illustrated portrait of English playwright and poet William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1222


Commentators who address the issue of Shakespeare and time do so from a broad range of approaches. They may discuss time as a thematic device, as a structural principle, or as a means of delineating character. The notion of time itself has a variety of connotations in Shakespeare scholarship. It may represent, among other things, the personification of destructive or restorative forces, the medium through which action moves, or the pace at which a story line develops. Critics such as L. G. Salingar (see Further Reading) evaluate Shakespeare's treatment or use of time in terms of his reliance on, or innovative adaptations of, medieval and Renaissance conceptions of time. Others, including Harold E. Toliver (1965), trace what they perceive to be a growing complexity in Shakespeare's scrutiny of time, from the sonnets to the romances. Ricardo J. Quinones (1965) also surveys many of the poems and plays in his assessment of the multiple functions of time in Shakespeare's works. By contrast, Irwin Smith (1969) concentrates on the rhythm of dramatic time in a smaller number of plays, especially Richard III. Jonas Barish (1996) addresses the question of Shakespeare's anachronisms, particularly in Julius Caesar and Cymbeline. Whatever the approach, commentary on Shakespeare and time deals most often with As You Like It, Macbeth, the romances, and the sonnets.

The depiction of time in sonnets 1-126 is the chief focus of David Kaula (1963), Frederick Turner (1971), and Robert L. Montgomery (1999). Emphasizing Shakespeare's resourceful manipulation of different views of time in these verses, Kaula analyzes the ways in which the poet employs these to enhance and modify the relationship between the speaker and his friend. Turner pays particular attention to the thematic link between love and time in the sonnets, and to its expression through imagery. Montgomery stresses the intense emotionalism of the poems, arguing that the notion of time's destructive capability is underscored here by Shakespeare's persistent and urgent cultivation of the present.

The contrast between the corrupt present at the court of Duke Frederick and the pastoral timelessness of the Forest of Arden in As You Like It is the principal subject of Jay L. Halio's 1962 essay. He discusses the disparity between the materialistic, expedient world of court and city, on the one hand, and the meaningless of time in the forest, on the other, noting the discrepancies between individual characters' perceptions of time. Rawdon Wilson (1975) discerns a shift in the course of the play, rather than a disparity, between the temporal perspectives of the court and Arden. In his judgment, the play depicts an evolutionary change in attitude toward time, from the notion of it as an objective process to its conception as a relative one: an expression of private, individual worlds. Bart Westerweel (1993) explicates the chronological-spatial relationship in both As You Like It and Twelfth Night, emphasizing how this relationship highlights the contrast between pastoral and satiric modes in the latter play. Another Shakespearean comedy that has attracted a measure of critical attention to its treatment of time is Troilus and Cressida. Both Toliver and John Bayley (1975) note the sense of disordered time in the play, with Toliver stressing discontinuity and Bayley the lack of multiple dimensions.

In sharp contrast to that of Troilus and Cressida, the world of The Tempest is notably well-ordered. This romance deals integrally with the nature of time, as James E. Robinson (1964) and D. S. McGovern (1983) point out. Time is a central structural element in The Tempest, Robinson contends, but it is also Prospero's chief antagonist, limiting his attempts to reform others and compelling him...

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to carry out his schemes with alacrity, before the critical present expires. McGovern argues that Prospero comes to terms with the notion that time represents both an occasion for human action and a limitation on that action; he also suggests that the way different characters view time is an important factor in shaping their individual identities. Similarly, in her commentary onThe Winter's Tale, Theresa M. Krier (see Further Reading) points to the significance of Hermione and Perdita's conception of time as creative and redemptive; indeed, she remarks, the female characters in this play embody the objective reality that in human life, comedy and tragedy frequently coincide. Frederick Turner (see Further Reading) compares the dissonant relationship between characters and their temporal environment in the tragic first half of The Winter's Tale with the harmonious reconciliation of temporal and timeless worlds in the pastoral second half. He asserts that in the speech of Time, the Chorus—which he analyzes closely—marks the point at which the emphasis on time the destroyer unexpectedly changes to an emphasis on time the creator.

Whereas commentators on the romances frequently stress the importance in these plays of forging an accommodation with time, critics who interpret Macbeth accentuate the disastrous effects that ensue when the natural order of time is defied. Toliver, for example, suggests that Macbeth's powerful imagination induces him to try to thwart the present rather than enduring time's customary progression. Donald W. Foster (1986) also proposes that Macbeth attempts to break the laws of time and forcibly take the future into his own hands. Focusing on another Shakespearean tragedy, Lorne Buchman (1987) examines the principal characters' differing perceptions of time in Othello, arguing that while Iago sees time as changeable—and also as a force to be controlled and manipulated—the Moor regards it as orderly and eternal. But Othello also fears the mutability of time, Buchman contends, and this makes him particularly susceptible to his ensign's treacherous schemes. David Kaula (1964) similarly compares the various senses of time held by the protagonists in Antony and Cleopatra, suggesting that Caesar concentrates on the future and regards time as a political instrument, Antony is oriented toward the past and feels harried by the relentless pressure of time, and Cleopatra focuses on the present while maintaining a strong belief in the continuity of life. Kaula calls attention to the differing rhythms of time in Rome and Alexandria, as well as to the discrepancy between the rapid tempo of the dramatic action and the slower-running undercurrent of historical time.

The topic of time in Shakespeare's English histories has drawn relatively little critical attention, but three commentators who have addressed this issue are Quinones, Wylie Sypher (1976), and Robert B. Bennett (see Further Reading). Quinones argues that in these plays time is an instrument of a reality that leads men to catastrophe and perhaps even oblivion, although, he adds, like the sonnets, the sequence holds out the hope of fending off disaster through the continuity of family lineage. Sypher considers the second tetralogy—Richard II, 1 and 2 Henry IV, and Henry V—to be a portrayal of the vanity of history in a world where ascensions to political power are trivial when viewed in the context of the unfathomable expanse of time. All the major figures in these plays eventually realize that their achievements are insubstantial, the critic maintains, and come to understand that they're participating in a contest where the winners will be those who most skillfully employ the strategy of Machiavellian opportunism. Bennett's discussion of the second tetralogy is in marked contrast to Sypher's. Focusing on Shakespeare's presentation of how time shapes human action and history, he discerns a cyclical, sacramental progression in these four plays from initial harmony between man and nature, or God, to spiritual alienation, then redemption and a return to unity.

Harold E. Toliver (essay date 1965)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8626

SOURCE: Toliver, Harold E. “Shakespeare and the Abyss of Time.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 64, no. 2 (April 1965): 234-54.

[In the following essay, Toliver follows Shakespeare's increasingly ambiguous and complex treatment of the theme of time from the sonnets and early comedies to the late romances. He calls particular attention to the dramatist's exploration of the effectiveness and limitations of different strategies of resisting time.]

“For the Christian of the Middle Ages,” Georges Poulet writes in Studies in Human Time (New York, 1959), “the sense of his existence did not precede a sense of his continuance” (p. 3). His life was a journey, ideally an itinerarium mentis in deum, both a discovery of and return to the fountainhead of time and being: a discovery because he lacked complete knowledge of himself and of God; a return because his first father Adam had been “there” and the second Adam enabled him to think of unending fulfillment as an inheritance restored. Richard Hooker is in the main tradition when he writes that men grow by degrees through sensible, intellectual, and ultimately spiritual knowledge (Ecclesiastical Polity, I, 6, 2). Milton reflects the same tradition when he has Raphael define time as eternity “applied to motion” to measure “all things durable” (Paradise Lost, V, 580). In medieval poetry time is thus not ordinarily “dramatic,” a dimension of momentary experience (there are exceptions, of course); rather, it tends to be more or less orderly, a providential continuum. Though events unfold in time, they are generally conceived sub specie aeternitatis, so that nothing is meaningless or ever quite lost.

For the most part, time is much more complex and immediate than this in Shakespeare, especially in the mature tragedies but also in the sonnets and early plays. It is a vital dimension of things: events tend to rush onward, toward certain characters, like landscape toward a speeding train, fragmenting in the present and receding in the past toward non-being. In the main tragedies, it figures in the willful creation of self as opposed to the possibility of self-definition within an orderly cosmos available to the medieval “pilgrim.” Macbeth asserts his own career against the due processes of time, as he does against various forms of traditional order—most noticeably the kingship, with its implications of fixed class, social continuity, and divine analogy and prerogative. Intending to force the future predicted by the witches, he undermines the stability of his “name” by usurping what in his ambitious, unsettling dreams he imagines to be not public but “his” offices, to be remade as his imagination suggests.

Macbeth undermines the language as well as the honors that he takes from the public stock, catching words up in the whirl of his imagination until they become ineffectual in articulating even his own private world. Montaigne explained the linguistic probems in such disruptions of time in this way:

Now the lines of my painting do not go astray, though they change and vary. The world is but an eternal seesaw. All things therein are incessantly moving. … Constancy itself is nothing but a … languid motion. I cannot fix my object; it goes muddled and reeling by a natural drunkenness. I take it just as it is at the instant I consider it. I do not paint its being. I paint its passage: not a passage from one age to another … but from day to day, from minute to minute. I must accommodate my history to the hour.1

Time thus conceived as continuous lapsing has implications for the dramatist concerned with the “plot” of the self in the social order as well as for the structure of the essay attempting to label a “muddled and reeling” object: what is the hero to identify with, what public name can he assume? The bonds that unite words and meaning are based on the same general order as the bonds that unite king and subject, lover and beloved, Montaigne's attempt to label the object “just as it is at the instant” notwithstanding. There can be no new names for each moment an object passes through and no social communion without communicable substance. In lamenting the apparent overthrow of a noble mind obsessed with floating shapes in clouds and “words, words, words,” Ophelia puts the matter in terms of the disjunction between an ideal form for the prince and the altered character he now illustrates:

That unmatch'd form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy. O, woe is me,
T' have seen what I have seen, see what I see!


The “mould of form” is broken; Denmark decays from the “poison” in its old king's ear, as the new king hastens through his rites with “most wicked speed.”

I should like to explore the influence of that new mobility of nature upon the form and substance of Shakespeare's art by examining the time theme, first in the sonnets, which erect verbal monuments, bonds of words, against time, and then in its expanded variations in the plays. For the sonnets are shaped as plotted resistance to time; the histories are conceived in terms of the adjustments to time implicit in public institutions and heroic action; the problem plays and tragedies, especially Troilus and Cressida and Macbeth, explore the heroes' intensely subjective time as a disintegration both of inner nature and of the bonds that enable the individual to identify with a lasting order; and, finally, the “mythic” comedies attempt to suspend or control time through a kind of a-historical ritual based primarily on the secular power of the artist-magician, who helps create a new society.


In the sonnets and early plays, Shakespeare tends to conceive of time primarily as a personified destroyer of what should be absolute bonds—love and order beyond change. Change, like Spencer's mutability, is a “perversion” of “meet order ranged”: we have sucked “Death, instead of life … from our nurse,” as Spenser writes in the mutability cantos (VII, vi, 6). But things, like words, are not finally subject to time: they are “not changed from their first state; / But by their change their being do dilate” (VII, vii, 58); they are “firmly stayed / Upon the pillours of eternity” (VII, vii, 2). Though Shakespeare's sonnets depend less explicitly on Platonist doctrine, they celebrate a similar faith in sameness within apparent change. Any of several tactics will defeat or at least resist time. The sonnet itself outlasts time by fixing its subject in enduring language; true love does not admit its impediments or “bend with the remover to remove”;2 renewal through procreation forestalls it. Even perpetuity through memory, though more complicated, is effective in its way. While “remembrance of things past” recalls old sorrows for “precious friends hid in death's dateless night,” it also restores all losses. Though love, which sharpens memory, also sharpens the sense of time's passage, the artist in celebrating that love can at least keep the record living to the “ending doom.”

In a few sonnets such as “That time of year thou mayest in me behold” and “Like as the waves,” however, Shakespeare is less sanguine about controlling the ravages of time. In “Like as the waves” (Sonnet 60) the implication of the imagery is that the struggle to sustain one's identity is too great for mortal strength:

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown'd,
Crooked eclipses 'gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.

As the surf is pushed to its crowning, it collapses and then recombines, under the surface, with the oceanic element. Confronted with this image, the idea that art, at least, is permanent is only partially consoling. The creative and destructive element, the imagery suggests, is not timelessness but a kind of uniform non-being, a formless, undifferentiated substance against which the artist struggles in trying to erect a lasting monument to his friend. Though love may be a star to every wandering bark on this sea, the implication is that there is no harbor. Likewise, in “Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame,” lust, which substitutes quick possession for the marriage of true minds, is “Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust.” It is

Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight
Past reason hunted, and no sooner had
Past reason hated, as a swallow'd bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad.

The basis of Shakespeare's concern with time in the early plays is in part this ambiguity of the bonds of love and its transmutation to lust. For if love outlasts time and validates the poet's Platonist language, lust precipitates the lover headlong into the abyss.

In Romeo and Juliet, it is difficult to tell the difference. On one hand, Romeo's love is an absolute passion that appears to triumph over both time and the grave, but on the other hand, considered in moral and realistic terms, is merely the product of adolescent haste. Romeo's final speech indicates that as far as he is concerned, a true marriage of minds need not fear even the fine, private grave. Though they have been in a sense time's fools, they will bear up, even to the edge of doom, achieving the bridal union that life denies when death frees them from time. In Romeo's version of love and the extrication they desire from the entanglements of their society and the fate of the stars, all's well that ends badly:

                                                                                Shall I believe
That unsubstantial Death is amorous,
And that the lean abhorred monster keeps
Thee here in dark to be his paramour?
For fear of that, I still will stay with thee,
And never from this palace of dim night
Depart again. Here, here will I remain
With worms that are thy chamber-maids; O, here
Will I set up my everlasting rest,
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh.


Not only is death the triumph of love; love is also, in a sense, the highest achievement of the personified death, who is a “paramour” as well as a “lean abhorred monster.” But on this point Romeo's language brings us up short. It is difficult to say whether he means what he says or speaks with a kind of grim irony. Is his triumph “real” or merely verbal whistling in the dark? Does he find or only pretend to find the star-fated ending a beginning in which he may shake at last the “yoke of inauspicious stars”? Whether or not his verbal transformation of the grave to a bridal chamber is something more than a manner of speaking or a standard topos, however, the fact that he can put it this way at all is a gain over his previous love-language, which has not had even this range of mood. Whichever way we take it, it is an impressive scene that he plays, at least from the standpoint of proving that to him a grave is not a grave when called by another name. His death is “untimely” in defying time as well as in coming too soon.

Character and plot are shaped to make this confrontation of love and death the climax of Romeo's brief journey. Because of the factions that divide one “name” from another, normal social bonds offer him no guidance. The original order represented in the two families (the state and church being out of sight for the most part), as in other early plays, is irrational and repressive and hence drives the lovers outside the normal means of marrying. Until tested by that confrontation, Romeo's view that sorrow cannot “countervail th' exchange of joy / That one short minute” of love affords, cannot escape Friar Lawrence's realistic deflation of love and his concessions to time:

These violent delights have violent ends,
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which as they kiss consume. …
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.


The final marriage of Eros and Thanatos in the grave reveals that Friar Lawrence's interpretation is only half correct because it ignores the ennobling capacity of passion and the sacrifice of all time for one transcending moment.

In the early comedies, the problem is not so much to discover a way to escape the bonds of society as to define personal goals in terms of an enduring order. To retreat from that order in any form of willed transcendence is to fall into eccentricity. Potential lovers must overcome their various idiosyncrasies—protean instability in Two Gentlemen, for instance—which makes them “comic.” In Love's Labor's Lost, Biron (that “envious sneaping frost / That bites the first-born infants of the spring”) finds Ferdinand's first proposal to defeat time too unrealistic to bear scrutiny:

Let fame, that all hunt after in their lives,
Live regist'red upon our brazen tombs
And then grace us in the disgrace of death;
When, spite of cormorant, devouring Time,
Th' endeavour of this present breath may buy
That honour which shall bate his scythe's keen edge
And make us heirs of all eternity.


He recognizes that the exchange of three years' fasting and study for “eternity” would indeed be a good bargain. But unfortunately, Ferdinand's program assumes both that the ascetic scholars can easily find truth “hid and barr'd” beneath the fleeting surface of things and that time cannot touch essential reality once they have discovered it. Biron believes that “necessity” will force them to qualify that optimism “Three thousand times within this three years' space.” Paradoxically, love—that is, heterosexual love, committed to the world of procreation and action—time, and necessity all become allies in re-educating the scholars and purging them of the “comic”:

Sweet lords, sweet lovers, O, let us embrace!
          As true we are as flesh and blood can be.
The sea will ebb and flow, heaven show his face,
          Young blood doth not obey an old decree.
We cannot cross the cause why we were born.


Love is indeed a star to their wandering barks and hence redeems the lovers who had sought refuge from time. Though false to their original oaths, they are “false for ever to be true” (V.ii.783). One bond is valid, the other not. Their very falsehood “purifies itself and turns to grace.” Their destiny, “the cause” why they were born, is revealed to them in the midst of time's ebb and flow. Love is both physical and enduring, continually renewing the degenerate, coursing blood as asceticism never could; it offers an eternity “applied to motion” provided only that they submit without reservation to it. As the lovers accept the articles of love, however, they lose something of their individuality: all's alike that ends well. Love not only renews vigor, doubles power, and removes fifty years from the withered hermit (IV.iii.242), it also disciplines the imagination and constricts its range. Biron must “throw away” or “choke” his “gibing spirit,” a “wormwood” in his fruitful brain. Love's preservative cools the “heat of blood” with “frosts and fasts, hard lodging and thin weeds”; what survives is beyond decay—and dramatic action.

In a similar manner, in As You Like It, Orlando and Rosalind must discover how to reconcile the real world and romance, love as a timeless bond and its incarnation and commitment to the experience of time. The variations of the time and love theme are much more complicated than in Love's Labour's Lost, however, because the pairs of lovers all seek different levels and different ways of adjusting to time. That human nature is worse off without love is clear in the character of Jacques, who finds man's potential too severely circumscribed by time. He thinks in terms of old age and death and hence finds a deflating pessimism, rather than love, the best medicine for cleansing the “foul body of the infected world.” Decay, in fact, becomes his truth, his only real link with humanity. He foresees only joylessness in maturity, ending in “mere oblivion, / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” The vitality of lovers arouses his contempt; the philosophical “motley fool” wins his approval:

'Tis but an hour ago since it was nine;
And after one hour more 'twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot. …


Since no one can escape the logic of the “seven ages,” the ripening and rotting from hour to hour, time simplifies responsibilities and makes subtleties of manner unnecessary. Because all bonds are corrupted in time, Jacques sees no reason to establish them with anyone. The strategies for meeting the threat of time which Rosalind discovers are thus entirely lost to him.

It is Rosalind who is most aware of the problem time poses for lovers. On the one hand, she mocks the sensual haste of pseudo-Petrarchan lovers (III.ii.320). The dilemmas lovers create for themselves they can resolve without despair and without rushing to the grave: “Men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love” (IV.i.107). But on the other hand, when Orlando is out of sight she must, like a lovesick sonneteer herself, “find a shadow and sigh till he come” (IV.i.222). Lovers will always be tried by Time, “the old justice that examines all such offenders.” Still, when lovers join, Hymen, rather than time, writes the epilogue: “Then is there mirth in heaven / When earthly things made even / Atone together” (V.iv.114-16). The as-you-like-it ending makes irrelevant the future Jacques imagines and unnecessary the kind of ambivalent consummation Romeo achieves. The end is a ceremony suggesting a kind of final atonement. The marriage sacrament, like the “feast” Orlando and the old Adam join, reflects a higher bond. Lovers' mirth extends to heaven; love “atones” for “earthly things” by making them “even”—that is, well-matched in marriage, paid for exactly as in a proper atonement, and flowing at a regulated rate. Love consummated in marriage is a temporal version of a divine comedy that makes durable all “even” things.


In the history play the effects of time continually belie this analogy between divine and human “mirth,” as kings belie their vicegerency and divine prerogative. Consequently, it is not surprising to find Shakespeare moving toward the main tragedies and problem plays in an increasingly subtle and complicated exploration of the time theme and its variations. In the early histories, Shakespeare conceives of time primarily as an obstacle to glory that necessitates continual heroic action. Brave deeds replace constancy and love as the means of redemption, while division and self-seeking arm time against continuity both in Respublica and in its heroes. As Gloucester warns the potential factions in 2 Henry VI, shameful acts blot names “from books of memory,” deface monuments, raze “the characters of … renown,” and undo all “as all had never been!” (I.i.100-103). Even a Henry V or Talbot cannot permanently defeat time, not because it inevitably “rots and rots” the foundations of being but because the heroic virtues that might raise men above the times are too rare. The greed of one age obliterates the heroism and wisdom of another. Henry VI in his pastoral lament over the passing of the old order sees this clearly but has no power to alter it:

O God! methinks it were a happy life
To be no better than a homely swain;
To sit upon a hill, as I do now,
To carve out dials quaintly, point by point,
Thereby to see the minutes how they run,
How many makes the hour full complete,
How many hours brings about the day,
How many days will finish up the year,
How many years a mortal man may live. …
So minutes, hours, days, months, and years,
Pass'd over to the end they were created,
Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave.
Ah, what a life were this! how sweet! how lovely!

(3 Henry VI, II.v.21-41)

As the repetition and the slackness of syntax reveal, monotony and a kind of death-in-life mar the vision. Though orderly, Henry's pastoral time has no real content; and filling time with action unfortunately destroys orderly progression. Thus Henry's dream is shattered, first by a young soldier, dragging behind him the dead body of his father, who laments “O heavy times, begetting such events!” and next by a father bearing his son and weeping “O, pity, God, this miserable age!” Henry's passive retreat has encouraged future generations to murder the past and the present generation to murder the future.

Nor will history, of course, allow one to perpetuate life in art, as the sonnet does. If politics has an art, it is the art of strategic retreat before time and corruptible human nature. An “artist” like Richard II, who attempts to write and act his own tragedy, is powerless before flesh-and-blood events. Taking the kingdom as an extension of his own consciousness, Richard succeeds only in giving it his own egoistic dream-sickness. (“Now comes the sick hour that his surfeit made,” Gaunt observes.) And even if he were to succeed in converting the kingdom to his “scene,” it would only perish with him, like the mirror he dashes to the ground (IV.i.288). Since he cannot succeed, he ends the only actor in his play. His final invention of a kingdom and his final concept of time are thus extravagant, ineffectual, and personal:

For now hath Time made me his numb'ring clock.
My thoughts are minutes; and with sighs they jar
Their watches on unto mine eyes, the outward watch,
Whereto my finger, like a dial's point,
Is pointing still, in cleansing them from tears. …
… So sighs and tears and groans
Show minutes, times, and hours; but my time
Runs posting on in Bolingbroke's proud joy,
While I stand fooling here, his Jack o' th' clock.


He can neither hasten his fall or retard it; he is Bolingbroke's “Jack o' th' clock” popping out when the hour strikes. But even this view of his disarrangement is somewhat willful. He stops his imagination from working when the vision grows too unpleasantly accurate.3

Richard's attempt to control the flux of events by imposing an order upon them that they resist is typical of more worthy idealists to follow. In later plays, especially those of Shakespeare's middle period, the implications of the displacement of continuous order are explored in terms of the hero's inner life as well as in terms of social institutions. Troilus and Cressida and Macbeth are perhaps the clearest examples.

As the most “subjective” of Shakespeare's heroes except perhaps for Macbeth, Troilus experiences the most far-reaching disintegration of “normal” progression. Expectation and impatience whirl him around as he attempts to idealize them. Rather than seeking gradual fulfillment in time, he cannot endure time at all. His itinerarium is not in deum but in Cressidam: “O, be thou my Charon,” he admonishes Pandarus, his guide, “And give me swift transportance to those fields / Where I may wallow in the lily-beds,” lily-beds proposed, of course, “for the deserver!” (III.ii.11-14). Given the rush of time, he must make up in intensity for lack of duration and consequently must abandon the obvious value of things for values he imposes on them. He must imagine Cressida worthy of the kind of pursuit a Platonist makes of “truth's simplicity.” Reversing the Thomistic formula. Troilus asserts essentially that nihil in sensu quod non prius in intellectu; but confronted with things in sensu he finds the self overwhelmed by them:

Th' imaginary relish is so sweet
That it enchants my sense; what will it be,
When that the wat'ry palates taste indeed
Love's thrice repured nectar? Death, I fear me,
Swooning destruction, or some joy too fine,
Too subtle, potent, tun'd too sharp in sweetness
For capacity of my ruder powers.
I fear it much; and I do fear besides
That I shall lose distinction in my joys,
As doth a battle, when they charge on heaps
The enemy flying.


Far from giving experience orderly sequence and enduring form, the imagination teases and “enchants” the senses to swooning; sensory reality rushes onward like “heaps” of enemies Troilus scarcely has time to savor in the killing. “This is the monstrosity in love, lady,” he observes, “that the will is infinite and the execution confin'd, that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit” (III.ii.87). He will indeed “lose distinction,” distinction among joys and distinction as “warrior.” Though he clearly realizes this in one corner of his mind, he does not see the implications of boundlessness in human relations or reconcile it with his advice on the Trojan war. His attempt to decree value in the fleeting pageantry of time runs up against the shattering reality of Helen, Cressida, and the senseless war.

In his subjectivism, he totally severs imagination from reality, as he again realizes, but only imperfectly:

O that I thought it could be in a woman—
As, if it can, I will presume in you—
To feed for aye her lamp and flames of love,
To keep her constancy in plight and youth,
Outliving beauties outward, with a mind
That doth renew swifter than blood decays!
Or that persuasion could but thus convince me
That my integrity and truth to you
Might be affronted with the match and weight
Of such a winnow'd purity in love!
How were I then uplifted! But alas!
I am as true as truth's simplicity,
And simpler than the infancy of truth.


Troilus' “will presume” and the subjunctive mood reveal something of the gap between wish and fact. That the mind might race with blood and win is possible only if the beloved remains true. Fixed in love for Cressida, Troilus' “simplicity” must be destroyed with her inconstancy. As Cressida unintentionally predicts in an ironic inversion of a common sonnet theme, time will perpetuate not truth and “winnow'd purity” but infamy:

If I be false, or swerve a hair from truth,
When time is old and hath forgot itself,
When waterdrops have worn the stones of Troy
And blind oblivion swallow'd cities up,
And mighty states characterless are grated
To dusty nothing, yet let memory,
From false to false, among false maids in love
Upbraid my falsehood!


In this context of dissolving and warring elements, Shakespeare finds a new dimension in the traditional bond between Mars and Venus. The marriage reveals the deepest flaws in each: the warrior “loves” war and the lover makes love a sensual struggle. Each pursuit becomes the chief metaphor of the other in the double plot. In the interaction of the two, the wound that love gives is fatal, like those Achilles gives Hector, whom he surveys, as he tells Hector, “As I would buy thee, view thee limb by limb” and whom he has a “woman's longing” for, “an appetite” to see unarmed. The battering ram at Troy's gate, the wound of the sword, and love's “dying” are parallel aspects of rapid change—both of “truth's simplicity” and of the universal order Ulysses describes so opportunely to Achilles. Cressida is thus quite correct in seeing her love as the “centre of the earth” (IV.ii.110), drawing all things to it. It represents a fluid nature without order which leaves the “warrior” at the mercy of his own imaginative “expectation.” The gap between finite and infinite is no longer bridged by Ulysses' “degrees” of being, sustained by divine creativity, mutual dependence and “l' amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle.” It remains an unbridgeable gulf; time is motion unanchored, just as value is severed from truth's simplicity. Hence human relations cannot be based on static social and cosmic hierarchies. The hero's character is defined in terms of the dramatic flux that surrounds him and is eventually destroyed in the shifting mirrors of language and action held up around him. By manipulating the mirrors, a rhetorician like Ulysses creates a new world out of the “noble” values to which the hero is accustomed. Not total chaos but a new concept of private “order” is the result. Troilus, like Othello in the midst of Iago's fleeting mirrors and sleights of hand and word, after reinterpreting the “facts,” replaces justice with personal vengeance.

Ulysses is shrewd enough to realize that such instability can be useful as well as disheartening. The value of such “meet order” as he finds it expedient to describe to Achilles is simply that it increases the efficiency of the war machine (which unfortunately has only Helen for its goal). Self-love, he tells Achilles, derives from the reflection of admiring faces, growing continually fewer around him:

Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for Oblivion,
A great siz'd monster of ingratitudes.
Those scraps are good deeds past, which are devour'd
As fast as they are made, forgot as soon
As done. …
For beauty, wit,
High birth, vigour of bone, desert in service,
Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all
To envious and calumniating Time.
One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.

(III.iii.145-50, 171-75)

The “kinship” is a kinship of corruptibility, of course, rather than of earthly things made “even.” The small touch of nature that Achilles has is just enough to envelop him in the fluctuating uncertainty that governs all action (though his ego is nearly sublime enough to make him untouchable). Continuous war and continuous quests for love are the only recourses against “calumniating Time”: giddy expectation and frustration keep the “war” going.

Troilus, like Richard II, has one other strategy to try against time: he attempts to reach tragic stature by staging his defeat against the background of time's inevitable victory, by universalizing his suffering and thus elevating the sufferer. Unfortunately, language fails him at crucial moments; what is meant to be ceremonial never achieves dignity, which is typical of the action of the play as a whole. Time interrupts the ceremonies and rituals that aim at elevating war and love. In fact, we might describe the “form” (or non-form) of the play as dyshedonic and dyslogistic rather than as tragic, comic, or even “problematic.” As each thing meets in “mere oppugnancy,” reason and imagination lose coherence; power becomes will, and will an “appetite, an universal wolf” (I.iii.120). One “instance” of inconstancy so dissolves the “bonds of heaven” that faith breaks into “fragments, scraps, bits and greasy relics,” fractions “five-finger-tied.” Consequently, savagery characterizes Troilus' final code of war, replacing his original idealism and his abortive attempts to ritualize both lust and bloodshed. Rather than the stately march and the final noble words for the hero that ordinarily end Shakespearean tragedy, and rather than the marriage-blessing that normally ends comedy, the play concludes in a disrupted march and a curse. Troilus becomes a “wicked conscience” from the past that “mouldeth goblins swift as frenzy's thoughts” to haunt the present, while Pandarus promises not an atonement but disease transmitted from “lover” to “lover.”

I have dwelt on Troilus and Cressida partly because its severance of form and reality is the climax in Shakespeare of time's chaotic force, and partly because it is pivotal and prepares us to see more clearly the nature of Macbeth's pathological time, which is equally destructive of limits. The difference is that Macbeth's disintegration is contained and defined in terms of the very order it momentarily threatens: order and disorder co-exist as dialectical opposites. Moreover, the approach to chaos opens up new realms of imaginative experience; it suggests, if only fleetingly, the creative powers released by the breaking of limits that will characterize later plays.

The first of these notions, that foul is defined by fair, disorder by order, is not precisely what Macbeth and the weird sisters mean by their equation of opposites, which is closer to Troilus' belief that “aught is as 'tis valued.” Macbeth's very language acknowledges a proper “state” and function: “not” is a negative of “is.” But his substitution of foul for fair is, for him personally, a smothering of sequential order and hierarchy in private, “horrible imaginings”:

My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother'd in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.


In trying to overleap time, Macbeth does indeed lose function in “surmise”; only the future and the fantastical imagination, things that are not, exist for him. He assumes one of the functions of Godhead, the rending of nature and, through the cracks, the revelation of the “fantastical” (“And base things of the world … hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are,” I Cor. 1:28). Objective time and reality are annihilated when imagination is freed of normal restrictions.

For Macbeth's imagination works by leaping over things rather than by reordering them. At first he continues to acknowledge the “outside” world of measured duration and proper promotion: “Come what may, / Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.” He clings momentarily to two contradictory postures, one demanding patience and resignation to time's regular passage, the other the destruction of the present. (If “the assassination / Could trammel up the consequence,” of course, he would be able to avoid a segment of time and consequential events altogether.) He soon chooses the second course, however, and as he does so, compassion and pity travel “upon the sightless couriers of the air” and arouse human nature against him.

Lady Macbeth also tries to escape nature and to break the chain of cause and effect, only to reaffirm their validity as external guides. “To catch the nearest way” she would use “fate” and “metaphysical aid” and bring the “future in the instant.” The nearest way leads through the dark where imagination shuts out the real world until “nor time nor place … adhere.” Together, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth mock time with “fairest show” while the “eye” is mocked in return by illusory visions from “heat-oppressed” brains. Taking the nearest way suffocates rather than frees them. Excessive ambition, an aspect of “expectation,” by its nature paradoxically stifles the self while giving free reign to egoism; it destroys the present in reaching ahead for the future and smothers reason as “dark night strangles the travelling lamp.” The violence of the “creative” will leaves the will helpless against the ghosts of the imagination. Sleep, “sore labour's bath / Balm of hurt minds,” can no longer restore the mind, whose rhythm of action and contemplation is upset.

Macbeth discovers too late, then, that only regular laws of nature can guide one through time; without them life becomes a walking nightmare guided by witches. Fragments of reality—adder's fork, lizard's leg, gall of goat, and so forth—are thrown into the seething cauldron, a symbol of the tormented imagination, whose decorum is the chant and whose effect is to “charm” and curse. The fragmented reality fed into the witch's brew undergoes a metamorphosis and dream distortion not at all like Ariel's transformation of bone to coral, of course, but equally enchanting:

O, well done! I commend your pains;
And every one shall share i' th' gains.
And now about the cauldron sing,
Like elves and fairies in a ring,
Enchanting all that you put in.


These, then, are Macbeth's muses, whom he summons to bless his imagination:

I conjure you by that which you profess,
Howe'er you come to know it, answer me!
Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches; though the yesty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up;
Though the bladed corn be lodg'd and trees blown down;
Though castles topple on their warders' heads;
Though palaces and pyramids do slope
Their heads to their foundations; though the treasure
Of nature's [germens] tumble all together,
Even till destruction sicken; answer me
To what I ask you.


His rhetoric imitates the witches' chant and its fragmentation of reality. Monuments that stand against time begin to topple, laws of nature collapse, and movement through “yesty waves” is confounded, until even destruction sickens and grows monotonous.

The psychological effects of the unnatural imagination are revealed long before this, as Macbeth both urges himself forward and withholds himself from the violence in which the sequence of acts involves him. The intrusion of the outer world in the porter scene, for instance, pushes him further into the interior darkness:

To know my deed, 'twere best not know myself. [Knocking]
Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst!


Willful self-creation works only one way. One cannot recapture and remake the past; one can only retreat before the present “fact” and plot for the future. As Lady Macbeth perceives, they can escape the “knocking” only by further withdrawal, drowning out the insistent pounding of the exterior world by a kind of hypnotic chant: “To bed, to bed! there's knocking at the gate. Come, come, come, come, give me your hand. … To bed, to bed, to bed!” (V.i.72). Only by seeking total oblivion can they counter the “thick-coming fancies,” “pluck from the memory” the “rooted sorrow,” and “raze out the written troubles of the brain” (V.iii.38-42). Hence Macbeth tries to make night protective and merciful as well as destructive of “bonds”:

                                        Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pitiful day,
And with thy bloody and invisible hand
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale!


Time will not allow even the safety of oblivion, however. It anticipates “dread exploits”: the “flighty purpose never is o'er took / Unless the deed go with it” (IV.i.144-46) In attempting to close the gap between present and future, the “nearest way” becomes more and more a mindless reflex action drawing Macbeth out of his protective secrecy into the searching light of the nature he tries to smother. The first things of heart become the first of hand (IV.i.147-48). Ross sees clearly that in these times all who share in Macbeth's world “but float upon a wild and violent sea / Each way” (IV.ii.21-22). Further, since the future contains death more certainly than anything else that the witches predict, even the immediate present loses its capacity to be and becomes a death-in-life. “Tomorrow” does indeed “creep” inevitably poisoned before its arrival by the monotonous tomorrows that follow (V.v.17).

Since Macbeth's disintegration involves the very forms of thought and action, it entails also the breakdown of language. It is in this breakdown, however, that Shakespeare apparently discovered creative possibilities in unstructured change that had been lacking in Troilus and Cressida. These possibilities govern subsequent plays in which time without measure leads to new illumination as well as to chaos, just as the simultaneous presence of future and past in the present can lead either to a kind of confused nothingness or to a transcendent timelessness. “Overleaping” the categories of time is not in itself destructive. And even the language of Macbeth, though Macbeth himself discovers only the abyss of time, is illuminating and rich beyond that of other Shakespearean tragic heroes. Perhaps the central paradox of the play is that the most depraved of Shakespeare's tragic heroes should have become also the most “poetic.” His experience prepares for that of Cleopatra and eventually that of Prospero, with his “charms” and dissolving pageants. For moral insight he substitutes an extremely sensitive though intensely narrow imagery. His fragmentary, associative language escapes the limits of ordinary rhetoric and logic; he creates his own “supernatural” with its demons and prophetic visions. In a sense, he is a Calvinist of the imagination who destroys the proper sequence of time in order to pursue an Absolute, though it turns out to be an absolute depravity. Despite the mixture of weariness and uncontrolled sound and fury in his language, he is impressively awesome as well as immoral.

Because Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are the sole creators of their inferno, however, restoration of social continuity and a sense of measured time is not difficult once society disposes of them. With Macbeth dead, Macduff hails the new king, who “by the grace of Grace” will perform in “measure, time, and place” what is just and needful: as the nightmare ends, “time” is set “free” by being bound again to the law.


Unlike Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra are not unambiguous enemies of social order. Their passion, like that of Romeo and Juliet, can be taken as either destructive or transcendent, the lovers as either victims of, or victors over, time, which in Cleopatra's version is powerless to prevent their final gratification. Antony's kiss will be “heaven” in death. On the other hand, the equation of love and war in Troilus and Cressida retains some of its implications also. Antony is caught in a morass of political maneuvering and, more dangerously, in the giddiness of his Egyptian revel. His total commitment to Cleopatra may win him the immortal love she imagines or simply a grave beside her (as Caesar's version has it) and a degrading role in Roman comedy:

                                                  The quick comedians
Extemporally will stage us, and present
Our Alexandrian revels; Antony
Shall be brought drunken forth, and I shall see
Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness
I' th' posture of a whore.


In either case, Cleopatra obviously goes beyond Cressida in offering something to replace the boundaries she shatters. What she destroys she re-creates in divine, proleptic talk. It would be plausible to consider Antony and Cleopatra among Shakespeare's last comedies simply on her word that such talk and the life-in-death that it creates enable lovers to achieve a timeless world beyond Caesar. Like the “magicians” of the last plays, she discovers timelessness within time, “eternity” in “lips and eyes,” and thus, without breaking the limits of nature with quite Macbeth's violence, creates a self-contained, self-evaluated world.

Realists and cynics in the play, however, believe that her “creativity” does very little for Antony, who is destroyed with or without her blessing. The play leaves the alternatives open: her language may indeed transubstantiate lead to gold or it may be, as Bernard Shaw believed, merely a magician's conjuring of images to draw one's attention from the vulgar comedy. Caesar's view is that Antony loses himself in time and fills “vacancy with voluptuousness” (I.iv.26). Pompey considers Antony a libertine with fuming brain “in a field of feasts.” Enobarbus, however, despite his momentary defection, confirms Cleopatra's extratemporal dimension: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety.” If variety is equivalent to inconstancy in others, “vilest things” so become themselves in Cleopatra “that holy priests / Bless her when she is riggish” (II.ii.240-45). Quite the opposite of Cressida's desperate passion, Cleopatra's love stirs immortal longings because it is voracious; rather than leading downward to the lily-beds of Elysium presided over by Pandarus, it leads toward a higher consummation in which “earthly things” are purged altogether, not simply “made even.” Though Antony at times acknowledges the “strong necessity of time” that commands his services in Ceasar's cause, Cleopatra seeks ultimate liberation and fulfillment in death and believes (or says) that Antony himself has risen above time, above autumn reaping and winter darkness: his delights “Were dolphin-like: they show'd his back above / The element they liv'd in” (V.ii.88-90). As for herself, she expects to become incorruptible fire and air, leaving the other elements to “baser life” and to the roman parody.

The quality of time in Antony and Cleopatra is thus as ambiguous as it is in Romeo and Juliet but with considerably more involved implications. In the ambiguity of Cleopatra's “purification,” Antony and Cleopatra lies somewhere between the main tragedies and later comedies in which the “baser elements” are purged with less complexity and dubiety. For in the last comedies not only is an old order dissolved in a “tempest” of some sort but a new order is formed; what has been lost is found and what seems dead comes back to life, miraculously, like Hermione's emergence from the artist's monument. Time is subjected to the rhythmic controls of an always changing but orderly nature, a nature that remains finite but somehow points beyond itself. Imagination alters nature as it alters language, sometimes for the worse, as in the deranged suspicions of Leontes, but ultimately, in the hands of the magician-artist, to the benefit of social continuity and well-being. Moreover, nature thus complemented and fulfilled through art restores health to the individual psyche. The “green world” harbors and educates exiles from court: over that art which “adds to Nature, is an art / That Nature makes” (Winters Tale, IV.iv.90-92).4

This pattern holds true in a general way for all of the “pastoral” comedies. In Pericles the nightmare world of incest and hatred converts the “journey” into an unstructured chase. “Born in a tempest,” Marina laments, “this world to me is like a lasting storm / Whirring me from my friends” (IV.i.19-21). But escaping the brothel to which the tempest leads her, Marina learns to sing “like one immortal” and dance “as goddess-like to her admired lays.” Rhythmic motion replaces flight and “whirring” as the dominant pattern. In this movement from tempest to an extra-human harmony, the form of Pericles and the other late plays is thus exactly counter to that of Trolius and Cressida, which moves from “giddy expectation” to frustration and anger. Out of the “tempest”—the wanderings of Pericles, the jealousy of Leontes, and the invented storm of Prospero—a controlled movement gradually takes shape, a movement issuing not only from man's better nature but also from the oracles, which are obscure and prophetic but not, of course, misleading, as Macbeth's oracles are. With the restoration of what has been lost, guilt is purged and the older generation—Pericles, Leontes, and Prospero—learns to share the new life of the younger group, or, more accurately in Prospero's case, the younger group shares in the magician's wisdom and his past. No longer a “great-siz'd monster of ingratitude,” time uncovers all mistakes: “I, that please some, try all, both joy and terror / Of good and bad that makes and unfolds error,” Time says in The Winters Tale (IV.i.1-2). If “ancient'st order” passes and customs are established and overwhelmed, Time itself endures as a mode of continuity. It is the agent of progressive discovery and penitence rather than an intolerable barrier to “giddy expectation.”

In a sense, then, the perspective of the last plays, the highest level at which we engage them as wholes, is somewhere above the flux of events; and participation in this perspective gives both older and younger generations their sense of continuity. They attain distance by reflecting upon past time and controlling the future. Prospero's time is thus not dramatic but mythic. Shakespeare makes the father and teacher also a conjurer, even though an aging one. Prospero uses the tempest to bring others to mastery of themselves, to recapture and judge the past. To Miranda before he educates her, the past is “far off / And rather like a dream than an assurance” (I.ii.44-45). The “dark backward and abysm of time” means no more to her than to Perdita: both must begin life anew. But Miranda, unlike Perdita, must take on something of the burden of the past to control the future; and so Prospero is a historian as well as a magician, but a historian whose visions are partly conjured and can be dissolved, like the effects of time in Ariel's song:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
          Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
          Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Heark! now I hear them,—ding-dong, bell.

The song has power to “allay” its listener's fury by showing meaningful transformation within apparent decay. Out of man's corruptible parts the sea creates something permanent and rich, while ritual sea-nymphs toll the hours.

Ferdinand is correct in finding this “no mortal business”: Prospero's magic and Ariel's poetry are clearly something more than human. But the transformation they affect is limited also. They can conjure visions but cannot give permanence to “the great globe itself,” which will dissolve and “Leave not a rack behind.” Their function is to remove the corruptible elements from what is for as long as it lasts, and to celebrate the great dissolution in the manner of the pastoral elegy, that is, with a sense of timeless identity with nature and a concept of sea-change in death more rich and strange than life itself. The skillful magician thus gives pleasant dreams even to a Caliban, the lowest order of nature. More important, he restores “nature” to those who have unnaturally distorted it:

                                        The charm dissolves apace,
And as the morning steals upon the night,
Melting the darkness, so their rising senses
Begin to chase the ignorant fumes that mantle
Their clearer reason. …
… Their understanding
Begins to swell, and the approaching tide
Will shortly fill the reasonable shore
That now lies foul and muddy

(V.i.64-68, 79-82)

In contrast to “Like as the waves,” the “sea” itself is now the source of knowledge as well as a place of tempest and death. It transforms the dead and metaphorically floods the illuminated mind. The chief difference between this kind of rebirth and cyclical perpetuity, and the sonnet theme of triumph over time through love and art, is, I think, that art no longer requires a language and a permanent marriage of true minds beyond transient, seasonal life; it imitates that life, which both decays and renews itself, and simultaneously points to a life-principle beyond it, vaguely conceived, perhaps, but immanent in the comic action itself, like the sea of understanding that fills the reasonable shore. It differs from the medieval concept of continuance in its reliance upon the human artist, whose vision, though it dissolves into nothingness, reorders the experience of the audience and enlarges its understanding. The transformative song of the “Ariel” imagination “comes and goes”; it may leave even the artist (whose “charms” are at last “o'erthrown”) in despair:

                                                                                Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be reliev'd by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.


But the very indulgence of the audience is a sign that it has participated in the magician's “sacrament,” that his words have communicated across the void. Purging the “lower elements” and “ignorant fumes that mantle” clear reason makes possible not only the continuity of Miranda's new world but also a kind of marriage of true minds, the playwright's and the audience's, through the miracle play itself, a marriage that will last long after the artist himself, whose “every third thought” is on the grave.


  1. “Of Repentance,” Essays, tr. Charles Cotton, ed. W. C. Hazlitt (New York, 1949). Cf. Sigurd Burckhardt, “The King's Language: Shakespeare's Drama as Social Discovery,” Antioch Review. XXI (1961), 369-87.

  2. Several of my observations concerning the marriage of true minds and the linguistic problem it involves are indebted to Sigurd Burckhardt's article “The Poet as Fool and Priest,” ELH, XXIII (1956), 291 ff.

  3. For a more extensive commentary on time in the history plays see my “Falstaff, the Prince, and the History Play,” forthcoming in Shakespeare Quarterly.

  4. See Northrop Frye, “Recognition in The Winters' Tale,” in Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama, ed. Richard Hosley (Columbia, Mo., 1962), pp. 235-46.

Jay L. Halio (essay date 1962)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3879

SOURCE: Halio, Jay L. “‘No Clock in the Forest’: Time in As You Like It.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 2, no. 2 (Spring 1962): 197-207.

[In the following essay, Halio evaluates the juxtaposition of time-consciousness in the world of court and city versus the timelessness in the Forest of Arden in As You Like It.]

In As You Like It Shakespeare exploits timelessness as a convention of the pastoral ideal along with other conventions taken from pastoralism, but unlike his treatment, say, of Silvius and Phebe, his treatment of time is not so thoroughly satirical. Though neither will quite do, timelessness in Arden (on the whole) contrasts favorably to the time-consciousness of court and city life which Touchstone, for example, brings to the forest. In addition, timelessness links life in Arden with the ideal of an older, more gracious way of life that helps regenerate a corrupt present.


Orlando's first speech immediately voices several aspects of the time theme. Speaking to Adam, he recalls his father's will and its provision that Oliver, the eldest son, should educate the younger brothers. This Oliver has failed to do, at least with respect to Sir Rowland's youngest son; but despite his enforced rusticity, Orlando reveals an innate gentility so wonderful that even his tyrannical brother is brought to remark: “Yet he's gentle, never schooled, and yet learned, full of noble device, of all sorts enchantingly beloved. …”1 These innate qualities derive directly from old Sir Rowland, for the identification between Orlando and his father, as we shall see, is repeatedly and pointedly made. Moreover, Orlando twice remarks in this scene that it is his father's spirit within him that prompts him to revolt against his present humiliation—a revelation which has more than ordinary implications later.

Unlike his counterpart Sir John of Bordeaux in Lodge's Rosalynde, Sir Rowland de Boys is dead before the play opens, but his memory is kept studiously alive. In the opening lines of Lodge's novel we can get some idea of what he stood for:

There dwelled adjoining to the city of Bordeaux a knight of most honorable parentage, whom fortune had graced with many favors, and nature honored with sundry exquisite qualities, so beautified with the excellence of both, as it was a question whether fortune or nature were more prodigal in deciphering the riches of their bounties. Wise he was, as holding in his head a supreme conceit of policy, reaching with Nestor into the depth of all civil government; and to make his wisdom more gracious, he had that salem ingenii and pleasant eloquence that was so highly commended in Ulysses: his valor was no less than his wit, nor the stroke of his lance no less forcible than the sweetness of his tongue was persuasive; for he was for his courage chosen the principal of all the Knights of Malta.

But we need not go outside the play to discover what Sir Rowland represents. Adam, the old retainer of the de Boys household and himself a living reminder of the former age, provides some important clues. When Oliver apparently consents to his brother's departure, he throws Adam out, too:

Get you with him, you old dog.
Is “old dog” my reward? Most true, I have lost teeth in your service. God be with my old master! He would not have spoke such a word.


Later, when Adam warns Orlando to run from Oliver's treachery and even offers his life's savings—and his life—to assist in the escape, Orlando recognizes the gesture for what it is—the product of a gracious ideal:

O good old man, how well in thee appears
The constant service of the antique world,
When service sweat for duty, not for need!
Thou art not for the fashion of these times,
Where none will sweat but for promotion,
And having that do choke their service up
Even with the having. It is not so with thee.


The two dukes also furnish evidence of the esteem in which Sir Rowland was universally held: Duke Frederick, villainously, found him an enemy, but Duke Senior (to Rosalind's evident gratification) “loved Sir Rowland as his soul” (I.ii.247). Orlando, who functions in the play partly to bear out the spirit of his father, naturally attracts similar feelings. It is not for nothing that he attaches to himself repeatedly the clumsy-naive epithet “old Sir Rowland's youngest son”; besides, his name is both an anagram of Rowland and its Italian translation.2 The predicament in which the young man eventually discovers himself will test his true mettle and, more importantly, the worth of all that he and his name may symbolize. Adam awakens in him some sense of his plight when Orlando returns home after throwing Charles the wrestler:

                                                  O you memory
Of old Sir Rowland! Why, what make you here?
Why are you so virtuous? Why do people love you?
And wherefore are you gentle, strong, and valiant?
Why would you be so fond to overcome
The bonny prizer of the humorous Duke?
Your praise is come too swiftly home before you.
Know you not, master, to some kind of men
Their graces serve them but as enemies?
No more do yours. Your virtues, gentle master,
Are sanctified and holy traitors to you.
Oh, what a world is this when what is comely
Envenoms him that bears it!


Orlando's world of court and city is a far different world from his father's. It is a perverse world, where brother plots against brother and virtues become “sanctified and holy traitors.” It is a world ruled over by the usurping Frederick (the “new” Duke), who banishes his elder brother (the “old” Duke) and keeps his niece only so long as convenience allows. When he fears Rosalind as a threat to the fame and popularity of his own daughter, he drives her out also—just as Oliver plans to kill the brother he fears he can no longer suppress. In short, it is a world based on expediency and the lust for power (III.i.15-18), not a brave new world, but a degenerate new one. With no obligation to tradition—to the past—it is ruthless in its self-assertion. But while this “new” world may banish its principal threats, Rosalind and Orlando, it does not thus destroy them (we are, after all, in the realm of romantic comedy). In the timeless pastoral world of the Forest of Arden, where past and present merge, they find refuge and there flourish.


The first mention of the life led by Duke Senior and his fellows in the Forest of Arden occurs early in the play in the dialogue between Charles and Oliver. Oliver has decided to use the wrestler to rid himself of Orlando (thus perverting the intention of Charles's visit), but first he inquires into the “new news at the new Court” (I.i.101). Charles recounts what Oliver already knows: the new Duke has driven out the old Duke, and a number of lords have voluntarily accompanied him into exile. For no apparent reason, Oliver next inquires into Rosalind's position, and then asks where the old Duke will live. Charles replies:

They say he is already in the Forest of Arden, and a many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England. They say many young gentlemen flock to him every day, and fleet their time carelessly as they did in the golden world.


Here Oliver abruptly changes the subject to the next day's wrestling match. Now, merely as dramatic exposition this dialogue is at least ingenuous—if not downright clumsy. Obviously it must serve another function to justify itself; that is, by describing the conflict between the two dukes, it provides a parallel to the decisive quarrel between Orlando and Oliver which has just taken place. The inversion of roles played by the younger and older brothers is merely a superficial variation of the plot; the point is to suggest an alignment between Duke Senior and Sir Rowland de Boys, between the “golden world” and the “antique world,” which coalesce in the fabulous Robin Hood life now led by the banished Duke. Should we require any further evidence of this significance, the change in Sir Rowland's name from its source is clear enough. The anagram Rowland-Orlando has already been explained, but the change from de Bordeaux is otherwise meaningful: de Boys is simply de Bois, “of the forest.” Elizabethan spelling commonly substitutes y for i, as everyone knows, but the pronunciation is the same. While older editors, such as Malone and Dyce, modernize the spelling (without comment), more recent ones prefer the spelling of the Folios, a practice which tends to obscure the reference. And Dover Wilson's note, recording the fact that the de Boyses were an old Arden family, gives us more light than it perhaps suspects—or intends.3

Lest there be any mistake about the kind of forest in which Duke Senior and (later) Orlando, Rosalind, and the others find themselves, we must listen carefully to the Duke's first speech (II.i.1 ff.).4 Its theme is “Sweet are the uses of adversity”; only in this way can he and his followers discover “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks / … and good in everything.” Here, unlike the conventional pastoral, others besides unrequited lovers may feel the shrewdness of the winter wind; shepherds will confess to smelling of sheep dip; and a Sir Oliver Martex is available for weddings as well as Hymen. The forest may be enchanted—the appearance of a god is only the least subtle indication that it is—but the enchantment is of an unusual kind; the forest still admits of other, qualifying realities. For the right apprehension of a natural, humane order of life, which emerges as Shakespeare's standard, takes account of both the ideal (what should or could be) and the actual (what is).5 By contrast, the standard of life in court and city is unnatural insofar as it stifles the ideal aspirations of the human imagination and sinks to the level of a crude, animal existence. If Duke Senior finally returns along with the others to his dukedom (despite his earlier assertion that he would not change his “life exempt from public haunt”), he returns not only because his dukedom is ready to receive him, but also (we must infer) because he is prepared to resume his proper role. Tempered by adversity, his virtue matures. To provide this temper, or balance, is the true function of the forest, its real “magic.” Neither the Duke nor anyone else who comes to Arden emerges the same.6

The trip to the forest is itself exhausting and fraught with danger. Rosalind and her little company are quite unable to take another step. Similarly, Adam is close to expiring when he arrives with Orlando. But on each occasion the forest at once works its charm. Corin and Silvius are at hand to entertain Rosalind and her friends and to provide them with a gentle welcome and a home. At the end of the scene even the fainting Celia quickens to remark, “I like this place, / And willingly could waste my time in it” (II.iv.94). Orlando, seeking food in what he calls an “uncouth” desert (, comes upon the banquet of the banished Duke. Showing the valor of his heritage, he opposes single-handed the entire host of the Duke and his men. Under the conventions of this romance, this show of valor is not quixotic—it fits rather with Orlando's defeat of Charles. But, though hardly despised (except by Jaques), it is misdirected; and Orlando is made to recognize the code that here reigns:

Speak you so gently? Pardon me, I pray you.
I thought that all things had been savage here,
And therefore put I on the countenance
Of stern commandment. But whate'er you are
That in this desert inaccessible,
Under the shade of melancholy boughs,
Lose and neglect the creeping hours of time,
If ever you have looked on better days,
If ever been where bells have knolled to church,
If ever sat at good man's feast,
If ever from your eyelids wiped a tear
And know what 'tis to pity and be pitied,
Let gentleness my strong enforcement be.
In the which hope I blush, and hide my sword.


Gentleness joins with gentleness; golden world merges with antique world—at least through their modern representatives. If the parvenu at first mistakes the appearance of his surroundings, he is soon instructed: this is no ordinary forest. At the same time, he reminds us of what civilization might be like, or once was. Certainly he perceives another aspect of his new environment accurately, one he will quickly cultivate: the meaninglessness of time in the forest.


For unlike the life of the court and the city, “men fleet the time carelessly” in Arden, as Charles earlier remarked. Here are no power-seekers like Oliver and Duke Frederick, impatient to rid themselves of encumbrances (I.i.124, I.iii.152 ff.), but men who love to lie under the greenwood tree seeking—only the food they eat. Appropriately, this casualness is the theme of many of their songs. Touchstone's comment on the last—“I count it but lost time to hear such a foolish song” (V.iii.40)—briefly expresses the opposing attitude brought from court into the forest. The attitude is shared by the malcontent Jaques, his fellow satirist, and in some respects by Rosalind. Touchstone is, in fact, the play's timekeeper, as Harold Jenkins has called him (p. 49), and his most extended disquisition on time is fittingly recounted by Jaques:

… he drew a dial from his poke,
And looking on it with lack-lustre eye,
Says very wisely, “It is ten o'clock.
Thus we may see,” quoth he, “how the world wags.
'Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more 'twill be eleven;
And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;
And thereby hangs a tale.”


Later in the same scene Jaques in propria persona also “morals on the time” in his speech on the Seven Ages of Man, calling our attention to the broader divisions of time's progress and pageant. Between these speeches, it should be noted, occur Orlando's entrance and his words, quoted above, on the neglect of time by the Duke and his foresters. Clearly, Shakespeare throughout the play contrasts the timelessness of the forest world with the time-ridden preoccupations of court and city life, but here the juxtaposition is both dramatically and thematically emphasized. For the court and city habitués, time is a measured progress to the grave—or worse! But for the foresters, time is merely “the stream we go a-fishing in” (to borrow the phrase of a later pastoralist).7 Neither attitude, of course, will quite do in this sublunary world; hence, to present a more balanced view of time—as of love, pastoralism, and poetry—Shakespeare uses the dialectic characteristic of this play and centers it upon his hero and heroine.

For Rosalind's awareness of time, however related to the preoccupation imported from the “outside” world, is different from Touchstone's obsession with “riping and rotting.”8 It is, partly, the awareness of a girl in love and impatient for the attentions of her lover, a healthy consciousness that recalls Juliet's except as it is undarkened by tragic fate. But her awareness has further implications. When she and Orlando first meet in the forest, their dialogue, appropriately enough, is itself about time. Rosalind's question, “I pray you, what is't o'clock?”, although banal, suits the occasion; for despite her boast that she will speak like a saucy lackey, she is momentarily confused by confronting Orlando and scarcely knows how to begin. What follows in her account of Time's “divers paces” (III.ii.317-351), however, is something more than a verbal smokescreen to help her collect her wits, detain her lover, and make sure he keeps coming back: it is a development of Jaques' Seven Ages speech with important thematic variations. Jaques' speech describes a man in his time playing many parts and suggests that his speed, or “pace,” will vary along with his role; the series of vignettes illustrates the movement of a person in time. Rosalind not only adds appreciably to Jaques' gallery, but showing profounder insight, she shifts the emphasis from the movement of a person, to the movement of time as apprehended, for example, by the young maid “between the contract of her marriage and the day it is solemniz'd. If the interim be but a se'ennight, Time's pace is so hard that it seems the length of seven year.” In this way, she more thoroughly accounts for duration, or the perception of time, which, unlike Jaques' portrait of our common destiny, is not the same for everyone.


Naturally, Rosalind is most concerned with the perception of time by the lover, and here her behavior is in marked contrast to Orlando's. Quite literally—and like any fiancée, or wife—she is Orlando's timekeeper. When he fails to keep his appointments, she suffers both pain and embarrassment (III.iv) that are relieved only by the greater follies of Silvius and Phebe that immediately follow. When he finally does turn up an hour late—as if to dramatize his belief that “there's no clock in the forest” (III.ii.319)—Rosalind rebukes him severely:

Why, how now, Orlando? Where have you been all this while? You a lover? An you serve such another trick, never come in my sight more.
My fair Rosalind, I come within an hour of my promise.
Break an hour's promise in love? He that will divide a minute into a thousand parts and break but a part of the thousand part of a minute in the affairs of love, it may be said of him that Cupid hath clapp'd him o' th' shoulder, but I'll warrant him heart-whole.
Pardon me, dear Rosalind.
Nay, an you be so tardy, come no more in my sight. I had as lief be woo'd of a snail.


Rosalind's time-consciousness goes beyond the mere moment: she knows the history of love—witness her speech on Troilus and Leander (IV.i.94-108)—and she predicts its future, as she warns Orlando of love's seasons after marriage (IV.i.143-149). Her ardent impulse is thus in comic juxtaposition with her realistic insight, just as Orlando's “point-device” attire and time-unconsciousness comically contrast with his rimes and other protestations of love.

In this fashion we arrive at the theme's center, or balance. If Orlando, as we have seen, is an agent of regeneration, he appears through his forgetfulness of time to be in some danger of not realizing his function. He might like Silvius, were it not for Rosalind, linger through an eternity of unconsummated loving;9 certainly, like the Duke, he feels in the forest no urgency about his heritage—at least not until he comes upon his brother sleeping beneath an ancient oak tree and menaced by a starved lioness (the symbolism is obvious). Oliver's remarkable conversion after his rescue and his still more remarkable engagement to Celia pave the way for Rosalind's resolution of the action, for under the pressure of his brother's happiness, Orlando can play at games in love no longer. And despite the play's arbitrary finale—Duke Frederick's conversion and the end of exile, in all of which she has had no hand—nevertheless, it is again Rosalind who has had an important share in preparing the principals for this chance. Like her less attractive counterpart Helena in All's Well That Ends Well, she remains a primary agent for the synthesis of values that underlies regeneration in Shakespeare's comedy. At the very outset we see her, the daughter of Duke Senior at the court of Duke Frederick, as a link between two worlds, not unlike Orlando's representative linking of two generations.10 In love, she is realistic rather than cynical, but not without a paradoxical—and perfectly human—romantic bias. So, too, with regard to time she moves with Orlando to a proper balance of unharried awareness. For all of these functions—as for others—the timeless world of the forest, with its complement of aliens, serves as a haven; but more importantly, it serves as a school.

Neither the extremes of idealism nor those of materialism, as they are variously represented, emerge as “the good life” in As You Like It. That life is seen rather as a mean of natural human sympathy educated—since that is a major theme in the play—by the more acceptable refinements of civilization (II.vii) and the harsh realities of existence (“winter and rough weather”). The “antique world” stands for a timeless order of civilization still in touch with natural human sympathy that, under the “new” regime (while it lasted), had been forced underground. To the forest, the repository of natural life devoid of artificial time barriers, the champions of regeneration repair in order to derive new energy for the task before them. There they find refuge, gain strength, learn—and return.


  1. I.i.172-174. Quotations are from G. B. Harrison's Shakespeare: The Complete Works (New York, 1952).

  2. Possibly a reason for Shakespeare's changing the names from his source. My colleague, Professor Celeste Wright, suggests an ironic play upon the expression “(to give) a Roland for an Oliver” (see NED) as another reason, especially as the allusion to the Chanson de Roland, from which this expression derives, is appropriate to ideals promulgated in the play. Cf. 1 Henry VI, I.ii.30. For the change of surname to de Boys, see below.

  3. “There appears to have been a family named de Boys which held the manor of Weston-in-Arden for several generations during the middle ages (French, Shakespeareana Geneologica, 1869, p. 316),” New Cambridge ed., p. 110.

  4. See also V.iv.173-181.

  5. Harold Jenkins develops Shakespeare's “art of comic juxtaposition” in an excellent article, “As You Like It,Shakespeare Survey, VIII (1955), 40-51; reprinted in Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism, ed. Leonard Dean (New York, 1957), pp. 108-127. Jenkins notes that “it is a mark of Shakespeare's mature comedy that he permits … criticism of his ideal world in the very centre of it” (p. 45).

  6. Compare Jaques, who, lacking this balance, remains.

  7. Henry David Thoreau, Walden, ed. Brooks Atkinson (New York, 1937), p. 88. The opposition also appears structurally—in the “frame” provided by the scenes of the first act and the imminent departure from Arden at the end of the play, and (as Jenkins points out, p. 44) in certain brief scenes of Acts II and III which serve to remind us of what is still happening at Oliver's house and at the court of Duke Frederick.

  8. See Helge Kökeritz, Shakespeare's Pronunciation (New Haven, 1953), pp. 58-59, for the punning significance of this passage.

  9. Cf. Jenkins, p. 48.

  10. In his highly perceptive analysis of The Winter's Tale, S. L. Bethell shows later developments of these aspects of the time theme in Shakespeare, explicitly linking them in several important ways to As You Like It. See “The Winter's Tale”: A Study (London, 1947), p. 27, passim.

David Kaula (essay date 1963)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4838

SOURCE: Kaula, David. “‘In War with Time’: Temporal Perspectives in Shakespeare's Sonnets.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 3, no. 1 (Winter 1963): 45-57.

[In the following essay, Kaula discerns two different time perspectives in sonnets 1-126, and analyzes the sonnets' syntax, rhetoric, and imagery in order to explain the disparate strategies these poems use to defy the tyranny of time.]

The figure of time which occurs so often in the sonnets Shakespeare addresses to the young friend (1-126) points to one of the central preoccupations of the sequence. Appearing as it does in several of its familiar allegorical guises—as thief, tyrant, devourer, and harvester—the figure is thoroughly conventional in origin.1 Shakespeare, however, endows it with a more than conventional vitality. In lamenting the impermanence of all the good things of the world, especially the resplendent qualities exhibited by the friend, he does not reduce them to trivial significance in comparison with whatever remains invulnerable to time and change, such as Platonic idea or Christian deity. Rather he enhances their appeal, and in the figure of time creates a formidable antagonist against which to assert the force and constancy of his devotion. But this is not the only way Shakespeare shows his responsiveness to time in the sonnets. Less obtrusively, he also exploits those subtle properties which time assumes when it is seen as an aspect of subjective experience. He treats past and future not as objective realities but as modes of awareness, ways of looking backwards and forwards, which interact with the sense of the present. By making versatile use of varying time perspectives, both objective and subjective, Shakespeare further deepens and diversifies his handling of the poet-friend relationship, and partly because of this he manages to avoid that monotonous rehearsal of stock attitudes which cripples all but a few of the Elizabethan sonnet sequences.

In view of the conceptions of time they embody, the sonnets to the friend may be divided into two fairly distinct groups. In the first, made up largely of the sonnets urging the friend to procreate and those that promise to immortalize him in the poet's verse, time is conceived in large mythic dimensions. It is a cosmic power which operates on all levels of creation and keeps them in constant flux, relentlessly destroying everything it produces. Its workings are conveyed chiefly through images of recurrent natural processes: the round of the seasons, day and night, the sun in its rise and decline, organic growth and decay, the interchange of sea and land. Equally expansive are the references to past and future, extending as far backward as the “holy antique hours” of the Golden Age (67, 68), and as far ahead as the “judgment” (55) or “edge of doom” (116). In these sonnets the poet maintains a fixed attitude towards the friend, that of formal, somewhat distant admiration, together with a concern for what in the long-range view the friend must suffer along with the rest of creation under the tyranny of time. But in the other group, the relationship, rather than being accepted as an unchanging fact, is explored and responded to as a developing situation. It assumes, in other words, a history, having a definite beginning (“when first your eye I ey'd” [104]), proceeding through various phases of estrangement and reconciliation, and having a potential ending in either the poet's death or the friend's disaffection. Hence the time perspectives in these sonnets are more restricted in scope, more subjective in orientation than those in the first group. The harmful varieties of time, those which work against the relationship, are associated not with natural processes but with social activities of the modish or opportunistic kind, such as commerce, the law, social and literary fads, and status-seeking at court. To these the poet opposes a form of time whose main characteristic is unassailable constancy, though it also includes a distinctive pattern of growth and renewal.

Just as time in the first group of sonnets is treated as a comprehensive power, so time's chief victim, the friend, is furnished with a public and symbolic role. Instead of insisting as he does in the other sonnets on an exclusive devotion, the poet addresses him as the spokesman of an admiring world, freely acknowledging that he is the cynosure of all eyes, “beloved of many” (10). The first sonnet sets the pattern for the procreation group by announcing in plural terms, “From fairest creatures we desire increase,” and by beseeching the friend to produce a copy of himself not merely for the poet's but for the world's benefit. Similarly the immortalizing sonnets assure him that his image will “dwell in lovers' eyes” (55), or endure as a public possession, until the end of time. The friend's symbolic status is further enlarged through his being identified metaphorically not only with the objects of highest prestige in the corresponding planes of being, such as the rose, gold, jewel, sun, and kingship, but also with time values of the mythic variety. Two linked sonnets (67, 68) draw upon the myth of the Golden Age to exalt the friend as the final, isolated remnant of unfallen nature: he is the “map of days outworn” in an age when nature is “bankrout” and all beauty save his artificial. In Sonnet 106, there are further mythic implications in the poet's hyperbolic claim that all the celebrations of beauty in bygone literature are “prophecies” or prefigurations of the friend. Rather than being a mere reincarnation of previous heroic figures, the present manifestation of a perpetual return, he is an authentic novelty in time: his perfections “till now never kept seat in one” (105), and future ages will never regard his like again (104). In another pair of linked sonnets (97, 98), the seasonal imagery so often applied to the friend is elaborated in such a way that he emerges as a kind of Lord of the Year reigning over natural abundance. Even though the literal season may be summer, to the poet's imagination the friend's absence from the scene changes it to winter. An image of particular significance in the procreation group—it is developed most fully in Sonnet 7—is that of the sun. Like the latter the friend's life follows a curving pattern, steadily rising until it reaches its “highmost pitch,” all the while receiving the homage of mankind. Repeatedly the friend is told, in combination of warning and compliment, that he presently stands at the zenith of the curve: “Thou that art now the world's fresh ornament” (1); “this thy golden time” (3); “Now stand you at the top of happy hours” (16). But from the foreshortened view of time implicit in the sun analogy, this present perfection appears alarmingly brief and vulnerable, since it is at this point that wasteful Time begins its debate with Decay (15), and the only direction the sun-friend can travel is downward into night.

To compensate for the inevitable descent the poet proposes two strategies. One, the friend's presenting the world with a copy of himself in the form of offspring, would have the effect of converting the single, finite curve into a cycle. Like the sun he can rise again—as one of Shakespeare's less felicitous puns has it—by producing a son (7). The other strategy, the preservation of the friend's “living” memory in deathless verse, would convert the curve at its apex into a straight line extending into the remote future, the friend's temporary summer thereby becoming an “eternal” one (18). Although both strategies are metaphorical translations of the same desire, poetically the second is more persuasive than the first. Certainly the sonnets to which it gives rise, such as 19, 55, and 60, are the more distinguished. While the doctrine of “breed” or the prudent cultivation of nature's bounty undoubtedly had profound ideological implications for Shakespeare's contemporaries,2 the first strategy is inadequate to the task demanded of it, for what will be preserved of the friend is not his full, unique identity but merely his “sweet semblance” (13) or outward image. Furthermore, since the perpetuation will be limited to one repetition of the cycle, extending no further into the future than the “age to come” (17), time in the long-range view will ultimately win out. Yet another difficulty, reflected in the rhetorical qualities of the procreation sonnets, is that the poet is obliged to play a passive, hortatory role, subservient to the will of what appears to be a recalcitrant, narcissistic Mr. W. H. (or whoever the friend might be). The poet can only argue and beseech; the friend himself must choose to take the step which will counteract the onslaught of time. After a tentative comparison of the two strategies in Sonnets 16 and 17, the poet displays a greater confidence when he finally settles on his own verse as a means of perpetuation in 18 and 19. For now it is he who is actively putting the strategy into effect, its success depending not on the friend's cooperativenesss but on the strength of his own devotion distilled in his immortal lines. Accordingly he expands his vision of the present's continuation into the future from the relatively limited “age to come” to the far-reaching “eternal summer.”

The contrast becomes clearer when we consider the general grammatical arrangements through which the two strategies are presented. In the procreation sonnets, the friend's present perfection (“so gazed on now” [2]) is sharply offset by the certainty of its eventual destruction, usually expressed in the emphatic form of the future tense: “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow” (2); “thou amongst the wastes of time must go” (12). To counterbalance these two indicative tenses the poet introduces the subjunctive should of desire or duty, conveying those notions which have a general applicability unrestricted in time: either the world desires the preservation of the good (“From fairest creatures we desire increase” [1]); or, the benefits nature bestows should not be squandered but be put to profitable use (“Which bounteous gift thou shouldst in bounty cherish” [11]); or, the friend's own self-interest demands that he reproduce his virtues (“Which to repair should be thy chief desire” [10]). The final step in the progression is the conditional future expressed through the “if” construction and its variants, which, occurring about a dozen times in the first seventeen sonnets, have a decisive effect on their tone. The friend is confronted with rigid alternatives: if, and only if, he does what he should do, will time's dictatorial “shall” be averted. This relatively involved rhetorical pattern, characterized by the frequent repetition of general precepts, hortatory appeals and the conditional future, is contrasted by the more simple and decisive approach of the immortalizing sonnets. Here the pattern is essentially twofold: on the one hand, the comprehensive activity of time encompassing past, present and future indistinguishably; on the other, the permanent testimony of the poet's verse, usually expressed as an indicative certainty, though in one or two instances as a conditional hope. After the repeated qualifications of the procreation group, Sonnet 18, with its confident use of the emphatic future tense in the third quatrain (“But thy eternal summer shall not fade”), introduces a markedly new tone into the sequence. It appears again in Sonnet 19, where the poet for the first time directly addresses “Devouring Time” in the second person, concluding his apostrophe with the vigorous challenge of the couplet:

Yet do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.

The pose of defiance appears to best advantage in Sonnet 55 (“Not marble nor the gilded monuments”), where after the three quatrains present a succession of six verbs preceded by the emphatic “shall,” the tense is modulated in the couplet into a continuous present extending to the farthest limit of time:

So, till the judgment that yourself arise,
You live in this, and dwell in lovers' eyes.

It is in the immortalizing sonnets that time and its destructive powers receive their fullest poetic elaboration. In some sonnets, such as 60, 64, and 65, this elaboration comprises the sole substance of the quatrains, the counter-movement being reserved for the couplet. In addition to his virtuoso handling of rhythm, imagery, alliteration and other euphonic effects, Shakespeare accomplishes the magnification of time through what might be called the technique of foreshortening. Temporal processes which from the usual short-range view seem so gradual and prolonged as to be imperceptible he accelerates, foreshortens, into cataclysmic actions, so that rather than stealing like the dial's hand, time works as a “mortal rage” (64) or “wrackful seige of batt'ring days” (65). The technique becomes the more evident when Shakespeare's handling is compared with one of the principal sources of his imagery.3 In Pythagoras's discourse in Book XV of the Metamorphoses, Ovid describes the mutability of all things as a slow, repetitive flux, like the flowing of a river or the movement of waves.4 Time for him works by gradual attrition: it nibbles its victims rather than bolts them down:

O Time, thou great devourer, and thou, envious Age, together you destroy all things; and, slowly gnawing with your teeth, you finally consume all things in lingering death.5

In keeping with this conception of time, Ovid presents the course of human life as a gradual rise and fall proceeding through several intermediate stages:

There was a time when we lay in our first mother's womb, mere seeds and hopes of men. Then Nature wrought with her cunning hands, willed not that our bodies should lie cramped in our strained mother's body, and from our home sent us forth into the free air. Thus brought forth into the light, the infant lay without strength; but soon it lifted itself up on all fours after the manner of the beasts; then gradually in a wabbling, weak-kneed fashion it stood erect, supported by some convenient prop. Thereafter, strong and fleet, it passed over the span of youth; and when the years of middle life also have been spent, it glides along the downhill path of declining age.6

In Sonnet 60 (“Like as the waves make towards the pibbled shore”)—one of those which most clearly shows the Ovidian influence—Shakespeare first describes the ceaseless, wave-like procession of minutes; then, in the second quatrain, sharply compresses the Ovidian life-cycle:

Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown'd,
Crooked eclipses 'gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.

The rising movement of the first two lines, prolonged by the caesuras, is abruptly arrested at its climax by the “Crooked eclipses,” and the subsequent decline is swift and final, the process being succinctly recapitulated in the fourth line in the double action of time's giving and confounding. Now that he has explicitly identified the prime antagonist, Shakespeare proceeds in the third quatrain to delineate time's frontal assault on man and nature through a series of aggressive present-tense verbs:

Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth
And delves the parallels in beauty's brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature's truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow.

As ruthless as he makes time appear, Shakespeare does not regard it with the melancholy resignation of Ovid. Instead, the power he ascribes to it becomes, in a manner analogous to the primitive rhetorical technique of controlling-by-naming, his own: the more formidable the opponent, the more firmly dedicated he is to its victims, the more determined he is to resist its tyranny. Thus he concludes the sonnet with the characteristic defiance stated in the emphatic future:

And yet to times in hope my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.

It is important to recognize that Shakespeare's visions of the future in the immortalizing sonnets do not involve a final leap beyond time. Unlike Spenser in the final two stanzas of the Mutabilitie Cantos, Shakespeare does not yearn to escape “this state of life so tickle” and come to rest “Upon the pillours of Eternity.” He claims, rather, that the friend's “eternal summer” will survive in his verse as long as human time lasts, as long, that is, as there is a “breathing” human audience to receive his testimony.

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


Only one sonnet in the sequence as a whole, 146 (“Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth”), presents an unequivocal movement from the secular to the divine, from the temporal to the eternal in an orthodox Christian sense—a movement which in the context seems to arise as a radical response to the poet's unsettling liaison with the dark mistress. While in the sonnets to the friend Shakespeare indeed makes frequent and obvious use of religious terms—in, for example, his “hallowing” of the friend's name (108), or in his disclaimer that his love is “idolatry” (109)—he does not follow Dante in treating his devotion as an analogue to or preparation for that kind of love which achieves its final fulfillment only in the time-transcending realm of the divine. His allusions to religious values are metaphors for the temporal human situation he is dramatizing rather than the reverse. His central allegiance is to the best that time in its positive form can produce, to the friend as “Time's best jewel” (65), and his “immortalizing” of the friend is his poetic strategy for asserting his hope that this best will endure in future memory as an imperishable value.

The sonnets in the other group, those which exploit the varieties of subjective time, presuppose a different relationship between poet and friend. The friend here is not, or should not be, the cynosure of an adoring world; nor is the poet the self-effacing spokesman for that world. They in their private relationship stand apart from the public realm, which with its preoccupation with the ephemeral, its myopic pursuit of the socially-approved forms of success, takes the place of cosmic time in the other group of sonnets as the principal antagonist. The world here is dominated not by natural but by human mutability, or all those species of deceit and infidelity the poet enumerates with wearied monotony in Sonnet 66 (“Tir'd with all these, for restful death I cry”). A recurrent danger to the relationship is that the friend, in being “woo'd of time” (70) or the fashions of the age, will permit himself to be absorbed by the public world, adopting its changeableness, and thus jeopardize those singular qualities which make him so remarkable in the poet's eyes. The first indication in the sequence that something like this has happened, that there has been a development in the relationship beyond the static situation assumed in the other group of sonnets, occurs in Sonnet 33 (“Full many a glorious morning have I seen”). Whatever the “region cloud” that comes between him and his “sun” may signify, the poet emphasizes the fact of present alienation by speaking of the friend in the third person rather than addressing him, as he usually does, in the second, and by using the past and present perfect tenses:

But out alack! he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask'd him from me now.

In the closing couplet,

Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven's sun staineth,

while he appears to condone the friend's infidelity, the poet subtly intimates his disapproval by classifying him with the “suns of the world,” thus denying him that distinct superiority to the common run of humanity which would be his had he remained the true equivalent of the sun of heaven. A further ironic qualification is evident in the subjunctive “may” of the final line, which compares so weakly with the sense of loss implicit in the hard, uncompromising finality of “hath mask'd him from me now.”

Since Shakespeare in these sonnets does not speak on behalf of the public world but is concerned rather with what the relationship means to him personally, he frames his attitudes in those time perspectives which arise directly from his subjective awareness. His procedure is, generally speaking, to reaffirm the continuing reality of his and the friend's mutual dedication against the hostile influences which might occur in past, present or future. In Sonnet 30 (“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought”), for instance, the movement from frustration to release coincides with the transference of awareness from past to present, from the memory of irretrievable losses to the recognition that they are now fully redeemed through the compensation provided by the friend. Here Shakespeare presents the saddening finitude of things not as a condition of the universe at large, objectified in the figure of time, but as something perceived and suffered inwardly. The obsessive nature of his grief, his sense of being inescapably bound to the past, he emphasizes by making uninhibited use of that commercial terminology which suggests the unsympathetic public world and its rigid insistence of the payment of debts. He emphasizes it also by repeating ideas and syntactical patterns through several lines, and, in the third quatrain, by employing the figure of epanalepsis in “grieve at grievances forgone,” “woe to woe tell o'er,” “fore-bemoaned moan,” and “new pay as if not paid before.” After this prolonged, repetitive development, the couplet through its simplicity produces an effect of sudden unburdening or freeing-into-the-present:

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

In other sonnets Shakespeare uses anticipation as a framing device, creating a tension between present and future in order to test the relationship against the possibility of either his own death (32, 71-74) or the friend's rejection of him (49, 88-90). In an example of the latter, Sonnet 49 [“Against that time (if ever that time come)”], he again draws upon the vocabulary of law and economics to suggest that if the friend ever chooses to withdraw his love, he can easily find plausible pretexts, “reasons … of settled gravity,” by comparing his own high merits with the poet's unworthiness. By claiming that he will be an advocate against himself, the poet both defines the quality of his own devotion, which is such that it will maintain its present integrity even against the prospect of future humiliation, and obliquely suggests what the friend's devotion should be—freely given, unmindful of “reasons” and “causes,” unconstrained by invidious comparisons between his and the other's deservings. The implication is that love adheres to a time scheme peculiar to itself, quite distinct from that implicit in the language of law and finance, which merely provides sophisticated pretexts for the selfish urge to renounce fidelity and seek one's personal advantage by shifting with the times. The same distinction appears again in Sonnet 87 (“Farewell! thou art too dear for my possessing”), except that here the estrangement is conceived not as a future possibility but as a present actuality, with the trenchantly ironic result that from the poet's subjective standpoint the character of the past is radically altered, its reality now becoming an illusion:

Thus have I had thee as a dream doth flatter,
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.

Although authentic love, as Shakespeare insists in sonnet after sonnet, is distinguished by unshakable constancy, he does not for that reason elevate it into a depersonalized and immutable ideal. He seems to do so, it is true, in Sonnet 116 (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds”) by defining love as an “ever fixed mark,” a star “Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken”; but he derives the final validation for this a priori pronouncement from human experience, personal and collective:

If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

In the later sonnets of the series, those which indicate in various ways that the friendship has lasted a considerable time,7 we see repeated evidence of Shakespeare's awareness that his devotion is anything but a static ideal religiously adhered to, that it is a lived experience which changes and develops in time. This implies a new, positive conception of time, one which is closely involved with the poet's surer sense of his role both towards the friend and towards the world at large. Having weathered past uncertainties and humiliations, betrayals both feared and actual, he can now claim: “My love is strengthened, though more weak in seeming” (102); or, “Now with the drops of this most balmy time My love looks fresh” (107); or, in lines which anticipate the progression from alienation to atonement in the late comedies:

O benefit of ill! Now I find true
That better is by evil still made better,
And ruin'd love, when it is built anew,
Grows fairer than at first, more strong, far greater.


From this new vantage point the poet is able to place both past and future in truer perspective. He sees that his earlier anxiety over the possibility of change, his “fearing of Time's tyranny” (115), had provoked him into exalting the present moment as final and supreme, into proclaiming “Now I love you best”; whereas subsequent experience has shown that the future, rather than being considered a threat, can be accepted as an opportunity for further growth. Similarly, he sees the old enemy, cosmic time, in a different light. Instead of lamenting the impermanence of earthly things, he regards time with an equanimity that verges on satirical contempt, even when he observes its effects on the friend:

Rise, resty Muse, my love's sweet face survey,
If Time have any wrinkle graven there;
If any, be a satire to decay,
And make Time's spoils despised everywhere.


Thus the figure of time is no longer the predatory colossus it was in the first group of sonnets. It is now sly and insidious in its action, deceiving humanity through the “million'd accidents” which “Creep in 'twixt vows, and change decrees of kings” (115). Dominating the public world of opportunists, “dwellers on form and favor” (125), it is closely allied to Policy, “that heretic, Which works on leases of short-numb'red hours” (124). To its myopic “fools” this kind of time seems to present, and therefore to demand, incessant novelty; but to the poet, viewing it from the standpoint of an assured constancy, it offers nothing but a tedious repetition of what it has already produced in former ages:

Thy registers and thee I both defy,
Not wond'ring at the present nor the past,
For thy records and what we see doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste.


The poet's ultimate strategy for combatting time thus differs significantly from the one which prevails in the first group of sonnets. Whereas the latter, in sharply opposing the formidable reality of time with its emphatic “shall,” involves an effort to perpetuate the present into the remote future, a projection of desire beyond the limits of immediate personal experience, here the strategy is to reduce the negative form of time and the domain it governs to trivial proportions, and to replace it with another, positive conception of time which is squarely centered in the poet's personal experience and intimately associated with his achieved sense of stability. Confidently oriented in the present, without regret for the past or anxiety for the future, the poet in the end is able to make unapologetic use of the first person pronoun in asserting “I am that I am” (121); and of his love for the friend he is able to claim, finally, that it “all alone stands hugely politic” (124), sufficient to itself, unintimidated by the public world and its exaggerated interest in transitory things.

The two groups of sonnets in general show Shakespeare's imagination working in contrasting ways. In the one, he draws upon the allegorical tradition as it is represented, say, in the iconographic images of Father Time and in Spenser's Mutabilitie. He conceives time mainly in pictorial terms as a figure of cosmic dimensions, and asserts against it the received, publicly-acknowledged values epitomized by the friend in his role as cynosure. In the other sonnets, where his style is generally less ornate and declamatory, more colloquial and ironic, he makes fuller use of the introspective possibilities of the sonnet medium. Exploring the qualities of time as it is directly experienced, he illuminates the varying perspectives in which past, present and future appear in response to his developing awareness of himself and his relationship to the friend. It is primarily in his handling of time in these latter sonnets that Shakespeare points ahead to his mature dramatic practise.


  1. Erwin Panofsky considers the classical and medieval sources of some of the images of time prevalent in Renaissance art in Studies in lconology (New York, 1939), Ch. III, “Father Time.”

  2. See Edward Hubler, The Sense of Shakespeare's Sonnets (Princeton, 1952), pp. 69-75.

  3. On Shakespeare's borrowings from Ovid, see J. W. Lever, The Elizabethan Love Sonnet (London, 1956), pp. 248-58.

  4. Metamorphoses, tr. Frank Justin Miller (London: The Loeb Classical Library, 1926), II, p. 377.

  5. Metamorphoses, p. 381.

  6. Metamorphoses, p. 381.

  7. Three years, according to Sonnet 104. With their frequent allusions to the past and to changes of attitude in friend and poet, the final sonnets of the group addressed to the friend (100-126) on the whole seem properly placed in the 1609 quarto arrangement of the sequence, however questionable the arrangement may be in other respects.

Ricardo J. Quinones (essay date 1965)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11783

SOURCE: Quinones, Ricardo J. “Views of Time in Shakespeare.” Journal of the History of Ideas 26, no. 3 (July-September 1965): 327-52.

[In the following essay, Quinones identifies three principal concepts of time in Shakespeare's works: augmentative time, whose potentially destructive power may be averted; contracted time, whose corrosive effects are inevitably tragic; and extended time, which works in league with nature to bring about auspicious resolutions.]

With Paul Elmer More one can say that “no single motive or theme recurs more persistently through the whole course of Shakespeare's works than [the] consciousness of the servile depredations of time.”1 Yet, despite this recognition and more recent ones, there has been wanting a comprehensive and thorough examination of Shakespeare's dramatic uses of Time.2 Even More's phrase “servile depredations” does little to suggest the wide range of Time's functions. This study is a summary exposition of my attempts to see the variety and general order of Time's importance in Shakespeare's poems and plays.3

For this work I might have borrowed Georges Poulet's title, “Studies in Human Time.” Time is, almost, as you like it. Rosalind reminds Orlando, “Time travels in divers paces with divers persons.” We can think of Juliet waiting for the Nurse's return when Rosalind explains with whom time passes slowly:

Marry, he trots hard with a young maid between the contract of her marriage and the day it is solemniz'd. If the interim be but a se'nnight, Time's pace is so hard that it seems the length of seven year.4


But despite the play's title and Rosalind's lecture on Time's diversity according to human subjectivity, Time is still a principle of reality that goes undeviatingly on its way (a truth the lovers Romeo and Juliet bitterly experience when they watch the spread of day that means Romeo's departure). In the sonnets, in the histories, comedies, tragedies, and the last plays, drama is made from the attempts of characters to deny, control, escape or understand the real, relentless, and unrecalling activities of Time.

Three basic conceptions of Time emerge: augmentative time, contracted time, and extended time. The first concept provides a basic framework by which we can judge actions and character in the earlier sonnets and the English history plays. It is a morale whose importance does not end with the political plays; the violation of the code of augmentative time is crucial in such tragedies as Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. In the tragedies of love, Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Troilus and Cressida, and—to stretch the rubric slightly—Hamlet, contracted time helps us to understand the experiences of the doomed lovers: it shows the strength of their fatal choices. Extended time is the dominant perspective of Shakespeare's final romances; it is the vision of his last age and, to a great degree, represents a harmonization of the conflicting tensions of the two other categories of Time.

Augmentative time is the great principle underlying and connecting the earlier sonnets and Shakespeare's English history plays. This “code,” as I would have it understood, implies a pattern of behavior, more generally, a loose constellation of facts, attitudes, and requisite actions. The major fact of augmentative time is that Time is an agent of a reality that leads the organism ceaselessly, inevitably, to destruction and perhaps oblivion. But if this essential reality is recognized in time, means of staving off ruin are available. Infatuation, however, can fill the mind and blind the individual to this destructive temporal reality. In his ignorance, he neglects proffered means of resistance, and meets disaster. This pattern of a destructive reality, and delusion with disaster, or recognition with appropriate action, finds its prototypic expression in the earlier sonnets.

Here continuity through children is the means by which man can brave Time. It is natural that children should be important in any discussion of Time: through the link of generation man derives from the past and communicates with the future. But in augmentative time they are also crucial in indicating attitude and correct or incorrect assessments of the reality confronting man (as we shall see, the question of children looms large in the fates of Henry IV, Henry VI, and Richard II). In the sonnets the young man's unwillingness and failure to further his line stems from a fundamental delusion about the nature of his being in time. He does not seem to be sufficiently aware of the transience of his personal being (presumably his fault is self-liking). But Time, a principle of reality, can only be deferred for a while, never completely denied. In the end it catches up with the deluded, and presents them with the bitter lesson of personal waste.

It is to shake the young man from his delusion, and spare him the bitter fate of such a belated recognition, that Shakespeare in the sonnets holds up a mirror to reality. The fading mansion of the flesh is a visible reminder of the need to provide, and Shakespeare has a precocious awareness of the perishability of the body. By the lines and wrinkles of our flesh time is measured (Sonnet 2):

When forty winters shall besiege thy brow
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty's field,
Thy youth's proud livery, so gaz'd on now,
Will be a tatter'd weed of small worth held.
Then being ask'd where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say, within thine own deep-sunken eyes
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.

Shakespeare is deeply sensitive to so being called to account. This “calling to account” is a prototypic situation which, constant to augmentative time, will recur with dramatic power in the fates of Richard II and Henry VI. As Sonnet 4 asks, “when Nature calls thee to be gone, / What acceptable audit canst thou leave?” A son would make an effective balance (Sonnet 2):

How much more praise deserv'd thy beauty's use
If thou couldst answer, “This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count and make my old excuse,”
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
          This were to be new made when thou art old
          And see thy blood warm when thou feel'st it cold.

We come even closer to the particular issues of the history plays in Sonnets 10 and 13, where the waste of individual beauty is metaphorically associated with the ruin of a house. In Sonnet 13 the young man is asked,

Who lets so fair a house fall to decay,
Which husbandry in honour might uphold
Against the stormy gusts of winter's day
And barren rage of death's eternal cold?

Honorable husbandry prevents decay and oblivion from sweeping over a flourishing estate. In the context of the sonnets, one is a good husband by providing for continuity through children. In the more social and dramatic context of the histories, one must also defend one's house against the wintry season and the oblivion that an emulous opposition would heap upon it.

There is yet another subordinate concept which is essential to an understanding of augmentative time and provides a thematic link between the sonnets and history plays. Shakespeare is very consistent in his description of the way Time works its destruction. I give this destructive process the name of “emulative time.” Two quotations, one from the sonnets and the other from Ulysses' “Time” speech in Troilus and Cressida (III.iii.145-190), demonstrate the similar function of Time's destructive process in the sonnets and the plays.

In Sonnet 60, Time works closely with a tyrannical and arbitrary Nature to turn youthful promise into the disfavor and decline of old age:

Like as the waves make toward the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith being crown'd,
Crooked eclipses 'gainst his glory fight,
And Time that gave doth now his gift confound.

Transferred to the social world this same principle of emulation is rife. Thus it is in the society of man, Ulysses tells the sulking Achilles; past laurels are forgotten, the present eye praises the present object, to have done is to be quite out of fashion:

                                                            Keep then the path,
For emulation hath a thousand sons
That one by one pursue. If you give way,
Or hedge aside from the direct forthright,
Like to an ent'red tide they all rush by
And leave you hindmost. …

The similarity of thought and expression is striking. Emulation's sons are like the waves of the sea. If one relaxes his control, he is swept by. In the sonnets one can make provision against this emulative natural reality through children; in the social world of the histories a ruler must provide by keeping ahead of his rivalrous opposition. The strong ruler is he who clearly perceives the issues of augmentative time, both the hazards of vanity and willfulness, and the possibilities of success that attend a serious and diligent control of experience. The politics of virtuous control is the orbit of Bolingbroke; his son comes to accept the same duty. Henry VI and Richard II, however, fail to understand the challenges to their rule. Remarkable is the number of major turning points at which the code of augmentative time, as I have isolated it, indicates the rise of the successful ruler and the fall of the deposed.

The nature of political rule and the principle of emulative time soon involve the leader in a crucial decision of self-preservation. He cannot elude confrontation with an ambitious opposition. The opening scene of 3 Henry VI is a symbolic situation, in which the two claimants to the throne (Henry VI and the Duke of York) dispute their rights, revealing clearly the either/or necessities of augmentative time. Henry himself poses the issue: “And shall I stand, and thou sit in my throne?” The throne is a single object which can be possessed by only one person. But Henry VI, like Richard II, does not possess the qualities required for success in augmentative time. What these qualities are can be seen in a brief look at the virtues of Bolingbroke and his son.

The shadow of Richard II hangs over Hal's waywardness in 1 Henry IV. But Prince Hal is spared Richard's bitter awakening and prepared for his destined conflict with Hotspur by the interview with his father. In Act Three, the pivotal confrontation of the play occurs when the wise father staggers his son's self-possession by appealing to his family loyalty and personal pride. Henry IV charges the Prince with being heir rather to the character and fortunes of Richard II than to those of his own father. Henry IV speaks from a deep seriousness that is conscious of the hazards of augmentative time. If, when Richard was king, Bolingbroke had behaved as Hal is doing now, he would have been left in “reputeless banishment, / A fellow of no mark nor likelihood.” Against Time one must make one's mark. Instinctive in the forthright Shakespearean heroes is a reluctance to succumb to namelessness.5 Bolingbroke had a clear sense of his name, “Harry of Hereford, Lancaster and Derby / Am I. …” Richard however can only curse the time,

That I have worn so many winters out
And know not now what name to call myself.


More important in the meeting, however, is the King's appeal to his son's pride, by showing how ill his exploits compare with Hotspur's achievements. His suggestion that Hal would probably desert his father's cause and fight at Hotspur's side adds insult to the comparison. The success of this emulous coeval is the occasion that informs against Hal, and spurs his dull revenge. “Do not think so,” he assures his father,

                                                                                                    You shall not find it so,
And God forgive them that so much have sway'd
Your majesty's good thoughts away from me!
I will redeem all this on Percy's head
And, in the closing of some glorious day,
Be bold to tell you that I am your son. …


The structure of the play is built around the destined confrontation of Hal and Hotspur. And nowhere is this quality of crucial choice in emulative time more apparent than when Hal and Hotspur meet head-on in the play's climax:

I am the Prince of Wales; and think not, Percy,
To share with me in glory any more.
Two stars keep not their motion in one sphere,
Nor can one England brook a double reign
Of Harry Percy and the Prince of Wales.
Nor shall it, Harry; for the hour is come
To end the one of us. …


In 1 Henry IV, the interview with his father prepared Hal to accept this challenge of emulative time; in 2 Henry IV it is another interview with his father that prepares the future Henry V to defend his realm with full conviction. Under the impress of the great figure of his dying father—that serious, stern, yet selfless man—the rights of family line become tantamount to full legal sanction:

You won it, wore it, kept it, gave it me;
Then plain and right must my possession be;
Which I with more than with a common pain
'Gainst all the world will rightfully maintain.


Family line—its ties and its guides to conduct—is central to augmentative time. It explains successful action and its absence is crucial in failure. When we consider the centrality of the father-son theme in the Henry IV plays, probably the most important fact in Henry VI's life is that his father died when Henry was only nine months old. Henry VI is largely without his father's courageous qualities. We remember another vow of Prince Hal, when he tries on the crown over what he mistakenly believes is his father's dead body:

… put the world's whole strength
Into one giant arm, it shall not force
This lineal honour from me. This from thee
Will I to mine leave, as 'tis left to me.(6)


Henry VI, however, in the crucial confrontation with the House of York is not stirred by any sense of “lineal honour.” Hal's commitment is plain and right, but Henry's is hedged with doubt. “My title's weak,” he mutters in an aside, when the Yorkist disputants answer him that Bolingbroke seized the crown by rebellion. Henry's sense of legitimacy totters over the uncertain historical foundation of his claims.

Henry's scruple over historical right (in the face of the menacing and rebellious House of York, in revolt against a ruler whose family has possessed the crown for three generations, this is only a scruple) does not exhaust his violations of augmentative time. His defection from “lineal honour” implies other elements of the pattern. He reaches the nadir of humiliation when he agrees to disinherit his son. Blocked by the Yorkist show of force, Henry himself suggests the terms of surrender: he will name York heir apparent if in turn they will allow him to rule peacefully for the remainder of his natural life. Certainly Henry's action quartered, hath ever three parts coward. Not only has he denied his ancestral legacy, but he selfishly deprives his son, where with more courageous hearts, self-sacrifice would have been the rule. The degree to which the code of augmentative time is accepted by the participants in the drama is seen by their horrified reaction to Henry's proposal. His party splinters, and the strong-willed men who buttressed his cause abandon him:

Farewell, faint-hearted and degenerate king,
In whose cold blood no spark of honour bides.


Henry's act of invalidating his son's succession is symbolically related to Richard's childlessness. Both suffer marital estrangement. In Henry's case, however, it is Margaret who rushes in after hearing of the disinheritance and publicly divorces herself from Henry's bed (although privately Suffolk had already worked such a separation). Evidently Richard's queen does not share his bed, but here Richard's flatterers led him astray. Richard and his queen are negated through their childless marriage. Yet considering Richard's childlessness, his failures at honorable husbandry, and his failure to govern his land, it is remarkable how many times figures of childbirth or begetting enter into the speech of king and queen, in what significant places, and with what insistent reference to negation.

Insufficient attention has been paid to Richard's queen. She is his spokeswoman and sets the pattern for his address.7 It is through her that we get the royal party's first reaction to the news of Bolingbroke's return from banishment. Before the news arrives, she is filled with fearful premonitions. Some sorrow, ripe in fortune's womb, is coming toward her. To Bushy's rational explanation of this sorrow, the queen replies that her sorrow is not usual conceit:

                                                                                Conceit is still deriv'd
From some forefather grief. Mine is not so,
For nothing hath begot my something grief,
Or something hath the nothing that I grieve.
'Tis in reversion that I do possess;
But what it is that is not yet known what,
I cannot name. 'Tis nameless woe, I wot.


Green enters bringing news of the landing of Bolingbroke's forces and the chain of events that will eventually unseat the king. The queen's reply contains the third meaningful reference to childbearing in this short scene:

So, Green, thou art the midwife to my woe,
And Bolingbroke my sorrow's dismal heir.
Now hath my soul brought forth her prodigy;
And I, a gasping new-deliver'd mother,
Have woe to woe, sorrow to sorrow join'd.


Now, like Richard, she will give in to despair.

The king, imprisoned at Pomfret, is a father in his thoughts. In his mind he tries to reproduce a world, yet he cannot, because the world is multitude, and he is all alone:

                                                                                Yet I'll hammer it out.
My brain I'll prove the female to my soul,
My soul the father; and these two beget
A generation of still-breeding thoughts. …


But this maze of ambitious fancy and disappointed pride leads nowhere, and Richard, hemmed in by the solid reality of prison walls, is straight nothing. Both Richard and the queen deal in absences of qualities, the queen with a nameless woe, both with ineffectual curses, and the king with a whole repertory of fanciful beings, the product of his inability to face the fact of deposition. But the fancy cannot cheat him as she used to do. His desire cannot deal away the strong prison walls, stark, unyielding reminders of the reality he neglected. Richard wasted Time, and now Time wastes him. Time, like Nature, is notoriously frank, and gives only to the free, those who can make the most of her gifts. To the careless and the unprepared, she is a tyrant, calling back what she once gave so liberally. Richard's sighs and groans and tears now tell the time which rings him out and Bolingbroke in. Willful vanity is replaced by a serious and virtuous control of experience, qualities well fitted to political rule in augmentative time.

Neither is Henry VI spared the recognition of his folly. His enemies are merciless in calling him to account. He lives to see his land ruined, himself dispossessed of his throne, and his son a victim of the forces whose rebellion he failed to quell. Henry acquiesced in his son's disinheritance and thus consented in some measure to his death. Queen Margaret's prediction comes true: Henry's life is at the mercy of the murderous Richard of Gloucester. But the code of augmentative time tells us that Henry had already engaged his own life when he agreed to deprive his son of his normal birth due. That fundamental, symbolic scene forebodes Henry's pending nothingness. The future Richard III taunts Henry in telling him that his son was killed for presumption. Henry's reply is the crucial admission of the play:

Hadst thou been killed when first thou didst presume,
Thou hadst not lived to kill a son of mine.


Hal was saved from leaving so unacceptable an account through the intervention of his father and the strong claims that family ties could make on him. But Henry, like Richard, was unable to respond to these guides to action, and lost his kingdom, his son, and himself.

Although augmentative time is well suited to the political world of hard realities, its importance is not exhausted with the history plays. It is visible in the tragedies as a broken ideal. In the histories, the father-son relationship provided some insulation and protection against the emulative strife of Time, nature, and man. Still, there were tensions in this ideal. Bolingbroke could turn (mistakenly) on Hal with the bitterest acrimony, “See, sons, what things you are!” We must not forget that emulation hath a thousand sons. In King Lear, two daughters are proof that family is not necessarily a refuge. The rationalistic Edmund, invoking a cruel, emulative Nature, informs against his father: “The younger rises when the old doth fall.”

An instance of the breakup that the tragedies Hamlet and Macbeth portray is the violation of augmentative time. The son does not succeed the father; and sleeping kings are murdered by their kin. And in Hamlet's case the mother married the interloper who had stolen off with the son's right to succession. Things are psychologically more complicated; the prince's enemies are not outside his country's borders, but in his very household. One emblematic scene from Macbeth will show how the disruption of augmentative time is important for these tragedies. Banquo and Fleance are returning from a late ride (III.iii). The stars are darkened; it is about to rain as they approach the castle, where presumably banqueting and rest await them. They are the father and son bond of augmentative time, making their way through a dark universe and, symbolically, Fleance carries a light. This much they have in common with the sonnets, or with the English history plays. But in Macbeth the atmosphere is heavy with evil. The banquet table is haunted, and sleep has been violated. And the crucial addition is the presence of the lurking assassins. There is more underfoot than the inevitable ageing processes in nature, or emulation in society. Hotspur, after all, met Hal nobly in battle. But in Macbeth, the opposition is silent, and treacherous. And the clearest example of this is the death by ambush of Banquo, the prime representative of augmentative time. Nevertheless, augmentative time will triumph in Banquo's line, mocking the childless tyrant.

Although Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra are purer and more complete models of the type, Troilus and Cressida and Hamlet also share importantly in aspects of contracted time. The problems of Time and Love are common to all four plays. In the first two, Time is a principle of a constrictive or moribund reality that denies the lovers continuance of their love and casts them all the more fiercely into the arms of death. In the latter two, Time is a corrosive that feeds on human will and purpose and fidelity. Love itself falls apart through the woman's vulnerability to the changes of time. And in the case of young Hamlet, love is prevented almost at its first stirrings. This is a crucial distinction if we are to understand the different ways in which time is contracted in these plays. Extension in time for various reasons is impossible. Thrown upon their own resources, these young fatally-minded heroes come upon an area where beginnings and ends merge, love and death, the womb and the tomb, dust to dust. In their brief, flaming lives the termini of existence converge.

Whereas augmentative time is generally a moral concept, contracted (and extended) time is a psychological one, and more related to temperament. In augmentative time the dominant human faculty is practical reason and prudence, but the moving forces in contracted time are will, desire, and passion. Whereas in augmentative time the main focus seems to be on the successes of the strong and the weaknesses of the deposed, in contracted time we respond more to the limitations of the successful and the strengths of the doomed. Tragedy is the necessary stage of contracted time. The temperament of the characters and the nature of their experience in love seem to incline them toward fatal consequences. The intensity with which they commit themselves to love weakens their ability to maneuver in the face of their circumstances. On one hand, their passion clouds their reason (one indication of this is the mistaken suicides of both Romeo and Antony). But on the other hand, their experience in love is so overpowering that the normal activities of life seem banal in comparison. The force of the emotion to which they open themselves seems to lead them necessarily to death. Love is a killer and death a lover in Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra. “The stroke of death is as a lover's pinch, / Which hurts and is desir'd.” The lovers themselves seem fatally inclined, too willing to leap into the arms of death. Love is a noble weakness, as Caesar himself admits when he stands in awe of the dead Cleopatra's “strong toils of grace.” And Hamlet, too, when his Fate cries out to him, can hold his life as not worth a “pin's fee.” And after Cressida's betrayal, Troilus seems to call for death, shouting down its very throat.

In his unrewarding love for Rosaline, Romeo early reveals his neglect of normal activities. His father, like all fathers committed to the expectancies of augmentative time, is troubled by his son's reversal of things proper to day and night:

… all so soon as the all-cheering sun
Should in the farthest East begin to draw
The shady curtains from Aurora's bed,
Away from light steals home my heavy son
And private in his chamber pens himself,
Shuts up his windows, locks fair daylight out,
And makes himself an artificial night.

The father also introduces a note of foreboding that prevails in all the tragedies of love:

Black and portentous must this humour prove
Unless good counsel may the cause remove.


The voice of the father is the voice of good counsel, urging appropriate actions in time, those which would further the development of the experienced man. But Romeo is his “own affections' counsellor,” unlike Hal, who profits from the wise communications of his father.8

In his secret and requited love affair with Juliet, Romeo does have a counsellor from an older generation, Friar Laurence. The Friar, about to marry the young couple, has some fears about the future:

So smile the heavens upon this holy act
That after-hours with sorrow chide us not!


But single-minded love works on a qualitative time-scale. Only moments with the object of desire are important. Future considerations seem paltry in comparison with the present pleasure, and Romeo replies:

Amen, amen! But come what sorrow can,
It cannot countervail the exchange of joy
That one short minute gives me in her sight.
Do thou but close our hands with holy words,
Then love-devouring death do what he dare—
It is enough I may but call her mine.


This passionate (and perhaps desperate) confidence does not reassure the Friar; he offers a moral lesson which reveals how love and death are brought together:

These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which, as they kiss, consume. …
Therefore love moderately: long love doth so;
Too swift arrives as tardy as too slow.


Romeo and Juliet are the great model of lovers caught in external limitation. The long-distant past still exerts its influence and arouses the passions of the present. Their loves are meshed in an ancient grudge. Time is a principle of this larger reality, and its steady movement, unaffected by human desire, is dramatically used to suggest the limitations that the impassioned wills of the lovers so ardently seek to elude. The anxiously expectant Juliet frequently faces the passage of time. In one soliloquy (II.v.1-17) she waits for the Nurse to bring back news of the marriage plans. Normal time is too slow for her desire: “Love's heralds should be thoughts, / Which ten times faster glide than the sun's beams. …” Love tries to achieve and then maintain its moment, but in so doing it runs up against the larger time that it would deny. If the creatures who contract time are passionate, intense, and aspiring, the creatures who represent this larger perspective should be moderate, patient, and enduring. Actually, these qualities are those belonging to the vision of extended time, whose proper sphere is the romances of Shakespeare's later age. The tragedies, too, have their representatives of extended time, but they do not possess the richness of Shakespeare's final vision: rather they are obtuse, sententious, humorous, and opportunistic. They give larger perspective to the events of the present, and in their uninspired way—in Romeo and Juliet, at least—would convert passionate intensity to social convenience. It is hard for the Nurse, for example, to take too seriously the passions of the young girl whose bumps and knocks she ministered to. She is in no hurry to come to the point. The garrulous Nurse will tell and tell over again the events of the past. Like the older Capulets at the ball, she estimates the present by the deaths, births, and earthquakes of long ago.

In another soliloquy (III.ii), Juliet, unaware of the disastrous deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, appeals to the sun to move more quickly that night may come and her marriage be consummated. Again, the normal passage of things is too slow. She wishes that the mythical hot-blood, Phaeton, prototype of the passionate consumed in their own flames, were in control of Time. Then the sun's chariot would move quickly, making way immediately for “love-performing night” when her young husband would “leap to these arms untalked of and unseen.” Night is rich in its dark intimacy and secret love. Although the time is night, Romeo would be like the day: he would lie “upon the wings of night / Whiter than new snow on a raven's back.” Lovers would make their own time.

Romeo eventually does come, but under far from happy circumstances. As Juliet had earlier desired time to move more swiftly, now she wants to hold it back. But Time moves steadily on its way. Juliet refuses to believe their night of love has ended, and would have the song of the lark be that of the nightingale. But Romeo is more realistic, and knows he must be leaving or face death. It is a remarkable dramatic scene when the huddled, isolated lovers, whose time is night, watch the inevitable spread of day throughout their lives, day that means banishment and separation:

O now be gone! More light and light it grows.
More light and light—more dark and dark our woes!


Values are reversed. The time of love—night—and the time of normal activity are in tragic conflict. Lovers must seek in aspiring intensity the growth of their love denied them in extension. In the last act, death and love, the womb and the tomb, complete the tragic contraction of the play. Beginnings and ends are fatally brought together. The choric prologue dictated the end of the play: everything is predetermined from the fatal loins of these feuding households.

Although it is true that a more reasonable love would have made a closer rapprochement between the contracted time of love and the extended time of normal activity, in the play itself, as expressed by the prince, the death of the lovers is regarded as an accusation and penalty against their feuding families. In language that suggests both the inversion and contraction of the play, the prince charges Capulet and Montague:

See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love!


Aspiring emotion, which would somehow rise above worldly limitations, and practical reason must merge if love is to be accommodated to extension in time. But in Antony and Cleopatra the gap between the two faculties is wider than in the earlier play. They are as far separated as the two leaders who so exclusively embody each. Caesar is too eminently the prudential politician, the rational man. To him Hotspur's phrase, “vile politician,” clings more clearly than to Bolingbroke. And Antony is too desperately committed to his passion, with scarcely the slightest sense of self-preservation. The tragedy is that there should be irreconciliable conflict between their separate virtues.

Antony's and Cleopatra's attitudes toward Time are especially revealing. The present time is the object of their attention. They scorn more prudential considerations, looking before and after. Antony is a child of the time, but Caesar possesses the time (to make a quotation apt by removing it from context). To him Antony's waste of time is childish:

                                                                                          But to confound such time
That drums him from his sport and speaks as loud
As his own state and ours—'tis to be chid
As we rate boys who, being mature in knowledge,
Pawn their experience to their present pleasure
And so rebel to judgment.(9)


But in Antony's case this devotion to the present is not meaningless. There had been a prior disenchantment with the fruits of Empire that tossed Antony into the lap of love. Theodore Spencer, in his Shakespeare and the Nature of Man, recognizes this:

Antony and Cleopatra, unlike the chief characters of the other great tragedies, are never disillusioned, for they had no illusions to start with. Antony knows what he is doing when he chooses Egypt instead of Rome.10

Early in the play Antony takes his stand in Egypt (although he is destined to vacillate):

Let Rome in Tiber melt and the wide arch
Of the rang'd empire fall! Here is my space,
Kingdoms are clay; our dungy earth alike
Feeds beast as man. …


Empire smacks of the mortality of the earth; it doesn't permit enough freedom for the aspiring spirit. The long time of political rule is tedious without the illumination of the spirit, without love, daring, generosity. All of these things and more the lovers offer each other. All of these things are absent from Caesar's reasoned world. Cleopatra asks for mandragora when she learns of Antony's departure, “That I might sleep out this great gap of time / My Antony is away.” When Antony learns the false news of Cleopatra's death, he vows his own death. Length of time without her would be tedious, and all effort would be mere plod and self-defeating labor:

                                                                                          So it must be, for now
All length is torture. Since the torch is out,
Lie down, and stray no further. Now all labour
Mars what it does; yea, very force entangles
Itself with strength. Seal then, and all is done.


Antony's involvement in a world of political ambitions, the either/or world of emulative time, and his neglect of the proprieties of rule in that world, mean his end. In Antony's decline, his temporal orientation shifts from the present to the past, when he had been the “greatest prince o' th' world.” As the end approaches, the split between effective control in this world and the lovers' vision widens. Antony finally looks outside of Time entirely, to a place “where souls do couch on flowers.”

If Antony loses in the game of politics, his great aspirations are affirmed in Cleopatra's ultimate fidelity. Cleopatra joins him in this projection of the spirit beyond the end of life. Her speeches (V.ii) reach philosophical heights. Her losses (and Antony's) in the mortal world of Empire induce her to take greater benefit from the life of the spirit:

My desolation does begin to make
A better life. 'Tis paltry to be Caesar.
Not being Fortune, he's but Fortune's knave,
A minister of her will. And it is great
To do that thing that ends all other deeds,
Which shackles accidents and bolts up change,
Which sleeps, and never palates more the dung,
The beggar's nurse and Caesar's.


The last lines remind us of the graveyard scene in Hamlet. Cleopatra's insight into the base origins and physical limitations placed on low and great alike is akin to Hamlet's discovery that the dust of Alexander may be found stopping a bunghole. Caesar's triumph is his loss. He triumphs, through prudential control, in the world of Time, but his practical reason is still subject—or slave—to the necessities of Fortune, Time, and Mortality, to physical limitation. He is still under the sway of the accidents and changes of life. The lovers' defeat in the world of Time calls them to the better life of the spirit. Cleopatra has immortal longings. She looks for a perpetuation of her love outside of time, “Husband, I come.” The title suggests the anticipation of extended love, missed in this life. She even has a sympathetic enjoyment of the place Antony envisioned, where souls do couch on flowers, “As sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle. …” Cleopatra is fire and air; her mortal elements she leaves to base life. The division is complete between the spiritual and the physical. Why should she stay—in this wild world?

Ulysses gives eloquent and forceful expression to the destructive powers of Time, that devour not only physical graces, but moral as well:

Let not virtue seek
Remuneration for the thing it was!
For beauty, wit,
High birth, vigour of bone, desert in service,
Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all
To envious and calumniating Time.


But Shakespeare in his greatest sonnets, and in his more intransigent heroes and lovers, sees in a man a capacity to withstand the changes of Time.11 “The present eye praises the present object,” in Ulysses' view. But Troilus resists the tyranny of the present. Never did young man fancy with so eternal and fixed a soul:

We turn not back the silks upon the merchant
When we have soil'd them, nor the remainder viands
We do not throw in unrespective sieve
Because we are now full.


Hamlet too conceives of a human dignity able to rise above the present object. “What is a man,” he asks,

If his chief good and market of his time,
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
Sure he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unus'd. Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion. …


Prodded by the example of Fortinbras' military daring and by his own failure to avenge his father's death, Hamlet wonders whether it is simple forgetfulness, submission to the passage of Time, that has prevented his action. To forget the dead is bestial; remembrance is a distinguishing human characteristic that resists the forward sweep of Time. As Paul Reyher has written, “Shakespeare a le culte de la mémoire des morts.”12

We recall that the purity of Juliet's intention was shocked at the Nurse's suggestion that she marry Paris and forget the banished, and hence harmless, Romeo (III.v.237-242). But some six years later in Shakespearean drama the woman does not come off so well when fidelity is at the stake. It breaks Hamlet's heart that his mother has not borne longer with the memory of his father:

Frailty, thy name is woman!—
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father's body
Like Niobe, all tears—why she, even she
(O god! a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn'd longer) married with my uncle. …
Within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!


Cressida herself echoes Ulysses when she laments the weakness of her sex:

Ah, poor our sex! this fault in us I find,
The error of our eyes directs our mind.
What error leads must err. O, then conclude
Minds sway'd by eyes are full of turpitude.


The problem of the plays here coincides with that of the greatest final sonnets addressed to the young man: can love endure the vicissitudes of Time and physical decay? The love of Hamlet's father for Gertrude

                                                                                                    was of that dignity
That it went hand in hand even with the vow
I made her in marriage. …


And Hamlet's sense of man's godlike reason has its equivalent in Troilus' belief in the mind's renewing love (although even here, in the antechamber of love, he hedges this belief with doubts about woman's constancy):

O that I thought it could be in a woman
(As, if it can, I will presume in you)
To feed for aye her lamp and flames of love;
To keep her constancy in plight and youth,
Outliving beauties outward, with a mind
That doth renew swifter than blood decays!


Shakespeare's noblest heroes conceive of a human spirit that does not yield to Nature's inevitable decay and the satiety of bodily limitation, but rather seeks its own furtherance.13 In contracted time there is generally such a tension between man-in-love and his external circumstances. But Troilus sees this dichotomy as intrinsic in man's very nature, man, that subtle knot, that compound of body and soul, “born under one law, to another bound.”14 In the physical act of love itself this spirit is dissatisfied. Although Troilus sees no monster in love's pageant, he is aware of this

monstruosity in love, lady, that the will is infinite and the execution confin'd, that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit.


In contracted time, the infinite will and the boundless desire are constrained. The lovers seek in depth the experience denied them in length. But Hamlet and Troilus introduce faculties which, if allowed, would give horizontal scope to the vertically aspiring passionate will. In their dedication to the resources of man's renewing mind these thoughtfully sensitive heroes anticipate resolutions found in the extended time of the last plays.

Yet this sense of intransigence is all the closer to extended time since it is tempered by a realistic assessment of Time's power. Man is changeful and Time's sway is awesome. Troilus warns Cressida, that

something may be done that we will not;
And sometimes we are devils to ourselves
When we will tempt the frailty of our powers,
Presuming on their changeful potency.


But despite Troilus' idealism and his calm realism, he is still committed to contracted time. Fatally minded, he anticipates tragedy in Cressida's departure: the call of Aeneas sounds like the attendant genius summoning a man to death. “Some say the genius so / Cries ‘Come!’ to him that instantly must die.” (IV.iv.52-53) The negation of his love in Cressida's infidelity drives him to desperation, cancelling all other value: “Fate, hear me what I say! / I reck not though thou end my life to-day!” (

Hamlet too has a great passion. But it marks the difference between this play and the others we have studied that contraction is not due to love. The time is out of joint. There is no possibility of love in a world when Hamlet's king is killed, his mother whored, and the assassin and seducer usurps the succession that Hamlet could normally have expected to be his. The flowers that Gertrude had thought to deck Ophelia's wedding-bed she must strew on her grave. Hamlet's great occupation is revenge. It makes other activities pall and disappear:

                                                            Remember thee?
Yea, from the table of my memory
I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmix'd with baser matter.


But under the impression of his own delays in executing this dread and all-usurping command, Hamlet is able, like Troilus, to appreciate the force of Time and “baser matters” with greater realism. He has the dying king in the play-within-the-play warn his determined queen (in language that clearly refers to Hamlet's own predicament):

Purpose is but the slave to memory,
Of violent birth, but poor validity;
Which now, like fruit unripe, sticks to the tree,
But falls unshaken when they mellow be.


And after the intervention of the ghost in Act Three halts Hamlet's hysterical onslaught on his mother's sexual weakness, Hamlet is able to urge her reformation with calm reasonableness (III.iv.160-170). “Assume a virtue, if you have it not,” he tells his mother. Custom, product of long time, is monster in dulling purpose and habituating the rational awareness to evil practice. But Hamlet sensibly recognizes that custom can also strengthen one's hold on good actions.

                                                                                Refrain to-night,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence; the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
And either [master] the devil, or throw him out
With wondrous potency.

Hamlet's growth in understanding and control is seen in the realistic use he would make of the powers of Time.

Hamlet's old order has been destroyed. On the ruins of the old he must build a new order, based on his old idealism reintegrated with his new-won sense of natural limitation. This final order that Hamlet achieves falls between the neat categories of contracted and extended time. Unlike Troilus or Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet does reach a new order of things. But plainly unlike Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet sees a pattern within human history. And yet, unlike the final romances, this pattern is one of mortality, not of fruitfulness. It does not look toward continuity, but rather toward death. Extended time in Hamlet is told by repetition. Both Gertrude and Claudius try to shake the young, mourning prince from his “obstinate condolement” with the argument that Nature's common theme is death of fathers: “… you must know your father lost a father, / That father lost, lost his …” (I.ii.89-90). How different at its very origin is the impulse of Hamlet from the histories and the sonnets, where the common theme is provision for children, father passing legacy on to father on to son. Hamlet is the end of marriage, “I say we will have no more marriages.” And Hamlet, the prince, dies without an heir.

In the graveyard scene Hamlet comes to accept conclusions similar to those offered as consolation by the king and queen. But here the context of his elders' philosophical resignation is all-decisive. Their conventional wisdom is really covering for moral passivity in the queen and murder in the king. But Hamlet knows not seems; in his case the vision into limitation will be earned. The pattern of repetition within extended time is important in the graveyard scene. Time extends from Adam to Doomsday, but the pattern within this duration is fixed. The essential stages of life between the termini of birth and death are reduced to the termini themselves; hence the paradox that time of such vast duration is actually single in its pattern: earth returns to earth. The gravedigger's refrain is apt; it summarizes this theme:

O, a pit of clay for to be made
          For such a guest is meet.


The transparent cunning of the politician, the foppery of the courtier, and the superficial glossing of the lady all are vanity against this background of beginnings and ends. Hamlet's theme is “To what base uses we may return;”

O that the earth which kept the world in awe
Should patch a wall t'expel the winter's flaw.


There is another profound contraction of beginnings and ends in this scene. The sexton took up his employment thirty years ago, the day old Hamlet defeated Fortinbras, and the day young Hamlet was born. The cycle of events is swinging round to completion. Before the day is over, Hamlet will be dead and the succession will fall on young Fortinbras. Within the suggestion of extended time, a pattern is imposed which joins inevitably beginning and end. The serpent takes his tail in his mouth; the wheel is come full circle. The sense of inevitability, of necessity, which pervades the tragedy is built on this contraction of extended time to essential termini, coupling in a necessary way birth and death. Yet with all this dust and death, the pattern is not wholly reductive. We are thrilled at the significant contraction and the basic discovery that prepare Hamlet for his final steps. We are moved deeply by the calm realism of this young hero who passes so nobly through the graveyard of life and tries to restore a world destroyed.

Time is extended in Shakespeare's last romances. For the tragic lover, long time is tedious without the object of his desires. In the last plays, however, length of time, instead of representing the humdrum existence of the Capulets, the mortality of Empire, or the corrosion of fidelity, becomes fruitful and healing. Nature and Time conspire; old wrongs are forgotten, or, if not forgotten, at least forgiven. The lustre of the present, for better or worse, is worn over by the passage of time and the course of circumstance. The elder Hamlet's cry was “Remember me!” But in The Tempest, Alonso is urged:

Let us not burden our remembrance with
A heaviness that's gone.


Although it is almost sacrilegious to so use it, King Lear is an excellent bridge between the tragedies of love and the final romances. Unlike Antony, King Lear's will is educated to an understanding and acceptance of his own physical limitations and creatural nature.

When the rain came to wet me once and the wind to make me chatter; when the thunder would not peace at my bidding; there I found 'em, there I smelt 'em out. Go to, they are not men o' their words! They told me I was everything. 'Tis a lie—I am not ague-proof.


In Cordelia's camp, the storm is over in Lear's mind. Sleep and music have restored him in part:

You must bear with me. Pray you now, forget and forgive. I am old and foolish.


Forget and forgive. We are on the eve of the message of the great romances of Shakespeare's final period. If in the problem comedies there are dark stretches that have tragic potential, in the tragedies there are resolutions which, if allowed, would result in the happier conclusions of the last plays.

Cordelia and Lear are not the first who with best meaning have incurred the worst. Cordelia bears free and patient thoughts. And so would Lear. He entertains the possibility of an extended time where he can watch with his daughter the ins and outs of court life and the rise and fall of princes:

No, no, no, no! Come, let's away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I'll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. 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—
Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out—
And take upon's the mystery of things,
As if we were God's spies; and we'll wear out,
In a wall'd prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by th' moon.


Lear would be off the wheel of time and change. As in The Tempest, the Happy Island is a retreat for father and daughter. But despite this search for a peaceful harbor, the vision is still directed toward the rich patterns within the temporal reality. In addition to showing us the vision of extended time, Lear's speech also lends us the phrase that best summarizes its qualities. It is surely the vision of “God's spies” whose perspective brings together reason and emotion, placates rage and bestows the grace of mystery on human affairs. But, as in Hamlet, the spheres of achieved personal peace and of temporal success are still distinct; Edmund does not send in time; everything does not turn out well in the end.

In the final romances fortunate resolutions, denied Lear and Hamlet, again attend on individual decency. Though the seas threaten, they are merciful, is the thought of both Pericles and Ferdinand. In this respect, the great speech of Time before the fourth act of The Winter's Tale does not adequately reflect the movement of the last plays. In the sonnets, Time cheers and checks; in the romances, it checks and then cheers. But in the speech of Time there is no indication of either a benevolent or an inimical order of things. Time tries all, both good and bad. But in its expression of Time's power, the speech is in accord with the impression of the last plays. These plays deal with elemental things, and Time is one of the great elements. The four final romances all have enlarged temporal exposures, doubtless reflecting the ageing Shakespeare's personal awareness of what sheer length of time can do. Twelve, fourteen, sixteen, twenty years—these are durations that enable men to look at their passions and wrongs, suffered or committed, with new understanding and feeling. In his speech, Time is an absolute master. His hour being self-born, he has no delimiting parentage, no antecedents, no spouse. Time is present at the origin and at the end of even the most ancient social order or custom. His nature is unchanging; he is always in the present. He is the great “I am.” Time witnesses the inception and historical growth of even the most seemingly permanent institutions and societies. And he sees their foreclosure. Even the classical unity of Time, therefore, must bow before the precedence of this long view.

As in the augmentative time of the histories, children are again essential. Their youthful presence warms colder bloods in the earlier code; they provide continuity; and on the high seas of politics they provide guidelines and motivation for action. In the last plays, they represent the regenerative potential of Time and Nature that reconciles and reunites. Their presence is crucial; when their innocence has been lost men stray until they find it again. But, despite their great importance, the vision of the last plays, and of extended time, is that of the middle-aged. It is their misfortunes and their reunions that we follow. It is through their eyes that we look at the young. In their children they see themselves when young. The family resemblance of the children suggests repetition within generation; and it is the perception of this pattern that is one of the pleasures of extended time. Essential lines of human nature stand revealed.

The return of what was lost is one of the major movements of The Winter's Tale. It is in this connection that the basic story of the play comes into contact with the myths that hover around the actions and give mysterious enlargement and suggestiveness to what takes place. Through the mythic resonances the basic life lines of man and woman emerge. The myth of the Christian Fall helps explain the loss of boyhood innocence shared by Polixenes and Leontes. Polixenes tells Hermione that the two boys

… were as twinn'd lambs that did frisk i' th' sun
And bleat the one at th' other. What we chang'd
Was innocence for innocence; we know not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream'd
That any did. Had we pursu'd that life,
And our weak spirits ne'er been higher rear'd
With stronger blood, we should have answer'd heaven
Boldly, “Not guilty,” the imposition clear'd
Hereditary ours.


Hermione jokingly takes this to imply that they have fallen since, and Polixenes agrees, graciously complimenting her and his own queen as the respective sources of temptation. Although this explanation of the fall is offered with grace and humor, it does correspond to the real changes that have come upon the former friends in their male maturity. The loss of innocence is coincidental with the age of sexual maturity and the ego-possessiveness in man's relations with woman. Also jeopardized by this fall is the paradise of male friendship. In this period of jealous turmoil, the former friend removes himself and the woman suffers patiently: like Alcestis, Hermione must go underground, as it were, and endure death, until, with the growth of the daughter and her husband's middle-age, Leontes can look on his wife with the understanding and unselfish affection that suffering in long time has produced. In his daughter he can see his wife when young; and in his wife he sees what his daughter must endure. This vision is basically that of extended time: the perception of patterns of resemblance produces a growth of the understanding that works toward reunion.

If the essential stages of male growth are suggested, so are those of womanhood, from Perdita's innocent natural grace to her mother's return as a middle-aged woman. Here, too, the reader is moved by an irresistible urge to respond to the mythic suggestivity of the piece. Proserpina is there in Perdita's lovely apostrophe, “O Proserpina, for the flowers now that, frighted, thou let'st fall / From Dis's wagon!” And like the mythical prototype, her absence is coincidental with the hard weather of estrangement. But, although Perdita is absent she is never underground. In Florizel's description of her (IV. iv. 136-146), she is natural grace in all its completeness and self-sufficiency. She is the world before the Fall. The play is a spring tale in the reflourishing of possibility after a long period of blight. But the wisdom of the play is not that of simple spring; Perdita does not possess the chastened wisdom of destroyed happiness; this is the experience of the older members who see two times, what they once were, and what they have become. They repossess the innocent virtue of spring in their winter of ruined expectations.

It is Hermione who goes underground, lost to the spectator as well as to her family. Like Alcestis, she endures death. Hers is the maternal sacrifice that the woman must undergo when she enters into marriage. There is a special bond between mother and daughter in the last scene of the play. Perdita kneels before her mother in reverence for the sacrifice Hermione made when Perdita came into life. And here her simple utterance seems to have greater reverberations, just as the actions of the play have airy extension:

Dear queen, that ended when I but began,
Give me that hand of yours to kiss.


The bringing together of beginnings and ends is important in The Winter's Tale. But here, unlike the contraction of the tragic lovers, the collocation is not of essential facts of experience, as love and death, but rather of essential stages in the life process; the emphasis is not on termination, but the discovery of continuity and pattern. The stage of Hermione's innocence ended symbolically with the birth of Perdita. Perdita now takes Hermione's place in the human chain of repeated birth. It is this discovery and this acceptance of the essential stages of human life that gives profundity to the joys of the final reconciliation.

In The Tempest, Prospero's studious nature, given as it is to the larger perspectives of extended time, involves him in the danger of becoming, like melancholy Jaques of As You Like It, a mere spectator at the human drama. The vision of extended time can become so large that the importance of present achievement is reduced in the contrast. But however much one may delight in rising above the dust to observe what is past and passing and to come, one is never outside of nature, and hence never outside of the requirements of moral action in the present. What ties Prospero to right motion in the present and helps him to overcome despair and the temptations of revenge is his daughter, her charity and affections.

Through the “vanity of his art” Prospero seeks to lend a permanence and continuance to the passing things of this world. Like the tragic lovers, he would transcend temporal limitations. In the masque that he creates for the newly-pledged lovers, Miranda and Ferdinand, love is granted extension in a majestic vision of bounty and grace. Heaven and Earth unite to enrich this Prayer for a Daughter. Even Nature, in this idealized picture, seeks to avoid the wintry season of decline. The songs of Juno and Ceres bring the abiding spirit into the earth:

Honour, riches, marriage blessing,
Long continuance, and increasing,
Hourly joys be still upon you
Juno sings her blessings on you.
Earth's increase, foison plenty,
Barns and garners never empty,
Vines and clust'ring bunches growing,
Plants with goodly burthen bowing;
Spring come to you at the farthest
In the very end of harvest. …


But Prospero has forgotten Caliban and his plot. Caliban is that uneducable piece of earth in us that has little to do with the vision of our mind. He is that in us that participates in natural decay, “as with age his body uglier grows / So his mind cankers.” The return of Caliban reminds Prospero of that muddy vesture of decay that his spirit sought to avoid, and produces a “strange, hollow and confused noise,” that sweeps Prospero into a total despair. He conceives then of a universal time that dwarfs all of man's efforts and reduces the spirit's desires to vanity. His vision of bounty was a baseless fabric, his theatre an insubstantial pageant. They hold for little in the perspective of a temporal reality that will dissolve not only man's more solid cultural and spiritual accomplishments, but this great globe itself, and leave not a rack behind. To think too curiously about long time has its dangers. Significance and action in the present are lost:

                                                                                          We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.


What it is that quiets this momentary vexation in Prospero's beating mind is not certain. His error seems to have been in projecting his personally achieved sense of harmony onto the universe. From this he rebounds to total skepticism. From this despair no theoretical resolution restores him; rather it is sheer practical involvement: he has several plots to complete and a daughter to marry.

Early in the play Prospero tries to explain to his daughter who he really has been, to explain that in the past he was better than mere Prospero, the keeper of a cave. But it is in the nature of Miranda, all pity and love, not to want to know more about the past, to be content with the present: “more to know / Did never meddle with my thoughts,” is her answer. It was the presence of the infant Miranda that gave Prospero “an undergoing stomach to bear up / Against what should ensue” in the tempest of personal crisis. And now, years later, with his enemies caught in a similar storm, which Prospero's art has created, it is his daughter who educates his response. For, despite Prospero's reflective nature, he still retains a sense of having been injured in the past. As he admits later, he is struck to the quick by the wrongs he suffered. He must come to look at his enemies' distress through the eyes of his daughter, who cries: “O, I have suffered / With those that I saw suffer!” It is when Ariel later describes the disorder and helplessness of his enemies, that Prospero too forgives them. Ariel tells Prospero:

                                        Your charm so strongly works 'em,
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.
Dost thou think so, spirit?
Mine would, sir, were I human.
And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick
Yet with my nobler reason 'gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance.


Miranda's pity, like Perdita's regenerative potential, seems to have become part of Nature itself. The very air is inclined toward compassion, and so is Prospero's nobler reason. Although practical reason recognizes that he has been wronged and that revenge is justified, his “nobler” reason, his sense of kind, must subdue this fury. When put to the test, Prospero must discover his finer self—the real end of the Shakespearean journey in time.

Augmentative time, resting upon a virtuous control of experience, has a natural affinity with the political setting. This control, however, depends upon a recognition of man's limitations, his vulnerability as an organism in Time, and the necessities of action in an emulative struggle. But the value of the concept of augmentative time is that it reveals the larger personal issues which help dictate public decision. Prudence is more than prudence when it is a guard against willful vanity and the threat of nothingness. Augmentative time illuminates the issues that connect the histories with the sonnets and later works; it concentrates on the problems that help to make the histories intense personal as well as political drama.

The neglectful monarchs—those that lose out in augmentative time—have something in common with the tragic heroes and lovers. With King Lear, Richard II could cry out, “They told me I was everything.” Romeo, Troilus, Hamlet, to be sure, would not utter such a thought; nevertheless, they too are creatures not wholly content with man's temporal limitations. Their desires and their sense of human constancy are frustrated by external reality. And Time is the great agent of that reality. In Richard's attempt to deny the reality of Time we experience primarily a sense of waste. But in the bitter contraction of love and death the tragic lovers, Antony and Cleopatra, come upon an area of tragic strength that reveals the limitations of Caesar's success. And Hamlet, too, has made a discovery where the transparent cunning of the politician, successful as it may be in its sphere, is vastly overshadowed by the contracted experience of man's common fate.

The attitudes of Lear and Hamlet both look toward the vision of the last plays. “Temporal royalties” may be lost, but a “kindlier” vision is restored. Man is seen not as a political creature, nor solely as a social creature; the basic lineaments of his creatural humanity are discovered. The “boundless will” of man is satisfied within the significant limitations perceived in time. One could almost say that in the blending of love with reason, and the overview with present involvement, the last plays represent a reconciliation of the demands of the histories and the desires of the tragedies of love.


  1. Shelburne Essays: Second Series (Boston, 1905), 28.

  2. In his Redeeming Shakespeare's Words (Berkeley, 1962), 54, Paul Jorgensen wrote, “Viewed against the background of Shakespeare's other plays written within a few years of Henry IV, this emphasis on the concept of time appeared to be part of a long-range concern with the meaning and wise use of time. … The concept of time becomes increasingly meaningful throughout Shakespeare's plays.” A partial correction of this lack came to my attention after my own work was completed. I was happy to find some of my ideas confirmed independently in Inge Leimberg's discussion of the tragedies, Untersuchungen zu Shakespeares Zeitvorstellung als ein Beitrag zur Interpretation der Tragödien (Köln, 1961).

  3. For a longer view of ideas and arguments presented here with little illustration, and for other aspects of Time that could not fit into the limits of this article, the interested reader can consult my unpubl. diss. (Harvard, 1963), “Views of Time in Shakespeare.” Reluctantly I here omit that fruitful field for temporal considerations, the comedies, and that interesting line of development, The Rape of Lucrece, Richard III, and Macbeth.

  4. All quotations from Shakespeare's plays and sonnets are taken from George Lyman Kittredge's edition of the Complete Works of Shakespeare (Boston, 1936).

  5. In the sonnets Shakespeare appeals to whatever sense of revulsion the young man may have from namelessness and nothingness. To die without children would put an end to his name and his beauty (Sonnet 3):

    But if thou live rememb'red not to be,
    Die single, and thine image dies with thee.

    And in the eighth sonnet, the concord of various strings sounds discordant to the young man, because they ring the unpleasant truth (a variation of which Richard II will also hear): “Thou single will prove none.” To resist this nothingness is a strong impulse in the Shakespearean heroes who are successful in augmentative time.

  6. For a more detailed defense of Bolingbroke and Hal's sense of legitimacy, see my “‘Lineal Honour’ and Augmentative Time in Shakespeare's Treatment of the Bolingbroke Line,” Topic (April 1964).

  7. Coleridge's reference to Richard's “intellectual feminineness” is very appropriate. See Coleridge on Shakespeare, ed. Terrence Hawkes (New York, 1959), 226-227.

  8. Here it is important to recall that the defeat of Hotspur, another tragic hero who contracted time, came about, in part, through the absence of his father.

  9. Plutarch had similar judgments about Antony's inclination to present pleasure. He writes (in North's translation): “… yet, as though all this [Fulvia's wars, Caesar and the Parthians] had nothing touched him, Antony yielded himself to go with Cleopatra into Alexandria, where he spent and lost in childish sports, (as man might say) and idle pastimes, the most pretious thing a man can spende, as Antiphon sayth: and that is, time.” The New Arden Antony and Cleopatra carries the relevant parts of the North-Plutarch text, Appendix V, 258-285.

  10. Spencer, 174.

  11. Sonnets 116 and 124 are too well-known to quote here.

  12. In Essai sur les idées dans l'oeuvre de Shakespeare, (Paris, 1947), 412.

  13. Perdita, for instance, is a woman who shares the lofty conception of mind and love. With Hamlet, Antony, Troilus and the sonnets, she believes that “affliction may subdue the cheek / But not take in the mind.”

  14. This much-quoted line was part of the final chorus added to Fulke Greville's Mustapha. It can perhaps most conveniently be had in Hebel and Hudson's Poetry of the English Renaissance (New York, 1929), 126.

Irwin Smith (essay date 1969)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2707

SOURCE: Smith, Irwin. “Dramatic Time versus Clock Time in Shakespeare.” Shakespeare Quarterly 20, no. 1 (Winter 1969): 65-69.

[In the following essay, Smith directs attention to the compression and acceleration of dramatic time in several of Shakespeare's plays, discussing in particular the three different time schemes in Act IV, scene iii of Richard III.]

Wishing to scrape up a renewed acquaintance with Orlando, who fails to recognize her in her masculine attire, Rosalind asks him a question that still occasionally serves as an opening gambit when girl wants to meet boy. She asks him what time it is; and having thus introduced the subject of time, she keeps the conversational ball rolling by discussing the varying rates of speed at which time seems to pass: “Time travels in divers paces, with divers persons: Ile tel you who Time ambles withal, who Time trots withal, who Time gallops withal, and who he stands stil withall.”1

But time in Shakespeare's plays travels at more different speeds than can be described as a mere trio of paces, and sometimes at speeds too fast to be called gallops. This paper will inquire into a few representative examples of the many divers paces at which Shakespeare causes time to travel in his plays.

Some acceleration of time is, of course, an inevitable and desirable attribute of theatrical presentation, even in the most realistic of modern plays; it is a necessary consequence of the intensified emotional response to action on the stage. Dr. Alfred Hennequin, in his Art of Playwriting, has undertaken to set a norm for the foreshortening of dramatic time as contrasted with clock time:

Generally the supposed duration of events upon the stage is about five or six times as long as the actual period occupied by the representation. That is, at the end of a dialogue of five minutes, it is allowable to make one of the characters say, “Here we've been talking for a whole half-hour.”

(P. 150)

In inquiring into the ratio or ratios of dramatic time to actual time in Shakespeare's plays, it is necessary to make an assumption as to the rate of speed at which his plays progressed; and for the purpose of this discussion, I shall assume that his fellow actors spoke his verse at the rate of 20 lines, or about 170 words, to the minute. This is in close accord with the conjecture arrived at by Alfred Hart as a result of his researches into the length of time required for the presentation of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays.2 It is, of course, an average merely: the rate would have varied with the actor and with the play, and even with different parts of the same play. Some actors may habitually have spoken as many as 23 or 24 lines to the minute, and others as few as 16 or 17. Some plays, as for instance The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew, would have moved faster than Othello and The Tempest, and Hamlet would have delivered the impassioned speeches in his mother's closet more rapidly than his lonely soliloquies. The postulated average rate of 20 lines to the minute assumes that Shakespeare's fellows spoke his lines at a faster rate than modern actors speak the same lines.3 They were able to do so because they were highly trained in the art of speaking blank verse, they were using a vocabulary with which they and their audiences were familiar, they stood near their hearers, and their auditors were alert listeners.

On the basis of 20 lines to the minute, Shakespeare's condensation of time often far exceeds the six-to-one ratio contemplated by Dr. Hennequin. In Measure for Measure, for instance, the night before Claudio's scheduled execution (IV.ii) passes in 160 lines or eight minutes, from the “dead midnight” of line 67 to the “almost cleere dawne” of line 227. In Hamlet I.i, precisely the same number of lines intervenes between the stroke of twelve and the time when “the Morne in Russet mantle clad, / Walkes o're the dew of yon high Easterne Hill”; and if in both scenes we suppose the dawn to have broken at five o'clock, the ratio is 37 or 38 to one, not six to one. In Cymbeline II.ii, 49 lines, or just under two and a half minutes, cover the interval from “almost midnight” at line 2 until the clock strikes three at line 51, a ratio of approximately 75 to one. In King Lear, a day passes in the course of II.ii, from the “good dawning” of line 1 to the “goodnight” of line 180, and the ensuing night passes during the 21 lines of Edgar's soliloquy in II.iii. Approximately twenty-four hours are thus comprehended within the space of 201 lines or ten minutes, the ratio being about 144 to one.

In Othello II.i, three ships come into view, dock, and discharge their passengers, in the space of about 180 lines or nine minutes, and that in a raging storm. In Pericles I.iv, only 23 lines elapse between the entrance of a lord to report the sighting of ships “upon our neighbouring shore”, and the arrival of Pericles from one of them. In 2 Henry IV, III.ii, the offstage dinner of Shallow and his guests occupies 23 lines or just over one minute. In The Taming of the Shrew III.ii, Gremio needs only 20 lines to go to the church, attend the wedding of Katherine and Petruchio, and return to Baptista's house to describe the mad ceremony—fewer than half the lines that he later needs to tell the story. In 2 Henry IV, V.v, the coronation of King Henry V in Westminster Abbey takes only 35 lines, or less than two minutes, and that of Queen Anne, in Henry VIII, IV.i, takes no time at all.

In all the foregoing sequences, the action has fallen within the scope of a single unbroken scene,4 and only one clock has been timing it. In others, however, the action extends over two or more consecutive scenes, and the timing is done by two or more clocks running at different speeds. In I.iv and II.i of Richard II, for instance, Bolingbroke's journey to France, and his return to England with eight tall ships and an army of three thousand men, occupy no more time than it takes the King to pay a visit to the dying John of Gaunt; and in 1 Henry IV, I.ii to II.iv, Hotspur's two-week trip to the north coincides with a single day in the lives of the Gadshill conspirators. These discrepancies, and others like them, reveal themselves in the library, not in the theater; on the stage they pass unnoticed in the rush of dramatic events.

Richard III, in Scenes ii and iii of Act IV, presents an extreme example of differing speeds in the passing of time. The Folio prints the two scenes as one; together they compose an undivided Scena Secunda, in spite of a clearance of the stage at the point where today's scene division has been inserted. Probably they were acted as one continuous scene on Shakespeare's stage, without lapse of time or change of place; but since the scenes are of present interest as illustrating varying rates of speed rather than as illustrating foreshortened time, the question of continuity is not important.

Four separate actions are initiated in Scene ii and carried to completion in Scene iii: the killing of the Princes in the Tower, the murder of Queen Anne, the hugger-mugger marriage of Clarence's daughter to a commoner, and Buckingham's flight to Wales. The four actions are timed by three different clocks.

The slowest of the clocks times the murder of the Princes. It begins to tick off the seconds when Sir Richard Tyrrel, having received his instructions from the King, departs from the palace on his infamous errand at IV.ii.84; it stops when he returns at IV.iii.1. In the interim he has suborned Dighton and Forrest and has accompanied them to the Tower. His two accomplices have smothered the children in their sleep, Tyrrel has seen their young bodies, and the Tower chaplain has buried them; and now Tyrrel has returned to the palace to make his report to the King, as in the Quartos he had promised to do, before the King should go to sleep:

Shall we heare from thee Tirrel ere we sleep?
Ye shall my lord.

These two lines are lacking in the Folio version, their omission probably being due to their echoing almost identical lines at III.i.188-189, rather than to their being thought of as discordant with the time scheme. In any event, the Folio makes it obvious, even without them, that a sense of urgency underlies the whole undertaking; indeed, the King seems not yet to have had his supper by the time of Tyrrel's return (cf. IV.iii.31). Perhaps we may suppose that Tyrrel was absent from the palace for four hours of real time. On the stage his absence occupies the space of 40 lines or two minutes, plus the time-lapse, if there was any, between the modern scenes ii and iii.

The murder of Queen Anne probably takes somewhat longer. At IV.ii.50, Richard has said:

Come hither Catesby, rumor it abroad,
That Anne my Wife is very grievous sicke,
I will take order for her keeping close.
. … I say againe, give out
That Anne, my Queene, is sicke, and like to dye.

The rumors of Anne's illness are, of course, designed to prepare the public ear for the subsequent news of her death. Days, not hours, would be needed for such rumors to spread abroad and win acceptance, and it therefore seems necessary to assume that some few days have elapsed by the time that Richard closes the incident at IV.iii.39 by saying that “Anne my wife hath bid this world good night.” If we arbitrarily set the elapsed time at four days, then the 106 lines needed for the murder of the Queen represent a period twenty-four times as long as the 40 lines needed for the murder of the Princes. On this basis, Catesby's clock has been running about nine times as fast as Tyrrel's clock.

At the moment of ordering Catesby to circulate rumors about the illness of the Queen, Richard also ordered him to

Inquire me out some meane poore Gentleman,
Whom I will marry straight to Clarence Daughter;

and 107 lines later, at IV.iii.37, he reports this incident also as being closed: “His daughter meanly have I matcht in marriage.” This affair precisely parallels Anne's murder in point of time, and supposedly it extended over the same four days.

But the flight of Buckingham has a time-table all its own. The Duke has alienated the King by his slowness to agree that the Princes must be murdered. Ignorant or careless of the King's wrath, he has returned to the palace to claim the gift, the earldom of Hereford, that Richard had promised him:

My Lord, I clayme the gift, my due by promise,
For which your Honor and your Faith is pawn'd,
Th'Earldome of Hertford, and the moveables,
Which you have promised I shall possesse.
.....What sayes your Highnesse to my just request?
.....May it please you to resolve me in my suit.

But the King is deaf to Buckingham's repeated pleas, and finally exits with a flippant “I am not in the vaine.” The Duke suddenly realizes that his own life is in jeopardy:

And is it thus? repayes he my deepe service
With such contempt? made I him King for this?
O let me think on Hastings, and be gone
To Brecnock, while my fearefull Head is on.

He departs at IV.ii.124. At IV.iii.43, only 43 lines later, Sir Richard Ratcliff interrupts the King's meditations to make this report:

Bad news my Lord, Mourton is fled to Richmond,
And Buckingham backt with the hardy Welshmen
Is in the field, and still his power increaseth.

Since leaving the palace in fear of his life, therefore, Buckingham has traveled from London to Wales, has recruited and mobilized an army of Welshmen, and news of his revolt has been carried back to London. Communications being what they then were, these things could not have been accomplished in a shorter time than two weeks at the least. And yet the stage time occupied by Buckingham's exploit is only 43 lines, just three lines more than the 40 occupied by the murder of the Princes, and less than half as long as that occupied by the murder of the Queen. The three events fall within the same two scenes, run parallel to each other, and in fact actually overlap each other, in spite of their divergent rates of speed. On the basis of the time intervals that I have arbitrarily assumed, Buckingham's clock has been running about eight and a half times as fast as Catesby's clock and about seventy-eight times as fast as Tyrrel's, at the very moments when the events have been running concurrently.

But these discrepancies attract little attention in the theater. This is partly because Shakespeare has been at pains to break the continuity of each of the four sequences: the conclusion of each is separated from its inception by an interval of at least forty lines. Thus the narrative of Tyrrel's errand to the Tower is interrupted by the King's mention of Dorset's flight to join the insurgent Earl of Richmond, by his warning to Lord Stanley that he will hold him accountable for the actions of his wife and his wife's son, by his recollection of an old prophecy that Richmond should be king, and by his brushing aside of Buckingham's reminders about the earldom of Hereford. Only after all these diversions does Shakespeare permit Tyrrel to return to the palace to make his report to the King. The accounts of Queen Anne's fatal illness and of the marriage of Clarence's daughter are interrupted not only by all these irrelevancies, but also by Richard's initial employment of Tyrrel and by Tyrrel's return to report his mission accomplished; and Buckingham's departure is separated from the news of his arrival in Wales by all these interruptions except the King's first instructions to Tyrrel, and by the conclusions of all the sequences except its own.

More importantly, the foreshortenings and discrepancies were made acceptable by the fact of being narrated in a theater, and of being heard by persons who, by the very act of going to the theater, had concurred in certain broad and imperative assumptions. They had agreed to a suspension of incredulity and to an acceptance of the impossible. They had agreed that Richard Burbage should be a king and that a boy should be his queen, that the playhouse stage should be both the Tower of London and Bosworth Field, and that the time should be more than a century past. In comparison with these basic concessions, acceptance of a drastic foreshortening of time was relatively easy.


  1. As You Like It III.ii.326-329. The first quotation from Richard III (IV.ii. 83-84) is from the Quarto of 1597, and that from Pericles is from the Quarto of 1609. All other Shakespearian quotations are from the First Folio. Line numbers are from The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. George Lyman Kittredge, Boston, 1936.

  2. Hart estimates the average rate of speed at 176 words per minute, which one actor might raise to 200 words and another reduce to 150 (“The Time Allotted for Representation of Elizabethan and Jacobean Plays”, RES, VIII (October 1932), 407). G. B. Harrison estimates the pace at 140 or more words to the minute (Shakespeare's Tragedies, p. 12). See also Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare (Princeton University Press), I, 37n.

  3. In response to my request, Mr. Glen Byam Shaw, when Director of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1958, very graciously timed seven different actors in twelve passages of Romeo and Juliet under performance conditions, and found that they averaged 18.3 lines per minute.

  4. The sequence in King Lear is not an exception, since the modern Scenes ii, iii, and iv of Act II constitute an unbroken Actus Secundus, Scena Secunda in the First Folio, and should constitute a single Act II, Scene ii in present-day texts. The splitting of the one scene into three is unwarranted, since Kent remains continuously on the stage and the place remains unchanged.

James E. Robinson (essay date 1964)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5730

SOURCE: Robinson, James E. “Time and The Tempest.Journal of English and Germanic Philology 63, no. 2 (April 1964): 255-67.

[In the essay below, Robinson maintains that Shakespeare shows all the characters, but most especially Prospero, struggling against the urgent pressure of time to carry out their schemes within the brief duration of the present moment.]

In discussions of The Tempest, Shakespeare's use of the “unity of time” is usually dutifully referred to and then too often dismissed as unimportant or incidental. I propose to show, however, that the time of The Tempest is very much of the nature of The Tempest. Derek Traversi has pointed out that a time theme is prominent in Shakespeare's last plays: referring to Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest, he explains that the passage of time accentuates the problems of maturity and in that way is involved in “the theme of ‘nature’ and its relation to the full civilized state.”1 But unlike the time of the other late romances, the dramatic time of The Tempest is carefully limited, and precisely defined, as everyone readily notices. By using classical principles of structure and limited time, Shakespeare has given the time theme a special focus and significance in The Tempest. Time is involved in the classical design of the play and in the total context of its conflict, poetry, and themes. In short, time is a central element of the form and meaning of the play.

Recent studies by Bernard Knox and Frank Kermode have explored the classical design of The Tempest in several ways. Knox argues in part that “the fantasy and originality of the setting must be balanced and disciplined by a rigid adherence to tradition in character and plot” and so demonstrates the similarity between The Tempest and the art of classical comedy, particularly in the patterns of character and plot related to the conditions and theme of freedom and slavery.2 Kermode refers the structure of the play to the pattern worked out by Donatus and the Renaissance editors of Terence: the first two acts unfold the background and precipitate the various intrigues (protasis); “in the third act the turbulence is intensified” (epitasis); and the fourth act continues the epitasis as it prepares for the catastrophe of Act V.3 This pattern, of course, can be applied in a general way to numerous Renaissance plays, but Kermode sees the pattern in The Tempest to be of a particularly “intensive form,” something of a return for Shakespeare to the “formal structure” of his early comedies. Kermode believes that Shakespeare chose this intensive form for The Tempest because the theme demanded an adult Caliban. The action must begin after the attempt to educate Caliban has failed. Only then can Caliban serve as a criterion for contrasts involving the various themes of love and lust, nature and nurture, the natural and the noble: “He is a measure of the incredible superiority of the world of Art, but also a measure of its corruption.”4

The analyses by Knox and Kermode are important contributions to an appreciation of the classical design of The Tempest. However, there is a feature of Roman comedy that should yet be emphasized as a principle relevant to an understanding of the form of The Tempest. This is a crucial relation between structure and time.5 The structure of The Tempest involves a movement that defines a present crisis as it has evolved from the past and reaches resolution only when all are aware of the relation of the past and the present.

The specific feature of classical structure that involves this time pattern can be appreciated by reference to the commentators on Terence. Donatus, fourth-century commentator on Terence who was ubiquitously printed and imitated in the Renaissance, made this remark about the structure of Terence's Andria:

We ought to recognize in the examination of the story the poetic skill, how beginning with the last events of the story, he [Terence] returns to the beginning of the fable or origin of the story and brings forth to the spectators an agent who is there for that purpose, whereby the fable is ended. Not only did the tragic and comic writers follow such an order and circle of poetic art or skill, but so also did Homer and Virgil hold to it.6

This principle of the circular structure of Terence was also defined by the sixteenth-century commentator Adrianus Barlandus, who was in turn citing Rodolphus Agricola. The comment specifically concerns Andria, Act V, scene iv, where Crito reveals the true identity of Glycerium and so resolves the main problem of the play. To do this, Crito had to relate a history of events that occurred some years prior to the time of the play's action. This is the Barlandus passage:

Rodolphus Agricola in Book II, heading 7, Inventionis Dialecticae, writing of the difference of poetic arrangement from history: It is, he said, the same in comedy or tragedy. If we regard the external form of matters, which are brought forth in action, and which are expressed by the imitation of the persons, the order seems natural: but indeed in considering the whole compass of the story, we see that writers very often begin with events near the end of the story and, as occasion arises, explain by the characters' remarks the events that happened earlier; in this way they sometimes join the first events of the story to the last, as in Terence's Andria the marriage of Pamphilus and Glycerium is accomplished when the shipwreck of Phania is revealed. One who sees these things easily recognizes this order to exist by the art of the author rather than by the natural order of events.7

In Terence the one day (two days in one play) of dramatic action becomes, as Donatus and the Renaissance commentators realized, the day wherein a whole history is revealed and resolved, an “order and circle” of life brought to happy consummation.

So it is in The Tempest.8 The crisis of the three hours presented in the play's action is actually the crisis of a lifetime. The audience is made fully aware of this basis of the play's form early in the play. In the second scene we learn that “The hour's now come, / The very minute bids thee ope thine ear” (I.ii.36-37).9 It is the hour and minute, we learn, in which a whole time in this world is to be revealed, understood, and brought to resolution. It is time for Miranda to be educated to a total perspective regarding the world and what she is heir to, the virtue of her mother, the royal position of her father, his neglect of responsibility, the evil the world has done him (his brother's usurpation), and the good (the charity of Gonzalo and deliverance to the magic island). Prospero's exposition unfolds the life of one generation to another and the course of years passes by in minutes. And this is precisely the point about the play's dramatic time. The three hours of the play's time are an embodiment of the transient course of the world and the intense demands on life that the swift force of time effects. “The hour's now come,” and there is much to know and much to do.

When Ariel enters a little later in this second scene of Act I, there is more exposition of the past incorporated into the crisis of the present. This exposition reveals the history of an elemental spirit, the history of nature personified as fantasy. We learn of Ariel's past enslavement as well as his desire for immediate freedom. The delicate Ariel who has endured in a cloven pine the tyranny of a witch for a dozen years, wandered the salt deep, the North wind, and the veins of the earth for Prospero, who has run the course of nature so far as we know since time began, now commits his freedom and future to the business of a few hours. The full course of Ariel's time escapes no doubt even the prescience of Prospero, but it is clear that whatever it is, it is crucially embodied in the climactic time that the play presents. This time involves the history of an elemental spirit as well as the history of men.

The moment of the play, then, is presented as a moment of the swift passage of time wherein rides the transient and mutable course of mortal lives and the mysterious course of elemental nature. In so far as the time of The Tempest embodies the history of Naples and Milan, it is real. In so far as it is the time of Prospero's providential aegis attended by Ariel, it is magical. The powers of the latter will be used to control the former so that the time and spirit of fantasy will become one with the time and substance of reality. This process is already in motion before the second scene ends. Responding to Prospero's commands for quick action, Ariel quickly brings Ferdinand to Miranda and so precipitates the love intrigue. Prospero began the scene by unfolding one lifetime to Miranda and by the end of the scene he is well on his way in shaping another—that of Miranda's and Ferdinand's.

The complications in the center of the play are in large part determined by the temporal crisis established in the exposition of the play. Bertrand Evans argues that there is no real conflict in the play. He grants that there are moments of simulated conflict, but in the main the dramatic center and interest lie in other features: “the exploitation of discrepancies in awareness” in the characters, and the “god's satisfaction” that the audience shares with the omniscient and all-powerful Prospero.10 There is no denying the importance of point of view in the play, but to suggest that it replaces conflict can lead to a serious misreading of the play's movement and structure. The most pressing antagonist of Prospero is time itself. However godlike, Prospero is finite. He is limited by time and must be ever alert and in motion with his plans so that he can accomplish his purposes before his time runs out.

This temporal conflict is made clear in the second scene. Prospero's zenith depends upon “A most auspicious star, whose influence / If now I court not, but omit, my fortunes / Will ever after droop” (I.ii.182-84). When Ariel enters, Prospero is eager to know the time of day:

What is the time o' the day?
Past the midseason.
At least two glasses. The time 'twixt six and now
Must by us both be spent most preciously.


Prospero must reckon the time as exactly as he can, and four hours is the most he can count on. Ariel shares Prospero's eagerness to act quickly, because Ariel wants to win his freedom as soon as possible (I.ii.246-49, 298-300).

The struggle against time is experienced by the several sets of characters. Antonio chides Sebastian that he lets his “fortune sleep” (II.i.216), and so urges him to draw his sword on the sleeping Alonso. The first attempt on Alonso's life having been foiled by Ariel, the conspirators are found in Act III, scene iii, forming new designs on Alonso's life. And they feel that they must hurry: “Let it be tonight” (l. 14); “I say tonight” (l. 18). Ferdinand feels too that he has little time to perform the labors enforced on him by Prospero:

                                                                      O most dear mistress,
The sun will set before I shall discharge
What I must strive to do.


And Caliban does his best to scurry Trinculo and Stephano to the murder of Prospero. The opportune time is when Prospero sleeps in the afternoon, claims Caliban, and “Within this half-hour will he be asleep” (III.ii.121). In Act V Caliban is still insisting, trying to counterattack the lure of the glittering apparel that has distracted Trinculo and Stephano from their purpose: “We shall lose our time,” warns Caliban (IV.i.248).

Against these attempts to effect purpose in short time are placed Prospero's attempts to control all and to effect his own purposes, again in short time. Ariel is quick to arouse Gonzalo to awake to the threat of Antonio and Sebastian:

While you here do snoring lie,
Open-eyed conspiracy
                    His time doth take.
If of life you keep a care,
Shake off slumber, and beware.
                    Awake, awake!


In Act III, scene i, Prospero enjoys the successful development of the Ferdinand-Miranda affair, but he reminds himself that he cannot tarry:

So glad of this as they I cannot be,
Who are surprised withal, but my rejoicing
At nothing can be more. I'll to my book,
For yet ere suppertime must I perform
Much business appertaining.


Again, in Act IV, scene i, Prospero, enjoying the masque celebrating the “contract of true love,” must rouse himself to the challenge of time:

I had forgot that foul conspiracy
Of the beast Caliban and his confederates
Against my life. The minute of their plot
Is almost come.


We may wonder why the several characters are in such a hurry: why Prospero must set the world right before suppertime, why Ariel's freedom must be granted soon, why Ferdinand must win his love before the sun sets, why Antonio and Sebastian must act now or tonight, and Caliban within the half-hour. Some motivation for quick action is referred to sleeping and waking. Sebastian, Antonio, and Caliban are motivated to act by the opportunity afforded by the sleep of others, and Ariel in turn must keep Alonso and Gonzalo awake to avert the threat. Prospero must wake himself from reverie. Otherwise the only answer to the question of why all this hurry is that an auspicious star or Fortune says it must be so. Both reasons are suggestive by their very vagueness: the pulse of life is indeed measured by moments of sleeping and waking and limited finally by we know not what time-keeping star. And we must get done what we must get done.

Time comes full circle in the last act of the play. By the end of Act IV the contract of true love has been sealed, the various usurpers and would-be murderers have been pinched and subdued. Says Prospero to Ariel,

                                                                                                              At this hour
Lie at my mercy all mine enemies.
Shortly shall all my labors end, and thou
Shalt have the air at freedom.


We are reminded several times in Act V that “this hour” of resolution is just three hours from the time of the storm at the beginning of the play (V.i.4, 136, 186, 223). But the three hours have embodied the course of years. In the trance of Act III, scene iii, and now again in Act V, Alonso and company have their whole histories reviewed and judged. The circular structure of the play is completed when the relation of past and present is explained to all the characters. Prospero reveals himself and completes the vision of a whole history of Naples and Milan transformed into a more promising future by the love of Ferdinand and Miranda. All do not share in the fullness of the transformation. Sebastian and Antonio have been properly harassed and subjected, but their caustic comments at the end about Caliban and his cohorts are hardly signals of a positive reformation. Stephano and Trinculo are more frightened than enlightened, and although Caliban may “seek for grace,” we are not convinced that he will become essentially anything more than what he is, “a thing of darkness.” The incompleteness of Prospero's reform is consistent with the play's emphasis on temporal crisis and temporal limitation. Prospero's magical power has been large: in three hours he has managed to give the world of Naples and Milan a direction based on knowledge and love. But Prospero cannot eliminate the world of flesh and time to which his power has been applied and through which it must operate. And so there remain at the end of the play the characters who have been made subject to benevolent power but who yet remind us of the limitations of human nature, Sebastian and Antonio, Trinculo and Stephano. Caliban's animality is the symbol or summary of these limitations. Prospero, of course, is well aware of the limitations imposed on human effort by the conditions of flesh and time. As he thinks of the nuptials of Miranda and Ferdinand he thinks too of his own grave (V.i.308, 311).

The resolution of The Tempest, then, brings the events of one generation to happy issue and prepares for a better try at life and time in the next. Past and present have come full circle and the future awaits the reign of Ferdinand and Miranda. In The Winter's Tale Shakespeare wandered freely in time and space, broke the bonds of time and space as it were, to impose the romantic vision upon the sequence of life as it passes from generation to generation. There is world enough and time for a Florizel and Perdita to find each other if the magic of dream and pastoral festival are allowed their play. Hermione in a dream directs Antigonus to place the child Perdita on the shepherd shores of Bohemia where sixteen years later the prince will seek haven from the affairs of court and find the lost princess. And yet sixteen years is a short time after all. We ride the wings of choric Time in thirty-two lines at the beginning of Act IV and come swiftly to the moment when young love will exert itself and resolve the troubled past. In The Tempest we are always aware of just how swift the wings of time are. The troubled past must give way to the transforming love of Ferdinand and Miranda, and the world enough and time in which magic has its play is not so much as a day. It is like three hours. It is not my purpose to argue whether the structure of The Winter's Tale or that of The Tempest is more suitable for romantic comedy. But we should appreciate that for The Tempest Shakespeare did adopt the compressed classical structure as an effective form for romantic comedy. The circular structure and the limitation of time are not peripheral features of the play. They define the form and are of the essence of the play's meaning.

The magnificent poetry of the play is the infusing life of this form. From the beginning there is the rhythm of the passing sweep of time on the one hand and on the other the beatific quest of dream and miracle that the energy of life must come to seek. Prospero's exposition to Miranda in the second scene (ll. 22-186) rolls forth the events of “the dark backward and abysm of time” to the moment of the “auspicious star” on the island to which they were directed by “Providence divine.” Ariel's report on his activities in the storm is of similar tempo and theme. He has been all fire and speed, flaming his way like the transient claps of “Jove's lightnings” through the decks and cabins of the ships. His swift thunder has brought the company from Naples and Milan to the charmed haven of the shore; they are “fresher than before” (I.ii.195-237). As Prospero reviews Ariel's past, we again feel the swift course of time emerging in this moment of auspicious crisis. Ariel has endured much, but in Prospero's poetry the past speeds quickly along. Within the rift of the cloven pine Ariel did

                                                                                          painfully remain
A dozen years. Within which space she [Sycorax] died,
And left thee there, where thou didst vent thy groans
As fast as mill wheels strike.


Now the fast wheels give way to the providential moment when Ariel imposes charms and visions that will earn his return to total freedom in the elements.

In the center of the play is the poetic drama of Ferdinand and Miranda. Like all young lovers, they direct their energy with such urgency that they would outrun time and make “fresh morning” of night (III.i.33). From their first meeting they have responded to each other as “spirit” to “wonder,” and so the course of their love is blessed with a grace that precludes the troubles of passion and quickly turns the labor of love into a betrothal that promises a most wholesome fruition. Ferdinand thus looks forward to a life that will pass as blessedly as the day that celebrates the wedding:

                                                                                          As I hope
For quiet days, fair issue, and long life,
With such love as 'tis now, the murkiest den,
The most opportune place, the strong'st suggestion
Our worser genius can, shall never melt
Mine honor into lust, to take away
The edge of that day's celebration
When I shall think or Phoebus' steeds are foundered,
Or Night kept chained below.


Time will surely pass on to future days, says Ferdinand, but those days will bear the blessing of that time when the miracle of wedded love suspends time in divine celebration. The very gods will attend that moment: Apollo will hold back the day and Hades the night. That time is now: “She is thine own,” says Prospero, and the celebration of Iris, Ceres, and Juno follows.

But the moment, like all moments, must pass. Ferdinand cannot hold back the horses of time. When the masque must give way to other matters, Prospero translates Ferdinand's thoughts on love and time into a larger theme:

You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismayed. Be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air.
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself—
Yea, all which it inherit—shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.


Life, however ennobled, is, after all, as transient as a play, as passing as a dream. Prospero's vision can image a world in solemn splendor, reaching into the clouds, but his wisdom knows that the vision must fade into sleep with the passing of time. Such is the paradox of life and time in the great globe. But the effort of life must go on, and so Prospero, however vexed, turns to his affairs.

The resolution of the play is prefixed by Prospero's famed passage wherein he “abjures his rough magic” and prepares to “break his staff” and “drown his book.” Again the poetry is filled with the consciousness of passing time, a time which has raced swiftly and violently along but which has been benevolently directed. Prospero addresses the elves who have chased the sea and the fairies who have made the midnight mushrooms and the powers who have helped him bedim the noontide sun and rattle thunder. But all comes to rest now in a last creation of “heavenly music” that will work the final charm on the senses of all and fade with the ending of the play, just “as the morning steals upon the night” (V.i.33-68).

This poetry not only brings the theme of passing time to its consummation but also suggests a further dimension about the function of time in The Tempest. The passage has, of course, suggested to many an autobiographical meaning, Shakespeare saying farewell to his career as a dramatist. Whether the passage is specifically autobiographical or not must remain in the realm of conjecture, but there is much in this passage and in the whole character of Prospero to suggest Shakespeare's consciousness of the nature of dramatic art in the composition of this play. Prospero creates or controls the play's intrigues and keeps us informed of his plotting as the action develops. With the help of Ariel he presents another play for Ferdinand and Miranda, the masque. At the end he steps forth in epilogue and asks for applause; he now lacks “art to enchant.” Like those of a playwright, his powers vanish with the end of the play.

If these features of the play suggest a parallel between Prospero's art and power and the art and power of a playwright, then the fact that the play presents just three hours of represented time, about the time it takes to act the play, takes on particular significance. We are reminded of the rule of dramatic time worked out by such Italian theorists as Julius Caesar Scaliger and Lodovico Castelvetro. Castelvetro especially makes much of the equation of actual time on stage and represented time. In his commentary on Aristotle he argues that a dramatic subject should be “an action that happened in a short space of time, that is the extent of place and time just such as the actors actually use in the performance. … It is not possible to make the audience suppose that several days and nights have passed when they have the evidence of their senses that only a few hour have gone by.”11 The statement assumes a realistic stage which serves as it were as an exact replica of life and supposes that the audience will be convinced of the imitative nature of drama only in so far as they can equate the passing of represented time with the passing of their own time as they sit in their seats. Such a concept reduces the illusion of dramatic verisimilitude to the size of a photograph and almost denies altogether any imaginative communication between the play and the audience.

Shakespeare evidently knew something of such theorizing about the relation of dramatic time and real time. In Henry V and in The Winter's Tale he faced the question directly and used the chorus to transcend time and space and to invite an imaginative comprehension that made the stage as big as life, not just as big as the space of the stage or the time of the performance. In The Tempest Shakespeare seized the very technique that Castelvetro defined, but his use of the technique creates quite a different effect from the one Castelvetro had in mind. The three hours' time of The Tempest does not reduce the illusion of the play. It rather expands that illusion, we have seen, to encompass the time of past and present and the time of both reality and fantasy. The three hours of the play's action does suggest the time of a play, but the time of a play as it truly imitates life, as it measures life in the fullness of its transitory course, not as it measures the hours in which the audience sits in the theater. The dramatist does have only three hours or so to fill his stage with life, just as Prospero has only three hours in which to manage the affairs of his world. But what the dramatist can do with his time is as magical as what Prospero can do with his. The time of The Tempest is like the time of drama. It is the time of imaginative prescience and expansive truth. There is much to be done before the vision fades like a dream. Prospero, like a dramatist, well knows that the pageant will dissolve, but if the audience is responsive the play will leave its mark on the days to come. In this sense the play can be like “the edge of that day's celebration” that Ferdinand sees as a moment of timeless suspension leaving its effect on all the time of life. Or, more mysteriously, the play can be “such stuff as dreams are made on,” its little life “rounded by a sleep.” It is in this sense that the time of The Tempest is like the time of drama which is like the time of life.

Much has been said about the relations of nature and art as they are expounded in The Tempest.12 There is Caliban, brute nature, lower nature as it resists cultivation, nurture, art. There are Sebastian and Antonio, nobility degenerate, nature and cultivation corrupted. There is Miranda, a perfection of nature and education, the blend of natural nobility and artful nurture. It is not my purpose to pursue these relations in all their complexity, but I should like to emphasize one dimension of the theme of art and nature that is relevant to the consciousness of the dramatic illusion exhibited in the play. If, indeed, Prospero is suggestive of the dramatic artist effecting his truth in the time of the dramatic illusion, Ariel becomes not only an expression of Prospero's dramatic power but a symbol of the union of art and nature. In The Winter's Tale Polixenes in defending the beauty and naturalness of the hybrid gillyvors flower argues that “art itself is Nature.” Nature, he claims, gives art the means to create the new flower:

                                                            You see, sweet maid, we marry
A gentler scion to the wildest stock,
And make conceive a bark of baser kind
By bud of nobler race. This is an art
Which does mend Nature—change it rather, but
The art itself is Nature.


In The Tempest the dramatic artist seems to find much the same union with the spirit of nature, with Ariel, the wanderer of fire, air, sea, and earth. Prospero and Ariel operate together so intimately that the fruits of their effort are a very perfection of both art and nature. Prospero is the artist mending nature, but his very means is nature: “The art itself is Nature.”

And yet Ariel is a puzzling and evasive figure. At the end his departure to the elements leaves the play with an inconclusive effect. He has served well the romantic vision that turns the course of life into the promise of a brave new world, and he may now wander “Merrily, merrily … Under the blossom that hangs on the bough.” In such a time perhaps there is the fulfillment of life. The artist may rest, and nature is at peace. But the moment of fulfillment passes as it is realized into the mystery of inscrutable time. We might in some sense predict the measure of the new life and time of Ferdinand and Miranda, but the measure of the time and course of Ariel is beyond comprehension.


  1. Derek Traversi, Shakespeare: The Last Phase (London, 1954), p. 223.

  2. Bernard Knox, “The Tempest and the Ancient Comic Tradition,” English Stage Comedy, English Institute Essays, 1954 (New York, 1955), pp. 52-73.

  3. Frank Kermode, The Tempest (Arden edition; London, 1961), pp. lxxiv-lxxvi. For a complete study of the five-act structure as evolved by the Terentian commentators, see T. W. Baldwin, Shakspere's Five-Act Structure (Urbana, 1947).

  4. Kermode, pp. xlii, li-liv, lxxvi.

  5. Kermode suggests some relation between structure and time in the play. He generally associates unity of time with the intensive form of the play, refers briefly to the relation of past and present in the protasis of the play, and draws attention, as I have indicated, to the significance of an adult Caliban presented in the context of his past (ibid., pp. lxxi, lxxiv-lxxvi).

  6. “Perspecto argumento, scire debemus hanc esse virtutem Poëticam, ut à novissimis argumenti rebus incipiens initium fabulae, & originem narrativè reddat spectatoribus. authorémque praesentem sibi exhibeat, ubi finis est fabulae. hunc enim ordinem & circulum Poëticae artis, vel virtutis non modò secuti sunt Tragici, Comicíque authores, sed Homerus etiam & Virgilius tenuerunt” (P. Terentii Afri Poetae Lepidissimi Comoediae [Parisiis, 1552], p. 49).

  7. “Rodolphus Agricola libro tertio Inventionis Dialecticae cap. 7. scribens de differentia poëtica dispositionis ab historia. Est, inquit, simile in comoedia atque tragoedia. Si intuemur enim faciem rerum, quae deducuntur in actum, quáeque personarum imitatione exprimuntur, naturalis videtur ordo: ad totum verò fabulae complexum respicienti, cum persaepe ab his quae circa finem eius sunt incipiant scriptores, & quae priora sunt personarum verbis per occasionem explicentur, quáeque prima sunt, ea ultimis quandoque iungantur, ut in Andria Terentii simul naufragium Phaniae aperitur, & nuptiae Pamphili Glyceriique confiunt. Haec qui videat, facile est cognitu arte authoris hunc ordinem, non rerum natura constare” (Terentii … Comoediae, p. 193).

  8. Other Shakespearean comedies embody the circular structure in varying ways. The discovery of a past history becomes a crucial part of the immediate action in such plays as The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night, and Measure for Measure.

  9. My quotations are from the text of G. B. Harrison, ed., Shakespeare: The Complete Works (New York, 1952).

  10. Bertrand Evans, Shakespeare's Comedies (Oxford, 1960), pp. 326-36.

  11. Translated from the 1576 edition of Castelvetro's Poetica d'Aristotele vulgarizzata et sposta by Allan H. Gilbert, ed., Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden (New York, 1940), p. 310 n. In this passage Castelvetro refers specifically to tragedy, as opposed to the epic, but it is clear that he has in mind the dramatic method generally. See, also, Gilbert, pp. 310, 318. In the latter of these two references Castelvetro is more generous and grants a time of twelve hours for a play, perhaps having in mind the length of the artificial or “daylight” day for the represented time. See also Marvin T. Herrick, The Fusion of Horatian and Aristotelian Literary Criticism (Urbana, 1946), pp. 80-81, and H. B. Charlton, Castelvetro's Theory of Poetry (Manchester, 1913), p. 84. A passage from Scaliger's Poetices libri septem (1561) which relates represented time and the time of the performance can be found translated in F. M. Padelford's Select Translations from Scaliger's Poetics (New York, 1905), p. 60. Sir Philip Sidney, of course, reflects these Italian theories about dramatic time and place in his Apologie for Poetrie (see G. Gregory Smith, ed., Elizabethan Critical Essays [London, 1904], 1, 196-98). Neither Scaliger nor Sidney insists so exactly on the equation of stage time and represented time as Castelvetro does, but they do refer the credibility of the represented time to the passing of real time. Ben Jonson, it is interesting to note, had much to say about the dramatic unities, but he never referred the idea of limitation of represented time to the measure of the acting time. For a study of these and other Renaissance critics concerning the unities, see my unpublished doctoral dissertation, “The Dramatic Unities in the Renaissance” (University of Illinois, 1959).

  12. For an extensive study of these themes, see Kermode, pp. xxxiv-lix.

Further Reading

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Bell, Arthur H. “Time and Convention in Antony and Cleopatra.Shakespeare Quarterly 24, no. 3 (Summer 1973): 253-64.

Suggests that as Antony tries to come to terms with the relentless demands of time, he vacillates between three conventional roles: the courtly lover, the Homeric hero, and the man of political prudence. In Bell's judgment, Shakespeare shows that neither the lover's escapism, the hero's pursuit of honor and reputation, nor the politician's pragmatism is a sufficient means of coping with the force that controls Antony's destiny.

Bennett, Robert B. “Four Stages of Time: The Shape of History in Shakespeare's Second Tetralogy.” Shakespeare Studies 19 (1987): 61-85.

Focuses on Shakespeare's presentation of how time shapes human action and history, and discerns a cyclical, sacramental progression in Shakespeare’s second tetralogy from initial harmony between man and nature, or God, to spiritual alienation, then redemption and a return to unity.

Blissett, William. “This Wide Gap of Time: The Winter's Tale.English Literary Renaissance 1, no. 1 (Winter 1971): 52-70.

Calls attention to the dynamic symmetries of the two halves of The Winter's Tale—most particularly to the integration of the notion of devouring time and tempestuousness in the first half and the concept of redeeming time and moderation in the second half.

Burnside, Kent. “Time, and Doubletime, in Hamlet.Hamlet Studies 18, nos. 1 and 2 (Summer and Winter 1996): 126-29.

Draws on a variety of dramatic references to determine the extent of Hamlet's delay in avenging his father. Burnside proposes that at least six months, and perhaps as many as eight, elapse between the old king's murder and the death of his son.

Davidson, Clifford. “The Triumph of Time.” Dalhousie Review 50, no. 2 (Summer 1970): 170-81.

Focuses on Hamlet’s Claudius, stressing his diseased moral state and deep despair, and asserting that at the close of the play, time—which ultimately illuminates the truth—triumphs over Claudius's deceit and hypocrisy.

Driver, Tom F. “The Shakespearian Clock: Time and the Vision of Reality in Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest.Shakespeare Quarterly 15, no. 4 (Autumn 1964): 363-70.

Analyzes the contrasting treatments of time in Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest, contending that in Romeo and Juliet time is a keen reality that both compels and blinds the characters, none of whom can foresee or alter the course of events. By contrast, the critic suggests, in The Tempest time is ruled by Prospero, who, in an enchanted, remedial present, determines the significance of past injustices and future harmonies.

Ferry, Anne. “Shakespeare.” In All in War with Time: Love Poetry of Shakespeare, Donne, Jonson, Marvell, pp. 1-63. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975.

A detailed examination of the poet-lover's struggle, in sonnets 1-126, to preserve love from the ravages of time. Ferry maintains that while the first half of these sonnets affirm the “eternizing” power of art to transcend a time-bound world, the poems in the second half alternately mock, attack, and deprecate this promise.

Guj, Luisa. “Macbeth and the Seeds of Time.” Shakespeare Studies 18 (1986): 175-88.

Identifies the central theme of Macbeth as time in its linear and cyclical forms, and suggests that Macbeth's principal sin is making a mockery of God's design by trying to obliterate the past and control the future.

Kastan, David Scott. “The Shape of Time: Form and Value in the Shakespearean History Play.” Comparative Drama 7, no. 2 (Fall 1973-74): 259-77.

Links the open-ended structure of Shakespeare's history plays to his representation of the reigns of individual monarchs as merely episodic events drawn from the full continuum of human time. From Kastan's point of view, Shakespeare emphasized the continuity of time, and, unlike the works of his predecessors and contemporaries, his historical dramas have no fixed beginnings or resolutions.

Krier, Theresa M. “The Triumph of Time: Paradox in The Winter's Tale.Centennial Review 26, no. 4 (Fall 1982): 341-53.

Examines the way in which the disparate senses of time accentuate the discrepancy between the tragic tone of the first half of The Winter's Tale and the comic tone of the second half.

Maguin, F. “The Breaking of Time.” Cahiers Élisabéthains 7 (1975): 25-41.

Evaluates the connection between the tragic ends of four Shakespearean protagonists and their disruption of time. In different ways, the critic argues, Richard II, Hamlet, Lear, and Macbeth each interferes with the natural flow of time, severing the link between their individual times and cosmic time and thus becoming victims of forces beyond their control.

Salingar, L. G. “Time and Art in Shakespeare's Romances.” Renaissance Drama IX (1966): 3-35.

Evaluates Shakespeare's treatment of time in terms of his innovative adaptations of medieval and Renaissance conceptions of time.

Schanzer, Ernest. “Shakespeare and the Doctrine of the Unity of Time.” Shakespeare Survey 28 (1975): 57-61.

Briefly reviews the time schemes of several plays—especially The Tempest—and various characters' references to the passage of dramatic time. Schanzer links these to what he sees as Shakespeare's disdain for the neoclassical precept that a play's dramatic action should cover no more than twenty-four hours.

Střibrný, Zdeněk. “The Idea and Image of Time in Shakespeare's Early Histories.” Shakespeare Jahrbuch 110 (1974): 129-38.

Assesses the protagonists' attitudes toward time in 1, 2 and 3 Henry VI, Richard III, and—most particularly—King John. The critic argues that in these plays, Shakespeare's concept of time is dynamic and that he represents it as an exploitable tool of political policy rather than a symbol of a static world order.

———. “The Idea and Image of Time in Shakespeare's Second Historical Tetralogy.” Shakespeare Jahrbuch 111 (1975): 51-66.

Evaluates the significance of images of time and references to time in Richard II, 1 and 2 Henry IV, and Henry V. The critic sees in these plays a realistic view of a period in English history marked by the political, economic, and social upheaval that accompanied the disintegration of feudalism and the rise of a new order.

———. “Time in Troilus and Cressida.Shakespeare Jahrbuch 112 (1976): 105-21.

Calls attention to Shakespeare's depiction of time in Troilus and Cressida, concluding that the play is, in effect, a critique of the notions of permanent order and constancy in love.

Tanselle, G. Thomas. “Time in Romeo and Juliet.Shakespeare Quarterly 15, no. 4 (Autumn 1964): 349-61.

Assembles all the exact references to time in Romeo and Juliet, discusses the play's double-time scheme, and suggests that the dramatic action takes place over the span of five days.

Taylor, Donn Ervin. “‘Try in Time in Despite of a Fall’: Time and Occasion in As You Like It.Texas Studies in Literature and Language 24, no. 2 (Summer 1982): 121-36.

Reads the contradictory perspectives on time expressed by characters in As You Like It in the context of the profound changes they experience as they undergo a process of maturation in the Forest of Arden. Taylor asserts that although the play does present time as a threat, the darker tone this perspective evokes is mitigated by the predominant mood of optimism.

Turner, Frederick. “The Crime of Macbeth.” In Shakespeare and the Nature of Time, pp. 128-45. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.

Contends that the essence of Macbeth's sacrilege is that he rebels against the constraints of time. Turner maintains that although Macbeth believes that by some means or other he can stem the flow of causality and live entirely in the future, by the end of the play he is overwhelmed by the oppressiveness of time.

———. “The Speech of Time in The Winter's Tale.” In Shakespeare and the Nature of Time, pp. 146-61. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.

Asserts that the speech of Time in The Winter's Tale manifests the strange and impenetrable nature of change itself. In the first three acts, he maintains, time is oppressive and unrelenting, faith and innocence have been lost, and society is oppressed. However, following Time’s speech, Act IV presents a vision of a world where mankind has harmonized the temporal and the eternal and begun the process of healing individuals as well as society.

Jonas Barish (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Barish, Jonas. “Hats, Clocks and Doublets: Some Shakespearean Anachronisms.” In Shakespeare's Universe: Renaissance Ideas and Conventions, edited by John M. Mucciolo, pp. 29-36. Aldershot, Hants, England: Scolar Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Barish examines anachronisms in Shakespeare’s plays, particularly in Julius Caesar and Cymbeline, and argues that most of Shakespeare's anachronisms are unobtrusive, and that Shakespeare's original audiences were less likely than modern ones to notice them.]

Shakespearean drama, as we all know, is riddled with anachronisms. Repeatedly the plays jolt us out of the historical moment in which their stories are supposed to be unfolding, by reference to some event or custom or historical person that could not, so far as we know, have coexisted with the setting. Hector quoting Aristotle—several centuries before Aristotle was born; the future Richard III, while Duke of Gloucester, measuring his own ruthlessness against that of the murderous Machiavel—at a time when Machiavelli was still in his infancy; Hamlet attending an as-yet-unfounded Wittenberg University; Cleopatra playing billiards: these are the kinds of error from which our most universally revered culture hero seems not to have been exempt.

The first thing, however, that needs to be said about these and similar oddities of temporal displacement is that anyone composing a fiction based on a past epoch is virtually doomed to fall into anachronism, even when making strenuous efforts to avoid it. Some degree of chronological incongruity would appear to be inherent in the attempt to recreate a past, hence by definition a lost and alien culture, and therefore to some extent an irrecoverable one. We cannot, after all, know any former epoch with the kind of intimacy with which it was known to its original inhabitants, nor can we divest ourselves of our own immersion in our own epoch, so that when transplanting ourselves imaginatively into the past we are more or less certain to stumble into mistakes: our modernity is sure to betray us in ways we can neither predict nor control. And this would apply even to works written about past eras close to our own—to plays on relatively recent American history, for example, such as Robert E. Sherwood's Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1939); or Sunrise at Campobello by Dore Schary (1958), which chronicles the emergence of Franklin D. Roosevelt onto the American political scene, not without many compressions, ellipses and rearrangements of recorded fact; or (most recent of all) A Walk in the Woods by Lee Blessing (1987), in which an American and a Soviet negotiator on nuclear arms control engage in a private conversation while walking in the Geneva woods, removed from direct surveillance by their respective governments. This last-named play succeeds precisely to the extent that it deals with immediate, virtually contemporary history, the actual walk in the woods on which the play is based having taken place only five years earlier than the play itself. Even then it concerns a series of wholly invented conversations that conform to certain stereotyped notions of how a zealous young American and a more seasoned Soviet negotiator in such circumstances might perhaps have been expected to behave, but which nevertheless did not escape severe comment in the press on the distorted picture it implied of the actual process of international debate over ways of forestalling a nuclear holocaust. As little as five years after the event, the play seemed already, to some, to be caught in a time warp. All plays on historical subjects, then—and they are legion—lend themselves inevitably to anachronism, and the fact should cause no surprise.

But these American instances at least presuppose a certain degree of familiarity on the part of spectators with the basic historical materials—with Lincoln, with Roosevelt, and with the deadlocked negotiations on arms control between America and the Soviet Union. Such would not have been the case with spectators in 1595 or 1605, a fact which the playwrights of that epoch did not fail to exploit, since some of Shakespeare's contemporaries indulged in anachronism much more promiscuously and, it would seem, knowingly, than he, indifferent to coherency of setting or historical verisimilitude. Cleopatra's billiards, it appears, were suggested by an earlier play of George Chapman's, The Blind Beggar of Alexandria, first performed in 1598. At least, so thought a late nineteenth-century commentator cited in the Furness Variorum edition of Antony and Cleopatra. To which Furness himself, quoting the NED, appended the relevant observation that in the same play (i.e. The Blind Beggar) ‘the hero flourishes a pistol, smokes tobacco, swears by “God's wounds”, and talks fair modern Spanish, in the time of the Ptolomies.’1 In other words, Chapman simply rides roughshod over all considerations of chronological plausibility, and glories in doing so. Chapman of course may have thought that that was part of the fun of what is, after all, an exceedingly casual throwing together of miscellaneous elements designed to produce a comic romance. Dekker's and Marston's Satiromastix (1601), similarly, picks up certain characters from ancient Rome, others from the streets of Elizabethan London, and plunks them down in the days of William Rufus, without the slightest attempt to make the eleventh-century setting even minimally believable. The king in the play, seeking to exercise his droit de seigneur over the betrothed of one of his vassals, might just as well be named Hadrian the Seventh or Harlequin the Ninth as William Rufus. Here, as in the case of The Blind Beggar, we might be said to be dealing with an identifiable subgenre, pseudo-historical romance, peculiar to an epoch in which history in our sense had not yet fully disengaged itself from fiction.

Furness's observation is relevant also because it reminds us that Shakespeare offers very few examples of such wanton flouting of temporal plausibility. Though he cannot be said to have attempted anything like the rigorous adherence to documentary sources aimed at by Ben Jonson in his tragedies Sejanus his Fall and Catiline his Conspiracy or (to a lesser degree) in his ‘comical satire’ Poetaster—all of which, despite their author's massive scholarship and his labours of archaeological reconstruction, are themselves open to criticism for their lapses from the annals and other records on which they are presumably based—Shakespeare too was plainly aiming at a persuasive recreation of older cultures. In consulting the English or Scottish chroniclers or the Roman or Greek historians, he selects the details that matter to him with a remarkable degree of artistic conscience.

The fact is that most of Shakespeare's anachronisms are discreet, sometimes to such a point that editors today do not always trouble to comment on them. The New Arden editor of King John, E. A. Honigmann (Methuen, London, 1954), for example, has nothing to say about the repeated references in that play to cannon, a weapon not invented until several centuries after John's reign. No more does A. R. Braunmiller, editor of the Oxford Shakespeare edition of the same play (1989), or L. A. Beaurline, editor of the play for the New Cambridge Shakespeare (1990). Nor do editors bother to remark on the engines of war Lady Hotspur has heard her restless husband call out in his sleep—the basilisks and culverins along with the cannons—in equal defiance of chronological possibility. John Dover Wilson, in his Cambridge New Shakespeare (1946), again of King John, glosses ‘basilisk’ and ‘culverin’ but says nothing about their being anachronisms. The New Arden editor of King Lear, lastly, Kenneth Muir, passes in silence over the oddity by which, in a play set in ancient Britain, Edgar is made to disguise himself as a ‘Bedlam beggar’, a thousand years or so before Bedlam—Bethlehem Hospital—even came into existence, let alone became a byword for a lunatic asylum. And so with most of the other editions of these plays that I have been able to consult.

In short, in none of these instances is the anachronism felt as an anachronism, even today. The reason, I suspect, is that Shakespeare, in these as in dozens of comparable cases, manages the references so unobtrusively, makes them seem so natural and inevitable a part of his story that it simply would not occur to us to question them unless someone questioned us about them. And if we, with our historical noses to the ground, do not scent historical falsity in these cases, surely no Elizabethan theatregoer, far less schooled than we in detecting historical discrepancies, would have noticed anything amiss, or would have cared two pins if he had.

One sort of anachronism, which I do not recall seeing mentioned elsewhere, smote me between the eyes as I was pondering this topic. It crops up in a speech in Troilus and Cressida, when Troilus, having just witnessed Cressida's betrayal, is asked by Ulysses whether he is as moved as his agonized outburst seems to indicate. ‘Ay, Greek,’ replies Troilus, ‘and that shall be divulged well / In characters as red as Mars his heart / Inflam'd with Venus’ (V, ii, 162-4).2 With reference to the memorial token bestowed on Cressida, Troilus's presumably ornamental sleeve—itself an anachronism—which Cressida has now conferred on Diomed, Diomed has sworn to display it on his helmet in the next day's battle. Troilus declares grimly,

That sleeve is mine that he'll bear on his helm.
Were it a casque compos'd by Vulcan's skill,
My sword should bite it. Not the dreadful spout
Which shipmen do the hurricano call,
Constring'd in mass by the almighty sun,
Shall dizzy with more clamor Neptune's ear
In his descent then shall my prompted sword
Falling on Diomed …

(V, ii, 169- 76)

Here we encounter references to four gods in the Olympic pantheon: Mars, Venus, Vulcan and Neptune. Why, I found myself asking, should Troilus, at the height of the Trojan War, many centuries before the founding of Rome, refer to those gods by their Roman names? Why not Ares and Aphrodite? Hephaestos and Poseidon?

Does Shakespeare, I wondered, ever give these deities their proper Greek names? At this point I resorted to the Harvard Concordance for some checking, and made an enlightening discovery. In the course of the canon Shakespeare alludes at least 56 times to Mars, including numerous instances in Troilus, Timon of Athens, and The Two Noble Kinsmen, all set in ancient Greece, but never once to Ares. Less often, but quite often enough, he mentions Venus, Vulcan and Neptune, also Juno, Hercules and Ceres. Very often indeed—137 times—he refers to Jove or Jupiter, but not once in any of these cases does he use Hellenic nomenclature. Against 14 references to Mercury I found only a single one to Hermes. I thought these statistics striking, and I sought then to learn whether any editor had commented on the situation. I could not find that any had.

Digging further, I unearthed another curious fact: even the (relatively) erudite Chapman—whose translation of the first eight books of the Iliad (published in 1598) apparently served Shakespeare as a source for Troilus—even Chapman, working (at least largely, we assume) from the Greek, also gave his gods their Roman names—Jupiter, Jove, Juno, Neptune, Venus and Mars—almost as though by this means to anglicize them. When, in Book I, he departs from this practice (perhaps for metrical reasons) and calls his Olympian artificer ‘Ephaistus’ [Hephaestos], he carefully supplies a marginal note to explain that this was ‘a name of Vulcan’, and he follows the same note with three others in which he insists on the more familiar Roman term, including one in which he identifies ‘Ephaistus’ as ‘Vulcan skinker [i.e. tapster, or drawer] to the Gods’.3

We know too little about Chapman's early years even to speculate about his education—he may have been mainly self-taught—but for Shakespeare the explanation is probably simple enough. Shakespeare, trained in the Stratford grammar school, saturated in the Roman classics—particularly Ovid, but also Virgil, Horace, and Terence, and in Renaissance authors like Erasmus and Palingenius—must from childhood have been completely at home in the ancient pantheon. He knew the characters in those myths under the Latin names by which they had been known in his schoolbooks, and he knew them like the back of his hand. He probably knew their Hellenic equivalents but would not naturally have used them, or put them in the mouths of his characters. Doubtless even his literate auditors would have been in the same position; they would have found the Greek names Greek indeed. The fact that we, with our even less Greek than Shakespeare, find ourselves in essentially the same plight, would seem to be borne out by the ease with which we too accept what in all historical rigour is a striking anachronism, and by the silence of editors on the subject (whom I do not in the least mean to be faulting on this score).

What this all suggests is that audience recognition of anachronism is very much a sometime thing, dependent on the nature of the specific instance and on how adroitly the playwright works it into his discourse. The reason that audiences never think to bristle at Hotspur's being shown as the same age as Prince Hal, when in actual fact he was older than King Henry IV, is that they do not know it. Instead of unconsciously monitoring the play's presentation of history, audiences—including alert and instructed audiences—are in fact usually learning their history from the play. The reason that hats, clocks and doublets spring to our attention as they do is that they belong to the world of visible, tangible objects, in two cases familiar items of clothing that the characters on stage must either wear, or which, if they do not wear, must open an awkward and disconcerting gulf between what we hear and what we see.

Hats have given a good deal of trouble in Act II of Julius Caesar. Lucius, Brutus's page, tells his master that the conspirators have arrived. ‘Their hats are pluck'd about their ears,’ he says, ‘And half their faces buried in their cloaks’ (II, i, 73-4), prompting a memorable reply from Brutus concerning the stealth, and indeed the hypocrisy, to which he and his associates are driven by the nature of their undertaking. A memorable editorial response to the incident came from Alexander Pope in his edition of Shakespeare. Pope, horrified by the thought of ancient Romans wearing hats, simply omitted the word; rather than attempting any emendation, he left a blank in the text, as though deleting a foul expletive. Later, when editing Coriolanus, he altered his strategy, this time changing ‘hat’ to ‘cap’.

John Dover Wilson, in his New Cambridge edition of the same play (1949), p. 127, suggested that ‘Shakespeare, knowing nothing of Roman headgear, “dressed his Romans in the slouch hats of his own time”’, citing the Clarendon Press edition of 1884. But T. S. Dorsch, the play's New Arden editor (1955), points out that, on the contrary, ‘the Romans did use headgear of various kinds: the petasus, a broad-brimmed travelling hat or cap, the pilleus, a close-fitting, brimless felt hat or cap, worn at entertainments and festivals, and the cucullus, a cap or hood fastened to a garment.’ (p. 38, line 73n.). Dorsch however offers no hint as to which of these varieties of headgear—if any—might most appropriately be worn in the scene in question. In any case the reason for editorial debate over such a detail stems from the fact that here the hats form part of the visible furniture of the scene, part of its material substance, which we are asked to gaze upon and recognize as lending a disquieting furtiveness to their wearers. They play their part, these hats, in establishing the conspiratorial atmosphere and helping to articulate the morality of the episode. They cannot therefore simply be brushed aside, but must either be shown or their absence somehow accounted for.

The same would be true, certainly, of the ‘sleeve’ already mentioned, which Troilus bestows on Cressida, Cressida gives to Diomed, and Diomed swears to affix to his helmet in sign of his proprietorship over Cressida. Here too we are dealing with a palpable stage prop that carries a high emotional charge, something that must be seen and its psychic and social meanings grasped; but this time we are once again dealing with legendary history, pseudo-history, of an epoch so unfathomably remote from our own time—from ours or the Elizabethans'—that our ignorance protects us, as it doubtless protected its author, from feeling as such the anachronism in which, no doubt, the entire play must strictly speaking be said to be saturated.

Comparable, but of lesser moment, would be the ‘doublet’ Caesar is said to wear when offered the crown, which in a theatrical gesture he is reported to have plucked open so as to offer his throat to the people, and the ‘sleeve’ by which Cassius tells Brutus to tug Casca as he passes by—though of course the Roman toga had no sleeve—or the ‘lace’ which Cleopatra begs Charmian to ‘cut’ in a moment of emotional agitation—though ancient Egyptian ladies did not wear lace that required cutting. In such instances as these, the allusion is so transitory, and the action so distanced from us (in the case of Caesar) or so confined to words alone (as in the other cases) that we scarcely notice. Very likely Shakespeare did not notice either.

As for the clock that strikes so insistently in the orchard scene and later in Julius Caesar and which serves, according to the New Oxford editor, Arthur Humphreys (1984), to ‘stress the inexorable drive of time toward the climax’ (II, i, 193n., p. 139—a strained and portentous reading, to my mind), it has caused less trouble than the hats precisely because it need not be seen. It need only be heard, as it is heard also in Cymbeline, warning Iachimo that it is time to leave Imogen's chamber, where he has been hiding to collect the data he needs in order to win his wager.

Cymbeline of course, provides a kind of total immersion in anachronism, since it seems to be set simultaneously in Renaissance Italy and in the Rome of classical antiquity, as well as in ancient Britain. Yet this logical absurdity, which outraged Dr Johnson, is in fact negotiated so as not to abuse our credulity. During the Italian scenes we are plainly in a corrupt Italian milieu, inhabited by characters with names like Philario and Iachimo, whereas in Britain we find ourselves in the ancient world, in an outpost of the Roman empire, with a Roman general named Caius Lucius declaring war on the rebellious Britons in the name of Caesar Augustus, in order to enforce the payment of tribute. All this being the case, such trifling incidental anachronisms as Pisanio's provision of a man's disguise for Imogen, including ‘doublet, hat, hose’, can hardly be said to be disturbing.

Perhaps generic considerations come into play here, with Shakespeare himself attempting the sort of romance cum history or history cum romance that popular writers like Chapman, Marston and Dekker had dealt in so freely. Shakespeare, as usual, succeeds in both honouring the hybrid genre and turning it to his own more serious and probing purposes. On the one hand he is plainly continuing his prolonged inspection of Romanitas, of the character of Rome itself as the great ancestral matrix from which Elizabethan England was thought to have sprung, while simultaneously recreating a version of England's more indigenous past, that of the native Britons, along with the folklore and fairytale elements that (in his representation) belonged to that domain. He thus dramatizes the colliding, and with the reconciliation at the end, the ultimate merging, of the two main currents that (in his understanding) fed into and eventuated in his own composite culture.

As for Renaissance Italy, part of the anachronistic ‘confusion of the names and manners of different times’ that Dr Johnson complained of,4 it would not of course have been ‘different times’ or ‘history’ at all to Shakespeare's audiences, but rather the contemporary world, their world, at a slight geographical remove, vividly glimpsed and serving to warn impressionable Englishmen to cease aping Italian manners or risk being infected by Italian vices. In the story of the wager they would have seen a once-honest and in most respects exemplary British gentleman, Posthumus Leonatus, converted by residence in Italy into the incarnate devil not long since denounced so scathingly by Roger Ascham.5 They would then have seen his return to Britain as restoring him to the more wholesome air of his own country, causing him to abandon Italianate jealousy and revenge in favour of forgiveness, repentance, self-castigation and self-amendment. They would have watched the rage and quarrelsomeness picked up in Italy now no longer directed against a malicious rival (from whom he has also learned boastfulness and suspiciousness) but in honourable battle against the invaders of his native soil.

If this conjecture is right, we are less likely than Dr Johnson to regard the mingle of disparate elements as an instance of ‘unresisting imbecility’. We are less likely, that is, to be unnerved by the play's hybrid nature, or offended by its temporal irregularities, since we may take a less rigorous view of the playwright's obligation to adhere to the letter of the chronicles, or to the unities of time and place, and care less than Johnson did about fidelity to the separation of genres. The romance ahistoricism, or antihistoricism of Cymbeline is so deliberate, its collapsing of diverse historical elements so unabashed, and yet the imaginative pressure fusing these ingredients reaching such a pitch of incandescence, that it ends by creating a new chemical compound, with its own odour, taste and colour, its own unique and recognizable character. They serve at one and the same time, these disparate elements, to explore England's past, to warn against some of the dangers of its present moment, and to stake out valid and meaningful alternatives for the future.

In short, and to make an end, I would stress three simple points: first, some element of anachronism is all but inescapable in any fictional recreation of a past epoch, as it no doubt must be in any historical writing, however scrupulously the author may struggle to deal with what Sidney would have called his ‘mouse-eaten records’—his archives, his documentary proofs, his archaeological relics. Second, the Elizabethans were doubly vulnerable to anachronism, given the fact that fiction and history had only barely begun to acquire the separate and distinct characters we have until recently assumed them to possess. And third, Shakespeare, by the instinctive tact and poetic intensity with which he worked, somehow managed almost to dissolve the element of anachronism into the mainstream of his discourse, so that most of the time it passes us harmlessly by, unnoticed, or when we do notice it, as in Cymbeline, it succeeds in conveying wisdom that the playwright is unmistakably eager for us to acquire.


  1. Horace Howard Furness (ed.), The Tragedie of Anthonie, and Cleopatra, A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare (Philadelphia, Lippincott, 1907), pp. 128-9.

  2. Citations from Shakespeare will be to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston, Houghton-Mifflin, 1974).

  3. Allardyce Nicoll (ed.), Chapman's Homer, Bollingen Series XLI, (New York, Pantheon, 1956), I (Iliad), 40-1.

  4. Selections from Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Bertrand H. Bronson with Jean M. O'Meara (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1986), p. 307.

  5. English Works, ed. William Aldis Wright (Cambridge, The University Press, 1904), p. 229.

David Kaula (essay date 1964)

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SOURCE: Kaula, David. “The Time Sense of Antony and Cleopatra.Shakespeare Quarterly 15, no. 3 (Summer 1964): 211-23.

[In the following essay, Kaula compares the various senses of time held by the protagonists of Antony and Cleopatra—Caesar is focused on the future and views time as an instrument that progresses linearly, Antony clings to the past and continually strains against the pressures of time, and Cleopatra regards time as a pliant, continuous present.]

Antony and Cleopatra opens with one Roman commenting to another on what is, to them, the deplorable change that has come over their general: the Mars-like warrior of the past has become the “strumpet's fool” of the present. A little later, Antony, after refusing to hear the latest news from Rome, insists to Cleopatra that nothing matters but the immediate “now”:

Now for the love of Love and her soft hours,
Let's not confound the time with conference harsh.
There's not a minute of our lives should stretch
Without some pleasure now.


In scene ii, Charmian and Iras hear the Soothsayer obscurely prophesy approaching misfortune for them and their mistress, but instead of taking his words seriously they blithely anticipate a future of unlimited sensual gratification. When Antony next appears, he is listening with alarm to the messengers' reports of the rapidly worsening situation in Italy and other parts of the Empire. No longer finding the present moment all-sufficient—

                                                                                The present pleasure,
By revolution low'ring, does become
The opposite of itself—


he rebukes himself for his idleness and resolves to return to Rome with all possible speed. When Cleopatra caustically reminds him of his earlier vows of eternal fidelity he pleads the “strong necessity of time”.

These few instances, all coming in the first three scenes, are enough to alert us to the special importance of time in the play as a whole. The sharp fluctuations of awareness between past, present, and future, the sudden turnabouts of attitude in response to the pressure of events, the emphatic contrasts between loyalty and expedience, idleness and activity—these continue through the play, complementing the equally free and versatile handling of geographical space. Much of the action is infused with that sense of temporal urgency which was felt so strongly by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, to whom time very often appeared in the guise of the insidious destroyer, the ever-active opponent of the human need for continuity. But the play also reveals another, more distinctly Shakespearian awareness of time, one which was gradually deepened and subtilized as Shakespeare's powers as a dramatist increased. It shows the intimate relationship the sense of time bears to the basic contours of the dramatic action, and its significance as one of the principal media through which the characters reveal their governing attitudes and thereby locate themselves within the moral universe of the play.

Although it embraces a historical period of ten years, the action of the play does not proceed in chronicle fashion through a series of virtually independent episodes. It rather gives the impression of rapid, continuous movement. Especially in the first three acts, beginning with Antony's hasty departure from Egypt and culminating in his defeat at Actium, the complexion of affairs in the political realm is constantly shifting as one development follows another with almost confusing speed. Shakespeare fortifies this impression by resorting to a device he had used more perfunctorily in the earlier history plays, that of frequently introducing messengers bearing the “news” which time has brought forth in other places. When Antony refuses to hear the messenger from Rome in the first scene he is trying, as it were, to erect a barrier against the irresistible pressure of time, so that when in the next scene he does receive the news—now conveyed by two messengers instead of one—it is as though a dam were bursting. Things happen so quickly that in some instances the news is already stale in the telling, rendered obsolete by the events of preceding scenes. At the beginning of Act I, scene iv, for instance, Caesar speaks of Antony as still idling in Alexandria when in fact he is already on his way to Rome; and in Act II, scene v Cleopatra learns of Antony's marriage to Octavia after he has privately made up his mind to return to Egypt. Through his abrupt shifts of locale Shakespeare also creates the impression that time moves at different velocities in different places. The last-mentioned scene is followed by four scenes of complex activity which take place in various parts of the Empire: Misenum, Pompey's galley, Syria, and Rome. Act III, scene iii returns us to Cleopatra, showing her listening to the messenger's description of Octavia after she had received the original report five scenes earlier. Thus if time in the world of political affairs moves with relentless speed, in Alexandria, while Cleopatra has nothing to do but wait for Antony, it is almost static.

During those periods in the action when the pressure of events is felt with particular urgency, the sense of time is conveyed through images which suggest a ceaseless fertility ever threatening to run out of control. Smarting under the shame of his idleness, Antony declares:

                                                                                O, then we bring forth weeds
When our quick minds lie still, and our ills told us
Is as our earing.



                                                                                                    Much is breeding,
Which, like the courser's hair, hath yet but life
And not a serpent's poison.


The quickening of events before Actium prompts Canidius to remark:

With news the time's with labor and throws forth
Each minute some.


But if time for the slow-mover breeds with dangerous rapidity, for the agile opportunist it is capable of being cultivated or “eared”. When Pompey is riding the full tide of fortune, commanding both the sea and the hearts of the commoners, his confederates, Menecrates and Menas,

Make the sea serve them, which they ear and wound
With keels of every kind.


Caesar later “cuts” the Ionian Sea toward Actium with such speed that time for him seems a more fluid medium than it is for others, especially the slower, heavier Antony, whose own efforts at naval maneuvering are shortly to prove so ill-advised.

The turbulent flux of events is matched, on the human side, by the instability of desire. The play repeatedly dramatizes a sharp discrepancy between judgment and loyalty, between the apparent demands of the moment and the deeper, more abiding needs of the heart. What is scorned in the present becomes appreciated once it is past and beyond recovery. Antony, on hearing of Fulvia's death, discovers “she's good, being gone” (I.ii.122); and when he is told of Cleopatra's pretended death, bitter rejection turns in a flash into fervent devotion. Enobarbus learns too late that what reason recommends has little to do with his true emotional interests, and even the phlegmatic Caesar, after hunting down Antony to his death, is moved to weep. As Agrippa remarks:

                                                                                                    And strange it is
That nature must compel us to lament
Our most persisted deeds.


These sudden reversals of sentiment are observable not only in the principal characters but also in the anonymous hoi polloi. Commenting on the “slippery” Roman people's enthusiasm for Pompey, Antony says their love “is never linked to the deserver Till his deserts are past” (I.ii.181-183). Caesar amplifies the idea:

It hath been taught us from the primal state
That he which is was wished until he were;
And the ebbed man, ne'er loved till ne'er worth love,
Comes deared by being lacked. This common body,
Like to a vagabond flag upon the stream,
Goes to and back, lackeying the varying tide,
To rot itself with motion.


In the play, as G. Wilson Knight observes, “there is continually this wavering, ebb and flow, of the spirit, a shifting, varying psychology.”1 Fundamental to the play's sense of time is the perception that the human heart, in ceaselessly riding the undulations of time, is unable to find a fixed locus of commitment in the enduring present, and so is forced to vacillate continually between future and past, anticipation and memory.

Beneath the sharp oscillations of time and desire, however, there runs through the play a deeper, longer undercurrent of time, one which in its furthest extension into the past begins with the first Caesar and culminates in the triumph of the second. What might be called the memory of the play goes back to Caesar's murder and Philippi, the events which lie behind the Triumvirate and the political conflicts of the present, and to Cleopatra's old love affairs, which cast such an ambiguous light on her relationship with Antony. From the audience's viewpoint the future of the play, since it belongs to the historical past, is already set, predetermined. Caesar's pronouncements about “destiny” ( and the coming “time of universal peace” ( are therefore to be taken literally as indications of the shape of things to come. Yet the more emphatic intimations of the future have to do not with Caesar's triumph and the reunification of the Empire but, understandably enough, with the downfalls of the two protagonists, their destinies being dramatically the more important. The Soothsayer is introduced at two points, once to foretell the doom of Cleopatra (I.ii), and once (II.iii) to warn Antony that he will lose in any competition with Caesar simply because Caesar is more fortunate, because time and the stars are working in his favor. The ominous music of Act IV, scene iii, which carries the implication that Antony's ancestor and guardian spirit, Hercules, has deserted him on the eve of the decisive battle, suggests obscurely but potently that supernatural processes are involved in Antony's downfall. The following scenes, covering Antony's preparation for battle and initial victory, are marked by an uncustomary retardation of pace, a momentary suspension of the onward rush of time which permits a slower, more ceremonious showing forth of the hero's final acts of generosity and prowess; as though here, just before the foredoomed end, he were once more returning to the Antony of old. The final outcome of the battle is anticipated in the ominous reports of the Egyptian augurers (IV.xii.3-6). One effect of these foreshadowings is to indicate that the protagonists are opposed by time not only because they are forced to cope with the continually shifting demands of the present, but also, in a deeper sense, because their downfalls are implicated in the evolving, preestablished plan of history. But it is largely through their resistance to this plan and their ultimate transcendence of it that they gain a tragic supremacy, moving into the timeless dimensions of “their story” (V.ii.359).

All these factors together produce the impression that time in this play is, except for Caesar, an unsalutary force, a medium against which rather than through which man must work to achieve his highest aims. Nevertheless, it is not invested with the same destructive potency it has in other Shakespeare plays and the Sonnets. It is envisioned neither as the implacable enemy of youth, beauty, and sensuous delight (the hero and heroine may be well on in years but they do not complain of it), nor as the “monster of ingratitude” which ruthlessly assigns all human worth and achievement to oblivion (Antony's former triumphs are vividly remembered). Nor does the play include the dilemma suffered by several of Shakespeare's tragic heroes, that of experiencing time as nothing but a painful monotony, without direction or purpose, merely sifting away into dust and nothingness. Such does it become at various moments for Richard II, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear, but here no character is driven to the point of seeing all human activity as meaningless: there is always at least the possibility of a Roman death. Conversely, time in Antony also lacks the positive, beneficent connotations that it has for those Shakespearian characters, mainly heroines, who learn to respond to it with a patient fortitude or “readiness”. To Cordelia, Imogen, and, eventually, Hamlet, patience signifies a recognition that time, because it is under providential governance, ultimately heals and restores; but to Cleopatra patience is “sottish”. While Caesar's vision of the evolving Empire does imply a kind of providential design, Caesar himself is hardly presented as the faithful and benevolent agent of higher powers.

If the world of the play is generally dominated by a heightened sense of temporal change, among the major characters sharply differing responses to this condition may be distinguished. It is in this area that time takes on a more refined, elusive significance, for here it becomes closely associated with the particular modes of expression and conduct created for each character. The subject may only be properly examined if first another, related element in the play is taken into account. This is the persistent emphasis given to the public images of Caesar, Antony, and Cleopatra. One of the accepted conditions of their milieu is that their essential worth is determined not by those hidden qualities which in a Christian context are visible only to the all-seeing eye of God, but rather by the way they appear outwardly to the world. The implied metaphor for this is that of the stage: the rulers of the earth, emperors and queens, are obliged to perform their roles before the world's audience in such a way as to imitate the established qualities of greatness. Honor, reverence, and loyalty are apportioned according to the success of their performance. In this the play illustrates the “high mimetic” mode attributed by Northrop Frye to Renaissance literature, insofar as the central theme of this mode is that of “cynosure or centripetal gaze, which … seems to have something about it of the court gazing upon its sovereign, the court-room gazing upon the orator, or the audience gazing upon the actor.”2 Appropriately, when Cleopatra displayed herself on the Cydnus, the very air would, but for a vacuum, have gone to “gaze” on her too (II.ii.218); and Antony, resolving to join Cleopatra beyond the grave, envisions their ultimate bliss as being “gazed” upon by so many ghosts that Dido and Aeneas will want admirers (IV.xiv.52). Other expressions which often recur are those of seeing, showing, and acting. Soon after the play begins the audience is pointedly enjoined to observe the queen and her paramour: “Look where they come: Take but good note, and you shall see …” (I.i.10-11). Antony prepares for his death by asking Eros whether he would “see” him in the shameful posture of captivity (IV.xiv.72-77); Cleopatra for hers by commanding Charmian and Iras: “Show me, my women, like a queen” (V.ii.226). The play ends with Caesar's announcement: “Our army shall In solemn show attend this funeral …” (V.ii.361-362).

One result of this emphasis on the public image is that revelations of inner experience are held to a minimum, receiving decidedly less attention than they do in Shakespeare's earlier tragedies. As acutely conscious as they are of how they appear to others, the characters show relatively little awareness of the private, isolated self. Caesar is never alone to soliloquize; indeed, only twice does he display a spontaneous attitude undetermined by calculated impression or political expedience—when he praises Antony for his Spartan demeanor during the retreat from Modena, and when he laments Antony's death. With Cleopatra there is no clear distinction between private and public attitude. All her moods and utterances are—not necessarily in a pejorative sense—theatrical. When more important personages are unavailable, she uses her retainers as an everpresent audience whose main function is to witness and appreciate. Antony does soliloquize—six times; but only one of his soliloquies, the first, in which he registers the impact of Fulvia's death, shows the kind of analytic self-awareness which follows upon abrupt disillusionment or reversal of expectation. The others are as though spoken to an audience which does not happen to be present at the moment. The one character whose private experience becomes in the end of paramount significance is Enobarbus. Through his disloyalty he dissociates himself from a human audience, from anyone like the Roman staff officers with whom he can share an immediate camaraderie and mutual respect. Hence he is forced to suffer his agony of self-reproach in isolation, having only the moon to call upon as witness to his guilt and repentance.

The kinds of public image the characters strive to create or preserve in the face of universal mutability is closely related to their sense of time; and both public image and sense of time are bound up with the implicit moral valuation Shakespeare places on each of them. While within the dominant time sense of each character there are obvious fluctuations, generally it may be said that for Caesar the most meaningful aspect of time is the future; for Antony, the past; for Cleopatra, the present.

For Caesar time in its broader movement is progressive, pointing ahead to the final goal of “universal landlordship”. Not that he clearly envisions this goal from the start; rather it emerges gradually as he recognizes and seizes upon the opportunities which time engenders. His progress is facilitated by an acute time-consciousness which appears both in the frequency with which the word “time” itself occurs in his discourse—more often than in any other character's—and in his aversion to wasting time in the pleasures of the moment. In his first scene he complains of Antony's “confounding the time” in Alexandria (I.iv.28), emphasizing the latter's flagrant violation of the normal diurnal routine through his wasting “The lamps of night in revel” and reeling about “the streets at noon” (I.iv.5, 20). During the debauched symposium on Pompey's galley Caesar refuses to be “a child o' th' time”, claiming that “our graver business Frowns at this levity” (II.vii.119-120). When it comes to military and political tactics, he knows the value of an efficient spy system (“I have eyes upon him, And his affairs come to me on the wind”, and can dispense with the advice of his subordinates because he has already anticipated what has to be done and has done it (“'Tis done already, and the messenger gone”, Caesar's efficiency is supported by another attitude, an unillusioned acceptance of the slipperiness of human desire. Since he regards human nature, especially the feminine part of it (III.xii.29-31), as gullible and unsteadfast, he is never caught off balance by betrayed expectations. Hence he is unsurprised by the Roman people's flocking to the support of Pompey, experience having led him to expect as much. When the jilted Octavia returns from Athens—already the victim of her brother's practice of subordinating personal feeling to policy—he offers her the consolation that it is no use regretting things that could not have happened otherwise:

                                                                                                    Cheer your heart:
Be you untroubled with the time, which drives
O'er your content these strong necessities;
But let determined things to destiny
Hold unbewailed their way.


The public image Caesar consistently tries to present is that of the just, conscientious ruler. Already in his opening words he is showing Lepidus how fair-minded he can be about Antony, and whenever he takes action against an opponent he carefully provides self-exonerating reasons, as though his action were provoked. Greeting Octavia, he is disturbed that her unexpected arrival has prevented the “ostentation” of his love, “which, left unshown, Is often left unloved” ( After defeating Antony he proposes to “show” his officers how reluctant he was to make war against him (V.i.73-77). His dealings with Cleopatra amount to an elaborate exercise in letting “the world see His nobleness well acted” (V.ii.44-45). In these deliberately theatrical gestures Caesar is observing the Machiavellian principle that the ruler should strive always to appear, not necessarily be, just and virtuous. For all his talk of bonds, oaths, and justice, in the course of the play he deceives, or tries to deceive, every other character of political consequence: Pompey, Lepidus, Antony, and Cleopatra. His public image therefore seems unrelated to any consistent personal ideal. Owing to his concentration on the future he neither commits himself to anything beyond the “strong necessities” of his program nor inspires genuine commitment in return. Only twice, as we have seen, does he avert his attention from the future and indulge in retrospection, on both occasions eulogizing Antony. Politically speaking, Shakespeare no doubt means to suggest that the consolidation of the Empire under one ruler and the resulting “universal peace” are desirable achievements, insofar as they reestablish the order which was disrupted by the murder of Julius Caesar. But in terms of the deeper moral values asserted in the play—in Enobarbus' observations on loyalty, for instance (III.xiii.43-46)—Caesar gains his success at the expense of an unedifying compromise with the ways of the world. By regarding time as instrumental, solely in its aspect of emergent opportunity, he himself becomes, in a sense, time's instrument.

Not being Fortune, he's but Fortune's knave,
A minister of her will.


Antony plainly lacks Caesar's facility for adapting himself to the changing demands of time. Much of his behavior is characterized by a persistent strain. He is rarely able to meet with ease and assurance the circumstances confronting him. His shifts in strategy and allegiance arise not like Caesar's from clear-sighted calculation, but rather from sudden, unreflective impulse—in Enobarbus' terms, not from judgment but from will. Beginning with his revulsion from the “present pleasure” and quick retreat from Egypt, the strain, the radical fluctuations of temper, continue, except for rare interludes of equilibrium, until he is told of Cleopatra's death. Then, at the line

Unarm, Eros. The long day's task is done,
And we must sleep,


there is a sudden loosening, a grateful relinquishment of effort. Now that “All length is torture” (IV.xiv.46), death appears to Antony as a welcome liberation.

The source of the strain seems to be a self-dividedness in Antony which goes deeper than the surface conflict between Love and Honor, Egypt and Rome. At several points the name Antony (“That magical name of war”) is invoked both by himself and others in almost incantational fashion, as though it signified a fixed concept of Antony; and this concept, or “true” self, is often seen as dangerously contradicted by the visible Antony. This appears at the outset of the play in Philo's contrast between what Antony was and what he has become, and again at the end of the first scene:

Sir, sometimes when he is not Antony
He comes too short of that great property
Which still should go with Antony.


What propels Antony back to Rome is his fear of “losing himself” in dotage (I.ii.113), and once there he admits to Caesar that in Alexandria “poisoned hours had bound me up From mine own knowledge” (II.ii.90-91). To Octavia he declares: “If I lose mine honor, I lose myself” (III.iv.22-23). After Actium, a battle he would have won had he “Been what he knew himself” (III.x.27), he is bitterly conscious of self-betrayal:

I have fled myself. …
My very hairs do mutiny: for the white
Reprove the brown for rashness, and they them
For fear and doting.
                                                                                                              Let that be left
Which leaves itself.

(III.xi.7, 13-15, 19-20)

In the throes of defeat, Antony viciously reasserts his authority by having Thidias whipped (“I am Antony yet”, III.xiii.92-93) and by sending an angry message to Caesar:

                                                                                                                        For he seems
Proud and disdainful, harping on what I am,
Not what he knew I was.


Fully aware of Antony's self-conflict, Caesar exploits it by arranging the final battle in such a way “That Antony may seem to spend his fury Upon himself” (

Unmistakable emphasis is given, then, to a cleavage in Antony which can be expressed in temporal terms, a cleavage between what he is in the present and what he has been in the past, prior to the time of the play. Since most of his efforts are directed toward perpetuating or revivifying his self-image against the constant threat of temporal change, his vision of time is essentially retrospective. The past he tries to preserve is not the kind which is recreated through active personal reminiscence (Antony himself actually does very little recalling of former exploits, only doing so when chafing under the shame of losing a battle to the “boy” Octavius); rather it is the kind which is enshrined in the public memory as an image of incomparable greatness. And this image is based, in turn, not on the discreet political virtues cultivated by Caesar, but on those qualities of military prowess and munificence which inspire intense awe and devotion in the observer. Caesar's relationships with others are contractual, regulated by bonds and oaths; Antony's, on the other hand, are at their best chivalric, based on close personal commitment between leader and follower. Hence Antony's efforts to perpetuate his image, to “be himself”, are closely linked with his ability to command the loyalty of his devotees, Cleopatra before all others. Their loyalty is the mirror in which he sees his greatness reflected.

Many of Antony's movements in the play result, then, from his impulsive attempts to retrieve that eminence which he regards as virtually synonymous with his being. Such is the reason for his hasty return to Rome, and again for his return to Egypt. During the prolonged process of his downfall, however, there is one sequence of scenes in which he momentarily conquers his characteristic oscillations of attitude and succeeds in becoming one with his image, in making it authentically present. These are the scenes just before and during the final battle which, as noted earlier, show a marked retardation in the usual accelerated pace of the action (IV.iv-v, vii-viii). No longer obsessed with the undeserved prosperity of the younger, luckier Caesar, Antony does not resort to the desperate bravado of challenging him to single combat, but instead, feeling the morning imbued with the “spirit of youth”, regards the coming battle with buoyant anticipation. With uncommon humility he acknowledges his past errors of strategy and assumes some of the blame for Enobarbus' defection. Towards Cleopatra and his followers he displays a spirited comradeship, showing no anxiety over the fidelity of the one, and freely praising the others for their deeds with none of that finicky concern for his own honor earlier ascribed to him by Ventidius. His speech is filled with the terms and attitudes of chivalry (“our gests”, “this great fairy”, “promises royal peril”, IV.xiii. 2, 12, 35), as though for him the battle were purely a matter of old-style heroism, uncontaminated by Caesarian Realpolitik. Antony's momentary triumph in the dual role of lover and warrior makes this the one point in the play, as Knight observes,3 where the two hitherto antagonistic values of Love and War converge and support one another.

But the scenes are already ironically undercut by the premonitions of doom conveyed through the mysterious music just preceding. The battle lost, Antony is thrust once again into his quandary of self-division by what he supposes to be the betrayal of Cleopatra and the thousands she draws after her. Owing to the “discandying” of their loyalty, he feels that his image has become as illusory as the evanescent forms of clouds at sunset: “here I am Antony, Yet cannot hold this visible shape …” (IV.xiv.13-14). Upon recovering himself in response to Cleopatra's supposed suicide, Antony looks upon death at first with joyful anticipation, as a means of escaping the entanglements of temporal existence into a realm of idyllic freedom, where he and Cleopatra will be the sole objects of “gazing” admiration (IV.xiv.44-54). But when he is actually dying and learns that Cleopatra is not waiting to meet him in the Elysian Fields, this attitude gives way to another: he comes to look upon death instead in its aspect of finality, as a means of fixing unalterably the “visible shape” he will hold in memory. Although Eros, his soldiers, and Cleopatra show that their devotion is as firm as ever, his main satisfaction is that in his suicide he has performed an entirely autonomous act of honor, “conquering” that self which had proved so difficult to hold intact at the latter end of his career.

Not Caesar's valor hath o'erthrown Antony,
But Antony's hath triumphed on itself.


As Antony approaches his end, the falling rhythms of his lines betray an enervation not merely physical but spiritual, a final loosening of the strain. The kiss he begs of Cleopatra is not the prelude to future voluptuousness beyond the grave—he assumes she will live after him—but simply the “poor last”. At the end he makes a final effort to fix himself in the memory of his audience, directing their attention away from the ignominious present to the resplendent past:

The miserable change now at my end
Lament nor sorrow at; but please your thoughts
In feeding them with those my former fortunes,
Wherein I lived the greatest prince o' th' world,
The noblest. …


After Antony's death, the task of perpetuating his image falls to Cleopatra and her volatile imagination, fired into intense activity by her devotion. Through the imagery of her lamentation (IV.xv.59-68) he becomes the world's central symbol of excellence whose absence makes the world no longer worth abiding in. Cleopatra's “dream” of Antony (V.ii.76-92) magnifies the image even further: it virtually deifies him, assimilating him to the larger controlling processes of nature—the spheres, seasons, and elements—so that like them he appears permanent and inexhaustible, above mortal limitation. Thus if the living Antony must forever struggle to preserve his image against the pressures of time, once he is bodily removed from the scene his image is liberated into a visionary realm where “fancy outworks nature” and those pressures no longer prevail.

The significance of time for Cleopatra is not quite so easy to decide as it is for Caesar and Antony, her attitudes being more rapid and mutable, more imbued with “variety”, than theirs. Much of the ambiguity about her, reflected in the widely differing views of her offered by modern criticism, arises from Shakespeare's deliberate failure to distinguish clearly between what she really feels and what she merely pretends. To those who judge her with the sobriety of a Caesar, nearly all her actions are tainted with coquetry or self-interest until she resolves, or rather carries out her resolution, to die for Antony. But perhaps the kind of “truth” implied in such a judgment, a kind exemplified by the “holy, cold, and still” Octavia, is not one that can be meaningfully applied to Cleopatra. She eludes the sharp distinction between sincerity and pretense because her nature is intrinsically histrionic. It is impossible to conceive her as having an unobserved existence, apart from an audience. At every moment she forces her onlookers to recognize and appreciate the fact of her being. If she is not indulging in such more obvious forms of play-acting as dressing up as Isis, wearing Antony's sword Philippan, or wandering the streets of Alexandria in disguise, then she is testing her power to captivate on a Thidias, Dolabella, or Caesar. She is morally naive in the sense that she is incapable of regretting what she has done in the past or of disciplining her desires in the present. She regards all her moods and impulses as equally valid, equally worthy of revelation:

Whom every thing becomes—to chide, to laugh,
To weep; whose every passion fully strives
To make itself, in thee, fair and admired.


This means in effect that time for Cleopatra is not a rationally demarcated sequence of past, present, and future, but consists of a flexible, continuous present. Since every moment offers an opportunity for self-disclosure, then every moment has its own particular authority. From the efficient Roman viewpoint Cleopatra is a creature of “idleness” for whom time means nothing in a moral or practical sense; but actually her kind of idleness involves a full emotional commitment quite incompatible with mere sensual indulgence. As she tells the unsympathetic Antony:

                                                            'Tis sweating labor
To bear such idleness so near the heart
As Cleopatra this.


Her idleness also involves an incessant imaginative activity which carries her freely beyond the immediate here and now, enriching even the “great gap of time” when she has nothing to do but wait passively for Antony. In his absence, her thoughts reach out to him in the present moment:

Where think'st thou he is now? Stands he, or sits he?
Or does he walk? or is he on his horse?


Then comes a quick movement of empathy:

O happy horse, to bear the weight of Antony!


Cleopatra's “freer thoughts” proceed to dwell appreciatively on her irrepressible seductive powers, and in so doing move into the past:

                                                                                Now I feed myself
With most delicious poison. Think on me,
That am with Phoebus' amorous pinches black
And wrinkled deep in time. Broad-fronted Caesar,
When thou wast here above the ground, I was
A morsel for a monarch; and great Pompey
Would stand and make his eyes grow in my brow;
There would he anchor his aspect, and die
With looking on his life.


However dark and wrinkled she may be, “age cannot wither her”. Time has a ripening effect on Cleopatra, bringing her to a plenitude of vitality through the sun's gradual action. She prides herself not only on having fascinated the great ones of the earth but also on having outlived them: they pass on but she endures. So strong in her is the sense of vital continuity that she can hardly be imagined as ever having been essentially different from what she is—as once having been “green in judgment, cold in blood” (I.v.74). When she refers to her “salad days” she is sharing a joke with Charmian.

The paradoxical linking of life and death at the end of the last quotation suggests that extensive range of images with which Cleopatra is associated throughout the play—images, such as those of the ebb and flow of the Nile, having to do with the cyclical processes of nature, the endless round of growth and decay; also with the two kinds of “death”—mortal and erotic—represented ambiguously in Cleopatra's “celerity in dying” (I.ii.141) and the immortal worm that “kills and pains not” (V.ii.244). These oxymora recur so often that they seem inseparable from Cleopatra and her milieu. As her barge floats rhythmically on the waters of the Cydnus (not cutting through them purposefully like the ships of Pompey and Caesar), she holds her gazers rapt, simultaneously raising and allaying appetite, making “hungry Where most she satisfies” (II.ii.238-239). Again in Enobarbus' description: “she did make defect perfection And, breathless, pow'r breathe forth” (II.ii.232-233). Cleopatra is further identified with the animating forces of nature through her association with Isis, and her declaration to Antony that if she is ever “cold-hearted”, then not only she but also the “memory” of her womb and her “brave Egyptians all” will perish (III.xiii.158-167). The import of these images is that Cleopatra inhabits a sphere where time is natural rather than historical, where instead of moving in linear progression as it does for Caesar, or with perilous unpredictability as it does for Antony, it forever undulates through the mingled revolutions of depletion and renewal, life and death.

As Cleopatra prepares for her own death she does not undergo complete regeneration so much as a refinement of qualities she has shown all along, a sublimation into “fire and air” (V.ii.288). This can be expressed as a movement from a present rather haphazard in its fluctuations to one which through ceremonious deliberateness gains a definitive clarity, or “shackles accidents and bolts up change” (V.i.6). Her actions are more consciously histrionic than before, partly stemming as they do from her desire to “show” herself in the posture of invincible queenliness so as to escape the unthinkable fate of being exhibited to the shouting hoi polloi of Rome. But the image she creates, in contrast to the exhausted finality of Antony's dying gestures, fully preserves her sense of vital continuity. Death to her means “liberty” (V.ii.237), a chance to rejoin Antony in all the triumphant splendor of their first meeting on the Cyndus. She hastens towards it with the impatience of “immortal longings” (V.ii.280), and the commands she gives are crisp and energetic:

Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hear
Antony call: I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act.


The closer to death Cleopatra draws, the more actively her histrionic imagination works as she rehearses in rapid succession the multiple roles of queen, wife, mistress, cunning victor over Caesar, and nursing mother. The quick change of mood in her final lines, from swooning rapture to alert impatience, shows her “variety” undampened to the end. Even in death she sustains the impression of a vitality not extinguished but merely dormant:

                                                                                          she looks like sleep,
As she would catch another Antony
In her strong toil of grace.


In the end, the realm of disordered and directionless time, the realm under the sway of the “false huswife Fortune”, is met and overcome in two sharply opposed ways. Caesar has gained his grand objective: the “three-nooked world” is at peace. The confidence with which he wears his new hegemony appears in his refusal to be annoyed by the deception worked on him by his prize captive. If he is aware of having been made an “ass Unpolicied”, he does not show it. Unimpeded in his forward progress, he is looking ahead once again in his next to last words: “And then to Rome”—words which even in their parenthetical brevity evoke the coming Augustan grandeur. But Caesar also pauses to commemorate in choric fashion the “story” of his two opponents, and it is this story which dramatically represents the more impressive and enduring victory. Through his dedication to an impersonal historical destiny, his concentration on the possibilities of the future, Caesar, as we have seen, suffers an impoverishment of self, an inability to regard any impractical activity as more than a wasteful indulgence or “confounding” of time. Antony's obsession with a static image of former greatness leads to another kind of self-dislocation, an inability to exist fully and consistently in the present. His is necessarily a post-mortem success, achieved through the releasing of his image from the complexities of time into uninhibited fantasy. The “story” of the play, its final dramatic impact, therefore, depends on Cleopatra. Her last scene is tragic in an especially exalted sense because more than any other figure in Shakespeare she consciously and ceremoniously fashions the style of her death. She treats it as a kind of inspired play—play in the sense of free histrionic activity and the full enjoyment of one's faculties in the present, without a deflection of energy into either the recapturing of the past or the conquering of the future. She demonstrates the paradox familiar in modern psychoanalytic literature, that to live fully one must accept the actuality of death, be able to die with “celerity”. In her readiness to “play till doomsday” she asserts the supremacy of being over becoming, and illuminates the meaning of one of the key Shakespearian terms: “ripeness”.


  1. The Imperial Theme (London, 1931), p. 275.

  2. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton, 1957), p. 58.

  3. The Imperial Theme, pp. 280, 305-306.

Frederick Turner (essay date 1971)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7208

SOURCE: Turner, Frederick. “Time the ‘Destroyer’ in the Sonnets.” In Shakespeare and the Nature of Time, pp. 7-27. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.

[In the following essay, Turner examines the associated themes of love and time in Shakespeare's sonnets. He argues that even though these verses depict time as corrupting all material or external things, especially beauty, they also represent true love as a transcendent, spiritual relationship to which time is irrelevant.]

It is, perhaps, dangerous to ascribe a philosophy or a conceptual view of time to the sonnets. J. B. Leishman, in his Themes and Variations in Shakespeare's Sonnets (1961), makes an instructive contrast between the intellectual and even speculative tone of Michelangelo's sonnets and the more metaphorical and imagistic tone of Shakespeare's. Shakespeare did consider the nature of the world we live in; but he saw abstract ideas in concrete terms, and for him stones and animals and trees were incarnate thoughts and feelings.

If, then, we are to pursue Shakespeare's ideas about time, we must do it largely through the images he uses. Shakespeare thinks in symbols and in emotional and moral intuitions. He tests an idea not by its internal logical coherence but rather by its appeal to his imagination, his heart, and his moral sense; and by its applicability in a real situation or a concrete image. Often the different contexts and uses of an image will point out to us the associations of ideas that Shakespeare is forming within it. If, for instance, the image of ruins is associated in one poem with the poet's old age, and in another with the decay of the most durable structure by the agency of time, we can infer that Shakespeare associates the loss of youth and physical beauty with the breakdown of order and structure occasioned by the decay of time. A simple example; but we will find whole arguments in the sonnets conducted in terms of the permutations of a single image, like, for instance, the flower-canker-scent-distillation image. Many of these images recur in the plays, and an understanding of their use in the sonnets can help us to perceive their moral colour and relevance there.

In the sonnets as a whole, there are two great themes: love and time. Love is associated by Shakespeare with all that is warmest and most physically present in life: that sense of the living touch of reality which is celebrated in Venus and Adonis, the dearness of the relationship of Lear and Cordelia at the end of the play, the warmth of romantic love at the end of the Merchant of Venice. Time is the great enemy of all these beautiful and especial things; it seems to question their validity or to give a pessimistic answer to the questions they raise.

Time is a destroyer. It not only carries us towards the end of our lives, but destroys us in every moment. We die in ‘every moment’, as T. S. Eliot puts it.1 In Sonnet 60 Shakespeare sees in one sweep all of man's life from birth to death, and identifies the process of time with death. The passing of the minutes is part of the whole system of death in which time involves us:

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end;
Each changing place with that which goes before,
In sequent toil all forwards do contend. …
… Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth,
And delves the parallels in beauty's brow,
Feeds on the rarities of nature's truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow …(2)

Philosophically there is a profound sense in which we are not the same individual as we were a year or even a moment ago: something in us had died. We do not possess that instantaneous and eternal consistency which is ascribed to God or the angels; we are almost a succession of entities, each giving way to its successor, ended by only the last death of many. Death itself is not a single event at the end of a life, but a continuous process.

Time destroys the order and coherence of things, even the most firmly founded:

When I have seen by Time's fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-rased,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the wat'ry main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay;
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate—
That Time will come and take my love away.(3)

Shakespeare looks at material things, however durable or however constructed with craft and skill to defy the ravages of time, and perceives that nevertheless they fall and decay. There is in this sonnet a curious acceleration of the destructive processes of time, which makes the cliffs and towers seem to crumble in a moment—a mockery of their seeming strength! In a thousand years even enduring stone will crumble; how much swifter will be the decay of human beauty and the ending of human life.

In this sonnet is expressed the flux of time, and the very sound and rhythm of the perpetual change and destruction of the sea-coast is evoked: ‘Increasing store with loss and loss with store’. The waves seem to beat against the rocks and retreat again and again. (A similar effect is gained in Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem ‘The Sea and the Skylark’: ‘Low lull off, and all roar’.) This is the same coast as that of T. S. Eliot's ‘The Dry Salvages’, one feels, an ocean equally inimical to the especial and unique beauty of transient things. To ‘destroy’ means literally to ‘unstructure’: time attacks order and form. Time's glory in The Rape of Lucrece is

To ruinate proud buildings with thy hours,
And smear with dust their glitt'ring golden tow'rs;
To fill with worm-holes stately monuments,
To feed oblivion with decay of things,
To blot old books and alter their contents …(4)

Time attacks identity itself:

Or state itself confounded to decay.(5)

Here ‘state’ means not only the pomp and dignity of high position or great riches, but also echoes the meaning of the same word in the previous line: a concept as basic as ‘form’, ‘existence’, or ‘identity’—the grid-lines of creation itself.

The process of decay which gives time its direction is evoked in various different images in the sonnets. Sometimes, as in the quotation from Lucrece, it is shown in the most homely images of all. If we are not always at work maintaining, tidying, and repairing the ordered and formed things we need about us to keep us alive, they will revert to filth and chaos. If we do not sweep a room, it becomes less of a dwelling-place; wood or iron unpainted rots or rusts; at all times disorder creeps up on us:

… And smear with dust their glitt'ring golden tow'rs;
To fill with worm-holes stately monuments …
… unswept stone, besmear'd with sluttish time.(6)

The image that occurs again and again, as if its associations were so heart-breaking and inexhaustible that Shakespeare could not let it go, is the image of the dying flower:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date: …
… And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimm'd.(7)
… That thereby beauty's rose might never die …(8)
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?(9)

In this last quotation the word ‘action’ keeps its legal sense, but it contains also the simpler and sublime sense of ‘power of action’. A flower has no strength at all, and the pathos of this total powerlessness when pitted against the brutal ‘rage’ of time is enormously effective. The image appeals to our muscle-memories of weakness and to the sense of paralysis we sometimes feel in dreams.

The effectiveness of the flower image used in this way lies largely in the fact that flowers are among the most delicately ordered and intricately formed of creations; they exemplify beauty: but they are at the same time the most fragile of natural objects. If the massive and stubborn order even of works of masonry falls into decay, what chance has the transient order which alone sustains the most intense and sweetest beauty? Time seems to attack order in particular; and it is order from which we get our values and in which we see the possibility of a world untouched by death.

A modern term for the destructive force of time might be the ‘increase of entropy’. From a scientific point of view, the process of time can be more or less identified with the increase of entropy, or disorder, in the universe. Shakespeare's intuition of time as increasing disorder and perpetual interchange of state seems oddly echoed by the results of the laboratory. (Yet Herakleitos had come to similar conclusions: ‘Fire lives in the death of earth, air in the death of fire, water in the death of air, and earth in the death of water.’)10

Shakespeare looks at his young friend and at his own youth and sees the forces arrayed against them:

Against my love shall be as I am now,
With Time's injurious hand crush'd and o'erworn.(11)

In the Renaissance, when life was shorter and youth more fleeting than they are today, the ideal of beauty was a far younger one. At sixteen one was at the height of beauty; by twenty-five one was middle-aged. Youth is indeed like a flower: the body functions as it should, decrepitude has not yet set in, and the flesh seems for once in life to be a true expression of Man's spirit. Like a flower, youth is a promise; like a promise, it is sometimes sweeter than its fulfilment.

Time is a ‘tyrant’12 who destroys all that he rules over; what are the limits of his dominion? Time's assault is perhaps only on external things. Here social externals are shown to be transient:

Great princes' favourites their fair leaves spread
But as the marigold at the sun's eye;
And in themselves their pride lies buried,
For at a frown they in their glory die.(13)
If my dear love were but the child of state,
It might for Fortune's bastard be unfather'd,
As subject to Time's love or to Time's hate,
Weeds among weeds, or flowers with flowers gather'd.(14)

Fortune can swiftly disown any emotion based on merely superficial considerations, since such an emotion lays itself open not only to the favour of the temporal but also to its enmity. In Sonnet 125 this subjection of externals to the destructive forces of time is stated clearly:

Were't aught to me I bore the canopy,
With my extern the outward honouring,
Or laid great bases for eternity,
Which proves more short than waste or ruining?(15)

As in Love's Labour's Lost, external rhetoric is opposed to internal feeling:

… yet when they have devis'd
What strained touches rhetoric can lend,
Thou truly fair wert truly sympathiz'd
In true plain words by thy true-telling friend …(16)
I never saw that you did painting need,
And therefore to your fair no painting set …
… For I impair not beauty, being mute,
When others would give life, and bring a tomb.
There lives more life in one of your fair eyes
Than both your poets can in praise devise.(17)

Here again it is the externals that bring death, and are involved with death.

This contrast between external, physical things (which pass away) and internal, spiritual things (which can perhaps endure) is very important in the sonnets. We see it stated most effectively, perhaps, in the great flower-scent-distillate image. The external show of beauty is doomed unless it is accompanied by an inner wholesomeness: the internally cankered rose has no perfume, and thus, no hope of continuance:

The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour which doth in it live.
The canker-blooms have full as deep a dye
As the perfumed tincture of the roses,
Hang on such thorns, and play as wantonly
When summer's breath their masked buds discloses;
But for their virtue only is their show,
They live unwoo'd, and unrespected fade;
Die to themselves. Sweet roses do not so:
Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made.(18)

But here a new problem arises; the image of the canker cannot be made to signify anything but the idea of sin. Shakespeare's vision of the destructive effects of time has become an ethic. The moral tone of these lines is unmistakable:

Ah! wherefore with infection should he live
And with his presence grace impiety … ?
… Why should false painting imitate his cheek,
And steal dead seeming of his living hue?(19)

Sin is marked by a subordination of the inner self to the external world, and to those externals by which the inner self is expressed. Here is a compelling and gruesome image of this:

… Before the golden tresses of the dead,
The right of sepulchres, were shorn away
To live a second life on second head,
Ere beauty's dead fleece made another gay.(20)

Sin seeks out dead things to be its expression. There is a curious appropriateness about this: the wages of sin is death. Sin is the rank smell of flowers that have become internally rotten and dead, and have lost their fragrance, their spiritual essence:

Then, churls, their thoughts, although their eyes were kind,
To thy fair flower add the rank smell of weeds.
But why thy odour matcheth not thy show,
The soil is this—that thou dost common grow.(21)
… For canker vice the sweetest buds doth love …(22)
… Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.(23)

Shakespeare's approach to sin, then, is twofold. Sin can originate in an involvement of the inner self with its external show; and it becomes in corollary an inner corruption or infection masked by a fair exterior. The soul, in loving dead externals, becomes dead in turn. Sin inverts the proper precedence of human personality, in that it reverses the dependence of outward expression on the inner spirit. For Shakespeare the worst sin is hypocrisy, as we can see clearly in Hamlet, Lear, and Othello. Beauty, which is noble as the expression of inner worth, becomes the mask of the hypocrite alike in the sonnets and in these plays. In modern psychology there is an interesting analogy with Shakespeare's diagnosis of human evil: the attribution of many of the illnesses of personality to a similar discrepancy between the external persona of an individual, and his inner ego. Moreover, when the spirit of a man becomes subordinate to his social or physical self, it comes under the deterministic rules of temporality.

If all that is important in an event or action is its past and future, how can we say that it is not determined, that it is not merely caused by its past and a cause of its future? Within the world of time, the cause-effect relationship is all-powerful: there would be no law in the universe if this were not so. But we can say also that within this world there can be no qualitative judgements, only quantitative ones, for we cannot give value to something which is solely a link in a causal chain. Our feeling of value can apply only to things which are in some way ultimate, which are uncaused, or related to the purpose or end of all existence. Cause denies purpose and intrinsic worth, just as in human affairs it denies responsibility. The bitter pathos in the dying-flower image lay in the fact that Shakespeare saw value and purpose in something which he could not consider at that time as anything but subject to the laws of time. The tragedy of beauty and love is that they demand of us imperatively a recognition and belief in their ultimate value and purpose, but that they exist within the world of time, seemingly ruled over by an unalterable determinism.

It is obvious that if the apparently inexorable laws of entropy and determination have the ultimate sway in the lives of men, we face an existence which is insupportable to our spiritual and moral instincts. We have already seen how in the sonnets the decay of things offends our sense of the everlastingness of that which is beautiful. But time is not only the destroyer of the physical order as we find it in beautiful things; it is also the destroyer of the moral order in Man, if he succumbs to its tyranny. Time the corrupter of the flesh is also the corrupter of the soul. It corrupts us if we involve ourselves with externals, with the world of social favour and outward show that is subject to time. And if we are only creatures of time, then we are governed in our every action by an irreversible deterministic process.

The love that is rooted in appetency is subject to time's laws, and is ended by the bitterness of satiety or forgetfulness. The tragedy of Troilus and Cressida is precisely that sensual love is created but also destroyed by time;24 this feeling is strong also in the sonnets:

Sweet love, renew thy force; be it not said
Thy edge should blunter be than appetite …(25)

Here the tone is comparatively lighthearted; but the implication that love is limited by time underlies it, and the same image of bluntness is used in Sonnet 95 with the gravest ethical overtones. The last line, which concludes a poem about evil hiding itself beneath a fair outward appearance, is full of foreboding:

The hardest knife ill-us'd doth lose his edge.

In the following lines, we see in the starkest terms the determinism of lust, which destroys the infinitude of the spirit by a temporal craving or compulsion:

Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjur'd, murd'rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust;
Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight;
Past reason hunted, and, no sooner had,
Past reason hated, as a swallowed bait,
On purpose laid to make the taker mad—
Mad in pursuit, and in possession so;
Had, having, and in quest to have, extreme …(26)

Here the present moment, wherein lies our only hope of freedom from time, becomes only the intermediary stage in a causal sequence between desire and satiety. This terrible bondage is occasioned by a relatively voluntary surrender to the temporal process of cause and effect. The lines themselves seem to follow each other with an inevitable momentum, the repetitions emphasizing the irresistible current of craving.

The flesh itself, then, is one of the externals which must not be allowed to rule over the inner spirit. Physical love must be the external expression of a deeper spiritual movement, if it is not to destroy our freedom. Lust is a fever which perpetuates and increases itself at the price of the individual's free will:

My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease;
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
Th' uncertain sickly appetite to please.(27)

In Shakespeare the themes of external show and inner reality are often paired with and balanced by the ideas of spiritual blindness and spiritual sight. If the eye is deceived as to the true nature of what it perceives, this can be the result either of the deception of appearances or of some deficiency in perception. In the sonnets time rules autocratically over all false outward appearances; similarly, time is the falsifier of true vision, the deceiver of true sight:

Thy registers and thee I both defy,
Not wond'ring at the present nor the past,
For thy records and what we see doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste.(28)
Ah, yet doth beauty, like a dial-hand,
Steal from his figure, and no pace perceiv'd;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and mine eye may be deceiv'd …(29)

It is the ‘dwellers on form and favour’, those who live the materialistic and expedient life of external appearance, whose senses are corrupted, who, for ‘compound sweet’ forgo ‘simple savour’; whose ‘oblation’ is therefore ‘mix'd with seconds’.30 This image of impurity in sense impressions has a curious power; when our senses are perverted we cannot taste the refreshment of reality. Touchstone in As You Like It satirizes the tastes of the court, which prizes the ‘most uncleanly flux of a cat’ as a perfume, and whose very perceptions are based on a false scale of values and a retreat from reality into external show.

The love that is based on appetency imposes a temporal tyranny not only on the soul, but also on the sense. Or rather, since it is the soul's business to apprehend reality through the senses, a sick soul cannot have healthy perceptions:31

My love is as a fever, longing still …
… Th' uncertain sickly appetite to please.(32)
O me, what eyes hath Love put in my head,
Which have no correspondence with true sight!(33)
In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes,
For they in thee a thousand errors note.
But 'tis my heart that loves what they despise,
Who in despite of view is pleas'd to dote.
Nor are mine ears with thy tongue's tune delighted;
Nor tender feeling to base touches prone,
Nor taste nor smell desire to be invited
To any sensual feast with thee alone;
But my five wits nor my five senses can
Dissuade one foolish heart from serving thee …(34)
O cunning Love! with tears thou keep'st me blind,
Lest eyes well seeing thy foul faults should find.(35)

Lust presents us with the paradox that the sensual life once chosen does not open but closes the gates of perception. A surrender to sense destroys sense. Sense in Gertrude is ‘apoplex'd’;36 the bait of lust makes the taker mad. The determinism which is imposed by time on the will when it surrenders to temporal things, is extended in the most sinister way to the senses—the only possible instruments of a true perception of reality, and consequently of a cure.

Shakespeare's idea of time, then, has developed from a vision of time as the destroyer of order and beauty, through the conception of time as the ruler of all external and material things, towards an ethic in which time becomes the corrupter of the soul and the senses when human beings yield to the domination of its determinism. All these effects of time seem to aim a destructive blow at love: for love is nourished by beauty, which time destroys; love expresses itself in external and material ways; love is wedded to sensual pleasure; and love demands freedom and a sense of value, neither of which seems to be permitted by the necessity of temporal existence.

How does Shakespeare solve these problems? The first, simplest, and most inadequate answer is the possibility of reproduction. A scientist would say that the living cell is the only thing in nature capable of resisting, by means of resources within itself, the effects of the process of increasing entropy. Life has, in fact, been defined in this way. Life builds and orders; records the past, reproduces itself for the future; and is Shakespeare's first answer to the problems of time. What is today a biological formula Shakespeare would have seen in terms of the resemblance of child to parent, the wonder of an old man at his child's youth and vigour, and the faint sense of immortality we feel at having reproduced our own life in another generation. If the especial beauty of his friend is forever doomed, it may at least be partially and imperfectly transmitted to the future through his children:

This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see the blood warm when thou feel'st it cold(37)

The major image for this in the Sonnets is that of the distilled perfume of a flower. Though the flower dies, the distillate, the seed, the ‘D.N.A.’, as it were, perpetuates the beauty that must pass:

From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die …(38)
Then, were not summer's distillation left
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass,
Beauty's effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it, nor no remembrance what it was;
But flowers distill'd, though they with winter meet,
Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.(39)

Again we see the contrast between the external accidents of beauty, which are transient, and the inner essence which may survive.

The cycle of the seasons is another image which Shakespeare uses when he pits the power of physical life and reproduction against the power of time. The distillate that is preserved is the distillation of summer which can resist the ravages of winter and become the seed of a new spring.

But Shakespeare was dissatisfied with this merely cyclic reproduction of lost beauty. There is something so especial about his friend's beauty, so archetypal, that once it has gone, it is as if the essence of beauty itself were destroyed, as if nature had cracked the mould: ‘Thy end is truth's and beauty's doom and date’.40 In Sonnet 53 all forms of beauty are only Platonic shadows of his substance. No genetic replica can do justice to its original. That uniqueness which gives beauty its character is welded to all that is most temporal and transient in it. Shakespeare faces T. S. Eliot's problem:

Time and the bell have buried the day
The black cloud carries the sun away.
Will the sunflower turn to us; will the clematis
Stray down, bend us; tendril and spray
Clutch and cling?(41)

Although, says Eliot, we may find a way to the ‘stillness that is the dance’ by means of rejection and darkness, there is still the problem of what happens to the transient beauty that we feel to be valid. That the cycle of the seasons will bring another spring is not enough. There is something especial and particular that must, it seems, pass away. Shakespeare must search for another answer to the problem of beauty's transience. In Sonnet 19 he accepts that time will devour his friend's beauty; it is in desperation that he defies time with his poetry, admitting that beauty will pass, but asserting that something can be rescued from its wreck:

But I forbid thee one most heinous crime:
O, carve not with thy hours my love's fair brow,
Nor draw no lines there with thine antique pen;
Him in thy course untainted do allow
For beauty's pattern to succeeding men.
Yet, do thy worst, old Time. Despite thy wrong,
My love shall in my verse ever live young.(42)

The word ‘love’ in this last line is perhaps ambiguous: it could refer not only to Shakespeare's friend but also to his own feeling of love. If the ambiguity is there, then we can infer that Shakespeare is groping towards a conception of beauty as the effect of love, which can be preserved, where beauty cannot. The argument might in this case go thus: ‘Time can indeed irrecoverably destroy those physical externals which love invests with beauty: but in order to destroy the inner essence of beauty, which is the love we feel for what we call beautiful, time must destroy the love that gave it beauty: but this love is preserved in verse.’ In Sonnet 130 Shakespeare, because of his love for her, finds beauty in a woman who appears to have no justification for being called beautiful. If human beauty is no more than the effect of the loved one on the lover, it can perhaps be preserved by recording the love that produced it.

The pathos of beauty was that it was external, and thus subject to time; and that it was a delicate order, and time's most savage assault was on order. But poetry is an imperishable order, in contrast with all the structures of Man's hand or nature's, and is independent of the physical means of its expression.

The image of distilled perfume is used also in this, the second of Shakespeare's answers to the problem of time:

… Sweet roses do not so:
Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odours made.
And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth,
When that shall vade, by verse distills your truth.(43)

The inner spirit, ‘truth’ (or, as often, ‘worth’) is preserved by poetry. A kind of immortality is promised, though it is the immortality only of the essence, not the accidents of beauty:

Gainst death and all-oblivious(44) enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.(45)

Even poetry can last only as long as the earth endures. But with that objection poetry is as good a way as any of preserving something of one's personal identity:

The earth can have but earth, which is his due;
My spirit is thine, the better part of me.
So then thou hast but lost the dregs of life,
The prey of worms, my body being dead;
The coward conquest of a wretch's knife,
Too base of thee to be remembered.
The worth of that is that which it contains,
And that is this, and this with thee remains.(46)

These sonnets do not just describe the fear that Shakespeare's friend must lose his youth: there is also an undercurrent of terror at his own personal extinction, and, worse still, a foreboding that perhaps that love which the poet feels and celebrates will itself fade away. Why else does Shakespeare dwell not only on the possibility of his friend's death, but also on the disappearance of those charms that compel his love? Indeed, if we accept the suggestion that beauty was to Shakespeare the externalization of love, then the vanishing of beauty would naturally imply the disappearance of love. In a sense ‘every poem’ is ‘an epitaph’;47 each of these poems celebrates and attempts to eternalize a state of mind and soul that may pass away. And here, ultimately, the power of poetry is an inadequate answer to the problem of time. Poetry can only preserve beauty when it is informed by love; but poetry does not guarantee the endurance of love itself. We have seen the traps which time lays for the lover: the snare of superficiality, the pitfall of appetency, the prison of behavioural determinism. Poetry merely extends the memory of love (and hence the beauty projected by love on what is loved) in time: it is only a recording, not the perpetuation of an entity. Shakespeare had recognized in the early sonnets that ‘barren rime’ was second-best; at best, a second-hand version of reality. What he is looking for is a vision of love which is eternally valid in itself, which triumphs over time not just by being recorded, but by being independent of time. Poetry is an attempt to internalize external beauty, to give it a reinforcement of form and order which it does not already possess, so that it may endure in time. Shakespeare's final answer is that true beauty is internal, that true beauty is generated by a kind of love to which time is irrelevant: in the modern phrase, timeless.

Shakespeare is one of the creators of the modern ideal of love. In him Platonic love, courtly love, the Christian idea of Charity, that is, moral love, and a new aesthetic kind of love came together. It was a synthesis novel to the age, a unique product of the Renaissance.

The Shakespearean lover sees his beloved as the archetype of beauty, and worships him like a divine being. Not ‘worship’ as the courtly lovers would have meant it; but in the sense that we feel sometimes when we have seen something in another person to which we could go down on our knees. Beyond this, almost for the first time in history, love is here a relationship, something that is distinct from the individuals involved and which is greater than the sum of its parts: something that resolves the unbearable separateness of the closest lovers. This ecstatic love is celebrated in ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’.

Love of this kind was a novel and marvellous discovery, a view of the world with new eyes, a complete reshuffling of the priorities of motive and desire. Donne calls his mistress his ‘New-Found Land’;48 it is perhaps fitting that while the terrestrial globe was being explored and suddenly illuminated, new areas of the human experience of personal relationship were similarly being opened up. To worship another person was not bathetic, as it sometimes appears today, but a daring leap into a new mode of experience: the worship of a person for his own sake; the desire, not for pleasure or gain, but for the good of the beloved; the rejection, finally, of anything in oneself that is unworthy of participation in that relationship.

Shakespeare meant his sonnets for ‘lovers' eyes’,49 we must remember, and, if we do not approach them as lovers, who are quite at home among wild hyperboles, they will seem overdone, exaggerated, and cloying. We must be prepared to accept the I-thou relationship which we find there, in as humble and as proud a spirit as Shakespeare's own.

It is a love which harnesses all man's spiritual energies that Shakespeare finally opposes to the destructive and corrupting forces of time. A love which is not dependent on externals, which transcends the laws of cause and effect, and which even, perhaps, generates the only genuine beauty.

Love, in the following lines, is seen as resurrecting the past which has been destroyed by time, and making ‘what might have been’ present:

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor'd, and sorrows end.(50)
Thou art the grave where buried love doth live,
Hung with the trophies of my lovers gone,
Who all their parts of me to thee did give;
That due of many now is thine alone.
Their images I lov'd I view in thee,
And thou, all they, hast all the all of me.(51)

Love is the only force that can internalize and make valid the transient external beauty which is so subject to time's destruction:

So that eternal love in love's fresh case
Weighs not the dust and injury of age,
Nor gives to necessary wrinkles place,
But makes antiquity for aye his page;
Finding the first conceit of love there bred,
Where time and outward form would show it dead.(52)

Beauty is hardly important any more: it is only the outward show of something that can exist without it, or alternatively only the effect on the senses of what is loved:

In him those holy antique hours are seen,
Without all ornament, itself and true,
Making no summer of another's green,
Robbing no old to dress his beauty new …(53)

‘Itself and true’ is an almost existentialist formulation of the curious frankness and lucidity that the reality of a loved person seems to possess. What astounds the true lover, perhaps, is that he feels that for the first time he is in the unclouded presence of a reality outside himself, that what he sees is no longer falsified by the separation that exists between the self and all other things. At one blow this new concept of love has swept away the enemies of love—determinism, superficiality and deception; for this love is a going outside oneself, a renunciation of self-will and even of one's own personality. Once we are beyond our own self and our own will, we are beyond the killing touch of our own deterministic motives and temporal cravings: in a state perhaps akin to the Buddhist act of contemplation, where the soul attains freedom from the world of sensation and illusion. Love in this sense frees us from the vicious circle of time:

If my dear love were but the child of State,
It might for Fortune's bastard be unfather'd
As subject to Time's love or to Time's hate,
Weeds among weeds, or flowers with flowers gather'd.
No, it was builded far from Accident;
It suffers not in smiling Pomp, nor falls
Under the blow of thralled Discontent,
Whereto th' inviting time our fashion calls.
It fears not Policy, that heretic,
Which works on leases of short-numb'red hours,
But all alone stands hugely politic,
That it nor grows with heat nor drowns with show'rs.
To this I witness call the fools of Time
Which die for goodness, who have lived for crime.(54)

I have capitalized ‘State’, ‘Fortune’, ‘Accident’, ‘Pomp’, ‘Discontent’, ‘Time’, as well as ‘Policy’ in this poem because they are a series of personified abstractions, which are linked in a relentless logic. ‘State’, that is ‘conditions’, ‘circumstances’, or ‘the way things are’, is ruled over by ‘Fortune’; ‘Fortune’ produces ‘Accident’ or chance; ‘Accident’ may give rise to good luck or bad, either ‘Pomp’ or ‘Discontent’. To fight against this system by plots and cunning is to follow ‘Policy’, the heretic or rebel, which is in any case itself subject to ‘leases of short-numb'red hours’. Together these personifications comprise the ‘fools of Time’, which ‘die for goodness’ (must cease to exist if there is to be goodness) ‘who have lived for crime’ (and which generate sin by their presence in the human heart). They are the ‘fools of Time’ because they are all subject to time, as the poet takes pains to point out. Shakespeare summons to give witness against themselves the very forces that can weaken love in its lawsuit against time. This reading (which I have not found elsewhere) makes sense of a sonnet that has puzzled its commentators and editors.

In this sonnet love need not fear Policy, that is, the necessities of expedience and the determinism of self-will. It is neither voluntary nor does it tolerate any motive in the lover that is not concerned with the good of the loved one. It is a determinant itself, it has its own will which overrules all petty tyranny of craving and self-interest: it is ‘hugely politic’. It is not changed by externals but itself can change the external world.

True love can also open the gates of perception which have been closed by the deceptions of time. The constancy of true love is able to overcome the inconstancy of all temporal perceptions:

Thy registers and thee I both defy,
Not wond'ring at the present nor the past,
For thy records and what we see doth lie,
Made more or less by thy continual haste.
          This do I vow, and this shall ever be:
          I will be true, despite thy scythe and thee.(55)

Lust is able to gild evil and deceive the honesty of the senses: true love can ignore the merely superficial aspects of perception and penetrate to the reality beneath. Lust is less honest than the evidence of the senses: true love is more honest than sense-perception.

Were't ought to me I bore the canopy,
With my extern the outward honouring,
Or laid great bases for eternity,
Which proves more short than waste or ruining?
Have I not seen dwellers on form and favour
Lose all, and more, by paying too much rent,
For compound sweet forgoing simple savour—
Pitiful thrivers, in their gazing spent?
No, let me be obsequious in thy heart,
And take thou my oblation, poor but free,
Which is not mix'd with seconds, knows no art
But mutual render, only me for thee.(56)

These lines sum up most of what Shakespeare has to say about true love: its inner, personal nature, untained by temporal externals; its vision, which is ‘poor but free’, and at first hand, existential, not ‘mix'd with seconds’. The gates of true perception are opened by love, so that there is nothing impure or second-hand about it. ‘Simple savour’ is rightly preferred to ‘compound sweet’; that which nourishes is better than that which merely titillates. This is a form of love which is not concerned with gratification but with existence: it makes the lover exist more fully.

Shakespeare eventually accepts the terrible temporal forces that are pitted against what he holds dear. But at the end he realizes that they are irrelevant to love:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wand'ring bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error, and upon me prov'd,
I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.(57)

Love is not time's fool. All things which are external can be measured; but love's worth cannot be so confined. If we can be certain of anything, Shakespeare asserts, we can be certain of this. He has asked what we can oppose against time's destructive and corrupting forces; he saw that the replications of the flesh and the order of poetry had some strength against its ravages, but his last and only real answer is a relationship.


  1. The Dry Salvages, l. 159.

  2. Sonnet 60.

  3. Sonnet 64.

  4. The Rape of Lucrece, ll 944 et seq.

  5. Sonnet 64.

  6. Sonnet 55.

  7. Sonnet 18.

  8. Sonnet 1.

  9. Sonnet 65.

  10. Fragment 34; Fragments 28, 29, 40, and 72 are also of interest here.

  11. Sonnet 63.

  12. Sonnet 16.

  13. Sonnet 25.

  14. Sonnet 124.

  15. Sonnet 125.

  16. Sonnet 82.

  17. Sonnet 83.

  18. Sonnet 54.

  19. Sonnet 67.

  20. Sonnet 68.

  21. Sonnet 69.

  22. Sonnet 70.

  23. Sonnet 94.

  24. See also Hamlet, IV. vii. 110-23 and my note on these lines on pp. 92-93.

  25. Sonnet 56.

  26. Sonnet 129.

  27. Sonnet 147.

  28. Sonnet 123.

  29. Sonnet 104.

  30. Sonnet 125.

  31. ‘The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!’ Matt. 6: 22-3 (Authorized Version).

  32. Sonnet 147.

  33. Sonnet 148.

  34. Sonnet 141

  35. Sonnet 148.

  36. Hamlet, III. iv. 73.

  37. Sonnet 2.

  38. Sonnet 1.

  39. Sonnet 5.

  40. Sonnet 14.

  41. Burnt Norton, l. 127.

  42. Sonnet 19.

  43. Sonnet 54.

  44. I am unhappy about Alexander's hyphenation here. Surely Shakespeare means ‘all things which are hostile in that they forget’ rather than ‘enmity that forgets everything’.

  45. Sonnet 55.

  46. Sonnet 74.

  47. ‘Little Gidding’, l. 225.

  48. ‘To his Mistris Going to Bed’, l. 27.

  49. Sonnet 55.

  50. Sonnet 30.

  51. Sonnet 31.

  52. Sonnet 108.

  53. Sonnet 68.

  54. Sonnet 124.

  55. Sonnet 123.

  56. Sonnet 125.

  57. Sonnet 116.

List of Works Consulted

Editions of the Text

I have used Peter Alexander's edition of the Complete Works, Tudor Edition, 1964 (1951), for all quotations and references, as it is a good standard edition and the line numbers correspond to those of the great Cambridge edition of Clark and Wright.

For closer textual work the New Variorum has been used, and the New Arden edition has been consulted for its notes.

C. T. Onions' Shakespeare Glossary has also been useful.


Eliot, T. S., Four Quarters. London: Faber & Faber, 1964 (1944).

Collected Poems, 1909-1962. London: Faber & Faber, 1963.

Leishman, J. B., Themes and Variations in Shakespeare's Sonnets. London: Hutchinson, 1961.

Rawdon Wilson (essay date 1975)

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SOURCE: Wilson, Rawdon. “The Way to Arden: Attitudes toward Time in As You Like It.Shakespeare Quarterly, 26, no. 1 (Winter 1975): 16-24.

[In the following essay, Wilson identifies two concepts of time in As You Like It: one that views time as an objective process of measuring change and another that perceives time as relative and subjective. The critic finds that objective time is associated with the world of commerce and exchange, while the subjective sense of time is associated with the Forest of Arden.]

In an essay on As You Like It published in 1940, James Smith argued that Celia's remark at the end of the first act, that Touchstone would “go along o'er the wide world” with her,1 might have had “importance in an earlier version, but in that which has survived Shakespeare is no more concerned with how the characters arrive in Arden—whether under Touchstone's convoy or not—than how they are extricated from it.”2 More recently, J. L. Halio has clarified the distinction between “the timelessness of the forest world” and the “time-ridden preoccupations of court and city life” in order to stress the absolute distinction between the two localities.3 Each of these studies, employing markedly different critical methods, lays an obsessive emphasis upon an obvious half-truth: As You Like It contains no mention of the journey from Duke Frederick's court to the Forest of Arden. Each exemplifies a common critical assumption that in As You Like It Shakespeare created a structure of contrast and juxtaposition in which a bare minimum of causal and sequential development is present. The most lucid presentation of this assumption is that advanced by Harold Jenkins in his analysis of the play, but it is implicit in most other studies.4 Thus Harold Toliver's recent discussion of time in Shakespeare's plays, though disagreeing with Halio with respect to the nature of the time associated with Arden, takes for granted that this nonsequential contrast exists.5

I should like to argue that, to the contrary, there is an explicit development in the play from the urban polity of Duke Frederick's court and Oliver's household to the pastoral way of life in the forest of Arden, and that this development is marked by determinable transitional states. It is not, as Smith made clear, a geographical progress, but rather a shift in attitudes toward the characteristics of the public world. The public world may, I think, be equated with the polity, while the world of Arden, if not precisely private, is the condition of several private worlds which, freed from containment, find fulfillment there. Halio demonstrated that the characteristics of the public world are predominantly temporal, but he failed to note that the difference in attitude between the polity and the forest was marked by a real shift and not merely a leap. It is a shift, both gradual and sequential, in two respects. First, it is a shift in attitudes toward change. Second, because change is, in the conceptual referent which may be inferred from the play, the inseparable substratum of time, it is ultimately a shift in attitudes toward time. The importance of time in As You Like It can scarcely be overstated, but change is the first fact of the play's being.

There is more than one concept of time present in As You Like It—which, in dramatic terms, means that there is more than one “time-sense”—and they are not as distinctly opposed, nor as mutually exclusive, as critics have assumed. The first act of the play is pervaded by the concept of time as an objective process in which things come into being and cease. Against this there is a concept of “timelessness,” to be sure, but the time-sense of Arden is only partially and misleadingly reducible to it. “Timelessness” here functions largely as an element in the borrowed pastoral tradition and makes its presence felt in the play more as an implicit ideal than as an actuality. Distinct from both of these concepts there is the relativity of time which is not a single concept but rather a series of concepts expressing the specific time-sense of individual characters. It is the interior, private time of individuals which is, primarily, opposed to the objective time of the public world. This, however, is a multiple, not a single or absolute, opposition.

The initial concept of time, as it is found in the play's first act, is essentially the Aristotelian one of time as a “kind of number”6—that is, the measurement of objective change. It is, for example, the notion of time which is operative in Book VII of The Faerie Queene. There, the Titanesse, in pleading her case before Jove, argues that “Time on all doth pray,” but Jove (in a plain statement of Aristotelian doctrine) responds:

                              But, who is it (to me tell)
That Time himselfe doth moue and still compell
To keepe his course? Is not that namely wee
Which poure that vertue from our heauenly cell,
That moues them all, and makes them changed be?(7)

Although it is not possible here to reconstruct the whole of Aristotle's doctrine concerning time, certain points need to be made since they have a direct bearing upon the present discussion. In the Aristotelian system, time is not simply the measurement of motion, but also the “condition of destruction” in which being emerges into existence and passes away.8 Further, it is, as a “kind of number,” contingent upon a knowing mind.9 The internal dialectic of Aristotle's position arises from the constant play between the objectivity of time (as the correlative of motion) and its relativity (as the correlative of a knowing mind). This dialectical balance has, I think, a great deal to do with the concept of time in As You Like It. Touchstone's comments upon the passage of time, as reported by Jaques (II.vii.20-28), are both a statement of the nature of objective time, as it obtains in the world beyond Arden, and, in their quality of pathos and lament, an indication of his inability to adjust to the forest world. If, and when, the time of Arden is reached, it is through losing the concern for (if not the awareness of) change. Thus, Aristotle's argument that “if nothing but soul, or in soul reason, is qualified to count, there would not be time unless there were soul, but only that of which time is an attribute”10 is of the utmost importance. The subjectivity of time, stressed by later philosophers in the Augustinian tradition, has a firm basis in Aristotle's analysis of time. And As You Like It may be looked upon as presenting, through dramatic concretions, both sets of implications in Aristotle's discussion.11

The sense of objective time in As You Like It gives way to the subjective, or interior, time-sense associated with Arden. This interior time is only partially equivalent to the pastoral concept of “timelessness” as exemplified, say, in the perennial May morning of Marlowe's famous lyric.12 Consciousness of the interiority of time, however disconnected from the awareness of objective change, is not at all a sense of non-time. I should, in fact, like to go one step further and assert that the sense of interior time which becomes possible within Arden, precisely because it is not correlative to objective change, mirrors a state of mind. It can exist, as a particular reflection of consciousness, only when objective change loses its importance and is no longer marked—but it is abundantly real, as minds and thoughts are real. The time-sense in Arden works outward from the mind rather than inward from things which change, and, indeed, finds its chief external show in the mutual obligations of lovers who keep appointments as duties imposed on them by love. Between these two concepts there are transitional stages during which the characteristics of the world of the polity begin to lose significance and those of Arden to gain it. Hence I shall postulate a period of adjustment to Arden. But it is an adjustment which some characters, such as Touchstone and Jaques, never achieve, and others, like Orlando, do but slowly.

This interiority of time in Arden implies that, in comparison with the time-sense of the polity, Arden will appear as timeless and that, within the forest, time will appear as a relative factor, varying from mind to mind. The first judgment is clearly that which the polity makes of Arden, as for example when Charles remarks that the exiled court “fleet the time carelessly” (I.i.124-25) or when Orlando, bursting peremptorily upon the forest gathering with his mind full of preoccupations belonging to the polity, refers to Duke Senior's court as those who “lose and neglect the creeping hours of time” (II.vii.112). The apparent relativity of time within Arden has been frequently remarked. Indeed, given Rosalind's observation that “Time travels in divers paces, with divers persons” (III.ii.226-27), it would be difficult to ignore. H. B. Charlton, for instance, observes that one man's hour “is another man's minute.”13 And Toliver has noted how the lovers “all seek different levels and different ways of adjusting to time.”14 The shift in attitudes toward time which occurs between the polity and Arden is, then, largely a shift from a public to a private standard of measurement in which the latter becomes possible only through the fading into unimportance of the former.

It is less often noted, at least within the same context, that neither Jaques nor Touchstone perceives time as relative. Touchstone's reported comments upon the passage of time (II.vii.20-28) and his later statement that he counts it “but time lost” to have heard the song which is, in effect, a description of the nature of interior time in relation to love (V.iii.17-41) are equally indications of his unbreakable commitment to the public world in which time is the conventional measurement of change. Jaques' reflections on the seven ages of man (II.vii.139-66) indicate a similar bondage to the world of objective time. The fact that Jaques' speech arises out of Touchstone's and is, actually, the conclusion of the latter's hanging tale underscores the similarity of the bondage which they share. Like Touchstone, Jaques cannot lose his awareness of, and concern for, change. Hence his time-sense quickens only to the public standard of objective measurement. Further, the obsession with objective time is consistent with Jaques' character since, as Smith observed, “time hangs heavy on a sceptic's hands, for whom the world contains nothing that can take it off.”15 Jaques is defined, within his dramatic context, solely by his worldly experience—a “nurture” which has cultivated in him a fixed obsession with the sense of public time. Thus, since Jaques is the most articulate spokesman for that sense in Arden, complementing as well as concluding Touchstone's reflections, it is no accident that his speech on time has a complex function in the development of the play's theme.

On one level Jaques' speech is a simple reflection upon the passage of time, since it is within time that the change of growth and degeneration occurs and it is, of course, time which measures this change. Yet, on another level, the distinction between time and change is collapsed and time appears as the source of the objective change (as the Titanesses argues to Jove). Traditionally, the distinction had not been a strictly kept one, but exfoliated into a cluster of associations largely related to the Aristotelian concept of time. Samuel Chew has pointed out the manner in which time was considered, in the Renaissance, to be a source (and not merely a measurement) of change:

George Chapman speaks of the “violent wheels of Time and Fortune” as though they were to be differentiated, as indeed they are, for, properly speaking, Time turns not the Wheel of Fortune upon which kings rise and descend but the Wheel of Life on which revolve the Ages of Man. But the two instruments were easily confused and conflated; and furthermore the Wheel of Life suggests the wheels of a clock.16

Time often appears in Renaissance literature as the agent rather than the yardstick of change, as, for example, in The Shepheardes Calendar or in Shakespeare's sonnets, as well as in As You Like It. This “conflation” of a rigorous philosophical distinction was a part of the Renaissance literary tradition, but it also had its roots in the writings of Aristotle. It is related to the inseparability of a knowing mind from the measurement of motion. Aristotle, at one point, argues that “not only do we measure the movement by time, but also the time by the movement, because they define each other. The time marks the movement, since it is its number, and the movement the time.”17 Thus Jaques' speech exemplifies, in a rich and provocative manner, several aspects of the cluster of associations which composed the Renaissance meaning of time.

Jaques' bondage to objective time, like Touchstone's more elementary commitment, is the reason for, as well as the sign of, his failure to adjust to the world of Arden. The central problem, then, would seem to be that of the process through which certain characters do adjust to Arden and substitute an interior time-sense for the sense of public, objective time—the process, that is, which leads to the full significance of such lines as Orlando's that “there's no clock in the forest” (III.ii.318-19). This is the problem of transitional stages which criticism, allied to the “Jenkinsian” model of a method of contrast and juxtaposition, has neglected.

The first act quickly and clearly establishes the mood of the urban polity. It is, to be sure, on all counts the “working-day world” of objective change, but it is especially a commercial world of exchange and transaction only somewhat less marked than that of The Merchant of Venice. Orlando's initial lines (I.i.1-27) are strewn with references to types of change and exchange; and some of the same terminology is repeated in Celia's protestation of love to Rosalind in the second scene (I.ii.17-25). Such words as “bequeathed,” “will,” “profit,” “hired,” and “gain” are particularly suggestive of this theme. A second thematic strand is indicated by the sequence of such words as “breed,” “unkept,” “birth,” “stalling,” “bred,” “feeding,” and “growth.” This sequence contributes to the very significant theme of nature opposed to nurture which runs through the play—as, in fact, it does in all of Shakespeare's comedies from The Comedy of Errors to The Tempest. It is not a simplistic opposition equatable to the opposition between forest and urban polity. Nature is given an embodiment in the character of Orlando, and nurture finds its expression in the character of Jaques (about whom nothing is learned except what pertains to his education and experience). Hence the dramatic conflict between them goes beyond the clash between “Signior Love” and “Monsieur Melancholy” into a contrast of profound thematic import. When, for instance, Orlando appears as still violently under the sway of the urban polity (II.vii.87-99), his reference to his “nurture” casts into an ironic relief the little of false nurture that, in fact, contaminates him. Similarly, Jaques' reference to his “humorous sadness” (IV.i.20) sounds with an ironic twist since it follows straight upon his account of the “many simples” of experience which have gone into making him the malcontent that he is; that is, all the evidence of the play, including Jaques' own account, points to a disposition bred by a certain kind of nurture and not the result of a “humor” or nature. I wish, however, to treat this terminology, in both sequences, as part of the thematic distinction between the awareness of change in the polity and its lack in Arden.

The references to change, and especially mercantile exchange, indicate the degree to which Orlando is dominated by the very polity from which he must escape. Significantly, Orlando's first statement of a willingness to withdraw from the world of the polity is couched in approximately the same language of commercial exchange (I.ii.194-206) as the speech in which he had lamented his state. The cumulative effect of the references to types of change in the first act is to present the mood of the polity in terms of a kind of bondage to the awareness of change, and, through this awareness, to time. The mood is also created, in part, by the various peripeties connected with the characters introduced in the first act. All the characters (except Le Beau) from the Duke Senior to Charles the wrestler undergo, or have undergone, some change in fortune. Chew has analyzed the intricate interpenetration of the concepts of Fortune, Occasion, and Time in the Renaissance,18 and it would appear that this interpenetration is operative in As You Like It, contributing to the thematic distinction between polity and forest. The changes in Fortune—that “good housewife” about whom Celia and Rosalind argue so lengthily (I.ii.34-57)—occur in time; that is, they are measurable, or numberable, according to the Aristotelian definition. Even more, perhaps, their very occurrence underscores the passage of time, and the sense that time, as Aristotle noted, is that in which things cease to be. Charles's remark to Oliver that the old Duke and his exiled court “fleet the time” (I.i.124-25) in Arden serves as a point of contrast to the mood of the first act. It foreshadows Orlando's comment in the second act that the exiled court “lose and neglect the creeping hours of time” (II.vii.112) and points the way out of the polity toward Arden. And it is pertinent, I think, to note that after Charles's comparison of the life of the exiled court to the “golden world,” there follow nine references to the “world” in the first act and, except for Le Beau's “better world,” they all refer to the “working-day world” of the polity (as, indeed, does Le Beau's expression by implication). Thus Charles is the first counterweight to the world of the polity, and, though less than a full member perhaps, he suffers his reversal of fortune through his involvement in it.

Once Arden has been presented, with Duke Senior's speech at the beginning of Act II, the case is reversed and the references to the world of change and objective time are always in contrast to the world of Arden. Both Touchstone and Jaques, through their bondage to the world of the polity, contrast to, and force into deep relief, the characters who have adjusted to Arden. Similarly, the return, in Act III, to the polity and the idea of forcible seizure of property (III.i.16-18) contrasts not only the two dukes but also the two worlds. Further, when Phebe, although a native of Arden, shows that she cannot participate in the forest life through her unwillingness to respond to love, Rosalind, with deliberate irony, applies to her the harsh language of the alien commercial world (II.v.60). But the most important contrasts between the two worlds are made in terms of Orlando. Unlike Touchstone and Jaques, Orlando does adjust to Arden, but he does not, like Celia, do so immediately. Even Celia's remark, “I like this place, and willingly could / Waste my time in it” (II.iv.94-95), may only indicate that Celia's adjustment to Arden begins immediately. “Waste” suggests something of the mood of the polity, as well as an implication that Arden presents to her no more than a temporary waystation. In fact, only Rosalind appears to adjust naturally and at once. Her father, of course, expresses his adjustment to Arden in terms of “old custom” (II.i.2), which clearly implies a period of transition from one world to the other. Orlando, then, contrasts not only to Jaques and Touchstone but also to Rosalind in the manner of his adjustment to Arden. In so doing, Orlando provides a focus for the consideration of the transition which all the characters, except Jaques and Touchstone, implicitly make.

The dialogue between Orlando and Adam in the second act (II.iii) marks one stage in the transition between the two worlds. Adam refers consistently to the transactions of the public world, but his service is grounded in duty—and hence is unspoiled by any merely covetous motive. It is his gold, the product of his “thrifty hire,” which is the link between the false gold of the polity and the true gold of Arden. For not merely does Adam's gold allow Orlando to leave the one world for the other, but it shows him the possibility of duty grounded in love. Adam offers the first statement of what is the chief lesson of Arden and, conversely, the chief obstacle to adjustment to that world. This lesson is simply that duty ought to be founded in love, and perhaps nowhere else (certainly not in the legal, political, and economic terrors of the polity) can it have any true basis. When Rosalind chides Orlando for breaking “an hour's promise in love” (IV.i.44), her point is that love entails obligations, and the failure to keep them must seem proof that the love is only apparent (the offender being still “heartwhole”). The time which Orlando has not kept is scarcely the objective time of the polity, of course, but rather the interior time of the lover's awareness. This interior form of time characterizes the time-sense of Arden.

A further stage in the transition to Arden is reached in Orlando's attack upon the exiled court, which shows both his sense of duty springing from his reciprocated love for Adam and also his almost total domination by the standards of the polity which he has left. When Orlando says, “I thought that all things had been savage here” (II.vii.107), he shows, as he does in his reiterated use of “desert,” that he fails to understand the nature of Arden. Sword drawn, he has charged in among the exiled court very much as Oliver or Duke Frederick might have done; and the gentle answer of the Duke surprises him. Things are neither savage nor desert in Arden; the fact that they are not is, to the polity-ridden newcomer, a cause of wonder. Orlando's expectations, based upon his experience of behavior within the urban polity, are reversed and shattered as, indeed, they must be if he is to acquire the free disposition which is inseparable from the mood of Arden. The lesson of duty based on love which he had learned from Adam had been a step but not the entire course.

The final stage in this transitional development is expressed in Amiens' song at the end of Act II (II.vii.174-90). This is the stage of pastoral timelessness which Halio, and other critics before him, noted as the chief characteristic of Arden. But it is, as I have argued, misleading to reduce the time-sense of Arden to mere timelessness. The consciousness of time continues but is transferred to the interiority of the mind's apperception. What is lost—precisely that which makes readers think of Arden as timeless—is the concern for change and objective, public time. Duke Senior's remark that in Arden they do not feel the “penalty of Adam” suggests the nature of this loss. It is, at best, a perplexing remark, and the nearly four pages of commentary in the Variorum demonstrate fairly well that it is far from univocal in meaning.19 I think, however, that it can be interpreted, without wrenching the context, as equivalent to feeling the passing of time. The “penalty of Adam” is, presumably, decay within time which, when it is no longer a concern (as it is not in Arden), need not be felt or, in the terms of this essay, perceived. The “seasons' difference” is objective and absolute, but given the attitudes proper to Arden it is not necessary to feel a concern for this change.20 Thus, before Orlando can join the Duke in not feeling the penalty of seasonal change in time, he must lose his commitment to the world of change and time. This is achieved through Rosalind's playful strategem, and the final break in Orlando's weakening subservience to the world of the polity occurs when Rosalind qualifies his observation that “there's no clock in the forest.” There is, she points out, a subjective time—the interior time-sense of an aware mind whose only external manifestation is, like all genuine duty (as Adam had shown), an obligation grounded in love. The lover keeps his appointments simply because he is in love, but in this case the external is brought about by the interior compulsion of the mind and not, as in the polity, the other way round. Ultimately, adjustment to Arden means an interior and relative sense of time, but this final stage implies a prior series of steps to be passed through: recognition of love and the duties which it entails, the breaking down of conventional expectations founded upon the experience of everyday court behavior, and a loss of the acute sense of change and public time which characterizes the polity.

There is, then, a way to Arden. It is not, surely, the kind of way which Smith had in mind, marked by dusty highroads, worn boots, and all the common perils of travel. But it is there nonetheless. It is the way of the mind's journey; a mental voyage of discovery which leads to the recognition of self and the importance of feelings. It leads away from property and its appropriate concerns to a new experience of the value of feeling. In some respects it is a process of stripping value from externals, such as property, that might recall the foreshortened voyage of Everyman to the same conclusion. Along the way to Arden, Time becomes not merely the measurement of motion and change, the necessary context of voyaging, but also the symbolic function of each stage of the journey. And, of course, all, save Jaques, return to the world of the polity when occasion allows. No one, I trust, except perhaps a Jan Kott, would find this return from Arcadia ironic. One leaves the play certain that life in the polity will never again be the same—convinced that the lessons of Arden have been real.


  1. I. iii. 134, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. Hardin Craig (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1961). All subsequent references will be to this edition and will hereafter be given parenthetically following the citation.

  2. James Smith, “As You Like It,Scrutiny, 9 (1940), 19-20.

  3. J. L. Halio, “No Clock in The Forest: Time in As You Like It,SEL, 2 (1962), 204.

  4. Harold Jenkins, “As You Like It,Shakespeare Survey, 8 (1955), 40-51.

  5. Harold Toliver, “Shakespeare And The Abyss of Time,” JEGP, 64 (1965), 234-54.

  6. Aristotle, Physica, trans. R. P. Hardie and R. K. Gaye, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), p. 292; hereafter all references will be to Works.

  7. VII. vii. 48, in The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, ed. H. C. Smith and E. De Sélincourt (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1950).

  8. Works, p. 298.

  9. Works, pp. 298-99.

  10. Works, p. 299.

  11. It should go without saying that I am not suggesting an “Aristotelianism” in Shakespeare. It does seem, however, that, to the degree that it may be inferred, the concept of objective time in As You Like It corresponds to Aristotle's. Probably, the basic notions of Aristotelian physics had as much currency in Renaissance England as they had elsewhere in Europe from the time of Albert the Great—that is, while never incontrovertible, always known. Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Q. 10, art. 4.

  12. Halio, p. 197, believes that “timelessness as a convention of the Pastoral ideal” is the only time-sense attributable to Arden.

  13. H. B. Charlton, Shakespearian Comedy (London: Methuen, 1938), p. 294.

  14. Toliver, p. 240; cf. Hardin Craig, “Shakespeare and the Here and Now,” PMLA, 67 (1952), where an unconvincing claim is made for a general concept of relativity throughout Shakespeare's drama.

  15. Smith, p. 14.

  16. Samuel Chew, “Time and Fortune,” ELH, 6 (1939), 111.

  17. Works, p. 294.

  18. Chew, pp. 103-4.

  19. Horace Howard Furness, ed., A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare: As You Like It (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1918), pp. 61-65.

  20. Although Furness sees in the line, “the seasons difference,” a further proof of his theory of Shakespeare's “two clocks,” I think that this does not preclude the possibility that the line also refers to the objective flow of time (Variorum, p. 392). Chew has shown that time was conceived of, by the Renaissance mind, as both continuous—“Time's thievish progress”—and also as pulsating or rhythmical. In the latter case it was associated with the passing of the seasons, the alternation of night and day, the movement of the stars, etc. (Chew, pp. 109-10). Again, Aristotle appears to be the source not only of the relevant distinction but also of its conflation. Thus, Aristotle argues that “as movement can be one and the same again and again, so too can time, e.g., a year or a spring or an autumn” (Works, p. 294) and that “if one and the same motion sometimes recurs, it will be one and the same time, and if not, not” (Works, p. 297). Hence, while not denying the function of the line in the duration of the action or its relation to the “two clocks,” I believe that it can be best read as a comment upon the nature of objective time associated with the world beyond Arden.

John Bayley (essay date 1975)

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SOURCE: Bayley, John. “Time and the Trojans.” Essays in Criticism, 25, no. 1 (January 1975): 55-73.

[In the following essay, Bayley links the absence of value and meaning in Troilus and Cressida to the omission in the play of any sense of past or future in the lives of the characters.]

The weight and density of time is an impression generated by the nature of Shakespearean dramatic action. It is of course illusory, because a play consists of a number of words, which take a given period of time to recite in the theatre, or to read in the study. But the Shakespearean character appears to bring to the action in which the play involves him the invisible lifetime which, as a represented human being he theoretically possesses, but which the artist who has to deal with the exigencies of form and convention usually keeps out of sight, unless a specific dramatic need requires it. The apparent freedom of the Shakespearean character implies the presence of all the hours and years his consciousness has accumulated.

The consequence produces the whole paradox of Shakespearean drama, and the division in it between enactment of a play and experience of a whole world of art. It is a division much more remarkable, and more far-reaching in its consequences, than Shakespeareans who have grown accustomed to the plays, as to a second nature, are usually given to assume. In fact it is the most singular thing, it would not be too much to say, about the whole nature of Shakespeare's achievement, and one that cannot be ignored or explained away by those who—like Wilson Knight—seek to demonstrate a coherent and harmonious metaphysic within the world of each play.

It would be truer to say that there is always a gap between our image of the play—what Morgann would have called our sustained impression of it—and the actual experience we receive when we hear the words on the stage or pick up the book and read them. Everyone must have experienced the feeling of surprise, perhaps disconcertment, involved, which may quickly wear off as our minds refocus and bring the two images of the play together, the immediate impact with the whole sum of our previous conception. None-the-less the momentary gap makes for something important to our aesthetic freedom. We may have briefly seen Hamlet as a clever show-off, Macbeth as a go-getter who inspires nothing but repulsion and tedium, Coriolanus as an âme damnée for whom excess alone has any flavour. Such impressions are too involuntary to be very subtle, and we are probably glad to subsume them in our more considered awareness of the play as a whole. But they have done their work: they have prevented our continuing to think about the play in the same way. In certain cases—Othello is the most striking instance—the contrast between the immediate emotion and the backlog of our considered view can be very marked indeed, so that we might almost think that it is an intention of the form. For what has become known, since Bradley took the hint from a student, as the ‘double time scheme’ in Othello is not just a question of comments in the dialogue which imply a much longer duration than the apparent brief and continuous dramatic action. It must represent our sense of the massive scope and ambiguity of the situation—the provenance and status of Othello, the culture of Venice, the history and fortunes of Iago. And over against this the brutal immediacy of the emotional explosion, and the manipulation of coincidence into fatality.

In other plays—Hamlet and Troilus are the most striking examples—we may feel that behind the brilliance of the action, and its power to absorb us, there is nothing really there at all. ‘The play's the thing’, in every way, and Hamlet distracts us from his total extemporaneousness, his lack of any prolongation into the personal, with his ‘had I but time …’. Here the process might be said to work in reverse. Our considered impression is of the complete impermanence of the dramatic action: but our immediate feeling when seeing or reading—perhaps at some such words as those of Hamlet to Gertrude: ‘I must to England. You know that?’—may suggest a sudden, solid, and uncovenanted actuality, a free space for appraisal of one in whom we are still interested, about whom the ways into knowledge still might exist.

In this way characters grow in our minds, and diminish again into the mere necessity of dramatic appearance or vice versa, by this constant cycle they remain alive, with the potential of all living things. Shakespeare's masterpieces wax and wane between what must be termed novel and play, between Henry James's ‘relations that stop nowhere’ and the circle of performance in which they must be arbitrarily resolved. But there is one play in which this creation by separation seems to have no part. Troilus and Cressida has no novel in it to fill our minds between performances and, conversely, no ‘novel moments’ to startle us when we have formed our impression of it as a play. It remains purely and simply a play, confined to the time it takes to act. The other plays possess the dimension it lacks, but it has an atmosphere and spirit unique to itself and lacking in them. An enquiry into its two-dimensional unity may reveal something about the ways in which division works in the being of the other plays, and in our response to them.

Troilus exhibits a time element that produces persons and situations not elsewhere found in the plays. It has often been pointed out how frequently it invokes time and its powers. Time is of course one of the most frequent topics of the commonplace not only in Shakespeare but in all Elizabethan literature; the most notorious and by its very familiarity the most reassuring of topoi. It is merciless, devouring, all-conquering. Or it can conquer everything except love, everything except art. Or it is both judge and redeemer, serving ‘to unmask falsehood and bring truth to life’. We are lulled by these commonplaces, which seem not only familiar to us but doubly familiar from their frequent and regular recurrence in the miniatures of lyric and in the discursive poetry of high sentence. Moreover, as Kenneth Muir for one has pointed out, there are actually even more references to time in Macbeth than there are in Troilus. It is evidently not the emphasis on time that counts here but the dramatic use made of it. In all Shakespeare's other plays we feel that the present time as enacted on the stage, not only depends upon the past but is in the service of the future. Lear has made his plans: the action will reveal their consequences; the unseen future will underwrite a return to normality of a kind, be guarantor, as Edgar says, of ‘we that are young’. But in the formal impact of Troilus there is neither past nor future: everything takes place in and ends in, the present.

We need not look far for the formal justification for the device. We all know (even today) how the matter of Troy began, and how it ended. Our action, as the Prologue tells us, will take place in ‘the middle’. What follows from this? That the playwright can abolish past and future if he wants to, and see what the consequences are if he does. Novelist's time—and in general Shakespearean time—accumulates character and perspective, and almost any playwright borrows enough of the novelist's time to produce the appearance of these two things. His actors are in the midst of their lives, and his action will admit—if only tacitly—that it cannot tell the whole of their tale, and that other things are in progress outside it. But what if the playwright turns the other way and instead of borrowing time from the novelist deliberately renounces it, and all the space and coherence it assumes? Suppose he implies that if novelist's time does not exist for him he is left with the headless and senseless trunk of an action, devoid of the reality which can only come from knowledge of what went before and must come after? This is where such a playwright as Beckett begins, starting from the metaphysical premise that life can have no sequential sense or meaning, that all is an ever-repeated mumble of the present. Shakespeare could begin from a more formalized hypothesis: you know the beginning and end of this business, so they need have no meaning in terms of what I am about to show you of the middle. The only surprise here must be a perpetual present.

A characteristic paradox is made of this. It is because we know how the siege began and ended that Agamemnon can say,

What's past and what's to come is strewn with husks
And formless ruin of oblivion.

Agamemnon, like all the other figures in the play, cares nothing for the logic of past and future, and if neither exists the present itself can have no coherent meaning—he himself no coherent personality. That is the logic in the dramatic world of Troilus and Cressida, the more terrible for being implicit and uninsistent. And it is a world that makes us, by contrast, sharply aware of how the sense of character in a Shakespeare play normally comes into being, between an accumulation of impressions that depends on novel time, and quick, often contradictory, response to the dramatic moment.

Let us consider the first scene of Act III, in which Pandarus, Paris and Helen chatter together and sing a song about love. It is like a glimpse in a nightclub, but whereas in real life the spectator might be sufficiently intrigued—enough of a novelist as it were—to wonder about their relationship and about the rest of their lives, Shakespeare inhibits even so small an attempt at coherence, by depriving the characters of the slightest historical and personal significance. The scene makes us feel as confused and unresponsive as if we ourselves were in the same state as the other guests in that nightclub, immersed in the same experience of the contingent and the banal. No novelist can do this, because in drawing our attention to the contingent and the banal he puts us on the outside of it, and manipulates it so that it is fully under our control. This difference is crucial. In novel time the absurdity of the contingent becomes a positive pleasure to be entertained by; but in Troilus we are too be-nightmared by the world of the moment to contemplate it with this enjoyment. Like the actors themselves, we are borne passively on the moment by moment tide of the drama, and we find when it is over that we still cannot get it into shape.

The sense in which Shakespeare here denies and dissolves history might be compared with the drinking scene on board Pompey's galley in Antony and Cleopatra, where he deftly and dynamically confirms it. In Troilus the game seems to be to deny that the famous and the legendary ever existed as time has reported them, or that we would ever find anything at any moment in history beyond scraps of idiotic dialogue and meaningless event.

And this because the convention of play time is reduced virtually to an ad absurdum. The realisation makes clear the play's unique status in the Shakespearean canon and explains things about it which on any other interpretation seem wilful and puzzling at the best and at the worst downright unsatisfactory. The point to recognize is that we are puzzled because there is nothing to be puzzled about, because behind the glitter and coruscation of the language and the rapid charade of the language there is nothing that adds up. We do not know what the characters are like because there is neither time nor occasion to find out, and for the same reason they have no idea of themselves. Neither we, nor they, can be aware here of the other world, of the novelist's world, in which time stretches into past and future, supplying the reality of persons, creating space and leisure, value and meaning. Ulysses is concerned to impress upon Achilles that such a world can only be maintained by constant action and endeavour. The irony of his advice is that it is intended merely for the moment, and that Achilles is in fact spurred to action by the random eruption of another moment—the death of Patroclus. Ulysses is a charade of policy as Nestor is one of age, Troilus of fidelity, Cressida of faithlessness. ‘He must, he is, he cannot but be wise’ is the ironic comment on Nestor. But all of them must, are, and cannot but be voices imprisoned in role and argument, figures condemned to tread the mill of time without ever being made free of it. Compared to their undifferentiated and claustrophobic world the predicament of Macbeth seems like freedom itself—‘as bread and general as the casing air’. For it is in Macbeth's own consciousness that coherency and purpose have become extinguished, have become a tale told by an idiot. In the world outside him the logic of time proceeds with its serene, restorative, but for him terrible assurance. He cannot but contemplate the shape and consequence of his action stretching before and after, and thus becomes himself, the real Macbeth, situated in the real and unforgiving dimension of history.

Everywhere in his work, not just in the history plays, Shakespeare's sense of the past is of ‘time's jewel’, giving meaning to human destiny. It is so assured, so comprehensive and so inevitable that we take it for granted. He is our supreme creator of history, as he is also in one sense our supreme religious writer, in whose providence all things have their place, as for Yeats's crazy Jane ‘all things remain in God’. It takes a Scott or a Pushkin to revive this authority; and it is no accident that in Boris Godunov, the best of the many plays that have tried to recreate a specifically Shakespearean sense of history, the old scribe Pimen is made to soliloquize about the past ‘Is it long since it swept by, teeming with event and turbulent like the ocean? Now it is silent and tranquil.’

The fate of Macbeth, as of Godunov, is ‘silent and tranquil’. With Timon they have their everlasting mansion, and their reality is assured. ‘What's done can't be undone.’ Whatever the contrast between them Lady Macbeth is united at last with her husband—an ironic second marriage—when she admits the law of responsibility and causality. Very different is Cressida's comment on her relation with Troilus: ‘Well, well 'tis done, 'tis past, and yet it is not.’ She has no sense of, and does not want to know, what has taken place: pleasure, boredom and infidelity are alike unsorted phenomena of the moment for her, and she is denied past and future awareness to the point where she is no more than a voice speaking lines in the theatre. Someone said of Marilyn Monroe that she was ‘discontinuous with any idea of personality’. It is the same with Cressida. She becomes her words; our ‘present eye praises the present object’ as Ulysses says, and looks no further.

Shakespeare's technique here deliberately abandons his usual sure mode of creating a complete human being, complete not only in terms of history but in relation to a family and a social situation. Such creation may be only a hint or a touch—as in the personality of a Paulina in The Winter's Tale, or an Aumerle in Richard II—but the sense of character as logically and soundly related to environment is something of the greatest importance to his art that we can usually take for granted. In the Troilus legend all is arbitrary, and again we may feel that the playwright sardonically emphasises this aspect of legend into a corner stone of theatrical technique. We know nothing about these people but this is the story of how they behaved: it is thus as accurate as it is paradoxical to see the legend as a moment in life, left hanging on a note of mockery that is very far from being the ‘monumental mockery’ which Ulysses sees as the fate of bygone reputation, and action left behind in the past.

Handled in this way the Shakespeare tale becomes virtually a parody of representation and action, the Aristotelian concept of the play. Parodied, too, is the concept of time that goes with this. The critics who a few generations later were to misunderstand Aristotle and make a fetish of the Unity of Time, held that the duration of a dramatic fiction should ideally be the time taken to act it. Dryden praised Ben Jonson's The Silent Woman for this reason, and when he decided to rewrite Shakespeare's Troilus he must have approved of it on the same grounds. It may also be significant that he subtitled his adaptation ‘Truth found too late’, thus suggesting that all the appearances of the Troilus situation are misleading, and that his play discovers and presents its reality. That reality turns out to be that Cressida was faithful after all; that she only flirted with Diomedes to please her father; and that the only way she can prove this is by self-immolation on the battlefield where Troilus, after slaying Diomedes, himself meets death. Dryden's version may be preposterous, but its mockery is indeed ‘monumental’; its artifice creates dramatic certainty and—to a limited extent—dramatic satisfaction.

Dryden's Cressida reveals herself in her actions and in the time of the play, and that is good enough, however devoid of interest or plausibility that self might be if we could consider it in novel time. In one sense at least, therefore, she is a kind of degraded sister of the great heroines of classical tragedy, like Antigone herself. All that is relevant in Antigone is concentrated in her action, into what she does, and it is this and nothing else which constitutes her tragedy. The role of Antigone is completely identified with the action—there is no time for the two to be separated—and there is no room for different kinds of or conceptions of Antigone. Equally there should be none for Shakespeare's Cressida. She was false, and in play time there is an end of it. She does what she does because there is no syllable of time

                              no orifex for a point as subtle
As Ariachne's broken woof to enter

in which she could do otherwise. And yet we may have the uneasy but challenging impression that this is because she is a kind of parody of the heroine whose time is only in the play; that her nature is divided, not ‘in itself’ but in terms of the usual Shakespearean form; that she is a dweller potentially in the land of the novel who is here compelled to exist solely in the swift time of the play.

If Hamlet does not always speak like a man of this world it is because he lives in different worlds, as both playgoer and victim of its plot: his drama is that of a young man acting who becomes a young man acted upon. Troilus's self-absorption is not so unlike Hamlet's, but it is concerned entirely with the sensations of the moment. The attitude to time is again the key.

You that look pale and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes or audience to this act,
Had I but time—

Hamlet invokes novel time, the spacious dimension which the play will not let him have. For him it is a matter of infinite concern that his wounded name shall be restored, to live behind him in the love and knowledge of his friend Horatio, who will speak

                              to the yet unknowing world
How these things came about.

But absence of novel time, and what goes with it, seems the very point of Troilus. ‘Hector is dead, there is no more to say’. To live in reputation and in friendship can have no place in Troilus, where all such things are dissolved in the expediency of the moment. We must contrast with this not only Hamlet but the powerful ties and dignities of friendship which triumph over politics in Julius Caesar. But these things are nothing in Troilus, as the tone even of the Prologue makes quite clear.

                                                                                                                        our play
Leaps o'er the vaunt and firstlings of these broils,
Beginning in the middle; starting thence away
To what may be digested in a play.

The absence of value is contained and revealed in the absence of time, its most effective correlative in terms of art, for it is most unlikely that Shakespeare is simply giving direct expression here to a mood of disgust with society. Time is here the formal instrument for his habitual artifice and self-exclusion; and the instrument also, it may well be, to set the tone for a play specially commissioned by the young intellectuals at the Inns of Court. For this of course there is no direct evidence. Although a tradition exists that Troilus was never acted in the public theatre, Coghill and others have plausibly argued that it takes a conventional place among the tragedies of the time; and against this one can only urge a more or less personal sense of its peculiarities. If Troilus was not aimed at an Inns of Court audience who was it aimed at?

A logical result of the play's time technique is the domination of Thersites, who seems at times virtually to ‘speak for’ the play in a Brechtian sense, a sense unique in Shakespeare. And yet play-time consumes him too. His rebuttal is not to triumph outside the play, not to increase and live on in our minds as ‘the hatch and brood’ of novel-time. But he is unique in receiving no real setback or corrective at the hands of his fellows, as do all Shakespeare's other cynics and railers. Parolles, Apemantus, Jaques, Enobarbus, Falstaff, Iago above all—they are in their various ways placed and diminished by the positive mass and movement of the plays they are in. But Thersites is disconcertingly on top in his. Most obviously and smartly he scores off Patroclus, the false railer and tame cynic of Achilles, who likes to hear him pageant the Greek generals and provide what Ulysses calls ‘the stuff for these two to make paradoxes’. Patroclus attempts to claim Thersites as a fellow clear-sighted man, who like himself sees through the farce of greatness and of life in general, but Thersites treats him with all the disdain of the independent shop steward for the chief of the bosses' union.

No one can stand up against Thersites because all unknowingly share the same conviction with him, the conviction that everything is meaningless except the present moment. Thersites is top dog because he alone draws the logical conclusion that there is nothing to life but disputation and conquest, wars and lechery—‘nothing else holds fashion’. The others who follow the fashion without being aware of it, are men of action in the most damning sense.

Thersites concludes that there is nothing but wars and lechery because he cannot see that the legend and the beauty, the art and the meaning of the past and the future proceed precisely from the art and the lechery of the moment. The present moment reveals the legendary Helen sprawled untidily in the arms of a Paris who calls her ‘Nell’, and the death of Hector the Great as a few seconds of sordid butchery brought about by chance. At any given moment Thersites is right. The play pushes his logic to an extreme which becomes almost an implicit parody of those who despise art, and time as its matrix. So far from being in opposition to his fellows Thersites here is their representative and spokesman.

Another kind of satire may underlie the glitter of the play. The point about metaphysical argument of the kind the young intellectuals of the Inns delighted in, was its expedience, its pointscoring, its omission by the rules of the game of imponderable values and permanencies. Shakespeare might perhaps be quietly amusing himself at the expense of his clients, the young men who would not only be applauding but (like Donne) learning from his ingenious arguments and what Milton in Comus makes his Lady scornfully call

                                                                                          gay rhetoric
That hath so well been taught her dazzling fence.

For Agamemnon and Nestor have dazzling arguments to prove that the failure of a communal design is really a good thing, because it will show who is trying hardest. Ulysses outdoes them both in ingenuity and animation to prove that things would go better if they all pulled together; but what unites them with their opposite numbers in Troy, and subordinates them to Thersites's view of things, is the blind immediacy of their intentions.

Every Elizabethan used rhetoric in this way, and for effects as graphic and artistic as possible, but Shakespeare is alone in drawing a particular sort of dramatic conclusion from the logic of its use. Translate the intentionalism of rhetoric into terms of action and you have mere appetite, careless of everything but its object.

Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.

Action, like lechery, eats itself in terms of this drama and leaves nothing over. The irony of these grim words is that they describe raison d'état, the specialty of rule and ‘the mystery in the soul of state’ that Ulysses relishes; and though his ‘need to take the instant way’ and ‘let not virtue seek renumeration for the thing it was’ blinds him to the implication of what he says, there is a kind of dawning horror of his own words as he speaks them. Eating is the very image of absorption in the present, and both Helen and Cressida are compared by Troilus to the leftovers of appetite; there is a meaningful irony in the argument offered by Troilus for keeping Helen:

                                                            the remainder viands
We do not throw in unrespective sieve
Because we now are full.

The play's logic presents the girls in this light, as it presents even Hector. He too is the victim of the moment and its impulses, even though he alone in the play can see time as the end rather than as the moment.

                              The end crowns all
And that old common arbitrator, time,
Will one day end it …

But even he is a dire example of the truth in this play of his brother Troilus's exclamation—‘What's ought but as 'tis valued?’—for he is valued as a status symbol of invincibility, to be eliminated by the Greeks and preserved by the Trojans. He dies without words, with no blaze of self-illumination like Hotspur, who affirms with his last breath his survival in the idea of eternity.

For thought's the slave of life, and life's time's fool,
And time, that takes survey of all the world
Must have a stop.

Hector's sudden reversal of his wise decision to return Helen to the Greeks shows him as much the victim of immediacy as the others in the play. And though Troilus assures himself that ‘never did young man fancy with so eternal and so fixed a soul’, the truth of his love is that it consists only in moments: the moment when he is giddy with desire and ‘expectation whirls him round’; the moment when he sees Cressida together with Diomedes. ‘This, and is not, Cressida’. ‘I cannot conjure, Trojan’ says Ulysses, sardonically disclaiming any power upon the appearance of things. His brother's death becomes for Troilus another such moment. ‘Hector is dead, there is no more to say’. He cannot say like Brutus:

                              I owe more tears
To this dead man than you shall see me pay.
I shall find time, Cassius, I shall find time.

But the most conscious contemners of permanency and value are Agamemnon and Ulysses.

What's past and what's to come is strewn with husks
And formless ruin of oblivion;
But in this extant moment, faith and troth,
Strained purely from all hollow bias-drawing,
Bids thee, with most divine integrity,
From heart of very heart, great Hector, welcome.

The divine integrity of the extant moment determines the exercise of Agamemnon's nobility. Faith and truth are alone there. The irony of the phrase consummates the spirit of the play, as does Ulysses's dismissal of the scraps of good deeds past as ‘alms for oblivion’.

There is an odd sense, none the less, in which Cressida herself does strike us as a real person, in spite of her role as a commonplace in the play's externalized and intellectual scheme. It is partly a negative impression, based on our intuitive response to the attitudes the characters take towards her. When Ulysses calls her a daughter of the game we may feel obscurely that he is wrong, and if we feel so it is at this moment that she gives some sort of impression of personality. Ulysses's view of her is determined by his own role—indeed we might say that he himself acquires a measure of extension as a character by his refusal to interest himself in that of Cressida. The other actors are partly realized by the same indirect method. If we wonder how far Thersites is justified in claiming that Diomedes is totally unreliable (‘The sun borrows of the moon when Diomed keeps his word’) or that Patroclus is a womanizer as well as the boy-friend of Achilles (‘the parrot will not do more for an almond than he for a commodious drab’) then we are beginning to take some interest in the psychology of both Thersites and his victims, though the play will not of course satisfy it.

For the senilely chivalric old Nestor Cressida is ‘a woman of quick spirit’, which for Ulysses means being a ‘sluttish spoil of opportunity’. So she may be, or become, but Ulysses is not interested in why it should be so. Chaucer, on the other hand, was deeply interested in her motivation. I used to suppose, which I take to be the fairly general reaction, that Chaucer's and Shakespeare's Cressidas had very little in common; but now I wonder whether they are not in fact based on the same kind of interest and understanding on the part of the two writers; and even whether Shakespeare, with that sureness of instinct which makes it irrelevant to ask whether or not he was ‘interested’ in such a character, may not have formed his Cressida from Chaucer's.

The thing they chiefly have in common is that neither of them know what they want, and so they become the victims of what other people want. Social exigencies compel them to act in ways which society then condemns. This fate, which with some women might be sacrificial, is with them merely distracted. Both Cressidas distrust men and yet depend on them, and both are in a continual state of inadvertency and division.

What offends you, Lady?
Sir, my own company.
You cannot shun yourself.
Let me go and try.
I have a kind of self resides with you,
But an unkind self that itself will leave
To be another's fool.

These are the most revealing words Cressida utters. They show, for one thing, that her existence is indeed a matter of what other people think of her; that she is as she is valued: but they also show an exasperated consciousness of the fact. She is a mess and she knows it; she would rather, as Chaucer's Criseyde thinks she would, be ‘my owene woman, wel at ease’, but where is the hope of that? She has not a moment to try: forces inside her and out will prevent it. It is of course in keeping with the spirit of the play that Shakespeare does not make the great parade of sympathy for his heroine that Chaucer does: her predicament is not focused on (‘men seyn, I nat …’) as a matter for excuse. None the less Cressida, like Criseyde, is in a predicament, which the play's action exhibits but does not explain. Neither's doings are acts of the will. If Troilus is ‘a young man's play’, perhaps even a parody of a young man's play, it explains much about Cressida's negated role. Shakespearean obligingness, and perhaps amusement and satire, would be focused at and on the young ‘whom Aristotle thought / Unfit to hear moral philosophy’. Troilus's remarks on love, like all the metaphysics in the play, are brilliantly self-curious and self-defining. Some of Cressida's (‘You shall not have it, Diomed, faith you shall not’) are, for want of a better word, from the heart, but the predicament of the heart has no place in this man's world. Cressida's negation in such a world, like Ophelia's in hers, emphasizes more than anything the difference from later tragedy where women's feelings and motives have so much importance. It also, naturally enough, negates and diminishes the meaning of infidelity, a young man's idea in the play like every other; for these young men are certainly not fit to hear a moral philosophy of love which would give it real meaning.

Certainly Cressida is very different from Shakespeare's other heroines. Even his loose or his evil women are, as it were robustly and whole-heartedly so—they have confidence and single-minded assurance. They have in abundance that quality which Tolstoy so unerringly detects and so sympathetically displays in Natasha Rostov of War and Peace—the entire rightness of being themselves. And in his most admired women Shakespeare presents the most sublime qualities of love—faith, confidence, serene self-assurance, unalterable even when it ‘alteration finds’. In their faith ‘Time is the nurse and breeder of all good’. Desdemona serenely rejoins to Othello's exclamation that his happiness is too great for anything except death to succeed it:

                                                                      The heavens forbid
But that our loves and comforts should increase
Even as our days do grow!

Juliet, Rosalind, Portia (both of them), Hermione in The Winter's Tale (‘The Emperor of Russia was my father’) above all Isabella in Measure for Measure, and Lady Macbeth, in whom confidence and self-satisfaction assume respectively their most ambiguous and their most terrible form. There is such striking unanimity that one can hardly doubt that their author himself profoundly admired—revered even—the qualities he portrayed. Nor is he alone here. I suppose it is a traditional ideal of western culture, found at its greatest in the beauty and assurance of the great portraits of the Mother of God. Troilus's cry—

Let it not be believed for womanhood!
Think, we had mothers …

shows that it has also its deep root in interior psychology.

No wonder then that the play in which this attitude is absent should be so drastically and jarringly different. Instead of creating and organizing the assurances of self-hood Shakespeare divides and dissolves them. Sexual infidelity and military expedience are the cracks which gape open to ruin all distinction. Troilus's stunned horror at the division in Cressida

Of this strange nature, that a thing inseparate
Divides more wider than the earth and sky

is a recognition not so much of falsity as of the fact that she is not a single coherent person, in herself or in time. The modern spirit may learn to accept and even to exploit this incoherence—the dissolution of what Lawrence called ‘the old stable ego’ of character—and to relish the flavour it finds in Toilus. And it is certainly true that the confidence and assurance of Shakespeare's women, however timeless its mastery in terms of the individual, seems to belong to the past rather than to the present. The chorus of masculine praise in the nineteenth century for what Brandes called Shakespeare's ‘noble and adorable womanly figures’ now strikes us as suspiciously nostalgic. Sheltered men are trying to get behind Shakespeare in admiration for dream figures who project the reassurance but none of the tiresomeness of wife or mother. Cressida is no help here; division has gone so far indeed that she is not even in their sense a woman; she shares with Troilus and the play's other characters the male emptiness of experience, indecision, helplessness—divisions of the kind the play touches on again and again in unexpected contexts.

This Ajax is half made of Hector's blood;
In love whereof, half Hector stays at home.

All the characters in the play are both victims and intriguers, betrayers and betrayed, but it is in the heroine that this loss of stability appears most emphatically. The ‘truth’ of Troilus goes by default in such a play; it is on the division of Cressida that Shakespeare concentrates. Where Chaucer traced Criseyde's hesitations with meticulous leisure, and placed them in the context of all human uncertainty about life and love—over which the fidelity of God presides—Shakespeare shows division through a formalization of time. It seems just possible that the germ of such a treatment came to him from literature; not from Chaucer but from Henryson's poem The Testament of Cresseid, which we know he had read, and the famous moment towards its ending when Cressida, who has become a leper, happens to come face to face with Troilus, who is still defending Troy. Each fails to recognize the other, though Troilus cannot help thinking he has seen that face before somewhere. Shakespeare presents something oddly similar with far greater subtlety and with none of the poet's rather unctuous relish in the transformation. Instead of the poem's elaborately postponed tableau, he shows how the same kind of impression can be made only hours after the lovers have parted. ‘Was Cressid here?’ The moment is indeed a nightmare one. For the last lesion in the mind is not to recognize the person we have just seen and may see again. And the play images for us the madness of such a moment.

Wilson Knight has remarked that in this play ‘the mind of Shakespeare is engaged with purely philosophic issues’. It is quite true that the analytic processes of the play, however ambivalent their course and purpose, are so unlike anything else in Shakespeare that they do appear almost as a deliberate metaphysical query. But we should beware of supposing that Shakespeare himself is thus ‘engaged’; the impression may come from the method he has used, the form and style that he has given to the play. One would suppose that once that form and atmosphere have been established, all else may flow naturally and logically from it. The exchanges of Ulysses and Achilles, as of Hector and Troilus, give a brilliant if brittle impression of philosophic discussion, the sort of effect that such a piece can give of it, to titillate an intelligent audience and create an air of intellectual immediacy which will make them sit up. But in a sense the method brings its own nemesis, and ‘eats up itself’ by its own success. The play is ‘intellectual’ in a potentially damaging sense, dealing so much in arresting and stimulating moments that we shall find no deeply imagined and presented differentiation of values inside the world it offers. It contains none of the characters who do not represent, but are—in some wholly pragmatic sense—good and evil, nor those opposed worlds of order and of unregeneracy which we find even in the comedies. So that when Wilson Knight goes on to suggest—and he is by no means the only critic to do so—that the decisive element in the play is a contrast between Greek rationality and Trojan chivalry, a deliberate demonstration of the triumph of ruthless Greek methods over a Trojan culture which retains in however unexamined a form some decency and honour, he seems to me to mislead us. And, incidentally, to embarrass the play. For if Shakespeare did indeed intend some such confrontation, the method on which he constructed the play has backfired on him. In Antony and Cleopatra there can be no question of the gulf between Rome and Egypt, and of its significance in terms of the play's dimension and imagination. But the gap between Greek and Trojan is merely notional, and is deflected by the impact of ‘philosophic issues’ arising out of the urgency, the tyranny in fact, of the moment, which affects both sides equally. In English, and especially in Tudor literary tradition, Trojans were the good guys and Greeks the bad ones, a fugitive Trojan prince, Brytto, being supposedly the eponymous founder of the British kingdom. This tradition Shakespeare goes along with, but surely no more than that. It is an irrelevance, and hence perhaps a weakness, in a play that is full of oddity. But it is wholly logical, for in working inside the medium of the moment the dramatist forgoes any vantage-point outside it. He cannot tell us what he thinks, or what to think, in terms of the values that lie outside immediacy.

What he can do is, like Pandarus, in the play's parting line, to ‘bequeath you my diseases’. We recoil from such a world without being invited to do so, because it makes us reflect on the way we act and live. Were some such theme as that ‘evil arises from the betrayal of loyalties’ to be offered to us, we should have no trouble in getting on terms with the play, and putting ourselves outside the nightmare unease of its presentness, as our feelings traditionally lead us to do with tragedy. Certainly the ‘young men’, in the play, and watching it, would not have been in the least impressed by such a moral, any more than by the traditional trappings and emotions of tragedy. And it is they, in whatever spirit, who remain the arbiters of Troilus. If we are to take what the play offers, and understand the unexpected world it creates, we must assume that Shakespeare here is doing something quite different, rather than that he is attempting—in a discordant, blurred, unsatisfactory way—the same sort of effects he achieves so well elsewhere.

Horst Breuer (essay date 1976)

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SOURCE: Breuer, Horst. “Disintegration of Time in Macbeth's Soliloquy: ‘Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow.’” Modern Language Review 71, no. 2 (April 1976): 256-71.

[In the following essay, Breuer analyzes Macbeth's ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” monologue (Act V, scene v) with reference to the twentieth-century experience of despair and isolation. He proposes that the collapse of time as a symbol of stability and the ensuing disorientation expressed in this soliloquy are paralleled in the works of Samuel Beckett, and that they also reflect Macbeth's attempt to mediate medieval and modern notions of man and his place in the universe.]


Macbeth's soliloquy in Act V, Scene 5, though one of the most famous of Shakespeare's ‘purple’ passages, still makes difficult reading for most students of the play. The second half of the monologue, beginning ‘Out, out, brief candle’, seems to be less puzzling than the first. Even without a special knowledge of the theatrum mundi and the play metaphor, a reader may be certain to grasp the central point of Macbeth's philosophy of despair in the second half of the soliloquy; and though readers of Macbeth are less likely nowadays than in Shakespeare's age to experience the traumatic situation of having to listen to the furious gabble of a madman encountered in the street, the ‘tale told by an idiot’, as a metaphor for the insignificance of life, is intelligible enough. The first half of the soliloquy, however, seems to defy closer analysis, although most commentators carefully avoid admitting this. We are told vaguely that the lines in question are about time, and that Macbeth's vision of one day meaninglessly and monotonously succeeding another is, apart from being superb poetry, just another way of uttering the same nihilism as in the ‘poor player’ metaphor. This is indubitably true, but what about details? What exactly is the idea of time expressed in these lines? What actually is the author doing when he makes the tomorrows creep in petty pace and the yesterdays light the way to death? What is the associative link between the time imagery of the first half and the theatrum mundi metaphor of the second?

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.(1)

A sensitive modern reader seems to feel very acutely indeed that this passage is a consummate expression of the very essence of despair and disillusionment, doubt and pessimism, the irrevocable hopelessness and solitude of man, which Renaissance individualism opposed to medieval optimism; but for most readers it is not at all clear by what means this vast idea is conveyed.

Time, then, is the keyword of the first half of Macbeth's soliloquy, and I shall attempt to say something about the particular nature and function of time in this monologue. I should like to argue that any reading of Macbeth should make use of the specific aesthetic sensibility pertaining to the age not of Shakespeare (as is often recommended by ‘historical’ critics), but of the individual reader or spectator concerned. The conception of time in Macbeth's soliloquy is a particularly good case, as literature in our own age is preoccupied with the idea of time, or absence of time. The contention of this paper is that some knowledge of our contemporary authors may help us to determine our specific reading of the Shakespeare passage in question. The susceptibility of modern writers to a nihilism very similar to that of Renaissance authors, and the particular expression of such a nihilism by a certain way of handling (among other things) the idea of time, may give us valuable clues as to what a non-antiquarian appreciation of Macbeth's famous lines may be like.2 The historical difference between post-feudal and post-bourgeois pessimism is of course not supposed to be explained away by such an interpretation; the aim of this study is rather to emphasize the point that a work of art can only be experienced as a work of art if it is viewed principally in terms of the present, not of the past. The theoretical problems involved in such an approach will be discussed in due course. As an example of a modern writer whose conception of time may be paralleled with that of Macbeth, Samuel Beckett has been chosen, since this theme is omnipresent in his works, and since the disintegration of his characters and their environment seems to be quite comparable to Macbeth's final situation and state of mind. So—what becomes of Macbeth's soliloquy when read with a Beckettian sensibility? And, perhaps more important, is it legitimate to ‘actualize’ our reading of Shakespeare in this way?


For Beckett, as novelist and playwright, the disintegration of time is a central theme as well as a fundamental principle of formal construction.3 Instead of having a beginning, middle, and end, his plots tend to be repetitive and circular. There is virtually no action in his plays except for some specimens of deliberately silly stage business. Time is rigorously condensed, as in Breath, or reduced to the mechanical movement of a goad on wheels, as in Act Without Words II, or plainly excluded, as in the nightmarish interiors of Imagination Dead Imagine or The Lost Ones. Beckett's protagonists either exist ‘in the future’ (Krapp's Last Tape), or are grotesquely immortal, like Swift's Struldbrugs (mentioned in More Pricks than Kicks), or, paradoxically enough, already dead (as the narrator of The Calmative). Beckett's characters do not develop, do not change, do not move, except for a slow but steady progress towards the end. The texts describe either a standstill, dimly illuminated by a greyish light which might be that within a skull (or a womb), or they minutely report a deteriorating process of dying and decomposition, accompanied by incessant curses on birth and procreation. Time can be absent, as in Play or Not I, or it is present merely as an aimless and endless duration of incoherent and interchangeable moments, as in Waiting for Godot or How It Is. But no matter whether the structural plan of Beckett's plays and novels is the chain or the circle,4 the spiral or the asymptote, or simply the dot (Hamm in Endgame speaks of being merely ‘a speck in the void’), the effect is always that time as the essential principle of order is missing. Time (as it is understood in this context) is more than just a sequence of recognizable portions of duration following one another. Time means orientation, organization, co-ordination, purpose, coherence, wholeness; one moment is meaningfully connected with other moments; there are causal relations and final intentions; the present is instructed by the past and encouraged by the future; and every instant, every ‘syllable of recorded time’ is governed by order, development, remembrance, progress, survey, expectation, confidence. The idea of time is the idea of control—the individual's control of his life, a nation's control of its history, the artist's control of his medium.

Now all this is lacking in Beckett's plays and novels, or, rather, it is not simply lacking but has been deliberately abolished. There is nothing by which, for example, the characters in Act Without Words II could possibly tell one day of their lives from another; Krapp, in Krapp's Last Tape, searching his past for a happiness he was stupid enough to let slip by, is nothing like the Goethian autobiographer who describes himself as living in and contributing to historical progress; and hardly any one of Beckett's characters has a firm grip on his past, hardly any one is able to recollect his former life. Time exists but as a ‘Time cancer’ (as Beckett puts it in his essay, ‘Proust’), as a shapeless mass of meaninglessly multiplying moments, amorphous and incoherent like a heap of sand, or of millet grains, as in Zeno's paradox:

Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there's a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.

Moment upon moment, pattering down, like the millet grains of … that old Greek, and all life long you wait for that to mount up to a life.


The moments never mount up to a life, nor the words to a story (for example Embers, or Cascando), nor the goings-on to an action (for example Waiting for Godot, or Watt). The sequence of events never mounts up to the coherence of time, because the mind that organizes and thereby controls these events does not exist in Beckett's works: the discontinuity of time reflects the disorganization of reason and remembrance, the disintegration of personality and stability, the dissolution of social responsibility, the alienation and reification of man in our age and society (but perhaps not only in ours). Interestingly enough, schizophrenics seem to experience insanity in a similar way; a typical statement is recorded in a monograph on depersonalization: ‘I can't explain it, everything is timeless, unchangeable, hopeless. Time simply passes, I don't see a future.’6 And a psychiatrist comments on the characteristically schizophrenic experience of time: ‘Time is cut into fragments, does not flow any longer, is entirely blocked, as if countless incoherent “times present” had amassed without any order.’7 Beckett has drawn so largely on psychiatry, and his works are so unmistakably a representation of our society and epoch as essentially alienated and insane, that it may not be unfair to elucidate his idea of time by these quotations.

It is, perhaps, in The Unnamable that Beckett presents this conception of time most uncompromisingly, and where it governs the structure of the text most successfully. The reduction of the props and settings, actions, and variety of characters common to the traditional novel, is here so rigorously maintained that the painful ritual of going through Beckett's text is an analogous reflection of the narrator's intense suffering. The absence of all exterior ‘landmarks’ of time (change of light, phases of sleep, change of seasons, social events, etc.) calls to mind certain modern experiments in isolation and deprivation of stimuli which, by the way, produce responses similar to those of Beckett's characters as far as sanity and time experience are concerned. The Unnamable encysts himself, as nearly all Beckett's characters do, in a room, in a vase, in his own skull, perhaps merely, with the least physical extension possible, in the incessantly active synapses and neurones of his confused mind (‘I sometimes wonder if the two retinae [of his eyes] are not facing each other’8). The gloomy limbo of his skull is full of murmurs and voices, broodings and recollections; never-to-be-completed stories are told and retold, broken off and resumed again, commented on and parodied. Forgetfulness and obsessive remembrance: these are but two aspects of fundamentally the same state of mind in Beckett's works, in The Unnamable as well as in Eh Joe and Play and the Texts for Nothing.

It is obvious that the time scheme of The Unnamable and the time experience of its narrator-hero are conclusive evidence for the above-mentioned collapse of order and orientation. And again, this conception of time does not only pervade the form of the text, but is made a major point of reflection by the narrator, the central passage even mentioning Zeno's heap of millet grains, as in Endgame:

the question may be asked, off the record, why time doesn't pass, doesn't pass, from you, why it piles up all about you, instant on instant, on all sides, deeper and deeper, thicker and thicker, your time, other's time, the time of the ancient dead and the dead yet unborn, why it buries you grain by grain neither dead nor alive, with no memory of anything, no hope of anything, no knowledge of anything, no history and no prospects, buried under the seconds, saying any old thing, your mouth full of sand.

(The Unnamable, p. 393)

This is what Winnie in Happy Days, immobile as the Unnamable, experiences: she is buried under the seconds, in a heap of sand, and the sand grains pile up incessantly (or shall we rather say that she shrinks in her sand hole?), but, despite her aimless rummaging in her past as well as in her handbag, they ‘never mount up to a life’. In Beckett's works, time is, as it were, the system of co-ordinates providing orientation and control (referred to, as a matter of course, only ex negativo). When it breaks down, when memory becomes circular and faulty, duration amorphous, history meaningless, the past a heap of shattered fragments, when time becomes merely the distantly felt hearbeat or the sensation of a dripping in the head (Endgame), then this irreversible process of dissolution has almost reached its final stage of amnesia, immobility, silence. Molloy:

To be literally incapable of motion at last, that must be something! My mind swoons when I think of it. And mute into the bargain! And perhaps as deaf as a post! And who knows as blind as a bat! And as likely as not your memory a blank! And just enough brain intact to allow you to exult! And to dread death like a regeneration.

(pp. 140-1)

And The Unnamable:

that's how it will end, in heart-rending cries, inarticulate murmurs, to be invented, as I go along, improvised, as I groan along, I'll laugh, that's how it will end, in a chuckle, chuck chuck, ow, ha, pa …, in the end, it's the end, the ending end, it's the silence, a few gurgles on the silence, the real silence.

(p. 412)


Time as a factor of order is by no means a conception of modern writers alone; our contemporary authors are, on the contrary, in a position to represent insanity and sterility as the collapse of the normal time-sequence and time-experience only because they can use the traditional conception of time as a foil to their own inversion of the theme. Shakespeare's plays must be seen in a similar perspective since the optimistic view that reality is shaped in an inviolate pattern of order and wholeness, metaphorically represented by time, was already precarious by the end of Elizabeth's reign. The dissolution of the old system of values and the disintegration of time in Shakespeare's Macbeth cannot, therefore, be studied without first considering what E. M. W. Tillyard calls this ‘background of order’ and its metaphorical counterpart, time.

For medieval and Renaissance thinking, the idea of time was indissolubly connected with the movements of the stars and their spheres (according to Ptolemaic cosmology), and more especially of the sun, whose invariable course severed day from night and winter from summer. The moon and everything beneath its sphere was thought to be subject to mutability; but above it was the realm of order and reason and harmony. The absolute value of such a way of thinking was truth, in the meaning of constancy and faithfulness rather than veracity; the modern reader should never forget this, as our ideal is rather flexibility and adaptability. The age of Shakespeare still valued stability more highly than dynamic change, although Elizabethans gradually became aware that they had lost it irretrievably in the course of the dissolution of the medieval social structure. Time, in the medieval period, was a symbol of this stability. The life cycle was still dominated by the seven sacraments, the cycle of the four seasons by the ecclesiastical year, the cycle of the day by church bells indicating prime and Angelus and vespers. Time was a symbol for the spiritual order of Catholicism as well as for the inviolability and stability of medieval communal life, it was a symbol of the peasant's attachment to nature as well as of his allegiance to the feudal lord. The societal patterns of this tradition-directed way of life persisted, to a certain extent, in the Tudor and Stuart epoch. Living outside time was, in the Middle Ages as well as in the Renaissance, equal to living outside the society of men and outside the grace of God. Those who had to shun the eye of heaven, the sun, were ‘thieves and robbers’ who by night ‘range abroad unseen, / In murders and in outrage’ (Richard II, III. 2. 39); Falstaff, being one of them, ironically prefers to call them ‘gentlemen of the shade, minions of the moon’, and goodnaturedly ridicules the sun as ‘Phoebus … that wand'ring knight so fair’ (I Henry IV, I. 2. 25 and 14), that is, as a somewhat pathetic fossil left over from the Middle Ages.

The correspondence between God, king, sun, time, reason, music, and order has been shown to be ubiquitous in Shakespeare's works since Dr Tillyard and other scholars first opened up this specific perspective. Macbeth is the locus classicus for images of cosmic order and disorder, for here the superhuman plane is expressly introduced into the drama in the witches' scenes. The murder of Duncan is described as ‘most sacrilegious murder’, as the very disruption of the universe: ‘Confusion now hath made his masterpiece’, Macduff cries horror-stricken after having found Duncan in his blood, thus ascribing the deed to the Antichrist, personified as Chaos and Confusion. ‘Then is doomsday near’ (Hamlet, II. 2. 237). Macbeth is more than simply a murderer, and the play is more than just a study in fear and guilty conscience, or in vaulting ambition overleaping itself (let alone a ‘statement of evil’, which implies a basically ahistorical idea of values). The conflict in Macbeth is represented on a cosmic scale because fundamentally it is the conflict between two warring conceptions of man and the universe. On the one hand there are the gradually declining standards of the feudal age: allegiance to the king, humble acceptance of one's place in society, chivalric honour, feudal hospitality, social responsibility, faithfulness to custom and tradition; and on the other hand there are historically progressive attitudes like individualism, atheism, doubt, aspiration, adventurous enterprise, marital love. Critics who conceive of Macbeth as an essentially bourgeois character obviously fall victim to an oversimplified kind of pigeonholing, for one has difficulty in finding much of an ‘acquisitive spirit’ in either Macbeth or his wife; but it is certainly safe to conceive of Macbeth as an anti-feudal character who, however, cannot step out of his traditional order without virtually losing his identity.

Strange as this may seem to readers unaccustomed to this kind of historical perspective, Macbeth's murder is an historically progressive act, an emancipation from feudalism and Catholicism, a violent plunge into the doubts and solitude of the New Age. Shakespeare, however, is clairvoyant enough to show that this liberation from medieval bondage may lead to an even more horrible kind of enslavement, namely to inhumanity and self-alienation. The New Age has forfeited the comforting safety of a life under the tutelage of God's holy church and the king's feudal lords, and spiritual loneliness and insecurity take the place of the old stability and humility. What a gigantic challenge is this new rapture of freedom and self-sufficiency and individualism; but, as in the case of Macbeth, what appalling hazards, too! Without the traditional shelter of indubitable standards, man is exposed, defenceless, to the terrible strain of his new self-reliance; and it is only too likely that an imaginative woman like Lady Macbeth would yield to this strain. Those who try to re-establish the traditional order at the end of the play, have, unlike Edgar in King Lear, never experienced the New Doubt of the New Age, and their triumph, therefore, cannot persuade us that the sleep which Macbeth has murdered can be restored. Time is out of joint, and there is no restitutory way of setting it right again: history cannot be reversed.

Shakespeare's favourite image for the disintegration of traditional stability is the eclipse of the sun, the sun being a symbol of time as well as of the king and of hierarchical ‘degree’ in general. In Hamlet—a play which, like Macbeth, represents the disruption of the old order as murder and usurpation—cosmic chaos is depicted as the sun glowing feverishly over man's disintegrating world:

                                        Heaven's face does glow
O'er this solidity and compound mass
With heated visage, as against the doom—
Is thought-sick at the act.

(III. 4. 48)

(These lines are textually corrupt.) In Macbeth, this cosmic image is intensified still further:

                    the heavens, as troubled with man's act,
Threatens his bloody stage. By th' clock 'tis day,
And yet dark night strangles the travelling lamp.

(II. 4. 5)

Macbeth's deed causes time to stop for a moment, comparable to the hour of Christ's death; the sun does not rise (compare Macbeth's ‘I gin to be aweary of the sun’ in V. 5. 49); the heavens pause; man stands dazed by the terrible consequences of his unforeseen emancipation from his inherited system of values:

Had I but died an hour before this chance,
I had liv'd a blessed time; for, from this instant,
There's nothing serious in mortality—
All is but toys; renown and grace is dead;
The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees
Is left this vault to brag of.

(II. 3. 89)

Grace is dead, the blessed time of innocence and bondage is over: ‘Eritis sicut dii scientes bonum et malum’. Like Faustus and Hamlet, Macbeth has overstepped the threshold between secure but maiming irresponsibility and self-sufficing but perilous freedom, and the play anticipates lucidly that the self-liberation of man may lead to enlightenment and humanism as well as to anarchy and destruction.

The strain of this newly-adopted self-reliance and solitude has a profound effect on Macbeth's mind; he does not break down, as his wife does, but he, too, undergoes a radical alteration of personality. Before his ‘fall from grace’, he was deeply imaginative and emotional, in some respects the alter ego of Hamlet (as Frank Harris was first to notice); but afterwards he becomes tense, rigid, numb, automaton-like, chilled with despair, bizarrely cold and unemotional: a fanatic of violence, a killer without a cause, ‘a dying gladiator, a blinded lion at bay’.9 If Lady Macbeth is insane in her way, so is Macbeth in his; the appalling vision of the huge vault of heaven being essentially empty, a mocking echo reverberating hollowly over this bank and shoal of time, has literally unhinged him. Macbeth is stunned by his new consciousness that man is a stranger in his world, that the universe does not provide a natural home for him, that there is no profound plan in the structure of society and in the life of the individual. Time is no longer a guarantee of order and coherence, the movements of the stars no longer obey the decree of a God whom man is about to discover to be a creation of his own mind.

And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost, and th' earth, and no man's wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world's spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
'Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,
All just supply, and all relation:
Prince, subject, father, son, are things forgot,
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a phoenix, and that then can be
None of that kind of which he is but he.

These well-known lines from John Donne's Anatomy of the World (‘The First Anniversary’, 1611) sum up the predicament of Renaissance individualism: when the old moulds of life were shattered, the security and orientation that they provided were obliterated too.

This, and not the message of his wife's death, is the background to Macbeth's soliloquy ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’. Macbeth is no longer young in deed, he has waded in blood a long way since he last saw Pity astride the blast, or since he had need of blessing. He has cut off those parts of his being which still adhered to the old system of values, and with them those which were full of the milk of human kindness. Inside himself, he feels nothing but an infinite emptiness and coldness. Having supped full with horrors, he has almost forgotten the taste of fears. He is past remorse and past regret. Physically as well as spiritually, Macbeth is solitary, deserted, lost in the void of an indifferent universe:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

Time has become entropic for Macbeth. It is no longer governed by the medieval idea of order which appointed an appropriate place to every day and every action. Time is ‘a nightmare succession of incidents without significance’, a mere ‘succession of meaningless days’10 elapsing incessantly and never ‘mounting up to a life’. The view into the future is hopeless; Macbeth sees nothing but a hideous procession of ant-like tomorrows creeping towards him, in an agonizingly ‘petty pace’; and looking backwards he sees them, when their ‘time present’ is over, ‘crawling wormlike’ from him ‘in the dust towards death’.11 History, ‘recorded time’, is no longer the edifying volume capable of unravelling the muddle of man's life; it is the incoherent stutter of fragmentary syllables which will never again be compounded in a neat pattern of meaningful sentences. Macbeth, once he has jumped the life to come, discovers history to be a tale told by an idiot. Time is logos, in its symbolical meaning here emphasized; its disintegration, therefore, is consequently represented as a sequence of disconnected syllables, as the incoherent gabble of a madman. Samuel Beckett uses a similar device (in a formally different way, as may be expected) in Watt's demented search for a mathematically correct mode of utterance (Watt), or in Lucky's hopeless attempt to ‘think’ (Waiting for Godot). (Nor is Beckett, as everyone knows, the only modern author to express this essential lunacy of alienated life; William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury (1929), with its programmatic title and conspicuous narrative technique, is another obvious example.) Macbeth's and the Unnamable's vision of man's life are fundamentally the same: ‘no memory of anything, no hope of anything, no knowledge of anything, no history and no prospects’. For Macbeth, nothing remains but his maniacal code of valour and violence which makes him fight his course bear-like to the very end. For Beckett's characters, who are quite unheroically passive (though not without a peculiarly infantile sadism), nothing remains but words: curses, jokes cynical or silly, incomplete stories, fragmentary recollections, jabberings and babblings, ‘the old inanities’ (Texts for Nothing, XII).

There is a slight shift in imagery when Macbeth speaks of the yesterdays lighting fools the way to dusty death. This is no longer the unnerving movement of the tomorrows creeping in a petty pace, like Beckett's millet grains pattering down and piling up incessantly. The yesterdays are now pictured as an endless procession of torch-bearers vanishing into the gloomy dark of the past, and their only function is, like that of Death in the morality plays summoning Everyman or Mankind, to guide to their death youths and old men who were foolish enough to cherish grand ideas like fame, or love, or religion, or immortality, and who were blind to their own essential fragility, insignificance, nothingness. Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. There is no consolation and no fond recollection in these yesterdays. They are like the skeletons of a grotesque allegorical pageant where the seven ages of man are reduced to virtually two: the uncanny creeping movement of the tomorrows, as of a horribly misshapen child, and the ghastly procession of the torch-bearing yesterdays ushering walking shadows towards their exits from this great stage of fools. The theatrum mundi metaphor here seems to merge with the time imagery, and the association of ideas runs quite naturally from the emblematical memento mori pageant to the shabbiness of man's performance and to the unintelligibility of his life and universe:

                                                                                          Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

The movement of the tomorrows is linked with the procession of the yesterdays; the torches of the yesterdays lead on to the brief candle of man's lamp of life; the candle suggests the deformed shadows cast by those who are flickeringly illuminated for a brief span of time; this again is expanded to the image of the ham actor gesticulating and raving like, for instance, Herod in the Coventry mystery play who is struck down by Death in the midst of his revellings (in media vita in morte sumus); and this finally culminates in the madman's babble, where logos is distorted to ‘a rhapsody of words’ (Hamlet, III. 4. 48). Life is a sham reality, a shadow, a dream, an insubstantial pageant, the poor imitation of an imitatio naturae. The best players, Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream (V. 1. 210) tells us, are but shadows—how much more inauthentic is the poor player's ‘life’, then, when there is no longer an optimistic imagination to amend it!

Macbeth's vision of life is medieval in so far as it preserves (in the Hegelian meaning of aufheben) the contemptus mundi conception of the world; his vision is modern in so far as he has jumped the life to come. It is this dialectic of rejection and simultaneous preservation of the traditional values that makes Macbeth the play par excellence of an age in transition,12 and it is the same dialectic which renders Macbeth comparable to Beckett's plays and novels. Both authors depict a nihilism which is all the darker because it clings ex negatione to the former tradition of optimism, whether feudal or bourgeois, Catholic or Protestant, as the case may be. Both authors depict a vision of life which emphasizes man's nothingness (as the Christian tradition does), but cannot any longer relate this individual insignificance to a superindividual and transcendental meaning. Thence the fierceness and fury of this vision: it is the exasperation of disillusionment and disappointment. And both authors depict this nihilism as the rejection not only of a religious, but also of a social optimism: Macbeth's and the Unnamable's despair is an extreme form of individualism, man's estrangement and withdrawal from society ending literally in the annihilation of his identity. For Macbeth, as for the mad painter in Endgame, everything is dead, sterile; the whole world is nothing but ashes, a gigantic cemetery where fools make their ways towards their graves. ‘The whole place stinks of corpses’, says Hamm in Endgame, and Clov adds: ‘The whole universe’. Macbeth's vision of life encompasses ‘the ancient dead and the dead yet unborn’ (The Unnamable), and man to him is as much a quintessence of dust as he is to Beckett a quintessence of mud and mucus.


Reading Shakespeare in terms of Beckett is a hazardous task. One has to make one's way through a maze of pitfalls and caveats; and the example of what former ‘actualizers’ did to Shakespeare is rather discouraging. The above attempt to analyse Macbeth's soliloquy with reference to our modern experience of abandonment and alienation, individualism and nihilism, is, of course, not the first ‘actualization’ of Shakespeare. One of the most hackneyed assertions of Shakespeare critics is that every age has found its own problems and its own imagination in Shakespeare's plays. This is certainly true for the twentieth century, too, despite the intimidating increase in scholarship and historical knowledge. Among the more recent ‘actualizing’ attitudes towards Shakespeare have been the existentialist and absurdist approaches, indubitably producing at times rather unrewarding pieces of criticism.13 This ‘actualizing’ method of interpretation, however insignificant it may be within our academic discussion, has become one of the major currents of twentieth-century Shakespeare interpretation as it rules utterly unchallenged in the province of theatrical production. Any theatre-goer has witnessed instances of this ‘actualizing’ representation of Shakespeare's plays: Macbeth as fascist dictator, Hamlet as l'homme révolté, Henry V as embodiment of Realpolitik and jingoism, Prospero as imperialist, Tybalt and Mercutio as hooligans, the post-Auschwitz Shylock and the Beckettian King Lear, Brecht's Coriolanus and Dürrenmatt's Titus Andronicus—the opportunities for modernization and adaptation seem to be unlimited. In my view, academic Shakespeare criticism has dealt too lightly with the methodological problems involved in the ‘actualizing’ method of interpretation. The gulf between actors and scholars, stage and reading-desk, practice and theory, although often enough deplored, is still unbridged. Practitioners of the theatre continue to wonder at the stubbornness and lack of realism of academic critics who tell them not to cut and alter Shakespeare's text and to enact it as if for an Elizabethan audience. And university scholars continue to condemn the sensationalism of producers and demand the ‘authentic’ Shakespeare. Basically, things are what they used to be in the days of Levin Ludwig Schücking who hurled execration at modern translations and adaptations and even modern-dress productions. Academic critics do not, of course, call outright for ‘antiquarian’ productions, but their notion of authenticity is still very much ‘Read and enact Shakespeare's plays as Shakespeare wanted them to be read and enacted’—whatever that may mean.

There are some interesting methodological problems involved in this controversy. As this paper is about a ‘Beckettian’ interpretation of Shakespeare, the best way to clarify the issues may be to re-open the discussion about Jan Kott's notorious Shakespeare our Contemporary (1961, English edition 1964). Kott's interpretation of some of Shakespeare's plays, notably the tragedies, is a model ‘actualizing’ approach; moreover, his book has been crucially influenced by theatrical practice and has in its turn greatly inspired the style of theatrical productions up to the present time, the best-known instance of this being, of course, Peter Brook's ‘seminal’ Stratford production of King Lear in 1962. Academic critics almost unanimously welcomed Kott's contribution to Shakespeare criticism for its stimulating freshness, but finally rejected it as basically inauthentic, because it read twentieth-century ideas into plays which must be read as seventeenth-century plays. Cautious praise for Kott's unquestioned dramatic sensibility was usually mingled with regret that such a dubious specimen of criticism should gain acclaim which would have been better bestowed on more deserving and academically orthodox interpretations. Most reviewers were happy to point out Kott's admittedly numerous scholarly errors and superficialities, and generally condemned his approach as subjective, existentialist, unhistorical, anachronistic. Shakespeare, they insisted, is not our contemporary, and no interpretation should try to make him so. Mr Kott, the TLS reviewer declared, ‘is entitled to his reading of history; but he is not entitled to assume that Shakespeare read it so’. Norman Sanders asked ‘Was Shakespeare really not concerned with the legitimacy of a king's right?’ Normand Berlin reprimanded Kott for not being ‘truthful to Shakespeare's intentions’, and Patrick Cruttwell unabashedly owned the vantage point of his own criticism to be ‘the viewpoint of the seventeenth century’ or the perspective of ‘Shakespeare's audience’, and rebuked Kott's different approach. A. Alvarez even said that Shakespeare our Contemporary ‘is hardly Shakespearian criticism at all’, but rather a commentary on modern Polish intellectual and political life—which implies that for this reviewer the ‘genuine’ Shakespeare critic should rather try to stick to the Elizabethan intellectual and political life.14

The interesting point in this quarrel is the validity of a theoretical standard such as ‘Shakespeare's intention’ or ‘Shakespeare's contemporaries’ or similar concepts, especially when they are introduced quite casually and without reflection, as is very often the case.15 Phrases hinting at Shakespeare and his audiences as providing the only objective critical perspective abound in modern Shakespeare criticism. Shakespeare's views and intentions; the ideas and beliefs of his contemporaries; the expectations of his audiences; or simply the ‘plan’ of a play, the ‘suggestions’ of a scene, the ‘purpose’ of a passage, the way ‘we are meant to understand’ a character—these are omnipresent formulas which seem to come in handy when a critic does not know what he is doing. They ultimately derive from certain tenets of such historical critics as E. E. Stoll and L. L. Schücking, although modern commentators using them may not consciously confess an antiquarian approach at all. Both Stoll and Schücking in turn are methodologically influenced by Ranke's and Dilthey's ‘historicism’. The common critical premiss of such an ‘historical realism’ is that we should try to adopt Shakespeare's perspective when reading his plays, or at least the perspective of his age. ‘Discover, if possible, something of the dramatist's intention’, ‘the Elizabethan point of view’ (Stoll); ‘the probable attitude of Shakespeare's contemporaries’, ‘the poet's purpose’ (Schücking); ‘Shakespeare's contemporaries’ (Lily B. Campbell); ‘discover how an Elizabethan would approach a tragedy’ (M. C. Bradbrook); ‘Shakespeare's satiric intention’ (Oscar J. Campbell); ‘see the play in its contemporary perspective’, ‘share the standpoint of the Elizabethan spectator’, ‘the kind of play Shakespeare probably intended to write’ (J. Dover Wilson); ‘see things as Shakespeare saw them’ (G. I. Duthie)—this, time and again, is the critical credo of ‘historical’ critics, however dissenting their views may be on other issues.16 What, then, are we to think of this methodological presupposition? Does this particular concept of ‘the business of criticism’ really offer the vantage point which obliterates all differing approaches such as Jan Kott's?

It need hardly be emphasized that a critique of the methods employed by Shakespeare critics can in no way ‘undo’ their interpretations, however fallacious their critical premises may be. It seems that the specific achievement of an interpretation has to be assessed mainly by other than methodological criteria (excepting, of course, interpretations based on principles which are historically no longer productive). A critique of interpretative methods, however, can help us to see the various critical approaches against their respective historical backgrounds, and can give us a better understanding of the issues involved in the disputes between the differing ‘schools’. A questioning of the methodological presuppositions of Professors Stoll and Schücking does not, therefore, imply a belittlement of their critical and scholarly merits. The impetus they have given to studies devoted to the historical, social, theatrical, and literary background of Shakespeare's plays has been one of the most important contributions to twentieth-century Shakespeare criticism. Their critical perspective, however, was a reaction to Romantic ‘intuition’ and Victorian character criticism (a very wholesome reaction, too), and can make no claims to eternal validity. If there is a lesson to be learnt from the history of Shakespeare criticism, it is the relativity and historicity of any critical perspective, not excluding the ‘historical’ critics themselves. In the light of our modern knowledge of the hermeneutic process, Stoll's and Schücking's conception of historical awareness is rather naive, and we should not hesitate to admit this, for all their scholarly erudition and methodological assurance. The basic assumption of their attempt to develop an ‘objective’ historical consciousness is that we should try to leave aside our modern standards and conceptions, and judge things of the past only from the viewpoint of the past. Is this assumption sound?

It has been argued that such an assumption does not work in practice. Information about Elizabethan thinking and attitudes is too scarce; or there are too many differing standards and beliefs in Shakespeare's age to be reduced to a neat ‘Elizabethan world picture’; or a modern mind is too different from an Elizabethan mind to be able to think and feel as Elizabethans thought and felt. These objections to the ‘viewpoint of the past’ conception of historical criticism are doubtless valuable; they object, however, to this conception of historical criticism only as far as practical results are concerned. They do not question it as a theoretical standard. But this is exactly what should be done. I would like to argue, taking the view of modern hermeneutic theory, that the ‘perspective of the past’ conception is wrong in two of its crucial assumptions: first, that we actually can ignore our modern minds, and second, that in experiencing a work of art we should try to ignore them. My objection to this kind of critical perspective is that it treats standards and convictions as something separable from the scholar and critic. We simply cannot slip out of our modern minds. In trying to understand things of the past we always think of them in terms of our modern experiences, whether we are aware of this or not. When we confront things alien to us which we want to understand, we might, for instance, ask someone already familiar with them to explain them to us—which means simply that they would be translated into patterns of thinking which we already command. By this, these patterns of thinking would be replenished and broadened, and gradually altered and overcome. The astonishing progress in intellectual perception achievable despite this basic restriction to notions already familiar to us, is what is usually called the hermeneutic circle. All the ‘historical’ critic can do in his occupation with things past is try to ignore his modern mind—but this leads inevitably to the fallacy of objectivity: a critic doing so considers himself to be the most objective of all the evaluators of the past, and is thus only the more liable to be unaware of his own predispositions and preconceptions. Shakespeare may not be our contemporary. Very well; but we are not his contemporaries, either, nor should we strain to become so.

So the theoretical assumptions of Mr Kott's critics are themselves open to criticism; they do not provide the vantage point from which the actualizing method of interpretation can be refuted. But what about Mr Kott himself? What are his standards and preconceptions? Mr Kott, it need hardly be emphasized, does not fall victim to the fallacy of objectivity. He is content, as he repeatedly declares in his book, to present the mid twentieth-century Shakespeare, the post-war Richard III, the modern Cressida (‘she is our contemporary’, p. 71), the Beckettian King Lear, the Prospero of the atomic age, the Hamlet who has read Camus and Malraux. Jan Kott does not claim objectivity, nor eternal validity; he knows that every age has to find its own reading of Shakespeare. He knows that the antiquarian Shakespeare of the ‘historical’ critics is a fallacy, and his book, as a reaction to this fallacy, tries to avoid the ‘Elizabethan’ perspective, to an extent which at times seems to justify the charge of scholarly slovenliness. ‘Discovering in Shakespeare's plays problems that are relevant to our own time’ (p. 3), this is Mr Kott's critical credo; and I think academic critics should think twice before repudiating it as unscholarly and anachronistic.

There is, however, a fallacy involved in the actualizing method of interpretation, too. ‘Antiquarian’ critics do not try to bridge the gap between the past and the present, they rather grope their way through the gulf towards the past, or what they believe to be the past; actualizing critics, in their turn, do not bridge the gulf, either, but rather try to drag into the present as many fragments of the past as they think fit for transportation. This is evidently bound to lead to ruptures and misunderstandings in their readings of the texts, as the past cannot be treated wholly in terms of the present (although, as we have seen, it is equally impossible to treat it wholly in terms of the past). The well-trodden path of established academic and theatrical interpretation seems to be blocked on either side. Antiquarian reconstruction will always be as incomplete and defective as bold actualization. Let us consider Ophelia's physical appearance as an example: the director can dress the actress playing her part in Elizabethan costume, but she will still have her ‘modern face’, as Jan Kott is absolutely right in insisting; or the director may dress her in denims, and tell her to wear her hair loose, in the Juliette Gréco fashion of the fifties, as Mr Kott in turn seems to suggest, but she would still be the dutiful and obedient daughter of Polonius, and not a self-assured, though nihilistically disconsolate, twentieth-century juvenile. Consistent actualization ends up in re-writing, and consistent re-writing ends up in an utterly new play: a play of the present, not of the past. Ultimately, Mr Kott's actualizing method of interpretation deprives Shakespeare's plays of their historicity, which is as bad a thing for a critic (and, for that matter, for a producer) to do as to deprive them of their relevance to our own time.

There is no easy way out of this critical dilemma. (I shall, of course, not make a suggestion myself as to how Ophelia could be costumed.) The only way of achieving a truly historical consciousness is to reflect the change which the ideas of the past undergo when construed by a modern mind. Historical awareness means understanding the mediation between things past on the one hand and our modern experience on the other.17 A responsible critic has always to be cognizant of the fact that his own work is as much a constituent of history as the object of his studies is. In considering Shakespeare's plays he should likewise consider his own experience of them. In finding a ‘plan’ and a ‘pattern’ in Shakespeare's plays he should not blind himself to the fact that the structures he discovers have somehow to pass through his subjective and preformed mind, and that his mind cannot be turned into an objective recording instrument simply by denying its historicity. When we try to think in terms of the past, this will alter the notions of the past as well as our own understanding; critical awareness of this dynamism is the only safeguard against either the antiquarian or the modernist fallacy, against either the museum Shakespeare or Shakespeare our contemporary. It should be kept in mind, however, that the historical sense here advocated is more than just a convenient compromise between the historicity and the actuality of a work of art. The critical difficulty is not simply evaded by trying to steer a middle course and consider both aspects of the matter simultaneously. The hermeneutically reflective historical critic knows that there is no access to the historicity of a work of art except through its actuality, and that, on the other hand, an actualizing interpretation will remain a superficial modernization as long as it is not based on precisely those historical issues which fundamentally link the past with the present. The relationship of historicity and actuality is a dialectical one; on a higher level of reflection both are inseparable.

Finally, this concept of historical awareness helps us to find an answer to the notorious question whether the nihilism in Macbeth's soliloquy ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ is Macbeth's or Macbeth's, whether it is the ‘message’ of the play, or only of its leading character. The answer depends on one's concept of nihilism. A critic professing an ahistorical view will understand Macbeth's despair as part of the universal strife between order and chaos, and thus read the play as victorious good triumphing over defeated evil. Macbeth, seen in this perspective, will, apart from being evil, become something like a fool and a dupe who would, similar to the Doctor Faustus of certain ‘historical’ critics, outwit providence, and who is, necessarily, beaten at his own game.18 And the critic taking this line may, in order to make his view appear more ‘authentic’, try to persuade us that this was Shakespeare's view too. This paper, however, takes a different view of nihilism (and I am prepared to admit that the man Shakespeare—were he some kind of Rip Van Winkle, awaking after a sound three hundred-odd years' sleep—would probably be completely nonplussed by it). It holds that ‘authenticity’ means a mediation of past ideas and present consciousness, and that the concept of nihilism can only have a meaning for us if it can be experienced principally in terms of our own age. This contributes to an understanding of the relationship between nihilism and individualism, in its extremest form alienation, and, moreover, it provides a perspective for Macbeth's historical stature, Shakespeare's age being the dawn, Beckett's (perhaps) the zenith of individualism. If, then, Macbeth is supposed to embody ‘the form and pressure’ of its time—and I very strongly contend that it does—Macbeth's soliloquy is far more pivotal than Malcolm's and Macduff's triumph at the end, simply because the restoration of the traditional order falls considerably behind the doubt and individualism which turned out to be the historically advanced features of Renaissance thinking. If we read Macbeth as a document of historical progress, the soliloquy ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’ is far more central than Macduff's ‘The time is free’. And only reading the play as a document of historical progress can enable us to bridge the gulf between the past and the present, to understand art as anticipation, to read a play of three hundred and seventy years ago with an aesthetic thrill and personal involvement alien to any antiquarian approach. Shakespeare, as Robert Weimann aptly put it, ‘is “for all time” precisely because, as Jonson also said, he was the “soule of the Age”’.19


  1. Shakespeare quotations are from Peter Alexander's one-volume edition (London, 1951).

  2. For a different treatment of the subject see Frederick Turner, Shakespeare and the Nature of Time (Oxford, 1971).

  3. The following paragraphs make free use of Chapters 6 and 18 of my Samuel Beckett (Munich, 1972).

  4. See Konrad Schoell, ‘The Chain and the Circle: A Structural Comparison of Waiting for Godot and Endgame’, Modern Drama, 11 (1968), 48-53.

  5. London, 1958, pp. 12 and 45 (stage direction omitted in quotation).

  6. Depersonalisation, edited by Joachim-Ernst Meyer (Darmstadt, 1968), p. 200 (my translation).

  7. Meyer, p. 384.

  8. Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable (London, 1959), p. 303.

  9. George Santayana, ‘Tragic philosophy’, in Works, Triton Edition, 14 vols (New York, 1936-7), II, 278.

  10. Roy Walker, The Time is Free (London, 1949), p. 190; Kenneth Muir, ‘Image and Symbol in Macbeth’, Shakespeare Survey, 19 (1966), 45-54 (p. 51).

  11. G. R. Elliott, Dramatic Providence in ‘Macbeth’ (Princeton, New Jersey, 1958), p. 206. Shakespeare frequently associates the movement of creeping and crawling with ‘Time's thievish progress to eternity’ (Sonnet 77): for example, The Rape of Lucrece, l. 1575; Sonnets 60. l. 6, and 115. l. 6; King Lear, I. 1. 40; As You Like It, II. 7. 112; King John, III. 3. 31; 2 Henry VI, IV. 1. 2; Julius Caesar, IV. 3. 224.

  12. The historical ambivalence of Macbeth's pessimism is rhetorically underlined by unmistakable echoes of biblical phrases and metaphors (candle, shadow, tale); see Roland M. Frye, ‘“Out, out, brief candle” and the Jacobean Understanding’, N & Q, 200 (1955), 143-5.

  13. For example Robert G. Collmer, ‘An Existentialist Approach to Macbeth’, Personalist, 41 (1960), 484-91.

  14. TLS, 27 September 1963, p. 744; Norman Sanders in Shakespeare Survey, 18 (1965), 174; Normand Berlin, ‘Beckett and Shakespeare’, French Review, 40 (1967), 647-51 (p. 650)—Mr Berlin, however, is by no means insensitive to the modern note in Macbeth's soliloquy ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’, which he calls ‘an anticipation of the moods and ideas presented by Beckett’ (p. 651); Patrick Cruttwell, ‘Shakespeare is not our Contemporary’, Yale Review, 59 (1969), 33-49 (pp. 49 and 41); A. Alvarez, ‘Poles apart’, Spectator, 12 March 1965, 335-7 (p. 337).

  15. The following paragraphs enlarge on arguments already propounded in my ‘Zur Methodik der Hamlet-Deutung von Ernest Jones’, Shakespeare-Jahrbuch (West), 109 (1973), 144-71 (pp. 164-7).

  16. E. E. Stoll, Hamlet: An Historical and Comparative Study (Minneapolis, 1919), p. 1; E. E. Stoll, Shakespeare Studies (New York, 1927), p. 262; L. L. Schücking, Character Problems in Shakespeare's Plays (London, 1922), pp. 8, 192; Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion (Cambridge, 1930; new edition, London, 1961), p. vii; M. C. Bradbrook, Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy (Cambridge, 1935; second edition, Cambridge, 1952), p. 1; Oscar J. Campbell, Comicall Satyre and Shakespeare's ‘Troilus and Cressida’ (San Marino, California, 1938; new edition, San Marino, 1959), p. viii; John Dover Wilson, What Happens in ‘Hamlet’, third edition (Cambridge, 1951), pp. 26, 53; John Dover Wilson, The Fortunes of Falstaff (Cambridge, 1943), p. 36; George Ian Duthie, Shakespeare (London, 1951), p. 56.

  17. See Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode, third edition (Tübingen, 1972), p. 374, and Emilio Betti, Teoria generale della interpretazione (Milan, 1955), pp. 314-17.

  18. See George Ian Duthie, ‘Shakespeare's Macbeth: A Study in Tragic Absurdity’, in English Studies Today, Second Series (International Association of University Professors of English), edited by G. A. Bonnard (Bern, 1961), pp. 121-8.

  19. Robert Weimann, ‘Shakespeare on the Modern Stage: Past Significance and Present Meaning’, Shakespeare Survey, 20 (1967), 113-20 (p. 117). Compare the same author's ‘The Soul of the Age: Towards a Historical Approach to Shakespeare’, in Shakespear ein a Changing World, edited by Arnold Kettle (London, 1964), pp. 17-42 (p. 42), and ‘Past Significance and Present Meaning in Literary History’, New Literary History, 1 (1969-70), 91-109 (p. 109).

    Postscript 2002: Originator of the paradox of the heap of grains (the “sorites” or “acervus”) is not Zeno the Eleatic, but Euboulides of Miletus. I have since written about Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett on several occasions, mostly in German. See, for example, Vorgeschichte des Fortschritts, Munich: W. Fink, 1979, and Historische Literaturpsychologie, Tuebingen: Francke, 1989. My latest English paper on Macbeth is: “Macbeth’s ‘bank and school of time’ once more”, Shakespeare-Jahrbuch, 135 (1999), 93-99. —H.Br.

Wylie Sypher (essay date 1976)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4965

SOURCE: Sypher, Wylie. “Political Time: The Vanity of History.” In The Ethic of Time: Structures of Experience in Shakespeare, pp. 23-38. New York: Seabury Press, 1976.

[In the following essay, Sypher reads the second tetralogy in terms of the notion that history is a spurious charade that fades into insignificance when viewed against the measureless backdrop of time.]

Richard III is a “history” play, but hardly in the sense that the tetralogy of Richard II, Henry IV: Parts I and II, and Henry V are “history” plays, for the latter deal with politics as Richard III does not. That is, the tetralogy revolves about the modern issues of power, whereas the malignity of Richard III seems like a grotesque theatrical interlude. Richard III is a caricature of politics; the Henry plays are Realpolitik, dealing with history as we have lately lived it. They have, for us, a disturbing authenticity. The criminal career of Richard III involved no policies; the Henry plays are studies in Lancastrian policy. Shakespeare understands the political games we have been playing since the Renaissance, questioning the relation of power to morality.

However he may overextend his case. Jan Kott shrewdly states that the Henry plays treat power as “something abstract and mythological, almost a pure idea,” a “grand mechanism” to penalize the weak, making them guilty. This exercise of power was in turn a reflex of the new freedom of the will studied in Machiavelli's Prince.

Machiavelli secularized politics, and his premises are phrased at the opening of his book: “The wish to acquire is in truth very natural and common, and men always do so when they can, and for this they will be praised, not blamed.” Such endorsement of power brings into the foreground of history an impulse as old as the epic. But in the epic power was placed in the social context of a code of equity, sharing, and measure. In epic and epical drama, as in the voice of old Queen Margaret in Richard III, power was qualified by the piety of an ancient law of retribution, a postulate of the provincial ordering of the world.

In Machiavelli the piety vanishes. In fact, piety itself is an instrument useful in politics. The Prince is left to make his own way, and Machiavelli asks whether regents “have to use prayers or can they use force?” If they use prayer, “they always succeed badly, and never compass anything; but when they can rely on themselves and use force, then they are rarely endangered.” So the successful Prince will employ “all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict,” and will rely on arms, which must be the foundation of good law. Nor need he dread the reproach of cruelty, since “it is much safer to be feared than loved.” The Prince must learn to be a beast as well as a man, both lion and fox. A policy of power will exempt him from the cycle of Fortune at least to a degree, for “fortune is the arbiter of one half of our actions, but she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.”

There was great malaise about this creed, as there was when Athens long ago used it with entire self-awareness in subjecting the little island of Melos. Thucydides reports, in dramatic form, the brutal honesty of the Athenians, who assured the helpless Melians:

Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can … ; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do. Thus, as far as the gods are concerned, we have no fear and no reason to fear that we shall be at a disadvantage.

Euripides' plays are filled with repercussions from this episode; so too Troilus and Cressida is a Shakespearean repercussion from Machiavellian politics. During the debate about keeping Helen, Hector's great speech, derived from Aristotelian ethic, is a rebuttal of the principles of power politics. Hector pleads with the Trojans for a “free determination 'twixt right and wrong,” arguing that if Helen be the wife of Menelaus, the “moral laws of nature and of nations” prescribe that she be returned to the Greeks. Hector's speech is like a footnote to Erasmus or Grotius.

So the Renaissance was hard put to deny the validity of Machiavelli's politics, which by exercise of the Prince's will suspended not only moral codes but, at least partially, the cycle of Fortune. The “moral laws of nature and of nations” having been sadly shaken, the Renaissance needed to counter Machiavellian policy by some alternative principles. Thus it resorted to certain anti-Machiavellian theses, none of which proved very effectual, as Shakespeare's plays indicate. Among these anti-Machiavellian theses were: the already outworn doctrine of the divinity hedging a king, the ideal of honor in the prince, the associated idea that the prince must be a creditable man, and the equivocal notion of redeeming the time.

Shakespeare deals with all these themes, but his distinctive anti-Machiavellian reaction is his new and very sensitive response to the past arising partly from a reinterpretation of the rotation of Fortune's wheel and partly from an intensely dramatic perception that the course of history has been nothing but a masquerade. Shakespeare's sense that this masquerade—this empty pageant of power—has been a blood bath heightens the pathos of the past, giving it existential value. Often in Shakespeare history seems like a triviality or mere tableau where political expediencies are seen against the vast backward and abysm of time. For Shakespeare has the new Renaissance consciousness of the infinite, the opening of illimitable distances like the blue backgrounds in paintings by Leonardo or Patinir or Herri Met de Bles, like a world dissolved, like Prospero's visionary horizon against which we are transient dreamwork. For Shakespeare history can seem to be one more illusion. This is his dramatic reply to Machiavelli, who lacked poetry.

Power and pathos in history, the divinity and honor of the prince, the need to redeem the time—the Henry tetralogy is like an analysis of such themes in Renaissance politics, each ambiguous as if Shakespeare could not find his way to a convincing resolution. Within these plays are the radically inconsistent premises of the Elizabethan mentality of crisis. However they were affected by a medieval tendency to read history as a homily, the plays anticipate the final secularization of politics that causes Nietzsche to proclaim, “The gods are dead; let the superman be born.” The political crisis extends beyond the history plays, for Claudius, Fortinbras, Macbeth, Antony, and Lear's daughters are all involved in the grand strategy of power struggles.

In the Henry plays history is a new kind of chronicle examining codes of political strategy. Shakespeare resisted this merely strategic reading of history, but not with entire success, or at least not without some confusion. He seems never to have found an entirely satisfactory context for the use of power; but he attempted what Machiavelli did not attempt: to find such a context. As Northrop Frye has said, “In Shakespeare there are, in practice, certain moral limits to leadership.” Shakespeare's problem is ours—to provide some moral context for using the ever more terrifying power at our disposal.

The Henry tetralogy is a continuing exploration of alternatives, each bringing its own dilemma. Many have discussed how Shakespeare, unable to regard history as naked power politics, is indebted to the morality play with its emphasis upon the penalties for the king's misconduct, or, on the other hand, for regicide. Shakespeare was much occupied with the nature of the ideal king, always placing Machiavellian policy in an unMachiavellian context, hesitating to endorse a wholly secular meaning to history.

In the background of the tetralogy is the figure of Richard II, a symbol of the divinity hedging the king. Old Carlisle, hearing how Bolingbroke will seize Richard's crown, protests that no subject can sentence his sovereign. With the same choral voice we hear in Queen Margaret, Carlisle predicts that if Bolingbroke is crowned the blood of English will soak the ground and future ages will groan for this foul act. The course of the plays confirms the truth of Carlisle's foreboding, and yet Shakespeare is unable fully to confirm the divine right of kings, for the figure of Glendower is a parody of the royal image of Richard, suggesting the fraudulence of the claim that the king is God's vicegerent, above the jurisdiction of men. Glendower is, in fact, the reductio ad absurdum of the divinity of kings when he claims that at his nativity:

The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes
Of burning cressets, and at my birth
The frame and huge foundation of the earth
Shaked like a coward.

(Henry IV: Part I, III, 1)

With sane and secular realism, Hotspur replies, “Why so it would have done at the same season if your mother's cat had but kittened.”

So Shakespeare is thrown back on his other theme regarding royalty, that the good king must be a good man—a theme that, again, is a critique of the Machiavellian image of the Prince as lion and fox. By both criteria Richard II fails entirely; he not only thieves but verifies the Machiavellian truism that the king must be strong enough to use the power that endows him. Richard is a weakling filled with self-pity, and his pathos cannot exempt him from the penalty of failure:

What must the king do now? Must he submit?
The king shall do it. Must he be deposed?
The king shall be contented. Must he lose
The name of king? A God's name, let it go!

(III, 3)

England needs Bolingbroke, who by Machiavellian principles justly sends Richard to his obscure little grave.

Woven in with Richard's failure is the old resignation to the cycle of Fortune's wheel. Deposed Richard, extending his crown to Henry IV, brings in the theme (which is repeated when Bolingbroke himself faces Hal in the Jerusalem chamber):

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.

(IV, 1)

Associated too with this Chaucerian alternation is the lyrical melancholy pervading the entire tetralogy, suggesting that the king is but a man after all. Machiavelli had introduced into politics the schizoid notion that a bad man could be a good prince, or conversely, a good man could be a bad prince. Consequently there appears the disrelationship between public and private character, leading to the depersonalizing of politics, making it a form of role-playing. For in such politics the mask is more real than the face; the Prince must drop his face to exhibit his mask. The act is more real than the actor. Or is it? As a dramatist, Shakespeare continually raised doubts about the validity of role-playing. He was ever inclined to distrust the very theatrical medium in which he worked, and his plays are filled with references to the deceptive nature of dramatic representation. In the Henry tetralogy he is almost obsessively concerned with the relation between the nature of the king as man and the role he played as king. In this way Shakespeare's reading of history is radically dramatic.

The relation between the man and the king—here is an aspect of Renaissance humanism. As Richard sits upon the ground speaking of graves and epitaphs, he recognizes that the king is as vulnerable to calamity and death as his meanest subjects. Like them he feeds on bread, tastes grief, and meets the disasters from which his royal role cannot protect him. In such passages—and in the great scene between Hal and his father in the Jerusalem chamber—Shakespeare has a perception Machiavelli never attained, namely, that the play of political power is only another imposture enacted in time. As Richard says, “nothing can we call our own but death,”

And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.

(III, 2)

The antic death, sitting within the hollow crown, keeps court among kings, mocking at pomp and allowing the Prince to monarchize with “self and vain conceit” until at a prick the whole empty pageant ceases. Machiavelli lacked this pathos of time, this longer and more human perspective on politics.

Having acknowledged the defenceless humanity of kings, Shakespeare is led to that other anti-Machiavellian thesis at the heart of the history plays, the theme of honor, through which Machiavelli finessed his way with specious ease. Though Shakespeare is fully aware of the validity or the necessity of honor, this value in history is frequently uncertain and often deceptive, the mere scutcheon Falstaff finds it. Noble and appealing as the ideal of honor may be, Shakespeare does not rely upon it as an assured moral principle operative in history. Behind, or within, the ideal of the king's honor always lurks the implication that, as Lenin put it, in politics there is no morality, only expediency. There is enough cynicism in the Henry plays to indicate how deeply Shakespeare was affected by the wound Machiavelli gave modern politics.

In Hal, the most attractive of the Lancastrians, honor could be said to replace the ideal of the divinity of kings. And yet Hal himself tarnished the ideal of honor by stroke after stroke of effective strategy, especially in the outrageous imperialism of his incursion into France. The Lancastrian line never allowed honor to inhibit the realism of their policy. Falstaff has the privilege of deflating this hypertrophied value: if he that died Wednesday for some airy notion has honor, then honor is only a word. Besides, it is not Hal, but Hotspur, who embodies the unqualified principle of honor—Hotspur, with his romantic wrong-headedness and passion, voices the ideal of honor and the foolish honesty that the Prince may have. But the leap to pluck bright honor from the moon is not so easy as Hotspur supposed, and it is an insane venture anyhow, as Hamlet knew when he mediated on that other sweet prince, Fortinbras, who embarked on an enterprise as headlong as Hotspur's, finding quarrel in a straw, fighting for a plot that could not hold the slain. Honor as an ultimate value seems to be a variety of neurosis, a compulsion that is politically rash, a perversion of the use of power.

So over against the outworn faith in the divinity of kings, the secular ideal of honor is hardly tenable as a strategic principle. To this degree Shakespeare subscribes to Machiavelli. Yet the need for honor rings like a refrain through Shakespeare's plays, heard in Antony's dealings with Caesar and in Pompey's refusal to cut the throats of his competitors when they feast as his guests. It is symptomatic, however, that honor is cherished most by the losers in history. Shakespeare seems forced back to a qualified Machiavellian policy that should be used by a king who is also a responsible man. Here we are on the most ambiguous ground of all, for this ideal requires a Prince who is able to temporize by adapting the ethic of honor to pragmatic or utilitarian policy.

Henry IV, having liquidated Richard for the good of England as well as in his own interest, rejects the very poison he found it prudent to use, saying that his soul is full of woe because of the blood he thought it expedient to shed. The murderer puts on the mask of the moralist. Then Hal, descending into Eastcheap, plays the same equivocal game at the bohemian plane:

I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humor of your idleness.

(I, 2)

Hal's father confesses that he himself used much the same tactic while Richard ambled with shallow jesters; Henry seemed the nobler when he found the moment to ascend. The Lancastrians are able to exploit the time, establishing themselves by an opportunism that is Machiavellian. They are salutary Machiavellians. One of the most comprehending appraisals of political power is Henry's comment, “Are these things then necessities? Then let us meet them like necessities.”

The Lancastrians are creatures of time who can manipulate the occasion. By contrast, Falstaff is a creature who is timeless. Born late in the day, he is an archetypal figure exempt from the casualties of history until Hal rejects him. At the start of Henry IV, when Falstaff asks, “What time of day is it, lad?,” Hal replies almost symbolically, “What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day?”—a “superfluous” query on Falstaff's part. If the Lancastrians are strategic, Falstaff is instinctual. Falstaff is able to respond biologically, so that when he is caught lying about the robbery at Gadshill, he claims that he was “a coward on instinct,” for “instinct is a great matter.”

Falstaff brings into history an animal faculty for survival by an adaptability that was not scientifically defined until the 19th century. He is a natural being like Nietzsche's satyr creatures existing behind the facade of history, and he dies at the ebbing of the tide. In his greatest biological speech after the battle of Shrewsbury, Falstaff identifies his timeless instinctual existence by affirming that he is no counterfeit figure in history but, like Christ himself, an embodiment of the perpetual vitality not to be quenched:

To die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man; but to counterfeit dying when a man thereby liveth, is to be no counterfeit, but the true and perfect image of life indeed.

(V, 4)

Falstaff's role-playing is unlike the role-playing of the Lancastrians since it springs from a primal élan vital, organically, not from preconceived policy. He is able to transform the Darwinian to the Dionysiac values. Falstaff responds tropistically; his mutations have an ad hoc rapidity, like the changing colors of the chameleon. His adaptability is not an act calculated in advance but an ecological reaction.

Only when he begins to play the Lancastrian game with Shallow does Falstaff fall victim to history and time. Until then he maintains himself as an image of Whitman's urge, procreant urge, the organic principle of life itself enduring beyond and behind political history to which he at last succumbs. By his descent into Eastcheap Hal participates in Falstaff's celebration of vitality.

Yet Hal belongs to political history, and the Lancastrians move through these plays with a double time sense: the sense, first, that they have a vocation, by using their political strategy, to redeem the time by a secular, half-Machiavellian policy; and secondly, by their sense that the very political history they create is only an insubstantial pageant in which they are transient actors. They sense that they can, and must, make history, but that history is a triviality when seen against the illimitable horizon of time.

Hal has this double, ironic vision even while he is in Eastcheap. “Well, thus we play the fools with the time,” he says, “and the spirits of the wise sit in the clouds and mock us.” Hotspur, too, at the moment of his death, has the same sardonic sense of the vanity of history:

But thoughts, the slaves of life, and life time's fool,
And time that takes survey of all the world
Must have a stop.

(V, 4)

Richard II likewise has this sense that the life of a king is an absurd charade; deposed by Bolingbroke, he is suddenly time's fool:

… I am unkinged by Bolingbroke,
And straight am nothing. But whate'er I be,
Nor I nor any man that but man is,
With nothing shall be pleased till he be eased
With being nothing.

(V, 5)

One of the touching moments in these plays comes when Henry IV, who has mastered history by dethroning Richard, lies awake saddened by the disorders in his kingdom, and meditates on the unfathomable reaches of time against which the course of history seems negligible. It may be the longest vision of time in Shakespeare, longer even than Macbeth's despairing vision of interminable yesterdays and tomorrows. The full and astonishing range of Henry's vision backward over time can be suggested by a model one of our scientists has devised to scale the age of the earth against man's history.1 If we contract terrestrial time into the scale of a single calendar year, and the world began on January 1st, then life would not appear until early August. By October there would be the oldest fossils, by December reptilian life would have developed; mammals would evolve about Christmas, and on New Year's Eve, by five minutes to midnight, man would present himself. Recorded human history would occur in the interval while midnight strikes.

This reductive backward view is phrased in Henry's meditation, which is filled with the pathos of a time sense that only modern man could have, and which makes Machiavellian tactics seem like a jest:

O God! that one might read the book of fate,
And see the revolution of the times
Make mountains level, and the continent,
Weary of solid firmness, melt itself
Into the sea! And other times to see
The beachy girdle of the ocean
Too wide for Neptune's hips …
          … O, if this were seen,
The happiest youth, viewing his progress through,
What perils past, what crosses to ensue,
Would shut the book, and sit him down and die.

(III, 1)

The passage has none of the cynicism of Macbeth's bitter speech, but springs from an awareness of fatality brought by the Renaissance time scale, the blue distance that was like an elegiac background to the intrigues of the Machiavellian Prince who makes himself master of fortune and his hour. Henry's nocturnal soliloquy gives the largest possible meaning to the Renaissance landscape-with-figures—that marvelously new art form, a feat of the Renaissance imagination where the image of man is seen against a cosmic, timeless projection, into which he is absorbed with a nearly Oriental intuition of totality. The only kind of surrender known to the Lancastrians comes in the guise of this new temporal consciousness, this receding horizon that obliterates history.

For Falstaff, too, history is only an interlude that confers the delusory value known as honor. At a remarkable moment in the Jerusalem chamber while Henry IV lies at point of death, he is able to take, at last, a Falstaffian view of political history. Henry admits to Hal that his whole career in historical time has been like an ephemeral role, and with a sadness that is like a counterpoint to Falstaff's cynical appraisal of honor, the dying Henry confesses to his son that God alone knows by what devious paths he got the crown:

For all my reign hath been but as a scene
Acting that argument.

(IV, 5)

History is not only guilt; it is a mumming. At this moment Henry has a dramatic vision lacking in Machiavelli when he recommends the politics of success. Only the lengthened perspective of seeing history against the abyss of time could give this modern feeling of the vanity and pathos of politics, a pathos and comedy Machiavelli would not understand.

But this is only an episode in the Henry plays, and Hal, like his father, like his brother John, must play the game of politics to redeem the time. In his attempt to console Henry for the dereliction of Hal, Warwick predicts that Hal will

… in the perfectness of time
Cast off his followers, and their memory
Shall as a pattern or a measure live,
By which his grace must mete the lives of others,
Turning past evils to advantages.

(IV, 4)

For Hal as an agent in political history will manipulate morality itself and continue to play the game that his father played as opportunist. Hal must redeem the time by living in a time quite different from Falstaff's time; he must reject the ahistoric time of revelry, the changeless time of the saturnalia, and take his place in the foreground of Machiavellian strategic time. So also Prince John proves at Gaultree that he is the legitimate son of his father by the strategy of redressing the grievances of the rebellious nobles while he condemns them to death.

After his father has gone wild into his grave, Hal continues to play the historical game even more effectively than the elder Henry. Hal puts on the mask of responsibility and justice to legitimize his policy. Before invading France, he is at pains to certify by Salic law that he can with right and conscience claim the French crown. The appearance of legality gives this imperialist enterprise a color of righteousness. Falstaff is dead, but there was perhaps more integrity in his cynicism about honor than in Hal's barbaric threat to the citizens of Harfleur: if he attacks again, he will bury the city in ashes, and his soldiers with the license of bloody hands will mow down virgins and infants.

Hal at least partially redeems himself from the amorality of history the night before Agincourt when, being catechized by Williams the common foot soldier, he is compelled to examine the justice of his cause and to decide whether it is honorable. Hal's conviction that honor must be grounded in an accountable use of royal power—meaning, in effect, that the king must answer for the ills befalling his people—is a response to Richard II, to Hotspur, to Falstaff (and to Fortinbras). Thus morality is linked with history. Honor does not accrue from victory, but from the character of the regent who leads his people to victory, or to defeat. So the king must be one with his subjects, among the happy few who share the making of history.

Hal resolves his “identity crisis” as Hamlet could not—in the course of history itself. If Hamlet's “identity crisis” is resolved at all, it is resolved for Hamlet alone. Hal's case is otherwise; he finds himself in his commitment to his followers, in what Buber would term an I-Thou relation. Hal's freedom is not found in Eastcheap, for while he was in bohemia he had only freedom from his father's empty respectability. Hal's freedom is found at Agincourt, where there is not freedom from but freedom to.

Freedom means freedom to act. The Hamlet paralysis is gone, for Hamlet's quest for freedom from was partly responsible for his frustrations. Hamlet could not redeem the time, although at last he was able to redeem himself. Throughout the Henry plays and throughout Hamlet there is a counterpoint of the private and the public. Hamlet never moves outside the dilemmas of the private; thus he is not a sweet prince except by promise—never by political action. This is what links Hamlet with Richard II, who as a public figure is disastrous. Richard as a private figure, with his Hamlet-like self-indulgent sensibility, has a certain pathos, a large degree of humanity. Yet Richard's very consciousness of his frailty is self-regarding, much like Hamlet's consciousness of his sullied flesh, his nameless offenses. Hal is never self-indulgent to this extent, for Hal was able to command his roles as Hamlet and Richard are not. Hamlet and Richard are seduced by the roles they allow themselves to play. But from the first Hal—who has his own dramatic imagination—knows them all and is able to calculate the instant when one mask is to be dropped, and another put on.

Richard and Hamlet exist in the realm of the Eigenwelt. Hal realizes himself in the time of the Mitwelt and Umwelt. Hamlet and Richard could not play the game of history. Hal plays this game to the hilt, existing as a public figure. Further, insofar as time is subjective for Richard and Hamlet, it is a form of melancholia in Richard and a form of compulsion in Hamlet. For Hamlet the times are out of joint; he should act, and does not act. Not being able to act, he lacks honor. The sense of failed honor is a symptom of Hamlet's neurosis, which appears in his agonized contemplation of Fortinbras' Polish venture. Hamlet knows that this rash Norwegian, making mouths at the event, is afflicted by a disease of ambition in fighting for an eggshell. But Hamlet knows, too, that Fortinbras has an honor wanting in himself.

The Henry plays are a catharsis for this neurosis attaching to the name of honor. The catharsis is reached in several ways. There is, first of all, the ridicule of the divinity of kings, the frailty of Richard, and the inflated claims of Glendower. Then there is the pitiless inquisition by Falstaff, along with Hal's own scorn for the impulsive Hotspur. Above all there is old Henry's confession, baring his royal masquerade. Finally, out of all this mutual reduction emerges the figure of Hal attaining a public honor won through private examination of a cause to which he commits his subjects. It is an honor set upon a choice of policy which must be realized in historical and public time. Yet, however Hal redeems the time by finding his identity in political history, the fact remains that politics may not be enough, for politics and ethics are still at odds, especially when seen against the theatricality of the Grand Mechanism—a mechanism that looks like idiocy when projected against ahistorical time.


  1. The following “scale reduction” of history is drawn from Hans Kalmus, “Organic Evolution and Time,” in: J. T. Fraser, The Voices of Time, p. 332. Kalmus is quoting B. Hocking.

D. S. McGovern (essay date 1983)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5211

SOURCE: McGovern, D. S. “‘Tempus’ in The Tempest.English 32, no. 144 (Autumn 1983): 201-14.

[In the following essay, McGovern suggests that the title of The Tempest evokes not only the sense of a violent storm and emotional turmoil but also the sense of time or season. In the critic's judgment, the play deals significantly with the nature of time.]


It has been suggested that a more appropriate title for The Tempest would be The Island because the self-contained strangeness of Prospero's isle pervades the play, whereas the storm is limited to its opening scene.1 Although this suggestion does not take into account the figurative level on which the word tempest can be understood in relation to the inner crises of many of the characters, it does point to a sense that the full significance of the title, like that of the patterns of language and action within the play, remains enigmatic.

For the title of the play Shakespeare could have chosen instead the more common word storm, which descends from Old English. He may have preferred tempest because it is a word of a more literary register and for that reason would draw more conscious attention to itself. It is also possible that the word was felt to have a greater figurative capacity to express specifically inward turmoil in addition to its literal meaning. In Shakespeare's other plays, tempest is collocated with ‘soul’, ‘heart’ and ‘mind’2, while storm in its figurative uses applies more to external agitation—‘storm of war’ and ‘storm of fortunes’, for example.3 The choice of tempest for the title may therefore have been made because it would more readily serve two functions: to herald the violent storm which opens the play and at the same time to alert the audience to a potential symbolic relation between the storm and the words and actions that succeed it.4 Furthermore, it may be telling that none of the six occurrences of the word storm in the text of the play are figurative in meaning.5 In this way the title by the end of the play has served a third function: by carrying undivided the weight of a particular figurative meaning, it has come to epitomize the ‘hell raging in their own souls’ through which Prospero has led his actors6 and has already himself been led.

An inquiry into the history of the word tempest may offer another dimension of relation between title and action, however. The earliest recorded uses of the word in English date from the thirteenth century in the sense ‘violent storm’. Transferred and figurative senses follow soon afterwards: ‘a violent commotion or disturbance; a tumult, rush; agitation, perturbation’.7 Onions agrees with The Oxford English Dictionary (henceforth OED) in giving the immediate source of the word as Old French rather than Latin.8 In Latin, the anterior source, tempestas meant ‘time; season’ as well as ‘weather; storm’. The relation of tempestas to tempus, ‘time’, is clear.

The only uses of tempest which the OED records in its etymological sense come from the fourteenth century. Sense 4 of the word is defined as ‘A time; a period, an occasion’ and is described as ‘A verbalism of translation. Obsolete’. Wyclif's followers in 1382 and Trevisa in 1387, both translating Latin texts into English, rendered tempestate with its English cognate tempest.9 Both, in other words, felt that the French loan-word was still capable of bearing this etymological sense and that a substantial number of their readers could be relied upon to recognize it. For Wyclif's followers, translating the Vulgate text of the Bible in an effort to make it more widely accessible, the second consideration would have been especially important. Moreover, the colloquial style of Trevisa's translation does not suggest that his work was exclusively intended for a scholarly audience.

Although there are no other recorded instances of the certain use of tempest in its eytmological sense, it is significant that during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, four short-lived forms of the word were adapted from Latin and used in etymological senses referring to time and season: tempestive (first recorded in 1611), tempestively (1621), tempestivious (1574) and tempestivity (1569).10 Perhaps by the sixteenth century the older noun-form mediated through French was felt to be less capable of bearing the etymological meaning, and these new Latinate forms were appropriated for that purpose.11 Nonetheless, the relation between the older form and the newer ones would still be recognizable.12 What is also evident is that the etymological meaning of tempest and its related forms in English persists, however infrequently. The appearance of the new Latinate forms coincides with a period of accelerated borrowing into English of Latin words and a more extensive use of Latin rhetorical models in literary composition. The conscious use of words in their etymological senses became fashionable. Examples of the use of rhetorical devices evoking the supposed etymological meanings of words and names abound in the writings of Spenser, Sidney, Shakespeare and others.13

The question now arises whether Shakespeare, in choosing tempest for the title of the play, could have been conscious of its etymological meaning. At least two of the four Latinate forms just mentioned—tempestivious and tempestivity—antedate the first performance of The Tempest in 1611, although none of them were used by Shakespeare himself in his works. Even if he had never seen or heard these Latinate forms, however, the internal evidence of both the form and content of his writings indicates a competent knowledge of Latin grammar and rhetoric.14 The probability of his having had grammar school training in Stratford lacks only a written record to confirm it. In the lower school, study consisted essentially of Latin grammar; portions of Latin writers were translated into English, and English ‘sentences’ were turned into Latin. In the upper school, along with the formal study of rhetoric came the reading of Latin poets and prose writers. Among the Latin poets whom Shakespeare must have studied, Baldwin includes Ovid (Metamorphoses), Virgil (Bucolics, Georgics, The Aeneid) and Horace (Odes, Epistles).15 The apparent thoroughness of his grammar school training in Latin makes it more than likely that he was familiar with the noun tempestas and its adjective tempestivus in the senses of ‘time; season’—they occur in these senses in both the Metamorphoses and Georgics, for example.16 By the end of his career, he retained enough knowledge of Latin to adapt a passage from Ovid's Metamorphoses (VII. 197-209) in the original when composing Prospero's parting invocation of the spirits in V.i. 33-50. Although in places there are echoes of Golding's English translation of 1567, it would appear that he was adapting principally from the Latin source.17 It is therefore probable that Shakespeare was aware of the etymology of the word tempest in English. If he had met any of the Latinate forms such as tempestivious and tempestivity which began a brief currency during his lifetime, his grammar school training would have enabled him to recognize their meaning and affinity with Latin.

It is now necessary to consider whether Shakespeare could have been conscious of the etymology of tempest to the extent that it was one of the factors influencing his choice of the word: whether, in other words, its etymological sense was intended to form a third stratum of meaning beneath the more obvious layers of derived literal and figurative meaning discussed above (‘violent storm’ and ‘inward turmoil’). Evidence from other plays indicates that he did orchestrate words in such a way that rare, etymological senses are evoked, sometimes in addition to the derived meaning or meanings. G. L. Brook asserts that ‘To understand Shakespeare it is necessary to study not only the history of words but also the history of ideas which words describe.’18 Significantly enough, he has found that most of the words used by Shakespeare in their etymological senses are Latin loan-words, although his examples include some from native and French sources.19 Among these examples are five words, three of them derived directly from Latin, whose first English use in their etymological senses is attributed by the OED to Shakespeare himself: approbation, atone, capitulate, exhale and seminar.20Atone in its etymological sense of ‘agree’ is classified by the OED as ‘Obsolete except as revived by etymological writers’. When Cleopatra describes her eunuch as ‘unseminar'd’ in Anthony and Cleopatra I.v. 11, she means ‘without seed’ rather than ‘untutored’ because Shakespeare was conscious of the ultimate relation of seminar to Latin semen, ‘seed’. His is the sole use of the word in this sense given by the OED. Another Latin loan-word is singular in its etymological use. In Hamlet I.i. 12-13, ‘rivals’ is potentially misleading in Barnardo's request of Francisco:

If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus,
The rivals of my watch, bid them make haste.

Barnardo means that they are his partners, not his competitors. This use was prompted by a knowledge that rival comes from Latin rivalis, ‘one who uses the same stream with another’, and is so rare that it is not listed in the OED.

Brook also points out that a derived as well as an etymological meaning can sometimes be intended. Touchstone's words to Audrey in As You Like It III.iii. 7-9 illustrate this:

I am here with thee and thy goats as the most capricious poet, honest Ovid, was among the Goths.

The primary meaning of capricious here is its derived one: ‘characterized by play of wit or fancy, fantastic’. The previous mention of ‘goats’ also evokes the etymological connotation, however, because capricious was (mistakenly) thought to be derived from Latin capra, ‘goat’. The pun on ‘goats’ and ‘Goths’ is thus given further point.21 The subtle play with word and meaning in this passage relies for its full appreciation upon a considerable level of learning and discernment on the part of an audience or reader.

What emerges from this evidence is that Shakespeare was clearly one of the ‘etymological writers’ of the period, that he was willing to initiate the use of Latin words in English in their etymological senses, and that he relied upon his audience for a substantial degree of knowledge and sensitivity to language for the full appreciation of the subtler instances of this. The choice of tempest to denote ‘violent storm’ and ‘inward turmoil’ and at the same time to connote ‘a time; a period, an occasion’ would demand little more acuteness from an audience than the use of capricious in both its derived and etymological senses in As You Like It. This demand would be made from a context already accommodating such a potential within its metaphoric pattern, for sea and tempest were frequent Renaissance symbols of the flux and apparent discord of time.22


The testimony of the play itself reveals that The Tempest, like The Winter's Tale before it, has an integral concern with time, both present time and ‘the dark backward and abysm of time’ (I.ii.50). Unlike The Winter's Tale, however, it observes the unities of time and place.23 Events of time past relevant to the present are narrated and given ‘present force’ in I.ii, and through this narrative technique the unities are preserved.24 More than this, the narration establishes a crucial correspondence between past and present events: present events are thereby seen to reverse the effects of corresponding situations in the past. Antonio's plot against Alonso fails, where his earlier plot against Prospero had succeeded; Prospero remembers the threat of Caliban's treachery in time, where before his absorption in his studies had blinded him to the threat of Antonio's.25

Because of this crucial correspondence between past and present time, one of the dominant aspects of time in the play is that of particular moments or periods of time which constitute an occasion or opportunity—what is commonly meant when the time is said to be ‘ripe’ or ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.26 It is given strikingly dramatic expression in the opening scene as the mariners struggle to save the ship from what appears to be ‘the mischance of the hour’ (I.i. 25-6). In the course of the second scene, this aspect of time is given a fuller, poetic dimension. The intricate motions of time have become aligned in such a way as to present to Prospero an opportunity to act and to participate significantly in a regenerative pattern of events whose motive force lies beyond time. When Prospero decides that ‘'Tis time’ he informed Miranda of their past, he declares compellingly:

                                                                      The hour's now come,
The very minute bids thee ope thine ear.
Obey, and be attentive.

(I.ii. 36-8)

That the motive force of this opportunity and regenerative pattern of events lies beyond time is suggested in words addressed to Miranda later in the scene:

By accident most strange, bountiful Fortune
(Now my dear Lady) hath mine enemies
Brought to this shore; and by my prescience
I find my zenith doth depend upon
A most auspicious star, whose influence
If now I court not, but omit, my fortunes
Will ever after droop.

(I.ii. 178-84)

In medieval and Renaissance cosmology, the operation of Fortune and the influence of the stars were thought to proceed from a timeless origin. Fortune is ‘Now’ Prospero's ‘dear Lady’ and not a malevolent being because he has achieved harmony with this aspect of time and is alive to its opportunity. Still later in the scene he asks Ariel for the time of day, and they ascertain that it is past two o'clock. Prospero urges:

                                                            The time 'twixt six and now
Must by us both be spent most preciously.

(I.ii. 240-1)

He will not again ask for a statement of the progress of objective time until the opening of Act V. Similarly, when Prospero eventually realizes that Caliban's attempted revenge is imminent, he exclaims that

                                                            The minute of their plot
Is almost come.

(IV.i. 141-2)

Which is soon echoed by Caliban's anxiety that he, Stephano and Trinculo will lose their ‘time’ if they do not act quickly against Prospero (IV.i. 247). The word now is spoken emphatically again and again during the course of the play to express a heightened awareness of the present moment and a sense of crisis.

The perception of this aspect of time serves to delineate character and particularly to distinguish those persons in the play whose designs are essentially malevolent. Antonio and Sebastian are not merely out of harmony with this aspect of time: they can be seen in active opposition to it. When Sebastian has blamed the shipwreck and Ferdinand's loss upon Alonso's decision to marry his daughter to an African, Gonzalo rebukes him:

My Lord Sebastian,
The truth you speak doth lack some gentleness,
And time to speak it in.

(II.i. 137-9)

Antonio lacks this sense of time's ordinance and otherness. The consequence is delusion. In a moment of what to him seems insight, he declares to Sebastian that the opportunity has come for him to usurp the crown of Naples:

                                                                                Th' occasion speaks thee, and
My strong imagination sees a crown
Dropping upon thy head.

(II.i. 207-9)

Time for Antonio is a mechanistic medium subservient to his purposes. Having proposed to Sebastian that they murder both Alonso and Gonzalo, Antonio reassures him that there will be no opposition from the others:

                                                                                                                                  For all the rest,
They'll take suggestion as a cat laps milk;
They'll tell the clock to any business that
We say befits the hour.

(II.i. 287-90)

The metaphor of a clock is significant: it expresses a perception governed by an intellect divorced from feeling and conscience, a vision which crudely reduces what it sees and in that reduction robs it of inner life. In this instance, both time and human nature are seen in ruthlessly determinist terms. Earlier in the same scene, Sebastian applied a similar figure and lifeless perception to Gonzalo's sympathetic attempts to comfort Alonso in his grief:

Look, he's winding up the watch of his wit, by and by it will strike.

(II.i. 12-13)

Gonzalo, by contrast, perceives and praises the inner life of what he sees. He has a vivid and harmonious awareness of time, yet in his vision there are timeless qualities of elemental wonder and freshness. His initial impressions of the island expose the radical difference between his perception and that of the antagonists27:

Here is every thing advantageous to life.
True, save means to live.
Of that there's none, or little.
How lush and lusty the grass looks! How green!
The ground indeed is tawny.
With an eye of green in't.

(II.i. 50-6)

A second major aspect of time within the play is that of time as an agent of growth or decay, the creator or destroyer. It is implicit in Prospero's words to Ferdinand after his sudden dismissal of the preternatural masque:

You do look, my son, in a mov'd sort,
As if you were dismay'd; be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors
(As I foretold you) were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded
Leave not a rack behind.

(IV.i. 146-56)

Time is here the destroyer, the agent through which the temporal world ‘shall dissolve’. Prospero's advice to ‘be cheerful’ in the face of this truth reveals that he has also become reconciled with the mutability of this aspect of time. The presence of time as agent is only implicit here, however: its active personification must await the opening of Act V.

These two aspects of time were closely related in symbolic and pictorial terms during the Renaissance. Time as agent was personified as Father Time carrying a scythe, as in The Winter's Tale, and often merging with it was the emblematic figure of Occasion portrayed with a forelock of hair which could be seized by someone alive to opportunity.28 Act V opens with Prospero speaking the word ‘Now’ and then announcing that

                                                                                                              … Time
Goes upright with his carriage.

(V.i. 2-3)

The burden of Time has been lightened by Prospero's adequate response to the urgent need for present action, a response which has atoned for his previous failure to find balance between the equal claims of the active and the contemplative life. The two aspects of time as agent (Father Time) and time as opportunity (Occasion) appear to merge, appropriately, in this figure commencing an Act whose dominant themes are harmony and reconciliation. Furthermore, through the implication that a burden has been lightened the personification acquires a more beneficent form: Time the agent is ‘Now’ less of a destroyer and more of a creator, just as Fortune was earlier said to have ‘Now’ become Prospero's ‘dear Lady’. ‘Now’ in both figures signals a stage of transformation. These shifts in personified aspect are an index of the culminating ‘sea-change’ in Prospero's perception, a perception which has gradually been freed from the debilitating effects of time the more he has found harmony with it.

Then for the second time in the play, Prospero asks Ariel to tell him the hour of day. Ariel replies:

On the sixth hour, at which time, my lord,
You said our work should cease.

(V.i. 4-5)

This is Prospero's first request for confirmation of the passage of objective time since he asked Ariel the same question in Act I (ii. 239). At three more points in Act V it is said, twice by Alonso and once by the Boatswain, that the action has been completed within three hours.29 These insistent references to objective time, apart from preserving the unity of dramatic time within the play, signal the moments at which different character groups among the royal party re-enter the realm of time after experiencing its suspension in a state which is variously described as ‘strange’, ‘dream’-like, or ‘mad’. This seeming suspension of time is the medium of ‘sea-change’ and is parallel to a state experienced by those who enter the otherworld in folklore and medieval romance.

We have already seen Prospero's adequate response to time as occasion and his ‘cheerful’ submission to time as an agent through which the world of the senses ‘shall dissolve’. The first is a discipline, the second a limitation. He has come to terms with both. Having initiated the regeneration of inward and outward harmony for the other characters, he then finds this regeneration completed within himself when he reaches the final stage in his acceptance of the nature of time and of existence in the temporal world.30 Prospero is given an insight which had been inaccessible to him while ‘rapt’ in his studies in Milan. After the marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda in Naples, he will retire to Milan where, he predicts,

Every third thought shall be my grave.

(V.i. 312)

For Prospero, time will henceforth be less a matter of externally-measured, static units—‘minutes’ or ‘glasses’. Instead it will become a rhythm, part of the very rhythm of his own thought. This ‘third thought’ forms an inward, dynamic counterpoint to the ‘three hours’ felt more externally by other characters in the same Act. It also recalls the traditional Third Age in the life of man allegorically depicted in Renaissance art and literature.31 Moreover, a cycle will have been completed in the return to Milan: the place of error will become the place of enlightenment.32

This final aspect of time, time as inner rhythm, was prefigured during the masque in Act IV in the form of the natural rhythm or cycle of the seasons and generations of human life. Ceres, the corn goddess, blesses Ferdinand and Miranda's union with this wish:

Spring come to you at the farthest
In the very end of harvest!

(IV.i. 114-15)

The lovers are to enter upon a Golden Age; spring will be found without the intervening death of winter. Prospero's spring has been found, more paradoxically, in his endurance of tempest and preparation for death.


In view of the evidence thus far examined, it is a distinct possibility that the word tempest was chosen for the title in part to evoke its etymological meaning within the context of the play's integral concern with the nature of time, particularly time in its aspect of occasion or opportunity. In this way, three levels of meaning could be expressed: the literal, ‘violent storm’; the figurative, ‘inward turmoil’; and (to those sufficiently knowledgeable) the etymological, ‘a time; a period, an occasion’. It remains to inquire whether this etymological sense is elicited within the play itself. The first instance of the word is relatively unremarkable: it is used primarily in the sense of ‘violent storm’ in Act I when Prospero asks Ariel if he has ‘Perform'd to point the tempest’ that he commanded (I.ii. 194). The course of events has fostered the growth of the figurative meaning ‘inward turmoil’ by the next occurrence of the word in the pivotal context of the opening of Act V with its multiple references to time. After Prospero has actively personified time and then asked Ariel for an objective measure of its progress, Ariel replies, as we have already seen,

On the sixth hour, at which time, my lord,
You said our work should cease.

(V.i. 4-5)

Prospero agrees:

                                                                                                                        I did say so,
When first I rais'd the tempest.

(V.i. 5-6)

Two words in this context, ‘When’ and ‘first’, are time-specifiers referring to the moment when the tempest, apparently both literal and figurative, began. At its beginning Prospero foresaw the time of its end, three hours later; he accurately predicted the limits of objective time within which it would take place. The word tempest is thus associated with a three-hour time period, although it does not here signify that time period.

The third and final use of the word later in the Act is more complex. Prospero declares to Alonso that he has lost his daughter. Alonso is unaware of the ironic significance of this statement as the exchange proceeds:

When did you lose your daughter?
In this last tempest.

(V.i. 152-3)

Prospero's enigmatic reply does not refer solely to the violent storm which opened the play, although it acquires ironic point because Alonso assumes that it does and that Miranda is dead. Prospero lost her to Ferdinand as a result of that tempest, but not ‘In’ it. He must also mean that he lost Miranda in the process of the inward turmoil experienced in several forms by those on the island. However, the ‘When’ of Alonso's question asks Prospero to place the loss of his daughter at a point or within certain limits of time. Prospero's use of ‘In’ here means ‘within specified boundaries’—spatial, temporal or circumstantial. Since Alonso has asked ‘When’, it should be assumed that the boundaries denoted by ‘In’ are in this case temporal. Prospero's use of ‘last’ also denotes temporal boundaries and fixes the terminal boundary just before the moment of reply. In other words, Shakespeare has twice placed within temporal boundaries the senses of ‘violent storm’ and ‘inward turmoil’ inherent in his use of the word in this context. By implication, ‘this last tempest’ has also become ‘a time; a period, an occasion’ and a wholly apt response to Alonso's question.


  1. Hallett Smith in an introduction to The Tempest in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston, 1974), p. 1606. All quotations from Shakespeare's works follow the spelling and lineation of this edition.

    I am grateful to Mr. Richard Proudfoot of King's College London for initial guidance and for reading a draft of the present article.

  2. Martin Spevack, A Complete and Systematic Concordance to the Works of Shakespeare (Hildesheim, 1970), vol. VI.

    • ‘tempest of the soul’ King John, V.ii. 50
    • ‘tempest of my heart’ 3 Henry VI, II.v. 86
    • ‘tempest to my soul’ Richard III, I.iv. 44
    • ‘tempest in my mind’ King Lear, III.iv. 12

    Compare also the metaphor of Pericles' passion:

                                                                                                                                                He bears
    A tempest, which his mortal vessel tears,
    And yet he rides it out.

    (IV.iv. 29-31)

  3. King John, V.i. 20 and Othello, I.iii. 249, respectively.

  4. Compare Coleridge: ‘It is the bustle of a tempest, from which the real horrors are abstracted; … and is purposely restrained from concentering the interest on itself, but used merely as an induction or tuning for what is to follow.’ ‘The Moved and Sympathetic Imagination’ (1836) in The Tempest, A Casebook edited by D. J. Palmer (London, 1969), p. 62.

  5. I.i. 14; II.ii. 19, 37, 41, 110, 112. The first mention of storm comes from the Boatswain and all the others from Trinculo. By contrast, all three instances of tempest are spoken by Prospero. It may be that in this a distinction is implied between those who see the storm only as a physical phenomenon and Prospero, its author, for whom its purpose and meaning are essentially metaphysical.

  6. Jan Kott, ‘Prospero's Staff’ in Shakespeare Our Contemporary (London, 1965), p. 257.

  7. The Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. ‘tempest’, sb … 1250 is the date given for the first use of the sense ‘violent storm’ and 1315 for that of the transferred and figurative senses.

  8. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (Oxford, 1966).

  9. The OED cites the Wyclif translation of the Bible at II Chronicles 28:9 but omits two other instances in the same text: I Chronicles 21:29 and Job 36:14. The work by Trevisa cited is his translation of Higden's Polychronicon II. 337.

  10. These are typical of a number of sixteenth-century Latinate words which soon became obsolete. For others see Barbara M. H. Strang, A History of English (London, 1970), §80.

    The only one of these forms to survive for more than a century after its first recorded use was tempestive, which occurred as late as 1852.

  11. The Geneva Bible of 1560 and the Bishops' Bible of 1568, both known to Shakespeare, broke from the Vulgate tradition by referring to the Hebrew and Greek originals for translation into English and perhaps largely for that reason do not use tempest in its etymological sense in the contexts in which Wyclif's followers did when rendering Latin tempestate nearly two centuries earlier (see footnote 9).

    Oddly enough, however, the English translation of the Vulgate Old Testament by Catholic scholars published in Douai in 1609 renders Job 36:14, ‘Morietur in tempestate anima eorum. …’, as ‘Their soule shal dye in tempest …’. Whether this use of tempest is intended to denote time is not clear.

    Two Latin-English dictionaries of the period give the words ‘time’ and ‘tempest’, apparently in discrete senses, among the meanings of Latin tempestas: Thomas Elyot's Dictionary of 1538 and Thomas Cooper's Thesaurus Linguae Romanae et Britannicae of 1565, which incorporates material from Elyot's earlier work. An earlier English-Latin dictionary, the Promptorium Parvulorum of 1499, chooses tempestas as the Latin equivalent of English tempest. All three are available in facsimile editions by R. C. Alston in the series English Linguistics 1500-1800 (The Scolar Press, Menston).

  12. This relationship was so recognizable, in fact, that as late as 1848 the word tempestive was used erroneously for tempestuous. See OED, s.v. ‘tempestive’, adj., 2. erron …

  13. See G. L. Brook, The Language of Shakespeare (London, 1976), pp. 46-53 and Sister Miriam Joseph, Shakespeare's Use of the Arts of Language (New York, 1947), pp. 162-4.

  14. See T. W. Baldwin, William Shakespeare's Small Latine & Lesse Greeke, 2 Vols. (Urbana, 1944) and Virgil K. Whittaker, Shakespeare's Use of Learning: An Inquiry into the Growth of his Mind & Art (San Marino, 1953).

  15. Baldwin, op. cit., Vol. II, pp. 417-525.

  16. Metamorphoses I. 183, V. 500 & XIV. 584; Georgics I. 27, 256, 311 & III. 479.

  17. The Tempest, ed. Frank Kermode (London, 1958), Appendix D, pp. 148-9.

  18. op. cit., p. 48.

  19. ibid., pp. 47-53.

  20. The OED is by no means an infallible or exhaustive guide, of course, but its recorded evidence makes it likely that Shakespeare was the first to use these words in their etymological senses.

  21. op. cit., pp. 49-50.

  22. See Douglas L. Peterson, Time, Tide and Tempest: A Study of Shakespeare's Romances (San Marino, 1973), especially pp. 44-51.

    The word tide, like tempest, also meant in origin ‘time’, as in the compound Christmastide.

  23. One reason for this unity is given by Frederick Turner: ‘In The Tempest there was no need to incorporate the vast stretches of time that occur in Pericles and The Winter's Tale, because the effect of time on human personality had now been taken over by a symbol—that of the sea-change, a mixture of dream, drowning, and enchantment.’ Shakespeare and the Nature of Time (Oxford, 1971), p. 151.

  24. Harold F. Brooks, ‘The Tempest: What Sort of Play?’ Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. LXIV, 1978, p. 33.

  25. ibid., pp. 33-4.

  26. I am indebted to Turner, op. cit., pp. 1-6, for his definitions of the nine major aspects of time found in the Sonnets and in other plays. Except for incidental mention, his study is not concerned with The Tempest.

  27. Turner makes an illuminating distinction in Shakespeare's works between true sight, essentially motivated by love or faith, and false sight, which is a product of deterministic reason—the ‘intellect that kills’—applied inappropriately (ibid., pp. 162-74).

    Gonzalo's vision would correspond to the former.

  28. ibid., p. 5.

  29. V.i. 136, 186, 223.

  30. Compare William Blake: ‘Time is the mercy of eternity;’ (Milton 24:72).

  31. See Samuel C. Chew, The Pilgrimage of Life (London, 1962), pp. 153-4.

  32. T. S. Eliot developed a similar intuition more explicitly in Little Gidding:

    We shall not cease from exploration
    And the end of all our exploring
    Will be to arrive where we started
    And know the place for the first time.

Donald W. Foster (essay date 1986)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10338

SOURCE: Foster, Donald W. “Macbeth's War on Time.” English Literary Renaissance 16, no. 2 (Spring 1986): 319-42.

[In the following essay, Foster contends that Macbeth is a slave of time, a man who questions whether his fate is predetermined yet whose boundless will to power leads him to seize the future on his own terms and create himself king. However, the critic proposes, Macbeth's failure to transcend the inexorable progress of time, his most pernicious enemy, ultimately leads him to a nihilistic conviction that his life—indeed all life—is meaningless.]

James I, in his preface to the Basilikon Doron (1603), notes that men must “be very warie in all their secretest actions, and whatsoeuer middesses they vse for attaining to their most wished ends.” This is especially true, he says, in the affairs of kings:

for Kings being publike persons, by reason of their office and authority, are as it were set (as it was said of old) vpon a publike stage, in the sight of all the people; where all the beholders eyes are attentiuely bent to looke and pry in the least circumstance of their secretest drifts: Which should make Kings the more careful not to harbour the secretest thought in their minde … assuring themselues that Time the mother of Veritie, will in the due season bring her owne daughter to perfection.1

We have no record of James's critical response to Macbeth, but there are many who would applaud his meditation on the old figure of the “player-king” as a commentary on Shakespeare's Scottish tragedy: Truth, the daughter of Time, has at last a coming-out party in Act V, as riddling prophecies are unravelled, and as King Macbeth, “the secretest man of blood,” is shown to his countrymen for what he is, a fiendlike butcher, so unlike his spiritual opposite, that most sainted prince, young Malcolm.2 The sin, disease, chaos, and falsehood of Macbeth find their answer in Malcom's piety, medicine, order, and truth. Macbeth, like those nineteenth-century French narratives discussed by Roland Barthes, raises “the question as if it were a subject which one delays predicating; and when the predicate (truth) arrives, the sentence, the narrative, are over, the world is adjectivized (after we had feared it would not be).” In short, Shakespeare in his Scottish play poses a problem and solves it, producing thereby a drama which follows Barthes' “classic” narrative pattern: “Truth, these narratives tell us, is what is at the end of expectation. This design brings narrative very close to the rite of initiation (a long path marked with pitfalls, obscurities, stops, suddenly comes out in the light); it implies a return to order, for expectation is a disorder.”3 This, some would say, is no less true of the disorder in Macbeth's Scotland than of the narrative's own “disorder” of expectation. In fact, the expectation of order is so strong at the close of Macbeth that critics for years have out-Malcolm'd Malcolm in their expressions of a beatific future. “Blood will cease to flow,” writes one, “movement will recommence, fear will be forgotten, sleep will season every life, and the seeds of life will blossom in due order.” “Virtue and justice are restored,” exclaims another. “The time is free, the ‘weal’ once more made ‘gentle.’” “The true cosmic playwright”—God—“now controls the world stage,” writes a third, “and is prepared to create pattern out of the chaos and significance out of Malcolm's victory. …” “No longer will innocent flowers shelter serpents,” writes a fourth. “Appearances will be attuned again with reality. … Macbeth's reign becomes the memory of a nightmare, scarcely disturbing Scotland's serene future.”4 All will be performed in measure, time, and place.


What interests me is not so much whether these critics are right or wrong in their unequivocal prophecies of bliss, but that such prophecies are made at all. It is not that I fault them for speaking of Malcolm and Macduff and company as “real” people with a “real” future, for insofar as the text comments on a past or future beyond the confines of narrative time, it is our business to discuss it as part of the fiction, as an inherent part of what defines the world of Macbeth. But it is curious that the criticism, until very recently, has been so unanimous in its expectation of a return to order after Macbeth's demise. For how can we know, finally, what sort of world it is that Malcolm's Scotland has inherited? We have, of course, the testimony of Macduff that the “time is free,” which is perhaps the most oft-quoted line from the play outside Macbeth's “tomorrow” soliloquy; and most have taken his word as gospel, assuming either that Macduff is a man of astute judgment, or else that his words have a kind of magical efficacy in defining his world's future. Yet Macduff is the man who fled to England to escape Macbeth's bloody sword, while trusting his wife and children to the power of positive thinking; and though he declares that the time is free, he does so in a play in which the “good” characters are marked by their signal inability to learn from their mistakes. His declaration carries no greater freight of truth than Duncan's announcement in 1.2 that the Thane of Cawdor shall never more deceive his bosom interest.

From the play's opening line, the text glances repeatedly at Scotland's troubled future, as the natural harvest and inevitable repetition of a troubled past. In Malcolm we are presented with a future king whose speech—beginning with his self-impeachment (the only lie ever told by this “weak, poor, innocent lamb”), or perhaps even with his odd response to the news of his father's murder (“O, by whom?”)—displays nothing but an empty bosom, a cunning mind, and a ready tongue. And though we are not told which of the two princes laughed in his sleep as Duncan bled, in the end it makes no difference, for at the close revenges still burn in men, and it is “certain” that Donalbain is not with his brother (5.2.7-8). In fact, his conspicuous and pointed absence in the fifth act (by which Shakespeare refers his audience to Holinshed's familiar chronicles) might well prompt Malcolm to say of Donalbain what Macbeth once said of Fleance: his absence is material. Holinshed reports that Malcolm eventually died a gruesome death, his head skewered through the eye upon the spear of an English knight; after which Donalbain returned from Ireland, slew Malcolm's eldest son, and usurped the throne. Moreover, during Malcolm's reign, “all the laws that Makbeth had ordeined were abrogated”; the whole realm was given over to “intestine rebellion,” “slaughter in all parts,” “more crueltie than euer had beene heard of before,” “discommoditie and decaie,” “outragious riot,” “licorous desires,” “corrupted abuses,” “riotous manners,” and “superfluous gormandizing.”5 If art in this case imitates a life, Malcolm's crafty false-speaking against himself is only too true.

Nor can there be a “return” to order when there was none to begin with. We are given no hint in Shakespeare that Duncan's reign was ever anything but bloody and chaotic. Indeed, the King's opening question, “What bloody man is that,” might well be answered, “a Scotsman.” Word of rebellion, treason, betrayal, and killing come post with post, without so much as breathing space between. An ineffectual king, Duncan can do nothing but inquire after “the newest state” of a broil which seems to have no beginning or end. And insofar as the three weird sisters represent the forces of darkness, the first line of the play—“Where shall we three meet again”—suggests already that what we shall see on the heath, or stage, is a repetition, more of the same.

That Macbeth follows a narrative curve from order/goodness/truth to chaos/badness/falsehood and back again is the illusion of those who would have their drama serve, not as a metaphor for life (in which our search for a first cause or grammatical subject drives us ever into the dark backward and abysm of time), but rather as a metaphor for some fictive or dream reality that has, in fact, a beginning, middle, and end: that is, a neatly contained world without causality or transience. In this respect, the reader's demand for a narrative based on the diad of subject and predicate, noun and verb, on expectation and desire for its imminent closure, is kin to the old cry for “poetic justice,” for it demands that the poet belie his world in the interest of the reader's metaphysical comfort. In the end, of course, all poets, all tests, do belie life; but the old demand for hermeneutic narrative, in which “truth” predicates an incomplete subject, is the demand for a conventional lie, the expected lie, linked, as Barthes would say, “to the kerygmatic civilization of meaning and truth, appeal and fulfillment.”6

In Macbeth the predicate, as truth, never arrives; nor is the world adjectivized, except by characters within the fiction, all of whom are partial to the action, and hence, unreliable judges. Shakespeare never essays to articulate the truth of Macbeth's history, nor even offers us a sum of perspectives which, when viewed holistically, comprise the truth. What we get instead is a variety of conflicting interpretations expressed by figures who themselves exist (until our imagination amends them) only as interpretation, as words in a text. “Some say he's mad; others, that lesser hate him, / Do call it valiant fury” (5.2.13-14). It is impossible to say, finally, whether Macbeth is aptly named “coward” or “brave,” “Bellona's bridegroom” or “bloody villain,” “royal lord” or “dwarfish thief,” “Majesty” or “monster,” “something wicked” or “angry god,” “noble partner” or “abhorréd tyrant.” Even the adjectives most frequently used to describe him—“good” (ten times) and “worthy” (nine times)—are neither true nor false, for all such words refer us not to any external reality but only to the figures who voice them, even as Macduff's “time is free” directs us not to truth, but to an interpretation, that is, to Macduff's own vision of a redeemed future, and to his sense that time past has been chained, hampered, enthralled by that cruel tyrant whose head is now mounted on a stick. Were the detached head able to speak in the final scene, it would, no doubt, say it was the other way around, that time was the tyrant, Macbeth time's fool and slave.

But if the passage of time in Macbeth fails to bring truth to perfection, the language of time may at least serve as a vantage from which to gain a new perspective: for time, in Macbeth, is the mother of many words. Nearly everyone is heard to “pay his breath to time” (4.1.99), from the lordly Malcolm to the lowly porter. Predictably, all this talk of time has generated a good deal of critical discussion as well; but according to the orthodox consensus (in essays by Stephen Spender, Roy Walker, Barbara Parker, Fred Turner, Ricardo Quinones, Francois Maguin, and Wylie Sypher, among others), this textual preoccupation with time and time's laws only serves to confirm Macbeth as a “closed” play (Sypher's term) in which the untimely Macbeths knock the time out of joint only to have the Malcolm-Macduff-Nature team knock it back in.7 As articulated by Frank Kermode, “The suffering of the Macbeths may be thought of as caused by the pressure of the world of order slowly resuming its true shape and crushing them. This is the work of time; as usual in Shakespeare, evil, however great, burns itself out, and time is the servant of providence. Nowhere is this clearer than in Macbeth. The damnation of the principal characters involves murder and destruction, outrage not only upon the state but upon the whole cosmos; but the balance is restored.” Kermode goes on to survey the numerous references in Macbeth to time and time's laws, and concludes, “As in Spenser, Time, apparently the destroyer, is the redeemer; yet it is itself redeemed. It seems very characteristic … of Shakespeare that there should be, in the greatest of the plays about human guilt, these semantic complexities concerning time, the element in which human life succeeds or fails, in which virtue is tested and evil brought to good.”8 Thus Macbeth's true history, which begins with a capital crime, ends (to use a figure from Othello), in a “bloody period.” Be sure your disorders will find you out.

But when hermetic abstractions of Time-as-redeemer are set aside long enough for us to look at the actual language used, we find that Macbeth is plagued by a persistent though largely unconscious impulse to take revenge on time itself, as the chief obstacle to the human will, as the very devil from which man must be redeemed. Perhaps the most famous (though by no means original) formulation of his dilemma is that expressed by Nietzsche's Zarathustra:

‘It was’—that is the name of the will's teeth-gnashing and most lonely affliction. Impotent against what is transpired, the will is a resentful spectator of all that has passed.

The will cannot will backwards; that it cannot break time and time's covetousness—that is the will's loneliest affliction.9

But this passage is often misunderstood. The human will does not resent simply the “what was” of time, or the past. Time exists as past, present, and future, and contains not only an “it was” but an “it is” and an “it shall be.” By stressing the “it was” as the object of the will's resentment, Nietzsche is concerned not merely with time past, but with time passing, with transience. The past bears the brunt of the will's resentment only because the past most obviously is ground whereon the will cannot operate. That which has come before cannot be changed or recreated in any literal sense. Therefore, having stumbled over this immovable rock, the will yields to a counter-will, a willing-against, an impulse to “get even.” All sentiment becomes ressentiment. Seeking to liberate itself from its chains, the resentful will lashes out against time and time's laws, sometimes in foolish ways:

Alas, every prisoner becomes a fool! The imprisoned will, too, releases itself in a foolish way.

It is resentful that time does not run back. … And so, out of rage and ill-temper, the will rolls stones about, taking revenge on him who does not, like it, feel rage and ill-temper.

Thus the liberating will becomes a felon, and upon all that can suffer it wreaks revenge for its inability to go backwards.

This, yea, this alone is revenge itself: the will's aversion to time and time's “It was.”10

Shakespeare's Troilus, in speaking of love, observes “that the will is infinite and the execution confined, that the desire is boundless and the act a slave to limit” (T & C, 3.2.80-82). Substitute the will to power for the sex drive, and we have the problem of Macbeth. Here is the figure of an infinite will trapped in a finite, transient body. The driving force behind Macbeth is not just a petty ambition to be named King of Scotland, but a far more radical impulse to be King over life itself, as indicated by his verbal obsession with time, causality, and transience. Macbeth would “entreat an hour to serve” his will, rather than vice versa (2.1.22). But for time's inexorable laws, his will “had else been perfect, / Whole as marble, founded as the rock. / As broad and general as the casing air.” Instead he finds his will “cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in,” (3.4.25), “the servant to defect, / Which else should free have wrought” (2.1.17-18). Unable to stem the flow of time, or to clip the chains of causality, unable to alter or recover that which time has established as the order of accomplished fact, Macbeth feels compelled to express his resentment in acts of bloody execution.

Macbeth's rage against time, like his impulse to murder Duncan, lies hidden until that fateful meeting with the weird sisters on the road to Forres. Heretofore his resentment has been repressed, denied, locked away in the unconscious. Since present fears are less than horrible imaginings, this Thane of Glamis has cast himself into the thick of every fray, “Nothing afeard of what [him]self didst make, / Strange images of death” (1.3.96-97); he has preferred to blot out the inner impulse, or “horrible imagining,” with an external sign, or “image of death.” Therefore, when it comes to protecting Duncan from the daggers of ambitious men, Macbeth is the nonpareil. The bloody man who brings report “of the revolt / The newest state” (1.2.1-2) cannot imagine what has possessed the Thane of Glamis to fight so relentlessly against overwhelming odds, unless perhaps he “meant to bathe in reeking wounds, / Or memorize another Golgotha” (1.2.39-40). But there is an element here of psychological realism, for according to Freud, drive (whether it be the will to power, sex drive, death drive, or poetic will) employs various mechanisms to defend itself against its own completeness, against its own need to look at what cannot be seen. Thus Macbeth's zeal in slaying the King's foes may be understood as a reaction formation by which he seeks to secure his ego against the return of bloody, repressed impulses from within.

The net effect of the witches' visit is that Macbeth is stripped forever of his ability to defend himself against his own black desires—which is why he “starts” when the weird sisters name him “King hereafter.” Their prophetic greeting is at once a fresh beginning and a cause of terror, for the suggestion that he may yet be King brings to mind, involuntarily, the repressed image of a bloody corse, a horrid vision of slain royalty which unfixes his hair and makes his seated heart to knock against his ribs, “against the use of nature.” He therefore attempts to dismiss the matter, and murder his murderous thought, with a chopped couplet, a failed attempt at closure: “Come what come may,” he says, “Time and the hour runs through the roughest day” (1.3.147-48). That his words are spoken not in resignation, but with an edge of resentment, is made apparent not only in the potentially bloody verb, “runs through,” but in the swelling act which follows. Were he resigned, there would be no assassination, and no play.

By referring him to “the coming on of time, with a ‘Hail, King that shalt be!’” the weird sisters legitimize, as it were, Macbeth's claim to a kingly title. But every title—whether it be the name of king, father, god, or Thane of Cawdor—is a “former title” (1.2.65). We always arrive too late: someone else has always come first. Macbeth, likewise, feels a vague resentment that he has not come first, that another should be already that which he wishes himself to be. Like many of his contemporaries, he would like to be King, and he is nearer than most to the crown. Unfortunately, Duncan exists already as the thing itself. Macbeth has been deprived of the kingship, as it were, by his own “belatedness.” Since Duncan holds a prior claim to the title, having come first in time, Macbeth must wait on time, as time's slave, for that which is “rightfully” his. It is an injury to his will, and Duncan will suffer for it.

It is here on the road to Forres that Macbeth's conscious assumptions about time are first called into question, as the play begins to probe the nature of man's relationship to time and causality. For example, there is in Banquo's phrase, “the seeds of time,” a genitive, and generative, ambiguity. If the “of” signifies composition or content (box of alabaster, bag of groceries), if the seeds of time exist as sprouts of future time in potentia, the implication is that the future is not yet determined: men are the gardeners of their world, and as willful creators with “free hearts” they may cultivate this or that seed of time, causing it to flourish. That this is Duncan's view is made apparent in his words to Macbeth: “I have begun to plant thee,” he says, “and will labor / To make thee full of growing” (1.4.28-29). If, on the other hand, the “of” is possessive, and time itself is the gardener, then it is left to the goddesses of destiny to say which grain will grow and which will not. The future then is fixed, contained in the present, and though man's seated, or “seeded,” heart may knock against the use of nature, time shall have its pleasure. This is Banquo's assumption, which is why he neither begs nor fears the witches' favors nor their hate.

Banquo's organic perception of time and stoic indifference to the chains of causality are foreign to Macbeth's mind. Macbeth advises men to plant themselves (3.1.129), and holds that man may be the master of his time (3.1.40). He therefore recoils before the witches' strange intelligence, for their words, their “shalt be” instead of “mayst be,” or even a “shalt be—if,” implies that all growth is foreordained. In this more than mortal knowledge the Thane of Glamis “seems rapt withal,” and wrapped as well, perceiving himself as, perhaps, a mere seed cast by time and fortune—a fearful meditation. Ironically, it is at precisely this moment, in which he hears himself named King hereafter, that the chilling thought first occurs to Macbeth that he may, in fact, be no more than time's slave.

That Macbeth cannot command transience is illustrated for him, as for us, in his command to the weird sisters: “Stay, you imperfect speakers,” he says, “tell me more / … Speak, I charge you” (1.3.70, 78). But the women promptly vanish, like the inhabitants of the earth, “Into the air, and what seemed corporal melted / As breath into the wind” (1.3.81-82). Macbeth's cry—“Would they had stayed!”—should, I think, be spoken on stage not wistfully, but with sudden and unexpected anger. Here was a vision of that earthly transience before which the self is nullified, and the assertive “will” reduced to “would.” Banquo and Macbeth, no less than these three old women, are among earth's “bubbles” (1.3.79), to be burst, sooner or later, by antic Death's little pin.

Lost in his contemplation of time's “it was,” Macbeth is overcome with a temporal vertigo that dizzies his speech. For example, when he learns that he has been named Thane of Cawdor, he says, “The greatest is behind” (1.3.117). Macbeth's conscious meaning is that the greatest is “to follow,” is yet to come, but the odd phrasing, which curiously conflates past and future, contains a suspicion that the greatest is irredeemably “behind him,” has come and gone.

Again, when he turns to those who stay upon his leisure, Macbeth excuses himself, saying, “My dull brain was wrought / With things forgotten” (1.3.149-50). The sentence itself is an attempt to murder the thought of killing Duncan. We might expect Macbeth to say, “My dull brain was wrought with matters that I will forget about for now. Let us toward the King.” Rather, his use of the past participle seems an attempt, in mid-sentence, to pronounce himself free of that horrible imagining which continues to shake him. Thus his lie to Banquo and company is a lie also to himself, for his mind is wrought with deeds, names, and men that are all but forgotten.

Having been referred to the coming on of time, Macbeth can see only time's “it was.” That which is great to be, is only a mirroring repetition of that greatness which lies behind. “Kind gentlemen,” he says, “your pains / Are registered where every day I turn / The leaf to read them” (1.4.150-52). But which way are the pages turning, forward or backward? He seems to mean, “Each day you perform new favors to be recorded,” but his words demand another reading as well: every day of his life he turns a new leaf, looking for a blank page on which to inscribe his name, only to find, already recorded there, the pains of kind (like-minded) gentlemen. As he speaks to his friends, Macbeth sees nothing before him but the spectres of the past. Every dread exploit, every heroic deed, every great name, is anticipated by time. Moreover, even if he does succeed in carving out a name and passage, his life will only fall into the sear, the yellow leaf of a tedious chronicle (5.3.22-23)—so that nothing is, but what is not.

In considering what motivates Macbeth, our vision has been too easily clouded by our own conventional goodness and perhaps, too, by the timidity of our evil. The traditional view of Macbeth as a man torn between his black desires on the one hand and Christian virtue on the other is too simple. For example, the thought occurs to Macbeth, “If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me, / Without my stir” (1.3.143-44). According to the customary reading of these lines, Macbeth has, then, good cause not to murder Duncan: if the weird sisters speak true, he need only wait, and the crown will fall into his lap—and that, perhaps, is Macbeth's conscious meaning. But we may perceive also in this short aside a spur to regicide: for if chance crowns him without his stir, what will he have gained? Only that which was foretold, a fruitless crown and barren sceptre. But he will have lost much. It is essential to Macbeth that he create himself as King, that he be crowned not passively by the hands of time and chance, but actively, by his own mortal hands. To be made King without his stir will not answer for him the question of whether or not he is simply time's slave, subject to experience whatever time has in store. Macbeth's question is not, Dare I do a wicked deed to gain the Scottish crown, but rather, Do I dare disturb the universe? Shall I resign myself as the slave of limit, or shall I seek to liberate myself, by jumping the life to come and seizing the future now, on my own terms? Lady Macbeth, therefore, says more than she knows when she chides her husband, saying that when neither time nor place adheres, he “would make both,” but when “they have made themselves,” their very fitness doth “unmake him” (1.7.51-54). The paradox of willful self-creation could not be more succinctly stated. Macbeth is nothing afeard of what he makes himself (1.3.96), but only of what makes him.

Macbeth's answer to his humiliation at the hands of the clock is to take a literal revenge: he will attack time with a dagger, will break time's laws, will take the future now in the ignorant present, seizing forcibly that which he has come already to perceive as his—the name and all the addition to a king. But the name of king, in Macbeth's mind, is no ordinary name, and his deed shall be no ordinary deed. Macbeth, like Cleopatra, wills “To do that thing that ends all other deeds, / Which shackles accidents and bolts up change”; but he is far from sharing Cleopatra's opinion that “'Tis paltry to be Caesar,” nor perceives that a king, “not being Fortune,” is but “Fortune's knave” (A & C, 5.2.2-6). Cleopatra wills to defeat time by transforming herself into an everlasting legend. Macbeth cares nothing for legend. He'll defeat time literally, by creating himself King of the empirical realm whether or not Fortune wills to have it so. He'll have a name greater than any name named under Heaven.

Harold Bloom, in his essay on poetry as a mode of lying against time, has followed the Gnostic Valentinius in noting that mortal man, desiring to transcend time and flesh and death, may fashion images, in the name of a god, which in turn become objects of fear to him, as for example, the idolator with his stone idol, or the terrified speaker of Blake's “Tyger.” This fear may be identified as the fear of a name, whether it be the artist's fear of a daemonic name (in having fashioned the unheimlich, or “uncanny”), or the pagan's creation of a god with a name greater than his own.11 Macbeth likewise, perceiving himself to be a slave of time, quakes not so much at the thought of mere killing as at the image, fashioned by himself, of “King” Macbeth, a being which seems, in his mind's eye, to transcend time. The name of King, pre-existent and immortal, and endowed with a power and freedom not available to Macbeth as subject, seems to offer the promise of a new temporality in which time and death become subject to the self. Macbeth, like the sublime poet, like the savage idolator, thus creates an image before which he may bow the knee, populating the empty vault with a god after his own fashion. If he trembles before the image of a fallen King Duncan, he trembles also before the image of King Macbeth, a being shaped not by time but by his own devices, a sublime creation, greater than himself, a King of kings, and killer of kings. It is this doubly frightening thought which makes his heart knock against his ribs, for having once fashioned in his mind the image of King Macbeth, that identity alone seems authentic. To be a self-made King is to be sublime. To be less is nothing.

It now becomes clear why Macbeth's mind is given to such marvellous soliloquies regarding the horror of the deed he is about to perform: Macbeth needs these images, as it were, to convince himself of the sublimity of his crime. His fecund imagination would rescue the intended act from time's abyss, and endow it with meaning. While “pity, like a naked newborn babe, / Striding the blast” and “heaven's cherubin horsed / Upon the sightless couriers of the air” appear strong against the deed, it is precisely such images that allow Macbeth to continue believing that a knife in Duncan will indeed break the bands of transience. Pale Hecate's offerings, images of withered murder alarumed by the wolf, Tarquin's ghostly presence, all help to reassure Macbeth's heat-oppressed brain that his crime will surely be a deed horrid and grand enough to free his will from its chains. For most men, such visions were enough to sickly o'er the native hue of resolution, but Macbeth's bloody dagger, a false creation, only marshalls him the way that he was going. He must allow nothing to “take the present horror from the time” (1.7.58). I do not suppose, of course, that Macbeth knows all this. Maybe Shakespeare knew it, in his own way, but the argument is not, finally, a “psychological” one, for it takes place in the interstice of a continuing textual preoccupation with time and causality.

Ironically, Macbeth's deed, crucifixion of sorts, does seem to shock time into a momentary stasis: “By th'clock tis day,” says Ross, “And yet dark night strangles the traveling lamp” (2.4.6-7). It is a critical commonplace to note that the shock is only momentary; but the reaction is not, as in DeQuincey's formulation, a matter of the “human” making its reflux upon the “fiendish.” Rather, time and transience reassert themselves, as Macduff calls “timely” upon the King. Nor was time or the “natural order” ever really assaulted, though many Scotsmen would interpret it so. 'Twas a rough night, but the regicide, no less than Macdonwald's rebellion, Norway's invasion, the earthquake and storm, is a confused event “New hatched to th'woeful time” (2.3.53). There is no causal link between Macbeth's deed and the storm, any more than between Macdonwald's rebellion and the “contending 'gainst obedience” of Duncan's horses (2.4.17). Brutal violence, whether by man or beast, is very much a part of the so-called “natural order,” both before and after Duncan's death.

To seize the kingship had seemed to Macbeth a deed to stop “the spring, the head, the fountain,” the “very source” of natural succession, while halting also the flow of kingly blood (2.3.100-01). It is neither. If one man may seize the crown by violence without an apocalypse, so then may another. The sun has not yet come full circle before King Macbeth realizes that his fears in Banquo stick deep. Banquo, who in his sleep is given to cursed thoughts (2.1.7-9), has confessed that he, too, dreams at night of the weird sisters (2.1.20); and Macbeth notes that he “chid the sisters, / When first they put the name of King upon me”—an observation which suggests that Banquo resents Macbeth's priority, resents that the sisters did not first put the name of King upon him (3.1.58). Macbeth had hoped that his deed without a name would trammel up consequence. Finding it otherwise, he is vexed by every minute of Banquo's being (3.1.117), and resolves that it “must be done tonight” (3.1.131). If the assassination of Duncan proved nothing, the murder of Banquo and Fleance will, for the seeds of Banquo then will never grow as prophesied. Just two more murders will “Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond” which keeps him pale, the bond of causality, or “fate,” which subjects him as time's debtor, captive, and slave (3.2.49-50).

When he has come to terms with the killers, Macbeth exclaims happily, “It is concluded!” (3.1.141)—only to find, once again, that nothing is concluded. Lady Macbeth, for her part, would like to think that “Things without all remedy / Should be without regard: what's done is done” (3.2.11-12). But she soon finds herself asking her lord, “What's to be done?” (3.2.44)—as if to say, What's yet to be done? What shall be done? What ought to be done? What can or does it mean—“to be done?”

When the murderers return and tell the King “how much is done” (3.3.22), his fit comes again, in the figure of Banquo's ghost; although “when all's done,” he looks but on a stool. The vision only hardens his resolve: “It will have blood, they say: blood will have blood. / Stones have been known to move and trees to speak”—or stones to speak and trees to move—“Augures and understood relations have by maggot-pies and choughs and rooks brought forth / The secret'st man of blood” (3.4.123-27). Here again, the usual error is to hear in these words only the voice of fear, when there is, in fact, some metaphysical comfort (for Macbeth, as for us) in the thought that the natural order has risen up against him—else the sublimity of his crime threatens to vanish into a futile insignificance, as mere death and emptiness. Nature's supposed opposition will not, therefore, discourage Macbeth from doing his will: “… I will … / … I will … / … I will … / … For mine own good / All causes shall give way.” In other words, “All considerations shall be forgot as I take my revenge on all causation.” It will be a bloody, tedious business: for “I am in blood / Stepped so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er” (3.4.131-41). There is now only a “going o'er” (and over and over), and no “o'erleaping.” In the landscape of Macbeth's imagination there is a swift river of time, a tide of blood having as its source time's “it was” and all that has gone before. He once conceived himself as outside time, on the bank and shoal, seeking to o'erleap transience to reach the golden shore of a timeless present. But having once pricked the sides of his intent and spurred vaulting ambition, Macbeth has jumped the life to come, and—fallen in! If he makes it now to that other shore, it will only be by slogging through blood up to his ears.

The Thane of Fife is next to bleed. When Macbeth learns, from the apparition of the armed head, that he should “Beware Macduff,” he vows to “make assurance double sure / And take a bond of fate” (4.1.71, 83-84) to make fate prisoner and debtor to himself. Best to force the apparition to keep its word of promise: he will kill Macduff, and have done. But once again, Macbeth arrives too late, for the Thane of Fife is fled to England. “Time,” exclaims the King, “thou anticipat'st my dread exploits” (4.1.144). From now on, it will be an open battle. If Macbeth cannot make his time stand still, he will make it run:

The flighty purpose never is o'ertook
Unless the deed go with it. From this moment
The very firstlings of my heart shall be
The firstlings of my hand. And even now,
To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done.


And “Thus,” in Zarathustra's words, “the liberating will becomes a felon, and upon all that can suffer it wreaks revenge for its inability to go backwards.”12 Have I arrived too late to kill Macduff? Very well, I'll kill “His wife, his babes, and all unfortunate souls / That trace him in his line” (4.1.152-53). This is a key moment in the history of Macbeth's reactivity, as we go from Macdonwald to Duncan to Banquo to the Macduffs. Macbeth turns again to frantic killing, as if on a battlefield, as a means of erasing the temporal interval between acts, by constantly acting, allowing time no interval for re-action, and no chance to anticipate him, like a boxer who flails his opponent against the ropes. His brandished steel will smoke in bloody execution until such time as he can say, “It is done.” Thus “Each new morn / New widows howl, new orphans cry, new sorrows / Strike heaven on the face” (4.3.5-6). What's the newest grief? “Each minute teems a new one,” for each minute is itself a grief, a ceasing to be, an injury to the will that must be avenged with the sword (5.3.174-76). Yet Macbeth finds that with each bloody revenge, time will “close and be herself, whilst our poor malice / Remains in danger of her former tooth,” her “it was” (3.2.14-15).

Too late, Macbeth realizes that “He cannot buckle his distempered cause / Within the belt of rule” (5.2.15-16). Having willed himself to be a causeless man, a self-made king, he learns that causation resists the will as surely as “being” resists “being done.” There is stasis only in death. This recognition that being exists only as transience proves too great a burden for his will to bear. The formula, “Nothing is, but what is not,” turns upon itself: What is, is nothing, for all that is, is transient, a vanishing into the abyss:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.


Macbeth has always favored “tomorrow” as the blessed ground whereon the will may appear to operate freely: “We'll take tomorrow” (3.1.22); “But of that tomorrow” (3.1.32); “Tomorrow / We'll hear ourselves again” (3.4.32-33); “I will tomorrow, / And betimes I will, to the weird sisters” (3.4.133-34). But now his will seems extinguished by the stuttering repetition of a million deadly tomorrows endlessly the same. It does not matter, in the end, what history's “last syllable” is. Macbeth knows it only as a “like syllable of dolor,” a sound that signifies nothing. Three, or four, or a billion tomorrows cannot finally be distinguished from the plural yesterday which led like-minded gentlemen to their inevitable, and redundant, conclusion.

Thus Macbeth comes at last to cast off the sublimity of self-creation in spite of time, as he embraces the sublime necessity of dying in time. “Out, out, brief candle!” If a man cannot have, cannot be, the be-all and the end-all, better then not to be, better that no man should be, that earthly existence itself should cease to be. Thus spake Zarathustra: “Because the willer must suffer, because he cannot will backwards—thus willing itself and all life has been perceived as—punishment! … until at last madness preached: ‘Everything passes away; therefore everything deserves to pass away!’”13 “What's done cannot be undone” (5.1.71)—which is precisely why Macbeth wishes that “th'estate o' th' world were now undone” (5.6.50). He'd have “nature's germens tumble all together, / Even till destruction sicken” (4.1.59-60).

It is his weariness of time's petty procession which allows Macbeth finally to embrace his fate: “Blow wind, come wrack!” he cries. “There is nor flying hence nor tarrying here” (5.5.51, 48), no afterlife or permanence, nothing but death and transience, a passing away. He therefore leaves the safety of Dunsinane, a castle which might indeed have laughed a siege to scorn, and marches forth to meet his fate, come what come may, motivated no longer by “poor malice” and a will to revenge but by a profound acceptance of death—of his own and every man's.

Yet, as a man bound to Fortune's wheel, Macbeth has come around, at least, to perceive the futility of brandished steel and smoking execution, unlike those “good” men in his world who still look to revenge as the answer to their ills: “Be comforted,” says the future King. “Let's make us med'cines of our great revenge, / To cure this deadly grief” (4.3.213-15). Caithness likewise sees in Malcolm's burning revenge “the med'cine of the sickly weal” (5.2.27), with an unintended pun on “wheel,” for he fails to apprehend that literal revenges lead inevitably to revenges in kind. Revenge cannot, in fact, cure deadly grief, for it is revenge itself which makes grief deadly. Time's “it was” cannot be remedied in the empirical realm. Therefore, says Macbeth, “Throw physic to the dogs, I'll none of it” (5.3.47). Having acknowledged his fate as time's fool, he is determined only to fight the course, to see the dismal story out, to meet his enemy on the field beard to beard, and let the gashes fall where they may; for though revenge as a physic may comfort the dogs that bait the bear-like king (5.7.1-2), Macbeth for his part has come to perceive it rather as a poisoned chalice which men raise to their own lips, a sickly wheel which returns to plague the inventor—though there is, of course, no “inventor,” no author, no prime mover. That was his illusion in Act I. All revenges are revenges in kind, more of the same, and every deed has a pre-existent name, including regicide.

Resolved still that he “must not yield / To one of woman born,” King Macbeth learns, too late, that his adversary was “from his mother's womb / Untimely ripped” (5.8.12-16). Macduff, the living consequence of Macbeth's revenges of the past, appears as the outcome of an untimely breach in nature. Macbeth must face him and perish, or yield, and live to be the literal fool of time, “the show and gaze o'th'time,” a poor player on a tether to be baited with the rabble's curse. “I will not yield,” he vows, “To kiss the ground before young Malcolm's feet” (5.8.27-28). The ground before young Malcolm's feet is Scotland's future, a dusty path which Macbeth has no will to see. Rather, he will continue to carve his own passage till he finds himself concluded on the bloody point of Macduff's sword: “Yet I will try the last … / And damned be him that first cries, ‘Hold, enough!’” (5.8.32-34).

When Macduff enters with “King” Macbeth's severed head fixed upon a spear, he greets Malcolm, saying, “Hail, King! for so thou art: behold, where stands / Th'usurper's cursed head. The time is free” (5.8.54-55). Macduff means, of course, that Malcolm may now be called “King,” since the world has been liberated from the tyrant Macbeth. But the ambiguous “so” suggests a second, ironic, meaning: “O ‘King,’ behold this pitiful scarecrow, this death's head upon a stick: for so thou art. The man who would be king is a poor usurper, cursed by time; for time, in fact, is king, and time is free to work his will on all his human slaves.” Fortune thus has granted to Macbeth his wish that he “memorize another Golgotha”: for when his robes have been removed, we, like Malcolm, may behold Shakespeare's macabre caricature of the human potentate, “a new Gorgon,” the King of kings, in a grotesque crucifixion, “as our rarer monsters are, / Painted upon a pole, and underwrit, / ‘Here you may see the tyrant’” (5.8.25-27).

If indeed the late King's bodiless head may serve the usurping Malcolm as a mirror by which to view his own figure and fate (even as Macdonwald's might have done for Macbeth), then King Malcolm—Macbeth's first cousin once removed—is next in line to tread the dusty path to Calvary, as in the Chronicles. He has been revenged on his foes, and in his final speech vows to make himself “even” with his thanes and kinsmen in exchange for their several loves (5.8.62). But Malcolm will not be “even” with his subjects until he, too, lies like Macbeth, “planted newly with the time,” six feet beneath the earth, that another seed may grow. His revenge on Macbeth and time, his succession to the throne of Scotland, is not a redemption but another belated repetition, for in the world of Macbeth, all such literal revenges, unlike the poet's figurative revenge, in the end yield only death.

John Irwin has noted that this phenomenon, this impulse to take revenge on time and its inevitable failure, seems to be “the very essence of tragedy”: “for I take it that all tragedies are in a sense revenger's tragedies—actions in which the central figure (or the audience observing him) comes to the tragic awareness that, because of the irreversibility of time, man in time can never get even, indeed, comes to understand that the whole process of getting even is incompatible with time.”14 There is no better play to illustrate Irwin's point than Shakespeare's Macbeth. Having lashed out at time and failed, Macbeth's frustrated will gradually turns against itself, and yields finally to the nihilistic conclusion that all life is punishment, all existence incoherent gibberish to the last petty syllable of recorded time.


The will must be delivered from its aversion to time and transience if ever it is to be delivered from the impulse to degrade what is transient. But to deliver itself from all willing requires a plunge into the abyss, a deliverance from all earthly existence. Rather, the will must find a way to say “yes” to life, a “yes” that would have transience abide, and would not have it degraded to nothingness; a “yes,” not to being as being done, but to being as becoming. But to say “yes” to transience the will must no longer be limited in its temporality by the necessity of an irreversible and immovable past. One answer, then, is to seek a figurative triumph over time. Only through poetry and art—in a different sense, the syllables of recorded time—is the will able to transform “it was” into “it is,” and “thus did it happen” into “thus have I willed it!”

Harold Toliver, in his essay on “Shakespeare and the Abyss of Time,” has said that “Perhaps the central paradox of the play is that the most depraved of Shakespeare's tragic heroes should have become also the most poetic.”15 For “depraved” let us read “degraded,” and for “paradox,” “irony”: the central irony of the play is that Macbeth, degraded by time, should have become also the most poetic, for Macbeth fails to realize his own powers of figuration. Though masterful in his use of figurative language, he neglects language as an alternate means of transcending time's inexorability. Although his imagination spawns timeless metaphors, his dull brain is, nevertheless, all too literalistic. Macbeth, in waging a literal war on the natural order, “chokes [his] art,” impressing language into the service of a literal revenge. (1.2.9).

What Harold Bloom says about sado-masochistic poets may be applied also to Macbeth, Shakespeare's poetic sado-masochist; to wit, when figuration and sadism are identified, “then we find always the obsession with … belatedness risen to a terrible intensity that plays out the poet's revenge against time by the unhappy substitution of the body, another body or one's own, for time. Raging against time, forgetting that only Eros or figuration is a true revenge against time, the sadomasochist over-literalizes and so yields to the death drive.”16 Bloom goes on to say that “Sadism and masochism are over-literalizations of meaning,” a “failure in the possibilities of figurative language.”17 As “a furious literalism,” sadism “denies the figurative representation of essence by act. … Lacking poetry, the sado-masochist yields to the literalism of the death drive precisely out of a rage against literal meaning.”18 Macbeth wills to degrade all that is, because he has failed to recognize in his own mythopoeic imagination the tool by which he may redeem actuality and say “yes” to life; he has not perceived that the only revenge on time's “it was” is figurative and poetic; to seek a literal revenge is to yield to the abyss. Thus, when his literal revenges on time have failed, he accepts literal death.

Against the literalism and compulsive repetition of Macbeth's death drive, Shakespeare has set his own sublime poetic will. In Macbeth the impotence of kings before time is contrasted with the dramatist's power to recover the past, and to impose upon it his own order, by means of poetic figuration. This is not, of course, peculiar to Macbeth. As Irwin has noted, “One might say that the purpose and point of … all narration is to use the temporal medium of narration to take revenge against time, to use narration to get even with the very mode of narration's existence in a daemonic attempt to prove that through the process of substitution and repetition, time is not really irreversible.”19 Historical narrative is, in its very essence, an argument against time, a willful recovery and revision of the past, a revengeful substitution of “it is” for “it was.” Moreover, Bloom's point is well taken that this argument inevitably splits in two, for after displacing time's “it was,” the poetic will “needs to make another outrageous substitution of ‘I am’ for ‘It is.’ Both parts of the argument are quests for priority.”20 The poetic will's revenge on time, no less than the empirical power thrust, is taken to avenge one's own sense of belatedness.

But what's to be done, then, when time's “it was” is already recomposed by another? Shakespeare, in following Holinshed, is faced with a double perplexity, for he is preceded not only by time, but by recorded time. Shakespeare, therefore, in his dramatic narrative, must assert his priority over both history and “history,” transforming time past, and past narrative, into the timeless presence of an acted text. Doubly redoubling the strokes of his pen, he performs marvels of temporal dexterity throughout the drama, demonstrating that he is not, like his predecessor Holinshed, limited by time. For example: the script of Macbeth's performance against Norway and Macdonwald which King Duncan “reads” is, in fact, a tale told by a dramatist some 550 years later (1.3.90, 97). Again, when “Two truths are told / As happy prologues to the swelling act / Of the imperial theme” (1.3.127-29), the act is at once a self-aggrandizing, bloody deed in the dramatic future, and the present grand dramatic performance of an historical deed already done. Macbeth, who has in his head “strange things … / Which must be acted ere they may be scanned” (3.4.140-41), alludes unwittingly to the day in which his thoughts shall be set to lines of blank verse, having been acted by him ere scanned by a player, and acted by a player ere scanned by the world at large. Again, the heavens which, “troubled with man's act, / Threatens his bloody stage” (2.4.5-6), are at once the “real” heavens over Macbeth's Scotland and the imaginary “heavens” over Shakespeare's bloody stage, some six centuries after the fact. Time and again we find that the dramatist need not be bound by terrestrial or by narrative time. Past, present, and future may be captured in an instant.

Any well-crafted play is, of course, bound to be more immediate, more “present,” than an equally well-crafted prose narrative of those same events. If dramatist and historian alike are friends that lie like truth, if both tell lies against time, at least the dramatist's “it is” recalls the past in a way that the historian's “what was” can never hope to match. But Raphael Holinshed tells many a sad story of the deaths of kings, some deposed, some slain in war, some haunted by the ghosts that they deposed, some sleeping killed, all murdered by time. What, then, was there, given the six long volumes of the Chronicles, about the tale of King Makbeth that alone captured Shakespeare's imagination? Almost any story therein might have served as a vehicle by which to displace time's “it was” with the dramatic present. But what in Makbeth's life story suggested to Shakespeare a possibility to assert his own “I am?” The answer is not immediately apparent. His selection of Makbeth, at first glance, seems rather arbitrary, for as Holinshed tells the story, it would appear to have little in the way of dramatic potential: “To be briefe, such were the woorthie and princely acts of this Makbeth in the administration of the realme, that if he had atteined therevnto by rightfull means, and continued in vprightnesse of iustice as he began, till the end of his reigne, he might well haue been numbred amongest the most noble princes that anie where had reigned.”21 There was, of course, the murder of Duncan, the portents in earth and sky, and the attendant prophecy of witches to lend interest to the story, but regicides, omens, and prophecies are all but commonplace in Holinshed. If anything, the Makbeth of the Chronicles is distinguished not by his evil, but by his goodness, specifically by his “manie holesome laws and statutes.” Holinshed lists in all twenty laws enacted by King Makbeth for “the publike weale of his subiects.” But the statute which seems most to have intrigued Shakespeare is the King's decree that poor players should be heard no more: for Holinshed reports that Makbeth was the first Scottish king to outlaw such vain and foolish entertainments: “Counterfeit fooles, minstrels, iesters, and these kind of iuglers, with such like idle persons, that range abroad in the countrie, hauing no speciall license of the king, shall be compelled to learne some science or craft to get their liuing; if they refuse so to doo, they shall be drawen like horsses in the plough and harrows.”22

King Makbeth's hubris in asserting his supremacy over players, in licensing the few and demeaning the rest, thus lends to the “Tomorrow” soliloquy of Shakespeare's Macbeth a wonderful irony: we may see now why it should be especially galling to this great usurper that his life in retrospect should appear so like the antics of a poor player strutting and fretting upon a stage. The King is forced to turn to the player for a metaphor by which to express the meaning of his own meaninglessness—thereby giving to the player a possibility for value and meaning which he himself cannot seem to find. Holinshed, for his part, wholly approves of King Makbeth's diligence in having protected the commonwealth from such theatrical knaves.23 But it is here that Shakespeare makes his figurative revenge on time complete, for we find in Macbeth that the tables are turned. Counterfeit kings, with such like idle persons, may not range abroad without special license of the playwright, but are compelled to learn the art of playing to get their living. Macbeth, the man who begins the play as “Bellona's bridegroom lapped in proof,” the minion of his race, thus must die “with harness on [his] back,” not only as time's fool, but as time's jade, carving his bloody furrow at the crack of the dramatist's whip (1.2.19, 54; 5.5.52).

In their moment of defeat, most earthly kings, like the King of Norway, crave composition (1.2.59). Their fate, thereafter, lies in the hands of fiends who lie like truth. It is not the sort of immortality sought by King Macbeth. Unlike Hamlet or Cleopatra, Macbeth expresses no desire to have his story told, for it seems a tale told by an idiot. He would not have the moment of his greatness reduced to a flickering shadow-show for generations to come. Indeed, his aversion to Banquo's ghost appears to be, at least in part, the unspeakable horror of one day being pulled from his tomb by “these juggling fiends” (5.8.19), by players “and these kind of iuglers” (Holinshed), whom the historical Makbeth once outlawed; it is a fate which Macbeth cannot endure to think on. “Hence, horrible shadow!” he cries. “Unreal mock'ry, hence!” (3.4.107-08). Such imitations of immortality are not to his liking.

Seeing Banquo resurrected upon the stage, Macbeth cries out,

If charnel houses and our graves must send
Those that we bury back, our monuments
Shall be the maws of kites.


Macbeth is thinking here of his own dusty death; when he passes, better that his flesh should be hacked and fed to birds than to be resurrected thus. If, in the false creations of heat-oppressed brains, men may rise again with twenty mortal murders on their crowns, it will surely push kings from their stools (3.4.80-83); therefore, Macbeth will none of it. He feels his secret murders sticking on his hands, and the intuition that such murders, too terrible for the ear, may be “performed,” leaves him sick and trembling—so that, when the vision passes, he is left only with the desperate hope that no one should “muse” at him (3.4.78, 86). The worst fate that Macbeth can imagine is to survive in time only as a display of “unreal mock'ry,” or as an illustration for an underwrit text which says, “Here you may see the tyrant.”

Macbeth's wish is not granted, for it was ordained otherwise. This once and future king, whose brain the playwright wrought with things not to be forgotten, is to be cast forever as a slave of time, his life transformed into a timeless act. In his hour upon the stage, he will speak the same lines, hear the same prophetic greeting, make the same futile gestures. Each time he is ushered forth, he will waver in his determination to kill the King, wondering if his will is truly free. His secret murders shall be performed not just once, but o'er and o'er, so long as men can breathe, or eyes can see. And, full of sound and fury, he'll proceed to his own smoking execution, only to be heard no more—until the next performance.

If there is a lesson to be learned in all this, it is not the moral didacticism of a narrative which seeks to demonstrate the wickedness and chaotic consequences of ambition or regicide, but rather a living illustration of how far superior the poet is to the king, and the figurative to the literal revenge on time. Kings may like to think themselves the harbingers of the life to come, but when the hurlyburly's done, when kings and subjects are dead and rotten, it is the verbal jugglers, the poets and playwrights, who “give them all breath, / Those clamorous harbingers of blood and death” (5.6.9-10). In this regard, it is worth noting Shakespeare's final salute to his own magnificence, for Macbeth, having begun with one prediction, closes with another. Malcolm promises to use his time wisely:

Producing forth the cruel ministers
Of this dead butcher and his fiendlike queen,
. …—this, and what needful else
That calls upon us, by the grace of Grace
We will perform in measure, time, and place.


It is on this note that the play draws to a close, while drawing us, at the same time, to the play's beginning. Shakespeare asserts his priority one last time, pointing in advance to his own masterful triumph over temporality. When all's done, someone shall “muse” at Macbeth. Malcolm unwittingly looks ahead to the day in which the King's Men will produce forth Macbeth and his fiendlike queen and all their cruel ministers, performing the story in measured verse, at Hampton Court, in 1606, by the grace of his Grace, the King—and by the conjurations of a wizard poet, whose redemptive time is the timeless present of that measure itself.


  1. James I, “To the Reader,” preface to Basilikon Doron, in The Political Works of James I (New York, N.Y., 1965), 5.

  2. Quotations are from the Signet Classic Shakespeare, ed. Sylvan Barnet (New York, 1972).

  3. Roland Barthes, S/Z, tr. Richard Miller (New York, 1974), p. 76.

  4. Mark Van Doren, “Macbeth,” in Shakespeare (New York, 1939), p. 230; Frank Kermode, “Macbeth,” in The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston, 1974), p. 1307; Richard S. Ide, “The Theatre of the Mind,” in ELH 42 (1975), 359; and Herbert R. Coursen, Jr., Christian Ritual and the World of Shakespeare's Tragedies (Lewisburg, Pa., 1976), p. 369. What makes these quotations the more remarkable is that I took them at random from the few sources available on my own desktop. A host of more egregious examples may be found elsewhere.

  5. Raphael Holinshed, Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland: in six volumes, rev. John Hooker et. al. (1587; rpt. London, 1807-08), V, 289-84.

  6. Barthes, p. 76.

  7. Stephen Spender, “Time, Violence, and Macbeth,Penguin New Writing, III (New York, 1946), pp. 115-26; Roy Walker, The Time is Free (London, 1949); Barbara L. Parker, “Macbeth: The Great Illusion,” Sewanee Review 78 (1970), 476-87; Frederick Turner, Shakespeare and the Nature of Time (Oxford, 1971); Ricardo Quninones, The Renaissance Discovery of Time (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), pp. 351-60; Francois Maguin, “The Breaking of Time: Richard II, Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth,Cahiers Elisabethains 7 (1975), 25-41; Wylie Sypher, The Ethic of Time (New York, 1976).

  8. Kermode, p. 1310.

  9. Friedrich Nietzsche, “Von der Erlösung” in Nietzsches Werke 2 vols., ed. Gerhard Stenzel (Salzburg, 1952), II, p. 421. (My translation of Nietzsche.)

  10. Nietzsche, II, p. 421.

  11. Harold Bloom, “Lying against Time: Gnosis, Poetry Criticism,” in Agon (Oxford, 1982), p. 53.

  12. Nietzsche, I, p. 421.

  13. Nietzsche, I, p. 421.

  14. John Irwin, Doubling and Incest/Repetition and Revenge: A Speculative Reading of Faulkner (Baltimore, Md., 1975), p. 4.

  15. Harold Toliver, “Shakespeare and the Abyss of Time,” JEGP 64 (1965), 250.

  16. Bloom, “Freud's Concepts of Defense and Poetic Will,” in Agon (1982), p. 140.

  17. Bloom, Agon, p. 139.

  18. Bloom, Agon, p. 140.

  19. Irwin, p. 4.

  20. Bloom, Agon, p. 124.

  21. Holinshed, V, p. 270.

  22. Holinshed, pp. 270-71.

  23. Holinshed, p. 271.

Lorne M. Buchman (essay date 1987)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8265

SOURCE: Buchman, Lorne M. “Orson Welles's Othello: A Study of Time in Shakespeare's Tragedy.” Shakespeare Survey 39, (1987): 53-65.

[In the following essay, Buchman contrasts Iago's view of time as changeable with Othello's perception of time as an eternal, orderly continuum, and remarks that the Moor's underlying fear of time's power to destroy love and honor makes him particularly vulnerable to Iago's treachery. Buchman also demonstrates how Orson Welles, in his film adaptation of Othello, used various cinematic techniques to underscore the significance of time in the play.]

With the recent wave of scholarship on Shakespeare on film there is at least one important line of questioning still to pursue: can the film medium serve as a critical tool for interpreting or reinterpreting Shakespeare's work?1 Is there something to learn, to rediscover, to see in a new light when, to borrow Walter Benjamin's phrase, we have ‘the ingenious guidance of the camera’ leading us through the text?2 If, as Benjamin suggests, the camera opens up ‘a new field of perception’ in this age of mechanical reproduction, how can we apply his notion to the specific instance of a Shakespeare play adapted to the screen?3

One film that provides a particularly exciting opportunity for a critical analysis of Shakespeare's work is Orson Welles's Othello.4 Of Welles's three Shakespeare films—Macbeth (1948), Othello (1952), and Chimes at Midnight (1965)—Othello has received the least critical attention and continues to be one of the most rarely seen of all cinematic adaptations of the plays. But careful study of this film illuminates a thematic aspect of the text that leads to a fresh reading of the play as a whole. Through his use of cinematic technique, Welles has produced a work that emerges as a study of time in Shakespeare's Othello. The insights to be gained from the film concerning this element of the play are of considerable importance for, and can contribute significantly to, scholarship on Shakespeare's great tragedy.


Welles spent four difficult years producing an Othello that, despite its technical flaws, can be placed with the finest of Shakespeare films.5 The director's commitment to the cinema as a unique vehicle for producing Shakespeare is a key to his success. After completing the film he remarked,

In Othello I felt that I had to choose between filming the play or continuing my own line of experimentation in adapting Shakespeare quite freely to the cinema form … Othello the movie, I hope, is first and foremost a motion picture.6

The visuals of Welles's Othello attest to his considerable talents as a film-maker. His mise-en-scène brings important thematic concerns to the fore and is scrupulously based on ideas inherent in the text. His presentation of Venice with its stately buildings, its calm and channelled waterways, and its solid appearance, reflects well the sense of order achieved—temporarily—in the first act of Shakespeare's drama. Moreover, the visuals of the Venice world serve as a harmonious complement to the nobility and stature of the hero before he is overwhelmed by the ‘green-eyed monster’ of jealousy. Juxtaposed to the ordered world of Venice is Cyprus, with its jungles of arcades and pillars, its seamy underground, its narrow and winding streets, its stairways, its high and frightening cliffs and battlements, and its roaring ocean shore.7 If Venice is the setting that corresponds to the hero, Cyprus is the complement to Iago. Within this world the villain reigns supreme, and he uses the twisted and confusing dimensions of the Cyprus environment to create an unrelenting hell for his victims.

But what is perhaps the most interesting aspect of Welles's film is the way in which he exploits the concept of time inherent in the text. Consider, for example, the prologue. The film opens with the funeral processions of both Othello and Desdemona silhouetted against the sky. Othello is carried on a bier followed by a long line of monks in black, while Desdemona is carried and followed by a line of monks in white. Although the processions are clearly separated (physically and through colour), the rhythm of the two lines is synchronized. Bells chime in a regular beat throughout the prologue, suggesting a firm and cohesive sense of time. The pace of the processions and the repetition of the accompanying chimes yields the sense of unity through compatible rhythm. Like many of Welles's films, Othello opens with visual images taken from the very end of the film not because the director wants to remove all suspense, but because he wants to establish a unified sequence for the whole work. In other words, the way the plot unravels takes precedence over the surprises of narrative. Moreover, by using the dominant rhythms of the processions to establish a sense of coherence and order early in the film, Welles can then illustrate how Iago shatters this tight temporal structure to bring chaos into the world of the play and its hero. Indeed, when one sees the processional image again at the end of Othello, one recognizes how the rhythm of time is broken and restored through the course of the tragedy.

In the opening sequence, Welles intersplices the funeral processions of Othello and Desdemona with shots of Iago dragged by chains through a crowd of screaming Cypriots. Guards throw him into an iron cage and haul him to the top of the castle walls. We witness the world momentarily from Iago's perspective; the cage spins as it hangs, the crowd screams, and, as long as we are with Iago, the stately rhythm of the processions is lost. In the prologue, Welles develops his temporal theme by realizing the opposing rhythms of Othello and Desdemona on the one hand and Iago on the other. The critic William Johnson sees the entire film as a structure of contrasting rhythms, and his sensitivity to this aspect of Welles's work is rare; in the following passage he seems to scan the rhythms of the film.

Welles sets the whole tragedy in perspective with an opening sequence that interweaves the funeral cortèges of Othello and Desdemona and the dragging of Iago to his punishment … [But] the staccato rhythm associated with Iago gradually imposes itself on Othello's stately rhythm, and the increasing complexity of the film's movements suggests the increasing turmoil of doubt in Othello's mind.8

Welles uses the rhythms of time to guide the spectator through Othello. The film conveys an objective sense of time in the regular pattern of beating drums or chiming bells heard through a large part of the film. With this use of the soundtrack, the characters of the drama appear contained within the ordered passage of time. For example, at certain key moments in the film the spectator hears the footfalls of characters in a regular and constant rhythm, yielding the sense of the individual's participation in time's inevitable passage. Like the ticking of a bomb about to explode, however, these regular patterns erupt in corresponding sounds and images of chaos as realized by the tempest, the crashing waves of the Cyprus shore, the sudden explosion of cannon fire, the wild break of seagulls in the sky, and the uncontrolled and chaotic revels after the defeat of the Turks. In an objective sense, one recognizes an ambiguous sense of time—ordered and chaotic, constant and fragmented.

I have used the term ‘objective’ only to differentiate the presence of time as a force in the film as distinct from individual relationships to that force. For it is in Welles's development of the ‘subjective’ experiences of time that he works out his thematic concern most effectively. On the one hand, we understand time through Othello's experience; what is clear and chronologically sound in the first part of the film eventually becomes distorted and irregular as the drama progresses. As Othello's pain and jealousy increase, we lose a sense of coherence in the film. Through the unique resources of the cinema—montage, cinematography, and the soundtrack—Welles realizes the hero's experience as he is overcome by jealousy. Early in the film the director shoots Othello in clear light, but as the film progresses we see him increasingly in shadow; through the use of montage, our sense of space disintegrates; harsh dissonant sounds eventually replace the regular and even sounds of the first part of the film. As jealousy and madness overwhelm the hero, we watch him traverse the spectrum from order to chaos, from light to shadow, and, as a result, we understand how Iago has set out to destroy his victim. He causes Othello to see only the dark, chaotic side of time—something that the hero fears and that is fundamentally against his character. ‘And when I love thee not,’ he says of Desdemona, ‘chaos is come again.’ Chaos represents a movement backwards for the hero, a state without love, a destruction of his sense of the eternal.

By contrast, Iago perceives time as an agent to control. He emerges as the master of time in the film, and the ‘success’ of his scheme relates to his ability to manipulate not only the ‘objective’ force of time but also Othello's relationship to that force. Welles develops this idea early in the action. Still in Venice, Iago is working on his gull, Roderigo, when he comes forward to the camera and says to the audience, ‘I am not what I am.’ Immediately following his words the scene dissolves to a close-up shot of mechanical figures striking the bells of the clock in St Mark's Square. In perfect mechanical order, these human impressions (the figures are human in shape but not in substance—i.e., not what they are) strike. Welles's use of the dissolve here forces the spectator to associate these figures with Iago as one who will hammer upon Othello's emotional balance as the figures hammer upon the chimes. But the specifics of the image also suggest that he will achieve his ends through a controlled use of time. As the ‘Jack of the clock’—to borrow the trope of Richard II—marks time, so too will Iago orchestrate his destruction of Othello. To make this metaphor clear, Welles follows the shot of the mechanical figures with a dissolve to the bed-chamber of Othello and Desdemona. Othello parts the curtains surrounding the bed and, in a high-angle shot, we see Desdemona lying on the bed with her long blonde hair spread out underneath her. Othello then speaks his lines from act 1, scene 3:

Come Desdemona. I have but an hour
Of love …
To spend with thee. We must obey the time.


Eventually, one recognizes Othello's words, ‘we must obey the time’, as highly ironic because an obedience to time, in this film, translates into an obedience to the one who controls time—Iago. The hero bends down to kiss his bride followed by a dissolve to black. In this sequence of images Welles encapsulates the entire drama: Othello and Desdemona ‘obey’ time as it is orchestrated from without but, ultimately, this obedience leads to an overwhelming blackness, consuming beauty and love.


The question now arises as to how we can begin to use Welles's cinematic treatment of this play as a critical insight into Shakespeare's text. How does time function as a thematic device in the play? Welles's film inspires at least two important questions. Is Iago's success in destroying the hero connected to his ability to master the ebb and flow of time's rhythms? Moreover, what is Othello's sense of time and can we specify it as something that makes him particularly vulnerable to Iago's tactics? Because the major focus of this essay concerns the insights gained through seeing the play in a new medium, I pause here to return to the text to examine the theme of time. For purposes of coherence, I delay a detailed treatment of how time works as a focal point in the film to clarify the function of time in the text.

Iago's words to Roderigo in the second act reveal his skill in manipulating time:

Thou know'st we work by wit, and not by witchcraft;
And wit depends on dilatory time.


A review of Iago's speeches demonstrates that they are filled with the word ‘time’ and that his language is often constructed around temporal imagery. For example, in the very first scene he is angry because time has failed to bring about his expected promotion. He begins by speaking of his frustrations in Othello's service and of his jealousy of Cassio:

                                                            This counter-caster,
He [Cassio], in good time, must his lieutenant be,
And I—God bless the mark!—his Moorship's ancient.


Iago believes that he has proved himself in time but still has lost the promotion. Preferment seems to have nothing to do with loyalty in time:

Preferment goes by letter and affection,
And not by old gradation, where each second
Stood heir to the first.


Like Richard II, Iago believes that he has wasted time; but unlike the king, he will not allow time to waste him. He will not be like

Many a duteous and knee-crooking knave
That, in his own obsequious bondage,
Wears out his time, much like his master's ass …


Iago then calls for the bell to wake Brabantio (an image akin to the mechanical figures who mark time in Welles's film). He begins here to use time actively to achieve his ends.

Iago's perception of time is close to Machiavelli's notion of Fortune in The Prince.10 For Machiavelli, Fortune is like a river that fluctuates between extremes of chaos and peace. But, he says, one can take precautions by building ‘floodgates and embankments’ in quiet times so that the violent times can be controlled. One of Machiavelli's central points in The Prince is his call for an easing of the control of Fortune in human affairs. If one exercises the highest Machiavellian virtue of prudence, one can learn to take control over much of one's destiny.

Iago emerges as a figure who works with time in the manner that Machiavelli prescribes. In the first scene of the play Iago tells us that he had waited for time to give him his promotion but was ultimately frustrated. Now, however, he will conquer time by taking control. Machiavelli's metaphor of the river is akin to Iago's use of images associated with pregnancy, gestation, and birth. For example, in a discussion with Roderigo towards the end of the first act, Iago tells his gull that ‘There are many events in the womb of time which will be delivered’ (1.3.371). In the soliloquy that ends the scene, he concludes,

                              It is engendr'd. Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world's light.


Indeed, Iago fertilizes time so that it will give birth to his desires. At a propitious moment, he will inject his poison into Othello with tales of Cassio and Desdemona: ‘After some time to abuse Othello's ear / That he is too familiar with his wife’ (1.3.396-7). From this point in the play he will work so that, to use his words, ‘Time shall … favourably minister’ his ends.

When next we hear of Iago we discover that he has indeed begun to conquer time. On the shores of Cyprus, the Second Gentleman remarks that Iago has fought his way through the tempest and has landed safely. Cassio remarks on how the ancient has had ‘favourable and happy speed’ (2.1.68). He comments approximately ten lines later that Iago has defied the expected time of his arrival. Desdemona was ‘Left in the conduct of the bold Iago, / Whose footing here anticipates our thoughts / A se'nnight's speed’ (2.1.76-8). It is interesting to note that at this point in the play Shakespeare juxtaposes Iago's victory over time with Othello's corresponding delay.

As I mentioned earlier, Iago's speeches are filled not only with many utterances of the word ‘time’ but with images of temporality as well. Curiously, Iago's victims use this word and corresponding images with increased frequency as the villain gains control. G. Wilson Knight points out that Othello eventually enters Iago's ‘semantic sphere’ and Jan Kott argues, ‘Not only shall Othello crawl at Iago's feet; he shall talk in his language.’11 But it is in their specific concern with issues of time and their use of temporal imagery that Iago's victims interest us here. For example, when Othello discovers Cassio, in Iago's words, in a ‘time of his infirmity’, he dismisses the lieutenant from his post. Interestingly, Cassio confides in Iago that what bothers him most is not that he has disillusioned the general but that his reputation will suffer. He defines that reputation as ‘the immortal part of myself’. In a sense, Cassio perceives that he has lost time by losing his post. Iago ‘comforts’ Cassio by telling him that nothing is final—that, in time, he can gain his lieutenancy back. After all, ‘you or any man may be drunk at a time, man’ (2.3.307). What is most significant here is that Shakespeare expresses Iago's control by showing him to be the master of time. It is when his victims are concerned, somehow, with issues of time that they are most vulnerable to him.

Shakespeare also represents vulnerability through temporal concerns in Desdemona's plea for Cassio. The former lieutenant asks Desdemona, in essence, to redeem time for him. She promises that she will speak with her husband and ‘tame and talk him out of patience’ (3.3.23). When she makes her request to Othello, she insists on knowing the time when he will restore Cassio.

I prithee, call him back.
Went he hence now?
Yes, faith, so humbled
That he hath left part of his grief with me
To suffer with him. Good love, call him back.
Not now, sweet Desdemon; some other time.
But shall it be shortly?
The sooner, sweet, for you.
Shall't be tonight at supper?
No, not tonight.
Tomorrow dinner, then?
I shall not dine at home;
I meet the captains at the citadel.
Why, then, tomorrow night, or Tuesday morn,
On Tuesday noon, or night, on Wednesday morn.
I prithee name the time, but let it not
Exceed three days.


Ironically, Desdemona's insistence on naming the time is a tacit victory for the one who conquers time—Iago. She becomes an unwitting accomplice in the villain's scheme. Shakespeare's clear emphasis on naming time is a comment on the vulnerability of Iago's victims. Moreover, the great ‘temptation scene’ follows this sequence; now that his victims are working on his terms and using his language, Iago finds the appropriate moment to strike.

Iago's mastery over time manifests itself in a more fundamental and obvious way in Shakespeare's Othello. Simply put, he has superb timing and knows exactly when to strike. Like Machiavelli's brightest examples of political success (Moses, Cyrus, Romulus, Theseus), Iago receives nothing from Fortune but the occasion; and when that occasion arises, he makes optimum use of it. Emilia happens to pass by when Desdemona drops the handkerchief. Bianca conveniently arrives when Iago is with Cassio as Othello secretly watches and receives the ‘ocular proof’. Roderigo happens to be in love with Desdemona and is stupid enough to abide by Iago's demands to achieve his desired ends. But, in each instance, Iago is able to exploit to the full the opportunities that his good fortune provides. Whether one is directing the play for the stage or for film, one must create situations that reveal Iago's understanding of how to take the greatest advantage of the circumstances of the moment. One can imagine the myriad ways of staging Iago's famous ‘Ha, I like not that’, which subtly sets off the spark of destruction in Othello's consciousness. But, in whatever way it is performed, a director must present Iago's brilliant sense of timing at that moment. And as we witness Iago's clever machinations, we are watching one of the keenest manipulators of time in the history of drama. He knows when to push and when to hold back. He knows when to further his wretched lie and when to keep silent. He knows how to build his ‘evidence’ and how to bring his victim to the point where he perceives what Iago wants him to perceive. And he does all this by recognizing when the opportune moments occur. Iago knows how to work with time so that time works for him.

Iago's perception of time is thus one that assumes constant change and mutability. It cannot be trusted to bring about one's desires because, like Machiavelli's river, it is fickle and erratic. For Iago, time is the ‘fashionable host’ that Ulysses speaks of in Troilus and Cressida. Indeed, to the villain of Shakespeare's Othello, ‘Beauty, wit, / High birth, vigour of bone, desert in service, / Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all / To envious and calumniating time’ (3.3.171-4). But Iago uses the fickleness of time to his own advantage; his skill lies in his ability to exploit ‘calumniating time’ through dissembling, plotting and Machiavellian prudence.

In contrast to Iago's perception of time as something that fluctuates and that ultimately must be conquered is Shakespeare's presentation of Othello's perception of time. For the hero, time has meaning and significance in its range and continuity. Unlike Iago, Othello perceives the world in terms of the eternal. His speeches resound with repeated use of the words ‘never’ and ‘forever’. He asserts that he received his ‘life and being / From men of royal siege’. He invests a great deal in a handkerchief given him by his mother because it represents history and links him with his past and his heritage. Othello's world is based on loyalty, history, and a sense of being rooted in time. When he vows anything, from his marriage to his vengeance, his words have an everlasting implication. To Iago he swears, ‘I am bound to thee forever.’ In the words of G. Wilson Knight, ‘from the first to the last he loves his own romantic history’.12 His association with the grand spectrum of time in human history also leaves one with the impression of an integrated man whose nature, to borrow A. C. Bradley's phrase, ‘is all of one piece’.13 Iago, who knows his target, refers to Othello as one with a ‘constant, loving and noble nature’.

At a key moment in the play, Othello becomes so overwhelmed with Desdemona that he expresses a desire to immortalize his love for her. As Derek Traversi points out, when the hero arrives in Cyprus and is reunited with Desdemona, ‘his one desire is to hold this moment to make it eternal’.14

                                                  If it were now to die,
'Twere now to be most happy; for I fear
My soul hath her content so absolute
That not another comfort like to this
Succeeds in unknown fate.


But Othello's belief in the possibility of absolute happiness through love also reveals his greatest point of vulnerability. Implicit in his words is a restless awareness that, until death, time has the power to destroy present emotion. Traversi clarifies the paradox:

This precarious moment of happiness will never find its fellow, for the temporal process is … one of dissolution and decay. Only death can come between this temporary communion and its eclipse; but death, of course, implies the annihilation of the personality and the end of love.15

Unlike the realistic and sensible Rosalind, Othello reaches for the ‘ever’ and not the ‘now’ of human love. As is so often the case in Shakespeare's dramas, one's greatest desire is also the point of one's greatest vulnerability. In a way similar to Maria's exploitation of Malvolio, Iago pinpoints the spot where his revenge will ‘find notable cause to work’ (Twelfth Night, 2.3.152). Othello's statement on the manner by which he could attain eternal happiness through love exposes, by implication, his fear of the power of time's mutability; this fear becomes Iago's primary target. The villain exploits the hero's hidden anxiety and shatters his greatest hope.

Iago destroys Othello by altering his perception of the nature of time. At a number of moments in the play, Desdemona is associated with images of the divine. For Othello, she becomes ‘a symbol of man's ideal, the supreme value of love …’16 When Iago shows Desdemona false, Othello's sense of the eternal decays in turn. As Othello succumbs to Iago, he speaks in terms of shattered time, of a broken sense of that which holds his world together. Let us return, for a moment, to that key passage early in the ‘temptation’ scene:

Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul
But I do love thee! And when I love thee not,
Chaos is come again.


Othello's reference to ‘chaos’ obviously foreshadows the disintegration of his being. Chaos is time with neither order nor coherence; and by destroying Othello's sense of the constancy of experience, Iago brings chaos into his life. The concept of marriage, by its very definition, is something based on the notion of eternity. It is a gift of heaven, sanctioned by the eternal. As Othello says: ‘If she be false, O, then heaven mocks itself.’ When his marriage is destroyed, everything in the hero's existence seems lost in the timelessness of chaos. Iago, by contrast, thrives in chaos because he understands how to work within it, how to build the floodgates and embankments, and, therefore, how to use it to his advantage.

The emotion of jealousy is one that necessarily suggests a sense of time shattered. As that ‘green-eyed monster’ ‘mocks the meat it feeds on’, one becomes enraged because one's sense of continuity is broken. Instances of the link between jealousy and chaos are not unique to Othello. A similar relationship is suggested in A Midsummer Night's Dream when, in act 2, Titania attributes the disorder of the natural world to the dissension between the king and queen of fairies; moreover, that dissension, in her view, ultimately stems from ‘jealous Oberon’ and, in a larger sense, from the ‘forgeries of jealousy’. Similarly, Leontes' jealousy leads to a sense of time broken as he loses the rhythm of sleep and rest: ‘Nor night nor day no rest’ (2.3.1). The only antidote to the poison of his jealous rage is sixteen years of penitence and faith; time in The Winter's Tale is restored. Jealousy belongs in Iago's domain because it is part of the capricious time of which he is the master. Othello's time—constant and ordered—is one where jealousy cannot reign. As a result, he is spoken of as ‘one not easily jealous’; ‘his whole nature was indisposed to jealousy’.17 When asked whether Othello is jealous, Desdemona replies:

Who he? I think the sun where he was born
Drew all such humours from him.


It is made clear in the first half of the play that Othello's nature is ‘made of no such baseness / As jealous creatures are’. He confirms that jealousy is part of changing time and that his sense of constancy has always kept him from such dis-ease. As Desdemona associates constancy with the reference to the sun, the hero associates jealousy with the changing moon:

Think'st thou I'd make a life of jealousy,
To follow still the changes of the moon
With fresh suspicions?


When time loses its scope and becomes changeable like the moon, the result, for Othello, is madness and chaos:

It is the very error of the moon;
She comes more nearer earth than she was wont,
And makes men mad.


As ‘Iago time’ takes over the play, men are made mad. Shakespeare's persistent use of temporal imagery suggests that Iago's victory is one in which he uses time to break time. In other words, his ability to manipulate time in order to achieve his ends amounts to a shattering of the constancy at the base of Othello's nobility and Desdemona's virtue. Ironically, as Othello first becomes enraged with jealousy, Iago remarks:

My Lord, I would I might entreat your honour
To scan this thing no further; leave it to time.


Leaving it to time is tantamount to leaving it to Iago. Indeed, Iago's use of the term ‘scan’ signals once again that the villain recognizes situations by their temporal organization and examines them in terms of their rhythm. As the ‘temptation’ scene progresses, he maps out exactly what will ensue as time goes by. Finally, one recognizes Iago's victory as Othello, like Desdemona and Cassio before him, completes the pattern of all Iago's victims by demonstrating a concern with time in his lamentation of lost history and reputation:

                                                            O, now, forever
Farewell the tranquil mind! Farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troop, and the big wars
That makes ambition virtue! O, farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th' ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
And, O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
Th' immortal Jove's dread clamours counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello's occupation's gone.


Although Iago destroys Othello's sense of time, the hero still speaks in terms of the everlasting when he vows his revenge. The villain's success, therefore, can be understood by the way in which he uses Othello's unswerving will to his own advantage. He causes the hero to translate momentary circumstance (of which Iago is the master) into terms of the eternal. Othello becomes a kind of dynamo through which Iago wreaks destruction. Once he shatters the hero's sense of time through the circumstance of the moment, Othello, in turn, translates the instant into a matter for all eternity:

                                                            No! To be once in doubt
Is once to be resolv'd;


Shakespeare has thus remained constant in his presentation of the hero even when the foundation of Othello's life has been destroyed: ‘thwarted in love, his egoism will be consistent in revenge, decisive, irresistible …’18

Othello is clearly a man of action. The logistics of his elopement with Desdemona as well as his success as a soldier speak to this. He recognizes the calling of a moment and does something about it. But his action is always informed by his sense of time. This idealism is the key to the kind of nobility that defines Othello: he is a man of action but always has a sense of the relevance of that action to the greater order of the world. He is the opposite of a character like Hotspur even in his raving jealousies, because he believes that he will redeem time through his violent deed. Having shattered Othello's sense of the eternal, Iago spurs the man of action to wreak the most horrible vengeance on the one who supposedly precipitated the fall—Desdemona. But, in his brutal act, he is always conscious of ‘the cause’ as he tries to restore time. Indeed, Othello does not ‘chop her into messes’ as he vowed earlier in the play. Such an act would only further the victory of chaos. Othello smothers Desdemona.

Othello kills Desdemona in order to save the moral order, to restore love and faith. He kills Desdemona to be able to forgive her, so that the accounts be settled and the world returned to its equilibrium … He desperately wants to save the meaning of life, of his life, perhaps even the meaning of the world.19

In the terms I have discussed in this essay, Othello wants to restore eternity. Facing the horror of his deed, however, he speaks of all time lost—both of the constant sun and the changing moon:

Methinks it should be now a huge eclipse
Of sun and moon, and that th' affrighted globe
Should yawn at alteration.


And in the simultaneous eclipse of sun and moon we have the death of Othello and the end of Iago's terrifying reign. Time ultimately catches up with both men in one huge eclipse.


I have concentrated on Shakespeare's text in some depth because I believe Welles's film, in its concern with temporal matters, inspires a fresh insight into the play. What remains is to return to the film itself in order to discover how the unique resources of the cinematic medium illuminate Shakespeare's development of this theme.

After Othello arrives in Cyprus, the Herald stands on the battlements of the castle to announce the general's order for feast and celebration (2.2), and it is within the context of the revels that Iago begins his work. Meanwhile, Welles takes us to a second bedchamber scene, where he depicts the embrace of the lovers through projected shadows on a wall. While their bodies merge in shadow we hear Othello's ‘If I [sic] were now to die, / 'Twere now to be most happy.’ The moment, as Welles presents it, is fundamentally ambiguous and realizes the paradox suggested above. The words express Othello's belief in the possibility of eternal happiness through his absolute love for Desdemona, but the shadows undercut the hero's sentiments and remind us of the ephemeral nature of their love and of its vulnerability to time. Through the contrasting juxtaposition of things seen and things heard, Welles represents the mutability of a love that the hero wishes to immortalize.

The film juxtaposes the peace and calm of the two lovers with the revels occurring outside. Welles uses the resources of the cinema to present a wild and raucous celebration, the disorder of which becomes a perfect environment for the manipulations of Iago. The montage of the celebrations forces one to feel lost in a maze of drunken revelling. After Iago encourages Cassio to drink, we watch Bianca unwittingly further the villain's plan by tempting the lieutenant to indulge again. We see dancing crowds, musicians, close-ups on the instruments as well as on the bottles and the flying goblets of the drunken crowd. Welles then uses montage to present people turning and dancing as we see face after face moving about in a dizzying sequence of images. The celebrants laugh uproariously. Welles intersplices all this action with the only definable, rooted element—Iago. We see Iago subtly manipulating the quarrel between Roderigo and Cassio. When the fight breaks out, the celebrants seem to get even wilder, and their shouts and laughter serve as the backdrop to the encounter. A menacing feeling pervades all of this, a sense of people out of control—except for Iago, who works efficiently amidst this disorder.

At the culmination of the sequence, we follow the fighting men as Cassio chases Roderigo down into the underground of the castle, where a jungle of revellers is replaced by a jungle of vaults and pillars. In fact, Welles uses images of depths in his film to enforce a sense of a fallen world; he also contrast such images by placing his characters in dangerously high places when they are particularly vulnerable—Iago in his cage, Cassio and Desdemona on top of the battlements after the war with the Turks, Othello and Iago on a huge cliff overlooking the sea at the culmination of the ‘temptation’ scene. By shooting the encounter of Cassio and Roderigo in the underworld of Cyprus, Welles creates a visual hell: a concrete net to ‘enmesh them all’. The screams and laughter of the celebrants now echo off the walls of this underworld, increasing the eerie sense of a world gone mad. Chaos is unleashed on Iago's inspiration. All coherence is gone.

When Othello enters, he dismisses Cassio and apparently restores order. As the gathering breaks up, Cassio laments his dismissal by focusing on his lost reputation. As mentioned earlier, Cassio's main concern is that, with his loss of reputation—‘the immortal part’—he has also lost time. Immediately before Iago urges Cassio to work for his reinstatement through Desdemona we hear the crowing of the cock—a sign that the order of time is, temporarily, restored. In Machiavelli's terms, the river of Fortune will have its wild moments and its corresponding quiet times. When things are settled one must build the floodgates and embankments necessary for the inevitable chaotic times to come. This practice is the key to mastering time and Fortune. Thus, with the signal of the crowing cock calm is restored and Iago begins to build. Significantly, Welles uses the camera to distort Iago's shape with a low-angle shot, causing the villain to loom (as a physically exaggerated form) over Cassio. The ‘huge’ Iago persuades Cassio to appeal to the ‘real’ general of the times (‘Our general's wife is now the general’). The scene concludes with the regular beating of a drum.

Welles's treatment of the ‘temptation’ scene (3.3) reinforces Shakespeare's representation of Iago's ability to manipulate time. Whereas we have just witnessed Iago incite chaos within the celebrations, we now witness the master of time creating chaos within Othello himself. Interestingly, Welles shoots the entire episode with a long travelling shot of the two men walking up the battlements to establish a sense of constant movement. Welles exploits the cinema's unique capacity to perform scenes in motion, and the effect of his presentation is to feel that Iago, the manipulator of time, works best on the move. Moreover, on the sound-track we distinctly hear the regular pattern of the footfalls of the two men as they walk in perfect synchronization. When they reach the top they are, significantly, on the edge of an enormous cliff as Iago leads his victim to a state of precarious balance.

The ‘temptation’ scene continues as the two men go inside the castle and below. Again, Welles takes us into an underworld as Othello becomes more and more enraged at the prospect of Desdemona's infidelity and as his world loses its equilibrium. During the ‘I see you are moved’ section of the dialogue (ll.207.ff), Iago actually helps Othello take off his armour. What must sound like a banal and obvious image when described in words is actually a very powerful moment. Iago disarms Othello, physically and spiritually, and Welles succeeds in accomplishing a strong visual statement to support this subtextual aspect of the scene. Moreover, the shots become more and more tilted as Iago tips the balance of Othello's world.

As Iago continues to work on Othello we see, at approximately line 234 (‘And yet, how nature erring from itself—’), the Moor examining himself in a mirror that seems to distort his image. As Iago shatters Othello's sense of coherency and estranges the Moor from himself, we witness the hero confront a ‘shadow’ of his being. But it is Iago who stands behind the mirror, making the unmistakable statement that the villain is the device through which Othello perceives not only the world but himself as well. The man who was once able to say ‘My parts, my title, and my perfect soul / Shall manifest me rightly’ is now beginning to confront the possibility of ‘erring nature’ and its distorted shadows. Othello's ‘parts’ are no longer integrated and the man whom Bradley saw at the beginning as ‘all of one piece’ is now coming apart.

Shakespeare uses images of fragmentation in his play to create a sense of a world that has lost cohesion. This idea is especially apparent in Othello's repeated references to destroying Desdemona by ripping her apart. Because Iago has destroyed the hero's sense of constancy and eternity, it follows that Othello responds with vows of revenge that are associated with disintegration. Welles echoes these images of fragmentation in his film through montage, a quick-moving camera, and the contrasting rhythms of the soundtrack.

Towards the end of the ‘temptation’ scene, for example, Iago gains ground in his deception by telling Othello that he ‘lay with Cassio’ and that the latter, in his sleep, spoke of his love for Desdemona. Othello believes Iago's tale and becomes enraged. At this juncture, he first speaks of revenge in the short line, ‘I'll tear her all to pieces’ (3.3.436). Here Welles employs a powerful counterpoint to Othello's statement. During much of the ‘temptation’ scene the waves of the sea rhythmically beat on the fortress walls. When Othello speaks his first words of revenge, a sudden boom of the crashing sea punctuates the wrath of his exclamation. To support Shakespeare's imagery of fragmentation, Welles uses the soundtrack to suggest a break of rhythm and order with the fierce explosions of the sea. Similarly, after Othello is deceived by the ‘ocular proof’ that Iago provides in the contrived discussion with Cassio and Bianca, the hero vows ‘I will chop her into messes. Cuckold me?’ (4.1.199). Here Welles uses montage as he cuts to cannon after cannon firing to announce the arrival of Lodovico's ship. As Iago destroys his sense of order, Othello responds with images of disintegration in his vows to revenge, and Welles uses cinematic techniques to emphasize a corresponding transition from order to chaos in the world outside.

Following the exploding cannons that announce the arrival of the Venetian ships, Welles cuts to a shot of Iago and Othello walking rapidly along the battlements, and a sequence representing the hero's trance then follows. As the dialogue of act 4, scene 1 is spoken, Welles uses quick cuts from one speaker to the other to produce a sense of approaching hysteria through the speed of the shots and the rapid gait of the characters. When Iago speaks the words ‘Lie with her? Lie on her?’ Othello runs into the concrete jungle below the castle; we see shadows of jail-like bars projected on his frantic body and hear frenzied electronic music sustained on the soundtrack. Suddenly, we are with Othello on top of a watchtower. Our sense of space is completely disoriented. The following shot then yields a low-angle perspective on the tower as we are now transported to a new location below. On the soundtrack we hear the heavy rhythmic breathing of Othello which, in the context of the film, yields the sense of the hero's desperate attempt to hang on to the rhythm of his life with the very air that sustains him. The next shot shows seagulls wheeling in the sky followed by a close-up of Othello's face as he lies on his back. We then assume his perspective and another low-angle shot of the tower reveals a number of people looking down and laughing at the hero. With the use of a reverse zoom, the faces of these frightening spectators appear tiny and extremely far away. Othello mutters something about the handkerchief during which we also hear the sound of Iago's voice crying ‘My Lord’ as he searches for his master. The next shot is of the tower once again but this time the haunting faces are gone. Iago arrives on the scene, revives the hero, and the sequence ends with Othello's ‘farewell’ speech transposed from act 3, scene 3. In this sequence, Welles converts Shakespeare's stage direction ‘Falls in a trance’ into cinematic values that create a sense of spatial and temporal disorientation. Through this, one identifies with Othello as his world comes apart and as Iago destroys him by sabotaging his sense of order and coherence—all culminating in Othello's farewell to his own history and occupation.

Finally, Welles works with time in one more sense that has its seed in Shakespeare's text but is developed by the film-maker in a way that adds a further dimension to his interpretation. It is the concept of time that is ultimately responsible for restoring order to the world. It is a redeeming force of time beyond human manipulation. It is the kind of time that Viola speaks of in Twelfth Night, time which unties the complicated knot of that comedy. It is ‘the old common arbitrator’ that Hector refers to in Troilus and Cressida. In short, it is a form of time that is ultimately triumphant in Othello.

At the end of Othello Lodovico speaks to Montano of the incipient punishment for Iago:

                                                  To you, Lord Governor,
Remains the censure of this hellish villain,
The time, the place, the torture. O, enforce it!


Welles takes this reference at the end of Shakespeare's text and develops it into a motif apparent throughout the film. It will be recalled that the film begins with the funeral procession of Othello and Desdemona and that Iago is simultaneously dragged by chains through the crowd, thrust into an iron cage, and hoisted to the top of the castle walls where he is left to hang. From the opening of the film, therefore, we are aware of his ultimate punishment. At four key moments during the course of the film Welles shoots the empty hanging cage, reminding the audience of how Iago will eventually be punished in time. Welles lingers with a shot of the cage during the Herald's announcement before the celebration, has Iago exit directly below it at the end of act 2, scene 3 after the line ‘Dull not device by coldness and delay’, pans to reveal it immediately after the villain murders Roderigo, and cuts to a shot of it at the moment Desdemona dies. The moments Welles chooses are significant. The first two occur immediately before Iago takes a major step in his attack: i.e., before the set-up of Cassio and before the ‘temptation’ scene (Welles places the ‘temptation’ scene directly after act 2, scene 3). The last two instances take place immediately after we witness the tragic consequences of his deeds in the deaths of Roderigo and Desdemona. Thus we are reminded of Iago's ultimate punishment both in the preparation and in the culmination of his evil machinations. Of course, there is a neat symmetry to Welles's choices as well: the attempt to destroy Cassio ultimately leads to the death of Roderigo (shots one and three), while the manipulations of the ‘temptation’ scene culminate in the death of Desdemona (shots two and four). But what is most important to stress here is that the director exposes an aspect of time that even Iago cannot control. By opening the film with the visuals of the final moment and by demonstrating Iago's eventual doom with recurring shots of his cage, Welles suggests that even though Iago works in time to destroy time, ‘the old arbitrator time’ eventually triumphs and exposes his treachery.

The cinema has the capacity to inspire a fresh series of questions into the complexities of Shakespearian drama. The film medium gives the play a unique context for performance and, with its aural and visual resources, can serve as a vehicle for the examination of central thematic issues in a new light. Orson Welles's Othello is only one of several cinematic adaptations of Shakespeare's work. Clearly, the approach of this chapter can extend to the films of such directors as Kozintsev, Kurosawa, Polanski, Olivier, Zeffirelli, and Reinhardt. The cinema has emerged not as a ‘better’ way of looking at Shakespeare—it is not a question of competition—but as a means of attaining a fresh look at one of the greatest playwrights of all time. The achievement of the film medium for a study of Shakespeare is considerable, and the insights it can reveal are significant for an ever-expanding field of criticism. As foreign as the cinema was to a man writing four centuries ago, it is a peculiarly fertile medium for an investigation of his plays.


  1. To date, the most valuable and comprehensive study on Shakespeare films is Jack Jorgens's Shakespeare on Film (Bloomington, 1977). Other major studies include Robert Hamilton Ball, Shakespeare on Silent Film (New York, 1968), Roger Manvell, Shakespeare and the Film (New York, 1971), and Charles W. Eckert, ed., Focus on Shakespearean Films (New Jersey, 1972). The questions as to what the cinema can tell us about the plays is not the point of enquiry for any of these works.

  2. ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York, 1969), p. 236.

  3. A survey of articles on Shakespeare films written in the last few years does indicate a growing concern with what the cinematic medium can reflect about Shakespeare's dramaturgical design. See, especially, Samuel Crowl, ‘The Long Goodbye: Welles and Falstaff’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 31 (1980), 369-80, and Barbara Hodgdon, ‘Kozintsev's King Lear: Filming a Tragic Poem’, Literature/Film Quarterly, 5 (1977), 153-8.

  4. Othello, Mercury Productions, released by United Artists, 1952.

  5. Although free of the many production problems caused by the 23-day shooting period of Macbeth, Othello is not without the kind of technical negligence typical of all Welles's Shakespeare films. As with Macbeth, there is a serious dubbing problem in Othello that at moments becomes so severe one has great difficulty understanding the dialogue. The director ran out of funds during production and had to stop shooting at many points in order to raise enough money to complete the film. For an eloquent account of the erratic nature of the making of this film see Micheál MacLiammóir, Put Money in Thy Purse (London, 1952). MacLiammóir played the part of Iago.

  6. Quoted in Peter Noble, The Fabulous Orson Welles (London, 1956), p. 215.

  7. Most of the film was shot in Morocco (except for the first act, which was filmed mainly on location in Venice) in the west-coast town of Mogador, where Welles ably used a castle built by the Portuguese in the sixteenth century.

  8. ‘Orson Welles: of Time and Loss’, Film Quarterly, 21 (1967), p. 21.

  9. David Bevington, ed., The Complete Works of Shakespeare, 3rd ed. (Glenview, Illinois, 1980). All subsequent quotations are from this edition.

  10. Translated by Mark Musa (New York, 1964). See especially Chapter 25.

  11. Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, translated by Boleslaw Taborski (New York, 1966), p. 112.

  12. G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire (London, 1960), p. 107.

  13. A. C. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, 2nd ed. (1905; rpt. London, 1963), p. 155.

  14. Derek Traversi, An Approach to Shakespeare, 2nd ed. (New York, 1956), p. 138.

  15. Traversi, Approach to Shakespeare, p. 138.

  16. Knight, The Wheel of Fire, p. 109.

  17. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy, p. 151.

  18. Traversi, Approach to Shakespeare, p. 146. Emphasis mine.

  19. Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, p. 123.

Bart Westerweel (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7813

SOURCE: Westerweel, Bart. “The Dialogic Imagination: The European Discovery of Time and Shakespeare's Mature Comedies.” In Renaissance Culture in Context: Theory and Practice, edited by Jean R. Brink and William F. Gentrup, pp. 54-74. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Westerweel employs Mikhail Bakhtin's theoretical model of the chronotope (literally “time-space”) to analyze temporal and spatial concepts in Twelfth Night and, to a lesser degree, in As You Like It. Westerweel identifies a variety of time-space relationships in these two comedies that help define mood and genre, but his primary emphasis is on the distinctive chronotopes of each of the characters in these plays.]

The aspect of time in Shakespeare's work has received much critical attention. Book-length studies of several kinds have been devoted to the subject in recent years: to its philosophical ramifications (Turner), to its comparative context (Quinones), to its function in the structure of the plays (Kastan).1 The number of articles and occasional references to the topic is legion. To say that time destroys in the sonnets is as much a critical commonplace as it is to remark that time heals in the late romances.

Most criticism tends to emphasize a development in Shakespeare's attitude towards time that seems to result in some kind of harmony. ‘By the end of Shakespeare's dramatic career he seems to have come to terms with time. The destroyer, devourer and tyrant of the Sonnets has become a more mysterious but less malignant force’ (Turner, p. 173). ‘The romances see time from a vantage point that enables pattern and purpose to emerge from the succession of “nows” that an individual must experience’ (Kastan, p. 29).

In view of these critical tendencies it is small wonder that the function of time in Shakespeare's mature comedies has suffered relative neglect. With regard to these plays the frequently quoted opinion of Helen Gardner seems to have set the pace for most later critics: ‘Tragedy is presided over by time, which urges the hero onwards to fulfil his destiny. In Shakespeare's comedies time goes by fits and starts. It is not so much a movement onwards as a space in which to work things out: a midsummer night, a space too short for us to feel time's movement, or the unmeasured time of As You Like It or Twelfth Night’.2 Most critics writing since Gardner voiced these ideas have approached the function of time in these plays in terms of wholesale solutions to a general problem. Thus Halio sees the forest of Arden as representative of timelessness, whereas for Wilson it represents subjectiveness versus the objective time of the court. Lyons analyses Feste's song ‘O mistress mine’ in Twelfth Night, emphasizing the tension between human love and mortality.3

In this article I intend to approach the ways in which time functions in two of Shakespeare's mature comedies, As You Like It and Twelfth Night, not so much in terms of Shakespeare's development as a playwright, nor to achieve any single interpretation, but as a variegated phenomenon that functions at many levels, revealing attitudes that are characteristic both of Shakespeare's dramatic presentation and of Renaissance ideas.

My analysis takes its starting-point from an aspect of Helen Gardner's words, the consequences of which have been insufficiently taken into account in subsequent studies. Gardner equates the way time operates in the comedies with ‘a space in which to work things out’ as illustrated by the measured ‘space’ of A Midsummer Night's Dream and the ‘unmeasured time’ of As You Like It and Twelfth Night. I have two comments in response to Gardner's analysis: first, there is a subtle shift, halfway through the quoted passage, away from time as a historical category within which characters can be said to move and to which they are answerable in their socio-political behaviour. In this type of metaphor time can indeed be said to ‘preside’, and it is not surprising to find that it functions like this in the tragedies rather than in the comedies, if only because it is one of the distinctive features of the genre. However, when Gardner describes time in the comedies as a ‘space in which to work things out’, this refers not to time ‘presiding’ over characters but to time as it ‘resides’ in the mental landscape of individual characters rather than in the framework of a social group or nation. When time is approached in this way the generic distinction between comedy and tragedy is no longer helpful, because this kind of time, a psychological category, operates in both, notwithstanding differences of degree.4

My second comment has to do with the equation itself. Time is space, says Helen Gardner, and this is, of course, one of the ways in which we shape our awareness of the passing of time. But the equation is a metaphor for an ontological problem, as Spengler made clear: ‘Space “is”, but “Time” on the contrary is a discovery, which is only made by thinking’.5 The concepts of ‘space’ and ‘time’ are an inseparable pair, the relation between which has not only intrigued philosophers but inspired poets as well:

Had we but World enough, and Time,
This coyness Lady were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long Loves Day.

In this famous carpe diem poem, ‘To His Coy Mistress’, Marvell tries to persuade his beloved to go to bed with him. Her reluctance would not bother the speaker in the poem if he had infinity and eternity at his disposal. But he hasn't:

          But at my back I alwaies hear
Times winged Charriot hurrying near:
And yonder all before us lye
Desarts of vast Eternity.(6)

The abstraction of the passing of time is expressed in forceful spatial metaphors: ‘which way / To walk, and pass our long Loves Day’ and ‘Desarts of vast Eternity’. In our own century T. S. Eliot explored the contradictory and paradoxical nature of human time in all its complexity in Four Quartets. These are, for instance, the first lines of ‘Burnt Norton’:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

And in the description, or evocation rather, of the essence of Little Gidding, time and space merge in one image: ‘Here, the intersection of the timeless moment / Is England and nowhere. Never and always’.7 Without resorting to our experience of time, without ‘placing’ it within a series of events, its definition would seem to remain beyond our grasp. As Augustine muses,

What, then, is time? I know well enough what it is, provided that nobody asks me; but if I am asked what it is and try to explain, I am baffled. All the same I can confidently say that I know that if nothing passed, there would be no past time; if nothing were going to happen, there would be no future time; and if nothing were, there would be no present time.

(Confessions, 11.14)8

He touches here on an important philosophical problem: is it meaningful to say, as we commonly do, that time passes or would it be more correct to say that we move in time? Wittgenstein thought it nonsense to talk about time passing, since the only reality that we experience is the passing of events.

But we are here dealing not with philosophy in a pure form, but with artistic expression of ideas in language. In poetry, if I am allowed a generalization, time and space usually merge in forceful images such as Marvell's or Eliot's, or, for that matter, such as we find in abundance in Shakespeare's sonnets, where one finds either love or art at the ‘intersection of the timeless moment’. But the genre in which the spatial element of time is explored to its fullest extent is the novel. One need only recall the works of some of the great experimenters with the novel form, Rabelais, Cervantes, Sterne, Proust, Woolf, Joyce, and, more recently, of novelists as different as Mann, Kundera and Powell, to realize the extent to which the overlapping domains of time and space have dominated the history of Western literature.9

The most profound analysis of the time-space element in literature that I have come across is a lengthy essay by Mikhail Bakhtin, originally written while he was in exile in Kazakhstan in the 1930s and published in English in 1981, with a new conclusion written in 1973. The essay is called Forms of Time and of the Chronotope in the Novel: Notes toward a Historical Poetics.10 In the essay Bakhtin coins the word chronotope, which he borrows from mathematics and physics, and defines its meaning for literary discourse as follows: ‘We will give the name chronotope (literally, “time space”) to the intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships that are artistically expressed in literature’ (p. 84). In the glossary added to the English translation of Bakhtin's essays the editors underline the special value of the term for literary analysis: ‘The distinctiveness of this concept as opposed to most other uses of time and space in literary analysis lies in the fact that neither category is privileged; they are utterly interdependent. The chronotope is an optic for reading texts as x-rays of the forces at work in the culture system from which they spring’ (p. 426).

The core of Bakhtin's essay is an impressive analysis of Rabelais' major work, but the structure is historical, starting with the ‘adventure-time’ (p. 87) of the Greek romance, the main characteristic of which is that ‘all of the action … all the events and adventures that fill it, constitute time-sequences that are neither historical, quotidian, biographical, nor even biological and maturational’ (p. 91). This adventure-time is dominated by chance entirely. Its space is abstract. The adventure chronotope is characterized by ‘a technical, abstract connection between space and time, by the reversibility of moments in a temporal sequence, and by their interchangeability in space’ (p. 99). All other types of novels discussed subsequently in Bakhtin's essay are characterized by varying admixtures of adventure-time with other types of time (everyday time, biographical time, historical time, etc.) and corresponding spatial categories, culminating in the analysis of the Rabelaisian chronotope, which is characterized by a ‘passion for spatial and temporal distances and expanses’ (p. 168), a feature Rabelais' writing shares with Shakespeare's and Cervantes'. Bakhtin also uses the word chronotope to characterize individual motifs within the plots of novels, motifs such as ‘meeting/parting, loss/acquisition, search/discovery, recognition’ (p. 97) and more localized motifs like ‘the chronotope of the road’ (p. 98) or ‘the chronotope of the threshold’ (p. 248). Essential is the matrix-like character of the interrelation in which a particular value of time intersects with a particular spatial value. As Bakhtin indicates, the theory of the chronotope also provides an excellent tool for the analysis of character, since it allows us to recognize that at a certain point of development the individual life sequence gains predominance as the ancient matrices in which impersonal time and indeterminate space played a major role recede to the background.

Although Bakhtin focuses on the novel, other genres are not excluded from analysis along the lines outlined in his essay, and he refers to them in passing. There are three elements in Bakhtin's argument that are particularly relevant for our concerns in the present investigation: a) the idyllic chronotope (pp. 224-42) and, more particularly, the love idyll, whose basic form is the pastoral; b) the dialogic character of the chronotope; and c) the role of laughter.

Before we return to Shakespeare's plays and see how the analysis of the time aspect is furthered by making use of Bakhtin's model, a general point should be made. The three main advantages of a Bakhtinian approach over the above-mentioned studies of time in Shakespeare are its comprehensiveness, hermeneutic openness and historical dimension. The model is comprehensive in the sense that it invites the integration of structural elements of setting, plot and character with linguistic elements of rhythm, sound and metaphor into the discussion of the time element. It is hermeneutically open in that it does not favour one interpretation above another, does not prefer the chronotope of one character above that of another and does not subsume the various chronotopes under the heading of one dominant chronotope. The model is non-patriarchal and does full justice to the essentially heteroglot nature of language. The historical dimension, finally, appears in the primacy given to context rather than text.

But let us return now to the comedies themselves. When we consider the spatial aspect of both plays in terms of location, the action of As You Like It takes place mainly in the idyllic chronotope of Arden, with the town chronotope as a backdrop, whereas Twelfth Night is situated in town, with the name of the country, Illyria, as a background with pastoral connotations (it occurs as a pastoral place name, for instance, in Ovid and Virgil).11 On the surface these connotations do not, perhaps, seem to play a major role in the latter play but, as we shall see shortly, it is a more significant chronotope than has been recognized.

If one's approach is generic, the differences between the plays are also more prominent than the resemblances. There is nothing in As You Like It to parallel the names of characters like Sir Toby Belch, Sir Andrew Aguecheek or Malvolio that figure in the subplot of Twelfth Night. These remind one of the type of comedy that tended to supersede the romantic comedy in popularity towards the end of the century: the satiric comedy of humours, propagated by Ben Jonson, Shakespeare's coeval and rival playwright. In the comedy of humours human vice is satirically exposed and the audience is invited to share the laughter on stage at the final public downfall of the humour characters. In the romantic comedy, on the other hand, the pleasure of the audience focuses on the disguises, mistaken identities and misguided demonstrations of love that invariably end in the satisfaction of harmony restored by a number of marriages.

It is a commonplace to argue that the satiric elements in Twelfth Night were incorporated as an attempt on Shakespeare's part to emulate a rival and highly popular kind of comedy. Shakespeare must have been one of the first to notice the growing popularity of the satiric comedy, since his own company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, had performed the first of Jonson's comedies of humours, Every Man in His Humour, in 1598, and with great success. As You Like It is, then, the last comedy of the purely romantic kind that Shakespeare wrote, while Twelfth Night is a mix of satiric and romantic comedy, an experiment he did not repeat.

If one does not concentrate on the differences generated by either location of genre—and of course the two are interconnected—but on the idyllic chronotope itself, the outcome is quite different. Twelfth Night, too, contains a number of significant references to the ideal of the pastoral world, the first in Act Two. Viola has put on her Cesario disguise and is firmly installed in Orsino's court. The latter begins the scene in the way we are used to from him:

Give me some music. Now good morrow, friends.
Now, good Cesario, but that piece of song,
That old and antic song we heard last night;
Methought it did relieve my passion much, …


Feste the clown, who had sung the song the night before, is fetched and the Duke commands him to sing it once more:

O, fellow, come, the song we had last night.
Mark it, Cesario, it is old and plain;
The spinsters and the knitters in the sun,
And the free maids that weave their thread with bones
Do use to chant it: it is silly sooth,
And dallies with the innocence of love,
Like the old age.


It is clear that the love chronotope of the Duke is a chronotope of the past, the ‘golden age’ when the world was simple and innocent. Even though the Duke and the Clown have the same habitat, their chronotopes vary widely. Feste's chronotope is firmly anchored in the present, while the Duke's is folkloric in origin, defined by a unity of place in which temporal boundaries are blurred. It is a static chronotope of the past as viewed from the present.13 Since the Duke's love chronotope is of the past, the future (with Olivia) he daydreams about is drawn into that chronotope and will never come true, because its matrix does not match that of an individual, biographical life lived in the here and now.14

The clash between the two chronotopes—Orsino's and Feste's—becomes manifest when Feste's song, quite contrary to expectations, turns out to be an extremely melancholic mourning song in which the unhappy lover laments his unreciprocated love and wishes to die and be buried:

Come away, come away death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid.
Fie away, fie away breath,
I am slain by a fair cruel maid:
          My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
                    O prepare it.
.....Not a flower, not a flower sweet,
On my black coffin let there be strewn:
Not a friend, not a friend greet
My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown. …

(2.4.51-6; 59-62)

Judged by the standard of Feste's chronotope, the Duke's yearning for the pastoral world is tantamount to escapism. This kind of juxtaposition between incompatible chronotopes is not uncommon in Shakespeare's work. In 3 Henry VI, for instance, the king soliloquizes about the idyllic life of the shephered on top of a hill in Yorkshire, while the battle of civil war is raging around him:

O God! methinks it were a happy life
To be no better than a homely swain;
To sit upon a hill, as I do now,
To carve out dials quaintly, point by point,
Thereby to see the minutes how they run,
How many make the hour full complete;
How many hours bring about the day;
How many days will finish up the year;
How many years a mortal man may live.
When this is known, then to divide the times:
So many hours must I tend my flock;
So many hours must I take my rest;
So many hours must I contemplate;
So many hours must I sport myself;
So many days my ewes have been with young;
So many weeks ere the poor fools will ean;
So many years ere I shall shear the fleece:
So minutes hours days months and years,
Pass'd over to the end they were created,
Would bring white hairs unto a quiet grave.
Ah, what a life were this, how sweet, how lovely!


In the idyllic chronotope time and space intersect in the matrix of the shepherd's life. Its natural rhythm is measured by the most natural of time-measuring devices, the sundial. The life envisaged by Henry stands in strong relief against the unnatural event of the rebellion.

As in the pastoral vision of Henry VI, in Twelfth Night, too, time and space merge in the idealized image of the golden age, which is far removed from the requirements of Orsino's daily life. Towards the end of the play the Duke's speech about marriage indicates that his chronotope seems to have undergone a change:

When that is known, and golden time convents,
A solemn combination shall be made
Of our dear souls. Meantime, sweet sister,
We will not part from hence. Cesario, come;
For so you shall be while you are a man;
But when in other habits you are seen,
Orsino's mistress, and his fancy's queen.


Having said this, Orsino leaves the stage along with everyone else, except for Feste, who ends the play with yet another song, about life, time, the weather and the world. ‘Golden time’ is a phrase full of symbolic significance. Its most direct referent is the occasion of the announced weddings, which is the crowning event of any romantic comedy. In this case the word ‘convents’ means ‘is convenient, suits’. In an allegorical interpretation ‘golden time’ can be seen as a crowned victor over the entanglements of the plot. ‘Convents’ would then mean ‘causes to come’ or ‘summons’ (NED, s.v. ‘convent’, 3 and 5). Finally, the phrase can be seen as a confirmation of the ‘golden age’ chronotope, suggesting the restoration of innocence and harmony in the marriage ceremony. The Duke's chronotope has changed, from an idyllic chronotope of the past to a biographical chronotope of the present. Fancy and reality merge in the last of the quoted lines: ‘Orsino's mistress’ (biographical time) and ‘his fancy's queen’ (idyllic time) have now become part of the same matrix.

In the chronotope of Twelfth Night music occupies a special place. Music is rhythm, measure, time, and each of the characters in the play reacts differently to it according to his or her own chronotope. The different significance music has for the Duke and for Feste the Clown is a case in point. The Duke is not essentially different from the modern devotee of digital delights, to whose taste the compact disc player caters by providing multiple possibilities to avoid listening to the music in the sequence intended by the composer as laid down in the musical score. What Orsino lacks in consistency and staying power in listening to music is amply made up for in the power of the language in which his melancholic ennui is expressed:

If music be the food of love, play on,
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again, it had a dying fall:
O, it came o'er my ear like the sweet sound
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour. Enough, no more;
'Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou,
That notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe'er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute! So full of shapes is fancy,
That it alone is high fantastical.


Overstimulation of the senses without any substantial emotion to support it will leave one in a state comparable to that of the sensual lover in the ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’, with a ‘heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd, / A burning forehead and a parching tongue’. However, Shakespeare's message in Twelfth Night is not that ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter’, as the speaker in Keats's poem claims. In the play the imagination is not so much presented as an alternative for material reality but as a faculty that builds on that reality. This perspective is embedded, for instance, in the music of Feste, the wise fool, who, unlike the Duke, prefers singing to easy listening:

What is love? 'Tis not hereafter,
Present mirth hath present laughter.
          What's to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty:
          Youth's a stuff will not endure.


Feste speaks of the actuality of love in the present, the Duke of a future state in images that derive solely from heated ‘fancy’. ‘Fancy’ may provide many beautiful images, but it is not a faculty that mediates effectively between reality and dream. Whereas Orsino listens to music while waiting for the fulfilment of love, Feste uses the measure of music to indicate that the proper time for love is the here and now. Music also plays a distinctive role in the subplot. Malvolio complains about the noisy, nightly revels of Sir Toby and his cronies: ‘Is there no respect of place, persons, nor time in you?’ Sir Toby responds aptly: ‘We did keep time, sir, in our catches’ (2.3.92-4). Obviously the measure of the drinking songs is incompatible with the life rhythm of the Puritan steward. Malvolio is called a ‘time-pleaser’ (2.3.147) by the revellers, an opportunist with an eye on the main chance.

Apparently, there is a clearly marked difference between chronotopes of the night and of the day. A similar distinction is made between Prince Henry and Falstaff in 1 Henry IV. When Falstaff asks Henry, ‘Now, Hal, what time of day is it, lad?’ (1.2.1), the Prince responds:

… What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day? Unless hours were cups of sack, and minutes capons, and clocks the tongues of bawds, and dials the signs of leaping-houses, and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in flame-coloured taffeta, I see no reason why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time of the day.

Falstaff readily admits that Hal is right:

Indeed, you come near me now, Hal, for we that take purses go by the moon and the seven stars, and not ‘by Phoebus, he, that wand'ring knight so fair’. …


In the language of the play Falstaff is the night's knight, while Hal is the sun-prince.16 The chronotope of the moon is used for nightly rendezvous, for revelling and robbery, the chronotope of the sun for weddings, ceremonies and majesty.

There is a third chronotope in Twelfth Night, the chronotope of the clock. Clock-time belongs to Malvolio, for instance, whose imagination runs wild at the thought of being the master of the house: ‘… I frown the while, and perchance wind up my watch, or play with my [Touching his chain]—some rich jewel’ … (2.5.59-61). For a Puritan like Malvolio the acme of hedonism is to use his watch—the outward sign par excellence of devotion to duty—for a toy, an embellishment instead of the measure of his existence. The chronotope of the clock does not fit in with the moon-time of the revellers nor with the sun-time of those that are about to get married. The clock as an emblem of moderation appears again later in the play in Olivia's bitterly ironic reaction to Viola/Cesario's rejection of her overtures:

                                                                                                    Clock strikes.
The clocks upbraids me with the waste of time.
Be not afraid, good youth, I will not have you,
And yet when wit and youth is come to harvest,
Your wife is like to reap a proper man,
There lies your way, due west.
Then westward ho!


Clock-time and love-play are an ill-matched couple. The striking of the clock awakens Olivia's consciousness to the painful fact that she is about to break the solemn oath she had sworn to mourn her dead brother for seven years. Actually Olivia's chronotope resembles Orsino's. Both chronotopes are of the past; Orsino's is an idyllic chronotope, Olivia's a chronotope of death. Both characters are confronted with the limited efficacy of their chronotopes in the face of life lived in the present, which requires a love chronotope of meeting or of the threshold (compare Bakhtin, pp. 248f).

The clock became one of the attributes of the personified cardinal virtue of Temperantia from the early Renaissance onwards, based on the new type of mechanical clock developed after the verge escapement had been invented in the fourteenth century. The escapement (Hemmung in German) of the mechanism ensures the regulation of the force exerted on the gear wheel by the weights or pendulum by the retarding action of a pair of metal leaves that alternately catch in successive notches of the wheel. Long before the clock became an attribute of Temperantia, the infringement of time on the natural rhythm of life had become a literary topos, as is exemplified by the following excerpt from a poem by the Roman poet Plautus (d. 184 b.c.):

The gods confound the man who first found out
How to distinguish hours! Confound him, too,
Who in this place set up a sun-dial,
To cut and hack my days so wretchedly
Into small portions. When I was a boy,
My belly was my sun-dial; one more sure,
Truer, and more exact than any of them.
This dial told me when 'twas proper time
To go to dinner, when I had aught to eat.
But now-a-days, why even when I have,
I can't fall-to, unless the sun give leave.
The greater part of its inhabitants,
Shrunk up with hunger, creep along the streets!(17)

Finally, there is the notion of providential time in Twelfth Night, as expressed by Viola and already commented on earlier. While the Clown's chronotope incorporates the intuitive feeling for the value of time as (present) experience, Viola's chronotope encompasses the idea of time as a personified abstraction in control of the fate of man: ‘What else may hap, to time I will commit …’ (1.2.60), and: ‘O time, thou must untangle this, not I’ (2.2.39). For Viola time is not a series of disconnected moments as it is for Touchstone nor is it a focal point for unfulfilled desires as it is for Orsino. Her words evince an awareness that time is an entity with its own laws, the effects of which require stoic acceptance since they are beyond human control.

It would be a gross simplification to suggest that Viola's chronotope is providential only. Her time-space also contains love time and practical time. The particular quality of her personality manifests itself in the wide range of time perspectives combined with a wider spatial reach than that of any other character in the play. In her the chronotopes of travelling and of the threshold—passing from one world of events to another—are epitomized. Viola is a traveller in the play in two senses. She (and her brother) have arrived in Illyria from a distant country. In this sense she is a traveller of the world. This in itself is in marked contrast with the feeling of confinement and immobility that is characteristic of virtually all other characters. Neither Orsino nor Olivia budge from their self-inflicted exile from the world. Similarly, in the subplot Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Maria and Malvolio stay put in the one place where they hope to thrive. The only escape from this confinement is provided by Feste's music—the only art form that is purely spatial, since it does not take up any room—but the movement in the real time of the characters is entirely Viola's doing. By commuting between the houses of Orsino and Olivia and by breaking through the self-created barriers of their worlds, Viola becomes the representative in the play of the chronotopes of the threshold and of meeting.

Although the aspect of time in As You Like It has elicited far more critical commentary than time in Twelfth Night, an analysis of time-space, based on the intrinsic connectedness between the two as outlined in Bakhtin's theory of the chronotope, has not been attempted for the play as far as I know. I shall restrict myself to a few observations, mainly of a comparative nature. As was suggested before, there is much more to connect than to keep apart As You Like It and Twelfth Night, if one does not concentrate on generic aspects of the plays. This is particularly true of the chronotopes of the two plays. Twelfth Night is a satiric town comedy with romantic overtones, As You Like It a pastoral with ironic effects. In As You Like It the idyllic chronotope is prominent and the chronotopes of the individual characters are measured against the pastoral ideal. The latter is introduced in the words of Charles the wrestler. When asked the whereabouts of Senior, the banished Duke, he says:

They say he is already in the Forest of Arden, and a many merry men with him; and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England. They say many young gentlemen flock to him every day, and fleet the time carelessly as they did in the golden world.


Duke Senior expresses the conventional view of the pastoral as it is seen from the perspective of the court:

Now my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?


Orlando, arrived more freshly from the court than Duke Senior, regards nature with a more hostile eye. He calls it ‘an uncouth forest’ and expresses his surprise that the Duke and his retinue of civilized people ‘… in this desert inaccessible, / Under the shade of melancholy boughs, / Lose and neglect the creeping hours of time’ (2.7.110-12).

In As You Like It the cyclic aspect of natural time, which in Twelfth Night is explored in song only, finds an outlet not only in the chronotope of music but also in the rhythm of life in the forest and in the comments of the shepherds:

Under the greenwood tree,
          Who loves to lie with me,
And turn his merry note
          Unto the sweet bird's throat,
Come hither, come hither, come hither,
          Here shall he see
          No enemy,
But winter and rough weather.


In the final act two pages sing a song announcing the forthcoming marriages with appropriate references to love and the seasons and full of images of expectation and fertility:

It was a lover and his lass,
          With a hey and a ho and a hey nonino,
That o'er the green corn-field did pass,
          In spring-time, the only pretty ring-time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding,
Sweet lovers love the spring.
.....And therefore take the present time,
          With a hey and a ho and a hey nonino,
For love is crowned with the prime,
          In spring-time. …

(5.3.14-19, 32-5)

As in Twelfth Night, music provides the proper rhythm and measure for some characters, not for all: ‘… We kept time, we lost not our time’, says one of the pages. In Touchstone's chronotope singing has more negative connotations: ‘I count it but time lost to hear such a foolish song’ (5.3.41-2, 43-4). Touchstone's reaction is not surprising in view of his efforts, earlier in the play, to determine the correct hour with his sundial. Clock-time and natural time are juxtaposed time and again in the play, the most famous example being the dialogue between Rosalind and Orlando:

I pray you, what is't o'clock?
You should ask me what time o'day; there's no clock in the forest.


This is followed by Rosalind's speech about the relativity of time in the experience of life. Her catechism begins thus:

Then there is no true lover in the forest, else sighing every minute and groaning every hour would detect the lazy foot of Time, as well as a clock.
And why not the swift foot of Time? Had not that been as proper?
By no means sir. Time travels in divers paces with divers persons. I'll tell you who Time ambles withal, who Time trots withal, and who he stands still withal.


For some people time crawls, for others it flies, depending on their particular situation and the emotional state connected to that situation. Rosalind's philosophy of time is the counterpart of the famous monologue of Jaques about the Seven Ages of Man, earlier in the play:

                                                            All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.
Then, the whining school-boy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress' eyebrow. …

In this chronotope human life ends like this:

                                                            Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

(2.7.139-49; 163-6)

Time and space combine in a series of pictures presented both with cynicism and humour. When one views time, as Jaques does, as a succession of random events that are not related to each other in a meaningful way, there is not much sense in human aspirations either. Jaques' speech makes it easier to understand why Touchstone, who represents laughter in the play, speaks with such quasi-solemnity about his dial in his first encounter with Jaques in the forest.

‘Good morrow, fool’, quoth I. ‘No, sir’, quoth he,
‘Call me not fool, till heaven hath sent me fortune’.
And then he drew a dial from his poke,
And looking on it, with lack-lustre eye,
Says, very wisely, ‘It is ten o'clock.
Thus we may see’, quoth he, ‘how the world wags:
'Tis but an hour ago since it was nine,
And after one hour more 'twill be eleven;
And so from hour to hour, we ripe, and ripe,
And then from hour to hour, we rot, and rot,
And thereby hangs a tale. …’


Touchstone's speech forms a satirical version of Jaques' cynical philosophy and the obsession with the moment-by-moment annihilation of time expressed in it.

The basic difference between the two chronotopes is that in the one represented in Jaques' speech time is a succession of static scenes. Although each scene is vividly portrayed, the scenes are contingent, not causally connected; ‘the world’ is anywhere and time is viewed from the outside. Rosalind's chronotope, on the other hand, is dynamic: time ‘travels’ and the view of time is from within, from the inner experience of man.

In the space dimension of As You Like It the chronotope of the road plays an important role. Unlike Twelfth Night it does so in the movement from the court to the forest and back, but, similarly to Twelfth Night, it plays at least as important a part in the language of the characters, thus pointing the way to the chronotopes of their individual lives. ‘Travelling’ from one place to another, from city to country or from seashore to town house, is a distinctly different experience for Rosalind or Viola than it is for Jaques or the Duke Orsino. The two female protagonists adjust to their new situations with practicality and action, while Orsino does not move at all and for Jaques physical movement, instead of adding meaning to his life experience, just contributes to his scepticism and melancholy which he defines as

a melancholy of mine owne, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundrie contemplation of my travels, in which my often rumination wraps me in a most humorous sadness.


In Rosalind's chronotope space has a different connotation:

A traveller! By my faith, you have great reason to be sad. I fear you have sold your own lands to see other men's. Then to have seen much and to have nothing is to have rich eyes and poor hands.


The debate continues:

Yes, I have gained my experience.
And your experience makes you sad. I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad, and to travel for it too!


As Smith points out, the ‘travels to which Jaques refers the origin of his scepticism are equally likely to have been its consequence, for travel and exploration degenerate into habit. When the senses are dazzled by a ceaseless and rapid change of objects, the intellect has no time to discriminate between them, the will no occasion for choice, so that in the end a man becomes capable of neither’.20

Travelling in As You Like It has a moral dimension as well. The old servant Adam follows Orlando to the forest and almost dies as a consequence of his selfless loyalty. Orlando expresses his gratitude in conventional images of the Golden Age:

O good old man, how well in thee appears
The constant service of the antique world,
When service sweat for duty, not for meed.
Thou art not for the fashion of these times,
Where none will sweat but for promotion,
And having that, do choke their service up
Even with the having; it is not so with thee.


When Rosalind is banished from the court and Celia accompanies her cousin and friend, they decide to take Touchstone along with them:

But cousin, what if we assay'd to steal
The clownish fool out of your father's court?
Would he not be a comfort to our travel?
He'll go along o'er the wide world with me. …


Loyalty is here expressed in spatial terms.

A final word about Touchstone. Like Feste, his fellow fool in Twelfth Night, Touchstone represents the chronotope of laughter, but with a notable difference. Touchstone's chronotope is dominated by language, whereas that of Feste is dominated by music. Feste adds to the chronotopes of the play and extends its discourse by the specific time-space of music, while Touchstone subverts the language of other characters, thus providing a satiric counterpoint to the dominant discourse.

In the title of my essay I use the phrase ‘dialogic imagination’. In Bakhtin's essay ‘dialogic’ has a specialized meaning. The editors and translators of his work define Bakhtin's use of the word in this way: ‘A word, discourse, language or culture undergoes “dialogization” when it becomes relativized, de-privileged, aware of competing definitions for the same things. Undialogized language is authoritative or absolute’ (p. 427). The juxtapositions, contrasts and counterpoints in the discourse of As You Like It and Twelfth Night analysed in the light of Bakhtin's theory of the chronotope fully meet this definition of the dialogic. Virtually every inhabitant or visitor in Illyria and the Forest of Arden lives in a different world of time, which makes the fact that these mutually exclusive worlds somehow end in the harmonious state of marriage even more marvellous than it is.

The dialogic and heteroglot nature of Shakespearean discourse is one of its distinctive features. It is also one of the most frustrating aspects for the hermeneutic critic in search of interpretive closure. So much the better, for it forces him back to where he began, to the language itself.21


  1. Frederick Turner, Shakespeare and the Nature of Time (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971); Ricardo J. Quinones, The Renaissance Discovery of Time (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1972); David Scott Kastan, Shakespeare and the Shapes of Time (London: Macmillan, 1982).

  2. Helen Gardner, ‘As You Like It’, in More Talking of Shakespeare, ed. John Garrett (London: Longmans, 1959), pp. 17-32.

  3. Jay L. Halio, ‘“No Clock in the Forest”: Time in As You Like It’, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 2 (1962): 197-207; Rawdon Wilson, ‘The Way to Arden: Attitudes Toward Time in As You Like It’, Shakespeare Quarterly 26 (1975): 16-24; Lyons, ‘Twelfth Night: The Illusion of Love's Triumph’, pp. 44-68.

  4. Compare James Smith: ‘… the essential difference between comedy and tragedy may perhaps be this sort of difference: not one of kind, I mean, but of degree. … In comedy the materials for tragedy are procured, in some cases heaped up; but they are not, so to speak, attended to, certainly not closely examined’; see ‘As You Like It’, Scrutiny 9:1 (1940): 9-32. This quotation is from p. 17.

  5. The Decline of the West, trans. C. F. Atkinson (New York: Knopf, 1926), p. 122. Compare also the historically oriented account of time in Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986).

  6. In The Metaphysical Poets, ed. Helen Gardner, rev. edn (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966), pp. 250-2.

  7. Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber & Faber, 1963), p. 189 (‘Burnt Norton’) and p. 215 (‘Little Gidding’).

  8. Trans. and ed. R. S. Pine-Coffin (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1961), p. 264.

  9. The title of Anthony Powell's cycle of novels, Dance to the Music of Time, is an especially expressive image of the close relation between time and space.

  10. The essay is part of The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981).

  11. The note in the Arden edition of Twelfth Night to the name Illyria (1.2.2) refers to Golding's translation of the Metamorphoses, 4.701. See Twelfth Night, ed. J. M. Lothian and T. W. Craik (London: Methuen, 1975), p. 8. Another relevant reference to the name Illyria in a pastoral context is to be found in Virgil's Eclogues, when the poet addresses the shepherds' Muse:

    Tu mihi, seu magni superas iam saxa Timavi,
    sive oram Illyrici legis aequoris, …


    (But where are you for whom I sing? Skirting, by now, the mighty barrier of Timavus' rocks? Coasting the shores of the Illyrian Sea? …)

    Virgil: The Pastoral Poems, trans. E. V. Rieu (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1949), pp. 70-1.

  12. All references to Twelfth Night and other plays by Shakespeare are to the Arden editions (London: Methuen), unless specified otherwise.

  13. Compare Bakhtin: ‘The unity of the life of generations (in general, the life of men) in an idyll is in most instances primarily defined by the unity of place, by the age-old rooting of the life of generations to a single place, from which this life, in all its events, is inseparable. This unity of place in the life of generations weakens and renders less distinct all the temporal boundaries between individual lives and between various phases of one and the same life’ (p. 225).

  14. Olivia's chronotope, like that of the Duke, is of the past; it is a chronotope of mourning that prevents her from loving in the present.

  15. Compare Charles R. Lyons, ‘Twelfth Night: The Illusion of Love's Triumph and the Accommodation of Time’, in Shakespeare and the Ambiguity of Love's Triumph (The Hague: Mouton, 1971), pp. 44-68.

  16. Compare Hal's famous soliloquy:

    I know you all, and will awhile uphold
    The unyok'd humour of your idleness.
    Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
    Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
    To smother up his beauty from the world,
    That, when he please again to be himself,
    Being wanted he may be more wonder'd at
    By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
    Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
    .....I'll so offend, to make offence a skill,
    Redeeming time when men think least I will.

    (1.2.190-8; 211-2)

  17. Quoted in Boorstin, p. 28.

  18. Time and impermanence are clearly part of the pastoral world of Arden. For this variant of the pastoral convention see Erwin Panofsky's seminal essay, ‘Et in Arcadia Ego: Poussin and the Elegiac Tradition’, in Meaning in the Visual Arts (1955; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), pp. 340-67.

  19. Touchstone's speech about the passing of time is reminiscent of Macbeth's reaction to the report of his wife's death: ‘To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, / Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, / To the last syllable of recorded time; / And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death’ (5.5.19-23). Macbeth at this stage is ‘caught in a continuous and meaningless present’; see Westerweel, ‘Macbeth, Time and Prudence’, Dutch Quarterly Review 16 (1986): 313-25.

  20. Smith, ‘As You Like It’, pp. 13-14. Smith continues by pointing out that travelling for Jaques means ‘that he frequently changes, not his surroundings, but his interlocutor. He indulges the habit of gossip, which is that of a traveller immobilized’ (p. 14).

  21. This article and the paper on which it is based were prepared in the course of a Fellowship at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS) in Wassenaar (1989-90).

Robert L. Montgomery (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4805

SOURCE: Montgomery, Robert L. “The Present Tense: Shakespeare's Sonnets and the Menaces of Time.” The Ben Jonson Journal 6 (1999): 147-60.

[In the following essay, Montgomery focuses on the depth and emotionalism of Shakespeare's conception of the present in the sonnets. In most of the sonnets to the young man, the critic contends, only the present is valued, though it is unstable and variable; by contrast, the imminent future promises only death, deprivation, and destruction.]

In Shakespeare's Sonnets time has structural and emotional functions that make it the dominant and most persistent of all the issues the speaker has on his mind. As such it has drawn the attention of almost every reader and critic. In as succinct a summary of the theme as one could devise, John Kerrigan remarks that “On every side, its [time's] harsh calligraphy is seen.”1 The repeated perception of its relentless and irreducible destructiveness conditions the mood of the sequence, and familiarly it is the antagonist against which the speaker mobilizes his art. The most prominent literary models Shakespeare used are also well known: Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book XV, and Spenser's Ruins of Time. Between these sits Petrarch's Trionfi, presumably available to Shakespeare in Lord Morley's translation. All of them dilate on the universal and unstoppable progress of Time, and all of them are in some fashion warnings about pride, the neglect of attention to mortality, or the inevitable passing of beauty. The prophetic thrust of this commonplace hardly needs reminding, except to note that it is also a feature of some of the plays, especially Richard II and Troilus and Cressida, and in both plays, as in the Sonnets, time works to frustrate hope and humble the will. It is also a commonplace in French Petrarchism. Du Bellay refers to “temps injurieux” in Olive 34.4, and in 39 assures his interlocutor that his love will protect her against time and death.2 Ronsard offers another precedent in poems sometimes very close to Shakespeare's usage, as in Le Premier livre des sonnets pour Hélène, 14, whose “trois ans sont ja passez que ton oeuil me tient pris” suggests Shakespeare's 104 (“Three winters cold … three summers' pride … three beauteous springs … Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned”), though Shakespeare's treatment is different.3

Shakespeare's adaptations and the resemblances of his treatment of time to earlier precedents, both classical and Renaissance, are of interest to me here not because I wish to explore the details of his borrowings. Most of these can be found in Rollins's Variorum edition, and my remarks above are merely a brief summary underlining Shakespeare's use of conventional material. More important to this essay are the depth and intensity of Shakespeare's use of the temporal commonplaces. He outdoes all his models and all the analogues, even Petrarch, in making the speaker's obsession with time an expression of his temperament and an index of mood, ultimately a profound shift in mood.

The Sonnets are above all distinctive in their urgent, emotional cultivation of the present. The present in turn affects a sense of the future, imagined in sonnet 104 as deprived:

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Such seems your beauty still. Three winters cold
Have from the forests shook three summers' pride,
Three beauteous springs to yellow autumn turned
In process of the seasons have I seen,
Three April perfumes in three hot Junes burned,
Since first I saw you fresh, which yet are green.
Ah, yet doth beauty, like a dial hand,
Steal from his figure, and no pace perceived;
So your sweet hue, which methinks still doth stand,
Hath motion, and my eye may be deceived;
          For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred:
          Ere you were born was beauty's summer dead.

Shakespeare turns Ronsard's three years of bondage to a different theme. Together with sonnets 67, 68, and 105, sonnet 104 perpetuates the idea of the young man's uniqueness, figured here as “beauty's summer,” and in miniature its octave acts out the memorial mood the speaker imagines for his poems in the future. Even so, as throughout the young man sonnets, the present tense is unstable and under threat; and the present compared to the past or the future, occupies by far the greatest amount of attention, emotionally clung to by the speaker as to a guest about to leave who must somehow be made to stay. His use of philosophical commonplaces is, as always, tuned to personal and emotional rhythms. Any future present, especially after the first seventeen sonnets, is at best served by memory. Otherwise, in the speaker's imagination, the future is a waste, empty of what he now so uneasily enjoys. Yet its imminence, just off stage, sharpens the mood, either of joy or anxiety, in the here-and-now. To give point to the value of the present, the future is almost entirely occupied by loss, death, or oblivion. In sonnet 104 this point is underlined by the insistent redundancy of the passage of three years, as if the rhetorical repetitions are themselves a model of time's stealthy movement as well as an illustration of the illusion of stability. Under such conditions, the present is much more than simply the usual grammatical tense of lyric expression. The poetic idea of the present is cultivated almost ferociously, even in its evident instability. Sonnet 73, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold,” is perhaps the most familiar of the poems meditating on the soon-expected death of the present, as well as that of the speaker:

In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west.

To emphasize the emotional extremity of Shakespeare's representation we can set it against Spenser's Amoretti and Epithalamion, a work more like Petrarch's in possessing a teleology and a vision of eternity, a “short time's endlesse monument,” as the envoi to the Epithalamion declares. Spenser orders the sonnets in Amoretti according to the liturgical calendar, and at key points he marks the passage of real time, as in 62, “The weary yeare his race now having run.” Spenser imagines a benefit beyond time; Shakespeare's speaker comes close to thinking of time as the ultimate but negative value. But Spenser's sequence may also be thought to be marked by what Germaine Warkentin calls “psychic stasis,” the condition of unachieved hope and desire that colors, for example, Astrophil and Stella, and in places Petrarch's own sequence.4 Yet, however mordant Spenser's meditations on time, as in his versions of Du Bellay, The Ruines of Time, or in The Cantos of Mutabilitie, he can imagine a transcendence to set against the temptation to dwell on time's deadly grip.

In most of Shakespeare's sonnets no such relief is available, though this generalization has to be qualified by keeping in mind those poems offering the comfort of poetic immortality, however dubious a comfort that may seem, and the optimistic sonnet 116, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds.” But more characteristic of the mood of the young man sonnets is 49, one of the more depressed of the speaker's meditations in which a triply bleak and threatening future controls the present:

Against that time—if ever that time come—
When I shall see thee frown on my defects,
Whenas thy love has cast his utmost sum,
Called to that audit by advised respects;
Against that time when thou shalt strangely pass,
And scarcely greet me with that sun, thine eye,
When love, converted from the thing it was,
Shall reasons find of settled gravity;
Against that time do I ensconce me here
Within the knowledge of mine own desert,
And this hand against my self uprear
To guard the lawful reasons of thy part.
          To leave poor me thou hast the strength of laws,
          Since why to love I can allege no cause.

In apparent confirmation of what I have been saying, this sonnet dwells repetitively upon a future of love gone sour, “converted from the thing it was.” Syntactically anaphoric, it begins with “my defects,” implicitly a motive for the expected cooling of the young man's affection, then seems to use the present to arm the speaker against abandonment, moves on to the ambiguous “my desert,” and concludes with the drastic concession of supporting the young man's “lawful reasons.” This is the second occurrence of “reasons,” the first being in line 8, which I read as partly ironic: if affection wears off, the young man will borrow reasons to reject the speaker from a rational weighing of his faults.

Sonnet 49 is also one of the poems that mentions a fault or “defects” but fails to identify them. Nor do we learn what the “advised respects” or the “reasons … of settled gravity” are. Yet the emotion, evoked by the insertion of the nearly lachrimose “poor me,” at first reading seems almost irrelevant in the context of logic and sound reason conceded to the young man should he wish estrangement. We also have the irony of love casting sums, adding up reasons to desist, suggesting, as does the whole structure and manner of the poem, a formal circumstance of stifling impersonality in which the speaker has no resources, no good argument to persuade the young man “why to love.” This negative motive might just as well serve the speaker's turn, since his anticipation of the young man's displeasure might supply a reason to cut his losses now. It is, decidedly, the imagining of an utterly sterile emotional future, but, it must be added, one that hasn't yet arrived. Finally, it is important to note that sonnet 49 is among a group harping on a conventional theme, the young man's absence, and added to that is the worry, expressed in sonnet 48, that the young man might be stolen away from him. We can, if we wish, read the poem as a momentary depression, since a group beginning with sonnet 52 and reaching through 56 expresses more optimistic moods.

Nevertheless, sonnet 49 is characteristic of the generally bleak rendering of the future in the young man sonnets, a future sweetened at best only by poems testifying to a present to be remembered long hence and brightened only by flashes of the young man's excellence. In sonnet 52 the speaker poses as a miser cherishing his “sweet up-lockèd treasure” and continues the application in the final quatrain:

So is the time that keeps you as my chest,
Or as the wardrobe which the robe dost hide,
To make some special instant special blest,
By new unfolding his imprisoned pride.


In passing I want to notice Shakespeare's habit, reflected in line 12, of qualifying a positive statement by a single term—in this case “imprisoned”—placed sufficiently aslant the context to make us look twice and consider the possibility of an ambiguous or even self-contradictory meaning, in this case the dubious blessing of confinement and concealment as a way of characterizing the young man's value. Or to put it another way, anxiety about the present reflects the speaker's desire to possess the young man continually. The poems immediately following this reiterate his current worth (53), perpetuated by the speaker's verse (54, 55), but made precarious by the need to keep on renewing the intensity of emotion (56). The present, if love has staled, may be as empty as the future; the speaker's sense of time is emotionally negative if love's “edge should blunter be than appetite,” a comment that anticipates sonnet 129's more drastic evocation of the negative process of renewal in the context of lust. Sonnet 49, together with 32, discussed below, offers at best a conditional future.

A similarly complex reading of time informs sonnets 31 and 32. In 31 the conceit is that the young man subsumes all the speaker's dead, previous loves, which now possess a curious, revived existence:

How many a holy and obsequious tear
Hath dear religious love stol'n from mine eye,
As interest of the dead, which now appear
But things removed that hidden in thee lie.
Thou art the grave where buried love doth live,
Hung with the trophies of my lovers gone.
Who all their parts of me to thee did give. …


Here the present virtually cancels the past by enclosing it; I say virtually, because of course, as the speaker says in line 11, these buried loves are still on view. If the present doesn't quite obliterate the past, it certainly reshapes it. Past loves are reborn in the young man, a kind of raising from the dead. And so it is with the future, though in sonnet 32 the argument is tortuous:

If thou survive my well-contented day,
When that churl Death my bones with dust shall cover,
And shalt by fortune once more resurvey
These poor rude lines of thy deceased lover,
Compare them with the bettering of the time,
And though they be outstripped by every pen,
Reserve them for my love, not for their rhyme,
Exceeded by the height of happier men.
O, then vouchsafe me but this loving thought:
“Had my friend's Muse grown with this growing age,
A dearer birth than this his love had brought
To march in ranks of better equipage;
          But since he died, and poets better prove,
          Theirs for their style I'll read, his for his Love.

The speaker expects his “poor rude lines” to be “outstripped by every pen.” He imagines the young man speaking (the closest we come to any direct utterance of his) and concluding by separating style and emotion, a separation elsewhere thought inadmissable, as for example in 105. In a restricted sense the emotional value of the present is still dominant, even though it means contradicting all those poems promising the young man immortality, as well as those insisting that the speaker's love and his art are coextensive. In these latter the speaker seeks to integrate praise, love, and style in a commanding present.

Just as the future is confined to imitating the present and the quality of the present dependent upon presence and desire, the speaker's “backward look” is likewise considered largely as analogous to his current habit of praising (59). Sonnet 60 moves on to compare the passage of time to the relentless rhythm of the surf: “And Time that gave doth now his gift confound” (l. 8). This, and the even more detailed sonnet 63 (“When hours have drained his blood and filled his brow / With lines and wrinkles”), repeats the promise of poetic immortality, as does 65, but sonnet 64 offers a personal witness to multiple instances of time's erosive power, and “This thought is as a death, which cannot choose / But weep to have that which it fears to lose.” Present possession is sharply qualified by the possibility of future loss, indeed the normal process of time offers little beyond deprivation.

An apparently more positive rendering of present, past, and future informs sonnets 106, 107, and 108, though the unstable privilege enjoyed by the present in the speaker's consciousness still obtains. The three poems, or four if we include 109 (Kerrigan sees 106-9 as a group of four), make up a kind of unit, drawing together the speaker's several preoccupations with the young man's excellence, the enduring quality of his own love, and the ability of verse to fix it eternally in spite of time. As I hope to demonstrate, the strong positive assertions of these poems are crossed by the speaker's anxiety, or if one does not wish to concede that term, with a ferocious clinging to the here and now, a particular here and now invested with the young man so that the present becomes equivalent to the verse, “this poor rhyme” (107.11), as we read it. And the verse contains the future and is and will be the young man's “monument.”

Sonnet 106, on the other hand, is one of the few poems in the collection that invokes the past, in this case a past of romance:

When in the chronicle of wasted time
I see descriptions of the fairest wights,
And beauty making beautiful old rhyme
In praise of ladies dead and lovely knights;
Then, in the blazon of sweet beauty's best,
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow,
I see their antique pen would have expressed
Even such a beauty as you master now.
So all their praises are but prophecies
Of this our time, all you prefiguring,
And, for they looked but with divining eyes,
They had not skill enough your worth to sing:
          For we, which now behold these present days
          Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise.

A number of the speaker's familiar maneuvers are here: he repeats his belief that the object of poetry is the cause of its beauty, coupled with the by-no-means logical corollary that no verse is adequate to the young man's worth. Both propositions are conventional, elaborate, and contrived gestures of praise. But what interests me more is the attention riveted on “this our time … these present days,” a moment that compels speechless wonder. It is also a moment “prefigured” by a past confined to epideictic poetry whose value in turn is defined entirely as an analogue to poetry written now to celebrate the young man. Both kinds of poetry, the antique and the contemporary, are, in the hyperbole of this sort of poem, inadequate. But we might notice that if the older verse anticipates the young man's beauty, it also prefigures the speaker's praise which seems, as we read it, not quite so deficient as the last line pretends after all. And we must concede that this poem, in its own time, doesn't say as much about the young man as it does about the process of writing about him: a secondary meaning of “these present days” could refer to antique days made “present” by the poet's power. And finally that narrowing of the range of epideictic verse to the blazon and so to the very elements of beauty most vulnerable to time—hand, foot, lip, eye, brow—all of them with the possible exception of foot, among the most relentlessly conventional synechdoches in Petrarchan and courtly verse, further impersonalizes the young man even in the process of celebrating his ineffability.

Appropriately sonnet 107 scans the future and opens majestically on a note of high visionary emotion:

Not mine own fears nor the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come
Can yet the lease of my true love control,
Supposed as forfeit to a confined doom.
The mortal moon hath her eclipse endured,
And the sad augurs mock their own presage,
Incertainties now crown themselves assured,
And peace proclaims olives of endless age.
Now with the drops of this most balmy time
My love looks fresh, and Death to me subscribes,
Since, spite of him, I'll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o'er dull and speechless tribes.
          And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
          When tyrants crests and tombs of brass are spent.

The rhetoric of the challenge to time is interesting. The speaker's mood and tone, just previously laced with self-deprecation, doubt, and anxiety, all in the midst of efforts to praise and champion the young man's special beauty, are now positively triumphant. And added to his claim that “thou in this [verse] shalt find thy monument” is the power of his love to challenge death, though poetry is still the medium for preservation. For the speaker the monument is in this, this rhyme, this here and now, this moment stretched beyond death. And how does rhyme memorialize? In sonnet 108, if we consider it part of a group, the speaker insists,

                                                  But yet, like prayers divine,
I must each day say o'er the very same,
Counting no thing old—thou mine, I thine—
Even as when first I hallowed thy fair name.
So that eternal love in love's fresh case
Weighs not the dust and injury of age,
Nor gives to necessary wrinkles place,
But makes antiquity for aye his page,(5)

It should be understood specifically that it is language, poetic language, that accomplishes this miracle of illusion, and it does so through a prayer-like form of repetition, timed and ultimately timeless: “my life hath in this line some interest / Which for memorial still with thee shall stay” (74.3-4), or so the speaker maintains. The present is still triumphant precisely through the agency of repetition.6 It also invests repetition with the guarantee of sameness, of authenticity, so, I think the speaker would claim, that we can know that his present devotion is continuous and unchanging. But for us as readers it is not just the monotony that makes the speaker's love present. The present tense and the emotion are realized each time we read the poems: “The rhyme, the verse, is really only a notation to memory, the record of a speaking now, which, when spoken, becomes a here and now.”7 There are, therefore, two kinds of repetition: first the speaker's reiteration of a style throughout the poems, a style of repeated praise of the young man that the speaker believes guarantees his sincerity, and second the re-creation of the present of the speaker's speaking in the poems. Thus we can understand the argument as claiming this immortal and death-defying love to be eternal not only through the quality of the speaker's feeling and the repetitiveness of his style, but also in the awareness that future readers will inevitably re-experience his present tense. At the very least, reading this poem we cannot understand the speaker's emotion as distinct from the timelessness of his art. Sonnet 116, “Let me not to the marriage of two minds,” is the most confident, and most familiar, example of the symbiosis of emotional claim and written expression:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments; love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no, it is an ever-fixèd mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.
Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
          If this be error and upon me proved,
          I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

The assertion of timeless and inalterable affection is uttered almost entirely in negatives, in denials of mortality and change, so that the claim can hardly be called triumphant. If we take the sonnet positively, at least as a sign of hope, it can be grouped with 123 and 124 to create the mood in which the speaker uses all his verbal resources to justify his defiance of time and error: “This I do vow, and this shall ever be: / I will be true despite thy scythe and thee” (123.13-14). In other poems the speaker does find alteration and strives mightily not to warp his own feeling. And if we take him literally, he succeeds, doing so by acknowledging the young man's trespasses and yet accepting and almost conspiring in them. Therefore it can be said that he preserves his love but also preserves and memorializes flaws, faults, transgressions, and his own complicity in their acceptance. So time becomes the agency not just of physical destruction but of moral failure as well, and the due registering of those severe penalties.

If the speaker's fixation on the present translates into anxiety or confessed guilt on the one hand and a kind of boasting on the other, it also suggests a lack of direction or progress, a general feature of the entire collection. We may add this unsettledness of mood to the apparent absence of even a modest narrative structure, a feature of the Sonnets that has sometimes prompted critics to attempt their rearrangement. But such fickleness and such indefiniteness are, I would argue, intended characteristics of this and other sequences. Petrarch's collection is so characterized by the poet himself, though it has a resolution quite lacking in Shakespeare. In Shakespeare's collection one of the consequences of desire is to burden the lover with a failure of progress, or at best a progress towards death sweetened only by the fame that poetry offers to both beloved and poet.

Yet Shakespeare's speaker would also claim that his love—his emotion, his sense of identity with the young man—“Weighs not the dust and injury of age” (108.10), and sonnet 109 reiterates this assertion in its last lines, “For nothing this wide universe I call / Save thou, my rose; in it thou art my all.” It is interesting to see this poem also making its challenge to alienation and moral “frailties” a matter of vocal summons—“I call” is his phrasing, yet the urgency and force of the assertion summon up the rose, the most fragile image of temporary beauty. We may glance again at the last six lines of sonnet 108 and see in it a will to ignore the evidence of time's ravages:

So that eternal love in love's fresh case
Weighs not the dust and injury of age,
Nor gives to necessary wrinkles place,
But makes antiquity for aye his page,
          Finding the first conceit of love there bred
          Where time and outward form would show it dead.

It should be evident from this review that in spite of such declarations, the speaker's moods are variable and alternative; they clash against each other near at hand and in widely spaced poems, offering us an emotional struggle but not in any clear sense a narrative one. Poems in such a mode generate the rhythms of uncertainty, compounded not only by the worry about time, but also the mulling over of estrangement, involving physical absence as well as the young man's fault (“thou dost common grow,” the speaker tells him in 69.14.) and the speaker's repeated mention of his own complicity, pointing perhaps to the broadly confessional octave sonnet 110, which begins “Alas, 'tis true, I have gone here and there.” Yet to reemphasize the shifts in mood and attitude, we must keep in mind that other poems, like 107-9, or 55-56, and 102, are far more positive, at least on the surface. Shakespeare's speaker is forever claiming a territory, leaving it for some antipodal place, abandoning that, returning to the original, yet not staying there either for more than a few lines. Poems whose conclusions, if we let them stand alone, would seem to have settled the issues they work through, when set against other poems arguing something else with just as much firmness become part of a persistent habit of irony and contradiction.

Another group reveals the speaker's persistent devotion in spite of potential rejection, as in 87-89, or in spite of the young man's infidelity, as in 93: “So shall I live supposing thou art true, / Like a deceivèd husband.” All the speaker's positive assertions, of the worth of the young man, his feeling for him, and its endurance, are nevertheless crossed and repeatedly qualified by the intrusion of the young man's fault and by the speaker's own confessed unworthiness. And the ways that the speaker dwells on the present, indeed feels totally bound to it, are surely more than the ordinary reflexive use of the present tense in lyric speech: they contain, translate, and in an important way underscore the discovery and rediscovery of moral damage and the obsessiveness of desire that saturate the entire sequence.


  1. John Kerrigan, ed., The Sonnets and A Lover's Complaint (London: Penguin Books, 1986), 39. Subsequent quotations of Shakespeare are from this edition.

  2. J. Du Bellay, L'Olive, ed. E. Caldarini (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1974), sonnet 34, cites Horace as an example of this classical commonplace. For Petrarch on destructive time, see Giuseppe Mazzotta, The Worlds of Petrarch (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 1993), 18-19.

  3. Pierre de Ronsard, Les Amours, ed. Marc Bensimon and James L. Martin (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1981), 267-68. A useful general commentary on the Renaissance concept of time is Ricardo Quinones' Renaissance Discovery of Time (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), esp. 107.

  4. Cf. Germaine Warkentin, Amoretti, Epithalamion, in The Spenser Encyclopedia, ed. A. C. Hamilton (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 1992).

  5. Kerrigan and Stephen Booth in his edition, Shakespeare's Sonnets (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977) read “page” as “servant.” Helen Vendler argues, I think correctly, that “Page” refers to a page in a book: eternal love reads its origin in antiquity. See Helen Vendler, The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 461.

  6. See Heather Dubrow, Echoes of Desire: English Petrarchism and Its Counterdiscourses (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995), 35-39, on the prevalence of repetition as a topic in Petrarch's Rime and more generally in the Renaissance lyric. Dubrow's interest is in the way concentration on the present works against the narrative disposition towards change. “Petrarchan repetition,” she writes, “is … the trope that writes and is written by erotic desire. For repetition represents the way that impulse is never fully satisfied and hence never fully controlled …”(36).

  7. Joyce Sutphen in a communication to the author.


Theatrical Italics


Violence in Shakespeare's Works