Jerry Cavanaugh

You can't please everyone, so you've got to please yourself. (Rick Nelson)

Assignments for The Late Plays of Shakespeare class, an independent study course

through the University of Indiana.    All 19 essays were written between December 18, 2008, and March 18, 2009, and are my original work.  In addition, the course requirements included midterm and final essay examinations.



The plays studied were:

As You Like It

Twelfth Night

Measure for Measure



Antony and Cleopatra

Pericles, Prince of Tyre



Three Essays About As You Like It



Touchstone and Jaques

            In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the characters of Touchstone and Jaques represent opposite sides of the same coin.  Each is a commentator on the play’s events, but Touchstone approaches things with a good-natured, optimistic viewpoint, while Jaques tends to be more pessimistic and cynical.  Each gives us insight into one of the play’s central themes: that life is complicated, filled with good and evil, but can be a joyful, rewarding journey nevertheless.

            Touchstone, as the court jester, is the more traditional fool, using his wit and wordplay to scrutinize the action and the actors, giving the audience hints as to the actors’ motivations.   Like most fools, his comments contain wisdom with their sarcasm, as when he tells Celia “The more pity that fools may not speak / wisely what wise men do foolishly” (1.2.86-87).  Duke Senior sums up Touchstone when he says “He uses his folly like a stalking-horse, / and under the presentation of that he shoots his wit” (5.4.106-107).  Like most jesters, Touchstone teases people with what appears to be meaningless frivolity, but is meant to test them to find out what makes them tick.  How they respond to his jests reveals their true character.  The only time his jesting seems to be more truly caustic than playful is his encounter with William in Act 5, when the bumpkin is clearly no match for the fool’s wit and doesn’t seem to understand Touchstone’s threats. 

            His wordplay is often humorous, as when Celia asks him to bear with her because she is tired of walking.  His response, “For my part, I had rather bear with you / than bear you” (2.4.11-12), meaning that he would rather put up with her than carry her, is certain to get a laugh.  His next line, “Yet I should bear no cross if I did / bear you, for I think you have no money in your / purse” (2.4.12-14), is also bound to strike a chord with the audience, who will realize that he is saying that she would be that much easier to carry because she has no money to weigh her down.  He uses his facility with words to show us his delight in the positive aspects of life, as in his exchange with Audrey, when she asks him if he wouldn’t want her to be honest and he replies, “for honesty coupled to beauty is to have honey / sauce to sugar” (3.3.29-30).   How delighted he is to find sweetness piled upon sweetness!

            Jaques, on the other hand, is a cynic who uses his wit to convey his dissatisfaction with life.  He even admits his pessimistic attitude when Amiens warns him that his song will make him sad and Jaques responds, “I can / suck melancholy out of a song, as a weasel sucks eggs” (2.5.12-13), acknowledging that it won’t be the song, but rather his own temperament, that will make him depressed.  In his exchanges with Rosalind in Act 4, he comments on his melancholic spirit saying, “I do love it better than laughing” (4.1.4).   He goes on to distinguish his sadness from that of the scholar, the musician, the courtier, the lawyer, the lady, and the lover, and to claim it as unique, the result of his many travels “in which [my] / often rumination wraps me in a most humorous / sadness” (4.1.18-20).

            Like Touchstone, Jaques uses his facility with words to goad people, but his goading lacks the light touch of the jester.  In Act 2, Scene 7, when he is explaining to Duke Senior why he wants to don the motley garb of the fool so that he can point out the foolishness of others, he says he will “Cleanse the foul body of th’ infected world” (2.7.60).  He goes on to say that if the person he attacks takes offense, it won’t be Jaques’ fault, it will be because the person actually did something offensive and feels guilty about it.  Otherwise, the person would ignore his jibes “like a wild goose flies” (2.7.86).

            We gain further insight into the differences between Touchstone and Jaques in Act 3, Scene 2, in the exchanges between Orlando and Jaques.  We cannot imagine Touchstone saying, “I had as lief have been myself alone” (3.2.254), or “God buy you, let’s meet as little as we can” (3.2.257).  Touchstone enjoys the company of others; Jaques tolerates it when he has to.  The famous passage in Act 2, when Jaques describes the seven ages of man, is as bleak an assessment of life as we would ever hope to see.  It is not something we can imagine coming from Touchstone because there is no hope in it.

            Shakespeare seems to use these two characters as a counterpoint to each other.  Both use their wit to test the mettle of the other characters, but Touchstone expects the best, while Jaques expects the worst.  In the end, each gets what he expects from life.  Touchstone gets marriage to Audrey, while Jaques, although he congratulates the others on their happiness, remains sad and alone, vowing to follow Duke Frederick to discover if there is any happiness in the religious life.




Touchstone and William

Act 5, Scene 1

The scene in which Touchstone encounters William, Audrey’s other suitor, is one in which the decisions of the producer, director, and actors play a vital role in how the audience responds.  Handled one way, the scene portrays William as an innocent country bumpkin who, outclassed by the more sophisticated jester, drifts away somewhat uncertain as to what has just happened; handled another way, it still portrays William as a simple rustic, but now one who is vanquished, humiliated, and driven away in fright by the fool.

The scene opens with brief exchanges between the two, by which Touchstone learns William’s age, that he is native to the forest of Arden, and that he is reasonably positioned financially, although certainly not rich.  “So, so” is the term he uses.

It is at this point that Touchstone begins to dissect William with his barbed wit.  He asks William if he is learned, to which William replies that he is not.  He asks if William loves Audrey, to which William replies that he does.  Touchstone then verbally slashes William by saying that he, not William, is the man “that must marry this woman” (5.1.46).  He tells William that he must forego the company of Audrey or he (Touchstone) will kill him.  He threatens to poison William, beat him, or run him through.  Failing those measures, he will so confuse him with his wit that, apparently, William will die of befuddlement.  He concludes his threats by saying that he will kill William “a / hundred and fifty ways” (5.1.56-57), and ordering William to go away.   Audrey urges William to leave and he does, saying as he departs, “God rest you merry, sir!” (5.1.59), which is a curious thing to say to one who has just stolen the love of your life and humiliated you in the bargain.

The audience’s reaction to this brief scene is, to a large extent, affected by casting and directing choices.  The three actors’ positioning, movements, and intonation of lines all play a vital role in determining this reaction.

In the case of Touchstone, the most important factors would seem to be his intonation of the lines, as well as the accompanying posture and gestures.  When he is questioning William, the way that he says each line will either evoke admiration or disdain.  If, for example, he says, “A fair name” (5.1.22) with a leering glance at the audience, as if to say, “This is a  name for a bumpkin,” it will be clear to them that he is about to verbally attack his opponent.  If, however, he says the line dismissively, perhaps accompanied by a hands-up gesture and a gentle shrug of the shoulders, it would indicate that he has no animosity towards William, merely that he sees him as a rival.  The former approach might serve to make the audience unsympathetic towards Touchstone; the latter might make them more sympathetic.

Similarly, when Touchstone launches into the litany of the ways he plans to get rid of William, the way he positions himself and the way he speaks his lines is of vital importance.  He is definitely threatening William with physical harm unless William gives up his suit of Audrey.  However, the way that he does so is crucial to whether or not the audience likes Touchstone and supports his efforts.  He may speak his lines in a harsh, threatening tone with his arms crossed over his chest and a scowl on his face, or he may speak with a light-hearted tone accompanied by open arms and a smile.  Either approach is possible, but the former paints Touchstone as an ogre, taking advantage of a poor country boy, while the latter acknowledges that he knows he has William outclassed and is letting the boy down a little more gently.

In the case of William, the casting is of most importance.  If the actor portraying William is a fair-faced youth with an open countenance and a ready smile, then a harsh portrayal of Touchstone makes him a more sympathetic character.  If, however, the actor chosen has a dark, brooding countenance, then Touchstone’s harsh attacks might seem more appropriate.  It would seem that, in either case, William doesn’t fully comprehend the thrust of Touchstone’s words, and the actor would most likely assume an air of polite confusion, at least until the full import of the jester’s words sinks in. When Touchstone orders William to leave and Audrey assents to this, the manner in which William replies, “God rest you merry, sir!” (5.1.59) would be significant to the audience’s response.  If he says it in a huff, stiff-backed and angrily, the message would be that he finally gets it and feels offended.  If he says it with a shaky smile and a slight bow, it would signify that he has no clue as to what just happened, only that he has lost the battle.  Whether the audience laughs or gasps at this scene will be determined by whether Touchstone and William are smiling at the end or not.

Audrey has only one line in this scene after William’s entrance.  She says, “Do, good William” (5.1.58) when Touchstone orders him to leave.  However, her posture and demeanor while Touchstone is eviscerating William would be significant to the audience’s response to the scene.  Is William a poor country fool for whom she was willing to settle only because no one better was available or is he her first love who now seems inadequate in the face of a sharp-witted jester from the court?  Her stance during their encounter and the way she says her line at the end will tell us.

Thus, we can see that the choices made by the producer in casting these three characters and the choices of the director in guiding their portrayals are of vital importance in a brief scene that amounts to fewer than seventy lines but goes a long way toward determining the audience’s evaluation of Touchstone, William, and Audrey.



Song and Dance in As You Like It

            Shakespeare introduces five songs and a dance in As You Like It for several diverse purposes.  They set the tone and mood of the play, serve to transition between scenes, show the passage of time, or emphasize traits of certain characters.  Some reinforce the fact that the world of the play is one of contradiction and contrast, where inexplicable events occur every day, but love may still conquer all.  Ultimately, however, the songs are incidental to the story.

            In Act 2, Scene 5, the first song is an ode to the simple, carefree life in Arden, where you shall “see / No enemy / But winter and rough weather” (2.5.4-6).  It is an idyllic place, which welcomes those who “doth ambition shun” (2.5.38), who seek nothing more than food and are satisfied with whatever they get.  Then the third stanza, written by Jaques, gives the audience insight into his character, which is gloomy and cynical.  His contribution is to call anyone who leaves the comforts of civilization for Arden an ass and to say that ‘Here shall he see / Gross fools as he” (2.5.55-56).  The song sets the mood of Arden, which the sardonic Jaques is quick to ridicule. 

            The second song is sung when Orlando brings Adam into Duke Senior’s camp.  It speaks of “man’s ingratitude” and “benefits forgot” and says the bitter winter wind’s sting “is not so sharp / As friend rememb’red not” (2.7.177-189).  The chorus reminds the audience that “Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly” (2.7.181).  The song summarizes the fate of both Duke Senior and Orlando to this point.  Each has been cast aside from the court through the jealousy of his brother, and brought to the forest of Arden, where “This life is most jolly” (2.7.183).  The message is that such perfidies are not to be found in Arden.  There in the forest people are loyal and true to each other.  The song also foreshadows the love scenes between Orlando and Rosalind, wherein their love is masked by the folly of Rosalind’s disguise as Ganymede.

            The third song, in Act 4, Scene 2, serves (as the note in the Riverside Edition of Shakespeare tells us) to indicate the passage of the two hours between scenes 1 and 3.  It also may allude to the duty of a son to assume his rightful place in society, as Orlando wishes to do.  The deer’s horns are called “a crest ere thou wast born; / Thy father’s father wore it, / And thy father bore it” (4.2.14-16).  Although Shakespeare’s primary goal as a playwright is to entertain his audience, and songs may achieve that purpose, he also seems to insert a message into some of his songs, as in this case.

            When Touchstone and Audrey encounter two of Duke Senior’s pages in the forest in Act 5, Scene 3, they ask the pages to sing a song.  It is, of all the songs in the play, seemingly the least significant in terms of an underlying message.  It sings of the glories of love in the springtime.  Touchstone mocks it by saying, “though there was no great matter in the ditty / yet the note was very untuneable” (5.3. 34-35), which means that not only was the song unimportant, they sang it poorly.  When one page answers that “we kept time, we / lost not our time (5.3.37-38), Touchstone remarks that he considers it “but time lost / to hear such a foolish song” (5.3.39-40).  This song seems to have been included merely to flesh out the scene, which is intended to remind the audience of the approaching nuptials.

            The final song, a six-line ode to Hymen and marriage, celebrates the various weddings to be performed in this, the last scene. It sets the festive atmosphere surrounding the ceremonies and undoubtedly gave audiences in Shakespeare’s day an opportunity to cheer a happy ending.   The dance, which provides a backdrop for Rosalind’s epilogue, reminds the audience that the play is about the joys of love.

            In the end, As You Like It is similar to Broadway musicals of the 1950s, in that it is primarily an entertainment.  Its purpose is to give the audience a few good laughs and some simple underlying messages.  The difference is that in the modern musical production the audience is mostly interested in the music and the story is secondary.  In As You Like It, the songs are merely incidental, serving no greater purpose than to move the action along or to catch up the audience.  They set the tone or reinforce the mood of a scene, but are not central to the production. 



Three Essays About Twelfth Night



Excluded from Love


At the conclusion of Twelfth Night, the characters who remain single, including Malvolio, Sir Andrew, Antonio, Feste, and Fabian, seem to be intentionally excluded from the festivities surrounding the pairing off of the play’s central characters.  Their exclusion would seem to imply that self-fulfillment and true happiness depend upon finding a mate.  Those who have found no one remain alone and unfulfilled, left adrift.  Their fate would seem to emphasize a central theme of the play: that love and marriage, despite its complications, is the natural state to which everyone should aspire, so long as one’s aspirations are worthy of one’s social class and personal attributes.  If you aspire to mate beyond your station or for selfish reasons you will not succeed.  You must aspire to love for the sake of love to be worthy of the joys of romance.

Two of these persons, Malvolio and Sir Andrew, have suffered rejection in their quest for love, becoming objects of scorn and ridicule for their efforts.  The trick played on Malvolio by Sir Toby and his confederates has exposed him as a pompous social climber.  His readiness to accept the notion that the Countess Olivia could love someone who is basically a servant leads to his downfall.  Shakespeare foreshadows this when he has Sir Toby say, “Art any more than a steward?” (2.3.114), then reinforces it when Malvolio says, “To be Count Malvolio! (2.5.35) and “There is example for’t: the Lady of the Strachy married the yeoman of the wardrobe” (2.5.39-40).  The point seems to be that a person should set his sights on someone appropriate to his social class.

In the case of Sir Andrew, social class is not the main impediment to his achieving marital bliss, it is his lack of intelligence and courage.  Although he is of the upper class, he wastes his time cavorting with Sir Toby, drinking and carousing.  He is a fop and a simpleton who, despite his acceptable social station, hasn’t the faintest hope of earning the love of the countess.  He alludes to his lack of sense when he says, “Methinks sometimes I have no more wit than a Christian or an ordinary man has” (1.3.83-84).  Sir Toby continually mocks him without his catching on, even to the point where he and Fabian conspire to force Sir Andrew into challenging Cesario to a fight.   Sir Toby indicates that he thinks Sir Andrew is a coward when he says, “if he were open’d and you find so much blood in his liver as will clog the foot of a flea, I’ll eat the rest of th’ anatomy” (3.2.60-63).  Whereas Malvolio’s failed quest for the love of Olivia stems from the unworthiness of his lower social position, Sir Andrew’s cowardice and lack of sense are the cause of his unworthiness.  Both situations would seem to suggest that love and marriage are available only to the worthy.

In the case of Antonio, the genesis of his love is more obscure, yet his love is no less doomed than that of the others.  If Shakespeare is hinting at a homosexual attraction, then the message of the relationship is the same as with Malvolio and Sir Andrew:  to love outside of one’s gender is as useless as to love outside one’s class or one’s mental abilities – it is not a worthy love.  However, it is not necessary to conclude the presence of a homosexual attraction to understand Antonio’s relationship to Sebastian in a way that leads to the same general conclusion.  Antonio is a sea captain who has rescued Sebastian from drowning and developed such a quick attachment to the youth that he follows him into Illyria even though it is ruled by his sworn enemy Orsino.  The motive for this attraction may be quite similar to the motives of Malvolio and Sir Andrew.  Both of those characters wish to marry Countess Olivia to improve their prospects.  In Malvolio’s case, he would be marrying someone of a higher social class; in Sir Andrew’s case, someone of a higher intellect and stronger character.  In Act 3, Scene 4, when Antonio is arrested and unsuccessfully asks Viola for the money he has given to Sebastian, he moans that when he rescued Sebastian the boy’s image caused Antonio to become devoted to him.  He complains that Sebastian has “done good feature shame. / In nature there’s no blemish but the mind; / None can be call’d deform’d but the unkind” (3.4.366-368).  This would suggest that he attached himself to Sebastian because he saw in the youth’s physical appearance the prospect of future success.  By attaching himself to Sebastian, Antonio would share in that success so, as with Malvolio and Sir Andrew, the motive for his love is self-advancement.

Feste, the clown, is motivated primarily by monetary gain.  He is enriched by his entertaining in Olivia’s household as well as in Orsino’s court.   Various characters give him money when he sings or says something witty.  His motive is the coin, with the implication being that it also is an unworthy motive.  

            The minor character Fabian seems to be motivated solely by his love of mischief.  He delights in stirring the pot, along with Maria and Sir Toby, except that they wind up married and he winds up alone.

            The thread that connects the five characters who are alone at the play’s end would seem to be that, while the play’s central characters are seeking love for love’s sake, which Shakepeare implies is a worthy motive, these others act on less worthy motives – social or monetary gain, for example.  Love for love’s sake motivates Orsino, who pursues Olivia when she expresses only disdain for him then easily switches his affections to Viola.  Love for love’s sake motivates Olivia, who pursues Viola as Cesario then as readily transfers her affection to Sebastian.  Love for love’s sake even motivates the rascal Sir Toby in his affection for Maria.  In each case, their love is worthy because it seeks nothing except love.  No social position, no wealth, nothing additional is required for fulfillment.  Leaving Malvolio, Sir Andrew, Antonio, Feste, and Fabian out of the wedding festivities at the end of the play tells the audience that those who love for personal gain, instead of for love’s sake, will lose in the end.




Dramatic Irony in Twelfth Night


Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something important that the characters onstage do not know.  In Oedipus Rex, when Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother, the audience knows, but he does not.  In Romeo and Juliet, when Romeo commits suicide because he believes Juliet is dead, the audience knows she isn’t, which makes his death all the more tragic and senseless.  Such knowledge increases the level of audience involvement and, in these two examples, the sense of tragedy.  In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare includes several instances of dramatic irony that infuse the play with comic possibilities and give the audience the opportunity to laugh at and with the actors, but more importantly to anticipate the action in a way that gives them the feeling of superiority that comes with “inside information.” 

When first we meet Sebastian, he believes that his sister, Viola, has drowned at sea.  Thus, he enters Illyria blissfully unaware that someone who looks remarkably like himself has been there for three months, ministering to the needs of Duke Orsino and interceding on the duke’s behalf with Countess Olivia.  When he declares to Antonio that he is “bound for the Count Orsino’s / court” (2.1.42-43), the audience knows that the fact that Viola is already there will undoubtedly lead to mistaken identity and hilarious confusion.  In Act 3, Scene 3, when Antonio entrusts his money to Sebastian, his reason seems pretty flimsy.  As we find out later, the purpose is to set the stage for Antonio’s encounter with Viola (as Cesario) whom he mistakes for Sebastian.  When Antonio asks Viola for his money so he can bribe his captors, she has no idea what he is talking about.  She offers him half of what she has without realizing that Antonio thinks she is Sebastian.  This naturally infuriates Antonio, who chastises her.  The double irony is that he would never chastise the real Sebastian and that the real Sebastian would not have denied him his money.

Another example of dramatic irony occurs in Act 1, Scene 5, when Viola and Olivia meet for the first time.  Viola is disguised as a man who calls himself Cesario.  The audience knows this, but Olivia does not.  As Cesario, Viola has come to plead the case for Orsino.  Olivia will have nothing to do with Orsino, but is immediately smitten by his emissary.  Since she does not know that Cesario is really a girl, the audience is one step ahead of her when she says, “Methinks I feel this youth’s perfections / With an invisible and subtle stealth / To creep in at mine eyes” (1.5.296-298).  As she plots her stratagems to keep Cesario in her sights, the audience is able to participate in ways that would be unavailable if they did not know Cesario’s true identity.  This seems to be one of the main purposes of dramatic irony in this comedy.  It encourages the audience members to share a wink and a nod whenever a character says something which, if he or she knew the truth of the matter, would be left unspoken or at least said differently.  For example, the exchanges between Cesario and Orsino in Scene 4 of Act 2, in which Orsino questions Cesario about the kind of woman he is attracted to and Cesario’s answers are replete with double meanings only Cesario and the audience understand, allow the audience an inside joke that would be meaningless if they didn’t know that Cesario was really Viola in disguise.

It should also be noted that dramatic irony works better in performance than in print and that, since Shakespeare’s plays are meant to be performed rather than read it works well for him.  Audiences like to think they know more than the characters in a play.  If it’s a mystery, they like to think they can solve the puzzle before the hero does.  If it’s a tragedy, they like to tell themselves, “if only the hero had done this instead of that.”  If it’s a comedy, they like to anticipate the laughs.  It’s not enough just to laugh at a joke, it’s far better if you see the joke coming.  Then you can not only laugh at it, you can pat yourself on the back for having seen it coming.  Shakespeare understood this desire and played to it.  Malvolio’s humiliation, for instance, is all the more comic because we can foresee it so clearly because we know the letter is phony.  The anticipation of Sir Andrew’s fight with Sebastian is more enjoyable because we know that he will not be facing the sweet-natured Viola but her manly brother.

In each of these cases, Shakepeare uses dramatic irony to make confidantes of the audience.  They become co-conspirators of a sort, whose enjoyment of the play is heightened by the feeling that they know something the actors do not and, therefore, they have joined forces (in their minds) with the playwright to outwit the characters.  Thus, the audience becomes a community, sharing knowledge to which only they are privy, which would otherwise be lacking.  Without dramatic irony, the audience is just watching a play; with it, they are participants.




Orsino in Love


            Orsino, the Duke of Illyria, possesses a romantic, yet tortured, notion of love.  His vision of love is an all-consuming passion that is ravenous, yet fleeting.  It is an adolescent love based on superficial outward appearances and, therefore, subject to the vagaries of circumstance.  Since it is not a mature love based on shared experiences and common  ideals, his brooding adoration of Olivia is, in the end, easily transferred to Viola without a second thought.

            In his opening speech, Orsino laments that love is an all-consuming demon that devours those who fall under its spell, chewing them up and spitting them out.  It is a decidedly dismal view of love which, as the note in The Riverside Shakespeare mentions, the play attempts to correct.  Of course, Orsino’s pessimism stems from his unsuccessful wooing of Olivia and if his efforts were to meet with more success his attitude about love might change.

Also in the first scene, he reveals that his love for Olivia is based on first sight and that, having seen her but once, he has been pursuing her ever since.  He finds in her dedication to her dead brother’s memory evidence of a passion that is both uncommon and admirable, rather than the irrational and morbid preoccupation with a deceased brother that others might call it.  It steels his resolve to have her for his own.  He is so consumed by his quest for a woman he barely knows that he is admittedly poor society for others.   He says, “I myself am best / When least in company” (1.4.37-38).  We can see him brooding in his palace while his minions do his wooing for him, like a pitiful teenager asking his friends if a certain girl likes him.

           He sees himself as the embodiment of love, as if everyone who was ever in love acted as he does.  To Viola, he says, “For such as I am, all true lovers are, / Unstaid and skittish in all motions else, / Save in the constant image of the creature / That is belov’d“ (2.4.17-20).  He can’t focus on anything except the thought of Olivia.  We wouldn’t be surprised to discover him writing her name over and over in his notebook like a high school freshman.  Orsino doesn’t plaster the trees with poems to Olivia, as Orlando does with Rosalind in As You Like It, but only because he’s not in a forest.  Shakespeare’s young lovers, from Romeo to Orlando to Orsino, seem to fall in love easily and on the basis of a first glance, just as adolescents do., which works well on the stage, where exposition must occur rapidly to capture the audience’s attention.

            He has an adolescent’s textbook definition of love and romance, not one based on experience.  In his world, women are objectified, not real.  He counsels Cesario to marry a younger woman because otherwise his love will not last.  A woman, he says, should marry someone older than she so she can shape herself in his image.  He compares women to roses, “whose fair flow’r / Being once display’d, doth fall that very hour” (2.4.38-39).  He sees women as fickle and inconstant in their love.  When Viola (as Cesario) asks him what he should do if Olivia will not have him, he answers that women’s love “may be call’d appetite, / No motion of the liver, but the palate” (2.4.97-98).   Viola attempts to convince him that women are not fickle.  She says, “In faith, they are as true of heart as we” (2.4.106), but Orsino isn’t convinced.  No woman could love him as much as he loves Olivia.  It is as if he were the first person to ever fall in love and, therefore, no one could possibly understand how he feels, which is exactly the perspective of an adolescent.

            When Orsino finally meets Olivia in person, in Act 5, he is, at first enthralled by her approach,  saying, “Here comes the Countess, now heaven walks on earth” (5.1.97), but his attitude quickly changes when she rebuffs him.  He calls her an “uncivil lady” and a “marbled-breasted tyrant,” instantly changing his opinion of her.  This reveals to us that he wasn’t ever really in love with Olivia, but with the idea of Olivia.  He was in love with the thought of being in love.  Olivia was an abstraction, a representation of love.  This becomes clear when he is so blithely able to move his affections from her to Viola, still dressed as a man, but now revealed to be a woman. 

            From Orsino’s perspective, love is a whirlpool into which all of his emotions are tossed, then swirled and churned about until they are disgorged jumbled and confused.  His love is passionate, but shallow, the immature, romanticized type of love typical of the adolescent.  Women are objects to be worshipped, pursued, possessed, then shaped to your own devices.  And, since they are romantic objects, not real persons, they may be easily replaced by another when they prove to be all too human after all.



Three Essays About Measure for Measure




The Final Scene

            The last scene in Measure for Measure, in which justice is dispensed, is played out on a public stage so the citizenry of Vienna can see it.  This is necessary because Vienna is not a parliamentary system, and Duke Vincentio needs the people to see the reasons for his decisions if they are to understand the purpose behind those decisions and support them.  The purpose of law, he understands, is not simply to restrict people’s actions, but to maintain order in society.  If he cannot get the people to understand this, he will be seen as a tyrant, not as the wise and benevolent ruler he wants to be seen as, and the laws will be disregarded.  

            Vincentio has appointed Angelo to rule in his place because, although Vienna has “strict statutes and biting laws,” he has been lax in enforcing the laws for fourteen years (1.3.21) and has been seen as a kind and benevolent ruler.  If he decides to crack down after such a long time, he would be within his rights as ruler, as Friar Thomas points out, but he would risk losing the admiration of his subjects, which is why he deputizes Angelo for the job.  He also understands that it would be grossly unfair of him to lead the crackdown when he was the one who gave the people license to ignore the law.  He says, “’Twould be my tyranny to strike and gall them / For what I bid them do; for we bid this be done, / When evil deeds have their permissive pass, /And not the punishment” (1.3.36-39).  By appointing Angelo, he can get the results he wants and still retain the admiration of the people.

This is clearly one of the reasons that Shakespeare places the action in a foreign country, not England.  In England, although the powers of Parliament tended to wax and wane depending upon the monarch, many of the laws were debated and the penalties for violating them were well-publicized and available for everyone to read.  Since the laws resulted from political discourse, not the whim of an omnipotent dictator, the public would be more likely to accept them.  Also, under English law, the penalties for violating the laws were set by statute or case law and enforced by a complex system of police and courts, so if no one had been punished for breaking a law for fourteen years it would be easy for a lawyer to argue that Claudio was being unfairly singled out and it is likely that the court would accept that argument. This is not possible in Shakespeare’s Vienna.

            In the political system in Vienna, the laws are made and enforced through the will of an absolute ruler, the Duke, who alone is responsible for the public’s respect and obedience of the law.  By not enforcing the law for so long, Vincentio has failed in this and risks losing his power completely.  He admits this when he worries that his decrees will be ignored altogether (1.3.27-28).  If he is to hang on to his power, he must restore the people’s respect for himself and the law.  If he makes his decisions about Angelo, Claudio, and Lucio in private, without publicly explaining his reasons, he does nothing to restore that respect.  In fact, all the people would see is that Angelo, Claudio, and Lucio each broke the law against fornication, but escaped the punishment dictated under the law.  By publicly explaining his reasoning, he is able to educate the people in one of the main themes of the play: that the purpose of the law is to maintain order in a civilized society.  The purpose of the law against fornication is to maintain the sanctity of marriage to provide for the successful rearing of children and, since each of these malefactors has been either married or ordered to be married, the law has achieved its purpose.  Society had benefited and to execute them would be a waste.

            In a civilized, just, and free society, the people understand the need for laws, even if they disagree with the specifics of the laws.  For example, in America the public generally understands the need for laws against discrimination, although some might disagree with some of the specific anti-discrimination laws which have been passed.  We accept them because we have heard or read the arguments for such laws publicly debated, sometimes accompanied by acts of high drama, such as during the 1960’s.  The public better understood the need for civil rights legislation when it witnessed the Montgomery bus boycott, the Selma march, and the murder of several freedom riders. 

Sometimes laws are passed when the public does not accept the reasoning behind them.  When that occurs, the people tend to ignore the law unless enforcement is swift and sure, but this does not diminish their respect for all laws.  Prohibition is an example of a law that was largely ignored because the population did not accept the arguments for it, but its passage did not lead to the people ignoring all laws.  Why?  Because they accepted that most laws are necessary and, if passed after full and free discussion, legitimate. They also understood that if some laws turn out badly, they can be changed.  Laws that are made by decree, in seclusion, without public discourse, do little to educate the people at whom they are directed.  They are, therefore, seen simply as restrictions of their freedom, resented as such, and more likely to be flouted. 

In the final scene of Measure for Measure, Shakespeare seems to recognize the need for the people to understand the purpose behind Vincentio’s law and his reasoning in applying it as he does with Angelo, Claudio, and Lucio.  The theatrics employed by the Duke, his pronouncement on Angelo, and the desperate pleadings by Mariana and Isabella all serve to reinforce the importance of his decisions.  Only by making those decisions and their explanations publicly can the Duke educate the people of Vienna and, thus, gain their support for his laws.



Crime and Justice in Vienna


            The people of Shakespeare’s Vienna are, like those of any large city, prone to vice and wickedness.  Humanity is frail and rarely acts for higher purposes than to appease its baser desires.  The purpose of laws is to curb these base desires so that order, health,  and harmony might prevail, but a harsh or unfair enforcement of the laws will result in injustice, which will defeat its purpose.  A wise ruler will understand that humanity’s lustfulness cannot be completely eliminated, only controlled, and only then when justice is administered fairly and impartially. 

            Government may try to harness the people’s inclination toward vices, whether sex, drink, or gambling, but it is an ongoing battle that cannot be won.  The best that the government can hope to achieve is to contain such vices.  If government strictly enforces the laws it runs the risk of causing more damage than the vices it hopes to control. For example, Pompey, the tavern keeper and pimp, in his exchanges with Escalus in Act 2, laments that if the law against fornication is strictly enforced for ten years it will wipe out the youth of Vienna and he will able to rent the best rooms for virtually nothing because the desire for sex will not be bound by harsh laws.  This would surely defeat the intent of the law.  In fact, the government, by closing down only the brothels in the suburbs and not the ones in the city, is acknowledging the impossibility of completely stamping out prostitution (1.2.97-100).  The Provost, in Act 2, attempts to intercede with Angelo on behalf of Claudio because he recognizes that Claudio is going to die for something that everyone does.  He says, “All sects, all ages smack of this vice, and he / To die for’t” (2.2.5-6). 

            This dilemma of what laws should be enacted and how strictly they should be enforced is one of the central themes of the play.  The lower elements of society seem to understand that criminals are made, not by actions, but by laws.  Thousands of people today routinely engage in an activity, gambling, which thirty years ago would have branded them as criminals.  The activity hasn’t changed, only the law.  The same argument may be made about drug use, drinking, and prostitution in the United States.  There are still people serving prison sentences for the possession of amounts of marijuana too small to attract the interest of most police officers today, and yet the laws remain on the books.  Another example would be in the area of child rearing.  Laws have been enacted today to protect children from physical abuse that would criminalize behavior which fifty years ago was seen as normal and necessary, guided by the principle of “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” 

            The point is not whether such laws are rightly enacted, but that the law itself defines what is or is not a crime, not the actions of the person involved.  The play seems to recognize this problem.  The law, or at least its enforcement, changes when Angelo assumes control.  Behavior which is now punished by death had previously been handled differently.  Isabella implies as much when she, informed that her brother has made Juliet pregnant, says to Lucio, “O, let him marry her” (1.4.28), as if this was the accepted way such behavior was dealt with in the past.  Since Angelo is the sole arbiter of the law, she is forced to deal with him and his sense of justice.  He doesn’t care what the situation was before; to him the law is the law, as his comment about not making a scarecrow of the law demonstrates.  In this way, the play delves into the matter of the administration of justice.  Recognizing that the definition of a crime can change, it then considers how justice is to be meted out under the circumstances.  Angelo’s approach, which is harsh and unyielding, is contrasted with the Duke’s, which considers the ultimate purpose of the law and adds some mercy.

            The Duke’s decisions in the final scene are based on his perception of justice.  He first orders Angelo to marry Mariana, then condemns him to death for ordering the death of Claudio for the same offense he has committed.  He ultimately relents under the pleadings of Mariana and Isabella.  Isabella’s argument, that her brother got what he deserved because he broke the law while Angelo doesn’t deserve the death sentence because he only intended to break the law, makes no sense.  In this regard, the logic of the play falls short.  If Claudio deserved death for fornicating with Juliet, then Angelo deserves it for fornicating with Mariana, even though he thought he was fornicating with Isabella.

             The Duke orders Lucio to marry the prostitute he impregnated, even though Lucio decries such a marriage as worse than death.  The forced marriages of Angelo to Mariana and Lucio to the prostitute, as well as Claudio’s marriage to Juliet, signify that, in the Duke’s mind, if a man marries the woman he has slept with, justice is served.  Thus, the play concludes that, since man’s lust cannot be eliminated by laws, so long as it is channeled into marriage it can still be controlled and the purposes of justice served.  It would be interesting to see these characters five or ten years later.  Would the lustfulness of the men who had been forced to marry women they had earlier spurned remain successfully channeled?



Competing Views of Justice


                        In Measure for Measure, Angelo’s uncompromising version of justice, with its inability to acknowledge either mitigating circumstances or the law’s higher purpose, is contrasted with Duke Vincentio’s view of justice.  The Duke believes that he, as the person dispensing justice in his realm, should be “as holy as severe,” taking into account his own transgressions in dealing with those of others, unlike Angelo, whom he condemns because he “kills for faults of his own liking” (3.2.262-268).  The Duke determines to apply “craft against vice” to untangle the mess that his attempts to reform Vienna have wrought.  In the end, he succeeds – barely – by skillful if somewhat tortured machinations, to bring some measure of law tempered with mercy to Vienna.  But in doing so, he actually enforces a result that is consistent with Angelo’s view of justice.

Vincentio sees himself as being above the ordinary souls who are his subjects.  He is a holy man, divorced from the ordinary temptations of life.  He shuns the limelight, admitting in the first scene that, although he loves his people, he doesn’t enjoy appearing before crowds.  He discloses to Friar Thomas that he loves “the life removed” and shunned “assemblies / Where youth, and cost, witless bravery keeps” (1.3.8-10).  He disguises himself as a simple friar so he can work behind the scenes to apply his “craft.”   In this disguise, he tells Lucio that the Duke does not have a reputation for lechery (which certainly sets him apart from the average Viennese man).

He seems to relish working in the shadows, using his gifts of persuasion to manipulate people and events to achieve his ends.  By doing so, he is able to show the audience the complexities of life which his version of justice seeks to accommodate.  His speech to Claudio in Act 3, Scene 1, in which he argues that Claudio should accept his coming execution because, by doing so, he will win no matter the outcome of events, is a masterfully sophisticated argument which leaves Claudio in a mood, at least temporarily, to embrace his execution.  If he had given that argument as himself, rather than as Friar Lodowick, it would have seemed condescending and shallow, and he would have appeared self-righteous and pompous.  His choice of a friar’s garb as his disguise, besides allowing him to move about freely where others might be barred, reinforces the psychological effect the audience is expected to appreciate: that, although he is a secular ruler, he is a holy man whose desire is to save people while ruling them.

Angelo, on the other hand, is certainly not a holy man.  He is a cad, but at least he is consistent in the application of his view that life and justice are black and white.  When Mariana’s dowry is lost, he calls off their engagement, with accusations of immoral acts - no dowry, no wedding.  His proposition to Isabella is simple and clear, sleep with me and I’ll let your brother live, but after he thinks she has succumbed he orders the execution anyway because that’s the law.  A death sentence is a death sentence, no matter what other “arrangements” may have been made.  His response to Escalus that “’Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus, / Another thing to fall” (2.1.17-18) explains his view quite succinctly: everyone is faced with temptation, but when you succumb to it you must pay the piper.  He is quite willing to apply that argument to himself.  When his own fornication is revealed, he is willing to accept the same punishment as he gave to Claudio.  In the final scene he tells the Duke, “let my trial be mine own confession. / Immediate sentence then, and sequent death / Is all the grace I beg” (V.1.372-373).

             What we have, then, are two views of life and, consequently, justice seemingly at variance with each other.  Duke Vincentio sees life as a jumble of complex motives and actions which, as the holy overseer of justice, it is his duty to unscramble and reconcile.  Angelo sees life as a straightforward quid pro quo in which you take what you can and pay the consequences if you get caught, no questions asked.  In the end, which view prevails?

            Ironically, in a very real sense, all of Vincentio’s maneuverings result in consequences which are consistent with Angelo’s perspective.  If we recall that, at the beginning of the play, for the previous fourteen years the practical penalty for fornication had been that the man had to marry the woman if she became pregnant (as implied in Isabella’s statement, “O, let him marry her” in response to the news that Juliet is carrying Claudio’s child in Act 1, Scene 4) or if their fornication had become public knowledge, then Angelo’s view of justice is vindicated.  In the end, Angelo is forced to marry Mariana, Lucio is forced to marry Kate Keepdown, and Claudio and Juliet are married.  In other words, the accepted custom requiring men to marry the women they have debauched is followed, which is exactly in keeping with Angelo’s view of justice:  you take what you can and pay the consequences (in this case, matrimony) if you get caught.  Vincentio has tempered justice with mercy by not insisting upon the death penalty for the men, but in doing so he has simply applied the custom that had been practiced for many years, which is presumably what Angelo would have done if the death penalty had been taken off the table in the first place.



Three Essays About Othello




The Contrast Between Light and Dark


            In Othello, Shakespeare uses black and white, light and dark on several levels.  There is the obvious difference in skin color between Othello and the other characters, but there are also frequent references to the evil that is associated with the color black, the dark of night, and the wicked side of men’s nature.  Bad things tend to happen at night or in the dark, when men’s true purposes may be hidden in shadows.  People will do evil things in the dark which they would not do in the light of day.  In the end, when Othello murders Desdemona, the analogies come full circle and he puts out the light of life within her: light is life; darkness is death.

            The first scene quickly establishes the negative view of black people in general and Othello in particular.  Iago’s use of the terms “old black ram” and “white ewe” (1.1.88-89), and his subsequent warning that “the devil will make a grandsire of you” (1.1.91), create instant associations in the audience’s mind between “black,” “devil,” and “hell” that are repeated throughout the play.  Brabantio’s reference to Othello’s “sooty bosom” (1.2.70) further solidifies the image.  Even the Duke’s statement to Brabantio that Othello is “far more fair than black” (1.3.290), with its double meaning, is a backhanded compliment that reinforces the connection between dark skin and evil.   Later, when Iago unveils his plan, he says, “When devils will the blackest sins put on, / They do suggest at first with heavenly shows, / As I do now” (2.3.351-353).  He vows to discredit Desdemona so much that “will I turn her virtue into pitch” (2.3.360).  When Iago’s seeds of doubt about Desdemona’s fidelity take root in Othello’s mind, Othello refers to her face as “now begrim’d and black / As mine own face” (3.3.387-388) and calls up “black vengeance, from the hollow hell” (3.3.446).   Thus, these frequent references to skin color and its relationship to evil, hell, and the devil establish a wholly negative image of black-skinned people in general and Othello in particular, while Desdemona’s purity and wholesomeness are reinforced with references to her white skin, which Othello calls whiter than snow and compares to alabaster (5.2.4-5). 

            The term “fair,” with its double meaning of light-skinned and honorable, is frequently used in referring to Desdemona.  Brabantio refers to her as “a maid so tender, fair, and happy” (1.2.66) and Othello refers to her “fair lady’s love” (1.3.125). This reinforces the impression of Desdemona as good, honest, and pure, contrasting it with the impression of Othello.  In addition, Desdemona herself frequently refers to heaven.  In her exchanges with Iago and Emilia in 4.2 she says, “Nay, heaven doth know,” “If any such there be, heaven pardon him!” and “for by this light of heaven, / I know not how I lost him.”  These frequent references to heaven by Desdemona reinforce in the reader’s mind an association between her and things heavenly, contrasting again with the image Othello.

            In the play, sinister deeds occur at night or in the shadows.  Cassio’s drunken brawl with Roderigo, Roderigo’s assault on Cassio, and Iago’s murder of Roderigo all occur at night.  The villainous Iago uses the cover of darkness to accomplish his ends.  He even says, “Hell and night / Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light” 1.3.403-404), when hatching his plot, and “This is the night / That either makes me, or foredoes me quite” (5.1.128-129) after the attacks on Cassio and Roderigo.  In the opening scene, he uses the cover of night to arouse Brabantio, sheltering his own identity, then sneaking off to Othello’s quarters so that his role in sounding the alarm remains undiscovered.  Iago has Othello secrete himself in the shadows - he says, “do but encave yourself” (4.1.81) -  when Iago meets with Cassio and makes it seem as if Cassio is confessing.  Even characters who aren’t committing horrible acts understand that the night is when such acts should be undertaken.  When Desdemona asks Emilia if she would ever consider being unfaithful to her husband, Emilia answers, “Nor I neither by this heavenly light; / I might do’t as well i’ th’ dark” (4.3.67-68).  After smothering Desdemona, Othello (5.2.109-111) attributes men’s evil actions to the moon, which makes them mad.

            The imagery of light and dark is also at work when Shakespeare examines man’s nature and life itself.  Men have a dark corner of their minds in which they hide their innermost thoughts and desires.  When Othello asks Iago to tell him his worst conjectures about Desdemona, Iago responds that there are thoughts that no one should be able to force him to say, arguing that Othello might “build yourself a trouble” out of Iago’s “scattering and unsure observance” (3.3.136-151).  When Othello enters the bedchamber to kill Desdemona, he uses light as a metaphor for life, saying that he can put out the candle and relight it if he changes his mind, but that once he snuffs out Desdemona’s light (i.e. life) he has no way of restoring it.  Finally, after he has killed Desdemona, Othello laments that the sun and moon should be eclipsed (enveloping the earth in darkness), presumably because the light of his life has been extinguished.

            The contrast between black and white, darkness and light, is used throughout Othello to symbolize evil and good.  Black skin, the blackness of the night, and the black side of man’s nature are all associated with evil, while wholesomeness, honesty, and virtue are associated with light skin, the light of day, and the heavenly part of the mind.




Othello’s “Occupation”


            When Othello suspects that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him, he cries that his “occupation’s gone” (3.3.357).  By the use of this phrase, he reveals his belief that his life is over, that all of his previous military triumphs and his love for Desdemona have been for nothing.  He is ruined, politically, socially, and, as soon becomes all too clear, mentally.  His reason for living is gone so, in his madness, he kills her, then himself.

            Othello has been a military hero.  As he relates in 1.3, he won Desdemona with tales of his exploits on the field.  He says that “she loved me for the dangers I had pass’d” (1.3.167).  He has been praised and feted for his military triumphs, which is why the Duke sends him to Cyprus to put down the Turkish threat there.  But as soon as he arrives in Cyprus, he learns that the Turkish threat is no more, their fleet has been destroyed by the storm and, thus, his military career seems at an end.  This does not seem to bother him at the moment, as he turns his attention to his new bride and plans to devote himself to being her husband with the same vigor he once put toward his military battles, replacing the “occupation” of general with that of “husband.”  He orders a celebration of his nuptials and carries his bride off to bed, “The purchase made, the fruits are to ensue / That profit’s yet to come ‘tween me and you” (2.3.9-10).  It is even possible that he is hinting at a reduced political role for himself and a larger one for Cassio when, before retiring, he asks Cassio to speak with him the next day.  We never find out what that conversation would have been about because of the intervening confrontation between Cassio and Roderigo which results in Cassio’s disgrace.  Nevertheless, Othello seems content in his marriage and his reduced stature in the military.  However, when Iago plants the idea in his mind that Desdemona has betrayed him with Cassio, Othello believes that he is losing the thing for which he gave up his status as hero.  Thus he has lost both his military status and his status as lord and master of his own wife.

            Othello is a simple fighting man, not a sophisticated urbanite, which is why he feels out of place in Venice and why he is so easily swayed by the cunning words of Iago.  He trusts Iago.  After all, Iago is considered an honest fellow.  He is called so by other characters no fewer than fifteen times and Othello, in his simple, straightforward soldier’s way, accepts the truth of this without question.  In many ways, Othello is a small fish in a very big pond and feels fortunate to have such an honest man as his adviser, so it is no surprise that Iago is able to influence Othello’s thinking with such ease.  Iago says as much when he calls Othello “an erring barbarian” and himself a “super-subtle Venetian” (1.3.355-356).  Historians say that problems of graft and corruption that plagued Ulysses S. Grant as president stemmed from his career as a soldier, in which subordinates carried out their orders and told the truth to their commanders upon penalty of death.  Grant was unused to an atmosphere where subordinates lied to their superiors for their own gain, much as Othello is unaccustomed to underlings, such as Iago, with their own malicious agendas.  This would explain why Othello fails to demand more proof of Desdemona’s infidelity than the mere “ocular proof” (3.3.360) for which he asks.  He never suspects that Iago is setting him up because that would never happen in the military world he is accustomed to.

            When Cassio is disgraced by his drunken brawl with Roderigo, he tells Iago “I have / lost my reputation!  I have lost the immortal part of / myself, and what remains is bestial” (2.3.262-264).  What he most likely means by this is that he has been regarded by Othello as a man of integrity and dignity, both of which he has betrayed by his drunkenness.  He feels that he has failed Othello by his actions and lost his trust.  The one thing of value which he has possessed, he has now thrown away.  Similarly, Othello feels that he has lost the only thing of value to him when he believes Desdemona has betrayed him.  His honor and dignity, based on the “neighing steed and the shrill trump, / The spirit-stirring drum, th’ ear-piercing fife, / The royal banner, and all quality, / Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war” (3.3.351-354), will mean nothing once it is known that he is a cuckold.  If she has betrayed him, all the fame he has earned as a soldier, as well as the status he has gained by marrying a Venetian noblewoman, will be lost.  Like Cassio, he will have lost those things he most prizes. 

            As Iago uses his wiles to feed Othello’s suspicions, the Moor sinks deeper and deeper into despair and mental illness.  In his simple, unsophisticated soldier’s mind, he believes he has lost his honor and dignity, which make up his “occupation” (i.e. his reason for living).  In his mad despair, he kills her, then himself.




Hand Props in Othello


            There are four hand props utilized in Othello, of which three are of major importance.  Two of these are important because they give us insight into Othello’s intentions and feelings at crucial moments.  The third, the handkerchief which Othello has given to Desdemona and which he believes provides the “ocular proof” of her infidelity with Cassio, propels the play and gives the characters and audience something to focus on.  In fact, it becomes the centerpiece of the tragedy.  However, its role is essentially that of a MacGuffin and, as such, its place could have been taken by another object which would serve the purpose equally well.

            The three hand props, besides the handkerchief, that appear in the play all occur near the end.  The first and most important of the three is the candle Othello carries to Desdemona’s bed when he enters the room to kill her.  It gives him the opportunity to say:

                                    Put out the light, and then put out the light:

                                    If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,

                                    I can again thy former light restore,

                                    Should I repent me; but once put out thy light,

                                    Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,

                                    I know not where is that Promethean heat

                                    That can thy light relume.           (5.2.7-13)

            This is one of the most poetic and moving speeches in the play, but he would be unable to speak it without the candle.  This brief moment of sanity in his madness, when he seems to be wavering in his determination to kill his wife, would be lost without the candle.  Hence, it is a significant prop.

            Another significant prop is the hidden sword of Spain, with which he stabs Iago and then kills himself.  It is a symbol of the power and glory he once had which is now lost.  He says that, “I have seen the day / That with this little arm, and this good sword, / I have made my way through more impediments / Than twenty times your stop” (5.2.261-264), then laments that those days are gone.  The sword symbolizes that he is at his journey’s end (5.2.267) and his life is as good as over.

            The third, and least significant, hand props are the pair of letters Lodovico finds in Roderigo’s pocket, the first of which tells that Roderigo planned to kill Cassio, and the second of which chronicles Iago’s role in causing Cassio’s initial disgrace.  Neither of these is essential, in that their message could have been related without them being produced.  It would be enough to say that letters had been found and what they had contained.

            The handkerchief is the hand prop upon which the plot turns.  When Othello tells Iago to give him the “ocular proof” (3.3.360), it is the handkerchief, which Othello has given to Desdemona and which she “reserves it evermore about her / To kiss and talk to” (3.3.295-296), that becomes the supposed proof of her betrayal and leads to tragedy.  Othello has questioned her honor, which Iago tells him “is an essence that’s not seen” (4.1.16), but the handkerchief is hard proof.  It’s interesting that Othello is the one who actually drops the handkerchief, in which he later puts so much stock, giving Emilia the opportunity to retrieve it and give it to Iago.  If it were so important to him, you would think he would have picked it up immediately and insisted that she hang onto it.  That he doesn’t shows how confused, even disoriented, he has become.  The handkerchief is then planted by Iago in Cassio’s room and Cassio gives it to Bianca.  When Bianca upbraids Cassio for giving her the handkerchief, Othello has his “ocular proof.”  Therefore, the handkerchief is the most significant hand prop in the play.  However, although the handkerchief is the essential prop, it is not essential that the prop be a handkerchief.

            Alfred Hitchcock, the great film director, coined the term “MacGuffin” to signify an object that motivates the action in a story:  in The Maltese Falcon, it is the statue of the bird; in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, it is the gold.  In Othello, the MacGuffin is the handkerchief.  It propels the story, but the story is not about it.  Othello is a play about jealousy, not handkerchiefs, just as The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre are stories about greed, not statues or gold.  The object that gives Othello his “ocular proof” could just as easily have been a ring, broach, or some other piece of jewelry; it could have been a book or statuette.  As the play is written, the prop needs to be a handkerchief, but it could have been any number of other things and served the same purpose.

            The hand props in Othello would be very important for any production.  Without the candle, Othello’s words make no sense; without the hidden sword, Othello can’t commit suicide; and without the handkerchief, Othello will not be convinced of Desdemona’s betrayal.  The prop master must certainly have these items at hand.  In the case of the candle and the sword, the purpose they serve - to give us insight into Othello’s mind - requires that they actually be a candle and a sword.  In the case of the handkerchief, however, any memento or keepsake that a man might give to his wife would serve the same purpose.



Three Essays About Macbeth




Macbeth’s Descent into Madness


In Macbeth, there is a series of three murders, instigated by Macbeth, which show in their increasing cruelty and irrationality his rapid descent into madness.  The audience’s perception of their necessity and the degree of brutality associated with them changes with the presentation of each, so that the observer is gradually drawn into the dark inner workings of Macbeth’s mind where his mental distortions and paranoia are laid bare.

In 1.2, 1.4, and 1.6, we see Duncan as the wise old king, respected and admired by his subjects, including Macbeth and Banquo, who have just delivered victory to him on the battlefield.  He has dealt swiftly but justly with the traitorous Thane of Cawdor and rewarded Macbeth with that title.  We do not know what harsh measures he may have taken in the past either to attain or retain his throne, but we do know that he has proclaimed his love for Macbeth and has promised to reward him even more in the future.  The only mistake he has made is to announce that he will bequeath his crown to his son, Malcolm.  For this, Macbeth decides that Duncan must die.  Thus we see the king as a benevolent personage who has done no harm to Macbeth.  On the contrary, he has praised and rewarded him.  He is but the first of many who have done Macbeth no harm, yet suffer his wrath nonetheless.

Audiences in Shakespeare’s day would have been familiar with regicide, with Edward II, Edward V, and Mary, Queen of Scots, having each been dispatched by rivals for their thrones, so the murder of Duncan would have not been seen as unusual.  Many kings and queens, even kindly ones, had been killed throughout history in similar ways.  What Shakespeare seems to be doing, though, is showing us the gradual blossoming of Macbeth’s madness.  Duncan’s murder occurs offstage and the audience is left to imagine its details.  That it was a bloody death we can see from the daggers and blood on Macbeth’s hands, but we are spared the sight of the actual murder.

He proceeds from the rather mundane, and unseen, murder of the king to the murder of Banquo, which occurs onstage.  Banquo himself poses no threat to Macbeth, except that the witches have apparently prophesied that Banquo’s heirs will be kings while Macbeth’s will not.  This, plus Banquo’s suspicions about Macbeth’s role in Duncan’s death (3.1.1-3), is sufficient reason for Macbeth to order the killing of Banquo, from a political perspective.  The audience realizes, however, that Banquo poses less of a threat to Macbeth’s ambitions than did Duncan, so it sees this murder as less rational than that of the king.  In addition, Banquo is a healthy, robust soldier who has the opportunity to defend himself and enable his son to escape the attack, so his death is less shocking than that which is to come.  So, we see a progression from a murder that may be politically reasonable and performed offstage to one that may be politically reasonable but occurs onstage with a victim who his fully capable of defending himself.  The third step in this progression is the murder that is not only politically unreasonable but occurs onstage and involves a child who is entirely unable to defend himself.

Lady Macduff and her son are shown to us, in 4.2, as intelligent, witty, and harmless souls whose only fault is their relationship to Macduff.  No one is more innocent or less of a threat than they.  There has been no prophecy concerning them that might justify their murder, even in Macbeth’s tortured mind, such as there was with Banquo.  Macduff has escaped to England to join Malcolm’s forces and Macbeth uses his flight to accuse him of treason.  In his twisted mind, therefore, Macduff’s son and wife must be killed to punish Macduff’s disloyalty.  When he is told of Macduff’s escape to England, he responds immediately with the determination to “give to th’ edge o’ th’ sword / His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls / That trace him in his line” (4.1.151-153), with no attempt to justify the act.  Macduff’s son is stabbed onstage by Macbeth’s emissaries.  His murder is even more cruel than Banquo’s because the child is completely unable to defend himself. 

Thus, we see in these three murders Macbeth’s madness spiraling downward.  The murder of Duncan can be seen as rational and we see its cruelty only indirectly through the actions and words of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth in 2.2.  The murder of Banquo is less rational and we see the cruelty of it leavened somewhat by his ability to fight his attackers.  The murder of Macduff’s son completes the sequence of murders and reveals by its irrationality and cruelty the depth and perversity of Macbeth’s madness.  His mind is completely gone by this time and the audience, through these murders, has been able to document the steady deterioration of his psyche and the gradual increase of his cruelty.


The Severing of Human Bonds

At the beginning of Macbeth, Banquo and Macbeth are friends and fellow generals, united by devotion to their sovereign and their battlefield experiences.  Their relationship changes to one of rivals for power, at least in Macbeth’s mind, and he plots to kill Banquo and his son.  Similarly, Macbeth’s relationship with Lady Macbeth changes as each is haunted by their actions and grows increasingly disturbed.  Both instances show that human connections are frail and fraught with danger when ambition is added to the mix.

When Banquo and Macbeth encounter the three witches, Banquo refers to Macbeth as “my noble partner” (1.3.34) and there is no indication that they are anything other than trusted colleagues.  Banquo, however, hints at future events when he says that “the instruments of darkness tell us truths, / Win us with honest trifles, to betray ‘s / In deepest consequence” (1.3.123-125).  The witches have planted in Macbeth’s mind the seeds of ambition, which infect his thoughts and cause the growth of a paranoia so deep and pervasive that their comradeship is an insufficient bond.  Twice Macbeth tells Banquo that they should meet and discuss further what the weird sisters have told them, at the end of 1.3 and again in 2.1., when Banquo tells him that he has been thinking about what the witches said and Macbeth replies, “I think not of them, / Yet when we can entreat an hour to serve, / We would spend it in some words upon that business, / If you would grant the time” (2.1.22-24).  The reader never discovers what that discussion might have contained because Duncan’s murder intervenes and Macbeth’s disturbed mind turns on Banquo and Fleance.  However, it is interesting to speculate on the possible contents of such a conversation.  Would Macbeth have proposed an alliance, whereby he would become king and Banquo his strong right hand, with the throne eventually passing on to Fleance, or has Macbeth’s madness already progressed to the point where he is plotting their murders and the proposed conversation merely an excuse to kill them?  What is certain is that, by the day of the feast, Banquo has become a marked man.  Macbeth’s ambition, fueled by Lady Macbeth’s attacks on his virility, has sealed Banquo’s fate.  Friendship and soldierly comradeship may be strong bonds, but they quake in the face of political ambition.

In a similar way, the bond between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth seems to weaken in the wake of their dreadful deeds to the point where Macbeth responds to word of her death with apparent indifference.  At the beginning of the play, the marital relationship between the two is unclear, although she seems to supply his backbone.  She is the woman behind the man and worries that “Thou wouldst be great, / Art not without ambition, but without / The illness should attend it” (1.5.18-20).  She will provide the toughness and ruthlessness he lacks.  When he tries to back out of the plan to kill Duncan (1.7.31) she chastises him with taunts against his manhood.  It is she who hatches the details of the plot to kill the king.  Once he comes around, they are in it together, whatever their twisted personal reasons might be. 

As their deadly plot progresses, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth suffer from insomnia and she begins to walk in her sleep.  Her prophecy (2.2.30-31) that thinking too much about the terrible things they have done will cause them to go mad comes true.  And as each sinks deeper and deeper into madness, the distance between them grows.  In fact, there are no scenes between the two after 3.4.  Lady Macbeth appears only in the sleepwalking scene in 5.1 and we hear of her death in 5.5.  This lack of interaction between husband and wife would seem to indicate that their wickedness has separated them from each other as much as from their sanity.   Macbeth’s curious reaction to the report of her death – he doesn’t even ask how she died – is the truest indication of how distanced they have become.  There is no mention of ceremony or burial, or even grieving, except his reflection upon the futility of life, “a tale / told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / signifying nothing” (5.5.26-28).  He’s not even interested enough to ask how she died.

            Political ambition has, in both cases, resulted in the severing of social and emotional bonds which should be the glue that holds one’s life together.  Macbeth’s brutal ambition has cost him the two people who seem to have been closest to him,

leaving him completely and abjectly alone.  His wife has succumbed to lunacy and died; his only friend and comrade he has killed.  Even the closest of human relationships cannot survive when ruthless ambition and cruelty take over.



The Weird Sisters


The three witches in Macbeth influence the plot by planting seeds of ambition in the mind of Macbeth and, through him, Lady Macbeth.  Macbeth reads their prophecies as blueprints for his rise to power.  When their first prophecy appears to come true, he plans subsequent murders based on their other pronouncements.  In effect, he turns them into self-fulfilling prophecies, as there is no evidence they would have come true without his actions.  The witches succeed in influencing events by manipulating Macbeth in much the same way that phony psychics prey on gullible people today.  By examining the play closely, we can see how the witches accomplish this.

The first prophecy the weird sisters make is that Macbeth will become the Thane of Cawdor in 1.3.  What we tend to overlook is that the treachery of the Thane of Cawdor and the king’s intention to give Macbeth this title was already revealed in 1.2.  It is possible, therefore, that the witches had prior knowledge of the appointment.  They apparently have the ability to move about unnoticed, so it is conceivable that they overheard the earlier conversation between Rosse, Angus, and Duncan.  Thus, they would be able to tell Macbeth two things that they already knew to be true: that he was the Thane of Glamis and would soon be named the Thane of Cawdor.  Like all good mystics, they also threw in a little something for him to think about – that he would be king.  Their telling Macbeth that he would be Thane of Cawdor convinces him of their prophetic powers, so when they add the part about him becoming king he takes matters into his own hands in order to fulfill the prophecy.

People who believe in mystics and soothsayers tend to be gullible.  They listen to so-called psychics because they want to believe.  So it is with Macbeth.  In addition, there is the added factor that he has hallucinations – believers would call them visions – where he sees daggers hovering in front of him, ghosts at his banquet, and apparitions in the mist above the witches’ cauldron.  Michael Shermer, in Why People Believe Weird Things (MJF Books, 1997, p. 3), identifies these phenomena as “hypnopompic hallucinations,” which occur when people suffer from sleep disorders.  We know, from 2.2 and 5.1, that both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth suffer from lack of sleep since the murder of Duncan and that both are hallucinating frequently.  People in this condition are highly susceptible to suggestion, and the witches use this fact to influence Macbeth.

When we examine the predictions of the witches, we see that the only ones which apparently come true are the naming of Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor, the part about Birnan Wood coming to Dunsinane, and the idea that “none of woman born” can harm him.  We have already seen how they might have had prior knowledge of the first.  As for the second, it is reasonable to assume that anyone familiar with the situation could anticipate an attack on Dunsinane Castle and that, if such an attack occurred, the likely direction of the attack would be through Birnan Wood.  It doesn’t take a military genius to surmise that the attackers might use the branches of the trees in the forest as cover when they attacked.  It is also useful to recognize that this prediction is extremely vague. They say, “Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until / Great Birnan wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him” (4.1.92-93).  This prophecy might be satisfied if someone brought wood from the forest to burn in Macbeth’s fireplace, or to build a table.  It might be enough that Macduff chopped down a sapling to use as a staff.

The notion that Macbeth cannot be harmed by “none of woman born” covers a multitude of possibilities.  He could be struck by lightning, fall off a cliff, or be caught in a rockslide and “none of woman born” would have killed him.  They might also have known that Macduff was a C-section birth.  Like any good “psychic,” they would have a storehouse of information about the people they intended to fleece.

            What else do they predict?  They seem to say that Banquo won’t be king, but his children will.  That’s a safe prediction because if it happens, Macbeth and Banquo will already be dead, so there will be no one to verify its accuracy.  They warn Macbeth to beware of Macduff.  Big surprise there!  Any observer would be fairly safe in saying that.  In addition, Macduff’s departure to England is revealed immediately after this prediction, so it is not impossible that they already knew it.  And again, it doesn’t take a military genius to predict that a precarious king might be threatened by a political rival.

            Beyond these vague and entirely explainable predictions, they just let Macbeth’s sleep deprived imagination and paranoia run rampant.  Macbeth himself fulfills the prophecies, or acts so that they can’t be fulfilled, by killing the king and Banquo.  He convinces himself that he is safe because a forest can’t move and no man who wasn’t born of woman would be alive to kill him, entirely overlooking the possibilities that would be apparent to a less fevered mind.  Like the best psychic charlatans, the three witches tell him just enough, based on their prior knowledge and powers of deduction, to convince him that their prophecies are accurate.  Then they sit back and let his diseased mind do the rest.



Two Essays About Antony and Cleopatra




What is Honor?


            In Antony and Cleopatra, the word “honor” is used repeatedly to refer to a person’s obligation to keep his or her word.  Duty, trustworthiness, and sacrifice of personal goals are all tied up in that concept.  Mark Antony is torn between his duty to Rome and his desire to be with Cleopatra and the play suggests that his ultimate choice of the latter is the cause of his downfall.

            Cleopatra acknowledges Antony’s duty to Rome when she says, “your honor calls you hence” (1.3.97).  Octavius laments that Antony was once an heroic soldier leading his men in countless battles, enduring harsh conditions that required him to drink horse urine, eat “the roughest berry on the rudest hedge” (1.4.64) and “eat strange flesh” (1.4. 67), but he has thrown away the praise such feats accorded him to waste his time in wantonness with Cleopatra.  When Antony and Octavius meet face to face, Octavius accuses him of breaking his word to supply him with weapons and aid when Octavius requested them.  Antony says, “The honor is sacred which he talks on now” (2.2.85).  Each of these examples shows that the play’s central characters understand all that the concept of honor entails -- keeping your word to your country, your subordinates, and your allies -- despite the hardships doing so might cause.  They all realize that, in the Roman world, a man’s honor is sacred.

            The sacred solemnity of the concept of honor is reinforced in Antony’s words to Octavia when he says “If I lose mine honor, / I lose myself; better I were not yours / Than (yours) so branchless” (3.4.22-24).  In Othello, Cassio laments that his reputation is the immortal part of himself and “what remains is bestial” (Othello, 2.3.264).  For Antony and, indeed, for any noble Roman, his honor is the immortal part of himself.  And yet, Antony willingly chooses to dishonor himself and his place in history for his love of Cleopatra.  He throws away his reputation and his honor for the carnal pleasures of Egypt.  As Octavius says, “He hath given his empire / Up to a whore;” (3.6.66-67).

            The full import of the disastrous choice he has made hits Antony after Actium, when he has left his men to their fate to follow Cleopatra in retreat.  The valiant soldier has abandoned his duty to his men because his “sword, made weak by my affection” (3.11.67) has led him to leave his men “Stroy’d in dishonor” (3.11.53).  He turns his rage on Cleopatra, moaning that she has “beguiled” him (4.12.28) and acknowledging that he would have been better off killing her, “for one death / might have prevented many” (4.12.41-42). 

            It is interesting that the concept of honor in the Roman world does not seem to extend to the vows of marriage.  That Antony has forsaken first Fulvia, then Octavia, for Cleopatra does not seem to be as great an offense as his forsaking the Roman republic for Egypt.  While it is true that Octavius condemns Antony for his cavorting with Cleopatra, he seems to be chiefly upset by the public nature of the actions, not the actions themselves.  When he relates to Maecenas that Antony and Cleopatra displayed themselves on golden thrones, with the “unlawful issue that their lust / Since then hath made between them.” (3.6.7-8), we get the sense that his anger is directed more at the public display than at the betrayal of Octavia.   When Maecenas says “This in the public eye?” Octavius replies, “I’ the common show-place, where they exercise” (3.6. 11-12).  This implies quite clearly what the true offense is.  It was not at all uncommon for Roman noblemen to take mistresses, but to flaunt the affair as Antony has brings shame to one’s name.  It seems equally clear that Antony’s romance with Cleopatra would have been forgiven if he had left her and returned to his duties in Rome. 

            Licentiousness was common among the ruling classes.  Julius Caesar himself, who was Antony’s closest friend and ally, was notorious for his sexual dalliances (reputedly with both men and women) and, yet, as long as he put his duty to Rome above everything else, those escapades were not usually held against him.  The exception, of course, was his romance with Cleopatra, with whom he had a son, Caesarion.  Rome was scandalized when he brought them to the city and installed them in a luxurious villa across the Tiber.  However, Caesar refused to name Caesarion as his heir, unlike Antony, who made his three children by Cleopatra the rulers of client states in the middle east.  When Julius Caesar was assassinated, his body was returned to his current wife, Calpurnia, not Cleopatra, who fled back to Egypt, and his reputation remained secure.  Shakespeare alludes to this fact himself in Julius Caesar when he has Antony say, “Here was a Caesar!  when comes such another?”  (Julius Caesar, 4.2.252).   If Antony had followed his friend’s example more closely, he may have been able to maintain his honor in the eyes of the Roman citizenry, but by brazenly displaying his affection for her he set in motion the tragic events of the play.

            In the Roman world, when one had disgraced himself the accepted practice was to commit suicide by falling on one’s sword.  When Antony realizes that he has lost his honor he says, “Eros, there is left us / Ourselves to end ourselves” (4.14.21-22).  He says that “I have lived in such dishonor, that the gods / Detest my baseness” (4.14.57-58).  He asks Eros to kill him, but Eros kills himself instead.  Then Antony falls on his sword.

             Maecenas sums up the main theme of the story when he says, “His taints and honors wag’d equal with him” (5.1.30).  Antony’s desire for Cleopatra has waged war with the sense of obligation and duty which comprises his honor and his forsaking his honor to be with her has resulted in his disgrace and death.  It is left for Agrippa to praise Antony’s spirit, but to remind us that “you, gods, will give us / Some faults to make us men” (5.1.33-34).  Mark Antony, the noble warrior who avenged the murder of Julius Caesar and cloaked himself in honor and glory for Rome, lost everything because of his human desires.






            The character of Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra is important for reinforcing the central conflict between Antony’s sense of duty and his affection for Cleopatra.  Like the character of a clown in Shakepearean comedies, his role is to give us insight into the ramifications of other characters’ actions, to summarize events, and to give perspective through thoughtful asides.  He also acts as a foil, through whom we are able to glimpse aspects of the other characters’ actions and motivations.

            Enobarbus gives us insight into Cleopatra’s sensual character when, in 1.2, he makes oblique references to her overwrought performances in the past.  He seems to be telling Antony that his leaving Egypt upon hearing of the death of Fulvia will surely result in a dramatic scene on Cleopatra’s part.  She is a woman whose passions are of “greater storms and tempests than almanacs can report” (1.2.148-149).  When Antony replies that he wishes he had never met her, Enobarbus answers that he would have missed “a wonderful piece of work” (1.2.133).  Through this exchange, we learn that Cleopatra is a passionate and volatile woman, something to behold in wonder and amazement, which gives us insight into her hold over Antony. 

            His bantering with Antony over the death of Fulvia, implying that there will be others to take her place (as, indeed, Cleopatra already has) is essential in establishing the idea that women are of secondary importance in men’s lives when compared to the duties and responsibilities of state, which is one of the main themes of the play. 

            When he relates to Maecenas and Agrippa the glorious appearance of Cleopatra on her barge and the way she enchanted Antony upon their first meeting, Enobarbus paints such a fantastic picture that the audience can virtually see the splendor of it.  When he tells them that Antony will never leave her because “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety.  Other women cloy / The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry / Where most she satisfies;” (2.2.234-237), we begin to appreciate the depth of her attraction.  The scene foreshadows main conflict of the play.  Again, when speaking with Menas, Enobarbus gives us insight into the passionate nature of Antony’s attraction toward Cleopatra.  He calls Octavia “of a holy, cold, and still conversation” (2.6.122) implying that she is dull.  When Menas protests that a wife like that is a good thing, Enobarbus replies that Antony is too passionate to stay with a dull wife, so he “will to his Egyptian dish again” (2.6.126) and then there will be trouble.  The marriage of convenience between Antony and Octavia will not survive his affair with Cleopatra.

In each of these instances, Enobarbus fills in gaps in the audience’s knowledge that explain the play’s themes and foreshadow future events. 

            His exchange with Cleopatra when she plans to join Antony in the battle at Actium foreshadows the tragedy that awaits them in that encounter.  He tries to warn her that her presence will distract Antony and imperil their success against the forces of Octavius.  He tells her that the Romans already think that Antony is too much under her spell and her being there will only confirm their feelings, to which she answers, “Sink Rome and their tongues rot / That speak against us!” (3.7.15-16).  Later, Enobarbus pleads desperately with Antony to fight a land battle because that’s where his troops are the strongest, not at sea, but Antony insists on fighting at sea, especially when Cleopatra says, “I have sixty sails, Caesar none better” (3.7.29).  Enobarbus, in this instance, is acting as the voice of reason for Antony, whose own reason has apparently deserted him.  Then, when she runs from the battle and Antony follows her, the full import of Enobarbus’s warning sinks in.  When, after the disaster, Cleopatra asks Enobarbus if the defeat is her fault or Antony’s, he replies that the blame falls on Antony because he didn’t act rationally.  He says, “The itch of his affection should not then / Have nick’d his captainship,” (3.13.7-8), reinforcing the idea that his love of Cleopatra has impaired Antony’s ability to make reasonable and honorable decisions. 

            Up to this point, Enobarbus has acted as a narrator, of sorts, letting the audience know of activities beyond the scope of the stage to display, foreshadowing events, and serving as a foil through which we see both Antony’s and Cleopatra’s motivations and actions.  He has tried to be the voice of reason for the two lovers, who are by now wholly consumed by their passion for each other.  Act this point, he decides he has had enough and vows to desert Antony.  His loyalty is not strong enough to overcome his desire for self-preservation.  He can see that Antony is doomed and cannot summon the courage to stay with him to the end.  When Antony sends Enobarbus’s possessions to him in the enemy camp, revealing the generosity of spirit that is one of his most attractive qualities, Enobarbus is overcome with shame and remorse.  He says, “This blows my heart” (4.6.33) and vows to “seek / Some ditch wherein to die” (4.6.36-37).  In these events, we see one of the central themes of the play:  Antony is a great and noble man destroyed by his passion for a woman.  Enobarbus, who was once Antony’s most loyal and trustworthy lieutenant, has deserted to the other side and, yet, Antony treats him with a generosity that few men could equal.  How different would things have worked out for Antony if it hadn’t been for Cleopatra?

            Thus, the character of Enobarbus has given the audience insight into the motivations of both Antony and Cleopatra.  He has summarized significant events for us and commented on those events, giving us a perspective that would otherwise be lacking.  His interplay with both of the central characters has reinforced the play’s main conflict between Antony’s sense of duty and his affection for Cleopatra.  His betrayal of Antony has given us the opportunity to see the true generosity that made Antony one of the noblest Romans and emphasized the tragedy of allowing his passion to overcome his reason.



Two Essays About Pericles, Prince of Tyre




The Role of Women


            The cases of Marina and Antiochus’s daughter in Pericles, Prince of Tyre, and Isabella in Measure for Measure, provide several clues as to the position of women in Shakespeare’s England.  The principal lesson from these two plays is the high value society placed on chastity and the opprobrium that would follow from the loss of that chastity, whether through force or choice.  An unmarried woman’s social status was intertwined with her chastity, which in this case means virginity, and whether she is the victim of an incestuous father, mercenary brothel owners, or an unscrupulous ruler, the loss of her chastity is the most serious loss she could suffer.

            Until very recently, a woman’s place in society was determined solely by her marital status.  Married women could not own property or hold certain offices.  Everything they possessed, including their bodies, legally belonged to their husbands.  In some societies, husbands were encouraged to beat their wives to keep them in line.  As the case of Henry VIII shows us, the wife’s value often lay in her ability to produce a male heir and the accusation of unfaithfulness, as in the cases of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, was sufficient to condemn a woman to death ( 

            The situation for girls before they reached their majority was usually no better.  They were legally the property of their fathers and frequently dealt with as commodities for sale to whoever could provide power or position to the father’s family.  In this regard, it was of vital importance that the girl be a virgin at the time of her marriage.  In the days of such practices as primogeniture, this was necessary to insure that the offspring of an arranged marriage were the legitimate children of the husband.  Only males could succeed kings, for instance, and legitimate sons had preference over bastards.  Consequently, ensuring a girl’s virginity, at least with the higher classes, became of supreme importance.  Marriages could be annulled and wars result if a girl’s purity were in doubt.

            Given these circumstances, only certain women were able to maintain power and position if unmarried.  Widows could, within limits, inherit their husband’s property.  Queen Elizabeth I was able to maintain that rank only because she remained the “Virgin Queen.”  Had she married, she would have had to surrender her throne to her husband (

            All of these things would have been known to Shakespeare’s audience.  Thus, the characters of Marina and Isabella, as well as Antiochus’s daughter, deserve some examination.

            To begin with the last of these, the fact that Antiochus’s daughter was not a virgin is significantly compounded by the incestuous relationship with her father.  In the Prologue, Shakespeare calls her “Bad child,” as if she has seduced her father rather than become his victim.  Pericles calls her “an eater of her mother’s flesh, / By the defiling of her parent’s bed” (1.1.130-131).  Her value as a commodity pursued by eligible noblemen would be lost if the secret became known, so Antiochus plans to kill Pericles, rather than have the secret revealed.

            In the case of Marina, the situation is different because the issue is simply one of virginity, not incest.  Marina is sold to a brothel, where she steadfastly refuses to surrender her virtue and actually talks her “clients” into respecting her wishes, to the point where Boult decides to rape her so her virginity will cease to be an obstacle.  She buys her way out of this disgrace, using the gold that Lysimachus has given her.  The implication is that chastity would not be so important, except that Marina is a princess.  She knows that her father is a king (even though she has lost contact with him) and, therefore, her virginity has more potential value than it would for a lesser woman.  Her resistance to surrendering it is baffling to the Bawd, Pander, and Boult because they don’t know her royal parentage.  We may also conclude that she would never have been acceptable as a wife to Lysimachus, even though she is a princess, if she had succumbed to him as a common whore in the brothel (although the circumstances of Mariana and Angelo in Measure for Measure give a hint at how Shakespeare might have dealt with the situation once her noble birth was revealed – he could simply have said that since she lost her virginity to a nobleman and he was her only sexual partner their marriage would be acceptable).

            Isabella, in Measure for Measure, however, adds another factor into the equation, for her steadfast clinging to her chastity is not based on social status or political position so much as it is on religious belief.  She makes several references to her belief that to surrender her virginity to Angelo would be a sin that would result in eternal damnation.  She says, “I had rather give my body than my soul” (2.4.56), meaning that she would rather die than commit such a sin.  She says she’d rather be whipped “ere I’ld yield / My body up to shame” (2.4.103).  She tells Angelo that it would be better that Claudio “died at once, / Than that a sister, by redeeming him, / Should die forever” (2.4.106-108).  She tells Claudio that she would willingly die for him, but she won’t sacrifice her chastity.  She even accuses Claudio of “a kind of incest” (3.1.138) if he saves his life by sacrificing his sister’s honor. 

It’s clear that Isabella is guarding her soul from defilement as much as her body, although there is also a brief reference to her social status when she says “I had rather / my brother die by the law than my son should be / unlawfully born” (3.1.189-191).  Isabella unleashes her harshest salvo at Angelo when she calls him “a virgin-violator” (5.1.41).  Each of these references acknowledges her understanding of the social significance of a noblewoman’s virginity, both as a legal and a political commodity, but the bulk of her argument is the religious one. 

Thus we have three examples that reveal some of society’s values regarding women, especially unmarried noblewomen, in Shakespeare’s England.  The importance of a single woman rested with her unsullied virtue.  Pericles, Prince of Tyre teaches us that society condemned even noblewomen who surrendered their most valued commodity to anyone except their husbands and Measure for Measure adds the eternal condemnation of God.



The Meaning of Fate


            In Pericles, Prince of Tyre, Shakespeare deals with the idea of fate and how our destiny seems, at times, to be outside of our control.  The play relies on the audience’s understanding of Greek mythology, with its interplay between the Olympian gods and humans, to convey the idea that Pericles’ odyssey is somehow decreed by destiny and that his ability to control events and their outcome is extremely limited.  However, when we compare this play to two of its antecedents, we begin to understand how the Greek concept of fate is continued in Pericles.

            The Greeks believed that the gods intervene in the daily affairs of humans, even to the point where gods and humans produce offspring, like Heracles, who combine human and godly qualities.  To offend the gods is to invite disaster, as Odysseus discovers when he fails to give Poseidon proper credit for the victory at Troy.  Poseidon retaliates for this offense by keeping Odysseus wandering for some twenty years before Athena’s intervention enables him to return to Ithaca.  Athena’s actions show that the intercession of the gods can be for good, not just evil.  During his wanderings, Odysseus loses his entire force to various misfortunes, but he never loses his free will, his power to make decisions that will affect events.  He uses his cunning to outwit Polyphemus, the Cyclops, and he chooses to leave the island of Calypso, even though she offers him immortality.  Eventually, Odysseus achieves his fate, which is to be reunited with his wife, Penelope, and to avenge himself upon those who tried to usurp his place in Ithaca (

            The other great antecedent of Pericles in which fate plays a significant role is Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles, in which the protagonist Oedipus attempts unsuccessfully to alter his fate.  In brief, Oedipus is told by the Oracle at Delphi that he will kill his father and marry his mother.  Not knowing that he has been raised by people other than his birth parents, and not wishing to harm them, he leaves his adopted homeland and travels to his original homeland, where he unwittingly fulfills the prophecy (

            In both of these stories, the concept of fate hinges on the difference between prophecy and predestination.  To know your fate is to know what is going to happen to you in the future as a result of your actions and those of others, including other people and the gods.  We know that Odysseus will wander the Mediterranean for years and Oedipus will kill his real father and marry his mother, not because these things are preordained, but because we can see the future.  Therefore, whatever actions Odysseus and Oedipus take, although the result of their own choices, the end result will be the same.

            Applying these examples to Pericles, we see that he takes many actions as a result of free will, but his destiny is still to be deprived of his wife and daughter for years.  Like Odysseus and unlike Oedipus, Pericles’s fate is to be reunited with his loved ones.

            Pericles himself acknowledges the influence of the gods, or at least some external force, in several instances.  He invokes “You gods that made me man, and sway in love” (1.1.19) when he first sees Antiochus’s daughter.  When he is cast ashore in Pentapolis, he refers to “you angry stars of heaven! / Wind, rain, and thunder” (2.1.1-2) and admits that he has to submit to their power.  When Marina is born and he is told that Thaisa has died, he wails, “O you gods! / Why do you make us love your goodly gifts / And snatch them straight away?” (3.1.22-24)  Most significantly, he says, “We cannot but obey / The powers above us.  Could I rage and roar / As doth the sea she lies in, yet the end / Must be as ‘tis” (3.2.9-12), when he gives his baby daughter to the care of Dionyza.  In each of these examples, Shakespeare lets the audience know that Pericles realizes that much of what happens to him is outside of his control.  Nevertheless, the actions he and others take throughout the play also illustrate that human free will coexists with the concept of fate.

            When Pericles realizes the meaning of the riddle of Antiochus and the peril in which it places him, he chooses to run.  He turns over the rule of Tyre to Helicanus until such time as it is safe for him to return.  He could have stayed in Antioch and attempted to denounce the king.  He might have captured Thaliard and avoided his assassination.  Had he chosen this course, however, he most surely would never have met Thaisa and they would not have had Marina.  The course of his life, or his fate, would have been changed.  When he casts Thaisa overboard in her coffin at the behest of his superstitious crew, he sets in motion her eventual discovery and recovery, as well as their ultimate reunion.  If Cerimon had merely accepted the apparently obvious and not attempted to revive Thaisa, the course of events would have been changed dramatically.  If Marina had chosen to submit to her captors in the brothel, her fate would have been different. 

            Every action that these characters take involves a decision, a choice.  The outcome of those choices constitutes, in retrospect, their fate or destiny.  If their destiny was to be reunited in the end, then the other choices open to them would have resulted in the same outcome.  The actions of the gods put Pericles and the others in situations which require them to make choices.  As with Odysseus, many of these actions involve the sea and, by implication, the god of the sea, Poseidon.  It is a storm that causes Pericles to land in Pentapolis;  it is another storm that causes him to lose his wife and decide to give over the care of his daughter to Cleon and Dionyza.  Seafaring pirates kidnap Marina and sell her to the brothel keepers.  Is it the intervention of the gods or mere luck that Thaisa’s coffin washes up on Ephesus?  Is it the gods or chance that Marina is kidnapped before Leonine is able to murder her?  In so many instances, Shakespeare allows the audience to draw its own conclusions, but the end result is the same. 

            The play seems to be acknowledging the idea that a person’s fate may be arrived at through many different routes.  Free will, the actions of the gods, and even a lot of luck influence the course of one’s life.  In this case, as with that of Odysseus, the choices made by the lead characters result in a happy ending.