Romeo and Juliet

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Shakespeare, William. Romeo and Juliet. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 181-256).

Prologue and Act 1, Scene 1 (189-95, the nature of the tragedy;  squabbling of Samson / Gregory and Abraham, Tybalt and Benvolio; Romeo’s whereabouts and lovesickness)

It has sometimes been said that Romeo and Juliet is not much of a tragedy because unfortunate accidents seem to be responsible for most of the bad things that happen.  There is no prideful individual, no Oedipus the King in this play, who brings about his own downfall.  Following the Prologue, we may choose to distribute this function broadly and say it’s the corporate property of the scions and lesser members of both houses, but such an arrangement doesn’t seem as convincing or intense as individual error, and of course the emphasis of the play is squarely on Romeo and Juliet themselves.  

In any case, I don’t believe Shakespeare follows a unitary model of tragedy—he constitutes his tragic intensities and ideals circumstantially, from one set of materials to the next.  A notion of tragedy as broad as “a fall from good fortune to bad” probably serves him as a point of departure.  What, then, is the stuff of tragedy in this play?  We are dealing with a primal tragedy of youthful expectations and middle-aged fears, of existential rawness and fear of irretrievable loss.  Losing anyone we care about is difficult, but it’s hard to imagine a more wrenching loss than the loss of a child by a parent—it seems unnatural and undercuts our sense for the orderly progression of life: parents, we think, are supposed to precede their children in passing, not the other way around.  But that’s exactly the loss that both the Montagues and the Capulets suffer.  As for Romeo and Juliet, they are open to the intensities and extremes of passion that come with first love.  Romeo in particular idealizes love and fidelity to an extent that cannot help but be perilous.  He hasn’t had the experience to do otherwise.  There is a medieval quality to this play so full of turnabouts and sudden emotional passages from mirth to despair.

The Prologue announces that Romeo and Juliet will be a tragedy not only of two lovers but also of two extended families, the Montagues and the Capulets.  Antipathy has become habitual with them, and they have therefore embroiled the entire city of Verona in civil strife.  The quibbling servants of the first scene show how trivial the feud has become, and Samson’s obscene innuendos about Montague maidens suggests that the family feud is easily made to serve selfish purposes, base appetites.  Says Samson, “I will push Mon- / tague’s men from the wall, and thrust his maids to the wall” (190, 1.1.15-16).  There is no nobility in such factional strife.  Tybalt and Benvolio are as absurd in prosecuting the quarrel as the low-born servants, with their melodramatic pronouncements: “Turn thee, Benvolio.  Look upon thy death” (191, 1.1.60).  The Prince breaks up the current fighting, but from his mention of “Three civil brawls bred of an airy word” (192, 1.1.82), we may gather that he has dealt too leniently with such disorders in the past.  As in Measure for Measure, the ruler has allowed his subjects’ petty desires to wreak havoc in his realm.

We first hear of Romeo when Lady Montague asks Benvolio where the young man has been hiding himself.  He shuns company, and as Benvolio explains to Lady Montague, he came upon Romeo “an hour before the worshipped sun / Peered forth the golden window of the east” (192, 1.1.111-12) standing under a grove of melancholy sycamore trees, and the root of his troubles isn’t yet clear.  But Benvolio soon learns from him that love is the cause; the young man says that he is “Out of her favour where I am in love” (193, 1.1.161).  The “her” in question is Rosaline, though she isn’t named until the following scene.  Romeo speaks with considerable wit, but his words are also full of Petrarchan extremes: “O heavy lightness, serious vanity, / Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms …” (194, 1.1.171-72) and so forth.  Benvolio, a somewhat less inexperienced young man, advises Romeo to look around him and compare as many beautiful women as possible with the one who seems to be giving him the trouble: the solution to lovesickness, he advises, is “giving liberty unto thine eyes” (195, 1.1.220).

Act 1, Scene 2 (195-97, Capulet invites Paris to a feast where Juliet will be present; Benvolio urges Romeo to crash the party, and he reluctantly agrees)

Capulet is very pleased with the prospect of the Prince Escalus’ kinsman Paris marrying his daughter Juliet, with the proviso that he must be successful in winning Juliet’s love: “My will to her consent is but a part …” (195, 1.2.15).  Capulet invites the young man to a public feast that also presents Romeo with the opportunity Benvolio is pushing on him: “Take thou some new infection to thy eye …” (196, 1.2.47) to drive out the old one, he urges a dubious Romeo.  The latter prefers to maintain his distant Rosaline’s matchless quality, but Benvolio being the charming fellow he is, it’s hard to resist his pleas, and Romeo finally consents: “I’ll go along, no such sight to be shown, / But to rejoice in splendor of mine own” (197, 1.2.100-01).

Act 1, Scene 3 (197-200, the nurse gives us her perspective on Juliet’s life as a whole to her upcoming fourteenth birthday; Lady Capulet broaches the possibility of a union with Count Paris)

The nurse apparently has been with Juliet from infancy onwards to the present, with her fourteenth birthday coming up on Lammas Eve, which is August 1st, a festival day for the wheat harvest (198, 1.3.19).  She sees the girl’s life as a whole.  The bawdy joke made by her husband years ago, here repeated, implies that the nurse has been preparing Juliet for this time from her childhood.  It seems little Juliet took a tumble, and the nurse’s husband said, “Thou wilt fall backward when thou has more wit …” (198, 1.3.44).  The nurse’s words are poignant in that they remind us just how short is the time between carefree childhood and the consequential time of adulthood.  Juliet is intrigued about her aristocratic suitor when Lady Capulet informs her that she is to “Read o’er the volume of young Paris’ face, / And find delight writ there with beauty’s pen” (199, 1.3.82-83).  But she is no more than intrigued since Paris is as yet only a name to her: “I’ll look to like, if looking liking move …” (199, 1.3.99) says Juliet, and as for marriage, she tells her old nurse in formal tone, “It is an honour that I dream not of” (199, 1.3.68).

Act 1, Scene 4 (200-02, on the way to Capulet’s feast, Mercutio recounts his dream about Queen Mab; Romeo expresses an impending dread of bitter consequence)

On the way to their uninvited attendance at Capulet’s feast, worldly Mercutio parries wits with Romeo the idealist.  Mercutio ends up getting a bit carried away and turns to recounting the legend of Queen Mab to Romeo and others present: this “fairies’ midwife,” says Mercutio, is insanely busy stirring up mortals’ emotions: most pointedly, “she gallops night by night / Through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love …” (201, 1.4.55, 71-72), but she also stuffs with fantasies the brains of courtiers, lawyers, parsons, and soldiers.  The substance of the speech is that this midwife to fairies inspires all sorts to follow their own particular desires.  By implication, we don’t have a great deal of control when it comes to our emotions and desires.  All of this wild talk is meant to deflate Romeo’s dream, but the deeper significance of Mercutio’s speech is to put everyone in the same condition as Romeo: a follower of idle dreams.  At the end of the conversation, Romeo is not in so light a mood after all.  He fears that some star-poised “consequence … / Shall bitterly begin his fearful date / With this night’s revels” (202, 1.4.107-09).

Act 1, Scene 5 (202-06, At Capulet’s feast, Romeo and Juliet meet: love at first sight; Tybalt’s wrath chastened for the moment by Uncle Capulet)

Benvolio’s plan doesn’t go quite as he had intended since Romeo, upon seeing Juliet, becomes just as smitten with her as he was with his former love: “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!” (203, 1.5.41).  The phrase is wonderfully appropriate—who hasn’t felt that strange “singling out” effect Romeo’s words evoke, when we first meet someone deeply attractive to us?  Old Montague and Capulet are willing to keep the peace, but the younger generation is always spoiling for trouble.  Romeo’s forebodings are fulfilled when Tybalt conceives a hatred for him at the very moment when he falls in love with Juliet.  Tybalt’s “I’ll not endure him” (204, 1.5.173) earns only Uncle Capulet’s annoyance, but it’s no less intense for that.  

The first meeting between Romeo and Juliet is a fine moment in Shakespeare’s canon.  Together the two speak an English sonnet (rhyming abab cdcd efef gg), with the ending “gg” couplet running, “[Juliet:] Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake. / [Romeo:] Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take” (205, 1.5.102-03).  Romeo takes the lead and kisser Juliet, while she is passionate and poised throughout.  At the end of the scene, both are dispossessed of any notion that there is a clear path forwards for them: Romeo realizes Juliet is a Capulet, and she realizes he belongs to the Montagues (205-06, 1.5.114-15, 136).

Act 2, Prologue and Scene 1 (206-11, Mercutio jokes with Benvolio about Romeo’s idealism; Romeo idealizes Juliet as “the sun” and Juliet muses about the power of words; the two lovers converse about vows and begin to plan their secret marriage)

Ever the realist, Mercutio jokes with Benvolio about the supposed otherworldliness of Romeo’s new affection.  Mercutio stands for the view that any “idealizing of eroticism” is downright silly and perhaps disingenuous, since raw sexuality is always at the bottom of any romantic pose a lover may strike up: of Juliet he can only say, “O that she were / An open-arse, thou a popp’rin’ pear” (207, 2.1.39-40).  He says this to Benvolio, however, and not to Romeo.  Mercutio is frenetic and open-hearted in his way, but he’s not inclined to lie around in a chilly “field-bed” (207, 2.1.40) to keep watch over the passions of Romeo. 

Mercutio’s exit is unfortunate because it makes him miss one of Shakespeare’s most renowned passages.  Romeo says, “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Juliet is the sun” (207-08, 2.1.44-45).  And Juliet, believing she’s alone, puts her famous question about Romeo’s name: “O Romeo, Romeo, / wherefore art thou Romeo?” followed not long after by “That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet” (208, 2.1.74-75, 85-86).  It’s a fine sentiment, but most readers will see the difficulty with it: names, and words generally, are saturated with history and significance that isn’t in the control of those who claim an intimate relationship with them.  Romeo is a Montague, and he doesn’t have much say in what that proper name means in Verona.  A real-life Juliet would be very right to call us to agreement that what we call a rose ought to smell as sweet as it would if it were called a mugwort blossom or a “stinking Montague.”  Still, I’m only about 82½% sure it would get the same olfactory attention—such is the power of “words, words, words.”  They may be as powerful and determinative in our experience of the world as our senses: what are you going to believe—words or your own solitary nose?

But seriously, while Romeo’s romantic idealism is nearly absolute up to this point, Juliet’s idealism, though strong, shows more regard for the narrow dynastic concerns that hem in the two lovers.  In the lines I just quoted about names and roses, Juliet captures the dilemma of lovers right up to Shakespeare’s time: love is a universal passion and as such it ought to generate community, but this same passion is hindered by a host of social demands and expectations that are anything but charitable, so that it often creates rifts between individuals and the larger group, which we call society.

Juliet reveals her passion fully since at first she doesn’t know Romeo is listening, which spares both of them the awkward task of dissembling their love, the need for which is clear enough from her self-reproach when she finally becomes aware that Romeo is near, “I am too fond …” (209, 2.1.140).  Juliet’s language is tinged with realistic (if unfounded) concerns when she actually speaks to Romeo—in particular, she fears that his propensity to swear by the moon may indicate rashness rather than constancy (210, 2.1.  151), and she insists, “I have no joy of this contract tonight. / It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden …” (210, 2.1.160).  But she is steadfast in her eagerness to marry Romeo, whatever the obstacles.  The language of falconry marks Juliet’s desire: “O, for a falconer’s voice,” she says, “To lure this tassel-gentle back again!” (211, 2.1.203-04)  There is recognition in such language that desire is a wild thing, not something safe and tame.  We can find the same insight, though in a darker vein, in the poetry of Sir Thomas Wyatt and other Tudor poets preceding Shakespeare.  In his sonnet “Whoso List to Hunt,” Wyatt makes King Henry VIII’s mistress and then wife Anne Boleyn described herself as, “wild for to hold, though I seem tame.”  Romeo’s plan seems mannerly enough, however, since he plans a present trip to Friar Laurence’s cell (211, 2.1.233-34).

Act 2, Scene 2 (212-13, Friar Laurence agrees to Romeo’s proposal to marry him secretly to Juliet)

Friar Laurence’s pronouncement near the beginning of this scene is instructive: “Virtue itself turns vice being misapplied, / And vice sometime’s by action dignified” (212, 2.2.21-22).  The Friar is collecting a basket with “baleful weeds and precious-juicèd flowers” (212, 2.2.8) that will turn out to be useful—and harmful—in a way he doesn’t yet imagine.  Surprised by Romeo’s sudden transference of his attentions from Rosaline to Juliet, he nonetheless agrees to perform the secret marriage rite Romeo wants, in hopes of ending Verona’s unrest.  The Friar seems to think that the Montagues and Capulets will be charitable and reasonable once they realize two of their own have chosen to marry: “For this alliance may so happy prove / To turn your households’ rancour to pure love” (213, 2.2.91-92).  The Friar is a good man, but perhaps a bit naïve to deserve as much faith in his practical acumen as Romeo and Juliet place in him.

Act 2, Scene 3 (214-18, Mercutio mocks the feuding; rattles Juliet’s nurse; Romeo explains to Nurse Angelica his secret plans to visit Juliet on their wedding night)

Mercutio shows his awareness of how silly the feuding amongst the two houses is: he takes on the persona of a grandsire to denounce “fashionmongers” like Tybalt (214, 2.3.29).  Mercutio is in on the hostilities, but he isn’t entirely circumscribed or defined by them.  Given the opportunity, he engages with Romeo in a battle of wits, and then takes bawdy aim at Juliet’s Nurse, who has come as the girl’s emissary: when she says good morning, Mercutio says, “the bawdy hand of the dial / is now upon the prick of noon” (216, 2.3.99-100).  Nurse Angelica (she is addressed by name in Act 4.4), is not amused.  Romeo promises he will arrive in good time to spend the night with Juliet after they are married – his servant will bring a rope ladder that must be Romeo’s “convoy in the secret night” (218, 2.3.172; see 169-72).  The scene closes on a note of wordplay with Romeo’s name.  The Nurse informs the young man that Juliet has “the pret- / tiest sententious of it, of you and rosemary …” (218, 2.3.193-94).

Act 2, Scene 4 (218-20, Nurse Angelica passes along Romeo’s marriage plan to Juliet)

In his lectures on Shakespeare, Coleridge implies that while the Nurse is eccentric, she is at the same time a universal type of the caring, elderly nurse.*  It’s easy to see that quality in her here—beset by the impatient Juliet, the Nurse holds her ground for a while, but finally gives the girl the information she wants: she is to go to Friar Laurence’s cell to marry Romeo (220, 2.4.67-68).  Angelica’s circumstances and pace are not the same as Juliet’s: “I am the drudge, and toil in your delight; / But you shall bear the burthen soon at night” (220, 2.4.74-75).  She is fond of Juliet almost to a fault, and certainly favorable to her pledge to Romeo, but always aware that the young girl is surrounded by a potentially hostile world of causes and effects, of limitations and consequences.  Pleasure and idealism are not free.

*Coleridge quotation: The character of the Nurse is the nearest of any thing in Shakspeare to a direct borrowing from mere observation; and the reason is, that as in infancy and childhood the individual in nature is a representative of a class,—just as in describing one larch tree, you generalize a grove of them,—so it is nearly as much so in old age…. ( )

Act 2, Scene 5 (220-21, Friar Laurence prepares Romeo and Juliet for their marriage ceremony)

Friar Laurence leads Romeo and Juliet off for the performance of the marriage ceremony.  Romeo is in the mood for absolutes: the marriage once completed, he says, let “love-devouring death do what he dare …” (220, 2.5.7).  The Friar’s advice to Romeo to “love moderately” (220. 2.5.14) is strangely ineffectual, given his willingness to facilitate such a hasty, secret wedding, even though Laurence insists on maintaining the propriety of the affair: he tells the two, “you shall not stay alone / Till Holy Church incorporate two in one” (221, 2.5.36-37).

Act 3, Scene 1 (221-25, Mercutio and Benvolio jest about violence; Tybalt and Mercutio quarrel and the latter is mortally wounded when Romeo interrupts; Romeo kills Tybalt; the prince banishes Romeo)

The scene begins with Mercutio ribbing Benvolio about his readiness to involve himself in trouble: “Thy head is as full of quarrels as an egg is full of meat …” (221, 3.1.21).  But soon events take a more serious turn.  Tybalt is determined to fight some Montagues, and Romeo’s attempt to get between Tybalt and Mercutio results in a mortal injury to the latter, who greets his fate with the bitter condemnation, “A plague o’ both your houses” (223, 3.1.86).  Romeo is honor-bound to avenge his kinsman, and having duly slain Tybalt, he laments that he is now “fortune’s fool” (224, 3.1.131).  The prince steps in and dispenses his characteristically tempered style of justice, banishing Romeo on pain of death (225, 3.1.188-89).  This decree is mild since, after all, Paris is the prince’s own kinsman, and Capulet’s wife has demanded Romeo’s execution (225, 3.1.174-75).

Act 3, Scene 2 (225-28, Juliet envisions Romeo in the stars; the nurse informs her that Tybalt is slain and Romeo is banished; Juliet despairs, but the nurse tells her Romeo is hiding with Friar Laurence)

Juliet is indulging herself in a little romantic idealism around the time of the deadly quarrel: she imagines her Romeo patterned in the stars, whereupon “ … he will make the face of heaven so fine / That all the world will be in love with night” (226, 3.2.23-24; see 21-25).  But the Nurse soon brings her the bad news about Tybalt’s death (over which Juliet is genuinely aggrieved since he was her kinsman) and Romeo’s guilty flight, along with the bitter asseveration that men are “All perjured, all forsworn, all aught, dissemblers all” (227, 3.2.86-87).  Juliet’s own understanding flows from a medieval sense for the grotesque: “I’ll to my wedding bed, / And death, not Romeo, take my maidenhead” (228, 3.2.136-37).  In the end, Angelica provides hope, for she knows Romeo is hiding with Friar Laurence (228, 3.2.140-41).

Act 3, Scene 3 (228-32, Romeo despairs at the pain he has caused Juliet and offers to stab himself; Laurence reproaches Romeo’s wild grief and advises him to go to Mantua)

Banished Romeo is unable to imagine a “world without Verona walls” (228, 3.3.17), and when the Friar tries to show him the sunny side of the whole affair, Romeo says, perhaps with some justice, “Thou canst not speak of that thou dost not feel” (229, 3.3.64).  Romeo’s willingness to kill himself if it will assuage Juliet’s grief over Tybalt shows the depth of affection that the Friar, as a holy man, supposedly lacks: “ … tell me, / In what vile part of this anatomy / Doth my name lodge?” (230, 3.3.104-06), offering to cut it out with his knife.  Friar Laurence rebukes the young man’s “wild acts” (230, 3.3.109) and tells him to make his way to Mantua.

Act 3, Scenes 4-5 (232-38, Capulet plans Juliet’s marriage to Paris; newlyweds Romeo and Juliet spend the night together in Capulet territory and argue with the dawn; Juliet spurns her father’s demand that she marry Paris, and the old man becomes enraged; the nurse angers Juliet by advising her to give in; Juliet decides to seek help from Friar Laurence)

In the fourth scene, old Capulet tells his wife that Juliet should be married to impatient Paris on Thursday rather than on the Monday date he has requested (232, 3.4.20). 

In the fifth scene, Romeo and Juliet spend their first night together in the Capulet stronghold, and engage in a traditional “argument with the dawn” of European troubadour lineage: Juliet begins the dialogue, “Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day” (233, 3.5.1) but she is also the partner who finally admits that the day is upon them: “O, now be gone! More light and light it grows” (233, 3.5.35).  These dawn songs were called aubades in French, and a variant albas in Occitan poetic tradition.  Juliet is filled with dread, and tells Romeo, “Methinks I see thee, now thou art so low, / As one dead in the bottom of a tomb” (234, 3.5.55-56). 

When Lady Capulet professes her desire to poison Romeo in Mantua (235, 3.5.87-92), Juliet pretends to share the same wish, but she can’t bring herself to pretend any joy in the prospect of marrying Count Paris, to whom her father has decided she should be wed “early next Thursday” (235, 3.5.112).  Old Capulet’s rebuke of Juliet for her refusal is immediate and harsh: either she will marry Paris or he will disown her.  He is baffled by her obstinacy, complaining, “still my care hath been / To have her matched …” (236, 3.5.177-78).  Juliet is the Capulets’ only child, and in her stubbornness the father of the household sees his hopes of dynastic immortality frustrated.  When Nurse Angelica professes that it would be best to give in to father Capulet’s wishes and marry Paris, Juliet swears to herself she will have nothing more to do with the old woman: “Thou and my bosom henceforth shall be twain” (238, 3.5.240).  Off Juliet goes to be advised by Friar Laurence.

Act 4, Scene 1 (238-40, Friar Laurence outlines a plan that calls for Juliet to mimic death, be carried to the Capulet vault, and then escape with Romeo to Mantua)

Friar Laurence sees that Juliet’s situation is desperate, and offers an equally desperate remedy: she will pretend to agree to the match with Paris and take a drug that induces death-like symptoms for forty-two hours, and then Romeo will come to the tomb of the Capulets and take her away with him to Mantua (240, 4.1.89-117).  This is a common motif in literature: cheating the Grim Reaper, or at least attempting to negotiate a better deal with him.  Film students may recall Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, in which a medieval man plays a game of chess with Death in hopes of gaining more earthly time.  The Friar, for a holy man, has a flair for quick-thinking deception, and is able to put his earlier sententia about virtue and vice to good use: he had said, “Virtue itself turns vice being misapplied, / And vice sometime’s by action dignified” (212, 2.2.21-22).

Act 4, Scenes 2-4 (240-47, Juliet goes through with her plan, and the Capulet household is distraught; but not the hired musicians, to whom a wedding or a funeral brings pay and dinner)

In the second scene, Juliet executes her pretense of agreement to marry Paris, and in the third scene, she rehearses her anxieties about the part of the plan that calls for her to feign death.  What if she should  “wake before the time that Romeo / Come …” (242, 4.3.30-31)?  Such fears are the very stuff of Edgar Allan Poe’s gothic fiction, for which Shakespeare no doubt provided some inspiration.  Juliet shows remarkable courage and does not shrink from swallowing her potion, even when she conjures the ghost of Tybalt “Seeking out Romeo that did spit his body / Upon a rapier’s point” (243, 4.3.55-56).

The fourth scene leaps from joy to despair in a heartbeat, a characteristic pattern in this play.  The Capulet parents suffer (or rather think they suffer) an irretrievable loss of the sort all parents fear.  There is a strong medieval quality to the grotesque imagery here and elsewhere in the play: old Capulet says to Paris, “O son, the night before thy wedding-day / Hath death lain with thy wife” (244, 4.4.62-63), and to Friar Laurence he laments, “All things that we ordainèd festival / Turn from their office to black funeral” (245, 4.4.111-12). 

The scene ends with a comic exchange between some musicians who had been summoned earlier by the Capulets and the servant Peter.  Together, they introduce a devil-may-care, self-interested attitude into the midst of unspeakable woe.  These musicians have little to do with the goings-on of great houses.  They are just working-class stiffs, as we would say, and they seek their own security and comfort, when the latter is to be had.  The second musician speaks for them all when he says, “Come, we’ll in here, tarry / for the mourners, and stay dinner” (247, 4.4.165-66).  The scene doesn’t reach the synthesized profundity and silliness of the gravedigger scene in Hamlet, but it’s effective.

Act 5, Scene 1 (247-48, Balthasar tells Romeo that Juliet is dead, and he determines to lie in death by her side; Romeo buys poison from an apothecary, who protests but is forced to comply thanks to poverty)

Romeo hears from Balthasar that Juliet’s body lies in the tomb of the Capulets (247, 5.1.17-23), and, to borrow a phrase from Hamlet, he determines “with wings / As swift as meditation or the thoughts of love” (Norton Tragedies 352, 1.5.29-30) to purchase a dram of deadly stuff from a poor apothecary (druggist), and die next to Juliet.  The apothecary becomes a common-born casualty of this noble tragedy, protesting, “My poverty but not my will consents” (248, 5.1.75).

Act 5, Scenes 2-3 (249-56, Friar Laurence learns that his letter couldn’t be delivered to Romeo; Romeo goes to the Capulets’ tomb and confronts death; Romeo kills Paris, swallows poison and dies; Juliet awakens and frightened Laurence won’t stay in the tomb; Juliet sees Romeo’s body and falls on his sword; Laurence and Balthasar give their accounts; the prince says both houses are punished by their losses)

Friar Laurence learns to his discomfiture that Friar John was detained by townsmen concerned about the plague, so he wasn’t able to deliver his friend’s letter to Romeo (249, 5.2.5-12).

Romeo boldly confronts death and all its accoutrements: imagining death as a “detestable maw,” he defies it: “… in despite I’ll cram thee with more food” (250, 5.3.45, 48; see 45-48).  The death-imagery in this play is quite ugly, and throughout, it has underlain the graceful words and actions of the young hero and heroine like the grotesque underside of a fair medieval decorative panel or casket.  Romeo also confronts the hapless Paris, who has come to the Capulets’ tomb to do his obsequies to his intended bride, and kills him, only to die after one last look at Juliet’s body: “Here, here will I remain / With worms that are thy chambermaids” (251-52, 5.3.108-09; see 91-120), he addresses Juliet, and promptly swallows the apothecary’s poison.  The “ensign” of Juliet’s beauty is still visible (251, 5.3.94), but the already aggrieved Romeo isn’t able to process this fact in anything but an ultra-romantic way, so surrounded is she by the architecture and trappings of death.

When Juliet awakens, her only comfort is Friar Laurence, and Romeo’s words in 3.3 about the Friar’s inability to enter into the deep passions of the two lovers ring true: at the critical moment, Laurence is frightened away from the scene when he hears the watch coming, and leaves Juliet alone.  The conventional fate he had imagined for her—delivery to “a sisterhood of holy nuns” (253, 5.3.157) is not for Juliet, who kisses Romeo’s poison-tinged lips, then embraces his dagger and dies, in stage versions often falling directly on his body (253, 5.3.164-69). 

Friar Laurence (along with Balthasar) is called to give an account of what has happened, and is forgiven his less than wise or heroic interventions (255-56, 5.3.228-68).  As the Prologue promised, the “strife” of the Montagues and Capulets is “buried” by the death of their beloved son and daughter.  This family that has dealt in hatred, says the prince, is justly punished: “heaven finds means to kill your joys with love” (256. 5.3.292), but neither does he exempt himself from blame since he has been guilty of “winking” (256, 5.3.293) at the chaos the two families have long visited upon Verona.  Love has indeed brought the warring houses together, but the price is the death of what they held most dear.

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


Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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Shakespeare, William. Othello. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 425-507).

Act 1, Scene 1. (435-39: Iago’s resentment, Brabanzio’s rage at loss of daughter)

Iago may not be acting from world-historical outrage, but he sets forth two reasons for his hatred of Othello: first, his sense of injured merit because Othello has given the lieutenant’s job he coveted to Cassio (435, 1.1.19ff), and the possibility (stated in Act 1.3) that his wife has slept with Othello. Iago is a self-conscious Machiavel and a consummate actor (like Shakespeare’s Richard III or Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus). As he says to Roderigo, “I follow but myself” and “I am not what I am” (436-37, 1.1.42-65): he may be Othello’s trusted underling, but that isn’t how he sees himself “five years from now,” to borrow a phrase from the corporate interview playbook. Iago may be comfortable in his own skin, but he is not at peace with himself. There’s something impish about him, too, something of the downright evildoer—he seems to enjoy stirring up trouble for the hell of it, and he shows no regard for the destruction he brings to Desdemona, whom he knows to be innocent. He maneuvers with diabolical skill in the gap between what he seems to be and what he is, turning everything that happens to his own advantage. He and Roderigo regale Brabanzio with race-baiting taunts to find his secretly married daughter. (437, 1.1.88ff)

Act 1, Scene 2. (439-442, Othello willingly arrested, off to Venice)

Othello shows no fear of Roderigo or Brabanzio when they apprehend him: “Keep up your bright swords…” (441, 1.2.60ff). On the spot, Brabanzio accuses Othello of witchcraft: “thou has enchanted her” (441, 1.2.64), he tells the Moor; otherwise, he insists, the girl would never “Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom of such a thing as thou—to fear, not to delight!” (441, 1.2.71-72) He can’t even imagine the attraction of the foreign or the exotic, even though he’s been listening to Othello’s stories with admiration, too. To Brabanzio, Venice is the world. (He’s strangely provincial given that Venice is a cosmopolitan sea empire that had long since known how to cut a deal or two with Arabs and Turks.) Brabanzio immediately accepts Iago and Roderigo’s reductive, grotesquely abstract “devil” and bestial “ram” characterization of Othello. Othello hardly lacks charm, but the father welcomes Iago’s stereotypes.

Act 1, Scene 3. (442-50, Othello vindicated, Desdemona strong, Iago enlists Roderigo)

Othello carries the day when summoned to Venice because of his military bearing and chivalric eloquence. When the Italians accuse him of witchcraft, he promises to deliver a “round, unvarnished tale” (444, 1.3.90); but then he romances them with his beautiful, moving words. Othello cuts a dashing figure, and he is aware of his effect upon others. He is proud of his conquest, like a soldier who has won the prize fairly. The tale he delivers is anything but unvarnished. It is filled with romantic extravagance. Perhaps he has been sold into slavery, fought tremendous battles, and seen many remarkable sights. But did he really see “Anthropophagi, and men whose heads / Do grow beneath their shoulders” (445, 1.3.143-44)? No, these are tales he’s picked up and remembered the better to build up an image of himself as an adventurer. He exploits Desdemona’s interest in such stories, crafting from that propensity a contract-in-hand to “beguile her of her tears” and to “dilate” his life’s journey. What sanctifies Othello’s dilatory works of art? Well, the fact that he sincerely loves Desdemona—he means her only good, so it’s acceptable to incorporate some “make-believe” elements into an already exciting account of himself: “she loved me for the dangers I had passed, / And I loved her that she did pity them” (445, 1.3.166-67). Othello is rather like Sir Philip Sidney’s good Christian poet, whose “feigning” of “notable images” shouldn’t be condemned just because the images aren’t literally true. Othello isn’t a naïve other or a silent warrior but a poetical, confident man.

Perhaps his tragedy will be that he just can’t imagine anyone wielding such poetical power for anything but the good reasons that motivate him in his courtship of Desdemona, or in his speech to the Duke and Senators that frees them to return to considerations of State rather than dwelling on private grudges and love affairs. His way of “seeming” (i.e. embroidering his life story) is so pure that it’s folded into the essential goodness of his being. In a sense, all poets are liars—Plato tells us so, right?—but some feigning and pretending is nobly done and not engaged in as a means to do evil, as it is with Iago. Othello’s naivety, then, isn’t that he’s unable to speak anything but plain truth; it’s that he can’t conceive of a man who willfully spins lies for base purposes. A good man is free to gild the lily, but a wicked man ought to show himself for what he is. In this sense, it’s fair to say that Othello proves tragically unable to deal with the difference between seeming and being. Then, too, Othello may be poetical, but he’s not John Keats’ poet of “negative capability,” the kind who can throw himself into doubts and uncertainties as if they were his own proper element. Othello’s feigning seems more tactical and less supple, more task-oriented, than that of the Keatsian “chameleon poet” who wants to escape from his own skin.

Both the absolute otherness imposed on Othello by men such as Brabanzio (who can scarcely process the Moor at all) and the charismatic appeal of the man’s bearing and language are at work early in Othello. Perhaps both, taken together with the sad events later in the play, go a long way towards demonstrating how difficult mutual understanding between cultures can be. In spite of Othello’s wondrous gifts of bearing and speech, he is easily destroyed by Iago, a man with the sort of knowledge of Venetian society Othello lacks. Generalized virtues cannot permanently trump an intimate knowledge of local cultural practices, symbolism, and assumptions, at least not if someone is determined to use these specifics against an outsider. Othello is a classic tragedy in that a good man is destroyed by the virtues that have won him admiration—his inability to comprehend how devious and selfish others can be. It’s true that Othello has so far followed his personal desires, and we might suppose that he’s putting Venice at risk if a tumult ensues. But he deals so forthrightly with the Venetian authorities that the affair blows over, and he is free to return to his work for the general welfare. How, Othello might ask, could others be so petty as to damage the public good for purely private reasons, like those of Iago?

Our first glimpse of Desdemona shows us a strong-willed young woman who is not afraid to act boldly and speak her mind, even in the presence of her powerful father and Venetian statesmen. Her strength accords well with Othello’s soldierly virtue. (446-47, 1.3.180ff, 247ff) Later, Desdemona will be put in an impossible position—her considerable aplomb doesn’t translate into an ability to charm Othello out of his suspicions, so her goodness works against her. But with the devilish Othello out to destroy her, it’s hard to see how anything she says, no matter how skillful, would help. Terse protestations of virtue and fancy talk alike would fail to overcome the “ocular proof” by which Iago will falsely damn her.

Iago’s creed is worth noting. To Roderigo’s passive, faux-suicidal blubbering about the defects of his “virtue” (in this usage, it means “nature”), Iago blurts out “Virtue? A fig! ‘tis in ourselves that we are / thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the / which our wills are gardeners…” (449, 1.3.316-18). In terms of Renaissance psychology, this means that while we are subject to the pull of our appetites (which belong to the “sensitive” part of human nature), we can control these appetites. We can let our choice-making power, our “will,” be informed by reason and thereby control the effects of appetite. (The elements of the rational part of human nature are “understanding” or reason and “will” or rational appetite, the inner power of motion that can incline towards God and reason or towards our lower appetites.) Iago is suggesting that while the body and the appetites may hold sway for a time in Desdemona, she is bound, in due time, to become sated with Othello, and then her rational element will lead her to despise this older man whose appearance and culture are so unlike hers. (449, 1.3.342ff; also 455, 2.1.228-29) Like will return to like. Well, Iago hardly puts Renaissance psychology to the noble uses of Pico della Mirandola, who implies that the grandest goal of humanity is to transcend itself for the greater glory of God, but he knows how to craft a cunning scheme from its premises: Roderigo need only “put money in his purse” and wait for Desdemona to turn again to Venice.

Here Iago’s second motive comes to light: he’s heard that Othello may have cuckolded him. And although he may be patient in devising his wicked schemes, he shares Othello’s disdain of long-continued suspicion: the mere supposition that Emilia may have cuckolded him demands payback; the matter must be resolved. (450, 1.3.367ff) He will wage a pre-emptive war against this man who has already frustrated his hopes of advancement and who may also have insulted his marriage. In some cold, calculating way, Iago himself is subject to the cat-like “green-eyed monster” jealousy, and his way of dealing with the discomfort it’s caused him is to pass it along. That there’s also something to the “baseless evil” charge often leveled against Iago, we may see from his brazen determination to “plume up” his will “in double knavery” (450, 1.3.376).

Act 2, Scenes 1-2. (450-57, Iago sets up Cassio, airs his own suspicions)

This scene turns on trifles: witty banter, smiles, and an innocently flirtatious kiss between Desdemona and Cassio: how easy it is to weave an unflattering tale, and take advantage of others’ insecurities. (454, 2.1.167ff) As Iago will say of the handkerchief in 3.3, “Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ” (473, 3.3.326-28). In the second act generally, Cassio, who much values his martial reputation and is loyal, is easily typecast by Iago first as the genial soldier, then as the quarrelsome drunkard, and finally as the importunate suitor. Iago goes to work on Roderigo against Desdemona’s character (456, 2.1.243), and prevails upon Roderigo to assault Cassio and thereby anger Cyprus and Othello against the man. Iago again mentions his second reason for hating Othello, stating “nothing can or shall content my soul / Till I am evened with him, wife for wife” (457, 2.1.285-86). He even has the same suspicion of Cassio – “For I fear Cassio with my nightcap, too” (457, 2.1.294). An ambitious man, Iago envies and opposes anyone who stands above him. Perhaps that is the ultimate reason for his villainy.

Act 2, Scene 3. (457-65, Cassio dismissed, Iago moves forwards with his scheme)

Enter Othello the honor-absolutist to render judgment. Iago plays Othello like a fiddle, and the final lyrics are, “Cassio, I love thee, / But never more be officer of mine” (462, 2.3.231-32). Now Iago advances his diabolical scheme (463, 2.3.291ff) to advance Cassio’s suit by Desdemona’s pleading. Iago delights in his own equivocations, and triumphantly remarks, “So will I turn her virtue into pitch, / And out of her own goodness make the net / That shall enmesh them all” (464, 2.3.334-36).

Act 3, Scenes 1-2. (465-66, Desdemona takes Cassio’s part)

Emilia reports that Desdemona is making headway on Cassio’s suit: “The Moor replies / That he you hurt is of great fame in Cyprus… / But he protests he loves you… (466, 3.1.42-45).

Act 3, Scene 3. (466-77, Iago sows doubt, turns Othello against Desdemona)

While Iago and Othello look on from a distance, Desdemona promises to continue with Cassio’s suit to Othello (466-67, 3.3.20-22). She converses with Othello to great effect: “I will deny thee nothing” says Othello, and when she leaves, “Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul / But I do love thee, and when I love thee not, / Chaos is come again” (468, 3.3.77, 3.3.91-93). Chaos is Iago’s decreative aim, and he immediately begins to set doubts in Othello’s mind: “Did Michael Cassio, when you wooed my lady, / Know of your love?” (468, 3.3.96-97) Cassio’s earlier usefulness as go-between in Othello’s romancing of Desdemona now plays against him.

We should hear alarm bells in Othello’s admission of his great fondness for Desdemona: once Othello begins to suspect, he will be thrown off balance until the end. Iago makes the Moor draw “the truth” from him, and reinforces the Othello-principle that we must all be what we appear to be: “Men should be what they seem, / Or those that be not, would they might seem none!” (469, 3.3.132-33) Iago knows that Othello lacks (to borrow from Keats’ letters) “negative capability”—he can’t exist for an extended time in the midst of uncertainty. If there’s a problem, it must be dealt with presently, not left to fester. Othello is the kind of military man who insists on gathering hard evidence and rendering a firm decision, court-martial style, the way he judged Cassio. His lack of knowledge about Venetian mores and subtlety (an English stereotype for the Italians generally—subtle, devious, sly) makes him anxious, easy prey to the overblown trifles in which Iago trades, and very susceptible to the honest-sounding counsel his deceiver offers: “O, beware, my lord, of jealousy? / It is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock / The meat it feeds on” (470, 3.3.169-71). Othello insists his trust in Desdemona and in himself is great: “she had eyes and chose me. No, Iago / I’ll see before I doubt; when I doubt, proof; / And on the proof… / Away at once with love or jealousy” (470, 3.3.193-96).

But Othello is older than Desdemona, and he is black: facts Iago exploits brutally and masterfully (471, 3.3.233-43). Othello now seems uncertain that his charm and rhetorical skill can hold his wife’s loyalty. Iago has already told him, “In Venice they do let (God) see the pranks / They dare not show their husbands” (471, 3.3.206-09). Generalized virtues can’t trump knowledge of local culture, symbolism, and assumptions. Othello is classical tragedy: a good man is destroyed by his virtues. The play demonstrates how difficult mutual understanding between cultures can be. Othello comes round to a characteristically absolute statement: “If I do prove her haggard, / Though that her jesses were my dear heart-strings / I’d whistle her off and let her down the wind / To prey at fortune” (472, 3.3.264-67). Othello can’t reconcile his honor-ideal with the messy, ethically dubious world of Venice.

Shakespeare explores this rigid idealism often in his plays, and I believe he considers it a trap. For example, Brutus in Julius Caesar, or the title character in Coriolanus (as well as Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, since his so-called eastern extravagance is the obverse of strict Roman honor, and disables him from combating Octavius’ machinations), or comic idealizers such as Orlando in As You Like It. There are many shades of gray, nuances, roles a man or woman must play, imperfections and exigencies to deal with. Idealism is noble, but it is a disabling quality in a saucy, ever-changing world.

The handkerchief device and marriage vignette (in which Othello and Iago kneel and vow revenge) mark the height of Iago’s villainy. Disturbed while talking with Desdemona, Othello drops his wife’s handkerchief (473, 3.3.290ff); from there Emilia finds it and gives it to Iago, who then resolves, “I will in Cassio’s lodging lose this napkin, / And let him find it. Trifles light as air…” (473, 3.3.325-28). At next meeting, Othello is mad with jealous rage: “Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore” (474, 3.3.364-65). He demands absolute proof, as the uncertainty has become intolerable: “I think my wife be honest, and think she is not” (475, 3.3.389ff). So the fact that Cassio has been seen to “wipe his beard” (476, 3.3.444) with Desdemona’s handkerchief drives Othello to distraction. Iago kneels and swears undying fealty to Othello (476-77), and his damnation consists in swearing by Christian symbols to do the devil’s work. His words are pious, but his intentions transform them into the markers of a black mass. Perhaps there’s irony in his swearing by “yon marble heaven” (476, 3.3.463) since the audience may see him swear by a painted image of the sky. Iago has become Othello’s lieutenant, and is engaged to murder Cassio while Othello plans Desdemona’s demise.

Act 3, Scene 4. (477-81, The Handkerchief! Emilia and Desdemona ponder cause)

Othello expects the same romantic extravagance from Desdemona as he lavishes upon her: the handkerchief, he tells her, is an emblem of the romantic magic, the charm, that underlies his erotic fidelity. Its loss is catastrophic now that it has come to symbolize her chaste loyalty. (478, 3.4.53ff) Othello is a romantic idealist as well as a military idealist. A version of the handkerchief’s history: it was given him by his mother, who got it from a female Egyptian sorcerer, and its possession guarantees loyalty in love. Its fatal consequentiality is further underscored by the claim that it was “dyed in mummy, which the skilful / Conserved of maidens’ hearts” (478, 3.4.73-74; later, he will claim his father gave it to his mother: see 5.2.224.) Desdemona is forced to dissemble (479), while Othello’s vocabulary moves towards perfect accord with his obsession: “the handkerchief!” repeated several times. (479, 3.4.90ff) Desdemona and Emilia ponder this strange behavior on Othello’s part (480, 3.4.137ff). Michael Cassio closes the scene by asking his girlfriend Bianca to make a copy of the handkerchief because he wants the pattern before he returns it to the owner.

Act 4, Scene 1. (481-88, Othello rages over Cassio and Iago’s talk, strikes Desdemona)

Othello, already driven into an epileptic fit at the loss of the handkerchief (482b, 4.1.41), will now be subjected to one further supposed proof: Iago engages Cassio in a conversation that Othello takes for lewd and contemptuous talk about Desdemona when in fact Cassio is only making jests about his relationship with Bianca (483, 4.1.79ff, 484-85). Bianca brings in the handkerchief (485, 4.1.143ff), making Othello think Cassio has given it to her out of contempt for Desdemona. Othello sees this spectacle and becomes deranged with contradictory impulses: “O Iago, the pity of it, Iago!” and “I will chop her into messes. Cuckold me!” (486, 4.1.186, 190) Iago comes up with the idea of strangling her in her “contaminated” bed. (486, 4.1.197-98) When he strikes Desdemona (487, 4.1.235ff), Lodovico, who has come with a letter announcing that Cassio has been installed in Othello’s place as commander in Cyprus, is there to see it. He assumes Othello is an abusive husband.

Act 4, Scene 2. (488-93, Desdemona tries to defend herself, Othello unmovable)

Although Desdemona has shown some Venetian subtlety, piety and honesty are the hallmarks of her character. But Othello has been warped into taking signs of virtue for their opposite: evidence of whoredom and cunning. From now on, everything she says “can and will be used against her”; she is under arrest without even knowing it. Her self-defense (489-90), while moving, is rather feeble: “By heaven, you do me wrong” and “No, as I am a Christian” (490, 4.2.83, 85). Simply being accused of certain offenses (such as adultery) so strips a person of others’ good opinion that it’s tantamount to conviction: guilty until proven innocent. (One thinks of Kafka’s The Trial or the trials of 1984—to come under suspicion is already to have no identity except that constituted by one’s presumed malefactions.) It’s common in Renaissance plays for virtuous characters to prove themselves helpless when abused by the wicked and the cunning. If your name is something like “Bonario,” as is the case for a good character in Ben Jonson’s Volpone, look out!

Emilia, Iago and Desdemona hash out the sorry state of affairs – Emilia’s enraged: “The Moor’s abused by some most villainous knave…” (491, 4.2.143ff), Iago unctuously in false accord, and Desdemona prayerful, saying, “If e’er my will did trespass ‘gainst his love … / Comfort forswear me” (491, 4.2.156ff).

Then Iago continues his work on the already angry Roderigo, egging him on to murder Cassio and thereby keep Othello in Cyprus, along with Desdemona. (492-493)

Act 4, Scene 3. (493-95, Emilia’s strength, Desdemona’s loyalty)

While Desdemona can only sing a sad song of frustrated love (“Willow, willow” 494, 4.3.38ff), Emilia proves more capable. A fit opponent for her husband, Emilia tries to temper Desdemona’s moral absolutism, which rivals that of Othello: advocating female adultery, Emilia argues, “I do think it is their husbands’ faults / If wives do fall” (495, 4.3.84-85). Desdemona’s reply is a declaration of loyalty to Othello (495, 4.3.76-77), an attitude she will maintain even as Othello strangles her. Emilia’s bawdy pronouncements on gender relations are the stuff of Shakespearian comedy (one thinks of Portia and Nerissa’s “ring scheme” in The Merchant of Venice), but here they only deepen the sense of impending tragedy.

Innocence can seldom defend itself as eloquently or convincingly as evil can, even when the innocent person is as intelligent as Desdemona. One remembers Yeats’ line in “The Second Coming” that “the best lack all conviction” while “the worst are full of passionate intensity.” In Shakespeare, it isn’t usually true that the best people lack conviction—what they sometimes lack (consider Cordelia in King Lear as an example to set beside Desdemona) is the right phrase, the moxy to take advantage of opportunities to advance their good cause. And even if our good folks have considerable linguistic capacity and courage, the disposition we call “goodness” seldom, if ever, gains by rhetorical sleight—the problem seems intractable. Lear’s daughter Cordelia may be a bit stiff and clumsy as a speaker, but we all feel the rightness of her lament, “What shall poor Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.” Or consider Machiavelli’s characterization of the problem: to paraphrase what he writes in Il Principe, “those who try to be virtuous in all things must come to grief among so many who aren’t virtuous.”

Act 5, Scene 1. (495-98, Cassio wounded by Iago, who then silences Roderigo)

Iago arranges for Roderigo to kill Cassio, but the bungler only manages to wound Cassio in the leg, and Iago stabs Roderigo to death lest he blab the truth. (495-97) Othello applauds from above: “Thou teachest me. Minion, your dear lies dead, / And your unblessed fate hies” (496, 5.1.34-35). Iago insistently blames Bianca for the entire ruckus. (498)

Act 5, Scene 2. (498-507 end, Othello smothers Desdemona, dies on own terms)

Othello resolves to kill Desdemona softly: “I’ll not shed her blood, / Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow, / …Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men” (498, 5.2.3-6). Desdemona attempts to defend herself from Othello’s crazed accusations and calls to beg forgiveness of God, but there’s no chance of success, and he smothers her (499-501) in two successive bouts. When Emilia enters, Desdemona’s dying words amount to an attempt to remove all blame from Othello: “Commend me to my kind lord” (501, 5.2.134).

Othello initially wrangles with Emilia and engages in some waffling and denial: “You heard her say herself it was not I” (501, 5.2.136). But the truth comes out in short order, and Othello infuriates Emilia by accusing Desdemona of adultery, thanks to Iago’s information. (502, 5.2.148ff) Things move quickly: Iago mortally wounds Emilia for revealing the truth about that fatal handkerchief (504) and Othello wounds Iago, who will not speak further about his motives for working so much misery: “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know” (505, 5.2.309). At last, with whatever small weapon remains to him – he had been stripped of his sword a bit earlier — Othello makes himself an example in all strictness, preempting Venetian justice (In Cinthio’s Hecatommithi, Othello escapes, only to die shamefully later.) Othello bills himself extravagantly as a man who “loved not wisely but too well” (506, 5.2.353). His eloquence and elegance reassert themselves in his final struggle. Othello’s death seems right since his words and manner, as he understands, cannot make up for the destruction of a faithful wife. His epigrammatic self-description indicates a desire to control others’ interpretations of his downfall; perhaps that’s a tragic hero’s right (see Hamlet’s plea that Horatio should tell his story), but the ending remains disturbing. Othello had twice let loose the question, “Ha, ha, false to me?” (3.3.338, 4.1.190) as if especially incredulous that he should suffer the indignity of betrayal. My sympathy goes to Desdemona, not to Othello, in spite of his sincere horror at what Iago’s treachery has led him to do.

How should we assess Othello as a tragic hero? The moral quality of Shakespeare’s protagonists varies: Richard III is an effervescent villain, Macbeth an introspective man who appreciates from the outset the full evil of the path to power he contemplates; Brutus and Cassius betray dueling motives against Julius Caesar, noble and base; Romeo and Juliet die because of pitiable misunderstandings rather than grievous faults; King Lear is brought down in part by a fundamental confusion between his public and private selves; Hamlet the revenger undergoes strange alternations of stricken dawdling and rashness, Coriolanus isolates and debases himself in his patrician rage, etc.

Othello takes his place alongside them all, a warrior who becomes the victim of his own deeply ingrained all-or-nothing attitude towards everything and everyone, an exotic other who is the victim of cultural misunderstandings that put him at the mercy of subtle Iago. As I mentioned earlier, Othello’s fall from grace seems classical in that he is laid low and commits his deadly errors because of his noblest qualities: a soldierly, unwavering commitment to right conduct, fidelity and truth. His absolute generosity of spirit towards Desdemona, once put in question by Iago, gives way to cruel resolution and a refusal even to hear “the accused’s” honest plea. It may be that what underlies Othello’s downfall is in part the basic fact that if we turn heroic absolutist values over and view their obverse, what we will find is an equally strong counter-sentiment or counter-anxiety against which the heroic code is posited. Only those who act from some level of awareness of this unsettling relationship have any real chance of success: they are not so likely as others to be trapped by the productions of their own heart and imagination. Othello, it seems to me, lacks that awareness and never – not even after the worst is known and all lies exposed before him – shows an ability to mediate between the ideal and the anxiety that both underwrites and threatens it. Ideals are necessary and noble, but they’re also potentially lethal: “handle with care,” this play seems to advise us.

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

King Lear

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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Shakespeare, William. King Lear. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 739-823).

Act 1, Scene 1. (739-46, Lear’s plan, daughters’ contest, Kent’s exile) 

Kent and Gloucester agree that it seemed most likely the King would favor Albany over Cornwall. But now they aren’t so certain, so the play opens with a note of uncertainty that becomes ominous later when we realize how much better a person (739, 1.1.1-2, 740, 1.1.18-23) Albany is compared to Cornwall. This is a new, strange state of affairs, in which merit must demonstrate itself by means of rhetorical skill. Gloucester says his legal son is no dearer to him than the illegitimate Edmund. Lear enters, saying that he has decided to divide his kingdom into thirds, and “shake all cares and business” for the remainder of his life. His declared intention is to “prevent future strife” and to confer royal authority on “younger strengths” (740, 1.1.34-43). He means to assist the process of generational renewal, passing on matters of state to younger and more energetic kin while “preventing future strife” and leaving himself the private space necessary to practice the art of dying well, ars moriendi. Each daughter will receive a third; the only question is how opulent that portion will be.

The question of authority is a main item in King Lear. Kent may be responding in part to the King’s unwise disparagement of Cordelia on the spot, but his line “Reverse thy doom / . . . check / This hideous rashness” (742, 1.1.149-51) may owe something to his shock at the notion of an absolute king’s decision to divest himself of his unitary power, keeping only the name and perks of authority. I don’t know that there’s a coherent political theory during Shakespeare’s time; I would only suggest that Lear is confused because he goes off on a private mission while at the same time trying to retain symbols that he confuses with power itself. This is not to say that Shakespeare is criticizing monarchy per se, but I believe he’s always aware that no human system is perfect (not even one that claims divine sanction). The questions are, what are the consequences when things go wrong with social and political systems, and what happens when they go right?

It’s true that the King’s “natural body” is wearing down, and one can feel only empathy for him on that account, but what about the King’s political body, the one that isn’t capable of death? Can he actually abandon his responsibilities the way he does, without causing a disaster? What has he given up? He has given up the “power, / Pre-eminence, and all the large effects / That troop with majesty” (742, 1.1.130-32). Another way of stating this is that he has ceded the “sway, revenue, execution of the rest” (742, 1.1.137) aside from what he retains, which he specifies as “The name, and all the additions to a king” (742, 1.1.136), which additions are to be embodied in the person of the stipulated “hundred knights” (742, 1.1.133). Lear makes a distinction between the name and pomp of kingship and the executive, effectual power of a king. So we might ask, how does he expect to give away all his power and yet hold on to the “addition” of a king? Do the symbols, privileges and name mean anything, apart from the power wielded by those who claim them?

With respect to Cordelia, Regan and Goneril, what does Lear want? He wants a public declaration of their affection for him as a loving father. The public and private in Renaissance kingship were of course inextricable; royal absolutism of King James’ sort always made hay of the idea that the King was “the father of his people,” and James’ model was the scriptural patriarchs. He believed that his subjects owed him the reverence due to such a father. In practice, as I’m sure Shakespeare understood, the intertwining of public and private in powerful families makes for a great deal of coldness, sterility, and alienation, even in settings beyond the monarchy: read biographies of some of our presidents and the modern royal family of Great Britain, and you’ll hear a tale that is at times painful to read: mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters for the most part looking on at the spectacle of one another’s lives, never knowing what to consider acting and what to accept as real, and finding it difficult to sort out personal loyalties from official duties and the demands of power.

Well, Lear has no trouble demanding in the form of public spectacle what would for most families be a purely private display of affection. Perhaps this isn’t entirely unreasonable on his part. Neither are Goneril and Regan necessarily to be blamed for giving the old man what he wants; they know his nature, and this is the sort of thing they have come to expect from him. The point is that he’s the king, and he finds this public display of affection necessary. Why can’t Cordelia do something even better than did Regan and Goneril, bearing with her father and making a generous allowance for his weaknesses? Isn’t it sometimes acceptable to be a little insincere when regard for another person’s feelings requires it? But she won’t work at it, and even if there’s an austere beauty in the figure of Cordelia speaking truth to power, it’s fair to suggest that she is in her way as brittle and abrupt or absolute in her temperament as her frail old father: “Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth” (741, 1.1.90-91). She can’t verbally express the genuine affection she feels for Lear. Cordelia isn’t capable of flattery; she lacks Prince Hal’s ability to say to a joker like Falstaff, “if a lie may do thee grace, / I’ll gild it with the happiest terms I have” (5.4 I Henry IV), at least for a while. Learning to be a good ruler involves a some play-acting and feigning to be what one is not. Cordelia sees both monarchy and marriage as consisting of specifiable bonds or reciprocal obligations. So when Lear demands that she declare her “love,” she understands the term in something like the sense of “obligation, duty, attention.” Obviously, a woman who marries must balance her duties as a wife with her duties as a loyal daughter; she cannot love her father altogether and spend all her time with him.

But it may be that Lear’s demand isn’t as all-encompassing as she supposes, and it’s fair to ask how someone like Cordelia could rule a kingdom if she is incapable of getting beyond the king’s simple request for affectionate flattery. As Regan later says, “‘Tis the infirmity of his age, yet he hath ever but slenderly known himself” (746, 1.1.291-92), and Goneril chimes in with “The best and soundest of his time hath been but rash” (746, 1.1.293); both daughters see that Lear is being somewhat absurd, but they aren’t surprised and are willing to gratify him, especially given the great reward he is offering for so little. But so as not to make them seem generous, which we know they aren’t, Goneril admits to knowing the King’s casting off of Cordelia is unfair; it shows, in her words, “poor judgment” (746, 1.1.289). Rashness is a charge commonly made against Lear, one made by Kent and two of his daughters. And those two daughters correctly recognize, I think, that the King’s unkindness towards Cordelia represents a threat to them as well: “if our father carry authority with such dis- / position as he bears, this last surrender of his will but / offend us” (746, 1.1.301-03). The King’s surrender, they understand, is not really a surrender but a shifting of responsibility, and he will continue to play the tyrant, taking his stand upon the privilege of majesty and great age.

As for the question of whether power can be divested and divided, well, I suppose a monarch can do these things, and there are historical precedents for it from ancient Rome onwards, but it seldom seems to work. Almost nothing goes the way Lear thinks it’s going to go, once he gives away what was formerly his power to wield alone: in the first place, he had thought Albany and Cornwall would be in charge of their respective thirds, but as it turns out, neither man can stand up to those two strong-willed daughters. It is Regan and Goneril who immediately take charge of state affairs. Moreover, Lear’s conduct after giving away power is anything but responsible: he charges about with his hundred knights behaving more or less like a “lord of misrule.” His presence with either daughter, it seems, would inevitably create a public perception that they are not in charge. Lear wants to retain far more authority than he has any business keeping, now that he has stepped aside to let those “younger strengths” do the hard work of governing and maintaining order.

Lear is partly a tragedy about the terrors of growing old, of feeling slighted, neglected, weak, and useless as you make way for the young. Knowing that you must do so doesn’t necessarily make doing it any easier. In this way, it’s true that in King Lear as in other of Shakespeare’s plays that involve monarchy, “a king is but a man.” This somewhat broader frame probably accounts for the fairy-tale quality of the play. We see the disintegration of a “foolish, fond old man” (802, 4.7.61) who evidently doesn’t understand the nature of genuine affection or the nature of the power he has been wielding for many of his eighty or so years. Cordelia, too, may appear as something like a Cinderella figure: surrounded by a pair of evil sisters, she cannot make her inner virtue known to the powerful, shallow authorities who determine her fate. Well, at least the King of France is able to discern the purity of Cordelia’s virtue, discounting her lack of Machiavellian wiles (745, 1.1.251-54).

Banished Kent will pursue his “old course in a country new” (743, 1.1.188). As it turns out, the “country new” is Britain. Lear’s refusal of responsibility has created a new dispensation of power, radically transforming the nation into a cauldron of anarchy and selfish desire for satisfaction and advancement.

Act 1, Scene 2. (746-50, Edmund: “Thou, Nature, art my goddess”; dupes father, brother) 

This scene begins with Edmund’s soliloquy (746-47, 1.2.1-22), the upshot of which is that Edmund believes he has all the right qualities to rule his own house, and lacks only “legitimacy”; by contrast, the King has given all his power away and expects to hang on to his legitimacy. He stands upon rank as if it in itself constituted inner virtue or fitness to rule, whereas Edmund sees this legitimacy as a function of mere custom, of “the curiosity of nations” (746-47, 1.2.4). Yet as this same soliloquy reveals, Edmund is nearly obsessed with what others think of him; he repeats the word “legitimate” several times, and can’t seem to let it go. We will see that later on, his undoing will stem from this concern for that which he seems most to despise. A most unhealthy selfishness—”I grow; I prosper” (747, 1.2.21)—also drives him on first to victory and then to destruction. Edmund demands that the gods ally themselves not with custom but rather with natural qualities and ripeness for rule. Old Gloucester his been taken aback by the King’s strange behavior, which to him seems unnatural—this view makes him susceptible to the scheming of his illegitimate son. In a world turned upside down, what could make more sense than that a man’s legitimate son and heir should betray him without compunction, all appearances of goodness and history of virtue between the two notwithstanding? Edmund declares his father’s belief in astrology “the excellent foppery of the world” (748, 1.2.109) and insists, “All with me’s meet that I can fashion fit” (750, 1.2.168). He will trust in his dark vision of nature as a place that rewards the most savage and cunning predator. Tennyson (who before composing In Memoriam had become acquainted with the work of Sir Charles Lyell and other pre-Darwinian natural scientists) described this kind of nature as “red in tooth and claw.” Edmund is a human predator, and thanks to Lear, he now has an opportunity to use his predatory skill to remake a formerly stable, human order into one that suits him best. Lear hasn’t made him what he is, but he has given him an opening to thrive. If legitimate authority doesn’t know itself, this is what happens. Perhaps, in terms of political theory, Lear early in the play assumes too easily that there is an automatic connection or concordance between the two “bodies” of a king—the perishing and erring mortal one and the immortal and immaterial political or corporate one: he follows his desires, makes unwise decisions, and then is surprised to find that his decisions as an erring human being have deranged his kingdom. Others in this play see more clearly the Machiavellian point that the exercise of power generates an authority all its own.

Act 1, Scene 3. (750-750, Goneril grows impatient, sets Oswald to call Lear’s bluff) 

Goneril is alarmed at the King’s disorderly conduct. At line six, she complains that “his knights grow riotous” (750, 1.3.6), and devises a stratagem whereby Oswald will make the King feel the weakness of his position by slighting him. Goneril gets to the heart of Lear’s error when she calls him an “Idle old man, / That still would manage those authorities / That he hath given away! (750, 1.3.16-18)

Act 1, Scene 4. (750-57, Kent; Fool judges Lear; Lear’s anger at Goneril, self-questioning) 

Kent begins to serve the King, professing to the old man that he really is what he seems to be—a trusty middle-aged servant who knows authority when he sees it, which quality he says he “would fain call master” (751, 1.4.27). Evidently he sees this quality in the visage of Lear, even if Lear has lost command of himself. The Fool, we are soon told, has “much pined away” (752, 1.4.63-54) since Cordelia went to France. He is Cordelia’s ally. Kent earns his keep by giving Oswald a rough education in rank, or “differences” (752, 1.4.76). Lear’s own words begin to speak against him: he had said to Cordelia, “nothing will come of nothing,” and now the Fool responds to a similar utterance (“nothing can be made of nothing”), “so much the rent / of his land comes to” (753, 1.4.115-16). Lear has given away not only the executive function of his office, but even the title, according to the Fool, and now retains only the title of “fool” that he was born with. The Fool says the King split his crown in two and gave it to his daughters (754, 1.4.163-64); the implication of this remark is that power is indivisible and cannot be handled in this way. “[T]hou gavest them the rod and put’st / down thine own breeches” (754, 1.4.150-51), says the Fool, drawing a clear picture of Lear’s childishness. He applies the word “nothing” to the King (754, 1.4.169), and this application may remind us of Hamlet’s similar mockery—”the king is a thing,” says Hamlet, “of nothing” (394, 4.1.25-27). Like Lear, too, Hamlet is confronted with the inevitable downward slide of even the greatest to what is most common: “Imperial Caesar, dead and turned to clay, / Might stop a hole to keep the wind away,” as the Prince says (Norton Tragedies 412, 5.1.196-97).

Lear soon begins to ask key questions about identity. ”Are you our daughter?” he asks Goneril (755, 1.4.193), and she tells him to “put away / These dispositions which of late transport you / From what you rightly are” (755, 1.4.196-98). Finally, the exasperated Lear asks, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (755, 1.4.205) and is answered by the Fool with “Lear’s shadow” (755, 1.4.205). When Goneril tells him he ought to be surrounded by men who sort well with his age-weakened condition, Lear swears her off altogether, and suggests that Cordelia’s brittle response to his demand for love has deprived him of his proper judgment (756, 1.4.243-446). His judgment of Goneril that she should, as he does now, “feel / How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / To have a thankless child” (756, 1.4.265-66) identifies what he believes to be the source of his troubles. But the question of proportion now comes into play because what Goneril has done far outstrips anything Cordelia may have done to offend the King.

The first mention of “plucking out eyes” occurs when Lear addresses Goneril as follows: “Old fond eyes, / Beweep this cause again, I’ll pluck ye out, / And cast you, with the waters that you lose, / To temper clay. Yea, is it come to this?” (756, 1.4.278-81) Lear now transfers his stock to Regan, and threatens to reassume the majesty he has cast off. At 341, Goneril refers to her husband Albany’s “milky gentleness” (757, 1.4.320) as ill-suited to the times; his sententiae, such as “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well” (757, 1.4.325), don’t bode well for his ability to manage power, as far as she is concerned. They seem more like passive judgments than active principles by which a kingdom could be governed.

Act 1, Scene 5. (758-59, Lear begins to see his error, rages against Goneril, fears madness) 

Lear sends Kent to Gloucester with letters. He begins to see that he has done Cordelia wrong (758, 1.4.20), and his anger shifts to Goneril and her “Monster ingratitude” (758, 1.5.33). The Fool points out something Goneril had said earlier: “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise” (758, 1.5.37). Lear is out of joint with the seven ages of man—he has never really attained to years of wise discretion and so is unprepared to practice the art of dying as he proclaimed at the play’s beginning, and now he fears madness (758, 1.4.38). His kingdom is paying the price.

Act 2, Scene 1. (759-61, Edgar driven out, Edmund in with Gloucester, Cornwall) 

Edmund completes his villainy against Edgar, driving him away (759, 2.1.20-32), and by the end of the scene, Gloucester has made Edmund his heir (760, 85-86). Regan insinuates that Edgar was associated with the “riotous knights” in Lear’s service, a claim that Edmund seconds. Cornwall takes a liking to Edmund for his “virtuous obedience” (761, 2.1.111-17). The affinities of the wicked in this play are beginning to make themselves known, as if the bad characters come together by nature.

Act 2, Scene 2. (762-65, Kent abuses Oswald, gets stocked; Cordelia knows king’s distress) 

This is a counterpoint-style scene in which Kent recognizes Oswald for the knave he is, unlike Gloucester with his evil son Edmund. Kent’s putdown “Nature disclaims in thee: / a tailor made thee” (762, 2.2.48) is a classic—Oswald is, after all, a man of artifice who gilds the ugly, base version of nature upheld by Edmund, Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall. But Kent as “Caius” gets himself into a bad fix in this scene when he finds it impossible to explain his hatred for Oswald to Cornwall (763, 2.2.64ff), who takes him for an arrogant and affected inferior, a man who has learned to get praise for his “saucy roughness” (765, 2.2.89). Cornwall for once takes the lead, ordering that the stocks be brought (764, 2.2.117). Gloucester can’t help (765). While in the stocks, Kent mentions that he has a letter from Cordelia—she is aware of the King’s distress (765, 2.2.156-58).

Act 2, Scene 3. (766-766, Exiled Edgar takes on “Poor Tom” disguise) 

Here Edgar disguises himself as Poor Tom the Bedlam Beggar, who will “with presented nakedness outface / The winds and persecutions of the sky” (766, 2.3.11-12). For this role, he says, “The country gives me proof and precedent” (766, 2.3.13). His model of the natural man comes from neglected humanity in the English countryside; it is hardly a mere invention on his part. Poor Tom is not a mere negation when he says, “Edgar I nothing am” (766, 2.3.21), which means “I am no longer Edgar.” Poor Tom will be the “something” that rescues Edgar from the “nothing” forced upon him, and that serves as “precedent” to Lear in the storm.

Act 2, Scene 4. (766-73, Ineffectual Lear stripped of knights, shut out) 

Lear is outraged when he sees Kent in the stocks, and becomes increasingly obsessed with this slight as the scene continues. He is sensitive to the shift in tone of his keepers—Gloucester’s ill-chosen remark that Cornwall has been “inform’d” of his demands drives him to an incredulous, “Dost thou understand me, man?” (768, 2.4.93) But his summons to Regan and Cornwall sounds pathetic by this point: “Bid them come forth and hear me, / Or at their chamber-door I’ll beat the drum / Till it cry sleep to death” (769, 2.4.111-13). This intemperance earns him only the Fool’s mocking tale about the cockney woman’s attempt to quiet live eels as she made them into pie (769, 2.4.116-19). Lear is at the mercy of his passions, which have no outlet in action. Suffering is inevitable, suggests the Fool’s wisdom.

Turning to Regan for comfort, Lear gets only the following counsel: O sir, you are old, / Nature in you stands on the very verge / Of his confine. You should be rul’d and led / By some discretion that discerns your state / Better than you yourself. Therefore I pray you / That to our sister you do make return” (769, 2.4.139-44). It would be difficult to strip an elderly man of his dignity any more cruelly than this, and already we may begin to sense the change in attitude that marks a leap beyond ordinary meanness to the “hard hearts” beyond anything we had thought possible in nature—the transition Lear asks about later (see 783, 3.6.70-72). For now, Lear still believes there is a world of difference between Regan and Goneril: “Thou better know’st / The offices of nature, bond of childhood, / Effects of courtesy, dues of gratitude: / Thy half o’ th’ kingdom hast thou not forgot, / Wherein I thee endow’d” (770, 2.4.171-75). The phrase “offices of nature” indicates that to Lear, nature is something civil and beneficent—it is to be identified with the properly functioning family unit.

But Regan’s request is along the same lines as her previous remark: “I pray you, father, being weak, seem so” (771, 2.4.196). Then comes the reverse bidding war between Regan and Goneril over the number of knights Lear is to be allowed, ending with Regan’s question, “What need one?” (772, 2.4.258) Lear offers them a remarkable comeback: “O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars / Are in the poorest thing superfluous. / Allow not nature more than nature needs, / Man’s life is cheap as beast’s” (772, 2.4.259-62). Humanity must not, he insists, be reduced to natural necessity; we are creatures of excess, artifice, and, symbol. Nature as a concept enfolds all of these qualities. It is not to be sundered from decorum, either. Then Lear offers a contradictory prayer to the gods, asking for both patience and anger. He is soon to rage in the storm (mentioned in the stage directions as “storm and tempest” after 772, 2.4.281), but for the moment he denounces his two present daughters as “unnatural hags” and declares almost comically, “I will do such things— / What they are yet I know not; but they shall be / The terrors of the earth!” (772, 2.4.273-78) Regan’s cruel sententia to worried Gloucester is her justification for exiling Lear into the storm: “O sir, to wilful men / The injuries that they themselves procure / Must be their schoolmasters. Shut up your doors” (773, 2.4.297-99).

It’s true enough that the unwise learn, if at all, only by sad experience—perhaps that is a fundamental point in Christian-based tragedy—but mere decency should have been enough to instruct Regan that this is not the time for such sententiousness. Her cruel excess (along with that of Edmund, Goneril, and Cornwall) is the demonic inverse of the generous excess Lear had invoked in exclaiming, “O, reason not the need!” The play affords scant opportunity for finding any middle ground between these two extremes—between that which is almost infinitely above nature and that which is a great deal more savage than nature. The patience and acceptance that Edgar will counsel Gloucester and that loyal Kent has been practicing goes some way towards building a bridge, but the outcome of their efforts is not heartening.

In Act 2, families are sundered, and like affines itself with like, both indoors and out of doors. Lear has brought up the issue of the heavens—which side will the gods take in this great confrontation between house and house, between one group of sinners (himself included) and another, far worse, group? (770, 2.4.184-87)

Diagram that may be useful for exploring the source of the tragedy that occurs in King Lear: 

Lear’s “O, reason not the need!” outburst in Act 2, Scene 4 offers us an excellent opportunity to understand what goes wrong and why; the king may be telling us something that’s more important than he fully recognizes.  Shakespeare seldom, if ever, sanctions reducing humanity to “need” (i.e. mere necessity) or some bedrock version of “human nature.” Humans are the artificial animals: there’s always excess to deal with, and that can be either a good thing or a bad thing.  The decisions we make are mostly responsible for which path of excess we take.  Here are the two tracks human nature can follow, as I draw them from general reading of Shakespeare:

Basic Tendency (familial ties, sympathy, acceptance) + generous excess >>  sustainable society

excess = accommodation of others’ frailties & eccentricities & modes of insight, linguistic sophistication & play, fancifulness, adornment within reason, regard for decorum and civility, etc. 

Basic Tendency (self-regard, dissatisfaction) + cruel excess >>  unsustainable anarchy 

excess = predation: taking advantage of the gentle or weak, intolerance, insistence on maintaining authority, linguistic impoverishment and literalism of imagination, disregard for decorum and civility of any kind, etc.

In King Lear, the initial mistake the king makes is to abandon the work of accommodation or mediation that makes it possible to keep the balance towards generous excess.  Lear and Cordelia together generate the play’s tragic descent: Cordelia is fundamentally kind, but she is too brittle and earnest to flatter her father, and he in turn is too vain and shallow to understand why she cannot give him the public performance he requires; there’s nothing left in between, and we head straight down to anarchy, a cauldron of primal lust for sex, attention, and power in which only characters like Edmund, Goneril, Regan and Cornwall thrive while others are crushed.  We could say that Cordelia’s basic failure to accommodate her father’s frailty and desire, her lack of linguistic playfulness, drives Lear to a response that borders on the cruel excess we find in the play’s much worse characters: disappointed to the point of mortification, he lashes out against Cordelia and disinherits her on the spot.  His conduct is only excusable to the extent that it stems not from deep depravity or hatred but rather from ignorance of himself and those closest to him: Cordelia’s incapacity mirrors his own, but he can’t make the connection and, in his enfeebled, confused state, Lear’s most beloved daughter’s behavior frightens and enrages him.

Act 3, Scene 1. (773-74, Who’s tending Lear? Albany/Cornwall fall out) 

Kent’s question when Lear is abandoned to the “fretful elements” (773, 3.1.4) isn’t about grand political theory or power, it is simply about who is attending the frail old man: he should not, thinks Kent, be left alone and at the mercy of the weather. The Gentleman informs him that only the Fool is with Lear, “labour[ing] to outjest / His heart-struck injuries” (773, 3.1.116-17). That is a generous way of describing the Fool’s job in this play—we know him to be a teller of discomfiting truths, sometimes in a bitter way. But then, it isn’t comfort that brings characters insight in this play—that would not suit its tragic mode. Albany and Cornwall have fallen out by this time (773-74, 3.1.19-25), and both are following events in France. Kent excuses the King’s fall into madness unnatural, attributing it to the “bemadding sorrow” (774, 3.1.38) caused by Lear’s two evil daughters.

Act 3, Scenes 2, 4, 6. (774-84, Lear in Storm, Edgar “Thing Itself”; Mock Trial; Fool goes) 

In 3.2 and 3.4, the storm is clearly a metaphor for Lear’s internal discord, for the howling madness in the king himself. As the Fool has told him, he has turned his daughters into domineering mothers, and in a sense he has done the opposite of what he declared he wanted to do—recall that he said he was dividing the kingdom in part so he could go off and practice the art of dying well. His daughters were to exercise power while Lear would be free to “crawl towards death.” But instead the old man clings to life, trying desperately to maintain control and clinging to his dearest daughter Cordelia. Even after he has cast them all off, he remains obsessed with them. What we have in King Lear is in part the “tragedy” of growing old and being unable to deal with the changes and the loss that must come since, as Claudius in Hamlet says, reason’s constant law is “death of fathers” (343, 1.2.104) James Calderwood of UC Irvine, applying a philosophical thesis of Ernest Becker, wrote a book called Shakespeare and the Denial of Death. Lear is a death-denier in spite of his claims of willingness to accept his demise, and his daughters represent perpetuity to him. This denial may be in part what’s behind Lear’s raging in the storm, and even at the storm in a confused way, as he does in the utterance that begins, “I tax not you, you elements, with unkindness, / I never gave you kingdom, call’d you children …” (775, 3.2.15-23). 

As his rage rolls onward and takes aim at the “great gods, / That keep this dreadful potherer o’er our heads” (775, 3.2.47-48), his insight is summed up in the sentence, “I am a man / More sinned against than sinning” (776, 3.2.57-58). This broad realization seems to go beyond a specific grievance involving his treatment by Regan and Goneril; it sounds more like an indictment of the universe than anything else. With these words, Lear claims that he feels his “wits begin to turn” (776, 3.2.65), and shows compassion enough for Poor Tom to accept the offer of shelter, though he won’t go in for some time.

But as Lear’s angry conversation with the elements (as quoted above) suggests, the storm is also a natural phenomenon not entirely reducible to the King’s inner disharmony. In this capacity, it is beyond his control, just as the decay of his body is. He calls the storm the “physic” of pomp (778, 3.4.34), the only event and setting that allows him, as a half-naked octogenarian, to make contact with what is common to all human beings. He has learned something in this storm that exceeds his inward tempest: as is said in other Shakespeare plays, “the king is but a man” (Henry 5, 4.1) no matter what the courtiers or the lore of kings or the theory of kingship may say. But Lear isn’t alone for long in the tempest—the Fool is with him for a time (776, 3.2.78-93), as is Kent, and it’s the place where he meets Poor Tom. Such weather isn’t to be endured long. Nature is outdoing itself for ferocity.

In 3.4, Poor Tom plays a significant role with respect to Lear, who says to him, “Thou are the thing itself: unac- / commodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked / animal as thou art” (779, 3.4.98-100), the very lowest level to which a man may sink. Poor Tom attests to the rightness of Lear’s baring himself to the effects of the storm, but it isn’t good for a human being to be “out in the storm” permanently—shelter must be sought, we must return to a more “accommodated” model of humanity where we can abide. Poor Tom has already learned this himself (780, 3.4.135), and Lear, when he calls Edgar “the thing itself,” is in fact looking at a man’s artistic construction, a willed madness that he has probably begun to cast off even by that point, as indeed we see him declare forcefully at the end of 3.6: “Tom, away!” (784, 3.6.103) Lear doesn’t seem to understand Tom’s situation fully, but he learns from this supposed madman nonetheless.

In 3.6 (782-84) comes the great “trial scene,” with Lear, the Fool, and Poor Tom serving as judge and jury against some hapless joint stools enlisted to substitute for Regan and Goneril. The causes Lear derives for his misery, his lines are confused but also genuinely moving. He had been told he was no less than a god, and in the storm he has found that he’s just a miserable old man. He abandoned his only true identity when he cast off Cordelia. He keeps coming back to Regan and Goneril, those willful daughters who, he thinks, have done nothing but indulge their shameful lusts and follow their primal hunger for power. What sort of justice now prevails but a system of spiraling oppression and hypocrisy, one that he has loosed upon himself and others? Virtue at present is nothing more than a device to facilitate the evil now afoot. Lear’s horror at a degree of cruelty beyond what he had thought possible shows in the question that wells up from the bottom of his being towards the end of the mock trial: “Then let them anatomize Regan; see what breeds about / her heart. Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard / hearts?” (783, 3.6.70-72) When we have renounced our limits, what, if anything, can reestablish them again, aside from exhaustion unto death?

Act 3, Scenes 3, 5. (777, 781, Edmund betrays Gloucester, becomes earl) 

Edmund had said earlier, “Now Gods, stand up for bastards” (747, 1.2.22) He’s obsessed, understandably enough, with the distinction between baseness and legitimacy, between nature and convention. Now he seizes the opportunity Gloucester has given him for further betrayal—Edmund will tell Cornwall that Gloucester is going to help the king (777, 3.3.18-19; 781, 3.5.8-9). Lear unleashed Edmund upon the kingdom by his unwise actions and irrationality—indeed, Edmund is inevitable since, thanks to Lear, there seems to be nothing between anarchy and the generosity and tact that maintain human dignity and shore up the frailty of our nature. Shakespeare is apparently aware that human nature is not a given—it is something we must work at and maintain, and if we sink beneath it, we are worse than any violent predator in the animal kingdom since such predators don’t add superfluous cruelty to their bloody actions. Edmund is in full evildoer mode at present, but later he will find that he can’t permanently jettison the trappings of convention: security requires order, it requires something like a social contract.

Act 3, Scene 7. (784-87, Gloucester blinded and cast out, Cornwall wounded) 

In this scene, Gloucester is interrogated and then blinded. Gloucester’s bold justification of his secret trip to Dover in aid of the king is, “Because I would not see thy cruel nails / Pluck out his poor old eyes” (785, 3.7.57-58). To Gloucester, the phrase represents the worst thing he can imagine, and is purely metaphorical. Gloucester can hardly imagine their disrespect: “You are my guests. Do me no foul play, friends” (785, 3.7.31). Not so for Regan, who has been interrogating him, or for Goneril, who, in the presence of Regan, had already uttered her preference even before the current exchange: “Pluck out his eyes” (784, 3.7.5). For them, the literal punishment seems entirely appropriate. Sophocles didn’t want his audience to see Oedipus blind himself with those pins from the dress of his wife Jocasta—it was reported to the audience, but not shown. Shakespeare, however, serves up the sickening spectacle along with the unforgettable lines, “Out, vile jelly! / Where is thy lustre now?” (786, 3.7.85-86) This is the lowest point in the play, the nadir of cruelty into which Lear’s initial mistake made it possible for others to descend.

Act 4, Scene 1. (787-88, Suicidal Gloucester asks Poor Tom the way to Dover cliffs) 

Blinded Gloucester has abandoned any notion of a just moral order rooted in nature; he has understandably lost patience, and declares, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport” (787, 4.1.37-38). Edgar, who believes that the gods are just, must bring his father round to patience again, to acceptance of the predicament that his own foolishness has at least in part created (788, 4.1.57-63). But at this point, Gloucester seeks only death (788, 4.1.73-78).

Act 4, Scene 2. (788-91, Albany asserts himself, vows to avenge Gloucester) 

At last Albany asserts his own virtuous will against Goneril and her evil compatriots, telling her that she isn’t worth “the dust which the rude wind / Blows in your face” (789, 4.2.31-32). But Goneril doesn’t care what he thinks—she is too busy thinking passionate thoughts about her lover Edmund, the newly created Gloucester: : “O, the difference of man and man!” (789, 4.2.26). Albany is not to be gainsaid, however, and calls Goneril what she is: a “tiger” and a “fiend” (789, 4.2.41); he realizes that the anarchic violence she and her sister are participating must either be stopped or destroy the kingdom altogether: “Humanity must perforce prey on itself, / Like monsters of the deep” (790, 4.2.50-51).

Act 4, Scenes 3-4. (791-93, Kent muses, gathers info; Cordelia’s ready for battle) 

Kent hears news from a Gentleman about Cordelia’s actions and frame of mind, and Kent asserts the traditional view that “The stars above us, govern our conditions” (792, 4.3.32). Else how could such differences be between three sisters of the same king? Cordelia, meantime, is ready to take on the British whom she knows to be marching against her (793, 4.4.23-30). Kent is moving towards casting off his “Caius” disguise (792, 4.3.52-53).

Act 4, Scene 5. (793-94, Regan enlists Oswald in pursuit of Edmund’s affection) 

Regan shows her jealousy over Goneril’s desire for Edmund, and tries to enlist the fop Oswald on her side: “My lord is dead; Edmund and I have talk’d, / And more convenient is he for my hand / Than for your lady’s” (794, 4.5.31-33). Oswald is also told that he should, if possible, put the old “traitor” Gloucester out of his misery, lest he incite the people to compassion against her and her allies (794, 4.5.38-39).

Act 4, Scene 6. (794-800, Gloucester’s Fall; Lear’s insight: justice, authority, kill 6x! Gloucester affirms patience; Edgar kills Oswald) 

Gloucester had abandoned his virtuous son Edgar at the bidding of a knave. He was too willing to suppose that the world had been turned upside down, and his fear of betrayal made him most susceptible to it. Now Gloucester’s attitude verges on unacceptable despair as he implores Edgar to lead him to a Dover cliff where he may end his life. Edgar, dressed as a rustic but still Tom, does for him what Cordelia would not do for her father: he graces Gloucester’s way forwards with a lie, telling him, “You are now within a foot / Of th’ extreme verge” (794, 4.6.25-26). Some may take Edgar’s long maintenance of his rustic disguise as somewhat excessive, but in this play, extreme actions are sometimes required as homeopathic remedy for states of extreme error. That’s the kind of remedy the king’s rash behavior has helped to make necessary, although we shouldn’t blame him too harshly for others’ downward spiral into utter depravity. Regan, Goneril, Cornwall, and their ilk are responsible for their own misdeeds. There is some comedy in this scene since, of course, Gloucester’s fall is only onto the bare planks of the stage (795, 4.6.34-41). The old man’s fake descent turns out to be a fortunate fall since it persuades him to have patience even in his almost unbearable condition (796, 4.6.75-77).

In this newfound patience, Gloucester is confronted with a flower-decked Lear, who apparently hasn’t recovered his wits as well as he had thought. Edgar calls him “a side-piercing sight” (796, 4.6.85), adding a Christ-like aura to our vision of Lear as a suffering, dying, universal man. Lear asks if Gloucester is “Goneril with a white beard” (796, 4.6.95), and reproves his former ministers for their flattery: “they told me I was every thing. ‘Tis a lie, I am not ague-proof” (796, 4.6.102-03). Everywhere he looks, Lear sees demonic sexuality as the base of things: “Let copulation thrive” (796, 4.6.112), he bellows, and declares of women, “Down from the waist they are Centaurs” (797, 4.6.121). This rant culminates in a dark vision of systemic injustice and hypocrisy, beginning “[A] dog’s obeyed in office…” (797, 4.6.153, see 153-59). 

This is as strong a view as we find in William Blake’s “London”: “the chimney-sweeper’s cry / Every blackening church appals, / And the hapless soldier’s sigh / Runs in blood down palace-walls.” He has finally accepted the Fool’s old offer of the title “fool,” and his eloquence peters out in an exhausted, enraged repetition of the word “kill”: “And when I have stol’n upon these son-in-laws, / Then kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!” (798, 4.6.180-81)

Gloucester has gained patience (799, 4.6.211-13). The sixth scene ends with Edgar putting an end to the rascal Oswald, who has stumbled upon Gloucester alone and tried to kill him for the prize Regan has offered (799, 4.6.241-45). In Oswald’s purse he discovers Goneril’s treasonous letter to Edmund, imploring him to kill her virtuous husband Albany (800, 4.6.257-58).

Act 4, Scene 7. (800-02, Lear’s recognition, subdued i.d.-recovery, Cordelia’s generosity) 

Lear recovers his wits, and says to Cordelia, “Pray do not mock me. / I am a very foolish fond old man. . . . Methinks I should know you” (802, 4.7.61, 65). He fully understands the wrong he has done her—something he had begun to sense earlier, even as far back as (758, 1.5.20). Lear expects only hatred, but Cordelia mildly tells him there is “no cause” (802, 4.7.77) why she should hate him. Lear had to seek into the cause of his other daughters’ “hard hearts,” but for Cordelia’s loyalty, she is suggesting, he need not trouble himself to find the reason why. As Portia says in The Merchant of Venice Act 4, “The quality of mercy is not strained”— it is not to be sifted or parsed, or forced.

Act 5, Scene 1. (803-04, Ed/R/G struggle intensifies; Edmund using Albany; Edgar’s letter) 

Edmund, Goneril, and Regan are locked in a struggle for erotic supremacy as they prepare to fight Cordelia’s French; Regan admits, “I had rather lose the battle than …” lose Edmund (803, 5.1.18-19). Edmund plays both women against each other (804, 5.1.55-58), and plans to use Albany while the fighting is on, and then dispose of him afterwards as a bar to his advancement (804, 5.1.62-69). Edgar in disguise delivers a letter to Albany—a challenge to be taken up if victory smiles (804, 5.1.40-46).

Act 5, Scene 2. (804-05, Gloucester again depressed, Edgar counsels endurance) 

Edgar is disappointed to find his father abjectly depressed during the confusion of battle, and tells him, “Men must endure / Their going hence even as their coming hither, / Ripeness is all” (805, 5.2.9-11).

Act 5, Scene 3. (805-13, Lear/Cordelia prisoners, Edmund loses challenge, Lear dies lamenting Cordelia, Edgar inherits kingdom) 

The worst of the worst win the day, and Lear and Cordelia are taken prisoner. Lear’s reconciliation with Cordelia is brief but supremely fine: “Come let’s away to prison: We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage …” (805, 5.3.8-19). The old king predicts that he and Cordelia will participate in God’s mysterious knowledge of all things, knowing the ins and outs of his secret dispensation of affairs and men. But all this eloquence is too much for Edmund, who ends Lear’s words with a harsh command: “Take them away” (805, 5.3.19) Political and military events have outstripped the process whereby Lear has discovered his mistakes and recovered his identity and his affiliation with Cordelia. It is simply too late for a reconciliation of more than a few minutes’ time, and in the worst of circumstances. Edmund’s blunt order completes the triumph of literalism and matter-of-fact depravity over legitimate power, virtue, and (here) prophetic rhetoric. Lear is rehumanized and endowed with new insight into what is right and wrong, what is human and what is not. But he and Cordelia are crushed because they are a threat to Edmund, and he determines that they must go.

Things aren’t simple for Edmund, either. Albany has nothing but contempt for him, which bodes ill for his hopes to wield tremendous power in the new order of things. His presence in the army camp provokes a life-and-death struggle between Goneril and Regan for his hand (806-07, 5.3.62-82), and after he refuses to turn over the prisoners Lear and Cordelia (806, 5.3.42-45), Albany arrests him and Goneril for “capital treason” (807, 5.3.83). No sooner is this declared than Albany challenges him (807, 5.3.91-96) and Edgar shows up to fight him in single combat. Edmund, worshiper of animalistic nature and the Regan Revolution though he may be, is now trapped into securing his ill-gotten gains, his newfound legitimacy as bestowed upon him first by Gloucester and then by Cornwall after Gloucester’s blinding and exile. He must accept Edgar’s challenge, and ends up hearing the legitimate son’s pious declaration that “The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices / Make instruments to plague us: / The dark and vicious place where thee he got / Cost him his eyes” (809, 5.3.169-72). Regan, meanwhile, has been poisoned by Goneril, who then takes her own life when she sees Edmund gravely wounded (810, 5.3.225-26).

Edmund shows some insight: “All three / Now marry in an instant” (810, 5.3.227-28), and tries to redeem himself by revealing his condemnation of Lear and Cordelia (811, 5.3.242-45). Edgar has found time to reclaim the honor of his title and to avenge Edmund’s betrayal of their father, and to some extent he has reasserted the principle of a divine moral order. But the Gloucester and Lear plots do not come together: Lear and Cordelia have run out of time, and not even Edmund’s last-minute repentance can save Cordelia from being hanged or Lear from dying of grief over her lifeless body: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all?” (812, 5.3.305-07)

In later-C17-18 versions such as that of Nahum Tate’s 1681 revival of the play (, Cordelia actually thrives as Queen, married by a beaming Lear to Edgar. Neoclassical critics and audiences found the actual Shakespearean ending an intolerable violation of representational ethics: the good must be rewarded, and the wicked must be punished. Here is Dr. Johnson’s pronouncement on the matter in Rambler #4:

In narratives where historical veracity has no place, I cannot discover why there should not be exhibited the most perfect idea of virtue; of virtue not angelical, nor above probability, for what we cannot credit, we shall never imitate, but the highest and purest that humanity can reach, which, exercised in such trials as the various revolutions of things shall bring upon it, may, by conquering some calamities, and enduring others, teach us what we may hope, and what we can perform. Vice, for vice is necessary to be shewn, should always disgust; nor should the graces of gaiety, or the dignity of courage, be so united with it, as to reconcile it to the mind. Wherever it appears, it should raise hatred by the malignity of its practices, and contempt by the meanness of its stratagems: for while it is supported by either parts or spirit, it will be seldom heartily abhorred.  (

In Cordelia’s death, the justice of the heavens is not at all apparent. It is true that vice is thoroughly disgusting in King Lear, but virtue is by no means shown triumphant. We must endure the old king’s “going hence” in unbearable agony and near incoherence, as he bewails Cordelia’s death and laments, “my poor fool is hang’d” (812, 5.3.304), which may also refer to the Fool, who disappeared with the line, “And I’ll go to bed at noon” (783, 3.6.78). Nobody wants to rule this blighted kingdom anymore: neither Albany nor Kent will take the reigns of power, and all is left to Edgar. His concluding lines are oddly unsatisfying: “ The weight of this sad time we must obey, Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say: The oldest hath borne most; we that are young Shall never see so much, nor live so long” (813, 5.3.822-25).

If the play has been a quest for the restoration of authority, Edgar is hardly the quester who heals the Fisher King and makes the waters flow. But this play is, of course, a tragedy and not a romance. What it may have taught us, in the end, is that the deepest kind of insight into humanity does not accompany the workings of earthly power: as so often in tragedy, the cost of such insight is an untimely death. Edgar can’t do much more than repeat the stale “truism” of his father Gloucester: better days have been. There’s no easy accommodation, or magical reconciliation, no middle ground to occupy—just a pair of departed royal visionaries and a remnant of confused and disillusioned people repeating unconvincing truisms. Much of the play has been about trying different strategies of accommodation, recognizing the constrictions of nature, mortality, political power, and language, but no satisfying arrangements have emerged. No one has come to terms with what it means to be mortal and yet not identical with the workings of raw physical nature.

Finally, even though King Lear has pagan trappings, I treat it as tinged with Christian principles, and it seems that within this framework, tragedy is constituted by the enormous gap between wisdom and felicity. Much human suffering is preventable, but at the deepest level, sorrow and loss are the only true teachers. And at this level, even a great man like Lear is the “natural fool of fortune” (798, 4.6.185). All along, the Fool had helped prevent Lear from falling into a hopeless state of self-pity, and had helped the audience from over-pitying the king. The Fool had stood for the possibility of artistic redemption, with his playful songs and insouciance. He knew that Lear was willing to listen to him speak the truth in an eccentric form, unlike Regan and Goneril, whose stern authority he feared and whose disregard for his rhymes stemmed from their obscene literalism and savagery. But comfort is cold in this play—at a certain point, the Fool simply had to disappear, leaving Lear to face the impossibility of setting things right, even after his self-recovery and acknowledgment of error to his kind daughter Cordelia.

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

Julius Caesar

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 257-321).

Act 1, Scene 1

At the beginning of the play, Shakespeare introduces a Roman world where all people should know their place. Why is the carpenter not wearing the clothing he should be wearing? The cobbler introduces another theme—the idea that something is broken and must be mended. This is a holiday time when the ordinary laws that restrain and govern people seem to have been suspended. The strongest Romans on the scene are certain that their moral pronouncements and symbolic acts will set things right again, but in this belief, we must already begin to sense, they are gravely mistaken. The common people would just as well forget the past and live entirely in the present.

Act 1, Scene 2

In this scene we get our first view of Julius Caesar himself. He seems a grand enough figure, ordering great men about in an intimate way. Still, what Julius says to Marc Antony reminds us that his wife is unable to have children. In a way that has profound political implications, Julius is alone in the middle of this admiring crowd, and he must depend upon Marc Antony. Caesar will not listen to the soothsayer. Immediately afterwards we are treated to the first conversation between Brutus and Cassius, a conversation that turns upon the issue of representation tied together with the all-important Roman preoccupation with honor. Simply put, Cassius wants Brutus to see himself through the eyes of others who expect him to save the Republic. The honest reply that Brutus gives reminds us how difficult it is for a person to be self-contained, self-defining. It is clear that Brutus has been thinking along the same lines as Cassius—he would not find it tolerable for Julius to become king. But Brutus is circumspect about speaking what he feels. Cassius obviously resents and envies Caesar, and seems to hold him in contempt. His reference to Virgil’s Aeneid puts Cassius in place of Aeneas and Julius Caesar in the place of that hero’s father, who, readers of Virgil will remember, did not make it all the way to Italy after the Trojan remnant had set sail from their burning city. Cassius does not so much seek justice as the opportunity to take power for himself. He also sees a deep disjunction between what ordinary people think Caesar is and what he actually is to those who know him best. We like to think of the Romans as thoroughly upstanding and ancient times as somehow simpler and more noble, but the fact is that Roman political culture was at least as sophisticated as ours is today: “spin” would hardly have been a foreign concept to Roman politicians. Cassius tries to stir similar resentment in the breast of Brutus, and connects him to his illustrious ancestor Lucius Junius Brutus, who helped drive out the last Tarquin King from Rome. Brutus seems naïve concerning the motives of his friend since he labels the speech something “high.” Brutus is an idealist who can’t help but transform everyone around him into something more noble and high-minded than is really the case.

Julius Caesar speaks to Marc Antony again, and makes it clear that he does not trust Cassius, finding in him an anxiety-provoking degree of pride. It is also manifest that Caesar surrounds himself with people willing to tell him what he wants to hear. He is always on stage, a quality that Casca’s comments reinforce.

Casca is scornful of Caesar’s “act” in the presence of the common people who would make him king. The “tag-rag” crowd seems like an ordinary Elizabethan rabble. They follow their own appetites and are greedy for emotional spectacle, which is exactly what they get when Caesar swoons in an epileptic fit.

At the end of the second scene, Cassius clarifies his scheme after Brutus makes his exit—the plan is to manipulate Brutus by taking advantage of his noble honesty. In this play, there are characters who stick to their ideals (or who idealize others), and there are cynical realists like Cassius.

Act 1, Scene 3

Cicero proves unwilling when he speaks to Casca to buy into all the high talk about prodigies and omens. Cicero believes what’s happening is all a matter of interpretation. Casca fears the omens, but Cassius is contemptuous, comparing Julius Caesar to such thunder and lightning. The man is fearful, and a Roman must confront his fears if he would be free. As far as Cassius is concerned, Caesar’s greatness is a mark of the people’s degeneracy. Of course, this comment shows the weakness in the entire conspiratorial plan: if Romans are in fact sheep, how are they supposed to maintain the virtuous Republic of old, even if an assassination restores that form of government? If they are fit only to be led, why then, someone must lead them. So the argument is really over who will dominate the populace. As Thomas Carlyle will later write, “In the long run, every government is the exact symbol of its people.” Democracies and republics die when the citizenry are no longer worthy of such noble experiments or capable of sustaining them. This is not to say that Shakespeare or his audience were sympathetic to republican arguments—monarchy was generally considered the best form of government in Shakespeare’s time. Both Casca and Cassius want to borrow Brutus’s connection to heroic Roman history, thinking to render their own bloody deeds noble and acceptable by reference to violent acts that helped found the Republic.

Act 2, Scene 1

Brutus says that he acts for the general good, not because he has anything in particular against Caesar, who has always been a friend to him and a man of reason. (As the introduction points out, Shakespeare brackets out the way Julius Caesar attained the level of power he held at the time of his murder. However, his bringing destruction to northern Europe’s tribes and crossing the Rubicon aside, it remains true that Caesar was a man of considerable merit—he was a cultivated man, not a brute.) The main argument Brutus makes is the abstract one that power would surely corrupt his friend, so it is necessary to extrapolate what that friend might do if given absolute power. A man who would be king is a serpent, and must be dealt with as such. Brutus himself is very much taken with the heroic past connected to his family name, and like many good Romans he is firmly wedded to the past.

At line 63, it becomes apparent how much of a toll taking part in a conspiracy has begun to exact upon Brutus: “Between the acting of a dreadful thing / And the first motion, all the interim is / like a phantasma, or a hideous dream.” When he is introduced to the conspirators, he finds it necessary to explain just how un-Roman it is to require an oath in such matters as they are about to undertake, and he makes haste to check the bloodiness of their intent. Protecting Marc Antony turns out to be a mistake, of course, but it shows Brutus’s nobility of mind all the same. It’s possible to attribute to Brutus some degree of less than high-minded strategizing when he says that Antony “can do no more than Caesar’s arm / When Caesar’s head is off” (182-83), but perhaps that would be ungenerous. Brutus seems quite naïve throughout this scene, nowhere more so than when he says of Caesar, “Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods, / Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds” (173-74). As always, Brutus is most comfortable with theories and abstractions, and with ritual and ceremony rather than practical action: the conspirators are first and foremost “butchers,” whatever their intentions towards the state. Brutus recognizes that Caesar’s blood must be spilled, but it’s hard to see how his words connote recognition of the full horror in such a deed.

At line 233 and following, Portia shows herself to be perhaps the only character who understands Brutus, with the possible exception of Octavius, who treats him as a worthy opponent. She requests in strong terms that Brutus let her in on what is troubling him, and he promises to do so, although he is subsequently interrupted by Caius Ligarius. But he must tell her subsequently since later on she seems aware of what is afoot. In speaking to Caius Ligarius, Brutus again employs the metaphor of sickness and health—it seems he sees himself as a physician or a surgeon as well as a priest with respect to the body politic.

Act 2, Scene 2

When talking to his wife, Caesar seems genuinely magnificent in his disregard for death, but he also seems rather pompous in declaring himself more dangerous than danger itself. On the whole, he is a politician who has come to believe his own PR—always a dangerous thing to do because it unfits a person to exercise power in real-life, real-time situations. Because Decius Brutus understands this weakness in Caesar, he is able to use it to bring the man out to the Capitol, where he will meet his fate. I think Shakespeare follows the general line that the time had already come for Rome to turn imperial, but the fat and fond Julius Caesar he portrays is not the right man to wield such enormous power. None of this is to say that Caesar is to be portrayed as an old fool or a clown; rather, it seems likely that Shakespeare’s representation of this “great man” pays tribute to the difficulty of settling on any one image of such a colossal, polarizing figure as Julius Caesar. On display are certain physical and character weaknesses and a tendency towards exaggeration, but counter-balancing these traits, in almost any worthwhile production, will be the impressive pageantry, the sheer spectacle, surrounding Caesar’s every move.

Act 3, Scene 1

In the famous assassination scene, the conspirators crowd around Caesar, with the ostensible purpose of getting him to revoke his banishment of one Publius Cimber, brother of the conspirator Metellus Cimber. Caesar’s words make him seem grandiose and ungenerous, and he is instantly cut down. As in some ancient accounts, Caesar is most surprised to find Brutus amongst those who have betrayed him. (See Suetonius’ highly regarded narrative of the murder, which has Caesar maintaining dignified silence.)

Both Cassius and Brutus make bold to consider the historic nature of what they have just done, treating it as if it were a piece of stagecraft for the ages. Brutus is particularly concerned to strike the right ceremonial note, telling his fellow conspirators to bathe their hands in the blood of the slain ruler and make their way to the marketplace, where they will proclaim “Peace, freedom, and liberty” (110) for all. But subsequent audiences, of course, know perfectly well how the whole affair turned out—the death of Julius Caesar brought not the restoration of republican ways, but rather the supremely competent imperial rule of Augustus after a period of civil strife. So when we see the conspirators on stage smearing themselves with the blood of the man they have just killed, we are likely to concentrate more on the viciousness of their deed than on the high-minded ideals that set Brutus, at least, in motion.

Act 3, Scene 2

Immediately after the assassination, Brutus makes the fatal mistake of trusting Marc Antony. Antony appears diabolically skillful throughout this scene, beginning with his earnest-seeming demand to know why Caesar deserved to die and his eerie willingness to shake hands with the blood-spattered killers before him, then proceeding to his obviously genuine and yet carefully stage-managed outbursts of feeling for the murdered Caesar and his request to pay his respects at the man’s funeral. Cassius suspects the worst, but Brutus will have none of it, and he brushes aside Cassius’s objections with the ridiculous stipulation that he himself will speak first and thereby provide sufficient explanation for what has been done. He has just agreed to serve as the warm-up act for a master rhetorician who does not mean him well, and we shall see what Antony makes of the demand that he not blame the “honorable” conspirators. Operating by the ancient code of revenge, Antony plans to “let slip the dogs of war” (273) after his stirring words have driven the conspirators out of Rome. The deed that these deluded men believed would bring order and liberty, Antony correctly understands as the harbinger of violence and chaos. For the moment, these are his elements, and with them he will set to work forging a new order with Octavius.

The speech that Brutus makes to the Roman mob, while noble, is also absurd because it issues a call to Romanness to people thoroughly incapable of any such thing. Brutus insists that he has placed love of country above love for his old friend Caesar, and he may indeed have done so. But the rogues and peasants to whom he speaks have no understanding of such idealism. They value persons over principles, favors over sacrifice. They are moved by Brutus’s words, but their instinct is to offer him the crown they had meant to offer Caesar.

Marc Antony’s speech is a masterpiece, full of power and deception, strong feeling and a call to personal loyalty. Casting himself as Caesar’s friend, Antony highlights the qualities of Julius in this capacity: friendship, or amicitia, was amongst the highest Roman virtues, and Brutus has betrayed a man who loved and honored him. (In The Divine Comedy, Dante places Brutus and Cassius in the lowest section of the inferno for that reason: they are traitors to their lord.) If a man betrays his friend, you cannot believe anything he says or trust him in any action. ( Cicero wrote a fine treatise called De Amicitia, or “On Friendship,” and Seneca’s Letters deal with the concept insightfully.) He attacks the notion that Caesar was ambitious or selfish, and employs a species of repetition to savage effect respecting the word “honorable,” which comes to signify the opposite quality after its first few uses. In the end, Antony does what he promised Brutus not to do: he calls the conspirators traitors. He convinces his audience that they have lost a generous, unique benefactor at the hands of men who do not even understand that all-important Roman concept, “honor.” Honor consists in standing by your friends, which is exactly what Marc Antony tells the irrational, inflamed crowd to do now. Fortune favors those willing to ride the waves of passion that arise from great and terrible events, not those who, like Brutus, believe troubled human affairs can be set to rights by the dispassionate operations of reason. The latter assumption hardly seems a good bet in the third scene, when the rabble decide that it isn’t even worth distinguishing Cinna the poet from Cinna the assassin.

Act 4, Scene 1

Antony the man of feeling now shows another side of himself—the side that allows him to “lay honors” on his fellow Triumvir Lepidus and yet call the man an ass when he’s out of earshot. This brazen contempt for “a tried and valiant soldier” (28) surprises the youthful Octavius, but Antony won’t change a word of his dismissive pronouncement against Lepidus. It’s time to head for the wars Brutus and Cassius are stirring up.

Act 4, Scenes 2-3

Back at the camp, Brutus and Cassius become embroiled in a bitter argument about funding for their armies—Cassius’s corrupt favoritism has made him deny Brutus necessary pay for his men. Although the fight sounds like schoolboy squabbling, it has a serious side: Cassius’ offense is a dangerous one for the cause since a mutinous army is no help, and his charge of untenderness on the part of Brutus seems genuine, so it reinforces the play’s interest in the importance of Roman honor and friendship. “A friend should bear his friend’s infirmities” (86), pleads Cassius, and in the end he brings Brutus around. Shakespeare was capable of shredding cherished notions of classical chivalry, as he does in his later play Troilus and Cressida (1601-02), but here in Julius Caesar no such thoroughgoing cynicism seems to be afoot. When Cassius’s Thersites-like “cynic” struts onstage to offer his saucy rhymes, Brutus makes Cassius dismiss the fellow as untimely and impertinent.

Brutus and Cassius disagree more civilly about military strategy around line 200. Brutus comes down in favor of marching out to meet the enemy rather than waiting: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, / Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; / Omitted, all the voyage of their life / Is bound in shallows and in miseries” (218-21). This is one of the most famous pronouncements in the play, but the “tide” metaphor is also revealing—although Brutus counsels heroic action, he still sees this action as a reaction, as a principled response to what the rhythm of life brings. Contrast this attitude with Marc Antony and Octavius. Antony in particular, at least in this play if not in Antony and Cleopatra, is closer to the view of Edmund in King Lear: “all’s meet with me that I can fashion fit.” We might argue that Brutus, for all his unrealistic idealism, is at crucial points more grounded in reality as something given that must be acknowledged than his adversaries are. Antony is a supreme opportunist, but his manner of handling the opportunity that comes to him as a gift from Brutus is masterful, active, and creative: a fine word-chef, he whips up a generous Julius bound to please the common people. By the end of Act 4, Brutus is afflicted with a second vision of Caesar as his “evil spirit” (281). Even the supernatural is arrayed against him; history is not on his side in the struggle between republican principles and monarchical rule.

Act 5, Scenes 1-3

Brutus and Cassius exchange angry words with Octavius and Marc Antony, and a bit later Brutus says to Cassius that he abhors the prospect of suicide—evidently, he assumes he will either be victorious or be killed in battle. But when the battle goes against his side, he must confront the suicide of his own friend Cassius, who requires his Parthian servant to stab him with the very sword he had used during the assassination of Caesar. Brutus sees this act as the work of Julius Caesar’s vengeful spirit.

Act 5, Scenes 4-5

In the end, Brutus decides to run upon his own sword rather than face capture. He leaves it to the people of the future and to history to judge his actions, expressing confidence in the outcome: “I shall have glory by this losing day / More than Octavius and Marc Antony” (36-37). Octavius and Antony are impressed with the end Brutus makes, and Antony declares him “the noblest Roman of them all” (5.5.68) He acted for the general good rather than for his own personal interest. On the whole, I think we find in Julius Caesar not so much a wholesale or cynical rejection of the principles enunciated by the noble Brutus as a complex, at times ambivalent exploration of those principles. Ideals seldom, if ever, match events on the ground: participation in almost any kind of politics compels even the best people to abandon or at least compromise their noblest aspirations and their customary civility. This is not to abandon politics since that really isn’t possible; it is to see things as they are without flinching or dissembling.

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


Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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Shakespeare, William. Coriolanus (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 969-1056).

ACT ONE OVERVIEW: Martius set up in all valor and rigidity: he scorns the starving plebeians, and wins accolades in war, including the surname Coriolanus.  Meanwhile, his enemies the tribunes are stirring, and the envious Volscian Aufidius resolves on his destruction.

Act 1, Scene 1 (978-84, the Plebeians complain about the aristocrats’ treatment of them during a grain shortage; Menenius schools them with a tale about the senators being Rome’s “stomach,” and Martius soon shows up to issue a scathing denunciation of the common folk; the Tribunes whom Martius scorns analyze their foe’s prideful character)

Coriolanus offers us an intense character study — Martius isn’t a deep tragic hero like Macbeth or Hamlet, but Shakespeare’s characterization of him is pure.  Structurally and rhetorically, too, the play is superb — an excellence that T. S. Eliot recognizes when he writes in “Hamlet and His Problems” from his 1921 collection of essays The Sacred Wood, Coriolanus may be not as ‘interesting’ as Hamlet, but it is, with Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s most assured artistic success.”  (In the same passage, Eliot suggests that Hamlet is literature’s “Mona Lisa” — oddly compelling stuff, but not a true masterpiece.)

Shakespeare got the story of Coriolanus from Livy’s Histories and Plutarch’s Parallel Lives.  Martius is a semi-legendary early Roman who would have lived in the early C5 BCE, so the expulsion of the last Tarquin ruler Lucius Tarquinius Superbus took place less than two decades before the play’s events (respectively, 509 BCE and the 490s BCE).  It’s hard to say how real such a person is since early historians mingled historical figures with mythic characters. 

The play takes for granted some knowledge of a basic point of contention in early Roman times: the struggle of the orders between commoners or plebeians and aristocrats or patricians.  It was some measure of compromise on the part of the aristocratic patricians that allowed the city of Rome to develop into a vital republic and then a mighty empire.  The immediate context of Martius’ unpopularity would have been that he opposed the reforms stemming from the political rebellion of the plebeian class in what has been called the initial secessio plebis of 494 BCE.  This is how the office of the Tribunes took its origin, as part of a compromise allowing some relief and a voice to the lower orders in Rome.

Martius has his moments, and of course military strength and cohesion were Roman aristocratic virtues.  He certainly possesses the military virtues.  Still, the crux of the entire play is that one can be so Roman that one isn’t truly Roman.  That kind of rigidity isn’t how Rome got to be Rome — “virtuous, honorable, and inflexible” is a recipe for disaster.  The Romans were also eminently practical: they were assimilators, builders, willing to expend energy on those they conquered.  They were exploiters, too, but it wasn’t all fighting, killing, and dominating.  Martius insists on a virtue until it becomes foolishness — he violates Aristotle’s notion of virtue as the golden mean between two extremes.  The sweet spot is right in the middle: neither foolhardy courage nor cowardice, but doing one’s duty in spite of genuine fear.  That’s valor.  Satis sanus est.  Augustus said, “festina lente,” make haste slowly.  That’s Roman practicality: take your time.  Martius can’t hold to this mean because he is an extremist for Romanness.  The man’s over-the-top quality is the root of his tragedy — he possesses and acts upon the extremity of a virtue tied to a particular class, and this quality in him will lead him to disillusion and betrayal. 

As for the beginning of Coriolanus, see also the opening sceneof Julius Caesar, wherein Murellus gets fed up with the cobbler and others, with their jokes and holiday-making over Caesar.  “Wherefore rejoice?” asks Murellus, chastising the holiday-making plebeians in the name of defeated Pompey the Great.  Well, Shakespeare seems never to have cared much for the rabble, and all his rabbles tend to be Elizabethan: “the rag-tag mob.”  He was a businessman, a property owner, a bourgeois, and conservative at least in that regard, so he didn’t have a high tolerance for anarchy and disorder.  I’ve never been able to agree with the sometime modern view of Shakespeare as a cultural or political iconoclast because his plays just don’t seem to me to support that construction. 

The First Citizen sums up his self-justification for egging his comrades on to kill Caius Martius with the words, “I speak this in hunger / for bread, not in thirst of revenge” (980, 1.1.19-20).  This sounds like basic class warfare of the sort that actually occurred in early Rome: misery, hoarding, and profiteering.  So there’s dissent in the air, and Martius has no sympathy with the commoners at all.  In fact, he openly despises them. 

The patrician Menenius Agrippa tries to talk reason into the citizens with his substantial “body” analogy (980-81, 1.1.79-144).  The people, he suggests, are like a living body’s mutinous members, doing nothing while being supplied by the stomach, the aristocratic class.  The senators are the digestive function, the belly: it’s an ancient “trickle down” theory of how society and the economy work.  Without the patricians, the idea goes, the common people would fall into famine and disorder, and finally into decay. 

The citizens don’t seem impressed with this analogy at all, and then Martius himself shows up and pours aristocratic oil on the common people’s smoldering resentment of his entire class: “What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues, / That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, / Make yourselves scabs?” (981, 1.1.153-55)  His view is that they cannot and must not be given any authority.  Why?  Martius tags their inconstancy, their fickleness, as the cause for this incapacity: “With every minute you do change a mind / And call him noble that was now your hate” (982, 1.171-72).  He, we know, affines himself to the patrician order, which is closely allied with the military order; this order he obviously considers worthy of respect and capable of steady virtue.  One look at modern polls, and we might half agree with him — how contradictory they are!  No firm principles, no clear understanding emerges, at least much of the time: “public opinion exists only where there are no ideas,” as Wilde said.  Still, it’s taking this distrust of the common man and woman’s sagacity very far indeed to call them “scabs.”

Act 1, Scenes 2-3 (984-87, Aufidius looks forward to battling Martius; Volumnia lessons Virgilia about what constitutes masculine virtue, while Valeria points to young Martius’ shredding of a butterfly; the news is that Martius is now near the Volscian city of Corioles)

Aufidius is introduced to us in the second scene, and he seems jealous of Martius, to whom he always loses.  He probably feels a bit like the rental car company that has to try harder because “they’re number two.”  The Volscians are a rival people neighboring Roman territory, and conquering such neighbors is how Rome grew first into a great city and finally into an empire.  Aufidius is the chief warrior of the Volscians, but the Roman Caius Martius is a stronger, abler soldier.  Jealousy and envy flows through Aufidius, bordering on obsession and hatred.  But the feeling and regard go both ways — Martius regards Aufidius as a worthy adversary, and that’s something he needs.  The first act sets us up for this struggle: we will see Martius charging in through the gates of Corioles, a retreat occurring and then Martius spurring the Romans into battle again.  But for the moment, Aufidius explains to a Volscian senator that things look bad in Rome, what with all the class strife; the Romans are gearing up for war, and the Volscians are in arms as well since they expect a fight to come their way.  As for Aufidius himself, he looks forward to nothing so much as close, even single, combat with his personal adversary: “If we and Caius Martius chance to meet, / ‘Tis sworn between us we shall ever strike / Till one can do no more” 985, 1.2.34-36).

In 1.3., we find that Martius’ mother Volumnia is a typical, upstanding Roman matron: “I pray you, daughter, sing or express yourself in a more comfortable sort…” (983, 1.3.1-2), she tells Martius’ wife Virgilia, explaining to her that she ought to rejoice in the absence of her husband since that absence signifies he is doing what a man should do.  Virgilia must respect the military bearing and mission of Martius:  it’s better to be a warrior than a lover and a man of peace.  “Either come home bearing that shield, or lying dead upon it,” as the Spartan mothers used to say to the sons they sent off to war.  Volumnia’s friend Valeria refers to young Martius (son of Caius Martius and Virgilia, that is) showing some of his father’s ferocity: the boy apparently shredded a hapless butterfly in her view (986-87, 1.3.54-61).

Act 1, Scenes 4-9 (988-93, Martius shows his valor against Aufidius and the Volscians)

Battlefield scenes abound, with Martius showing his valor.  In 1.5, he is even shut alone within the gates of the Volscian city Corioles, and bravely fights his way to freedom.  In 1.6, the Roman troops, as was common amongst ancient armies, take advantage of this opening and then immediately fall to plundering the city, prompting Martius to denounce them — or at least the common soldiers, whom he sardonically refers to as “our gentlemen” (991, 1.7.42) — and pine to fight Aufidius directly, along with his fellow Volscians (Antiates is a term for the people of the Volscian capital Antium, modern Italy’s Anzio).  By 1.7, Cominius (historically, that’s Postumus Cominius Auruncus, with the play’s events taking place around 493 BCE), who commands the Roman forces, has ordered a retreat for strategic purposes.  By 1.9, Martius and Aufidius square off, Martius saying “I’ll fight with none but thee, for I do hate thee / Worse than a promise-breaker” (993, 1.9.1-2), and the outcome is predictable: the Roman wins, and Aufidius (Attius Tullus Aufidius historically) and his Volscians are driven back behind their own gates in Corioles.

Act 1, Scenes 10-11 (993-96, Cominius hails Martius as Coriolanus and heaps honors upon him, though Martius is unsettled by such attention; Aufidius tells a few of his soldiers that he will destroy Martius by any means necessary)

Cominius declares that “Rome must know / The value of her own” (994, 1.10.20-21).  In other words, there’s a political dimension to the acts of valor that Martius has performed, loathe though the latter may be to think of them in that way.  He sounds genuinely noble when he cites his reasoning: “When drums and trumpets shall / I’th’field prove flatterers, let courts and cities be / Made all of false-faced soothing” (994, 1.10.42-44).  Contrast this with Aufidius’ anguished determination in the next scene: he tells a few of his men, “I’ll potch at him some way / Or wrath or craft may get him” (996, 1.11.15-16).  To borrow a modern idiom, we might say that Aufidius has let go of his strict adherence to the ancient honor code and given in to the imperative that he must get Martius “by any means necessary.”  Of course, Martius doesn’t know about this change of heart on the part of his supposedly steadfast, worthy enemy.

ACT TWO OVERVIEW: Martius is expected to stand for consul, and upon the Tribunes’ insistence, goes through with the ritual of it all.  The commoners give their voice and then exasperate him by revoking it.  Martius has failed to translate his military prowess into a political platform.

Act 2, Scene 1 (996-1002, Menenius takes down the Tribunes Brutus and Sicinius for disliking Martius’ pride; Martius is welcomed home and is expected to stand for consul, but the Tribunes plot to work his destruction from that very honor)

The Tribunes of the People are a grudging gift to the plebeians — some measure of representation.  Brutus and Sicinius can’t stand Martius’s open contempt for the common lot, or his arrogance and rigidity.  It’s more than a personal thing with them — they suppose Martius will use power tyrannically because all he cares about is “Rome,” which reduces (in their view) to his own class.  See their analysis of the man’s flaws and the threat he poses (1001, 2.1.191ff).  Next, the Tribunes scheme to make sure that Martius’ election to the consulship will be revoked (1002, 2.1.229-44).

Act 2, Scene 2 (1002-06, two Officers debate Martius’ hatred of the plebeians; Cominius praises Martius’ valor against the Volscians; Martius pleads that he be excused from practically begging for the consulship before the common folk, but Sicinius insists on the ceremony being honored)

The First and Second Officers debate the merits of Martius’ attitude in hating the plebeians for their inconstancy and lack of honor: “he seeks their hate with greater devotion than they / can render it him” (1003, 2.2.17), says the First Officer, and it’s only his undeniable valor as a soldier that keeps them in awe.

Well, now that Martius is expected to stand for the consulship, he must supposed to stand in the public square, exposing himself to view, and ask the plebeians “pretty please with sugar on it” for the honor he believes he has already earned with his military prowess.  Martius would accept the office and the power of the consulship, but he rigidly opposes the vulgar means by which it must be obtained.  To praise for his valor even from Cominius, Martius says, “I had rather have my wounds to heal again / Than hear say how I got them” (1004, 65-66).  As for standing in view of the public, his plea is, “Please you that I may pass this doing” (1005, 2.2.136), but Sicinius will have none of it: the ceremony must not be omitted, not “one jot” (1005-06, 2.2.136-38). 

It isn’t difficult to understand Martius’s position, starchy though the man is.  He’s a patrician and a warrior, but in order to take his place in the political order — i.e. to follow the “natural” career path for such a warrior — he must submit to such means, and use his valor and deeds as a bargaining chip.  So why seek the office of consul then?  Why not just retire to his estate and live nobly?  Well, this is what he’s required to do; he must pimp his valiant achievements, so to speak, if he wants to perpetuate his name in the classical way.  The Greek and Roman “afterlife” is just as easily identified with one’s posthumous reputation as with any fine notions about beds of asphodel in Elysium or the more shadowy, grey-tinged landscape of leveling Hades.  And while an illustrious Roman is still alive, this clan- or class-driven drive to take up an honorable, traditional office is close to its equivalent.  Not to be an actor in the game is to be forgotten more quickly than one would like.  Martius’s dilemma, I suppose, is that to attain its full value, the honor he stands upon must be recognized by others.  Unused or not put into some appropriate form and enlisted in fitting action, it rusts and falls to oblivion. 

Act 2, Scene 3 (1006-11, Coriolanus appears before the people and gruffly seeks their voices; the people consent but then revoke their consent, with the Tribunes egging them on to work Martius’ destruction from this honor’s granting and rescinding)

Unfortunately, Martius doesn’t have the temperament or the impulse control to run even a brief campaign for office.  The scene in which he refuses to stand for the consulship and then gets talked into doing so is the stuff of modern situation comedy: a character says, “I’ll never do such and such,” and then you see a jump-cut of the same character doing exactly such and such.  Martius’ best effort is, “You know the cause, sir, of my standing here …” (1007, 2.3.58).  Martius tries to play the situation as a piece of insincere street theater: “I will practice / the insinuating nod and be off to them most counterfeitly” (1008, 2.3.90-91), he says in open third-person contempt, but the plebeians are too savvy to let him off the hook so easily.  They want their money’s worth.  If it’s play-acting, he at least has to give a convincing performance to satisfy their humor; anything less would be an insult.  They don’t need Tim Roth on that short-lived TV show Lie to Me to teach them about Martius’ micro-expressions of contempt, not to mention the fact that they stink in his high-born nostrils. 

The citizens assent, but almost immediately begin to have second thoughts: “He mocked us when he begged our voices” (1009, 2.3.148), says the Second Citizen.  The Tribunes see the value in this turnabout, and it can hardly be unexpected by them.  At the end of the third scene, they goad the people to revoke their own approval of Martius’ consulship, even telling them to say it was the Tribunes’ fault that Martius was approved in the first place.  They’re playing Mark Antony in the marketplace: “mischief, do what thou wilt.”  To snatch away an honor granted, the idea runs, is much more galling than to refuse it at the outset.  Brutus and Sicinius know that Martius won’t brook such a grave insult to his accomplishments and pride.

ACT THREE OVERVIEW: Martius is talked into feigning contrition before the people for his earlier arrogance, but when the tribunes cry “tyranny!” he explodes, scorns Rome and finds himself banished.  The tribunes have played the rigid man like a fiddle.

Act 3, Scene 1 (1012-20, Martius scorns the plebeians’ revocation, and blames the patricians for having granted them a voice at all; Cominius and Menenius try to change his mind, but by the act’s conclusion Martius will be accused of tyranny and treason and banished; the Senate has returned Corioles to the Volscians)

In the first scene, Martius addresses the dynamics of power, an issue about which both sides have some smart things to say.  Brutus and Sicinius are standing around (as usual) as Martius talks with his fellow patricians in a Roman street.  Martius says derisively that the people are a “Hydra” (1014, 3.1.96) and that, “In soothing them we nourish ‘gainst our Senate / The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition …” (1013, 3.1.73-74). His name-calling skills are crisp as ever: “so shall my lungs / Coin words till their decay against those measles / Which we disdain should tetter us, yet sought / The very way to catch them” (1013, 3.1.81-84).  If two sides vie for power and there’s no supremacy either way, what happens?  Somebody must lead: there must be order, not anarchy (1014, 3.1.112-15).  This is Martius’ military background informing his political philosophy. Brutus and Sicinius don’t necessarily disagree, but they’re coming at the matter from their own class-based perspective, and they resent Martius’ assumption that the plebeian order and its demands are fundamentally illegitimate, even worthless.  The general sees it as patrician cowardice even to play ball with the plebeians. The charge of treachery and tyranny Brutus and Sicinius level at this point is as yet unfair (1015, 3.1.165), since Martius hasn’t yet done anything treasonous. But events are running in the Tribunes’ favor, so they take advantage, calling loudly for Martius’ apprehension and execution at the Tarpeian Rock (1017, 3.1.210-12).  Menenius will try to get Martius to smooth things over (1019, 3.1.326-28), but we may well suspect how that plan will go.

Act 3, Scene 2 (1020-23, Martius’ patrician relatives and friends — chiefly Volumnia, Cominius, and Menenius — fearing civil strife, talk him into feigning contrition in the Market, and he promises)

In the third act, we have seen Martius first getting talked into presenting himself to the plebeians, then infuriated by the result, and now his well-wishers, fearing the worst sort of civil unrest, try to convince him to pretend to be contrite in the Market where the people assemble.  Volumnia’s argument seems to be the canniest: “If it be honour in you wars to seem / The same you are not … / how is it less or worse / That it shall hold companionship in peach / With honour …?” (1021, 3.2.47-51)  It’s hardly certain that Martius buys any of this rhetoric, but he accedes to his mother’s request: “Well, I will do’t” (1022, 3.2.101).

Act 3, Scene 3 (1023-27, In the Market, the Tribunes charge Martius with “tyranny,” deliberately provoking him to scorn and abandon Rome)

Brutus and Sicinius are politically adept, we can tell, and their plan is based on a thorough understanding of their noble quarry — they will simply keep jabbing him with accusations that get under his skin until he explodes with rage, and says something irrevocably damning to his own cause: “Being once chafed, he cannot / Be reined again to temperance” (1024, 3.3.27-28).  In politics — even ancient politics — saying what you really think can get you into an infinite amount of hot water, and that is exactly what happens here.

Charged with tyranny (Brutus and Sicinius’ first sally, and as it turns out all that’s needed), Martius immediately takes the bait: “The fires i’th’lowest hell fold in the people!” (1024, 3.3.71) he snarls, and the game is up.  “Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts …” (1026, 3.3.129), he hisses at his fellow Romans, and concludes with “Despising / For you the city, thus I turn my back. / There is a world elsewhere” (1027, 3.3.137-39).  Rome is no longer worthy; he has been led to this point by his principled rigidity.  Martius was bred to think of himself as the ultimate Roman, at least in his narrow, class-starched way, but now, by the end of the third act, he is thoroughly disillusioned with Rome and its people.  He will soon find, as many ancients apparently did, that exile isn’t as sustainable a model for a compromised person’s future as it might seem.  Rome is a world unto itself, and leaving it isn’t going to bring Martius peace.

By the end of Act 3, Martius, who has no patience with the democratic-spirited ritual of “kissing hands and shaking babies,” has arrived at a vital point in his unfortunate path not only to personal disgrace but to something worse: self-conscious betrayal of the Roman state and its citizens. 

ACT FOUR OVERVIEW: Martius abandons Rome and transfers his loyalties to Aufidius and the Volscians; he begins hostilities against Rome, striking fear into both patricians and plebeians.

Act 4, Scenes 1-4 (1027-31, Martius prepares to leave Rome; Volumnia denounces Tribunes; Nicanor the spy informs Adrian that Rome is in turmoil; Martius travels to the gates of Aufidius’ home)

Martius takes a sad but stoic farewell from Rome, telling his wife and mother, “The beast / With many heads butts me away” (1027, 4.1.1-2), and to Menenius, “Tell these sad women / ‘Tis fond to wail inevitable strokes / As ’tis to laugh at ’em” (1027, 4.1.26-28). 

That doesn’t stop Volumnia from curtly denouncing tribunes Brutus and Sicinius, as she does at (1029, 4.2.40-45).  We next hear a conversation between a Volscian named Adrian and Nicanor, a Roman spy for the Volscians, who tells his acquaintance that Rome is full of “strange insurrections” (1030, 4.3.12-13), with all factions working against one another.  Nicanor’s assumption that Aufidius “will appear / well in these wars” (1030, 4.3.28-29), however, is somewhat off the mark: it is Martius himself who will shine most brightly in such broils against Rome.

By 4.4, Martius is at the gates of the enemy city, having turned his back on Rome, and in disguise he comes to the home of Aufidius, expecting either to be accepted or killed.  At this point, it probably doesn’t matter to him which fate he is dealt: he has become alienated from what makes him who he is: Roman military and class ideology, a sense of belonging with the best.  So either fate would put an end to the chaos of the present situation, and Martius doesn’t deal well with uncertainty or chaos — something that links him with other tragic or near-tragic figures like Othello, or Belarius of Cymbeline.  “If he slay me,” says Caius of Aufidius, “He does fair justice; if he give me way, / I’ll do his country service” (1031, 4.4.24-26).

Act 4, Scene 5 (1031-36, Martius visits Aufidius, who has dreamt of him and who welcomes him; servingmen air their views on war)

Martius is at first almost turned away by a servant who calls him an ass or a “daw” (1032, 4.5.42-43), but he eventually gets his message through and finds acceptance.  Martius is trapped, and it’s symptomatic that the rhetoric employed by this sometime man of few words swells to prolixity as he makes his attempt to convince Aufidius of his sincerity and usefulness; see (1033, 4.5.64-99). 

Aufidius admits to envying Martius, even to the point of what sounds to some critics like homoeroticism: “Thou has beat me out / Twelve several times, and I have nightly since / Dreamt of encounters ‘twist thyself and me — / We have been down together in my sleep …” (1034, 4.5.120-23).  These are in any case enemies who know each other’s qualities intimately, almost to the point of identifying with each other. 

The intimacy between Martius and Aufidius stems in part from their outsized stature; neither man is entirely contained by his political and geographic particulars.  Hegel’s master-servant dialectic implies that authentic selfhood requires reciprocity, mutual recognition.  Aufidius may not exactly be a servant-consciousness, but Martius has been the master, one who doesn’t need to “think” himself deeply.  Aufidius knows that Martius is a production into which a great deal of energy has been invested (a constant and convincing projection of strength takes a lot of a person’s energy), but also that he is not very self-aware regarding his beliefs and self-image, as we would put it today. 

So now there’s nowhere for Martius to turn except to the opposite side and to an enemy with whom he feels a certain affinity based on his appraisal of the man’s personal value as a soldier and an aristocrat.  Martius is in Aufidius’ clutches in spite of his own command of affairs among the Volscian generals.  But for the moment, anyway, Martius receives an astonishingly warm welcome from his old adversary, who says openly that he has high hopes for what he will be able to do for the Volscians in the military and intelligence line against Rome. 

Several servingmen round off Scene 5 with gossip, with the second such relating how assiduously Aufidius is wooing his old nemesis: “Our general himself makes a mistress of him, sanctifies himself with’s hand …” (1035, 4.5.193-94).  A first and third serving man unite in their excitement at the coming-on of war: “Let me have war, say I” and “The wars for my money” (1036, 4.5.218, 4.5.228).  Their view is similar to what many have opined: that peace makes a people dull and soft, while war makes them strong.

Act 4, Scene 6 (1036-40, the Tribunes and citizens are alarmed by news that the Volscians, led by Martius, are attacking Roman territories)

Tribunes Brutus and Sicinius seem quite self-assured at the beginning of this scene since they think Rome is doing fine without Martius.  They soon find out, however, that the Volscians are now raiding Roman territories and that Martius is among their leaders.  There is no denying the impact of this information: it throws the tribunes into a panic.  Cominius tells them and surrounding citizens, “You have holp to ravish your own daughters and / To melt the city leads upon your pates, / To see your wives dishonoured to your noses” (1038, 4.6.85-87).  This isn’t unrealistic since attacks on civilians during ancient wars were vicious — another example of such references would be Henry V’s threats against the town leaders in Harfleur, his question to them at the end of Henry V 3.3 being, “will you yield, and this avoid, / Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroy’d?”  Some of the citizens in the present scene, put in mortal fear by what they’ve heard, repent their action against Martius; laments one, “I ever said we were i’th’wrong when we banished him” (1040, 4.6.163).

Based on what Cominius in particular says, the tribunes have no trouble discerning that they are not among friends: “These are a side that would be glad to have / This true which they so seem to fear” (1040, 4.6.159-61).  There is no way to divorce the dreadful news from the class struggle going on in Rome.

Act 4, Scene 7 (1040-41, Aufidius airs his resentment of Martius)

Aufidius says of Martius, “He bears himself more proudlier, / Even to my person, than I thought he would / When first I did embrace him” (1040, 4.6.8-10).  We register Aufidius’ deep resentment in still other passages: “All places yields to him ere he sits down, / And the nobility of Rome are his …” (1041, 4.7.28-29).  But the trouble is that Martius can’t “Carry his honours” (1041, 4.7.37), whether due to pride, a judgment in defect, or nature.  Aufidius is all but psychoanalyzing his longtime foe.  The virtues of a man are subject to “th’interpretation of the time,” say Aufidius (1041, 4.7.50), and we may recall Titus Andronicus, that last honorable Roman amongst scores of Latin-parsing rascals.  An ethical person surrounded by immoralists must come to a bad end, as Machiavelli informs us in The Prince.  There’s no honor for Martius in the self-destructive treason he is committing now.  Aufidius ends the scene with an instructive rhyme: “When, Caius, Rome is thine, / Thou art poor’st in all; then shortly art thou mine” (1041, 4.7.56-57).

ACT FIVE OVERVIEW: Martius scorns Cominius and gives Menenius a letter containing terms, but melts at the sight and sound of Volumnia, Virgilia, and Young Martius.  Aufidius uses the peace agreement to betray Martius as a traitor to the Volscians, and has him murdered.

Act 5, Scenes 1-2 (1041-45, Cominius’ visit fails to soften Martius’ resolve, and Menenius has only slightly better luck; hopes remain that Volumnia and Virgilia will succeed)

Caius Martius took Roman values to a destructive extreme, a fault that cost him the people’s approval and much more: once again, Aristotle’s point about keeping to the golden mean applies.  Martius has turned honor and strength into rigidity, absolute hardness, invulnerability.  The fifth act delivers the ultimate consequences of this point.  We hear that Cominius has visited Martius to soften his resolve, and failed utterly: “‘Coriolanus’ / He would not answer to, forbade al names. / He was a kind of nothing, titleless, / Till he had forged himself a name o’th’fire / Of burning Rome” (1042, 5.1.11-15).  Ever the absolutist, Martius is determined to burn his past behind him, leaving nothing but a fiery present wherein his talents may generate a fierce new reputation. 

In 5.2, Menenius tries his hand, with slightly better success since Martius hands him a letter, saying “I writ it for thy sake” (1045, 5.3.86).  But we also find that Martius is firm in his contractual obligation to Aufidius and the Volscians.  This is trouble because Martius is nothing if not a man of his word.  As stated earlier in 5.1., the hopes of Rome will turn now to the chance that Martius’ wife and mother might be able to succeed where Cominius and Menenius have failed.

Act 5, Scene 3 (1045-50, Martius’ family prevail upon him to make peace, and Aufidius realizes the opportunity this presents to him)

Volumnia, Virgilia, and Young Martius now visit the Volscian camp to try their hand at getting Martius to relent.  Little else remains since the Romans have refused the conditions set forth in the letter he had given to Menenius out of pity.  It is clear that the very sight of these three begins to soften the stoic resolve and warlike fury of Martius, even before they speak: “I melt, and am not / Of stronger earth than others” (1046, 5.3.28-29).  He has little choice but to hear them speak, and their arguments prove lethally effective.  Volumnia frames her case by pointing out that her son has put his family in an impossible dilemma: “how can we for our country pray … / together with thy victory …?” (1048, 5.3.108-09), and later adds, “Think’st thou it honourable for a noble man / Still to remember wrongs?” (1049, 5.3.155-56)

The sight and sound of his beloved family works its magic, and Martius gives in — for the third time, since he relented under pressure in originally standing for consul, then in feigning contrition in the marketplace, and now during the hostilities he has brought to Rome’s doorstep.  This time, the cause is pietas, to whichMartius accedes with what seems like relief mingled with foreboding: “O my mother, mother, O! / You have won a happy victory to Rome; / But for your son … / Most dangerously you have with him prevailed …” (1050, 5.3.186-89).  Aufidius, hearing all this and Martius’ weak offering that he will at least “frame convenient peace” (1050, 5.3.192), makes an aside that reveals his treacherous nature: “I am glad thou hast set thy mercy and thy honour / At difference in thee.  Out of that I’ll work / Myself a former fortune” (1050, 5.3.201-03).  He knows that Martius’ peace-making can be turned into a reason to dismiss him from the Volscians’ good graces.  We might at this juncture find it appropriate to read Martius’ impending downfall as something like a gloss on the brittleness of the stoic philosophy, which has here shown itself vulnerable to that most Freudian of enemies, “the return of the repressed”: that is, all the human feeling that Martius tried to bury or burn away now comes flooding back, with disastrous results for him.

Act 5, Scenes 4-6 (1050-56, Menenius laments getting only a letter importing conditions from Martius; good news arrives regarding Martius’ peace offer; Martius returns to Corioles, only to be betrayed by Aufidius before the city’s lords and then cut down by assassins)

Menenius laments that he had so little success with Martius, while it’s reported that the people in their desperation have captured the tribune Brutus and are threatening to kill him if Martius’ wife and mother don’t bring home good news.  But good news comes, and that sets the stage for Martius’ sad end in Corioles, even as he returns to that alien city to great acclaim.  Aufidius speaks with several conspirators of his faction, and resolves in bitterness to kill his old adversary: “he sold the blood and labour / Of our great action; therefore shall he die, / And I’ll renew me in his fall” (1055, 5.6.46-48).  As formerly, Aufidius proves himself devious in deed as well as vow: violent fraud is fine with him.  Power is an economy that relies on the principle of scarcity: more for one person is less for another.

When Martius reveals to the Volscian lords that he has “made peace / With no less honour to the Antiates / Than shame to th’Romans” (1054, 5.6.79-81) and offers to show them the exact conditions in writing, his reward is Aufidius’ “Read it not, noble lords, / But tell the traitor in the highest degree / He hath abused your powers” (1054, 5.6.84-86).  Assassins soon thereafter kill Martius at Aufidius’ bidding, only to provoke the latter’s remorse: “My rage is gone, / And I am struck with sorrow” (1055-56, 5.6.147-48).

Final Thoughts

In Coriolanus, there really does seem to be a classical touch in that the play, like many Greek tragedies, is much more about attitude than action.  It isn’t always so in Shakespeare’s plays, which have plenty of physical action and events.  Coriolanus repeats Martius’s excessive virtues and over-the-top expression of them, and the attitudes of others towards these expressions.  This is a pattern that repeats a number of times in the play, and lends it its structure. 

Of course, Martius Coriolanus doesn’t have the complexity of a Macbeth or a Hamlet.  He is a one-dimensional man; unlike even the melodrama villain Richard III, he can’t run with chaos and make it his element.  He is a character devoid of inner conflict or turmoil; his consciousness is unified in its patrician, militaristic cast; this unity makes him as oddly compelling as he is ultimately resourceless in the face of the dreadful fate that overtakes him.  Perhaps there’s a limitation that Shakespeare is respecting in the material itself, from Plutarch, and he has brought out as much from it as he can, and goes mainly with structural excellence over depth of character. 

Samuel Johnson the neoclassical critic wrote that when we’re shown vice, it ought to disgust us — otherwise, the play’s influence over us will be bad.  In Coriolanus, virtue actually becomes disgusting to us, which is a problem.  Being so Roman that you’re un-Roman isn’t an attractive proposition.  We might compare this process to its obverse in Antony and Cleopatra, wherein Mark Antony is so Roman that he’s capable of embracing eastern luxury, dallying with Cleopatra the Hellenistic Egyptian ruler, and yet remaining Roman — at least until the end of the play, where things go badly for him.  Antony remains admirable in defeat, but I don’t see that Coriolanus does. 

As Machiavelli says, where the crowd is, there’s room only for the crowd and for its own “opinion,” which must be acknowledged.  Our unfortunate Roman general can’t abide in that fact; he can’t project an appearance that differs from who he really is.  In the end, what he is turns out to be so limiting that he can’t overcome the force of circumstance. Finally, it is worth referring to an ancient pattern that sheds further light on the tragedy that befalls Coriolanus.  It’s the one we can find in the biographies of the Greek general and (according to Plato) favorite pupil of Socrates, Alcibiades (c. 450-404 BCE), and the Athenian historian (see his excellent book The Peloponnesian War) and general Themistocles (c. 524-459 BCE).  The former was a skilled, aristocratic general whose labyrinthine career made him at times lauded and vilified by the Athenians and who met a bad end in Phrygia, while Themistocles (not born an aristocrat) was exiled to Argos and ended up in the service of the Persian ruler Artaxerxes I.  Both of these men were the product of their times and of the complex Athenian value system by which their people lived.  In both cases, a strong feeling of betrayal or, to borrow a Miltonic phrase, “sense of injured merit,” seems to have led profoundly talented men to take on the status of traitors to their group.  The superiority that may have put stable prominence before these leaders’ eyes was treated by the Greeks in a rather mercenary fashion, like a tool to be cast aside as soon as present work was done, and so they ended up alienated from what had made them who they were.  Caius Martius Coriolanus’ fate is not dissimilar to those of Themistocles or Alcibiades: he is the excess of the code that generated or scripted him, and the excess of that caste-based honor code proves destructive both to him personally and to the Roman state.

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

Antony and Cleopatra

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Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 879-967).

Act 1, Scene 1 (890-91, Our first image of Antony with Cleopatra: he is both a Roman and a man of the east)

Antony and Cleopatra are introduced first by Antony’s friends, but almost at once we hear a dialogue between the two lovers.  What is their image at this early point?  How does the dialogue and presentation of Antony capture the dual impulse that runs through the man’s character?  He is both a Roman and a man of the East: “Let Rome in Tiber melt … / … Here is my space” (890, 1.1.35-36).  And what is he doing in this place of his?  Well, he spends part of his time carousing and walking the streets to “note / The qualities of people” (891, 1.1.35-36). 

Act 1, Scene 2 (891-96, Antony resolves to go back to Rome and deal with pressing matters; Enobarbus concurs about prioritizing war, politics over women)

Antony is clearly aware of Cleopatra’s influence on him, and admires her whimsicality, excess, and sense for the absolutism of the dilatory moment as opposed to Roman thoughtfulness and adherence to necessity.  Enobarbus is just as aware, and he thinks women should not be so highly esteemed in proximity to great political and military matters: “Under a compelling occasion let women die” (894, 1.2.125, see 125-31).  Antony’s response to the military movements of Labienus (Roman commander of a Parthian army) and to the death of his wife Fulvia is characteristically complex; with regard to the first issue, he says “These strong Egyptian fetters I must break, / Or lose myself in dotage” (894, 1.2.105-06).  As for the second, Antony is riven by genuine sympathy for Fulvia and yet realizes that he had more or less wished this on her: “What our contempts doth often hurl from us / We wish it ours again” (894, 1.2.112-13).  By the end of this scene, Antony is determined to make his way back to Rome.  Amongst other things, there’s Sextus Pompeius to deal with since this son of Pompey the Great is menacing the triumvirate by sea (895, 1.2.167-69).  He evidently feels he must get Cleopatra’s approval to take care of business, but he admits this freely (895, 1.2.161-63).  But in truth, he won’t have too much trouble with her in getting that approval, a fact that is apparent from her insightful remark, “on the sudden / A Roman thought hath struck him” (893, 1.2.72-73).  Antony is open to the pleasures and attractions of the east, but it’s just as certain that “Roman thoughts” will strike him when that becomes necessary.

Act 1, Scene 3 (896-98, Cleopatra manipulates Antony, but he understands her eastern self-fashioning; in the end his decision holds to return to Rome)

Cleopatra manipulates Antony, calling him a dissembler and an actor when it comes to loyalty: “Good now, play one scene / Of excellent dissembling, and let it look / Like perfect honor” (898, 1.3.77-80).  And throughout this scene, we see him trying to justify his decision to return to Rome to deal with pressing matters.  Cleopatra knows how to speak the language of Roman honor: “Your honor calls you hence” (898, 1.3.98) she says to Antony, and to some extent seems actually to mean it: it’s time to let Antony be Antony.  This scene is subtle in its revelation of what the two lovers know about each other: when Cleopatra declares that her “oblivion is a very Antony, / And I am all forgotten” (898, 1.3.91-92), Antony’s response is, “But that your royalty / Holds idleness your subject, I should take you / For idleness itself” (898, 1.3.92-94).  In other words, he understands that she is just as much an actor as she claims he is: the “eastern extravagance” pose is something that this female Ptolemy (i.e. a Greek) employs to her advantage, not something she can’t help but assume.

Act 1, Scene 4 (898-900, Octavius Caesar’s complaints about Antony’s “wassails” and neglect, but also confidence in the man)

Here and elsewhere, we should attend to Caesar’s (Octavius’) view of Antony’s conduct in the east.  Caesar has complaints about Antony’s unseemly behavior, and suggests that he, at least (young as he is), knows how to wield power.  Caesar references Antony’s longstanding reputation for valor, he feels that this reputation will shame him into returning to the field: “Leave thy lascivious wassails” (900, 1.4.56), he scolds the older man in absentia, and expresses confidence that Antony’s shame at abandoning his Roman manner will “Drive him to Rome” (900, 1.4.74).  Antony’s later admission of “neglect” (in Act 2, Scene 2) won’t go over well with Caesar the corporation man, whose model is Aeneas, with a twist of Machiavellian guile to produce the appearance of piety.

Act 1, Scene 5 (900-02, Cleopatra’s love for Antony and extravagant view of him foregrounded while he’s away in Rome)

We see another side of Cleopatra here, the one that is truly in love with Antony and would just as well “sleep out this great gap of time” (900, 1.5.5) in his absence.  Theirs is not simply a political alliance, it’s beyond that, and while Cleopatra’s motives are complex, her connection with Antony is one of the world’s grandest tragic loves.  She muses fondly about him, and mentions her earlier affair with Julius Caesar, who, she is certain, considered her “A morsel for a monarch” (900, 1.5.31).  Cleopatra has an extravagant sense of Antony’s worth, one that fits his sense of himself and that he repays with similar extravagance towards her.  Nowhere is this more evident than when she calls him, “The demi-Atlas of this earth, the arm / And burgonet of men” (901, 1.5.33-34).  We may not see this godlike Antony in action through most of the play, but a genuinely admiring mutual representation bonds the two lovers together.

Act 2, Scene 1 (902-04, Sextus Pompeius finds fault with Caesar and Antony, feels confident in his victory)

Sextus Pompeius, the son of Pompey the Great, thinks the people love him, while he’s convinced that Caesar wins no hearts with his soulless efficiency and that Antony is wasting his strength with Cleopatra in Egypt (903, 2.1.9-16).  Sextus has an illustrious father in the late Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus or “Pompey the Great,” a member of the unofficial first triumvirate from 59-53 BCE along with Julius Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus; the more official “second triumvirate” from 43-33 BCE and current in this play is composed of Marcus Antonius or “Antony,” Octavius (grand-nephew and adopted son and heir of Julius Caesar), and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus.

Act 2, Scene 2 (904-10, Octavius confronts Antony over his shortcomings; Agrippa proposes a match between Antony and Octavia; Enobarbus describes Cleopatra grandly and pays tribute to her appeal for Antony)

Caesar and Antony confront each other, each bringing his own grievances and assumptions to the table.  Caesar’s claims are very ponderous: he tasks Antony with the fact that Fulvia and Antony’s brother stirred up wars against him in Antony’s name (905, 2.2.46-48) and that Antony ignored his messengers while carousing in Alexandria (906, 2.2.75-78).  But worst of all, says Caesar, in refusing to assist him with military supplies and money when required, he has broken faith (906, 2.2.85-87, 93-94).  Antony’s admission that he “Neglected, rather” (906, 2.2.94) doesn’t go over well with Caesar as Rome’s ultra-steady, responsible corporation man, so to speak: his model is Virgil’s Aeneas, with a twist of Machiavellian guile to produce the appearance of piety.  While Antony goes around behaving like a wild Greek or luxurious Egyptian, Octavius is a high-level antecedent of our modern 1950s “man in the gray flannel suit”: he thinks of Rome first and does what’s needed to keep the machinery of state running and the coffers full.

Enobarbus is mildly rebuked for trying to butt in, but Agrippa helps resolve the tension between them, at least for the present, by successfully proposing a match between Caesar’s sister Octavia and Antony: “Thou hast a sister by the mother’s side …” (907, 2.2.124). Dynastic obligation will bring these two men of very different character together and keep them from tearing the country apart, or at least that’s the plan.

Enobarbus then talks with Agrippa and Maecenas, offering us a new image of the famous Cleopatra, one that Shakespeare has borrowed for him from the historian Plutarch’s Lives, specifically, “The Life of Julius Caesar,” which along with “The Life of Antony” is Shakespeare’s main source for the entire play.  (Sources for Antony and Cleopatra.)  He describes her almost as a goddess, as a woman beyond description: “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne / Burned on the water…. / … / For her own person, it beggared all description” (908-09, 2.2.197-98, 203-204; see 197-211).  He also mentions how savvy she is, how well she plays her charms to her advantage, making Antony visit her rather than the other way around (909, 2.2.225-27).  Cleopatra, he knows, exercises a strong hold over Antony’s imagination and passions.  She instills a kind of desire that doesn’t lead to satiation (235ff), and sanctifies things that would otherwise be vile, beyond the strict Roman sense of appropriateness and inappropriateness: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety” (909, 2.2.240-41).  That capacity is a big part of her attraction—Cleopatra is charismatic and larger than life.

Act 2, Scene 3 (910-11, a soothsayer tells Antony to stay away from lucky Caesar; uneasy, Antony resolves to return to Egypt)

Antony speaks to a soothsayer, who tells him to stay away from Caesar because this opponent is bound to rise higher than Antony: “If thou dost play with him at any game / Thou art sure to lose…” (910, 2.3.23-24). Caesar is almost as much an “evil spirit” (Norton Tragedies, 311, 4.2.333) for Antony as Julius Caesar was for Brutus on the plain at Philippi.  In his presence, the great Roman is afraid, unmanned.  Antony knows this, and says that “the very dice obey” Caesar (910, 2.3.31).  Fortune seems to be on the younger man’s side, even though Antony is a ladies’ man and ought to be on better terms with Lady Fortune.  Antony resolves to return to Egypt: “though I make this marriage for my peace, / I’th’ East my pleasure lies” (911, 2.5.37-38).

Act 2, Scenes 4-5 (911-14, Lepidus will be late to meet the triumvirs; Cleopatra teases absent Antony about their fishing trips, but is then stricken with jealousy when she hears about the match with Octavia: she strikes the messenger)

In the fourth scene, we learn that Lepidus will be late on his way to Misenum where the triumvirate will meet.  No doubt we are to understand his lateness as symptomatic of his weak position within the second triumvirate (911, 2.4.1-10).

In the fifth scene, Cleopatra has fun at Antony’s expense, saying that he’s like the great fish she proposes to catch in the Nile: “I’ll think them every one an Antony” (911, 2.5.14; see lines 10-14).  And Charmian reminds Cleopatra of the time when she tricked Antony while they were fishing together, hanging an already dead fish on his hook for him to haul in (911-12, 2.5.15-18).  Cleopatra seems to delight in stealing from Antony his masculine symbolic power (the sword with which he earned victory against the conspirators Brutus and Cassius, who killed his friend Julius) and donning it herself: she recounts how she drank him to bed and then “put my tires and mantles on him whilst / I wore his sword Philippan” (912, 2.5.22-23). 

Cleopatra soon learns that Antony will marry Octavia, and this causes her to strike the messenger (913, 2.5.61), but then invites him back so that he may inform her about Octavia’s looks (914, 2.5.112-14). 

Act 2, Scene 6 (914-17, Sextus Pompeius reconciles with Caesar and Antony; Menas and Enobarbus trade wisdom on Sextus and Antony)

Sextus Pompeius makes a deal with Caesar in which he’s to take Sicily and Sardinia, but rid the seas of piracy and send wheat to Rome (915, 2.6.34-39).  He reconciles with Caesar and Antony, and Menas says to Enobarbus, “Pompey / doth this day laugh away his fortune” (917, 2.6.103-04).  Enobarbus, for his part, says that Antony “will to his Egyptian dish again; then shall the sighs of / Octavia blow the fire up in Caesar” (917, 2.6.123-24; see 122-27).  Enobarbus realizes that the marriage with Octavia is purely a matter of convenience.  Antony’s heart is in Egypt with Cleopatra, and that is where he will return.

Act 2, Scene 7 (918-21, Antony wins a drinking contest with Lepidus and Octavius; Sextus Pompeius puts honor before success and loses Menas’ respect)

Lepidus, the weakest member of the second triumvirate, is made quite drunk at the meeting between the three and their attendants at Misenum.  Antony makes sport of him by answering his silly questions about crocodiles with ludicrous tautologies: he tells Lepidus, the crocodile “is shaped, sir, like itself, and it is as broad as it hath / breadth” (919, 2.7.39-40). 

Meanwhile, Sextus Pompeius shows himself to be so indebted to the concept of Roman honor that it prevents him from taking Menas’ advice: why not simply invite the triumvirs on board his ship and kill them (919, 2.7.67-70)?  Pompeius says that the man ought to have done this without telling him about it (919, 2.7.70-74).  Menas loses faith in Pompeius because of this rigidity—such an opportunity, he knows, will not come again: “Who seeks and will not take when once ‘tis offered, / Shall never find it more” (920, 2.7.78-79).

Scene 7 shows the triumvirs’ attitude towards drinking.  As the saying goes, in vino veritas.  We find out that Lepidus can’t hold his liquor, which suggests that he lacks self-mastery and is a follower, not a leader; Antony bows to nobody as a wassailer; and Caesar would just as well stay sober (920, 2.7.91-93, 96-97).  It’s obvious that he is determined to keep his wits about him, and is more responsible in his relationship to power than Antony.  Judgments are being made in this scene about who is a “real Roman” and who is most likely to succeed. 

We have seen how other Romans accuse Antony of “turning on, tuning in, and dropping out,” to adapt a line from the 1960’s guru Timothy Leary.  But at this point in the play, Antony seems the strong master of revels; his range of experience and his appeal to others extends beyond Roman austerity and severity.  In his openness to experience, Antony is more of an Odyssean Greek than a Roman.  But as T. S. Eliot writes in his 1921 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”

Act 3, Scene 1 (921-22, Ventidius explains the Roman political star system: subordinates don’t upstage their commanders)

We might take the first few scenes as a commentary on Roman values.  Ventidius in Syria has returned in triumph, having defeated the Parthians who had done so much harm to Roman armies.  But he doesn’t pursue the Parthians simply because doing so would mean upstaging his commanding officer, Antony: “I have done enough.  A lower place, note well, / May make too great an act” (921, 3.1.12-13).  In a fiercely competitive Roman political universe, there is something like a star system in place: subordinates do not upstage their betters, if they know what’s good for them. 

Act 3, Scene 2 (922-24, Octavia and Caesar are sad at parting; Enobarbus’ gloss of the historical Antony)

Octavia weeps, and Caesar is sad at parting (922, 3.2.3-6).  Enobarbus undercuts the notion put forth by Agrippa that Antony wept without complication at the death of Julius Caesar: he says, “What willingly he did confound he wailed, / Believe’t, till I wept too” (923, 3.2.59-60).  Shakespeare seems concerned to remind us that we are dealing with historical events that have become shaded over with mythology, and the view he prefers at some points is the practical Roman perspective we find in Enobarbus’s clear-eyed statements.  What Enobarbus is suggesting is that Antony’s grief over the death of Caesar was no doubt sincere but also that his political wheels were spinning all the while, and the subject to be determined was how, exactly, Antony was going to position himself in the wake of this sad event.

Act 3, Scene 3 (924-25, Cleopatra rewards the messenger for reporting that she’s better looking than Octavia)

Cleopatra finds out that Octavia isn’t as beautiful as she—in fact, interprets Cleopatra from what the messenger says, she is “Dull of tongue, and dwarfish” (924, 3.2.16).  Cleopatra now rewards the messenger she had earlier struck (924-25).

Act 3, Scene 4 (925-26, War is brewing between Antony and Caesar)

War is brewing between Caesar and Antony, the latter of whom details his grievances to Octavia: Caesar, he says, has “waged / New wars ’gainst Pompey, made his will and read it / To public ear, spoke scantly of me …” (925, 3.4.3-5).  Antony agrees that Octavia might be helpful as a go-between, and he seems genuine in his desire that she should follow her heart in choosing sides, if that should become necessary: “Make your soonest haste; / So your desires are yours” (926, 3.4.27-28, see 20-28). 

Act 3, Scene 5 (926-27, Caesar has arrested Lepidus)

Lepidus and Caesar have warred with Pompeius, and then Caesar has arrested Lepidus (926, 3.5.10). 

Act 3, Scene 6 (927-29, Caesar is angry at Antony’s outrageous Egyptian self-crowning and at his treatment of Octavia)

In the sixth scene, Caesar is outraged when Antony and Cleopatra crown themselves in Asiatic splendor (927, 3.6.3-5).  The Roman people know of this, says Caesar (927, 3.6.21), who also declares himself annoyed that Octavia has come to visit him without the appropriate ceremony (928, 3.6.42-43).  His contempt for Antony’s conduct shows most when he says of the man, “He hath given his empire / Up to a whore” (928, 3.6.66-67).  Well, Caesar had agreed to the match between his rival and Octavia readily enough in spite of his reservations about Antony’s character.  Now he invites Octavia to stay on his side, suggesting that Antony has betrayed her: “You are abused / Beyond the mark of thought” (929, 3.6.86-87).

Act 3, Scene 7 (929-31, Cleopatra takes offense at Enobarbus’ suggestion to stay out of the wars; Antony decides to fight Caesar by sea on a dare; Antony is surprised at the speed and efficiency of Caesar’s forces)

Enobarbus tells Cleopatra to stay out of the wars, and she’s insulted at the suggestion, especially his remark that her “presence needs must puzzle Antony” (929, 3.7.10).  She will take part in Antony’s wars, declaring that she will, “as the president of my kingdom will / Appear there for a man” 929, 3.7.16-17).  She is a ruler and doesn’t accept the role of a “weak woman.”  Antony now makes the disastrous decision to fight Caesar by sea because the latter has dared him to do so.  Enobarbus is aghast at this “un-Roman” impracticality, at this preference for chance and hazard instead of security (930, 3.7.34-39).  Perhaps Antony is foolhardy, but he’s also honorable and noble; power sits lightly upon his shoulders.  The hair of wise and responsible rulers turns gray quickly, but one senses that such a transformation isn’t likely to overtake Mark Antony.  He’s too reckless to be weighed down by the demands of power, and prefers an unstable alliance between honor and hazard to a more stable one of the sort Enobarbus would counsel, and Caesar would certainly maintain.  At the end of the scene, Antony seems very surprised at how briskly Caesar’s forces are moving into position (930, 3.5.56-60).  The men around Antony (Camidius in particular) feel that since he’s led by a woman, so are they: “we are women’s men” (931, 3.7.).

Act 3, Scenes 8-10 (931-32, Antony and Cleopatra meet with disaster at sea; Camidius decides to desert, but Enobarbus stays on for the time being)

Caesar and Antony strategize; the former is all about maintaining control over events: “Strike not by land… / … Do not exceed / The prescript of this scroll” (931, 3.8.3-5). By the tenth scene, we hear that the Egyptian fleet has cut and run (931-932, 3.10.1-3).  Scarus laments that Antony’s Romans have “kissed away / Kingdoms and provinces” (932, 3.10.7-8)  The charge is that Antony is irresponsible in his deployment of military power.  He has allowed his love of Cleopatra to blind him to sound counsel, and Scarus laments, “Experience, manhood, honour, ne’er before / Did violate so itself” (932).  Incredibly, Antony has followed Cleopatra’s shameful retreat at the first sign of danger.  Camidius decides that he might as well go over to Caesar since Antony has lost control over his own destiny (932, 3.10.32-34).  Enobarbus knows what Camidius knows, but still can’t bring himself to abandon his commander: “I’ll yet follow / The wounded chance of Antony, though my reason / Sits in the wind against me” (932, 3.10.34-36).

Act 3, Scene 11 (932-34, Antony recognizes his error and loss of identity; he is furious with Cleopatra, but pardons her for a kiss)

Antony is horrified—“I have fled myself…” (933, 3.11.7) and “I have offended reputation; / A most unnoble swerving” (933, 3.11.48-49), he says, understanding that he has thrown away everything he worked for.  What makes the situation even more intolerable is Caesar’s relative lack of martial skill and experience; Antony reminds us that it was he who killed his friend Julius’ assassins while the fledgling stood by: “He at Philippi kept / His sword e’en like a dancer …” (933, 3.11.35-36).  Antony has been a world-historical actor, and now his star is eclipsed by a lesser man, at least in his view. 

Antony is at first furious with Cleopatra, but reconciles with her almost immediately.  When she asks pardon, he grants it, considering himself well repaid with a kiss (934, 3.11. 70-74).  He evidently places Cleopatra above victory on the battlefield.

Act 3, Scene 12 (934-35, Cleopatra behaves submissively towards devious Caesar, who demands that she exile or kill Antony)

Antony sends his schoolmaster to treat with Caesar (935, 3.12. 7-10).  Cleopatra says she will submit to Caesar and wishes only to remain Queen of Egypt, and while Caesar disregards Antony’s request to live in Egypt, he orders that the queen be comforted and promised all she wants, so long as she either exiles or kills Antony (935, 3.12. 20-24).  He supposes this shift will work because women, as far as he is concerned, are infinitely malleable under the pressure of circumstance.

Act 3, Scene 13 (935-40, Enobarbus blames Antony for the military disaster, but still can’t desert him; Antony offers Caesar an absurd challenge to single combat; Cleopatra cooperates with Caesar; Antony tries to recover what Caesar “knew I was” and rages at Cleopatra, though he again reconciles with her; Enobarbus finally decides to desert Antony)

Enobarbus won’t blame Cleopatra.  He says Antony has made his will “Lord of his reason” (935, 3.13.4-5).  Antony absurdly challenges Caesar to single combat (936, 3.13.24-27).  Enobarbus is stunned, and feels that Antony has been entirely bereft of sound judgment: “Mine honesty and I begin to square” (936, 3.13.40).  Enobarbus continues to mull his relationship with Antony, and thinks his loyalty will earn him a place in the story books, so to speak: by sticking with Antony, he’ll “conquer” the man who defeated that noble Roman.  The loyal friend who does this, he suggests, “… earns a place i’th’ story” (936, 3.13.45; see 42-45).  This might be labeled a metadramatic concern because Shakespeare himself is clearly interested in how legends become enmeshed with history.  Much of this play (to borrow a phrase from the New Historians) is about a kind of “self-fashioning” that, if successful, becomes the narrative by which we know the boldest among the ancients.  Even in Antony and Cleopatra’s own time, mythmaking was at work, and so were its critics. 

Cleopatra seems to be going along with Caesar’s program, flattering him with the words “He is a god, and knows / What is most right” (937, 3.13.60-61), while her lover is still saying “I am / Antony yet” (938, 3.13. 92-93).  He wants to re-embrace his identity as a valorous Roman commander, and orders Caesar’s messenger soundly whipped (938, 3.13.93).  Soon, his anger again turns towards Cleopatra in the memorable line, “You have been a boggler ever” (938, 3.13.111), whom he accuses of latching onto and manipulating famous Roman men like Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, and himself to enhance her own power, which rests on the different and most un-Roman basis of alliance with divine splendor and awe.  “I found you as a morsel cold upon / Dead Caesar’s trencher…” (938, 3.13.117-18), he scolds Cleopatra.  The queen is the leader of an ancient personality cult, and while her stylistic affinity with Antony’s grandiose dimension is obvious, he now professes to find the whole affair disgusting.  Above all, he says, Cleopatra lacks “temperance” and indeed that she doesn’t even know the meaning of the word (938, 3.13.122). 

Antony’s anger also flows toward Caesar for “harping on what I am, / Not what he knew I was” (939, 3.13. 144-45).  Antony supposes that the reputation he has justly won entitles him to the continued respect and esteem of those who have overcome him.  The scene’s conclusion shows Antony reconciling yet again with Cleopatra (who after all seems to represent a tendency within him), and regains his composure: “I am satisfied,” he declares (939, 3.13.170).  Antony calls for a night of drinking and celebration on the eve of the final battle to recover his lost glory: “I and my sword will earn our chronicle. / There’s hope in’t yet” (940, 3.13.178-79).  He may yet win at Alexandria. 

This strange recovery on Antony’s part is the last straw for Enobarbus: “When valour preys on reason, / It eats the sword it fights with” (940, 3.13.201-02), says Enobarbus, and it’s time to desert his old commander at the earliest opportunity. 

Act 4, Scenes 1-6 (940-44, Battle is coming on and true natures are reckoned: Antony is elegiac but resolute and is magnanimous towards Enobarbus the deserter; Caesar shows the nature of his new world order in his ruthless military arrangements; Enobarbus abhors himself and determines to die)

These brief scenes convey the contrasting attitudes and reactions on the part of Antony and Caesar to towards the coming battle.  Antony is at times elegiac in tone, as in the second scene: “Perchance tomorrow / You’ll serve another master” (941, 4.2.27-28), he tells his men, and “I hope well of tomorrow…” (942, 4.2.42), to the dismay of Enobarbus. 

In the third scene, a soldier takes a noise to be Hercules abandoning Antony (942, 4.3.14-15), which is especially significant since Antony’s family claimed descent from that demigod. 

In the fourth scene, Antony seems resolute: he will bring the willing to the battle, and wishes Cleopatra could behold him in all his splendor: “That thou couldst see my wars today, and knew’st / The royal occupation!”  (943, 4.4.15-17). 

In the fifth scene, Antony learns that Enobarbus has deserted him, and realizes that his “fortunes have / Corrupted honest men” (944, 4.5.16-17).  He says these words to Eros and not in soliloquy, but they seem heartfelt. 

In the sixth scene, Caesar declares that “the time of universal peace is near” (944, 4.6.4), yet without compunction he also betrays the true nature of this new world order: he advises his lieutenant to place units recently revolted from Antony at the forefront, so that in the first rounds of the battle, Antony will be killing his own men (945, 4.6.8-10).  Enobarbus has now come to realize that he has destroyed his self-image in abandoning Antony: “I am alone the villain of the earth …” (945, 4.6.30).  When Antony generously sends him his treasure from camp, the desolation of Enobarbus is complete.  He resolves to die as quickly and wretchedly as possible: “I will go seek / Some ditch wherein to die” (945, 4.6.37-38).

Act 4, Scenes 7-12 (945-48, Antony enjoys temporary success; Enobarbus dies; Caesar will fight Antony by sea)

So far, Antony’s desperate gambit shows signs of success since, as Agrippa says, Caesar seems to have overextended his forces (946, 4.9.1-3) and Eros is able to announce to Antony, “They are beaten, sir” (946, 4.8.8).  For the moment, Caesar has been driven back to his camp, a fact that Antony trumpets in the ninth scene, with special instructions to inform the queen of this great feat (946, 4.9.1).

Enobarbus dies reasserting his admiration for Antony: “Forgive me in thine own particular, / But let the world rank me in register / A master-leaver and a fugitive,” he prays, and his beloved general’s name is the last word he utters. (4.10.19-21).  Friendship or amicitia was among the highest Roman values, and it is this value that Enobarbus realizes he has sordidly betrayed. 

In the twelfth scene, Caesar announces that he will fight Antony at sea one last time (948, 4.12.1-4).

Act 4, Scenes 13-14 (948-50, the fleet again deserts Antony, who becomes enraged with Cleopatra; Charmian advises Cleopatra to hide in a monument and play dead)

The fleet again deserts Antony (949, 4.13.3-4), even going over to Caesar’s side.  Upon this betrayal, Antony declares Cleopatra a “Triple-turned whore” (949, 4.13.13) and himself betrayed and finished, defeated by a cowardly queen and a journeyman politician: “O sun, thy uprise shall I see no more. / Fortune and Antony part here” (949, 4.13.18-19).  He is so infuriated with her that he seethes, “The witch shall die” (949, 4.13.47) and for a moment imagines her at the mercy of the Roman plebeians (949, 4.13.33-34).

Charmian advises Cleopatra to hide in a monument, and send false word of her death.  The Queen agrees.  (950, 4.14.3-4).

Act 4, Scene 15 (950-53, Antony believes Cleopatra has committed suicide, and botches an attempt at the same; Decretas takes his sword to give to Caesar)

Antony continues to lament what he considers Cleopatra’s betrayal, admitting that he “made these wars” for no one but Egypt and her (950, 4.15.15).  When he hears that she has supposedly committed suicide, however, he is again instantly reconciled: “I will o’ertake thee, Cleopatra, and / Weep for my pardon” (951, 4.15.44-45).  She has shown him the way in conquering herself, he thinks (951, 4.15.59-62), and thereupon makes a botched attempt to fall on his sword after his servant Eros commits suicide rather than assist his master in dying (952, 4.15.92-105).  Nobody will help Antony end his life, and Decretas even takes his sword as a token with which to ingratiate himself with Caesar (953, 4.15.111-12).

Act 4, Scene 16 (954-56, Antony and Cleopatra are together one last time, and as he is dying she plans to go out in the Roman way)

Antony and Cleopatra are together for one final scene, and when he tries to get her to seek safety and honor in Caesar, she bravely points out that “honour” and “safety” don’t go together (955, 4.16.49).  That has long been the creed Antony has followed, for better or for worse.  Antony falls back on the classical notion that glory is a matter of what your peers and descendants think of you.  His wretched present, he trusts, will not blot out the glorious remembrance he has earned by his brave deeds in the past: “please your thoughts / In feeding them with those my former fortunes …” (955, 4.16. 54-55; see 53-61).  Moments later, he dies.  Cleopatra says that she and Charmian, too, will evade the clutches of Caesar; they will exit the world instead “after the high Roman fashion, / And make death proud to take us” (956, 4.16.89-90).

Act 5, Scene 1 (956-58, Caesar, though ruthless, is saddened by Antony’s death; he tells Proculeius to deceive Cleopatra and thereby preserve her for an eventual spot in his triumph)

When Decretas informs Caesar that Antony is dead, he seems genuinely saddened: “The breaking of so great a thing should make / A greater crack” (956, 5.1.14-15).  Antony lived prodigiously, and yet his passing has been noted as if it were a thing of nothing, no ceremony.  Caesar may not be much of a pageantry promoter, but he shows some regard for the rites due to honor.  His sense of loss seems sincere, and he regrets what his need to maintain and increase his power has supposedly forced him to do (957, 5.1.35-48).  Which doesn’t, of course, mean that he wouldn’t do it again in a heartbeat.

Caesar serves political expediency as his master, but this doesn’t give us the right to say he’s a mere hypocrite: it is not unreasonable to suggest that his strength consists partly in the attitude he takes up towards what his station as a public man leads him to do.  His ruthless actions are taken in the name of “universal peace” and the greater glory of Rome.  He sometimes deceives others about the nature of what he does, but he doesn’t deceive himself about the disjunction between his ideals and his deeds. 

We see all this in the way he treats Cleopatra: he bids Proculeius to treat the queen kindly and make her what promises he finds suitable, but this is only a shift to bring her in triumph to Rome, where she will be an object of mockery for the rabble: “for her life in Rome / Would be eternal in our triumph” (957, 5.1. 65-66; see 61-68).

Act 5, Scene 2 (958-67, Cleopatra engages in final self-refashioning as a Roman hero, exalts Antony to the skies; Dolabella warns her of Caesar’s plan, and she determines to meet Antony in death; Caesar personally tries to deceive and threaten Cleopatra, but she succeeds in committing suicide; Caesar recognizes his opponents’ mettle after their deaths)

Cleopatra is refashioning herself as heroic in the Roman style, as one determined to take her own life.  We might suppose this is a matter of adopting a style; but then, Cleopatra takes style quite seriously, and her Pharaonic self-fashioning is no light matter.  It wouldn’t be right to take that quality away from her.  She is surrounded by Caesar’s soldiers, and now determines that she will not become the sport of the vulgar in Rome: “Shall they hoist me up / And show me to the shouting varletry / Of censuring Rome?”  (959, 5.2.54-56) 

In the presence of Dolabella, Cleopatra refashions and aggrandizes Antony to the point of deification, musing, “I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony” and “His legs bestrid the ocean /  his reared arm / Crested the world …” (960, 5.2.75, 81-82; see 81-91, 95-99).  She has always shown this propensity to exalt the deeds and reputation of Antony, but now that death is closing in, her efforts intensify and take on heightened significance; this is the “Antony” to whom Cleopatra will soon attempt to return in Elysium, reunited there as a still grander couple than they were on earth.

Dolabella plays an honorable role, forewarning Cleopatra of the shameful fate that awaits her in only three days (960-61, 5.2.104-09). 

Caesar enters and plays both gracious conqueror and vicious threatener of Cleopatra’s progeny, if she should follow Antony’s self-destructive course (961, 5.2.120-29).  When Seleucis betrays Cleopatra over her holding back some treasure from Caesar (961, 5.2.144), she is shocked (962, 5.2.155-60), which reaction suggests that she still doesn’t understand the dynamics of power: people obey those in whom they find real, actionable strength; they don’t long obey those who have only majesty and divine pomp to back their rule.  She resents being “worded” by Caesar (962, 5.2.187-88), and loathes the prospect of “Some squeaking Cleopatra boy[ing] my greatness, / I’th’ posture of a whore” (963, 5.2.216-17; see 203-17).  She has always been an actor of sorts, but in her own proper sphere as Egyptian Queen, her acting the part of a goddess had been correlated with the exercise of power.  In Rome, what had been world-historical drama would be reduced to an entertaining farce for the multitude.

Cleopatra declares that there will be a final meeting with Antony in death: “I am again for Cydnus / To meet Mark Antony” (963, 5.2.224-25).  It is noteworthy that the place name refers to her initial seduction of Antony in 41 BCE, when he summoned her to Tarsus and she floated down the river Cydnus on that famous barge we recall from Enobarbus’ description (908-09, 2.2.197-211).  Cleopatra will achieve this meeting—essentially a return to an initial triumph—by casting off the supposed weakness of her sex: “I have nothing / Of woman in me” (964, 5.2.234-35). 

In comes the Clown, with his prayer that Cleopatra may find “all joy of the worm” or Nile serpent he has brought her (964, 5.2.253).  It’s worth considering why Shakespeare has chosen to present Cleopatra with her death in this semi-comic, bizarre rustic.  Perhaps it has something to do with the utter strangeness of each person’s ending, at least to that person; perhaps, also, it has to do with the fact that as Cleopatra lived and risked all for an erotic affair, the Clown’s patently phallic references (his puns on “dying” as orgasm in particular at 964, 5.2.244-50) end up being as pertinent  as they are indecorous and impertinent on his part.  A third consideration is that the Clown presents the queen with one last challenge to her royal and wished-for divine dignity.  Be that as it may, Cleopatra meets her death bravely, calling upon Antony to witness her courage, saying, “I have / Immortal longings in me,” and “I am fire and air; my other elements / I give to baser life” (965, 5.2.271-72, 280-81).  She dies at (5.2.303), Iras having preceded her in passing just moments before.

Caesar, whom Cleopatra considers almost with her last breath an “ass / Unpolicied” (965, 5.2.298) for allowing her to make away with herself, enters the scene after her death and declares it noble and an act of loyalty to Antony.  He ratifies Charmian’s dying words that Cleopatra’s death is “well done, and fitting for a princess / Descended of so many royal kings” (966, 5.2.317-18), and agrees to bury her next to Antony, apparently recognizing the high tragedy of their doomed love match, the “pity” of which equals the “glory” of his current status as military victor and his future as Rome’s sole ruler (967, 5.2.348-53).  There’s dignity in sublime failure, it seems, as well as in the establishment of peace and long-continued rule.  Rome, Incorporated will have its shiny new CEO, and for Augustus Caesar, apotheosis to heaven can wait.  Both Antony and Cleopatra and Octavius Caesar are great in their respective ways, but the former are crushed by the modern world in which Octavius moves more deftly, if not with the same tragic glory.

Antony and Cleopatra’s manner of dying, and Caesar’s of living and governing, together show a clash of value systems, a fissure in the concept of Romanness.  I don’t think the play condemns either system, although it shows the consequences and historical import of both: modern, material politics wins.  We should bear in mind the strangeness of the final two acts’ tragic arc: Antony’s sudden condemnations and reconciliations, Cleopatra’s dissembling and final adoption of Roman heroism, Caesar’s recognition of the lasting narrative value of the great pair he has hounded to their demise.  Throughout the play, Antony and Cleopatra have been both each other’s downfall and salvation: in the end, Cleopatra’s initial false suicide taught Antony to do the right thing in earnest, and that suicide, in turn, led Cleopatra to exit the world’s stage like the hybrid Egyptian Queen and antique Roman she had become. 

There is just the hint of an imperfectly realized romance pattern in Antony and Cleopatra: we might say that this hint is to be found in the fourth act when the royal couple are forced to attempt a transition from the loss of supreme power to a more perfect union as lovers.  It’s true that this play, in terms of Shakespeare’s chronology, is crafted at the tail end of his so-called dark period and on the cusp of the romance plays that round off his career.  But romance entails selective survival; even as it provides second chances and near-miraculous reconciliations, instilling in us a sense that the world isn’t quite as harsh as we thought it was, romance requires us to accept the reality that recovery comes only with partial loss and the admission of alterations wrought by time and foolishness.  The romance pattern can’t altogether annihilate time or decay, and it doesn’t seem to allow for straightforward exaltation or apotheosis to perfection.  In the end, its miracles are profoundly human, and tinged with sorrow and mortality.  The historical record in the case of Antony and Cleopatra, of course, makes the romance pattern impossible: that record tells us of the liquidation of a famous couple at the hands of a power-consolidating corporation man in Octavius.  Shakespeare takes the two lovers in a different direction more consonant with tragedy.  Their persistent, impressive self-mythologizing and image-projecting lends them a measure of larger-than-lifeness, and they place their love beyond any power that Caesar’s politics and armies can wield against them.  The play remains firmly in the tragic camp since the relentless pursuit by Caesar at last yields the results he’s been aiming for: sole possession of the world’s first superpower, the Roman Empire. If there’s success for Antony and Cleopatra, it’s that audiences during and since Shakespeare’s time have probably found it difficult to decide between the romantic status of the two great lovers and the historical achievements of the enigmatic Octavius, thereafter to be known as Augustus Caesar.

What we are treated to, then, is not the bittersweet survival and renewal that we encounter in plays such as The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, but instead Antony and Cleopatra’s classical attempt by means of soaring words and exuberant perspectives to attain a new and marvelous love beyond the wreckage that was the end of the Roman Republic, with its proscriptions, assassinations, wars and internecine rivalries, and beyond even the birth of the Empire.  This sounds like a classical apotheosis to the heavens after the manner of ancient Greek heroes who became demigods after their deaths; this apotheosis involves the transposition of a perfect love into another and diviner key: this attempted transformation, at least if we do not grant Cleopatra her metaphysical reunion with Antony, fits the tragic pattern, and we are left with the crushing of a magnificent couple’s last-minute attempts at projecting themselves to a perpetual match in the heavens and thereby escaping their failure in the material world dominated by Caesar.

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

Cymbeline, King of Britain

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Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

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

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


[1] Johnson, Samuel. Notes to Shakespeare, Vol. III. Comments on Cymbeline. The Augustan Reprint Society. Accessed 2/16/2024.

[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.

[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.

[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.

[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.

[10] Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Accessed 2/15/2024.  

[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.

[13] Peacock, Thomas Love. “The Four Ages of Poetry,” 1820. Accessed 2/16/2024.

[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.

[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.

[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.

[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.

[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.

[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.

[30] Arnold, Matthew. “Preface to Poems, 1853.” Pg. 12. In Poems by Matthew Arnold. London & New York: Oxford UP, 1909. Accessed 2/18/2024.

[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

The Tempest

Commentaries on
Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

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

Of Interest: RSC’s Tempest Page | Strachey’s 1610 “True Reportory” | Jourdain’s 1610 A Discovery of the Bermudas | Montaigne’s “Of Cannibals”

Shakespeare’s Romance Mode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act 3, Scene 1 (401-03, The Courtship of Ferdinand and Miranda advances; Prospero goes to his book to prepare for his triumph over Antonio, Alonso, and Sebastian.)

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

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

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

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

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

Act 3, Scene 2 (403-06, Caliban encourages Stefano to murder Prospero as he sleeps; Stefano flatters himself with plans for governing his kingdom; Ariel frustrates the conspiracy.)

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

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

Act 3, Scene 3 (407-10, King Alonso’s despair over Ferdinand begins and ends the scene; Prospero is nearing the pinnacle of his power: spirits lay out a banquet for Antonio, Alonso, and Sebastian; Ariel, in the form of a harpy, promptly snatches it away and admonishes these bewitched “men of sin.”)

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

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

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

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

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

Act 4, Scene 1 (410-17, Prospero urges restraint on Ferdinand, summons spirits to prepare a show for Ferdinand and Miranda: Juno and Ceres bless their coming union; Prospero sums up the vision — “we are such stuff …” and is overcome with thoughts of Caliban’s conspiracy: he is tempted to act tyrannically against the conspirators.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act 5, Scene 1 and Epilogue (417-25, Prospero forgoes vengeance: both sets of conspirators are trapped, there are faults called out and forgiven; King Alonso is reunited with Ferdinand; the Boatswain reports that the ship is ready; Prospero will sail to Naples for Miranda’s wedding, then go home to rule Milan and study the art of dying well; Ariel is finally set free.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Winter’s Tale

Commentaries on
Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

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Shakespeare. The Winter’s Tale. (The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, third ed. 315-86).

Of Interest: Greene’s Pandosto, the Triumph of Time

Act 1, Scene 1 (315-16, Camillo recounts the childhood closeness of Polixenes and Leontes as well as their subsequent friendship in adulthood, and praises Mamillius for his effect on the kingdom of Sicilia)

We hear how Polixenes of Bohemia and Leontes of Sicilia grew up together. But Camillo also describes the aftermath of that upbringing in a way that is clearly positive but that could also be interpreted ambivalently. The original affection of the two men, he says, “cannot / choose but branch now” (316, 1.1.20-21), and their subsequent relationship has been through intermediaries: “their encounters, / though not personal, hath been royally attor- / neyed with interchange of gifts, letters, loving embassies, / that they have seemed to be together though absent” (316, 1.1.23-25). We are also told that Leontes’s son Mamillius has an almost magical effect upon the kingdom’s subjects; the boy “makes / old hearts fresh” (316, 1.1.33-34) and even overcomes the desire of the very old to die. This upbeat initial description of the relationship will be rendered more complicated in the subsequent scene in Act 1 when we see how Leontes and Polixenes themselves interact at present, and how Polixenes and Hermione discuss the former’s relationship with Leontes.

Act 1, Scene 2 (316-28, Polixenes decorously turns down Leontes’s entreaty to extend his nine-month stay, and describes for Hermione how close he and Leontes were as boys; Hermione charms Polixenes into staying; Leontes is immediately stricken with searing jealousy at her success in persuading his friend, and after insulting Mamillius’s patrimony, he orders Camillo to kill Polixenes; Camillo remonstrates against Leontes, then feigns compliance with his order, but warns Polixenes to leave at once)

Leontes tries to get Polixenes to stay another week in Sicilia, but Polixenes begs off. The way he does so turns out to be unfortunate: he says to Leontes, “There is no tongue that moves, none, none i’th’world / So soon as yours could win me” (317, 1.2.20-21). Leontes then enlists his queen Hermione, who places her charms at the king’s service. She tells Polixenes that when Leontes visits Bohemia in turn, “I’ll give him my commission / To let him there a month behind the gest / Prefixed for’s parting” (317, 1.2.40-42). For some reason, she feels it necessary to reaffirm her great love for Leontes immediately thereafter: “I love thee not a jar o’th’ clock behind / What lady she her lord” (317, 1.2.43-44). The continuance of the exchange seems like innocent flirtation, but it is not difficult to see how a determined interpreter could make it sound otherwise. Shakespeare seems to have been familiar with Machiavelli’s work, and as we should know from that Italian author’s analysis in The Prince, rulers who carefully cultivate a reputation for honesty will have an easier time duping people when they really need to. Evidently, you can’t trust the people you most think you can trust—they’re the worst kind!

While conversing with Hermione, Polixenes memorably describes himself and Leontes as boys in pastoral terms: “We were as twinned lambs that did frisk i’th’sun / And bleat the one at th’other” (318, 1.2.67-68). Polixenes obliquely introduces the subject of mature sexuality in response to Hermione’s question about who was the “verier wag” (318, 1.2.66) of the two men when they were children: “We knew not / The doctrine of ill-doing nor dreamed / That any did” (318, 1.2.69-71). The following lines make it clear enough that the context is implicitly sexual, and Hermione picks up on this with a little innocent flirtation, accusing Polixenes of denigrating women as “devils” (319, 1.2.82). These comments may constitute the spurs to Leontes’s jealousy, which begins to appear as early as the line, “At my request he would not [stay]” (319, 1.2.87). Evidently, Leontes is not entirely delighted that Polixenes told him if his old friend couldn’t convince him to stay, no one could, and now he has given in to the lighthearted, if solicited, pleadings of Hermione. It’s as if he’s not simply angry at Hermione’s potentially flirtatious conduct, he’s jealous of her effectiveness with Polixenes. Is there some competition implied here between Leontes and Hermione for the attentions of Polixenes? It’s a plausible interpretation of the scene, especially since Renaissance cultures still promoted the classically based notion of friendship between men being of a higher sort than the love between male and female.

When we move from talk to a combination of talking and gesture, things go from bad to worse: in the previous conversation, it isn’t entirely clear if Leontes hears everything that passes between Hermione and Polixenes. Most productions show Leontes discussing papers or some such thing while his wife entreats Polixenes, and towards the end, he has to ask, “Is he won yet?” (318, 1.2.86), as if he’s been standing off to the side and giving them some privacy. If so, that mixture of public-spirited “command performance” and private intimacy is most unfortunate for Hermione, who can’t win either way. Leontes points out that it took him fully three bitter or “crabbèd” months to win his wife’s hand in marriage (319, 1.2.102), and now Hermione has won over Polixenes in a moment. Worse yet, she compares her successful suit to Polixenes to her courtship with Leontes: “I have spoke to th’ purpose twice,” she says. The first time was to get a husband, and the second was to win the presence of a friend, at least for a time (319, 1.2.106). It’s logical to suppose that after this, Hermione and Polixenes hold hands and speak or stand apart, and this rattles Leontes more than he can bear: “Too hot, too hot” (319, 1.2.108), he complains, and describes their bodily actions as “paddling palms and pinching fingers, / … and making practiced smiles / As in a looking glass; and then to sigh …” (319, 1.2.115-17). It’s hard to tell whether all of these gestures are supposed to be taken as faithfully described or as the exaggerations of a heated, fearful mind; either way, Hermione’s state is now perilous even though she doesn’t yet know it. We can’t miss it, however, since Leontes abruptly, if obliquely, asks Mamillius whether he is indeed his father’s son (319, 1.2.119-20).

Hermione’s interaction with Polixenes probably seems innocent to us, just like Desdemona’s dalliance with Michael Cassio in Othello. Or maybe it doesn’t—after all, if we’re putting ourselves in the mindset of first-time viewers, might we not share Leontes’s uncertainty? We don’t know Hermione from Eve. We know based on a full reading or viewing of the play that she is in fact simply behaving generously towards her husband’s dear friend, following her husband’s lead in using her charms to win a longer stay. This scene at the edge of happily ever after is soon shattered by Leontes’s abrupt change in passions (the medical term for the sudden change is affectio): he sees Hermione holding hands, chatting nicely, possibly whispering, and so forth, with his old friend, and is stricken with insane, uncontrollable jealousy. Jealousy stems from a disturbance in one person’s object-relation to another person; this powerful passion almost certainly inhabits, even haunts, all intimate relationships. We treat affection like a scarce good, almost in an economic way, and fall to rationing it as we do with other noble and charitable ideals. The “other” is transfixed as something permanent, stable, unchangeable, and then when that standard seems in danger of not being met, we become enraged. Even though there are some possibly ambivalent words and gestures to be processed in the current scene, there is generally no need for plot devices or long backstory work to show where jealousy comes from: it often presents itself as if from nowhere, in real life as well as in literature.

This doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that there’s no implied or potential history behind what we see in the first act of The Winter’s Tale. If jealousy is like a disease, I suppose it makes sense to point out that a person may not become symptomatic until the malady is well under way, and then the “presentation” of the disease may seem sudden and dramatic. (Perhaps in that sense jealously is like some forms of cancer that only manifest symptoms when the underlying disease is grievously advanced.) There may be an implied sense of competitiveness between Leontes and Polixenes from their youth up, one that may account in part for the strange spell of depraved jealousy into which Leontes falls. Or it may be that for whatever reason, Leontes was never really sure of his wife’s deep affection, and thus he was primed to fly into the jealous rage that causes everyone involved so much anguish.

In any case, once the madness strikes Leontes, jealousy becomes a filter for everything he sees. He categorizes himself as a confirmed cuckold: “Many thousand on ’s / Have the disease and feel’t not” (322, 1.2.205-06), and thanks to his misplaced passion, he misreads and reinterprets all Hermione’s actions as evidence of wickedness and everything everyone else does as corroboration of that wickedness. Camillo must be dishonest now because he can’t see what Leontes believes he himself sees (323, 1.2.242-49ff); Mamillius must be illegitimate; Hermione’s innocent words and actions are doubtless pure deception, and the child whom Paulina will set before his eyes at 2.3.65-66 (pg. 336) seems to him to bear no resemblance to himself. Leontes’s perceptual and interpretive apparatuses have become warped or “diseased” (to use Camillo’s term at 324, 1.2.297). The king becomes his own Iago and shares Othello’s absoluteness and incapacity to deal with uncertainty: “Is whispering nothing?” he asks Camillo (324, 1.2.284). As Iago says in Othello, “Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ” (Norton Tragedies 552, 3.3.319-21) Hermione must be either a saint or a whore; for Leontes, there is nothing in between, and any uncertainty about the matter is unwelcome.

No matter what Portia tells us about mercy in The Merchant of Venice, the quality of some charitable affections is forced and fragile. Cordelia’s understanding of love in Act 1 of King Lear may sound brittle and cold, but it’s probably accurate from the perspective of a young woman who will soon  embark upon her career as a member of the ruling order in Lear’s ancient Britain. As Cordelia sees things, we ration love: more for one person may mean less for others because in practical terms, love must be portioned out in units of time devoted to the beloved. When Cordelia marries, as she says, her aristocratic husband will take a certain amount of her love, which means that her father the king will get less of it. Here in Sicilia, it seems that there isn’t enough love available to maintain a sustainable economy of affection between Leontes, Hermione, and Polixenes. One doesn’t like to mention such unsettling things, but with due attention to perspective, they are true nonetheless.

Still, all isn’t quite lost: Leontes’s inner corruption seems unable to corrupt others: Camillo stays true to Hermione, and therefore to Leontes. He pretends that he will honor Leontes’s mad request to murder Polixenes (212, 1.2.335-36), but he refuses to poison this good man, with whom he agrees regarding the destructive effects of jealousy. Instead, Camillo informs Polixenes of Leontes’s intention to have him killed (213, 1.2.413) and helps him get away from Sicilia without delay. Camillo offers no hope of changing Leontes’s mind (214, 1.2.424-31), and Polixenes is surprisingly lenient in his thoughts about his old friend, considering how he has been treated: “This jealousy is for a precious creature,” Polixenes acknowledges, and given the great power of the man who is acting on that jealousy as well as his belief that his dearest male friend has betrayed him, it’s imperative that the king of Bohemia vacate the scene at once (328, 1.2.449-60).

There will be a cure for the distrustful absolutist Leontes, as we shall see later on: he must learn to see people once again as they really are, and stop allegorizing them as emblems of sin. The importance of the eye is emphasized in Renaissance perceptual theory (though the sense of hearing is also considered vital), and common sense suggests to us how fundamental the sense of sight is for our understanding of the world. To borrow from the Gospels’ metaphoric resources, “But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:23, KJB) Just now, everything has turned dark and demonic for Leontes, King of Sicilia.

Act 2, Scene 1 (328-33, Leontes stridently accuses Hermione of adultery and she is led off to prison; Antigonus tries to set him straight and fails; Leontes has commanded a trip to Apollo’s oracle, expecting confirmation)

Mamillius sets the scene by telling the attending women and Hermione, “A sad tale’s best for winter” (329, 2.1.26). But the sad tale of Leontes and Hermione prevents him from telling it: obsessed, Leontes says he has “drunk and seen the spider” at the bottom of the cup (329, 2.1.46), and goes on to accuse and order the arrest of Hermione as a treasonous adulteress, with no real hope of defense (331, 2.1.104-06). Hermione maintains her composure, saying “This action I now go on / Is for my better grace” (331, 2.1.122-23). As so often, the good are scarcely capable of defending themselves when evil or misprision furiously besets them: they don’t have the same resources available to them as those who have no scruples about morality or whose sensibilities have been corrupted by unhealthy, excessive passions. Hermione’s claims of innocence, it’s easy to see from this preliminary interaction, will stand no chance when the time comes to endure the proto-Stalinist show trial that Leontes has planned for her.

Next follows a discussion in which another counselor (like Camillo earlier) tries to set Leontes straight, to no effect: Antigonus tells the king, “You are abused, and by some putter-on / That will be damned for’t” (331-32, 2.1.141-43). But Leontes is set upon publicly declaring his wife unfaithful, and his final move in this scene is to report that he has sent his assistants Cleomenes and Dion to Apollo’s temple to consult the god’s oracle. It is now time to take the matter public.

Act 2, Scene 2 (333-35, Paulina determines to bring Hermione’s newborn daughter into Leontes’s presence)

Paulina confers with Emilia: Hermione’s newborn daughter should be brought before Leontes. “We do not know / How he may soften at the sight o’th’ child” (334, 2.2.40-41), she tells Emilia, and it isn’t hard for Paulina to convince the jailor that there’s no danger in it for him to let her leave with the child.

Act 2, Scene 3 (335-40, Mamillius falls ill; Paulina confronts Leontes with his child; Leontes orders Antigonus to expose the infant outside Sicilia; Apollo’s answer is on the way: Hermione will have her show trial)

Leontes continues to stew in his jealous anger. He can’t get to Polixenes or Camillo, but he can burn Hermione at the stake as a traitor (335, 2.3.7-9). Mamillius has taken ill, and Leontes puts it down to the boy’s knowledge of “the dishonor of his mother” (335, 2.3.13).

Paulina enters with the newborn child and is active and confrontational in dealing with Leontes, who tries to place the blame for the embarrassing encounter on Paulina’s husband Antigonus: “What, canst not rule her?” (336, 2.3.46) to which Antigonus answers, “When she will take the rein, I let her run …” (336, 2.3.51-52). The other characters at court aren’t corrupt; they’re just passive. Hermione is unable to deal with Leontes’s madness because she is the alleged cause and object of it, so a third party like Paulina is vital. She will keep the clock ticking so that romance time can work its magic: there will be time and opportunity and good will enough to avert entire tragedy. The scene has some comedy in it, with two powerful men unable to hold off the onslaught of Paulina, who even accuses Leontes of treason to his face: “he / The sacred honor of himself, his queen’s, / His hopeful son’s, his babe’s, betrays to slander …” (337, 2.3.83-85). She later calls him a tyrant (338, 2.3.115-20), which further enrages him. In comedy, the angry father or senex iratus is a straw man: consider Duke Frederick in As You Like It, who threatens death and injury all around but ends up looking ridiculous and then transforming suddenly in the Forest of Arden. There’s also Egeus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: this bullheaded father threatens his daughter Hermia with dire penalties for refusing to marry Demetrius, the suitor he has chosen for her. In the end, Egeus’s irrational obstacle-making comes to nothing. But in romance drama, there must be legitimate potential for a tragic turn, and that is what we have been witnessing here in The Winter’s Tale.

Leontes has already declared the infant to be “the issue of Polixenes” (337, 2.3.93), and his only thought is to cast both his wife and child into the traitor’s fire (338, 2.3.133). With Paulina pushed out the door and Antigonus accused of abetting her, the assembled lords kneel to bring Leontes to his senses, and at last he relents: “Let it live” (338, 2.3.156), he says, though the following line “It shall not neither” makes it clear that the resolution isn’t benign. The king’s final offer is as follows: Antigonus is to take the child and “bear it / To some remote and desert place” (225, 2.3.174-75), leaving its survival or death to chance. Leontes sees this as symmetrical justice since the child came initially “by strange fortune” (339, 2.3.178) to him, and so “chance may nurse or end it” (339, 2.3.182). Leontes’s decision at this juncture, though by no means benign in its intent, opens up the potential for the partially redemptive operations of romance time to begin working. We may recall that shipwrecked Viola’s best decision in Twelfth Night was to commit her cause to the play’s comic perspective regarding time. This is a similar moment in The Winter’s Tale, even though little “Perdita,” as she will subsequently be known, has no idea what’s happening: the decision is made for her by Leontes, a man who doesn’t mean her well, and it is carried out by one who does, Antigonus. (With regard to the name “Perdita,” see Antigonus’s phrase “Poor thing, condemned to loss” at 339, 2.3.191; the name means “the lost one” after perditus in Latin. Shakespeare’s verse requires accenting the word on its antepenult: Pér-di-ta.)

Finally, Leontes announces that his messengers are coming back soon with the oracle of Apollo’s pronouncement. As for Hermione, says Leontes, “as she hath / Been publicly accused, so shall she have / A just and open trial” (339-40, 2.3.202-04). His promise rings hollow since he is clearly in no doubt about the verdict.

Act 3, Scene 1 (340, Cleomenes and Dion are returning with the answer from Apollo’s oracle)

Cleomenes and Dion have done their job and now have the sealed response of Apollo’s oracle; they are returning to Sicilia and hoping the answer will be for Hermione’s good.

Act 3, Scene 2 (341-46, Hermione defends herself at trial; Leontes disrespects the oracle; Mamillius’s death shocks Leontes back to his senses; Hermione faints and Paulina pronounces her dead; Paulina confronts Leontes, who vows to visit his son and wife’s shrine daily: this will be his penance, his “recreation”)

Leontes, meet our modern conspiracy buffs! The accusation against Hermione read by the officer is preposterous: she stands accused of “high trea- / son, in committing adultery with Polixenes, King of Bohemia, / and conspiring with Camillo to take away the life of our sover- / eign lord the King …” (341, 3.2.13-16). Hermione’s self-defense is noble, but she hasn’t a prayer of success since this is a show-trial worthy of the paranoid Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. She loved Polixenes in just the way that Leontes demanded, she says, and as for Camillo, he is “an honest man” whose departure from the court is mystifying to her (342, 3.2.60-64, 72-74). Hermione’s quality shines through when she defies the threat of death: “Sir, spare your threats. / The bug which you would fright me with I seek” (342, 3.2.89-90) and simply calls for the reading of Apollo’s judgment (343, 3.2.113-14).

Apollo’s oracle tells Leontes that he is jaw-droppingly wrong and that he must recover what he has thrown away: “Hermione is chaste, Polixenes blameless, / Camillo a true subject, Leontes a jealous tyrant, his innocent / babe truly begotten; and the King shall live without an heir / if that which is lost be not found” (343, 3.2.130-33). Leontes dismisses the oracle’s words, saying “There is no truth at all i’the oracle,” (343, 3.2.136). Evidently, his ears fail him just as his eyes did. With this impious declaration, Leontes has reached the nadir of his madness.

The announcement of the death of his son Mamillius snaps Leontes out of his state of error, but he must live with the consequences of what he has done (343-44, 3.2.140-42). Leontes has thrown away his identity along with Hermione and Perdita, who are both a part of him, and now Mamillius is gone. Leontes finally realizes his error: “Apollo’s angry, and the heavens themselves / Do strike at my injustice” (344, 3.2.143-44). But there’s more sorrow in store for him when Hermione faints at the news of Mamillius’ death and is herself pronounced dead by Paulina (344, 3.2.145-46). What follows is an anguished confrontation with Paulina, who insists that Hermione is indeed gone (345, 3.2.200-04) but who also seems moved by Leontes’s overwhelming sorrow at his error. Of this, she says only, “What’s gone and what’s past help / Should be past grief” (346, 3.2.229-30). Leontes forms his plan for the future; the joint tomb of his wife and son will be his daily haunt: “Once a day I’ll visit / The chapel where they lie, and tears shed there / Shall be my recreation” (346, 3.2.235-37).

There will be serious consequences to reckon with from here on out: Hermione is now effectively placed in a state of suspended animation, so far as Leontes and the audience are informed. Leontes will have only an image, a shrine, for years to come. His depraved obliviousness to Apollo’s truth-saying has ensured this result. Leontes (like Lear and Cymbeline) has thrown away his identity, and he can’t snap his fingers and get it back. That he recognized his error the instant Apollo’s wrath supposedly struck down his son has made self-recovery and redemption possible, if not quick. We will see that Paulina, in spite of her sometimes harsh words and attitude, will assist Leontes in his long time of penance, replete with frequent visits to the shrine of the woman he has wronged.

Act 3, Scene 3 (346-49, Antigonus dreams of Hermione, exposes Perdita, is eaten by a bear; a shepherd discovers the child with gold; he and his son plan good deeds and a secure future)

While traveling by ship to Bohemia, Antigonus dreams of Hermione, who informs him that his end is near and gives him instructions on where to leave the child and what to name her: Perdita, the lost one. Antigonus is now convinced that Hermione is dead. He thereupon suffers the full consequences of his own failure to resist Leontes’s culpable behavior, which is implicit in dream-Hermione’s language: “For this ungentle business / Put on thee by my lord, thou ne’er shalt see / Thy wife Paulina more …” (347, 3.3.33-35). Act 3 ends on a note of savagery and tempest: “Exit, pursued by a bear” but also with great regard for the future. It seems that in this romance play, Antigonus’s exit is Perdita’s entrance into a brave new world. As the Old Shepherd says to his son, “thou mett’st with things dying, / I with things newborn” (348, 3.3.103-04). The gold Antigonus has left behind will become “fairy gold” (349, 3.3.112) for the shepherd who discovers the “Blossom” (347, 3.2.45—Antigonus’s farewell term) Perdita, and a new world will open up for this rustic character. As we move into Acts 4-5, we will witness the power of romance time to heal rifts, clear up delusions, and make things partially right. Antigonus will not share in the recovery, and there is genuine loss in that because he has, after all, made a decent attempt to preserve Perdita from Leontes’s wrath.

Act 4, Scene 1 (349-50, Time brings us forward sixteen years and sets us down to see the rest of the play: Perdita is now a young woman)

A chorus player speaks as “Time” to tell us that he is within his rights to turn the clock forward some sixteen years, to the span when Perdita is no longer an infant but a beautiful young woman, supposed by all to be the daughter of the shepherd who found her and secretly courted by Polixenes’s son, Prince Florizel. The choral pronouncement may remind some of Shakespeare’s use of old John Gower (his medieval source for Pericles, Prince of Tyre)who says at the beginning of Act 4 in that play, “Only I carry wingèd Time, / Post on the lame feet of my rhyme …” (Pericles 183, 4.0.47-48). In any case, Time here is content to stay with the present, leaving subsequent revelations to play out as they may: “let Time’s news / Be known when ‘tis brought forth” (349, 4.1.26-27). Perhaps this manner of treating time seems unrealistic. But then, if indeed Shakespeare’s romance plays feature a representational strategy that aims at a higher degree of realism than either tragedy or comedy, perhaps we can experience time’s passage in a way that cannot be captured by neoclassical demands for fidelity to the so-called “unity of time.” Especially for older people, many years may seem to have raced by in an instant. One is reminded of landmark events in world history or even in one’s personal history, and is perpetually surprised to hear the closing line, “such-and-such happened twenty years ago to the day.” Call it a trick of memory, but this astonishing experience of temporality is by no means uncommon, and it may be useful to refer to the philosopher Henri Bergson’s notion of lived or subjectively experienced time, la durée, as opposed to a more objective, standard sense of time, which has to do with deadlines, absolute dates, and so forth.

Act 4, Scenes 2-3 (350-53, Camillo’s desire to return to Sicilia is frustrated by Polixenes, who is gathering intelligence on his absent son Florizel: Polixenes and Camillo will disguise themselves and visit the shepherd; Autolycus gives us his resume, robs the shepherd’s son, and plans to crash the sheep-shearing festival)

In 4.2, Camillo longs to return to Sicilia after the long gap that Time has just indicated, but Polixenes won’t grant his wish (350, 4.2.13-16). He is more intent on finding out what his son Florizel has been up to lately, and to that end, he determines to pay a visit in disguise to the shepherd and “have some question” (351, 4.2.45) with him. For Camillo, then, the sixteen-year gap has been one of growing frustration, of nostalgia for his native land.

Autolycus, who enters at 4.3 declaring himself presently “out of service” (351, 4.3.14), is a human woozle—he’s a trickster, an opportunist, a businessman who deals in stolen linens (351, 4.3.23). He is hardly the worst character in Shakespeare’s plays, but it’s hard to deny that he is from one angle a parasite on the generous psychic economy of the play’s rustics, whose festivities he will soon invade with his bawdiness and commercialism. Even here, before the springtime celebration, he manages to rob the shepherd’s son by feigning victimhood and denouncing one “Autolycus” (namely, himself) as the fellow who robbed him: a man of shady devices and dubious career (353, 4.3.87-92). Still, there’s something positive in Autolycus in spite of his intentions, as his remark about the coming of spring suggests: “For the red blood reigns in the winter’s pale” (351, 4.3.4). Even if he has his own selfish purposes for the transformation, he is a creature who hails the coming of spring and new life. In this capacity, he will have a role in the bittersweet comic resolution of the play’s final two acts.

Act 4, Scene 4 (353-73, Florizel courts Perdita; Polixenes talks “lit crit” with Perdita as she presides over the spring festival: is nature or artifice better? Dancing comes before and after. Autolycus commandeers the festivities; Polixenes exposes Florizel and issues threats over the prospective “base” marriage; Camillo promises to help Florizel; Florizel exchanges clothes with Autolycus; Autolycus plays the courtier to dupe the shepherd and his son, whom he will bring to Florizel’s ship, not to Polixenes as they wish)

This scene, one of the longest in any of Shakespeare’s plays, begins with the courtship between Prince Florizel and Perdita. The young man is confident in his good intentions, while Perdita shows considerable anxiety about dressing up and acting a part beyond her station: “Even now I tremble / To think your father by some accident / Should pass this way …” (354, 4.4.18-20). To which anxiety, Florizel asserts the universality of disguising oneself in erotic pursuits: “The gods themselves, / … have taken / The shapes of beasts upon them” (354, 4.4.25-27). Her fears aside, Perdita will be “mistress o’th’ feast” (355, 4.4.68) at the old shepherd’s insistence.

Polixenes and Camillo soon show up in disguise and strike up a conversation with this queen of the festivities. Perdita and Polixenes engage in a bit of literary criticism, a discussion about the emblematic significance of certain flowers (“streaked gillyvors,” or colorful carnations) and ultimately about the respective merits of artifice and nature. Perdita herself is the “graft” that mends the rustic society surrounding her: she is a beautiful work of art rooted in nature’s processes. Polixenes insists that careful gardening is natural art: “This is an art / Which does mend nature—change it, rather—but / The art itself is nature” (356, 4.4.95-97). While Perdita wants to stay with what’s available in her own rustic garden, Polixenes sees no problem with improving what nature offers freely, and like a good Renaissance critic, he calls artifice (the means whereby nature is improved) natural, too. Perdita, ever the nature-goddess-tending maiden, isn’t convinced (or rather she admits the point, but is unmoved by it), and in the end we can probably say—adapting a thought from Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998, pg. 656—that Perdita is her own best argument, and as natural as the goddess Flora herself. Still, Polixenes’s argument comes off as wise in its way—or at least it would if he didn’t become enraged upon finding out that his son Florizel wants him to allow the mixing of his own aristocratic stock with the common stock of his kingdom.

In Shakespeare’s plays generally, artifice may fairly be described as a natural aspect of human nature: we are at our best when we are accommodated or civilized human beings, not when we are what King Lear mistakenly supposes he sees in Edgar as Poor Tom: “Thou are the thing / itself. Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, / bare, forked animal as thou art” (Norton Tragedies 689 Folio ed., 3.4.98-100). But there is more scope for a healthy view of unmixed nature and natural impulse in this pastoral romance. Perdita exudes healthy animality along with her nobility. She embodies a benevolent form of nature, unlike the bear that devoured Antigonus sixteen years back when he was abandoning Perdita on the harsh seacoast of Bohemia. (This coast is also delightfully nonexistent since the real Bohemia is landlocked in today’s Czech Republic), and unlike the form of nature we see in Leontes’s crazed, desperate descent into the hellish abyss of jealousy. Perdita’s grace is demonstrated by the effect her presence has on Florizel. Her own playful words give just a hint of Ovidian sportfulness (356, 4.4.112-29) where she invokes Proserpina, but modesty at once makes her take it back: “Sure this robe of mine / Does change my disposition” (357, 4.4.134-35). Florizel, however, sees nothing wrong with what Perdita has said, and he tells her, “When you do dance, I wish you / A wave o’th’ sea” (357, 4.4.140-41). Perdita’s is a graceful, immediate presence, and everything she does is art. In her person, art and nature come together without strife.

This harmony in Perdita contrasts starkly with Leontes’s misprision of nature as something base and demonic. At the play’s outset, his ideal woman would not be Hermione living (“Too hot, too hot,” Leontes had said of her at 319, 1.2.108) or Perdita in motion. It would be a statue: something cold, chaste, and dead. Later, to see her “come alive” from an assumed state of stone is part of Leontes’s penance, but also his reward for his long-suffering fidelity after the initial mistake. In the present scene, Perdita has the grace of a statue and the natural vivacity of a living being at the same time: she is artifice in motion. That is what Leontes will need to accept about Hermione to complete his “recreation.” His failure to accord Hermione the credit she deserved as a fully human being rather than as a courtly object caused the play’s sad events. It is clear from the passage quoted above that young Florizel, unlike Leontes, has no trouble perceiving and affirming these qualities in his Perdita: “What you do / Still betters what is done” (357, 4.4.135-36).

As for Autolycus, he is a confirmed rascal, but he also brings in the spring with his songs, flowers, and bright scarves: the servant who announces his presence seems excited, telling the shepherd, “if you did but hear the peddler at the / door, you would never dance again after a tabor and pipe” (358, 4.4.182-83). This same servant is unable to register the bawdy quality of the songs that Autolycus offers his rustic audience. Perhaps at this point Autolycus, man of disguises and shifts, is providing us a comic contrast to Florizel, who has been courting Perdita in a disguised but honorable fashion. Paulina, too, later uses the arts of deception in a healthy cause, which links her to the trickster of the present scene. The shepherd’s son ends up buying some ballads from Autolycus, and perhaps some other things as well: his love interest in the shepherd girls at the festivities drives him to buy what Autolycus is selling. Much song and dance follows in this scene both before and after Autolycus makes his entrance: first there is “a dance of shepherds and shepherdesses” (358, 4.4.166), and later, there is a “dance of twelve satyrs” (361, 4.4.333).

Trouble soon follows, however, when Florizel demonstrates his commitment to Perdita in front of Polixenes. The old man pretends to go along with his son, but finally asks, “Soft, swain, awhile, beseech you. / Have you a father?” (363, 4.4.383-84), and he does not like the answer he gets. Polixenes has a point: “The father, all whose joy is nothing else / But fair posterity, should hold some counsel / In such a business” (363, 4.4.399-401). Polixenes proceeds to threaten not only the old shepherd but also Florizel and even Perdita with dire consequences (363-64, 4.4.408-11, 416-20, 423-32). As in some of Shakespeare’s comedies, we have run into the classical figure of the senex iratus, the angry old man. Polixenes’s conduct at this point also links him to the Leontes of the first act in that his rashness threatens tragedy for himself and others. It will be his good fortune that the same consequences that beset Leontes do not afflict him. Still, we need not regard Polixenes as entirely ridiculous. In this play, as a Professor Harold Toliver of UC Irvine observes, the old need to be convinced of the worthiness of the new. This point holds true even though romance quests are partly about reintegration and renewal through marriage between the young. After all (and here Shakespeare departs from Greene’s Pandosto), the present play centers on the reunification of Leontes and Hermione, the older generation. Polixenes feels that Florizel has cast off his identity, and the fourth act legitimately involves Polixenes’ dynastic concerns.

In his distress, Florizel turns to Camillo (367, 4.4.483-93), who has a reason of his own for wanting to help: he wants to return to Sicilia: “Now were I happy if / His going I could frame to serve my turn…” (366, 4.4.499-500). The plan for Florizel is to go to Sicilia and claim that he has arrived with his father’s blessing. Camillo reasons that Leontes will be so happy to do him a good turn that he won’t ask questions, and with a little inside information that Camillo himself will provide, the way to Leontes’s good graces will be smooth (366-67, 4.4. 533-46).

While Camillo, Florizel and Perdita are on the way to their ship, they come across Autolycus, who ends up doing them a good turn. As usual the rascal is pretending to be a poor innocent who has fallen upon hard times, and Camillo asks Autolycus to exchange clothing with Florizel, who will now have the disguise he needs to get safely aboard his ship (368-69, 4.4.619-24). To himself and us, Camillo admits that he plans to tell Polixenes about Florizel’s flight, which will rouse the father to chase after his son. He will, of course, bring Camillo along with him. (369, 4.4.648-53).

Autolycus is now dressed as a worthy courtier since he traded his own rags for Florizel’s finery. All the same, his slippery ethos shows in the line, “I see this is the time that the unjust man doth thrive” (369, 4.4.659-60). In the course of interacting with Camillo and Florizel, he realizes what the young man must be up to, but determines to keep the information to himself. Soon thereafter, the old shepherd and his son cross paths with Autolycus, giving him another opportunity for gain. He plays the courtier with these two peasants, who are thoroughly taken in by his imposture. Autolycus promises to bring the old shepherd and his son to Polixenes to tell his story, which Autolycus easily draws from him: “He must know ‘tis / none of your daughter nor my sister” (372, 4.4.798-99). Autolycus decides to lead these two undiscerning men directly to Florizel rather than Polixenes, the point being to find out whether their revelation poses any hazards for Florizel (373, 4.4.810-20). What Autolycus says is true enough: “If I had a mind to be honest, I see Fortune would / not suffer me; she drops booties in my mouth” (373, 4.4.810-11). Still, while Autolycus is no doubt the play’s resident Lord of Misrule, he is unable to corrupt anyone else, even if he succeeds in cozening some and concealing his identity from others. It seems that the romance world Shakespeare has built is big enough to accommodate rogues like Autolycus. As it will turn out (for so we hear from Autolycus himself), Florizel’s brief illness aboard his ship will keep him from questioning the shepherd and his son, and the story that’s theirs to tell will indeed be told directly to both Leontes and Polixenes in Sicilia, just at the right time and place to do Perdita and Florizel a good turn.

Act 5, Scene 1 (373-78, Paulina makes Leontes promise not to remarry without her consent; Florizel and Perdita arrive, reminding Leontes of what might have been; when Polixenes’s messenger accuses Florizel of disobedience, Leontes takes up his cause)

Even as Cleomenes is telling Leontes he should forgive himself, Paulina continues to goad Leontes’s conscience: “she you killed / Would be unparalleled” (373, 5.1.15-16). Paulina’s main purpose here is to prevent the king from remarrying without her consent, and she is successful in extracting from him a promise not to do so. Leontes is not to remarry, she insists, “Unless another / As like Hermione as is her picture / affront his eye…” (375, 5.1.73-75). This new wife will of course be older than was Hermione sixteen years ago, says Paulina cryptically.

A servant announces the arrival of Florizel and his young princess (375, 5.1.85-88). Leontes declares, “I lost a couple that twixt heaven and earth / Might thus have stood, begetting wonder…” (376, 5.1.131-32). He apparently means Mamillius along with Perdita—he has cast away the immediate heir to his throne, and sees something of the young man in Florizel, who immediately attempts to deceive Leontes into believing he has arrived with his father’s blessing: “By his command / Have I here touched Sicilia…” (376, 5.1.137-38). This gambit does not go well, however, since a lord enters and announces that “Bohemia… / Desires you to attach his son, who has, / His dignity and duty both cast off…” (377, 5.1.180-82). But this new piece of information gives Leontes a redemptive opportunity to enlist himself in Florizel’s cause, and he agrees to advocate for him: “I will to your father” (378, 5.1.228). Paulina keeps up her role as general scold to Leontes’s conscience, reminding him about the loss of Mamillius (376, 5.1.115-18) and then reproaching him for his remark about Perdita to Florizel, “I’d beg your precious mistress” (378, 5.1.222), to which Paulina retorts, “Your eye hath too much youth in’t” (378, 5.1.224).

Act 5, Scene 2 (379-82, Perdita is revealed as Leontes and Hermione’s daughter; Paulina and Perdita respectively face the loss of Antigonus and Hermione; all eyes turn towards Paulina’s statue of Hermione; Autolycus receives pardon from the newly gentled shepherd and his son)

We learn from a series of reported revelations that Perdita has at last been discovered to be Leontes’s lost daughter. The old shepherd brought his material reminders and told his story about how he found a little girl who had been abandoned (379, 5.2.3-7). A gentleman declares that it all sounds to him “so like an old tale that the verity of it is in strong suspicion” (379, 5.2.27). In other words, it sounds just like an old winter’s tale. Nonetheless, plenty of evidence (material and otherwise) convinces everyone that it must be so (379, 5.2.29-38). There is both joy and great sadness in the revelations given in this scene since Paulina has it confirmed that Antigonus is indeed gone forever, “torn to pieces with a bear” (380, 5.2.60), and Perdita must confront the news that the mother she never saw is dead (380, 5.2.76-85). But we also hear from yet another gentleman that Perdita is more than eager to behold the statue of Hermione that Paulina is said to have ordered completed by one Giulio Romano (ca. 1499-1546, see also ArtCyclopedia), an actual Italian mannerist painter and architect (but not a sculptor) who worked just before the middle of the sixteenth century. We are told that the statue is so excellent a piece of realism that “they say one / would speak to her and stand in hope of answer” (380, 5.2.93-94). Perhaps Shakespeare had heard of Romano’s famous illusionistic fresco in Mantua’s Palazzo del Tè titled “The Fall of the Giants” (La Caduta dei giganti; see Atlas Obscura), a work so skillfully designed that it blended into and seemed to dissolve the building’s architecture. He may also have read in Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects about the epitaph on Romano’s lost tomb in Mantua, which said that the god Jupiter, envious of Romano’s skill as an artist who could make “sculpted and painted bodies breathe,” ordered the man killed. (Source: Bette Talvacchia, “The Rare Italian Master and the Posture of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale. LIT, Vol. 3, #3, 1992.)

The last thing that happens in this scene is a piece of comic reckoning and reconciliation between Autolycus and the newly gentle (as in “having a gentleman’s status”) shepherd and son. Autolycus reveals to us that he did indeed bring this pair to be questioned by Florizel, but that nothing much came of it (381, 5.2.106-15). In spite of himself, Autolycus has done no harm, but now it’s time to beg pardon of these fine rustic gentlemen, ennobled by their happy relation of Perdita’s discovery: Autolycus implores the old man “to pardon me all the / faults I have committed … and to give me your / good report to the Prince my master” (381, 5.2.138-40). And being gentlemen, how can they refuse? The shepherd’s son has an amusing understanding of what gentility means: “If it be ne’er so false, a true gentleman may swear it / in the behalf of his friend…” (382, 5.2.151-52).

Act 5, Scene 3 (382-86, Hermione the statue appears to come back to life; Leontes is overjoyed; Camillo and Paulina are united: change and loss are accepted, making way for a partial but wonderful reconciliation and recovery)

What remains to be achieved is the fullest possible recovery of Hermione and her reconciliation with Leontes and Perdita. Hermione must be recognized as the virtuous woman she was and still is. The plastic arts device in The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s excellent references to the power of art to transform perception and passion and to bring about reconciliation, and its staging here seems entirely appropriate to the romance genre. The “art work” in this case is a living woman who has been liberated and who now frees Leontes from his sorrow. The play’s conclusion amounts to a romance triumph over death no less remarkable for its staged quality. No metaphysical miracle is necessary. Instead, Paulina’s artful and charitable application of Autolycus’s roguish shifts redeems such deception and turns it to account.

Aside from the obvious connection to the story of the sculptor Pygmalion as recounted by Ovid in the tenth book of Metamorphoses, Paulina’s device may profitably be discussed in relation to ancient literary theory: we may recall the famous contest (as described by Pliny in his Natural History, Ch. 36, “Artists Who Painted with the Pencil”), between Zeuxis and Parrhasius over who could paint more realistically. Zeuxis painted some grapes so well that his painting fooled birds, but Parrhasius painted a curtain, and when Zeuxis asked him to draw back the curtain to reveal his work, Parrhasius won the contest since he had fooled Zeuxis himself. The winner knew that seeing was a matter of convention: we see what we look for. The curtain may or may not have been more realistic in terms of technical precision, but it was what Zeuxis was looking for. Like Parrhasius, Paulina has made her choice of representational strategy carefully: the statue trick she carries out is a matter of canny affective (emotional) staging: the apparent coming-back-to-life of Hermione will again demonstrate to Leontes his error, yet it will also constitute his greatest reward. (Jana Přidalová mentions the Zeuxis anecdote in “Symbolic Images of Mimesis, Tromp l’oeil and a Veil in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale,” Brno Studies in English. 2005, vol. 31, issue 1, pp. 175-83) The king is at first struck by the difference from his idealized, perhaps aestheticized, memory of a youthful wife: “Hermione was not so much wrinkled, nothing / So aged as this seems” (383, 5.3.28-29). But even if he is at first shown what he was probably looking for, the trick doesn’t end there: it is a spur to his willingness to recognize the full humanity and integrity of his long-lost wife.

Paulina’s deferral of Leontes’s desire for reunion is the last stage of his penance: when he longs to keep viewing the “statue,” Paulina feigns determination to stop him: “No longer shall you gaze on’t, lest your fancy / May think anon it moves” (384, 5.3.60-61). But at long last, Leontes, whose mad jealousy made him “see the object as in itself it really was not” (to recontextualize a line from Oscar Wilde) and who thereby stereotyped, objectified, even killed Hermione in a sense, must be reintroduced to the real woman, now sixteen years older.

Paulina now promises to work what the audience and the bereaved husband are bound to take for a miracle: “I’ll make the statue move indeed, descend, / And take you by the hand” (384, 5.3.88-89). Hermione is not made of stone. She is a living, breathing human being, one subject to time and free to whisper and touch the hand of a dear friend, for her husband’s sake or for her own. At Paulina’s prompting, Leontes presents his hand as if to play the suitor anew, and Hermione embraces him (385, 5.3.111). All that remains for the finalization of this seeming miracle—for it makes sense to suppose that Leontes deems miraculous the simple ability to see his wife as she is, after so many years of grief and penitence—is a living human voice. So Hermione speaks, explaining that she has remained alive all these years because she knew the oracle had offered hope of Perdita’s continued existence (385, 5.3.121-28). Some may take that explanation as rather pointed, given that her long-absent husband is standing right next to her, but perhaps we are to understand that everyone’s reconciliation is equally important since Hermione has already embraced Leontes. The last item in the play is to unite Camillo and Paulina, who is still half-stunned by the recent news of Antigonus’s bear-demise sixteen years ago. Leontes effects the match without delay (386-87, 5.3.135-46).

According to Professor Harold Toliver of UC Irvine, the play’s solution for Leontes lies in re-establishing the truth of what he sees. At the beginning of the play, Leontes’s jealousy had blocked the innocent backstory (the personal history between him and Hermione) that should have guaranteed the king’s continued good relationship with his queen. What remained was only the object before him, the body of Hermione. Accepting the truth of what Leontes sees, and what we see, involves not blocking this history, and allowing instead the sense of wonder at another’s goodness to remain intact. This willingness may, in turn, involve knowing or unknowing affirmation of grand forces operating within and without us: the movements of cosmic time, natural process, the maturation that experience should bring. These forces seem to underlie and ratify the fully humanized, organic act of seeing to which we bear witness in this final scene of The Winter’s Tale. Ultimately, Shakespearean romance reorients us towards an attitude of wonder not only at our own follies but also at the depth of our potential for vision and respect for our own and others’ humanity.

Finally, we know that romance in general tries to take to itself some of the permanence and profundity of the great natural cycles of death and rebirth, decay and renewal. There is something in romance time of Shelley’s “destroyer and preserver” the West Wind (the Greeks called it Zephyros; the other three wind gods or anemoi were Boreas the North Wind, Notos the South Wind, and Euros the East Wind), and in a more quiet vein, some readers may recall the unseen but healing operations of “the secret ministry of Frost” in Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight.” Shakespeare’s romance plays don’t simply sweep away the passage of time or cancel out its ravages: romance time offers regeneration, but it also encompasses death and destruction as being necessary. (Norton editor Jean E. Howard’s introduction to The Winter’s Tale 303-13 is excellent on the above aspects of Shakespeare’s romances, and the great myth critic Northrop Frye’s work on Shakespeare’s dramatic genres can hardly go without mention.) There is a general embrace of the miraculous and the improbable in such plays, but it’s no less true that what has been lost can’t always be recovered fully, and sometimes not at all. Antigonus and Mamillius do not share in the reconciliations and recoveries that constitute the ending of The Winter’s Tale. What we get is not second chances or do-overs in the simplest sense, but second chances in altered circumstances and after temporal gaps or delays. Events and persons may come full circle, but there is loss and sorrow along the way, leaving even triumphant conclusions with a bittersweet taste.

None of this is to say, however, that the romance plays are anything but ultimately hopeful and uplifting: they offer what may well be the most realistic orientation towards life with its recurrent opportunities and travails—not a proffer of ultimate insight and intense clarity near the point of being crushed by inexorable forces, as in tragedy; not a sunny representation of individual satisfaction and happy communities, as in the lighter of Shakespeare’s comedies; but a kind of wisdom that allows us to abide in uncertainty, accept the changes and loss that time brings, and be thankful for the rare and all but miraculous second chances we may receive, however imperfect the outcome. Since Apollo powerfully represents the divine in The Winter’s Tale, it seems appropriate to give him the last word. As he tells the other gods towards the end of Homer’s Iliad, “a steadfast spirit have the Fates given unto men” (24.49; τλητὸν γὰρ Μοῖραι θυμὸν θέσαν ἀνθρώποισιν, tlēton gar Moirai thumon thesan anthrōpoisin).

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

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

Pericles, Prince of Tyre

Commentaries on
Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[20] Bloom, ibid. 609-11.

[21] See the Wikipedia entry on George Wilkins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2023 Alfred J. Drake