Antony and Cleopatra

Questions on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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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

Titus Andronicus

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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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

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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

Romeo and Juliet

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Othello

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Macbeth

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

King Lear

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In narratives where historical veracity has no place, I cannot discover why there should not be exhibited the most perfect idea of virtue; of virtue not angelical, nor above probability, for what we cannot credit, we shall never imitate, but the highest and purest that humanity can reach, which, exercised in such trials as the various revolutions of things shall bring upon it, may, by conquering some calamities, and enduring others, teach us what we may hope, and what we can perform. Vice, for vice is necessary to be shewn, should always disgust; nor should the graces of gaiety, or the dignity of courage, be so united with it, as to reconcile it to the mind. Wherever it appears, it should raise hatred by the malignity of its practices, and contempt by the meanness of its stratagems: for while it is supported by either parts or spirit, it will be seldom heartily abhorred.  (http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/rambler4.html).

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Julius Caesar

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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

Act 1, Scene 1

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

Act 1, Scene 2

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

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

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

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

Act 1, Scene 3

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

Act 2, Scene 1

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

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

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

Act 2, Scene 2

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

Act 3, Scene 1

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

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

Act 3, Scene 2

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

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

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

Act 4, Scene 1

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

Act 4, Scenes 2-3

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

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

Act 5, Scenes 1-3

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

Act 5, Scenes 4-5

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

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

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Hamlet

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 323-424).

Preliminary Notes on Hamlet  

Theology. In Christian terms, revenge amounts to usurpation of God’s providential prerogatives. But this interpretation of revenge clashes with a more ancient one that’s easily seen at work in Classical literature: in The Oresteia, for instance, Orestes would be wrong not to take vengeance on his father Agamemnon’s killer. How could Orestes not kill Clytemnestra? He and we know that such an act will bring the Furies down upon his head, but it must be done in spite of the penalty incurred. The Elizabethans love a good Senecan-style revenge tragedy, as the popularity of Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy shows, but Shakespeare, who revels in the form just as much as anyone else (Titus Andronicus, anyone?) seems to face most squarely the theological dilemma it entails.

Skepticism. There is something to the idea that Hamlet is a man out of his time, someone not quite fit to be a tragic hero. That’s true even if his problem isn’t really “delay,” although he accuses himself of it. He makes his share of false assumptions and rash mistakes. I say only half in jest that the Prince’s problem may be that he has read Montaigne’s Essays and soaked in some of their epistemological skepticism. The play’s proddings towards revenge don’t seem solid to Hamlet: there is only a ghost who tells him what he wants to hear: Claudius is stealing his mother’s attention and his kingdom, so the man must be paid back.

Recognition. At what point in the play does Hamlet attain clarity about the nature of his actions? He must have come round to the idea that he needs to let things shape up as they may. But exactly how he has come that far isn’t entirely clear. Perhaps his realization is due to a number of experiences (facing the shock of Ophelia’s death, meditating on that army going to its death “even for an eggshell,” bantering with the Gravedigger and encountering Yorick’s skull as an object of meditation, escaping from the ship that was taking him to his death in England, being ransomed by pirates at sea, his conflicted feelings about Ophelia and his mother, etc.) In The Poetics, Aristotle says that well-crafted tragedies turn upon the hero’s arriving at some fundamental insight (anagnorisis, recognition, “un-unknowing”) about the mistake he or she has made. Characterize Hamlet’s insight into his situation—what is the insight, and what has led him to it? Connect this question to the gravedigger scene. What finally makes the play’s resolution possible—is it that Hamlet has been unable to act and something now makes him able to act? (Oedipus Rex, for example, combines recognition with “reversal”—expecting good news from a messenger, Oedipus instead learns that the guilt lies squarely on his own shoulders.)

Specific Notes on Hamlet

Act 1, Scene 1. (336-40, Guesses about a ghost)

The watchmen and Horatio offer some surmises: Horatio suspects that the ghost’s appearance “bodes some strange eruption to our state” (338, 1.1.68). They’re on watch because young Fortinbras is planning to take back the territory his father had lost to Hamlet Sr. Barnardo supposes the same thing when he says, “Well may it sort that this portentous figure / Comes armed through our watch so like the King / That was and is the question of these wars” (339, 1.1.106.2-4). They feel foreboding, a sickness at heart; but they have only general knowledge, and Horatio’s idea (340, 1.1.150-52) is to seek out Hamlet and have him interact with the ghost; it seems logical to him that the young Prince will be able to attain particular, intimate knowledge of the spirit’s purpose.

Act 1, Scene 2. (340-46, Hamlet’s grief schooled, soliloquized; suspicions; ghost info!) 

Hamlet’s grief seems impolitic, self-indulgent, even prideful—at least to Claudius, who must govern. But Claudius’ rhetoric betrays a “schizoid” sense of his own conduct. He sees with “one auspicious, and one dropping eye” (341, 1.2.6-14), which is of course unnatural and nearly impossible even to imagine. The new King’s grief over his brother’s death is pushed aside by his evil ambition to retain the crown he has unfairly won, and his scoffing at young Fortinbras’ supposition that Denmark is “disjoint and out of frame” (341, 1.2.20) is ironic since, as we later find out, there’s nothing but disorder in Claudius’ realm. At this point, however, if we are a first-time audience, we don’t yet know that Claudius is a murderer, i.e. that the ghost’s story is true, so the new king is entitled to be annoyed with the excessive grief and surliness of Prince Hamlet. As Claudius points out, he has the backing of the citizenry, and Gertrude’s advice to her son is not without wisdom: “Thou know’st it is common, all that lives must die, / Passing through nature to eternity. / … Why seems it so particular with thee?” (342, 1.2.72-75)

Soon thereafter, Hamlet speaks his first soliloquy, lamenting that “the Everlasting had not fix’d / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter” (343, 1.2.131-32), reproaching the general run of females in the person of Gertrude—“Frailty, thy name is woman!” (344, 1.2.146)—and profoundly disparaging Claudius in comparison with Hamlet, Sr. The latter was, says the Prince, “Hyperion” to Claudius’ “satyr” (344, 1.2.140), which makes Gertrude’s choice to remarry all the more contemptible. Hamlet’s imagination at this point, even before he hears the ghost’s damning information, seems morbid: he sees the whole world as “an unweeded garden / That grows to seed” (344, 1.2.135-36), one inhabited entirely by “things rank and gross in nature” (344, 1.2.136). Hamlet seems to play with the amount of time that has passed between the old king’s death and Gertrude’s marriage, and that she was apparently in genuine sorrow for her first husband only makes her subsequent conduct more unacceptable. Hamlet is already obsessed with the dark intimation that people are not what they seem: Gertrude is not the loyal wife she seemed, and Claudius is not the rightful successor the court and the people apparently believe he is. But Hamlet also knows that he must repress this obsession in public: “But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (344, 1.2.159). Privately, things are different: he already seems to suspect that “some foul play” (346, 1.2.255) was involved in his father’s death or that “foul play” is now afoot, even though his questioning of Horatio about the ghost’s appearance indicates genuine uncertainty about its provenance and mission. The stage is set for Hamlet’s moral mission, if we call “revenge” a moral mission. Indeed, the question will trouble Hamlet as the play proceeds. But for now we hear the sententia, “[Foul] deeds will rise, / Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes” (346, 1.2.256-57). To me, this line indicates that the “deeds” to which Hamlet refers have already been committed, in his estimation. There is an ambiguity in this last passage of Act 1, Scene 2, a bit of shuffling between matters of state (“My father’s spirit—in arms!” 344, 1.2.254) and essentially private thoughts about the suspicious loss of a dear father.

Act 1, Scene 3. (346-49, Laertes and Ophelia lecture each other about virtue) 

Laertes has evidently been taught well in the arts of windbaggery by his father Polonius since he lectures Ophelia sententiously about the dangers of giving in to the importunate suit of a lustful young man far above her station. (346-47, 1.3.5ff) This advice is sound enough as such things go—Hamlet is, after all, a Prince, so he is not free to love as he wishes without thought of Denmark; but as Gertrude later admits when Ophelia is dead, she had hoped the two lovers would in fact marry. But in any case, Ophelia holds her own, showing that while circumstances may constrain her, she is not lacking in understanding or the courage to speak her own mind. (347-48, 1.3.45ff) Polonius soon comes onto the scene and offers similar advice, accusing Ophelia of naivety about Hamlet’s intentions and showing that he reads the character of others as a function of stereotypes: Hamlet is a young, lusty bachelor, and is therefore not to be trusted, quite aside from his status as a prince. (348, 1.3.88ff)

Act 1, Scene 4. (349-52, Ghost beckons to Hamlet) 

At the beginning of Scene 4, Hamlet discusses the Court of Denmark’s fondness for alcohol, declaring that his country is “traduc’d and tax’d of other nations” (350, 1.4.18.2) for this weakness. In his 1948 film adaptation of the play, Laurence Olivier chooses to quote directly from this passage and apply the words to the Prince himself, who by implication suffers from “a vicious mole of nature” (350, 1.4.18.8) in that he simply cannot “make up his mind” (Olivier’s voiceover). But this is an overstatement, perhaps, since there is good reason to doubt the purposes of a ghost such as the one Hamlet sees here for the first time: “What may this mean, / That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel / Revisits thus the glimpses of the moon . . . ?” (351, 1.4.32-34)

Act 1, Scene 5. (352-56, Ghost commands, Hamlet vows: resentment, strategy) 

The Ghost then recounts in bloodcurdling detail exactly what happened to him and who is responsible for it, eliciting an excited “O my prophetic soul!” (353, 1.5.41) from the Prince, as if he had suspected all along that Claudius had killed his father. The terms the Ghost uses to describe both Claudius and Gertrude are strongly reminiscent of the very ones Hamlet had used shortly before. I think we may be certain that the Ghost exists in the play-world, but at the same time, it’s almost as if Prince Hamlet is talking to himself. He is utterly convinced at this point, begging the Ghost that he will, “Haste me to know’t, that I with wings as swift / As meditation, or the thoughts of love, / May sweep to my revenge” (352, 1.5.29-31).

There is a problem with the Ghost’s demand for vengeance, however: God says in Deuteronomy, “To me belongeth vengeance and recompense” (32:35). Why, then, should a soul in purgatory (a Catholic concept, by the way) be fixated on revenge? Revenge is an ancient pagan demand, and it seems petty. But Hamlet Sr. was a warrior king, so perhaps his demand that his son should punish Claudius seems reasonable in that context: the latter is a “traitor to his lord” and a dishonorable wretch who has corrupted the state. The Ghost insists that “the royal bed of Denmark” be redeemed from its current status as “A couch for luxury and damned incest” (353b, 1.5.82-83), but his call still seems mostly a private affair. It strains the “fatherly king” framework, and would require the son to set himself against the current order of the State, most likely at the cost of his own life. The Ghost has laid upon the Prince an extremely difficult set of demands—not only must he kill the new king without damning himself, but he must deal with Gertrude in such as way as not to damn her: “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught” (353b, 1.5.85-86). How is the young man to do these things? He was already “tainted” in his mind before he ever saw the Ghost, we might say, and what’s more, since the Ghost deals in the ancient imperative of revenge, it makes sense to remind ourselves that even the most righteous acts of revenge in ancient literature entailed pollution that had to be atoned for afterwards. One thinks of Odysseus purifying his great hall after the slaughter of those mannerless suitors who have beset Penelope, or the dreadful punishment incurred by Clytemnestra when she killed Agamemnon, or the penalty threatened against Orestes by the Erinyes after he in turn killed Clytemnestra. In either the pagan or the Christian context, to take revenge is to pollute oneself in the doing. Had Shakespeare written a mindlessly celebratory “revenge tragedy,” we wouldn’t need to think any of these things, but there seems to be a metageneric dimension in Hamlet that positively demands such consideration.

One might take the Ghost’s appearance as a general protest against Denmark’s rotten condition, but the Prince doesn’t seem certain of much yet, as we can see from his words and actions after the Ghost bids him farewell. On the one hand, we hear that Hamlet is determined to take revenge: “Yea, from the table of my memory / I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, / . . . And thy commandement all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain” (354, 1.5.98-99, 102-03). His wax-writing-tablet metaphor seems sincere, although it’s perhaps slightly comic in that Hamlet, a young man who has (accurately or otherwise) become a byword for deferral and delay, speaks of writing at the very instant when he’s most certain of his desire to act: “make a note to myself, take revenge,” so to speak. His indecisiveness or resentment at the task to which he has been called shows much more strongly, of course, in his concluding words during this scene: “The time is out of joint—O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!” (356, 1.5.189-90). That abrupt remark suggests anything but a determination to proceed “with wings as swift / As meditation” to a “sweep[ing]” revenge, the precise manner of which has been left to his own devising. One other useful thing to draw from Hamlet at this point is his remark to Horatio and the Watchmen that he may, at some points, “think meet / To put an antic disposition on” (356, 1.5.172-73). He has already hit upon the strategy of feigning something like lunacy to accomplish his great task. It may be difficult to tell at some points just how much control Hamlet has over his speech and his actions, but here, at least, we see that he puts his wildness down to strategy.

Act 2, Scene 1. (356-59, Polonius gathers intelligence from Ophelia) 

Polonius is both an endearing character, full of well-intentioned, if comically delivered, advice to his children (and the royal couple) and a meddling intelligencer who deals with those same children in a sneaky, underhanded way. He sets spies on Laertes to find out if the young fellow is behaving (356-57), and, after having commanded Ophelia to stay away from Hamlet, he tethers her near him like a sacrificial goat to find out what’s eating him and inform Claudius and Gertrude of it. But at this point, Polonius’ assumption that the Prince’s distraction is “the very ecstasy of love” (358, 2.1.103) seems reasonable, based upon what Ophelia has told him about Hamlet’s bizarre sighing and strange state of undress.

Act 2, Scene 2. (359-72, C & G & Polonius ponder Hamlet’s behavior; Hamlet greets R & G, hears players rehearse; adapts Gonzago to trap Claudius) 

Everybody’s favorite nobodies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern make their first appearance in the play (359-60, 2.2.1-18), and Voltemand brings what seems to be good news about that troublesome issue of young Fortinbras “sharking up” an army of ruffians to take back what his father lost to the Danes—now the young blade wants only to use Denmark’s territory as a marching ground on his way to Poland, where he has other fighting to do. (360-61, 2.2.60-79) Polonius’ insistence that he has “found / The very cause of Hamlet’s lunacy” (360-62, 2.2.48-49) excites Claudius, who says, “O, speak of that, that do I long to hear!” (360, 2.2.50) Together these remarks suggest that Hamlet has been putting on a good show, taking up his “antic disposition” early in the game since “lunacy” would not be the right term with which to describe he initial surliness and melancholia in Act 1. The Prince must, we presume, act in such a manner as to draw Claudius beyond his semi-comfortable geniality towards Hamlet, and into the active agent’s circle of consequence and blood revenge. Polonius is certainly moved to act: he declares to the King and Queen, “I’ll loose my daughter to [Hamlet]. / Be you and I behind an arras then, / Mark the encounter. . .” (362, 2.2.163-64). This determination is made stronger still when Hamlet wanders into the scene and Polonius engages him (sans Ophelia as yet) in a strange conversation that is afterwards carried on with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern after Polonius exits. Not realizing the irony of his formalistic amazement at Hamlet’s “pregnant replies,” Polonius admiringly says, “Though this be madness, yet there is / method in’t” (363, 2.2.203-04).

Hamlet kindly receives his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and he deftly, but rather gently, unmasks their dishonesty preparatory to his later, much harsher dealings with them. After the pair admit that they were indeed “sent for” (365, 2.2.284), Hamlet suggests that the King and Queen are worried about his mopishness, nothing more, and he immediately utters one of the most famous invocations of Renaissance humanism and aliveness to the beauty of a world people were beginning to see afresh after centuries of otherworldliness (that’s the stereotype, anyway—the Middle Ages weren’t as drab as we like to suppose). “What a piece of work is a / man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in / form and moving, how express and admirable in / action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a / god!” (365, 2.2.293-300) He says all this only to bring the whole “majestical roof” (365, 2.2.291) down on our heads, reminding us that we are but the most refined dust in the cosmos, a “quintessence of dust” (365, 2.2.298). The letdown is deepened by Rosencrantz’s dirty-minded interpretation of Hamlet’s words, and the whole thing leads directly to the announcement that a troupe of actors (“players”) is on the way to Elsinore. (366, 2.2.304-07)

Hamlet comments briefly on the state of late Elizabethan theater, saying that the mannerisms of child actors (he refers to the current craze for plays put on by children) have become an object of mockery—there’s too much affectation, too much pandering to the crowd, too much willingness to break the dramatic illusion. (366, 2.2.331-51) Denmark is disturbed as well; things aren’t what they seem, and the stage “chronicles” the age. Hamlet listens with rapt interest to the player’s interpretation of the tragic ending of the Trojan War. (369-70, 2.2.448-98) In The Aeneid, Book 2 (lines 675ff, Fagles translation) Achilles’ son Pyrrhus (called Neoptolemus in The Iliad and The Odyssey) has the simple task of revenging his father, and he proceeds with all swiftness to his bloody deed. (Odysseus’ brief account of the young man’s career in The Odyssey at 11.575ff has Neoptolemus behaving with great forthrightness throughout the War, too.) It is the Trojan Prince Aeneas who is filled with horror at the sight of his king Priam’s corpse because it puts him in mind of his wife Creusa and his father Anchises. Aeneas’ rage flows at once to perfidious Helen, and is only cooled by a vision of his mother Venus, who tells him to look to his family in their time of need. As for Hecuba’s grief at the murder of her husband, the player makes it seem so natural that even he gets worked up imitating it. Hamlet beholds the real article—he has a murdered father to avenge—so why doesn’t he act at once? (371, 2.2.536-39) Things are so much simpler in fiction; a noble lie or mere representation may allow us to perpetuate our highest ideals, but real life is weighed down with epistemological uncertainties, Machiavellian considerations, and “vicious mole[s] of nature” such as indecisiveness. Hamlet’s revenge imperative is hindered by Christian scruples and by doubts about the Ghost’s purpose and provenance, as his soliloquy from line 550 onwards shows: “The spirit that I have seen / May be a [dev’l], and the [dev’l] hath power / T’ assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps, / Out of my weakness and my melancholy, / . . . Abuses me to damn me” (372, 2.2.575-80). Basing his plan on the literary gossip that “guilty creatures sitting at a play / Have by the very cunning of the scene / . . . proclaim’d their malefactions” (371, 2.2.566-69), he invests much hope in his augmentations to The Murder of Gonzago as a means of discovering certainty in the guilty visage of Claudius. (372, 2.2.571-75) This plan does not give us license to despise fiction as the mere opposite of “real life”—in this instance, the public, political realm, the world of cold, hard reality and necessity, is exactly what allows Claudius to keep his murderous nature hidden from everyone but himself.

Act 3, Scene 1. (372-76, Players! “To be …”; Hamlet breaks Ophelia’s heart) 

The King tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to encourage this new business of the players’ coming to Elsinore. (372, 3.1.27-28) Perhaps it will draw out the reason for Hamlet’s eccentric behavior. He and Polonius will conceal themselves to hear Hamlet talk with Ophelia. (373, 3.1.45) Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy, the main point of which is to state that our ignorance of what comes after death keeps us from acting on our resolutions in this life. Hamlet’s wild words to Ophelia concern mainly the impossibility of virtue maintaining itself in a corrupt world: “get thee to a nunnery” probably means just that—remove yourself from this wicked world, and seek shelter from the “arrant knaves” who go about in it. Hamlet denies that he ever established any relationship with Ophelia, that he ever made any promises. (374, 3.1.119-20) He asks Ophelia where her father is (375, 3.1.130), a line usually taken to indicate that he knows he’s being overheard. At line 142, Hamlet seems to lose his composure in a way that is not entirely scripted, and he utters words that frighten Claudius: “I say we shall have no moe marriages, etc.” (375, 3.1.142-48) Claudius derives from this outburst the thought that Hamlet’s disturbed state of mind is “not like madness” (375, 3.1.163), so he must be watched even more closely. The Prince’s “melancholy,” says Claudius (whose guilt had already been spurred by Polonius’ unwitting words about “sugar[ing] o’er” (373, 3.1.50) the most damnable deeds with piousness), “sits on brood” (375, 3.1.164) over something still darker, and that is what he finds most troubling about the young man’s hostility towards him.

Act 3, Scene 2. (376-85, Hamlet lectures players; Gonzago & D-Show outs Claudius; Hamlet lashes out at R & G, anger flows against Gertrude) 

Hamlet admonishes the players about their craft: his key bits of advice are that they “o’erstep not the modesty of nature” (20) and make certain “to / hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue / her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” (377, 3.1.14-40). In part, this is a moral statement akin to what we may find in Samuel Johnson much later—actors should display virtue as it is, and force vice to confront itself head on. Hamlet means to do just that by means of his spectacle: simply showing and then speaking Claudius’ sin should make that sin’s effects register on his countenance. (378-82, 3.2.123-238) No embellishment is necessary for such a hideous sin as his. Hamlet’s words strike home when he tells the offended Claudius, “No, no, they do but jest, poison in jest—no offense i’ th’ world” (381, 3.2.214-15). The King has consistently failed to take the measure of the consequences entailed by his evil conduct; his stability of mind depends on repressing consciousness of that conduct. Hamlet is cruelly merry with Ophelia in this scene—he seems to be baiting her, blaming her for the sins of his mother. (378, 3.2.101-15) The dumb show soon follows (379, 3.2.122ff)—it is an eerie scene that shows Claudius what he has done, no more, no less. But the dialogue also plays up the absolutely binding quality of the oath that Gertrude has violated, in Hamlet’s view: “Both here and hence pursue me lasting strife, / If once a widow, ever I be wife!” (381, 3.2.202-03). That sort of language equates Gertrude with a villainess such as Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. Forced to watch “himself” commit the same dark sin twice, Claudius howls out, “Give me some light. Away!” (382, 3.2.247) With the King out of the scene, Hamlet’s anger turns first towards Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom he disabuses of any hope that they may “play upon” him like a musical instrument (384, 3.2.341), and then to Gertrude, who is perhaps the main target of the whole scene, so savage is the representation of her role in the bloody affair. The Prince’s rejection of “instrumentality” is interesting in its own right—what Hamlet seems to need most of all, at this point, is to take control of events, and we will see that he must let go of this desire to control what happens around him before his revenge can be effected. But with respect to Gertrude, Hamlet’s words are even harsher than were those in The Murder of Gonzago; he says, “Now could I drink hot blood, / And do such [bitter business as the] day / Would quake to look on” (385, 3.2.360-62). Perhaps this violent thought is directed towards Claudius only, but it’s hard to avoid supposing from what follows that it also applies to Gertrude: “Let me be cruel, not unnatural; / I will speak [daggers] to her, but use none” (385, 3.2.365-66).

Act 3, Scene 3. (385-87, Claudius decides to send Hamlet away; bootless prayer) 

The King has decided in his anger that Hamlet must be off to England, and Rosencrantz speaks more truly than he knows when he says to Claudius, “The cease of majesty / Dies not alone, but like a gulf doth draw / What’s near it with it” (385, 3.3.15-17). These two flatter the King that what he does is necessary to protect the welfare of the state and the people: “Most holy and religious fear it is / To keep those many bodies safe / That live and feed upon your Majesty” (385, 3.3.8-10). The political realm is like an exoskeleton protecting Claudius from the ravages of introspection, and even from the guilt that comes when one knows one is putting off such inward-tending thoughts. This is the same sort of “tyrant’s plea” that accounts for the magnificent hollowness of Satan’s rhetoric in Paradise Lost. Confronting Adam and Eve in Book 4, Satan says, “. . . Melt, as I doe, yet public reason just, / Honour and Empire with revenge enlarg’d, / By conquering this new World, compels me now / To do what else though damnd I should abhorre.” At line 36 and following, Claudius kneels and tries to confront “the visage of offense” (386, 3.3.36-72), but he cannot because he won’t give up the crown, the effects of his sin. It’s doubtful if we are to understand this attempt at repentance as sincere—doesn’t it seem as if Claudius isn’t so much sorry for killing the king as determined to indulge himself in remorse? Is he just “feeling sorry for himself”? Most likely, to judge from the results of his kneeling prayer: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; / Words without thoughts never to heaven go” (387, 3.3.97-98). Hamlet looks almost as much the villain as the King at this point, when he reveals his earnestly un-Christian desire that Claudius’ soul at death “may be as damn’d and black / As hell, whereto it goes” (387, 3.3.94-95). But just at this point, the King relieves Hamlet of the need to contrive such an outcome by showing that he is completely unable to repent for his mortal sin, or even to take the first necessary steps that would reclaim his chance at salvation.

Act 3, Scene 4. (387-92, Polonius killed, Gertrude forced to look within) 

After himself slaughtering the hidden Polonius, Hamlet goes so far as to accuse Gertrude of taking part in Claudius’ plot to murder Hamlet, Sr. when he blurts out, “A bloody deed! Almost as bad, good mother, / As kill a king, and marry with his brother” (388, 3.4.27-28). She seems genuinely shocked at the suggestion. Hamlet has little time now for a “wretched, rash, intruding fool” (388, 3.4.30) like Polonius, a man everyone else held in high regard and with whom they showed considerable patience, and he drives onward to make Gertrude confront her sinfulness as directly as he made Claudius behold his during the “Gonzago” scene. Hamlet suggests that Gertrude’s lust is not even excusable by reference to the heat of youth; at her age, he insists, “The heyday in the blood is tame, it’s humble, / And waits upon the judgment” (389, 3.4.68-69). His efforts succeed without too much trouble since Gertrude cries, “Thou turn’st my [eyes into my very] soul” (389, 3.4.79). At this point, Ernest Jones’ “Oedipal reading” of the play comes into its own, if it hadn’t already: Hamlet can scarcely stand to imagine—and yet can’t help but imagine—his mother in bed with Claudius, where they spend their time “honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty!” (389b-90, 3.4.82-84) The obsession is so deep that the Ghost must step in to admonish Hamlet about his “almost blunted purpose” (390, 3.4.101) of taking revenge against Claudius.

As for Polonius, to the thought of whom Hamlet now returns, there is some remorse, but it’s quickly smoothed over with philosophizing: “For this same lord, / I do repent; but heaven hath pleas’d it so / To punish me with this, and this with me, / That I must be their scourge and minister” (391, 3.4.156-59). Hamlet tells Gertrude not to let on that he’s not exactly insane, and he confides in her, at least to a degree, what he has in mind. Knowing he cannot trust Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he says nonetheless, “Let it work, / For ‘tis the sport to have the enginer / Hoist with his own petar, an’t shall go hard / But I will delve one yard below their mines, / And blow them at the moon” (392, 3.4.185.4-8). This is an odd exclamation since Hamlet knows only that he’s being “marshal[ed] to knavery” (392, 3.4.185.4) of some sort; he can’t know the precise plan, but speaks with almost military precision, promising to turn their evil back upon them.

Act 4, Scene 1. (393-94, Claudius is dismayed about Hamlet’s conduct) 

The King is by now “full of discord and dismay” (394, 4.1.40) at the turn of events; he knows Hamlet’s sword was meant for him.

Act 4, Scene 2. (394-94, Hamlet mocks R & G as instruments of Claudius) 

Hamlet calls Rosencrantz a “sponge” (394, 4.2.11, 14-16) who “soaks up the King’s countenance, his rewards, his authorities” (15-16). As for Claudius, he is “a thing,” says Hamlet, “of nothing.” His odd remark that “The body is with the King, but the King is not with the body” (394, 4.2.25-28) most obviously refers to Polonius’ corpse, but it might be interpreted along the lines of the longstanding political doctrine that the king has both a civil or corporate body (imperishable) and a natural, mortal one. In this sense, perhaps Hamlet is making an oblique threat against Claudius.

Act 4, Scene 3. (394-96, Hamlet mocks Claudius, who has commanded his death) 

Claudius realizes the desperate state in which he stands: “Diseases desperate grown / By desperate appliance are reliev’d, / Or not at all” (395, 4.3.9-11). Then follows Hamlet’s quizzical “fishing” conversation with the King, which culminates with the fine demonstration that “a king may go / a progress through the guts of a beggar” (395, 4.3.30-31). The adornment and aggrandizing of this decaying body, so easily inducted into the dark processiveness of nature, is what Claudius has traded his soul for, so in this respect he truly is “a thing . . . nothing.” Hamlet calls Claudius “dear mother” (396, 4.3.51), a slip-up that seems sincere since he has had trouble keeping the two apart in his mind. Claudius is increasingly disturbed by Hamlet’s presence, and even by his very existence: requesting “The present death of Hamlet” (396, 4.3.66), Claudius says, “Do it, England, / For like the hectic in my blood he rages, / And thou must cure me” (396, 4.3.66-68). But what the King seeks most of all is security: “Till I know ‘tis done, / Howe’er my haps, my joys were ne’er [begun]” (396, 4.3.68-69).

Act 4, Scene 4. (396-98, Another resolution from Hamlet over Fortinbras’ march) 

Young Fortinbras seeks conveyance through Denmark on his way to Poland, and the Captain Hamlet speaks to doesn’t think much of his assignment: “We go to gain a little patch of ground / That hath in it no profit but the name” (397, 4.4.9.8-9). Hamlet takes the point to heart, making yet another resolution that his mind will contain only thoughts of vengeance from now on: “O, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” (398, 4.4.9.56) But this one is no more permanent than the ones he made earlier in the play—this is fundamentally not Hamlet’s nature, if we may endow a literary character with such a thing. Part of the interest in Hamlet is, of course, that not only is the time “out of joint,” but the hero himself is “out of joint,” not immediately adapted to the dreadful role he must play. In this way, I think the romantic reading of the tragedy, in which Hamlet is too aloof and philosophical to carry out such a task as revenging a murdered father briskly, is worthy of respect.

Act 4, Scenes 5-7. (398-408, Ophelia’s madness and death; Laertes’ rage; Hamlet is back in Denmark; Claudius and Laertes plot revenge) 

Ophelia brings dismay to the Court when she shows clear signs of madness. (398-99, 4.5.23-70) Perhaps her condition should not be much of a surprise since she has been used as an agent against Hamlet, dangled before him like a piece of meat. A love match has been perverted by the general condition of Denmark, as embodied in the selfish behavior of Polonius and the King. As for Ophelia’s references to flowers, well, flowers are natural beauties, things we use to express a whole range of human experience and sentiment. Ophelia’s mind is disordered, and she registers the corruption all around her, trying pathetically to beautify it with floral symbolism and songs. She has lost her father, and Gertrude will wear her “rue with a difference” (401-02, 4.5.163-179) because she has lost her son to England. Ophelia is the blighted flower of the kingdom, the beauty and innocence that has been sacrificed for the sake of its ambition and lust. Her demise shows the consequences of Denmark’s degeneracy even more clearly, perhaps, than all the play’s violence. Even Claudius seems genuinely stricken at this latest step in the march of events: “When sorrows come, they come not single spies, / But in battalions” (399, 4.5.74-75), he laments to Gertrude, and no sooner has he said it than Laertes bursts in with the common folk at his back, shouting him up for the new king. His main function is, of course, to present an obvious contrast with Hamlet—Laertes will, unlike the Prince, “sweep to his revenge” without much delay; he has no scruples about the concept. Claudius speaks with amazing irony when he promises Gertrude that Laertes will not harm him: “There’s such divinity doth hedge a king / That treason can but peep to what it would, / Acts little of his will” (400-01, 4.5.120-22). Clearly, this truism afforded Hamlet, Sr. no protection from Claudius. Sailors pass a letter from Hamlet to Horatio, explaining how he managed to board a pirate ship that attacked the vessel bound for England. (403, 4.6.11-25) In Scene 7, the King explains to Laertes that so far, he has had to avoid confronting Hamlet because Gertrude and the people are fond of him. He temporizes: “I am guiltless of your father’s death” (401, 4.5.147). Hamlet’s letter to the King is ominous: “High and mighty, You shall know I am set / naked on your kingdom” (405, 4.7.42-43). This tone is no less alarming for the promise Hamlet tenders to explain how he has returned.

The King has come to see in Laertes his earthly salvation; the young hothead promises that he would do no less to Hamlet than “cut his throat ‘i th’ church” (406b, 4.7.98), and Claudius lays out the plot he has partly contrived (406, 4.7.84-88), only to find that Polonius is able to add a master stroke with the introduction of “an unction” (407, 4.7.113) he bought from some itinerant medical charlatan, which he will use to envenom the tip of his rapier. As surety, Claudius will offer Hamlet a poisoned chalice during the fencing match. (407, 4.7.130-31)

The scene concludes with the news that Ophelia has drowned. Gertrude’s beautiful, ekphrastic description of Ophelia’s death (4.7.166-83) honors her loss, but doesn’t redeem the faults that caused it. The death isn’t described as suicide, really; it seems that Ophelia simply stops resisting and is dragged down by her water-logged clothing. Another function of this episode is that it gives Hamlet space for the recognition that he must attain.

Act 5, Scene 1. (408-15, Gravedigger jests, Hamlet’s Yorick; Ophelia’s funeral) 

The Gravedigger scene works as comic relief, but it also gives us and Hamlet a broader perspective on events up to this point. (408-12, 5.1.1-199) The Gravedigger calmly goes about his business in the face of death, and even makes jests about it—jests that, as the Riverside editors inform us, refer to an actual law case, that of Hale v. Petit. (See The Shakespeare Law Library’s account of that case.) We will get no maudlin speeches or meditative musings over Yorick-skulls from him; he’s full of riddles about the sturdiness of the “houses” that gravediggers build. Hamlet appreciates by means of his experiences in this act (and in the fourth act) that the earthly prize of a kingdom, of reputation, of a patch of land, is a joke: “Imperial Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay, / Might stop a hole to keep the wind away” (412, 5.1.196). If the sought-for revenge is to be accomplished, it can only happen when Hamlet’s mind isn’t tainted by pride or earthly attachment, so his meditation on Yorick the Jester’s skull is vital. (412, 5.1.171-80) Why, indeed, should we cling to life? the skull seems to ask the Prince, who promptly aims this intuition at womankind: “Now get you / to my lady’s [chamber], and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come; make her laugh at that” (412, 5.1.178-79). Soon follows the funeral procession of Ophelia, the quibbling of the Churchmen over what rites to accord a possible suicide, and the preposterous one-upmanship between Laertes and Hamlet in and on Ophelia’s uncovered grave. (413-15, 5.1.200-84) This is obviously not the way Hamlet had meant to reveal himself to the King, but events have gotten the better of him for the moment, and he vents his grief. It almost goes without saying that the two men have ruined Ophelia’s funeral altogether. It’s just one final, if unintended, insult to this long-suffering character.

Act 5, Scene 2. (415-24, Hamlet’s recognition, challenge, fight, death) 

Killing Polonius got Hamlet shipped off to England to face execution, but now he recounts to Horatio how on the ship he learned an important lesson: “Rashly— / And prais’d be rashness for it—let us know / Our indiscretion sometime serves us well / When our deep plots do pall, and that should learn us / There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will . . .” (415, 5.2.6-11). It seems that this speech refers to Hamlet’s insomnia-induced impatience to know the contents of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s letter. (415, 5.2.13ff) What exactly, he wants to know, is their “grand commission” (415, 5.2.19)? This known, he forges a new commission purporting that his old pals R & G should be executed on the spot, once they make it to the English King’s presence. His justification of this rather harsh turnabout is simply, “[Why, man, they did make love to this employment,] / They are not near my conscience. . . . / ‘Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes / Between the pass and fell incensed points / Of mighty opposites” (416, 5.2.58). Perhaps this as an injustice on Hamlet’s part, an act of disproportionate violence against men who know nothing of the evil Claudius has done, but it’s hard to feel much sympathy for them; perhaps our minds are too thoroughly poisoned by listening to Hamlet for that to be possible. They serve the interests of the King against their friend, they are “sponges” just looking for preferment, and to Hamlet they are utterly insignificant pawns in the deadly game of chess between himself and Claudius. Well, if they’ll just be patient for about four centuries, Tom Stoppard will make it up to them by writing that witty play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, so “all’s well that ends well,” right?

Hamlet brings up a new motive (though in speaking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he had already hinted at 384, 3.2.311 when he said, “I lack advancement”): he says that “He that hath kill’d my king and whor’d my mother” has also “Popp’d in between th’ election and my hopes” (416, 5.2.66). In other words, Claudius’ hasty marriage with the Queen has deprived him for now of the succession. The Oedipal significance of this remark is not difficult to see. (On the theme of “inheritance,” see Anthony Burton’s “Further Aspects of Inheritance Law in Hamlet.”)

When the foppish Osric enters (417) bearing the King and Laertes’ challenge, Hamlet calmly accepts it, overriding Laertes’ misgivings with the grand statement, “[W]e defy augury. There is special / providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be [now], / ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if / it be not now, yet it [will] come—the readiness is all” (419, 5.2.157-61). This match is not of his making, but whatever happens, Hamlet accepts the outcome. This may be the insight or right attitude he has needed all along; he must become an instrument of God’s vengeance, which will turn the schemes of Claudius and Laertes against them. We might recall that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, although all too willing to prostitute themselves to the designs of earthly rulers, nonetheless go to their deaths as instruments of forces larger than they can imagine, so in this sense they show Hamlet the way. Claudius’ plan is frustrated, and his union with Gertrude nullified when she drinks from the poisoned chalice: “I will, my Lord” (421, 5.2.234) There’s a Christian lesson to be drawn: the wicked will ultimately will find a way to destroy themselves; they are remarkably consistent in the patterns of their evil. Hamlet gains no earthly reward but death. Young Fortinbras enters the kingdom almost by accident (423, 5.2.305), in the wake of the old order’s self-destruction: he and other onlookers will hear from Horatio of “purposes mistook, / Fall’n on the inventors’ heads” (424, 5.2.324-29). There’s really no question of Fortinbras’ being a better ruler than his predecessors, though Hamlet’s final thoughts commend him. He is simply an opportunist in the right time at the right place. This hardly amounts to a strong purification of the State, though it’s fair to say that that was never really the play’s emphasis.

To return to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (423, 5.2.313-15), some critics see them as loose ends that Shakespeare has deliberately left hanging at the play’s conclusion—have they really deserved their harsh fate, considering that they are only minor players in a grand tragedy? Does their taking-off mean that God’s providential design is a bit “rough-hewn,” or at least that his justice is not self-evidently “just” to us? Perhaps, but in my view, this messy fact (along with Ophelia’s lamentable and unfair demise) doesn’t necessarily destroy the “providential” reading to which I have generally subscribed. At the least, Hamlet is a curious revenge play in that it ultimately denies agency to the very character who is most responsible for ensuring that the play’s villain gets what he deserves, and yet the revenge “gets itself accomplished” nonetheless, in the most hideously appropriate manner, as if Shakespeare’s God has much the same sense of “poetic justice” as Dante’s did. The play involves two levels of meaning: there’s something petty, intimate, and even sordid about the royal family, yet providence seems to guide Hamlet in carrying out his revenge. Hamlet is caught in the middle: a revenger whose nature and doctrine work against his mission.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake