illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

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Scholars who write about silence in Shakespeare's plays emphasize that it is an important dramatic element, particularly with regard to characterization and thematic development. A character's muteness may signify the experience of an emotion that is beyond human understanding or articulation, imply that a character feels intimidated, or communicate defiance. Calling attention to its inherent ambiguity, critics frequently note that the way actors “perform” a dramatic silence will endow it with alternative meanings. Furthermore, the text of a Shakespearean play may itself be “silent” with respect to an action or episode—that is, not represent it directly but introduce it through the report of one or more characters, thus leaving its implications ambiguous or confusing. Many late-twentieth-century commentators allude to the way Shakespeare dealt with the conventional notion that women should be reticent or soft-spoken. Disputing the idea that there was such a fixed concept, Christina Luckyj (1993) argues that Shakespeare's plays mirror contradictory Renaissance views of women's silence, depicting it variously as a sign of independence, acquiescence, or expediency.

Whether women's silence reflects passivity or resistance is a central issue in several Shakespearean comedies. In particular, Isabella's silence at the end of Measure for Measure has elicited a great deal of critical attention. Charles R. Lyons (1989) reads the absence of her response to the Duke's announcement in Act V, scene i that he will marry her as an indication that she has been constrained to silence because her earlier eloquence represented a threat to male authority. Amy Lechter-Siegel (1992) also equates Isabella's final silence with containment, suggesting that the resolution of the play depicts the suppression of female challenges to patriarchal control. Philip C. McGuire (1985)—who coined the phrase “open silence” to describe one that may be interpreted in different ways, especially in theatrical performance—asserts that Measure for Measure provides Shakespeare's most intricate use of dramatic silence. During the play's final moments, he points out, Angelo, Barnardine, Claudio, Juliet, Mariana, and Isabella all become literally speechless. Jonathan Bate (1994) focuses on the silence and passivity of Hero in Much Ado about Nothing, remarking on the relative paucity of opportunities she has to speak for herself and the many occasions when other characters talk about her. He postulates that her provisional “death” may represent the ultimate silencing of women.

Among the critics who discuss the silence of women in Shakespeare's tragedies are Jill Levenson (1971), Harvey Rovine (1987), Christina Luckyj (1991), Cynthia Marshall (1991), and Mark Berge (1994). Rovine argues that whereas the muteness of female characters in Shakespeare's comedies usually signals acquiescence, in the tragedies it generally conveys “fear, despair, or confusion.” Levenson compares Cordelia's silence in the first scene of King Lear with her reticence in later scenes, but she also calls attention to Lear's increasing inarticulateness, suggesting that this underscores the play's concern with the limitations of language in communicating emotion. Like Levenson, Berge sees Cordelia's initial silence as evidence of her strength and constancy, though he proposes that her reticence in subsequent scenes indicates that dramatic events have led her to question the justice and benevolence of providential forces. Luckyj regards Volumnia's silence in Act V, scene v of Coriolanus as a similar token of despair, arguing that she fully understands her son will be killed because he yielded to her pleas and spared Rome. Perhaps the most extreme example of the silencing of women's voices in Shakespearean drama is Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, whose tongue is cut out by her rapists. Her mutilation, Marshall contends, is a manifestation of how men in the play punish women, whether they are powerful—as Tamora—or dependent—as Lavinia.

A number of late-twentieth-century commentators have focused on the silence of men in Shakespeare's plays. Harvey Rovine, for example, maintains that in the comedies, the silence of male characters in the final scenes may imply anger or bitterness about their alienation from society. In the tragedies and histories, he argues, it may be a means of controlling others or concealing treacherous thoughts. Rovine also calls attention to the frequent juxtaposition in Shakespeare's plays of verbose and reticent men, as does Michael Manheim (1977). Whereas Rovine contrasts Richard II's volubility and Bolingbroke's reserve, Manheim offers a close reading of the occasions when Henry VI's silence is the direct antithesis of his noblemen's blustering. Gayle Greene (1978) examines the apposition of verbal and nonverbal modes of expression in The Tempest, proposing that the play demonstrates the limitations of language in response to the experience of awe and wonder. Mark Berge evaluates the significance of the silencing of the Fool in King Lear—that is, his disappearance from the stage when the play is only at its midpoint.

Absence as a form of dramatic silence is the concern of several Shakespearean critics. Marjorie Garber (1984) analyzes offstage episodes in King Lear and The Winter's Tale, describing these as “unscenes.” She points out that this indirect mode of presenting highly significant events—known to the audience only by the reports of those who claim to have observed them—generates doubt and confusion. Mark Taylor (1989) evaluates two episodes in Much Ado about Nothing that are not represented on stage: Don Pedro's courtship of Hero and the chamber-window scene. Assessing various characters' accounts of these episodes, Taylor emphasizes their subjectivity and links what he regards as their hollowness to the “nothingness” at the heart of the play.

Jill Levenson (lecture date 1971)

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SOURCE: Levenson, Jill. “What the Silence Said: Still Points in King Lear.” In Shakespeare 1971: Proceedings of the World Shakespeare Congress, Vancouver, August 1971, edited by Clifford Leech and J. M. R. Margeson, pp. 215-29. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.

[In the following essay, originally delivered as a lecture in 1971, Levenson contends that silence in King Lear is integral to the play's structure, characterization, and thematic development.]

Only he who has attained to his own identity, can be silent, only when thinking has reached reality, will it come to a stop.1

At the end of Stravinsky's Les Noces, an extraordinary series of pauses punctuates the music. Creating and disappointing expectation almost simultaneously, the pauses compel the listener's attention, his energies, with at least as much force as the sounds. When the last vibration from the percussion blends completely with the stillness in which it began, we experience all the resonance of silence.

Silence in drama can create, disappoint, compel, and absorb as vigorously as the most eloquent musical pause. And this profound similarity exists because the dramatist and the composer share the power to create silence. The poet and the novelist must invoke or describe stillness; the painter and the sculptor can express it through space or light. But, for the makers of drama and music, silence itself furnishes means to express, invoke, even define other kinds of reality.

Despite this resemblance, our response to silence in the two modes differs as significantly as our general reactions to music and drama. We allow music to engage all of our faculties. We accept what is mysterious, otherworldly, non-rational, confusing, without questioning or analysis. In effect, we do not feel uncomfortable with those elements in music which are beyond rationalization. With drama, on the other hand, we immediately try to explain everything. An image from Pirandello's Umorismo describes the phenomenon: ‘By means of logic the brain pumps feelings from the heart and extracts ideas. The feeling passes through the filter and leaves whatever it contains that is hot and cloudy; then it is refrigerated, purified, and i-de-a-lized.’2 As Professor Harbage said recently of Shakespearian scholarship in particular, ‘Sometimes we seem to be witnessing a game of critical scrabble, with the contestants each taking a handful of pieces from the plays and arranging them according to taste, with the one who achieves the most novel arrangement declared the winner of the game.’3 In the terms of a contemporary philosopher, we are men of faith about music, men of reason about drama; Hebraists in one area, uninspired Hellenists in the other.4

Perhaps the drama of today, baffled by feeling and insistently cerebral, forces us to play intellectual games. But the older drama suffers through this rarefied response in production, in the classroom, in scholarship. And Shakespearian drama, which attracts large numbers of followers because of its rich blend of sentient thought, paradoxically suffers the greatest degree of dilution. As one result, we can no longer respond to the silences in Shakespeare's plays. We ignore or catalogue them, censure them as artistic blunders or commend them as artistic coups. But we do not listen to them.

In King Lear more than any other Shakespearian drama, silence gives form to the action, substance to the characters and themes. Appropriately, it plays a forceful rôle in the concentrated opening scene, where it combines with ritual to set the love-test parable in high relief from the rest of the play. Like music, drama begins in silence: ‘Sound is an event: by its coming it breaks an original silence, and it ends in final silence.’5 What Gisèle Brelet says about the originating stillness of music applies to plays as well: ‘That silence into which music is born is not pure nothingness: in it dwell an attentiveness and an expectation.’6 Unlike Shakespeare's other tragedies, King Lear prolongs the initial silence, the expectation, in the quiet conversation with which it opens. Anticipation grows until it is great enough to receive the protagonist. Then the sennet sounds. At the end of the scene, the jarring medley of court sounds fades into the subdued exchange between Goneril and Regan. This still moment prepares us for the ‘final silence’ of the scene, which in turn precedes the holocaust that begins with scene ii.

As the opening scene begins and ends in pronounced silence, so it develops or realizes itself. At its heart is Cordelia's stillness, which punctuates keenly the easy flow of words prescribed by ceremony. In music, the silence of punctuation has been called, ‘the fullest and most important moment of musical becoming: the very moment when it is made real.’7 Cordelia's speechlessness is such a moment in drama.

Shakespeare created Cordelia's silence, for which no precedent exists in the fifty-odd versions of the Lear story.8 Even in the folk-tale originals of the love-test, Cordelia's prototypes experience no difficulty expressing themselves, and answer their fathers with either a riddle or, less frequently, a straightforward declaration of filial devotion. Most often the youngest daughter responds simply that she loves her father like salt, and because he does not realize the value of salt, he angrily casts her out. After various adventures, the erring parent, forced to do without salt, learns its merit and that of his daughter. In the terms of folklore, the earliest Cordelias were Ingenious Heroines with didactic rôles who made clear the distinction between the real and apparent values of salt, and therefore between real and apparent values.9

When Geoffrey of Monmouth first linked the love-test story with the legend of King Lear and his daughters, he made the Ingenious Heroine more subtle and articulate than her predecessors, though no less didactic. This Cordelia gives her answer eagerly, ‘desirous to make trial of … [her father's] affection’:

My father … is there any daughter that can love her father more than duty requires? In my opinion, whoever pretends to it, must disguise her real sentiments under the veil of flattery. I have always loved you as a father, nor do I yet depart from my purposed duty; and if you insist to have something more extorted from me, hear now the greatness of my affection, which I always bear you, and take this for a short answer to all your questions; look how much you have, so much is your value, and so much do I love you.10

In the versions generally considered Shakespeare's immediate sources, Cordelia responds with varying degrees of wordiness, according to different motives. But she always answers at once. The ghost of Cordile in Higgins' Mirror for Magistrates speaks succinctly to expose her sisters' flattery: ‘I will (said I) at once my love declare and tell …’11 Holinshed's Cordeilla is downright verbose:

Knowing the great love and fatherlie zeale that you have alwaies borne towards me (for the which I maie not answere you otherwise than I thinke, and as my conscience leadeth me) I protest unto you, that I have loved you ever, and will continuallie (while I live) love you as my naturall father. And if you would more understand of the love that I beare you, assertaine your selfe, that so much as you have, so much you are worth, and so much I love you, and no more.12

The Cordeill of The Fairie Queene with dignified simplicity ‘said she lov'd him as behoov'd …’13 Finally, Cordella in the anonymous Leir play determines to edify her father by making plain her sisters' flattery and stressing the integrity of good deeds. Like Shakespeare's Cordelia, she speaks twice in asides, but they indicate the revulsion hypocrisy makes her feel. (If Coleridge had known this version of the story, he might have hesitated to burden Shakespeare's Cordelia with a reaction of disgust.) When Leir misunderstands her words, she tries to help him interpret the riddle, disparages her sisters, and in the end, irritates him so greatly that he cuts her off mid-sentence:

Deare father -
Peace, bastard Impe, no issue of King Leir,
I will not heare thee speake one tittle more.(14)

Shakespeare's Cordelia differs strikingly from most of her precursors. Whereas many Ingenious Heroines intentionally play didactic rôles during the love-test, she can barely answer Lear's question, and Kent, the Fool, and Edgar assume the responsibilities of teaching in the play. The prototypes generally prepare us for their responses; their purposes in speaking are clear. But Cordelia reveals only her confusion and initially can say nothing.

What does her ‘Nothing’ express? If we find in it ‘some little faulty admixture of pride and sullenness,’ or worse, a great and crucial fault,15 like Lear we deceive ourselves by distorting what we hear. A remark by the composer John Cage about silence suggests what we might find in Cordelia's: ‘Keeping one's mind / on the emptiness, / on the space / one can see anything can be in it, is, as / a matter of fact, in it.’16 Her stillness resonates like the silences of the Bible, fairy-tale and folk ritual, analogous moments that need reflecting upon.

At once a narrative technique and complex symbol, silence in the Bible points the inexpressible. S. Goitein's Studies in Scripture, an excellent literary analysis of the Bible, explains one function of silence in discussing the ‘Binding of Isaac’:

At the time of the binding itself no words were said—neither by father nor son; for it is a very important principle in biblical narrative that when the cry of crisis reaches the point no longer controlled by human speech … the writer passes over it in silence. In contrast to this, the action is pictured in great detail, so that we may feel a shiver at Isaac's destiny …17

Like most profound insights, this one states the obvious, that which stands in our paths—unnoticed. Here is the familiar passage Goitein cites:

When they arrived at the place God had pointed out to him, Abraham built an altar there, and arranged the wood. Then he bound his son Isaac and put him on the altar on top of the wood. Abraham stretched out his hand and seized the knife to kill his son.

(Gen 22:9-10)18

Deep silence characterizes not only the binding, but also the dialogue with God (where we do not hear Abraham's answer) and the journey. As Erich Auerbach interprets the story in Mimesis: ‘the journey is like a silent progress through the indeterminate and the contingent, a holding of the breath, a process which has no present …’19 ‘Everything remains unexpressed.’20

Still moments like these again and again heighten our experience of the Old Testament. The dismissal from Eden happens swiftly in dramatic images: ‘He banished the man, and in front of the garden of Eden he posted the cherubs, and the flame of a flashing sword, to guard the way to the tree of life’ (Gen 3:24).21 During Noah's ordeal, described by many concrete details, no one speaks a word. Although Joseph's brothers discuss their treachery both before and after they throw him into the well, narrative understatement accomplishes the event itself: ‘So, when Joseph reached his brothers, they pulled off his coat, the coat with long sleeves that he was wearing, and catching hold of him they threw him into the well, an empty well with no water in it. They then sat down to eat’ (Gen 37:23-5). Physical images of destruction and force express the great anger of Moses, as a whale's belly indicates the absurdity and extent of Jonah's plight. The week-long silent reception of Job's calamity speaks for itself.

In the New Testament as well, profound events realize themselves through silence. Clearly, the most intense stillnesses mark the drama that culminates in the Passion. The Marys, Martha, and Salome, who quietly serve Christ and witness his suffering, incarnate ‘the moment in and out of time.’ But it is Christ himself whose silence resounds most forcefully in each of the gospels. According to Matthew, Mark, and John, Pilate marvels at it: ‘Have you no reply at all? See how many accusations they are bringing against you!’ Luke describes the episode with Herod as a clamour of words—lengthy interrogation, accusations, mockery—with Christ still and separate at the centre.

The impact of Christ's silence greatly impressed the writers of medieval passion plays, who prolonged the biblical moment—sometimes interminably. The scene of the silent response often occurs more than once in these dramas, accompanied generally by the noisy confusion of the frustrated judge(s). Christ answers neither Caiaphas nor Pilate nor Herod, despite coaxing, buffeting, and cursing which grows more and more scatological as the speaker's rage increases. In the Chester version, Caiaphas at first stands dumbfounded by the silence, and Herod threatens to expire for woe if Jesus does not speak, for he has decided that the accused is either ‘dumbe and deafe as a doted doe, / or frentick,’22 The Wakefield Master focusses on Caiaphas' reactions, a study in the perplexity of a stupid man. The priest condescends at first to persuade Christ with a Latin aphorism. This ploy failing, he resorts to one clean and one dirty curse; a rationalization that the accused is frightened; a petulant charge about loquaciousness in the past; a wheedling request to say something, ‘Be it hole worde or brokyn’; a decision that Christ must be deaf or witless; and finally, a tantrum: ‘So, I cry and I showte!’23 The Ludas Coventriae interrogators turn to beatings when words produce no effect,24 whereas those in the York Passion Play simply keep on talking. The York version, in fact, could rival any modern absurdist play as a rendering of verbal non-communication. The ultimate reductio ad absurdum, a scene that Bottom would have loved to act, shows Herod trying to reach Christ by shouting in strange tongues:

… uta! oy! oy! …
Say may thou not here me? oy! man, arte thou woode?(25)

One recognizes in these dramatic presentations of Christ's silence a revealing analogue for Cordelia's. In both, pauses in the midst of ceremony, hypocrisy, and wordiness force a confrontation with truths too large for the compass of language. Only the person who refrains from speaking recognizes, as Dante did, ‘How scant is language, all too weak to frame my thoughts.’ In each of the two situations, tragedy results from the failure of others to grasp this basic fact of life which the Bible continuously teaches implicitly through its narrative style and, of course, explicitly in its content.26

When Freud discussed Cordelia's rôle in his essay ‘The Theme of the Three Caskets,’ he pointed out that in fairy-tale and folklore too silence expresses ‘thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls.’ For him her quietness signifies death, and Lear's response to it conveys his unreadiness to accept his end.27 But fairy-tale and folklore do not disclose thus categorically the meanings of stillness. Most frequently they imply that silence is an almost superhuman feat which can accomplish great deeds, break evil spells, and establish its custodian as a person of spiritual strength. The Grimm brothers relate two stories, cited by Freud, in which a maiden releases her brothers from a wicked enchantment which has turned them to swans or ravens by refraining to speak for several years:28

… there is but one [way to release them] in the whole world, and that is so hard that you will not save them by it, for you must be dumb for seven years, and may not speak or laugh, and if you speak one single word, and only an hour of the seven years is wanting, all is in vain, and your brothers will be killed by the one word.29

In a Transylvanian gypsy story which has many analogues, the hero saves a beautiful maid from an evil spirit by undergoing three hours of various torments without making a sound.30 Through the sacrifice of her lovely voice, Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid becomes a spirit of the air with a voice like ethereal music.31 The dumbness of young Prince Ivan in an old Russian tale emblematizes his virtues. His parents, who misinterpret its significance, suffer a curse for their obtuseness.32 Sweet Martha, in a variant of the Cinderella story, saves her own life and receives rich gifts by maintaining silence as she wards off death by frost.33

The special strength required to keep still on crucial occasions graces few fairy-tale protagonists. For every hero who achieves silence, another fails. The would-be deliverer of the legendary White Lady in the White Tower at Prague shouts in pain, prompted by three bayonet stabs in his breast.34 In a Hessian story with a number of parallels, a forester finds it impossible to maintain the silence which could have saved a maiden bewitched into a swan.35 An Irish variant of the Grimm swan tale describes the tragic fate of a sister who cannot remain quiet for crying;36 and the wicked sisters of sweet Martha perish because they are ‘rough of the tongue.’37 Moreover, in many tales where an evil spell or threat forces the hero to suffer anguish and humiliation in silence, animals take over his speaking function or a revealing accident occurs which relieves and sometimes liberates the victim.38 Ordinary mortals cannot bear too much silence.

Fairy-tale suggests a connection between silence and the superhuman; folklore, with its emphasis on ritual silence, openly acknowledges the link. Perfect stillness, for example, confers special powers to see the realm of Faery.39 Since noise disturbs the powerful, protective spirits of the universe, any task that calls for supernatural assistance—from the sowing of flax to the performance of magic rites—must take place in wordless reverence. On the other hand, vehement uproar effectively dispossesses evil spirits.40

Like the Bible, then, fairy-tale and folklore reveal ‘that language does have its frontiers … which give proof of a transcendent presence in the fabric of the world.’41 Additional evidence for this view about language and silence, already charted by other writers, occurs abundantly in classical mythology and both western and oriental philosophies.42 In the context of this fruitful material, Cordelia's punctuating silence in the first scene and Lear's failure to understand it grow rich in implication.

When we first meet Lear, his bearing, his conduct, and the behaviour of his court objectify order and control. The procession, the map of Britain already divided into three portions, the formal sequences of address to his daughters, and to Burgundy and France, the rhetoric of his speeches, suggest that Lear governs a world well fortified against surprises. Ritual, it appears, has long captivated feeling and governed its expression. Consequently, Lear can demand public utterances of love from his children without making anyone but Cordelia noticeably ill at ease. Even for such personal communications, forms exist which eliminate the possibility of awkward emotional outbursts. Goneril and Regan accept these forms, indeed use them expertly. Not the least bit startled by Lear's request, each answers him immediately in words that seem prescribed by custom for the occasion. They do not pause to reflect, to calculate; their expressions of love are automatic:

Our eldest-born, speak first.
Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter …


Terence Hawkes has pointed out play on the word love in their answers, meaning both estimate and hold in affection,44 a subtlety which could reveal to a careful listener signs of treachery. But Lear is not a careful listener. He does not hear hypocrisy; he will not understand silence. At this moment in the play, he responds only to the denotative meanings of words.45

Cordelia's silence dramatically exposes Lear's perilous dependence upon the semblances of order. She cannot answer him because her unwieldy devotion resists the tether of language: ‘I am sure my love's / More ponderous than my tongue’ (I.i.77-8). Her reply is not automatic. And it is not wilful: ‘I cannot heave / My heart into my mouth …’ (I.i.91-2). In Cordelia's silence, Lear confronts what I have called before a basic fact of life. That ‘… there are actions of the spirit rooted in silence. It is difficult to speak of these …’46 That ‘the ineffable lies beyond the frontiers of the word,’47 and human efforts to control experience often limit it, ‘cutting the world down to size.’48 But Lear does not comprehend these commonplaces. He behaves as if, in George Steiner's terms, the sum of human experience could be enclosed within the bounds of rational discourse, and ‘all truth and realness … [could] be housed inside the walls of language.’49

Lear's confusion and anger in confrontation with Cordelia's ‘Nothing,’ her silence, ring psychologically true. For the western mind has again and again shown itself fearful of voids and stillness, the indefinite and the immense. Melville's chapter on the terrifying whiteness of Moby Dick provides impressive testament to this familiar sensation: ‘Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way?’50 The thoughts of a contemporary writer on silence effectively interpret Melville's: ‘… silence does not seem to be as assertive, as committal, as speech … Perhaps the information given by not speaking has in it too much potentiality and possible surprise; it requires great confidence to endure it.’51 Lear cannot endure it at this point; cannot even begin to understand that stillness can contain not only potential for evil but also potential for good,52 not only signs of outrage but also hints of apocalypse.53 Trepidation often causes us to forget that silence can affirm, however tentatively: ‘Not one / sound fears the silence that extinguishes it. / But if you avoid it, that's a pity, because / it resembles life very closely & life and it / are essentially a cause for joy. People say, / sometimes, / timidly.’54 In eastern philosophy we find the most optimistic appreciation of the void:

Thirty spokes unite in one nave,
And because of the part where nothing exists we have the use of a carriage wheel.
Clay is molded into vessels,
And because of the space where nothing exists we are able to use them as vessels.
Doors and windows are cut out in the walls of a house,
And because they are empty spaces, we are able to use them.
Therefore, on the one hand we have the benefit of existence, and on the other of non-existence.(55)

Lear, however, finds only negation and destructiveness in Cordelia's silence, which so obviously affirms her love as it nullifies the wordy vows of Goneril and Regan.

In the tragic events which result from Lear's misunderstanding, his own silences and ultimate comprehension of Cordelia's serve as important registers to his crescent perceptiveness. Cordelia's long absence, a kind of stillness, and her moments of speechlessness when she returns, mark the play with reminders of her constancy and the profound truths Lear could not grasp at the beginning. Unchanging in her inexpressible love for Lear, she can barely articulate her grief when late in the tragedy she learns how he has suffered:

Made she no verbal question?
Faith, once or twice she heav'd the name of ‘father’
Pantingly forth, as if it press'd her heart;
Cried ‘Sisters! sisters! Shame of ladies! sisters!
Kent! father! sisters! What? i' th' storm! i' th' night?
Let pity not be believ'd!’


Immediately before they are reunited, Cordelia, like an Old Testament figure, speaks not of her feelings, but of physical things and faith:

Alack! 'tis he: why, he was met even now …
Crown'd with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds,
With hardocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers,
Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow
In our sustaining corn.


                    All bless'd secrets,
All you unpublish'd virtues of the earth,
Spring with my tears!


And when they finally meet, her humble gestures and her tears make fluent her faltering words. At the end of the play she holds the stage in prolonged and profound silence. To Lear's joyful fantasy of their future as God's spies, she responds simply by weeping, a muteness as telling and complex as her first. The stillness of her death expresses something new: ‘The silence of the dead Cordelia is a final summary of the presence of what Donne calls “absence, darkness, death; things which are not,” throughout the play, wherever a question is asked and not answered, or a command is not obeyed.’56

While Cordelia remains constant, still, and comprehending, Lear, dynamic and generally verbose, uncovers through his incredible pain the values he had instinctively honoured but never understood. Until his tragedy, there had always stood between Lear and wisdom what Maynard Mack calls the imperative mood.57 Other scholars have noticed as well how Lear commands, pronounces, curses, invokes, defies.58 He does not argue, reflect, or reply to objections. He does not doubt. The silence that precedes insight finds no lodging in him. When intimations come that he has misjudged his daughters, and the imperative mood shifts slightly toward the interrogative, there is no one left in the kingdom he governed to answer his questions directly. Because of his own blindness, he now lives in a world where ‘the relation of meaning to verbal expression is in some way defective, oblique or trumped-up.’59 Goneril and Regan, as we have seen, adeptly distort the meanings of words. Edmund creates his own definitions:

Our father's love is to the bastard Edmund
As to th' legitimate. Fine word, ‘legitimate’!
Well, my legitimate, if this letter speed,
And my invention thrive, Edmund the base
Shall top th' legitimate—…


Kent must borrow other accents to serve Lear, and Edgar and the Fool survive by riddling.

When ritual and linguistic forms disintegrate for Lear, he draws upon his tremendous reserve of sensibility to face and defy the remaining vacuum. Silence distinguishes this process which mysteriously transmutes anguish into cognition. In fact, silence is its only witness. We experience Lear's pain and the resulting enlightenment, but the moment of their conjunction is interior and private. Only after his Knight remarks ‘a great abatement of kindness’ in Goneril's household, does Lear admit his own awareness of the slight, unmentioned until now: ‘Thou but rememb'rest me of mine own conception: I have perceived a most faint neglect of late …’ (I.iv.63-4, 70-2). He has also quietly perceived the Fool's unhappiness since Cordelia's departure, and Goneril's ill humour: ‘You are too much of late i' th' frown’ (I.iv.198). Though Lear's misjudgment of Cordelia tutors him in shame,60 he mentions her rarely, elliptically, during her long absence from the stage: ‘O most small fault, / How ugly didst thou in Cordelia show!’ (I.iv.275-6); ‘I did her wrong,—’ (I.v.24). In Lear's relation with the Fool, as Granville-Barker astutely describes it, ‘His silences are … pregnant. He listens and finds cheer in the Fool's chatter and song, throws him an answer or so to keep it alive, snarls now and then like an old lion if a sting goes too deep. Yet his thoughts, we can tell, are away.’61 While Kent relates the story of his disgrace, Lear says nothing. And when madness comes, when Lear sees most feelingly, speech wavers and sometimes goes out:

I can scarce speak to thee; thou'lt not believe
With how deprav'd a quality—O Regan!


I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall—I will do such things,
What they are, yet I know not, but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.


No, I will be the pattern of all patience;
I will say nothing.


Before the mock trial on the heath, Lear stands still and amazed, and, in its wake, prepares for an instant of respite: ‘Make no noise, make no noise; draw the curtains: so, so’ ( Later the still distraught Lear meets Gloucester near Dover and counsels: ‘Look with thine ears … Hark, in thine ear …’ (, 154). The words resonate, percipient, for Lear has learned to listen to silence, in silence.

Auerbach's penetrating study of biblical narrative illuminates the dramatic presentation of Lear's growing wisdom:

[Biblical style is] the externalization of only so much of the phenomena as is necessary for the purpose of the narrative, all else left in obscurity; the decisive points of the narrative alone are emphasized, what lies between is nonexistent … thoughts and feeling remain unexpressed, are only suggested by the silence and the fragmentary speeches; the whole, permeated with the most unrelieved suspense and directed toward a single goal … remains mysterious and ‘fraught with background.’62

Lear's silences point his most intense experiences of pain and insight. He may, like Job, describe his discoveries in concrete, physical terms, images which reveal how acutely he suffers and perceives on his very pulses, but the description inevitably follows the experience, which happened in silence.

At the tragedy's conclusion, Lear again confronts Cordelia silent. Understanding the implications of this stillness, he cries out against it, tries to evoke from it a different kind of message: ‘What is 't thou say'st? Her voice was ever soft, / Gentle and low, an excellent thing in woman’ (V.iii.272-3). His futile efforts make him impatient, abstracted, and, at the very moment when he shatters, omniscient. His last words direct us towards Cordelia, towards the lips that spoke so profoundly when they were still: ‘an image which presents most of what can be said about the physical limitations to an aspiring mind.’63 The tragedy of Lear, begun in prolonged stillness, muted at crucial points in its development, ends deep in silence. Ends with its most compelling motif, which expresses what its language can barely articulate:

… this world of fact we love
Is unsubstantial stuff:
All the rest is silence
On the other side of the wall;
And the silence ripeness,
And the ripeness all.(64)


  1. Dieter Wellershoff, ‘Failure of an Attempt at De-Mythologization: Samuel Beckett's Novels,’ from Der Gleichgültige: Versuche über Hemingway, Camus, Benn, und Beckett (Cologne 1963), translated and reprinted in Samuel Beckett Martin Esslin, ed (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey 1965) 107.

  2. Luigi Pirandello Umorismo (Rome 1960) 145-57, translated and reprinted in Modern Drama Anthony Caputi, ed (New York 1966) 476.

  3. Alfred Harbage, ‘Shakespeare Without Words,’ Proceedings of the British Academy 55 (1969) 131.

  4. William Barrett Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy (New York 1958) 77.

  5. Gisèle Brelet, ‘Music and Silence’ La revue musicale 22 (1946), reprinted in Reflections on Art Susanne K. Langer, ed (New York 1961) 103.

  6. Ibid 104.

  7. Ibid 113.

  8. My conclusions about Shakespeare's creation of Cordelia's silence are based primarily on material found in Wilfrid Perrett's definitive study, ‘The Story of King Lear from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Shakespeare’ Palaestra 35 (1904).

  9. Perrett, ‘The Story of King Lear’ 10-13.

  10. Geoffrey of Monmouth's British History in Six Old English Chronicles J. A. Giles, ed (London 1891) 115.

  11. Parts Added to ‘The Mirror for Magistrates’: By John Higgins & Thomas Blenerhasset Lily B. Campbell, ed (Cambridge 1946) 148.

  12. Holinshed's Chronicle Allardyce and Josephine Nicoll, eds (London and New York 1927) 226.

  13. Edmund Spenser The Faerie Queene introduction by J. W. Hales (London 1910) 1, 290.

  14. The History of King Leir, 1605 W. W. Greg, ed, Malone Society reprints (London 1907) Br-B2r.

  15. G. R. Elliott, ‘The Initial Contrast in Lear,Journal of English and Germanic Philology 58 (1959) 259.

  16. John Cage Silence (Cambridge, Mass. 1966) 176.

  17. S. Goitein Iyyunim B'Mikra (Tel Aviv 1957) 78. This passage and the book's title were translated for me from the Hebrew by Professor Monford Harris.

  18. All biblical quotations come from the Jerusalem version.

  19. Erich Auerbach Mimesis Willard Trask, trans (New York 1957) 7.

  20. Ibid 9.

  21. In Paradise Lost (XII.624-8), Milton introduces this silence into his description of the expulsion; Eve makes her final speech ‘and Adam heard / Well pleas'd, but answer'd not; for now too nigh / Th' Archangel stood, and from the other Hill / To thir fixt Station, all in bright array / The Cherubim descended.’

  22. The Chester Plays Dr Matthews, ed, Early English Text Society edition (London 1916) II, 288.

  23. The Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle A. C. Cawley, ed (Manchester 1958) 81-2.

  24. Ludus Coventriae or The Plaie called Corpus Christi K. S. Block, ed, Early English Text Society edition (London 1922) 276, 286.

  25. York Mystery Plays L. Toulmin Smith, ed (New York 1885) 300.

  26. Passages that come to mind immediately are Psalms 4:4, 39:9, 65:2; Isaiah 53:7; Revelation 8:1.

  27. Sigmund Freud, ‘The Theme of the Three Caskets’ Imago 2 (1913), translated and reprinted in On Creativity and the Unconscious Benjamin Nelson, ed (New York 1958) 65-75.

  28. Grimm's Fairy Tales Margaret Hunt, trans, James Stern, ed (New York 1944) nos IX and XLIX.

  29. Grimm Brothers, no IX, 62.

  30. Edwin Sidney Hartland The Science of Fairy Tales (London 1925) 246-7.

  31. Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales L. W. Kingsland, trans (London 1961) 84.

  32. ‘Prince Ivan, the Witch Baby and the Little Sister of the Sun’ in Old Peter's Russian Tales Arthur Ransome, ed (London and Edinburgh 1916) 136-54.

  33. ‘Frost’ in Ransome Old Peter's Russian Tales 54-69.

  34. Hartland The Science of Fairy Tales 245.

  35. Ibid 259.

  36. ‘The Unique Tale’ in The King of Ireland's Son Padraic Colum, ed (New York 1916) 130-47.

  37. ‘Frost’ 67.

  38. See, for example, Grimm Brothers, nos XXI and LXXXIX; ‘The Girl Who Sought Her Nine Brothers’ in Tales from a Finnish Tupa Aili Kolehmainen, trans, James Cloyd Bowman and Margery Bianco, eds (Chicago 1936) 116-25; ‘Guleesh’ in Celtic Fairy Tales Joseph Jacobs, ed (New York and London nd) 6-28.

  39. Hartland The Science of Fairy Tales 64.

  40. Detailed references to the rôle of silence in folk ritual are most accessible through Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, 6 vols (rev. & enl., Bloomington, Indiana 1955-8) and J. G. Frazer The Golden Bough (3rd ed rev. & enl., London 1911-15).

  41. George Steiner Language and Silence (New York 1967) 39.

  42. See, for example, E. E. Kellett, ‘Dramatic Silences’ Contemporary Review 132 (1927) 482-90; Steiner Language and Silence; Paul Goodman, ‘On Not Speaking’ The New York Review of Books (20 May 1971) 40-3.

  43. All references to the text of King Lear in this paper come from the Arden edition, Kenneth Muir, ed (London 1964).

  44. Terence Hawkes, ‘Love in King LearReview of English Studies n.s. 10 (1959), reprinted in Shakespeare:King Lear’ Frank Kermode, ed (London 1969) 179-83.

  45. Cf Sigurd Burckhardt Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton 1968) 239.

  46. Steiner Language and Silence 12.

  47. Ibid.

  48. Goodman, ‘On Not Speaking’ 41.

  49. Steiner Language and Silence 13-14.

  50. Herman Melville Moby Dick Newton Arvin, introd (New York 1957) 192.

  51. Goodman ‘On Not Speaking’ 42.

  52. Barbara Everett, ‘The New King Lear,Critical Quarterly 2 (1960), reprinted in Kermode Shakespeare:King Lear’ 199.

  53. Ihab Hassan The Literature of Silence (New York 1967) 214.

  54. Cage Silence 173.

  55. Quoted from Lao-tse by Barrett, Irrational Man 234.

  56. Everett, ‘The New King Lear’ 199.

  57. Maynard Mack ‘King Learin Our Time (London 1966) 89.

  58. See especially Paul A. Jorgensen Lear's Self-Discovery (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1967) 70 ff.

  59. Winifred M. T. Nowottny, ‘Some Aspects of the Style of King Lear,Shakespeare Survey 13 (1960) 52.

  60. See Kent's speeches, IV.iii.39-48.

  61. Harley Granville-Barker Prefaces to Shakespeare (Princeton 1946) I, 287. Granville-Barker makes many enlightening remarks about Lear and Cordelia's silences; so does Arnold Isenberg, ‘Cordelia Absent’ Shakespeare Quarterly 2 (1951) 185-94.

  62. Auerbach Mimesis 9.

  63. Everett, ‘The New King Lear’ 200.

  64. W. H. Auden, ‘The Sea and the Mirror’ in For the Time Being (London 1945) 8.

Michael Manheim (essay date 1977)

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SOURCE: Manheim, Michael. “Silence in the Henry VI Plays.” Theatre Journal 29, no. 1 (1977): 70-6.

[In the following essay, Manheim stresses Henry VI's humanity and compassion, characterizing him as a man of integrity who is shocked into silence by the treachery and brutality of England's fractious noblemen.]

Alwin Thaler nearly a half century ago introduced the idea that Shakespeare, the master of words, achieves some of his most effective and meaningful dramatic moments through the absence of words.1 Thaler of course discusses characters who have created problems for interpreters because of their refusal to speak, or to speak much, on subjects about which their responses clearly seem called for: for example, Macbeth's puzzling silence on the subject of his offspring, and Hermione's sixteen-year silence about the injustices done her (The Winter's Tale). But Thaler also examines specific scenes in which the overall effect clearly derives from a juxtaposition of silence with volubility. The dramatic values inherent in our first encounter with the hero's mother in Coriolanus are embodied in the contrast between that proud, garrulous matron and her nearly wordless daughter-in-law, who waits in terrified quiet for news of her husband's death in battle. The essential folly of Volumnia's marvelous rhetoric is implicit in Virgilia's silent response to it. Similar effects are achieved, of course, by Cordelia's brevity contrasted with Lear's volubility early in King Lear and by Juliet's resistance to Romeo's urging that she describe her love during their brief marriage scene. Such scenes and others Thaler discusses with great perceptiveness and sensitivity.

One group of plays Thaler hardly touches on, however, is the histories, that group in which Shakespeare's skills as a playwright were first developing. Thaler rightly calls attention to the stern silence of Bolingbroke in the face of Richard's princely verbosity in Richard II, as well as to Richard's own encounter with silence when he is imprisoned late in the same play. But of the voluble Bastard's disturbing silence at crucial moments in King John Thaler says nothing. Nor does he mention that figure in Shakespeare's early historical trilogy whose quiet passivity constitutes a remarkable counterpoint to the boisterous aggressiveness of all but a few about him: the meek, occasionally wife-dominated Henry VI. Shakespeare's “peculiar use of silence” in the Henry VI plays, to quote an esteemed colleague, is not unlike “the space surrounding spires in gothic architecture.”2 The passive king, certainly the central figure in these plays, rarely commands our attention directly; but his silent, innocent presence frequently tells us much about the excesses of those who do most of the talking. He anticipates in some ways the silent Virgilia in Coriolanus. Their silences suggest a heavenly element in the midst of some very earthly, and bloody, proceedings.

I have described the ambivalence created by the unassuming figure of Henry in some detail in my book The Weak King Dilemma in the Shakespearean History Play.3 When we carefully consider the king rather than the eternally contending nobility, who are the ones most critics focus on,4 we begin to sense the true nature of the plays. We receive, actually, two conflicting impressions from Henry. One is of a benevolent monarch seeking to govern justly, the other is of a foolish monarch victimized more by his own infirmities than by his enemies. Recent critics, like the barons, have for the most part overlooked the first impression in favor of the second in assessing Henry, and this is in part because they pay too little attention to the king at times when he is a silent or nearly silent participant in or observer of action dominated by the bluster of others. A total response to the being who is King Henry as he appears in semisilence through episode after episode in these plays may awaken in us the sense of a painfully, at times embarrassingly, human monarch helpless in a complex of political intrigues and conflicts which he has had no part in making, trying his utmost to govern in justice, mercy, and humility.

Lest it seem that I wish to overlook Henry's shortcomings, let me recall a few of them. From the start, Henry's follies are glaring. His succumbing to Suffolk's advertisements concerning “fair Margaret” late in Part 1 is as foolish as his fear and defensiveness before his queen throughout Parts 2 and 3. He is always slow to recognize the true motives of both enemies and allies, and his capacity to be gullible to the end is all too evident in his lauding and honoring the turncoat Warwick late in Part 3. Henry, of course, as a sensitive man forced to wear a crown from earliest infancy, often gives way to his weaknesses when we would wish a king to be of stronger stuff. But these very occasions are the indications of Henry's unvarnished humanity. Impatient, perhaps, with medieval idealizations of holy kings in legend and iconography, Shakespeare seems to have been determined to make his vision of a good king also a human king. And human Henry is. As a man, he is endowed with myriad debilitating limitations; and as a king, he is all but overwhelmed by those limitations.

But at critical points in his story, when the barons and many critics feel he is most contemptibly weak, Henry actually demonstrates the soundest and certainly most moral judgment of anyone in the plays. His selection of the red rose over the white in Part 1 is accompanied by an extremely perceptive comment on the folly of both the origins and nature of political feuds. In Part 2, Henry alone has compassion for the Cardinal in his exceedingly painful death; he alone understands how to deal with York at the moment of York's first great challenge to the crown. And Henry's statements on the molehill and his confrontation with the gamekeepers in Part 3 provide a constant image of the nature of holy leadership in that play while piracy and brutality “whirl” about Henry and “dismember” him.5 These responses on Henry's part are clear evidences of the attitudes of a benevolent medieval king.

In two other, rather enigmatic, episodes, however—one in Part 2 and the other in Part 3—while Shakespeare again focuses on this king's truth, soundness, and honesty, it is Henry's silence more than anything he says which sharpens the focus. It is on these two episodes, for which Henry has often been maligned by critics, that I would like to concentrate.

Henry has been much criticized for allowing good Duke Humphrey to become prey to Humphrey's destroyers early in Part 2. The Duke is certainly conspired against—“framed” might be the better word—by an alliance of his adversaries, who need only dispose of the Duke before commencing their savage competition for ascendancy; and Henry finds himself assaulted by a rash of attacks on his protector. Not wanting to desert the Duke, but feeling impelled to answer the attacks, Henry in great dismay decides Humphrey must stand trial for his accused crimes. Henry is sure in his “conscience” that Humphrey will be cleared; but Humphrey's accusers, also knowing that Humphrey would be cleared in a fair trial, have already decided to murder the Duke in prison—a murder which the Duke of Suffolk supervises on behalf of his fellow conspirators.

Immediately following Humphrey's murder (III.2), a highly disturbed Henry is as usual surrounded by forays of verbal onslaught from his peers. Henry faints at learning of Humphrey's death, a response which might prompt some to question his manliness, but others to admire his capacity to feel emotion at the death of a friend without the revengeful oaths and bloody thoughts which characterize the response of others to such happenings in these plays. Recovering in a matter of seconds, his next response is a sharp attack on Suffolk, of whose guilt the frequently imperceptive king has no doubt. This attack is Henry's longest speech in the scene. It is quickly followed by Margaret's prolonged complaint on her sorrows as the wife of so indifferent a husband—a powerful speech obviously intended to divert Henry's attention from her lover Suffolk's guilt. If Henry has any reaction to Margaret's speech, he does not reveal it—as he reveals little more of his feelings in words through the remainder of the scene. Now follows Warwick's entrance and the subsequent battle of accusation and counter accusation between Warwick and Suffolk. Henry still seems impervious to what is going on. Throughout Margaret's long speech and the fierce conflict between Warwick and Suffolk, Henry's only words are a prayer that his suspicions regarding Humphrey's death may prove inaccurate, and a lament for his dead friend. Amidst the clatter of words around him, Henry seems silently intent on something else. It is logical to assume, since his mind is clearly on the dead Duke throughout, that Henry is trying to cope with the gulf that yawns between Humphrey's honor, a dying honor in these plays, and the open shame of the events here taking place. Then, after his silence during some eighty noisy lines by others, Henry speaks four very quiet lines which seem only vaguely related to what is going on but are actually critically related to it:

What stronger breastplate than a heart untainted!
Thrice is he armed that hath his quarrel just,
And he but naked, though locked up in steel,
Whose conscience with injustice is corrupted.

[2: III.2. 232-235]

The point I wish to make about this scene is that Henry—not Margaret, or Suffolk, or Warwick—is the important character in it, and that Henry's silence has more to do with the central issues of the scene, play, and trilogy than do the verbal outpourings of the others. Their arias are attempts to obfuscate truth: Margaret's and Suffolk's, the truth of Suffolk's guilt; Warwick's, the truth of the absent York's ambitions. Henry's silence and brevity, at first an indication of confusion and perhaps some fear, are finally a sign of the truth he discovers through these events. Henry has assumed that the legal machinery of his state will reveal the truth he seeks concerning Humphrey. Instead, Humphrey is murdered before that legal machinery can be set in motion; and his enemies seek to overwhelm the king with their shamelessly and loudly conflicting deceits. Henry is shocked, both at Humphrey's death and the obvious perfidy surrounding him. His attack on Suffolk is the most angry and abusive statement he makes to anyone until his confrontation with Richard Crookback late in Part 3. His refusal a few lines later to say he knows the identity of Humphrey's murderer is evidence that he has regained his composure; but from this point on, he only half listens to others. In his mind he is working his way through to the conclusion stated in the four lines quoted above, the biblical injunction that absolute integrity can be one's only true armor. Humphrey's murder becomes for the silent Henry a trauma in which he focuses the entire meaning of his reign into a defense of justice and an opposition to corruption. It is in Henry's wondering silence countering the cacophony of his “tainted” associates that we become aware of the trauma.

Henry's silence in this scene strikes me as central to these plays. Although he is utterly destroyed well before his death at the end of Part 3, the integrity which he commits himself to makes him the sole representative of political man committed to both moral means and moral ends. The position Henry stakes out for himself in this scene, a position he continues to hold throughout most of Parts 2 and 3, is one apart from and above the brutality and perfidy he sees around him. It is a position of solid, uncompromising morality which isolates him from the political world he has known, a political world increasingly dominated by methods which ultimately find their most competent practitioner in Richard Crookback. Amid the gross decay of all morality in that world, Henry's isolation is inevitable. His times have been corrupted beyond redemption, and he must decide upon a position apart from his times. It is in Henry's silence in Part 2: III. 2 that we see this decision being forged.

Henry VI, being a human king rather than an idealized vision of saintly kingship, cannot of course live entirely apart from his age; and at times, some of which I alluded to earlier, even he comes close to being tainted. At one point, the opening of Part 3, Henry is severely tested and has suffered a good deal of abuse from critics as a result, critics who have too easily mistaken bewildered innocence for cowardice. The scene involves the confrontation at court between the Yorkists, who have just seized the parliamentary and royal chambers, and the Lancastrians, still nominally led by Henry, who come indignantly to cast the Yorkists out.

In Hall's chronicle, the events of this scene never take place. There, following York's victory in battle at Northampton, a parliament attended by York, but not by Henry, proclaims that Henry shall reign for the remainder of his days, to be succeeded by York. Henry, in prison, is forced to accede. The personal conflict between Henry and York in this situation is thus entirely Shakespeare's invention. Rather than making Henry the helpless victim of military conquest, Shakespeare places him in a dilemma which crucially tests whether a good and honorable king can survive in a state wholly given over to intrigue, violence and deceit. Shakespeare's invention of this action indicates more than anything else in these plays the light in which he looked on Henry. Neither wishy-washy nor cowardly, Shakespeare's Henry is a conscientious king whose weaknesses are typically human, whose benevolence is quite real, and whose cruel destruction results from the deep corruption of his age.

Henry has frequently been viewed as spineless in this scene, and there is no doubt that he is shaken and confused by the Yorkist claim. At the start, his language very briefly and artificially takes on the militant tone of his followers, but this quickly gives way to the hesitancy more characteristic of his speech generally. Here his doubts become so severe as to lead him to the compromise of naming York his heir; and it is easy to feel contempt for him. But his mental state, revealed more by what he does not say than by what he does say, again must be considered carefully. His compromise may be a bad one—at least, it solves nothing—but it is the peculiar result of his commitment to truth uncontaminated, as enunciated in the scene just looked at, rather than of folly or cowardice. He is not as silent here as he was in the earlier scene, but he speaks less than the other major participants in the action and what he is thinking must in large measure be inferred. He first makes quite clear to Exeter that, being the innate pacifist he so obviously is, he cannot tolerate bloodshed within the court—and this insistence has more than a little to do with his later deal with York. Henry at first intends no deal. He means York to leave simply because the untainted truth of Henry's position will make it impossible for York to resist. But York and Warwick, who are using political methods Henry has never faced before, get at their enemy as true budding Machiavels should: by knowing his weak point (which also happens to be his strong point in the overall moral context of these plays). Henry must yield before the truth, and if they can convince him his very reign is a lie, that he is the one guilty of the greatest deceit and injustice, they need go no further. And this they do simply by reviewing the old story of Henry Bolingbroke's deposing of Richard II. Henry's aside, “I know not what to say: my title's weak” (3: I. 1. 134), read without consideration of the prolonged agony it implies, makes him seem puerile. But York and Warwick pierce Henry's “breastplate,” making it obvious that he is as tainted as the others—and this the bewildered king cannot withstand.

Since Henry as usual says little, it may of course be argued that he is cowardly in these reactions. But the ultimate decision as to how to act the role must depend upon the cues about Henry's personality afforded us through the two previous plays. Is Henry simply spineless, or is he one of the proverbially meek inheritors of the earth? From what we have seen, Henry is as accurate a representation of the biblical inheritors as I can imagine in dramatic terms, and what we are seeing is one confrontation of the meek and the voracious of many in Shakespearian drama, a confrontation Lear suddenly becomes aware of in his “Poor, naked wretches” speech (III.4. 28-36). The meek are not without their faults—Henry's endless foibles, and the voracious are not without their talents—the Machiavellian cunning of York and Warwick; but there is no doubt about Shakespeare's attitude toward these events. He is far from dispassionate in this view of the “dismembering” of the one English king who would rule in justice, mercy, love—and, it might significantly be added, in silence.

This piercing of Henry's breastplate, his realization that he is not untainted, is followed by an event which clearly indicates the direction audience sympathies should take. Exeter—Henry's ally and friend of longest standing throughout these plays, a lord who has time and again at the conclusions of scenes given the brief speech telling the audience the realities of the situation at hand—Exeter shifts sides. This development is critical in the testing of Henry. It is not so much an indication of York's right—there can obviously be no right in this situation—as it is an indication of the extent of Henry's predicament. And predicament rather than right or wrong is the subject of this scene. Henry has placed all his faith in his breastplate of integrity. Now he finds himself “a traitor with the rest.” Exeter has seemingly confirmed the fact.

So at this point, under the conditions which we must infer exist within Henry's troubled breast, Henry makes his deal with York. Of course, Warwick's soldiers appear at this point; but since Henry has already indicated his constitutional opposition to violence in the court, the soldiers do little more than add to his dilemma. He is not afraid of them. Henry's chief reason for making the deal is the realization York, Warwick, and Exeter have brought him to: that a heart untainted does not necessarily make a crown untainted. To a medieval king like Henry, his crown is as much a part of him morally, spiritually, and physically as his heart. The nature of the deal follows from the nature of the predicament. Henry cannot forsake his kingly vows, yet he possesses an unlawful crown which his opponents may with some right seek to take from him. Hence to resolve an unresolvable dilemma, and to avoid violence in this place, Henry names York his heir. The compromise cannot work, of course, and it is more than incidental that Henry's first new concern, stated to his new ally Warwick, is for his son, whose disinheriting, Henry realizes, must be a continuation of injustice rather than an ending of it. Henry's attempt to act justly is defeated by the fact that the whole feudal structure of blood ties and royal inheritance has become enveloped in corruption and injustice. His integrity is no match for the decay of his times.

Henry speaks a good number of lines in this scene, but it is his silence which tells us what he is and what he is suffering. His lines, here as elsewhere, are usually rather abbreviated clues to the complex being he is. Henry is a good king desperately plagued by his personal shortcomings. He seems created with a sometimes over-evident effort on Shakespeare's part to emphasize the weaknesses the flesh is heir to. Henry is frequently fearful, inconsistent, and uxorious; but he is also committed to a view of leadership which rests exclusively on justice, integrity, and mercy. In Henry's world, these virtues have all but disappeared, and the ultimate inheritor of Henry's kingdom is the one who will use deceit and brutality with greatest skill. The plays are thus about the downfall of virtue in politics and the rise of a new, intricate use of vice in its place.

The image of the virtuous king in decline is essentially a silent image. Henry is in a sense like the suffering mute in Brecht's Mother Courage—fully cognizant of and responsive to the surrounding injustice, but unable to say anything about it. In both instances, the lack of speech comprises, as it were, the voice of the playwright. Shakespeare was undoubtedly responding to a political world increasingly dominated by professional scoundrels. Pained, bewildered silence is the natural state of leader and subject alike who abhor force and deceit yet see those qualities increasingly becoming the accepted tools of political leaders.


  1. Alwin Thaler, Shakespeare's Silences (Cambridge, Mass., 1929; reprint ed., Freeport, N. Y., 1970). More recent critics have been considering Shakespeare's plays from the viewpoint of how both words and their absence may suggest the behavior and unspoken attitudes of characters. Many of these interpreters take their lead from Jan Kott's Shakespeare Our Contemporary (Garden City, N. Y., 1964).

  2. From a letter written by Julian Olf, co-editor of ETJ, dated 19 October 1976.

  3. Syracuse, N. Y., 1973.

  4. I discuss the various critical outlooks on Henry in The Weak King Dilemma, pp. 76-80.

  5. This language is actually used by the unfortunate Lady Blanche in King John, III.1. 330, whose predicament is much like Henry's throughout the better part of the Henry VI trilogy.

Zvi Jagendorf (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: Jagendorf, Zvi. “‘Fingers on Your Lips, I Pray’: On Silence in Hamlet.English 27 (1978): 121-28.

[In the following essay, Jagendorf evaluates the motif of silence in Hamlet, arguing that it permeates the dramatic action and underscores the play's representation of truth as subjective and therefore open to different interpretations. In particular, he discusses the dumb show, the Ghost's initial speechlessness, and the ambiguity of silent gestures.]

Hamlet is the most brilliantly articulate of Shakespeare's tragedies. The sheer flow of speech is overwhelming in its quantity and surprising in its variety. Hamlet and Polonius are both garrulous in different ways; whatever either says about holding their tongue or giving thoughts no tongue, they are both determined, even obsessive, speakers, labouring points into absurdity and giving no quarter to their audience. The richness and variety of the play's verbal style are brought into relief by the characters' awareness (especially Hamlet's) of the way they and others speak or write. Polonius comments (unfavourably) on Hamlet's elegance as a composer of love letters, and (favourably) on an unusual word in the Player's speech. Hamlet's sharp and critical ear for the rhetoric of others is evident in his advice to the Players, his duel of words with Laertes in Ophelia's grave and his parody and teasing of Osric.

A closer look at this copiousness of speech in the play suggests that it is tied in a vital dialectical relationship to the negation of speech in dumbness and silence, and that a true understanding of the workings of language in the play is impossible without an awareness of the connection with silence.

A double burden of speech and silence is borne by the revenger who has a painful secret to hide and yet needs to seek some, perhaps oblique, verbal expression for his sense of outrage. These paradoxes are already embodied in the archetypal English revenge play, Kyd's Spanish Tragedy. A consideration of the revenger Hieronimo, whose ‘grief no heart … thoughts no tongue can tell’ (III. ii. 67) suggests at least one possible starting point for Shakespeare's handling of the motif of silence in Hamlet, and at the same time illuminates its specifically Shakespearean quality. When in soliloquy he imagines the effect of his grief on the world, he sees the wind conspiring with his words to wreak havoc and break through ‘the brazen gates of hell’ (III. vii. 9). Yet alongside this fantasy of effective speech is its opposite, the image of an impregnable Heaven whose diamond walls ‘Resist my woes, and give my words no way’ (III. vii. 18). Hieronimo has a shocking accusation to make, yet he is reduced to dumbness because his own violent feelings and the cunning of his enemies deny him effective speech. At the crisis point of the play he overcomes the fear which would strike him mute and does speak out. ‘Justice, O justice, justice, gentle king! (III. xii. 63). But he fails to make himself understood. This defeat of speech results in a policy of silent preparation for revenge, ‘Dissembling quiet in unquietness’ (III. xiii. 30); and Hieronimo's revenge is exact indeed, ‘a tongue for a tongue,’ in that he inflicts upon his enemies his own fate of unintelligible speech. The cacophony of languages in the tragedy of Soliman, the play within the play, is the noisy equivalent of Hieronimo's failure to communicate yet at the same time provides him with his one apparent moment of effective speech. After his play it is up to him to interpret in clear words (‘in our vulgar tongue’) what has happened. He does this in a formal presenter's speech, displaying the body of his son and recounting the history of the crime and his revenge. The rigid pattern of failed speech repeats itself again, however, and for all his lucidity in sixty lines of exposition, Hieronimo is urged to ‘Speak, traitor: damned, bloody murderer, speak! (IV. iv. 163) as if he had said nothing. It is here that speech and silence are set most significantly in relation to each other. Speech would interpret the silent spectacle of death, but is inadequate. The audience does not understand, and the speaker has no more words. Hieronimo's last two acts brutally isolate his aggression against communication. He bites out his tongue and with a knife that he pretends will help him to write, he kills the Duke and himself. Both acts attack the tools of explanation in language, the tongue and the pen. The rest is indeed, deliberately, silence, for language has become one of the victims of revenge.

If Hieronimo's self-inflicted maiming is meant to make all further questioning pointless, leaving the spectators on the stage and in the theatre with the fact of the heap of dead bodies to contemplate, the appearance in Hamlet of a silent Ghost has just the opposite effect. Both silences are close to death, the ultimate silence, but the Ghost's is creative of speech. It arouses in its observers the strong desire to question it, to find out what it wants and what its return to earth means. This is true of the silences in Hamlet in general. They provoke and test speech. They challenge words to explain and do justice to them. Even the most intractable of all, that of death, is at the end of the play still to be the subject of a speech of explanation and discrimination. The rest is not, entirely, silence.

Two kinds of silence may be said to infiltrate the noisy and whirling action of the play. One is the silence of death and the other is that of art (mime). Both are acted out on the stage. That is, they are present to the ear as well as to the mind, but they are linked to a pattern of silences which we perceive more abstractly and which appear in description and analogy.

The silence of death envelops the play; this may be seen as a comment on it. The beckoning Ghost appears at the start and the still dead share the close with the noise of cannon and drums. Between these two wordless sights the talk of the play creates the significances that distinguish the opening silence of ignorance from the closing silence of knowledge. The dumb show, on the other hand, is a silent play enveloped by talk. It is a wordless hiatus, damming momentarily a flow of words in order to present the crucial gestures without commentary. If the words of the play as a whole would characterize and give meaning to the enveloping silence of death, then the silent gestures of the dumb show objectify and isolate the fatal acts without characterizing them or giving them specific meaning. Here, then, is the critical tension between silence and language in the play. Silent gesture expresses those things that can never be fully known from the outside, or totally recaptured, namely, death and the action of another, or any action once it is past. Language assaults those gestures, demanding meaning and offering dialogue, explaining and interpreting. The Ghost does speak and describes his pain; the Player King and Queen talk of love, fortune and fidelity. But while words effectively communicate information and feelings to their audience, while they are more efficient than silence, they are also treacherous because necessarily subjective, and though they claim to ‘tell all’ can in fact only ‘tell some’. Thus, what is unsaid, or what can not be said, continues to influence us as we hear what is said. The Ghost breaks his silence but his words can grapple only with what happened to him in life. The rest is a secret. Similarly, the Players break their silence to give the King and Queen and murderer explicit utterance. Like the Ghost's, their silence is ‘questionable’, ‘What means this, my lord?’ (II. ii. 141). Like the Ghost's their words are an answer, an explanation. But for different reasons, also a partial one.

The absence of words in the mime, although it puzzles Ophelia, helps the spectators in the theatre to see clearly a sequence of actions which the emotional language of Hamlet and the Ghost had blurred with subjective colour. The wordless action is complete; it contains all the essential gestures that make up the known story. It is neutral because the Players do not take sides; they are loyal only to their story. It is as close as the play gets to capturing the past. The replay in words is not complete as it gets only as far as the murder. It is not neutral because it contains Hamlet's inserted speech. The addition of language pointed by Hamlet's inserted interjections, changes the emphasis from representation to interpretation, from past to present, from neutral silence to wounding language (‘That's wormwood’ III. ii. 167). The spoken play is a weapon, and we are interested in its effect. The silent show is a reminder that words are commentary on deeds and always somebody's version separated from acts by a gap of abstraction just as the mime is separated from The Murder of Gonzago by a gap of time.

Silence in the play is both chosen as an art or tactic and imposed. The Players, who ‘cannot keep counsel’ and will tell all, choose it as one of the modes conventionally available to them. As theatre, their silence is not a way of hiding something but a familiar form of expression, an art. It costs them no pain because it is no deprivation. They control it. On the other hand, the Ghost's initial silence is imposed and painful to break. Death takes away speech with life, and the reclaiming of speech, like the return to the world, is unnatural, hard, and limited by strict conditions. Not only can it not speak in its first three appearances, but it strikes the guards who encounter it with an answering dumbness. Yet, ‘it would be spoke to’; its silent gesture seems to invite speech, which it cannot return until confronted with the right partner. The first two scenes of the play contrast the dead king and the living king as a mute and a speaker. As in many other sequences the silence precedes speech as an act precedes its interpretation. But the Ghost's silent presence in fact undermines Claudius's elaborate words, which explain everything but what we have just seen.

Although Hamlet is never noticeably silent in the course of the play, he reflects in oblique ways both the painful deprivation of speech we found in the Ghost and the chosen artful silence of the Players. Deprived of effective speech, he blames himself for his silence; not speaking out is as bad as not acting. But he, like Kyd's hero, also advocates silence cunningly as a weapon to protect his secret: ‘your fingers on your lips, I pray (I. v. 187) is his word to his friends. It is then an ambiguous silence that is so graphically described by Ophelia fleeing her closet. The Hamlet she has seen is like the Ghost of a hundred lines earlier, emerging from an unimaginable suffering to communicate what cannot be said:

Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors—he comes before me.

(II. i. 81-4)

The language clearly links the two encounters, the crucial difference being that the Ghost broke his silence to an understanding listener. In answer to Polonius's natural question, ‘What said he?’ Ophelia decribes and partially mimics Hamlet's silent gestures. No words were exchanged during this elaborate pantomime, which occupies the middle ground between the chosen silence of the dumb show and the imposed silence of the stalking Ghost. ‘Break my heart for I must hold my tongue,’ would be a perfect motto for Hamlet's pantomime, especially in the context of the Ghost's recent example and of Ophelia's breaking communication with him. But silent gesture is also a show if it is performed before an audience, and as a show, the focus of our interest is not the feelings of the mimer but the effect of his mime on its audience. Polonius misinterprets it crudely, but reveals himself, as Hamlet later will reveal himself by misinterpreting Claudius's kneeling posture. For silent display probes the beholder's mind, tempting him to read in the gestures of another the message of his own thoughts. At its most primitive the relationship between silent gesture and its message is only too clear. That is the point of Hamlet's sexual innuendo to Ophelia after the dumb show:

Will ‘a’ tell us what this show meant?
Ay, or any show that you will show him.
Be not you ashamed to show, he'll not shame to tell you what it means.

(III. ii. 148-51)

‘Show’ is any blatant sexual gesture whose meaning is as quickly understood as it is energetically acted upon. But this primitive case points the difference of all the complex instances in the play, especially of the dumb show, where the opposite happens. Silent gestures, outside Hamlet's erotic fantasies, are not understood by those who observe them. However graphic the gesture its beholder has no sure way of penetrating to the truth or lie in it.

Whether it is an artful silence (the dumb show) or an imposed silence (the Ghost), authentic (Claudius at prayer) or a pretence (Ophelia at prayer), they are all shows and intrinsically inexplicable in that their meaning cannot be known to their stage audience without explicit and authoritative interpretation. Thus Claudius is presumed to ‘misread’ the clarity of the dumb show as Hamlet more obviously and understandably ‘misreads’ the naked gesture of Claudius at prayer. Both acts need words to ‘tell’ what they mean. These examples would make us rephrase the relationship between silence and language as follows. The clarity of the silent gesture is an illusion created by the perspective of the all-knowing theatre audience; inside the play the wordless gesture is as much a puzzle as riddling language. The silent gesture may represent truth, but it is unknowable alone, and though words are subjective and tendentious, their interpretation of a deed is all that there is. That is why the Ghost is so desperate to speak, and why the silent corpses of the last scene await the discriminating though not necessarily objective interpretation of their story by Horatio.

Two silences perhaps best demonstrate the way the motif penetrates both the language and the stage action, linking what is physically present to what is present only to the mind in a common dialectic. Both Pyrrhus and Claudius are significantly silent at critical moments. The former's silence is narrated by the Player, who perhaps suggests its actual presence fleetingly by the pause after ‘Did nothing’ (II. ii. 483). The silence of the king is present to us physically as he kneels to pray after the dumb show. Revenger and revenger's victim, the silence of each is worth our attention.

Pyrrhus's silence is the most primitive form of silence in the play. It is an absence of movement first, and only by inference and analogy also an absence of speech (‘still’ is the word which ties the two together). The breaking of stillness/silence is signalled by acts and not by words, for Pyrrhus remains dumb during the whole incident. Unlike all the other silences in the play, this silence does not need interpretation. It is itself an analogy (the calm before the storm), a translation into the language of nature of a man's stillness. As a natural analogy it indeed defies interpretation because the silence of nature is devoid of content. It is merely part of a material process. As the man's stillness follows the hideous crash of falling Troy, so the thunderstorm follows the silence and the murder follows the pause. The sequence is not ‘questionable’ because matter rather than consciousness determines it, and neither the silence nor the arrested action will yield any insight into a human feeling which they represent or hide.

If Pyrrhus's stillness is the neutral stillness of the imagined murderer, Claudius's silence at prayer is the pregnant silence of the human victim. They are opposites in every way. Consciousness pervades Claudius's silence, which is a continuation of the war of his soliloquy by other means. This makes us, the privileged observers, and Hamlet, the ignorant spy, desperately curious to know what the gesture of kneeling means or hides. Hamlet's horrible and wordy interpretation of the act is thrown into cruel relief by the simultaneous presence of the king's silence, and effective variation of the usual order in the play, where silence precedes the interpretation. Not only does this silence have a meaning, on its meaning depends the king's spiritual fate and Hamlet's plan of revenge. Yet this meaning can be guessed neither by the audience, who overhear the soliloquy, nor by Hamlet, who reads the gesture alone. Only the suppliant himself can tell his meaning, defining the kneeling gesture as both authentic (a genuine attempt to pray) and a pretence (there was no prayer).

Here again, the twin poles of silence in the play are set in contrast. Pyrrhus's, defying discrimination, empty of consciousness, and inhuman, is like the silence of death; Claudius's, questionable, both hiding and showing, deceptive and full of purpose is in fact like the silence of art.

Death strikes Hamlet dumb when, unlike Hieronimo, he still has a lot to say. The fell sergeant puts his finger on Hamlet's lips at a moment when fatal acts need to be interpreted and justified. Indeed, this deathlike, undiscriminating silence envelops the innocent bystanders (mutes and audience) and would swallow Horatio if he took the cup. At the end of the play silence is Hamlet's only surviving enemy, just as the bustle of normal affairs was the Ghost's enemy at the beginning. Both hide the truth and have to be combated. The Ghost sends Hamlet into the world with a secret and a sword. Hamlet sends Horatio into the world with a story and Hamlet's voice. Nowhere in the play is Hamlet more heroic and responsible than in this last struggle against silence. He sends his ‘dying voice’ beyond the grave to support the claim of Fortinbras, and this voice, though stilled, will draw on more. The human voice through Horatio will, after the action ends, combat ignorance and confusion. It will explain the silent spectacle of death like the presenter of a final dumb show:

                                                            … give order that these bodies
High on a stage be placed to the view,
And let me speak …

(V. ii. 378-80)

But another voice also speaks for Hamlet after his death:

The soldiers' music and the rite of war
Speak loudly for him.

(V. ii. 400-1)

The noise of cannon, which earlier in the play marked Claudius's drunken revelry, closes it as a signal of royal mourning and newly assumed power (‘Go, bid the soldiers shoot’). The shooting would drown the silence and effect a positive ending, at least from the point of view of Fortinbras. But so much knowledge is stored up in the silence of the victims that the logic of the play makes us see the limited nature of Fortinbras's noisy speech. Once again the stage picture sets sound and silence against each other. Once again the sound would say what the silence means, speak for it, but crudely and without penetration.

Finally then, two voices compete against the unknowable silence; the human voice of Horatio and the metallic voice of the cannon. The latter speaks of the continuity of authority and power in the face of catastrophe; the former would interpret and recapture an elusive past. But the silence of which they speak has changed its place. It is no longer on the stage alone, for the art of the play has transferred the burden of the characters' knowledge to us, the mute audience. It is in our minds that a new battle between silent death and its interpretation now begins. The rest is criticism.

Further Reading

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Bock, Philip K. “‘I Think But Dare Not Speak’: Silence in Elizabethan Culture.” Journal of Anthropological Research 32 (1976): 285-94.

Categorizes different types of silence in Shakespeare's plays. Bock distinguishes between those which imply ambiguity, enhance characterization, express transient emotions, or underscore the nature of the relationships between dramatic characters.

Busia, Abena P. A. “Silencing Sycorax: On African Colonial Discourse and the Unvoiced Female.” Cultural Critique 14 (winter 1989-90): 81-104.

Briefly considers the implications of the physical absence of Sycorax from The Tempest—even though Prospero and Caliban repeatedly allude to her—within the context of a broader discussion of the control of Black women's voices and images in colonialist literature.

Deats, Sara Munson. “The Conspiracy of Silence in Shakespeare's Verona: Romeo and Juliet.” In Youth Suicide Prevention: Lessons from Literature, edited by Sara Munson Deats and Lagretta Tallent Lenker, pp. 71-91. New York: Plenum Press, 1989.

Describes the deaths of Romeo and Juliet in terms of modern adolescent psychology, emphasizing the lack of candid communication between the young couple and their biological parents as well as their surrogate ones: the Nurse and Friar Laurence.

Fawcett, Mary Laughlin. “‘Such Noise as I Can Make’: Chastity and Speech in Othello and Comus.Renaissance Drama 16 (1985): 159-80.

Argues that both Desdemona and the Lady in Milton's masque move from passive listening, to echoic language, then verbal power, and ultimately silence, as men circumscribe their autonomy and deny them effective means of expressing and defending their innocence.

Fly, Richard D. “Revelations of Darkness: The Language of Silence in King Lear.Bucknell Review 20, no. 3 (winter 1972): 73-92.

Explicates the way that characters' increasingly disjunctive and fragmented speech mirrors King Lear's general movement toward universal chaos, and how the play explores instances of human anguish that are beyond expression.

Grennan, Eamon. “The Women's Voices in Othello: Speech, Song, Silence.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38, no. 3 (autumn 1987): 275-92.

Examines the implications of women's speech and silence in Othello. Grennan calls attention to the honest, intimate utterances shared by Desdemona and Emilia in Act IV, scene iii (the interlude in Desdemona's bedchamber), and to Othello's and Iago's repeated refusals to hear those voices.

Heberle, Mark A. “‘Innocent Prate’: King John and Shakespeare's Children.” In Infant Tongues: The Voice of the Child in Literature, edited by Elizabeth Goodenough, Mark A. Heberle, and Naomi Sokoloff, pp. 28-43. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994.

Analyzes the suppression of children's voices in Shakespeare's plays, with particular reference to young Arthur's silence while the politically corrupt adults in King John manipulate his interests to serve their own. Yet, Heberle notes, in his dialogue with Hubert (Act IV, scene i), Arthur “speaks for himself and saves his life.”

MacDonald, Joyce Green. “Speech, Silence, and History in The Rape of Lucrece.Shakespeare Studies 22 (1994): 77-103.

Maintains that Shakespeare's telling of the Lucrece story differs from its antecedents in its emphasis on the rape as a political catastrophe as well as a personal one. MacDonald asserts that Lucrece's dead body becomes an articulate emblem of republican integrity, mutely suggesting the nexus between speech and power.

McGuire, Philip C. Introduction to Speechless Dialect: Shakespeare's Open Silences, pp. xiii-xxv. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

A synopsis of what McGuire means by the term “open silence.” By itself, the Shakespearean text does not determine the significance or effect of an open silence, he contends; it only emerges in performance, when actors and directors collaborate with the playwright to interpret it.

———. “Egeus and the Implications of Silence.” In Shakespeare and the Sense of Performance, edited by Marvin Thompson and Ruth Thompson, pp. 103-15. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989.

Considers the meaning of Egeus's silence in Act IV, scene i of A Midsummer Night's Dream, after Theseus overrules him and declares that Hermia may marry Lysander. Whether this signifies acquiescence or dissent is open to interpretation, McGuire asserts, and he points out that the issue of reconciliation between father and daughter is further complicated by differences in the Folio and Quarto texts of the play.

Motte, Brunhild de la. “Shakespeare's ‘Happy Endings’ for Women.” Nature, Society, and Thought 1, no. 1 (fall 1987): 27-36.

Suggests that by silencing the eloquent, self-confident females of his comedies once they become betrothed or married, Shakespeare questioned the notion that marriages based on love allowed women individual expression and freedom from the exercise of patriarchal power.

Rocklin, Edward L. “Measured Endings: How Productions from 1720 to 1929 Close Shakespeare's Open Silences in Measure for Measure.Shakespeare Survey 53 (2000): 213-32.

A detailed analysis of how five productions of Measure for Measure dealt with the open silences of Isabella and Claudio in the final scene. Though these were diverse stagings of the work, each sought to overcome, through revision and other creative choices, the seemingly disharmonious ending of the play.

Rovine, Harvey. “Silent Characters as Scenery.” In Silence in Shakespeare: Drama, Power, and Gender, pp. 19-35. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1987.

An overview of Shakespeare's use of nonspeaking servants, guards, and attendants to help establish atmosphere and location, and to silently reinforce—or sometimes subvert—the words and actions of the principal characters.

Shibata, Toshihiko. “Voices and Silences in Shakespeare's Plays: A View from a Different Cultural Tradition.” In Shakespeare and Cultural Traditions, edited by Tetsuo Kishi, Roger Pringle, and Stanley Wells, pp. 216-22. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1994.

Calls attention to dramatic reticence as a distinctive form of voice and notes the ways in which power relations in Shakespeare's plays condition speech and its absence. Shibata also remarks on the emotive power of silence in both Shakespearean and traditional Japanese drama.

Stempel, Daniel. “The Silence of Iago.” PMLA 84, no. 2 (March 1969): 252-63.

Contends that Iago's refusal in the final scene of Othello to explain his actions is consistent with his Jesuitical casuistry throughout the play: arrogantly maintaining his claim to utter freedom of will, he insists on the freedom not to act and remains silent despite the threat of torture.

Taylor, Mark. “Farther Privileges: Conflict and Change in Measure for Measure.Philological Quarterly 73 (1994): 169-93.

Using Karen Horney's psychoanalytical paradigm of “conflict, neurosis, and defense” as a basis for his analysis, Taylor argues that in the course of the play, the Duke, Isabella, and Angelo each develop a healthy, mature view of sexual desire, and that Isabella's silence at the end signals her happy acceptance of the Duke's proposal.

———. “‘The Rest Is Silence,’ Or Is It? Hamlet's Last Words.” Upstart Crow 17 (1997): 78-87.

Considers the degree to which Hamlet's final line signifies his concern with fame and reputation, and speculates about whether death silences or subverts his attempt to say how he wants to be remembered.

White, R. S. “‘The Cry of Women’: Offstage Macbeth.Shakespeare Jahrbuch (1992): 70-9.

Proposes that the silencing and marginalization of female consciousness in Macbeth underscores the moral deficiencies—especially with respect to loyalty and forgiveness—of the play's male characters.

Williams, Carolyn D. “‘Silence, Like a Lucrece Knife’: Shakespeare and the Meanings of Rape.” Yearbook of English Studies 23 (1993): 93-110.

Surveys the origins and nature of Renaissance ideas about rape—especially the notion that the dead body of a rape victim is more eloquent than her words could ever be—and how these are reflected in the aftermath of the sexual violations of Lucrece in The Rape of Lucrece and Lavinia in Titus Adronicus.

Wright, George T. “The Silent Speech of Shakespeare's Sonnets.” In Shakespeare and the Twentieth Century, edited by Jonathan Bate, Jill L. Levenson, and Dieter Mehl, pp. 314-35. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998.

Suggests that Shakespeare's sonnets, as well as lyric poetry in general, represent “unsounded, silent meditations.” Wright also links the inward speech of the sonnets to the innovative soliloquies—another form of interior discourse—in Shakespeare's mature dramas.

Zender, Karl F. “The Humiliation of Iago.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 34, no. 2 (spring 1994): 323-39.

Analyzes the motifs of speech and silence in Othello, arguing that the interlude with Desdemona while they await the Moor's arrival in Cyprus in Act II, scene i and the final lines of Act V, scene ii demonstrate Iago's failure to master language.

Gayle Greene (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: Greene, Gayle. “Excellent Dumb Discourse: Silence and Grace in Shakespeare's Tempest.Studia Neophilologica 50 (1978): 193-205.

[In the following essay, Greene points out that although Prospero occasionally uses language to constrain or coerce, his special powers of healing are affected by silence, show, and music. Greene maintains that this accentuates Shakespeare's exploration of both the necessity and the limitations of speech.]

“Hush and be mute, or else our spell is marr'd.”

Critics have commented on the poetic thinness of The Tempest, and some have expressed surprise that the play has such great imaginative impact in spite of its paucity of poetic and rhetorical effect. The language is characteristic of Shakespeare's late plays, terse, spare, lacking the rhetorical embellishment and exuberance of his earlier style. It is relatively scarce in imagery, and what there is of it remains concrete and sensuous, rather than assuming the resonance of metaphor or symbol which is vitally integrated into imaginative conception. Hallett Smith, observing this thinness of texture, wonders “why this should be … critics find it difficult to account for the effect the play has upon them”.1

And indeed, there does seem an incongruity between language and power, for The Tempest is one of Shakespeare's most deeply moving plays; it has the power ascribed by Bradley to the great tragedies, of “dilating the imagination”.2 Magical in its celebration of “wonder” and “miracle”, it is—what Ferdinand calls Prospero's masque—“a most majestic vision … / Harmonious charmingly”3 but, as these terms indicate, its effect is derived from modes of expression other than the verbal. When we consider, also, that though the text is one of the shortest, the play is as long as the others in performance, we realize the extent to which it relies on masque-like elements, the song and spectacle that are the means of Prospero's magic. Some have accounted for this in terms of the influence of the masque: but surely it is possible to understand the dominance of visual and musical effects in relation to the paucity of the poetic and rhetorical, and to account for both in terms of the play itself. G. Wilson Knight suggests a connection between the “unmetaphorical and transparent style” and the play's “visionary conception” (p. 223) which indicates something of Shakespeare's purposes: before wonder and miracle, at the edges of experience, modes of expression other than language take over. The Tempest is a play which in several ways suggests the limits of its own verbal medium.4

Though it is difficult to generalize about “the language of a play”, since always in Shakespeare, character is differentiated by idiom, this play would be identifiable as late even without external evidence, for its high incidence of run-on and deficient lines, hypermetricism, and an iambic pentameter so subtle that verse and prose are often indistinguishable.5 Whereas in the earlier plays, formal rhetorical patterns, extended similitude and wit play, created a conspicuous texture of language, often displayed for its own sake, in The Tempest, rhetorical figures and rhythms have been subdued to decorum in a style which “simulates the language of men in a state of profound sensation” (Kermode, p. lxxviii). Whereas in the tragedies, imagery is indispensible to imaginative conception, fraught with a symbolic meaning so central that we could not understand the play without it, it functions, in The Tempest, to evoke a background of nature, and, relegated primarily to the language of Caliban, serves a more “decorative”, less integral purpose.6 The style of the play is—in Perry Miller's terms—a “clear window” through which meaning emerges unaffected, rather than the “stained glass” of Shakespeare's earlier style, through which meaning is refracted and modified.7 Not that the language is without rhetoric, but that rhetoric is strictly subservient to drama; nor that it is without artifice, but that it is, in fulfillment of Sidney's ideal, an art that “hide[s] art”; or, of Puttenham's, an art “most admired when … most naturall”;8 and, like Hermione's statue, an art which “itself is Nature” (WT, IV.iv.97), it provides in itself a resolution of the antithesis of art and nature with which the play is concerned.

The language of Shakespeare's late plays may be seen in relation to seventeenth-century tendencies toward the plain style, though it is also a style toward which he had long been inclining, in the interests of both dramatic decorum and “truth”. From the time of Love's Labor's Lost, he had been renouncing, while revelling in, his “trick / Of the old rage” (V.ii.416-17), associating verbal extravagance with youthful exuberance, joyous but irresponsible. Throughout, he has been concerned with questions of language—what it helps us to do and keeps us from doing, its truth and validity, its falseness and distortion, its power to pervert our perceptions of ourselves and one another. The plays evoke a sense of creative and destructive potentials of language, a dialectic which may be seen against the background of the linguistic revolution of the age, the shift from sixteenth-century belief in language and eloquence to seventeenth-century nominalism and an ideal of the plain style, but which also reflects universal complexities.9

Paradoxically, Shakespeare, the supreme expression and embodiment of Renaissance eloquence, implies a recurrent scepticism of his own verbal medium,10 a scepticism which grows more pronounced in the late tragedies, plays in which virtue and love are nearly silent: thus Cordelia can say “nothing”, “love, and be silent” (I.ii.89, 63); in Othello, “the bruis'd heart” is “pierced through the ear” (I.iii.217-18) and “all that is spoke is marr'd” (V.ii.357); and in Coriolanus, a play remarkable for its harsh, unlovely tones, the one virtuous character is referred to as “gracious silence” (II.i.192). In fact, an approach to experience is implied which suggests that the highest reality is a wordless reality, beyond our powers of articulation—an approach which, taken to its logical conclusion, would end in silence, but which first finds expression in the “excellent dumb discourse” (III.iii.39) of The Tempest. An association of sincerity with simplicity is stated here by Miranda in terms which recall Juliet's: banishing “trifling” and “cunning”, she declares her love in “plain and holy innocence” (III.i.79-82)—and to her ideal the style as a whole is remarkably true. This is a play which achieves its most stunning effects from the breath-taking simplicity of a song—a song that “kiss'd the wild waves whist” (I.ii.378).

The play opens with a vivid dramatization of the ineffectuality of language: “What cares these roarers for the name of king?” (I.i.16-17). The opening scene suggests various attempts to deal linguistically with the terror of storm and shipwreck: by means of rational discourse, imprecation, injunction, invocation of the king's name, a plea for silence, and, finally, for prayer. The “master” orders the boatswain to “speak to th'mariners” (3), in an attempt to establish control through rational discourse; the “master”, however, disappears, and though he reappears in the last scene, never speaks again. In the confusion and panic that follow, rational discourse degenerates into cursing and howling. Antonio and Sebastian accuse the others of being—what they themselves are—“blasphemous, incharitable” (40), “insolent noisemaker” (44). The boatswain calls for “silence” (17) and curses their cursing (“a plague upon this howling!” [36]), taunting Gonzalo with the ineffectuality of the authority he invokes: “you are a councillor; if you can command these elements to silence, and work the peace of the present … Use your authority” (20-2). Finally, as the ship splinters, their recourse is prayer: “All lost! To prayers, to prayers! All lost!” (51). The scene has taken us through various verbal responses to an uncontrollable terror—from the retributive through the redemptive, from futile cursing, attempts to control, to a final relinquishing of secular authority and language in the gesture of prayer.

As such, it provides a microcosm of the play as a whole, which similarly explores various linguistic potentialities, both positive and negative, to end, finally, in a plea for prayer. Concerns with language are present in The Tempest in several ways familiar from earlier plays; in this respect, as in others, it provides a summation and end. The play evokes a sense of both creative and destructive powers of language, opposing an earlier Renaissance concept of language as expression of the human and civilized, as condition of knowledge and educator of thought, to the modern, sceptical possibility, that language, bearing no necessary relation to reality, may be inadequate to our deepest knowledge and intuition. But whereas in tragedy, the gap between world and word is a tragic condition, and distortions inherent in language confound understanding with tragic effect, in this play, the emphasis is not on its tragic implications, but on the limits of language before wonder and grace. The dialectic is not so much resolved as transcended, as the play turns to modes of expression and concerns other than the verbal.

It is, of course, Prospero's art that will calm the tempest and “command these elements to silence, and … peace” (I.i.21-2), though his is not the secular authority of princes, nor is it verbal. By means of his “so potent art” (V.i.50), he puts the creatures of his world through the “heart's sorrow” that brings them to “a clear life ensuing” (III.iii.81-2), leaving most of them “new created … chang'd” (I.ii.81-3): his “project” is no less than their redemption. Implied by his power is the humanist conception of art, that expressed by Sidney, as a means to “the highest end of Knowledge … the knowledge of a mans selfe … with the end of well dooing and not of well knowing onely”, able to bring us to “as high a perfection as our degenerate souls … can be capable of” (Defense, p. 108). But Prospero's art is not “poesy”: in fact, it is as much as possible dissociated from language; the healing, redemptive powers attributed to art by this play do not extend to its verbal forms.11

On the one hand, the source of Prospero's power is his “book” (III.i.94; III.ii.95; V.i.57), the “liberal arts” (I.ii.73), an association which would seem to indicate dependence on language; on the other hand, we know that his “high charms” (III.iii.88) and “airy charm” (V.i.54) depend upon silence. These books, “volumes that / I prize above my dukedom” (I.ii.167-8), though the cause of his loss of power, contain also the secret to recovery: but he seems to be doing something different with them now. Prospero, a die-hard educator and reformer (a “schoolmaster” [I.ii.172]), is continually educating the creatures of his world. We hear of his efforts in the past, with Caliban and Miranda; we see his successes in the present, with nearly all the other characters; and the lessons of the past are described—as education was in the Renaissance—in terms of language. Prospero taught Caliban “how / To name” (I.ii.334-5), and his description evokes the early Renaissance ideal of language as expression of the rational and civilized, with creative power analogous to that of the Word:

When thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endow'd thy purposes
With words that made them known.


Prospero's success with Miranda is contrasted to his failure with Caliban: Miranda demonstrates her ability to call things by their proper names (I.ii.60-1, 121), whereas Caliban's response is unregenerate: “And my profit on't / Is, I know how to curse” (I.ii.363-4).

But this humanist conception of education as language is evoked as an ideal against which we measure the actuality. What we actually hear is Prospero using language as a means of control and coercion: his commands, to Ariel and Caliban (“Speak”, “thou liest” [I.ii.314, 257, 344]), to Ferdinand (“a word … a word” [442-4, 450, 453]), and to Miranda (“speak not” [503]), crack like a trainer's whip. Verbal authority is associated with the threats and coercions characteristic of his relations in the early part of the play, but later, after Ariel consents to be “correspondent to command / And do my spriting gently” (I.ii.297), he enacts Prospero's commands faster than language—“before you can say ‘come’ and ‘go’” (IV.i.44)—and “cleaves to” his thoughts: “Come with a thought” (IV.i.163-4). In fact, Prospero's “high charms” and “airy charms” are so far dissociated from the mediation of language that they depend, not on speech, but on silence. In the performance of the masque—which is a direct “enactment” of his “fancies” (IV.i.121-2)—silence is stressed as necessary to the working of the charm (“No tongue! all eyes! Be silent”, “silence! … Hush and be mute, / Or else our spell is marr'd” [IV.i.59, 124-7]), and it is his speaking that destroys it and disperses the spirits: “Prospero starts suddenly, and speaks; after which, to a strange, hollow and confused noise, they heavily vanish” (IV.i.138).

Prospero's magic involves nothing like the incantatory spells of the witches in Macbeth, equivocating, “imperfect speakers” (I.iii.70) whose charms control nature by describing it. His art—and, by analogy, Shakespeare's—turns to other modes: spectacle, show, and “heavenly music” (V.i.52). Many of his effects involve mimesis—the storm is “spectacle” (I.ii.26), the spirits assume shapes and guises—but, on the whole, it is a mimesis which relies little on language. The one exception, the masque, makes use of a style so flat and uninteresting that some critics have questioned whether it is Shakespeare's, but which may be understood in terms of the refusal to exploit the potential of language in a form in which it is merely supplementary to spectacle and song—and, as in the masque, so in the play as a whole. The “several strange shapes” which beckon the king and his party to eat “with gentle actions of salutations” (III.iii.19), communicate by “shapes”, “gesture”, and “sound” (37), expressing,

(Although they want the use of tongue) a kind
Of excellent dumb discourse.


Prospero's finest creation, the love of Ferdinand and Miranda, is, similarly, presented as a spectacle, framed and revealed as a show: drawing the curtain, he “discovers Ferdinand and Miranda playing at chess” (V.i.172). It is a “work of life”, like Hermione's statue, and, like the statue, it provokes wonder: “A most high miracle!” (V.i.178).

Though Ariel, appearing in the guise of a harpy, pronounces his warning by means of words, he is heard only by Alonso, and heard in such a way that the very elements seem to speak:

Methought the billows spoke, and told me of it;
The winds did sing it to me, and the thunder,
That deep and dreadful organ-pipe, pronounc'd
The name of Prosper; it did bass my trespass.


This is one of numerous references to the eloquence of things nonhuman and nonverbal. Though Prospero and his art make little use of language, the play is, as Caroline Spurgeon calls it, a “symphony of sound”.13 The air is full of threatening sounds: howling, barking, crowing, groaning, bellowing, chattering, hissing, “a din to fright a monster's ear” (II.i.314), “a strange, hollow, and confused noise” (IV.i.138). It is also full of loving sounds: twangling and humming that “give delight and hurt not” (III.ii.136-7), roaring seas and sighing winds “whose pity, sighing back again / Did us but loving wrong” (I.ii.149-50).

Through it all are the “solemn air[s]” (V.i.58) and “marvelous sweet” (III.iii.19) strains that will prevail in the harmony of the conclusion. It is primarily music, the mode which is, as L. C. Knights observes, “furthest removed from the discursive”,14 that is Prospero's means of healing: a “solemn air” is “the best comforter / To an unsettled fancy” (V.i.58-9). Song moves wonder in some, leads others through forthrights and meanders—“As they smelt music” (IV.i.178)—and evokes visions even in Caliban. By means of “heavenly music” (V.i.52)—heavenly because its harmony reflects that of divine order—Prospero “work[s]” his “end upon their senses” (53), and even Caliban, recalcitrant to verbal coercion, responds thrillingly. One suspects that after a lifetime spent, like Prospero's, in efforts of educating, Shakespeare has come to a sense of the inefficacy of verbal instruction to improve men's lives, and of the value of modes which appeal more directly than language. But consistently, in proportion as visual and musical effects are heightened, poetic and rhetorical effects are absent or subdued: the art of Prospero “gives to aery nothing / A local habitation” (MND, V.i.16-17), but seldom a name; indeed, he is most eloquent in his abjuration of art, in lines which summon his spirits to dismiss them.

The characters' responses to Prospero's art and to the qualities of the isle are measure of their moral potential. Reason is less adequate to dealing with this world than imagination; and, as elsewhere in Shakespeare, problems of knowledge have implications concerning language. Shakespeare has created in this play a world of epistemological perplexities, “subtleties … that will not let you / Believe things certain” (V.i.123-4); what understanding is possible is not through the reason or senses, which are everywhere confounded, inadequate to the shifting, elusive qualities of the isle. The dialogue of act II, scene i establishes this crucial distinction: though Antonio and Sebastian are capable of factual and verbal precision, what they say of Gonzalo is true of them: though they “miss not much”, they “mistake the truth totally” (57-8). Their perceptions are consistently mercantile: to Antonio, “dollar” suggests a unit of economic exchange, whereas to Gonzalo, “doler” is an emotion or quality—grief (19-20).15 Their quibbling contempt withers and destroys, and they perceive “tawny” and “rot” where Gonzalo, wrong about the location of Tunis, illogical in his ideal of commonwealth, brings forth lush green (48-55) and a dream of the golden age—and more than a dream, since it was his charity that worked in conjunction with Providence divine (I.ii.159) to save Prospero and Miranda. The villains, again, suggest a significance beyond what they intend: “His word is more than the miraculous harp” (II.i.87). The harp of Amphion, associated by Sidney (p. 100) and Puttenham (p. 22) with the power of music to civilize, is an appropriate allusion for Prospero's imagination as well as Gonzalo's: transforming, creative powers which cooperate with providence to bring about the “brave new world” (V.i.183) of the conclusion. Reason, which “comprehends”, is a lower faculty than imagination, which “apprehend[s]” (MND, V.i.19-20); and Shakespeare suggests, in a way familiar from earlier plays, that rationalistic standards are inadequate to qualities like grief and love, which cannot, as Prospero says of Gonzalo's honor, “Be measur'd or confin'd” (V.i.122).16

As elsewhere in Shakespeare, the villains are reasoners, explainers who explain away the miraculous, yet who actually use rationality in the service of irrationality.17 Their epistemology is associated with a particular kind of verbal abuse: they are “worders”18 who use language to create appearances which disguise and construe. Thus Antonio's temptations (II.i.246-89) make use of the most conspicuous rhetorical effects in the play: his elaborate amplification in the description of the distance of Tunis, his equivocation (“No hope, that way, is / Another way so high a hope”), the obscurities by means of which he implies his purpose without stating it, his melodramatic use of the acting metaphor, make him seem, in language, as in action, like a character from the fallen world of an earlier play. His rhetoric recalls the “glib and oily art” of Goneril and Regan (I.i.224), the “painted word” of Claudius (III.i.52), the poisonous conceits of Iago (III.iii.326). We hear, also, that “like one / Who having into truth, by telling of it”, he “Made such a sinner of his memory / To credit his own lie” (I.ii.99-102), terms which suggest the function of language in self-deception as in the deception of others. Hawkes associates this kind of linguistic abuse with the “ratio inferior”, that faculty which depends on sense data and discourse; but there is another tradition which is, I think, equally relevant, a tradition from Plato through Montaigne, which associated rhetoric with the passions.19 The two are not mutually exclusive: rhetoric is associated both with tainted passion and barren reason, and with the mixture of the two in that Shakespearean compound, in what Heilman calls that “basic Shakespearean definition of evil: the sharp mind in the service of uncriticized passion” (p. 222). But it is clear that, philosophically, the repudiation of reason and rationalistic standards implies a position of linguistic scepticism: the question whether qualities can be quantified leads to the question whether they can be named or even talked about—the question central to King Lear, where the most profound insights are expressed, not within the confines of rational discourse, but in the language of the mad king and fool, and the most profound feeling, in Cordelia's “nothing”.

The association of language with a lower faculty and form of knowledge accounts for the presence, in The Tempest, of a brute beast of unregenerate nature who speaks some of the most powerful language in the play. Caliban has learned, contrary to his claim, more than “how to curse”: he has learned language of great elemental power, and though I would not call it the great poetry that some critics have, in his words, the “clust'ring filberts”, “pig-nuts”, “jay's nest”, “scamel”, and “nimble marmazet” (II.ii.168-72) stand out, clear, fresh, and precise; it is in his language that the island lives. He is even once capable of expressing something “more than natur[al]” (V.i.243):

                                        … the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometimes voices,
That if I then had wak'd after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that, when I wak'd,
I cried to dream again.


In fact, Caliban is the only character in the play who describes the wonder of the island: the humans merely exclaim at it; and Ariel's language is in another realm, its effects all fire and air. Though Prospero may control nature, he does not describe it, and on the one occasion when he might, in the language of the masque, the images are threadbare, conventional, and uninformative, evoking nothing of the island we know through Caliban; if we had only his words, we would know nothing of its “fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile” (I.ii.337). Prospero admits that they need Caliban: “he serves in offices / That profit us” (I.ii.312-13). So do we: he is essential to our knowledge of this world.

Caliban's language is, however, confined to the concrete, and, deriving its power from the phenomena it describes, it lacks the capacity for abstraction or reflection. Even at the end, when he has learned to “seek for grace” (V.i.296), he still shows no ability to rise above the literal, no capacity for metaphor—even as rudimentary a capacity as that arch-literalist Bottom, who ascends to the level of a pun (MND, IV.i.215). Caliban remains at the first of the three levels of development of language described by Ernest Cassirer, at the level of “copy”.20 Stil, if this creature on whom “Nurture can never stick” (IV.i.189) is capable of such powers of description, then “nurture” must involve something more than language. In fact, Puttenham, rather surprisingly, associates “nature” with language, supporting his argument for a “natural style” by claiming that “the feats of language and utterance hold as well of nature to be suggested as by art to be polished and reformed” (p. 312):

But what else is language and utterance, and discourse and persuasion, and argument in man, than the vertues of a well constitute body and minde, little less naturall than his very sensuall actions, saving that the one is perfited by nature at once, the other not without exercise and iteration?

(p. 311)

Words are, as Prospero calls them, “natural breath” (V.i.157) in a play which is concerned with “more than nature” (V.i.243), yet they are a medium to which we are bound, that “serves in offices that profit us”, necessary in our dealings with the world and one another. In the complementary styles of Prospero and Caliban, something of the limits of both nature and nurture are suggested: nature without nurture remains confined to the concrete and physical, but nurture, removed from nature, may become etherial and abstract. Reality—and the art of Shakespeare—encompasses both, as The Tempest includes Prospero and Caliban.

Though language is the substance of the childhood educations of Miranda and Caliban, the most important lessons of the play are in no way, implicitly or explicitly, associated with language. The “nurture” with which the play is finally concerned, the revelations and transformations which occur in the last scene, are not described, in fact, they are hardly even articulated; and language is mentioned only in relation to its insufficiency. The king and his party are entranced, “spell-stopp'd”, their senses confounded, their brains made “useless, boil'd” (V.i.60-1); and, when Prospero releases the spell, their astonishment takes the form of startled outburst and exclamation:

All torment, trouble, wonder, and amazement
Inhabits here.


These are not natural events; they strengthen
From strange to stranger.


This is as strange a maze as e'er men trod,
And there is in this business more than nature
Was ever conduct of.


This is a strange thing as e'er I looked on.


A most high miracle!


The reiteration of the one adjective “strange” indicates a response they can hardly express. Prospero stresses the inadequacy of reason and language to contain their “admiration”:

                                        I perceive these lords
At this encounter do so much admire
That they devour their reason, and scarce think
Their eyes do offices of truth, their words
Are natural breath.


The suggestion that reason is useless to what they are trying to understand, that it is “devoured”, recalls an earlier, striking use of this word: “a grace it had devouring” (III.iii.84)—which, referring to the disappearance of Ariel's banquet, had resonances beyond its context—with its suggestion of “devouring grace”. Grace is the subject of this last scene, which “devours” reason and language, to which words, mere “natural breath”, are inadequate.

Gonzalo's stark, simple list of what has been lost and found is the fullest attempt to anyone to verbalize the experiences of the play:

                                        … in one voyage
Did Claribel her husband find at Tunis,
And Ferdinand, her brother, found a wife
Where he himself was lost; Prospero, his dukedom
In a poor isle; and all of us, ourselves,
When no man was his own.


Appropriately, he reaches for a visual image—“set it down / With gold on lasting pillars” (207-8)—and, in their bare, forthright strength, we can actually imagine these lines being cut in stone. Their power is, like others in the play, an effect of breathtaking simplicity. The sense of wonder in this scene recalls that in the final scenes of The Winter's Tale: the meeting of Leontes and Perdita was “a sight which … cannot be spoken of”, “which lames report … and undoes description” (V.ii.42, 59), and Paulina approves Leontes' response to the statue: “I like your silence, it the more shows off / Your wonder” (V.iii.21-2).21

Gonzalo's response to the boatswain constricts our vision, suddenly, to the concerns of the first scene, as measure of how far we have come. His appearance seems to validate Gonzalo's prophecy that this man was born to be hanged, but he speaks of the fulfillment of prophecy in somewhat disturbing terms:

I prophesied, if a gallows were on land,
This fellow could not drown. Now, blasphemy,
That swear'st grace o'erboard, not an oath on shore?
Hast thou no mouth by land?


These references to oathes and blasphemy take us back to the terror of the play's opening, recalling the futile, self-defeating gestures of lost souls striking out in wrath at the elements and one another. The association of “swearing” and “gallows” is appropriate, since cursing is the linguistic analogue of the ethic of retribution. But, in a providential order governed by grace, curses have been neutralized or transformed. We have heard from Ferdinand,

Though the seas threaten, they are merciful;
I have curs'd them without cause.


Caliban, too, had learned “how to curse”, and, in the self-defeating gesture of a Richard III and Macbeth, had cursed himself (I.ii.339), but even he speaks, in his last lines, of “grace”. Gonzalo's reference to “swearing” and “gallows” is discordant and incongruous in the midst of the rejoicing and forgiveness that floods this scene, evoking an alien standard, an ethic and spirit repudiated by Prospero and the play as a whole. It reminds us how far we have come, from terror to wonder, from retributive to redemptive language and gesture.

Referred to in Macbeth as a “heavenly gift” that “speaks” its bearer “full of grace” (IV.iii.157-9), prophecy implies the validity of modes of knowledge other than the rational, as well as the existence of an order that can be so known. Prospero, we recall, has “prescience” (I.ii.180), and the play affirms such an order, accessible only to faith, and allows us a glimpse into it. We have been allowed to participate in the providential perspective by sharing Prospero's vision; we have watched the characters stumble through “maze[s] … forth-rights and meanders” (III.iii.2-3); we know that the glass through which they see darkly will be cleared as they come to understand the events of the play as we have. As in the final scene of The Winter's Tale, the idea of the oracle becomes prominent—“some oracle / Must rectify our knowledge” (V.i.244-5)—though in this play, it is a human oracle, Prospero himself.

Negative or destructive potentials of language have been evoked and contained by The Tempest, but are neutralized, transformed, and finally transcended: language is irrelevant, finally, to our highest intuitions and experiences of “wonder” and “grace”. Though Shakespeare has intimated this largely by means of language, his style is a “rough magic” that leaves unexploited the resources of his medium, the rich potential of imagery and metaphor, and achieves its most stunning effects from the simplicity of straightforward statement or song. We can compare similar assertions of the inadequacy of language made in The Tempest and in Antony and Cleopatra: Enobarbus says Cleopatra “beggar'd all description” (II.ii.198), Antony claims “beggary in the love that can be reckon'd” (I.i.15), and then each proceeds to eloquence on the subject. Enobarbus' description of Cleopatra, like Cleopatra's of her “Emperor Antony” (V.ii.76), makes use of a language of paradox and hyperbole that reaches beyond its own limits to express the ineffable. But Prospero says Miranda “outstrip[s] all praise” (IV.i.10) and then is silent. The Tempest attains the “new heaven, new earth” (A & C, I.i.17) glimpsed within Antony and Cleopatra, redemption in this life, within time, only its means are not verbal, but “a kind of excellent dumb discourse”. Before wonder and miracle, we can only “admire” and be still—a response appropriate to the play as well, one suggested by the sense frequently expressed by critics, of the inadequacy of reason and language to its spell.22

A qualification is, however, suggested by the silence of Antonio. If silence signifies the grace of Cordelia or Virgilia, it can also signify the damnation of Iago and Goneril—“What you know, you know” (Oth., V.ii.303); “Ask me not what I know” (KL, V.iii.161)—for, in the dialectic of Shakespeare's thought, nothing is merely one thing. Prospero's last lines, his promise to relate “the story of my life” with “discourse” (304-5), suggests the importance of language to society, to the human community from which Antonio is excluded—its rational, civilized, and entirely necessary functions. If language is inadequate to ultimate revelation, it is nevertheless necessary in our dealings with others, in our return from this magic island with its intimations of immortality, to our daily lives.

At the end of the play, as at the end of the first scene, the final response, to wonder, as to terror, is prayer—“And my ending is despair / Unless I be reliev'd by prayer” (15-16)—not as a verbal, but as a silent gesture of hands. The play concludes in language so stark and unlovely that E. E. Stoll “hope[s] that these sorry lines are not by Shakespeare”.23 But this bare, humble plea for prayer speaks to a truth beyond eloquence, and follows from the sense of language implied by the play, and from the linguistic scepticism of the late tragedies. It is difficult, finally, to avoid associating this sense of language with the central gesture of the play, the abjuring of art: Shakespeare has reached the limits of his medium, and there is support for this interpretation in his virtual silence in the several years of life remaining to him.


  1. Intro., Twentieth Century Interpretations of The Tempest, ed. Hallett Smith (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1969), pp. 8-9. Wolfgang Clemen comments on the scarcity of metaphor—“those passages in which something abstract (e.g. an intellectual quality or attitude) is interpreted by an image, are rare and occur much more seldom than in the tragedies”—and notes “less density and continuity of imagery”. The Development of Shakespeare's Imagery (New York: Hill and Wang, 1951), pp. 192, 180. Frank Kermode notes the “paucity of imagery” which “gives the event itself primary significance, and requires that verse and image shall not be such as to distract the attention to it”. Intro., The Arden Edition of The Tempest (London: Methuen, 1970), p. lxxx. G. Wilson Knight describes the language as “poor in metaphor”: “Here the poetry is preeminently in the events themselves, which are intrinsically poetic … There is less need if [metaphor] in that the play is itself metaphor”. The Crown of Life (1947; rpt. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966), p. 224.

  2. Shakespearean Tragedy (1904; rpt. Cleveland: World Publ., 1963), p. 151.

  3. IV.i.118-19, The Tempest, The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). All further references to Shakespeare's plays are to this edition.

  4. Though some critics find the style of the late plays thin and uninteresting, it is more likely an indication, as Knight's and Kermode's terms suggest, that Shakespeare is doing someting different with language. This is what Charles Olson means by his description: “He [Shakespeare] isn't picking up his objects (words) … either for their music or image. He gets both by going in further to the word as meaning and thing, and, mixing the governing human title and experience … his effect is the equivalent of his act … We are in the presence of the only truth which the real can have … we are in the hands of the mystery.” “Quantity in Verse, and Shakespeare's Late Plays”, Selected Writings of Charles Olson (New York: 1966), p. 45. See also W. T. Jewkes: “For at the core of this play is a silence more still than any of the silences in the late plays.” “‘Excellent Dumb Discourse’: The Limits of Language in The Tempest”, from Essays on Shakespeare, ed. Gordon Ross Smith (University Park: Penn. State University, 1965), p. 210. Although Jewkes' general sense of the play is the same as mine, our interpretations differ in most particulars, and in the significance we ascribe to things.

  5. Kermode, p. lxxvii.

  6. Clemen characterizes the language of the romances generally: “We seldom find that type of impassioned, abrupt and supremely concentrated imagery, in which the images seem to run into one another, and in which, according to Dowden's still valid phrase, ‘the thought is more rapid than the language’. Instead … [we have] fully executed imagery [which] … recalls the manner of Shakespeare's early plays. We also have more of descriptive and graphic imagery which helps to create the right nature-atmosphere in these plays … we have … a stronger contrast between scenes which contain scarcely any imagery at all and other scenes where we find long passages packed with images like colorful carpets.” Devt. of Shakespeare's Imagery, p. 108.

  7. The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century (New York: Macmillan, 1939), p. 349. The context is Miller's contrast of Anglican and Puritan sermon styles. Rosemond Tuve sees the relegation of imagery to background or embellishment in metaphysical poetry as related to the separation of logic and rhetoric which was a consequence of Ramism. Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery (1947; rpt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), pp. 331-53.

  8. Defense of Poesie, English Literary Criticism: The Renaissance, ed. O. B. Hardison, Jr. (New York: Appleton Century Crofts), p. 143; The Arte of English Poesie, ed. Edward Arber (London: Westminster Constable, 1895), p. 313. This ideal, stated in Puttenham's last chapter, is, however, somewhat contrary to the general tenor of his work, which recommends a style of tropes and figures in the high Renaissance tradition of eloquentia and copia.

  9. Whereas the Middle Ages conceived of language as corresponding to the structure of reality, the seventeenth century saw it as an arbitrary, conventional system with no necessary relation to the nature of things. For backgrounds in sixteenth and seventeenth-century attitudes toward language, see R. F. Jones, “The Moral Sense of Simplicity”, Studies in Honor of Frederick W. Shipley, by his colleagues (St. Louis: Wash. University Press, 1942), pp. 265-87; The Seventeenth Century: Studies in the History of English Thought from Bacon to Pope (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1951); Morris Croll, Style, Rhetoric, and Rhythm, ed. J. Max Patrick et al. (Princeton University Press, 1965); Wilbur Samuel Howell, Logic and Rhetoric in England, 1500-1700 (New York: Russell and Russell, 1961); J. Walter Ong, Ramus: Method and the Decay of Dialogue (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958).

  10. Lawrence Danson, Tragic Alphabet: Shakespeare's Drama of Language (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974) and Terence Hawkes, Shakespeare's Talking Animals: Language and Drama in Society (Totowa, New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1974), discuss linguistic scepticism in the plays of Shakespeare.

  11. In this, I disagree with M. M. Mahood, who claims that the play's affirmation of faith in art implies a corollary belief in language: “The world of words had once seemed to Shakespeare tragically incompatible with the world of things. Now he finds in the world built from Prospero's words of magic the truth of what we are. Belief in words is foremost among the lost things which are found again in Shakespeare's final comedies”. Shakespeare's Wordplay (London: Methuen, 1957), p. 188. The “brave new world” of the conclusion is not “built from Prospero's words”, but from nonverbal forms, music and show.

  12. This description of education in language recalls Peacham's description of eloquence: “even so the precious nature and wonderful power of wisdom is by the commendable art and use of eloquence, produced and brought into open light”. The Garden of Eloquence (rev. ed., 1953), ABiij. Ernest Cassirer describes the relation of language and thought in similar terms: “By learning to name things a child does not simply add a list of artificial signs to his previous knowledge of ready-made objects. He learns rather to form the concepts of those objects, to come to terms with the objective world.” Essay on Man (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1944), p. 132. The Renaissance idea of language as character—“orato imago animi”, derived from Cicero and Quintilian; or, “mentis character” (Puttenham, p. 161)—is suggested when Miranda assures Ferdinand, “My father's of a better nature … / Than he appears by speech” (I.ii.497-8). That language is expression of the human and civilized is implied in Stephano's response to Caliban's language, “Where the devil should he learn our language?” (II.ii.66), and Ferdinand's to Miranda's, “My language? heavens!” (I.ii.429).

  13. Shakespeare's Imagery and What it Tells Us (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), p. 300.

  14. The Tempest”, in Shakespeare's Late Plays: Essays in Honor of Charles Crow, ed. Richard C. Tobias and Paul G. Zolbrod (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1974), p. 19.

  15. Through to the end, Antonio and Sebastian are concerned with the marketability of the island (V.i.264-6). Stephano and Trinculo are similarly differentiated: Stephano thinks of bringing Caliban home for money, whereas Trinculo is prompted to philosophize about social injustice (II.ii.31-3, 67-8)—responses which are consistent with their responses to the island elsewhere.

  16. Words are, similarly, inadequate to comfort grief, as we see from Alonso's refusal to accept consolation: “You cram these words into mine ears against / The stomach of my sense” (II.i.108-9). The inadequacy of language in the face of brute facts of nature is suggested also by the weakness of oathes to enforce chastity (IV.i.52, 95 ff.).

  17. Terence Hawkes, Shakespeare and the Reason (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964), p. 199. See also Robert B. Heilman, Magic in the Web: Action and Language in Othello (Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 1956), pp. 61, 221-2.

  18. The term is Cleopatra's, speaking of Octavius: “He words me, girls, he words me” (V.ii.191). Terence Hawkes also discusses this characteristic of Shakespeare's villains, Shakespeare and the Reason, pp. 50, 86, 164.

  19. See Joseph T. McCullen, “Renaissance Rhetoric: Use and Abuse”, Discourse, 5 (1962), pp. 252-64; and Stanley Fish, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1967), passim.

  20. According to Cassirer, language progresses from copy to analogy, from analogy to concept and symbol. The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, trans. Ralph Manheim (1955; rpt. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), I, 186-97.

  21. There are further references to the inadequacy of language in this scene: “I make a broken delivery of the business … There was speech in their dumbness, language in their very gesture”; “Such a deal of wonder … that ballad-makers cannot be able to express it” (WT, [The Winter's Tale] V.ii.9-15; 24-5).

  22. Mark Van Doren suggests that this is a play “about which we had better not be too knowing”, Shakespeare (Garden City: Doubleday, 1939), p. 281. Francis Fergusson notes that “the best critics warn us not to try to interpret the play”—a sobering and suitable warning—and calls it “a reverie with a power of suggestion like that of music”. Shakespeare: The Pattern in his Carpet (New York: Dell, 1958), p. 306.

  23. PMLA, XLVII, p. 704; see Kermode's discussion, p. 134.

Marjorie Garber (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: Garber, Marjorie. “‘The Rest Is Silence’: Ineffability and the ‘Unscene’ in Shakespeare's Plays.” In Ineffability: Naming the Unnamable from Dante to Beckett, edited by Peter S. Hawkins and Anne Howland Schotter, pp. 35-50. New York: AMS Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, Garber surveys Shakespeare's onstage silences, his use of the indirect mode of representation—that is, characters' reports of events that occur offstage—and his adaptations of the conventional theme of inexpressibility. Garber asserts that Shakespeare understood that silence can be as effective as speech in communicating emotion.]

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must keep silent”


“Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on.” The paradox implicit in Keats's famous lines suggests the difficulties inherent in any approach to ineffability through the medium of language. The “unheard” melodies piped by figures on the Grecian urn are displaced and replaced by the melody of the poet who describes them. Although he calls the urn a “still unravished bride of quietness,” in a sense he himself becomes the ravisher, by putting into words his response to the silent urn, and using the imagined songs of the “happy melodist” as a catalyst for his own poetic invention. “Ditties of no tone,” rather like the harmony of the spheres, exist only in the words that describe them, since they cannot be heard by the human ear. But to leave the “unspeakable” literally unspoken is, for the poet, tantamount to deciding not to write a poem.

Poets from antiquity learned to deal with this problem rhetorically through strategic use of the “inexpressibility topos”: “I cannot tell you how beautiful she was,” “words cannot express my joy.” Thus for example Virgil describes the horrors of the underworld by telling us that he cannot describe them: “non mihi si linguae centum sint oraque centum, / ferrae vox, omnis scelerum comprendere formas, / omnia poenarum percurrere nomina possim” (Nay, had I a hundred tongues, a hundred mouths, and voice of iron, I could not sum up all the forms of crime, or rehearse all the tale of torments”).1 The inexpressibility topos had the effect of aggrandizement through rhetoric, suggesting an immensity too great to be conveyed by words, while cleverly using words to convey it. Such strategies were necessary because otherwise the ineffable or unspeakable would have to be represented by silence, or rather by absence—since silence on the printed page becomes a spatial rather than an aural event.

In Tristram Shandy the reader is provided a blank page on which to write his own description of Uncle Toby's beloved, “For never did thy eyes behold, or thy concupiscence covet any thing in this world, more concupiscible than widow Wadman”.2 Wallace Stevens's poem “The Man on the Dump” ends virtually in midair, with “the the,”3 as if inviting the reader to propose his own poem, and Robert Graves likewise teases the reader out of thought by titling the last poem in his book “Leaving the Rest Unsaid,” and ending it in the middle of a sentence:

Must the book end, as you would end it,
With testamentary appendices
And graveyard indices?
But no, I will not lay me down
To let your tearful music mar
The decent mystery of my progress.
So now, my solemn ones, leaving the rest unsaid,
Rising in air as on a gander's wing
At a careless comma,(4)

Such experiments create the visual equivalent of silence, by literally leaving unsaid what is alleged to be unsayable. But for lyric poets, novelists, and other monovocal writers the possibilities for representing ineffability directly are limited in both method and effect, because of the nature of the genres in which they work. When they are silent, no one speaks.

For the playwright, however, the possibilities are much more diverse. Since he is working with several characters at once, rather than with a single narrative or lyric voice, he can create dramatic opportunities for silence between them, either explicitly, through stage directions and clues in the text, or implicitly, by the nature of the theatrical encounters he designs for them. He can also make use of the inexpressibility topos, much in the manner of narrative writers, but with the addition of a wondering listener or audience on the stage. Moreover, as we will see, he can extend and reshape that topos into a more specifically dramatic mode by placing the inexpressible moment in a scene that takes place offstage, to be reported in retrospect by an onstage observer. In all of these cases, the playwright approaches the problem of ineffability in literature by exploiting the special nature of his medium.

As we should expect, most “ineffable” moments in Shakespeare come in the later plays, the final tragedies and the romances, where the content of the plays themselves seems frequently to demand a dramatic technique that goes beyond the limits of the quotidian and the expressible. Thus in several of the plays a character falls silent at a moment of strong emotion. When Macduff receives the news that his wife and children have been murdered, his shock and grief render him speechless, as Malcolm observes: “What, man! Ne'er pull your hat upon your brows. / Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak / Whispers the o'erfraught heart, and bids it break” (Macbeth IV.iii.208-210).5 Ineffability here is both a natural and a dangerous condition. Macduff must return to language in order to come to terms with his own unspeakable grief.

The question of ineffability is addressed even more directly in the opening scene of King Lear. When Lear asks his daughters which of them loves him most, he is asking for the inexpressibility topos, and from his two elder daughters that is what he gets. Goneril's reply is a classic example of the genre:

Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter;
Dearer than eyesight, space, and liberty;
Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare;
No less than life, with grace, health, beauty, honor;
As much as child e'er loved, or father found;
A love that makes breath poor, and speech unable:
Beyond all manner of so much I love you.


Regan, challenged to better this testament of incomparable affection, does so by overtopping. Her sister has “name[d her] very deed of love; / Only she comes too short” (71-72). Regan herself, she says, has no other joys: “I am alone felicitate / In your dear highness' love” (75-76). It is now Cordelia's turn, and although she has already warned the audience in an aside that she will “Love, and be silent” (62), her reply of “Nothing, my lord” nonetheless comes as a shock. “Nothing,” of course, is not silence, but it is a signifier of silence, and in productions of the play it is almost invariably uttered after a protracted and anguished silence in which Cordelia struggles with herself. She knows what she must say. Just as Hamlet, listening to Claudius's unctuous words of pretended grief, realizes that he must abandon his inky cloak of mourning since the ritual of mourning has itself been sullied, so Cordelia sees the language of love sullied beyond retrieval by her sisters' “glib and oily” words. But one of the pitfalls of silence as a mode of communication is that it may be misinterpreted, as Lear misinterprets it here. Cordelia's scrupulous attempt to define her love by quality rather than by quantity fails, and the play moves inexorably toward tragedy. The truest definition of ineffability in the context of King Lear comes in fact not from any of Lear's daughters but from Edgar when he first beholds his blinded father: “the worst is not / So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’” (IV.i.27-28).

A particularly compelling instance of a speaking silence on the stage occurs at the end of Coriolanus, when the hero capitulates to his mother's plea for him to spare Rome. In the course of the scene Volumnia speaks at length and without apparent result, repeatedly inviting Coriolanus's wife and child to add their voices: “Daughter, speak you.” “Speak thou, boy” (V.iii.155, 156). Finally, in a rhetorical move calculated to provoke him, she turns to go, acknowledging the failure of her words: “Yet give us our dispatch. / I am hushed until our city be a fire, / And then I'll speak a little” (180-182). Here the stage direction tells us Coriolanus “holds her by the hand, silent.” Volumnia's silence has more effect than her words. On the stage the stony Coriolanus slowly relents, his impassivity turned to emotion, perhaps even to tears, since Aufidius will later taunt him by calling him “thou boy of tears” ( In taking her hand he reaffirms the filial bond, abandoning his intention to “stand / As if a man were author of himself / And knew no other kin” (V.iii.35-37). His gesture shifts the emotional center of the scene from mother to son, and when he finally speaks he is determined to yield to her wishes, although the consequences may be—as they become—“most mortal” to him.

This scene is a remarkable example of the rhetoric of silence, the ability of silence to convey an inexpressible emotion, here compounded at once of love, grief, and perhaps fear. The stage direction places emphasis not on the speeches of mother and son, but on the space, the silence, between them. In this case silence is a dramatic element as fundamental as speech, a theatrical means of expressing the inexpressible.

A slightly different attempt to use the rhetoric of silence occurs in The Winter's Tale, when Paulina decides to confront Leontes with his newborn daughter in the hope that he may alter his brutal behavior toward the imprisoned queen, Hermione. “We do not know,” says Paulina, “How he may soften at the sight o' th' child; / The silence often of pure innocence / Persuades, when speaking fails” (II.ii.38-41). Perdita is an “infant,” etymologically one who cannot speak. But Leontes will not listen, and there is no speaking silence of recognition between parent and child. When the recognition does come, sixteen years later, it will occur offstage rather than before our eyes, in a dramatic context which, as we will see, is significant for Shakespeare's treatment of ineffable emotion.

However, the true counterpart to the scene of Paulina and Perdita is not Leontes's rediscovery of his daughter, but rather his rediscovery of his wife, Hermione, who is likewise unable to speak since she is disguised as a statue. Paulina had described the infant Perdita as the image of her father, using metaphors from the art of printing: “Although the print be little, the whole matter / And copy of the father” (II.iii.98-99). The “awakening” of Hermione from statue to living woman is likewise achieved by a detailed scrutiny of a human being as a work of art. As the “statue” is unveiled, the repentant Leontes describes his lost wife as “tender / As infancy and grace” (V.iii.26-27), again reminding the audience of the earlier scene in which an actual infant appeared. And the unveiling is performed before a hushed onstage audience, as Paulina makes clear: “I like your silence; it the more shows off / Your wonder” (V.iii.21-22). “Wonder,” the predominant emotion of Shakespearean romance, is also the emotion of ineffability, transcending verbal expression. Once again the playwright builds into his play a moment when no one on the stage speaks, and yet communication is achieved. In this scene the condition of wonder, the ineffable, seems particularly appropriate, since the setting is a chapel, the circumstances are highly staged and “dramatic,” and the interaction occurs between human beings and a figure who appears to be other than human. When Hermione's identity is revealed she embraces her amazed husband, and Camillo seeks further confirmation of her nature: “If she pertain to life, let her speak too” (113). Here, as elsewhere in Shakespeare, language becomes an index of humanity, while silence demarcates emotions or experiences that transcend the human condition.

Modern English makes an interesting distinction between “ineffable,” which means beyond expression, too great to be uttered, and “unspeakable,” which means the same things, but can also mean inexpressibly vile. Shakespeare does not use the word “ineffable” in his plays, and he uses “unspeakable” as an intensifier, augmenting either felicitous or infelicitous events. Titus Andronicus is said to have suffered “wrongs, unspeakable, past patience” (V.iii.126), courtiers in The Winter's Tale allude to the “unspeakable comfort” brought to Sicilia by its young prince, Mamillius (I.i.36-37), and in the same play the shepherd who finds Perdita and the gold that was left with her is described as “a man, they say, that from very nothing, and beyond the imagination of his neighbors, is grown into an unspeakable estate” (IV.ii.39-41). As early as The Comedy of Errors Shakespeare uses “unspeakable” and the inexpressibility topos as a mode of exposition. At the beginning of the play the Syracusan merchant Egeon is asked by the Duke of Ephesus to explain “in brief” (I.i.28) his presence in an enemy town. Egeon replies that “A heavier task could not have been imposed / Than I to speak my griefs unspeakable” (31-32) and then goes on to speak them for more than a hundred lines, pausing once as if to break off (“O, let me say no more! / Gather the sequel by that went before” [94-95]) but is urged by the Duke to complete his tale of woe. Here, as in the other direct uses of “unspeakable” in Shakespeare, the events or persons described are pitiable or marvellous, but not really beyond expression. The word “unspeakable” becomes a manner of speaking, a shorthand term meaning something like “remarkable” or “immense.”

None of these references touches upon a third possible meaning of “unspeakable” and “ineffable,” that is, “something that may not be uttered,” like the name of God. But it is that sense of the term which is perhaps the most interesting in view of the structure and function of the plays as a whole. Ineffability in this sense involves some kind of transgression of boundaries. A word or action becomes taboo because it is associated with gods or devils, with the sacred, or with forbidden knowledge. Thus when Macbeth salutes the witches with “How, now, you secret, black, and midnight hags! / What is 't you do?” he is told, “A deed without a name” (IV.i.48-49). It is this quest for forbidden knowledge that seals his doom. In this respect Macbeth is very like Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, another seeker after superhuman knowledge and power. Iago's abjuration of speech at the end of Othello is a related phenomenon, coming as it does immediately after Othello has called him a “demi-devil.” “Demand me nothing,” he replies. “What you know, you know. / From this time forth I never will speak word” (V.ii.302-303). In this case an unspeakable figure elects not to speak, and thereby allies himself even more closely with inhuman powers. Throughout the play Iago has manipulated language to gain his nefarious ends; now he wills himself to be anti-Logos, the uncreating Word.

More usually, however, these liminal encounters or boundary transgressions occur at the other end of the scale, in the realm of “wonder.” We have seen the function of wonder as an aspect of the ineffable in The Winter's Tale. When Ferdinand first encounters Miranda in The Tempest, this quality becomes personified, as he addresses the unknown and unexpected figure as “you wonder!” (I.ii.429) and “the goddess / On whom these airs attend!” (424-425); she likewise imagines him to be “divine” (421). Significantly, Prospero has forbidden her to tell her name; it is literally taboo, ineffable, something not to be uttered. But she tells it nonetheless, and Ferdinand immediately deciphers the meaning:

What is your name?
                                                            Miranda. O my father,
I have broke your hest to say so!
                                                                      Admired Miranda!
Indeed the top of admiration, worth
What's dearest to the world!


In his eyes, as for a moment in the eyes of the audience, she becomes a living manifestation of ineffability.

Even in a play far removed from the genre of romance, “wonder” is connected with speechlessness and personal transformation. In Much Ado About Nothing the witty and voluble Benedick, described by Beatrice early in the play as “evermore tattling” (II.i.9), is reduced to uncharacteristic silence by Claudio's public accusation of Hero: “I am so attired in wonder,” he declares, “I know not what to say” (IV.i.143-144). And it is here, in the realm of “wonder,” that the inexpressibility topos in Shakespeare has its most powerful effect. Instead of eloquent silences at moments of great emotion, the audience is confronted by characters who try to express the inexpressible by acknowledging that they cannot do so. The fundamental use of this topos, as in antiquity, is for aggrandizement of the subject, whether it be a person, a feeling, or an event. There are numerous local examples in Shakespeare's plays, like Juliet's claim that “my true love is grown to such excess / I cannot sum up sum of half my wealth” (, but there are also larger instances that have a profound effect upon the shape and meaning of the plays that contain them.

The most strikingly dramatic use of the inexpressibility topos in the plays is that of the Prologues to Henry V, in which the Chorus repeatedly enjoins his audience to use its imagination: “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts: / Into a thousand parts divide one man / And make imaginary puissance. / Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them / Printing their proud hoofs i' th' receiving earth; / For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings” (I.Prol.23-28). The audience's participation, its act of invention “In the quick forge and working house of thought” (V.Prol.23) is necessary here because of the inadequacy of Shakespeare's stage to portray accurately the great events of the play: “Can this cockpit hold / The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram / Within this wooden O the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt?” (I.Prol.11-14). The answer to these highly rhetorical questions is both yes and no. Literally, as the Prologue points out, such representation is impossible; what is required is not mimesis but identity—“A kingdom for a stage, princes to act, / And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!” (I.Prol.2-5). But having said that he cannot represent these things, the playwright proceeds to do so, just as Keats celebrates unheard melodies in a heard one. The phenomenological effect here is complex; paradoxically, what we are told is not real becomes real through the process of denying its reality. Throughout his plays—and not only in the histories—Shakespeare suggests that history is itself an artifact, continually recreated through reputation, memory, and retelling. In the great “Crispan Crispian” speech, King Harry envisages a man who fought at Agincourt retelling the history of that battle to his neighbors many years afterward: “Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot, / But he'll remember, with advantages, / What feats he did that day” (IV.iii.49-51). “With advantages”—that is, the old man will enhance his own contributions as he reports them in retrospect. If history is inevitably distorted in this way, the exact representation so despaired of by the Prologue is impossible; by acknowledging the inevitably fictive nature of retold events, Shakespeare gives to the dramatic action of his play an imagined reality which is truer than any historical fact. When Wallace Stevens writes that poetry is the only reality in this imagined world, he is speaking to the same apparent paradox.

In effect, then, by calling attention to the play as a play, a created artifact, the Prologue transforms the inexpressible grandeur of King, soldiers, and glorious victory into a mode of expression. The tension between prologue and play, artifice and action, works admirably to frame and deepen the dramatic events we see, by placing them in the context of those we can only imagine. The solution to the problem of inexpressibility here is that of art. Not surprisingly, this is also Bottom's answer, when he comes to describe his own ineffable experience in the Athenian wood—what he calls “Bottom's Dream.” The “Dream” is Bottom's attempt to come to terms with his transformation into an ass, and his subsequent and bemusing amorous adventures with Titania, queen of the fairies. Here the events are ineffable or inexpressible not because of their immensity, as in Henry V, but because of their improbability—their “wonder” in another sense. Although the passage is familiar I will quote it here to clarify the dramatic point:

I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass, if he go about to expound this dream. Methought I was—there is no man can tell what. Methought I was—and methought I had—but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was.

(MND [A Midsummer Night´'s Dream] IV.i.205-214)

This is a delightfully straightforward admission of the speaker's inability to say what he has seen and known. The last line, a scrambled passage from First Corinthians, is Bottom's attempt to compare his extraordinary experience with a more orthodox Christian experience of ineffability: “Eye hath not seen,” writes St. Paul, “nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him” (I.Cor.2:9). Bottom's solution to this problem of communication is to have his indescribable adventures translated into a “ballet,” or ballad, by Peter Quince. Again the unspeaking and unspeakable is to become a work of art. In a way this episode, or at least the idea of making wonderful events into a ballad to testify to their truth, anticipates an interesting piece of business in the sheep-shearing scene of The Winter's Tale, in which Autolycus appears as a peddler selling broadside ballads. The shepherdesses happily seize upon ballads describing such improbable events as “how a usurer's wife was brought to bed of twenty moneybags at a burden” (IV.iv.262-264), and how a woman “was turned into a cold fish for she would not exchange flesh with one that loved her” (279-281). The veracity of these tales is unquestionably accepted because they are written down; as Mopsa says, “I love a ballad in print, a-life, for then we are sure they are true” (260-261).

Bottom's “dream” is called a dream because he cannot believe it actually happened. Cleopatra also tells a “dream” which is closely related to the inexpressibility topos in both content and rhetorical effect, but her dream represents her imaginative vision of something only she and the offstage audience believe was true. Her onstage audience is the deferent but politely disbelieving Roman, Dolabella, who represents the limited perspective of literal reality, in contrast to Cleopatra's magnificent tapestry of hyperboles. “I dreamt there was an Emperor Antony,” she begins. His “face was as the heav'ns,” his eyes like the sun and moon, “his legs bestrid the ocean,” his voice to friends was like the music of the spheres, but when he spoke to foes “he was as rattling thunder.” “In his livery / Walked crowns and crownets; realms and islands were / As plates dropped from his pocket” (V.ii.76-92). “Think you,” she says to Dolabella, “there was or might be such a man / As this I dreamt of?” and he replies, “Gentle madam, no.” Cleopatra's response, denying his denial, is perhaps as close as Shakespeare comes to defining the ineffable in language:

You lie, up to the hearing of the gods.
But if there be nor ever were one such,
It's past the size of dreaming; nature wants stuff
To vie strange forms with fancy, yet t'imagine
An Antony were nature's piece 'gainst fancy,
Condemning shadows quite.


“Past the size of dreaming” verbally condenses as it conceptually expands the idea of a man beyond description; even the aggrandizing “dream” comes too short in measuring the reality, the grandeur of Antony as he lived.

Structurally this speech is a proper pendant to Enobarbus's great praise of Cleopatra in Act II (“the barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne, / Burned on the water …” [II.ii.193-242]), although Enobarbus uses paradox rather than hyperbole as the rhetorical basis of his description. Dolabella's “Gentle madam, no,” is in part anticipated by the Roman sentiments of Enobarbus's audience, Agrippa and Maecenas, who despite their fascination think there are limits to Cleopatra's power. “Now Antony must leave her utterly,” Maecenas concludes (II.ii.235). “Never, he will not,” is Enobarbus's prompt—and accurate—reply. The onstage listeners are tempered in their response to this portrait of royal—and female—quintessence. But the offstage audience hears—and believes. We do not see the scene at Cydnus—the barge, the sails, the dimpled boys and bending gentlewomen—but we feel as if we have. The image is imprinted on our imaginations; and when, as she prepares for death, Cleopatra announces that she is “again for Cydnus” (V.ii.228), the vision of the incomparable queen on her barge comes vividly to mind. This is a spectacle that might perhaps be translated into theatrical action with the resources of a Cecil B. DeMille, but on the Elizabethan stage—and perhaps on any stage—to perform it would be to risk anticlimax, as spectacle competes with words. The scene gains in power precisely because of its displaced or deflected nature—the fact that we are told it, not shown it. This is what might be called “theatrical ineffability,” a coup de théâtre on the level of text. And here we come to the third and perhaps the most remarkable of Shakespeare's dramatic expressions of the inexpressible, more innovative and in some ways more effective than either the actual silences on the stage or the skilled and evocative use of the topos of inexpressibility. I refer to what I would like to call “unscenes”—deflected or unseen scenes that take place offstage and are reported by an observer, usually an anonymous or disinterested “Gentleman,” occasionally by a figure more centrally involved in the action.

Like Enobarbus's description of Cleopatra, these unscenes are in effect a translation of the inexpressibility topos into dramatic terms. Rather than declaring the events they describe to be indescribable, unscenes describe them at one remove, leaving the actual words and gestures of the participants to the audience's imagination, while vividly underscoring the emotional significance of what has taken place. In this way they are able to embody the central paradox of literary ineffability, by speaking about the unspeakable while leaving it literally unspoken. Significantly, the subjects of unscenes are almost without exception moments of extreme emotion, and frequently conflicted emotions: joy and fear, love and grief or anger. Their content, like their mode of expression, is ineffable.

One notable example of the unscene is Ophelia's description of Hamlet's distracted visit to her “closet,” or bedroom, “his doublet all unbraced, / No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled, / Ungartered, and down-gyved to his ankle, / Pale as his shirt” (II.i.78-81). The scene as she reports it is so detailed that audiences may feel, once again, that they have seen it. She tells us that he took her by the wrist, perused her face, shook her arm and waved his head three times up and down, uttering a sigh “so piteous and profound / As it did seem to shatter all his bulk / And end his being” (94-96). At length he released her, and as he left the room looking behind him, “he seemed to find his way without his eyes,” for he “to the last bended their light on [her]” (98; 100). These are very specific stage directions, and in fact many directors have yielded to temptation and staged the scene, rather than leaving it to Ophelia's indirect narration. Yet there are cogent reasons why the indirect method of presentation is preferable. The sigh that seemed to end his being, and the “look so piteous in purport, / As if he had been loosèd out of hell / To speak of horrors” (82-84)—these signs, as Ophelia describes them, betoken ineffable, unspeakable emotions, emotions that exist on the limits of human life and human possibility: “shatter all his bulk,” “loosed out of hell.” We may notice that in the course of this encounter Hamlet apparently says nothing at all, nor does the “affrighted” Ophelia. Moreover, the onstage witnesses, Claudius and Polonius, must interpret not what they see—since they do not see Hamlet—but rather what Ophelia reports, or what they would like to think her report signifies. “This is the very ecstasy of love,” concludes Polonius (102), and Claudius is delighted to accept such an interpretation. We in the offstage audience do not know how to interpret the encounter, as we might if we had actually seen it; instead the moment itself remains unresolved in our minds, to be puzzled over in conjunction with the later scene between Hamlet and Ophelia in III.i. Hamlet seems clearly to be gripped by some violent emotion—but is it love, grief, disgust at the frailty of woman, despair that his father's murder necessitates the end of his relationship with Ophelia? Because it is unseen, the unscene remains powerfully and teasingly ambiguous; by placing this episode offstage, Shakespeare ensures its ambiguity and maximizes its impact, while at the same time reserving the high drama of confrontation for a point later in the play.

There are two memorable unscenes in King Lear, with some significant similarities between them. The first is the Gentleman's description of Cordelia as she hears of Lear's degradation, and the second is Edgar's account of the death of Gloucester. The Gentleman is a typical narrator for this kind of scene, since he has no “character,” and exists only to tell his tale. He is in effect a transparent or translucent screen through which we can almost “see” the events he recounts:

                                        patience and sorrow strove
Who should express her goodliest. You have seen
Sunshine and rain at once: her smiles and tears
Were like a better way: those happy smilets
That played on her ripe lip seemed not to know
What guests were in her eyes, which parted thence
As pearls from diamonds dropped. In brief,
Sorrow would be a rarity most beloved,
If all could so become it.
                                        Made she no verbal question?
Faith, once or twice she heaved the name of “father”
Pantingly forth as if it pressed her heart;
Cried, “Sisters! Sisters! Shame of ladies! Sisters!
Kent! Father! Sisters! What, i' th' storm? i' th' night?
Let pity not be believed!” There she shook
The holy water from her heavenly eyes,
And clamor moistened: then away she started
To deal with grief alone.


Once again a moment of striking emotional and dramatic power takes place offstage. Cordelia's conflict between sorrow and patience, smiles and tears, is characteristic of Shakespearean unscenes, and represents an emotion which seems literally ineffable; it is very like the conflicting feelings that produce the telling silence between Coriolanus and Volumnia. Kent's question about whether she spoke is interesting, because up to this point the Gentleman has pictured Cordelia as a visual emblem, a silent spectacle, almost a work of art. The fact that we hear her words only through his recital distances them. The words are less important than the surrounding silence, the mortal woman less significant than the highly crafted description of her. The image of “sunshine and rain at once” ironically suggests a rainbow, God's promise to Noah that a flood would never again destroy the earth. But we should note that the pearls and diamonds, sunshine and rain, and implicit rainbow are all visual images evoked by Cordelia's absence. Were she present on the stage we would have a grieving daughter, not, as we do here, a vision of patience on a monument, smiling at grief.

The death of Gloucester likewise occurs offstage, and we may wonder why, in a play that seems to spare the audience no agony, this one catastrophe is not shown to us directly. We have seen the dismal spectacle of Gloucester's blinding, Lear's madness, and their heart-rending encounter on the fields near Dover. We are soon to see Lear enter carrying the dead body of Cordelia. But Gloucester's death is told to us indirectly, in Edgar's “brief tale” to Albany:

                                                                                                    in this habit
Met I my father with his bleeding rings,
Their precious stones new lost; became his guide,
Led him, begg'd for him, sav'd him from despair;
Never—O fault!—revealed myself unto him,
Until some half-hour past, when I was armed,
Not sure, though hoping, of this good success,
I asked his blessing, and from first to last
Told him our pilgrimage. But his flawed heart—
Alack, too weak the conflict to support—
'Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,
Burst smilingly.


Some congruences with the Cordelia passage are immediately apparent: the eyes like jewels, the conflict between joy and grief, the image of a heart that “burst smilingly.” Twice we have seen Edgar lead Gloucester from the edge of death, once at “Dover cliff” and a second time after the battle in which Lear's forces are defeated and Lear and Cordelia taken to prison. In both scenes Gloucester has sought death, and been protected and dissuaded from it by his disguised son. By placing the actual death scene offstage, Shakespeare avoids what would very likely be a repetitive and therefore anticlimactic confrontation. Moreover, the retelling aggrandizes through imagery. It does the one thing a direct observation of Gloucester's death could not do—it transforms him into a compelling image of ineffable paternal emotion, just as the Gentleman's retelling made Cordelia into an image of ineffable filial emotion. Edgar, who would not “take” the desperate conditions of the mad King and blind Duke “from report” (, here himself reports to the audience, and makes of Gloucester's absence a stunning portrait of human response to tragic knowledge. Both the Cordelia and the Gloucester unscenes, we should note, turn on the matter of conflict; it is this sundering of the passions, this tension between joy and grief, that creates—and to a certain extent, defines—the condition of ineffability.

The stylistic form of these episodes is in a way closer to the language of romance than to that of tragedy; they are more lyric than dramatic. Two other unscenes, both from The Winter's Tale, clearly demonstrate the appropriateness of such a technique to the dramatic strategies of a world so responsive to “wonder.” In Act III, scene 1, we hear the testimony of the two messengers Leontes has sent to Delphos to consult with the oracle of Apollo on the question of Hermione's guilt or innocence. We do not see the scene at Delphos, but we hear about it from the messengers, Cleomenes and Dion, immediately upon their return to Sicilia. Although they have names, these characters are as unknown to us as the anonymous Gentleman in Lear, and likewise seem to exist only to give this one report.

The climate's delicate, the air most sweet,
Fertile the isle, the temple much surpassing
The common praise it bears.
                                                                                                                        I shall report,
For most it caught me, the celestial habits
(Methinks I so should term them) and the reverence
Of the grave wearers. O, the sacrifice,
How ceremonious, solemn, and unearthly
It was i' th' off'ring!
                                                                                          But of all, the burst
And the ear-deaf'ning voice o' th' oracle,
Kin to Jove's thunder, so surprised my sense,
That I was nothing.


The unimaginable splendor of the temple and its occupants and the transcendent religious experience undergone by the messengers are here magnified, rather than diminished, by their indirect presentation. The temple that surpasses common praise, the robes of the celebrants so extraordinary that the speaker hardly knows what to call them, the “unearthly” sacrifice, the deafening voice of the oracle—all of these elements, unspeakably impressive, exist for us only through the memories of the narrators in this scene. The effect is once again closely akin to that of the inexpressibility topos, with the narrative poet's “I cannot tell you” translated into the dramatic poet's “I cannot show you.” The obliquity of dramatic design, placing the events themselves at one remove, sets those events apart from the familiar—and visible—norm of human experience.

Another scene from the same play similarly presents a “miraculous” event by retelling, and with similar effect. The scene is that in which we hear of the reunion between Leontes and Perdita, with the revelation of her identity. There are many reasons why it is appropriate that this scene take place offstage. The scene which is to follow is the great “statue” scene, which reunites wife with husband, mother with daughter, and its dramatic effect might be dulled or diminished if it were immediately preceded by another onstage recognition. Since the audience does not yet know that Hermione is alive, the surprise effect of the final scene would clearly give it primacy in dramatic design, and the recognition of Perdita is properly subjugated to it.

But there is another purpose served by placing the Perdita scene offstage, one that has to do with the language spoken by those characters we actually do see. The scene unfolds in a masterful, rapid-fire fashion, as one Gentleman after another arrives with fragments of information which he offers to Autolycus—and, at the same time, to the listening audience. First comes the news that Camillo and Leontes have recognized one another in a silent spectacle of amazement:

There was speech in their dumbness, language in their very gesture; they looked as they had heard of a world ransomed, or one destroyed. A notable passion of wonder appeared in them; but the wisest beholder that knew no more but seeing could not say if th' importance were joy, or sorrow—but in the extremity of the one it must needs be.


Again an apparent conflict in emotions accompanies a silent display of passion; no one could say whether they felt joy or sorrow. At this point a second Gentleman arrives, with the word that “the oracle is fulfilled; the king's daughter is found; such a deal of wonder is broken out within this hour that ballad-makers cannot be able to express it” (24-27). “This news,” he continues, “which is called true, is so like an old tale that the verity of it is in strong suspicion” (29-31). A third Gentleman confirms the report, and adds an account of the meeting of the two kings, a sight which “was to be seen,” but “cannot be spoken of” (44-48). Sorrow and joy, once again, conflicted in them, “for their joy waded in tears.” And the same conflict appeared in Paulina: “oh the noble combat, that 'twixt joy and sorrow was fought in Paulina! She had one eye declined for the loss of her husband, another elevated that the oracle was fulfilled” (74-77).

One further observation by the Third Gentleman is even more suggestive, since it points in so remarkably directive a way to the scene that is to follow. Speaking of Perdita he remarks that “she did, with an ‘Alas,’—I would fain say—bleed tears; for I am sure my heart wept blood. Who was most marble there changed color; some swooned, all sorrowed” (90-93). The spectacle of one who seems to be marble changing color will be the main dramatic action of the “statue” scene, as, under Paulina's deft direction, Hermione “awakes” and reveals herself. In V.ii. the change is suggested in imagistic terms; in V.iii. it will appear to be literal, although both transformations, of course, are finally metaphors. The moment of “wonder” experienced by the hushed spectators in the chapel has been prepared for not only by Paulina's skill in staging, but also by the previous scene, in which the playwright uses all the resources at his command to describe an ineffable moment: the inexpressibility topos, the deflected scene or unscene, and the actual silence of characters gripped by strong and conflicting or transcendent emotions.

Shakespeare's middle and late plays are full of such moments of “woe or wonder,” to use Horatio's suggestive phrase—moments of joy or grief, sorrow or awe, for which words are neither possible nor adequate. Because he is working with the medium of drama, he is able to represent such moments both directly and indirectly on the stage. Silence for Shakespeare is not a breaking of the frame, a violation of generic decorum, as it was in the case of Sterne's blank page or Graves's careless comma. Instead it is an integral part of his dramatic design, used in conjunction with other rhetorical and dramaturgical techniques to describe the indescribable. Edgar's agonized observation about “the worst” is a key to the playwright's own strategy; ineffable emotions, whether provoked by woe or wonder, cannot by their nature be spoken, but they may be circumscribed by speech and gesture. That Shakespeare knew this, and directed the dramatic energies of his most creative and innovative years to demonstrating it, can be seen in his approach to the most literally ineffable of all human experiences: death.

On the battlefield at Shrewsbury Hotspur dies in the middle of a sentence:

                                                                                          O, I could prophesy,
But that the earthy and cold hand of death
Lies on my tongue. No, Percy, thou art dust,
And food for—

(I Henry IV V.iv.81-84)

Both his sentence and his “proud titles” are inherited by Prince Hal: “For worms, brave Percy” (85). A similar pattern develops at the end of Hamlet, where once again a noble man lies dying:

Had I but time (as this fell sergeant, Death,
Is strict in his arrest) O, I could tell you—
But let it be.


The enigmatic silence of the grave displaces for the last time the language of the living. “The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn / No traveler returns” (III.i.79-80) is the site of the ultimate unscene, the transcendent offstage drama for which there is no reliable narrator. Death is the final and quintessential ineffability, its earthy and cold hand stilling the voice of the dying man as he faces the unutterable and unknown. The last words Hamlet speaks are not only his own epitaph but that of everyman, the playwright's eloquent acknowledgement of both the powers and the limits of language: “the rest is silence” (360).


  1. Aeneid VI, 625-627, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough, (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press [Loeb Classical Library], 1946). For a more extensive discussion of the inexpressibility topos in early literature, see Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask (1952; rpt. New York: Harper and Row, 1963), pp. 159-162.

  2. Vol. VI. Ch. 38, in James A. Work, ed., Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy (New York: Odyssey Press, 1940), p. 471.

  3. Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens (New York: Knopf, 1954), p. 203.

  4. Lines 9-15, in Robert Graves, The Poems of Robert Graves, (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, 1958), p. 289.

  5. All citations from the plays are to The Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnett (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972).

Philip C. McGuire (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: McGuire, Philip C. “The Final Silences of Measure for Measure.” In Speechless Dialect: Shakespeare's Open Silences, pp. 63-96. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, McGuire describes the way five late-twentieth-century productions of Measure for Measure depicted the muteness of Angelo, Barnardine, Claudio, Juliet, Mariana, and Isabella in the play's final scene. By means of nonverbal gestures, blocking, and shifting the sequence of lines, McGuire observes, the directors of these productions explored the many possible interpretations and implications of these characters' silences.]

Measure for Measure provides the most challenging and complex example of Shakespeare's use of open silence. During the final moments of the play six characters fall silent. One of them is Angelo who, after being compelled to marry Mariana, speaks just once. With those words, the last he speaks, he asks for the imposition of a lasting silence: “I crave death more willingly than mercy; / 'Tis my deserving, and I do entreat it” (V.i.472-73). Barnardine, a convicted murderer who had earlier refused to be executed (IV.iii.33-61), is brought on immediately after Angelo says he craves death. The contrast between the two characters deepens when Barnardine silently accepts from the Duke the life-giving mercy that Angelo has just explicitly rejected. Claudio (like Barnardine, with whom Shakespeare has him enter) says nothing all the while he is on stage during the final scene—not to the Duke whose maneuvers have saved his life, not to his sister, Isabella, not even to his beloved Juliet. Juliet also enters with Barnardine and Claudio, and her presence during the final scene is also characterized by unbroken silence. Even her reunion with Claudio does not prompt her to speak. Mariana and Isabella slip resolutely into silence after each of them calls upon the Duke to extend to Angelo the mercy that Angelo himself subsequently rejects with the last words he speaks. Isabella maintains her silence not only when she sees alive the brother whom the Duke has twice told her is dead but also when the Duke himself twice proposes marriage to her. The silences of Angelo, Barnardine, Claudio, Juliet, Mariana, and Isabella are made all the more striking by the sustained contrast with Lucio's irrepressible garrulousness. His flamboyant and repeated failure to hold his peace, even after the Duke commands him to be quiet, accentuates the silences in which the other six characters wrap themselves as the play concludes.

Each of those six silences is open, and each of them can alter an audience's sense of the moral vision of Measure for Measure. As the implications and impacts of those silences vary from production to production, the play's perspective upon a host of issues shifts accordingly. Those issues, several of which continue to trouble and divide societies to this day, include the role of deception in the act of governing, the proper exercise and the limits of civil power, the relationship between mercy and human systems of justice, the morality of capital punishment, the wisdom of using law to control sexual behavior, the conflicting desires to engage in and to withdraw from a sordid world, and the interplay between legal authority and erotic love in the institution of marriage. The openness of each of these separate silences deepens and becomes more extensive because of the groupings that emerge from them.

Consider that during the final scene four men appear on stage who are or come under the sentence of death. One of them, Barnardine, has killed a man; another, Angelo, has tried to kill a man; the other two, Claudio and Lucio, are “guilty” of fathering a child out of wedlock. All are spared, but three of them say nothing. Only Lucio responds verbally to the Duke's words of life-giving mercy. “Upon mine honor,” the Duke tells him,

                                                            thou shalt marry her.
Thy slanders I forgive, and therewithal
Remit thy other forfeits. Take him to prison,
And see our pleasure herein executed.

(lines 513-16)

Lucio's reply to the Duke expresses something other than gratitude: “Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging” (lines 517-18). None of the four men reprieved from the death sentence, not even the one among them who speaks after being saved, utters a word of gratitude for the life he has been given. Lucio's spoken response can sharpen the audience's awareness of the silence—the absence of words—by which the other three respond to the words the Duke speaks to put aside the sentences of death previously pronounced upon them. The interplay of words spoken and silences maintained during the final moments of the play underscores the power of language in this play. The Duke, Angelo, or whoever is the voice of Viennese law can, by phrasing words into sentences, take or bestow human life. “Mortality and mercy in Vienna / Live in thy tongue and heart” (I.i.44-45), the Duke tells Angelo on appointing him deputy.

The silence that the words of Measure for Measure impose on Barnardine, a convicted murderer whose guilt is “most manifest, and not denied by himself” (IV.ii.135), has the potential to confirm, cast into doubt, or totally undercut the Duke's mercy toward him. Robin Phillips, in his production of Measure for Measure at the Stratford Festival in 1975, acknowledged the problematic qualities of Barnardine's silence and used entrances and exits to isolate and diminish their impact.1 The playtext of Measure for Measure specifies that Barnardine enter with the Provost, Claudio, and Juliet immediately after Angelo declares that death is “my deserving, and I do entreat it.” In Phillips' production, Barnardine was brought on with the Provost and Claudio but without Juliet.2 The exclusion of Juliet muted the contrast between Barnardine's silence here and Juliet's earlier declaration of penitence for having had intercourse with Claudio: “I do repent me as it is an evil, / And take the shame with joy” (II.iii.35-36). Excluding Juliet from the entrance also had the effect of presenting as a group three men who received life from the Duke without speaking a word: Barnardine, Claudio, and Angelo. That grouping of the speechless recipients of the Duke's mercy heightened the contrast between Angelo's desire to die and the earlier refusals of Barnardine and Claudio to accept death. Presenting the three men as a group also sharpened the audience's sense of the discrepancy in the crimes that prompted the death sentences from which the Duke had reprieved them. Barnardine stood condemned for taking human life, Claudio for begetting human life, and Angelo for killing a man who remains alive.

Earlier, in defending his decision to have Claudio executed, Angelo had argued that the act of illicitly begetting a human life was morally equivalent to the act of taking a human life:

                                                            … It were as good
To pardon him that hath from nature stol'n
A man already made, as to remit
Their saucy sweetness that do coin heaven's image
In stamps that are forbid: 'tis all as easy
Falsely to take away a life true made,
As to put mettle in restrainèd means
To make a false one.


Phillips' grouping of Barnardine, Claudio, and Angelo helped the audience to see that the Duke's mercifulness during the play's final moments confirms that disturbing equation. The Duke treats as equally “good” a murderer, a would-be murderer, and the father of an illegitimate child: he spares them all. Angelo, in pursuing rigorous justice, and the Duke, in dispensing all-inclusive mercy, both act according to systems of values that regard murder and fornication as morally equivalent. For Angelo, both are acts that merit death. For the Duke, both are acts that call forth mercy.

By having the Duke forgive the “earthly faults” of a Barnardine who had earlier spat in his face, Phillips established the selflessness of the Duke's mercy while making all the more disturbing the silence with which Barnardine accepted it. However, by having Friar Peter take Barnardine away before the Duke turned to ask, “What muffled fellow's that?” (line 482), Phillips isolated the Duke's act of mercy toward Barnardine from those acts of mercy, soon to follow, by which life is granted to Angelo, Claudio, and Lucio (whose slanders against the Duke are metaphorically equivalent to spitting in his face). Thus, Phillips did not allow the first and perhaps least deserving beneficiary of the Duke's mercy to remain onstage as a silent, visible reminder of how freely, and perhaps how imprudently, the Duke dispenses mercy.

In Keith Hack's 1974 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Barnardine was played as “a belching, bare-bummed loon.”3 Summoned from his cell to be executed (IV.ii), that grossly fat Barnardine proceeded to frustrate the Duke's design to use his head to deceive Angelo and save Claudio. Refusing to accept that his time to die had come, Barnardine bared his buttocks to all onstage and in the theater before defiantly returning, through the stage trapdoor, to his cell. During the final scene Barnardine entered—with Claudio and Juliet—through that same trapdoor, but the Duke's lines forgiving him were dropped entirely, and he remained visible for the rest of the scene: the silent, huge embodiment of the impulses toward rebellious defiance and carnal fulfillment4 still present in Vienna despite the Duke's effort to impose his conception of order upon the city and its people. Barnardine's continuing presence defined, in effect, the limits—practical and moral—of the power of a Duke whom Edward Bond's program note characterized as “a vain face-saving hypocrite.”5

The Barnardine of Barry Kyle's 1978 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company was naked when he was called from his cell. Speaking with the accent of an educated Englishman, he refused to be executed, then strode with resolute dignity back to his cell. When brought on during the final scene, however, Barnardine was no longer naked but wore a white garment of the same color as the monk's garb in which the Duke was attired—a visual and nontextual detail that suggested either a change in Barnardine's attitude or the successful assertion of the authority he had earlier defied. As the Duke said, “But for those earthly faults, I quit them all,” he took Barnardine's hand, a gesture that linked that act of forgiveness to two other moments during the scene. Earlier, with the words “give we our hand” (line 13), the Duke had seemed to approve Angelo's conduct as his deputy by taking his hand, and almost immediately after taking Barnardine's hand as a gesture of forgiveness, the Duke proposed to Isabella by offering her his hand and asking for hers: “Give me your hand and say you will be mine” (line 488). This Barnardine, like the Barnardine of Hack's 1974 production, remained onstage until the conclusion of the play. Kyle directed the audience's attention to him one more time by having the Duke speak lines 480-82 to him as part of the final address, in which he counsels Claudio to “restore” Juliet and counsels Angelo to “love” Mariana. “And pray thee,” the Duke then told Barnardine,

                                                            take this mercy to provide
For better times to come. Friar, advise him:
I leave him to your hand. …(6)

All in all, the context established during Kyle's production made Barnardine's potentially disturbing silence convey the appropriateness of having the Duke spare his life. The naked man who earlier had resolutely voiced an impatient refusal to accept death and had then strode off in defiance did not stride off self-assertively during the final moments of the play. Instead, he remained onstage—clothed, patient, silent. Barnardine's silent presence affirmed the Duke's power and mercy rather than (as in Hack's production) suggesting their limits.

Desmond Davis' 1978 television production of Measure for Measure for “The Shakespeare Plays” series muted Barnardine's character and eliminated some of the potentially problematic aspects of his final silence. In refusing to die, Barnardine was firm without being outrageous. He did not spit on the Duke nor bare his buttocks, and he was modestly, if raggedly, clothed. Because he remained in his cell during this scene, he did not have an opportunity to convey his resolve to continue living by returning self-assertively to the cell from which he had been summoned. Instead, he terminated the exchange with the Duke more passively—by rolling over so that his back was turned to the Duke and resuming his sleep. This Barnardine ignored the Duke more than he defied him.

During the final scene of Davis' production Barnardine and Claudio were brought on together; Juliet's entrance was delayed, as in Kyle's production, until immediately after Lucio's exit. Claudio and Barnardine were both hooded as if for execution, a detail that suggested the effective imposition on Barnardine of that authority he had earlier frustrated. Barnardine was then unhooded as the Duke had been earlier. Barnardine's unhooding linked the surprise felt by the assembled citizens of Vienna when he was pardoned with their previous surprise at finding the Duke beneath the friar's hood and their subsequent surprise at finding Claudio beneath the hood of a condemned man. Once unhooded, Barnardine, dazed, was pushed without noticeable resistance to his knees, and he remained in that position, without trying to turn away, while the Duke, in another exercise of his authority, spoke the words with which he gave him life. Thus tamed, Barnardine rose and bowed his head slightly in a nod of assent, then drifted into the crowd (and off camera) with Friar Peter7 as the Duke turned away asking, “What muffl'd fellow's that?” (line 482). The audience's final glimpse of Barnardine affirmed his inclusion in the new order established by the Duke. He could be spotted, briefly, among the train of characters who, following the Duke and Isabella, exited through the applauding crowd and past the camera.

A second grouping that emerges from the silences of the final moments of Measure for Measure consists of those who say nothing when confronted with the fact or the prospect of marriage.

Angelo and Mariana exchange no words after the Duke reveals himself and orders their marriage. Although they are onstage together during the final scene, Juliet and Claudio say nothing to one another or to anyone else, and Isabella says nothing in reply to either of the Duke's proposals of marriage. Thus, Measure for Measure—a play that concludes with multiple marriages either performed or made possible—ends without any verbal expression of reciprocal love, and that in turn generates a field of possible effects and meanings as wide and complex as those arising from the silences of those who receive life from the Duke. The range of possibilities comes into view if we consider just two of many alternatives. The first is that the silences of those facing marriage at the end of the play are an expression of their mute, accepting wonder at what has come to pass. The second is that their silences testify to a resistance that wordlessly but effectively drives home the fact that at least two of the marriages result far more from the Duke's exercise of his legal authority than from the imperatives of shared erotic love.

Angelo and Lucio are both beneficiaries of acts of mercy that spare their lives, but they are sentenced to live out those lives as married men. Lucio, as he is led off to have his sentence of marriage executed, equates the state of matrimony that awaits him with the more lethal sentences he has been spared: “Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging.” The words with which he enters into matrimony resonate against the silence of Angelo, who, earlier, was taken off wordlessly to be married to Mariana. Brought back onstage as “this new-married man” (line 396), Angelo says nothing for the rest of the play to the woman who has been made his wife. Thus, the only couple whose marriage during the play is required by Shakespeare's playtext never exchange words once they are made husband and wife. The timing and content of the only words that Angelo does speak after being married are also troublesomely suggestive. Angelo tells the Duke, “I crave death more willingly than mercy,” shortly after the woman who has been made his wife in compliance with the Duke's orders has pleaded for her new husband's life with the words, “I crave no other, nor no better man” (line 422). The repetition of “crave” underscores that what Mariana wants is precisely what Angelo has no desire to be: a living man who is her husband. What Angelo expressly asks for with the last words he utters is death, but what he receives from the Duke is life, and it is life with a woman to whom he never again speaks.

The silence that Angelo maintains toward Mariana from the moment he realizes that she must be his wife becomes total; after saying that death is preferable to married life, Angelo speaks to no one for the remainder of the play. He remains silent even when Claudio is brought forth living and he “perceives he's safe” (line 490). “Methinks,” the Duke continues, “I see a quick'ning in his eye” (line 491). The Duke's words in and of themselves do not require that what he says he thinks he sees in Angelo's eyes be there. For one thing, the Duke's phrasing is decidedly tentative, cautious: “Methinks I see.” In addition, Angelo himself never voices the “quick'ning”—the awakening of his desire to live—that the Duke thinks he sees. Finally, most (if not all) members of a theater audience cannot, given their distance from the stage and the actors, actually see for themselves what is (or is not) in Angelo's eyes. Thus, the “quick'ning” that the Duke says he thinks he sees must be validated by an appropriate and clearly visible gesture on the part of a silent Angelo. He might, for example, take Mariana's hand or put his arm around her or kiss her. Without such a gesture of confirmation, however, the possibility increases that Angelo's “quick'ning” exists only in the mind and eyes of a Duke whose capacity to say what he knows is not the truth and to overestimate the effectiveness of his own designs8 has been well established.

After declaring that he thinks he sees a “quick'ning” in Angelo's eyes, the Duke charges him: “Look that you love your wife; her worth, worth yours” (line 493). In the final lines he speaks to Mariana and Angelo, the Duke rephrases that charge: “Joy to you, Mariana; love her, Angelo; / I have confessed her and I know her virtue” (lines 521-22). The combination of Angelo's continuing silence and the Duke's calls for him to love his wife raises but does not resolve the issue of whether Angelo does now or ever will reciprocate Mariana's love for him. The more often the Duke calls and the more persistently Angelo stays silent, the less certain we can be that Angelo feels the love that in a comedy we would expect a newly married husband and wife to share. The combination of the Duke's calls for love and Angelo's enduring silence also raises the issue of the limits to the power that the Duke exercises during these final moments. He can compel his subjects to marry but is it consistent with comedic values that he should? And can he compel Angelo to love the woman whom he has been sentenced to take as his wife? Is love—as distinct from the institution of marriage—subject to ducal dictate?

By its contrast with Lucio's outspoken words equating marriage with death and the Duke's twice-repeated call for Angelo to love his wife, the silence Angelo maintains first toward his new wife and then toward everyone can direct attention to a disconcerting parallel between the beginning and the conclusion of Measure for Measure. In the early scenes Angelo, as the highest officer of Vienna, condemns Claudio to death in an application of Viennese law that makes impossible the union in marriage of the only man and woman in the play who are required by Shakespeare's words to love one another: Claudio and Juliet. The play concludes with the Duke himself utilizing Viennese law to impose marriages on two pairs of men and women—Lucio and Kate Overdone, Angelo and Mariana—whose affections are not undoubtedly reciprocal. One can see Measure for Measure as a play that opens with the law being invoked to punish fornication by death and that closes with the law being utilized to punish fornication by marriage.

Comparisons with A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It also bring into focus some unsettling aspects of the silences at the end of Measure for Measure. All three plays conclude with multiple marriages or betrothals, but only in Measure for Measure are any of them the result of an exercise of legal authority. In As You Like It, two of the four marriages are “conjured” into being by Rosalind's “magic,” which operates in isolation from the authority of Duke Senior, her father. His ducal authority is employed only to marry those pairs of “country copulatives” (V.iv.53-54) who, impelled by Rosalind's “magic” or by mutual desires, come before him to be wed. Among them is Phebe who, because of her promise to marry Silvius if she should ever refuse to wed Ganymede, finds herself obliged to become the wife of a man whose love she has rejected throughout the play. In contrast to the silent Angelo, however, she makes explicit her acceptance of her spouse: “I will not,” she tells Silvius, “eat my word, now thou art mine; / Thy faith my fancy to thee doth combine” (V.iv.143-44).

At the start of A Midsummer Night's Dream, Duke Theseus attempts to impose upon Hermia a marital pairing consistent with the Athenian law upholding her father Egeus' right to marry his daughter to Demetrius, the man he has chosen for her. Ultimately, however, Theseus accepts, at the cost of setting aside the law he initially upheld, the pairings among the four young lovers that have inexplicably formed after their night in the woods. Those pairings—Hermia with Lysander, Helena with Demetrius—are based on mutual attraction rather than paternal preference or Athenian law. Theseus not only accepts but also formally and officially validates the pairings by combining the weddings of the four young lovers with his own wedding to Hippolyta. Theseus puts law aside in order to allow the four young lovers to marry, whereas Duke Vincentio employs law toward the end of Measure for Measure as an instrument to bring about marriages.

In his 1974 production of Measure for Measure for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Keith Hack responded to the “openness” of the silence with which Angelo accepts marriage and life by both lengthening that silence and simplifying it. In Shakespeare's playtext Angelo speaks his final words (expressing his craving for death) in response to Escalus' expression of sorrow that

                                                            … one so learned and so wise
As you, Lord Angelo, have still appeared,
Should slip so grossly, both in the heat of blood
And lack of tempered judgment afterward.

(lines 466-69)

In Hack's production, that exchange was moved forward nearly 100 lines and placed immediately after Angelo's request that the newly revealed Duke speedily impose the death sentence: “Immediate sentence, then, and sequent death / Is all the grace I beg” (lines 369-70). That repositioning meant that the Angelo of Hack's production did not—as he does in Shakespeare's playtext—continue to call for death even after he is married to Mariana and after both she (as his wife) and Isabella plead for his life.

Hack simplified Angelo's silence in another way—by having Angelo and Mariana embrace one another, crying and on their knees, as the Duke, speaking lines that were significantly different from Shakespeare's, called in the same breath for Angelo to be both married to Mariana and executed with dispatch:

Say, was thou ere contracted to this woman?
I was, my lord.
You should be married to her instantly.
The very mercy of the law cries out
“An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!”
Waste still pays waste, and pleasure answers pleasure,
Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure.(9)

Thus, the Duke in Hack's production called for the death of an Angelo whose gestures forcefully and unequivocally conveyed both his acceptance of Mariana and his desire to live. Mariana followed the Duke as he moved away, clutching at him as she pleaded for Angelo's life:

                                                            O, my most gracious lord,
I hope you will not mock me with a husband.
It is your husband mocked you with a husband.
                                                                      O my dear lord,
I crave no other, nor no better man.

However, Hack's production omitted the offstage marriage between Mariana and Angelo that, according to Shakespeare's playtext, precedes Mariana's lines in which she pleads for the Duke to spare him. Thus, in that production, Mariana craved the life of a man who was not yet legally married to her and who did not continue to crave death even after she and Isabella pleaded for his life. Once Claudio was revealed as being alive, Mariana returned to Angelo, and they remained side by side, holding hands. When the Duke spoke his final words to them (“Joy to you, Mariana; love her, Angelo; / I have confessed her and know her virtue”), they came forward together, as a couple, to accept the applause of an audience who had seen in their gestures evidence that Angelo's silence expressed his full acceptance of Mariana as the wife-to-be with whom he would live out a life that he now intensely wanted.

David Giles's 1969 production of the play for the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival also gave the silence between Angelo and Mariana a positive cast, but without distorting Shakespeare's playtext. Brought in after their marriage, Angelo and Mariana remained together and unguarded on the second step of the stage, on the periphery of the action. When Mariana heard the Duke sentence Angelo “to the very block / Where Claudio stooped to death” (lines 410-11), she proceeded to the deck of the stage to plead for her husband. As the Duke repeated the sentence (“Away with him to death,” line 425), she moved to the center of the stage, stopping on the word “death.” She then turned to look toward Angelo, directing to him the words, “O my good lord!” (line 426). He and the guards who were leading him off turned back on hearing her, after which she asked Isabella to “take my part” (line 427). Mariana and Angelo remained separated while the Duke heard Isabella plead for him, inquired how “Claudio was beheaded / At an unusual hour” (lines 453-54), pardoned Barnardine, and revealed that Claudio was still living. After proposing to Isabella, the Duke took Mariana across the stage and presented her directly to Angelo with the words, “Look that you love your wife; her worth, worth yours.” Angelo remained with his wife, and that, together with his silence, suggested that his craving for death had subsided. Giles affirmed the bond between Angelo and Mariana more directly by pairing them during the Duke's final speech with Juliet and Claudio. That pair of lovers walked toward the center of the stage from the steps on the left of the stage as the Duke said, “She, Claudio, that you wronged, look you restore” (line 520). When the Duke directed his next words to Angelo and Mariana (“Joy to you, Mariana; love her, Angelo; / I have confessed her and know her virtue”), they also walked together toward the center of the stage from the steps on the right.

Angelo's silence was given much less prominence in the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1978 production of Measure for Measure, directed by Barry Kyle. After Claudio was revealed, Angelo and Mariana moved together when the Duke charged him, “Look that you love your wife.” They remained together, holding hands, on the periphery of the action for the rest of the scene, before exiting together at what were, in that production, the Duke's last words, “So, bring us to our palace.”

Desmond Davis, in his television production, used the gesture of holding hands to give the silence between Angelo and Mariana overtones that were more ambiguous and less positive. At the Duke's command, the couple left to be married and walked through the crowd holding hands in a formal manner—arms held chest-high, her hand atop his without their fingers interlocking. They returned in the same way, and never once did the audience see Angelo smile, nor did they witness between the newlyweds any physical contact such as an embrace or a touch that was any less stiff or more intimate than their hand-holding. Often when the camera showed Angelo—for example, when he said he craved death—it also showed Lucio in the immediate background, as if linking Angelo, now married, with the character who subsequently denounced as the equivalent of pressing to death, whipping, and hanging the state of matrimony to which he too would later be sentenced.

Robin Phillips in his 1975 production for the Stratford Shakespearean Festival established a context that, without doing violence to Shakespeare's playtext, allowed Angelo's silence to convey his resistance to the marriage imposed upon him. Angelo's silence also conveyed the force of the sexual desire (what Escalus calls “the heat of blood,” line 468) that consumed the chastity that he, like Isabella, deeply prized. The Angelo of Phillips' production stayed apart from Mariana even after Claudio was revealed. The Duke's twice-repeated call for him to “love” his wife was addressed to a man whom the audience never saw paired with her except when, under guard, they were taken off to be married and then brought back. Phillips also used the play's final exits to establish the distance between Mariana and Angelo that his silence toward her can imply and to define parallels between him and Isabella. After the Duke spoke the last lines (“So, bring us to our palace, where we'll show / What's yet behind, that's meet you all should know,” lines 533-34), the stage emptied, except for Isabella and Angelo, the two characters whose self-knowledge had been most rigorously tested by the events of the play. They stared silently at one another across the stage and then, following a prolonged pause, Angelo, using the exit through which the others (including Mariana) had already departed, left the stage, moving briskly but alone.

The only sexual pairing in the play that Shakespeare's playtext unambiguously establishes as being both reciprocal and fruitful is that of Claudio and Juliet, and they are also enveloped in silence during the final scene. They say nothing, not even to one another, after they enter, and theirs, too, is a silence whose meanings and effects elude purely literary analysis and therefore must be established in performance.

Hack, in his 1974 production, followed the playtext of Measure for Measure by having Claudio and Juliet enter together and with Barnardine immediately after Angelo had said that he craved death. By having them enter through the trapdoor—an entry used before only by Barnardine—Hack presented them as a trio sharing correspondences that set them apart from other characters. None of the three speaks after entering, and all are known violators of Viennese law—Barnardine by murdering a man, Claudio and Juliet by conceiving a child out of wedlock. Juliet's previously expressed repentance for her “crime” contrasts with Barnardine's silence, and although Barnardine and Claudio have committed different offenses, both (in contrast to Angelo) have refused to accept the death to which each has been sentenced. After Claudio had been revealed, he and Juliet stood together inconspicuously on the perimeter of the subsequent action, then came forward and took a bow together as the Duke spoke the only words addressed directly to either of them during the scene: “She, Claudio, that you wronged, look you restore.”

Phillips, by contrast, altered the conventional entrances by having Juliet enter not with Claudio and Barnardine but with the newly married Angelo and Mariana (at line 395). The decision had the effect of encouraging the audience to compare the couple who had been parted by law early in the play with the couple who never exchange words after they are married by law during the play's final scene. In each case, the sexual relationship between the pair was consummated in secret and prior to the formalities of matrimony, then was humiliatingly revealed to full public scrutiny. Viennese law, which Angelo employed as punishment for the fornication between Claudio and Juliet by sentencing Claudio to a death that would have canceled any possibility of marriage between the lovers, is the instrument by which the Duke, responding to the sexual union between Angelo and Mariana, yokes them in a marriage that may be devoid of mutual affection.

In Phillips' production, Claudio entered with Barnardine, and that set up a further contrast. After Claudio's unhooding, he and Juliet—unmarried lovers—walked to each other and embraced without speaking, then remained together, standing on the fringe of the ensuing events. In contrast, Angelo, who had entered paired with Mariana as her lawful husband, silently kept a distance between himself and his spouse. The timing of Juliet's entrance also meant that, carrying life in her womb, she was present as both the still chaste Isabella and the no longer virginal Mariana called upon the Duke to let Angelo live. Juliet's speechless presence helped to reveal a crucial but unarticulated link between her and the Duke: each of them has the power to give life—he by means of the words sparing Angelo that the other women present call upon him to speak, she by means of the silent (wordless) processes of gestation.

Juliet's procreative powers were made visually explicit in Davis' production of the play for television. She entered carrying an infant, and her entrance came immediately after Lucio was taken off to be married. That repositioning set up a three-way contrast between Juliet's silence, Lucio's talkativeness, and the wail that announced the infant's presence even before it was visible. Davis' relocation of Juliet's entrance also gave to the reunion of the two lovers who had been taken from one another at the start of the play greater prominence than would be possible if she had entered with Barnardine and Claudio. Babe in arms, Juliet entered from the rear of the crowd and proceeded on her own down the lane they formed for her. As she approached the foot of the slightly raised platform on which the Duke sat, Claudio stepped toward her and they embraced. Their embrace also marked the meeting of a father freshly saved from death with his child newly born to life, and that moment made visible the conjunction of two different expressions of mankind's power to give life, the one biological and natural, the other political and cultural.

In the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1978 production, Kyle, like Davis, had Juliet enter directly after Lucio's exit, but she carried no infant, and the Duke's role in bringing the separated lovers together was far more pronounced. The Duke escorted Juliet by the hand down the stage, while Claudio, leaving Isabella with whom he had been kneeling downstage, rose and rushed toward her. While all onstage watched wordlessly, the lovers embraced joyously and sensuously. After a sustained pause, the Duke broke the silence by addressing to Claudio the first line of the play's concluding speech: “She, Claudio, that you wronged, look you restore.”

By giving Juliet a separate entrance, Davis and Kyle both isolated the reunion of the lovers, thus heightening its theatrical impact and establishing it as a parallel to the earlier reunion between brother and sister. Both reunions are marked by silence: neither the lovers nor the siblings speak to one another. The silence that Isabella and Claudio maintain when they are brought face to face comes into revealing focus if their reunion is set against the moment in Twelfth Night when Viola, like Isabella, finds herself looking upon a brother she thought was dead:

Do I stand there? I never had a brother;
Nor can there be that deity in my nature
Of here and everywhere. I had a sister,
Whom the blind waves and surges have devoured.
Of charity, what kin are you to me?
What countryman? What name? What parentage?
Of Messaline; Sebastian was my father;
Such a Sebastian was my brother too;
So went he suited to his watery tomb.
If spirits can assume both form and suit,
You come to fright us.
                                                            A spirit I am indeed,
But am in that dimension grossly clad
Which from the womb I did participate.
Were you a woman, as the rest goes even,
I should my tears let fall upon your cheek
And say, “Thrice welcome, drowned Viola!”


If nothing lets to make us happy both
But this my masculine usurped attire,
Do not embrace me till each circumstance
Of place, time, fortune do cohere and jump
That I am Viola; …

(V.i.218-33, 241-45)

The tone of the words they exchange is questioning, tentative. Sebastian and Viola are baffled and amazed, but—in contrast to Claudio and Isabella—they do not remain silent in one another's presence.

The potential ambivalence of the silence between Isabella and Claudio becomes evident if one recalls their only conversation together. Before leaving her brother's prison cell, Isabella vowed to speak “no word to save thee” (III.i.147) and concluded by declaring,

Thy sin's not accidental, but a trade;
Mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd,
'Tis best that thou diest quickly.


Thus, the last words an audience hears Isabella speak to Claudio are those with which she denies his fitness to receive the mercy that she, looking on in silence, sees the Duke extend to him during the final scene. The silence between Claudio and Isabella may be tantamount to a retraction of the bitter words they had earlier exchanged, or—to pose another possibility—that silence may signify a continuing rupture in their relationship.

The silence between Claudio and Isabella coincides with the silence with which she responds to the Duke's initial proposal of marriage. The lines in which the Duke presents and pardons Claudio are also those in which he reveals himself as Isabella's suitor:

If he be like your brother, for his sake
Is he pardoned, and for your lovely sake—
Give me your hand and say you will be mine—
He is my brother too. …(10)

(lines 486-89)

The roles of husband and brother come close to converging at this point, and that conjunction seems particularly appropriate given Claudio's earlier declaration to Isabella concerning how he would face death:

                                                            … If I must die,
I will encounter darkness as a bride,
And hug it in mine arms.


The newly unmuffled man will be spared insofar as he is “like” the brother whom Isabella thought dead, and the Duke's proposal of marriage, if Isabella accepts it, will make that man the Duke's brother as well as hers.

Isabella's silence here is all the more striking because the Duke phrases his marriage proposal as a call for her to assent with words as well as with a gesture: “Give me your hand and say you will be mine” (emphasis added). The Duke's request (or command) can be set against Mariana's earlier call for Isabella to join her in seeking mercy for Angelo: “Sweet Isabel, do yet but kneel by me, / Hold up your hands, say nothing, I'll speak all” (lines 433-34). Offered that chance to be silent, Isabella chooses to speak on Angelo's behalf, yet when called upon to voice her acceptance of the Duke, she says nothing. The Duke, whose declared wish to become a husband has been met with silence, breaks that silence by turning to Angelo, who has been made a husband by ducal command, and calling upon him to “love your wife.” The Duke's shift from Isabella to Angelo helps to emphasize that both respond to the marriages they face with silence. Isabella says nothing to the man who would make her his wife, just as Angelo says nothing to the woman who has been made his wife.

The Duke's words pardoning Claudio, proposing to Isabella, and instructing Angelo to love his wife are embedded within as many as five silences: Isabella's toward the Duke, Angelo's toward Mariana, Claudio's toward both Isabella and Juliet, and, if he remains visible, Barnardine's. Each of these silences is open to a range of meanings and effects, and the interplay among the silences generates a cumulative openness that is even more challenging. The result is a theatrical moment strikingly rich in possibilities. By means of gestures, movements, and other nonverbal details of performance, all productions of Measure for Measure tap that richness, giving those individual silences and the relationships among them definition and coherence. In so doing, every production aligns in different ways the erotic, sibling, and marital bonds that can come into conjunction at this extraordinarily challenging moment in the play.

The directors of the specific productions being considered here responded to the complexity of that moment by narrowing, and thus simplifying, the confluence of silences in different ways and to different degrees. Keith Hack, in his 1974 production, simplified most drastically the possibilities inherent in that moment. As the Duke of that production brought Claudio and Isabella face to face for the first time since their encounter in Claudio's prison cell, he said, “If he be like your brother, for his sake / Is he pardoned.” However, the line in which the Duke proposed to Isabella was dropped, thus concentrating attention upon the reunion, in silence, of the sister and brother. Isabella crossed to Claudio and kissed him. Claudio's response to that gesture was a chilling stare as he silently rejected the sister who had refused to sacrifice her virginity to save him but had been willing, a few moments before, to plead in tears for the life of the man who, she thought, had had her brother executed. As Isabella watched silently in dismay, Claudio stepped away to be with Juliet. His silence in embracing Juliet contrasted with both the silence with which he responded to Isabella's kiss and the silence with which she watched her brother walk away from her and toward his lover. By omitting the Duke's proposal of marriage, Hack made Isabella's silence toward the Duke insignificant. That, in turn, permitted Hack to use the concurrent silences between Isabella and Claudio and between him and Juliet to convey the final rupture of familial ties and the triumph of the erotic bond that unites Claudio and Juliet—the only pair who have loved each other from the start of the play and who have expressed that mutual love in sexual acts that have engendered new life. The Duke broke those silences by addressing himself to another pair of silent characters, Angelo and Mariana—the only other couple in the play whose relationship has been consummated sexually: “Well, Angelo, your evil quits you well. / Look that you love your wife; her worth, worth yours.” As he spoke, Mariana crossed to Angelo (a movement that paralleled Isabella's earlier crossing to Claudio), but Angelo did not move away from her. They stood together, paired like Claudio and Juliet in a silence that affirmed the bonds between them, while Isabella, who had refused to have sexual intercourse with Angelo in order to save Claudio, stood alone and silent.

Two other directors—Barry Kyle and Desmond Davis—narrowed the silences in a different way, by delaying Juliet's entrance until after Lucio's final exit. That enabled both directors to postpone the silence between Juliet and Claudio, thereby intensifying the audience's concentration on the silences between Isabella and Claudio and between her and the Duke. In Kyle's 1978 production, the Duke, after unmuffling Claudio, knelt between him and his sister while addressing to Isabella the words sparing her brother and asking for her hand. The Duke's act of kneeling linked that moment to others earlier in the scene when Isabella had knelt to him—first to plead (falsely) against Angelo for violating her chastity and then to plead in earnest for the Duke to spare Angelo's life. When the Duke finished speaking his words of pardon and proposal, Isabella crossed past him to Claudio and caressed her brother's face for a moment before recrossing to the Duke and raising him from his knees. The gestures and blocking in Kyle's production emphasized Isabella's status as the person who has the power to make Claudio and the Duke brothers, to make true the words with which the Duke concludes his proposal of marriage: “He is my brother too.” In the specific context of that production, the silence that Isabella maintained established the possibility of reconciling fraternal and marital bonds—of merging the family into which she was born with the new family that the Duke asks her to help bring into being. In her surprise, she spoke neither to the brother whom she was stunned to find alive nor to the friar-turned-Duke whose expressed desire to make her his wife was equally stunning. The hands with which she silently stroked her dazed brother's face were also the hands she silently extended to raise the wooing Duke from his knees. That gesture, although it was not an explicit rejection of his proposal, was not an unambiguous acceptance of it either. Kyle's production concluded the conjunction of silences that the moment generates by affirming the bond between brother and sister, which was shattered in Hack's production. As the Duke turned to address Angelo, his words breaking the silences, Isabella moved with her brother to a point downstage center, where she knelt with him, staring into and stroking his face. That downstage tableau of the reunited brother and sister functioned as a “frame” through which the audience watched as, upstage, the Duke proceeded to deal with Lucio.

Davis intensified the impact of the sibling bond in a different way and set it sharply against the marital bond offered by the Duke. As soon as the Provost (not, as in Kyle's production, the Duke) removed the hood from Claudio's head, Isabella rushed to embrace her brother. As the television camera showed them in close-up clinging to one another, the audience heard the Duke's voice intrude to propose a marriage that would make Claudio his brother too. The camera continued to focus on Isabella, rather than the Duke, giving weight to her response to what she was hearing. Her arm still around Claudio's neck, as if to emphasize that he was her brother, Isabella stared blankly toward the man proposing marriage to her from a distance. In contrast to Kyle's kneeling Duke, this Duke, as he spoke of marriage, remained seated on the throne placed on the rostrum at the foot of which Isabella and her brother stood paired together. The Duke's “but fitter time for that” quickly followed, breaking in upon Isabella's silence and sounding like an embarrassed, even defensive reaction to her blank expression, her silence, and her evident love for Claudio. The camera followed the Duke when he turned away, and as Claudio and Isabella disappeared from the audience's view, the Duke urged the silent Angelo to give to his wife the love that the silent Isabella, his own would-be wife, had shown no sign of extending to him.

In his 1975 production, Phillips also made the silences between Isabella and Claudio and between her and the Duke the center of the audience's attention, but he did so without excluding Juliet and in a way that made visible in still another fashion the conflict between Isabella's role as sister and the role of wife that the Duke asks her to assume. The Duke stood between Claudio and Isabella—as much a barrier as a bridge—while holding out his hand and asking for hers. As Isabella stared silently at her brother, the Duke circled her until, stung by her failure to extend her hand to take his, he turned away, hands clasped behind his back, to announce to Angelo the pardon that he had previously made Mariana and Isabella plead for on their knees. As he did, Isabella crossed to Claudio, who stood with Juliet. That sequence of movements and gestures conveyed an alignment of erotic and familial bonds different from that established in Kyle's production. By crossing from the Duke to Claudio and Juliet, Isabella signified her approval, as Claudio's sister, of the erotic bond uniting her brother and his beloved, and at the same time she excluded the Duke from the merging of an old and a new family implicit in her actions. By remaining silent and not giving her hand to the Duke, she chose not to make Claudio the Duke's “brother too.”

The presence of both Claudio and Juliet gave visible expression to another facet of Isabella's silence toward the Duke. The couple kept before the audience the example of an erotic pairing based on something other than deception like that which the Duke, Isabella, and Mariana practiced with such skill in order to bring about the sexual coupling and then the marriage between Angelo and Mariana—who, in Phillips' production, remained apart from each other all the time they were on stage after being married.

The woman whom the Duke asks to be his wife has herself been subjected to his powers of deception. Twice before proposing marriage, the Duke lies to Isabella with cold-blooded precision about the death of her brother. As Friar Lodowick, he tells her false “news” of Claudio's execution as part of his scheme “to make her heavenly comforts of despair”:

Hath yet the deputy sent my brother's pardon?
He hath released him, Isabel, from the world;
His head is off and sent to Angelo.
Nay, but it is not so.
It is no other. Show your wisdom, daughter,
In your close patience.

(IV.iii.107, 111-16)

Shakespeare's playtext emphasizes the anguish that the Duke's deception, however well-intentioned, has caused Isabella. Twice in subsequent lines, the Duke must interrupt what he is saying and urge her to stop crying, and even the usually flippant Lucio responds sympathetically to her pain: “O pretty Isabella, I am pale at mine heart to see thine eyes so red; thou must be patient” (lines 151). The audience's sense of Isabella's grief can be sharpened in performance. The Isabella of Kyle's production sank to her knees on hearing of Claudio's death, then slowly, somewhat angrily, removed her veil and cincture before leaning wearily against the Duke. In Davis' production, the camera gave added impact to Isabella's anguish by moving in for a close-up shot of her tears and then allowing the audience to see her walking slowly and solitarily away into the dawn mist while, in the foreground, the Duke and Lucio continued talking.

During the final scene the Duke lies to Isabella a second time:

Your brother's death, I know, sits at your heart,
And you may marvel why I obscured myself,
Laboring to save his life, and would not rather
Make rash remonstrance of my hidden power
Than let him so be lost. O most kind maid,
It was the swift celerity of his death,
Which I did think with slower foot came on,
That brained my purpose; but peace be with him.
That life is better life past fearing death,
Than that which lives to fear. Make it your comfort,
So happy is your brother.

(lines 385-95)

Those words, spoken after the Duke has shed his disguise as a friar and revealed his identity, are untrue. The more intensely Isabella grieves in response to what the Duke tells her is the fact of her brother's death, the more likely it is that the audience will find the Duke's sustained deception of her distasteful, cruel, or even inhuman.11 The more pronounced her anguish, the more moving will be her capacity to plead for the life of the man she thinks has killed her brother, and the more willing an audience will be to accept any shock or dismay or hesitation she shows when the Duke first proposes to her. Isabella begins her speech on Angelo's behalf—sometimes after a prolonged hesitation12—by calling upon the Duke to act as if her brother's death were the fiction he knows it to be:

                                                                      Most bounteous sir,
Look, if it please you, on this man condemned
As if my brother lived. …

(lines 439-41)

The words with which Isabella concludes that speech are the last she utters during the play, and, significantly, they specify a realm of human experience that lies beyond the Duke's authority: “Thoughts are no subjects, / Intents but merely thoughts” (lines 449-50).

In Phillips' production, Isabella's silence in response to the Duke's initial marriage proposal—her refusal to express her thoughts—was tantamount to another assertion of the limits of ducal prerogative and power. That refusal also pointed to the contradiction between the love that presumably motivated the Duke to propose marriage and the anguish that he inflicted upon her by lying twice about her brother's death. Her silence also served as an indictment, appropriately wordless, of the Duke's tendency to abuse or even to corrupt language by employing his powers of speech to deceive rather than to enlighten. In addition, her silence conveyed her recognition that she had compromised herself by participating in that abuse of speech. Her speeches earlier in the final scene denouncing Angelo for subjecting “my chaste body / To his concupiscible intemperate lust” (lines 97-98) are, after all, as false as they are eloquent. The context established by Phillips' production enabled him to employ Isabella's first silence to pose—if not to answer—the question of whether the Duke's exercise of his powers, particularly with respect to Isabella, had been moral, humane, or loving.

David Giles's 1969 production at Stratford, Ontario, invested the silences surrounding the Duke's first proposal with still another set of effects and meanings. Barnardine's silence was cut short by having him exit with Friar Peter at line 482, before the Duke asked, “What muffled fellow's that?” After Claudio was unhooded, he and Isabella embraced at center stage, then crossed together to Juliet, standing at the left on the first step. As the Duke said, “Give me your hand and say you will be mine,” he stepped toward the trio. He and Isabella joined hands while Claudio and Juliet, the only couple in the play whose love is from the first undoubtedly reciprocal, stood together with them. Isabella's silent but unambiguous assent and the proximity of the two couples established correspondences between erotic and familial love different from those in the other productions under discussion. By giving her hand to the Duke, Isabella made Claudio his “brother too,” and as the two couples stood together—one newly united, the other reunited—their pairings made visible the possibility of renewing a family that seemed to have no future when Claudio the brother was arrested for a crime punishable by death on the same day that Isabella the sister “should the cloister enter” (I.ii.172).

Isabella's silence in response to the Duke's second proposal of marriage exists within a network of silences less complex than that of which her silence in response to his first proposal is a part, but her second silence is nevertheless open in performance to a range of meanings and effects that have the potential of being all the more resonant because they come so near the conclusion of the play. Giles enhanced the impact of Isabella's final silence by relocating the last two lines of Shakespeare's playtext, placing them after the Duke's call for Angelo to forgive the Provost. When the Duke said, “So, bring us to our palace, where we'll show / What's yet behind that's meet you all should know” (lines 533-34), the other characters exited, leaving the Duke standing upstage center and Isabella seated on a bench downstage center. The last words the audience heard were:

                                                            … Dear Isabel,
I have a motion much imports your good,
Whereto if you'll a willing ear incline,
What's mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.

(lines 529-32)

Isabella's wordless response to that second proposal was as eloquently affirmative as her response to the first. She rose after the Duke finished speaking, paused briefly but noticeably, then went swiftly toward him. They embraced and kissed, their affectionate gestures made all the more prominent by their isolation on the stage; then they exited together. Isabella's movement toward the Duke reciprocated his earlier movement toward her with his first proposal, and the kiss they shared manifested a kind of love different from, yet linked to, the love expressed in the embrace that Isabella and Claudio had shared earlier in the scene. Her free and considered acceptance of the Duke—in private and for a second time—capped and endorsed the order the Duke had effected. At the same time, her acceptance muted any distaste the audience might have felt for the manipulations and deceptions he had practiced upon her, and others, in the process of establishing that order.

Hack's production, on the other hand, prompted the audience to feel a distaste for the Duke, his methods, and the order he established. Hack dropped the Duke's first proposal of marriage to Isabella, and his production concluded (as did Giles's) with the words “What is yours is mine.” As he spoke those final words, however, the Duke embraced Isabella, enfolding her stiff, resisting body within the vast golden robes of his office. Earlier in the scene, after the Duke had abandoned his disguise as a friar, those robes had been stripped from Angelo. Now, those same robes of state helped to establish that in embracing Isabella and taking her for himself, the Duke was succeeding where Angelo had failed.

The Isabella on whom the Duke imposed himself was wearing the brownish-orange dress worn by Mariana in previous scenes; Mariana appeared during the final scene in the severe yet ornate black dress that Isabella had worn throughout the play.13 That exchange of dresses extended the pattern of entrapment in the play. Isabella found herself snared by the Duke just as Angelo found himself snared by Mariana. The switch in dresses had the additional effect of momentarily involving the audience in a visual deception akin to that practiced upon Angelo. Those watching the production were forced to rework the visual clues by which they had previously identified and to some extent “measured” Isabella and Mariana.

The exchange of dresses was one of several Brechtian devices employed during the performance to make the audience aware that the events unfolding during the final scene and the order emerging from them were, on one level, a contrivance of the Duke and, on a second level, a contrivance of the performers and playwright. Scaffolding and other apparatus usually kept out of sight were visible when the audience entered the theater and remained so throughout the performance. The entire final act was played under a banner reading “Deus ex machina,” which dropped into view as the Duke entered and greeted Angelo and Escalus: “My very worthy cousin, fairly met. / Our old and faithful friend, we are glad to see you” (lines 1-2). As the Duke, in the final speech of the play, addressed Escalus, Claudio, Juliet, Angelo, Mariana, and other characters, he beckoned them forward, individually and in pairs, to take their curtain calls. The applause that the theater audience gave them echoed earlier moments during the scene when the Viennese citizenry, assembled as an onstage audience, broke into applause. The most chilling of such moments came when they began to clap rhythmically and ominously as the Duke, with Mariana and Angelo kneeling and embracing tearfully at his feet, called for Angelo's execution: “‘An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!’” (line 405).

A series of gestures emphatically established that the anguish that moved Mariana, Isabella, and Angelo to tears during the scene was provoked, perhaps even gratuitously exacerbated, by a Duke whose manipulations of his subjects and their emotions came to have an unsavory quality, particularly with respect to the women. When Isabella first called out for “justice, O royal Duke … justice, justice, justice, justice!” (lines 20-25), he carefully turned her around to face the theater audience before saying, “Relate your wrongs” (line 26). The Duke also turned Mariana to face the theater audience when she came before him, and after she unveiled herself, he turned her in a full circle, in smiling self-satisfaction, showing her face to all onstage and in the theater, before allowing her to proceed, tearfully, with her charges against Angelo. The embrace to which the Duke forced Isabella to submit at the conclusion of Hack's production was, therefore, the culmination of a series of actions by which he repeatedly turned and manipulated the bodies as well as the emotions of those “poor informal women” (line 234), one of whom he sentenced his deputy to marry, the other of whom he literally took for himself as he spoke the production's final words, “what is yours is mine.” In that context, Isabella's speechlessness conveyed her horrified, even hysterical helplessness before the willful authority of the Duke, who had exercised his power to impose on her and on Vienna an order whose moral foundations were seen to be self-serving, if not perverse.

Though produced for television, Davis' production, like Hack's, gave the final scene a specifically theatrical quality. A rostrumlike platform on which a throne had been placed provided what Davis himself termed “the bare bones of an Elizabethan theater,”14 and the courtiers and people of Vienna, assembled in daylight in the city square, constituted an audience who broke into applause on several occasions. Their applause, however, was never threatening as in Hack's production but was genial, even festive.15 Davis presented the final scene as a play (within a play) staged by and starring the Duke,16 but this Duke, in contrast to the Duke of Hack's production, employed his power to deceive and manipulate people less as a means of indulging his own vanity and desires than as a way of making clear to all Vienna that humanity and life itself are best served when justice is tempered by mercy.

The Duke's participation in his own “play” marked a significant change in his character. Toward the end of Shakespeare's opening scene, immediately before the Duke seems to leave Vienna, he says:

I'll privily away; I love the people,
But do not like to stage me to their eyes;
Though it do well, I do not relish well
Their loud applause and aves vehement,
Nor do I think the man of safe discretion
That does affect it. …


Hack's Duke turned smiling and bowed slightly to the theater audience while speaking those lines, by his gestures inverting the literal meaning of his words. What he said he did not like was what, in fact, he deeply relished. Davis' Duke spoke the same words with sincerity, addressing them directly, almost intimately, to Angelo amid the background noise of the crowded throne room. Very shortly after, the Duke made his exit swiftly and somewhat uncomfortably through the ranks of applauding courtiers, his gaze fixed rigidly ahead.

The Duke's entrance at the beginning of the final scene in Davis' production was not done at all “privily” but was a carefully arranged public spectacle. The Duke entered on horseback, waving in response to the applause of a crowd that had gathered in the square on his orders.17 The first of his two exits during the final scene closely paralleled the exit the audience saw him make during the opening scene. After delegating to Angelo and Escalus the task of rooting out the conspiracy, the Duke strode off through his subjects who, like the courtiers in the opening scene, applauded as he, again, passed without looking to either side. The audience sensed in his departure the same distaste for “loud applause and aves vehement” that he had expressed before leaving his court in act I, scene i.

The parallel, however, had limits that are themselves significant. A few moments after that departure the Duke returned wearing the disguise he had earlier assumed in order to hide himself from his subjects. Once Lucio had unhooded him, however, he stepped out of his friar's robes, mounted the rostrum, and, reclaiming the throne from Angelo, proceeded to perform in full public gaze the very duties of finding and punishing evil that he had previously seemed to reject. As he carried out his ducal tasks, he seemed at times not displeased with the surprised gasps stirred in the throng by such feats as the unhooding of Claudio and his reunion with Juliet. The Duke did not relish or “affect” their applause, but neither did he shrink from it. What the audience and his subjects saw in the play's closing moments was a man who had moved closer to being able to reconcile his taste for privacy with those demands of office requiring him to act effectively before the eyes of the people.

The interplay between public roles and private preferences in Davis's production had an important bearing on the Duke's proposals of marriage to Isabella. In contrast to the “proposal” made to her in private by Angelo, both of the Duke's proposals were made in public, revealing to all present personal feelings the Duke had hidden so deeply that no sign of them had been given previously either to Isabella or to the audience. His first proposal was made with a self-protective formality; the Duke remained on his throne while asking for Isabella's hand. Proposing the second time, he made himself, despite her nonacceptance of his first proposal, even more vulnerable as his people watched. Leaving his throne, he stepped closer to her and, no longer relying on words alone, he held out his hand to her rather than asking that she give him hers. His words and that gesture proved all the more moving because they were, in effect, his response to her earlier silence and her unwillingness to give him her hand. For several seconds (six by my count) Isabella stood expressionless, motionless, silent—her stillness intensified by the hush of the crowd. Then, with the beginnings of a smile, she accepted the hand the Duke was holding out to her. Amid a storm of applause the couple swept off hand in hand through the crowd, followed by the other major characters. Isabella's pronounced hesitation before taking the Duke's hand contrasted directly with the swiftness with which, in response to Mariana, she knelt to plead for the life of Angelo, the first man to propose sexual union with her. That contrast helped to define her silent acceptance of the Duke's hand as being an act of forgiveness for the pain he had inflicted upon her as much as an act of love. By accepting the Duke as her husband when asked a second time, Isabella in effect extended to him a mercy tempered with love that matched the justice tempered with mercy he had extended to others.

Kyle's production, however, established a context in which Isabella's final silence became more an expression of her power. The entire final scene was played on a white forestage outside the three-sided box formed by contiguous black walls that represented urban Vienna and within which all other scenes had been set. The forestage had been used just once before the final act. After Pompey, Mistress Overdone, and her prostitutes were taken off to prison, the Duke stepped forward onto the white forestage and defined the demands that the office of duke makes upon the man who holds it:

He who the sword of heaven will bear
Should be as holy as severe;
Pattern in himself to know,
Grace to stand, and virtue go;
More or less to others paying
Than by self-offenses weighing.


The responsibilities that the Duke articulated were those that Angelo failed to meet, and they were also responsibilities that set the man holding ducal office apart from other men—a loneliness that, in Kyle's production, was given visual expression through the Duke's isolation on the forestage. The final scene, set on that same forestage, marked the completion of the Duke's efforts, by applying “craft against vice” (III.ii.260), to set right the wrongs generated by Angelo's failure.

In Kyle's production, Isabella, silently crossing from her brother to the Duke, had raised the Duke from his knees after his first proposal, and he had proceeded to assure Angelo of his safety and to mete out justice to Lucio. While he did, Isabella accompanied Claudio to a point downstage center and knelt there with him, stroking his face. When Juliet entered, via the same rear entrance through which Lucio had just been taken off, the Duke escorted her toward the center of the stage as Claudio, leaving Isabella kneeling alone, went toward her. The lovers embraced at center stage. The movements of the different characters established parallels that made visible a conception of the relationship between erotic and familial love different from those of Phillips, Giles, Hack, and Davis. Just as Isabella crossed from Claudio to the Duke, so Claudio crossed from his sister to embrace Juliet. Just as Isabella's act of crossing to the Duke and raising him from his knees held open the possibility that, through her, Claudio might become his “brother too,” so the Duke's act of bringing Juliet downstage (as Isabella had earlier brought Claudio) emphasized—in a way Davis' production did not—his role in completing the process of bringing together again two lovers from whose earlier union new human life had sprung. Erotic and familial love were seen as distinct yet complementary.

The embrace between Juliet and Claudio intensified the audience's sense of Isabella's isolation as she knelt downstage, and that embrace continued while the Duke addressed various characters. That final speech begins with what can be construed as the Duke's command for Claudio to marry Juliet (“She, Claudio, whom you wronged, look you restore”), and the last sentences he addresses to a specific individual are those in which he proposes again to Isabella. Even after hearing that second proposal, Isabella remained kneeling—isolated and silent. A long pause followed while the Duke waited for her to reply. He ended the silence by speaking to all others assembled around him the final words of the play: “So, bring us to our palace, where we'll show / What's yet behind, that's meet you all should know.” The Duke waited, looking at Isabella, as his subjects, in response to his command, exited from the white forestage, passing through doors in the black walls of urban Vienna. Their departures left him increasingly alone, and his gradual isolation upstage paralleled Isabella's downstage, thus visually linking his isolation in office with her double isolation—as the sister of a brother who has committed himself to another woman, and as a woman who had earlier sought to become a religious sister, shunning the presence of men among “the votarists of Saint Clare” (I.iv.5). Isabella rose and, as she went toward the exits used by the others, she walked past the waiting Duke. Then she stopped and looked back to him. He walked toward her, and they exited side by side in a pairing that diminished, even if it did not end, their respective isolations. In Kyle's production the pairing of Isabella and the Duke was a mutual decision: she chose the Duke for her spouse as much as he chose her for his. Within the specific context created by that production, the silence that Shakespeare's playtext imposes upon Isabella did not reflect either her helplessness (as in Hack's production) or her almost reflexive acceptance of the Duke. Her silence arose from and expressed the power she came to have and to exercise during the final scene. That power made Isabella, as she and the Duke left the stage together, his equal.

Phillips, in his 1975 production, also made Isabella's final silence an expression of her power and will, but she exercised them in ways that infused the play's final moments with still another cluster of meanings and effects. Proposing for the second time, the Duke stood with arms outstretched toward Isabella—a gesture that tied that moment to the earlier moment during the scene when Isabella, falsely denouncing Angelo, had knelt with her arms outstretched to the Duke. On hearing the Duke's second proposal Isabella remained—as she had on hearing his first—both motionless and silent. After an excruciatingly long wait, during which the Duke's happy anticipation changed to embarrassed anger, he lowered his arms and, tersely stressing the first word, said, “So, bring us to our palace” (line 533). He exited quickly with the others, perhaps even leading them, and Isabella and Angelo were left looking across the stage at one another for several long moments. That tableau impressed upon the audience one last time the symmetry between those two characters, both of whom had had their once-certain conceptions of virtue and of their own identities challenged by what they had experienced.

After Angelo's departure through the exit used by the others, the stage gradually darkened, and Isabella stood alone in a small pool of light that further emphasized her isolation.18 Carefully, she removed the severe wire-rimmed glasses that she had worn throughout the play. Then, with a slowness suggesting both deliberation and a touch of weariness, she took off her religious headdress and veil, at which point the theater was plunged into darkness. Those last gestures conveyed her recognition, as much pained as joyous, that she was now so enmeshed in worldly concerns that returning to the serenity of the convent was no longer possible. Having deliberately rejected the roles of wife and “sister,” the Isabella of Phillips' production stood alone at the play's conclusion, but alone in an isolation she had freely and knowingly chosen for herself.

The five productions of Measure for Measure I have discussed demonstrate that the silences that occur during the play's final moments are open—individually and in combination—to a wide variety of meanings and effects. An assessment of the specific meanings and effects generated during a particular production requires that we judge how well or how poorly a director and a group of performers have used the freedom that open silences allow. In reaching those judgments, literary analysis has a clear but ultimately limited role. The fundamental norm of literary analysis is fidelity to the words that make up the Shakespearean playtext and, at a more sophisticated level, to meanings and patterns of meanings that those words yield. That norm permits us to make some definite judgments about Hack's 1974 production of Measure for Measure for the Royal Shakespeare Company. We realize that Hack substituted words of his choice for those in the playtext, converting, for example, Shakespeare's “Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure” (line 406) into something decidedly different: “Waste still pays waste, and pleasure answers pleasure.” Hack omitted the offstage marriage between Angelo and Mariana, and he repositioned the lines in which Angelo craves death so that they preceded rather than followed (and thus contradicted) the appeals for his life made by Mariana and Isabella. Hack also dropped entirely lines as important as those in which the Duke spares Barnardine's life and those in which he first proposes to Isabella. Those cuts, among others, allowed Hack to avoid the question he would otherwise have had to answer: why a Duke who is presented as selfishly willful and a “public fraud” grants life to Barnardine and finds it necessary to propose twice to an Isabella who is powerless to defy his wishes.

Hack's production is a clear and distressing example of how, to avoid the complexities posed by the words Shakespeare wrote, a director has refashioned them so that they conform to and confirm, rather than challenge, his own conceptions. Rather than engage in the creative collaboration between playwright, director, and performers that open silences help to foster, Hack preferred to make the production a vehicle for transmitting insights and attitudes that he shared, not with Shakespeare but with another playwright, Edward Bond. In a note addressed to Hack and published in the program, Bond set forth what seems to have been the controlling vision of the production:

Angelo is a lying, self-deceiving fraud, the Duke a vain face-saving hypocrite, and the saintly Isabella a sex hysteric. That is a total arraignment of conventional authority and the morality used to explain and excuse it. I also think that Lucio is a prototype of the fool in Lear, and that he tells the truth about the Duke. That is, he describes the Duke as another Angelo, a public fraud. … There is no political problem that the Duke can solve, no reason for him to dress up a fake holy-father, nothing for him to put right in the city. The city is happier and more peaceful without him. The problem is in him, Angelo, Isabella, and those who support them. It's not just the ending of the play that's a charade, the whole political set-up is.

However, our success in using even such an unsophisticated mode of literary analysis to make judgments about Hack's production underscores the difficulties we face when using the same kind of analysis to judge the other four productions under consideration. None of them is absolutely faithful to the words of Shakespeare's playtext. Three of the directors, for example, reposition Juliet's entrance during the final scene. Shakespeare calls for her to enter after line 473 when three other characters also enter; the words of the Folio text are “Enter Barnardine and Provost, Claudio, Julietta.” Both Davis and Kyle had Juliet enter far later in the scene, immediately after Lucio is taken off to be married to the whore who has borne his child. In Phillips' production, Juliet entered earlier, during line 395, and with the newly married Angelo and Mariana (as well as Friar Peter and the Provost). Giles did not shift Juliet's entrance, but he did reposition what Shakespeare wrote as the final lines of the play. The Duke in that production said, “So, bring us to our palace, where we'll show / What's yet behind, that's meet you all should know” before proposing marriage to Isabella a second time.

Even if those four productions had not deviated in the slightest from the words of Shakespeare's playtext for Measure for Measure, the fact remains that we still could not use fidelity to the playtext as the measure by which to judge how each production utilized the open silences of the play's final moments. Why? Because an open silence is characterized by the absence of words spoken by or in reference to the silent character(s). There are, then, no words of Shakespeare's to which open silences can be “faithful.” The productions directed by Giles, Kyle, Davis, and Phillips endowed those silences with different, even contradictory meanings and effects. I prefer Phillips' production to the other three, principally because it did more than convert Isabella's final silences into either outright acceptance or outright rejection of the Duke's marriage proposal. I cannot, however, defend my preference by arguing that Phillips remained truer to the words of Shakespeare's playtext and to the patterns of thought and feeling they yield than did Kyle, Davis, and Giles, each of whom had Isabella accept the Duke as her husband and leave the stage paired with him. Indeed, there is nothing in the playtext of Measure for Measure that rules out Hack's presentation of some of the final silences: a Barnardine who remains defiant and unsubdued, a Claudio who spurns his sister and embraces Juliet instead, an Angelo who accepts Mariana as his wife and is eager to live. The playtext even allows the possibility of a Duke who imposes himself on a helpless and unwilling Isabella after having given her, with his first proposal of marriage, an opportunity—perhaps out of his own vanity—to accept him freely.

The six open silences of the final scene of Measure for Measure and the groupings that can emerge as a result of the links among them give the play an extraordinary freedom, a capacity for contingency and change unmatched by any other Shakespearean play with the possible exception of King Lear. We cannot even be certain what kind of play Measure for Measure is. During the first two acts, it heads toward tragedy, but then veers away and ends in a fashion that Northrop Frye and Suzanne Langer have told us is typical of comedy—with deaths avoided and with marriages performed, proposed, or imminent.19 We cannot doubt the presence of such comedic elements, but the open silences shared by those spared from death and those confronted by marriage allow us to question whether the presence of such elements in Measure for Measure affirms or undercuts those values essential to comedy that prize human life and celebrate its capacity to persist and to renew itself through sexual energies that lead to marriages based on mutual love. As a murderer, Barnardine is the antithesis of the comedic values that emphasize preserving and continuing human life. Sparing him from death can mean that he is free to kill again. The Duke uses his legal authority to force Lucio to marry a woman whom he certainly does not love, and Angelo's silence can mean that he must live out the life given to him as the husband of a woman whom he has been forced by law to marry and does not love. Isabella may silently refuse to become the Duke's wife. Such a refusal would undercut the values of comedy, particularly if it involved her resolve to return to the convent, to a realm that excludes the sexual energies necessary for the renewal of human life. Measure for Measure may be a comedy, but it does not have to be. The open silences that abound during its final moments ensure that its generic identity is not fixed and cannot be definitively specified.

Measure for Measure must always pose problems for those who equate the play with the words that Shakespeare wrote, who seek to make the play conform to the words that are a major part of it. Those words establish the presence of open silences that require the play, during its final moments, to move beyond and float free of its verbal elements. As it ends, Measure for Measure defies easy categorization as a comedy and mutely but insistently asserts its identity as drama, as “a piece of pure theatrical art, dependent upon nothing except the conditions of theatre for its effect and meaning.”20


  1. This production was revived for the 1976 season, but since I did not see the revival, I shall discuss only the original production.

  2. She had entered earlier, with the newly married Angelo and Mariana.

  3. Michael Billington, Guardian (London, Manchester), 5 September 1974, p. 10.

  4. The actor playing Barnardine (Dan Meaden) also played both Mistress Overdone and Francisca, the nun with whom Isabella is speaking when Lucio brings news of Claudio's imprisonment. The tripling of roles juxtaposed the chastity of a nun to the extremes of carnality embodied in the madame and the murderer who refuses to die.

  5. The note was on the rear cover of the program.

  6. The Duke's assignment of Barnardine to Friar Peter's hand was especially significant in this production because the Duke had earlier taken Barnardine's hand in his when forgiving his act of murder.

  7. In this production Friar Peter was renamed Friar Thomas.

  8. See particularly IV.ii.104-9, when the Duke confidently declares in an aside that the message from Angelo, which the Provost has just received, is Claudio's pardon. The Duke then discovers that it reiterates the order that Claudio be executed and adds the stipulation that Claudio's head be sent to Angelo.

  9. Here and in the next passage quoted, Hack combines into a single exchange lines that are separated in Shakespeare's playtext: V.i.371-73 and V.i.403-7; V.i.412-14 and 421-22. In addition to rearranging Shakespeare's words, he also changes them. For example, Shakespeare's V.i.403-7 read:

    The very mercy of the law cries out
    Most audible, even from his proper tongue,
    “An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!”
    Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure,
    Like doth quit like, and Measure still for Measure.
  10. I follow here the Pelican edition; the Folio gives the lines as follows:

    If he be like your brother, for his sake
    Is he pardon'd, and for your lovelie sake
    Give me your hand, and say you will be mine,
    He is my brother too: …
  11. If, however, a production effectively establishes that the Duke is under pressure or that he feels pain because of the suffering he is inflicting on Isabella, the audience's judgment of him softens. Davis, for example, tempered any inclination the audience might have to dislike the Duke by having the camera register in telling close-up the supremely confident Duke's pained surprise when what he expected to be Angelo's letter pardoning Claudio turned out to be an order for his swift execution. Giles's production justified the Duke's tactics by opening with a kind of dumb show that established the breakdown of order in Vienna. A blind man entered and was mugged beneath corpses dangling from scaffolds. That blind man, the audience subsequently learned, was the Duke.

  12. For example, in Giles's production, Isabella deliberated and looked first at the Duke, then at Mariana, and finally at Angelo before turning back and speaking to the Duke.

  13. What the Duke and Isabella are wearing when he proposes to her is an important factor in giving her silences meaning and effect. In most productions, Isabella wears a nun's habit throughout the play, but Shakespeare's playtext allows some leeway. Isabella is not, when the audience first sees her, a full-fledged member of “the votarists of Saint Clare,” and Francisca, the nun with whom Isabella is speaking when Lucio calls, asks her to deal with him precisely because “you are yet unsworn” (I.iv.5, 9). Kyle's production emphasized Isabella's free decision to don religious garb before undertaking the effort to save her brother's life. Isabella wore secular dress during the scene, but at the end she exited with Francisca in order to put on the nun's habit she was carrying in her arms.

    In the productions directed by Phillips and Davis, the Duke doffed his friar's garments completely once he was unhooded and wore secular garb (in Phillips' production, a military uniform) when proposing to an Isabella who was dressed in a nun's habit. In those specific contexts, the proposed marriage seemed to entail a union of the secular and the religious. The Duke in both Giles's and Hack's productions wore his friar's robes, with the hood thrown back, when he proposed to an Isabella dressed in a nun's habit. The method of costuming muted any sense of the proposed marriage as a merger of church and state. Hack, by having the Duke put on the golden robes of state before proposing to an Isabella whom the audience never saw in religious garb, made the proposal of marriage a purely secular assertion of Vincentio's ducal power.

  14. See Henry Fenwick's essay, “The Production,” in the edition of Measure for Measure prepared as a companion to the television production: The BBC-TV Shakespeare: Measure for Measure (London: British Broadcasting Corporation, 1979; New York: Mayflower Books, 1979), p. 25.

  15. Adding to the sense of festivity was the silent presence of Elbow, the malapropian constable. It was he who took Isabella into custody and, with the Provost, brought in the Duke disguised as a friar.

  16. See chap. 8 of Josephine Waters Bennett, Measure for Measure as Royal Entertainment (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968); also pertinent are pp. 44-47. In The Problem of Measure for Measure: A Historical Investigation (London: Vision Press, 1976; New York: Barnes and Noble, 1976), Roselind Miles surveys critical and theatrical treatments of the play. Other books devoted exclusively to the play include Darryl F. Gless, Measure for Measure, the Law and the Covenant (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979); Nigel Alexander, Shakespeare: Measure for Measure (London: Edward Arnold, 1975); William B. Bache, Measure for Measure as Dialectical Art (Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1969); David L. Stevenson, The Achievement of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1966), and Mary Lascelles, Shakespeare's Measure for Measure (London: Athlone Press, 1953).

    My early thinking about this play was influenced greatly by Francis Fergusson's chapter, “Philosophy and Theatre in Measure for Measure,” in The Human Image in Dramatic Literature (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1957). Of the many articles on Measure for Measure, I found three especially valuable: Marvin Rosenberg, “Shakespeare's Fantastic Trick: Measure for Measure,Sewanee Review 80 (1972): 51-72; James Trombetta, “Versions of Dying in Measure for Measure,English Literary Renaissance 6 (1976): 60-76; and Jane Williamson, “The Duke and Isabella on the Modern Stage,” in Joseph G. Price, ed., The Triple Bond (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975), pp. 149-60. In his chapter on Measure for Measure in Changing Styles in Shakespeare (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1981), Ralph Berry discusses the productions directed by Hack and Phillips and offers a particularly valuable assessment of John Barton's 1970 production for the RSC. That production concluded with “Isabella alone on stage, unresponsive to the Duke's overtures, silently resistant,” and in so doing “launched a complete theatrical re-examination of the text” (pp. 40-41). Jonathan Miller's 1975 version of his famed production of Measure for Measure, Berry observes, continued and, in a sense, completed that re-examination. In Miller's production, Isabella backed away in horror from the Duke when he proposed the second time, and thus the production “appeared to terminate a line of inquiry, leaving the possibilities only of imitation. Ever since 1975, Isabellas have continued to express doubts about the Duke, with varying degrees of emphasis” (p. 45). In chap. 5 of Renaissance Drama and a Modern Audience (London: Macmillan, 1982), pp. 61-75, Michael Scott discusses British productions of Measure for Measure during the 1970s, including those directed by Barton, Miller, Kyle, Hack, and Davis.

  17. The Duke's entrance on horseback provides an excellent example of how the technical resources of television can visually complement and enhance a pattern of imagery established by the words of Shakespeare's playtext. Consider the following passages, which relate riding a horse to governing a city and controlling sensual appetites:

    Whether it be the fault and glimpse of newness,
    Or whether that the body public be
    A horse whereon the governor doth ride,
    Who, newly in the seat, that it may know
    He can command, lets it straight feel the spur;
    Whether the tyranny be in his place,
    Or in his eminence that fills it up,
    I stagger in—…


                                                                I have begun,
    And now I give my sensual race the rein.


  18. Alexander Leggatt's description of the final scene of this production in “The Extra Dimension: Shakespeare in Performance,” Mosaic 10 (1977): 37-49, establishes the context for Isabella's final isolation:

    The scene began (again, this was a nineteenth-century setting) with jolly band music and much twirling of parasols to greet the Duke's return; with its colour and bustle, it looked like the conventional comic finale. As the scene advanced, the revelations became more painful and complicated, business was contrived so that more and more characters left the stage and did not return. (At the scandalous accusations of the women against Angelo, a party of children was whisked off by their nursemaid.) Towards the end some half-dozen figures were left—and finally Isabella stood alone, tearing off her nun's headdress with an expression of bewilderment and dismay. The gradual filling of the stage, so basic to the traditional comic ending, was reversed; the effect was of deliberate parody, underlying the sense of unease, even failure, that lies beneath the apparent satisfaction of the scene as written.

    (pp. 46-47).

  19. Suzanne Langer, Feeling and Form (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953); Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1957); and Frye, “The Argument of Comedy,” English Institute Essays, 1948, ed. D. A. Robertson, Jr. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949), pp. 58-73.

  20. Berners W. Jackson, in a review of Giles's production, published in the Hamilton Spectator (Ontario), 28 June 1969, p. 25.

Harvey Rovine (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Rovine, Harvey. “Women and Silence.” In Silence in Shakespeare: Drama, Power, and Gender, pp. 37-51. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Rovine contrasts the silence of women in Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies. In the comedies, he contends, it generally conveys acquiescence, while in the tragedies it may be construed as despair, resignation, or confusion. Rovine maintains that in both genres women's silence underscores their social, political, and familial obligations.]

Traditionally, silence in a woman was considered a virtue and a quality much preferred over loquaciousness. The proverbial view of women may be one reason why Shakespeare often uses a silent female character in the portrayal of love, whether it is the silent dejection of an unrequited lover or the wife so angry with her husband that she will not speak with him. Conversely, a silent female character could also suggest loving devotion to a husband or father. Another possible reason for the frequent use of silent female characters may have been the unsteady voices of the boy actors. Yet when we think of characters such as Cleopatra, Beatrice or Lady Macbeth, we realize that female characters on the Shakespearean stage were not limited to expressing themselves by silence but could be as talkative as their male counterparts. Thus while tradition and practicality may play some part in accounting for the number of silent women in Shakespeare's plays, they are by no means the dominant reasons. Instead, it seems that Shakespeare realized that silence, as much as language, could help define relationships between men and women.

The relationships between male and female characters, at least the outcome of their relationships, are determined in part by the structure of the play. The meaning of silence used to help define those relationships differs from one genre to another. Particularly, in tragedy and comedy, women are often presented in dramatic situations which depict their obligations in three major areas of human relations: family, love, and duty to the state. The relationship of women in their families, to their husbands or lovers, and to the state or monarch often leaves the characters no alternative but silence. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Hermia stands silent as we hear of her predicament: her father wants her to wed Demetrius although she does not love him, the Duke reminds her that the law leaves her a bleak choice should she refuse her father's will, and Lysander's presence reminds her of the duty to her heart. In Hermia's case, all three of the usual obligations of women are present in the first scene, and her silence suggests the way many of Shakespeare's female characters respond to their families, husbands or lovers, and monarchs. Hermia's destiny is, of course, a happy one as she marries her true love without incurring her father's displeasure or the law's wrath. Hermia's silence, therefore, seems to have helped rather than hindered her cause. While women in tragedy also face similar imperatives to families, husbands or lovers, and monarchs, their silence is not so successful and, hence, their destinies are not as happily resolved.1 The obstacles presented by unsympathetic parents or sovereigns are not so easily overcome by silence, and the happy conclusion of marriage or reconciliation is usually denied.

In the comic world, silent female characters are by no means less successful than their talkative counterparts in the pursuit of love. Very often in the comedies, Shakespeare presents two female lovers; usually one is talkative, the other chiefly characterized by reticence. For instance, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Silvia has very little to say compared with Julia, who never seems at a loss for words. Yet Silvia is betrothed well before Julia, suggesting that silence may be even more effective than words when it comes to winning a man. The pattern of contrasting female characters is repeated and expanded upon by Shakespeare in Much Ado about Nothing and The Taming of the Shrew.

In Much Ado Shakespeare gives us a twofold sampling of young women in love. The two female lovers, Hero and Beatrice, are two distinct personalities. While Beatrice is talkative, assertive and at times brash, her cousin Hero is quiet, demure and modest. Shakespeare uses the contrast between the two women to enhance the individual personalities of each one. In this sense, we might call them “foils” to each other because the garrulousness of Beatrice is paired with the silent behavior of Hero, and the contrast serves to highlight the particular qualities of both young women.

From her first appearance onstage, Hero exemplifies the proverb that “silence is the best ornament of a woman.”2 She and Beatrice enter with Hero's father Leonato, who is conversing with a military messenger. The messenger announces the return of the Prince of Arragon, Don Pedro, and his soldiers. Singled out for particular mention is Claudio, “a young Florentine,” who has “borne himself beyond the promise of his age.” Beatrice, however, is interested instead in another soldier, Benedick, and she interrupts the conversation to inquire whether or not he is returning with Don Pedro. When she finds out that Benedick is returning, Beatrice dominates the conversation and has more to say than the messenger, whom we might expect to carry the burden of the dialogue in such an expository opening scene.

When Don Pedro and the soldiers enter, however, the silent Hero and not the assertive Beatrice is the young woman who is noticed first:

DON Pedro:
I think this is your daughter.


Hero's only response is a curtsy or some other silent acknowledgment of the Prince's greeting. She maintains her silence throughout the scene as the talkative Beatrice delights the audience with the first of her verbal jousts with Benedick. In the presence of the gathered soldiers, two young women behave quite differently: Beatrice challenges Benedick and engages our attention in a lively test of wit while Hero remains silent, probably in the company of the men. While Beatrice's verbal dexterity establishes her romantic relationship with Benedick, the silent Hero captivates Claudio without saying a word. When Claudio and Benedick are alone, we realize how much of an impression the silent Hero has made on Claudio:

Benedick, didst thou note the daughter of Signoir Leonato?


Is she not a modest young lady?


Can the world buy such a jewel?


In mine eyes she is the sweetest lady that ever I looked on.


Thus while Beatrice may engage Benedick in sparkling conversation, Hero's silence tells us that young women can charm young men without the benefit of witty repartee. Hero's silent presence in the scene, which may go unnoticed by readers of the play, must be clearly marked in production. At the very least, the audience must see Claudio enraptured by the silent Hero. And, if we widen our focus of the scene, we realize that Shakespeare is presenting two portraits of young people in love. One is the spirited Beatrice who uses clever words to engage the attention of her young man. The other is the silent Hero, who personifies the proverbial, favorable idea of women. In Hero's case, her silence does not pose an obstacle to Claudio's interest in her. Typically, men are expected to be the aggressor in courtship and, therefore, the silence of a woman may not be a hindrance when it comes to attracting a man.

The counterpoising of two female characters, one very talkative and the other reticent, provides the contrast between the two sisters, Kate and Bianca, in The Taming of the Shrew. Again in the first scene of the play Shakespeare contrasts the behavior of the two girls to enhance the particular quality of each one. In this instance, the silent and modest Bianca attracts no less than three suitors while her outspoken older sister, Kate, cannot attract even one. And Shakespeare adds to the contrast between Kate and Bianca by having all three suitors compare the sisters' personalities. Each man concludes that he is as attracted to Bianca's modesty as he is repelled by Kate's chatter. When Baptista informs Gremio and Hortensio that before he will allow the younger Bianca to marry, someone must first “court” the elder Kate, Gremio is quick to reply:

Leave shall you have to court her at your pleasure.
To cart her rather. She's too rough for me.


Kate interjects and protests to her father that he is making a laughingstock of her: “I pray you, sir, is it your will / To make a stale of me amongst these mates?” And, Hortensio cannot resist admonishing Kate for her behavior:

Mates, maid? How mean you that? No mates for you
Unless you were of gentler, milder mold.


Both Gremio and Hortensio prefer the quiet, demure Bianca to the outspoken, and by their standards, unfeminine Kate.

To establish the contrast between the two sisters further, Shakespeare includes Lucentio, a young gentleman newly arrived from Pisa, as an eavesdropper in the scene. As Lucentio and his servant Tranio stand aside listening to Baptista explain his conditions to Gremio and Hortensio, we learn that Bianca's quiet modesty is also much more attractive to Lucentio than Kate's raillery. Tranio, who seems to enjoy Kate's chatter, urges Lucentio to enjoy the scene: “Husht, master, here's some good pastime toward. / That wench is stark mad or wonderful forward.” But Lucentio's eye is already drawn to the quiet Bianca: “But in the other's silence do I see / maid's mild behavior and sobriety” (I,1,68-71). As he did with Hero and Beatrice, Shakespeare presents two young women of opposing personalities in the first scene of both plays. The silent Hero and Bianca are paired off against the talkative Beatrice and Kate, and the personality of each woman is further enhanced by the contrasting personality of the other.

Once Petruchio begins his courtship, we realize that Kate has met someone who can yell and scream as loud as she. Their first encounter is a duel of words and blows as each seeks to establish supremacy. But by the time they are married, we realize that Kate is becoming progressively quieter. Petruchio's tardy arrival and outrageous behavior at their wedding suggests that he has taken Kate's railling role on himself. When Petruchio insists that Kate leave with him right after the ceremony and not stay for the reception, Kate's response is a silent exit with her husband. Indeed, she first tries to argue with him but finally relents and exits without a word, leaving the wedding guests as surprised as the audience at her silent behavior.

Once the newlyweds arrive in Padua, Petruchio's wild behavior shocks her into an unaccustomed reticence. Petruchio's actions in this scene (IV,1) most closely resemble Kate's behavior earlier in the play as he stamps and swears at everyone and everything around him. Kate's few words in this scene reveal that her silence has taught her patience. By the end of the play, Kate is a woman transformed from a railling shrew to a sober spokeswoman for mutual dependence in marriage.3

To be sure, women are not the only romantic figures characterized by silence. Just as Hero was silent in the presence of the gathered soldiers in Much Ado, so too is her eventual husband, Claudio. Similarly in As You Like It, Orlando cannot find words to express himself to Rosalind after the wrestling match. Yet the most frequent associations of silence and romance are found in the female lovers of the comedies. In Shakespeare's world, men often have to assert themselves and, in order to succeed, must pursue their romance with words. On the other hand, some women need not be aggressive but may only have to wait in silence in order to find happiness at the end of the play. While a talkative, assertive woman may demand more of our attention—generally through the comic dialogue Shakespeare supplied—it is nonetheless true that a silent woman may be also requited in love at the conclusion.

In the tragedies, on the other hand, the silence of women is not so happily rewarded or easily understood. In tragedy, the silent female characters are under the same imperatives of family, state, and love as their comic counterparts, but the nature of the tragic genre generally implies an unhappy resolution. Women in tragedy often resort to silence not to lure young men as Bianca and Hero use their silence to attract Lucentio and Claudio, but rather because they may be prevented from expressing their love. In tragedy the silence of a woman may not suggest consent as Kate's silence in Padua indicates her acquiescence to Petruchio, but often connotes fear, despair, or confusion. Whatever the particular meaning of a woman's silence, it is usually the result of her not having any other alternative in the tragic world. Very often silence is a condition forced upon women because the opposite alternative, speech, is not sufficient to express their deep feelings towards their family, state or husband.

Cordelia's choice to “love and be silent” suggests that her love for her father cannot be expressed by words. Her sisters' glib pronouncements of affection for Lear are hollow and insincere, and as Cordelia listens to her sisters she decides that silence is the most genuine response. Cordelia would rather be silent because she realizes that true love cannot always be articulated; indeed, as her sisters' proclamations indicate, it is possible that love can be expressed in speech but not felt in the heart.

Cordelia's decision to be silent about her love for her father is further determined by the public nature of the scene. Lear has assembled the court to make public his decision to divide his kingdom and to conduct the love test among his daughters in the company of the assembly. Cordelia's decision to be silent also reflects her awareness that private feelings are best expressed in private settings. Lear's love of ritual seems to have been inherited by his older daughters who have no trouble proclaiming a love they do not genuinely feel in front of the entire court. On the other hand, Cordelia is uncomfortable with the public setting, as well as the awkward demand from Lear, and so decides that silence is her only recourse.4

As Cordelia confronts the obligations of family and state, she discovers that words often can be insufficient to express her true feelings. Cordelia's predicament is intensified by the ease with which Goneril and Regan use language to deceive. The older sisters win Lear's love test because they can speak what they do not feel, but for Cordelia true love cannot be easily articulated, “My love's / More ponderous than my tongue” (I,1,77-78). Unlike her sisters, Cordelia cannot speak what she does not feel, and eventually chooses to be silent in a court where rhetoric is valued more than true emotion. Although Cordelia speaks briefly when Lear first addresses her, she does not pursue her argument with the flattering verbiage typical of Goneril and Regan. Cordelia's consequent decision to be silent represents the retreat into silence that many of Shakespeare's female characters must make in the tragedies because of their obligations to family, state, or the men they love.

Although Cordelia's decision to be silent does not prevent her from pursuing a considered course of action, the silence of female characters in tragedy often indicates an acceptance of circumstances. Such is the case for Virgilia, the wife of Coriolanus, who finds herself in a world typified by the Ciceronian rhetoric of Volumnia and the fierce hyperbolic speech of Coriolanus. Amid this energetic outpouring of words, Virgilia's silent love for her husband competes for expression. Like Cordelia, Virgilia's first appearance includes a request that she speak, but Virgilia's deep love for her husband as well as her fear for his welfare in battle prevents her from expressing herself verbally. In act I, scene 3 Virgilia and Volumnia sit and sew while they await the return of Coriolanus. Volumnia's first words call attention to Virgilia's silent demeanor and establish the contrast between the two women:

I pray you, daughter, sing, or express yourself in a more comfortable sort. If my son were my husband I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honor than in the embracement of his bed, where he would show most love.


Virgilia's silence results from her genuine love of her husband and represents her only choice in a world shaped by rhetoric. Her desire to endure her separation from Coriolanus in isolation and silence is made clear when Valeria enters and invites Virgilia to play the “idle huswife” and visit a friend with her. Virgilia, however, refuses to leave the house until Coriolanus returns from the wars. Despite Volumnia's and Valeria's insistence that she is confining herself “most unreasonably,” Virgilia will not leave. Virgilia's silence and refusal to participate in social merriment is due to her love for Coriolanus and not because she is inarticulate.

Indeed, during her final appearance with Coriolanus, when she and Volumnia come to plead for Rome, Virgilia is the first to speak:

                                                                      My lord and husband!
These eyes are not the same I wore in Rome.
The sorrow that delivers us thus chang'd
Makes you think so.
                                                                                Like a dull actor now
I have forgot my part and I am out,
Even to a full disgrace.


For the first time Coriolanus, not Virgilia, is at a loss for words. Yet Virgilia's love for her husband is most eloquently expressed by her silence. And in the scene when Coriolanus triumphantly returns to Rome, Virgilia's silence dramatizes more poignantly than words the love she bears for her husband.

Coriolanus's entry into Rome is noisy indeed as a sennet and trumpets sound his arrival. His appearance is the cause for a general welcome from everyone onstage, “Welcome to Rome, renowned Coriolanus” (II,1,170). But standing amid the cheering crowd is the silent Virgilia, who can only weep at the sight of Coriolanus's safe return. She does not assert herself with words or even try to satisfy what must be an overwhelming desire to embrace her husband, but is content to wait silently while Coriolanus first greets his mother. In fact, it is Volumnia who eventually directs Coriolanus's attention to Virgilia:

My gentle Marcius, worthy Caius, and
By deed-achieving honor newly named—
What is it? Coriolanus must I call thee?
But, O, thy wife!
                                                                                My gracious silence, hail!
Wouldst thou have laughed had I come coffined home,
That weep'st to see me triumph?


Significantly, Coriolanus addresses that aspect of Virgilia, her silence, which continually contrasts her to the other characters in the play. While the stoic, cold, and often violent rhetoric of Rome pervades the play, Virgilia's silence impresses us not as inarticulateness, but as a true sign of her humanity. Normally, speech is a most important, basic human activity. In fact, in several plays—The Winter's Tale (V,3,113), 1 Henry IV (V,4,132-35), and 2 Henry IV (IV,5,91)—Shakespeare associates the act of speaking with being alive. Conversely, silence is often associated with inarticulateness, lack of intelligence, or death.5 Yet the avalanche of surrounding rhetoric ultimately makes Virgilia's silence more human than the language of the other characters. Virgilia's silence is a “blank,” as it were, into which we can put our own emotions. Her feelings towards Coriolanus are readily understood by the audience because of the familiarity of Virgilia's position: she is married to the warrior-hero of the state and is the daughter-in-law of a proud, overbearing mother-in-law. The familiarity of Virgilia's domestic situation allows Shakespeare to depict her feelings with silence. To be sure, Shakespeare provides rhetoric for many characters in order to give their reactions definite expression, but Virgilia's emotions are so clearly understood that we do not need the incisive focus of words to appreciate how she feels. Here Shakespeare is very economical with words, as the characters speak only when it is necessary. Virgilia retreats into silence because she cannot confront her worry and concern for her husband with proud rhetoric. Silence is also her response to her inability to loosen Volumnia's control over Coriolanus's mind. Yet Virgilia's most resonant silence is engendered because of her love for Coriolanus. Virgilia cannot initiate any action which might demonstrate her love, as Cordelia does in France. But her presence throughout the play indicates her acceptance of Cordelia's maxim, “Love and be silent.” Thus for Virgilia, silence becomes an action, one which continually bespeaks her love for Coriolanus.

While Cordelia and Virgilia may be the most familiar examples of silent female characters, there is one other important female in Shakespeare's tragedies whose retreat into silence is even more striking. Although she never expresses her choice to be silent or is never described by another character as being silent, Ophelia is Shakespeare's most complex use of the silent female character. At the beginning, Ophelia's retreat into silence is a condition that is imposed on her by her father who, after having heard of Hamlet's “tenders” to his daughter, forbids Ophelia from having any further words with Hamlet. In addition to the familial obligation which moves Ophelia towards silence, there is the obligation to the King which partially accounts for her being used as silent “bait” in the nunnery scene. And Ophelia's silence is also motivated by Hamlet himself whose wild behavior towards her leaves her confused and desperate. In fact, “until her madness, Ophelia scarcely exists outside of men's use of her.”6 Ultimately all three obligations—family, state and romance—become too much for Ophelia to bear and she gives herself over to the final silence of death.

Silence is a typical response for Ophelia in situations where she confronts Hamlet directly or even when the subject of their romantic relationship is brought up by another character. And from her first appearance, the demands of her family demonstrate that Ophelia's silence is not of her own choosing. While her brother, Laertes, tries to warn her that Hamlet's love is “sweet” but “not lasting,” she patiently listens, although she understands that Laertes probably needs advice about love more than she does. When Polonius forces her to describe her relationship with Hamlet, Ophelia tries to convince her father that Hamlet's “tenders” have been honorable. Polonius does not believe her, however, and forbids her to have any further “words or talk” with Hamlet. Despite her father's misconceptions about the nature of the relationship between Ophelia and Hamlet, and despite Ophelia's honest attempts to dispel those notions, Ophelia ultimately surrenders to Polonius's prohibitions and agrees to be obediently silent towards Hamlet. Ophelia's predicament is that she loves Hamlet very much, yet her family urges her not to love him. In comedy this is the point in the action when we might expect the young lover to devise a plan to circumvent her family's desires and to pursue her own course. Yet in tragedy, overcoming the contrary desires of a parent is not so simple, and Ophelia accepts the restraints of her family and is obliged to retreat into silence.

Although in comedy the silence of a woman can help the character reach a happy conclusion, in tragedy a woman's silence may not depict a chosen pattern of behavior but may actually reveal the character's lack of alternatives. Indeed, Ophelia's silence reveals her inability to cope with the demands of her family, her obligations to the state and her love for Hamlet, obligations which all intermingle in the long “nunnery scene.”

The nunnery scene (III,1) consists of four parts: the conversation in which Claudius, Polonius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern decide what to do about Hamlet's behavior while Ophelia silently listens to them discuss the man she loves; Hamlet's “To be or not to be” soliloquy spoken while Ophelia stands silently to the side; the nunnery sequence; and Claudius's and Polonius's closing evaluation of Hamlet which Ophelia must also endure in silence. In each part, we see that silence is the only alternative open to Ophelia.

The first part of the scene is painful for Ophelia as she silently listens to Claudius question Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about their conversation with Hamlet. The King suggests that Hamlet “puts on this confusion” and is trying to fool the court by pretending to be distracted. Ophelia, however, knows better, for when she saw Hamlet in her closet it was obvious that his distracted state was genuine. But her respect for the King prevents her from disagreeing verbally, so she must silently endure the suggestion that her beloved is feigning madness. As we watch this sensitive young woman torn between her love for Hamlet and her obligations to the state, we realize that Ophelia does not choose silence as much as she finds it her only resort.

Ophelia's predicament is further dramatized by the presence of Polonius who had commanded her to reject Hamlet, an order that she dutifully obeyed. Yet Ophelia can no more look angrily at Polonius than she could glare at Claudius when he suggested Hamlet may be faking. Her filial as well as civic obligations prevent her from speaking and continue to deprive her of any choice but silence. Thus Ophelia's sustained silence makes us aware of the pressures imposed on her, and we perceive through her silence that she is not in control of her destiny.

Indeed, Ophelia's presence during the first part of the scene results from social and parental pressure. Her duty to her King and to her father demands that she be present at this public discussion of what to her is a very private matter. How difficult it must be for this sensitive young woman to endure a conversation in which everyone but she has something to say about the man she loves. The five speaking characters discuss Hamlet as if he were a laboratory case whose “distracted” personality can be cured. Yet Ophelia does endure, at least for now, and she remains onstage silent and obedient to the demands of social obligation and filial duty.

When Claudius tells Gertrude to leave, he explains the reason for Ophelia's presence:

                                                            Sweet Gertrude, leave us too,
For we have closely sent for Hamlet hither,
That he, as 'twere by accident, may here
Affront Ophelia.
Her father and myself (lawful espials)
Will so bestow ourselves that, seeing unseen,
We may of their encounter frankly judge,
And gather by him, as he is behaved,
If't be th' affliction of his love or no
That thus he suffers for.


Essentially Ophelia is being treated as if she were a stage prop. Her purpose is purely functional, that is, she serves as set decoration in order to keep Hamlet off guard and unaware of any trap during the encounter engineered by her father and the King. She is not treated as a person but rather as an object that, having served its purpose as a decoy, will no longer be needed. We realize that Ophelia is being humiliated by Claudius and Polonius as they take advantage of her fidelity and force her to act as bait in their scheme to trap Hamlet. Although the silence of Virgilia and Cordelia is profound evidence of their love, neither is forced to sink to this level of humiliation. Virgilia's love for Coriolanus must be expressed silently, but it is at least recognized and accepted by her husband. In Ophelia's case, her love is not only rejected by Hamlet but her affections for him are exploited by her father and her sovereign. Cordelia's love for Lear may be silenced, but she uses that silence to pursue a course of action. When Ophelia's love is silenced, she does not attempt to alter the circumstances but decides to end her life. For Ophelia, however, her silence not only indicates her inability to direct her own destiny, but also her tragic acceptance of her position.

Ophelia's feelings of despair are intensified when she observes Gertrude willingly submit to Claudius's instructions to leave. Even the Queen is ordered about and has nothing to say in the matter which deeply concerns her son. What hope can there be for Ophelia who has a romantic interest in Hamlet, when his own mother is also a pawn in the scheme of Claudius and Polonius? Furthermore, Gertrude and Ophelia are not the only ones being used; Hamlet, too, is being “set up” by the King and his counselor. Thus Ophelia's awareness that even princes and queens can be manipulated deepens her sense of despair about her ability to direct her own destiny.

Hamlet's entrance and subsequent soliloquy is the second part of the scene, and, perhaps, the most difficult to assess in theatrical terms. The “To be or not to be” monologue is so famous and the object of so much attention and criticism that it is difficult to put it back into its proper context in the scene. It is so often regarded as Shakespeare's greatest soliloquy that the theatrical context in which it occurs is too often unnoticed or neglected. Hamlet has received an unusual message from Claudius and Polonius to be in a specific part of the castle at a certain time. Certainly he approaches the rendezvous in an alert state of mind, for an invitation from Claudius is suspect indeed. When he enters the appointed meeting place, his suspicions are confirmed because he sees Claudius and Polonius as they “withdraw.” The Q2 text clearly indicates that Hamlet enters as the King and Polonius are moving from their positions onstage to a vantage point where they can conveniently eavesdrop on Hamlet and Ophelia:

Then is my deede to my most painted word:
O heavy burthen.
                                                                                Enter Hamlet.
I heare him coming, with-draw my Lord.
To be, or not to be, that is the question.(7)

Admittedly, the problem of whether or not Hamlet sees Claudius and Polonius becomes ambiguous if we consider the Folio placement of Hamlet's entrance. In the Folio, Hamlet enters after Polonius's line, perhaps allowing the King and his Counselor time to move out of Hamlet's view, although it is still possible that Hamlet sees them. Thus, while it remains difficult to ascertain which text of the play reveals Shakespeare's decision on the timing of the entrance, it is likely that Ophelia has been placed in a position onstage by Polonius where she will be noticed by Hamlet. Even if Hamlet does not see Claudius and Polonius, he probably sees the silent Ophelia, but does not say anything to her.8

The soliloquy, or as James Hirsh aptly calls it, the “feigned” soliloquy,9 is for the benefit of Claudius and Polonius and not an expression of Hamlet's true feelings. Hamlet discusses suicide in order to keep Claudius off guard, and to make the King think that Hamlet is so incapable of any significant action that Claudius need not feel threatened. In the previous scene Hamlet has laid his plan to catch the conscience of the King, so if he sees Claudius and Polonius surreptitiously moving upstage and realizes that Ophelia must be part of their plan, he decides to keep the King off guard.

Many actor-managers have made Ophelia exit with the King and Polonius in order to have the stage for themselves during the famous soliloquy. Arthur Colby Sprague reports that Barry Sullivan objected to Ophelia's presence:

Her presence detracted from the importance of his “To be, or not to be,” so she had to leave the stage, reentering at the end of his speech (as used formerly to be done).10

Despite the lack of textual evidence for an exit by Ophelia before Hamlet's soliloquy, many of the greatest actors continued to deliver the soliloquy alone on the stage. In John Barrymore's production, Ophelia exited with Claudius and Polonius and returned from the same direction on the line, “the fair Ophelia.”11 This seems to have been the traditional method for staging the soliloquy, as William Winter's praise for Henry Irving's handling of the contrived entrance implies:

At the close of the soliloquy on life and death, he spoke “Soft you, now” as if a sequent train of thought had occurred to him, and then came to an abrupt stop, with the words “The fair Ophelia!” uttered as he caught sight of her.12

The tradition of supplying an exit for Ophelia before the soliloquy may seem part of a bygone age of theatrical production when famous actors ruled the stage. But as Richard L. Sterne reports, as recently as 1965 the tradition continued in Richard Burton's Hamlet directed by John Gielgud. After Polonius and Claudius exited, Ophelia “sees Hamlet coming … has a moment of indecision, then hurries off.” She, of course, had to reenter at the end of the soliloquy.13 The contrivance of an exit and reentry for Ophelia is textually unwarranted, and serves no purpose but to leave the starring actor alone onstage for the “To be or not to be” soliloquy. The contrived exit of Ophelia before the soliloquy by so many illustrious actors and directors suggests that theatre practitioners may also be guilty of insensitivity to Shakespeare's use of silent characters.

The meaning of Ophelia's silence during the soliloquy depends on what Hamlet does as he speaks it. He may speak the speech directly to her in an effort to try to scare her and convince her that he is mad indeed. Yet this interpretation misdirects Hamlet's focus during the speech if it is designed to give Claudius a false sense of security. Moreover, Ophelia does not need to be convinced that Hamlet is not himself because their meeting in her closet has made that point very clear to her. Hamlet is not interested in convincing Ophelia that he is mad, but seeks to convince Claudius that he has nothing to fear. Hamlet knows he is being watched, and so “performs” the role of a melancholy young man. Thus, Hamlet's first concern is what Claudius thinks, and so he speaks the speech as if it were a soliloquy. Although he is aware of Ophelia's silent presence, he understands that she is part of Claudius's plan. Therefore, he maintains the convention of the soliloquy and speaks the speech as if to himself in serious contemplation of suicide.

Unfortunately, Ophelia is unaware of Hamlet's design, and she learns from Hamlet's words that it may be better not “to be.” Ophelia's suicide later in the play, in fact, proves that she has been tricked by thinking that Hamlet's speech is a serious contemplation of death. Although we never see Ophelia make the actual decision to commit suicide, we have seen her hear Hamlet's speech about suicide. Thus when Ophelia does commit suicide, the audience's view of it must be affected in no small way by their having seen her hear a closely reasoned discussion of the benefits and unknown attributes of suicide. When Gertrude reports Ophelia's death (IV,7), we realize, in retrospect, that the suicide contemplated by Hamlet during the “To be or not to be” soliloquy is actually Ophelia's. Ophelia's overhearing Hamlet in silence, far from meaning that she ignores him, reveals that she has seriously considered his words.

The “nunnery scene” is the third part of the entire scene and the only portion in which Ophelia is not totally silent. For Ophelia, the conversation with Hamlet confirms what she has concluded silently—that Hamlet no longer loves her and perhaps never did. Yet she refuses to turn against him, and in the midst of his cruel tirade against her, Ophelia expresses concern for Hamlet. “O help him, you sweet heavens. … Heavenly powers restore him” (134, 142). And once Hamlet leaves, Ophelia's soliloquy first describes her concern for Hamlet “O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown” before expressing her own feelings, “O woe is me / T'have seen what I have seen, see what I see” (151). What Ophelia actually sees onstage is Claudius and Polonius emerging from their eavesdropping position. Their conversation begins the final part of the scene, and again Ophelia falls silent.

Ophelia's emotional balance is tested one last time, as she silently endures Claudius describe his plan to send Hamlet to England. At this point the silent Ophelia relinquishes all hope for a restoration of her relationship with Hamlet. Indeed, not only the relationship, but Hamlet himself seems lost, once the King has expressed his plan to separate Hamlet from the court. What alternatives are there for Ophelia, who has silently endured “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”? Is it any wonder that she submits to the “sleep” that ends “the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks / that flesh is heir to”? (62-63). Although Ophelia needs comforting at this point, Polonius's last words to her serve the opposite effect:

                                                  How now, Ophelia?
You need not tell us what Lord Hamlet said;
We heard it all.


Ophelia is reminded of her role as a decoy in the strategem to discern the source of Hamlet's madness. She has been emotionally abused not only by her father and the King, but also by Hamlet. Her silence denotes her despair as the first thoughts of suicide enter her mind. Ironically, Hamlet spoke of suicide as a ploy, but for the silent Ophelia the thought of making her own “quietus” is beginning to emerge.

Following the nunnery scene, Ophelia's descent into silence is swift. She barely says anything at “The Mousetrap,” and when she tries to maintain a joyful facade with Hamlet, his coarse sexual puns deny her any possibility of a normal conversation. Indeed, her purpose may very well be to throw focus on Hamlet. As we listen to Ophelia's mad ramblings in Act IV, we realize that the obligations of family, state, and love have overwhelmed her. The young woman who has been dutifully silent now expresses herself with language that is devoid of reason. Finally, Ophelia accepts the ultimate silence of death.

The meaning of a woman's silence is conditioned by the genre. In tragedy the silence of a young woman in love may indicate despair as in Ophelia, or it may point up the loneliness of a woman like Virgilia who cannot compete with words and must express her love in silence. Thus a woman's silence in tragedy can be disturbing because our expectations of the genre make us realize that the ending will not be happy. In comedy, on the other hand, we know true love will be requited so we are not troubled by a character's silence. Therefore, in a mixed genre such as romance, which blends elements from comedy and tragedy, the silence of a woman can express several different meanings. In The Winter's Tale, Hermione's sustained silence in the final scene indicates a mixture of meanings which silence can denote in romance.

Hermione's silent transformation from inanimate statue to a living human being ends the sixteen-year separation between her and Leontes. The separation is a result of Leontes's unwarranted expression of jealousy over Hermione's ability to persuade Polixenes, Leontes's brother, to prolong his visit in Sicilia. Hermione succeeds where Leontes has failed and the result is Leontes's mad suspicion that Hermione is unfaithful to him. Leontes's madness forces him to incarcerate Hermione, pregnant with their second child, and to take their young son away from her. Even though Hermione's innocence is affirmed at her trial by the oracle of Apollo, Leontes maintains that she is guilty. When word comes that their son has died, Hermione faints and is carried offstage, and a few moments later Paulina returns with the news of the Queen's death. But Hermione is not dead and she spends the next sixteen years hidden and cared for by Paulina. Hermione spends the long interval hoping for justice and the survival of her daughter, Perdita, who has been removed from Leontes's wrath by Antigonus and left with a box of jewels on the seacoast of Bohemia. The final scene of the play is a reconciliation between Leontes and Hermione, and the reunion of Hermione and Perdita.

Paulina invites Leontes to her house where she supposedly wants to show him a statue of Hermione. The statue, of course, is not a marble figure but Hermione herself, and her silent presence is the center of attention. Hermione's long silence culminating in her mute appearance as the statue has been forced on her as is often the case with female characters in tragedy. However, just as romance may begin with developments which cause concern for the audience over the eventual outcome but ultimately concludes on a happy note, so, too, does Hermione's silence imply different meanings. At first her silence represents her tragic separation from Leontes; the silence of Hermione is even used by Paulina to convince the other characters and the audience that Hermione is dead. When Hermione appears as the statue, her silence serves to entice Leontes as it might in comedy.

Even before Hermione speaks to confirm that she is alive, Leontes is attracted to what he thinks is a silent representation of his wife:

                                                                                          What fine chisel
Could ever yet cut breath? Let no man mock me,
For I will kiss her.


Paulina announces that she will make the statue move and the silent Hermione comes down from the pedestal to Leontes. Their moment of reconciliation is silent as they share a mutual gesture of love:

She embraces him.
She hangs about his neck.


The reunited pair remain silent until Paulina directs Hermione's attention to Perdita, “Turn, good lady, / Our Perdita's found” (120-21). Hermione utters her first words in this scene, thanking the gods for preserving her daughter. Perdita, however, remains silent, but it is a silence filled with joy. Unlike the silent daughters we have observed in tragedy such as Cordelia or Ophelia, Perdita's silence is not imposed on her by an insensitive parent. Perdita could speak but does not, and in her silence we see a happiness which is beyond words, just as Hermione's silence expresses her joy at being reconciled with Leontes and ending her sixteen years of silent humiliation.

In considering Shakespeare's silent female characters, we see that women were cast in a narrow range of roles; indeed, “the sphere of action he [Shakespeare] allows his women is severely limited.”14 Usually women are presented in domestic relationships, and their silence helps to define those relationships either with their parents, husbands or lovers. When women are involved in a relationship other than romantic or filial love, it is generally because the other character in the relationship has obligations beyond the personal level. Such is the case with Virgilia and Cordelia who must be concerned with obligations to the state because of the political position of Lear and Coriolanus. Furthermore, we have seen that silent female characters usually are paired with male characters who are not silent. What we find in Shakespeare's plays seems to be a refraction of society where men are expected to be aggressive in action and word and women are expected to be submissive and reticent.


  1. “Many of the women characters in the tragedies, however passionately loving or brutally strong-willed, move at the end of the plays toward isolation, passivity, madness, or suicide. Almost all die as a result of their love of men—Juliet, Portia, Ophelia, Gertrude, Desdemona, Emelia, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, Lady Macbeth and Lady Macduff.” Carol Thomas Neely, Broken Nuptials in Shakespeare's Plays (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1985), p. 22.

  2. Morris Palmer Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1950), pp. 605-6. In Cymbeline Imogen's remark to Cloten, “You put me to forget a lady's manners / By being so verbal” (II,3,106-7), seems to indicate Shakespeare's awareness of the traditional Elizabethan associations of women and silence.

  3. However, as Carol Thomas Neely reminds us in Broken Nuptials, “We cannot fail to note the radical asymmetry and inequality of the comic reconciliation and wish for Kate … that choices were less limited, roles less rigid and unequal, accommodations more mutual and less coerced” (p. 219, n. 12).

  4. In the view of Marjorie Garber, the fault of the misunderstanding between father and daughter may rest, at least in part, with Cordelia: “… in the fallen world of adulthood silence is a dangerously ambiguous kind of language, which often prompts misinterpretation.” Coming of Age in Shakespeare (London and New York: Methuen, 1981), p. 81.

  5. See P. C. McGuire, Speechless Dialect, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985) pp. xiii - xiv and Garber, Coming of Age in Shakespeare, p. 82.

  6. Neely, Broken Nuptials, p. 103.

  7. Hamlet, Second Quarto 1605 (Menston, England: The Scholar Press Limited, 1969).

  8. The textual problems of Hamlet are numerous and complex. There are three substantive texts of the play: Q1, Q2, and F. In The New Arden Edition (New York: Methuen, 1982), Harold Jenkins concludes that the “relation between them is complicated and in some respects more than puzzling” (p. 18). Q1, or the bad quarto, is a memorial reconstruction of the play, and “the principal agent in the creation of this text was an actor who had played the part of Marcellus” (p. 20). Although the text of Q1 reveals great lapses of memory on the part of the actor and is in many places far from Shakespeare's creation, it does suggest “something of the performances, presumably on tour, for which such a version was provided, and it tells us something of the performances which the actor-reporter had known” (p. 36). Although Q2 supposedly was printed “according to the true and perfect Coppie.” Jenkins suggests that “it comes from an authentic manuscript, usually held [to be] the author's own foul papers” (p. 37). However, the problem is again compounded because the printers of Q2 apparently relied on Q1, which their “true and perfect” quarto was to supersede. The Folio version “was set by (at least) three compositors” (p. 53), and some of their work has been proven inaccurate. In making his selection of the most trustworthy text for Hamlet, Jenkins follows the lead of Dover Wilson, who “established Q2 as the most authoritative text” (p. 75).

  9. James E. Hirsh, “The ‘To be or not to be’ Scene and the Conventions of Shakespearean Drama,” Modern Language Quarterly 42 (1981), 115-36.

  10. Quoted in Shakespeare and the Actors (1944; rpt. New York: Russell & Russell, 1963).

  11. John Faxon Otis, Jr., “The Barrymore Hamlet, 1922-1925” (Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois, 1968), p. 115.

  12. Shakespeare on the Stage (New York: Moffat, Yard and Company, 1911), p. 358.

  13. John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet (New York: Random House, 1967), pp. 232-33.

  14. Clara Claiborne Park, “As We Like It: How a Girl Can Be Smart and Still Popular,” in The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980), p. 103.

Harvey Rovine (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: Rovine, Harvey. “Silence as Confrontation.” In Silence in Shakespeare: Drama, Power, and Gender, pp. 53-69. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1987.

[In the following essay, Rovine associates the silence of male characters in Shakespeare's comedies with their social alienation, and the silence of men in the tragedies and histories with a variety of motives—including antagonism, treachery, and a desire to influence or control the actions of others.]

Whereas the silence of women often implies a passive acceptance of circumstances or a faith that events will turn out for the best, the silence of men can be more purposeful. Men's silence can show loyalty, service, antagonism, confrontation or enmity. Perhaps the reason for the difference is that the women's world is largely confined to domestic relationships with usually strong men which often leads the female characters to a silence of acceptance. Men have a wider range of roles and their characters are not so strictly defined by domestic relationships. In fact, men often give precedence to social or political demands over their domestic obligations. For example, in 1 Henry IV Hotspur's wife, Kate, pleads with her husband to reveal the “heavy business” (II,3,63) that has disturbed the intimacy of their relationship. Hotspur, however, holds thoughts of the rebellion uppermost in his mind and evades Kate's questions until he leaves her with the promise that she will join him tomorrow. Similarly, in Julius Caesar, Brutus avoids answering Portia's entreaty to reveal the “sick offense” within his mind (II,1,268). Portia tries to persuade Brutus that she will not “disclose” his counsels and offers proof of her “constancy” by showing him her self-inflicted wound. Her display of unwomanly valor overwhelms Brutus for the moment, as he apostrophizes, “O ye gods, Render me worthy of this noble wife” (302-3). But Brutus's thoughts quickly return to political matters when someone is heard knocking. Brutus realizes that the late-night interruption must concern the conspiracy, and he puts aside his personal considerations and urges Portia to go inside. Portia reluctantly goes as Brutus promises to disclose the secrets of his heart “by and by” (305).

At times Shakespeare dramatizes the precedence men give to obligations other than their families by counterpoising the female's silent acceptance against the male's verbosity. Again, in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare presents a wife pleading with her husband to ignore the obligations of state. Calphurnia begs Caesar not to go to the Capitol because of the “horrid sights seen by the watch” (II,2,16). Calphurnia's fears are intensified when the Servant reveals the unfavorable report of the augurers, and she entreats Caesar to ignore his political obligations and stay at home. Calphurnia's victory is momentary, for when Decius enters and reinterprets Calphurnia's ominous dream, Caesar yields to the demands of state:

How foolish do your fears seem now Calphurnia!
I am ashamèd I did yield to them.
Give me my robe, for I will go.


Calphurnia is silent and apprehensive as she observes Caesar prepare to go to the Capitol. Calphurnia's silence suggests the helplessness of her situation, and is counterpoised against the loquacity of Caesar. As Caesar joyfully converses with the conspirators, we realize that his political obligations are more important than his domestic relationship, and Calphurnia's silent presence is a sad reminder of the fatal choice Caesar's ego forces him to make between the two.

In domestic situations, the silence of men can indicate many of the same emotions that the silence of women usually evokes. In Macbeth, the silence of Macduff accentuates the depth of his grief when he learns of the slaughter of his family. When Ross delivers the horrifying report about Macbeth's surprise attack on Macduff's castle, Macduff's response is a silent action that illustrates his shock:

Your castle is surprised; your wife and babes
Savagely slaughtered. To relate the manner,
Were, on the quarry of these related deer,
To add the death of you.
                                                                                                              Merciful heaven!
What, man! Ne'er pull your hat upon your brows;
Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak
Whispers the o'er-fraught heart, and bids it break.
My children too?


Macduff's silence is broken only by repeated questions to confirm the horror:

My wife killed too?
.....Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?


In spite of the woeful news, Macduff soon begins to articulate his emotions. The transition from stunned silence to a planned action expressed by words is completed when Macduff implores fate to give him the opportunity to kill Macbeth:

O, I could play the woman with my eyes,
And braggart with my tongue! But, gentle heavens,
Cut short all intermission; front to front
Bring thou this fiend of Scotland and myself;
Within my sword's length set him. If he 'scape,
Heaven forgive him too!
                                                                                This time goes manly.


Macduff expresses the difference between the expected emotional responses of men and women to devastating news. Women can only “play” with their eyes, and their tears betoken a silent passive acceptance. Men, however, can respond by playing the “braggart with [their] tongue,” and their words are considered manly even if they become mere boasting. Malcolm's response concerning the manliness of Macduff's words confirms that men are expected to act and not remain passive. Macduff's reference to Macbeth as “this fiend of Scotland” reveals that he has already recast his personal sorrow into a political frame. Macbeth is not referred to as the heinous slaughterer of Macduff's family, but rather as the country's demon, and Macduff's hoped-for confrontation almost seems motivated more by politics than by personal revenge. Thus the silence of men, like that of women, can depict passivity or a sense of being acted upon, but the silence of the initial shock quickly passes to a spoken desire for action.

The silence of men in situations other than domestic or familiar ones is, therefore, often puzzling or disturbing to other characters who expect manly speech. Macduff's silence at the news of the massacre of his family is actually the second time in the scene that he hears something which he responds to in silence. Prior to Ross's entrance, Malcolm has tested Macduff's loyalty. Malcolm suggests that if he were king, he would be a worse tyrant than Macbeth. Malcolm does not offer the suggestion in earnest, but as a way of inviting Macduff to speak:

                                                            Nay, had I pow'r, I should
Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell,
Uproar the universal peace, confound
All unity on earth.


Macduff proves that he is loyal to Scotland with an apostrophe to his country:

                                                                                          O nation miserable!
With an untitled tyrant bloody sceptered,
When shalt thou see thy wholesome days again,
Since that the truest issue of thy throne
By his own interdiction stands accursed,
And does blaspheme his breed?


Malcolm, of course, is pleased with Macduff's loyalty, but when he admits that he was only testing Macduff and that the “taints and blames” he laid upon his character are not part of his true nature, Macduff does not acknowledge his understanding by speaking. Apparently Macduff is confused by “such welcome and unwelcome” news, and perhaps stares uncomprehendingly at Malcolm. Although Malcolm's frustration with Macduff's reticence increases until he finally asks Macduff, “Why are you silent” (137), Malcolm continues to try to prove his integrity by providing a catalogue of his own innocence and virtues:

                                                                                                                                  I am yet,
Unknown to woman, never was forsworn,
Scarcely have coveted what was mine own,
At no time broke my faith, would not betray
The devil to his fellow, and delight
No less in truth than life. My first false speaking
Was this upon myself. What I am truly,
Is thine and my poor country's to command:
Whither indeed, before thy here-approach,
Old Siward, with ten thousand warlike men,
Already at a point, was setting forth.
Now we'll together, and the chance of goodness
Be like our warranted quarrel! Why are you silent?


Malcolm's question arises as much from frustration as from curiosity. Perhaps he expected Macduff to be bewildered by his portrait of a man who would be a worse king than Macbeth, but having explained the reason for his deceit, Malcolm expects Macduff to acknowledge his understanding by speaking. Macduff's sustained silence prompts Malcolm to explain himself in various ways. Finally, Malcolm exhausts the supply of available explanations and demands to know the reason for Macduff's silence. Macduff's answer suggests that the turn of events have confused him, “Such welcome and unwelcome things at once / 'Tis hard to reconcile” (138-39). Macduff, like many of the female characters in tragedy, appears overwhelmed by events and falls silent. Yet his silence does not become a retreat from the world. The silence represents a temporary confusion, one which he soon overcomes. Men are expected to be active and not passive, and are expected to speak, to “give sorrow words,” even when confronted with astonishing news. At the end of his first soliloquy, Hamlet may say, “But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (I,2,159), but as the play reveals, he does not maintain silence very long. In fact, Hamlet speaks to the audience directly more than any other character in Shakespeare.

In comedy, young men in love are frequently silent at the sight of their beloved. Characters like Claudio and Orlando become mute in the presence of Hero and Rosalind, but their tongue-tied condition soon passes so they actively pursue their romance with speech. Ultimately, it is the men's job to speak up and court the women, so that by the end of the play we see the men and women either married or soon to be wed. Often at the end of comedy, the men are the ones who speak about the wedding plans while the women remain silent. In Measure for Measure, Isabella stands silent as the Duke proposes marriage. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona Silvia does not utter a word as her father gives her in marriage to Valentine. And, as Angela Pitt points out, in A Midsummer Night's Dream,

There is a suggestion at the end of the play that male dominance is important. Once the four lovers have been satisfactorily paired off, Hermia and Helena virtually disappear from the play. They are present at the entertainment provided for Theseus and Hippolyta, but it is Demetrius and Lysander who talk about the craftsmen's efforts. The women become the conservative, sixteenth-century ideal: submissive and silent.1

The meaning of the female characters' silence at the end of comedy may reflect the proverbial notion that silence gives consent.2 In comedy we are prepared for certain obstacles along the way such as intervening parents or mistaken identities, but, in the end, we expect a sense of agreement to prevail. While the silence of the female characters at the ends of the plays may confirm the harmonious atmosphere, the silence of certain male characters at the conclusion of a play tends to express enmity, not agreement.

Men who are silent at the ends of comedies are not lovers but outcasts. These silent characters do not fit into the harmonious community of individuals usually onstage at the conclusion. Their silence draws attention to their estrangement from the society and accentuates the discord between the outcast and the community. In The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night Shakespeare uses the final silences of Shylock and Malvolio to emphasize the confrontation between the character and the community. The promises of marriage at the conclusions of both plays give each one an expected harmonious ending, but not before Shylock and Malvolio silently acknowledge their defeat by society and exit.

Shylock's final silence at the end of the trial scene (IV,1) signifies his defeat in the Venetian court of law. Throughout the scene, Shylock demands his bond, Antonio's pound of flesh, which he claims is rightfully his according to the law. Despite Portia's arrival as the lawyer Balthasar, it appears as if Shylock's demand for justice will prevail. But when Portia reveals a fine point of Venetian law:

Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh;
But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are by the laws of Venice confiscate
Unto the state of Venice.


Shylock realizes that he is defeated. Although Shylock attempts to talk his way out of the situation, “I take this offer then. Pay the bond thrice / And let the Christian go” (317-18), the Venetian court has yet “another hold” on Shylock:

It is enacted in the laws of Venice,
If it be proved against an alien
That by direct or indirect attempts
He seek the life of any citizen,
The party 'gainst the which he doth contrive
Shall seize one half his goods; the other half
Comes to the privy coffer of the state;
And the offender's life lies in the mercy
Of the duke only, 'gainst all other voice.


The Duke pardons Shylock's life and Antonio remits his share of the fine, provided Shylock agrees to leave his possessions to Lorenzo and Jessica upon his death and agrees to convert to Christianity. Shylock's final words express his resignation “I am content,” and

I pray you give me leave to go from hence.
I am not well. Send the deed after me,
And I will sign it.


When Shylock does not reply to the Duke's terse command or Gratiano's final taunting remark,

                                                                                                    Get thee gone, but do it.
In christ'ning shalt thou have two god fathers.
Had I been judge, thou shouldst have had ten more
To bring thee to the gallows, not the font,


we realize that he is totally defeated. We may expect some final reply from Shylock, but his sense of loss is beyond words. There may be also an element of pride in Shylock's final silence, a pride which will not allow him to display his misery in front of the Venetians.3

Malvolio's silence in the final scene of Twelfth Night (V,1) may also be due in part to pride, but it also must register a certain anger and resentment. Malvolio must listen silently to the explanation of how the trick was played on him. As with Shylock's silence, we can only wonder what Malvolio is thinking while he looks at the characters representative of a society which does not have a place for him. Although his final utterance, “I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you” (385), suggests a possible future action, his long silence reminds us that he is ultimately alienated from the harmonious community of Illyria. Like Shylock, he is an outcast who must undergo a change before being admitted to the society represented by the other characters. Malvolio's silent presence during the explanation of the forged letters also provides for some moments of evaluation by the audience: how far must a joke go before it is no longer sport but merely cruel? Neither Malvolio nor Shylock evokes our unadulterated sympathy throughout the plays; indeed, Shakespeare presents both characters as worthy of much ridicule. Yet in their final silences we begin to see a certain humanity in each man, as both exit to bear their suffering alone. Comedy, however, must end happily. Both The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night fulfill this necessity, but not before the social outcasts are removed from the festive conclusions. The separation is marked by each formerly talkative outcast acknowledging his defeat with an unexpected lack of words.

In the tragedies and histories, Shakespeare often uses the quality of enmity or discord expressed by the silence of men like Shylock or Malvolio to dramatize confrontations between characters, and in these confrontations the silent character is seldom as powerless as Shylock or Malvolio.4 At times the confrontation may take the form of silent action as in 1 Henry VI when the Yorkist and Lancasterian nobles indicate their allegiance by plucking white or red roses. Plantagenet, impatient with the reticence of the assembled nobility, suggests that each indicate their respective loyalty without words:

Since you are tongue-tied and so loath to speak,
In dumb significants proclaim your thoughts:
Let him that is a true-born gentleman
And stands upon the honor of his birth,
If he suppose that I have pleaded truth,
From off this brier pluck a white rose with me.

The Lancasterian Somerset adds:

Let him that is no coward or flatterer,
But dare maintain the party of the truth
Pluck a red rose from off this thorn with me.


The silent action clearly delineates the confrontation between the two factions engaged in the nation's civil strife. In this case, the characters are aware of the explicit opposition their silent action creates, as well as the impending danger.

It is possible for a silent character to be part of a confrontation without realizing that his silence is responsible for defining the conflict. In the second scene of Julius Caesar as Caesar and his entourage return from the games, Brutus's silent presence next to Cassius helps establish the lines of opposition in the play. The entrance of the royal party occurs just after Cassius has planted the first thoughts of revolt in Brutus's mind. Returning from the games, Caesar notices Brutus and Cassius silently standing together and observes to Antony:

Let me have men about me that are fat,
Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep a-nights.
'Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous
.....                                                                                                                        He reads much,
He is a great observer, and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men. He loves no plays
As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music;
Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort
As if he mocked himself, and scorned his spirit
That could be moved to smile at anything.


Although Caesar continually refers to Cassius throughout the speech, Brutus's silent presence next to Cassius may also make the audience question Brutus's loyalty to Caesar.

Brutus's mute presence next to Cassius visually suggests the possibility that he will consent to the conspiracy. After all, we have heard Brutus promise to consider what Cassius has said about Caesar, and when Caesar enters, Brutus makes no attempt to greet Caesar or join the royal procession. Indeed, we may begin to perceive from Brutus's silence the capitulation to the conspiracy which will soon follow.

In performance, the silent Brutus with the lean and hungry Cassius counterpoised against the speech of Caesar and Antony provides the audience with a visual image of the play's main confrontation. Caesar's speech, ego-centered as it is, nonetheless is what we expect of a ruler. Despite the paranoia Caesar displays, we know what he is thinking at least. On the other hand, Brutus and Cassius conceal their true feelings by maintaining their silence. Cassius has told Brutus what he thinks of Caesar, and even though Brutus has not verbally acknowledged his agreement, his silence speaks for him. The audience understands from Brutus's silence that Brutus is leaning in the direction of the conspiracy. The stage picture Shakespeare creates prepares us for the main confrontation of the play—the silent conspiracy of Brutus and Cassius against the authority of Caesar and then Antony.

Brutus may be unaware of the meaning of his silence, but silent characters who represent a faction against the established authority are not always so unaware of the implications of their silence. At times, a character may choose silence as a method of demonstrating his opposition or antagonism to a ruler.

In Richard II, Shakespeare bases the conflict between the two main characters on a dialectic between silence and words. The contrast between Bolingbroke and Richard is defined theatrically by their opposing approaches to speech. While Richard indulges in rhetoric, Bolingbroke is reticent and avoids lengthy speeches whenever possible. The situation is similar to the Brutus-Caesar confrontation where the monarch reveals his thoughts through speech. Bolingbroke, like Brutus the “traitor,” is silent and thus his true feelings are unknown, and in that sense he is potentially dangerous to the King. Perhaps, ironically, after Bolingbroke becomes King in 1 and 2 Henry IV, he speaks much more freely and revealingly, but his ascension to the throne, dramatized in Richard II, is characterized by his silence. Bolingbroke's reticence is at times mysterious, unsettling, or even frustrating to Richard, but the one constant quality implied by his silence is strength. Ann Barton contrasts Richard II with Marlowe's Tamburlaine, in which the hero demonstrates supreme strength with grand rhetoric, and concludes that, “Shakespeare's man of power, Bolingbroke, simply does not believe in the transforming power of language.”5 Throughout the play, Shakespeare shows how Richard's rhetoric ultimately portrays his weakness and how Bolingbroke's relative silence reveals his growing strength.

Shakespeare dramatizes the confrontation between the reticent Bolingbroke and the talkative Richard on three occasions—at the lists at Coventry, before Flint Castle, and in the deposition scene. At the lists at Coventry (I,3), Shakespeare draws attention to Bolingbroke's silence after Henry is banished by Richard. Gaunt's intervention on his son's behalf provides for a reduction of Bolingbroke's length of exile; however, Henry's reply is decidedly less thankful than resigned:

How long a time lies in one little word.
Four lagging winters and four wanton springs
End in a word—such is the breath of kings.


Bolingbroke's subsequent silence is all the more pronounced because he separates himself from the other characters onstage. When Richard leaves, his farewell to Gaunt suggests that Bolingbroke may not be close by, “Cousin, farewell, and uncle, bid him so; / Six years we banish him, and he shall go” (246-47). Bolingbroke's silent presence, apart from the King for more than thirty lines, is a visual image of the main conflict of the play: the verbose Richard surrounded by his entourage and the silent, sullen figure of Bolingbroke isolated from his friends, family and King. The stage picture is similar to the first court scene of Hamlet as the Prince stands silent and apart from the glib Claudius and his attendants. After Richard exits, Bolingbroke maintains his silence despite the friendly words of Aumerle and the Marshal:

Cousin, farewell; what presence must not know,
From where you do remain let paper show.
My lord, no leave take I, for I will ride
As far as land will let me by your side.

Bolingbroke does not reply, and Gaunt questions the reasons for his reticence, “O, to what purpose dost thou hoard thy words, / That thou returnest no greeting to thy friends?” Bolingbroke's reply,

I have too few to take my leave of you,
When the tongue's office should be prodigal
To breathe the abundant dolor of the heart,


suggests that his banishment so saddens him that he can barely find the appropriate words of farewell for his father, but in fact only hides his anger. Further, he attaches a negative value to his silence by noting that he should be able to speak lavishly about the sadness in his heart. Yet as the play reveals, Bolingbroke is not the kind of man who is ordinarily confounded by circumstances. Bolingbroke's reticence following the pronouncement of his banishment is the self-restraint of a man assessing his adversary and beginning to plan his revenge.

Of course, subordinates are expected to be silent when an authority figure speaks. As King, Richard commands silence whenever he speaks, but he cannot command the thoughts of his silent subordinates. Bolingbroke's silence following his banishment could be considered the silence of a dutiful courtier. Yet he maintains his silence after Richard's exit, and the spoken reason he offers for the silence seems out of character for him. Bolingbroke's reticent behavior in this scene is not in deference to his sovereign; it is the silence of a man who feels he is unjustly punished and wants revenge. Possibly, Shakespeare is avoiding a delicate contemporary political issue in this scene, as well as in the scenes at Flint Castle and the deposition. The political sensitivity of the play's subject was, perhaps, tempered by Bolingbroke's silence. If the usurper was given to rhetoric, then Shakespeare might have had to supply him with speeches which might have made the play seem like a direct attack on the throne. The less Bolingbroke says and the more ambiguous his thoughts, the easier it is for Shakespeare to write a play about the deposition of a monarch. In fact, Shakespeare uses Richard's love of rhetoric to advantage, for the King's many elaborate speeches reveal his “continuing addiction to words and traditional formulae,”6 an important aspect of his inability to rule.

Even during the climatic confrontation at Flint Castle, Bolingbroke's silence does not give away his plotting nature. When Richard appears on the walls, Bolingbroke is careful not to say anything. In fact, Northumberland speaks to Richard on Bolingbroke's behalf:

                                                                                                    Thy thrice-noble cousin,
Harry Bolingbroke, doth humbly kiss thy hand,
And by the honorable tomb he swears
.....His coming hither hath no further scope
Than for his lineal royalties, and to beg
Infranchisement immediate on his knees;
Which on thy royal party granted once,
His glittering arms he will commend to rust,
His barbed steeds to stables, and his heart
To faithful service of your majesty.


Bolingbroke's silence, ambiguous in I,3 is purposeful and carefully contrived at Flint Castle. He is a master politician who has others do his talking for him. Had Bolingbroke, instead of Northumberland, begged “infranchisement,” he would place himself in the weaker position of subject arguing with his king. By having others speak for him, Henry can remain silent and his actions appear to have the consent of the speaker. His silence makes him seem almost passive, but this is deceiving. He is a man who knows that silence can be as effective as language in getting what he wants. Despite his hatred for Richard, he has observed the King's addiction to rhetoric and realized that lofty speech alone does not make an effective ruler.

In the deposition scene (IV,1) Bolingbroke is content to remain silent while Richard once again indulges in rhetoric. This is the third time in the play that the taciturn Bolingbroke is placed opposite the loquacious Richard, and the implications are abundantly clear: “The balance of political power here lies with the silent Bolingbroke, not with Richard's verbal dexterity.”7 Despite the overwhelming weakness of his position, Richard insists on prolonging the situation with long speeches which seek to invest the abdication with the quality of a planned theatrical. Richard attempts to stage the actual transference of power; and uses an elaborate metaphor to describe the action:

Here, cousin, seize the crown. Here, cousin,
On this side my hand, and on that side yours.
Now is this golden crown like a deep well
That owes two buckets, filling one another,
The emptier ever dancing in the air,
The other down, unseen, and full of water.
That bucket down and full of tears am I,
Drinking my griefs, whilst you mount up on high.


Not surprisingly, Bolingbroke will only take part in Richard's “scene” by silently offering to seize the crown. Bolingbroke wants no part of Richard's rhetoric. His terse reply, “I thought you had been willing to resign” (188), reveals his discomfort and impatience with Richard's desire to talk his way through the deposition. Bolingbroke will only participate in silence, for his strength lies in silence as much as Richard's weakness is revealed by language. Richard continues to describe the “undoing” of himself while “the usurper stands looking on in contempt and silent strength at Richard's diminishing stature.”8 When Richard asks, “What more remains?” (21), Bolingbroke lets Northumberland take control of the deposition proceedings, choosing once again to remain silent. Northumberland again speaks on Bolingbroke's behalf, ordering Richard to read the articles of self-incrimination. When Richard appeals for sympathy by asking:

Must I do so? And must I ravel out
My weaved-up follies? Gentle Northumberland
If thy offenses were upon record,
Would it not shame thee, in so fair a troop,
To read a lecture of them,


Northumberland curtly replies, “My lord, dispatch, read o'er these articles” (242). Bolingbroke has been silent for more than sixty lines and chooses to remain mute while Richard and Northumberland argue. As he did before Flint Castle, Bolingbroke chooses silence so as not to appear too eager to seize the crown. His strength is his silence, and he possesses enough political acumen to realize that it is best to let others do his talking for him. In this scene, Richard must again talk to Bolingbroke through Northumberland, and Bolingbroke is made all the stronger, and even regal, by his silent control of events.

When men choose silence, it is often a means to an end rather than an end in itself as the passive resignation of women's silence often implies. Male characters, like Bolingbroke, choose to be silent because their best interests are better served by silence than by speech. In fact, their silence may even encourage the speaker to continue talking. For example, in 1 Henry IV, Northumberland silently witnesses the increasingly bitter argument between his son, Hotspur, and the King. The argument concerns Hotspur's refusal to turn over his prisoners to the King unless the King will ransom Mortimer. The King, of course, will never ransom Mortimer because Mortimer was named by Richard as heir to the throne which Henry now occupies. Northumberland understands the sensitivity of the issue, but makes no attempt to intervene and prevent his son from enraging the King. Northumberland's silence, in fact, encourages Hotspur to continue to argue his point which only increases the hostility between the King and Hotspur. Northumberland's silence is a deliberate effort to create animosity towards the King in Hotspur's mind. Given Hotspur's impetuous nature and Henry's sensitivity about Mortimer, Northumberland need do little more than remain silent. His lack of intervention exacerbates Hotspur's hatred for the “canker Bolingbroke” and suggests that Northumberland may have learned a thing or two about the positive aspect of silence from Bolingbroke.

Northumberland, of course, has a vested interest in allowing the conflict to develop between Hotspur and the King, and he chooses silence as a means of achieving that end. Perhaps Northumberland's silent encouragement of Hotspur is not fully appreciated until later when we realize how persuasive Northumberland's silence has been to encourage Hotspur. In Coriolanus the mute presence of Aufidius, while Volumnia pleads with her son to spare Rome, has a similar effect on the characters onstage. Like Northumberland, Aufidius uses silence to control the action and encourage the speakers to continue their argument.

In the beginning of the scene, Coriolanus and Aufidius discuss their plans to lay siege to Rome (V,3,1-21). Volumnia enters with Virgilia, Coriolanus's son Marcius, and Valeria to appeal to Coriolanus. As we hear the pleas of Coriolanus's family, Aufidius's silent presence reminds us that the hero's decision is a political one which involves an entire empire and should not be made for reasons of family and love. Although Aufidius's mute presence tells us that the decision should be based on larger considerations, Coriolanus nonetheless relents to the pleas of his family. Coriolanus's decision to spare Rome is revealed by Shakespeare's explicit stage direction, “holds her [Volumnia] by the hand, silent” (V,3,182), a silence which expresses his resignation to the demands of family and a decision based on emotion instead of honor. Although we are moved by Coriolanus's wordless capitulation, it is on the face of the silent Aufidius that we must see Coriolanus's eventual destruction. Without Aufidius onstage, the scene would become a private encounter between a man and his family. But Shakespeare is interested in portraying more than a man yielding to the wishes of his family. Aufidius's silent presence reminds us that every action of men of power and importance contains consequences beyond the personal, and these consequences are written on the silent face of Aufidius.9

The silence of characters like Northumberland or Bolingbroke enables them to realize their goals without incriminating themselves by speaking. Aufidius achieves his intention without uttering a word, and his silent presence reflects his satisfaction. Of course, these characters ultimately make their intentions clear through speech, but it is in their silence that we realize their victory over the speaking characters. In Othello, Shakespeare endows the silences of Iago with many of the qualities we have observed—scheming, power, encouragement, and grim satisfaction—as well as a few others to present a living incarnation of evil. Iago's silences are not ambiguous because he reveals so much of his character and intentions through his soliloquies. Yet, as Iago's planned revenge progresses, he is able to say less and less. Thus, his success is measured by his ability to keep silent and observe the speaking characters behaving as he planned in situations he creates. Iago is a master puppeteer who silently observes his figures perform as if he were pulling the strings.

Iago's desire to exert silent control is evident in the first scene of the play. The very first action Iago engineers, Roderigo's waking of Brabantio with the news of Desdemona's marriage to Othello, demonstrates his desire to be silent and let other characters do the talking for him. Throughout the scene Iago seeks to maintain an inconspicuous and anonymous position, as he instructs Roderigo about the kind of speech necessary to rouse Brabantio:

… with a timorous accent and dire yell
As when, by night and negligence, the fire
Is spied in populous cities.


Roderigo's effort, however, is a weak, “What ho, Brabantio! Signor Brabantio, ho,” and Iago must lend more emphatic support:

Awake! What, ho, Brabantio! Thieves! Thieves!
Look to your house, your daughter, and your bags!
Thieves! Thieves!


Iago's outburst suffices to bring Brabantio to his window, “What is the reason for this terrible summons? / What is the matter there?” (79-80). Once again Roderigo is inept at verbally creating the desired sense of alarm, “Signor, is all your family within,” and Iago reluctantly, but forcibly, speaks for his puppet: “Even now, now, very now, an old black ram, / Is tupping your white ewe, Arise, arise!” (81, 85-86). Iago falls silent, perhaps because he assumes Roderigo can effectively continue the dialogue, but Roderigo is too timid and Iago must once more break his silence. His words are coarse and to the point:

You'll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse, you'll have your nephews neigh to you, you'll have coursers for cousins, and gennets for germans.


When Brabantio decides to leave his house, Iago must make a hurried exit. Although Iago has successfully carried out his intent, he has had to speak more than he would have liked to exact his revenge. Iago would have preferred to remain silent, but Roderigo's failure to speak the appropriately inciteful words forces Iago to break his silence and speak for his puppet.

In the following two scenes, Iago silently observes Othello and tries to discern the most efficient course of revenge. The dialogue of the two scenes (I,2 and 3) focuses our attention on Othello, his relationship to the Venetian state and his love for Desdemona, and we may tend to ignore Iago's silent presence. But as M. R. Ridley reminds us, about Iago's revenge:

We know so well the catastrophe in which Iago's plot results that we are apt carelessly to assume that he intended this result from the outset. He intended nothing of the kind. He is not a long-term strategist, but a superbly skillful and opportunist tactician.10

In this case, overfamiliarity with the play tends to obscure our response to Iago's maneuvering. We cannot forget that his plan is engendered in stages, and the first stage is his silent observation of the Moor during which Iago searches for ways to feed his revenge. In Act I, scene 2, Iago mutely witnesses Othello successfully defend himself against the outraged Brabantio. However, Othello proves too controlled, too prepossessing to be attacked successfully. Even Brabantio's remark about Othello's “sooty bosom” draws no response from the Moor, and Iago must wait until Brabantio urges his case before the Venetian council to discover how to effect his revenge.

Iago's silent observation is rewarded in Act I, scene 3 as he watches Othello and Desdemona profess their love for each other. By the end of the scene, Iago realizes that the mutual love of the couple must be the base on which he will construct his plan for revenge:

Cassio's a proper man. Let me see now:
To get his place, and to plume up my will
In double knavery. How? How? Let's see,
After some time, to abuse Othello's ears
That he is too familiar with his wife.


Iago's plan does not come to him all at once (encouraging Cassio to drunkenness and taking the handkerchief from Emilia are impromptu decisions), and we should realize that among the audience who witness the initial display of love between Othello and Desdemona stands the silent Iago. The plot which will ultimately destroy Othello and Desdemona is silently germinating in Iago's mind.

Similarly, in Act II, scene 1, the reunion of Othello and Desdemona on Cyprus is charged with an ominous tone because of Iago's silent presence. Despite the joy verbally expressed by the newly married couple, we realize that their happiness will be short-lived. Because we are aware of Iago's plan, his silent presence undercuts the tender devotion of Othello and Desdemona. Iago's silence causes us to see their relationship from the villain's point of view, and the silence creates suspense as we wonder exactly how and when Iago's destruction will commence.

Iago's silence contains a certain magnetism which neither audience nor Othello can ignore. Indeed, Iago's silence has a way of drawing Othello's attention, a quality which is evident in the scene in which Othello enters to stop the fight between Cassio and Montano. The entire episode is engineered by Iago; when Othello enters, Iago pretends as if the whole thing is incomprehensible to him. Iago stands by silently until Othello forces the Ancient to break his silence:

                              What is the matter masters?
Honest Iago, that looks dead with grieving,
Speak. Who began this?


In this instance, Iago uses his silence to suggest a reluctance to speak and incriminate others. He appears embarrassed that the brawl took place and that Othello had to intervene. The silence, however much it attracts Othello, contains other meanings for the audience. Here the silence begins to exhibit the kind of control over people and events that Iago seeks. Although Iago must speak to Roderigo, Cassio, and Montano in order to plant the seed for the brawl, his silence after the fight indicates his victory over the speaking characters.

Once again, in Act III, scene 3, Iago stands aside in silent victory as the words of the speaking characters prove their undoing and Iago's continually rising power. As Desdemona pleads with Othello for Cassio's reinstatement, the expression on Iago's face must register extreme satisfaction. The more Desdemona innocently insists that Othello “name the time” (62) for Cassio's reinstatement, the more anguished Othello becomes and the more gratified Iago must be. For Iago, silence is power and his increasing silences throughout the play are a monitor of his growing control over the destiny of the speakers. Yet Iago's silence reveals more than just power. It shows that he cannot be traced to the evil because the silence leaves behind no evidence of wrongdoing.

It is a content and seemingly unstoppable Iago who silently observes the ocular proof of his revenge at work in Act IV, scene 1 when Othello strikes Desdemona. Lodovico, newly arrived from Venice, interprets Othello's action as a confrontation between the Moor and Desdemona, and is justifiably surprised at Othello's conduct:

                                                                                                                                  Is this the nature
Whom passion could not shake? Whose solid virtue
The shot of accident nor dart of chance
Could neither graze nor pierce?


The audience, however, is aware that the action is a result of the confrontation between Othello and Iago and that Othello's striking of Desdemona is a sign that Iago has won. Thus Iago can stand silently “watching his handiwork take its effect.”11 While Lodovico may express surprise over Othello's action—“What, strike his wife?” (270)—the silence of Iago confirms the inevitability of Othello's fatal destiny.

In the final scene, Othello confronts the silent Iago. Although Iago's guilt is clear and he is now a prisoner of the Venetian state, his silence implies that his evil, not the goodness of the other characters, has triumphed. When Othello asks, “Will you, I pray, demand that demi-devil / Why he hath thus ensnared my soul and body,” Iago defiantly replies, “Demand me nothing. What you know, you know. / From this time forth I never will speak a word” (300-303). Iago's self-imposed silence indicates his hatred for Othello, and, more significantly, his contempt for society. By relinquishing the basic human activity of speech, Iago creates an insurmountable distance between himself and society. Iago's promise not to communicate—despite threats of torture—makes the evil he represents terrifying because there is no hope that his actions could ever be explained. Iago is the most ominous of villains, one whose wickedness may never be understood. At the conclusions of at least three of Shakespeare's other tragedies—Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear—there is the suggestion that the surviving characters have learned something from the ordeals of the protagonists or that there is some hope for the future. At the end of Othello, however, there is no indication of a better world to come. At the end, the silent Iago is even allowed the luxury of watching Othello kill himself. All that remains for the surviving characters is to appropriate Othello's “fortunes,” return to Venice, and “to the state / This heavy act with heavy heart relate” (369-70). Although Iago will be tortured, his silent presence among the dead victims of his villainy chillingly suggests that evil can triumph over good. Iago's satisfied silence further suggests that we may never understand why such destructive malice is part of some people.

The silence of men usually suggests action or a plan for action, and their silence means the opposite of the silence of women which often implies passive or at times forced acceptance. Quite often, men choose silence as a means to achieve their objectives, but women usually have silence “thrust upon them” because of traditional social or dramatic expectations. In spite of the lack of choices that a woman's silence implies, her silence often reveals admirable human qualities such as devotion, forgiveness, mutuality, and fidelity. On the other hand, the silence of men is, at best, ambivalent, but more often than not, their silence can suggest power, earnestness, and self-confidence or even cunning, deceit, and unmitigated evil.


  1. Angela Pitt, Shakespeare's Women (Totowa: Barnes and Noble, 1981), pp. 90-92.

  2. Morris Palmer Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1950), p. 605.

  3. According to D. M. Cohen this uncharacteristic silence of Shylock's serves to humanize the character. “Ironically, it is not in his pleadings or self-justifications that Shylock becomes a sympathetic figure, but in his still and silent transformation from a crowing blood-hungry monster into a quiescent victim whose fate lies in the hands of those he had attempted to destroy.” “The Jew and Shylock,” in Shakespeare Quarterly 33 (1981), p. 59.

  4. In “Silence on the Shakespearean Stage” (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1974), Bruce Thomas Sajdak illustrates a notable exception from 1 Henry VI: “in three consecutive scenes in the heart of the play (III, 1 - III, 3), the audience sees both English and French leaders [the Dauphin and Henry] in helpless silence. Sajdak views Henry's silences throughout the trilogy as characteristic of his impotence as a ruler—Henry “appears silent and helpless when he should be most vocal in defense of his own position and the security of his realm,” pp. 170-71.

  5. Ann Barton, “Shakespeare and the Limits of Language,” Shakespeare Survey 24 (1971), 22.

  6. Jean E. Howard, Shakespeare's Art of Orchestration: Stage Technique and Audience Response (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984), p. 96.

  7. Barton, “Shakespeare and the Limits of Language,” p. 21.

  8. John L. Styan, Shakespeare's Stagecraft (Cambridge: University Press, 1967), p. 106.

  9. “In such a scene, Shakespeare's visual imagination tells him that the character who is dumb can contribute as much as the one who gives utterance,” Styan, Shakespeare's Stagecraft, p. 108.

  10. M. R. Ridley, ed., Othello (New York: Methuen, 1965), p. xi.

  11. John L. Styan, Drama, Stage and Audience (Cambridge: University Press, 1975), p. 57.

Charles R. Lyons (essay date summer 1989)

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SOURCE: Lyons, Charles R. “Silent Women and Shrews: Eroticism and Convention in Epicoene and Measure for Measure.Comparative Drama 23, no. 2 (summer 1989): 123-40.

[In the following essay, Lyons maintains that Isabella's transformation from volubility to silence is a reverse image of the metamorphosis of Ben Jonson's Epicoene from submissiveness to stridency. He contends that both Measure for Measure and Epicoene demonstrate the eroticism of female silence and the power women possess when they are objects of male desire.]

In Jonson's Epicoene, the silent “woman” attracts Morose through “her” reticence to speak; but once this couple undergo the false marriage ceremony, her silence metamorphoses into verbal pyrotechniques that rival those of Mistress Otter whose aggressive speech sets the measure of what a theatrical shrew should be. Jonson's play exploits the comic potential of the conventional shrew as this improvised female joins forces with the newly organized Collegiates, described by True-wit as women who “crie downe, or vp, what they like, or dislike in a braine, or a fashion, with most masculine, or rather hermaphroditicall authoritie” (I.i.78-80).1

In Measure for Measure, Isabella speaks freely, articulately, aggressively until the final moments of the comedy when the Duke declares his intention to marry her. Whereas the comic plot of Jonson's comedy requires that marriage open up the floodgates of Epicoene's speech, the prospect of marriage to the Duke silences Isabella. At least the text forbids her character's verbal response to that possibility for reasons of theatrical economy, ideology, or inadvertence. Both comedies, despite their differences, enact a process in which the sexuality of a male character may invest a female character with power as an object of a desire that, in some sense, commands the masculine figure; and both plays appear to eroticize silence as the condition of the submission of the female. As well, these texts represent situations in which highly articulate female characters challenge the arbitrariness of male figures of authority. In each of these comedies, female speech and female silence threaten the peace of the dominant male society. Both plays conflate the functions of erotic silence and aggressive speech in their “heroines.” That is, these comedies exercise a typology of character in which the freedom to speak transforms the female into a variation of the shrew and a woman's silence carries an erotic charge.

The conventional characterization of the shrew, which may suggest the figure of Noah's wife, is principally a creation of dramatic language; a female character is a shrew more because of what she says than what she does.2 In any case, from the model sketched by the Wakefield Master to current pactice, the shrew assumes a temporary authority over the male by claiming that privilege in strident raillery. Of course, our present sensitivity to the representation of gender insures that any discussion of these issues will be replete with argumentative dangers and rhetorical snares. With some degree of caution and tact, I intend to discuss a group of phenomena that manifests itself in these two plays. I suggest that different conventions of depicting comic characters compete with each other to complicate and discomfit our response and to insure that both comedies provide highly equivocal experiences. While I think that this equivocation seems more acute at the end of the twentieth century, I suspect that both of these plays disturbed many in their audiences in the early seventeenth century.

Commentary on Measure for Measure marks its problematic status and offers a series of judgments that isolate widely different aspects of the text as the source of our difficulty to interpret it. While several generations have identified the text as a problem play, few agree upon the nature of the problem. Epicoene has a far less troubled history, undoubtedly because, until the final moments, the play proceeds as a relatively straightforward urban comedy of wit rather than shifting among different sub-genres of comedy as Measure for Measure does.3 In Jonson's comedy, which appears to use comic conventions more purely than Shakespeare's, a single figure—Epicoene—operates first as an erotic object that stimulates male desire and then as an image of the shrew who threatens male authority. The ending of the play, of course, dissolves its conventionality. The shrew here is not tamed but revealed to be a male as well as the instrument by which the nephew gains power over the uncle and his money. In Shakespeare's many variations of the theatrical conceit in which the boy actor maintains a delicate balance between sexual roles, the comic resolution depends upon the continued illusion or game of the young boy as the representation of the female. The witty epilogue of As You Like It exposes the ironies and complications of that convention at the same time in which it plays upon the androgyny of both actor and character. That is, the epilogue does not demand that the persona of its speaker shift from that of the female Rosalind to the male boy actor, but rather that the personae of both should be encompassed. As Phyllis Rackin writes,

To be successful, the play must win both sexes with a playful androgynous appeal that is most appropriately expressed by the ambiguous figure who no longer has a single name or sexual identity, combining in one nature Rosalind, Ganymede, and the boy who played their parts.4

The epilogue continues the illusion of Rosalind's character and plays self-consciously with the boy actor's and the spectators' awareness of his sexual identity. The revelation at the end of Jonson's comedy exploits the convention of the boy actor but ties it to the physical reality of the boy actor whose androgynous nature is dismissed as trickery—both within the plot of the play and in the game of theatrical representation. If this boy appears as an androgyne, that appearance is temporary; soon he will be “of years,” sexually mature, fully a man, and well able to do a man's office with the women. Part of the theatrical surprise here is Jonson's conceit of tying his play to the convention of the boy actor and writing a comedy that does not require that either performer or audience sustain its operative fiction through the final moments of performance. If the sexual ambiguity of the young boy playing Epicoene has fooled its audience as well as Morose, the text insures that the balance between the feminine and masculine that allowed the deception will be solved by puberty in the near future. And by implication, we would extend the same speculation to the imminent sexuality of the boy actor himself. Just as surely the epilogue to As You Like It functions antithetically as it inhibits speculation about the present or future heterosexual behavior of the actor playing Rosalind.

Like Epicoene, the ending of Measure for Measure confounds convention with surprise when the Duke announces his intention to marry Isabella. Here, at the moment at which the central male figure determines the fate of the principal female, the text simply elides the woman's response. In Measure for Measure the Duke's announcement of his intention to marry Isabella surprises both spectator and heroine. He has not spoken before of a desire for marriage in general or a sexual interest in Isabella in particular, and the declaration itself violates key aspects of character that the text has marked in previous scenes. The language of the play refers to the ascetism of both Vincentio and Isabella. Whereas other characters in Measure for Measure articulate their desire clearly, neither Vincentio nor Isabella speak of their sexuality in terms other than denial. We are familiar, for example, with the Duke's reference to his “life removed” during the past eighteen years and with Isabella's statement of preference for “a more strict restraint” among the sisterhood of St. Clare. There is no possibility that we shall forget the energy of Isabella's rejection of Angelo's proposal that she purchase her brother's life with the gift of her body, and we remember the strength of her denunciation of her brother when he reopens the question of her submitting to Angelo's scheme. “Then, Isabel, live chaste, and, brother, die: / More than our brother is our chastity!” (II.iv.184-85) continues to ring in our ears.

When we read the play, we follow the text closely as it rushes from the Duke's declaration in line 491 of Act V, Scene i, to the conclusion of the comedy forty-eight lines later. That speed diverts us from thinking about the absence of Isabella's response and, undoubtedly, accounts for the relative lack of commentary on this omission. In these remaining lines Vincentio quickly directs Angelo to love Mariana and economically details Lucio's punishment as both imprisonment and marriage to a bawd. In the theater, however, our surprise at the Duke's declaration is compounded by the fact that the previously articulate woman remains silent from this point to the end of the play. Because there is neither time nor motive to move Isabella from a central position, she remains a significant presence in the spectator's field of vision, and the Duke's surprising declaration will direct our focus to Isabella. Consequently, the visible presence of the silent figure prevents the kind of occlusion the text enacts. A production of the play cannot elect to omit the character's response because even if the actor playing Isabella presents a totally neutral expression, that opacity may be interpreted by the spectator as either willing submission or masked aggression. Whatever physical gesture the actor makes will constitute a response that informs the resolution of the comedy—either cementing or fragmenting the patent conventionality of the ending, depending upon how the spectator interprets the actor's behavior.

Recall that the Duke couples his declaration to Isabella with the act of pardoning her brother for the crime of fornication:

If he be like your brother, for his sake
Is he pardoned; and for your lovely sake
Give me your hand, and say you will be mine,
He is my brother too. But fitter time for that.


The postponement of discussion to the “fitter time” for Isabella to “say [she] will be [his]” provides some rationale for her silence. That is, the Duke postpones her speaking to a later and, possibly, more private occasion. The conventional reading of her silence assumes her submission to the authority of the Duke. Robert Egan's production at the Mark Taper Forum in 1985 emphasized Isabella's stoic movement from the authority of the Church to the authority of a personified figure of Eros who governed the Duke. That is, she accepted, with resignation but not joy, her movement into a secular reality of both politics and sexuality. This performance emphasized her renunciation of a previous decision to spend her life as a nun, and in this production Isabella's final act was to remove her crucifix, place it downstage center, and then follow the others who had already exited into the ducal palace. Such a physical gesture filled in the silence of the text with a clear representation of Isabella's response to Vincentio's surprising declaration. In this interpretation, Isabella's gesture signified submission to Vincentio; but the Duke, in turn, was under the direction of the problematic sexual energy that directed the behavior of those he attempted to manage. Through her submission to the Duke, Isabella surrendered to the authority of Eros who governed him.

Measure for Measure dramatizes two instances in which the physical presence of Isabella, dressed in the garments of the novitiate, appears to stimulate the erotic desire of a man who has previously isolated himself from sexual relationships. The attraction toward Isabella that Angelo and Vincentio experience re-directs their declared intentions, radically changing their perception of themselves. Her appearance before Angelo engages his own sexuality in sensations that he claims he has not experienced before, and, on the basis of that newly perceived desire, he shifts allegiance from an ascetic code of behavior to its opposite:

O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint,
With saints dost bait thy hook! Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue. Never could the strumpet
With all her double vigour—art and nature—
Once stir my temper; but this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite. Ever till now,
When men were fond, I smiled, and wondered how.


Angelo begins this soliloquy with the question: “What's this? What's this? Is this her fault or mine? / The tempter or the tempted, who sins most, ha?” (II.ii.168-69). Of course, his argument quickly denies her culpability, and he moves into the metaphor of Isabella as “the violet in the sun” corrupted by himself as the sun-quickened carrion. However, the act of posing the question clarifies that he conceives her physical presence as the source of the energy he feels within his own body. In the final scene the text returns to the notion that Isabella shares the guilt for his arousal. When Mariana begs Isabella to plead for Angelo, she requests that the young woman merely illustrate her willingness to support her cause by kneeling with her—“say nothing; I'll speak all” (V.i.435)—but, of course, Isabella does speak. Her argument acknowledges the stimulus of her physical presence as a component of Angelo's sin:

                                                                                I partly think
A due sincerity governed his deeds,
Till he did look on me. Since it is so,
Let him not die.


Isabella's claim that Angelo's desire generates from his visual perception of her acknowledges the erotic authority of her body, its power to engage the sexuality of another. In II.iv the text of Measure for Measure provides her with a less self-conscious awareness of her body as she asserts her preference for self-flagellation over sexual submission:

                                                            were I under the terms of death,
Th' impression of keen whips I'd wear as rubies,
And strip myself to death as to a bed
That longing have been sick for, ere I'd yield
My body up to shame.


In this speech, Isabella's lines take up the concrete image of her physical person that Angelo's language defines: “You must lay down the treasures of your body” (II.iv.96). As she performs the role of suppliant on Angelo's behalf in the final scene, she identifies this body as the visual provocation that disrupted his previous ability to control his deeds. Within the appealing naïveté of a mimetic reading, it is possible to mark this acknowledgement of her unwitting participation in Angelo's sin as a representation of Isabella's own increasing forgiveness, her own growth in grace. On the other hand, we need to acknowledge the possibility that the text uses Isabella here to modulate the spectator's perception of Angelo and, with some degree of subtlety, to shift part of the responsibility for the destructiveness of his sexuality to the female whose presence stimulates it.

At the end of the comedy, we assume that Isabella has also provoked the sexual desire of the Duke. The director of Measure for Measure and the actor playing the Duke must make a decision about the specific point at which Vincentio decides to claim Isabella for himself. The text displays Angelo's consciousness and reveals the processes in which he responds to Isabella. His language self-consciously examines his desire as a psychic and physical phenomenon. Does his dramatized response function to prefigure the Duke's reaction to the young woman? When Isabella presents herself to these two men, she enacts the role of a suppliant. What is the relationship between the language that forms the limits of Isabella's chosen role and her physical presence as an erotic stimulus to the sexuality of both Angelo and the Duke?

In those instances when Isabella attempts to persuade these men to enact some form of forgiveness—first for Claudio and then for Angelo—neither character seems particularly responsive to her rhetoric. Angelo rejects the logic of her argument; and, within the game the Duke plays in the last scene, he declares her suit “unprofitable” (V.i.452). And yet Isabella's presence, as a theatrical figure and as an agent in the sexual dynamics of this performance, is both physical—displaying the temptation of the body—and verbal. While the plot does not allow Isabella's petitions to be convincing, her pleading provides the occasions for their male listeners to see and hear her as the principal object of their perception. These arguments focus their attention and allow the physical and intellectual energy of the female character to play itself out in a type of theatrical performance. Isabella plays the role of the suppliant for these males in power self-consciously. Her pleas are virtually theatrical in the sense that she deliberately exercises rhetorical positions that counter her own ethical sense. That is, the ideology that the text supplies her relates more directly to the ascetism that Angelo voices in the early moments than it does to the justification of either the lovers or the later Angelo. Measure for Measure enjoys the irony in which Isabella's youthful voice of restraint must speak in behalf of those whose behavior manifests use. These acts of supplication function as plays-within-the-play, and the persona that stimulates their listener is an artifice. Isabella's rhetoric is not successful as argument, but her performance of the suppliant clearly excites the deputy she addresses, and, less obviously, her pleading for Angelo either initiates or reinforces the Duke's desire. Her physical presence releases a force that redirects the desire of these two men even though its sexuality manifests itself inadvertently. Isabella attempts to influence these men by the power of her rhetoric, but they assign a different kind of authority to her as an eroticized object that is given privileged status by their desire. As Angelo invests the suppliant with sexual value as the object of his lust, however, he compromises his tenuous hold on political authority. And, as we learn later, the Duke both sustains that authority and, eventually, controls the behavior of the suppliant. However, the Duke's eventual claim on Isabella may embody his own submission to the authority of her sexual presence.

Within the distribution of energy, power, authority in this play, sexuality dominates. Sex motivates almost all the behavior represented. Sexually generated disease threatens the city, and the only commerce we hear about is the trade of the brothel. Isabella's commitment to her asceticism, like Angelo's new dedication to lust, has the intensity of the naïf, the untried, but, unlike Angelo, she does not have the political freedom or power to exploit it and therefore becomes the victim of the male sexuality she stimulates. However, Mistress Overdone, the female antithesis to Isabella, does recognize the power that male sexuality invests in the female and trades upon it in skillful commerce. In the disposition of characters, Isabella occupies a center position flanked by the patient suffering of Mariana, who out griseldas Griselda, and the cynical intervention of Overdone who exploits male sexuality in active entrepreneurship. The mutually enjoyed sexuality of Claudio and Juliet, emphasized at the beginning of the play, gets shifted out of range of our attention as the comedy develops its interest in less reciprocal eroticism.

Epicoene, as well, plays upon the male's vulnerability to the female, and hence implements a comic politics in which male desire temporarily endows the female with a special kind of authority. Morose's extreme need for silence—humor theatricalized into mania—makes him vulnerable to a particular kind of female image, the silent woman. This exaggerated idiosyncrasy makes it possible for him to be duped into marriage with the fictitious woman and then, when the metamorphosed wife destroys his silence, be tricked into distributing money to his nephew by the promise of escape from the false marriage. While the conceit of the comic trick bases itself most obviously on the mania for silence that characterizes Morose, the appeal of Epicoene plays upon both that idiosyncrasy and its correlation with Morose's less explicit sexual desire. His basic sexual need, “his itch for marriage,” conflated with his lust for quiet, both eroticizes and temporarily empowers the false silent woman. She, however, is the instrument of those who would gull him. Unlike Isabella, she is not a “real” presence but a creation of Dauphine's imagination and the skill of a youthful impostor. But, like Isabella, this boy/woman must perform a role contrary to his nature. This behavior, his female identity as both ingénue and shrew, constitutes a more obvious play-within-a-play than Shakespeare's more subtle representation of Isabella's performances as a suppliant. Epicoene is not a real character but, rather, only a mask. Consequently, the fact that Epicoene's value and power in the sexual situation derives primarily from male desire is more obvious than the corresponding phenomenon in Measure for Measure. Jonson's comedy represents the fictitious Epicoene as a creation by a man to trick another man by exploiting a man's knowledge of sexual need, manic idiosyncrasy, and the fear of women.

Throughout this discussion I have played with analogies and differences between these two comedies, and at this point I would like to return to a point of connection that I suggested but did not develop in the early paragraphs. In terms of the conventions of character, we see the metamorphosis of Epicoene from submissive ingénue to shrew; and even though we know that this transformation is a fiction within the terms of the plot, we enjoy witnessing the character's freedom to speak aggressively and to punish the figure of Morose who functions as the comedy's senex iratus. With greater subtlety, Shakespeare's text exercises some of the same conventions of character. Apologizing to Edward Dowden, who celebrated Isabella as Shakespeare's most perfect woman, I suggest that the characterization of Isabella also incorporates aspects of the shrew.6 The increasingly aggressive nature of her petitions to Angelo, her railing at Claudio, and even the potentially smug sophistry of her final speaking for Angelo align her with the kind of aggression that informs the comic shrew. Consider, for example, the vitriolic bombast of her response to Claudio's suggestion that offering up her chastity to save his life may be a virtuous act:

                                                                                                    O, you beast!
O faithless coward, O dishonest wretch,
Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?
Is't not a kind of incest to take life
From thine own sister's shame? What should I think?
Heaven shield my mother played my father fair,
For such a warpèd slip of wilderness
Ne'er issued from his blood. Take my defiance,
Die, perish!


Dowden attempted to transform the particular rhetoric of these lines into the statement of an abstract ideal in a clever but unsuccessful attempt to persuade us that Isabella is not railing at Claudio. The speech is a tirade worthy of Mistress Otter, as Isabella attempts to deny her brother as the son of her father. The stridency of these lines aligns with the comic import of Isabella's stated wish that the restraints of the convent might be more strict. Perhaps we should think more seriously about two aspects of the characterization of Isabella: first, the extremity of her ascetism and the spleen of her condemnation of Claudio may inform the comedy of the play, and, second, our response to her speech may also include pleasure in the license of her speech as it counters authority by mimicking authority.

The resolution of this peculiar comedy may include the male enjoyment of the metamorphosis of Isabella, a development that mirrors, in reverse, the transformation of Epicoene. That is, the Duke's declaration may transform the novitiate from a mixed female character who incorporates both the erotic and the shrewish and reconstitute her as a silent, purely erotic figure. The text establishes the idea of the silent woman as an erotic figure in the Duke's description of the sexual event in which Mariana will substitute for Isabella. He sets up the co-ordinates of this deception in his instructions to Isabella:

Go you to Angelo, answer his requiring with a plausible obedience, agree with his demands to the point; only refer yourself to this advantage: first, that your stay with him may not be long; that the time may have all shadow and silence in it; and the place answer to convenience.


The rendezvous takes place in the dark secrecy of Angelo's garden, “circummured with brick” (IV.i.27), as a fulfillment of his fantasy, ostensibily with the woman he desires but within the form of an anonymous encounter. Framed within the comedy as the trick to catch Angelo's evil, this keystone of the plot teases the audience with its provocative description of an erotic encounter in darkness and silence, an encounter that is purely sexual and that isolates itself within the illusion of an absence of both history and consequence. It may be that the Duke's sexuality is re-awakened as he articulates the scheme, and this may be a viable point at which the director and actor may place his decision to transform Isabella into his own silent woman. His description puts forward the story of a sexual adventure which, while it may expose Angelo's crime, presents a variation of the pure, unthreatening eroticism of a fantasy fulfilled.

Jonson's comedy plays with two threats to its society of young men: the aggression of the Collegiates, their usurpation of male prerogatives of speech and judgment, and the power of the conventional senex iratus who will not release the money and its attendant power and pleasure to his younger relative. The comedy also, at a more sophisticated level, plays with the threat provided by male desire for the female by impersonating the female with a male. Moreover, the play disenfranchises the aggressive, hermaphroditical collection of females by showing that the boy can out-shrew them in their attempts to usurp a male-like authority. Even though we never see the actual persona of the boy who performs Epicoene, we witness his sequential empowerment: from passive female to shrew to male. The projection of the young boy's future as illicit lover to the Collegiates, however, is ambiguous. Is he to be the exploiter of their sexuality or the hired instrument of their pleasure?

In the kind of misrule that comedy embodies, the allowed freedom of the Collegiates is liberating even for a male audience, especially since that freedom operates within strict restraints. Even male spectators can enjoy the temporary and limited exercise of power by a group that suffers a certain disenfranchisement. However, it is appropriate to note that the spectator's pleasure in watching a performance of this play is, fundamentally, a male pleasure. No “real” female character threatens the authority of the young men by provoking their sexual desire. Dauphine manipulates Morose's desire to his own advantage and, as well, in this manipulation exercises control over this threat. In some sense, the depiction of all the “real” women of the play as shrews defuses the sexual power the females hold over the males by restricting their energy primarily to the aggression of language. In terms of the description of the Collegiates with which I began these remarks, to be a shrew is to appropriate the language and behavior of the male or, at least, to function hermaphroditically. In that sense, Epicoene, as woman, incorporates the verbal authority of the male as a kind of artificial male or hermaphrodite; but, within the theatrical reality of the play, the character is a male imitating a female who appropriates aspects of the male in an impersonation of belligerent femininity. The play exercises a game in which a boy is able to succeed unequivocally as a shrew, to be revealed, and thereby to defuse the threat of the complicity of women as a sex. That is, to be a shrew is to incorporate aspects of the male in an “unnatural” exchange of sexual characteristics; and, as an authentic male, Epicoene can enact the persona of a shrew better than the “real” women. As the most erotic female in the scene, this young male appropriates the “natural” power of the women represented even though the principal male figure who is caught in the erotic appeal of the androgynous boy who plays the silent woman is himself the foolish senex iratus.

As noted above, both comedies conclude their conventional action with a radical surprise that disrupts expectation. Measure for Measure ends with the focus on the potential marriage between the formerly ascetic Duke and the novitiate Isabella. When Epicoene exercises the typical comic device in which the identity of the young woman is revealed, the text conveys the knowledge that this character is hired by Dauphine early in the play but delays the revelation of the final comic conceit, the hidden gender of Epicoene, until the final moment. Like the comedies of the Restoration that it anticipates, The Silent Woman exercises a wit structure; and its playfulness derives from the manipulation of ignorance by those who have knowledge. We enjoy witnessing the operation of Dauphine's trickery as it exploits the ignorance of the rich Morose who is blinded by his particular mania. As in almost all comedies of this kind, the wit of the younger generation accomplishes a redistribution of family wealth and celebrates the triumph of an economy of expenditure over an economy of frugality. The complicity of young males is strengthened by appropriating the heroine into that group as another male.

Jonson's comedy is atypical, however, in that the revelation of Epicoene's male identity removes the possibility that Dauphine will receive the conventional bounty of both money and heroine.7 The absence of a real heroine who would align with Dauphine or even with Truewit skews the conventionality of the comedy. In the essay cited above, Rackin states that “in Epicoene, where reality is social, gender is an ineluctable reality; instead of celebrating androgyny, the play indulges in homophobic satire.”8 I would identify Jonson's comedy as misogynist, but not unequivocally homophobic. The play trades in strictly defined gender differences and curiously isolates its young heroes from heterosexual relationship except by allusion. In addition, Epicoene makes the women of this world creatures of ridicule, hermaphroditical in their usurpation of male prerogatives, estranged in satire both from the men of the play and the men of the audience. Jonson's play celebrates the complicity of men, and the order restored at the end of the comedy forms itself through this bond among men. Dauphine seems happy enough to have gained control of the money he desired and the respect of his friends. Unlike the conventional ending of comedy, Epicoene contains the dissolution of the false marriage and proposes no other, and the community of men solidify their position. The boy whom Dauphine uses to play Epicoene is welcomed into this male society as a kind of initiate, and Truewit suggests that within the year he will be sufficiently mature to perform as a “visitant,” a surreptitious lover within the circle of women.

While the play suggests that these women will be susceptible to his adolescent erotic appeal, the newly strengthened society of young males seems strangely invulnerable to the heterosexual disturbance that beset the young men of conventional comedy. The play celebrates male solidarity and defers its most provocative reference to heterosexual activity until its heroine turned hero completes puberty. As John Gordon Sweeney III writes in Jonson and the Psychology of the Public Theater:

Jonson's aggression toward women in this play serves two psychological ends: first, it is a confession, an acknowledgment of the fear suppressed in the earlier plays, that women are really nasty characters; second, to portray them as nasty is revenge against them, not just for their malignancy but also for their rejection of males. And it is this bitter admission of his own hostility toward females that softens the male-to-male conflict and admits homosexuality as an acceptable activity. One might say there is a system of psychic compensation at work here—women being what they are, men must stick together.9

Here the only representation of a desirable female disappears into the authentic presence of the boy actor; and the male hero gains his financial reward independent of the female who conventionally accompanies this gift. Power and pleasures play themselves out exclusively within a tightly unified group of young males.

At the beginning of Measure for Measure, the Duke's retreat in favor of the younger Angelo promises an opening to a typical structure in which the social world of the comedy would reconfigure itself around the greater vigor, wit, and liberality of the younger generation. The obvious senex iratus withdraws and authorizes his younger substitute who then appropriates the arbitrary exercise of law that usually characterizes the older male in comedy. In the guise of the Friar, the Duke plays the role of the crafty servant, and then reveals his identity and claims the young woman. The situation in which the younger male and the surrogate father compete for the young woman is a staple of comedy. How many comedies, however, bestow the woman upon the older man? Measure for Measure tricks us by reversing the conventional conclusion to the Oedipal competition before we even recognize there is one. The comic complications are not knit up in the three arbitrary marriages that end the play—none of which is the result of “a sympathy in choice” (MND I.i.141) or promises “mutual entertainment” (I.ii.142). In a rapid disposition of loose ends, the Duke compels Angelo to marry Mariana, Lucio to marry a bawd, and Isabella to marry him. He efficiently dispatches Angelo and Mariana offstage where their marriage is performed within the space of twenty lines which the Duke uses to comfort Isabella who grieves, ostensibly, over the fictitious death of her brother. On the basis of earlier assertions, we may assume that these forced marriages will please Mariana, the bawd, and the Duke while thwarting the desires of Angelo, Lucio, and Isabella. The mutuality of the relationship between Claudio and Juliet has faded from any significant focus, and the young woman is curiously absent from this scene. The three other marriages, as noted above, are arbitrarily forced and unpromising. The final exit displays the departure of estranged individuals rather than a reconstituted community of happy lovers who would embody the comedic fantasy in a festive dance within the ducal palace.

Measure for Measure does, however, exploit the intricate connection between sex and money that provides a part of almost every comic structure. And yet, even that convention is disrupted here when the Duke reclaims the administration of Vienna and bestows the heroine upon himself, not the young man. He proposes to distribute wealth to Isabella if she acquiesces: “if you'll a willing ear incline, / What's mine is yours, and what is yours is mine” (V.i.535-36). Two points demand to be made in a gloss on this statement: (1) This exchange is dependent upon Isabella's listening, not speaking; and (2) it is an exchange, not a gift. Since Isabella has no capital other than her body, in this marriage she will give up her desires for both poverty and chastity in trade for the combination of the Duke's wealth and a new identity. The Duke makes no demands for any other form of dowry—an exception in the series of sexual transactions in the play. Recall that Claudio and Julietta have deferred their marriage until her dowry—in the hands of friends—has been propagated (I.iii.133-41) and also that Angelo refused to proceed with marriage to Mariana when “her brother Frederick was wrecked at sea, having in that perished vessel the dowry of his sister” (III.i.217-19).

Whereas the Duke in Shakespeare's play manages its action even more overtly than the efforts of Dauphine and Truewit in Epicoene, events here are more subject to accident, coincidence, arbitrary substitution, and surprise. We witness his manipulation, not confident that it will be successful, uneasy because we have no sense of his motives. Even more significantly, at the end of the comedy, we learn that the Duke, like Angelo, is subject to the potentially destructive, if natural, energy of lust—the appetite that has brought Vienna to the point of corruption that begins the play. His lapse of authority has provided the license for unrestrained sexuality, and at the close of the comedy, he, like Angelo, is now subject to desire for Isabella, and Isabella remains trapped within the constraints of the identity that his desire imposes upon her. While she may maintain some authority over the Duke as the stimulus to his desire, she is silenced by him.

Epicoene acknowledges the power of the female when she stimulates the sexuality of a male by using that power in the comic manipulation of Morose; but Jonson's comedy isolates its company of young men from that vulnerability by excluding females who would arouse their desire and threaten their authority. The play exercises a clear hostility to women both in the representation of the shrews and in the absence of those females who would provoke the desire of its young male characters. Measure for Measure acknowledges the power of the female in its graphic display of Angelo's comic peripeteia and also, less unequivocally, in the Duke's possible submission to the erotic appeal of the same female. More subtly, the language of this comedy positions the energy of sexual attraction in opposition to authority and restraint and offers no mediation between a self-destructive feeding—“like rats that ravin down their proper bane”—and an equally destructive fast. Whereas this comedy opens its space to erotic females, it also, in my opinion, mediates Isabella's threat by incorporating aspects of the shrew into the representation of her character. That mediation may well be an act of hostility related to Jonson's misogyny in the depiction of the Collegiates in Epicoene. Still the possibility of Vincentio's submission to the erotic presence of Isabella at the end of Measure for Measure may not only acknowledge the erotic power of her female body and keen intellect; it may promise that the Duke, like Morose, will be subject to the re-transformation of his silent bride into a shrew in the post-performance future. Isabella's silence may be a temporary condition. As noted above, both Claudio and Angelo have deferred marriage on the basis of delayed or lost dowries, while the Duke finds Isabella herself to be sufficient commodity independent of dowry. That fact may represent an acknowledgement of her power or authority in the sexual dynamic; but the absence of the conventional relationship between the achievement of sexual desire and money—in a play in which sex and finances have been intricately mingled—contributes to the peculiarity of the final scene of Measure for Measure.

In recent years scholars have speculated on the sexual significance of males performing female roles in the Athenian and Elizabethan theaters. Rackin's explication of the epilogue of As You Like It demonstrates the possibilities of that speculation. At the same time, I suggest that it remains highly problematic to build hypotheses about the ways in which the original spectators used their awareness that all the women in the plays were performed by males. The arguments of John Styan and Sue-Ellen Case mark antithetical readings of that convention. Styan asserts that “Shakespeare's tranvestism … revealed femininity by emphasizing the differences of mind and behaviour between man and woman, helping us to see something as familiar as sex in a fresh light. …”10 Sue-Ellen Case asks us to read the practice of the transvestite performances of the boy actors as the implementation of homoeroticism in which the presence of the female character functioned only as an aesthetic occasion that licensed sexual interaction between males.11 Her argument, of course, asks us to read Shakespeare's texts as an unequivocal endorsement of the conditions of their original performance; and her discussion occludes the possibility that certain tropes that refer to the convention may, in fact, contend with the convention. The text of Antony and Cleopatra demands that the actor playing the fascinating Egyptian queen voice the anxiety that this character “shall see / Some squeaking Cleopatra boy [her] greatness / I'th'posture of a whore” (V.ii.215-17).12 In a complex theatrical strategy, these lines foreground the problematic nature of the convention at the same time in which the performance makes its most stringent demands upon the actor. However, reading the practice of the transvestite actor through the text or the text through the practice, at this removed point, remains a difficult theoretical exercise.

What we can claim, of course, is that this convention must have amplified the comic value of the basic conceit of Dauphine's trickery and also that it must have made Measure for Measure even more equivocal than it seems today. Our increasing sensitivity to theatrical representations of gender will compel us to continue to re-examine the conventions of comedy, their typical and idiosyncratic variants within the historical situation of their original production, as well as to use the plays as vehicles for contemporary performance. My intention here is to suggest that in the hurlyburly of conflicting and disparate conventions of comic character and action, the sexual politics of plays like Measure for Measure and Epicoene will not be easy to sort out either in scholarship or in the theater.


  1. Epicoene, or The Silent Woman, in Ben Jonson, ed. C. H. Herford and Percy Simpson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), Vol. V.

  2. The Wakefield Master's re-writing of the Noah play provides an important prototype. This character does answer her husband's physical abuse with her own, but the humor of her character derives more from her sharp-tongued antagonism to Noah's project.

  3. In the “Examen of the Silent Woman” Dryden claims that its “intrigue … is the greatest and most noble of any pure unmixed comedy in any language” (“An Essay of Dramatic Poesy,” in Selected Works of John Dryden, ed. William Frost [New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1953], p. 367 [italics mine]).

  4. Phyllis Rackin, “The Boy Heroine on the English Renaissance Stage,” PMLA, 102 (1987), 36.

  5. The text of Measure for Measure from which I quote in this paper is that of The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells et al. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).

  6. Edward Dowden claims that Isabella's strength allows her “to accept pain and death for herself rather than dishonour,” and so she can accept that fate for “those who are dearest to her.” He continues by identifying the tirade in III.i, which I quote in my text a few lines below, as the manifestation of her indignation against some abstraction of disgraced manhood (Shakespere: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art [1875; rpt. New York and London: Harper, 1900], pp. 73-74).

  7. Rewarding the hero with both the female he wants and her fortune provides a comic conflation of desire from Plautus and Terence onwards. Consider some of the Shakespearean variations: Bassanio presented with both Portia and her fortune; Sebastian selected by the rich Olivia; Florizel, who marries a shepherdess who is actually a princess. Congreve, in both Love for Love and The Way of the World, exploits this combination of sexuality and money.

  8. Rackin, “The Boy Heroine,” p. 31.

  9. John Gordon Sweeney III, Jonson and the Psychology of Public Theater (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press 1985), p. 120.

  10. J. L. Styan, Shakespeare's Stagecraft (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1967), p. 42.

  11. Sue-Ellen Case, Feminism and Theatre (New York: Methuen, 1988), pp. 21-27.

  12. Phyllis Rackin uses this trope to another purpose in an essay that demonstrates the ways in which Cleopatra's variety displays the emptiness of the Roman world; see her “Shakespeare's Boy Cleopatra, the Decorum of Nature, and the Golden World of Poetry,” PMLA, 87 (1972), 201-12.

Mark Taylor (essay date winter 1989)

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SOURCE: Taylor, Mark. “Presence and Absence in Much Ado about Nothing.Centennial Review 33, no. 1 (winter 1989): 1-12.

[In the following essay, Taylor focuses on the inscrutability of characters' reports of events in Much Ado about Nothing that are not represented on stage. Emphasizing the subjectivity of these reports, he focuses on Don Pedro's offstage conversation with Hero in Act II, scene i and the chamber-window scene in which Margaret is mistaken for Hero.]

Who would not say, that glosses increase doubt and ignorance, since no booke is to be seene, whether divine or profane, commonly read of all men, whose interpretation dimmes or tarnisheth not the difficulty? The hundred commentary sends him to his succeeder, more thorny and more crabbed, than the first found him.

—Montaigne, “Of Experience” (trans. Florio)

It is difficult to read. The page is dark.
Yet he knows what it is that he expects.
The page is blank or a frame without a glass
Or a glass that is empty when he looks.

—Wallace Stevens, “Phosphor Reading by his own Light”

What happens in Much Ado about Nothing, on the stage, when Don Pedro presents Hero to Claudio, the man in whose name Pedro claims to have wooed and won her? Hero's father Leonato blesses the match, and then Claudio offers a few words on his lack of words, a deficiency, he explains, that demonstrates the authenticity of his feelings. “Silence is the perfectest herald of joy,” he says. “I were but little happy if I could say how much” (2.1.274-75).1 Now it is Hero's turn, and Beatrice prompts her: “Speak, cousin; or, if you cannot, stop his mouth with a kiss and let him not speak neither” (278-79). I am interested in what follows Beatrice's first two words: “Speak, cousin.”2 Pedro has performed successfully his role of agent in a wife-acquisition deal, Leonato, that of father of the bride, and Claudio, without doing much of anything, that of triumphant suitor. If Hero were content to play a role in the drama these men have created—and we might suppose that women were expected to accept such roles—she could say something: she could, for example, at least echo Claudio's words. But she says nothing (where Claudio only pretended to say nothing), and that nothing, or more properly the duration of that nothing, is part of the definition of Hero and thus of the meaning of the play. “Speak, cousin,” says Beatrice. How long does everyone wait until it becomes perfectly clear that Hero is not going to speak, a social awkwardness that Beatrice tries finally to gloss over by suggesting that, as alternative to speech, Hero might kiss her new fiancé? What gap, what implied ellipsis, exists between Beatrice's first two words and the rest of her speech, and correspondingly, what is the length of the moment that Hero stands there, probably between Leonato and Claudio, all eyes upon her, saying nothing?

There is no single answer to these questions; indeed, there can be as many answers as there are productions of the play that care to consider the questions at all. At one end of the spectrum Beatrice's pause after “Speak, cousin,” will be virtually imperceptible, thus suggesting the immediate second thought that a kiss is a far more significant seal of approval than a mere word.3 At the other end, she will give Hero perhaps as much as ten or fifteen seconds to do nothing, a hiatus that encourages the audience to reflect upon Hero's probable indifference to Claudio, a man to whom she has never spoken, and thus upon the extent of her victimization and of injustice in Messina.

In all events, the words Hero fails or refuses to speak at Beatrice's behest become as much a part of the play as anything explicitly and positively said or done upon the stage. This silence pushes the play's meaning, even its content, beyond its physical representation of word or deed into its gaps and interstices, its words unspoken and things undone, absences which are not at Much Ado's periphery but at its very center, amid all that can be heard and seen. I wish now to examine two much larger gaps in the play's surface than the ellipsis in Beatrice's speech and thereby propose how much the play incorporates of what it chooses not to represent.


The first of these is Don Pedro's actual wooing of Hero during the second-act revel at Leonato's house. Pedro asks Hero whether she will “walk about with your friend” (2.1.75), and after a few jests about his appearance, “They step aside,” in the modification of Hanmer's stage direction that most editors follow. They are apparently absent from the stage for the next hundred lines or so, and some eight lines after they re-enter, Pedro will tell Claudio and the others that “fair Hero is won.” What has been the method of Pedro's wooing and winning Hero during their presumable absence from the stage?

Don Pedro, like most of the other men in attendance, is masked during the revel. Although masks can succeed as disguises, as Hero's will do in 5.4, it seems to me that here Shakespeare is deliberately violating a convention allowed by his theatre. Right after Pedro and Hero “step aside,” Ursula tells the masked Antonio, Hero's uncle, “I know you well enough. You are Signior Antonio” (99-100), a remark whose whole point seems to be to show that masks do not always work. And right after this segment Beatrice defames Benedick to his very own masked face (“Why, he is the Prince's jester, a very dull fool” [122] and so forth). Although Beatrice may believe she is slandering Benedick before a third party, the scene, like Beatrice herself, becomes far wittier and subtler if one assumes that she is perfectly aware of Benedick's identity and is taking advantage of the defenselessness that his mask imposes—that is, of Benedick's continuing commitment to his disguise. And if Ursula and Beatrice can so easily penetrate the disguises of Antonio and Benedick, then it follows that Hero can do the same to Don Pedro.4 Consequently, though the actual wooing scene is denied to us as readers or spectators, we are rather openly invited to suppose that Don Pedro never fools Hero at all.

This supposition is strengthened by the reiterated belief of several of Much Ado's characters that Don Pedro is wooing for himself anyway. Antonio tells Leonato that his (Antonio's) servant overheard Pedro tell Claudio that he (Pedro) loves Hero himself and plans to tell her so “this night in a dance” (1.2.6-14). Leonato believes this report, for he will then encourage the possibility of a royal alliance for his daughter. “If the Prince do solicit you in that kind,” he tells Hero, meaning in the way of marriage, “you know your answer” (2.1.57-59). And Claudio also believes this account of Pedro's affections when it is related to him by Don John, who seems, or pretends, to be commenting upon what his brother is actually doing during the, to us, invisible wooing scene. “The Prince woos for himself,” Claudio concludes, and adds, sententiously, “Friendship is constant in all other things / Save in the office and affairs of love” (2.1.156-58). And Benedick sees the matter the same way: “The Prince hath got your Hero” (173), he tells Claudio.

Still another possibility, further complicating the whole matter, is raised by Borachio in 1.3.51-56, where he tells Don John, “Being entertained for a perfumer, as I was smoking a musty room, comes me the Prince and Claudio, hand in hand in sad conference. I whipt me behind the arras and there heard it agreed upon that the Prince should woo Hero for himself, and having obtained her, give her to Count Claudio.” This statement, although it anticipates the event, makes the scene in question recede still deeper into the inaccessible core of the play.

But unlike Borachio, who has no one to confirm his account, Antonio, Leonato, Claudio, and Benedick all agree that Pedro might be wooing for himself. And there is one sense in which their suspicions appear simply wrong. Before the revel Don Pedro had promised Claudio that “I will assume thy part in some disguise, / And tell fair Hero I am Claudio. … And the conclusion is she shall be thine” (1.2.289-90; 295); his later announcement, “Here, Claudio, I have wooed in thy name, and fair Hero is won” (2.1.267-68), is entirely consistent with this description of his design, and the play's plot goes forward from here with no further inquiry into the matter. A reader who possessed only these directives of Don Pedro's would regard the wooing scene merely as a necessary contrivance of the plot, as a way of securing Hero for the unromantic Claudio, the precise operation of which is no more to be questioned than, for example, that of the bed-trick in Measure for Measure. As it is, however, the parallel account of Pedro's personal interest in Hero, utterly at variance with what he himself says but given some support by the likelihood that male disguises are ineffective in this play, forces attention upon the absent wooing scene—in the same way that Beatrice's injunction to Hero to speak forces attention upon her silence. What we have, it seems to me, is not a mere description of an unrepresented event, which should be accepted at face value (as I believe we accept Hamlet's account to Horatio of his escape from the ship bearing him to England), but rather two—or three, if we add Borachio's—competing interpretations or readings of an event whose opacity makes our own corrective reading impossible. And since we cannot read the wooing scene, for all of our curiosity about it, since we can never know it, we can infer only that its exegetes are reading themselves rather than a separate text outside them: that Don Pedro's helpful and generous explanation of his behavior shows that he is a helpful and generous man, that Leonato's enthusiasm for a royal match for his daughter shows his desire for social advancement, that Claudio's cynical platitudinizing shows his profound cynicism. It is not that one man is right and the others wrong, but that the play focuses our attention upon a blank spot within itself as a way of showing how various characters perceive themselves in that blank spot.


The second, much larger gap in Much Ado is the chamber-window scene, as it is usually called, in which the gentlewoman Margaret and Don John's crony Borachio are noted, at night, at Hero's bedroom window by Don John, Don Pedro, and Claudio, the last two of whom mistake Margaret for Hero, whose unchastity thus becomes proven to them and a provocation to the denunciations of act 4. This scene occurs—perhaps one should say it fails to occur—at the very center of the play: it is framed by 3.2, in which Don John offers to show evidence of Hero's promiscuity to Don Pedro and Claudio, and 3.3, in which Dogberry's watchmen overhear Borachio tell Conrade of his successful practice. Moreover, unlike the wooing scene, which ends up having consequences only for Hero and Claudio, the chamber-window scene greatly affects all subsequent aspects of the play's action. In the serious plot, to borrow the New Arden editor's questionable yet helpful designations,5 it misuses the Prince, vexes Claudio, and undoes Hero, as Borachio said it would (2.2.28-29); it changes radically the direction of the comic plot once Beatrice extracts from Benedick a pledge to “Kill Claudio” (4.1.288) to avenge poor Hero; and it is the entire raison d'être of the auxiliary plot, for if Borachio's conversation were not overheard, there would be no need in the play for Dogberry and his assistants. The chamber-window scene is remarkable in its complexity and therefore still more remarkable in its absence.

There have been numerous justifications of the scene's absence, including explanations that it could not be convincing on the stage, but it seems to me that most commentators have proceeded on the mistaken premise that at the center of Much Ado something is missing rather than that nothing is present.6 The problem is not an absence (though one inevitably uses words like “absent” and “missing” for the chamber-window scene) or incompleteness, e.g., because of authorial oversight or inability, but rather a presence—but of nothing, a void. The play is neither making its point by representation nor failing to make it by non-representation, but is making it by non-representation. As I hope to show, it is only by transgressing the limits of word and action here that Much Ado can fully articulate its meaning. Surely there exists a valid distinction between an event not worth the playwright's time and trouble to dramatize (again, like Hamlet's boat ride), an unambiguous report which can be taken at face value, and an event whose non-representation is a precise corollary of its inscrutability. Such an event is the chamber-window scene, which simply refuses to answer any questions we ask of it. No report of this event can be verified because the event is a nothing; if one looks behind any given report, all one finds is another report.

There are two rather extended accounts of the chamber-window scene, Borachio's and Don Pedro's, which are worth comparing. In the first of them Borachio, overheard by the men of the watch, tells his friend Conrade what has recently transpired.

But know that I have to-night wooed Margaret, the Lady Hero's gentlewoman, by the name of Hero. She leans me out at her mistress' chamber window, bids me a thousand times good night—I tell this tale vilely; I should first tell thee how the Prince, Claudio, and my master, planted and placed and possessed by my master Don John, saw afar off in the orchard this amiable encounter.


Since it is Borachio's intention to give only the most bland and matter-of-fact account of the episode, with no embellishments—that Don John maneuvered the Prince and Claudio into their places as audience; that Borachio then addressed Margaret as Hero; and that during “this amiable encounter” Margaret bid him “a thousand times good night”—it is significant that he has so much trouble telling his tale, that he is aware of this trouble, and that he makes us aware of it. It may be, of course, that he is drunk, as his promise to Conrade that “I will, like a true drunkard utter all to thee” and his very name suggest,7 but if so, does he have trouble with the story because he is drunk, or is he drunk so that he will have trouble with the story? It seems to me that the main point of his drunkenness is to confound his account of his earlier practice, and the point of the confounding is to show that the practice will not admit of objective transcriptions but only of unreliable readings that are colored by the reader's condition. If the reader is confused by drink, then his interpretation will be similarly confused.

It is remarkable that the men of the watch can make as much sense as they do of Borachio's meanderings, and that they will decide to take him and Conrade into custody, but what they hear is not entirely what is said. Before he speaks of the chamber-window scene, Borachio converses with Conrade about fashion and asks rhetorically, “But seest thou not what a deformed thief this fashion is?” (115). Overhearing this remark, the men of the watch make the simple adjective “deformed” into a proper noun, the name of a thief, “I know that Deformed,” says the First Watch. “'A has been a vile thief this seven year” (116-17). What they do with the meaning of “deform,” actually, is deform it. And their doing so, before our very eyes and ears, with a word we, too, have just heard, is another demonstration either that interpretations create new meanings for texts rather than making manifest meanings that are latent within them; or that the impetus to these meanings, and thus their foundation, is outside and prior to the text, not text at all but pretext.

At the de facto trial of Hero in 4.1 Don Pedro offers his reading and therefore his deformation of the chamber-window scene. Don Pedro is, in most respects, a good man and a reasonable man, whose main impulses in the play are to help others; not only does he secure Hero for Claudio, he successfully “undertake[s] one of Hercules' labors, which is to bring Signior Benedick and the Lady Beatrice into a mountain of affection th' one with th' other” (2.1.324-27). But his very involvement in the affairs of others gives him a degree of self-interest, a public image that he must preserve and defend. When called upon for his testimony at Hero's trial, he says, “I stand dishonored that have gone about / To link my dear friend to a common stale” (62-63). Perhaps one whose honor's at the stake is never the most reliable and objective witness; and earlier, in being forewarned by his brother that he was about to see a “disloyal” Hero, Don Pedro had his expectations of being personally dishonored shaped before, looking upon Margaret and Borachio, he saw whatever he saw. That is, he eavesdropped not as a disinterested reporter, but as a man whose reputation for making honorable matches for his friends had been implicitly questioned. His critical stance has been formulated and revealed before the text was read or even presented to him. So at that earlier moment, when he told Claudio, “And, as I wooed for thee to obtain her, I will join with thee to disgrace her” (3.2.111-12), if Hero proves false, Don Pedro showed already righteous indignation and some pleasant anticipation of the kill.

In 4.1, after Hero denies Claudio's accusation that “yesternight, / Out at your window betwixt twelve and one” she talked with a man (88-89), Don Pedro submits his full report:

                                                                                                              Upon mine honor
Myself, my brother, and this grievèd Count
Did see her, hear her, at that hour last night
Talk with a ruffian at her chamber-window,
Who hath indeed, most like a liberal villain,
Confessed the vile encounters they have had
A thousand times in secret.


That Don Pedro begins by again invoking his honor should alert us to the likelihood that his reading of events will be exactly that—his reading, neither necessarily false nor deliberately contrived, but as conditioned by his sense of self as Borachio's had been by drink.

At a couple of specific points Don Pedro's language interestingly echoes but qualifies Borachio's. Pedro speaks of the ruffian and Hero's “vile encounters” where Borachio spoke of his “amiable encounter” with the disguised Margaret; and Pedro claims to have overheard the lovers confess to having had their vile encounters “A thousand times in secret,” whereas Borachio said that Margaret “leans me out at her mistress' chamber window, bids me a thousand times good night.” Both men use the hyperbolic figure of “a thousand times,” and both refer to one or more “encounters,” though the encounters thus mentioned are far more sensationalized by Pedro's “vile” than by Borachio's mild and attractive “amiable.” Throughout 4.1, as a matter of fact, both Don Pedro and Claudio speak of Hero in terms that are positively venomous as well as sensational; no language elsewhere in the play is so extravagant as Claudio's words here about Hero, the “rotten orange” (30), who “knows the heat of a luxurious bed” (39) and who is “more intemperate in your blood / Than Venus, or those pamp'red animals / That rage in savage sensuality” (57-59). It is my thesis that these words, like Don Pedro's description of the previous night's activity, do not mirror, even in a distorted way, the chamber-window scene, because that which is nothing reflects no image. Or to return to my previous figure: we have no reason to accept Don Pedro and Claudio's reading of the chamber-window scene, and therefore we do so at our peril, because it is a commentary on a text that is a gap, a great void, at the center of Much Ado about Nothing. If we seek to verify this reading, all we find behind it is another reading, Borachio's, beside which Don Pedro and Claudio's is clearly revisionary. But what has been revised? The text that they so confidently pretend to read is indeed one nothing of the play's title, and their reading together with Borachio's reading, and all of the consequences of the chamber-window scene for Hero, Leonato, Beatrice, Benedick, and others, are components of the play's much ado.

A third reading, another anticipation of Borachio's, makes the scene yet more impenetrable. In 2.2.34-39 he tells Don John that Claudio and Don Pedro “will scarcely believe [the accusation against Hero] without trial. Offer them instances; which shall bear no less likelihood than to see me at her chamber window, hear me call Margaret Hero, hear Margaret term me Claudio; and bring them to see this the very night before the intended wedding …” (emphasis added). If the presumed Hero were to call Borachio “Claudio,” it would mean that she is herself deceived but not disloyal.

Since all these readings cannot be generated by the text, which is a void, they must be generated by the readers. In a recent article on gender difference in this play, Carol Cook categorizes Hero “as a kind of cipher or space, which other characters … fill with readings of their own.”8 I make the same claim for the chamber-window scene and add that it is themselves whom the readers—that is, Don Pedro and Claudio—see framed in the window. Thus Claudio, theretofore cautious, bloodless, phlegmatic, energized only by the possibility that he will find Hero disloyal and be able to “shame her” (3.2.116), posits all of the passion, sensuality, and abandon notably lacking in his own life. When he comments on the missing scene, he reveals areas of himself that are everywhere else concealed: his sexuality and probably his belief that sexuality is indecent and defiled. By contrast, when Borachio reads the missing scene to Conrade, he mentions no word that intrinsically must discredit or dishonor Margaret, his partner in this “amiable encounter.” If others take Margaret for Hero and assume the worst, that is their problem. This is the same Borachio who later will defend Margaret before the great men of Messina. Among these is Leonato, who has great trouble resisting the “facts” according to Don Pedro and Claudio, even after they have been disproven, and who shows thereby the dangers of a reliance upon secondary sources. At a late moment in the play Leonato suggests that Margaret was Don John's witting accomplice in the recent deception: “This naughty man,” he says of Borachio,

Shall face to face be brought to Margaret
Who I believe was packed in all this wrong,
Hired to it by your brother.


Not at all eager to save his own skin whatever the price, the oddly noble Borachio insists,

                                                                                No, by my soul, she was not;
Nor knew not what she did when she spoke to me;
But always hath been just and virtuous
In anything that I do know by her.


Unlike Claudio, Borachio does not displace his own inadequacy (if inadequacy there be) upon a helpless woman.

The scene that causes Hero and then Margaret so much difficulty is itself silent and invisible, an airy nothing that men strive to give a local habitation and a name. It exists, or if you prefer it does not exist, at the heart of Much Ado, but somewhere beyond the limits of either page or performance. And there it mysteriously summons to life both page and performance.


  1. Josephine Waters Bennett, ed., Much Ado about Nothing, by William Shakespeare, in The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, ed. Alfred Harbage (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969).

  2. The quarto (1600) and the folio (1623) versions of Much Ado represent Beatrice's speech the same way: “Speake cosin, or (if you cannot) stop his mouth with a kisse, and let not him speake neither.” Punctuation offers no infallible guide to pronunciation, however, since it is not necessarily Shakespeare's and since the duration of a pause signaled by a comma is uncertain.

  3. This choice only defers a confrontation with the problem. A few lines later Beatrice says to Don Pedro, “My cousin tells him in his ear that he is in her heart” (282-83). What is Hero doing? This is an odd way to describe a kiss, and if Hero is whispering something to Claudio, what is she whispering? How should they appear to the audience at this moment?

  4. Cf. Love's Labor's Lost, where merely by an exchange of favors the Princess and her ladies disguise their identities from the King of Navarre and the others, who are unable to fool the women with their Muscovite costumes.

  5. A. R. Humphreys, ed., Much Ado about Nothing, by William Shakespeare, The New Arden Edition (London and New York: Methuen, 1981) 60. The terms are questionable because they too absolutely impose a separation between the play's “serious” and its “comic” matter; yet they are helpful because they make possible simple reference to different strands of the play's action.

  6. Representative comments on the missing scene include the following. Geoffrey Bullough finds the omission “truly remarkable,” though he suspects that Shakespeare deliberately left it out “in order to draw attention to his major theme of hearsay and false report” (Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 2 [New York: Columbia UP, 1958] 76). Joyce Sexton agrees and finds the absence of evidence from the play (though not from Claudio and Don Pedro's consciousness) telling: “The whole point about slander is that it works without evidence” (The Slandered Woman in Shakespeare [Victoria, B.C., Canada: U of Victoria P (ELS Monograph Series 12), 1978] 43). Other commentators appear to suspect insuperable obstacles to staging; Humphreys believes that it must be kept offstage to be “wholly convincing” (New Arden edition, 56). Josephine Waters Bennett believes that the scene must be left out because “it would either deceive and so confuse the audience, or it would fail to deceive the audience and so make the Prince and Claudio look too gullible” (The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, 275).

  7. “Borachio” resembles the Spanish “borracho,” drunkard.

  8. Carol Cook, “Reading Gender Difference in Much Ado about Nothing,” PMLA 101 (1986): 192.

  9. Nor does Leonato's obsessive and perverse misreading end here. Three scenes later he will still maintain, “But Margaret was in some fault for this, / Although against her will, as it appears / In the true course of all the question” (5.4.4-6). The need for a woman to blame seems a distinct part of his pathology.

Christina Luckyj (essay date spring 1991)

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SOURCE: Luckyj, Christina. “Volumnia's Silence.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 31, no. 2 (spring 1991): 327-42.

[In the following essay, Luckyj asserts that Volumnia's speechlessness in Act V, scene v of Coriolanus represents not triumph but despair, for she understands that her son will die because he yielded to her supplication. The critic emphasizes the Roman matron's vulnerability as well as her vitality, describing various ways she has been represented in performance.]

Volumnia's last appearance in Shakespeare's Coriolanus is a brief and silent one. She has just pleaded successfully with her son to spare his native city from intended destruction; her plea, we know, must result in his death at the hands of the Volscians, whose cause he has betrayed. She passes wordlessly over the stage in the company of Virgilia and Valeria as a Roman senator hails her as “our patroness, the life of Rome” (V.v.1).1 Academic critics take the senator's word for it; they usually see her as “the one triumphant figure that survives the play, the savior of Rome,”2 and insist that she is not “given a moment of reflection or of recognition that [she has] caused Martius' death. … Coriolanus' new acknowledgement of the power of tenderness and family bonds does not change the grim world of the play; it does not even change Volumnia.”3 While some directors do show us Volumnia's fierce delight at her son's capitulation (often—as in the 1978 and 1990 RSC productions—departing from the text to present young Martius as her next exalted victim), others have conceived of her quite differently. Following a venerable modern tradition (which includes, by my count, at least five major productions since 1954),4 Irene Worth rendered Volumnia's silence in the 1984 National Theatre production as mute devastation. Francis King records what he called “her finest moment”: “Small, twitching smiles acknowledge the plaudits, but the eyes express a terrible desolation, since she already realises that he must die.”5 This much-praised interpretation, integral to what was hailed as “the best Shakespeare production to emerge from the National in its 21 years,”6 presented a “deeply thoughtful” Coriolanus who, in the supplication scene, “grows up as we watch, and becomes human, and so has to be killed.”7 In this production, Volumnia's desolation seemed to measure her son's emotional achievement. Indeed, if Volumnia crumbles during the silent procession—as a reviewer of the 1972 RSC production put it, “her ravaged face showing no glimmer of joy, hardly of life”8—we are forced to re-evaluate not only her character but her relation to Coriolanus and to the play as a whole.

Women's silences in Renaissance plays often contradict their stage interpreters. Accusing the silent Bianca of Cassio's murder, Iago claims that “guiltiness will speak, / Though tongues were out of use” (Othello V.i.109-10); we know that her silence conveys, not guilt, but grief. In Elizabeth Cary's Mariam, Pheroras remonstrates with his gentle lover Graphina, “Silence is a sign of discontent” (line 587); she tells him it shows her wonder. In Middleton and Rowley's Changeling DeFlores tells Beatrice-Joanna before he rapes her, “Silence is one of pleasure's best receipts” (III.iv.169); she is clearly terrified. The silence maintained initially by Cressida in the Greek camp (IV.v) may be the wanton solicitation Ulysses claims it is, or it may be desperate resistance. And the openness of women's silences in response to a proposal of marriage is notorious—from Marlowe's Zenocrate in 1 Tamburlaine to Isabella in Measure for Measure and Paulina at the end of The Winter's Tale. That Shakespeare knew and exploited the ambiguities of feminine silence should make critics wary of too hastily judging Volumnia's.

Critical concensus on Volumnia in the play as a whole is reflected in Harold Bloom's recent statement that “Volumnia hardly bears discussion, once we have seen that she would be at home wearing armor in The Iliad.9 Yet discussion there has been, particularly among feminist and psychoanalytic critics, who usually find in her the chief cause of both Coriolanus's masculine aggression and his eventual death at the hands of the Volcians.10 Because his mother failed to nurture him as a mother should, Coriolanus channeled his need for nourishment into phallic aggression. Because, again, it is Volumnia who makes the case for “great nature” in the supplication scene, this fleeting hope of redeeming, “female,” values is contaminated at the source. As Janet Adelman puts it,

When Volumnia triumphs over his rigid maleness, there is a hint of restitution in the Roman celebration of her as “our patroness, the life of Rome” (5.5.1). But like nearly everything else at the end of this play, the promise of restitution is deeply ironic: for Volumnia herself has shown no touch of nature as she willingly sacrifices her son; and the cries of “welcome, ladies, welcome!” (5.5.6) suggest an acknowledgment of female values at the moment in which the appearance of these values not in Volumnia but in her son can only mean his death.11

The paradox of simultaneous redemption and destruction by the mother is explained by preoedipal theory: “the mother's body becomes the locus of fantasies of both union and separation, the mother herself the representative of both plenitude and loss.” Preoedipal theory, however, relies on a mother “lacking subjectivity,”12 who is a pure construction of the threatened, longing, infantile unconscious. Stage performance emphasizes subjective agency; a Volumnia built according to this model is no more dramatically interesting than the most hardened child-abuser. But what about a Volumnia who shows not only a “touch of nature” in the final scenes but an agonized awareness of the costs of her actions? Can we be sure that the preoedipal fantasy is Shakespeare's, and not the critic's or the director's?

In the theater, Volumnia and Coriolanus are the “two leading players,”13 equally prominent and dramatically interdependent, so that it scarcely seems accurate to say, with Willard Farnham, that “the hero does not merely stand at the center of the tragedy; he is the tragedy. He brings no one down with him in his fall.”14 Such an exclusive focus on Coriolanus alone ignores Volumnia's competing claim on our attention and suppresses vital aspects of her role. In his analysis of the 1959 Peter Hall production, Laurence Kitchin remarks that

Volumnia, the stoical Roman matron, is too interesting a character to function merely as a symbol of antique virtue and yet not be defined as anything else. … If Paxinou undertook Volumnia she would no doubt find hypnotic splendour in the old harridan, but that could only be at the expense of the title part. The alternative is to give her straight, dignified playing, as [Dame Edith] Evans did at Stratford, and let the unsympathetic elements take effect, so that she doesn't encroach on the play's main theme.15

The rather unimaginative approach to Volumnia taken by Evans was clearly designed to avoid upstaging Olivier's Coriolanus. The final scenes won sympathy for the hero as a “‘boy’ under the sway of his Roman mother.”16 Yet to restrict the dramatic focus to Coriolanus is to ignore the play's presentation of a dynamic, powerful Volumnia. And to oversimplify Volumnia as either a castrating virago or “a symbol of antique virtue” is to miss the play's many hints at a fully developed figure with the capacity for psychic depth and change. A good deal of recent feminist criticism, by foregrounding Volumnia as mother-destroyer of her son, actually marginalizes her by denying her the full life afforded her by the text. This paper is an attempt to show that in Coriolanus, as Harriett Hawkins puts it, “the nature of woman would appear to be just as indeterminate, and as ‘capable of transforming itself,’ as the nature of man.”17

Volumnia's first appearance on the stage is both a shock and a relief. With a burst of tremendous energy, she ruptures the opening tableau of silent, dutiful women so idealized in Renaissance marriage manuals. As a “blood-lusting, teeth-baring”18 “she-wolf,”19 she is clearly “a complete negation of Renaissance womanly virtue.”20 But this is surely a case where in the theater, as Hawkins puts it, “moral vices may manifest themselves as dramatic virtues,”21 and the psychological distortions of which Volumnia has so often been convicted fuel her ferocious vitality on the stage. Now this is not to return to the Romantic and Victorian Volumnia, to Anna Jameson's idealized “Roman matron, conceived in the true antique spirit.”22 A good Volumnia for the stage is made, not of marble, but of fire—as an eyewitness account of Sarah Siddons's famous Volumnia confirms: “She came alone, marching and beating time to the music; rolling … from side to side. … Such was the intoxication of joy which flashed from her eye and lit up her whole face that the effect was irresistible.”23 As Michael Goldman said admiringly of Gloria Foster's Volumnia for the 1980 New York production, “She gave us not the cold Roman matron, but a fierce Mediterranean matriarch, a woman who could be Lear.”24 Indeed, after the discordant voices of the citizens and the slippery tones of Menenius, the tribunes and Aufidius, we can hear again the “tragic music”25 of Coriolanus in his mother's voice. It is a jangling music—the music of a military brass band—but it is also strong and rhythmic and thus brings relief. At the beginning of the play, Volumnia mirrors Coriolanus; only a critical double standard labels one a voracious matriarch, the other a proud and admirable hero.

Of course Volumnia's is not the only voice in the scene. Shakespeare begins by presenting two women who are utterly polarized—the gentle, “feminine” Virgilia and the powerful, “masculine” Volumnia. Yet the distinction soon blurs. Virgilia can also be strong and stubborn; Volumnia summons up powerful maternal feelings as support for their antithesis:

                                                                                          The breasts of Hecuba
When she did suckle Hector, look'd not lovelier
Than Hector's forehead when it spit forth blood
At Grecian sword contemning.


The speech is usually invoked to show “the source of [Coriolanus's] anger in the deprivation imposed by his mother.”26 But Hector does to Hecuba what the Grecian sword does to Hector; the lactating breast is compared to a bleeding wound, the infant's mouth to a weapon.27 The metaphor, intended to show the wound as lovely as the breast, recoils to show the breast as vulnerable as the wound. The effect of this kind of mothering on Coriolanus has often been noted; what has been less commonly observed is the vulnerability underlying Volumnia's maternal self-denial. Here Shakespeare presents us with a character who, like Lear and like Coriolanus, is both enormous in will and profoundly self-ignorant. Unlike Lear's or Coriolanus's anger, which is more obviously a defense against their intolerable need for love, Volumnia's aggression explodes from some mysterious raw origin. She is certainly not a likeable character—neither is Lear nor Coriolanus in the early scenes—but Shakespeare carefully plants the seeds of natural affection even here. Her evocation and subsequent rejection of ordinary maternal feeling limit her emotional range and restrict our sympathy for her, while at the same time contributing to her extraordinary impact on the stage. In this early scene Volumnia reveals that, like other tragic heroes, she has sufficient strength to endure change and the dramatic stature to invite it. What is more, any deviation from this colossal single-minded energy will be registered with the minutest sensitivity.

Volumnia's subsequent appearances in the play are arranged schematically: she appears in variations on the triumphal procession and the supplication scene. By arranging Volumnia's appearances in repeated situations, Shakespeare is able to suggest subtle changes in attitude that might otherwise be hidden from us by a character who, like her son, lacks introspection.

The first of Volumnia's appearances in a series of three “processions” comes early in the second act. Coriolanus is on his way back to Rome after defeating the Volscians in the battle which has earned him his name. The entire scene culminates in his triumphant welcome by Rome and his family, but its initial tone is casual and expansive, as Menenius pokes fun at the tribunes. The comic mood thus established is not interrupted but extended by the entrance of the three women. Menenius's exaggerated comparison of them with “the moon, were she earthly, no nobler” (II.i.97), draws attention by contrast to their undignified scrambling haste on the stage, implied by his descriptive question “whither do you follow your eyes so fast?” (II.i.98). Indeed, throughout the scene, Menenius's comic hyperbole guides our response to Volumnia, as she counts up everything from Coriolanus's letters home to his wounds received in battle. Volumnia's language persistently distances her from the realities of war—“wounds” are transformed into “cicatrices” (II.i.147) or “hurts” (II.i.149) earned for “the oaken garland” (II.i.124) and his “place” in the senate (II.i.148). Her final interchange with Menenius is a comic escalating calculation of wounds whose arithmetic is deliberately confusing. The scene undercuts the force of Volumnia's final grand couplet—a verbal flourish which, along with the trumpets, ushers in Coriolanus—

Death, that dark spirit, in's nervy arm doth lie,
Which, being advanc'd, declines, and then men die.


Despite the horrible encomium, Volumnia is less the terrible virago than, as a reviewer of the 1972 Royal Shakespeare Company production put it, “an exultantly bourgeois matriarch seen at her most typical when computing the number of her son's battle wounds as if they were cricket runs.”28 The same comic tone crept into Maxine Audley's impression of the Volumnia she played in the 1979 Royal Shakespeare Company production as “a Jewish-American mother … like the one in Portnoy's Complaint.29 While the scene establishes Volumnia's overbearing attempt to control her son, it also humanizes her by suggesting that her hubris is potentially comic, a pathetic defense against life's realities.

Volumnia's illusions and defenses collapse with Coriolanus's banishment from Rome. At the beginning of the fourth act, she reappears in a scene that is an inverted echo of the earlier triumphal procession; the same group that welcomed Coriolanus's victorious return from battle now leads him into exile. Attitudes have changed with circumstances: the gloating “Jewish mother” of the previous scene now weeps with the rest of them. A confused Coriolanus enjoins his mother to “leave [her] tears” (IV.i.3), and reminds her of her “ancient courage”:

                                                                      You were us'd to load me
With precepts that would make invincible
The heart that conn'd them.


He tries to re-evoke the mother for whom his hazards were her “solace” (V.i.128), but is contradicted by the distraught behavior of the woman on the stage before him; the formulaic “precepts” of stoic fortitude were untried by the blow of real human loss. Volumnia's responses, whose very brevity hints at some inner struggle, move from typical rage at “all trades in Rome” (IV.i.13) to ordinary maternal solicitude:

                                                                                                                        My first son,
Whither wilt thou go? Take good Cominius
With thee awhile; determine on some course
More than a wild exposture to each chance
That starts i' th' way before thee.


The breathless rhythm of the speech shows a new awareness of life's harsh realities, as well as a new desire to soften them for her “first son.” Here Volumnia and Virgilia are both “sad women” who “wail inevitable strokes” (IV.i.25-26); their shared grief is later converted to shared anger. When Volumnia aggressively corners one tribune, Virgilia forces the other one to “stay too” (IV.ii.15).30 When Volumnia threatens both tribunes, declaring,

                                                                                                    I would my son
Were in Arabia, and thy tribe before him,
His good sword in his hand,


Virgilia chimes in with, “He'd make an end of thy posterity” (IV.ii.26), and Volumnia completes her sentence: “Bastards and all” (IV.ii.27). Editorial redistribution of speeches in this scene—inspired by John Middleton Murry31 and followed by Brockbank's Arden edition—robs Virgilia of the angry interpolations that are clearly hers in the Folio, and creates a more violent Volumnia than Shakespeare intended. For Volumnia, the pride and anger that seemed out of place in the early scenes have become appropriate responses she shares with Virgilia to a new, harsh world of political opportunism and personal loss. When Sicinius accuses her of masculinity with his question, “Are you mankind?” (IV.ii.16) Volumnia defends the appropriateness of her behavior, replying, “Ay fool; is that a shame? Note but this fool. / Was not a man my father?” (IV.ii.17-18). As woman was born of man, she has a natural right to his anger and aggression to express her loss. “Mankind” slips into its more modern meaning of “humankind” as Volumnia begins to reconcile two warring aspects of her nature—maternal feeling and “masculine” self-assertion.

Volumnia's third appearance in a procession is also her last appearance on the stage. A modern director's instinctive rendering of her silence as despair rather than triumph finds corroboration in a text which, most scholars claim, is close to Shakespeare's “foul papers.” In the previous scene, a relieved and exultant Menenius joins with the tribunes in anticipating Volumnia's triumphant return; the joyful noises of the crowd are heard offstage. In the procession itself, however, there is no entry recorded for Menenius, the tribunes, or the boisterous mob; since most of the company is probably needed to fill out the crowd in the next scene, the women are accompanied only by two senators and “other lords.”32 One of the senators urges:

Call all your tribes together, praise the gods,
And make triumphant fires. Strew flowers before them;
Unshout the noise that banish'd Martius;
Repeal him with the welcome of his mother:
Cry, “Welcome, ladies, welcome!”


But no noisy crowd carries out the senator's commands and guides our response; as its surrogate, we can only sit in uneasy silence. The quiet of the procession contrasts with other noisy processions in the play (notably with Coriolanus's in the following scene— and with Plutarch's account of the “honorable curtesies the whole Senate, and people dyd bestowe on their ladyes.”33 The effect is both ominous and deflationary. The 1981 Stratford, Ontario, production, directed by Brian Bedford, captured the mood of this oddly untriumphant “triumph” by using a frieze of citizens on the upper stage. As Ralph Berry tells it:

Bedford showed a cortege. Led by a grim, unsmiling Volumnia, the black-clad procession of the three women and young Martius moved rapidly across the stage. There were no words, no sounds of applause, only the electronic bells in Gabriel Charpentier's disturbing and moving soundscape. On the upper stage, a rectangle of harsh light picked out the citizens as in a film frame, the people soundlessly crying their applause for Rome's savior. The effect was ominous, tragic, heart-stopping.34

If Shakespeare intended the scene to be staged less as a triumph than a dirge, a mournful Volumnia further reinforces the tension between word and image. Still wearing the dishevelled garb of the supplication scene, she casts—as a reviewer of the 1954 Old Vic production put it—“a mauve shadow on the optimism”35 of the senator's words, and stands in opposition to other members of her class. A terse silence shared by Volumnia and the theater audience knits them together in common resistance to any simple view of the supplication scene, confirming its complexity. And if the scene is played as a rejection of public acclaim, it brings the wheel full circle; the mother's silence recalls her son's: “No more of this; it does offend my heart” (II.i.167).

Perhaps the most striking instance of structural repetition—and one which is crucial to our understanding of Volumnia—involves the supplication scene. The scene early in the third act in which Volumnia tries to persuade Coriolanus to retract his harsh words to the plebeians is a “rehearsal”—not so much for Coriolanus's submission to the plebeians, which never in fact occurs—but for the final supplication scene. Here Volumnia tries out on her son the rhetorical strategies she will use later: emotional pleas, political arguments, and feigned rejection. She even rehearses her own future role as supplicant by showing him how to plead. Coriolanus in turn rehearses his possible responses of unyielding resistance—“I will not do't” (III.ii.120)—and utter subjection—“Mother, I am going to the market-place” (III.ii.131). The scene is littered with references to acting, from Coriolanus's insistence on fusing role and reality in “I play / The man I am” (III.ii.15-16), to Volumnia's separation of the two in her demonstration of the “part” (III.ii.105) she wants him to play. Any hint of genuine maternal concern, of a desire to save her son from certain death off the “rock Tarpeian” (III.i.211) is swallowed up in this metatheatrical language, which distances both characters from personal and political realities. For Volumnia makes the act of supplication into a parody of itself; her long speech, in which she acts the part of the supplicant that she would have him play (III.ii.72-86) reduces humility to theatrical posturing. Coriolanus responds appropriately to this alternative as leading only to “a most inherent baseness” (III.ii.123); after this his capitulation at the end of the scene can seem only like defeat, the ignoble surrender predicted in his own vision of “schoolboys' tears” (III.ii.116). Yet Volumnia contaminates not only Coriolanus's options but her own. She pleads with her son presumably to save his life as well as to secure him the consulship, but she presents the act of pleading as pure hypocrisy and thus makes it impossible for him either to yield with dignity to her or to settle with the plebeians.

In the final supplication scene, the idiom of the theater reappears, but this time with a difference. Earlier, Coriolanus was to play the “part” of humble supplicant and hide the reality of his inner pride; here, his pride is the “part” which, “like a dull actor,” Coriolanus “forgets” (V.iii.40-41) when he begins to yield to “Great nature” (V.iii.33). In this scene, Coriolanus himself admits that his heroic self-sufficiency is merely role-playing. Indeed, it is clear from the beginning that Coriolanus will yield to Volumnia's plea: early on he cries, “I melt, and am not / Of stronger earth than others” (V.iii.28-29). The focus of the scene then shifts from Coriolanus, whose change of heart we expect, to those who have come to secure it.

In the first supplication scene (III.ii)—which has no counterpart in Shakespeare's source—Volumnia enters alone and is joined by senators and nobles; the case she presents is political rather than personal. In the later scene, Volumnia is one member of a collective of “all living women” (V.iii.97)—a collective dominated by the gentle wife who “comes foremost” (V.iii.22).36 Coriolanus's startling lyrical transformation of the chatty busybody Valeria into a semi-icon, “chaste as the icicle / That's curdied by the frost from purest snow / And hangs on Dian's temple” (V.iii.65-67), evokes dramatic antecedents like the pleading of the virgins before Tamburlaine (1 Tamburlaine V.i), and distances the mother-son encounter. No longer a political strategist, Volumnia stands in opposition to the real political presence of Aufidius and his soldiers. And, in a play in which outward appearance is seen to reflect inner essence—in which, Brockbank points out, “all qualities of the spirit have a physical manifestation”37—the women's change of “raiment” (V.iii.94) for this scene is full of meaning. Volumnia's pleading rags look back to two earlier moments—to the gown of humility worn by Coriolanus when he sues for votes (II.iii), and to the beggar-like disguise he dons when he turns to Aufidius and the Volscians (IV.iv). The double analogue suggests Volumnia's ambiguity throughout the supplication scene—her tattered garments may be at odds with her inner arrogance, as in Coriolanus's appeal for votes, or they may recall Coriolanus's reversion to the enemy, when his mean attire was “a potent visual suggestion that something in the man himself, not just in his circumstances, ha[d] changed.”38 The latter echo may suggest that here Volumnia, like her son in Antium, bares herself to the enemy and finds herself in a situation for which her nature had never been prepared, requiring a compromise of absolute values which changes her fundamentally. The rags worn by mother and son in the last two acts connect their individual moments of crisis, when both make a choice to abandon pride and self-sufficiency and seek clemency in the bosom of the enemy—a choice of which both must later become victims.

As Volumnia begins to speak, Coriolanus anticipates and rejects the “colder reasons” (V.iii.86) he heard earlier; what he gets is not the approach that would divide heart from brain, but a verbal plea anchored in physical sensation. For, though the text of Volumnia's speech stays remarkably close to Plutarch's original, it is filled out by phrases which convey the physiological strain on the women, who “weep, and shake with fear and sorrow” (V.iii.100) at the bodily violence of Coriolanus, “tearing / His country's bowels out” (V.iii.102-103). Volumnia further identifies her own, mother's, body, with the “country” (V.iii.123) and sides with her “neighbours” (V.iii.173), in striking contrast to her earlier scorn for the people. Her equation of herself with Rome hints at penitence for personal as well as political injuries done Coriolanus when she asks, “Think'st thou it honourable for a noble man / Still to remember wrongs?” (V.iii.154-55). And some change in her perception is evident when the mother who sent her “tender-bodied” son to a cruel war desires “th' interpretation of full time” (V.iii.69) for her grandson.39 The bathos of Volumnia's presentation of herself as a “poor hen, fond of no second brood” (V.iii.162-63), in its absurd incongruity comes close to domestic comedy, but may also suggest her clumsy approach to new feeling. If Volumnia is a consummate rhetorician throughout the scene—thus leaving her open to suspicion—she not only echoes Plutarch's virtuous widow, but also anticipates Shakespeare's Hermione during her trial in The Winter's Tale.40 Much depends on an actress who can choose to deliver the speeches with anything from cynical manipulation to passionate conviction. But Shakespeare deliberately leaves the choice open, refusing to allow us to come to simple conclusions about Volumnia's motives. Does she still sincerely believe that peace is an alternative? It seems important that Coriolanus is finally convinced, not by the blatant emotional blackmail of the first part of Volumnia's speech, in which she outlines her dilemma and threatens suicide, but by the peace plan she sets out in the second part. Indeed, if Coriolanus senses that his yielding will prove “most mortal to him” (V.iii.189), he nonetheless goes on to implement her plan with calm self-assurance and some degree of success. A politically naive pacifist may hardly seem consistent with even a softened and changed Volumnia. But a fully cognizant Volumnia must leave us with a tangle of equally unresolved questions. Is she saving her own skin at her son's expense? Is she still the coldly patriotic virago of the first act, sacrificing Coriolanus for the sake of Rome? Or is her patriotic sacrifice made in conscious, agonized awareness of its costs for herself and her son? If so, it is a far cry from the one she gleefully imagines in Act I. Is it a sacrifice made, not for Rome, but for the young wife and child with her on the stage? Or is she committed to saving Coriolanus from his own inhumanity, even at the cost of his life? Actresses may choose to compromise and show a woman torn between hope and despair, but it seems far from Shakespeare's intention to present Volumnia as simply a primeval mother-goddess whose promise of loving union includes inevitable death for her son.41

If Shakespeare leaves Volumnia's motivation complex and open-ended, he uses two major dramatic strategies to deflect her guilt. First, throughout the supplication scene, Volumnia is the instrument of a greater theatrical good. She is perceived less as “a fantasy of maternal omnipotence in which the mother seeks the death of her son”42 than as a necessary and positive advocate for the natural bonds which Coriolanus has tried to ignore. Second, after the supplication scene, she is rapidly supplanted by Aufidius, the real agent of Coriolanus's destruction. Indeed, Coriolanus's yielding to his mother is a sufficient, but not a necessary pretext for Aufidius's revenge—in the previous act, Aufidius had cried, “When, Caius, Rome is thine, / Thou art poor'st of all: then shortly art thou mine” (IV.vii.56-57). In the 1984 National Theatre production, which reversed “the modern tendency toward nonpolitical interpretations of Coriolanus on the British stage,”43 Volumnia emerged as a tragic figure whose “public ‘Roman’ front … almost cracked under the strain of her knowledge that she had destroyed her son” and Aufidius appeared a political opportunist, proof that “those who compromise survive; tragic heroes do not.”44 When Aufidius ceases to be Coriolanus's homoerotic twin45 and becomes his foil and destroyer, Volumnia is released from her position as Coriolanus's primeval enemy and can emerge as his equal. Politics, not his mother, kills Coriolanus.

Despite hints at her deep evolution and tragic recognition, Volumnia clearly remains the overbearing matriarch who threatens her son and Coriolanus is still the “overstrained child”46 who simply gives in. But critics who see only “a child holding his mother's hand,”47 are left with a play that forfeits its status as tragedy as well as a good deal of its power in the theater. Such an interpretation wins pity for Coriolanus as his mother's victim, but fails to arouse any concomitant fear at a dreadful choice made in favor of natural bonds. Even those critics who are prepared to accept change and complexity in Coriolanus deny them to Volumnia. While his silence at the end of her plea is seen as “a breaking-through into a new territory of value and of moral experience,”48her silence is an inability “to voice the sympathy, approval, or affection the moment naturally invites.”49 Yet one wonders whether Volumnia could give a more eloquent reply than the lengthy silence which contrasts so pointedly with her previous wordy praises. And if Coriolanus here is “more of a man” and “less than ever Volumnia's son,”50 it is a paradox that the theater cannot afford—the scene's strongest visual image is that of the bond between mother and son. On the stage Coriolanus acknowledges himself Volumnia's; if the moment has dignity as well as pathos, both characters must contribute to it. Yet whatever their differences about the complex of motives underlying Coriolanus's change of heart, most critics see Volumnia as a monumental figure incapable of change and insist that “the resolution to the conflict in Act V must be read in the light of the resolution to the conflict in Act III.”51 Shakespeare may be using structural repetition, however, to suggest change as well as continuity in the relation between the two characters; this hypothesis is strengthened by the evidence of theatrical productions. A reviewer of the 1965 American Shakespeare Festival production remarked that “When she attempts to persuade her son that he must compromise, this Volumnia argues with a blazing temper but lets it be seen at once whence came his pride. When she leads the women to plead for mercy, she is a humble, piteous figure.”52 A commentator on the 1979 Royal Shakespeare Company production noted that, after the first supplication scene (III.ii), “Volumnia moves back into silence until, like Lady Macbeth, she makes a powerful final appearance which is contrary to the previous movement.”53 I believe that the text allows us to trace an evolution in Volumnia, from the formidable virago of the first act to the powerful advocate of the last act, through the near-comic bourgeois matriarch of Act II, the “dissembler” of Act III, and the angry, devastated mother of Act IV. And, though the force of Act I lies behind the impact of Act V, it has been transmuted by the play. Volumnia begins by mirroring the hero and speaking his heroic tongue, then passes into a comic, anti-heroic phase in the second and third acts, only to return to her former strength in a different way. Maynard Mack identifies this tripartite journey with the Shakespearean tragic hero.54 Like most of Shakespeare's tragic heroes, Volumnia places heavy demands on our sympathy. If she succeeds in securing it, she also enriches our experience of the play as a whole.


  1. Unless otherwise specified, citations from the play refer to Philip Brockbank's Arden edition (London: Methuen, 1976).

  2. Ralph Berry, “Sexual Imagery in Coriolanus,SEL [Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900] 13, 2 (Spring 1973): 301-16, 315.

  3. Jacqueline Pearson, “Romans and Barbarians: The Structure of Irony in Shakespeare's Roman Tragedies,” Shakespearian Tragedy, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 20 (London: Edward Arnold, 1984), p. 180.

  4. I include in this paper evidence for four productions' interpretation of Volumnia's silence as devastation—the 1954 Old Vic, the 1972 Royal Shakespeare Company, the 1981 Stratford, Ontario, and the 1984 National Theatre. In a letter, Brian Parker tells me that, in the 1961 Stratford, Ontario, production “the scene was presented as a torchlit procession under cover of darkness, with black-garbed women hurrying home stony-faced among huge flickering shadows.” There may, of course, be other productions for which it is difficult to procure evidence.

  5. Sunday Telegraph, 23 December 1984.

  6. Michael Billington, Guardian, 17 December 1984.

  7. John Barber, Daily Telegraph, 17 December 1984.

  8. Richard David, review of Coriolanus, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, 1972, Shakespeare in the Theatre (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1978), p. 146.

  9. Harold Bloom, introduction to William Shakespeare's Coriolanus (New York: Chelsea House, 1988), p. 4.

  10. Recent feminist attempts to defend Volumnia have treated her as either a mouthpiece for an oppressive patriarchal community (Lisa Lowe, “‘Say I play the man I am’: Gender and Politics in Coriolanus,KR [Kenyon Review] 8, 4 [Fall 1986]: 86-95, 90) or “a product of the oedipally organized patriarchal imagination” (Madelon Sprengnether, “Annihilating Intimacy in Coriolanus,Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, ed. Mary Beth Rose [Syracuse: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1986], p. 106).

  11. Janet Adelman, “‘Anger's My Meat’: Feeding, Dependency and Aggression in Coriolanus,Shakespeare: Pattern of Excelling Nature, ed. Jay L. Halio and David Bevington (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1978), p. 121 (n. 7).

  12. For an account of preoedipal theory in its application to Coriolanus, see Sprengnether, pp. 106-107.

  13. Michael Ratcliffe, Observer, 23 December 1984.

  14. Willard Farnham, Shakespeare's Tragic Frontier (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1950), p. 207.

  15. Laurence Kitchin, Mid-Century Drama (London: Faber and Faber, 1969), p. 140.

  16. This quotation is taken from Brockbank's account of the same production in his edition, p. 84.

  17. Harriett Hawkins, The Devil's Party: Critical Counter-Interpretations of Shakespearian Drama (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), p. 145.

  18. Michael Billington, Guardian, 23 October 1973, review of Royal Shakespeare Company Coriolanus, directed by Trevor Nunn, Aldwych, 22 October 1973.

  19. Irving Wardle, Times, 23 October 1973.

  20. Margaret B. Bryan, “Volumnia—Roman Matron or Elizabethan Huswife?” Renaissance Papers 1972, ed. Dennis Donovan and A. Leigh DeNeef (Durham: Southeastern Renaissance Conference, 1973), p. 58. But see also Harriett Hawkins's anatomy of this kind of criticism in The Devil's Party, p. 148.

  21. Hawkins, p. 85.

  22. Anna Jameson, Characteristics of Women, Moral, Poetical and Historical (New York: Saunders and Otley, 1837), p. 282.

  23. “Young the Actor,” in Dictionary of National Biography, ed. Sidney Lee, 63 vols. (London: Smith Elder, 1897) 52: 198-99.

  24. Michael Goldman, “Papp and Pacino in New York City,” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 31,2 (Summer 1980): 192-95, 193.

  25. The phrase is Maynard Mack's, from his essay, “The Jacobean Shakespeare: Some Observations on the Construction of the Tragedies,” Jacobean Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 1 (London: Edward Arnold, 1960), p. 13.

  26. Adelman, p. 111.

  27. As Stanley Cavell puts it, “the suckling mother is presented as being slashed by the son-hero, eaten by the one she feeds” (“‘Who does the wolf love?’: Coriolanus and the Interpretations of Politics,” Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York and London: Methuen, 1985), p. 254). My interpretation is directly opposed to Adelman's; in her view, “to feed is to be wounded; the mouth becomes the wound, the breast the sword” (p. 110).

  28. Irving Wardle, Times, 12 April 1972.

  29. David Daniell, “Coriolanus” in Europe (London: Athlone Press, 1980), p. 100. Ralph Berry also notes “the latent comedy of the mother-son domination scenes” that was brought out in the 1959 Olivier performance (Berry, Changing Styles in Shakespeare [London: G. Allen and Unwin, 1981], p. 28).

  30. I must rely here on G. R. Hibbard's New Penguin edition of the play, which remains faithful to the Folio text.

  31. John Middleton Murry, “A Neglected Heroine of Shakespeare,” Countries of the Mind: Essays in Literary Criticism (London: Collins, 1922), p. 44.

  32. I am grateful to Brian Parker for pointing this out to me.

  33. Plutarch's text is reprinted in Brockbank (p. 364).

  34. Ralph Berry, “Stratford Festival Canada,” SQ 33, 2 (Summer 1982): 199-202, 202.

  35. Edwin Brink, Truth, 5 March 1954.

  36. The physical detail is from Plutarch, but Virgilia's prominence at the beginning of the scene is insisted on by Shakespeare: in Plutarch, he kisses his mother first; in Shakespeare, he first exchanges a long and passionate kiss with his wife (V.iii.44-45).

  37. Brockbank, p. 46.

  38. Joyce Van Dyke, “Making a Scene: Language and Gesture in Coriolanus,ShS [Shakespeare Survey] 30 (1977): 135-46, 143.

  39. Harold Goddard's interpretation of this line denies Volumnia any possibility of change: “we know she will not leave the ‘interpretation’ to time alone but will collaborate vigorously in molding the boy's future” (The Meaning of Shakespeare [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1951], p. 608).

  40. For precise verbal echoes, see The Winter's Tale (ed. J. H. Pafford [London: Methuen, 1963]) III.ii.22-23, and Coriolanus V.iii.87-89; also The Winter's Tale III.ii.40-42 and Coriolanus V.iii.159-60.

  41. For this view see especially Sprengnether, p. 106.

  42. Sprengnether, p. 98.

  43. Samuel L. Leiter, Shakespeare Around the Globe (New York: Greenwood, 1986), p. 84.

  44. Roger Warren, “Shakespeare in Britain, 1985,” SQ 37, 1 (Spring 1986): 114-20, 119.

  45. For an account of the modern tendency to portray Aufidius as a homosexual partner for and dramatic parallel to Coriolanus, see Berry, Changing Styles, pp. 33-34.

  46. Observer, 16 April 1967, review of 1967 Royal Shakespeare Company Coriolanus.

  47. Adelman, p. 119.

  48. Brockbank, p. 59.

  49. Coppélia Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1981), p. 171.

  50. Kahn, p. 171.

  51. Linda Bamber, Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1982), p. 102.

  52. Howard Taubman, “Bosco Brings Passion to Role of General,” New York Times, 21 June 1965.

  53. Daniell, p. 100.

  54. See Mack, pp. 33-36.

Cynthia Marshall (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Marshall, Cynthia. “‘I Can Interpret All Her Martyr'd Signs’: Titus Andronicus, Feminism, and the Limits of Interpretation.” In Sexuality and Politics in Renaissance Drama, edited by Carole Levin and Karen Robertson, pp. 193-209. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Marshall claims that Titus Andronicus offers a profoundly misogynistic view of male-female relations through its presentation of women as estranged, alienated, and silenced.]

Titus Andronicus presents special problems for a feminist critic. We are familiar with patriarchal societies like the Rome of Titus Andronicus, composed of tier upon tier of brothers, who openly barter women in their political maneuvers. Likewise, the play's polarized images of female possibility—the vicious, sexually voracious Tamora, and the powerless, chaste Lavinia—offer a compelling, but no longer surprising, instance of the way a misogynistic vision constructs its own reality. Kathleen McLuskie signals the dilemma: “Feminism cannot simply take ‘the woman's part’ when that part has been so morally loaded and theatrically circumscribed” (102).1 Certainly Tamora, “the blot and enemy to our general name” (2.3.183),2 rebuffs any tentative identification; she seems uncannily to mock early feminist demands for “strong” female characters. Lavinia, however, issues a unique challenge. Brutally raped, rendered handless and tongueless, Lavinia figures as the emblem of the voiceless woman and hence seems to invite our expression of her stifled rage and pain. Yet the act of interpreting “all her martyr'd signs” (3.2.36) itself carries political and ethical implication. In this paper I will consider some questions that Lavinia's definitive voicelessness raises about the peril of co-optation, questions about the directions our critical path might take and those we might wish to avoid.

In granting Lavinia an extra-textual integrity as a character, I am appealing not simply to the text of the patriarchal bard but to Lavinia as femininely embodied in the modern theater. As Deborah Warner's 1987 production of Titus Andronicus at Stratford-upon-Avon demonstrated, Lavinia remains a devastatingly powerful stage presence even when (or especially when) she can no longer speak. Sonia Ritter's Lavinia effectively revealed the need for feminists and others to negotiate a response that steers around the standard distancing techniques of laughter and aesthetic superiority, but also avoids reproducing Titus's appropriating claim to “interpret all her martyr'd signs” (3.2.36). “It is not an unproblematic project,” writes Toril Moi, “to try to speak for the other woman, since this is precisely what the ventriloquism of patriarchy has always done” (67-68).


The revenge play structure is used to enact a fantasy that separates overt sexuality, linked with violence, from the family and extreme family loyalty.

(Barber 119)

Titus Andronicus enacts a male terror of female power, conceived primarily in sexual terms. The pathological splitting of affectionate, familial emotions (directed toward Lavinia) from troubling sexual responses (directed toward Tamora) evinces what Freud called “the universal tendency to debasement in the sphere of love.” Freud attributed the construction to a male desire to protect the early idealized image of the mother from the perceived taint of sexuality (“Tendency” 186). In Titus Andronicus, the sister, Lavinia, is idealized, while Tamora, the mother who is also “other” (because a Goth), is the focus of projected anxieties about sexuality and encompassing power. Tamora literally becomes the devouring mother, eating her children in the final scene. Lavinia is in effect punished, by rape, for her nascent sexuality and independent voice. The rape fixes her, within the play, within the theater, and within the critical discourse, as an object of pity. Thus the rape achieves the goal of ensuring that Lavinia will not be powerful, but will be frozen in a posture of dependence and humiliation.

The opposition between the two characters builds rapidly upon an initial difference. Lavinia enters as a daughter whose first action is to kneel at her father's feet, while Tamora identifies herself as a mother in her opening speech (1.1.104-120). The freighting of these familial positions with political meanings becomes rapidly apparent. Titus presents his daughter as “prisoner to an emperor” (258), and she does not protest this marriage match, although Bassianus and her brothers do. Tamora, on the other hand, enters as a captive but by late in the first scene has won power over the emperor, her new husband:

My lord, be rul'd by me, be won at last …
You are but newly planted in your throne …
… Then let me alone:
I'll find a day to massacre them all.


Tamora is evidently old enough to be her new husband's mother (331-332). This fact, emphasized by the presence of her grown sons, does not prevent Tamora from embodying an image of unrestrained sexuality. Motherhood here carries full sexual connotations, and is presented without the usual sanctification of marriage—no mention is made of an earlier marriage, and Tamora's affair with Aaron mocks the licit connection with Saturninus. Lavinia illustrates the opposite paradox of virginity in spite of her marriage to Bassianus;3 on three occasions her rape is spoken of as a “deflowering” (2.3.191;2.4.26;5.3.36-38). I will return to the significance of this particular image shortly; my point here is to underscore the primitive labelling of the women as sexual or virginal, independently of their marital status or their behavior. These two extreme and confining scripts for female identity motivate the fear that leads to Lavinia's being mutilated and eventually killed, lest she evolve into another Tamora.

Contemporary feminist theory would deconstruct the binary logic behind this conceptual scheme. Indeed, the opposition between Lavinia and Tamora is less significant than their somewhat occluded function as symbolic doubles. In 1.1 first Lavinia, then Tamora, is proposed as wife for Saturninus. Saturninus's odd remark about “new-married ladies” (2.1.15) reminds us that the two women are married on the same night. Tamora proposes sexual “conflict” (2.3.21) with Aaron during the hunt; later in the same scene Lavinia is raped. The parallels suggest that on some level of imaginative projection, the lives of the two women are linked. Moreover, Lavinia's sexuality and her relative outspokenness would appear to discomfit both her male relations and her traditional critics. Significant energy is devoted within the play and in critical responses to the cause of purifying and protecting Lavinia. But even though the virgin-whore opposition between her and Tamora has been exaggerated, the near hysteric drive toward these powerful female stereotypes should alert us to the gender-based opposition in the play: women are simplified, objectified, and controlled by their assignment to categories. As Catherine Belsey puts it, “Stereotypes define what the social body endorses and what it wants to exclude” (165). Lavinia, then, is endorsed as the obedient, virginal daughter, while the dominant, sexual Tamora is excluded. But of course stereotypes belie life's complexity; they are “inevitably subject to internal contradictions and so are perpetually precarious” (Belsey 165). Perhaps for this reason, the contrast between Lavinia and Tamora is subsumed within another “ethical binary” (Jameson 115), the configuration that opposes men as brothers to women as Others.

The enmity on which the plot depends, that between Romans and Goths, crumbles during the course of the play. Not only does Tamora abandon her position as Queen of the Goths to be “incorporate[d]” (1.1.462) as Rome's empress, but the avenger, Lucius, restores order to Rome at the head of a troop of Goths. The political conflict seems to be an encoded distraction, diverting attention from the revelation of intestine disorder, the awareness that the barbarian is within the gates. State organization yields to a more primitive social organization, the tribal order of brotherhood. Tribal loyalty provokes the revenge plot: Alarbus is sacrificed in 1.1. “Ad manes fratrum” (“to the shades of [our] brethren”) (98). The web of brothers (Saturninus-Bassianus, Titus-Marcus, Chiron-Demetrius, Titus's sons) creates a claustrophobic atmosphere, for brotherhood, even in the face of quarrels and competitions, confers the mantle of membership. Of the major characters in Titus Andronicus, only Tamora, Lavinia, and Aaron (who is associated not only with sexuality but with filling the traditionally female role of infant caregiver) lack vindication in the male league of brotherhood. Aaron the Moor, like the female characters, is not brother but Other. In a familiar gesture, the Roman band of brothers projects fearful or threatening qualities onto those it defines as Other.


Enter the empress' sons, with Lavinia, her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out, and ravish'd.

(2.4.1 sd)

In the Warner-RSC production, Demetrius and Chiron squirm, wormlike, into view after the offstage rape, “their hands hidden in their sleeves, sickeningly parodying their mutilation of Lavina” (Woudhuysen). Their insensate (indeed nearly invertebrate) response helps to make sense of Marcus's historically problematic speech upon discovering his niece. Marcus's highly mannered rhetoric, regularly criticized on grounds of stylistic impropriety,4 provides a bizarrely inadequate but nevertheless welcome contrast to the taunts of the empress' sons. Language is in both cases misused, but an audience might differentiate between aggressive misuse of words (“Go home, call for sweet water, wash thy hands” [2.4.6]) and the desperate rhetorical excess with which Marcus attempts to comprehend the sight before him. In this tense theatrical moment, the disjunction between linguistic capacity and the emotion provoked by the mutilated Lavinia is symptomatic of a larger breakdown of social meaning. The action of Titus Andronicus in general ponders possible responses to inutterable horror; Marcus's response is that of the aesthete, struggling to take shelter in his poetry.5

The syntactical logic of this dialogue of one deserves further attention. Lavinia's silence punctuates the reiterated questions which Marcus must begin to answer for himself:

Who is this?
Where is your husband?
                    What stern ungentle hands
Hath lopp'd and hew'd and made thy body bare
Of her two branches [?]
Why dost not speak to me?
Shall I speak for thee? Shall I say 'tis so?
What will whole months of tears [do to] thy father's eyes?


The questions move from generality through specificity to speculation, presenting in sequential order Marcus's realization—which could occur in a single moment—of the three separate crimes signified by the stage direction: “hands cut off,” “tongue cut out, and ravish'd.” Marcus comments first on the most obvious wound, the severing of her hands, “those sweet ornaments, / Whose circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in” (18-19). In Marcus's assessment, Lavinia's hands served decorative or “ornamental” purposes; his reference to “kings” sexualizes the discourse unnervingly. He next focuses attention on her mouth, answering his own question, “Why dost not speak to me?” with the famous lines:

Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirr'd with wind,
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Coming and going with thy honey breath.


Marcus's excursus on Lavinia's mouth accomplishes two opposite linguistic functions, one expressive, one veiling. By comparing the bloody mouth to objects to which it bears only a tenuous resemblance—“a crimson river,” “a bubbling fountain”—Marcus denies the visible reality he ostensibly describes. Mary Laughlin Fawcett remarks that the “language is arousing because it calls attention both to itself and, through its excesses, to the erotic possibilities for the image of a bloody mouth” (273). This image leads him to deduce that Lavinia has been raped: Marcus leaps to the conclusion, “But, sure, some Tereus hath deflower'd thee” (26). Lavinia's damaged mouth thus signifies her rape.

An audience shares something of Marcus's stunned horror when he attempts to describe the spectacle before him. Lavinia stands as illustrative text throughout Marcus's lengthy description of her ravished condition, yet his language seems nevertheless oddly unsynchronized with its task. References to the loss of her “sweet tongue” (49), her “pretty fingers” (42) and “lily hands” (44), are concrete and expressive, although the enumerated physical details of her mutilation can only remind us of the unbroached violence of the rape itself. Later Titus, like Marcus, will distract himself from the sexual locus of the rape by paying excessive attention to the severed tongue and hands (3.1.65-80; 91-114). These wounds the men can see and comprehend; Titus will shortly share with Lavinia the severance of a hand. But the crime of violent entry remains, for several reasons, unspoken.

Aided perhaps by the “erotic possibilities” Fawcett detects, aided certainly by the mythological parallel, Marcus makes a guess about Lavinia's condition that proves true. But until Lavinia locates her Ovidian text in 4.1, he does not and cannot know if she has in fact been “deflower'd.” And the audience, having heard Aaron incite the rape (2.1), heard Demetrius and Chiron boast of it to their mother (2.3), heard them brag of it afterwards (2.4.1-10), nonetheless shares Marcus's ignorance in one important regard: Lavinia does not and cannot tell her story. The narrative of the rape, bracketed by silence, exists as material for aghast consideration. Meditating on the off-stage rape, one confronts the impossibility of knowing another's pain. Lavinia's eventual discovery of the Ovidian text comes as a great relief to her family and to the audience, but satisfaction that she has found a mythological parallel can distract us from her continued silence. Ovid does not tell the story unique to Lavinia, nor indeed could any teller, no matter how sympathetic she or he might be. Lavinia's story, the story Lavinia might have told, is irrecoverably lost. So clearly does language figure power here that to presume knowledge of Lavinia's experience, to speak for her, would enact a species of verbal rape. What might we legitimately say of Lavinia? Pain and silence make her proof against Marcus's knowledge—proof also against ours. The equation changes, however, if we imagine what might be said to Lavinia. Differentiating a response to the problematic of suffering from the one presented on stage opens a possibility for feminist orientation. Simultaneously recognizing a degree of kinship with the mute woman ratifies this orientation.

In the scenes following Lavinia's rape we witness erratic bursts of sympathy, but a sustained inability to grant her any remaining integrity. In one exchange that chillingly illustrates patriarchal attitudes, Marcus presents Lavinia to Titus as ruined property:

This was thy daughter.
Why, Marcus, so she is.
Ay me, this object kills me!


A fitting “tribute” (1.1.251) for an emperor has been ruined. Marcus, Titus, and now Lucius deny Lavinia's identity as a person in order partially to deny the horror of her experience. The Andronici erase Lavinia as subject, through a psychological defense mechanism akin to that by which torturers deny the humanity of their victims. Lavinia becomes the object of both the gaze and the rhetoric of horror. For the Andronici, the rape is an incentive to further violence: as Fawcett writes, they “stimulate themselves to revenge” by “think[ing] of the rape as a deflowering” (276n). Thus they fix her in the position of ruined virgin. Tamora, however, as well as Marcus and Titus, speaks of Lavinia's “deflowering” (2.3.191; 2.4.26; 5.3.36-38). The imagistic term recurs, I think, because it is the closest the text can approach to naming the vagina, the hidden signifier. The absent term, the unspoken word, signifies Lavinia's private experience, which the play at once constructs its action upon and cannot acknowledge.

Yet it is not dramatic propriety alone that prohibits Marcus, Titus, or Shakespeare from specifying the horror of Lavinia's violation. The lapse is symptomatic of a general discontinuity in the play between Lavinia's experience and the possibilities of communication.6 Marcus begins in 2.4 the project of appropriation, the self-assigned task of “speak[ing] for” (33) Lavinia. Titus claims likewise:

                    I understand her signs:
Had she a tongue to speak, now would she say
That to her brother which I said to thee.


Both men substitute their own meanings for Lavinia's muted ones, as Marcus unwittingly acknowledges when he says, “O, that I knew thy heart, and knew the beast / That I might rail at him to ease my mind” (2.4.34-35). Eventually Lavinia is able to reveal the plot and the central villains of her tragedy, though she can never “ease [her] mind” by speaking.

A perverse oversight results when critics ignore Lavinia because she is silent. Albert Tricomi, for instance, writes: “The one horror the dramatist could not depict upon the stage was the fact of Lavinia's violated chastity, which loss was to Titus the worst violation of all …”(17). The silent woman becomes invisible in the text, but not on the stage: the Warner-RSC production made it impossible to regard Lavinia's rape as merely her father's “loss.”


A number of post-Victorian critics influential in our century were made uneasy by the jibes Lavinia directs to Tamora at 2.3.66ff, shortly before the rape. Her remarks, not merely contemptuous but sexually knowing (“let her joy her raven-coloured love; / This valley fits the purpose passing well” [83-84]), disrupt the critical stereotype of Lavinia as pure virginal sacrifice. She has been understood, at worst, to be asking for it.7 Dover Wilson, evidently troubled by some such possibility, saved Lavinia's reputation by splitting her in two—he posited one tender, delicate victim and another “species” of “insinuating hussy” (lix) who surfaces momentarily to mock Tamora.8 Lavinia in fact demonstrates on several occasions before the rape her spirited self-assertiveness. She marries against her father's will: Titus is surprised to learn of her betrothal to Bassianus (1.1.276-286). Saturninus's taunt about the early hour is calculated to embarrass her with its sexual innuendo, but Lavinia responds forthrightly (and Bassianus trusts her to do so) (2.2.16-17). We glimpse a trace of this self-assertiveness later, when she pointedly revises Marcus's instructions for writing in the sandy plot (4.1.69-77). But the rape defines Lavinia as sexual object and deletes her as speaking subject. Her wounded mouth—a mouth converted to a vagina—symbolizes the transformation.

In praising the silent woman and rebuking her forward double, Wilson participates in severing Lavinia's tongue. Theater reviews praising her eloquent silence are similarly implicated. We are secretly glad, I suspect, all of us, not to hear what Lavinia would say, and grateful that the story of the rape is channelled into mythological allusion—distant, bookish, unreal. Lavinia's stark communication, the three words “Stuprum, Chiron, Demetrius” etched in the sand, is distanced by its Latinity (Fawcett 268). The revelation, moreover, is directed toward the revenge plot; it is purposeful, rather than expressive, communication. The demand for revenge, what one might assume to be Titus's interpretation of Lavinia's experience, substitutes for her own inarticulated response.

To what extent does Lavinia share the Andronican desire for revenge? In establishing a parallel with the Philomel story and in supplying the names of her assailants she advances the revenge plot. She also joins the kneeling circle who swear to take “Mortal revenge upon these traitorous Goths, / And see their blood, or die with this reproach” (4.1.93-94). Nevertheless, Lavinia's acquiescence in the plot cannot be seen as a purely volitional act, for she is trapped by the relentless mechanism of revenge. The sole alternatives available to her are madness and death, and as Titus says, “What violent hands can she lay on her life?” (3.2.25). The mutilated accomplice is a victimized woman without voice, utterly dependent; she has no choice but to participate in her father's plot. The “insinuating hussy” has been silenced, and no chance remains of knowing Lavinia's thoughts or feelings.

The first banquet scene, evidently a late Shakespearean addition, offers a keen illustration of sympathy's power to obviate the victim. As Titus serves just enough food to “preserve … so much strength in us / As will revenge these bitter woes of ours” (3.2.2-3), he rambles wildly, self-aggrandizingly, punningly, madly. Much of his frantic discourse advances his claim to “interpret” Lavinia's “martyr'd signs” (36):

Speechless complainer, I will learn thy thought;
In thy dumb action I will be as perfect
As begging hermits in their holy prayers:
Thou shalt not sigh, nor hold thy stumps to heaven,
Nor wink, nor nod, nor kneel, nor make a sign,
But I of these will wrest an alphabet,
And by still practice learn to know thy meaning.


Although acknowledging that she has a “meaning” of her own, Titus arrogates to himself an ability to “pluck out the heart of [her] mystery” (Ham. 3.2.351-352), to “wrest” a logic, a system from her gestures. His elaborate rhetorical excess is silently countered by Lavinia's empty mouth. Either of his plans—forcing his verbal and experiential construction upon her, or “wrest[ing]” her unspoken words—would constitute an act of violence. Neither would acknowledge the unhappy validity of her silence.9

A text, of course, must privilege speaking characters; nevertheless, the tyranny of the word is disturbing realized. Lavinia's silence is particularly haunting because of the distance (which may be spanned by an imaginative reader or in the theater by the performance of a talented actress such as Sonia Ritter) between the appalling experience assigned the character and the relative ease with which she can be labelled (“ravished,” victimized,” “cause for revenge”) and dismissed, as the action continues and attention turns to the tragic hero, Titus. Lavinia's experience of violence and ensuing muteness comprehends the history of too many women to be thus contextualized. But to acknowledge Lavinia authentically is not simply to confront evidence of a sad chapter of women's history. The theatrical experience here is itself vexing, for we are confronted by mute suffering, asked to assimilate uninterpretable pain, and critical discourse is ill suited for this task. The resulting wish to fix Lavinia within an interpretive framework uncannily reproduces the stereotypes operating in Titus Andronicus's Roman society.

Some claim it is the task of tragedy to denote the uninterpretable. Stephen Booth, for instance, argues that dramatic tragedy is fundamentally an experience of the audience, rather than a formal quality of a represented action. “We use the word tragedy,” he writes, “when we are confronted with a sudden invasion of our finite consciousness by the fact of infinite possibility” (85). Definitions or theories of tragedy are thus attempts to limit (and partially to deny) tragic possibility. Dramatic tragedy, enacting tragic events within a controlled, fictional framework, serves similar limiting functions. “The whole subject exists to cope with human nervousness at the fact of indefinition” (Booth 85). Booth calls for an increased openness to tragic experiences enacted on stage; his approach can lead to heightened awareness of how our fears and uncertainties, our pain, are inscribed in tragedy's characters. I submit, however, that Lavinia, as the woman raped and silenced, is unique among Shakespeare's tragic victims. For instance, following Booth's approach, we might say that the experience of King Lear consists in empathizing with the king's psychic pain, as well as in feeling the play's events to impinge upon ordered expectations of the behavior of children and subjects, to the extent that comforting notions of metaphysical order are shaken. Because Lear articulates his anguish, a reader or audience member may justify a sense of sharing the tragic hero's suffering without undue anxieties about appropriation; we find ourselves invited to understand Lear, and similarly to understand the tragic hero of Titus Andronicus. But an audience's or reader's relationship with Lavinia must be qualitatively different: we confront her across a great divide of mute suffering.

Lavinia's place in the play and in the critical discourse illustrates the capacity of physical pain to destroy language, in Elaine Scarry's sense. A victim in extremity reverts “to a state anterior to language” (4), but Scarry argues further that an apparently universal inability to express pain betrays the impossibility of comprehending another's suffering. “Though indisputably real to the sufferer, [pain] is, unless accompanied by visible body damage or a disease label, unreal to other” (56). Pain's victim, dehumanized by an inability to communicate, is condemned to an experience incomprehensible to others. “This profound ontological split is a doubling of pain's annihilating power: the lack of acknowledgment and recognition … becomes a second form of negation and rejection …”(56). Hence it is no surprise that, despite the “visible signs of [her] bodily damage,” Lavinia's suffering seems partially unreal to the characters in the play. Silenced, suffering, female: Lavinia is in many respects unknowable.

Scarry's analysis of the problematic of suffering suggests that even a sympathetic response to Lavinia must acknowledge her essential unknowability, and stop short of either defining or interpreting Lavinia. As Moi writes, “to define ‘woman’ is necessarily to essentialize her” (39). To define or label Lavinia would perpetuate the play's drive to stereotype female experience, to put it in the service of the supposedly fuller and more interesting experience of males. McLuskie urges replacing the concept of interpretation, which treats the play as a “transparent view” of historical reality, with that of “constructed meaning,” which attends primarily to theatrical experience (95). When Lavinia is exposed, humiliated, victimized, we are moved, like Titus, by anger and grief. The Andronican response illustrates, however, the potentially self-serving quality of anger. Perhaps even more to the point, a feminist awareness of the extent to which language equals power will limit any claim to “speak for” Lavinia. Lavinia is indeed fixed outside the bounds of discourse, as D. J. Palmer recognized some years ago in labelling the rape “unspeakable.”10Titus Andronicus sets a peculiar trap by enticing us to anger, which is then revealed as a ghostly reflection of Andronican revenge. Lavinia instructs us to recognize the word- and world-shattering power of pain and of rape. One of our best recourses may be to examine the causes of Lavinia's radical silence by uncovering “the conditions in which [the play's] particular ideology of femininity functions” (McLuskie 106).


Wherever primitive man has set up a taboo he fears some danger and it cannot be disputed that a generalized dread of women is expressed in … rules of avoidance. Perhaps this dread is based on the fact that woman is different from man, for ever incomprehensible and mysterious, strange and therefore apparently hostile. The man is afraid of being weakened by the woman, infected with her femininity and of then showing himself incapable.

(Freud, “Virginity” 198-199)

The Thyestean banquet scene parallels and revises the earlier banquet in 3.2. In each case, attention is directed toward the woman's mouth—Lavinia's hungry but silent, Tamora's “daintily” consuming the flesh of her sons (5.3.61). The cognate scenes link the punishments devised for each woman. In serving the unholy meal, Titus takes revenge not only on Tamora but also on the ruined Lavinia, whose physical hunger is demonstrated in 3.2, and therefore, it might be said, on female hunger or desire in general.11 Tricking the empress into “Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred” (5.3.62), Titus indicates his assessment of the encompassing scope of female appetite: Tamora, “Like to the earth[,] swallow[s] her own increase” (5.2.191).

The association of women and appetitiveness is both symptomatic and constructive of patristic and medieval definitions of the female as matter (not spirit), sensual (not spiritual), and passionate (not rational). The construction pervades Renaissance drama: one thinks of Webster's “apricockes,” of Jonson's Ursula the pig woman. Shakespearean examples include Achilles' complaint in Troilus and Cressida of a “woman's longing, / An appetite that I am sick withal” (3.3.237-238), and Orsino's confidence to Cesario that women's love is “appetite, / No motion of the liver, but the palate” (TN 2.4.96-97). Appetites are notoriously strong and voraciously indulged throughout Cleopatra's Egypt. The complication of this standard misogynistic nexus of ideas in Titus Andronicus is ultimately related to a pervasive attitude of distrust of the body. Bodies are “lopp'd” (2.4.17), cut, chopped, bled, baked, and eaten: the sheer physicality of the tragic action and the sheer disrespect shown the physical self are unsurpassed. Not only are the primal laws of civilized society violated (cannibalism, rape), but the basic integrity of the human form is disregarded. Unattached hands and heads figure on stage, and Titus and Lavinia appear mutilated throughout much of the action. Apologies for Elizabethan taste or suggestions of elemental farce cannot mask the deeply lodged revulsion with the human body expressed in Titus Andronicus. It is no great imaginative or symbolic leap from hatred of the body to hatred of the body's maternal begetter. Barber and Wheeler write that “the outrageous revenge in the play is directed primarily at maternal sexuality, conceived and represented symbolically as a ruthless, devouring power” (136).

Hatred of the mother and hatred of the body are joined symbolically by the theatrically dominant image of the tomb or pit. Both 1.1 and 2.3 depend for much of their action on a gaping hole in the stage. “[T]he tomb of the Andronici is opened to gape like the jaws of some god appeased by devouring its offspring,” writes D. J. Palmer (327). Barber and Wheeler, more attuned to the gender of that god, sardonically remark that “it obviously needs no Freud to tell Shakespeare what this hole is” (142). The pit of 2.3, the scene which opens with Tamora's lyric of desire and ends as Lavinia is raped offstage, is powerfully symbolic. Willbern identifies it as “both womb and tomb, and vagina, but it is also and most importantly a mouth, as its description clearly reveals” (171). Quintus, fearful of “the swallowing womb / Of this deep pit, poor Bassianus' grave” (2.3.239-240), impacts the various associations. Both tomb and pit are, in a different but related symbolic universe, secularized versions of Hellmouth (Palmer 327).12 In Titus Andronicus Hellmouth has been cut loose from its religious moorings; devils no longer drag men into it. In secularizing (and sexualizing) hell, man has not, however, come to accept the tomb as his home. Instead, hell has been objectified onto the Other, the female who will “Like to the earth swallow her own increase” (5.2.191-193).13

Titus Andronicus binds misogyny with the ethos of revenge in numerous ways. The violence directed toward Lavinia punishes her threatening sensuality and her bent toward self-assertion. Tamora, who has herself launched the machinery of revenge, is punished for her power and its constitutive qualities—unrestrained sexuality and unusual articulateness. Both women arouse anxiety because their presence challenges male illusions of self-creation and self-sufficiency; both are subjected to anger displaced from the ominously gaping tomb. To rationalize this anger, women are ascribed such drives as pride, lust, appetite, and in a final gesture, revenge itself. Ordinarily in revenge tragedy a ghost from the underworld would appear to spur the action on. Titus Andronicus features instead the metadrama of Tamora's masquerading as a personified Revenge. In a fulfillment of the misogynistic vision, not only generally negative qualities but the specific destructive force plaguing Roman society must be, and is, objectified in the figure of a woman.

Finally, and most tellingly, desire and appetite are inalienably linguistic in the play. Chiron and Demetrius wish to silence Lavinia even as they desire to possess her sexually. Titus and Marcus desire to speak for her. (We might note that Bassianus, whom Lavinia has chosen to marry, asks: “Lavinia, how say you?” [2.2.16].) The peripeteia of the central acts centers on Lavinia's quest to communicate. Tamora's fate as well depends largely on speech acts. Her murderous plot is conceived in response to Titus's spurning her eloquent formal plea on Alarbus's behalf (1.1.104-120). Her desire, rhetorically deployed, is rebuked. She demonstrates her rhetorical powers again at 2.3.91ff by convincing her sons that Bassianus and Lavinia are about to kill her. The patent falsity of the speech is signalled by her extended description of the “barren detested vale”—the same setting which she lauded as “gleeful” (11) and “sweet” (16) in her earlier words to Aaron. Tamora exercises her linguistic powers to create a fearful mood. She similarly attempts to overwhelm with words when she appears to Titus as Revenge. It is unusual in Shakespeare for a disguise to be penetrated by another character, but Titus recognizes Tamora immediately. She depends not on her disguise, then, but on the strength of her stated conviction:

Know thou, sad man, I am not Tamora;
She is thy enemy, and I thy friend:
I am Revenge. …


Titus, as in 1.1, resists the power of her tongue. His resistance of Tamora, and ultimate defeat of her, constitute Titus's heroicism.

The play thus posits as admirable the man who overcomes woman by disallowing her meaning (Lavinia) or by resisting her words and profaning her appetite (Tamora). Titus's anger and dread of Tamora, whose mouth is projected as vagina dentata, seems logically appropriate, but his response to Lavinia's helpless, indeed infantile, needs is more difficult to comprehend: after assuming the role of caretaker, he destroys her in the final scene. Titus seems terrified not simply of women, but of the traditionally female role of nurturing, protecting, and nourishing a dependent. Aaron's ability to take on this role points up Titus's failure, his decision instead to incorporate Lavinia into his own priority, revenge.

The misogyny of Titus Andronicus is strongly overdetermined: women are violently punished whether they are powerful, dependent, or (in the case of the Nurse) neutral. One explanation for such rampant misogyny is a collective male terror of female power, the anxiety Freud refers to in “The Taboo of Virginity” and elsewhere. Titus Andronicus offers the example, rare in English literature, of a woman controlling her society (though only temporarily), and Tamora wields sufficient strength to provoke real fear in the men around her. The danger of this construction, however, is that acknowledgement of Tamora's control can be used to authorize the play's pathological vision of women. Howard Bloch, for instance, seems to read misogyny as a backhanded compliment to female power:

if misogyny is the symptom of men's fear of the real power of women, then the more misogynistic a culture is, the stronger the females can be assumed to be; in this way antifeminism represents not the derogation of women but an expression of their material enfranchisement.


Bloch's statement in fact mirrors the condition it would diagnose: he sees misogyny as a logical, if not appropriate, response to women's “real power.” But it is ludicrous to suppose that denigration of women is a reasoned response to an objective assessment of power distribution in a society. Misogyny creates its own context, its own reality. And this is precisely what Shakespeare shows us in creating the tight configurations of gender opposition in Titus Andronicus. While I hesitate to claim that Shakespeare purposefully exposes the dynamics of misogyny in Titus Andronicus, the play nevertheless presents the issues of gender, sexuality, and power in dialectical terms that argue against the author's wholesale investment in the projected female stereotypes. Any apparent valorization of the Andronican view of women suggested by Titus's heroicism is denied by the plot, which affirms that this system of gender opposition produces no winners.

In Titus Androncius women are seen as the source for anxieties about desire, dependence, and death—anxieties properly attributable elsewhere, most broadly to the general condition of being human. The play's presentation and treatment of female characters is overdetermined, misogynistic, and clearly lamentable. Yet outrage comes easily, perhaps too easily, with this play, and we should be wary of responding in kind to the play's excesses. Merely to condemn the aggressive, patriarchal system that leads to Lavinia's rape and results in her continual silencing would be to reenact the dynamic of revenge, to forget the victim while prosecuting the crime. Feminist awareness and sympathetic productions like Warner's help to alter the balance. For a new generation of audience members, Titus Andronicus is no longer “a ridiculous play” (Cross 823), nor one whose lingering horror stems from the hero's madness or the quantity of blood on stage. Instead it is the ghostly echo of Lavinia's brutally enforced silence that rings in our ears.


  1. McLuskie writes with specific reference here to King Lear.

  2. Quotations from Titus Andronicus refer to the Arden edition by J. C. Maxwell (1968); those from other Shakespearean plays refer to the Penguin Complete Works (1969). All are noted parenthetically.

  3. See David Willbern 164n: “Such a mirror-relationship suggests the typical unconscious dual perspective on the ‘maternal prototype’ as both virgin and whore.”

  4. Dover Wilson comments that “a woodman, discovering an injury to one of his trees, would have shown more indignation” (1i) than Marcus does at 2.4.16-19. S. Clark Hulse contends that “Marcus might be describing a broken water main, not his niece” (110).

  5. Eugene Waith calls it “a desparate effort to come to terms with unbearable pain” (“Ceremonies” 165).

  6. Lawrence Danson, noting how “the image of the silenced Lavinia haunts the play,” writes that “Suffering humanity is faced with an expressive imperative—to make known its pain and thus (by the act of making it known) its humanness to gods and fellow men—yet is successively deprived of its ‘proper and peculiar speech’” (7). Danson sees the potentially “ludicrous” events of the play as “intentionally conceited, emblematic—and each related to the same basic problem of expression needed but denied” (12).

  7. So Arthur Symons (whom Wilson quotes) believed “her punishment becomes something of a retribution instead of being wholly a brutality” (Wilson lvii).

  8. The critical discomfort resembles that surrounding Desdemona's sexual banter with Iago (Oth. 2.1.109-163). In each case Shakespeare unsettles preconceived notions of female character, specifically the assumption that innocence forbids speech.

  9. Danson asks “what has become of Lavinia” when the fly-killing episode interrupts Titus's “effort to ‘wrest an alphabet’ from her gestures” (18). Douglas E. Green observes that in this scene Titus simultaneously “acknowledges the integrity and otherness of Lavinia's experience and intentions and yet claims the power to determine their meaning—along with her whole system of signs” (324). Green and I have arrived independently at similar readings of the play, but his insightful essay retains a traditional focus on Titus as tragic protagonist, and in that regard our readings differ radically.

  10. “Lavinia's plight is literally unutterable” (322).

  11. Palmer notes the same connection, although he does not acknowledge the extent to which the Andronici participate in depriving Lavinia of speech: “The action of the play as a whole seems to turn upon the dual nature of the mouth that utters and devours: Lavinia's deprivation of speech is finally avenged by a banquet of uneatable flesh” (335). The flesh is, of course, eaten.

  12. Hulse observes that “if we take seriously the pun that Act II made on hell-mouth,” then Lavinia's etching in the sandy pit “re-enact[s] her own violation” while it “enact[s] fellatio” (116). Barber and Wheeler (142) also note a connection with Hell-mouth.

  13. Willbern (172) quotes King Lear 4.6.127-128 to illustrate the perceived link between female sexuality and hell: “There's hell, there's darkness, there is the sulphurous pit.” Also relevant to my argument are 11.121-122: “The fitchew nor the soiled horse goes to't / With a more riotous appetite.”

Works Cited

Barber, C. L. “The Family in Shakespeare's Development: Tragedy and Sacredness.” Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays. Ed. by Murray Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980, pp. 188-202.

Barber, C. L. and Richard P. Wheeler. The Whole Journey: Shakespeare's Power of Development. Berkeley: U of Calif P, 1986.

Belsey, Catherine. The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama. New York: Methuen, 1985.

Bloch, R. Howard. “Medieval Misogyny.” Representations 20 (Fall 1987): 1-24.

Booth, Stephen. King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition, and Tragedy. New Haven: Yale UP, 1983.

Cross, Gustav. Introduction. Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare, pp. 823-825.

Danson, Lawrence. Tragic Alphabet: Shakespeare's Drama of Language. New Haven: Yale UP, 1974.

Fawcett, Mary Laughlin. “Arms/Words/Tears: Language and the Body in Titus Andronicus.ELH 50 (1983): 261-277.

Freud, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. James Strachey. 24 vols. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1962-1974.

———. “On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love.” Freud, Standard Edition 11: 177-90.

———. “The Taboo of Virginity.” Freud, Standard Edition 11: 191-208.

Green, Douglas E. “Interpreting ‘her martyr'd signs’: Gender and Tragedy in Titus Andronicus.Shakespeare Quarterly 40.3 (1989): 317-326.

Hulse, S. Clark. “Wresting the Alphabet: Oratory and Action in Titus Andronicus.Criticism 21 (1979): 106-118.

Jameson, Frederick. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.

Maxwell, J. C., ed. Titus Andronicus. By William Shakespeare. The Arden Edition. New York: Methuen, 1968.

McLuskie, Kathleen. “The patriarchal bard: feminist criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure.Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism. Ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985, pp. 88-108.

Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. 1985. New York: Routledge, 1988.

Palmer, D. J. “The Unspeakable in Pursuit of the Uneatable: Language and Action in Titus Andronicus.Critical Quarterly 14 (1972): 320-339.

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.

Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works. Ed. Alfred Harbage. Baltimore: Penguin, 1969.

Tricomi, Albert. “The Aesthetics of Mutilation in Titus Andronicus.Shakespeare Survey 27 (1974): 11-19.

Waith, Eugene M. “The Ceremonies of Titus Andronicus.Mirror Up to Shakespeare: Essays in Honour of G. R. Hibbard. Ed. J. C. Gray. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1984, pp. 159-170.

———. “The Metamorphosis of Violence in Titus Andronicus.Shakespeare Survey 10 (1957): 39-49.

Willbern, David. “Rape and Revenge in Titus Andronicus.English Literary Renaissance 8 (1978): 159-182.

Wilson, John Dover. Introduction. Titus Andronicus. By William Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1948.

Woudhuysen, H. R. “Savage Laughter.” Times Literary Supplement. 22 May 1987.

Amy Lechter-Siegel (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Lechter-Siegel, Amy. “Isabella's Silence: The Consolidation of Power in Measure for Measure.” In Reconsidering the Renaissance, edited by Mario A. Di Cesare, pp. 371-80. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1992.

[In the following essay, Lechter-Siegel traces Isabella's movement from articulate, rational speech to submissive silence, contending that the change in her discourse reflects the Duke's increasing control of social, political, and religious power in his realm. She compares the Duke's consolidation of power in Measure for Measure with the model of governance set forth by James I in his Basilikon Doron (1599).]

In act 1 of Measure for Measure, the novice Isabella first appears on stage in obedience before a religious authority of whom she requests a life of severe asceticism. In Isabella's first major speech, she makes closely reasoned pleas for the Christian principle of mercy. By contrast, in act 5 Isabella appears in supplication before a secular authority and first makes emotional and then poorly reasoned pleas for the secular principles of justice and equity. In the final scene, the novice, who had requested a cloistered life of chastity and severe simplicity, anticipates a public life of marriage and courtly opulence. A character who is first described to the audience as an eloquent and persuasive speaker is, in the final moment of the play, silent.

What transpires between acts 1 and 5 to bring about this reversal? Can we view Isabella as a developing dramatic character whose desires change from the beginning to the end of the play? Many critics imply that we can and argue that this alteration is a happy development brought about under the Duke/Friar's tutelage and testing. Some critics argue that Isabella receives a “moral education”: she realizes that she was too severe at the start in refusing so resolutely to show mercy for her brother by sacrificing her chastity.1 Other critics argue that Isabella receives a sexual education: Anne Barton, for example, argues that “beneath the habit of the nun is a passionate girl afflicted with an irrational fear of sex which she has never admitted to herself.”2 Similarly, many see the Duke's marriage proposition as a felicitous ending: Bullough notes, “Isabella yields and thereby proves herself too valuable to the world to immure herself in a convent.”3

The problem with all these views, it seems to me, is that they are value judgments imposed from outside based on the critic's assessment of moral, or sexually healthy, or socially beneficial behavior and that they do not consider the ending in terms of Isabella's own behavior and expressed desires. If we consider these, there seems to be nothing in the play which leads us to conclude that she gains a new moral or psychic awareness or that her desires change from the beginning to the end. She never considered the concept of mercy to require that she commit a mortal sin, nor does her final plea for mercy at the end encompass that idea. And there is no hint, in word or deed, that Isabella develops any burgeoning awareness of her own sexuality. Finally, in the end, she does not willfully “yield” to the proposition of marriage; rather, in the face of command masquerading as a proposal, Isabella is silent.

Thus, if we cannot see Isabella as a developing dramatic character for whom the ending is a satisfactory resolution, we must look for the function of her character and the significance of the resolution elsewhere. I suggest that we see Isabella less as a character than as a representative of certain ideas. I am in agreement with Marcia Riefer, who has traced the process by which Isabella becomes increasingly directed by the patriarchal control of the Duke until her voice is “literally” lost.4 Riefer persuasively argues that the anomalous ending represents “the incompatibility of sexual subjugation with successful comic dramaturgy.”5 I would like both to build on and to shift significantly the focus of that position by arguing that the Duke/Friar represents not generalized patriarchal control, but rather historically specific Jamesian-style control as James I outlines his concept of absolutist authority in the Basilikon Doron. In this context, Isabella can be understood to represent two specific challenges to Vincentio's absolutist position. First, in her adherence to religious authority, Isabella resists the secular control of the state; and second, in her adherence to virginity, she resists the social control of the Duke as both a private and public patriarch.6 Further, as a highly articulate spokesperson of these ideas, her rhetoric is especially threatening to the state. If we understand Isabella in this way, we can understand her “development” as a process of containment whereby the challenges she represents are eliminated in the play's resolution.

Such a reading is based on already extensive scholarship which argues for the interrelationship of Measure for Measure, the Basilikon Doron, and James I and which maintains an identification of the Duke/Friar with King James.7 First, I wish to add to this scholarship by arguing that the Basilikon Doron can be read as James's program for consolidating religious, secular political, and social power and that Measure can be read as a parallel text in which the same program is reproduced. Second, I wish to show how the process of containment is reflected in the Duke's ability to transform and to control Isabella's speech.

James opens the Basilikon Doron with a sonnet which defines his divine right style of rule. It begins:

God giues not Kings the stile of Gods in vaine,
For on his Throne his Scepter doe they swey:


This idea is echoed again when he urges his son “to know and love that God … for that he made you as a little god that sit on his Throne, and rule ouer other men” (12).

James's program for the consolidation of religious, secular political, and social power in a divine right monarch is benignly couched as advice to his son on the proper behavior of a king in his three roles of good Christian, of good ruler, and of model virtuous social being—roles which correlate to the three areas of monarchal power. I would argue that it is by the consolidation of power through the use of these three roles that James attempts to establish his absolutist position, and it is further by the elimination of all challenges to this consolidation that James seeks to sustain this position. The treatise also reflects James's perception of the obstacles to this consolidation and his extreme anxiety over these.

Because the Renaissance notion of sovereignty demanded that all people must obey the sovereign without question unless his demands directly contradicted God's orders,9 it is natural that it was the power of the church (whether Anglican, Protestant, or Catholic) which would pose the greatest threat to a monarch who saw a special divinity in his rule. In the Basilikon Doron, James seems to perceive the challenge to his divine right position coming from two sources: the first threat comes from those who would accuse him of insufficient religiousness; and the second comes from religious leaders who would assert the priority of their authority over the monarch's.

His greatest anxiety is over the Anabaptists who show “contempt for the civil Magistrate,” and who advocate that “Christian Princes … be resisted.” These kind of men, James writes, “I wishe my Sonne to punish, in-case they refuse to obey the Law, and will not cease to sturre up rebellion” (7). The divisiveness created by the Anabaptists furthermore increases the power of the Catholics (Papists) to challenge the authority of the state (7, 8). James exhorts his son to suppress the power of church leaders in a language which dramatically conveys both the extent of his anxiety and his absolutist stance: “as well as yee represse the vain Puritaine, so not to suffer proude Papall Bishops … so chaine them with such bondes as may preserve that estate from creeping to corruption” (24) [emphasis mine].

James begins the second book of the Basilikon Doron with an image which marvelously suggests the consolidation of religious and secular control in the person of the king: “But as ye are clothed with two callings so must ye be alike careful for the discharge of them both: that yee are a good Christian so yee may be a good King” (18). “Clothed with two callings” describes the Friar/Duke of Measure who is literally so clothed, and thus by his person contains both appeals to independent religious authority (made by Isabella) and claims of independent secular authority (made by Angelo). The Duke/Friar has not only to contain these competing elements, but also to reintegrate them into society through marriage, and he arranges these marriages through the third role James describes in the Basilikon Doron—his social role as both private and public patriarch of the realm.

In the Basilikon Doron James notes that a good king acts, in relationship to his subjects, “as their naturall father, and kindley Master” (22). In this role, James would undertake the arrangement of marriages as an absolutist strategy of social control in order to consolidate his political position.10 In Measure, Duke Vincentio is, of course, the quintessential arranger of marriages. Also, James's remarks on marriage and the choice of a wife in the Basilikon Doron reflect how the double-edged quality of the new Protestant conception of marriage allowed the private and public patriarch to assume more direct power over women than he previously had. The Protestant marriage gave for the first time in history priority to married chastity over Catholic asceticism and virginity.11 While many have seen this as a happy development for women, others have realized that, to the degree that the power of the priest was diminished, to an equal degree, the power of the family patriarch was increased.12 In the Duke's proposal to Isabella after his dramatic unhooding by Lucio, Shakespeare provides a compelling visual representation of this very transformation from the priority of virginity to the priority of married chastity and of the quite literal transference of power from the priest (or friar) to the husband.

As a natural father, James could claim to be a Father to the realm more convincingly than could Elizabeth claim an analogous personal leadership role before him. The Duke in Measure for Measure uses marriage in the end to contain all subversive elements in the society, to suppress any challenges to his divine right position, and, in good comedic fashion, to reintegrate everyone back into his society—creating a union directed by a monarch who has gained control through the consolidation of his secular political, religious, and social roles.

Finally, I would like to suggest that in the Basilikon Doron, James perceives the threat to his control expressed through “slander.” Those who would accuse him of irreligiousness or question his religious authority he accuses of “famous libels,” “iniurious speaches,” and dishonorable “inuectiue” against all Christian princes (7) and maintains that the “malicious lying tongues of some haue traduced me” (13). His anxiety is so great that he advises his son, again in absolutist language, that the “remedie” for “vnreuerent speakers” is to “stop their mouthes from all such idle and vnreuerent speeches” (27). Although it is Lucio who most persistently represents the threat of slander, and it is Lucio's mouth which most obviously will not be stopped, Isabella too threatens and eventually does slander Angelo. Because her rhetoric challenges the power of the state, the Friar first directs, then effectively stops, her speech.

To reiterate, I have argued that Isabella challenges the Duke/Friar's absolutist position in two ways. First, by invoking religious authority over secular (in her arguments to the Duke's representative, Angelo), she challenges the secular political control of the state; second, by choosing virginity, she resists the social control of the monarch as patriarch of the realm. Now, I would like to argue that the play enacts the containment of those challenges and that the process of containment can be traced by following Isabella's changing discourse: first, Isabella generates reasoned arguments which challenge the state; next, under the Duke/Friar, her language is directed by the state; and finally, her speech is contained by the state.

In the early scenes of the play, Claudio says of his sister, “she hath prosperous art / When she will play with reason and discourse / And well she can persuade” (1.2.184). The first time we see Isabella she stands before a nun of whom she requires not a lesser, but a stricter restraint within the already strictly ascetic order of St. Clare. Further, we learn in this scene that once Isabella enters the order she must take a vow of silence forbidding her to speak to and be looked upon by men at the same time. Interestingly, while Isabella will freely admit to the imposition of silence in obeisance to religious authority, she will, in the meantime, use her arts of language brilliantly in the next scenes to challenge and inadvertently threaten secular authority.

In her first encounter with Angelo, Isabella challenges his secular authority by using logical appeals which show proficiency in close reasoning and the ability to make clear distinctions. She presses her case by making eight reasoned pleas. Each time she makes an argument based on Christian principles, Angelo counters with an argument based on secular legal authority. Thus, a dialectic movement is set up between these two sources of power. Finally, Isabella audaciously challenges Angelo's position by daring to project herself (woman and novice) into the role of the head of state: “I would to heaven I had your potency, And you were Isabel” (2.2.71). This bold assertion is based on her sense of power as a follower—and perhaps to a certain extent as a representative—of religious authority. In her final pleas, Isabella challenges the very legitimacy of secular authority itself, deploring the tyrannous exercise of power by “proud men dressed in a little brief authority” (2.2.118). Having reminded him that his authority is not absolute (an argument that implicitly interrogates the Jamesian absolutist position), she tells him to look inside himself. This argument inadvertently leads to Angelo's realization that her words have compelled him to love her and to his (quite literal) loss of control. There is thus a correlation suggested here between loss of sexual control and loss of political control. Both the content and manner of Isabella's speech threatens the control of the representative of the state, and the rest of the play is concerned with containing that threat. Importantly, between Isabella's and Angelo's first and second meetings the Duke/Friar makes a brief appearance which seems to have little dramatic purpose. However, his appearance can function as a visual synthesis of the religious/secular dialectic, and thus it rehearses the ultimate consolidation of religious and secular power in the person of the monarch at the end of the play.

In her second meeting with Angelo, Isabella is forced from the offensive position of challenging secular authority to the rhetorically weaker defensive position of resisting that authority's attempts to possess her sexually. Again, the dialectic is resumed with Angelo invoking the authority of the state in order to propose that Isabella exchange her virginity for her brother's life, while she invokes the religious principle that death is better than eternal damnation. Her integrity of speech is maintained when Angelo suggests she respond in a more “womanly” way; she answers, “I have no tongue but one …” (2.4.139). When Angelo presses further, she threatens slander: “Sign me a present pardon … / Or … I'll tell the world aloud / What man thou art” (2.4.152-85). But Angelo's retort that no one will believe her suggests that the punishment for the slanderer is rhetorical powerlessness: “you will stifle in your own report and smell of calumny” (2.4.158-59). This scene signals the beginning of the process by which Isabella's strength of speech is undermined.

When in the next scene the brother whom she trusts implies that she should submit, her rhetoric breaks down to a vituperative and aggressive hurling of epithets. This change suggests a breakdown of what one critic has called that “strong self” constituted by her rhetoric.13 We might assume that Isabella, fleeing from Claudio, is rushing back to the convent when the Duke/Friar suddenly appears before her and bids a word. She responds, “What is your will?” (3.1.152). Humiliated by the forces of secular authority, she is anxious to cleave to religious authority, and when the Friar suggests a plan, she consents: “Show me how good father” (3.3.238). At this point in the play we see not a development of Isabella's personality but a shift in her position from one of powerful and articulate resistance to secular authority to (though unbeknownst to her) submission to it. From now on the Duke/Friar maintains control over Isabella by making her believe Claudio is dead and then by scripting a scenario which requires her to announce publicly that she is a violated virgin—a remarkable request considering both her integrity of speech (“I have no tongue but one”) and her vocation of chastity. As Riefer points out, despite Isabella's reluctance “to speak so indirectly” (4.6.1), she gives over rhetorical control when she vows to the Duke/Friar, “I am directed by you” (4.3.137).14

In act 5, Isabella's rhetoric demonstrates a changed relationship to the state. Whereas the use of close reasoning in support of mercy describes her first encounter with Angelo, here she is making a pathetic appeal for justice—the secular principle she renounced in act 1. Regaining her capacity for reasoned argument, however, she presses her charges against Angelo with careful distinctions and analogies once again: “'tis not impossible / But one, the wicked'st caitiff on the ground, / May seem as shy, as grave, as just, as absolute, as Angelo …”(5.1.52-55). Ironically, her strong discourse constitutes slander, and the Duke—consistent with the Jamesian absolutist position—must contain the slander by imprisoning Isabella. This is a very interesting moment, for here we see the Duke constructing a threat to secular authority (in the role consigned to Isabella), and then through his consolidated secular/religious authority containing that threat. It will be marriage, not imprisonment, that is the final mode of containment; but, I would argue, the imprisonment of Isabella makes the final solution of marriage seem benevolent by contrast.

This same process of constructing the threat in order to contain it occurs again when Vincentio re-presents himself on stage as the Friar who slanders the Duke. Here he constructs a challenge by religious authority, not only to secular authority (as was the case with Isabella's challenge), but to divine right monarchy. Again a dialectic is played out between the “Friar” and Escalus (5.1.305) in which the Friar claims religious authority is not subject to monarchy (“The Duke / Dare no more stretch this finger of mine than he / Dare rack his own. His subject I am not” [5.1.313-15]). The Friar's challenge, which so compellingly echoes the threats James perceives from churchmen in the Basilikon Doron, is once again contained by Escalus, who accuses the Friar of “slander to the state” and orders his imprisonment.

At this point, Lucio unhoods the Friar to expose the Duke. At last, the consolidation of religious and secular power in the person of the Jamesian divine right monarch is visually represented in this brilliant coup de théâtre. Angelo confirms his divinity: “I perceive your Grace, like power divine” (5.1.369). But what of Isabella to whom he entreats, “Come hither, Isabel, / Your friar is now your prince”? When secular power (embodied in Angelo) was re-presented as religious power (embodied in the Friar) Isabella bent to its will. But after she cleaved unto religious authority, that authority re-presented itself once again as divine right absolutist authority. This visual transformation, suggestive of a magician's sleight, brilliantly conveys how Isabella comes under the sway of the state. That she comes under its sway is demonstrated in her final plea for Angelo.

In this plea, Isabella argues for mercy, but instead of grounding this argument on Christian principles as she had earlier, she now grounds it on the secular principle of equity: “His act did not o'ertake his bad intent / And must be buried but as an intent / That perish'd by the way” (5.1.450-54). While secular law makes a distinction between intent and action, theological law does not; an argument by Christ would see Angelo's transgression as a serious violation of God's law. Furthermore, Isabella's argument is illogical, for Angelo did not only intend to engage in illicit sex, but, in sleeping with his fiancée, he actually did the very same thing Claudio did. Isabella's inability to make that distinction, when her forte all along has been the ability to perceive distinctions, represents the final dissolution of that “strong self” constituted by her rhetoric.

In the final consolidation of power, the Duke uses the Jamesian social role of patriarch in order to reintegrate his citizens into society through marriage. But the Duke's use of marriage is an absolutist strategy which can be at variance with individual desire. Lucio makes this clear when he tells the Duke, who directs him to marry a whore, that he'd rather be whipped: “Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging” (5.1.522-23). The Duke replies, “Slandering a prince deserves it” (5.2.524). That the imposition of marriage is an absolutist strategy in this play, in contrast to most Shakespearean comedies, is suggested by the fact that of those who are married off in the end, fully half—Angelo, Lucio, and Isabella—do not desire it.

The problematic “deus ex machina” ending which troubles many critics becomes singularly appropriate if the play is understood as one about “ideas” more than about “characters” and about specifically Jamesian ideas—as these are articulated in Basilikon Doron—of consolidating secular political, religious, and social power by ruling (as the Duke/Friar does) in “the stile of Gods.” The very contrivance of the ending, wherein the events do not seem to evolve naturally and dramatically from the desires of the individual characters, but rather are imposed from without (by a kind of god from a machine), suggests the very style of authoritarianism and absolutism which, I have maintained, the play is “about.”

Isabella's silence at the end of Measure for Measure has provided a challenge for theatrical directors of the play. Jonathan Miller's National Theatre production had Isabella turn away in horror at the Duke's proposal of marriage;15 by extreme contrast, another recent production had Isabella throw off her veil in a celebratory and liberating gesture. While Miller's interpretation is consistent with Isabella's “dramatic character,” it contradicts the play's movement toward comic resolution. On the other hand, the second interpretation, while true to the play's movement towards resolution, is so totally contrary to Isabella's character that it altogether lacks dramatic veracity. Shakespeare gives us neither Miller's nor any other response from Isabella. He gives us silence. It is “silence,” argues Pierre Macherey, that “the critic must make speak.”16 Isabella's silence speaks most convincingly, I believe, as an expression of the Jamesian Duke/Friar's successful containment of voices which challenge his absolutist claims to authority. However, containment does not imply any simple or comfortable acquiescence by those voices. Rather, speechlessness can also be interpreted as a refusal to assent positively to the control of an “other.” It is for this reason, I believe, that Isabella's silence reverberates in our minds long after the play is done.


  1. Jonathan Dollimore, “Transgression and Surveillance in Measure for Measure,” in Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, eds., Political Shakespeare (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), 87. Dollimore, in his footnotes, points to the many critics who see Isabella as too severe in refusing Angelo's bargain.

  2. Anne Barton, “Measure for Measure,” in The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1974), 546. Barton further argues that finally “Isabella arrives at a newer and juster knowledge of herself.”

  3. Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1973), 2:416.

  4. Marcia Riefer, “Instruments of Some Mightier Member,” Shakespeare Quarterly 35 (1984): 157-69. Riefer's argument, to which I am indebted, maintains that the Duke assumes the comic role of dramaturgical control previously assumed by females in Shakespeare's comedies and that deprived of this comedic leadership, Isabella comes under the control of the Duke. Riefer's emphasis is on genre.

  5. Ibid., 158.

  6. For a fuller and more recent discussion of how the choice of chastity represents an “alternative sexuality” to the dominant patriarchal forms represented in the play, see Susan Carlson, “‘Fond Fathers’ and Sweet Sisters: Alternative Sexualities in Measure for Measure,Essays in Literature 16 (1989): 13-31.

  7. For a discussion of how the play reflects James's theatrical style, see Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1983), 230-39. For a discussion of how the actual language as well as the principles of kingship of the Basilikon Doron are reflected in Measure, see David Lloyd Stevenson, The Achievement of Shakespeare'sMeasure for Measure” (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1966), 134-66 and Elizabeth Pope, “The Renaissance Background in Measure for Measure,Shakespeare Survey 2 (1949): 66-82. For a discussion of how the play challenges the paternalistic and patriarchal notions set forth in the Basilikon Doron, see “Talking Back to the King: Measure for Measure and the Basilicon Doron,College Literature 12 (1985): 122-34.

  8. See The Political Works of James with an introduction by Charles McIlwain (New York: Russell and Russell, 1965), 3-52. All quotations from the Basilikon Doron will be from this edition, and the page number will follow the quotation in parentheses.

  9. Elizabeth Pope, “The Renaissance Background,” 71.

  10. Leonard Tennenhouse, “Representing Power: Measure for Measure in Its Time,” in Stephen Greenblatt, ed. The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance (Norman: Pilgrim Books, 1982), 152-53. Tennenhouse compares Elizabeth's attitudes toward arranging marriages with James's.

  11. Juliet Dusinberre, Shakespeare and the Nature of Women (London: Macmillan, 1975), 3-5, 22-24, 32-33, 41-48, 55.

  12. Walter Cohen, Drama of a Nation: Public Theatre in Renaissance England and Spain (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), 188.

  13. Dusinberre, 224.

  14. Riefer, 164.

  15. Arthur Kirsch, Shakespeare and the Experience of Love (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1981), 71.

  16. Pierre Macherey in Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1976), 35.

Christina Luckyj (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Luckyj, Christina. “‘A Moving Rhetoricke’: Women's Silences and Renaissance Texts.” Renaissance Drama 24 (1993): 33-56.

[In the following essay, Luckyj relates Renaissance notions of female reticence as decorum or defiance to the silence of women in King Lear, Titus Andronicus, and Troilus and Cressida.. She contends that sixteenth-century conduct book writers' ambivalent views of feminine silence are reflected in Shakespeare's plays.]

It is therefore useless to trap women into giving an exact definition of what they mean. … They are already elsewhere than in this discursive machinery where you claim to take them by surprise. They have turned back within themselves, which does not mean the same thing as “within yourself.” They do not experience the same interiority that you do and which you mistakenly presume they share. “Within themselves” means in the privacy of this silent, multiple, diffuse tact.

—Luce Irigaray, “This Sex Which Is Not One”

In the final, terrible moments of King Lear, Lear crouches over the lifeless body of Cordelia, straining to catch a breath or a whisper. As those about him speak of apocalypse, Lear focuses on the small physical details that distinguish life from death. His anguish is made more evident by painful efforts to ward it off:

I might have sav'd her, now she's gone for ever!
Cordelia, Cordelia, stay a little. Ha!
What is't thou say'st? Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle, and low, an excellent thing in woman.
I kill'd the slave that was a-hanging thee.


The pause which lengthens the caesura in the third line is filled up by Cordelia's silence. Ironies abound: the silence to which Lear had refused to listen in act 1 is now the source of his despair, yet, as in act 1, he cannot listen to what it tells him—that she is dead. And, at the very moment when the quiet voice that violently launched the tragic action is forever silenced, it is reduced by Lear to a conventional feminine trait. Of course, Lear's sentimentalizing of Cordelia, like Bosola's sentimentalizing of the duchess of Malfi as “sacred innocence” (4.2.355) after her death, provides him with the energy for the burst of machismo that follows, while at the same time illuminating by contrast the woman's complexity—a complexity that is registered in the power of her silence. Yet Lear's portrait of Cordelia as a model of Renaissance womanhood with a gentle, low voice does draw attention to a central paradox in the play: Cordelia's silence, which sets the tragedy in motion—that silence that fills up the great pauses between reverberating “nothings”—is both a daring act of subversion and a cliché of feminine reticence.

For an audience, Cordelia's aside, “Love, and be silent” (1.1.62), reassuringly circumscribes filial disobedience within a larger context of virtue. And, when Cordelia does speak in act 1, she presents her silence as support for, rather than a threat to, patriarchal authority. Like Desdemona, who finds her duty “divided” between husband and father (Othello 1.3.181), or like Isabella, who fears Angelo's rape lest her “son should be unlawfully born” (Measure for Measure 3.1.190-91), Cordelia defends patrilineage, stating clearly, “Happily, when I shall wed, / That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry / Half my love with him, half my care and duty” (1.1.100-02). Given the conventional nature of Cordelia's silence, backed as it is by verbal assurances, why does Lear perceive her as most monstrous in disobedience? Is his response clearly one of dotage which no members of his audience would have shared?1 In this essay I shall argue that King Lear and other texts offer evidence that women's silence signified more than the simple ideal of feminine decorum so tirelessly invoked by Renaissance conduct books. Rather, the skepticism, humanism, and even misogyny of the early modern period all conspired to invest feminine silence with considerable power and danger. Once acknowledged, this power may be reappropriated, since “there is a difference between being consigned to a marginalized position by the patriarchal order and voluntarily (and self-consciously) occupying that position as a strategy for subverting the dominant discourse” (Harvey 57). In this light I shall discuss recent stage productions which seek to reopen the complexity and instability of feminine silence.

That Cordelia's initial silence is an act of disobedience which ultimately expresses her filial duty is consistent with other paradoxes in the play—with blindness leading to insight, and madness to clarity (Colie 119). But this particular paradox is rooted in a struggle between contradictory Renaissance constructions of women's silence. Cordelia herself takes one view of her refusal to speak in the terms demanded of her by her father, by defending it as the “want [of] that glib and oily art / To speak and purpose not” (1.1.224-25). Like Kent, she is determined “to be plain” (2.2.92); unlike him, she must do so through silence. According to the conduct books, her behavior is exemplary. “Doubtlesse a simple woman holding her peace shal haue more honour, than one of more wit, if shee bee full of tongue,” asserts William Whately in A Bride-bush (203). “Silence is farre better … than unsavorie talke,” say John Dod and Robert Cleaver emphatically in their advice to young women (94). “Silence in a Woman is a moving Rhetoricke, winning most, when in words it wooeth least,” declares Richard Brathwait (90). And, in Of Domesticall Duties (1622), William Gouge declares that “silence, on the one side implieth a reverend subiection, as on the other side too much speech implieth an usurpation of authoritie” (282). These writers all confirm what has become a cliché about the Renaissance woman as “chaste, silent and obedient” (as the title of Suzanne Hull's bibliography of books for and about Renaissance women has it).

Feminine silence, however, is not recommended by the conduct books without careful and significant qualification. Gouge, for example, goes on, in the fashion of formal debate, to complicate his apparently simple equation of silence with subjection. “Then belike a wife must be alwayes mute before her husband,” objects his disputant. “No such matter,” explains Gouge, “for silence in that place is not opposed to speech, as if she should not speake at all, but to loquacitie, to talkativenesse, to over-much tatling” (282). Here, as in Lear's wistful ideal of his daughter's “gentle and low” voice, woman's silence becomes not absolute, but relative; not literal, but figurative. And Gouge goes even further to evince suspicion of women who do keep silent. “[S]ilence, as it is opposed to speech, would imply stoutnesse of stomacke, and stubbornnesse of heart, which is an extreme contrarie to loquacitie.” Here he develops an antithesis between the silent woman and the loose-tongued shrew that is no longer a morally polarized one; rather, both are equally horrifying, if apparently for different reasons. On the one hand, Gouge condemns those women

who must and will have all the prate. If their husbands have begun to speake, their slipperie tongues cannot expect and tarrie till he have done: if (as verie hastie and forward they are to speake) they prevent not their husbands, they will surely take the tale out of his mouth before he have done.


When one remembers the popular pun on “tale” and “tail,”2 Gouge's horror of the loquacious woman is clearly linked with castration anxiety. A woman who overindulges “that glibbery member,” the tongue (Brathwait 88), usurps masculine sexuality as well as masculine discourse. Satiric abuse directed at talkative women is thus designed to defuse this threat; as Linda Woodbridge puts it, “a woman … cannot take a moral stand without suspecting that her auditors consider her a scold, cannot hold a simple conversation without wondering whether she is talking too much” (31). This kind of control through comic stereotyping must have been very effective. The silent woman, on the other hand, is a less accommodating butt for satire. Indeed, if talkative women are seen as phallic usurpers, silent women occupy a space which has always been traditionally conceived of as feminine and is thus less easily assaulted. Yet Gouge and his contemporaries persistently show their discomfort with feminine silence. “Stoutnesse of stomacke and stubbornnesse of heart” suggest a recalcitrance which is far removed from the free-flowing prolixity of the loose-tongued shrew, and perhaps more difficult to control. Whately maintains that “both good and bad dispositions have more waies of uttering themselves, than by the tongue … her whole behaviour, with the gestures of her whole body, may proclaime contempt, though her tongue bee altogether silent” (Bride-bush 204). And he proceeds to enumerate these offensive gestures: “To swell and pout, to lowre and scoule, to huffe and puffe, to frowne and fume, to turne the side towards him, and fling away from him, in a mixture of sullennesse and disdaine, be things that doe breake the bridle of feare” (205). The shrew is still a shrew, even when silent; the tongue is simply replaced by the body's whole movement. Better than any contemporary acting manual, Whately here describes a semiotic of performance in which silence is anything but neutral.

In contrast to both this dumb-show of disobedience and the dreaded superfluity of speech, the conduct books recommend for women not silence, but carefully circumscribed speech. “The meane betwixt both [silence and loquacitie],” writes Gouge, “is for a wife to be sparing in speech, to expect a fit time and iust occasion of speech” (282). According to Dod and Cleaver, a wife should be “not full of words … that were more fitter to be concealed but speaking upon good occasion, and that with discretion” (94). In his English Gentlewoman (1631), Brathwait advocates a “seasonable discourse” for women, consisting of “arguments as may best improve your knowledge in household affaires” (88-89). Whately desires that women should “suffer the due and reverent esteeme of their husbands, to worke in them a special moderation of speech” (Bride-bush 203); in a later work, he includes both “talkative” and “tongue-tied” in a list of vices found in women (Care-cloth 44). Lear would not have disagreed; one suspects that he hears in Cordelia's silence precisely that “stubbornnesse of heart” so like his own but, unlike his, articulated in a feminine, nonverbal mode. The culture that produced and watched King Lear may have experienced Cordelia's silence as both reassuringly submissive and dangerously subversive—a complex nexus for competing views of women's silence.

The idea of silence as a form of resistance to authority is a very old one; Joannes Vives's tale of the woman who bit out her tongue “in the face of the tirane that did tourment hir” (44) is matched by biblical exempla. In A Direction for the Government of the Tongue according to Gods Word (1621), William Perkins cites Christ's silence before Caiaphas and Pilate, and recalls Matthew 7.6: “Give not that which is holy unto dogges: neither cast your pearles before swine” (100). Mary is the paradigm of feminine silence: “she, as became a yonge mayde, spake never a woorde … at the crosse she was cleane dumme” (Vives 43v). Folklore and fairy tale frequently imply “that silence is an almost superhuman feat which can accomplish great deeds, break evil spells, and establish its custodian as a person of spiritual strength” (Levenson 221). It is not surprising, then, that the reticence which was supposed to guarantee subjection could also signal an independent or defiant mind.

Male anxiety about quiet women may not have been confined to their potential for rebellion. When regarded favorably by the authors of conduct books, women's silences are invariably linked with the preservation of chastity. Vives, for example, advises women: “Holde thou thy peace as boldly as other speake in courte: and so shalt thou better defend the matier of thy chastitee, whiche afore iuste iudges shall be stronger with silence than with speeche” (43). But this traditional outward sign of feminine modesty (here interestingly conflated with defiance) could also be just that—an outward sign, a seductive strategy in an age when marriage was the primary objective of most young girls. In Haec-Vir, a pamphlet of the Renaissance controversy about the nature of women, the “man-woman” defends her use of speech by associating feminine silence, not with chastity, but with lascivious acquiescence: “Because I stand not with my hands on my belly like a baby at Bartholomew Fair … that am not dumb when wantons court me, as if, Asslike, I were ready for all burdens … am I therefore barbarous or shameless?” (Henderson and McManus 284). In The Taming of the Shrew, it is Bianca who first attracts, then defies, Lucentio with her silence (1.1.70; 5.2.80). In Ben Jonson's Epicoene, or the Silent Woman (1609), John Daw tosses off these lamentable verses:

Silence in women is like speech in man;
                    Deny't who can.
.....                    Nor is't a tale
That female vice should be a virtue male,
Or masculine vice, a female virtue be:
                    You shall it see
                    Proved with increase,
I know to speak, and she to hold her peace.


Daw's “ballad of procreation” (2.3.125) has a bawdy design: he “would lie with” Epicoene (1.3.16) and so construes her silence as an open space ready to be filled up by phallic “speech” for the purpose of “increase.” But other characters puzzle over why Daw “desires that she would talk and be free, and commends her silence in verses” (1.3.17-18); they know that, traditionally, silence signifies chastity. The confusion exposes a real ambiguity in Renaissance texts, which demand that a woman be both inviolable and available, both carefully locked-up treasure and goods for barter in the marriage trade. How could a man expect a woman's silence to signify a closed space—her chastity—if he himself wanted to fill it up? How could he trust that her reticence was anything more than an appropriation of traditional symbolism for the modern purposes of winning a husband?3

The conduct books of the late Tudor and early Stuart periods both contribute to and reflect this ambivalence. Their authors urge young women to concentrate, not on what others think of them, but on their inward being, all the while instructing them on how to comport themselves. Brathwait's English Gentlewoman includes a section entitled “How estimation may be discerned to be reall,” in which he exhorts: “Be indeed what you desire to be thought. Are you Virgins? dedicate those inward Temples of yours to chastity; abstaine from all corrupt society; inure your hands to workes of piety, your tongues to words of modesty” (106). But Brathwait's discomfort with having to instruct virgins on how to appear to be virgins soon surfaces in a meditation on the ease of hypocrisy: “Many desire to appeare most to the eye, what they are least in heart. … These can enforce a smile, to perswade you of their affability; counterfeit a blush, to paint out their modesty; walke alone, to expresse their love to privacy” (114). Many of the conduct books are understandably haunted by such fears. In A discourse, of marriage and wiving (1620), Alexander Niccholes begins his chapter “How to choose a good wife from a bad” with a sigh of despair:

This undertaking is a matter of some difficulty, for good wives are many times so like unto bad, that they are hardly discerned betwixt, they could not otherwise deceive so many as they doe, for the divell can transforme himselfe into an Angell of Light, the better to draw others into the chaines of darknesse.


Women's silence, perhaps partly because of its atavistic association with resistance, was a particular source of suspicion. In Epicoene, Morose, the comic misogynist who seeks a silent wife, reveals that not even he can bear too much silence in a woman. In his first meeting with Epicoene, he tests her vow of silence with long speeches designed to trick her into speaking without reserve; at first she answers him only with curtsies, but he persists in demanding submissive speech. When she finally does speak, however, her voice is so low that he cannot hear her, and is forced to ask her repeatedly to “rise a note” (2.5.72). The scene's comedy resides in Morose's inability to get reassurance from the silence he so values. When, immediately after their marriage, Epicoene turns into a scolding shrew, feminine silence is revealed to be covert manipulation. While the play thus justifies male anxieties about women, it also pokes fun at men who exalt women's silence but underestimate its subversive potential. That potential is understood and exploited by Shakespeare's Cressida, who determines to remain silent about her love for Troilus, both to protect herself and to attract his desire (1.2.294-95). After she does confess her love to him, she cries regretfully: “Why have I blabb'd? Who shall be true to us, / When we are so unsecret to ourselves?” (3.2.124-25). This is a more sympathetic interpretation of feminine reticence, not as deceit but as a necessary refuge in a world of male treachery. Speech allows men to appropriate women's inner space; silence excludes men even as it attracts them. A source of anxiety for misogynists, silence may have remained a source of power for women.

Another factor contributing to masculine discomfort with feminine silence was undoubtedly the humanist emphasis on the civilizing power of speech. Ben Jonson declares: “Language most shows a man: ‘speak that I may see thee.’ It springs out of the most retired and inmost parts of us, and is the image of the parent of it, the mind” (Timber 45-46). “Without Speech can no society subsist,” proclaims Brathwait. “By it we expresse what we are, as vessels discover themselves best by their sound” (88). Speech, that God-given, distinctively human faculty, both expresses individual subjectivity and allows it to be apprehended by others. Silence, from this point of view, is at best antisocial, at worst dangerously anarchic.4 Mowbray in Richard II sees banishment from his “native English” tongue as a “speechless death” (1.3.172); Sir John Daw views silence as a “masculine vice” (Epicoene 2.3.116); Ajax in Troilus and Cressida is, according to Thersites' description, “languageless, a monster” (3.3.263). Women were often considered to be closer to beasts than to men; silence brought them even closer. Woodbridge quotes from The Woman-Hater (1606): “Why should woman only aboue all other creatures that were created for the benefit of mã, haue the vse of speech?” (269). In Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa's A Treatise of the Nobilitie and excellencye of woman kynde (trans. Clapham, 1542), the notorious prolixity of women becomes a sign of their superiority: “Is it not right faire and co˜mendable, that women shulde excelle men in that thing, in whiche men chiefly passe all other beastes?” (Woodbridge 41). Woodbridge rightly points out that “the argument is almost certainly facetious” (41), but it simply carries to a logical extreme what was a Renaissance commonplace. Indeed, the gap between the championing of speech (for men, by implication) and the recommendation of silence for women led to discontinuities and outright contradictions in some conduct books. According to Dod and Cleaver, a woman's suitability as a wife can be judged by

her talke or speech, or rather her silence. For a man or a womans talking, is the mirrour and messenger of the mind, in the which it may commonly be seene without, in what case the man or woman is within. … Such as the man or woman is, such is their talke. Now silence is the best ornament of a woman.


The anxious bachelor can be forgiven some confusion at this point. The authors seem to recommend two mutually exclusive means of evaluating a virtuous woman: she can be discovered as a human individual through her speech, or revealed as a generic type through her silence. Catherine Belsey argues that silence thus negates the subjectivity briefly accorded to women through speech (179). But the competing discourses may also suggest underlying discomfort with the silence that is so predictably recommended. While silence should ensure subjection, a man must have something to go on in his search for a properly submissive wife: a woman who speaks allows herself to be known, hence controlled; by implication, the silent woman, though conventionally supposed chaste, confounds knowledge and hints at the hidden and perhaps even the bestial. The suppressed, silent connective in the passage, of silence as the dark, anarchic underside of human speech, opens a space for the potential subversiveness of women's silence, a potential which is fully realized at the opening of King Lear. Lear responds to Cordelia's silence not only as the rebellion of child against father but as the assault of the subhuman upon the superfluous needs of men—the “barbarous Scythian” who feeds on his own young is the (ironic) parallel he finds for his “sometime daughter” (1.1.116-20). Later he compares the apparently virtuous, reticent woman to the “fitchew” or the “soiled horse” (4.6.122). The silent woman has become something quite other than chaste, irreproachable virgin.

The contradictions inscribed in Renaissance constructions of feminine silence may owe something to humanist discourse and something else to the notorious paradoxes of Puritan marriage ideology (Rose 126-31). It may also owe something to the behavior of real Renaissance women, who showed repeatedly the gap between the theory and the practice of silence. Whether the repeated exhortations of conventional tracts suggest how often they were ignored by Renaissance women (Hogrefe 8) or how comfortable and acceptable these doctrines had become (Davies 78) is still a subject of some debate. Doubtless there were women who spoke their minds or were simply silenced. The very multiplicity of referents for women's silence meant that people, especially men, could interpret it for their own ends: Iago seizes on Bianca's silence in the final act of Othello as proof of her guilt (5.1.105-10), while Paulina relies on the newborn Perdita's silence to signify her “pure innocence” before Leontes (Winter's Tale 2.2.39); Pheroras in Elizabeth Cary's Mariam claims that “silence is a sign of discontent” (2.1.42), while De Flores in The Changeling assures the woman he is about to rape that “silence is one of pleasure's best receipts” (3.4.167). Silence leaves women, more than men, open to manipulation. Women's speech, on the other hand, is firmly circumscribed by Renaissance convention: vehemence becomes shrewishness, prolixity sexual wantonness. Desdemona's verbal barrage on Cassio's behalf confirms Othello's suspicions of her promiscuity; Bianca's silence confirms her guilt. There seems to be no way out for women: speaking, they are shrews or whores; silent, they are blanks. Much recent feminist criticism has simply registered this impasse: for Kate McLuskie, too often “feminist criticism … is restricted to exposing its own exclusion from the text” (97); for Belsey, Renaissance women are denied “a single, unified, fixed position from which to speak” and thus cannot be autonomous subjects (160). Yet, as Jonathan Goldberg points out, “It is not necessarily a sign of power to have a voice, not necessarily a sign of subjection to lose it” (130). It has become a battle cry for many feminists that women must “break out of the snare of silence” (Cixous, “Laugh” 251) because “silence is the mark of hysteria. The great hysterics have lost speech. … They are decapitated, their tongues are cut off and what talks isn't heard because it's the body that talks, and man doesn't hear the body” (Cixous, “Castration” 49). Other feminists think differently. “The silence in women is such that anything that falls into it has an enormous reverberation,” writes Marguerite Duras; “[w]hereas in men, this silence no longer exists” (175). Renaissance conduct books expose the cracks and fissures in the man-made fortress of women's silence. In the drama, silence that is both prohibition and subversion can open up new space for women because, on the stage—to borrow from Hélène Cixous—“it's the body that talks.”

No play in Renaissance drama foregrounds feminine silence more than Titus Andronicus, and no play exposes so vividly the competing cultural constructions surrounding it. Just before Lavinia is raped, she prudishly shrinks from uttering that which “womanhood denies [her] tongue to tell” (2.3.174). Even to utter the word “rape” is to participate in it; modesty and silence are coextensive. However, at the moment she is dragged offstage to be violated, she discovers that woman's silence has another meaning. “Confusion fall—” she cries, and is abruptly silenced by Chiron's “Nay then I'll stop your mouth” (2.3.184-85). The editor of the 1948 Cambridge edition politely gives the stage direction “he gags her,” but the phrase occurs too often in Renaissance plays for one to be in much doubt of its meaning.5 Deborah Warner's prompt script for her 1987 production reads “C[hiron] pulls her head back and savagely kisses L[avinia]—spits out piece of her tongue.”6 (Previous directors miss or ignore the sexual implication.) Lavinia discovers that her womanly reticence can become involuntary silence. We may note that the sign of retreat from rape—the closed mouth—becomes the sign of rape itself; the trope of silence is radically destabilized. When Lavinia reappears in the following scene, tongueless and “ravish'd” (, her silence utterly disrupts the established relation between signifier and signified; here, feminine silence is monstrously unchaste. Robbed of the offensive “glibbery member,” Lavinia's body inscribes male ideals of female decorum so literally that they are savagely exposed and inverted. Lavinia's body is both sealed up in silence and open, bleeding, sexually violated, “grotesque.”7

Modern directors have attempted to contain Lavinia's silence and delimit its meaning. In his famous 1955 production, Peter Brook directed Vivien Leigh to play Lavinia as the icon of suffering Titus claims she is, yet the interpretation resulted in a double amputation. Brook's most notorious cutting of the text—his removal of the whole of Marcus's response to the sight of the ravished Lavina—was presumably designed to spare the actress embarrassment, since Brook's stage direction at the beginning of 3.4, which reads “Lavinia stands desolate,”8 would be difficult to sustain for a full fifty-seven lines. The excision, however, robbed the actress of any opportunity to react to this sustained perusal of her body; her silence was itself silenced. Reviewers described the role as “thankless” (Daily Mail 17 Aug. 1955), and “unactable” (Star 17 Aug. 1955). Leigh's interpretation of Lavinia as a lovely, non-threatening, passive object of pity was enhanced by costuming. In keeping with Brook's stylized conception, Leigh was heavily draped, red streamers falling from loose, open sleeves to represent the loss of blood. Her body was thus made aesthetically attractive and decorously sealed off—unstained, even her “chin was clean, impossibly clean” (Solihull and Warwick County News 20 Aug. 1955). As a “map of woe” (3.2.12) for her father and the audience, this Lavinia's silence was defused and reinscribed as chaste.

Brook's enormously successful production of Titus had a lasting influence on theatrical practice: Trevor Nunn's acclaimed 1972 production and John Barton's failed 1981 production both made similar cuts to the text. Barton was forced to go even further than Brook: he cut 850 lines to Brook's 650 (Dessen 51) in order to run the play as a ninety-minute piece alongside Two Gentlemen of Verona. The result, according to most reviewers, was “a cardboard piece of Grand Guignol” (Oxford Mail 2 Sept. 1981). As in Brook's production, Lavinia was played as a “mute, mutilated figure, her mouth gashed with blood and red ribbons dangling from her quivering arms.” Michael Billington commented that “it is the pity of it rather than the sheer horror that Barton brings out” (Guardian 4 Sept. 1981). Nunn's production, on the other hand, retained most of the Brook excisions, but nonetheless managed to suggest a Lavinia very different from Vivien Leigh's. Janet Suzman was “a pitiable, hunched grotesque crawling out of the darkness like a wounded animal” (Billington, Guardian 13 Oct. 1972), and transformed Lavinia “from radiant girl to old woman, hump-backed, almost crawling” in what was, incredibly, “a moment of beauty” (Monk, Stage and Television Today 19 Oct. 1972). Lavinia's complex subjectivity was evoked by one critic who found that “the humiliation of her crouching body is to some extent belied by the passion in her eyes” (Wood, Stratford-upon-Avon Herald 19 Oct. 1972). This actor's interpretation led to a new assessment of the possibilities of the role, now considered “the greatest non-speaking part ever written” (Wood, Stratford-upon-Avon Herald 20 Oct. 1972). It would be up to Deborah Warner, who directed the play at the Swan in 1987, to exploit the full potential of Lavinia by combining a mobile, inventive actor with an uncut playtext.

In Warner's production, Sonia Ritter as Lavinia appeared after her rape “as a drab, crawling sub-human creature, caked with clay, characterised by intermittent, jerky movements” (Dessen 66). Chiron, sitting astride Lavinia, went “to kiss her then pull[ed] back” (2.4.8), a revulsion that was later echoed in Marcus's retreat from his niece in the same scene (2.4.12). However, this Lavinia was also a human subject, beyond easy appropriation. Throughout Marcus's speech Lavinia was more than an icon of pain; to Marcus's question “Shall I speak for thee?” she responded by backing away, and when Marcus attempted to lift her in a cradle position (2.4.41), she struggled in panic.9 The actress's gestures of resistance allowed her to project a new and complex subjectivity even at those points in the speech when Marcus appeared to define and limit her, as in the following lines:

Ah, now thou turn'st away thy face for shame!
And notwithstanding all this loss of blood,
As from a conduit with [three] issuing spouts,
Yet do thy cheeks look red as Titan's face
Blushing to be encounter'd with a cloud.


Douglas Green notes the ambiguity suggested by Sonia Ritter's Lavinia: “Though her actions matched Marcus' words, one could never be quite sure whether Lavinia's turning away ‘for shame’ (in which sense of the word?) ratified Marcus' lighting upon the apt Ovidian analogy or sought to avoid this painful contact altogether or indicated rejection.” He sees this as “a powerful instance of the ways in which women's playing parts originally meant for boys [have] historically altered readings of the text” (324n), but the gesture itself is surely inherently ambiguous. Though Marcus tells us that Lavinia blushes, and that this blush is a sign of “shame,” Shakespeare uses the word elsewhere in different senses: in The Comedy of Errors, it is used as a synonym for disgrace (“Free from these slanders and this open shame” [4.4.67]); in A Midsummer Night's Dream, it is a synonym for modesty (“Have you no modesty, no maiden shame, / No touch of bashfulness?” [3.2.285-86]). “The shameful blush,” David Bevington tells us, “may represent one of two opposite responses: dismay and confusion at an undeserved accusation, or admission of guilt” (96). Which meaning applies here? The OED glosses “for shame” as (13a) “from a sense of shame, because one feels shame; also, for fear of shame, in order to avoid shame.” The difference, however slight, is important: is Lavinia acknowledging a feeling of disgrace by turning her face, or is she protecting herself from Marcus's invasive gaze? Is she dissociating herself from or implicating herself in the act of rape? Indeed, the ambiguity is compounded by the curious analogy Marcus finds for her blush: Titan's blushing is usually associated not with shame but with anger (as it is, for example, in Richard II, where the king arrives to face his deposers, “As doth the blushing discontented sun / From out the fiery portal of the east, / When he perceives the envious clouds are bent / To dim his glory” [3.3.63-66]). Given such a range of referents for Lavinia's silence, the audience cannot “read” her simply, reduce her to a single signified.

The play itself provides a hermeneutics of silence separate from Lavinia. Just before the mutilated daughter appears to “blind a father's eye” (2.4.53), Titus laments the tribunes' refusal to hear his plea for the life of his sons:

Therefore I tell my sorrows to the stones,
Who, though they cannot answer my distress,
Yet in some sort they are better than the tribunes,
For that they will not intercept my tale.
When I do weep, they humbly at my feet
Receive my tears, and seem to weep with me,
And were they but attired in grave weeds,
Rome could afford no tribunes like to these.
A stone is soft as wax, tribunes more hard than stones;
A stone is silent, and offendeth not,
And tribunes with their tongues doom men to death.


Cut in part or whole in most productions (Dessen 55), this speech constructs silence as impotent in contrast to the “tongues” of tribunes who “doom men to death” with words. Like the ideal Renaissance woman, the stones, “soft as wax,” receive Titus's imprint as their silence holds no threat; real power resides in masculine discourse. Of course Titus is wrong: stones are not soft, but hard and unfeeling like the tribunes. And the speech's context further deconstructs Titus's reading: the immediate, visible source of power is not words, but the silence of the tribunes as they pass over the stage deaf to Titus's pleas. The text thus opens up the semiology of silence that Titus (and Brook in his production) tries to close down.

Consistent, then, with Shakespeare's own semiotics of silence, Sonia Ritter—unlike Vivien Leigh in the Brook production—played Lavinia as an active subject whose “open” silences heightened her complexity.10 After Titus's suggestion that “we bite our tongues, and in dumb shows / Pass the remainder of our hateful days” (3.1.131-32), Peter Brook cut Lavinia's response, as it is indicated by Lucius (“at your grief / See how my wretched sister sobs and weeps” [136-37]). By contrast, Deborah Warner restored the ambiguity of those “signs” which Titus claims to “understand” (3.1.143). When faced with the mute Lavinia, Titus ignored her as she rushed wildly across the stage, collapsing to her knees (3.1.78) at his masochistic excesses—in empathy, despair, or possibly some combination of both. Was she weeping at her father's grief or at his terrible self-absorption and masochistic narcissism? Was Lavinia's reaction a reinforcement of or a corrective to Titus's insular despair? There was a brief moment of intimate contact when Titus knelt beside her and wiped away her tears, addressing her directly (3.1.103-06), but most of the scene measured the distance between Lavinia and her grief-stricken father, insulated by the “numbed shock of real pain” (Billington, Guardian 14 May 1987) and thus an unreliable interpreter. When Titus suggested that they all cut off their hands (3.1.130), Lavinia wept audibly (in pity or in protest?), and when he proposed “some device of further misery, / To make us wonder'd at in time to come” (3.1.134-35), she slumped over. When Titus crowed, “I understand her signs” (3.1.143), his words were directed at a woman lying face down. Throughout the scene, Lucius was a marked contrast to Titus, holding and comforting Lavinia (3.1.78, 136) and wiping away her tears (3.1.142). In the banquet scene, Titus offers her food in an apparent gesture of solicitude:

Come, let's fall to, and, gentle girl, eat this.
Here is no drink! Hark, Marcus, what she says;
I can interpret all her martyr'd signs:
She says, she drinks no other drink but tears,
Brew'd with her sorrow, mesh'd upon her cheeks.


Presumably to avoid the embarrassment of Titus's conversion of his failure to provide wine into Lavinia's rejection of it, both the Brook and Nunn productions cut the awkward “Here is no drink!” and provided a goblet which Lavinia refused. In Warner's production, Titus was oblivious to his daughter's physical difficulties: after biting into some bread, he pushed a plate of meat toward Lavinia but ignored her failed attempt at eating. His reading of her “signs” was visually undercut by his indifference to simple realities.

Warner's interpretation paid dividends in the scene in which Lavinia reveals her rapists' identities (4.1). Here the uncut text itself insists on the gap between Lavinia's persistent, unreadable, threatening gestures and the men's attempts to appropriate and defuse them. Warner widened the gap by showing Lavinia crumble at the end of the scene, still ignored and unpitied by the men, who were now wrapped up in schemes of retaliation. The vows of outraged revenge were directed over her collapsed body, and Lavinia (like Titus) was left facing out of the circle of kneeling avengers, despite Marcus's command to “kneel” (4.1.87). Titus himself ignored Lavinia, who was kneeling motionless, and put his arm around the shoulder of young Lucius. As Alan C. Dessen tells it, “[her] initial reaction [of euphoria at communicating her attackers' identities] was soon followed (once events had passed her by) by a let-down that was acted out in a slow, shambling exit upstage during Marcus's closing speech” (66). The moment undermined any notion that Lavinia's phallic inscription of her rapists' identities was a triumphant “testimonial of the limits of nonverbal communication” (Bevington 31), since Lavinia's articulation actually diminished her agency.11 Instead of merely mirroring Titus, this Lavinia was a complex subject whose anguish her father tragically could not absorb. Her mute solitude and desolation emphasized, not Titus's justified and heroic revenge (as in Brook's version),12 but his increasing dehumanization under the stress of terrible grief. Warner's production thus brought Titus closer in spirit to its antecedent, The Spanish Tragedy, as well as to its successor, Hamlet. Lavinia's complex silences also anticipated Cordelia's at the end of King Lear; there, Lear's utopian vision of blissful exile with his daughter is met by her silence—a silence that has persistently refused to collude with Lear's fantasies. As both chaste closure in its recognition of the limits of speech and frank openness in its exposure of an anarchic, primitive world which takes shape on the heath, Cordelia's silence, like Lavinia's, draws on shifting, unstable constructions of feminine silence in early modern culture. On the stage, such cultural paradox creates new space for women to resist definition and claim multiple subjectivity.

When, in the fourth act of Troilus and Cressida, Cressida arrives in the Greek camp, a hostage of the Trojan war, Ulysses suggests that the Greeks welcome her by kissing her “in general” (4.5.21). She remains silent at first, but finally takes up verbal sparring. Ulysses, who shows his contempt for Cressida by refusing her the kiss she has not asked for, interprets her behavior:

                                                                                                                        Fie, fie upon her!
There's language in her eye, her cheek, her lip,
Nay, her foot speaks; her wanton spirits look out
At every joint and motive of her body.
O, these encounterers, so glib of tongue,
That give a coasting welcome ere it comes,
And wide unclasp the tables of their thoughts
To every ticklish reader! set them down
For sluttish spoils of opportunity
And daughters of the game.


Ulysses' gloss capitalizes on Cressida's shift from silence to speech during the scene. While speech, unlike silence, allows her to hold off the men effectively, it also makes her a collaborator in their stichomythic rhyming banter. Ulysses presents Cressida's silence as a moving rhetoric of wanton invitation, a text that responds to the manipulations of any reader, yet, as a “ticklish reader” of Cressida's textual body, Ulysses stimulates the wantonness he criticizes and hence is unreliable. Of course, silences in the drama often promiscuously shape themselves to the will of the interpreter; women's silences in particular may shift their meanings to suit the sexual politics of reader or director. Those sexual politics have usually led both academic critics and theater directors to accept Ulysses' gloss on Cressida's silence. In 1938 O. J. Campbell writes: “Cressida goes directly to the Greek camp, and kisses all the men” (215); it is hardly surprising that a 1936 production was praised for its Cressida, who “contrived to convey a suggestion of levity and insincerity from the very beginning of her performance” (Times 25 April 1936). Three landmark Royal Shakespeare Company productions in the 1960s and 1970s, directed by John Barton, chart a course of increasing misogyny: in 1960 Cressida was played as “a natural and not unsympathetic wanton” who “fails through weakness rather than perversity” (Robert Speaight, Shakespeare Quarterly 11: 452); in 1968, “Helen Mirren play[ed Cressida] as a sensual child who is on the point of seducing her uncle before Troilus takes her, and who moves over with equal facility to Diomed” (Wardle, Times 9 Aug. 1968); in 1976, Cressida was “the assured sexual specialist whom Ulysses instantly recognizes” (Wardle, Times 18 Aug. 1976). The latter production, according to Irving Wardle, dressed Cressida as a courtesan for her entrance to the Greek camp and showed her after her betrayal of Troilus wearing a harlot's mask in some performances and exiting on a “tremendous brazen, cackling laugh” in others (David 120). In Terry Hands's 1981 Royal Shakespeare Company production, “when Diomedes unwraps her for the Greeks … she emerges in figure-hugging silk” (Billington, Guardian 7 July 1981). If stage interpretations are any guide, Cressida is at best a weak wanton, at worst a brazen harlot, always collaborating in the sexual advances of the men. Ambiguity is restricted to playing variations on her gullibility, as Richard David suggests in his account of the 1976 production: “Miss Annis subtly kept the options open. Could it not have been the glory of the occasion and the flattery of so many princes that excited the girl to these freedoms?” (125). Clearly, stage Cressidas have not kept the options open enough. And the much-touted critical revaluation of Cressida in the 1960s and 1970s has not seriously contested the misogynist theatrical interpretation of her. In her essay in The Woman's Part, Gayle Greene declares that “Cressida is quick to live down to [the Greeks'] view of her, allowing herself to be ‘kiss'd in general’” (143). Similarly, in her essay “In Defense of Cressida,” Carolyn Asp claims that Cressida “uses her physical beauty to attract the praise of men and thus assure herself of her worth” (410). More sympathetically, R. A. Yoder asserts that “the Greek generals are taking what Cressida, essentially a captive, has no real power to refuse. She plays their game with wit and spirit, for that is her best defense” (22). These claims for Cressida as a victim whose self-image is shaped by the surrounding misogyny, however true, make little difference in the theater. Because the stage foregrounds individual agency, Cressida still looks like a whore in the Greek camp.

The 1985 Royal Shakespeare Company's interpretation of Cressida was hailed by theater critics as “revolutionary” in its violation of the theatrical tradition of presenting her as a “wanton flirt” (Billington, Guardian 27 June 1985). The scene in the Greek camp was a gang rape and Cressida a struggling, resistant rape victim whose facial expressions ranged from fear to contempt.13 Far from actively soliciting or passively accepting the attentions of the Greek men, Cressida silently resisted them with gestures that seemed the modern equivalents of those catalogued by William Gouge in 1622: “a frowning brow, a lowring eie, a sullen looke, a powting lip, a swelling face” (278). Ulysses' interpretation was contradicted by the stage image, and conveyed only the disappointment of the lecherous voyeur whose titillating proposition has been foiled by the combination of ugly physical resistance and verbal acumen displayed by Cressida. However, several critics felt that this extreme conception of Cressida as rape victim was inconsistent with her subsequent betrayal of Troilus for Diomed and sacrificed some of the character's psychological complexity;14 as Michael Coveney put it, “It is one step from here to Dryden's 1679 version in which Cressida pretends to be seduced by Diomedes in order to escape the Greek camp” (Financial Times 7 May 1986). This reading of Cressida's resistant body continued to appropriate her—this time for an overtly feminist project; ironically, it sacrificed her to a masculine fantasy of woman as chaste. More subtle and more complex was Amanda Root's interpretation for the recent (1990) production at the Swan. “Knowingness and naivety, calculation and vulnerability flicker confusingly across the face, at once pert and innocent” (Taylor, Independent 30 April 1990); the reviewer's use of paradox suggests a Cressida beyond easy definition. Analogous male experiences framing the kissing episode further problematize it. Ulysses reads Diomed's body language as he approaches with Cressida:

'Tis he, I ken the manner of his gait,
He rises on the toe. That spirit of his
In aspiration lifts him from the earth.


An audience, having just heard Diomed's declaration that he will “answer to [his] lust” with Cressida (4.4.132) may suspect that something less lofty than his spirit is rising. A few moments after the kissing scene, Achilles silently peruses Hector's body and claims to have “quoted” it “joint by joint” (4.5.232-33). Hector replies forcefully:

O, like a book of sport thou'lt read me o'er;
But there's more in me than thou understand'st.


Cressida is allowed no such rejoinder to Ulysses' perusal of her body. But the repeated concern with bodies as texts open to the misconstruction of readers casts further doubt on Ulysses' gloss on Cressida. And, while Cressida's silence ultimately offers no effective defense against masculine coercion, it does offer her a subject position from which that coercion can be interrogated.

Male, humanist discourse represents speech as human agency and subjectivity, and silence as erasure, negation, repression. In casual language the association between women and silence is almost always a pejorative one: the epigraph to Jean Elshtain's Public Man, Private Woman quotes Richard Hooker: “Posterity may know that we have not through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream”; the editors of New French Feminisms dedicate their volume to “all the writers and translators of these texts, without whom silence and absence would continue.” Feminism stages its assault on silence, since historically women were “enjoined to silence, discouraged from any form of speech which was not an act of submission to the authority of their fathers or husbands” (Belsey 149). The instrument of power has always been repression, a reduction to silence. Or has it? In The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault questions the current assumption “that makes it so gratifying for us to define the relationship between sex and power in terms of repression” (6). In his view, “more important was the multiplication of discourses concerning sex in the field of exercise of power itself: an institutional incitement to speak about it, and to do so more and more; a determination on the part of the agencies of power to hear it spoken about, and to cause it to speak through explicit articulation and endlessly accumulated detail” (18). What Foucault says here of sex could well be said of women in the seventeenth century; both were “driven out of hiding and constrained to lead a discursive existence” (33). The greatest weapon in the patriarchal arsenal was the injunction, not to silence, but to speech. Even as they pay lip service to inherited notions of women's modest “silence,” the conduct books denounce it as subversive.

When, in plays like King Lear, Titus Andronicus, and Troilus and Cressida, women keep their silence, they occupy a space defined by contrary male impulses of fear and desire. Enjoined to remain mute as a sign of chastity to allay male fears, the Renaissance woman at the same time provokes those fears by becoming either unfathomable or openly resistant. Too often women's silences in Renaissance plays have been either ignored or appropriated by critics, thus reproducing the assumptions of those Renaissance conduct books which equate silence—at least sometimes—with acquiescence. Yet just as those conduct books also envisage women's silence as a space for subversion, so criticism should attend to the multiple possibilities in its “moving rhetoric.” “Her silence, / Methinks, expresseth more than if she spake” (4.1.9-10), says Bosola of the duchess of Malfi. Perhaps it is finally through silence that women—in the theater, at least—can respond to being silenced.


  1. In Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare, Lisa Jardine asserts that “to her father, Cordelia's silence is not a mark of virtue, but a denial of filial affection. … The audience must, I think, understand this as a moral mistake on Lear's part” (108). In Ventriloquized Voices: Feminist Theory and English Renaissance Texts, Elizabeth Harvey also notes that “Cordelia's linguistic restraint … stands for a constellation of particularly feminine virtues” (132-33). I differ from both in arguing that feminine silence is itself a complex and unstable construction in early modern England.

  2. The tail / tale pun lurks beneath the sexually obsessed Ferdinand's line to the duchess in Webster's Duchess of Malfi: “What cannot a neat knave with a smooth tale / Make a woman believe?” (1.1.339-40). And in the same scene Ferdinand implicitly links the tongue with the penis—“And women like that part which, like the lamprey, / Hath ne'er a bone in't” (1.1.336-37).

  3. Catherine Belsey notes that John Phillip's early Play of Patient Grissell (1558-61) shows simply “the good example of her pacience towards her husband,” while the much later version of the story, The Ancient, True and Admirable History of Patient Grisel (1619) displays “How Maides, by Her Example, In Their Good Behavior, May Marrie Rich Husbands” (167).

  4. Jill Levenson points out that “the western mind has again and again shown itself fearful of voids and stillness, the indefinite and the immense” (223).

  5. See, for example, Troilus and Cressida (3.2.133), where Troilus understands Cressida's request to stop her mouth as a plea for a kiss, or The Duchess of Malfi (3.2.20), where Antonio stops his wife's mouth with a kiss. See also Much Ado about Nothing 5.4.97.

  6. For this and other details of this production I am relying on both the prompt script, held by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford-upon-Avon, and my own observations, based on a videotape of the production. In this case, the prompt script was altered for performance—at least on the night the videotape was made, when the actor's hand was placed over Lavinia's mouth.

  7. The term is M. M. Bakhtin's, from Rabelais and His World, but is applied by Peter Stallybrass specifically to the female body, which is “naturally ‘grotesque’” (126).

  8. This and other information about Brook's production comes from the prompt script, which is held by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Stratford-upon-Avon.

  9. The play's critics usually assume that Marcus's speech dictates Lavinia's responses. Rudolph Stamm writes: “His next lines [‘Shall I speak for thee? Shall I say 'tis so?’] presuppose an unmistakable reaction of hers: a grave and meaningful nod or one of the more passionate forms of gestic assent” (261).

  10. Philip McGuire invents the term “open silence” for a silence which is “textually indeterminate” (xix); when, in other words, the text itself offers no guidance as to how the silence should be interpreted on stage. In his view, a silence which is open in the text must always be closed in performance: “Isabella may in silence agree to or refuse to marry the Duke or she may refuse to make such a decision, but she cannot do all three simultaneously” (143; emphasis added). While I agree that such a moment calls for a decision on the part of actor or director, I cannot accept that indeterminacy cannot be represented on the stage. Anthony Dawson points out that “silences are … a sign of the indeterminacy of the text as a whole, of its refusal to yield univocal meanings” (320). Like performance itself, stage silence complicates and undermines attempts to fix or determine its meaning. McGuire's point that an actor cannot do everything at once should not lead us to oversimplify what an actor can do, or to represent as a failure what is really a strength. Isabella may agree to marry the Duke gladly, reluctantly, or resentfully, for example (to widen McGuire's range of options), but an audience may never be able to “read” her motives or feelings for doing so with certainty.

  11. Jane Marcus also sees in Lavinia's story “a vivid image for the feminist critic” who must “‘wrest an alphabet’ from the ‘speaking text’ of women's bodies” (80)—echoing the now commonplace notion that women must struggle from silence into speech.

  12. In his review, Harold Hobson complained that the play is “without a moral centre” since “the tearing out of Lavinia's tongue is criminally evil because the deed is wrought by a couple of Goths. On the other hand, the baking of two youths by Titus is condoned, because it is an interesting eccentricity of a lovable and ill-used old man” (Sunday Times 21 Aug. 1955).

  13. For descriptions of the scene, see Stephen Wall, “Bridging the Homeric Gap,” Times Literary Supplement 12 July 1985: 775; Irving Wardle, “Full Attention on the Lovers Allows Brief Glimpse of Hope,” Times 27 June 1985; Michael Coveney, Financial Times 27 June 1985. I am also relying on my memory of this production.

  14. For criticisms of the way in which this scene was handled, see Michael Billington, “Victims of the time machine,” Guardian 8 May 1986; Irving Wardle, “Eccentrics in a monotonous war,” Times 7 May 1986; Michael Coveney, Financial Times 27 June 1985.

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Belsey, Catherine. The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in Renaissance Drama. London: Methuen, 1985.

Bevington, David. Action Is Eloquence: Shakespeare's Language of Gesture. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984.

Brathwait, Richard. The English gentlewoman drawne out to the full body. London, 1631.

Campbell, Oscar James. Comicall Satyre and Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. Berkeley: U of California P, 1938.

Cary, Elizabeth, Lady. The Tragedy of Mariam. Ed. Barry Weller and Margaret Ferguson. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994.

Cixous, Hélène. “Castration or Decapitation?” Trans. Annette Kuhn. Signs 7 (1981): 41-55.

———. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen. New French Feminisms. 245-64.

Colie, Rosalie L. “The Energies of Endurance: Biblical Echo in King Lear.Some Facets of King Lear: Essays in Prismatic Criticism. Ed. Rosalie L. Colie and F. T. Flahiff. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1974. 117-44.

David, Richard. Shakespeare in the Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1978.

Davies, Kathleen M. “Continuity and Change in Literary Advice on Marriage.” Marriage and Society: Studies in the Social History of Marriage. Ed. R. B. Outhwaite. New York: St. Martin's, 1981. 58-80.

Dawson, Anthony B. “The Impasse over the Stage.” English Literary Renaissance 21 (1991): 309-27.

Dessen, Alan C. Shakespeare in Performance: Titus Andronicus. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1989.

Dod, John, and Robert Cleaver. A Godlie Forme of Householde Government: For the Ordering of Private Families, according to the direction of Gods word. London, 1612.

Duras, Marguerite. Interview, trans. Susan Husserl-Kapit. New French Feminisms. 174-76.

Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1981.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Volume I: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Random, 1978.

Goldberg, Jonathan. “Shakespearean Inscriptions: The Voicing of Power.” Shakespeare and the Question of Theory. Ed. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman. London: Methuen, 1985. 116-37.

Gouge, William. Of Domesticall Duties. London, 1622.

Green, Douglas E. “Interpreting ‘her martyr'd signs’: Gender and Tragedy in Titus Andronicus.Shakespeare Quarterly 40 (1989): 317-26.

Greene, Gayle. “Shakespeare's Cressida: ‘A kind of self.’” The Woman's Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Ed. Carolyn R. S. Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980. 133-49.

Harvey, Elizabeth D. Ventriloquized Voices: Feminist Theory and English Renaissance Texts. London: Routledge, 1992.

Henderson, Katherine Usher, and Barbara F. McManus. Half Humankind: Contexts and Texts of the Controversy about Women in England, 1540-1640. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1985.

Hogrefe, Pearl. Tudor Women: Commoners and Queens. Ames: Iowa State UP, 1975.

Hull, Suzanne W. Chaste, Silent and Obedient: English Books for Women, 1475-1640. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1982.

Irigaray, Luce. “This Sex Which Is Not One.” Trans. Claudia Reeder. New French Feminisms. 99-107.

Jardine, Lisa. Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia UP, 1989.

Jonson, Ben. Epicoene. Ed. Edward Partridge. New Haven: Yale UP, 1971.

———. Timber; or, Discoveries. Ed. Ralph S. Walker. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1953.

Levenson, Jill. “What the Silence Said: Still Points in King Lear.Shakespeare 1971: Proceedings of the World Shakespeare Congress. Ed. Clifford Leech and J. M. R. Margeson. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1972. 215-29.

Marcus, Jane. “Still Practice, A / Wrested Alphabet: Toward a Feminist Aesthetic.” Feminist Issues in Literary Scholarship. Ed. Shari Benstock. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1987. 79-97.

McGuire, Philip C. Speechless Dialect: Shakespeare's Open Silences. Berkeley: U of California P, 1985.

McLuskie, Kathleen. “The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure.Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism. Ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Middleton, Thomas, and William Rowley. The Changeling. Ed. Joost Daalder. London: Black, 1990.

New French Feminisms. Ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1980.

Niccholes, Alexander. A discourse. of marriage and wiving. London, 1620.

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———. Titus Andronicus. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1948.

Stallybrass, Peter. “Patriarchal Territories: The Body Enclosed.” Rewriting the Renaissance: The Discourses of Sexual Difference in Early Modern Europe. Ed. Margaret W. Ferguson, Maureen Quilligan, and Nancy J. Vickers. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986. 123-42.

Stamm, Rudolph. “The Alphabet of Speechless Complaint: A Study of the Mangled Daughter in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus.” The Triple Bond: Plays, Mainly Shakespearean, in Performance. Ed. Joseph G. Price. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1975. 255-73.

Vives, Joannes Ludovicus. A very frutefull and pleasant boke called the instruction of a christen Woman. Trans. Richard Hyde. London, 1557.

Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi. Ed. John Russell Brown. The Revels Plays. London: Methuen, 1964.

Whately, William. A Bride-bush; Or, a Direction for Married Persons. London, 1619.

———. A Care-cloth: Or a Treatise of the Cumbers and Troubles of Marriage. London, 1624.

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Mark Berge (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Berge, Mark. “‘My Poor Fool Is Hanged’: Cordelia, the Fool, Silence and Irresolution in King Lear.” In Reclamations of Shakespeare, edited by A. J. Hoenselaars, pp. 211-22. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1994.

[In the following essay, Berge links the disappearance of the Fool and Cordelia's final silence to Lear's failed search for self-knowledge. In the critic's judgment, although the king comes to understand his daughter's initial reticence as a strength rather than a fault, he never comprehends his own complicity in the tragic events.]

In the chaotic world of King Lear, resolution of character seems remote and veiled from an aged king bent on denying the unspoken truth. Dramatically speaking, his enemies fare conventionally better. Philip McGuire concludes that when the mortally wounded Edmund declares that “The wheel is come full circle”, his words serve as an explicit statement of dramatic fulfilment.1 Accordingly, Edmund, Goneril, and Regan move towards a dramatic consummation in which their deaths bond them in malevolence. However, Lear, Cordelia and the Fool seem divided, separated, and never allowed a mode of completion like their three counterparts. Lear's hopes of union with Cordelia are never realized, and are portrayed as unnatural: “We two alone”, as the king puts it, “will sing like birds i'th'cage” (5.3.9). Cordelia's final line, “Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?” (5.3.7), echoes Lear's wish for dramatic union, but she is silenced before it can be fulfilled. In the Folio addition to the play, the Fool reiterates this attitude on union when he utters, in despair of common sense, a contradictory disunity: “And I'll go to bed at noon” (3.6.41); John Kerrigan aptly stresses that this line “expresses the Fool's determination to leave King Lear with its course half run”.2 The Fool's intentional silence marks the end of his usefulness to the king in madness, and Cordelia's silence would appear to function in a similar way. Their removal from speech deprives Lear of their supporting influence and drives him farther into self-examination. However, fulfilment remains elusive for Lear. McGuire's argument that the play's final scene presents silences which deny our certainty of a single “promised end” seems to point directly to the dramatic elusiveness Shakespeare tried to cultivate.

Shakespeare portrays this theme of irresolution through Cordelia, the Fool, and finally of Lear. When Shakespeare imposes a silence on Cordelia and the Fool, effectively halting their fulfilment, he denies Lear the chance to gain the dramatic completion which Regan, Goneril, and Edmund enjoy. The Fool's disappearance leads to a shift towards Lear's madness, and Cordelia's speechlessness allows Lear to deny the reality of their imprisonment. Lear imagines a captivity of companionship:

                                                                                                                                            So we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news, and we'll talk with them too.


Lear is dependent on Cordelia and the Fool for support. Questions of stability and independence are raised by the need of these characters. For this reason, it is necessary to examine exactly how the Fool and Cordelia influence Lear, and what they take with them when they are removed from speech and action.

The question of Cordelia's character has been an issue of criticism for some time. Samuel Johnson could not bear the treatment of Cordelia and the painful ending of King Lear. John Danby explains Johnson's reaction as a product of the prevalent attitude towards Cordelia at the time: “It was intolerable to the moral optimism of the eighteenth century that such transcendent goodness should not be taken care of in the human universe.”3 Harley Granville-Barker stated the contrary in his conception of Cordelia: “It will be a fatal error to present Cordelia as a meek saint.”4 William Elton conceptualizes Cordelia as the model of self-sacrificing and healing virtue: “Cordelia is devoted to curing division. Strife between North and South […] has its antithesis in Cordelia's healing and restoring forgiveness.”5 What all three critics acknowledge concerning Cordelia is her strength of character and silent resolve. Her courage in standing up to Lear and his demands while wrapped in the mantle of his power emanates from what Elton describes as her “argumentum ex silentio” (Elton, 25), and what Granville-Barker sees as her enduring “without effort, explanation or excuse” (303). This strength of character, the ability to stand with full certainty, is one of Cordelia's main personality traits and functions. She is fully aware of her abilities and her own qualities, as she firmly states: “I am sure my love's / More ponderous than my tongue” (1.1.72-73). Cordelia's silent determination and faith in what she believes to be true give her the strength to remain constant to her principles of love and order.

The inception of a character such as Cordelia, whose nature is more prevalent than her words, and, as Elton notes, whose constancy to order is unwavering, creates a force which is directly opposed to the half-meanings and wild uncertainty of Lear (Elton, 75). Lear's words illustrate his selfish and confused personality as he remarks to Kent early in the play: “I loved her most, and thought to set my rest / On her kind nursery” (1.1.117-18). The real problem which Cordelia faces seems captured by Harry Berger's hypothesis that Cordelia embodies the young woman of virtue attempting to break away from the paternal bondage and filial duty that are exploited by Lear.6 Her values suddenly come into conflict with Lear's “darker purpose” (1.1.31), which is illustrated by an image of confusion expressed by Gloucester: “but now in the division of the kingdom, it appears not which of the dukes he values most” (1.1.3-4). The aim for which Lear seems to be exploiting Cordelia is stated unequivocally when Lear expounds: “and 'tis our fast intent / To shake all cares and business from our age” (1.1.33-34). This introduces a grievous wound both to society and to order:

Beneath the surface, then, his darker purpose seems to be to play on everyone's curiosity, stir up as much envy and contention as he can among the “younger strengths” with the aim of dominating and dividing them, humbling and punishing them.

(Berger, 355)

Lear's fear of weakness and need to dominate may lead to self-deception and reliance on the quantity of words rather than their quality. Regan and Goneril act as the dispensers of this excessive and formless language which offers much but provides little substance. It is in this vein of empty praise that Goneril states: “Sir, I love you more than word can wield the matter” (1.1.50). Regan reasserts these words, notably with her own version of Goneril's shadowy sentiment:

I am made of that self-mettle as my sister
And prize me at her worth. In my true heart
I find she names my very deed of love.


They are directly opposed to Cordelia, who avoids such formlessness and remains silent in truth.

Recent criticism has placed much emphasis on the Cordelia of the opening scenes as a speaker and performer of truth. Marion Perret rightly points out that “The opening scene asks us to balance good words and the deeds that should verify them […]. The test of goodness becomes action.”7 Cordelia personifies the virtue that both action and truth form together. Her short and terse “Nothing, my lord” (1.1.82), which is repeated, answers Lear's demands for verbal opulence and self-justification. The nakedness of such a statement, compared with the utterances of Regan and Goneril, draws attention to itself and becomes a challenge for action on Lear's part. It goads Lear into making a choice between truth and self-deception. Cordelia's style of speech, operating as a challenge, emphasizes her rejection of the meaningless style her sisters use and Lear's insistence on quantity instead of quality.

In Lear's lack of judgement he insists on the quantity of language as he reverbalizes his demand for Cordelia's mended speech. The Folio version of the tragedy enhances this aspect of Lear with an added imperative: “What can you say to draw / A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak” (1.1.80-81). Further on he becomes insistent: “Nothing will come of nothing, speak again” (1.1.85). Finally he issues a threat to procure his need for quantity of speech: “How, how, Cordelia? Mend your speech a little, / Lest you may mar your fortunes” (1.1.88-89). In this way he demands an opulence of Cordelia which she is unwilling, and, according to Sophia Blaydes, is unable to provide: “She has not her sister's eloquence to express the nature and breadth of her love, but she is secure that Lear knows of her love; yet, she is puzzled at his request.”8 Cordelia's assurance of her position as speaker of truth never falters, even in reply to Lear's accusation: “So young, and so untender?” (1.1.100). She answers with another short reply typical of her character: “So young, my lord, and true” (1.1.101). This simple exchange embodies all that is contradictory between Lear's psychological bearing and Cordelia's certainty of mind and speech.

Lear recoils from Cordelia's certainty of mind like a wounded lion. Her certainty forces him to gaze at his own fears and weaknesses, which he is intent on denying. In epic proportions he renounces Cordelia in a speech which is self-damning as well as revealing:

For by the sacred radiance of the sun,
The mysteries of Hecate and the night,
By all the operation of the orbs
From whom we do exist and cease to be,
Here I disclaim all my paternal care,
Propinquity and property of blood,
And as a stranger to my heart and me
Hold thee from this forever. The barbarous Scythian,
Or he that makes his generation messes
To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom
Be as well neighboured, pitied, and relieved,
As thou my sometime daughter.


Lear's reaction to Cordelia's assurance in her role as the speaker of truth serves to portray his denial of guilt. His ironic use of the “barbarous Scythian” and the cannibalistic image which he advances only recoils upon himself. Lear goes to great lengths to deny his guilt throughout the play, which leads to a revealing process of self-exoneration. Berger sketches Lear's method of self-justification with insightful accuracy: “In the first scene, Lear seems on the verge of forcing others to make him acknowledge not so much what they really think about him, but what he has always thought about them, and therefore—by a kind of recoil—about himself.” And as Berger also mentions, Lear will not let self-knowledge interfere with his false conception of self and “spends the rest of the play trying continually to regain the sleep of self-deception”.9 Lear spends most of the play denying the truth of his guilt in the “division of the kingdom”, but Shakespeare gives King Lear a model of truth and self-knowledge to aspire to in the character of Cordelia. It is this choice of following Cordelia's model which serves as a crux for further development.

Lear's growth to self-knowledge is constantly based on his image of Cordelia, which changes as he changes. Lear first conceptualizes Cordelia as a creature who seemed substantial but, in fact, was nothing: “Sir, there she stands. / If aught within that little seeming substance” (1.1.191-92). He soon changes his thoughts after Goneril chastises him for the riotous behaviour of his knights:

                                                  O most small fault,
How ugly didst thou in Cordelia show!
Which, like an engine, wrenched my frame of nature
From the fixed place, drew from my heart all love,
And added to the gall. O Lear, Lear, Lear!
Beat at this gate that let thy folly in
And thy dear judgment out.


Lear's image of Cordelia is now further from the empty, hollow concept he had. He acknowledges that there is something in Cordelia which to him is ugly. In addition, he seems to separate the “small fault” and Cordelia by personifying the ugliness, giving it a separate existence outside of Cordelia.

In the storm scene Lear separates Cordelia even further from the cause of his anger. Raging against Regan and Goneril, he assigns to them the role of persecutors, yet forgets to mention Cordelia. In his growing madness he excludes Cordelia in an attempt to avoid his guilt over his denial of her:

                                                  Here I stand your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despised old man;
But yet I call you servile ministers,
That will with two pernicious daughters join
Your high-engendered battles 'gainst a head
So old and white as this.


His exclusion of Cordelia from his fury is a telling sign of his changing conception of Cordelia. This change comes at a crucial moment in Lear's development as he leaves selfish concern for a moment to tend to the fool: “Come on, my boy. How dost, my boy? Art cold? […] Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart / That's sorry yet for thee” (3.2.66 and 70-71). Harvey Birenbaum remarks that in the fourth Act, Lear “finds relief from self-awareness but only by complete submission into the truth of his pain”.10 His own violence, deception and mortality are made clear to him. He can now see Cordelia in the role of victim as he states: “Take that of me, my friend, who have the power / To seal th'accuser's lips” (4.5.161-62). Lear's awareness of his own guilt expresses itself in his madness and reveals a soul tormented by his own denial of truth. Lear tells Gloucester:

                                                  Get thee glass eyes,
And, like a scurvy politician, seem
To see the things thou dost not. Now, now, now, now.
Pull off my boots. Harder, harder! So.


Lear's removal of his boots—his “lendings”—symbolizes rejection, and perhaps the disgust and guilt Lear harbours in regard to his treatment of Cordelia. His view of Cordelia's silence has changed drastically from an ugly blemish to an abused strength. It is through this perception of Cordelia that Lear is able to make crucial changes in his character. He now understands his fault in relying on the quantity of language and not the unspoken truth. What remains to be discussed is whether or not Lear follows her example of constancy in the face of her uncertainty and despair of the “kind gods” (4.6.14) as she is removed from speech and action.

Cordelia's conception of truth lies beyond the realm of opulent speech and perhaps speech itself, as suggested by Anne Barton: “In Cordelia's case, the declaration of the inadequacy of language happens to express a true state of feeling. Her love for her father does indeed make her breath poor and speech unable.”11 Her resolve not to taint her love prompts her to remain taciturn: “What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent” (1.1.57). Cordelia's conception of truth also lies in her pious and reverent belief in providence and divine justice, the “kind gods” (Elton, 76). This is certainly true of the beginning of the play, but does it remain true when civil war, the manifestation of the collapse of justice and order, breaks out?

The reappearance of Cordelia in Act 4 is substantially altered in the Folio version by the cutting of an entire scene from the Quarto. In the Quarto scene, a gentleman relates to Kent a dynamic and emotional Cordelia rather than the simply anxious leader of the Folio. When asked how Cordelia was moved by her father's fallen situation, the gentleman portrays a struggle between patience and sorrow in Cordelia, using contrary images:

Not to a rage. Patience and sorrow strove
Who should express her goodliest. You have seen
Sunshine and rain at once; her smiles and tears
Were like a better way; those happy smilets
That played on her ripe lip seemed not to know
What guests were in her eyes; which parted thence
As pearls from diamonds dropped. In brief,
Sorrow would be a rarity most beloved,
If all could so become it.

(Quarto, 4.3.13-21)

The gentleman's attempt to romanticize Cordelia's distress does not mask the struggle between the patience needed to accept fate and the sorrow of despair. This conflict alters Cordelia's attitude towards the “kind gods” and her behaviour. Indeed, the gentleman further relates that Cordelia's sorrow turns her terse, firm language into broken exclamations of deep doubt:

Pantingly forth, as if it pressed her heart;
Cried “Sisters, sisters! Shame of ladies! Sisters!
Kent! Father! Sisters! What, i'th'storm? i'th'night?
Let pity not be believed!” There she shook
The holy water from her heavenly eyes,
And, clamour-moistened. Then away she started
To deal with grief alone.

(Quarto, 4.3.24-30)

Cordelia's surprise and shock are not only confined to the actions of her sisters, but are extended towards the storm and the night, symbolic embodiments of the gods (Elton, 232). This is a crucial revelation for Cordelia, whose perceptions of justice and truth have thus far been based upon her faith in the “kind gods”. This episode, according to Anne Barton, is similar to the opening scenes in that Cordelia cannot give linguistic shape to her intentions (Barton, 25). However, Cordelia's broken and panting words attempt to give shape to her shock and despair and emphasize a frightening rejection of pity and Cordelia's conception of the benevolent gods.

The strong and emotionally upset reaction of Cordelia in the gentleman's report may be the very reason why this scene is not included in the later Folio version of the play which is generally considered superior. Ian J. Kirby has noted the elusiveness with which Shakespeare wrote, agreeing “that in King Lear Shakespeare frequently frustrates his audience”.12 The Folio conforms to this elusiveness by removing the gentleman's careful observations and by presenting Cordelia as “much more the active exponent of her father's rights”.13 The inner struggle, which is so prominent in the Quarto version, is modified to appear less obvious, more evasive. This allows Cordelia a more self-confident re-entrance to the play, and thus a stronger effect is achieved once Cordelia begins to doubt the benevolence of fate. Her few lines in Act 4, scene 3 echo the shock found in the Quarto concerning the fate of King Lear: “Alack, 'tis he: why, he was met even now, / As mad as the vexed sea, singing aloud” (4.3.1-2). She questions not only her own but also mankind's ability to cope with Lear's madness: “What can man's wisdom / In the restoring his bereavèd sense?” (4.3.8-9). The elements of doubt are present in the Folio as they are in the Quarto, but are made less potent by the omission of the gentleman's remarks.

In either case, Cordelia's prayer becomes far more than a plea for Lear's good health:

                                                  O you kind gods,
Cure this great breach in his abusèd nature;
Th'untuned and jarring senses O wind up
Of this child-changèd father!


This prayer becomes a final wish for the gods to remain kind, a hope for divine justice. Her gods confound her by remaining, as they have ever been, silent.

The result of the confusion in Cordelia's mind concerning her faith in the benevolent gods leads to a striking manifestation of despair and consequently to her removal from the world of King Lear. Her very last lines are uttered in captivity:

                                                                      We are not the first
Who with best meaning have incurred the worst.
For thee, oppressèd king, I am cast down,
Myself could else outfrown false fortune's frown.
Shall we not see these daughters and these sisters?


Cordelia's “best meaning” intentions are devalued horribly by her having “incurred the worst”. The awareness that the gods' justice is not based on the merit of the individual, reveals a changed Cordelia. The devaluation of divine justice may be an indication that Cordelia is bitter. In coldly addressing Lear as “oppressèd king” rather than “father” or “dear Lord”—a mode of address to which she is accustomed—she gives her last speech an accusing tone which shows the strained imbalance in her character. It is also unlike her to view fate, fortune, and the effects of time in negative terms. Yet, she says: “Myself could outfrown false fortune's frown” (5.3.6). Earlier Cordelia saw a positive view of time and fate: “Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides; / Who covers faults, at last with shame derides” (1.1.274-75). Her last line further illustrates an attitude of despair with a powerless wish on Cordelia's part to see her sisters. It is perhaps feelings of distressing isolation which prompt her to call for the sight of her tormentors. Cordelia ends her life with these words, which are strange, unstable and bitter.

Like Cordelia, the Fool is also removed from speech and action at a crucial point. In a Folio addition, the Fool's last line, “And I'll go to bed at noon” (3.6.41), expresses his despair in watching his master succumb to the seeming madness of the heath. Lear's preceding utterance emphasizes the inversion of values in his world: “We'll go to supper i'th' morning” (3.6.40). The Fool echoes this sentiment with the surrender of his final line. Uttering in despair of common sense his anguish over the deflation of a King to a madman, the Fool complains: “This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen” (3.4.72). His final silence serves the play's action by illuminating the polarity between reason and madness in Lear. The Fool attempts to provide, unsuccessfully, a support for Lear with his replies of common sense:

O nuncle, court holy water in a dry house is better than this rain-water out o'door. Good nuncle, in, ask thy daughters blessing. Here's a night pities neither wise men nor fools.


In his delusion, Lear ignores the advice and common sense of the Fool and goes on to voice a frightening hatred aimed at Goneril and Regan. His madness is so powerful that Edgar remarks: “My tears begin to take his part so much / They mar my counterfeiting” (3.6.18-19). The Fool becomes so overwhelmed by Lear's madness that he imposes a self-induced silence, effectively suppressing common sense and truth.

The Fool, in his privileged role as Lear's verbal antagonist, is very like Cordelia in regard to the unspoken truth. The Fool presents the truth much like Cordelia, in precise terms but with all the problems of speaking truth in the deceptive world of King Lear. The Fool's first discussion with Lear points directly to Lear's denial of truth, but in allegory: “Truth's a dog must to kennel. He must be whipped out, when the Lady Brach may stand by th'fire and stink” (1.4.97-98). Arthur Davis remarks that: “The fool is of no practical help to the King, and his value as a companion is severely limited by the nature of his running commentary.”14 If Lear were able to accept his denial of the truth, the Fool would indeed become a valuable companion. However, Lear's denial and his stubborn lack of common sense deny him the Fool's unique rarity as a speaker of truth. In fact, according to John Kerrigan, the Folio additions to the text enhance this distance between the two characters:

Still more strikingly, F emphasizes the Fool's hard-headedness. The new lines resemble the 1.4 quips about unfee'd lawyers and rent. Only whereas such observations were then to the point, they now seem distressingly irrelevant. The Fool's first few jokes may not have helped Lear recover his kingdom, but they did make him “See better” what he had done when he gave his crown away. At TLN 1322-7, by contrast, the Fool's sallies are disengaged from the king. The two characters no longer speak the same language, because Lear is losing touch with the way things are.


To buttress his theme of irresolution further, Shakespeare forbids Lear the common sense of the Fool. The Fool's silence seems self-imposed but this is more because Lear has gone beyond his help. As a result, the Fool despairs of his own common sense and succumbs to the topsy-turvy values of Lear's madness in his last line: “And I'll go to bed at noon” (3.6.41). The Fool completes his action and speech in the play much like Cordelia, in opposition to his perceived values. The sense of uncertainty, however, is far more prevalent in the Fool's case because his confusion is mirrored in the disorientation of Lear's madness.

When Shakespeare imposes a silence on both Cordelia and the Fool, these two characters are in despair of their personal views of the world. The Fool despairs of common sense while Cordelia surrenders to feelings of bitterness. Shakespeare purposely does this to allow for a lack of dramatic fulfilment or resolution for Lear. Through doubt of their own principles, Lear is denied the Fool's common sense and Cordelia's pristine goodness as vehicles for fulfilment. Lear's denial of truth is finally acknowledged late in the play, but even this has a tone of misunderstanding. Lear still does not fathom Cordelia's love for him: “If you have poison for me, I will drink it. / I know you do not love me” (4.6.70-71). Even near the end of his play, Shakespeare denies the audience any form of completion.

The irresolution of the final scene is the conclusion of Shakespeare's tragic vision in King Lear. The Folio again enhances the already elusive Quarto in terms of dramatic completion and points in the direction Shakespeare was exploring.15 The debate over whether or not Lear dies happily or in anguish testifies to Shakespeare's ability to leave in question the meaning of his play. If we take into consideration the role of the Fool and Cordelia as discussed, we can see a definite pattern of refusal of any form of resolution in the play. Uncertainty on the part of Cordelia and the Fool creates a rich substructure of shifting values, attitudes and hopes. The spoken truth becomes just as uncertain as Cordelia's “Nothing”, as Lear realizes too late. He demonstrates his grief with howling:

Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones.
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so,
That heaven's vault should crack.


Anne Barton states: “At the very end, entering with Cordelia dead in his arms, Lear will find that the howl of an animal is the only possible response to the situation” (27). Lear's howls are the closest he comes to any form of resolution between himself and the spoken truth, and they are cries of inarticulate disorder. He is denied dramatic union with the Fool because of his madness, and Cordelia's doubt and death leave him to face his own death and spiritual fulfilment or non-fulfilment alone.


  1. The Tragedy of King Lear, ed. Jay L. Halio, New Cambridge Shakespeare, Cambridge, 1992, 5.3.164. Philip McGuire, Speechless Dialect: Shakespeare's Open Silences, Berkeley, 1985, 151.

  2. John Kerrigan, “Revision, Adaption, and the Fool in King Lear”, in The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare's Two Versions of King Lear, eds. Gary Taylor and Michael Warren, Oxford, 1983, 229.

  3. John Danby, Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature: A Study of King Lear, London, 1969, 114.

  4. Harley Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare, Princeton: N. J., 1946, 303.

  5. William Elton, “King Lear” and the Gods, San Marino: Calif., 1966, 77.

  6. Harry Berger, Jr., “King Lear: The Lear Family Romance”, The Centennial Review, 23 (1979), 368.

  7. Marion D. Perret, “Lear's Good Old Man”, Shakespeare Studies, 17 (1985), 89.

  8. “Cordelia: Loss of Insolence”, Studies in the Humanities, V/2 (1976), 15.

  9. Harry Berger, “King Lear: The Lear Family Romance”, 358.

  10. Harvey Birenbaum, “The Art of Our Necessities: The Softness of King Lear”, The Yale Review, LXXII/4 (1983), 591.

  11. Anne Barton, “Shakespeare and the Limits of Language”, Shakespeare Survey, 24 (1971), 24-25.

  12. Ian J. Kirby, “The Passing of King Lear”, Shakespeare Survey, 41 (1989), 147.

  13. Jay L. Halio, King Lear, 4.3, note to SD “Enter … Cordelia”.

  14. Arthur G. Davis, The Royalty of Lear, New York, 1974, 85.

  15. Thomas Clayton, “‘Is this the promis'd end?’: Revision in the Role of the King”, in The Division of the Kingdoms, 129.

Frank Kermode (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Kermode, Frank. “Shakespeare's Silences.” In Surprised by Scenes: Essays in Honor of Professor Yasunari Takahashi, edited by Yasunari Takada, pp. 16-26. Tokyo: Kenkyusha, 1994.

[In the following essay, Kermode evaluates the conjunction of speech and silence in Shakespeare's plays, with special reference to the way in which speechlessness can be a form of eloquence.]

It does not do to neglect Shakespeare's access to proverbial wisdom, or to forget that it sometimes merges with his rhetorical resources. And there is an immense amount of proverbial lore concerning silence. It gives consent. It never did man harm. It is prudent and useful: nihil silentio utilius. According to the most consulted of all rhetorical treatises, the Ad Herennium (III. xii. 21), until about 1500 erroneously attributed to Cicero, it is better to be silent than to speak on any subject, unless you know all about that subject or are being compelled to speak. There is a relation between creative speech and silence: iconographically, the god Horus showed, by placing his finger to his lips, that he was the god of the creative word, but the same figure, without alteration, represented Harpocrates, the god of secrecy, enjoining silence. The injunction we remember from Ben Jonson—‘Language most shows a man; speak that I may see thee’—derives from Erasmus, the great humanist collector of ancient proverbial wisdom, who said he got it from Socrates: ‘Loquere, igitur, inquit, adolescens, ut te videam’—he seems to have been sure the ephebe, if he spoke, would infallibly give himself away. See any edition of the Adagia, one of the most celebrated books of the age, under the heading ‘Taciturnitas laudata’, for a string of wise sayings about silence. A lot of this lore must have reached Shakespeare.

We should also recall the virtual universality of religious silence. Keeping quiet has obvious but potent religious associations; it is required at the climax of the Roman rite, and has a place in mystery religions, even as they are represented in The Magic Flute. There is a distich of the Pseudo-Cato, often cited in the Renaissance: proximus ille Deo [est] qui scit ratione tacere1. The silence of Quaker meetings is almost the only thing non-Quakers know about them. We are even told that in the period after George Fox ‘silence was … glorified to such an extent that it took almost a miracle to make anyone speak at a meeting’2 and there is an eighteenth-century record of twenty-two consecutive Quaker meetings with only one break in the silence.

Silence has long had proverbial associations of gender, being, as Erasmus among others suggests, ‘the best ornament of a woman’. Mulierem ornat silentium. Ripa, in his Iconologia, notes, under his Silence emblem, that although it isn't natural for women to respect silence, he has nevertheless chosen a woman to represent the virtue—a solemn lady dressed in black, with a ring in her right hand, which she is carrying to her mouth, as if she means to hide it there or swallow it. At her feet is a frog, carefully specified as unlike the familiar frog, just as this woman is unlike ordinary women, in being mute.

Not to be silent may, in a man, be imprudent; in a woman, it is usually disastrous. If Eve had been silent—Milton makes her a most accomplished rhetorician, instructed by the devil himself—there would have been no Fall. When a sixteenth-century lady called Isotta Nogarolas aspired to be a scholarly humanist, just like a man, she addressed a letter to the great Guarino, and when he remained silent, or simply failed to reply, she risked writing to him again, of course in good Latin, saying ‘Do not hold it against me if I have transgressed those rules of silence especially imposed on women, and seem scarcely to have read that precept of Vergerio's, which warns against encouraging articulateness in the young, since in plentiful speech there is always something to be censured (cum in multo sermone semper sit quod reprehendi possit). And Sophocles too called silence (taciturnitatem) a woman's greatest ornament’. Elsewhere Isotta distinguishes talkativeness (loquacitas) from eloquence (eloquentia) and claims that women have more of the latter than men. Nevertheless, in a world where it was an article of faith that humanistic studies promoted male virtue, she was attacked with the argument that eloquent women are never chaste (nullam eloquentem esse castam). She renounced her Latin learning and, at any rate so far as public exhibition went, was thereafter silent and chaste.3

Perhaps in an oral culture it is especially necessary not to utter that which can no more be retracted than a signed statement. Nescit vox missa reverti, says Horace (Ars Poetica, 390). Of course this has to some extent remained true. At the beginning of Trollope's novel He Knew he was Right Louis Trevelyan speaks with undue severity, indeed, as she thinks, insultingly, to his young wife about what he regards as her undue intimacy with a Colonel Osborne. As Trollope delicately sketches this scene he is always close to repeating Horace's slogan. The ‘word of suspicion’ had better not have been spoken. Trevelyan ‘had allowed himself to speak a word which probably he would have willingly recalled as soon as spoken. But words spoken cannot be recalled …’ The nearest thing to such a recall is an apology, a retractation, but that also goes on the record; and for some it is too difficult to speak anyway, especially if the speaker is a man, and the person to whom he ought to say it is his wife. The best course was summed up in the British wartime posters: Careless Talk Costs Lives. Be Like Dad, Keep Mum. In our own day, at any rate in Britain, we are still oral to the degree that you can write an affidavit and append the signatures of witnesses, but you must still validate it with words spoken before suitably qualified auditors. So with oaths in court: you cannot swear them silently unless you are a mute.

There are occasions when speech is urgently called for, when silence should if possible be ended. One of these, of special interest to Shakespeare and contemporary dramatists, was the occasion of grief. Curae leves loquuntur, ingentes stupent, is Senecan, and it is often repeated: ‘Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak / Whispers the o'erfraught heart and bids it break’, says Malcolm to Macduff when the news arrives of the murder of his family (IV. iii). Much earlier, in Titus Andronicus, Marcus, in the extraordinary long speech with which he greets Lavinia as she enters with her tongue cut out, dwells on his own as well as her inability to express grief: ‘Sorrow concealed, like an oven stopp'd, / Doth burn the heart to cinders where it is’ (II. iii. 36-37). There is a moment in Ford's ‘Tis Pity She's a Whore where the same tag is used with a different end in view: ‘They are the silent griefs that cut the heart strings / Let me die smiling’, which suggests that at the right moment you could commit suicide simply by not speaking.

One notices, however, that in these dramatic observations on the physiological effects of silence, the point is made by people actually speaking. It seems unlikely that there were many total or palpably protracted silences on the Elizabethan stage, any more than in the Elizabethan pulpit. Both operations, play and sermon, depend, after all, on an oral continuum. But there are certainly rhetorical uses of silence, and we can expect the dramatists to have known about them. The rhetoricians admired Odysseus for standing silent before speaking.

There was a saying that when silence fell on an assembly Mercury was about to enter (that is, the speech would be enhanced by the preliminary silence; see Erasmus under ‘Subiti interventus’). Quintilian noted (Inst. Or., IX. ii. 54) that silence serves to evoke the interest of spectators. Silence could be a form of eloquence, pregnant pauses aid the effect and also conserve the voice; it is sometimes more telling to be taciturn rather than florid, and so forth, as directed by the seminal Ad Herennium. By these means there were special effects to be had: silentium clamosum, expositio tacita is a maxim attributed to Cassiodorus. The wisdom he expressed in oxymoron was remembered in the medieval proverb silentium nihil est. sed ubi vox non est, silentium dicitur. There are instances of such speaking silences in Greek tragedy, for example when Antigone stands, a silent but essential and participating presence, throughout the dialogue of Oedipus and Creon in Oedipus at Colonus.4 A Renaissance orator or actor, if speaking of or enacting that great grief, cura ingens, might very well have mimed a momentary stupefaction, just as it was held proper, for suasive purposes, to mime hesitation, a condition of not knowing what to say next—the trope known as apophasis, a word also used to describe the practices of negative theology; comment ne pas dire is Jacques Derrida's term for a certain kind of rhetorical strategy, used by him in discussing the via negativa5.

I imagine that to find a highly developed instance of the deliberate use of silence as part of the larger rhythm of theatrical discourse one has to move on, perhaps to Jacques Bernard's ‘theatre of silence’ early in the present century (Le feu reprend mal) or to Beckett, who said silence poured into Waiting for Godot ‘like water into a sinking ship’, or Pinter, who learned from Beckett how to measure it out and pour it in. The sole, but mightiest, instance I know of what might be called a rhythmical use of silence in Shakespeare's plays is the remarkable scene (King Lear, V. ii) in which Edgar goes off to fight, leaving his father Gloucester alone on the empty stage while the battle proceeds in the distance. How long this is allowed to go on depends on the director's skill or nerve; I first understood how amazingly bold this little scene was when I saw the great production of Peter Brook in 1962. Gloucester sat sniffing the air for an intolerably long time, while the noises of the battle, the battle Lear and Edgar were losing, resounded offstage. It is perhaps, in the midst of the great poem, the great central passage, and it is totally silent except for battle noises off. There is nothing else truly comparable to this, but there are nevertheless some other interesting silences in Shakespearian discourse, as well as some trivial ones. Let me touch on a few of them.

First, the trivial. The first stage direction of Much Ado, in both Q and F1, says ‘Messina, Innogen his wife’. Innogen appears again at the beginning of II. i., this time described only as ‘his wife’. On neither occasion does she say anything whatever. She dwindles from a name to a status, the name to reappear only years later in Cymbeline. Another silent ghost character is to be found in The Taming of the Shrew (IV. i. 151), where Petruchio, asserting himself in his own house, calls for a kinsman: ‘… bid my cousin Ferdinand come hither’. But Ferdinand does not appear. This could be in some obscure way part of Petruchio's plan to tame his wife, perhaps by pretending to be about to introduce another tormentor; or it might be merely to give some sense of domestic space—there are other rooms, and other persons more important than servants; or of course it might simply be that the author changed his mind and accidentally left Ferdinand in the text.

That last could also be the explanation of a celebrated difficulty in Othello—Iago's calling Cassio, at the beginning of the play, ‘A fellow almost damn'd in a fair wife’ (I. i. 21), as if Shakespeare at this point intended to follow his Italian source and make Cassio a married man. The interest of these examples is limited, but we can at least note that Shakespeare actually gave two of the silent or missing characters names, and must for a moment have thought them as ‘real’ as the speaking characters, or potentially so; and in the case of Cassio, where he doesn't name the wife, he was keeping his options open. There is also in Othello the Clown, who is there only to dismiss the musicians who, very oddly, have not played; as if to discount the view that they are there merely as the result of an oversight, the Clown says they may play only silent music (III. i). Here again the most commonplace explanation must serve: there may have been a serenade (Verdi later supplied it) at some performance, and the scene was perhaps clumsily cut to allow the short conversation between the Clown and Cassio to take place. Or, as Shaw argued, Shakespeare started writing the play before he had much idea how he was going to work it out.

More interesting, I think, is Lavinia in Titus Andronicus, for, as we have already seen, she is a dramatic character who has been effectively prevented from speaking by having had her tongue torn out. She has also had her hands cut off. This is an improvement on or modernisation of the original story, the rape of Philomel; it carries the myth forward into an age of script, for the purpose of her ravishers in cutting off her hands was of course to prevent her from writing as well as from speaking the names of her ravishers. ‘Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so, / And if thy stumps will let thee, play the scribe’, says Chiron (II. iv. 2-3). After more taunts the wicked brothers, Chiron and Demetrius, ‘leave her to her silent walks’ (8). Marcus enters and makes a speech of 47 lines describing Lavinia's condition as he sees it. ‘Shall I speak for thee?’ he asks (33), and produces the saying about the oven, already mentioned. Lavinia's silence is represented in a speech extending to considerable length; there aren't that many 47-line speeches in the canon. In its course Marcus does not fail to point out how closely Lavinia's story resembles that of Philomel, nor to stress the significant difference: Philomel ‘but lost her tongue’ (38). He then deploys an elaborate rhetoric in praise of the young woman's hands as they used to be, and of the tongue which once sang so well.

Marcus, in fact, provides a huge rhetorical counterpoint to Lavinia's silence, complete with the proper topics and mythological digression. It must have seemed the only way to deal with silence at that point. That is, silence is treated as a rhetorical topic, a matter for elaborate and suasive speech. But the speech in all its floridity does try to convey the notion that speech is not only theatre: it is also life. The little life left to Lavinia is suggested by her struggle to write with a stick guided by her mouth. Justice Silence, incidentally, hasn't much life in him (2 Henry IV, III. ii).

Let me now mention a character who is not silent at all, but who still contributes something to the whole subject: Cassandra, in Troilus & Cressida. Here I borrow from Lisa Jardine and from her sources. According to Aeschylus, though not according to Homer, Cassandra was a prophetess, so endowed by Apollo who wanted her love—she cheated him, and so he added a curse, that her prophecies, though accurate, would never command belief (Agamemnon, 1203ff.). This double version had been read back into the Troy story by the time Shakespeare used it. Cassandra correctly prophesies the fall of the city but ‘these high strains / Of divination in our sister’ (II. ii. 113-14) do not impress Troilus, who dismisses them as ‘brain-sick raptures’ (122), though the more sensible Hector thinks they should be attended to.

Jardine's point is that to introduce their voices into matters of public importance it was sometimes convenient or necessary for women to act as prophetesses, thus acquiring the prestige of Miriam and Deborah. Keith Thomas had noticed such occurrences in the Middle Ages: ‘Before the Civil War’, he says, ‘recourse to prophecy was the only means by which women could hope to disseminate their opinion on public events’6.

Jardine adds that in this role the female speaker has an affinity with the Fool, a licensed commentator, practising under the protection of a social convention what would ordinarily be regarded as disorderly behaviour. She contrasts the prophetic female public speaker with Beatrice, whose ‘Kill Claudio’ is ineffective because she is a powerless woman interfering in men's affairs, and compares Cassandra with Queen Margaret in the first tetralogy, and with Paulina in The Winter's Tale, who scolds and baits Leontes and is threatened with burning, like a witch7. The point is that when women intervene by speaking in public affairs they are normally out of order and either condemned as scolds or witches, or condoned (though probably, like Cassandra, ignored) only as prophetesses. In the usual course of things they are breaking rules by breaking silence.

Although Cordelia when she says she must ‘love and be silent’ has to speak in order to say so, and speak again in reply to her father's challenge (I. i) there is an obvious rhetorical contrast between her way of doing so and her sisters’. The occasion is formal, public. Goneril says she loved her father ‘more than words can wield the matter’ (55)—the topic of inexpressibility, which is of course spoken, expressed. Curtius8 says this topos is standard in the eulogy of rulers. Regan replies with the topical formula Curtius calls ‘outdoing’, associated with what he terms the cedat-formula: ‘Only she comes too short’ (72). The too blatant use of ‘outdoing’ was censured by other rhetoricians (Curtius, 163-64). Cordelia accuses, and incidentally tries to outdo, her sisters by complaining that they overdo it (‘Why have my sisters husbands, if they say / They love you all?’) Hers is the rhetoric of silence, which isn't, which cannot be silent. It cannot be said that Cordelia's rhetorical success was any greater than Cassandra's.

Viola in Twelfth Night does better when fibbing to Orsino about her imaginary sister, whose history is a blank, and who says nothing: she never told her love, but sat like patience on a monument, smiling at grief, a very proper way for her to behave. We notice, though, that Viola is really talking about herself, and therefore claiming to be venerating silence while speaking, very beautifully (T. N. II. iv. 110ff.).

The most remarkable study of silence is probably to be found in Coriolanus. The character singled out as virtuously silent is Virgilia (‘my gracious silence’, II. i. 175) and she is strongly contrasted with the ungracious virago, Coriolanus' mother Volumnia. Volumnia takes such a prominent part in public affairs that she is responsible for her son's turning away from conquest when Rome lies open to him. She certainly has a voice, though it comes in, as it were, from the sidelines. Much of the play concerns another kind of silence and another kind of vocal sound: vox is vote, and Coriolanus must seek the votes or voices of the people. Men are represented as voices (‘Here come moe voices’ II. iii. 122) and as tongues (‘the multitudinous tongue’, III. i. 156), breaths, teeth, mouths, palates, polls, as well as bellies, feet, and so on—these, in the context of electioneering, are merely what is needed for there to be voices—they roar, cry, whoop, etc. The play expands the initial allegory of Menenius.

There is a fine study of the implications of these figures in D. J. Gordon's ‘Name and Fame: Shakespeare's Coriolanus’, in his book The Renaissance Imagination9. Certain usages of ‘voice’ and ‘poll’ have the flavour of contemporary English parliamentary procedure. The word ‘voice’ also takes us into another semantic area much frequented by Shakespeare, the questions of glory and honour, and their relation to mere opinion rather than to truth, the product merely of what others say, of their voices, their votes for the greatest. It is a leading theme in Troilus & Cressida; the matter of fame or rumour, voices as the opposite, says Gordon, of ‘deeds and acts’, which are in themselves silent.

Language, therefore, had a capacity for treachery; not only could it celebrate the shadow rather than the substance, it could work positive evil. It was capable of performative functions—vowing, promising, and so forth—but it had also evil powers; it could do good and bad magic, it could curse as well as bless. ‘You taught me language, and my profit on't / Is, I know how to curse’, says Caliban (The Tempest, I. ii. 363-64). Before he had his lesson Caliban gabbled and did not know his own meaning (356). He was not a man, he was less than a man—a wild man (homo selvaticus), a stranger to civility. The assumption was still that linguistic accomplishment, the very opposite of silence (to be demonstrated, of course, in one's own language or in Latin) was the true index of civility. Columbus proposed to bring home a few savages ‘that they may learn to speak’10. Columbus knew perfectly well that they could speak already, but only in their own gabbling language, unfit to be considered a language at all. Silence would be better than this hopeless incivility. Wild men were not really men; neither were women, who must also be denied the display of civility implied by learned and civil speech; their index of civility remained what it had been from the biblical Proverbs on, silence. It is sometimes argued, and sometimes disputed, that there were changes in attitudes to the social role of women after the Reformation. One thing is certain: one could easily make an anthology of loquacious, even of eloquent women, despite the prohibitions. But they were deviant from the preferred type, which is why they attracted so much obloquy from satirists and husbands.

Finally let me take a fairly complex example of Shakespearian silence, again from a late play, The Winter's Tale.

I don't mean only that Hermione remains silent for sixteen years, which, for a woman who begins the play very talkative, is a good record. Paulina, ‘A callat / Of boundless tongue’ (II. iii. 91-92) engineered this long silence, by telling a lie (‘I say she's dead; I'll swear it’, III. ii. 203). Later she is admired for the skill with which she performs her ‘relation of the Queen's death’ (V. i. 84-85). Incidentally, when she berates the king for causing the death of his wife and children, and, as she will soon discover, of her own husband as well, she is herself reproved by an attendant lord: ‘you have made fault / I'th'boldness of your speech’ (217-18). She makes Leontes swear not to remarry (V. i. 69ff). (There is even some joking about swearing at V. ii. 156ff.; not very surprising, for this plot could not work if everybody concerned told the truth.)

In the great final scene, when Paulina unveils the supposed statue of Hermione, Leontes is struck dumb. ‘I like your silence, it the more shows off / Your wonder; but yet speak’, says Paulina (V. iii. 21-22). We now have competing silences on the stage. Hermione continues hers; Leontes is struck dumb; Perdita speaks only to explain why she is kneeling. Leontes begins to contemplate the mouth of the statue with those wonderful lines: ‘What fine chisel / Could ever yet cut breath?’ (V. iii. 78-79). He speaks also of taste, and of kissing her. She moves, embraces him: ‘Let her speak, too’ says Camillo (112). ‘It appears she lives, / Though yet she speak not’, says Paulina. And at last she does speak, breaking the long silence. Only then is she finally, fully alive. This quality must be conveyed by language: silence is death or rest, also it is wonder, it is reverence. Speech and silence work together; and we may, in concluding, remind ourselves that the soliloquy, brought to its historical perfection by Shakespeare in Hamlet, is speech in silence, the speech of silence—the sound of silence, as the old song says.


  1. Cited by Jean-Charles Biaudet, ‘Le “Silence” de l'Hôtel de Ville de Lausenne’, Die Zeitschrift, 13 (1952), pp. 242-47.

  2. Alice B. Green, The Religious Uses of Silence, 1938, p. 19.

  3. A. Grafton & L. Jardine, From Humanism to the Humanities, 1986, pp. 37-40.

  4. See L. Winniczuk, ‘Il silenzio come elemento teatrale’ in Studi Classici in Onore di Quintino Catendella, 1972, II. 105-35.

  5. ‘How to avoid speaking’, in Languages of the Unsayable, edited by S. Budick and W. Iser, New York: Columbia University Press, 1989, pp. 3-70.

  6. Religion and the Decline of Magic, 1973, p. 163.

  7. Still Harping on Daughters, pp. 114-120.

  8. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. W. Trask, 1953, pp. 159ff.

  9. Ed. S. Orgel, 1975, pp. 203-19.

  10. See Stephen Greenblatt, Learning to Curse, 1990, pp. 16ff; of course ‘soft’ primitivists brought them back to demonstrate primeval virtue.

Jonathan Bate (essay date 1994)

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SOURCE: Bate, Jonathan. “Dying to Live in Much Ado about Nothing.” In Surprised by Scenes: Essays in Honor of Professor Yasunari Takahashi, edited by Yasunari Takada, pp. 69-85. Tokyo: Kenkyusha, 1994.

[In the following essay, Bate focuses on Hero's passivity and her provisional dispatch to death—the ultimate silencing. Noting how frequently other characters speak of her or allude to her—thus demonstrating her centrality in the play—he compares Hero to sacrificial women in classical literature who die in order that their husbands may be transformed.]

King Charles I knew what he liked in Shakespeare's comedies. He inscribed in his copy of the Second Folio alternative titles for some of the plays. Thus he called Twelfth Night ‘Malvolio’ and Much Ado about Nothing ‘Benedick and Beatrice’. There was a precedent for this: the Lord Treasurer's account for 1613 refers to a performance of ‘Benedicte and Betteris’. The sub-plot has taken precedence over the main plot. Berlioz's opera of 1862 completed this movement: Béatrice et Bénédict makes the squabbling witty lovers into the main plot and simply uses Claudio and Hero as instruments in bringing them together.

Why has Much Ado about Nothing endured in the repertory? For Beatrice and Benedick, for Dogberry. There is a wonderful accessibility about these two plot elements: the wits who get their comeuppance and the dullards who unwittingly assist in the plot. But to foreground Beatrice and Benedick and the Watch is to work against the play's own sense of itself. Both performance and criticism in the twentieth century have made a heroine of Beatrice but made very little of Hero. William Hazlitt thought differently of the matter, and he seems to me to be truer to the play. In his Characters of Shakespear's Plays, published in 1817, he noted that ‘Mr Garrick's Benedick was one of his most celebrated characters; and Mrs Jordan, we have understood, played Beatrice very delightfully.’ But having said this, he went on to assert that ‘The serious part is still the most prominent’, and that ‘Hero is the principal figure in the piece, and leaves an indelible impression on the mind by her beauty, her tenderness, and the hard trial of her love.’1

Let us suppose that Hazlitt is right, that Hero is the ‘principal figure in the piece’, that—why not say it?—Hero is the hero of the play. We all know and love Beatrice and Dogberry very much indeed. I suspect, however, that for many viewers and readers Hero remains a passive and shadowy figure, more victim than hero. What happens, then, if we look at the play from her point of view? This is something that critics have tended not to do—Anna Jameson, the first person to write a full-length book about Shakespeare's female characters, has a chapter on Beatrice but barely mentions Hero; modern feminist criticism follows her in being able to do much more with the talkative than the silent woman.

In thinking one's way into the role of Hero, a good way to begin is to consider it from the point of view of the boy-actor who would originally have created it. As is well known, Elizabethan actors prepared their parts in isolation; there was only one copy of the complete text (the promptbook), so each actor would be given merely his own part plus the cue lines. What would Shakespeare's original boy Hero have been given to commit to memory?

In the first scene, hardly anything: the character is on stage for the first 150 lines but speaks one single line, which merely identifies another character: ‘My cousin means Signior Benedick of Padua’.2 The boy would presumably simply have been told who his ‘father’ was (Leonato), and instructed to follow him on and follow him off. He is not on stage for the next two scenes. In II. i (the masked ball scene), he is on for the first 150 lines, off for 50 lines, and back on for the remaining 160. He speaks more than a one-liner for the first time; they are, however, lines that would not have taken too much learning: ‘He is of a very melancholy disposition’ (with regard to Don John); an exchange with the masked Don Pedro consisting of four lines of routine courtesy; and, after returning, just one speech in the remaining 160 lines, again, a piece of formal courtesy, and a line that refers to another rather than Hero herself (‘I will do any modest office, my lord, to help my cousin to a good husband’). He is not on stage for the next two scenes. III. i is the first scene in which Hero plays an active role; it is the character's major scene, with her two gentlewomen. Here she is the dominant figure and speaks about 75 out of 105 lines until she exits, leaving Beatrice to come forward from the bower where she has been hidden and speak a brief soliloquy. But the scene has been devoted to Hero talking about someone else: its entire purpose is the gulling of Beatrice into the belief that Benedick is in love with her. In a sense, Hero is still only functioning as a conduit, an object of exchange, a plot-device, not a realized character. The actor is not on stage for the next two scenes.

III. iv is another scene for Hero and her two gentlewomen, and, later, Beatrice. A certain amount is spoken—though it begins to become apparent that Hero only initiates conversations at all when she is among women and in private. The actor has twelve very brief speeches, almost exclusively on the subject of clothes (‘No pray thee good Meg, I'll wear this’; ‘Help me to dress, good coz, good Meg, good Ursula’). All the banter and vitality come from the other women. Hero, one begins to sense, is little more than an object to be addressed and dressed. (S)he is not on stage for the next scene. IV. i is the crucial church scene, in which Hero is on stage and at the centre of attention for the first 255 lines. But in the course of these lines she says nothing more than the following: ‘I do’; ‘None, my lord’ (the marriage vow and the statement of non-impediment—they are not her words but the publicly prescribed ones); ‘And seem'd I ever otherwise to you?’; ‘Is my lord well that he doth speak so wide?’; ‘“True”? O God!’; ‘O God defend me, how am I beset! / What kind of catechizing call you this?’; ‘Is it not Hero? Who can blot that name / With any just reproach?’; and ‘I talk'd with no man at that hour, my lord’ (six questions or exclamations in response to the accusation of her infidelity). Then at line 110 she sinks to the ground. About sixty lines later she revives and speaks her longest public speech of the play so far—it has all of eight lines. It is her weightiest, most moving speech, the first real opportunity for the actor to use his/her full emotive resources. The cue-line comes from the Friar, ‘Lady, what man is he you are accus'd of’:

They know that do accuse me; I know none.
If I know more of any man alive
Than that which maiden modesty doth warrant,
Let all my sins lack mercy! O my father,
Prove you that any man with me convers'd
At hours unmeet, or that I yesternight
Maintain'd the change of words with any creature,
Refuse me, hate me, torture me to death!

(IV. i. 177-84)

Hero is silent for another 60 lines or so, and then led off.

The actor is not required in IV. ii, V. i, V. ii, V. iii. Hero is a significant absence for four scenes, one of which is very substantial in length; indeed, the character is presumed dead, presumed not likely to reappear at all. The last of these scenes is actually set at her tomb. In V. iv, she is brought on for the first twelve lines but says nothing before being told to withdraw. She reappears masked soon after and has two short speeches when unmasked: ‘And when I liv'd, I was your other wife; / And when you lov'd, you were my other husband’; ‘Nothing certainer: / One Hero died defil'd, but I do live, / And surely as I live, I am a maid.’ Then there are three lines when she produces Beatrice's love-sonnet: ‘And here's another, / Writ in my cousin's hand, stol'n from her pocket, / Containing her affection unto Benedick.’ And that is all. It is unlikely to have taken a bright Elizabethan boy actor more than about an hour to learn this part. On first looking at it, the actor would, one imagines, have found it distinctly unrewarding. Compared with Portia or Rosalind, or even Hermia and Helena, it has little to offer. Traditionally the leading actress—Mrs Jordan, Ellen Terry, Peggy Ashcroft—has played Beatrice, and one suspects that the Chamberlain's Men's best boy may well have done so too.

Given this extraordinary silence and passivity, how could Hazlitt have found Hero ‘the principal figure in the piece’, who ‘leaves an indelible impression on the mind’? We will begin to gain an answer if we go through the play again, this time considering not what Hero says but what is said about Hero. For she is a character who is talked about far more than she talks. And when we begin to look at her in this light we begin to come to the centre of the play, for talking about people is one of the central activities in the play. Messina is full of hearsay: the play begins with a report in a letter; a short scene like I. ii is typical—an overhearing in a thick-pleached alley in the orchard. Key moments occur when people overhear conversations about themselves or others: Beatrice and Benedick's affair is precipitated by their hearing their friends talking about their opposite number's supposed love for them; the Don John plot is undone by the First and Second Watchman overhearing Conrade and Borachio talking about the wooing of Margaret in the name of Hero. As the First Watchman says, ‘we have here recovered the most dangerous piece of lechery that ever was known in the commonwealth’ (III. iii. 161-62): he means discovered the most dangerous piece of treachery, but like his master Dogberry he speaks truer than he knows, for this overheard discovery will eventually bring about the recovery of the play through the knowledge that Hero is not after all guilty of lechery. Indeed, the title of the play draws attention to the whole area of discovery and overhearing, for in Elizabethan pronunciation ‘nothing’ and ‘noting’ were homophones: one way of hearing the title is therefore Much Ado About Noting. There is sustained play on the homophone in the exchange immediately before Balthasar's song (‘There's not a note of mine that's worth the noting … Note notes, forsooth, and nothing!’—II. iii. 54-57).

Looking through the play from the point of view of Hero's speaking we might say that she is reduced to almost nothing. Looking through it from the point of speaking about her, we find that she is much noted. The play could almost have been called ‘The Noting of Hero’. It is the false notings of her that precipitate the play towards potential tragedy; it is the Friar's scrupulous true noting of her that redeems the action (‘For I have only been silent so long, / And given way unto this course of fortune, / By noting of the lady’—IV. i. 156ff, my emphasis). Her name is spoken 63 times in the course of the action. This means that in the printed play ‘Hero’ occurs as a name in the text more frequently than it does as a speech-prefix, for she only opens her mouth 44 times. She says far less than the other major characters, but we hear her name more often than that of any other character.

Consider the extraordinary frequency with which Hero is addressed as ‘she’: I. i. 95-105 is a conversation about her in which she is embarrassingly silent; I. i. 150ff is a long conversation about her between Claudio and Benedick after the others have left, ‘Didst thou note the daughter of Signior Leonato? / I noted her not, but I looked on her’—the exchange is an extremely detailed noting and enumeration of her beauty. Then Don Pedro comes back and the whole thing is played through again in a different key. It is like a set of musical variations on a theme: first the mocking interjections of Benedick (‘he is in love with Hero … Leonato's short daughter’), then, after Benedick has left, a shift into verse and the courtly lover's idiom (‘Come thronging soft and delicate desires, / All prompting me how fair young Hero is’), then the surrogate wooing picks up on the courtly idiom. The first scene ends and one sees that it has been almost entirely about the noting of Hero, with the return from war and the sparring between Beatrice and Benedick as supplementary matters. Given what is said, as opposed to what she says herself, one begins to understand Hazlitt's sense that ‘Hero is the principal figure in the piece, and leaves an indelible impression on the mind’—she has certainly left such an impression on the minds of the other characters.

Moving to scene two, Hero is centre-stage again, even though at two removes from the actual stage: Antonio tells Leonato that a servant has overheard Don Pedro telling Claudio that he, Don Pedro, loves Hero and will woo her at the coming dance. Two problems about this little scene have troubled editors and critics since the eighteenth century. One question is whether the servant has given Leonato a garbled account of the scene we have just witnessed. If he has heard I. i. 300-307, picking up the reference to the coming evening's dance and to ‘breaking with’ Hero's father, he should also have heard the intervening lines explaining that it will be a disguised surrogate wooing. Secondly, the long opening scene is in a public place, not what Antonio calls a thick-pleached alley in an orchard. The misunderstanding of the conversation between Don Pedro and Claudio is especially curious since Shakespeare makes a point of including an exchange attesting to the wit and sharpness of the servant in question. Unless we imagine another conversation between Don Pedro and Claudio concerning Hero, we presumably read this as an instance of mis-noting. But whether the reference is to the immediately foregoing scene or an imagined second dialogue in Antonio's orchard, it is clear that contained within I. ii are several encounters: the scene in which Don Pedro and Claudio are overheard, the scene in which the servant tells Antonio, and the scene we actually witness in which Antonio tells Leonato. Hero is central to all of these scenes but not on stage in any of them. Everyone is talking about Hero, but, as was seen from the analysis of the boy-actor's role, she is not a presence.

The next scene, I. iii, is yet another overhearing and conversation concerning Hero. Don John is introduced as a mischief-maker; Borachio comes on and provides an opportunity for mischief in the form of the news he has heard that the Prince is going to woo Hero on behalf of Claudio. Here the information is correct, but the location is again different: the Don Pedro/Claudio conversation is now said to have taken place in a musty room, with Borachio hidden behind an arras. Whether we have three putative conversations or three versions of one conversation, this provides further multiplication of the sense that everybody spends all their time in Messina talking about Hero. Every way we turn we are offered a brilliant little realization of a new location—the alley in the orchard with closely twined trees, the musty room being smoked clean—that heightens our sense of the reality of Messina as a place, and each time into the location walks … another conversation about wooing Hero.

There is yet more at the dance: Don John leads Claudio to believe that Don Pedro is wooing for himself; Claudio responds with a typical, veritably Othello-like, reaction in his ‘Farewell, therefore, Hero!’. This prepares us for the later rejection of Hero; in this scene, recovery soon takes place as Don Pedro gives Hero over to Claudio. The moment offers another extraordinary instance of Hero being at the centre of things but not actually saying anything:

Count, take of me my daughter, and with her my fortunes; his Grace hath made the match, and all grace say Amen to it.
Speak, Count, 'tis your cue.
Silence is the perfectest herald of joy; I were but little happy, if I could say how much. Lady, as you are mine, I am yours; I give away myself for you and dote upon the exchange.
Speak, cousin, or, if you cannot, stop his mouth with a kiss, and let not him speak neither.
D. Pedro
In faith, lady, you have a merry heart.

(II. i. 285-95)

At the crucial instant, there is no cue for Hero; from her point of view, the key line is ‘Silence is the perfectest herald of joy’. She is not absolutely silent, for immediately after the exchange quoted above she is noted whispering to Claudio (Beatrice remarks that ‘My cousin tells him in his ear that he is in her heart’—II. i. 296-97), but that it is a whisper rather than an utterance shared with the other characters and the audience is symptomatic of Hero's chronic embarrassment about speech, of the way that in public she is stifled.

II. ii sees another conversation about Hero set up, as Borachio tells Don John to tell Don Pedro and Claudio that Hero loves him, Borachio. When this conversation actually takes place in III. ii, Hero's name is dragged through the mud. The way that Don John harps on her name is suggestive—‘Leonato's Hero, your Hero, every man's Hero’, for it was a name that to Shakespeare's audience was synonymous with fidelity and loyalty. The name of this Hero's father half-echoes that of a more famous Hero's lover: the classical Hero, familiar from Marlowe's highly popular poem, was not every man's Hero but Leander's Hero and his alone (Leander's fame as an exemplary lover is later alluded to by Benedick—V. ii. 29). When her Leander drowned, Hero drowned herself: she would rather die than be another man's. It is with her classical forebear in mind that Shakespeare's Hero defends her name—both her own good name and the name ‘Hero’—in the broken wedding scene: ‘Who can blot that name / With any just reproach?’.

Hazlitt's admiration for Hero stemmed very much from this defence, from those simple questions she asks at this point. The essay in Characters of Shakespeare's Plays continues as follows:

The justification of Hero in the end, and her restoration to the confidence and arms of her lover, is brought about by one of those temporary consignments to the grave of which Shakespeare seems to have been fond. He has perhaps explained the theory of this predilection in the following lines:—

and here Hazlitt quotes the Friar's crucial speech:

She dying, as it must be so maintain'd,
Upon the instant that she was accus'd,
Shall be lamented, pitied, and excus'd
Of every hearer; for it so falls out
That what we have we prize not to the worth
Whiles we enjoy it, but being lack'd and lost,
Why then we rack the value, then we find
The virtue that possession would not show us
Whiles it was ours: so will it fare with Claudio.
When he shall hear she died upon his words,
Th'idea of her life shall sweetly creep
Into his study of imagination,
And every lovely organ of her life
Shall come apparell'd in more precious habit,
More moving-delicate and full of life,
Into the eye and prospect of his soul
Than when she liv'd indeed.

(IV. i. 214-30)

This brings us to the very heart of the play. Silence is associated with death and Hero's name is also associated with death, for the classical Hero was an exemplary suicide victim in Ovid's Heroides. Death is the logic of the Hero-ine's exclusion from the first part of the play. What I have demonstrated in my rather laborious working through of scenes from the first half is that everybody talks about her—and in this sense she is the centre of interest in the play—but she is not there, she does not speak: in this respect she is almost like a dead person from the start. But the Friar's suggestion is a kind of appropriation of death: he recognizes that the kind of death into which Hero has been forced can become the basis for a new life. He recognizes that the moment people believe she really is dead, they will start to value her. His recognition of this is based on what Hazlitt calls the theory behind Shakespeare's predilection for temporary consignments to the grave, namely the intuition of the human tendency not to value someone or something fully until we have lost it:

                                                                                                    for it so falls out
That what we have we prize not to the worth
Whiles we enjoy it, but being lack'd and lost,
Why then we rack the value, then we find
The virtue that possession would not show us
Whiles it was ours.

The idea is very important to Shakespeare right through to the end of his career. Prospero only realizes how much he loves Ariel when he releases him—he spends most of the play ordering him around, telling him off and threatening him, and only in his very last speech before the epilogue is his love released: ‘My Ariel, chick, / That is thy charge. Then to the elements / Be free, and fare thou well.’

The point about the temporary consignment to the grave is that it gives a second chance. It allows one to experience the loss that makes one value what one has lost, and then it gives back the object lost. And this time, so the theory goes, one will really value it. ‘Come, lady, die to live’, says the Friar: it is only the apparent death, played out in elaborate fulness, that can provide a sufficiently firm basis for a subsequent fulness of life. When Hero is brought back to the stage, the language dwells sustainedly on this notion of dying to live—Hero dies while her slanders lived and lives once they die.3

All this takes us into areas of considerable profundity. Let us ponder one or two ramifications for a moment. First, a temporary consignment to the grave is powerful in a play because a play serves a similar function. Claudio will come to value his Hero through having lived through her death. We will come to value our Heros through living through the stage-deaths of others like them. Montaigne wrote an essay on the Ciceronian dictum ‘That to philosophize is to learn how to die’; Shakespeare would suggest that to playgo is to learn how to live by seeing others pretend to die. As defenders of the stage were quick to point out when the theatre was attacked by Puritans as immoral, the drama may serve an educative function for the audience. It may make us learn to value life through the surrogate experience of loss.

Secondly, comedy must always be close to tragedy; the apparent death is necessary for the achievement of a comic fulness of life. One way of putting it would be to say that The Winter's Tale, with its hinged tragicomic structure, is the logical conclusion of Shakespeare's work. That play is certainly the fully matured reworking of Much Ado. Thirdly, the temporary consignment to the grave is not only an analogue for the audience's experience in the theatre, and for the tragic element in comedy, it is also central to most myths and religions. Christ spends three days in the grave; Christianity is built on the idea of dying to self in order to achieve fuller life in Christ. Shakespeare made much of certain classical myths of temporary death and rebirth—the dying god, Adonis; Proserpina, goddess of spring, who dies to live and who is the archetype of Marina and Perdita; Orpheus bringing Eurydice back from the underworld.

The ultimate ‘source’ for the Hero plot of Much Ado is a Greek myth, that of Alcestis. Shakespeare could have known a Latin translation of Euripides' play on the subject; he certainly received the story at secondhand through the prose romances that were the direct sources of Much Ado about Nothing. The plot of Alcestis may be summarized briefly: Zeus has killed Asclepius the physician and son of Apollo; in revenge, Apollo has killed the Cyclops who forged Zeus' thunderbolt; in punishment, Apollo had to be a servant in the house of Admetus for a year; Admetus has treated him well; in gratitude, Apollo makes a deal with the Fates that Admetus should be allowed an extra length of life, provided that at the appointed hour of his death someone else can be persuaded to die for him; Admetus' father and mother refuse; Alcestis, his loyal wife, consents and accordingly dies; just after her death, Herakles happens to be passing, on his way to perform one of his labours; despite his wife's recent death, Admetus entertains Herakles in accordance with the laws of hospitality; the latter discovers what has happened and goes to Death, the messenger who is taking Alcestis to the underworld, wrestles her from him and restores her to her husband who by this time feels guilty and repentant that he has let her die in his place. The story is played out on the level of myth, not in a civic community like Shakespeare's Messina, but the idea of a second chance is the key shared motif.

The dignified deathbed words of Alcestis are reported by a maid, but then the quiet heroine is carried on to stage and has a long, moving speech of farewell. She is simple, self-possessed, concerned above all for her children. Admetus says that he will have a statue of her made and kept in the house in memory of her. He speaks of the image of her coming to him in his dreams; there is an interesting consonance here with that powerful passage in the Friar's key speech:

The idea of her life shall sweetly creep
Into his study of imagination,
And every lovely organ of her life
Shall come apparell'd in more precious habit,
More moving-delicate and full of life,
Into the eye and prospect of his soul
Than when she liv'd indeed: then shall he mourn—

Shakespeare shares with Euripides the idea of transformation being wrought by an image of the dead wife working on the mind.

Alcestis expires on stage. Euripides gives a strong emphasis to her liminal position, both dead and not dead, no longer living yet not received into underworld. A gap is thus left open for recovery and return. When Herakles does return, it is with a veiled woman. Initially he says that it is a woman whom he has won; he asks Admetus to look after her while he goes off to perform his labour. Admetus says that he doesn't want a woman in the house, especially one whose form is so like that of Alcestis. Herakles talks of a potential re-marriage and the widower reacts angrily; there is a sense of him being tested and this time not failing. Eventually Admetus gives way to the strong will of Herakles and says he will take the woman into the house. The revelation and reunion then occur:

Gods, what shall I think! Amazement beyond hope, as I look on this woman, this wife. Is she really mine, or some sweet mockery for God to stun me with?
Not so. This is your own wife you see. She is here.
Be careful she is not some phantom from the depths.
The guest and friend you took was no necromancer.
Do I see my wife, whom I was laying in the grave?
Surely. But I do not wonder at your unbelief.
May I touch her, and speak to her, as my living wife?
Speak to her. All that you desired is yours.
Oh, eyes and body of my dearest wife, I have you now beyond all hope. I never thought to see you again.(4)

Several details of this are close to The Winter's Tale, but one particular feature is especially striking: Alcestis does not speak. This motif is taken into the mythic structure when Herakles explains that she will not be allowed to speak for three days, by which time her obligations to the gods of the underworld will have been washed away. Alcestis functions as the archetypal silenced woman, and in this she is a precedent for the Hero who is allowed to say so little throughout the play and is given only two brief factual speeches on her unveiling at the climax. There are plenty of differences, not least in that there is no accusation of infidelity on Admetus' part. Alcestis is not a direct source for the Hero plot; rather, it is a powerful mythic prototype for the silencing of the woman and its extension, her temporary consignment to the grave. As in All's Well that Ends Well and The Winter's Tale, the actual death of the myth is replaced by a self-conscious stage trick. Theophanies like that of Apollo and super-human interventions like that of Herakles are replaced by domesticated divine agents: the Friar's scheme, Helena's self-contrived devices, Paulina' s priestess-like art. Silence is not given a mythico-religious cause but becomes a psychological and social reality. But the strong sense of a second chance, of dying to live, draws the texts together.

Alcestis bears one of its most powerful resemblances to The Winter's Tale in the motif of the man refusing the offer of another bride—there is a sharp contrast to the repentant Claudio's rather over-eager embracing of the offer of ‘Antonio's daughter’. But in the image of seeing the dead bride in the new woman, the correspondence between Euripides and Much Ado is striking. Here there is an interesting contrast with The Winter's Tale, where Leontes sees his dead bride in the face of a different character, his daughter. It is helpful to posit a set of parallels and variations between the plays: Alcestis-like, Hermione does not speak to Leontes on their reunion (she thanks the gods and addresses her daughter); Alcestis and The Winter's Tale work with variations on the statue motif, while in Much Ado there is not a statue but a tomb with an epitaph.

The latter is a motif from another prototypical mythic source, Ovid's Heroides. Hero's name suggests not only Hero, who figures in one of those epistolary tragic monologues, but also the whole sequence. This has not been perceived before by critics, I think, but it is noteworthy that the Heroides were very well known in the Elizabethan age, when they were much studied in schools. They were particularly in the public eye at precisely the time of Much Ado, for Michael Drayton's imitation of them, Englands Heroycall Epistles, was published to considerable popularity in 1597, then reprinted and augmented in 1598 and 1599, the years in which the play is usually dated. The Heroides were exemplary texts concerning female heroes who die as sacrificial victims to love; they are full of male infidelities and loyal females betrayed or deserted or left to die by the men they love. Yet these women remain unquestioningly devoted. Many refer to their own tombs, several inscribe their own epitaphs. The epitaph and tomb scene makes Hero recognizable as one of the Heroides. Her name makes this link: it sets up a prototype that can be recognized by the audience. This is something different from a direct source. Hero's swooning and supposed death, together with the obsequies and epitaph, derive more directly from the novella by Bandello that is almost certainly the play's primary source, but Shakespeare's effect turns on the change in name from the Fenicia of Bandello to the more symbolic and Ovidian Hero. Ruskin wrote in Munera Pulveris of the symbolic nature of names in Shakespeare—for instance, Desdemona, dusdaimonia, ‘miserable fortune’—and singled out Benedick and Beatrice as meaning ‘blessed’ and ‘blessing’ (there is a certain ironic wit on Shakespeare's part here in that they spend so much time cursing each other and love).5 I would suggest that the name Hero is even more tellingly symbolic than those mentioned by Ruskin.

The Hero and the other heroines of the Heroides are essentially tragic figures; in that Ovidian text there are no second chances. Much Ado is more in a romance mould, and this suggests a generic link with Euripides' Alcestis. The latter was a kind of transcended tragedy; it was performed in the position usually held by the comic satyr-play, as fourth in a group of dramas, following and in some senses defusing or providing relief from three tragedies. It is a potential tragedy but with last-minute relief. Life is heightened because of the process of going through death: the pattern is that of many works in the romance tradition and of several of Shakespeare's later comedies—Much Ado, All's Well that Ends Well, Pericles and The Winter's Tale.

Such an analysis raises a question about Claudio. If we read Hero as an analogue for the Heroides, he is like one of the men in those poems—thoroughly untrustworthy and self-interested. This would accord with the bad press he's always had: Charles Gildon at the beginning of the eighteenth century accused him of ‘barbarous’ conduct towards Hero, A. C. Swinburne at the end of the nineteenth century called him ‘a pitiful fellow’, and most theatregoers today have little sympathy for him. But if on the other hand Hero is an Alcestis, Claudio is an Admetus who repents of and learns from his earlier unfair conduct. I do think that in order to accept the play as romance we have to go with this reading. The Friar's plan has got to work: the mock-death must make Claudio see Hero's virtues, must make him into a nobler lover. We must therefore take seriously such lines in V. i as ‘I have drunk poison whiles he utter'd it’ and ‘Sweet Hero! Now thy image doth appear / In the rare semblance that I lov'd it first’; and we must take seriously his vow of an annual sack-cloth visit to her monument. We must accept the magic of the reunion and, as in The Winter's Tale, we must, in the Friar's words, ‘let wonder seem familiar’.

Did Shakespeare know the Alcestis story? There were sixteenth-century Latin translations of Euripides' play; there is a brief version of the story in Chaucer's Legend of Good Women. But the story is also told in an Elizabethan collection of romances, George Pettie's A Petite Pallace of Pettie his Pleasure. One tale in there (Cephalus and Procris) is a likely secondary source for Othello, a play with a theme of wrongful accusation of a wife that is closely linked to both Much Ado and The Winter's Tale; Pettie's ‘Admetus and Alcest’ has an Admetus who first learns in his sleep that Alcestis will return from the dead, and when he learns this ‘he had much ado to keep his soul in his body from flying to meet her’. I do not attach great significance to the common phrase ‘much ado’ appearing here, but it would be intriguing if Shakespeare did know Pettie's version of the tale, for there a curious moral is drawn from it: ‘This seemeth straunge to you (Gentlewomen) that a woman should die and then live againe, but the meaninge of it is this, that you should die to yourselves and live to your husbandes.’6 It is a good old-fashioned plea for wifely submissiveness. But Shakespeare orders the matter differently: he retains the motif of the woman dying and then living again, but he does so in order that the husbands should die to themselves and live to their wives, for in Much Ado, as in The Winter's Tale, it is the husband who must be transformed by loss in order that he may become worthy of his wife. The play might be said to rephrase Pettie's moral thus: this seemeth strange to you, Gentlemen, that a woman should die and then live again, but the meaning of it is this, that you should die to yourselves and live to your wives.


  1. The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe, 21 vols (London, 1930-34), IV, 335.

  2. I. i. 33. Subsequent line references given in text; all quotations are from the Arden edition of A. R. Humphreys (London, 1981).

  3. See especially V. iv. 66, and note also the structuring of Claudio's epitaph in V. iii around the motif of living in death.

  4. Euripides, Alcestis, lines 1123-34, trans. R. Lattimore (Chicago, 1955).

  5. See Ruskin, Munera Pulveris: Six Essays on the Elements of Political Economy (London, 1872), chap. 5.

  6. The tale is in A Petite Pallace of Pettie his Pleasure, ed. I. Gollancz, 2 vols. (London, 1980), II, 61ff.

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