The Tempest

Commentaries on
Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

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

Of Interest: RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Strachey’s 1610 “True Reportory” | “True Reportory” in MDZ | Jourdain’s 1610 “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, Ariel has arranged matters well, with no harm done. (See 404-05, 1.2.217-37).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intro to Shakespeare – 2

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Plays

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI



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


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

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

What do the characters seek?

— Consider the varieties of desire and objects of desire.

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

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

— There are both internal and external hindrances.

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

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

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

What is the disposition of time and chance?

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

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

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


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

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

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


Grammar and Rhetorical/Literary Devices.

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

A. Inverted or otherwise altered syntax:

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

B. Literary devices such as the following:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

C. Grammatical irregularities:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2023 Alfred J. Drake

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


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

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

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

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

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

King Richard the Third

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Histories

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. Quarto. (The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 384-465).

Of Interest: English Monarchy Timeline | RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed’s Chronicles | More’s Richard III | “King under the Car Park” | 100 Years’ War Timeline | Historical Figures | Wars of the Roses | Key People | Edward III’s Family Tree

Introduction to Richard III’s Era: The Wars of the Roses (1455-87)

Shakespeare prefers to deal with the dynamics of royal power from a distance. By the Tudor-Stuart era, which featured a centralized royal court, the feudal infighting of older times had diminished, so it was reasonably safe to deal with the religious and dynastic struggles that had marked medieval Britain. Shakespeare took an especially strong interest in the stretch of history from Richard II (1377-99) to the Lancastrian King Henry IV (1399-1413) who deposed him and passed the kingdom on to his son Henry V (1413-22), victor of the Battle of Agincourt in 1415,[1] and on through the Wars of the Roses (1455-87). The fighting saw the Lancastrian King Henry V’s incapable successor Henry VI (1422-61, 1470-71)[2] and his strong queen, Margaret of Anjou, trying to hang on in the face of Yorkist opposition led by Richard Plantagenet, Third Duke of York (1411-60 and then by his sons Edward (the future Edward IV, 1461-70, 1471-83) and Richard of Gloucester (the future Richard III, 1483-85).[3]

The backdrop of the Wars of the Roses (1455-87) is the wider Hundred Years War (1337-1453), which saw England and France (assisted by other European powers) fighting over which country should control France. That wider conflict started when Charles IV of France died in 1328 without male heirs, and his sister Isabella claimed the French throne for her son and Charles’s nephew, the young king Edward III of England (1327-77). The French Barons disputed this possibility because, in their reading, Salic law[4] provided grounds for disallowing succession to the throne by royals whose claim traced solely to a female. The French throne went to King Charles’s paternal cousin Count Philip of Valois instead, who was also (unlike Edward III) a native Frenchman. The English, for their part, never fully relinquished their claim to France, so war raged on in several phases across eleven decades. The final phase was the so-called Lancastrian War (1415-53), which began when Henry V invaded France and achieved stunning victories, only to die of dysentery in 1422[5] while in France and then have his son Henry VI lose nearly all of the territory that his father had won.

The English “Wars of the Roses” (1455-87) began in the wake of this last phase of The Hundred Years’ War. Social problems at home in late-feudal England, combined with the loss of territories and prestige in France, served to destabilize the English throne, paving the way for the fierce factional struggles to capture it which make up the Wars of the Roses. Mid-fifteenth-century England was marked by savage infighting and betrayal between these two great branches of the Plantagenet line descended from Edward III: the houses of Lancaster (named after an earldom created by King Henry III in 1267 for his second son) and York (named for the First Duke of York, Edmund of Langley, fourth son of Edward III). The action started in earnest in May 1455 when Richard, Third Duke of York, captured Henry VI during the First Battle of St. Albans and was granted the title of Lord Protector by Parliament. Then, in July 1460, the Earl of Warwick, Richard Neville, captured King Henry VI again during the Battle of Northampton. Richard, Third Duke of York tried to seize the throne, but ended up being killed at the Battle of Wakefield in late December 1460. Nonetheless, “York” met with dynastic success: from 1461-71, and then from 1471-83, his son reigned as Edward IV.

Briefly in 1471, thanks mainly to Warwick’s disillusionment and anger over the king’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville and other issues, Edward IV was booted from the throne and replaced with Henry VI and Queen Margaret. But Edward came on with an army and killed Warwick at the Battle of Barnet in April 1471 and then won a decisive victory at Tewkesbury in May 1471. The captured Henry VI and his heir Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales ended up dead—the son in battle and Henry probably murdered at the behest of the reinstalled King Edward IV. This Yorkist king ruled securely from 1471-83, when he died of an illness, thereafter to be replaced, at least technically, by his young son Edward V.

Technically and very briefly, that is: in less than three months in 1483, the young heir’s Uncle Richard of Gloucester managed to move him out of the way and, along with the earlier judicial elimination by Edward IV of his brother George, Duke of Clarence (historically, in February 1478), the way was clear for Richard’s seizure of the crown in June 1483. Henry Tudor[6] became the focus of many English noblemen’s hopes for turning out the wicked King Richard III, which he did at the Battle of Bosworth Field in August 1485. The Lancastrian Henry Tudor ruled as Henry VII (1485-1509), and united the claims of York and Lancaster by marrying Edward IV’s daughter, Princess Elizabeth. From 1485 through the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, we are in the Tudor Era. One might think that King Edward  III’s having produced five sons who survived to adulthood[7] would ensure continuity in the transferal of power, but that was not the case. In a dynastic order, should the sovereign or the immediate heir die, the intricate web of royal relations is touched, and it begins to vibrate. If multiple claims to the throne are plausible, the lurking spider Ambition soon comes out to prey. Essentially, the Wars of the Roses concerned the ambitions of a privileged group of men and women closely related to King Edward III.

While King Richard III ruled only for a little more than two rebellion-marked years and much—perhaps even all—of his evil reputation from 1485 onward is the product of authors such as Raphael Holinshed and Sir Thomas More, those two years from 1483-85 were all the time he needed to attract the attention of one William Shakespeare. From there, it was just a hop-skip to poetic immortality. The reign of Richard III deals with an historical subject familiar to many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries. The playwright borrows his story in the main from the Holinshed Chronicles and Sir Thomas More’s brief biographical account, both of which portray the king in a negative light.[8] Still, Shakespeare was capable of reading between the lines of the chroniclers, so he must have understood that nearly everyone involved in the action had divided loyalties and mixed, often selfish motivations.

The resultant qualities of backbiting, edginess, and ambivalence emerge in The Tragedy of King Richard the Third, but Shakespeare’s skill as a storyteller drives him to generate sympathy for some of the doomed characters at strategic points in the action. The diabolical and strangely charming Richard of Gloucester aside, some of the worst rascals in the play are gifted with genuinely moving passages. The real Duke of Clarence, for example, was disloyal to his brother Edward IV—he shifted back and forth between Edward and Warwick the Kingmaker when those two men were engaged in their deadly feuds. Clarence would probably just as well have deposed Edward and taken the throne for himself, but fortune did not favor him and he never had Edward’s highest regard, which went to Richard.[9] All the same, in Act 1, Scene 4 of Shakespeare’s play, Clarence speaks mesmerizing lines about a fearsome nightmare on the eve of his murder, moving us to pity him: from “Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks, / Ten thousand men that fishes gnawed upon …”[10] and forward for many lines, our attention belongs to Clarence.

As for Queen Margaret of Anjou (1430-82),[11] when she was trying to maintain her afflicted husband Henry VI on the throne and thereby preserve a path for his heir (the couple’s ill-fated son Edward, Prince of Wales), this Frenchwoman, who wielded great power in England during her husband’s frequent periods of infirmity, treated it like a foreign country, allowing her armies to pillage their way through conquered territories.[12] A deadly foe to the future Richard III’s father Richard, Third Duke of York, Margaret, as Kendall describes her, was a “dynast” to the core, her conduct invariably governed by a “savage instinct to protect the birthright of her child.”[13] In Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Parts 1-3 and then in Richard III, however, she is accorded considerable respect, and in Richard III, shespeaks with prophetic accuracy about the villainous end of others. “These English woes,” says Margaret near the end of a lengthy diatribe, “will make me smile in France.”[14] This and many other passages show Shakespeare freely reconfiguring the historical characters in his play, suiting them to the needs of a production designed foremost to please an audience.

But again with regard to Shakespeare’s Richard,[15] this character, with his razor-sharp asides and flair for theater, is well-suited to the needs of Tudor mythology, even if the play as a whole hardly amounts to propaganda. Queen Elizabeth I, after all, was the daughter of Henry VIII, the heir of the Lancastrian Henry VII, who emerges as an icon of early English nationalism of the sort Queen Elizabeth I would come to depend on during her reign (1558-1603). To be fair, perhaps we should attribute the subtlety and deviousness of Shakespeare’s Richard to the author’s understanding that in real life, Richard would have had a difficult childhood not unlike Elizabeth I’s harrowing youth. Worst of all, his father Richard, Third Duke of York rashly claimed the throne and paid with his life for the miscalculation. That kind of loss leaves a terrible mark upon an eight-year-old child. So the future Richard III’s Machiavellian qualities can to a great extent be put down to sheer necessity, the times being what they were. What Shakespeare’s Richard calls “Tear-falling pity”[16] was not encouraged, except perhaps when someone on one’s own side of the fence happened to be the victim, in which case the savagery of the mortal foe could be called out for what it was. Of course, one was already in search of opportunities to visit the same barbarity on the enemy.

All said, there was no place for naiveté or excessive tenderness in the heart of English sovereigns or their supporters. That seems to be true not only in Shakespeare’s dramatic creations but also in real life. Once we enter the character Richard of Gloucester’s world, which coincides with Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Parts 2-3 and Richard III, we are, as he, “in / So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin”[17] and must bear witness to just how vicious things can become when a political culture is broken as badly as late-medieval England’s was. Aristotle nobly thought that politics was the way to the good life. Reading history and studying Shakespeare makes us painfully aware that it can pave the way to other places, too.

Act 1, Scene 1 (385-88, Richard soliloquizes about his lot, puts on a duplicitous show of affection for brother Clarence, and informs us of his plans to “bustle” in a brotherless world and marry Anne Neville, widow of Edward, Prince of Wales.)

To open the first scene, Richard, still the Duke of Gloucester, makes his famous “winter of our discontent” speech (385, 1.1.1-41), which resembles his monologue at the end of Henry the Sixth, Part 3, where, in Act 5, Scene 6, he kills the defeated Henry VI In the Tower of London and offers a sinister prayer for future success: “since the heavens have shaped my body so, / Let hell make crooked my mind to answer it.”[18] In Richard Loncraine’s film production starring Sir Ian McKellen,[19] this speech is partly public rhetoric, but in the text, it is spoken as a soliloquy. Richard justifies his wicked ways by pointing to his contorted body. Like that of many villains, his evil is fueled by a sense of injured merit and a demand for compensation. He is part of the illustrious House of York, and one of his brothers is no less than Edward IV, the present King of England.

The real Richard of Gloucester was loyal in action to his older brother Edward IV,[20] but Shakespeare’s Richard, as the second part of his soliloquy makes clear, cannot truly be part of the “we” to which the first part of his speech refers. Near the end of the Third Part of Henry the Sixth, Richard says starkly, “I have no brother, I am like no brother.”[21] He is by his own understanding an unappreciated outsider to his family and to the scene of joyous expectation that he describes. Others may enjoy the time, but Richard’s deformities and personality defects render that impossible for him. He was “stamped” (385, 1.1.16) in a certain unfortunate way, and so his course must be separate. Where others revel in strength and victory, Richard sees only a “weak piping time of peace” (385, 1.1.24). He is a man “unfinished” (385, 1.1.20), as he says, and just as his own physical elements seem to have been mixed up and confused from birth, his peculiar genius is to embrace the gale-force winds of anarchy and chaos, staying always somehow ahead of his fellow royals. Richard lives in a time full of opportune chaos and confusion. These things are his very elements, and they will furnish him with everything he needs to advance his cause. That quality accounts for his ability to marshal “drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams” (385, 1.1.33) against his brothers Clarence and Edward IV, setting them off against each other.

Another thing to notice about this soliloquy surfaces at its end, when Richard bids his scheming ideas to hide themselves as his brother Clarence enters: “Dive, thoughts, down to my soul …” (385, 1.1.41). Although Richard can do little about his appearance, he is a master of disguise when it comes to language and moral sentiment. He is one of Shakespeare’s most skillful actor kings.

How does Richard play upon his brother Clarence? His underlying assumption is that anyone close to power wants still more of it and therefore cannot be trusted. This assumption he applies to Elizabeth, Edward IV’s queen, and blames her for Clarence’s imprisonment: “Why, this it is when men are ruled by women” (386, 1.1.62) After all, she has two young sons by Edward who stand to inherit the throne. Historically, Elizabeth Woodville, whose first husband was Sir John Grey, seems to have been a Machiavellian upstart. She understood power and wanted to augment her family’s influence. Edward’s marriage to her, in fact, had already made her powerful enemies. Her family has been newly planted in the soil of English royalty, and its only real chance, as we can see from the vicissitudes of the great houses of York and Lancaster, is to grow quickly and strongly. That is the way Richard portrays her, for the most part. He makes witticisms at her expense, carrying forward the grudge between the Woodville faction and himself dating from the last two parts of Henry VI. While keeper Brackenbury’s discomfort grows, Richard takes shots at Elizabeth and her kin as well as at the king’s mistress Jane Shore: “We say that Shore’s wife hath a pretty foot … / … / And that the Queen’s kindred are made gentlefolks” (387. 1.1.93-95).

Towards the end of the first scene, Richard tells us in good stage-villain fashion precisely what he plans to do. Clarence must be executed just before King Edward IV dies; with his elder brothers out of the way, Richard will be free to marry Anne Neville, the daughter of the late kingmaker Warwick (Richard Neville) for political advancement. His troublesome relatives, he says, must pack off and “leave the world for me to bustle in” (388, 1.1.151).

The thing that keeps this play from slipping into melodrama is the brilliance and exuberance of Richard’s language, as evidenced in the scheming passage just alluded to. Richard III is one of those villains whom the neoclassical moralist critic Samuel Johnson worries about—his ebullience doesn’t keep us from condemning him, but it carries us along to a disturbing degree.[22] Like Ben Jonson’s Volpone, Shakespeare’s Richard is always in the know, always ahead of the pack. No one likes to side with losers who are in the dark, who never have the right word for the right occasion, and whom fortune seems to have abandoned. Renaissance poets understood, as of course did the ancients from Homer onwards, that shunning the unlucky, although it’s cruel, is often the safest course of action. Bad luck is contagious, and incompetence loves company. No wonder we sometimes side with the villains for a time: knowledge gives us a sense of power and immunity. As modern critic Stanley Fish writes in discussing Paradise Lost, Christian poetry often labors to surprise us with our own propensity towards sinfulness, at our seemingly endless capacity—even knowingly—to be taken in by situations we should recognize as dangerous, and by the rhetoric and charming personalities of villains we know to be such.[23]

Act 1, Scene 2 (388-94, Anne laments the death of Edward and Henry VI, and is courted strangely by Richard, who marvels at his actorly performance.)

Anne Neville laments over King Henry VI’s body and remembers her slain husband Prince Edward (388-89, 1.2.1-30). Henry VI died, or rather was snuffed out, not long after the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 after having been out of power for a decade, with one very brief restoration by Warwick. Edward, Prince of Wales was either killed during battle or upon discovery by Clarence’s men, and Warwick was killed during the battle. The widow Anne makes the first of several references to Richard as poisonous and monstrous, cursing him to greater ill than she can wish even “… to adders, spiders, toads, / Or any creeping venomed thing that lives” (389, 1.2.18-19).

Immediately, she is confronted with the devil himself when Richard appears from nowhere to charm her in a long and famously improbable dialogue (389-93, 1.2.32-211). That dialogue is a contestation of absolutes, with the lady declaring her supreme disgust for Richard and he playing up the absoluteness of her beauty and even claiming it spurred him to kill the prince and Henry VI: “As all the world is cheerèd by the sun, / So I by that; it is my day, my life” (391, 1.2.127-28). Anne has been dangerously left in the lurch by the death of powerful men, so underlying the invective are the mechanics of power. Richard is offering her a place in the new order of things. He tries to make her believe in her own personal charm as a moving force behind great events. Her eyes, as he tells her, have moved him to weep when even the pitiful story of his brother Rutland’s death, or the murder of his father the Duke of York by Queen Margaret’s faction, failed to do so (392, 1.2.151-56). He treats her like the Helen of Greek myth: Helen, in Christopher Marlowe’s telling in Doctor Faustus, possessed “the face that launched a thousand ships.”[24]

At the center of this strange argument between Anne Neville and Richard of Gloucester is the latter’s stagey insistence (after a first call to die by her hand) that she “Take up the sword again, or take up me” (392, 1.2.169), which elicits not violence but only, “Though I wish thy death, / I will not be the executioner” (392, 1.2.170-71). What follows is even more improbable, with Richard offering Anne a ring, and Anne ambivalently offering him hope of success and even expressing some gladness to see that this bad man has “become so penitent” (393, 1.2.207).

Towards the end of the second scene, Richard again speaks only to himself and the audience, expressing nothing short of disbelief at his success—or rather at the success of his performance. He waxes metadramatic, seeming to join Shakespeare the playwright in patting himself on the back: “Was ever woman in this humor wooed? / Was ever woman in this humor won?” (393, 1.2.214-15) As the Norton textual gloss implies, the word “humor” logically refers both to the fact that Anne is grieving and to Richard’s strange, theatrical way of courting her.

Does Richard believe the lady finds him “a marvelous proper man” (394, 1.2.240) and that he has now become fashionable? Perhaps the fashionable thing is power, which, as the late diplomat Henry Kissinger said, is “the great aphrodisiac.”[25] The most generous way to construe Anne’s apparent fickleness is to acknowledge that although she is not personally weak, by position she is a pawn in a deadly dynastic chess game. In truth, the wedding between Richard and Anne took place in July 1472, whereas the battle during and after which Edward, Prince of Wales and King Henry VI died occurred a little over a year earlier, in May 1471. But strict timelines aside, Anne’s sudden, implausible change of heart may be Shakespeare’s way of characterizing the devastating effects of the dynastic violence of the Wars of the Roses on even the deepest human feelings and loyalties. Richard seems to understand that Anne, who is coveted as a ward by Clarence because he wants her estates as Countess of Warwick, is incapable of opposing him. We should note here that the historical Anne Neville was a girl of about sixteen at the time, not an adult counter to the also young but wily Richard. Thus, his gesture of offering her a blade with which to kill him may be less risky than it appears.

Well, all these historical matters aside, Richard is exuberant, and why shouldn’t he be delighted with himself? He that is “not shaped for sportive tricks” (385, 1.1.14) and whose villainy is stamped, as he and everyone else says, into the very fabric of his body, now plays the rogue in precisely the guise he had said was forbidden to him: that of a lover: “Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass, / That I may see my shadow as I pass” (394, 1.2.248-49). This is Richard at his best and worst: protean, ebullient, unpredictable, a rider of chaos involving events and the human heart. In the theater of cruelty and power, the clever can represent themselves as they would be and stand a good chance of carrying their audience with them.

The overt meaning of the language here is straightforward: the villain is so delighted with his performance as a great actor on the stage of life that he wants to watch himself as he goes to work on his hapless fellow beings. But perhaps Richard is also recalling to himself his opening soliloquy’s “son/sun” metaphor, a usage that may in turn remind us not only of his alleged attitude towards his brother Edward IV but also of a moment in Shakespeare’s earlier effort, The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and the Good King Henry VI (Henry VI, Part 3), wherein three suns mysteriously appear in the sky, prompting Richard and Edward to wonder if it betokens unity amongst the sons of the great Duke and claimant of the throne.[26] Might Richard’s present reference to the shining sun be an oblique allusion to Clarence, shortly to be dimmed forever thanks to his younger brother’s unholy ambition?

Act 1, Scene 3 (394-402, Dysfunctional family dinner: Richard and Queen Elizabeth Woodville savage each other, Margaret curses the lot of them; Richard admits in soliloquy that he’s responsible for the dissent he says others are creating.) 

In this long scene, the royal family gather and bicker over old crimes and divided loyalties. Queen Elizabeth Woodville and Richard go at each other’s throats with intensity. The reason for her anger is palpable: she says to Richard, “You envy my advancement and my friends’” (396, 1.3.75). Richard dares them all—Elizabeth, Rivers, and Gray—to go straight to Edward IV and air their grievances, reminding them pointedly that while their faction for a time supported the cause of the Lancastrian Henry VI, he remained loyal to his elder brother: “I was a packhorse in his great affairs … / … / To royalize his blood I spent mine own” (397, 1.3.122-125).

Queen Margaret of Anjou, the indomitable widow of Henry VI and mother of the slain Edward, Prince of Wales, puts in an appearance, serving as a dire example of one who has held and lost great power and place. She herself is not innocent, having been responsible for the death of Richard of Gloucester’s father the Duke of York when he tried to get himself crowned king. What we have at present is not so much a solution to the power struggle between the great houses of York and Lancaster as an uneasy truce. In any event, Queen Margaret rails at all assembled: “Hear me, you wrangling pirates, that fall out / In sharing that which you have pilled from me” (388, 1.3.157-58). Her cutting prophecy regarding Elizabeth Woodville will turn out to be truer than she can guess: “after many lengthened hours of grief, / Die neither mother, wife, nor England’s queen” (399, 1.3.204-05).

What do these people really want? we might ask, since it’s obvious that power does not bring security in its train. Their pursuit of ultimate power sometimes resembles the quest for sexual experience as described in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129: “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action.”[27] Near the end of the third scene, Richard yet again steps in with a soliloquy explaining how he is behind the vicious maneuvering he ascribes to others, hiding it all the while with false piety: “thus I clothe my naked villainy … / And seem a saint when most I play the devil” (402, 1.3.332-34; see 401-02, 1.3.320-34). The pair of murderers he has summoned now arrive, waiting for Richard’s orders to make away with George, Duke of Clarence.

Act 1, Scene 4 (402-08, Clarence has a strange vision and is murdered by Richard’s agents.)

This scene contains the remarkable dream vision of Clarence (402-03, 1.4.9-60). One purpose it serves is to generate sympathy for Clarence, who in historical terms doesn’t seem to have been a particularly warm and fuzzy character, or even a trustworthy one.[28] In this speech, he is given beautiful poetry of the sort that one wants to detach from its context and enjoy for its own sake. We may remember Shakespeare’s song in The Tempest, in which Ariel whispers to Ferdinand that his supposedly drowned father Alonso of Naples “… doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.”[29] Clarence dreams of a sea-change, but one of a more dreadful aspect: “Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks, / Ten thousand men that fishes gnawed upon. / Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl, / Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels” (403, 1.4.23-26). He never really sees to the bottom of his brother’s deceitful behavior—this is shielded from him even in his dream, as we can tell from the way he describes Richard’s part in his vision: “Methought that Gloucester stumbled, and in stumbling / Struck me, that thought to stay him, overboard…“ (402, 1.4.17-18). That is a classic piece of dramatic irony since we know something Clarence doesn’t. His dream is strangely beautiful, but it does not yield him clarity about the end of his life. It does not rise to the level of full prophecy. The keeper may be injecting a little humor when he asks Clarence how he had time to notice so much detail while drowning in his vision (403, 1.4.32-33).

The second part of the speech (403, 1.4.40-60) shows that Clarence is riddled with guilt over his betrayal of brother Edward IV in favor of Warwick and his complicity in the death of the Prince of Wales. The word “shadow” (403, 1.4.50) invokes the ghost of Edward, Prince of Wales, who demands retribution for his death, supposedly by Clarence’s own hand.

After Clarence has recounted his dream, two unnamed murderers enter to make away with him. They may remind us of characters from a medieval morality play in their anxious banter regarding a half-personified Conscience (404-05, 1.4.91-40). These two men are operating at a much lower level than Richard or the other noble characters in the play, and the inferior quality of their station renders them insecure. They show a spot of moral conscience—something Richard seems to lack, judging from his soliloquies to this point—but it doesn’t go very far.

Also on display in this part of the scene is Shakespeare’s macabre sense of humor: Clarence, not knowing that he is about to be dumped into a cask of wine to make sure he’s dead, says to his assassins, “Give me a cup of wine” (405, 1.4.147). Playing the penitent, Clarence tries to sweet-talk the two killers out of their plan, but as they point out, a man who has done such things as he has done has no business employing religious rhetoric (406-07, 1.4.182-205). In sum, Shakespeare may be playing with our sympathies in his handling of Clarence. Doubtless the fine poetry this character is given generates sympathy for him, but Shakespeare at least partly undermines that sympathy with several mentions of the role that the historical Clarence played in the Wars of the Roses. That a person’s penitence is situational does not necessarily render it thoroughly false—perhaps penitence is always to some extent situational. Still, it complicates matters, a thought we may carry forward when, at the beginning of Act 2, King Edward IV takes on the role of reconciler. It is difficult to put much stock in Edward’s pious declaration that he is, to borrow a phrase, “a uniter, not a divider.”[30] The Wars of the Roses were about insidious divisions between interrelated feudal houses.

Act 2, Scene 1 (408-11, Edward IV tries to make peace amongst all factions; Richard blurts out that Clarence is dead, devastating Edward.)

This scene plays with some irony. Here we have Edward IV trying desperately, in the most unpromising of circumstances, to practice the art of dying well, and it comes off badly. He wants his factious relatives to embrace and to exchange loving words; he apparently even wants them actually to mean those words and gestures. As he tells Richard, who plays along initially with magnificent rhetoric of amity, “Brother, we have done deeds of charity …” (409, 2.1.48). But once again, Richard masterfully sows the seeds of chaos and discord, injecting at just the right moment to deflate Edward’s piety the fact that Clarence is dead, supposedly by order of the king himself: “Who knows not that the noble Duke is dead?” (409, 2.1.77) At the scene’s end, Richard even insists to Buckingham that the pale visages of everyone around should be interpreted as an emblem of guilt (411, 2.1.133-36). Edward IV is shattered, and announces in the presence of all assembled, “O God, I fear Thy justice will take hold / On me and you, and mine and yours for this” (411, 2.1.129-30). The king’s penitence may be genuine, but it cannot prevent the consequences of past violence. It is a commonplace in Shakespeare’s tragedies and history plays that blood, once shed, draws more blood: violence and sin generate spirals of still more violence and sin. That is a lesson Shakespeare surely learned from the Bible, which teaches it from Genesis onward: “Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him” and God reproached him for it with, “the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me, from the earth.”[31]

Act 2, Scene 2 (411-14, the Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth Woodville, and Clarence’s children all lament their griefs, but not in unison or harmony: the Duchess says only her grief encompasses all the sad events.)

Again, what seems to be genuine grief is undercut by a long history of unkindness and injustice. Richard’s mother, the old Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth Woodville, and the children of murdered Clarence engage in a lamentation-fest (412-13, 2.2.33-87). One-line or stichomythic exchanges of the sort we find from lines 71-77 are typical of early Shakespeare. The form of the dialogue works very well in this case since the point seems to be to draw out the shallowness or inadequacy of the characters’ grief, the essentially self-centered and factional nature of it. The children will not weep for Elizabeth because she did not weep for the death of Clarence, while the Duchess insists that her grief is alone general while everyone else’s is merely particular: “Alas, I am the mother of these moans. / Their woes are parceled; mine are general” (413, 2.2.79-80).

All the same, we should not discount the genuine pathos of the scene; it functions at two heterodox levels. Shakespeare’s first goal must have been to please an audience, and so it is unlikely that he would completely undercut a good tearjerker scene like the present one. His audience members were not historians, after all, though it would be wrong to claim they were unsophisticated. Many people in attendance were probably capable of catching the subtleties in Shakespeare’s handling of historical and emotional registers. And there’s always Richard, of course, with those mean-spirited asides of his, making it plain just how insincere he is when he trots out his moralistic rhetoric and protestations of good will. Shakespeare will often counterpoint statecraft, violence, and villainy on a grand scale with small-scale, intimate domestic scenes showing the consequences for the powerless, but we will have to wait for the fourth scene to witness anything of that sort.

Act 2, Scene 3 (414-15, citizens share their anxieties about the future: to them, the changes to come portend danger and uncertainty.)

Three citizens air their thoughts and anxieties about Edward’s death and what is to come. In this, they function like a chorus, and they sense that the great will not be able to restrain themselves from seeking still greater power. Says the third citizen, “full of danger is the Duke of Gloucester, / And the Queen’s kindred haughty and proud” (414, 2.3.27-28), and as for the general atmosphere, his pronouncement is, “By a divine instinct men’s minds mistrust / Ensuing dangers …” (415, 2.3.42-43). Dynastic and inter-dynastic change will come, but it is something to be feared.

Act 2, Scene 4 (415-17, Queen Elizabeth Woodville is informed that Rivers and Gray have been sent to the Tower; she sees “the ruin of our house” and no escape from Richard.)

While the princes are on the way to London, the Duchess of York subtly reinforces the old Tudor propaganda about Richard’s evil nature (415, 2.4.16-20), the better to underscore the genuine pathos of Queen Elizabeth’s situation. If even a tough woman like Margaret of Anjou (Henry VI’s widow) has been sidelined by the loss of her men, what will happen to Elizabeth and her children by King Edward IV? When Elizabeth hears that Gloucester and Buckingham have slyly committed Lord Rivers and Lord Gray to Pomfret, she senses with dread that she and hers are caught up in Richard’s web of intrigue and blood, and there’s no way out: “Ay me! I see the downfall of our house. / The tiger now hath seized the gentle hind” (416, 2.4.48-49).

Act 3, Scene 1 (417-22, Richard makes conversation with the young princes on their way to the Tower, and convinces the cardinal to separate them from their mother; Richard and Buckingham resolve either to bring Hastings over or chop off his head.)

The third act as a whole hinges upon the sense of pageantry and carefully managed theater shown by Richard and Buckingham; they advance Richard’s cause by means of sophistical arguments and false shows of religious piety.

Here in the first scene, Richard has a merry-seeming conversation with the young Prince Edward, and among the most striking parts of it is the one in which the prince declares, “Methinks the truth should live from age to age …” (419, 3.1.76). Buckingham makes easy work of the Cardinal’s scruples about snatching the youth out of sanctuary with his mother (419, 3.1.44-56). The effect is comic since it shows how simple a thing it is to take advantage of those who—unlike Richard and Buckingham—take the rules seriously. But of course Cardinals were by no means non-political figures, so another way to interpret the Cardinal’s complacency is that he knows which way the wind blows.

Obviously, what everyone wants is the settled appearance of legitimacy, and they are likely to go along with the plans of whoever seems most likely to deliver it. Prince Edward’s comment about “the truth” particularly rankles Richard because the child has the temerity to insist that the deep truth should live on from age to age, and that historical truth is not simply a matter of what has been written down for posterity. Richard is right in the middle of staging his own inevitable accession to power in front of everyone who matters, no doubt believing that so long as he can arrange the visual feast to everyone’s liking, the near-term historical record will break his way. By implication, perhaps, we are to understand that those who look on while Richard schemes his way to the kingship know what is really going on, and will one day find the courage to say so. Prince Edward also sets himself up as the future king who will wash away England’s humiliation over the loss of French territory originally procured by Edward III and Henry V (419, 3.1.91-93). Most appropriately, his little brother York fears that he “shall not sleep in quiet at the Tower” (420, 3.1.142) thanks to the unhappy ghost of uncle Clarence.

Towards the end of the first scene, Richard and Buckingham engage in an almost obscene exchange whereby Buckingham accedes to the murder of William Lord Hastings and may claim when Richard is king the earldom of Hereford, “And look to have it yielded with all willingness” (422, 3.1.195; see lines 188-97).[32]

Act 3, Scene 2 (422-25, Lord Hastings reacts angrily to Catesby’s suggestion that Richard should be king, unsuspectingly sealing his own fate.)

Lord Stanley has a fearful dream about Richard the boar and fears the separate councils by which decisions are being taken (422, 3.2.7-12), but Hastings will have none of it. By messenger, he tells Lord Stanley that once they reach the Tower, “he shall see the boar will use us kindly” (422, 3.2.31). Perhaps more so than anyone else in the play, Hastings seems incapable of discerning Richard’s true character. Even so, his response to Catesby’s insinuation that Richard should become king is swift and unmistakable: “I’ll have this crown of mine cut from my shoulders / Ere I will see the crown so foul misplaced” (423, 3.2.41-42).

This is not to say that Hastings is an admirable or innocent man—any such notions are quickly rendered impossible by the way he takes the condemnation of his enemies in this scene. Hastings considers himself secure in Richard’s good graces, and he supposes there is a place for him in the new order heralded by Richard. The way Shakespeare handles Hastings resembles something straight from The Mirror for Magistrates,[33] or from an old morality play—prideful and triumphant one moment, humiliated and cut down the next. We notice that, as so often, Shakespeare gives both sides of the argument regarding the validity of prophecy—on the whole, his plays give the nod to popular superstition. It is mainly villains like Edmund in King Lear who scorn such powers of prophecy, witchcraft, and the like.[34] Throughout the second half of his career, Shakespeare wrote during the reign of King James I, who was a great believer in witchcraft and even wrote a learned treatise on the subject.[35]

Act 3, Scenes 3-4 (425-28, Rivers, Gray, and Vaughan are executed at Pomfret; Richard corners Hastings at a meeting and orders him beheaded: forcing allegiances on the eve of irrevocable action.)

In these two scenes, several of Richard’s enemies meet their end. In the third scene, Rivers, Gray, and Vaughan go to their deaths at Pomfret (425, 3.3.1-23). In the fourth scene, Richard, informed that the Lord Chamberlain, William Lord Hastings, will not assent to shoving aside the young prince in favor of his so-called protector, devises a ridiculous piece of theater that ends with the present death of Hastings. This man’s crime is failing to respond appropriately to Richard’s rhetorical question in council, “I pray you all, what do they deserve / That do conspire my death with devilish plots / of damnèd witchcraft, and that have prevailed / Upon my body with their hellish charms?” (427, 3.4.64-67) Hastings’s conditional response beginning with an “If” costs him his head. Anyone who doubts Richard’s claims about the malignant conspiracy of the queen’s party against him is thereby tagged as neatly aligned with the conspirators. The real purpose of this mini-drama is, as we can see, to force others in the room into a show of support. This is no time for bet-hedging, and even Lord Stanley must follow along in Richard’s train of sycophants, leaving the hapless Hastings by himself, awaiting execution.[36]

Act 3, Scene 5 (428-30, Buckingham and Richard dupe the Lord Mayor about Hastings’s sudden execution, and trashes his deceased brother Edward IV’s reputation.)

Yet another excellent piece of theater is here: Buckingham and Richard nicely allay suspicion, taking in the Lord Mayor with their feigned alarm and specious claim that Hastings’s execution was untimely (429, 3.5.38-43). The scene may remind us of the one in Macbeth where Macbeth has just killed the two servants who will falsely be blamed for Duncan’s murder, and he claims to repent what he has done rashly.[37] Many of Richard’s accusations revolve around sexual innuendo, and we may suppose this topic is especially satisfying to him, if we recall his opening soliloquy. Here, his character assassination of Edward IV is particularly vicious, as he rehearses the claim that his own brother Edward was not the legitimate issue of their father Richard, Third Duke of York (429-30, 3.5.82-91).

Act 3, Scene 6 (430, a scrivener explains why Richard’s plot is going so smoothly: “none dare call it treason,” as John Harington would say.)

The scrivener can’t believe that anyone is taken in by Richard’s transparent absurdities in justification of his conduct. But as he suggests, the problem is not that nobody perceives the truth; it is that no one dares to acknowledge it openly: “Why, who’s so gross / That sees not this palpable device? / Yet who’s so bold but says he sees it not?” (430, 3.7.10-12) Shakespeare’s contemporary Sir John Harington (a godson of Queen Elizabeth I) puts the matter succinctly in one of his epigrams: “Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it Treason.”[38] Had Richard succeeded as King, what record of him would have come down to Shakespeare’s time? Certainly not the one Shakespeare offers us here since, after all, he writes in defense of Elizabeth’s Tudor line, founded by the illustrious Lancastrian Henry VII.

Act 3, Scene 7 (430-35, Theater of Power: Buckingham woos Richard to accept the crown; Richard accepts with false modesty and reluctance.)

Here Shakespeare has outdone himself in the representation of villainy: Buckingham’s quip about Richard’s role being that of a woman who must “Play the maid’s part: say no, but take it” (431, 3.7.45) is followed by some fine stagecraft in which Richard of Gloucester walks around with his Bible, flanked by priests, and utters ridiculous bits of false piety such as, “my desert / Unmeritable shuns your high request” and “Alas, why would you heap these cares on me?” (433-34, 3.7.133-34, 182) By reverse logic, the taking of power is once again compared to an aggressive sexual act—the very thing Richard sounded so resentful about in his opening soliloquy. While Buckingham and Richard’s exchanges are often short to the point of stichomythia (one-line exchanges), the dialogue becomes fittingly prolix as the two rogues finish off their pageant in front of the Lord Mayor and some leading citizens. As so often, Shakespeare’s supposed prolixity turns out to be situational: it’s needed here because the characters must not say too frankly what they really mean, aside from blunt and repeated assertions about the Princes’ illegitimacy and Edward IV’s depraved dalliances. Finally, Richard is able to utter his supremely comic line, “I am not made of stones” (435, 3.7.202), and the affair is ended successfully, with the coronation planned for the next day.

Dynastic rivalry can be a nasty, root-and-branch extirpatory affair just as much as it can be a matter of delicate intermarriages and intricate understandings between rival houses. Here, it isn’t enough that Richard should succeed; he must appear holy while others are slimed beyond recognition and utterly destroyed.[39] It isn’t only the living bodies of his rivals that he must deal with; their posthumous image and report must be degraded for his benefit. How powerful an anxiety this business of popular image and report was for Richard is highlighted by ordinary people’s failure to respond to the lies fed them by Buckingham regarding King Edward IV and the princes. Story and spectacle are enormously significant accompaniments to the getting and maintaining of power, and Shakespeare, a reader of Holinshed’s Chronicles especially but also of some other accounts of English royal history, must have understood how important a force popular images and oral history were as a potential threat to the official stories set forth by monarchs and their supporters. They could result in direct rebellion on the part of the people themselves, or they could serve the interests of rival factions. Richard, a Machiavel before Machiavelli, is striving to avoid becoming not simply feared rather than loved, but outright hated, and he willingly uses religious props and language to achieve that goal.

Act 4, Scene 1 (435-37, Anne Neville explains her acceptance of Richard’s suit; Queen Elizabeth Woodville fears for her princes in the Tower: royal women’s perspective.)

This act begins with a concentration on the misfortunes of the women in the play. Anne Neville, who is now married to Richard,[40] claims that her “woman’s heart / Grossly grew captive to his honey words” (437, 4.1.73-74) so that he won her over on the spot, improbable as that may seem. In the First Folio version (but not in the Quarto version that the Norton editors use), Elizabeth Woodville ends the scene with haunting lines about her two vulnerable sons imprisoned in the Tower of London: “Pitty, you ancient Stones, those tender Babes, / Whom Envie hath immur’d within your Walls, / Rough Cradle for such little prettie ones….”[41] In the Quarto version, the aged Duchess of York gets the final word, and she longs for peace in death, after a life filled with grief upon grief (437, 4.1.88-91).

How right is Elizabeth Woodville to fear for her sons? Did Richard really order the princes killed? It was common speculation that he had the princes murdered when he became king, but there is no solid evidence to prove it. Certainly, he stood to benefit from the deed, but as Paul Murray Kendall points out in his biography of Richard III,[42] so did Buckingham (i.e., Henry Stafford). The bodies were never definitively discovered (though some remains were discovered in 1674 and then in 1789), so the whole affair remains a mystery.[43]

Act 4, Scene 2 (438-40, Now king, Richard solicits Buckingham’s complicity in murdering the princes; Buckingham balks and deserts when Richard refuses him Hereford; Richard tells Catesby to float a rumor that Anne is dying—he must marry Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter; Richard chooses Tyrrell as his agent and declares himself immune to “tear-falling pity.”)

The newly crowned Richard III compounds his wickedness as the pace of events picks up, broaching the need with Buckingham of doing away with the young Edward V and his brother: “shall we wear these honors for a day?” (438, 4.2.5) and fuming to himself when Buckingham hesitates in consideration of his own selfish interests: “Buckingham / No more shall be the neighbor to my counsel” (439, 4.2.41-42).

Richard also gives an oblique order to Catesby to make away with Anne, his queen: “Rumor it abroad / That Anne my wife is sick and like to die” (439, 4.2. 48-49). There is no historical evidence for this assertion aside from popular suspicion and Tudor propaganda, but it makes for compelling drama. Shakespeare’s villain Richard glosses his actions revealingly: always a major concern with Shakespeare is that those who fail to act instead of just talking and planning quickly end up on the sidelines, or worse. It was a Renaissance commonplace that a well-born person’s formation should be oriented towards action. Unlike, say, Shakespeare’s Richard II, Richard III is a master of words and deeds; he isn’t one to be caught sitting on his hands when something needs doing. It’s easy to see this when he sums up the logic underlying his alleged murder of Anne: “I must be married to my brother’s daughter, / Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass” (439, 4.2.58-59). But Richard’s mastery is short-lived, and his own words suggest the reason Shakespeare offers for his failure to hang onto the kingdom he has stolen for more than a few years: “I am in / So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin. / Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye” (439, 4.2.61-63). A man who admits that his soul is dead cannot hope to remain unhated for long, and when political rulers make themselves hated, they are not far from disaster.

James Tyrrell is King Richard’s choice for the matter of the princes currently being held in the Tower of London, and this bad man is quick to pledge his assistance: “’Tis done, my gracious lord” (439, 4.2.79), he tells Richard in advance of the deed. The scene ends on a sour note between the king and distrustful, impatient Buckingham, who has already returned to claim the Earldom of Hereford that Richard had promised him in exchange for his support (440, 4.2.87-90). The answer from a distracted Richard (who is more concerned at the moment with recollecting Henry VI’s prophecy about Richmond becoming king) is a contemptuous no. Richard simply says, “I am not in the giving vein today” (440, 4.2.116), prompting Buckingham, once alone, to ask himself, “Made I him king for this?” (440, 4.2.120) And with that, the allegiance of Henry Stafford, Second Duke of Buckingham to King Richard III is at an end.

Act 4, Scene 3 (441-42, Tyrrell has had the princes killed; Richard tallies his villainous accomplishments; Buckingham has turned traitor and joined Richmond’s army.)

We are told that James Tyrrel has contracted with his subordinates Dighton and Forrest to effect the murders—this is information from Holinshed and/or Thomas More’s study of King Richard III[44]—and are treated to another of the play’s more lyrical passages, this time about the piteous nature of the princes’ death: “Their lips were four red roses on a stalk, / Which in their summer beauty kissed each other” (441, 4.3.12-13; see lines 1-22). Richard promises Tyrrel a great reward, and moves on to sum up his own accomplishments, among which are that “The sons of Edward sleep in Abraham’s bosom, / And Anne my wife hath bid the world goodnight” (441, 4.3.38-39). Buckingham has by now turned traitor to him with an army in the field along with the Bishop of Ely and Henry, Earl of Richmond. 

Act 4, Scene 4 (442-53, Queen Margaret scorns Elizabeth Woodville, yet advises her how to curse her enemies; Richard works at convincing Elizabeth to agree to a match with her daughter.)

The play’s women again congregate (from pp. 441-45, 4.4.1-141, until Richard enters), this time with bitter effect: Queen Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s widow, stands beside Elizabeth Woodville, widow of Edward IV, to sharpen the pangs of her grief over the death of her husband and the disappearance of her two sons by the king. Margaret feels Elizabeth’s pain, and feeds upon it at length: as she says, it will make her glad on foreign soil: “These English woes shall make me smile in France” (445, 4.4.109), France being the erstwhile center of Margaret’s hopes for power in England. In response to Elizabeth’s request for advice on how to curse deeply, Margaret speaks chillingly: “Forbear to sleep the nights, and fast the days. / Compare dead happiness with living woe …” (445, 4.4.112-13, see lines 112-17).

The real Margaret died in August 1482 in France, so she didn’t live to see Richard III’s demise, but Shakespeare situates her so as to sharpen our sense of the cruelty of the times, with their fierce dynastic rivalries and constant betrayals: the old feudal, chivalric order had long since begun the process of ripping itself apart, with the nobility casting aside all responsibility to their subjects and ravaging the land in a quest for individual and familial gain. It seems that nobody in the disintegrating order Shakespeare describes is willing to serve for the correct reasons. Nobody’s place is acknowledged by anyone else as rightful and permanent—all is scheming and self-interest. Shakespeare is perfectly capable of idealizing the old order: consider his favorable treatment of Henry V, victor of Agincourt in 1412.[45] Still, whatever the historical inaccuracies of the play Richard III and leaving aside its Tudor bias, the overall picture it presents of this final episode of The Wars of the Roses seems just.

Another thing to notice in this scene once King Richard enters is the curious dilation of his rhetoric even as its effectiveness diminishes to nothing. He first endures his mother the Duchess of York’s terrible curse: “Bloody thou art; bloody will be thy end; / Shame serves thy life and doth thy death attend” (446, 4.4.184-85), and then it’s on to the business at hand with Elizabeth Woodville. It takes King Richard a good long time to convince Elizabeth of absolutely nothing (446-50, 4.4.188-347). Their at times curt, at times long-winded exchange amounts to wrangling over Richard’s desire to marry the widowed queen’s daughter, also named Elizabeth, lest the girl’s hand be given to Henry, Earl of Richmond. Richard ends up pathetically swearing by the future, when, of course, he will become as mild as mother’s milk. The frequent repetition of the words “myself” and “yourself” in this exchange play up, respectively, Elizabeth’s distrust of dynastic bloodlines as a measure of safety (in her experience, they portend peril as much or more than safety since the language of fealty, honor, and birth has become a cipher), and Richard’s need for others to regard not his personal misconduct but the majesty of the king’s “other body,” the one that symbolizes or incarnates the whole people.[46] Richard’s cynical way of expressing this doctrine of “the king’s two bodies” is to conclude his pitch, “Urge the necessity and state of times, / And be not peevish-fond in great designs” (450, 4.4.333-34). He wants Elizabeth to act with regard for the imperatives of statecraft and policy; namely, his own safety as a dynast.

Finally, King Richard receives mixed news about the impending battle, and pins down Lord Stanley, or so he thinks, by holding his young son hostage: “Look your faith be firm, / Or else his head’s assurance is but frail” (452, 4.4.409-10). The real Stanley, by the way, seems to have been a slippery character, as evidenced by his dubious loyalties to both Edward IV and Warwick when those two feuded.[47]

Act 4, Scene 5 (453, Lord Stanley learns about the augmentation of Henry, Earl of Richmond’s supporters; Stanley asks Sir Christopher to tell him the vital news that Elizabeth Woodville consents to a match with her daughter.)

Stanley gathers information from the priest Sir Christopher regarding Henry, Earl of Richmond’s movements and the addition to his ranks of those nobles who are falling away from King Richard (453, 4.5.1-20). Stanley also wants Sir Christopher to pass along secretly the news that Elizabeth Woodville consents to the proposed match between Henry, Earl of Richmond and her young daughter Elizabeth (453, 4.5.17-19).

Act 5, Scene 1 (454, Buckingham is executed at Richard III’s order.)

Henry Stafford, Second Duke of Buckingham goes to the block at last, with a morality-play-style flourish, Queen Margaret’s curses on his lips: “Wrong hath but wrong, and blame the due of blame” (454, 5.1.29).

Act 5, Scene 2 (454-55, Henry, Earl of Richmond addresses the lords in his army confidently.)

Richmond addresses his lords, expressing moral disgust at the usurping reign of “The wretched, bloody, and usurping boar, / That spoiled your summer fields and fruitful vines …” (454, 5.2.7-8) and radiating confidence on the eve of battle: “In God’s name, cheerly on, courageous friends, / To reap the harvest of perpetual peace / By this one bloody trial of sharp war” (455, 5.3.14-16). If we place pro-Tudor and Lancastrian bias aside (for the battle being recounted did,at least, mostly end the gut-wrenching Wars of the Roses), Shakespeare and his audience must have felt the hollowness of any such statement made about ending humankind’s propensity to settle their differences by extreme violence. We in the twenty-first century look back with sadness upon the serial carnage that followed the conclusion of “the war to end all wars” in 1918, and we have little reason to predict that things will become more peaceful in the near future.

Act 5, Scene 3 (455-63, Richard speaks with Catesby and Norfolk, expressing confidence; Richmond draws up battle plans in his tent; Richard fires off a threat to Stanley, and asks his men to help him arm for battle; Stanley praises Richmond; Richmond prays for victory and sleeps; meanwhile, Richard suffers a guilt-ridden nightmare, and awakens in a panic; Richard confesses his fear to Ratcliffe; Richmond wakes up refreshed by a dream and delivers a speech to his troops; Richard broods, but harangues his army with a defiant speech; Richard is told that Stanley has deserted him; battle is imminent.)

In the third scene, Richard expresses confidence of his own, saying to Catesby and Norfolk, “the King’s name is a tower of strength, / Which they upon the adverse party want” (455, 5.3.12-13). He gives Norfolk and Catesby their final orders and sends with a herald’s attendant a threat to Stanley reminding him that his little son’s life hangs in the balance: “Bid him bring his power / Before sun-rising, lest his son George fall / Into the blind cave of eternal night” (456, 5.3.58-60). Around midnight, Ratcliffe is to come and help Richard suit up for battle.

Meanwhile, Richmond’s mind is also directed towards the struggle at hand: “I’ll draw the form and model of our battle …” (456, 5.3.39). As the battle looms, Stanley offers Richmond encouraging words, though he must be circumspect in his movements because King Richard still holds his son hostage: “on thy side I may not be too forward …” (442, 5.3.92; see lines 81-100). Richmond intends to lie down for a nap soon, but not before he prays for success, asking God, “Make us Thy ministers of chastisement / That we may praise Thee in the victory” (457, 5.3.111-12). He will rest well, enjoying the “sweetest sleep and fairest-boding dreams / That ever entered in a drowsy head,” (460, 5.3.225-26), as he tells his lords, and in that dream will “their souls whose bodies Richard murdered” (460, 5.3.228) visit him to cheer him on to victory.

By contrast, around the same hour, King Richard’s tortured conscience rears, forcing him to confront the same ghosts that come so pleasantly to the sleeping Richmond. All the king’s victims constitute a nightmare that at least  momentarily shakes the practiced warrior’s confidence. Visiting him in succession are eleven shades: those of Prince Edward, King Henry VI, Clarence, Rivers, Gray, Vaughan, the little princes, Hastings, Anne Neville, and Buckingham (443-44). Buckingham’s final couplet speaks sufficiently for all the injured parties: to Richard he says sternly, “Dream on, dream on, of bloody deeds and death. / Fainting, despair; despairing, yield thy breath” (459, 5.3.169-70), while to Richmond he is kind: “God and good angels fight on Richmond’s side, / And Richard falls in height of all his pride” (459, 5.3.173-74). Richard wakes up and tries to sort through his confused thoughts, saying, among other things, “And if I die, / no soul will pity me. / And wherefore should they, since that I myself / Find in myself no pity to myself?” (460, 5.3.199-201)[48] Then Richard confesses his terror to Ratcliffe (460, 5.3.210-17), and his life now takes on its final, medieval shape, that of a pride-induced fall from the height of Fortune’s Wheel to the plummet of sin and wretchedness. He will stand alone in the midst of an army of men who do not love or honor him, and there’s no way out of his fatal predicament—at least none that an unrepentant sinner such as he could accept. King Richard bids Ratcliffe follow him on an eavesdropping tour of the camp tents, the purpose of which will be to discern “if any mean to shrink from me” (460, 5.3.220). He hopes by this shift to allay his fear.

As Shakespeare pans, so to speak, from the horrid scene that reveals King Richard III’s terror, Richmond is shown haranguing his assembled troops in set-piece style: his is the language of moral right, spoken by a man who’s certain that providence is on his side and that his enemy is a mere usurper and tyrant: “if you fight against God’s enemy, / God will, in justice, ward you as His soldiers” (461, 5.3.251-52).

Richard, too, now harangues his troops in set-piece style. Before he addresses them, he says to Norfolk, “Conscience is but a word that cowards use” and “Let us to it pell mell; / If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell!” (5.3.307, 310-11). To the whole army, Richard’s language is a combination of stubborn possessiveness and strong contempt for the enemy. The opponents, he says, are “A sort of vagabonds, rascals, and runaways, / A scum of Bretons and base lackey peasants …” (462, 5.3.314-15). Shall such trash, asks Richard of his men, “enjoy our lands, lie with our wives, / Ravish our daughters?” (463, 5.3.334-35) This is the last hurrah of a desperate rogue addressing men who already hate him. Aside from what he says to his great lords, Richard really makes no appeal to camaraderie between him and his troops: since when has this selfish monarch ever done anything for common Englishmen? He served Edward IV’s cause for a time, but otherwise, Richard’s only concern has been for himself, and he is leading hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of men to their deaths to extend his own wicked reign.

Act 5, Scene 4 (463-64, the battle rages, with Richard now fighting on foot: “My kingdom for a horse!”)

One thing we can’t say of Richard is that he is a physical coward: Shakespeare grants him a king’s death, betrayed by many but hacking his way valiantly through a host of false Richmonds to get to the real one: he twice shouts out “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” (463-64, 5.8.7, 13)[49] What does this famous call mean? Probably not, in the fashion of irrational exuberance, that he would trade his entire kingdom for a horse, but instead that “My entire kingdom, my reign as king, depends on whether I can get my hands on a horse right now.” Richard III needs something simple and material without delay, or all is lost—such is the fragility of human strength, and such the power of fate, or providence. Then, too, this interpretation honors the turn-on-a-sixpence nature of many medieval battles, at least as Shakespeare represents them: strategy and tactics matter just as they do today, but the king’s personal courage is also considered a major factor in how a battle turns out. Richard III is diabolically plucky, but in spite of his pluck, he cannot commandeer the beast he desperately requires, and so will end his brief, troublesome reign. The scene concludes with Richard, on foot, still seeking out the real Henry, Earl of Richmond for single combat.

Act 5, Scene 5 (464-65, King Richard III goes down fighting Henry, Earl of Richmond; Stanley presents Henry with the crown; Henry issues a pardon to all who return and promises to unite the houses of Lancaster and York, and end the long spell of violence in England.)

At last, as they fight on Bosworth Field,[50] Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, cuts down the Yorkist Richard III, and proclaims the time of troubles at an end: “The day is ours; the bloody dog is dead” (464, 5.5.2). Henry will pardon all those who are willing to be reconciled, and marry princess Elizabeth of York, the daughter of the deceased King Edward IV by Elizabeth Woodville, and thereby unite the houses of Lancaster and York: “Now civil wounds are stopped, peace lives again. / That she may long live here, God say ‘Amen’” (465, 5.5.40-41). This happy union is what keeps Shakespeare’s play from being a tragedy: its centering on Richard of Gloucester finally gives way to the triumph of Tudor history.

However crafty and bold King Richard III may have been, in the arc of Shakespeare’s play he becomes the creature of his own evil deeds, doomed to repeat them with less and less control over the outcome, until disaster can no longer be kept at bay. Only his death at the hands of Henry Tudor, along with Henry’s intra-dynastic marriage, puts an end to the bloody chaos of the Wars of the Roses. The lesson thereby conveyed seems strongly Augustinian: sin begets sin, and free will negates itself thereby, so that all of Richard’s cunning schemes and furious action come to naught. Like all things evil, Shakespeare’s model of badness Richard of Gloucester ultimately has no substance, no staying power.[51]

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Histories + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93859-3.

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


[1] A major victory for England during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453). The basic historical narrative in this introductory account claims no originality, and the author has where necessary drawn upon various sources such as Wikipedia, Britannica, and several sites covering the history of the United Kingdom.

[2] Henry VI was born in December 1421, so he was a baby when his father Henry V died in 1422. The boy’s uncle Humphrey of Lancaster, Duke of Gloucester (1390-1447) functioned as Lord Protector during Henry VI’s minority.

[3] Richard, Third Duke of York was the son of Richard of Conisbrough, Third Earl of Cambridge and the grandson of Edward III’s fourth son Edmund of Langley, First Duke of York.

[4] See Britannica’s entry on the millennium-old Salic Law, which (at least as it came to be adapted and interpreted) barred the succession to the throne of anyone whose claim came from a woman. Accessed 3/4/2024.

[5] Henry V was just short of his 36th birthday when he died.

[6] Henry Tudor was the son of Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, and descended from John of Gaunt through his mother Lady Margaret Beaufort.

[7] The sons were Edward the Black Prince (Duke of Cornwall, Prince of Wales), Lionel of Antwerp (Duke of Clarence), John of Gaunt (First Duke of Lancaster), Edmund of Langley (First Duke of York), and Thomas of Woodstock (Duke of Gloucester).

[8] See the exact beginning of the Holinshed account at Holinshed’s Chronicles (Holinshed Project), and Sir Thomas More’s Richard III. ( For an interesting account of Richard III’s recent exhumation, examination, and reinterment in a place befitting his status and historical significance, see “Richard III: The King under the Car Park.” Matthew Morris. University of Leicester. Accessed 2/23/2024. (YouTube).

[9] Kendall, Paul Murray. Richard the Third. New York: Norton, 1956. The author covers Clarence in some detail. See in particular 92-96, 142-49.

[10] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. Quarto. In The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 384-465. 403, 1.4.23-24.

[11] Queen Margaret plays a key role in Henry VI, Parts 2-3, Shakespeare’s setup plays for Richard III.

[12] Kendall, ibid. 43.

[13] Kendall, ibid. 31.

[14] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. Quarto. In The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 384-465. 445,4.4.109.

[15] Richard of Gloucester becomes King Richard III by Act 4, Scene 2; he is sometimes called simply “Richard” for brevity’s sake. Henry Earl of Richmond will at various points be called Richmond, Henry, or Henry Tudor: by the end of the play, he becomes King Henry VII.

[16] Shakespeare, ibid. 439, 4.2.63.

[17] Shakespeare, ibid. 439, 4.2.61-62.

[18] Shakespeare. The Third Part of Henry the Sixth. Folio. In The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 230-96. 5.6.78-79.

[19] Shakespeare. Richard III. Film dir. by Richard Loncraine. United Artists et al. 1995.

[20] Murray, ibid. See Ch. 6, “The King’s Man.” 89-106.

[21] Shakespeare. The Third Part of Henry the Sixth. Folio. In The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 230-96. 294, 5.6.80.

[22] Johnson, Samuel. “Preface to Shakespeare.” Project Gutenberg e-text. Accessed 3/4/2024. Johnson the moralist writes sternly of Shakespeare, “His first defect is that to which may be imputed most of the evil in books or in men. He sacrifices virtue to convenience, and is so much more careful to please than to instruct, that he seems to write without any moral purpose.”

[23] Fish, Stanley. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. 2­nd ed. Houndmills and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997.

[24] Marlowe, Christopher. The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Folger Shakespeare Library. Accessed 3/4/2024.

[25] Kissinger, Henry. “Power is the great aphrodisiac.” Quoted in The New York Times, Jan. 19, 1971. Accessed 2/23/2024.

[26]  Shakespeare. The Third Part of Henry the Sixth. Folio. In The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 230-96.229-30, 2.1.20-42.

[27] Shakespeare. The Sonnets. In The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 656-709. 700, “Sonnet 129,” lines 1-2.

[28] Kendall, ibid. The author covers Clarence in some detail. See in particular 92-96, 142-49.

[29] Shakespeare. The Tempest. In The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 397-448. 386, 1.2.404-05.

[30] The phrase belongs to President George W. Bush.

[31] See Genesis 8:8, 8:10. The 1599 Geneva Bible. Accessed 2/28/2024.

[32] Kendall, ibid. 299-300. Buckingham already possessed half of the Earl of Hereford Humphrey de Bohun’s huge estate, but he wanted the rest of it, which had gone to King Henry IV. Kendall explains that when Henry VI and the Prince of Wales died, Buckingham felt the rest of the estate belonged to him by right. Richard apparently granted this wish, but made it provisional upon an act of Parliament for somewhat complicated reasons relating to Henry VI’s lost title to the estate. Kendall says that Buckingham “must have been satisfied with this provision” (300). In Shakespeare’s play, Richard balks at his subordinate’s urging, thereby angering him. The playwright has clearly taken this information from Holinshed’s account of Richard’s reign: “And forsomuch as the title, which he claimed by inheritance, was somwhat interlaced with the title to the crowne by the line of king Henrie before depriued, the protector conceiued such indignation, that he reiected the dukes request with manie spitefull and minatorie words.” This makes dramatic sense; but then, Holinshed also airs an equally plausible supposition: “Verie truth it is, the duke was an high minded man, and euill could beare the glorie of another; so that I haue heard of some that say they saw it, that the duke, at such time as the crowne was first set vpon the protectors head, his eie could not abide the sight thereof, but wried his head another way.” Gutenberg e-text. (Holinshed, Raphael. Chronicles … “Richard the Third.”) Accessed 3/8/2024.

[33] See Mirror for Magistrates, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. Hathitrust. 3/4/2024.

[34] Gloucester’s illegitimate son Edmund shows contempt for his father’s naïve faith in astrology, saying in soliloquy, “I should have been that / I am had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on / my bastardizing.” Shakespeare. King Lear. Folio with additions from the Quarto. In The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 764-840. 774, 1.2.118-20.

[35] King James I. Daemonology. 1597. Project Gutenberg e-text. Accessed 3/4/2024.

[36] Such shows are common under authoritarian regimes. Stalin’s infamous “show trials” come to mind, as might, more recently, a chilling 1979 video showing Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, then VP, seizing power and brutally condemning his enemies one by one. Accessed 2/28/2024..

[37] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Macbeth. In The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. 917-69. 935, 2.3.103-04.

[38] Harington, Sir John. “Of Treason” from The Letters and Epigrams of Sir John Harington. Accessed 2/24/2024.

[39] The maxim, “It is not enough that I should succeed; others must fail” has been attributed to any number of authors.

[40]  In real life, that event occurred in late spring 1472.

[41] Folger Shakespeare Richard III. Act 4, Scene 1. First Folio, 1623. Lines not numbered. Accessed 2/28/2024.

[42] Kendall, ibid. See Appendix 1: “Who Murdered the Princes?” 465-95. Kendall briefly discusses Henry VII, but finds the case for his guilt weak; he appears to consider Buckingham the most likely culprit.

[43] With regard to this question about the fate of the young princes Edward and Richard, the debate continues. One interesting conversation is logged at Ars Technica, “We now have evidence….” (Jennifer Ouellette, 2/9/2021. Accessed 2/28/2024.

[44] Sir Thomas More. The History of King Richard III. 1513. Accessed 3/4/2024. See also Holinshed, Raphael. Chronicles … “Richard the Third.”) Accessed 3/8/2024.

[45] Shakespeare. The Life of Henry the Fifth. Folio. In The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 790-857.

[46] Ernst Kantorowicz, W. C. Jordan, et al. The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2016; orig. pub. 1957.

[47] Kendall, ibid. 95-96.

[48] Richard III’s fearful attack of conscience renders his thoughts in a way that does not really call upon any sense of interiority. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (New York: Riverhead Books, 1998), Harold Bloom cites this orderly, speechified rendering of conscience as characteristic of Shakespeare’s earlier period; from Hamlet onward, circa 1600-01, says Bloom, the playwright learned to convey a sense of interiority that—where necessary—avoided such grammaticality and logical coherence in favor of silences and broken or partial but suggestive utterances. Sometimes, as the romantic poets would later insist, the fragment, the part, signifies more than the whole. See Bloom’s chapters “Shakespeare’s Universalism” (1-17) and “Richard III” (64-73).

[49] Perhaps the best rendition of this famous line comes from a modern production directed by Richard Loncraine: Sir Ian McKellen’s Richard III shouts it as the wheels of his 1930’s-era jeep spin uselessly in battlefield mud.

[50] See “The Battle of Bosworth Field.” Accessed 2/29/2024.

[51] Augustine of Hippo. The Enchiridion: On Faith, Hope, and Love. See Ch. IV, The Problem of Evil, which provides a useful summary. Trans. Albert C. Outler, 1955. Accessed 2/29/2024.. See also Augustine’s The City of God, Vol. 1, Book Twelve. Trans. and ed. Marcus Dods. Gutenberg e-text. Accessed 2/29/2024.

Timeline of the English Monarchy

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

English Monarchy Timeline: William the Conqueror to the Present

House of Normandy

William the Conqueror, who invaded England based on the claim that his second cousin King Edward the Confessor had left the English throne to him, was the son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy and Arlette, daughter of Fulbert. William defeated the forces of King Harold II at Hastings in October 1066.

  • William I (1066-87; Queen Matilda, d. of Count of Flanders; Timeline)
  • William II Rufus (1087-1100; Unmarried; Timeline)
  • Henry I (1100-35; Matilda, daughter of Malcolm III of Scotland; Adelicia; Timeline)

House of Blois

Stephen, the son of the Count of Blois, France and of William I’s daughter Adela, usurped the English throne from Matilda, daughter of Henry I. She invaded England in 1139 and civil war ensued. Stephen’s forces defeated hers by 1145, but in 1153, by the terms of the Treaty of Westminster after further civil war, he was constrained to acknowledge Matilda’s son Henry Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, as his heir.

  • Stephen (1135-54; Matilda, d. of Eustace III, Ct. of Boulogne; Timeline)

House of Plantagenet’s “Angevin” line

The Plantagenet line is so named in modern times due to the following lineage: Geoffrey Plantagenet, Fifth Count of Anjou, France married Matilda, daughter of English King Henry I (one of William the Conqueror’s sons). Empress Matilda’s son by Geoffrey became the English King Henry II.

  • Henry II (1154-89; Eleanor of Aquitaine; Timeline)
  • Richard I (1189-99; Berengaria of Navarre; Timeline)
  • John (1199-1216; Isabel of Gloucester; Isabella of Angoulême; Timeline)

House of Plantagenet’s main line, after the loss of Anjou)

  • Henry III (1216-72; Eleanor of Provence; Timeline)
  • Edward I (1272-1307; Eleanor of Castile; Margaret of France; Timeline)
  • Edward II (1307-27; Isabella of France, deposed him with Roger Mortimer’s aid; Timeline)
  • Edward III (1327-77; Philippa of Hainault; Timeline)
  • Richard II (1377-99; Anne of Bohemia; Isabella of Valois; Timeline)

Plantagenet branch called Lancaster

The line was descended from John of Gaunt, Edward III’s third son; Gaunt married Blanche of Lancaster, daughter of Henry of Grosmont, First Duke of Lancaster. Their son became Henry IV (born in Bolingbroke Castle, Lincolnshire, thus “Bolingbroke”).

  • Henry IV (Bolingbroke, 1399-1413; Mary de Bohun; Joan of Navarre; Timeline)
  • Henry V (victor over French at Agincourt in 1415; ruled 1413-22; Catherine de Valois; Timeline)
  • Henry VI’s two reigns (1422-61, 1470-71, murdered; Margaret of Anjou; Timeline)

Plantagenet branch called York

The line was descended paternally from Edmund of Langley, First Duke of York, who was the fourth son of Edward III. But it was the maternal descent that mattered most: Richard Plantagenet, Third Duke of York, had a very strong claim to the throne via his mother, Anne Mortimer, whose father was Lionel of Antwerp, Duke of Clarence (Edward III’s second surviving son). Richard Plantagenet was killed during the Wars of the Roses, in December 1460. His eldest son went on to take power as Edward IV, followed by the youngest son, who became Richard III.

  • Edward IV (1461-70 [Henry VI captive], 1471-83 after Henry VI’s murder; the widow Dame Elizabeth Grey, née Elizabeth Woodville; Timeline)
  • Edward V (briefly in 1483, probably killed as one of the “princes in the Tower”; Timeline)
  • Richard III (1483-85, killed at Bosworth Field by Henry Tudor’s forces; Anne Neville, widow of Edward Prince of Wales and daughter of the Earl of Warwick; Timeline). Bosworth largely ended the struggle between Yorkists and Lancastrians from 1455-87: the Wars of the Roses.[1]

The Tudor dynasty begun by Henry Tudor

Henry Tudor’s grandfather was the Welshman Owen Tudor (who fought for Henry V at Agincourt in 1415 and lived until 1461, when he was executed by Yorkists led by the future King Edward IV). Henry’s father was Edmund Tudor, First Earl of Richmond. (Edmund’s mother was King Henry V’s widow Catherine de Valois, who married Owen Tudor.) Henry Tudor’s mother was Lady Margaret Beaufort, and it is from her that he claimed his right to the throne since she was the great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt by his third wife Katherine Swynford.

  • Henry VII (i.e. Henry Tudor; 1485-1509; Elizabeth of York, Edward IV’s daughter; Timeline)
  • Henry VIII (1509-47), Catherine of Aragon through 1533; Anne Boleyn; Jane Seymour; Anne of Cleves; Catherine Howard; Catherine Parr; Timeline)
  • Edward VI (1547-53, never married; Timeline)
  • Mary I (1553-58, co-ruler Philip of Spain; Timeline)
  • Elizabeth I (1558-1603; never married; Timeline)

The Stuarts

The Stuarts’ claim to the English throne was initiated when in 1503, Scottish King James IV married English King Henry VII’s daughter Margaret Tudor, and they had a son who became Scottish King James V. His daughter Mary became Queen of Scots; Mary’s son by Lord Darnley (Henry Stuart) became English King James I.

  • James I, (1603-25; Anne, daughter of Frederick II of Denmark and Norway; Timeline)
  • Charles I (1625-49; Henrietta Maria, daughter of Henri IV of France; Timeline), beheaded by Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan forces during the English Civil War (1642-51).

The Puritan Interregnum

  • Council of State for the English Commonwealth (1649-53; ECW Timeline)
  • Oliver Cromwell (1653-58, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth)
  • Richard Cromwell (1658-59, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth)

The Stuart Restoration of 1660

  • Charles II (1660-85, the Restoration; Catherine of Braganza; Timeline)
  • James II (1685-88; deposed by William of Orange; Timeline)
  • William III and Mary II (1688-1702, the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688; Timeline)
  • Anne (1702-14; George, son of Frederick III of Denmark; Timeline)

The Hanoverians

In 1714, Queen Anne (daughter of King James II) died childless, and her Protestant second cousin, George of Hanover, became King George I. (George was also the great-grandson of England’s King James I through his mother Sophia of Hanover, wife of the Elector of Hanover, Ernest Augustus. James I’s daughter Elizabeth Stuart had married Frederick V, King of Bohemia and Elector Palatine, and their daughter was George’s mother the Electress Sophia, herself heir to the British throne thanks to the 1701 Act of Settlement barring Catholics from the succession. Sophia pre-deceased Queen Anne, so that is how her son George became King George I.)

  • George I (1714-1727; Sophia Dorothea of Celle (whom he divorced in 1694); Timeline)
  • George II (1727-60; Caroline, daughter of Margrave of Brandenburg; Timeline)
  • George III (1760-1820; Charlotte, daughter of Duke of Mecklenburg-Strelitz; Timeline)
  • George IV (1820-30; Caroline, daughter of Duke of Brunswick; Timeline)
  • William IV (1830-37; Adelaide, daughter of Duke of Saxe-Meinigen; Timeline)
  • Victoria (1837-1901; Albert, son of Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha; Timeline)[2]

House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha

This brief dynastic name stems from Queen Victoria’s husband Albert, son of the Duke of Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha, a duchy in existence from 1826-1918 in today’s Thuringia and Bavaria, Germany. Early in the twentieth century, sovereigns from the line associated with the place name ruled in Belgium, Portugal, and Bulgaria as well as the United Kingdom and Saxe-Coburg Gotha itself.

  • Edward VII (1901-10; Alexandra, daughter of Christian of Denmark; Timeline)

House of Windsor

The change from Saxe-Coburg Gotha to “Windsor” was made by George V in 1917 because of anti-German sentiment during the First World War. Technically, Elizabeth II’s descendants bear the surname “Mountbatten-Windsor.”

  • George V (1910-36; Mary, daughter of Duke of Teck; Timeline)
  • Edward VIII (1936; Ms. Wallis Simpson; Timeline)
  • George VI (1936-52; Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon; Timeline)
  • Elizabeth II (1952-2022; Philip Mountbatten; Timeline)
  • Charles III (2022-present; Diana Spencer, then Camilla Parker Bowles; Timeline)

[1] The Yorkist emblem was a white rose and Lancastrian a red rose. See “White and Red Roses“ on Accessed 2/23/2024.

[2] Elizabeth II (1952-2022) has the distinction of being the longest-reigning British monarch, followed by Queen Victoria (1837-1901) and King George III (1760-1820).

Intro to Shakespeare – 3

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Plays

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI



Prose passages: Let’s begin with a form that Shakespeare uses aside from blank verse. He often casts characters’ dialogue in prose form. Sometimes he does this to suit the characters (they may be working-class) or some less than elegantly poetical situation, but in truth, there’s no neat rule for when Shakespeare uses this mode. Still, prose is more conversational, and less formal. It seems like language that is stepping back from the somewhat elevated status we give it when we classify it as poetry.[1] Here’s a passage spoken by Leontes’s counselor Camillo in The Winter’s Tale:[2]

Sicilia cannot show himself over-kind to Bohemia.
They were trained together in their childhoods,
and there rooted betwixt them then such an
affection which cannot choose but branch now.
Since their more mature dignities and royal necessities
made separation of their society….

So prose is one form to be aware of as we read Shakespeare’s plays. Textual scholars have pointed out that he tends to be comfortable using more of it in his later plays.

Meter. Blank verse is Shakespeare’s go-to pattern or meter for conveying dramatic dialogue, and it makes up the great majority of his plays’ content. It is constituted of a series of unstressed and stressed syllables. Here are some observations on this verse form’s technical properties. Iambic pentameter is the technical classification for the lines of poetry we are interested in here, since that’s what constitutes blank verse. Iambic pentameter lines will contain five units (called “feet”), with each consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. This pattern or unit, in turn, is called an iamb.[3] A regular iambic foot consists of a pair of syllables, the first one unaccented ( ˘ ) and the second accented ( ʹ or ˉ ). For ease, we can also just bold the syllable to show that it is accented, and leave it unbolded to show that it is unaccented.[4]

Beat. All English verse is rather like music in the sense that it has a beat. The beat of blank verse is in keeping with the strongly accentual quality of ordinary English. The basic beat will run, de-DUM, de-DUM, de-DUM, de-DUM, de-DUM. The “Dums” are the accented syllables, or the beats—as with music, you can tap your foot to such a regular, strong beat. So the beat is the constant, steady pulse or heartbeat of the verse line. Remember these lines from “Rock and Roll Music” by Chuck Berry: “It’s got a back-beat, you can’t lose it….”

Rhythm. The “rhythm” of a line of poetry refers to the movement of sounds flowing across the basic pattern. The rhythm is established by the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables as we move from one foot to the next through to the end of the metrical line. It may be easiest to talk about rhythm if we suggest that a long series of perfectly metrical iambic pentameter lines, pronounced as such in a kind of singsong fashion, would soon become tiresome to hear. We would only be bringing to audibility the barebones, taxonomic pattern of the meter itself. No one likes monotony. To think of rhythm is to think of a certain complexity, a certain sophistication, of the “notes” that play across a very basic, unvariegated framework.

Well, then, what if the poet helpfully rearranged some of the stresses in ways that enhance the sense of the words? Then we would be generating a rhythm that varies a bit from the bare metrical pattern, thus adding variety. The beat will stay the same—it’s what we keep coming home to—and the basic metrical pattern (iambic pentameter) will be there in the background to guide us, but the rhythm may shift to suit the poet’s purpose, thereby adding variety and priming our attention. That seems like an adequate way to understand the interplay between beat, meter, and rhythm.[5]

To facilitate variation, poetics offers several rearrangements of stress[6] within a given foot. Here are the main ones, aside from the iamb itself ( ˘ ʹ ), which is the most common unit :[7]

Anapest      ˘ ˘ ʹ  (a very common variation for an iamb)
ʹ ˘     (a fairly common variation for an iamb)
ʹ ˘ ˘   (epic or heroic verse is in dactylic hexameter)

Following is a typical instance of blank verse in a Shakespeare play, spoken by Marullus in Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 1, scanned to show the bare accentual pattern. The meter is mostly regular, but you can find one substitution—in the third line, the fourth foot is an anapest, while the seventh line has a feminine ending; i.e. it ends with an extra, unstressed syllable, “-tion.” In addition, in the first foot of the third line, you could scan the two words as “Knew you” instead of “Knew you.” It sounds better if you invert the stresses to make a trochee.

You blocks, | you stones, | you worse | than sense- | less things!
O you | hard hearts, | you cru- | el men | of Rome,
Knew you | not Pom- | pey? Man- | y a time | and oft
Have you | climb’d up | to walls | and bat- | tle- ments,
To towers | and win- | dows, yea, | to chim- | ney tops,
Your in- | fants in | your arms, | and there | have sat
The live- | long day | with pa- | tient ex- | pec- ta -tion,[8]
To see | great Pom- | pey pass | the streets | of Rome.

A number of benefits flow from using iambic pentameter blank verse. The first is that any kind of iambic pattern sounds close to everyday speech—if you listen for an iambic flow in English conversations, you’ll often hear it.

Aside from the everyday quality of blank verse, there’s also a sense of freedom from the demands of rhyming. Milton, who didn’t care to be always hemmed in by rhyme schemes, says it best in his preface to Paradise Lost:

THE Measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and Virgil in Latin; Rhime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter; grac't indeed since by the use of some famous modern Poets, carried away by Custom, but much to thir own vexation, hindrance, and constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse then else they would have exprest them.

A third benefit associated with blank verse is that it can free up the poet to adopt a searching or questioning tone. Neoclassical-Era “heroic couplets” are very fine in their way, but there’s a certain declamatory attitude, a self-certitude, to them. A few of Alexander Pope’s excellent heroic couplets from his “Essay on Criticism” will make the point:

True wit is nature to advantage dressed;
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed;
Something, whose truth convinced at sight we find
That gives us back the image of our mind.

Constraining oneself to this verse pattern, one would be hard pressed to convey any tone other than “Listen up, a timeless truth is being propounded!” But that kind of certitude isn’t usually what Shakespeare means to convey, so in his dramas, at least, plain, supple blank verse suits him best. To be fair, there are various rhyme schemes—the Petrarchan sonnet, the English sonnet, the Spenserian stanza, and others—that do allow a poet to strike up various moods. It’s just that for conveying dramatic action, blank verse functions as a blank slate: dramatists can do whatever they like with it.

Following is one more example to show that we need not overthink the business of “scanning” for metrical regularity. We need not become pedantic pests over it, and it’s nowhere near as rigid a science as some theorists claim. If we read poetry for its sense (including its dramatic properties if we are dealing with a play), we will get the accents right nearly all the time. The iambic pentameter or some other pattern will no doubt guide us in how to read the line well; but above all, we must use our commonsense understanding of the verse line and our experience in pronouncing English words. Shakespearean actors don’t simply mark up their reading texts for its regularity of pattern—though they may start with that task. In the end, diligent actors will re-mark their reading copies to suit the particular emphasis they consider best to focus and hold the audience members’ attention on what is said and done, to connect with or respond to their fellow actors, and so forth. Remember, too, the importance in Shakespeare of antithesis, which we can define as “setting the word against the word” in a way that ensures the memorable quality of the speech.

To conclude with a non-Shakespearean example, here is the opening verse passage in Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”: These lines are very regular blank verse (as is the entire poem), so let’s scan it with that in mind, and then discuss a few things that should help us read the passage expertly:

Five years | have past; | five sum- | mers, with | the length
Of five | long win- | ters! and | a- gain | I hear
These wa- | ters, rol- | ling from | their moun- | tain springs
With a | soft in- | land mur- | mur. -- Once | a- gain
Do I | be- hold | these steep | and lof- |ty cliffs,
That on | a wild | se- clu- | ded scene | im- press
Thoughts of | more deep | se- clu- |sion; and | con- nect
The land- | scape with | the qui- | et of | the sky.

If we were to read the passage out loud that way, it would sound ridiculous and mar an otherwise beautiful stretch of words and imagery. Scanning, at base, is purely mechanical and doesn’t tell us exactly how to accent or pronounce the words. Just as an example, let’s take the stretch “Five years have past; five summers, with the length / Of five long winters!” It would most likely be accented for actual performance as follows: “Five years have past; five summers, with the length / Of five long winters!” More of the syllables are somewhat accented than the bare pattern suggests. But better yet would be to convey the accentual qualities by using nuanced font weights instead of the crude categories of “bold/not bold”: “years” would be a little less bold or accented than the initial word “Five”; in the phrase “five summers,” the “five” would be somewhat accented, though perhaps not quite as much as the first syllable of “summers,” and so forth. This is no doubt how experienced actors and readers actually treat the words as they accent them. In the end, we should read lines of verse in a way that makes the best sense of them, and let the basic pattern keep reasserting itself and serving as a place from which to start.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

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


[1] That is, when it has a set pattern of accented and unaccented syllables, rhymed couplets or intricate rhyme schemes, etc.

[2] The line breaks in such passages, by the way, generally correspond in printed texts to the amount of space that was available in the authoritative copy from which the editors and printers are working

[3] According to Oxford, the term iambic comes from ἰάπτω, iaptō, I attack verbally. (Greek satirists used iambic trimeter.)

[4] Though strictly, we should use ˉ for classical Latin and Greek meters since this marking indicates syllabic quantities, not accents.

[5] From the Greek rhythmós, ῥυθμός, “any measured flow or symmetry”; verb rheō, ῥέω, “flow, run, etc.”

[6] These rearrangements of stresses are  sometimes called “substitutions,” though some people find that term rather confusing.

[7] Classical Greek and Latin metrics also allows for Pyrrhic feet ( ˘ ˘ ) and Spondees or spondaic feet ( ʹ ʹ ). 

[8] This unstressed final syllable need not add another foot to the verse; it’s called a “feminine ending.”

The Second Part of Henry the Fourth

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Histories

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. The Second Part of Henry the Fourth. (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 673-757).

Of Interest: English Monarchy Timeline | RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed “Henry IV” | Historical Figures | 100 Years’ War Timeline

Why Shallow ? He is partly a foil for Falstaff, believe it or not.  Even Jack sees through his old acquaintance’s claims to a riotous youth, his selective and creative memory about his own personal past.  Shallow is “shallow” because the currents of time, for him, run thin – there’s no depth or authenticity in him.  Falstaff is privileged for a while to be near the royal sunshine, at least while it’s clouded over.  He meets some of the great people of the times, like Henry IV’s sons as they march across the stage of English history.  But not Shallow.

The disorder of rebellion has transformed men from their proper selves – a theme that provides some of the more powerful rhetoric in the play.  The Archbishop comes in for criticism most of all since he turns his religious authority towards taking down the king.  This kind of distortion from right office and proportion is the dark potential in historical change.  Hal, by contrast, is more like Jove hiding himself to practice his deceptions before returning to Olympus.  He is friends with that old lord of misrule, Falstaff, who is constantly described as being almost like “Vice” in a morality play, but it turns out, as we are told from the outset, to be true that Hal is in league with providence and that his sense of time is redemptive.  Misrule is an education for him, a pattern by which to judge the wrongdoers he will later need to deal with sharply.  A prince royal or a king may be “but a man,” but it seems we aren’t to judge him on quite the same temporal scale as we judge others.

The source of Henry IV’s fear, we know already from the first play, is guilt because he had initiated his own rule at the expense of Richard II’s death, and the consequences have been violent revolt.  Now that peace is restored, he fears his heir will unleash the spirit of revelry and greed upon the kingdom, achieving only an anarchic reign rather than true succession, which had been the king’s best hope for a happy continuation of his dynasty.

In Act 4 note the parallel with Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane – could you not wait with me even for an hour?  Yet we see the inappropriateness of this reference because Henry IV is no angel, considering how he came by the crown.

The play stages reflections on the private personal mythologies of men like Falstaff and Justice Robert Shallow, mythologies that have currency and scope only within such characters’ restricted social circuits.  But we know that such “personal mythologies” are by no means limited to small or middling characters; recall Owen Glendower’s sureness that the very heavens quaked with prodigies at his birth, or the manner in which Harry Monmouth, Bolingbroke, i.e. Henry IV, came by his crown.  Ever the public-relations expert, he is dealing with the necessity of crafting a legend and an image that the people will accept, casting this image before himself as an interpretive guide to his actions present, past, and future.  It seems that some (like Henry IV and Falstaff) are more self-conscious about this “creative” process, and try to use it to their gain, while others, like good Master Shallow, engage in it more or less unconsciously, to cover up the void of their present existence. (We notice Shallow’s concern for advancing age, the yawning grave – something Falstaff has shrunk from, too.)  Some, like Henry IV, see the limitations and perils of this drive to mythology, too.  Perhaps they use it after the manner of Plato’s well-intentioned philosopher kings in The Republic.  I suppose Falstaff is in his way just as reflective, though of course his way of dealing with it is to turn to cynicism and moral relativity that can have dire consequences for those who serve him, like the poor ragamuffins who are “peppered with shot” under his cowardly command.  Falstaff has certainly mixed with the great, taking his part in the weaving of history, thus showing that they are not gods.  Ultimately, Hal’s promise to maintain the lie that graces Falstaff’s absurd pretensions can’t be sustained: the great events and their aftermath demand better, and he is swept aside with nothing but a vague promise of possible rehabilitation, redemption.  But we know from Henry V that old Jack dies a sad, broken man, lost in his abandonment by the prince he loved.

The sentimental moments in WS’s portrayal of Falstaff are genuine, but their scope is ruthlessly limited by events and great personages from the tapestry of English history.  This is something his plays’ very structure is determined to bring home to us.  Word and sentiment can’t be permanently subordinated to action, and in the end, the world is not to be sacrificed to a quibble or a quibbling character.  On a more existential level, this “roasted manning-tree ox with the pudding in the middle” Jack, brimming with life and overflowing, bursting his proper confines, is reduced to his true dimensions: the ones left him by a life poorly lived and a decaying mass of flesh.  Everyone, as the meanest soldier in King Henry IV or V’s army might have told him, “owe God a death.”  It’s his privilege that no less a man than Prince Hal informs him of his responsibilities.

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

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

The Life and Death of King John

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Histories

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. The Life and Death of King John (1594-96; Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 529-94).

Of Interest: English Monarchy Timeline | RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed “King John” | Historical Figures 

Historical Gloss Regarding King John: John’s reign is significant not only for his forced signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 (whereby angry feudal nobles wanted to check some of his arbitrary powers), but also because his loss of most of England’s French territories helped to set the stage for Europe’s Hundred Years War from 1337-1453 – mainly a struggle between the French kings of the House of Valois and England’s Plantagenet rulers, who claimed the right to France after the death of the last direct ruler in the French Capetian line.  What John lost, subsequent English kings, such as Edward III and Henry V, tried to get back, culminating in the loss of nearly everything in France by Henry V’s son, the hapless Henry VI, whose reign saw the English Wars of the Roses that ran for a few decades beginning in the mid-1450s.  This English struggle, then, dovetails with the Hundred Years War: Henry VI’s incompetence, it’s reasonable to infer, contributed to the English nobility’s dissatisfaction and determination to replace him with someone more capable (and of course of their own faction).  In Shakespearean terms, the heroic Henry V successfully reversed the misfortunes of John, only to find his son (of I, II, and III Henry VI) throwing it all away; from thence it’s a short step to the territory covered by Richard III, in which play the Yorkist King Edward IV has already taken out his Lancastrian predecessor and is to be succeeded by his younger brother Richard of Gloucester, who as Richard III is soon toppled by Henry Tudor.  This Henry VII (Tudor) founds the line culminating in the long, illustrious reign of Shakespeare’s own Queen Elizabeth.  In a sense, the French victory in the Hundred Years War proved hollow – the conflict was fought mainly on French soil and devastated the population, while England prospered in spite of all the violence, giving it an advantage as the early modern period in Europe began.

Act 1, Scene 1

538.  At the outset of the play we find Queen Eleanor (i.e. Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry II’s widowed queen) immediately undercutting King John’s claim to the throne he already holds.  It is not that she wants him to give up the crown, but rather that she is trying to shape his understanding of his position.  It is not about “right” but rather about “strong possession” (40).  That is the only thing keeping young Arthur and his mother Constance from succeeding (Constance, Duchess of Brittainy is the widow of Geoffrey II, Duke of Brittany – this man was John’s elder brother, as was Richard the Lionheart).  Queen Eleanor is a Machiavellian before Machiavelli.

539.  Enter Philip the Bastard, who is mentioned only once or twice in the Holinshed Chronicles but who Shakespeare decides to make a major character in his own play, one that as A. R. Braunmuller points out in his essay “King John and Historiography” (ELH 55, 1988: 309-32), is invented almost whole cloth and steps out boldly but then fades into near irrelevance to suit Shakespeare’s interests.  The younger Falconbridge lays claim to what should logically be Philip’s inheritance from Robert Falconbridge, and Philip’s manner of defending his patrimony rises to genuine comedy.  Philip simply compares his own personal appearance to that of his unattractive younger brother, and insinuates and then states outright that he is indeed the illegitimate offspring of King Richard I.  Queen Eleanor and King John can see “perfect Richard” (89) in the face of this saucy man, and they hear the departed King in his voice and manner.  King John goes along with Philip rather than his younger brother: it does not matter whether or not Philip is legitimate, it only matters that he was born while his mother was married to Robert Falconbridge. 

540-41.  But that isn’t what Queen Eleanor is interested in, and neither is it Philip’s real concern: she asks him point blank whether he would rather inherit his Falconbridge patrimony or be considered “the reputed son of Coeur-de-lion, / Lord of thy presence, and no land beside” (136).  Philip is invited to follow Queen Eleanor since she is “a soldier and now bound to France” (150).  The play is not very historical, although as Braunmuller says, it should be noted that the original Chronicles themselves are re-imaginings of earlier historical records and serve the needs of the present, like a work of drama.  But this reimagining of Queen Eleanor strikes me as accurate in spirit: she was a martial character, a strong woman and capable politician who was always up to something regarding her husband King Henry II, at one point even encouraging her sons to rebel against him and ending up in custody because Henry did not trust her.  (She died in 1204, though the play makes it seem as if she passed away shortly before her son King John falls mortally sick in 1216.)  Well, Philip makes the stronger choice and is told by John, “Arise Sir Richard and Plantagenet” (162).  It is better to be the grandson of Eleanor of Aquitaine than to be the legitimate son of a nobleman.  It’s clear that he and Eleanor agree in political matters: “have is have, however men do catch” (173).  And with this observation they are off for France.

542.  They do not depart, however, before Philip makes a number of witty observations on the transformation he has just undergone.  He now has the power to transform others, he tells us – he can make an ordinary Joan a lady, and join in the flattering and deception that he calls “worshipful society” (205).  He may be illegitimate, but he is not, as he points out, “a bastard to the time” 207).  There is a big difference between Philip and someone like Paroles in All’s Well That Ends Well.  The latter character understands nothing but flattery and fashion, but Philip is savvy, and he knows these things are merely tools: though you use them, you must not be taken in by them yourself.  That’s the sort of advice Machiavelli gives the Medici: know the difference between your public and private qualities and behavior.  We can see this when he says, “though I will not practice to deceive, / Yet to avoid deceit I mean to learn; / For it shall strew the footsteps of my rising” (214ff).  In his essay “Of Great Place,” Sir Francis Bacon writes the following: “All rising to great place is by a winding stair; and if there be factions, it is good to side a man’s self whilst he is in the rising, and to balance himself when he is placed.”  Philip doesn’t need to be told this since he already knows it.

543-44.  Philip’s next task is to square things with his mother, which involves getting her to admit she bore a child by a man not her husband.  Since the man in question was a king, this proves not to be too difficult a task.  Philip makes his mother’s admission a chivalric cause: “If thou hadst said him nay, it had been sin. / Who says it was, he lies: I say ’twas not” (275).  Oscar Wilde has a character in one of his plays insist that there are some temptations one must give in to or risk being diminished, and it seems that both Philip and his mother agree.

One thing worth noting about the entire first act is that not very much of it is about King John.  At times, he does not even seem like the most important character in the play.  This is not necessarily a flaw in Shakespeare’s dramatic art, but may rather be a statement about the turgid nature of the historical era Shakespeare is covering.  The Chronicles from which he borrows often give confusing, difficult reasons for historical events, and the monarchy was by no means as centralized in feudal times as it would become later on in the Early Modern Age.  King John “Lackland” (so-called as the youngest of Henry II’s sons) set the stage for a few centuries of English history thanks to his losses in France, losses that subsequent kings of England would try to erase.

Act 2, Scene 1

544.  The beginning of the first scene is taken up with the stale set-piece rhetoric of the French party.  King Philip and Austria make bold claims about how they’re going to help Constance and her young son Arthur, and it is announced that King John, Queen Eleanor and her granddaughter Blanche and “all the unsettled humours of the land” (545, 66) are on the way to Angers.

546.  King John and King Philip trade contentious claims, King Philip describing Arthur’s face as if it were a text in which is read the ruin of King John.  Queen Eleanor rails away at Constance, and Philip the Bastard mocks Austria, whom he will later kill during a battle.  Poor Arthur understands what the fuss is about, but the boy is modest and just wishes he were back home and not the pawn in an argument between two mighty kings. 

548.  The Citizen spokesman of Angers insists that the town is loyal, but it will prove loyal only to the man who demonstrates the greater military capacity (550, 270ff).  In other words, Angers values what Queen Eleanor called “strong possession,” not necessarily legitimate right.  In this play, de facto trumps de jure any day.  Without wanting to run afoul of the censors over at the Revels Office, Shakespeare seems always to have had a keen understanding of this basic fact of European history; he didn’t need Chairman Mao to tell him that “political power grows from the barrel of a gun” (or a spear, or cannon, or whatever).

550.  A battle follows, and the only clear thing is that it isn’t clear who won.  Philip’s rhetoric at the bottom of 551 does nothing to change this.  He revels in battle, but the two kings desperately want the matter clarified.  It seems at first as if they are going to accept his advice: “Be friends a while, and both conjointly bend / Your sharpest deeds of malice on this town” (379).  However, the Citizen promptly undercuts Philip by proposing a match between Queen Eleanor’s granddaughter Blanche and the Dauphin.  They do not seem particularly impressed with all the high rhetoric that has passed from the kings’ lips to their battlements, and in fact Philip is impressed with the Citizen (554, 467-68).  So much for King Philip’s statements such as, “shall your city call us lord / In that behalf which we have challenged it, / Or shall we give the signal to our rage, / And stalk in blood to our possession?”  (549, 263ff) This in itself is a pale matchup with similar threats in Henry V.  I am thinking of Act 3, Scene 3, lines 104-20 of that play (page 795 in Norton Histories); the initial lines run, “Therefore, you men of Harfleur, / Take pity of your town and of your people, / Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command …” (3.3.104-06)

556.  Anyway, the Citizen’s plan strikes both King John and King Philip as excellent, and the promise is made.  Philip the Bastard is bemused by it all, how easily these great men turn to something very like wrangling over the price of some object: “Mad world, mad kings, mad composition! / John, to stop Arthur’s title in the whole, / Hath willingly departed with a part…” (562).  He puts it all down to “Commodity, the bias of the world” (575).  His only reason for being scandalized, he admits, is simply that his turn has not yet come to turn a buck.  Situational ethics is all the rage.  As Philip puts it, “whiles I am a beggar I will rail, / And say there is no sin but to be rich, / And being rich, my virtue then shall be / To say there is no vice but beggary” (594ff).  Up to this point, Philip’s character is consistent; it is that of an ambitious joker but also a man of considerable bravery.  He livens up a play that is after all heavy with conventional dialogue and light on action.  The most interesting character isn’t John but Philip, and indeed his supposed father Richard the Lionheart (famous for his participation in the Third Crusade with King Philip of France against Saladin) may have had some illegitimate offspring, but there’s no evidence Philip existed aside from a few passing mentions in the Holinshed Chronicles.  

Act 2, Scene 2

557.  In the brief second scene, Constance can hardly believe the deal that has just been struck at her expense, and as so many royal characters do, she blames the messenger, who in this case is Salisbury.  She sounds to me a bit like Richard II, Shakespeare’s poet king who likes to “sit upon the ground, / And tell sad stories of the death of kings” (499, 3.2.151ff).  Constance complains, “Here I and sorrows sit; / Here is my throne; bid kings come bow to it” (558, 73-74).

Act 3, Scene 1

559-60.  In the first scene, Constance gets in a few good digs at Austria, seconded by Philip the Bastard at line 55.  But it is with Pandolf that the real troubles begin since he comes from Pope Innocent III demanding that King John install Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury.  John responds as if he doesn’t know the English Reformation of the early 1530s hasn’t happened yet (Martin Luther’s European Protestant Reformation began in 1517), insisting that no earthly force can “task the free breath of a sacred king” (74), and other words to that effect.  John refuses to back down even when threatened with excommunication, but King Philip will bow to the power of the Pope.  Pandolf claims to the perplexed French king that “All form is formless, order orderless, / Save what is opposite to England’s love” (562, 179ff).  Once again, Constance can hardly believe what happens but this time the development is one she welcomes since it places the question of Arthur at center stage again.  In essence, Constance is supporting the Pope for her own personal dynastic reasons.  King John, of course, is infuriated with King Philip for this falling away so soon after a bargain has been struck.  Just as the Norton editors have written, the undermining of almost every determination and action is the recurrent theme of this play.  High words are spoken, arms are taken up, and deals are made, only to be annulled by the next character who walks onto the stage.  We are not exactly being treated to a providential representation of the historical process.

Act 3, Scenes 2-3

564-66.  In the second scene, Philip the Bastard informs us that he has killed Austria.  He has also, he tells King John, rescued his grandmother Queen Eleanor.  Then in the third scene, King John announces that it’s time for Philip to return to England and shake some money out of the stingy Church.  It’s clear that the young man is delighted at the prospect.  He is becoming John’s loyal lieutenant and right-hand man – not bad for a fellow who probably didn’t even exist!  Now comes John’s pitch to “gentle Hubert” (565, 19), whom of course he takes to be anything but gentle.  John’s father Henry II is famous for supposedly having muttered in his anguish over resistance from Thomas à Becket, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”  But King John takes a more direct approach: he tells Hubert that Arthur is “a very serpent in my way” (566, 61), and then makes it even more plain by intoning the word “Death” at line 66.  He sounds more like Richard III informing Buckingham that he wants the sons of Edward IV done away with than Henry II.  It’s chilling to hear him then say to Arthur, “Hubert shall be your man, attend on you / With all true duty” (566, 73).

Act 3, Scene 4

567-68.  In the fourth scene, King Philip is facing the news that the French have lost, though this is not based on historical precedent.  Anyway, Arthur has been taken prisoner, and Constance embraces death with high rhetoric, trying to fire up King Philip.  She unbinds, binds and then undoes her hair again, almost like a madwoman, and King Philip utters the common Shakespearean charge that she is indulging herself in excessive grief.  But Constance insists that the form of her body should mirror the state of her mind: “I will not keep this form upon my head / When there is such disorder in my wit” (569 101ff), and Philip worries that she might do herself violence.

569-70.  Also in the fourth scene, the Dauphin gets a lesson in realpolitik from Pandolf, the legate of Pope Innocent III.  With Arthur out of the way, the Dauphin will be free along with Blanche to make the same claim that Arthur would have made.  Again, this is not historical but rather something Shakespeare adds for dramatic purposes.  The public, explains Pandolf, begins to hate King John, and their belief that he has done away with Arthur will condemn him in their eyes.  Pandolf is making the point that as soon as the French march upon England, John will have to get rid of Arthur.  Furthermore, Pandolf says, Philip the Bastard is infuriating the Church and further alienating them from the king.

Act 4, Scene 1

570-73.  What we get is an idyllic portrait of young Arthur, Duke of Brittany, one that melts the heart of Hubert, who tries without success to be the stony agent of King John’s desires.  I have read (in A.R. Braunmiller’s article mentioned above) that the sheer confusion involved in this representation – namely the idea that the punishment is to put out Arthur’s eyes, whereas we had thought he was to be killed outright – may in fact be a deliberate repetition of the confusion or multiplicity of causes found in Shakespeare’s source material.  This kind of confusion, runs the idea, may have been one way to keep ahead of the Master of the Revels (the Elizabethan/Jacobean censor’s office).  I don’t know if that’s the case, but it’s possible. 

In any case, this scene is interesting for its representation of Hubert’s conscience.  Camille Wells Slights writes well in her essay The conscience of the King: Henry V and the reformed conscience (Philological Quarterly, Winter 2001) that “Conscience was usually defined as the part of practical understanding that applies inherent knowledge of the basic principles of good and evil to particular actions, judging past actions and legislating future ones” and again that with regard to Shakespeare’s histories, “conscience is the nexus where internal self-awareness and external political action, the obligations of obedience and the authority of personal judgment converge.”  These remarks are very appropriate for the scene we are now reading: Arthur’s words awaken Hubert’s “mercy,” which up to now has supposedly been dead inside of him.  The Elizabethans do not have a fully developed language for the internal operations of the self, but what seems to be happening here is that some interior awareness on Hubert’s part awakens his emotions and leads him to disregard the political duty he had sworn to King John.  He keeps trying to treat the action in a mechanical way, referring to the instrument he needs to use, but his cold resolution is no match for the boy’s piteous language, which even bestows a Macbeth-like weirdness to the heated poker that Hubert means to use: “All things that you should use to do me wrong / Deny their office…” (573, 117-18).  In the end, Hubert decides to let Arthur live and disguise his act of mercy from the king – which of course would have been a good thing, if anything ever went as planned in this play.  Just as Lysander of A Midsummer Night’s Dream says about erotic pursuits that “the course of true love never did run smooth,” so the best-laid plans of the characters in King John seem always to go running off in some direction those characters never would have guessed.

Act 4, Scene 2

573-75.  This is a momentous scene, and a tragic setup for the fortunes and spirits of King John.  At its beginning, we find him being re-crowned, much to the displeasure of great lords such as Salisbury and Pembroke, who consider it an excessive gesture, especially since they suspect that he has ordered the murder of Arthur.

576-79.  King John takes the measure of this situation and utters a medieval sententia: “they burn in indignation.  I repent. / There is no sure foundation set on blood, / No certain life achieved by others’ death” (103-05).  Just when he has realized this, the news comes that both Queen Eleanor and Constance are dead.  Historically, this is not accurate since Eleanor of Aquitaine died in 1204, which is nowhere near the end of John’s reign.  But no matter, the scene is dramatic, not historical.  From this point forwards, John will seem adrift, hardly knowing what to do, even though Philip gets him to pull himself together for the moment, if only to hear further bad news.  It seems that the common people are “Possessed with rumors, full of idle dreams, / Not knowing what they fear, but full of fear” (145-46).  John’s answer to this is to order one of their prophets hanged.  The king is still optimistic about the noblemen, at least: “I have a way to win their loves again” (577, 168).

King John is at first angry with Hubert and his conscience troubles him terribly (578-79, 246-49); he believes, of course, that he has carried out his task, but Hubert soon disabuses him of this belief.  In brief, John finds what he did impossible to face; like Macbeth, he is frightened to think of what he has done, and dares not look upon it.  No, John must blame his subordinate instead.  This is not an unusual reaction amongst the powerful – Queen Elizabeth I, for example, basically denied issuing the death warrant that sealed the fate of Mary Queen of Scots (the later James I’s mother), even though there is no doubt that she signed the order because Mary was considered a threat to her continued reign.  Anyway, John is overjoyed to hear that Hubert is not as bad a fellow as he looks and did not do the bloody deed.

Act 4, Scene 3

579-82.  Arthur decides to make an escape attempt, but falls upon the hard pavement and dies.  Salisbury discovers the body, and Philip is as stunned as anyone else: “It is a damned and a bloody work, / The graceless action of a heavy hand – / If that it be the work of any hand” (580, 57-59).  Hubert then shows up and is promptly accused of murdering Arthur, but he vehemently denies it.  The Bastard still suspects him and now says something we might not have expected him to say, given his character for the first three acts or so: “I am amazed, methinks, and lose my way / Among the thorns and dangers of this world” (582, 141-42).  Gone is the flippant and courtly adventurer: Philip is genuinely shocked to see the broken body of little Arthur lying upon the ground.

Act 5, Scene 1

583-84.  Pandolf makes peace with King John in the Pope’s name, ceremonially giving him back his crown.  Now John is confronted with the horrible news that Arthur is in fact dead.  Philip tries to buck up his spirits and urge him to fight the French here on English soil, but John renders that advice irrelevant by pointing out that he has just made peace with the Pope.  The Dauphin no longer presents a threat.  Philip’s response to this is incredulous: “O inglorious league!”  (584, 65) John seems to put the affairs of state into Philip’s hands.

Act 5, Scene 2

584-88.  Salisbury laments that he must draw his sword against his own country (585).  The Dauphin is amazed to hear Pandolf declare that it’s time to pack up and go home because peace has been made with John.  He thinks he is playing with the best hand – why fold now?  On 587, Philip the Bastard is delighted that the young man isn’t listening to Pandolf; Philip is spoiling for a fight, and a fight he will have.  A battle takes place at the end of this scene.

Act 5, Scenes 3-5

588-90.  King John is in no state to manage affairs on the battlefield because he has come down with a fever, and even the news that the enemy’s ships were wrecked does nothing to cheer him up.  The rebellious English lords hear from the dying Count Melun that the Dauphin plans to cut off their heads if he wins, so they desert him and go back to King John.  The Dauphin remains optimistic in spite of his troubles.

Act 5, Scenes 6-7

591-94.  Now we are told on 591 that King John has been poisoned by a monk who was no doubt angry over the virtual ransacking of the Church by Philip.  The Lords have returned with John’s young son Henry, and by the beginning of Scene 7, John is near death: “all my bowels crumble up to dust; / I am a scribbled form, drawn with a pen / Upon a parchment, and against this fire / Do I shrink up” (592, 31-34).  There is perhaps something in this of guilt and visions of hellfire, as when John says, “Within me is a hell, and there the poison / Is, as a fiend, confined to tyrannize…” (593, 65-66).  But it’s also possible that the references to writing are a glance in the direction of the confusing historical record itself, as if the truth of King John’s thoughts and his reign burned along with his feverish body.  Philip still believes the main part of the fighting lies ahead after John’s death, but he is quickly informed that such thoughts are unnecessary since the Dauphin is willing to put the whole matter in Pandolf’s hands; the battle is ended.  Philip looks a little like the Superfluous Man at this point since his loyalty to John need no longer take such a martial form as previously.  But now he turns that loyalty to John’s young son, Henry III, and pronounces the play’s final judgment on the events that have passed: “This England never did, nor never shall, / Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror / But when it first did help to wound itself” (594, 112-14).  That judgment doesn’t have the ring of jingoism, even though the obvious primary reference is to the lords who temporarily took the side of the Dauphin against John; as it seems to me Philip indicated earlier, King John himself bore some of the blame for turning those lords away from him thanks to his plot against Arthur, amongst other things.   

Shakespeare’s source for this play seems to have been in part an anonymous work entitled The Troublesome Reign of King John, and that title says much: John’s reign was indeed a troublesome one in difficult, contentious times.  He is not at the end, nor was he ever, anything like the hero of this play, and in fact it makes sense to say that there really are no heroes to be found – not the admittedly strong women Queen Eleanor or Constance, mother of Arthur, not John, not the French royals, not Philip the Bastard, nor Arthur, who suffers such a pitiable fate.  I believe the Norton editors are correct to suggest that if some of Shakespeare’s other plays suggest something like a Tudor Providence, with history pointing towards the accession of the all-important Elizabeth of Shakespeare’s own time, The Life and Death of King John does not include itself in that Providence, but rather gives us a disturbing look at a process that seems at best structured by compounding frustrations and anguish unto death, and at worst random in its movement from one royal event and desire to the next.  John’s nascent Machiavellian craft comes to naught, and we are left with a strange feeling that nothing much has been settled or set up for future times, other than continued bad relations with France.

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

All Is True (Henry VIII)

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Histories

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. All Is True (Henry VIII). (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 847-929).

Of Interest: English Monarchy Timeline | RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed “Henry VIII” | Tudor Society Sources | H. B. Tree’s Court of Henry VIII | Historical Figures


Prologue and Act 1, Scene 1 (858-65, prologue emphasizes the fall of the great; Buckingham starts off the pattern: to Norfolk, he criticizes Wolsey bitterly, and they discuss the cardinal’s shortcomings, perhaps with some envy; Wolsey looks askance at Buckingham, is investigating his finances; Buckingham arrested on a charge of treason)

The prologue-speaker tells us that this play offers something for everyone: pathos, truth, and a medieval morality tale of illustrious men and women falling from a great height, sometimes when they least expect it: “think you see them great, / … / … then, in a moment, see / How soon this mightiness meets misery” (859, 27-30).  There’s plenty of history and pageantry in Henry VIII, subject to the usual telescoping and rearrangement of events we find in Shakespeare’s history plays, but the greatest emphasis will be placed upon the interplay of subtle and strong characters.  In general, I would say the play conforms, as the Norton editors say about the history play Sir Thomas More that Shakespeare seems to have had a hand in revising, to the Boccaccio-inspired tradition known as de casibus virorum illustrium: “[plays or stories] about the fall of illustrious men.”  This tradition in some form or another goes all the way back to classical times—what else is Plutarch, for example, doing in Parallel Lives, his side-by-side biographical sketches of famous politicians, rulers and generals?  Often, the emphasis is upon the mistakes made by the great that led to their downfall, the better to warn others not to make similar mistakes.  But sometimes, especially in a medieval context, the mistake just consists in being a post-lapsarian human being: first you’re at the top of Lady Fortune’s wheel, and then you’re at the bottom.

Edward Stafford, third Duke of Buckingham is the first to speak, and will be the first to fall.  This Duke (son of Henry Stafford, second Duke of Buckingham—the man who unsuccessfully rebelled against King Richard III in 1483 after having supported him in usurping the throne) explains that he did not attend the meeting of more than two weeks’ length between Henry VIII and the French King Francis I, a 1520 meeting known as Field of Cloth of Gold, which was meant to solidify the friendship between the two nations following the Anglo-French peace treaty of 1514.  Thomas Howard, second Duke of Norfolk describes the scene as the very “view of earthly glory” (859, 1.1.14).  Buckingham is not impressed, and he seems to resent Cardinal Wolsey’s role in arranging this meeting: “No man’s pie is freed / From his ambitious finger” (860, 1.1.52-53) says the aristocrat, and as for the ceremonies, he describes them as “fierce vanities” (860, 1.1.54).  Norfolk also offers some interesting analysis of their opponent: “There’s in him stuff that puts him to these ends” (860, 1.1.58), and this lord describes him as a spider spinning a web from his own merit (860-61, 1.1.62-64).  What is at the base of this great advancement?  Lord Abergavenny has a ready answer: it is the cardinal’s pride (861, 1.1.68).  One must realize that some of these great noblemen could themselves stake a claim to the English throne—Buckingham’s father, for example, had a claim through the Beaufort line.  So their resentment of the commoner Wolsey is palpable and understandable—the man’s father seems to have been a wealthy merchant, but not an aristocrat.  Yet, he has risen to a place closer to the king than any of them. 

The aristocrats don’t think much of the treaties made with France recently, in which the cardinal had a hand, just as he had a hand in urging King Henry to war.  The most recent wars against the French had lasted from 1512-14, and saw an English alliance with Pope Julius II’s Holy League to free Italy from France.

The bad blood between Buckingham and Wolsey evidently goes both ways: when the two pass each other, Wolsey eyes him suspiciously, and his words make it plain that he is plotting mischief for Buckingham: he wants to meet with the duke’s overseer or surveyor, and says, “we shall then know more, and Buckingham / Shall lessen this big look” (862, 1.1.118-19).  Norfolk tries to advise Buckingham with wise Baconian advice: “To climb steep hills / Requires slow pace at first” (862, 1.1.131-32).  Some readers may remember that Sir Francis Bacon, Queen Elizabeth I’s counselor, writes in his essay “Of Great Place” that, “All rising to great place is by a winding stair.”  But it all goes for nothing with Buckingham, who considers Wolsey nothing short of “corrupt and treasonous” (863, 1.1.156).  What is the justification for such an extreme claim?  Buckingham explains that he believes Holy Roman Emperor Charles V is in league with Cardinal Wolsey to break the peace with France (863-64, 1.1.174-90) since the emperor feels threatened by that amity.  No sooner does Buckingham broach this issue with Norfolk then he is, as if on cue, arrested for high treason (864, 1.1.199-202).  Buckingham realizes that the king has enlisted key subordinates against him, and realizes his day is over: “My life is spanned already. / I am the shadow of poor Buckingham” (864, 1.1.224-25).  Although Buckingham has been venting his resentment against Cardinal Wolsey throughout this scene, it seems fairly certain that his real enemy is none other than King Henry VIII, who surely does not trust this high-ranking nobleman.

Act 1, Scene 2 (865-70, Katherine and Norfolk complain to Henry about Wolsey’s 16% tax on commerce; Henry sides with them against Wolsey; Katherine questions Henry about the fall of Buckingham, and Henry explains his reasons for condemning him)

King Henry seems grateful to Cardinal Wolsey for stopping what he believes is a full-on conspiracy on the part of Buckingham, but matters are more complex than that.  Queen Katherine (that is, Catalina de Aragón, daughter of King Ferdinand of Aragón and Qeen Isabella of Castile) has it in for Cardinal Wolsey.  She informs Henry that the cardinal’s tax scheme has incensed his subjects, and Thomas Howard, second Duke of Norfolk backs her with a detailed account of economic and social unrest: he explains that the clothiers have had to lay off “The spinsters, carders, fullers, weavers, who, / … / … are all in uproar …” (866, 1.2.34-37).  Apparently, Cardinal Wolsey has levied a 16% tax that the commercial class has found unbearable, allegedly for the wars in France.  King Henry is not amused, saying “This is against our pleasure” (866, 1.2.69), and he overrules Cardinal Wolsey’s attempt at sage advice regarding how to take criticism: after listening to Wolsey, the king says only, “Things done well, / And with a care, exempt themselves from fear …” (867, 1.2.89-90) and issues a pardon to those who have failed to pay the tax.

Queen Katherine next focuses on Buckingham’s travails, and it seems that King Henry is disturbed at this man’s fall as well: “The gentleman is learnèd, and the most rare speaker …” (867, 1.2.112), he says, and can only point out that when corruption sets in the mind of such a man, the results are worse than they would be for an ordinary person (867, 1.2.117-20).  Buckingham’s surveyor confirms Henry’s suspicions with the claim that his master’s confessor Nicholas Hopkins has put it into his head that he should be king (868, 1.2.145-48).  Queen Katherine isn’t buying it, and she points out that this surveyor lost his job when the tenants complained about him (869, 1.2.172-74), but the surveyor drives home his point by insinuating that Buckingham referred to his father’s intention to assassinate King Richard III (869, 1.2.194-97), and that is quite enough for King Henry: “There’s his period— / To sheathe his knife in us” (870, 1.2.210-11).  Perhaps Henry, a monarch as close to wielding absolute power as any in England’s history, has a touch of paranoia.

Act 1, Scene 3 (870-72, Sands, Lovell, and the Lord Chamberlain mock French fashions and discuss Wolsey’s generosity in distributing favors)

This scene written by John Fletcher consists partly in mockery of French fashions, but there’s also ambivalent praise of Cardinal Wolsey.  Talking with Thomas Lovell (Henry VIII’s chancellor of the exchequer, perhaps retired from public life by now) and the Lord Chamberlain (Charles Somerset, titled Lord Herbert and first Earl of Worcester), Sands (William Sandys, who would become Lord Chamberlain in 1530) says of him, “Men of his way should be most liberal” (871, 1.3.61), implying that a great man of the church has much the same responsibility for spreading largess as secular lords.

Act 1, Scene 4 (872-75, Wolsey presides as monarch during a courtly masque, and correctly espies King Henry amongst the masquers; King Henry meets Anne Boleyn)

In this additional John Fletcher contribution, a courtly masque unfolds with Cardinal Wolsey playing the role of monarch and King Henry one of the masquers.  The most interesting moment occurs when the cardinal is tasked with choosing which disguised person is King Henry himself.  He chooses correctly, and turns over to him the place of honor, which action elicits from Henry the statement, “You are a churchman, or I’ll tell you, Cardinal, / I should judge now unhappily” (874, 1.4.91-92).  I suppose the statement is lighthearted, but there is menace in it: this commoner is as close as can be to King Henry, and that is a dangerous place to be.  It may be that “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” (the phrase is spoken by King Henry IV, in II Henry IV, Norton Histories 718, 3.1.31), but the head that would seem to wear one is in still more peril.  At the end of the courtly performance, the year of which ought to be 1525 (but not in the play since Buckingham was executed in 1521, and that’s the subject of the next scene) King Henry asks a fateful question: “What fair lady’s that?”  (875, 2.1.93), and he receives the answer that the pretty lady is Anne Boleyn, who waits upon Queen Katherine.  (Mary Boleyn was one of the king’s mistresses even before this, so Henry has some familiarity with the Boleyns.)  He is instantly drawn to her.

Act 2, Scene 1 (875-79, Buckingham’s trial related by gentlemen; Buckingham reflects as he goes to the executioner’s block; rumors fly about King Henry’s “scruples” about his marriage to Katherine)

A first and second gentleman compare what they know about Buckingham’s trial.  The emphasis is on the manner in which the great lord has conducted himself throughout and on the malice and envy evinced by Cardinal Wolsey: says the first gentleman, “whoever the King favours, / The Card’nal instantly will find employment — / And far enough from court, too” (876, 2.1.48-50). 

On his way to the block, Buckingham recounts in a dignified way his tale of being restored to the honor of his house by Henry VII only to see that honor stripped away by that king’s son, Henry VIII.  His final advice has to do with liberality of counsel: even your friends, he says, “when they once perceive / The least rub in your fortunes, fall away / Like water …” (878, 2.1.129-31). 

The first scene closes with the information that King Henry is rumored to be expressing “a scruple” (879, 2.1.158) about his marriage to Katherine of Aragon.  That scruple, as the Norton editors point out, regards the fact that Henry’s brother Arthur was initially married to Katherine, but he died young and Henry wound up marrying her.  In effect, Henry married his sister-in-law.  But the real reason, thinks the first gentleman, is that Cardinal Wolsey is preparing “to revenge him on the [Holy Roman] Emperor / For not bestowing on him at his asking / The Archbishopric of Toledo …” (879, 2.1.162-64).  This Emperor, Charles V, was Katherine’s nephew.

Act 2, Scene 2 (879-83, Wolsey and King Henry plan to move on the divorce proceedings against Katherine; Wolsey’s conversation with Campeius shows the man’s unhealthy pride, arrogant concern for status; Henry reveals to Gardiner his continued admiration for Katherine)

King Henry looks to Cardinal Wolsey for comfort amidst his gossiping and sniping lords (881, 2.2.72-74), and both men are set to go forwards with the divorce proceedings against Queen Katherine.  Just how dangerously misplaced Henry’s trust is, we can catch by listening in on the conversation between Cardinal Wolsey and Cardinal Campeius from Rome: when the Roman cardinal asks him to verify his reason for transferring a certain Richard Pace away from his position as secretary to King Henry, Wolsey is not shy about his reason: “He was a fool, / For he would needs be virtuous” (83, 2.2.131-32).  This is followed by the prideful declaration spoken in proffered fellowship with Cardinal Campeius, “We live not to be griped by meaner persons” (883, 2.2.135), which sounds like something appropriate only for a prince to say, if at all.  At least for Henry, there’s probably some genuine emotion involved in his decision to abandon a virtuous queen, even if the king stage-manages his feelings for maximum political effect, as when he says to Stephen Gardiner (future Bishop of Winchester and, under Queen Mary I, Lord Chancellor), “Would it not grieve an able man to leave / So sweet a bedfellow?”  (883, 2.2.141-42)

Act 2, Scene 3 (883-85, Anne Boleyn gets sage, saucy advice from a worldly old woman about what she would willingly do to become Henry’s queen)

In the third scene, we hear a partly comic discussion between an elderly lady of the court and Anne Boleyn.  “I would not be queen” (883, 2.3.24), says Anne, to which the old woman offers nothing but scorn: “I would — / And adventure maidenhead for’t; and so would you, / For all this spice of your hypocrisy” (883, 2.3.24-26).  So the conversation continues, both before and after the Lord Chamberlain enters and informs the young lady that King Henry has decided to honor her with the title Marchioness of Pembroke and 1000 pounds per year, which was quite a lot of money (884, 2.3.60-65).  Anne seems both fearful and excited at the same time—an understandable response to the attentions of so great a figure as Henry VIII.

Act 2, Scene 4 (886-91, Katherine defends herself sharply against Wolsey, but leaves divorce proceedings; Henry absolves Wolsey of undue influence in urging the divorce; the proceedings are left unsettled because of Katherine’s absence; Henry feels “played” by Rome and longs for the return of the sympathetic Cranmer)

The divorce proceedings begin, and in spite of the old saw that those who defend themselves in court have a fool for a client, Queen Katherine proves herself an able rhetorician.  What Katherine wants is time to get some advice from her native Spain, but Cardinal Wolsey has a vested interest in keeping her from any such counsel.  About the cardinal’s intentions, Queen Katherine has no illusions: “You are mine enemy, and [I] make my challenge / You shall not be my judge” (888, 2.4.75-76).  The queen’s appeal is to Pope Clement VII (1523-34), not to anyone in this English court.  She accuses Cardinal Wolsey of having a heart “crammed with arrogancy, spleen, and pride” (888, 2.4.108), and makes an imperious, unstoppable exit from the court, declaring that she will never again appear there (889, 2.4.126-29).  Henry’s wistful response to this action is remarkable: “Go thy ways, Kate” (889, 2.4.130). 

What follows is a bit of court theater between King Henry and Cardinal Wolsey, in which Wolsey earnestly asks the king “whether ever I / Did broach this business to your highness …” (889, 2.4.145-46).  Henry duly lets him off the hook, and proceeds to offer a public explanation for his actions, calling upon the Bishop of Lincoln to testify to his deep anxiety over the matter in question—namely, the fact that Henry has married his widowed sister-in-law and regards it as a sin: “Thus hulling in / The wild sea of my conscience” (890, 2.4.196-97), insists Henry, he made his way towards the idea of divorcing Katherine.  When the court is adjourned due to Katherine’s absence, King Henry believes he is being played by the assembled cardinals in the interest of Rome, and this leads him to wish for the return of his trusted supporter Thomas Cranmer, soon to be Archbishop of Canterbury (891, 2.4.232-38).  This same man, we might note, would have a distinguished career during Henry’s reign, but would be burnt at the stake in 1556 by Henry’s daughter Queen Mary for his adherence to the Protestant cause.

Act 3, Scene 1 (891-95, Katherine at first resists the counsel of Wolsey and Campeius, but ultimately, she submits: a strong woman crushed by larger forces)

In this John Fletcher contribution, Cardinal Wolsey is at his height and Queen Katherine recognizes how far she has fallen.  The opening of the scene presents to us a queen still in strong command of her own image and bearing.  When Cardinal Wolsey tries to flatter her with fine Latin, her response is, “The willing’st sin I ever yet committed / May be absolved in English” (92, 3.1.48-49), and continues to resist Cardinals Wolsey and Campeius with wit and dignity.  What they offer in return is false good will and veiled threats.  Queen Katherine at first declares boldly, “I dare not make myself so guilty / To give up willingly that noble title / Your master wed me to” (894, 3.1.138-40).  But in the end, she recognizes she has no further recourse, surrounded as she is by pontifical jackals and threatened with the utter loss of King Henry’s affection: “The King loves you. / Beware you lose it not” (895, 3.1.170-71), says Cardinal Campeius to her, and it is impossible to miss the implication.  There is nothing left for Katherine to do but submit: “Do what ye will, my lords, and pray forgive me” (895, 3.1.174).

Act 3, Scene 2 (895-906, Wolsey’s enemies close in; Wolsey tries to steer the king away from Anne Boleyn and Cranmer; Wolsey mistakenly sends Henry letters detailing his personal wealth and his conniving with Rome to delay the divorce; Henry confronts Wolsey, who realizes his career is over and reflects on spiritual “end things”)

Now Cardinal Wolsey’s enemies appear to be encircling him—Norfolk, Surrey, Suffolk and the Lord Chamberlain open the scene by assessing the cardinal’s current position and their own prospects for unseating him.  Norfolk seems certain that presenting a unified front will sweep the cardinal away, but the Lord Chamberlain is more circumspect: the key thing is to “Bar his access to th’ King,” since this man of the cloth has, says the Lord Chamberlain, “a witchcraft / Over the King in’s tongue” (896, 3.2.17-19).  But it is known, as Suffolk points out, that some letters Cardinal Wolsey intended only for the Pope have been misdelivered and Henry has seen them.  In those materials, Wolsey has been found out trying to get the Pope to delay Katherine’s divorce and thereby keep Henry from furthering his affair with Anne Boleyn (896, 3.2.30-36).  We also find out that Cardinal Campeius has departed back to Rome without settling the matter of Henry’s divorce from Queen Katherine, and that soon-to-be Archbishop Cranmer has returned from Europe with affirmations that what Henry is doing is legitimate (897, 3.2.56-58, 63-65).  The upshot is that Katherine is now to be demoted to the titles “Princess Dowager” and “widow to Prince Arthur” (897, 3.2.70-71).

At the height of his power, Cardinal Wolsey presumes to himself to be the arbiter of Henry’s romantic affairs.  Thomas Cromwell (1st Earl of Essex) leaves his presence, Wolsey muses, “It shall be to the Duchess of Alençon, / The French King’s sister—he shall marry her. / Anne Boleyn?  No, I’ll no Anne Boleyns for him” (897, 3.2.86-87).  Cardinal Wolsey simply cannot stand this woman who has caught Henry’s eye; she is, in Wolsey’s view, “A spleeny Lutheran” and her ally Thomas Cranmer is “An heretic, an arch-one” (898, 3.2.100, 104).  He considers them enemies of the Catholic Church.

Meanwhile, King Henry is thinking unpleasant thoughts about the cardinal’s accumulation of personal wealth.  Those letters misdelivered into his hands contained, among other things, an inventory of the precious-metal plate owned by Wolsey (898-99, 3.2.121-29).  The exchange that follows is initially decorous, with Henry reminding Wolsey that his own predecessor, King Henry VII, honored him and that he himself has made the cardinal “The prime man of the state” (899, 3.2.163), but the civility soon gives way to threatening bluntness: giving him in quick succession a few of the incriminating papers, Henry offers his parting shot: “Read o’er this, / And after this, and then to breakfast with / What appetite you have” (900, 3.2.202-04).

Left alone, Cardinal Wolsey can do no other than reflect on King Henry’s anger: “What should this mean?”  (900, 3.2.204) When he sees the contents, Wolsey immediately realizes his best days are through: “‘Tis th’ account / Of all that world of wealth I have drawn together / For mine own ends …” (901, 3.2.211-13), and with it, he admits to himself, he had intended to make himself pope and pay off his allies in Rome.  But the worst of it is the fact that the king has searched into his conspiracy to delay the divorce with Katherine.  This is damning, and he responds politically, “… I shall fall / Like a bright exhalation in the evening, / And no man see me more” (901, 3.2.226-28).

There ensues a bitter argument between the cardinal and his enemies Norfolk, Suffolk and Surrey, with them demanding that he surrender the great seal that goes with his office and he peremptorily refusing to do so: “That seal / You ask with such a violence, the King, / … with his own hand gave me …” (901, 3.2.246-48). Calling him a traitor and murderer, the lords press their case and recount Cardinal Wolsey’s numerous offenses, all of them implying either subterfuge for personal ends or abuse of King Henry’s authority (903, 3.2.304-33). 

What follows is a classic after the manner of de casibus rhetoric.  Cardinal Wolsey sums up his career to himself, “I have ventured, / Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders, / This many summers in a sea of glory, / But far beyond my depth …” (904, 3.2.359-62).  He learns that Sir Thomas More has replaced him as Lord Chancellor (as of October 1529), and that Cranmer has been made Archbishop of Canterbury (late in 1532).  In addition, Henry has married Anne Boleyn (January 1533).  Wolsey’s response is in part, “All my glories / In that one woman I have lost for ever” (905, 3.2.49-10), and his main concern seems to be to protect his ally Cromwell and shield him from King Henry’s displeasure (905, 3.2.415-18).  Wolsey seems resolved to concentrate on the next world now that he’s been stripped of everything in this one: at the outset of his conversation with Cromwell, he had already said, “I know myself now, and I feel within me / A peace above all earthly dignities …” (904-05, 3.2.379-81).  The peace that he is talking about is that great curative, a newly clear conscience.  But there is also bitterness and self-reproach in his concluding words to Cromwell: “Had I but served my God with half the zeal / I served my King, He would not in mine age / Have left me naked to mine enemies” (906, 3.2.456-58).  With these words, the once great Cardinal Wolsey’s fall from grace is complete. 

Why did Cardinal Wolsey fall?  Perhaps it would make sense here to quote accurately from the 19th-century Liberal Party politician Lord Acton, who writes,

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.  (John E. E. Dalberg, Lord Acton,Letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton, April 5, 1887.”

The above quotation seems more precise than the old medieval saw, “pride goes before a fall.”  Acton’s Law flows from the older saying, of course, but it is easier to draw out the political implications from what Lord Acton says: holders of great offices tend to conflate their own desires and ambitions with the powers of the office they hold and even with the good of those subject to those powers.  Cardinal Wolsey, we may surmise, came to suppose that his own ambition to rise in the Catholic Church was consonant with the good of the church and that the authority he wielded in King Henry VIII’s name was one with his own interest to rise in English society and politics as well as with the best interests of Henry himself.  He put himself in an impossible position, trying to square the circle of these two “goods.”  Manifestly, King Henry did not consider his own interests as compatible with the imperatives of the Catholic Church, and he eventually ran out of patience with a servant, however exalted, who not only enriched himself by means of his office but also presumed to settle his sovereign’s romantic affairs for him.  Acton’s Law aside, the Shakespearean portrait we get of Cardinal Wolsey is not that of a thoroughly bad man and certainly not a monster: there is some dignity in Wolsey’s willingness and even eagerness to put his earthly authorities behind him and seek the absolution of heaven.  He died of an illness late in 1530, which spared him the ordeal of being put on trial for treason, a capital offense.

Act 4, Scene 1 (906-10, strange forsakings, changes: gentlemen say Katherine is banished to Kimbolton; Anne Boleyn is crowned queen; York Place renamed Whitehall)

This scene evokes the “strange fashion of forsaking” that Henry VIII’s machinations set in Tudor England: one of his courtiers, Sir Thomas Wyatt, was the author of the phrase I just quoted in his poem, “They flee from me, that sometime did me seek“ and it would be difficult to find a better phrase to describe the changes wrought by Henry’s desire for a male successor, among other things.  The various gentlemen whose voices traverse this scene tell us that Queen Katherine “was divorced, / And the late marriage made of none effect …” (907, 4.1.32-33); Katherine is ill and for her failure to appear during the divorce proceedings, she has been shunted off to Kimbolton in Cambridgeshire.  As for Anne Boleyn, the gentlemen have gathered to behold her coronation procession, for which the text offers fairly detailed instructions.  Says the third gentleman, the new queen consort is “The goodliest woman / That ever lay by man …” (909, 4.1.71-72), and this same observer goes on to describe the giddiness of the commonfolk at her crowning.  I’m not certain this is historically accurate since I recall having read that Anne Boleyn’s installment was by no means received with universal joy.  In any event, she returns as a queen to York Place, which the first gentleman, serving as unofficial censor for King Henry, points out must now be called Whitehall, now that the former Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of York, Cardinal Wolsey, is no longer its resident (909, 4.1.97-99).

Act 4, Scene 2 (910-14, Griffith informs the ailing Katherine of Wolsey’s death; the sleeping Katherine is treated to a vision of joyful spirits crowning her with a garland; her dying request to Ambassador Caputius is to take good care of her servants)

Griffith recounts for Katherine the death of the disgraced Wolsey, and her reaction at first is highly critical: “He was a man / Of an unbounded stomach, ever ranking / Himself with princes …” (911, 4.2.33-35), but she accepts Griffith’s offer to speak fairly of the man in turn: Griffith reminds her that whatever his faults, Wolsey was a true scholar, generous in giving, and magnificent in his acceptance of a newly humbled condition towards the end of his life (911-12, 4.2.48-68).  Katherine now responds generously, saying, “Peace be with him” (912, 4.2.75).  With that thought, we are on to the real significance of this scene, which is the manner of Katherine’s departure from the world.  She is granted in her sleep a visionary invitation to a banquet, the entirety of which seems to signify purity and joy, and, presumably, her salvation to come.  The stage directions describe this vision in some detail, with white-clad spirits holding a garland over her head which they pass one to another (912, 4.2.83ff). 

When Katherine awakens, she receives a visit at King Henry’s instance from her nephew Caputius, ambassador for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.  Katherine’s requests are simple: bring up her daughter Mary well, and take care of the female and male servants who have so long attended to her.  Finally, to her woman Patience, she says, “Strew me over / With maiden flowers, that all the world may know / I was a chaste wife to my grave” (914, 4.2.169-71).  Shakespeare’s Catalina de Aragón dies as she had lived: a paragon of Franciscan Catholic virtue.  It would be hard to ignore the hit King Henry’s image takes from the pious passing of this woman he has betrayed, and whose virtue he well knew.

Act 5, Scene 1 (915-19, Archbishop Cranmer is fearful at being surrounded by his enemies, but King Henry promises to help him while still observing propriety of appearances; the birth of a female child is announced to Henry)

The scene begins with Lovell and Gardiner discussing their dislike for the new queen.  They’re glad that she is about to give birth, but would just as well that she not long outlive this duty.  Their feelings are similarly uncharitable towards Thomas Cranmer: says Gardiner, “it will ne’er be well — / … / Till Cranmer, Cromwell—her two hands—and she, / Sleep in their graves” (915, 5.1.29-32).  We may remember that the Catholic Cardinal Wolsey had called Cranmer a heretic in Act 3, Scene 2, and now Gardiner calls in the same: “A most arch heretic” (916, 5.1.45) who must be dealt with, and quickly.  The man is beset by his deadly enemies, and it looks as if the pattern with which we are familiar is beginning to reassert itself: leaving aside historical fact for a moment and just dealing with dramatic representation, we might ask, “will Cranmer go the way of all flesh according to the de casibus tradition?” 

Cranmer is fearful when King Henry takes him aside to inform him that various complaints have determined him to call his new archbishop before the Council and that he must in the meantime reside in the Tower of London (917, 5.1.98-109).  But we soon begin to realize that King Henry’s intentions towards Cranmer are friendly and even that there is a budding romance plot in the way the king deals with the challenge to Cranmer’s authority as archbishop.  Eventually, beyond the confines of this play and during the reign of Henry’s daughter Queen Mary (reigned 1553-58), Thomas Cranmer will die a horribly painful death, burnt at the stake for insisting on his Protestant beliefs.  But not in this play—King Henry promises Cranmer that he is keeping his enemies on a very short leash: “They shall no more prevail than we give way to” (918, 5.1.144).  King Henry will play the role of a savior, giving the beleaguered man a ring by which the king’s favor may be known and thereby get him out of the meeting at which his enemies are certain they have him cornered.  It seems almost as if Cranmer is an Arthurian knight on his way to an ordeal at the Chapel Perilous, where a magic artifact will come to his rescue just in time.  This is probably in part a nod to the Protestant sensibilities of Shakespeare’s audience, which 1had come to see Thomas Cranmer as a martyr for the cause against Catholic oppression.

At the end of the scene, the old lady who attends the queen informs King Henry that a child has been born, and introduces the matter of gender in comic fashion.  Henry is of course desperate to hear that he has at last been given a legitimate son to inherit his throne (in 1519 he had a son out of wedlock with one of his mistresses, Elizabeth Blount; the boy was named Henry Fitzroy and the king might have eventually succeeded in legitimizing him had a legitimate son not been born to him by Jane Seymour in 1537, but Henry Fitzroy died in 1536), and the old lady dangerously fans his hopes: she declares the new child to be “a lovely boy” (919, 5.2.165), but immediately has to confess that “’Tis a girl / Promises boys hereafter” (919, 5.2.166-67).  This old woman is quite a colorful character because after a performance like that, one would think she would be happy to have escaped the king’s wrath, but the scene ends with her pursuing Henry to complain about his measly reward of “an hundred marks” (919, 5.2.171).  The date of the future Queen Elizabeth I’s birth was September 7, 1533.  Her elder sister by Katherine of Aragon, Mary, had been born on February 18, 1516.  Mary, a woman of profoundly Catholic convictions, would become queen in 1553 upon the death of her little brother King Edward VI (leaving aside nine fractious days of rule by Jane Gray in July 1553 before Mary succeeded to the throne), who reigned only from 1547-53, and would be succeeded by Elizabeth upon her passing in 1558.

Act 5, Scene 2 (919-24, Archbishop Cranmer is first humiliated by his enemies in Council and then exalted with the aid of King Henry)

In this John Fletcher contribution, Archbishop Cranmer is forced to wait outside the Council chamber with common fellows.  This detail alone incenses King Henry, as I suppose it should.  The Lord Chancellor begins to make his case against Cranmer, who is rebuked for his teachings tending towards Reformation theology (921, 5.2.47-53).  He is informed that since otherwise nobody will feel free to offer evidence against him, he must reside in the Tower of London (921, 5.2.86-91).  

This exchange goes on for a while, but in the end, Cranmer simply produces the ring his royal supporter had given him, saying, “By virtue of that ring I take my cause / Out of the grips of cruel men …” (923, 5.2.133-34).  King Henry rounds off this piece of theater by taking his seat and sorely rebuking the members of the Council: when Surrey tries to calm him with a courtly “May it please your grace,” Henry cuts him short with “No, sir, it does not please me! / I had thought I had had men of some understanding / And wisdom of my Council, but I find none” (923, 5.2.168-70).  Henry proceeds to insist that all Council members embrace Archbishop Cranmer and put aside their grievances.  Which, of course, they do, knowing with whom it is they deal.  The scene ends with Henry longing to go see the christening of his new daughter, Elizabeth (924, 5.2.211-14).

Act 5, Scene 3 (924-27, the Porter and Lord Chamberlain complain about the many people crowding in to see the christening of the infant Elizabeth)

In this John Fletcher contribution, common people annoy the porter to no end, but they come nonetheless to enjoy the ceremony and the hospitality, such as it is.  Says the Lord Chamberlain, “from all parts they are coming, / As if we kept a fair here!”  (926, 5.3.62-63) And the porter characterizes them as, “the youths that thunder at a playhouse, and / fight for bitten apples …” (926, 5.3.55-56).

Act 5, Scene 4 and Epilogue (927-29, Archbishop Cranmer delivers a prophecy about England’s future under Elizabeth I and James I; King Henry declares her christening a holiday)

John Fletcher moves briskly to the christening itself in this final contribution.  The scene is not historically accurate in that as a Tudor-era parent, King Henry almost certainly would not have attended, but the prophecy uttered by Archbishop Cranmer in the play is worth attending to since it makes sense to suppose that it is Fletcher and Shakespeare’s own appreciation of their late sovereign: “She shall be loved and feared.  Her own shall bless her; / Her foes shake like a field of beaten corn …” (928, 5.4.30-31).  In Elizabeth’s realm, says Cranmer, “God shall be truly known …” and she will leave her kingdom to a successor who “Shall star-like rise as great in fame as she was, / And so stand fixed” (928, 5.4.36, 46-47).  That, of course, would be King James I, formerly James VI of Scotland and the son of Mary Queen of Scots, whom Elizabeth had long imprisoned and would execute in 1587 for conspiring against her in the Anthony Babington-led plot of 1586.  (A much earlier conspiracy was the Ridolfi plot, which aimed to place Mary on the throne in 1570-71; another such attempt is called the Throckmorton conspiracy, dating to 1583.)  But all that is far into the future, and King Henry concludes the action by declaring a holiday (929, 5.4.74-76). 

It is Cranmer’s prophecy about a rosy future that lends this 1613 play an air of romance that makes it kindred to other dramas that Shakespeare composed around this time to wrap up his career: The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and The Two Noble Kinsmen.  The happy conclusion mellows our recollection of the misfortune and sorrow that have marked the downfall of the play’s great characters, mingling the whole into a bittersweet quality.

The epilogue reminds female viewers to appreciate the play mainly because of its fine representation of the virtuous Queen Katherine of Aragon, and male viewers to applaud by way of following their ladies’ example.  Indeed, we may well come to the conclusion that this splendid woman, and the guileful Cardinal Wolsey with whom she engages in a bitter contest, are really the focal point of the play rather than King Henry VIII himself.  The latter is an important figure, but perhaps not the emotional center of this historical drama.

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

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

The History of Henry the Fourth (1 Henry IV)

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Histories

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. The History of Henry the Fourth (I Henry IV) (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 595-672).

Of Interest: English Monarchy Timeline | RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed “Henry IV” | Historical Figures | 100 Years’ War Timeline

Act 1, Scene 1 (606-09, )

The play opens with a shaken King Henry IV, riddled with guilt over the death of King Richard II, repeating his pledge to turn the engines of war against foreign infidels in the Crusades. But there is to be no time for idealistic violence; the king’s past is upon him, and he must concern himself with matters at home. Harry Hotspur (whom Shakespeare makes out to be much younger than he really was) has saved the day for the king, who faces rebellious noblemen in the wake of his taking the throne from Richard, but now Hotspur tries to hang on to most of the prisoners he has taken. Nonetheless, the king cannot help but compare the gallant Hotspur with his own son Hal. While his soldiers face the obscene violence of Owen Glendower’s Welsh supporters, young Prince Hal shames his father with his “riot and dishonor” (85). The king could wish, he says, that this troublesome son were not a prince of the blood but rather a foundling left by a “night-tripping fairy.” Henry IV is at center stage of a violent, treacherous political theater, and his son is skipping about the kingdom seemingly without a care in the world, like another Richard II in the making.

Act 1, Scene 2 (609-13, )

The scene shifts immediately to the prince, but Shakespeare treats us to both sides of the young man—both the irresponsible jester and the king-to-be. John Falstaff is a lord of misrule similar to the sort of rogue you might find in late-medieval morality plays. Falstaff is eloquent and charismatic, but it is clear from the outset that he is not in charge even in his own quarters. Already, his friends are preparing to make a fool of him on Gadshill. He will become a robber robbed, and the reward for others will be, as Poins says, to listen to “the incomprehensible lies that this same fat rogue will tell”(186-87) when he is outed as a coward. Prince Hal will join in the fun, but he startles us with the self-possession that shines in his final speech of this scene: he “knows” his companions in a way that they do not know him. He comprehends their limited morality and lowborn status, and there can be no question of equality between such men as Poins, Falstaff, Peto, or Bardolph and the heir to the throne. Prince Hal’s father has always possessed the skills of an excellent actor, and continues to show a keen awareness for “public relations.” But Prince Hal demonstrates a clear grasp of this necessary aspect of kingship when he says, “I’ll so offend, to make offense a skill, / Redeeming time when men think least I will” ( 216-17). His virtues will shine more brightly because of his youthful flaws, like a diamond set in onyx. Hal is certain that time is his friend, and in this regard his sunny expectations make for the strongest contrast between him and his gloomy father, who has come to see time as more enemy than friend. For him, time brings not opportunity as it seemed to do in Richard II, but care and sorrow. As “Bolingbroke,” he took brilliant advantage of his exile and returned to triumph over the feckless Richard, but those days are gone.

Act 1, Scene 3 (613-20, )

The king has his hands full in trying to assert his dominance over Percy. Hotspur complains that he had intended to give up his prisoners, but his sensibilities were offended by the “popingay” (50) the king sent to inquire about them. This remark is a slap in the face to the king, who is outraged that Hotspur should make demands in favor of Mortimer, whom the king considers a traitor. After this freewheeling argument with Henry IV, Hotspur unburdens himself still more fully with Worcester and Northumberland, and we begin to see the seeds of further rebellion. Was it for this that Northumberland helped the present king to the throne? Worcester is already thinking such thoughts, and tries to turn Hotspur’s attention to a rational plan of attack. That’s no easy matter, given Hotspur’s high-spiritedness: “By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap, / To pluck bright honor from the pale-fac’d moon, / Or dive into the bottom of the deep…” (201-03), he exclaims, before Worcester is finally able to lay out a course of action that involves an alliance with the Archbishop of York and Mortimer. Worcester also explains the general logic of king/nobility relations in this difficult era: “The King will always think him in our debt, / And think we think ourselves unsatisfied” (286-87). There is no settled balance of power here; there are only uneasy, shifting alliances—apparently a typical state of affairs in feudal Europe (in spite of idealizing history books that talk about the Middle Ages as a time when everybody had a place and knew just what it was). Henry IV is a powerful king, but he came by his throne with help from others of no mean estate, and he will never feel secure in the loyalty of men who betrayed King Richard. The scene ends with Hotspur eagerly looking forward to the groans of battle—he is to factional strife as eager a suitor as Romeo to Juliet. Already, we begin to see a deep contrast between this hothead and the riotous, yet oddly self-possessed, Prince Hal, whose jesting ways we may come to see as flowing from the calm center of a hurricane of violence, betrayal, guilt, and consequentiality.

Act 2, Scenes 1-2 (620-24, )

Falstaff is easily winded—he has become a criminal weekend warrior, if indeed he was ever in shape to begin with. Structurally, we have cut from Hotspur’s deadly, vaulting ambition to this playful escapade on Gadshill. For Sir John, robbery turns out to be hard work, and frightening work at that.

Act 2, Scene 3 (624-25, )

Hotspur’s time is always cut short—time is not on his side, as it is for Prince Hal. It is obvious from the letter Hotspur is reading that some who do not wish the king well nevertheless find the rebels’ plot inadequate and hasty. When Kate enters, she tries to do what Portia later attempts with Brutus in Julius Caesar: she tries to get her husband to make her an equal partner in the dangerous venture at hand. But Hotspur will have none of this early modern feminism, and declines to fill Kate in on the details: “I well believe / Thou wilt not utter what thou dost not know, / And so far will I trust thee, gentle Kate” (110-12). Hotspur is affectionate with Kate, which lends him some vitality as a character, but he does not trust her, which limits his appeal.

Act 2, Scene 4 (625-27, )

Act 2, Scene 5 (627-39, )

This scene is full of playacting. Prince Hal teases a poor servant to warm up for his exchange with Falstaff, and then he declares that he will take on the persona of Hotspur and question Falstaff, who enters with a famous line, “A plague of all cowards, I say” (115). When Falstaff begins to recount his story, buckram men multiply. At last, the rascal claims he knew what was going on the whole time. Next we have a rehearsal for the father-son confrontation that the prince knows must soon take place. Falstaff does a poor job of imitating King Henry, so Hal switches roles with him. This comic playacting turns serious when the prince responds sharply to Falstaff’s plea, “banish plump Jack, and banish all the world” with “I do, I will” (480-81). When the sheriff shows up, Prince Hal promises Falstaff will make things right regarding the robbery at Gadshill. He even offers Sir John a place of honor in the coming wars, and insists that the men who were robbed will be compensated for their trouble. The heir to the throne has been trying out different styles, different perspectives and modes of conduct, but we can see that his thoughts have taken a turn for the serious now that his father’s moment of peril has come.

Act 3, Scene 1 (639-45, )

Hotspur’s charms are on display in this scene, but so are his flaws. He angers Owen Glendower by mocking the fellow’s penchant for mystical mutterings. Hotspur also quibbles about the amount of land allotted to him if the rebellion should prove successful, and even insists that the river Trent ’s course be altered to aggrandize his holdings. When Mortimer tries to explain how much restraint Owen Glendower is showing, given his irascibility, Hotspur is suitably unimpressed. The very course of nature must be altered to suit the prideful whims of these great men. In turn, he is accused by Worcester of “Pride, haughtiness, opinion, and disdain” (183). But Hotspur is at his best in jesting with Kate as Mortimer’s Welsh wife sings an incomprehensible tune in her native tongue.

Act 3, Scene 2 (645-49, )

King Henry now confronts his wayward son, laying bare the secrets of his success: Henry says he carefully managed his image with the common people, appearing so seldom and so impressively that, “I could not stir / But like a comet I was wond’red at” (46-47). The point King Henry makes is one that still applies today—whatever system of government a ruler may preside over, he or she cannot accomplish much without at least some regard from the public. King Richard evidently did not understand this basic fact of governance since he ruined his reputation with the nobility and cared little what the common people thought. King Henry bitterly compares his own son with Richard, and seems pleasantly surprised at the strong answer Prince Hal returns: “I will redeem all this on Percy’s head, / And in the closing of some glorious day / Be bold to tell you that I am your son” (132-34). He also assures the king that he understands something of the public relations lesson just given to him: “Percy is but my factor, good my lord, / To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf” (147-48). The march to battle begins on “Wednesday next.”

Act 3, Scene 3 (649-53, )

While Hal is gearing up for heroic exploits, Falstaff is quarreling with Mistress Quickly at the Boar’s Head Tavern. Sir John’s accusation against Quickly is a petty attempt to hide the fact that he owes her money, and his claim leads Hal to confess that he is the one who made himself acquainted with the worthless contents of Falstaff’s wallet. Hal informs Falstaff of the good news that he has procured him “a charge of foot” (186), i.e. a company of infantrymen, but Falstaff’s response indicates that he can’t see why the doings of the upper orders should inconvenience him—the aristocratic rebels, he says, “offend none but the virtuous” (191). His place is in the Tavern, and that’s where he would prefer to stay, knightly status notwithstanding. Falstaff’s orientation towards time is not providential, as Hal’s is, but is instead a form of denial: where T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock measure out his life in coffee spoons, Falstaff measures them with swigs of cheap liquor.

Act 4, Scene 1 (653-56, )

Things are going badly for the rebels since Hotspur’s father is ill and Glendower must delay his advance for two weeks. But Hotspur’s thoughts are only on his epic confrontation with “The nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales” (95). Hotspur is spirited and noble, but he lacks the capacity for development and doesn’t possess the practical regard for facts that a successful ruler must: a man who doesn’t care whether thirty thousand or forty thousand soldiers will oppose him is unlikely to win his battles for long.

Act 4, Scene 2 (656-57, )

Predictably, Falstaff has pulled a scam on the king’s dime, threatening to draft only those men he knows will pay good money to get out of their service, and he has filled the actual places with poor fools who have no options. But he has picked up “three hundred and odd pounds” (14), a knavish bargain. The prince begins to show his disgust at Falstaff’s dangerous dishonesty, and calls his soldiers “pitiful rascals” (64). Falstaff is beginning to appear as the parasite he really is, and his jests will end in the death of others who have done him no harm. At least at this point, it is difficult not to question the prince’s maturity since, after all, he has freely given such an irresponsible rogue the authority to command soldiers.

Act 4, Scenes 3-4 (657-61, )

Hotspur continues, among his confederates, to abuse King Henry roundly, castigating him for his “seeming brow of justice” (83), and pointing out that Henry owes his crown to the very people he now finds against him, for what they consider excellent reasons. Scroop, Archbishop of York, determines that he had better take precautions against King Henry, who is aware of his being in league with the rebels.

Act 5, Scene 1 (661-64, )

King Henry confronts the rebel Worcester, and the emptiness of the latter’s claims soon become apparent: Worcester complains that Henry promised to take only the Dukedom of Lancaster of which the greedy Richard had deprived him, but then usurped the kingdom. Strictly, this is true, but it is also beside the point since the promise itself was ridiculous. It would be fair to point out that sometimes the nobility and the monarch quarreled and then patched things up (at least temporarily), but Henry’s step of invading English soil during his period of banishment seems too extreme for such patching-up to work. His endeavor was an all-or-nothing affair, I believe, and in Richard II his promise hardly seemed credible even when he made it. It’s also hard to see how someone like Worcester, supposedly a savvy political operator, could have failed to perceive the hollowness of Henry’s “promise.”

Prince Hal offers to settle the dispute by single combat with Hotspur, but this chivalric gesture goes nowhere, and Hal in turn points out that the king’s offer of reconciliation with the rebels stands no chance of being accepted. Falstaff is already sick of the whole affair, and after complaining to the prince, “I would ‘twere bed-time, Hal, and all well” (125), he is inspired in that gallant’s absence to utter his famous definition of honor: “honor is a mere scutcheon” (140). The play in its entirety by no means sides with Falstaff in supposing that honor is a hollow emblem, but this anti-heroic view is acknowledged as a useful counter-narrative to keep the “heroics” of the history cycle in perspective. It is of course an ancient view—one has only to think of Homer’s Thersites in The Iliad to gauge its impressive pedigree.

Act 5, Scene 2 (664-66, )

Worcester points out the obvious; namely, that the king can’t mean to keep the promise of clemency he has just made, and it’s decided to keep this part of the news from Hotspur. Hotspur is as ready as ever to fight.

Act 5, Scene 3 (666-68, )

Blunt has bravely died in the king’s stead, as Douglas, his killer, finds when Hotspur arrives on the scene. The prince has had enough of Falstaff’s cowardly behavior. Alone, he admits that he has got his whole company shot to pieces, and then his jest comparing a gun with a bottle of sack (wine) falls flat with the prince, who rails at Falstaff, “What, is it a time to jest and dally now?” (55) Falstaff is nonplussed, and willingly forgoes “such grinning honor as Sir Walter hath” (59). As he says, honor sometimes comes to a man in the fog of war, even though his intentions are on anything but gaining honor. The after-narrative may speak kindly of him.

Act 5, Scene 4 (668-71, )

Prince Hal’s redemption of time begins to show in his actions during this scene—disdaining help for his slight wound, he rescues his father from the sword of Douglas . The king’s actions had brought him to this, we might say—it had brought him to a confused battlefield where a determined enemy sought to end his usurped reign. The redemptive answer to this threat is the prince himself. Henry’s ultimate legitimacy, it might be inferred, is none other than Hal, who, as we know, will go on to become King Henry V, whose brief reign would bring glory to England against the French at Agincourt. We learn in this scene that some had said Hal wished his father dead, and now that ugly slander is put to rest. But the prince has still more work to do, and he soon finds himself facing his nemesis Hotspur, whom he kills and praises to the heavens.

Falstaff, in spite of his principles, is also in the thick of battle, and just before the prince kills Hotspur, Falstaff saves his own hide by playing dead when Douglas challenges him. The fat knight is offended when Hal notices him and more or less sets him forth as he really is: “Death hath not strook so fat a deer to-day, / Though many dearer, in this bloody fray” (107-08). Well, it isn’t even so much the insult that gets to Falstaff as the certainty that he is dead—to be dead, says Falstaff, is to be “a counterfeit” (115-16), and then comes the immortal line, “The better part of valor is discretion” (119-20), which sounds like a twisted variation on Aristotle’s definition of virtue as the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness. To make matters still more absurd, Falstaff decides he might as well claim he killed the already dead Percy, and abuses his corpse with his sword. Caught in the act by Lancaster and the prince, Falstaff can only lie through his teeth to the very man who actually did kill Hotspur. Strangely, even before he hears the horn blast that signals the enemy’s retreat, Hal agrees to go along with Falstaff’s ridiculous pretension: “if a lie may do thee grace, / I’ll gild it with the happiest terms I have” (157-58). This indulgence may seem strange when we consider how intently Hal had come to look forward to this defining moment: killing Hotspur constitutes completion of the “redemptive” project he has promised the king, and by all rights the act should be trumpeted across the kingdom, not dissembled to serve the private interests of a rogue like Falstaff. One of my professors at UC Irvine remarked that perhaps this odd moment is a nod on Shakespeare’s part to the messiness or fogginess of the chronicles themselves—how difficult it is to know “what really happened” during history’s great events! It’s also true that at least Hal knows, within himself, what he’s made of, though that’s only a partial explanation since a great prince is not a private person but a public figure. Perhaps, too, Hal’s actions flow from the deep sense of English history with which Shakespeare endows him.  He seems secure in his triumph now.

Act 5, Scene 5 (671-72, )

Prince Hal shows magnanimity in pardoning the Douglas for the sake of his valor in battle, and there’s still more fighting to do before the rebels are entirely vanquished. Prince Hal will proceed to Wales, there to face Glendower and the Earl of March.

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