Alonso suggests he has lost none of his innocence or loyalty—he is wonderstruck, exclaiming, “Though the seas threaten, they are merciful” (444, 5.1.178). He knows he is not yet the king of Naples, but he is overjoyed to see his father still living. So Ferdinand and Alonso are reunited, and Miranda’s turn comes to marvel at the sight before her: “Oh, brave new world / That has such people in’t!” (444, 5.1.183-84) Alonso is very pleased with the match, and, by way of a question, Gonzalo pronounces Prospero’s long-ago exile from Milan a dynastic fortunate fall: “Was Milan thrust from Milan that his issue / Should become kings of Naples?” (445, 5.1.205-06)

Ariel has brought the Boatswain and Ship’s Master into Prospero’s presence, and they relate how they beheld with wonder the vessel they thought they had lost forever: “Our royal, good, and gallant ship …” (423, 5.1.240) now stands ready for service as before. King Alonso’s desire for the particulars of this miraculous affair is brushed aside for the moment by Prospero, for there’s still the matter of Caliban and his wicked overlords to settle. Ariel has set them at liberty to face judgment, and the first result is general merriment since all three look like perfect fools in the gaudy apparel that Ariel had earlier set out to distract them from their intent to murder Prospero in his cell. Prospero’s inclination is to admit responsibility for Caliban: “This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (446, 5.1.278-79). What exactly is Prospero implying? By “acknowledge,” does he mean that he will take Caliban with him to Milan and there help him complete his education? That seems unlikely, but of course one can only conjecture vainly about such post-textual matters. In any case, Caliban, afraid almost for his life, admits his error and promises to mend his ways: “I’ll be wise hereafter / And seek for grace” (447, 5.1.296-97). He now knows what Alonso knows: Stefano is no god, but only a “drunken butler” (446, 5.1.280).

Order at last fully restored, Prospero promises to tell his life’s story to King Alonso and his entourage on the eve of departure from the island. The company will travel first to Naples, where Prospero will witness the marriage of Miranda and Ferdinand, and finally, Prospero will go home to Milan, where, he tells all assembled, “Every third thought shall be my grave” (447, 5.1.313). Given the mostly kind temporality and fortune of the romance universe, this magician-ruler Prospero has been able to cast away his wondrous book and bury his miracle-making staff, respectively (assuming that he has by now done those things as promised), without losing his chance to recover the dukedom he lost. He has learned a costly, lengthy lesson about putting an intensely private desire for knowledge in its place and showing due regard for maintaining the symbolic and material authority that underwrite civic order.

In truth, we can’t know what kind of ruler the renewed Duke of Milan will be, and neither do we know if he truly believes the magic he has given up is worth sacrificing to regain a dukedom he didn’t enjoy governing to begin with. But perhaps that is to be too pessimistic about the play’s conclusion. Prospero’s concluding wishes are of interest in that aside from his final island-based act of freeing Ariel to the elements as promised, what the aged man really desires is not so much to exercise great power again but instead to practice the art of dying well, or ars moriendi, as it’s called in Latin. Ariel’s final burden is to provide “calm seas, auspicious gales” (447, 5.1.316) for the return voyage, and his master’s last command to him is liberation itself: “Then to the elements / Be free, and fare thou well” (447, 5.1.319-20). The impending marriage between Ferdinand and Miranda is full of hope for good things to come. They will, we may presume, carry on in a regenerated social and political environment, as comedy prescribes.

These youngsters’ projected future is important, but the play’s emphasis, most viewers will probably agree, is more firmly on the elder statesman Prospero’s partial recovery of his former glory supplemented by a more mature kind of knowledge, one that more closely honors wisdom than mere intellection or erudition. Prospero, now a frailer but wiser man than he was when Antonio hustled him out of his dukedom, will decorously divide his time between governing Milan and preparing for his own “rounding off” with a sleep. All in all, The Tempest is a perfect romance play, replete with a bittersweet but magnificent ending. A serious potential for tyranny and harsh judgment have given way to seasoned justice, political order, and the greatest measure of personal satisfaction that old age can afford—watching one’s children thrive. In the epilogue, Prospero, leaving his magic behind with the island, dutifully consigns his hopes of reaching Naples and Milan to the justice and imagination of the audience.

Perhaps this makes him seem a diminished man, this onetime magus who has “bedimmed / The noontide sun” (440, 5.1.441-42) and raised the dead. But that is a matter of interpretation. To leave us with the impression of Prospero as the same powerful wizard he was at the play’s beginning, we might suggest, would be to deny the ultimately humanizing touch of one of Shakespeare’s finest romance or tragicomic plays. It may be asking too much of this moody, brilliant play to expect that Prospero will emerge from it sublimely happy. His Epilogue ends on a penitent yet hopeful note. Any happy ending will depend on the good will of Shakespeare’s, audience. This is to end where we began: with a simple expression of trust in the late-invented romance genre’s capacity to capture what fines itself down to “the real,” to what matters.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake


[1] Frye, Northrop. Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy (U of Toronto Press, 1967, repr. 1985).

[2] The Greek passage runs, τλητὸν γὰρ Μοῖραι θυμὸν θέσαν ἀνθρώποισιν, tlēton gar Moirai thumon thesan anthrōpoisin). Perseus Project, Tufts U. Accessed 1/21/2024.

[3] A Renaissance humanist education was supposed to be convertible into active virtue. As Sir Philip Sidney writes in his 1580-81 treatise, “A Defence of Poesie and Poems,” the aim of learning is “well doing” and not merely “well knowing.” Project Gutenberg. Accessed 1/21/2024.

[4] Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. 662-63. The Norton Shakespeare editors also refer to Simon Magus. See Romances and Poems 388-89.

[5] We should also note another passage that seems neutral on the issue of what exactly Prospero was studying back in Milan; see 401, 1.2.89-92, where Prospero describes himself as “neglecting worldly ends”; he says further that he was “all dedicated / To closeness [secrecy] and the bettering of my mind / With that which, but by being retired, / O’er-prized all popular rate….” Here, it’s hard to see that he’s suggesting anything but that his erudition went far above the heads of Milan’s ordinary citizens. On the whole, Shakespeare seems content to allow the exact nature of Prospero’s studies to remain somewhat vague.

[6] The relative merit of the two life-paths was the subject of much debate during the Renaissance, and is well memorialized in Thomas More’s Utopia as well as by Milton’s poems “L’Allegro” and “Il Penseroso.” Renaissance education was intended to make a person fit for public life, for a life of active virtue—it was about developing one’s capacities to the fullest extent.

[7] Garber, Marjorie. Shakespeare after All. New York: Anchor Books, 2004. The Tempest, 852-53.

[8] Garber, Marjorie, idem. Garber refers on pp. 854-55 to several modern works, including José Enrique Rodó’s Ariel and El Mirador de Próspero, Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête, Roberto F. Retamar’s Calibán, W. H. Auden’s The Sea and the Mirror, and films such as Forbidden Planet and Prospero’s Books.

[9] Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince, any edition. See Chs. 17 (XVII), 19 (XIX).

[10] Garber, Marjorie, idem. 858-59.

[11] Montaigne, Michel. The Essays of Montaigne, Done into English by John Florio. The Tudor Translations, ed. W. E. Henley. Edinburgh, 1892. Accessed 1/21/2024.

[12] Garber, Marjorie, idem. 863-65.

[13] It would make sense if Antonio were also scheming to replace Alonso with Sebastian so as to gain better terms tribute-wise for Milan.

[14] Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 2006. 3.253-319.

[15] Ceres created winter by leaving her fields to search for Proserpine, and a deal was eventually struck with Jupiter’s intercession: Proserpina would dwell on earth for half of every year as the goddess of Spring, and live with Pluto in the Underworld for the other half.

[16] As the Norton editors point out (See Norton Romances and Poems, pg. 436), the old-fashioned “fancy s/f” typography of the manuscript means that the word “wise” could also be rendered “wife.”

[17] The tropical flavor of the island, as the Norton editors (see Norton Romances and Poems, pg. 391) and others have pointed out, probably comes from Shakespeare’s familiarity with a circulating manuscript that related the story of one of the ships involved in setting up the Virginia Company’s Jamestown, Virginia colony. In a hurricane in 1609, Governor Thomas Gates’s ship ran aground on an uninhabited island in the Bermudas. Gates had to act decisively to quell a potential rebellion amongst the survivors and make his way to Jamestown, where similar problems required his attention. See the Strachey account among the “Of Interest” links at the top of this document.

[18] Ovid. Metamorphoses. Transl. Arthur Golding. U. Michigan Library, Early English Books Online. Accessed 1/21/2024. See from “I haue compelled streames to run cleane backward….”

[19] One would like to know where exactly Prospero performed such a miracle as to force graves to open and cough up their resurrected dead. But the play isn’t going to answer that question, so it’s probably naïve to ask.

[20] Benson, Sean. “The Resurrection of the Dead in The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest.Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature (Vol. 61, Issue 1). Marquette University Press, Fall 2008.

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Intro to Shakespeare – 2

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Plays

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We might expect an active playwright like Shakespeare to deal directly with the flow of modern life, but unlike Ben Jonson and some others of his time, for the most part he doesn’t do that. London’s mercantile class was increasing, and nationalism was beginning to flex its muscles. So why don’t we find London’s social structure “ripped from the headlines” in Shakespeare? He deals with courtly environments and characters, and often at some historical distance, spanning from ancient Greece and Rome to the late Middle Ages in Europe: he represents monarchs as nearly unconstrained, not as having to deal with parliament as they did by his own day, and his treatment of rank reinforces this preference. Shakespeare concentrates on the parallel order of society and the grand cosmos, as in the Troilus and Cressida passage that runs “Take but degree away, untune that string, / And hark what discord follows” (Norton 1.3.113-14). Kings and high nobles, not commoners, are the center of his tragedies and histories, but the same statement holds to a great extent for his comic and romance plays. This may be due in part to what was called above a degree of conservatism in his approach to life and to his propertied station. There’s also the fact that censorship was part of life in England: a dramatist’s scripts had to be cleared by the Master of Revels before they were performed, and it was safer not to try to deal with current political affairs or great personages.


To what extent do the main characters step out as strong individuals?

— Generally, in comedy we are dealing with characters who fit into some recognizable pattern or type, but does that truism do justice to the play you’re studying?

What do the characters seek?

— Consider the varieties of desire and objects of desire.

— Characters seek not only love but also transcendence, security, understanding, clarity, etc. (Evidently, there’s more to life than news, weather, and Cupid’s Arrow.)

What obstacles stand in the way of characters’ fulfilling their desires?

— There are both internal and external hindrances.

— That is, not everything is a matter of stern patriarchs getting in the way, etc.

How do the main characters react to the obstacles that stand in their way?

— Reactions, as always, can tell us a lot about a character’s depth and understanding.

What is the disposition of time and chance?

— Time is on the comic protagonist’s side, but what more is to be said in this regard  

about the comic or romance or history play you are studying?

— Are time and chance dealt with in a more or less realistic manner, or a fantastical one? Why might the playwright be dealing with these things in such a “non-verisimilar” or non-lifelike way?


Shakespeare’s plays fall loosely into four categories: comedy, history, tragedy, and romance (though this last category was invented by Edward Dowden in 1875). Shakespeare was clearly aware of basic theories about what a comedy or tragedy (the most “established” dramatic types) ought to be like, but he doesn’t seem to have spent much time worrying about whether he was conforming to such theories, and it’s extremely unlikely that he read Aristotle’s Poetics. As Coleridge says in a lecture on Shakespeare, “No work of genius dares want its appropriate form….”[1] That’s downright romantic organicism, but when it comes to Shakespeare, it makes sense to affirm it: Shakespeare, in spite of the occasional loosely constructed plot or odd reference or allusion, composed as something like a romantic poet. Although he rather unromantically started out by borrowing from some source or other (no one cared about absolute originality in his day) he saw all sorts of possibilities in that source material, and his plays took shape in accordance with the necessities of their own characters, events, and structure. We respond to a work of art as we create it, so that in a sense it “creates itself” processively. Form and meaning aren’t merely imposed upon the material in cookie-cutter fashion. Instead, they develop dynamically in accordance with the inner laws of the work itself.

The romantic theorists and poets understood the creative process well: imagine a sculptor facing his or her medium of blank stone. Soon, the first creative act is performed, and then the sculptor stands back and beholds the results in altered stone. This prompts another act, and on it goes in a sustained dialectic between mind and medium, until the demand for a “product” halts the process. Consider Beethoven starting with those famous four initial notes of the Fifth Symphony: GGGF. He followed those notes where they had to go—and where they had to go wasn’t always where listeners might have thought they should go. Beethoven consistently surprises his hearers in this way, and so does Shakespeare. In practical terms, readers and listeners need not seek a facile coherency in the material. Rather, they should be looking to tease out potential of whatever sort they find in one textual location and connect it to other locations in the same or other plays. Shakespeare is capable of logical precision, but that’s schoolboy stuff: what really drives his plays is the sympathetic, imaginative connections he makes between character and character, event and event, predicament and predicament. His brand of realism is psychological, not the realism of historical happening (though one can learn a lot about English history from his history plays, with due allowances for dramatic imperatives and poetical devices).

Above all, it seems best not to superimpose some scheme or pattern on any Shakespeare play prematurely—the plays make sense, but the sense they make isn’t reducible to neat formulae or critical principles. Those who consult online “note factory” materials should be mindful of this complexity. Such note material tends to be of variable quality, and it may let readers down when it comes to interpreting or contextualizing the most difficult passages: sometimes it’s evident that the interpreter has not understood the basic meaning of the passage, or writes in ignorance of the broader context in which the language is embedded. Even the better sort of online notes comes at us saying “Here are three key themes you can use to write a paper on The Merchant of Venice.” The themes identified may be worthwhile, but the more we allow ourselves to be bound by them, the less room will there be for our own perhaps eccentric and more interesting interpretations. Maybe we will notice something in Act 2, Scene 4 that relates to other things that happen in the play but aren’t really dealt with by the note-writers, either because they lack the sophistication to notice it or because they presume very few students consulting their notes have that level of expertise. But perhaps that “something” is what we should really be writing about. At bottom, good critics are good storytellers: they tell interesting, compelling stories about other people’s stories. Any resort to commercially produced notes should be made to open up possibilities, not to reduce complex works of art to facile comprehensibility. Few of us go to art looking for it to hand us simple solutions to painfully complex existential problems, so criticism shouldn’t proceed on the assumption that we do.


Grammar and Rhetorical/Literary Devices.

See the Shakespeare Resource Center’s guide to Shakespeare’s Grammar as well as Grammarly writer Lindsey Kramer’s blog entries All about Alliteration and What Is a Rhetorical Device? See also Grammarly’s What Is Assonance? by Parker Yamasaki and What Is Consonance? by Matt Ellis.

A. Inverted or otherwise altered syntax:

“If’t be so, / For Banquo’s issue have I filed my mind, / For them the gracious Duncan have I murdered…” (Norton Tragedies 930, Macbeth 3.1.64-66). The three Weird Sisters told Banquo that he would beget kings even though he himself would never be one. In his sharp desire to secure his ill-gotten throne, Macbeth can hardly afford to let that bit of information go undealt with. If we rearranged the above lines, they would run, “If it be so, / I have defiled my mind for Banquo’s issue (i.e. descendants); / I have killed the gracious Duncan for them.” But Macbeth’s mind has been in turmoil ever since he killed King Duncan, so he does not express his thoughts in tidy subject-verb-object order. The emphasis in the inverted lines is on Banquo and his descendants. Macbeth can’t believe he was so stupid as to destroy his own soul to put Banquo’s line on the throne of Scotland. He did it for them! And the Weird Sisters told him as much. In general, bear in mind that Shakespeare’s word order tends to be more flexible than our English today. Often, there’s a strong substantive reason for the syntactical inversions that occur in Shakespeare’s verse.

B. Literary devices such as the following:

Alliteration: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past….” (Sonnet 30, Norton Romances and Poems 666). The repetition of initial consonant sounds in words close to one another. The consonantal sounds can be represented by different letters—it’s the sound that matters. “The seven cities of Cibola” is alliterative. There’s also consonance, in which the repeated consonantal sounds don’t have to be at the beginning of the words in question: “I acknowledge that Jack is back.” And there’s assonance, which involves repetition of vowel sounds rather than consonants: “Get it through your head that Freddy isn’t ready, Neddie!”

Allusion: “O Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst / thou!” exclaims Hamlet in his mocking encounter with the king’s counselor Polonius. (Norton Tragedies Folio/Q2 390, Hamlet 2.2.329-30) The prince alludes to the Bible’s Judges 11-12. Judge and warrior Jephthah of Gilead had promised Jehovah that if He would grant victory to the Israelites over the Ammonites, he, Jephthah, would willingly sacrifice whatever exited his door first. Alas, “whatever” turned out to be his daughter, and he ended up having to sacrifice her just as he had promised. Hamlet knows that Polonius—who is more of a Machiavel than we give him credit for—is slyly sacrificing his daughter Ophelia’s affections in order to gather intelligence for King Claudius about the prince’s alleged madness. Indirectly, he is warning Polonius, “I know what you’re up to. Remember what happened to Jephthah’s daughter—are you really willing to ruin Ophelia’s life?”

Aside from biblical allusions, Shakespeare ranges from references to classical mythology, persons, and history to Gothic lore like that of the faerie lords Titania, Oberon and their helpers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There are allusions to various professions and practices: heraldry, hunting, falconry, horticulture, farming, moneylending, etc. Shakespeare’s work is also full of allusions to English history (mainly via Raphael Holinshed’s 1587 Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland) and to the kinds of ceremonies and stories he must have enjoyed in and around Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire. In Shakespeare: the Biography,[2] Peter Ackroyd reminds us of Shakespeare’s intimate, lifelong appreciation of his native patch of English town and countryside. He relocated to London for many years, but he never really left Warwickshire behind, and indeed he returned there toward the end of his career and life.

Another allusion worth noting is a classical Latin citation from Horace in Act 4, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s intense revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus. The boy Lucius delivers to the two sons of conquered Goth queen turned Roman empress Tamora some weapons along with a scroll that reads, “Integer vitae, scelerisque purus, / Non eget Mauri iaculis, nec arcu” (Norton Tragedies 178, 4.2.20-21). Translated freely, this means, “He that is pure of life and free from faults / Has no need of any bow or Moorish javelin.” Shakespeare probably remembered this Horatian passage from days spent with his trusty Latin textbook, known as Lily’s Grammar. The original text is from the opening part of Horace’s Odes 1.22. One of Tamora’s sons, Chiron, says “Oh, ‘tis a verse in Horace. I know it well: / I read it in the grammar long ago” (Norton 178, 4.2.22-23). Aaron, Tamora’s lover and supposedly a “barbarous Moor,” immediately scans the verses and takes their measure: “The old man [Titus] hath found their guilt / And sends them weapons wrapped about with lines / That wound beyond their feeling to the quick” (Norton 178, 4.2.26-28). This is interesting—that the old Roman general Titus would know Horace’s verses shouldn’t surprise us. But that two Goths and the Moor in this play are also familiar with them may seem somewhat odd. Roman culture is common to them all.

What, then, is Shakespeare doing by implanting this real-life Roman allusion into his fictive Roman drama in a manner that shows its accessibility even to the play’s non-Romans? Most likely, he is suggesting that the empire, centered around its eternal city, Rome, was a cosmopolitan entity from its inception, and that the city itself was a hybrid, dynamic place, a place that brought together many people’s stories into an uneasy, ever-shifting association. There is no single, coherent history of Rome, no unified concept of Romanness. Moreover, given Shakespeare’s representations of Rome and the empire in several of his plays, we may safely assume that the playwright knew this. It should be noted, too, that the English often compared their own nascent Empire and their great city of London to Rome and its once glorious empire, so questions like “What was Rome?” and “What were the Romans really like?” would have been of great interest to many Londoners and English people more broadly. In sum, this is not a play that sets up Rome as a “civilized” place over against “barbarians” who must be repelled. Instead, Shakespeare seems intent on undermining any such binary notion. That sophistication on his part may be what saves this strange, ultraviolent play from deserving the strong and even dismissive reproaches of the likes of T. S. Eliot, J. Dover Wilson, and Samuel Johnson.[3]

Metaphor: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York,” as Richard Duke of Gloucester says to open Richard III (Norton Histories 385, 1.1.1-2), paying false, poisonous tribute to the brother and sovereign whom he is about to afflict with mortal grief. Metaphor clarifies or deepens the meaning of a first thing by ascribing to it or transferring over to it the qualities of a second, unrelated thing. Here, discontentment, an emotional state or condition, borrows the qualities of a pensive, anxious season, winter. Winter is a season that people soon tire of and want to put behind them: it threatens to deaden the soul. “Winter” (and summer, in the second line) is the figurative term, the vehicle, that Shakespeare uses to convey something important about the tenor, the thing to be understood, which here is discontent, an emotional state. (Tenor comes from the Latin verb teneo, I comprehend, keep, or hold.) The second line’s pun on sun/son adds an additional metaphor: the newly crowned Yorkist king, Edward IV, is said to be a “sun” that rises over the English people’s newly established summer-state of contentment. Metaphor grabs listeners’ attention, feelings, and even intellect in a way that less creative usages seldom do. If we were to write, “Now is our wintry discontent turned into summery satisfaction,” hearers would reach for the nearest basket of rotten tomatoes to toss at us. Mixed metaphors deserve mention as well. We’ve all heard Shakespeare’s most famous howler straight from Hamlet’s lips: “Or to take arms against a sea of troubles / And by opposing end them” (Norton 396, Hamlet 3.1.58-59). Please don’t shoot the Renaissance lute-player—he’s doing his best.

Simile: “This old car balks like a horse trader’s mule.” Or, “Frank is as fearsome as a lion.” This device compares one thing to another. It isn’t as radically transformative or creative as metaphor in that it involves a mere comparison, not an equation or confounding of the two things. A Shakespearean example: When Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII realizes that his downfall is certain, he utters these haunting lines: “I have ventured, / Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders, / This many summers in a sea of glory, / But far beyond my depth” (Norton Histories 930, 3.2.358-61). The once-great cleric compares himself to carefree little children playing in the water. Another good example of a simile being as effective as metaphor in a master poet’s hands is John Donne’s poem “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” He says of his and his lover’s souls, “If they be two, they are two so / As stiffe twin compasses are two; / Thy soule the fixt foot, makes no show / To move, but doth, if the’other doe”[4] Strictly, the first two lines involve a comparison—paraphrased, it would run, “our souls are two like twin compasses are two.” When Donne extends this figure to give us a sense of how the compasses actually work, he turns it into a metaphor: “Thy soul, the fixed foot….” Both parts of the quatrain work equally well.

Metonymy: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” (Norton Tragedies 320, 3.2.71), as Mark Antony says at the beginning of his masterful speech to stir up the plebeians against Brutus, Cassius, and the other conspirators in Julius Caesar. This figure entails replacing a word with another word closely related to it, but not simply a part of it. Here, “ears” replaces “attention.” (Note that in this instance, it does not replace “person.” That would make it a synecdoche.) A famous example runs something like “Let’s run it by the suits in corporate headquarters.” The word “suits” is not a part of a corporate attorney the way an arm or a leg would be, but it is something we associate with attorneys: They usually wear suits.

Synecdoche: “All hands on deck!” The Monty Python players would represent that sentence by showing us a row of hands moving across a ship’s deck. Here, “hands” stands in for “sailors.” Another well-worn synecdoche would be “twenty sail” for “twenty ships.”

Elliptical expressions: “And he to England shall along with you,” says Claudius to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Hamlet (Norton Tragedies 408, 3.3.4) The verb “go” is omitted: “shall go along” would be the standard way to say it, but Shakespeare’s expression is more elegant.

C. Grammatical irregularities:

Anthimeria. One part of speech is often substituted for another. This happens especially with nouns and verbs. For example, in the first act of The Tempest, Prospero asks Miranda, “What seest thou else / In the dark backward and abysm of time?” (Norton Romances 400, 1.2.49-50.) The word “backward” is an adverb, but it is used as a noun here, producing a verse that is both beautiful and apt since Prospero is asking his daughter to recall her remote childhood—something hazy and mysterious, yet intimate.

Pronoun irregularity: “Yes? You have seen Cassio and she together?” Asks suspicious Othello of Desdemona’s companion Emilia (Norton Tragedies 566, 4.2.3.) Instead of “Cassio and her.” If a student wrote this in a paper, we would mark it down. But Shakespeare? We dare not.

Archaic pronoun and verb forms: The familiar or intimate second-person singular forms are thou/thee, as in, “I tell thee (direct object) that thou (subject) art mistaken.” The possessive form is often “thy/thine” (and “my/mine” for first person): “thy book is before thine eyes.” As for verbs, the second-person familiar suffix is often (e)-st, as in “Thou speakest or speak’st, while the third person singular is often -eth, as in “He/she speaketh.” Key verbs like “to be,” “to have,” “to do,” and “to say” can have odd forms: “thou art, he/she is”; “thou dost, he/she doth; thou sayest, he/she saith; “thou hast, he/she hath.” Here’s a fine example: When Hamlet berates his mother Gertrude for marrying his uncle Claudius, she begs him to stop, crying out, “O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain!” (Norton Tragedies 414, Hamlet 3.4.157.)

Omission of relative pronoun: “I have a brother is condemned to die,” says Isabella to Angelo in Measure for Measure (Norton Comedies 916, 2.2.35.) Ordinarily, this would read, “I have a brother who is condemned to die.”

Verb number: “Three parts of him / Is ours already” says Cassius of the worthy Brutus in Julius Caesar (Norton Tragedies 300, 1.3.154-55).

Antithesis: This quality of Shakespearean verse accounts for no small part of its overall impact. Shakespeare consistently uses it as a literary figure to lend emphasis and shape to his characters’ speech. Hamlet characterizes antithesis as “setting the word against the word.” For example, Brutus says in Julius Caesar that he killed the dictator not from personal spite or envy, but from patriotism: “not that I loved Caesar less,/ but that I loved Rome more” (Norton Tragedies 319, 3.2.20-21). The effect of antithesis (implied or direct) is to render an utterance emphatic. Consider the following part of Richard, Duke of Gloucester’s opening soliloquy in Richard III, which offers multiple antithetical pairings to strengthen its appeal: “Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this son of York, / And all the clouds that loured upon our house / In the deep bosom of the ocean buried” (Norton Histories 385, 1.1.1-4). Reading the rest of this passage down to line 13 will reveal several more such antithetical pairings.

This quality is partly what makes Shakespeare’s verse memorable: the words are knit together by antithetical imagery and concepts, with alliteration also accomplishing much the same effect. This is strong blank verse, the sort of stuff one can speak boldly without losing the sensitivity and psychological subtlety necessary for the representation of a complex character. Rhyme is another way of lending shape to verse and making it memorable, though Shakespeare mostly uses rhyme for special effects. The end of a scene is a good place to serve up a rhyme, as in Hamlet’s quip, “The play’s the thing, / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” (Norton Tragedies 394, Hamlet F1/Q2 3.1.523-24), or his wicked uncle Claudius’s anguished conclusion to a prayer for absolution, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; / Words without thoughts never to heaven go” (Norton Tragedies 410, 3.4.97-98). Such rhymes often have the effect of medieval moral sayings known as sententiae, summations of a moral principle or lesson.

Further Observations on the Distinctive Qualities of Shakespeare’s Language:

Shakespeare’s language is growing increasingly remote from us. It isn’t as remote as Chaucer’s middle English, or the Old English of Beowulf, but it’s sufficiently far from today’s standard “newspaper English” to turn our heads. In some cases, an utterance may puzzle us because we are missing key knowledge of some ancient social custom or bit of folklore or history, or we lack an understanding of the symbolism of flowers, or terms relevant to the craft of heraldry, hunting, medicine, law, etc., so we miss the overall meaning of the passage as well as its relation to the action. But even aside from such specific things, every reader of Shakespeare has probably had the sensation of being perfectly able to scan all the words of a passage for their modern sense and yet not being able really to understand the passage as a coherent sentence or expression.

To a large extent, this difficulty may be due to the quality that critics often say best distinguishes poetry from prose: compression. Good poetry is remarkably efficient language. People who don’t like poetry sometimes accusing it of being “flowery” or overly loquacious, but the truth is closer to the opposite: poetry is often sparing, even stark, in its approach. Compared to prose, verse packs in a great deal of meaning in very few words. This quality may be what lends poetry its special ability to achieve heights of elegance or depths of emotional impact that even the best prose rarely achieves, but it also undeniably makes poetry harder to read at the surface level than most prose. Unless we are dealing with texts by Modernist or postmodernist authors such as Joyce, Beckett, Pynchon, or David Foster Wallace, we generally expect prose to make immediate and full sense. We don’t expect the same transparency from poetry—we expect it to challenge our understanding, startle us out of stale truisms, and so forth. Prose does more of the work for us, while poetry expects more work from us.

Here is an instance of such difficulty from Shakespeare’s romance play Cymbeline: at the beginning of Act 1, Scene 3, the heroine Imogen says to her husband’s servant Pisanio, “I would thou grew’st unto the shores o’th’ haven / And questioned’st every sail. If he should write / And I not have it, ‘twere a paper lost / As offered mercy is” (Norton Romances and Poems 226, 1.3.1-4). Some parts of this speech are easy to understand: “haven” means “harbor,” the word “sail” is a synecdoche (part for the whole) for “every ship,” which in turn seems like a metonymic expression for “everyone on every ship in the harbor.” Or it could playfully mean, “I’d have you plant yourself on the harbor’s shore and scan every ship’s sail, waiting—what if Posthumus, now that he’s sailed to foreign shores, sends me a letter by ship and I never receive it?” So far, so good.

But what about “’twere a paper lost / As offered mercy is”? It’s a beautiful expression and in terms of vocabulary not mystifying, but its exact meaning is not apparent. In context this phrasing seems to mean that if Posthumus should write a love letter and Imogen doesn’t receive it, she will, as the Norton editors suggest, feel like someone who has been offered mercy but somehow has either not accepted it, or has not actually received word because it arrived too late. So Imogen will feel bereft, deprived of consolation and confidence. In such cases, it really helps to have as your reading text a good copy like the Norton, Arden, or Folger editions: they offer the sort of contextual and grammatical notes that can help you sort out expressions that might otherwise frustrate your efforts. It’s good to try to work such passages out on your own first, but if you don’t meet with success, the notes are there to guide you. Free online texts seldom offer this level of assistance, and a dictionary alone won’t help much because the problem isn’t that you don’t know the basic meaning of the words.

Another example occurs later in the same play, Cymbeline. In Act 3, Scene 3, old Belarius tells Arviragus and Guiderius, Cymbeline’s’ two sons whom Belarius, enraged at being falsely accused of treason, had long ago stolen from court to raise in the countryside, that the life they’re living now is much better than any to be had at some corrupt court. Here is part of the relevant passage: “Oh, this life / Is nobler than attending for a check, / … / Such gain the cap of him that makes him fine, / Yet keeps his book uncrossed” (Norton Romances and Poems 255, 3.3.21-22, 25-26). “Check” here means “rebuke,” and “gain the cap” means “get the workman to tip his cap and thereby show respect for his customer.” The expression “keeps his book uncrossed” means that the customer thus treated so deferentially still owes the workman money, and the workman’s entries in his ledger show it. The further point is that courtly, ambitious people often mistake the flattering treatment they’re getting for genuine respect, when in truth it’s all purely transactional—they’re getting taken for fools, and they’re too vain to recognize it. Good notes need not, of course, provide so much detail; they just need to provide enough grammatical, vocabulary-based, and contextual assistance so that we can arrive at a reasonably accurate reading. The note in question allows us to do so.

One other point worth making is that while at times we may long for a patch of simplicity in Shakespeare’s verse, the more flowery or “purple” patches one finds are usually written as they are to suit the mentality of a silly or pompous character, a word-mangler like Dogberry from Much Ado about Nothing, or someone speaking in dialect, like Kent or Edgar disguised as Poor Tom in King Lear. Consider the arch temporal description like the one Benvolio offers Lady Montague in Romeo and Juliet: “Madam, an hour before the worshipped sun / Peered forth the golden window of the East, / A troubled mind drive me to walk abroad…” (Norton Tragedies 213, 1.1113-15). Benvolio is no doubt putting on airs in addressing the wife of the Montague paterfamilias. Later in the same play, the time is described in a much lower register, when Mercutio scandalizes Juliet’s Nurse with the following classic: “the bawdy hand of the / dial is now upon the prick of noon” (2.3.101-02). Back and forth we go, from the high-toned to the profane and back again, in this ultimately tragic tale of two young but determined souls, forced to eternize their holy love by self-violence in a profane, dirty world. Shakespeare wrote both descriptions, and he wasn’t one to pass up a bawdy pun—such things pleased his audiences, and what’s more important, they often served his purposes thematically.

Under extreme pressure, too, a character’s speech may break down and become evasive or fragmented, as does Lear’s towards the end of King Lear. Indeed, Shakespeare’s ability to capture the fleeting processes of the mind under pressure in its relation to speech is praised highly by Harold Bloom.[5] There is even a deliberately hollow, brittle eloquence to be noted, particularly that of Macbeth as his life winds down and his only remaining strategy is to deaden his soul to the evil he has done: “My way of life / Is fall’n into the sere, the yellow leaf, / And that which should accompany old age, / As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends, / I must not look to have” (Norton Tragedies 963, Macbeth 5.3.22-26). He speaks beautifully, but the words mean little to him and are cut off from a vital orientation towards action. Shakespeare often seems to revel in the beauty of language in a way that seems almost foreign to modern sensibilities, but he does not exempt himself from chronicling the many ways this crowning glory of the species, language, often fails to keep us fully human, or even “indifferent honest.”

Copyright © 2023 Alfred J. Drake

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Set of Four + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-26546-0.


[1] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Shakespeare’s Judgment Equal to His Genius.”

[2] Ackroyd, Peter. Ibid. Ch. 8, 42-44.

[3] T. S. Eliot, “Seneca in Elizabethan Translation”, Selected Essays 1917–1932 (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1950), 67. Eliot called the play “”one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written, a play in which it is incredible that Shakespeare had any hand at all….” As for J. Dover Wilson, he wrote in his edition of the play that Titus Andronicus “seems to jolt and bump along like some broken-down cart, laden with bleeding corpses from an Elizabethan scaffold, and driven by an executioner from Bedlam dressed in cap and bells” (xii).

[4] Donne, John. “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning.” Gutenberg public domain edition. Accessed 1/31/2024.

[5] Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human. Riverhead Books, 1999. Bloom’s general thesis is that in the wake of Shakespeare’s breakthrough treatment of human interiority, this quality has become central to modern humanity’s self-definition.

Much Ado about Nothing

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. (Norton Comedies, 2nd ed. 557-620).

Act 1, Scene 1

This play is determined to make light of everything, as we can see from the outset.  The male characters are just returning home from some nondescript war, only to find they must fight new battles in the cause of love.  Even before Benedick catches sight of Beatrice, she is already mocking his valor in front of anyone who will listen: “But how many hath he killed?  For indeed I promised to eat all of his killing” (44-45).  As Leonato says, “There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her; they never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them” (61-64).  Beatrice tries to paint him as an object of ridicule: “I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick, nobody marks you” (116-17).  And Benedick, in turn, claims that Beatrice is the only woman in the world who is not in love with him.

Benedick himself is aware that he is of two minds concerning women—something he reveals when Claudio asks him for advice about Hero.  He can offer “simple true judgment,” or play the tyrant to all womankind.  Of course, Benedick’s simple judgment turns out to be tyrannical enough—he is absurdly perfectionist about them.  To both Claudio and Don Pedro, Benedick explains that he simply will not enter the fray when it comes to love, neither trusting nor mistrusting women but simply refusing to have any serious dealings with them.  Don Pedro is not impressed with this line of reasoning, and insists that he will one day see Benedick “look pale with love” (247).  I think Don Pedro shares Shakespeare’s sense of love’s power as something that simply cannot be denied except at great cost.  What we will see in this play is the light-hearted side of the truth Shakespeare states darkly in Sonnet 129: “none knows well / To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.”

Don Pedro agrees to help the naïve, inexperienced Claudio by wooing Hero in his name.  We need not make too much of this, except perhaps to say that Claudio really hasn’t fought his own battle here, which may in part account for the ease with which Don John’s villainy will fool him in the next act: he really doesn’t know Hero in the deepest sense, but is in love with a romantic ideal.

Act 1, Scene 2

Leonato’s brother Antonio seems to have heard a garbled account from Borachio of the conversation between Claudio and Don Pedro; he tells Leonato that the Prince himself means to woo Hero rather than that the Prince is going to do Claudio’s wooing for him.

Act 1, Scene 3

Don John is the illegitimate brother of Don Pedro, and is an unhappy, superfluous man in the felicitous social order of Messina.  He had lately been in rebellion against his brother, who promptly forgave him.  But Don John needs enemies.  He really has nothing much to do except to make trouble for everyone else.  He seems to be constitutionally depressed, and paradoxically revels in his own unhappiness: “There is no measure in the occasion that breeds, therefore the sadness is without limit” (3-4).  Now here’s a man whose grief has no trace of what T. S. Eliot would call an “objective correlative.”  His political grievance is that his brother has all the power, but that hardly seems to be a sufficient reason for Don John’s non-Messina state of mind.  Revealingly, his watchword is “seek not to alter me” (37), and nobody with that attitude could fare well in a comedy.  So when Borachio enters with the alleged news that “the Prince should woo Hero for himself, and having obtain’d her, give her to Count Claudio” (61-64), Don John immediately sees potential for mischief; he feels that the young man has been given honors lately far beyond his desserts.  Jealousy is the law of Don John’s being, apparently.

Act 2, Scene 1

Beatrice offers Leonato a comically exclusive explanation of why she still has no husband: “He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man; and he that is more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him…” (36-39).  This is all very logical, but Beatrice is playing the goddess Diana in her lighthearted way—following this advice would rule out any man whatsoever. 

Well, Beatrice and Benedick have been publicly raking each other over the coals for some time, but it is a one-on-one meeting that really begins to change things between them.  As Oscar Wilde would say, give someone a mask and you will get the truth.  That is just what happens when  Benedick, in disguise, dares to ask Beatrice what she thinks of him, and he hears “Why, he is the Prince’s jester, a very dull fool; only his gift is in devising impossible slanders” (137-38). As we soon see, this comment strikes home with Benedick.  he exclaims, “But that my Lady Beatrice should know me, and not know me!”  (203-04) and is still worked up about it when he converses with Don Pedro afterwards around lines 239-61.  Beatrice, he insists, gives him no peace of mind.

Around line 164, Don John sets his plot in motion, telling Claudio that the Prince is wooing Hero himself.  Claudio believes this lie without hesitation, being able to marshal only the truism, “Friendship is constant in all other things / Save in the office and affairs of love” (175-76).  With this sentence, he dismisses Hero.  Soon, however, at least this misunderstanding is cleared up by Don Pedro himself, who is able to report that he has won Hero for Claudio.

After asking Beatrice if she will marry him and finding her pleasantly unwilling, Don Pedro declares to Leonato that they really ought to bring Beatrice and Benedick together—he enlists Hero in deceiving Beatrice, while he and his friends will take care of deceiving Benedick.  And it’s clear that Don Pedro thinks this would be quite an accomplishment: “If we can do this, Cupid is no longer an archer; his glory shall be ours, for we are the only love-gods” (384-86).  So there are good plots and bad plots in this comic play—deception is a good thing if it helps bring two lovers together.

Act 2, Scene 2

Meanwhile, Borachio and Don John are at work effecting their wicked designs.  This plot turns upon mistaken identity: while Don Pedro and Claudio are induced to look on, Borachio will dally with the maid Margaret, calling her Hero while she calls him  by his own name.  (As the editors point out, there seems to be a slip at line 44; it makes no sense that Margaret would call Borachio Claudio.)

Act 2, Scene 3

Benedick sums up his perfectionist attitude with the declaration, “till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace” (28-30).  In Benedick’s presence, Balthazar sings a song aimed foremost at ladies: “Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more, / Men were deceivers ever,” etc.  This song may be a clue to what really underlies Beatrice and Benedick’s hesitation.  But it’s also interesting in its urging to turn passionate lamentation into cheerful nonsense: “be you blithe and bonny, / Converting all your sounds of woe / Into hey nonny nonny” (67-69).  Now that would be true liberation, we might suppose—but of course a comedy of manners with a strong love-plot can’t grant the main characters such freedom from the imperative of erotic attraction.  Well, Don Pedro and Claudio and Leonato play their parts to perfection, giving out that Claudio had told him Beatrice was enamored of Benedick.  Don Pedro even throws in the barb that Benedick ought to realize he is unworthy of so fine a woman.  Benedick is profoundly impressed by all of this: “They say the lady is fair; ‘tis a truth, I can bear them witness; and virtuous; ‘tis so, I cannot reprove it” (230-32).  And at long last he gives in to the dictates of society: “the world must be  peopled.  When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married” (242-44).  As so often, people only desire what they know others find worthy of desire.

Act 3, Scene 1

Beatrice is similarly impressed with the report that Benedick is in love with her, and casts away her hesitations so enthusiastically as to make it seem she was never serious about them: “Stand I condemned for pride and scorn so much? / Contempt, farewell, and maiden pride, adieu!” (108-09)  She is more open to the experience of love than we (or she, perhaps) had thought.

Act 3, Scene 2

Don John is up to his devious tricks again, this time proclaiming to Claudio in supposed confidence that Hero is not what the young man thinks she is: “the lady is disloyal” (104).  And Claudio, naïve as he is, believes the older man, though with potentially graver consequences than Benedick’s crediting of Don Pedro because of his white beard.  Claudio will humiliate Hero in public, right at the moment when they are to be married, if he finds that she is disloyal.  This is unattractively ostentatious, to say the least.

Act 3, Scene 3

Constable Dogberry enters the play here with Verges, both uttering one confused line after another, as when Dogberry says to the first watchman, “To be a well-favor’d man is the gift of fortune, but to read and write comes by nature” (14-16).  Dogberry is a malapropist who prides himself on being a man of means and an upholder of authority: “you are to bid any man stand, in the Prince’s name” (25-26).  And he is a constable, after all, so he bears responsibility for a part of the realm’s safety.  He has trouble making himself understood, yet thanks to his two vigilant watchmen, he helps to expose Borachio and Don John’s plot against Hero.  One thing that marks the Constable’s character is charity: as he says, “I would not hang a dog by my will, much more a man who hath any honesty in him” (63-64).

Act 3, Scene 4

Beatrice and Margaret exchange pleasantries as they wait the arrival of Hero’s wedding to Claudio.  Margaret notes the change in both Beatrice and Benedick.

Act 3, Scene 5

Dogberry and his companion acquaint Leonato with the arrest of Borachio and Conrad.  But they are so prolix that Leonato becomes impatient to be off to the wedding, and misses his chance to learn about the details of the plot against Hero.

Act 4, Scene 1

Claudio behaves cruelly towards Leonato and Hero, shaming her in front of the entire wedding party: he says that Hero is “but the sign and semblance of her honor” (32).  At this point, he seems incapable of telling the difference between a flesh and blood human being and an abstract category.  Of course, Don Pedro is also thoroughly taken in and believes he is an eyewitness to Hero’s shameful conduct.  Leonato is so distraught that he is almost ready to strangle his own daughter, and talks of suicide.  But Beatrice, Benedick, and Friar Francis know better.  Benedick says outright that the villain must be Don John, while Francis cooks up a scheme whereby Hero will disappear and everyone will be told that she has died.  The extreme suppositions, the rashness, of Claudio and his supporters must be cured with a show of extremity of another sort.  As Francis says, this plan will instill remorse in those who have been so quick to condemn Hero.

Beatrice and Benedick at last confront each other face to face, and declare their love.  It takes a bit of talking to get there, and Beatrice demands that Benedick “Kill Claudio” (289) to prove his loyalty to her.  At first he refuses—the male social bonds are very strong in this play, as we can see from the ease with which the men band together and take one another’s word for holy writ—but gives in without much prodding: “Enough, I am engag’d, I will challenge him” (331-32).

Act 4, Scene 2

Dogberry is astonished when he hears the details of what Borachio and Conrade have done in the service of Don John, and is determined to make it known.  Don John himself has departed the scene.  But above all, Dogberry is upset that Conrade has called him an ass; this insult jars with his own rather high estimation of himself: “I am a wise fellow, and which is more, an officer, and which is more, a householder, and which is more, as pretty a piece of flesh as any is in Messina, and one that knows the law, go to, and a rich fellow enough. . .” (80-84).

Act 5, Scene 1

Leonato and Antonio at first make a show of dealing with the wrong done to Hero by violence, but even before Dogberry exposes Don John’s plot at the end of the scene, they have set forth a very different solution: Leonato pronounces, “My brother hath a daughter, / Almost the copy of my child that’s dead, / And she alone is heir to both of us. / Give her the right you should have giv’n her cousin, / And so dies my revenge” (288-92).

Act 5, Scene 2

Now comes a comic scene in which Benedick first talks to Margaret and is forced to confess that he “was not born under a rhyming planet” and that he “cannot woo in festival terms” (40-41).  In truth, neither he nor Beatrice is capable of conforming to stereotypical love language or conduct.  Once they realize they are in love, they are free to return to their battle of wits, though in a more affectionate manner.  As Benedick says, “Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably” (72).

Act 5, Scene 3

Claudio must show remorse for the supposed death of hero, and to facilitate this Leonato has arranged a nighttime ceremony.  Claudio reads from the scroll the epitaph lines, “Done to death by slanderous tongues / Was the Hero that here lies” (2-3).

Act 5, Scene 4

And one more thing he must do: marry a woman he supposes to be the daughter of Leonato’s brother Antonio.  This promised, Hero is free to unmask herself.  Leonato explains, “She died, my lord, but while her slander lived” (66). Beatrice and Benedick discover that they have been duped into declaring their love, but in the end it really doesn’t matter.  They are able to go forwards with their marriage with their usual sarcastic flourish.  Benedick claims to take pity on Beatrice, and for her part, she says she will marry him “to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption” (95-96).

Benedick now insists he cares nothing “for a satire or an epigram” (102).  He is determined to be married, and now will hear nothing against the institution.  His conclusion?  Simply that “man is a giddy thing” (108).  He even recommends marriage as medicine for Don Pedro, who seems to be the only sad person present.  Finally, we hear that Don John has been captured, but Benedick says thought about him can wait until tomorrow. 

What is the “nothing” about which there is so much ado?  Well, I suppose it’s female chastity and male honor.  Not that Shakespeare really would have wanted to tear these concepts down altogether—he has good things to say about them elsewhere.  But one can lean on them too heavily—and it’s always dangerous to “lean on” notions so liable to be misunderstood as hollow shells lacking substance, as a cover for narrow-mindedness, inexperience, and insecurity.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Shakespeare Commentaries

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* = substantively updated and adapted to Norton 3rd ed.
† = pg. #s and quotes updated to 3rd ed.

The Comedy of Errors

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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Shakespeare, William. The Comedy of Errors. (The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 278-321).

Act 1, Scene 1 (278-81; The Syracusan merchant Egeon, caught up in a harsh travel ban between Syracuse and Ephesus, stands to lose his life since he can’t pay ransom; he tells his story to Solinus, the Duke of Ephesus: many years ago, after a shipwreck, he and one of his two sons, along with the son’s adopted servant-boy, were rescued, while his wife and the other son and other servant were rescued by others; Egeon has been searching through Greece for years for the lost half of his family, and just had to search Ephesus, too; the Duke pities his sufferings and gives him one more day to find ransom money.)

The Norton editors suggest that The Comedy of Errors deals with the theme of identity, and the implication is that Shakespeare is interested in how easy it is to alienate us from our own personal identity, and make that identity seem strange—a vexed mystery rather than something that gives us comfort and comprehension. That is an interesting emphasis in this early Shakespearean effort that takes for its sources the Menaechmi and Amphitruo of the Roman comic playwright Plautus (some of whose work the author would almost certainly have read in grammar school as part of his Latin studies), and that might best be described as a rollicking farce, not a romantic comedy.

So how does the wretched merchant Egeon’s situation clue us in to this concentration on identity? Egeon stands before Solinus, Duke of Ephesus, facing execution for setting foot in Ephesus during a trade war between that place and Syracuse. Why is he in Ephesus, and why is he condemned to die? More than twenty years ago, Egeon was on a business trip to Epidamnum, where his wife subsequently sailed to him and there gave birth to twin boys; then, having delivered the boys safely, she wanted to go home, so Egeon agreed to go with her. (Egeon had also bought twin brothers born to a lower-class woman and dedicated them as servants to his own sons: the two Dromios.) During the voyage home to Syracuse, the weather turned bad, and the ship’s crew left the passengers to their fate. The ship split up on a rock, and the merchant’s wife and one child were taken up by a boat from Corinth, while the merchant himself and the other son (along with his future servant) were rescued by a different ship. 

That son, Antipholus of Syracuse, eventually wanted to go and find his lost brother, also named Antipholus, and the old man searched for this lost son/brother for five years afterwards. On his way home Egeon visited Ephesus to see if perchance he might discover the lost son there. Now, unable to pay the ransom of a thousand marks, he faces imminent execution, at least upon the expiration of the one extra day the sympathetic Duke has granted him to seek funding. We might say, then, that Egeon is taken unaware on a quest to recover his own identity—his own past and future. 

But what further can we say about this theme of identity? Although the theme is in earnest, we could argue that it doesn’t much matter who, exactly, the merchant is—Egeon is caught up in forces larger than himself, and the Duke professes helplessness before those very forces: Egeon is a citizen of Syracuse, and that’s reason enough for him to die. In the world that the play conjures, one’s identity is largely bound up with one’s family and collective stock, with where one “comes from.”

Act 1, Scene 2 (282-84, Warned by a merchant to keep his identity secret, Antipholus of Syracuse dismisses his servant Dromio of Syracuse to their inn, the Centaur, and goes to have a look around Ephesus; soon, by accident, Antipholus of Syracuse runs into Dromio of Ephesus and takes him for his own Dromio, who answers his demand regarding money in comic vein; Dromio of Ephesus insists he knows of no money entrusted to him and that his mistress sent him to fetch his master home to dinner; Antipholus of Syracuse beats him, but then heads home to the Centaur to question him as to what is going on.)

Antipholus of Syracuse—the child who had been rescued with the old merchant Egeon from the first scene—is in Ephesus on a quest to find his long-lost mother and brother. Warned by a friendly merchant in Ephesus, he knows that he stands in much the same peril that Egeon did, so he must be careful about his identity as a Syracusan in Ephesus. He speaks eloquently and movingly of his quest to find his lost family, saying, “I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop, / Who, falling there to find his fellow forth, / Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself” (282, 1.2.35-39).

Immediately, there is a misunderstanding between Antipholus of Syracuse and one of the two servants by the same name, Dromio. Antipholus of Syracuse sends his own Dromio off with his gold and decides, for his own part, to go have a look at the town. Just then, Dromio of Ephesus shows up looking to fetch his own master home to dinner, and gets into trouble because he has no idea what Antipholus of Syracuse is talking about regarding the gold given to the other Dromio.

Instead of recognizing right away that, in spite of all appearances, this “Dromio” is not who he seems to be, Antipholus of Syracuse believes that his own servant must have been cheated out of the money and is now ashamed to admit it, so he beats him. This is typical of new comedy in that the relationship between master and servant is often on display. It is not only identity that is called into question by such mix-ups, but also events themselves—it becomes almost impossible to figure out what one did five or ten minutes ago. What just happened? This mix-up is the last thing that Antipholus of Syracuse needs since, as we can see from the earlier passage in which he says, “I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop …” (282, 1.2.35-36), he has already been questioning who he really is in the distant wake of losing his mother and twin brother at sea. Off he goes, then, to the Centaur Inn, where he hopes to find out what’s really going on.

Act 2, Scene 1 (284-87, Adriana, wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, debates with her unmarried sister Luciana about the latter’s submissive views regarding relations with men; Dromio of Ephesus comes home and says that their own Antipholus struck him over money matters and denied he had a wife; Adriana fears that her Antipholus is cheating on her; she sends her Dromio back to “her” Antipholus.)

Adriana’s unmarried sister Luciana’s marriage philosophy sounds traditionally Pauline: Luciana says that men “Are masters to their females, and their lords” (285, 2.1.25). As for Adriana, when her servant Dromio comes home with a story about how their Antipholus beat him over money and disclaimed that he even had a wife, she begins to worry that her husband, Antipholus of Ephesus, has grown tired of her and is cheating on her. She both blames him for this and yet turns the criticism inward, all but blaming herself while seeming to do otherwise: “What ruins are in me that can be found / By him not ruined?” (287, 2.1.96-97) In this sense, at least, Adriana unwittingly subscribes to her sister Luciana’s philosophy—the way her husband thinks of her impacts the way she thinks about herself, makes her feel unattractive and unlovable.

Act 2, Scene 2 (287-92, Antipholus of Syracuse reassures himself that his gold is safe at the Centaur, then engages in a battle of wits with Dromio of Syracuse, who has by now returned; Adriana shows up and reproaches Antipholus of Syracuse, whom she thinks is her husband; Antipholus of Syracuse responds with incredulity, and can’t accept Dromio of Syracuse’s denial of any previous conversation; the two men wonder if they’ve been bewitched, or dreaming—how else could their names be known to these women?—and decide they had better play along; Adriana and Lucia invite them in to supper and bid Dromio of Syracuse to deny anyone else entrance.)

Once Antipholus of Syracuse realizes that his gold is safe, he meets up with the now-returned Dromio of Syracuse. The master does not appreciate being tricked and confused by his servant—it upends the order of things. “If you will jest with me,” he advises his servant, “know my aspect, / And fashion your demeanor to my looks …” (288, 2.2.32-33). He beats his servant “again” (though it’s a different Dromio), but then they engage in a jocular battle of wits that touches on the relationship between masters and servants, baldness, and the syphilitic condition that sometimes causes such hair loss. This kind of semi-stichomythic dialogue is common in Greek and Roman New Comedy, and in more modern farce.

Soon, Adriana is on the scene, and she launches into a lengthy but affecting speech about the nature of marriage as true union, a pact “undividable, incorporate” (290, 2.2.123), and tells Antipholus of Syracuse that if he leaves her, “as easy mayst thou fall / A drop of water in the breaking gulf / And take unmingled thence that drop again / Without addition or diminishing” (290, 2.2.126-29)—language very similar to the words he had earlier addressed to himself about his sorrow at being separated from his lost family. Both Adriana and Antipholus of Syracuse apparently agree that to love someone is to risk everything, to venture the dissolution of one’s very self. David Bevington, in an introductory essay for The Merchant of Venice, points out that Shakespeare’s Christian characters in that play tend to validate the notion of “losing the world in order to gain the world” (182, see Shakespeare’s Comedies. New York, etc.: Pearson/Longman, 2007). The language in the present play, though it be set in pre-Christian times, reinforces the same notion.

How does Antipholus of Syracuse, as he interacts with Adriana (who thinks he is her husband and addresses him by his name, “Antipholus”), process the compounding confusion? He turns to trading in metaphors of dreaming, insanity, and bewitchment. Such thoughts lead Antipholus of Syracuse to “entertain the offered fallacy” (291, 2.2.187) rather than try to sort matters on the spot. He will run with chaos, in hopes that things will soon become clearer. His own Dromio will do likewise. As it turns out, Adriana invites “her man” in to dinner, and he is constrained by his plan to accept. As critics such as David Bevington have pointed out (Shakespeare’s Comedies 4), in this way a loyal wife is able to indulge her fantasy of counter-cheating on her supposedly faithless husband, and yet remain loyal.

Act 3, Scene 1 (292-96, Antipholus of Ephesus meets with his Dromio, Angelo the Goldsmith, and Balthasar the merchant; he argues with his Dromio, who claims to have been beaten by him, not knowing it was the other Antipholus; the party goes home, only to find themselves barred from entry by Dromio of Syracuse, the servant Luce, and Adriana; Antipholus of Ephesus threatens to break down the door, but Balthasar admonishes him to avoid doing anything so rash; Antipholus of Ephesus decides, as a jest against Adriana, to go have dinner with an attractive “wench” he knows, and give her the bracelet he has commissioned as a gift for Adriana.)

A man’s home is his castle, as the saying goes—even if it’s just a room above an inn, as in this play. It’s hard to imagine getting shut out of our own house by people we think we know—location is part of a person’s identity, along with relationships with material objects and people. To at least some extent, things, places and other people define us as who we supposedly are.

When he is denied entry to his home, where he expects that his wife is waiting for him and dinner is on the table, Antipholus of Ephesus is being forcibly, rudely estranged from who he is: he has become a stranger to others and even to himself. That’s the bad kind of alienation—not the good kind Woody Allen references sarcastically in a short story when he mentions the greedy garage mechanic who is “so alienated he can’t stop smiling.” And then of course there’s romantic-era alienation, which clever poets such as Lord Byron turned into a mark of genius and superiority over the common run of humankind. Antipholus of Ephesus’s quandary doesn’t involve either kind of alienation, whether smirking or fashionable: he slips into a state of flat confusion because the world he knows has suddenly turned bizarre. The merchant Balthasar advises caution because, after all, a man can’t go breaking into his own house, now can he? So Antipholus of Ephesus decides instead to visit a courtesan he knows, “a wench of excellent discourse, / Pretty and witty; wild, and yet, too, gentle” (296, 3.1.109-10), and even decides to give her the chain he has ordered made for Adriana: “Since mine own doors refuse to entertain me, / I’ll knock elsewhere to see if they’ll disdain me” (296, 3.1.120-21). That is his rather spiteful justification for his conduct. Somehow, pretending to engage in adultery doesn’t seem like the wisest idea, but let’s see where this goes. After all, it will work well for those nice ladies Mistress Page and Mistress Ford in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and, come to think of it, also for Portia and Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice.

Act 3, Scene 2 (296-300, Luciana begs Antipholus of Syracuse to at least pretend that he still loves Adriana, and he at once falls in love with her and, disclaiming any connection with Adriana, proposes marriage to Luciana; Dromio of Syracuse is alarmed that the heavyset Nell, aka Luce, lays claim to him for a husband; Antipholus of Syracuse determines that now would be a good time to leave Ephesus; Antonio the goldsmith shows up with the chain the other Antipholus had ordered, and the current Antipholus ends up paying him for it.)

Antipholus of Syracuse experiences something near to love at first sight when he fields the gentle reproaches of Luciana, who obviously suspects he has been unfaithful to Adriana and no longer loves her. Luciana is keenly aware that men are a controlling power over women; she does not dispute this fact of Renaissance life, but calls for fidelity in return. Women are gullible when it comes to male displays of affection, she insists, so the least her sister’s supposed husband can do is flatter her: “Comfort my sister, cheer her, call her wife. / ‘Tis holy sport to be a little vain / When the sweet breath of flattery conquers strife” (297, 3.2.26-28). We should note, too, that the affinity between Luciana and Antipholus of Syracuse is somewhat reinforced by their speaking in elegant quatrains rather than unrhymed blank verse.

Meanwhile, Dromio of Syracuse has woman troubles of his own since Adriana’s cooking-maid Nell (aka Luce) is enamored of him, thinking he is Dromio of Ephesus. The servant’s bawdy geographical references (299, 3.2.114-46) are in part simply rough Elizabethan humor: Shakespeare’s contemporaries did not exactly have delicate sensibilities, so mocking an overweight woman would not have seemed out of line to the audience, and of course the topical humor about exploration is obvious. England was in fact beginning to explore the world at that point, and Shakespeare’s audiences would have been curious. The same goes for the unfriendly references to Ireland, Scotland and France—places that were considered troublous for the English.

Antipholus of Syracuse throws both his own and Dromio of Syracuse’s prospective love match into doubt when he abruptly, but sanely, decides that he has had enough of all this confusion: “If everyone knows us, and we know none, / ‘Tis time, I think, to trudge, pack, and be gone” (300, 3.2.154-55). When Angelo the Goldsmith enters proudly bearing the chain that the other Antipholus has commissioned, Antipholus of Syracuse is momentarily taken aback, but quickly feels obliged to pay for it anyway, even if not at the moment.

Act 4, Scene 1 (301-03, Antipholus of Ephesus tells Dromio of Ephesus to go buy a rope he can use to whip Adriana for locking him out; a Second Merchant threatens to have Angelo arrested for debt; Angelo requests payment now from Antipholus of Ephesus for the gold chain, but of course the latter refuses because no chain was given to him even though he asked that it be brought to the Porcupine Inn; Angelo is incredulous—he has given the chain to the other Antipholus of Syracuse, who hasn’t yet paid him; Angelo is arrested, and in turn accuses Antipholus of Ephesus, who is arrested, too; Dromio of Syracuse shows up with news that a ship awaits to take him and his master to Epidamnum; Antipholus of Ephesus has no idea what he’s talking about, and gives him a key to gain access at home to a money-box that will allow him to post bail.)

Relationships with objects are part of what constitutes identity, and the gold chain here that becomes the subject of an argument between Angelo the Goldsmith and Antipholus of Ephesus is just such an object. At the heart of bourgeois identity is the power to command the labor of others by means of the commodity we call money. The chain, in this instance, constitutes what we might call a cash nexus or tie between Angelo the Goldsmith and Antipholus of Ephesus; their relationship is constituted at the point of exchange. Unfortunately, that exchange hasn’t yet taken place—at least not between these two men. Angelo had given the chain to Antipholus of Syracuse, who offered to pay him later on.

As a result of the unpleasant goings-on between Angelo, the Second Merchant to whom he owes money, and Antipholus of Ephesus, who is told to cough up the money for an item he never received, both Angelo and the latter men is arrested. When Dromio of Syracuse arrives at the scene with news that the ship his master had bid him find is even now awaiting their arrival, the irony is palpable. Antipholus of Ephesus is being counseled to escape from his own adopted country. He sends Dromio of Syracuse home to Adriana with a key to a money-box whose contents will secure his bail. The play’s mix-ups and misunderstandings have by this point woven an alternative reality: Antipholus of Ephesus, a successful businessman in Ephesus where he has lived since he was a child after being rescued from shipwreck, is trapped outside his proper self, and he is beginning to suffer the consequences. Dromio of Syracuse grumbles at his latest errand, but obeys and heads back to Adriana: ”Thither I must, although against my will; / For servants must their masters’ minds fulfill” (303, 4.1.112-13).

Act 4, Scene 2 (303-05, Luciana admits to Adriana that Antipholus of Syracuse wooed her, but still she counsels patience with the man they both believe to be an erring husband; Adriana speaks ill of Antipholus, but denies that she means it; Dromio of Syracuse enters and asks Adriana for Antipholus of Ephesus’s bail money; Adriana gives him the money, and is overwhelmed by anxiety and depression.)

Adriana is nothing if not constant and devoted to her husband Antipholus of Ephesus. Though she mocks his appearance momentarily, she confesses, “I think him better than I say, / And yet would herein others’ eyes were worse” (304, 4.2.25-26). This kind of talk is merely protective jealousy on her part. What she says is almost like the sonnets of Shakespeare, only in reverse—it isn’t that, as in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138, “by lies we flattered be,” but instead that her disparaging  language hides genuine affection. This is one of the most optimistic things about the play: ultimately, the constancy Adriana shows seems likely to guarantee her husband’s identity, and keep the two of them together in spite of all the madcap events that have befallen them.

Act 4, Scene 3 (305-07, Antipholus of Syracuse marvels at all the interactions he keeps having with merchants who think they know him; Dromio returns with the gold that the other Antipholus sent him to fetch for bail, and the current Antipholus is suitably baffled about this and about talk of his arrest; Antipholus asks his servant about the prospect of booking passage on a ship to Epidamnum, but is told that the ship has, indeed, already sailed due to the delay caused by his supposed arrest; Antipholus is sure both men are mad; a Courtesan enters and invites them to dinner, but Antipholus of Syracuse insults her, calling her “devil”; she asks for her ring back, or the chain instead, but he refuses; the Courtesan decides to go to Adriana and claim that “Antipholus” has stolen her ring by force.)

At the beginning of this scene, Antipholus of Syracuse makes a remark that strikes home: “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend, / And everyone doth call me by my name” (305, 4.3.1-3). What a strange experience it must be to visit a place for the first time and find that one is known by almost everyone there! If The Comedy of Errors weren’t a farce, it would be an episode of The Twilight Zone.

When Dromio of Syracuse seems to speak in riddles about the officer who had arrested Antipholus of Ephesus, Antipholus of Syracuse is confused because it was not, of course, he who was arrested. Dromio’s comic mention of “old Adam” (306, 4.3.13) sounds like exactly what the Norton editors say—a reference to fallen Adam, or unregenerate man dressed in animal skins. In other words, this leather-clad sergeant hounds men for their sinful conduct, reminding them that they are fallen and trapped in their own wrongdoing. But it’s also a joke on the determining influence of money since Christian theology often references salvation and redemption in straightforwardly economic terms. Dromio of Syracuse is asking if Antipholus of Syracuse has obtained redemption by means of bail.

In any case, the plan is to sail away from this bewitched place, Ephesus. Antipholus of Syracuse is convinced that he and his Dromio must be mad: “here we wander in illusions” (306, 4.3.40), and he calls upon some deity—any deity at all—to help him and his servant escape.

The Courtesan, who met Antipholus of Ephesus for dinner and gave him a ring worth forty ducats in exchange for the gold chain, which she does not yet have, invites the men to dinner but is rebuffed. When Antipholus of Syracuse refuses to give her the chain, she decides to go to Adriana and tell her a strategic lie; namely, she will say that the man she believes to be Adriana’s husband has robbed her of her ring: she is sure that Adriana will realize that her husband is quite mad, and will then give her the ring back, or the money value for it.

Act 4, Scene 4 (308-12, Dromio of Ephesus dismays Antipholus of Ephesus by bringing him not money but rope; he beats Dromio, who complains bitterly at a lifetime of ill-treatment; Adriana and others bring in Dr. Pinch to recover Antipholus of Ephesus’s sanity; Adriana insists that he dined at home earlier, but he protests that he was locked out, and Dromio of Ephesus seconds him; Adriana says she sent money for his bail, but Dromio of Ephesus says he was sent only to get some rope; he repeats that he received no gold, but that they were locked out; Dr. Pinch orders both men to be restrained, and they are taken away; Adriana will repay the debt, but wants first to meet the creditor who had Antipholus of Ephesus arrested; Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse enter with rapiers drawn, and the others flee; Antipholus means to set sail this evening.)

This scene is a setup for Act 5’s catastrophe or successful ending. First of all, Antipholus of Ephesus is disappointed when his servant Dromio of Ephesus brings back not bail money but instead rope. The poor servant complains that he has nothing “for my service / but blows” (308, 4.4.29-30). This is a traditional theme in ancient comedy and indeed in farce, which is itself a very ancient form of entertainment, something like slapstick where we are always at odds with the others and with the elements and end up looking ridiculous. Everyone and everything seems to get the better of us.

Antipholus of Ephesus finds himself accused by his own wife of being insane, and to make matters worse, Dr. Pinch is called in to effect a cure (309, 4.4.53-56). Adriana insists to her husband that he dined at home with her, when in fact he did no such thing: he was shut out of his own house, and the other Antipholus (of Syracuse) dined with Adriana. Now Antipholus of Ephesus is told that he was never locked out and that he never asked for anything but rope. But Adriana offers to pay the debt, so it seems as if all should be well—if by “well” we mean that poor Antipholus of Ephesus will be confined as a madman, along with Dromio of Ephesus. This is the lowest point, the nadir, of misfortune for Ephesian Antipholus and Dromio: these men are practically natives of Ephesus, and now both of them have been utterly ruined and stripped of their proper identities as a respectable businessman and his servant.

Just after the two men of Ephesus are carried away, Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse burst onto the scene armed with rapiers and scare everyone away (311, 4.4.142ff). Their present plan is simply to escape the town by ship. They’ve had enough of the seemingly bewitched, accursed Ephesus.

Act 5, Scene 1 (312-21, Angelo and the Second Merchant encounter Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse outside a priory; Angelo sees that he’s wearing the chain and reproaches him; Antipholus of Syracuse denies ever denying he had the chain; the Second Merchant calls him a liar, and they draw; Adriana orders Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse to be bound up, but they take refuge in the priory; the Abbess asks the cause of Antipholus of Syracuse’s madness; the Abbess says she will cure this man who has sought refuge with her; Adriana determines to protest to the Duke, who is on his way to oversee Egeon’s execution; Adriana makes her petition, and the Duke promises to help; a messenger arrives with news that Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus have broken loose from home and are tormenting Dr. Pinch; Adriana is astounded; Antipholus of Ephesus arrives and begs justice from the Duke; Egeon silently recognizes his son and the young man’s servant; Antipholus of Ephesus relates the day’s events from his perspective; the Duke thinks they’re all mad, and calls for the Abbess; Egeon asks Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus to acknowledge that they know him, but they can’t; the Abbess enters with Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, and all are amazed; the Syracusan pair recognize Egeon, and the Abbess turns out to be Egeon’s wife Emilia; the Duke guesses that these are both twins’ parents; all mysteries are cleared away, and a feast ensues; the two Dromios joke about who’s the eldest, but go into the feast holding hands, as equals.)

Angelo the Goldsmith insists that Antipholus of Syracuse accepted a gold chain from him and then denied it, while this Antipholus acknowledges receiving the chain and says he never denied possessing it. This draws him into a fight with the Second Merchant, who gives him the lie. Just then, Adriana and company enter, and she pleads for mercy, saying that Antipholus of Syracuse is insane (313, 5.1.33). So Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse dash into a priory presided over by an Abbess (313, 5.1.36-38). Adriana tries to get the Abbess to release the two men from the priory, but offering contradictory accusations against Adriana, she will not give them up and insists that she herself will effect a cure. The Duke is on his way to see to Egeon’s execution, and, hearing Adriana’s plea, he agrees to help her. (315, 5.1.133-67).

Next enters a messenger who says that Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant have broken loose from their confinement with Dr. Pinch and mistreated him, singeing his beard and giving him a preposterous haircut, and then, to everyone’s astonishment, Antipholus of Ephesus shows up (316, 5.1.190ff). Egeon believes he has just recognized his son and Dromio, but at the moment no one is listening to him because he’s marching towards his death. Antipholus of Ephesus calls for justice against Adriana for locking him out of his own home and imprisoning him as a madman. He complains of his arrest at the behest of Angelo the Goldsmith over a chain that he, of course, never received. And then he was bound as a madman when he showed up at his home to get bail money. Hearing all this, the Duke wonders aloud if the entire bunch of them haven’t “drunk of Circe’s cup” (318, 5.1.270). They all seem to have been transformed from their proper selves into something almost monstrous, and disharmony reigns supreme.

The condemned merchant takes Antipholus of Ephesus for his son and is bewildered when the younger man says he never saw his father in his entire life. Just as things stand like that, in comes the Abbess with Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse (319, 5.1.330ff). This arrival sets up the possibility of recognition since both pairs of men are now on the scene. Adriana now sees two husbands, as she puts it (319, 5.1.332). Antipholus of Syracuse now recognizes his father Egeon. The Abbess recognizes him as her husband, and we learn that her name is Emilia. These two, as the Duke recognizes, are the parents of both Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus. It seems that while Emilia was rescued by a ship bound for Epidamnum, but Corinthian pirates snatched away the infant and his future servant, so she never knew what became of them. The Abbess declares, “Thirty-three years have I but gone in travail / Of you, my sons, and till this present hour / My heavy burden ne’er deliverèd” (320-21, 5.1.402-04). It is not certain why she says it’s been thirty-three years since that is a discrepancy in comparison with earlier dates given in the play, though some have speculated that “thirty-three” is associated with the number of years Jesus was on earth, and that kind of symbolism might reinforce the play’s concluding emphasis on redemption. In any case, what Emilia the Abbess apparently means is that the two men’s true identity as brothers and as themselves had not really come to pass until this very moment; it is as if they have been born anew.

With regard to the theme of identity, and whether or not we are to take the play as a little more than a one-dimensional farce, we should discuss briefly what a farce is. It’s an ancient form of entertainment, though we tend to connect it with the Middle Ages in Europe since that is the time period of one of its main manifestations. Consider Molière’s Tartuffe, which is a farcical comedy. Dramatic farce in this context was used to fatten up the space between one abstraction-happy medieval morality play and the next with some down-to-earth, specific characters, rather like satyr plays were used in the ancient Greek theater to lighten up the audience after a trilogy of tragic dramas. Shakespeare wasn’t the first playwright to realize that while seriousness is excellent, you can have too much of a good thing in one sitting. That’s probably why we meet quibbling gravediggers in Hamlet and all sorts of other silly characters in Shakespeare’s most serious plays. That, and because life is simply “like that”: it mixes tragedy, comedy, and everything in between those two extremes.

In farce, the characters are delightfully foolish and incapable: they’re not three-dimensional, well-rounded characters of the sort we would expect in a novel, and they certainly don’t have the complexity of a Macbeth or a King Lear. They make fools of themselves all through the play and are made fools of by other fools, or by tricksters, and nothing they do by means of their own wit seems to get them out of the fix they are in. Instead, some force like blind fate or chance helps them out, or perhaps Providence has something to do with it, or “a favorable disposition of Time itself,” as seems fitting in a comic universe. This farcical tradition includes the Italian Commedia dell’arte, with its wonderful characters such as Zanni the smart-aleck servant, who eventually becomes the clown Arlecchino, il Dottore the know-it-all, il Pantalone the money-grubbing rich egotist, and the braggart il Capitano as well as the lovers gli Innamorati. There’s a lot of slapstick when these kinds of characters interact—a lot of trickery and deceit and good old-fashioned physical humor. In the end, farce is good-natured in that while we laugh at the vices of the characters, just as Aristotle said in The Poetics we do with any comedy, we like them for their sheer ineptitude. Jerry Seinfeld said his show was about “unpleasant people being selfish.” Voilà! This is somewhat different from Shakespeare’s romantic comedy, of course, in that very often we don’t find the comic heroes in them “unpleasant” or even particularly selfish. But in farce, we’re basically dealing with rascals, witty or otherwise, and we like them because we recognize a little of ourselves in them: our confusions, chaotic desires, foolish attempts to control our destiny, and so forth, are not much different, if they differ at all, from such characters’ foibles.

A farce need not be logical or probable if the aim is to make fun of how ridiculous we all are while pursuing our selfish wants. So there would be no need to adhere to Aristotle’s formula of “probability and necessity” even if we happened to have heard of it, which perhaps we hadn’t. The plot of The Comedy of Errors is well-nigh as unbelievable as any work of science fiction: it’s obvious that we wouldn’t mistake even identical twins if we were acquainted closely with either of them, and the coincidences in this play are much too preposterous to pass as likely, especially when so many of them pile up. But that isn’t really the point. What opportunity does such improbable, fantastic stuff open for us? It opens up just the one that Norton editor James A. Knapp explores in his introduction to The Comedy of Errors (269-77): the craziness to which we are treated generates a usefully intense species of alienation and bewilderment, almost a comic version of the Freudian Uncanny, the Unheimlich, wherein something seems to us both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, both intimate and strange, attractive and repulsive.

What could be more intimate to us than our own identity, and what could be more strange to us when it’s called into question so that we see how much artifice is involved in its construction, and how little we have to do with ourselves? Yet, we can’t abandon this construction any more than we can breathe underwater without mechanical aid. It takes the shock of the improbable to create a situation that can best deliver such a feeling, at least in the comic context. In this way, even farce can open out onto a serious exploration of one of humanity’s most abiding concerns, in one form or another.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93861-6.

Copyright © 2012 / 2024 (Revised) Alfred J. Drake

As You Like It

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. (The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 673-731).

Act 1, Scene 1 (673-77, Orlando rebels against Oliver’s mistreatment; Oliver schemes with Charles the Wrestler to deal with the young man at the next public match.)

The light pastoral quality of As You Like It is particularly enjoyable. Many of Shakespeare’s comedies mix dark and light moods, but in this one the forecast is “mostly clear and sunny.” It’s a mature play from 1599 or early 1600, which makes it roughly kin to Hamlet. It’s based on a pastoral romance by Thomas Lodge named Rosalynde, and pastoral itself is an ancient subgenre going at least as far back as the Greek poet Theocritus (3rd BCE), who wrote the Idylls, and Longus, author of Daphnis and Chloe. Shakespeare gives us a central pair of lovers (Orlando and Rosalind) driven from their urban setting by powerful, ungenerous characters (Orlando’s selfish brother Oliver and Duke Frederick the usurper, respectively) to explore the nearest green place they can find.

What they find is the Forest of Arden, which turns out to be a magical space where the lovers can set themselves playfully against the constraints of gender and explore the rituals of romantic love and courtship. In Arden we will hear some fine perspectives on court, country, love, and life not only from Rosalind and Orlando but also from Celia (Rosalind’s friend) and from Touchstone the Clown and Jaques the melancholy traveler, along with Corin the shepherd. Even the “baddies” get something from Arden: Duke Frederick the usurper and Oliver, Orlando’s stingy brother, undergo sudden transformations for the better in the Forest, and the play’s several marriages (including that of the rustics Silvius and Phoebe) pave the way for a renewal of social and political harmony at court.

As always, comedy is about the accommodation of individual desire to social demands, and vice versa. It’s also about the generous, perhaps even providential disposition of time itself. In Shakespeare’s comedies, you do what Viola does in Twelfth Night: commit your cause to time, stay open to experience (a classical virtue—just ask Odysseus), and hope for the best. And as always with Shakespeare, we can look for the playwright both to inhabit his artistic forms with genuine passion and to treat them from a certain distance, whether friendly or satirical—he wasn’t one to be reduced to the moods or demands of any narrow setting or set of conventions, so we’ll see the pastoral ideal of unspoiled, natural innocence laughing at itself from time to time.

Well, the bad characters in comedy tend to be stick figures whose villainous behavior seems rooted in insecurity and selfishness, and that’s what we have in Oliver and the usurping Duke Frederick. We aren’t dealing with the ancient problem of evil here, at least not in a serious way. From the outset, we can see that Oliver is jealous of his brother’s virtues, and holds to an economy of scarcity model of status and virtue: more love and honor for one person means less for him. Orlando deals with him boldly after what has obviously been a great deal of indifference and snubbing from his elder brother: “The courtesy of nations / allows you my better … but the same / tradition takes not away my blood … “ (674, 1.1.39-41). Oliver promptly calls upon Charles the Wrestler to deal with this young whippersnapper, calling his brother “an envious emulator of every man’s good / parts, a secret and villainous contriver against me, his natu- / ral brother” (676, 1.1.123-25).

On the whole, in comedies such characters as Oliver are bogeymen, not complex evildoers. Oliver is simply an uncharitable brother. Comedies don’t represent the social order or human nature as intractable—there would be no point in bothering with comedy if that were the case. We don’t need to worry about providing compensation for insupportable loss, as in King Lear or Oedipus the King.

The goal is instead to restore happiness to individuals and smooth functioning to the social order, and to allow people to hope for better things to come. A key concept is balance: how can we bring people together in such a way as to achieve happiness and harmony, even if perfection may be beyond our reach? Coleridge says that literary symbols can “balance or reconcile opposite or discordant qualities.” That’s more or less what comedy does: often by strategies involving parallels, contrasts or antithesis, it reconciles and balances out individuals who might otherwise stay in conflict, and makes possible a dynamic but sustainable social order. In the first scene, Celia and Rosalind give us a fine example of true friendship that further condemns Oliver’s vicious dislike of his brother. Celia and Rosalind are cousins, not sisters, but their reciprocal generosity is no less complete for it.

Act 1, Scene 2 (677-83, Orlando wrestles Charles and wins; Rosalind is love-struck.)

As for the attraction between Rosalind and Orlando during his participation in a wrestling match, well, as Marlowe’s poem “Hero and Leander” (1598) runs, “Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?” (Phoebe will later quote these lines at 712, 3.5.81). This notion is typical in comedy. The ancient idea is that love strikes people first through the eyes, as if the lovers had been struck with Cupid’s arrow. Accordingly, the love between Rosalind and Orlando begins with sudden attraction, although for the audience the experience is more drawn out since it is distributed across Rosalind’s viewing of the wrestling match between Orlando and Charles later in the second scene. Orlando doesn’t yet know himself and can hardly speak to his new admirer, but Rosalind sees his integrity and potential along with his youth. When he wins, she says, “Sir, you have wrestled well and overthrown / More than your enemies” (682, 1.2.223-24). It is improbable for Orlando to win his match against the powerful Charles, but the big fellow is an important device in that Orlando’s desperation drives him on to the match, and his victory secures him Rosalind’s heart. The text doesn’t say exactly how Orlando defeats Charles, though the BBC version starring Helen Mirren as Rosalind makes Orlando’s victory a matter of clever strategy.

Act 1, Scene 3 (683-86, Duke Frederick banishes Rosalind; Rosalind and Celia decide to go to the Forest of Arden, and Rosalind will dress as a man.)

Duke Frederick is a competitive, ill-spirited ruler. He obviously believes in an economy of scarcity when it comes to virtue: he tells Celia regarding her friend, “She robs thee of thy name, / And thou wilt show more bright and seem more virtuous / When she is gone” (684, 76-78). He is little more than a straw man, and while his threat to Rosalind sounds awful, it rings hollow: “if that thou beest found / So near our public court as twenty miles, / Thou diest for it” (684, 39-41).

It doesn’t take Rosalind and Celia long to work out a strategy to beat Frederick: Celia says they ought to go “seek my uncle in the forest of Ardenne” (685, 1.3.103), that uncle being the banished Duke Senior (Rosalind’s father). Rosalind chimes in with an addition she thinks will make the journey safer: “Were it not better / Because that I am more than common tall, / That I did suit me all points like a man …” (685, 1.3.110-12). And they’ll take Touchstone the Clown with them for company.

Act 2, Scene 1 (686-87, Duke Senior muses in the Forest: “the uses of adversity.”)

There are different perspectives to be heard about the Forest of Arden, and in this scene we hear the view of the banished Duke Senior regarding “the uses of adversity” (643, 2.1.12). He considers the Forest a place to gain spiritual insight, and seems to like living there for a time. It suits his contemplative nature, and in this he is almost a Renaissance Henry David Thoreau: he has no difficulty finding “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, / Sermons in stones, and good in everything” (686, 2.1.16-17). But his is not the only perspective, as we will find in later scenes of Act 2 and throughout the play. Perhaps there’s just a touch in Senior’s statement of the sort of idealism or spaciness that sometimes gets Shakespeare’s rulers booted from office—in a less light-hearted vein, one thinks of the poet-king Richard II, or of Prospero, who lost his dukedom in The Tempest partly because he spent more time reading his books than dealing with the responsibilities of power. All the same, not much is made of that problem in As You Like It. The comic dispensation of the play keeps Duke Senior from ending up like some of Shakespeare’s signally incompetent sovereigns.

Act 2, Scene 3 (688-89, Orlando escapes the wrath of Oliver, with faithful old Adam’s help and money.)

In this brief scene, the servant Adam warns Orlando of his brother’s plot against him, and offers his life savings to help the young man escape: “fortune cannot recompense me better / Than to die well and not my master’s debtor” (689, 2.3.75-76).

Act 2, Scene 4 (689-91, Silvius makes his pastoral lament to Corin about Phoebe; Rosalind offers to help Corin buy Arden: it isn’t paradise, even if it isn’t a dystopian setting like “The Real Shepherds of the Forest of Arden.”)

Silvius complains to Corin about his unrequited passion for Phoebe (690, 2.4.20-38), and moves Rosalind, who overhears him. Meeting the shepherds, she offers to buy the sheepfold and cottage, which, as Corin informs her, is for sale (691, 2.4.88-92). That part of the Forest is for sale reminds us that while the place is a Green World, it isn’t a paradise: there’s “winter and rough weather” (692, 2.5.8), poverty, ignorance, and commerce. On the whole, the Forest of Arden is closer to Virgil’s reality-tinged pastoral locations in the Eclogues than to an earthly paradise. For the shepherd Corin, indeed, Arden is a rather harsh terrain where a man may eke out a living. (Country people often seem to regard the woods this way: they don’t wax eloquent about it the way urbanites tend to do.) So while Amiens’ songs sometimes promote an idyllic image of Arden and the Duke is pleased with the “lessons” he learns from the woods, that isn’t how all of the characters regard Arden. It’s a good place to visit, but most of the characters will need to be getting back home soon. (That view of nature holds true in Shakespearean tragedy, too, though perhaps in an edgier way: consider King Lear, in which raw nature is conceptualized in as a dangerous, temporary perspective-gaining ground for suffering humanity.) The value in the country/city debate for Shakespeare seems to lie in the achievement of a sense of balance: nature (and by proxy, natural desire) isn’t to be denied, but artifice is a vital attribute of humanity.

Incidentally, there is a real Forest of Arden, and Shakespeare must have been familiar with it as a child growing up in Warwickshire, even though the forest referred to more directly is the Ardennes in France since that’s where the play is set. But the exact setting doesn’t much matter—this writer saw an excellent, fun production of the play live at UC Irvine years ago, and the director chose to have Corin and his helpers herd gigantic orange beach balls across the stage for the pastoral scenes. Just in case anyone was disappointed in all the beach balls, the director had the wit to bring to the fore a single live sheep. One wonders what the poor sheep thought, surrounded by orange beach balls in front of hundreds of people. Still, it was good theater.

Act 2, Scene 5 (692-93, Amiens sings pleasantly of “winter and rough weather”; Jaques sings to mock the pastoral mood of Duke Senior’s company.)

Jaques shows himself a melancholy-making machine, drawing his rather perverse sustenance even from Amiens’ more conventionally comforting songs: “Here shall he see / No enemy / But winter and rough weather” (692, 2.5.6-8). Jaques turns this song into something quite different: “If it do come to pass / That any man turn ass …” (693, 2.5.42-43). According to the ancient theory of the humors, in which the balance of four basic substances in the human body (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm) is at least partly responsible for a given person’s disposition, Jaques may be suffering from an excess of black bile. But Shakespeare never reduces any character in such a deterministic way, and Jaques’s perspective is in fact a sophisticated, highly intelligent one, even if it hardly endears him to the other characters. Let’s just say that he will serve as the “odd man out” in this play, the one who self-consciously avoids stepping into the comic circle of “shiny happy people holding hands” (the title of an R.E.M. hit, of course) because he would prefer to keep his own company and counsel.

Act 2, Scene 6 (693, Adam is near death, so Orlando vows to find help.)

In this brief scene, Adam is on the point of perishing, and Orlando promises to help him. In terms of Christian symbolism, Old Adam, or unregenerate man, is aided by his younger counterpart, the one who is poised to enjoy the benefits of regeneration in the Forest. But there’s no need to lean heavily on such symbolic interpretations. Adam is a model of uprightness and faithful service, not a fool or a sinner. Orlando treats him tenderly, as a son should treat his elderly father: “I will bear thee to some shelter, and thou shalt not / die for lack of a dinner …” (693, 2.6.14-15).

Act 2, Scene 7 (693-98, Jaques covets Touchstone’s status as fool; Orlando commandeers help and is given it freely instead; Jaques details Seven Ages of Man, Duke Senior welcomes Orlando & Adam for the sake of Sir Rowland.)

Jaques tells everyone how impressed he is with Touchstone, whose particular brand of foolery he seems to find attractively broad in comparison to his own narrower spectrum of observation: “A fool, a fool! I met a fool i’th’ forest … (694, 2.7.12; see lines 12-43). Touchstone is free to draw out what’s valuable in people, but Jaques’s view is more limited; his insight is drawn through a filter. So the latter seeks some of this power, and hopes that with his peculiar brand of melancholy foolery, he will “Cleanse the foul body of th’infected world / If they will patiently receive my medicine” (695, 2.7.60-61). 

Orlando bursts in on the bantering, and tries to commandeer some food for Adam, in the name of “necessity” (695, 2.7.90). It soon turns out that there’s more civility in the Forest than he had thought possible, as Duke Senior promises him all he needs: “Your gentleness shall force / More than your force move us to gentleness” (695, 2.7.102-03). We may well imagine that Orlando feels just a little foolish when he receives such a kind reception in this “savage” woodland.

As for Jaques, he delivers his excellent variation on an old theme: the Seven Ages of Man: “All the world’s a stage” (696, 2.7.139), he says, and all of us play our parts, which consist in the seven ages: infant, schoolboy, young lover, soldier, mature professional (a justice), declining pantaloon, and, finally, second child, “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything” (697, 2.7.166). This is a hollowed-out conception of humanity, wherein even the most heartfelt passion is entirely scripted by one’s time of life. And what is Orlando but a stock lover when he scribbles his bad poems all over Arden’s trees?

But if we look at Jaques’ musings in a more brooding way, we can see how much against the generous spirit of comedy they are: in his view, we experience time as an opportunity to run through the paces of life and then vanish. His notions are really neither tragic nor comic since in tragedy, at least death gives meaning to life, whereas for Jacques it makes everything seem pointless. In general, Shakespeare’s comedies deal in a more uplifting way with the fact that our very selves may be mostly the product of typification, of categorizations into which our society wants us to fit. The point is not that we must be absolutely original in all things; rather, the manner in which we inhabit or dwell resourcefully within our respective “types” renders us happy or unhappy. Moreover, individuation plays a more important role in comedy than in Jaques’s view, which insistently stresses dis-individuation. Comedy makes fun of us and our pretensions to uniqueness and high-serious significance, but it ultimately accepts us with our follies. Jaques’s melancholic outlook sees life as always being in the shadow of “mere oblivion” (697, 2.7.165).

Jaques himself is a stock melancholy traveler. Melancholia was a popular subject in Elizabethan-Jacobean times and attained something like cult status later in the 1600’s. Robert Burton’s late-Jacobean Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) attests to its significance in Shakespeare’s era. Depression was thought to be caused by an excess of black bile, and indeed the word “melancholy” comes from the Greek words melas (black) and kholē (bile). Jaques, as a melancholy traveler, goes around looking for things that accord with his sadness and isolation from others. So while his “Seven Ages of Man” speech in 2.7 is excellent, it consists of stock ideas with which we probably are not meant to agree—he reduces life too willingly to its bleakest and most hopeless level, and his simplistic view is promptly, silently undercut by the entrance of the aged servant Adam, who remains cheerful and kindly disposed towards the younger generations.

The scene ends with Duke Senior welcoming Orlando for the sake of his father, Sir Rowland de Bois, and we find that civility, not the savagery Orlando had expected, reigns in Arden (697-98, 2.7.191-200).

Act 3, Scene 1 (698, Duke Frederick angrily sends Oliver into the Forest to locate Orlando.)

The usurping grinch Duke Frederick is at it again, booting Oliver out of the realm to search for Orlando, who has earned his ire by defeating Charles the Wrestler. He commands Oliver to “Seek him with candle; bring him dead or living / Within this twelvemonth …” (698, 3.1.6-7). Only at the beginning or in the middle of a comic play can a thorough rascal like Frederick hold such sway over characters who are kinder and gentler than he is even on his best day.

Act 3, Scene 2 (698-707, Touchstone the Clown battles Corin over value of court and country; Rosalind and Touchstone jest over love/sex; Orlando dismisses Jaques’ gloomy conversation; Rosalind/Ganymede says love is madness and offers Orlando courtship lessons to cure him.)

Touchstone, who here engages in an epic battle of wits with Corin the Shepherd, is the play’s “all-licensed fool” who has great scope to offer his perspective (698-700, 3.2.11-74). As such, he is a fine foil for Jaques as well as for the lovers. Touchstone employs a kind of schoolboy chop-logic against Corin. The whole argument should probably go to Corin by a decision, as they say in boxing. The old shepherd has the innate civility of a country fellow who knows his limitations but also his virtues, so he doesn’t take Touchstone seriously. Touchstone conflates good manners with theological grace: since he’s never been at court, the Shepherd’s “manners must be wicked, and wickedness is sin, and sin is / damnation” (699, 3.2.38-39). This seems ridiculous to Corin, who doesn’t share in Touchstone’s courtly understanding of the supposed affinity between moral goodness and fine appearance. (That there’s a close connection between physical beauty and moral goodness is a Neo-Platonist view that we can find in Baldesar Castiglione’s The Courtier and other European Renaissance texts).

Touchstone is also more interested in words than in action, even though he is (unlike Jaques) willing to take part in the play’s marriage festivities. Jaques wants nobody, but Touchstone will soon have Audrey to think of, silly as the match may be. In any case, Corin’s response to Touchstone’s quibbling is excellent: as the shepherd says, “… those that are good manners / at the court are as ridiculous in the country as the behavior / of the country is most mockable at the court” (699, 3.2.40-42). Corin understands exactly what decorum is: adroitly suiting one’s style to the relevant place and station.

Also in this scene, Rosalind parries wits with Touchstone (700, 3.2.77-111), who tries to reduce her love for Orlando to mere physical desire: “He that sweetest rose will find, / Must find love’s prick and Rosalind” (700, 3.2.100-01). She fends off his sardonic sallies without difficulty.

Meanwhile, Orlando, author of those poems that Touchstone calls “the very false gallop of verses” (700, 3.2.102), meets up with the unadmiring Jaques, who begs him, “mar no more trees with writing love songs / in their barks” (704, 3.2.240-41). But Orlando sends him on his way, dismissing his attempt to typecast him as a stock lover and a bad poet (704, 3.2.242-73). Lovers can easily reduce themselves to a laughingstock in others’ eyes, and yet for their own part conduct themselves with perfect earnestness. The fact that what one is experiencing has been experienced by millions of others does not make it any less real, or any less worthwhile.

Finally, Rosalind/Ganymede meets Orlando and offers to school him in courting his beloved Rosalind (704-07, 3.2.274-393). Claiming to have learned the art of courtship from an elderly uncle, Rosalind/Ganymede tells Orlando that he lacks all the telltale signs of a genuine suitor: “A lean cheek, which you have not; a blue eye and / sunken, which you have not …” (706, 3.2.342-43). But the main piece of advice Rosalind/Ganymede offers is that “Love is merely a madness and … deserves / as well a dark house and a whip as madmen do …” (706, 3.3.363-64). The plan is for Orlando to visit “Ganymede” each day and practice his suit until a cure is achieved (706, 3.3.381-83).

Act 3, Scene 3 (707-09, Touchstone the Clown determines on Audrey and engages with Oliver Martext to marry the pair.)

As is evident from his silly courtship of Audrey, Touchstone’s coming marriage to this country lass is more a thing of words, a cover for his lust, than a legitimate institutional act, or at least that’s how the clown at first wanted it: an attitude that shows in his desire to let the incompetent Oliver Martext perform the ceremony. Audrey, as we can tell from their conversation in Scene 3, understands very little of what Touchstone says, so there’s no question of their being well-matched company. He isn’t particularly concerned about Audrey’s not being beautiful, saying “Well, praised be the gods for thy foulness—sluttishness / may come hereafter” (707, 3.3.33-34). Touchstone also doesn’t mind the prospect of becoming a cuckold: “As horns are odious, they are necessary” (708, 3.3.43). It is better, as far as he is concerned, to participate in the institution of marriage and take one’s chances than to languish as a bachelor. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the desperate Helena insists that “Things base and vile, holding no quantity, / Love can transpose to form and dignity” (Norton Comedies 411, 1.1.232-33). Touchstone and Audrey really don’t need this kind of love-magic since their aim isn’t what anyone would call romantic love; it’s simply an accommodation acceptable to both them and society at large. St. Paul might as well have had this couple in mind when he wrote, “But if they cannot abstain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn [with lust]” (1 Corinthians 7:9, Geneva Bible, 1599).

On the whole, Touchstone is what his name implies: a sharp stone of a wit who draws sparks and tests the quality of others. His verbal wit is his way of staying at the surface of things. He will later join in the marriage rites, but does not much appreciate matrimony’s holier dimension—that attitude so vital to romantic comedy is left to other characters, most particularly to Rosalind and Orlando, and perhaps to Celia and the transformed Oliver. For Touchstone, marriage isn’t holy or steeped in honor—it is something a person does to keep up appearances and serve his or her own convenience. Shakespeare by no means condemns court life, but here in the attitude of Touchstone, he points out the courtly tendency to slide towards hollowness and ceremonialism. At least Touchstone is honest about his limitations. He doesn’t pretend to be better than he is.

Act 3, Scene 4 (709-10, Rosalind and Celia gossip about Orlando; Corin steers them towards Silvius and Phoebe.)

Rosalind and Celia exchange gossip about Orlando and his qualities, and then Corin the Shepherd enters and announces that Silvius and Phoebe are on the scene: “If you will see a pageant truly played / Between the pale complexion of true love / And the red glow of scorn and proud disdain …” (710, 3.4.46-48), he tells the pair, all they need do is listen to these humble country folk.

Act 3, Scene 5 (710-13, Rosalind/Ganymede schools Phoebe after overhearing her proudly reject Silvius; Phoebe falls in love with Rosalind/Ganymede.)

Rosalind, invited by Corin, eavesdrops on Phoebe as she overplays her hand, while Silvius is loyal to her far beyond her desserts (710-11, 3.5.1-34). Rosalind brusquely reminds Phoebe that she is “not for all markets” and that she ought, therefore, to sell while someone is still willing to buy (711, 3.5.60). This match is hardly going to be perfect; Phoebe, we may assume, will never love Silvius as much as he loves her, but that’s perhaps rather common: do two people generally love each other to precisely the same degree? Probably not. Silvius and Phoebe it will have to be—they are a match sufficient for civilization’s purposes. Silvius is a good example of the sort of stereotype that Orlando inhabits partly and for a limited time; all the same, Silvius is a fine fellow: he is decent and faithful. Moreover, Phoebe’s high ideals, while misplaced, are by no means contemptible. Of course, “Ganymede’s” sage counsel only makes her fall hopelessly in love with him, and we see that firmer guidance will be needed in her case (711, 3.5.66-69). Phoebe even quotes from Marlowe’s poem “Hero and Leander” (1598): “Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?” (668, 3.5.81)

Act 4, Scene 1 (713-17, Rosalind/Ganymede demolishes Jaques’ antisocial pose; Rosalind/Ganymede instructs Orlando in the rigors of courtship: men and women’s inconstancy, and the truth of masks.)

Rosalind’s deflation of Jaques at the scene’s beginning is decisive even if not devastating. He professes the goodness of his disposition, saying, “Why, ’tis good to be sad and say nothing” (713, 4.1.8), and Rosalind answers him, “Why, then ’tis good to be a post” (713, 4.1.9). She ventures that it seems foolish to her to go about seeking experiences that make you sad: “and to travel for it too!” (714, 4.1.26). With that remark, Rosalind is on to her pretend-real courtship with Orlando, with some assistance from Celia.

As for the value of the dialogue in 4.1, Shakespeare recognizes that for the most part people inhabit types and that a great deal depends on how they inhabit a given type, or how they inflect it. We are not dealing with Romantic-Era originality and uniqueness here, and not with the utilitarian-style bourgeois self of somewhat later times, even if there are perhaps touches of that sensibility in Shakespeare’s plays. There is always some Jaques-like way of describing our present stage of life.

The question is, does the type swallow us up, or do we improve upon it or at least inhabit it competently? Orlando (what with pinning bad verses on trees) has played the lover’s type. We’re not too worried about him actually becoming Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and going mad for love, but still, that thought may remind us of love’s potential to obliterate the boundaries of personal identity—a risky venture that is kept from turning bad by means of reflection, distance, and playfulness. The present scene shows how the Forest allows both Rosalind/Ganymede, who leads the way, and Orlando, who follows gamely, the time and distance they need to play around with love’s lore and with gender typification. Both will emerge the better for their experimentation. The “masks” they wear for a time allow them to speak and act with frankness and a degree of detachment. Often, Shakespeare treats love as something like a game with its own rules and conventions that must be learned. The rules turn out to be flexible, but they’re not altogether to be dismissed.

What do men and women say about, and to, one another? It is difficult for them to be honest in real-life situations, so the disguising and conversations that occur in the Forest of Arden are valuable to Rosalind and Orlando as they move towards a more complete accommodation of each other’s desires. Rosalind’s Forest performances especially in 4.1 allow her to gain some freedom and insight by playing both a male suitor (Ganymede) and a choosy, unpredictable female object of pursuit (Rosalind-as-Ganymede-as-Rosalind). One thing she explores, of course, is her own anxiety about the constancy or inconstancy of men, women, and romantic love generally. Rosalind/Ganymede’s characterizations of men and women are appropriately mocking: “men / are April when they woo, December when they wed; maids are / May when they are maids, but the sky changes when they are / wives” (716, 4.1.127-30). Rosalind/Ganymede goes out of her way to make Orlando understand that a wife will do all sorts of things to set his teeth on edge, including exhibitions of jealousy, screaming, weeping, and laughing (716, 4.1.130-36).

 “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth,” says Oscar Wilde in his 1891 essay, “The Critic as Artist.” Rosalind’s mask is Ganymede, so we have Rosalind pretending to be Ganymede pretending to be Rosalind: just the right degree of anonymity necessary for her to sort out Orlando’s qualities as a suitor. As for Orlando, those who believe most fully in the ideal vision of love most need distance from such idealism: idealizing eroticism is noble, but it has its risks, disillusionment and eventual cynicism being the most severe among them. Orlando needs to be tested: he must show some capacity to moderate and reflect upon his high passions since that is partly what makes a marriage successful. He plays his role as suitor to Ganymede-as-Rosalind with good cheer, putting up with his opposite’s whims and generally saying and doing the right things. As the play in its entirety shows, Orlando’s inner worth is greater than the silly stereotype he has temporarily inhabited: a successful comic hero, he plays a role without being permanently trapped by it.

Shakespeare writes perceptively about love as a potentially destructive experience because it threatens to obliterate a person’s boundaries. (“Sonnet 129” and Othello give us the darkest presentations of what love can do, while the comedies deal with the lighter and more uplifting dimension of love, its civilizing and uniting power.) Distance and reflection seem appropriate as “preventative medicine,” given this tendency of love to strip us of our capacity to define, judge, and maintain our sense of who we are. The playfulness of Rosalind in particular allows her to keep some sense of an independent identity. 

Act 4, Scene 2 (717-18, Jaques again makes fun of Duke Senior’s party: deer-hunting, cuckoldry.)

Apparently, Duke Senior’s men have been deer hunting. Jaques offers yet another song to counter the sort generally sung by Duke Senior’s upbeat group: “What shall he have that killed the deer? / His leather skin and horns to wear” (717, 4.2.10-11). As usual, Jaques takes up a counter-perspective, in this case making an obvious pun on infidelity that probably owes something to the classical Ovidian hunting or chase scene to describe love relations.

Act 4, Scene 3 (718-21, Rosalind orders Phoebe to love Silvius; Oliver recounts how he was rescued by Orlando from a snake and a lioness: he’s a changed man!)

Rosalind sees her opportunity to transform Phoebe’s cruelty towards Silvius into acceptance, and, as Ganymede, orders the intransigent shepherdess to love Silvius instead: she tells Silvius to “say this to her: that if she love me, I charge her to / love thee” (719, 4.3.70-71). Oliver, rescued by his brother just when he is surrounded by two predators—a snake and a lioness—is suddenly transformed: he tells the ladies, “I do not shame / To tell you what I was, since my conversion / So sweetly tastes, being the thing I am” (720, 4.3.134-36). We don’t need to see a painful, penance-driven process of transformation. Oliver doesn’t for a moment believe that Ganymede is male, but goes along with the act nonetheless; he is on an embassy from his younger brother Orlando to communicate what has just happened in the Forest (721, 4.3.151-55).

Act 5, Scenes 1-2 (721-25, Touchstone the Clown chases away Audrey’s bumpkin suitor; Oliver and Celia suddenly decide to marry; Rosalind/Ganymede promises Orlando he’ll have his Rosalind; comic knot: “and so am I for…”)

In the first scene, Touchstone impresses Audrey by chasing away a rustic suitor with long-winded talk, but at least the end of it makes sense: “I will kill thee a hundred and fifty / ways. Therefore tremble and depart” (722, 5.1.51-52).

In the second scene, Oliver’s recent alteration is supplemented by his equally sudden love-struck decision to marry Celia as “Aliena.” As Rosalind/Ganymede tells Orlando, “your brother and my sister no sooner met but they looked, / no sooner looked but they loved …” (723, 5.2.30-31). This newest change may in part be a perspectival device whereby the brief courtship of one couple appears more credible in comparison to the even briefer one of another—one so brief that it really isn’t a courtship at all. Oliver even tells Orlando that he’s decided to give their father’s estate to him and “here live and die a shepherd” (723, 5.2.11). The suddenness of the transformation makes sense: characters like Oliver (and Frederick) found their hopes on rational calculation over an abyss of ignorance into the real why and wherefore of their stingy, mean temperaments. “Don’t know much about you and me” has ever been their theme song, so some measure of humaneness and empathy come over them like a sudden wave or a lightning strike, not as the fruit of a gradual realization.

Rosalind/Ganymede finally decides to move forward with Orlando, promising him, “If you do love Rosalind so / near the heart as your gesture cries it out, when your brother / marries Aliena shall you marry her” (724, 5.2.56-58). She has a certain magician in mind, supposedly, who can do the trick, and of course that magician is her.

We now come to the comic knot that Rosalind/Ganymede must shortly untie. When Phoebe orders Silvius to explain to Rosalind/Ganymede what it means to love, Silvius says, “It is to be all made of sighs and tears, / And so am I for Phoebe” (724, 5.2.75-76). This is the cue for a number of “And I for…” repetitions: Phoebe is in love with Ganymede, Orlando is in love with Rosalind whom he sees nowhere around, and Rosalind pines “for no woman” (724-25, 5.2.77-93). 

Act 5, Scene 3 (523-26, Touchstone the Clown makes pleasantries with Audrey to two pages’ springtime song)

Touchstone enjoys some brief conversation with Audrey, and two young pages crown the third scene with a song about the associations between spring and marriage rites: “It was a lover and his lass … / In spring-time, the only pretty ring-time …” (682, 5.3.14, 17), only to be dismissed by Touchstone’s criticism of their voices (682, 5.3.39).

Act 5, Scene 4 (726-30, Touchstone recounts his courtly quarrel; Rosalind reveals her identity to Duke Senior and Orlando; Hymen does the honors; Duke Frederick has been convinced by an old hermit to return his brother Duke Senior to power and stay in the Forest; Jaques will remain with him; Oliver and Celia will stay, too.)

The fourth scene offers the pleasant interlude of Touchstone’s famous recounting of a courtly quarrel which, he claims, began when he professed to “dislike the cut of / a certain courtier’s beard” (727, 5.4.65-94). He sets forth a preposterously detailed series of insults and counter-insults between himself and the courtier with the disagreeable beard. But the whole thing begins and ends in words, and they part company without exchanging a single blow: “I durst go no further than the Lie Circumstantial; / nor he durst not give me the Lie Direct” (728, 5.4.78-79). The reason? Cowardice—neither of them ever had any intention of getting into an actual fight. So much, then, Touchstone suggests, for a great deal of masculine “honor.” This insight allies him with Sir John Falstaff from I and II Henry IV, Parolles in All’s Well That Ends Well, and certain other of Shakespeare’s deflators of male puffery. Touchstone sings the praises of the circumstantial phrase: “Your / ‘if’ is the only peacemaker: much virtue in ‘if’” (728, 5.4.93-94). This play is more tolerant of love-driven exaggerations and rituals than it is of honor-based ones.

To cap things off, Hymen the god of marriage does the honors after Rosalind enters in her own person and clears up the reigning confusion, presenting herself to her father Duke Senior and to Orlando as herself (728, 5.4.107-08). Hymen is an urban god, so his presence is a reminder that most of the characters will soon return to the court. The right matches have been made, and in any case society demands not perfection but adequacy: it needs rustics like Silvius and Phoebe and strange pairings like Touchstone and Audrey as much as it needs the near-perfect Rosalind and Orlando. Touchstone’s phrase “country copulatives” (727, 5.4.53) applies to all equally: they’re all kin by the act of generation. The phrase “as you like it” seems to mean “follow your desire,” so long as your desire doesn’t impede the charitable disposition of things.

Jaques de Bois (the brother of Orlando and Oliver) informs everyone that Duke Frederick has been turned away from his wicked intentions in the Forest by an “old religious man,” and now intends to stay on in the wilderness that has seen his salvation, where he will live a retired life of religious devotion (729, 5.4.142-62). Jaques the melancholy traveler will follow this newly retired Duke Frederick. He did not join with the lovers in dancing to Hymen’s tune, and now prefers to remain in the Forest of Arden because he believes there’s more to learn there than at court: “To him will I: out of these convertites / There is much matter to be heard and learned” (730, 5.4.175-76). Jaques is the odd man out, but he only matters a little in this play. As You Like It doesn’t have the bittersweet quality of Shakespeare’s romance plays (as we call them today) such as The Winter’s Tale or The Tempest even though it has about it something of the romance ambience—Orlando, after all, is the name of the hero in Ariosto’s epic romance poem Orlando Furioso (1532)—and in general the play seems satisfied with its sunny, comic approach to life. Comedy is, after all, not only a genre but a perspective on life, just as tragedy and romance are life-perspectives. Shakespeare’s comedies aren’t monolithic in tone or in degree of optimism—they range from dark (Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice) to light fare such as the present play, which is perhaps the most perfect of its type in Shakespeare’s canon.

Now that all is done, what exactly might we say is the magic of the Forest of Arden? It’s appropriate to borrow the phrase “freedom and variety of situations” from Wilhelm von Humboldt. Arden has a power to transform people, to alter their perspectives, and set things between them to rights. It’s a liberating place where we can either find out over time who we are (as Rosalind and Orlando do by way of romantic experimentation), as well as a place where we can go and “just change,” as Oliver does. It is markedly different from the Court or cityscape, where competition and greed may hold sway.

Of course there’s something of the seasonal cycle’s magic in the Forest, too: spring is the time of regeneration and hope. But “nature” is a very complex concept in Shakespeare, and his exploration of it varies from play to play. In King Lear, the King sees Edgar in the guise of Poor Tom the Bedlam Beggar, and declares him “the thing itself: a poor, bare, fork’d animal.” But that play as a whole surely doesn’t tell us we should reduce ourselves to such an extreme; we are not most authentically ourselves when stripped and “unaccommodated” by the arts and considerations of civic and family life. Artifice is part of our nature as human beings, it seems. The Forest of Arden encourages artifice and play, and its magic consists in the freedom to experiment with the styles and types that are undeniably part of life.

Epilogue (730-31, Rosalind calls for harmony and applause from men and women in the audience.)

The Epilogue makes light-hearted reference to the license and experimentation necessary for success in love matters: “It is not the fashion to see the lady / the epilogue …” (730, Epilogue 1-2), but it’s Rosalind who gets the last word. With that last word, she entreats the audience to applaud the play (or at least what they like of it) in remembrance of the love men and women bear to one another, play or no play.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93861-6.

Copyright © 2012 / 2024 Alfred J. Drake

Document Timestamp: 3/23/2024 7:54 PM