Cymbeline, King of Britain

Commentaries on
Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

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

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

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

An irrational old king vexed with his virtuous but stubborn daughter, surrounded by an untrustworthy royal family—this should sound familiar to anyone who has seen or read King Lear, in which Lear and Cordelia are torn asunder while vulture-like Regan and Goneril gobble up their fortuitously enlarged helpings of British land to rule. Posthumus Leonatus has a problem similar to that of Edmund of Gloucester in King Lear—not that he’s illegitimate, but his less than royal lineage makes him persona non grata at Cymbeline’s court. Imogen’s vocabulary is much more expansive, however, than Cordelia’s stubborn, if honest, repetitions of “nothing”—Cymbeline’s daughter fights back spiritedly when the king derides her suitor with the phrase “basest thing” (224, 1.1.125) and banishes him. Cymbeline, says Imogen, has failed to realize that bringing the two of them up together might lead to this situation, and the situation is worsened by his refusal to recognize merit as anything but a property of noble birth.

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

None of this is to suggest that Cymbeline is on a par with the masterpiece King Lear. Indeed, Dr. Johnson wrote that pointing out the play’s many flaws would be “to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.”[1] In our own day, Harold Bloom has insisted that Cymbeline is deliberate self-parody, repeating in a tired manner certain silly plot contrivances that the Swan of Avon may have become too fond of over the years: a foolish but still magnificent sovereign; a decapitation; a massive violation of the so-called unity of time since the action seems to shuttle back and forth between ancient Britain and Renaissance Italy; identity switches and disguisings sufficient to make a viewer’s head spin; a gender-bending heroine; a presumptuous husband with a potentially lethal Madonna/whore complex; a loquacious villain who does evil—oh, we don’t know why; a foppish aristocratic oaf who stands on his unimpressive masculinity and threatens Tarquin-ravishment against a chaste woman; a potion that induces a death-like coma; an ultra-unlikely family reunion; and a final-act virtual symphony of improbabilities.[2]

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

To open the play, we are told that Cymbeline adopted the orphan Posthumus and raised him as a close servant (221-22, 1.1.28-50). Imogen has married the young man only to see him banished by her father the King because of the great gap between the two in rank. It seems as if everyone except Cymbeline can see the truth, which is that Posthumus is a worthier match for his daughter than Cloten, the buffoonish son of Cymbeline’s new queen. The courtiers may not say so to their master’s face, but all of them are “Glad of the thing they scowl at” (221, 1.1.14), meaning the frustration of Cloten in his suit for Imogen’s hand in marriage. As for the new queen, she is a master dissembler who feigns affection for her daughter-in-law while secretly seething at her for failing to accept her son as husband and heir to Cymbeline’s throne. Imogen, however, is not fooled: “O dissembling courtesy!” (223, 1.1.84), she exclaims after speaking with this deceptive woman.

Posthumus informs Imogen that he is about to depart to the home of  Philario, a friend of his deceased father (223, 1.1.97-99). Imogen and he exchange tokens of their love: she gives him a ring, and he gives her a bracelet (223-24, 1.1.109-24). But the young man must be gone in haste when Cymbeline storms in and declares him “Thou basest thing” and his daughter a “disloyal thing” (224, 1.1.125, 131). The king is wrong: Imogen is by no means disloyal. In fact, her main virtue is her loyalty towards Posthumous, and through the perilous adventures she undertakes, she will only reconfirm the excellence that resides within her. In the romance world, adventure and happenstance have magic properties all their own. In a broadly Christian scheme, they turn out to be providential with regard to the discovery of truth and the partial fulfillment of desire. As William Hazlitt suggests in his essay on Cymbeline in Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays (1817),[4] Imogen’s faithfulness to Posthumus Leonatus sets the play’s tone and centers its action: the reigning passion is loyalty. Imogen shows herself to be as headstrong as her imperious father when she defies his will: “Sir, / It is your fault that I have loved Posthumus. / You bred him as my playfellow, and he is / A man worth any woman…” (224, 1.1.143-46). These are not the words of a woman who would submit meekly to an unjust royal prerogative.

As for the departure of Posthumus, there is some drama when Cloten tries to engage the banished husband in a sword fight, but nothing much comes of it (225, 1.1.161-64). This departure will profoundly alter the life of Imogen as well as Posthumus. The romance genre emphasizes the necessity of alienation: you don’t know the value of a person, quality, or happy situation until you are threatened with its loss. Alienation is one of the main ways people discover who they are. The time will come when Imogen herself must leave the court in order to return to it on a firmer basis, after many accidents. In this first act generally, Imogen confirms the quality of her character: what we can expect isn’t so much growth and development on her part but rather confirmation of and insight into what she already is.

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

Act 1, Scene 2 (225-26, Cloten preens himself and waxes jealous against the now absent Posthumus while his assistant the second lord cuts him down to size.)

The second scene is a comic introduction to the queen’s villainous son Cloten, who shows himself to us as a puffed up, foppish oaf amply given his comeuppance by a wisecracking second lord who undercuts him throughout, though not in a way that makes Cloten himself aware of the undercutting. It is not difficult to see what is eating away at Cloten: he decries the intolerable fact that his love object Imogen “should love this fellow and refuse me!” (226, 1.2.22) When people tell us who they are, as Maya Angelou used to say, we had best believe them. The laws of Cloten’s being are envy, cupidity, and seething resentment.

Act 1, Scene 3 (226-27, Imogen’s loyalty to Posthumus shines: she regrets that their parting could not last longer.)

Imogen’s loyalty to Posthumus is touching in his absence, and she relates how her parting from her new husband was interrupted by Cymbeline: “comes in my father, / And, like the tyrannous breathing of the north, / Shakes all our buds from growing” (227, 1.3.35-37). With regard to the metaphor she employs, in romance, if winter comes, spring can’t be far behind: the organicism implied by this metaphor implies the acceptance of loss and death in exchange for the possibility of regeneration and reconciliation. We know that Imogen’s father the king, though he acts like the stark north wind, will eventually give way and participate in the play’s harmonies and reconciliations. The question is, how much will be lost before he comes round?

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

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

Whatever we may gather about Giacomo, we also quickly see that Posthumus has learned little from experience in his relatively short life thus far. Immediately after recounting a quarrel he fell into with a Frenchman over the relative qualities of English and French females, he allows Giacomo to tempt him into making the same argument, except that now the ladies for comparison are Italian. This clever man needles Posthumus, “I have not seen the most precious / diamond that is, nor you the lady” (229, 1.4.63-64). In other words, he mocks Posthumus for his naïve ideals about feminine virtue. Giacomo boasts that without much ado he will strip Imogen of her virtue and win the ring her husband wagers: upon only a second meeting with her, he insists, he will take away “that honour of hers which you imagine so / reserved” (230, 1.4.114-15). Posthumus raises the stakes as high as he can, promising that if Giacomo fails in his attempt, he will answer for the insult to Imogen in a duel (230, 1.4.139-45).

As for this “trial of virtue” plot, as Prof. Harold Toliver of UC Irvine pointed out to me years ago, it is a medieval commonplace, probably because of the martyrdom patterns established in Christian narratives. Chaucer’s “Clerk’s Tale,” which validates the Marquis Walter’s long and painful testing of his wife Griselde, illustrates this penchant for putting female virtue to the test. Posthumus decides to put Imogen’s virtue to a similar test, and allows Giacomo to tempt her. We may well question Posthumus’s judgment: the man’s actions at this point are bound to disappoint us. As Albany says in Act 1, Scene 4 of King Lear, “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.”[6]

For all his protestations about her innocence, Posthumus’s proof-by-temptation scheme seems ethically dubious. Shakespeare’s regard for this old plot device doesn’t seem wholehearted. No less a moral authority than Jesus led his flock in prayer, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”[7] It’s hard to argue with a statement like that. In modern times, we would call what Posthumus does to Imogen “entrapment.” And then there’s his exhibition of that green-eyed, smothering monster jealousy. In Act 3, Scene 3 of Othello, Iagopins down this passion with his lines about Desdemona’s misplaced handkerchief: “Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ.”[8] Once indulged, such a powerful feeling admits of no going back, and Posthumus must act upon it. Only the fullness of romance time will allow this situation to be made good, at least to a great extent.

Act 1, Scene 5 (231-33, the queen demands poisonous substances from Cornelius, who gives her a potion that only causes deathlike sleep; the queen gives this potion to Pisanio, whom she attempts to win away from Posthumus; she threatens absent Imogen with death if she does not relent and give in to Cloten.)

Cornelius conscientiously asks the queen what she wants with the “poisonous compounds” she has ordered (231, 1.5.8), and he does not like the answer he receives, which is that she plans to use them on defenseless animals and note the effects the poison has upon them (231, 1.5.18-23). He knows her for what she is, and resolves not to give her what she wants, but rather a simulacrum that will “stupefy and dull the sense a while” (232, 1.5.37). The queen next sets to work on Pisanio, the servant of Posthumus, trying to win him away from his master towards Cloten and giving him a box filled with Cornelius’s fake poison that she hopes Pisanio himself will swallow, thinking it a remedy. The queen threatens absent Imogen, who, she says, “Except she bend her humor, shall be assured / To taste of [the drug] too” (233, 1.5.81-82).

Act 1, Scene 6 (233-38, Giacomo comes to Cymbeline’s court and slanders Posthumus as a playboy; Imogen believes him but is uninterested in repaying Posthumus in kind, so Giacomo pretends he was testing Imogen’s faith in her husband and asks if she will store a chest allegedly containing gifts for Cymbeline.)

By letter, Posthumus recommends Giacomo to Imogen (234, 1.6.22-24), and the Italian promptly makes mostly excellent use of his first conversation with the lady. He paints a picture of a feckless, adulterous Posthumus living it up in Italy, exhibiting the opposite of the chief qualities Imogen thinks he possesses: earnestness and fidelity. He is known, says Giacomo, simply as “The Briton Reveller” (234, 1.6.60). Giacomo’s wicked suit almost fails, first when he overdoes the runup portion of his gambit and Imogen bluntly (and hilariously) asks him “Are you well?” (234, 1.6.49), and then when he boldly urges revenge and utters the sentence, “I dedicate myself to your sweet pleasure” (236, 1.6.135). This latter declaration causes Imogen to denounce him outright: “If thou wert honorable / Thou wouldst have told this tale for virtue…” (236-37, 1.6.141-42). But Giacomo is more than up to the occasion, protesting boldly that he meant only to test the strength of Imogen’s virtue (237, 1.6.162-64). With the addition of a simple device—namely, a request to store a chest full of plate and jewels meant as a gift for Cymbeline—Giacomo’s diabolical plot is set (237-38, 1.6.184-92).

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

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

Act 2, Scene 1 (238-39, Cloten again puffs himself up, worries about meeting anyone of lesser rank, including Giacomo; as usual, the second lord mocks him in a witty aside.)

Cloten interprets the actions of others as motivated by what drives him: lust, ambition, and avarice. We often find this oppositional representation of love in romance plays: true and charitable love versus the prideful and empty sort (“cupidity”) that we find in Cloten. The confrontation of heightened, opposed absolutes seems characteristic of romance. Cloten fears losing face, he fears what he calls “derogation” (239, 2.1.40-41) if he condescends to meet the newly arrived stranger Giacomo. He doesn’t want to mix with those below his station. That fear constitutes the law of his being: it makes him tick, so to speak.

This tendency in Cloten is interesting since the play in general emphasizes the inherent goodness of aristocratic characters such as Belarius and his sons Guiderius and Arviragus. Shakespeare is careful not to go too far in that direction, but he doesn’t appear to dismiss altogether the claim that blood bestows nobility, that virtue can in part be inherited. Cloten is rather like the dragon in the old romances—he is the monster who must be slain because he would cut off the quest for reunification and reconciliation, and cut short the generosity of romance time. The “knight” who slays him, as it will turn out, is Guiderius. Cloten’s destructive lust and self-love are incurable, unlike the disturbing but less damnable jealousy that besets Posthumus. The second lord has Cloten “pinned and wriggling on the wall” like the imaginary insect in T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”[11] The clever queen, he muses, is cursed with a son who “Cannot take two from twenty, for his heart, / And leave eighteen” (239, 2.1.52-53). Well, as they say, talent skips a generation. Sometimes it skips more than that number.

Act 2, Scene 2 (240-41, Giacomo emerges from the trunk he asked Imogen to store in her bedchamber, taking note of ornaments and structure in the room as well as a mole on sleeping Imogen’s left breast; he takes her bracelet.)

It is time for Giacomo to carry out his wicked designs upon Imogen’s happiness. Emerging from the trunk in which he has stowed himself, the devious fellow describes himself in the grand style: “Our Tarquin thus / Did softly press the rushes ere he wakened / The chastity he wounded” (240, 2.2.12-14). He notes various ornamentations and items in Imogen’s chambers, but most damning of all, he remarks a mole on her left breast (241, 2.2.37-38). Assiduous readers of Shakespeare will feel perfectly at home betting that Giacomo’s perusal of the book Imogen had been studying will yield him Ovid’s recounting of rape and cannibalistic revenge, “The tale of Tereus”(241, 2.2.45). Giacomo’s brand of evil here consists in foreclosing upon Imogen and Posthumus’s love by means of a deceptive command of the facts: he cheats at his wager with Posthumus, and is able to describe Imogen’s room and her personal characteristics.

It may seem ironic that Giacomo works his wickedness with the aid of facts: they may be “stubborn things,” but they don’t often matter much in Shakespearean romance, or in the romance world generally. Cymbeline apparently existed around the time of Augustus Caesar, and in fact Raphael Holinshed mentions him in the Chronicles.[12] But Giacomo is obviously a Renaissance Italian, one who lives and moves slyly in the age of Machiavelli. This temporal abyss is so extreme that it lends credence to the view of critics who insist that Cymbeline is self-conscious parody. Shelley’s friend the satirist Thomas Love Peacock may have been thinking of this play, with its ancient and modern characters greeting one another across what logic tells us should be a gap of around 1,500 years, when he mocked the Elizabethans for their disregard of the neoclassical unities:

Shakespeare and his contemporaries … used time and locality merely because they could not do without them, because every action must have its when and where: but they made no scruple of deposing a Roman Emperor by an Italian Count, and sending him off in the disguise of a French pilgrim to be shot with a blunderbuss by an English archer. This makes the old English drama very picturesque … though it is a picture of nothing that ever was seen on earth except a Venetian carnival.[13]

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

Act 2, Scene 3 (241-45, Cloten orders a serenade for Imogen, who despises him to his face; her insults provoke him to vow revenge; Imogen is almost frantic with the thought that she has lost the bracelet Posthumus gave her.)

Cloten makes a thoroughly ineffective attempt (if an actual one, unlike Giacomo’s) to win Imogen’s affections. The only good thing that comes of it is the fine air, “Hark, hark, the lark at heaven’s gate sings…” (242, 2.3.17-23). Face to face, Cloten declares his love for Imogen, and receives for his reply a measure of her strength: “I care not for you, / And am so near the lack of charity / To accuse myself I hate you…” (244, 2.3.103-05). One is reminded of Fanny Burney’s witty journal description of a suitor who just couldn’t understand that his attentions were not welcome.[15] But while Cloten may be dense, even he gets the point when Imogen tells him the hair on his head isn’t worth the “meanest garment” ever worn by Posthumus (244, 2.3.128). This scornful flouting elicits from Cloten a desire for revenge (245, 2.3.150-51). Meanwhile, Imogen’s real concern is that (thanks to Giacomo at 240, 2.2.33) she has lost the bracelet given her by Posthumus: “I hope it be not gone to tell my lord / That I kiss aught but he” (245, 2.3.142-43).

Act 2, Scene 4 (245-49, Giacomo returns to Rome and declares victory over Imogen and Posthumus, who unwisely believes him especially because of the bodily “evidence” and denounces all womankind.)

As Philario and Posthumus trade views on the prospects of the Romans getting the tribute they’ve demanded from Cymbeline (245-46, 2.4.10-26), Giacomo enters and triumphantly declares his victory in the contest of female virtue. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the sight of Posthumus’ pitiful performance here, with Giacomo egging him on and Philario vainly trying to draw the most substantial account possible from Giacomo: “take your ring again; ’tis not yet won” (248, 2.4.114). But when Giacomo brings out his supposedly irrefutable evidence—Imogen’s bracelet and that unfortunately noted lovely mole on her breast, the game is up, and Posthumus is quite certain that this wily stage Italian has (as the Machiavellian Iago did with Othello), “prove[d his] love a whore.”[16] The reaction we get from Posthumus is no better than that of the romantic absolutist Othello: the mole, he avers, “doth confirm / Another stain, as big as hell can hold…” (249, 2.4.139-40).

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

Posthumus hits enough home runs to make it into the Misogynists’ Cooperstown on the first ballot: “We are all bastards…” (249, 2.4.2), he whines, and then comes the grand slam: “there’s no motion / That tends to vice in man but I affirm / It is the woman’s part…” (250, 2.4.20-22). He imagines the act of copulation between Giacomo and chaste Imogen, proving only the deranged state of his own imagination (250, 2.4.15-17). For the moment, at least, he would make fine company for Othello, Leontes from The Winters’ Tale, or Hamlet in that awful conversation with Ophelia in Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1. As for this scene, as Hamlet might say, “Go to, I’ll no / more on’t.”[17]

Act 3, Scene 1 (250-52, spurred on by the queen and Cloten, Cymbeline refuses to pay tribute to the Romans.)

The Roman ambassador Lucius delivers Augustus Caesar’s demand for tribute from the Britons, but the queen and Cloten sway Cymbeline from paying the 3,000 pounds Caesar wants. Cloten says arrogantly, “If Caesar can hide the / sun from us with a blanket, or put the moon in his pocket, / we will pay him tribute for light…” (251, 3.1.41-43), and Cymbeline himself, while reminding present company that he spent time at Caesar’s court in his youth, comes round to the idea that failure to resist would “show the Britons cold” (252, 3.1.74), especially because just now the Pannonians and Dalmatians are in open warfare with Roman armies. Cymbeline will not fail to keep up with the barbarian Joneses.

Act 3, Scene 2 (252-54, in separate letters, Posthumus commands Pisanio to kill Imogen and asks Imogen to come to Milford Haven in Cambria, which she at once makes plans to do.)

Pisanio is dismayed at the letter Posthumus has sent requiring him to kill Imogen: “Thy mind to hers is now as low as were / Thy fortunes” (252, 3.2.10-11), he laments. He tries to break this news to Imogen, but only succeeds in rendering her more eager to get to Milford Haven in Cambria than she already was upon reading the deceptive letter Posthumus dedicated to her. Imogen makes her plans, which include a female assistant fetching her “a riding suit no costlier than would fit / A franklin’s housewife” (254, 3.2.76-77). Pisanio’s role is similar to that of the banished Kent in King Lear: while his immediate goal is to protect Imogen, he also keeps Posthumous from doing harm so long as an insane fit of jealousy drives his actions. In this way, he also resembles Cornelius, who refused to give the queen the deadly concoctions she sought. There is a special sort of fidelity that consists in not doing the bidding of a master who has taken leave of his or her senses. It may not be in line with the eighteenth-century Kantian “categorical imperative”[18] that would enforce the keeping of promises no matter the circumstances, but it is rooted in a time-honored sentiment. Authority combined with impulsiveness and immaturity is a deadly combination, and sometimes, stripping away the agency of those thus afflicted is the only way to prevent things from reaching the worst.

Act 3, Scene 3 (254-55, we meet Belarius and his supposed sons Arviragus and Guiderius; Belarius gives us—not the boys—the complete back story as to why they are living in the Welsh countryside; both young men lament their lack of experience.)

Cutting off the king’s issue can be a vicious affair in ancient literature—recall Ovid’s tale of Tereus, Procne and Philomela in Metamorphoses[19]—but in this play things aren’t so bad. Belarius has kidnapped Cymbeline’s two sons and raised them with a healthy distrust of courtly deception, but they subsequently get their chance to prove the nobility that is their birthright. The two young men, Arviragus and Guiderius, are understandably reluctant to accept the limitations Belarius has placed upon them. When he says, “this life / Is nobler than attending for a check…” (255, 3.3.21-22), both of these supposed sons chime in with a rebuttal: Guiderius says of his rough existence, “unto us it is / A cell of ignorance, traveling abed …” (255, 3.3.32-33). Arviragus adds, “our cage / We make a choir, as doth the prisoned bird…” (255, 3.3.42-43). Both of them complain of being inexperienced in the wide world and show themselves very impatient to enter it. The narrative that Belarius has fed them does not satisfy anyone but himself, an older man who has already seen too much of that world and paid the price for it.

Belarius provides us with the necessary background information on why he and his two young men are living as hunters in the Welsh countryside, a rough place that always gave even the Romans trouble. It seems that Belarius was taken down by a couple of villains who accused him of treason against Cymbeline on behalf of the Romans. Cymbeline believed the lie and banished Belarius from Britain (256, 3.3.65-69). Once the boys have made their exit, Belarius is free to tell us the rest of the story, which is simply that in his anger against Cymbeline’s injustice, he decided to take away the king’s futurity and therefore stole by means of Euriphile his two male children, whose names are now Polydore (Guiderius, the heir to Cymbeline’s throne) and Cadwal (Arviragus, the younger of the two). Belarius himself is now called Morgan, and the boys believe he really is their father (256, 3.3.79-107). That’s the way he wants to keep it since he has come to regard them as his own sons.

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

Act 3, Scene 4 (257-61, Pisanio reveals the contents of Posthumus’ letter commanding him to kill Imogen; he has a plan to rescue her: she must dress as a young man and enter the service of the Roman Lucius; Pisanio also gives her the potion-box the queen had given him.)

Pisanio takes Imogen part-way to Milford Haven, and at last reveals to her the contents of the letter Posthumus had sent him. Imogen is overwhelmed, and declares herself “a garment out of fashion” that must be ripped to shreds by the owner since it is “richer than to hang by th’ walls …” (258, 3.4.50-51). Pisanio refuses Imogen’s request to run her through with a sword, and reveals his plan to get her out of her predicament: he will deceive Posthumus into thinking that he has indeed killed Imogen. Then she must go to Milford Haven and, dressed as a young man, present herself to the Roman ambassador and general, Lucius, in whose service she may come to a place in Rome not far from where Posthumus is staying (259-60, 3.4.123-79). Ominously, Pisanio passes the queen’s potion-box along to Imogen, with the innocent advice, “a dram of this / Will drive away distemper” (261, 3.4.190-91).

Act 3, Scene 5 (261-65, suspected of helping Imogen escape from court, Pisanio deceives Cloten into expecting to come upon Posthumus at Milford Haven; Cloten sets forth his diabolical plans to murder Posthumus and ravish Imogen.)

The king begins to miss his daughter, and Cloten points the finger at Pisanio (263, 3.5.54-55), who comes in for much questioning. The queen, meanwhile, is spinning her wheels in her usual conspiratorial fashion: of Imogen, she says, “Gone she is / To death or to dishonor, and my end / Can make good use of either” (263, 3.5.62-64). Under Cloten’s pressure, Pisanio pretends to accept his proposal that he should become his servant rather than remain the servant of Posthumus, and Cloten’s first order is to bring him the suit the fellow was wearing when he left to begin his banishment (264, 3.5.124-25). This villain’s plan is to murder Posthumus at Milford Haven, where he believes (in accordance with the original deceptive letter Pisanio gives him) the man is headed. Afterwards, he will compound his evil by sexually assaulting Imogen: “With that suit upon my / back will I ravish her—first kill him, and in her eyes…” (264, 3.5.133-34). This vicious plan will accomplish three objectives: first, Cloten will slake his jealous rage at Posthumus; second, he will pay Imogen back for her contemptuous words to him earlier, where she cast it in his teeth that the “meanest garment” ever worn by Posthumus was worth more to her than the hair on Cloten’s head (244, 2.3.128-30); third, he will obtain his ultimate objective of forcibly making her his wife, kicking her all the way back to Cymbeline’s court (265, 3.5.138-41).

To top this for intent to commit a host of villainies, we would need to go straight to Livy’s History of Rome, where the author tells the story of Sextus Tarquinius’s rape of the Roman matron Lucretia, or indeed to Shakespeare’s own retelling of that story in The Rape of Lucrece. We could even go to Shakespeare’s own Titus Andronicus, where we would meet the self-declared supervillain Aaron the Moor, who brags about digging up dead men and setting them upright at their dear friends’ doors, most likely to mock the key Roman concept of friendship or amicitia.[20] Of course, we need not worry too much since this is Cloten, and Cloten never accomplishes anything he sets out to do. He’s no Tarquin, and neither would he pass a class in basic Machiavelli since he manages to make himself a hated object of contempt.[21] Even so, his loser-status doesn’t make him any less wicked—the crudely literalistic turn of his mind is characteristic of Shakespeare’s nastiest villains.[22]

Act 3, Scene 6 (265-67, Belarius and his charges light upon disguised Imogen eating their food, and give “him” a warm welcome.)

Belarius, Arviragus and Guiderius light upon the disguised Imogen eating their camp rations, and they respond with surprise when she offers them gold and silver for her dinner. She claims that her name is Fidele. Belarius tenders her an unexpectedly warm welcome: “Think us no churls, nor measure our good minds / By this rude place we live in” (266-67, 3.6.62-63), and both brothers experience something like love at first sight: “I’ll love him as my brother …” (267, 3.6.69), declares Arviragus. As is usually the case in Shakespeare, we cannot take for granted that the countryside is a less civilized place than the city or the court, and Imogen is pleasantly surprised to stumble upon the same insight. So too with Orlando in As You Like It, when, in search of sustenance for his poor old servant Adam, he stumbles upon the exiled Duke Senior’s rustic circle and is shocked to find that his show of pirate-like ferocity is unnecessary.[23]

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

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

Act 4, Scene 1 (268, Cloten admires himself in the mirror and rehearses his evil designs against Posthumus and Imogen.)

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

Act 4, Scene 2 (268-79, Imogen-as-Fidele is ill and takes Pisanio’s potion; Cloten arrives and is beheaded by Guiderius, to the dismay of Belarius; Arviragus carries in the seemingly lifeless body of Imogen-as-Fidele and the brothers lament; alone, Imogen awakens to find the headless Cloten dressed as Posthumus, and blames Pisanio; a soothsayer for Lucius interprets portents favorably to Rome; Lucius finds Imogen-as-Fidele and offers this stranger a chance to join up with the Romans.)

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

Cloten arrives on the scene, and Belarius is stricken with fear because he recognizes him as the queen’s son (270, 4.2.64-67). Guiderius is left alone to face Cloten, who immediately demands that he yield to him. Guiderius parries the oaf’s threats and insults expertly, and cuts off his head. Belarius is by no means pleased—he realizes the consequences of killing a Briton royal: “We are all undone” (272, 4.2.122), he tells Guiderius. But to himself, he marvels at the noble nature of both Guiderius and Arviragus: “’Tis wonder / That an invisible instinct should frame them / To royalty unlearned …” (273, 4.2.175-77). Guiderius makes what turns out to be an important decision to toss Cloten’s head into the stream nearby (273, 4.2.182-84).

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

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

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

Act 4, Scene 3 (279-80, the queen is gravely ill, and Cymbeline is desperately isolated; Pisanio is confused about the current state of affairs, but trusts to time and the gods.)

The queen is desperately ill and in a state of madness thanks to the absence of her son Cloten, so Cymbeline is isolated in a time of great need (279, 4.3.1-9): the Romans have now landed in force. Pisanio is in the dark regarding the whereabouts of Posthumus, Imogen and Cloten. His only plan is to fight for the Britons and leave the rest to the heavens: “All other doubts, by time let them be cleared: / Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered” (280, 4.3.45-46). This is the correct attitude to take for a character in a comic or romance play: trust to time.[26]

Act 4, Scene 4 (280-81, Guiderius, Arviragus, and Belarius agree to fight for Cymbeline against the Romans.)

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

Act 5, Scene 1 (281-82, Posthumus believes Imogen is dead at Pisanio’s hands; he will fight for Cymbeline and seek death to honor Imogen.)

Posthumus believes Pisanio’s claim that he carried out his order to execute Imogen, and decides that instead of fighting on the side of the Romans, he will switch over to support Cymbeline and, with any luck, die for Imogen. He describes this transformation in part as a casting off of external appearances: “I will begin / The fashion—less without and more within” (282, 5.1.32-33). This seems like a welcome turn toward self-reflection and a healthy interior state for Posthumus, but he manages to dissipate any good will we may feel toward him by continuing to believe that Imogen was, in fact, unfaithful to him, as appears when he says, “You married ones, / If each of you should take this course, how many / Must murder wives much better than themselves / For wrying but a little?” (281, 5.1.2-5) There’s just something unlovable about a man who works himself up to “forgiving” a woman who has done him no wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cymbeline begins this scene by wishing that the brave soldier who assisted Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus in rescuing him could be found. This man we know to be Posthumus. But Belarius and his two charges are present, and Cymbeline makes them British knights (290, 5.5.19-22). Cornelius enters and reports that the queen is dead (290, 5.5.25-27). Not only that, but he runs through a litany of dreadful revelations from the dying queen: she never loved Cymbeline but only coveted his power; she pretended to feel affection for Imogen but in fact hated her and planned to poison her; and finally, she intended to poison Cymbeline himself (290-91, 5.5.37-61) in order to secure the throne for her son, Cloten. When the latter went missing, however, the queen was driven to distraction, fell sick, and died. Cymbeline is stunned, but he does not blame himself for being taken in: “Mine eyes / Were not in fault, for she was beautiful; / … nor my heart / That thought her like her seeming” (291, 5.5.62-65). It appears that an ancient, staunchly British king fell victim to the Renaissance Neoplatonist desire to align the beautiful with the good.

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

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

When Imogen-as-Fidele pleads with Posthumus, who has interrupted Giacomo to declare himself the greater villain and indeed the murderer of Imogen (294-95, 5.5.213-20), Posthumus strikes the supposed page, prompting a reproach from Pisanio, who at last calls Imogen by her name (295, 5.5.231), to the amazement of Cymbeline and Posthumus alike. When Imogen blames Pisanio for her near-death experience, Cornelius interjects, remembering now to mention one of the queen’s admissions: she had given Pisanio the potion-box, but as we know from near the beginning of the play, Cornelius did not trust her with deadly poison and so gave her only a very strong sedative, one that mimics death. Imogen and Posthumus embrace, and Cymbeline greets her as his child (296, 5.5.263-65). The old king informs Imogen that her stepmother the queen is dead, but not much attention is paid to that event.

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

Cymbeline explains to Imogen what this all means for her: “Thou hast lost by this a kingdom” (299, 5.5.372), but she does not see the matter that way, preferring instead to dwell upon what she has gained: a pair of long-lost brothers. “I have got two worlds by’t” (299, 5.5.373), says she. Cymbeline doesn’t quite understand it all, and who can blame him? He expresses a desire to hear further details in due time to lessen his wonder (299, 5.5.381-86).

Posthumus is now able to declare that he is the poor soldier who assisted Belarius, Arviragus, and Guiderius in rescuing Cymbeline, and he calls upon Giacomo to verify his story. When this villain makes plain his sudden change of heart and asks for death once he returns the ring and bracelet he wrongly came by (300, 5.5.411-16), Posthumus decides to show mercy: “The power that I have on you is to spare you …” (300, 5.5.417). That decision, in turn, leads Cymbeline to declare a general pardon for everyone, including the Romans (300, 5.5.419-21).  

The soothsayer rounds off the moment by explaining the prophecy that Posthumus’ ancestors had placed upon his chest: Posthumus is the “lion’s whelp,” Imogen is the “piece of tender air,” Cymbeline himself is the “lofty cedar,” and of course Guiderius and Arviragus are the two branches (300-01, 5.5.434-56).[31] Cymbeline surprises everyone by unilaterally offering to pay the Roman tribute whose refusal had led to the bloody struggle between the two nations, and his final pronouncements are, “Laud we the gods” and “let / A Roman and a British ensign wave / Friendly together” (301, 5.5.474, 477-79).[32] This political and military turn of events may seem shocking, but as the Norton editors point out, it probably has to do with Shakespeare’s interest in indulging the increasingly strong desire among the English to see their country as a second Roman Empire, but also to preserve their sense of being independent agents rather than as thralls to the history and image of another powerful nation. Beyond that, as Jean E. Howard suggests in her introduction, a sense of “contingency” pervades the actions and decisions taken in this historical romance.[33]

By the end of the play, nearly everything has been set right, with the unaccented exception of the death of the queen and her mean-spirited, oafish son Cloten. Cymbeline’s wrath was real and his error deep, but the power that had seemed to be so absolute and irrevocable turns out not to be so after all. In a romance universe, the march of events is not inexorable, and the price of insight and the recovery of one’s identity isn’t death. At the play’s outset, Cymbeline’s behavior was as irrational as that of King Lear, but time has given him the gift of coming round to a better perspective on love and life. Even the dread justice of royal absolutism is pushed aside in the final act with a wave of the king’s staff since, of course, Guiderius “just happens” to be Cymbeline’s son. Giacomo is found out as a villain and seems likely to go to the block, but he simply renounces his villainy and is forgiven, so all is well there, too.[34] Generosity is spread all around like butter on hot bread.

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

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

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

Endnotes


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

Antony and Cleopatra

Questions on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

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

ACT 1

1. In Act 1, Scenes 1-3, what view of Antony emerges, based on what others say about him and on his dialogue with Cleopatra? In particular, how do the first three scenes capture the duality of Antony as a Roman and a man imbued with “Eastern” sensibilities?

2. In Act 1, Scenes 1-3, and then in Scene 5, what complexities in Cleopatra’s character emerge, based on her interaction with Antony and her confidantes? To what extent does she understand Roman honor and sensibilities? How does she describe her relationship with Antony, and what seems responsible for the deep bond between them?

3. In Act 1, Scene 4, how does Caesar (Octavius, subsequently called Augustus Caesar) interpret Antony’s carryings-on in the East? What complaints does he have about his illustrious fellow triumvir, and why does he suppose Antony will return to his duties in that capacity? In addition, what does Caesar reveal about his understanding of power?

ACT 2

4. In Act 2, Scene 2, when Caesar and Antony confront each other, what grievances and assumptions do they bring to the table? How does Agrippa help resolve the tension between them, at least for the present?

5. In Act 2, Scene 2, how does Enobarbus image forth Cleopatra? What does this description add to the things we have heard and seen about Egypt’s Queen so far? On the whole, how does Enobarbus view the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra? What insights does he have about the reason for the great impact she makes on Antony?

6. In Act 2, Scene 3, Antony speaks to a soothsayer. What does the Soothsayer tell him, and what effect does the information have on him? How does this affect your understanding, if it does, with regard to Antony’s character and his motives for dividing his time between the Roman theater of operations and Egypt?

7. In Act 2, Scene 5, how does Cleopatra further our understanding of her affinity with Antony and the Roman world of power and honor that he embodies? In what sense does Cleopatra chafe at the limitations imposed on her by her gender?

8. In Act 2, Scene 5, what political deal does Pompeius (the son of Pompey the Great) make with Caesar and Antony? What does Enobarbus suggest about Pompeius’ “deal” and about Antony’s reasons for agreeing to marry Caesar’s sister Octavia?

9. In Act 2, Scene 7, on the basis of the Triumvirs’ celebrations when they seem to have arrived at an understanding, what becomes apparent about the qualities required to hold power in Rome? For example, what character deficiencies does Lepidus reveal? Why does the supposedly honorable Pompeius lose Menas’ respect and loyalty at this point? How does Caesar respond to demands that he imbibe as heavily as Antony and the others?

ACT 3

10. In Act 3, Scenes 4-5, with hostilities brewing between Caesar and Antony, how does Antony treat Octavia when she offers to help? Why is Caesar outraged over Antony’s latest actions in Egypt? How does he respond to his sister’s arrival on an embassy from Antony? Is his characterization of Antony’s treatment of her accurate or inaccurate? Discuss.

11. In Act 3, Scene 7, why does Antony decide to fight Caesar by sea instead of by land, where he seems to have the best chance? What role does Cleopatra expect to play in the coming battle, and why? What inferences do Enobarbus and Canidius draw about their great commander at this point? How does Antony’s decision affect your own view of his stature as a Roman? Discuss.

12. In Act 3, Scenes 8-10, Caesar and Antony refine their respective strategies. What concerns shape Caesar’s decisions? What concerns inform Antony’s? What happens in the course of the battle, and how do Antony’s closest associates respond to this disastrous outcome? What is Enobarbus’ thinking at this point with respect to his loyalty for Antony?

13. In Act 3, Scene 11, how does Antony himself react to the fiasco that was Actium? How does his self-described role as a world-historical agent or actor make the situation especially intolerable to him? What are his feelings towards Cleopatra at this point? Why is he able to reconcile with her so quickly?

14. In Act 3, Scene 12, what intentions does Caesar manifest regarding how he will treat Antony and Cleopatra? Why does he think he will be successful in carrying out these intentions?

15. In Act 3, Scene 13, how does Antony try to recover his self-command and snatch victory from what seems to others his certain disaster? As Enobarbus watches this attempt at self-recovery unfold, what rapid evolution does his attitude towards Antony undergo? What impact do Antony’s words and actions in this scene have on your understanding of him? Discuss.

ACT 4

16. In Act 4, Scenes 1-5, what is Antony’s apparent frame of mind as the battle draws near? How does he react to the news that Enobarbus has deserted him?

17. In Act 4, Scene 6, Caesar declares that the “time of universal peace” is near, but in what sense do his speech and conduct in this scene reveal a less than savory side to this man who will usher in the new world order? What resolution does Enobarbus come to, and why?

18. In Act 4, Scenes 10-14, the Egyptian fleet again fails Antony, going over to the Romans. How does the Queen behave upon hearing of this final disaster? What goes wrong with Antony’s attempt to die in the true Roman fashion?

19. In Act 4, Scene 15, what pattern again reasserts itself in Antony’s reaction to a military failure that involves Cleopatra? Why does Antony believe his present wretchedness will not altogether eclipse his reputation as a great Roman? Does it seem to you that his assumptions are reasonable, or self-deluded? Discuss.

ACT 5

20. In Act 5, Scene 1, how does Caesar take the death of Antony? How does he deal with the fallen Cleopatra? While it’s obvious that political expediency is never far from Caesar’s mind, does this scene allow you to interpret his actions and words as due to something more than cunning and hypocrisy? Is the future Augustus a model Roman in his own way? If so, how?

21. In Act 5, Scene 2, in what sense does Cleopatra set about refashioning herself rhetorically as a hero partly in the Roman style? How does she refashion Antony as the noblest Roman and, perhaps, as something grander even than that?

22. In Act 5, Scene 2, why is Cleopatra particularly upset about the prospect that she will be put on display in Rome and that actors, as she says, will “boy my greatness” on the stage? In addition, how does her declared intent to rejoin Antony in death affect the play’s tragic dimension? Does it enhance the sense of tragedy, or diminish it? Explain your reasoning on this point.

23. In Act 5, Scene 2, consider the adaptation Shakespeare has made from Plutarch’s life of Antony, in which a rustic fellow brings Cleopatra a basket within which are concealed poisonous asps. Why do you suppose Shakespeare introduces a note of comedy or of the bizarre in rendering this scene’s dialogue? Does this enhance the scene’s tragic overtones in some way, or introduce a note of appropriate complexity? If so, how?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93860-9.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Cymbeline, King of Britain

Questions on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

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

ACT 1

1. In Act 1, Scene 1, we are introduced to Cymbeline and Imogen. How does their discord (its causes and the manner of their interaction) compare to that of Lear and Cordelia in King Lear? Moreover, what other similarities and/or differences can you find between the current play’s opening scene and the beginning of King Lear?

2. In Act 1, Scenes 1-2, Cymbeline’s Queen converses with Imogen, and we meet the Queen’s son Cloten. In what regard are these two held, and why? What difference between the mother and the son begins to appear even at this early point? But in what sense do they resemble each other as well?

3. In Act 1, Scene 4, how does Posthumus’ “ring wager” come about? What are the terms of the wager between Jachimo and Posthumus? While such a bet no doubt seems unfair and even absurd to modern sensibilities, on what grounds might a medieval or early modern man have defended it?

4. In Act 1, Scene 5, how does the try to advance her plot against Imogen’s match with Posthumus? What does she ask of the doctor, Cornelius, and how does he respond in word and deed? What is the Queen’s use for Pisanio at this point?

5. In Act 1, Scene 6, how does Jachimo attempt to traduce Imogen? What virtues does she demonstrate in responding as she does? Based on all you have seen of Imogen thus far in Act 1, what seems to be the guiding principle by which she speaks and acts?

ACT 2

6. In Act 2, Scenes 1 and 3, what anxieties and ambitions does Cloten manifest in his conversations with the Lords, with Cymbeline and the Queen, and finally with Imogen? How does he understand his own situation at Court and with regard to Imogen, whose affections he covets?

7. In Act 2, Scene 2, what details does Jachimo gather in order to convince Posthumus that Imogen has been unfaithful? What significance do Jachimo’s classical allusions (to Tarquin, Tereus and Philomela) add to this wicked scene?

8. In Act 2, Scene 4, Jachimo lays out his “evidence” against Imogen’s chastity. What makes the pitch effective as a piece of rhetoric? What weakness in Posthumus does Jachimo shape his unveiling of the evidence to exploit? What general view of women does Posthumus proclaim by the fifth scene?

ACT 3

9. In Act 3, Scene 1, what different attitudes do Cymbeline, the Queen, and Cloten take up towards Augustus Caesar’s demand that the Britons pay tribute? What relationship obtains between Cymbeline and the Roman ambassador Lucius, and what seems to be the underlying reason for this relationship? If you are presenting on this question, please add some very brief background on relations between the Romans and the Britons around the time frame Shakespeare references (one helpful page is Brittania.com’s ).

10. In Act 3, Scenes 2 and 4, how does Imogen react first to the news that Posthumus is in Wales (Cambria) at Milford-Haven and then to the knowledge that he believes she has been false to him? What is Pisanio’s plan to redeem the situation, or at least to avoid the worst that might happen? How does the Imogen react to this plan?

11. In Act 3, Scene 3, we meet Belarius and the two young men he has raised, Guiderius and his younger brother Arviragus. What is Belarius’ story — why was he banished? What sort of life do he and the two young men lead, and in what setting? In what ways do their perspectives on this situation differ? How does this new “Belarius subplot” relate to the main one?

12. In Act 3, Scene 5, how does Cymbeline react to the news that his daughter Imogen has fled the court? What more do we learn about the Queen and Cloten’s respective plans in this scene? In particular, what is Cloten’s rationale for the attempt he plans to make against Imogen?

13. In Act 3, Scene 6, how do Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus receive Imogen, disguised as “Fidele”? How does this reception deepen the contrast already established between the existence these three men lead and the life others lead at the court of Cymbeline?

ACT 4

14. In Act 4, Scenes 2 and 4, how do Arviragus and Guiderius show their “quality” as young men of aristocratic birth? What does Belarius apparently think of this manifestation of nobility, and what concerns him about the bold deed of Guiderius? To what extent does the play as a whole (up to this section) validate the idea that noble birth should be taken as a promise of innate goodness?

15. In Act 4, Scene 2, what happens to Imogen as “Fidele” when she drinks the potion that Pisanio gave her some time ago? When she awakens to find a headless body next to her, what confusions set in that the rest of the play’s unfolding will have to resolve?

ACT 5

16. In Act 5, Scenes 1-3, what role do Belarius, Arviragus and Guiderius play in saving Cymbeline and Britain from defeat by the Romans? What motivates Posthumus to join with these three against the Roman army?

17. In Act 5, Scene 4, Posthumus’ departed parents and brothers appear to him in a dream. What is the substance and import of his dream? How do the shades who appear to Posthumus in his sleep address Jupiter, and how does the God respond to their address? What does Posthumus learn, if anything, from the dream?

18. In Act 5, Scene 5, by what means is the identity of Imogen and Posthumus finally revealed to Cymbeline and the others at court? What specific device does Shakespeare employ to accomplish this revelation?

19. In Act 5, Scene 5, what further difficulty does this discovery lead to with respect to Belarius and Guiderius, and how is the new problem resolved? What about the fate of Lucius the virtuous Roman, and the devious Jachimo — what happens to them?

20. Act 5, Scene 5 concludes with Cymbeline’s commands, “Laud we the gods, / And let our crooked smokes climb to their nostrils / From our blest altars / . . . . Let / A Roman and a British ensign wave / Friendly together” (474-79). Contrast the ending of King Lear with the concluding scene of Cymbeline: what makes it possible for the latter play (a romance) to end with forgiveness, concord, and security while the tragedy King Lear ends in crushed hopes and death? What assumptions are operative in Cymbeline that are not viable in King Lear?

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

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Titus Andronicus

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 115-79).

Act 1, Scene 1 (124-135, Bassianus & Saturninus advance their cause; Titus’ sons sacrifice Alarbus; Titus makes Saturninus emperor; Bassianus absconds with Lavinia, enraging Titus; Saturninus makes Tamora his empress; Tamora promises revenge against Andronici)

The play seems to be set late in the fourth century CE, and it depicts a Roman world turned upside down—one in which a Goth leader only recently brought to Rome in chains is elevated to nearly supreme power, and a valiant Roman is crushed by his rigid belief in an ancient code of honor that virtually no-one around him takes seriously.  In the eventful first scene, Titus Andronicus, a soldier of forty years’ standing, returns to Rome with his trophy Goths Tamora and her sons, only to be confronted with the bickering of Saturninus and Bassianus over the imperial succession.  While Saturninus proclaims his right as the first-born son of the late emperor, Bassianus advances his cause in the name of virtue: “suffer not dishonor to approach / The imperial seat” (125, 1.1.13-14), he pleads to the Tribunes, Senators, and his own followers. 

Titus has just returned from ten years of fighting in Rome’s cause, and all ears await his sentence as to who should take the throne.  The general’s speech to the assembled Romans is magnificent in its honest reckoning of the losses he has willingly borne for his country, and moving in its attention to the children he has lost: “Titus, unkind and careless of thine own, / Why suffer’st thou thy sons, unburied yet, / To hover on the dreadful shore of Styx?” (126-27, 1.1.86-88)  He is a Roman of the old school and a believer in strict pietas to family and state. 

At his remaining sons’ request, therefore, Titus will sacrifice conquered Tamora’s eldest son.  Titus’ sons explain clearly why they want to commit this act: “… so the shadows be not unappeas’d, / Nor we disturb’d with prodigies on earth” (127, 1.1.100-101).  Titus agrees to this demand without hesitation, but Tamora is quick to see the affair as hypocrisy: “must my sons be slaughtered in the streets / For valiant doings in their country’s cause?” (127, 1.1.112-13)  Her sons have only done what Titus’ would do in defense of their homeland.  Tamora’s plea, “Thrice-noble Titus, spare my first-born son!” (127, 1.1.119) is revealing in that its numerical quality suggests a world in which everything can be quantified or accounted for: surely, this strange honor code in which Titus believes is expansive enough to allow for generosity towards the eldest son of a valiant, defeated queen!  Titus is thrice noble, and ought to be magnanimous in victory.  But Titus disagrees: the honor code is strict, and a demand by blood for blood cannot be refused without shame.  It would, in fact, constitute an outrage against the memory of Titus’ dead sons.  So Tamora’s individual heartache, her natural appeal as a mother, must be subordinated to Roman ritual: piety must be upheld, and the general tells her to “Patient” (127, 1.1.121) herself while this supposed act of Roman religiosity is accomplished.  Tamora’s denunciation seems appropriate: “O cruel, irreligious piety!” (127, 1.1.130)  Tamora may be a barbarian queen, but she is no fool.  “Barbarism” is a worthy concept in Shakespeare’s play: the powerful Goths serve as a ground for the anxieties of a civilized people about their relationship to violence, their sense of identity, and the efficacy of their language.  Tamora and her sons both do and do not understand Rome.  The question is, how well does Rome understand them?

The aftermath of the deed done by Titus’ sons is announced with the words, “Alarbus’ limbs are lopped, / And entrails feed the sacrificing fire, / Whose smoke like incense doth perfume the sky” (128. 1.1.143-45).  The alliteration of the first line is deliciously absurd, and lets us in on the comic undertone of this otherwise tragic play: Titus Andronicus has an over-the-top quality, a tendency to revel in its scenes of violence and criminality, that mark it as a fine example of Elizabethan revenge tragedy.  “Shakespeare was young when he wrote Titus,” as an old professor of mine used to suggest by way of accounting for the play’s exuberance and outright silliness (there are approximately 217 references to body parts in Titus Andronicus—surely no accident on Shakespeare’s part), but we might as well admit that it’s a masterpiece of its kind.  The Elizabethans loved this kind of limb-hacking, blood-spattered spectacle, as the popularity of other plays such as Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy attests.  Dexter Morgan, eat your heart out!

With Alarbus’ limbs duly lopped, Titus must return to public responsibility.  Offered the throne in his own right, he magnanimously turns it down with the utterance, “Give me a staff of honor for mine age, / But not a scepter to control the world” (129, 1.1.198-99).  As kingmaker he chooses the eldest son of the departed Caesar as the new emperor, and Saturninus promises to wed Lavinia out of gratitude for this service (130, 1.1.240). 

But Bassianus, with the aid of Titus’ sons, escapes with his beloved Lavinia.  Titus kills his son Mutius when the latter bars his way in pursuit of the absconders (131, 1.1.288), but Saturninus flies into a rage anyhow, and chooses Tamora for his empress in place of Lavinia. 

The perverse nature of this choice is implied in Tamora’s promise to the young man: “If Saturnine advance the Queen of Goths, / She will a handmaid be to his desires, / A loving nurse, a mother to his youth” (132, 1.1.327-28).  Titus has given control of great Rome to a man who seeks a mother in the “barbarian” woman who wants nothing more than to destroy it as a means of revenging her losses in battle and the slaughter of her child.  As empress, Tamora  deviously smooths things over for Titus (134, 1.1.428ff), who has been left to lament the betrayal by his sons of the reputation he held dear.  As she explains to the inexperienced young emperor, she does this the better to crush Titus and his entire line when Saturninus is secure on the throne: “I’ll find a day to massacre them all …” (134, 1.1.447).  And so the act ends with Saturninus’ offer of a double wedding, and Titus’ promise of fine hunting.

Act 2, Scenes 1-2 (135-39, Aaron exults in Tamora’s success; Aaron helps Chiron and Demetrius plot the rape of Lavinia)

Aaron is exultant at Tamora’s advancement because it means great rewards for him, not only in terms of wealth but also personal pride: he will “be bright, and shine in pearl and gold,” but more than that, he will “wanton with this queen” (136, 2.1.19, 21) who promises to be the ruin of the hated Romans and their emperor.  Chiron and Demetrius scheme with Aaron’s aid to ravish Lavinia: says Aaron the strategist, “The woods are ruthless, dreadful, deaf, and dull” (138, 2.1.129), and therefore they can absorb in silence the savage crime these young men desire to commit against Lavinia.  They will all conspire with Tamora to refine the plot.  Scene 2 tells us of the hunting party’s beginning.

Act 2, Scene 3 (139-46, Bassianus and Lavinia discover Tamora and insult her; Aaron brings in Chiron and Demetrius, who kill Bassianus and rape & mutilate Lavinia with Tamora’s approval; Saturninus is duped by Aaron into arresting Martius and Quintus)

Tamora and Aaron converse in the woods, with Aaron counseling sexual restraint while revenge is yet to be had: “Madam, though Venus govern your desires, / Saturn is dominator over mine” (140, 2.3.30-31).  Then Bassianus and Lavinia discover Tamora and insult her at length (140-41, 2.3.55-87).  Aaron brings back Chiron and Demetrius, who kill Bassianus and rape and mutilate Lavinia, with Tamora’s explicit and sadistic approval (142, 2.3.114); she mocks Lavinia’s appeals to feminine compassion, reminding all present of Titus’ utter lack of compassion for her own heartrending pleas in support of her son (143, 2.3.161-64), and admonishes her sons, “The worse to her, the better loved of me” (143, 2.3.167).  Tamora goes off to enjoy herself with Aaron while the deed is done (143, 2.3.190-91).  Saturnine is easily duped by Aaron’s forged letter and planted bag of gold into thinking that Titus’ sons Martius and Quintus are Bassianus’ murderers (145, 2.3.281-85).  They are dragged from the pit into which they have fallen and brought to prison.  Tamora pretends to Titus that she will yet again assist him (146, 2.3.304).

Act 2, Scene 4 (146-47, Marcus finds Lavinia, likens her to Philomel; Titus must be informed)

Titus’ brother Marcus finds Lavinia and wonders what has happened.  Waxing poetical, he likens the scene to the story of Tereus and Philomel: “But sure some Tereus hath deflowered thee …” (146-47, 2.4.26-27).  Worse yet, he says, the ravishers have improved upon the dastardly practice of the original: “… he hath cut those pretty fingers off / That could have better sewed than Philomel” (147, 2.4.41-43).  Off they’ll go to afflict Titus with the sight of his ruined daughter, as if he hadn’t suffered enough already: as usual, the reference to suffering is harshly physical: “Come let us go, and make thy father blind …” (147, 2.4.52-53).

Act 3, Scene 1 (147-53, Titus abandoned, addresses sorrows to the stones; Lucius is in exile; Titus sees ravished Lavinia, and his post-cathartic thoughts turn towards revenge)

Everyone ignores Titus’ self-sacrifice of four decades, and the tribunes he implores are nowhere to be found, so he tells his “sorrows to the stones” instead (148, 3.1.36).  His entire world view has crashed, and Rome seems “a wilderness of tigers” (148, 3.1.54) intent on devouring only Titus and his kin.  Lucius has been banished for trying to assist his brothers.  At this point, we pity Titus already, but now he is shown Lavinia to top off his grief: “But that which gives my soul the greatest spurn/Is dear Lavinia” (149, 3.1.101-02).  Of course, pity has its limits when a man insists on serving up puns such as the one Titus offers Lavinia: “… what accursed hand / Hath made thee handless in thy father’s sight?” (149, 3.1.66-67).  Titus’s sacrifice of Tamora’s sons in the name of piety now appears worthless since piety is dead in Rome.  To be “wondered at in time to come” (150, 3.1.135) for the intensity of his wretchedness now seems appropriate to Titus, and his thoughts turn to what they can do to bring this about, by any means necessary.  Here Titus responds to unspeakable pain, both physical and mental.  In 3.2, he will reach a point at which there are no more tears, only vengeance, but not in the present scene; he is still processing his raw grief.

Aaron enters and offers to lend the Andronici a hand—or rather take one, and Titus, who had already thought it appropriate to “chop off” (149, 3.1.72) the hands that had vainly defended Rome, falls for the ruse: in spite of all that’s happened, he still thinks that when a man has given his word, honor will bind him to it.  Aaron’s pitch to any one of the Andronici is, “… chop off your hand / And send it to the King” (150, 3.1.153 -54).  As for Aaron, he is as always the ultimate stage villain: “Let fools do good, and fair men call for grace, / Aaron will have his soul black like his face” (151, 3.1.203-04).  Aaron’s cynical, selfish perspective is that codes exist only to get others to do what you want them to do.  But the Moor also pledges allegiance to pure wickedness, and as we can see from his exultant comments when he is in great danger later on, he is almost religious in his devotion to evil.  Titus’ rigidity in adhering to old Roman honor and morality has opened a window for Aaron’s excesses, and the man indulges his sadistic brand of individualism when Roman morality breaks down.

A messenger soon undeceives Titus (152, 3.1.233-39), and the absurd spectacle of “thy two sons’ heads, / Thy warlike hand, thy mangled daughter here,” as Marcus describes the sight (152, 3.1.253-54), brings no more weeping from the old man but instead determination to plan the destruction of Tamora and the Emperor: “Why, I have not another tear to shed” (153, 3.1.265).  This is a critical Senecan turning point in the play: Titus has turned from grief towards revenge and will not look back.  Lucius is instructed to go to the Goths to raise an army (153, 3.1.284).  Titus, Marcus and Lavinia continue the grotesque body parts motif by carting their dismembered kinsmen’s particulars off the stage: “Come, brother, take a head, / And in this hand the other I will bear …” (153, 3.1.278-81); even Lavinia is asked to pitch in and carry the severed hand of Titus.

Act 3, Scene 2 (153-55, banquet theme of hands, revenge against a fly: macabre interlude in preparation for revenge, but Titus is not insane)

Just when we thought the hand theme couldn’t be more over-the-top, along comes the second scene, with Titus and family seated at a banquet.  When Marcus clumsily blurts out, “Fie, brother, fie, teach her not thus to lay / Such violent hands upon her tender life” (154, 3.2.21-22), Titus responds with the immortal lines, “O, handle not the theme, to talk of hands, / Lest we remember still that we have none” (154, 3.2.29-30).  Titus continues to think on revenge, connecting even Marcus’ killing of a fly to this imperative: the family is not yet so reduced, he says, “But that between us we can kill a fly / That comes in likeness of a coal-black Moor” (155, 3.2.76-77).  Marcus thinks Titus is out of his mind, but that doesn’t seem to be the case; I suppose it’s just that by now his overflowing pain and grief have been transformed into a macabre sense of humor.  Titus and Lavinia soon go off to read “Sad stories chanced in the times of old” (155, 3.2.82).  Titus doesn’t know yet how informative those stories will turn out to be, but Ovid is about to provide some enlightenment about Lavinia’s travails.

Act 4, Scene 1 (155-58, Lavinia uses Ovid to reveal the truth, spurring Titus to revenge)

An excited Lavinia explains what happened to her via Ovid’s tale in the Metamorphoses about Procne, Philomel, and the wicked Thracian King Tereus, which Titus recognizes easily: “This is the tragic tale of Philomel…” (156, 4.1.47), and she writes “Stuprum–Chiron–Demetrius” (157, 4.1.77). Stuprum means rape, as in the Latin phrase, per vim stuprum, “violation by main force.”  Titus says he will be another Lucius Junius Brutus, this time expelling not Tarquins but Goths (157, 4.1.86-93), and he writes a note to be carried along with presents by the boy Lucius to Tamora’s sons at the palace (158, 4.1.113-15).  As for Ovid’s “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela” from Book 6 of The Metamorphoses, a lot of the details from this story seem to be distributed amongst the revenging factions of Titus and Tamora—the wooded setting for the rape of Lavinia mirrors the forest setting of the Thracian King Tereus’ rape of his sister-in-law Philomela, and so forth.  The strange disguises of Tamora and her sons evoke the Bacchanalian disguise in Procne and Philomela’s ruse against Tereus: he’s served the cannibal pie during the course of a Bacchanalian festival.  Ovid’s Latin story is at least as deliciously barbarous—pun intended—in its details as anything Elizabethans such as Thomas Preston (Cambises, 1561) or John Pickering (Horestes, 1567) or Shakespeare himself ever wrote. The same might be said of the Stoic Seneca, author of such bloody plays as Thyestes, circa CE 60.   

Marcus continues to believe that Titus has gone insane: “Marcus, attend him in his ecstasy” (158, 4.1.124), he says to himself, but it may not be so.  Shakespeare has cleverly combined Ovid’s story from The Metamorphoses with the violent foundational myth of the Roman Republic: the rape and suicide of Lucretia.  Below is the momentous tale from Titus Livius’ The History of Rome, in which Lucretia lets death attest to her adherence to the female married chastity necessary to preserve dynastic Roman bloodlines. The matron’s death allows her determined husband Collatinus, Lucius Junius Brutus, and others to use her outraged corpse as a prop for the expulsion of the Tarquin (Etruscan) King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus.  Lucretia, more insightful about the severe implications of the rigid Roman honor code than her own husband, provides the blood that spurs Roman valor into throwing off 244 years of Tarquin rule.  Here’s a version of the story I have shortened from a public-domain copy of Titus Livius’ History of Rome, Book 1:

1.57: […]The royal princes sometimes spent their leisure hours in feasting and entertainments, and at a wine party given by Sextus Tarquinius at which Collatinus, the son of Egerius, was present, the conversation happened to turn upon their wives, and each began to speak of his own in terms of extraordinarily high praise. As the dispute became warm, Collatinus said that there was no need of words [….] “Why do we not,” he exclaimed, “[…] pay our wives a visit and find out their characters on the spot? [.…] Thence they proceeded to Collatia, where they found Lucretia very differently employed from the king’s daughters-in-law, whom they had seen passing their time in feasting and luxury with their acquaintances. She was sitting at her wool work in the hall, late at night, with her maids busy round her. The palm in this competition of wifely virtue was awarded to Lucretia….  Sextus Tarquin, inflamed by the beauty and exemplary purity of Lucretia, formed the vile project of effecting her dishonor [.…]

1.58: A few days afterwards Sextus Tarquin went, unknown to Collatinus, with one companion to Collatia. He was hospitably received by the household, who suspected nothing, and after supper was conducted to the bedroom set apart for guests. When all around seemed safe and everybody fast asleep, he went in the frenzy of his passion with a naked sword to the sleeping Lucretia, and placing his left hand on her breast, said, “Silence, Lucretia! I am Sextus Tarquin, and I have a sword in my hand; if you utter a word, you shall die.” [.…] When he saw that she was inflexible and not moved even by the fear of death, he threatened to disgrace her, declaring that he would lay the naked corpse of the slave by her dead body, so that it might be said that she had been slain in foul adultery. By this awful threat, his lust triumphed over her inflexible chastity, and Tarquin went off exulting in having successfully attacked her honour. Lucretia, overwhelmed with grief […] sent a messenger to her father at Rome and to her husband at Ardea, asking them to come to her [….] They found Lucretia sitting in her room prostrate with grief. As they entered, she burst into tears, and [said] …, “The marks of a stranger, Collatinus, are in your bed. But it is only the body that has been violated, the soul is pure; death shall bear witness to that. But pledge me your solemn word that the adulterer shall not go unpunished. [….]  It is for you […] to see that he [Sextus Tarquinius] gets his deserts; although I acquit myself of the sin, I do not free myself from the penalty; no unchaste woman shall henceforth live and plead Lucretia’s example.”  She had a knife concealed in her dress which she plunged into her heart, and fell dying on the floor [.…]

1.59: [….] Brutus drew the knife from Lucretia’s wound, and holding it, dripping with blood, in front of him, said, “By this blood-most pure before the outrage wrought by the king’s son-I swear, and you, O gods, I call to witness that I will drive hence Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, together with his cursed wife and his whole brood, with fire and sword and every means in my power, and I will not suffer them or any one else to reign in Rome.” [….]

1.60: When the news of these proceedings reached the camp, the king [.…] hurried to Rome to quell the outbreak [.…] Tarquin found the gates shut, and a decree of banishment passed against him; the Liberator of the City [L. J. Brutus] received a joyous welcome in the camp, and the king’s sons were expelled from it [.…] Lucius Tarquinius Superbus reigned twenty-five years. The whole duration of the regal government from the foundation of the City to its liberation was two hundred and forty-four years. Two consuls were then elected in the assembly [.…] They were Lucius Junius Brutus and Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus.  [End of Book 1]  From The History of Rome, Vol. I, Titus Livius. Editor Ernest Rhys. Translator Rev. Canon Roberts. Everyman’s Library. London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1912.

Act 4, Scene 2 (158-62, Aaron figures out Titus’ note to Chiron & Demetrius, and defends his child by Tamora fiercely, even killing the nurse: the boy is his future)

Titus’ note to Chiron and Demetrius reads “Integer vitae, scelerisque purus, / Non eget Mauri jaculis, nec arcu” (159, 4.2.20-21; [the man who’s] upright in his life and free of vices has no need of Moorish spears or bows”).  But the boys aren’t good enough readers of Horace’s Odes to realize that Titus knows they conspired with the Moor.  Aaron is clearly out for himself—he doesn’t even tell Tamora about this new information.  The Empress delivers a child by Aaron, who protects his newborn son fiercely (160) when Chiron and Demetrius think to kill the infant, bearing him away to the Goths with the intention of raising the child as a warrior.  Aaron kills the Nurse (161), horrifying even the wicked sons of Tamora.  A countryman’s fair-skinned baby will be substituted and presented as Saturninus’ legitimate heir.  What is the child to Aaron?  He makes the point succinctly: “My mistress is my mistress, this myself … / … / This before all the world do I prefer” (161, 4.2.106-08).  Rome and its politics can go hang; Aaron’s main concern is to take the portion of immortality that a child of one’s own promises.

Act 4, Scene 3 (162-65, Titus aims his arrows for justice to heaven, at Saturninus’ palace: how mad or sane is he at this point?)

Titus’ arrows bear messages soliciting the gods for justice nowhere to be found on earth: “sith there’s no justice in earth nor hell, / We will solicit heaven and move the gods …” (163, 4.3.50-51).  The whole scene seems to show him both unhinged and yet canny: he tells Publius and Sempronius, “… when you come to Pluto’s region, / I pray you deliver him this petition” (163, 4.3.13-14).  His stratagem, though, is to shoot arrows towards Saturninus’ palace, and thereby to unsettle the young Emperor.  Titus also pays a rustic or “clown” to present Saturninus with a short speech and some pigeons (164, 4.3.91.4-5).  But then, perhaps we shouldn’t dismiss the notion that there’s something insane about Titus’ behavior all through the play: if insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results, Titus is at times close to a madman: he keeps supposing that if somebody makes a promise, it must be kept; and if somebody is legally entitled to an office, he’ll do his duty rather than taking advantage of the situation.  Such persistence in doing the honorable thing would make sense in a normal setting, but in decadent Rome it can only destroy the person who practices it.

Act 4, Scene 4 (165-67, Saturninus is angry at Titus, scared of Lucius: Tamora promises to neutralize the threat)

Saturninus is enraged before the Senate over Titus’ “blazoning our unjustice every where” (165, 4.4.18) and then has the clown hanged after reading the letter Titus wrote.  Tamora thinks she has at last driven Titus off the deep end: “Titus, I have touched thee to the quick” (166, 4.4.36).  The Emperor is frightened upon hearing that Lucius is headed for Rome with an army of Goths (166, 4.4.68-72), but he misunderstands Titus’ motive, which is revenge of a sort not reducible to politics.  Titus doesn’t want to rule Rome—what good would that do his battered spirit and maimed body now?  Tamora promises to soothe Titus’ anger, and thereby get him to separate Lucius from his invading force: “I will enchant the old Andronicus …” (167, 5.1.88-92).

Act 5, Scene 1 (167-71, The Goths will follow Lucius; Aaron recounts and exults in his allegedly numberless villainies; Lucius agrees to meet Saturninus at Andronici’s home)

The Goths swear loyalty to Lucius: “Be bold in us.  We’ll follow where thou lead’st …” (168, 5.1.13).  Aaron, captured with his child, is brought in.  He did not know about this new development.  Lucius threatens the child, so Aaron promises to reveal everything about his plots with Tamora and her sons, but Lucius must swear by the Christian god—for it seems that’s what Aaron attributes to Lucius by way of faith, based on his reference to Lucius’ ritualistic “popish tricks” (169, 5.1.76; see 74-85).  This is obviously a strange moment in the play since the ritual sacrifice in Act 1 has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity or, indeed, with properly pagan Roman ritual.  Well, all the plotting Aaron recounts (169-70, 5.1.87-120)—his getting a child by Tamora, the murder of Bassianus and the rape and mutilation of Lavinia that he inspired Chiron and Demetrius to do, and his own gleefully fraudulent taking of Titus’ hand — is news to Lucius because he left to raise an army of Goths before Lavinia revealed exactly what had happened to her and who did it.

When asked if he’s sorry, Aaron outdoes himself with a flourish of supervillain rhetoric (170, 5.1.124-44).  It would be hard to top the following claim for sheer malice: “Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves, / And set them upright at their dear friends’ door …” (170, 5.1.135-36; see 125-40).  He seems dedicated not so much to the kind of violence that furthers his self-interest or ambition but rather to a code of evil for evil’s sake, perhaps in part out of hatred for the Romans he so evidently despises: friendship is the target of Aaron’s alleged stratagem here, and readers of classical history and culture will know that loyalty in the cause of amicitia was among the primary Roman virtues.  More than that, Aaron asserts a fierce liberty in the face of a Roman culture that depends greatly upon the ties that bind people: ties of memory, friendship, and honor.

To round off the scene, Lucius hears that Saturninus “craves a parley at your father’s house” (171, 5.1.159), and agrees to hear the emperor out if proper pledges be given.

Act 5, Scene 2 (171-75, Tamora and sons try to fool Titus by dressing up as Revenge, Murder, Rapine; Titus slaughters Chiron and Demetrius)

Tamora and sons show up at Titus’ place dressed as Revenge, Murder, and Rapine (171-72).  He doesn’t believe them, but they consider him mad in spite of the clues he lets slip.  “Revenge” wants Titus to send for Lucius, and promises that when they are all at a banquet at Titus’ home, she will bring Tamora, Chiron, Demetrius, the Emperor and any other foes so that he may take revenge upon them (173, 5.2.114-20).  Titus insists that Rapine and Murder stay with him (173, 5.1.34) and then kills them, though not before he fully informs them that they are literally on the banquet menu: “Hark, wretches, how I mean to martyr you.… / … / “I will grind your bones to dust, / And with your blood and it I’ll make a paste …” (174-75, 5.2.179, 185-86).  Like the Thracian King Tereus in the legend Ovid recounts, Tamora will “swallow her own increase” (175, 5.2.190). 

Act 5, Scene 3 (175-79, Titus serves up some C & D pie, kills Lavinia, is killed by Saturninus, who is then killed by Lucius, who will be emperor; Aaron is sentenced to starve, and Tamora to be food for the birds, refused a proper burial)

Titus enters dressed as a cook.  The table is set and dinner is served (176, 5.3.25ff).  Titus asks Saturninus if Virginius (a decemvir from 451-449 BCE) was right to kill his daughter for chastity’s sake (176, 5.3.36-38).  (Appius had used legal trickery in an attempt to force himself on her, claiming that she was actually his slave; Virginius, disguised as a slave, killed her just after Appius’ co-conspirator Marcus Claudius judged in favor of Appius.)  Titus then kills Lavinia, saying “Die, die, Lavinia, and thy shame with thee,” explaining to all present that Chiron and Demetrius had ravished her (176, 5.3.45ff).  Asked where they are, he informs Tamora and Saturninus with an unforgettably gleeful rhyme: “Why, there they are, both bakèd in this pie / Whereof their mother daintily hath fed, / Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred” (176-77, 5.3.59-61).  Titus immediately stabs Tamora, and Saturninus kills him, whereupon Lucius kills Saturninus (177, 5.3.65). 

Aemilius asks for a full account of all the misdeeds, and receives it from Lucius (177, 5.3.95-107), who is chosen emperor.  Marcus asks all assembled if the Andronici have done wrong in exacting revenge; if they have, he offers that “The poor remainder of Andronici, / Will hand in hand all headlong hurl ourselves …” (178, 5.3.130-31).  But there’s no such call.

Aaron is carried in and judgment is sought against him (179, 5.3.175-77).  He is sentenced to starve while buried “breast-deep in earth” (179, 5.3.178), which seems like a spiteful way of denying him the sustenance that cannot be denied his child.  Still, Aaron maintains his standing as the play’s most remorseless evildoer: “If one good deed in all my life I did, / I do repent it from my very soul” (179, 5.3.188-89).  (In Julie Taymor’s adaptation, Aaron’s child is also brought in.)  The savage irony of this punishment is that, as mentioned earlier, Aaron had set himself up as a free spirit, unbound and untouched by Roman customs or values.  The Emperor will be properly buried, but Aaron will be pinned down to this lean fate and “that ravenous tiger, Tamora” (179, 5.3.194) will feast the birds.

All in all, the play is a delightfully outrageous, bloody instance of Elizabethan revenge tragedy in the tradition of Seneca and Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, in which the protagonist Hieronymo seeks wild, violent justice for the vengeful murder of his son.  Melodramatic as it may seem, Kyd’s early revenge tragedy is serious and philosophical. It considers life’s great questions, above all what constitutes justice in a wicked world, and is perhaps worthy of comparison with similar efforts by Aeschylus or Sophocles.  Shakespeare’s play is sometimes dismissed as frivolous, and of course it isn’t exactly the metadramatic extravaganza that is Hamlet, but it has a serious dimension that repays study.  Titus is no mere villain, and neither is Tamora.  Only Aaron seems to be a thoroughgoing dastard, with Tamora’s foolish sons coming in a distant second—they lack Aaron’s cunning and brains. 

Shakespeare’s genius leads him to employ the Romans versus Goths theme in a manner that confounds any simple opposition between Roman and Goth.  Titus turns out to be more of a Goth than we might have thought: excessive, bloody, and barbarous in his revenge.  Tamora is more than a cardboard or stage barbarian; her motive for revenge is at least legitimate, and she shows herself a skilled manipulator of Roman politics. 

Aaron’s race adds yet another perspective on the Goth/Roman opposition: it’s true that the “villain plot” he drives sets itself up against the twin revenge plots of Titus and Tamora and in part displays the man’s dedication to wickedness, but Aaron shows considerable loyalty to his child as the image of himself, and exults in his blackness.  Moreover, while Shakespeare may not be subjecting the revenge code to the kind of scrutiny it receives in Hamlet (where it’s understood that revenge is against God’s law), he seems quite interested in the complexities of Roman honor.  The allusions he makes to the Lucretia story from Livy’s History of Rome and to the Philomela tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses allow him to explore the significance of those key Roman myths. 

What is the play suggesting about moral codes?  Perhaps that people must live by them and within them, but also that they must not be imprisoned by them altogether.  Rigidity, failure to reflect on one’s values, allows cynicism and outrage to flourish: extremes beget counter-extremes.  Titus is an “honorable man,” to be sure, but the play as a whole keeps iterating that claim in action until the iterated actions generate a Mark Antony effect: by the fourth and fifth acts, what’s needed isn’t more old-fashioned honor but a plan for revenge against the barbarous Goths and Moors who have taken advantage of Titus’ stiff morality. 

Julie Taymor’s 2000 production Titus sets the play in a strangely neo-fascist Italy, with its futuristic architecture and art.  Taymor’s choice makes sense because the 1920’s-40’s dictator and Hitler ally Benito Mussolini appropriated the ancient Roman symbols of power and tried to turn Italy into an empire.  (For one thing, he invaded Ethiopia.)  And even in ancient times, the image of Rome in its imperial phase was due at least partly to the well-oiled propaganda machine of Augustus Caesar and the wisest of those who followed him as rulers.  Augustus promoted the idea that Rome’s anachronistic republican values were still operative, even though by his day, such values were probably more of a fashion statement than anything else.  By Titus’ era, his Rome no longer exists, in spite of his stubborn (if stylized) adherence to it.  Titus’ stylization, its earnestness aside, is itself decadent and not much more than an anachronistic fashion.  Of course, fashion statements can have political implications and reflect political facts on the ground, whether sincere or not.  Perhaps Shakespeare would praise Taymor’s concentration on the role of fabrication and stylistic borrowing and recycling in politics and history, with the definition of “reality” as consisting significantly (though not necessarily entirely) in a people’s perception of themselves rather than being reducible to some external standard.  Taymor’s film version ends by opening out onto the future; Aaron’s barbarian child seems the victor, the one who will inherit the time beyond the play’s frame.  Taymor’s version takes up a significant attitude towards the pageant of destruction and creation, struggle and lapse, memory and loss that we call history.

Finally, Titus Andronicus revels in gory violence, but the celebration is a response to the pain of life, a response to outrage and unfairness, a response to the simple fact of the tragic dimension of life: the world and human desire do not run parallel or accord with each other.  We may remember the scene in Martin Scorsese’s film Taxi Driver where the antihero Travis Bickle forces himself to hold his hand over an open flame for as long as he can.  This sort of grim endurance is the stuff of revenge tragedy, to which we should add a big heap of gallows humor and high-impact imagery (the Elizabethans, as Muriel Bradbrook would say, valued imagery and direct moral statement over narrative or characterization).  I prefer this revenge-play response to some of the ways we have of handling violence and pain today: violence in songs and films that justifies itself not as concentrated spectacle or protest but instead as a low species of realism: how many rappers (I don’t mean all of them, by any means) have defended their music’s gender-based and ethnic insults and raw gangster violence on the simple basis of “telling it like it is”?  I think art can do better than mindlessly perpetuate a sordid reality or claimed reality.  There are at least two legitimate ways to achieve this goal: one is an understandable retreat into the world of art—you can’t “live in art,” as a friend of Lord Tennyson correctly reminded him, but you can go there frequently and draw something good from your experience.  The other way is something more like an indirect, sophisticated exploration and even a protest with regard to the conditions of life, the human condition.  Some modern people’s sensibilities may be too delicate to handle Elizabethan or Jacobean revenge tragedy, but the plays themselves are serious efforts in the tragic and philosophical Senecan mode, with the aim being to explore the limits of pain and injustice, the better to inure an audience to its own sufferings without resorting to despair.

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

Timon of Athens

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. Timon of Athens. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 509-69).

Coming soon….

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

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

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

Coriolanus

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Antony and Cleopatra

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Troilus and Cressida

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Comedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

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

Prologue.

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

Act 1, Scene 1.

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

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

Act 1, Scene 2.

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

Act 1, Scene 3.

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

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

Act 2, Scene 1.

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

Act 2, Scene 2.

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

Act 2, Scene 3.

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

Act 3, Scene 1.

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

Act 3, Scene 2.

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

Act 3, Scene 3.

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

Act 4, Scene 1.

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

Act 4, Scenes 2-4.

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

Act 4, Scene 5.

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

Act 5, Scene 1.

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

Act 5, Scene 2.

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

Act 5, Scene 3.

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

Act 5, Scene 4.

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

Act 5, Scenes 5-6.

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

Act 5, Scene 7.

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

Act 5, Scene 8.

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

Act 5, Scenes 9-10.

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

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

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Titus Andronicus

Questions on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 115-79).

ACT 1

1. In Act 1, Scene 1, discuss the play’s presentation of Roman religious ritual: why does Titus believe that his sacrifice of Tamora’s eldest son Alarbus is honorable and necessary? In what does the sacrifice consist, and how does Shakespeare represent it onstage?

2. In Act 1, Scene 1, how does the captured Tamora, Queen of Goths, react to the prospect — and then the fact — of her eldest son’s slaughter? How does her response affect the way an audience might perceive the conduct and attitude of Titus with regard to the sacrifice?

3. In Act 1, Scene 1, how does Titus present to the Roman public his view of the death of several sons in his latest military campaign? How does he appear to feel about it privately, to himself, and how much scope do his private sentiments have with him?

4. In Act 1, Scene 1, what is the political situation in Rome? What claims do Saturninus and Bassianus respectively make to succeed their departed father the emperor? What clues does the text offer about the character of these two young men?

5. In Act 1, Scene 1, how does Titus handle the authority given to him by the people and leading politicians, including his brother, the Tribune Marcus Andronicus? In particular, what is Titus’ rationale for lending his voice to Saturninus and ignoring Bassianus?

6. In Act 1, Scene 1, the newly elevated Saturninus chooses Titus’ daughter Lavinia as empress, but is promptly love-struck by the alluring Tamora. How does Titus take the offer of his daughter being raised to empress, and how does he handle the rebellion this prospect sparks on the part of Bassianus, Lavinia, and his own sons? Who is in the right here, and why?

7. In Act 1, Scene 1, what does Tamora (newly made empress) understand about Roman ethics and politics that Titus doesn’t (at least until later)? Explain how she asserts her authority over Saturninus and begins to take control of the situation in Rome by manipulating that nation’s codes of language and conduct.

ACT 2

8. In Act 2, Scene 1, how does Tamora’s long-time lover, Aaron the Moor, see his situation now that Tamora has become Empress of Rome? How does he deal with the argument between her sons Chiron and Demetrius over their desire for Lavinia — what advice does he offer them, and what is his purpose in advising them as he does?

9. In Act 2, Scene 3, how does Aaron’s stratagem play out? In what ways do Chiron, Demetrius, Tamora and Aaron heap injury upon injury on the Andronici in this scene? In particular, how does Tamora respond to Lavinia’s pleas to kill her instead of ravishing her?

10. In Act 2, Scene 4, characterize Marcus Andronicus’ response when he lights upon the ravished and mutilated Lavinia: what classical allusions come to him when he sees her in distress, and what use does he make of them? How does he connect the dreadful scene in front of him with what has so far occurred in the play, and what does he think it necessary to do?

ACT 3

11. In Act 3, Scene 1, Titus is confronted with two shocks: the impending execution of two sons, and the sight of his mutilated daughter Lavinia, brought to her by his brother Marcus. How does he understand Rome now? To what extent is the representation of Titus’ suffering at this point designed to elicit pity? What in the representation might be said to work against pity?

12. In Act 3, Scene 1, what deception does Aaron practice against Titus, and on what basis is he able to get away with it — that is, why, with respect to Titus’ outlook and sensibilities, is Aaron’s stratagem so successful? In addition, what does Aaron reveal about his motivation for behaving as he has so far in the play — what are his allegiances and desires?

13. In Act 3, Scene 2, the remaining Andronici in Rome gather for a banquet. What do Titus’ reactions and words reveal about his mindset at this point? Is he distracted, as Marcus thinks, or would his mental state be best described otherwise? What is discussed at the banquet, and what elements of the scene inject comedy into an unbearable situation?

ACT 4

14. In Act 4, Scene 1, by what means does Lavinia reveal what has been done to her? How does Ovid’s book The Metamorphoses figure in her successful implication of Chiron and Demetrius? What lesson does Titus himself derive from Lavinia’s tale, beyond the obvious one that Tamora’s sons are the guilty parties?

15. In Act 4, Scene 2, Titus has his message delivered to Chiron and Demetrius, and news arrives that Tamora has given birth to a child by Aaron. How does Aaron handle this dangerous situation? What new dimension of himself do his words and actions regarding this event and its significance reveal?

16. In Act 4, Scene 3, how does Titus advance his designs on the Emperor? To what extent, if at all (as asked in a previous question), does he appear to be unbalanced? What is the point of having his supporters shoot “messaged” arrows in the direction of Saturninus?

17. In Act 4, Scene 4, how do Saturninus and Tamora, respectively, react to Titus’ threatening gesture against them from the previous scene, in which he ordered message-laded arrows shot in the Emperor’s direction? What errors beset their thinking with regard to Titus’ mental state and motives?

ACT 5

18. In Act 5, Scene 1, Aaron is captured by Lucius’ army while trying to escape from Roman territory with his child. From lines 124-44, Aaron utters one of the purest declarations of villainy in English drama: what opposition do his words constitute against Roman ethics, or indeed any kind of morality at all?

19. In Act 5, Scene 2, Tamora and sons show up at Titus’ place dressed as Revenge, Murder, and Rapine. What does Tamora apparently think she is accomplishing by this performance? How does Titus fool them all, and what does he do to Chiron and Demetrius? How does he explain his course of action to them as he kills them?

20. In Act 5, Scene 3, Titus ends Lavinia’s suffering and feeds Tamora and Saturninus “Chiron and Demetrius pie.” First, how does Titus justify his killing of Lavinia? And with regard to the dinner scene, why, after all that has happened thus far and based on the Ovidian source from which Shakespeare has drawn, is this cannibalistic catastrophe the most appropriate one?

21. In Act 5, Scene 3, what punishment does Lucius (newly proclaimed emperor) decree for Aaron? Why is that punishment a suitable revenge for what Aaron has done? Also, to what extent does Lucius’ heaping of blame on Aaron for what has happened seem adequate as an explanation for the tragic events that have occurred? Explain.

22. General question: why are there so many references to body parts in this play that they begin calling attention to themselves as such? What theme is Shakespeare exploring — or what goal is he achieving — when he makes his characters refer so clumsily, and so frequently, to the body parts they or others have lost: tongues, hands, heads, etc.?

23. General question: is Titus Andronicus a straightforward revenge tragedy, a parody or send-up of revenge tragedy, or something in between? In other words, do you think the play is meant to be taken seriously as tragedy? Or do you find its chief value in the realm of jest, spectacle, and mockery? Explain.

24. General question: if you have seen Julie Taymor’s film Titus (2000), how does it explore the play’s conflicts between Romans, Goths, and Aaron the Moor? How might the film be said to enhance our understanding of the play? What does the “neo-fascist” setting (and perhaps other decisions Taymor makes) add to the text?

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