Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 815-88).

Act 1, Scene 2 (826-27, Macbeth’s warrior status)

Macbeth is already a hero when the play begins. Much of what is narrated in Scene 2 concerns his bravery during the battles against the rebel Macdonwald, Cawdor, and Norway. His martial valor exceeds that of everyone else in the field, and there’s an exuberant quality to his actions in the service of King Duncan: Macbeth, “Disdaining fortune, with his brandished steel / Which smoked with bloody execution, / Like valour’s minion / Carved out his passage till he faced the slave [Macdonwald]…” (826, 2.17ff). So the pattern of the bold and loyal warrior is set, and Macbeth will be able to use it to his advantage against Duncan, just as the former Thane of Cawdor must have done.

Incidentally, on Shakespeare’s borrowing from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, as usual the poet plays fast and loose with his material—Duncan and Macbeth’s two reigns stretched from 1034-57, the time just before the Norman Conquest, but there’s a lot of conflation when it comes to the fighting. The idea of Macbeth’s being set on to the murder by his wife comes from the story of an earlier Scottish king, Duff, who was murdered by Donwald—that’s where the business of killing the chamberlains and blaming them comes from, for instance. Holinshed’s Banquo is a very bad fellow from the outset, and his Duncan is a weak young man, not a hallowed elder. Some of the references to witches can be found in Holinshed, and England’s Scottish-born King James I liked the subject of witchcraft and even wrote a book on it, entitled Daemonology. He traced his ancestry back to Banquo and Fleance, so he is part of the royal line that taunts Macbeth by stretching out “to the crack of doom.”

Act 1, Scenes 1 and 3 (825-26, 827-31, Witches prophesy, Macbeth’s first thoughts)

The classical Fates were Clotho the spinner, Atropos the “unturning” cutter, Lachesis the “allotter” or measurer, daughters all of Zeus and Themis. As the ancients sometimes saw it, the Fates or Moirai possessed a power over events independent even of the gods, who could not control them. But this conception of an externally imposed fate is impersonal and irrational; there’s no ultimate or ulterior meaning to it, and the Greek way of holding a person accountable for confronting a fate that can’t be altered is equally strange, if admirable. I’d say the witches in Macbeth are in a different category: they don’t possess deterministic power over mortals. The witches claim to know (and really seem to know) that Macbeth will first be Cawdor and then king, while Banquo will father many kings. But they don’t claim the direct power to alter events: note how one witch responds to an insult: she will plague the insulter’s husband, but can’t stop his ship from reaching port: “Though his barque cannot be lost, / Yet it shall be tempest-tossed” (828, 3.23-24). Neither do they force Macbeth to do what he subsequently does. He may seem almost hypnotized by the witches, but hypnotism only works because people secretly want to do the things they are supposedly commanded to do. That sounds like the correct way to describe the relationship between Macbeth and the witches. They can set forth a vision, but they can’t make Macbeth’s decisions for him. He understands that their bare statements don’t necessarily mean he ought to seize the crown by force. I suspect that what the witches know most intimately is Macbeth’s character. Their meeting with him isn’t an anonymous call or an accident; they know who he is and prepare to meet him at the end of the “hurly-burly” battle. (825, 1.3-4) They have given Macbeth the apparent certainty that he is to become king, and he will do exactly as he subsequently does. Perhaps the most important thing the witches know is that the measure of ambition in their man outweighs his conscience.

In his lectures, Coleridge says that the value of Shakespeare’s supernaturalism is to set an excited tone right away and thereby to prepare us for Macbeth’s central deed in Act 2. (He contrasts this movement with Hamlet, which starts out conversationally and moves to high rhetoric.) But the supernatural is more than a stage prop or plot device here: we are to understand the witches to be real. The witches (and the ghost of Banquo later) are more than a metaphor for states of mind. To use the romanticist framework, Shakespeare is an imaginative poet who brings together traditional beliefs and images in a more vital, dynamic way than a merely mechanical or fanciful poet. Such an imaginative poet will, suggests Coleridge, balance and reconcile “opposite and discordant qualities”: Macbeth’s ambition is material, and the supernatural forces are equally real. Neither cancels the other but instead both correlate or even mix in a way that leaves both Macbeth and us distinctly uneasy. The Norton editors make something like this point when they write that the witches are never apprehended or punished once Macbeth is dead and Malcolm inherits, and when they refer to the play’s “nebulous infection, a bleeding of the demonic into the secular and the secular into the demonic” (820).

The effect that the witches’ prophecies have upon Macbeth is profound and unsettling: “This supernatural soliciting / Cannot be ill, cannot be good” and “My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, / Shakes so my single state of man that function / Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is / But what is not” (830, 3.129-30, 138-41). All that Macbeth had formerly taken for granted is now in play, and Macbeth’s murderous thoughts coexist uneasily with his hope that “chance may crown me / Without my stir” (830, 3.142-43).

Act 1, Scene 4 (831-32, Malcolm heir, Macbeth chooses violent path, self-division)

Duncan is still shocked by the treachery of the now executed Thane of Cawdor, saying, “He was a gentleman on whom I built / An absolute trust” (831, 4.12). Duncan makes Malcolm Prince of Cumberland and heir to the throne, which galls Macbeth, who apparently thought the crown might come to him just as honorably as the honors he has won up to this point: Malcolm’s preeminence is “a step / On which I must fall down or else o’erleap” (832, 4.48ff), and it makes a division within him: “Stars, hide your fires, / Let not light see my black and deep desires….” (832, 4.50-51)

Act 1, Scene 5 (832-34, Lady Macbeth’s unsexing; anxieties about Macbeth)

Lady Macbeth’s receptivity and determination are on display: she is exhilarated at the news of the great change to come, and calls on the heavens to “unsex” her, to make her as steely and strong as a male warrior, stopping up all portals of sentiment and leaving room and capacity only for necessary action. (833, 5.38-52) She has no doubt that the witches’ prophecy will come true and that it will require violent setting-on, but her role is that of the cunning woman, the plotter and seducer—Macbeth must do the deed, which causes her great anxiety: “Yet do I fear thy nature. / It is too full o’th’ milk of human kindness / To catch the nearest way” (833, 5.14-16). As in classical tragedy, when a woman tries to take on the attributes of a male hero, she will be sorely punished. As the play proceeds and Macbeth steps up to become the hardened king his wife had asked for, she will lose the “unsexed” quality of the first act, and with it the capacity to steer Macbeth by means of taunts and reproaches.

Act 1, Scenes 6-7 (834-38, Macbeth ponders ethics, Lady Macbeth brings him round)

Duncan unsuspectingly arrives at Macbeth’s castle, praising its location as “a pleasant seat” (834, 1.6.1). In Scene 7, Macbeth’s initial reflections remind us of the play’s Christian underpinnings: Duncan is his feudal lord, his guest, and a good man. (835 7.12-16) The prospective deed is all ways damnable, and Macbeth is in no doubt of its source in wicked ambition or the likelihood of retribution: “we but teach / Bloody instructions which, being taught, return / To plague the inventor” (835 7.8-10) and “I have no spur / To prick the sides of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition…” (836, 7.25-27). As Robert Bridges asks, how could someone so horrified by the prospective crime actually commit it? The Norton editors point out that Macbeth is Shakespeare’s most self-aware villain; unlike, say, Richard III, whom we can hardly imagine doing other than what he does, Macbeth has the capacity to do good or ill; we know that his choice is sincerely meditated and deeply felt, and he understands the true nature of what he’s about to do.

Nonetheless, Lady Macbeth brings him round to his longstanding code as a warrior: his masculine honor, she convinces him, calls for him to take the crown, not sit back and wait for it to be delivered to him by good fortune. The basic conflict between Christian sentiment and pagan heroism we will find in the revenge play Hamlet obtains in Macbeth: Macbeth’s bloody Senecan ambition can only be satisfied by violating Christian principle. Faced with competing codes since he will have it so, he must make a moral choice. He has made division within himself, and in consequence must carefully manage the yawning divide between what is and what seems to be: “Away, and mock the time with fairest show. / False face must hide what the false heart doth know” (837, 7.81-82).

Act 2, Scene 1 (837-38, Is this a dagger? Macbeth talks himself into the deed)

Macbeth utters some of the most famous lines in the Shakespearean canon: “Is this a dagger which I see before me, / The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee. / I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. / Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible / To feeling as to sight? Or art thou but / A dagger of the mind, a false creation / Proceeding from the heat-oppressèd brain?” (838, 1.33-39) What is the status of the dagger? There are no stage directions telling us that the ghostly knife is actually before Macbeth, and he tries to firm up his sanity by insisting that “It is the bloody business which informs / Thus to mine eyes” (838, 1.48-49). Even so, the dagger seems real enough to him and the very double of the actual blade he has drawn in preparation for killing Duncan, and Macbeth admits that it “marshals” (838, 1.42) him where he was going, that it concentrates and gathers up his spiritual and bodily forces. The dagger’s power may seem to take on the cast of fate or necessity, but it may be more accurate to suggest that it makes manifest the weirdness of the world through which Macbeth now walks: the very objects speak to him, and torment him with animistic pranks.

He prays for an easy, quiet kill that accords with the silence and deadness of nature itself: “Thou sure and firm-set earth, / Hear not my steps which way they walk, for fear / Thy very stones prate of my whereabout” (838 1.56-58) and seems quite resolved, saying “I go, and it is done” (838, 1.62), but we know that such facility in dealing violent death cannot be.

Act 2, Scene 2 (839-40, Macbeth’s reaction to murder: no “out of sight, out of mind”)

Macbeth’s initial reaction to his bloody act is one of horror: why wasn’t anything heard? (839, 2.14) He is shaken by his inability to say amen in response to the grooms’ sleepy “God bless us” (839, 2.26-27), and reports to Lady Macbeth that after stabbing Duncan, “Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more, / Macbeth does murder sleep’…” (839, 2.33-34). He even has a touch of “Lady Macbeth’s disease,” as that later manifests in her: he asks, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?” (840, 2. 58-59) the hand-washing in this scene is both practical since the evidence must be eliminated and ritually significant, an act of forgetting, if not of attaining forgiveness. But it gives no relief, which is an ominous sign for Macbeth and his wife, in spite of her seeming confidence that “A little water clears us of this deed” (840, 2.65). Getting rid of the deed’s effects will not put the murder out of mind. The knocking at the gate “appals” Macbeth (840, 2.56); by now, his sensibilities are both heightened and deranged. Macbeth’s final words in this scene point the way forward: “To know my deed ‘twere best not know myself “ (840, 2.71). Necessary now is the deadening of his own consciousness, and certainly of his conscience, which is yet raw. But for the moment, Lady Macbeth has had to grab the daggers from him and take care of insinuating the grooms’ guilt for Duncan’s murder. (840, 2.51) She is the “man” at this point; she has been unsexed just as she had asked.

Act 2, Scene 3 (841-44, Porter; Macduff discovers murder, Macbeth explains)

The Porter’s scene (841-42) links well with the revelation of Macbeth’s crime. Romantic-era critic Thomas DeQuincey wrote in “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” that the Porter scene captures the moment when a murderous act beyond civilized existence is just beginning to give way to the ordinary dimension of life, to the quotidian. That’s why, he explains, the scene is so effective, even startling. In part, it provides comic relief after the murder and initial reaction on the part of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and in part it heightens the tension of the next scene, in which the crime meets the light of day and Macbeth must explain to people not steeped in depravity and horrid intent his rash action in killing the grooms as they slept. But most significantly, I believe, the Porter’s comments teach us a lesson about desire: namely, ambition is like drunkenness. At first, it may seem as if the contrast is greater since drink “provokes the desire” but “takes away the performance” (841, 3.27-28). Macbeth the ambitious man doesn’t have much trouble acting on his ambition: he performs. But at a deeper level, he does run into trouble because he no longer controls his destiny. He “unmans” himself and becomes a violent fool; his boldest deeds are in truth passive reactions to necessity. Ultimately, then, ambition is a kind of madness, and it makes its indulgers lose free will and self-respect. In that way, then, ambition is perhaps as great an “equivocator” (841, 3.29) as “much drink.” Macbeth becomes as impotent as the drunken lecher of the Porter’s imagining, even as he hacks his way through the kingship he has wrongly won.

The other thing about the Porter’s interruption is that it widens the frame from the selfish little circle of Macbeth and his wicked wife. The old Porter couldn’t care less about the goings-on at the Castle. He has his own desires, his own problems, his own wisdom, and his play-acting as Satan’s gatekeeper cuts Macbeth’s role as “grand criminal” down to size, so that we may for a time see in it a damnably common act of betrayal, fueled by vile ambition and justified by knavish equivocation. This is a variation on the strategy we find in Lear, where the King is seldom left alone with his thoughts. Shakespeare wants to carry us along with Macbeth’s story, but he won’t let us merge our identity with that of the protagonist. Drama is a transpersonal form of poetic art: it stages and allows for the development of great personalities, but it doesn’t let them swallow up the stage. Shakespeare is interested to show how people respond to one another, how human behavior turns upon triangulations of desire and other basic elements of our nature. We don’t get from him the claim of Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost that “the mind is its own place” (1.254) but rather John Donne’s statement, “No man is an island, entire unto itself” (Devotions, Meditation 17).

Seeming or appearing to be a certain kind of person is not necessarily to be that kind of person, and the cost of maintaining the gap is often ruinous, a form of slavery to one’s desires and deeds. This gap becomes still more apparent in Macbeth when Macduff discovers the murder (842, 3.59), and Macbeth, now returned to the world of normalcy, of forensic cause and effect, must justify his rash action: “I do repent me of my fury” (843, 3.103), he blurts out, but his words aren’t very convincing. Malcolm is inexperienced, but he’s a Machiavellian in the making: he heads for England. He and brother Donalbain are “the usual suspects,” and he knows somebody has a powerful interest in framing the two. But Donalbain gets the best summation of the state of affairs: “Where we are / There’s daggers in men’s smiles” (844, 3.135-36).

Act 2, Scene 4 (844-45, Nature’s first revenge: eclipse; Macbeth crowned)

An eclipse of the sun occurs, and an old man makes the connection: the eclipse is “unnatural, / Even like the deed that’s done” (844b, 3.10-11). The natural world will signify, it will have its revenge for the unnatural acts, the wicked artifice, just enacted by Macbeth and his wife. He will struggle with conscience and, at least for a time, will seem to have killed it altogether, along with fear. For the moment, he is a great success, and we hear that he has traveled to Scone to be crowned king. (845, 3.31)

Act 3, Scene 1 (845-49, “To be safely thus”: anxiety, seeking security)

Banquo’s ambition appears, but only as distrustful speculation of Macbeth: “Thou hast it now: King, Cawdor, Glamis, all / As the weird women promised; and I fear / Thou played’st most foully for’t. Yet it was said / It should not stand in thy posterity…” (845, 1.1-4). Macbeth’s stronger and more ruthless ambition—this time “to be safely thus” (846, 1.50) dominates the scene; he engages some flunkies with a grudge to cut down Banquo and Fleance (847-48), whose continued existence is unbearable to him: “For Banquo’s issue have I filed my mind, / For them the gracious Duncan have I murdered…” (847, 1.66-67). Macbeth is confronting the hollow man image that he will soon become: the witches promised him only “a barren scepter” (847, 1.63), and at the cost of his soul, the “eternal jewel” (847, 1.69) possessed by even the humblest of men, that barren scepter is all he presently has.

In general, much of Act 3 is taken up with immediate consequences, with the need for security in the wake of Duncan’s murder. The play deals with the relationship between spiritual error and its material and psychological consequences. Good film versions such as Roman Polanski’s (starring Jon Finch and Francesca Annis) or Philip Casson’s 1979 production starring Ian McKellen and Judi Dench handle the transformation of Macbeth from outwardly loyal thane into murderous fiend with appropriate abruptness. Power hates a vacuum, and Macbeth must fill up the vacuum forthwith. We see a transition from the initially pensive Macbeth to “Macbeth 2.0,” hard, resolute and ruthless, a man willing to betray and strike down anyone who threatens him. His busy wickedness at present is the flip side of acedia or apathy.

Act 3, Scene 2 (849-50, Terrible dreams, resolutions, Banquo taken down)

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth reflect and strategize, and we see both the spiritual effects of the act and a determination to quell the psychological disturbance while at the same time continuing the trail of bloody securement: “But let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer, / Ere we will eat our meal in fear, and sleep / In the affliction of these terrible dreams / That shake us nightly” (849, 2.18-21). The cost of keeping up the division between seeming and being shows again in this second scene: as Macbeth tells his queen, they must “make our faces visors to our hearts, / Disguising what they are” (849, 35-36): the face must not betray what the heart contains—Macbeth and Lady Macbeth both recognize this as an unsafe way to live, but they have no alternative if they want to keep the power they have falsely won.

“What’s to be done?” asks Lady Macbeth. (850, 2.45) She suspects that Macbeth will have Banquo killed, it seems, but he keeps this partly to himself. Why? We might ask, since the queen is already complicit in the worst that Macbeth has done. Still, the king is intent on keeping his precise plans to himself: “Come, seeling night, / Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day, / And with thy bloody and invisible hand / Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond / Which keeps me pale” (850, 2.46-51). This is a hawking metaphor—the night (the falconer) will do the office of the falcon (day); the rational, humane day must give preference to the terror-laced opportunities of night. One bad deed calls for another: “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill” (850, 2.56). As yet, Macbeth doesn’t seem to realize that no security for him or his queen will ever emerge. No matter—Banquo is killed at 3.3.17, though Fleance escapes.

Act 3, Scene 4 (851-54, Banquo’s ghost, resolve: all action; tedium of bloody future)

Banquo’s ghost appears during a banquet, taking Macbeth’s place of honor, and the effect is immediate: “Thou canst not say I did it. Never shake / Thy gory locks at me” (852, 4.49-50). Macbeth’s guests see only a fit of madness that unmans the King. They don’t even know Banquo is dead, only that he’s missing. This scene directly undoes Macbeth’s attempt to play the smooth Machiavel—his behavior unsettles everyone around him; even his wife. His strange words pay tribute to the weirdness of the time: “The time has been / That, when the brains were out, the man would die, / And there an end. But now they rise again…” (853, 4.77-79). But when he recovers, he determines to find out the worst and thereby discover the most brutal and efficient means to maintain his power: “I will . . . to the weird sisters. / More they shall speak, for now I am bent to know / By the worst means the worst” (854, 4.132-34). There’s no need to hold back since he’s already deep in evil, haunted by the dark forces to which he has succumbed: “I am in blood / Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” (854, 4.135-37). He must now act so quickly that there’s no time left to analyze his actions beforehand. As quickly as the mind can conceive, the hand will act (854, 4.139). Macbeth’s words may remind us of Richard III’s resolution, “I am in / So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin. / Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye” (4.2.64–67). It would be tiresome to Macbeth to retrace his steps, to be penitent; the only way is forward, wading through more blood. But that way forward may also now begin to seem tedious. In the remaining few scenes, Hecate mocks human pretensions to permanence and safety (855, 5.32-33), we hear that Malcolm has found refuge at the court of England’s Edward the Confessor, and that Macduff has followed him there to seek help from Edward against Macbeth. (857, 6.21ff)

Act 4, Scene 1 (857-61, Witches’ three visions, Banquo’s line; Macbeth’s resolve)

Macbeth meets for the second time with the weird sisters. Three visions tell him to beware Macduff, that no man of woman born can harm him, and that only when Birnam Wood comes to high Dunsinane Hill will he be defeated. (859-60) The first two of these prophecies actually reinforce each other, we later find out. The magic-mirror image of Banquo’s issue reigning forever unsettles Macbeth most: “What, will the line stretch out to the crack of doom?” (860, 1.133) Repetition is sin’s most savage punishment. Sin punishes itself, trapping unrepentant sinners in their wicked patterns of conduct and desire. This is a traditional idea: you can find it not only in Augustine’s Confessions but in Dante, Milton, Hopkins—just about any Christian literary artist. Macbeth considers his own life safe, but he is frustrated, perpetuity being like the fruit that turns to ashes when Satan and his legions, newly turned to serpents in hell, addict-like, cannot resist eating it (PL 10.538ff). He resolves to act his bloody deeds as soon as conceived: Macduff’s family to be slaughtered: “From this moment / The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand… / The Castle of Macduff I will surprise…” (861, 2.163-166).

Act 4, Scene 2 (861-63, Lady Macduff & kids murdered: their perspective)

Before they are cruelly murdered, Lady Macduff and her son give us yet another perspective on the great events that overtake them and afflict the kingdom of Scotland: the boy’s innocence strikes home when he says in response to Lady Macduff’s insistence that traitors must be hanged, “the liars and swearers are fools, for there / are liars and swearers enough to beat the honest men and hang / up them . (863, 2.56-58) We hear and see the private consequences of public disorder; plus an emphasis on the natural affective ties that bind people and reinforce charity and social order: the dimension of humanity that Macbeth and his queen have scorned. Why, by the way, did Macduff leave the family unprotected? He seems culpable there, almost a “traitor” in putting affairs of state before family; this makes sense in the patriarchal context of English royal politics in Shakespeare’s time.

Act 4, Scene 3 (864-69, Malcolm’s “confession”; Macduff’s grief; Scotland’s misery)

Malcolm confesses to Macduff what an awful villain he is—next to him, he says, Macbeth is an angel. (865, 3.51ff) But this claim is ridiculous—in Holinshed, Malcolm does this only to test Macduff, and that’s the implication here as well. It’s probably also the case that he’s showing the proper use of speculation—to shore up one’s sense of virtue. Malcolm’s ploy serves to emphasize the crime Macbeth committed in moving from thought to act, and reassures us that while human nature is corrupted, the corruption’s effects can be kept in check. Macbeth’s “throne of blood” need not become the universal, irresistible pattern of royal conduct, even though we saw in the previous scene what happens to the innocent when royalty does not resist: derangement and denaturation of the very landscape and destruction of life and property, as is well indicated by Ross when he says that in Scotland, “good men’s lives / Expire before the flowers in their caps, / Dying or ere they sicken” (867, 3 172-74).

Macduff is relieved to hear that Malcolm was only testing him, and there is much helpful news thanks to the help coming miserable Scotland’s way from England. (867-68) In his attempt to harness Macduff’s grief (869) after he hears from Ross about the death of his wife and children, Malcolm again shows his inexperience—he’s a young man filled with valorous words from some classical manual of rhetoric. As Macduff says, “He has no children” (869, 2.217) and can’t feel the loss of them as a man should. Macduff, unlike Macbeth, is still human, and does not subscribe to the “hardness” doctrine of masculinity set forth by the wicked usurping royal couple. Nature’s bonds of affection are still powerful within him, and Macduff, ever the warrior, comes round to Malcolm’s program of action.

Act 5, Scene 1 (869-70, Lady Macbeth’s madness)

By now, Lady Macbeth has been driven mad by her guilt, and has obsessive-compulsive disorder, in this case a hand-washing compulsion: “who would have thought the / old man to have had so much blood in him?” (870, 1.33-34) Well, an average human body contains about six quarts of blood (1½ gallons). The queen’s physical manifestation reveals a psychic derangement: she can’t expunge her guilt, which shows up as imaginary blood stains on her hands, and her physician can do nothing to help her: “More needs she the divine than the physician” (870, 1.64). What is the point of showing Lady Macbeth’s insanity, a physiological problem, when the supernatural agents are real enough? This is not a pure psychodrama, but the witches are not causes of human evil; they only assist those who would do wickedness. What affects Lady Macbeth in the private sphere and in purely mental terms plays out for Macbeth in the broader material, public sphere that belongs to him. Action, battles and machinations constitute his attempt to scrub his hands and conscience clean, but violence and betrayal accomplish no such thing. Repetition rules the day: wedded to his illegitimate power, Macbeth will repeat the same pattern to the bitter, desperate end.

Act 5, Scenes 2-3 (871-73, enemy approaches, Macbeth’s brittle resolutions)

Macbeth’s opponents are on the march towards Birnam, but the king has deluded himself by now—he had earlier denounced the witches for the visions afforded him—and thinks he still leads a charmed life, (871, 3.1ff) so he dismisses those who are abandoning him: “fly, false thanes, and mingle with the English epicures!” (871, 3.7) But his claims ring hollow, as he himself reveals: “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…” (872, 3.23-27). The words are aesthetically pleasing, but hollow and not directly related to the realm of action: this man is tired of living. Macbeth resolves to steel himself in violence, saying, “I’ll fight till from my bones my flesh be hacked” (872, 3.33) and remains distant from his wife’s sufferings: he asks the doctor philosophically, “Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased?” (872, 3.42) and rejects physic altogether when the doctor cannot give him a positive answer. As for his own situation, the witches’ charms are better than any medicine: “I will not be afraid of death and bane / Till Birnam Forest come to Dunsinane” (873, 3.61-62).

Act 5, Scene 4 (873-73, Birnam’s boughs advance: appropriate weirdness of nature)

Malcolm orders the soldiers each to cut down a tree bough (873, 4.4-7) and use it to deceive Macbeth’s defenders about the advancing host’s numbers. So Birnam Wood is coming to Dunsinane, but we and Macbeth aren’t witnessing a violation of the laws of nature. Nature seems bizarre and uncanny to Macbeth because he himself has become unnatural. But this apparent weirdness in the behavior of nature serves as a way of giving him his desserts—he has betrayed his natural lord (his “father” in Jacobean political theory) and turned his marriage bond into a criminal partnership. In broad terms, the deployment of natural objects to pay Macbeth back stems from the fact that Shakespeare is working within a Christian framework where sin has deranged the entire Creation, just as it will later in Milton’s Paradise Lost: Eve “pluck’d, she ate, / Earth felt the wound” (9.781-82). Nature responds as by sympathetic magic to human error, reflecting that error back to us if we know how to interpret nature’s signs. The weird, the uncanny, is in this context a function of Providence, which makes use of whatever is at hand to punish those who transgress and fail to repent.

Act 5, Scene 5 (874-75, Lady Macbeth dies, Birnam comes to Dunsinane, life’s a “walking shadow”)

Even before he learns in the middle of this scene that Birnam Wood is on the move, Macbeth has begun to call for destruction and decreation; of the enemy, he says, “Here let them lie / Till famine and the ague eat them up” (874, 5.3-4). He pronounces his own spiritual death sentence with the line “I have almost forgot the taste of fears” (874, 5.9) and can’t find it in himself to bewail the death of the queen (874, 5.16-27), for “She should have died hereafter” (874, 5.17). Her passing only leads Macbeth to say that life is ultimately meaningless, pointless repetition: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more. It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (874, 5.23-27). After a messenger informs him about the moving forest, Macbeth explicitly invites general destruction: “I ‘gin to be aweary of the sun, / and wish th’estate o’th’ world were now undone” (875, 5.47-50).

Act 5, Scenes 6-11 (875-78, Macduff’s revenge against “hell-hound”; Malcolm king)

Macbeth confidently kills young Siward, and rejects classical honor-suicide, choosing to direct violence at others instead. But then in Scene 10, he is confronted by Macduff, who reveals that he was born by cesarean section: “Macduff was from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripped” (877, 10.15-16). This new information causes Macbeth to lose his courage and momentarily drop his adamantine front, but he quickly recovers with curses against the witches on his lips—“be these juggling fiends no more believed, / That palter with us in a double sense” (877, 10.19-20), only to be slain by the resolute revenger Macduff. In the end, the terms he and others use to describe him are mostly non-human: a baited bear, a hell-hound, and Lady Macbeth is described as “fiend-like” (878, 11.35). Macduff has sworn revenge, and he gets it.

In the eleventh and final scene, while Macbeth and Lady Macbeth had tried to kill all sentiment and sentimentality within themselves, the end of the play isn’t at all sentimental. Old Siward rejects mourning over his son in battle, and Malcolm, in accepting the crown, promises to do all the necessaries in the proper way. The kingdom has been set right, and the emphasis is on order and ceremony, spare and fitting words coming in advance. This seems appropriate given the derangement of the kingdom and of the dead king and queen’s psyches.

Finally, we might concentrate on Macbeth’s concluding musings and resolutions in the last several scenes. Do they constitute a classical recognition scene or not? Coleridge says the play is “pure tragedy” rather than reflective as Hamlet. But that doesn’t mean there’s no introspection or understanding coming from Macbeth. His tragedy involves the process of desiring honors and attaining them by unjust means, of buying into the epistemological / moral ambiguity served up by the Weird Sisters. Does Macbeth learn anything by the end of the play? I think he understands what he has done and why it was wrong, but it doesn’t matter to him anymore. This play shows its great maturity in the quality of Macbeth’s final musings in Act 5: the language accorded the isolated, brittle King is some of the finest Shakespeare ever gave to any character: its mixture of high aesthetic perception and utter hollowness of spirit shows an intellect undebased, but constrained now to describing and coming to terms with a situation that would horrify anyone with normal sensibilities. Macbeth’s fine words are insightful, but they are hollow, as if he himself can’t feel them and finds no comfort in them. They are empty words, not a curative and certainly no better than the “physic” he had earlier cast to the dogs because the doctor couldn’t heal his wife’s disorder. As always in Shakespeare, some interest is taken in the way a given character handles the relationship between actions and words: the words spoken by Macbeth to explain his situation to himself and his actions to others provide no relief, for that is beyond the power of language in such cases, at least when it is not accompanied by sincere sentiment.

Shakespeare’s plays have various ways of dealing with the consequences of tragic mistakes, with respect to the ability to act. King Lear, for example, gains insight at the expense of being able to wield power. By the end of the play, he and his daughter Cordelia are at the mercy of others, so even if they have become “God’s spies,” they can’t act in the political realm anymore. Macbeth follows a different pattern—once he makes his choice, he must take on the ruthlessness of the tyrant who holds his throne by injustice. Blood draws on blood until, as Macbeth says, there’s no point in going back. He acts boldly and dies fighting, but such desperation hardly makes him a hero. Instead, he’s the puppet of actions that stem from his own perverted will. The witches shoot an arrow into the heart of Macbeth, but that is not to say they are ultimately responsible for his crimes. Ambition is a kind of madness, but it is a lucid madness: images present themselves to Macbeth, truth comes in presentiment, and ambition drives him to inhabit the vision. The consequences of his behavior are predictable, if strange. Shakespeare’s genius is to take what might have been a stage villain and make him a three-dimensional character, but a three-dimensional character who is nonetheless a stunning failure as a human being.

As for the play’s politics, I can’t see how some critics’ claims that Macbeth is tinged with nihilism can be correct given that the play was in part written for King James. Why would Shakespeare deal with kingship in such a manner when he wanted an absolutist monarch to enjoy the play? The older, and probably more tenable, view of the play’s moral arc is that sin punishes itself inexorably, even if the interval between commission and punishment is sometimes longer than most of us would like. I think it is true that anarchy lurks in this play, but only in a narrow manner—the king is human, after all, even though political doctrine says he has two bodies, one mortal and the other immortal and representative of kingship itself. Macbeth makes a bad but entirely free choice, and from that point onwards his bad choice entraps him in a vicious fate that generates real chaos for others who must abide in his realm. He himself marches in linear fashion to his death, behaves like a beast (losing his title to humanity), and dies fighting. The Christian point is that free will, misused, becomes the slave of so-called fate, or necessity. As Wilde said, when we act we become puppets—Shakespeare might add, “well, only when we act badly.” Apparent disorder on the ground does not necessarily imply disorder in the heavens, in the fundamental nature of things. Still, I take the point of the Norton editors about the strangeness and equivocal quality of the supernatural realm in this play—it seems accurate to suggest, as they do, that the secular and the demonic, the physical / material and the spiritual, are by no means easy to maintain in strict separation. The witches’ “equivocation” is a power stalking human desire and endeavor.

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

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

King Lear

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Julius Caesar

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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

Act 1, Scene 1

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

Act 1, Scene 2

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

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

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

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

Act 1, Scene 3

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

Act 2, Scene 1

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

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

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

Act 2, Scene 2

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

Act 3, Scene 1

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

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

Act 3, Scene 2

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

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

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

Act 4, Scene 1

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

Act 4, Scenes 2-3

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

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

Act 5, Scenes 1-3

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

Act 5, Scenes 4-5

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

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

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

The Tempest

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

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Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. (Norton Romances and Poems, 2nd edition, pp. 365-425).

Shakespeare’s Romance Mode

In Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearean Tragedy (U of Toronto Press, 1967, repr. 1985), Northrop Frye writes with precision about the defining characteristics of tragic vision; what underlies this vision, he posits, “… is being in time, the sense of the one-directional quality of life, where everything happens once and for all, where every act brings unavoidable and fateful consequences, and where all experience vanishes, not simply into the past, but into nothingness, annihilation.  In the tragic vision death is … the essential event that gives shape and form to life” (3).  By contrast, in Frye’s schema, the romance pattern is cyclical, not linear; death does not define life but rather the characters in the romance will have a chance to redeem themselves and the order within which they function.  The social order in Shakespeare’s romance plays and comedies borrows from the stability and perpetuity of the great seasonal cycles that literary cultures have envied and invoked for thousands of years.

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

In Shakespeare’s romance plays,What we get is not second chances or “do-overs” in the simplest sense but rather second chances in altered circumstances; events and persons may come full circle, but there is loss and sorrow along the way, leaving even triumphant conclusions with a bittersweet taste.  None of this is to say, however, that the romance plays are anything but ultimately hopeful and mostly uplifting: they offer what may well be the most realistic orientation towards life with its recurrent opportunities and travails—not a proffer of ultimate insight and intense clarity near the point of being crushed by inexorable forces, as in tragedy; not a sunny representation of individual satisfaction and happy communities, as in the lighter of Shakespeare’s comedies; but a kind of wisdom that allows us to abide in uncertainty, accept the changes and loss that time brings, and be thankful for the rare and all but miraculous “second chances” we may receive, however partial the outcome.

Act 1, Scene 1 (374-76, A tempest drives King Alonso and his mariners to abandon ship)

The first thing we see is that authority is the matter in question—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 counselor Gonzalo; he has more important things to do at the moment: to the imperious suggestion, “remember whom thou hast aboard” (375, 1.1.17), the Boatswain replies only, “if you can command these elements to silence and work / peace of the present, we will not hand a rope more.  Use your / authority” (375, 1.1.19-21).  The storm, therefore, functions as a great leveling influence, at least at this point in the play.  Still, Shakespeare is not about to ratify anarchy; this is a romance play, and the basis of the social order is about to be scrutinized.  The civil order has broken down and the characters have been compelled by Prospero to the island where things will be sorted out.

Act 1, Scene 2 (376-89, Miranda learns who she is, and who Prospero was: his story of secret studies, exile and miraculous survival; Prospero explains that his enemies are on the island now due to fortune and active pursuit of the opportunity it 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 sympathetic power of her own—she feels the suffering of those who have been shipwrecked, begging Prospero to keep them safe: “If by your art … you have / Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them” (376, 1.2.1-2).  But Prospero says that no harm has been done and that the shipwreck was arranged for her sake (376, 1.2.15-16).  The question is, how to come by one’s legitimate identity?  Miranda must learn about her former place in the social order and prepare for her future role, so Prospero begins to inform her by way of posing difficult questions, the first of which elicits some remembrance of childhood attendants in Milan and the second of which, “What seest thou else / In the dark backward and abyss of time?” (377, 1.2.49-50), draws no further recollections on Miranda’s part.  Prospero must provide Miranda 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.

As Prospero goes on to explain, he is not entirely without blame for his own exile—he devoted himself to the liberal arts, and, “rapt in secret studies,” neglected the needs of his dukedom (378, 1.2.77; see 75-78).  That is why he gave his brother Antonio control.  The upshot of it was, says Prospero, that Antonio learned the ropes of governing and began to consider himself the rightful ruler (378-79, 1.2.102-05).  Prospero’s brother is a Machiavellian of the bad sort, but even so he stands for political realism.  One of Shakespeare’s ideals is that a good ruler must be both magnanimous and active.  In consequence, poet-kings such as Richard II must be deposed as surely as evildoers like Richard III.  Prospero wanted to lead the life contemplative or vita contemplativa to the neglect of the active life, or vita activa.  The relative merit of the two was the subject of much debate during the Renaissance, and is well memorialized in Thomas More’s Utopia.  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.  Prospero seems to have sought knowledge for a much more personal and private reason, one not closely allied with the charitable exercise of power.  Antonio at least understands that a ruler cannot simply keep the name of prince or king or duke and expect the authority to remain with it—that was one of King Lear’s mistakes, and it is also Prospero’s.  To keep the title, you must exercise the power and others must know you are exercising it.  To fail in that regard is to encourage disorder and wickedness.  Antonio apparently schemed with Alonso the King of Naples to get rid of Prospero, which was more than enough wickedness to result in Prospero’s loss of authority in Milan.

As for the status of Prospero as a magician, we are being set up for an important consideration: Prospero has been stripped of civil power by his exile, and he has put on a different kind of power signified by his magic robe.  What kind of power is it that he now possesses?  What is the source of that power?  We should not think that this power will ultimately be self-sufficient since a return to the civil order looms beyond the framework of the immediate dramatic situation.  Furthermore, Prospero understands that he is not an independent actor in his own chance at redemption—he admits that divine providence brought him ashore and that Gonzalo charitably furnished him with rich garments and the books he still values above his dukedom (380, 1.2.160-69).  Prospero will need to learn how to wield the knowledge in these books to get himself back to his former state and do some good for the people, just as he has used it to make life tolerable on the island.

Prospero also admits that an accident or fortune has brought his enemies within his power.  With this fortunate accident, he begins to operate on his own under an auspicious star (380-81, 1.2.178-85). As always, “there is a tide in the affairs of men,” as Brutus says in Julius Caesar (Norton Tragedies, ), and Prospero must act now or lose his chance forever.  He is satisfied that the spirit Ariel has done his bidding, appearing as St. Elmo’s Fire (a natural phenomenon) and striking the crew of the King’s ship with madness during the storm.  The aerial spirit has also dispersed the crew about the island, separating them into logical camps.  Ferdinand, the King’s son and the first man to jump ship, is alone, for he above all is to be tested as the future successor to Prospero’s kingdom (381, 1.2.196-225).

For the first time but not for the last, the spirit Ariel chafes to gain his freedom: “Let me remember thee what thou hast promised / Which is not yet performed me” (382, 1.2.244-45).  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 in a pine tree (382-83, 1.2.258-86).  Prospero has made a sort of contract with Ariel to free him from human control at the end of a certain time; that time is very near, says Prospero: there’s just a bit more work to do, and “after two days / I will discharge thee” (383, 1.2.  301-02).  Since Ariel seems to represent imagination or the finer and more sensitive of nature’s powers, we begin to see that the play is in part about how humanity is to maintain control over the natural forces within itself and beyond itself.  Prospero threatens Ariel in a way that suggests potential tyranny: if the spirit does not obey, Prospero lowers, he will “rend an oak, / And peg thee in his knotty entrails till / Thou hast howled away twelve winters” (383, 1.2.296-98).  In other words, he will turn into another Sycorax.  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 occasional displeasure of Prospero.

When we first meet Caliban, he is at his hostile best, cursing Prospero but submitting to him because, after all, he must eat his dinner.  Caliban has sometimes been seen as a native set upon by white Europeans.  Shakespeare’s was a great age of exploration, and European countries were busily colonizing and exploiting the New World.  The quest motif—a kind of directed adventurism—is very strong in romance generally (consider Spenser’s The Faery Queen, with its heroic Red Crosse Knight in pursuit of his lady through various lands).  A sense of magic, wonder, and strangeness pervades the romance genre, and indeed exploration is itself matter for exploration, which explains why certain critics writing about The Tempest have seen Caliban’s circumstances in terms of colonial discourse and practice.  This isn’t necessarily 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 as at least in part a thoughtful consideration of how “natives” might process the approach of European cultures, with their imperious claims of superiority and their demands for subordination.

Caliban says firmly that the island belongs to him: “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother, / Which thou tak’st from me” (384, 1.2.334-35).  Prospero, however, apparently associates him with the devil, or perhaps with the unregenerate natural man, and heaps contempt upon him: “I have used thee, / Filth as thou art, with human care …” (384-85, 1.2.348-49).  All the same, Prospero admits that Caliban is useful as a servant to him and Miranda: “We cannot miss him.  He does make our fire …” (384, 1.2.314).  It is true that Caliban is controlled by his own appetites as much as by Prospero’s threats and magic, but he is not without ability—his complaints at times are eloquent.  In response to Miranda’s reminder, “I pitied thee, / Took pains to make thee speak” (385, 1.2.356-57), Caliban hits back with the unforgettable lines, “You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse” (385, 1.2.366-67).  And he was good to Prospero in time of need.  His crime was to try to violate Miranda’s honor—another natural impulse he does not regret: “Would’t had been done!” he exclaims, imagining a race of Calibans got by an unwilling Miranda (385, 1.2.352).  Caliban is not appreciative of the gift of civilization Prospero has supposedly given him.  It’s reasonable to suggest that Prospero is somewhat unfair to Caliban—to say that Caliban is “capable of all ill,” as Miranda does (385, 1.2.356), 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” (385, 1.2.370) as Prospero calls him in allegorical or morality-play fashion.  The things with which Prospero threatens him are entirely natural—pain and suffering—but Caliban is afraid of Prospero because he believes that the old man’s art can control even Sycorax’s male god, Setebos (385, 1.2.375-77).  (Robert Browning’s poem “Caliban upon Setebos” is a fine Victorian character study of Caliban, covering his resentments and religious sentiments as only an eccentric conversation-poet like Browning could do.)

Meanwhile, Ferdinand is enchanted by the music of Ariel and drawn on by it.  Ariel sings that Ferdinand’s father has suffered a sea change into “something rich and strange” (386, 1.2.405).  Of course the song is not true since Alonso has not drowned, but it memorializes the deep transformations wrought by death.  What is the point of bringing up such changes here?  Ferdinand himself says that while he wept for his lost father, the music became audible and calmed both the raging waters and his sorrow (386, 1.2.395-96).  In part, the music is designed to convince the young man that he is alone, that his father is in fact drowned, which of course would make Ferdinand the new king of Naples.  In part, the song seems to distance Ferdinand from his father’s death, perhaps because the trials and transformation he is to undergo on the island leaves him little time to grieve for a royal father lost.

Ferdinand’s central question to Miranda when he meets her is whether she is a virgin: “My prime request, / … is—O you wonder— / If you be maid or no?” (387, 1.2.429-31).  That is certainly a question with institutional significance: he wants to make her his queen.  But Prospero, while inwardly delighted, knows that the prize must not be won too easily and that Ferdinand 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 Machiavellian political intriguers.  Aside from stealing the King of Naples’ title, insists Prospero, “Thou … / … hast put thyself / Upon this island as a spy, to win it / From me the lord on’t” (387, 1.2.457-60).

As for Miranda, she still needs to learn the difference between appearance and reality since she says that the handsome prince Ferdinand could not possibly mean anyone harm (388, 1.2.471-72), even though he has just drawn his sword against Prospero, however ineffectually in despite of the old man’s magic (388, 1.2.469).  She will need to understand this lesson to become a good Neapolitan queen when the time comes.  That she shows promise is obvious from her remark to the remarkably patient 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” (388, 1.2.499-501). 

Act 2, Scene 1 (389-96, Gonzalo entertains King Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian with his naïve utopia; Antonio suborns Sebastian to attempt usurpation of sleeping brother Alonso’s Neapolitan crown, but Ariel foils the attempt and the party go off in search of Ferdinand)

Neapolitan Gonzalo is an honest old counselor, a quality which shows in his trust in providence.  We must “weigh / Our sorrow with our comfort,” he tells his shipwrecked hearers (389, 2.1.8-9).  Gonzalo is also observant—he has at least noticed that their garments are strangely dry, in fact “as fresh / as when we put them on first in Afric …” (391, 2.1.68-69), and we, who know that the shipwreck is mainly Prospero’s doing, are thereby reminded that a certain wizardry is necessary to the founding and maintenance of the social order. 

Alonso despairs over the loss of his son Ferdinand: “what strange fish / Hath made his meal on thee?” (391, 2.1.112-13) but Francisco tells him that the boy may be alive, recounting his heroic attempt to survive.  Gonzalo’s utopian musings follow and seem meant to cheer the king and others.  What Gonzalo offers up is a silly pre-technological 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—” (392, 2.1.154-56; see 147-56, 159-64).  Gonzalo would undo the punishments stemming from original sin: no work, no lowering authority figures to deal with.  Sebastian is right to point out the irony that Gonzalo “would be king” of his imaginary utopian isle nonetheless (392, 2.1.157).  His utopian vision is very fine, but it hardly equals Prospero’s magic and foresight.  Gonzalo is perhaps a little 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.  In any event, Gonzalo is surrounded by people such as Sebastian and Antonio, who do not appreciate his wisdom, such as it is.  Wisdom is separated from rank for the moment, whereas both are required to keep firm order. 

With both Gonzalo and King Alonso fast asleep, the talk between Sebastian and Antonio 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” (393, 2.1.204-05).  Sebastian doesn’t quite follow, so Antonio spells it all out for him: both men believe Ferdinand is drowned, and of course 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” (395, 2.1.256-58).  Antonio openly invites Sebastian to follow his example as usurper of Milan, and the gambit works: Sebastian declares, “As thou got’st Milan, / I’ll come by Naples” (396, 2.1.86-87).  So we have passed from Gonzalo’s false but harmless utopia to potentially lethal political intrigue. 

Antonio, who says to Sebastian of the recent events that saw their shipwreck, “what’s past is prologue” (395, 2.1.249), sees only the operation of random chance in the storm that cause the wreck.  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 tempest; it is a thing of nature brought on by human and superhuman magic.  It is even associated with providence since Prospero himself, by his lights, was steered after his own shipwreck by divine providence.  Antonio mistakenly sees his friends and potential subjects as passive men just waiting to take orders, but his scheme is foiled by Ariel, who warns Gonzalo to “Shake off slumber, and beware” (396, 2.1.300).  With Gonzalo and King Alonso now awake, they all set off to look for Ferdinand (396, 2.1.318-19).

Act 2, Scene 2 (397-401, 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 describing his reaction at the torments Prospero’s spirit-agents visit upon him because of his misbehavior: “For every trifle are they set upon me …” (397, 2.2.8).  When he meets up with Stefano and Trinculo, we will get a chance to see how Caliban perceives the island’s 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” (397, 2.2.16-17). 

Trinculo and Stefano have their own ideas about paradise—they assume everyone else has perished in the storm, so this island is theirs, so far as they know.  Trinculo meets Caliban, even seeking protection under the clothing of this supposed natural man (397, 2.2.35-36) and later joins with Stefano to turn him into a willing subject on the basis of drink, which seems to be the god of this nascent kingdom.  At least, that’s Caliban’s view: “That’s a brave god, and bears celestial liquor. / I will kneel to him” (399, 2.2.109-10).  Liquor provides shelter for Stefano, just as an ordinary garment serves to clothe Trinculo.  On the whole, this section acts as a parody of the previous scene, which was about the misguided intrigue of Antonio and Sebastian against King Alonso of Naples.  Caliban sees the arrival of these two drunkards as a chance for freedom, as he construes his willingness to serve a new master: “‘Ban, ‘ban, Cacaliban / Has a new master.—Get a new man!” (401, 2.2.175-76)  Prospero, that is, can go get himself a new abjectly fearful servant: Caliban has found new lords more to his liking, and he’s positively overjoyed about it.  This so-called monster, whom Stefano sees as a potential exotic present for an emperor (398, 2.2.65-67), promises to uncover for his new masters “every fertile inch o’th’ island” along with “the best springs” and choicest berries (400, 2.2.140,152).

On the whole, the second act has been about a pair of false attempts to set up a new kingdom over the wreck of the old, with Antonio and Sebastian trying to seize the opportunity to make their own “providence,” and Stefano and Trinculo (along with Caliban) trying to set up their own crazy government.

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

The third act transitions to the more legitimate attempts at self-discovery on the part of Ferdinand and Miranda; this focus will, in turn, gesture towards a regenerated dukedom in Milan, even though the play ends with everyone still on the island.  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 one can set up a fool’s paradise: “The mistress which I serve quickens what’s dead, / And makes my labours pleasures” (401, 3.1.6-7).  By his patience, Ferdinand shows the potential for nobility. 

The name “Miranda” means “she who is to be looked upon [with wonder].”  Prospero’s daughter is virtuous, and her virtue is part of the island’s special quality.  Like Adam in Paradise Lost, however, Ferdinand will need some warning not to be overly fond of Miranda’s charms.  The pair have some negotiating to do, and must move from the language of innocent courtship to a permanently enduring union—after all, they are the future of the state, and cannot remain in paradise forever, if indeed one wants to say that’s where they are at present.

Miranda thinks as highly of Ferdinand as he does of her: “I would not wish / Any companion in the world but you” (402, 3.1.54-55).  Prospero blesses the union to himself since he is apparently convinced that Ferdinand and Miranda will prove compatible, but he must not allow premature sexual relations between them to ruin the budding romance.  Language will prove essential to a proper match between the two lovers, and marriage is an institution, not a simple declaration.  Prospero must go back to his books and work up appropriate magic to complete his triumph over his enemies and his own anger towards them for their transgressions.  This will require delaying the courtship he beholds for a little while even as he blesses and furthers it: “I’ll to my book, / For yet ere supper-time must I perform / Much business appertaining” (403, 3.1.95-97).

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

Caliban, meanwhile, is courting Stefano as his lord and master, and chafing at Trinculo’s bad manners and disrespectful treatment of a faithful servant: “How does thy honour?  Let me lick thy shoe. / I’ll not serve him; he is not valiant” (404, 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 …” (404, 3.2.50).  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 …” (405, 3.2.82-83).  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 …” (405, 3.2.101-02). They all serve their own base material desires.  Ariel, however, is looking over them even as they devise their plot (406, 3.2.110), and the would-be ruler ends up following the “monster” Caliban (406, 3.2.145).  Well, Caliban does know his island, which is “full of noises, / Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not” (406, 3.2.130-31).

Act 3, Scene 3 (407-10, King Alonso’s despair over Ferdinand begins and ends the scene; Prospero nearing the pinnacle of his powers: spirits lay out a banquet for Antonio, Alonso, and Sebastian and Ariel, playing 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: “Even here I will put off my hope …” (407, 3.2.7).  Nature seems to have won the battle.  As the banquet is brought by Prospero’s spirits, Sebastian sees only “drollery” (407, 3.3.21), 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 …” (407, 3.3.31-33).  The wonder of exploration is part of romance, and Antonio testifies to his own sense of wonder: “Travellers ne’er did lie, / Though fools at home condemn ‘em” (407, 3.3.26-27).  The banquet itself, and the appearance of Ariel as a harpy, 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 humans that they will suffer famine before they reach their destined home in Italy.

Ariel has set his victims a fool’s banquet, and as he makes it disappear, he explains sternly to these “three men of sin” (408, 3.3.53), some of whom attending are plotting against King Alonso, that they have been driven here to be punished for their sins in exiling Prospero (409, 3.3.69-75).  For this offense, they are threatened with “Ling’ring perdition” (409, 3.3.77), lest they feel “heart’s sorrow” and demonstrate “a clear life ensuing” (409, 3.3.81-82).   Failure would mean a futile repetition of the romance pattern, one stripped of meaning and redemptive quality.  At present, they still think Ferdinand is dead, and Prospero has no intention of telling them otherwise just now.  This is the first of two high points in Prospero’s wielding of power: as he says, “My high charms work, / And these mine enemies are all knit up / In their distractions.  They now are in my power” (409, 3.3.88-90).  Prospero goes off to see Ferdinand and Miranda.  This decision in itself has a powerful effect—Alonso, hearing the very waves, winds and thunder speak “The name of Prosper” (409, 3.3.99), feels bitter remorse at the loss of his son and wishes for death (409, 3.3.100-02).  Gonzalo sends help to keep the “desperate” three from further harm (410, 3.3.104; see 104-09).

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

Prospero insists that Ferdinand should not behave like Caliban and spoil the honor of his daughter, lest “discord, shall bestrew / The union of your bed with weeds …” (410, 4.1.20-21).  There is much play here about the value of language—Prospero says Miranda will outstrip all praise (410, 4.1.10), and then says that Ferdinand has spoken fairly and will have his daughter (410, 4.1.13-14).  Ceremony is important for the obvious reason: it is necessary to bless this socially and politically significant union.  Marriage is part of the magic of civilization.  Prospero bids Ariel bring the lesser-spirit “rabble” (an important word here in terms of governance: the lower orders amongst the spirits, so to speak, will help bring order from chaos) so that he may give the young couple a demonstration of his powers: “I must / Bestow upon the eyes of this young couple / Some vanity of mine art.  It is my promise …” (411, 4.1.39-41).  Iris, the rainbow-goddess and Juno’s messenger, bids Ceres—the latter a fertility and agriculture goddess—to provide sport with the lovers and offer up her own special gift of abundance in perpetuity and, therefore, a secure future. 

At Juno’s behest, she and Ceres celebrate the marriage contract of Miranda and Ferdinand, and Ceres details the beneficence of nature that she brings” Earth’s increase, and foison plenty …” (413, 4.1.110; see 103-17).  Iris herself tells us that while Venus (goddess of love) and her son Cupid had thought to do some mischief to Ferdinand and Miranda by rendering their love somewhat unchaste, they have failed in that mission, and all is well (412, 4.1.94-95).

Breaking in to this celebration is Prospero’s remembrance that Caliban and his new friends are plotting against him.  But we still have unfinished business, so the celebration is a false ending in accordance with classical comic structure.  Consider lines 148 and following—Prospero sums up what his wizardry has accomplished: he has demonstrated that we are “such stuff as dreams are made on.”  This remark has sometimes been taken as Shakespeare’s farewell speech as a dramatist, even though The Tempest isn’t his last play.  In any case, there is clearly a parallel between art and life to be drawn here: art has much to tell us about life; it is a kind of magic that participates in and lends decorous approval to the necessary activities of civic life and to the fulfillment of individual desire: a key purpose of Prospero’s “show,” in fact, is to bless the future union of Miranda and Ferdinand.  The young prince is delighted with the demonstration, exclaiming, “Let me live her ever!” (413, 4.1.22)

At the conclusion of the show, Prospero remembers that he still needs to deal with Caliban’s wicked conspiracy against the good order of the island and that he must, therefore, get Ferdinand and Miranda out of the way for a while.  In concluding one of the most remarkable and aesthetically pleasing passages in Shakespeare’s work, Prospero says to Ferdinand and Miranda, “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep” (414, 4.1.156-58).  No sooner does he say this than Prospero professes himself an enfeebled, “vexed” old man (414, 4.1.158).  There are, to borrow from the Frost poem, still a number of “miles to go” before that sleep overtakes Prospero, and his magical island is not paradise after all: the consequences of human error, human fallenness if we want the theological overtones of that word, impend even here.  From here it’s on to taking care of business with that rascal Caliban and his arrogant new master Stefano and second-in-command Trinculo.  This means that Prospero is again somewhat tempted to turn tyrant—a possibility at least hinted at in his pronouncement, “I will plague them all, / Even to roaring” (415, 4.1.192-93). 

The scene ends with Stefano, Trinculo and Caliban being hunted down like animals by Prospero’s spirits, now morphed into vicious canines.  And here we are getting near the high point of Prospero’s demonstration of power, the apex of the ultimately benevolent plot he has stirred up by magic and with a little help from Lady Fortune: “At this hour,” observes Prospero, “Lies at my mercy all mine enemies” (416, 4.1.258-59).

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

A main point is that in contrast with plays such as King Lear, in The Tempest insight doesn’t come at the cost of the capacity to act in the world.  Prospero ends by appropriately chiding the lesser group of conspirators, in particular Caliban and Stefano, but he isn’t overly harsh with them.  We are let in on the excellent thoughts whereby he makes his decision in favor of exercising genuine authority rather than playing the tyrant with his now hapless enemies: incensed as he is at their deplorable acts, Prospero recognizes inwardly that “… The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance” (417, 5.1.27-28).  Virtue, that is, will always prove productive of still greater good, while vengeance is merely destructive and decreative, tending to chaos instead of order.  The sinful men now in his power will again “be themselves” (417, 5.1.32) that they may receive their just reckoning and a chance at redemption.

Awaiting these sinners’ entrance into the enchanted circle he has drawn, Prospero recounts the wonders he has done on the island (417-18, 5.1.33-50) and pledges once and for all to let go of his magic staff and book and the “rough magic” it has made him capable of wielding (418, 5.1.50).  Casting a spell over the senses of his captive enemies with music, he proceeds to name to them their faults: “Most cruelly / Didst thou, Alonso, use me and my daughter. / Thy brother [Sebastian] was a furtherer in this act” (418, 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 (418-19, 5.1.74-79).  But even he is forgiven.

Ariel 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” (419, 5.1.95-96), sings this innocent, natural creature even as he invests a mortal man in robes of state.  King Alonso promptly agrees to forget his insistence on Milanese tribute for Naples (419-20, 5.1.120-21) and asks forgiveness for his complicity in the exiling of Prospero.  The wizard next demands his state back from his usurping brother Antonio: “I do forgive / Thy rankest fault, all of them, and require / My dukedom of thee …” (420, 5.1.133-35). 

King Alonso’s chief care is still, of course, for his lost son (and, by implication, the destruction of his dynastic hopes): “I wish / Myself were mudded in that oozy bed / Where my son lies” (420, 5.1.152-54).  For this despairing monarch, Prospero has one last wonder to reveal: Ferdinand and Miranda playing the ancient game of royal strategy, chess (421, 5.1.170-74).  Even Sebastian must admit that this is “A most high miracle” (421, 5.1.180).  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” (421, 5.1.174).  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, thereby cutting the young fellow down to size somewhat, but King Alonso is nonetheless struck with amazement, exclaiming, “Though the seas threaten, they are merciful” (421, 5.1.181).  He and Ferdinand are reunited, and Miranda’s turn comes to marvel at the sight before her: “O brave new world / That has such people in’t!” (421, 5.1.186-87)  King Alonso is very pleased with the match, and Gonzalo pronounces by way of a question Prospero’s long-ago exile from Milan a dynastic fortunate fall: “Was Milan thrust from Milan, that his issue / Should become kings of Naples?” (422, 5.1.208-09)

Ariel has brought the Boatswain and ship’s Master into Prospero’s presence, and they tell of how they beheld with wonder the ship 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 are brushed aside for the moment by a happy Prospero, for there’s still the matter of Caliban and his wicked overlords to settle. 

Ariel is commanded to set them at liberty to face judgment, and Prospero’s initial move is to admit responsibility for Caliban: “This thing of darkness I / Acknowledge mine” (423, 5.1.278-79).  Afraid almost for his life, the miscreant admits his error and promises to mend his ways to obedience: “… I’ll be wise hereafter, / And seek for grace” (424, 5.1.298-99).  He now knows what King Alonso knows: Stefano is no god, only a “drunken butler” (423, 5.1.280).  Order at last fully restored, Prospero promises to tell his life’s story to King Alonso and his people on the eve of departure from the island.  The company will voyage 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” (424, 5.1.314).

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, without losing his chance to recover the dukedom he lost.  He has learned a costly, lengthy lesson about putting an intensely private and insatiable desire for knowledge in its proper place and showing due regard for his responsibility to maintain the symbolic and material authority that underwrites civil order.  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 man really desires is not so much to exercise great power again as a younger man might, but instead to practice the art of dying well, or ars moriendi, as it’s called in Latin.

Ariel’s final charge is to provide “calm seas, auspicious gales” for the return voyage (424, 5.1.318), and his master’s last command to him is liberation itself: “Then to the elements / Be free, and fare thou well” (424, 5.1.321-22).  The promise of things to come is this impending marriage between Ferdinand and Miranda, who will, we may presume, carry on in a regenerated social and political environment.  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 ever could.  Prospero, now an 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, this 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.  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.

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 Tragedy of King Richard the Third

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Histories

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Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 361-450).

Timeline of the English Monarchy from the Plantagenets to the Stuarts

House of Plantagenet’s “Angevin” line

The 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 (this king was one of William the Conquerors’ sons).  Matilda’s son by Geoffrey Plantagenet became English King Henry II.

Henry II (1154-89; his queen was Eleanor of Aquitaine; see the film The Lion in Winter)
Richard I (1189-99; Berengaria of Navarre; Timeline of Richard I’s Reign)
John (1199-1216; Isabel of Gloucester; Isabella of Angoulême; Timeline of John’s Reign)
Henry III (1216-72; Eleanor of Provence)
Edward I (1272-1307; Eleanor of Castile; Margaret of France)
Edward II (1307-27; Isabella of France, who deposed him with the aid of Roger Mortimer)
Edward III (1327-77; Philippa of Hainault)
Richard II (1377-99; Anne of Bohemia; Isabella of Valois)

After this line comes the 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 (who was born in Bolingbroke Castle, Lincolnshire, thus “Bolingbroke”).

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

Then follows the 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; maternally descended from Edward III’s second son Lionel, Duke of Clarence–this latter descent constituted their claim to the throne.

Edward IV (1461-70 [Henry VI captive], 1471-83 after Henry VI’s murder; Elizabeth Woodeville)
Edward V (briefly in 1483, perhaps killed)
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)  The action at Bosworth largely ended the struggle between Yorkists and Lancastrians from 1455-85 known as the Wars of the Roses because the Yorkist emblem was a white rose and the Lancastrian a red rose.

The Tudor line begun by Henry Tudor runs as follows:

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 apparently Henry V’s widow Catherine de Valois, whom Owen Tudor is said to have secretly married).  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)
Henry VIII (1509-47), Edward VI (1547-53; Catherine of Aragon through 1533; Anne Boleyn; Jane Seymour; Anne of Cleves; Catherine Howard; Catherine Parr)
Mary I (1553-58, co-ruler Philip of Spain)
Elizabeth I (1558-1603; never married)

Then come 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)
Charles I (1625-49; Henrietta Maria, daughter of Henri IV of France), beheaded by Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan forces during the English Civil War (1642-51).

After 1660, we have the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in the person of

Charles II (1660-85, the Restoration; Catherine of Braganza).

A Brief Note on Richard III’s Era: The Wars of the Roses

Recommended Reading: Kendall, Paul Murray. Richard the Third. New York: Norton, 1956.

I will comment scene by scene, but a few initial remarks seem appropriate. I mentioned in class that Shakespeare, as one of my old UC Irvine professors used to say, usually prefers to deal with the dynamics of royal power at some historical distance. By Shakespeare’s time, the chivalric ideals, the feudal loyalties, of older times had long since disappeared. We need only consider the Wars of the Roses between the houses of Lancaster and York to see the truth of that statement: mid-C15 England was marked by savage infighting and betrayal between these two great branches of the Plantagenet line descended from Edward III. The modern courts of Elizabeth I and James Stuart are not generally Shakespeare’s subject. But the present play deals with an historical subject with which many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have been familiar, and he borrows his story in the main from the Tudor Chronicles that portray Richard III as a monster. If we read modern biographies of Richard, most notably the one by Paul Murray Kendall, we have access to a more objective analysis of Richard’s career. But my sense is that Shakespeare was quite capable of reading between the lines of his chroniclers, and seeing that almost everyone involved in the action was deeply imbued with divided loyalties and mixed, selfish motivations.

That quality of ambivalence surely emerges in the play we are reading, but Shakespeare’s need to generate sympathy in the audience for some of the doomed characters results, I think, in an almost schizophrenic quality at times. Some of the worst rascals in the play get genuinely moving passages—Clarence, for example, was not exactly a picture of loyalty to Edward IV, his brother, moving back and forth between Edward and Warwick with astonishing facility when those two men were engaged in their deadly feuds. Clarence would just as well have deposed Edward and taken the throne for himself if he could, but fortune did not favor him and he never had Edward’s highest regard, which seems to have gone to the younger brother Richard. (Kendall’s biography of Richard covers Clarence’s behavior in some detail.) But in the play, Clarence speaks remarkably beautiful lines on the eve of his murder, moving us to pity him. As for Queen Margaret of Anjou, when she was trying to get her husband Henry VI reinstalled on the throne, she treated England like a foreign country, allowing her armies to rape and pillage their way through conquered territories. She was no angel—Kendall describes her conduct as “savagely dynastic.” But in the play, she is a figure of at least some respect, and speaks with prophetic accuracy about the villainous end of others. What I’m suggesting is that Shakespeare freely reconfigures the historical characters with which he is dealing, making them suit the needs of a play designed, after all, first and foremost to please an audience. Thus, if anything but a black-and-white portrait of King Richard III as a villain was available to him, he chose not to make use of it. The Richard we see, with his vicious asides and grim humor, is much more exciting and suits Tudor mythology. Queen Elizabeth I, after all, was the daughter of Henry VIII, who was the heir of the Lancastrian-related Henry VII, the hero of this play 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).

*Note on Names: Richard of Gloucester becomes King Richard III by Act 4, Scene 2; I sometimes just call him “Richard” for brevity’s sake.  As for Henry Earl of Richmond, I sometimes call him Richmond, Henry, or Henry Tudor: at the very end of the play, he becomes King Henry VII.

Act 1, Scene 1 (370-73, 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 (370, 1.1.1-43). In the Ian McKellen film version, 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 crooked body. Like that of many villains, his evil is fueled by a sense of injured merit or a demand for compensation. He is part of the illustrious House of York, and his brother is no less than Edward IV, the present King of England. The real Richard of Gloucester, from what I have read, was remarkably loyal to his older brother Edward IV, 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. Others may enjoy the time, but his deformities and defects render that impossible for him. He was “stamped” (370, 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” (370, 1.1.24). He is a man “unfinished” (370, 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 run with the tides of chaos, staying always ahead of everyone else. Richard lives in a time full of opportune chaos and confusion.  These things are his very elements and will furnish him with everything he needs to advance his cause. That quality accounts for his ability to marshal “drunken prophecies, libels and dreams” (370, 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 thoughts to dive “down to my soul” (370, 1.1.41).  Although Richard can do little about his ugly appearance, he is a master of disguise when it comes to the various registers of language and moral sentiment. He is one of Shakespeare’s greatest “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” (371, 1.1.62) After all, she has two young sons by Edward who stand to inherit the throne. Historically, Elizabeth Woodeville, 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 Woodeville faction and himself from the three 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 kin are made gentlefolks” (372. 1.1.90-96).

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” (373, 1.1.152).

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 Samuel Johnson worries about—his ebullience doesn’t keep us from condemning him, but it carries us along to a disturbing degree. 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, whom fortune seems to have abandoned. The Renaissance poets understood, as of course did the ancients from Homer onwards, that shunning the unlucky, although cruel, is often the safest course of action. Bad luck is contagious, and incompetence loves company. No wonder we often side with the villains, at least for a time: knowledge gives us a sense of power and immunity. As modern critic Stanley Fish says in discussing Paradise Lost, Christian poetry labors to “surprise” us at our own propensity towards sinfulness, at our seemingly endless capacity 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.

Act 1, Scene 2 (373-79, Anne laments the death of Edward and Henry VI, and is courted strangely by Richard, who marvels at his actorly performance)

Anne laments over Henry’s body and remembers her slain husband Prince Edward (373-74, 1.2.1-32). 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 executed upon discovery by Clarence’s men, and Warwick was killed during the battle.  The widow makes the first of many references to Richard as poisonous and monstrous, cursing him to greater ill than she can wish even “… to wolves, to spiders, toads, / Or any creeping venomed thing that lives” (374, 1.2.19-20).

Immediately, she is confronted with the devil himself when Richard appears from nowhere to charm her in a long and famously improbable dialogue (374-78, 1.2.33-212). 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 on 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” (376, 1.2.129-30). 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 (377,; Folio only).

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” (377, 1.2.171), which elicits not violence but only the line, “I will not be thy executioner” (377, 1.2.173).  What follows is even more improbable, with Richard offering Anne a ring, and Anne ambivalently offering him hope of success and even some gladness to see that this bad man has “become so penitent” (378, 1.2.208).

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 almost to join Shakespeare the playwright in patting himself on the back: “Was ever woman in this humour wooed? / Was ever woman in this humour won?” (378, 1.2.215-16)  As the Norton textual gloss implies, the word “humour” logically refers both the fact that Anne is grieving and that Richard’s way of courting her is nothing if not bizarre.

Does Richard believe the lady finds him “a marv’lous proper man” (379, 1.2.241) and that he has now become fashionable? Perhaps the fashionable thing is power, which, as Henry Kissinger says, is the greatest of all aphrodisiacs. The most generous way to construe Anne’s apparent fickleness is to acknowledge that she is little more than a pawn in a deadly dynastic chess game, so her sudden, incredible change of heart may be Shakespeare’s way of characterizing the devastating effects of the dynastic violence that constituted the Wars of the Roses on even the deepest human feelings and loyalties.

My understanding is that Anne’s father the Earl of Warwick had betrothed her to none other than our Richard, before Warwick, angry with the way the Yorkist King Edward IV was treating him, switched sides and gave her to the Lancastrian Edward, Prince of Wales (the son of Henry VI’s strong-willed queen, Margaret of Anjou).  So in a sense, Richard is simply restoring her to that original pledge, not proposing a bold new thing.  Moreover, he seems to understand that Anne, a pawn who is coveted as a ward by Clarence, who wants her estates as Countess of Warwick, is incapable of taking action: we should probably note here that the historical Anne Neville was a girl of fourteen at the time, not the adult counter Kristin Scott-Thomas to McKellen’s Richard.  Thus, his gesture of offering her a blade with which to kill him may be less risky than it appears. There’s also the fact that the wedding between Richard and Anne actually took place a bit over a year after Tewkesbury, not almost instantaneously, as it seems to do in Shakespeare’s play.

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” (370, 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” (379, 1.2.249-50). This is Richard at his best and worst: protean, ebullient, unpredictable, a rider of chaos in events and in the human heart. In the theater of 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 III), 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 (see Norton Histories, 229-30, 2.1.20-42).  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 (379-87, Dysfunctional family dinner: Richard and Queen Elizabeth Woodeville 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 Woodeville and Richard go at each other’s throats with great intensity.  The reason for her anger is palpable: “You envy my advancement, and my friends’” (381, 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 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” (382, 1.3.122-125).

Queen Margaret of Anjou, the indomitable widow of Henry VI, puts in an appearance, serving as a horrible example of one who has held and lost great power and place. She herself is, of course, no angel, 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” (382, 1.3.158-59).  Her cutting prophecy regarding Elizabeth Woodeville will turn out to be truer than she can guess: “after many lengthened hours of grief / Die, neither mother, wife, nor England’s queen” (383, 1.3.205-06).

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 famous Sonnet 129: “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action.” 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” (386, 1.3.335-36; see 322-36).  The pair of murderers he has summoned now arrive, waiting for Richard’s orders to make away with one George, Duke of Clarence.

Act 1, Scene 4 (387-92, Clarence has a strange vision and is murdered by Richard’s agents)

This scene contains the detailed, remarkable dream vision of Clarence (387-88, 1.4.9-63).  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 for that matter. In this speech, he is given sublimely beautiful poetry of the sort that one almost wants to detach from its context altogether 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” (Norton Romances and Poems 386, 1.2.404-05).

Clarence dreams of a sea-change, but one of a more dreadful aspect: “Methoughts I saw a thousand fearful wrecks, / …  / Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels, / All scattered in the bottom of the sea” (387, 1.4.24, 27-28).  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 falling / Struck me—that sought to stay him—overboard… “ (387, 1.4.18-19).  That is a classic piece of dramatic irony since, of course, we know something Clarence doesn’t.  His dream is strangely beautiful, but it does not yield him clarity about the end of his life, 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 (387, 1.4.34-35).

The second part of the speech (388, 1.4.43-63) 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” (388, 1.4.53) invokes the ghosts still wandering about since the beginning of the bad blood between York and Lancaster with the 1399 deposition of Richard II by Henry Bolingbroke (a Lancastrian with no great claim to the crown when closer descendants of Edward III were available; see Wikipedia’s Wars of the Roses entry).

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 (389, 1.4.101-43). These two men are operating at a much lower level than is 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 of Gloucester seems to lack altogether, 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, “Give me a cup of wine” (390, 1.4.152). 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 such religious rhetoric (391, 1.4.189-213).  In sum, Shakespeare may be playing with our sympathies in his handling of Clarence—doubtless the beautiful poetry this character is given generates some 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 man’s penitence is situational does not necessarily render it thoroughly false—it may be that penitence is almost always situational. But it certainly 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.” The Wars of the Roses were about insidious divisions between interrelated feudal houses.

Act 2, Scene 1 (392-95, 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 …” (393, 2.1.50).  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 gentle Duke is dead?”  394, 2.1.80)  At the end of the scene, Richard even insists to Buckingham that the pale visages of everyone around should be interpreted as an emblem of guilt (395, 2.1.136-39).  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” (395, 2.1.132-33).  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 draws on blood: violence and sin generate spirals of still more violence and sin. That is a lesson Shakespeare learned from the Bible.

Act 2, Scene 2 (395-99, the Duchess of York, Queen Elizabeth Woodeville, 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 Woodeville, and the children of murdered Clarence engage in a lamentation-fest (396-97, 2.2.34-88).  One-line or stichomythic exchanges of the sort we find from lines 72-78 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 griefs. / Their woes are parcelled; mine is general” (397, 2.2.80-81).

I would not discount the genuine pathos of the scene—it probably functions at two heterodox levels.  Shakespeare’s first goal must have been to please an audience; therefore, it is unlikely that he would completely undercut a good tearjerker scene like the present one. His audience were not historians, after all, though it would be an overstatement 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 the 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 (399-400, 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 sons and brothers haught and proud” (399, 2.3.27-28), and as for the general atmosphere, his pronouncement is, “By a divine instinct men’s minds mistrust  / Ensuing danger…” (400, 2.3.42-43).  Dynastic and inter-dynastic change will come, but it is something to be feared.

Act 2, Scene 4 (400-01, Queen Elizabeth Woodeville 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 (400, 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 Edward?  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: “I see the ruin of our house. / The tiger now hath seized the gentle hind” (401, 2.4.48-49).

Act 3, Scene 1 (402-06, Richard makes conversation with the little princes on their way to the Tower, and convince the cardinal that it is acceptable 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 shown by Richard and Buckingham; they advance Richard’s cause by means of sophistical arguments and 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 …” (403, 3.1.76)  Buckingham makes easy work of the Cardinal’s scruples about snatching the youth out of sanctuary with his mother (43, 3.1.44-56). The effect is comic since it shows how simple a thing it is to take advantage of those who actually take the rules seriously. But of course Cardinals were by no means non-political figures, so another way to interpret the Cardinal’s complacence 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 written down for posterity. Richard is, of course, right in the middle of staging his own inevitable accession to power in front of everyone who matters, certainly 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 (404, 3.1.90-92).  Most appropriately, his little brother York fears that he “shall not sleep in quiet at the Tower” (405, 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 kindness” (406, 3.1.195; see 188-97).

Act 3, Scene 2 (406-09, 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 (406, 3.2.7-11), 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” (407, 3.2.30). Perhaps more so than anyone else in the play, he seems incapable of discerning Richard’s true character.  But 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 / Before I’ll see the crown so foul misplaced” (407, 3.2.40-41).

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; 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, 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, don’t they? It is mainly thorough villains like Edmund in King Lear who scorn such powers of prophecy, witchcraft, and the like. 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.

Act 3, Scenes 3-4 (409-12, 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 (409, 3.3.1-24).  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 delightfully ridiculous little 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, “I pray you all, tell me what they deserve / That do conspire my death with devilish plots …” (411, 3.4.59-60).  Hastings’ conditional “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 them. 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.

Act 3, Scene 5 (412-14, Buckingham and Richard dupe the Lord Mayor about Hastings’ sudden execution, and trashes his deceased brother Edward IV’s reputation)

Yet another delicious 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 (413, 3.5.39-44). The scene reminds me 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 (Norton Tragedies, 843, 2.3.103-04). Many of Richard’s accusations seem to revolve around sexual innuendo, and we may suppose this topic is especially satisfying to him, if we recall his opening soliloquy. His character assassination of Edward IV is particularly vicious, as he rehearses the claim that the future Edward IV was not the legitimate issue of Richard’s father the Duke of York (414, 3.5.84-90).

Act 3, Scene 6 (414-15, 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: “Who is so gross / That cannot see this palpable device? / Yet who so bold but says he sees it not?”  (415, 3.7.10-12)  Shakespeare’s contemporary Sir John Harington (a godson of Queen Elizabeth I) puts the matter succinctly in one of his many epigrams: “Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.” 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 (415-20, Theater of Power: Buckingham woos Richard, who accepts with false modesty and reluctance)

Here Shakespeare has outdone himself in the representation of outrageous villainy: Buckingham’s quip about Richard’s role being that of a maid who must “still answer ‘nay’—and take it” (416, 3.7.51) is followed by some fine stagecraft in which Richard of Gloucester minces 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 this care on me?”  (418-19, 3.7.144-45, 194)  By reverse logic, that 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 the whole 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 stone” (419, 3.7.214), 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. It isn’t only the living bodies of his rivals that he must deal with; their posthumous image and report must be altered 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 Edward IV and the Princes. Story and spectacle are enormously significant accompaniments to the getting and maintaining of power, and Shakespeare, a great reader of Holinshed especially but also of some other chronicles 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 the 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 mightily to avoid becoming not simply feared rather than loved, but outright hated. Machiavelli, incidentally, is one of Shakespeare’s sources for analyzing the workings of political power, just as Montaigne’s philosophical skepticism seems to have struck a chord with him.

Act 4, Scene 1 (420-22, Anne Neville explains her acceptance of Richard’s suit; Queen Elizabeth Woodeville 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. (Richard married Anne Neville in 1472.) She declares that Richard’s “honey words” (422, 4.1.79) won her over on the spot, improbable as that may seem. See my comments on Act 1, scene 2. Elizabeth Woodeville ends the scene with remarkably lyrical lines about the “tender babes” (422, in the Tower of London—it was common speculation, of course, that Richard of Gloucester had them murdered when he became king, but there is no solid evidence to prove that he did. Certainly, he stood to benefit from the deed, but as Kendall points out in his biography of Richard (see Appendix 1), so did Henry Tudor, whose claim to the throne wasn’t rock-solid and who didn’t even advance the argument that Edward’s son was illegitimate. Or it might have been Buckingham presenting Richard with a fait accompli. The bodies were never discovered (at least not with any certainty—some remains were discovered in 1674), so the whole thing must remain a mystery.

Act 4, Scene 2 (422-25, 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 Woodeville’s daughter;  Richard chooses Tyrrell as his agent and declares himself immune to “tear-falling pity”)

Richard 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 glories for a day?”  (422, 4.2.6) and fuming to himself when Buckingham hesitates in consideration of his own selfish interests: “Buckingham / No more shall be the neighbour to my counsels” (423, 4.2.43-44).

Richard also gives an oblique order to make away with Anne his queen: “Come hither, Catesby.  Rumour it abroad / That Anne, my wife, is very grievous sick” (423, 4.2.  52-53).  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. (Consider the fate of that poetical ruler, Richard II.) It was a Renaissance commonplace that a well-born person’s formation should be oriented towards action. 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 is alleged murder of his queen: “I must be married to my brother’s daughter, / Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass” (424, 4.2.62-63).  But Richard’s mastery is short-lived, and his own words suggest the reason Shakespeare proffers for his failure as a king of only a few years’ reign: “I am in / So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin. / Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye” (424, 4.2.65-67).

James Tyrrell is King Richard’s choice for the matter of the princes in the Tower, and this bad man is quick to pledge his assistance: “I will dispatch it straight” (424, 4.2.83), he tells Richard.  The scene ends on a sour note between King Richard and Buckingham, who has already returned to claim the earldom of Hereford that Richard had promised him in exchange for his support (424, 4.2.91-94).  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” (425, 4.2.119), prompting Buckingham, once alone, to ask himself, “Made I him king for this?”  (425, 4.2.123) And with that, his allegiance to King Richard is at an end.

Act 4, Scene 3 (425-26, 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 subordinates Dighton and Forrest to effect the murders—this is “information” straight out of Thomas More’s study of King Richard III—and are treated to another of the play’s more lyrical passages about the piteous nature of the princes’ death: “Their lips were four red roses on a stalk, / And in their summer beauty kissed each other” (425, 4.3.12-13; see 1-19).  Richard promises Tyrrel a great reward, and moves on to sum up his accomplishments, among which are that “The sons of Edward sleep in Abraham’s bosom, / And Anne, my wife, hath bid this world goodnight” (426, 4.3.38-39).  Buckingham has by now turned traitor to him with an army in the field along with Ely and Henry Earl of Richmond. 

Act 4, Scene 4 (427-38, Queen Margaret scorns Elizabeth Woodeville, 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 (427-29), this time with bitter effect: Queen Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s widow, is right there beside Elizabeth Woodeville, 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,” the erstwhile center of Margaret’s hopes for power in England (429, 4.4.115).  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 …” (429, 4.4.118-19, see 118-23).

The real Margaret died in August, 1482 in France, so she didn’t actually 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 nobody in the disintegrating order Shakespeare describes here 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. But whatever the historical inaccuracies of the play 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” (431, 4.4.195-96), and then it’s on to the business at hand with Elizabeth Woodeville.  It takes King Richard a good long time to convince Elizabeth of absolutely nothing (431-36, 4.4.199-362). 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 bloodline 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. 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” (435, 4.4.347-48). 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 on the impending battle, and pins down Lord Stanley, or so he thinks, by holding his young son hostage: “Look your heart be firm, / Or else his head’s assurance is but frail” (437, 4.4.426-27).  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.

Act 4, Scene 5 (438-39, Lord Stanley learns about the augmentation of Henry Earl of Richmond’s supporters, asks Sir Christopher to tell him the vital news that Elizabeth Woodeville 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 (438-39, 4.5.1-15).  Stanley also wants Sir Christopher to pass along secretly the news that Elizabeth Woodeville consents to the proposed match between Henry Earl of Richmond and her young daughter Elizabeth (439, 4.5.17-19).

Act 5, Scene 1 (439-39, Buckingham is executed at Richard III’s order)

Buckingham (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” (439, 5.1.29).

Act 5, Scenes 2-4 (439-41, Henry Earl of Richmond addresses his troops confidently, and so does Richard III, though without talk of moral right; Henry draws up his battle plan)

In the second scene, Richmond addresses his men, publicly expressing moral disgust at the usurping reign of “The wretched, bloody, and usurping boar, / That spoils your summer fields and fruitful vines …” (440, 5.2.7-8), and exuding confidence on the eve of battle.  In the third scene, Richard expresses confidence of his own: “the King’s name is a tower of strength, / Which they upon the adverse faction want” (440, 5.3.12-13), and in the fourth scene, Richmond’s apparently spotless mind is directed towards the struggle at hand: “I’ll draw the form and model of our battle …” (441, 5.4.22).

Act 5, Scene 5 (441-46, Henry Earl of Richmond has slept well on the eve of battle: he’s ready; Stanley encourages him; King Richard III’s conscience sends him a nightmare peopled by his scolding victims; Henry addresses his troops with moral confidence)

As the battle looms, Henry Earl of Richmond has slept well and his spirits are steady.  Lord Stanley offers him encouragement, though he must be circumspect because King Richard still holds his son hostage: “on thy side I may not be too forward …” (442, 5.5.47; see 47-49).

By contrast, King Richard’s tortured conscience rears, forcing him to confront the ghosts of all his victims in a nightmare and at least momentarily shaking his confidence.  Visiting him in succession are the ghosts of Prince Edward, King Henry VI, Clarence, Rivers, Gray, Vaughan, the little princes, Hastings, Lady Anne Neville, and Buckingham (443-44).  Buckingham’s final couplet speaks sufficiently for the injured parties all: “God and good angels fight on Richmond’s side, / And Richard falls in height of all his pride” (444, 5.5.129-30).  Richard’s 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 stands 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” (445, 5.5.176).

Meanwhile, Henry Earl of Richmond harangues his 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 tyrant: “if you fight against God’s enemy, / God will, in justice, ward you as his soldiers” (446, 5.5.207-08).

Act 5, Scenes 6-8 (446-50, King Richard speaks insouciantly to his troops one last time; the battle comes and he fights bravely, but Henry Earl of Richmond kills him; Henry will marry Princess Elizabeth (Elizabeth Woodeville’s daughter) to unite his Lancastrian line with York: peace at last)

Richard now harangues his troops in set-piece style: his language is that of insouciance, spoken by a desperate rogue—protect what’s yours, he tells his men, and “Let us to’t pell mell; / If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell” (5.6.42-43). One thing we can’t say of Richard is that he is a coward—Shakespeare grants him a king’s death, betrayed by many but hacking his way valiantly through a host of false Richmonds: “A horse!  A horse!  My kingdom for a horse!” (449, 5.8.13)  Best rendition of this famous line ever: Ian McKellen’s riveting pronouncement of it as the wheels of his 1940’s-era jeep spin uselessly in the battlefield mud.

At last the real Henry Tudor cuts down this last of the Plantagenet monarchs, and proclaims the time of troubles at an end: “The day is ours.  The bloody dog is dead” (449, 5.8.2).  Henry will marry princess Elizabeth, the deceased Yorkist King Edward IV’s daughter, and thereby unite the houses of Lancaster and York once and for all: “Now civil wounds are stopped; peace lives again. / That she may long live here, God say ‘Amen’” (450, 5.8.40-41).

However courageous and crafty King Richard III may have been, in the arc of Shakespeare’s play he became the creature of his own evil deeds, doomed to repeat them with less and less control over the outcome, until disaster could 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 inculcated seems to me strongly Augustinian, if indirectly so: 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 evil, Shakespeare’s “speaking picture” (Sidney’s phrase) of incarnate badness, Richard of Gloucester, ultimately has no substance, no staying power.

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 Tragedy of King Richard the Second

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Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Richard the Second. (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 457-527).

Timeline of the English Monarchy from the Plantagenets to the Stuarts

House of Plantagenet’s “Angevin” line

The 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 (this king was one of William the Conquerors’ sons).  Matilda’s son by Geoffrey Plantagenet became English King Henry II.

Henry II (1154-89; his queen was Eleanor of Aquitaine; see the film The Lion in Winter)
Richard I (1189-99; Berengaria of Navarre; Timeline of Richard I’s Reign)
John (1199-1216; Isabel of Gloucester; Isabella of Angoulême; Timeline of John’s Reign)
Henry III (1216-72; Eleanor of Provence)
Edward I (1272-1307; Eleanor of Castile; Margaret of France)
Edward II (1307-27; Isabella of France, who deposed him with the aid of Roger Mortimer)
Edward III (1327-77; Philippa of Hainault)
Richard II (1377-99; Anne of Bohemia; Isabella of Valois)

After this line comes the 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 (who was born in Bolingbroke Castle, Lincolnshire, thus “Bolingbroke”).

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

Then follows the 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; maternally descended from Edward III’s second son Lionel, Duke of Clarence–this latter descent constituted their claim to the throne.

Edward IV (1461-70 [Henry VI captive], 1471-83 after Henry VI’s murder; Elizabeth Woodeville)
Edward V (briefly in 1483, perhaps killed)
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)  The action at Bosworth largely ended the struggle between Yorkists and Lancastrians from 1455-85 known as the Wars of the Roses because the Yorkist emblem was a white rose and the Lancastrian a red rose.

The Tudor line begun by Henry Tudor runs as follows:

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 apparently Henry V’s widow Catherine de Valois, whom Owen Tudor is said to have secretly married).  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)
Henry VIII (1509-47), Edward VI (1547-53; Catherine of Aragon through 1533; Anne Boleyn; Jane Seymour; Anne of Cleves; Catherine Howard; Catherine Parr)
Mary I (1553-58, co-ruler Philip of Spain)
Elizabeth I (1558-1603; never married)

Then come 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)
Charles I (1625-49; Henrietta Maria, daughter of Henri IV of France), beheaded by Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan forces during the English Civil War (1642-51).

After 1660, we have the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in the person of

Charles II (1660-85, the Restoration; Catherine of Braganza).

Notes on King Richard II

Act 1, Scenes 1-2 (467-73, Richard judges quarrel between Mowbray, Bolingbroke; Duchess of Gloucester urges Gaunt to intervene for Bolingbroke, but he stays neutral)

The play begins with King Richard acting as arbiter of a feudal quarrel between Mowbray and Henry Bolingbroke, both of whom bandy words of high honor and charges of treason.  Richard himself was treated rather badly as a young man by the kingdom’s great lords, and we can see from the outset that there is no love lost between him and them.  In the second scene, the Duchess of Gloucester urges John of Gaunt to intervene on the side of Bolingbroke against Mowbray, but his own deep sense of complicity in the Duke of Gloucester’s death forces him to stay on the sidelines, to the great disgust of the Duchess.

Act 1, Scenes 3-4 (473-81, Richard banishes Bolingbroke for six years; Bolingbroke’s popularity; Richard’s concern over Ireland and callousness about Gaunt’s final illness)

Richard decides to banish Bolingbroke first for ten years and then, supposedly out of pity for John of Gaunt, for six years, while Mowbray is banished perpetually.  Right away, Richard is given cause for anxiety about Bolingbroke, who obviously knows how to ingratiate himself with the common people as he makes his exit from the country.  But Richard has little time to worry about that because he must turn his attention to the troubles in Ireland.  At the end of the fourth scene, we see our first evidence of Richard’s greediness and trenchant wit—when he hears that John of Gaunt is about to die, he jokes, “Pray God we may make haste and come too late!”  (481, 1.4.63).

Act 2, Scenes 1-2 (481-91, Gaunt scolds Richard’s management of the kingdom; York and Northumberland are disgusted with Richard; Bolingbroke is thought to be on the way back to England)

John of Gaunt scolds King Richard for the disordered state of his kingdom; he laments the great falling off of English prowess against the French since the time of Edward III: “That England that was wont to conquer others / Hath made a shameful conquest of itself” (483, 2.1.65-66).  Richard becomes increasingly impatient and sardonic, and cannot hide his disrespect for this dying pillar of the kingdom.  The old man calls him easy prey to flatterers and no more than a landlord rather than a king.  Fundamentally, Richard does not respect the feudal net of loyalties and obligations or the sacred quality of the crown—he is a feckless opportunist.  The Duke of York is also appalled at Richard’s rapacious behavior right after John of Gaunt passes away, and he tries to explain to him that when Richard abrogates the time-honored law of primogeniture, he undercuts the legitimacy of his own rule: “Is not his heir a well-deserving son? (485, 2.1.195; see 195-200).  But Richard’s glib rhymes overrule such mature advice.  The king even leaves York, whom he seems to consider docile enough to trust, in charge of managing the kingdom while he himself goes off to fight the rebellion in Ireland.  But York is clearly not to be dismissed like that, as we can see from his assessment of the situation in the second scene: “Both are my kinsmen. /  … / Well, somewhat we must do” (490, 2.2.111-16).  In the first scene, Northumberland offers us a litany of Richard’s offenses against the Commons and nobility, saying that he is “basely led / By flatterers …” (486, 2.1.242-43).  The upshot is that the  king has lost everyone’s loyalty and respect.  Rumor already has it that Henry Bolingbroke is on his way back to England in defiance of his banishment.

Act 2, Scenes 3-4 (491-95, York is confused, and Harry Percy joins Bolingbroke; York denounces Bolingbroke as a traitor, but his “neuter” position effectively favors him)

The Duke of York is now thoroughly confused; everything is in disarray, and he does not know what to do.  There is no money thanks to Richard’s spendthrift ways, and York is too far past his prime to marshal sufficient energy to deal with this disaster.  Meanwhile, Harry Percy is joining up with Bolingbroke’s party—a dangerous development for the  king.  Bolingbroke answers Richard’s envoy Berkeley that he has come to claim his proper title as Lancaster.  The Duke of York upbraids his nephew Bolingbroke as a rebel and traitor.  These are harsh words, and Bolingbroke’s fair reply does not seem to convince York, but the latter declares himself “neuter” regarding the whole affair.  In essence, he has thrown in his lot with the man he just called a traitor.  Although Thomas Hobbes and his theory of royal absolutism in Leviathan don’t come along until the English Civil War era, the Duke of York’s reaction to Bolingbroke’s attempt against King Richard illustrates Hobbes’s paradox: rebellion is utterly inadmissible, but if it succeeds, the rebel becomes the new absolute power.  York understands that things have gone beyond the point of no return and that King Richard has lost the loyalty of his subjects from low to high; Bolingbroke is already the de facto ruler.

Act 3, Scene 1 (495-96, Bolingbroke blames Bushy and Green of corrupting Richard; Richard agrees that others are to blame for his predicament)

In this scene, Bolingbroke accuses Bushy and Green of corrupting the king, and we will see in the next scene that Richard himself feels he has been led astray.

Act 3, Scene 2 (496-501, as Bolingbroke’s forces close in, Richard’s moods swing wildly back and forth, from exuberance to despair and self-pity: it’s time to “tell sad stories of the death of kings”)

Richard opens this scene by weeping for joy and touching the earth.  Those who surround him, however, appear to function somewhat like King Lear’s Fool in that they make it difficult for us to take his passionate words seriously.  He must tell them, “Mock not my senseless conjuration, lords” (497, 3.2.23) either because they already are mocking him or because he anticipates that they will.  But there is still something genuinely moving in the claim, “Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm from an anointed king” (497, 3.2.50-51).

From lines 174-77, King Richard says something similar to what King Lear will say—his ministers have told him he was something more than human, and now he finds out to his grief that he is not.  This is a traditional theme—fear or self-interest will lead counselors to delude the powerful about their true circumstances and nature.  In this sense, power is an obstacle, not an advantage.  Richard’s mood shifts are nothing short of astonishing throughout this scene—I suppose this is partly because Shakespeare must telescope historical events to suit the rhythm of the play, but it also gives a sense of Richard as almost manic-depressive: in a few heartbeats, he goes from high spirits to abject despair, from majestic to pathetic. His instinct when the despair strikes him is to wax poetical: “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground, / And tell sad stories of the death of kings …” (499, 3.2.151-52).  His theatrical nature makes him rehearse again and again both the heights of power and the inevitability of a great fall, as if he always has seen himself as an actor in a tragedy.  Like any educated medieval man, Richard seeks the consolation of philosophy by patterning his own life after moral exempla.  But it seems that his temperament is too mercurial to permit him to draw the necessary sustenance for long.

I don’t know if it would be fair to say that King Richard is incapable of seeing things directly, incapable of raw perception in so far as anyone is capable of such a thing.  Perhaps we are to understand that he sees things too clearly sometimes, so much so that he is driven immediately to begin telling some fine story that distances him from the painfulness of his perceptions.  That is, after all, one of the uses of art.  Even a sad story can serve the same purpose as a triumphant one in this regard, justifying life aesthetically when it cannot be justified otherwise.

Act 3, Scene 3 (501-05, Bolingbroke puts his cards on the table: he wants the crown and Richard must surrender it; Richard’s claims are ineffectual now and he appears a diminished, defeated man)

King Richard’s poetic self-pity forces Henry Bolingbroke to show his hand: it would be obvious even to a child that Henry cannot do what he claims he would be willing to do; namely, simply claim his title among the nobility and not lay hands on the crown.  He has insulted the king by annulling his own banishment, and he has an overwhelming military advantage.  There really is no other course but to take the crown for himself.  This is not to say that sometimes Shakespeare’s kings cannot forgive an insult or an offense, but I think the situation is too brutal and explicit here to allow of moderation. 

However, it is also obvious that Richard has brought this disaster upon himself.  He claims to rule with the approval of “God omnipotent” (503, 3.3.84), but he has cut the ground from under the legitimacy of his rule by failing to respect the feudal rights of his subjects.  He has not respected the principle of hereditary rank and succession, so his continued arrogation of power provokes not awe but mirth in Henry and his followers. 

Richard sees everything in all or nothing terms—he is either  king or less than the meanest of his subjects.  The end of this scene makes everything brutally clear: Richard understands that he must go to London, and finally Bolingbroke comes right out and says so.  With Bolingbroke, action is the priority.

Act 3, Scene 4 (505-07, a gardener explains Richard’s failures in horticultural terms, and maintains his view even when confronted with opposition by the queen)

The gardener helps us compare the workings of the aristocracy with the processes of nature.  The growth of plants is compared to the pride of men, and the accusation is that Richard has failed to keep his garden, England, in good order by pruning those branches of the nobility that grow beyond what is healthful.  This is an ancient metaphor that I recall encountering in the pages of Herodotus—the Persian king Cyrus, if I recall correctly, explains his theory of governance by pointing to a waving field of grain or flowers and gesturing with his arm to show that the ruler must lop off the heads of those who grow too high.  But there is another side to this gardening metaphor of organic process—when the queen curses the gardener for giving her bad news about Richard, he says that his skill is not “subject to thy curse” (507, 3.4.104).  Natural process is regular and predictable, but human affairs are far more difficult to predict.

Act 4, Scene 1 (508-15, Bolingbroke accepts the crown, striving to appear legitimate, goes to Parliament and with poetical flourishes, Richard there resigns his crown, asking leave to go: to the Tower of London)

Bolingbroke declares that he will recall Norfolk from banishment and restore to him his lands, even though he was an enemy.  The new king will respect feudal rights in hopes of keeping order in his realm.  It turns out that the man died at Venice, but the point has been made.  Then Bolingbroke declares that he will ascend the throne with God’s permission, and the Bishop of Carlisle is arrested for treason when he protests.  This scene takes place in parliament, and Bolingbroke is determined that his taking of the throne will be perceived as legitimate.  That is a difficult thing to accomplish when Richard, ever the actor, is called in to play his part and abdicate.  Richard proceeds both to insist upon his grief as a private man and to underscore the heavy and solemn nature of the act that is now taking place, even though Bolingbroke seems to treat the matter as a show trial.  The scope of Richard’s performance is limited in that he is hardly playing to a sympathetic audience, but when he calls for a looking-glass so that he may contemplate himself and his “brittle glory” (514, 4.1.277), the attention effectively shifts to him, if only for a few moments.  How can a king un-king himself?  And what is the man who remains when this act has been performed?  Bolingbroke has little time for such high drama and philosophical / political speculation combined into one; he promises to grant Richard one wish, and when that which is “give me leave to go” (514, 4.1.303), the sharp returning question is “Whither?”  The only place Richard can go, of course, is to the Tower of London where he will remain as prisoner.

Act 5, Scene 1 (515-17, the queen is dismayed at Richard’s passivity; Richard warns Northumberland about the fickleness of destiny and friends)

The queen makes known her dismay at how abject Richard has become, asking “Hath Bolingbroke / Deposed thine intellect?”  (515, 5.1.27-28)  But by this time, Richard is most concerned that his sad story become a royal winter’s tale.  He also offers a parting shot to Northumberland, telling him that the new king’s associates will become greedy and destroy him.  They will follow the example set by their new leader: “The time shall not be many hours of age / More than it is to foul sin, gathering head, / Shall break into corruption” (516, 5.1.57-59).

Act 5, Scenes 2-3 (517-23, Bolingbroke rides to his coronation, with Richard in tow; York pledges faith to Bolingbroke, now Henry IV; the new king forgives Aumerle’s conspiracy, hearing York’s severe rebukes and the Duchess’ pleas to spare the young man; Henry IV is worried about his son Prince Hal’s antics)

As Bolingbroke rides in procession to be crowned, Richard’s sad role is to serve as the cleanup act.  He shows almost Christlike patience in this new role.  The Duke of York has decided that it is time to show loyalty to Bolingbroke because he is the new king—this sudden shift in attitude illustrates the paradox of absolutism that Thomas Hobbes will later explore.  In Leviathan, Hobbes insists that rebellion is always illegitimate since monarchy is absolute, but he also says that once a rebellion has succeeded, the new ruler’s power is just as absolute as that of the deposed ruler.

The Duke of York’s son Aumerle has engaged in a conspiracy against Henry Bolingbroke.  To simplify his plot, Shakespeare makes Aumerle happen to be wearing a seal that contains details about the conspiracy.  This is almost as silly as the “letter plot” of King Lear, but it works well enough.  The scene that ensues  (Scene 3 ) is semi-comic, with the old Duke showing an attitude similar to that of the severe ancient Roman nobleman who executed his own son rather than mitigate a just punishment for crimes against the state, and his wife standing up for the principle of a mother’s tender feelings towards her child.  Bolingbroke sides with the mother, although he declares for the execution of “the rest of that consorted crew” (523, 5.3.136).  Apparently, now that the feckless Richard has been deposed, we will have a kinder, gentler Windsor Castle. 

At the very beginning of Scene 3, even before the Duke of York and Aumerle enter the picture, Bolingbroke is also quite anxious about his own son, Prince Hal—wherever can the young rascal be?  I believe we are to understand that Bolingbroke’s anxiety stems from the genuine possibility that Prince Hal will turn out to be as reckless and irresponsible as Richard II.

Act 5, Scenes 4-6 (523-27,  Henry IV is overheard wishing to be rid of Richard; Richard meditates on ambition, misfortune and death; he is murdered but dies courageously; Henry IV makes plans to overcome rebellion, distributes honors, and wants to undergo a pilgrimage to assuage his guilt over Richard’s death)

Bolingbroke, like Henry II against Thomas à Beckett a few centuries back in 1170, gives voice to his desire to be rid of the royal person (Richard Plantagenet, the deposed king) who is troubling him, and is overheard by Sir Piers Exton and another wicked knight willing to do the deed.  The similarity of the two men’s conduct indicates rough sailing ahead for the conscience of Bolingbroke.  Henry II, we may recall, felt so guilty about what he had wished on Beckett that he ended up donning sackcloth and having himself scourged through the streets of London.

Richard, meanwhile, sits in his cell in the Tower philosophizing about death, misfortune, and ambition.  As always, Richard regards himself as an actor: “Nor I, nor any man that but man is,  / With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased / With being nothing” (524, 5.5.39-41).  He has been above all a waster of time, and recognizes too late that time is bound to waste its waster in return.  He failed to shepherd his power wisely, so it has dwindled to nothing.  It is clear that he is unable to arrive at the patience he seeks.  At the end, he becomes frustrated with the Keeper who refuses to sample his food and begins beating him.  Moments later, his murderers make their entrance, and Richard dies courageously, even killing one of his assassins.  One of the remaining killers, Exton, reminds us of the theological dimensions of what has just happened when he realizes he has purchased nothing but damnation by doing the new king’s bidding.

Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV, still has much work to do in putting down a rebellion against him, and he distributes honors and compassion to establish a precedent of generosity and gratitude over against Richard’s venal administration.  The Bishop of Carlisle is pardoned, and Exton is awarded only guilt.  Henry IV himself is stricken with blood-guilt.  He wants to make a voyage to Jerusalem to expiate this feeling, but as it turns out, he has far too much on his plate to indulge himself in the luxury of self-reproach.  If there is to be renewal, it will come only with the maturing of his son Prince Hal, who, as we know, is still a tavern- goer and an actor trying on many parts.  As we shall see in I Henry IV, the Prince’s acting is redeemed because it differs profoundly in its purpose from the dramatic inclinations that consumed Richard II and made him unfit to govern.

A few final thoughts: Richard is at times a villain, especially in his reckless early reign.  But he is also a reflective and poetical villain, so we should consider the extent to which the moral sententiae (pronouncements) he repeats with gathering pathos redeem him as a man with tragic insight into the nature of kingship, or whether they simply amount to self-pity.  The question of tragedy in relation to Christianity is a vexed one since, of course, there’s no question of positing a universe that doesn’t play fair or make sense.  Richard’s fate was avoidable in that it wasn’t due to some indomitable but dangerous quality (like Oedipus’ intrepidity and strong intellect) but rather to his rapacious disregard for feudal loyalties and common decency.  Well, I don’t believe Shakespeare follows any unitary model of tragedy—it seems to me that he constitutes his tragic intensities and ideals circumstantially, from one given set of materials to the next.  In this way, he is able to bring out whatever makes for excellent drama in his material; a notion of tragedy as broad as “a fall from good fortune to bad” probably serves him as a point of departure.

One possibility to consider: aside from political philosophy, perhaps the play could be read as an argument between a vision centered on ceremony and the aesthetic dimension of experience (a Catholic vision, if you don’t mind the anachronism) and a mindset that tends strongly towards clarity and the practical consideration of how to get and hold power.  That would be Bolingbroke’s approach, and we might call it the result of a proto-Protestant sensibility.  Tragedy of any sort must usually work out an uneasy truce with some competing set of rights, as when Antigone, in the Sophocles play by that name, battles Creon over the granting of proper burial rites for her slain brother: both have a kind of right on their side.  In the current play, it may be that we are to dismiss neither Richard’s aesthetic and ceremonial sensibilities nor, more obviously, Henry Bolingbroke’s businesslike understanding of power’s imperatives.  Bolingbroke is hardly liberated by his assumption of power from the sort of questions that nag the deposed Richard; indeed, he will return to just such questions from the moment he learns that his death-wish towards Richard has been overheard and carried out.  The blood on Bolingbroke’s hands turns out to be as durable as the “anointed balm” that Richard had claimed could never be washed from a king’s sacred body, not even by all the water in “the rough rude sea.”  Richard is deeply flawed and his end isn’t exactly heroic (it’s more private than heroic, really), but all the same we may find that we can’t dismiss him altogether.  The Richard who suffers and dies at the play’s end isn’t easily reduced to the sum of the acts that brought him to his sorrow.  The play is partly about a gruff transfer of power, but I think we are also asked to reflect upon the value of Richard’s poetical way of seeing and being.

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

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

Timeline of the English Monarchy from the Plantagenets to the Stuarts

House of Plantagenet’s “Angevin” line

The 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 (this king was one of William the Conquerors’ sons).  Matilda’s son by Geoffrey Plantagenet became English King Henry II.

Henry II (1154-89; his queen was Eleanor of Aquitaine; see the film The Lion in Winter)

Richard I (1189-99; Berengaria of Navarre; Timeline of Richard I’s Reign)

John (1199-1216; Isabel of Gloucester; Isabella of Angoulême; Timeline of John’s Reign)

Henry III (1216-72; Eleanor of Provence)

Edward I (1272-1307; Eleanor of Castile; Margaret of France)

Edward II (1307-27; Isabella of France, who deposed him with the aid of Roger Mortimer)

Edward III (1327-77; Philippa of Hainault)

Richard II (1377-99; Anne of Bohemia; Isabella of Valois)

After this line comes the 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 (who was born in Bolingbroke Castle, Lincolnshire, thus “Bolingbroke”).

Henry IV (Bolingbroke, 1399-1413; Mary de Bohun; Joan of Navarre)

Henry V (victor over the French at Agincourt in 1415; ruled 1413-22; Catherine de Valois)

Henry VI’s two interspersed reigns (1422-61, 1470-71, murdered; Margaret of Anjou)

Then follows the 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; maternally descended from Edward III’s second son Lionel, Duke of Clarence–this latter descent constituted their claim to the throne.

Edward IV (1461-70 [Henry VI captive], 1471-83 after Henry VI’s murder; Elizabeth Woodville)

Edward V (briefly in 1483, perhaps killed)

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)  The action at Bosworth largely ended the struggle between Yorkists and Lancastrians from 1455-85 known as the Wars of the Roses because the Yorkist emblem was a white rose and the Lancastrian a red rose.

The Tudor line begun by Henry Tudor runs as follows:

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 apparently Henry V’s widow Catherine de Valois, whom Owen Tudor is said to have secretly married).  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)

Henry VIII (1509-47), Edward VI (1547-53; Catherine of Aragon through 1533; Anne Boleyn; Jane Seymour; Anne of Cleves; Catherine Howard; Catherine Parr)

Mary I (1553-58, co-ruler Philip of Spain)

Elizabeth I (1558-1603; never married)

Then come 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)

Charles I (1625-49; Henrietta Maria, daughter of Henri IV of France), beheaded by Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan forces during the English Civil War (1642-51). 

After 1660, we have the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in the person of

Charles II (1660-85, the Restoration; Catherine of Braganza).

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

The Second Part of Henry the Fourth

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Histories

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

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 History of Henry the Fourth (1 Henry IV)

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Histories

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

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

The Life of Henry the Fifth

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Histories

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Shakespeare, William. The Life of Henry the Fifth. (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 759-836).

Timeline of the English Monarchy from the Plantagenets to the Stuarts

House of Plantagenet’s “Angevin” line

The 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 (this king was one of William the Conquerors’ sons).  Matilda’s son by Geoffrey Plantagenet became English King Henry II.

Henry II (1154-89; his queen was Eleanor of Aquitaine; see the film The Lion in Winter)

Richard I (1189-99; Berengaria of Navarre; Timeline of Richard I’s Reign)

John (1199-1216; Isabel of Gloucester; Isabella of Angoulême; Timeline of John’s Reign)

Henry III (1216-72; Eleanor of Provence)

Edward I (1272-1307; Eleanor of Castile; Margaret of France)

Edward II (1307-27; Isabella of France, who deposed him with the aid of Roger Mortimer)

Edward III (1327-77; Philippa of Hainault)

Richard II (1377-99; Anne of Bohemia; Isabella of Valois)

After this line comes the 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 (who was born in Bolingbroke Castle, Lincolnshire, thus “Bolingbroke”).

Henry IV (Bolingbroke, 1399-1413; Mary de Bohun; Joan of Navarre)

Henry V (victor over the French at Agincourt in 1415; ruled 1413-22; Catherine de Valois)

Henry VI’s two interspersed reigns (1422-61, 1470-71, murdered; Margaret of Anjou)

Then follows the 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; maternally descended from Edward III’s second son Lionel, Duke of Clarence–this latter descent constituted their claim to the throne.

Edward IV (1461-70 [Henry VI captive], 1471-83 after Henry VI’s murder; Elizabeth Woodville)

Edward V (briefly in 1483, perhaps killed)

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)  The action at Bosworth largely ended the struggle between Yorkists and Lancastrians from 1455-85 known as the Wars of the Roses because the Yorkist emblem was a white rose and the Lancastrian a red rose.

The Tudor line begun by Henry Tudor runs as follows:

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 apparently Henry V’s widow Catherine de Valois, whom Owen Tudor is said to have secretly married).  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)

Henry VIII (1509-47), Edward VI (1547-53; Catherine of Aragon through 1533; Anne Boleyn; Jane Seymour; Anne of Cleves; Catherine Howard; Catherine Parr)

Mary I (1553-58, co-ruler Philip of Spain)

Elizabeth I (1558-1603; never married)

Then come 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)

Charles I (1625-49; Henrietta Maria, daughter of Henri IV of France), beheaded by Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan forces during the English Civil War (1642-51). 

After 1660, we have the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in the person of

Charles II (1660-85, the Restoration; Catherine of Braganza).

Henry V and Tudor Pride

Shakespeare’s ideal sovereign seems to have been Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558-1603), who had a strong sense of prerogative but also evidently felt deep responsibility for the well-being of her subjects. Elizabeth knew how to play politics like a true Machiavellian operator. Her reign was marked by what today we would call a shrewd concern for public relations—that is, for managing the Queen’s image and keeping the various subsections of the populace as favorable as possible towards her policies. The Cult of the Virgin Queen encouraged by Elizabeth’s officials and courtiers proved a successful means of maintaining order. (She never married, partly because that would have meant diminished power for herself and an increase in dominion for her continental Catholic suitors.)

What about Henry V, the subject of the present drama?   Henry must have been high on the playwright’s list of proper kings, judging from the accolades he receives in the history play that bears his name. Henry Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV after taking the crown from Richard II in 1399, was the son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (John of Gaunt was a son of King Edward III) and John’s wife Blanche of Lancaster.  So Henry Bolingbroke’s son, upon ascending the throne in 1413 at the age of 26 as Henry V, continued the Lancastrian line.

That Henry V was a Lancastrian matters because the first Tudor King, Henry VII (who vanquished the Yorkist Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485), was himself head of that great house by virtue of his mother Margaret Beaufort (great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt by his third wife Katherine Swynford). The Tudors, therefore, favor the Lancastrian side of English history, not the Yorkist side. It would be natural for Shakespeare (who in his history plays partly follows Raphael Holinshed’s Tudor-friendly Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland) to offer a flattering reconstruction of the Lancastrian Henry V, and I think that is what we get in the historical play Henry V.

Modern cultural materialist critics have offered a counter-reading that sees irony everywhere one looks in plays such as Henry V; but then, critics in any era recast their favorite authors to suit their own ideological convictions.  After all, every generation must re-examine the past to find out what is still valuable. It’s interesting to read The Tempest, for example, in part for what it has to say about how colonizing Europeans treat “others” like Caliban, and it’s worthwhile to study Othello for its engagement with early-modern European ideas about racial difference. I can sympathize with the excellent Regency republican William Hazlitt when he criticizes Henry V for its willingness to applaud a king Hazlitt considers a brute bent on imperial conquest. In a lecture from The Round Table, Hazlitt writes, “Henry, because he did not know how to govern his own kingdom, determined to make war upon his neighbours. Because his own title to the crown was doubtful, he laid claim to that of France” (Collected Works of William Hazlitt, eds. A.R. Waller and Arnold Glover.  London: J.M. Dent, 1902.  pg. 285.)

That is a frank and authentic response to an attitude Hazlitt finds offensive in his countrymen. Still, critics ought to impose some limits on themselves when they work with centuries-old material. Claiming that Macbeth is a nihilist manifesto or that in Henry V Shakespeare is laughing up his ruffled sleeve at monarchy may be “sexy,” but it is ultimately unconvincing.  It is hard to see how the most valued member of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men during Elizabeth I’s reign and then of The King’s Men theater company for James I could possibly be anti-royalist. Shakespeare seems to me a believer in the Renaissance’s prime image of earthly order: the Great Chain of Being, wherein everything has its place and God sanctions the order of things. He is neither an anarchist nor a murmerer against the political order of Elizabeth Tudor or James Stuart. In his plays, the human order generally draws its order from the providential, if not always easily discernible, plan of God, and monarchy is not to be flouted without consequence.

This is not to say that Shakespeare is a shameless mouthpiece for the powers that be. We can see from Henry V and other plays that he doesn’t support monarchy blindly: the strengths and weaknesses of his characters amount to something like a Mirror for Magistrates (the title of a moralist book that went through a number of editions around Shakespeare’s time).  He never tears the institution of kingship down, but in the end the advice Henry V himself gives in our play holds good: “the King is but a man.” And a “man,” in the view of Renaissance authors, is for the most part a collection of virtues and vices just like every other individual, high-born or not. There are plenty of sin-riddled or otherwise wrongheaded rulers in Shakespeare’s canon, and they never fare well. But this leads us to a consideration of Henry V as a character. 

Romantic poets such as Coleridge, in his Lectures on Shakespeare, have written about the way many of this playwright’s characters manage to be both strong individuals and yet representatives of a class of people. Coleridge says of Nurse Alice in Romeo and Juliet, “The character of the Nurse is the nearest of any thing in Shakespeare to a direct borrowing from mere observation; and the reason is, that as in infancy and childhood the individual in nature is a representative of a class,—just as in describing one larch tree, you generalize a grove of them,—so it is nearly as much so in old age” (Notes and Lectures upon Shakespeare …, Vol. 1.  London: William Pickering, 1849; “Notes on Romeo and Juliet, 155).  Coleridge suggests that there is something generic about the Nurse’s eccentric behavior as an individual.  She is an uneducated but good-hearted old woman, and all such people show similar tendencies in their speech and conduct.  Henry V is the very type of a good king. He achieves this paradigmatic status because over the course of three plays (I and II Henry IV plus Henry V), Shakespeare allows “Prince Hal” or “Harry” to transform himself from a rascal into a sovereign of iron will and implacable virtue, the burden of which role is at times lightened by the sense of humor that comes from being kicked around by life enough to acknowledge one’s own limitations, amongst them spiritual error and common mortality.


Act 1, Prologue and Scene 1 (770-72, chorus issues appeal for metadramatic assistance; Canterbury explains to Ely how he will divert Henry from taking church lands: funds for war will be offered)

The Chorus calls upon the audience to flesh out the play with imagination: “may we cram / Within this wooden O the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt?”  (770, Prologue 12-14) the Prologue chorus makes an admission that history plays in particular call for a level of realism they can’t deliver; the field of action is simply too vast to be taken in on a little stage, and we must turn to metadramatic awareness and reflect on the representational limits of what is before our eyes.  The prologue speaker refers to the actors onstage as zeros: each is a “crooked figure” (770, Prologue 15) and as such, he asserts, when coupled with the imaginative powers of a willing audience, he can take on an almost miraculous power to multiply and transform the little scenes we see on stage to suggest the sublime events and figures English history.  As for the grand temporal sweep of that history, the prologue speaker himself begs leave to take care of that: “Turning th’accomplishment of many years / Into an hourglass” will be his task (770, Prologue 30-31).

In the first scene, the prelates’ motive is to take pressure off their own estate–Parliament has called for taking some of their lands, and they need to create a diversion of the sort that occurred during the reign of Henry IV.  Canterbury points out that if this reiterated bill is successful, “We lose the better half of our possession” (770, 1.1.8), consisting of the Church’s secular holdings in England.  Giving the new king money to wage war in France would be a good investment: Canterbury proposes that with regard to France, the Church should “give a greater sum / Than ever at one time the clergy yet / Did to his predecessors part withal” (772, 1.1.80-83).  But the French ambassador is about to be granted an audience with King Henry, so the churchmen had better get to work.

Act 1, Scene 2 (772-79, Canterbury justifies Henry’s claim; Henry counters the Dauphin’s mocking gift)

The priests cite a confusing historical record to refute the Salic law barring claims based on a female’s rights–Edward III had claimed France based upon the fact that his mother Isabella was the daughter of Philip IV of France and Joan I of Navarre.  Edward’s claim started Hundred Years’ War on the Continent, 1337-1453.  Shakespeare is having fun at the expense of the dry historical record.  What matters is the now of the play’s setting, so Canterbury is perfectly comfortable making light of the musty old foundation for current claims: “So that, as clear as is the summer’s sun, / King Pépin’s title and Hugh Capet’s claim, / King Louis his satisfaction, all appear / To hold in right and title of the female …” (774, 1.2.86-89).  Canterbury insists that Henry V must take his place amongst a series of English kings who have asserted their claim to rule France: he tells Henry that his fellow monarchs “expect that you should rouse yourself / As did the former lions of your blood” (775, 1.2.123-24).  Henry is quickly resolved to do precisely this, and Canterbury tells him to take one fourth of England’s available troops to France to prosecute his claim, and Henry declares, “France being ours we’ll bend it to our awe, / Or break it all to pieces” (777, 1.2.224-25).

Next comes the Dauphin’s mockery of King Harry.  The French heir still thinks of Henry V not as a mature ruler but as a prodigal youth, the very one that many of Shakespeare’s audience will know from the delightful Henry IV plays in which “Prince Hal,” close companion of the rascally knight Sir John Falstaff, causes his father so much anxiety before finally taking on the responsibility that properly belonged to him.  The claim is that Harry is still playing games; thus the tennis balls. Tennis developed from a medieval French game called jeu de paume, like handball.  The Dauphin offers this gift along with the contemptuous admonition, “let the dukedoms that you claim / Hear no more of you.” (779, 1.2.256-57).

Harry’s bold response stuns the court: “tell the Dauphin / His jest will savour but of shallow wit / When thousands weep more than did laugh at it” (778, 1.2.295-96).  He has full command of state policy and martial rhetoric, and shows that he understands the deadly nature of the “game” he is about to initiate.  We notice the extreme threats of violence: war has always been about doing damage to civilians, even back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.  What we deign to call “collateral damage” is not incidental; it is of the essence.  Medieval war was largely about wearing down the capacity of a people to support long-term struggles.

Act 2, Chorus and Scene 1 (779-82, Chorus-speaker emphasizes military / economic preparations, Pistol and Nim argue about Nell and debts; Pistol a war profiteer; Hostess says Falstaff is gravely ill)

The Chorus sets forth a tableau in which “all the youth of England are on fire” (779, Chorus 1) and there is vast care and expenditure in preparation for the coming expedition.  But there is a serpent in the bosom of Henry’s court: the Chorus gives us advance notice of the treason about to be attempted by three devious men: Richard, Earl of Cambridge; Henry, Lord Scrope of Masham; and Sir Thomas Grey, knight of Northumberland.  The French have offered them money to assassinate Henry before he leaves for the continent.

In Southampton, Pistol and Nim quarrel over Nell (780, 2.1.15-17), whom Pistol has married, and about a debt Nim wants to collect from Pistol, who at first says only, “Base is the slave that pays” (782, 2.1.86).  Pistol is full of bombastic talk (781, 2.1.40-45), and he plans to become the camp sutler: he is a corrupt war profiteer (782, 2.1.100-02).  Hostess Quickly informs everyone that Falstaff is dying, and Nim reminds us that the gregarious, carefree old “Prince Hal” who consorted with him has undergone a transformation as deep as death, too: “The King hath run bad humours on the knight” (782, 2.1.106-10).

Act 2, Scene 2 (782-86, treason of Scrope, Grey, and Cambridge discovered, punished as threat to the realm)

Scrope, Grey and Cambridge’s treason is revealed before Henry’s assemblage, and they are denounced and sent to their deaths (783-84, 2.2.40-77).  Scrope was close to Henry, and the treachery of this denier of mercy to the common man is painful to Henry (784, 2.2.91-101), who laments, “May it be possible that foreign hire / Could out of thee extract one spark of evil …?” (784, 2.2.97-98).  The King’s two bodies doctrine applies: Henry doesn’t take the threat to him personally, but these guilty men have threatened the realm, so they must pay (786. 2.2.170-73).  With this logic, Henry’s transformation from a private, prodigal son to a public man, a genuine king, is complete.

Act 2, Scene 3 (786-87, Falstaff is dead, Hostess eulogizes him; Pistol again shows himself a war parasite)

Pistol tells the audience that Falstaff is dead (786, 2.3.5).  Hostess Quickly speaks with great affection about Falstaff, recounting his dying moments, ending with “… all was as cold as any stone” (786-87, 2.2.9-23).  But that old rascal Sir John is a remnant of Henry’s past.  Pistol’s intentions about the wars are none too honorable: “Let us to France, like horseleeches, my boys, / To suck, to suck, the very blood to suck!” (787, 2.3.46-47)  Pistol and his ilk are parasites who revel in afflicting the military host.

Act 2, Scene 4 (787-90, Charles VI takes Henry’s ambassador Exeter’s demands seriously; Dauphin doesn’t)

Charles VI (788-89, 2.4.48-64) returns his counselors’ memory to the first strife between France and England: the victories of Edward the Black Prince (eldest son of Edward III, father of Richard II, grand-uncle of Henry V) at Crécy and Poitiers.  He sees the continuity of English stock and valor: “Think we King Harry strong” (788, 2.4.48), he says and admonishes the Dauphin and the Constable to “fear / The native mightiness and fate of him” (789, 2.4.63-64).  Exeter’s demand on Henry V’s behalf is stern: to the French king, he declares, Henry “bids you then resign / Your crown and kingdom …” (789. 2.4.93-94).  The Dauphin scorns this demand and tries to justify his gift of some time back: “matching to his youth and vanity, / I did present him with the Paris balls” (790, 2.4.130-31).  The French king doesn’t share the young man’s attitude, and Exeter’s comeback in Henry’s defense is effective: once a prodigal, “now he weighs time / Even to the utmost grain” (790, 2.4.137-38).  No one is playing anymore, at tennis or otherwise.

Act 3, Chorus and Scenes 1-2 (791-93, Henry arrives in France and rejects Charles VI weak offer; contrasting portraits of Henry stirring troops, Pistol and Nim quarreling)

The Chorus informs us that Henry has embarked from England, sailed for France, and made his way to the French port town of Harfleur.  England, says the Chorus-speaker, has been left largely unguarded (791, Chorus 20-21) since all the young men made their decision to follow Henry to France.  A siege is building against Harfleur, and King Charles VI has offered through his ambassador “Catherine his daughter, and with her, to dowry, / Some petty and unprofitable dukedoms” (791, Chorus 30-31), which offer Henry rejects.

Shakespeare’s method for capturing the variety of experience is often to give us competing portraits or vignettes: in the first scene we hear Henry stirring his troops towards the coming battles with martial rhetoric: “there is none of you so mean and base / That hath not noble lustre in your eyes” (792, 3.1.29-30).  Henry apparently sees the unifying force of military endeavor: it can make all those ordinary men he beholds into something extraordinary, connect them in ways they hadn’t imagined, give their lives meaning it wouldn’t otherwise have. 

In Scene 2, the vignette gives us the ordinary person’s perspective: a servant boy to Nim and Pistol exposes them to us as cowards and thieves: “three such antics do not amount to a man” (793, 3.2.29-30).  This servant boy is yoked to three men who are not good enough to serve him, and he is painfully aware of it: “I must leave them, and seek / some better service” (793, 3.3.47-48).

Shakespeare gives us a sense of the complexity underlying the heroism of even the grandest military campaigns: the underbelly of war consists of fierce doubts and anxious hopes for personal betterment.  Heroes larger than life and self-conscious parasites share the field with those who are just trying to survive.  There’s more going on than initially meets the eye: as with any complex endeavor, motives abound and they inevitably conflict when those who act upon them cross paths. 

To be reckoned with are both the “big picture” that writers of historical narrative generate from their study of events and claims, and the untold individual perspectives (fragmented, biased, partial) that can only be conjectured and conjured with one’s understanding of human nature as the starting point, at least when the events in question happened more than a lifetime ago.  (Oral history sometimes makes it possible to give us a remarkable sense for the ordinary person’s angle on things–Studs Terkel’s The Good War is a fine instance of oral history that addresses the experience of the men and women who participated in World War II.)  But this isn’t to say we are being treated to easy relativism: the servant boy’s outing of Pistol and Nim demonstrates that it is possible, at least sometimes, to cut through the pretension and the rhetoric and just tell the truth.

Act 3, Scene 3 (793-96, Fluellen the ideologue quarrels with MacMorris; Henry the realist threatens Harfleur with utter destruction and outrage)

Fluellen prattles in Welsh dialect about method: “the mines is not according to / the disciplines of the war” (793, 3.3.4-5).  He’s a military historian (794, 3.3.36-42), but quarrels with Capt. MacMorris when the latter tells him that “It is no time to discourse” (794-95, 3.3.46, 59-71).  Fluellen is courageous, but he’s also a pure ideologue in his love of war’s professional side.  Fluellen is loquacious, has a comic Welsh accent, and even ends up talking sometimes while others are fighting. Even so, his vehemence (“look you, now” and “in your conscience!”) is as honorable as Henry’s occasional exuberance—Fluellen speaks as he does from an excess of uprightness and national pride, not from unworthy motives, and his over-fondness for talk about “the disciplines of … the Roman / wars” (794, 3.3.38-39) stems from admirable erudition in military history.

King Henry harangues Harfleur’s defenders, paying tribute to the stark violence of war: “Take pity of your town and of your people / Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command” (795, 3.3.105-06, see 104-20).  This is the dreadful reality that we must contrast with Fluellen’s ideal.  Henry himself realizes that he has only the thinnest control of the violence involved in wartime action: anarchy is never far from the field of battle.  But the gambit works, and the town of Harfleur surrenders, prompting Henry to order that his men “Use mercy to them all” (796, 3.3.131) while the coming on of winter and illness drives Henry to declare a temporary retirement to Calais.

Perhaps in the speech just mentioned Henry seems to revel at length in the horrors his men will inflict on the defenseless town, but his purpose is blunt and (arguably) even humane, as the concluding rhymed couplet of his speech makes clear: “Will you yield, and this avoid? / Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroyed?” (796, 3.3.119-20)  Henry is a talker, but he’s much more than that: he is a doer whose words suit his purposes and his actions.

Act 3, Scene 4 (796-98, Catherine of Valois learns some English from her maid Alice)

Catherine and her maid Alice practice their English.  This is Agincourt’s lighter side, with differences reduced to linguistic felicities and embarrassments, culminating in Catherine’s declaration that certain English words are not only ugly-sounding but also “corruptible, gros, et impudique, et non / pour les dames d’honneur d’user” (797, 3.4.48-49).  We also get a sense of what the wars between the English and French mean from a woman’s perspective, though here that perspective consists in remaining oblivious.  Aside from France itself, Catherine is the prize for Henry.

Act 3, Scene 5 (798-99, Charles VI encourages his military leaders to confront Henry boldly)

King Charles VI bids his sufficient army to bring Henry prisoner to him: “Go down upon him, you have power enough, / And in a captive chariot into Rouen / Bring him our prisoner” (799, 3.6.53-55).  Around 1400, France, even after the C14 plague killed perhaps one-third of the people, had around 11 million inhabitants.  Compare that with England’s 3 million.  Some of the Elizabethans’ slights against the French are English propaganda, of course, but it seems true enough that the advantage lay with the French.  Late-medieval France was a wealthier and more populous land than England, even if both countries were often beset with internal power struggles.

Act 3, Scene 6 (799-802, Fluellen catches on to Pistol’s fraudulent self-presentation; sides with Henry against condemned Bardolph; Henry refuses ransom to Charles VI, commits cause to god)

Fluellen is fooled into taking Pistol for an honorable soldier until the latter begs him to intervene for Bardolph, who is to be hanged for robbing a church: “let not Bardolph’s vital thread be cut / With edge of penny cord and vile reproach” (800, 3.6.42-43).  Fluellen flatly refuses to honor this request: “if, look you, he were my brother, I would desire the Duke [Exeter] to / use his good pleasure” (800, 3.6.48-49).  Fluellen is now determined to expose Pistol for what he is–he cannot stand such a gap between appearances and reality: “If I find a hole in his coat, I will tell him my mind” (801, 3.6.78).

Henry, citing principle, shows no mercy for Bardolph: “We would have all such offenders so cut off” (801, 3.6.98): riot and advantage-taking against the common people cannot be allowed when one is “gamester” for a territory like France (801, 3.6.102-03).  Henry also refuses ransom to the French king, pledging only “this frail and worthless trunk” (802, 3.6.140, see 139-42), and places himself in God’s hands.

Act 3, Scene 7 (802-05, French arrogance on the eve of battle: Bourbon’s talk of war-horses)

The French rehearse their arrogance regarding the English prospects.  Bourbon (or the Dauphin in some versions) poeticizes about his horse: “I will not change my horse / with any that treads but on four pasterns” (802-03, 3.7.11-12).  Orléans, Rambures, and the Constable jest about Bourbon’s valor, and the Constable concludes with comic irony, “I think he will eat all he kills” (804, 3.7.85).  They all expect victory.  Bourbon is a bit like the Welsh ideologue Fluellen, except that he talks of horses and not counter-mining operations: both love the idea of war above all, though they also show genuine spirit.  The Dauphin, too, is a fine talker, but his career will be cut tragically short by Henry’s “band of brothers.”

Act 4, Chorus and Scene 1 (805-12, English anxiety, Henry makes his rounds before battle: power of example; meets Pistol; Fluellen admonishes Gower [808]; Henry argues with Williams about responsibility [808-09]; Henry meditates on ceremony [811], is penitent about his father’s usurpation)

The Chorus-speaker describes the evening calm before the storm, with the French awaiting their victory and the diminished, anxious English forces hanging on until morning comes.  He previews the English Henry’s night-time walk through his encampment to give heart to his soldiers as “A little touch of Harry in the night” (806, 4.0.47). As for the audience, our task consists as usual in, “Minding true things by what their mock’ries be” (806, 4.0.53).

The King speaks to Erpingham about setting an example: “‘Tis good for men to love their present pains / Upon example” (4.1.18-19).  He understands the mass psychology of battle, the importance of exemplary conduct.  Montaigne suggests in his essay “Of the Inconsistency of Our Actions” that our virtues fluctuate with circumstance and desire: yesterday’s virtuous woman is shameless today, and the courageous man of a recent battle is just as likely to turn and run next time.  In sum, “We float between different states of mind; we wish nothing freely, nothing absolutely, nothing constantly” (Norton Anthology of World Literature, 2nd ed., Vol. C 2654, see also 2655-56). 

Henry’s insistence on personal presence and exempla seems to flow from that kind of awareness.

As “Harry le roi” (a nom de guerre that an Englishman might pronounce “Leroy”), Henry goes on a walking tour, meets first with Pistol, who praises the king but threatens Fluellen: “Tell him I’ll knock his leek about his pate / Upon Saint Davy’s day” (807, 4.1.55-56).

Meanwhile, Fluellen is busy lecturing Gower on not being fool enough to let the opponent hear his carryings-on: “If the enemy is an ass and a fool and a prating cox- / comb, is it meet, think you, that we should also, look you, be / an ass and a fool and a prating coxcomb?”  (808, 4.1.76-78)  Gower agrees to pipe down.

The king in disguise meets the rural soldier Williams, who speaks with a mix of fear, distrust, and anger.  But first to the more amenable Bates, Henry argues that nobody in the host should speak ill of their changes before the king: “I think the King is but a man, as I am”  (808, 4.1.99); the point is that a ruler is approximately as susceptible to despair and paralysis as the ordinary soldier or mid-level commander: all are linked in a chain of responsibility for the welfare of one another’s outlooks and bodies. 

But the key to Henry’s response is directed at Williams.  The king’s groundedness and view of the big picture in morals and politics shows in this exchange with this humble but almost threatening subject, who tells him, “if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a / heavy reckoning to make …” (809, 4.1.128-29).  Against this charge Henry sums up his argument with the thought, “Every subject’s duty is the King’s, but every / subject’s soul is his own” (809-10, 4.1.164-65).  To a thorough philosophical materialist, this exchange would be pointless because both parties speak of end things, of Christian eschatology: they talk of mortality and eternal judgment following the resurrection of the dead. It’s easy to see whose argument is the better in such a context: the soul is more than the body, so the King can send his subjects off to fight in a foreign war without being held responsible for their physical demise, even if the cause should turn out to be unworthy. Henry neither wants his men to be killed nor can he answer for the state of their souls at the point of death—that is something only they can answer for. The point is that Henry can relate to his subjects at their own level, yet he retains the superior perspective of a man operating on a higher plane of experience and understanding.  Not knowing who he’s talking to, Williams takes Henry’s words ill, and strikes up a quarrel with him to be finished later, when time permits.  The two men exchange gloves (810, 4.1.190-97). 

Alone at last, King Henry meditates on his own burdens as monarch: he asks of the “ceremony” (811, 4.1.231) that makes a king, “Art thou aught else but place, degree, and form, / Creating awe and fear in other men?” (811, 4.1.228-29; see 213-87).  He is responsible for everyone, or so they think: only peasants sleep well (811, 4.1.249-50).  The gap between the person and the symbol is huge, potentially infinite.  Perhaps, then, monarchy is a projection of the subjects’ own desires, an investment in something symbolic, something larger than themselves on which the king in his material person is then expected to make good.It is well to emphasize at this point the penitential structure of Henry’s kingship: much of what he does here in France is meant as an active way to wash the blood from his father’s hands, some of which attaints him as well: he prays to the “God of battles” earnestly, “O not today, think not upon the fault / My father made in compassing the crown” (812, 4.1.275-76).  All in all, Henry’s soliloquy suggests intense awareness that the life of kings is not their own: they are actors on a grand stage, and all eyes behold them; few are the moments when they can, as Henry does now, turn inward and converse with what they find there.

To appreciate fully the maturity of this young king as Shakespeare casts him on the eve of Agincourt, 1415, we must remind ourselves of the road Henry has traveled to get to this point.  In I Henry IV, back when Henry V was still the prodigal son “Prince Hal” and as such a thorn in his father’s side, Henry had spent much of his time with hard-drinking rascals like the jolly knight and sometime highway robber Sir John Falstaff and his friends (some of whom we meet in Henry V). 

Henry’s father found that such brazen behavior violated his own “public relations” principle that a great prince is more prized by making himself scarce than by mingling with low company (Norton Histories 645-47, 3.2.29-91).  That failure to appreciate the dignity of his office is among the chiefest of the faults in Richard II that Henry Bolingbroke, soon to be Henry IV, used with such ruthless effectiveness against his predecessor king, who “Mingled his royalty with cap’ring fools” (646, 3.2.63).  Even so, this “mingling” was Prince Hal’s way of getting to know his subjects, the better to govern them.  So in I Henry IV, the Prince is busy trying out various roles, learning how the various subjects in his future kingdom think and live. In Act 1.2 of that play, Hal himself describes his antics in providential terms: “My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault, / Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes / Than that which hath no foil to set it off” (Norton Histories 613, 1.2.191-93) and pledges to himself that his reformation will amount to “Redeeming time when men think least I will” (613, 1.2.195).  In other words, kingly virtue has always been Henry’s redemptive goal, whatever capers he may have committed on his way to the throne. That may or may not have been true of the real Henry, but it seems true of Shakespeare’s character, who goes from “Hal” to the ultimate warrior-king Henry V, October 1415’s victor at Agincourt against an imposing French army.

All of the above makes Henry V, 4.1 the successful culmination of a long process.  “Prince Hal’s” method has always been that of an actor, a grand one who has play-acted and workshopped his way to present glory, interacting with all manner of citizens from the common tavern to battlefields full of fiery nobility. His is not so much a romantic, unique, nameless, intimate self but is rather the product of trying out many different stations and styles on his way to appreciating his one true office—that medieval, relational term for defining a person by his or her role in life, entailing as it does certain responsibilities within the political and social order. If you’re going to be a king, you have to understand, in Shakespeare’s terms, that you must play a role on the “stage” of life. That such a role means taking on grave burdens and enduring potentially harsh consequences in no way makes it less a role than if the person were simply strutting across the theatrical boards.  Henry’s playful past has also imbued him with the medieval and Renaissance truth that the king has not one body, but two—a natural body that desires, breathes, and dies, and a body political or civil whose boundaries go beyond the personal and the physical. The King is in part a walking “office” or set of duties, and this transpersonal aspect of him is what promises political continuity as well as (to borrow Thomas More’s term in Utopia) the “majesty” that comes with respect for whatever is larger than material affairs and ordinary humanity. On the development of this theory, see Ernest Kantorowicz’s 1959 book, The King’s Two Bodies: a Study in Medieval Political Theology.

Act 4, Scene 2 (812-13, French continue to think the battle will be easily won)

French cockiness continues: “A very little little let us do / And all is done” (813, 4.2.33-34).

Act 4, Scene 3 (814-16, Henry rouses the troops just before battle begins: “band of brothers” [815])

Henry now makes his most rousing battle speech, with its great summation, “Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by / From this day to the ending of the world / But we in it shall be rememberèd …” (815, 4.3.57-59ff).  His comparatively tiny “band of brothers” (815, 4.3.60) will take the palm for honorable exploits, come what may (57-62 key).  At this point, Henry V is the perfect Tennysonian king: such are for glory, not long life, and they never shrink from lending flesh, blood and bone to the symbolic power that belongs to them.  For the last time, Henry refuses Montjoy’s entreaty to give in, and the latter departs suitably impressed: “Thou never shalt hear herald any more” (816, 4.3.128).

Act 4, Scene 4 (816-18, Pistol captures a Frenchman; serving boy says English camp is unguarded)

Pistol captures a French gentleman prisoner, whose offer of 200 crowns to spare his life he promptly accepts (817, 4.4.40-43).  This is a comic scene, but it kicks off several scenes that highlight the confusion or “fog” of war: it’s hard to tell one person from another, and morals become muddied.  The serving boy makes an ominous announcement: Bardolph and Nim have both been hanged for thievery, and at present the English camp is only guarded by boys such as himself (818, 4.4.60-68).

Act 4, Scenes 5-6 (818-19, the French are losing and grow desperate; Henry orders his prisoners’ throats cut because of French reinforcements)

The French are losing, and they throw order to the winds; says the Constable, “Let us on heaps go offer up our lives” (818, 4.5.17).  Meanwhile, King Henry orders the first batch of French prisoners’ throats cut “The French have reinforced their scattered men” (819, 4.6.36).  What is Henry’s motive?  The French have reinforced their numbers.  At the beginning of the next scene, Gower has apparently heard that the king gave this order because the French burned his tents.

Act 4, Scene 7 (819-23, Fluellen rages at killing of boys in camp; English are the victors and Welsh pride abounds; Henry sets up a trick on Fluellen and Williams)

This scene along with 4.8 rounds off the battle: when Fluellen learns that the youngsters in the English camp have been slain, he remonstrates against this violation of “the law of arms” (819, 4.7.2).  Henry is infuriated at recent events in the camp, and orders the killing of a second batch of prisoners (820, 4.7.47-57).  But in truth, the day (Friday, 25 October 1415) is over and the English have won; the battle takes its name from a nearby castle: Agincourt.  Fluellen’s Welsh patriotism a is a bonding point with Harry: “I do believe your Majesty takes no scorn to  / wear the leek upon Saint Tavy’s day” (821, 4.7.93-94).  Williams enters again, and Henry (who is too high in rank to accept a challenge from a commoner) plays a trick: he gives Williams’ challenge-glove to Fluellen, who now becomes liable to the incensed soldier’s assault; Henry sends Warwick and Gloucester after the hothead Fluellen to make sure nobody ends up getting killed (822-23, 4.7.140-41, 155-68).

Act 4, Scene 8  (823-25, Williams strikes Fluellen; Henry tells Williams the truth about their duel; dead tallied for both sides; non nobis humility, back to Calais and thence to England)

Williams strikes Fluellen, who accuses him of treason because he thinks the blow was struck in remembrance of the Duke of Alençon, whose glove Henry falsely told him it was (823, 4.8.13-17).  Henry is almost like the merry Prince Hal of I & II Henry IV for a moment, as he enjoys telling Williams that he is the person the common soldier had in fact insulted and challenged.  But Williams handles himself well, saying, “Your majesty came not like yourself” (824, 4.8.49), and both Henry and Fluellen forgive him.

The French and English dead are tallied, with the report being that 1500 of the French nobility have been slain, and perhaps 10,000 ordinary soldiers; the English are said to have lost few–almost none, in fact (825, 4.8.96-100).  My understanding is that the French greatly outnumbered the English but that they put their nobility up front and when the English killed so many of them, the rest of the French soldiers weren’t much use.  But the battle was more complex than that, and the casualties given in Shakespeare’s play sound rather dubious–perhaps several hundred English died, and many times that amongst the French.

Henry commands the singing of Psalm 115 “Non nobis,” and the canticle “Te Deum” (825, 4.8.117). The first in the Vulgate Latin runs, “Non nobis, non nobis, Domine / Sed nomini tuo da gloriam” (Psalm 113 / 115)  Essentially, both pieces oppose pretensions to human autonomy and pride.  It’s time to return to the port city of Calais and thence home to England.

Act 5, Chorus and Scene 1 (825-28, 1421 now; Fluellen humiliates Pistol with Welsh leeks; Pistol will return home to England and steal and lie about his exploits: war’s unheroic dimension)

The Chorus-speaker sets the current year as 1421, two more invasions into France behind, the year before Henry V’s death and six years after Agincourt (825-26).

Fluellen and Pistol are at odds over Saint David’s Day, the day of homage to Wales’ sixth-century CE patron saint David.  Legend has it that seventh-century CE King Cadwalladr ordered his men to wear leeks during a battle with the Saxons, those post fifth-century Germanic invaders of England.  Anyhow, Pistol has insulted Fluellen about his Welsh heritage, and Fluellen forces him to chomp down some of the Welsh vegetable Pistol mocked (827, 5.1.29-46). 

Pistol is humiliated, and worse yet, he informs us, his Nell is dead.  But he’s not quite done for: Shakespeare is true to the complexities of character and events.  The retelling of Henry V’s reign can’t be all about heroic battles and diplomatic triumphs because that would do violence to a proper understanding of the human beings who made all those things happen.  Pistol laments, “bawd I’ll turn, / And something lean to cutpurse of quick hand. / To England will I steal, and there I’ll steal….” (828, 5.1.76-78).  The statement has a certain eloquence to it, and the pun on “steal” reinforces the pathos of this unheroic character’s probable future: Henry said everyone who came back from the war in France would be remembered eternally (815, 4.3.57-59ff), but that hardly rings true for an aging malcontent like Pistol: with no honorable role to play back home, he’s sure to meet some ignominious fate.

Act 5, Scene 2 and Epilogue (828-35, Charles VI agrees to terms; Henry plays suitor to Catherine: deeds must give way to words; Epilogue mentions Henry VI’s loss of France)

Burgundy has worked hard to bring the French and English kings together, replacing fighting with binding words, and at last it pays off (828, 5.2.24-27).  King Charles VI gives the medieval equivalent of “my people will get back to your people,” but in essence he must agree to the terms (829, 5.2.77-82).

Henry V must now try his hand at being a suitor for the hand of Catherine of Valois, and he proves both clumsy and charming: “I know no ways to mince it in love…” (830, 5.2.125).  Catherine has some trouble understanding Henry’s word-puzzles, which are not as adroit as his military campaigns (831, 5.2.165-69).  The fifth act is partly interested in the interplay of words and deeds: the former are seldom as efficacious as we wish, while the latter are usually more complicated than we like.  Words often call for deeds, but deeds usually give way to words, too, if affairs are to come to satisfying completion.

“[N]ice customs curtsy to great kings” (833, 5.2.250) is Henry’s answer to Catherine’s concerns about it not being the fashion for French ladies to kiss before marriage.  Again the merely human dimension of the king appears when he plays the role of tongue-tied suitor.  Henry says there is “witchcraft” (833, 5.2.256) in Catherine’s lips, more than all the eloquence of her father’s counselors.  As for fashion-setting, well, nothing’s set in stone: war’s violence changes territorial markers, and in a nicer key, simple gestures can change frosty fashions.  Tradition?  Says Henry, “We are the makers of manners, Kate, and the / liberty that follows our places stops the mouth of all find-faults” (833, 5.2.252-53).  Just as Shakespeare doesn’t seem to trust easy statements about “human nature,” neither does he put all his stock in people’s reiterations of what is and is not “traditional.”  The English king is already following a tradition in re-proffering his great-grandfather Edward III’s claim to the French throne: long before René Girard, Shakespeare knew that we mostly desire what others desire, sensitive-souled concerns about “the way things are done” and even the basic legitimacy of one’s claims notwithstanding. 

The Epilogue (835) makes brief but significant reference to the brute fact of history that what Henry V won, his rather feeble son Henry VI lost right back during his tumultuous, interrupted reign that drove England into its period known as “The Wars of the Roses,” ending only with Henry Tudor’s putting-down of the Yorkist King Richard III in August, 1485.

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