I know, I know. I have no business showing my face around here, especially because my post on Coriolanus is twelve days late. I actually have a legitimate reason for being a terrible Shakespearean: I’ve been recovering from a mild concussion. I wasn’t even allowed to read during my recovery, which means that the last act of Coriolanus is still waiting for me. I feel a lot better now, which means I was able to see the production of Romeo and Juliet that I had already bought tickets for.
This isn’t a personal blog, so I won’t keep harping on about myself, but it was pretty terrifying going back to Shakespeare after my concussion. There was a period of time where I didn’t feel like myself, and I kept guiltily looking at Coriolanus as it began to gather dust on my bedside table. I was a bit scared that if I started to read, I wouldn’t understand anything. That my favorite thing to do would be a struggle to get back into. But as I listened to the familiar words of Romeo and Juliet, I realized how silly I had been. But speaking of Romeo and Juliet…
If you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, you know that I am not a fan of modern productions. I don’t like modern costumes, and I don’t like modern music. But I try to be open, so I bought myself tickets to this production knowing it would end with me looking at a jeans-clad Romeo.
This production, unfortunately, combined modern clothing with modern music – and, frankly, that was too much for a purist like me. I can stand it when productions choose one or the other, but both is going a bit overboard. That is just a matter of personal taste, though, so let’s talk about the characters instead.
Romeo (Jose Martinez) was played with the perfect amount of boyish charm. He was overemotional and overdramatic, but I think Romeo should be played that way. I did take issue with the delivery of his ‘O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!’ Actors can get away with delivering all of Romeo’s lines with the same air of boyishness, but I think it’s very important for his delivery to be a combination of firm and shaken when he firsts see Juliet. We need to be convinced that this is love – this is more than what he felt for Rosaline. This is the kind of love that moves mountains, and if Romeo doesn’t convince us of that when he first speaks about Juliet, then the rest of the play suffers for it.
The way Juliet (Larica Schnell) was played was not for me, sadly. As you know, I am very passionate about the women in Shakespeare. I see them as being incredibly strong and admirable. Juliet is no exception. But if Romeo is going to be played as overdramatic, then Juliet should be played with a softer edge. There was a lot of yelling from Juliet in this play. Yelling does not equal strength – there can be strength in a soft voice as well. Give me a sweet Juliet, not one brimming with attitude. She can still be strong. There are so many ways to write and play strong women, and yet I find that they are always played the same way. It was a wasted opportunity to do something unique with Juliet’s character, really.
Speaking of wasted opportunities, let’s talk about Mercutio (Eric Weiman) for a moment, shall we? Weiman played Mercutio well, and my criticism has nothing to do with his skills as an actor. This is a criticism of how Mercutio is always played. In every film, in every stage production, Mercutio is played for laughs. He is painted as vulgar and loud – the clown to Benvolio’s straight man. But does it need to be that way? I am so curious to see what would happen if Mercutio were played as the straight man for once. Hell, I wouldn’t mind having no clown at all. That dynamic doesn’t matter in this particular trio. Romeo is the overdramatic one, isn’t he? Let his friends handle him with exasperation. There is no need for dramatics from more than one character in this play. Mercutio is a joker, but just as strength doesn’t equal yelling, joking doesn’t equal clowning around. Again, an opportunity was missed for a different kind of Mercutio to be explored.
The balcony scene is incredibly iconic, but there wasn’t one. This was a very prop-free play, but I believe that they had the tools to put together a makeshift balcony if they had wanted to. I know that the balcony isn’t mentioned in the actual play, but I think it’s a wonderful way to stage the scene simply because it adds a lot of tension. You really feel the distance in between these two characters who so badly want to be in each other’s arms. When they are standing a few feet away from one another, that tension is lost.
The Nurse (Samantha Sutliff) was my absolute favorite in this production. She was hilarious, and dealt with Juliet in a loving, protective manner. The Nurse is usually played for laughs, but really letting us feel her affection toward Juliet was an excellent touch.
Overall, I would say that the play was just okay. I know that makes me come off as a snob, but I can’t help having very strong feelings about Shakespeare. I love Romeo and Juliet, but not everybody does. The reason is because we’ve fallen into this trap where the characters are the same every time. There is nothing fresh about this play anymore, and that’s terrible. Romeo and Juliet is still ours to re-mold, and if put on correctly, it can pull someone into the world of Shakespeare like nothing (other than Measure for Measure) else.
My post on Coriolanus is coming up soon, I promise! I am so behind, I know, but I will be finishing these plays no matter what. If it takes us into January of 2018, then so be it! I definitely wasn’t planning for a concussion, but that won’t stop me from finishing this resolution.
I need to start this post with a disclaimer: in real life, I am a feminist in every sense of the word. I feel like I have to say this because there may be some decidedly unfeminist ideas about Measure for Measure in this review. You’re allowed to hate me for them – I myself can’t believe some of the things I want to discuss. Measure for Measure does that to you, though – it turns you around, and fills you conflict. And that’s why it’s one of Shakespeare’s greatest masterpieces.
I find that there are two ways for us to look at Measure for Measure: it can be black and white in that we can look at Isabella as the heroine, and Angelo as the villain. Or, it can be a little grey. No heroes or villains – just people. I think that a black and white Measure for Measure is extraordinarily boring. A grey one? Possibly the best play you’ll ever read in your life.
We open in Vienna, where the Duke has decided to take a little vacation. To Poland, maybe – but it’s nobody’s business, apparently. What’s important is that he’s left Deputy Angelo in charge. Angelo, as it happens, sees things in black and white. He will do anything so that justice (or what he considers justice) can prevail – anything. So he enforces a law against fornication. The brothels are shut down, and a certain someone is arrested.
BAWD Well, well. There’s one yonder arrested and carried to prison was worth five thousand of you all.
SECOND GENTLEMAN Who’s that, I pray thee?
BAWD Marry, sir, that’s Claudio, Signior Claudio.
FIRST GENTLEMAN Claudio to prison? ‘Tis not so.
It is so, sadly. Claudio is sent to prison – his girlfriend Juliet is pregnant, and that means that he was the first one to break Angelo’s ridiculous law. As he’s being escorted to jail, Claudio begs his friend Lucio to seek out his sister, Isabella, so that she may beg Angelo for his life.
The Duke, meanwhile, is still in Vienna.
DUKE My holy sir, none better knows than you
How I have ever loved the life removed,
And held in idle price to haunt assemblies
Where youth and cost witless bravery keeps.
I have delivered to Lord Angelo,
A man of stricture and firm abstinence,
My absolute power and place here in Vienna,
And he supposes me traveled to Poland,
For so I have strewed it in the common ear,
And so it is received. Now, pious sir,
You will demand of me why I do this.
FRIAR THOMAS Gladly, my lord.
DUKE We have strict statues and most biting laws,
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,
Which for this fourteen years we have let slip,
Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave
That goes not out to prey. Now, as fond fathers,
Having bound up the threat’ning twigs of birch
Only to stick it in their children’s sight
For terror, not to use – in time the rod
More mocked and feared – so our decrees,
Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead,
And liberty plucks justice by the nose,
The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart
Goes all decorum.
The Duke, essentially, has been doing a pretty terrible job of upholding the law in Vienna. Everything has gone topsy-turvy, and his lenient ways mean that the people do not fear him. There have been no repercussions. So, instead of dealing with this the way a normal person would, the Duke decides to dramatically put Angelo in charge so that he can creep around in disguise and watch to see if Vienna gets any better.
You can imagine my sarcasm when I say that this is an incredible plan, nothing will go wrong, and that the Duke is a genius.
Lucio arrives at Isabella’s strict nunnery – Isabella wouldn’t mind one bit if it were stricter, actually. She is incredibly invested in becoming a nun. Luckily for Lucio, he’s arrived just in time. She’s a novice yet. He explains Claudio’s situation to her, and asks her to go to Angelo.
ISABELLA Alas, what poor ability’s in me
To do him good?
LUCIO Assay the power you have.
ISABELLA My power? Alas, I doubt –
Isabella genuinely doubts that she can win Angelo over. Like Desdemona, I could immediately see how one might play Isabella incorrectly. She can come off as hesitant, even a little meek, but there is a fire in Isabella. And it’s that fire that ends up knocking Angelo off of his feet.
As Isabella goes off to find Angelo, Escalus, a judge, is asking him to maybe chill out a little bit.
ESCALUS Ay, but yet, let us be keen and rather cut a little
Than fall and bruise to death. Alas, this gentleman
Whom I would save had a most noble father.
Let but your Honor know,
Whom I believe to be most strait in virtue,
That, in the working of your own affections,
Had time cohered with place, or place with wishing,
Or that the resolute acting of your blood
Could have attained th’ effect of your own purpose,
Whether you had not sometime in your life
Erred in this point which now you censure him,
And pulled the law upon you.
ANGELO ‘Tis one thing to be tempted, Escalus,
Another thing to fall. I not deny
The jury passing on the prisoner’s life
May in the sworn twelve have a thief or two
Guiltier than him they try. What’s open made to justice,
That justice seizes. What knows the laws
That thieves do pass on thieves? ‘Tis very pregnant,
The jewel that we find, we stoop and take ‘t
Because we see it; but what we do not see,
We tread upon and never think of it.
You may not so extenuate his offense
For I have had such faults; but rather tell me,
When that I censure him do so offend,
Let mine own judgement pattern out my death,
And nothing come in partial. Sir, he must die.
Escalus is very kindly – and a bit of a pushover. Obviously, if Angelo were in Claudio’s place, he’d hope for mercy. But Escalus is speaking to somebody who literally cannot relate to Claudio. That is something that we have to acknowledge about Angelo – he has spent his entire life walking the straightest, cleanest path he possibly could. They say his blood is ice water, so when it comes to sex and love, it’s fair to say that he simply does not understand. And with no understanding, there can be no mercy.
He decides to execute Claudio the very next day. The others are uncomfortable with this.
ANGELO What’s the matter, provost?
PROVOST Is it your will Claudio shall die tomorrow?
ANGELO Did I not tell thee yea? Hadst thou not order?
Why dost thou ask again?
PROVOST Lest I might be too rash.
Under your good correction, I have seen
When, after execution, judgement hath
Repented o’er his doom.
ANGELO Go to. Let that be mine.
Do you your office, or give up your place
And you shall be well spared.
Shockingly, I am going to try to be as understanding of Angelo as I can be. Giving him the tidy label of villain takes all the interest out of this play. In this post, there will be no heroes, heroines or villains.
That said, I’m sure we can all agree that Angelo is far too severe a person. He is confident in what he’s chosen to do – so confident, in fact, that he’s willing to deal with the executioner’s guilt that the provost is warning him about. Why shouldn’t he be willing to deal with it? After all, it’ll never come. Not to Angelo.
Isabella finally arrives with Lucio in tow. Angelo is short with her, already knowing that he won’t be budging.
ANGELO Well, what’s your suit?
ISABELLA There is a vice that most I do abhor,
And most desire should meet the blow of justice,
For which I would not plead, but that I must;
For which I must not plead, but that I am
At war ‘twixt will and will not.
Isabella is very diplomatic in her approach. She tries to reason with Angelo by very honestly expressing that she understands that her brother had done something awful. But Angelo has no pity for Claudio. Isabella gives up almost instantly, and makes to leave.
LUCIO, [aside to Isabella]
Give ‘t not o’er so. To him again, entreat him,
Kneel down before him, hang upon his gown.
You are too cold. If you should need a pin,
You could with more tame a tongue desire it.
To him, I say.
ISABELLA, [to Angelo]
Must he needs to die?
Lucio tells Isabella she is being too cold – only passion can melt Angelo’s icy front. Angelo has already dismissed this conversation. I could see him in my mind, his back turned to the door. I could see Isabella turn around suddenly, and ask him for mercy once again. And I can sense why that would leave him reeling.
So far, absolutely nobody has argued with Angelo. We have seen the provost and Escalus very meekly try to reason with him – and we have seen how one sharp reprimand from Angelo causes them to drop all their suits. What he says goes. But now, in his office, he has a nun that won’t back down.
ANGELO He’s sentenced. ‘Tis too late.
LUCIO, [aside to Isabella]
You are too cold.
ISABELLA Too late? Why, no. I that do speak a word
May call it back again. Well believe this:
No ceremony that to great ones longs,
Not the king’s crown, nor the deputed sword,
The marshal’s truncheon, nor the judge’s robe
Become them with half so good a grace
As mercy does.
If he had been as you, and you as he,
You would have slipped like him, but he like you
Would not have been so stern.
ANGELO Pray you begone.
Isabella speaks passionately, and all Angelo can do is ask her to leave. I think he has no idea how else to respond. Isabella doesn’t leave.
ANGELO Your brother is a forfeit of the law,
And you but waste your words.
ISABELLA Alas, alas!
Why all the souls that were forfeit once,
And He that might the vantage best have took
Found out the remedy. How would you be
If He which is the top of judgement should
But judge as you are? O, think on that,
And mercy will breathe within your lips
Like man new-made.
ANGELO Be you content, fair maid.
It is the law, not I, condemn your brother.
Were he my kinsman, brother, or my son,
It should be thus with him. He must die tomorrow.
Angelo’s responses grow longer the more impassioned Isabella becomes. It’s like he bristles, and realizes that Isabella won’t be going down without a fight. He tells her that she is wasting her words, but he begins to do the same.
ISABELLA Yet show some pity.
ANGELO I show it most of all when I show justice,
For then I pity those I do not know,
Which a dismissed offense would after gall,
And do him right that, answering one foul wrong,
Lives not to act another. Be satisfied;
Your brother dies tomorrow; be content.
ISABELLA So you must be the first that gives this sentence,
And he that suffers. O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
I adore Isabella’s lines up there – her words apply to so many things, and even to situations that we experience now in the modern world. She absolutely refuses to back down. And what’s amazing is that Isabella is not speaking nonsense – and I think that this is what unnerves Angelo most of all.
ISABELLA That in the captain’s but a choleric word
Which in the soldier is flat blasphemy.
LUCIO, [aside to Isabella]
Art avised ‘o that? More on ‘t.
ANGELO Why do you put these sayings on me?
I was very struck by Angelo’s question to Isabella, because it was almost like he was betraying himself. It was such a change from his stern, severe replies. Does he ask this question with an offended tone? Or is he flabbergasted, unsure how to deal with Isabella?
She responds –
ISABELLA Because authority, though it err like others,
Hath yet a kind of medicine in itself
That skins the vice o’ th’ top. Go to your bosom.
Knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know
That’s like my brother’s fault. If it confess
A natural guiltiness such as is his,
Let it not sound a thought upon your tongue
Against my brother’s life.
She speaks, and ’tis such sense
That my sense breeds with it.
[He begins to exit.]
Fare you well.
ISABELLA Gentle my lord, turn back.
ANGELO I will bethink me. Come again tomorrow.
ISABELLA Hark how I’ll bribe you. Good my lord, turn back.
ANGELO How? Bribe me?
Angelo, cold Angelo, finds himself filled with something he has never experienced before: lust. So he makes to leave, and the sharp tone he was using throughout this entire act dissipates as he attempts to make his escape. I can imagine how he might absolutely freeze when Isabella calls after him, and how he might turn to face her and ask shakily, “How? Bribe me?” Isabella is being completely innocent, of course. It is Angelo whose blood has run cold because it’s almost like she knows what he hopes for her to bribe him with.
He manages to get rid of Isabella – but she’ll be back tomorrow. Angelo is left alone.
ISABELLA Save your Honor.
[She exits, with Lucio and Provost.]
ANGELO From thee, even from thy virtue.
What’s this? What’s this? Is this her fault or mine?
The tempter or the tempted, who sins most, ha?
Not she, nor doth tempt; but it is I
That, lying by the violet in the sun,
Do as the carrion does, not as the flower,
Corrupt with virtuous season. Can it be
That modesty may more betray our sense
Than woman’s lightness? Having waste ground enough,
Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary
And pitch our evils there? O, fie, fie, fie!
What does thou, or what art thou, Angelo?
Dost thou desire her foully for those things
That make her good? O, let her brother live.
Thieves for their robbery have authority
When judges seal themselves. What, do I love her
And feast upon her eyes? What is ‘t I dream on?
O cunning enemy that, to catch a saint,
With saints dost bait thy hook. Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue. Never could the strumpet
With all her double vigor, art and nature,
Once stir my temper, but this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite. Ever till now
When men were fond, I smiled and wondered how.
This is why I can’t call Angelo a villain. Every so often, he has these startling moments of clarity. And, unlike Shakespeare’s other villains, he doesn’t delight in his evil. If anything, he’s disgusted by it. Angelo is no villain – he’s just a man feeling a rush of emotion like he has never felt before. It does not excuse any of his later actions, but it’s worth noting. Angelo (and by extension, Shakespeare’s) question of whether the tempter or the tempted is at fault is absolutely fantastic. Why would a man in Elizabethan England put such a question down on his page?
Angelo wonders if he only feels this way because he wants to corrupt her innocence. He’s wrong, of course. He feels this way because Isabella has challenged him in a way other women have not.
We come to 2.4, which is arguably the best act in this entire play. If you Google Measure for Measure, you’ll mostly hear crickets. But if you really look, you’ll find discussions about 2.4 because it is that good.
ANGELO When I would pray and think, I think and pray
To several subjects. Heaven hath my empty words,
Whilst my intervention, hearing not my tongue,
Anchors on Isabel. God in my mouth,
As if I did but only chew His name,
And in my heart the strong and swelling evil
Of my conception. The state whereon I studied
Is, like a good thing being often read,
Grown sere and tedious. Yea, my gravity,
Wherein – let no man hear me – I take pride,
Could I with boot change for an idle plume
Which the air beats for vain. O place, O form,
How often dost thou with thy case, thy habit,
Wrench awe from fools, and tie the wiser souls
To thy false seeming! Blood, thou art blood.
Let’s write “good angel” on the devil’s horn.
‘Tis not the devil’s crest.
Angelo, while waiting for Isabella, is still agonizing over his lust for her. In Shakespeare’s plays, names are very often shortened. Desdemona becomes Desdemon, Cressida becomes Cressid. But there is something so intimate about Angelo’s use of Isabel instead of Isabella. I was almost offended for her, and shocked that he would say her name like that. But he says that she has been filling his thoughts – he can’t pray, he can’t think – so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.
I really enjoyed the line, “Blood, thou art blood.” Angelo, possibly for the first time, is acknowledging that he’s a human man, and is subject to sexual appetite like others are. But this acknowledgement is dangerous – it could act as an excuse for what he’s about to do.
Isabella arrives, and Angelo panics at the sudden flood of heat he feels. But when she enters, he tries to stifle all of that.
ANGELO How now, fair maid?
ISABELLA I am come to know your pleasure.
Immediately, Angelo is thrown off. Angelo feels each of Isabella’s words in his bones – everything she says reminds him of how badly he wants her.
And Isabella? She’s just here for Claudio.
ANGELO Say you so? Then I shall pose you quickly:
Which had you rather, that the most just law
Now took your brother’s life, or, to redeem him,
Give up your body to such sweet uncleanness
As she hath stained?
ISABELLA Sir, believe this:
I had rather give my body than my soul.
Isabella is incredibly self-sacrificial, and just cannot seem to hear what Angelo is trying to say.
ANGELO Admit no other way to save his life –
As I subscribe not that, nor any other –
But, in the loss of question, that you, his sister,
Finding yourself desired of such a person
Whose credit with the judge, or own great place,
Could fetch your brother from the manacles
Of the all-binding law, and that there were
No earthly mean to save him but that either
You must lay down the treasures of your body
To this supposed, or else to let him suffer,
What would you do?
Angelo tries to pose a hypothetical situation to Isabella, but she does not respond the way he hopes. She absolutely would not sacrifice her body – absolutely not. He continues to push.
ANGELO Plainly conceive I love you.
ISABELLA My brother did love Juliet,
And you tell me that he shall die for ‘t.
ANGELO He shall not, Isabel, if you give me love.
Curiously, Angelo tells Isabella that he loves her. I’m not sure that he does – but what I’m sure of is that he thinks he does. Angelo has no idea how to process the way Isabella makes him feel. And Isabella, bless her, turns the conversation back to her brother. She knows her purpose, and will not stray from it.
Isabella, understandably, is shocked that Angelo would proposition her like this. She threatens to tell everybody, and Angelo immediately becomes defensive.
ANGELO Who will believe thee, Isabel?
My unsoiled name, th’ austereness of my life,
My vouch against you, and my place i’ th’ state
Will so your accusation overweigh
That you shall stifle in your own report
And smell of calumny. I have begun,
And now I give my sensual race the rein.
Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite;
Lay by all nicety and prolixious blushes
That banish what they sue for. Redeem thy brother
By yielding up thy body to my will,
Or else he must not only die the death,
But thy unkindness shall his death draw out
By ling’ring sufferance. Answer me tomorrow,
Or by the affection that now guides me most,
I’ll prove a tyrant to him. As for you,
Say what you can, my false o’erweighs your true.
There are two things that are wrong with Angelo, two things that make him behave this way: one is that he is completely incapable of properly and sensibly dealing with the feelings he has for Isabella. And two, he now has the Duke’s power under his belt, and knows he’s untouchable. Angelo is attracted to Isabella because she challenges him – but he draws the line at being refused. Has anybody ever refused Angelo before?
Still, he is not a villain, but rather a fallen angel, as Shakespeare clearly meant for him to be when he named him Angelo. And there’s that frustratingly intimate ‘Isabel,’ once again.
A comment about this scene before I go into Isabella’s last soliloquy. I haven’t seen a full production of Measure for Measure, nor have I seen the BBC version in its entirety (I tried, but found myself unable to enjoy it). Regardless, I noticed that when 2.4 is put on, directors put in a lot of physical manipulation on Angelo’s part. A quick image search will show you Angelo with Isabella pinned down to his table, or with her arm twisted behind her back and pressed against him. But I propose that no physical contact should take place. Angelo is fired up, yes, but I don’t think he’d touch Isabella. I think this scene is much more intriguing if no touching takes place at all – if all Angelo did was move closer and closer to Isabella without touching her, I’d be a happy audience member. It would add to the tension more than if we allowed Angelo to handle Isabella. Also, would Angelo handle her violently? Maybe, but maybe not. Angelo knows what he’s doing is wrong, and he has certainly snapped in this scene to the point where manhandling could make sense. But let us consider that for Angelo, snapping could very well mean standing uncomfortably close. Snapping could mean clenched fists. He has spent his whole life as a block of ice – I highly doubt he’d go from zero to a hundred just like that. Or, if we let Angelo touch her, let him snatch his hand back immediately – because he knows that he’s doing something wrong. He knows, and just can’t stop himself from continuing to proposition her. And the purity and passion he sees in Isabella makes the touch burn enough for him to break contact. Again, whether or not Angelo is truly a villain is in our hands. When we choose how he handles Isabella in this scene, we are choosing a label for him once and for all.
Isabella is left alone.
ISABELLA To whom should I complain? Did I tell this,
Who would believe me? O, perilous mouths,
That bear in them one and the selfsame tongue,
Either of condemnation or approof,
Bidding the law make curtsy to their will,
Hooking both right and wrong to th’ appetite,
To follow as it draws. I’ll to my brother.
Though he hath fall’n by prompture of the blood,
Yet hath he in him such a mind of honor
That, had he twenty heads to tender down
On twenty bloody blocks, he’d yield them up
Before his sister should her body stoop
To such abhorred pollution.
Then, Isabel, live chaste, and, brother, die.
More than our brother is our chastity.
I’ll tell him yet of Angelo’s request,
And fit his mind to death, for his soul’s rest.
I felt terrible for Isabella here, because there’s absolutely nobody she can complain to. Who would listen to her? Angelo wasn’t lying when he said his spotless reputation would protect him. She feels confident that Claudio wouldn’t want her to free him in this way, so she makes for the prison to tell him that it’s a lost cause.
When Isabella tells Claudio what has happened, he is understandably offended for her. She thinks he’s on her side, but then he hesitates.
CLAUDIO Sweet sister, let me live.
What sin you do to save a brother’s life,
Nature dispenses with the deed so far
That it becomes a virtue.
ISABELLA O, you beast!
Now we must ask ourselves a very important question: is Isabella in the wrong here? Is she being overly self-righteous? Is her chastity equal to his life?
Just as Angelo isn’t the villain of this story, Isabella is not the heroine. I say this because – and you might want to punch me for this – I think that they’re too similar to be on different ends of the moral spectrum. Angelo is too severe when it comes to the law, and he allows his power to consume him as well. Similarly, Isabella is too severe when it comes to her own chastity, and she allows her dedication to it to prevent her from being more sensitive with her brother. That isn’t to say that she should agree to Angelo’s deal – she shouldn’t have to. I’m saying that calling Claudio a beast is decidedly harsh for someone like Isabella. But it makes sense, because she is like Angelo.
The Duke (did you forget about him? I did.) appears dresses as a Friar – he pulls Isabella aside after her fight with Claudio and tells her about Mariana, Angelo’s ex-fiancée. Long story short, Angelo abandoned Mariana when her brother and dowry were lost at sea. And, because Angelo is who he is, he was awful to Mariana after the fact.
ISABELLA Can this be so? Did Angelo leave her?
DUKE, [as Friar]
Left her in her tears and dried not one of them with his comfort, swallowed his vows whole, pretending in her discoveries of dishonor; in few, bestowed her on her own lamentation, which she yet wears for his sake; and he, a marble to her tears, is washed with them but relents not.
None of this surprises me, really. Isabella is shocked at Angelo, but she doesn’t realize that before meeting her, he had no feelings. Why should he have cared about Mariana? Again, that’s not to say he’s in the right, but I’m trying to carefully skirt around calling him a straight up rotten-to-the-core person. Angelo is who he is, and that’s all I can say.
The Duke/Friar is bringing up Mariana because he has a plan. Isabella will accept Angelo’s deal, but Mariana will take her place. Simple, and suspiciously similar to the plot of All’s Well That Ends Well.
I didn’t think much about this particular plot device until my roommate/friend (who, unfortunately for her, has to listen to my passionate outbursts about the plays I’m reading) mentioned that it was uncomfortable, because the men in question couldn’t possibly consent to it. And, you know what? She’s right. So often we look at Shakespeare’s plays though Elizabethan England colored glasses – but if we can’t look at something through a modern lens then, as Harold C. Goddard put it once, it’s nothing but a historical artifact. And since I see Shakespeare’s plays as being far more than artifacts, I should take a moment to criticize this plot device. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Angelo isn’t in the right here. In fact, he’s very much in the wrong. He’s dealing with these newfound emotions of his in the worst possible way, and he knows it. But Isabella, the Duke/Friar, and Mariana aren’t in the right either. When we hear about how Angelo left Mariana, we hear it from the Duke/Friar, who is arguably an unreliable narrator. We don’t know every single reason Angelo didn’t want to be with Mariana, and it isn’t right to force him into a tryst with her. So although it would be great if everything were pretty and clear cut, nothing really is in Measure for Measure.
And there are two other things for us to think about. First, why did Isabella agree to this so quickly? Well, possibly because she and her brother ended their argument on bad terms. Isabella’s compassion could only be stretched so far, but she still leaves the jail feeling guilty. So she agrees quickly so that balance may be restored.
The second thing is this: if the Duke knows this about Angelo, then why did he leave him in charge? I’m starting to think that his desire to see Vienna become lawful is bullshit – maybe he knew this would happen. Maybe he knows Angelo better than he lets on.
So Mariana sleeps with Angelo, but he thinks it’s Isabella. Claudio should be safe, right?
No, actually, because Angelo sends an order that Claudio be put to death the very next morning. This is going to be very difficult for me to explain away, because this is clearly a very villainous act. But I’m going to try.
Angelo gets what he wants when he spends the night with ‘Isabella,’ but that doesn’t change the fact that, as a character, he is very aware of the terrible thing he’s done. He is beyond thinking sensibly – he hasn’t thought sensibly since he met Isabella. If he leaves Claudio alive, then people will see that the law is just as lax as it was before. If he leaves Claudio alive, people will suspect something between him and Isabella. But if he gets what he wants and has Claudio killed, then what could happen to him, really? This isn’t necessarily a villainous person’s train of thought – this is the train of thought of someone who has been panicking for a few acts now. I don’t really pity Angelo, but I make an effort to see him as a human, because this play becomes a lot more fascinating as a result.
The Duke/Friar makes it so that Angelo is sent the disguised head of another prisoner. He hides Claudio away…and tells Isabella that her brother is dead.
DUKE, [as Friar]
He hath released him, Isabel, from the world.
His head is off, and sent to Angelo.
ISABELLA Nay, but it is not so.
DUKE, [as Friar]
It is no other.
Show your wisdom, daughter, in your close patience.
ISABELLA O, I will to him and pluck out his eyes!
DUKE, [as Friar]
You shall not be admitted to his sight.
ISABELLA Unhappy Claudio, wretched Isabel,
Injurious world, most damnèd Angelo!
Perhaps worse than Angelo is the Duke himself. Keeping Isabella in the dark like this is a terrible thing to do – she is overcome with grief, which she expresses as anger and a desire to pluck Angelo’s eyes out.
But the Duke/Friar tells her that the Duke will be back from Poland (sure) soon, and that she’ll be able to have her revenge on Angelo. She can tell the ‘Duke’ how Angelo forced her to spend the night with him.
Angelo hears about the Duke’s return. Although everything has been essentially swept away, he is still anguished.
ANGELO This deed unshapes me quite, makes me unpregnant
And dull to all proceedings. A deflowered maid,
And by an eminent body that enforced
The law against it. But that her tender shame
Will not proclaim against her maiden loss,
How might she tongue me! Yet reason dares her no,
For my authority bears a credent bulk
That no particular scandal once can touch
But it confounds the breather. He should have lived,
Save that his riotous youth with dangerous sense
Might in the times to come have ta’en revenge
By so receiving a dishonored life
With ransom of such shame. Would yet he had lived.
Alack, when once our grace we have forgot,
Nothing goes right. We would, and we would not.
Angelo regrets killing Claudio, and even regrets forcing Isabella into having sex with him. Again, this is a startling moment of clarity. He isn’t pleased with what he’s done – and now that the fervor has died off, he feels shame. How can we call Angelo a villain if he does not present us with a smug, self-satisfied front?
The last act is pretty long, but also pretty fantastic. Everything happens all at once, and it’s exhilarating. Isabella appears before the Duke, who isn’t in disguise anymore, and demands justice.
Justice, O royal duke. Vail your regard
Upon a wronged – I would fain have said, a maid.
O worthy prince, dishonor not your eye
By throwing it on any other object
Till you have heard me in my true complaint
And given me justice, justice, justice, justice.
The repetition of the word justice at the end there really works. Isabella is a fantastic speaker, and she always demands the attention of everybody around her. I really do love that about her.
Isabella explains all to the Duke – and she even calls Angelo an archvillain. That kind of works against the point of this entire post, but of course Isabella would think Angelo a villain. I’m allowed to see all sides as a reader, but Isabella can only see and process the way things are affecting her personally.
The Duke calls Isabella mad, but then Mariana steps forward and claims that Angelo slept with her. Angelo, who was silent for a bit, finally speaks and acknowledges Mariana. But as things begin to escalate, he begins to panic again. He asks the Duke to allow him to deal with these so-called insane women by himself.
The Duke, who seems really invested in making this as dramatic as possible, exits and re-enters as the Friar. When the Duke is revealed, Angelo is absolutely terrified.
ANGELO O my dread lord,
I should be guiltier than my guiltiness
To think I can be undiscernible,
When I perceive your Grace, like power divine,
Hath looked upon my passes. Then, good prince,
No longer session hold upon my shame,
But let my trial be mine own confession.
Immediate sentence then and sequent death
Is all the grace I beg.
Angelo is prepared to pay for what he’s done – again, it’s because he knows it was wrong. He does have a sense of right and wrong – his actions are what really work against him in this play.
The Duke forces Angelo to marry Mariana, but then sentences him to death anyway. I will say that Mariana is pretty pleased with the marriage, but not pleased at all with the death sentence. It’s almost like she knows that Angelo isn’t as terrible as he appears – she says that he is the man she desires to marry. Very strange – what does she know that we don’t?
Mariana begs for Angelo’s life – and then she asks Isabella to beg for him as well.
There’s no way Isabella could do this, you think. Absolutely no way. She called Angelo an archvillain, she hates him with ever fiber of her being.
But then she kneels down and begs for his life.
First, I think it’s important to say that Isabella, despite not being perfect, has some very divine qualities to her. She is very passionate and can get carried away, but she is merciful and compassionate. Second, what on earth did Angelo feel, seeing Isabella actually get on her knees and beg for his life? If he didn’t love her before, I’m quite sure he loves her now. I’m sure he’s shocked at how merciful she is – maybe it inspires feelings of wishing that he were that way as well.
But we are at the end of the play, and there is no space for a reconciliation of any kind to happen between Angelo and Isabella. Instead, the Duke begins to pair people off with one another. Angelo will remain married to Mariana, and the Duke himself will marry Isabella.
And Isabella is silent.
Not to be dramatic, but I felt Isabella’s silence in my bones. My heart literally sunk for her – all she wanted was to be a nun. And even that was torn away from her by this Duke that doesn’t even ask for her hand in marriage – he demands it. What does Isabella do while silent? Does she give Claudio a look? One that asks him to think about what his actions have done to her? Or does she look at Angelo questioningly, still desperate to understand everything that’s happened, wondering if he knew that things would end this way?
Isabella is wronged at the end of this play. And although she was wronged by Angelo multiple times, she is wronged by the Duke most of all.
But, because this is technically a comedy, Isabella has to end up with somebody. That’s the Shakespearean rule. If not the Duke, then who?
Well – Angelo.
I know that this is extremely controversial, but hear me out. I think that Angelo met his match when he encountered Isabella, and Isabella found hers in Angelo. They challenge each other as characters, both of them incredibly passionate about what they’ve chosen to dedicate their lives to. And, if staged correctly, if the director is committed to avoiding drawing boxes around the characters, I would even go as far as to say that there is chemistry between them. Even when the topic is unrelated to sex, Isabella and Angelo have conversations that are just electrifying to experience as a reader. And because I think so, I had to put a disclaimer at the top of this post.
Measure for Measure, like Love’s Labor’s Lost, is one of those plays that I wish had a sequel. I find myself worrying for Isabella, because I know that she won’t be happy with the Duke. I know that Angelo won’t be happy with Mariana, even though she’ll be happy with him. And I know that there will always be a strange cloud hanging over these characters as they encounter each other again and again, as they are bound to do.
I always wonder what a good first Shakespeare play would be. Certainly not Hamlet, that much is sure. And although the histories are my favorite, one has to put a lot of effort into reading them. But maybe Measure for Measure is the answer – it’s dramatic, and could lead to hundreds of interesting discussions in the classroom. Its unpopularity is totally undeserved – this play was amazing, and I think it’s safe to say that it’s one of my favorites that I’ve read this entire year.
There is a part of me that is terrified to write about Othello. Can I do this play justice? Will my words mean anything? Will my thoughts come off as shallow?
I love Shakespeare, that much is true. And – please don’t read this as boasting – I have been told more than once that I have a natural talent when it comes to the Bard. Despite all of this, I’m always hesitant to speak up, because I have a great fear of saying the wrong thing. One wrong thing, I always think, could ruin my reputation of being a natural Shakespearean. I promised myself I would write a post for every play I read. And I promised myself to read every single play left unread to me – that included Othello. So here I am.
If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you know that I’m not a big fan of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Macbeth, particularly, is the bane of my existence. But it would be unfair of me to ignore the genius and artistry of Othello. I can say without the slightest hint of exaggeration that it’s one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces. Harold C. Goddard goes on about Othello for pages, unable to stop digging into this play. Speaking of Goddard – he definitely deserves the credit for this post, even though I’m the one typing it out. As always, I highly recommend both volumes of The Meaning of Shakespeare. The more I read, the most convinced I am that they are the height of Shakespearean analysis.
We open in Venice, where Iago is speaking with Roderigo.
RODERIGO Thou toldst me thou didst hold him in thy hate.
IAGO Despise me
If I do not. Three great ones of the city,
In personal suit to make me his lieutenant,
Off-capped to him; and, by the faith of man,
I know my price, I am worth no worse a place.
But he, as loving his own pride and purposes,
Evades them with a bombast circumstance,
Horribly stuffed with epithets of war,
And in conclusion,
Nonsuits my mediators. For “Certes,” says he,
“I have already chose my officer.”
And what was he?
Forsooth, a great arithmetician,
One Michael Cassio, a Florentine,
A fellow almost damned in a fair wife,
That never set squadron in a field,
Nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster – unless the bookish theoric,
Wherein the togèd consuls can propose
As masterly as he. Mere prattle without practice
Is all his soldiership. But he, sir, had th’ election;
And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof
At Rhodes, at Cyprus, and on other grounds
Christened and heathen, must beleed and calmed
By debtor and creditor. This countercaster,
He, in good time, must his lieutenant be,
And I, God bless the mark, his Moorship’s ancient.
Iago hates Othello for giving the lieutenancy to Cassio. He absolutely refuses to try to understand why Cassio was chosen over him. He saw himself as the superior choice and now, instead of making an effort to improve upon himself so that he can move up later, Iago becomes consumed with an obsessive hatred, the likes of which Shakespeare had never written before.
Iago is often called Shakespeare’s most successful villain – he is unmatched in his villainy. While I still prefer Richard III, I do understand where all the scholars are coming from. In Richard III, multiple characters are suspicious of Richard. Some of them even know what he’s doing. But in Othello, Iago manages to act while unnoticed. I do think that Richard could have done the same – it was his ugliness that prevented the other characters from trusting and loving him. Iago is not handicapped by his appearance or by anything else, really. And so he is able to bring things to a vicious boil before he is found out. Richard attempts to play the innocent, but is never fully successful due to his appearance. Iago, on the other hand, succeeds.
To Goddard, Iago is the very picture of modern war. “But let [modern war] look in the glass and it will behold Iago. In him Shakespeare reveals, with the clarity of nightmare, that unrestrained intellect, instead of being the opposite of force, and an antidote for it, as much of the modern world thinks, is force functioning on another plane. It is the immoral equivalent of war, and as certain to lead it in due season as Iago’s machinations were to lead to death.”
Roderigo has cause to hate Othello as well, it turns out. He feels entitled to Desdemona, who has gone and married Othello. To create the very first spark of drama, Iago and Roderigo go to wake Desdemona’s father, Brabantio. Why, you ask? To tell him that his daughter has run off with Othello, of course.
RODERIGO […] If ‘t be your pleasure and most wise consent –
As partly I find it is – that you fair daughter,
At this odd-even and dull watch o’ th’ night,
Transported with no worse nor better guard
But with a knave of common hire, a gondolier,
To the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor:
If this be known to you, and your allowance,
We then have done your bold and saucy wrongs.
But if you know not this, my manners tell me
We have your wrong rebuke. Do not believe
That from the sense of all civility
I thus would play and trifle with your Reverence.
Your daughter, if you have not given her leave,
I say again, hath made a gross revolt,
Tying her duty, beauty, wit, and fortunes
In an extravagant and wheeling stranger
Of here and everywhere. Straight satisfy yourself.
If she be in her chamber or your house,
Let loose on my the justice of the state
For thus deluding you.
Roderigo has to be the one to say these words, of course. Iago plays the role of everybody’s friend in this play – he is very careful not to speak ill of Othello to anybody but Roderigo who, to be completely honest, isn’t that clever.
Desdemona isn’t in her chamber, and Brabantio erupts into a fury. Iago scampers off to warn Othello of Brabantio’s anger, but Othello is unfazed. He knows he hasn’t done anything wrong, and has not forced Desdemona’s hand.
Othello is called before the Duke, and brings the fuming Brabantio with him.
DUKE Valiant Othello, we must straight employ you
Against the general enemy Ottoman.
[To Brabantio.] I did not see you. Welcome, gentle signior.
We lacked your counsel and your help tonight.
BRABANTIO So did I yours. Good your Grace, pardon me.
Neither my place nor aught I heard of business
Hath raised me from my bed, nor doth the general care
Take hold on me, for my particular grief
Is of so floodgate and o’erbearing nature
That it engluts and swallows other sorrows
And is still itself.
DUKE Why, what’s the matter?
BRABANTIO My daughter! O, my daughter!
Naturally, the Duke is prepared to punish the person who took Desdemona from her father. But that person is Othello, and he admits to the marriage. He tells them that no witchcraft took place – he is prepared to explain all.
BRABANTIO A maiden never bold,
Of spirit so still and quiet that her motion
Blushed at herself. And she, in spite of nature,
Of years, of country, credit, everything,
To fall in love with what she feared to look on!
Desdemona’s father describes her as never bold. The men in this play constantly assume to know what the women are thinking and feeling, never bothering to ask them directly until they are forced to. It is why everything falls to pieces – it’s something that Iago can count upon.
While Desdemona is being sent for, Othello recounts the story of how they came together. Othello charmed her with the stories he used to tell – stories that Desdemona would devour. Shakespeare clearly intended for there to be something masculine in Desdemona, if her love for Othello’s violent stories is anything to go by. Her father sees her as a white little dove, completely two dimensional and shallow. But Othello clearly sees more in her.
Desdemona finally enters and sets everything straight.
DESDEMONA My noble father,
I do perceive here a divided duty.
To you I am bound for life and education.
My life and education both do learn me
How to respect you. You are the lord of duty.
I am hitherto your daughter. But here’s my husband.
And so much duty as my mother showed
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor my lord.
As soon as Desdemona spoke, I knew I was being faced with yet another character who has been accused time and time again of being weak and foolish. That said, I am here to defend her. Desdemona is not weak, and this passage tells us so. She succeeds where Ophelia did not – she is not willing to sacrifice her own happiness just to satisfy her father. She will sacrifice everything for love, but will not bend to authority. This is Desdemona’s strength.
The Duke sends Othello to Cyprus, and allows Desdemona to go with him. That was the real reason Othello was called before the Duke – this Desdemona business just happened to distract everyone for a moment. We should be blunt for a moment and recognize that the marriage was being called into question because Othello is black.
I am editing this post days after it was posted because it bothers me how little I discussed race initially. Othello is a play about race – there is no arguing this point. But who is Othello, really? Was he meant to fall into the stereotypes the Elizabethans believed about black people?
My answer to this is that we just don’t know. When I read this play, I saw Othello as a calm, strong, just man. But that was my reading – I’m sure that people have played Othello as violent, angry, and treacherous. But he can’t be, because Desdemona loves him. Her love is unconditional, and although she can only see the good in people, she is not so blind that she would love someone awful. So I declare that Othello, despite being black, was not what Elizabethans imagined black people to be.
I mentioned why Desdemona fell in love with Othello – she saw things in him that others refused to see because they were too busy concerning themselves with the color of his skin. But why does Othello love Desdemona? Well, because for the first time in his life, someone sees him. Desdemona does not see a brute of a general, she sees a kind, loving, and good man. I have no doubt that nobody has ever seen Othello this way – and if people always look at you through the lens of their own prejudices, you may begin to think that their ideas about you are true. So Desdemona sees Othello for who he is, and he is then able to see himself through her eyes. He sees her goodness, and he loves how she can love and understand people regardless of who they are or what they look like.
That said, Iago is not only successful because he is capable of putting on a convincing guise of innocence – he is successful because he is white. White privilege also permeates this play, and it’s important for us to recognize it.
When we write about Othello, we tend to discuss Iago at length. He is, after all, Shakespeare’s ‘greatest villain.’ But to ignore the title character is to ignore what this play is actually about – I fell into that trap myself with the first iteration of this post. Othello is about race whether we choose to discuss it or not. And now that I’ve properly established that, we can move on.
OTHELLO So, please your Grace, my ancient.
A man he is of honesty and trust.
To his conveyance I assign my wife,
With what else needful your good Grace shall think
To be sent after me.
Othello has Iago accompany Desdemona to Cyprus. To the audience, this is a terrible idea. To Othello, and to literally everyone else, Iago is as trustworthy and kind as they come. I have to say that this play can be frustrating at times – there were multiple instances where I was desperate for someone to suspect Iago. But he is simply just too good at what he does.
Roderigo, in an attempt to be dramatic, threatens suicide now that Desdemona has been lost to him. Iago immediately scolds him for this – he knows that having Roderigo in Cyprus will be useful to him, one way or another. So he convinces him to pack his bags and follow them. Roderigo, fool that he is, decides to sell all of his land. Left alone, Iago tells us his true intentions.
IAGO Thus do I ever make my fool my purse.
For I mine own gained knowledge should profane
If I would time expend with such a snipe
But for my sport and profit. I hate the Moor,
And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets
‘Has done my office. I know not if ‘t be true,
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety. He holds me well.
The better shall my purpose work on him.
Cassio’s a proper man. Let me see now:
To get his place and to plume my will
In double knavery – How? how? – Let’s see.
After some time, to abuse Othello’s ear
That he is too familiar with his wife.
He hath a person and a smooth dispose
To be suspected, framed to make women false.
The Moor is of a free and open nature
That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,
And will as tenderly be led by th’ nose
As asses are.
I have ‘t. It is engendered. Hell and night
Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.
Most of us, I think, are familiar enough with the plot of Othello. We know that Iago sets Othello against poor Desdemona by accusing her of being unfaithful with Cassio. But seeing it written out on the page really makes it clear just how cold the blood running through Iago’s veins is. He would seek revenge on Othello, but it is clear that he doesn’t care who else is brought down in the process. He involves Cassio because he wanted the lieutenancy. But he involves Desdemona because he needs another pawn for his game.
As luck would have it, the Turks are drowned. That takes care of that, I suppose. While Desdemona nervously waits for Othello to arrive safely, she speaks with Iago.
Desdemona and Iago do not interact with one another very often, which is strange because everything he does affects her. To Goddard, they are two sides of a coin. Interestingly, to him, fused together, they would be Hamlet. “Hamlet’s most endearing traits – his ingenuousness, his modesty, his truthfulness, his freedom, his courage, his love, his sympathetic imagination – are all Desdemona’s. His darker and more detestable ones – his suspicion, his coarseness, his sarcastic wit, his critical intellect, his callousness, his cruelty, his sensuality, his savage hatred, his bloodiness, his revenge – are all Iago’s.” I do like this observation, but we could just simply say that Desdemona is good and Iago is evil. Whether or not they come together to make Hamlet is debatable.
Othello eventually arrives unscathed.
OTHELLO O, my fair warrior!
DESDEMONA My dear Othello!
OTHELLO It gives me wonder great as my content
To see you here before me. O my soul’s joy!
If after every tempest come such calms,
May the winds blow till they have wakened death,
And let the laboring bark climb hills of sea
Olympus high, and duck again as low
As hell’s from heaven! 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.
I want to ignore the obvious love that exists between Othello and Desdemona for a minute and focus on what he’s saying here. He hopes for another tempest, because they bring the promise of the kind of joy he is experiencing. But Othello should be careful with his wishing – a storm is approaching them. And it’s name is Iago.
Iago, meanwhile, takes it upon himself to convince Roderigo that Desdemona is romantically involved with Cassio. I suppose he could have roped Roderigo in a different way – he could have told him the plan as he told it to the audience. But, as I said, Roderigo is not that clever. Iago knows this, and is saving a lot of time by lying to him as well.
RODERIGO I cannot believe that in her. She’s full of most blessed condition.
IAGO Blessed fig’s end! The wine she drinks is made of grapes. If she had been blessed, she would never have loved the Moor. Blessed pudding! Didst thou not see her paddle with the palm of his hand? Didst not mark that?
And, just like that, Roderigo is convinced. Iago’s great skill is manipulation – but it’s not like he has to put a lot of effort in when it comes to poor, brainless Roderigo.
At night, Iago gets Cassio drunk. A scuffle breaks out – Cassio fights Roderigo (but does not kill him, sadly), and wounds an official of Cyprus. Othello wakes up to this mess and, after Iago explains what happened, strips poor Cassio of his lieutenancy.
IAGO What, are you hurt, lieutenant?
CASSIO Ay, past all surgery.
IAGO Marry, God forbid!
CASSIO Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!
Iago, of course, calls Cassio ‘lieutant’ simply to rub salt in the wound. He pulls Cassio together and advises him to seek out Desdemona. Iago is sure that she’ll want to help, and will ask Othello to return the lieutenancy to Cassio.
Iago, interestingly, is always at the scene of whatever ruckus he causes. I can’t help but think he enjoys watching everything unfold. He makes himself available to pick the pieces up – but only so he can rearrange the puzzle to suit his own desires. With Cassio gone, Iago addresses us once again.
IAGO And what’s he, then, that says I play the villain,
When this advice is free I give and honest,
Probal to thinking, and indeed the course
To win the Moor again? For ’tis most easy
Th’ inclining Desdemona to subdue
In any honest suit. She’s framed as fruitful
As the free elements. And then for her
To win the Moor – were ‘t to renounce his baptism,
All seals and symbols of redeemèd sin –
His soul is so enfettered to her love
That she may make, unmake, do what she list,
Even as he appetite shall play the god
With his weak function. How am I then a villain
To counsel Cassio to this parallel course
Directly to his good? Divinity of hell!
When devils will the blackest sins put on,
They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,
As I do now. For whiles this honest fool
Plies Desdemona to repair his fortune,
And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,
I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear:
That she repeals him for his body’s lust;
And by how much she strives to do him good,
She shall undo her credit with the Moor.
So will I turn her virtue into pitch,
And out of her own goodness make the net
That shall enmesh them all.
It says enough about Iago that he is willing to prey upon Desdemona’s goodness. Truly a terrible man – and yet, an excellent villain. It makes it difficult to decide how to feel about him.
Cassio asks Desdemona for help, but quickly escapes once he sees Othello approach.
OTHELLO Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?
IAGO Cassio, my lord? No, sure, I cannot think it
That he would steal away so guiltylike,
Seeing your coming.
Here we go. Iago continues to lay the foundations for his plot. Why would Cassio slink away so guiltily? he asks innocently.
OTHELLO “Think, my lord?” By heaven, thou echo’st me
As if there were some monster in thy thought
Too hideous to be shown. Thou dost mean something.
I heard thee say even now, thou lik’st not that,
When Cassio left my wife. What didst not like?
And when I told thee he was of my counsel
In my whole course of wooing, thou cried’st “Indeed?”
And didst contract and purse thy brow together
As if thou then hadst shut up in thy brain
Some horrible conceit. It thou dost love me,
Show my my thought.
Othello eventually becomes frustrated with Iago’s vagueness and demands he share his thoughts plainly. How quickly Othello took Iago’s bait! Iago continues to plant seeds of doubt in Othello’s mind.
OTHELLO Farewell, farewell!
If more thou dost perceive, let me know more.
Set on thy wife to observe. Leave me, Iago.
IAGO, [beginning to exit.]
My lord, I take my leave.
OTHELLO Why did I marry? This honest creature doubtless
Sees and knows more, much more, than he unfolds.
My lord, I would I might entreat your Honor
To scan this thing no farther. Leave it to time.
Does Iago exit and then return to make this charade more realistic? Or did he leave, remember that he needs some kind of insurance, and then return? Either he is unmatched in his villainy, or there is some part of him that is playing this by ear. Either way, Othello is in deep.
But why was it so easy for Iago to catch Othello in his net? Well, because Othello can scarcely believe that Desdemona loves him. Why should she love someone like him? Othello is insecure in his way, and I am sure that Iago knows this. The mere suggestion of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness pops the bubble he’s been living in. He believes he was right all along to think that their relationship was too good to be true.
Desdemona enters and finds Othello.
DESDEMONA Why do you speak so faintly? Are you not well?
OTHELLO I have a pain upon my forehead, here.
DESDEMONA Faith, that’s with the watching. ‘Twill away again.
Let me but bind it hard; within this hour
It will be well.
OTHELLO Your napkin is too little.
Let it alone.
[The handkerchief falls, unnoticed.]
Come, I’ll go in with you.
DESDEMONA I am very sorry that you are not well.
I wanted this exchange here because it will be very important later. The handkerchief falling is a huge deal – but who drops it?
Emilia picks it up and gives it to Iago. Great, yet another thing he can use against Desdemona and Cassio.
Othello goes mad with jealousy – everything he was before is gone. He is practically unrecognizable now. Iago played him for a fool and succeeded.
OTHELLO Give me a living reason she’s disloyal.
IAGO I do not like the office,
But sith I am entered in this cause so far,
Pricked to ‘t by foolish honesty and love,
I will go on. I lay with Cassio lately,
And being troubled with a raging tooth
I could not sleep. There are a kind of men
So loose of soul that in their sleeps will mutter
Their affairs. One of this kind is Cassio.
In sleep I heard him say “Sweet Desdemona,
Let us be wary, let us hide our loves.”
And then, sir, would he gripe and wring my hand,
Cry “O sweet creature!” then kiss me hard,
As if he plucked up kisses by the roots
That grew upon my lips; then laid his leg
O’er my thigh, and sighed, and kissed, and then
Cried “Cursèd fate that gave thee to the Moor!”
OTHELLO O monstrous! Monstrous!
What on earth. Iago’s story is ridiculous – I have no idea why he decided to add so much unnecessary detail to it. Apparently, Cassio makes fully formed sentences and kisses in his sleep. And, apparently, Iago just lay there as this entire thing took place. But Othello is blinded by his jealousy – even the most ridiculous of stories is believable to him now.
Othello is convinced by this “proof” – he vows to kill Desdemona. Iago will kill Cassio and, what do you know? Iago is given the lieutenancy.
Desdemona, kind creature that she is, is intent on healing the wound between Othello and Cassio.
EMILIA Is he not jealous?
DESDEMONA Who, he? I think the sun where he was born
Drew all such humors for him.
This tiny exchange made me sad. Desdemona is so happy to have someone like Othello by her side – because she is good, she can only see good in him. To be fair, Othello was lovely before Iago got into his head. That is why she is able to say these things without sounding silly.
Othello enters, and begins to question Desdemona about the handkerchief. See, he believes she’s given it to Cassio. I wonder where he could have heard such a thing.
DESDEMONA It is not lost, but what an if it were?
DESDEMONA I say it is not lost.
OTHELLO Fetch ‘t. Let me see ‘t!
DESDEMONA Why, so I can. But I will not now.
This is a trick to put me from my suit.
Pray you, let Cassio be received again.
OTHELLO Fetch me the handkerchief! [Aside.] My mind misgives.
DESDEMONA Come, come.
You’ll never meet a more sufficient man.
OTHELLO The handkerchief!
DESDEMONA A man that all his time
Hath founded his good fortunes on your love;
Shared dangers with you –
OTHELLO The handkerchief!
DESDEMONA I’ faith, you are to blame.
EMILIA Is not this man jealous?
DESDEMONA I ne’er saw this before.
Sure, there’s some wonder in this handkerchief!
I am most unhappy in the loss of it.
Now, tell me – if Desdemona were actually guilty, would she keep bringing Cassio up like this? No, of course not. She promised to help Cassio, and that’s what she keeps trying to do.
But who dropped the handkerchief?
Shakespeare doesn’t specify, but I say it was Othello. She tries to wrap his head in it, and he brushes her off. Thus, the handkerchief falls to the ground. Desdemona doesn’t notice because she is overwhelmed with concern for her husband. Her love and concern for him are absolute – the handkerchief falling to the ground did not distract her from her husband.
Cassio, meanwhile, finds the handkerchief in his room. He gives it to Bianca – a prostitute who is in love with him – and asks her to copy the embroidery on it. What can I say? The man wants a handkerchief embroidered with strawberries. I’d want one as well.
Iago continues to torture Othello with his stories about Desdemona and Cassio. Othello, eventually, has a fit and passes out. Iago graciously waits for him to awake before making things worse.
IAGO Stand you awhile apart.
Confine yourself but in a patient list.
Whilst you were here, o’erwhelmèd with your grief –
A passion most unsuiting such a man –
Cassio came hither. I shifted him away
And laid good ‘scuses upon your ecstasy,
Bade him anon return and here speak with me,
The which he promised. Do but encave yourself,
And mark the fleers, the gibes, and notable scorns
That dwell in every region of his face.
For I will make him tell the tale anew –
Where, how, how oft, how long ago, and when
He hath and is again to cope your wife.
I say but mark his gesture. Marry, patience,
Or I shall say you’re all in all in spleen,
And nothing of a man.
Iago positions Othello so that he is able to see a conversation between Iago and Cassio. The keyword here is see – Othello doesn’t hear much of this conversation. Iago, of course, speaks to him about Bianca. Othello sees Cassio’s face and how he gestures and absolutely loses his mind.
Bianca arrives with the handkerchief in hand – and Othello sees this as well.
OTHELLO, [coming forward]
How shall I murder him, Iago?
IAGO Did you perceive how he laughed at his vice?
OTHELLO O Iago!
IAGO And did you see the handkerchief?
OTHELLO Was that mine?
IAGO Yours, by this hand! And to see how he prizes the foolish woman your wife! She gave it him, and he hath giv’n it his whore.
Othello resolves to kill Desdemona once again – and at Iago’s suggestion, decides to strangle her in the very bed she betrayed him in.
Lodovico, a Venetian gentleman, arrives and gives Othello a letter. Desdemona sees Othello bristle at the letter as he reads it.
LODOVICO May be the letter moved him.
For, as I think, they do command him home,
Deputing Cassio in his government.
DESDEMONA By my troth, I am glad on ‘t.
DESDEMONA My lord?
OTHELLO I am glad to see you mad.
DESDEMONA Why, sweet Othello!
OTHELLO, [striking her]
DESDEMONA I have not deserved this.
LODOVICO My lord, this would not be believed in Venice,
Though I should swear I saw ‘t. ‘Tis very much.
Make her amends. She weeps.
Poor Desdemona. She does not deserve this – she leaves sadly, and does not seem to be angry at Othello. She’s confused, yes, but not angry at him for what he’s done. Her love for him is so pure, so unwavering – and still, all she can ever do is see the good in people.
Othello torments her further by accusing her of being a whore right to her face.
DEDEMONA By heaven, you do me wrong!
OTHELLO Are you not a strumpet?
DESDEMONA No, as I am a Christian!
If to preserve the vessel for my lord
From any other foul unlawful touch
Be not to be a strumpet, I am none.
OTHELLO What, not a whore?
DESDEMONA No, as I shall be saved.
I admire how forcefully Desdemona defends herself. Othello is in too deep to listen to what she is saying – he let Iago think and speak for Desdemona, but refuses to listen to her as she speaks for herself. This will ultimately lead to his downfall.
Othello leaves, and Emilia finds Desdemona in a daze.
EMILIA Alas, what does this gentleman conceive?
How do you, madam? How do you, my good lady?
DESDEMONA Faith, half asleep.
EMILIA Good madam, what’s the matter with my lord?
DESDEMONA With who?
EMILIA Why, with my lord, madam.
DESDEMONA Who is thy lord?
EMILIA He that is yours, sweet lady.
DESDEMONA I have none. Do not talk to me, Emilia.
I cannot weep, nor answers have I none.
But what should go by water. Prithee, tonight
Lay on my bed my wedding sheets. Remember.
And call thy husband hither.
Here’s a change indeed.
DESDEMONA ‘Tis meet I should have been used so, very meet.
How have I been behaved that he might stick
The small’st opinion on my least misuse?
Desdemona ominously asks Emilia to put her wedding sheets on the bed, and asks to speak to Iago. And when Emilia leaves, Desdemona cannot help but wonder if she’s done something wrong. She doesn’t speak ill of Othello. Desdemona is truly divine in her love – it’s like she isn’t even of this earth.
When Iago arrives, he is uncharacteristically kind to Desdemona. Oh, he’s good at being fake-kind, of course, but this is something else entirely.
DESDEMONA Am I that name, Iago?
IAGO What name, fair lady?
DESDEMONA Such as she said my lord did say I was.
EMILIA He called her “whore.” A beggar in his drink
Could not have laid such terms upon his callet.
IAGO Why did he so?
DESDEMONA I do not know. I am sure I am none such.
IAGO Do not weep, do not weep! Alas the day!
Iago is a master at feigning compassion, this is true. But his words are so simple and sympathetic – almost out of character for him. And it continues.
IAGO I pray you be content. ‘Tis but his humor.
The business of the state does him offense,
And he does chide with you.
DESDEMONA If ’twere no other –
IAGO It is but so, I warrant.
Hark how these instruments summon to supper.
The messengers of Venice stays the meat.
Go in and weep not. All things shall be well.
While reading, I had a thought. It seemed silly, but Goddard ended up echoing it word for word. We wondered – who taught Iago how to be so convincingly sympathetic? None of what he says to Desdemona is truly genuine, of course. But how does he know what to say?
Being around Desdemona awakens the sympathy in him that is constantly being suffocated by his hatred and cruelty. “To feign goodness successfully it is not enough that we should have had experience with goodness in the past; we must retain the potential goodness. Otherwise the counterfeit will be crude. Iago’s is so true it could be passed for genuine coin. It was the unconscious Iago that made it so. […] Only let that individual be taken off guard, suddenly confronted with some circumstance or person alien to the world to which he has conditioned himself, and that fundamental human nature will reassert itself.” Goddard recalls how Raskolnikov is reborn after being kissed by a little girl in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (a book that is very close to my heart). Although we never see Iago truly reborn, we can say that his short interaction with Desdemona leaves him shaken. Iago said before that Desdemona has the power to calm feelings of anger or revenge – why should he be immune?
Iago is either human, or he is a true villain. I say that he is human, and that it makes him all the more interesting.
But back to villainy. Iago convinces poor, stupid Roderigo that the best way to keep Desdemona around is to murder Cassio. Hey, he has to get rid of him one way or another, doesn’t he?
IAGO I have rubbed this young quat almost to the sense,
And he grows angry. Now, whether he kills Cassio,
Or Cassio him, or each do kill the other,
Every way makes my gain. Live Roderigo,
He calls me to a restitution large
Of gold and jewels that I bobbed from him
As gifts to Desdemona.
It must not be. If Cassio do remain,
He hath a daily beauty in his life
That makes me ugly. And besides, the Moor
May unfold me to him. There stand I in much peril.
No, he must die. Be ‘t so. I hear him coming.
Again, instead of improving upon himself, Iago would much rather just get rid of Cassio. But he also needs to get rid of Roderigo now. He’s put himself in quite the tight spot.
Roderigo is unsuccessful in his attempt to kill Cassio. Cassio, however, does manage to hut him pretty badly. Iago takes this opportunity to stab Cassio in the leg before leaving. As usual, he was loitering at the scene just to make sure that everything unfolded in his favor.
Iago returns and plays the innocent. He kills Roderigo to punish him for stabbing Cassio. That’s one problem nipped in the bud.
Othello enters his bedchamber and wakes Desdemona up with a kiss.
OTHELLO Peace, and be still.
DESDEMONA I will so. What’s the matter?
OTHELLO That handkerchief
Which I so loved, and gave thee, thou gav’st to Cassio.
DESDEMONA No, by my life and soul! Send for the man
And ask him.
OTHELLO Sweet soul, take heed, take heed of perjury.
Thou art on thy deathbed.
DESDEMONA Ay, but not yet to die.
Oh, poor Desdemona. I kept wishing that Othello would listen to her, even for a moment. In Julius Caesar, the men ignore Calphurnia – that leads to Caesar’s death. Here, Othello makes the same mistake.
Othello insists that Cassio has confessed to the infidelity, and tells Desdemona that Iago has killed him.
Alas, he is betrayed, and I am undone.
OTHELLO Out, strumpet! Weep’st thou for him to my face?
DESDEMONA O banish me, my lord, but kill me not!
OTHELLO Down, strumpet!
DESDEMONA Kill me tomorrow, let me live tonight.
OTHELLO Nay, if you strive –
DESDEMONA But half an hour!
OTHELLO Being done, there is no pause.
DESDEMONA But while I say one prayer!
OTHELLO It is too late.
[He smothers her.]
Desdemona weeps for Cassio because she is good. But Othello is beyond being able to see that. She desperately begs him for her life, but he smothers her anyway. Othello’s love for Desdemona was not as strong as her love for him – if it had been, he would have never been able to kill her in this way. He loved her, but it wasn’t enough.
Emilia enters, and is in shock at what she sees. She is not scared of Othello, though – then again, Emilia is not scared of much. I love her for that. Iago enters with Gratiano (a Venetian gentleman) and Montano (the official of Cyprus that Cassio hurt in the drunken scuffle).
EMILIA, [to Iago]
Disprove this villain, if thou be’st a man.
He says thou told’st him that his wife was false.
I know thou didst not. Thou’rt not such a villain.
Speak, for my heart is full.
IAGO I told him what I thought, and told no more
Than what he found himself was apt and true.
EMILIA But did you ever tell him she was false?
IAGO I did.
EMILIA You told a lie, an odious, damnèd lie!
Upon my soul, a lie, a wicked lie!
She false with Cassio? Did you say with Cassio?
IAGO With Cassio, mistress. Go to! Charm your tongue.
EMILIA I will not charm my tongue. I am bound to speak.
My mistress here lies murdered in her bed.
Iago is a good villain, that much is true. But he wasn’t counting on Emilia to be his downfall – his villainy was nowhere near as perfect as he thought it was.
IAGO Zounds, hold your peace!
EMILIA ‘Twill out, ’twill out. I peace?
No, I will speak as liberal as the north.
Let heaven and men and devils, let them all,
All, all, cry shame against me, yet I’ll speak.
IAGO Be wise, and get you home.
[He draws his sword.]
EMILIA I will not.
Iago spent a lot of this play calling Emilia a fool and, for the most part, being unnecessarily sharp with her. He didn’t think to trick her as well – he probably thought she was too stupid to be a threat. What a huge mistake! Emilia reveals all, and Iago has officially been found out. He should have covered all of his bases.
Iago kills Emilia, but it’s far too late.
Othello stabs Iago – but not to death. He then stabs himself – because he would rather kill the part of himself that Iago managed to ruin than stay alive. He dies, and Iago is taken off to be tortured.
Iago was not the same after his conversation with Desdemona. I believe he was shaken by her presence, by her radiant goodness. It threw him off, and that is why he failed. He wasn’t threatened by the women but, oh, he should have been.
That’s it for Othello. This month is Measure for Measure and Coriolanus. After that, there are only four plays left! Time has definitely flown – what will I do after?
I’m a big believer in spending money on theatre. I’ve been to enough plays to know that the cheap seats are a waste of money. But I wanted to see Hamlet very badly – so badly, in fact, that I resigned myself to a $30 ticket. Trust me, if I had $100 lying around, I would have been in the middle of the first row. As luck would have it, my $30 seat was great for what it was. I was very close to the stage (a condition that always has to be met no matter what), and I could see facial expressions very clearly. What more could a girl want?
The set of this production of Hamlet was all gold. It told us that Elsinore was a glittering place – one that was hiding a dark and terrible secret. When the play opened, the characters came out in the gaudiest costumes I had ever seen. Every single character was dressed in the brightest colors imaginable – and then there was Hamlet, dressed completely in black from his ruff to his boots. I loved the stark contrast that the costume designer decided to go for.
Grantham Coleman absolutely knew what he was doing while playing Hamlet. Of course, there is no such thing as a perfect portrayal of Hamlet. Shakespeare simply made the character far too complicated to capture. It really makes me wonder how Hamlet was played in Elizabethan England. There was something desperate about Coleman’s Hamlet, and I just adored that. My view of Hamlet is that he’s very desperate, and he’s been given a task that he is just unable to do. He doesn’t have it in him, and the weight of knowing that the task of avenging his father is in his hands alone cripples him.
When the Ghost (who was glowing in a strange, lit up ensemble) boomed, “Mark me,” Hamlet responded with the most desperate and broken, “I will.” You could really feel his terror while the Ghost was speaking to him – his terror, and the pain he felt at seeing his father. Hamlet’s wounds had no time to close before they were torn open again by the sight of the Ghost – and that causes him to splinter. After his encounter with the Ghost, Hamlet wears an unbuttoned doublet that has the words “REMEMBER ME,” painted all over it in red. He cannot escape the task he’s been set to.
Ophelia (Talisa Friedman), as you all know, is my favorite character in Hamlet. I did, after all, rattle on about her for half of my post on the play. Here, she was played with a sort of air of exasperation. To be completely honest, I didn’t love it. I think Ophelia is most successful when she is played as a quiet, unassuming, and relatively meek young woman. She should be played as the very picture of innocence, I think. I want an Ophelia that is utterly selfless, that gives her love away freely despite the fact that she is being tugged around like a puppet on strings. When played as someone who is capable of exasperation at her father and brother, Ophelia no longer comes off as someone who is capable of being broken. But she does break – she simply cannot stand what happens.
I want to go back to costuming for a moment – remember how I said that Hamlet was dressed in all black at the beginning? Well, Ophelia was dressed in a gaudy blue like the others. I would have put her in more muted tones, if only to show the connection between her and Hamlet. In fact, I would have changed Ophelia’s styling completely. I would have liked to see a bookish Ophelia, whose intelligence and selflessness pulls Hamlet toward her. I’m not sure how much I liked the giggly, exasperated teenager we were given. As a character, Ophelia can balance out Hamlet’s dark and dour moods without having to be just like everybody else. Hamlet and Ophelia don’t need an opposites attract dynamic to be interesting.
There is much debate about whether or not Hamlet and Ophelia have had sex. This production implied that they did – or that they had some physicality to their relationship, at least. When Hamlet very cruelly tells Ophelia, “I did love you once,” Ophelia responds with, “Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.” It’s a very sad line, really, that was delivered strangely. And after it was delivered, Ophelia lunged herself at Hamlet for a passionate kiss. This really rubbed me the wrong way. I am not against Hamlet and Ophelia being physical with one another, but think about what he has just told her. Ophelia should have shrunk away from him, heartbroken at what he’s just said to her. Her response should have been tinged with a sweet melancholy. Why on earth would she try to kiss him with such gusto?
Ophelia really came into her own after she went mad. Of course, I think Ophelia should come off as strong and be given agency before she loses her mind, but I think this production failed a bit in that respect. Seeing her mad tugged at my heartstrings – poor Ophelia. Something in her was breakable after all, and losing Polonius completely shatters her.
Nothing was more painful than Hamlet’s heartbroken, “I loved Ophelia,” as he fought against the people who were restraining him and keeping him apart from Laertes. The delivery of this line was heartwrenching – you could practically see the pain tearing through Hamlet at this admission.
Gertrude (Opal Alladin) was a very sympathetic character in this production. She came off as someone who was swept away in all of this madness, someone who didn’t choose it at all. When she calls Hamlet to her dressing room after the disastrous show put on by the Players, they grapple a bit in her bed. I held my breath, hoping that this play wouldn’t rely on the (frankly ridiculous) Oedipus complex analysis that is so popular. It was flirted with, but never committed to. Thank goodness, because it would have ruined the whole production.
Gertrude, in the very last scene, takes the poisoned drink, but is warned by Claudius to not drink it. Interestingly, in this production, she looks upon her husband in silence, then very sadly says, “I will, my lord.” She turns toward Hamlet, and looks at him with a motherly melancholy before asking him to pardon her. And she drinks it, seemingly aware that she is about to poison herself. This gave Gertrude a very interesting edge. Unable to handle all that she had discovered, she decides to jump ship.
Horatio (Ian Lassiter) was as he should be – he spent much of the play watching silently over Hamlet, making sure that he never fully went off the edge. His sadness at losing Hamlet was palpable. He loved him. Despite everything, he refused to abandon him.
At the end of the play, as Horatio explains what has happened to Fortinbras, the Ghost returns to the stage. He looks upon Claudius, who has finally been killed in revenge. But when he looks upon Hamlet, his expression twists into one of pain. He walks over to his son, kneels down, and grasps his hand. It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
During intermission, I heard more than one person complaining about how little they understood of the play. It got me thinking – what can we do to make Shakespeare more understandable? More accessible? Hamlet was being advertised as the greatest play ever written, and that is why it sold out every night. Post-show talks are common, but maybe adding pre-show talks to Shakespeare’s plays would help people to keep up. Sure, it would spoil a lot of major plot points, but offering people a glimpse into what Shakespeare was trying to say would probably heighten the entire experience. I was with family the last time I saw Hamlet, and I had them watch the BBC’s Shakespeare Unlocked episode on the play. It helped a lot, and made the play actually fun for them to watch!
That said, a lot of audience members were really into it regardless. I saw a high school teacher there with her students (which I loved – gold star for that teacher), and one of them burst out with an unrestrained, “That was LIT!” outside of the theatre. So there’s a summary of this entire review for you. Hamlet was lit.
If I’m not mistaken, that’s it for The Old Globe’s Shakespeare festival. I’m very excited to see what they put on next year! I’m sure I can hunt down other plays in my area, but The Old Globe will be a hard act to match. Till next year, I suppose!
P.S. This is my 50th post on ‘oh for a muse of fire!’ Here’s to many more.
Let it be known that when I started All’s Well That Ends Well, I was fully prepared to like it. Actually, I was fully prepared to love it. When I was young – maybe fourteen or fifteen – a friend of mine gifted me both Much Ado About Nothing and All’s Well That Ends Well. I have always associated the two with each other, probably because I was handed both plays at once. But if I’ve learned anything over the past five days of reading this play, it is that I was wrong.
Macbeth is my least favorite play (I know, I know), but All’s Well That Ends Well is a close second. I could spend this entire post complaining about the play – and I will, a little – but I also want to try to talk through different ways for us to look at it. Ways that, you know, make it suck less.
Before I start, I want to talk about Harold C. Goddard’s book The Meaning of Shakespeare. Similar to psychology, I find that there are multiple schools of thought Shakespeare lovers can subscribe to. There’s Tina Packer, Harold Bloom, Harold C. Goddard, and hundreds more that I’ve yet to discover. I like Tina Packer well enough, hate Harold Bloom with a burning passion, and have recently fallen head over heels with Harold C. Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare helped me to understand Troilus and Cressida – an incredibly difficult play – and even All’s Well That Ends Well. Goddard’s analyses are fantastic, and free of the self-indulgent air that comes with reading Bloom’s work. I highly, highly recommend you buy both volumes – check out your used bookstore (I got mine there for $4, though it literally just fell apart in my hands before I started this post), or buy them off Amazon here and here.
Anyway, now that my sales pitch is over, let’s talk about All’s Well That Ends Well.
We open in Rossillion, where we find out that Count Bertram has become a ward of the court. His father has recently passed.
COUNTESS Be thou blessed, Bertram, and succeed thy father
In manners as in shape. Thy blood and virtue
Contend for empire in thee. Love all, trust a few,
Do wrong to none. Be able for thine enemy
Rather in power than use, and keep thy friend
Under thy own life’s key. Be checked for silence,
But never taxed for speech. What heaven more will,
That thee may furnish and my prayers pluck down,
Fall on thy head. [To Lafew.] Farewell, my lord.
‘Tis an unseasoned courtier. Good my lord,
This particular passage reminded me very much of the lecture Polonius gives Laertes in Hamlet. Other than that, there is literally no comparing Polonius and the Countess of Rossillion. The Countess is a sweet and gentle woman. Polonius was a nosy fool. But I digress.
It seems that Bertram’s father was a lovely person. We’ll find out quickly enough that looks are all that Bertram inherited from the departed count.
Helena, our heroine, is devastated to see Bertram go. You see, she’s very much in love with him. But Bertram has to go, and so he does. He makes his way to the court of the King of France, who is deathly ill.
In Rossillion, the Countess finds out that Helena is wildly in love with her son. Now, Helena is the daughter of a late physician, so there is definitely a difference in rank between her and Bertram. The Countess coaxes a confession of love out of Helena.
Then I confess
Here on my knee before high heaven and you
That before you and next unto high heaven
I love your son.
My friends were poor but honest; so ‘s my love.
Be not offended, for it hurts not him
That he is loved of me. I follow him not
By any token of presumptuous suit,
Nor would I have him till I do deserve him,
Yet never know how that desert should be.
I know I love in vain, strive against hope,
Yet in this captious and intenible sieve
I still pour in the waters of my love
And lack not to lose still.
Helena is very aware that Bertram is out of her sphere. But what she doesn’t seem to grasp is that she really isn’t. Helena is intelligent, self-sacrificial, and gracious. She is exactly the kind of woman that Bertram should want to marry. The Countess sees these qualities in her, fortunately, and is not offended by Helena’s love for her son. In fact, she encourages it. It’s almost as if she knows that Bertram needs someone like Helena by his side. Need and deserve are two different things, however.
The plot is revealed: Helena will make her way to Paris and, using all of the knowledge she picked up from her father, will cure the King of his malady. I have to say that I thought that this would be the plot of the entire play. Maybe it should have been.
Bertram, meanwhile, has been forbidden go to war. He’s upset about this, but I really can’t find it in myself to care after having read the entire play. But, like I said, we can try to redeem Bertram, even if Shakespeare fails to do so. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
LAFEW Why, Doctor She. My lord, there’s one arrived,
If you will see her. Now, by my faith and honor,
If seriously I may convey my thoughts
In this my light deliverance, I have spoke
With one that in her sex, her years, profession,
Wisdom, and constancy hath amazed me more
Than I dare blame my weakness. Will you see her –
For that is her demand – and know her business?
That done, laugh well at me.
Helena has just arrived at court and Lafew is already taken with her. This is a common trend – literally everybody who meets Helena falls in love with her immediately. There is something about her that just sparkles and draws people in. They can’t help themselves.
The King is 100% sure that he’s going to die, and doubts Helena’s ability to cure him. But she is confident, and keeps pushing.
HELENA If I break time or flinch in property
Of what I spoke, unpitied let me die,
And well deserved. Not helping, death’s my fee.
But if I help, what do you promise me?
KING Make thy demand.
HELENA But will you make it even?
KING Ay, by my scepter and my hopes of heaven.
HELENA Then shalt thou give me with thy kingly hand
What husband in thy power I will command.
Exempted be from me the arrogance
To choose from forth the royal blood of France,
My low and humble name to propagate
With any branch or image of thy state;
But such a one, thy vassal, whom I know
Is free for me to ask, thee to bestow.
In return for a cure, all Helena asks is that she be allowed to choose a husband from the King’s court. We all know that she’s thinking of Bertram and, to be honest, I was thrilled with her little plot. In my mind, simply seeing Helena confidently pulling off a seemingly impossible feat should have brought Bertram to his knees before her. It is impossible not to be dazzled by her.
HELENA, [to Bertram]
I dare not say I take you, but I give
Me and my service ever whilst I live
Into your guiding power. – This is the man.
KING Why then, young Bertram, take her. She’s thy wife.
BERTRAM My wife, my liege? I shall beseech your Highness
In such a business give me leave to use
The help of mine own eyes.
KING Know’st thou not, Bertram,
What she has done for me?
BERTRAM Yes, my good lord,
But never hope to know why I should marry her.
I found myself being very, very wrong about this play multiple times. Instead of being dazzled by Helena, Bertram is disgusted by the match. He refuses to marry below his rank. He comes off as selfish and arrogant – clearly a terrible match for Helena.
The King, understandably, isn’t having any of this. He tears into Bertram for being such a brat. Helena is everything Bertram should want – she is wise, beautiful, and young. But Bertram refuses to budge.
BERTRAM I cannot love her, nor will strive to do ‘t.
KING Thou wrong’st thyself if thou shouldst strive to choose.
HELENA That you are well restored, my lord, I’m glad.
Let the rest go.
Goddard says that Helena’s last four words up there are her moral peak. He isn’t wrong – I loved her immediately for that line. She is willing to let all of this go, even if it does hurt her and break her heart. Goddard is sure that if Helena had continued to refuse to take the unwilling Bertram, that “there is no question that we would have admired her more, or that, however secretly, Bertram would have also. Might he not have gone away from such a rejection to dream of the spirited girl who had had the self-respect both to love and to refuse him?”
I would honestly have loved this play if it had gone in this direction. The King of France, however, refuses to let things go. He made a deal with Helena, and he wants to make good on it. Helena doesn’t fight the King because she simply can’t. I admire her for even bothering to mention her willingness to let Bertram go – and, honestly, this should have captured Bertram’s attention as well. Helena may not have fought the King on this, but the fact that she voiced those four little words tells us a lot about who she is.
In any case, Bertram and Helena become man and wife. Bertram refuses to bed her, and plans to ditch her in favor of the war.
BERTRAM It shall be so. I’ll send her to my house,
Acquaint my mother with my hate to her
And wherefore I am fled, write to the King
That which I durst not speak. His present gift
Shall furnish me those Italian fields
Where noble fellows strike. Wars is no strife
To the dark house and the detested wife.
I really don’t understand why Bertram hates Helena so much. I would be just fine if he simply resented her, but this unbridled hate is ridiculous. He is such a brat – so full of himself that he sees himself as being miles above Helena and hates her for even daring to love so above herself.
So far, I haven’t tried to redeem Bertram. It’s actually very difficult – so difficult, in fact, that I’m going to focus on a very small exchange to make my point.
Bertram sends Helena off to Rossillion with a letter to his mother. But before she goes, this happens:
HELENA Sir, I can nothing say
But that I am your most obedient servant –
BERTRAM Come, come, no more of that.
HELENA And ever shall
With true observance seek to eke out that
Wherein toward me my homely stars have failed
To equal my great fortune.
BERTRAM Let that go.
My haste is very great. Farewell. Hie home.
“But Shereen,” you say, “this is an incredibly rude exchange.” Taken at face value, it absolutely is. How should an actor play Bertram so as to transform him into a character that we are actually willing to forgive later on?
The lines “Come, come, no more of that.” and “Let that go.” are very interesting to me. Clearly, these lines are meant to be said with impatience. He wants to get rid of her. But what if they’re said with a twinge of guilt? What if seeing Helena before him, speaking the way she does, makes Bertram feel slightly guilty for his rude rejection of her? Is he trying to get rid of her because her presence fills him with hate? Or is it because having her speak so sweetly to him reminds him what a terrible person he is?
I propose that these lines be spoken sheepishly – until Bertram shakes himself out of it and very firmly says, “My haste is very great. Farewell. Hie home.” We need there to be a glimmer of humanity in Bertram because otherwise, he’s a lost cause. Let us say that around Helena, Bertram is reminded of his own failings as a person. Away from her, he is able to continue to indulge in his terrible tendencies. After all, it isn’t like Parolles is going to make him guilty.
Speaking of Parolles, a lot of Bertram’s bad behavior is blamed on him. This is very similar to Hal and Falstaff – except there were qualities to love in both of those characters. In Parolles, Shakespeare pours his disdain for gentlemen. In Bertram, he seemingly writes a lost cause. Is Bertram terrible because of Parolles? Or is he just terrible?
Back in Rossillion, the Countess is disappointed with her son’s behavior. His letter to her tells her that he hates Helena. The thought of hating Helena is something that none of the characters can bring themselves to entertain. Bertram has also sent a letter to Helena herself.
HELENA Look on his letter, madam; here’s my passport.
[She reads.] ‘When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband. But in such a “then” I write a “never.”‘
This is a dreadful sentence.
A dreadful sentence indeed. Poor Helena. Her love is truly wasted on Bertram. He refuses to act as her husband unless she obtains his ancestral ring and becomes pregnant by him. An impossible set of tasks, because he is off to war and refuses to bed her even when they are together.
Honestly, at this point, I would not have blamed Helena in the slightest for giving up on Bertram. But it’s as if she sees something in him that the rest of us cannot see. Whatever it is, Shakespeare isn’t making it easy for us to understand it.
Helena decides to leave Rossillion. She leaves the Countess a letter outlining her plans to go on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James. Why a pilgrimage, you ask? To make amends for being so overambitious by falling in love with Bertram in the first place.
Shakespeare lost me at this point. This seems insanely out of character for him – I was so sure that Helena would don a disguise, go to the field, and cause Bertram to fall in love with her. Instead, Helena seems to lose a lot of her spirit. She blames Bertram’s rejection on herself. She knows that if she leaves, then he will be free to return to Rossillion. He won’t be forced to stay out in the field, she thinks. He won’t get hurt.
I think we can still admire Helena despite this. She may not be the kind of character that throws on a disguise a la Viola and Rosalind, but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss her entirely. If who she is requires her to deal with her sadness in this way, then I have no choice but to accept it.
During her travels, Helena comes across a widow and her daughter, Diana. It seems like everybody knows how much Bertram hates his new wife.
DIANA Alas, poor lady,
‘Tis a hard bondage to become the wife
Of a detesting lord.
WIDOW I warrant, good creature, whereso’ever she is,
Her heart weighs sadly. This young maid might do her
A shrewd turn if she pleased.
Helena’s heart does weigh sadly indeed. But what is the widow talking about?
HELENA, [as pilgrim]
How do you mean?
Maybe the amorous count solicits her
In the unlawful purpose?
WIDOW He does indeed,
And brokes her with all that can in such a suit
Corrupt the tender honor of a maid,
But she is armed for him and keeps her guard
In honestest defense.
Oh, for God’s sake. Bertram has been trying to seduce Diana despite being legally married to Helena. With every passing act, Shakespeare makes it harder and harder for us to forgive Bertram. Clearly, Bertram is fine having sex with women from all walks of life. He insists on being married to someone equal to him in rank, though.
What a charmer.
At this point, I would have loved for Helena, Diana, and the widow to group up and seek revenge on Bertram. He deserves to be punished, doesn’t he? Instead of doing that, however, Helena sees an opening. If you’ll recall, Bertram refuses to be her husband until she obtains his ring and becomes pregnant by him.
He is sure that this is an impossible task. Helena was sure as well – ‘was’ being the key word.
HELENA Take this purse of gold,
And let me buy your friendly help thus far,
Which I will overpay and pay again
When I have found it. The Count he woos your daughter,
Lays down his wanton siege before her beauty,
Resolved to carry her. Let her in the fine consent
As we’ll direct her how ’tis best to bear it.
Now his important blood will naught deny
That she’ll demand. A ring the County wears
That downward hath succeeded in his house
From son to son some four or five descents
Since the first father wore it. This ring he holds
In most rich choice. Yet, in his idle fire,
To buy his will it would not seem too dear,
Howe’er repented after.
WIDOW Now I see the bottom of your purpose.
HELENA You see it lawful, then. It is no more
But that your daughter, ere she seems as won,
Desires this ring, appoints him an encounter,
In fine, delivers me to fill the time,
Herself most chastely absent. After,
To marry her, I’ll add three thousand crowns
To what is passed already.
Diana will demand Bertram’s ring and offer her body to him. However, in the dark of night, Helena and Diana will switch places. Bertram will actually find himself spending the night with Helena.
This plan is clever. From a modern standpoint, this plan is also uncomfortable. I would love to read a dissertation about consent in Shakespeare’s plays. We can argue that Helena is acting the way any folklore heroine would. An Elizabethan audience would have seen no issue with this plan. But, as Goddard says, “a work of art must be judged by the impression it makes on us, not on somebody in the past. Otherwise we are ceasing to take it as a work of art and turning it into a historical document (which, just possibly, this play may have become).”
I still think Helena should have just abandoned Bertram. I have no doubt that he would have come crawling after her at some point.
Diana successfully manages to get everything she wants from Bertram. It wasn’t a challenge, really, because he is just that desperate to spend the night with her.
BERTRAM A heaven on earth I have won by wooing thee.
DIANA For which live long to thank both heaven and me!
You may so in the end.
My mother told me just how he would woo
As if she sat in ‘s heart. She says all men
Have the like oaths. He had sworn to marry me
When his wife’s dead. Therefore I’ll lie with him
When I am buried. Since Frenchmen are so braid,
Marry that will, I live and die a maid.
Only, in this disguise I think ‘t no sin
To cozen him that would unjustly win.
It’s hilarious to me that the widow told Diana exactly how Bertram would try to woo her. Men have been predictable forever, it seems.
There is a subplot about Parolles in the middle of this play. It is incredibly long, and I don’t really want to discuss it. I have no patience for silly characters. There is nothing lovable about Parolles – and maybe Shakespeare did that on purpose. Goddard has some very interesting things to say about his character, but I’ll let you read that at your own leisure. Let’s get back to the actual plot.
Helena, apparently, is dead. We know she isn’t really, but news of her death has reached the Countess’ ears back in Rossillion. Lafew, who had a lot of admiration for Helena, tells the Countess that he is willing to let his daughter marry Bertram. It’s like no woman can escape Bertram’s wrath.
Helena, of course, is still alive and scheming. But in Rossillion, the King of France is giving Bertram his forgiveness and blessing.
COUNTESS ‘Tis past, my liege,
And I beseech your Majesty to make it
Natural rebellion done i’ th’ blade of youth,
When oil and fire, too strong for reason’s force,
O’erbears it and burns on.
KING My honored lady,
I have forgiven and forgotten all,
Though my revenges were high bent upon him
And watched the time to shoot.
LAFEW This I must say –
But first I beg my pardon: the young lord
Did to his Majesty, his mother, and his lady
Offense of mighty note, but to himself
The greatest wrong of all. He lost a wife
Whose beauty did astonish the survey
Of richest eyes, whose words all ears took captive,
Whose dear perfection hearts that scorned to serve
Humbly called mistress.
Should we chalk Bertram’s behavior up to youthful rebellion? I suppose it’s one way of looking at him. I have no idea how old he is supposed to be, but I personally refuse to forgive him just because he’s going through an adolescent phase. Lafew is right – of all the people that Bertram screwed over in this play, he truly screwed himself most of all.
Bertram has this to say on the subject of Lafew’s daughter:
BERTRAM […] At first
I stuck my choice upon her, ere my heart
Durst make too bold a herald of my tongue;
Where the impression of mine eye infixing,
Contempt his scornful perspective did lend me,
Which warped the line of every other favor,
Scorned a fair color or expressed it stol’n,
Extended or contracted all proportions
To a most hideous object. Thence it came
That she whom all men praised and whom myself,
Since I have lost, have loved, was in mine eye
The dust that did offend it.
I was surprised at this sudden burst of self-awareness from Bertram. Apparently, when he was young and shy, Bertram fell in love with Lafew’s daughter Maudlin, but abandoned his feelings when he found himself growing into his new contemptuous and scornful personality. This means that there was something to Bertram, once. Maybe what has been consumed by scorn is still visible to Helena. Maybe that’s why she loves him.
Bertram gives a ring to Lafew, but everybody in the room immediately notices it as Helena’s ring. This makes no sense to Bertram – after all, he hasn’t seen her since he shooed her away to Rossillion.
BERTRAM You are deceived, my lord. She never saw it.
In Florence was it from a casement thrown at me,
Wrapped in a paper which contained the name
Of her that threw it. Noble she was, and thought
I stood ungaged, but when I had subscribed
To mine own fortune and informed her fully
I could not answer in that course of honor
As she had made the overture, she ceased
In heavy satisfaction and would never
Receive the ring again.
Sure, Bertram. I’m sure that’s exactly what happened. But the King isn’t having it – he is sure that the ring is Helena’s. It looks like Bertram is in hot water.
But it gets worse.
Diana shows up and claims that Bertram is her husband. This causes a bit of a ruckus – Bertram tries to diffuse the situation by being an asshole.
KING What sayst thou to her?
BERTRAM She’s impudent, my lord,
And was a common gamester to the camp.
That’s right. Bertram, as charming and lovely as he is, dismisses Diana as a prostitute. In front of everybody. Things continue to escalate – Diana is close to being imprisoned, immediately. But then a pregnant Helena appears.
HELENA O, my good lord, when I was like this maid,
I found you wondrous kind. There is your ring,
And, look you, here’s your letter. [She takes out a paper.] This it says:
‘When from my finger you can get this ring
And are by me with child, etc.’ This is done.
Will you be mine now you are doubly won?
BERTRAM If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly,
I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever, dearly.
Let us forget for a moment how utterly unsatisfying this is and try to make sense of it. Here is what Goddard proposes just happened: “With the penetration of love, [Bertram’s] good angel, Helena, alone sees through from the first what this perverted youth is under what he has become. By keeping her faith in that vision, in spite of the evidence against it, she brings about a resurrection of himself within himself through the miracle of what seems to him her own literal resurrection. Her sudden appearance in the flesh after being reported dead shocks him back into what he has really been all along.”
I find that I have to force myself to see the play like this, because otherwise it’s just one long trainwreck. But who is Bertram, really? If he has been shocked into being a better person, then I want to see who that person is. I think the audience deserves to see Helena with someone who is actually worthy of her.
In Elizabethan England, sudden changes in character were very much accepted. Similar to Oliver in As You Like It, we are expected to forgive Bertram for his faults in this play.
Shakespeare’s failure to make this play successful is honestly shocking to me, given the time at which it was written. It is a clumsy play, one that should have been revised. Maybe it was half-revised. Who knows?
What I do know for sure is that if we are to love this play, then we need to force ourselves to see the humanity that is hidden somewhere in Bertram. Otherwise, we can’t root for Helena and Bertram as a couple. How we see Bertram lies in the hands of the director and actor. Bertram is irredeemable when taken at face value. Small gestures can make him less of a cad, and a Helena that shows us that she knows there is something underneath his faults can transform All’s Well That Ends Well into a play worth loving.
Apparently, there is a 1967 production of All’s Well That Ends Well put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company in which Bertram actually managed to come off as likeable and charming. Sadly, it has been lost to the ages. I’d have liked to see it.
Othello is next – but before that, I’m going to go see Hamlet at the Old Globe! I almost missed it, but the run was extended. Just for me, of course!
I’m alive, but just barely. The past few weeks have been a whirlwind – I wrote a massive report, moved to San Diego, and took an exhausting week-long stem cell handling course at the Scripps Research Institute. And now I’m here to talk to you about Troilus and Cressida.
I will say, for the record, that I wanted to love this play. I don’t hate it, but I certainly don’t feel passion for it the way I do for Richard III, Henry V, and more recently, Julius Caesar. Troilus and Cressida is a strange play. It feels out of place, like it doesn’t belong with the other plays I’ve read.
I found a copy of The Meaning of Shakespeare by Harold C. Goddard at a used bookstore, and he believes that this play was written for a different audience. He writes: “The author of the preface to the Second Quarto indeed says that the play was ‘never staled with the stage, never clapper-clawed with the palms of the vulgar…[nor] sullied with the smoky breath of the multitude,’ which at the very least implies that the play was not produced on the popular stage.” So if this is true, then this play wasn’t made for the common viewer. Which means it wasn’t made for me or you – and maybe that’s why it’s so strange to read. Shakespeare usually writes for all of us, but not today.
We are in the midst of the Trojan War, where Troilus is refusing to fight because he’s too busy being madly in love with Cressida. Pandarus, Cressida’s uncle, has been trying to bring them together.
TROILUS O, Pandarus! I tell thee, Pandarus:
When I do tell thee there my hopes lie drowned,
Reply not in how many fathoms deep
They lie indrenched. I tell thee I am mad
In Cressid’s love. Thou answer’st she is fair;
Pourest in the open ulcer of my heart
Her eyes, her hair, her cheek, her gait, her voice;
Handlest in thy discourse – O – that her hand,
In whose comparison all whites are ink
Writing their own reproach, to whose soft seizure
The cygnet’s down is harsh, and spirit of sense
Hard as the palm of plowman. This thou tell’st me,
As true thou tell’st me, when I say I love her.
But, saying thus, instead of oil and balm
Thou lay’st in every gash that love hath given me
The knife that made it.
This love-sick lamenting reminds me a lot of Romeo. But, unlike Romeo, I don’t like Troilus one bit. We will see later that he is incredibly self-absorbed. He knows how to use his words, but does he actually truly love and know Cressida outside of her beauty?
Before we move on, we need to refresh ourselves on what exactly is happening outside of Troilus’ feelings. Paris, Troilus’ brother, has taken the beautiful Helen from her husband Menelaus, the king of Sparta. A bloodbath (AKA the Trojan War) broke out in response to this, of course.
Larger issues aside, Pandarus is annoyed with Troilus for being impatient. He leaves Troilus, who continues to complain.
TROILUS Peace, you ungracious clamors! Peace, rude sounds!
Fools on both sides! Helen must needs be fair
When with your blood you daily paint her thus.
I cannot fight upon this argument;
It is too starved a subject for my sword.
But Pandarus – O gods, how do you plague me!
I cannot come to Cressid but by Pandar,
And he’s as tetchy to be wooed to woo
As she is stubborn-chaste against all suit.
Tell me, Apollo, for thy Daphne’s love,
What Cressid is, what Pandar, and what we.
Her bed is India; there she lies, a pearl.
Between our Ilium and where she resides,
Let it be called the wild and wand’ring flood,
Ourself the merchant, and this sailing Pandar
Our doubtful hope, our convoy, and our bark.
Troilus knows he needs Pandarus if he’s ever going to win Cressida. He knows this, and can’t help but be ungrateful and impatient anyway. I really don’t like how entitled Troilus feels to Cressida. Up until now, all we know about her is that she’s beautiful and stubborn. What else is there, Troilus?
We cut to Cressida, who is gossiping with her man Alexander. Apparently, Hector (Troilus’ older brother) was knocked down in the field by Ajax, his nephew. Ajax, despite having Trojan blood, is fighting for the Greeks. Hector is very upset about being knocked down, apparently.
Pandarus enters and attempts to talk to Cressida about Troilus.
PANDARUS [Helen] praised his complexion above Paris’.
CRESSIDA Why, Paris hath color enough.
PANDARUS So he has.
CRESSIDA Then Troilus should have too much. If she praised him above, his complexion is higher than his. He having color enough, and the other higher, is too flaming a praise for a good complexion. I had as lief Helen’s golden tongue commended Troilus for a copper nose.
PANDARUS I swear to you, I think Helen loves him better than Paris.
CRESSIDA Then she’s a merry Greek indeed.
Cressida is wonderful, much like Shakespeare’s other heroines. Cressida is spunky, and has a sharp tongue. She’s my kind of girl, that’s for sure. Pandarus seems to be trying to make her jealous, but she pays him no mind. I wonder how much of the Dark Lady’s personality is in Cressida…?
Cressida acts very disdainful of Troilus, and yet…
CRESSIDA Words, vows, gifts, tears, and love’s full sacrifice
He offers in another’s enterprise;
But more in Troilus thousandfold I see
Than in the glass of Pandar’s praise may be.
Yet hold I off. Women are angels, wooing;
Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.
That she beloved knows naught that knows not this:
Men prize the thing ungained more than it is.
That she was never yet that ever knew
Love got so sweet as when desire did sue.
Therefore this maxim out of love I teach:
Achievement is command; ungained, beseech,
Then though my heart’s content firm love doth bear,
Nothing of that shall from mine eyes appear.
Cressida loves Troilus, but she refuses to see it. She needs to protect herself, and to protect herself, she needs to protect her virginity. Once women are possessed, they become nothing more than things. Poor Cressida. I am sorry that she lives in this world, and I am sorry that her virginity is what makes her valuable. She is courageous and witty, but none of that seems to matter to anybody.
This play tells two stories: the story of Troilus and Cressida, and the larger story of the war. They are very loosely interwoven, and I have some of Goddard’s insight to share about what they might have in common later. But, for the most part, I’d rather we skip through the long, rambling passages about slaughter and focus on the more interesting bits. If I didn’t, we’d be here all day.
PRIAM After so many hours, lives, speeches spent,
Thus once again says Nestor from the Greeks:
“Deliver Helen and all damage else –
As honor, loss of time, travel, expense,
Wounds, friends, and what else dear that is consumed
In hot digestion of this cormorant war –
Shall be struck off.” – Hector, what say you to ‘t?
Cassandra enters. She is the daughter of Priam, and therefore sister to Troilus, Hector, and Paris.
CASSANDRA Virgins and boys, mid-age and wrinkled elders,
Soft infancy, that nothing canst but cry,
Add to my clamors. Let us pay betimes
A moiety of that mass of moan to come.
Cry, Trojans, cry! Practice your eyes with tears.
Troy must not be, nor goodly Ilium stand.
Our firebrand brother Paris burns us all.
Cry, Trojans, cry! A Helen and a woe!
Cry, cry! Troy burns, or else let Helen go.
Cassandra’s prophecies are true, but everybody dismisses her as a raving lunatic. This is her curse. But she is like every other woman in this play, really. Nobody pays them any mind, even though they speak the most sense.
They decide to let the war continue.
Hector, who is still salty, decides that he wants to challenge a Greek soldier to battle so he can prove himself. Achilles, objectively, is the best soldier in the Greek camp. He has been acting out, however, and refuses to speak to the Greek leaders. They choose to heap praise onto Ajax instead, to give him enough confidence to accept Hector’s challenge.
AJAX Why should a man be proud? How doth pride grow? I know not what pride is.
AGAMEMNON Your mind is clearer, Ajax, and your virtues the fairer. He that is proud eats up himself. Pride is his own glass, his own trumpet, his own chronicle; and whatever praises itself but in the deed devours the deed in the praise.
AJAX I do hate a proud man as I hate the engendering of toads.
And yet he loves himself. Is ‘t not strange?
Most of this is just silly – what’s more important is that Achilles is refusing to go to the field.
On the Trojan side, meanwhile, Pandarus has finally brought Troilus and Cressida together.
TROILUS, [to Cressida]
You know now your hostages: your uncle’s word and my firm faith.
PANDARUS Nay, I’ll give my word for her too. Our kindred, though they be long ere they are wooed, they are constant being won. They are burrs, I can tell you; they’ll stick where they are thrown.
CRESSIDA Boldness comes to me now and brings me heart.
Prince Troilus, I have loved you night and day
For many weary months.
Troilus asks her why she was so hard to win, and she tells him. But there is absolutely no way he understands. Troilus is so caught up in his own passions. He really does not understand the risk Cressida is taking by giving herself to him like this.
Tina Packer compares this play to Antony and Cleopatra and Romeo and Juliet, but a big difference between those plays and Troilus and Cressida is that the two main characters are not equals to one another. Mark Antony and Cleopatra certainly are, and so are Romeo and Juliet. But Cressida is nothing compared to Troilus – by giving herself to him, she is giving him everything. If he leaves her, she is left with absolutely nothing. She knows this. Troilus cannot possibly understand – he is one of Priam’s sons, and a great warrior. He is losing nothing here, and that is incredibly frustrating to realize.
In any case, they promise to be true to each other. A pretty promise, but one that will prove difficult to keep.
The Trojan leader Antenor has been captured by the Greeks, and in exchange for him, Cressida’s father is willing to give her up to the enemy camp. Here it is: this is what will truly test the love between Troilus and Cressida.
Achilles, meanwhile, is still stirring things up in the Greek camp. The Greek leaders are tired of him, and so is everyone else.
PATROCLUS To this effect, Achilles, have I moved you.
A woman impudent and mannish grown
Is not more loathed than an effeminate man
In time of action. I stand condemned for this.
They think my little stomach to the war,
And your great love to me, restrains you thus.
Sweet, rouse yourself, and the weak wanton Cupid
Shall from your neck unloose his amorous fold
And, like a dewdrop from the lion’s mane,
Be shook to air.
ACHILLES Shall Ajax fight with Hector?
PATROCLUS Ay, and perhaps receive much honor by him.
ACHILLES I see my reputation is at stake;
My fame is shrewdly gored.
Why is Achilles behaving this way? He clearly loves his fame and notoriety. Ulysses calls him out for being in love with one of Priam’s daughters. Could this be true?
Troilus and Cressida have spent all night making love, and now morning is here. Cressida has truly made the ultimate sacrifice: she has given up everything for love. Everything hangs on Troilus being faithful to her. But, like I said, I don’t think he understands. I think that, more than anything, Cressida is a prize to him. I’m not sure how much her personality plays into his intense feelings.
Pandarus enters, and a very awkward exchange ensues.
PANDARUS How now, how now? How go maidenheads? Here, you maid! Where’s my Cousin Cressid?
CRESSIDA Go hang yourself, you naughty mocking uncle. You bring me to do – and then you flout me too.
PANDARUS To do what, to do what? – Let her say what. – What have I brought you to do?
You have to very consciously stop reading this play through a modern lens sometimes, that’s all I’m going to say. This is probably normal Trojan behavior that my 2017 mind just can’t comprehend.
But Pandarus has bad news.
CRESSIDA Good uncle, I beseech you, on my knees I beseech you, what’s the matter?
PANDARUS Thou must be gone, wench; thou must be gone. Thou art changed for Antenor. Thou must to thy father and be gone from Troilus. ‘Twill be his death; ’twill be his bane. He cannot bear it.
CRESSIDA O you immortal gods! I will not go.
But she has to go. Cressida has no say, what she wants doesn’t matter. She and Troilus exchange love tokens, and once again promise to be true to each other.
Diomedes has been sent to fetch Cressida, and he immediately begins to speak in the language of courtly love. Right in front of Troilus.
DIOMEDES Fair Lady Cressid,
So please you, save the thanks this prince expects.
The luster in your eye, heaven in your cheek,
Pleads your fair usage, and to Diomed
You shall be mistress and command him wholly.
Ballsy move, Diomedes. I immediately felt uneasy about Diomedes, though. He clearly has other plans for Cressida.
When poor Cressida is brought to the Greek camp, the leaders each kiss her in turn. It’s a very uncomfortable scene, rape-but-not-rape. As always, Cressida has no say. She cannot fight or use more than her words. And even then she is walking on eggshells. Oh, poor Cressida. It is so difficult to be a woman.
Hector and Ajax fight, but neither of them is declared a winner. Instead, they acknowledge their familial ties to each other. Hector then meets Achilles, who is sure that he would have won the fight.
ACHILLES Tell me, you heavens, in which part of his body
Shall I destroy him – whether there, or there, or there –
That I may give the local wound a name
And make distinct the very breach whereout
Hector’s great spirit flew. Answer me, heavens!
HECTOR It would discredit the blest gods, proud man,
To answer such a question. Stand again.
Think’st thou to catch my life so pleasantly
As to prenominate in nice conjecture
Where thou wilt hit me dead?
ACHILLES I tell thee, yea.
Proud is probably the best word to describe Achilles. His pride alienates everybody else, and he comes off as being a caricature of the person he is supposed to be. We never even get to see him be a great warrior on the field, and it’s a shame. He does challenge Hector though, because of course he does. This is Achilles we’re talking about.
Achilles receives a letter from Hecuba, the Trojan queen.
ACHILLES My sweet Patroclus, I am thwarted quite
From my great purpose in tomorrow’s battle.
Here is a letter from Queen Hecuba,
A token from her daughter, my fair love,
Both taxing me and gaging me to keep
An oath that I have sworn. I will not break it.
Fall, Greeks; fail, fame; honor, or go or stay;
My major vow lies here; this I’ll obey.
So Ulysses was right – Achilles is in love with a Trojan princess. And with Patroclus. I can’t shame him for loving people. He probably shouldn’t have challenged Hector though, since he’s supposed to be keeping peace with the Trojans.
We move back to poor Cressida, who has been reduced to Greek property.
DIOMEDES How now, my charge?
CRESSIDA Now, my sweet guardian. Hark, a word with you.
[She whispers to him.]
Yea, so familiar?
ULYSSES, [aside to Troilus]
She will sing any man at first sight.
Cressida calls Diomedes her guardian – she hopes he will guard her and protect her, I’m sure.
DIOMEDES Will you remember?
CRESSIDA Remember? Yes.
DIOMEDES Nay, but do, then, and let your mind be coupled with your words.
What should she remember?
ULYSSES, [aside to Troilus]
CRESSIDA Sweet honey Greek, tempt me no more to folly.
Nay, then –
CRESSIDA I’ll tell you what –
DIOMEDES Foh, foh, come, tell a pin! You are forsworn.
CRESSIDA In faith, I cannot. What would you have me do?
A juggling trick: to be secretly open!
DIOMEDES What did you swear you would bestow on me?
CRESSIDA I prithee, do not hold me to mine oath.
Bid me do anything but that, sweet Greek.
If it isn’t clear, Diomedes is pressuring Cressida into having sex with him. There is something so irritating about having men listen in on this exchange, about having them judge her. Does it looks like she has any choice? Cressida is stuck, she is splintering.
She tries to appease Diomedes, to keep him happy. He asks her for a token, and she gives him Troilus’ sleeve. But she snatches it back immediately. She is stuck between a rock and a hard place. She cannot antagonize Diomedes, but she can’t force herself to betray Troilus.
Has Cressida broken her promise to remain true?
No. Troilus has.
Troilus has the reputation of being true, but he is the one who breaks his promise to Cressida. She has no choice – she is a woman of no rank, and she is no longer a virgin. She gave Troilus everything. Everything. And Troilus? He could have stepped in to defend her. Being true does not only mean remaining faithful sexually. To be true is to remain loyal – outside of the bedchamber, I mean. Troilus is not loyal. He does not think to ask Cressida about her feelings, or ask her about why she did what she did. He simply storms off. Cressida was nothing but a prize to him – a beautiful husk.
Later, the men ignore warnings from Hector’s wife Andromache and Cassandra, and Hector is sent off to battle. Pandarus gives Troilus a letter from Cressida. A letter that he tears to shreds. Troilus is so caught up in his own heartbreak that he can’t see things from Cressida’s side. This romance was doomed from the beginning – not because of the war, but because of who Troilus is.
Achilles comes upon an unarmed Hector and takes him down. There is no honor in that, no honor at all. Achilles should be ashamed. Is this what it means to be a great warrior?
The Trojans march back to Troy, and the play ends very abruptly. Cressida is abandoned, by Troilus and by Shakespeare. We don’t know what happens to her. All we know is that she is to remain at the Greek camp. Spunky, brave Cressida is gone – she is a shadow of her former self. All she needed was for a man to stand up for her. As a woman in her position, that was the only thing that could have helped. But she was left behind.
There are a lot of storylines in this play, and far too many characters. A lot of the storylines seem to be unrelated, but if we are to take this play at face value, then we aren’t giving it the thought it deserves. “What the author is saying,” according to Goddard, “is that the problem of lust and the problem of violence, and so of war, are the same problem seen from different angles.”
When you think about Troilus and Cressida this way, a lot of things start to make sense. The problem wasn’t Cressida’s unfaithfulness, but the fact that Troilus only felt lust for her at the end of the day. And when women are seen as objects, things can only end in tears.
I have to be honest and say that I was dreading reading The Merry Wives of Windsor. Why should I have looked forward to it? Every single critical text I’ve read has torn this particular play to shreds. I’ve seen it called Shakespeare’s absolute worst play.
Despite all of this, I’m here to tell you that The Merry Wives of Windsor is not as bad as people make it out to be. The wordplay is unsophisticated and simple at best, and the plot is basic. There is nothing special about this play, but there’s nothing terrible about it either. I feel like it is unfair to expect Shakespeare to deliver perfect poetry all the time – not every play is going to be a Hamlet or a King Lear. Sometimes, plays and words are (and should be) simple. And simple language suits the plot of The Merry Wives of Windsor best.
Harold Bloom claims that this play is the one that Shakespeare himself “seems to hold in contempt.” We’ll have to ignore for a moment that most of what Bloom says is stuffy nonsense, and think about this statement seriously for a minute. I don’t think Shakespeare held any of his own work in contempt. I think he was a businessman as well as a playwright, and was bringing Falstaff back to the masses that loved him. Stunning poetry is all well and good, but it doesn’t always put money in your pockets. All I’m saying is that it’s okay that Shakespeare wrote this, it’s okay that his poetic switch was turned off for a moment, and it’s okay that this play is about Falstaff.
I’ve mentioned before how people spend way, way too much time and energy on Falstaff when they read the Henriad. Bloom is obsessed with Falstaff – to the point where someone once told me it made them hate Falstaff before they picked up Henry IV, Part One. A lot of people hate The Merry Wives of Windsor because Falstaff doesn’t have the same sparkle and wit he has in the Henriad – they claim it isn’t Falstaff. But, you know what? I think it is Falstaff. This is Falstaff out of the spotlight – our sparkling masters of wits are the titular wives. I didn’t think Falstaff did much of anything that was out of character for him. His language has changed, but if Shakespeare was allowed to turn off his poetry for a minute, then Falstaff is allowed to do so as well. Maybe this vacationing-in-Windsor-Falstaff doesn’t feel the need to shine and drown us in complicated wordplay because he’s miles away from the person (Hal) that he’s spent his life trying to impress. But I digress.
I’m defending this play to death, I know, and maybe it doesn’t deserve it. But I love the Henriad, and seeing a few characters I know of made this play feel cozy. I felt like I was coming home, in a sense. So forgive a young woman her nonsense, and let’s get into this play.
We open in…Windsor, obviously. Justice Shallow, his nephew Slender, and Sir Hugh Evans the parson are on their way to the Page residence. As it happens, Mistress and Master Page have a daughter that everybody is dying to marry.
SLENDER Mistress Anne Page? She has brown hair and speaks small like a woman?
SIR HUGH It is that fery person for all the ‘orld, as just as you will desire. And seven hundred pounds of moneys, and gold, and silver, is her grandsire upon his death’s-bed (Got deliver to a joyful resurrection!) give, when she is able to overtake seventeen years old. It were a goot motion if we leave out pribbles and prabbles, and desire a marriage between Master Abraham and Mistress Anne Page.
I do love Sir Hugh’s exaggerated Welsh accent. Anyway, Anne is going to be loaded one day, so Slender had better get on that ASAP.
Falstaff is at the Page residence, and Shallow has a bone to pick with him. Apparently, Falstaff killed his deer.
FALSTAFF Now, Master Shallow, you’ll complain of me to the King?
SHALLOW Knight, you have beaten my men, killed my deer, and broken open my lodge.
FALSTAFF But not kissed your keeper’s daughter.
I spent a long time trying to figure out when this play is taking place. I now think that it is somewhere in the middle of Henry IV’s reign. My copy of this play suggests it could be during the reign of Henry V, but I don’t think so. There is just something about the mood of this play that makes it fit into the timeline of Henry IV, Part One more than anything else.
Slender, meanwhile, accuses Falstaff’s men of robbing him. Bardolph does have sticky fingers…! In any case, this is a regular Boar’s Head reunion. And, as I mentioned, that’s exactly what makes this play feel so homey.
Mistress Anne Page enters, and she’s a catch. Sir Hugh and Shallow struggle to figure out if Slender is up to the task of wooing her. This shouldn’t be a struggle but, well, Slender is an idiot.
SIR HUGH But can you affection the ‘oman? Let us command to know that of your mouth, or of your lips; for divers philosophers hold that the lips is parcel of the mouth. Therefore, precisely, can you carry your good will to the maid?
SHALLOW Cousin Abraham Slender, can you love her?
SLENDER I hope, sir, I will do as it shall become one that would do reason.
Sir Hugh is seconds from losing it, and who can blame him? Slender is incredibly dense, and certainly no match for this Windsor girl. Sir Hugh and Shallow eventually decide that Slender’s nonsensical ramblings indicate that he’s up to the marriage. Slender then tries to woo Anne, but it is incredibly clumsy. But I’m sure Anne is used to this. There’s no way she hasn’t dealt with her fair share of idiots, being as desirable as she is.
Mistress Quickly is apparently the best way to get to Anne, because she is asked to speak with Anne on Slender’s behalf. Oh, Mistress Quickly. She means well, but she agrees to do what everybody asks of her. This leads to a lot of mix-ups.
Falstaff, meanwhile, is on a firing spree. He’s going a bit broke. The Host of the Garter offers Bardolph a job.
FALSTAFF Bardolph, follow him. A tapster is a good trade. An old cloak makes a new jerkin, a withered servingman a fresh tapster. Go. Adieu.
BARDOLPH It is a life that I have desired. I will thrive.
You sure will, Bardolph. I have to say that Bardolph is my favorite of Falstaff’s men. He is incredibly loyal to Falstaff, and a bit dim, but good-natured. Sticky fingers and permanently drunk state aside, of course.
Pistol and Nym enter, and Falstaff reveals his master plan.
FALSTAFF No quips now, Pistol. Indeed, I am in the waist two yards about, but I am now about no waste; I am about thrift. Briefly, I do mean to make love to Ford’s wife. I spy entertainment in her. She discourses; she carves; she gives the leer of invitation. I can construe the action of her familiar style; and the hardest voice of her behavior, to be Englished rightly, is “I am Sir John Falstaff’s.” […] Now, the report goes, she has all the rule of her husband’s purse. He hath a legion of angels.
Oh, Falstaff. No.
FALSTAFF, [showing two papers]
I have writ me here a letter to her; and here another to Page’s wife, who even now gave me good eyes too, examined my parts with most judicious oeillades. Sometimes the beam of her view gilded my foot, sometimes my portly belly. […] O, she did so course o’er my exteriors with such a greedy intention that the appetite of her eye did seem to scorch me up like a burning-glass. Here’s another letter to her. She bears the purse too; she is a region in Guiana, all gold and bounty. I will be cheaters to them both, and they shall be exchequers to me; they shall be my East and West Indies, and I will trade to them both. Go bear thou this letter to Mistress Page – and thou this to Mistress Ford. We will thrive, lads, we will thrive.
Shockingly, Pistol and Nym refuse. Falstaff dismisses them from his service immediately and gives the letters to his page, Robin. Pistol and Nym, of course, immediately decide they need to take revenge.
Falstaff’s plot is so silly. He means to sleep with both Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, in hopes that he’ll have access to their purses. Silly man. But not entirely out of character.
We are introduced to another of Anne’s suitors, the dramatic Dr. Caius. Mistress Quickly works for him, for whatever reason. He is French – yes, this play has two funny accents for us to enjoy. Shakespeare really went all out. Sarcasm aside, Dr. Caius loses his mind when he intercepts the letter that Sir Hugh wrote on Slender’s behalf. He decides to challenge…Sir Hugh to a duel? You’d think he’d challenge Slender, but alright. We’ll go with it.
We are also introduced to Fenton, another one of Anne’s gentleman callers. Good grief! This girl is like honeycomb to flies.
FENTON What news? How does pretty Mistress Anne?
MISTRESS QUICKLY In truth, sir, and she is pretty, and honest, and gentle; and one that is your friend, I can tell you that by the way, I praise heaven for it.
FENTON Shall I do any good, think’st thou? Shall I not lose my suit?
MISTRESS QUICKLY Troth, sir, all is in His hands above. But notwithstanding, Master Fenton, I’ll be sworn on a book that she loves you.
This is great and all, but Mistress Quickly more or less assures every one of Anne’s suitors that they’re still in the game at some point. But, I will say that Fenton is the least offensive of them. Funny how nobody thinks to ask Anne’s opinion, hmm?
We return to Falstaff’s plot again. He definitely didn’t think any of this through, because it turns out that Mistress Page and Mistress Ford are best friends. We’re treated to a dramatic reading of Falstaff’s letter.
MISTRESS PAGE What, have I ‘scaped love letters in the holiday time of my beauty, and am I now a subject for them? Let me see.
‘Ask me no reason why I love you, for though Love use Reason for his precisian, he admits him not for his counselor. You are not young; no more am I. Go to, then, there’s sympathy. You are merry; so am I. Ha, ha, then, there’s more sympathy. You love sack, and so do I. Would you desire better sympathy? Let it suffice thee, Mistress Page – at the least, if the love of soldier can suffice – that I love thee. I will not say pity me – ’tis not a soldier-like phrase – but I say love me. By me,
Thine own true knight,
By day or night,
Or any kind of light,
With all his might
For thee to fight,
You have got to be kidding me. This is the letter that Falstaff believes will woo a married woman?! Even Doll Tearsheet would mock him for this. But forget my reaction to this – Mistress Page has an even better one:
MISTRESS PAGE What a herod of Jewry is this! O wicked, wicked world! One that is well-nigh worn to pieces with age, to show himself a young gallant! What an unweighted behavior hath this Flemish drunkard picked – with the devil’s name! – out of my conversation, that he dares in this manner assay me? Why, he hath not been thrice in my company! What should I say to him! Why, I’ll exhibit a bill in the Parliament for the putting down of men. How shall I be revenged on him? For revenged I will be, as sure as his guts are made of puddings.
I realized a few sentences into this that Falstaff has no idea who he’s dealing with. There is something to be said about how ‘merry’ women were seen when compared to their more silent, conservative companions. Falstaff genuinely thought this would work, which is just crazy. Apparently, he’s been in her company only three times. What can I say, Mistress Page? That’s men for you. I do love the line about the bill in the Parliament, though. Very Beatrice-esque!
Mistress Ford comes in and – lo and behold! – she has a letter too. The same letter. The same letter.
MISTRESS PAGE Letter for letter, but that the name of Page and Ford differs! To thy great comfort in this mystery of ill opinions, here’s the twin brother of thy letter. [She gives a paper to Mistress Ford, who reads it.] But let thine inherit first, for I protest mine never shall. I warrant he hath a thousand of these letters writ with blank space for different names – sure, more – and these are of the second edition. He will print them, out of doubt; for he cares not what he puts into the press, when he would put us two. I had rather be a giantess and lie under Mount Pelion. Well, I will find you twenty lascivious turtles ere one chaste man.
God, I love Mistress Page. The modern equivalent of this situation would be a man sending a group text to multiple women, thinking that they wouldn’t know he was addressing six of them at once. For shame, for shame. Falstaff’s laziness is really going to bite him in the ass. As it should.
Pistol and Nym go spill the beans to Ford and Page. Ford is incredibly jealous, and is in a constant state of losing his mind during this play. I really do not like him – his jealousy isn’t charming in the slightest. His wife is far too good for him, really. But he’ll get what he deserves in time.
FORD […] Does [Falstaff] lie at the Garter?
PAGE Ay, marry, does he. If he should intend this voyage toward my wife, I would turn her loose to him; and what he gets more of her than sharp words, let it lie on my head.
FORD I do not misdoubt my wife, but I would be loath to turn them together. A man may be too confident. I would have nothing lie on my head. I cannot be thus satisfied.
Master Page is where it’s at, really. He knows that all Falstaff would get from Mistress Page is a sound verbal beating. Page comes off as being very secure in his relationship. Meanwhile, Master ‘I-do-not-misdoubt-my-wife-but’ Ford leaves much to be desired.
The Host of the Garter, meanwhile, has been going to great lengths to keep Sir Hugh and Dr. Caius apart. You’ll recall that Dr. Caius wants to kick Sir Hugh’s ass for trying to win Anne on Slender’s behalf. Page sets off with the Host and Shallow to enjoy this meaningless subplot. Ford, meanwhile, is left to stew in his jealousy. He decides to appear to Falstaff under the guise of Brook.
Ford/Brook goes to Falstaff (who has just been invited to the Ford residence by its Mistress!), and gives him a big old bag of money. Falstaff is delighted, naturally.
FALSTAFF, [taking the bag]
Master Brook, I will first make bold with your money; next, give me your hand; and last, as I am a gentleman, you shall, if you will, enjoy Ford’s wife.
Oh, Falstaff, you fool. Ford is playing him like a fiddle. Acting as Brook, he asks Falstaff to help him get to Mistress Ford. Falstaff, who must be high to still call himself a gentleman, agrees.
FALSTAFF Want no Mistress Ford, Master Brook; you shall want none. I shall be with her, I may tell you, by her own appointment. Even as you came in to me, her assistant or go-between parted from me. I say I shall be with her between ten and eleven, for at that time the jealous, rascally knave her husband will be forth. Come you to me at night. You shall know how I speed.
With every word, Falstaff digs a deeper grave for himself. Ford is sure he’ll catch his wife and Falstaff in the act. His mood is quite explosive right now – but when isn’t it?
Dr. Caius and Sir Hugh, meanwhile, are wandering all over Windsor in search of one another. The Host purposely misdirected them, and when they finally come together he tells them just that. Instead of laughing this entire thing off, they decide to take revenge on the host. They end up deciding to steal his horses. The men in this play all need to calm down, really. But I guess there’s not much to do in a small town like Windsor.
Ford gathers men and goes to his house in order to catch his wife with Falstaff. He runs into Mistress Page.
FORD Well met, Mistress Page. Whither go you?
MISTRESS PAGE Truly, sir, to see your wife. Is she at home?
FORD Ay, and as idle as she may hang together, for want of company. I think if your husbands were dead, you two would marry.
That would be a blessing to Mistress Ford, that’s for sure. Mistress Page leaves, and Ford goes on another one of his tirades.
FORD Has Page any brains? Hath he any eyes? Hath he any thinking? Sure they sleep; he hath no use of them. Why, this boy will carry a letter twenty mile as easy as a cannon will shoot point-blank twelve score. He pieces out his wife’s inclination. He gives her folly motion and advantage. And now she’s going to my wife, and Falstaff’s boy with her! Good plots they have laid, and our revolted wives share damnation together. Well, I will take him, then torture my wife, pluck the borrowed veil of modesty from the so-seeming Mistress Page, divulge Page himself for a secure and willful Acteon, and to these violent proceedings all my neighbors shall cry aim. [A click strikes.] The clock gives me my cue, and my assurance bids me search. There I shall find Falstaff. I shall be rather praised for this than mocked, for it is as positive as the earth is firm that Falstaff is there. I will go.
I understand why Shakespeare felt the need to make Ford such a jealous lunatic, but it doesn’t mean I have to like him for it. In addition to wanting to shame his wife, he decides he’s going to expose Mistress Page as well. Not that it’s any of his business what Mistress Page is up to. If anything, it’s between her and her husband. And Master Page trusts her. He probably expends the least amount of energy out of everybody in this play, which I appreciate. He’s just in a constant state of, ‘yeah, that’ll never happen,’ which contrasts sharply with Ford.
There is still the question of who is going to marry Anne Page. Will it be Slender? Dr. Caius? Fenton?
HOST, [to Page]
What say you to young Master Fenton? He capers, he dances, he has eyes of youth, he writes verses, he speaks holiday, he smells April and May. He will carry ‘t, he will carry ‘t. ‘Tis in his buttons he will carry ‘t.
PAGE Not by my consent, I promise you. The gentleman is of no having. He kept company with the wild Prince and Poins. He is of too high a region; and knows too much. No, he shall not knit a knot in his fortunes with the finger of my substance. If he take her, let him take her simply. The wealth I have waits on my consent, and my consent goes not that way.
Fenton is clearly the best out of all the suitors, but Page is having none of it. Go figure – hanging out with Hal and Poins (who, objectively, does suck) gave him a bit a reputation. But now I like him even more.
Over at the Ford residence, the plot thickens. Mistress Page interrupts Mistress Ford’s ‘tryst’ with news that Ford is on his way. Everybody begins to panic – what are they supposed to do with Falstaff?!
MISTRESS PAGE For shame! Never stand “you had rather” and “you had rather.” Your husband’s here at hand. Bethink you of some conveyance. In the house you cannot hide him. O, how have you deceived me! Look, here is a basket. If he be of any reasonable stature, he may creep in here; and throw foul linen upon him, as if it were going to bucking. Or – it is whiting time – send him by your two men to Datchet Mead.
Falstaff gets tossed into the laundry basket, and is carried out of the house. Ford, meanwhile, arrives to see that his wife is alone with Mistress Page. No Falstaff or foul play in sight.
MISTRESS PAGE Is there not a double excellency in this?
MISTRESS FORD I know not which pleases me better – that my husband is deceived, or Sir John.
I don’t know what pleases me better either, Mistress Ford. I truly adore these women – they’re delightful! This play is a simple as can be, but it made me laugh so many times. You don’t need sharp puns to get your point across – Mistresses Page and Ford certainly don’t.
Falstaff is dumped out with the rest of the laundry – right into the river. Serves him right.
All of this commotion, and Fenton is courting Anne.
FENTON I see I cannot get thy father’s love;
Therefore no more turn me to him, sweet Nan.
ANNE Alas, how then?
FENTON Why, thou must be thyself.
He doth object I am too great of birth,
And that, my state being galled with my expense,
I seek to heal it only by his wealth.
Besides these, other bars he lays before me –
My riots past, my wild societies –
And tells me ’tis a thing impossible
I should love thee but as a property.
ANNE Maybe he tells you true.
FENTON No, heaven so speed me in my time to come!
Albeit I will confess thy father’s wealth
Was the first motive that I wooed thee, Anne.
Yet, wooing thee, I found thee of more value
Than stamps in gold or sums in sealèd bags.
And ’tis the very riches of thyself
That now I aim at.
I really appreciate Fenton’s honesty here. Yes, Page’s wealth is what brought him to Anne, but now he genuinely loves her. Goodness knows that nobody is allowed to shake off a riotous past (see: Henry V) in these plays. How will Fenton win Master Page over?
Falstaff, despite having been tossed in the river, is invited back to the Ford residence. He tells Ford/Brook all about this, of course, and the plot repeats itself. He goes to Mistress Ford, is told of Master Ford’s coming, and a panic erupts. This time, however, our merry wives decide to dress him up as a woman, so that he may sneak out undetected.
MISTRESS FORD I would my husband would meet him in this shape. He cannot abide the old woman of Brentford. He swears she’s a witch, forbade her my house, and hath threatened to beat her.
That’s right – Falstaff is now dressed as somebody that Ford absolutely despises.
Ford arrives and, having heard of last time’s laundry basket trick, has the men dump out all the laundry.
PAGE Here’s no man.
SHALLOW By my fidelity, this is not well, Master Ford. This wrongs you.
SIR HUGH Master Ford, you must pray and not follow the imagination of your own heart. This is jealousies.
FORD Well, he’s not here I seek for.
I really enjoyed Ford’s embarrassment here. Having the men around him telling him that he’s making a fool of himself is a wonderful touch. He decides to look through the house – and he does indeed come across Falstaff…except he thinks it’s the old woman of Brentford. He beats the stuffing out of Falstaff, who makes a narrow escape.
Mistress Page and Mistress Ford decide that it’s finally time to let their husbands in on this whole Falstaff nonsense.
FORD Pardon me, wife. Henceforth do what thou wilt.
I rather will suspect the sun with cold
Than thee with wantonness. Now doth thy honor stand,
In him that was late an heretic,
As firm as faith.
That’s right, you jealous fool. He’s still being dramatic though, so Page tells him to calm down. A final prank is planned: Mistress Ford and Mistress Page will lure Falstaff to the woods at midnight with the promise of a tryst. They’ll have children and the others dress as fairies and goblins to fright Falstaff out of his wits. Anne is to be the Queen of the Fairies, dressed in white.
Speaking of Anne…Master Page decides that she should be married to Slender, and so tells her to dress in white so that Slender can steal her away during the fairy trick. Mistress Page, however, decides that Dr. Caius is the better choice, so she tells Anne to dress in green so that the good doctor can whisk her away. We still don’t know what Anne wants to do, however.
In the woods at midnight, the prank commences. Falstaff is absolutely disgraced, and tries to escape all of the fairies and goblins that are poking at him for being such a sinful disgrace.
PAGE, [to Falstaff]
Nay, do not fly. I think we have watched you now. Will none but Herne the Hunter serve your turn?
MISTRESS PAGE I pray you, come, hold up the jest no higher. –
Now, good sir John, how like you Windsor wives?
I don’t know about Falstaff, but I’m rather partial to Windsor wives at the moment.
FALSTAFF I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass.
FORD Ay, and an ox too. Both the proofs are extant.
FALSTAFF And these are not fairies. I was three or four times in the thought they were not fairies; and yet the guiltiness of my mind, the sudden surprise of my powers, drove the grossness of the foppery into a received belief, in despite of the teeth of all thyme and reason, that they were fairies. See now how wit may be made a Jack-a-Lent when ’tis upon ill employment.
SIR HUGH Sir John Falstaff, serve Got and leave your desires, and fairies will not pinse you.
FORD Well said, Fairy Hugh.
SIR HUGH And leave you your jealousies too, I pray you.
Way to call Ford out, Sir Hugh. But where is Anne?
Dr. Caius and Slender apparently took boys to the church! Anne, meanwhile, took matters into her own hands and married Fenton. Phew! She and I were of the same mind when it came to her suitors, clearly.
All is well: Falstaff has been thoroughly punished, Anne is happy, and Ford knows now to trust his wife.
MISTRESS PAGE Well, I will muse no further. – Master Fenton,
Heaven give you many, many merry days. –
Good husband, let us every one go home
And laugh this sport o’er by a country fire –
Sir John and all.
FORD Let it be so, Sir John.
To Master Brook you yet shall hold your word,
For tonight he shall lie with Mistress Ford.
Very suggestive of you, Master Ford. Hooray for happy endings! I’m glad they invited Falstaff back to the Page house – it’s a good-natured ending for a good-natured play.
And that’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. It’s a fine play, and one that I’d just love to see on stage. I laughed despite myself. I think we all so often fall into the trap of regarding Shakespeare as a sophisticated hobby. A hobby for clever folk, for those of us that like to spend time thinking about humans and souls and whatnot. But it doesn’t have to be so high brow. Sometimes you just need a cup of tea and a silly play like The Merry Wives of Windsor to make you smile.