Robert F Willson Jr., et al. Notable Playwrights. Editor: Carl Rollyson, Volume 3, Salem Press, 2005.
William Shakespeare’s primary reputation is based upon his status as the foremost playwright of the English language. He also produced a highly respected body of poetry, however, and his sonnets in particular are frequently included as appendices to collections of his dramatic works. In addition to the sonnets, Shakespeare wrote several other major poems, including Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594).
Few dramatists can lay claim to the universal reputation achieved by William Shakespeare. His plays have been translated into many languages and performed on amateur and professional stages throughout the world. Radio, television, and film versions of the plays in English, German, Russian, French, and Japanese have been heard and seen by millions of people. The plays have been revived and reworked by many prominent producers and playwrights, and they have directly influenced the work of others. Novelists and dramatists such as Charles Dickens, Bertolt Brecht, William Faulkner, and Tom Stoppard, inspired by Shakespeare’s plots, characters, and poetry, have composed works that attempt to re-create the spirit and style of the originals and to interpret the plays in the light of their own ages. A large and flourishing Shakespeare industry exists in England, America, Japan, and Germany, giving evidence of the playwright’s popularity among scholars and the general public alike.
Evidence of the widespread and deep effect of Shakespeare’s plays on English and American culture can be found in the number of words and phrases from them that have become embedded in everyday usage: Expressions such as “star-crossed lovers” are used by speakers of English with no consciousness of their Shakespearean source. It is difficult to imagine what the landscape of the English language would be like without the mountain of neologisms and aphorisms contributed by the playwright. Writing at a time when English was quite pliable, Shakespeare’s linguistic facility and poetic sense transformed English into a richly metaphoric tongue.
Working as a popular playwright, Shakespeare was also instrumental in fusing the materials of native and classical drama in his work. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, with its revenge theme, its ghost, and its bombastic set speeches, appears to be a tragedy based on the style of the Roman playwright Seneca, who lived in the first century C.E. Yet the hero’s struggle with his conscience and his deep concern over the disposition of his soul reveal the play’s roots in the native soil of English miracle and mystery dramas, which grew out of Christian rituals and depicted Christian legends. The product of this fusion is a tragedy that compels spectators and readers to examine their own deepest emotions as they ponder the effects of treacherous murder on individuals and the state. Except for Christopher Marlowe, the predecessor to whom Shakespeare owes a considerable debt, no other Elizabethan playwright was so successful in combining native and classical strains.
Shakespearean characters, many of whom are hybrids, are so vividly realized that they seem to have achieved a life independent of the worlds they inhabit. Hamlet stands as the symbol of a man who, in the words of the famous actor Sir Laurence Olivier, “could not make up his mind.” Hamlet’s name has become synonymous with excessive rationalizing and idealism. Othello’s jealousy, Lear’s madness, Macbeth’s ambition, Romeo and Juliet’s star-crossed love, Shylock’s flinty heart—all of these psychic states and the characters who represent them have become familiar landmarks in Western culture. Their lifelikeness can be attributed to Shakespeare’s talent for creating the illusion of reality in mannerisms and styles of speech. His use of the soliloquy is especially important in fashioning this illusion; the characters are made to seem fully rounded human beings in the representation of their inner as well as outer nature. Shakespeare’s keen ear for conversational rhythms and his ability to reproduce believable speech between figures of high and low social rank also contribute to the liveliness of action and characters.
In addition, Shakespeare excels in the art of grasping the essence of relationships between husbands and wives, lovers, parents and children, and friends. Innocence and youthful exuberance are aptly represented in the fatal love of Romeo and Juliet; the destructive spirit of mature and intensely emotional love is caught in the affair between Antony and Cleopatra. Other relationships reveal the psychic control of one person by another (of Macbeth by Lady Macbeth), the corrupt soul of a seducer (Angelo in Measure for Measure), the twisted mind of a vengeful officer (Iago in Othello), and the warm fellowship of simple men (Bottom and his followers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). The range of emotional states manifested in Shakespeare’s characters has never been equaled by succeeding dramatists.
These memorable characters have also been given memorable poetry to speak. In fact, one of the main strengths of Shakespearean drama is its synthesis of action and poetry. Although Shakespeare’s poetic style is marked by the bombast and hyperbole that characterize much of Elizabethan drama, it also has a richness and concreteness that make it memorable and quotable. One need think only of Hamlet’s “sea of troubles” or Macbeth’s daggers “unmannerly breech’d with gore” to substantiate the imagistic power of Shakespearean verse. Such images are also worked into compelling patterns in the major plays, giving them greater structural unity than the plots alone provide. Disease imagery in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, repeated references to blood in Macbeth, and allusions to myths of children devouring parents in King Lear represent only a few of the many instances of what has been called “reiterated imagery” in Shakespearean drama. Wordplay, puns, songs, and a variety of verse forms, from blank verse to tetrameter couplets—these features, too, contribute to the “movable feast” of Shakespeare’s style.
In a more general sense, Shakespeare’s achievement can be traced to the skill with which he used his medium—the stage. He created certain characters to fit the abilities of certain actors, as the role of Falstaff in the Henry IV and Henry V plays so vividly demonstrates. He made use of every facet of the physical stage—the trapdoor, the second level, the inner stage, the “heavens”—to create special effects or illusions. He kept always before him the purpose of entertaining his audience, staying one step ahead of changes in taste among theatergoers. That both kings and tinkers were able to find in a Shakespearean play something to delight and instruct them is testimony to the wide appeal of the playwright. No doubt the universality of his themes and his deep understanding of human nature combined to make his plays so popular. These same strengths generate the magnetic power that brings large audiences into theaters to see the plays today.
William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, descended from tenant farmers and landed gentry. His traditional birth date, April 23, 1564, is conjectural. Baptism was on April 26, so April 23 is a good guess—and a tidy one, since that date is also St. George’s Day as well as the date of Shakespeare’s own death.
One of Shakespeare’s grandfathers, Richard Shakespeare of Snitterfield, rented land from the other, Robert Arden of Wilmcote. Shakespeare’s father, John, moved to nearby Stratford-upon-Avon, became a prosperous shop owner (dealing in leather goods) and municipal officeholder, and married his former landlord’s youngest daughter, Mary Arden. Thus Shakespeare—the third of eight children but the first to survive infancy—was born into a solidly middle-class family in a provincial market town. During Shakespeare’s infancy, his father was one of the town’s leading citizens. In 1557, John Shakespeare had become a member of the town council and subsequently held such offices as constable, affeeror (a kind of assessor), and chamberlain (treasurer). In 1568, he became bailiff (mayor) and justice of the peace.
As the son of a municipal officer, the young Shakespeare was entitled to a free education in the town’s grammar school, which he probably entered around the age of seven. There, he studied Latin grammar, literature, rhetoric and logic for between eight and ten hours a day, six days a week. William Lily’s largely Latin text, A Short Introduction of Grammar (1527), was the staple of the course, but Shakespeare also read Cicero, Plautus, Terence, Vergil, and Ovid. Many of these authors influenced the playwright’s later work; Ovid in particular was a favorite source of material, used in such plays as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare probably knew very little of other languages, although he does exhibit an understanding of French in such plays as Henry V and All’s Well That Ends Well. (The sources for most, if not all, of the plays existed in English translations published during Shakespeare’s lifetime.)
When Shakespeare was a teenager, his family fell on hard times. His father stopped attending town council meetings in 1577, and the family’s fortunes began to decline. Matters were not improved in 1582 when Shakespeare, at the age of eighteen, hastily married Anne Hathaway, the daughter of a farmer from the nearby village of Shottery. She was eight years his senior and pregnant at the time of the wedding. The child, Susanna, was born in May, 1583. In 1585, the couple also became the parents of twins, Hamnet and Judith. (It is interesting to note that by 1670, the last of Susanna’s descendants died, thereby ending the Shakespeare family line.)
There is no evidence concerning Shakespeare’s activities between 1585 and 1592. Legend asserts that he was forced to leave Stratford in order to escape punishment for poaching deer on the estate of Sir Thomas Lucy, one of Stratford’s leading citizens. Another popular story has Shakespeare taking a position as schoolmaster at the grammar school, where he supposedly improved his Latin. None of these accounts can be substantiated by fact, yet they continue to seduce modern readers and playgoers. One intriguing suggestion is that Shakespeare joined a troupe of professional actors that was passing through Stratford in 1587. This company, called the Queen’s Men, may have been in need of a new performer, since one of their members, William Knell, had been murdered in a brawl with a fellow actor. Whatever his path may have been, however, by 1592, Shakespeare was working as an actor and playwright in London.
When Shakespeare arrived in London, he found the dramatic theater dominated by a group known as the University Wits: John Lyly, George Peele, Thomas Lodge, Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, and Christopher Marlowe. Shakespeare learned his art by imitating these Oxford and Cambridge men, but for him they were a difficult group to join. They looked down on most actors and on those playwrights, such as Thomas Kyd, who had not attended a university. Shakespeare offended on both counts, and Robert Greene expressed his resentment in the posthumously published book Greene’s Groats worth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance (1592), which included a famous warning to three fellow “gentlemen” playwrights:
Yes, trust them [the players] not: for there is an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapt in a player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes Factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.
Greene’s literary executor, Henry Chettle, later published an apology for this slur on Shakespeare, with its pun on his name and its parody of a line from Henry VI, Part III. On meeting him, Chettle found Shakespeare’s “demeanor no less civil than he, excellent in the quality he professes. Besides, divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing, that approves his art.”
Shakespeare’s early plays—notably the Henry VI plays—achieved a measure of success, but his greatest early popularity came from two long narrative poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594). Shakespeare wrote these two poems during the two years that the plague closed down the London theaters. He dedicated the poems to a patron, the young Henry Wriothesley, third earl of Southampton, who may have granted him a substantial monetary reward in return. In any event, when the theaters reopened in 1594, the acting companies were almost decimated financially, but Shakespeare was in a position to buy or otherwise acquire a one-tenth interest in one of the newly reorganized companies, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Henceforth, Shakespeare earned money not only from the plays he had written or in which he acted but also from his share of the profits of every company performance.
Shakespeare continued as both member and shareholder of this essentially stable company until he retired from the stage in 1611 or 1612. In part because of the popularity of Shakespeare’s plays and in part because of the strong support of Elizabeth and James I, the company achieved considerable financial success. The company was able to stop renting theaters and built its own, the Globe, in 1599. In 1603, they were renamed the King’s Men by King James himself. The company also began performing most of the plays of Ben Jonson, who ranked second only to Shakespeare and who excelled at satiric comedy, thus increasing their profits.
Shakespeare remained in close contact with his family in Stratford-upon-Avon throughout his career, and he used his newfound wealth to change their status as well. By 1596, he was able to purchase a coat of arms for his father, and in the next year, he acquired New Place, the second-best house in Stratford. Indeed, he made the Shakespeares into one of the leading families in the area. In 1596, however, they became a family bereaved, when Hamnet Shakespeare died at the age of eleven.
The degree of prominence and success achieved by Shakespeare in his lifetime was unusual for someone in a profession that was not highly regarded in Renaissance England. Actors and playwrights were in fact regarded as entertainers whose companions were bearbaiters, clowns, and jugglers. Confirmation of this fact comes from evidence that some public theaters were used both for plays and for bearbaiting and bullbaiting. After 1590, moreover, the playhouses had to be constructed in the Bankside district, across the Thames from London proper. City fathers afraid of plague and opposed to public entertainments felt that the Bankside, notorious for its boisterous inns and houses of prostitution, was the fitting locale for “playing” of all kinds. Indeed, theatrical productions were not regarded as high art; when plays were published, by the company or by individual actors, apparently no effort was made to correct or improve them. Shakespeare himself never corrected or took to the printer any of the plays attributed to him. Poetry was valued as true literature, and there is considerable evidence that Shakespeare hoped to become a recognized and respected poet like Sir Philip Sidney or Edmund Spenser. Despite the immense popularity of his early poems, however, Shakespeare eventually chose to become a public entertainer.
Shakespeare continued to write poetry alongside his drama. At about the time he composed Romeo and Juliet (pr. c. 1595–1596, pb. 1597) and Richard II (pr. c. 1595–1596, pb. 1600), he probably also began his great sonnet sequence, not published until 1609. The 154 sonnets, tracing a friendship with a young man, sometimes called the “Fair Youth,” and a romance with a “Dark Lady,” raise the question of how Shakespeare lived when he was away from Stratford, where his wife and children presumably remained. The young man might be a patron—perhaps Southampton, though other names have also been proposed—and the Dark Lady strictly imaginary, created to overturn the sonnets’ trite Petrarchan conventions. Other speculations favor a more personal interpretation, seeing an actual ménage à trois of the poet, the Fair Youth, and the Dark Lady. All the questions raised by the sonnets remain open, and the only evidence about how Shakespeare spent his spare time in London indicates that he sometimes frequented taverns (notably the Mermaid) with his fellow playwrights and players.
The company to which he belonged was relatively small—fifteen or twenty players at most. The actors were generally well known to the audience, and their particular talents were exploited by the playwrights. Richard Burbage, the manager of Shakespeare’s company for many years, was renowned for his skill in acting tragic parts, while William Kemp and Robert Armin were praised for their talents as comic actors. Shakespeare composed his plays with these actors in mind, a fact borne out by the many comedies featuring fat, drunken men such as Sir John Falstaff (of the Henry IV and Henry V plays) and Sir Toby Belch (of Twelfth Night). Shakespeare could not compose his works for an ideal company; he suited his style to the available talent.
Because his company was underwritten to some degree by the government, Shakespeare and his fellows were often called on to perform at court: 32 times during Elizabeth’s reign and 177 times under James I. The king and queen did not venture to the Theatre or the Globe to mingle with the lower classes, depending instead on the actors to bring their wares to them. Macbeth was written as a direct compliment to James I: Banquo, the brave general treacherously murdered by the villainous hero, was one of James’s ancestors. Shakespeare had to change the facts of history to pay the compliment, but the aim of pleasing his and the company’s benefactor justified the change.
There were no women actors on Shakespeare’s stage; they made their appearance when Charles II returned to the throne in 1660. Young boys (eleven to fourteen years old) played the female parts, and Shakespeare manipulated this convention with considerable success in his comedies, where disguises created delightful complications and aided him in overcoming the problem of costuming. The lady-disguised-as-page device is worked with particular effect in such plays as As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and Cymbeline.
Because there were few actors and sometimes many parts, members of the company were required to double (and sometimes triple) their roles. The effect of this requirement becomes evident when one notes that certain principal characters do not appear in consecutive scenes. One should likewise remember that performance on the Elizabethan stage was continuous; there was no falling curtain or set change to interrupt the action. No scenery to speak of was employed, although signs may have been used to designate cities or countries and branches may have been tied around pillars to signify trees. The absence of scenery allowed for a peculiar imaginative effect. A place on the stage that had been a throne room could within a few seconds become a hovel hiding its inhabitants from a fierce storm. Shakespeare and his contemporaries could thereby demonstrate the slippery course of Fortune, whose wheel, onstage and in real life, might turn at any moment to transform kings into beggars.
The apronlike stage jutted out into an area called “the pit,” where the “groundlings,” or those who paid the lowest admission fee (a penny), could stand to watch heroes perform great deeds. The octagon-shaped building had benches on the two levels above the pit for customers willing to pay for the privilege of sitting. Although estimates vary, it is now generally believed that the Globe could accommodate approximately twenty-five hundred people. The design of the stage probably evolved from the model of innyards, where the traveling companies of actors performed before they took up residence in London in the 1570’s. On either side of the stage were two doors for entrances and exits and, at the back, some kind of inner stage behind which actors could hide and be discovered at the right moment. A trapdoor was located in the middle of the apron stage, while above it was a cupola-like structure that housed a pulley and chair. This chair could be lowered to the stage level when a deus ex machina (literally, a “god from a machine”) was required to resolve the action. This small house also contained devices for making sound effects and may have been the place from which the musicians, so much a part of Elizabethan drama, sent forth their special harmonies. The little house was called “the heavens” (stars may have been painted on its underside), while the trapdoor was often referred to as “hell.” For Shakespeare’s Globe audience, then, the stage was a world in which the great figures of history and imagination were represented doing and speaking momentous things.
In 1608, the King’s Men purchased an indoor theater, the Blackfriars, which meant that the company could perform year-round. This theater was located within the city proper, which meant that a somewhat more sophisticated audience attended the plays. Seating capacity was approximately seven hundred; there was no pit to stand in, and there is some evidence that the stage machinery was more elaborate than the equipment at the Globe. Some historians therefore argue that the plays written after 1608-Cymbeline; Pericles, Prince of Tyre; The Winter’s Tale; The Tempest—were composed especially for performance at the Blackfriars. These tragicomedies or romances teem with special effects and supernatural characters, and this emphasis on spectacle differentiates them from Shakespeare’s earlier comedies. Although such a theory is attractive, at least a few of these plays were also performed at the supposedly “primitive” Globe.
Along with the Blackfriars, the King’s Men acquired the services of two playwrights who wrote for it, the collaborators Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. With their light, witty comedy and melodramatic tragicomedy, represented by such plays as The Knight of the Burning Pestle (pr. 1607), Philaster: Or, Love Lies A-Bleeding (pr. c. 1609), and A King and No King (pr. 1611), Beaumont and Fletcher introduced a new “cavalier” style into Renaissance English drama that ultimately eclipsed even Shakespeare’s popularity and perhaps hurried his retirement.
By 1608, Shakespeare had achieved the fame and recognition for which he had no doubt hoped. He was in a position to reduce his output to one or two plays per year, a schedule that probably allowed him to spend more time in Stratford with his family. In 1607, his elder daughter had married Dr. John Hall, the local physician, and in 1608, with the birth of their daughter, Elizabeth, Shakespeare became a grandfather. In 1611, he left London for Stratford, returning from time to time to see plays performed at both theaters and possibly to engage in collaborative efforts with new playwrights such as John Fletcher. His last play, Henry VIII, was a collaboration with Fletcher; it was produced on June 29, 1613, a fateful day for the Globe. A spark from one of the cannon shot off during the performance set the thatched roof on fire and burned the building to the ground.
On February 10, 1616, Shakespeare’s thirty-one-year-old daughter, Judith, married Thomas Quiney, a member of another prominent Stratford family. On March 25, 1616, Shakespeare made out his last will and testament, leaving most of his estate to Susanna, a substantial amount of money to Judith, and his “second best bed” to his wife, Anne. He died on April 23, 1616, and was buried in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon.
In 1623, Shakespeare’s surviving partners in the King’s Men, John Heminge and Henry Condell, published a collection of his plays now known as the First Folio. The portrait included in the First Folio depicts Shakespeare with a short mustache, large, staring eyes, and an oval face accentuated by his high, balding forehead and the remaining hair that almost covers his ears. The bust erected above his grave is similar, except that he has a goatee and the balding has progressed further. The First Folio portrait resembles a soulful intellectual, while the Stratford bust suggests a prominent burgher.
The two portraits of Shakespeare portray the two parts of his nature. On one hand, he possessed immense intellectual curiosity about the motives and actions of people. This curiosity, plus his facility with language, enabled him to write his masterpieces and to create characters who are better known than some important figures in world history. On the other hand, reflecting his middle-class background, Shakespeare was himself motivated by strictly bourgeois instincts; he was more concerned with acquiring property and cementing his social position in Stratford than he was with preserving his plays for posterity. If his partners had not published the First Folio, there would be no Shakespeare as he is known today: still acted and enjoyed, the most widely studied and translated writer, the greatest poet and dramatist in the English and perhaps any language.
Besides his ability to create a variety of unforgettable characters, there are at least two other qualities that account for Shakespeare’s achievement. One of these is his love of play with language, ranging from the lowest pun to some of the world’s best poetry. His love of language sometimes makes him difficult to read, particularly for young students, but frequently the meaning becomes clear in a well-acted version. The second quality is his openness, his lack of any restrictive point of view, ideology, or morality. Shakespeare was able to embrace, identify with, and depict an enormous range of human behavior, from the good to the bad to the indifferent. The capaciousness of his language and vision thus help account for the universality of his appeal.
Shakespeare’s lack of commitment to any didactic point of view has often been deplored. Yet he is not entirely uncommitted; rather, he is committed to what is human. Underlying his broad outlook is Renaissance Humanism, a synthesis of Christianity and classicism that is perhaps the best development of the Western mind and finds its best expression in his work. This same generous outlook was apparently expressed in Shakespeare’s personality, which, like his bourgeois instincts, defies the Romantic myth of the artist. He was often praised by his fellows, but friendly rival and ferocious satirist Ben Jonson said it best: “He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature,” and “He was not of an age, but for all time.”
The History Plays
William Shakespeare began his career as a playwright by experimenting with plays in the three genres—comedy, history, and tragedy—that he would perfect as his career matured. The genre that dominated his attention throughout his early career, however, was history. Interest in the subject as proper stuff for drama was no doubt aroused by England’s startling victory over Spain’s vaunted navy, the Armada, in 1588. This victory fed the growing popular desire to see depictions of the critical intrigues and battles that had shaped England’s destiny as the foremost Protestant power in Europe.
This position of power had been buttressed by the shrewd and ambitious Elizabeth I, England’s “Virgin Queen,” who, in the popular view, was the flower of the Tudor line. Many critics believe that Shakespeare composed the histories to trace the course of destiny that had led to the emergence of the Tudors as England’s greatest kings and queens. The strength of character and patriotic spirit exhibited by Elizabeth seem to be foreshadowed by the personality of Henry V, the Lancastrian monarch who was instrumental in building an English empire in France. Because the Tudors traced their line back to the Lancastrians, it was an easy step for Shakespeare to flatter his monarch and please his audiences with nationalistic spectacles that reinforced the belief that England was a promised land.
Whatever his reasons for composing the history plays, Shakespeare certainly must be seen as an innovator of the form, for which there was no model in classical or medieval drama. Undoubtedly, he learned much from his immediate predecessors, however—most notably from Christopher Marlowe, whose Edward II (pr. c. 1592) treated the subject of a weak king nearly destroying the kingdom through his selfish and indulgent behavior. From Marlowe, Shakespeare also inherited the idea that the purpose of the history play was to vivify the moral dilemmas of power politics and to apply those lessons to contemporary government. Such lessons were heeded by contemporaries, as is amply illustrated by Elizabeth’s remark on reading about the life of one of her predecessors: “I am Richard II.”
Shakespeare’s contribution to the history-play genre is represented by two tetralogies (that is, two series of four plays), each covering a period of English history. He wrote two other plays dealing with English kings, King John and Henry VIII, but they are not specifically connected to the tetralogies in theme or structure. Edward III, written sometime between 1589 and 1595, is, on the other hand, closely related to the second tetralogy in theme, structure, and history. Edward III is the grandfather of Richard II, and his victories in France are repeated by Henry V. Muriel Bradbrook has pointed out the structural similarities between Edward III and Henry V. Like the second tetralogy as a whole, Edward III deals with the education of the prince. King Edward, like Prince Hal, at first neglects his duties and endangers the realm by placing personal pleasure above his country’s needs. The Countess of Salisbury begins his education in responsibility, and Queen Philippa completes the process by teaching him compassion. By the end of the play, Edward has become what Shakespeare calls Henry V, “the mirror of all Christian kings.”
Henry VI, Part I
The first tetralogy concerns the period from the death of Henry V in 1422 to the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. Although he probably began this ambitious project in 1588, Shakespeare apparently did not compose the plays according to a strict chronological schedule. Henry VI, Part I is generally considered to have been written after the second and third parts of the Henry story; it may also have been a revision of another play. Using details from Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577) and Edward Hall’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1548)—his chief chronicle sources for the plays in both tetralogies—Shakespeare created in Henry VI, Part I an episodic story of the adventures of Lord Talbot, the patriotic soldier who fought bravely to retain England’s empire in France. Talbot fails and is defeated primarily because of a combination of intrigues by men such as the Bishop of Winchester and the indecisiveness of young King Henry VI.
Here, as in the other history plays, England appears as the central victim of these human actions, betrayed and abandoned by men attempting to satisfy personal desires at the expense of the kingdom. The characters are generally two-dimensional, and their speeches reveal the excesses of Senecan bombast and hyperbole. Although a few of the scenes involving Talbot and Joan of Arc—as well as Talbot’s death scene, in which his demise is made more painful by his having to witness a procession bearing his son’s corpse—aspire to the level of high drama, the play’s characters lack psychological depth, and the plot fails to demonstrate the unity of design that would mark Shakespeare’s later history plays. Joan’s nature as a strumpet-witch signals the role of other women characters in this tetralogy; Margaret, who will become England’s queen, helps to solidify the victory that Joan cleverly achieves at the close of Henry VI, Part I. Henry V’s French empire is in ruins and England’s very soul seems threatened.
Henry VI, Part II
Henry VI, Part II represents that threat in the form of what might be called “civil-war clouds.” The play focuses on the further degeneration of rule under Henry, whose ill-considered marriage to the French Margaret precipitates a power struggle involving the two houses of York and Lancaster. By eliminating wise Duke Humphrey as the chief protector of the king, Margaret in effect seizes control of the throne. In the meantime, however, a rebellion is broached by Jack Cade, the leader of a group of anarchist commoners.
This rebellion lends occasion for action and spectacle of the kind that is lacking in Henry VI, Part I. It also teaches a favorite Shakespearean lesson: The kingdom’s “children” cannot be expected to behave when their “parents” do not. Scenes involving witchcraft, a false miracle, and single combat seem to prove that the country is reverting to a primitive, chaotic state. Though the uprising is finally put down, it provides the excuse for Richard, duke of York, and his ambitious sons to seize power. York precipitates a vengeful struggle with young Clifford by killing his father; in response, Clifford murders York’s youngest son, the earl of Rutland. These murders introduce the theme of familial destruction, of fathers killing sons and sons killing fathers, which culminates in the brutal assassination of Prince Edward.
Henry VI, Part III
As Henry VI, Part III begins, England’s hopes for a strong successor to weak King Henry are dashed on the rocks of ambition and civil war. When Henry himself is murdered, one witnesses the birth of one of Shakespeare’s most fascinating villain-heroes, Richard, duke of Gloucester. Although Richard’s brother Edward becomes king and restores an uneasy peace, Shakespeare makes it clear that Richard will emerge as the political force of the future. Richard’s driving ambition also appears to characterize the Yorkist cause, which, by contrast with the Lancastrian, can be described as self-destructive on the biblical model of the Cain and Abel story. While one is made to see Richard’s wolfish disposition, however, Shakespeare also gives him a superior intellect and wit, which help to attract one’s attention and interest. Displaying touches of the irony and cruelty that will mark his behavior in Richard III, Richard declares at the close of Henry VI, Part III: “See how my sword weeps for the poor king’s death.”
In order to present Richard as an arch-villain, Shakespeare was obliged to follow a description of him that was based on a strongly prejudiced biographical portrait written by Sir Thomas More. More painted Richard as a hunchback with fangs, a beast so cruel that he did not flinch at the prospect of murdering the young princes. To More—and to Shakespeare—Richard must be viewed as another Herod; the imagery of the play also regularly compares him to a boar or hedgehog, beasts that know no restraint. Despite these repulsive features, Richard proves to be a consummate actor, outwitting and outperforming those whom he regards as victims. The most theatrical scene in the play is his wooing of the Lady Anne, who is drawn to him despite the knowledge that he has killed her husband (Prince Edward) and father-in-law, whose corpse she is in the process of accompanying to its grave. Many of the audacious wooing tricks used in this scene suggest that one of the sources for Richard’s character is the Vice figure from medieval drama.
Richard III documents the breakneck pace and mounting viciousness of Richard’s course to the throne. (Steeplechase imagery recurs throughout, culminating in the picture of Richard as an unseated rider trying desperately to find a mount.) He arranges for the murder of his brother Clarence, turns on former supporters such as Hastings and Buckingham, whom he seemed to be grooming for office, and eventually destroys the innocent princes standing in his path. This latter act of barbarism qualifies as a turning point, since Richard’s victories, which have been numerous and easily won, now begin to evaporate at almost the same rate of speed.
While Richard moves with freedom and abandon from one bloody deed to another, he is hounded by the former Queen Margaret, who delivers curses and prophecies against him in the hope of satisfying her vengeful desires. She plays the role of a Senecan fury, even though her words prove feeble against her Machiavellian foe. Retribution finally comes, however, in the character of the Lancastrian Earl of Richmond, who defeats Richard at Bosworth Field. On the eve of the battle, Richard’s victims visit his sleep to announce his fall, and for the first time in the play, he experiences a twinge of conscience. Unable to respond by confessing and asking forgiveness, Richard fights fiercely, dying like a wounded animal that is finally cornered. With Richmond’s marriage to Elizabeth York, the Wars of the Roses end, and England looks forward to a prosperous and peaceful future under Henry Richmond, founder of the Tudor line.
Whether Shakespeare wrote King John in the period between the first and second tetralogies is not known, but there is considerable support for the theory that he did. In the play, he depicts the career of a monarch who reigned into the thirteenth century and who defied papal authority, behavior that made him into something of a Protestant hero for Elizabethans. Shakespeare’s John, however, lacks both the dynamism and the charisma of Henry V; he is also guilty of usurping the throne and arranging for the death of the true heir, Arthur.
This clouded picture complicates the action and transforms John into a man plagued by guilt. Despite his desire to strengthen England and challenge the supremacy of Rome, John does not achieve either the dimensions of a tragic hero or the sinister quality of a consummate villain; indeed, his death seems anticlimactic. The strongest personality in the play belongs to Faulconbridge the Bastard, whose satiric commentary on the king’s maneuvering gives way to patriotic speeches at the close. Faulconbridge speaks out for Anglo-Saxon pride in the face of foreign challenge, but he has also played the part of satirist-onstage throughout much of the action. Something of the same complexity of character will be seen in Prince Hal, the model fighter and king of the second tetralogy.
In King John, Shakespeare managed only this one touch of brilliant characterization in an otherwise uninteresting and poorly constructed play. He may have been attempting an adaptation of an earlier chronicle drama.
Shakespeare began writing the second tetralogy, which covers the historical period from 1398 to 1422, in 1595. The first play in this group was Richard II, a drama which, like the Henry VI series, recounts the follies of a weak king and the consequences of these actions for England. Unlike Henry, however, Richard is a personage with tragic potential; he speaks the language of a poet and possesses a self-dramatizing talent. Richard invites his fall—the fall of princes, or de casibus virorum illustrium, being a favorite Elizabethan topic that was well represented in the popular A Mirror for Magistrates (first published under Elizabeth I in 1559, although printed earlier under Queen Mary)—by seizing the land of the deceased John of Gaunt to pay for his war preparations against Ireland. This dubious act brings Henry Bolingbroke, Gaunt’s son, rushing back from France, where he had been exiled by Richard, for a confrontation with the king. The result of their meeting is Richard’s sudden deposition—he gives up the crown almost before he is asked for it—and eventual death, which is so movingly rendered that many critics have been led to describe this as a tragedy rather than a political play.
Such a reading must overlook the self-pitying quality in Richard; his actions rarely correspond to the quality of his speech. Yet there has been little disagreement about Shakespeare’s achievement in advancing the history-play form by forging a world in which two personalities, one vacillating, the other resourceful, oppose each other in open conflict. Richard II likewise qualifies as the first play in which Shakespeare realizes the theme of the fall by means of repeated images comparing England to a garden. Richard, the gardener-king, has failed to attend to pruning; rebels, like choking weeds, grow tall and threaten to blot out the sun. Because Bolingbroke usurps the crown and later arranges for Richard’s death, however, he is guilty of watering the garden with the blood of England’s rightful—if foolish—ruler. The result must inevitably be civil war, which is stirringly prophesied by the Bishop of Carlisle as the play draws to a close: “The blood of English shall manure the ground,/ And future ages groan for this foul act.”
Henry IV, Part I
The civil strife that Carlisle predicted escalates in Henry IV, Part I. Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV, is planning a crusade in the midst of a serious battle involving rebels in the north and west of Britain. This obliviousness to responsibility is clearly motivated by Henry’s guilt over the seizing of the crown and Richard’s murder. It will take the courage and ingenuity of his son, Prince Hal, the future Henry V, to save England and to restore the order of succession that Shakespeare and his contemporaries saw as the only guarantee of peaceful rule. Thus, Henry IV, Part I is really a study of the rise of Hal, who in the opening of the play appears to be a carefree time waster, content with drinking, gambling, and carousing with a motley group of thieves and braggarts led by the infamous coward Sir John Falstaff. Using a kind of Aristotelian mode of characterization, Shakespeare reveals Hal as a balanced hero who possesses the wit and humanity of Falstaff, without the debilitating drunkenness and ego, and the physical courage and ambition of Henry Hotspur, the son of the earl of Northumberland and chief rebel, without his destructive choler and impatience.
The plot of Henry IV, Part I advances by means of comparison and contrast of the court, tavern, and rebel worlds, all of which are shown to be in states of disorder. Hal leaves the tavern world at the end of the second act with an explicit rejection of Falstaff’s fleshly indulgence; he rejoins his true father and leads the army in battle against the rebels, who are unable to organize the English, Welsh, and Scottish factions of which they are formed. They seem to be leaderless—and “fatherless.” Above all, Hal proves capable of surprising both his own family and the rebels, using his reputation as a madcap to fullest advantage until he is ready to throw off his disguise and defeat the bold but foolish Hotspur at Shrewsbury. This emergence is nicely depicted in imagery associated by Hal himself with the sun (punning on “son”) breaking through the clouds when least suspected. Falstaff demonstrates consistency of character in the battle by feigning death; even though Hal allows his old friend to claim the prize of Hotspur’s body, one can see the utter bankruptcy of the Falstaffian philosophy of self-preservation.
Henry IV, Part II
In Henry IV, Part II, the struggle against the rebels continues. Northumberland, who failed to appear for the Battle of Shrewsbury because of illness, proves unable to call up the spirit of courage demonstrated by his dead son. Glendower, too, seems to fade quickly from the picture, like a dying patient. The main portion of the drama concerns what appears to be a replay of Prince Hal’s reformation. Apparently Shakespeare meant to depict Hal’s acquisition of honor and valor at the close of Henry IV, Part I, while Part II traces his education in the virtues of justice and rule. Falstaff is again the humorous but negative example, although he lacks the robustness in sin that marked his character in Part I. The positive example or model is the Lord Chief Justice, whose sobriety and sense of responsibility eventually attract Hal to his side.
As in Part I, Shakespeare adopts the structure of a medieval morality play to depict the rejection of the “bad” angel (or false father) and the embracing of the “good” one (or spiritual father) by the hero. The banishment of Falstaff and his corrupt code takes place during the coronation procession. It is a particularly poignant moment—to which many critics object, since Hal’s harshness seems so uncharacteristic and overdone—but this scene is well prepared for by Hal’s promise, at the end of act 2 in Part I, that he would renounce the world and the flesh at the proper time. The example of Hal’s father, whose crown Hal rashly takes from his pillow before his death, demonstrates that for the king there can be no escape from care, no freedom to enjoy the fruits of life. With the Lord Chief Justice at his side, Hal prepares to enter the almost monklike role that the kingship requires him to play.
It is this strong and isolated figure that dominates Henry V, the play that may have been written for the opening of the Globe Theatre. Appropriately enough, the Chorus speaker who opens the play asks if “this wooden O” can “hold the vasty fields of France,” the scene of much of the epic and episodic action. Hal shows himself to be an astute politician—he outwits and traps the rebels Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey—and a heroic leader of men in the battle scenes. His rejection of Falstaff, whose death is recounted here in tragicomic fashion by Mistress Quickly, has transformed Hal’s character into something cold and unattractive. There is little or no humor in the play. Yet when Hal moves among his troops on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, he reveals a depth of understanding and compassion that helps to humanize his character. His speeches are masterpieces of political rhetoric, even though Pistol, the braggart soldier, tries to parody them. “Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more …” introduces one of the best-known prebattle scenes in the language.
With the defeat of the French at Agincourt, Hal wins an empire for England, strengthening the kingdom that had been so sorely threatened by the weakness of Richard II. Both tetralogies depict in sharp outline the pattern of suffering and destruction that results from ineffective leadership. In Henry VII and Henry V, one sees the promise of peace and empire realized through the force of their strong, patriotic identities. At the close of Henry V, the hero’s wooing of Katherine of France, with its comic touches resulting from her inability to speak English, promises a wedding that will take place in a new garden from which it is hoped humankind will not again fall. The lesson for the audience seems to be that under Elizabeth, the last Tudor monarch, England has achieved stability and glory, and that this role of European power was foreshadowed by the victories of these earlier heroes. Another clear lesson is that England cannot afford another civil war; some capable and clearly designated successor to Elizabeth must be chosen.
Shakespeare’s last drama dealing with English history, a probable collaboration with Henry Fletcher, is Henry VIII, which is normally classed with romances such as The Tempest and Cymbeline. It features none of the military battles typical of earlier history plays, turning instead for its material to the intrigues of Henry’s court. The play traces the falls of three famous personages, the duke of Buckingham, Katherine of Aragon, and Cardinal Wolsey. Both Buckingham and Queen Katherine are innocent victims of fortune, while Wolsey proves to be an ambitious man whose scheming is justly punished. Henry seems blind and self-satisfied through much of the play, which is dominated by pageantry and spectacle, but in his judgment against Wolsey and his salvation of Cranmer, he emerges as something of a force for divine justice. The plot ends with the christening of Elizabeth and a prophecy about England’s glorious future under her reign. Shakespeare’s audience knew, however, that those atop Fortune’s wheel at the close—Cranmer and Anne Bullen, in particular—would soon be brought down like the others. This last of Shakespeare’s English history plays, then, sounds a patriotic but also an ironic note.
Of the plays that are wholly or partly attributed to Shakespeare, nearly half have been classified as comedies. In addition, many scenes in plays such as Henry IV, Part I and Romeo and Juliet feature comic characters and situations. Even in the major tragedies, one finds scenes of comic relief: the Porter scene in Macbeth, the encounters between the Fool and Lear in King Lear, Hamlet’s inventive punning and lugubrious satire. There can be little doubt that Shakespeare enjoyed creating comic situations and characters and that audiences came to expect such fare on a regular basis from the playwright.
The Comedy of Errors
In his first attempt in the form, The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare turned to a source—Plautus, the Roman playwright—with which he would have become familiar at Stratford’s grammar school. Based on Plautus’s Menaechmi (The Twin Menaechmi, 1595), the comedy depicts the misadventures of twins who, after several incidents involving mistaken identity, finally meet and are reunited. The twin brothers are attended by twin servants, compounding the possibilities for humor growing out of mistaken identity.
Considerable buffoonery and slapstick characterize the main action involving the twins—both named Antipholus—and their servants. In one hilarious scene, Antipholus of Ephesus is turned away from his own house by a wife who believes he is an impostor. This somewhat frivolous mood is tempered by the presence of the twins’ father in the opening and closing scenes. At the play’s opening, Egeon is sentenced to death by the Duke of Ephesus; the sentence will be carried out unless someone can pay a ransom set at one thousand marks. Egeon believes that his wife and sons are dead, which casts him deep into the pit of despair. By the play’s close, Egeon has been saved from the duke’s sentence and has been reunited with his wife, who has spent the many years of their separation as an abbess. This happy scene of reunion and regeneration strikes a note that will come to typify the resolutions of later Shakespearean comedy. Providence appears to smile on those who suffer yet remain true to the principle of family.
Shakespeare also unites the act of unmasking with the concept of winning a new life in the fifth act of The Comedy of Errors. Both Antipholus of Syracuse, who in marrying Luciana is transformed into a “new man,” and Dromio of Ephesus, who is freed to find a new life, acquire new identities at the conclusion. The characters are, however, largely interchangeable and lacking in individualizing traits. Types rather than full-blown human beings people the world of the play, thus underscoring the theme of supposing or masking.
Shakespeare offers a gallery of familiar figures—young lovers, a pedantic doctor, a kitchen maid, merchants, and a courtesan—all of whom are identified by external traits. They are comic because they behave in predictably mechanical ways. Dr. Pinch, the mountebank based on Plautus’s medicus type, is a good example of this puppetlike caricaturing. The verse is designed to suit the speaker and occasion, but it also reveals Shakespeare’s range of styles; blank verse, prose, rhymed stanzas, and alternating rhymed lines can be found throughout the play. This first effort in dramatic comedy was an experiment using numerous Plautine elements, but it also reveals, in the characters Egeon and Emilia, the playwright’s talent for humanizing even the most typical of characters and for creating life and vigor in stock situations.
The Taming of the Shrew
In The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare turned to another favorite source for the theme of transformation: Ovid’s Metamorphoses (c. 8 C.E.; English translation, 1567). He had already used this collection for his erotic poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece; now he plundered it for stories about pairs of lovers and the changes effected in their natures by the power of love. In The Taming of the Shrew, he was also improving on an earlier play that dealt with the theme of taming as a means of modifying human behavior.
Petruchio changes Kate’s conduct by regularly praising her “pleasant, gamesome” nature. By the end of the play, she has been tamed into behaving like a dutiful wife. (Her sister Bianca, on the other hand, has many suitors, but her father will not allow Bianca to marry until Kate has found a husband.) The process of taming sometimes involves rough and boisterous treatment—Petruchio withholds food from his pupil, for example—as well as feigned madness: Petruchio whisks his bride away from the wedding site as if she were a damsel in distress and he were playing the role of her rescuer. In the end, Kate turns out to be more pliant than her sister, suggesting that an ideal wife, like a bird trained for the hunt, must be instructed in the rules of the game.
Shakespeare reinforces the theme of transformation by fashioning a subplot featuring a drunken tinker named Christopher Sly, who believes he has been made into a lord during a ruse performed by a fun-loving noble and his fellows. The Sly episode is not resolved because this interlude ends with the play’s first scene, yet by employing this framing device, Shakespeare invites a comparison between Kate and Sly, both of whom are urged to be “better” than they thought they were.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Two Gentlemen of Verona takes a comic tack that depends less on supposing than on actual disguise. Employing a device he would later perfect in As You Like It and Twelfth Night, Shakespeare put his heroine Julia in a page’s outfit in order to woo her beloved Proteus.
The main theme of the comedy is the rocky nature of love as revealed in male friendship and romantic contest. Valentine, Proteus’s friend, finds him to be fickle and untrue to the courtly code when Proteus tries to force his affections on Silvia, Valentine’s love. Although Proteus deserves worse punishment than he receives, he is allowed to find in Julia the true source of the romantic love that he has been seeking throughout the play. These pairs of lovers and their clownish servants, who engage in frequent bouts of punning and of horseplay, perform their rituals—anatomizing lovers, trusting false companions—in a forest world that seems to work its magic on them by bringing about a happy ending.
As in the other festive comedies, The Two Gentlemen of Verona concludes with multiple marriages and a mood of inclusiveness that gives even the clowns their proper place in the celebration. The passion of love has led Proteus (whose name, signifying “changeable,” symbolizes fickleness) to break oaths and threaten friendships, but in the end, it has also forged a constant love.
Love’s Labour’s Lost
After this experiment in romantic or festive (as opposed to bourgeois) comedy, Shakespeare next turned his hand to themes and characters that reflect the madness and magic of love. Love’s Labour’s Lost pokes fun at florid poetry, the “taffeta phrases [and] silken terms precise” that typified Elizabethan love verses. There is also a satiric strain in this play, which depicts the foiled attempt of male characters to create a Platonic utopia free of women. The King of Navarre and his court appear ludicrous as, one by one, they violate their vows of abstinence in conceits that gush with sentiment. Even Berowne, the skeptic-onstage, proves unable to resist the temptations of Cupid.
As if to underscore the foolishness of their betters, the clowns and fops of this comic world produce an interlude featuring the Nine Worthies, all of whom overdo or distort their roles in the same way as the lover-courtiers have distorted theirs. (This interlude was also the playwright’s first attempt at a play-within-a-play.) When every Jack presumes to claim his Jill at the close, however, Shakespeare deputizes the princess to postpone the weddings for one year while the men do penance for breaking their vows. The women here are victorious over the men, but only for the purpose of forcing them to recognize the seriousness of their contracts. Presumably the marriages to come will prove constant and fulfilling, but at the end of this otherwise lighthearted piece, Shakespeare interjects a surprising note of qualification. Perhaps this note represents his commentary on the weight of words, which the courtiers have so carelessly—and sometimes badly—handled.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare demonstrates consummate skill in the use of words to create illusion and dreams. Although he again presents pairs of young lovers whose fickleness causes them to fall out of, and then back into, love, these characters display human dimensions that are missing in the character types found in the earlier comedies. The multiple plots concern not only the lovers’ misadventures but also the marriage of Duke Theseus and Hippolyta, the quarrel between Oberon and Titania, king and queen of the fairy band, and the bumbling rehearsal and performance of the play-within-a-play Pyramus and Thisbe by Bottom and his companions. All of these actions illustrate the themes of love’s errant course and of the power of illusion to deceive the senses.
The main action, as in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, takes place in a wood, this time outside Athens and at night. The fairy powers are given free rein to deceive the mortals who chase one another there. Puck, Oberon’s servant, effects deception of the lovers by mistakenly pouring a potion in the wrong Athenian’s eyes. By the end of the play, however, the young lovers have found their proper partners, Oberon and Titania have patched up their quarrel, and Bottom, whose head was changed into that of an ass and who was wooed by the enchanted Titania while he was under this spell, rejoins his fellows to perform their tragic and comic interlude at the wedding reception. This after-piece is a burlesque rendition of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, whose tale of misfortune bears a striking resemblance to that of Romeo and Juliet. Through the device of the badly acted play-within-the-play, Shakespeare instructs his audience in the absurdity of lovers’ Petrarchan vows and in the power of imagination to transform the bestial or the godlike into human form. In design and execution, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with its variety of plots and range of rhyme and blank verse, stands out as Shakespeare’s most sophisticated early comedy.
The Merchant of Venice
The Merchant of Venice shares bourgeois features with The Taming of the Shrew and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, but it has a much darker, near-tragic side, too. Shylock’s attempt to carve a pound of flesh from the merchant Antonio’s heart has all the ingredients of tragedy: deception, hate, ingenuity, and revenge. His scheme is frustrated only by the superior wit of the heroine Portia during a trial scene in which she is disguised as a young boy judge. Requiring Shylock to take nothing more than is specified in his bond, while at the same time lecturing him on the quality of mercy, Portia’s speeches create the elements of tension and confrontation that will come to epitomize the playwright’s mature tragedies. With the defeat and conversion of Shylock, the pairs of lovers can escape the threatening world of Venice and hope for uninterrupted happiness in Belmont, Portia’s home.
Venice, the scene of business, materialism, and religious hatred, is contrasted with Belmont (or “beautiful world”), the fairy-tale kingdom to which Bassanio, Antonio’s friend, has come to win a fair bride and fortune by entering into a game of choice involving golden, silver, and leaden caskets. Though the settings are contrasted and the action of the play alternates between the two societies, Shakespeare makes his audience realize that Portia, like Antonio, is bound to a contract (set by her dead father) which threatens to destroy her happiness. When Bassanio chooses the leaden casket, she is freed to marry the man whom she would have chosen for her own. Thus “converted” (a metaphor that refers one back to Shylock’s conversion), Portia then elects to help Antonio, placing herself in jeopardy once again. Portia emerges as Shakespeare’s first major heroine-in-disguise, a character-type central to his most stageworthy and mature comedies, Twelfth Night and As You Like It.
Much Ado About Nothing
Much Ado About Nothing likewise has a dark side. The main plot represents the love of Claudio and Hero. Hero’s reputation is sullied by the melodramatic villain Don Juan. Claudio confronts his supposedly unfaithful partner in the middle of their wedding ceremony, his tirade causing her to faint and apparently expire. The lovers are later reunited, however, after Claudio recognizes his error. This plot is paralleled by one involving Beatrice and Benedick, two witty characters who in the play’s beginning are set against each other in verbal combat. Like Claudio and Hero, they are converted into lovers who overcome selfishness and pride to gain a degree of freedom in their new relationships. The comedy ends with the marriage of Claudio and Hero and the promise of union between Beatrice and Benedick.
A central comic figure in the play is Dogberry, the watchman whose blundering contributes to Don Juan’s plot but is also the instrument by which his villainy is revealed. His behavior, especially his hilariously inept handling of legal language, is funny in itself, but it also illustrates a favorite Shakespearean theme: Clownish errors often lead to happy consequences. Like Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dogberry and his men are made an important part of the newly transformed society at the end of the play.
As You Like It
As You Like It and Twelfth Night are widely recognized as Shakespeare’s wittiest and most stageworthy comedies; they also qualify as masterpieces of design and construction. In As You Like It, the action shifts from the court of Duke Frederick, a usurper, to the forest world of Arden, the new “court” of ousted Duke Senior. His daughter Rosalind enters the forest world in disguise, along with her friend Celia, to woo and win the young hero Orlando, forced to wander by his brother Oliver, another usurping figure. Although his florid verses expressing undying love for Rosalind are the object of considerable ridicule, Orlando earns the title of true lover worthy of Rosalind’s hand. She proves successful in winning the support of the audience by means of her clever manipulation of Orlando from behind her mask. His inept poetry and her witty commentary can be taken “as we like it,” as can the improbable conversions of Oliver and Duke Frederick that allow for a happy ending.
Two characters—Touchstone, the clown, and Jacques (pronounced JAYK weez), the cynical courtier—represent extreme attitudes on the subjects of love and human nature. Touchstone serves as Rosalind’s protector and as a sentimental observer, commenting wistfully and sometimes wittily on his own early days as a lover of milkmaids. Jacques, the trenchant commentator on the “Seven Ages of Man,” sees all this foolery as further evidence, along with political corruption and ambition, of humankind’s fallen state. He remains outside the circle of happy couples at the end of the play, a poignant, melancholy figure. His state of self-centeredness, it might be argued, is also “as we like it” when our moods do not identify so strongly with youthful exuberance.
Twelfth Night also deals with the themes of love and self-knowledge. Like As You Like It, it features a disguised woman, Viola, as its central figure. Motifs from other earlier Shakespearean comedies are also evident in Twelfth Night. Viola and Sebastian are twins (a motif found in The Comedy of Errors) who have been separated in a shipwreck but, unknown to each other, have landed in the same country, Illyria. From The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare took the motif of the disguised figure serving as page to the man she loves (Duke Orsino) and even playing the wooer’s role with the woman (Olivia) whom the duke wishes to marry. Complications arise when Olivia falls in love with Viola, and the dilemma is brought to a head when Orsino threatens to kill his page in a fit of revenge. Sebastian provides the ready solution to this dilemma, but Shakespeare holds off introducing the twins to each other until the last possible moment, creating effective comic tension.
The play’s subplot involves an ambitious and vain steward, Malvolio, who, by means of a counterfeited letter (the work of a clever servant named Maria), is made to believe that Olivia loves him. The scene in which Malvolio finds the letter and responds to its hints, while being observed not only by the theater audience but also by an audience onstage, is one of the funniest stretches of comic pantomime in drama. When Malvolio attempts to woo his mistress, he is thought mad and is cast in prison. Although he is finally released (not before being tormented by Feste the clown in disguise), Malvolio does not join the circle of lovers in the close, vowing instead to be revenged on all those who deceived him. In fact, both Feste and Malvolio stand apart from the happy company, representing the dark, somewhat melancholy clouds that cannot be dispelled in actual human experience. By this stage in his career, Shakespeare had acquired a vision of comedy crowded by elements and characters that would be fully developed in the tragedies.
The Merry Wives of Windsor
The Merry Wives of Windsor was probably composed before Shakespeare reached the level of maturity reflected in As You Like It and Twelfth Night. Legend suggests that he interrupted his work on the second history cycle to compose the play in two weeks for Queen Elizabeth, who wished to see Falstaff (by then familiar from the history plays) portrayed as a lover. What Shakespeare ended up writing was not a romantic but instead a bourgeois comedy that depicts Falstaff attempting to seduce Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, both wives of Windsor citizens. He fails, but in failing he manages to entertain the audience with his bragging and his boldness. Shakespeare may have been reworking an old play based on a Plautine model; in one of Plautus’s plays, there is a subplot in which a clever young man (Fenton) and his beloved manage to deceive her parents in order to get married. This is the only strain of romance in the comedy, whose major event is the punishment of Falstaff: He is tossed into the river, then singed with candles and pinched by citizens disguised as fairies. Critics who see Falstaff as the embodiment of Vice argue that this punishment has symbolic weight; his attempted seduction of honest citizens’ wives makes him a threat to orderly society. Regardless of whether this act has a ritual purpose, the character of Falstaff, and the characters of Bardolph, Pistol, and Justice Shallow, bear little resemblance to the comic band of Henry IV, Part I. In fact, The Merry Wives of Windsor might be legitimately seen as an interlude rather than a fully developed comedy, and it is a long distance from the more serious, probing dramas Shakespeare would soon create.
All’s Well That Ends Well
All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure were composed during a period when Shakespeare was also writing his major tragedies. Because they pose questions about sin and guilt that are not satisfactorily resolved, many critics have used the terms “dark comedies” or “problem plays” to describe them. All’s Well That Ends Well features the familiar disguised heroine (Helena) who pursues the man she loves (Bertram) with skill and determination.
The play differs from the earlier romantic comedies, however, because the hero rejects the heroine, preferring instead to win honor and fame in battle. Even though Helena is “awarded” the prize of Bertram by the King of France, whom she has cured of a near-fatal disease, she must don her disguise and pursue him while undergoing considerable suffering and hardship. In order to trap him, moreover, she must resort to a “bed trick,” substituting her body for that of another woman whom Bertram plans to seduce. When Bertram finally assents to the union he bears little resemblance to comic heroes such as Orlando or Sebastian; he could be seen in fact as more a villain (or perhaps a cad) than a deserving lover. The forced resolution makes the play a “problem” for many critics, but for Shakespeare and his audience, the ingenuity of Helena and the multiple marriages at the close probably satisfied the demands of romantic comedy.
Measure for Measure
Measure for Measure has at the center of its plot another bed trick, by which a patient and determined woman (Mariana) manages to capture the man she desires. That man, Angelo, is put in the position of deputy by Duke Vincentio at the opening of the action. He determines to punish a sinful Vienna by strictly enforcing its laws against fornication; his first act is to arrest Claudio for impregnating his betrothed Juliet. When Isabella, Claudio’s sister, who is about to take vows as a nun, comes to plead for his life, Angelo attempts to seduce her. He asks for a measure of her body in return for a measure of mercy for her brother. Isabella strongly resists Angelo’s advances, although her principled behavior most certainly means her brother will die. Aided by Vincentio, disguised as a holy father, Isabella arranges for Mariana to take her place, since this woman is in fact Angelo’s promised partner. Thus, Angelo commits the deed that he would punish Claudio for performing. (Instead of freeing Claudio, moreover, he sends word to have him killed even after seducing his “sister.”)
Through another substitution, however, Claudio is saved. In an elaborate judgment scene, in which Vincentio plays both duke and holy father, Angelo is forgiven—Isabella being required by the duke to beg for Angelo’s life—and marries Mariana. Here, as in All’s Well That Ends Well, the hero proves to be an unpunished scoundrel who seems to be in fact rewarded for his sin, but the biblical “Judge not lest ye be judged” motivates much of the action, with characters finding themselves in the place of those who would judge them and being forced to display mercy. Some critics have argued that this interpretation transforms Duke Vincentio into a Christ figure, curing the sins of the people while disguised as one of them. Whether or not this interpretation is valid, Measure for Measure compels its audience to explore serious questions concerning moral conduct; practically no touches of humor in the play are untainted by satire and irony.
For about four years following the writing of Measure for Measure, Shakespeare was busy producing his major tragedies. It is probably accurate to say that the problem comedies were, to a degree, testing grounds for the situations and characters he would perfect in the tragedies. These tragedies include the famous Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Othello, the Moor of Venice, King Lear, and Antony and Cleopatra. His earliest—and clumsiest—attempt at tragedy was Titus Andronicus.
The plot of Titus Andronicus no doubt came from the Roman poet Ovid, a school subject and one of the playwright’s favorite Roman authors. From Seneca, the Roman playwright whose ten plays had been translated into English in 1559, Shakespeare took the theme of revenge: The inflexible, honor-bound hero seeks satisfaction against a queen who has murdered or maimed his children. She was acting in retaliation, however, because Titus had killed her son. Titus’s rage, which is exacerbated by the rape and mutilation of his daughter Lavinia, helps to classify him as a typical Senecan tragic hero. He and the wicked queen Tamora are oversimplified characters who declaim set speeches rather than engaging in realistic dialogue. Tamora’s lover and accomplice, the Moor Aaron, is the prototype of the Machiavellian practitioner that Shakespeare would perfect in such villains as Iago and Edmund. While this caricature proves intriguing, and while the play’s structure is more balanced and coherent than those of the early history plays, Titus’s character lacks the kind of agonizing introspection shown by the heroes of the major tragedies. He never comes to terms with the destructive code of honor that convulses his personal life and that of Rome.
Romeo and Juliet
With Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare reached a level of success in characterization and design far above the bombastic and chaotic world of Titus Andronicus. Based on a long narrative and heavily moralized poem by Arthur Brooke, this tragedy of “star-crossed lovers” excites the imagination by depicting the fatal consequences of a feud between the Veronese families of Montague and Capulet. Distinguished by some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful poetry, the style bears a strong resemblance to that of the sonnets: elaborate conceits, classical allusions, witty paradoxes, and observations on the sad consequences of sudden changes of fortune. Some critics have in fact faulted the tragedy because its plot lacks the integrity of its poetry; Romeo and Juliet come to their fates by a series of accidents and coincidences that strain credulity. The play also features abundant comic touches provided by the remarks of Romeo’s bawdy, quick-witted friend Mercutio and the sage but humorous observations of Juliet’s nurse. Both of these “humor” characters (character types whose personalities are determined by one trait, or “humor”) remark frequently, and often bawdily, on the innocent lovers’ dreamy pronouncements about their passion for each other.
With the accidental murder of Mercutio, whose last words are “A plague on both your houses!” (referring to the feuding families), the plot accelerates rapidly toward the catastrophe, showing no further touches of humor or satire. The tireless Friar Lawrence attempts, through the use of a potion, to save Juliet from marrying Paris, the nobleman to whom she is betrothed, but the friar proves powerless against the force of fate that seems to be working against the lovers. Although it lacks the compelling power of the mature tragedies, whose heroes are clearly responsible for their fate, Romeo and Juliet remains a popular play on the subject of youthful love. The success of various film versions, including Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 feature film, with its teenage hero and heroine and its romantically moving score, proved that the play has a timeless appeal.
At least three years passed before Shakespeare again turned his attention to the tragic form. Instead of treating the subject of fatal love, however, he explored Roman history for a political story centering on the tragic dilemma of one man. In Julius Caesar, he could have dealt with the tale of the assassination of Caesar, taken from Plutarch’s Bioi paralleloi (c. 105-115 C.E.; Parallel Lives, 1579), as he did with material from English history in the chronicle dramas he had been writing in the 1590’s. That is, he might have presented the issue of the republic versus the monarchy as a purely political question, portraying Caesar, Brutus, Cassius, and Antony as pawns in a predestined game. Instead, Shakespeare chose to explore the character of Brutus in detail, revealing the workings of his conscience through moving and incisive soliloquies. By depicting his hero as a man who believes his terrible act is in the best interest of the country, Shakespeare establishes the precedent for later tragic heroes who likewise justify their destructive deeds as having righteous purposes.
The tragic plot is developed by means of irony and contrast. Cassius, jealous of Caesar’s achievements, seduces Brutus into taking part in the conspiracy by appealing to his idealism. This political naiveté stands in sharp contrast to Antony’s Machiavellianism, which is so brilliantly demonstrated in his crowd-swaying funeral oration (“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears …”). Antony’s transformation from playboy to power broker displays Shakespeare’s belief that the historical moment shapes the natures of great men. Caesar appears to be a superstitious, somewhat petty figure, but in typical fashion, Shakespeare makes his audience see that, just as the conspirators are not free of personal motives such as jealousy, so Caesar is not the cold and uncompromising tyrant they claim he is. With the visit by Caesar’s ghost to Brutus’s tent on the eve of the final battle at Philippi, Shakespeare foreshadows the ultimate revenge of Caesar in the character of his grandson, Octavius, who emerges as a strong personality at the close of the play. Brutus and Cassius quarrel before the end, but they nevertheless achieve a kind of nobility by committing suicide in the Roman tradition. For Brutus, the events following the assassination demonstrate the flaw in his idealism; he could not destroy the spirit of Caesar, nor could he build a republic on the shifting sand of the populace. In Julius Caesar, one witnesses a tragedy that is both politically compelling and morally complex.
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Although the revenge theme is an important part of Julius Caesar, it dominates the action of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Learning from his father’s ghost that Claudius, the new king, is a brother-murderer and a usurper, the hero sets out passionately to fulfill his personal duty by destroying the villain-king. Like Brutus, however, Hamlet is a reflective man, given to “saucy doubts” about the veracity of the ghost, about the effect on his soul of committing regicide, and about the final disposition of Claudius’s soul. As a result, Hamlet delays his revenge—a delay that has preoccupied audiences, readers, and critics for centuries.
Numerous reasons have been proposed for the delay: Hamlet is melancholic; his morality does not condone murder; he is a coward; he is secretly envious of Claudius for murdering his “rival” for his mother’s affections. These explanations, while appealing, tend to shift attention away from other, equally significant elements in the play. Hamlet’s soliloquies illustrate the range of Shakespearean blank verse and provide the means for exploring character in detail. The play’s trap motif can be seen to represent effectively the doomed, claustrophobic atmosphere of the play. Indeed, those who deliberatively set traps in the play—Polonius, Claudius, Laertes, and Hamlet—find that those traps snap back to catch the “inventor.” Hamlet’s relationships with Ophelia and with Gertrude amply reveal his self-destructive belief that his mother’s marriage to Claudius has tainted his own flesh and transformed all women into strumpets.
Throughout the action as well, one becomes aware that Shakespeare is using the theatrical metaphor “All the world’s a stage” to illustrate the way in which deceit and corruption can be masked. In another sense, Hamlet’s behavior is that of a bad actor, one who either misses his cues (as in the accidental murder of Polonius) or fails to perform when the audience expects action (as in his behavior following the play-within-the-play). There is a good deal of reflection on death and disease in Hamlet, Prince of Denmark as well; the hero’s preoccupation with these images seems to mirror the sickness of the state and of his own enterprise. When Hamlet finally acts, however, he does so in the role of an avenger and scourge. He murders Claudius after the king has arranged for Laertes to slay him in a duel and after the queen has fallen dead from a poisoned drink intended for Hamlet. With Hamlet’s death, the kingdom reverts to the control of young Fortinbras, whose father Hamlet’s father had killed in another duel. Though Fortinbras stands as a heroic figure, one cannot help but observe the irony of a situation in which the son, without a struggle, inherits what his father was denied.
Troilus and Cressida
In Troilus and Cressida, one encounters another kind of irony: satire. This strange play, which may have been composed for a select audience, possibly of lawyers, was placed between the histories and tragedies in the First Folio. The dual plot concerns the political machinations among the Greeks during their siege of Troy and the tortured love affair between Troilus and the unfaithful Cressida.
There are no epic battles in the play; indeed, the murder of Hector by a band of Achilles’ followers might easily be viewed as cowardly or ignominious at best. Much of the political action consists of debates: Hector argues eloquently that Helen should be sent back to Menelaus; Ulysses produces many pithy arguments urging the reluctant Achilles to fight. Many of these scenes, moreover, end in anticlimax, and action is often frustrated. Throughout, Thersites, the satirist-onstage, bitterly attacks the warring and lecherous instincts of men; even the love affair between Troilus and Cressida seems tainted by the general atmosphere of disillusion. Although the two lovers share genuine affection for each other, one cannot ignore the truth that they are brought together by Pandarus and that their passion has a distinctly physical quality.
When Cressida proves unable to resist the advances of Diomedes, Troilus becomes a cuckold like Menelaus; his bitterness and misogyny push one toward Thersites’ assessment that the “argument” of the war “is a whore and a cuckold.” Still it is possible to see tragic dimensions in the characters of both Hector and Troilus—one the victim of treachery in war, the other the victim of treachery in love.
Timon of Athens
Although probably written after the other major tragedies, Timon of Athens shares a number of similarities with Troilus and Cressida. Here again is an ironic vision of humanity, this time in a social rather than martial setting. That vision is expanded by the trenchant comments, usually in the form of references to sexual disease, of Apemantus, another cynical choric commentator.
Timon appears to be a tragic rather than misanthropic figure only if one sees him as the victim of his idealistic reading of humankind. When those on whom he has lavishly bestowed gifts and money consistently refuse to return the favor, Timon then becomes a bitter cynic and outspoken satirist. This exploding of a naïve philosophy or political idea, with its attendant destructive effect on the believer, would seem to be the basis for tragedy in a character such as Brutus or Hamlet, but even Hamlet fails to achieve the degree of misanthropy that typifies Timon’s outlook. Although he is loyally followed to the end by his servant Flavius, he dies alone and not as a result of someone else’s direct attack. One cannot say that the hero acquires a larger view of humanity or of himself as the result of his experience; he simply seems to swing from one extreme view to its opposite.
A comparison of Timon with more sympathetic “railers” such as Hamlet and Lear shows how narrow and shallow are his character and the dimensions of the play. The fragmented nature of the text has led some critics to question Shakespeare’s authorship, but it is probably closer to the truth to say that this was an experiment that failed.
Othello, The Moor of Venice
An experiment that clearly succeeded is Othello, the Moor of Venice, an intense and powerful domestic tragedy. Based on an Italian tale by Giambattista Giraldi Cinthio, the story concerns a Moor, a black man who is made to believe by a treacherous, vengeful ensign that his new Venetian bride has cuckolded him with one of his lieutenants, Cassio. In a rage, the Moor suffocates his bride, only to discover too late that his jealousy was unfounded. Rather than face the torture of a trial and his own conscience, he commits suicide as he bitterly accuses himself of blindness.
In its simple outline, this story has the appearance of a crude melodrama, but Shakespeare brilliantly complicates the play’s texture through skillful manipulation of scenes, characters, and language. He also creates a world with two distinct symbolic settings: Venice and Cyprus. In Venice, Othello shows himself to be a cool, rational captain, deserving of the respect he receives from the senators who send him to Cyprus to defend it from the Turks. Once Othello is on the island, however, Iago begins to chip away at the hero’s veneer of self-control until he transforms him into a terrifyingly destructive force.
Iago’s success depends not only on his close contact with Othello on the island but also on the generally held opinion that he, Iago, is an “honest man.” He is thus able to manipulate all the central characters as if he were a puppeteer. These characters share information with Iago that he later uses to ensnare them in his web, as when Desdemona begs him to find some way to reinstate Cassio in Othello’s favor. Iago is especially adept at using the handkerchief Othello gave to Desdemona but which she dropped while trying to ease her husband’s headache. When Iago’s wife Emilia dutifully hands her husband this handkerchief, he easily makes Othello believe that Desdemona gave it to Cassio as a love token. Although some critics have ridiculed Shakespeare for depending so heavily on one prop to resolve the plot, they fail to note the degree of psychological insight Shakespeare has displayed in using it. The handkerchief represents Othello’s wife’s honor and his own. She has given both away, in Othello’s mind, as if they were trifles.
This play features a hero whose reason is overwhelmed by the passion of jealousy—”the green-eyed monster,” in Iago’s words. This theme is realized through numerous sea images, by which Shakespeare likens Othello’s violent reaction to a storm or tidal wave that drowns everything in its path. Like Shakespeare’s other great villains, Iago is a supreme individualist, acknowledging no authority or power beyond himself. That this attitude was a copy of the fallen angel Satan’s would not have escaped the attention of Shakespeare’s audience, which no doubt interpreted the plot as a replay of the Fall of Man. It may be especially important to perceive Iago as another Satan, since commentators have suspected the sufficiency of his motive (he says he wants revenge because Othello passed over him in appointing Cassio as his lieutenant). The extreme evilness of Iago’s nature and the extreme purity of Desdemona’s have led others to claim that Shakespeare was simply intent on fashioning a contemporary morality play for his audience. Such a reading tends to simplify what is in fact a thoroughgoing study of the emotions that both elevate and destroy humankind. As Othello discovers before his suicide, he was one “who loved not wisely but too well”; one might observe ironically that it was Iago, and not Desdemona, whom he loved “too well.”
If Othello’s tragedy results from the corrosive disease of jealousy, the hero of King Lear suffers from the debilitating effects of pride and self-pity. When the play opens, he is in the process of retiring from the kingship by dividing his kingdom into three parts, basing his assignment of land on the degree of affection mouthed by each of the three daughters to whom he plans to assign a part. Cordelia, his youngest and favorite, refuses to enter into this hollow ceremony, and Lear responds by suddenly and violently banishing her. Left in the hands of his evil and ambitious daughters Goneril and Regan, Lear quickly discovers that they plan to pare away any remaining symbols of his power and bring him entirely under their rule.
This theme of children controlling, even destroying, their parents is echoed in a fully developed subplot involving old Gloucester and his two sons, Edmund and Edgar. With Cordelia and Edgar cast out—the former to live in France, the latter in disguise as Poor Tom—Lear and Gloucester suffer the punishing consequences of their sins. Lear runs mad into a terrible storm, accompanied by the Fool, a witty and poignant commentator on the unnaturalness of his master’s decision. There, Lear goes through a “dark night of the soul” in which he sees for the first time the suffering of others whom he has never regarded. Gloucester, who is also lacking insight into the true natures of his sons, is cruelly blinded by Regan and her husband and cast out from his own house to journey to Dover. On the way, he is joined by his disguised son, who helps Gloucester undergo a regeneration of faith before he expires. Cordelia performs a similar task for Lear, whose recovery can be only partial, because of his madness. After Cordelia is captured and killed by the forces of Edmund, whose brother conquers him in single combat, Lear, too, expires while holding the dead Cordelia in his arms.
This wrenching ending, with its nihilistic overtones, is only one of the elements that places this play among the richest and most complex tragedies in English. Lear’s blindness, which is expertly represented in image clusters dealing with sight and insight, leads to cataclysmic suffering for his family and the state. More than any other Shakespearean tragedy, King Lear also succeeds in dramatizing the relationship between the microcosm, or little world of humankind, and the macrocosm, or larger world. One sees how the breakdown of the king’s reason and control leads to the breakdown of control in the state and in nature. At the moment when Lear bursts into tears, a frightening storm breaks out, and civil war soon follows. Images of human suffering and torture likewise crowd the action, the most compelling of which is the representation of the hero tied to a “wheel of fire” and scalded by his own tears as the wheel turns.
The Wheel of Fortune emblem is clearly evoked by this image, revealing Shakespeare’s purpose of depicting the king as another fallen prince brought low by his own mistakes and by the caprice of the goddess. That Lear has created the circumstances of his own fall is underscored by the antic remarks of his companion the Fool, the choric speaker who early in the play tries to keep Lear’s mind from cracking as he comes to realize how wrong was the banishment of Cordelia. The Fool speaks in riddles and uses barnyard analogies to make the point that Lear has placed the whip in the child’s hand and lowered his own breeches. Gloucester must learn a similar lesson, although his dilemma involves a crisis of faith. Lear must strip away the coverings of civilization to discover “unaccommodated man,” a discovery he begins to make too late. Just as he realizes that Cordelia represents those qualities of truth and compassion that he has been lacking, she is suddenly and violently taken from him.
Macbeth treats the de casibus theme of the fall of princes, but from a different perspective. Unlike Lear, Macbeth is a usurper who is driven to kill King Duncan by the witches’ prophecy, by his own ambition, and by his wife’s prompting. Once that deed is done, Macbeth finds himself unable to sleep, a victim of conscience and guilt. Although Lady Macbeth tries to control his fears, she proves unsuccessful, and her influence wanes rapidly. Evidence of this loss of power is Macbeth’s plot to kill Banquo, his fellow general, to whom the witches announced that he would be the father of kings. During the climactic banquet scene, Duncan’s ghost enters, invisible to the other guests, to take Macbeth’s place at the table; when the host reacts by raging and throwing his cup at the specter, the celebration is broken up and the guests scatter. Immediately, Macbeth rushes to the witches to seek proof that he is invincible. They tell him that he will not be conquered until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane and that no man born of woman can kill him. They also show him a procession of eight child-kings, all of whom represent Banquo’s descendants, including the last king, who is meant to be James I. (This procession has helped many critics to conclude that Macbeth was written as an occasional play to honor James, who became the company’s protector in 1603.)
Seeking to tighten his control of Scotland and to quiet his conscience, Macbeth launches a reign of terror during which his henchmen kill Lady Macduff and her children. Macduff, exiled in England with Duncan’s son Malcolm, learns of this vicious deed and spearheads an army that returns to Scotland to destroy the tyrant. In the final battle, which commences with the attacking army tearing down branches from trees in Birnam Wood to camouflage its advance, Macbeth discovers that his nemesis, Macduff, “was from his mother’s womb/ Untimely ripped.” Thus standing alone (Lady Macbeth commits suicide) and defeated, Macbeth represents himself as a “poor player” who has had his moment onstage and is quickly gone. This use of the theatrical metaphor looks back to the world of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark at the same time that it underscores the villain-hero’s role as an impostor king.
Macbeth is also depicted as a Herod figure (recalling Richard III) when he murders the innocent children of Macduff in an obsessive fit brought on by the realization that he is childless and heirless. Two strains of imagery reinforce this perception, featuring recurring references to blood and to children. When Macbeth kills Duncan, he describes his blood as “gilding” his flesh, suggesting that the king is God’s anointed representative on earth. Shakespeare also depicts Macbeth’s nemesis as a bloody child; this image hints at the strength-in-innocence theme that dominates the latter part of the play. That is, as Macbeth grows into the “man” that Lady Macbeth claimed he should be, he becomes more destructive and less humane, the caricature of a man. Macduff, on the other hand, in tears over the brutal murder of his wife and children, emerges as a stronger and more compassionate man because he has shown himself capable of deep feeling. The bloody-babe image might also be defined as a Christ emblem, with the attendant suggestion that Macduff comes to free the land from a tyrant’s grasp by spreading a philosophy of goodness and mercy. If the play was written to honor James I, it might also be argued that the comparison between his reign and that of Christ was intended. Whatever the intention of these image patterns, they help one to trace the transformation in Macbeth’s character from battlefield hero to usurping tyrant, a transformation brought about by the powerful motive of ambition.
Antony and Cleopatra
Written soon after Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra again traces the complex psychological patterns of a male-female relationship. Like Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra appears to control and direct the behavior of her man, Antony, but as the play progresses, she, too, begins to lose power. Unlike Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra outlasts her love, gaining from Antony’s death the spirit and stature of rule that was not evident throughout much of the play. Indeed, most of the action involves quarrels between these two mature but jealous and petulant lovers as they struggle to escape the harsh political world created by Octavius Caesar, Antony’s rival.
Angered by Antony’s reveling in Egypt and later by his desertion of Caesar’s sister Octavia, whom Antony married only to buy time and an unsteady truce, Octavius begins to move against Antony with a powerful army and navy. During a first encounter between the two forces, in which Antony foolishly decides to fight at sea and also depends on Cleopatra’s untested ships, Antony leaves the field in pursuit of the retiring Cleopatra. Angered by her withdrawal and his own alacrity in following her, Antony rages against his “serpent of old Nile” and vows to have nothing further to do with her, but Cleopatra’s pull is magnetic, and Antony joins forces with her for a second battle with Caesar. When a similar retreat occurs and Antony finds Cleopatra apparently arranging a separate peace with one of Caesar’s representatives, he has the messenger beaten and sent back to Octavius with a challenge to single combat. These wild and desperate moves are commented on by Enobarbus, associate of Antony and choric voice. After the threat of single combat, Enobarbus leaves his master to join forces with Octavius. (Overcome by remorse, however, Enobarbus dies on the eve of battle.)
Believing that Cleopatra has killed herself, Antony decides to commit suicide and calls on his servant Eros to hold his sword so that he can run himself on it. Instead, Eros kills himself, and Antony must strike the blow himself. Still alive, he is carried to the monument where Cleopatra has decided to take up residence. There, Antony expires, “a Roman, by a Roman/ Valiantly vanquished.” Almost immediately, Cleopatra’s character seems to change into that of a noble partner; her elegant speeches on Antony’s heroic proportions are some of the most powerful blank verse in the play. It is also clear that she intends to escape Octavius’s grasp, knowing that he intends to parade her and her children before a jeering Roman crowd. Putting on her royal robes and applying the poison asps to her breast, Cleopatra hurries off to join her lover in eternity.
This complicated story is brilliantly organized by means of placing in balance the two worlds of Rome and Egypt. While Rome is presented as a cold, calculating place, reflective of the character of Octavius, Egypt stands out as a lush paradise in which the pursuit of pleasure is the main business of the inhabitants. This contrast is particularly telling because Antony’s status as a tragic hero depends on one’s seeing him as caught between the two worlds, at home in neither, master of neither. Water and serpent imagery dominate the play, creating a picture of Cleopatra as a Circe figure or a spontaneously generated creature that has seduced the once heroic Antony. Although this is the Roman view of the “gypsy” queen, Shakespeare requires his audience to appreciate her infinite variety. She is beautiful and playful, demanding and witty, cool and explosive. On the other hand, the assessment of Octavius as a puritanical, unfeeling man of destiny is also oversimplified; his reaction to Antony’s death reveals genuine emotion. At the close of the play, one realizes that Antony and Cleopatra’s vast empire has been reduced to the size of her monument—Caesar must attend a while longer to make this discovery himself. Antony and Cleopatra, however, have found a world of love that Octavius could never enter, and the tragedy is as much concerned with tracing the boundaries of that empire as it is with marking the triumphs of Octavius.
While reading the story of Antony and Cleopatra in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, to which the play reveals a number of similarities, Shakespeare found another Roman figure whose career he saw as appropriate matter for tragedy: Coriolanus. Composed in the period between 1607 and 1608, Coriolanus dramatizes the career of a general in Republican Rome. He proves to be a superhuman figure in battle, earning his name by single-handedly subduing the town of Corioles and emerging from its gates covered in blood. (This birth image has a mixed meaning, since the blood is that of his victims.)
Unfortunately, Coriolanus refuses to humble himself before the Roman plebeians, whom he despises, as a requirement for holding the office of consul. Indeed, many of his bitter comments about the fickleness and cowardice of the populace remind one of characters such as Thersites and Apemantus. Such contempt and condescension make it hard to identify with Coriolanus, even though one is made aware that the Roman crowd is set against him by the jealous and ambitious tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius. Driven by his pride and anger, Coriolanus challenges the citizens’ rights and is subsequently banished. He then joins forces with his former enemy Aufidius, and the two of them lead an army to the very gates of Rome. Coriolanus’s mother comes out to plead with her son to spare Rome—and his family—in the most emotional scene of the play. Deeply moved by his mother’s arguments, Coriolanus relents and urges his companion to make peace with their enemy.
Aufidius agrees but awaits his opportunity to ambush his partner, whom he regards as a lifelong enemy. In a masterstroke of irony, Coriolanus is brought down by the citizens of the very town—Corioles—that he conquered in acquiring his name. Because the play is so heavily laden with swatches of Coriolanus’s vitriol and instances of irony such as the final one, it is difficult to classify this tragedy with those in which the heroes present richly complex characters. If Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and Lear possess tragic flaws, those flaws are only a part of their complicated makeup. Coriolanus, on the other hand, can be understood only in terms of his flaw, and the character and play are therefore one-dimensional.
There is little argument, however, that Shakespeare’s tragedies constitute the major achievement of his career. These dramas continue to appeal to audiences because their stories are intriguing; because their characters are fully realized human beings, if somewhat larger than life; and because their poetic language is metaphorically rich. Shakespeare possessed a profound insight into human nature and an ability to reveal what he found there in language unequaled in its power and beauty.
In the later years of his career, Shakespeare returned to writing comedy of a special kind: tragicomedy or romance. The four plays usually referred to as “the romances” are Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest. Three of these portray situations in which fathers are separated from daughters, then are rejoined through some miraculous turn of fortune. The plays also involve travel to exotic locales by the heroes and heroines, and, except for The Tempest, they portray events which occur over a span of many years. Sharp contrasts between court and pastoral settings vivify the theme of nature as the ideal teacher of moral values. In Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter’s Tale, the plots move inexorably toward tragedy, but through some form of intervention by Providence—or in some cases, by the gods themselves—happiness is restored and characters are reunited. All the plays witness the power of faith as instrumental in the process of regeneration; the loyal counselor or servant is a regular character type in the plays. The general outlook of the romances is optimistic, suggesting that humankind is indeed capable of recovering from the Fall and of creating a new Paradise.
Pericles recounts the adventures of a good king who seems hounded by fortune and forced to wander through the Mediterranean. The plot is faintly reminiscent of that of The Comedy of Errors, suggesting that Shakespeare was returning to tested materials from his earliest comedies. During a storm at sea, Pericles’ wife, Thaisa, apparently dies in childbirth and is set ashore in a coffin. He then leaves his daughter Marina in the care of a scheming queen, who tries to have her murdered. Instead, Marina is captured by pirates and eventually is sold to a brothel owner. After many years of lonely sojourning, Pericles is finally reunited with his daughter; later, through the offices of a doctor figure named Cerimon, they find Thaisa in the temple of Diana at Ephesus, where she has been resting for years. Throughout, the sea represents both a threatening and a peaceful force; Marina’s name points to the theme of the sea as a great restorative power. She “cures” her father aboard a ship.
Cymbeline, set in ancient Britain, recounts the misfortunes of its characters against the background of the Roman invasion of England. The tragicomedy has strong patriotic overtones, but it does not qualify as a history play such as those in the two tetralogies. The play depicts the moral education of Posthumus, the hero, whose desire to marry Imogen, Cymbeline’s daughter, is frustrated by his low birth. While in exile in Italy, Posthumus brags to an Italian acquaintance, Iachimo, that his beloved would never consider deceiving him. Thus challenged, Iachimo visits Imogen’s room while she sleeps and, through a clever ruse involving a ring and a birthmark, convinces Posthumus that he has slept with her. As a result of numerous plot turns, one of which calls for Imogen to disguise herself as a page, the two lovers are finally reunited when Iachimo confesses his sin.
Comingled with this strain of plot is another involving two sons of Cymbeline who have been reared in the rugged world of caves and mountains by an old counselor banished by the king. (He originally kidnapped the boys to seek revenge against Cymbeline.) In a climactic scene brought about by the Roman invasion, the mountain-men heroes are reunited with their father and sister, whom all believed was dead. So complex is the plot that many readers and audiences have found the play confusing and sometimes unintentionally humorous. The characters are not fully developed, and it is difficult to determine just what is the central story. Here, too, spectacle overpowers dialogue and characterization, with little or no attention paid to plausibility. Shakespeare seems preoccupied with demonstrating the healthfulness of pastoral life, the patriotic spirit of Englishmen, and the melodramatic quality of evil. Clearly, this agenda of themes and values places one in a comic world that is distinct from the one that typifies the mature comedies.
The Winter’s Tale
In The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare again explores the motif of the daughter separated from her father, but in this play, the father, King Leontes, must be seen as a potentially tragic figure. His jealousy leads him to accuse his wife, Hermione, of unfaithfulness with his friend and fellow king Polixenes. When Leontes confronts her, even after consultation of the oracle indicates her honesty, she faints and apparently expires. Leontes banishes the child Perdita, who is his daughter but whom he refuses to acknowledge because of his suspicions, and the third act ends with a loyal servant depositing the baby on the shore of Bohemia to be favored or destroyed by Fortune. (A bear pursues and kills the servant, thus destroying any link between Leontes’ court and the baby.)
Perdita, “the lost one,” is found and reared by a shepherd. As sixteen years pass, she grows into a kind of pastoral queen, revealing those traits of goodness and innocence that Shakespeare associates with the Golden Age. When Polixenes repeats Leontes’ sin by banishing his son Florizel for falling in love with a lowly shepherdess, the couple, with the help of a rejected servant still loyal to Leontes, returns to Sicilia to seek the aid of the now repentant king. Through a series of revelations and with the help of the old shepherd, Perdita’s identity is discovered. She and Florizel are married, and the two kings are reunited in friendship. As a final tour de force, Hermione, who has been hidden away for the whole time by another loyal servant, comes to life as a statue supposedly sculpted by a famous artist. As in the other romances, some divine force has obviously been operating in the affairs of humans to bring about this happy reunion of families, friends, and countries.
The Winter’s Tale comes closer than the earlier romances to a realistic treatment of emotion, with all of its destructive possibilities, and to a more nearly honest vision of the pastoral world. Autolycus the clown, for example, pretends to be nothing other than a successful thief, “a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.”
The Tempest is the only romance in which father and daughter are together from the beginning. It also possesses the only plot that observes the classical unities of time and place. Many commentators believe that the play represents Shakespeare’s greatest dramatic achievement, blending together beautiful verse, richly realized characters, and the moving wonders of the imagination. There can be no question that The Tempest is a refined and elevating statement of the themes of Providence and of order and degree. Prospero, the duke of Milan, exiled by his usurping brother Antonio, vows to punish both Antonio and his chief supporter, King Alonso. The two are aboard a ship sailing near the island on which Prospero and his daughter Miranda reside. Using magical power and the aid of a spirit named Ariel, Prospero apparently wrecks the ship, saving all the voyagers but supposedly drowning Ferdinand, Alonso’s son. Once on the island, the party is tormented by disorienting music and distracting sights, especially when Prospero’s brother Antonio attempts to persuade Alonso’s brother Sebastian to kill him and seize the crown. Another rebellion is attempted by Caliban (his name an anagram for “cannibal”), the half-human, half-bestial servant of Prospero.
Both rebellions fail, but instead of punishing his victims further, Prospero, moved by the compassion displayed by Ariel, decides to give up his magic and return to civilization. The decision proves crucial, since Prospero was on the verge of becoming a kind of Faust, forgetting his identity as a man. When he acknowledges Caliban, “this thing of darkness,” as his own, one realizes that this gesture betokens an internal acceptance of the passions as a legitimate part of his nature. Instead of revenging himself on Alonso, Prospero allows Ferdinand to woo Miranda in a mood and manner that recall Eden before the Fall. It should also be noted that Prospero creates a marriage masque featuring Iris, Ceres, and Juno, at the close of which he delivers the famous “Our revels now are ended” speech. Some critics claim that Prospero’s words constitute Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage, but there is considerable evidence that he continued to write plays for at least another year.
The Two Noble Kinsmen
The Two Noble Kinsmen was probably one of the plays composed during that period. It is not included in the First Folio (published 1623). It appeared in print in 1634 and bearing a title page ascribing the comedy to John Fletcher and William Shakespeare. Although collaboration was common among Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, it was not a form of composition in which Shakespeare regularly engaged. Because Henry VIII was also most likely a collaborative effort, there seems to be compelling evidence that Shakespeare was enjoying a state of semiretirement during this period. Based on Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale” (from his Canterbury Tales), The Two Noble Kinsmen depicts the love of Palamon and Arcite for Emilia in a polite and mannered style that can easily be identified with Fletcher’s other work. The play is similar to the other romances in its emphasis on spectacle. It opens with a magnificent wedding ceremony before the Temple of Hymen, and there are excursions to the shrines of Mars and Diana as well. However, there are no scenes of regeneration involving fathers and daughters, no emphasis on the forgiveness of sin. If this was Shakespeare’s last play, it shows him returning to old sources for oft-told tales; his interest in developing new comic forms had obviously waned.
On the whole, the romances represent a more sophisticated but less playful and inventive style than that of the character-oriented comedies, such as Twelfth Night and Much Ado About Nothing. They are the work of a playwright at the height of his powers, and they perhaps reveal the issues with which Shakespeare came to grapple in his later years: familial relationships, faith and redemption, and the legacy of each generation to its successors.
Other Major Works
POETRY: Venus and Adonis, 1593; The Rape of Lucrece, 1594; The Passionate Pilgrim, 1599 (miscellany with poems by Shakespeare and others); The Phoenix and the Turtle, 1601; A Lover’s Complaint, 1609; Sonnets, 1609.