Much Ado about Nothing

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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

Act 1, Scene 1

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

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

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

Act 1, Scene 2

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

Act 1, Scene 3

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

Act 2, Scene 1

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

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

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

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

Act 2, Scene 2

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

Act 2, Scene 3

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

Act 3, Scene 1

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

Act 3, Scene 2

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

Act 3, Scene 3

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

Act 3, Scene 4

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

Act 3, Scene 5

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

Act 4, Scene 1

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

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

Act 4, Scene 2

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

Act 5, Scene 1

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

Act 5, Scene 2

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

Act 5, Scene 3

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

Act 5, Scene 4

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

The Comedy of Errors

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As You Like It

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2012 / 2024 Alfred J. Drake

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

The Merchant of Venice

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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Notes on The Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare, William. The Comical History of The Merchant of Venice. (The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 467-521).

Of Interest: RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Gesta Romanorum, Historie 32 | Fiorentino’s Il Pecorone, English | Jews and Theater in England (JVL) | Blood Libel (JVL) |

Act 1, Scene 1 (467-71, Antonio refers to his own mystifying sadness; Solario, Solanio, and finally Graziano fail to cheer him up with their diagnostic attempts; Bassanio reports to Antonio on his apparent love quest to Portia, the rich, beautiful heiress of Belmont; Antonio generously promises to help Bassanio achieve his heart’s desire, no matter the cost.)

From the play’s beginning, Antonio sets himself up to play the willing victim: “In sooth I know not why I am so sad” (467, 1.1.1), he says, and laments that he has “much ado” (467, 1.1.7) to understand himself at all. Salerio and Solanio try to tease him into a better mood by painting a picture of a commodities-obsessed, materialistic consciousness, one bound to think obsessively about all the precious goods he must have currently at risk. Salerio even compares the movement of Antonio’s ships to a rich, stately pageant (467-68, 1.1.8-14), and everyone in Shakespeare’s day knew how expensive an aristocrat’s pageants, progresses, and courtly masques were liable to be.[1] Seldom will we find a better approximation in comic literature of Marx & Engels’s dictum that “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”[2]

Antonio the wealthy merchant, however, isn’t buying what his jaunty friends are selling, and he says only, “My ventures are not in one bottom trusted …” (468, 1.1.42). He has not staked all his fortunes on his business dealings, and he dismisses the notion than his consciousness can be neatly confined within the boundaries of objects produced for material gain. Well, if it isn’t money, insists Solanio, it must be love that’s getting his friend down. When he is rewarded by Antonio only with a double “fie!” (468, 1.1.46), he shoots back what sounds like “Snap out of it!”: “‘twere as easy / For you to laugh and leap and say you are merry / Because you are not sad” (468, 1.1.48-50). To Solanio, his friend the merchant is merely playing the contrarian.

But just now, in come Bassanio, Graziano, and Lorenzo, and Solario and Solanio take their leave. Now it’s the loquacious Graziano’s turn to serve up his own apparent specialty, rhetoric that pokes fun at the recipient. When Antonio says gravely, “I hold the world but as the world, Graziano— / A stage where every man must play a part / And mine a sad one” (469, 1.1.77-79), Graziano jovially accuses his friend of striking an ultra-serious pose just to “be dressed in an opinion / Of wisdom, gravity, profound conceit …” (469, 1.1.91-92). This produces only a civil but non-committal remark or two from Antonio, and the last man standing, aside from Antonio, is Bassanio, who promptly dismisses the memory of Graziano’s performance as “an infinite deal of nothing …” (470, 1.1.114) and gets to the point of his visit.

The point, it quickly becomes apparent, is the very thing that Antonio, for his part, has already sworn off: a love pursuit. Antonio may not be in love, but he has already been apprised that Bassanio is, or at least he means to be. The young man issues fair words at length, all of which boil down to acquainting a probably not surprised Antonio that he has greatly “disabled” (470, 1.1.123) his finances thanks to an excessively showy lifestyle. In sum, as we would say, Bassanio is serially unable to balance a checkbook and live within his otherwise ample means. To this rather slick performance, Antonio responds that so long as the venture is honorable, “My purse, my person, my extremest means / Lie all unlocked to your occasions” (470, 1.1.138-39). He even insists that Bassanio is insulting him by spending so many words on the matter, as if Antonio would give anything less than his “uttermost” (471, 1.1.156) to help his youthful, profligate friend attain his heart’s desire.

With such urging, Bassanio delivers a breathtaking description of the object of his affections, one Portia, heiress of Belmont: “In Belmont is a lady richly left, / And she is fair, and fairer than that word, / Of wondrous virtues” (471, 1.1.161-63). [3] Bassanio even compares her to Brutus’s faithful wife Portia, which is high classical praise. Better yet, her “sunny locks” are a “golden fleece” (471, 1.1.169-70) that he would snatch like Jason in the Greek myth.[4] Bassanio firmly believes that he can be the Jason who takes the prize, but he needs the means to play the role properly. Antonio doesn’t have liquid assets at the moment, but he gives Bassanio the answer that by now we knew he would give: “Try what my credit can in Venice do; / That shall be racked even to the uttermost / To furnish thee to Belmont to fair Portia” (471, 1.1.180-82).

The first scene has established for us the parameters of the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio. The older man started the play as a question-mark of sorts, certain only that his melancholia doesn’t stem from anxieties about commerce or the pangs of love. Still, to many modern readers and viewers, the latter seems to be the obvious cause of Antonio’s sadness. Modern directors tend to cast the bond between Antonio and Bassanio as resembling the classical Greek and Roman conception of male friendship, amicitia perfecta.[5] This kind of friendship —depending on the individuals involved—may or may not be deeply tinged with erotic attachment, and it is of course something that Shakespeare regularly explores in his drama and poetry. It may have more to do with the space that one man takes up in the mind and spirit of another than with anything physical.

Either way, Antonio’s depression, as we would call it, may be plausibly connected to his brooding over what for him must be a painful eventuality, one that he has known about for some time, and which he has so generously promised Bassanio he will advance with every ducat within his reach.[6] In sum, he has pledged to help Bassanio transfer his love from him to a beautiful, rich young woman who lives at some distance. We may suppose that this presents no problem since love, we would like to believe, is a spiritual quality, not a material good subject to the alleged Ricardian law of scarcity. But Antonio seems mature enough to intuit, in Shakespeare’s rendering, that such suppositions are naïve, and that they leave the heart open to still deeper wounds than it usually is.[7]

In any case, it’s clear that absolute trust exists between Antonio and Bassanio, but it’s also true that this trust, in the act of being given so freely, leads the two men to engage in excessive oath-making and promising, a process that Antonio begins by pledging, in effect, to “max out” his credit in Venice to help his young and somewhat foolish friend. Antonio promises to hazard all he has, as will Bassanio later on during the casket-choice episode by which he wins the hand of Portia. The impulse here is generous, but the hyperbolic quality of the men’s oaths will take on more importance, and become more problematic, as the plot moves forward. But more on that later.

Act 1, Scene 2 (471-74, Portia discusses frankly with Nerissa her dead father’s plans for her married future at Belmont; Portia weighs the merits—or rather the lack thereof—of her international suitors thus far; she declares that she will be obedient to her father’s will.)

Portia is the active agent in this play. She is constrained by the firm wishes of a departed father, but she is not a passive sufferer with respect to that father’s marriage arrangements for her. This is true in spite of her complaint 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” (472, 1.2.20-22). Along with Nerissa, Portia trusts in the man’s wisdom: “I will die as chaste as / Diana unless I be obtained by the manner of my father’s will” (473, 1.2.91-92), but she doesn’t leave aside her own judgment. Witness her snide but perceptive remarks about the men who are pursuing her (472-73, 1.2.35-85), 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. All the same, Portia does not fundamentally challenge the patriarchal nature of her father’s demands. She is no rebel against the order of things.[8] Nerissa sums things up well at the scene’s end: Bassanio “of all the men that ever my foolish / eyes looked upon was the best deserving of a fair lady” (473, 1.2.100-01). Bassanio is not exactly a paragon of achievement, but he belongs to the right class, he knows how to put on a good display, and he’s handsome. Bassanio will do just fine.

Act 1, Scene 3 (474-77, Shylock the Jewish moneylender voices his personal and collective grudges against Christians; at Bassanio’s urgent request, he assesses Antonio’s credit-worthiness and strikes an agreement with the cash-strapped merchant; Shylock offers the “merry sport” of a 3,000-ducat bond with its forfeit consisting in “a pound of flesh”; Antonio accepts the bond, though Bassanio mistrusts Shylock’s intentions.)

We are introduced to the Jewish moneylender Shylock. He is a strong character, and bold in his manner of speaking. We will find that his perspective and sensibilities are very different from those of the Christians in The Merchant of Venice. When we meet Shylock, he is following out his process of assessing the creditworthiness of the rich Merchant Antonio. What is his judgment? Well, even when one factors in the possibility of Antonio’s ships being ransacked by pirates, or of succumbing to “the peril of waters, winds, and / rocks” (474, 1.3.21-22), “The man is, notwithstanding, sufficient” (474, 1.3.22), and Shylock decides to take on the Christian’s request for a short-term loan of 3,000 ducats—a considerable sum, perhaps around $700,000 dollars in today’s currency.[9]

Act 1, Scene 3 is partly about the different understanding of linguistic terms between Christians and Jews—as Shylock and Bassanio, and then Antonio as well, engage in their spirited bargaining, we learn that to be a “good” man, in Shylock’s view, is to have sufficient funds, while to “be assured” is to acquire the necessary information about a person’s finances. Says Shylock to Bassanio before Antonio comes onto the scene, “My meaning in saying he is a / good man is to have you understand me that he is suffi- / cient” (474, 1.3.13-15). The play’s Christians use these words mainly as moral terms, not financial ones. Shylock is unintimidated by Bassanio’s advancement of his own perspective, and goes so far as to declare to him, “I will / buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, / and so following. But I will not eat with you, drink with you, / nor pray with you” (474, 1.3.29-32). As we would say, he’s “not that into” the Christian Bassanio or his older gentleman friend: he would prefer to keep things cordial, distant.

We see Shylock’s resentment of Antonio almost from the outset, and it certainly sounds like he has good reason for that bitter feeling: the Jewish outsider isn’t driven only by his desire to win an argument about the moral standing of interest-based lending, even though Shylock may sound as if he is fixated on that: “I hate him for he is a Christian; / But more for that in low simplicity / He lends out money gratis …” (474, 1.3.36-38). No, Shylock’s “ancient grudge” (474, 1.3.41) is both individual and collective: the personal insults and gobs of spit that Antonio and other Christians so casually toss his way (and that Shylock will mention in just a moment) are insults to his “sacred nation” as well as to his person (474, 1.3.42). All things considered, Shylock believes it to be his duty not to forgive Antonio for the demeaning conduct to which the Christian trader has subjected him: “Cursed be my tribe / If I forgive him” (475, 1.3.45-46).

The moment Antonio enters the scene, he treats Shylock in an unselfconsciously condescending manner: he expresses a lordly willingness to “break a custom” (475, 1.3.58) and deal with the lowly Jewish moneylender who takes interest on the principal sums he lends. The barbed quality of Antonio’s remark does not go unnoticed by Shylock, who promptly casts the words in the merchant’s face: as for interest, he says to Antonio, “Methoughts you said you neither lend nor borrow / Upon advantage” (475, 1.3.63-64), who responds with an obviously sheepish affirmation.

Shylock furthers his rhetorical takedown of Antonio by trotting out a story from the Hebrew Bible. He alludes to the story in Genesis 30:25-43 of how Jacob 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).[10] 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, and 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” (475, 1.3.84). Antonio finds the story inappropriate, and by no means a justification of Shylock’s moneylending practices: Jacob’s increased flock, insists Antonio, wasn’t really due to his own honest effort, but was “swayed and fashioned by the hand of heaven” (475, 1.3.87). It’s just money breeding money as if by magic, Antonio seems to be suggesting. We can see that there will be no agreement between these two men beyond the basic terms of the loan they are about to undertake.

Shylock is as blunt with Antonio as he has been with Bassanio. His manner is an odd shunting back and forth between cheerful courtesy and confrontation. He wryly rehearses his grievances, reminding Antonio of the shocking cruelty he has shown towards him in the past, and the patience Shylock himself, a member of an ethnic-religious group known for its “suff’rance,” has shown in turn: “In the Rialto you have rated me / About my moneys and my usances. / Still have I borne it with a patient shrug …” (476, 1.3.101-03). Antonio has done worse than badmouth the Jew: “You call me ‘misbeliever,’ ‘cut-throat dog,’ / And spit upon my Jewish gabardine …” (476, 1.3.105-06). This, and much more. All of it is the very sort of thing that Antonio and Bassanio are surely hoping Shylock will not cast in their teeth just now, when they badly need a loan. How can a Christian who behaves in such an abominable fashion ask a Jew for such a favor?

Still, Shylock backpedals for effect, saying with obvious insincerity when Antonio responds to his directness by threatening to repeat his breaches of civility, “Why, look you, how you storm! / I would be friends with you … / … and you’ll not hear me” (130-31, 134). This said, Shylock proceeds to accept his role as moneylender on his own terms: the infamous deal, so fairy-tale-like in its provenance, is cast by Shylock as “a merry sport” and “friendship” (476-77, 1.3.138, 161). The exact terms are that if the loan is not repaid on time, Antonio’s penalty will be set down as “an equal pound / Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken / In what part of your body pleaseth me” (477, 1.3.142-44). A chance to injure Antonio has come his way, and Shylock, who has already told us in soliloquy exactly how much he hates this Christian mocker, takes it up gleefully.

What is proposed is a high-stakes wager on the order of Christian salvation, but no matter that—Antonio seems self-assured and dismissive, even hubristic. He has no doubts about his ability to pay his debts, so Shylock’s grotesque, absurd conditions don’t trouble him. Shylock’s continued false good cheer is hardly necessary: “what should I gain,” he asks, “By the exaction of the forfeiture?” (477, 1.3.166-67) To this protestation, Antonio remarks jestingly, “The Hebrew will turn Christian—he grows kind” (477, 1.3.171). All the same, the conditions of the bond certainly trouble Bassanio, who warns Antonio, “I like not fair terms and a villain’s mind” (477, 1.3.172). Antonio should have listened to his young friend—we in the audience are better positioned to see the dark side of Shylock’s admission that a quantity of human flesh “Is not so estimable, profitable neither, / As flesh of muttons, beefs, or goats” (477, 1.3.159-60). Of course it isn’t—this “merry sport” is about revenge, not money, and Antonio’s characteristic stereotyping of Shylock as a greedy usurer blinds him to the peril to which he is voluntarily subjecting himself. Shylock has his moments in The Merchant of Venice—moments in which he may appear to be a sympathetic figure, as actors have been playing him for a few centuries now—but this is not one of them. Here, at the end of the first act, we see him cunningly trapping a feckless Christian into signing his own death warrant. Perhaps, as St. Paul wrote, “the Spirit giveth life,” but at present, Shylock is delighted with his instantiation of the other half of that pronouncement through his foisting of an exactly worded bond upon the unsuspecting Antonio: “the letter killeth.”[11]

Act 2, Scene 1 (477-78, Morocco makes his entrance to Belmont, and boldly declares that he will enter the casket contest; Portia responds with subtle, comic irony.)

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” (477, 2.1.1) nets him only Portia’s agreement that the prince stands “as fair / As any comer I have looked on yet” (477, 2.1.20-21). Of course, we have already become acquainted with the wretched suitors who have so far made their way to Belmont.

Act 2, Scene 2 (478-82, Lancelet decides to abandon Shylock; Lancelet engages in comic banter with his nearly blind father Gobbo, and, like the biblical figure Jacob with Isaac, seeks his blessing; Bassanio accepts Lancelet’s awkward prayer to become his servant; Bassanio finalizes his plans to attend a masque and dinner; Graziano asks to attend him in Belmont and is told to tone down his attitude, at least after the festivities.)

Shylock’s Christian servant Lancelet accepts the “fiend’s” counsel (447, 2.2.24) to abandon his master, running against his own conscience. Should we, then, accept this treatment of Shylock as comic raillery, something easy to do? This servant gives a fine account of his internal dialogue, shuttling back and forth between a putative good angel who counsels him to stay put and a bad angel who tells him it’s time to quit Shylock’s employ.[12] Lancelet sees Shylock as a stock figure, “a kind of devil” (479, 2.2.20), even if the play as a whole doesn’t reduce him to that. Consider the conversation between Lancelet and his father, which alludes to the biblical story about Jacob stealing Esau’s birthright and tricking father Isaac into giving him the blessing as the first-born son that should properly have gone to Esau.[13] “Give / me your blessing,” asks Lancelet towards the end of his talk with the half-blind father who doesn’t recognize him (480, 2.2.69-70), thereby casting himself as a veritable Jacob in his striving to move onward and upward in life. Typologically, this biblical story has been read as indicating the rightness of choosing the Christian master (Christ) over the Jewish master, the old religion.[14] Lancelet’s father Gobbo has brought a present for Shylock, but Lancelet wants the present to go to Bassanio (480, 2.2.97-98), not to the Jew he’s abandoning.

The comic spirit overcomes all, accomplishing something like “grace,” which Lancelet attributes to Bassanio: “you have the grace of God, sir, / and he hath enough” (481, 2.2.135-36). Bassanio cheerfully accepts Lancelet’s linguistically inept suit to become his servant (481, 2.2.137-40). In general, we see that the process of abandoning Shylock begins right after the bargain of flesh has been struck. First Lancelet decides to flee, and finds an easy welcome with Bassanio, and then, in the next scene, Jessica makes her choice, which is also met with enthusiastic acceptance. It’s hard to avoid the notion that the text normalizes this abandonment of Shylock. Within the play’s Christian framework, the qualities that bind people together are generosity and love,[15] but Shylock appears to reject this imperative. Abandoning him seems to be cast as the “natural” result of this refusal. In this framework, Lancelet’s comic abandonment of Shylock is preparation for the far more serious and injurious, but apparently entirely licit, abandonment of him by other characters. There is some irony in Lancelet’s decision in that there is no evidence in the text for any claim that Shylock has abused or cozened his servant; he is rather dour at times, but not at all abusive towards his rather silly, word-mangling Christian helper.

Act 2, Scene 3 (482-83, Jessica admits to feeling anguish over her dislike of Shylock and her desire to abandon him, but she is firm in her decision.)

Shylock’s daughter 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 gives Lancelet a ducat—a substantial gift for a man of his station—and makes him 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).

Act 2, Scene 4 (483-84, Lorenzo tells Graziano about his intention to help Jessica forsake her father and steal some of his gold and jewels during her escape.)

In 2.4, we hear Lorenzo confiding his elopement plan to Graziano: Jessica has made provision, he says, “How I shall take her from her father’s house, / What gold and jewels she is furnished with, / What page’s suit she hath in readiness …” (483, 2.4.30-32). The plot will take advantage of the disguise made possible by Christian festivities: Bassanio, who doesn’t yet know about the plot, means to hold a masked ball that night, which Lorenzo and Graziano realize will provide cover for the romantic escape Lorenzo has planned.

Act 2, Scene 5 (484-85, Shylock frets over attending supper with Christians, but tells Lancelet to announce that he will show up; Shylock admonishes Jessica to keep their home’s door shut lest “the sound of shallow foppery” invade the place; when he leaves, Jessica again voices her determination to go through with her plan to elope with Lorenzo.)

Lancelet had spoken of Shylock with contempt in Act 2, Scene 1, but in Scene 5, Shylock’s interaction with his daughter doesn’t seem cruel: he tells her to keep the doors shut against Christian revelers during what appears to be Carnival season,[16] which occurs just before the austere, fasting forty days of Lent are ushered in and capped by Easter, which in turn commemorates the resurrection of Christ. Shylock admonishes Jessica, “Let not the sound of shallow fopp’ry enter / My sober house” (484, 2.5.34-35). Taking the dismissal of Lancelet as a good break, he winds up his reflections with a proverb: “Fast bind, fast find: / A proverb never stale in thrifty mind” (485, 2.5.52-53). Shylock would prefer to remain isolated in Venice, but he will this once attend on them, the better, he says, “to feed upon / The prodigal Christian” (484, 2.5.14-15) and thereby waste their substance.

Shylock is determined to maintain the purity of his household, but 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 advances the process on the spot: after her father exits, she addresses him, “Farewell, and if my fortune be not crossed, / I have a father, you a daughter, lost” (485, 2.5.54-55).

Act 2, Scene 6 (485-86, Jessica steals Shylock’s money and jewels; and, dressed as a male page, and boards a small boat with Lorenzo, Graziano, and Salerio; Lorenzo tells his friends that his love for Jessica is genuine.)

Graziano makes pleasantries about how people fail to meet their love obligations: “All things that are / Are with more spirit chasèd than enjoyed” (485, 2.6.13-14). This observation is a setup for the weightier wrangling between Portia and Nerissa and their men later on. Jessica joins the Christians and absconds with some of Shylock’s wealth (485, 2.6.50-51). Shylock loses his daughter and money to Christian masquers, perhaps, as mentioned earlier, during Venice’s carnival season; but in any season, Venice kept about it as part of its grand myth[17] a sense 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,[18] one that Jessica wins by her willingness to abandon her Jewish father and turn Christian. Lorenzo is duly impressed, declaring that Jessica will “be placèd in my constant soul” (486, 2.5.58).

Act 2, Scene 7 (486-88, Morocco makes his choice for gold, and is rewarded with a skull that contains a scroll proclaiming “All that glisters is not gold.”)

Morocco chooses between desert, desire, and hazard. He chooses gold, what “many men desire,” on the assumption that outward appearances correspond to inward qualities (487, 2.7.37-38). He also rates himself very highly, and so associates himself with the most precious of the three metals on display. One gets the feeling that with Morocco, “it’s all about him,” though to be fair, he also values Portia in terms of the same most precious metal. He is, of course, rewarded with crushing failure and is subject to the interdiction against marrying any other woman. In one act of misreading, then, he has traded his own futurity, his own family or dynastic line, for “all that glisters” (488, 2.7.65) or glitters. It was a Renaissance assumption that good is productive of still more good, while what is bad eventually exhausts itself. The underlying judgment involved in the casket contest, then, involves serious moral principles; it isn’t merely a trick or a chance-driven device. The performance note on pg. 488 reminds us that this scene ends unpleasantly, with Portia saying with relief, “Let all of his complexion choose me so.” Clearly, Portia is not attracted to this man with dark skin; even though he is a leader among his people and, we may presume, a valiant warrior, the text treats him as a figure of fun, which is bound to be distressing to a modern audience.

Act 2, Scene 8 (488-89, Reports of Shylock’s confusion)

Salerio and Solanio report on Shylock and mock his supposed babbling about Jessica and his squandered 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!’” (488, 2.8.12-15). To this equivalence-making between a human being and a gold coin, they contrast the generous friendship between Antonio and Bassanio: of Antonio, Solanio says, “I think he only loves the world for him” (489, 2.8.50). We may also surmise, though not prove, that Antonio and Bassanio may by now be apprised of Lorenzo’s elopement with Shylock’s daughter. Lorenzo had informed Graziano about it, and Graziano is traveling with Bassanio, so perhaps we should assume that he has informed that worthy about what is afoot. In any event, Lorenzo and his “torch-bearer” Jessica are not on board Bassanio’s vessel when the Venetian Duke went with Shylock to search it. Moreover, Bassanio’s ship sailed earlier than planned because the masque was canceled, which Antonio informed Graziano of at the end of 2.6. All of this may mean that the successful conspiracy to help Jessica make her break from her father Shylock is a bit larger than we might have thought. I any case, Salerio has heard that one of Antonio’s ships may have been wrecked while crossing the English Channel, so he will have to be given that anxiety-provoking news.

Act 2, Scene 9 (489-91, Aragon makes his choice, and silver nets him a picture of “a blinking idiot”; news comes to Portia and Nerissa that Bassanio is nearing Belmont.)

The prideful, falsely self-sufficient Aragon (a stock Spanish nobleman since Spaniards were generally considered more than commonly arrogant about status) assumes silver “desert,” and is rewarded not with Portia’s image but instead with the portrait of “a blinking idiot” (490, 2.9.50, 53). His fate is easy to predict since he treats the whole affair as purely transactional, insulting Portia by saying “You shall look fairer ere I give or hazard” (490, 2.9.21). We can at least say of Aragon that he gets the point about people’s tendency to be taken in by fair shows: that’s why he doesn’t choose the golden casket the way thoughtless Morocco did.

The scene closes with news that Bassanio is at Belmont’s gates. Morocco and Aragon will be no help to Bassanio, alas, since both had to assent to a non-disclosure agreement prior to the big contest. We find that out when Aragon says that one of the three conditions for being allowed to make his choice is “never to unfold to anyone / Which casket ‘twas I chose …” (489, 2.9.10-11). Oh well! Bassanio and his entourage can’t simply ask the losers why they fared as they did. Bassanio will have to get it right on his own. Life is so unfair! But Nerissa solicits the aid of Cupid, so no doubt all will go well.

Act 3, Scene 1 (491-93, Shylock lectures Salerio and Solanio about common humanity and revenge, but with no success; Tubal listens to Shylock unburden his grief, and tells him there’s good prospect of Antonio’s commercial ruin at sea; Shylock prepares to have Antonio arrested if he is cannot pay his debt.)

Solanio believes he has confirmed the loss of one of Antonio’s ships, probably the same one mentioned in the previous scene, and right away he catches sight of Shylock approaching and declares him to be the devil “in the likeness of a Jew” (492, 3.1.18). Shylock immediately accuses the two men of having known about Jessica’s plan to abandon him, and Salerio does not deny it. Salerio then asks Shylock if he has heard anything about Antonio’s possible loss at sea, and it seems as if the moneylender may indeed have heard that a ship had been lost since he responds with truculent mockery of the Christian “bankrupt” and “prodigal” (492, 3.1.36-37) who dared to accept a loan on the most frightening terms. Shylock apparently feels certain that Antonio, now in financial distress, will be easy to isolate and destroy. The cash nexus is the only tie he seems to recognize as binding, and as we will see later on during the trial scene, he places great faith in Venetian commercial contract law to uphold his terms. His only advice to the absent Antonio is the twice-repeated “Let him look / to his bond” (492, 3.1.38-39, 41).

Shylock seems gravely provoked at Salerio’s incredulous question as to what possible good taking a pound of a human being’s flesh could do anyone, and he at once launches into his famous mini-lecture on the jarring combination of common humanity and revenge. As for the pound of flesh, he says, it might as well serve “To bait fish withal” (492, 3.1.44). Or at least, he adds, it will feed his own desire for revenge. Antonio, Shylock points out, has insulted and injured him at every turn. And his “reason,” his excuse for doing so? The moneylender sums it up for his audience: “I am a Jew” (492, 3.1.48). From 3.1.49-60, Shylock makes his noteworthy “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, and it is all the more powerful for falling on deaf Christian ears: Jews are part of a common humanity, but he and his people have been scorned and mocked. Revenge, says Shylock, is now the law of his being: he will repay Christian injustice with increase, or with “usury,” as the play’s Christians would say. There is no hint of comprehension in either Salerio or Solanio’s response to Shylock’s words. Both decamp in disgust when they see Tubal approaching. Solanio even compares Tubal, as he had Shylock previously, to the devil.

Tubal has been searching without success for Jessica in Genoa, he says (493, 3.1.68). Shylock is by now in a state of agony, his mind warped by his losses and the insult involved in how they were inflicted upon him. He continually mingles money and expense with a deep sense of loss over his daughter and his damaged affiliation with the Jewish community. He seems painfully confused about spiritual and material priorities, to the point where he can utter a deplorable sentence such as, “I would my daughter were dead at my foot and the jewels / in her ear” (493, 3.1.73-74). Still, for the last few hundred years, most actors have played this scene with sympathy.[19] The choice is not without justification: some of Shylock’s lines are powerful, especially if we accept that even his unseemly obsession with financial loss stems not from simple greed, but instead from the psychic trauma of losing access to the signs of material success—ducats and jewels—that have long allowed him to thrive as a member of an unjustly despised group within a larger, hostile society. If we keep this in mind, statements like Shylock’s complaint that he has “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” (493, 3.1.78-80), may inspire sympathy for his anguish.

Tubal brings Shylock momentary but strong relief when he tells him that Antonio also may have suffered from “ill luck”—he “hath an argosy cast away coming from Tripoli” (493, 3.1.84). This relief is dimmed, however, when the moneylender hears the words Tubal speaks about Jessica’s trading of a turquoise ring for a monkey: in extreme distress, Shylock can only say, “I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would / not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys” (493, 3.1.101-02). But again, when we factor in the severity of the psychic injury the man has sustained, we may feel that there is pathos even in this strange remark. Given the context, how could it be played with anything less than deep feeling? Jessica has laid waste his fond memory of the wife, Leah, whom we may presume death has taken from him. Still, the scene ends with Shylock buoyed by Tubal’s reminder that Antonio’s ruin is certain, and he directs Tubal to hire an officer in advance to arrest Antonio for forfeit of his bond when the appointed day comes. Shylock looks forward to the day when this Christian tormentor will no longer hinder him: “were he out of Venice I can / make what merchandise I will” (493, 3.1.106-07).

Today, it’s common knowledge that Jews were forced to take on the role of moneylenders (a function necessary to any commercial state) thanks to Christian hypocrisy about the accumulation of interest on loans. Shakespeare’s audience, it is true, might not have been aware of that historical fact, and to them, since England’s Jews were forcibly expelled from the country in 1290 by King Edward I, Jews were no doubt more fiction than fact. There were very few actual Jews living in England in Shakespeare’s time (and for four decades thereafter—Oliver Cromwell undid Edward’s cruel policy in the 1650s).[20] It must have been all too easy to dehumanize Jews in England when their presence was so limited that it was comprised of a tiny number who had converted to Christianity, and a very small number from Portugal living in London.”[21]

Be that as it may, by Act 3, Scene 1, it is clear that Shylock is worthier and more interesting than a one-dimensional stage villain. He is in part a stage villain, and in that sense kin to Christopher Marlowe’s brazenly wicked Barabas, the main character in The Jew of Malta, but for better and for worse, Shakespeare’s genius allows him to represent a villain as a villain and something more.[22] It is easy—perhaps too easy—to suggest that in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare is advancing to the audience their strong prejudices and cruel fantasies about Jews, but then using that advance as an opportunity to challenge those same defects and delusions. Today’s audiences must work this out for themselves: there is a range of opinion going from the deeply held conviction that the play is profoundly antisemitic to the claim that it is against precisely that abominable prejudice.[23]

Act 3, Scene 2 (494-500, Bassanio chooses rightly and everyone celebrates; Graziano announces the he and Nerissa are an item, too; a messenger brings news of Antonio’s extreme danger; Portia declares her loyalty and promises to help Antonio.)

In Richard Robinson’s 1595 English edition of the Gesta Romanorum or Deeds of the Romans,[24] Tale 32, we find the basic “casket choice” story from which Shakespeare is working. The daughter of the King of Ampluy, while sailing towards a marriage with the son of the Roman Emperor Anselme, is shipwrecked and then swallowed by a whale, which soon casts her ashore. A nobleman named Pyrris finds her and sends her to Anselme, who, to test her ultimate fitness for marriage to his heir, puts her through a trial similar to the one Shakespeare’s play adapts. Three vessels of gold, silver, and lead are placed before her, with the golden one bearing the inscription “Who so chooseth mee shall finde that [i.e. ‘that which’] he deserueth,” the silver vessel “Who so chooseth me shall finde that his nature desireth,” and the lead vessel “Who so chooseth mee, shall finde that God hath disposed for him.” The maiden rejects the gold vessel because, she reasons, “Though this vessel be full precious and made of pure gold, neuerthelesse know not I what is with in.” She also rejects the silver vessel because, she says, “my nature desireth the lust of the flesh.” Finally, we come to the lead vessel. The maid declares simply that “God neuer disposed any harme,” so she correctly chooses the least impressive vessel, and ends up marrying the emperor’s son and heir.[25]

The Gesta Romanorum in its Latin form dates back several centuries from Shakespeare’s day. It functioned as material from which preachers might develop their sermons, and it’s easy to see the scriptural quality in the tale from which Shakespeare developed his “casket scene” in The Merchant of Venice. The moral of the story in the Gesta’s terms is simple: the Emperor is a figure for God, and in choosing to follow God’s dispensation for her, the maiden represents a Christian soul choosing salvation in God and Christ the Son. We might also cite biblical passages such as 1 John 2.15: “Love not this world, neither the things that are in this world. If any man love this world, the love of the Father is not in him.”[26] In a sense, the entire casket scene works as an extended memento mori or vanitas display. These artifacts—skulls or images thereof would be one prominent example—were very common in medieval and Renaissance times as meditative objects to encourage Christian humility. Sometimes, the objects would display a fair front, but an ugly, worm-eaten reverse side or parallel image. The plain message was that we should be mindful always of death, but a second message, in some cases, was that we should never give in to the deceptive “lust of the eyes.” Hamlet, gazing at the skull of the jester Yorick, muses to Horatio, “Now get you to my / lady’s table and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this / favor she must come….”[27] In the Christian framework, the way to salvation is through honesty, self-restraint, and above all, acceptance of one’s frail mortality. The carefully chosen metal lead, thanks to Portia’s father, has much the same effect on the winning candidate Bassanio as the skulls and other artifacts of Christian iconography.

As Bassanio’s moment of choice nears, some strain shows between Portia and her departed father: “these naughty times / Puts bars between the owners and their rights” (494, 3.2.18-19). Still, her viewing of the momentous event is steeped in guiding literary precedent, as we see when she recalls by way of contrast the thoroughly materialistic bit of heroism shown by Hercules (“Alcides”) in rescuing a Trojan princess to win a pair of fine horses.[28] That, she understands, is not what her father had in mind when he devised the casket contest for her suitors. So 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?” (495, 3.2.63-65) We are told that “fancy dies / In the cradle where it lies” (495, 3.2.63-68-69).[29] This may be a warning to Bassanio, if indeed he isn’t too busy deliberating to catch the words: love begins with the eyes, so we had better not trust them too much. Whether he hears the song or not, Bassanio understands the warning. He chooses the threatening lead container rather than the attractive silver or golden one: “Thou meagre lead, / Which rather threaten’st than dost promise aught, / Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence” (496, 3.2.104-06). Bassanio has the right combination of appreciation for outward beauty and willingness to accept that this is only part of the matter: beauty does not banish the cares or duties of a life that, on the whole (even for a rich heiress or a privileged young man like himself), more closely resembles the base metal that Portia’s other suitors have scorned than glittering gold or even that “common drudge” (496, 3.2.103) silver that takes its value from transactional exchange alone. The scroll that greets him in victory offers sound advice for anyone to take: “Be content and seek no new …” (496, 3.2.134).

Once Bassanio has made the correct choice—and frankly, the maturity he shows in his lengthy assessment may strike many readers as unexpected, given the rather irresponsible figure he has cut previously—Portia delivers a fine speech in which she says she could (for Bassanio’s sake) wish herself “A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times / More rich” (497, 3.2.154-55) and emphasizes that she considers herself only “an unlessoned girl, unschooled, unpracticed” (497, 3.2.159) but willing to learn.[30] Portia muses that just moments ago, before Bassanio made his choice of caskets, she was master of a great estate and of her own person, and now she isn’t: “This house, these servants, and this same myself / Are yours, my lord’s” (497, 3.2.170-71). Even so, Portia remains unflappable: she is the very picture of “Renaissance girl, uninterrupted.”[31] Still, there is one condition for Bassanio to observe: Portia is all his, unless he gives away the ring she presents to him, in which case she will have the upper hand and may reproach him at will (497, 3.2.171-74). Bassanio admits that Portia’s words have all blended together for him (497, 3.2.175-85), but  he seems to understand what she has said about the ring, and even takes things up a notch, and again we hear the excessive, exuberant rhetoric from one of the play’s men—the kind of stuff that, to adapt a phrase from Kent in King Lear, “reverbs hollowness”[32] rather than leading us in humility to substantive virtue. Bassanio swears 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: / Oh, then be bold to say Bassanio’s dead” (497, 3.2.183-85). Portia didn’t condemn him to death—only distrust! To make up for it, though, before blurting out that oath, he offers her the wonderfully romantic thought, “Madam, you have bereft me of all words, / Only my blood speaks to you in my veins …” (497, 3.2.175-76). Well said, Bassanio!

Graziano at once announces that he has managed to sweet-talk Nerissa into marrying him, adding yet a third happy couple to the play’s circle of “shiny happy people holding hands.”[33] Graziano adds a bawdy pun to cap things off. Because of course he does. And since this is a comedy, we might as well expect a false catastrophe (i.e. happy ending): sure enough, in come Lorenzo and Salerio to announce that all is not yet well. These two men come bearing a letter from Antonio that turns Bassanio’s cheeks pale with distress when he reads it. Just at the moment, he must feel a lot like Fiorentino’s Giannetto in Shakespeare’s source text Il Pecorino, who, as discussed in an endnote below, forgets all about his godfather Ansaldo’s generous borrowing of 10,000 ducats for the young man at his request, with similarly grave results as impend here in Shakespeare’s play. Bassanio has no choice but to come clean about his showy suit to Belmont: “Rating myself at nothing, you shall see / How much I was a braggart” (499, 3.2.255-56). Can it be that the successful suitor to the dazzling and “richly left” Portia was just the sort of production we might identify as “glistering” gold eye candy rather than one grounded in truth and virtue? As Bassanio himself admits, “I have … / Engaged my friend to his mere enemy, / To feed my means” (499, 3.2.259-61). When he puts it that way, it sounds perfectly dreadful, as in fact it is, even if the comic genre ultimately makes light of the imposition. Meantime, as Salerio says, Shylock is in no mood to compromise. He knows Venetian law, and it’s said that “He plies the Duke at morning and at night, / And doth impeach the freedom of the state / If they deny him justice” (499, 3.2.275-77).

No matter: Portia will gladly 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” (500, 3.2.297-300). Portia must be very rich indeed to conjure up such enormous sums as 36,000 ducats as if they were pocket change.[34] 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” (500, 3.2.292-94). The two men somewhat over-talk their bond, as becomes increasingly apparent, but that is not to disparage its integrity. They now have the wealthy not boastful Portia as their guarantor, if Shylock will accept his enormous monetary windfall at the expense of his sense of injury.

Act 3, Scene 3 (500-01, Shylock remains implacable; Antonio despairs of rescue.)

Shylock is implacable against Antonio, that “fool that lent out money gratis” (500, 3.3.2). The sum total of his response to the anguished merchant is, “I’ll have my bond; I will not hear thee speak” (501, 3.3.12). Antonio then says Shylock’s hatred stems from resentment of Christian interference in his harsh dealings with benighted creditors: “I oft delivered from his forfeitures / Many that have at times made moan to me” (501, 3.3.22-23). 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 …” (501, 3.3.26-29).

There is a monetary categorical imperative involved in such calculations as both Antonio and Shylock are capable of making: a mercantile state such as Venice does not thrive when it is forced to operate by the laws of ordinary, compassionate humanity, which would entail forgiveness of debts instead of strict adherence to harsh laws in the financial and mercantile sectors. Marx and Engels weren’t the first economists to understand that in a capitalist society (or a proto-capitalist one, as here in Shakespeare’s Venice), it is money that matters, and not so much the people themselves. In any case, Antonio is a man exhausted. His commercial and personal losses have wasted him almost to the bone, and he would rather suffer than fight: “Pray God Bassanio come,” he says, “To see me pay his debt, and then I care not” (501, 3.3.35-36).

Act 3, Scene 4 (501-03, Portia puts Lorenzo and Jessica in charge of Belmont; she sends a servant to her learned cousin Dr. Bellario to ask for his advice about the law; she informs Nerissa about the lawyerly scheme they will carry out to save Antonio.)

Portia is drawn to Antonio, she says to Lorenzo, because friends are so much alike (501, 3.4.10-18). Then she places Lorenzo and Jessica in charge at Belmont since she must go on a trip, the purpose of which she dissembles about to these two. That done, Portia hatches her “doctor of laws” scheme. She sends her servant Balthasar to her cousin, Dr. Bellario, with a letter-request to send her back some legal notes and lawyer’s garments. With Dr. Bellario’s remote assistance, she will play the role of a male attorney who can wield the potent weapon of law against Shylock and the Venetian commercial state. To accomplish this task, Portia 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 in her own sly understanding of male posturing: as she tells her accomplice Nerissa, “I have within my mind / A thousand raw tricks of these bragging Jacks / Which I will practice” (503, 3.5.76-78).

Act 3, Scene 5 (503-05, Jessica and Lancelet argue wittily about salvation; Lorenzo light-heartedly reproaches Lancelet.)

Jessica and Lancelet dispute comically over salvation and damnation; Jessica summarizes Lancelet’s case against her and Lorenzo well: the couple are damned “because I am a Jew’s daughter, and he says you are no good / member of the commonwealth, for in converting Jews to / Christians you raise the price of pork” (503, 3.5.29-31). This quarrel is a precursor of a more serious argument during the trial about how mercy is granted, and to whom. After telling him that he has got a Moorish girl in Portia’s household pregnant, Lorenzo accuses Lancelet of egregious quibbling: “How every fool can play upon the word!” (504, 3.5.38) exclaims Lorenzo. Lancelet’s misstatements and quibbles are the light-hearted version of the play’s weightier regard for terminological and spiritual misinterpretation, equivocation, and hypocrisy. Lancelet’s wit is probably meant mainly to poke at Shylock’s literalism and cunning, but it may also be a proleptic dig at “Balthazar’s” upcoming defeat of Shylock, which results in a Jew’s forced conversion to Christianity. From Lorenzo’s exasperated question, “Wilt thou show / the whole wealth of thy wit in an instant?” (504, 3.5.48-49) we can tell that Lancelet is earning his keep as something on the order of Bassanio’s unofficial court jester. Or at least he’s trying to do that.

Act 4, Scene 1 (505-14, Trial scene: Antonio is resigned to death; Portia/Balthazar makes a two-pronged case—moral and legal appeals to show leniency; Shylock refuses both, and is trapped by the bond’s narrow language; Portia/Balthazar, Antonio, and the Duke work together so that Shylock loses half of  his fortune and must agree to convert to Christianity; when pressed, Portia/Balthazar asks for Bassanio’s ring as payment; urged by Antonio, Bassanio agrees and sends Graziano off to deliver the ring to Portia/Balthazar.)

As the trial is about to begin, Antonio again appears resigned: why bother with a man the Duke calls a “stony adversary” (505, 4.1.4)? At this point, the anti-Jewish invective is severe, which is evident even in the way the Duke wraps up his preamble with a mean-spirited pun: “We all expect a gentle [i.e., gentile] answer, Jew” (505, 4.1.34). But Shylock also 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” (506, 4.1.59-61). 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? When the Duke tries to shame him with the concept of mercy, Shylock offers the chilling response, “What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?” (506, 4.1.89) This rhetorical question is also an advance response to the claim that Portia, disguised as the attorney Balthazar, will soon stake for the concept of mercy. As far as Shylock is concerned, his stance conforms to and therefore reaffirms the law: he considers himself perfectly righteous in his suit to the assembled court.

Shylock has purchased the flesh of a Christian hypocrite at great personal cost; he will not give it up, and the State cannot afford to dismiss his suit. As he says to the Duke, “If you deny me, fie upon your law: / There is no force in the decrees of Venice” (507, 4.1.101-102). Money isn’t the issue, though Venetian commercial interests make up part of his justification. As Antonio himself said earlier in the play, the law Shylock invokes can’t be ignored lest the republic’s status suffer with international merchants. Personal and collective revenge is Shylock’s “matter,” not the ducats Antonio owes him. This angle is one that Antonio, Bassanio, and the other Christians simply cannot understand due to their insistent stereotyping of Shylock as a flinty-hearted, scarcely human bogeyman. This is obvious in such statements as the one Antonio makes early in the proceeding: “I pray you, think you question with the Jew” (506, 4.1.70). The merchant adds a few poetical images to reinforce his point, but in truth, the simple phrase “the Jew” says everything we need to know about Antonio’s attitude toward Shylock.

The Duke makes no headway with Shylock, and neither do Graziano’s vile, baiting imprecations have any effect on him. Antonio, for his part, seems prepared to give up the ghost: “I am a tainted wether of the flock, / Meetest for death” (507, 4.1.114-15). The wealthy merchant aligns himself with the dimension of Christian practice that has earned it the title “religion of sorrow.” That’s where Portia disguised as Balthazar comes in: she bears a letter from Dr. Bellario praising the young doctor of laws, and against Shylock she soon unveils the essence of her moral argument: “The quality of mercy is not strained. / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath” (508, 4.1.182-84). As far as the play’s Christian’s are concerned, the very fact that Shylock has to ask, “On what compulsion must I?” when he is enjoined to show compassion condemns him morally (508, 4.1.181). To Portia/Balthazar’s suggestion, “. . . in the course of justice none of us should / See salvation” (509, 4.1.197-98), Shylock hurls back, “My deeds upon my head! I crave the law, / The penalty and forfeit of my bond” (509, 4.1.204-05).[35]

Portia/Balthazar admits that the state can’t help here, and Shylock, ever strict, protests that he has “an oath in heaven” (509, 4.1.226) to stick to the bond. In his view, he is like the biblical Apocrypha’s Susannah, being championed by a veritable Daniel against the Elders who tried to seduce her and then falsely accused her, constituting a corrupt court.[36] Portia/Balthazar demonstrates what she considers the callous attitude of Shylock: witness his refusal to keep a surgeon nearby because no such thing is mentioned in his contract with Antonio (510, 4.1.255-56). It is hard to avoid the feeling that in mentioning the spilling of Christian blood so centrally in connection with Shylock’s bond, the play thereby connects the two in a way that at least obliquely suggests the infamous “blood libel”: the notion that Jews murder gentiles so they can use their blood in rituals such as the Passover. Its more distant implication is that Jews are guilty of shedding Christ’s blood. From this perspective, Shylock’s failure to note the presence of blood in his bond would look like mere evasion and shiftiness, not just strict, literalist reading.[37]

Antonio is ready to  depart from this world with a reaffirmation of his love for Bassanio (510, 4.1.271-75), which leads Bassanio to make an extreme utterance, wishing his wife and goods to heaven to redeem the situation: “I would lose all—ay, sacrifice them all / Here to this devil—to deliver you” (510, 4.1.284-85). After Graziano repeats the gesture, Shylock notes the outrageousness of such remarks: “These be the Christian husbands!” (510, 4.1.293) It would be hard to overestimate the smug self-certainty of this kind of reasoning and oath-making on some of the Christians’ part in this play: they would do any amount of wrong, it seems, to enforce their conception of right in favor of their own tribe.

Portia/Balthazar 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” (511, 4.1.304). The penalty for spilling Christian blood is forfeiture of one’s goods and property to the state (511, 4.1.308-09). Furthermore, says Portia, when an alien like Shylock tries to bring about the death of a Venetian citizen, the law prescribes that to the citizen shall go half of the offender’s goods, while “the other half / Comes to the privy coffer of the state, / And the offender’s life lies in the mercy / Of the Duke” (512, 4.1.351-54). Shylock has, in fact, 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 so long as he wills it to his Christian son-in-law Lorenzo and his daughter Jessica (512, 4.1.378-83). In a scene of great pathos, Shylock had already begged the court not to impose ruinous financial penalties on him: “You take my house when you do take the prop / That doth sustain my house; you take my life / When you do take the means whereby I live” (512, 4.1.373-75).

Furthermore—and cruelest cut of all—this committed Jewish religionist must “presently become a Christian” (513, 4.1.385). This is Antonio’s request, and it becomes the Duke’s stern command: “He shall do this or else I do recant / The pardon that I late pronouncèd here” (513, 4.1.389-90). Shylock is forced to say—one wants to say “pretend”—that he is “content” with his lot (513, 4.1.392), now that he has been commanded to convert to Christianity and give away much of his fortune. The word “content” can hardly mean what it usually would, given the context: Shylock has simply given up, confronted as he is with the full legal and economic power of Venice and the implacable cultural weight of a religion alien to him.[38] One wonders if, during or after the trial scene, Shakespeare’s audience would have remembered Shylock’s strongest self-defense and collective defense in Act 3, Scene 1, which drew upon the common humanity he and his fellow Jews share with the Christians of Venice. There seems to be no trace of that argument in anything Shylock says during the trial scene here in Act 4, Scene 1, and soon after uttering the words “I am content” and promising to sign the necessary deed, he is gone from the play with no further consideration.

Immediately after the trial’s conclusion, Portia, still in disguise, responds to Bassanio’s offer of a gift that she wants his ring (513, 4.1.425), and to his rather feeble protest, she declares, “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” (514, 4.1.443-46).[39] And with that, the two men decide to head back to Belmont in the morning.

Act 4, Scene 2 (514, Graziano catches up with Portia and Nerissa (both still in disguise) and gives her Bassanio’s ring; Nerissa tells Portia that she will see if she can get Graziano to give up his ring, too.)

Graziano hands over Bassanio’s ring to Portia/Balthazar, and Nerissa tells Portia that she will get her own ring from Graziano, too (514, 4.2.13-14).

Act 5, Scene 1 (515-21, While carrying on a mock argument about faith with Jessica, Lorenzo lectures her about the Music of the Spheres; Portia delivers a lecture to the men on absolute oaths vs. generosity; Shylock remains an outcast, Antonio will remain a charitable outsider)

Lorenzo and Jessica discuss faith and faithlessness by referencing disappointed lovers such as Troilus, Thisbe, and Dido (515, 5.1.1-24). Perhaps by these means they are transitioning into mature married life after their wild initial romance, one involving the betrayal of a father and a heady escape from Venice proper. After Stefano announces that Portia will soon be home in Belmont, and Lancelet announces that Bassanio is on the way, too, Lorenzo discusses with Jessica the power of music to transform the soul: in so doing, he touches upon the possibility of transformation and redemption. 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” (516, 5.1.54-55, 63-65).[40] The whole scene is in comic contrast to what the play casts as Shylock’s hard-heartedness, his inability to change, as Lorenzo may be insinuating 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” (516, 5.1.83-85).

Portia appreciates the fine music (517, 5.1.99-100), 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 absoluteness 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 …” (519, 5.1.199-208). Portia may be obedient to her father, but she is not a fool, a slave, or a child. Her actions show her to be far more mature than most of the men in The Merchant of Venice.

The point of the ring episode is that Portia will exercise mercy with respect to the decree she had previously issued. She didn’t require the decree of faithfulness in the deadly fashion understood by Bassanio. She interprets her own words liberally rather than literally, and here in Act 5 she is 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.

Antonio finds out that he isn’t a pauper after all (489, 5.1.275-79), 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, saying, “Pardon this fault, and by my soul I swear / I never more will break an oath with thee” (520, 5.1.247-48). 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 are represented as having 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 latter inference is represented explicitly, and sympathetically, in Michael Radford’s stellar 2004 production of The Merchant of Venice.[41]

How should we understand the play’s conclusion? Aside from all the concluding happiness, Antonio, somewhat like Shylock, remains outside the charmed comic circle of “shiny happy people holding hands,”[42] so his melancholy self-understanding seems to be validated by the play’s ending: Antonio’s part in life is a sad one, just as he had said in Act 1, Scene 1. That may be because Shakespeare recognizes the ambivalence of Elizabethan (and more ancient) attitudes toward the classical “homosocial” conception of male friendship that obtains between Antonio and Bassanio. The men’s excessive rhetoric notwithstanding, the play’s comic emphasis and structure positively demand that Antonio step aside so that Bassanio’s orthodox pursuit of happiness with Portia may succeed. Jessica’s story, 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.”[43]

We can reasonably contrast The Merchant of Venice with the religious skeptic Christopher Marlowe’s 1589-90 masterpiece The Jew of Malta, with its villainous merchant Barabas who dies horribly (and deservedly) at the play’s end, but we will never really know what Shakespeare’s own audience members thought about the conclusion, or indeed what the playwright himself thought of it.[44] Does Shylock “get what he deserves,” or is he (to borrow King Lear’s anguished phrase) a man “More sinned against than sinning”?[45] Which counts for more—the pathos of Shylock’s suffering and his earlier appeal, in Act 3, Scene 1, to universal humanity, or the undeniable malice and cruelty he shows in his sustained attempt to take down a longtime Christian enemy? Is Portia’s emphasis on the need to imitate God’s mercy worthy to stand on its own, or it is largely (or entirely) undercut by the play’s context, which underscores the Christian characters’ cliquishness and general failure to practice what they preach when it comes to outsiders? Perhaps what we can say with some confidence is that Shakespeare has provided enough strands and counter-strands in The Merchant of Venice to make the weaving of many interpretations at least plausible. This play is essentially comic, but for modern audiences, it seems, it is bound to remain an unsettling kind of comedy. Many directors, Michael Radford included, have chosen to present it as closer to a tragicomic or “mixed” affair instead of as a cheerful comedy. Perhaps some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries saw no need to worry about the fate of Shylock (or Antonio, for that matter), but we are not bound to cast aside those elements of the story in favor of rendering this difficult, disturbing play satisfying. We may do well to keep in mind Homer’s request of his muse in The Odyssey: he asks her to “sing for our time too.”[46] Each generation responds to a play, or any work of art, in a way that makes sense to them.

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

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

Document Timestamp: 3/23/2024 12:36 PM

Endnotes


[1] See Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Co., 2004. Pp. 45-50. Greenblatt points out that in 1575, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester put on a lavish entertainment program for the visiting Elizabeth I at Kenilworth Castle about twelve miles northeast of young Shakespeare’s own Stratford. The future playwright may, conjectures Greenblatt, have enjoyed some of the festivities himself, or at least heard them described in some detail.

[2] Marx, Karl. “Preface” to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977. Accessed 3/10/2024.

[3] Some critics insist that Bassanio’s main reason for pursuing Portia is her wealth, but that may be somewhat unfair: his motives are probably best described as “mixed.”

[4] With the love-struck Medea’s help, Jason and his Argonauts get hold of the Golden Fleece on Colchis, and take advantage of Pelius’s offer of the Iolchan throne in Thessaly. Perhaps it should give us pause that the story shows a man gaining power and mastery by betrayal of a woman who loves him, but of course in a comedy this is no more than a dark highlight or hint; its full potential will not be realized in Shakespeare’s play. See Theoi.com’s “What Is the Story of Jason and the Golden Fleece?” Accessed 3/23/2024.

[5] Amicitia perfecta. See Shakespeare’s Globe essay “Shakespeare and Friendship.” April 6, 2018. Accessed 3/22/2024.

[6] McPherson, David C. Shakespeare, Jonson, and the Myth of Venice. Newark: U of Delaware Press, 1990. McPherson suggests that Antonio’s sadness may exist at least partly due to the declining fortunes of Venetian merchants, in which case Salerio and Solanio might not be entirely wrong. See pg. 51.

[7] Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Folio with additions from the Quarto. In The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 764-840. However undiplomatic she may be, King Lear’s daughter Cordelia may not be far from the mark when she implies that there’s something quantifiable about love, so that it is not entirely free of constraint. Cordelia tells the stunned Lear, “Happily, when I shall wed, / That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry / Half my love with him …” (766, 1.1.98-100).

[8] McPherson, David C. ibid. Indeed, if McPherson is correct, it may be plausible to view Portia as one of the high-born citizens of Venice—essentially part of a semi-aristocratic set in longtime republican Venice—who managed to distance themselves from the declining performance of the merchant profession, often moving to landed estates outside the city. Belmont might be construed as just such a removed estate. See pg. 56. See also Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. He remarks that Portia is just fine bearing with Bassanio and his spendthrift, happy-go-lucky set. She is in no way morally superior, Bloom suggests, to many of the characters in this play’s Venice. See pp. 177-79.

[9] A ducat consisted of .11 Troy ounces of gold, which, multiplied by 3,000 at 2024’s gold prices yields 330 ounces, and then multiplied by gold’s value as of March 15 ($2159 per ounce), that would be a bit north of $700,000.

[10] With regard to the story in Genesis 30:25-43, Jacob is Esau’s brother, and the son of Isaac and Rebekah and the grandson of Abraham and Sarah; Jacob was subsequently renamed “Israel” by an angel and is the great ancestor of the tribes of Israel. Antonio seems to miss the point of the story, at least as far as Shylock is concerned: the deal that Laban made with Jacob, who was working so he might return to his family, turned out to be unjust because he kept changing the terms of the contract. It’s a matter of a pair of clever deceivers colliding, and Jehovah blesses Jacob as the chosen seed. Jacob, in perpetrating his trick against Laban, trusts that God will sustain him and thereby advance the story of the Jews in their quest for the Promised Land. The deception itself is not some kind of dark magic, and by implication, neither is Shylock the moneylender’s “trick” of making money breed money such dark magic: it is a licit way to survive and thrive in the presence of hostile others who treat them as alien and “less than.” The hypocrisy of the Christians in such economic matters here is ludicrously obvious since Venetian commerce, like all other advanced commerce, undeniably turns upon interest-based lending practices. Accessed 3/22/2024. Biblegateway.com.

[11] See 2 Corinthians 3:6. The Geneva Bible of 1599. St. Paul writes, “for the letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth life.” The reference is to the purported truth of the New Testament, which demands, in his view, a new and liberating emphasis in interpretation. For those who find the theological undertones of The Merchant of Venice central, this Pauline principle would seem to be very important: one might say that Shylock conforms to the Christian slur that Jews read spiritual texts in a literalist, “dead-letter” fashion rather than with a view to their spiritual import. Accessed 3/20/2024. Biblegateway.com.

[12] Rendering Lancelet’s speech fully comic is the sense that when he describes for us the content and progress of his thoughts, it makes sense to suppose there is nothing more going on in his head than this medieval-style allegorical debate.

[13] Genesis 25:29-34. Geneva Bible, 1599. Biblegateway.com. Accessed 3/18/2024.

[14] Garber, Marjorie. Shakespeare after All. New York: Anchor Books, 2004. Pg. 304.

[15] The appropriate theological term would be charity, caritas.

[16] The text does not mention the season during which the play is set, so there is no reason to suppose that the season is Carnival-time. Still, Shylock’s description in 2.5 of the masquers he expects will soon be parading in the street below his home sounds like what one might say of Carnival revelers: he calls them “Christian fools with varnished [painted] faces” (12), and complains about the madcap music they will soon play. There is a general holiday ambience in Venice, as Shakespeare describes the place, and that is sufficient to reinforce the play’s contrast between Christian attitudes and Shylock’s somber demeanor.

[17] McPherson, David C. ibid., 27-28, 32, 35-36. McPherson’s general theme is that Shakespeare and Jonson are dealing with Venice as a mythic construction more than an actual place. Among other qualities, the beautiful city was noted for its wealth, devotion to pleasure, elegance, political wisdom and craftiness, as well as strictness and even severity in its justice system.

[18] Like the spendthrift Bassanio, who uses his friend’s money to step into the role of a man of great substance, and thence actually to become one when he marries Portia; or Portia, who disguises herself as a learned male doctor of laws to rescue Antonio from his forfeit. Incidentally, that Bassanio is something of a fortune-hunter would not necessarily have marked him for opprobrium in Shakespeare’s day—he is of sufficiently high social standing to make his enterprise seem respectable. See Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare after All. New York: Anchor Books, 2004. Pg. 287.

[19] See, for example, the RSC’s article “The Stage History of The Merchant of Venice.” Rsc.org.uk. Accessed 3/23/2024.

[20] See Susan Abernethy’s “Rodrigo Lopez, Royal Physician.” Thefreelancehistorywriter.com. Accessed 3/23/2024. The harrowing story of Elizabeth I’s physician Rodrigo Lopez reveals the unhealthy combination of fear and contempt with which such an exotic figure was regarded. When he was about to be executed for his alleged treason against the queen in 1594, his pious claim that he loved Elizabeth as much as he loved Jesus Christ met with Christian derision.

[21] See, for example, the entry “London, England” at jewishvirtuallibrary.org. Accessed 3/8/2024.

[22] See Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. One key point that Bloom makes in his essay on The Merchant of Venice is that Shylock is something other than pathos-inducing, even in his famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech to Christian onlookers in 3.1. In Bloom’s analysis, “Shylock kindled Shakespeare’s imagination and became enlarged beyond comedy, though into menace rather than pathos” (181).

[23] See Bloom, ibid., 171. The author writes, “One would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare’s grand, equivocal comedy The Merchant of Venice is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work.”

[24] Gesta Romanorum. Trans. Richard Robinson. London, 1595. See Tale 32. This is the edition that Shakespeare appears to have consulted. EEBO/umich.edu. Accessed 2/8/2024.

[25] This last point seems to conform to Augustine’s framework in The City of God: evil is a falling away from things that are in themselves good. See in particular Vol. 1, Book 13. Trans. Marcus Dodds. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1871. Project Gutenberg e-text. Accessed 3/23/2024.

[26] 1 John 2:15, 1599 Geneva Bible. Accessed 3/8/2024.

[27] Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Second Quarto with additions from the Folio. In The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 358-447. Hamlet 435, 5.1.173-75.

[28] See Norton note 7 on pg. 495.

[29] Here, “fancy” means “attraction, love, affection.”

[30] One notices the difference between Portia’s oaths, which are grounded in humility and desire to please, and some of the oaths that Bassanio and Antonio casually offer up to each other and in other situations, as at court in Act 4. These seem more extravagant than Portia’s stated desires.

[31] A pun on the 1999 film Girl, Interrupted directed by James Mangold and starring Angelina Jolie, Winona Ryder, and others.

[32] Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Folio with additions from the Quarto. In The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 764-840. Kent advises the King as follows: “Thy youngest daughter doth not love thee least, / Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sounds / Reverb no hollowness” (768, 1.1.150-52).

[33] The line is from R.E.M.’s 1991 song “Shiny Happy People Holding Hands” from the album Out of Time.

[34] A ducat consisted of 3.5 or so grams of gold. The sum of 36,000 ducats amounts to 281 lbs. of gold. In rough terms, that’s worth perhaps 5 or 6 million dollars in 2024.

[35] As the Norton editors’ note points out, this utterance sounds a good deal like what the crowd of Jews at Jesus’s trial supposedly said: in the Geneva Bible, the passage runs: “His blood be on us, and on our children.” Matthew 27:25. Biblegateway.com. Accessed 3/22/2024.

[36] Daniel 13 is placed among the apocryphal texts. Biblegateway.com. Accessed 3/22/2024. The import of this identification, for Shylock, may be that he has been unjustly condemned for his profession of moneylending by the very Christian “elders” who constrain him to follow that profession: they are hypocrites seeking to cover up their own sinful dealing.

[37] This is a very serious matter, the spreading of the “blood libel”: it has for centuries been used as a precursor of and justification for violence against Jews, not only in Nazi Germany but elsewhere in Europe and other parts of the world where antisemitism is present. See, for example, the Jewish Virtual Library’s entry ”Blood Libel.“ jewishvirtuallibrary.com. Accessed 3/18/2024.

[38] The phrase “io son contento,” or “I am content,” approaches the status of a refrain in Shakespeare’s main source for his play, the fourteenth-century novella il Pecorone, by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino (See Novella I, Giornata Quarta, pp. 41ff.; see also the English translation by W. G. Waters, 1897). Accessed 3/08/2024. In the Italian’s text, this phrase is uttered a number of times by the rich merchant Ansaldo (Antonio’s literary precursor) upon finding out that his godson (the precursor of our graceful spendthrift, Bassanio) has survived a presumed catastrophe at sea or elsewhere. We can’t know what Shakespeare and/or his audiences really thought about Shylock’s prospects for a happy ending, but there may be an extra charge of bitterness in the utterance “I am content” that he takes up, as it were, from the rather easily satisfied Christian Messer Ansaldo. Fiorentino’s story is in brief as follows: Giannetto, Ansaldo’s godson, twice loses a costly wager to a fabulously wealthy and beautiful lady in Belmonte—when he fails to bed her within the time period prescribed, she takes all the goods on his ship—only to gain her hand in marriage on his third try. After this triumph, Giannetto scandalously forgets that thanks to his two losses to the Lady, his godfather Ansaldo had to take out a loan for him of 10,000 ducats from a Jew, the terms of the bond being nearly identical to the one that Shakespeare’s Antonio agrees to. As in The Merchant of Venice, forfeit of the bond almost costs the merchant his life, but in the end the Jew must tear up his bond. In Fiorentino’s Il Pecorino, however, he is not forced to abandon his religion as he is in The Merchant of Venice. He simply rips the bond to pieces in frustration, and we hear no more about him.

[39] While Shakespeare follows Fiorentino’s plot from Il Pecorone very closely (aside from Shylock not being forced to convert to Christianity in the precursor text), neither Bassanio nor Antonio shows quite the same degree of regard as Fiorentino’s Giannetto for the ring that the younger man had pledged to hold dear: Giannetto had said of his lady, “So great are the love and the trust I have for her, that there is not a lady in the world for whom I would exchange her, so consummately fair is she in every sense…” (Il Pecorone, trans. W. G. Waters. London: Lawrence and Bullen, LTD, 1897. pg. 58.) In comparison to this, Bassanio’s protestation seems like weak tea, while Antonio considers it simple reason that a woman’s wishes should give way to the entreaties of a learned doctor.

[40] See “The Music of the Spheres.” SensoryStudies.org. Accessed 3/23/2024. See also Andrew Brown’s Nov. 5, 2009 article “The music of the spheres” in The Guardian. Accessed 3/23/2024.

[41] Director Michael Radford’s 2005 film version of The Merchant of Venice stars (among others) Lynn Collins as Portia, Al Pacino as Shylock, Joseph Fiennes as Bassanio, and Jeremy Irons as Antonio.

[42] The line is from R.E.M.’s 1991 song “Shiny Happy People Holding Hands” from the album Out of Time.

[43] See, for example, Theoharis C. Theoharis, “’For with God all Things are Possible’: Philip Roth’s ‘The Conversion of the Jews.’” Journal of the Short Story in English [online], 32. Spring 1999, posted online 01 July 2008, accessed 08 February 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/jsse/173. Theoharis points to Andrew Marvell’s witty poem “To His Coy Mistress” for its inclusion of the stock phrase “till the Jews be converted” as a way of saying “never.” Theoharis writes, “For centuries the phrase ‘conversion of the Jews’ has been a trope for the pragmatically unlikely, the tragically impossible, the heroically resisted, the idealistically sought for event.”

[44] Bloom, ibid. See the essay “The Merchant of Venice,” pp. 171-91.The well-known critic views Shylock as a character whose intelligence, studied malice, and deep cruelty catapult him beyond the immediate context of the play in which he is embedded. Shylock, in Bloom’s view, has come to seem lamentably archetypal of “Jewishness”—more so than Marlowe’s Barabas, the patently villainous Jew of Malta. As he describes the dynamic: “‘I’ll show you the Jew,’ Shakespeare says in reply to Marlowe, and so, alas, he has, to the everlasting harm of the actual Jewish people” (181). Bloom is not, of course, validating Shakespeare’s portrait of Shylock; he is instead testifying to its affective power through the centuries.

[45] Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Folio with additions from the Quarto. In The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 764-840. Lear’s utterance “I am a man / More sinned against than sinning” occurs at 801, 3.2.59-60.

[46] Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1999. Book 1, line 12.

Measure for Measure

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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Shakespeare, William. Measure for Measure. (The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 891-959).

Of Interest: RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Summary of Cinthio’s “Epitia” in Hecatommithi | Whetstone’s Promos and Cassandra |

Act 1, Scene 1 (pp. 901-03, Duke Vincentio of Vienna says he must travel and appoints 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. His absence will have the character of a test,  an experiment. When the Duke says to Angelo, “Spirits are not finely touched / But to fine issues” (1.1.35), he is setting forth the typical Renaissance understanding of virtue as an active power that reveals itself in welldoing. He professes to see this active power at work in Angelo. However, the young man 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” (1.1.65-66). 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” (1.1.67-68). 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 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. That kind of failure can cost rulers dearly in Shakespeare’s plays. In The Tempest, for example, Prospero, the Duke of Milan, 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, with the end-goal being a lasting balance between justice and mercy. 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. 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 law’s 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” (1.2.66-67). 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 have 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” (1.2.93). 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 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 being established 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 to 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” (1.2.111). 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” (1.2.117-119). This understanding is of a piece with Shakespeare’s dark “Sonnet 129,” which describes the great power 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” (1.2.157), 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” (1.2.170-174). 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 his 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” (1.3.8), and reports that he has appointed Angelo to govern in his absence. What’s 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” (1.3.20) the “strict statutes and most biting laws” (1.3.19) that would otherwise have been sufficient to keep order. The picture he paints of present-day Vienna is not pretty. The 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” (1.3.34), 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: 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 deputy 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” (1.3.50-53). 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” (1.3.53-54).

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 would impose even stricter rules. Critics have sometimes suggested that this desire may reveal something about Isabella’s psychosexual makeup. 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…” (1.4.35-36). 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 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” (1.4.78). She probably just means, “I don’t believe I have any power to help my brother.” But Lucio’s response seems 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” (1.4.78-80). 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. He wants her to consider these and use them. The rest of his speech to her makes this quite plain: “Go to Lord Angelo…” (1.4.80ff). 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” (1.4.84).

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 function. 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 (or breaking) 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” (2.1.17). 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” (2.1.30-31). 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” (2.1.38). 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, malapropisms, and just plain confusion and prolixity, it takes Escalus a few hundred lines to figure out 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 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” (2.1.230), 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” (2.2.36-37). Angelo easily parries this attempt, and Isabella immediately gives up, only to be chided by Lucio, who tells her she is “too cold” (2.2.46). “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” (2.2.50-51). 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” (2.2.65-67). 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” (2.2.74-76). 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“ (2.2.88-89). 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 beautiful lines that constitute 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” (2.2.108-10). 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…” (2.2.118-20). Lucio is almost beside himself with joy at this rhetorical turn, and we may suspect that it is not so much Isabella’s eloquent words that make him so happy as the passionate manner in which she speaks 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 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” (2.2.143) with hearing her good advice. He offers only to reflect more deeply on the matter, but Isabella stops him in his tracks by employing the word “bribe” (2.2.146). 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?” (2.2.175-177). He says that he always “smiled and wondered how” (2.2.189) 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 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. She 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 points 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 purity, even at the cost of his life. She’s in for quite a surprise.

It is worth noting the point-counterpoint structure that pits Angelo’s declaration “now I give my sensual race the rein” (2.4.157) 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” (2.4.99-101). This is strongly masochistic language. One could make a Freud-inspired reading of such words, one that suggests the psychic strain that this refusal—as part of Isabella’s ongoing dedication to sexual abstinence and purity—puts on her 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 holiest 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), just as passionately does Isabella reject her oppressor’s lust.

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 Lodowick) 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 the man’s bail; Lucio slanders the Duke, not realizing his interlocutor is the man himself. Finally, Escalus marches Mistress Overdone 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 Lodowick) 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” (3.1.20-21). 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” (3.1.85-86). 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 the now-corrupted Angelo: “Sure it is no sin, / Or of the deadly seven it is the least” (3.1.109-10). At last he is reduced to the utterance, “Death is a fearful thing” (3.1.116) and to some 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?” (3.1.139-40). 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 (3.1.1-152) ends distressingly, with Claudio continuing to beseech his sister to save him, and Isabella becoming more and more hostile towards his efforts.

At this point, the disguised Duke reenters and again moves 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 immoral proposal. On her own, Isabella 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…” (3.1.195-198). 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 herself for Isabella. This is the ancient “bed trick” of literary renown, and in the present play, it will help to rescue Claudio and make long-suffering Mariana whole. Isabella, for her part, is delighted with the plan. So ends this part of the scene (3.1.153-257).

Constable Elbow soon drags Pompey the pimp across the stage, 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 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” (3.1.323), meaning “fashion,” he says, that leads him to say no.

As soon as things have wrapped up with Elbow and Pompey (3.1.258-334), the Duke finds himself alone with Lucio, hanger-on and gossip-monger extraordinaire. This foppish, if articulate and witty, character proceeds to insult Angelo’s strict substitute for his unpleasant reign and to slander the Duke to his face, although unknowingly since the Duke is of course disguised as “Friar Lodowick.” Aside from being hilariously entertaining for the audience, the conversation suggests that Lucio aptly represents a portion 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 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. At the same time, Lucio offers a cogent view of the prospects of austere do-gooders and reformers generally when he says of lechery, “it is impossible to extirp it quite, Friar, till / eating and drinking be put down” (3.1.348-49). But of course saying this in no way excuses pompous, insinuating 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, though he claims he fervently wishes for the lax Duke’s return, ought to fear that outcome above all else. And so ends this portion of the scene (3.1.335-418).

All that remains from 3.1.419-509 is for Angelo’s second-in-command Escalus to order the Bawd (Mistress Overdone) off to prison and leave room for Escalus and the Duke (as Friar Lodowick) 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 disguised Duke, 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 lead 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” (3.1.482)—the Duke is left to his own reflections. The Duke sums up Angelo’s example in rhyming trimeter: “He who the sword of heaven will bear / Should be as holy as severe” (3.1.488-89). There’s a hint here that if the Duke ever believed mortals had any business acting with the severity of his deputy Angelo, the unfolding of the experiment is providing him with a powerful corrective. “Surprised by sin” is a phrase made famous by critic Stanley Fish in his sharp analysis of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and we might do well to apply it here: just as the pretended 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 (fairness) 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 reveal the rest of the Duke’s dispensation, such as it is.

Act 4, Scene 1 (pp. 936-38, Following a vignette of the jilted Mariana at her home, the Duke in disguise shows up and so does Isabella; these two confer on their plan to trap Angelo, and the Duke introduces the two women. The Duke worries about what his subjects are saying about him in his absence.)

This may be the scene that inspired Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood painter John Everett Millais and Victorian poet Alfred Tennyson to create their respective works of art titled “Mariana.” It is easy for us to suggest that Mariana’s match with Angelo is not exactly made in heaven—the hypocritical Puritan abandoned her when her dowry funding fell through thanks to her brother’s shipwreck. When we are introduced to Mariana in person, the first thing we hear is a boy singing a tale of frustrated romance that perfectly suits Mariana’s predicament. There is a strong sense of sexual frustration about Shakespeare’s entire portrait of her. In this scene, she herself refers to her “brawling discontent” (4.1.9) about what happened with Angelo. As yet, this lady does not know exactly what the Duke will be getting up to on her behalf, but Isabella soon enters and reports to the Duke how their plan is coming along. She has made the necessary promise to Angelo, and learned the way to her destination. The Duke calls Mariana back and introduces her to Isabella, whereupon the latter, at the Duke’s request, takes Mariana aside to inform her of the plan that will serve them both. When they return to the Duke, he reassures Mariana that her conduct will be upright, saying, “the justice of your title to him / Doth flourish the deceit” (4.1.73-74).

Act 4, Scene 2 (pp. 938-42, The Provost makes Pompey the executioner’s apprentice, and summons Claudio and Barnardine to tell them they are soon to die. A messenger arrives with a letter containing Angelo’s stubbornly restated order to execute Claudio. The Provost explains Barnardine’s recalcitrance with regard to his execution, but the Duke tells the Provost to execute this man and bring his head instead of Claudio’s to Angelo. When the Provost balks, the Duke (as Lodowick) reassures him and says the letter signifies the Duke’s imminent return.)

The Provost, ever efficient, decides that Pompey might as well assist the hangman Abhorson in the upcoming executions. Pompey takes up the offer with alacrity since otherwise, he knows, he will be severely whipped for his offenses. Abhorson is somewhat taken aback by this turn, and fears that his “mystery” (4.2.23-24) will be tarnished by the connection with a mere pimp. The Provost does not see matters that way, and neither does Pompey. Claudio and Barnardine are soon brought in and told they must be executed, and the Duke, in his usual disguise, enters soon thereafter. He makes as if to defend Angelo from the charge of tyranny, seeing as no reprieve has come yet for Claudio. The Duke tries to reassure the Provost that a reprieve will come, but the Provost seems uncertain. Soon, terrible news arrives: Angelo not only hasn’t countermanded the writ of execution, he demands “Claudio’s head sent me by five” (4.2.118) and threatens the Provost if this is not done.

Barnardine is also to be executed, and this gives the Duke an idea. Barnardine, according to the Provost, “apprehends death no more dreadfully / but as a drunken sleep; careless, reckless, and fearless of what’s past, present, or to come; insensible of mortality, and / desperately mortal” (4.2.136-39). The Duke begins to let the Provost in on his secret plans, at least on a need-to-know basis, and says he will soon find that Angelo is far worse a man than Barnardine. But the point is, Claudio’s execution is to be delayed and Barnardine’s head brought to Angelo instead. The Provost is still dubious, but the Duke shows his own “hand and seal” (4.2.181-82), and that proves sufficient. As for Angelo, says the Duke, he will soon be receiving some strange, rumor-filled letters, the contents of which will surprise him.

Act 4, Scene 3 (pp. 943-46, The drunken Barnardine refuses to be reconciled to his execution. The Provost tells the disguised Duke that Ragozine has died—a stroke of luck since he looked like Claudio—so the Duke tells the Provost to present Angelo with Ragozine’s head. The Duke will send letters to Angelo telling him to meet him publicly just outside the city. The Duke falsely tells Isabella that Claudio has been executed. He promises revenge: she will publicly expose Angelo. The Duke then sends her to Friar Peter to set up a strategy meeting.)

Pompey remarks upon the denizens of the prison in which he now assists Abhorson: “One would think it were Mistress Overdone’s / own house, for here be many of her old customers” (4.3.2-3). Barnardine is fetched and told it is his time to be executed. As Pompey cheerfully puts the matter, “You must be so / good, sir, to rise and be put to death” (4.3.24-25), but Barnardine is in no mood to comply. His reason? He has been drinking all night—as usual—and is therefore in no condition to be counseled spiritually as the occasion demands. Barnardine says peremptorily, “I swear I will not die today for any man’s persuasion” (4.3.53). This attitude on the condemned man’s part threatens to upset the discursive apple-cart where the justice system is concerned since its proceedings demand that all concerned in the business of punishment—including the most reprobate criminals—should willingly play their designated role in a deadly performance designed to uphold the moral and symbolic order.* The Provost deftly counters the danger that Barnardine’s refusal presents: the pirate Ragozine has just died of a fever, and he happens to look exactly like Claudio. Why not present his head to Angelo? That will do just fine, by the Duke’s lights. The Duke, meanwhile, writes a letter to Angelo summoning him to a location just outside the city gates, where he will make a public reappearance.

*This performative and symbolic aspect of “justice” is by no means absent in modern justice systems: consider what happens when accused people reject the prosecutor’s offer of a plea deal: if they refuse to admit to a lesser offence and agree to a supposedly reasonable punishment, they can be fairly certain that if they’re convicted, the judge will “throw the book” at them. In a sense, the assumption is that to be accused is already to be guilty, and lengthy punishment menaces anyone who dares to stand up for his or her constitutional right to a jury trial. But what if the accused is in fact innocent? Moreover, what happens when a newly convicted person, asked if he or she has anything to say that might mitigate the harshness of the impending sentence, refuses to utter words of sorrow and contrition? Such recalcitrance might well result in a longer sentence. The “criminal” is refusing to admit guilt and play his or her assigned role. But again, what if the person who has been convicted really didn’t commit any crime? None of this is to suggest that we don’t need a justice system; the point is that any system we come up with is bound to be troubled with imperfections and potential abuses, miscarriages, and outright injustices, all of which may have their ground in the human frailty of the prosecutors and judges themselves. The imperfection of human justice is one of Shakespeare’s major areas of interest, and we can find it in a number of his plays: King Lear, Hamlet, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and The Merchant of Venice come immediately to mind, alongside the play we are currently studying.

Isabella enters and is told that her brother has already been put to death. The Duke explains to us that he is doing this only to increase her happiness and amazement when she finds out otherwise: “I will keep her ignorant of her good, / To make her heavenly comforts of despair / When it is least expected” (4.3.102-04). This seems like an extreme way to go about things, and perhaps it’s redolent of the Christian notion of the felix culpa or fortunate fall. Still, that’s what the Duke says, and such shifts are really not uncommon in Shakespeare’s plays. Consider, for example, Juliet’s taking of a potion in Romeo and Juliet that mimics the appearance and symptoms of death, or the mortal-seeming fainting spell suffered by Hero in Much Ado about Nothing. In any case, Isabella is to carry a letter to Friar Peter asking him to come to Mariana’s house this very evening. Soon, Friar Peter will escort Isabella into the presence of Angelo, and she will have her chance to accuse him.

Lucio caps off the scene, needling the Duke about his supposed decadence, and promising him, “Nay, Friar, / I am a kind of burr, I shall stick” (4.3.167-68). It is indeed difficult for a city, or a ruler, ever to shake off the kind of loose talk that issues from the mouths of many a Lucio, or entirely to escape the damage done to their reputation. “Public opinion” is a relatively new concern, but in some sense or other, it has been around for many centuries, even millennia. The great Roman politicians, patricians, and Caesars, for example, were much gossiped about, often in roundly salacious terms.

This is also a good place to refer to Shakespeare’s frequent preoccupation with the seamy underbelly of London, the underclass and its economy. Today, we sometimes use the term “prison-industrial complex” to describe the unhealthy relationship among the elements that constitute and interact with the penal system: mainly, a government that gains authority by passing harsh legislation against minor or manufactured crimes and a prison system (both its for-profit and governmental sectors here in the U.S.A.) that either makes billions in profits or gains an immense number of dependents who, by their very presence in the system, argue for greater power and funding. (The whole setup, by the way, inordinately impacts poor people and minorities, sweeping many into the penal system and making it extremely difficult for them ever to get entirely free.) What Shakespeare often describes might be called a “prison pre-industrial complex”: he uncovers a state and an early-capitalist sector determined to benefit from the old, sad tale of human frailty. Pompey the Clown/Pimp is hauled off to the prison-house, where the Provost drafts him into becoming the hangman Abhorson’s apprentice. The Provost has deftly turned a minor criminal’s predicament to the penal system’s advantage. The system has gained a hangman, and the Provost reminds quibbling Abhorson that he isn’t much better than a bawd, in spite of his talk about being an adept in a “mystery” (a craft, in this case one with sacred undertones). And while pimps, madams, and prostitutes (“punks”) were considered unsavory, they certainly made up a significant sector of the Elizabethan and Jacobean economy. Crime, vice, poverty, and misery are not aberrant, isolated things that happen for no reason; they exist in relation to the supposedly legitimate and moral parts of any political and social system. Perhaps the romantic poet William Blake says it best: “Pity would be no more, / If we did not make somebody Poor…” (“The Human Abstract” from Songs of Experience, 1794).

Act 4, Scene 4 (pp. 946-47, Escalus and Angelo fret over the strange letters sent to them about the Duke’s impending return. Alone, Angelo admits that his guilt over Claudio’s supposed execution is consuming him.)

Escalus is puzzled over the series of contradictory letters sent by the Duke, but Angelo is more than puzzled—he is alarmed. Even worse, his lustful offense against Isabella is consuming his soul with guilt. As he says, “This deed unshapes me quite….” Angelo also suggests that he ordered Claudio’s execution in spite of his promise to spare him because he feared that the young man’s shame would drive him to take revenge: “He should have lived, / Save that his riotous youth with dangerous sense / Might in the times to come have ta’en revenge / By so receiving a dishonored life / With ransom of such shame” (4.4.26-30). This is rich coming from Angelo, who has knowingly given in to his own erotic impulses where Isabella is concerned. This substitute ruler, this deputy, thereby confesses guilty knowledge of a fundamental truth about governance: they who upset the proper order of things threaten thereby to unleash uncontrollable riot and chaos in the societies they lead, confounding what many would say is the very purpose of civilization or society: the maintenance of harmonious, productive order instead of a violent free-for-all of the sort that Thomas Hobbes, in Leviathan (I.xiii.9), captures so well with his phrase about life before the social contract: “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” But all in all, there’s some hint in this passage that what most unsettles Angelo is the prospect of actually getting away with his cruel transgression against an innocent woman. Of course, he does not know what the Duke knows, or what we the audience know. That bit of dramatic irony will soon change.

Act 4, Scene 5 (pg. 947, Outside the city, the Duke—now in his own person—tells Friar Peter to gather together those who are loyal to him.)

The Duke cleverly tightens his plot to trap and expose Angelo in full view of the public. He calls together men he knows are loyal to him and instructs them how to bring his plan into effect with maximum effect and safety. Underlying this careful planning, of course, is a possibility any wise ruler would have to consider: what if Angelo suspects the worst and makes preparations to do some violence to the Duke and take power from him once and for all? We can also see that the play’s final scene will have the character of a play within the larger action, with some characters knowing the truth about the strange proceedings, and others kept in the dark until the very end.

Act 4, Scene 6 (pp. 947-48, Isabella is anxious about her role in the plot, but Mariana tells her to stand fast and accuse Angelo. The plot moves swiftly, with trumpets announcing the Duke’s arrival at the city gates.)

Isabella is still anxious about her role in the drama about to unfold outside the city gates, but Mariana and Friar Peter reassure her.

Act 5, Scene 1 (pp. 948-59, the Duke praises Angelo and Escalus, but Isabella demands justice. The Duke refers her to Angelo, but Isabella keeps up her accusation. The Duke feigns disbelief, and soon she calls for Friar Lodowick. Mariana exposes Angelo for jilting her, explains the plot’s bed-trick details, and unveils herself. The Duke encourages Angelo to judge severely, then exits only to reenter in disguise. Escalus weighs Lucio’s claims about “Friar Lodowick’s” alleged slanders against the Duke, but when Lucio pulls off the Friar’s hood, the Duke is revealed. Angelo confesses, and the Duke orders him to wed Mariana, then condemns him to die. Mariana and Isabella try to intercede, without initial success. The Provost brings in Barnardine, who is now pardoned, along with Claudio. The Duke forgives Angelo, proposes to Isabella, and condemns Lucio to marry a prostitute. He announces the couples’ dispensations, thanks Escalus, and repeats his proposal to Isabella.)

In arranging for his meeting at the city gates, the Duke has set up a venue for the public witnessing of justice. As the observation goes in its most accurate form, “Justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.” (The speaker was the Lord Chief Justice of England Gordon Hewart; see Rex v. Sussex Justices, [1924] 1 KB 256. Link to Bar & Bench Article.) Spectacle has a strong role to play in the administration of justice, and perhaps we should imagine that this is on the Duke’s mind when he tees up Angelo with decorous praise in front of the gathering throng: “Oh, your desert speaks loud, and I should wrong it / To lock it in the wards of covert bosom …” (5.1.10-11). No sooner does he speak these and other ceremonious words, however, than Friar Peter leads Isabella onto the stage and encourages her to do her part. Her plea is all for justice—so much so that she repeats the word four times, and the Duke refers her directly to his deputy, saying, “Lord Angelo shall give you justice” (5.1.29). Angelo is clearly rattled, and he front-loads the claim that this grief-stricken woman must have taken leave of her senses: “she will speak most bitterly and strange” (5.1.40). She proceeds to do just that, hurling accusations as yet unbacked by any show of evidence, and the Duke professes to accept Angelo’s judgment that his accuser must be insane. Soon enough, however, she comes to the point and gives a chilling summation of the abuser’s crime: “He would not but by gift of my chaste body / To his concupiscible intemperate lust / Release my brother” (5.1.103-05). Isabella claims that she yielded to this demand, and when this charge, too, receives only scorn from the Duke (Angelo has fallen silent for the time being), she is ordered off to prison. But not before she offers the name “Friar Lodowick” in answer to the Duke’s question about who sent her to the city gates to levy her accusations.

This mention of Lodowick brings Lucio to the fore, and he claims that this “meddling friar” (5.1.133) is the very man who has been slandering the absent Duke left and right. Friar Peter says Angelo has indeed been wronged, but so has Friar Lodowick, by Lucio. And with that, off goes Friar Peter to fetch not Lodowick just yet, but Mariana as a witness who can prove Isabella is lying about Angelo. Mariana explains the basic mechanics of the bed-trick subplot, which still more deeply implicates Angelo, and then she finally unveils herself. For her efforts, Mariana is branded by Angelo as having earned a reputation “disvalued / In levity” (5.1.226-27), which sounds like yet another whopping lie on his part. The Duke draws Angelo on to the verge of strictest severity in applying the law against Mariana and Lodowick. Somewhat like Portia dealing with Shylock, the Duke eggs Angelo on to exact his pound of flesh for the insults levied against him. Friar Peter then exits to fetch Lodowick, and (necessarily) the Duke also makes a brief exit so that he may return in disguise as the accused Friar. The interlude sees Escalus giving Lucio yet another go at denouncing “Friar Lodowick” as the slanderer of the Duke, and this is followed up when the Duke himself, in disguise as Lodowick, suddenly appears and promptly turns the accusation around to Lucio himself. It’s a tribute to Shakespeare’s uncanny eye and ear for the dramatic that this trivial character is present at the play’s most significant unmasking: when Lucio rips off “Lodowick’s” hood, there stands the Duke himself, who utters a finely comic reproach: “Thou art the first knave that e’er mad’st a duke” (5.1.358).

The Duke immediately pardons Lucio’s harsh and dishonest words, and rounds upon Angelo in what sounds like genuine anger: “Hast thou or word, or wit, or impudence, / That yet can do thee office?” (5.1.365-66). Hearing this, Angelo immediately does something that is, on the one hand, authentic, but on the other unacceptable for a comic conclusion: he says, “Immediate sentence then and sequent death / Is all the grace I beg” (5.1.375-76). And with this, the Duke gets his opportunity to make his dispensations. He summons Mariana and orders Angelo to go and marry her immediately. He then repeats the untruth to Isabella that her brother is dead, claiming that the execution outpaced his attempts to stop it. Isabella is expected to take this information patiently, and even to forgive Angelo, the man who has supposedly executed Claudio. But this same man who is to be forgiven must also himself be executed: after all, says the Duke, “Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure; / Like doth quit like, and measure still for measure” (5.1.413-14). At this pronouncement, Mariana is taken aback, and she utters a line that in its attractive simplicity completely rejects her new husband’s principle of treating money as more important than loyalty or faith: “I crave no other nor no better man” (5.1.429). Mariana immediately entreats Isabella to take her part in fighting for Angelo’s life. Between the two of them, they engage in an impressive bit of morally pliable lawyering that would make Saul Goodman of Breaking Bad proud. Mariana says, “They say best men are molded out of faults, / And for the most, become much more the better / For being a little bad. So may my husband” (5.1.442-44). As Mariana knows, Angelo has been much more than “a little bad.” He has behaved in a perfidious, abusive, and even potentially murderous way.

Isabella has already shown her willingness to participate in a scheme involving well-intended deception, and at this point, she shows us how far she has come from the rigid moralist we met in earlier acts. Her line of attack is, “My brother had but justice, / In that he did the thing for which he died. / For Angelo, his act did not o’ertake his bad intent / And must be buried but as an intent / That perished by the way” (5.1.451-55). This logic does not fundamentally differ from, say, the plea from an unsuccessful bank robber that, after all, he did not succeed in his criminal plans, so he should not be charged for the attempt. Even if we should not take for granted that the Elizabethans had precisely the same understanding of the relationship between crime and intentionality as we do today, it is hard to imagine such a claim succeeding in court anywhere, at any time. Still, it is essentially the argument Isabella sets forth to help Mariana save Angelo.

The Duke at once professes to have thought of yet one more fault, and this time it’s the Provost who receives his unwelcome attention. But this, of course, is a pretext for the two of them to reveal, by way of some temporal fudging and an attenuated doubling of Claudio’s identity, that in spite of all that’s been said, Isabella’s brother is still alive. The Duke is now able to pardon Angelo, and he is in such a good mood that he even pardons the murderous drunkard Barnardine, advising him to make something better of his miserable existence. Isabella and Claudio soon embrace, and the Duke asks for Isabella’s hand in marriage. The last piece of business is to deal with the rascal Lucio. The Duke at first sentences him to be whipped and hanged, but relents and simply orders him to marry the prostitute by whom he fathered a child. To Lucio’s comic plea that “Marrying a punk … is pressing to death, whipping, / and hanging” (5.1.525-26), the Duke answers only, “Slandering a prince deserves it” (5.1.527).

The Duke closes the play by making his second offer of marriage to Isabella, saying, “I have a motion much imports your good, / Whereto if you’ll a willing ear incline, / What’s mine is yours, and what is yours is mine” (5.1.538-39). He still receives no answer, and critics have made much of this lack of affirmation as a way of deepening the “problem play” status of Measure for Measure, but it’s hard to imagine that Isabella is going to walk away from the deal in a huff. Doing so would make little dramatic sense, and Isabella has already shown the flexibility necessary to make her an excellent match for Vincentio. The Duke is not tendering an imperious “indecent proposal” like the one Angelo threw down to Isabella; he is courteously asking if Isabella would like to marry him and, we may presume, exercise considerable power as the Duchess of Vienna.

Why is Measure for Measure considered one of Shakespeare’s darker comedies or along with All’s Well That Ends Well and Troilus and Cressida, and, according to some critics, The Merchant of Venice? The play’s status as problematic seems to come down to its moral complexity. The ending feels to some viewers and readers as if it is somewhat forced, and the play as a whole lacks the sunnier qualities of Shakespearean comedies such as As You Like It. Measure for Measure comes across as being willing to question the status of marriage in a not altogether comical way. In the end, the play brings into stark relief the astute pre-Freudian realization that while marriage is a vital institution that can knit and hold a society together, it is by no means equally efficient at rendering individuals and couples happy. We can speculate that the prospective marriage between the Duke and Isabella will approach the ideal and that the union between Claudio and Julietta is solid, but the marriage between Angelo and Mariana seems, if not purgatorial, less than ideal, and Lucio’s forced marriage with the prostitute Kate Keepdown, by whom he fathered a child, sounds like a dreadful punishment for both. Certainly, there are “odd men out” even in the sunnier comedies—characters such as Malvolio and Feste in Twelfth Night, or Jacques in As You Like It, not to mention less than picture-perfect, high-minded unions like that of Touchstone the Clown and his country lass Audrey. But there’s nothing quite approaching the dark quality of Act 5’s dispensation here in Measure for Measure.

As for the play’s exploration of the concept of justice, that, too, is ambivalent. Many viewers and readers seem not to be overly impressed with the Duke’s achievement by the play’s end. Perhaps, though, the sudden commutations he springs on us (along with the necessary marriages, happy ones and otherwise) may mirror God’s far grander dispensation for the whole of humanity—the divine redemptive process is, after all, often described as sudden, and unmerited on the part of those who receive its great reward. It may be that the demand levied on Shakespeare to prepare us elaborately for the resolution is, in the context of this play about justice, misplaced. Vulnerabilities such as pride, sensuality, and fear of mortality render human beings weak and fallible. “Balance” in administering justice is bound to be elusive, but perhaps the recognition of these defects can pave the way towards the recovery of sufficient virtue to keep a society together. That is a major concern in Shakespeare’s work: how to renew and perpetuate the social order when the material with which one must work is such crumbling, frail, mortal clay as humankind? What shifts and partial tactics and strategy will serve to protect this order from the hollowing-out that seems to beset so many of the societies in Shakespeare’s tragic plays? Critics may be right to claim that Measure for Measure is far from perfectly satisfying in terms of its comic impact, but at the same time, it is an honest play because it doesn’t sugarcoat the shortcomings of attempts to achieve a balance between justice and mercy. As such, in my view, it takes its honorable place in the spectrum of Shakespearean comedy. Anyone who demands perfect fidelity to genre conventions and expectations in Shakespeare is bound to be frustrated; Shakespeare never signed any oath to observe such fidelity, and I suspect that he would have considered it a betrayal of life in its full reality.

Copyright © 2023 Alfred J. Drake

Cymbeline, King of Britain

Commentaries on
Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

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Shakespeare, William. Cymbeline, King of Britain. (The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 207-301).

Of Interest: RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed’s “Kymbeline” | Boccaccio’s Decameron Day 2.9 | Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune, 1589 | Peele’s Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes |

Act 1, Scene 1 (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  Philario 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 to anyone who has seen or 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 has a problem similar to that of Edmund of Gloucester in King Lear—not that he’s illegitimate, but his less than royal lineage makes him persona non grata at Cymbeline’s court. Imogen’s vocabulary is much more expansive, however, than Cordelia’s stubborn, if honest, repetitions of “nothing”—Cymbeline’s daughter fights back spiritedly when the king derides her suitor with the phrase “basest thing” (224, 1.1.125) and banishes him. Cymbeline, says Imogen, has failed to realize that bringing the two of them up together might lead to this situation, and the situation is worsened by his refusal to recognize merit as anything but a property of noble birth.

Looking forward, however, we will find that in Cymbeline law and custom only seem implacable. In true comic fashion, they can be revoked with a change of heart and a word or two. Lear’s decrees are not reversible in time to do anyone good, but Cymbeline’s are. The analogue of the faithful servant Kent in King Lear would be the wronged but ultimately loyal Belarius, who—having spitefully kidnaped Cymbeline’s two young sons some twenty years previously—returns them to the king when he least expects it, thereby ushering in the play’s happy ending.

None of this is to suggest that Cymbeline is on a par with the masterpiece King Lear. Indeed, Dr. Johnson wrote that pointing out the play’s many flaws would be “to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.”[1] In our own day, Harold Bloom has insisted that Cymbeline is deliberate self-parody, repeating in a tired manner certain silly plot contrivances that the Swan of Avon may have become too fond of over the years: a foolish but still magnificent sovereign; a decapitation; a massive violation of the so-called unity of time since the action seems to shuttle back and forth between ancient Britain and Renaissance Italy; identity switches and 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 aristocratic 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.[2]

Of course, this is Shakespeare we’re talking about: even if the critics are correct that in Cymbeline the playwright is making fun of his worst tendencies, the results are by no means to be despised. That would be true even if only for Imogen’s sake: a memorable heroine, she rises above the dramatic environment in which Shakespeare has placed her. It’s a high-class problem to have, this “rising above,” and as Harold Bloom would be quick to tell us, it’s one she shares with Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.[3]

To open the play, we are told that Cymbeline adopted the orphan Posthumus and raised him as a close servant (221-22, 1.1.28-50). 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, which is that Posthumus is a worthier match for his daughter than Cloten, the buffoonish son of Cymbeline’s new queen. The courtiers may not say so to their master’s face, but all of them are “Glad of the thing they scowl at” (221, 1.1.14), meaning the frustration of Cloten in his suit for Imogen’s hand in marriage. As for the 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: “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  Philario, a friend of his deceased father (223, 1.1.97-99). Imogen and he exchange tokens of their love: she gives him a ring, and he gives her a bracelet (223-24, 1.1.109-24). But the young man must be gone in haste when Cymbeline storms in and declares him “Thou basest thing” and his daughter a “disloyal thing” (224, 1.1.125, 131). The king is wrong: Imogen is by no means disloyal. In fact, her main virtue is her loyalty towards Posthumous, and through the perilous adventures she undertakes, she will only reconfirm the excellence that resides within her. In the romance world, adventure and happenstance have magic properties all their own. 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),[4] Imogen’s faithfulness to Posthumus Leonatus sets the play’s tone and centers its action: the reigning passion is loyalty. Imogen shows herself to be as headstrong as her imperious father when she defies his will: “Sir, / It is your fault that I have loved Posthumus. / You bred him as my playfellow, and he is / A man worth any woman…” (224, 1.1.143-46). These are not the words of a woman who would submit meekly to an unjust royal prerogative.

As for the departure of Posthumus, there is some drama when Cloten tries to engage the banished husband in a sword fight, but nothing much comes of it (225, 1.1.161-64). This departure will profoundly alter 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, quality, or happy situation until you are threatened with its loss. Alienation is one of the main ways people discover who they 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.

None of this reassurance about Imogen’s goodness, it is worth noting, fits neatly within the characters’ tendency early on to define others in terms of untested superlatives and absolutes. Posthumus, for example, swears to Imogen, “I will remain / The loyal’st husband that did e’er plight troth” (223, 1.1.95-96). And at the play’s outset, the first gentleman speaks effusively about Posthumus, reporting him as “a creature such / As to seek through the regions of the earth / For one his like, there would be something failing / In him that should compare” (221, 1.1.19-22).[5] This sort of language says very little about those who are praised, but it says considerably more about the turbulence in Cymbeline’s court. Hyperbolic praise is an instrument Shakespeare uses to expose the hollowness and unsustainability of courtly environments and political dispensations. A healthy society or state can tolerate some degree of linguistic exuberance and even flattery, but when it is wholly dependent on such tendencies, that is a sign that all is not well.

Act 1, Scene 2 (225-26, 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, though not in a way that makes Cloten himself aware of the undercutting. It is not difficult to see what is eating away at Cloten: he decries the intolerable fact that his love object Imogen “should love this fellow and refuse me!” (226, 1.2.22) When people tell us who they are, as Maya Angelou used to say, we had best believe them. The laws of Cloten’s being are envy, cupidity, and seething resentment.

Act 1, Scene 3 (226-27, 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” (227, 1.3.35-37). With regard to the metaphor she employs, in romance, if winter comes, spring can’t be 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 the king, though he acts like the stark north wind, will eventually give way and participate in the play’s harmonies and reconciliations. The question is, how much will be lost before he comes round?

Act 1, Scene 4 (227-31, Giacomo draws Posthumus into a quarrel over the comparative value of Italian women and Imogen, and lays down a “trial of virtue” wager: Posthumus’s ring for Imogen’s compromised honor.)

Giacomo introduces himself to us, and we immediately understand that he is not given to crediting the grand praise that others have apparently been showering upon Posthumus Leonatus, about whom he says, among other things, “I have seen him in France. We had very many / there could behold the sun with as firm eyes as he” (228, 1.4.9-10).

Whatever we may gather about Giacomo, we also quickly see that Posthumus has learned little from experience in his relatively short life thus far. 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 making the same argument, except that now the ladies for comparison are Italian. This clever man needles Posthumus, “I have not seen the most precious / diamond that is, nor you the lady” (229, 1.4.63-64). In other words, he mocks Posthumus for his 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” (230, 1.4.114-15). Posthumus raises 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 (230, 1.4.139-45).

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. We may well question Posthumus’s judgment: the man’s actions at this point are bound to disappoint us. As Albany says in Act 1, Scene 4 of King Lear, “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.”[6]

For all his protestations about her innocence, Posthumus’s 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.”[7] It’s hard to argue with a statement like that. In modern times, we would call what Posthumus does to Imogen “entrapment.” And then there’s his exhibition of that green-eyed, smothering monster jealousy. In Act 3, Scene 3 of Othello, Iagopins 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.”[8] Once indulged, such a powerful feeling 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, at least to a great extent.

Act 1, Scene 5 (231-33, 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 (231, 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 (231, 1.5.18-23). 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” (232, 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’s fake poison that she hopes Pisanio himself will swallow, thinking it a remedy. The queen threatens absent Imogen, who, she says, “Except she bend her humor, shall be assured / To taste of [the drug] too” (233, 1.5.81-82).

Act 1, Scene 6 (233-38, 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 (234, 1.6.22-24), and the Italian promptly makes mostly 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” (234, 1.6.60). Giacomo’s wicked suit almost fails, first when he overdoes the runup portion of his gambit and Imogen bluntly (and hilariously) asks him “Are you well?” (234, 1.6.49), and then when he boldly urges revenge and utters the sentence, “I dedicate myself to your sweet pleasure” (236, 1.6.135). This latter declaration causes Imogen to denounce him outright: “If thou wert honorable / Thou wouldst have told this tale for virtue…” (236-37, 1.6.141-42). But Giacomo is more than up to the occasion, protesting boldly that he meant only to test the strength of Imogen’s virtue (237, 1.6.162-64). 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 (237-38, 1.6.184-92).

Giacomo’s assault on Imogen, we should note, is in some ways similar, and in some ways different, from the more famous one detailed by Shakespeare’s source here, the Roman historian Titus Livius (Livy) in Ab Urbe Condita, Book 1.57-59. In Livy’s account, the villainous Sextus Tarquinius is said to be “inflamed by the beauty and purity of Lucretia,” and while he tries to seduce the faithful Roman wife of Collatinus with pleadings calculated “to influence a female heart,” in the end he is reduced to making a stark threat to disgrace her by killing Lucretia and placing the body of a slave next to her corpse, thereby tricking the Romans into believing she had been cut down in the midst of adultery.[9] That alone is what convinces Lucretia that there’s no way out of the dire situation, and suicide soon becomes her response. Giacomo’s attempt upon Imogen is also “calculated” in this way, and it fails just as miserably, at least in the most immediate sense.

Giacomo’s calculation, however, is perhaps worse than Tarquin’s in its contemptuous a priori construction of female nature as easily moved to uncontrollable, complicit lust. Even Tarquin probably didn’t quite believe about Lucretia what Giacomo apparently does about his “mark” Imogen. We may recall that Giacomo didn’t initiate his wager with Posthumus because he was “inflamed by the beauty and purity” of Imogen, as Tarquin was smitten by the description of Lucretia (or as Angelo is driven to act against the saintly Isabella in Measure for Measure), but instead because he wanted to prove a cynical, abstract proposition about female humanity. For us today, it’s hard to avoid equating Giacomo’s actions with the most obnoxious sort of “pickup artists” who plague the internet with their macho posing and vulgar assumptions about women as bottomless wells of lustfulness or suckers for a deceptive, fast-talking man. Even as this play has given us so much rhetoric proclaiming various characters’ impossibly high pitch of virtue, Giacomo presents as a comic-book villain: he is a stereotypical “supersubtle Italian,” a sexually predatory Machiavel. This may be another way in which Shakespeare gets mileage from the otherwise risible violation of the “unity of time” in Cymbeline: Giacomo’s sly Renaissance Italian “Rape of Imogen” is cast as something like a parody of Livy’s reverse-heroic or high-villain narrative of the Tarquin prince’s “Rape of Lucretia.” What transpires here may remind some readers of Karl Marx’s witticism that history repeats itself—“the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”[10] It’s a peculiarly mirthless farce, but a farce all the same.

Act 2, Scene 1 (238-39, Cloten again puffs himself up, 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 (“cupidity”) that we find in Cloten. The confrontation of heightened, opposed absolutes seems characteristic of romance. Cloten fears losing face, he fears what he calls “derogation” (239, 2.1.40-41) 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 tick, 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 appear to dismiss altogether 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 cut short the generosity of romance time. The “knight” who slays him, as it will turn out, is Guiderius. Cloten’s destructive lust and self-love are incurable, unlike the disturbing but less damnable jealousy that besets Posthumus. The second lord has Cloten “pinned and wriggling on the wall” like the imaginary insect in T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”[11] The clever queen, he muses, is cursed with a son who “Cannot take two from twenty, for his heart, / And leave eighteen” (239, 2.1.52-53). Well, as they say, talent skips a generation. Sometimes it skips more than that number.

Act 2, Scene 2 (240-41, 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” (240, 2.2.12-14). He notes various ornamentations and items in Imogen’s chambers, but most damning of all, he remarks a mole on her left breast (241, 2.2.37-38). Assiduous readers of Shakespeare will feel perfectly at home betting 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”(241, 2.2.45). Giacomo’s brand of evil here consists in foreclosing upon Imogen and Posthumus’s love by means of a deceptive command of the facts: 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,” but they don’t often matter much in Shakespearean romance, or in the romance world generally. Cymbeline apparently existed around the time of Augustus Caesar, and in fact Raphael Holinshed mentions him in the Chronicles.[12] But Giacomo is obviously a Renaissance Italian, one who lives and moves slyly in the age of Machiavelli. This temporal abyss is so extreme 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 may have been thinking of this play, with its ancient and modern characters greeting one another across what logic tells us should be a gap of around 1,500 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.[13]

Shakespeare’s millennium-and-a-half hop-skip to modern Italy is undeniably bizarre, but just as in his early revenge tragedy, that barbarous masterpiece Titus Andronicus, he seems determined to unsettle any comfortable notions about the grand qualities that supposedly distinguished ancient Rome from every other place and culture on earth, so in Cymbeline he challenges these same notions by means of a deliberately absurd temporal rift between the ancient City and the modern.[14] It is not so much that Shakespeare represents human nature as essentially the same through the ages as that he appears to resist any idea of a rock-solid, foundational Rome upon which to build our conception of history or humanitas. The Eternal City has been reinventing itself from time immemorial, aided by an uncanny ability at once to believe and disbelieve its own self-spun legends.

Act 2, Scene 3 (241-45, Cloten orders 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 heaven’s gate sings…” (242, 2.3.17-23). Face to face, Cloten declares his love for Imogen, and receives for his reply a measure of her strength: “I care not for you, / And am so near the lack of charity / To accuse myself I hate you…” (244, 2.3.103-05). One is reminded of Fanny Burney’s witty journal description of a suitor who just couldn’t understand that his attentions were not welcome.[15] 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 (244, 2.3.128). This scornful flouting elicits from Cloten a desire for revenge (245, 2.3.150-51). Meanwhile, Imogen’s real concern is that (thanks to Giacomo at 240, 2.2.33) 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” (245, 2.3.142-43).

Act 2, Scene 4 (245-49, 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 Philario and Posthumus trade views on the prospects of the Romans getting the tribute they’ve demanded from Cymbeline (245-46, 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 Philario vainly trying to draw the most substantial account possible from Giacomo: “take your ring again; ’tis not yet won” (248, 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 the Machiavellian Iago did with Othello), “prove[d his] love a whore.”[16] The reaction we get from Posthumus is no better than that of the romantic absolutist Othello: the mole, he avers, “doth confirm / Another stain, as big as hell can hold…” (249, 2.4.139-40).

Act 2, Scene 5 (249-50, Posthumus makes outlandishly misogynistic statements: loss of faith in Imogen has shattered him.)

Posthumus hits enough home runs to make it into the Misogynists’ Cooperstown on the first ballot: “We are all bastards…” (249, 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…” (250, 2.4.20-22). He imagines the act of copulation between Giacomo and chaste Imogen, proving only the deranged state of his own imagination (250, 2.4.15-17). For the moment, at least, he would make fine company for Othello, Leontes from The Winters’ Tale, or Hamlet in that awful conversation with Ophelia in Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1. As for this scene, as Hamlet might say, “Go to, I’ll no / more on’t.”[17]

Act 3, Scene 1 (250-52, 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 3,000 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…” (251, 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” (252, 3.1.74), 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 (252-54, in separate letters, Posthumus commands Pisanio to kill Imogen and asks Imogen to come to Milford Haven in Cambria, which she at once 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” (252, 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 a female assistant fetching her “a riding suit no costlier than would fit / A franklin’s housewife” (254, 3.2.76-77). Pisanio’s role is similar to that of the banished Kent in King Lear: while his immediate goal is to protect Imogen, he also keeps Posthumous from doing harm so long as an insane fit of jealousy drives his actions. In this way, he also resembles Cornelius, who refused to give the queen the deadly concoctions she sought. There is a special sort of fidelity that consists in not doing the bidding of a master who has taken leave of his or her senses. It may not be in line with the eighteenth-century Kantian “categorical imperative”[18] that would enforce the keeping of promises no matter the circumstances, but it is rooted in a time-honored sentiment. Authority combined with impulsiveness and immaturity is a deadly combination, and sometimes, stripping away the agency of those thus afflicted is the only way to prevent things from reaching the worst.

Act 3, Scene 3 (254-55, 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[19]—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…” (255, 3.3.21-22), 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 …” (255, 3.3.32-33). Arviragus adds, “our cage / We make a choir, as doth the prisoned bird…” (255, 3.3.42-43). 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 necessary background information on 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. Cymbeline believed the lie and banished Belarius from Britain (256, 3.3.65-69). 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 the king’s futurity and therefore stole by means of Euriphile his 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 (256, 3.3.79-107). 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, though it is peopled with some disturbing characters. The setting in this romance play is fairly unrealistic in the first place, so there’s no need to escape into a magical world to grow and develop and then return to achieve 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 (257-61, 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 …” (258, 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 (259-60, 3.4.123-79). Ominously, Pisanio passes the queen’s potion-box along to Imogen, with the innocent advice, “a dram of this / Will drive away distemper” (261, 3.4.190-91).

Act 3, Scene 5 (261-65, 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 (263, 3.5.54-55), who comes in for 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 dishonor, and my end / Can make good use of either” (263, 3.5.62-64). Under Cloten’s pressure, Pisanio pretends to accept his proposal that he should become his servant rather than remain the 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 (264, 3.5.124-25). 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…” (264, 3.5.133-34). This vicious plan will accomplish three objectives: first, Cloten 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 (244, 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 (265, 3.5.138-41).

To top this for intent to commit a host of villainies, we would need to go straight to Livy’s History of Rome, where the author tells the story of Sextus Tarquinius’s rape of the Roman matron Lucretia, or indeed to Shakespeare’s own retelling of that story in The Rape of Lucrece. We could even go to Shakespeare’s own Titus Andronicus, where we would meet the self-declared supervillain Aaron the Moor, who brags about digging up dead men and setting them upright at their dear friends’ doors, most likely to mock the key Roman concept of friendship or amicitia.[20] 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, and neither would he pass a class in basic Machiavelli since he manages to make himself a hated object of contempt.[21] Even so, his loser-status doesn’t make him any less wicked—the crudely literalistic turn of his mind is characteristic of Shakespeare’s nastiest villains.[22]

Act 3, Scene 6 (265-67, 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 they respond with surprise when she offers them gold and silver for her dinner. She claims that 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” (266-67, 3.6.62-63), and both brothers experience something like love at first sight: “I’ll love him as my brother …” (267, 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. So too with Orlando in As You Like It, when, in search of sustenance for his poor old servant Adam, he stumbles upon the exiled Duke Senior’s rustic circle and is shocked to find that his show of pirate-like ferocity is unnecessary.[23]

Act 3, Scene 7 (267-68, Lucius is appointed proconsul and Rome’s general against the Britons.)

Lucius is appointed proconsul (provincial governor), with the responsibility of marshaling the Roman forces against Cymbeline’s Britons.

Act 4, Scene 1 (268, 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 rape of Imogen, after which he will “spurn her home to her / father” (268, 4.1.16-17) and expect his mother to smooth things over with Cymbeline. This character wants to be a villain, but cannot manage more than to appear a pseudo-courtly fop, a stock character in the Shakespearean canon. If he had somewhat better manners, his place would be with dishonest courtiers such as Osric and Oswald from Hamlet and King Lear, respectively—men who are already very far from acting as the renowned author Baldassare Castiglione prescribes in his Book of the Courtier.[24] But as mentioned earlier, even though Cloten does not meet the high standards of Shakespeare’s more serious villains, he is not deficient in their degree of innate wickedness.

Act 4, Scene 2 (268-79, Imogen-as-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-as-Fidele and the brothers lament; alone, Imogen awakens to find the headless Cloten dressed as Posthumus, and blames Pisanio; a soothsayer for Lucius interprets portents favorably to Rome; Lucius finds Imogen-as-Fidele and offers this stranger a chance to join up with the Romans.)

Imogen is increasingly impressed at the capacity for decency she finds here away from Cymbeline’s palace: “what lies I have heard! / Our courtiers say all’s savage but at court” (269, 4.2.32-33). Arviragus falls more deeply in love with Imogen-as-Fidele, while Imogen has taken ill sufficiently to try the supposedly wondrous potion Pisanio gave her (267, 4.2.37-38).

Cloten arrives on the scene, and Belarius is stricken with fear because he recognizes him as the queen’s son (270, 4.2.64-67). Guiderius is left alone to face Cloten, who immediately demands that he 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” (272, 4.2.122), 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 …” (273, 4.2.175-77). Guiderius makes what turns out to be an important decision to toss Cloten’s head into the stream nearby (273, 4.2.182-84).

Arviragus soon enters with the seemingly lifeless body of Imogen-as-Fidele (274, 4.2.194-96). Belarius instructs the young men that they must restrain their contempt for Cloten and give him the burial that a member of the royal family deserves (275, 4.2.245-49).[25] For Imogen-as-Fidele, Guiderius and Arviragus sing a noteworthy refrain: “Fear no more the heat o’th’ sun, / Nor the furious winter’s rages …” (275, 4.2.257-58; see 275-76, 4.2.257-80). The theme of the song is that in the end, even young lovers must “come to dust” (276, 4.2.274).

When Belarius and the two brothers have departed, Imogen awakens next to the headless body of Cloten, dressed in Posthumus’s clothes: “A headless man? The garments of Posthumus?” (276, 4.2.307) She now blames Pisanio for what she believes to be the murder of Posthumus, on the evidence that the drug he gave her was not the cordial he claimed it to be (277, 4.2.325-28).

A Roman captain informs Lucius that troops from Gaul (“Gallia”) and troops led by Giacomo (who is here said to be the Duke of Siena’s brother) have arrived from Italy (277, 4.2.332-41). A soothsayer portends success to the Romans, declaring, “I saw Jove’s bird, the Roman eagle, winged / From the spongy south to this part of the west, / There vanished in the sunbeams …” (277-78, 4.2.347-51). Lucius catches sight of the headless body before him and also spies the living Imogen-as-Fidele. The upshot of this discovery is that Lucius offers Imogen-as-Fidele a chance to join up with the Romans (278, 4.2.379-81), which she accepts with only the proviso that first the body of the man she supposes to be Posthumus must be buried. Pisanio’s plan has come to fruition almost by accident, after quite an eventful detour.

Act 4, Scene 3 (279-80, 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, so Cymbeline is isolated in a time of great need (279, 4.3.1-9): 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” (280, 4.3.45-46). This is the correct attitude to take for a character in a comic or romance play: trust to time.[26]

Act 4, Scene 4 (280-81, 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” (280, 4.4.21-22). But his realist argument falls on deaf ears since Arviragus and Guiderius insist on making their mettle appreciated in the coming fight. As Jaques says in As You Like It, young men will be “Seeking the bubble reputation / Even in the cannon’s mouth.”[27] We may be reminded, too, of Harry Hotspur in . Belarius ends up declaring, “If in your country wars you chance to die, / That is my bed too, lads, and there I’ll lie” (281, 4.4.51-52). The old man does not make the tragic mistake made in the Aesop’s fable about the king who loves his little son so much that he won’t let him leave his lodgings, only to lose the boy to an infection caused by an injury stemming from his extreme frustration.[28] He realizes that he can’t keep the young men he took from Cymbeline away from danger forever. The time has come for them to make their mark on the world, come what may.

Act 5, Scene 1 (281-82, 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” (282, 5.1.32-33). This seems like a welcome turn toward self-reflection and a healthy interior state for Posthumus, but he manages to dissipate any good will we may feel toward him by continuing to believe that Imogen was, in fact, unfaithful to him, as appears when he says, “You married ones, / If each of you should take this course, how many / Must murder wives much better than themselves / For wrying but a little?” (281, 5.1.2-5) There’s just something unlovable about a man who works himself up to “forgiving” a woman who has done him no wrong.

Act 5, Scene 2 (282-83, Posthumus defeats Giacomo, and Cymbeline is captured but rescued by Belarius, Guiderius, Arviragus, and Posthumus; Lucius tries to protect Imogen-as-Fidele.)

Posthumus fights with and disarms Giacomo, and the Italian immediately feels “heaviness and guilt” (282, 5.2.1) for his base betrayal of Imogen. In the third scene, Cymbeline is captured but is then instantly rescued by Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus, who, as they put it, “Stand, stand, and fight” (282, 5.2.13). They are joined in the rescue by Posthumus. Lucius tries to safeguard Imogen-as-Fidele from the Briton advance since, in the fog of war, Roman troops are killing their own.

Act 5, Scene 3 (283-85, Posthumus, disheartened by an aristocratic onlooker’s cowardice, turns Roman again and is promptly captured by the Britons; at this point he wishes only for death, to atone for his offense against Imogen.)

Posthumus describes to a lord the bravery of Belarius and others, 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” (284, 5.5.53-55). Posthumus is so disheartened by this fellow’s chatty cowardice that he decides to turn Roman again, the better to meet his end since Cymbeline’s troops now have the upper hand (285, 5.5.75-83). He is promptly captured by Briton troops. Shakespeare’s treatment of the loquacious lord is another instance of his interest in exploring the balance between representing martial action and indulging in the desire to talk about such things, to spin webs of language about the pathos and glory of war.[29]

Act 5, Scene 4 (285-89, in prison, Posthumus reflects on his debt to Imogen. His departed parents and brothers come to him in a dream, and complain to Jupiter about Posthumus’s fate. Jupiter promises them that all will be well, and provides them with a prophetic tablet that the ghosts place upon the chest of their sleeping family member. A messenger arrives and says that Posthumus must be brought into the presence of Cymbeline.)

Cast into prison, Posthumus meditates on his debt to Imogen (348, 5.5.1-29). His departed father, mother and brothers appear to him 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” (287, 5.4.49-50). Tired of their complaining, Jupiter appears and promises a happy ending after explaining “Whom best I love, I cross…” (287, 5.4.71). In the end, says Jupiter, Posthumus “shall be Lord of Lady Imogen, / And happier much by his affliction made” (287, 5.4.77-78). Awakening, Posthumus realizes that a tablet has been placed upon his breast—this is the play’s one apparent instance of the miraculous instead of the merely implausible—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. (288, 5.4.108-10) When these things are put together in a meaningful relationship, says the tablet, Britain will thrive. Immediately thereafter, the jailer comes in to tell Posthumus he is to be hung. “Oh, the charity of a / penny cord!” (289, 5.4.135-36) exclaims the philosophical jailer who duly passes the information along. He seems so disillusioned with his job that we might half-suspect he’s floating his résumé in hopes of finding something better. Before his execution, Posthumus will be brought before Cymbeline.

Act 5, Scene 5 (289-301, Cymbeline knights Belarius, Arviragus and Guiderius; Cornelius reports the queen’s death along with her dreadful confessions; Lucius asks that Imogen-as-Fidele be spared death, but Imogen-as-Fidele doesn’t reciprocate; Giacomo reveals the source of the ring he’s wearing and details his villainy; after Posthumus strikes Imogen-as-Fidele, Pisanio identifies Imogen, amazing Cymbeline and Posthumus; Pisanio and Guiderius explain the death that befell Cloten, forcing Belarius to confess that they’re Cymbeline’s sons; Posthumus admits that he helped rescue the king; Imogen has lost a kingdom but gained two royal brothers; the soothsayer explains the prophecy; Cymbeline pardons everyone, lauds the gods, and agrees to pay tribute to the defeated Romans.)

Cymbeline begins this scene by wishing that the brave 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 (290, 5.5.19-22). Cornelius enters and reports that the queen is dead (290, 5.5.25-27). 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 (290-91, 5.5.37-61) in order to secure the throne for her son, Cloten. When the latter went missing, however, the queen was driven to distraction, fell sick, and died. Cymbeline is stunned, but he 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” (291, 5.5.62-65). It appears that an ancient, staunchly British king fell victim to the Renaissance Neoplatonist desire to align the beautiful with the good.

Lucius the defeated Roman general is brought in, desiring only to spare Imogen-as-Fidele from the death sentence that must befall all Romans present: “Never master had / A page so kind, so duteous, diligent …” (291, 5.5.85-86). Imogen surprises Lucius by failing to reciprocate when the king offers her a chance to redeem a prisoner: “The boy disdains me…” (292, 5.5.105), says Lucius almost in disbelief. But understandably, Imogen is more concerned about the tale Giacomo can be constrained to tell about how he got the precious diamond ring he now possesses, and so to undo the reputational harm he has done to Imogen herself.

Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus are in turn surprised when they recognize their guest Imogen-as-Fidele, whom they thought to have died; but now they behold “The same dead thing alive” (292, 5.5.123). Pisanio recognizes her as well. Imogen-as-Fidele’s next move is to demand that Giacomo explain where he got the ring he’s wearing (293, 5.5.135-36), 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, or at least suggesting a lamentable return to the earlier part of the play’s rhetorical excesses. 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 carriage-wreck that is the anguished Giacomo coming clean about his transgressions (293-94, 5.5.153-209). But at last, the Italian makes himself sufficiently clear: “my practice so prevailed / That I returned with simular proof enough / To make the noble Leonatus mad…” (294, 5.5.199-201). By this time, that kind of language passes for pure comprehensibility. Giacomo, as Matthew Arnold cites François Guizot pronouncing sentence on Shakespeare himself, has apparently “tried all styles except that of simplicity.”[30]

When Imogen-as-Fidele pleads with Posthumus, who has interrupted Giacomo to declare himself the greater villain and indeed the murderer of Imogen (294-95, 5.5.213-20), Posthumus strikes the supposed page, prompting a reproach from Pisanio, who at last calls Imogen by her name (295, 5.5.231), 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 (296, 5.5.263-65). The old king informs Imogen that her stepmother the queen is dead, but not much attention is paid to that event.

Pisanio steps in when the king mentions that Cloten is still missing, explaining his device in passing along to Cloten Posthumus’s deceptive letter addressed to Imogen, which told her to make her way to Milford Haven in Wales. Guiderius adds a simple, “I slew him there” (296, 5.5.286). Cymbeline’s response is not quite what Guiderius was expecting: “thou art condemned” (297, 5.5.297). This dread sentence, of course, forces Belarius to reveal the rest of the story: “This boy is better than the man he slew…” (297, 5.5.301), which risks enraging Cymbeline. But the matter is quickly cleared up when Belarius reveals the remarkable information that, with the help of the boys’ nurse Euriphile, he had, in fact, kidnapped them after his unjust banishment: “Beaten for loyalty / Excited me to treason” (298, 5.5.343-44). 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 increase the king’s certainty.

Cymbeline explains to Imogen what this all means for her: “Thou hast lost by this a kingdom” (299, 5.5.372), 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” (299, 5.5.373), says she. Cymbeline doesn’t quite understand it all, and who can blame him? He expresses a desire to hear further details in due time to lessen his wonder (299, 5.5.381-86).

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 (300, 5.5.411-16), Posthumus decides to show mercy: “The power that I have on you is to spare you …” (300, 5.5.417). That decision, in turn, leads Cymbeline to declare a general pardon for everyone, including the Romans (300, 5.5.419-21).  

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 (300-01, 5.5.434-56).[31] 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” (301, 5.5.474, 477-79).[32] This political and military turn of events may seem shocking, but as the Norton editors point out, it probably has to do with Shakespeare’s interest in indulging the increasingly strong desire among the English to see their country as a second Roman Empire, but also to preserve their sense of being independent agents rather than as thralls to the history and image of another powerful nation. Beyond that, as Jean E. Howard suggests in her introduction, a sense of “contingency” pervades the actions and decisions taken in this historical romance.[33]

By the end of the play, nearly everything has been set right, with the unaccented exception of the death of the queen and her mean-spirited, oafish 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 a romance universe, the march of events is not inexorable, and the price of insight and the recovery of one’s identity isn’t death. 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 dread justice of royal absolutism is pushed aside in the final act with a wave of the king’s staff since, of course, Guiderius “just happens” to be Cymbeline’s son. Giacomo 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.[34] Generosity is spread all around like butter on hot bread.

In the end, Jupiter’s prophecy, which had seemed to be nonsense, turns out to be true. Generosity reigns over chaos, and intelligibility reigns over incomprehensibility. Jupiter rules, and so does Shakespeare, the artist as romance magician who can draw mellow happiness from anguish and unity from a cascade of improbabilities. Like romance works of art generally, Cymbeline follows the broad spiritual path of an alienation from identity and then a return to it in a more secure, if by no means permanent, state: romance is for the most part a kindly genre that promotes the magical power of art and adventure to transform the human condition, 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 largely disposed to fulfill the fundamental desires that give meaning to and ground a person’s time on earth. The only real bittersweetness in the play’s conclusion—for that is a strong 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 let go of the young men 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 © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

Endnotes


[1] Johnson, Samuel. Notes to Shakespeare, Vol. III. Comments on Cymbeline. The Augustan Reprint Society. Accessed 2/16/2024. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/15566/15566-h/15566-h.htm.

[2] Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. See the essay on Cymbeline, 614-38.

[3] Bloom, Harold. Ibid. The essay on Hamlet, 383-431.

[4] Hazlitt, William. Hazlitt on English Literature: An Introduction to the Appreciation of Literature. Ed. Jacob Zeitlin. New York and London: Oxford UP, 1913. Accessed 2/16/2024. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/31132/31132-h/31132-h.htm.

[5] Some of the characters who are so prone to overpraising in this play could stand to read Michel de Montaigne’s essay “Of the Inconstancie of our Actions.” In it, the author, as translated by John Florio, writes, “We float and waver betweene divers opinions: we will nothing freely, nothing absolutely, nothing constantly.” Essays, Vol. 2, Ch. 1. Accessed 2/18/2024. https://www.luminarium.org/renascence-editions/montaigne/2i.htm.

[6] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Second Quarto with additions from the Folio. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 358-447. See 783, 1.4.318.

[7] The Gospel according to Saint Matthew 6:13. Bible Gateway. Accessed 2/16/2024. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew%206%3A13&version=GNV.

[8] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Folio. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. 512-86. See 552, 3.3.319-21.

[9] Livy. Ab Urbe Condita, Book 1.57-59. The relevant Latin is, “Tarquinium mala libido Lucretiae per vim stuprandae capit; [11] cum forma tum spectata castitas incitat.” and “Tarquinius fateri amorem, orare, miscere precibus minas, versare in omnes partes muliebrem animum.” Accessed 2/15/2024. http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:latinLit:phi0914.phi0011.perseus-eng3:57.

[10] Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Accessed 2/15/2024. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/18th-Brumaire.pdf.  

[11] Eliot, T. S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In The Waste Land and Other Poems. New York, Vintage Classics, 2021. Pp. 5-11. 

[12] Holinshed, Raphael. The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. 1587. Vol. 2, pg. 32. The Third Book of the Historie of England. Accessed 2/16/2024. https://english.nsms.ox.ac.uk/Holinshed/texts.php?text1=1587_0155.

[13] Peacock, Thomas Love. “The Four Ages of Poetry,” 1820. Accessed 2/16/2024. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69387/from-the-four-ages-of-poetry.

[14] We might say the same of Shakespeare’s bloody revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus, which so mingles “barbarian” with “Roman” qualities that the two terms become all but inextricable.

[15] Burney, Frances. From Letters and Journals, “Mr. Barlow’s Proposal.” In Abrams, M. H. et al, eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed., Vol. C. pp. 2812-15. Norton, 2006.

[16] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Folio. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. 512-86. See 452, 3.3.356.

[17] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Second Quarto with additions from the Folio. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 358-447. See 398, 3.1.142-43.

[18] Kant, Immanuel. “On a supposed right to lie from philanthropy.” (“Über ein vermeintes Recht, aus Menschenliebe zu lügen” (1797). In Practical Philosophy. Trans. and ed. Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge and New York,  Cambridge UP, 1999. 605-16. At issue is Kant’s famous response to Benjamin Constant’s challenging question as to whether it’s acceptable to lie if a killer with an axe shows up at your home and wants to know if your best friend is there. The answer in light of the Kantian “categorical imperative” is No because it’s always wrong to lie; otherwise, the very idea of truth would soon be undermined.

[19] Ovid. Metamorphoses. See Book 6, “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela.” Trans. Henry T. Riley. New York & London: George Brill & Sons, 1893. Accessed 2/16/2024. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/21765/21765-h/21765-h.htm.

[20] Shakespeare. The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus. Quarto. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. 145-98. See 170, 5.1.135-40.

[21] See, mainly, Machiavelli’s Chapter XIX of The Prince, titled “That One Should Avoid Being Despised and Hated.” Accessed 2/18/2024. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1232/1232-h/1232-h.htm#chap19.

[22] Shakespeare. King Lear. Folio with additions from the Quarto. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 764-840. In Act 3, Scene 7 of King Lear, Lear’s ally Gloucester, when asked why he helped the old king, had said to his tormentors Regan, Goneril, and Cornwall, “Because I would not see thy cruel nails / Pluck out his poor old eyes…” (811, 3.7.56-57). Little did he know that at the beginning of the scene, Goneril had already conjured up exactly that image, so Gloucester’s exclamation only spurs Cornwall to turn the image into literal reality at once. What the old lord Gloucester can scarcely imagine, these fiends eagerly turn into a gory event. Similarly, Posthumus isn’t satisfied with simply raping Imogen—he must rape her while wearing Posthumus’s clothessince, after all, she referred to those clothes when she insulted him earlier in the play.

[23] Shakespeare. As You Like It. The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 673-731. 695, 2.7.88ff.

[24] Castiglione, Baldesare. The Book of the Courtier. Trans. Leonard E. Opkycke. Accessed 2/16/2024.  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/67799/67799-h/67799-h.htm.

[25] Belarius seems to share the attitude of Thomas More’s narrator in Utopia, who in the final chapter of that book (titled “Of the Religions of the Utopians”) questions Raphael Hythloday’s enthusiasm for the communistic utopian society he visited on the grounds that such a society must lack “splendor” and “majesty,” which he calls “the true ornaments of a nation.” See More, Thomas. Utopia. Ed. Henry Morley. Accessed 2/18/2024. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2130/2130-h/2130-h.htm#chap10.

[26] Perhaps the best example of this attitude is the shipwrecked Viola in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In Act 1, Scene 2, after devising her scheme to disguise herself as a young male page and offer her services to the Duke of Illyria, Viola says to her fellow survivor the ship’s captain, “What else may hap, to time I will commit.” Twelfth Night, or What You Will. The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 743-97. See 746, 1.2.59.

[27] Shakespeare. As You Like It. In The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 673-731). See 697, 2.7.152-53.

[28] Aesop. Fables. “The King’s Son and the Painted Lion.” Accessed 2/7/2024. https://fablesofaesop.com/the-kings-son-and-the-painted-lion.html.

[29] The back-and-forth battle scenes make much the same point about human actions being fickle and inconstant, dependent more on circumstance than on any purported firmness of character. As in a previous note, see Montaigne’s Essays, Vol. 2, Ch. 1. Accessed 2/18/2024. https://www.luminarium.org/renascence-editions/montaigne/2i.htm.

[30] Arnold, Matthew. “Preface to Poems, 1853.” Pg. 12. In Poems by Matthew Arnold. London & New York: Oxford UP, 1909. Accessed 2/18/2024. https://books.google.com/books?id=DndNAAAAYAAJ&dq.

[31] Perhaps it’s best to leave aside the fact that this seemingly astute reading depends in part, as the Norton editors point out in a footnote to pg. 300, on a piece of bad etymology.

[32] With more self-consciousness to his credit, Cymbeline might adapt Richard the Third’s much-noted question about his improbable success with Lady Anne (“Was ever woman in this humor wooed? / Was ever woman in this humor won?” 393, 1.2.214-15) and ask, “Did ever Roman in this humor go scot-free?” See Shakespeare. The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. Quarto. The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 384-465.

[33] See Norton editors’ footnotes for Cymbeline, Norton Romances and Poems 3rd ed., pp. 213, 216.

[34] Romance, which seems most comfortable dealing with archetypal characters rather than realistic, grounded individuals, need not lean into character development: the characters in Cymbeline transform as suddenly and completely as if they were in some modern work grounded in magical realism. This sometimes happens in comedy as well.

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

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

All’s Well That Ends Well

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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Shakespeare. All’s Well That Ends Well. (The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 971-1033).

Act 1, Scene 1 (971-76, 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” (972, 1.1.40-41), while the wish for Bertram is, “Thy blood and virtue / Contend for empire in thee” (972, 1.1.56-57). Helen, however, looks forward to her immediate future with the unsparing determination we find in Tolstoy’s novella 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” (973, 1.1.93), 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” (973, 1.1.81-83).

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 …” (974, 1.1.144-46). 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” (975, 1.1.182-83).

With Paroles dismissed after his pledge to “return perfect courtier” (975, 1.1.193), 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, 1.1.201-02, 211-12) 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” (976, 1.1.213-14).

Act 1, Scene 2 (976-78, 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…” (977, 1.2.32-35). 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” (976, 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 …” (977, 1.2.58-60). 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” (978, 1.2.69). Bertram exits after his warm reception by the King.

Act 1, Scene 3 (978-83, the Clown shows himself to be a pragmatic materialist; the Countess sides with Helen, who will go to court to offer the King a cure.)

The Clown (who is referred to as “Lavache” in some editions) 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 …” (979, 1.3.38-40). 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” (978, 1.3.24-25). 

When Reynaldo reports on Helen’s affection for Bertram (980, 1.3.93-98), the Countess sides entirely with natural desire and quality in the person of Helen: “Even so it was with me when I was young” (980, 1.3.113). She is charitable where this young woman is concerned, and somewhat shocked when Helen seems afraid of the term “mother” (981, 1.3.139). 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, 1.3.182-84). 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 …” (983, 1.3.232-33).

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 like 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 between 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 (983-88, 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 them- / selves in the cap of the time” (984, 2.1.50-51). 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 …” (985, 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 learnèd doctors leave us …” (986, 2.1.113-14). But in the end, Helen wins the argument by her boldness: “Oh heaven, not me, make an experiment” (987, 2.1.152). The young woman must venture her very life (987, 2.1.171-72) 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 …” (988, 2.1.191-92). Historically, the rules weren’t rigid, and even illegitimacy wasn’t necessarily a bar to advancement if one had the right backing. But let’s leave that aside.

Act 2, Scene 2 (988-89, the Clown’s courtly critique: “O Lord, sir!”)

Bantering with the Countess, the Clown utters his wonderful catch-phrase “O Lord, Sir!” (989, 2.2.39) 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 the Clown 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?” (989, 2.2.36-38)

Act 2, Scene 3 (989-96, 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” (990, 2.3.40-41), 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 aristocratic 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” (992, 2.3.100-02), 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” (992, 2.3.105-06) 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” (992, 2.3.115-16) and “From lowest place when virtuous things proceed / The place is dignified by th’ doer’s deed” (992, 2.3.123-24). But when that logic fails, the King gets to the point: “My honor’s at the stake, which to defeat / I must produce my power” (993, 2.3.147-48). Overawed at last, Bertram makes a hollow submission: “I submit / My fancy to your eyes” (993, 2.3.165-66). 

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?” (994, 2.3.184-85) 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, Combined text 788, 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 manifoldly dissuade me from believing thee a vessel of / too great a burden” (994, 2.3.197-201).

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, in 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” (996, 2.3.278-79).

Act 2, Scene 4 (996-97, the Clown’s pessimism; Helen obeys Bertram’s wish through Paroles: leave the court.)

The Clown 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 …” (996, 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 the Clown and Paroles (996-97, 2.4.15-36), 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, 2.4.53). She will not keep to this declaration, we should note with approval.

Act 2, Scene 5 (997-99, 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 his / clothes; trust him not in matter of heavy consequence” (998, 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 (998-99, 2.5.66-84). 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 (999-1002, The Duke of Florence prepares for battle; 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 (999-1000, 3.1.1-23), and the second scene takes us to the Countess, Helen, and the Clown 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 (1000, 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 …” (1001, 3.2.53-55).

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?” (1002, 3.2.101-04) This is what determines her to leave Roussillon: “My being here it is that holds thee hence” (1002, 3.2.119). Apparently, she has not yet conceived of her device to satisfy Bertram’s conditions.

Act 3, Scenes 3-4 (1003-04, 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” (1003, 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” (1004, 3.4.38-40).

Act 3, Scene 5 (1004-06, 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. 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 (1005, 3.5.56-61). By the scene’s end, Helen invites the two women to supper.

Act 3, Scene 6 (1006-09, 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. 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 …” (1006, 3.6.9-10). 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” (1008, 3.6.83-84).

Act 3, Scene 7 (1009-10, Helen enlists Widow Capilet’s Diana into her Bertram-scheme: the 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 (1009, 3.7.14-36). She is to demand from 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” (1010, 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 (1010-12, 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 …?” (1010, 4.1.32-33) 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: “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.”

Lies, in Bacon’s further estimation, knit people together in a web of pleasurable, optimistic deceit, and they bolster those same people’s self-estimation. 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 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: the “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?” (1011, 4.1.41-42)

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 at the outset of Act 4, Scene 1, 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!” (1011, 4.1.75) Paroles, of course, offers his captors nothing less than total knowledge: “all the secrets of our camp I’ll show” (1011, 4.1.80).

Act 4, Scene 2 (1012-14, 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 no maiden but a monument” (1012, 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, and does her part in Helen’s scheme. She promises Bertram that she will give him a ring in turn along with her chastity (1013, 4.2.53-65). 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: “Only in this disguise I think’t no sin / To cozen him that would unjustly win” (1014, 4.2.75-76).

Act 4, Scene 3 (1014-20, 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” (1014, 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 parallels the trick that is being played upon Bertram himself, though he does not know it: a good example of dramatic irony since we, the audience, know something Bertram doesn’t.

Paroles is utterly humiliated in this scene, 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. His response to this humiliating episode is priceless: “Who cannot be crushed with a plot?” (1020, 4.3.308) The two key things he says to conclude the scene are as follows: “Simply the thing I am / Shall make me live” (1020, 4.3.316-17). And again, “There’s place and means for every man alive” (1020, 4.3.322). 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 rascal like Paroles.

But as the Norton editors imply (966-67), 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 (967). 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 (977, 1.2.30-48), 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 (1020-21, Helen informs Diana of plan’s next step: to the 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” (1021, 4.4.35-36). 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 (1021-23, the Countess and Lafeu praise the Clown; Lafeu’s daughter Maudlin is set to marry the “widower” Bertram.)

Lafeu and the Countess are still mourning the loss of Helen, or so they think. The Clown lays claim to a kind of virtue we know he doesn’t possess: “I am for the house with the narrow gate” (1022, 4.5.43). Both the Countess and Lafeu consider the Clown’s bitter foolishness appropriate (1022, 4.5.53-57). 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 (1023-24, 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 (1024, 5.1.29-34).

Act 5, Scene 2 (1024-25, Paroles will have a place at Lafeu’s table: he is 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” (1025, 5.2.46-47).

Act 5, Scene 3 (1025-33, 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 (1026, 5.3.9). The young man will be only “a stranger, not an offender” (1026, 5.3.26). Should we believe Bertram when he says that now that Helen is gone, he sincerely loves her? (1026-27, 5.3.44-54) 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 / From the great count” (1027, 5.3.56-57).

In any case, it’s time for Bertram to get married to Lafeu’s daughter Maudlin. Now we are on to “the ring device” (1027-end, 5.3.74ff) 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 (1027, 5.3.77-79). 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” (1028, 5.3.110-12). Bertram is promptly arrested.

Now the Florentine gentleman shows up with Diana’s petition, and when the King reads it aloud (1029, 5.3.139-45), it accuses Bertram of seducing her. She follows him to the court, she says, to obtain justice. Diana soon walks onto the scene (1029, 5.3.159-60), and Bertram tries to dismiss the entire affair as the invention of “a fond and desp’rate creature” (1029, 5.3.177). The Countess is certain that Bertram has married Diana: the ring proves it (1030, 5.3.194-98). 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 (1030, 5.3.209-18). Paroles gives his turgid testimony: “He loved her, sir, and loved her not” (1031, 5.3.245), 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 (1032, 5.3.263, 284-85).

Helen enters and clears up everything at long last, pointing out to Bertram that his conditions have been fulfilled (1032, 5.3.303-08). The astonished Bertram says only, “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly / I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever, dearly” (1032, 5.3.309-10). We may gather that “ever, ever” means “always and very” rather than “very, very” (a phony double asseveration). Either way, is it sincere emotion, or a 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” (1033, 5.3.326-27). 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. 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, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93861-6.

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

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Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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Shakespeare. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Quarto. (The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 406-53).

Act 1, Scene 1 (406-11, Theseus and Hippolyta’s courtship, Egeus’ demand, Helena’s complaint, Lysander’s plan.)

The play opens with a conversation between Theseus, Duke of Athens and the Amazon Queen he has conquered and is now set to marry.  The archetypal “war between the sexes” has given way to the “pomp . . . triumph . . . [and] reveling” (407, 1.1.19) of a wedding ceremony.  Theseus, though himself somewhat impatient, promises Hippolyta that violence and chaos will give way to marital decorum and an orderly society.  But as Lysander soon says to Hermia, “The course of true love never did run smooth” (409, 1.1.134), and soon Egeus comes onto the scene to stir up trouble (407, 1.1.22-23).  His daughter Hermia has refused the suitor named Demetrius that he has chosen for her, and now the father importunes the Duke to uphold the harsh law of Shakespeare’s Athens (407, 1.1.41-42).  Hermia must assent to a life with Demetrius, or she will either forfeit her life or remain a virgin for the rest of her days.  Such outlandishly cruel “laws” are useful in comedies and romances since they allow the playwright to deal with primal issues of life and death, to depict universal struggles in the starkest manner.  The Angry Father is a handy device in Shakespeare’s bag of drama-tricks, and here he serves as an obstacle in the path of the lovers Hermia and Lysander.  The father is perhaps jealous, and he aligns himself with the symbolic power of absolute interdiction.  He envisions a rival order to the one Theseus has staked out, one that allows no room for his daughter Hermia to pursue natural desire.  The result is confusion, chaos, and vexation.  Lysander has a plan, which is to take refuge in the woods not far from Athens, and then to travel to his aunt’s home, where Athenian law does not apply (409-10, 1.1.156-68).  This plan will take the main couples off to one of Shakespeare’s most beloved green worlds, the fairy kingdom of Oberon and Titania.

Helena now enters—she is Hermia’s childhood friend, and has problems of her own to deal with.  She is in love with her former suitor Demetrius, who now cares only for Helena.  When Lysander tells her of his plan to steal away with Hermia into the forest, Helena decides to reveal this information to Demetrius for her own selfish benefit.  A strain of jealousy against Hermia is evident in Helena’s comment, “Through Athens I am thought as fair as she” (411, 1.1.227).  She puts much faith in the power of love even as she says this profound feeling involves neither judgment nor clarity of vision: “Things base and vile, holding no quantity, / Love can transpose to form and dignity” (411, 1.1.232-33).  Perhaps it is not quality in the lover that we love, but rather what we ourselves project onto or into the beloved.  Love is a thing of fantasy, and is not amenable to reason.  The main question that the play poses has to do with the extent to which we can direct desire so that it guarantees order, social harmony and decorum.

Act 1, Scene 2 (412-14, Quince hands out acting roles; Bottom wants to play all of them.)

This comic scene continues the theme of transformation introduced in Scene 1.  Several workingmen have determined to compete for the honor of putting on a play in the presence of the Duke and Hippolyta.  Their conversations give us some of Shakespeare’s most notable commentary on his chosen profession, if we may be so bold as to make such a connection.  Peter Quince is the director of Pyramus and Thisbe, a tragic play about star-crossed lovers.  Bottom the Weaver is to play the hero Pyramus (412, 1.2.16), but he wants to play everything else as well: “let me play Thisbe too” (413, 1.2.43) and “Let me play the lion too” (413, 1.2.58).  To the latter request, he receives the answer that he would roar too loud and frighten the ladies – we will come across this concern about excessive realism again in Act 3, Scene 1 (423-24, 3.1.8-60), but for now, it’s easy to see that Nick Bottom is a delightful narcissist who wants to project himself into everything around him and that he is excited about the prospect of using art to escape everyday reality.  The mechanicals are interested in maintaining the element of surprise, which is why they decide to go to the palace woods, lest interested parties find out about their play (413, 1.2.80-88).

Act 2, Scene 1 (414-20, Oberon and Titania quarrel; enter Robin Goodfellow)

We now meet the fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titania, whose lineage, I’ve read, goes all the way back to fifth-century Frankish Merovingian times.  The fairy world in this play is one of Shakespeare’s Green Worlds, but it isn’t exactly remote from the human world and its concerns.  (The same would be a fair statement about As You Like It’s Forest of Arden.)  Magical transformations happen in this “palace wood,” but Oberon and Titania are beset by the same jealousies as foolish mortals: Puck and his fairy conversation partner tell us that these monarchs are at present separated over the custodianship of “A lovely boy stolen from an Indian king” (414, 2.1.22), a changeling to whom Titania is particularly attached (since the boy’s mother was a votary of hers – a changeling is either a fairy child put in place of a stolen human child or, as in this case, the human child that has been taken), but whom Oberon wants for a “Knight of his train, to trace the forests wild” (414, 2.1.25).  Perhaps we are also to understand that Titania would keep the boy just as he is, while Oberon would initiate him into maturity.  

The unhappy couple sling accusations of infidelity (with the mortal king and his consort, no less) at each other (415, 2.1.63-76), and their squabbling has already, Titania reveals, resulted in natural disorders that cause trouble for lowly humans just trying to till the soil and raise their crops: “The plowman lost his sweat, and the green corn / Hath rotted ere his youth attained a beard” (416, 2.1.94-95). 

Perhaps Titania is partly concerned to maintain her own sphere of authority by withholding from Oberon something he dearly covets, so the fairy monarchs have their own invisible war of the sexes going on: she refuses to surrender the boy: “His mother was a votress of my order … / And for her sake do I rear up her boy, / And for her sake I will not part with him” (417, 2.1.123, 136-37).  

Oberon decides on the spot to punish Titania for her obstinacy, so he summons Puck to find the magical flower with which to cast a spell on her: the pansy, which acquired its great property of inspiring love from the bolt of Cupid (417-18, 2.1.165-74).  The flower causes love at first sight, regardless of the object, so it serves as an emblem of the power that Hermia had invested in love itself.  Oberon hopes by this device to extort the Indian boy from her in exchange for releasing her from whatever love relation the flower causes her to forge.  

Puck, Oberon’s helper, is mischief in its lighter aspects—not the murderous Mischief invoked by Antony in Julius Caesar (the one that accords so well with “havoc” and “the dogs of war”; see Norton Tragedies 318, 3.1.275).  Still, I suppose we could understand Robin Goodfellow, as his full name runs, to be the obverse of the chaste power that overlooks the entire play – namely, Diana, virgin goddess of the moon (406, 1.1.4).

Act 2, Scene 2 (420-23, Oberon be-pansies Titania; Puck mistakenly bewitches Lysander).

The transformations enjoined by Oberon are supposed to yield predictable results, but it’s hard to control such a magical power.  Puck mistakenly sprinkles Lysander instead of Demetrius (421, 2.2.76-77), Lysander falls in love with Helena and out of love with Hermia.  Puck can’t process the fact that Lysander and Hermia are sleeping apart simply because they’re following the human custom of chastity before marriage, not because they are angry with each other: “Nay, good Lysander: for my sake, my dear, / Lie further off yet; do not lie so near” (421, 2.2.43-44).  Puck is a natural creature, and cares nothing for customs of any sort.  Helena is outraged at Lysander’s strange new affection (422-23, 2.2.123-34), and Hermia can scarcely believe Lysander isn’t near her side when she wakes up recounting her bad dream: “Methought a serpent ate my heart away” (423, 2.2.149), and decides to go off in search of him.  Lysander claims to be following his reason in choosing Helena and rejecting Hermia (422, 2.2.115-16), but reason has nothing to do with it.  Neither does his “will,” which he claims is being led by reason.  Well, at least Oberon carried out his part of the plan properly—he began the scene by squeezing pansy juice onto Titania’s eyelids (420, 2.2.27-34).  Another name for the pansy is “love-in-idleness,” which reminds us that love involves a narcissistic projection of qualities into a beloved object to bind it to us.

Act 3, Scene 1 (423-27, Quince and the other rustics’ artistic concerns; Bottom translated; he charms Titania.)

Our lowly actors are hard at work for the nobility’s viewing pleasure.  Bottom continues to be determined to avoid excessive realism: “There are things in this comedy of Pyramus and / Thisbe that will never please” (423, 3.1.8-9), he says, and finds the solution to this problem in a cunning prologue that will reassure the audience they are only watching a play.  Snout worries about the lion, so Bottom decrees that he must show his humanity through his suit (424, 3.1.32-33).  The issue of the moonlight must also be worked out (424, 3.1.51-55).  Aside from the moonlight, the second difficulty is how to represent a wall, but Bottom has an ingenious strategy to deal with this: one of the actors will stand on the stage and create a crack with his hands held a certain way, which will signify the crack through which Pyramus and Thisbe will speak (424, 3.1.57-60).  Bottom and others’ concerns (423-24, 3.1.8-60) about excessive realism and representational detail may indicate that they have trouble distinguishing between reality and fantasy, so they think their betters have the same problem.  Still, the first problem in particular is an important neoclassical concern: what is the moral impact of fictional representations?  Can mere fantasies cause distress?  Of course they can – and in fact, Helena had described the power of love similarly in the first act: “Things base and vile, holding no quantity, / Love can transpose to form and dignity” (411, 1.1.232-33). Anything that is worth something is probably also capable of causing distress when mishandled or misunderstood.

With regard to the second issue – that of representation’s basic limits (how realistic can and must our play be?), it is worth remembering that we take for granted today a host of cinematic special effects when we watch a film of Shakespeare—at least when we watch excellent Hollywood versions like Michael Radford’s The Merchant of Venice or Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, or Julie Taymor’s remarkable film Titus.  When we go to watch an actual play, however, we are much closer to the possibilities of Shakespeare’s own day.  One can only do so much by way of illusion on the stage, so we find Shakespeare often asking his audience to use their own imaginations, lest the play fall flat.  One of the most famous instances occurs in Henry V, in which the prologue-speaker begins, “Oh, for a muse of fire that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention, / A kingdom for a stage, princes to act / And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!” (Norton Histories 791, Prologue 1-4)  The advice given the audience there is, “’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, / Carry them here and there, jumping o’er times, / Turning th’accomplishment of many years / Into an hourglass . . . ” (791, Prologue 28-31).  When it came to representing fairy kingdoms and the personages therein, Shakespeare must have known how similar any playwright’s efforts must be to those of Peter Quince and his actors.  Still, his great clown Feste in Twelfth Night sums up the power of fiction when he sings at the end of the play, “But that’s all one, our play is done, / And we’ll strive to please you every day” (Norton Comedies 797, 5.1.393-94).  You must leave the charmed circle of the theater when the performance ends, but you can return there again and again, so that in this sense, at least, art and life perpetually interweave.  Perhaps Shakespeare thought the combined power of artistic representation and the audience’s fancy or imagination was impressive enough to void excessive concern over the limitations of his plays.

Puck determines that partially transforming Bottom into an ass will be his contribution to the play (425, 3.1.65-68), and all the other actors are frightened from the scene.  Bottom suspects a plot on their part: “This is to make an ass of me, to / fright me, if they could. But I will not stir from this place, / do what they can” (426, 3.1.106-08).  We now see another side to Bottom’s desire to transform himself into anything and everything: perhaps this desire indicates a degree of narcissism and a strong need to control his surroundings, not necessarily a healthy imagination.  As mentioned earlier, some have said that Bottom’s over-concern about realism indicates a lack of imagination, not an excess of it.  It may also be the case that Shakespeare is having fun at the expense of early neoclassical criticism, which insists that the audience falls prey to “dramatic illusion” and takes what it sees on the stage for the real thing.  If all this is true, it seems comically appropriate that he should be “translated” (426, 3.1.105) into a stubborn, obtuse donkey.  But Titania awakens to the sight of him, and the magic juice does its work: “thy fair virtue’s force perforce doth move me / On the first view to say, to swear, I love thee” (426, 3.1.124-25).  She makes him an offer he can’t refuse, considering her powers and high state: “Thou shalt remain here, whether thou wilt or no” (426, 3.1.135).  I would not be harsh with Bottom – if he cannot manage his fantasy projections, he isn’t alone in the play in not being able to do that.  Narcissism and projection are part of love as well.  How aware are most people of that fact?

Act 3, Scene 2 (427-438, Oberon bewitches Demetrius, orders Robin to fix his error; couples argue in the forest, with both men pursuing Helena: chaos reigns; Oberon wants peace; Robin corrects his error with Lysander.)

Puck relates how he transformed Bottom (427-28, 3.2.6-34), then in Oberon’s presence he discovers his error in having sprinkled pansy juice on Lysander rather than Demetrius: “This is the woman, but not this the man” (428, 3.2.42).  Oberon is pleased that Titania has fallen in love with the transformed Bottom, but he is not pleased about Lysander’s situation, and sets about making things right.  Oberon now bewitches Demetrius (430, 3.2.102-09) to turn his affections towards Helena, while Robin sees good sport in the coming fireworks amongst the couples: “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” (430, 3.2.115)

Helena continues to believe she is the butt of a cruel joke when Demetrius and Lysander vie for her attention: “You both are rivals and love Hermia, / And now both rivals to mock Helena” (431, 3.2.155-56).  She laments to Hermia, “is all forgot? / All schooldays’ friendship, childhood innocence?”  (432, 3.2.201-02).  Hermia protests her innocence truthfully, but soon things turn ugly when her weak point is found: she fears being mocked for her short stature: Helena “hath made compare / Between our statures; she hath urged her height . . .” (434, 3.2.290-91).  

Demetrius and Lysander go off into the woods to fight a duel (435, 3.2.335-37), and Oberon orders Puck to follow them and keep anything untoward from happening.  With the men and the women alike quarreling, we have reached the height of chaos in this play.  The assumption Hermia makes is not so hard to fathom.  The matter of attraction or the lack thereof strikes at the very heart of a person’s identity.  Puck is ordered to fix his mistake with Lysander (435, 3.2.354-68), while Oberon himself will extort the Indian boy from Titania in exchange for releasing her from her love match with an ass.  What Oberon the comic king seeks above all is harmony: “I will her charmèd eye release / From monster’s view, and all things shall be peace” (436, 3.2.375-77). Both human couples lie fast asleep not far from one another.

While they sleep, Robin Goodfellow corrects his earlier mistake: “Jack shall have Jill, / Naught shall go ill, / the man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well” (438, 3.3.461-63).  Robin doesn’t sharply differentiate one human couple from another: to him, what matters is the coupling itself, the simple fact of union, and he doesn’t trouble himself with the choice of object.

Act 4, Scene 1 (438-43, Oberon unvexes Titania and they reconcile; Theseus and Hippolyta converse; Bottom recovers and waxes philosophical.)

Bottom satisfies his nonhuman desires with some delicious hay, and then gives in to sleep while Titania lies next to him (439, 4.1.30-43).  Oberon has succeeded in his plan to extort the Indian boy from Titania, so he tells Puck to turn Bottom back into a man (440, 4.1.78) after he himself undoes his magic against Titania (439, 4.1.68), using now the antidote to the pansy, Dian’s bud.  Then he tells us something about the nature of that word “dream” in the title of the play: the human couples will “to Athens back again repair, / And think no more of this night’s accidents / But as the fierce vexation of a dream” (439, 4.1.65-67).  What we have been witnessing is a species of “vexation” in which nothing holds true about even those things in which we put most stock; everything is subject to whimsical magic and is beyond our control.  But no lasting harm will come of this fitful state of agitation since all of the couples concerned will end up properly sorted by the end of the play and Bottom’s strange metamorphosis is only temporary; if, as some have said, there is an element of satire here, it is not particularly sharp-edged.  The play deals with passion in a curiously dispassionate, bemused, moonstruck manner.  This fairy-land perspective has already been captured when Puck says to Oberon in 3.2, “Shall we their fond pageant see? / Lord, what fools these mortals be!” (430, 3.2.114-15)  We know that chaste goddess Diana is looking over the whole affair from her distant perch.  The final task of the fairy king and queen will be to bless the wedding day and grounds for Theseus and the other mortals: strife and confusion will give way to courtly decorum and blessings (440, 4.1.83-90).

At the palace, Hippolyta still shows some of her old spirit, reminding Theseus that she has kept still better company than him—his hounds may be very fine, but she has heard the dogs of Hercules and Cadmus, and is dubious about Theseus’ claims of supreme tuneableness (440-41, 4.1.110-16).  The tenor of this conversation is civil, and so a far cry from the violence that forged the union of Theseus and Hippolyta.  Egeus does his best to ruin everything by remaining constant to his grinch-like principles, importuning Theseus for due severity: “I beg the law, the law upon his head!” (441, 4.1.152)  But Demetrius, Egeus’ favorite, robs him of the opportunity by declaring his renewed interest in Helena, which leaves Hermia free to marry Lysander.  The Duke offers a triple wedding, and the happy couples decide to follow Theseus and tell about their forest dreams (442, 4.1.196-97).

Meanwhile, Bottom is waxing philosophical about his “vision”: “Man is but an ass if he / go about to expound this dream” (442-43, 4.1.203-04), says he, and then supposes that even though he can’t explain the dream itself, he might get it turned into an oddly unsettled “ballad” with Peter Quince’s help, and have it sung at the end of the play (443, 4.1.210-14). 

Act 4, Scene 2 (443-44, Bottom arrives just in time to hear the news that the mechanicals’ play has been chosen for performance!

The other mechanicals are waiting for Bottom to make his appearance, lest they lose their shot at courtly patronage suitable to their lowly rank. The long and the short of the news is, their play has been chosen; it is “preferred” (444, 4.2.34). Bottom arrives just in time (443, 4.2.25-28), keeping mum about his great adventure with Titania.  Of all the characters in the play and for a reason worth pondering, he alone has been privileged to see the fairies.  Bottom doesn’t change even when he is transformed into a demi-donkey: perhaps his genius is to be unfazed by such strange events.  He is at home in fairyland, at home in the dream-world from whence issues waking human desire.  In this sense, Bottom has bragging rights– he is not “vexed” in the same way the other characters are, even though Oberon thinks he is.  The rest of us live fitfully trying to negotiate the gap between waking and sleep, reality and fantasy, what is and what might be, but not Nick Bottom.

Act 5, Scene 1 (444-53, Theseus offers constructive art criticism, Pyramus and Thisbe proceeds.)

Theseus, as we see here, is having none of this day’s talk about fairyland “antique fables” (444, 5.1.2) such as the now-happy couples have related to them about their time in the woods.  In his view, “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / Are of imagination all compact” (444, 5.1.7-8), and he expounds further that the poet’s “imagination bodies forth / The forms of things unknown” and then his “pen / Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing / A local habitation and a name” (444, 5.1.14-17).  Imagination, he continues, is bound to provide causal agents for anything it treats: “in the night, imagining some fear, / How easy is a bush supposed a bear!” (444, 5.1.21-22)  Theseus sounds politely dismissive of the arts, but he finds in them entertainment “To ease the anguish of a torturing hour” (445, 5.1.37).  In other words, unlike Bottom and some of the mechanic players, the noble Theseus has no trouble making distinctions between the real and the purely fanciful; he will view the play from an “aesthetic distance” unavailable to the Bottoms of the world.  But isn’t the joke on him, at least to some extent?  Within the play, fairyland is as real as anything else, so all those strange transpositions of love objects and, of course, the “translation” of Bottom, really happened.

But we need not consider Theseus unappreciative—he is the most indulgent of critics with the ridiculous spectacle put on by the Pyramus and Thisbe crew.  Theseus is able to laugh at the players’ infelicities and accept the honesty with which they set forth their representation, in spite of his master of revels Philostrate’s contempt for them.  Theseus associates glib illusionism with dishonesty, similar to the fair words of a selfish counselor: “I will hear that play. / For never anything can be amiss / When simpleness and duty tender it” (446, 5.1.81-83).  When Hippolyta labels the play “the silliest stuff that ever I heard” (449, 5.1.207), Theseus sums up his critical acumen this way: “The best in this kind are but shadows, and the / worst are no worse if imagination amend them” (449, 5.1.208-09). The representation onstage we might describe by saying that it is a framework or skeleton that the audience members must then bring to life with imaginative sympathy.  The Pyramus and Thisbe production goes pretty much as planned, a mixture of preposterous ineptness and genuinely affecting drama (418-20).

 One thing to enjoy about Shakespeare’s staging of the Pyramus and Thisbe play is how the aristocratic audience seems both genuinely engaged and yet capable of conversing amongst themselves, making jokes, and passing critical judgments.  Shakespeare must have noticed this sort of behavior at large theaters where he staged his plays (the Globe opened in 1599, and after 1609 or so, he also put some plays on at the more intimate Blackfriars).  A Shakespeare play in a big theater would have been spellbinding and yet quite a social affair.

Act 5, Scene 1: Fairy Dance and Epilogue (453, Fairies bless the weddings at the palace; Robin asks for the audience’s indulgence.)

Oberon, Titania and the fairies bless the palace of Theseus and Hippolyta: “Hand in hand with fairy grace / Will we sing and bless this place” (453, 5.2.385-86).  Puck’s epilogue is effective, as he leaves matters to the audience’s imagination: it is their prerogative to judge what they have seen, and their burden to perpetuate the play in their own minds or let it pass away.  To some degree like love itself, the theater (“make-believe”) is a power in the world and one to be treated with due regard.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream therefore begs indulgence for its excellent mockery of romantic desire as an irrational, chaos-inducing force in human affairs that nonetheless seems conducive to individual happiness and good social order: “If we shadows have offended, / Think but this, and all is mended, / That you have but slumbered here / While these visions did appear” (453, Epilogue 1-4).

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

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

Love’s Labor’s Lost

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

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Shakespeare, William. Love’s Labor’s Lost. (Norton Comedies, 3rd ed. xxx-xx).

Act 1, Scene 1 (xxx-xx, Text goes here….)

Text goes here….

Edition. Complete.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake