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Deception in Shakespeare's Plays
Deception as an element in Shakespeare's plays takes a variety of forms. For many of Shakespeare's male protagonists, the fear of deception by their lovers consumes them, often to an irrational degree. Other characters deceive themselves, ultimately believing they are something they are not. Although deception is frequently manifested through some type of physical disguise, it is more often conveyed through language. While Shakespeare's characters strive to deceive each other through disingenuous dialogue, Shakespeare himself attempts to deceive his audience and readers through the language and structure of his plays.
In four plays—Much Ado about Nothing, Othello, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale—Shirley Nelson Garner (1985) has explored the male protagonists' unreasonable fear of being deceived by their wives and lovers. Garner observes a pattern in which the man, at the faintest hint of impropriety, begins to suspect his innocent lover of infidelity. As his convictions grow, he then schemes to hurt or humiliate the woman. After she is dead or thought to be dead, the grief-stricken man repents. Garner has contended that this pattern suggests a psychic need among men to be betrayed, noting that as the men sever their ties with their lovers and women in general, they reaffirm their bonds with other men. According to Garner, these plays dramatize a male fantasy in which a woman will always forgive the man no matter how brutishly he has behaved, while reflecting a male fear of heterosexual relationships.
Another form of deception in Shakespeare's plays is the characters' ability to deceive themselves. Hugh Dickinson (1961) has demonstrated the manner in which King Henry VI deceives himself and others into believing he is a capable ruler. Cyrus Hoy (1962) has argued that the action of Love's Labour's Lost is dedicated to the "undeceiving of the self-deceived," and that like many of Shakespeare's comedies, the play progresses from an emphasis on the artificial to the natural, proceeding to the final objective of self-knowledge. Similarly, Barbara L. Parker (1970) has observed a thematic focus on illusion, delusion, and self-deception in Macbeth. The self-deception found in Twelfth Night takes on an ironic twist, according to Carl Dennis (1973), who has noted that the characters that set out to deceive through the use of physical disguises (Viola and Feste) are actually the least likely characters to practice self-deception. Yet Orsino and Olivia—posturing as the love-struck suitor and long-grieving sister—both indulge their vanity in the roles they assume and consequently deceive themselves throughout the play.
While these characters succeed in deceiving themselves, characters in other plays manipulate language in order to deceive others. James L. Calderwood (1973) has studied Falstaff's "counterfeiting" nature in Henry IV, observing that it seems as much directed at the audience as it is at the other characters in the play. Calderwood has suggested that Falstaff highlights the lie that forms the basis of theatrical illusion, a lie that is necessary for drama to be successful. Jean MacIntyre (1982) has discussed how the deceptions of Kent and Edgar in King Lear function in much the same way as Falstaff's doublespeak. MacIntyre has demonstrated that while the lies told by Kent and Edgar do in fact deceive Lear and Gloucester, these deceptions also aid Lear and Gloucester in understanding and accepting their actions and what they have become. In this way, according to MacIntyre, Shakespeare defends his art. Russ McDonald (1989) has examined how the characters in Richard III manipulate language, and has contended that Shakespeare recognized the dubious nature of language and that perhaps he doubted or feared it as the medium in which his art...
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Critics also have explored the ways in which Shakespeare used the language and structure of his plays to deceive his audience or readers. Trevor McNeely (1989) has examined Othello as rhetorical allegory, maintaining that Shakespeare strove to use rhetoric to dupe his audience into accepting the plot and characters as plausible rather than as wholly absurd, just as Iago deceives Othello into accepting the plausibility of Desdemona's infidelity. Likewise, Michèle Willems (1990) has suggested that Shakespeare encouraged a misreading of Henry IV as a morality play in which Shakespeare appears to accept a providential view of history and the Tudor myth. In fact, Willems has argued, the play presents Prince Hal not as the Prodigal son, but as a politician who completely sacrifices his private feelings to his public image. In this way, Willems has contended, Shakespeare questions the traditional politics of the contemporary court as well as the personal void which results from the pursuit of Machiavellian political values. According to Willems, if Shakespeare had dealt directly with such political issues, the play may have been viewed as too subversive.
The prevalence of deception in Shakespeare's plays seems to stem as much from the deceptive tendencies in human nature as it does from Shakespeare's love affair with the theater and its language. His plays—themselves a deception in the sense that they are fictions, or theatrical illusions—reveal a fascination with the power of language to not only deceive, but to inspire and to reveal truth and self-knowledge.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 19750
James L. Calderwood (essay date 1973)
SOURCE: "Henry IV: Art's Gilded Lie," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 3, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 131-44.
[In the following essay, Calderwood studies the way in which Falstaff's language in 1 Henry IV seems to refer as much to the "counterfeiting" or deception practiced by actors as it does to his own actions within the play.]
After the collapse of Richard II's divinely certified symbolism, Shakespeare begins Henry IV with a fallen language whose verbal emblem is the lie and whose human form is Falstaff, the corporealized lie. Falstaff, however, is by no means the only dealer in deception. As an interior playwright, Hal begins his drama of emergent royalty—which might be titled "The Prodigal Prince and the Reformed King"—with a lie, a deliberately beclouded identity by means of which he will "falsify men's hopes." Surrounded by counterfeit kings, he will counterfeit unkingliness himself so that in a belated recognition scene his suddenly revealed royalty will shine forth the more goodly to his English audience. Thus an unprincely lie will beget a most kingly truth. The effectiveness of Hal's strategy is suggested in the deathbed scene of 2 Henry IV when the lie (his "theft" of the crown, which makes him falsely appear both a callous son and a usurping prince) is made to yield the truth that he is both a loving son and a "true inheritor." Without the possibility of the lie there can be no truth, no new meanings, no creativity. Indeed, without the lie, drama is impossible.
The truth of this is particularly evident at the end of 1 Henry IV when Hal has just defeated Percy and thereby confirmed the validity of his claims to royalty. It is curious that precisely at this point, when he has proved himself a true prince among a field of counterfeit kings, Hal should again have recourse to the lie. For at this point he encounters a miraculously resurrected Falstaff carrying Percy on his final swaybacked ride, and Falstaff is quick to enter his own claim—if not to kingship, at least to knightly valor: "I grant you I was down and out of breath, and so was he. But we rose both at an instant and fought a long hour by Shrewsbury clock. If I may be believed, so . . ." (v.iv.149-52). Whether believed or not, his lie calls forth another from Hal: "For my part, if a lie may do thee grace, / I'll gild it with the happiest terms I have" (161-62).1 To see what Hal's ornamenting lie entails let us go back a bit and observe Falstaff in the heat and heroism of battle.
In the middle of this scene (v.iv) Hal and Hotspur, having exchanged precombat courtesies, begin their swordplay. Falstaff then enters and dances fiercely about the far fringes of the fray crying "Well said, Hal! To it, Hal! Nay, you shall find no boy's play here, I can tell you" (75-76). It is a typical Falstaff remark, with the "you" being sufficiently vague to include the audience as well as the combatants. From our standpoint as audience, his denial raises what might otherwise have been an unconsidered possibility. For a disconcerting moment or two we may realize that "boy's play" is precisely what we shall find, are finding, here—mock combat, bated swords, the carefully rehearsed thrust and riposte, and Hotspur maneuvering surreptitiously to let Hal stab him in the vest pocket where a small bladder of pig's blood is concealed to make the groundlings grunt and the ladies squeal. Boy's play is as prominent here as a bit later when Douglas rushes on stage to pursue that great bladder of blood and sherris, the squealing Falstaff, who saws the air with his sword while hunting a comfortable place to collapse in mortal agony.
Still, as Hal and Hotspur fight expertly on, our imaginations are no doubt reabsorbed by the realities of fiction—by Hotspur's eloquent dying, surely, and Hal's graceful obsequy. If we have not seen the play before, we will continue to believe in the dramatic illusion as the bodies of Hotspur and Falstaff, equally dead to the best of our knowledge, lie side by side on stage. But if so, our belief is abruptly punctured when Falstaff pops up to announce that he has been only counterfeiting death:
Counterfeit? I lie, I am no counterfeit. To die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man. But to counterfeit dying when a man thereby liveth is to be no counterfeit but the true and perfect image of life indeed.
Our uneasy suspicion that it is less the character Falstaff who speaks here than the actor who plays that character (since it is actors, not characters, who make a living by counterfeiting—by feigning to die, to love, to fight, to live at all) gains in conviction when Falstaff, glancing with mock nervousness at the "dead" body of Hotspur, says, "'Zounds, I am afraid of this gunpowder Percy though he be dead. How if he should counterfeit too and rise? . . . Why may not he rise as well as I?" (122-28). Why indeed? As Sigurd Burckhardt has said, "Not only may Hotspur rise but he will—as soon as the scene is ended and his 'body' has been lugged off the stage."2
Before Falstaff lugs off the body, however, he decides to make Percy "sure" by stabbing him again—"Yea, and I'll swear I killed him," he says (126-27). It seems a safe enough plan, what with a dead Hotspur and a stage empty of witnesses. "Nothing confutes me but eyes," he says owlishly, "and nobody sees me" (128-29). Again such a remark must give us pause. Given the sequence of metadramatic ironies already insinuated upon us—from "boy's play" to counterfeitings of life and death—Falstaff's statement here can hardly be kept tidily within the dramatic illusion of life. Like Falstaff himself, it bulges out of the realistic frame of fiction, calling attention to its own excess. Indeed, as he delivers the remark Falstaff must peer about the empty stage, where nobody does observe him, and then turn and direct at his audience, at a whole theater of eyewitnesses, an enormous conspiratorial wink. That this was in fact how the line was originally delivered—by Will Kempe or perhaps John Heminge—is suggested by some historical evidence of recent discovery. Since it was not thought fit to print this evidence as part of the textual argument here, it has been relegated to an Appendix, which the reader may wish at a later time to consult. The present question, innocuously raised and then gradually pressed before us by this scene, is what to make of all this puzzling Falstaffian doubletalk.
Burckhardt has argued that Falstaff rises from death as a symbol of disorder, a character who "outgrew his preassigned measure and function" as foil to Hotspur. In refusing to remain conveniently dead he destroys dialectical symmetry—the notion that the conflict between Hotspur thesis and Falstaff antithesis yields the Prince Hal synthesis—and the symmetry between off-stage real life and on-stage illusions of life (or in this case illusions of death).3 It seems to me that when Hal stands over the bodies of Hotspur and Falstaff the dialectical point is made whether Falstaff rises or not. But however it may be with dialectics, the symmetry Falstaff disturbs most significantly is not that obtaining between life and drama but that between drama in its two aspects, as mimesis of life (in this case, of English historical life) and as literary-theatrical artifice. In the former category we would refer to fiction, illusion, nature (what the illusion is of), realism, history; in the latter category, artificiality, theatricality, art, contrivance, entertainment.
It is probably true, as Burckhardt (and before him Brooks and Heilman4) suggested, that Falstaff outgrew his intended role and that in some degree he threatens the play itself just as, within the play, he threatens with comic laughter the high gravity of Henry's kingship and Hotspur's values. Thus in the present scene he has one foot inside the fiction of English history and the other outside it, turned to the audience—one foot planted in Shrewsbury soil and the other on the boards of the Theatre in Shoreditch. And why indeed shouldn't he? Hotspur accepts the reality of the fictional world of the play as wholeheartedly and (Falstaff would add) half-wittedly as he accepts, within that world, the pulsing reality of honor, truth, courage, glory. He can no more renounce his bond to fiction and confess that history is not history but theatrical illusion than he can interrupt his fight with Hal in mid-thrust and announce that it is not genuinely mortal combat but, as Falstaff slyly tells us, "boy's play." For history, after all, is Hotspur's proper domain. It is where Shakespeare discovered him, it is what he is designed to help recreate for the audience.
But Falstaff, whose origin is neither England's actual past nor Holinshed's pages, owes history nothing—not even if his name was once Oldcastle, "for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man" (2 Henry IV, Epilogue). Falstaff's origins are theatrical and literary: the Vice of morality tradition, the miles gloriosus and witty parasite of Plautine comedy, the clown-fool-butt-sponger-mocker-glutton of a thousand plays from Aristophanes to the anonymous author of The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth. From Falstaff's extra-historical perspective, Hotspur, Hal, Henry IV, Shrewsbury, and England herself are as insubstantial as Glendower's oft-called spirits from the vasty deep. Either divorced from the historical plot of usurpation and rebellion, or repudiating it with laughter, Falstaff is also divorced from the play as an illusion of historical life. His debts are entirely to the play as play, not as mimesis of history—to the Shakespearean imagination that gave him life and to the audience for whose enjoyment he was given life.
At this point it would appear that Shakespeare conceives of these two dimensions of drama—mimesis and theatrics—as antagonistic, each devoted to its own brand of truth, its own species of reality or unreality. When Falstaff clambers up from death and declares that he lied in lying down, he is as he says the "true and perfect image of life indeed"—the life of the ever-living actor—and it is Percy, who continues to counterfeit death, who is the liar. But by refusing to stop counterfeiting, despite Falstaff's chiding, Percy remains true to his species of reality, to drama as simulated life. From this standpoint it is he who is the "true and perfect image of life"—the life of the character who imitates life, or death.
Normally, however, since this is essentially a realistic play, unlike Henry V, Falstaff is obliged to operate in Percy's nontheatrical domain, and in this world of historical life Falstaff becomes the father of lies and Percy the admired man of honor. Still, Falstaff does not operate wholly in this world—in it perhaps but not fully of it. If he cannot take the doings of kings and rebels seriously, neither can he take the whole realm of historical life, the mimetic dimension of the play, seriously. As a result he is endowed with the detachment essential to humor. From a mimetic standpoint he is a funny man, compounded of lies and japes. But he transcends and subverts mimetic reality. His costume is too flamboyant, his grease paint too obvious, his lies too transparent. Everyone he meets within the play he transforms immediately into an audience, most blatantly in II.iv where he exhibits also his penchant for speaking over or through these interior audiences to Shakespeare's audience. Refusing to remain a character within and responsive to the world of historical life, he keeps asserting his "real" identity as a performer, imposing theatricality on history—hence his playing the fool and jester to Hal (or anyone), his comic lies designed not to persuade but to entertain (e.g., the men in buckram and in kendal green), his search for roles in which to display his histrionic genius, his constant readiness for drama ("What, shall we be merry? Shall we have a play extempore?"). In these ways he momentarily extricates himself from the illusion of historical reality. But Shakespeare grants him the opportunity to break quite free from history and frolic in his native realm of theatrical artifice only once, when he lets him rise up from what for him (and us) would be a sorry death indeed: the cessation of stage life and a final thwarting of his need not merely to act (which is what the "dead" Hotspur is doing) but to act consciously, visibly, even ostentatiously.
In V.iv, with Falstaff clowning around in the realm of theater and taunting Hotspur for his stiff adherence to historical reality—with Falstaff proclaiming in effect that the emperor of mimetic drama has no clothes on—the two dimensions of Henry IV are in open antagonism, threatening to split the play irrevocably. Who knows, an aroused Falstaff might walk right on out of the play and into the Admiral's Company, leaving behind a tawdry set of stage props and costumes, an embarrassed cast, and an audience plunged into bewilderment, an "alienation effect" of large proportions. But Falstaff, as we have seen, confines his rebelliousness for the moment at least to a series of mocking double entendres, not to mention (as the Appendix records) a great wink and a long aside. However, he is not yet finished. With Hotspur aloft he rocks over to the reentering Prince John and Hal and dumps his cargo. At his unexpected reappearance Hal suffers something of an alienation effect himself. "I saw him dead," he tells John, "Breathless and bleeding on the ground. Art thou alive? / Or is it fantasy that plays upon our eyesight?" (136-38).
Hal speaks here in character, so it seems, from within the fiction. From our confused perspective, however, with Falstaff's exposures—in fact double exposures—before us, the line between mimesis and artifice, and between character and actor, may well seem indistinct. Character may address character well enough ("Art thou alive?") but we may also hear undertones of actor addressing actor. What does Hal's "fantasy" mean in this shifting context, or his "Thou art not what thou seem'st" (140)? Is the actor Will Kempe emerging from the character Falstaff? Something entirely different rather: Falstaff may expand to include Will Kempe. Falstaff is a character whose role is to play the actor. If Kempe may play Falstaff, may not Falstaff play Kempe? Not the historical Kempe, of course, but Kempe as the generic actor.
However we register the ambiguities, Hal attempts to remain—with Percy, dumped "dead" at his feet—inside the historical fiction. The result, from Falstaff's liberated perspective, is that Hal lies twice in one sentence, when he says, "Why, Percy I killed myself and saw thee dead" (147). "Didst thou?" Falstaff cries, miming appeals to heaven:
Didst thou? Lord, Lord, how this world is given to lying! I grant you I was down and out of breath, and so was he. But we rose both at an instant and fought a long hour by Shrewsbury clock. If I may be believed, so; if not, let them that should reward valour bear the sin upon their own heads. I'll take it upon my death, I gave him this wound in the thigh.
The double exposure of character and actor, of realistic life and theatrical art, remains in ambiguous force in this speech. In terms of dramatic "life" the character Falstaff is typically capitalizing on circumstance, improvising his way towards his only notion of nobility: "I look to be either earl or duke, I can assure you" (145-46). From the standpoint of dramatic "art" Falstaff, the character whose role is that of the actor, is threatening Hal and the play with exposure: "You know and I know that you didn't kill Hotspur any more than Douglas killed me. Of course I didn't kill him either, but I can claim as much as you, and lie a lot better. If Percy here weren't so deafened by his honor he'd stand up and prove us both liars. But he won't. So, my sweet young prince, we are at a standoff. Expose me as a liar and I'll expose you in return. And where's your fine play then?"
Percy, Falstaff has already exposed as a liar, but Percy, true to history, could not get up and deny it; he did die at Shrewsbury. Hal, however, has more latitude, which is to say a more flexible consciousness and a less radical devotion to honor. Though he belongs to the world of history, he has never achieved, nor quite attempted, Hotspur's leap of faith into the play as mimesis of life. If Falstaff has been entertaining audiences inside and outside the play, Hal has lent his assistance willingly. It is he who directs the "exposure" of Falstaff in the Boar's Head Tavern after Gadshill, setting the stage, supplying Falstaff with leading questions, acting as straight man. "What trick, what device, what starting-hole canst thou now find out to hide thee from this open and apparent shame?" (II.iv.289-92)—what more friendly leg up to a devastating reply could Falstaff desire? If Falstaff is delighted to exhibit his verbal dexterity at this point, Hal is no less delighted to exhibit Falstaff, like an animal trainer with a trick bear. And a little later in the scene Hal proves as ready to turn histrionic and play royal as Falstaff, though with his concluding "I do, I will" he is disposed to convert the play-acting from idle entertainment into a rehearsal of future history. That is appropriate too, because as a future king Hal knows very well that his business is to shape history, not to be shaped by it. To Hotspur history is a fixed and final reality to which he is irrevocably committed. He has given his word, as it were; he cannot alter his role. To Hal on the other hand history is a series of roles and staged events. He creates for himself the role of princely roisterer as a means of dramatizing to good advantage his conversion to the regal role of Henry the Fifth. Both as actor-dramatist of his own royal play, then, and as part-time sharer in Falstaff's theatrics, Hal knows perfectly well that the emperor of mimetic drama is without clothes.
The aesthetic fact which this scene revolves around is that all plays aspiring to the illusion of life are vulnerably naked unless their audiences clothe them from the wardrobe of imagination. Shakespeare's audience probably suspended disbelief as willingly as any other, transforming Will Kempe with a pillow stuffed beneath his doublet into Falstaff, a stage full of costumed actors playing soldier into the battle of Shrewsbury Field, and Shakespearean blank verse into the speech of living and dying men. So of course do we—a generation of playgoers raised on Pirandello, Brecht, Anouilh, Beckett, Pinter, and Genet—for the play will not work otherwise. We cannot be simultaneously conscious of actor and character, of theater and depicted life, of art and nature. We cannot simultaneously be involved in the immediate experience of the play and yet be detached from it, playgoer and critic at once, as though we could register Hamlet's feeling while deliberating on Gielgud's competence in the role, or take in the meaning of a soliloquy while parsing the lines.5 Yet that is the unhappy plight into which Falstaff's withdrawal from the fiction of history thrusts us. With the illusion of heroic life shattered, we are left confronting the trumpery of theater—costumes, actors, props, stage, words that we see issuing from a script instead of from men's mouths. Lord, Lord, how this theater is given to lying! So the truth-loving Falstaff tells us—to be echoed in latter days by Pirandello, Brecht, Ionesco, and many others. Perhaps Hal too would join in admitting art's shortcomings; but less distrustful of the imagination and the illusions it helps foster than a Brecht or an Ionesco, Hal accepts the practical necessity of the lie. For if the play is not to split down the middle, Falstaff must be made to abandon his theatrical indulgences and reenter the world of fiction.
So Hal abandons his claim to having killed Percy in return for Falstaff's abandoning his claim to purely theatrical life: "Come, bring your luggage nobly on your back. / For my part, if a lie may do thee grace, / I'll gild it with the happiest terms I have" (160-62). The bond is sealed as Falstaff hoists (and so acknowledges the "deadness" of?) the dead Percy onto his back and complacently accepts an ironic parting shot from Hal, who says to Prince John, "Come, brother, let us to the highest of the field, / To see what friends are living, who are dead" (164-65). Falstaff's final lines in the scene, and in the play, express his willingness to reform if the price is right: "I'll follow, as they say, for reward. He that rewards me, God reward him! If I do grow great, I'll grow less; for I'll purge and leave sack and live cleanly as a nobleman should do" (166-69). The price Hal has already paid is one that Percy would never countenance, a lie; but what is bought with Hal's lie is a restoration of the mode of dramatic reality to which Percy was so totally committed. Historical truth may be violated (though Holinshed does not say who killed Percy at Shrewsbury, it was certainly not Falstaff), but the mimesis of historical life is preserved. If theatrical illusion is a lie, it is a lie that must be countenanced, for there can be no theater without it.
It is highly fitting that Hal should mediate at this point between the claims of Hotspur mimesis and Falstaff theatrics because he has, as I've suggested, had a foot in each or a hand in both already—he whose origin is history but whose self-contrived drama of kingship relies on his playing off the character of the wastrel Hal against that of the reformed Henry V. In each dimension of the play Hal has served to unite or at least to mediate between Falstaff and Hotspur. Thus in Percy's world—in the play as realistic mimesis of historical life—the character Hal may be regarded as possessing the best features of the two mighty opposites. Or, so the variations have run, he may be seen as an Aristotelian golden mean between their excesses and defects, a Christian-Platonic ideal liberated from their imperfections, a happy commingling of the "humours" that flow singly or sluggishly in the others, a synthesis that transcends dialectical contraries, and so on.6 Whichever we choose, Hal is seen as standing somehow between or over Hotspur and Falstaff, as he literally does over their apparently dead bodies at Shrewsbury. Similarly in Falstaff's world—in the play as unrealistic work of theatrical art—it is Hal's victories at Gadshill and Shrewsbury, his capacity to move with ease between the Percy sphere of high history and the Falstaff sphere of high jinks, between the blank verse of the one and the colorful prose of the other, that stitch together the two plots of the play and thus impart to Henry IV an aesthetic, structural coherence to which drama as a mimesis of life is indifferent. Finally, since Hal's ultimate function in history is to reunite an England torn throughout his father's region by dissension, it is appropriate that his dramaturgical function at this point be to reunite a play that is itself splitting into antagonistic factions.
Before leaving the issue of Hal's fitness to mediate between Hotspur and Falstaff, let me glance at one more famous piece of evidence—the moment when he stands over the two bodies and takes verbal leave of each (v.iv. 87-110).
Fare thee well, great heart! Ill-weaved ambition, how much art thou shrunk! When that this body did contain a spirit, A kingdom for it was too small a bound. But now two paces of the vilest earth Is room enough. This earth that bears thee dead Bears not alive so stout a gentleman. If thou wert sensible of courtesy I should not make so dear a show of zeal. But let my favours hide thy mangled face, And, even in thy behalf, I'll thank myself For doing these fair rites of tenderness. Adieu, and take thy praise with thee to heaven! Thy ignominy sleep with thee in the grave, But not remembered in thy epitaph. [He spieth Falstaff on the ground.] What, old acquaintance, could not all this flesh Keep in a little life? Poor Jack, farewell! I could have better spared a better man. O, I should have a heavy miss of thee If I were much in love with vanity! Death hath not struck so fat a deer today, Though many dearer in this bloody fray. Embowelled will I see thee by and by; Till then in blood by noble Percy lie. [Exit.]
Here we have the crowning visual symbol—Hal standing over the two—of a relationship that has existed throughout the play, and it is a commonplace to observe that Hal's remarks characterize Hotspur as all spirit (89-90) and Falstaff as all flesh (102-03), each limited and partial while Hal combines both in the full human reality. What I would prefer to emphasize here is how the obsequies are stylistically geared not merely to the different natures of the two men but also to the different modes of dramatic reality in which they live, and now "die." In brief, Hal plays it straight with Hotspur, giving him a graceful send-off in keeping with the moving eloquence of Hotspur's dying words. Hotspur is dead; the style of Hal's obsequy confirms it—and we are safer trusting style than apparent facts in drama. Because Hal assumes Hotspur's mode of reality here, which means accepting his death, he can say "If thou wert sensible of courtesy / I should not make so dear a show of zeal" (v.iv.93-94). To be sure. But there on the other side of Hal lies a "dead" Falstaff, ears flared wide, who is "sensible of courtesy" (and discourtesy), a Falstaff who is gathering himself for a comic resurrection as soon as Hal turns his back. How, then, does Hal address him? Precisely as if he knew he were faking death. He delivers a brief speech full of ironic puns that hold out a "courtesy" with one hand and discourteously jerk it back again with the other: "better spared a better man . . . heavy miss of thee . . . so fat a deer . . . Though many dearer." He also introduces a closing phrase—"Embowelled will I see thee by and by"—that drops a verbal ladder into Falstaff's grave and invites him back into comic life: "Embowelled! If thou embowel me today, I'll give you leave to powder and eat me too tomorrow!" (111-13). And Hal ends with a pun on a crucial word: "Till then in blood by noble Percy lie" (110). This, when in a moment we will discover that the prostrate Falstaff has been "lying" in both senses all the while!
How to interpret this? Only in a very curious sense, I suppose, could we say that the character Hal "knows" that Falstaff is not dead and so speaks to him on his own theatrical level while on the other hand, knowing that Percy is not "really" dead either, he nevertheless accepts the Percy mode of illusion and addresses him realistically. I think we are justified in making somewhat similar claims about Falstaff and Hal later in this scene because the theatrical ironies from Falstaff's "counterfeiting" speech onward are too sustained, obvious, and logically consistent to ignore. But Hal's "If thou wert sensible of courtesy" is embedded in a realistic context and functions adequately there; and one could say the same of his punning speech over Falstaff—that its light chiding style suits the occasion because it suits the nature of their friendship and that by means of humorous understatement it suggests in Hal a depth of feeling that would have looked specious otherwise. Perhaps the most we would want to claim, then, is that Hal's speech reflects Shakespeare's desire not to make him look foolish, that the style and tone of the speech are conditioned not by Hal's but by Shakespeare's knowledge that the "dead" Falstaff remains fully "sensible of courtesy." That seems about right, unless we are troubled by the fact that every character's speeches are conditioned by the omniscience of the playwright. So whether we impute to Hal an awareness beyond that possible to a realistic character or not, the dramatic fact is that his lines to Hotspur and Falstaff register the differences between the two modes of death, the realistic and the theatrical, and mark Hal as the one character who can come to terms with both. He responds to Hotspur's death seriously and to Falstaff's lightly, precisely as he can make sport of Falstaff at Gadshill and kill Percy at Shrewsbury. This flexibility enables him not only to unite a divided England but to unite a temporarily divided Henry IV as well.
When Falstaff is lured back into the historical fiction it may appear that theatrical drama is sacrificed to mimetic drama. It is true that Falstaff surrenders his right, or license, to stand outside the fiction and mock its claims to truth. But what, after all, is Falstaff without the fictional life within the play? His domain is hardly that of real life; he cannot walk out of the Boar's Head Tavern and into the Mermaid Tavern in Bread Street. And so long as he is confined to the stage he cannot, however well-stocked with suety sustenance, survive for long without a play to feed on. Unless he hopes to initiate vaudeville,7 he and the humor he energizes must replenish themselves from the sideboards of historical life. This is surely part of the "reward" he will find within the play as he follows Hal and Prince John back to Shrewsbury and on to 2 Henry IV.
If Falstaff relinquishes the autonomous truth of theatrical art by reentering the fiction, Hal relinquishes the autonomous truth of historical life by supporting Falstaff's lie with one of his own. Neither dimension of drama, it is apparent, can claim autonomy in fact, though for a moment, caught in Falstaff's double exposure image, they seemed disastrously separable. If for much of this scene theater has obscured our view of dramatic life, it now dissolves into transparency again, seemingly disappearing but in fact becoming a lens through which we witness the mimesis of history. By a process of mutual sacrifice, art and nature are realigned and the life of the play restored.
But the price, we must remember, is a lie. Or, to put a kinder construction on it, perhaps we should say that the price is a liberalizing of the imagination, a setting aside of the standards of fact and reason that give rise to the notions of true and false in real life. From this standpoint the lie is the test of our poetic faith, our ticket to literature. Once inside the literary domain, we may discover that the lie has proven a road to truths otherwise denied the truth-loving mind. But for the moment we may feel that readmitting Falstaff to the play, especially on his own blackmailing terms, carries ominous suggestions for 2 Henry IV, toward which we may glance with one auspicious and one dropping eye.
I mentioned earlier that Falstaff's line as he prepares to stab the already dead Percy—"Nothing confutes me but eyes, and nobody sees me"—must be delivered with a conspiratorial wink at the eye-witnessing audience. This has been somewhat confirmed by the recent discovery of a page of apparently Shakespearean dialogue, what appears to be a Falstaff "aside" to the audience, found among a set of rusty pie pans by the descendants of William Warburton's infamous cook. This speech, containing a metatheatrical interpretation of Falstaff, is rendered below but not, alas, in photographic reproduction, since the descendants of Warburton's cook, whose names I am not at liberty to disclose, are at present negotiating with several distinguished libraries in Great Britain and the United States concerning its acquisition. I am reliably informed by Colonel H. S. Adams, founder and president of the Rock Island Historical Society, that the Society hopes to be able to print facsimile copies of the speech in the Spring, 1973, issue of its journal, The Petrigrammaton (XXXIV).
Falstaff. . . . Why may not he rise as well as I? Nothing confutes me but eyes, and nobody sees me. (Aside:) 'Nobody sees me'? Lord love us, him that can't see me must needs go about with a stick! And you, my master groundlings? Must I not see you either? Why, I know ye as well as him that made me. Why else, think you, this daily winking? Why else? A question to be asked, since it procures me nothing but a foolish hanging of your nether lips. A man could turn squinny-eyed with winking for all it profits him. Nay, but I suppose you will have reasons of me. "Come, Jack, give us reasons! Let us have reasons for your winking, sweet Jack." God send the actor a better audience; I must do all. Reasons, is it? I would to God my reasons were not so marvelous to the multitude as they are.
Well, I am not the man that can contain me in a wink. Reasons you shall have! Stand aside, nobility; let the ladies look to their ears. I am set down before you—mark my old ward!—to expand (think you that is possible?), to enlarge upon, to give some scope, look you, to this whoreson winking. If I speak less than truth, if I bate it so much as a tittle, then am I . . .
'Zounds! Is there to be sniggering among you? Is it come to that—detraction? Well, then go thy ways, old Jack! But one word, my masters . . . If I be doubted, if the door of belief is to be shut on old Jack, then where, pray, is your poor truth to be found? In this Percy here? This willow-waisted rebel that stamps me up and down and huffs and cries "Esperance!" and "Honor!" and "Tell truth and shame the devil!" and such a deal of brave syllables as would stuff a boar-pig? Lord, Lord, who is it, I ask you, has just now leapt to his feet like feathered Mercury to inform your worships (and to prevent the ladies among you from rash acts of self-injury) that he but counterfeited death? Was it Percy here? He who will vault between the sheets of belief like a bridegroom? who will swallow you up some eight or ten helpings of oaths at a sitting and cry for salad? he who pounced into the role of Percy as if 'twere a saddle? Not him, Lord love us! He's passed his oath to be Percy and Percy 'a shall be till doomsday. Doomsday? I lie, he'll play Percy for St. Peter himself, holding his heaving lungs and turning purple at the eyes before he'll admit to counterfeiting.
So this Percy may be true to his oath, but he's false to you; he keeps to his fiction. But I? Think you I can buckle myself inside a fiction? Not I, my lads, my womb undoes me. And my truth, my masters; I would not have you forget my truth, for there is the end of sweet Jack's falseness. Still, an if I did not grow so on the public, an I were not such a magnet to the masses, then might I keep me to my false part. But there, but there, you see how I am loved! It's your plump Jack that puts the pennies in the gatherer's box; it is plump Jack Falstaff that o'ercomes these lean lads in the affection of mankind; and so it is plump and, as I may say, great Jack Falstaff that expands him beyond this little girdle of illusions to remind you, lads and ladies all, that there's nought but illusion. Nought but trickery and lies, my lords; I would have you look to it!
And now, as I have o'erswollen my part somewhat, if I be not watched and dieted, as indeed I mean not to be, I may well burst from this pod of fancy entire—there's no containing your sweet virtue. Then shall I walk before this piglet of a play like a sow that hath o'erwhelmed all of her litter but one.
Naturally it is gratifying to be able to call upon textual evidence of this newly discovered sort to lend substance to critical claims that might otherwise seem mere surmise to the faithless. But in point of fact Falstaff's "aside" only makes explicit what was already implicit in the unamended Shakespearean text, for which reason it was not thought necessary to make the speech an integral part of the argument of the foregoing paper.
1 The text I am using is that of William A. Neilson and Charles J. Hill in their The Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare (Cambridge, Mass., 1942).
2 Sigurd Burckhardt, Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton, 1968), p. 147. Though my interpretation of Falstaff's rising, and of this scene in general, goes a different route from Burckhardt's, his are the seminal remarks and insights to which I am most indebted.
3 Burckhardt, pp. 146-49.
4 Cleanth Brooks and Robert B. Heilman, Understanding Drama (New York, 1948), pp. 376-77.
5 Northrop Frye has some pertinent remarks on the discreteness of literary criticism and the direct experience of literature in Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957), pp. 27-28.
6 See for example: William B. Hunter, "Prince Hal,His Struggle for Moral Perfection," South Atlantic Quarterly, 50 (1951), 86-95, for the Aristotelian mean; J. Dover Wilson, The Fortunes of Falstaff (New York, 1944), for a morality play view with Christian-Platonic overtones; U. C. Knoepflmacher, "The Humors as Symbolic Nucleus in Henry IV, Part I," College English, 24 (1963), 497-501, for the commingling of humors in Hal; and Hiram Haydn, The Counter-Renaissance (New York, 1950), 598-605, for an Aristotelian and Platonic view of Hal in terms of the concept of honor.
7 After writing this I ran across some perceptive remarks about the theatricality of Falstaff by Arthur Sewell in Character and Society in Shakespeare (Oxford, 1951): "Falstaff is aware of his audience, on and off the stage, and the comic artistry is part of the comic character. His life within the play—the only life he has—is a sustained vaudeville turn. The audience is necessary to his being" (34). The notion of vaudeville is good insofar as it distinguishes Falstaff from the other characters, those fully devoted to the play as realistic illusion of life, but it is not so good if it suggests that his humor is somehow independent from this dimension of the play. In 2 Henry IV Falstaff says, "I am not only witty in myself but the cause that wit is in other men" (I.ii.11-12). But the reverse is quite as true, that his wittiness and especially his burlesque humor are made possible by the other characters who are playing their roles straight—Hotspur, Henry IV, Hal at times, Mistress Quickly, the Lord Chief Justice, Justice Shallow, etc.
Eugene P. Nassar has some excellent remarks about the way in which Shakespearean characters can slip out of their realistic roles in what Nassar calls the "core drama" and deliver lines conditioned by Shakespeare's artistic or theatrical intentions—see Nassar's chapter "Shakespeare's Games with His Audience" in The Rape of Cinderella (Bloomington, Ind., and London, 1970), pp. 100-19.
Jean MacIntyre (essay date 1982)
SOURCE: "Truth, Lies, and Poesie in King Lear;' in Renaissance and Reformation/Renaissance et Réforme, Vol. VI, No. 1, 1982, pp. 34-45.
[In the essay below, MacIntyre examines the deceptions practiced by Kent and Edgar in King Lear as fictions that allow Lear and Gloucester to comprehend and accept their own misdeeds and identities. MacIntyre argues that the play demonstrates the usefulness of fiction, or poesy, and represents in some ways Shakespeare's defense of his work.]
At the beginning of his tragedy, King Lear requires each of his daughters to "speak" her love for him, promising the most opulent share of the kingdom to her who "doth love us most."1 In answer he gets the well-known rhetoric of Goneril ("I love you more than words can wield the matter") and of Regan ("I am alone felicitate / In your dear highness' love"). Then, expecting yet more, he gets Cordelia's "I love your majesty / According to my bond, no more, nor less." Lear bids her, "mend your speech a little," but when she amplifies to "I . . . obey you, love you, and most honour you . . . [But] sure I shall never marry like my sisters / To love my father all," Lear rejects her "truth": "Let pride, which she calls plainness, marry her." When Kent intervenes—"Be Kent unmannerly / When Lear is mad . . . To plainness honour's bound / When majesty falls to folly"2—the angry king banishes him with a curse, and turns to further reward those whose words have pleased him.
Goneril's and Regan's hyperbole here, and Edmund's fabrication about Edgar in the next scene, are devised to flatter a known weakness: Lear's desire for adulation, Gloucester's physical timidity. The eager faith both old men give to verbal manipulation will cause all the suffering they will endure themselves and bring on others. Good counsellors tell them to prefer plain truth. Long before their deaths they learn the folly of their trust in falsehoods. Yet, strangely, much of the good that befalls them itself is built upon falsehoods by characters who intend to benefit them. Kent disguises himself as a servant and becomes the fellow of the Fool. Edgar successively adopts the roles of madman, poor stranger, peasant, and nameless knight.3 These disguises depend upon carefully constructed fictions: Kent farcically exaggerates his own personality, Edgar obliterates his ("Edgar I nothing am") and creates wholly new identities. Within his disguises of person, Edgar fabricates fictions such as the famous Dover Cliff speech; yet, because the falsehoods of Kent and Edgar are benevolent, even so morally sensitive a critic as Johnson does not remark that their deceptions exceed those of the play's villains, who if anything overdo plain speaking once they come to power. The relationship between telling the truth, telling lies, and inventing fictions—the "poesy" of Kent and Edgar—shapes the play's most important actions. This relationship parallels the 16th century's awareness that the need to persuade may conflict with the need to tell the truth, an awareness most important in the justification of poesy (the creation of fictions) against charges that to make them is to lie.
Truth, of course, means that what is affirmed states what is. Renaissance writers commonly assume that the truth will displease:
. . . the truth plainly setteth downe the matter as it is indeed, albeit the event thereof be not verie pleasant.4
. . . sometimes a man must not speake all that he knoweth, for if he do, he is like to find small favour, although he haue just cause to speake, and may with reason declare his mynd at large.5
As Bacon observes,
. . . Truth is a naked, and open day light, that doth not shew, the Masques, and Mummeries, and Triumphs of the world, halfe so Stately, and daintily, as Candlelight.6
Unlike truth, Bacon continues, falsehood has to be pleasing: "A mixture of a Lie doth ever add Pleasure. Doth any man doubt, that if there were taken out of Mens Mindes, Vaine Opinions, Flattering Hopes, False valuations, Imaginations as one would, and the like; but it would leave the Minds of a Number of Men, poore shrunken Things, full of Melancholy, and Indisposition, and unpleasing to themselves?" Men even love lies from "a naturall, though corrupt Loue, of the Lie it selfe," even when the lie gives neither pleasure nor advantage.7 When the person lied to is powerful,the falsehood told to please him endangers the whole state; Erasmus devotes a chapter in The Education of a Christian Prince to the evil of flattering a ruler and proposes death as the penalty.8 His disciple Sir Thomas Elyot amplifies this chapter in The Governour, insisting on putting flatterers "openly to tortures . . . in reason how much more pain [than forgers and coiners] (if there were any greater pain than death) were he worthy to suffer, that with false adulation doth corrupt and adulterate the gentle and virtuous nature of a nobleman."9 Shakespeare uses the words "lie" and "flatter" almost interchangeably: "Therefore I lie with her and she with me / And in our thoughts by lies we flattered be." A large class of villains are lying flatterers—the morality Vices, Proteus, Parolles, Iago, and the Witches of Macbeth, Heywood's Wendoll, Jonson's Volpone, Milton's Satan, and Bunyan's Worldly-Wiseman. King Lear abounds in them—Goneril, Regan, Burgundy, Oswald, Edmund—all exemplifying the danger to a prince that Erasmus worried over, especially if the prince is a child or an old man, who "by natural inclination . . . [take] more pleasure in blandishments than in truth."10
The moral danger inherent in pleasant lies may explain the uneasiness many of the same thinkers feel about poetic fictions:
The principall ornament of [poets'] verses are tales made at pleasure, & foolish & disorderly subiectes, clean disguising the trueth & hystorie, to the end they might the more delight. . . . Hence grew the common prouerb, that al Poets are lyers. . . . The occasion of so free passage giuen to Poets is, for that their fables slyde awaye easily, and cunningly turne themselues to tickel at pleasure.11
A fable is a forged tale, containing in it by the colour of a lie, a matter of truth.12
One of the Fathers, in great Seuerity, called Poesie, Vinum Daemonum; because it filleth the Imagination, and yet it is, but with the shadow of a Lie.13
The confusion of fiction and lie, between which Sidney discriminates in his familiar statement, "The Poet, he nothing affirmes, and therefore never lyeth,"14 may draw strength from the dreaded perils of flattery.
Thomas Wilson attempts to override objections to pleasant fiction by a utilitarian argument from experience. As he says, one cannot persuade an audience that does not listen:
. . . I woulde thinke it not amisse to speake much, according to the nature and phansie of the ignorant, that the rather they might be won through Fables, to learne more weightie and graue matters, for all men can not brooke sage causes, and auncient collations: . . . Talke altogether of most graue matters, or deeply search out the ground of things or use the quiddities of Dunce, to set forth Gods misteries: and you shall see the ignorant . . . either fall a sleepe, or els bid you farewell. . . . And yet it is no foolishness, but rather wisedome to win men, by telling of Fables to heare of Gods goodnesse.15
Sidney says the same throughout the Defense of Poesie:
. . . glad [men] will be to heare the tales of Hercules, Achilles, Cyrus, and Aeneas; and hearing them, must needs heare the right description of wisdom, valour, and justice; which, if they had been barely, that is to say Philosophically, set out, they would sweare they be brought to schoole againe . . . For even those harde-harted evill men who thinke vertue a school name, and knowe no other good but indulgere genio, and therefore despise the austere admonitions of the Philosopher, and feele not the inward reason they stand upon, yet will be content to be delighted, which is all the good felow Poet seemeth to promise; and so steale to see the forme of goodness (which seene they cannot but loue) ere themselues be aware.16
The means to this end, in the famous definition, is to imitate reality under fictious names:
Poesie . . . is an arte of imitation, . . . a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth: to speake metaphorically, a speaking picture, with this end, to teach and delight. . . . [T]hey which most properly do imitate to teach and delight . . . borrow nothing of what is, hath been, or shall be [here differing from the historian tied to the truth of a foolish world], but range, only rayned with learned discretion, into the divine consideration of what may be and should be. . . . It is that fayning notable images of vertues, vices, or what els, with that delightful teaching, which must be the right describing note to know a poet by.17
The poet, that is, makes a convincing imitation of reality, not a slavish record of fact; his purpose is to teach the ideal by representing it as the possible, and to present the ideal clearly through the ethical quality of his fiction. Since (unlike the philosopher) he is not exhorting to virtue directly but only showing the behavior of imaginary persons and its consequences, he reconciles the demands of truth, however unpleasant, to "imaginations as one would" without flattery. Thus the poet will be heard when the truth-speaker is rejected. Yet his hearers will not be harmed by listening to his fictions, as they will if they listen to a flatterer's pleasing lies.
Like Sidney's men who refuse the philosopher's virtuous exhortations, Lear will not accept truth "barely set out"; it is hardly accidental that he rejects "plain" and "plainness" so often during his exchanges with Cordelia and Kent. Gloucester knows "no other good but indulgere genio" and cannot feel "the inward reason" of Edmund's insinuations that Edgar wants his father dead. Both, therefore, prove susceptible to language that flatters their particular weaknesses, and once they have accepted the flattery they prove impenetrable to the truth of either words or experience till experience changes their minds. Neither Goneril nor Regan nor Edmund bothers to lie or gild the truth once they have secured property and power—until, of course, they start to lie to one another.
The first two scenes of the play define the roles truth, lies, and poesy will assume in the rest of it. Goneril and Regan flatter Lear with an inflated and hyperbolical rhetoric. It takes very little skill in logic to show what they say is nonsense; however, Lear is not listening for logic but for just the kind of comparatives and superlatives they give him. When Cordelia utters a plain statement instead of another, longer ladder of "more's" and "dearer's," the contrast between what he has been hearing and what he now hears makes her words sound harsher than their meaning. France points out that her language "reverbs no hollowness," while the repeated "plain's" and "true's" applied to it by Lear and everyone else show that the trouble is not in the substance but in the language used to express it. And if Cordelia's "plain" truth displeases Lear because its expression does not verbally conform to what he thinks due him, Kent's—that Lear is mad, foolish, rash, evildoing—offends him in words and meaning alike. Yet this is nothing to the truths he gets from Goneril and then from Regan when they are in possession and no longer need trouble to flatter him.
When Goneril "breeds occasions" to dismiss her father and his knights she simply tells him the truth:
By her, that else will take the thing she begs, A little to disquantity your train; And the remainders, that shall still depend, To be such men as may besort your age, Which know themselves, and you.
(I. iv. 244-9)
Recalling Cordelia's "plain" speech for which he banished her as a "most small fault," Lear tries to control Goneril with threats and curses. Then, since these fail and since he cannot banish this daughter to another land as he did Cordelia, he must banish himself, still expecting that Regan will side with him and even that he may "resume the shape" Goneril thinks he has "cast off forever."
Regan shows her true feeling for her father first by deeds, then by words. When Lear finds his messenger in the stocks and hears that "It is both he and she, / Your son and daughter" (II.iv. 11-12), he will not believe it: "They durst not do't. They could not, would not do't" (II.iv. 21-2). He then catches at Regan's greeting, "I am glad to see your highness" (II.iv. 125), as truth. Because rejecting Cordelia and Goneril has left him with only Regan, he takes much longer to accept that her words truly express her feelings and mean the same as Goneril's:
O sir, you are old; Nature in you stands on the very verge Of her confine: You should be rul'd and led By some discretion that discerns your state Better than you yourself. Therefore I pray you That to our sister you do make return; Say you have wrong'd her.
Lear evades the meaning of these and succeeding words, understanding only when Goneril enters and Regan takes her by the hand—and even then he tries to deny this visible evidence of their alliance. The two allies "disquantity" his train from one hundred to none; his weapons of curse and threat fail him:
I will do such things— What they are yet, I know not; but they shall be The terrors of the earth.
These "terrors of the earth" turn into weeping and oncoming madness, and disturb not at all the complacency of Regan, Goneril, and Cornwall as they dismiss Lear to the weather and go inside. Meanwhile, his forced recognition that his two daughters neither obey him, love him, nor honor him drives Lear into the storm and the insanity it prefigures. After this experience of truth at its most painful, it is hardly surprising that Lear at first believes his reunion with a loving and forgiving Cordelia to be a dream, or that he retreats into "imaginations as one would" during the disasters of Act V.
In the central part of the play truth and falsehood, and confusions between them, remain important, but instead of being centered on verbal lies they are centered on deceptive appearances, which are closer to poesy than is the rhetoric of the first scene. To supplant his brother, Edmund forges a letter, reports an imaginary conversation, stages an incriminating interview, and conducts a noisy duel in which he even wounds himself Later, seeing advantage in truth, he tells Cornwall of his father's correspondence with France and secret aid to Lear. Gloucester, who is not present when Regan, Goneril, and Cordelia speak in the first scene, sees that the King has acted "upon the gad," but he believes what he thinks visual proof of Edgar's treachery and Edmund's truth, to be undeceived only at the moment of his blinding. Exhilarated by his first successful manipulation of appearances, Edmund repeats the double deception of father and brother on Goneril and Regan, and attempts to trick Albany about his command and later about his prisoners. Only at the last when he is dying does Edmund speak a disinterested truth "despite of [his] own nature" (V.iii. 243). Edmund's "poesy" is corrupted by the ill purpose directing it; not "himself a true poem" he invents fictions that "tickle at pleasure" those who attend to them, and teach wrath, lust and treason.
Kent's "poesy" manipulates his own appearance so successfully that his fellow nobles can speak of Kent to him and not recognize him. But the fictional Caius depends almost entirely upon a "raz'd . . . likeness" (I.iv.4), for the style of his language differs very little from that of the Earl in the first scene, and what he tells Lear as Caius in their first interview would be equally true of Kent:
I can keep honest counsel, ride, run, mar a curious tale in telling it, and deliver a plain message bluntly; that which ordinary men are fit for, I am qualified in, and the best of me is diligence. . . . I have years on my back forty-eight.
Kent "[shapes] his old course in a country new" (Li. 186), the one below stairs where his fellow is Lear's Fool who speaks truth because, as he says, he has not learned how to lie. In their dialogues these two tell Lear truths he would rather not know in a form he can neither object to nor repudiate, yet these are the same truths about his folly he rejected when Kent spoke them in his own person. But Kent easily resumes the authority of a great nobleman in Act III, where he commands Lear's knight and is obeyed, because he has not sunk his own self into a created identity. Neither Cordelia nor the audience can see why he keeps up his disguise once he has brought Lear to Dover.
Kent's poesy, then, is mainly rhetorical, intended to persuade Lear and others that he is not what he is. For the audience, what he and the Fool mainly do is to keep Lear in touch with the continued presence of loyalty in a world that seems bent on uprooting it. For Lear on the heath, the Fool can do little and Kent hardly more. Kent's outward fiction and inner truth fulfil the requirement of poesy—a false vehicle for a true tenor—but Kent is not a major poet. At the entrance to the hovel, the major poet enters at Kent's call:
What are thou that dost grumble there i'th'straw? Come forth.Enter Edgar
Even more than his half-brother Edmund, Edgar proves a master of invented identities, but instead of grafting "loyal son," "faithful subject," "true lover" upon his own person, he sinks his identity with true "negative capability" into a succession of invented personages: poor Tom, "a most poor man," a rustic, a messenger, a nameless knight; "Edgar I nothing am." At first this obliteration of self is for survival, but after the King's party finds him in the hovel, he attaches himself to Lear's cause and by the end of Act III he seems to have decided to "lurk" in his disguise in case he can help. This makes him available to watch over his father and others until he can return as Edgar Earl of Gloucester in Act V. Particularly as Poor Tom, the most elaborate, difficult, and long-lived of his fictional identities, Edgar is the poet, spinning his "autobiography" of the "serving man proud in heart and mind . . . that slept in the contriving of lust and wak'd to do it" (III.iv.85-91), hearing "the foul fiend [haunt] poor Tom in the voice of a nightingale [and] Hoppedance [cry] in Tom's belly for two white herring" (III.vi.30-32), learning from Frateretto "that Nero is an angler in the lake of darkness" (III.vi.6-7), singing snatches of ballads and inventing a rhyme about dogs.
That Edgar who is a poet creates a madman who is a poet is not surprising, especially when one remembers the words of Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream—a play with so many likenesses of form and language to King Lear that Shakespeare appears to be imitating his comedy in his tragedy:
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet Are of imagination all compact. One sees more devils than vast hell can hold; This is the madman. . . . The poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven; And as imagination bodies forth The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name.
Giving "to airy nothing" a convincing and vivid "local habitation" is a major function of the poet in the view of Renaissance theorists:
Poesie . . . is an arte of imitation, . . . a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth; to speake metaphorically, a speaking picture. . . . it is that fayning of notable images of vertues, vices, or what els . . . which must be the right describing note to know a poet by.18
The desideratum is enargia, "when a thynge is so described that it semeth to the reader or hearer that he beholdeth it as it were in doyng,"19 by an agent equally >real. Such a "speaking picture" appears as Edgar plans his disguise:
I will preserve myself; and am bethought To take the basest and most poorest shape That ever penury, in contempt of man, Brought near to beast. My face I'll grime with filth, Blanket my loins, elf all my hair in knots, And with presented nakedness outface The winds and persecutions of the sky. The country gives me proof and precedent Of Bedlam beggars, who, with roaring voices, Strike in their numb'd and mortified bare arms Pins, wooden pricks, nails, sprigs of rosemary, And with this horrible object, from low farms, Poor pelting villages, sheepcotes, and mills, Sometimes with lunatic bans, sometime with prayers, Enforce their charity.
When Edgar next appears, this verbal portrait has become a live, speaking picture, in its turn speaking further such pictures:
. . . poor Tom, whom the foul fiend hath led through fire and through flame, through ford and whirlpool, o'er bog and quagmire, that hath laid knives under his pillow and halters in his pew, set ratsbane by his porridge, made him proud of heart, to ride on a bay trotting horse over four-inch'd bridges, to course his own shadow for a traitor. . . . Poor Tom, that eats the swimming frog, the toad, the todpole, the wall-newt and the water; that in the fury of his heart, when the foul fiend rages, eats cow-dung for sallets, swallows the old rat and the ditch dog, drinks the green mantle of the standing pool.
It is hard to remember that this is all imaginative creation, that a sane Edgar is keeping decorum within a consistent and distinctive style that hardly falters through two long scenes, in spite of the growing pity for Lear that almost mars his "counterfeiting." Only when he meets his blinded father does the role become too much for him: "Poor Tom's acold. [Aside] I cannot daub it further" (IV.i.51). When the Old Man clothes him in his "best 'parel," even wretched Gloucester notices a corresponding change in his speech, and when Edgar (truthfully in ways Gloucester cannot know) insists "In nothing am I chang'd / But in my garments," Gloucester still maintains "Methinks you're better spoken" (IV.vi.9-10). Edgar's reply is the famous "topotesia, that is ficcion of a place," which describes Dover cliff "so that it semeth to the reader or hearer that he beholdeth it,"20 and Gloucester believes he has fallen from this merely verbal precipice to be preserved by miracle. Edgar thereupon creates for himself a new character, "a most poor man, made tame to Fortune's blows" (IV.vi.218), and within this character by "prosopographia . . . a description of a fained person [such as] harpies, furies, devils, . . . and soche lyke"21 paints a horror on the clifftop:
As I stood here below, [another fiction supporting Gloucester's "fall"] methought his eyes Were two full moons; he had a thousand noses, Horns whelk'd and wav'd like the enridged sea. It was some fiend.
In the midst of these fictions Edgar turns to the audience to explain:
Why I do trifle thus with his despair Is done to cure it.
That is, he is teaching Gloucester to come to terms with truth through fictions adapted to limited capacity to receive truth unadorned. And these fictions do what they are intended to, for after he thinks he has miraculously escaped a tempting demon, Gloucester prays to "ever gentle gods" (not the wanton tormentors who "kill us for their sport" [IV.i.37]), "Let not my worser spirit tempt me again / To die before you please" (IV.vi.214-5).
Edgar's later disguises, as Mummerset peasant, messenger, and nameless knight, include less fiction than Poor Tom and the stranger on the beach, since each shows some aspect of Edgar as he is indeed. The peasant defends helpless, blind Gloucester from a murderer, as Edgar would do even if the victim were not his father. The man who brings Albany Goneril's letter to Edmund and who promises to return after the battle hardly has time for a personality, but exhibits Edgar's own caution and good manners. As the nameless challenger, he is almost himself. In these roles his disguise, like Kent's, is more rhetoric than poesy—conscious persuasive art, not another creating Nature.
In his madness, Lear produces something like Edgar's poetic creations as Poor Tom, but with one absolutely essential difference. Edgar deliberately feigns his demons. Lear thinks he sees what he describes. At first, as he learns how to be mad from the blanketed beggar, he merely invests him with identities suggested by his garment: "learned Theban," "good Athenian," "Robed man of justice," "Persian." But he soon hallucinates, seeing Goneril in a joint-stool, Regan as an invisible cadaver for dissection, "the little dogs and all" who bark at him. When he first meets blind Gloucester, he thinks him a recruit for a troop of archers, then "Goneril with a white beard" (IV.vi.96), then the accused in a capital trial (for adultery), and last, in a lucid flash, "Thy name is Gloucester" (IV.vi.175). With words he calls out of "airy nothing" the "simp'ring dame" and the "rascal beadle," hypocrites pretending sexual virtue but really depraved by lust. Lear thus creates "notable images of virtues, vices, or what els," showing the truth underlying appearance and in this way teaching the auditor. But Lear's "poesie" is without poetic intent, for it is the unwilled vision of the lunatic who "sees more devils than vast hell can hold," not the controlled fabrication of the poet, not even the compulsive truthfulness of the Fool. Lear describes what he thinks he sees, insisting that others "see," "behold," "look," "look there." He has no idea of teaching through fiction or otherwise, unlike Edgar when he bids a man he knows is blind "Do but look up" (IV.vi.59). What Lear says truly reports the facts of his experience; in his madness, he cannot lie. But to be a poet, one must be able to lie, communicating truth in a veil of fiction, and this means that to be a poet one must be able to distinguish between truth and falsehood so as to communicate truth through falsehood.
After Cordelia and her doctor have restored Lear to sanity, he veers between uncertainties about what is true. At first he cautiously explores his perceptions and only believes that he is with a loving and forgiving Cordelia after testing his senses with a pinprick. When he and Cordelia are brought in as Edmund's prisoners, Cordelia is perfectly aware that they "are not the first / Who with best meaning have incurred the worst" (V.iii.3-4), and expects to confront her victorious sisters. Lear, on the other hand, retreats into "imaginations as one would," spinning his idyl of paradise in prison with Cordelia. To Lear, this may be "a divine consideration of what may and should be," but his "Newgate pastoral" is at once exposed for the fantasy it is by Edmund's brutal colloquy with the captain.
But here, and also in his last moments, it is uncertain whether Lear can distinguish what he imagines from what really exists. When he enters carrying his dead daughter, we have an independent witness that he killed the captain, and visible evidence of the strength to do it. But once on stage, he vacillates between the plainest of harsh truths, "She's dead as earth" (V.iii.261), and the airiest of "imaginations as one would," "This feather stirs, she lives!" (265). His last words first deny and then affirm Cordelia's life, and he dies bidding the others "Look on her! Look her lips, Look there, look there—" (310-11). In his last scene as in his first, Lear cannot bear the truth about Cordelia.
When Sidney defines the purpose of poetry as "to teach and delight," he does not mean by "teach" to communicate factual truth, which is the job of history or the sciences. Nor does he mean to communicate moral truths, which is the job of philosophy and divinity. Poetry unites precept and example by telling what someone did and the consequence of his deed. Roger Ascham, in The Schoolmaster, justifies literature because it gives vicarious experience and spares those who learn from it much pain if not outright disaster.22 Because Lear refuses truth and believes falsehood, and because Gloucester believes a lying poesy devised to deceive him, they are turned over to the school of experience. Goneril and Regan say this explicitly:
'Tis his own blame; hath put himself from rest And must needs taste his folly. . . . To wilful men The injuries that they themselves procure Must be their schoolmasters.
Lear in the storm and Gloucester newly-blinded come to some recognition that they have caused their own sufferings; Gloucester especially recognizes a connection between his past life and his present pain:
. . . that I am wretched Makes thee [Poor Tom] the happier: heavens, deal so still! Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man, . . . that will not see Because he does not feel, feel your power quickly.
The deceptions of poesy mitigate the sufferings of both old men in a limited way, enabling them to understand and accept what they have done and what they are, even though the teaching that comes through these deceptions comes too late to avert madness, mutilation, and remorse, and much too late to halt the evil deeds their refusal of truth and acceptance of falsehood have started.
Gloucester, Lear, Kent, Edgar, Edmund, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, and the rest are themselves fictions, part of the poetic creation called tragedy. Any attempt to explain the Tragedy of King Lear by the awkward and uncertain definitions available in Sidney, Puttenham, and their fellows would be inadequate. But inside his tragedy Shakespeare has included an examination of what the poetic fiction of King Lear is supposed to be doing for its audience, and among many ways to read it, one is Shakespeare's defense of his own poetic art. Yet the last lines of the play cast doubt upon this art. Whether their speaker is the obtuse reader Albany or the futile poet Edgar, he insists that truth is the only thing left for the survivors:
The weight of this sad time we must obey, Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
In the face of the final tableau of death and all that has led up to it, neither the flattery of rhetoric nor the delight of poesie has any place. Truth, dreadful as it is, is the only use left for words.
1 All quotations are from King Lear, ed. Kenneth Muir, Ninth Edition New Arden (London: Methuen, 1972); all quotations in the first paragraph, from I.i.
2 Truth as plainness is extensively discussed by Martha Andresen, "'Ripeness is All': Sententiae and Commonplaces in King Lear" Some Facets of King Lear, ed. Rosalie I. Colie and F.T. Flahiff (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974), p. 157.
3 See Hugh MacLean, "Disguise in King Lear: Kent and Edgar," Shakespeare Quarterly, 11 (1960), 49-54; Thomas F. Van Laan, "Acting in King Lear," Some Facets, pp. 59-76; Phyllis Rackin, "Delusion as Resolution in King Lear," Shakespeare Quarterly, 21 (1970), 29-34; William Elton, King Lear and the Gods (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1966), pp. 75, 84, 86, 285.
4 Edward Hoby, Politique Discourses, in Elizabethan Critical Essays, ed. G. Gregory Smith (Oxford: University Press, 1904), I, 343.
5 Thomas Wilson, Arte of Rhetorique, 1560, ed. G.H. Mair (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909), p. 10.
6 Francis Bacon, "Of Truth", Essays (1625) (Oxford: University Press, 1937), p. 5. Such displeasure at truth is very plain in Lear's first discourse with his Fool, whose mental infirmity makes him unable to lie even though he sees that to lie would be to his advantage:
Fool: Prithee, nuncle, keep a Schoolmaster that can teach Thy fool to lie. I would fain learn to lie.
Lear: An you He, sirrah, we'll have you whipped.
Fool: I marvel what kin thou and thy daughters are; they'll have me whipp'd for speaking true, thou'lt have me whipp'd for lying; and sometimes I am whipp'd for holding my peace. . . .
7Ibid. pp. 5-6.
8 Erasmus, Education of a Christian Prince, tr. Lester K. Born (New York: Octagon Books, 1965), p. 196.
9The Book Named The Governor, ed. S.E. Lehmberg (London: Dent, Everyman's Library, 1962), p. 156.
10 Erasmus, pp. 193, 196.
11 Hoby, pp. 341-3.
12 Richard Rainolde, The Foundation of Rhetoric (New York: Scholars' Facsimilies and Reprints, 1945), fol ii.
13 Bacon, p. 6.
14Apologie for Poetrie, in Elizabethan Critical Essays, I, 184.
15 Wilson, p. 198.
16 Sidney, pp. 172-3.
17Ibid, pp. 158, 160.
19Richard Sherry, A Treatise of Schemes and Tropes,ed. Herbert W. Hildebrandt (Gainesville, Fla: Scholars' Facsimilies and Reprints, 1961), p. 66.
20Ibid., p. 69.
21Ibid., p. 66-7.
22The English Works of Roger Ascham, ed. William Aldis Wright (1904; rpt. Cambridge: The University Press, 1970), p. 214.
Russ McDonald (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: "Richard III and the Tropes of Treachery," in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 68, No. 4, Fall, 1989, pp. 465-80.
[In the essay that follows, McDonald demonstrates that the discourse in Richard III is laden with deceptive elements, particularly puns or other rhetorical structures, which drastically change the meaning of the language used.]
One of the requirements of the modern critical essay being an appeal to Continental authority, I begin by citing the Princess of France's response to her royal suitor in the last act of Henry V: "O bon Dieu, les langues des hommes sont pleines de tromperies. " Shakespeare's artistic development is accompanied and fostered by an enlarging sense of the dangers of language, and Richard III registers more clearly than any other early play—even more than Love's Labor's Lost, the nearest rival—its author's awakening to the duplicity of words. Although he had not yet developed a fully tragic conception of the instability of language, the young playwright had begun by the end of the first tetralogy to exhibit doubt and even fear about the medium in which he worked.1
I want to explore this early interest in the perils of the word, particularly Shakespeare's recognition that its weaknesses are encoded in the systems of rhetoric which the Renaissance inherited from the classical masters. This essay does not offer a new reading of Richard III, nor is my argument mainly concerned with character or with Richard's verbal powers. My title refers less to the way that Richard puts rhetorical schemes in the service of nefarious political schemes than to the shifty nature of the play's major figurative forms. It has become orthodox to think of Richard of Gloucester as an artist gone wrong, a maker of villainous fictions, a corruptor of words, but surely the fabulist succeeds in large part because language is inherently susceptible to abuse. Shakespeare insists upon the potential deception and vulnerability of all discourse, and one measure of his dubiety is his manipulation of the phoneme, the pun. Specifically, he exploits the ambiguity of the word by emphasizing those rhetorical instruments that embody forcible shifts of meaning. Yet his concerns about the reliability of his verbal medium seem to have developed faster than his skepticism about the providential course of English politics, and so the play's overriding rhetorical pattern, in which a stronger speaker wrests verbal power from a weaker, is at odds with the teleology implicit in the historical subject. The Earl of Richmond ought to constitute the final term in an instance of historical displacement, and yet stylistically this is absurd: he cannot hold his own in such a sequence; the historical victor is a rhetorical loser. Not until the second tetralogy will Shakespeare bring his assessments of language and politics more nearly into balance.
Richard III is a wordy play, the second longest in the canon, only 150 lines shorter than Hamlet. It is perhaps the most "rhetorical" play Shakespeare wrote in that the arrangement of his materials is unabashedly formal and the highly-patterned surface of the text repeatedly and proudly calls attention to itself.2 The dialogue abounds in name-calling, curses, prophecies, laments, orations, and debates. Using language passionately and, above all, consciously, characters return again and again to the problems of expression, particularly in their search for epithets sufficiently monstrous to describe Richard. Sometimes language is declared to be inadequate: Lady Anne, as if to transcend speech, stops Richard's seductive words by spitting, and later Richard attempts to silence his irrepressible mother by commanding his army band to strike up drums and trumpets. It is not too much to say that discourse itself, especially in its relation to power politics, is one of the players', and the play's, main subjects.3
Shakespeare represents the battle for the crown specifically as a contest for verbal supremacy, a fight for the floor, a vicious struggle for audience among many gifted players. Demonstration of Richard's linguistic supremacy is hardly necessary: he gets to us first, in the opening soliloquy, and he works ceaselessly to silence his competitors.4 But almost every other major speaker tries directly or indirectly to take center-stage away from him. Perhaps the most effective scene-stealer, although he seems unaware of the competition, is Richard's brother Clarence, whose earnest and potent lyricism Shakespeare counterposes against Richard's irreverent ironies. King Edward forbids anyone to speak privately with Clarence on his way to prison, and Richard charges the murderers not to "hear him plead," for he "is well spoken." In narrating his dream-vision in the prison scene Clarence succeeds, if only briefly, in doing what no one else manages for so long a period, distracting us verbally from his brother. Richard, like any canny actor, resents sharing the stage with children, particularly the younger of his nephews. The second half of his scene with the two little princes is given over mainly to ambiguous backchat between the uncleprotector ("My dagger, little cousin? with all my heart") and the verbally forward Duke of York (as Buckingham says of him, "So cunning and so young is wonderful"). York jockeys with Richard for verbal authority, matching him with puns, needling him, walking a narrow line between naive precocity and outright insolence, and thus it is a happy accident that the little wiseacre's given name, Richard, represents a kind of nominal pun. The Duchess of York, after repeated demands for attention and license to speak, exits pronouncing a "most grievous curse" on her son. Old Queen Margaret, who uses her numerous asides to plead her age and privilege, is famous for her powers of utterance: at the end of 3 Henry VI, when Edward's pity prevents Gloucester from stabbing her, he predicts trouble in the sequel: "Why should she live, to fill the world with words?" (5.5.44). Richard is the most gifted member of a very articulate family.
Two meanings compete for sovereignty in the pun that dominates the first sentence of Richard III ("this sun of York"), and the verbal struggle that represents the political strife in the court of the Plantagenets embodies just such a pattern of rhetorical contention and displacement.5 The flagrantly "poetic" or "rhetorical" sound of this text derives mainly from abundant and insistent figures of repetition—of words, phrases, vowel and consonant sounds, metrical and syntactical configurations, even pauses.6 In addition to creating a densely musical text, these familiar schemes (e.g., anaphora, anadiplosis, and assonance) also reinforce the more sophisticated means of repetition and substitution. These are the homophonic figures, the forms and effects of which are familiar and pleasing, as in Pistol's famous "To England will I steal, and there I'll steal." The names of the major homonymic figures are mostly unfamiliar and confusing, and depending on which ancient and modern commentators you read—Cicero, Quintilian, George Puttenham, Sister Miriam Joseph, or Richard Lanham—the descriptions may be indistinguishable or contradictory.7 The most significant are probably antanaclasis, the repetition of a word in an altered sense; paronomasia, the playing on a word by slightly altering the sound; polyptoton, the repetition of a word in different forms or with different endings; asteismus, the scoffing play on a word; syllepsis, the use of one verb for two subjects, one of which is incongruent with it; and the handbooks list a number of related forms, such as polce, agnominatio, cacemphaton, skesis.8
Richard's "I moralize two meanings in one word" (3.1.83) encompasses these various forms of polysemy, the implications of which have clearly begun to exhilarate and to trouble the dramatist. I wish to concentrate on Shakespeare's adaptation of these homonymic tropes for dialogic use, specifically on his creation of a pattern by which one speaker appropriates and reapplies the word of another, as Richard does to Brakenbury in the opening scene:
Rich. How say you, sir? Can you deny all this?
Brak. With this my lord, myself have nought to do.
Rich. Naught with Mistress Shore? I tell thee, fellow,
He that doth naught with her (excepting one)
Were best to do it secretly, alone.
This is the characteristic rhetorical pattern of Richard III: it occurs not only with individual words but also with longer phrases and syntactical and metrical forms. The dialogue thus recapitulates the action of the historical narrative: one character takes verbal or political authority from another, sometimes brutally, sometimes underhandedly, but usually within the forms of stylistic propriety. And such a model demonstrates Shakespeare's concern for a special form of what Thomas Greene has called the "errancy of the word," particularly its liability to abuse.9
The dispute in act 1, scene 3 between Richard and Lord Rivers over the Queen's complicity in palace intrigue exhibits the shape of the rhetorical contest that the play at large represents.
Rich. You may deny that you were not the mean Of my Lord Hastings' late imprisonment.
Riv. She may, my lord, for—
Rich. She may, Lord Rivers; why, who knows not so? She may do more, sir, than denying that: She may help you to many fair preferments, And then deny her aiding hand therein, And lay those honours on your high desert. What may she not, she may—ay, marry may she—
Riv. What, marry, may she?
Rich. What, marry may she? Marry with a king; A bachelor, and a handsome stripling too: Iwis, your grandam had a worser match.
Richard's virtuoso performance is a function of his aural gifts, his awareness of sonic variation and, above all, of amphibology. To begin with, the extravagant repetition creates a musical effect that first teases the ear with the most fundamental sort of rhyme and then becomes so insistent as to be disorienting: "she may" or its inversion "may she" is heard nine times in nine lines. More than that, his lines are so charged with the effects of anaphora, internal rhyme, consonance, and other sonic amusements that soon it hardly matters what is being contested, for sound has come to overwhelm sense. Characteristically, Richard toys with his opponents, making delightful measures out of their feeble attempts at resistance, and this trouncing exposes the vulnerability of the linguistically innocent: whereas Rivers earnestly looks past the signifier towards the signified, Richard knowingly capers on the slick surface of language.
More striking still is Richard's outright theft of verbal priority. Rivers attempts to engage Richard on his own ground by taking Richard's "may" and using it against him, but the effort backfires when Richard contaminates his meaning, infecting the word with the sinister suggestion that Elizabeth is capable of denying these charges and worse. Then when Rivers twits his antagonist's hesitation on "marry," Richard recovers by converting the meaningless oath into a slur on Elizabeth's union with Edward. He traps his opponent with a textbook example of antanaclasis, the scheme which Puttenham defines in terms of sport. "Ye have another figure which by his nature we may call the Rebound, alluding to the tennis ball which being smitten with the racket reboundes backe againe. . . . this [figure] playeth with one word written all alike but carrying divers senses."10 His definition catches the public, competitive quality of this text's characteristic figure. The moment is disarming, its effect rather like that of the E-flat at the end of Lucia's mad scene, or a stuff in basketball: River surrenders, Elizabeth feebly takes up the quarrel, and the appropriate response is admiration.
The rhetorical structures that enable such perversion of meaning are not peculiar to Richard's speech, however. Lady Anne, in the play's most famous debate, attempts to protect herself with a defensive version of Richard's aggressive rhetorical strategy:
Rich. Vouchsafe, divine perfection of a woman, Of these supposed crimes, to give me leave By circumstance but t'acquit myself.
Anne. Vouchsafe, defus'd infection of a man, Of these known evils, but to give me leave By circumstance t'accuse thy cursed self.
Rich. Fairer than tongue can name thee, let me have Some patient leisure to excuse myself.
Anne. Fouler than heart can think thee, thou canst make No excuse current but to hang thyself.
She seeks to neutralize his attack by appropriating his syntactic and rhythmic patterns and transforming his meanings with antonymous verbal substitutes. Paradoxically, however, her parallel responses imply that she is stimulated by the rhythms of his speech, and surely this verbal affinity prepares for her capitulation at the end of the interview. The erotic force of the scene emerges from the way that each speaker is alert and responsive to the other's argumentative style, as when they shift into trimetrical stichomythia:
Anne. I would I knew thy heart.
Rich. 'Tis figur'd in my tongue.
Both are always attuned to the shifting verbal patterns
But, gentle Lady Anne, To leave this keen encounter of our wits, And fall something into a slower method . . .
and thus the signal of his victory is her stylistic resignation. She lays down her weapons when she replies to his lyrical proposal ("Look how my ring encompasseth thy finger") and request for "one favor" with the simple "What is it?" Her submission concludes a series of verbal substitutions with an instance of personal displacement: Richard, himself a Plantagenet, becomes a substitute for Anne's murdered husband, a Plantagenet: "The self-same name, but one of better nature" (1.2.147).
This trick of rhetorical and historical substitution manifests itself most powerfully in the speech of Margaret of Anjou, Richard's most formidable opponent and, apart from him, the character with the quickest ear. She is a voice from another era, a deposed and aged queen, but the past she recalls is hardly a vanished golden age that shames the vicious present. Her constant theme is robbery, the taking of the lives of her husband and son, and the usurpation of her crown: "This sorrow that I have, by right is yours, / And all the pleasures you usurp are mine" (1.3.172-73). Thus her main argumentative trick is to confiscate and alter her opponents' words. She first appears in the midst of Richard's quarrel with the Woodvilles in 1.3, and each of her first seven speeches is an aside that springs off the words of another:
Eliz. . . . Small joy have I in being England's queen.
Marg. [Aside] And lessen'd be that small, God I beseech Him.
Even after she comes forward, her speeches begin with a direct rejoinder, in identical verbal terms, to the previous speaker: she perverts their patterns of speech as they have perverted her condition. When Buckingham attempts to silence her by appealing to "shame" or "charity," she seizes the nouns and polyptotonically alters their form and sense:
Marg. Urge neither charity nor shame to me: Uncharitably with me have you dealt,
And shamefully my hopes by you are butcher'd. My charity is outrage, life my shame, And in that shame, still live my sorrows' rage.
To Dorset's dismissal, "she is lunatic," Margaret retorts with "you are malapert," giving him back syllable for syllable, dactyl for dactyl. Repeatedly she mimics Richard's alliteration or appropriates and deforms his rhythms. That both Margaret and Richard are aware of the sense of contest becomes clear early, when he reverses the horrible malediction she has reserved for him by replacing his name with hers:
Marg. O, let me make the period to my curse!
Rich. 'Tis done by me, and ends in 'Margaret'.
For the displaced old queen, the crown has become a signifier of which she has lost control, history a kind of hideous pun. This conception is particularly apparent in the structural economy of her curses upon Queen Elizabeth: "Edward thy son, that now is Prince of Wales, / For Edward our son, that was Prince of Wales, / Die in his youth by untimely violence" (1.3.198-200). She exploits this pattern of substitution most effectively in the great contest of lamentation among the three women (4.4), when she demands "the benefit of seigniory" for her grief and describes for Elizabeth the process of displaced power and misery:
Decline all this, and see what now thou art: For happy wife, a most distressed widow; For joyful mother, one that wails the name;
and so on for five more anaphoric lines in a recital that records the fulfillment of her curses on Elizabeth. Yet so fierce is the competition that Margaret repents the success that has made Elizabeth her rival in woe: "Thou didst usurp my place, and dost thou not / Usurp the just proportion of my sorrow?" (109-10).
Elizabeth finally yields, Margaret's wicked gift for words being so compelling, and begs the old woman for instruction in how to curse; during the betrothal debate in the second half of 4.4 she seems to have mastered the forensic tactics of both Margaret and Richard. This exchange, as is frequently noted, repeats the wooing scene with Lady Anne: it is a scenic rhyme that documents Richard's decline by showing difference in identify, a structural pun in which conquest is displaced by impasse. Elizabeth keeps Richard on the defensive by means of diversionary rhetoric, surviving chiefly on a keen awareness of the power of words themselves and by keeping her focus on the materiality of the signifier. She will create slanderous fictions about herself, will refashion the truth, will "say" her daughter is not a princess in order to save her. Taking a page from Richard's book, she exploits the almost limitless flexibility of language, taking particular advantage of the slippery figures that promote rather than reduce misunderstanding.
K. Rich. You speak as if that I had slain my cousins.
Eliz. Cousins indeed! And by their uncle cozen'd Of comfort, kingdom, kindred, freedom, life.
She is especially acute at matching Richard rhythmically, syllable for syllable, and at inverting his diction into an ironic sense:
K.Rich. Say I, her sovereign, am her subject low.
Eliz. But she, your subject, loathes such sovereignty.
It is she who mostly governs the pace of the stichomythia: as a single-line exchange picks up speed she sometimes violates the pattern by charging past the line ending into a longer speech. One of her most audacious tactics is the attempt to stop the interview by rhyming "slaughter" with "daughter" (210-11), as if her lines were the tag announcing the end of a scene.
Elizabeth's rhetorical scoring in this interview exposes Richard's failing verbal skills and seems to promise his impending fall. Twice he admits that his adversary has landed a blow by crying foul. When she sarcastically twists the sense of one of his declarations of love, he stops the match and complains directly: "Be not so hasty to confound my meaning." Likewise, when with bitter irony she lists the ways that Richard might woo the Princess, such as offering a pair of bleeding hearts to symbolize her brothers, Richard again protests the virtuosity of her rhetoric: "You mock me, madam, this is not the way / To win your daughter." The second half of their debate turns almost completely on the problem of expression: she resorts to a rhetoric of incredulity, insisting that mere words cannot capture the horror of Richard's intentions.
What were I best to say? Her father's brother Would be her lord? Or shall I say her uncle? Or he that slew her brothers and her uncles? Under what title shall I woo for thee? . . .
In the concluding debate over what Richard can swear by, Elizabeth deprives him of language by disallowing each of his proposed oaths. Finally she consents to the marriage, or seems to, giving Richard the words he wants to hear, and the critical crux about the sincerity of her apparent submission is pertinent both rhetorically and thematically.11 The political climate is so unstable and the leading actors in it are so duplicitous that so far the play offers no standard of truth, no context for interpreting Elizabeth's agreement and Richard's contemptuous response. In such a milieu words have become almost completely untrustworthy.12
How can we expect any kind of exactitude, linguistic or otherwise, in a world that contains two Richards, two Hastings, two Margarets, two Elizabeths, two Surreys (one human and one equine), four Edwards, and, if the five decoys are included, six Richmonds? The play-world is full of counterfeits and duplicates and substitutes, puns verbal and visual. The Earl of Derby, Lord Stanley, is made to prove his loyalty by leaving his son George Stanley as a hostage, as security lest he (Lord Stanley) defect to Richmond after his brother, Sir William Stanley. Henry Tudor employs decoys on the battlefield for the same reason that Richard exploits the possibilities of phonemic ambiguity. The coronation scene has been called a scatological pun, Richard's doing business on the throne being a visual representation of the "cacodemon" on the privy.13 The text's most famous line is Richard's offer to substitute his kingdom for a horse. Words can kill; puns can be fatal. Owing to "a prophecy which says that G / Of Edward's heirs the murderer shall be," the Duke of Clarence, George, not Gloucester, goes to prison and eventual death: he is made a hostage to the king's misreading of the signifier, done in by an attack of polysemy.
At this stage of his career Shakespeare does not regard language as inevitably unreliable. His contemporary comedies manifest both the creative possibilities and the limitations of the word: stichomythia may bring about understanding, conversion of feeling, and union, especially in amorous dialogue; at the same time, it may generate frustration and circularity, as in the wordplay between masters and servants. In Richard III Shakespeare seems especially concerned with the ways in which all political action is subject to and limited by the ambiguities of a defective linguistic medium. Language is decayed because man is fallen—the Babel effect—and ambiguous rhetorical constructs not only reflect but also sustain this uncertain political realm. Villainy appropriates the imaginative possibilities of the word, but it manages to produce not transformation, only stasis or tedious repetition. Richard's tireless efforts to substitute himself for Edward's heirs and to replace enemies with lackeys results finally in psychological and rhetorical paralysis: "Richard loves Richard, that is, I am I."14 This darkening conception of language would seem to promise an increasingly skeptical assessment of the fictions of history.
In fact Shakespeare's fascination with the uncertainties of language will soon lead him to profound questions about the authority of the historical word. To a limited extent Richard III suggests that he has begun to think critically about historical transmission. The most telling instance involves young Prince Edward's questions (3.1.69-78) about the construction of the Tower: Did Julius Caesar build it? Is there written proof of that? Is not tradition as reliable as historical record? As the Arden editor puts it in his note on this exchange: "this dialogue is part of another historical structure which will live from age to age—the play itself, also founded upon 'record' which was however based largely upon report and rumour."15 Prince Edward's brother is also interested in legend, but of a more immediate kind:
York. Marry, they say my uncle grew so fast That he could gnaw a crust at two hours old: 'Twas full two years ere I could get a tooth. Grandam, this would have been a biting jest!
Duch. I prithee, pretty York, who told thee this?
York. Grandam, his nurse.
Duch. His nurse? Why she was dead ere thou wast born.
York. If 'twere not she, I cannot tell who told me.
Although these lines primarily establish the prince as a junior punster worthy of his verbally gifted uncle, they also suggest that the composition of Richard III made Shakespeare particularly conscious of the problem of historical distortion. He was aware, in other words, that Richard was a creation of Tudor propaganda, and he must have been aware of how his own villain participated in that tradition (in his villainy) and deviated from it (in the amplified comedy). However, concern over the potential distortions of historical writing seems at this point confined to the realm of the Plantagenets.16
No such doubts color Shakespeare's portrait of the Earl of Richmond; apparently traced from the official versions of More, Vergil, and the later Tudor apologists, it seems untouched by skepticism about representations of the past. Thus, it suggests that Shakespeare endorses the orthodox interpretation of English history implicit in the traditional view of the founder of the ruling dynasty.17 Tillyard argued that the Elizabethans would have believed and rejoiced in the words of Richmond; he finds the hero's prayer and final speech "very moving."18 But more recent critics are dubious, and modern audiences do not respond enthusiastically to the deus ex machina. John Dover Wilson captures most critics' assessments in calling him a "stick"19 Robert G. Hunter describes him as "a vacuum in shining armor."20 In one sense the most astute critic is Richard himself, who refers to his enemy as "shallow Richmond." The jab is aimed at Richmond's lack of sophistication, his inexperience with "deep plots," but in another sense Richard is also right: theatrically speaking, Richmond seems dull and superficial.21 Whether or not original audiences cheered him, and whether we like him or not, his flatness disrupts the rhetorical dynamic to which Shakespeare has accustomed the audience.
The poetic instruments with which Shakespeare seeks to establish Richmond's heroism are exactly those that a young dramatist around 1590 might have been expected to employ. The most obvious of these is imagery:
The wretched, bloody, and usurping boar, That spoil'd your summer fields and fruitful vines, Swills your warm blood like wash, and makes his trough
In your embowell'd bosoms—this foul swine Is now even in the centre of this isle, Near to the town of Leicester, as we learn.
This passage from his entrance speech is an abstract of Richmond's style. The completeness and specificity of the boar metaphor make it vivid and memorable; his words establish a verbal profile unlike that of any other figure in the play; he speaks with the energy and command appropriate to a conqueror. And yet (unless the last two lines are flattened by textual corruption) the sentence declines into a geography lesson and rhythmically limps to its end. Throughout the act Richmond alternates between sumptuous imagery and quotidian preparations for the battle, between poet and traffic cop: "The weary sun hath made a golden set, / And by the bright track of his fiery car / Gives token of a goodly day tomorrow" (5.3.19-21) is followed immediately by: "Sir William Brandon, you shall bear my standard. / My lord of Oxford, you Sir William Brandon, / And you Sir Walter Herbert, stay with me" (5.3.22-24).
For all the force of the most forceful passages in Richmond's part, their components are strictly conventional. In addition to the aureate diction, one hears a variety of rhetorical patterns calculated to appeal to the ear. The oration, for instance, is heavily patterned, its center devoted to a string of five if / then clauses with one line for each term: "If you do sweat to put a tyrant down, / You sleep in peace, the tyrant being slain" (5.3.256-57). Shakespeare is summoning the poetic and syntactical effects that ought to make Richmond appealing to an audience, but he is competing unsuccessfully with his own original practice. Laurence Olivier, in directing Richard III, found correspondingly conventional visual means for transposing this portrait onto film—light costume, sparkling eyes, camera shots from below to emphasize height—and yet Richmond's first appearance almost invariably moves audiences to laughter. Conventional poetic devices, even in Shakespeare's hands, seem pallid and unconvincing to ears tuned to the tongue of Gloucester. The truth that evil is more compelling than goodness is as apt linguistically as it is theatrically. The founder of the Tudor line does the right things, in that he slays the Boar, and he can give a passable speech, but there is no flair. In his way he is something of a bore himself: it may be no accident that there are five dummies on the battlefield pretending to be Richmond.
Richmond's rhetorical weakness is accompanied by Richard's linguistic decline. The competitive skills we have come to value are barely in evidence for, thanks to the supremacy that he has sought and finally achieved, Richard has no one to talk to. Invention and wit, if diminished since the beginning, have not disappeared altogether, and the racism of the oration to his soldiers cannot cancel the power of some of his diction ("Lash hence these overweening rags of France"). But as monologue replaces dialogue, the polyptotonic bravura that has made Richard what he is can find no outlet, and the master is reduced to debating with himself, as when he awakens from the dream: "Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am! / Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why, / Lest I revenge? What, myself upon myself?" (5.3.185-87). This rhythmic choppiness, one of Shakespeare's most highly efficient tools for signalling Richard's failing powers, is a function of the autotelic nature of his language in the last act. And the ironic self-consciousness that peeps through this passage suggests that Richard is aware of his need for an adversary. At one point he leaves the stage to spy on his own soldiers, meaning to "play the eavesdropper, / To see if any mean to shrink from me" (5.3.221-23). In other words, he will be listening under tents, alert to any chance to use an opponent's words against him.
Richard has no linguistic sparring partner because Shakespeare has expanded the dialogic pattern to enormous proportions, making the end of the play a kind of structural dialogue in which the verbal contest is projected onto the battlefield. The dialectical construction of the last act sustains the formal patterning, the rhyming, on which the whole depends: Richard and Richmond alternate in entering, preparing for battle, receiving the ghosts' dicta, and delivering orations. This polarity functions as it does in the Tudor morality drama (one of its principal sources), to underscore the distinctions between good and evil and to guide spectatorial response. Shakespeare alters his sources by placing Richard's oration after Richmond's, thus putting evil after good, exposing Richard's meanness of spirit, and softening the mechanics of the organization. We might also say that this pattern is dialogic, that the last act is an extended debate between two speakers, or an exercise in dramatic stichomythia. It may also be seen as an ambiguous rhetorical figure in which two meanings compete for dominance. The ghosts themselves participate in this dialogic ambiguity: they are floating signifiers, meaning one thing to Richard, another to Richmond. In taking the crown from Richard, Richmond is the capping term in a political polyptoton which changes the meaning of history. Just as the positive sense of a word may replace a negative, good succeeds evil, and a virtuous king supplants a vile. But the rhetorical structure to which we have become accustomed, in which a stronger speaker seizes power from a weaker, renders Richmond's triumph unconvincing.
The final contest is not only the contention of good and evil, but also the battle between content and style, and the audience faces an unsatisfactory choice. In the first act, when Richard warns the assassins against Clarence's eloquence, one of the thugs reassures him that they will not be distracted by incidentals: "Tut, tut, my lord: we will not stand to prate. / Talkers are no good doers; be assur'd / We go to use our hands, and not our tongues" (1.3.350-52). Thus Shakespeare addresses directly the problematic relation between speech and action in the world of politics; at the same time, however, he confesses the disjunction between his doubts about language and his positivism about Tudor politics. The best talker in the play is Richard, and he is a good doer. He is not, however, a good doer. The Earl of Richmond is a good doer, in that his forces prevail, and he is a good doer, or a do-gooder, in that he cleanses the kingdom, but he is not much of a talker. Politically, Richard's death is a blessing; dramatically, the blessing is Richard's life. The Duke of Buckingham, as he goes to his death, enunciates Elizabethan orthodoxy on the matter of Providential justice: "That high All-seer which I dallied with / Hath turn'd my feigned prayer on my head, / And given in earnest what I begg'd in jest" (5.1.20-22). What should strike us about this pattern is the rhetorical imagery in which it is dressed: God becomes the Master Rhetorician, besting the mocker with his own words, performing in human history the very acts of verbal conquest that have brought Richard temporarily to the throne. But the divine surrogate, the Earl of Richmond, is lackluster. His victory implies the triumph of virtue over virtuosity, but the ending remains theatrically problematic because we must relinquish brilliant words for proper politics. In this play, at least, Shakespeare is more interested in language than he is in history.
In the theater, itself an elaborate trope, a homonym for the world it mimics, talkers are always good doers, for there is no reality but talk, and Richard continues to speak to modern audiences. The 1597 Quarto advertises The Tragedy of Richard III, and Meres so lists it. Nowadays it is rarely considered in these terms, and yet Shakespeare's adumbration of the perils of language constitutes a vital link between this early text and his mature tragic vision: Hamlet is frustrated by the imprecision of words; Iago thrives on the shiftiness of language; Lear demands a true correspondence between words and meanings. In the great tragedies the perfidy of language is unavoidable; in Richard III it is still incipient. But our sense of loss at Richard's fall is an early version of the tragic force associated with Macbeth's fatal paltering with words and meanings. In medieval terms Richard's story is clearly tragic, but even the more sophisticated sense applies: Richard's perversion of his talent for language makes him a rough and early version of a tragic figure. Despite his monstrosity, we feel a paradoxical disappointment at his failing powers late in the play, and a genuine sense of loss at his end. We have come to the theater for the pleasures of illusion and trickery, and Richard is the master of verbal legerdemain. But now the performance is over, the magician is dead, and the next act is a dud: Shakespeare didn't bother with The History of Henry VII.
The very best talker, of course, is Shakespeare himself. Richard III itself may be described as a trope by which Shakespeare trumped his theatrical competitors—Lyly, Greene, Marlowe, Kyd—trumped them with their own words. In appropriating and transforming the Tudor conventions of characterization, structure, idea, and especially dialogue, Shakespeare seized artistic power and altered the history of the theater.
1 Thomas M. Greene, The Light in Troy: Imitation and Discovery in Renaissance Poetry (Yale U. Press, 1982), has documented the importance of the skeptical tradition in Western literature, showing that writers and thinkers from Dante to Derrida have been vitally concerned with "the historical frailty of the word and its slippages of signification" (p. 11). This essay is an attempt to situate Shakespeare in that tradition, specifically to locate the beginnings of his concern with verbal mutability.
Quotations (all but one, noted below) come from the Arden Richard III, ed. Anthony Hammond (London: Methuen, 1981).
2 Too many critics who have written on the rhetorical texture of Richard III, and of Shakespeare's early plays in general, seem determined to domesticate or to apologize for the baldness of the verbal patterns. By the time he wrote Richard III Shakespeare as playwright and as poet was already moving from the artificial to the mimetic, from the stiff to the loose, from the emphatically formal to the apparently natural; he was capable of writing far more flexibly than he did here. The play demands that we relish this extremity, not skim over it.
The most helpful treatment of the function of rhetoric in this text is A. P. Rossiter's "Angel with Horns: The Unity of Richard III," in Angel with Horns and Other Shakespeare Lectures, ed. Graham Storey (London: Longmans, Green, 1961; and New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1961), pp. 1-22.
For other balanced treatments, see David Riggs, Shakespeare's Heroical Histories (Harvard U. Press, 1971); Robert Y. Turner, Shakespeare's Apprenticeship (U. of Chicago Press, 1974), esp. pp. 75-82, 101-03; G. R. Hibbard, The Making of Shakespeare's Dramatic Poetry (U. of Toronto Press, 1981), particularly Chapter 4, "Formalization in the Early History Plays," pp. 54-74; and Wolfgang Clemen, A Commentary onShakespeare's "Richard III," English version by Jean Bonheim (London: Methuen, 1968).
Robert Ornstein's chapter on Richard III in A Kingdom for a Stage (Harvard U. Press, 1972), pp. 62-82, offers a very intelligent reading of the play as a whole. Also pertinent is Thomas Van Laan's witty discussion of Richard's histrionic abilities in Role-Playing in Shakespeare (U. of Toronto Press, 1978), pp. 137-47.
3 Proponents of the new historicism who urge us to "foreground" the political ramifications of all language, to admit that every act of speech is charged with political significance, might do much with Richard III. But in my view this text is more profitably studied from the reverse angle: in other words, we should give primary attention, as the play does, to the verbal conditions of politics and the properties that make language vulnerable to private and political manipulation. A brief but telling critique of the new historical criticism is found in the "Preface" to James L. Calderwood's If It Were Done: "Macbeth" and Tragic Action (U. of Massachusetts Press, 1986), pp. ix-xvii.
4 Among the numerous discussions of Richard's interaction with the audience, I would mention Ralph Berry's recent "Richard III: Bonding the Audience," in his Shakespeare and the Awareness of the Audience (London: Macmillan, 1985), pp. 16-29. Berry is unusually sensitive to many of the tactics with which Richard seduces the audience, although he deprecates the wordplay as "usually of a rather obvious and mechanical type" (p. 19).
5 My thinking about wordplay has been stimulated by the work of Stephen Booth, "Exit, Pursued by a Gentleman Born," Shakespeare's Art from a Comparative Perspective, ed. Wendell M. Aycock, Proceedings of the Comparative Literature Symposium, Texas Tech U., 12 (1981): 51-66; Booth's An Essay on Shakespeare's Sonnets (Yale U. Press, 1969); and James L. Calderwood, To Be and Not to Be: Negation and Metadrama in "Hamlet" (Columbia U. Press, 1983). Marjorie Garber develops the promising idea that the double meanings by which Richard thrives are "replaced by a debilitating ambiguousness in his sense of self: Coming of Age in Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1981), pp. 104-5.
Still very valuable is M. M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay (London: Methuen, 1957). A book I find disappointing, although it is full of amusing examples, is Walter Redfern's Puns (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1984).
6 Scholars have identified three principal sources for such verbal patterning. Bernard Spivack emphasizes Richard's descent from the Vice, the popular antagonist of the Tudor morality play, who specializes in such amusing and deadly paltering with words: Shakespeare and the Allegory of Evil (Columbia U. Press, 1958), pp. 386-407; on Shakespeare's relation to this tradition see also Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater, ed. Robert Schwartz (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1978), esp. pp. 133-51, and Weimann's "Shakespeare's Wordplay: Popular Origins and Theatrical Functions," in Shakespeare 1971, ed. Clifford Leech and J. M. R. Margeson (U. of Toronto Press, 1972), pp. 230-43. Harold Brooks argues that Shakespeare was more thoroughly acquainted with Seneca than is generally admitted; he focuses especially on the formal structure of the lamentations of Senecan tragedy: "Richard III: Unhistorical Amplifications: The Women's Scenes and Seneca," MLR 75 (1980): 721-37, as well as "Richard III: Antecedents of Clarence's Dream," Shakespeare Survey 32 (1979): 145-50. On this point, also see Geoffrey Bullough's treatment in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 3. Earlier English History Plays: "Henry VI," "Richard III," "Richard II" (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul; Columbia U. Press, 1960), pp. 233-36. Bullough considers Shakespeare's possible assimilation of Senecan techniques through the medium of Thomas Legge's Latin tragedy Richardus Tertius (ca. 1579); suggests that he may have known translations of Seneca by Jasper Heywood and Thomas Newton; and points out that Shakespeare may have read the originals. The third influence on the shape of the dialogue, one which has been given too little weight thus far, is the amorous stichomythia of contemporary Elizabethan comedy, especially the plays of Lyly: for limited acknowledgment of the influence, see Clemen, Commentary, pp. 39-42.
7 Such disagreement applies not only to definitions of devices, but also to the distinctions among categories, such as figures of thought, figures of speech, figures of ornament, tropes, figures, schemes, etc. Among the major primary texts and commentaries are: Cicero, De Oratore, trans. E. W. Sutton and H. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library, 2 vols. (Harvard U. Press, 1942); the pseudo-Ciceronian Ad Herennium, trans. Harry Caplan, Loeb Classical Library (Harvard U. Press, 1954), esp. Book 4; Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria trans. H. E. Butler, Loeb Classical Library, 4 vols. (Harvard U. Press, 1920-22), especially Book 9; Thomas Wilson, Arte of Rhetorique, ed. Thomas J. Derrick (New York: Garland Publishing, 1982); Henry Peacham, The Garden of Eloquence (rpt. Menston, Yorks: The Scolar Press, 1971); George Puttenham, The Arte of English Poesie, ed. Gladys Doidge Willcock and Alice Walker (Cambridge U. Press, 1936); Sister Miriam Joseph, Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language (Columbia U. Press, 1947); Richard Lanham, A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms (U. of California Press, 1968). Also relevant are Lanham's Motivesof Eloquence: Literary Rhetoric in the Renaissance (Yale U. Press, 1976), and Marion Trousdale, Shakespeare and the Rhetoricians (U. of North Carolina Press, 1982).
8 For the sake of consistency I have followed the definitions in Lanham's Handlist.
9The Light in Troy, p. 11.
10The Arte of English Poesie, p. 207.
11 Anne (Righter) Barton has argued that Elizabeth accepts Richard's suit: Shakespeare and the Idea of the Play (London: Chatto and Windus, 1962; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967), p. 89. Robert Ornstein, on the other hand, has insisted that "the joke is on Richard" and that "the outcome of the scene has to be unambiguous": A Kingdom for a Stage, p. 78. Hammond in his notes to 4.4 summarizes the dispute as follows: "Commentators have laboured to settle the impossible, whether Elizabeth's acceptance was real or feigned. More (and the other sources) thought it real, and were very hostile to Elizabeth; by the time of Cibber, it seemed patent that she was deceiving Richard, and this was made clear in his text. Shakespeare offers no unambiguous clues: it is a point that the reader, and the director, must settle for himself, though we may guess that Shakespeare would have instructed his own actors how to play" (p. 296).
12 But not quite. It seems to me that, exhilarated by Derridean, Foucauldian, and other post-structuralist theories of language, some recent critics exaggerate the play of signification in Shakespearean texts and overstate his suspicions about verbal representation (to the point that they resemble the writer's own). For example, I believe that Christopher Norris is guilty of such hyperbole when he writes approvingly of "the lawlessness of Shakespeare's equivocating style": "Post-structuralist Shakespeare: Text and Ideology," in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London: Methuen, 1986), pp. 47-66. See also Malcom Evans, Signifying Nothing (London: The Harvester Press, 1986); Evans's "Deconstructing Shakespeare's Comedies" in Alternative Shakespeares, pp. 67-94; Howard Felperin, "Tongue-tied our queen?": The Deconstruction of Presence in The Winter's Tale," Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 3-18; and Terry Eagleton, William Shakespeare (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986).
An early but valuable response to the deconstructive program is Richard Fly's "Shakespeare's Poetics: Deconstruction and Reconstruction," Essays in Literature 9 (1982): 3-14; also see Anne Barton's "Shakespeare and the Limits of Language," Shakespeare Survey 24 (1971): 19-30.
13 See Peggy Endel, "Profane Icon: The Throne Scene of Shakespeare's Richard III," Comparative Drama 20 (1986): 115-23.
14 Here, following the lead of almost every except Hammond, I have preferred the reading of Q2-6 and F. The choice obviously serves my interpretive point, but even the Q1-Arden reading ("I and I") demonstrates the circularity I mention.
15 Notes to 3.1.69-93, p. 214. For further commentary on Shakespeare's interest in the relationship between legend and historiography, see Riggs, Shakespeare's Heroical Histories, pp. 148-51, and E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1944; rpt., 1974), p. 203.
16 For a stimulating discussion of how Shakespeare will come to think about the poet's relation to history and to historical texts, see David Quint, "'Alexander the Pig': Shakespeare on History and Poetry," Boundary 2 10 (1982): 49-67.
17 Various ways of reading this act of reproduction are available to a modern audience. It may be that Shakespeare, having expended all his energy upon the creation of Richard, did not enter imaginatively into the character of Richmond. Perhaps the patriotism of an English audience in the early 1590s ensured favor for the Tudor hero and relieved Shakespeare of the need for thorough characterization. Perhaps the young dramatist was ambitious and savvy and therefore unwilling to risk creativity or critical thinking on a politically sensitive subject. Perhaps Shakespeare believed the traditional portrayal of Richmond and the teleology associated with it.
18Shakespeare's History Plays, p. 208.
19 John Dover Wilson, Introduction to his New Cambridge edition (1954), p. xliv.
20 Robert G. Hunter, Shakespeare and the Mystery of God's Judgments (U. of Georgia Press, 1976), p. 73.
21 I am not persuaded by the recent defense of Richmond by R. Chris Hassel, Jr., who uses the Tudor sources in an effort to show that Shakespeare wanted to make Richmond as appealing as possible to his original audiences: ". . . Shakespeare diminishes the attractiveness of Hall's Richard and enhances that of his Richmond, particularly to suit the aesthetics of the stage." "Richard Versus Richmond: Aesthetic Warfare in Richard III" Deutsche Shakespeare Gesellschaft West Jahrbuch (1985), pp. 106-16. Shakespeare may have intended such a strategy, but the importance of language in the play—not to mention the test of performance—suggests that it was too little too late.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6262
Shirley Nelson Garner (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "Male Bonding and the Myth of Women's Deception in Shakespeare's Plays," in Shakespeare's Personality, edited by Norman N. Holland, Sidney Homan and Bernard J. Paris, University of California Press, 1989, pp. 135-50.
[In the following essay, originally presented in 1985, Garner examines the pattern of male suspicion of female infidelity in Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale, arguing that the fear of being deceived manifests itself in the physical or verbal abuse of women, followed by the reassertion of male bonds.]
The problem of trust recurs in Shakespeare's works, from his earliest to his latest. Nowhere does he present it more prominently or explicitly than in his plays that deal with the actual or supposed infidelity of women: Much Ado About Nothing, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale. In only one of these plays, Troilus and Cressida, is the woman unfaithful. In the others she is innocent—appallingly virtuous, in fact. Nevertheless, her husband or lover, believing her guilty, may revile her, abuse her physically or psychologically, plot her death, or even murder her. Like a recurrent dream, this repeated drama follows certain patterns, which, I believe, define and satisfy male psychic needs—Shakespeare's, his male characters', or those of both.
The pattern in the four plays has a number of similar features. First, the husband's or fiancé's suspicion and jealousy are aroused very quickly by the merest suggestion, the slightest evidence, or—in the case of Leontes—no suggestion or evidence at all. Second, believing his beloved is unfaithful, the husband or fiancé expresses his pain only through anger. Third, he immediately envisions himself as a member of a community of cuckolds; he schemes to entrap his beloved, to take vengeance on her, or to do both. Fourth, he does not confront her directly until he is convinced of her infidelity; instead, he rages at her, and plots against or humiliates her. Fifth, the wife or betrothed is unquestionably innocent of infidelity; in fact, she is extraordinarily virtuous. Ironically, it is the man who begins to deceive in one form or another—to lie, plot, or spy. Sixth, the woman must die: Othello murders Desdemona; Hero and Hermione faint and are supposed dead; Posthumus believes Pisanio has murdered Imogen at his request. Seventh, after the innocent woman is mortally wounded or is thought dead, the man repents his mistake and professes his love for her; in short, he kills her, then loves her afterward. Eighth, the woman forgives him.
Some critics have found unconvincing the husband's or fiancé's sudden and extreme jealousy and his propensity to suspect or to believe slander of a woman he and others have known to be uncommonly virtuous. Others have accounted for these traits by arguing that to love completely means to become vulnerable to doubt, by acknowledging the male character's particular susceptibilities, or by contending that dramatic action must be telescoped since a play unfolds in a brief period of time. Shakespeare, however, portrayed all four men as rushing to suspect their beloveds. I think we should take their sudden and irrational suspicion and jealousy as an indication of character. It suggests that at some level of their being, all four figures need the women who love them to betray them.
As Shakespeare repeats this drama, he makes this need clearer and starker. In Much Ado About Nothing and Othello villains awaken Claudio's and Othello's inclination to distrust. Much Ado provides evidence for Claudio's suspicion; it is the one play of the four in which the infidelity is "witnessed." Others besides Claudio are persuaded of Hero's guilt. Don Pedro sees and believes, and Leonato, Hero's father, believes because men he honors testify against his daughter:
Would the two princes lie, and Claudio lie, Who lov'd her so, that speaking of her foulness, Wash'd it with tears?
In Othello Iago is always there to pique Othello's jealousy and suspicion when it begins to weaken, and he knows how to play on all of Othello's vulnerabilities. The handkerchief is flimsier proof than that presented to Claudio in Much Ado; nevertheless, to anyone inclined to doubt, it might serve. Since Desdemona lies in saying that she has not lost it, she strengthens the grounds for Othello's suspicion.
Though there is a villain in Cymbeline to provoke Posthumus, his boast of Imogen's virtue when he speaks of her to Jachimo seems deliberately framed to invite challenge. (We also learn that Posthumus has previously bragged about Imogen's virtue to other men as he competed with them in a boasting match, the ultimate aim of which seems to be to solidify men's bonds with each other [1.4.54-61].) He will not hear Philario's attempts to discourage the wager and even gives Jachimo a letter of introduction to Imogen. Failing to consider that a man with half of his estate to lose might be more likely to lie than to tell the truth, Posthumus immediately credits Jachimo's evidence despite Philario's cautions that it may not be credible.
By the time Shakespeare wrote The Winter's Tale, he apparently wished to portray Leontes's need to be betrayed even more nakedly than Posthumus's. The play has no villain; Leontes's suspicions arise purely out of his own dark imaginings. There is no staged act of infidelity as in Much Ado; no sign like the handkerchief in Othello, None share Leontes's vision. Camillo asserts himself strongly against it:
'Shrew my heart, You never spoke what did become you less Than this; which to reiterate were sin As deep as that, though true.
Hermione argues eloquently on her own behalf, and even the Delphic Oracle exonerates the queen.
The determination of Shakespeare's male characters to believe that women betray them further affirms their need for betrayal. When a moment comes that the men might realize that the contrary is true and the women they suspect are faithful, they insist on their falseness. After Othello at last tells Desdemona that he suspects her of committing adultery, she assures her husband that she "never lov'd Cassio/But with such general warranty of heaven" as she might love and that she did not give him the handkerchief (5.2.59-61). Responding to Othello's angry insistence that he saw his handkerchief in Cassio's hand, Desdemona asks him to call Cassio, who she knows will deny Othello's charge. At that point Othello lies: "He hath confess'd. . . . / That he hath us'd thee" (5.2.68-70).
As determined to believe in his own betrayal as Othello, Posthumus threatens Jachimo:
If you will swear you have not done't, you lie, And I will kill thee if thou dost deny Thou'st made me cuckold.
When Leontes hears that the Delphic Oracle, whose opinion he himself has sought, finds Hermione innocent, he coldly proclaims:
There is no truth at all i' th' oracle. The sessions shall proceed; this is mere falsehood.
(The Winter's Tale, 3.2.140-41)
All of these male characters find it more threatening to accept the possibility of the faithfulness of their beloveds than the possibility of their unfaithfulness.
The male characters' certainty of betrayal allows them to unleash their pent-up misogyny and fear of women as they plot vengeance, revile their beloveds and women in general, and persecute and even murder or attempt to murder the innocent women who love them. Their distrust also allows them to break their bonds with those women and return either imaginatively or actually to an exclusively male community.
From the beginning Shakespeare makes the male characters' responses to their beloveds' supposed unfaithfulness extremely cruel. In Much Ado even before Claudio has seen anything to make him distrust Hero, he plans her humiliation: "If I see any thing to-night why I should not marry her, to-morrow in the congregation, where I should wed, there will I shame her" (3.2.123-25). Beatrice defines the meanness of Claudio's actions: "What, bear her in hand until they come to take hands, and then with public accusation, uncover'd slander, unmitigated rancor—"; she is too outraged to complete the sentence and can only imagine a fantastic punishment sufficient to repay his treachery: "O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the marketplace" (4.1.303-7).
Almost as soon as Othello suspects Desdemona of infidelity, he begins to imagine murdering her:
If there be cords, or knives, Poison, or fire, or suffocating streams, I'll not endure it.
He later imagines chopping her "into messes" (4.1.200). He humiliates her and abuses her physically and psychologically as he strikes her in public (4.1.240) and plays out the brothel scene (4.2.24-94) to confirm the fantasy he has come to believe. His murder of her is actually quieter than we have been led to expect.
Convinced of Imogen's supposed infidelity, Posthumus delivers his well-known diatribe against women:
Could I find out The woman's part in me—for there's no motion That tends to vice in man, but I affirm It is the woman's part: be it lying, note it, The woman's; flattering, hers; deceiving, hers; Lust and rank thoughts, hers, hers; revenges, hers; Ambitions, covetings, change of prides, disdain, Nice longing, slanders, mutability, All faults that name, nay, that hell knows, Why, hers, in part or all; but rather, all.
He then begins to plot Imogen's murder.
Suspecting Hermione, Leontes begins to denigrate women in general:
There have been (Or I am much deceiv'd) cuckolds ere now, And many a man there is (even at this present, Now, while I speak this) holds his wife by th' arm, That little thinks she has been sluic'd in's absence, And his pond fish'd by his next neighbor—by Sir Smile, his neighbor.
(The Winter's Tale, 1.2.190-96)
He accuses her of adultery suddenly and publicly when his accusations might most surprise and humiliate her. He takes her son from her, forces her to bear her child in prison, and sends her newborn daughter out to die. Finally, he forces her to stand trial in public before she has recovered from childbirth.
Their bonds with women must be frail indeed if all of these men distrust women so quickly, seem so determined to believe that they have been betrayed, and react with such extreme harshness. It is no accident that for most of them (all but Leontes) the moment of doubt occurs just before or just after their marriages. The woman's supposed fallenness allows them to reject her because there is something wrong with her. If they see her as good, they may have to consider that they simply do not love her or that they are afraid to love her. Madelon Sprengnether has observed that in Shakespeare's tragedies "the structures of male dominance . . . conceal deeper structures of fear, in which women are perceived as powerful and the heterosexual relation is seen as either mutually violent or at least deeply threatening to the man." She argues that throughout Shakespeare's plays "a woman's power . . . is less social or political . . . than emotional, expressed in her capacity to give or to withhold love" (Gohlke 1980b, 172-74).
Claudio, Othello, Cymbeline, and Leontes all have strong bonds with men before their marriages—or in Claudio's case, proposed marriage—and their beloveds' supposed infidelities allow them to reassert those bonds. The first we hear of Claudio is that Don Pedro has honored him for his brave deeds in battle (Much Ado About Nothing, 1.1.9-17) and that he is most often in the company of Benedick, an avowed woman-hater. As Benedick says, Claudio's music has always been "the drum and fife"; yet now it quite uncharacteristically becomes "the tabor and the pipe" (2.3.12-15). He allows Don Pedro to woo Hero for him and even proposes accompanying Don Pedro to Aragon immediately after his marriage (3.2.1-4). Hero's supposed betrayal would make it unnecessary for him to disrupt his bonds with men in the slightest way. In fact, her "betrayal" draws him closer to them as they conspire to catch Hero in the act of betrayal and to punish her for it. In her essay on Much Ado and the distrust of women, Janice Hays has suggested that "Claudio's allegiance is still invested in the sphere of male bonding and male achievement, perhaps as a defense against the anxieties occasioned by heterosexuality" (Hays 1980, 85).
In Othello's world men are even more exclusively and intensely bonded together as warriors. Desdemona is evidently the first woman Othello has ever considered marrying, for he tells Iago:
But that I love the gentle Desdemona, I would not my unhoused free condition Put into circumscription and confine For the sea's worth.
Almost as soon as he is married, he begins to suspect Desdemona and is cast into an intense relationship with Iago, a relationship that seems as passionate as, and more solemn than, the one he has with Desdemona (3.3.453-80).
Posthumus's public exploitation of Imogen's chastity, as I have already said, invites challenge. It reminds me of Hector's challenge to the Greeks in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, which is spoken in terms of Hector's promise to "make it good" that he has "a lady, wiser, fairer, truer, / Than ever Greek did couple in his arms" (1.3.274-76). Just as a woman's body is metaphorically the ground over which the Greeks and Trojans fight, it becomes the means through which Posthumus and Jachimo compete with and relate to each other.
Though Leontes's suspicion of Hermione is not aroused shortly before or after their marriage, it does awaken as Hermione appears to threaten the bond between him and Polixenes. When Hermione announces that she has persuaded Polixenes to remain in Sicilia, Leontes comments, "At my request he would not" (The Winter's Tale, 1.2.87). His jealousy is immediately aroused by Hermione's success in persuading Polixenes when he could not. Though he plots Polixenes's death and does not ally himself with other men in his punishment of Hermione, as Claudio and Othello do in their persecution of Hero and Desdemona, he immediately imagines himself horned (1.2.119, 146) and in his cuckoldry a sharer of the fate of a large community of men. He voices what Coppélia Kahn has described as one of the most prominent motifs of cuckoldry, "the brotherhood of all married men as potential if not actual cuckolds" (1981, 124), when he laments:
Should all despair That have revolted wives, the tenth of mankind Would hang themselves.
Many thousand on's Have the disease, and feel't not.
Speaking these things to Mamillius, he seems to be making an effort to bond himself with the boy, as he gives his criticism of women the sound of worldly wisdom that the father traditionally passes down to the son.
Though there are marriages between women and men in all four plays, these marriages take place, on the one hand, offstage or before the present action or are, on the other, abbreviated ceremonies without celebration. The most vividly realized "marriages" are between men. In Much Ado the climactic moment is the broken nuptial, in which Claudio, Don Pedro, Don John, and even Leonato join to shame Hero. The wedding in the last act is low-key by comparison. Although the marriage of Othello and Desdemona is not dramatized, Othello's story of their courtship is powerfully rendered. The dramatized marriage between Othello and Iago in act 3 eclipses that earlier story as the two kneel and make sacred vows; it concludes with Othello's proclaiming Iago his lieutenant and Iago's promising Othello, "I am your own forever" (3.3.460-80).
Posthumus and Imogen are together only briefly, at the beginning and the end of Cymbeline. We hear nothing of their courtship or marriage, only that they are married. Their relationship is undermined because Imogen mistakes the beheaded Cloten in Posthumus's clothes for Posthumus and because Posthumus, failing to recognize Imogen in disguise, prefaces their reconciliation by striking her. The interchanges between Posthumus and Jachimo are far more charged than any moment between Imogen and Posthumus.
From the beginning of The Winter's Tale Shakespeare emphasizes the bond between Polixenes and Leontes. Camillo tells Archidamus that affection so "rooted" between the two kings in childhood could not "choose but branch." Their exchanges while apart had been so lavish that they had "embrac'd as it were from the ends of oppos'd winds" (1.1.21-31). Polixenes tells Hermione:
We were as twinn'd lambs that did frisk i' th' sun, And bleat the one at th' other.
In the same scene, Leontes remembers his courtship of Hermione less happily:
Three crabbed months had sour'd themselves to death, Ere I could make thee open thy white hand, [And] clap thyself my love; then didst thou utter, "I am yours for ever."
Although the reuniting of Hermione and Leontes at the end of the play surpasses everything else in wonder and Hermione embraces Leontes, she does not speak to him but addresses her daughter instead:
Tell me, mine own, Where hast thou been preserv'd? where liv'd? how found Thy father's court? for thou shalt hear that I, Knowing by Paulina that the oracle Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserv'd Myself to see the issue.
Hermione's daughter, not her husband, gave her cause to survive (McNaron, unpublished paper).
As Claudio, Othello, Posthumus, and Leontes affirm their bonds with men and break their bonds with women who love them, they all engage in voyeuristic and degraded fantasies in which they imagine their beloveds in bestial sexual acts. These fantasies—usually shared with other men—are as much a feature of the male characters' bonding with each other as of their breaking bonds with women. Claudio and his comrades see Borachio leaving Hero's house at midnight while Margaret, appearing to be Hero, bids him "a thousand times good night" (Much Ado About Nothing, 3.3.147-48). Claudio's debased fantasies elaborate on that scene as he publicly accuses Hero:
You are more intemperate in your blood Than Venus, or those pamp'red animals That rage in savage sensuality.
Don Pedro depicts her as "a common stale" (4.1.65). In Othello it is Iago who supplies the images of Desdemona "topp'd" (3.3.396) and of her and Cassio
as prime as goats, as hot as monkeys, As salt as wolves in pride, and fools as gross As ignorance made drunk.
Othello is so obsessed with these images that he cannot get goats and monkeys off his mind (4.1.263), and Desdemona becomes to him the "cunning whore of Venice" (4.2.89). After Jachimo draws for Posthumus his erotic fantasy of kissing the mole on Imogen's breast, Posthumus, in soliloquy, imagines a degraded sexual encounter between Jachimo and Imogen:
This yellow Jachimo, in an hour—was't not?— Or less?—at first? Perchance he spoke not, but Like a full-acorn'd boar, a German [one], Cried "O!" and mounted; found no opposition But what he look'd for should oppose and she Should from encounter guard.
In The Winter's Tale Leontes transforms the courtesies between Polixenes and Hermione into "paddling palms and pinching Fingers" (1.2.115), tells Camillo his wife is "a [hobby]-horse" (1.2.276), and imagines to Mamillius the experience of cuckolds, telling him that there is "no barricado for a belly": "It will let in and out the enemy, / With bag and baggage" (1.2.204-6). On the surface all of these fantasies express disgust with women, which is provoked by fear and hate; beneath it they may manifest suppressed homosexual feelings of the men who experience and share the fantasies.
All of these plays move toward a heterosexual solution, however. In exploring the possibilities of women's and men's loving each other, Shakespeare suggests that a man's idealization of his beloved dooms their relationship to failure. The woman who must be, or is, killed is the woman on a pedestal. In The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare's final treatment of this theme, Hermione's return as a statue that comes to life symbolizes that meaning. Paulina's direction to Hermione to "descend; be stone no more" (5.3.99) mainly describes not her action but rather a movement in Leontes, a change in the male psyche. The new and hopeful marriages or reconciliations of Claudio, Posthumus, and Leontes are made possible only after each of them has had to face the possibility of his beloved's infidelity, in other words, to accept her as a human woman, who may, like everyone else, fall.
Othello never loses the need to idealize Desdemona. In killing her, he wants to be assured that there is "no more moving" (5.2.93); and after she is dead and he is grieving, he views her as a pearl—an image of the Virgin Mary, beautiful, perfect, and pure. Calling up this image, Othello echoes Cassio, whose greeting of Desdemona when she arrives on Cyprus suggests a "prayer to the Virgin" (Harbage 1970, 351). For Othello, Desdemona is either virgin or whore; Cassio too "idealizes women of his own social class and spends his time with prostitutes" (Garner 1976, 243). In both Othello and Cassio, then, Shakespeare portrays a common male psychic split (Freud 1953, 12:182-84), and a central element in Othello's tragedy is his failure to heal that split.
As Shakespeare repeats these dramas involving the myth of women's deception, he gives his male characters more self-awareness and suggests that if they are to give up their deeply ingrained misogyny to love the women to whom they are engaged or married, their change will have to be drastic. Claudio and Othello, though repentant, give no evidence of having learned anything about themselves from their mistakes: they learn merely that they believed absurd lies about the women who loved them. Posthumus, on the other hand, gains a new perspective. He finally sees the roles of women and men in marriage in more just proportion than he did earlier. Most remarkably, he forgives his wife before he learns that she is innocent:
You married ones, If each of you should take this course, how many Must murther wives much better than themselves For wrying but a little!
Although he does not understand his culpability fully, seeing only his responsibility in Imogen's "murder," his forgiveness of her "adultery" is extraordinary. Further, he breaks his bond with Jachimo. He forgives him, but seems to make it clear that they will have no more dealings with each other. When Jachimo asks him to take his life, Posthumus replies:
Kneel not to me. The pow'r that I have on you is to spare you; The malice towards you, to forgive you. Live, And deal with others better.
Though Leontes does not articulate the wrong he did Hermione so clearly as Posthumus articulates the wrong he did Imogen, he presumably comes to see himself as Paulina sees him. She becomes the voice of his consciousness and his conscience. To win Hermione back and to learn to love her, Leontes must spend sixteen years in mourning, this period suggesting that he must grow up again. We may also assume that time blunts his sexual fears since Hermione returns only when she is past childbearing age.
Although the marriage in Much Ado and reconciliations in the later plays may seem hopeful, they remain tenuous because so much of the male characters' burden has been to express and act out fear and hate of women and to affirm the strength of male bonding, which is based partially on that fear and hate. Further, the outcomes depend on the women's forgiveness. While I do not expect formal realism from these plays, I do expect psychological credibility. The kind of forgiveness that Shakespeare requires on the woman's part is possible only for a woman who is a saint or martyr or who has a perilously divided self.
Examining the women characters in these plays, I find that Shakespeare portrays them as increasingly whole emotionally, and consequently their responses to their husband's or fiancé's accusations and abuses are more direct and full. Nevertheless, their generosity in the face of such enormous wrongs as they suffer follows from Shakespeare's "splitting," or dividing, their characters in one way or another. Marilyn Williamson has pointed out that the splitting of women characters, which she describes as a form of doubling, "allows the expression of women's anger and hostility, emotions particularly threatening to a patriarchy, while containing them psychologically and controlling them socially" (1982, 117-18). Such splitting makes forgiveness possible as well. Among Hero, Desdemona, Imogen, and Hermione, only Imogen is allowed to experience the range of human emotions and forgive her beloved. Yet she forgives Posthumus when she is in disguise, a form of splitting that differs from the other women's.
Hero is the most thinly drawn of the four, and she must surely be the most silent of Shakespeare's female figures. Her single line among the 154 lines immediately before her exit in act 2, scene 1, of Much Ado and her utter silence while Don Pedro, Leonato, and Claudio arrange her marriage are striking (2.1.262-361). Just as she is without speech, so she is without defenses. Far from asserting herself against her accusers, she can only call on God to defend her (4.1.77) and faint. Shakespeare splits off the angry, aggressive response that Claudio's actions might warrant and gives it to Beatrice (4.1.289-330).
More assertive than Hero, Desdemona has a voice of her own, and as long as Othello is at her side, she can stand up to her father and the Venetian senators. Alone, with Othello set against her, she is powerless. She will not hear Emilia, who, like Beatrice, speaks with anger and good sense, condemning Othello's abuse of her mistress. Desdemona can respond to Othello's increasing rage only with various forms of denial, such as insisting that she approves of his behavior or creating fantasies of escape (Garner 1976, 247-50). In the end, she is scarcely better able to defend herself than Hero.
In Cymbeline Shakespeare allows Imogen to have the angry voice, for she has no vocal attendant. Although she does not express her anger to Posthumus, she directs it against him as she rails at Pisanio, whom Posthumus has ordered to murder her (3.4.4off). Shakespeare evidently sees her differently from the other women in these plays, for he portrays her as capable of assuming the disguise of a man. Just as she can incorporate anger within her character, so she can cast aside her femininity, as it is traditionally defined. Despite Imogen's wholeness of character and Posthumus's reformation, Shakespeare expresses his ambivalence about the heterosexual recoupling by leaving Imogen in disguise at the end of the play. If we consider that Imogen is a boy actor playing a woman disguised as a man, then the restored couple would appear more as a homosexual than a heterosexual one. Imogen's disguise serves the same function that the splitting of a character does in the other plays: she becomes either more or less than woman.
In The Winter's Tale Shakespeare returns to the pattern of portraying women that he followed in Much Ado and Othello. The outrage at Leontes that Hermione might be expected to feel is split off and given to Paulina. Remaining wholly feminine, Hermione does not express rage. At the same time, she is firm in her dignity and argues her own case eloquently and without fear. Powerful in her own defense, she does not merely plead her innocence but is sufficiently in command of her reason to understand and make evident the impossibility of clearing herself against Leontes's charge. She argues rightly that since Leontes accuses her, there is no way she can prove her innocence, her "integrity, / Being counted falsehood" (3.2.26-27).
Behind the women's forgiveness in these plays is the working out of a male fantasy. Quite simply put, the fantasy is that a woman will always forgive a man no matter how terribly he wrongs her. Shakespeare's resolution is always a variation on the story of patient Griselda. When that resolution strains credulity, many read it as illustrating Christian forgiveness, an example to which we might all aspire. This is particularly true of The Winter's Tale. Such a reading—or a mythic reading, which Shakespeare invites as well—is probably the happiest construction we can give to the play. Otherwise, how are we to respond when we see a woman embrace a man who is responsible for the death of her son, has tried to kill her daughter, and has deprived her of her motherhood as well as her mature womanhood?
Even if we are comfortable with a reading that makes the psychological credibility of such an ending irrelevant, we must still see the demands of a male fantasy in control when we consider how different forgiveness is for women and men in Shakespeare. When Posthumus forgives Jachimo, there is no expectation that the two of them can make things up. Posthumus tells him to "deal with others better" (5.5.419; emphasis mine). Like Hermione, Prospero is often seen as. a model of forgiveness; indeed, The Tempest focuses on his decision to forgive Antonio rather than to exact vengeance. Yet Prospero has no reconciliation with Antonio. The play does not suggest that Prospero will ever trust or love his brother again, and yet there is no blot on the quality of his forgiveness. His generosity is more in the realm of ordinary human possibility than the magnanimity demanded of Hero, Desdemona, Imogen, and Hermione.
Thinking about the whole of Shakespeare's work, I recall numerous lines that suggest how deeply charged the general issue of trust was for him as artist. The poet tells the young man in Sonnet 93:
How like Eve's apple doth thy beauty grow, If thy sweet virtue answer not thy show!
As Duncan confronts his betrayal by Macdonwald, on whom, the king says, he "built / An absolute trust," he laments that "there's no art / To find the mind's construction in the face" (Macbeth, 1.4.11-14). We hear Lady Macbeth advise Macbeth, "Look like th' innocent flower, / But be the serpent under't" (1.5.65-66). Lear faces his mistaken sense of self: "They are not men o' their words: they told me I was every thing. 'Tis a lie, I am not ague-proof (King Lear, 4.6.104-5). Shakespeare portrays again and again the risk of human relationship and the vulnerability of his characters to deception or betrayal. The hard truth that engages him is that trust must be an act of faith. You cannot know the heart of another.
Presumably both women and men suffer from this vulnerability. Yet as a male writer, Shakespeare, as we might expect, treated this theme mainly from the point of view of his male characters. They seem to feel women's betrayal more strongly than men's. Women's deceptiveness is often at the core of tragedy, and Shakespeare's tragic heroes go mad or nearly so in the face of it. The felt betrayal of a mother and of daughters accounts largely for the dramatic intensity of Hamlet and King Lear. When Antony thinks that Cleopatra has deserted him for Caesar, he is consumed with rage. The single time in his dramatic career that Shakespeare depicts a sexually unfaithful woman as a central figure, in Troilus and Cressida, the play is bleak and despairing. It is as though Cressida's spoiling ruins everything around her. The world of Troilus and Cressida becomes as rotten as the one Hamlet imagines.
That Shakespeare insistently replayed the same story in Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, Cymbeline, and The Winter's Tale, that he treated it in different genres—tragedy, comedy, and romance—and that it held his interest from the beginning to the end of his career all confirm how important it must have been to him as a dramatist. It has occurred to me that these plays offer a counterfantasy to the Sonnets. While the poet of the Sonnets unhappily suffers the betrayals of his mistress and the young friend to whom he is attracted, in the plays as men join with each other against a woman, a different alliance forms. I have wondered whether Shakespeare needed to repeat in reverse the experience of the Sonnets in order to come to terms with it.
Whatever the psychological insistence that provoked Shakespeare to repeat the story of these plays, they record how deeply threatening for their central male figures is the prospect of union with a woman. We may locate that fear, as Coppélia Kahn does, in the establishment of masculine identity, in a man's need to separate himself from his mother and the feminine, his dread of engulfment by her as he tries to establish his manhood (1981, 1-17). We may find another source for it, as Peter Erickson has argued, in patriarchal politics, which makes necessary male control of women and the feminine—that is, the emotional and nurturing—side of the masculine self (1985a, 1-9). This exorbitant need for control brings into play for Shakespeare's male figures a heightened fear of losing that control when they love a woman. However Shakespeare may have understood the causes of male fear of heterosexual union, the plays make clear that he recognized it and saw it as significant enough to depict, as a story worth telling.
Shakespeare presents the idea of the deceptive or unfaithful woman as so terrible in the imagination of his male characters that the heterosexual bond becomes particularly precarious. Men's vulnerability makes them cling to their male friends, hesitant to bond with women, and restive once they enter into a close or intimate relationship with a woman. As Shakespeare retells this story, the male lover's suspicion of his beloved comes more and more completely out of his diseased imagination, unsupported by circumstance or a villain's intervention. The movement of the plays suggests that Shakespeare came to understand that the fear he wanted to portray resided in the individual male psyche. It was internal; he did not have to provoke it from without. By the time he wrote The Winter's Tale, his plays had moved relentlessly toward a world where men need women to betray them. That need would seem to arise from their excessive vulnerability in their relationships with women and their greater security in bonds with men.
By the time he wrote Cymbeline and The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare seemed to want to make it more explicit that male characters who were subject to heterosexual dread also tended to idealize women. Only by idealizing a woman, by seeing her as unlike others of her sex, could a man risk union with her. This tendency to overestimate women seems to make Shakespeare's male characters more vulnerable to disillusionment, quicker to doubt, more subject to disappointment.
To an extent Shakespeare stands apart from the story that he tells. The male fear that he depicts is probably something that he knew, or else he could not have portrayed it so powerfully. At the same time, as dramatist he sees this fear for what it is, and he is not caught up in it as are the characters in his plays. He is not free as playwright, however, from a tendency to idealize women. Since he makes the outcomes of the plays depend on women's goodness and on their extraordinary capacity for forgiveness, he reveals as artist a cast of mind that resembles that of his male characters and puts too great a burden on the women he portrays.
The changes in Shakespeare's treatment of this theme occur as a consequence of his artistic and personal development. In his later career he was able to understand men's psychic needs more clearly, to portray women characters as more whole, and to imagine love between women and men as more rich and complex than he was able to imagine earlier. At the same time, he always retained a sense of the fragility of bonds between women and men as well as of the strength of men's bonds with each other, which he saw as founded largely on the exclusion of women and on homosexual attraction. No matter in what dramatic form he wrote, he expressed his deep ambivalence about the possibilities of heterosexual love. When he presents love between a woman and a man as compelling and joyful, as he does in Othello, the play becomes a tragedy. When the play is a comedy or a romance and works toward a hopeful ending, that ending is undercut. As I have suggested, so much of the burden of these plays is the revelation of the male characters' deeply hostile feelings toward women that it is hard to imagine the men undergoing the radical change that a harmonious marriage would require. The final scene of Cymbeline, in which the reunited couple appears to be two men, Imogen remaining in disguise, is emblematic of Shakespeare's lasting ambivalence.
Freud, Sigmund. 1953. "On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love (Contributions to the Psychology of Love II)." In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 12, translated by James Strachey et al. London: Hogarth Press.
Garner, Shirley Nelson. 1981. "Shakespeare's Desdemona." Shakespeare Studies 9:233-52.
Gohlke (Sprengnether), Madelon. 1980b. "'I Wooed Thee with My Sword': Shakespeare's Tragic Paradigms." In The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Neely, 150-170. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Reprinted in Representing Shakespeare, edited by Murray Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn, 170-87.
Harbage, Alfred. 1970. William Shakespeare: A Reader's Guide. New York: Farrar.
Hays, Janice. 1980. "Those 'Soft and Delicate Desires': Much Ado and Distrust of Women." In The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Neely, 79-100. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Kahn, Coppélia. 1981. Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
McNaron, Toni A. H. "Female Bonding in Shakespeare's Plays: Its Absence and Its Presence." Unpublished paper.
Williamson, Marilyn. 1982. "Doubling, Women's Anger, and Genre." Women's Studies 9:107-19.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 17295
Hugh Dickinson (essay date 1961)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Henry Yea and Nay," in Drama Critique, Vol. IV, No. 2, May, 1961, pp. 68-72.
[In the essay below, Dickinson studies the way in which King Henry, of the Henry VI plays, deceives himself into thinking that he is a capable ruler. The critic demonstrates that this self-deception is maintained until the King's impulsive and inconsistent actions reveal his weak will.]
Scholarship and criticism, once less than kind to Shakespeare's youthful effort, the trilogy of Henry VI, have finally come to regard it as a little more than kin. With his authorship now accepted for most of it, if not all, the critical stature of the dramatic chronicle has also risen beyond its former dismal level as a subject for graduate study only. Best of all, it was the theater that in the last decade rescued Henry VI from the limbo of plays unplayable and unproduced. It did so in England when the Birmingham Repertory Company vindicated the long-held conviction of its producer, Sir Barry Jackson, that the plays were both actable and stageworthy.
Sir Barry's revivals of 1951, directed by Douglas Seale, later repeated their success at the Old Vic in London. Shakespearean audiences thus owe these men a debt of gratitude, and a double debt to Seale who, in London and later at Stratford in Canada, also rescued from a neglect nearly as great that other early effort at a history play, Shakespeare's King John. Indeed, Seale triumphed to such an extent that for many at Stratford in 1960 King John was the principal success of the festival. It may be hoped that Henry VI, if interpreted and staged as excitingly, would come to enjoy similar popularity in the New World.
The proven stageworthiness of the trilogy invites further interest and appreciation, if it is realized that history, in the person of the boy-king whose pathetic incapacity for rule precipitated the Wars of the Roses, presented Shakespeare a most difficult problem of dramaturgy. King Henry is necessarily the pivot of the action in all three plays. A king both strong and good was, in Shakespeare's view, indispensable to the peace of an ordered society; and Henry was the symbol of that kingship, the objectified embodiment of all the dynastic ambitions and struggles of the Houses of York and Lancaster, their enemies, and allies. But the historical Henry was not only too young for the burdens of office, he was at first weak-minded and later, if only at times, actually insane. As such, he was most unpromising material for drama. It would be hard to see how the playwright could have eliminated him, weak as he was, except at the risk of weakening the point of the plays. Yet a weak-minded man, let alone an insane one, could not figure prominently and effectively in the long and complicated action. How was the playwright to meet this unavoidable problem?
In order to place the events of three generations on the stage, Shakespeare did not hesitate to distort freely the historical facts as he found them in the chronicles: he telescoped, transposed, and invented incidents; he altered ages, characters, and motives. He had no nice regard for accuracy in historical particulars; and so he was free to change the character of the king, if he could find a solution. It was his awareness of dramaturgic demands that must account for the interesting stage character of King Henry VI which he eventually created.
Why not show Henry mad, and let it go at that? Insanity is touchy stuff for a playwright to handle. Shakespeare would later treat it in Ophelia, more interestingly still in King Lear, and most interestingly of all in Hamlet, in whom he made it yield incredible dramatic force. But the risks are high, the drawbacks considerable. In the case of Henry, Shakespeare avoided them entirely. Ophelia, mad, is a pathetic figure. We feel keenly the pathos of her plight, yet we can follow the workings of her mind but intermittently, and then only in relation to what she was and what has gone before. With her mind gone, her actions cease to have much meaning, except as they affect others. Her character is fixed, incapable of development. Dramatically speaking, one might almost say that Ophelia is dead before she takes her own life. King Lear is something else again, for we tremble with him as he fears and fights against his oncoming madness; and, when it comes, we know it is a necessary part of his agony and redemption. But, so long as it lasts, he is less active than acted upon: and it is necessarily brief.
History reveals Henry as ineffectual because irrational, and therefore irresponsible. Without mind, there can be little or no significant dramatic action, because there can be no rational choice: and drama requires choice, for it centers in the will. The will creates conflict, either by its presence or its absence, especially in the case of a king upon whom, by reason of the gravity of his office, the whole health of the state depends. Here lay the key to the playwright's solution, the workable substitute for royal madness. It offered Shakespeare a way to retrieve the historical King Henry and rehabilitate him for the stage. It was a conception as brilliant as the way in which he showed the white and red roses becoming the symbols of York and Lancaster. The solution was to make King Henry, not weak-minded, but weak-willed. Dramatically, this made all the difference in the world.
If subtlety consists in doing complicated things simply, this solution was extremely subtle. It did more than give the king a dramatically viable character, it placed him in sharp contrast to those around him and worked his fatal flaw of character into the fabric of the action. This centered the action on the great weakness of kingships: the monarch incapable, for whatever reasons, of reigning as events require. As the keystone of society, a king had to have for successful rule the qualities of power and cunning, but also of unselfishness. Henry utterly lacked power and cunning; he also lacked, as I hope to show, the third kingly virtue of self-sacrifice. Could there be an unconscious echo of the historical Henry's madness in the contemptuous question of his wife, Queen Margaret: "What is the body when the head is off?" In any case, this reference to the king's inadequacy has direct bearing on the created Henry and a deeper application: it sums up one of the themes of the plays. It would have been easy, but obvious, to deprive Henry of the two kingly virtues, but leave him self-sacrifice. But Shakespeare conceived the character more complexly, and he found most credible ways of motivating and rationalizing the incapacity of his weak-willed king. He was able to do so, even while using the king to utter those ideals of justice and order by which all the characters are measured and judged—King Henry too, no less than the others.
Since King Henry acts chiefly by refusing to act, or by acting inadequately; and since so much violent and bloody conflict swirls about his figure, we may tend to overlook the fact that his character is gradually, if unobtrusively, revealing itself throughout the three plays. This revelation is, in part, an ironic study of inconsistency and self-deception. The flaw of inconsistency arises from, and contributes to, the chain of ironic reversals which make up the complex action of the plays. And so it receives its full significance only in relation to it. As for the self-deception, it is so complete that for a time we, too, are taken in by it.
Before we are introduced to King Hemy, we see two acts of the "jarring discord of nobility" in the English campaigns in France, and with them the beginning of York's ambitions. When the king does appear, the main elements of his character are present, but veiled from us. His youth, his inexperience, the fact that even the practiced and honorable Gloucester, his protector, can succeed no better—all these circumstances keep us from sensing clearly what this king is or may become. But later the scene proves to have been very characteristic: lords jarring as if Henry were not present, Henry hoping to prevail through prayers and assuming that reproofs unsupported by might will bring men to their senses, so that he may unite them in love and amity. Here, along with his piety, are the first of the weeping king's many references to his sighs and tears, the mere sight of which he seems to think will suffice to melt the relentless disputants. Here, too, is his ignorance of the realities of motive and situation, or his blindness to them; yet, coupled with this, there is a grasp of the moral lessons of history that ironically proves prophetic: "Civil dissension is a viperous worm, That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth." The others know these truisms, but do not act as if they believed them; Henry believes them intensely, but cannot act upon them.
When he restores Richard of York to his blood and to his whole inheritance, it is like the close of the first act in the five-act drama of Henry's life. The issues are drawn. Henry has set going the machinery of his own doom, he has directed our expectations to the impending tragedy, and has, by statement and contrast, established the ideal of kingly love and lordly obedience against which we measure the true state of affairs.
Thereafter, Henry does a number of right things that help for a time to hide the full extent of his incapacity to rule. He gives Talbot deserved preferment, peremptorily banishes Fastolfe for cowardice in the field; consents, despite his unreadiness for marriage, to the politically wise alliance with the House of Armignac; and defends Gloucester against the imputation of witchcraft. But some of these acts are offset by impulsive inconsistencies that are a growing sign of his weak will. He is quickly inflamed by Suffolk's suit for Margaret of Anjou, so that he reneges on his previous agreement, disregards Armignac's wealth and power, and offers his hand to Margaret without consulting Gloucester. Driven by his own desires, he quite forgets his previous words: "I shall be well content with any choice Tends to God's glory and my country's weal." In his excitement at Margaret's arrival, he ignores the serious loss of Anjou and Maine that his marriage has cost the English crown, presents Suffolk a dukedom for causing the loss, and takes an irresponsible position in regard to the regency of France: "For my part, noble lords, I care not which: Or Somerset or York, all's one to me." The same indifference, amounting to dereliction of duty, again shows itself when Somerset as regent, announces the loss of all royal holdings in France: "Cold news, Lord Somerset: but God's will be done!" And this, too, after having summarily dismissed his "no less belov'd" Gloucester: "Henry will to himself Protector be; and God shall be my hope, My stay, my guide . . ." Then he puts the fate of Gloucester, who of all men he should defend and try to save, squarely into his "vowed enemies'" mighty hands: "My lords, what to your wisdoms seemeth best Do or undo as if ourself were here." Henry does not recognize this for what it is: the betrayal of his friend; and his actual, if not his formal, abdication.
His blindness has another aspect: he cannot learn wisdom from past experience, nor change his view of the world by which he interprets men and events. He assumes that men have only to be reminded of the law to submit to it, despite the abundant evidence of his own experience. He begs God to forgive him, if Gloucester was murdered; but his pious pleas to heaven are by now so habitual that he seems to have no true grasp of his own share of guilt in Gloucester's death. Even after Jack Cade's rebellion and further strife among the nobles, he can still think no man will go against his oath and true allegiance—not even York.
All this is because he thinks—as later Shakespeare will have Richard II think—that some dread majesty inheres in kingship itself: "Frowns, words and threats Shall be the war that Henry means to use." He cannot see that the majesty of kingship, if worn by a weak ruler, becomes a spur and not a check to emulous men. He is the reverse of Richard III, who deliberately seems a saint when most he plays the devil: so unlike the bloodthirsty, rapacious nobles that surround him, that he can never quite believe they will do such wicked deeds—until they have done them. He fancies somehow that a sense of decorum, a regard for law and justice, and a reverence for the crown will deter them. So he copes with them, not by deeds, but by gestures—that is, by ineffectual threats.
King Henry dreads war above all, but to retain the throne he inherited he will "unpeople this my realm";—only to temporize at the first sight of York's troops: "Let me for this life-time reign as king." Here we see another inconsistency cutting deep: for his longing to be rid of the burden of kingship—indeed, his wearniess of life itself—has begun to grow in him, yet he clings like a limpet to his unique eminence. The split in his will is glaring, but completely plausible: all his breeding, his reverence for the throne, his deluded faith in its mystical power, no less than his enjoyment of its ease and worship, keep him from yielding it up, as he thinks, outright. His thorough-going egotism is now more apparent than it has been earlier: for he thinks not of his queen's state or his son's inheritance, but only of himself. He does not, or cannot, answer the queen's furious charge: "Thou preferr'st thy life before thine honour . . ."
With egotism goes self-justification. At the sight of York's head upon a pike, he again cries out for forgiveness—and in the same breath justifies himself: "Withhold revenge, dear God! 'tis not my fault, Nor wittingly have I infring'd my vow." When Clifford rebukes him for "too much lenity and harmful pity," telling him to think instead of his son Edward, Prince of Wales, and to "steel thy heart To hold thine own and leave thine own with him," Henry's reply is both unanswerable and inadequate: "But Clifford, tell me, didst thou never hear / That things ill got had ever bad success? . . . / I would leave my son my virtuous deeds behind; / And would my father had left me no more!"
The sincerity of Henry's piety is patent; yet, at the same time, one cannot help but sense the deep, unconscious self-deception that mars it. In the midst of a battle, when he should be fighting, he can sit upon a molehill and say: "To whom God will, there be the victory!" He can also thank Warwick for his deliverance from the Tower with the words: "He (God) was the author, thou the instrument." But that he himself, as king, might more effectively be God's instrument by accepting the full responsibility of kingship and acting upon it, utterly escapes him. His weak will, coupled with a delicate conscience, has found in religion its invincible armor—and its justification for doing nothing. It is the greedy and ambitious plotters in his court—Margaret, Richard, and the others—who tell him to his face the truth about his character, but he is as incapable of grasping it as he would be of acting upon it.
The full extent of his weakness becomes apparent only when, in the third play, we can contrast our first picture of him and the stout courage and readiness his own son shows. And by now his persistent faith in his own kingship has become so ironical that it is pathetically laughable: he is never weaker than when he says: "Methinks the power that Edward hath in field Should not be able to encounter mine." Yet when the moment of his death approaches, he is not despicable. Anticipating it, he can lament his son's sad end, and watch himself, as it were, meeting death: "What scene of death hath Roscius now to act?" Here, as in his irresponsibility and his view of kingship, he is an interesting anticipation of Shakespeare's creation of Richard II: he is Henry Yea-and-Nay.
The playwright, by substituting weakness of will for Henry's insanity, has made it the central irony of the plays. It is not only that the person with the clearest view of kingship and of the country's good is the one man least capable of achieving them. Rather, it is that the man who expresses the moral order governing events is blindest about the part his own nature plays in them, because he is subtly self-deceived. Shakespeare reserves for him a final irony, which relates to his prophetic powers. The scene in which he prophesies that young Henry, Earl of Richmond, "will prove our country's bliss," may at first seem merely a theatrical stroke, an adventitious reliance upon the audience's knowledge of history, in order to point to a solution that exists only outside the action of these plays. But examination of the trilogy will show that, from the beginning, and even while making the grossest mistakes in government, Henry has prophesied correctly the outcome of this or that immoral act or ambition. And at the instant of his death, he can foresee that the people of the land will come to rue the day Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was born. But the poor king's fate is that of Cassandra: to foretell events truly—and not to be believed.
Henry lacked all the kingly virtues: strength, cunning, and self-sacrifice. For all his prating of self-sacrifice, what we have been shown is self-love. This king had been a better monk: perhaps in the monastery he could not so easily have cloaked and justified his weakness with the garb of piety. Shakespeare has made of him a study, and a pitiless one, in religious egotism. Yet he has not withheld from him, in his last extremity, the grace of a forgiving heart. "For this, amongst the rest, was I ordain'd," says the future Richard III, and stabs him abruptly. King Henry replies to his slayer thus: "Ay, and for much slaughter after this, / O, God forgive my sins, and pardon thee!"
Cyrus Hoy (essay date 1962)
SOURCE: "Love's Labour's Lost and the Nature of Comedy," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. XIII, No. 1, Winter, 1962, pp. 31-40.
[In the essay that follows, Hoy maintains that the action of Love's Labour's Lost focuses on the process of "undeceiving the self-deceived," noting that Shakespeare's comedy in general is aimed at dismantling deceptions for the purpose of self knowledge.]
Love's Labour's Lost, says M. C. Bradbrook, "is as near as Shakespeare ever came to writing satire";1 and what, in addition to fine manners, pedantry, and the disguises of love, is being satirized in it is, I would suggest, the infirmity of human purpose. Its fable, which turns on vows sworn and then forsworn under the pressure of circumstance and necessity working hand in hand, is the sufficient proof of this. The treatment of the fable is dry, elegant, and highly mannered, and this is as it should be. In the terms which the play sets up, an artificial style is the only appropriate means of purveying—and in the same moment commenting on—an artificial view of life. The action of Love's Labour's Lost is directed at righting the balance of nature, which the proud in their simplicity would upset; it is concerned with undeceiving the self-deceived, thereby making clear the gulf that separates human intentions from deeds. In achieving so much—in enlightening the foolish without destroying them—it accomplishes the purpose which comic drama is uniquely capable of bringing to pass.
What is being imitated, in comedy and tragedy alike, are the actions of men, and the crucial fact about man is his dual nature. His duality makes him an incongruous figure, and if there were nothing incongruous in the human condition, there would be nothing to dramatize. The union of a spiritual essence and a material body poses the initial incongruity, and from this all others flow. Infinite aspirations are subject to a finite capacity for achievement; immortal longings break upon the fact of mortality; the rational purpose gives way to irrational impulse. Incongruities such as these are the warp and the woof of human experience, and the fabric of human life which together they weave yields up a pattern shot through with discrepancies: the discrepancy between the ideal and the reality, between the intention and the deed, to name those which subsume all others. To dramatize the discrepancy between the ideal and the reality, the intention and the deed, is the purpose of tragedy and comedy equally, and this, I would suggest, is the reason why the true artist in the one will be an artist in the other also. In the process of dramatization, the discrepancies that I have named may appear terrible, as in Oedipus or Lear; humorous, because they are so very human, as in Love's Labour's Lost or Twelfth Night; or grotesque, as in Measure for Measure or Volpone. It is in the context of these observations that I wish to consider Love's Labour's Lost and the nature of comedy, suggesting at the same time the manner in which some of the issues which this essentially merry comedy poses lead directly to that basic fact of human incongruity where comedy and tragedy equally inhere, and in the representation of which, "a change of lighting suffices to make one into the other."2
The play begins with the declaration of a purpose which takes the form, indeed, of a programme for regulating the life of man. It is deceptively simple. The King of Navarre with three of his attendant lords—Berowne, Longaville, and Dumain—subscribes to an oath whereby they will devote themselves for a period of three years to a life of study and fasting, during which term they renounce the company of women. The purpose they have declared is nothing less than an all-out war against the senses; and the King can address his more or less willing disciples as noble warriors, enrolled under the colors of the spirit in its eternal war with the flesh:
Therefore, brave conquerors—for so you are That war against your own affections And the huge army of the world's desires. . . .
About the wisdom of this, Berowne, the fourth party to the high design, is dubious from the beginning. They are "barren tasks, too hard to keep" (I.i.47) to which the others have pledged themselves; his fellows have "sworn too hard-a-keeping oath" (I.i.65). The project is, in fact, doomed from the outset, as he alone has the wit to see. In the first place, the daughter of the King of France is due to arrive shortly at the court of Navarre on a diplomatic mission, and must be received, a circumstance which the King of Navarre has "quite forgot" (Li. 139). The decree that no woman come within a mile of the court on pain of losing her tongue must of force be dispensed with "on mere necessity" (Li. 146), and in affirming as much, the King unwittingly names the power that will swamp his whole grand endeavor, as the wise Berowne quickly sees. "Necessity will make us all forsworn / Three thousand times within this three years' space", he says (I.i.147-148); and he proceeds to an all-important statement about the nature of the "affections" against which his fellows have pledged themselves to wage war:
For every man with his affects is born, Not by might mast'red, but by special grace.
But Berowne, being an agreeable sort, subscribes his name to the oath at the others' urging, though he reserves the right to let necessity plead his case if he break faith.
That all four parties to the oath will end by breaking faith is, at this point, midway through the opening scene, in the nature of a foregone conclusion. The second half of Li presents us with direct evidence of how little binding the King's edicts are upon his subjects. Villainy is abroad in the King's own park, where nature is having its way. The constable Dull appears, with a letter from the fantastical knight, Don Adriano de Armado, and with the clownish rustic Costard in custody. Armado has come upon Costard in the company of the country wench Jaquenetta, and this in despite of the King's proclaimed edict decreeing a year's imprisonment for the man taken with a wench. Spurred on by his "ever-esteemed duty", Armado has remanded Costard to the custody of Dull, to be brought before the King for judgment. Costard, bumpkin though he be, knows what some of his more sophisticated superiors would, for the moment, deny. "It is the manner of a man to speak to a woman", he says (I.i.206) with unassailable if unintentional logic, and it is the only adequate defense, being in truth but another way of saying what Berowne has already stated: that "every man with his affects is born", and that these are not to be mastered "by might".
In the following scene we have further evidence of the ravages worked by passion, this time in the person of the "magnificent" Armado himself. In his punctilious zeal he has seized upon the transgressing Costard in the name of the law, rather in the manner in which the unyielding Angelo arrests the erring Claudio and Juliet in Measure for Measure. And again like Angelo, Armado finds himself a prey to the same passion whose workings he would punish in others. He confesses to his page Moth that he is in love with the country girl he took in the park with Costard. The confession strikes the burlesque note appropriate to the extravagant figure of the fantastical Spaniard, but it achieves as well the very blend of aversion and desire to be noted wherever passion long withstood is yielded to. Love is here, as always on such occasions, a delicious torment, and Armado savors the bitter dose as he contemplates the baseness of the young woman who is the object of his passion.
I do affect the very ground, which is base, where her shoe, which is baser, guided by her foot, which is basest, doth tred.
It is the glory of love to subdue men, and Armado must fall, as has many another great one (Samson, Solomon, Hercules) in the catalogue of love's victims which he runs through. Thus subdued, there is nothing for it but to bid farewell to the life of knightly endeavor: "Adieu, valour; rust, rapier; be still, drum; for your manager is in love; yea, he loveth" (I.ii.175 ff). In the circumstances, it is fair to say that Armado's farewell to arms is but the comic equivalent of the deeply tragic farewell that Othello bids to the heroic life, when his conviction of the baseness of Desdemona has effectively poisoned his taste for martial achievement:
Farewell the plumed troops, and the big wars
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump, The spirit-stirring drum, th' ear-piercing fife,
Farewell! Othello's occupation's gone.
(Othello, III.iii.353 ff.)
The proud, in comedy and tragedy alike, are forever being humbled, in one way or another. The King of Navarre explains to the Princess of France that he cannot receive her into his court by reason of an oath that he has sworn. To this she merely answers, "Our Lady help my lord! He'll be forsworn" (II.i.97). Whereupon the King replies with conviction, "Not for the world, fair madam, by my will." In saying as much, he has named the very faculty which can best be expected to overthrow his high resolve, for "will" in Elizabethan usage means both "inclination" and "carnal appetite"; and nothing is better calculated to point up the basic infirmity of the King's purpose than the fact that it is dependent on something so dubious as the human will to carry it through. All of which the clever lady is quick to note. She is not impressed with the King's "will" to keep his oath. "Why, will shall break it; will, and nothing else", she says. He replies, rather feebly, that the Princess is ignorant of what he has sworn. This is not, in fact, true, as we already know. But she contents herself with stating merely that, "Were my lord so, his ignorance were wise, / Where now his knowledge must prove ignorance" (II.i.101-102).
The words of the Princess suggest what has already been hinted more than once to this point in the play: namely, that knowledge, at least on the terms by which the King and his courtiers would seek it, will prove but folly in the end. The sufficient reason for this is that the object of their study (books) is all wrong. In the opening scene, Berowne has gone to some lengths to prove the vanity of poring painfully "upon a book / To seek the light of truth" (I.i.74-75). And he has proceeded there to advise his fellows of the true object of study, wherein inheres the light of the only form of knowledge with which aspiring youth has any concern: a light which, if it begins by dazzling, ends by illuminating, the senses:
Study me how to please the eye indeed, By fixing it upon a fairer eye; Who dazzling so, that eye shall be his heed, And give him light that it was blinded by.
The eye of the King of Navarre, in the course of his first interview with the French Princess, during which he tells her of his will to keep his oath, is dazzled by her fair form in just the manner Berowne has prescribed; and upon the King's departure, at the end of Act II, Boyet, the old love-mongering lord in attendance on the ladies of France, can report to the Princess that "Navarre is infected", which is to say, "affected" (II.i.229 ff). And he recounts in detail how all the King's "behaviours did make their retire / To the court of his eye, peeping thorough desire", with inevitable results:
All senses to that sense did make their repair, To feel only looking on fairest of fair.
The defection of "Navarre and his book-men" will thereafter follow a conventional course, from the study of books to the study of eyes. By the time the carefully patterned action of IV.iii is finished, each of the young men in his turn has declared his love for one of the French ladies, and has been detected by the others in so doing. Their transformation from scholars to lovers is complete; and the sometime warriors who have sworn themselves to do battle against their "own affections / And the huge army of the world's desires" are now hailed by Berowne as "affection's men-at-arms" (IV.iii.286). The vow that they have sworn has proved, as Dumain has roundly declared in his verses to Katharine, "for youth unmeet" (IV.iii.109), which is just what Berowne has said from the beginning; and not surprisingly, it is to him that the others turn for "some salve" for the perjury of which all have been discovered guilty. The speech in which he sets about to prove their "loving lawful" and their "faith not torn" (IV.iii.281) is a bravura example of special pleading and the praise of folly: folly which, in the context, is proved the highest wisdom. The lovers were fools to forswear women; they will continue fools in "keeping what is sworn" (IV.iii.352). The conclusion is inevitable:
Let us once lose our oaths to find ourselves, Or else we lose ourselves to keep our oaths.
But the matter is not quite so simple as Berowne suggests. They will not find themselves simply by losing their oaths, as the long fifth act will prove. They have played at being scholars; now, in the concluding act of the comedy, they play at being lovers, and with hardly more success. In V.ii, the ladies of France are found comparing the favors they have received from their several suitors, and passing hard judgments on the conduct of the lovers, who have by now given over all pretense of abiding by their initial vow. If, in the opinion of the ladies, the young men were foolish to forswear love in the first place, their surrender to the passion exhibits folly at its' height; and the folly of the lovers is compounded by their very cleverness. Had they not been so clever, they could not now prove so foolish. As the Princess declares:
None are so surely caught, when they are catch'd, As wit turn'd fool; folly, in wisdom hatch'd, Hath wisdom's warrant and the help of school, And wit's own grace to grace a learned fool.
And Rosaline makes an even more penetrating pronouncement when she observes that
The blood of youth burns not with such excess As gravity's revolt to wantonness.
This goes very deep. One wonders, indeed, if it does not go deeper than the occasion warrants.4 Neither Berowne, "the merry mad-cap lord" (II.i.214), nor any of his companions, has struck us as particularly grave, and their revolt to wantonness would seem to imply no great falling off from sobriety. Looking to the future of Shakespearian drama, Rosaline's words would seem to apply more appropriately to such a figure as Angelo in Measure for Measure, where gravity revolts to wantonness with a fury that bids fair for a time to be terrible in its consequences: the more terrible because the blood of youth in Angelo has been so long and so steadfastly denied. The moral here is not hard to find; and it provides, I would suggest, the clue to the basic pattern of Shakespearian comedy: a pattern which consists in a movement from the artificial to the natural, always with the objective of finding oneself. The objective is typically accomplished in the context of a world governed by the seasonal laws of great creating nature, where affectation gives way before the onslaught of the elements. The wonder thus worked is seen in its most mysterious form in The Tempest where, in Gonzalo's words near the end of the play, each of the principals has found himself "when no man was his own" (The Tempest V.i.213). To find oneself is to know oneself, and to know oneself is to recognize the truth about one's natural condition. In Shakespearian comedy, characters such as Angelo who never come to know themselves have never had occasion to take stock of themselves in the world of created nature; and it is no accident that the action of Measure for Measure never moves far beyond the city limits of Vienna. The process of self-discovery which experience of the natural world provides is best described by Duke Senior in As You Like It, when he declares his reaction to "the icy fang / And churlish chiding of the winter's wind" in the Forest of Arden:
when it bites and blows upon my body, Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say 'This is no flattery; these are counsellors That feelingly persuade me what I am.'
(As You Like It II.i.8-11)
For a man to be feelingly persuaded what he is, is the beginning of wisdom, and so can be nothing other than a salutary experience: salutary, because if a man does not know what he is—which involves, among other things, knowledge of his very human infirmities, his mortal frailties—he is likely to be made rudely, not to say tragically, aware of his natural condition. One thinks of Lear, the flattered king who has "ever but slenderly known himself, as Regan remarks on one occasion (Lear I.i.286), exposed to the wind and the rain on the heath, and brought thereby to a shattering knowledge of his mortal nature in its most essential aspects: "the thing itself, "unaccommodated man", "a poor, bare, forked animal" (Lear III.iv.96 ff). This is the tragic destiny of the man who does not know himself; and as is usual in tragedy, the fate that overtakes him is not lacking in irony, the irony here consisting in the incongruous distance that separates what man is in fact from what man, in his self-deceiving pride, thinks he is. But the destiny of the man who does not know himself may have, alternatively, a comic issue; for the lack of self-knowledge implies a failure to recognize the nature of human limitations, and this, like nearly everything else about the human condition, may occasion either tears or laughter.
In the comic vision of experience, the effort to transcend human limitations can never be regarded as other than folly or worse. "People try to get outside of themselves, and escape from the man", says Montaigne at the end of his last book of essays. "That is foolishness: instead of transforming themselves into angels, they transform themselves into beasts. Instead of raising they degrade themselves."5 We are reminded once again of Angelo in Measure for Measure, a character for whom Montaigne's passage might well stand as an epitaph. For Angelo, as his name implies, seeks to be nothing less than angelic, and ends as something of a devil of the flesh when, after years of strictly enforced continence, necessity forces him to give his "sensual race the rein" (Measure for Measure II.iv.160). Which reminds us in turn of Love's Labour's Lost, and Rosaline's statement that "The blood of youth burns not with such excess / As gravity's revolt to wantonness", and of Berowne's "For every man with his affects is born, / Not by might mast'red, but by special grace". There is, of course, no question of Berowne and his elegant companions transforming themselves into either angels or beasts; their oath is never taken seriously enough for that; they are only made to look distinctly foolish in the eyes of the ladies of France. Still, the fact remains, the oath that they swear is against nature ("Flat treason 'gainst the kingly state of youth", as they later agree), and while the consequences of so swearing, and then finding themselves forsworn, may appear innocent enough in Love's Labour's Lost, they will not always be so. To see where this sort of thing leads, one must look to Angelo and Measure for Measure, which is my justification for alluding to that play so often in the course of this discussion. Even in Love's Labour's Lost, Berowne recognizes that he and his friends must lose their oaths to find themselves; and if, as I have already said, they will not find themselves simply by losing their oaths, neither will they find themselves until the oaths have been renounced and that particular folly is behind them. To find oneself is to escape from artificiality into the natural, to leave off deceiving oneself by setting about to know oneself. The King of Navarre and his attendant lords are made to realize what Chaucer's Troilus under similar circumstances is forced to acknowledge, that "no man [may] fordon the lawe of kynde" (Troilus and Criseyde I.238). Realization of this brings in its wake the realization of something else equally obvious, but hitherto equally ignored by the King of Navarre and his men: that the study of human perfection is ever being undermined by the infirmity of human purpose. "O heaven, were man / But constant, he were perfect! That one error / Fills him with faults", says Proteus in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (V.iv.110-112), and his name, to say nothing of his deeds, underscores the frailty that defeats resolution.
Navarre and his book-men forswear their oath to study, thereby presenting incontrovertible proof of their inconstancy. "Charity" alone cao redeem them, for as Berowne says, "charity itself fulfils the law, / And who can sever love from charity?" (IV.iii.360-361). The charity of love repairs the imperfections wrought by the wayward will, and here it is at one with the "special grace" which, as Berowne has declared earlier, must aid man in the mastery of his affections. Thus, it is unfortunate that the King of Navarre and his men, guilty of perjury on one count, promptly forswear themselves again, this time to the very ladies whose charitable dispositions must be appealed to if their original offense is to be forgiven. The courtiers come to the ladies disguised as Muscovites. The ladies, warned of their intent, and assuming that the gentlemen come "but in mocking merriment", are prepared to give them "mock for mock" (V.ii.139-140). They mask themselves, and exchange the favors which each of the suitors has previously sent to his mistress. The gentlemen fall into the trap. Each unsuspectingly pays court to the wrong lady, and all are scoffed for their efforts. They retire in confusion, but return again shortly in their proper shapes. They are forced to confess to their previous disguises; and Berowne, for his part, renounces "affectation"—where love-making is concerned—in all its forms; it has but blown him "full of maggot ostentation" (V.ii.409). But the worst is not yet behind, for the ladies reveal the deception they themselves have practiced on the disguised lords, whereby each has sworn his faith to the wrong mistress. It is left to Berowne, typically, to put into words the enormity of this:
Now, to our perjury to add more terror, We are again forsworn in will and error.
Happily, at this point, attention is directed from the folly of the lovers to folly in another guise. The show of the nine worthies is announced. The King fears lest the entertainment Armado, Holofernes, and the rest have undertaken to provide will shame them, but Berowne reassures him. By now they are shame proof; and further, "'Tis some policy / To have one show worse than the king's and his company" (V.ii.510-511). Throughout the play, the affectation of the courtiers who turn scholars only to turn lovers has been parodied in the several affectations of the braggart Armado, the pedant Holofernes, and Sir Nathaniel the hedge-priest. Armado's surrender to the charms of Jaquenetta has anticipated the collapse of the courtlers' vow before the gaze of the ladies of France. The presenters of the show of the nine worthies are flouted by the lovers, even as the lovers have been flouted by the ladies; folly is mocked out of countenance, from the King to the pedant. But at the height of the merriment, word is brought of the death of the King of France, and the scene begins to cloud. As the ladies prepare to take their leave, the lovers press their suits in earnest, Berowne as ever serving as their spokesman, and putting their case in "honest plain words" (V.ii.741). The ladies, being gracious, do not reject their suits out of hand; but not unreasonably, they are determined to have some proof of the seriousness of their lovers' intentions before they enter upon "a world-without-end bargain" with the gentlemen. The Princess speaks for all her train when, addressing herself to the King, she declares plainly that his Grace "is perjur'd much, / Full of dear guiltiness" (V.ii.778-789). If he will prove his love for her, he will remove himself "with speed / To some forlorn and naked hermitage, / Remote from all the pleasures of the world", and there remain for a year while the Princess mourns the death of her father. At the end of the period, if the King remains constant, he may have his wish. The condition is echoed by each of the ladies in her turn: Katharine to Dumain, Maria to Longaville. The injunction Rosaline imposes on Berowne is even more explicit: he is to spend his twelvemonth term in visiting "the speechless sick" and conversing "with groaning wretches", ever seeking "with all the fierce endeavour of [his] wit, / To enforce the pained impotent to smile" (V.ii.838-842). He promptly cries out upon the impossibility of this, which is precisely the point; if "mirth cannot move a soul in agony", to be made aware of the fact is, of all ways, "the way to choke a gibing spirit". The ascetic life to which the courtiers have pledged themselves at the beginning of the play is going to be theirs after all.
The hope is that it will teach them something of human experience, and that in its grimmer aspects, where privation, suffering, and death round out the cycle of "revels, dances, masks, and merry hours" with which Love's Labour's Lost, until its closing minutes, has been exclusively dealing. It is just possible that, if the frosts which the Princess anticipates for the King in his "forlorn and naked hermitage" do not indeed nip the gaudy blossoms of his love, they may do for him what "the icy fang / And churlish chiding of the winter's wind" do for Duke Senior in As You Like It: they may "feelingly persuade" him what he is. Intimations of what a man is have been introduced into Love's Labour's Lost before it comes to its end. The foolish Armado, during the show of the worthies, has turned upon his tormentors, who are ringing some of their wittiest changes on the name of Hector, and invoked respect for the memory of the vanished hero whom he is representing—and he has done so in words that should have silenced the scoffers:
The sweet war-man is dead and rotten; sweet chucks, beat not the bones of the buried; when he breathed, he was a man.
The show of the worthies is itself interrupted by the fact of death; and from here to the end of the play the movement from the artificial to the natural is accelerated. The lovers are assigned to hermitage and hospital for the period of their trial. Armado appears and announces his vow to Jaquenetta "to hold the plough for her sweet love three year" (V.ii.871 ff), thereby functioning to the end in his role of zany to his betters. Whereupon he asks the company if they will "hear the dialogue that the two learned men have compiled in praise of the Owl and the Cuckoo".
Having already been treated to a poetical effusion by the more learned of the two learned men, Holofernes the pedant, in his "affected" poem beginning "The preyful Princess pierc'd and prick'd / a pretty pleasing pricket" (IV.ii.52 ff), we are not prepared for the wondrous songs of spring and winter which close the play. They are essential to the design. With them the movement from the artificial to the natural is complete. Human nature, in all its moral, and mortal, infirmities, comes finally into focus against the world of created nature, here viewed in its seasonal aspects. There is a hint of death in "Winter"; there is more than a hint of unsanctified copulation in "Spring". But the cry of the owl, funereal bird, sounding from out the dark and the cold, is "a merry note" within the circle of the winter fire; and if the sound of the cuckoo, derisive emblem of broken marriage vows, strikes fear into the hearts of married men, it is nonetheless the basis of a venerable joke. There is a paradox here. The infirmities of the flesh would not be so troublesome if the vernal meadows were not so inviting; the hardships of winter would be less endurable than they are, were death felt as anything less than a real—though comfortably distant—presence.
To view the infirmities of human nature in perspective is the special province of comedy. In Shakespearian comedy, the perspective is provided by viewing man's moral and mortal frailties in the context of the seasonal variations of the natural world wherein they are adumbrated. For is not "the season's difference", after all, the very "penalty of Adam" of which Duke Senior speaks; and that being so, the nexus between man's infirmities and a mutable world is not to seek. To view in such a perspective all the natural shocks to which human flesh is heir is to transcend them; and in Shakespearian comedy the trick is typically turned by the most economical means: with a song. After Duke Senior has catalogued the uses of adversity, Amiens congratulates him ort his ability to "translate the stubbornness of fortune / Into so quit and so sweet a style" (As You Like It Il.i.19-20). And later in As You LikeIt (II.vii.174 ff.), Amiens himself accomplishes just such a wonder in his song beginning "Blow, blow, thou winter wind" ("Thou art not so unkind / As man's ingratitude"). Folly, knavery, and worse are always with us, like the wind and the rain that accompany them in their several outcroppings from infancy to man's estate in Feste's song at the end of Twelfth Night: and nothing is better calculated to show just how appropriate a commentary on human experience, viewed tragically or comically, this is, than the fact that the same song—with its burden of "heigh-ho, the wind and the rain" and "the rain it raineth every day"—is sung by the Fool at the height of the storm in Lear (III.ii.74 ff.). In the songs of Shakespearian comedy, the grimmest facts of human experience are transmuted by the lyric art, relegated to their proper place in the natural scheme of things, and thereupon dismissed, their sting having been drawn. The ugly fact of adultery, potent disturber of ordered society, is echoed back from the natural world only in the cry of the giddiest of birds. Human ingratitude is dispatched with a "heigh-ho", as in the continuation of Amiens' song in As You Like It ("Heigh-ho! sing heigh-ho! unto the green holly. / Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly"). And death's harbinger sounds a reassuring—and therefore merry—note because, in the rural world where it is heard, it bears witness to the success of one more season's efforts to keep the enemy of life at bay. .Even as it sounds its "tu-who; tu-wit, tu-who", greasy Joan keels the pot. Which is natural enough, for life, in despite of death, broken friendships, cuckolded husbands, and perjured lovers, goes on. The "lawe of kynde" takes care of that. In doing so, it binds the realm of natural impulse, the sphere of common duties, and a world of mannered artifice in a relationship which it is the function of comedy to explore.
1Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry (London, 1951),p. 212.
2 Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus, translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter (New York, 1948), p. 304. The common origin of tragedy and comedy is alluded to in the passage in question: "Tragödie und Komödie auf demselben Holze wüchsen und ein Beleuchtungswechsel genüge, aus dem einen das andre zu machen" (Stockholm, 1947), p. 469.
3William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, edited by Peter Alexander (New York, 1952). All references to Shakespeare's plays in the text below are based on this edition.
4 So it seems to Mann's Adrian Leverkühn, one of whose first important musical compositions was an opera based on Love's Labour's Lost. Cf. Doctor Faustus (New York, 1948), p. 216, where the passage quoted above from V.ii.73-74 has just been cited: "he [Berowne] is young and not at all grave, and by no means the person who could give occasion to such a comment as that it is lamentable when wise men turn fools and apply all their wit to give folly the appearance of worth. In the mouth of Rosaline and her friends Biron falls quite out of his role; he is no longer Biron, but Shakespeare in his unhappy affair with the dark lady. . . . "
5The Essays of Montaigne, translated by E. J. Trechmann (London, 1935), II, 600.
Barbara L. Parker (essay date 1970)
SOURCE: "Macbeth: The Great Illusion," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. LXXVIII, No. 3, July-September, 1970, pp. 476-87.
[In the following essay, Parker argues that self-deception, such as Macbeth's delusion that he can defy destiny, is a main theme of Macbeth, and that Shakespeare presents the characters and action in the play in contradictory terms in support of this theme.]
The opening scene of Macbeth comprises exactly eleven lines. Yet within its imagery and the dual and paradoxical nature of its dialogue is embodied virtually the whole thematic structure of the play.
With the very first words ("When shall"), the element of future time is initiated. There is also the introduction of the witches, whose prophetic statements immediately ally them with the forces of destiny as well as with future time. Additionally, the witches are linked with disordered nature (thunder and lightning) and with the extinction of illumination ("fog", "set of sun", "filthy air"), which latter phenomenon, together with their association with air, endows them with an insubstantial, almost illusory aura. Finally, there is the element of paradox established by the statements "When the battle's lost and won" and "Fair is foul, and foul is fair," with their dual and diametrically opposed implications, which statements inaugurate the principle of duality upon which the play is based. For everything in the play, from the action to the characters, is rendered in a double light—all in terms of paradox or contradiction. As Macbeth is shortly to realize: "Two truths are told, / . . . and nothing is / But what is not."
All of the foregoing elements are facets of the central theme of the play: the theme of illusion or, alternatively, delusion or self-deception. Macbeth's illusion lies in his belief that he can transcend destiny. Symbolically, therefore, he arrogates to himself the properties of a god, whose exemption from mortal limitations is embodied in the conviction that "I bear a charmed life" and "none of woman born / Shall harm Macbeth."
At the beginning of the play, Macbeth's nature is still "single"; there has not yet occurred that dichotomy between intellect and action which is to sunder his nature into two warring entities. With the conception of the possibility of murder, however, this "singleness" begins to crack:
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical, Shakes so my single state of man that function Is smothered in surmise, and nothing is But what is not.
This "murder of thought" metaphor is important for several reasons. First, it points up the irony of the crime that Macbeth is shortly to commit, for in murdering the king Macbeth simultaneously murders not only the future he is attempting to ensure but his own reason and moral consciousness. Ultimately, therefore, Macbeth is his own assassin. That he has destroyed his capacity to think and feel is enunciated by Macbeth himself at the conclusion of the play:
The time has been, my senses would have cooled To hear a night-shriek, and my fell of hair Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir As life were in't. I have supped full with horrors. Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts, Cannot once start me.
The murder of moral consciousness is likewise articulated:
Had I but died an hour before this chance, I had lived a blessèd time; for from this instant . . . grace is dead, The wine of life is drawn. . . .
The element of sleep is also important. Sleep in the play is equated with life ("chief nourisher in life's feast"), and the fact that Macbeth has murdered sleep is tantamount to suicide.
The murder of reason is accompanied, both literally and symbolically, by the extinction of light, the remainder of the play, except for the final scenes, taking place wholly at night and against a backdrop of nightmare reality. The extinction of light and reason is simultaneously emblematic of a certain "blindness", as represented by Macbeth's "illusion" that in killing the king he has wrested the future for himself. The deed thus becomes the instrument of the blindness:
What hands are here? Ha! They pluck out mine eyes!
The witches, by virtue of their identification with air, darkness, and the destruction of reason, represent illusion incarnate. Even Banquo is unable to determine whether they are real or illusory:
Were such things here as we do speak about? Or have we eaten on the insane root That takes the reason prisoner?
The apparitions of the future which they conjure up represent a further facet of Macbeth's illusion (an apparition is, by definition, an illusion) and serve to point up the impossibility of its realization:
. . . by the strength of their illusion Shall draw him on to his confusion.
The murder of reason and the consequent inability to distinguish the illusory from the real is symbolized in terms of various sensory illusions which Macbeth experiences in conjunction with the crime. Most notable is Macbeth's speech just before he murders the king:
Is this a dagger which I see before me, The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee. I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible To feeling as to sight, or art thou but A dagger of the mind . . . ?
This same image is subsequently employed by Lady Macbeth after her husband's vision of Banquo's ghost:
This is the very painting of your fear. This is the air-drawn dagger which, you said, Led you to Duncan. . . . When all's done, You look but on a stool.
Compounding the illusionary significance of the dagger is the fact that it is "air-drawn", which symbolically relegates it to the realm of the witches ("they made themselves air"; "they vanished / Into the air"; "infected be the air whereon they ride"), together with the fact that Macbeth is the only person in the hall to whom Banquo's ghost is rendered visible. There is also Macbeth's auditory hallucination just after he has slain the king:
Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep' . . .
Illusion reaches its peak in Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene, nightmare being the supreme embodiment of illusion as well as the culmination of the play's nightmare backdrop. Shortly after the murder, Lady Macbeth had calmly asserted: "A little water clears us of this deed." What Lady Macbeth is saying is that one can commit murder while still retaining one's innocence; she is thus rendered, intially at least, as the antithesis of Macbeth:
Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand? No. . . .
The sleepwalking scene, however, demonstrates that she has fallen heir to the same sensory illusions ("Out, damned spot!") for which she initially rebuked Macbeth, which phenomenon is symbolically heightened by the fact that during the entire sleepwalking sequence her eyes remain open.
The equating of illusion with the extinction of light which is in turn equated with the destruction of reason is signified in terms of darkness generally in conjunction with blindness. There is Lady Macbeth's dialogue prior to the slaying of Duncan:
Come, thick night, . . . That my keen knife see not the wound it makes, Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark. . . .
There is Macbeth's invoking of "seeling night" to "scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day" and his commanding the stars to "hide your fires; / Let not light see my black and deep desires." There is the question of the third murderer, after Banquo's assassination, "Who did strike out the light?" And there is the sleepwalking scene in which Lady Macbeth's "eyes are open. . . . but their sense are shut."
All of the foregoing elements—Macbeth's double nature, the opposition of illusion and reality, and the dual and paradoxical nature of the crime itself—are facets of the principle of duality underlying the play. Macbeth's dichotomy is, as noted above, one between intellect and action. As Lady Macbeth observes, he is "afeard / To be the same in thine own act and valor / As thou art in desire". The porter's dialogue on drinking constitutes the comic perspective of this same dichotomy ("It provokes the desire, but it takes away the performance") and simultaneously merges it with the full implications of the illusion: "It makes him and it mars him; . . . in conclusion, equivocates him in a sleep, and giving him the lie, leaves him." So long as this dichotomy between thought and action exists, Macbeth still retains an element of conscience, for the brain is at odds with the hand; the mind is unable to sanction the deed. It is only with Macbeth's decision to "crown my thoughts with acts" and make "the very firstlings of my heart . . . / The firstlings of my hand" that reason and moral consciousness are totally destroyed and self-murder symbolically absolute.
That Macbeth has doomed himself is further signified by the Biblical allusions pervading the play, and in fact the progress of his descent into Hell may be precisely charted by the allusional sequence. To begin with, the king is equated, throughout the play, with love, grace, and divine benediction. This is initially manifested in the king's assertion that "we love him highly, / And shall continue our graces towards him," and his promise that "signs of nobleness, like stars, shall shine / On all deservers." In murdering the king, therefore, Macbeth not only effects his own damnation but simultaneously destroys his prime source of beatification. The crime's spiritual implications are summed up in the fact that the murder is tantamount to the violation of "the Lord's anointed temple".
The imagery of Hell and damnation is very subtly developed. It is first introduced in conjunction with the witches: "What, can the devil speak true?"; and, "The instruments of darkness tell us truths, / Win us with honest trifles, to betray's / In deepest consequence." By this means, Macbeth, in electing to ally himself with the "instruments of darkness", becomes part of that darkness, which fact foreshadows the darkness/blindness imagery discussed above, as well as Macbeth's association with "night's black agents". A further link with the witches is established by Macbeth's statement that he "burned in desire to question them", which burning motif is subsequently employed by Lady Macbeth: "What hath quenched them hath given me fire." These burning images are not only connotative of Hell, but are also a variation of the witches' incantation, "Fire burn and cauldron bubble." The atmosphere of Hell deepens with Lady Macbeth's invoking of "thick night [to] pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell".
That Macbeth is not oblivious to the spiritual implications of the crime is signified by numerous statements:
If th' assassination Could trammel up the consequence, and catch, With his surcease, success; that but this blow Might be the be-all and the end-all—here, But here, upon this bank and shoal of time, We'd jump the life to come.
. . . his [Duncan's] virtues Will plead like angels trumpet-tongued against The deep damnation of his taking-off. . . .
Macbeth's decision, however, is between salvation and future glory, and it is the path of future glory which he elects to tread.
With the murder of Duncan, damnation is virtually complete, as signified by the fact that the crime is concomitant with the inability to pray:
But wherefore could I not pronounce 'Amen'? I had most need of blessing, and 'Amen' Stuck in my throat.
Additionally, there is Macbeth's "murder" of sleep. For sleep is not only equated with life, but with innocence and salvation as well:
'Sleep no more! Macbeth does murder sleep'—the innocent sleep . . .
But they did say their prayers, and addressed them Again to sleep.
Macduff observes that "not in the legions / Of horrid hell can come a devil more damned / In evils to top Macbeth," and Malcolm equates Macbeth's fall, in magnitude and implication, with Satan's: "Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell. . . . "
Even more noteworthy is the virtual equating of the king figure with Christ, as depicted by the king's miraculous power of healing conjointly with his "heavenly gift of prophecy". Let us first examine the king as healer, as portrayed by a doctor:
There are a crew of wretched souls That stay his cure: their malady convinces The great assay of art; but at his touch, Such sanctity hath heaven given his hand, They presently amend.
The identification of the king with "heaven", "sanctity", and "soul"—and therefore, in symbolical terms, with salvation—should be carefully noted, as should the emphasis on the phenomenon of his power to heal by touch, for it recalls the figure of Christ the healer depicted by Saint Luke:
. . . all they that had any sick with divers diseases brought them unto him; and he laid his hands on every one of them, and healed them. (Luke 4:40)
The "healing benediction" of the king is to be contrasted with the doctor's total inability to cure Lady Macbeth and his contention that "more needs she the divine than the physician," which statement punctuates the fact of spiritual suicide engendered by the crime. That the gift of prophecy is "heavenly" should also be noted, for it endows the king with an aura of divinity, as well as rendering him the inverse embodiment of the evil prophetic power of the witches.
The principle of duality is not only embodied in characters and events but emerges as the dominant characteristic of the dialogue, the most significant example being contained in "Fair is foul, and foul is fair." For inherent in the duality attaching to virtually everything in the play is both a fair and a foul interpretation. This is manifested in such diversely paradoxical statements as: "When the battle's lost and won"; "Fathered he is, and yet he's fatherless"; "Wouldst not play false, / And yet wouldst wrongly win"; "This supernatural soliciting / Cannot be ill, cannot be good"; "Lesser than Macbeth, and greater"; "It makes him and it mars him"—as well as in the dual and paradoxical nature of the illusion itself (in destroying the king, Macbeth destroys himself). It is also manifested in the true/false inversion which takes place after the conception of the crime—that which is evil or illusory appears as fair. Thus the doomed Duncan, approaching Macbeth's castle, observes that "heaven's breath / Smells wooingly here" and perceives Lady Macbeth as a "fair and noble hostess". Banquo, after hearing the witches' prophecy, asks Macbeth why he fears "things that do sound so fair". Macbeth will "mock the time with fairest show". And Malcolm observes that "all things foul would wear the brows of grace."
The word "double" thus sounds the keynote of the play and is itself employed in every conceivable context, the most thematically all-inclusive being the witches' incantatory "Double, double, toil and trouble." There is Macbeth's decision to make the assurance of his future "double sure" by taking "a bond of fate", and Lady Macbeth's service to Duncan "in every point twice done, and then done double". There is also the fact that the king is staying at Macbeth's castle "in double trust". And there is Macbeth's final, tragic realization of the true nature of the witches, those "juggling fiends . . . / That palter with us in a double sense" and "[lie] like truth".
Since destiny is indissolubly linked with time, Macbeth is ultimately attempting to control both. He is thus essaying to place himself exterior to time and exempt himself from its laws.
Time is represented in the play by two diametrically opposed devices: the imagery of planting and harvesting, symbolic of the natural projection of time, and the element of prophecy, symbolic of the unnatural projection of time. The king is associated with the natural order of time, and, within the context of the planting imagery depicting him, with the process of natural growth and fruition associated therewith:
I have begun to plant thee, and will labor To make thee full of growing.
Implicit in this metaphor is the king not only as a source of growth but as a source of life, a phenomenon early recognized by Banquo ("There if I grow, / The harvest is your own") and incorporated in Ross's observation: "Thriftless ambition . . . will ravin up / Thine own life's means!" Growth, therefore, represents the medium by which present and future are bridged, the future being synonymous with the fruition which is the natural consequence of that growth, and the whole process being emblematic of the natural continuum of time.
Conversely, prophecy leaps over the process of growth by mirroring the future in the present instant. Thus Lady Macbeth, in choosing to realize the fruits of prophecy rather than of natural growth, is the incarnation of this phenomenon:
Thy letters have transported me beyond This ignorant present, and I feel now The future in the instant.
so also is Macbeth:
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time, We'd jump the life to come.
The use of "jump" conjointly with "time" serves a dual purpose: it connotes not only the sense of "risk", the Elizabethan meaning of the word, but the sense of "leaping over", which metaphor is continued several lines later in Macbeth's enunciation of "vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself. It is thus the irony of the play that Macbeth, in murdering the king, destroys not only the fountainhead of his existence but, simultaneously, the access to the very future he is attempting to ensure.
Symptomatic of Macbeth's preoccupation with destiny is the fact that he continually thinks in terms of future time: "But of that tomorrow"; "But we'll take tomorrow"; "Tomorrow / We'll hear ourselves again"; "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow".
The perverting of the natural order of time is reflected generally in the supplanting of daylight by darkness and specifically in the imagery of inverted time:
By th' clock 'tis day, And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp: Is 't night's predominance, or the day's shame, That darkness does the face of earth entomb, When living light should kiss it?
The death of Macbeth, which is synonymous with the restoration of the natural order of time, is associated with the reestablishment of the imagery of planting ("What's more to do, / Which would be planted newly with the time—)together with the restitution of grace ("What needful else / That calls upon us, by the grace of Grace / We will perform in measure, time, and place"). It is also accompanied by the ending of the night/day inversion and the restoration of light.
Concomitant with this restoration of light—which also signifies the end of Macbeth's illusionary "night-blindness"—occurs the moment of truth: that brilliant flash of tragic vision in which Macbeth perceives, in all of its ramifications, the nature of the delusion he has harbored. For the future—that future for which he "[de]filed my mind" and sold his soul—is suddenly illuminated only as emptiness and death:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death.
It is ironic that the revelation of truth is realized in terms of the factor of time which Macbeth had so desperately sought to control. Doubly ironic is his final image of himself as time's fool.
Illusion, then, is the bedrock on which the thematic structure of the play rests and from which the underlying principle of duality derives. For paradox is the very nature of illusion simply by virtue of the fact that illusion is the inverse of reality and therefore "nothing is / But what is not." Thus everything in the play is rendered in a double perspective. Thus Macbeth, in forging his future, severs his very access to that future; in the process of vanquishing time, he is vanquished by time. Macbeth himself is depicted in dual and paradoxical terms as a consequence of the sundering of his nature engendered by the illusion, the principle of duality being further embodied in the ensuing "fair/foul" inversion attaching to character, events, and even dialogue.
But perhaps the greatest irony of all is that phenomenon accompanying the moment of truth—that phenomenon wherein Macbeth, in suddenly comprehending the limitations imposed by mortality, transcends that mortality. For the grandeur with which he confronts the inevitability of his own doom, together with the absolute and transcendent clarity of his vision, belongs only to greatness and the gods.
Carl Dennis (essay date 1973)
SOURCE: "The Vision of Twelfth Night," in Tennessee Studies in Literature, Vol. XVIII, 1973, pp. 63-74.
[In the following essay, Dennis suggests that the self-deceptions practiced by Orsino and Olivia in Twelfth Night are both related to vanity, specifically as self-glorification in Orsino's case and narcissism in Olivia's case.]
More than most of Shakespeare's comedies, Twelfth Night is so rich in meaning that no single critical perspective seems to be able to encompass and unify all the issues that the play raises. In recent years, however, some very illuminating attempts at interpretation have been made. Perhaps the most convincing total view is presented by Joseph Summers in his essay, "The Masks of Twelfth Night."1 For Mr. Summers the play is about the masks or guises which men assume, consciously or unconsciously, that prevent the discovery or expression of their real natures. Most of the masking here is the result of self-deception. Orsino may believe that he is really in love, but his stylized melancholy as a lovesick suitor suggests that he is more intrigued with the idea of being a lover than with any particular woman, that he confuses a conventional role with real emotion. Olivia may believe that her grief for her dead brother is sincere, but her extravagant plans for mourning suggest more a determination to fulfill some social ideal of the grieving lady than a need to express a grief she actually feels. And Sir Andrew and Malvolio, seduced by cruder notions of ideal upperclass behavior, make pretensions to a cultivation of manners and nobility of character which are bathetically crude and unjustified. The wisest characters in the play, Mr. Summers argues, avoid self-deception by consciously adopting their masks as necessities. Viola must adopt the disguise of a boy to protect herself, having been cast ashore friendless in a foreign country. And Feste, although he wears no motley in his brain, must assume the professional role of the fool to make his living in the world, using the license of his role to point out the various self-deceptions in the other characters. None of the masks are fully removed until the romantically magical appearance of Sebastian, which undeceives the Duke and Olivia and makes Viola's mask no longer necessary. But even then Malvolio and Sir Andrew are unreformed, and Feste, yielding to the demands of his vocation, must preserve his role to the end.
I have summarized Mr. Summers' position here not to refute it but to build upon it, for I agree with most of his contentions. What I want to do in this essay is to place the self-deceptions of the characters in more specifically moral terms, to talk about the kinds of self-centeredness that underlie the confusion of feelings with social conventions. This approach will help make more clear the close relations between the major and the minor characters, and will finally bring into prominence the religious dimensions of the play that are often neglected.
In discussing the delusions of the major characters, Mr. Summers asserts that the causes of Orsino's roleplaying are "boredom, lack of physical love, and excessive imagination."2 Though all of these causes are operative, the play also encourages us to judge his posturing in moral terms as a kind of self-glorification. Orsino is vain. He loves in the grand style because he wants to display to others the exquisiteness of his own emotions. All his actions, all his words are public. Never speaking once in soliloquy, he usually has as an audience for his moodiness all the retainers of his court. Even when he goes off to muse in quiet about love, at the end of the first scene, he makes it clear that his courtiers are to accompany him:3
Away before me to sweet beds of flowers. Love thoughts lie rich when canopied with bowers.
Apparently even his silent reveries are meant to impress others. If he prefers Cesario above the other courtiers, the reason seems again to be vanity. For he sees in the delicate and sensitive boy, in whom "all is semblative a woman's part" (I.iv.34), a particularly appreciative audience for his polished refinement as a lover. On one occasion, in fact, just before sending Cesario on his second mission to Olivia, he tells the boy specifically to follow the example of his master when he falls in love:
Come hither, boy. If ever thou shalt love, In the sweet pangs of it remember me; 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 beloved.
The irony here is that the pupil to whom Orsino pretentiously offers instruction is a far better lover than the teacher. For the selfless woman beneath the boy's clothes loves humbly in complete secrecy, not vainly in the public eye, and proves her love not by words but by deeds, serving Orsino by aiding his suit to another woman.
When the role-playing of Orsino is seen as a function of his vanity, one notices a specific connection between him and Olivia's other declared suitor, Sir Andrew Aguecheek. The disparity between Sir Andrew's oafishness and his expectations of becoming a complete gentleman only magnifies the disparity between Orsino's actual self-involvement and his extravagant claims to suffer the emotions of real love. Both men are prompted by a vain desire to impress the world with their refinement. And their both being rejected as suitors by Olivia suggests an even closer connection in their deficiencies as lovers. What makes Sir Andrew ridiculous as a suitor is not only his boorish stupidity but also his obvious unconcern with the woman he is pursuing. He pays court to Olivia simply to fulfill the role of the gentleman, not because he is emotionally attracted to her, and thus is ready to "accost" and "board" Maria the minute Sir Toby suggests it. For if the aim of courtship is only to polish one's manners, almost any woman will do. In this way he helps make it more obvious that Orsino is attracted not to Olivia but to some disembodied image of a woman in his mind, an image which he creates only to stimulate impressive poses in himself
Both men are thus encapsulated by their imaginations. They pay court to Olivia, it should be noticed, not directly but through intermediaries, Sir Andrew through Sir Toby and Orsino through Viola. For direct contact might have the painful effect of forcing them to subordinate their ideal programs to the dictates of a real lady. Too engrossed in perfecting their own images for public approval, they cannot relate at all to people around them. Sir Andrew's self-imprisonment is more grossly obvious since the discrepancy between his view of himself and the view others have of him is so tremendous, but he only exaggerates aspects of Orsino's isolation. As Sir Andrew is mocked consciously by his friend Sir Toby, so Orsino is exposed unconsciously by his servant Cesario, who gives him a real object of love whom he is too self-engrossed to perceive. Indeed, in his treatment of Cesario, Sir Andrew appears no more foolish than the Duke. Where Andrew admiringly writes down Cesario's rhetoric for future use, awed by terms like "odours," "pregnant," and "vouchsafed" (III.i.100), Orsino compliments his servant on his "masterly" speech (II.iv.23), seeing in it a proof that the boy can appreciate his master's professional love-longings. And where Sir Andrew wants to frighten off his supposed rival Cesario in a duel, Orsino for one moment at the end of the play wants to kill Cesario in cold blood, when his vanity is hurt by the boy's apparent marriage to Olivia. It is hard to tell here who is more shut off from reality. Only when the Duke decides to give up the woman who doesn't love him for the woman who does can he be said to move out of the mental prison which his vanity has constructed.
Like the Duke's posturings as a lover, Olivia's exaggerated grief for her dead brother is motivated by a vain desire for displaying her sensibilities; but since she is soon cured of her affectation by Feste's wit and by falling in love with Cesario, it may at first be difficult to see her as being as self-involved as Orsino. Yet if we look closely at her love for Cesario, we find that it is not a natural attraction ousting artificial ideals, but a reflexive relation in which Olivia loves an image of herself. The fact that Cesario is really a woman disguised as a man suggests not only that Olivia has been "charmed" by a mere "outside," as Viola says (II.ii.19), but also that she is engaging in a form of narcissism. She loves someone of her own sex because she is too self-involved to love an object that is totally distinguished from herself. That particular aspect of herself which she finds mirrored in Cesario seems to be her proud imperviousness to love. In Cesario's resistance to her charms, in his courteous but plain-spoken criticisms of her character, she finds an ideal image of her own haughtiness to Orsino. In loving him she therefore pays tribute to the beauty of her own Petrarchan detachment. Thus the more scornful Cesario becomes, the more she dotes on him. "Oh, what a deal of scorn looks beautiful / In the contempt and anger of his lip," she exclaims as her advances are rebuffed on one occasion (III.i. 157-58), charmed by the kind of disdain in which she herself has taken pride. This reflexiveness of her love for Cesario is emphasized overtly in a symbolic way by the fact that the names "Olivia" and "Viola" are anagrams, each containing the same letters. For to Olivia, Viola is not a separate person but an anagram of herself, a reflected compendium of her own imagined virtues. To the reader, of course, Viola is more of a moral contrast to Olivia than a moral complement. With no taint of narcissism, she loves a man generously and selflessly without any hope of immediate return.
Olivia's narcissism is mirrored in an exaggerated way by the narcissism of her steward Malvolio, who is "sick of self-love" (I.v.97). Whereas Olivia loves an object who represents herself, Malvolio, still more involuted, loves only grandiose fantasies of his own greatness. More proud than vain, more self-involved than either Orsino or Sir Andrew, Olivia and Malvolio do not even require an appreciative audience to further their self-esteem. They are their own audience. Olivia can therefore live somewhat apart from the life of her retainers, unlike the Duke; and Malvolio can afford to offend the retainers with his prudish spleen. To both, the world outside their imaginations is only a distraction. Thus Malvolio's rudeness is often only an extension of his mistress's. He is discourteous to Cesario partly because he has no respect for anyone but himself, but he also is following his mistress's proud orders to turn away all missions of courtship. And Viola includes both mistress and steward when she asserts, "The rudeness that hath appeared [in me] have I learned from my entertainment" (I.v.230-31). In the same way Malvolio is following orders when he tries to quiet the merry-making of Sir Toby. If the noise offends his inflated dignity, it also disturbs his mistress's self-indulgent grief and her subsequent self-worshiping love for Cesario. This connection is reinforced later when Olivia points out the similarity of her own melancholy and Malvolio's apparent madness, after he appears before her smiling without cause: "I am as mad as he, / If sad and merry madness equal be" (III.iv.14-15).
For the reader, of course, the common denominator of their disorders is not madness but pride. Such parallelism is underscored by the introduction of the device of the anagram in the trick played on Malvolio. For the name that Maria's letter gives to Malvolio's inflated idea of himself is MOAI, and, as Malvolio says, "every one of these letters are in [my] name" (II.v.153). His proud identification of himself with the MOAI of the letter, with the darling of his mistress and the Fates, is a grotesque image of Olivia's reflexive love for her anagram Viola. And Malvolio's name itself tells us of his relation to his mistress. For "Malvolio" suggests not only "bad will" but, anagrammatically, "bad Olivia."4 Malvolio represents what Olivia might become if she had no sense of humor, no ability to detach herself from her own follies. Not until Olivia marries Sebastian can she be safely said to repudiate the Malvolio within her, and even this event may at first appear to be more of an accident than a sign of inner change. But Sebastian seems to defend the reality of her growth when he asserts that "nature" moved her to marry him and not Cesario (V.i.267). Presumably her instincts are able to distinguish the man from the woman even though her conscious wits are befuddled. Nature seeks its complement, not its reflection. Poor Malvolio, however, does not change. Sir Toby and his friends try in a comic way to exorcise his pride by exorcising from his possessed mind the father of pride, the Devil; but he is too immured in his self-love to be shaken by this humiliation.5
Because "nature" helps Olivia to break out of her self-involvement, we may be inclined to see the greatest contemner of unnatural ideals in the play, Sir Toby Belch, as the wisest man in Illyria. His celebration of the demands of the flesh and the simple joys of conviviality is an effective antidote to the excesses of artificial love that betray his niece and the Duke. Toby is too committed to the pleasures of food, drink, and social merriment to be drawn into the solipsistic worlds of vanity and narcissism, and his joke on Malvolio is a fitting reprisal against all unnatural forms of delusive self-involvement. And yet with all his naturalness, Toby never achieves any deep attachment to the world of men around him. If he is taken in by no grandiose images of himself, he is nevertheless thoroughly selfish. Living mainly to satisfy his physical wants and willing to manipulate others for his own comfort, he is just as self-involved and self-confined as the more introverted protagonists. Surely in his role as a go-between for Sir Andrew to Olivia he is opposed in every way to selfless Viola as she exhorts Olivia to love the Duke. Viola serves because she loves Orsino, Toby because he wants Sir Andrew's money. Viola disguises her love and engages in a service that if successful will spoil her happiness; Toby disguises his contempt for his declared friend in order to dupe him more thoroughly. His opposition to Viola is emphasized overtly when he tries for his own amusement to discomfit her and Sir Andrew by arranging a duel between them. This plan is frustrated, it should be noticed, by the appearance of another moral foil to Sir Toby, Antonio, who has risked his life in coming to Illyria in order to accompany and protect his beloved friend, Sebastian. To be sure, Toby's Sir Andrew may not deserve such dedication, and he is partly responsible for his own duping. But Toby aggravates his friend's vanity by his constant praise, encouraging him to pursue Olivia even when Sir Andrew wants to give over the enterprise. And Toby treats his niece poorly as well. Though he knows Sir Andrew is a fool, he is willing to bother Olivia with Andrew's troublesome courtship, and perhaps is even willing to have her marry him, if it will further his own comfort. Though we can call Toby a clear-sighted rogue who never deceives himself about his own intentions, we cannot finally overlook his egotism. Even his shrewdness is qualified toward the end of the play when his mistaking Sebastian for Cesario leads to his being beaten. The world proves too mysterious to be approached simply through practical intelligence.
It is particularly fitting that Sir Toby has his head cracked by Sebastian; for Sebastian, along with his sister Viola, embodies a way of life which is opposed to Toby's and which is finally vindicated in the play as the truest and most productive attitude to the world. Viola and Sebastian are genuine givers and receivers. They love each other and their friends, and, more generally, they love life in a way that enables them to maintain a receptive openness to all experience. Thus they confront the world directly, cut off from men and events neither by the appetitive selfishness of Sir Toby nor by the fantasy-loving self-involvement of Olivia, Orsino, and their comic doubles. Sebastian is, of course, somewhat mystified by the world of Illyria, where he is mistaken for Cesario; but the confusion is more the Illyrians' than his own. And when a rich and beautiful noblewoman throws herself mysteriously at his feet, his surprise does not prevent him from gladly accepting the lady's offer, from throwing himself completely into the experience. Avoiding the kind of wit that tries to manipulate the world for practical advantage, avoiding the self-centered fantasizing that prefers the inner world to the outer, Sebastian discovers a realm that is more beneficent and miraculous than the ego-ridden characters could ever imagine. The right attitude to the world is centered neither in the natural wants of the flesh nor in the artificial constructs of the imagination, but in a religious awe before the unearned bounty which the world bestows on man, an awe akin to man's perception of God's grace.
The key word in the play for this religious perception is "wonder," and though at times the marvels it discloses make it seem akin to madness, Sebastian is careful to distinguish the two states of mind:
This is the air, that is the glorious sun, This pearl she gave me, I do feel't and see't. And though 'tis wonder that enwraps me thus, Yet 'tis not madness.
Although Sebastian goes on to say that the strangeness of events tempts him to call himself mad, his very ability to marvel at his experience is a sign of his sanity. For to be wise is to perceive the miraculousness of the world. This distinction between madness and wonder is crucial in Twelfth Night because those characters whose self-involvement prevents their wonder at life are shown to be tainted with various kinds of madness. Orsino declares his madness openly, for living in the irrational world of whim is part of the lover's code. His fancy, he boasts at various times, is "full of shapes," "unstaid and skittish," "giddy and unfirm" (I.i.14; II.iv. 18, 34). Olivia too acknowledges that her love is irrational. When she falls in love with Cesario, her mind seems diseased:
Even so quickly may one catch the plague? Methinks I feel this youth's perfections With an invisible and subtle stealth To creep in at mine eyes.
And Malvolio, with his fantastic ambition aggravated by Maria's letter, engages in antics that prove him the victim of "very midsummer madness," as Olivia says (III.iv.61), and require his mock incarceration. Even Sir Toby, who is free of self-deluding fantasies, is mad in one sense. In abandoning himself to his appetities he makes his life chaotic, rejecting, as Maria says, "the modest limits of order" (I.iii.9); and when he enters drunk to tell of Cesario's arrival, Feste makes it clear that Sir Toby is "like a drowned man, a fool, and madman" (I.v.139). His self-indulgence, like that of Orsino, Olivia, and Malvolio, shuts him off from reality.
The religious awe which the loving person feels at the miraculous bounty of the world often takes the specific form of a particularly trusting attitude to fortune. Although Sebastian has been wrecked at sea and apparently lost his sister forever, he does not regard his good fortune in Illyria as a just compensation for previous misfortune but rather as the working of fate whose generosity is above and beyond his ken. His experience is an "accident and flood of fortune" that "exceed[s] all instance, all discourse" (IV.iii.11-12). And in trusting fortune here he is repeating what his sister has already done. When Viola is first cast ashore friendless, she has as much reason as her brother to curse the cruelty of chance. But instead she puts herself in a hopeful frame of mind, believing that chance may have saved Sebastian:
Viola: Perchance he is not drowned. What think you sailors?
Captain: It is perchance that you yourself were saved.
Viola: Oh, my poor brother: And so perchance may he be.
Later, Viola shows the same kind of hope with regard to her frustrated love for Orsino. As she contemplates the apparently hopeless tangle of misplaced affections, she gives up any attempt to resolve the confusion herself, and decides to rely on the power of time to bring about a happy conclusion:
O Time, thou must untangle this, not I! It is too hard a knot for me to untie!
Brother and sister, then, regard fate as a power outside their control which they must trust to right in the future, whatever inadequacies appear in the present. The less generous, more self-involved characters, however, show themselves to be incapable to making this leap of faith. They all fail to trust fortune, though they fail in different ways.
The trouble with Orsino's attitude to fortune is that he identifies it with the vagaries of his own moods, instead of regarding it as an independent power. Because of his self-centeredness the events of his world seem confined to the activities of his own imagination, and the shifts of fortune become indistinguishable from the shifting contents of his mind. Instead of trusting in external fate, he simply abandons himself to "the spirit of love" which resides within:
O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou! That, notwithstanding thy capacity Receiveth as the sea, naught enters there, Of what validity and pitch soe'er, But falls into abatement and low price, Even in a minute! So full of shapes is fancy That it alone is high fantastical.
For Orsino the sea of love that swallows all experience is not the sea of time to which all events are subject, but the inner sea of fantasy.6 His abandoning himself to love is therefore not a reliance on fate to bring about his union with his beloved but a reliance on his fancy for the entertainment that results from continuous change.
Olivia's lack of humble trust in fortune is perhaps less easy to perceive. For when she finds herself suddenly in love with Cesario, she appears to believe that her fate lies in the hands of powers outside of her control:
I do I know not what, and fear to find Mine eye too great a flatterer for my mind. Fate, show thy force, ourselves we do not owe. What is decreed must be, and be this so.
What makes one suspicious about this statement of submission is that fate here is not so much an external force as another name for the strongest desire within Olivia. In naming fate as her master, she is simply trying to avoid responsibility for yielding to feelings which she knows to be suspect. Her apparent trust in fortune is thus really only an expression of her self-centeredness. Like Orsino she is too self-involved to think of fate as something separate from her own inner life. She confuses fortune with her own whims, with her reluctance to fight against her narcissism. Only when fortune miraculously helps to change her reflexive love for Cesario into real object-love for Sebastian does she become aware of its independent power. Then she can perceive in awe that her fate is "most wonderful" (v.i.232).
A more gross example of pride with regard to fortune is found in Malvolio's self-delusions. Malvolio, it should be noticed, sprinkles his ambitious fantasies of preferment with casual references to the power of fortune and the gods. In the crucial scene where his ambition allows him to be gulled by Maria's letter, he enters musing "'Tis but fortune, all is fortune," that his mistress should admire him and want to marry him (II.V.27); after reading the letter and applying its praises to himself, he exclaims, "Jove and my stars be praised" (II.v. 186-87); and even when Olivia has called him mad to his face, his self-infatuation allows him to exclaim smugly, "Well, Jove, not I, is the doer of this, and is to be thanked" (III.iv.91-92). Behind all these pious bows to fortune lies Malvolio's belief that he owes his supposed rise not to luck but to his irresistible merit. Though he is told in the letter that "some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em" (II.v.156-58), he is too self-loving for the "thrusting" to seem anything but an inevitable reward for his superlative talents; and indeed he has imagined the contents of the letter before he receives it. Because he is so certain of his unqualified worth, it is impossible for him to see fate as miraculous at all. A truly religious perception of the bounty of the gods is accessible only to the man who knows that he is not all-deserving, who is humble enough to see gifts as gifts, not as rewards, and so can wonder at the world's graciousness. As a result of his pride, the only fortune that Malvolio encounters is a bad one, the misfortune of his being mocked and imprisoned as a madman. Feste's taunting moral on this occasion, "And thus the whirligig of time brings in his revenges" (V.i.384-85), makes clear that fickle fortune always is ready to discomfit those who assume that time is their servant, a point he makes emphatically again at the end of the play in his song about the inevitability of "the wind and the rain" befouling "swaggerers."
After dealing with characters who identify fate with their own moods or their own merits, one turns with relief to Sir Toby's practical demands on life. Making no attempt to subjectify fate, Toby is content if fortune allows him the simple pastimes of the immediate present. And yet Toby's belief that he can live for the moment suggests finally a limitation of imagination, a somewhat casual dismissal of fortune as a power not finally relevant to his own life. This skepticism seems to be articulated most directly when he discusses Sir Andrew's dancing talents in terms of astrological influences:
Sir Toby: I did think, by the excellent constitution of thy leg, it was formed under the star of a galliard.
Were we not born under Taurus? Sir Andrew: Taurus! That's sides and heart. Sir Toby: No, sir, it is legs and thighs. Let me see thee caper.
Toby's astrological references here are so patently flippant, so clearly introduced merely to puff up Sir Andrew's vanity, that they suggest just the opposite of superstition, a naturalism that views man as subject to no influences at all beyond his own control. It is obvious to Toby that he alone, and not the stars, manipulates Sir Andrew. But Toby's proud confidence that he can control people and events to satisfy his simple demands is rudely jolted at the end of the play by the miracle of Sebastian's appearance. Fortune cannot be anticipated. Wonder, not practical shrewdness, is the only adequate response, and Toby's reliance on his manipulative powers makes that wonder impossible.
A somewhat more experienced and self-critical form of naturalism is expressed at the end of the play in Feste's final song. This song is often taken as an expression of a healthy realism about the workaday facts of life which must be acknowledged after holiday wish-fulfillment, but a closer look suggests a different meaning. The misfortunes that befall the subject of the song are the results not of impractical idealism but of sensual self-indulgence. The song is a prodigal's confession, a gloomy tale of the childish man who expects the world to satisfy his appetites.7 The speaker lives the life of a swaggering boaster and a drunkard, an extreme mixture, perhaps, of Malvolio and Sir Toby; and the misfortunes of "the wind and the rain" which he encounters "everyday" are less an expression of the hostility of fate than the result of his own actions. There is more than enough wind in his boasting and wet in his drink to give him all the trouble he encounters, and this is all he can ever expect to encounter by confronting the world on the level of sensual demands. Feste's song recognizes the practical limits of such childish indulgence, but its earthly prudence is not the final standard of the play; for it cannot do justice to the large and open world of giving and faith where Sebastian and Viola dwell. The alternative offered to the song's perspective is not simply the temporary joy and release of secular festival but a religious wonder that reveals an existence more real, more complete, and of a higher order than common life. This is the vision man attains once he is able to break out of the confining walls of the self
1 Joseph Summers, "The Masks of Twelfth Night," University of Kansas City Review 22 (Oct. 1955), 25-32.
2 Ibid., 26.
3 Citations from Twelth Night in this essay are to The Complete Works, ed. G. B. Harrison (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968).
4 The anagram isn't perfect since "Volio" contains no "a"; but "Volio" and "Volia" are similar enough to suggest that the likeness is not accidental.
5 The special relation of the Devil to pride is specifi-cally made clear with reference to Olivia. When Viola looks at Olivia's uncovered face she says, "I see what you are, you are too proud; / But if you were the Devil, you are fair" (I.v.269-70).
6 The reference to the sea of time in this passage has been pointed out by D. J. Palmer in his interesting essay, "Art and Nature in Twelfth Night," Critical Quarterly 9 (1967), 201-12. In discussing several passages dealing with fortune, Mr. Palmer contends that the notion of fortune's power is central to the play's meaning. His approach differs from mine in that he sees fortune simply as the fragility and mutability of human affairs; I contend that fortune is a beneficent force and that the characters can be discriminated morally by the degree of their receptiveness to its agency.
7 Leslie Hotson makes the interesting suggestion that the "foolish thing" of the first stanza should be taken in the sexual sense, and that the song catalogues the three vices of drunkenness which correspond to the three ages of man, lechery, wrath, and sloth (The First Night of Twelfth Night [New York: Macmillan, 1955], 170-71). Mr. Hotson, however, regards the song primarily as a caution against Saturnalian excesses, and so he does not attempt to place it in the context of those values in the play which are higher than prudence.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 16364
Trevor McNeely (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: "Supersubtle Shakespeare: Othello as a Rhetorical Allegory," in Dutch Quarterly Review, Vol. 19, No. 4, 1989, pp. 243-63.
[In the following essay, McNeely analyzes Othello as Shakespeare's allegory on the power of rhetoric to deceive. McNeely observes that just as Iago dupes Othello, Shakespeare dupes his audiences and critics, persuading us to believe in the plausibility of the story, rather than its essential absurdity.]
Criticism has been aware for almost three centuries, since Rymer first raised the question in 1693, of a striking contradiction in Othello and in the character of its hero. E.É. Stoll, writing in 1915, sketched something of the critical history of this contradiction, noting that while the contradiction has sometimes been acknowledged by the critics, it has invariably been ignored in interpretations of the play. The contradiction has to do, of course, primarily with the incredible facility of Othello's fall at Iago's hands, leading directly and precipitately to the murder of his wife. Whether in terms of time, of method, of motivation, or of character, the whole process of Othello's conversion is manifestly incredible and absurd, it is suggested. Many approaches to the problem are possible, but, most succinctly, I can perhaps demonstrate the supposed absurdity of this transformation in terms of a fundamental character trait in Othello that his fall necessarily predicates. The particular trait has various labels, whether considered a commendable or a censurable trait, but its essence is trust—a trusting or credulous nature is, one way or another, Othello's downfall, we are told. To Coleridge it is "unsuspiciousness";1 to Bradley "his trust, where he trusts, is absolute",2 to Wilson Knight Othello is "a symbol of faith in human values of love, of war, of romance".3
Now it is readily apparent in the case of all three of these descriptive expressions that something is wrong,—-wrong, that is, on the plain evidence of the play itself, in the murder of Desdemona. For each description involves the critic in what amounts (or at least very nearly) to a contradiction. Coleridge's unsuspiciousness can apply thus only in the case of Othello's relations with Iago—quite clearly its opposite obtains in his relations with Desdemona, of whom he is wildly, irrationally suspicious to the point of utter absurdity. And similarly with Bradley's criticism, if Othello's trust (of Iago) is "absolute", then plainly his lack of trust of Desdemona is equally absolute. Bradley further calls Othello Shakespeare's "greatest poet", a "character . . . so noble", whose "sufferings are so heart-rending, that he stirs . . . in most readers a. . . . mingled love and pity which they feel for no other hero in Shakespeare".4 Considering again the obvious contradictions in Othello's behaviour, such criticism cannot be better tagged than Shakespeare himself tags it in some lines taken from the very play in which this paragon appears:
It is a judgement maim'd and most imperfect That will confess perfection so could err
Against all rules of nature, and must be driven To find out practices of cunning hell Why this should be.
(I, iii, 99-103)5
As these lines, I believe, deliberately hint, there is more to the conception of Othello than Bradley's criticism (or any other criticism that passes over the contradictions in the play) sees. Even in Stoll, who discusses at length both the contradictions themselves and criticism's failure to resolve them, no real attempt is made to deal with the problems they raise. Thus Stoll cites only the "ancient convention" of the "calumniator credited", as he calls it, as explanation, listing analogues in Shakespeare and other play-wrights of the fall of a "blameless hero", and concluding that "proof or probability is not required".6 I do not believe that this is a sufficient answer to the problem, and suggest that the evidence is overwhelming both that Shakespeare was fully conscious and fully in control of his pen in Othello—in other words, that he knew the contradictions were there and put them there for a purpose—and that whatever else Othello may be, it is primarily an implicit allegorical commentary on the functions and powers of rhetoric.
To enter Othello's rhetorical world, let me direct the reader first to an episode in the first scene of the play. Iago, unseen, is informing Brabantio, at the top of his voice and in coarse, blunt terms, of his daughter's elopement with the Moor, and in the course of his tirade he throws out a particularly vivid and characteristically "Iagesque" image for their liaison—the famous image of "the beast with two backs" (I, i, 119). The image is from Rabelais originally,7 and means of course fornication, but as well as its obvious meaning in Othello, it is an organic and carefully contrived poetic motive that has echoes throughout the play: indeed it might stand as an archetype of the really extraordinary linguistic care that Shakespeare has lavished on this play from beginning to end. Illustration: for a pattern of deliberately contrived imagery that this single motive evokes, consider first the name of the inn at which Desdemona and Othello lodge: the Sagittary—as it happens a literal "beast with two backs" in the figure of the centaur from classical mythology. The image of the centaur in turn then calls up further associations, of the mating of men with animals, for example—Iago's "you'll have your daughter cover'd with a Barbary horse", or his offer to "change [his] humanity with a baboon". And the "Barbary horse" image, finally, ties in directly with the "Barbary" name in Desdemona's willow song of Act IV. Patterns of imagery like this are only discovered by careful and repeated readings of Shakespeare in the study; they are never observed in performance, but their existence illustrates both the degree of control over his material Shakespeare clearly has, and also that a play like Othello was obviously composed in the study with great care, and not in haste prior to a performance. Such patterns of imagery are particularly significant in this, however, that they illustrate strikingly the fact that Othello in the study and Othello on the stage are really quite different animals—that the play is a "beast with two backs", in this respect as well, in yet another application of this profoundly suggestive motive which may well have occurred to Shakespeare.
The most outstanding image pattern in Othello is the pervasive black/white or light/dark opposition, to which the "beast with two backs" motive also relates. This image pattern in Othello is probably the most prominent such pattern in all of Shakespeare; and it is a pattern not only of images, but of character, plot, theme, and even of staging, that touches every facet of the play. As the world of the play divides both literally and metaphorically into elements of light and dark—of "good" and "evil", if one wishes—the "beast with two backs" becomes a subtly generalized device to suggest this opposition. Thus, if the "beast with two backs" means (among other things) the act of love, then in the coming together of Othello and Desdemona we have precisely such a union of black and white; but the emotion and the act of love itself divides further in Othello into "black" and "white" components: on the one side love is mere animal coupling, with lust and brutality the keynotes—this is Iago's version to Roderigo (I, iii, 329-31), and the source and motive of most of the animal imagery in the play; and on the other side love is antithetical to this—an idealizing sacrifice, angelic in its purity, of all that one has and is for another, the archetype of which sacrifice is made by Desdemona in her willing submission to and forgiveness of Othello, even to the point of condoning her own murder. There is almost no end of further ways in which the opposition of white and black can be seen as developed in the play. Othello's "occupation" (see III, iii, 361) as a soldier has a white/black connotation: as in war the "cause" (V, ii, 1) is always white and black—enemies and friends are clearly distinguishable—so in peace the clarity of this white/black opposition is obscured, and one cannot tell a "false, disloyal knave" indeed from one's own lieutenant without, as the joke has it, a program.
The primary black/white opposition in the play, however, from the point of view of this paper, (and I believe from Shakespeare's viewpoint as well), is in the writing. It is in rhetorical terms that the enigma of Othello is unlocked and the contradictions resolved, for Othello is before anything else a play about words—about rhetoric and poetry—about what they are and what they do. Essentially, the appearance of plausibility in the plot and the action of the play is sustained by the extraordinary richness, care and skill in the web of language ("There's magic in the web", remember) Shakespeare weaves; while behind this appearance, and perfectly well known to Shakespeare at the same time, lies the reality of an absurd and incredible imposture. Both "backs" of the beast, as it were, are in equal balance, which is to say that the "real" imposture is no more the final answer to Othello than the "apparent" plausibility; and this in turn also means, surprisingly but unquestionably, that all interpretations of Othello, no matter how extreme, are theoretically correct—whether Rymer's, who called it "a bloody farce", and said that "it had need be a supersubtle Venetian that this Plot will pass upon"; or Macaulay's, who said that Othello is "perhaps, the greatest work in the world".8
There are two levels on which rhetoric in Othello can be analyzed, and two basic avenues by which the play can be approached as a rhetorical allegory. Taking rhetoric in its classical definition as speech art used for purposes of persuasion,9 the two "levels" referred to are, first, rhetoric within the play—speech art used by the characters with the aim of persuading (in fact, duping) others; second, rhetoric used outside the play—speech art used by Shakespeare with the identical aim of duping his audience. The two avenues of approach, for convenience sake I will call at this time the linguistic and the structural. In "first-level" rhetorical terms, then, the key at every point to the plot of the play is found in rhetoric or speech art. For the character of Iago, first, enough has been said in past criticism of his acting and rhetorical skill, verging on the supernatural, to require no further embellishment here. One particular descriptive term is perhaps used more often than any other to describe his machinations—the word (and its cognates) "art". Johnson used the word, Coleridge and Swinburne as well, and Granville-Barker expanded the concept fully.10 It is a word that indeed says all as far as Iago's character is concerned: he is exactly the first-level counterpart of what Shakespeare knows himself to be in his own second-level rhetoric—the artist par excellence, putting across with compelling rhetorical force and invincible conviction that "transparent and unplausible imposture", to quote E.E. Stoll once again, that is Othello's downfall.
There have been fewer commentators who have seen the rhetorician in the character of Othello comparable to Iago, but this is a critical viewpoint that has some important adherents in recent years as well, notably T.S. Eliot and F.R. Leavis.11 Iago's developing plot apart, it seems to me that the climactic moment of the first stage of the tragedy is in the confrontation of Othello with the Venetian council in I, iii, defending his marriage, and defending especially the manner of his courtship. It is his great opportunity to show his character as a man as well as to shine as an orator; and he triumphs on both counts, winning the hearts of his audience both on and off stage. His defence and his responses are shaped in such a manner, moreover, that the dramatic or oratorical basis of his character is unmistakable—indeed it is in the forefront of the audience's consciousness. There are two principal ways by which this emphasis is brought about. First, Brabantio's strident accusations of witchcraft against Othello, assumed by Brabantio as conclusive, and repeated several times early in the play, raise intriguing questions in the hearer's mind about the nature of this match, and prepare him to listen with special interest to whatever account of his actions Othello might give. The contrast, then, between Brabantio's near hysteria and Othello's masterful calm and self-control, exemplified in the unhurried eloquence and spontaneous grace of his every spoken word, is winning to Othello's cause and persuasive to the auditor in the highest degree. And the climax of the interlude is in Othello's recounting of the actual courtship itself, in which we learn that, quite frankly and unblushingly, he won Desdemona's heart by oratory. The last lines of the statement in particular epitomize the oratorical basis of his courtship, and set forth as well the strange conception of love as essentially nothing more than a romantic poem that Othello seems to hold:
My story being done, She gave me for my pains a world of sighs;
She swore, in faith, 'twas strange, 'twas passing strange; 'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful. She wish'd she had not heard it; yet she wish'd That heaven had made her such a man. She thank'd me And bade me, if I had a friend that lov'd her, I should but teach him how to tell my story, And that would woo her. Upon this hint I spake; She lov'd me for the dangers I had pass'd; And I lov'd her that she did pity them. This only is the witchcraft I have us'd.
(I, iii, 158-69)
There are several significant inferences that can be taken from these lines. First we may note that it was his story (at least in Othello's view) that won Desdemona's heart, and not the person of Othello himself, since "a friend", apparently, who could tell such a story could have won her too—Desdemona, or indeed, in the Duke's awe-struck and admiring words (1. 171), any other girl: as he says, "I think this tale would win my daughter too". Second, and perhaps more significant in the light of later events, it appears almost to have been the same "story" again, that won Othello's heart to Desdemona, rather than the girl herself being his object. Loving Othello "for the dangers [he] had pass'd", Desdemona is loved in turn because of this, that "she did pity them". His love of Desdemona is thus really a love not of her, but of the romance of his own life seen reflected in her eyes. The third and most significant inference in the speech, however, has to do with Brabantio's witchcraft motif again. Oratory, as Othello says, is the "only" witchcraft he has used, but to say this is very pointedly not to deny that oratory is a form of witchcraft—a witchcraft that can turn "a thing" like Othello—a middle-aged Ethiopian mercenary and outsider—into a desirable mate for a Desdemona, and that can turn disaster, flood, slaughter, cannibalism, appalling freaks of nature, and other "bragging and fantastical lies", into romance. It is crucially important also to note that Iago alone among the characters sees through the rhetorician to the hollow man that Othello really is. That Othello is a liar indeed we ourselves know, or we should, for we heard him not five minutes before this very passage say, "Rude am I in my speech";12 and likewise only in a poem, as we also know if we reflect, is slavery or the "occupation" of war ever the glorious adventure that Othello pictures it as being. And it is finally particularly interesting that in spite of Iago's straightforward and wholly accurate estimate of Othello, not to mention the plain evidence of the character and the speeches of the man himself, criticism until recently has not seen his hollow side, being taken in by the same mesmerizing spell of magnificent poetry that took in Desdemona and the Duke, and missing Shakespeare's message—the message that to fall under the spell of rhetoric is to lay oneself open to the most flagrant and absurd abuses of reason; a message that is brought home with the ultimate of compelling force in the preposterous and impossible plot that snares Othello—that becomes, indeed, "the net / That shall enmesh them all" (II, iii, 350-51).
These are some of the first-level rhetorical implications in the character of Othello, but there are additional second-level, Shakespeare-to-the audience implications that further support the picture of Othello as a poseur and of his play as a farce on the theme of rhetoric. I have suggested that the "linguistic approach" to the question of allegory and the problem of meaning in Shakespeare is a fruitful one. By this term I mean the critical study of words, their contexts and special meanings in individual plays, as indices to possible deeper revelations of Shakespeare's thought in those plays. Such analyses are matter exclusively for the study, of course; and their primary and indispensable tool accordingly is the pedant's delight, the Concordance.13 The reservation is always there, moreover in advancing conclusions from linguistics, that these can never be more than merely suggestions, "ocular proof in such matters being in the nature of things impossible. Linguistic hints and leads can be fascinating for their own sake notwithstanding, however, and at times they can be highly suggestive and strongly inferential.
There are, then, for example, several generically rhetorical words that have either their most frequent or very nearly their most frequent use in Othello of all the plays, a fact which suggests a special and conscious rhetorical purpose in this play. The word speech, for instance, has more uses in Othello than in any other play except Hamlet; and similarly with the words speak, say, and act.14 Frequency of use of such words, of course, while perhaps suggestive, is not conclusive in itself without support from a special manner in their use as well, such that deliberate hints of double (first and second level) meanings may be conveyed. With eye and ear cocked for nuances, however, we can indeed spot such hints in various of these words as they are used in the play, and especially as they are associated with other words of similar theatrical and rhetorical purport. A classic instance of precisely this kind of doubleness occurs early in the play in one of Othello's speeches. This particular line, as it happens, does not use any of the words listed above, but as a response to an accusation of being "a practiser / Of arts inhibited and out of warrant", it has a closely associated meaning: "Were it my cue to fight", says Othello, "I should have known it / Without a prompter" (I, ii, 83-84). Such an allusion passes unnoticed in performance, but it has the effect of subtly putting Othello's whole performance into the context purely of theatre, which is exactly what it is intended to do. This is, incidentally, one of only two uses of the word prompter in the whole Shakespeare canon. Similar implications are with equal subtlety insinuated into the other words as well, as they are frequently used in Othello (italics mine on key words):
Bra. Fathers, from hence trust not your daughters' minds By what you see them act.
(I, i, 171-72)
Duke. [To Othello] What, in your own part, can you say to this?
(I, iii, 74)
Cass Drunk! And speak parrot! And squabble, swagger, swear! And discourse fustian with one's own shadow!
(II, iii, 270-71)
Iago You shall observe him; And his own courses will denote him so That I may save my speech.
(IV, i, 275-77)
Des Upon my knees, what doth your speech import?
(IV, ii, 31)
Oth I know this act shows horrible and grim.
(V, ii , 206)
The final example of rhetorical doubleness in a speech in this play that I will draw the reader's attention to, is to Othello's garbled speech just before his collapse in IV, i. It has been noted that this speech is a "travesty", probably an intentional parody, of the elevated language and "rounded harmonies"15 of the earlier Othello style, symbolizing his reversion at this point to total bestiality, from the lofty pinnacle of civilized humanitarianism that was his distinction and his greatness when we met him first. The speech is also often called "incoherent", and is usually passed over without comment—an easy enough omission, given the more facile and intense images and actions that surround it in the rest of the scene, and indeed what Shakespeare (in performance again, of course) would have us do, it seems clear. To take the easy way out with this speech, however, is to fall into the old Shakespearean trap of inobservancy that is set for us on every page of this play. Though logically disconnected, the speech is not incoherent; quite the reverse in fact, it is an intelligible and extraordinarily carefully constructed recapitulation of Iago's whole plot against Othello. This becomes a rather involved question of interpretation almost immediately when we get into it, but concentrating for the moment just on the speech itself, we note very clearly first that its primary subject is words and their ambiguities. It is worth quoting the last couple of lines that lead up to the speech as well:
Oth. What hath he said?
Iago. Faith, that he did—I know not what he did.
Oth. What? What?
Oth. With her?
Iago. With her, on her; what you will.
Oth. Lie with her—lie on her? We say lie on her when they belie her. Lie with her. Zounds, that's fulsome. Handkerchief—confessions—handkerchief! To confess, and be hang'd for his labour—first, to be hang'd and then to confess. I tremble at it. Nature would not invest herself with such shadowing passion without some instruction. It is not words that shakes me thus—pish!—noses, ears, and lips. It's possible? Confess! Handkerchief! O devil!
There is considerably more, then, of penetrating meaning in this statement than at first glance appears. Considering that up to this point in the play Iago's plot is constructed wholly of words—in actual fact, of course, it never does have much more than words for backing, but up to IV, i not even the scintilla of ocular proof that the handkerchief constitutes has yet been produced: there is simply nothing—it is perhaps surprising that Othello is obsessed, here, with precisely the question of the ambiguities and the imaginative effects of words, the very means by which he is being duped! Shakespeare, I suggest, is daring us to see what is going on. Can Othello, we must ask, come this close to his answer and still not see what is being done to him? The falsity, thus, the tissue of words, that is Iago's whole plot is explicitly laid out in the speech; it is clear, it is exposed, and it is Othello its victim who speaks it. He uses the word lie not once in this exchange but five times, noting its ambiguities: "We say lie on her when they belie her"—this statement asking, in effect, is someone belying her?—and this in turn raising the natural next question, who could such a someone be? One can really do little more with such absurd incongruities as these are seen on reflection to be than to throw back at them Desdemona's rhetorical question to the Clown in III, iv: "Can anything be made of this?" It is no accident either, I submit, that the subject of that earlier conversation as well happens to be the question of the ambiguous meanings of the word lie. And as if to bolster and confirm even further our awareness of his game, Shakespeare does not let the "words" question go at this point, but returns to and expands it in 11. 39-41: "Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction. It is not words that shakes me thus". These lines too are far from nonsense when carefully considered; though somewhat obscurely worded, their meaning is crystal clear, to wit: that Nature does not put on a passionate act like this without cause; there must be more to this than words! There is not, of course—not to Iago's plot (first-level rhetoric), and not to the play as a whole (second-level rhetoric); and at this point we can finally see Shakespeare's game, I believe, without illusions. The implications of this conclusion are complex, and I must back off the question briefly and approach it again in a somewhat more roundabout manner to present them fully. "'Tis here", as Iago says, "but yet confus'd".
I will start by observing that the tragedy of Othello, as any reader of even average alertness must note, hinges to an extraordinary extent on coincidence. Apart from considerations of character and psychology, whereby Othello is interpreted (and quite legitimately) as prone to this type of delusion and manipulation, the simple fact remains that if one small question had been asked by anyone, indeed if a single word were out of place from the beginning of III, iii to the death of Desdemona, Iago's spell would be broken and his plot come to ground. The necessary question is never asked, of course, and the tragedy proceeds as inexorably as fate to its predestined end; and it is convincing and moving in the highest degree in accomplishing that end. It is only when one steps back a pace from the spell of the play's music and its passions, however, that these coincidences begin to be seen. And "stepping back", one quickly discovers, is itself a matter of degree: for the further one steps back—the more rationally and critically one looks at the play—the more incredible, absurd, and contradictory it becomes. Viewed rationally, in fact, these contradictions and absurdities cannot be accidental. The speech of Othello before his collapse is a classic case in point. Realistically considered it is impossibly contradictory: on the one hand Othello "knows" (because he says it) that words are ambiguous, that "lie on" can mean "belie", and that it could be "words" that "shake" him; on the other hand he not only fails to act on that knowledge, he fails seemingly even to grasp it. One could say of this contradiction, of course, that it is just another example of Shakespeare's preternatural tragic sense—to bring his Othello thus within the veriest whisker of the truth, to tantalize him to the ultimate degree, and yet to deny him. One could say this and in fact be right, in a dramatic sense again, but one cannot say it and be logical. That is to say, no real Othello could be so blind; a play Othello on the other hand, whose very being is poetry, can be anything his creator wants him to be; and this is exactly Shakespeare's point. The play, as I have said, is a beast with two backs—in rhetorical or poetic terms a tragedy, in rational terms a farce. As soon as rational criteria are applied to the play it falls apart; but the magic of the play and the witchcraft of its words are such that rational criteria are not applied without the greatest difficulty. In performance they are being impossible to apply, and even in the study the illusion of logic and sense is so strong that only a conscious and continuing effort on the part of the reader to stay alert can withstand it. Without the effort, however—and this is virtually the history of Othello criticism for over two hundred years—reason is led literally "tenderly by the nose as asses are", and we ourselves are the victims and the dupes of Shakespeare's rhetoric, in exact parallel to Othello being the dupe of Iago's rhetoric.
We have looked at a few of the ways in which his language betrays Shakespeare's allegorical purpose in Othello, but as I indicated earlier the structure of the play betrays it too, and perhaps even more blatantly. I will consider this structural problem first briefly in the context of time in the play. This is an area of difficulty that has been noticed frequently by critics in the last century. Essentially the problem that has been pointed out is that the action of the play is so constructed that there is literally no time when the supposed adultery between Cassio and Desdemona could have taken place.16 This fact, of course, is probably the fundamental absurdity of the whole play, sufficient in itself, without qualification or comment, to elevate Othello and his whole crew to the realm of farce. To counter this possibility, however, and to salvage the tragic reading of Othello, there is the additional device of "long" time in the play, whereby numerous references are made in the later scenes to longer periods of time than the 36 hours that the actual clock on Cyprus records. The discrepancies between the two "times" are not noticed in performance, all the critics concur in this; and they almost all concur likewise in the necessity for the two times. Kenneth Muir's explanation is typical:
From Iago's point of view, every hour increases the danger of his exposure. Shakespeare was faced with an acute problem. The action has to be exceedingly swift or it becomes incredible; and yet considerable time has to elapse or the action becomes incredible in another way.17
I reiterate that these words present, in a very succinct form, the traditional justification for the double time in Othello: they are identical in principle to what Furness, Granville-Barker or Ridley say at greater length about it. My emphasis on this point has a purpose; because the statement, when read carefully, contains a logical absurdity. Put into approximate syllogistic form, it says in effect that the action of the play is incredible if it does not move swiftly, and on the other hand that the action is incredible if it does move swiftly. The conclusion is that the action is incredible. This straightfaced affirmation of absurdity by Muir is a perfect illustration of the "nameless, mysterious power" (to quote Furness) in Othello to warp the mind, such that even as one states clearly the logical absurdity of the play, like Othello in his speech before his collapse one does not see what one has stated. Furness, paraphrasing Prof. Wilson, suggests that even the "'Artificer of Fraud'" was not totally conscious of his trickery in Othello,18 but to imagine such a thing is simply to fall victim again to Shakespeare's rhetorical wiles.
Shakespeare's indubitable exact knowledge of Othello's necessary absurdity, in terms of time, can be demonstrated in both simple and complex ways. Logically, of course, disregarding the issue of credibility, it scarcely needs pointing out that the play can function on only one time scheme. It can be either "short" or "long" time but not both. If the two time schemes could in some supernatural manner be kept separate in the play, then possibly it could work, but, as Iago says, "thou know'st we work by wit, and not by witchcraft"; the only witchcraft19 Shakespeare has is in his words. It does not require much perception, then, to note that in terms of "short" time logic Iago's "I lay with Cassio lately . . . ", (III, iii, 418-36—going on with the recitation of Cassio's "dream") contains a calculated absurdity that we are taunted by Shakespeare to catch: "lay with Cassio?" logic answers, "Impossible! you only arrived on Cyprus yesterday, and you were up all night with that brawl! And you couldn't have slept with Cassio on shipboard because you came on different ships!" The point of such tauntings, in both first and second-level rhetorical terms, is to demonstrate that, however logically untenable a claim may be, under the spell of a powerful rhetoric it can be made to seem plausible. This particular example is perhaps absurd in its obviousness, but there are many other instances in the play where the deliberate sleight-of-hand maneuverings with time are paradoxically so simultaneously blatant and deft that one can only shake one's head in wonder at their wizardry, when awareness finally dawns. "Do but encave yourself, urges Iago, telling Othello to mark Cassio's gesture as he tells "the tale anew" of
Where, how, how oft, how long ago, and when, He hath, and is again to cope your wife.
(IV, i, 85-86. My italics)
Or equally absurd the confrontation of Desdemona and Othello in the boudoir (IV, ii), as she replies, with irrefutable "short" time logic, to his accusation of her being "false": "To whom, my Lord? With whom? How am I false?" (IV, ii, 41)—which is reinforced later by Emilia's "who keeps her company? / What place, what time, what form, what likelihood?" (1. 138-39).
And these are far from the most complex levels on which Shakespeare's manipulations of time are operating in Othello. "Double" time should not be the designation for his trickery, but rather triple time. It has been noticed before of Shakespeare that there is considerable foreshortening or telescoping of time in many of the plays. By this term is meant the phenomenon of accelerating time during the course of a single scene so that much more "time" elapses dramatically than the auditor's watch has recorded. In a recent essay on the subject, Irwin Smith20 points out that it is common in Shakespeare to accelerate time as much as forty times and more over the actual—that is, where in terms of lines spoken (calculating an average of twenty lines to the minute) ten minutes can consume up to six "hours" and more of dramatic time. In Othello Smith instances only the accelerations of II, i, where in the space of 180 lines (nine minutes) three ships appear on the horizon, dock, and discharge their passengers, all of this taking place during a raging storm. This particular instance is one of the easiest seen of Othello's telescopings of time; in fact one has almost the impression in this scene, with its repetition of the sightings and dockings, that one is being invited to actually observe and be aware of the manipulations that are taking place. There are numerous other scenes in the play, however, where more outrageous yet harder to detect accelerations are worked in, which, if seen, are absurd, but unseen are quite unexceptionable. Such is II, iii, the scene which begins at "not yet ten a clock" and ends 375 lines later (approximately 19 minutes playing time) with "By the mass, 'tis morning"; and includes the cashiering of Cassio as well as the supposed consummation of the marriage of Othello and Desdemona. I say "supposed" by design in this case, because with the accelerated consumption of time in the scene there is every possibility that the consummation does not take place because there was no time for it! We have a reminder of this at 1. 171:
Friends all but now, even now, In quarter, and in terms, like bride and groomDivesting them for bed; and then, but now, As if some planet had outwitted men, Swords out, and tilting one at other's breast.
(II, iii, 171-75. My italics)
—a reminder that in the approximately nine minutes since Othello and Desdemona left the stage they can hardly more than have "divested them" for bed, let alone have had a moment for "love's quick pants" before the brawl disturbs them. The special emphasis on the word now in this speech, moreover, is a clear reminder that Shakespeare's stealing of time in this scene is a hoax, for plainly now cannot refer to any time except "real" time—that is, the audience's—since it was "but now" in real terms that the brawl in fact took place. It was Othello's last opportunity for sleep this night, as well, it seems, since he concludes his disciplinary measures with an offer to be Montano's "surgeon" himself for the binding of his wounds.21 It is speculation, of course, but it is my opinion that Shakespeare has deliberately arranged this scene as an oblique tip-off to the alert reader that no consummation of the wedding could have taken place; and therefore when Othello strangles Desdemona the following night—on her bed with its wedding sheets still in place, it is (irony of ironies) with her virginity still untried. This possibility is at least consistent with the mad logic that leads to her murder, since even Othello could hardly have forgotten in the space of 18 hours or so the "lust stained" (?) bed of his wedding night, if indeed it had "with lust's blood [been] spotted".
Perhaps the most glaring incongruity, and for this reason the most controversial instance of time acceleration in the play, is the great scene of the temptation and fall of Othello in III, iii; considered in the context especially of the famous last utterance of Othello that he is one "not easily jealous". Act III scene iii is 483 lines in length, and in the course of its approximately 24 minutes playing time Othello is transformed from a doting newly-wed husband to a raving maniac whose one aim and obsession is the immediate murder of his wife. Speaking of a later scene in the play F.R. Leavis used the expression "superb coup de théâtre" to describe Shakespeare's handling of it. It is a phrase that must be applied to this scene as well, for there is nothing comparable in Shakespeare or any other dramatist to the concentration of rhetorical persuasiveness that is achieved in this scene. Every word is in place, everything is plausible, indeed overwhelmingly so, and yet by every rational canon or consideration the absurdity of the whole transaction is "gross in sense" to the highest possible degree. And notwithstanding the fact that as late as line 186 we have Othello confidently asserting that he will never become jealous over "exsufflicate and blown surmises", and that Iago as late as line 436 admits that "yet we see nothing done", the inevitability of Othello's fall is never once doubted. Perhaps most significant, and I suggest by deliberate design on Shakespeare's part, there are no direct chronological references to suggest telescoping of time, so there is no way of assuming that more than the approximately half an hour's stage time is elapsed. The one "timing" event that the scene contains is Desdemona's reference to "your dinner, and the generous islanders / By you invited" (1. 284-85), which locates the scene in the course of the day but gives no certainty as to duration.
The "handkerchief trick" in Othello, as the key by which "probation . . . without hinge nor loop / To hang a doubt on" is achieved, is as flagrant a bit of sleight of hand as the annals of literature afford. As the vaunted "ocular proo f of infidelity the sighting of the handkerchief is the culminating event in a series of "vision" references in the play that form as prominent a pattern as the "time" references.22 From Iago's "I, of whom his eyes had seen the proo f in scene i; through the Duke's "I did not see you" (1. 50) and Brabantio's "look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see" (1. 292) of scene iii; and ending with "the object poisons sight" (1. 367) of V, ii, the "vision" motif is present everywhere in the play; and its clear implication is that vision is never absolute—what you think you see, whether you are Othello or Othello's audience, and what is actually before your eyes may be two different things. The handkerchief trick is the quintessential visual manipulation in the play. The first appearance of the handkerchief on stage is in Desdemona's hand in III, iii, when she uses it to bind Othello's aching forehead, placing it directly in front of his eyes (see 1. 288-91) to do so, of course. It is but a few moments from this (1. 437) that Iago drives Othello to the final degree of murderous rage ("Now do I see 'tis true") in his story about having seen the handkerchief in Cassio's hand, introducing the story (absurdity to end absurdities) with the words "Have you not sometimes seen a handkerchief / Spotted with strawberries in your wife's hand?" This handkerchief—the last legacy of his dying mother and Othello's first gift to his adored wife, unseen in her hand though placed in front of his eyes, constitutes then, ocular proof of her infidelity when seen at a distance in another's hand but minutes (?) later, in the next scene. That such a preposterous display is not laughed off the stage at every performance is a permanent tribute to the spellbinding, almost supernatural power, that this tour de force of poetical persuasion puts forth.
There is much more indirect evidence than this of Shakespeare's allegorical intentions in Othello. In second-level rhetorical terms, the theme of the power of rhetoric and its potential for deception is returned to over and over. Especially in the early scenes of the play, as it were in anticipation of the great catastrophe to come, do these implications receive emphasis. Brabantio, for example, whom Iago characterizes with uncanny (yet obviously conscious on Shakespeare's part) allegorical appropriateness as having "in his effect a voice potential / As double as the Duke's" (I, ii, 13-14), pays unconscious tribute to Othello's rhetorical skill in his words
For nature so preposterously to err, Being not deficient, blind, or lame of sense, Sans witchcraft could not.
(I, iii, 62-64)
And as well as reflecting on Othello's winning of Desdemona by words, these lines also reflect both Iago's and Shakespeare's greater skill at taking in their respective dupes in an even more preposterous way. The Duke's reply to Brabantio's accusations of witchcraft constitutes another instance of the same—saying in Othello's hearing, words which are directly prophetic of his own fall and the absurd folly of Iago's "proof of infidelity:
To vouch this is no proof— Without more wider and more overt test That these thin habits and poor likelihoods Of modern seeming do prefer against him.
(I, iii, 106-109)
Perhaps the most glaring "double-voiced" reference of the whole play is the Duke's earlier
This cannot be, By no assay of reason. 'Tis a pageant To keep us in false gaze.
(I, iii, 17-19)
Spoken of the Turkish ruse against Rhodes, the words reflect with stark allegorical clarity on the "pageant" that is Othello. They significance similar and comparable to that of the final allegorical motif in Othello that I will give example of in this paper—the phrase "Is't possible?", which is repeated five times in the play,23 with gathering emphasis, and crying out more loudly with every repetition for the answer No!
It is perhaps fitting that the last words here should be from Shakespeare, rather than from me, but I leave them with the reader that he may decide for himself the extent to which they may or may not apply to the thesis (and the author) of this paper.
I conjure thee, as thou believ'st There is another comfort than this world, That thou neglect me not with that opinion That I am touch'd with madness. Make not impossible That which but seems unlike
(Measure for Measure, V, i, 48-52)
1 T. Ashe, ed., Lectures and Notes on Shakespeare and Other English Poets, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, London, 1908, p. 394. In the original note the word unsuspiciousness is, strictly speaking, applied only to Desdemona, but the implication is that it applies to Othello as well. In the report on lecture IV, at Bristol (1813), the word is applied to Othello. See Ibid., p. 477.
2 A.C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, London, 1949, p. 191.
3 G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire, London, 1964, p. 107.
4 Bradley, op. cit., p. 188, 191.
5The Tudor Edition of William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. by Peter Alexander, Collins, 1951. All quotations from Shakespeare, unless otherwise specified, will be from this edition.
6 E.E. Stoll, Othello: An Historical and Comparative Study, repr. New York, 1964, pp. 6 and 7.
7 See Bk. I, Chap. iii.
8 Macauley in his "Essay on Dante", Knight's Quarterly Magazine, Jan. 1824. Quoted here from Horace Howard Furness, A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: Othello, Eleventh Edition, Philadelphia, 1886, p. 412.
9 Cf. Aristotle, Rhetoric, I, 1354a par. 2: "The modes of persuasion . . . are the only true constituents of the art [of rhetoric]: everything else is merely accessory" (The Works of Aristotle. Translated into English under the Editorship of W.D. Ross, Vol. XI, "Rhetorica", Oxford, 1959).
10 See Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, vol. II, Princeton, 1947, pp. 104-112.
11 See e.g. Eliot's famous remarks on Othello in his "Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca" (1927); and see F.R. Leavis, "Diabolic Intellect and the Noble Hero", in The Common Pursuit, London, 1958, pp. 136-159. A recent essay, Stephen Rogers' "Othello: Comedy in Reverse" (Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. XXIV, 2, Spring, 1973, 210-20), takes a stronger line yet on Othello's duplicity, e.g., "The false music of his supposed eloquence is nothing but empty rhetoric, and takes us all in" (211).
12 An example of meiosis, "the Disabler or figure of Extenuation", as Puttenham calls it (Puttenham, The Art of English Poesie, ed. by G.D. Willcock and A. Walker, Cambridge, 1970 , p. 219), a favoured rhetorical device with Shakespeare, in which the speaker deliberately deprecates himself, affecting modesty or lack of ability, for purposes of gaining credibility for the cause he advocates. Meiosis may well be the most devious of all rhetorical tricks, having the effect simultaneously of disarming the hearer and of subtly flattering the speaker; and as Shakespeare uses it particularly, here and elsewhere, it has an effect of special challenge and uniqueness, for his favourite ploy is to have the character affect modesty in verbal skill itself—an affectation which is of course blatantly contradicted by the words and the skills the speaker displays in its very utterance!
13 And the only Concordance for really careful linguis-tic studies today is Marvin Spevak's computer-generated A Complete and Systematic Concordance to the Works of Shakespeare, Hildesheim, 1968-1970, in six volumes.
14Speech: in Hamlet 16 uses, in Othello 12, in Lear 9; speak: in Hamlet 63, in Coriolanus 54, in Othello 51, in Lear 49; say: in The Winter's Tale 73, in Coriolanus 72, in Othello 67, in Shrew 63; act: in Hamlet 14, in Othello 11, in King John 8.
15 See M.M. Mahood, Shakespeare's Wordplay, Lon-don, 1957, p. 48.
16 Not to crowd the text with a long explanation of what is essentially a technical matter, I would direct the reader to Furness (op. cit. pp. 358-72) for background to this question. Furness gives a comprehensive history of the controversy up to the date of publication of his text in 1886, and modern editors have frequently rehearsed the arguments again since that time. Among those who discuss it are Granville-Barker (op. cit. pp. 24-30), M.R. Ridley in the Arden Othello, London, 1959, pp. Ixvii-lxx, and Kenneth Muir in the New Penguin Othello, Penguin, 1968, pp. 26-28.
17 Muir, op. cit. p. 26.
18 Furness,op. cit. p. 369.
19 "And wit depends on dilatory (i.e. capable of being expanded and contracted] time". (II, iii, 360-61).
20 Irwin Smith, "Dramatic Time versus Clock Time in Shakespeare", Shakespeare Quarterly, XX, 1, Winter, 1969, 65-69.
21 Desdemona's "Faith, that's with watching", of III, iii, as she binds Othello's head with her handkerchief, would then be a direct reference to the fact that Othello had spent a sleepless night the previous night. Obviously "watching" in the sense of being alert does not apply in this case.
22 Maurianne S. Adams, in "Ocular Proof in Othello and its Sources", (PMLA, LXXIX. 3, June, 1964, 234-241) discusses the "vision" motif in Othello, pointing out that the expression "ocular proof (the only occurrence of the word ocular in all Shakespeare, incidentally) comes almost direct from Cinthio, Shakespeare's source, and that Shakespeare has embroidered the one idea into the rich tapestry of vision metaphors that extend throughout the play.
23 II, iii, 278; III, iii, 362; III, iv, 68; IV, i, 42; IV, ii, 88. Also there are additional near repetitions at I, iii, 9 and II, i, 217.
Michèle Willems (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: "Misconstruction in I Henry IV" in Cahiers Élisabéthains, No. 37, April, 1990, pp. 43-54.
[In the following essay, Willems suggests that Shakespeare encourages a misreading of 1 Henry IV as a traditional morality play, when in actuality Shakespeare uses Prince Hal to examine the ramifications of political ideas that likely would have been viewed as subversive if Shakespeare had explored such concepts directly.]
Misunderstandings, mistaken identity, misconstruction of event or character are devices commonly used in Shakespearean drama. They allow the dramatist to engineer complicated comic plots which reach their denouement when the misled characters realise their mistakes. They are also part of character drawing, as the propensity to misconstrue generally reveals a defective judgement which can lead to tragic error, as in the case of Cassius who dies from having misconstrued everything (Julius Caesar, V.3.84), while the capacity to induce misconstruction in others can signal a superior, if sometimes devious, intellect.
Just before / Henry IV reaches its conclusion through the victory of the king over the rebels at Shrewsbury, Vernon, reporting in the rebel camp the Prince of Wales' offer of a single combat with Hotspur, comments:
England did never owe so sweet a hopeSo much misconstru 'd in his wantonness.
Coming after a long panegyric of the prince, this remark is generally taken as a sign that, as the king his father will soon confirm, Hal has redeemed his lost opinion (V.4.47) after his pranks at the tavern, and that the news of his reformation has reached even the rebel camp. The use of the verb misconstru 'ed also attracts attention to the fact that, as Hal himself mentions on two occasions, he has been the victim of detraction, of what Holinshed refers to as slanderous reports.2 The interview between father and son (III.2) which some see as the turning point of the whole play, indeed closely follows the historical source and shows the prince trying to clear his name from many tales devis'd . . . By smiling pickthanks (23-5), the very word used by Holinshed. This is when Henry alludes to the kingdom's dour predictions about Hal's future, which will be so dramatically belied at the end of the play:
The hope and expectation of thy timeIs ruined, and the soul of every manProphetically do forethink thy fall
Later, on the battlefield, just after he has rescued the king from the attacks of Douglas, the prince again alludes to some particularly nasty rumours circulated against him:
O God, they did me too much injuryThat ever said I hearken 'd for your death.If it were so, I might have let aloneThe insulting hand of Douglas over you,Which would have been as speedy in your endAs all the poisonous potions in the world,And sav'd the treacherous labour of your son.
The note of detraction is also struck in the comic plot, when Falstaff accuses Hal behind his back of being a Jack, a sneak up (III.3.83), and of owing him a thousand pounds. Here the hostess reveals Falstaff's slander to the prince, and this results in a comic confrontation.
The detractors at court are never seen or heard and Hal is never confronted with them, but the opinion of Vernon, a rebel, as well as the attitude of the nobility on the battlefield confirms that, at the end of the play, detraction has given way to praise. One may even wonder whether detraction has not been an accessory in Hal's strategy of self-detraction, such as it is expounded in his much discussed soliloquy. In this perspective, the remark made by Vernon, a secondary character to whom Shakespeare assigns several choric eulogies of the Prince of Wales, may also be taken to allude to the misconstruction of his wantonness which Hal himself encourages throughout the play: the heir apparent wants to be perceived as a wastrel, the better to surprise the kingdom with the news of his reformation.
That a mere two lines delivered by a secondary character should lend themselves to so many constructions gives the measure of the play's complexity and of the ambiguity of response it induces. Over the years, the character of the prince and his progress through the play have been construed in different ways. If it is now widely accepted that Hal embarks from the start on a strategy of deception,3 for a long time he was considered as a Prodigal undergoing a straightforward process of reformation: having sown his wild oats at the tavern, he redeems himself by his valour on the battlefield. The theory of Hal's reformation and moral regeneration went together with the interpretation of the work as a Morality play, to which Quiller-Couch gave the following subtitle: The Contention between Vice and Virtue for the Soul of a Prince.4 E.M.W. Tillyard later defined this Vice and Virtue as Sloth and Vanity on the one hand, and Chivalry on the other.5 It is striking, and it seems to me significant, that the theory of Hal's reformation should be shared by those very critics who see in Shakespeare an exponent of the Tudor myth and who read the Chronicle plays as propounding a providential view of history. Both the idea of the punishment of the father's sin of usurpation through the son's mistreadings and the notion of the regeneration of the Prodigal indeed tally with a conception of history as moral because of its divine ordination, and the progress of Hal from Vanity to Chivalry or, better still, retaining the best out of both worlds, conforms with the education of the ideal sovereign in Aristotelian terms, one who can strike a middle course, or find a golden mean, between two extremes of conduct.
What I want to suggest is that such an interpretation of 1 Henry IV, which is now generally recognised as itself a misconstruction, or at least a very incomplete reading of the play, is in fact encouraged by Shakespeare, in the same way as Hal encourages the kingdom to misconstrue him as a wastrel. By casting his protagonist in the role of Prodigal and his play in the mould of Morality, the dramatist presents himself as playing the orthodox game. At the same time, like Hal and through Hal, he is able to explore the implications of political concepts which might have been considered subversive if they had been approached in a more straightforward manner.
Using a dramatic mode with which his public was familiar (morality plays were acted until the last decade of the sixteenth century) Shakespeare could conform to the legend of the madcap Prince made good, as it was circulated during Henry V's own reign, through Titus Livius' semi-official Vita Henrici Quinti, and later through the anonymous rudimental play The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth.6 With the pressure of both history and folklore upon him, the dramatist could not overtly depart from a story in which, traditionally, the prince moves from riot to repentance. Besides, the structure of the Morality play offered him a means of combining history with comedy: it was acceptable for the forces of evil to take over the stage transformed into tavern or brothel, provided they were curbed in the end. Thus Hal's commerce with his Eastcheap companions is a source of great enjoyment during a good half of the play, constituted of entertaining scenes between Hal, a fugitive from the Court, and Falstaff, considerably and inventively developed from the character of Oldcastle, who only speaks about 250 words in the Famous Victories. Within the framework of the Morality play, Falstaff, accompanied by a crew of picturesque rascals, represents the Vice, and he does indeed encompass within his enormous girth a number of deadly sins: Gluttony, Lust, and Sloth. He is the misleader of youth, tempting the prince, with the help of Poins, to take part in the Gad's Hill robbery, attracting him to anarchy, irresponsibility and enjoyment of the present moment. At the other extreme from Falstaff's cowardice and unconcern with honour, stands Hotspur whose heroism and fame are much envied by the king. A son who is the theme of honour's tongue (I.1.80): this is how King Henry describes Northumberland's son whom he would gladly exchange for his own wastrel.7 With Hal in the part of Youth or Mankind, or rather the Prodigal son, the king is naturally cast in the role of the Prodigal's father, which creates a neat correspondence between the rebellion of the son and the rebellion of the Percies. Disorder in the family reflects and counterpoints disorder in the realm and both are perceived as consequences of Bolingbroke's usurpation of the throne. In this, as R.B. Pierce demonstrates, Shakespeare was again drawing on "truisms of Renaissance orthodoxy."8 The dramatist even completes the family by including the Prodigal's brother in his list of dramatis personae, although Lancaster is only mentioned by Holinshed much later. Unlike the Prodigal, Prince Hal is given a younger brother who nevertheless takes his place in Council when he defects to the tavern9 and later surprises everyone by his bravery in battle.
Whichever way we look at it however, I Henry IV is a morality play without a psychomachia. We do not expect Shakespeare to stage a confrontation between Vice and Virtue but we may wonder at Hal's transformation from rioter to dutiful prince which takes place without a trace of inner conflict. Unless we accept that his interview with his father suddenly awakens his sense of duty (in which case his complete turn-about is almost as sudden as in The Famous Victories), we look in vain for signs of evolution or of repentance. But in actual fact Hal's reformation is meant to take everyone by surprise, as the prince himself explains, as early as 1.2, in his famous I know you all soliloquy.
This soliloquy is a thorn in the flesh of those critics who insist on reading the play as the story of the prince's moral regeneration. The speech is delivered just after Hal's first bantering exchange with Falstaff and his decision to take part in the robbery. It begins with:
I know you all, and will a while upholdThe unyok'd humour of your idleness
I'll so offend, to make offence a skill,Redeeming time when men think least I will
Even allowing for the comparisons and complications that may obscure the argument, it seems difficult for an audience not to get the message that Hal can see through his loose companions, that he controls a situation in which he appears as a wastrel, and is only biding his time at the tavern until he can strike the kingdom with the wonder of his new chivalrous image. Such a disturbing piece of evidence used to be explained away as a choric appendage, a conventional monologue through which Shakespeare is at pains to reassure his audience about the future of the heir to the throne: what they are going to see is only an entertaining parenthesis; there will be no debasement of royalty.10
This sudden stepping-out of character on the part of the hero of the play is, to say the least, an unusual device in Shakespearean drama, where the first monologue spoken by the protagonist—whether purely expository or more subtly introspective—is generally the first clue given by the dramatist to the psychology of his character.11 Dr Johnson's analysis of Hal's soliloquy as an alibi for his misdemeanour is more attractive,12 but it still does not take into account the form and detail of a speech that reads like a profession of faith, with its projection into the future through its repeated use of the future tense. The recurrence of comparisons is another interesting feature. The first one is implied: his companions are likened to base contagious clouds (193), to foul ugly mists (197), but he remains conscious that he is the sun, the traditional symbol of royalty. More significant for the rest of the play is the definition of his future course of action through two comparisons developing the idea that contrast is a means of creating wonder: the sun hides behind the clouds the better to impress men with its brilliance. Playing holidays are all the more pleasing as they interrupt the tedium of work. In every case, the opposition between the two terms of the comparison is resolved by the fact that one, like sullen ground behind bright metal (207) acts as a foil to the other. Hal's strategy of reformation follows the same pattern, the opposition between reformation and fault being resolved by the use of wantonness as a foil (the word is used in line 210) in order to set off his eventual redemption.
Beyond the basic message that Hal is not the wanton boy he appears to be, but that he will exploit this misconstruction of his behaviour to give more lustre to his reformation, what is striking is the prince's concern for his political image, for the way in which he is perceived by the kingdom and for the manner in which he can influence this perception. This striving after effect is accompanied by a well-developed sense of timing. The second line of the couplet which concludes the soliloquy, Redeeming time when men think least I will certainly attracts attention, through the biblical echo of Ephesians13 to Hal's connection with the Prodigal son and to his final atonement; but the line also suggest his far-sightedness and his awareness of the importance of biding one's time in politics. Even at this early stage of the play, the dissolute Youth of Morality seems to know exactly what he wants and what he is doing, and hardly seems to hesitate between the primrose way and the straight and narrow. His own oblique route to the throne follows a more complicated but perfectly controlled course which runs through the tavern but definitely heads towards the court. It is appositely described by the image of truancy which recurs several times in the course of the play and whose ambivalence is well adapted to the prince's strategy of deception. Shall the blessed sun of heaven prove a micher and eat blackberries? (II.4.403-04), Falstaff asks rhetorically when playing the part of mock-king at the tavern. Later, Hal himself takes up the image as he casts a critical glance at his wanton past, for the benefit of the nobility gathered on the battlefield:
For my part, I may speak it to my shameI have a truant been to Chivalry
a declaration which is echoed by Vernon in the rebel camp:
He made a blushing citai of himselfAnd chid his truant youth.
By taking up in a serious mode an image which Falstaff used as a comic anticlimax to his orthodox metaphoric evocation of royalty, the prince encourages the court to look back on his flight to the tavern as on the misbehaviour of a schoolboy running away from constraint. Through this shame-faced confession of his past dishonour, he implies that he now repents this error and is determined to return to the path of duty which he defines as 'Chivalry'. The fact that later, as he promised his father, he kills Hotspur in order to get rid of his rival in the chivalrous game (Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere, V.4.64), seems to confirm the return to Chivalry of the prodigal prince. And this is certainly how court and rebels—and a number of critics14—construe the itinerary of the Prince of Wales.
That this is a misconstruction, but one engineered by the prince himself and by Shakespeare's use of the Morality play structure, is borne out by a number of factors. First of all, Chivalry would appear as a more convincingly desirable ideal if Hotspur, who represents it, and Henry, who advocates it, were not so often submitted to irony. Hotspur's honour, with its quest for fame at all costs and its childish concentration on virile heroism15 often closely resembles Vanity. This judgement is encouraged by Shakespeare even through Henry's definition of his hero as Mars in swathling clothes (III.2.112), which conjures up an incongruous, ludicrous vision of the very man who is set up as an example. Hal launches into a panegyric of This same child of honour and renown (III.2.139) for his father's benefit, but at the tavern he improvises a parody of a conversation between the warrior and his wife on the subject: how many hast thou killed today? (II.4.104), and even on the battlefield, his farewell speech to the hero he has just defeated, stresses the vanity of the quest for honour in the face of death: Ill-weaved ambition, how much thou art shrunk! (V.4.87). Although expressed with more distance and couched in more acceptable terms, the exclamation is not fundamentally different from Falstaff's in front of Sir Walter Blunt's body: I like not such grinning honour as Sir Walter hath (V.3.59). Neither Hotspur nor Chivalry can be said to represent the positive pole of this Morality. The fact that King Henry keeps proposing as an example to his son the man who is leading the rebellion against him betrays his flawed conception of virtue, and confirms that the play has no real model of conduct to offer the heir apparent. If Hal, as E.M.W. Tillyard will have it, chooses Chivalry, or rather appears to choose it, it is as part of the role which he has assigned to himself, that of the dishonourable Prodigal who reforms in order to follow the path of honour. Honour is a cardinal virtue expected of the sovereign, therefore Hal appears to embrace it. An analysis of the promise he makes his father in the course of their interview reveals his true reasons for wanting to kill Hotspur. At first, he presents his future duel with him as a ritual of purification, as the way to redemption through shedding the blood of a worthy opponent:
I will redeem all this on Percy's head [ . . . ]I will wear a garment all of blood,And stain my favours in a bloody mask,Which, wash 'd away, shall scour my shame with it.
But soon his genuine motivations are betrayed, as is so often the case in Shakespearean drama, by the imagery that structures his speech.
For the time will comeThat I shall make this northern youth exchangeHis glorious deeds for my indignities.Percy is but my factor, good my lord,To engross up glorious deeds on my behalfAnd I will call him to so strict accountThat he shall render every glory up,Yea, even the slightest worship of his time,Or I will tear the reckoning from his heart.
Hal gets quite unusually excited over the metaphor of commerce which runs through this solemn promise. The mercantile approach to honour which is here revealed does not tally with the genuinely chivalrous conception of fame as an end in itself. It would seem that, for Hal, honour is no more than a commodity. This is confirmed by his words to Hotspur as he is about to kill him:
And all the budding honours of thy crestI'll crop to make a garland for my head.
While Hotspur was fighting at Holmedon, defeating the glorious Douglas and earning fame as a brave warrior, Hal was making merry at the tavern, his only 'actions' (he uses the word in parody to refer to his learning the language of tinkers) being robbing thieves and taunting tapsters. But when the time is ripe, he appears on the battefield, saves his father from the fierce Douglas, collects all of Hotspur's glory at one go, and presents king and kingdom with precisely the type of heroical prince which they expect and have been longing for.
It is gradually becoming clear that Hal's strategy is in fact more complex than what was expounded in the soliloquy and that it implies misconstruction at several levels. Not only does the prince deceive public opinion into thinking that he has suddenly reformed, but he also induces them to believe that he has turned into an orthodox hero of Chivalry. Vernon's panegyric of him, for the benefit of an obstinately incredulous Hotspur and of his more readily convinced companions, proves that the news of his reformation has taken the kingdom by storm:
I saw young Harry with his beaver on,His cushes on his thighs, gallantly arm 'd,Rise from the ground like feather 'd Mercury,And vaulted with such ease into his seatAs if an angel dropp 'd down from the cloudsTo turn and wind a fiery Pegasus,And witch the world with noble horsemanship.
This is the new image of the Prince of Wales, as he is now commonly referred to, even by himself. Hal is presented as an apparition, a striking vision; whether rising from the ground or dropp 'd from the clouds he has succeeded in playing upon surprise. The panegyric characteristically parallels that of Hotspur by Henry in III.2: it is part of the chivalrous game to acknowledge even an enemy's glory, and we are here given the first indication that Hal has taken over from Hotspur as a recognized hero. Indeed, it is he who is now described with all the trappings of a hero, the beaver, the cushes, and essentially the horse, that mythical adjunct to the knight-at-arms; all that is, except one, the reference to Mars, present both in King Henry's description of Hotspur and in the latter's evocation of future combats. Strikingly, Vernon does not compare Hal to Mars, but to feather'd Mercury, which may be taken as a significant sign in a speech which has an obvious choric function. The reference to Mercury, in its implicit opposition to Mars, attracts attention to the fact that Hal's conception of heroism, though cloaked in an orthodox garb, is something fundamentally different from Hotspur's and Henry's martial creed. At the same time, the comparison with the messenger of the gods, who is all at once god of commerce, of eloquence, of skill, and of trading and thieving, bears much relevance to the prince such as the play has presented him so far: he is prepared to use skill and cunning, even stealing and lying to achieve his aims; he has a mercantile approach to notions which others assimilate to an ideal. All that matters to him is the achievement of the end he has set himself from the beginning.
Hal's unquestioned emergence into the political world of the play is precisely the consequence of his control over the way in which the kingdom perceives him and over the image of himself he projects. It is ironical that the astute Henry should not see this, but should compare him to Richard II, while comparing himself aptly, but again with damaging unconscious irony, to Hotspur who heads the rebellion against the state. Both Hal and Richard, he says, have made themselves common, while he, as Bolingbroke, was Ne 'er seen but wonder'd at (III.2.57).
By being seldom seen, I could not stirBut like a comet I was wonder 'd at,That men would tell their children "This is he!"Others would say, "where, which is Bolingbroke?"And then I stole all courtesy from heaven,And dress'd myself in such humilityThat I did pluck allegiance from men's hearts . . .
The tendency to use deception to build up one's political image evidently runs in the family, and manipulation of public opinion through surprise and the exploitation of the subjects' need to wonder at their sovereign thus appears as the trade mark of the ruler by political consent. Hal, although the legitimate heir to the throne, is still a usurper's son and, as such, needs to give new lustre to his tarnished title. But the. two characters are set in sharp contrast. Henry is presented as a counterfeit king who sends various noblemen marching in his coats (V.3.25) to meet their deaths in his place. Besides, his misconstruction of his son's behaviour and motives, added to his obstinate admiration for the head of the rebels, signal the self-deception of a self-righteous worshipper of honour. This is echoed, in the rebel camp, by Hotspur's refusal to see the Prince of Wales as a worthy opponent. Hal's foresight and breadth of view are clearly opposed to the narrow-mindedness and self-interest of the political world at large. Whereas the scenes at the tavern serve to parody or to call into question the values of courtiers and rebels, they never submit Hal to straightforward irony. The prince's political superiority over the rest of the dramatis personae comes from the fact that he is constantly in control of his strategy, a superior actor who opposes his own counterfeiting to that of the court and who uses his madcap disposition to establish his own public identity.
Unlike his father, Hal is presented less as a deceiver than as a consummate actor. Like Hamlet after him, he is a player of roles who can speak all the languages of the play, from the courtly rhetoric of the political world to the colourful prose of the tavern, unbeaten even by Falstaff in the quick give and take of the comic scenes or the accelerating exchange of witty puns and picturesque insults. The fat knight sometimes has the better of him where inventiveness and imagination are concerned,16 but still Hal emerges as the master of both verse and prose, just as capable of conversing with tapsters as with the nobility. Hal's capacity for acting is not manifested only in his ability to wear the disguise of the Prodigal in a convincing manner. In fact, his role-playing is continuous, from the moment when he decides to play the false thief at Gad's Hill, to the time when he impresses the kingdom with his new image as a chivalric knight. In between, he gives a parodic impersonation of Hotspur and Kate, offers himself, and Poins, an amusing interlude at the expense of Francis the tapster, and accepts to play his own part in an entertaining play extempore imagined by Falstaff, in which the latter gives a euphuistic representation of King Henry before he is deposed by the prince who is eager to play the king himself. This constant shifting from one role to another is part of the conscious education of one who boasts that he can drink with any tinker in his own language during [his] life (II.4.18-19). But it also testifies to a chameleon-like versatility which appears to be the secret of success in politics. When at the tavern, Hal is able to conform to the image of the dissolute young man that is expected of him by his loose companions. Apart from an occasional faux-pas (which also gives the dramatist a means of reminding his audience that Hal is only pretending), as when he first rejects Falstaff's suggestion that he join the robbery with self-conscious indignation (who, I rob? I a thief? Not I, by my faith [II.2.134]), apart also from some unconscious signs of distaste in his commerce with Falstaff,17 Hal's disguise as a Prodigal seems to fit him like a glove. And he is just as convincing when he assumes a tone of candour and quiet authority to assure the sheriff that Falstaff is not in the room, whereas he is sleeping behind the arras; or when, on the battlefield, he falls easily into the part of the repentant truant prince, and, without apparent effort or change of mind, immediately steps into that of the chivalrous hero. When is he sincere and when is he pretending? Obviously, in Shakespearean terms, he is most true to himself in what we may call the play-within-the-play, when one disguise annihilates another, when he stops faking wantonness and when, projecting himself forward into the part of the king with which he will soon be entrusted, he reveals that Falstaff will have to be banished. Roleplaying is here neutralized by acting. In answer to Falstaff's long pathetic plea for himself, whom he describes indulgently as plump Jack: banish not him thy Harry's company (II.4.472), the reply is brief, but unmistakably clear: I do, I will (475). Hal banishes Falstaff both in the present and in the future tense, as the true prince that he is everytime he stops pretending to be a Prodigal, and as the king he is to become. The I will has the same prophetic force as the repetition of I will which frames the first soliloquy and also his subsequent promise of atonement to his father.
Though we may be reasonably certain of having been given a glimpse of the true Prince (a recurrent expression in the play), we can never be sure who the true Hal is. The play makes it clear that being a true prince and an efficient ruler implies being able to juggle with a collection of roles so as to be in a position to offer the kingdom, at any given time, the image it expects. This is what Hal does when he appears on the battlefield like a mythical vision of the knight-at-arms. Hal's role-playing, unlike Hamlet's, is not a quest for identity. It is his political identity, which is as versatile as Mercury's assortment of functions.
It is through Hal's relationship with Falstaff that Shakespeare explores the human implications of this conception of kingship which can be defined as Machiavellian in the total subservience of the private individual to his public image, even more than in the quest for efficiency and shrewd pragmatism. In the case of Falstaff also, Shakespeare complicates the Morality pattern. Basically, it is true to say that the fat knight is cast in the role of Vanity,18 but the fact that it is the prince playing the part of king who describes him as That reverend Vice, that grey iniquity, that father ruffian, that vanity in years (II.4.447-9), should make us wary of confining his function to that of the traditional Vice. Hal is meant to express here his father's opinion of Falstaff's influence over his son, and we have seen that Henry's understanding of his son's madcap behaviour is as manichean as the plot of any Morality play. At the same time the prince is giving both his own opinion and that of the king he will become: the king of misrule has to be deposed; Falstaff is no fit companion for a responsible statesman. Even though he is not seen doing much counselling except on the subject of his own future, he does represent Vanity, that is the lure of a sensual life totally immersed in the present moment. But, in so far as the audience knows, from the Prince's soliloquy and his solemn vow at the end of the play-within-the-play, that Falstaff's disgrace is looming large, Hal's companion appears as an unwitting accessory in his strategy, one who will have to be rejected when he has served his purpose as the Prodigal's bad genius. The misleader of youth is unaware of being misled, an irony increased by Falstaff's constant pretence that it is Hal who is leading him astray:
But Hal, I prithee, trouble me no more with vanity . . . Thou hast done much harm upon me, Hal, God forgive thee for it; before I knew thee, Hal, I knew nothing, and now am I, if a man should speak truly, little better than one of the wicked.
This reversal of roles is confirmed by his frequent allusions to his virtuous past19 which is as much a figment of his imagination as the slender waist he is supposed to have lost. But Shakespeare gives other indications that Falstaff could indeed be the Prodigal himself: he loses money gaming; he has his pocket picked—by the prince—and lives in Hal's debt. The multitude of sometimes conflicting signs makes it impossible for Falstaff to be perceived as a monolithic type. On the contrary, they induce ambivalent response in the spectator and explain why so many critics, in the wake of Bradley, wax sentimental when faced with Falstaff's banishment.
Why should we regret Falstaff's banishment more than Hotspur's death? After all, both are unwittingly enrolled in Hal's strategy of reformation. Just as Hal needs Falstaff as a loose companion, so he needs Hotspur as his 'factor'. In their different ways, both are necessary foils to enhance his supposed redemption. These two also have in common a propensity to self-deception revealed by their obstinate misconstruction of the prince: Hotspur refuses to the last to accept the Prince of Wales' new image and Falstaff chronically ignores the warning signs sent out by his friend. But precisely no such human feelings as friendship, pretended or otherwise, are at stake where Hotspur and the political world at large are concerned. The king does not blame Hal for being a bad son but for being a bad prince. Political necessity supersedes emotion. Similarly, Hotspur's death appears as part of a game whose rules he has not only accepted but participated in laying down. He is defeated by Hal in fair combat, and even at the belated moment of anagnorisis (O Harry, thou has robb'd me of my youth! [V.4.76]), emotion is tempered by the fact that, like the miser clinging to his gold until his last hour, he finds it more difficult to part with his proud titles (V.4.78) than with his life. The purely conventional oration delivered by Hal does little more to stir the spectator in favour of a character who dies as he lived, the victim of a misconstrued conception of honour, more than the victim of Hal's deception.
Things are different where Falstaff is concerned because here Shakespeare explores a relationship which is outside the range of the political world. The scenes at the tavern stage a crowd of colourful characters sharing companionship, entertainment, jokes, and fun. The fact that some critics can find in Falstaff Hal's surrogate father or describe him as representing all the human qualities which the prince will have to sacrifice in order to become an efficient ruler20 is sufficient indication that Shakespeare was not content with making his misleader of youth an old white-bearded Satan (II.4.457). The character is so life-like and has so many congenial traits that some critics contend that he runs away from his creator and endangers the balance of the play. It is clear that the prince's jester sees himself as his friend and seeks constant assurance of Hal's love for him. The only time when his immersion in the present is tinged with concern for the future is when he wonders what will happen to him when Hal becomes king. But his escapism soon immerses him once more in enjoyment of the present moment. Seen in the light of Hal's strategy, the scenes at the tavern appear as a succession of confrontations which are comic only because they take the form of trials of wit between the false Prodigal and his supposed Tempter. But each of these games ends with Falstaff's defeat, which is immediately forgotten because the prince gives his companion new cause to believe in his friendship. The robbery, for instance, misfires and Falstaff is forced into a form of self-defence which turns against him; or the play-within-the-play begins with his plea for eternal friendship, develops into the indictment of his character and ends with more than a threat of banishment. The stark line of the strategy is largely concealed by the verbal pyrotechnics of the participants. Falstaff's resilience, his capacity to wriggle, despite his enormous size, out of every tight corner and to get off with a pirouette also create a sense of sometimes hilarious enjoyment which blurs the fact that the prince is actually making use of his companion.
But here again, Hal is the superior actor capable of deceiving even a master of histrionics. Whereas he sees through Falstaff's lies and poses, the old knight misconstrues him throughout the play. What may appear as ruthlessness on the part of the prince is due to the fact that he constantly encourages this misconstruction of his motives and feelings. Falstaff is indeed an escapist but Hal regularly feeds his illusions and self-deception. Immediately after he has vowed to banish him, he saves him from the prosecution of the sheriff and even lies to cover up for him so that Falstaff can comfortably ignore the threat of banishment. Signs of friendship alternate throughout with reproaches and criticism, as when the prince accepts to join in the entertainment of a play extempore after having read his fat companion a lecture on his gross lies.21 We may perhaps, along the same lines, read Hal's last lie as betraying the same desire to feed Falstaff's belief in his friendship for as long as he can be useful. Many interpretations have been suggested to explain the prince's easy acceptance of Falstaff's pretence that he killed Hotspur:
If a lie may do thee grace,I'll gild it with the happiest terms I have.
Hal's readiness to let Falstaff reap the glory of Hotspur's death confirms his opinion of the vanity of chivalrous acts but contradicts his desire to crop the budding honours on Hotspur's crest, as Lancaster apparently remains the only one to know the truth about the death of the noble Percy.22 One critic23 has suggested that Shakespeare needed this loose end in order to leave possibilities open for a second part. The public victory of Hal over Hotspur and the exposure of Falstaff as liar would have tied up the play once and for all. A similar reasoning may be applied to the relationship between Hal and Falstaff, if one notices that Hal's last lie logically follows in the wake of his other lies which may be construed as tokens of friendship, but are also a means of delaying the rejection of Falstaff. It is clear that the knight's banishment has been decided by the prince, but in the interests of his strategy, it must be postponed until the political time is ripe.
Another interesting, but disturbing, incident in the play's denouement is Falstaffs faked death which enables him to pretend that he has killed Hotspur, after having escaped being killed by Douglas. For the first and last time in the play, Hal is actually deceived by Falstaff and delivers a farewell oration to Poor Jack:
Poor Jack, farewell!I could have better spared a better man:O, I should have a heavy miss of theeIf I were much in love with vanity.
In the sole presence of what he takes to be two dead bodies, Hal can stop pretending that he is a Prodigal, or a Prodigal made good. This is the real Hal expressing himself for the first time since the soliloquy and he confirms that he is not attracted by vanity and that his affection for Falstaff does not run very deep: after the quibble on heavy miss and a pun on deer/dear, the speech ends on a rhyming couplet which makes it sound like a public oration more than like a private expression of genuine grief. As far as Falstaff is concerned, the text only indicates that he has heard the end of the speech, since we see him shuddering at the thought of being embowelled as he rises from his pretence of death. If he has heard what came before, he gives no sign of being any the wiser for it.
Even when Hal is temporarily and exceptionally fooled by Falstaff he is not subjected to irony. In this play where every character is at one time or another caught up in the dramatist's direct or indirect irony, it is obvious that the prince is in the situation of the master deceiver, in total control of his strategy and of his manipulation of the other characters, the leader of a political game which he paradoxically seems to have opted out of. By making Hal a false Prodigal in a false morality play and a consummate strategist who uses the misconstruction of his behaviour which he himself induces, Shakespeare grants him an unquestionable intellectual and political superiority. His deception of the court and his subversion of its outdated values appear as legitimate in so far as they enable him to defeat the general counterfeiting and to gain recognition for his flawed title.
But at the same time Shakespeare obliquely influences the spectator's judgement by plunging the prince into the environment of the tavern and by confronting him with Falstaff. Beyond the tavern's obvious function as a counterpoint to the court and a means of subjecting to scrutiny its cult of honour, Hal's relationship with Falstaff serves to reveal the total subservience of his private feelings to his public image. One may feel, with D. Traversi, that the prince is the poorer as a human being for excluding Falstaff, all the more so as the fat knight has an essential humanity which cannot easily be dismissed.24 But one should also notice that Hal is a master-deceiver who never drops his mask, even at the tavern. The public image which he is at such pains to establish, the political values which he appears to cultivate, are all grounded on misconstructions which are never dispelled. And behind the collection of public masks which are shown to make up a political identity, Hal's private face remains a blank, as if the individual had been annihilated by his concern for his own image.
And so we find Shakespeare holding up for inspection not only the traditional political values of the court, but the portrait of his Machiavellian ruler; for with his quest for efficiency at all costs, his subordination of his private emotions to his political ends and his shrewdness verging on ruthlessness, Hal is Shakespeare's Prince in more than one sense. While both the court and the tavern are subjected to irony, the character of the prince provokes conflicting reactions to his political commitment but personal dearth, complicated by our ambivalent response to Falstaffs self-indulgent cynicism but essential vitality. The familiar Shakespearean ambiguity, the very opposite of Jonson's single lesson, is here often increased by encouragement to misconstrue, as the dramatist subverts traditional dramatic modes and types to explore dangerous political ground. Did Shakespeare manage to convince the court of Elizabeth of the orthodoxy of his views, as Hal manages to convince the court of his father? Did they, like King Henry IV, take his morality play at its face value? Or did they, on the contrary, recognize in Prince Hal a perfect imitation of his historical model, since he, like the real Henry V, uses a fictitious (or fictional) dissolute past as a foil to his heroic present? Might we not then conclude that politics thrive on misconstruction? A question not to be asked, to take up King Falstaffs words.
1 All the references are taken from A.R. Humphreys's Arden edition of the play (Methuen, 1978).
2 Holinshed presents the prince as the victim of detraction more than of actual wantonness. Indeed he was youthfullie given, growne to audacities, and had chosen him companions agreeable to his age . . . But yet (it should seem by the report of some writers) that his behaviour was not offensive or at least tending to the damage of anie bodie (The Chronicles of England. Scotland, and Irelande [2nd edition, 1587], in G. Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare [London & New York, 1962], vol. IV, p. 195). The fact that the word pickthanks only appears in the second edition provides another indication that this was the edition read by Shakespeare.
3 This conception is developed by D. Traversi who draws a severe portrait of the prince and a more sentimental one of Falstaff (Shakespeare from "Richard II" to "Henry V" [London, 1958]). It is also put forward by J. Winny in The Player King (London, 1968), by R.Ornstein in A Kingdom for a Stage (Harvard, 1972), and by N. Council in When Honour's at the Stake (London, 1973). More recently, J.L. Calderwood has explored the metaphoric creativity of Hal's lies in Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad (Univ. of California Press, 1979), and A.D. Nuttall, in A New Mimesis, Shakespeare and the Representative of Reality (Methuen, 1983), defines the prince as a "white Machiavel" (p. 147). See also my article "I Henry IV ou la stratégie du fils prodigue" in De Shakespeare à Golding, Presses Universitaires de Rouen (1984), 45-56.
4 Sir A. Quiller-Couch was the first to suggest the play's relation with the Morality play in Shakespeare's Workmanship (1918), p. 148. This suggestion was considerably developed by J. Dover Wilson in his book The Fortunes of Falstaff(Cambridge, 1943, rpt. 1964), under the title "Riot and the Prodigal Prince" (pp. 17-25). More recently, the play's analogy with the Parable of the Prodigal Son has been further explored by C.L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy (Ohio, 1963), p. 195, by W. Farnham, The Shakespearean Grotesque (OUP, 1971), pp. 82-4 and 90-1, and by R.B. Pierce, Shakespeare's History Plays, The Family and the State (Ohio, 1971), p. 173. Paul Bacquet in Les Pièces historiques de Shakespeare (PUF, 1979), 2 vols, studies more precisely the connection between Falstaff and the Vice. (In this respect, see also the analogues collected by Bullough from the interludes Mundus et Infans and The Four Elements.)
5Shakespeare's History Plays (London, 1964), p. 265.
6 Titus Livius' biography of Henry V first appeared c. 1437. It was influential even in MS form. In 1513, it was translated into English with additions. The Famous Victories is generally dated around 1594 but was probably performed earlier.
7 The father's disappointment in his son is already established in Richard II when Bolingbroke asks:
Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son?Tis full three months since I did see him last . . .Inquire at London, 'mongst the taverns there,For there, they say, he daily doth frequentWith unrestrained loose companions . . .
8 Pierce, op. cit., Preface.
Thy place in Council thou has rudely lostWhich by thy younger brother is supply 'd.
This reproach of the king to the prince is generally considered by critics as a tactful reference to the historical Henry's legendary beating of the Lord Chief Justice, which is punished by the loss of his place in Council. Shakespeare was indeed drawing on familiar material if such an oblique allusion could be understood by his audiences.
10 This interpretation is put forward by S.L. Bethell in Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition (New York, 1944, rpt. 1970), p. 79, and by E.M.W. Tillyard, op. cit., p. 271; it is taken up by Irving Ribner in The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (Princeton, 1957, rpt. 1965), pp. 169-70. Yet, as early as 1902, A.C. Bradley read the soliloquy as the first indication of Hal's ruthless political talents: "the prince describes his riotous life as a mere scheme to win him glory later. It implies that readiness to use other people to his own ends which is a conspicuous feature in his father" ("The Rejection of Falstaff, Fortnightly Review , reprinted in Shakespeare, Henry IV Parts I and 2. A Casebook, ed. G.K. Hunter, Macmillan , p. 65).
11 W.H. Auden even finds a certain resemblance between Hal's soliloquy and lago's first monologue I am not what I am. See "The Fallen City", Encounter 13 (1959), reprinted in "The Prince's Dog" in his Dyer's Hand (London, 1963); and in Casebook, p. 187-211. We may also think of Gloucester's opening soliloquy in Richard III and notice that Hal is determined to prove a false Prodigal.
12 This speech, Dr Johnson writes, with his usual interest for the nicer points of psychology, "exhibits a natural picture of a great mind offering excuses for itself and palliating those follies which it can neither justify nor forsake" (Notes on "Henry V" [from Johnson's edition, 1765] in Dr Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. W.K. Wimsatt, Penguin Books , p. 116).
13 On this subject, see J.A. Bryant, "Prince Hal and the Ephesians", The Sewanee Review, LXVII (1959), 204-19, and Paul A. Jorgensen, "Redeeming Time" in Shakespeare's Henry IV", Tennessee Studies in Literature (1960), reprinted in Casebook, 231-242.
14 See, for instance, E.M.W. Tillyard, op. cit., p. 265: "The Prince . . . chooses Chivalry . . . to which he is drawn by his father and his brothers."
15 For a more detailed analysis of Shakespeare's presentation of martial virtues and of the function of the warrior, see my article "Le culte de Mars de I Henry IV à Coriolan ", in Shakespeare et la guerre (forthcoming, Paris, 1990).
16 See particularly the contest of insults in II.4, in which Falstaff interrupts Hal, supersedes him in comic invention, but has to stop for breath (237-44).
17 D. Traversi (op.cit.) notes for instance that Hal often alludes to Falstaff's fatness in terms which betray his fundamental repulsion.
18 For instance, when Falstaff threatened Hal to beat him out of his kingdom with a dagger of lath (II.4.133-4), the Elizabethan public immediately connected him with the Vice of the Morality.
19 Just as Hal conceals his virtue under a pretence of vice, so Falstaff constantly alludes to his virtue to conceal his vice.
20 J.I.M. Stewart was the first to analyse Falstaff as a father-substitute (see the last chapter of his book Character and Motive in Shakespeare [London, 1949], entitled "The Birth and Death of Falstaff). He explains that Hal kills Falstaff instead of his own father. This interpretation was violently attacked by E.E. Stoll in a review entitled "A Freudian Detective of Shakespeare", but was later vindicated by Ph. Williams in "The Birth and Death of Falstaff Reconsidered", Shakespeare Quarterly 9 , 359-65.
Hal's education at the tavern had been studied much earlier in psychoanalytic terms, as when Franz Alexander explained that the Prince had to master "the wholly self-centered pleasure-seeking principle", represented by Falstaff, in order to become a fully balanced adult (Psychoanalytic Quarterly 11 , 592-606). Later, Traversi also made the point that part of Hal (the Falstaff part) must die before he can reign.
21 In another perspective, we might argue that Hal appears more often as a father-figure than Falstaff.
22 The only allusion to Hotspur's death is made by King Henry who merely mentions that the noble Percy has been slain (V.5.19).
23 Keiji Aoki in Shakespeare's "Henry IV" and "Henry V": Hal's Heroic Character and the Sun-Cloud Theme (Kyoto, 1973). Mentioned by D. H. Burden in "Shakespeare's History Plays: 1952-83", Shakespeare Survey 38 (1985), 1-18.
24 This is also the opinion of Jonas A. Barish who considers that Hal fits himself as a ruler by scrapping part of his humanity: "Political success is achieved at the cost of constricted sensibility" (Shakespeare Studies 1 , 9-17, 16.
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Examines the common subjects of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Conrad's Under Western Eyes, and contends that the characters Brutus, Razumov, and Halden are "blessed and cursed with 'the gift of expression' and with an ability to 'construe' themselves and their world through language."
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Examines the relationship between the "disguised and deceived" in King Lear, and suggests that the study of this relationship may help to reveal Shakespeare's world view.
Rozett, Martha Tuck. "Tragedies within Tragedies: Kent's Unmasking in King Lear." Renaissance Drama, New Series XVIII (1987): 237-58.
Examines the scene in which Kent is unmasked in King Lear, arguing that the moment comprises a self-contained tragedy, in which Kent is "cheated. . .of the important moment with which he could have expected his disguised journey to end."
Takahashi, Yasunari. "Speech, Deceit, and Catharsis: A Reading of Hamlet." In "Hamlet" and Japan, edited by Yoshiko Ueno, pp. 3-19. New York: AMS Press, 1995.
Views Hamlet as an essay that explores the language of drama, particularly the modes of speech and narrative.