As usual, I have absolutely no business showing my face around here. I was hoping to have been done with Pericles by now – heck, I should be done with Henry VIII by now. It’s just that I’ve been going through a rough patch, and I’ve been struggling to keep my spark alive. Shakespeare has been playing a role in saving me, in a sense. I was too gloomy to care about finishing Pericles, but I eventually picked it up a week or two into my sad spell and, for the first time since the beginning of this year, I felt serene.
“Every time you’re down, I always end up telling you to bring more Shakespeare into your life,” my best friend (who is decidedly not a Shakespearean) said over text. “It’s what you need.”
I have to say that I’m feeling very hesitant about writing this post. This is a blog about Shakespeare, and here I am trying to write something personal. And I’m always afraid that I’ll just sound insufferable if I talk about myself, and especially if I try to discuss my very first world problems. But, hey, at least I’m self-aware, right?
I went to a Shakespeare reading at the library a couple of weeks ago, and it was terrible. My subpar experience combined with the fact that I’m going through some kind of weird quarter life existential crisis left me sniffling pathetically in my car after I had left the library. Sadness, of course, turned into annoyance. I was annoyed that a silly experience could take away my enjoyment for Shakespeare. And, of course, annoyance turned into a stubborn determination to never let anybody or anything ruin Shakespeare for me ever again.
To say that I love Shakespeare is an understatement. I tried to describe just how much in my last post of 2016, a post I made before embarking on this adventure of mine. I remember the first time I read Shakespeare so vividly. “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York,” is not an exciting first line, especially since I hadn’t read Henry VI. But I kept reading because, well, I had to. I’m nothing if not a total teacher’s pet. “But I, that am not shap’d for sportive tricks, nor made to court an amorous looking-glass; I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty to strut before a wanton ambling nymph; I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion, cheated of feature by dissembling nature, deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time into this breathing world scarce half made up, and that so lamely and unfashionable that dogs bark at me as I halt by them.” Now that is a set of lines so intriguing that I saw the scene laid out in my mind, crystal clear. And by the time Richard declared his dedication to villainy, I was beyond hooked. Everybody knew. My father, who would drive me home every afternoon, would jokingly ask, “And how is Richard today?” At school, I was teased to no end. But, honestly, it didn’t matter. Shakespeare was something that was mine, and mine alone. Years later, when Richard III’s body was discovered under a parking lot, I woke up to multiple texts and Facebook notifications. When I say that I am everybody’s Shakespeare friend, I am not exaggerating.
After Richard, my dramatic teenage self was sure that I would never love a play with such intensity ever again. Henry IV, Part One was the Shakespeare play chosen by my school. You may be wondering what kind of nonsensical school I attended, given that I wasn’t being assigned Hamlet or Macbeth. It’s easily explained: I went to school in the United Arab Emirates, and what my school was doing was choosing the plays that they believed to be the most tame. Discussions about sexuality and homoerotic subtext had no place in our classrooms, and so the least offensive plays were chosen. So we hopped from Richard III to Henry IV, Part One. And that was how I found myself face to face (face to text?) with Hal – and you all know how I feel about Hal.
I remember a boy asking me who my favorite character was. I was very quick to answer that it was Hal – of course it was Hal. He rolled his eyes and said, “Typical girl. Your favorite would be the knight in shining armor.” I didn’t bother explaining that I loved Hal for his human messiness, that I adored the fact that he was a walking disaster, struggling to carry the weight of his duty and desperately searching for a way to reconcile his personality with his birthright. To this day, I find myself faced with professors who simply refuse to see Hal as anything other than a monster. Maybe I would feel the same if I hadn’t spent all of my lonely hours trying to figure Hal out. Lonely hours turned into years, to be honest. In 2012, I was walking across the Millennium Bridge in London, having just left a performance of Henry V at the Globe. My friend, who I have since lost touch with, walked alongside me.
“You really have Henry all figured out?” she asked, unconvinced.
“I do,” I replied immediately, confidently. “I know who he is. I think I’ve always known his story would turn out like this.”
I wasn’t quite sure about my own story, though. I was just a kid back then, clinging very desperately onto the feelings of elation that Shakespeare gave me.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. In 2010, when I was applying to universities, I remember longingly looking at English under the list of majors. “Well, if you love it so much, what was stopping you?” you ask, rolling your eyes at the melodramatic tone of this post. What was stopping me was my culture. To Arabs, success comes with an engineering degree or a medical degree. English? English was for failures. My only other bookish friend was stubborn enough to major in it anyway, and I still admire that to this day. I chose biomedical engineering, and I was good at it. I’m still good at it.
Sometimes (I know how this is going to sound) I wish I were only scientifically inclined. Yes, I know, boo-hoo. How terrible it must be to be so well-rounded. It’s a non-issue, I know, and a really stupid thing to think, but I just cannot explain how difficult it was for me to throw myself into engineering when Shakespeare was being taught right across the hall. And when I did sign up to take Shakespeare classes “for fun,” I found that I never heard the siren call of engineering from across the way. There was no siren call. The fact that I was so happy in English classes and so unhappy in my other classes meant I was constantly on the phone with my parents, crying. They were vehemently against a change in major, and I didn’t want to disappoint them. And it wasn’t just them: I simply cannot abandon something once I’ve started it. It’s akin to failure to me.
But things just kept getting worse, and the only solution was Shakespeare. I didn’t ask to participate in the Shakespeare summer abroad program in London. I always ask permission, but this time, I just told my parents I was doing it. I wrote an essay about what Shakespeare meant to me and landed a scholarship that covered my airfare. And I went, and I was so incredibly happy. I hopped out of bed every day, ready to read and talk and stand in the same city where Shakespeare once stood. And when I eventually flew back to California, as I was unpacking all of my treasures from my adventure, I burst into tears. I asked my mother, “Why did you let me go?”
Engineering has never called to me, but Shakespeare always has and always will. I lived out an alternate existence that summer in 2012, and going back to my normal life was devastating.
But back to the Shakespeare group that I went to earlier this month. I took my love for Shakespeare with me, ready to share it with everybody. But most of my contributions were swiftly dismissed and, well, everybody was old. So not only am I an engineer who loves Shakespeare, I am a young engineer who loves Shakespeare.
And I feel alone. There is nothing I want more than to share my passion with everyone I meet – with the entire world, really. But my mother once told me that it’s a boring hobby that nobody understands. She didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, but her words caused me to button up about Shakespeare immediately and indefinitely. I feel like I can’t talk about it in my real life. And when I looked for people who might feel the same way as me, I was dismissed and made to feel like a silly little girl.
I suppose there’s no real end to this story. Luckily, because I am who I am, nothing anyone says or does will change how much I love Shakespeare. I often daydream about using my degree to make a bunch of money, and then using that money to pay to get my PhD in Shakespearean studies. In my daydreams, I am always accepted into these programs, though I do know that probably wouldn’t be the case in real life. But maybe I’ll try one day. In an ideal world, an incredibly influential Shakespearean scholar would read this and feel for me enough to become my mentor. In reality, I will probably have to navigate the mysterious world of Shakespeare by myself until I meet a kindred spirit, or until I am brave enough to leave the comfort and security of my current profession. I would love to teach Shakespeare. I know I’m not the only 25 year old Shakespeare nerd in the world – I just wish I knew how to make sure that nobody my age is lonely in their love for these often confusing but oh-so-fulfilling Elizabethan plays. I just wish I knew where to go, where to find comfort. Until then, I’ll be reading plays by the soft pink light of my salt lamp and dumping my thoughts into the void, hoping that someone will find them useful.
I feel like this post is entirely pointless, but I have to say that it was very therapeutic to write out. I shouldn’t call it pointless, though, because there’s a minuscule chance that someone in the world needs to read these words. There’s a microscopic chance that I’ll help people feel less alone, and that’s why I write.
Anyway! Enough of my melodramatic ramblings. My post on Pericles will come soon, and then I’ll only have two plays left. Then I’ll be presented with the daunting task of ranking all of the plays, and I’m agonizing over my list already. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – Pericles first, three thousand word essays on what the best plays are later.
Something we’re all guilty of (myself included) is the oversimplification of plays that we don’t care for. For example, my deep dislike for Macbeth prevents me from properly dissecting the play and appreciating what Shakespeare was trying to do. I’ve been trying to do this less – for example, despite not liking Coriolanus all that much, I made every effort to appreciate what Shakespeare was attempting. And now I’m here to do this with Timon of Athens, which takes the cake as one of the least enjoyable plays I have read this year. But, hey, let’s give it a chance. More specifically, let us give Timon a chance.
Lord Timon of Athens is a very popular man. And why shouldn’t he be? He is generous (perhaps overly so?) and kind to every single person he meets. His arms, house, and purse are open to all.
POET I will unbolt to you.
You see how all conditions, how all minds,
As well of glib and slipp’ry creatures as
Of grave and austere quality, tender down
Their services to Lord Timon. His large fortune,
Upon his good and gracious nature hanging,
Subdues and properties to his love and tendance
All sorts of hearts – yea, from the glass-faced flatterer
To Apemantus, that few things loves better
Than to abhor himself; even he drops down
The knee before him and returns in peace
Most rich in Timon’s nod.
Timon is something of an angel – so good that he is able to get even the worst cynic to love him. Sadly, I immediately knew where this would lead. And I wasn’t the only one.
POET When Fortune in her shift and change of mood
Spurns down her late beloved, all his dependents,
Which labored after him to the mountain’s top
Even on their knees and hands, let him slip down,
Not one accompanying his declining foot.
Foreshadowing at its finest – I knew for a fact that Timon would be abandoned by all his admirers as soon as they were done using him. How could he not have noticed their lack of sincerity? It is as if Timon is so good that he just can’t fathom people being any other way.
And it isn’t just kindness that Timon doles out – it’s actual material goods.
SECOND LORD He pours it out. Plutus, the god of gold,
Is but his steward. No meed but he repays
Sevenfold above itself. No gift to him
But breeds the giver a return exceeding
All use of quittance.
It’s no wonder that all of these high-ranking people like to keep his company. I appreciate generosity in people – I myself try to be as generous as I can with both my time and money. But boundaries need to be set, and for a grown man like Timon to not have any is, well, a bit depressing.
Timon invites everybody over for a lavish meal. Even Apemantus, who we can consider a professional cynic, is welcome at Timon’s table. His cynicism allows him to see right through the lords.
APEMANTUS I scorn thy meat. ‘Twould choke me, for I should ne’er flatter thee.
[Apart.] O you gods, what a number of men eats Timon, and he sees ’em not! It grieves me to see so many dip their meat in one man’s blood; and all the madness is, he cheers them up too.
More than one character wonders why Timon doesn’t notice how phony his friends are. He has such an idealistic way of looking at things, which can be as charming as it is destructive.
In true Timon fashion, he begins to give lavish gifts to all of his guests.
TIMON The little casket bring me hither.
Yes, my lord. [Aside.] More jewels yet?
There is no crossing him in ‘s humor;
Else I should tell him well, i’ faith I should.
When all’s spent, he’d be crossed then, an he could,
‘Tis pity bounty had not eyes behind,
That man might ne’er be wretched for his mind.
I like Flavius a lot. He is one of the only people in this play who genuinely has Timon’s best interest at heart. I found his hesitance very interesting. How has Timon reacted to Flavius’ warnings before?
In any case, Flavius obeys his master’s every command. But he continues to voice his worries to the audience.
What will this come to?
He commands us to provide, and give great gifts,
And all out of an empty coffer.
Nor will he know his purse or yield me this –
To show him what a beggar his heart is,
Being of no power to make his wishes good.
His promises fly so beyond his state
That what he speaks is all in debt; he owes
For ev’ry word. He is so kind that he
Now pays interest for ‘t. His land ‘s put to their books.
Well, would I were gently put out of office
Before I were forced out.
Happier is he that has no friend to feed
Than such that do e’en enemies exceed.
I bleed inwardly for my lord.
Well, the cat is well and truly out of the bag. Timon is all but broke, and keeps falling deeper into debt. There is a rather simplistic way for us to look at Timon’s character. That is, we can see him as this kind fool who is so generous that he can’t help but give all of his love away. And, honestly, he is. But the fact that he gives away so many material objects vexes me a little, and makes me wonder about him. What set him on this path? Did he subconsciously realize that giving away gifts brought more admirers to his doorstep? Was his kindness and love not enough for people to return his affection? I don’t know. Shakespeare doesn’t tell us enough. All we know is that Timon has dug his own grave, and Flavius can’t get him out of it.
Things would be so much better if Timon would just listen to the people around him. But he refuses.
TIMON Now, Apemantus, if thou wert not sullen,
I would be good to thee.
APEMANTUS No, I’ll nothing, for if I should be bribed too, there would be none left to rail upon thee, and then thou wouldst sin the faster. Thou giv’st so long, Timon, I fear me thou wilt give away thyself in paper shortly. What needs these feasts, pomps, and vainglories?
TIMON Nay, an you begin to rail on society once, I am sworn not to give regard to you. Farewell, and come with better music.
Apemantus is the town cynic, but there is a hint of sincerity and genuine care in what he says to Timon. What is the point of all this lavishness? Timon doesn’t have an answer, clearly.
As one would expect, debt collectors begin to appear at Timon’s door. He doesn’t seem to understand that he has no money, no land, nothing.
TIMON To Lacedaemon did my land extend.
FLAVIUS O my good lord, the world is but a word.
Were it all yours to give it in a breath,
How quickly were it gone!
Flavius speaks so well, and his words really tug at my heartstrings. I wish his love and loyalty were enough for Timon.
Anyway, Timon’s below average plan to address this issue is to send his servants to other noblemen. Apparently, he has some favors that can be cashed in. But all the nobles behave the same way – they start out very happy to see Timon’s servants because they’re expecting gifts. But when the servants ask for money, they immediately make excuses and disappear. So much for loyalty.
The servants of Timon’s creditors appear at his doorstep once more, and he loses his cool for the first time in the play.
Enter Timon in a rage.
What, are my doors opposed against my passage?
Have I been ever free, and must my house
Be my retentive enemy, my jail?
The place which I have feasted, does it now,
Like all mankind, show me an iron heart?
LUCIUS’ MAN Put in now, Titus.
TITUS My lord, here is my bill.
LUCIUS’ MAN Here’s mine.
HORTENSIUS And mine, my lord.
VARRO’S SECOND MAN And ours, my lord.
PHILOTUS All our bills.
TIMON Knock me down with ’em! Cleave me to the girdle.
I really can’t blame Timon for being so upset. None of his ‘friends’ rushed to his rescue, and now he’s being hounded by all of these annoying servants. Everything he thought he knew has turned out to be wrong – the illusion has shattered. Oh, Timon. Not everybody has a big heart and a generous soul. I am sorry he had to find this out at all.
He decides to invite all of his fake friends to a feast. The suggestion makes Flavius uncomfortable, but he does as he’s told.
And now I have to interrupt my look into Timon’s breakdown to introduce you to a 🎵 slightly unrelated subplot! 🎵
Alcibiades, an Athenian captain and also one of Timon’s non-garbage friends, stands before three Athenian senators to beg for the life of one of his soldiers. We are never explicitly told what his soldier did, but it sounds like he killed someone in self-defense. Alcibiades fights the senators for a few pages before they grow tired of him.
FIRST SENATOR Do you dare our anger?
‘Tis in few words, but malicious in effect:
We banish thee forever.
ALCIBIADES Banish me?
Banish your dotage, banish usury,
That makes the Senate ugly!
FIRST SENATOR If after two days’ shine Athens contain thee,
Attend our weightier judgement.
And, not to swell our spirit,
He shall be executed presently.
Okay, back to the actual plot.
At Timon’s house, the feast is underway. “Haha,” the nobles think, “this is classic Timon. There is no way he is angry at us for rejecting all of his pleas for money.”
And they think that until Timon serves them water and stones.
TIMON May you a better feast never behold.
You knot of mouth-friends! Smoke and lukewarm water
Is your perfection. This is Timon’s last,
Who, stuck and spangled with your flatteries,
Washes it off and sprinkles in your faces
Your reeking villainy. [He throws water in their faces.]
Live loathed and long.
Most smiling, smooth, detested parasites,
Courteous destroyers, affable wolves, meek bears,
You fools of fortune, trencher-friends, time’s flies,
Cap-and-knee slaves, vapors, and minute-jacks.
Of man and beast the infinite malady
Crust you quite o’er! [They stand.] What, dost thou go?
Soft! Take thy physic first – thou too – and thou. –
Stay. I will lend thee money, borrow none.
[He attacks them and forces them out.]
What? All in motion? Henceforth be no feast
Whereat a villain’s not a welcome guest.
Burn, house! Sink, Athens! Henceforth hated by
Of Timon man and all humanity!
First of all, that is an impressive string of insults. Second, I know that Timon’s outburst may seem like an over-exaggeration, but that’s because we are not Timon. We have to realize that Timon was an idealistic fool down to his very core. There was no sense of suspicion in him – someone like me, for example, would be immediately suspicious of these friends of his. In fact, I was like Timon once. Granted, I was a pre-teen at the time, but there was a friend who would drift away until some gift or token would return me to her good graces. I realized very quickly that this was no friendship – and, well, that situation combined with many others turned me into a bit of a cynic. So I understand Timon. You always want to believe that people are good, kind, and genuine. Most of us, when we realize that they aren’t, become slightly cynical and a bit melancholy. But then again, most of us were not as deluded as Timon. His reaction is more violent because of how deeply he believed in the sincerity and goodness of others. The longer you stay in your bubble, the more jarring the outside world is when it pops.
In a very Henry David Thoreau move, Timon ditches Athens and makes for the woods. He leaves the servants of his household behind. Flavius continues to impress, and proves himself to be as kind as Timon was just a few acts ago.
FLAVIUS Good fellows all,
The latest of my wealth I’ll share amongst you.
Wherever we shall meet, for Timon’s sake
Let’s yet be fellows. Let’s shake our heads and say,
As ’twere a knell unto our master’s fortunes,
“We have seen better days.”
[He offers them money.]
Let each take some.
Nay, part out all your hands. Not one word more.
Thus part we rich in sorrow, parting poor.
[The Servants embrace and part several ways.]
The servants truly are my favorite part of this play. I am 90% sure there is a dissertation or two out there about the homoerotic subtext that can be gleaned from Flavius’ dedication to Timon. But whatever the nature of his love, it’s very pure and admirable.
Timon, meanwhile, is digging for roots. At this point, I felt that the play had really gone on for long enough. For some reason, I thought Timon of Athens was a short play – but no. Let’s stick it out.
Timon comes across some gold. A reader, at this point, might think that this would cause Timon to revert back to his old self, but it doesn’t. This is bad, because it means he’s still looking to have roots for dinner, but also good, because it means his disappointment with mankind is genuine.
Shakespeare has been known to harbor a bit of contempt for humans – or you would think so, given some of the things we’ve read in his plays. I wonder how much like Timon he was – and, as always, I wonder what sort of man could think so deeply about such things. Only Shakespeare.
Alcibiades, captain of this play’s subplot, appears. He has his two concubines in tow – I suppose they decided to join him on his banishment. Let’s not talk about what that does or does not imply about Alcibiades.
ALCIBIADES How came the noble Timon to this change?
TIMON As the moon does, by wanting light to give.
But then renew I could not, like the moon;
There were no suns to borrow of.
ALCIBIADES Noble Timon, what friendship may I do thee?
It is a sincere question, which is why I would group Alcibiades with Flavius (and, to a certain degree, Apemantus) as actually caring for Timon. In any case, Timon offers him money and asks him to use it to destroy Athens. I almost typed Rome, because this is exactly what happened in Coriolanus. Good lord.
I was very unimpressed with the exchange Timon had with the concubines. Actually, I am unimpressed with the lack of women in this play. Even Coriolanus had women of substance, like Virgilia and Volumina. And before that, I was writing thousands and thousands of words about Measure for Measure‘s Isabella. Shakespeare was exceptionally good at writing women, and yet we have none to discuss at the moment.
Apemantus shows up eventually.
APEMANTUS I was directed hither. Men report
Thou dost affect my manners and dost use them.
That line was the only time I laughed while reading this play. Apemantus is great. But whereas he is a professional cynic who revels in harassing people, Timon’s cynicism comes from genuine heartbreak over how terrible people can be. They are the same in some ways, and very different in others.
Flavius finds his master, and is very distraught about the way Timon is spiraling. But Timon realizes that Flavius genuinely cares for him, and that he is not like the other base men.
TIMON Look thee, ’tis so. Thou singly honest man,
Here, take. [Timon offers gold.] The gods out of my misery
Has sent thee treasure. Go, live rich and happy,
But thus conditioned: thou shalt build from men;
Hate all, curse all, show charity to none,
But let the famished flesh slide from the bone
Ere thou relieve the beggar; give to dogs
What thou deniest to men; let prisons swallow ’em,
Debts wither ’em to nothing; be men like blasted woods,
And may diseases lick up their false bloods!
And so farewell and thrive.
Clearly, Flavius is not going to do any of that. But at the very least, he has been recognized for the lovely person he is.
Timon must have hidden himself in a very obvious spot, because he keeps getting visitors. He drives both the Painter and the Poet away, and eventually finds himself face to face with two Athenian senators. They hope that he can stop Alcibiades from destroying Athens.
FLAVIUS, [to Senators]
Stay not. All’s in vain.
TIMON Why, I was writing of my epitaph.
It will be seen tomorrow. My long sickness
Of health and living now begins to mend,
And nothing brings me all things. Go, live still.
Be Alcibiades your plague, you his,
And last so long enough!
Of course, I would rather Athens didn’t get destroyed. But I see why Timon refuses to budge – the senators really have some nerve showing up to his very obvious and easy to find hiding place.
TIMON Come not to me again, but say to Athens,
Timon hath made his everlasting mansion
Upon the beachèd verge of the salt flood,
Who once a day with his embossèd froth
The turbulent surge shall cover. Thither come
And let my gravestone be your oracle.
Lips, let four words go by and language end.
What is amiss, plague and infection mend.
Graves only be men’s works, and death their gain.
Sun, hide thy beams. Timon hath done his reign.
Such chilling last words. The Folger edition of this play wrote that Timon ‘withdraws to die,’ in their scene summary, which I found kind of funny. It’s like Timon can just die on demand whenever he pleases. In any case, I think it’s safe to assume that he takes his own life. Despite becoming a raving madman, I do feel very sorry for him. As I said before, I am sorry that he had to find out how terrible people can be.
Alcibiades is pretty much set to destroy Athens (I keep typing Rome!) when one of his soldiers brings a wax impression of Timon’s epitaph to him.
ALCIBIADES reads the epitaph.
Here lies a wretched corse, of wretched soul bereft.
Seek not my name. A plague consume you, wicket caitiffs left!
Here lie I, Timon, who, alive, all living men did hate.
Pass by and curse thy fill, but pass and stay not here thy gait.
These well express in thee thy latter spirits.
Though thou abhorred’st in us our human griefs,
Scorned’st our brains’ flow and those our droplets which
From niggard nature fall, yet rich conceit
Taught thee to make vast Neptune weep for aye
On thy low grave, on faults forgiven. Dead
Is noble Timon, of whose memory
Hereafter more. Bring me into your city,
And I will use the olive with my sword,
Make war breed peace, make peace stint war, make each
Prescribe to other as each other’s leech.
Let our drums strike.
And the plays ends. I have two things I want to say: one is that Alcibiades describes the corruption that Timon saw as only human griefs. And that’s really because Alcibiades was never deluded the way Timon was. We see so much of what happens in this play through Timon’s eyes, and we feel for him, but you really have to wonder how much of what he hated was worth hating to the extent that he did.
I know that this play seems pointless. It’s like Shakespeare was writing the opposite of a love letter to humankind. But, as usual, Harold C. Goddard has come to our rescue. He says: “Timon is dead. But the spirit of the rarer Timon (how mistake it? the very accent is the same) has passed into Alcibiades and, in the teeth of the mad Timon’s misanthropy, has brought peace to Athens. ‘He has almost charmed me from my profession,’ the Third Thief confessed to the living Timon. The dead Timon has the same effect, even more powerfully, on the professional warrior and revenger. Alcibiades’ ‘occupation’s gone.’ Timon in the first part of the play was a deluded and foolish man, and in the last half a wild and frenzied one. But he was a lover of truth and sincerity. And the play seems to say that such a man, though buried in the wilderness, is a better begetter of peace than all the instrumentalities of law in the hands of men who love neither truth nor justice.”
This is such a beautiful way of looking at this play and, frankly, the only way I can look at it now. Though we saw Timon as delusional, it was his kindness and generous spirit that made its way from his epitaph into Alcibiades’ soul.
Maybe Shakespeare didn’t write Timon to be a fool at all then. Maybe he wrote what he considered to be the best kind of person.
Once again, I find myself a bit behind. It’s okay (I say through gritted teeth), because I know that I won’t give up until the remaining three plays are read and written about. I will take Pericles home with me, but I may be distracted by the holidays. That said, happy holidays! May 2018 bring us peace, happiness, and tons of time to talk about Shakespeare. Thank you for joining me on this journey – I know it was supposed to be over, but there isn’t any harm in it going on for a little longer.
Talk about a terrible November! First a concussion, and then a terrible flu. Throughout it all, Coriolanus sat sadly on my bedside table, gathering dust and filling me with guilt. It looks like we are going to be a month behind here on ‘oh for muse of fire,’ which really bothers me to no end. I am a perfectionist who likes to get things done well before they are due. Trust me, I tried to tough the concussion out, but that just made it worse. Turns out that a good smack to my head was the only thing that could actually prevent me from working – and from reading Shakespeare.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I have been trying to read the plays in order of alleged publication date. That means I read Measure for Measure in October – and that means that Measure for Measure made Coriolanus almost impossible to read. How do you go from something so incredibly gripping and shocking to something that just…isn’t? How do you even begin to enjoy Coriolanus even if you haven’t read a handful of arguably superior plays right before it? ‘You can’t,’ you think. And as much as I want to agree, and as much as I dislike this play, I want to try. So that’s what we’re going to do: get to the root of Coriolanus and shape it into something interesting and enjoyable.
We open in Rome, where the plebeians are unhappy. They are famished, and are threatening to revolt. Also, they hate Caius Martius – later known to us as Coriolanus.
SECOND CITIZEN Would you proceed especially against Caius Martius?
ALL Against him first. He’s a very dog to the commonalty.
SECOND CITIZEN Consider you what services he has done for his country?
FIRST CITIZEN Very well, and could be content to give him good report for ‘t, but that he pays himself with being proud.
They hate Caius Martius for his pride – and his pride actually makes the play unbearable as well. Even Harold C. Goddard writes about this play’s unpopularity – and how the titular character’s personality is a huge reason why it is rarely staged or read. “One often wonders,” he writes, “how often it is read except by scholars and students.” And by bookish 24 (well, 25 on Sunday!) year old biomedical engineers, it seems.
Why should the plebeians care about what Caius Martius has done for Rome? They’re still hungry, aren’t they? Menenius, a patrician, tries to calm them down – he tells them that his fellow patricians have been trying their best to care for the plebeians.
SECOND CITIZEN Care for us? True, indeed! They ne’er cared for us yet. Suffer us to famish, and their storehouses crammed with grain; make edicts for usury to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome act established against the rich, and provide more piercing statutes daily to chain up and restrain the poor. If the wars eat us not up, they will; and there’s all the love they bear us.
Well, here’s some modern political commentary for you. In the modern world, this citizen could be talking about Republicans and capitalism. To be completely honest, the plebeians are making some relatively reasonable requests.
MENENIUS For corn at their own rates, whereof they say
The city is well stored.
MARTIUS Hang ’em! They say?
They’ll sit by the fire and presume to know
What’s done i’ th’ Capitol, who’s like to rise,
Who thrives, and who declines; side factions and give out
Conjectural marriages, making parties strong
And feebling such as stand not in their liking
Below their cobbled shoes. They say there’s grain enough?
Would the nobility lay aside their ruth
And let me use my sword, I’d make a quarry
With thousands of these quartered slaves as high
As I could pick my lance.
Caius Martius is so difficult to love. As a character, he stands for everything I am against. He is violent, prideful, and he hates the poor. But be patient – we can make a tragic hero out of him yet.
Martius tells Menenius that the people have been granted tribunes. We see two of them – Brutus and Sicinius – quite often in this play. They, too, see Caius Martius as having too much pride.
To top off this potential revolt, Aufidius and his Volscian army are nearby and ready to tear Rome to pieces. There is a lot of bloodshed in this play – but is it really a play about war? We’ll see.
We cut to Volumina, Martius’ mother, who is sewing with Virgilia, his wife.
VOLUMINA I pray you, daughter, sing, or express yourself in a more comfortable sort. If my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honor than in the embracements of his bed where he would show most love. When yet he was but tender-boiled and the only son of my womb, when youth with comeliness plucked all gaze his way, when for a day of kings’ entreaties a mother should not sell him an hour from her beholding, I, considering how honor would become such a person – that it was no better than picture-like to hang by th’ wall, if renown made it not stir – was pleased to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame. To a cruel war I sent him, from whence he returned, his brows bound with oak. I tell thee, daughter, I sprang not more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child than now in first seeing he had proved himself a man.
Caius Martius is a terrible person, I think. In the short while we’ve known him, we’ve seen him to be hard-hearted, cruel, and prideful. And Volumina is to blame.
While Shakespeare really knows how to write lovable women – Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, and Rosalind from Love’s Labor’s Lost, for example – he also is fantastic at writing terrible women – and Volumina is one of them.
So let us consider this: when Caius Martius was a young boy, he was lovely both physically and in spirit. He was sensitive and impressionable. Volumina took one look at her child and knew she could mold him into whatever she pleased. She sent him off to war before he was a man, and she ruined him. She is the reason that Caius Martius is so heartless, so cruel, and so prideful. She committed the ultimate crime: she forced her child to become something he was not destined to be. So what chance did he have?
When we keep this in mind, Coriolanus becomes a totally different play. It is not so much as war as it is about a man who has been playing a role he was forced into for his entire life.
Valeria, a friend, arrives. She takes a moment to talk about Caius Martius’ son.
VALERIA O’ my word, the father’s son! I’ll swear ’tis a very pretty boy. O’ my troth, I looked upon him o’ Wednesday half an hour together. H’as such a confirmed countenance. I saw him run after a gilded butterfly, and when he caught it, he let it go again, and after it again, and over and over he comes, and up again, catched it again. Or whether his fall enraged him or how ’twas, he did so set his teeth and tear it. O, I warrant how he mammocked it!
Taking this at face value, it looks like little Martius is a demonic child who tears butterflies apart. Harold C. Goddard sees it differently, though. The butterfly, he notes, symbolizes the human psyche. I was actually already aware of this, because I am also a huge lover of Greek mythology. The child’s struggle with the butterfly, then, symbolizes the struggle between his soul as it is, and Volumina’s desire to change it into something else. Because, unfortunately, Volumina sees young Martius as another opportunity to mold a child into a war hero. Like his father before him, young Martius is a beautiful child, still whimsical enough to chase butterflies – and who is also struggling against Volumina’s will. We know that Volumina is ready to see this child as another Caius Martius because right before Valeria began to speak, she spoke of his preference for swords and drums. But he’s a child, and the preference is Volumina’s.
Virgilia is a very quiet character. She seems soft and sweet and, strangely enough, she seems to love her husband. This reminds me of Richard II, because it’s so difficult to understand why Richard’s queen seems to love him so. But both these women clearly know men that we don’t – and maybe Virgilia knows who her husband is separate from who Volumina forces him to be.
Meanwhile, the Romans and Volscians are at each other’s throats in Corioles. ‘Hey,’ you think, ‘that sounds suspiciously like the title of this play.’ It does, and soon I’ll be able to call Caius Martius by his second name.
Martius, despite being the worst person in the universe, is an excellent soldier. He beats the Volscians back into the gates of Corioles. He follows after them, shuts the gate, and fights them alone. He emerges bloody and victorious, and allows his fellow Romans to enter.
The others, of course, are dazzled by this display. But Martius doesn’t seem to want their praise:
MARTIUS Sir, praise me not.
My work hath yet not warmed me. Fare you well.
The blood I drop is rather physical
Than dangerous to me. To Aufidius thus
I will appear and fight.
Caius Martius rejects praise quite a lot, and you have to wonder why. Is he just being annoying? Maybe – but maybe he does this because he is constantly being praised for being something that he wasn’t meant to be. I really do not think that Martius’ soul is as invested in being a hard warrior as Volumina would like it to be. Praise reminds him of what he is doing, so he pushes it away. He would rather mindlessly push onward instead of think about who he has become.
To add to all of this, Martius also defeats Aufidius, who is his greatest rival. To honor him for all of this, he is given the name Coriolanus. You know, because he wasn’t full of himself enough before all of this.
ALL Martius Caius Coriolanus!
CORIOLANUS I will go wash;
And when my face is fair, you shall perceive
Whether I blush or no. Howbeit, I thank you.
I mean to stride your steed and at all times
To undercrest your good addition
To th’ fairness of my power.
I don’t know if Coriolanus acts humble for show, or because he actually has the capacity to be modest. Who knows? If Volumina hadn’t preyed upon him, who would Coriolanus be? Would he be humble?
What’s important, though, is that the commoners still hate Coriolanus. I mean, they’re still hungry. A few tribunes and a successful siege doesn’t change that.
Some people (read: patricians) are actually quite happy to see Coriolanus come home. They expect that he will be elected consul.
SICINIUS On the sudden
I warrant him consul.
BRUTUS Then our office may,
During his power, go sleep.
I don’t blame the tribunes for being uneasy – Coriolanus would be a terrible consul. None of this is meant for him.
The Senate intends to nominate Coriolanus for consul, but more than one person knows that his personality makes him a questionable choice.
SECOND OFFICER ‘Faith, there hath been many great men that have flattered people who ne’er loved them; and there be many that they have loved they know not wherefore; so that, if they love they know not why, they hate upon no better a ground. Therefore, for Coriolanus neither to care whether they love or hate him manifests the true knowledge he has in their disposition and, out of his noble carelessness, lets them plainly see ‘t.
FIRST OFFICER If he did not care whether he had their love or no, he waved indifferently ‘twixt doing them neither good nor harm; but he seeks their hate with greater devotion than they can render it him and leaves nothing undone that may fully discover him their opposite. Now, to seem to affect the malice and displeasure of the people is as bad as that which he dislikes, to flatter them for their love.
Coriolanus’ hatred of the common people is one of the things I just can’t stand about him. I don’t think it’s ever really clear why he hates them – he just does. Perhaps Coriolanus seeks their hatred because he hates himself. He doesn’t want to be loved as he is – as the person Volumina has forced him to become.
The Senate, meanwhile, is trying to praise Coriolanus. As usual, he is having none of it.
CORIOLANUS Your Honors, pardon.
I had rather have my wounds to heal again
Than hear say how I got them.
BRUTUS Sir, I hope
My words disbenched you not?
CORIOLANUS No, sir. Yet oft,
When blows have made me stay, I fled from words.
You soothed not, therefore hurt not; but your people,
I love them as they weigh.
This isn’t a good enough excuse for me, which is why I can pretend that Coriolanus must have some deep-rooted hatred for himself.
Here’s the problem with this whole consul business though: Coriolanus needs votes from a number of plebeians. And he hates plebeians. He is encouraged to remind them of all he’s done for Rome, but he isn’t into that. Funny, for someone so prideful he doesn’t seem interested in boasting:
CORIOLANUS To brag unto them “Thus I did, and thus!”
Show them th’ unaching scars, which I should hide,
As if I had received them for the hire
Of their breath only!
However, the commoners are willing to hear him out. They know that Coriolanus has done a lot for Rome, even if he is awful. And they don’t want to seem ungrateful.
THIRD CITIZEN […] Ingratitude is monstrous, and for the multitude to be ingrateful were to make a monster of the multitude, of the which, we being members, should bring ourselves to monstrous members.
Coriolanus is still struggling with what he has to do, however. He has a habit of going on and on about one thing for ages, and it’s a bit annoying. He does this because he’s stubborn, and his mind isn’t easily changed by the people around him.
CORIOLANUS What must I say?
“I pray, sir?” – plague upon ‘t! I cannot bring
My tongue to such a pace. “Look, sir, my wounds!
I got them in my country’s service when
Some certain of your brethren roared and ran
From th’ noise of our own drums.”
MENENIUS O me, the gods!
You must not speak of that. You must desire them
To think upon you.
Here, Coriolanus is boasting. Perhaps he hates the commoners for being lazy and for being below average soldiers. Or perhaps he relishes their hate, as I mentioned before. Who knows?
Shockingly, even though Coriolanus openly mocks them, the plebeians agree to vote for him.
CORIOLANUS Most sweet voices!
Better it is to die, better to starve,
Than crave the hire which first we do deserve.
Why in this woolvish toge should I stand here
To beg of Hob and Dick that does appear
Their needless vouches? Custom calls me to ‘t.
What custom wills, in all things should we do ‘t?
The dust on antique time would lie unswept
And mountainous error be too highly heaped
For truth to o’erpeer. Rather than fool it so,
Let the high office and the honor go
To one that would do thus. I am half through;
The one part suffered, the other will I do.
This reminds me a lot of Hal’s speech about ceremony in Henry V. If I could ask Coriolanus one question, I’d ask him this: what Volumina wills, in all things should he do it? I think, much like Hamlet is unaware of how his ghostly father has influenced him, Coriolanus is unaware of how much of Volumina is in him.
The tribunes (exasperatedly, I’m sure) tell the plebeians that Coriolanus was mocking them. They choose not to vote for him, in a very shocking McCain-saying-nay-to-the-healthcare-bill twist.
Coriolanus, of course, loses his temper when he finds out that the commoners have turned against him.
CORIOLANUS How? No more?
As for my country I have shed my blood,
Not fearing outward force, so shall my lungs.
Coin words till their decay against those measles
Which we disdain should tetter us, yet sought
The very way to catch them.
BRUTUS You speak o’ th’ people
As if you were a god to punish, not
A man of their infirmity.
SICINIUS ‘Twere well
We let the people know it.
Brutus is right – the reason people find Coriolanus to be so prideful is because he is constantly trashing the plebeians. It has nothing to do with him talking about his own heroism, and everything to do with how he treats those who are below him in class.
Coriolanus lets his temper get the better of him, and attacks the law that gave the people tribunes. This results in a massive uproar, and the tribunes accuse him of treason and try to have him executed. But his fellow patricians rush to his rescue. I can’t help but wonder why they are so loyal to Coriolanus – it’s as if they see him as above and below them at the same time. It is a weird dynamic that they have, I will say.
MENENIUS Consider this: he has been bred i’ th’ wars
Since he could draw a sword, and is ill schooled
In bolted language; meal and bran together
He throws without distinction. Give me leave,
I’ll go to him and undertake to bring him
Where he shall answer by a lawful form,
In peace, to his utmost peril.
Whose fault is all of that, Menenius? Why is Volumina never mentioned? She sent Coriolanus to the wars – he didn’t do it to himself. This isn’t who he was destined to be.
Meanwhile, Coriolanus continues to stubbornly refuse to appeal to the plebeians.
CORIOLANUS I muse my mother
Does not approve me further, who was wont
To call them woolen vassals, things created
To buy and sell with groats, to show bare heads
In congregations, to yawn, be still, and wonder
When one but of my ordinance stood up
To speak of peace or war.
I talk of you.
Why did you wish me milder? Would you have me
False to my nature? Rather say I play
The man I am.
It appears that Volumina taught Coriolanus to hate plebeians. Of course! It is a learned behavior – I would still argue that he actively seeks their hate on purpose, though.
Again, it seems that Coriolanus has no idea how much of an affect his upbringing had on him. He asks Volumina if she would have him be false to his nature – but what is his nature? Does he even know who he is outside of what his mother has taught him?
Volumina convinces Coriolanus to pretend to tolerate the commoners. He promises to do so (of course, it takes like a hundred lines to convince him) – but I instantly doubted that he could do it.
My doubts were not unfounded, because Coriolanus immediately loses his temper when he is called a traitor. In response to his lashing out, he is sentenced to death. The commoners and patricians ends up with a compromise though: banishment.
CORIOLANUS You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate
As reek o’ th’ rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you!
And here remain with your uncertainty;
Let every feeble rumor shake your hearts;
Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
Fan you into despair! Have the power still
To banish your defenders, till at length
Your ignorance – which finds not till it feels,
Making but reservation of yourselves,
Still your own foes – deliver you
As most abated captives to some nation
That won you without blows! Despising
For you the city, thus I turn my back.
There is a world elsewhere.
And then he leaves. I keep saying that Coriolanus was not meant to be this way, and you may be wondering why he hasn’t shown his true colors yet. He is the product of a lifetime of manipulation, and there is a chance that he is too far gone to ever change his ways. I’d say banishment might be a relief to him, but that would be wrong considering what he chooses to do next. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The scene in which Coriolanus says goodbye to his family was surprisingly touching.
CORIOLANUS Come, leave your tears. A brief farewell. The beast
With many heads butts me away. Nay, mother,
Where is your ancient courage? You were used
To say extremities was the trier of spirits;
That common chances common men could bear;
That when the sea was calm, all boats alike
Showed mastership in floating; fortune’s blows
When most struck home, being gentle wounded craves
A noble cunning. You were used to load me
With precepts that would make invincible
The heart that conned them.
VIRGILIA O heavens! O heavens!
CORIOLANUS Nay, I prithee, woman –
Virgilia cannot be consoled. I’m telling you, there has got to be something to Coriolanus. Yes, this is Rome, and she needs her husband for protection. But something tells me that Virgilia doesn’t merely tolerate her husband – she loves him.
I truly thought I knew where this play was going when I reached Coriolanus’ banishment. I thought he would learn what it was like to be a commoner, to be poor and unwanted. I thought he would undergo a personal change, especially since he would be far away from Volumina.
But, no. Instead of finding himself, Coriolanus dons a disguise and seeks Aufidius out.
CORIOLANUS, [removing his muffler]
Not yet thou know’st me, and seeing me, dost not
Think me for the man I am, necessity
Commands me name myself.
AUFIDIUS What is thy name?
CORIOLANUS A name unmusical to Volscians’ ears
And harsh in sound to thine.
AUFIDIUS Say, what’s thy name?
Thou hast a grim appearance and thy face
Bears a command in ‘t. Though thy tackle’s torn,
Thou show’st a noble vessel. What’s thy name?
This was actually pretty hilarious to me. Coriolanus spent most of this play acting like he and Aufidius had some grand rivalry between them, but Aufidius doesn’t even recognize him off the battlefield. What a blow to Coriolanus’ ego!
Why did Coriolanus seek Aufidius out, you ask?
MESSENGER It is spoke freely out of many mouths –
How probably I do not know – that Martius,
Joined with Aufidius, leads a power ‘gainst Rome
And vows revenge as spacious as between
The young’st and oldest thing.
That’s right. Instead of finding himself, Coriolanus decides that his best bet is to burn Rome to the ground. Which means you’re thinking that my theory about his sensitive past is can’t be true. But consider this: Coriolanus is facing something incredibly terrifying right now. He does not have his mother or the patricians to direct him. And he doesn’t know who he is or what he’s supposed to be doing. So he retaliates in the only way he knows how: with violence.
Coriolanus, shockingly, is incredibly popular among the Volscians. Aufidius doesn’t like this, and immediately begins plotting against him. What a shocker! It’s almost like joining up with your literal enemy was a terrible idea.
The last act of this play is, quite frankly, the most annoying. Coriolanus is so stubborn that it takes multiple characters over multiple scenes to shake him out of his violent rage. Coriolanus turns the patricians away – he even turns Menenius away, and Menenius (against his better judgement, I’m sure) loves Coriolanus like a son.
The women approach him with young Martius in tow.
CORIOLANUS […] My wife comes foremost, then the honored mold
Wherein this trunk was framed, and in her hand
The grandchild to her blood. But out, affection!
All bond and privilege of nature, break!
Let it be virtuous to be obstinate.
What is that curtsy worth? Or those doves’ eyes,
Which can make gods forsworn? I melt and am not
Of stronger earth than others.
My mother bows,
As if Olympus to a molehill should
In supplication nod; and my young boy
Hath an aspect of intercession which
Great Nature cries “Deny not!” Let the Volsces
Plow Rome and harrow Italy, I’ll never
Be such a gosling to obey instinct, but stand
As if a man were author of himself,
And knew no other kin.
VIRGILIA My lord and husband.
CORIOLANUS These eyes are not the same I wore in Rome.
VIRGILIA The sorrow that delivers us thus changed
Makes you think so.
CORIOLANUS Like a dull actor now,
I have forgot my part, and I am out,
Even to a full disgrace. Best of my flesh,
Forgive my tyranny, but do not say
For that “Forgive the Romans.”
This, frankly, is the most interesting passage in the play. Coriolanus sees Virgilia, in all her sweetness, and is undone. I wish we had seen more of their relationship. I also find it interesting that Coriolanus mentions that he has forgotten his part – it really comes together with what I was saying about him playing a part that he was not meant to play in life.
Volumina begs with Coriolanus, and seems annoyed that there is no mercy in him. But why should she be so shocked at this? She’s the reason Coriolanus is merciless. Eventually, however, he breaks.
[He holds her by the hand, silent.]
CORIOLANUS O mother, mother!
What have you done? Behold, the heavens do ope,
The gods look down, and this unnatural scene
They laugh at. O, my mother, mother, O!
You have won a happy victory to Rome.
But, for your son – believe it, O, believe it! –
Most dangerously you have with him prevailed,
If not most mortal to him. But let it come. –
Aufidius, though I cannot make true wars,
I’ll frame convenient peace. Now, good Aufidius,
Were you in my stead, would you have heard
A mother less? Or granted less, Aufidius?
I think this is the most emotion we have seen from Coriolanus this entire play. Act five may be incredibly annoying, but it also shows us what this play could have been.
Coriolanus blames his change of heart on his mother, but I truly believe that this is the one thing she wasn’t able to manipulate him to do. I think Coriolanus, with his loved ones in front of him, felt warmth that Volumina had tried so hard to stamp out of him his whole life. I think this decision was his own, but he is unaware of that because every other decision in his life has been because of his mother’s intervention. I think this is the person Coriolanus could have been, if he hadn’t been forced into his current life.
I want to point out that Volumina is praised for convincing Coriolanus to abandon his siege on Rome. But she is being praised for doing something completely out of character: for kneeling down before her son and begging. I wonder how she feels about this, or if she even noticed it at all.
It doesn’t take long for Aufidius to decide that he isn’t impressed by all of this.
AUFIDIUS There was it
For which my sinews shall be stretched upon him.
At a few drops of women’s rheum, which are
As cheap as lies, he sold the blood and labor
Of our great action. Therefore shall he die,
And I’ll renew me in his fall.
Aufidius kills Coriolanus with everybody watching – and claims to feel sorrow over it only a moment after. Did Coriolanus know that this was going to happen? How couldn’t he have? Did he think his abandonment of the Volscians was going to be easy?
Is this what he wanted?
Coriolanus is, objectively, not a great play. There isn’t a lot of pretty poetry in it, and the titular character is unbearable. It’s so hard to root for him, unless you insist on giving him some sort of tragic backstory that is never fully confirmed in the actual play. But if that’s what it takes, so be it. Coriolanus’ own worst enemy isn’t himself, but rather his mother.
It looks like Timon of Athens is next, but I’ll start it next week. I don’t think Shakespeare would want me to read something so cynical on my birthday weekend!
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 him.
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 hurt 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.