Cymbeline, King of Britain

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links

Shakespeare, William. Cymbeline, King of Britain. (Norton Romances and Poems, 3rd edition, pp. 207-301).

Act 1, Scene 1 (pp. 221-25, Cymbeline has banished Posthumus for marrying his daughter Imogen; Imogen rightly distrusts the queen and stands up to her father; she and Posthumus exchange love tokens—a ring and a bracelet, respectively; Posthumus will go stay with Filario in Rome; Cloten makes an unsuccessful attempt to assault Posthumus)

An irrational old king vexed with his virtuous but stubborn daughter, surrounded by an untrustworthy royal family—this should sound familiar since we have read King Lear, in which Lear and Cordelia are torn asunder while vulture-like Regan and Goneril gobble up their fortuitously enlarged helpings of British land to rule.  Posthumus Leonatus is the virtuous obverse of Edmund of Gloucester—not that he’s illegitimate, but his less than royal lineage makes him persona not grata at Cymbeline’s court.  Imogen’s vocabulary is much more expansive, however, than Cordelia’s—she fights back spiritedly when the King puts her suitor down as a “basest thing” (pg. 224, 1.1.125) and banishes him.  Cymbeline, she says, has failed to realize that bringing the two of them up together might lead to this situation, and he will not recognize merit as anything but a property of noble birth.  Looking forwards, however, we will find that in Cymbeline law and custom only seem implacable; in truth, they can be revoked with a change of heart, a word.  Lear’s decrees are not reversible in time to do anyone good, but Cymbeline’s are.  The analogue of the faithful servant Kent in Lear would be the wronged and initially spiteful but ultimately loyal Belarius, who will return Cymbeline’s long-lost sons to him when he least expects it. 

None of this is to suggest that Cymbeline is on a par with the masterpiece King Lear—indeed, critics such as Harold Bloom have insisted that Cymbeline is deliberate self-parody, repeating in a tired manner any number of silly plot devices that the Swan of Avon may have become too fond of over the years: a foolish but somehow still magnificent sovereign; a decapitation (whee!); a preposterous violation of the so-called unity of time; identity switches / disguisings sufficient to make a viewer’s head spin; a gender-bending heroine; a presumptuous husband with a potentially lethal Madonna / whore complex; a loquacious villain who does evil—oh, we don’t know why; a foppish oaf who stands on his unimpressive masculinity and threatens Tarquin-ravishment against a chaste woman; a potion that induces a death-like coma; an ultra-unlikely family reunion; and a final-act virtual symphony of improbabilities.  Of course, this is Shakespeare we’re talking about: even if the critics are correct that in Cymbeline the Bard is making fun of his worst tendencies, the results are still wonderful.  That would be true even if only for Imogen’s sake: she is a memorable heroine who rises above the dramatic environment in which Shakespeare has placed her.

We are told that Cymbeline adopted the orphan Posthumus and raised him as a close servant (pp. 221-22, 1.1.28-42).  Imogen has married the young man only to see him banished by her father the King because of the great gap between the two in rank.  It seems as if everyone except Cymbeline can see the truth; namely, that Posthumus is a far worthier match for his daughter than Cloten, the aristocratic oaf of a son belonging to Cymbeline’s new queen: “not a courtier—/ … / … hath a heart that is not / Glad of the thing they scowl at” (pg. 221, 1.1.12-15), meaning the frustration of Cloten and the banishment of Posthumus.  As for that new queen, she is a master dissembler who feigns affection for her daughter-in-law while secretly seething at her for failing to accept her son as husband and heir to Cymbeline’s throne.  Imogen, however, is not fooled for a moment: “O dissembling courtesy!”  (223, 1.1.84), she exclaims after speaking with this deceptive woman.

Posthumus informs Imogen that he is about to depart to the home of Filario, a friend of his deceased father (287, 1.1.96-99).  Imogen and he exchange tokens of their love: she gives him a ring, and he gives her a bracelet (287, 1.1.113-124).  But the young man must be gone in haste when Cymbeline storms up and declares him “Thou basest thing” and his daughter a “disloyal thing” (287-88, 1.1.126, 132).  But of course, Imogen is by no means disloyal.  In fact, her main virtue is her loyalty towards Posthumous, and through the adventures she undertakes she only reconfirms what was already inside of her.  In the romance world, adventure and happenstance turn out to have magic properties, or in a broadly Christian scheme, they turn out to be providential with regard to the discovery of truth and the partial fulfillment of desire.  As William Hazlitt suggests in his essay on Cymbeline in Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays (1817), Imogen’s loyalty to Posthumus Leonatus sets the play’s tone and centers its action: the reigning passion is loyalty.  Imogen shows herself to be as strong as her imperious father when she defies his will as follows: “Sir, / It is your fault that I have loved Posthumus. / You bred him as my playfellow, and he is / A man worth any woman…” (288, 1.1.144-46).  These are not the words of a pushover in the face of royal prerogative. 

As for the departure of Posthumus, it is not without some drama when Cloten tries to engage the banished husband in a sword fight, but nothing much comes of it (289, 1.1.161-64).  As we shall see, this departure profoundly alters the life of Imogen as well as Posthumus.  The romance genre emphasizes the necessity of alienation: you don’t know the value of a person or quality or happy situation until you are threatened with its loss.  Alienation is one of the main ways we discover what we are.  The time will come when Imogen herself must leave the court in order to return to it on a firmer basis, after many accidents.  In this first act generally, Imogen confirms the quality of her character: what we can expect isn’t so much growth and development on her part but rather confirmation of and insight into what she already is.

Act 1, Scene 2 (289-90, Cloten preens himself and waxes jealous against the now absent Posthumus while his assistant the second lord cuts him down to size)

The second scene is a comic introduction to the queen’s villainous son Cloten, who shows himself to us as a puffed up, foppish oaf amply given his comeuppance by a wisecracking second lord who undercuts him throughout.  It is not difficult to see what is eating away at Cloten: “that she should love this fellow and refuse me!”  (290, 1.2.22)

Act 1, Scene 3 (290-91, Imogen’s loyalty to Posthumus shines: she regrets that their parting could not last longer)

Imogen’s loyalty to Posthumus is touching in his absence, and she relates how her parting from her new husband was interrupted by Cymbeline: “comes in my father, / And, like the tyrannous breathing of the north, / Shakes all our buds from growing” (291, 1.3.36-38).  With regard to the metaphor she employs, in romance, if winter comes, spring can’t be infinitely far behind: the organicism implied by this metaphor implies the acceptance of loss and death in exchange for the possibility of regeneration and reconciliation.  We know that Imogen’s father, though he acts like the stark north wind, will eventually give way and assent to the play’s harmonies and reconciliations.  The question is, how much will be lost before he comes round to that orientation?

Act 1, Scene 4 (291-94, Giacomo draws Posthumus into a quarrel over the comparative value of Italian women and Imogen, and lays down a “trial of virtue” wager: Posthumus’ ring for Imogen’s compromised honor)

Giacomo introduces himself to us, and we quickly realize that Posthumus learns little from experience.  Immediately after recounting a quarrel he fell into with a Frenchman over the relative qualities of English and French females, he allows Giacomo to tempt him into exactly the same argument, except that now the ladies for comparison are Italian.  This clever man needles Posthumus, “I have not seen the most pre- / cious diamond that is, nor you the lady” (292, 1.4.64-65).  In other words, he mocks Posthumus for positing naïve ideals about feminine virtue.  Giacomo boasts that without much ado he will strip Imogen of her virtue and win the ring her husband wagers: upon only a second meeting with her, he insists, he will take away “that honour of hers which you imagine so / reserved” (293, 1.4.114-15).  Posthumus makes the stakes as high as he can, promising that if Giacomo fails in his attempt, he will answer for the insult to Imogen in a duel (294, 1.4.141-43).

As for this “trial of virtue” plot, as Prof. Harold Toliver of UC Irvine pointed out to me years ago, it is a Medieval commonplace, probably because of the martyrdom patterns established in Christian narratives.  Chaucer’s “Clerk’s Tale,” which validates the Marquis Walter’s long and painful testing of his wife Griselde, illustrates this penchant for putting female virtue to the test.  Posthumus decides to put Imogen’s virtue to a similar test, and allows Giacomo to tempt her.  Posthumus isn’t an evil character, but from our modern perspective, we may well question his judgment.  As Albany says in Act 1, Scene 4 of King Lear, “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well” (Norton Tragedies 757, 1.4.325).  For all his protestations about her innocence, Posthumus’ proof-by-temptation scheme seems ethically dubious.  Shakespeare’s regard for this old plot device doesn’t seem wholehearted.  No less a moral authority than Jesus led his flock in prayer, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:13)  It’s hard to argue with a statement like that.  In modern times, we call what Posthumus does “entrapment.”  And then there’s his exhibition of that green-eyed, smothering, all-encompassing monster jealousy.  Iago of Othello pins down this passion with his lines about Desdemona’s misplaced handkerchief: “Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ” (Norton Tragedies 473, 3.3.326-28).  Once indulged, such a powerful emotion admits of no going back, and Posthumus must act upon it.  Only the fullness of romance time will allow this situation to be made good.

Act 1, Scene 5 (294-96, the queen demands poisonous substances from Cornelius, who gives her a potion that only causes deathlike sleep; the queen gives this potion to Pisanio, whom she attempts to win away from Posthumus; she threatens absent Imogen with death if she does not relent and give in to Cloten)

Cornelius conscientiously asks the queen what she wants with the “poisonous compounds” she has ordered up (294, 1.5.8), and he does not like the answer he receives, which is that she plans to use them on defenseless animals and note the effects the poison has upon them (295, 1.5.18-20).  He knows her for what she is, and resolves not to give her what she wants, but rather a simulacrum that will “stupefy and dull the sense a while” (295, 1.5.37).  The queen next sets to work on Pisanio, the servant of Posthumus, trying to win him away from his master towards Cloten and giving him a box filled with Cornelius’ fake poison that she hopes the servant himself will swallow, thinking it a remedy.  The queen threatens absent Imogen, who, she says, “Except she bend her humour, shall be assured / To taste of too” (296, 1.5.81-82).

Act 1, Scene 6 (296-301, Giacomo comes to Cymbeline’s court and slanders Posthumus as a playboy; Imogen believes him but is uninterested in repaying Posthumus in kind, so Giacomo pretends he was testing Imogen’s faith in her husband and asks if she will store a chest allegedly containing gifts for Cymbeline)

By letter, Posthumus recommends Giacomo to Imogen (297, 1.6.22-24), and the Italian promptly makes excellent use of his first conversation with the lady.  He paints a picture of a feckless, adulterous Posthumus living it up in Italy, exhibiting the opposite of the chief qualities Imogen thinks he possesses: earnestness and fidelity.  He is known, says Giacomo, simply as “The Briton Reveller” (298, 1.6.22).  Giacomo’s wicked suit almost fails when he boldly urges revenge and utters the sentence, “I dedicate myself to your sweet pleasure” (300, 1.6.137), which causes Imogen to denounce him outright: “If thou wert honourable / Thou wouldst have told this tale for virtue…” (300, 1.6.143-44).  But Giacomo is more than up for the occasion, declaring just as boldly as before that he meant only to test the strength of Imogen’s virtue (300, 1.6.163-65).  With the addition of a simple device—namely, a request to store a chest full of plate and jewels meant as a gift for Cymbeline, Giacomo’s diabolical plot is set (301, 1.6.186-94).

Act 2, Scene 1 (302-03, Cloten again puffs himself up, it worries about meeting anyone of lesser rank, including Giacomo; as usual, the second lord mocks him in a witty aside)

Cloten interprets the actions of others as motivated by what drives him: lust, ambition, and avarice.  We often find this oppositional representation of love in romance plays: true and charitable love versus the prideful and empty sort we find in Cloten.  The confrontation of heightened, opposed absolutes seems characteristic of romance.  Cloten fears losing face, he fears what he calls “derogation” (302, 2.1.40) if he condescends to meet the newly arrived stranger Giacomo.  He doesn’t want to mix with those below his station.  That fear constitutes the law of his being; it makes him go, so to speak.  This tendency in Cloten is interesting since the play in general emphasizes the inherent goodness of aristocratic characters such as Belarius and his sons Guiderius and Arviragus.  Shakespeare is careful not to go too far in that direction, but he doesn’t deny the claim that blood bestows nobility, that virtue can in part be inherited.  Cloten is rather like the dragon in the old romances—he is the monster who must be slain because he would cut off the quest for reunification and reconciliation, and stop short the generosity of romance time.  And the “knight” who slays him, as it will turn out, is Guiderius.  Cloten’s destructive lust and self-love are incurable, unlike the less damnable jealousy that besets Posthumus.  The second lord has Cloten “pinned and wriggling on the wall,” just like the imaginary insect in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”  The clever queen, he muses, is cursed with a son who “Cannot take two from twenty, for his heart, / And leave eighteen” (303, 2.1.52-53).  Well, as they say, talent skips a generation.

Act 2, Scene 2 (303-04, Giacomo emerges from the trunk he asked Imogen to store in her bedchamber, taking note of ornaments and structure in the room as well as a mole on sleeping Imogen’s left breast; he takes her bracelet)

It is time for Giacomo to carry out his wicked designs upon Imogen’s happiness.  Emerging from the trunk in which he has stowed himself, the devious fellow describes himself in the grand style: “Our Tarquin thus / Did softly press the rushes ere he wakened / The chastity he wounded” (303, 2.2.12-13).  He notes various ornamentation’s and items in Imogen’s chambers, but most damning of all, he remarks a mole on her left breast (304, 2.2.37).  And if you are in assiduous reader of Shakespeare, by now you will feel perfectly at home betting your life savings that Giacomo’s perusal of the book Imogen had been studying will yield him Ovid’s recounting of rape and cannibalistic revenge, “The tale of Tereus”(304, 2.2.45).  Giacomo’s brand of evil here consists in foreclosing upon Imogen and Posthumus’ love by means of a deceptive command of fact: he cheats at his wager with Posthumus, and is able to describe Imogen’s room and her personal characteristics.  It may seem ironic that Giacomo works his wickedness with the aid of facts: they may be “stubborn things,” as President Reagan famously called them, but they don’t often matter very much in Shakespearean romance or in the romance world generally. Cymbeline apparently existed around the time of Caesar, and in fact Holinshed mentions him in the Chronicles.  But Giacomo is obviously a Renaissance Italian, one who lives and moves slyly in the age of Machiavelli, which is so far over the top and beyond credibility that it lends credence to the view of critics who insist that Cymbeline is self-conscious parody.  Shelley’s friend the satirist Thomas Love Peacock might as well have been thinking of this play, with its ancient and modern “Italians” greeting one another across what simple logic tells us should be a gap of 1600 years, when he mocked the Elizabethans for their disregard of the neoclassical unities:

Shakespeare and his contemporaries … used time and locality merely because they could not do without them, because every action must have its when and where: but they 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. This makes the old English drama very picturesque … though it is a picture of nothing that ever was seen on earth except a Venetian carnival. (“The Four Ages of Poetry,” 1820)

Act 2, Scene 3 (304-08, Cloten orders up a serenade for Imogen, who despises him to his face; her insults provoke him to vow revenge; Imogen is almost frantic with the thought that she has lost the bracelet Posthumus gave her)

Cloten makes a thoroughly ineffective attempt (if an actual one, unlike Giacomo’s) to win Imogen’s affections.  The only good thing that comes of it is the fine air, “Hark, hark, the lark at heave gate sings …” (305, 2.3.17).  Face to face, the this declares his love for Imogen, and receives for his reply only a measure of her strength: “I care not for you, / And am so near the lack of charity / To accuse myself I hate you” (307, 2.3.103-05).  One is reminded of Fanny Burney’s hilarious journal description of a suitor who just couldn’t understand that his attentions were not welcome ().  But while Cloten may be dense, even he gets the point when Imogen tells him the hair on his head isn’t worth the “meanest garment” ever worn by Posthumus (308, 2.3.128).  This elicits from Cloten a desire for revenge (308, 2.3.150).  Meanwhile, Imogen’s real concern is that (thanks to Giacomo at 304, 2.2.34) she has lost the bracelet given her by Posthumus: “I hope it be not gone to tell my lord / That I kiss aught but he” (308, 2.3.142-43).

Act 2, Scene 4 (308-12, Giacomo returns to Rome and declares victory over Imogen and Posthumus, who unwisely believes him especially because of the bodily “evidence” and denounces all womankind)

As Filario and Posthumus trade views on the prospects of the Romans getting the tribute they’ve demanded from Cymbeline (308-09, 2.4.10-26), Giacomo enters and triumphantly declares his victory in the contest of female virtue.  One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the sight of Posthumus’ pitiful performance here, with Giacomo egging him on and Filario vainly trying to draw the most substantial account possible from Giacomo: “take your ring again; ’tis not yet won” (311, 2.4.114).  But when Giacomo brings out his supposedly irrefutable evidence—Imogen’s bracelet and that unfortunately noted lovely mole on her breast, the game is up, and Posthumus is quite certain that this wily stage Italian has (as Machiavellian Iago did with Othello), “prove[d his] love a whore” (Norton Tragedies 474, 3.3.363-64).  And the reaction we get from Posthumus is no better than that of the agonized romantic absolutist Othello: the mole, he avers, “doth confirm / Another stain as big as hell can hold …” (312, 2.4.139-40).

Act 2, Scene 5 (312-13, Posthumus makes outlandishly misogynistic statements: loss of faith in Imogen has shattered him)

Posthumus hits enough misogynistic home runs to make it into the woman-bashers’ hall of fame on the first ballot: “We are bastards all …” (312, 2.4.2), he whines, and then comes the grand slam: “there’s no motion  / That tends to vice in man but I affirm / It is the woman’s part …” (313, 2.4.20-22).  He imagines the act of copulation between Giacomo and chaste Imogen, proving only the deranged state of his own imagination (313, 2.4.15-17).  For the moment, at least, he would make fine company for Othello, Leonatus from The Winters’ Tale, or Hamlet in that awful conversation with Ophelia in Act 3, Scene 1.  As for this scene, as Hamlet might say, “Go to, I’ll no more on’t.”

Act 3, Scene 1 (313-15, spurred on by the queen and Cloten, Cymbeline refuses to pay tribute to the Romans)

The Roman ambassador Lucius delivers Augustus Caesar’s demand for tribute from the Britons, but the queen and Cloten sway Cymbeline from paying the 3000 pounds Caesar wants.  Cloten says arrogantly, “If Caesar can hide the sun from us / with a blanket, or put the moon in his pocket, we will pay him / tribute for light…” (314, 3.1.41-43), and Cymbeline himself, while reminding present company that he spent time at Caesar’s court in his youth, comes round to the idea that failure to resist would “show the Britons cold” (315, 3.1.73), especially because just now the Pannonians and Dalmatians are in open warfare with Roman armies.  Cymbeline will not fail to keep up with the barbarian Joneses.

Act 3, Scene 2 (315-17, in separate letters, Posthumus commands Pisanio to kill Imogen and asks Imogen to come to Milford Haven in Cambria, which she immediately makes plans to do)

Pisanio is dismayed at the letter Posthumus has sent requiring him to kill Imogen: “Thy mind to hers is now as low as were / Thy fortunes” (315, 3.2.10-11), he laments.  He tries to break this news to Imogen, but only succeeds in rendering her more eager to get to Milford Haven in Cambria than she already was upon reading the deceptive letter Posthumus dedicated to her.  Imogen makes her plans which include her female assistant fetching her “… a riding-suit no costlier than would fit / A franklin’s housewife” (317, 3.2.77-78).

Act 3, Scene 3 (317-19, we meet Belarius and his supposed sons Arviragus and Guiderius; Belarius gives us—not the boys—the complete back story as to why they are living in the Welsh countryside; both young men lament their lack of experience)

Cutting off the king’s issue can be a vicious affair in ancient literature—recall Ovid’s tale of Tereus, Procne and Philomela in Metamorphoses—but in this play things aren’t so bad: Belarius has kidnapped Cymbeline’s two sons and raised them with a healthy distrust of courtly deception, but they subsequently get their chance to prove the nobility that is their birthright.  The two young men, Arviragus and Guiderius, are understandably reluctant to accept the limitations Belarius has placed upon them.  When he says, “this life / Is nobler than attending for a check…” (318, 3.3.22), both of these supposed sons chime in with a rebuttal: Guiderius says of his rough existence, “unto us it is / A cell of ignorance, traveling abed …” (318, 3.3.32-33).  Arviragus adds, “our cage / We make a choir, as doth the prisoned bird…” (318, 3.3.42-44).  Both of them complain of being inexperienced in the wide world and show themselves very impatient to enter it.  The narrative that Belarius has fed them does not satisfy anyone but himself, an older man who has already seen too much of that world and paid the price for it.

Belarius provides us with the back story we need to understand why he and his two young men are living as hunters in the Welsh countryside, a rough place that always gave even the Romans trouble.  It seems that Belarius was taken down by a couple of villains who accused him of treason against Cymbeline on behalf of the Romans.  Needless to say, Cymbeline believed the lie and banished Belarius from Britain (318-19, 3.3.65-70).  Once the boys have made their exit, Belarius is free to tell us the rest of the story, which is simply that in his anger against Cymbeline’s injustice, he decided to take away his futurity and therefore stole by means of Euriphile the king’s two male children, whose names are now Polydore (Guiderius, the heir to Cymbeline’s throne) and Cadwal (Arviragus, the younger of the two).  Belarius himself is now called Morgan, and the boys believe he really is their father (319, 3.3.80-107).  That’s the way he wants to keep it since he has come to regard them as his own sons. 

We might note in passing that Wales is hardly a green world of the Forest of Arden type, and that the court from which Belarius was exiled doesn’t appear to have been particularly corrupt.  The setting in romance plays tends to be unrealistic, so there’s no need to escape into the magical world to grow and develop and then return to accomplish social reintegration.  The main value of the Welsh setting is that it gives Arviragus and Guiderius a martial edge: they are hunters, not shepherds, so when the time comes, they will be admirably prepared to do heroic service against the Roman invaders, which in turn paves the way for them to regain entry to Cymbeline’s court. 

Act 3, Scene 4 (319-24, Pisanio reveals the contents of Posthumus’ letter commanding him to kill Imogen; he has a plan to rescue her: she must dress as a young man and enter the service of the Roman Lucius; Pisanio also gives her the potion-box the queen had given him)

Pisanio takes Imogen part-way to Milford Haven, and at last reveals to her the contents of the letter Posthumus had sent him.  Imogen is overwhelmed, and declares herself “a garment out of fashion” that must be ripped to shreds by the owner since it is “richer than to hang by th’ walls …” (321, 3.4.50-51).  Pisanio refuses Imogen’s request to run her through with a sword, and reveals his plan to get her out of her predicament: he will deceive Posthumus into thinking that he has indeed killed Imogen; then she must go to Milford Haven and, dressed as a young man, present herself to the Roman ambassador and general, Lucius, in whose service she may come to a place in Rome not far from where Posthumus is staying (322-24, 3.4.124-79).  Ominously, Pisanio passes the queen’s potion-box along to Imogen, with the innocent advice, “a dram of this / Will drive away distemper” 324, 3.4.190-91).

Act 3, Scene 5 (324-28, suspected of helping Imogen escape from court, Pisanio deceives Cloten into expecting to come upon Posthumus at Milford Haven; Cloten sets forth his diabolical plans to murder Posthumus and ravish Imogen)

The king begins to miss his daughter, and Cloten points the finger at Pisanio (325, 3.5.53-54), who comes under much questioning.  The queen, meanwhile, is spinning her wheels in her usual conspiratorial fashion: of Imogen, she says, “Gone she is / To death or to dishonour, and my end / Can make good use of either” (326, 3.5.2-64).  Under Cloten’s pressure, Pisanio pretends to accept his proposal that he should become his servant rather than servant of Posthumus, and Cloten’s first order is to bring him the suit the fellow was wearing when he left to begin his banishment (327, 3.5.125-26).  This villain’s plan is to murder Posthumus at Milford Haven, where he believes (in accordance with the original deceptive letter Pisanio gives him) the man is headed.  Afterwards, he will compound his evil by sexually assaulting Imogen: “With that suit upon my back will I / ravish her—first kill him, and in her eyes space…” (327, 3.5.134-35).  This vicious plan will accomplish three objectives: first, he will slake his jealous rage at Posthumus; second, he will pay Imogen back for her contemptuous words to him earlier, where she cast it in his teeth that the “meanest garment” ever worn by Posthumus was worth more to her than the hair on Cloten’s head (308, 2.3.128-30); third, he will obtain his ultimate objective of forcibly making her his wife, kicking her all the way back to Cymbeline’s court (327, 3.5.139-41).  If you want to top this for intent to commit a host of villainies, I suppose, you would need to go straight to Livy’s History of Rome, where he tells the story of Sextus Tarquinius’ rape of the Roman matron Lucretia, or to Shakespeare’s own Titus Andronicus, where you would meet the self-declared supervillain Aaron the Moor.  And even Aaron sounded like he was making up some of that stuff about digging up dead men and setting them upright at their dear friends’ doors (Norton Tragedies 170, 5.1.135-40).  Of course, we need not worry too much since this is Cloten, and Cloten never accomplishes anything he sets out to do.  He’s no Tarquin.

Act 3, Scene 6 (328-30, Belarius and his charges light upon disguised Imogen eating their food, and give “him” a warm welcome)

Belarius, Arviragus and Guiderius light upon the disguised Imogen eating their camp rations, and respond with surprise when she offers them gold and silver for her dinner.  She claims her name is Fidele. Belarius tenders her an unexpectedly warm welcome: “Think us no churls, nor measure our good minds / By this rude place we live in” (329, 3.6.62-63), and both brothers experience something like love at first sight: “I’ll love him as my brother …” (329, 3.6.69), declares Arviragus.  As is usually the case in Shakespeare, we cannot take for granted that the countryside is a less civilized place than the city or the court, and Imogen is pleasantly surprised to stumble upon the same insight.

Act 3, Scene 7 (330-30, Lucius is appointed proconsul, i.e. Rome’s general against the Britons)

Lucius is appointed proconsul, with the responsibility of marshaling forces against Cymbeline’s Britons.

Act 4, Scene 1 (331-31, Cloten admires himself in the mirror and rehearses his evil designs against Posthumus and Imogen)

Cloten admires himself in the mirror and waxes poetical about his coming destruction of Posthumus and prospective ravishment of Imogen, after which he will “spurn her home to her father” (331, 4.1.16) and expect his mother to smooth things over with Cymbeline.  This character wants to be a villain, but cannot manage more than to appear an over-courtly fop, really a stock character in the Shakespearean canon.  If he had somewhat better manners, his place would be with false courtiers such as Osric and Oswald from Hamlet and King Lear, respectively.  He certainly does not meet the high standards of any of the Bard’s more serious villains.

Act 4, Scene 2 (331-41, Imogen / Fidele is ill and takes Pisanio’s potion; Cloten arrives and is beheaded by Guiderius, to the dismay of Belarius; Arviragus carries in the seemingly lifeless body of Imogen / Fidele and the brothers lament; alone, Imogen awakens to find the headless body of Cloten dressed as Posthumus, and blames Pisanio; a soothsayer for Lucius interprets portents favorably to Rome; Lucius finds Imogen / Fidele and offers “him” a chance to join up with the Romans)

Imogen is increasingly impressed at this ability she finds here away from Cymbeline’s palace: “what lies I have heard! / Our courtiers say all’s savage but at court” (332, 4.2.32-33).  Arviragus falls more deeply in love with Imogen as Fidele, while Imogen has taken ill sufficiently to try that wondrous potion Pisanio gave her (332, 4.2.37-38).

Cloten arrives on the scene, and Belarius is stricken with fear because he recognizes him as the queen’s son (333, 4.2.66-67).  Only Guiderius is left on the scene to face Cloten, who immediately demands that Guiderius yield to him.  Guiderius parries the oaf’s threats and insults expertly, and cuts off his head.  Belarius is by no means pleased—he realizes the consequences of killing a Briton royal: “We are all undone” (334, 4.2.124), he tells Guiderius.  But to himself, he marvels at the noble nature of both Guiderius and Arviragus: “’Tis wonder / That an invisible instinct should frame them / To royalty unlearned …” (336, 4.2.177-79).  Guiderius makes what turns out to be an important decision to toss Cloten’s head into the stream nearby (336, 4.2.185-87).

Arviragus soon enters with what seems to be the lifeless body of Fidele / Imogen (336, 4.2.196).  Belarius instructs the young men that they must restrain their contempt for Cloten and give him the burial a member of the royal family deserves (338, 4.2.250-52).  For Fidele / Imogen, Guiderius and Arviragus sing a noteworthy refrain: “Fear no more the heat o’th’ sun, / Nor the furious winter’s rages …” (338, 4.2.259-60; see 259-82).  The theme of the song is that in the end, even young lovers “must come to dust” (338, 4.2.270).

Now alone next to the headless body of Cloten, Imogen awakens: “A headless man?  The garments of Posthumus?”  (339, 4.2.310) She now blames Pisanio for what she believes to be the murder of Posthumus, on the evidence that the drug he gave her was by no means the cordial he claimed it to be (339, 4.2.328-31). 

A Roman captain informs Lucius that troops from Gaul, or Gallia as this play terms it, and troops led by Giacomo (who is here said to be the Duke of Siena’s brother) have arrived from Italy (340, 4.2.334-43).  A soothsayer portends success to the Romans: “I saw Jove’s bird, the Roman eagle, winged / From the spongy south to this part of the west, / There vanished in the sunbeams …” (340, 4.2.350-82).  Lucius catches sight of the headless body before him and also spies the living Imogen / Fidele.  The upshot of this discovery is that Lucius offers Imogen / Fidele a chance to join up with the Romans (341, 4.2.384), which she accepts with only the proviso that first the body of the man she supposes to be Posthumus must be buried.  So Pisanio’s plan has come to fruition almost by accident, after quite an eventful detour.

Act 4, Scene 3 (341-42, the queen is gravely ill, and Cymbeline is desperately isolated; Pisanio is confused about the current state of affairs, but trusts to time and the gods)

The queen is desperately ill and in a state of madness thanks to the absence of her son Cloten, and Cymbeline is isolated in a time of great need (341, 4.3.1-9), as the Romans have now landed in force.  Pisanio is in the dark regarding the whereabouts of Posthumus, Imogen and Cloten.  His only plan is to fight for the Britons and leave the rest to the heavens: “All other doubts, by time let them be cleared / Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered” (342, 4.3.45-46).  This is the correct attitude to take for a character in a comic or romance play: trust to time.

Act 4, Scene 4 (342-44, Guiderius, Arviragus, and Belarius agree to fight for Cymbeline against the Romans)

Belarius tries to explain to his courageous charges that it would be unwise to expose themselves by volunteering to fight for Cymbeline because Belarius himself would be recognized: “I am known / Of many in the army” (343, 4.4.21-22).  But his argument falls on deaf ears since Arviragus and Guiderius insist on making their mettle appreciated in the coming fight.  Belarius ends up declaring, “If in your country wars you chance to die, / That is my bed, too, lads, and there I’ll lie” (344, 4.4.51-52).

Act 5, Scene 1 (344-44, Posthumus believes Imogen is dead at Pisanio’s hands; he will fight for Cymbeline and seek death to honor Imogen)

Posthumus believes Pisanio’s claim that he carried out his order to execute Imogen, and decides that instead of fighting on the side of the Romans, he will switch over to support Cymbeline and, with any luck, die for Imogen.  He describes this transformation in part as a casting off of external appearances: “I will begin / The fashion—less without and more within” (344, 5.1.32-33).

Act 5, Scenes 2-4 (345-45, Posthumus defeats Giacomo, and Cymbeline is captured but rescued by Belarius, Guiderius, Arviragus, and Posthumus; Lucius tries to protect Imogen / Fidele)

Posthumus fights with and disarms Giacomo in the second scene; the Italian immediately feels “heaviness and guilt” (345, 5.2.1).  In the third scene, Cymbeline is captured but instantly rescued by Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus who, as they put it, “stand, and fight” (345, 5.3.4).  They are joined in the rescue by Posthumus.  In the fourth scene, Lucius tries to safeguard Imogen / Fidele from the Briton advance.

Act 5, Scene 5 (345-52, Posthumus, disheartened by an interlocutor’s cowardice, turns Roman again and is promptly captured and imprisoned by the Britons: at this point he wishes only for death; Posthumus’ departed relatives beg Jupiter for justice; the god gives them a prophetic tablet to lay on the sleeping man’s chest)

Posthumus describes to a lord the bravery of Belarius and company, and rebukes that same lord for treating his story like fiction: “you are made / Rather to wonder at the things you hear / Than to work any” (347, 5.5.53-54).  Posthumus is so disheartened by this fellow’s cowardice that he decides to turn Roman again, the better to meet his end since Cymbeline’s troops now have the upper hand (347, 5.5.75-83).  He is promptly captured by those troops and cast into prison, where he meditates on his debt to Imogen (348, 5.5.116-23).

Posthumus’ departed father, mother and brothers appear to Posthumus in a vision as he sleeps.  They complain to Jupiter of the wrongs that he has suffered through the villainy of Giacomo, who labored “To taint his nobler heart and brain / With needless jealousy” (349, 5.5.159-60).  Tired of their complaining, Jupiter appears and promises a happy ending after explaining “Whom best I love, I cross …” (350, 5.5.195).  In the end, says Jupiter, Posthumus “shall be Lord of Lady Imogen, / And happier much by his affliction made” (350, 5.5.201-02).  Awakening, Posthumus realizes that a tablet has been placed upon his breast, and reads a prophecy from it having to do with a lion’s whelp, “a piece of tender air,” a “stately cedar,” and branches therefrom (351, 5.5.232-37).  When these things are put together in a meaningful relationship, Britain will thrive.  Immediately thereafter, the jailer comes in to tell him he is to be hung: “O, the charity of a penny cord!”  (352, 5.5.258) Posthumus will be brought before Cymbeline before his execution.

Act 5, Scene 5 (352-64, Cymbeline knights Belarius, Arviragus and Guiderius; Cornelius reports the queens’ death and her dreadful confessions; Lucius asks that Imogen / Fidele be spared death, but “he” doesn’t reciprocate; Giacomo reveals the source of the ring he’s wearing, and details his villainy; Pisanio names Imogen, amazing Cymbeline and Posthumus; Pisanio and Guiderius explain the death that befell Cloten, forcing Belarius to confess that they’re Cymbeline’s kidnapped sons; Posthumus admits that he’s the valiant soldier who helped rescue the king; Imogen has lost a kingdom but gained two royal brothers; the soothsayer explains the prophecy affixed to Posthumus; Cymbeline pardons everyone, lauds the gods, and agrees to pay tribute to the defeated Romans)

Cymbeline begins this scene by wishing that the soldier who assisted Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus in rescuing him could be found.  This man we know to be Posthumus.  But Belarius and his two charges are present, and Cymbeline makes them British knights (353, 5.6.20).  Cornelius enters and reports that the queen is dead (353, 5.6.25-27).  Not only that, but he runs through a litany of dreadful revelations from the dying queen: she never loved Cymbeline but only coveted his power; she pretended to feel affection for Imogen but in fact hated her and planned to poison her; and finally, she intended to poison Cymbeline himself (353-54, 5.6.37-52) in order to secure the throne for her son, Cloten.  But when he went missing, the queen was driven to distraction.  Cymbeline is stunned, but does not blame himself for being taken in: “Mine eyes / Were not in fault, for she was beautiful; / … nor my heart / That thought her like her seeming” (354, 5.6.62-25).

Lucius the defeated Roman general is brought in, desiring only to spare Imogen / Fidele from the death sentence that must befall all Romans present: “Never master had / A page so kind, so duteous, diligent …” (355, 5.6.85-86).  Imogen surprises Lucius by failing to reciprocate when the king offers her a chance to redeem a prisoner: “The boy disdains me …” (355, 5.6.105), says Lucius almost in disbelief. 

Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus are in turn surprised when they recognize their guest Imogen / Fidele, whom they thought to have died; but now they behold “The same dead thing alive” (355, 5.6.123).  Pisanio recognizes her as well.  Imogen / Fidele’s next move is to demand that Giacomo explain where he got the ring he’s wearing (356, 5.6.135-36), and Giacomo confesses that he received it from Posthumus.  Cymbeline demands that he explain himself in full, which sparks a comic exchange in which Shakespeare may be making fun of his own tendency towards prolixity: the old king hears the word “daughter” and is on fire to hear the rest of Giacomo’s story, but he proves all but helpless to stop the slow-motion wreck that is Giacomo coming clean about his transgressions (356-357, 5.6.153-208).  But at last, the wily Italian makes himself sufficiently clear: “my practice so prevailed / That I returned with simular proof enough / To make the noble Leonatus mad …” (357, 5.6.199-201).

When Imogen / Fidele pleads with Posthumus, who has interrupted Giacomo to declare himself the greater villain and indeed the murderer of Imogen (357-58, 5.6.214-20), Posthumus strikes the supposed page, prompting a reproach from Pisanio, who at last calls Imogen by her name (358, 5.6.231), to the amazement of Cymbeline and Posthumus alike.  When Imogen blames Pisanio for her near-death experience, Cornelius interjects, remembering now to mention one of the queen’s admissions: she had given Pisanio the potion-box, but as we know from near the beginning of the play, Cornelius did not trust her with deadly poison and so gave her only a very strong sedative, one that mimics death.  Imogen and Posthumus embrace, and Cymbeline greets her as his child “359, 5.6.263-64).  Cymbeline informs Imogen that her stepmother the queen is dead, but not much attention is accorded to that event. 

Pisanio steps in when the king mentions that Cloten is still missing, explaining his device in passing along to Cloten Posthumus’ deceptive letter addressed to Imogen, telling her to make her way to Milford Haven in Wales.  Guiderius adds a simple, “I slew him there” (359, 5.6.287) Cymbeline’s response is not quite what Guiderius was expecting: “thou art condemned” (360, 5.6.299).  This dread sentence, of course, forces Belarius to reveal the rest of the story: “This boy is better than the man he slew …” (360, 5.6.303), which risks enraging Cymbeline.  But the matter is quickly cleared up when Belarius reveals the remarkable information that he had, in fact, with the help of the boys’ nurse Euriphile, kidnapped them after his banishment: “Beaten for loyalty / Excited me to treason” (361, 5.6.345-46).  Cymbeline’s response is entirely positive since he can see these young men’s quality for himself, and the tokens Belarius is able to provide (a mantle and a mole) only increases the old man’s certainty.

Cymbeline explains to Imogen what this all means for her: “Thou hast lost by this a kingdom” (362, 5.6.373), but she does not see the matter that way, preferring instead to dwell upon what she has gained—a pair of long-lost brothers: “I have got two worlds by’t” (362, 5.6.375).  Cymbeline doesn’t quite understand it all, and expresses a desire to hear further details in due time to lessen his wonder (362, 5.6.383-85).

Posthumus is now able to declare that he is the poor soldier who assisted Belarius, Arviragus and Guiderius in rescuing Cymbeline, and he calls upon Giacomo to verify his story.  When this villain makes plain his sudden change of heart and asks for death once he returns the ring and bracelet he wrongly came by (363, 5.6.413-18), Posthumus decides to show mercy: “The power that I have on you is to spare you …” (363, 5.6.419).  That decision, in turn, leads Cymbeline to declare a general pardon for everyone, including the Romans (363, 5.6.423).

The soothsayer rounds off the moment by explaining the prophecy that Posthumus’ ancestors had placed upon his chest: Posthumus is the “lion’s whelp,” Imogen is the “piece of tender air,” Cymbeline himself is the “lofty cedar” and of course Guiderius and Arviragus are the two branches (363-64, 5.6.443-58).  Cymbeline surprises everyone by unilaterally offering to pay the Roman tribute whose refusal had led to the bloody struggle between the two nations, and his final pronouncements are, “Laud we the gods” and “let / A Roman and a British ensign wave / Friendly together” (364, 5.6.477, 479-81).

Nearly all has been set right by the end of the play, with the un-emphasized exception of the death of the queen and her wicked son Cloten.  Cymbeline’s wrath was real and his error deep, but the power that had seemed to be so absolute and irrevocable turns out not to be so after all.  In romance, the march of events is not inexorable, and the price of insight and the recovery of one’s identity isn’t death, at least for the characters who matter most.  At the play’s outset, Cymbeline’s behavior was as irrational as that of King Lear, but time has given him the gift of coming round to a better perspective on love and life.  Even the royal absolutism of the final act is pushed aside with a wave of the king’s staff since, of course, Guiderius “just happens” to be Cymbeline’s son.  Iachimo is found out as a villain and seems likely to go to the block, but he simply renounces his villainy and is forgiven, so all is well there, too.  (The point of romance doesn’t seem to be character development: the characters in Cymbeline transform altogether and as if by magic.)  Generosity is spread all around like butter on hot bread, even to the point of silliness: how, we might ask, could any British king be in such a good mood that he feels like paying tribute to the very Romans he has just beaten in battle?  This final strange twist in the plot is in part a nod to historical fact since, even though they seem to have had a great deal of trouble keeping the island fort locked down, so to speak, they had a permanent impact on English life. 

In the end, Jupiter’s prophecy, which had seemed to be nonsense, turns out to be true.  Generosity reigns over chaos, intelligibility reigns over incomprehensibility.  Jupiter rules, and so does Shakespeare, the artist as romance magician who can bring mellow happiness from anguish and unity from a cascade of improbabilities.  Like romance works of art generally, Cymbeline follows the broad spiritual path of alienation from identity and return to it in a more secure state than ever: romance is for the most part a kindly genre that promotes the magical power of art and adventure to transform the human condition to the maximum extent possible, provided we understand that the losses and sorrows induced by our mistakes cannot simply be wished away or canceled out.  Romance represents to us a world that is at least largely disposed to fulfill the fundamental desires that give meaning to and ground every person’s time on earth.  The only real bittersweetness in the play’s conclusion—for that is a feature of romance, too—lies in the king’s understanding of the pain he has caused Imogen and the many years he lost with his sons thanks to his own unjust treatment of Belarius, who, no doubt, must feel sorrow as well now that his revelation leads him to part somewhat with the young men whom he has come to think of as his own.

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 © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Troilus and Cressida

Questions on Shakespeare’s Comedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links

Shakespeare, William. The History of Troilus and Cressida. (Norton Comedies, 2nd ed. 751-839).


1. How does the Prologue address the Homeric context of the play’s action? What attitude towards that context begins to become apparent?

2. In Act 1, Scene 1, what sets Troilus apart from the play’s heroic, martial context? How does he describe his state of mind at this early stage? What seems to be Troilus’ opinion of Pandarus and his motives for trying to make him a match with Cressida?

3. In Act 1, Scene 2, what difference becomes apparent between the way Cressida speaks to Pandarus about Troilus and the way she thinks of him privately? How does she explain her reluctance to enter a love match with Troilus? On the whole, how would you characterize Cressida at this point — is it feasible to make any assumptions about her at this early stage? If so, what assumptions?

4. In Act 1, Scene 3, what role does Ulysses (his name in Homer is Odysseus) play in explaining the current state of affairs and in devising a scheme to improve the situation? Why, according to him, is Achilles’ conduct in this seventh year of the war such a disaster for the Greek army? What does Ulysses plan to do about it?

5. In Act 1, Scene 3, Aeneas meets Agamemnon to deliver Hector’s challenge to any Greek warrior who dares meet him in single combat. What are the terms of this challenge? Refer back to Scene 2 for its source, and attend also to Agamemnon’s reply to Aeneas’ speech in responding to the following: what connections between love and war has the play posited up to this point?


6. In Act 2, Scenes 1 and 3, describe the interchange between Thersites, Ajax, and Achilles — what are the terms of his denunciation of these famous warriors? And how do they treat him in turn — what attitude do Ajax and Achilles, respectively, take towards this scold? In what sense might their opposing viewpoints be said to feed off each other, or even to require each other?

7. In Act 2, Scene 2, when the question of turning Helen over to the Greeks and thereby ending the war comes up, what argument between Troilus (and Paris) and Hector (and Helenus) ensues? Why exactly does Troilus think it would be wrong to give in, and why does Hector think otherwise? Why does he nevertheless come round to Troilus’ side? How does this interchange affect your view of Hector?


8. In Act 3, Scene 2, as Troilus awaits his long-sought encounter with Cressida, what fear most besets him? How does Cressida respond to Troilus? What kinds of declarations do the two lovers make? Characterize them. On the whole, what understanding of the concept “love” emerges from this scene?

9. In Act 3, Scene 3, the one-time Trojan priest Calchas, who has defected to the Greeks, calls in a favor — he wants his daughter Cressida returned to him in the Greek camp in exchange for the captured Trojan Prince Antenor. Ulysses offers a plan for getting Achilles involved again in the war against Troy. What is his plan, and how does he follow up on it in his encounter with Achilles? According to Ulysses, what is the basis of military reputation?


10. In Act 4, Scenes 2-5, Cressida will indeed have to be turned over to the Greek Diomedes. How do Troilus and Cressida view themselves and each other after they first consummate their love? Then, after they find out about Cressida’s imminent departure, how do they respond to that disastrous news?

11. In Act 4, Scene 6, how does Cressida conduct herself when she is introduced to the Greek warriors halfway between Troy and the Greek camp? How does Ulysses assess her character? To what extent does his view seem accurate?

12. In Act 4, Scene 7, Hector gets his challenge match with Ajax. How does the contest go? How do the Greek and Trojan warriors behave after it is concluded? What does Achilles do to shatter the good mood? At this point, what assessment can you offer regarding the relative worth of Hector and Achilles?


13. In Act 5, Scene 1, Thersites again targets our favorite Greek warriors, this time including Patroclus. Again, in what sense might these opponents be said to need one another? Overall, how would you characterize the role and significance of Thersites up to this point in the play?

14. In Act 5, Scene 2, Troilus is guided by Ulysses to the tent where he may see how Cressida bears herself in the presence of the Greek Diomedes. What does Cressida do, and how does she justify it to herself? How, in this and the next scene (Act 5, Scene 3), does Troilus deal with what he has witnessed?

15. In Act 5, Scene 5, we learn that Hector has just killed Patroclus, throwing the Greek camp into dismay, but of course his friend’s death at last brings Achilles into the battle. What happens in the initial contest between Hector and Achilles — the great event so long awaited for much of the Trojan War? How does this contest between Hector and Achilles conclude in Act 5, Scenes 7-9? This is obviously not the Achilles we find in Homer’s Iliad — what principle seems to motivate him in these scenes?

16. In Act 5, Scene 4, with Ajax proudly hanging back and the Greek army in a seemingly anarchic state, Thersites plans to sit back and enjoy the pageant of bloody foolery. What observations does he make, and what role does he end up playing in the fighting in this scene and in Act 5, Scene 8? What kind of impact does his behavior have on your view of the other fighting that occurs around these scenes?

17. By Act 5, Scenes 9-11, Hector has been slain by Achilles, and the Trojans are left to register the grievous loss. Troilus strikes Pandarus and bids him be gone, and the latter complains of his sufferings from venereal disease and his ill usage by Troilus. To what extent should we hold Pandarus responsible for the outcome of the love match between Troilus and Cressida? What was “in it” for him with regard to the matchmaking, anyway?

18. General question. By the end of the play, would you say that Troilus has become thoroughly disillusioned and cynical (like Pandarus), or that he has transferred his quest for an object to idealize to the war? Explain your rationale by referring to Troilus’ words and actions in the concluding scenes.

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

Troilus and Cressida

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links

Shakespeare, William. The History of Troilus and Cressida. (Norton Comedies, 2nd ed. 751-839). (May still need to update from Riverside edition.)


The prologue reminds us of the great Homeric backdrop to the play, and in the end, the Homeric version seems to win out since Ulysses’ cunning fails to draw Achilles into the battle; it’s the death of Patroclus that accomplishes this in Act 5, Scene 5-6.

Act 1, Scene 1.

It’s seven years into the war, and Troilus is out of accord with the War’s imperatives; he sounds like a Petrarchan sonnet, with his sighing extremes—as in “I find no peace, but have no arms for war.”  By the end of the play he will be furious at Diomedes, disillusionment over Cressida having given him his cause.  But by then, Achilles has killed Hector and the Trojans are doomed.  Pandarus is eager to spur Troilus on.

At 109, we hear that Paris has been slightly wounded by Menelaus.  The play constantly undercuts the heroic version of the “great cause” that animates both Greeks and Trojans; it seems as if the play sides with Thersites, who puts it all down to stupidity and lechery and contemptible male pride.  Love and war are intertwined, to the honor of neither.

Act 1, Scene 2.

Cressida’s servant tells her that Hector is ashamed of himself since Ajax gave him a good blow or two.  Hector is spurred on by his shame to challenge any Greek to maintain his lady’s as good as Andromache.  At line 136, Pandarus pursues his private interest of bringing Troilus and Cressida together.  The girl seems worldly enough in her answers, at least until she meets Troilus later on.  From lines 177 onwards, there follows a pageant of Trojans—Aeneas, Hector, and others.  Cressida claims to opine that Troilus is “a sneaking fellow.”  Well, as she explains to us, at least, she must maintain her chastity.  And at 282ff, she gives the real reason for her supposed standoffishness: she fears she will be lightly prized once she is no longer chaste.  This is true, of course, but it doesn’t equate with wide-eyed innocence; she does not (to borrow a line from Polonius in Hamlet) “speak like a green girl.”

Act 1, Scene 3.

Agamemnon is trying to explain why seven years have passed with no victory; the joint argument from the King and Nestor is “trust us—this is policy beyond your devising.”  Ulysses then tells everyone to listen to him, and Agamemnon says that given the source, they fully expect to hear wise counsel, and not the sort of nonsense Thersites spews out.  Ulysses says at 109ff, “Take but degree away,” and the world will “turn wolf universally.”  Respect for rank is at low ebb, thanks to Achilles’ prideful refusal to do his part for the Greeks.  (In The Iliad, the reason given is that Agamemnon arrogantly asserted his supremacy by demanding as his share of the spoils Achilles’ favorite concubine, Briseis.)  Achilles and Patroclus mock Agamemnon, and this has spurred on Ajax (who is none too bright) to mock the King, too, and to make Thersites his agent for this purpose.  Ajax’s posturing, especially, is said to appeal to those who value nothing but stupid, brute force rather than shrewd policy.  Well, it’s hard to see how Agamemnon’s “policy” amounts to much more than incompetence. 

Aeneas visits Agamemnon to deliver Hector’s challenge.  The Greeks consider Troy’s men ceremonious courtiers rather than blunt fighters.  This is in line with traditional portrayals of the Trojans as indulgent, over-civilized, proponents of the “luxurious state” later found so blameworthy by that Athenian lover of all things Spartan, Plato.  Aeneas answers chivalrously that the Trojans are civil in time of peace, but deadly in war.  Agamemnon’s reply shows how inextricable love and war are in this play: all soldiers, he insists, are lovers or plan to be.  But Ulysses has a scheme going to take down Achilles a few pegs—Hector’s challenge is obviously aimed at Achilles, but Ulysses wants to arrange for Ajax to “happen” to win a lottery for the honor, thereby upstaging his rival attention-seeker Achilles.

Act 2, Scene 1.

Thersites and Ajax relate to each other in an interesting way; the first act went far towards undercutting the heroes’ insistence on honor.  Throughout the play, Thersites will rail at the biggest targets for their lechery, double-dealing, and stupidity, pride and enviousness, and he will become the target for their sexually charged taunts of cowardice, effeminacy, and so forth (some of which he will heap right back on none other than Patroclus, of course).  Thersites sees Ajax as nothing more than a blunt instrument for those who actually wield power; in a phrase, he is “Mars his idiot.”  At line 92 and elsewhere, Thersites attacks the principle of rank; he doesn’t believe those who stand upon it are worthy of it.  “I serve thee not,” he says to Ajax, who proceeds to beat him.  Achilles is much more “civilized” in his dealings with Ajax, but nonetheless Thersites lumps him together with Ajax, and prefers Hector; Thersites has more regard for Ulysses and Nestor, and prefers the company of the intelligent.  Agamemnon he despises.

Act 2, Scene 2.

Priam finds that his sons Helenus Hector would gladly agree to hand over Helen to the Greeks, restoring her to Menelaus of Sparta and thereby saving a lot of bloodshed on both sides.  Troilus (along with Paris) insists that the Trojans should be willing to fight over trifles if occasion bids them do it,  but Hector doesn’t agree, and he points out to his youngest brother that value is not the province of lone individuals, but the province of whole hosts.  The Riverside notes mention that neither side has any claim to absolute righteousness in its quest: Paris went to Greece to make away with Helen because Priam’s sister Hesione had been absconded with by Hercules and given to Ajax’s father Telamon, so it won’t do, really, to claim that “the Trojans started the trouble.”  Troilus maintains chivalric idealism at this point in the play, and his naïve idealism bids him recommend that the Trojans hold on to Helen at all costs.  Hector, who has been doing the actual fighting, thinks otherwise.  Nonetheless, his current challenge owes more to personal shame, most likely, than statecraft.  War, in Shakespeare’s representation of it, is a great distorter of motives and words, and it often sunders words from deeds.  Cassandra breaks in around line 97 and aligns herself with those who want to return Helen, knowing as she does that Troy is doomed.  Around 118ff, Troilus and Paris show some contempt for “reality-based” decision-making.  Nearly every Trojan soldier, he says, will defend the beautiful Helen, and will fight to the death for this icon and enabler of masculine valor and display.  Around line 156, Hector makes the strongest case in favor of recognizing brute reality, but then around 189, he comes around to Troilus’ cause: their ” joint and several dignities” demand that they hang on to their stolen woman.  She is a “theme of honor and renown.”

Act 2, Scene 3.

Thersites’ railing and the warriors’ stupidity and pretense need each other.  Thus Patroclus’ entreaty at line 23, “Good Thersites, come in and rail,” and Achilles calls him “my cheese, my digestion.”  Ajax is said to be upset at this point in part because Achilles has weaned his fool from him.  Well, the cynical clown has found his proper object, and they have found the object of their scorn, too.  He wishes venereal disease on the lot of these fools, all of them guilty of “warring for plackets” rather than the high honor they claim to uphold.  This satirical connection between war and promiscuous, unworthy sexual pursuits is common in literature and film: consider, to give just one instance, Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove, where that theme is managed hilariously: General Jack D. Ripper launches World War III because he’s been having some kind of problem like erectile dysfunction, which he calls “loss of essence.”  (And of course there’s the good Nazi Party expatriate Doctor himself, with his “strange love” of atomic destruction.)  Thersites finds that the war between Greek and Trojan is no better than a self-perpetuating, bloody pageant of lunatics and fools, begun by an act of whoredom and perpetuated by lust for wicked women and illusory honor.  He suggests that the very walls of Troy would crumble to dust before the likes of Agamemnon or Ajax will ever batter them down.  That turns out to be a false supposition, but it’s easy to see why he makes it in this seventh year of hostilities.  His speeches also suggest that he’s aware of the intractable problem confronting anyone (especially men) who opposes a violent mass confrontation: charges of cowardice, effeminacy, carping, and treachery are bound to fly at their heads.  Thersites’ attitude towards this kind of hypermasculine vitriol is “bring it on”; it’s the very stuff he feeds upon and turns to satirical account.  But for all his railing and undermining, the war will continue to bleed both sides for quite some time: fools learn not by instruction but rather (if at all) by bitter experience; for Thersites, the result is “good copy” and a pageant not to be missed.

Act 3, Scene 1.

Agamemnon and his subordinates butter up Ajax as a spur to Achilles’ pride—they need him back in the battle.

Act 3, Scene 2.

Troilus is here in a state of agonized expectation, and he fears the loss of self-identity that occurs when a person falls in love.  He attributes the same sort of confounding or loss of identity with the shock of great hosts in battle.  When Cressida is brought in by Pandar, she seems genuinely shy at first, and Troilus seems genuinely almost bereft of words, just as he says.  But soon the two (after a few long kisses) will recover their eloquence, and in this scene they go on to make extreme claims about how their faith (or lack thereof) will prove a byword for all others.  As John Donne would say, “beg from above, a pattern of our love.”  Pandarus pledges his own good name.  Cressida now realizes she has talked a great deal, perhaps said too much.  She has admitted to loving Troilus at first sight and has engaged in comically Petrarchan absolute declarations of fidelity.  Behind this whole dialogue—especially Cressida’s part of it—is the understanding that love is a kind of game, a power exchange in which “secrecy” is to some extent necessary.  Self-revelation generates intimacy, but it also breeds contempt and disloyalty.  As an old professor of mine would say, “idealizing eroticism” is necessary, but also inherently risky because it relies on the perpetuation of illusions.

Act 3, Scene 3.

Calchas calls in a favor for his old defection from the Trojans to the Greeks, and the favor consists in the Greeks giving up Cressida to Diomedes in exchange for the captive Trojan Prince Antenor.  Agamemnon agrees readily.  Ulysses counsels the King to ignore Achilles for a while, and treat him with indifference.  Achilles is easily gulled by this act, and worries that Ajax is stealing his thunder with present deeds of valor.  Ulysses points out to Achilles that “emulation hath a thousand sons” all at the ready to tread their father down in the dust the moment he slows down or strays from the path of heroic example.  “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” says Ulysses: a desire for novelty, and a propensity to forget the past.  When Achilles pleads private reasons, Ulysses points out that everybody knows about his Trojan girlfriend Polyxena anyhow.  Well, Achilles says he’d like to gaze upon Hector in his own tent.  Thersites comes onto the scene and mocks the pride of Ajax, who has been peacocking around like Hercules in anticipation of his battle with Hector, disdaining speech and all manner of rank below his own godlike status.  (This issue of rank and reputation links the present scene with the previous one.)  Ulysses’ advice is that military renown is never entirely lost; one can always create it from scratch by performing worthy new actions in the public eye.

Act 4, Scene 1.

Cressida will indeed be turned over to Diomedes and the Greeks, with whom Calchas resides.  Paris points out that the “bitter disposition of the time” demands this arrangement.  (Diomedes doesn’t have a kind word to say about Helen, the object of the war from the outset.)

Act 4, Scenes 2-4.

In the aftermath of their love scene, Cressida re-experiences some of her prior fear in that Troilus and she must now part with the coming on of day; he has obtained his prize, she thinks, and so now he’s off to other things.  But both soon find out that they are to be parted much more permanently than this brief “cursing of the dawn” scene suggests.  Pandarus fears that Troilus will go mad, and Cressida protests she won’t go.  But Troilus dutifully turns her over for exchange nonetheless, demanding several times that she remain faithful and promising to make his way across the Greek lines to visit her.  Diomedes makes no promises and indeed treats the whole notion of female honor with scorn.  He will use Cressida as he sees fit.  All await the great event of Hector and Ajax’s single combat.

Act 4, Scene 5.

Cressida is welcomed into the Greek camp with many kisses, and Ulysses condemns her as a flirt who is all too well suited to the times: an opportunist.  Hector and Ajax fight, but Hector decides that since they are cousins, the battle should end happily with an embrace.  Hector is invited to the Greek camp to see Agamemnon and Achilles.  During the brief truce, the men all treat one another with the greatest civility, but this is soon shattered when Achilles gazes long upon Hector’s body, and declares that he is just trying to determine where exactly he will strike him the mortal blow.

Act 5, Scene 1.

Thersites again rails at Achilles and calls Patroclus a male “varlot” or whore.  Achilles, given a letter from Hecuba reminding him of a promise to Polyxena, for which vow he will yet again fail to take the field for the Greeks.  Thersites mocks the absent Diomedes and Menelaus, the latter for being cuckolded by Helen, of course.

Act 5, Scene 2.

Troilus (dogged by Thersites and accompanied by Ulysses) can hardly restrain himself when he sees Cressida (at first reluctant) hand over the sleeve Troilus had given her, and promise to meet him.  To herself she pleads the error of the eye, and faults her sex in general rather than herself individually.  What Ulysses had said about the general public with regard to martial reputation, it seems, applies equally well to the realm of love: only the present counts.  At 146, the embittered Troilus says that “this is, and is not, Cressid.”

Act 5, Scene 3.

Hector, declaring that honor is more precious even than life, will not be persuaded by Cassandra, Priam, or Andromache.  Troilus will fight, too, in spite of his youth—he will have his revenge on Diomedes.  Pandarus, sick with some venereal disease, gives Troilus a fair-sounding letter from Cressida, but of course Troilus no longer believes such pledges of fidelity.

Act 5, Scene 4.

Thersites just wants to watch the whole pageant of foolery, and hopes to see Diomedes stripped of his newly won sleeve.  Ajax, we hear, is refusing to fight, presumably in imitation of Achilles, and the Greek camp is overtaken by an anarchic mood.  Diomedes and Ajax fight, and then a comic scene ensues in which Hector threatens Thersites, who escapes by dint of cowardice. 

Act 5, Scenes 5-6.

Diomedes sends Troilus’ horse back to Cressida as a trophy.  Patroclus (who in The Iliad puts on Achilles’ armor) is killed by Hector, and Agamemnon is in dismay at the state of affairs: Hector is like Mars himself, slaying Greeks left and right.  Troilus has infuriated Ajax by killing a friend of his, and he and Ajax (along with Diomedes) fight inconclusively.  Now comes the much-awaited match between Achilles and Hector, and the former bows out, pleading rustiness.

Act 5, Scene 7.

Thersites mocks Menelaus’ battle with Paris, but when the bastard Margarelon challenges him, again Thersites, reveling in his own similar status, escapes injury.

Act 5, Scene 8.

Achilles makes his Myrmidons hack to death the unarmed Hector, and then making them tie the corpse to the tail of his horse.  Unable to defeat the chivalrous Trojan in a fair fight, he does not hesitate to claim new glory by means of an outrageously cowardly act.

Act 5, Scenes 9-10.

Troilus, still spoiling for a fight, counsels a move back towards Troy.  The sick Pandarus, struck on the pate by Troilus, retreats.  Chivalry is undone; the Trojans have lost their greatest champion, and Troilus, although he’s found his cause to fight, is deeply embittered.  For the moment, the knavery of the false warrior Achilles trumps all.  In conclusion, while it might be thought that Shakespeare’s version of the Trojan War is the exact opposite of Homer’s account in The Iliad, that would be an exaggeration since Homer is by no means unwilling to present the occasional pettiness of men such as Agamemnon and Achilles.  The ancient author gives us not so much propaganda as a complex presentation of a complex event (mythical or otherwise); Shakespeare’s account distinguishes itself in its thoroughgoing and successful attempt to weld the least attractive elements of both war and erotic pursuit, thereby undermining the heroic status of the great events behind the story of Troilus and Cressida.

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

Twelfth Night

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. (Norton Comedies, 2nd ed. 689-750).

Act 1, Scene 1 (697-98, Orsino’s idealistic love, report of Olivia’s stylized mourning; my general comments on comic spirit)

The Duke and Olivia are both creatures of idealistic excess, determined to pursue their passions: he to love her, and she to mourn for her departed brother. Olivia, says Valentine in reporting back from her to Orsino, is determined in all she does for seven years “to season / A brother’s dead love, which she would keep fresh / And lasting in her sad remembrance” (698, 1.1.29-31). Orsino seems to understand that he and Olivia are kindred spirits. He claims at the beginning that he would surfeit himself with love to be rid of it, in the same way that overindulgence in food generates disgust with eating: “If music be the food of love, play on, / Give me excess of it that, surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken and so die” (697, 1.1.1-3). But that hardly seems to be the effect of his attitude. Rather, he seems to be “in love with love,” and his desire is to live perpetually in a realm removed from time, chance, and change. This attitude entails risk in that if persisted in too long, it will become a trap. Those who stylize and extend natural human passions certainly run this risk, and there’s no shortage of warnings to heed: the advice given by Claudius and Gertrude to the brooding prince in Act 1, Scene 2 of Hamlet may come from compromised sources, but it is reasonable counsel: mourning has its temporal and emotional limits, and when those aren’t respected, sorrow goes from being duly “obsequious” to transgressive.

But then, Illyria is the rarefied realm in which the lover Orsino and the mourner Olivia aim to live, so as Anne Barton (an editor of the Riverside Shakespeare) says, there’s no need for the characters in Twelfth Night to remove themselves to a Green World or any other magical space. They are in one already, and the ordinary laws of life don’t fully apply: Illyria seems to run strangely parallel with the order of human desire. Still, the harmony isn’t complete: Feste almost continually reminds us that this order is not the only one with which we must reckon: he neither affirms that desire can run parallel with the world nor denies it altogether. Viola’s strategy rivals his in its wisdom in that she commits her cause to time, neither affirming nor denying any possibility at the outset of the play. Later, Malvolio will remind us of this problem in a much less tolerant manner, and even that lord of misrule Sir Toby will show some wisdom about the dangers of pursuing one’s pleasure without check.

Act 1, Scene 2 (698-99, Captain and Viola reflect on hopes that Sebastian survived shipwreck; Viola’s decision to serve Orsino, commit to time)

Viola and the Sea Captain converse after her shipwreck, and he gives her hope that her brother Sebastian may have made it to shore: “I saw your brother, / Most provident in peril, bind himself—/ … / To a strong mast that lived upon the sea …” (698, 1.2.10-13). Viola admires what the Captain says about Olivia’s constancy to a lost brother (699, 1.2.32-37) and would serve her, but instead she decides to disguise herself and serve Duke Orsino. Perhaps Viola takes Olivia’s grief as a model for her own, should her brother turn out not to have survived. But the more compelling reason she gives for deciding to disguise herself is that she “… might not be delivered to the world, / Till I had made mine own occasion mellow, / What my estate is” (699, 1.2.38-40). Others may be after a more permanent refuge, but Viola plans to use her musical abilities to recommend her service to the Duke as a page, and for the rest, she commits her cause to the fullness of time: “What else may hap, to time I will commit” (699, 1.2.56). That willingness to commit one’s hopes to the fullness of time and the buffetings of chance, it seems, is a key attitude for Shakespeare’s comic heroes and heroines: it requires wisdom and generosity of spirit, openness to what life brings. Selfish characters lack these qualities and spend most of their time trying to control everything and everyone around them, a strategy that seldom yields happy results, even in a comic play.

Act 1, Scene 3 (700-02, Sir Toby’s liberated views, grooming of Sir Andrew as suitor to Olivia)

Sir Toby Belch operates on a different principle, one that becomes evident when he expresses his impatience with his niece Olivia: “What a plague means my niece to take the death of / her brother thus? I am sure care’s an enemy to life” (700, 1.3.1-2). When Maria tells him, “confine yourself within the modest / limits of order” (700, 1.3.6-7) in Olivia’s household, Sir Toby scoffs: “Confine? I’ll confine myself no finer than I am. These / clothes are good enough to drink in, and so be these boots too …” (700, 1.3.8-9).

We should consider Sir Toby’s function in the play in a broad context: the “Twelfth Night” referenced in the play’s title is January 5th, the last day of Christmas celebrations that begin on December 25th. This day is followed by the Feast of Epiphany on January 6th, which commemorates the visit of the Magi or three wise men to see the infant Jesus. (See Matthew 2:1-12). During the Middle Ages, at least, one of the feasts that occurred during this twelve-day period was the Feast of Fools, which is associated with a feast in celebration of the Circumcision of the Lord, Jan. 1st. I believe both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I banned this Feast of Fools out of Protestant disdain for the licentiousness with which it had come to be associated (it drew a lot of criticism on the Continent during the medieval period, too; indeed, the title and tradition go back to pre-Christian times: a lord of misrule presided over a weeklong December Roman holiday called Saturnalia, instituted as early as the third century BCE). In any case, for the Feast of Fools, a lord of misrule would be chosen to preside over this time of merrymaking and reversal.

Sir Toby Belch functions much like a lord of misrule in Shakespeare’ play, keeping alive for contemporary Christmas festivities the memory of this ancient pagan and early Christian tradition. Critics like Mikhail Bakhtin have studied such goings-on under the heading of the carnivalesque, in which the otherwise binding social structures of everyday life are comically mocked and satirized for a limited time, and then things go back to normal. Sir Toby’s role is apparent from the earlier lines I quoted, and it becomes still clearer when we see him engaging in jesting conversation with Sir Andrew Aguecheek.

Toby wants to send the dupe Andrew in pursuit of Olivia for his own fun and profit. He doesn’t have much respect for Andrew, and he doesn’t take the other characters too seriously, either. But a further point is that as far as Toby is concerned, one love object is as good as another; he doesn’t share the exclusivity we find in Orsino or, later, in Viola. Sir Toby sets Andrew after Maria as practice for his future pursuit of Olivia, eliciting only Sir Andrew’s foolish mistake in thinking that the word “accost” is the lady’s name (701, 1.3.44). True, Sir Andrew goes out of his way to prove Toby wrong, repeatedly making a fool of himself when his benefactor would like to turn him into a rake, and make a decent profit from gulling him over his hopes for Olivia as well. Nonetheless, Toby stands for a generalized pursuit of happiness, for a rounding off and leveling of discrimination and judgment in choosing the object of one’s desires. Desire, for him, is the key component in a pleasure-yielding system: the point is simply to be part of the system. I think the Riverside editor is right to say that Sir Toby exists on his own time and that he has banished ordinary time from his life. But he’s also quite accepting of his own and others’ imperfections, and he insists that Sir Andrew ought not hide his talents as a dancer but should instead use them to the fullest extent: “Wherefore are these things hid?… / Is it a world to hide virtues in?” (702, 1.3.105-10)

Act 1, Scene 4 (702-03, Orsino commissions Viola/Cesario to woo Olivia for him: a trap for Viola)

Intimacy strikes up immediately between Duke Orsino and Viola (disguised as “Cesario”). He believes his suit will prosper if he carries it forwards with Viola/Cesario as his intermediary. The youth’s fresh appearance, he supposes, will redound to his credit: “It shall become thee well to act my woes – / She will attend it better in thy youth” (703, 1.4.25-26). Comically, Orsino adds a comment about Viola/Cesario’s feminine appearance: “Diana’s lip/Is not more smooth and rubious; thy small pipe/Is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound,/And all is semblative a woman’s part” (703 1.4.30-33). Viola realizes immediately what a trap her gender disguise has become: “I’ll do my best/To woo your lady – [aside] yet a barful strife –/Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife” (703, 1.4.39-41).

Act 1, Scene 5 (703-10, Feste proves Olivia a fool; Malvolio insults Feste; Olivia falls for proxy suitor Viola/Cesario)

We are introduced to the rest of the main characters: Olivia, Maria her maid, and Feste. Feste’s initial words are important because they show us yet another perspective on the sway of the passions and the imperfections to which human beings are liable: “God give them wisdom that have it; and those that / are fools, let them use their talents” (704, 1.5.13-14), he says to Maria, implying that a fool should strive to become even more foolish. But Feste’s foolery turns out be a species of wisdom, and wisdom sets a person apart, though not in hostility. We will find that other characters are more immediately subject to the vicissitudes of that biblical dynamic duo “time and chance” than is Feste, and they must shift as they can, while Feste himself remains a constant in the play. His wisdom consists partly in being able to formulate claims such as the one he offers Olivia in an attempt to prove she deserves his title: “Anything/ that’s mended is but patched. Virtue that transgresses is but/patched with sin, and sin that amends is but patched with vir-/tue. If that this simple syllogism will serve, so; if it will not, what/remedy? As there is no true cuckold but calamity, so beauty’s a/flower” (704, 1.5.40-45). Feste considers Olivia a fellow fool because of her over-grieving for the loss of her brother. In her quest for a perfectly stylized kind of mourning, this lovely absolutist risks the passage of her beauty, in itself a remarkable if transient thing of perfection. Feste seems to understand that in this saucy world there is no permanent strategy to be found; there is only mending of virtues with vices and vice versa; there is accommodation and negotiation between one person and another, and (to use a modern term from economics) always one must consider the “opportunity cost” of one’s choices, one’s actions.

Malvolio soon comes on the scene as a Puritan killjoy: “I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such a barren / rascal. I saw him put down the other day with an ordinary fool/that has no more brain than a stone” (705, 1.5.71-73), is his pronouncement to Olivia regarding Feste. Olivia shows that she understands Malvolio’s excessive reliance on rigid virtue: he is filled with self-love, she says, and his earnestness is a bore: “There is no slander in an allowed fool, though he do nothing but rail; nor no railing in a known discreet man, though he do nothing but reprove” (705, 1.5.80-82).

Olivia also seems to be leading Orsino on: she’s curious to see what his next move as an importunate, fantastical suitor will be: “We’ll once more hear Orsino’s embassy” (707, 1.5.148). His new intermediary, Viola/Cesario, wins Olivia’s interest immediately and her love almost at first sight; she is struck with the youth’s beauty and graceful ways, in the classical manner of attraction: what happens to her is sudden and she has no control over it. As Malvolio says, Viola/Cesario is “in standing water between / boy and man” (706, 1.5.141-42). This liminality is probably in part what makes Viola/Cesario attractive to Olivia, as I suggested above. The outcome of the Duke’s comic miscalculation is predictable: Olivia goes for the “eye candy” Orsino has proffered and not for him. Orsino has given Viola/Cesario license to establish a sense of intimacy with Olivia, and it is just this intimacy that bonds people together and makes them apt to fall in love. What initially appeals to Olivia, I believe, is the freshness or the newness of Viola/Cesario: the fact that “he” still seems to be all potential, a being still to be determined. The Countess is open to something new, and the bond of intimacy is made very quickly, probably when Viola/Cesario says at the beginning of their conversation, “Good beauties, let me sustain no scorn; I am very / ‘countable, even to the least sinister usage” (707, 1.5.155-56).

The passage in which Olivia unveils her face at the request of Viola/Cesario is worth notice: “we will draw / the curtain and show you the picture,” says the Countess, and she goes on to describe her face as a portrait that will “endure wind and weather” (708, 1.5.204-05, 208). This is true enough, although it makes sense to hear Feste’s song at the play’s end as a comment on the limitations of such endurance: “the wind and the rain” (750, 5.1.377) are always at work, breaking down what seemed timeless, and we are put in mind of Feste’s earlier conversation with Olivia, in which he had said beauty is a perishing flower (704, 1.5.45).

As the conversation continues, Viola/Cesario’s rhetorical boldness shows Olivia the way to give in to her own passions: “If I did love you in my master’s flame, / With such a suff’ring, such a deadly life, / In your denial I would find no sense; / I would not understand it” (708, 1.5.233-36). By the end of the scene, Olivia will be madly in love, and unable to comprehend Viola/Cesario’s reluctance, so she will have to turn to the stratagem of the ring (709, 1.5.270-76) to ensure the future presence of this new object of her desire. Her sudden change of heart shows in her final lines of the scene: “Fate, show thy force. Ourselves we do not owe, / What is decreed must be; and be this so” (710, 1.5.280-81).

What keeps Olivia from loving the Duke anyway, aside from the rather flimsy one of dedication to her brother (which lasts about three minutes once she meets Viola/Cesario)? I don’t know that the play really explains her rejection of him, except perhaps that he’s too available and too obviously “after” her. All she says is that Duke Orsino is “A gracious person; but yet I cannot love him./He might have took his answer long ago” (708, 1.5.231-32). One theme of interest in Twelfth Night is its exploration of how we choose our erotic objects, or how they choose us. Discrimination and rejection are two main ways of eventually finding one’s favored object of desire, and I think we are given to understand that Olivia considers herself and Orsino too alike in their tendencies towards idealistic extremes to make a good match.

Act 2, Scene 1 (710-10, Antonio forges bond with Sebastian, will follow him to Orsino’s court)

Antonio, who had rescued Sebastian from the ocean earlier, instantly forms an unbreakable bond with him. Antonio insists he will follow Sebastian to the Duke’s Court, no matter what the danger to himself: “But come what may, I do adore thee so / That danger shall seem sport, and I will go” (710, 2.1.41-42).

Act 2, Scene 2 (711-11, Olivia’s ring sets Viola/Cesario thinking about gender, frailty, frustration)

By this time, Viola is in a state almost as extreme as that of Olivia and Duke Orsino since she loves the latter and is loved by the former in the guise of Cesario. I don’t know that Viola has any more control over the course of events than others in this play, but some advantage, it’s reasonable to suggest, stems from her disguise and the perspective it lends. This is by no means a comedy of the humors* but it is a comedy of our inevitable frailty in the presence of strong passions. First, Viola sees that her adoption of a gender disguise is a trap that’s leading her towards frustration: “Disguise, I see thou art a wickedness / Wherein the pregnant enemy does much” (711, 2.2.25-26). Secondly, she is able to generalize from her own experience: “How easy is it for the proper false / In women’s waxen hearts to set their forms! / Alas, our frailty is the cause, not we, / For such as we are made of, such we be” (711, 2.2.27-30). The “we” here is “women,” but it isn’t hard to extend the point to capture a sense of the fragility and changeableness of general humanity.

This ability does not, however, make it possible for Viola to extricate herself from the difficult situation she is in: “O Time, thou must untangle this, not I; / It is too hard a knot for me t’ untie!” (40-41)

*Footnote: the theory of the humors traces back to the Greek physician Hippocrates (c. 460-370 BCE): the four humors or bodily fluids are black bile (associated with the element earth), yellow bile (fire), phlegm (water), and blood (air). A balanced amount of these fluids in the body maintained health and good temperament, while an excess of the first-mentioned (black bile) could make a person depressed or irritable; excess of the second (yellow bile) angry, ill-tempered; excess of the third (phlegm) taciturn, unemotional; excess of the fourth (blood) amorous or bold to the point of lechery or foolhardiness.

Act 2, Scene 3 (711-15, Malvolio interrupts Toby & Co.’s reveling, Maria hatches letter-plot)

This is another comic scene between Toby, Andrew, and Feste. Toby has been drinking and jesting as usual. First comes a delightful parody of philosophical discourse: Toby: “To be / up after midnight and to go to bed then is early; so that to go / to bed after midnight is to go to bed betimes. Does not our lives / consist of the four elements?” (712, 2.3.5-8) To which Andrew replies, “Faith, so they say, but I think it rather consists of / eating and drinking” (712, 2.3.9-10). Next comes a call for some music. Feste’s song suggests that love sees only the joy of the present, that deferral and indeed any attempt to banish time are of no account: “In delay there lies no plenty, / Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty. / Youth’s a stuff will not endure” (713, 2.3. to gain insight into the fragility of common humanity to gain insight into the fragility of common humanity 46-48). Feste sanctions neither prudence nor pastoral idylls such as Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.”

Sir Toby, Maria, and Andrew are offended at Malvolio’s killjoy demands that they stop making so much merriment in Olivia’s home: “Do ye make an alehouse of my lady’s/house, that ye squeak out your coziers’ catches without any/mitigation or remorse of voice? Is there no respect of place,/persons, nor time in you?” (713, 2.3.78-83). Toby’s put-down of Malvolio is a classic: “Art anymore/than a steward? Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous there / shall be no more cakes and ale?” (713, 2.3.102-04) Sic Semper to all prigs! Maria’s letter scheme to get revenge against Malvolio wins the admiration of Toby and Andrew. Malvolio is easy prey because he is vain about his looks and seems to think he deserves a quick promotion to a higher social rank: he is in deadly and permanent earnest about the Twelfth Night license to change one’s rank. Maria says she will succeed because this puritan hypocrite is “so crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is his/grounds of faith that all that look on him love him; and on/that device in him will my revenge find notable cause to work” (714-15 2.3.134-36). Her plan is as follows: “I will drop in his way some obscure epistles of love,/wherein by the colour of his beard, the shape of his leg, the/manner of his gait, the expressure of his eye, forehead, and/complexion, he shall find himself most feelingly personated. I/can write very like my lady your niece …” (715, 2.3.138-42).

Andrew, however, is most concerned with his suit to Olivia failing and leaving him out of funds: “If I cannot recover your niece, I am a foul way/out” (715, 2.3.163-64). This makes Andrew easy prey for Sir Toby.

Act 2, Scene 4 (715-18, Orsino and Viola/Cesario debate male/female love; Feste sings of love/death)

Viola/Cesario and the Duke discuss love matters, and he opens up to her while Feste plays some music for them: Orsino admits that men’s love is less constant than women’s love: “Our fancies are more giddy and unfirm,/More longing, wavering, sooner lost and worn,/Than women’s are” (716, 2.4.32-34). But the Duke is playing the importunate suitor, and his subsequent remarks are contradictory. He insists that no woman could possibly love as strongly as he loves Olivia: “There is no woman’s sides/Can bide the beating of so strong a passion” (717, 2.4.91-92). To this, Viola/Cesario alludes cryptically to her own love for Orsino, and insists that “We men may say more, swear more, but indeed/Our shows are more than will; for still we prove/Much in our vows, but little in our love” (718, 2.4.115-17).

In between this argument’s halves, Feste’s song connects love with death, the ultimate in consequences: “Come away, come away death,/And in sad cypress let me be laid./Fie away, fie away breath,/I am slain by a fair cruel maid” (716, 2.4.50-53), and he warns the Duke afterwards, “pleasure will be paid, one time or / another” (717, 2.4.69).

Act 2, Scene 5 (718-22, Malvolio finds Maria’s letter and takes the bait: his selfish delusions peak)

The conspirators turn Malvolio into a fool in a reverie. Maria is certain that the puritan will become “a contemplative idiot” once he gets wind of the letter (718, 2.5.16-17), and she isn’t disappointed. Even before he spies out the letter, Malvolio is waxing hopeful: “To be Count Malvolio!” (719, 2.5.30) and “to have the humour of state and …/telling them I know my place, as I/would they should do theirs …” (719, 2.5.47-49). Things go from absurd to more absurd once the letter comes into reading range: Malvolio muses on the inscription, “I may command where I adore,/But silence like a Lucrece knife/With bloodless stroke my heart doth gore./M.O.A.I. doth sway my life’ (720, 2.5.94-97) and goes on to ponder the significance of “Some are born great, some achieve / greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon’em” (721, 2.5.126-27). To succeed, Malvolio need only don yellow stockings and smile like a fool (721, 2.5.132-34, 152-53).

Sir Toby predicts that Malvolio, when finally disabused of his delusions of grandeur, will run mad (722, 2.5.168-69). This hyper-critical moralist has become just another foolish lover. He’s a minor comic version of Euripides’ Pentheus in The Bacchantes, to be destroyed by the Dionysian revelers whose fun he tried to tamp down. (Except that Pentheus didn’t get to wear cross-garters and yellow stockings.) Indeed, a hint of violence had entered the picture early with the mention of Lucretia: Malvolio recognized the letter as Olivia’s because the seal bore an impression of Lucrece, the famous Roman wife who killed herself after being raped by Sextus Tarquinius, the son of the last Etruscan king Tarquinius Superbus: “By your leave, / wax—soft, and the impressure her Lucrece, with which she / uses to seal—tis my lady” (720, 2.5.83-85). Malvolio is no Tarquin, but he is prideful, and he intends to move beyond his proper station in life (that of a steward) by means of a most improper and self-aggrandizing suit to his employer.

Malvolio has been convinced by Maria’s bogus letter that “greatness” has simply been “thrust upon him,” if only he will make the proper gestures and dress right. A darker impression might be that like so many deniers of life, Malvolio means to set up a rival order of perfection against the imperfect world around us all; what else is that but pride, a self-deluded desire for autonomy to cover one’s fear and emptiness?

Act 3, Scene 1 (722-26, Viola/Cesario assesses Feste’s wit, Olivia confesses her love to Viola/Cesario, who answers her with a gender-riddle)

In conversation with Viola/Cesario, Feste declares himself not the Countess Olivia’s fool but her “corrupter of words” (723, 3.1.31), and when he’s through making his jests, Viola points out that playing the role of fool requires much perceptiveness: “This fellow is wise enough to play the fool, / And to do that well craves a kind of wit. / He must observe their mood on whom he jests, / The quality of persons, and the time …” (723, 3.1.53-56). In Feste, “folly” is appropriate: it’s his way of maintaining perspective in a strange and contradictory world and it allows him to do something like what a courtier must do: engage with various people at a level and in a manner that suits them and him. But in those who are wise in the usual way, folly and word-hashing may bring them into discredit.

Olivia continues to wear her passion on her skirt-sleeve. She admits to Viola/Cesario that the ring business was a device meant to augment a sense of intimacy between herself and the youth: “I did send, / After the last enchantment you did here, / A ring in chase of you” (724, 3.1.103-05), and asks, “Have you not set mine honour at the stake / …?” (725, 3.1.110) To Olivia’s confession that “Nor wit nor reason can my passion hide” (725, 3.1.143), Viola/Cesario can only speak in riddles thanks to the bind into which her gender-disguising has put her, giving only this frustrating response to love-stricken Olivia: “I have one heart, one bosom, and one truth, / And that no woman has, nor never none / Shall mistress be of it save I alone” (726, 3.1.149-51). Riverside editor Anne Barton is right to suggest that Viola’s disguise doesn’t exactly liberate her in the same way that, say, Rosalind’s disguise does in As You Like It. It buys her some time and affords her some perspective, but it isn’t exactly freedom to experiment at will that Viola gains in her disguise as “Cesario.”

Act 3, Scene 2 (726-27, Sir Toby eggs on Sir Andrew: reflections on male valor)

Fabian stirs up Sir Andrew (726, 3.2.15-16, 22-24), and Sir Toby shows his contempt for Sir Andrew’s lack of valor here, admitting that he’s taken him for a considerable sum already: to Fabian he says, “I have been dear to him, lad, some two thousand / strong or so” (727, 3.2.46-47). Andrew is more his quarry than his protégé. The following advice Toby gives Andrew is worth quoting: “Taunt him with the license of ink. If thou ‘thou’st’ him some / thrice, it shall not be amiss, and as many lies as will lie in thy / sheet of paper … / set ’em down. Go about it” (727, 3.2.37-40). We can find genuine exemplars of male heroism in Shakespeare (Prince Hal and Hotpur in I Henry IV, for instance, or Macduff in Macbeth), but here, as elsewhere, there’s strong awareness that male posturing is an ancient profession: the semblance of valor often substitutes successfully for the thing itself. Shakespeare’s is a world amply populated with what Rosalind in As You Like It calls “mannish cowards” who stare down the world until it blinks: they “outface it with their semblances” (642 Norton Comedies, 1.3.115-16).

Act 3, Scene 3 (727-28, Antonio in town to help Sebastian, gives him purse to guard)

Antonio remains a faithful friend to Sebastian, and has followed him to town save him from danger in spite of the peril to himself since, as he explains, “Once in a sea-fight ’gainst the Count his galleys / I did some service” (728, 3.3.26-27). Antonio gives his new friend his purse to guard (728, 3.3.38): another act indicative of a strong bond between the two.

Act 3, Scene 4 (729-736, Malvolio makes his pitch to Olivia; Sir Andrew spurred to duel with Viola/Cesario; Olivia confesses her love still more intensely to Viola/Cesario, Antonio assists Viola/Cesario and is arrested, betrayed; Viola takes heart at Antonio’s confused mention of Sebastian)

Malvolio, now drawn entirely beyond himself and vulnerable, makes his unintentionally comic pitch to Countess Olivia, which consists mainly of smiling bizarrely and mentioning with pride his yellow stockings (729-30), and will be carted off to a dark cell as a madman. Olivia professes the greatest concern for the poor lunatic’s welfare: “Good Maria, let this fellow be looked to…. / …. I would not have him miscarry for the half of my dowry” (730, 3.4.57-59). Oddly, though, she will forget about him until nearly the end of the play. Malvolio has no idea how much trouble he’s in, and believes his suit has been a fantastic success, thanks to Jove’s good will: “nothing that can be can come between me / and the full prospect of my hopes (730, 3.4.74-75).

At this point, Sir Toby thinks he can play out the jest at his own pace: “Come, we’ll have him in a dark room and bound. My / niece is already in the belief that he’s mad. We may carry it / thus for our pleasure and his penance till our very pastime, / tired out of breath, / prompt us to have mercy on him …” (731, 3.4.121-24).

Sir Andrew is now spurred on to challenge Viola/Cesario as a rival suitor. As so often, Shakespeare makes fun of masculine pretensions to high honor and mastery of violence: neither Sir Andrew nor Viola/Cesario is any kind of fighter, but at least the latter knows better than to suppose otherwise. Words take the place of violence. Sir Toby advises Andrew, “draw, as thou drawest, swear horrible; for it comes to pass / oft that a terrible oath, / with a swaggering accent sharply / twanged off, gives manhood more approbation than ever / proof itself would have earned him” (732, 3.4.158-61). Part of Sir Toby’s fun will be to cure the malady described by means of a homeopathic remedy: putting two pretenders together in a ridiculous duel. Sir Toby is enjoying himself, and devises to deliver Sir Andrew’s challenge in person (ignoring the letter) and thereby “drive the gentleman [Cesario] … / into a most hideous opinion of his rage, skill, fury, and / impetuosity. This will so fright them both that they will kill one / another by the look , like cockatrices” (732, 3.4.170-73). After practically begging Fabian and Sir Toby to mollify the fearsome Sir Andrew, Viola puns to herself, “Pray God defend me. A little thing would make / me tell them how much I lack of a man” (734, 3.4.268-69). Viola recognizes that her disguise is more than ever a trap: this situation can’t go on much longer.

While all this planning is going on, Olivia admits her fear to Viola/Cesario that she has “said too much unto a heart of stone, / And laid mine honour too unchary out” (732, 3.4.178-79). She has risked her honor, but perhaps more importantly, to speak this way is to risk being confronted with the reverberation of one’s own unrestrained passion as a kind of madness.

Antonio soon arrives and takes it upon himself to maintain Viola/Cesario’s part in the quarrel: “I for him defy you” (735, 3.4.279), whereupon he is challenged by an incredulous Sir Toby and then arrested for piracy by the Duke’s officers (735, 3.4.283-84, 291-92). Drawn into the craziness that is Illyria, Antonio believes Sebastian is betraying him because Viola/Cesario won’t hand over the purse Antonio had given Sebastian a while back, now that he needs the money in it for bail (735, 3.4.312). “Thou hast, Sebastian, done good feature shame” is the only utterance Antonio can summon in his amazement (736, 3.4.330). Even so, the mention of Sebastian is useful to Viola, who now gains some hope that her lost brother has survived: “Prove true, imagination, O prove true, / That I, dear brother, be now ta’en for you!” (736, 3.4.339-40)

Act 4, Scene 1 (736-38, Sebastian is drawn into Illyrian topsy-turvy: Olivia invites him home)

Sebastian enters and Feste is surprised to hear him deny his identity as Cesario (736-37, 4.1.4-7). Sir Toby nearly comes to blows with Sebastian after Sir Andrew has struck the fellow, and is only stopped by Olivia, who dismisses Toby from the field (737, 4.1.39, 41). Olivia invites Sebastian to her house (738, 4.1.50), and with that invitation he is formally drawn into Illyria’s topsy-turvyness, just as Antonio was in the previous scene. His wonderment will only increase at the end of the third scene.

Act 4, Scene 2 (738-40, Feste sports as Sir Topas with confined Malvolio: Pythagoras and post-mortems; Sir Toby is worried about carrying the jest too far, risking Olivia’s anger)

Maria and Feste make more sport of the confine Malvolio. Feste joins the fun as an examiner of Malvolio, Sir Topas (a name probably borrowed from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). Feste is a fool by trade, so we are treated to a dialogue between a supposed madman and a fool, with the latter easily gaining the upper hand. Feste’s use of belief in Pythagorean transmigration as a touchstone for sanity is priceless: when Malvolio refuses to believe that “the soul of our grandam might haply inhabit a / bird” (739, 4.2.45-46), Feste imperiously tells him, “Remain thou still in darkness. Thou shalt / hold th’ opinion of Pythagoras ere I will allow of thy wits, and / fear to kill a woodcock lest thou dispossess the soul of thy gran- / dam” (739, 4.2.50-53). This makes sense because after all, Malvolio’s pride caused him to denigrate those below him in rank, and Pythagoras’ doctrine implies respect for all creatures great and small. We may add hypocrisy to Malvolio’s petty crimes since, as a denier of life and upholder of rigid notions about rank and propriety, he’s quick to jump at the chance to improve his own condition. Viola commits her cause to time and reaps a reward, but Malvolio’s ill-intentioned leap nets him only isolation and mockery. Finally, Feste taunts Malvolio with the view that he won’t believe anyone is or isn’t mad until he’s seen their exposed brains after death. For him, the jury is always out on a person’s sanity until that person dies (740, 4.2.107-08). It was a letter that got Malvolio in trouble in the first place, and Feste now honors an anguished call for “a candle, and pen, ink, and paper” (740, 4.2.75) that the prisoner may make his plight known to Olivia. Feste leaves Malvolio with a mocking song, “Adieu, goodman devil” (740, 4.2.122).

Sir Toby, however, is starting to worry about his niece’s good opinion. He says to Feste and Maria, “I would we were well rid of this / knavery. If he may be conveniently delivered, I would he were, / for I am now so far in offence with my niece that I cannot / pursue with any safety this sport to the upshot” (739, 4.2.60-63). Toby realizes that his term of office as lord of misrule has a limit, and he doesn’t want to lose his place with the countess. A jest too long continued becomes cruelty, not sport or sanctioned payback.

Act 4, Scene 3 (741-41, Olivia abruptly proposes and Sebastian abruptly accepts)

In the third scene, Sebastian abruptly agrees to marry Olivia after she abruptly and secretly proposes to him. He can hardly believe his good fortune, but accepts: “I am ready to distrust mine eyes / And wrangle with my reason that persuades me / To any other trust but that I am mad, / Or else the lady’s mad. Yet if ’twere so / She could not sway her house, command her followers …” (741, 4.3.13-17).

Act 5, Scene 1 (741-50, Viola/Sebastian reunite; Orsino/Viola, Sebastian/Olivia together; Toby/Maria; Malvolio rails, is upbraided, exits; Feste’s last song: wind and rain, fool’s perspective)

Antonio is trotted out before Duke Orsino as a prisoner, and this prisoner reproaches Viola/Cesario, whom of course he takes for Sebastian, over the bail money he supposedly withheld (743, 5.1.71-73). Orsino tells Antonio he must be insane since Viola/Cesario has been his page for three months (743, 5.1.94). Next, Olivia reproaches Viola/Cesario for her alleged failure to “keep promise” with the agreement she has come to with Sebastian (743, 5.1.98). The Duke is still upset with the obdurate Olivia: “Why should I not, had I the heart to do it, / Like to th’ Egyptian thief, at point of death / Kill what I love …” (744, 5.1.113-15) and even more upset with Viola/Cesario, whom he suspects has stolen Olivia from him altogether since she calls the youth “husband” (744, 5.1.138).

As if things couldn’t get any more confusing, in rushes Sir Andrew calling for a surgeon to treat Sir Toby, who has been slightly injured by Sebastian (745, 5.1.168ff). Now the play’s misrecognition dilemmas begin to resolve since Viola/Cesario is sincerely confused at the accusations Sir Andrew levels: “Why do you speak to me? I never hurt you” (745, 5.1.181). Sir Toby rails at Sir Andrew, calling him “an ass-head, and a coxcomb, and a / knave; a thin-faced knave, a gull” (746, 5.1.198-99), and then in comes Sebastian himself, solicitous of Olivia for his lateness considering their vows (746, 5.1.206-07). Orsino is astonished at the likeness between Viola/Cesario and Sebastian: “One face, one voice, one habit, and two persons, / A natural perspective, that is and is not” (746, 5.1.208-09). These two proceed to recognize each other for certain by means of recollections about their father from Messaline (746-47, 5.1.219-41). The reconciliation leaves Duke Orsino and Viola, and Olivia and Sebastian, free to marry.

But there’s one final matter to take care of: Malvolio. Feste and Fabian enter with the letter that Malvolio has penned and Feste reads it in the assembled company’s presence: “By the Lord, madam, you wrong me, and the / world shall know it…” (748, 5.1.292-99). At last, the man himself enters on a sour note, demanding to know why he has been so abused: “Why have you suffered me to be imprisoned, / Kept in a dark house, visited by the priest, / And made the most notorious geck and gull / That e’er invention played on? Tell me why?” (749, 5.1.330-33) The conspirators confess, with Feste invoking “the whirligig of time” that “brings in his revenges” (749, 5.1.364), and reminding Malvolio how he had slandered him to Olivia as “a barren rascal” (749, 5.1.363) even before the insults that sparked Maria’s letter-plot in Act 2, Scene 3. What he’s really invoking is something like what we today would generally call “bad karma,” or in a Christian context, the thriftiness of the economy of sin: ill thoughts and deeds, as Saint Augustine taught, establishes its own patterns; we end up with a bitter harvest from the bad seed we have sown. The conspirators are forgiven by everyone but Malvolio, who swears to be revenged on them all (749, 5.1.365), prompting Olivia to send after him to “entreat him to a peace” (749, 5.1.365). It’s not unusual in Shakespearian comedy to leave some character as the odd man out at play’s end. For example, the melancholy Monsieur Jacques in As You Like It can hardly be expected to transform into a carefree, upbeat character just because almost everyone else is happy at the play’s conclusion. But there’s no question of punishing Jacques. In sum, I don’t believe Twelfth Night is a problem comedy just because of Malvolio’s sour exit: the providence that seems to guide this play is hardly as rough-hewn as the one that we may see at work in Hamlet, where Polonius is killed by mishap, poor Ophelia runs mad and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “go to it” in England. We find out that Sir Toby has married Maria (749, 5.1.350). Viola agrees to wed the Duke, and Olivia has already made her vows with Sebastian.

Feste’s song ends the play (750, 5.1.376-95), and it would be worthwhile to consider the role his songs play in advancing or reflecting upon the action and characters in Twelfth Night. For now, I’ll just consider the way the final song sums up the play. “The rain it raineth every day,” sings Feste, and his lyrics invoke the increasing consequentiality even of “trifles” as a person grows to maturity. The “knaves and thieves” will find themselves left out in the wind and the rain, when men “shut their gate.” Feste’s role, that of a fool, is perhaps the only stable one in a world turned upside down; oftentimes, the fool alone is able to maintain and offer perspective. Others in this play risk more, and gain more—especially Olivia and Viola, most likely because they have sufficient inward value to begin with, and trial by experience proves and augments that value. (The shallow Sir Andrews of the play’s world end up worse off by the same trial.) Feste, however, remains the observant, wise man he already was: he is inside the play looking around, but also inside the play looking outward at us, the audience, and he seems almost to be one of us at times. The conclusion of Feste’s song brings in a note of metadrama: “we’ll strive to please you every day” (750, 5.1.395), he says. We can always come back to the theater, where, of course, the play-realm will mediate between its own freedom and the world of time and consequence, but Feste will remind us yet again that soon we must leave. Perhaps, then, theater is among the “patches” Feste had mentioned back in the first act (704, 1.5.40-45): what it offers by way of insight and refuge may be temporary and partial rather than permanent and absolute, but that doesn’t mean it’s of no value or not worth pursuing. The foolery in Shakespeare is seldom, to borrow a line from King Lear, “altogether fool.” Feste and his kind are excellent embodiments of the suppleness and playfulness that constitute a big part of the value in dramatic exploration.

The key concern of this play set during a time of merrymaking and reversal may be how we “fools of time” may gain perspective. (The phrase is from Sonnet 124: “To this I witness call the fools of time, / Which die for goodness, who have lived for crime”) There is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance,” as the preacher tells us in Ecclesiastes 3:4. Everything has its allotted time and purpose under heaven. We have encountered a number of forms of stylized or excessive passion in Twelfth Night: Sir Toby’s irresponsible mirth, Duke Orsino’s romantic grandiosity, Countess Olivia’s projected long period of mourning, Malvolio’s narrow-souled, extreme ambition and self-regard. Perhaps most or all of these approaches are attempts to deny or even annul time and consequentiality. Feste’s music and witty observations both invoke the inevitability of time and the sway of our foolish passions, and they’re probably as close to “another way” as we are going to find in Shakespeare: I mean they offer us a way to gain something like permanent right-side-up perspective outside the realms of time and passion. Theater, as noted in Feste’s epilogue, may be another way of attaining such perspective, and just as Feste reminds us of the coming and going of nature’s vast seasonal cycles (the wind and the rain keep up their activity through the ages, though men shut their doors against it), we are told that while we must pass from the theater, we can always return so long as we live. Theater has that regenerative power, though of course whether or not the result of our many returns is wisdom is another question. The play leaves the characters in the fantasy-bubble Illyria, a political order that has largely made good on our opening suspicion that it exists to serve its citizens’ fondest desires, and there’s no talk of their leaving.

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

The Taming of the Shrew

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links

Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. (Norton Comedies, 2nd ed. 175-244).

Induction Scenes 1-2

The metadramatic character Christopher Sly, as the Riverside introduction points out, is connected to the general theme of transformation.  I would add that he hasn’t earned his marital happiness—his pretend-wife’s obedience is to the Lord who is playing a trick on Christopher.  Neither does this common fellow belong to the aristocratic world, as he is so easily gulled into believing thanks to his drunkenness.  But that’s a matter of birth, not earning one’s way.

Act 1, Scene 1

Lucentio of Pisa has come to Padua to cast himself into a “deeper” world than he has known thus far, and his declared intent is to look more discerningly into moral philosophy, or “virtue.”  As he enters town, we are treated to an instance of Baptista’s concern for protocol: he insists that he must find a suitable husband for his eldest unmarried daughter first, and only then can he allow the youngest, Bianca, to find a mate.  This situation is standard comic fare: eager suitors faced with an obstinate father.  In this case, the obstinate parent isn’t imperious or cruel; in fact, he’s quite affectionate and protective towards his youngest daughter in particular.  But in many comic plays we see the specter of the “terrible father” invoked or hinted at only to be dispelled as the play reaches its happy conclusion.

Of course, the pickings for Katherine and Bianca don’t look so fine here in Padua—there’s Hortensio, who seems rather a silly fellow, and then there’s Gremio, a stock pantaloon borrowed from Italian commedia dell’arte theater (a C16 phenomenon).  Gremio and Hortensio are men of substance, and their considerable property and assets make them contenders since Renaissance marriage undeniably has to do with securing dynastic wealth and status.  Still, it seems as if the field is open for any adventurous newcomer.

When Lucentio espies Bianca, his initial declarations are forgotten without further ado: in ancient and early modern lore, “the eyes have it”: vision is represented as the most powerful and transformative of the five senses, especially when it comes to love.  So it’s love at first sight for Lucentio, struck with Cupid’s invisible arrow.  His resolve now is to serve as one of the schoolmasters that Baptista wants to commission for his daughters.  Tranio will play the role of Lucentio and will directly sue for Bianca’s hand, the better to keep attention away from the real Lucentio’s efforts. 

Act 1, Scene 2

Enter the right honorable Petruchio of Verona, who has just come into his inheritance and is therefore “his own man,” as the saying goes.  He is free from parental and financial hindrances, so he’s just the one to serve as the “the tamer of the shrew.”  Petruchio’s liberated status distinguishes him from Lucentio, as we will find later on.  This man declares to his friend Hortensio that he has come to find a wife with plenty of money in rich Padua.  What’s love got to do with it?  Nothing—at least at the outset.  That insouciance regarding such an important consideration further distinguishes Petruchio from Lucentio.  In them, at least at the outset, we see two aspects of courtship and marriage: the sway of erotic passion and true love, and the imperative of money and status.

When Hortensio hears of Petruchio’s indifference to anything but wealth, he pipes up about Katherine, who is indeed the marriageable daughter of a well-to-do Paduan.  Petruchio is glad to hear of this possibility, and in return offers to present Hortensio as the schoolmaster Litio so he can woo Bianca in that guise.  At this point, Tranio enters in his disguise as Lucentio, of course with the same intent of wooing Bianca.

Act 2, Scene 1

Katherine is evidently jealous of her younger sister Bianca, and is even restraining her physically in order to extract information from her.  Kate’s horizons are quite limited if she is worried about the attentions of the likes of Gremio and Hortensio.

Petruchio begins his quest by feigning ignorance about Katherine’s true temperament, and he generously offers everything he has in pledge of faith.  Baptista, suitably impressed and no doubt relieved that he might soon be unburdened of this difficult daughter, nonetheless insists on one point: Petruchio must win Katherine’s love.  Petruchio makes light of this demand, saying that he is a “rough” man and no child when it comes to romance.  He is encouraged by Katherine’s deplorable abuse of “Litio” (Hortensio): she seems like a suitable challenge for him.

Petruchio’s opening gambit is to call Katherine what he wants her to become, even though she is at present exactly the opposite.  He parries wits with her, physically detains her just as she had done to her sister (though the stage directions don’t indicate that he knows about this), and boldly sets forth a timetable, with the marriage to be made on Sunday.  This outrageous “Kiss me, Kate” strategy only works, of course, if there’s mutual attraction between the pair.  A lot depends on the actors here, as the excellent versions starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and Sarah Bader and John Cleese, respectively, show.  The play revolves around what makes a fitting couple.  Petruchio is himself a bold and outspoken man, so Katherine’s fiery quality is a draw for him, at least at first—he wants an obedient wife, but likes the challenge of “earning” that obedience and “training” his choice to suit his will.

Gremio and Tranio (as Lucentio) pitch their wealth when talk with Baptista turns to dowries, and Tranio does such a good job of lying that now he must find himself a fake father to “make good” on his fake promises.  The extent of patriarchal authority is a main concern in comedy, and Shakespeare here offers a fine (if temporary) overturning of that concern in that the “Child shall get a sire.”  Shakespeare isn’t by any means what we would call a feminist, but he has a lot of fun at the expense of male authority—Vincentio, an eminently sensible and respectable father-figure, is pretty much at the whim of his deceiving son Lucentio and that son’s servant Tranio, as we shall find out.

Act 3, Scene 1

Lucentio’s wooing of Bianca in the pauses between Latin lines goes well enough, and Hortensio is insulted at the rapidity with which Bianca’s attentions turn towards such a young “stale” (Katherine had earlier used this word to mean “whore,” but here it means something like “good-for-nothing fellow”).  Hortensio forswears any further interest in such an unwise girl.

Act 3, Scene 2

Now Katherine is ashamed that Petruchio hasn’t yet shown up for his own wedding.  And when he appears in the guise of a carnivalesque fool riding a broken-down horse, she is still more ashamed.  Katherine wants propriety and ceremony observed, she wants a conventional wedding that, presumably, would betoken respectability and security.  We might also infer that Katherine thinks she’s done Petruchio a tremendous favor in more or less consenting to marry him.  (One imagines that she would be an easy mark for today’s “wedding mania” that seems to demand ever-greater preparation and expense for the great event.)  But Petruchio, clever man that he is, will have nothing to do with such regard for tradition and form, and he certainly isn’t going to allow “Kate” to get the upper hand.  She’s marrying him, he says,—not his clothes.  Petruchio’s behavior is outlandish, of course, but the point of his actions is probably that marriage isn’t only about status and respectability, or security: it’s about the coming together of two people who must learn to live well together.  Shakespeare was enough of a “bourgeois gentleman” to appreciate Katherine’s need for respectability and security, but at the same time—as so often—he manages to see beyond these entry-level concerns and get to the deeper significance of an institutional act.

Meanwhile, Lucentio and Tranio continue their scheme—Tranio advises a secret marriage if that should prove possible. 

Gremio reports on the doings at Petruchio and Kate’s mad wedding—the groom even tosses wine in the priest’s face, as if he would deny the Church’s power in the whole affair.  Petruchio then proposes imperiously to make away with Kate, saying that she is “his anything” he chooses to make of her.  In essence, he tactically (and only tactically, we may hope) employs the notion that a wife is a man’s “property,” more or less like a piece of furniture of a valuable parcel of land.  Simply getting Kate to marry him is only the first stage of Petruchio’s plan, of course—he still has much “taming” to do before his bride will be genuinely “conformable,” as he had earlier called her.

Act 4, Scene 1

The trip back home is a madcap disaster.  Kate’s horse falls, and her gallant husband can’t be bothered to help her up.  He shows no regard for her, and then abuses the servants under the pretense of showing a nice regard for her tastes in food and clothing.  Alone, Petruchio lets us in on his method: he will deny her basic appetites any satisfaction—no food, sleep, or sex.  She will get no satisfaction until that satisfaction can safely be associated with him as its facilitator.  Petruchio’s terms for this operation are borrowed from falconry—he will “curb” Kate just as a keeper would a bird of prey he wanted to train to hunt for him.  The gender assumption is painfully obvious to us moderns, I suppose: a woman can’t be allowed to beat a man at his own game, at least if the man knows what he’s about, as Petruchio does.  Katherine has been violent, arbitrary, and willful, and Petruchio shows her here more than ever how much more frightening it is when a strong man behaves that way towards a woman he “owns.”  Hardly a feminist notion, but there it is.  It should also be said that there’s quite a range in the concept of masculinity in this play and elsewhere in Shakespeare—he seems to know that “being a man” isn’t simply a biological matter; it is at least partly what we would call a symbolic construct, a position one occupies in the social and sexual order of things.  Gremio, Hortensio, and Baptista are indeed “men,” but they are quite unable to deal with Katherine, while Petruchio knows exactly what to do and is willing to earn the obedience he professes to be his right as a husband.  That stance may not endear him to us, but at least he does not expect obedience as a purely formal matter.  At the broader level, England in Shakespeare’s time (and long afterwards, too) was a patriarchal culture in which men possessed most of the authority, learning, and wealth and mostly refused to share those things with women, but it’s also worth reminding ourselves that Shakespeare’s early work was written during the reign of Elizabeth I, one of the most brilliant and powerful monarchs in history.  Given the right circumstances (however rare), a woman could exercise considerable authority.  Some of Shakespeare’s female characters are vital and strong; although played by boy-actors, they are by no means mere stage props to back the stories he tells about men.

Act 4, Scene 2

Hortensio, disappointed at what he considers the loose attentions of Bianca, forswears his quest for beauty and looks instead to the kindness of a widow whom he knows will accept him.  Tranio cagily agrees, leaving the real Lucentio sole suitor to Bianca, who of course is in on Lucentio’s scheme.

The servant Biondello brings in a pedant to serve as Vincentio.  Poor Vincentio—any fool who just walked into town can serve his turn as the rich, accommodating father of a headstrong son. 

Act 4, Scene 3

As for Kate, she sees Petruchio’s method, but not its purpose, so Petruchio’s labors continue: he finds a perfectly nice cap and gown not suitable for her, roundly abuses everyone around him, and laments that she will still be “crossing” his every word and deed.

Act 4, Scene 4

While the fake Vincentio talks money with Baptista, Biondello advises Lucentio to marry Bianca on the sly.

Act 4, Scene 5

Petruchio’s claims become still more extravagant and absurd: he insists that Kate call day night, and old Vincentio (the real one, that is) a young maiden, and then needles her when she gives in to his demands.  Petruchio breaks the news to Vincentio that “Lucentio” has no doubt by now managed to win Bianca’s hand, so they’re all related!  (He “knows” this, I presume, on the basis of Tranio’s efforts as “Lucentio” back in 2.1.)  Vincentio doesn’t know what to think of it all.

Act 5, Scene 1

Things look very bad for Vincentio since, as Wordsworth would say, it seems that “the child is father to the man,” and the child (or rather his servant impersonating the child) has it in for him.  But Lucentio soon clears up the case of mistaken identity and prevents his father from being hauled off to prison as an imposter.  Vincentio obligingly promises to make a fair deal with Baptista, coming on board in spite of the bad treatment to which he has been subjected.  And nothing seems to come of those protestations about being “thoroughly revenged” against Tranio. 

Petruchio utters “Kiss me, Kate” for the second time, this time in the open street.  Kate is shocked, but doesn’t put up much of a fight by now.  (By the way, the phrase “Kiss Me, Kate” inspired a famous Broadway musical in 1949, one of the stars in which was—that’s right—my illustrious namesake of no relation, Alfred Drake.)

Act 5, Scene 2

The three happy couples get together for a feast at Lucentio’s.  Hortensio’s Wife-Widow offers the provocative statement about Petruchio, “He that is giddy thinks the world turns round,” a phrase whose significance isn’t lost on the ever-sharp Katherine.  And now, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most obedient of all?  Petruchio wagers that it’s none other than his own conformable Kate.  He makes her fetch in the “froward” wives of Lucentio and Hortensio, and then she lectures them dutifully about their duties, to the men’s great satisfaction.  What Kate sets forth is, of course, an entirely traditionalist view of gender relations in the married state: a man must hazard all he has and provide security, and the woman must be helpful and obedient; she must “stand by her man.”  Kate concludes her speech with a self-characterization of her sex that sounds almost like the words Milton will later give his narrator in Paradise Lost to describe Eve: “For contemplation he and valour formed; / For softness she and sweet attractive grace; / He for God only, she for God in him…” (Book 4).

Well, at least, as mentioned above, Petruchio acknowledges a certain need to “earn” his mastery of his Kate, and so we have in The Taming of the Shrew not so much a celebration of hollow patriarchal form but rather a rollicking “battle of the sexes” in which the man and woman together give some genuine meaning to a traditional view and to the institution based upon that view: marriage, the central concern of many a comic play.  Petruchio labors for his mastery, and demonstrates his mettle.  He wants a conformable Kate, to be sure, but he probably wouldn’t be happy with anything other than a conformable Kate.  Lucentio sees Petruchio’s act of taming a “wonder,” which suggests that he doesn’t get it.  As Petruchio says to both Lucentio and Hortensio, they are “sped.”  They are the ones who will have to live with headstrong wives, while he will go off to live in domestic bliss with Katherine. From the widest angle and aside from gender issues, the play provides a light exploration of love’s power to transform people, to alter suddenly and inexplicably their chosen path and declared intentions and to immerse them in an active, not always kind world.  This power is a constant in Shakespeare’s comedies, but it is not necessarily described the same way from play to play.  There isn’t much “idealizing of eroticism” in The Taming of the Shrew, but there’s a great deal of that valuable and yet dangerous intellectual activity in, say, Romeo and Juliet.  In the romances, the power of love seems to be surrounded with mystery, just as in those same romances, Prospero enfolds the whole of life memorably with the statement, “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (4.1.155-58).

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

The Merchant of Venice

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. (Norton Comedies, 2nd ed. 425-89).

Act 1, Scene 1 (435-39 Antonio as exemplar of generosity, charity; sorrow/betrayal shadow him, friendship with Bassanio)

Antonio sets himself up to play the willing victim: “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad” (435, 1.1.1).  He seems certain only that his melancholia doesn’t stem from anxieties about commerce or love (436, 1.1.41-46) — though the latter seems to us the obvious reason since modern directors tend to assert a deep bond between Antonio and Bassanio.  Graziano and other Christians would prefer to play the fool and be merry, while Antonio luxuriates in his moodiness: “I hold the world but as the world, Graziano– / A stage where every man must play a part, / And mine a sad one” (437, 1.1.77-79).  He aligns himself with the dimension of Christian practice that has earned it a reputation as a “religion of sorrow.” 

There seems to be an absolute trust between Antonio and Bassanio in this first scene. They engage in rather excessive oath-making and promising, a process Antonio begins.  Informed of Bassanio’s quest, Antonio declares, “be assured / My purse, my person, my extremest means / Lie all unlocked to your occasions” (438, 1.1.137-39).  Bassanio first names Portia as “a lady richly left” and “fair” (439, 1.1.161-62), but his comparison of her to Brutus’ Portia also alludes to her moral excellence.  Antonio ends the scene by hazarding all he has, as will Bassanio later on: “Try what my credit can in Venice do; / That shall be racked even to the uttermost / To furnish thee to Belmont, to fair Portia” (439, 1.1.180-82).  The impulse here is generous, but the hyperbolic quality of the men’s oaths, we should note, will eventually cause them some trouble in this play.

Act 1, Scene 2 (439-41, Portia’s father’s plan for her; her strength to be exerted against limits.)

Portia is the active agent in this play; she is constrained but not a passive sufferer with respect to her departed father’s marriage arrangements for her.  This is true in spite of her lament when we first meet her: “I may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I / dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will / of a dead father” (440, 1.2.20-22).  Along with Nerissa, Portia trusts her father’s wisdom: “I will die as chaste as Diana unless I be obtained by the manner of my father’s will” (441, 1.2.89-90), but she doesn’t leave aside her own judgment.  Witness her snide but perceptive remarks about the men who are pursuing her (440, 1.2.35-83), all of whom are shallow poseurs, fools, or narcissists: the Neapolitan prince, County Palatine, Monsieur le Bon, the English nobleman Falconbridge, the Scottish lord, and the Duke of Saxony’s nephew hardly sound like great catches.

Act 1, Scene 3 (441-45, Shylock’s personal and collective grudges; his cunning, not generosity.  Sympathy?  Wager itself – literalist bond.)

The scene is partly about the different understanding of terms between Christians and Jews—to be a “good” man, in Shylock’s view, is to have sufficient funds; to “be assured” is to acquire the necessary information about a person’s finances: “My meaning in saying he is a good / man is to have you understand me that he is sufficient” (442, 1.3.13-14). The play’s Christians use these words mainly as moral terms. We see Shylock’s resentment almost from the outset: “How like a fawning Publican he looks. / I hate him for he is a Christian; / But more, for that in low simplicity / He lends out money gratis …” (442, 1.3.36-39).  His “ancient grudge” (442, 1.3.42) is both individual and collective; the personal insults are insults to his “sacred nation” as well (442, 1.3.43).  He considers it a duty not to forgive Antonio.

Around (443, 1.3.73ff), cunning appears to be Shylock’s main attribute when he alludes to the story in Genesis 30:25-43 of how Jacob (Esau’s brother, and son of Isaac and Rebekah and grandson of Abraham and Sarah; he was subsequently renamed by an angel “Israel” and is ancestor to the tribes of Israel) got the better of his uncle Laban, a man he served for seven years for the hand of Rachel, only to be given Leah instead and required to work another seven years for Rachel (who eventually gave birth to Joseph).  At the end of his second service period, Laban asked Jacob to stay on, and Jacob asked as his wages Laban’s speckled, spotted sheep and goats, and the dark-colored lambs.  These supposedly inferior creatures were to be his own flock.  Then he took some poplar branches and peeled the bark to expose the white inside: he placed these in the animals’ watering troughs.  To make a long story short, Jacob bred the stronger animals in the presence of these branches and their young were born spotted, so his flocks increased greatly.  “And thrift is blessing,” says Shylock, “if men steal it not” (443, 1.3.86).  Antonio finds the story inappropriate, and by no means a justification of Shylock’s moneylending practices: Jacob’s increase, insists Antonio, wasn’t really due to his own efforts but was “fashioned by the hand of heaven” (443, 1.3.89).

Be that as it may, Shylock wryly rehearses his grievances, reminding Antonio how poorly he has treated him in the past: “many a time and oft / In the Rialto you have rated me / About my moneys and my usances …” (444, 1.3.102-04) and “You call me misbeliever, cut-throat, dog, / And spit upon my Jewish gabardine” (444, 1.3.107-08).  How can a Christian who is wont to speak that way ask a Jew for such a favor?  But Shylock proceeds to accept his role as moneylender on his own terms: the infamous deal “Go with me to a notary …” (444, 1.3.140-47) is cast by Shylock as “a merry sport” and “friendship” (445, 1.3.164).  A chance to injure Antonio has come his way, and he takes it up gleefully.  This is a high-stakes wager, like Christian salvation.  Antonio seems self-assured and dismissive, which may be hubristic. He has no doubts about his ability to pay his debts, so Shylock’s absurd conditions don’t trouble him: “The Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind” (445, 1.3.174). Those conditions certainly trouble Bassanio: “I like not fair terms and a villain’s mind” (445, 1.3.175), but Antonio dismisses the younger man’s worry.  He should have listened, of course – the audience is better positioned to see the dark side of Shylock’s admission that “A pound of a man’s flesh taken from a man / Is not so estimable, profitable neither, / As flesh of muttons, beeves, or goats” (445, 1.3.161-63).  Of course it isn’t – this is about revenge, not money.

Act 2, Scene 1 (445-46, Morocco makes his entrance)

Morocco joins Aaron from Titus Andronicus as one of Shakespeare’s “Moorish” characters, as will Othello in subsequent years.  Morocco has none of the gravity of the other two: he’s a comic figure and cultural outsider who isn’t in a position to get the joke behind Portia’s polite dismissal: his exuberant “Mislike me not for my complexion” (445, 2.1.1) nets him only Portia’s agreement that the prince stands “as fair / As any comer I have looked on yet” (446, 2.1.20-21).  Of course, we have already been acquainted with the wretched suitors who have already made their way to Belmont.

Act 2, Scene 1 (446-50, Lancelot decides to abandon Shylock; comic scene with his father Old Gobbo; Bassanio accepts Lancelot’s suit)

Servant Lancelot Gobbo accepts the “fiend’s” counsel (447, 2.2.24) to abandon Shylock, running against his own conscience. Should we therefore accept treatment of Shylock as comic raillery, something easy to do?  Gobbo sees Shylock as a stock figure, “a kind of devil” (447, 2.2.19), but the play as a whole doesn’t reduce him to that. Consider the conversation between Lancelot Gobbo and his father, which alludes to the biblical story about Jacob stealing Esau’s birthright and tricking father Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing as the first-born son (Genesis 25:29-34).  “Give me your blessing” asks Lancelot towards the end of his talk with the half-blind father who doesn’t recognize him (448, 2.2.68).  Lancelot’s father has brought a present for Shylock, but Gobbo wants the present to go to Bassanio (448, 2.2.96-98). 

The comic spirit overcomes all, accomplishing something like “grace,” which at 150-51 Gobbo attributes to Bassanio: “you have the grace of God, sir, / and he hath enough” (449, 2.2.135-36).  Bassanio cheerfully accepts Gobbo’s inept suit to become his servant 448, 2.2.137-40).  In general, the process of abandoning Shylock begins right after the bargain of flesh has been struck.  First Gobbo, then Jessica makes her decision in the next scene. What binds people? Well, the binding is supposed to be effected by generosity and love, but Shylock refuses these commands.  In the Christian context of the play, abandoning him seems to be cast as the “natural” result of his refusal.

Act 2, Scenes 3-5 (450-53, Jessica’s anguish; Shylock’s isolation)

Jessica is torn about what she is about to do: “Alack, what heinous sin is it in me / To be ashamed to be my father’s child!” (451, 2.3.15-16)  But she makes Lancelot carry a letter to Lorenzo, sighing to herself, “O Lorenzo, / If thou keep promise I shall end this strife, / Become a Christian and thy loving wife” (2.3.18-20). 

In 2.4, we hear Lorenzo confiding his elopement plan to Graziano: “She hath directed / How I shall take her from her father’s house, / What gold and jewels she is furnished with, / What page’s suit she has in readiness …” (451, 2.4.29-32).  The plot will take advantage of the disguise made possible by Christian festivities – Bassanio is holding a masque (a masked ball) that night, which Shylock takes for a reminder that it is indeed Carnival season in Venice, which occurs just before the austere, fasting forty days of Lent are ushered in and capped by Easter, which of course commemorates the resurrection of Christ after his crucifixion and death on Good Friday.

Lancelot had spoken of Shylock with contempt in Act 2, Scene 1, but in the fifth scene, Shylock’s interaction with his daughter doesn’t seem cruel: he tells her to keep the doors shut against Christian revelers: “Let not the sound of shallow fopp’ry enter / My sober house” (452, 2.5.34-35).  Taking the dismissal of Lancelot as a good break, he winds his reflections up with a proverb: “Fast bind, fast find — / A proverb never stale in thrifty mind” (453, 2.5.52-53)  Shylock prefers to remain isolated and to maintain the purity of his household.  Increasingly, he will be an isolated figure whose situation and attitude invite Christian characters’ mockery: tracing the intensification of that isolation is in large part the task of the play’s remaining acts, and Jessica to herself advances the process on the spot: “Farewell; and if my fortune be not crossed, / I have a father, you a daughter lost” (453, 2.5.54-55).

Act 2, Scene 6 (453-54, Jessica absconds with ducats; Christians free to change)

Shylock (not present in this scene) now loses both his daughter and a portion of his ducats. Graziano makes pleasantries about how people fail to meet their love obligations: “All things that are / Are with more spirit chasèd than enjoyed” (453, 2.6.12-13); this mention is a setup for the weightier wrangling between Portia and Nerissa later on.  Jessica joins the Christians and absconds with some of Shylock’s wealth (454, 2.6.49-50).  It’s comically grotesque that Shylock loses his daughter and money to Christian masquers, presumably, as mentioned earlier, during Venice’s carnival season: a time of liberty and temporary overturning of conventional morality.  Freedom to change is the key here, and the quality to transform one’s identity in a felicitous way seems to be a Christian prerogative in this play.  Shylock’s change will be forced upon him cruelly, and no doubt he will remain isolated ever after.

Act 2, Scenes 7-9 (454-59, Morocco’s choice; reports of Shylock’s confusion; Aragon’s choice; news that Bassanio is nearing Belmont)

Morocco chooses between desert, desire, and hazard.  He chooses gold, what “many men desire,” on the assumption that outward appearances correspond to inward qualities (455, 2.7.37-38).  In the next scene, Salerio and Solanio report and mock Shylock’s confused babbling about his daughter and his ducats: “I never heard a passion so confused, / So strange, outrageous, and so variable / As the dog Jew did utter in the streets. / ‘My daughter! O, my ducats!  O, my daughter! …’” (2.8.12-15), in contrast to the generous relations between Antonio and Bassanio: “I think he only loves the world for him” (457, 2.8.50).  Prideful, falsely self-sufficient Aragon (a stock Spanish nobleman) assumes silver “desert,” and is rewarded with the portrait of “a blinking idiot” (458-59, 2.9.50, 53).  The scene closes with news that Bassanio is at Belmont’s gates.

Act 3, Scene 1 (460-62, Shylock teaches Christian hypocrites revenge)

Shylock assumes that Antonio, now bankrupt, will be easily isolated: the cash nexus is the only tie Shylock seems to recognize as binding, and the law will prevail: “let him look to his / bond” (460, 3.1.40-41).  At lines 53-73, Shylock makes his noteworthy “Hath not a / Jew eyes?” declaration (461, 3.1.49-50): Jews are part of a common humanity, but he and his entire people have been scorned and mocked.  Revenge is the law of his being: he will repay Christian injustice with “usury,” with increase.  To Tubal (461, 3.1.67ff), Shylock constantly brings up money and expense along with his grief about losing his daughter.  He is painfully confused about priorities.  But for the last few hundred years, this scene has generally been played by most actors with sympathy.  After all, some of Shylock’s lines are powerful, especially when you isolate them from the ones most concerned with money: “no satisfaction, no / revenge, nor no ill luck stirring but what lights o’ my shoulders, / no sighs but o’ my breathing, no tears but o’ my shedding” (461, 3.1.79-81).  Today, it’s common knowledge that Jews were forced to take on the role of moneylenders thanks to Christian hypocrisy about the accumulation of interest on loans. 

At this point, Shylock is more than a stage villain.  He is a stage villain, but Shakespeare’s genius is that he can represent a villain as that and something more.  When Tubal informs him about seeing a turquoise ring Jessica sold for a monkey, Shylock laments, “I would not / have given it for a wilderness of monkeys” (462, 3.1.191-92).  The line is comically grotesque, but given the context, how could it be played with anything less than deep feeling?  Meditating on his revenge to come, Shylock tells us what part of Antonio’s flesh he has nominated: “I will have the heart / of him if he forfeit” (462, 3.1.105-06).

Act 3, Scene 2 (462-68, Bassanio chooses rightly; Portia declares her loyalty and promises to help Antonio)

Some strain shows between Portia and her departed father: “these naughty times / Puts bars between the owners and their rights” (462, 3.1.18-19).  What does the song that follows mean?  “Tell me where is fancy bred, / Or in the heart, or in the head? / How begot, how nourishèd?” (463, 3.2.63-65)  We are told that “fancy dies / In the cradle where it lies”  (463, 3.2.63-68-69).  This may be a warning to Bassanio: love begins with the eyes, so we had better not trust them too much.  Bassanio understands the warning, evidently: he chooses the threatening lead container rather than the attractive silver or golden one: “meagre lead, / Which rather threaten’st than dost promise aught, / Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence” (464, 3.2.104-06). 

The correct choice made, Portia makes a fine speech about her qualities and shortcomings as “an unlessoned girl, unschooled, unpractisèd” (465, 3.2.159), and offers a condition: she’s all his, unless he gives away the ring, in which case she will have the upper hand (465, 3.2.170-73).  Bassanio admits that Portia’s words have all blended together for him (466, 3.2.177-83), but he seems to understand her words about the ring, and even takes things up a notch (again the excessive, exuberant rhetoric) by swearing that death will take him before he gives away the golden keepsake: “But when this ring / Parts from this finger, then parts life from hence. / O, then be bold to say Bassanio’s dead” (466, 3.2.183-85).  Portia didn’t condemn him to death, just distrust! 

Bassanio is soon informed by Salerio of Antonio’s disastrous commercial loss, and must admit to Portia that he is in a bind: “I have engaged myself to a dear friend, / Engaged my friend to his mere enemy, / To feed my means” (467, 3.2.260-62).  Portia will take the part of Bassanio’s friend: “Pay him [Shylock] six thousand and deface the bond. / Double six thousand, and then treble that, / Before a friend of this description / Shall lose a hair thorough Bassanio’s fault” (468, 3.2.298-301).  Bassanio, we note, uses the language of Roman honor in referring to Antonio’s friendship: Antonio is “one in whom / The ancient Roman honour more appears / Than any that draws breath in Italy” (468, 3.2.293-95).  The two men somewhat over-talk their bond, as becomes increasingly apparent, but that’s not to disparage its genuine integrity.

Act 3, Scene 3 (469-69, Shylock stays implacable; Antonio near despair)

Here Shylock is implacable: “I’ll have my bond.  I will not hear thee speak” (469, 3.3.12-13).  Antonio says Shylock’s hatred stems from resentment of Christian interference in his harsh dealings with benighted creditors: “His reason well I know: / I oft delivered from his forfeitures / Many that have at times made moan to me” (469, 3.3.21-23).  But that’s obviously not the whole story: it’s hard to sustain the notion that Shylock’s revenge is simply about money. Antonio also points out that Venice must take up an attitude that is nearly as hard-hearted as Shylock’s: a bargain struck is a bargain struck. Venice depends on the cash nexus, too: “The Duke cannot deny the course of law, / For the commodity that strangers have / With us in Venice, if it be denied, / Will much impeach the justice of the state” (469, 3.4.26-29).  Antonio is a man exhausted; his commercial and other losses have wasted him almost to the bone, and he would rather suffer than fight: “Pray God Bassanio come / To see me pay his debt, and then I care not” (469, 3.4.35-36).

Act 3, Scene 4 (469-71, Portia devises her lawyerly scheme)

Portia is drawn to Antonio because friends are so much alike (470, 3.4.10-18), and then she springs her “lawyer’s clerk” scheme: with the assistance of her learned cousin Dr. Bellario, she will play the role of a male who can wield the weapon of law against Shylock and the Venetian commercial state.  To accomplish this task, she must play fast and loose with her own gender, since a woman of Shakespeare’s time (leaving aside Queen Elizabeth) was in no position to take on such authority.  She puts great faith in the power of disguise and cunning understanding of male imposture: “I have within my mind / A thousand raw tricks of these bragging Jacks / Which I will practice” (471, 3.5.76-78).

Act 3, Scene 5 (471-73, Jessica and Gobbo argue wittily about salvation)

Jessica and Gobbo dispute comically over salvation and damnation; Jessica says to Lorenzo, “Lancelot and I are / out.  He tells me flatly there’s no mercy for me in heaven / because I am a Jew’s daughter, and he says you are no good / member of the commonwealth, for in converting Jews to Chris- / tians you raise the price of pork” (472, 3.5.26-30).  This quarrel is a precursor of a more serious argument during the trial about how mercy is granted, and to whom.  Gobbo stands accused of egregious quibbling: “How every fool can play upon the word!” (472, 3.5.37)  Lancelot Gobbo’s misstatements and quibbles are the light-hearted version of the play’s weightier regard for terminological and spiritual misinterpretation, equivocation, and hypocrisy.  Here, Lancelot’s “wit” takes the place of Shylock’s literalism and cunning.

Act 4, Scenes 1-2 (473-83, Trial scene: Shylock’s literalism countered with “mercy” punished; Bassanio and Graziano give away their rings)

Antonio again appears resigned: why bother with a man the Duke calls a “stony adversary” (473, 4.1.3)?  At this point, the anti-Jewish invective is severe. But Shylock shows great harshness in this scene, by Christian lights.  He isn’t claiming to be better than his adversaries: “I give no reason, nor I will not, / More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing / I bear Antonio” (474, 4.1.58-60).  We the audience may have some insight into what Shylock’s grounds for this hate are, but how is the play’s internal court audience to know that?  Shylock has cunningly purchased the flesh of a Christian hypocrite at great personal cost, and he will not give it up: “The pound of flesh which I demand of him / Is dearly bought.  ‘Tis mine, and I will have it. / If you deny me, fie upon your law: / There is no force in the decrees of Venice” (475, 4.1.98-101).  Money isn’t the issue, though Venetian commercial interests make up part of his justification: the law he invokes can’t be ignored lest the republic’s status suffer with international merchants.  Revenge personal and collective is Shylock’s issue, not the ducats Antonio owes him. 

The Duke makes no headway with Shylock, and Antonio seems prepared to give up the ghost: “I am a tainted wether of the flock, / Meetest for death” (475, 4.1.113-14).  That’s where Portia disguised as Balthasar comes in: the culmination of her moral argument is, “The quality of mercy is not strained. / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath” (477, 4.1.178-81).  The very fact that Shylock had to ask, “On what compulsion must I?” show compassion condemns him (477, 4.1.178).  But the state can’t help here, and Shylock, ever the literalist, protests that he has “an oath in heaven” (478, 4.1.223) to stick to the bond.  Portia goes out of her way to demonstrate the callous attitude of Shylock: witness his refusal to keep a surgeon nearby because no such thing is mentioned in his contract with Antonio (478, 4.1.255-57). 

Antonio is ready to go out with a reaffirmation of his love for Bassanio (478, 4.1.268-72), which leads Bassanio to make an extreme utterance, wishing his wife and goods to heaven to redeem the situation: “life itself, my wife, and all the world, / Are not with me esteemed above thy life, / I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all / Here to this devil, to deliver you” (479, 4.1.279-82).  Even Shylock picks up on the outrageousness of this remark: “These be the Christian husbands” (479, 4.1.290). 

Portia promptly insists that the bond must be read even more literally than Shylock can conceive. She has already advanced her moral argument and met with defiance: Shylock is ready to carve up his Christian rival.  Now comes the legal argument: “This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood” (479, 4.1.301).  The penalty for spilling Christian blood is forfeiture of one’s goods and property to the state (479, 4.1.314-15).  Furthermore, says Portia, “If it be proved against an alien … / He seek the life of any citizen, / The party ’gainst the which he doth contrive / Shall seize one half his goods; the other half / Comes to the privy coffer of the state, / And the offender’s life lies in the mercy / Of the Duke” (480, 4.1.344-51).  Shylock has sought the death of a Venetian citizen.  The Duke pardons his life and Antonio asks the Duke to allow Shylock to keep half his wealth, willing it to his Christian son-in-law Lorenzo and his daughter Jessica (480-81, 4.1.363-65, 377-80).  Furthermore, he must convert to Christianity (481, 4.1.382).  Shylock is forced to say that he is “content” with his lot (481, 4.1.389), now that he has been commanded to convert to Christianity and give away much of his fortune. The word can hardly mean what it usually would, given the context: he has simply given up, confronted as he is with the full power of Venice and a religion alien to him.

Portia (still disguised) responds to Bassanio’s offer of a gift that she wants his ring (482, 4.1.423), and to his rather feeble protest, she importunes, “if your wife be not a madwoman, / And know how well I have deserved this ring, / She would not hold out enemy for ever / For giving it to me” (482, 4.1.441-44).  The point of this episode is that Portia will exercise mercy with respect to the decree she had previously issued. She didn’t mean the decree of faithfulness in the deadly fashion understood by Bassanio. She interprets her own words liberally rather than literally, and in Act 5 she will be generous enough to forgive Bassanio since at least he put up a struggle, however brief, over the loss of the ring. That doesn’t amount to full merit of pardon, but under Portia’s dispensation, perfection isn’t necessary.  In the second scene, Nerissa says she will get her ring from Graziano (482-83, 4.2.13-14).

Act 5, Scene 1 (483-89, Lorenzo on sphere-music 483-85; Portia’s lecture on absol. oaths v. generosity -488; Shylock stays outcast, Antonio a charitable outsider)

Lorenzo and Jessica discuss faith and faithlessness by referencing disappointed lovers such as Troilus, Thisbe, and Dido (483, 5.1.3-12) and about the power of music to transform the soul: redemption and transformation are the theme here. Lorenzo says that music (even earthly music as opposed to the heavenly harmonies lost to us because of our sin-induced mortality will soften Jessica if she will only listen intently enough, and open herself to the experience: “There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st / But in his motion like an angel sings … / Such harmony is in immortal souls, / But whilst this muddy vesture of decay / Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it” (484, 5.1.59-64).  The whole scene is in comic contrast to Shylock’s hard-heartedness, his inability to change, as Lorenzo may insinuate when he says, “The man that hath no music in himself, / Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, / Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils” (485, 5.1.82-84). 

Portia appreciates the fine music (485, 5.1.101-07), but at line 109 she makes it stop because she has another vehicle of transformation: the playfully stern lecture she’s about to deliver.  The extremeness of Antonio and Bassanio’s oath-taking must be tempered.  Mercy doesn’t like extremes: to swear excessively is to take one’s responsibilities lightly.  Bassanio in particular has shown a willingness to break an oath to his intended wife to satisfy a male-centered demand—that of giving a gift to the “man” who helped Antonio win his case.  He and Graziano trivialize the marriage bond when, after making such a show of their fidelity, they break their excessive oaths at will.  So Bassanio must be schooled by Portia about his responsibilities towards her as a faithful husband.  She asserts that this marriage bond entails reciprocity and generosity, an accommodation that he has not yet fully acknowledged: “If you had known the virtue of the ring, / Or half her worthiness that gave the ring …” (487, 5.1.198-205).  Portia may be obedient to her father, but she is not a fool, a slave, or a child.  In fact, her actions show her to be far more mature than most of the men in The Merchant of Venice.

Antonio finds out that he isn’t a pauper after all (489, 5.1.275-76), and we hear that Shylock, upon his death, will “gift” the remaining half of his estate to Lorenzo and Jessica (489, 5.1.290-92).  Bassanio, with Antonio’s help, gets the chance to make a second affirmation of his constancy towards Portia: “Pardon this fault, and by my soul I swear / I never more will break an oath with thee” (489, 5.1.246-47).  It’s probably worth noting that the oath is just as extreme as the previous ones he and Antonio have made.  Even so, a generous understanding of speech and act is the essential contrast in the play between Christians and Jews.  The former have the flexibility to transform and to be transformed, while Shylock remains implacable and experiences his enforced change as nothing short of torture; he remains outside the circle of happiness that concludes the play—this inference is represented very explicitly in Michael Radford’s production.  But Antonio also remains outside that charmed comic circle, so I suppose his self-understanding is only ratified: his part in life is a sad one, just as he had said in the first act.  Jessica, however, seems to hold out the possibility of redemption for all; she’s a Jewish woman whose free conversion for the sake of love stands in comic defiance against the spiteful Christian saying “till the Jews be converted” as a way of saying “never.”

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

The Comedy of Errors

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links

Shakespeare, William. The Comedy of Errors. (Norton Comedies, 2nd ed. 245-93).

Act 1, Scene 1 (253-56)

The Norton editors rightly suggest that the play deals with the theme of identity, and the implication is that Shakespeare is interested in just how easy it is to alienate us from our own personal identity, and make it seem strange, a vexed question rather than something that gives us comfort and comprehension.  So how does the wretched merchant Egeon’s situation clue us in to this interest?  Why is he in Ephesus, and why is he condemned to die from the very first page onward?  Egeon was on a business trip and his wife had followed him just before having twin boys, and then she wanted to go home, so he went with her.  The weather turned bad, and the ship’s crew left the passengers to their fate.  The ship split up upon a rock, and the merchant’s wife and one child were taken up by a boat from Corinth, while the merchant himself and another son was rescued by a different ship. 

That son eventually wanted to go off and find his lost brother, and the old man searched for this son for five years afterwards, and on his way home he visited Ephesus where he now is.  Both of those children had the same name.  Now Egeon is condemned to die because of strife between Ephesus and Syracuse.  We might say, then, that he is taken unawares on a quest to recover part of his own identity—his own past and future. 

But what further can we say about this theme of identity?  It almost doesn’t matter who the merchant is—he 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 group-based stock, with where one comes from.

Act 1, Scene 2 (256-59)

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.  He now stands in much the same peril that Egeon did.  He speaks eloquently of this (257, 1.2.35ff). 

Immediately, there is a misunderstanding between Antipholus of Syracuse and the two servants by the same name, Dromio.  Antipholus of Syracuse sends his own Dromio off with his money, while Dromio of Ephesus promptly shows up and gets into trouble because he has no idea what Antipholus of Syracuse is talking about regarding the gold he gave the other Dromio.  Antipholus of Syracuse seems to think “his” servant must have been cheated out of the money and is 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.  Anyhow, 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 you just did five minutes ago.  What happened?  This is the last thing that Antipholus of Syracuse needs since, as we can see from that earlier passage in which he says, “I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop….”  (257, 1.2.35-36).  He already has been questioning who he really is in the distant wake of losing his mother and twin brother at sea.

Act 2, Scene 1 (259-61)

Luciana’s marriage philosophy sounds traditional: Luciana says men “Are masters to their females, and their lords” (259, 2.1.24-25).  As for Adriana, she seems to be worried that her husband, Antipholus of Ephesus, has grown tired of her and is cheating on her.  She both blames him for this and turns the criticism inward, I believe.  In this sense, she subscribes to Luciana’s philosophy—the way her husband thinks of her impacts the way she thinks about herself. 

Act 2, Scene 2 (262-66)

Dromio of Syracuse is now accused by his rightful master of lying about having received some gold earlier.  The master does not appreciate being tricked and confused by his servant—it upends the order of things.  There’s quite a witty exchange going on between them, which is common in farcical comedies.  But how does Antipholus of Syracuse, when he meets up with Adriana, who of course thinks he is her husband, process the compounding confusion?  He begins trading in metaphors of dream and insanity.  One interesting point is that Antipholus of Syracuse proposes to himself to “entertain the offered fallacy” (266, 2.2.185).  He’s going to run with the chaos in hopes that things will become clearer.  For the moment, it’s beyond him to set things right.

As for Adriana, here we may want to compare what she says to what Luciana had already said and to what Antipholus of Syracuse has said about his own quest—their way of understanding things is similar: “[F]or know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall / A drop of water in the breaking gulf….”  (264, 2.2.125-26).  It’s the same metaphor: to love someone is to risk everything, to venture the dissolution of one’s very self.

Act 3, Scene 1 (267-70)

A man’s home is his castle, as the saying goes—or at least his inn, in this play.  It’s hard to imagine getting shut out of your own house by people you think you 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 defineus as who we supposedly are. 

Antipholus of Ephesus is being forcibly, rudely estranged from who he is: he is an alienated man, a man who 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 Byron turned into a mark of genius and superiority over the common run of humankind.  Antipholus of Ephesus’ quandary doesn’t involve that kind of smirking or fashionable alienation: it’s flat confusion because the world he knows has turned bizarre.  The merchant advises caution because after all, a man can’t go breaking into his own house, can he?  So Antipholus of Ephesus decides instead to visit “a wench of excellent discourse” (270, 3.1.110), and even decides to give her the chain he has ordered made: “Since mine own doors refuse to entertain me, / I’ll knock elsewhere, to see if they’ll disdain me” (270, 3.1.121-22).  That is his rather spiteful justification for his conduct.

Act 3, Scene 2 (270-74)

Antipholus of Syracuse experiences something like love at first sight when he meets Luciana, who obviously suspects he is being unfaithful to his wife, Adriana.  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.  She also expects generous flattery, and supposes (271, 3.2.21-24) that women are gullible when it comes to male displays of affection. 

Dromio of Syracuse has woman troubles of his own since Adriana’s cooking-maid Nell is enamored of him, thinking he is Dromio of Ephesus.  I suppose the geographical references (273, 3.2.116-37) are in part simply rough Elizabethan humor: Shakespeare’s contemporaries did not exactly have delicate sensibilities, so mocking an overweight woman would probably 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.

Act 4, Scene 1 (274-77)

Relationships with objects are part of what constitutes identity, and the gold chain here 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, figures 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.

As a result of the misunderstanding between Angelo and the Second Merchant and Antipholus of Ephesus, the latter is arrested.  When Dromio of Syracuse advises escape by sea, the irony is palpable.  Antipholus of Ephesus is being counseled to escape from his own home.  He sends his servant off to Adriana so she can help him make bail.  The play’s mix-ups and misunderstandings have by this point become down-to-earth realities.  Antipholus of Ephesus is trapped outside his proper self, and he is beginning to suffer the consequences.

Act 4, Scene 2 (277-78)

Adriana is nothing if not constant and devoted to her husband Antipholus of Ephesus.  “I think him better than I say” (277, 4.2.25), she admits.  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 “by lies we flattered be” but rather that disparaging  wordslanguage 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.

Act 4, Scene 3 (279-81)

At the very 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” (279, 4.3.1-3).  What a strange experience that must be when you are in a town you’ve never visited before!

When Dromio of Syracuse seems to speak in riddles about the Sgt. who had arrested Antipholus of Ephesus, Antipholus of Syracuse is confused because he was never arrested and Dromio thinks he was.  Dromio’s comic mention of “old Adam” (279, 4.3.13) is just what the Norton editors say—a reference to unregenerate man dressed in animal skins.  In other words, this 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 talks about salvation and redemption in straightforwardly economic terms.  Dromio of Syracuse is asking if Antipholus of Syracuse has obtained “redemption” by means of bail. 

The plan seems to be to set sail away from this bewitched place.  Antipholus of Syracuse says, “here we wander in illusions” (279, 4.3.39), and he calls upon some deity, any deity at all, to help him and his servant escape. 

The Courtesan decides to play along and serve up a lie of her own (280-81, 4.3.85-91).  As she says, she is out forty ducats, and that is just too much money to lose.  She will accuse Antipholus of Syracuse of lunacy in front of Adriana, whom she supposes to be his wife.  But of course, it’s really the other Antipholus with whom she has the problem.  The man she’s accusing does not have her ring, and never attended dinner with her in the first place.  That was Antipholus of Ephesus.

Act 4, Scene 4 (281-84)

This scene is a setup for the first scene in Act 5.  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” (281, 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 elements and end up looking ridiculous.  Everyone and everything seems to get the better of us.  Well, 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 (282, 4.4.41-43).  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 dined with Adriana.  And 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” you mean that poor Antipholus of Ephesus will be confined as a madman.  Just then, Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse burst onto the scene armed with rapiers and scare everyone away (284, 4.4.138ff).  Their present plan is simply to escape the town by ship.

Act 5, Scene 1 (284-93)

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 but not denying that he had.  This draws him into a fight with the second merchant just as Adriana and company enter.  Adriana pleads for mercy, saying that Antipholus of Syracuse is insane (285, 5.1.33).  So Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse run into a priory presided over by an abbess (285, 5.1.37ff).  Adriana tries to get the abbess to release the two men from the priory, but she will not give them up.  The Duke arrives and listens to Adriana’s pleas (287, 5.1.130ff).  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, and then Antipholus of Ephesus shows up to everyone’s astonishment (288, 5.1.191).  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 Antipholus of Ephesus 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” (290, 5.1.271).  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 (291, 5.1.330), and this will set up the possibility of recognition.  Adriana now sees two husbands, as she puts it (291, 5.1.333ff).  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 are the parents of both Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus.  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” (293, 5.1.402-04).  I think what she 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 the audience up 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 his most serious plays. 

In farce, the characters are delightfully foolish and incapable: they’re not three-dimensional, well-rounded characters of the sort you 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, 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 random chance helps them out.  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 Inamorati.  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 these characters, just as Aristotle said 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 I suppose 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.

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 you happened to have heard it, which you hadn’t.  The plot of The Comedy of Errors is pretty much unbelievable: it’s obvious that you wouldn’t mistake even identical twins if you were acquainted closely with one of them, and the coincidences in this play are much too preposterous to pass as likely, especially when you pile up so many of them.  But that isn’t really the point.  What opportunity does such improbable, fantastic stuff open for us?  Well, I think it opens up just the one that the Norton editors explore: the craziness to which we are treated generates a usefully intense species of alienation and bewilderment, almost a comic version of the Freudian 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, 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 make a situation that can best deliver such a feeling, at least in the comic context.

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

Much Ado about Nothing

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links

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 the interests 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

Measure for Measure

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links

Assigned: Shakespeare. Measure for Measure. (The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, third edition. 891-959).

Act 1, Scene 1 (pp. 901-03, Duke Vincentio of Vienna says he must travel and appoints the upright young Angelo to govern in his stead, with old Escalus as his second-in-command. A stunned Angelo accepts; he and Escalus withdraw to determine their powers.)

We can see from the outset that the Duke’s plan will not be simply to install the most experienced subordinate as his substitute while he’s gone. This absence of his will have the character of a test,  an experiment. When the Duke says to Angelo, “Spirits are not finely touched / But to fine issues” (35), he is setting forth the typical Renaissance understanding of virtue as an active power. He professes to see this active power at work in Angelo. Angelo himself seems uncertain about his sudden elevation, or at least that’s what he says.

The Duke tells Angelo that while he holds office, he will have the power “So to enforce or qualify the laws / As to your soul seems good” (65-66). He also professes a certain shyness when it comes to mingling with the people: “I love the people, / But do not like to stage me to their eyes” (67-68). In itself, this quality is by no means a defect in the Duke; we find a similar reticence in strategically wise rulers such as Henry the Fourth, who in the first of Shakespeare’s two plays on that king criticizes Richard the Second for his profligate willingness to mix with the common people. Henry tells Prince Hal that such rash conduct debases a king’s image, and he implies that by such rashness, Richard the poet-king squandered his once-high currency in the realm, and became an eminently defeatable laughing-stock. The problem is, the Duke of Vienna does not seem to be as good at maintaining his authority as was Henry the Fourth. We will soon hear from him that he has not been assiduous in upholding the law in Vienna. He has not, it seems, followed his own observation about turning one’s virtue towards action in the world, and that’s a failure that can cost rulers dearly in Shakespeare. In The Tempest, for example, Prospero the Duke of Milan has a somewhat similar problem in that he prefers his private studies to actually governing his people. This defect opens the door for his greedy brother to exile him to a remote island. In such difficult circumstances as Duke Vincentio has allowed to develop, Angelo may have power to “mitigate” the law, but as we shall see, the expectation seems to be that he will do the reverse, and serve as a harsh corrective. As the first scene concludes, Angelo and Escalus cordially withdraw amongst themselves to figure out the exact scope of the powers given to each man. This suggests that they mean to be precise in the carrying out of their duties.

Act 1, Scene 2 (pp. 903-07, Lucio and two gentlemen exchange witticisms about syphilis. Mistress Overdone announces that Claudio is being led off to prison for impregnating Julietta, and airs her fears that the city’s severe new moral dispensation will put her on the streets. Pompey cheers her up. Claudio gets perp-walked into the scene, and shares his views on Angelo’s harshness with Lucio. Claudio invests his hopes for release in his sister Isabella’s beauty and rhetorical skill.)

The BBC version sets this scene in a tavern, which works well enough. We have gone instantly from seeing Angelo and his second-in-command remove themselves to discuss the precise parameters of their own power to a silly scene in which precision becomes a matter of words used in jest. Lucio needles the first and second gentlemen about their lack of moral standing, and implies that one of them is afflicted with syphilis — hardly unlikely, given the nature of the conversation. Basically, these are the type of people the Duke is worried he’s given too much license to misbehave, and the place where they are enjoying themselves is one to which the laws power has scarcely extended itself.

Soon, the Bawd, Mistress Overdone, interrupts all the jesting about syphilis to tell Lucio and his companions that Claudio has been arrested “for getting Madam Julietta / with child” (66-67). Lucio seems genuinely distressed, while Mistress Overdone takes to complaining about the sorry state of her business: war, plague, crime or the punishment thereof, and poverty has deprived her of a great number of customers. Pompey the Clown endeavors to cheer her up, promising that she will have some recompence even though the brothels outside the city are to be “pulled down” (93). He says that he will keep the alcohol flowing, which is what a tapster like him can do. Just as Shakespeare has highlighted the power structure in Vienna and will soon make plainer the problem that currently besets it, so in this second scene he gives us a little portrait of what we would call the red light district of Vienna, which constitutes a separate economy of its own, and which has deeply human problems to deal with, just as a legitimate or legal economy has. Mistress Overdone is sincerely worried about what will become of her in the new dispensation of things set about by the Duchy’s severe, even puritanical moralists. In this light, all the comic talk about venereal disease becomes more ominous: there were no effective treatments for diseases such as syphilis, which ravaged the underground economy constituted by Mistress Overdone and those like her. A prostitute who became unwholesome because of her affliction with such illnesses was liable to be cast out into oblivion and death. In a later era, William Hogarth would depict in his eight paintings collectively titled “A Rake’s Progress” (1735) the dreadful path followed by a wealthy merchant’s son who contracted syphilis and ruined his and others’ lives.

Enter Claudio, bitterly complaining that he is being grossly put on display by the Provost. This is what we would call a “perp walk” today. At the moment, Claudio is not waxing bitter towards those who have arrested him; he is rather philosophical about it, saying in accordance with St. Paul in Romans 9:15 that heaven will call down judgment “on whom it will” (111). All the same, he says, this is justice. The perspective Claudio offers does not greatly differ from what we will soon hear from the Duke: the looseness, the moral laxity, of men such as Claudio, is the cause of their suffering and shame. As this character admits eloquently, “Our natures do pursue, / Like rats that raven down their proper bane, / A thirsty evil, and when we drink, we die” (117-119). This understanding is of a piece with Shakespeare’s dark Sonnet 129, which describes the psychic economy of lust as follows: “none knows well / To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.” Centuries later, the Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins would write with similar clarity in one of his melancholy sonnets, “I see / The lost are like this, and their scourge to be / As I am mine, their sweating selves; but worse” (“I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day”).

Claudio tries to reckon with Lucio the cause of the harshness that Angelo has just shown against him, first advancing the Machiavellian point that the governor may be trying to set a new example for an unruly public. Then he comes around to suggesting that Angelo has had him arrested “for a name” (157), which is to say for enhancing his own reputation. In this passage, the young man sounds bitter, not philosophical as before. We begin to see a certain vacillation of temperament in this character that will soon turn problematic. Lucio’s quibbles effectively trivialize the offense, reducing it to simple sexual pleasure. Claudio puts his hopes in his virtuous sister Isabella, saying, “in her youth / There is a prone and speechless dialect, / Such as move men. Beside, she hath prosperous art / When she will play with reason and discourse, / And well she can persuade” (170-174). Perhaps with these gifts of beauty and rhetorical skill, Isabella can obtain her brother’s release.

Act 1, Scene 3 (pp. 907-08, Duke Vincentio explains to a friar his purposes for wanting to disguise himself as a friar and return to observe Vienna: he wants Angelo to impose strict justice to reset the city’s moral conduct, and he wants to see how power affects this “puritanical” young man.)

The Duke reassures his friend the friar that is visit has nothing to do with romantic matters, and gets to the point. He reminds the friar that he has “ever loved the life removed” (8), and reports that he has appointed Angelo to govern in his absence. And what is the reason? It is essentially a Machiavellian shift: the Duke admits that he has not maintained law and order in Vienna — he has “let slip” (20) the “strict statutes and most biting laws” (19) that would otherwise have been sufficient to keep order. The picture he paints of present day Vienna is not pretty. Will laws are flouted, and good people are abused. The friar is no politician, so he asks why the Duke does not simply reassert the laws himself. To this, the Duke replies that the correction would seem “too dreadful” (34), so he wants to avoid the appearance of tyranny (his term). When Angelo imposes strict punishments, the Duke’s name may come into it, but not, he thinks, his nature, and in this way, he will not incur the people’s hatred. This is logic straight from Machiavelli’s famous conduct book for rulers, The Prince. That author says that a prince should strive to be loved, but since being loved is not always possible, he should seek to be feared without being hated. At the extremes of such logic, we may be reminded of something Machiavelli’s ideal prince Cesare Borgia did: he allowed a lieutenant ruler to act with great severity, and then, when the people started to get really upset, he had the fellow cut in half and displayed in the public square. The Duke won’t carry things so far, but he delegates his severer functions of judgment and punishment to Angelo and Escalus. In essence, the balance between being loved and hated is to be respected. That seems to be what the Duke is aiming at. But the Duke’s description of the man he has appointed in his stead leads us to another purpose for disguising himself as a friar and returning to observe Vienna: “Lord Angelo is precise, / Stands at a guard with envy, scarce confesses / That his blood flows or that his appetite / Is more to bread than stone” (50-53). Given as much power as the Duke has granted Angelo, what will the latter man do, and what will be the consequences? The Duke will be interested to know: “Hence shall we see / If power change purpose, what our seemers be” (53-54).

Much about this scene might be taken as disturbing with regard to the Duke’s reasoning and even his character. He bears himself like an upright man, but his Machiavellian logic leads to a certain complexity or moral ambiguity in terms of how he plans to deal with a problem that, as he admits, he himself has largely caused and for which he bears responsibility. A common strain of interpretation in the criticism of Measure for Measure caststhe Duke as a godlike figure hiding himself but nonetheless dispensing ultimate justice to the souls in his charge. But is he, we might ask, instead treating his subjects like hapless animals in some potentially gruesome experiment?

Act 1, Scene 4 (pp. 908-10, Lucio visits Isabella’s convent of St. Clare, and enlists her aid in winning through her charm the release of her wayward brother Claudio. Isabella is at first doubtful, but agrees.)

Our first impression of Isabella is a rather strange one; she enters speaking with a more experienced nun, and immediately admits that she wishes the holy order which she is just now joining imposed even stricter rules. Critics have sometimes suggested that this desire may reveal something about Isabella’s psychosexual makeup. But more on this later on. Lucio soon enters on a mission from Claudio, Isabella’s brother. He relates the unfortunate situation of this brother to her, and she can scarcely believe it. Neither does she trust Lucio’s manner, but the man seems sincere in his desire to help Isabella get her brother out of his predicament. He reassures Isabella as follows: “I hold you as a thing enskied and sainted / By your renouncement, an immortal spirit…” (35-36). At base, says Lucio, Angelo has chosen to center his efforts on the sexual mores of Vienna’s citizens, and he wants to make an example of Claudio for getting Julia pregnant. It has been said that the prospect of being hanged focuses the mind like nothing else, and Angelo seeks to impose such focus on the wayward people of Vienna.

The most interesting part of the scene occurs near the end, at the point where Isabella, when asked to reflect upon or weigh the power she may have to help her brother, says, “My power? Alas, I doubt” (78). She probably just means, “I don’t believe I have any power to help my brother.” But Lucio’s response would seem to suggest another act of reflection on her part: “Our doubts are traitors / And makes us lose the good we oft might win, / By fearing to attempt” (78-80). Lucio brings into the conversation the concept of fear, not simply doubt in the modern sense. For the word “doubt” in Shakespeare’s day contained both meanings. He may be asking Isabella to look within herself and reflect that she has powers to move men that may frighten her: her beauty, her sexuality. And he wants her to consider these and use them. The rest of his speech to her makes this quite plain: “Go to Lord Angelo…” (80ff). Lucio is suggesting that even Angelo—severe, upright Angelo—is nonetheless a young man and that his shield of probity will prove no match for Isabella’s charm, if she will only deploy it. Isabella responds in a way that should give hope to Lucio and Claudio: “I’ll see what I can do” (84).

Aside on critical methodology: Lucio, a silly, foppish and often dishonest character, gets some wonderfully eloquent lines. See his concluding remarks to Isabella in this very scene, as well as his admiring remarks about Isabella’s rhetorical performance later in the play, when she tries to convince Angelo to relent. The same is true of Isabella herself, and Claudio. But does the Duke receive a similar allotment of fine speaking? If not, this may be another sign that this character can’t control things to the extent he would like. We might do well to think of Measure for Measure like a “city comedy,” wherein the power shifts from royal, magisterial figures like the Duke to the citizens themselves. Of course, if we take that approach, we may somewhat undermine the play’s overt treatment of reasserting control as a royal funtion. In any case, it’s worthwhile attending to the distribution of eloquence throughout Shakespeare’s plays: who speaks finely, who speaks plainly, and who seems most self-conscious about his or her way of speaking and observing the polite rules of decorum.

Act 2, Scene 1 (pp. 910-16, Escalus counsels moderation, but Angelo insists on condemning Claudio to death. The Provost enters with Pompey and Master Froth, offering a convoluted story alleging that his wife has been abused by them in Mistress Overdone’s establishment. Escalus is bemused, but dismisses Froth and indulgently lets Pompey go after scolding him. Escalus tells the Provost to bring some replacements for his office to court.)

This scene begins with Angelo and Escalus hashing out their thoughts on the fate of Claudio. Escalus tries to soften Angelo’s rigorous application of justice, asking him if indeed, he might have been tempted to do the same thing as Claudio did at some point or other in his past. To this reasonable plea for reflection, Angelo responds in a truly Shylockian manner: “’Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus, / Another thing to fall” (17). He admits that sometimes those who impose justice are themselves rascals, and that faults often go unnoticed, but sees no reason to attenuate his severity on that basis. All he can say is, “When I, that censure him, do so offend, / Let mine own judgment pattern out my death, / and nothing come in partial” (30-31). This is not far from Shylock’s exclamation, “My deeds upon my head!” (The Merchant of Venice 4.1.204). To this, Escalus can say very little because the power belongs to Angelo, not to him, and Angelo says Claudio must be executed tomorrow morning. But to himself, Escalus remarks upon the inconsistency of the application of law: “Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall” (38). That is a startling admission coming from a man tasked with applying the law.

With the entrance of the Provost followed by Constable Elbow and Master Frost along with the roguish Pompey, Escalus gets an opportunity to administer law more to his liking. What with all the double entendres, insinuations of immorality, malaproprisms, and just plain confusion and prolixity, it takes Escalus a few hundred lines to figure out more or less why Constable Elbow has brought these men in with him. It seems that the matter has to do with insults of a sexual nature being offered to the Constable’s own wife when she entered Mistress Overdone’s house of dubious propriety to buy some stewed prunes. Escalus and Angelo are both present at the outset of this comical interlude, but Angelo slips away as soon as he can, leaving the field to his second-in-command. Escalus takes the whole affair in good humor, and avoids imposing the severity that Angelo had already suggested. Escalus dismisses the addled Master Froth and lets Pompey go after scolding him for being something quite other than a “tapster,” as Pompey is pleased to call himself. Escalus has passed down a lax sentence of the very sort that allowed Vienna to slip into near-decadence. This is hardly the strict justice that the Duke had it in mind to reintroduce. All the same, it’s hard to blame Escalus since Constable Elbow is unable to specify the nature of the charges with anything like the precision needed to establish guilt. Pompey, as we can tell from his delighted reaction afterwards, has no intention of obeying the threat of a whipping: “I shall follow it as the flesh and fortune shall better determine” (230), says Pompey to himself. Still, Escalus’s decision seems in line with what Portia (as judge Balthasar) says incourt against Shylock: “The quality of mercy is not strained” (The Merchant of Venice 4.1.182). This scene has shown us that Escalus and Angelo are two very different men, operating at different levels of wisdom and maturity. Advantage, Escalus.

Act 2, Scene 2 (pp. 916-20, Isabella faces much resistance from Angelo in her suit to save her brother, but at last, with Lucio and the Provost looking on, her words and charm overcome Angelo’s denials, leaving him in agony.)

The Provost enters and in his way tries to get Angelo to delay execution of the sentence upon Claudio until he can reflect on its implications. But Angelo is in no mood to temporize. Isabella enters and soon begins her attempt to soften up Angelo. Her first gambit is to suggest, “let it be his fault, / And not my brother” (36-37). Angelo easily parries this attempt, and Isabella immediately gives up, only to be chided by Lucio, who tells her she is “too cold” (46). “Hate the sin, love the sinner” has not moved Angelo, so Isabella moves on to something like the modern driver’s complaint to a traffic cop: “But everyone else speeds too! What’s the big deal?” Isabella says, “I do think that you might pardon him, / And neither heaven nor man grieve at the mercy” (50-51). This line fails instantly, too, and Lucio again chides Isabella for her coldness. In Isabella’s next attempt, there is a mixture of straightforward pleading and expressions of anger, even reproach: “If he had been as you, and you as he, / You would have slipped like him, but he like you / Would not have been so stern” (65-67). She says that if she were a judge like him, she would show him a better way, a more merciful approach. Lucio is impressed with this, but Angelo still is not. Isabella next makes a bluntly religious appeal, saying, “Why, all the souls that were, were forfeit once, / And He that might the vantage best have took / Found out the remedy” (74-76). To this appeal to the pattern set by Christ, Angelo sets up a barrier by appealing to the law as an abstraction. Angelo, explains Angelo, does not condemn; the law does, and it cannot be put by.

Isabella’s next move is the Lucio -like claim that after all, the offense isn’t so terrible: “Who is it that hath died for this offense? / There’s many have committed it“ (88-89). Angelo’s response invokes the classic case for deterrence: when the law wakes up (his metaphor) to the evils being committed and punishes them appropriately, others will think twice before they do the same. Isabella moves on when this, too, fails to move Angelo, uttering the beautiful line that constitutes a deep reproach to him, “Oh, it is excellent / To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous / To use it like a giant” (108-110). Isabella’s following lines sound angry; she condemns the arrogance of “man, proud man, / Dressed in a little brief authority, / Most ignorant of what he’s most assured…” (118-120). Lucio is almost beside himself with joy at this rhetorical turn, and we may suspect that it is not only Isabella’s eloquent words that make him so happy as the passionate manner in which she seems to be speaking them. There is fire and righteous anger in her words. It’s clear that Angelo is moved, if not necessarily convinced by the logic of Isabella’s argument. But she tells him to look within himself, and examine his conscience: might he himself be guilty of something like the desire that led Claudio to sin? This seems cagey or canny on Isabella’s part because it is, we can tell from his words, precisely such desire that her words and manner have awakened in him: in an aside, he admits that his “sense breeds” (143) with hearing her good advice. He offers only to think further on the matter, but Isabella stops him in his tracks by employing the word “bribe” (146). She will bribe him, that is, with “true prayers” (152) and not with gold or jewels.

Clearly, once he is alone, Angelo is profoundly shaken by what he has just experienced. He soon comes to the heart of the matter: “What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo? / Dost thou desire her foully for those things / That make her good?” (175-177). He says that he always “smiled and wondered how” (189) when he came across infatuated lovers. He now finds that his dry, abstract notions of the Good are no match for Eros, for love in its fully physical manifestation.

Act 2, Scene 3 (pp. 920-21, The Duke, disguised as a friar, enters the prison in Vienna and counsels Juliet on how to bear up under the weight of her transgression with Claudio. He also informs her that Claudio is scheduled to be executed tomorrow.)

In this brief scene, the Duke, now disguised as a friar, visits the prison-house in Vienna and counsels Juliet, informing her as well that her lover, Claudio, is set to be executed tomorrow. Juliet voices content to the friar, saying that she accepts “the shame with joy” (36). But privately, she is stunned at the news about Claudio and apparently feels that the law has stolen all hope from her even as it spares her life: “O injurious love, / That respites me a life whose very comfort / Is still a dying horror” (41-42).

Act 2, Scene 4 (pp. 921-25, Angelo makes his indecent proposal. If Isabella will have sex with him, he will spare her brother. At first, Isabella does not understand, but then she is outraged at his repeated offer, and even threatens unsuccessfully to expose him. Alone at last, Isabella determines to visit Claudio in prison, sure that he will approve of her decision to preserve her chastity.)

Angelo continues to seethe with anxiety over his increasing passion for Isabella, and when she enters his chambers, he tenders her a brutally indecent proposal, repeating it — in a few instances garnished with hypothetical overtones — no fewer than four times without gaining her submission. It seems that Isabella values her chastity more than she values her brother’s life; in this way, she is just as much of a moral absolutist as Angelo had earlier professed to be when it came to enforcing the law. Isabella, however, shows herself more flexible than we might have thought, at least in the sense that she is willing to argue in a manner that softens Claudio’s so-called crime, and calls upon Angelo to consider not only heavenly justice but also the cost of his severity to those here on earth. Ultimately, her refusals expose Angelo’s utter hypocrisy, and he is left stammering that even if she exposes him, no one will believe an ordinary woman like her. As King Lear pointed out, “Robes and furred gowns hides all” (Lear Folio ed. 4.6.158). Isabella is certain that brother Claudio will support her insistence on maintaining her moral and sexual purity, even at the cost of his life. She’s in for quite a surprise, as we’ll soon find out.

It is worth noting the point-counterpoint structure playing Angelo’s declaration “now I give my sensual race the rein” (157) against Isabella’s passionate rejection: “the impression of keen whips I’d wear as rubies, / And strip myself to death as to a bed / That longing have been sick for, ere I’d yield / My body up to shame” (99-101). This is strongly masochistic sexual language. One could make a Freud-inspired reading of such language, one that suggests the psychic strain that this refusal—as part of Isabella’s ongoing dedication to sexual abstinence and purity—puts on Isabella as she squares off against Angelo with Claudio’s life in the balance. Shakespeare apparently did not need Sigmund Freud to tell him that one cannot simply dismiss “libidinal energy” even for the most holy purposes; the question comes down to how one invests such energy in life’s affairs. As passionately as Angelo allows his cruel sensuality to run riot (indeed, by the end of the scene he sounds like a typical stage villain) does Isabella cast herself into a rejection of her oppressor’s sensuality.

Act 3, Scene 1 (pp. 925-36, the Duke visits Claudio in prison, counseling him to accept his sentence. Isabella enters and unsettles Claudio by telling him of Angelo’s dastardly attempt on her virtue. The Duke-as-Friar takes Isabella aside, explaining how she can help rescue Claudio, do Angelo’s one-time fiancée Mariana a good turn, and expose Angelo’s misconduct. Constable Elbow brings Pompey by on his way to prison, and Lucio refuses to pay his bail; Lucio slanders the Duke, not realizing his “Friar” interlocutor is the man himself. Finally, Escalus marches Mistress Overdone the Madam off to jail, and briefly converses with the disguised Duke, who is then left alone to reflect on his plan to reestablish justice and equity in Vienna.)

The Duke-as-Friar offers Claudio a set-piece performance as if he were playing at being Marcus Aurelius or Boethius, remarking upon the nothingness of earthly vanity. On the whole, though, his speech sounds medieval in its reduction of an individual human life to abstraction: “For thou exists on many a thousand grains / That issue out of dust” (20-21). The Duke at first seems to have won Claudio over with this rather wooden performance, but the young man’s resolve crumbles almost immediately when Isabella enters the picture. The two of them go back and forth, and when Isabella thinks she has brought him around to her eternity-regarding perspective, she tells him, “there my father’s grave / Did utter forth a voice” (85-86). But this victory is premature. When Claudio hears that the stumbling block is Isabella’s virginity, he loses his resolve, and begins almost to side with Angelo and take his perspective on the matter: “Sure it is no sin, / Or of the deadly seven it is the least” (109-10). And at last he is reduced to the utterance, “Death is a fearful thing” (116) and to some very Dantean-sounding imaginings of what it is like to be dead and to suffer the pains of hell. This is too much for Isabella, who sharply rebukes him and calls him a coward. She asks him pointedly, “Is’t not a kind of incest to take life / From thine own sister’s shame?” (139-40). We need not take this literally, but there’s a strong point nonetheless: when Claudio seems almost to side with Angelo, he becomes that man’s confederate against Isabella: they’re practically the same man, as if they were members of an “old boys’ club.” Claudio would seem to dismiss the value of something that is more important to Isabella than life itself: her chastity. This portion of the scene (lines 1-152) ends distressingly, with Claudio continuing to beseech his sister to save him, and Isabella becoming more and more hostile towards him.

At this point, the disguised Duke reenters and again seems to resolve Claudio to accept his fate. He claims, falsely, that Angelo is merely testing Isabella. But when he speaks with the latter alone, he admits that it seems Angelo really has made her an indecent proposal. Isabella on her own cannot see a way out of the predicament her brother is in. But the Duke has a clever plan; he tells Isabella that “you may most uprighteously do a poor / wronged lady a merited benefit; redeem your brother from / the angry law; do no stain to your own gracious person; and / much please the absent Duke…” (195-198). This plot will involve Mariana, the sister of a renowned soldier named Frederick. She was supposed to be married to Angelo, but this callous man was put off by the loss of her dowry when Frederick suffered a shipwreck and perished. The Duke explains that far from conceiving a hatred of Angelo, Mariana still loves him, and pines for him. This opens the door for Isabella to save the day: all she has to do, explains the Duke, is pretend she is willing to sleep with Angelo after all. Then, at the assignation place, Mariana will substitute for Isabella. This is basically the ancient “bed trick” of literary renown, and it is here in the present play to rescue Claudio and make long-suffering Mariana whole. Isabella, for her part, is delighted at the plan. So ends this part of the scene (153-257).

Constable Elbow soon drags Pompey the pimp onto the scene, intending to bring him to prison. The disguised Duke chastises Pompey severely, and recommends severe punishment to cure him of his sinful state.At least in disguise, the Duke seems to have benefited from his absence from the seat of power: he is able to speak bluntly to Pompey and call him out for what he is, rather than temporizing or winking at his deep fault. Lucio, for his part, refuses to help Pompey, jestingly turning down the man’s request for bail money. Lucio’s reason has nothing to do with virtue—it’s merely “the wear” (323), meaning “fashion,” that leads him to say no. Add to that a generous helping of stinginess.

As soon as things have wrapped up with Elbow and Pompey (258-334), the Duke finds himself alone with one Lucio, hanger-on and gossip-monger extraordinaire. This foppish, if articulate and witty, character proceeds to insult Angelo’s strict substitute rule and to slander the Duke to his face, although unknowingly since the Duke is of course disguised as “Friar Lodowick.” Aside from simply being a hilariously entertaining interaction for the audience, the conversation suggests that Lucio is a pretty good embodiment of the general public in a state that has gone to seed, or that threatens to do so. While Lucio’s claims about the Duke’s corrupt and dissolute ways are utterly false, as suppositions they are not entirely groundless. If immorality and criminality are rampant in a populace, we might suggest, the best place to look for the source is the people’s governors, who are probably setting a terrible example for the commonfolk. At the same time, Lucio offers a reasonably cogent view of the prospects of austere do-gooders and reformers generally when he says of the vice of lechery, “it is impossible to extirp it quite, Friar, till / eating and drinking be put down” (348-49). But of course saying this in no way excuses the pompous, insinuating ass Lucio, who is falsely asserting that he has personal, intimate knowledge of the Duke’s alleged transgressions (lechery, drunkenness, and even superficiality). The Duke shows considerable restraint in remaining civil in the face of such a brazen slanderer, who fervently wishes for the lax Duke’s return and yet, as the Duke himself tells him, ought to fear that outcome above all else. And so ends this portion of the scene (335-418).

All that remains from 419-509 is for Angelo’s second-in-command Escalus to order the Bawd (Mistress Overdone, that is) off to prison and leave room for Escalus and the Duke-as-Friar to hold some conversation. Before she’s swept away, however, she lets slip a damning piece of information against Lucio: he got the prostitute Kate Keepdown pregnant and then failed to do right by her and the child. Escalus, alone with the Provost and the Duke-as-Friar, informs him that Angelo is constant in his decision to have Claudio executed tomorrow. The Duke apprises the state of the world’s affairs bleakly, saying that inconstancy and mistrust reign everywhere. The riddle that explains it all, he says, is “There is / scarce truth enough alive to make societies secure, but / security enough to make fellowships accursed” (457-59). One reading of this language might be that the Duke shares something of Sir Francis Bacon’s pessimism in his essay “Of Truth” (1625), which concludes (in homage to Luke 18:8), “When Christ cometh, ‘[H]e shall not find faith upon the earth.’” (See Bacon’s The Essays or Counsels, Civil and Moral, of Francis Ld. Verulam, Viscount of St. Albans.) Add to this the melancholy realization that humankind’s faithlessness and scorn for truth leads them to load themselves down with financial and legal bonds, which are more symptomatic of universal corruption than curative of the ills they purport to redress. When Escalus exits, ruing the rigid severity of his immediate superior Angelo—“he is indeed Justice” (482)—the Duke is left to his own reflections. Angelo, says the Duke in rhyming trimeter, sums up Angelo’s example thus: “He who the sword of heaven will bear / Should be as holy as severe” (488-89). There’s more than a hint here that if the Duke ever hoped or believed mortals had any business acting with the severity of his Deputy Angelo, the outcome of that experiment has provided him with a powerful corrective. “Surprised by sin” is a phrase made famous by critic Stanley Fish in his brilliant analysis of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and we might do well to apply here, too: just as the pretended Puritan Saint Angelo is surprised by his propensity to indulge his own cruel lust, so is the Duke at least a little surprised, and more than a little displeased, that his experiment with Angelo has gone so far sideways as to threaten severe harm to his subjects. It is not for fallen humans to play Christ the Judge, and the Duke wisely determines that he must use a classic bit of deceit to establish the partial degree of virtue and equity possible in a saucy world: “Craft against vice I must apply” (504). We know this means corralling Angelo into a marriage with Mariana, a woman who inexplicably still loves him, but the final two acts will lead us to the rest of the Duke’s dispensation, such as it is.

Act 4, Scene 1 (pp. 936-38, Description.)

To be continued….

Act 4, Scene 2 (pp. 938-42, Description.)


Act 4, Scene 3 (pp. 943-46, Description.)


Act 4, Scene 4 (pp. 946-47, Description.)


Act 4, Scene 5 (pg. 947, Description.)


Act 4, Scene 6 (pp. 947-48, Description.)


Act 5, Scene 1 (pp. 948-59, Description.)


Copyright © 2023 Alfred J. Drake

All’s Well That Ends Well

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links

Shakespeare, William. All’s Well That Ends Well (Norton Comedies, 2nd ed. 911-79).

Act 1, Scene 1 (919-24, Elders’ hopes for the young; Helen’s idolatry of Bertram; Paroles)

The countess and Lafeu posit a balance in the young between inherited virtue and acquired grace and honor.  The Countess says of Helen that she “derives her honesty and achieves her goodness” (920, 1.1.40), while the wish for Bertram is, “Thy blood and virtue / Contend for empire in thee” (920, 1.1.55-56).  Helen, however, looks forward to her immediate future with the unsparing determination we find in Tolstoy’s story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.”  The tears she cries are not for her father, and her grief seems to be more pretense than sincere affection.  The obstacle in her way is Bertram’s great rank.  The affection she feels for this man amounts to the product of “idolatrous fancy” (921, 1.1.92), says Helen, especially since it is not reciprocated by Bertram: “’Twere all one / That I should love a bright particular star / And think to wed it, he is so above me” (921, 1.1.80-82).

Helen’s conversation with Paroles centers upon the concept of virginity, which of course this rascal dismisses out of hand as worthless, or at best a fashionable commodity to be sold to the highest bidder at the best time: “Off with’t while ‘tis vendible.  Answer the time / of request.  Virginity like an old courtier wears her cap out of fashion …” (922, 1.1.143-45).  Helen’s regard for this parasite, whom she sees for what he is, stems from her admiration for Bertram.  Nonetheless, she manages to get in some excellent barbs: “The wars hath so kept you under that you must needs be born under Mars” (923, 1.1.101).

Paroles dismissed after his pledge to “return perfect courtier” (923, 1.1.192), we see Helen’s faith in merit properly showcased over destiny and the handicaps such quality sometimes confronts: “Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie / Which we ascribe to heaven…. / … Who ever strove / To show her merit that did miss her love?” (923, 1.1.199-200, 209-10)  Helen already has it in mind to pay the king a visit and try her father’s cure: “The King’s disease—my project may deceive me, / But my intents are fixed and will not leave me” (924, 1.1.211-12).

Act 1, Scene 2 (924-25, King welcomes Bertram, but praises Bertram’s father more)

In the second scene, there is still more praise amongst the elders when the king showers encomiums upon Bertram’s father: “He had the wit which can well observe / Today in our young lords, but they may jest / Till their own scorn return to them unnoted / Ere they can hide their levity in honour…” (924-25, 1.2.32-48).  The Second Lord Dumaine suggests that young aristocrats need the exercise of war to keep them sharp and in line: though the king won’t send the Florentines any help directly because the Duke of Austria has asked him to refrain, some martial experience “well may serve / A nursery to our gentry, who are sick / For breathing and exploit” (924, 1.2.15-17).  This advice no doubt plays to the aging king’s anxiety about the transference of deep qualities and proper forms from the old to a new generation.  (We might question whether or not military experience does anything for Bertram, but that’s a question for later.) 

The king reflects that Bertram’s father had said young people care for nothing but fashion, implying that the young inevitably exhaust their energy upon unworthy objects: “‘Let me not live’, quoth he, / ‘After my flame lacks oil, to be the snuff / Of younger spirits, whose apprehensive senses / All but new things disdain, whose judgements are / Mere fathers of their garments, whose constancies / Expire before their fashions’” (925, 1.2.58-63).  What’s in doubt here, as mentioned above, is the success of a process central to many of Shakespeare’s comedies: the transference of virtue from one generation to the next.  Is there any continuity beyond the lowest common denominator, the shallowest patterns of conduct and belief?  Yet this anxiety is set forth with becoming humility: of himself, the king says in response to the Second Lord Dumaine’s praise, “I fill a place, I know’t” (925, 1.2.69).  Bertram exits after his warm reception by the king.

Act 1, Scene 3 (925-31, Lavatch the pragmatics, materialist; countess sides with Helen, who will go to court to try a cure)

Lavatch doesn’t pay much attention to the concept of virtue, whether inner or outer.  Parodically recycling this play’s emphasis on organic imagery implying nourishment and growth, he even praises adultery: “He that / ears my land spares my team, and gives me leave to in the / crop…. / He that comforts my wife is the cherisher of my flesh and blood …” (926, 1.3.38-41).  This character is a naturalist who doesn’t suppose there is any way to escape from the world, the flesh, or the devil: as he says while explaining to the countess why he intends to marry, “My poor body, madam, requires it.  I am driven on by / the flesh, and he must needs go that the devil drives” (926, 1.3.24-25). 

When Reynaldo reports on Helen’s affection for Bertram (927-28, 1.3.94-98), the countess sides entirely with natural desire and quality in the person of Helen: “Even so it was with me when I was young” (928, 1.3.112-13).  She is charitable where this young woman is concerned, and somewhat shocked when Helen seems afraid of the term “mother” (928, 1.3.139-40).  Helen certainly shows her merit when she confesses her thoughts about Bertram to the countess, saying, “I follow him not / By any token of presumptuous suit, / Nor would I have him till I do deserve him …” (929, 1.3.181-83).  She shows it too in her determination at this early point to risk her life in administering her father’s medicines to cure the king: “I’d venture / The well-lost life of mine on his grace’s cure …” (930, 1.3.233-34).

A key issue in the play is the propensity in individuals and entire societies to hollow out even their deepest values and become empty formalists.  Bertram is such a formalist.  No doubt Shakespeare’s Renaissance women liked a project.  But is Bertram a project that can be redeemed from failure—is he worth the effort?  That is a question to ask as we go through the play and see how things turn out.

At this point, I’ll just suggest that perhaps this play is not so much about the usual happy transition of a value system intact to a younger generation but instead about accommodation between old and young, and one young person and another by arrangement; it’s about mediating between the common lot of any rank and excellence so that a satisfactory solution can be obtained.  The eventual marriage between Helen and Bertram may be nothing more than an excellent marriage of convenience backed by the power of a countess and a king.  In a sense, the countess is doing what aristocrats eventually must do: invigorating her stock with new blood.

Act 2, Scene 1 (931-35, Paroles counsels Bertram to pay homage to military fashion; Helen succeeds in her pitch to the king)

In advising Bertram to show more regard for the Lords Dumaine, Paroles intimates that he’s always willing to fit in, to conform and follow the courtly and military fashions of great lords: “for they wear themselves / in the cap of the time” (932, 2.1.51-52).  Belonging is his imperative, not merit. 

Lafeu cajoles the king into admitting Helen: “… I have seen a medicine / That’s able to breathe life into a stone …” (932, 2.1.70-71).  The king at first refuses Helen’s offer to cure him since he believes it would be indecorous and perhaps even undermine his dignity: he “may not be so credulous of cure, / When our most learned doctors leave us …” (933, 2.1.112-13).  But in the end, Helen wins the argument by her boldness: “Oh heaven, not me, make an experiment” (934, 2.1.153).  The young woman must venture her very life (935, 2.1.173) for this royal place-filler, but in return she will gain exemption from the charge of trying to rise beyond her place.  There will be a suspension of the ordinary rules in this matter: “Then shalt thou give me with thy kingly hand / What husband in thy power I will command. / Exempted be from me the arrogance / To choose from forth the royal blood of France …” (2.1.192-95).  Historically, the rules weren’t exactly rigid in the first place, and even illegitimacy wasn’t necessarily a bar to advancement if one had the right backing.  But I leave that aside.

Act 2, Scene 2 (936-37, Lavatch’s courtly critique: “O Lord, sir!”)

Bantering with the countess, Lavatch utters his wonderful catch-phrase “O Lord, Sir!” (936, 2.2.36) redolent of courtly deception and evasion: it’s the kind of thing you’d say when you want to intimate that you can’t believe your interlocutor would be so naïve or impertinent as to ask such a question.  This is the opposite of Helen’s bluntness in advancing her love for Bertram, even though she resorts to a species of sanctioned deception to complete the match.  The countess drives home the play’s interest in youth and age in her manner of soliciting Lavatch to make good on his offer of courtly insight: “To be young again, if we could!  I will be a fool in / question, hoping to be the wiser by your answer.  I pray you, sir, / are you a courtier?” (936, 2.2.32-34)

Act 2, Scene 3 (937-43, King’s recovery; Bertram rejects Helen, overawed by king; Lafeu pegs Paroles; Bertram decides to escape Helen and France for the Florentine wars)

The king enters fully recovered, and even dancing: says Lafeu, “Why, he’s able to lead her a coranto” (938, 2.3.40), and again we see that the old in this play are not so irrelevant after all.  They are not stage props.  But when Helen chooses him out of an aristo-lineup with the formula, “I dare not say I take you, but I give / Me and my service ever whilst I live / Into your guiding power” (939, 2.3.98-100), Bertram rejects what is effectively the king’s choice and will not take Helen for his wife.  This rejection is obviously understandable in purely human terms: Helen has said she will not force herself on the young man, but nonetheless she forcibly gives herself to him even though he does not want her.  Under the circumstances, Bertram’s request, “In such a business give me leave to use / The help of mine own eyes” (939, 2.3.103-04) sounds reasonable.  Still, reciprocity may not be the issue here: the king’s will is supreme in such a society as Shakespeare conjures, and Bertram is being disrespectful since he’s the king’s ward. 

It’s clear that the king believes his authority has been impudently challenged by a subject.  Part of his reasoning with Bertram lies in trying to explain to the brittle young man where “honor” comes from in the first place: “’Tis only title thou disdain’st in her, the which / I can build up” (939, 2.3.113-14) and “From lowest place when virtuous things proceed, / The place is dignified by th’doer’s deed” (940, 2.3.121-22).  But when that logic fails, the king gets to the point: “My honour’s at the stake, which to defeat / I must produce my power” (940, 2.3.145-46).  Overawed at last, Bertram makes a hollow submission: “I submit / My fancy to your eyes” (940, 2.3.163-64). 

And then comes Paroles, who comically rejects the category of servitude to which Bertram has just offered unsuccessful battle.  Lafeu is always needling Paroles, playing him like a fiddle: “Your lord and master did well to make his recantation,” offers Lafeu, to which Paroles replies, “Recantation?  My lord?  My master?” (941, 2.3.182-83).  One wants to say of this character much the same thing Kent says about the corrupt servant Oswald in King Lear: “Nature disclaims in thee: / a tailor made thee” (Norton Tragedies, 762, 2.2.48).  The clothes really do make this man, and he is not well-made.  Lafeu’s put-down of Paroles is classic: “I did think thee for two ordinaries to be a pretty wise / fellow…. / Yet the scarves and the bannerets about thee did mani- / foldly dissuade me from believing thee a vessel of too great a / burden… (941, 2.3.195-199).

The elderly Lafeu has the perspicacity to make this judgment after a few suppers’ talk with Paroles, a man whose words and decking-out don’t match his true qualities or deeds.  Perhaps we had best not make too much of this species of wisdom since, after all, Bertram comes by it without too much of a struggle later in the play (Act 4), allowing the Lords Dumaine to demonstrate the true mettle of one Paroles, liar and coward.

In any case, Bertram huddles with Paroles after Lafeu is finished insulting the fop, and decides to leave France and Helen in favor of participating in the Florentine wars: “Wars is no strife / To the dark house and the detested wife” (943, 2.3.275-76).

Act 2, Scene 4 (943-44, Lavatch’s pessimism; Helen obeys Bertram’s wish through Paroles: leave the court)

Lavatch insists that the countess is not well for two simple reasons: “One, that she’s not in heaven …. / The other, that she’s in earth …” (943, 2.4.9-10).  He is ever the pessimist, and as the Norton editors point out, he is echoing the ancient notion of Solon and later the Greek tragedian Sophocles in Oedipus Rex: count no one happy until he or she has died well.  This insight gives way to a silly wit-match between Lavatch and Paroles (943-44, 2.4.15-34), and a simple declaration of obedience from Helen when she hears that Bertram wants her to take her leave from the king’s court and go home: “In everything / I wait upon his will” (944, 2.4.50-51).  She will not keep to this declaration, we should note with approval.

Act 2, Scene 5 (944-46, Lafeu needles Paroles in Bertram’s presence; Bertram gives Helen a letter, refuses a parting kiss, prepares to leave France)

Lafeu continues to needle Paroles, hoping to disabuse Bertram of his admiration for this fool.  “The soul of this man is in his clothes. / Trust him not in matter of heavy consequence” (945, 2.5.40-41).  But it is too soon for Bertram to accept such a verdict against a man who is, after all, counseling him to do precisely what he wants to do.  Bertram hands Helen a letter to be opened by his mother, rudely refuses his bride’s polite request for a kiss, and prepares to take his leave from France without bothering to visit the king as required (946, 2.5.65-82).  It would be difficult for our opinion of Bertram to get any worse, but he will manage to do something in that regard later.

Act 3, Scenes 1-2 (946-50, Bertram’s letters to the countess and Helen: his impossible conditions for accepting Helen; Helen stricken with guilt, determines to depart)

The Duke of Florence prepares for battle in the first scene (946-47, 3.1.1-23), and the second scene takes us to the countess, Helen, and Lavatch in France.  First comes Bertram’s letter explaining why he has run away to the wars, and this of course earns the countess’s disapproval (947, 3.2.19-25).  In a separate letter to Helen, Bertram sets forth what he thinks are the impossible conditions for his acceptance of her: “When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never / shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that / I am father to, then call me husband …” (948, 3.2.55-57).

We learn Helen’s fearful reaction to this piece of news: she believes she has driven Bertram to this extreme and put him in deadly peril: “And is it I / That drive thee from the sportive court … / to be the mark / Of smoky muskets?” (949, 3.2.105-08)  This is what determines her to leave Roussillon: “My being here it is that holds thee hence” (949, 3.2.123).  Apparently, she has not yet conceived of her device to satisfy Bertram’s conditions.

Act 3, Scenes 3-4 (950-51, Bertram’s at the wars, Helen’s gone, the countess hopes for a reconciliation)

In the third scene, we learn that Bertram pays homage to drums of war, not thoughts of love: “Great Mars, I put myself into thy file” (950, 3.3.9), and in the fourth, Reynaldo informs the countess that Helen has supposedly decided to go on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James in Compostela, Spain.  The countess still hopes for a reconciliation in the aftermath of this news, and finds that she can’t choose between them: “Which of them both / Is dearest to me I have no skill in sense / To make distinction” (951, 3.4.38-40).

Act 3, Scene 5 (951-53, Widow Capilet and Diana watch soldiers pass, Helen invites them to dinner)

The action now moves to Florence, where Widow Capilet and her daughter Diana (along with Mariana) are watching the soldiers file by below (951-52).  Helen (who has apparently changed her plans from that visit to the shrine in Spain) finds out in talking to them that Paroles has been badmouthing her, and she is hardly surprised to hear it (952, 3.5.55-59).  Helen invites the two women to supper (953, 3.5.95-96).

Act 3, Scene 6 (953-55, Lords Dumaine prevail upon Bertram to try Paroles’ mettle)

Bertram’s two friends, the first and second Lord Dumaine, are trying to disabuse him of his regard for Paroles (953-55).  By now, Bertram is open to the idea of testing this detestable character, having heard his friends declare the man “a most notable coward, an infinite and endless / liar, an hourly promise-breaker …” (954, 3.6.10-11).   The idea is to pretend to capture Paroles, and get him to betray everyone he knows to the enemy.  As we shall see, Paroles will go them one better, insulting his comrades with abandon.  But for the moment, all we have is the plan.  The two lords are very good at predicting exactly what the rascal will do: he’s the sort of person who might escape condemnation for a week because he’s a good talker, but as the first Lord Dumaine says, “when you find him out, you have him ever after” (955, 3.6.84).

Act 3, Scene 7 (956-57, Helen enlists Widow Capilet’s Diana into her Bertram-scheme: bed trick)

Helen now draws the widow and her daughter into her device to win back Bertram: first she admits that she is his wife, and then instructs the daughter to consent to Bertram’s advances (956, 3.7.17-36).  She is to demand of him the ancestral ring he wears, and then get out of the way so that Helen may occupy her place in bed with Bertram.  Helen describes the virtue of this trick as “… wicked meaning in a lawful deed / And lawful meaning in a wicked act, / Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact” (957, 3.7.45-47).  She admits, in other words, that she is practicing deception and that he is attempting adultery, but what they do will be legitimate.  Thwarting Bertram’s will is entirely acceptable in this play.

Act 4, Scene 1 (957-59, Self-aware Paroles is trapped, baited by “barbarians” Dumaine & Co.; he offers to betray his own side)

Paroles opens up the gap between words and action, and (in his case, anyway) the infinite space between those realms terrifies him.  He’s quite self-aware, which makes him interesting, knave though he is.  In him we can hear the strains of self-disgust, and a proof, if one were needed, that Oscar Wilde’s quip about action making us puppets and slaves of mere necessity needs some glossing: certain kinds of talk is more likely than others to lead us into that trap, isn’t it?  Here we catch Paroles narrating the story of himself to himself, so to speak.  He doesn’t make sense to himself—why, oh why do I do it? he asks, and there’s no reason given why he’s pledged himself to a thing impossible: “What the devil should move me to undertake the / recovery of this drum …?” (957, 4.1.31-33)  Shakespeare is interested in the power of the lie, the seeming groundlessness of human dishonesty at times.  Queen Elizabeth’s sometime Lord Chancellor Sir Francis Bacon muses in his 1601 essay “Of Truth” the following, which is very relevant to us in trying to understand Paroles and other such rogues, and perhaps ourselves:

But it is not only the difficulty and labor, which men take in finding out of truth, nor again, that when it is found, it imposeth upon men’s thoughts, that doth bring lies in favor; but a natural, though corrupt love, of the lie itself. One of the later school of the Grecians, examineth the matter, and is at a stand, to think what should be in it, that men should love lies; where neither they make for pleasure, as with poets, nor for advantage, as with the merchant; but for the lie’s sake. But I cannot tell; this same truth, is a naked, and open day-light, that doth not show the masks, and mummeries, and triumphs, of the world, half so stately and daintily as candle-lights. Truth may perhaps come to the price of a pearl, that showeth best by day; but it will not rise to the price of a diamond, or carbuncle, that showeth best in varied lights. A mixture of a lie doth ever add pleasure. Doth any man doubt, that if there were taken out of men’s minds, vain opinions, flattering hopes, false valuations, imaginations as one would, and the like, but it would leave the minds, of a number of men, poor shrunken things, full of melancholy and indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?  (public domain e-text source)

The lie, then, knits men together in a web of pleasurable, optimistic deceit, and makes them “pleasing to themselves.”  The truth makes us feel common and limited, but the dim light of falsity shows us to ourselves and others as things precious.  But Bacon’s essays deliberately never try to exhaust their subject matter, so there is more to it than this, we can be sure.  And that “more to it” seems to be what troubles Paroles—that “corrupt love of the lie” to which Bacon alludes is something of a mystery, and perhaps all one can do to cover up the abyss of the thing is to point towards some concept like original sin or the inherent depravity of mankind.  The Second Lord Dumaine suggests as much with his incredulous question, “Is it possible he should know / what he is, and be that he is?” (957, 4.1.39-40)

Shakespeare has some linguistic fun in this scene, with those nonsense fake-Russian phonemes or whatever they are—good old polyglot Europe!  Their purpose, as the Second Lord Dumaine has already explained (957, 4.1.1-5), is not to be comprehensible, but instead to be ferocious and put up a wall between Paroles and his hopes for deliverance.  They are the sauce to his plate of fear, and underlying that fear is Paroles’ own insight into his nature.  Well, language is a surprisingly varied and effective means of miscommunication: “Oscorbidulchos volivorco!” (958, 4.1.74)  Paroles, of course, offers his captors nothing less than total knowledge: “all the secrets of our camp I’ll show” (958, 4.1.79).

Act 4, Scene 2 (959-60, Diana procures Bertram’s ring as he tries to seduce her)

Bertram employs the rhetoric of youthful dalliance and passion, which we know as carpe diem talk.  “If the quick fire of youth light not your mind,” he says to Diana, “You are not maiden but a monument” (959, 4.2.5-6).  But Diana, whose very name reminds us of the most chaste goddess among the Greeks, is more than a match for Bertram’s seductive words, thanks to Helen’s assistance.  Diana easily procures the ring from Bertram, doing her part in Helen’s scheme.  She promises Bertram that she will give him a ring in turn along with her chastity (960, 4.2.55-66).  Diana is very much a believer in the logic of the play’s title—all’s well that ends well: she has no plans to marry, but doesn’t mind helping Helen: “… in this disguise I think’t no sin / To cozen him that would unjustly win” (960, 4.2.76-77).

Act 4, Scene 3 (961-67, Bertram’s conscience awakens at false news of Helen’s death; Paroles is completely humiliated, unmasked as a liar and coward, but he’s resilient in knavery)

Does shallow Bertram now feel the sting of conscience?  That seems to be what the second Lord Dumaine thinks at the beginning of the scene.  Upon reading his mother’s letter, Bertram, we are told, “changed almost into another man” (961, 4.3.5).  The first Lord Dumaine reports and apparently believes that Helen has passed away at the end of her pilgrimage to St. Jacques the grand.  Bertram, as he tells us himself, has been extremely busy taking his leave of the Duke, burying his supposedly deceased wife, writing to his mother and planning to go home and visit her, and other things.  He is still looking forward to Paroles’s unmasking.  This trick of course parallels the trick that is being played upon Bertram himself, though he does not know that: a good example of dramatic irony since we, the audience, know something Bertram doesn’t.

Paroles is utterly humiliated in this scene (963-67), and infers the lesson from this experience for himself.  He is drawn into insulting just about everyone he knows, including the brothers Dumaine, the Duke of Florence, and Bertram.  He assails their virtue in every possible way, military and otherwise.  And his response to this humiliating episode is priceless: “Who cannot be crushed with a plot?”  (967, 4.3.302).  The two key things he says to conclude the scene are as follows: “Simply the thing I am / Shall make me live.”  And again, “There’s place and means for every man alive” (967, 4.3.310-11, 316).  He has been found out as a liar, a coward, and a knave, but there’s still a place for him in the saucy world—it’s big enough to accommodate a relatively harmless rascal like Paroles.

But as the Norton editors imply, he is not the kind of mover and shaker that Helen is.  She puts her body behind her words, and Paroles is all talk and no action, no body, and ultimately nobody important.  The editors describe Paroles’ method well when they suggest that he keeps introducing himself in ever-diminished ways into an environment that obviously has no love for him (917).  The world is by no means perfect, but at least it can be patient.  There is opportunity for many talents, not all of them honorable and Paroles, we might add, is useful as a touchstone against which to measure one’s own honor.  Honor, we should remember from what the king has said about it in praising Bertram’s departed father (924-25, 1.2.32-48), has much to do with the willingness to speak chastely and modestly and to back up one’s words with actions.

Act 4, Scene 4 (967-68, Helen informs Diana of plan’s next step: to French court)

Helen fills in Diana and her mother about the next part of her plan—Diana must go to the French court—and tells her that “All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown / Whate’er the course, the end is the renown” (968, 4.4.35).  We forget the hazy details that shape and conduce towards an action: what matters is the virtuous result.  The chaos of youthful desire must give way to the order of responsible maturity.  I believe that’s what Helen is implying here, at least indirectly.

Act 4, Scene 5 (968-70, Countess and Lafeu praise Lavatch; Lafeu’s daughter Maudlin set to marry “widower” Bertram)

Lafeu and the countess are still mourning the loss of Helen, or so they think.  Lavatch lays claim to a kind of virtue we know he doesn’t possess: “… I am for the house with the narrow gate” (969, 4.5.40-44).  Both the countess and Lafeu consider Lavatch’s bitter foolishness appropriate (969, 4.5.52-57).  It seems appropriate to the time.  Lafeu plans to have his own daughter marry Bertram now that the young man is supposedly a widower, and the countess finds the plan unobjectionable.

Act 5, Scene 1 (970-71, the king’s at Roussillon, so Helen gives her petition to a gentleman)

Helen proposes to petition the king in Marseille, but he is not there and has gone to Roussillon.  She asks a traveling gentleman to convey her petition to that place (970-71, 5.1.32-37).

Act 5, Scene 2 (971-72, Paroles will have a place at Lafeu’s table: diminished but resilient)

Paroles enters and must ingratiate himself at Roussillon, and finds that Lafeu is more than tolerant: “Though you are a / fool and a knave, you shall eat” (972, 5.2.44-45).

Act 5, Scene 3 (972-79, Ring device explains all thanks to Diana and then Helen; Bertram professes love for Helen; “all’s well”: accommodation and/or true love?)

The king grieves for Helen, and informs the countess that he has “forgiven and forgotten all”  with regard to Bertram (972, 5.3.9).  The young man will be only “a stranger, not an offender” (972, 5.3.26).  Should we believe Bertram when he says that now that Helen is gone, he sincerely loves her? (973, 5.3.45-56)  The king holds it a decent thing to say, but it obviously does not altogether excuse Bertram’s conduct: “That thou didst love her strikes some scores away …” (973, 5.3.57).

In any case, it’s time for Bertram to get married to Lafeu’s daughter Maudlin.  Now we are on to “the ring device” (973-end) by which the play’s contradictions will be resolved.  Bertram gives Lafeu the ring that Diana, at the behest of Helen, had given him at their supposed tryst.  Lafeu recognizes the very same ring as the one he saw on Helen’s finger before she left court (973-74, 5.3.80-82).  The king, to make matters worse, takes a look at the ring and realizes it is the one he had given Helen as a token if she ever needed his help.  He now suspects that Bertram has done away with Helen by foul play since she told him before she left the court that she would never part with the ring “Unless she gave it to yourself [Bertram] in bed” or “sent it us / Upon her great disaster” (974, 5.3.105-13).  Bertram is promptly arrested.

Now the Florentine gentleman shows up with Diana’s petition and when the king reads it aloud (975, 5.3.141-47), it accuses Bertram of seducing her.  She follows him to the court, she says, to obtain justice.  Diana soon walks onto the scene (975, 5.3.161-62), and Bertram tries to dismiss the entire affair as the invention of “a fond and desperate / creature (976, 5.3.179).  The countess is certain that Bertram has married Diana—the ring proves it (976, 5.3.200-01).  Paroles is called in by Diana to witness the truth of her claims, and before he comes forward, Bertram is at least forced to admit that he knows Diana, but he insists that it is she who seduced him, not the other way around (976-77, 5.3.213-21).  Paroles gives his turgid testimony: “He loved her, sir, and loved her not” (977, 5.3.249, see also 977-78, 5.3.257-63), and then Diana perplexes and enrages the king by refusing to clear up for him how she came by the ring in the first place.  She states the central riddle of the recent action: Bertram is “guilty, and he is not guilty,” and she is both a maiden and not a maiden (978, 5.3.286-90, 292-301).

Helen enters and clears up everything at long last, pointing out to Bertram that his conditions have been fulfilled (979, 5.3.306-10).  The astonished Bertram says only, “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly / I’ll love her dearly, ever ever dearly” (979, 5.3.312-13).  I take it that “ever ever” means “always and very” rather than “very, very” (a phony double asseveration).  Either way, is it sincere emotion, or hollow declamation to suit the king’s will, now that Bertram has learned what a bad move it is to run against that will?

The king pronounces the final variation on the play’s title: “All yet seems well; and if it end so meet, / The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet” (979, 5.3.329-30).  The question of ethics is addressed in the sense that deception has been turned to good ends; what Bertram thought he was doing was not in fact what he ends up having done.  This forgotten or at least forgiven, the result is a livable accommodation between Bertram and Helen, and a rich dower for whomever Diana may choose to marry.  Indeed, seldom outside of Nietzsche’s needling prose has the work of civilization been so sorely in need of that ruthless “forgetting” necessary to its perpetuation.  The sweet puts us out of mind of the bitter, like a mellow glass of red wine at the end of a difficult day.

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