Analysis of ‘Richard III’

Richard III, though called “The Tragedy of King Richard the third” in the First Quarto, is a history play written by William Shakespeare in the early 1590s. It’s the last play in a tetralogy on British kings, the first three being parts I, II, and III of Henry VI, which are among the earliest plays the Bard is known to have written.

While Henry VI, Part I is considered one of Shakespeare’s worst plays, and thus is also believed to be a collaboration (these same two assessments have been made of another early Shakespeare play, Titus Andronicus), Richard III is the Bard’s first great play. It is also his second-longest play (after Hamlet).

Richard III is great literature, but it isn’t good history: essentially a propaganda play, it vilifies its namesake in order to justify his usurpation by Henry VII, the first monarch of the House of Tudor (Elizabeth I, contemporaneous with Shakespeare, being the last Tudor monarch). While the theory–that Richard III was responsible for the deaths (or, rather, disappearance) of the princes in the Towerseems the most probable one to explain the fate of the two boys, it is by no means proven; accordingly, the Ricardians are trying to rehabilitate Richard III‘s reputation.

Here are some famous quotes from Richard III, and from plays associated with it:

“Why, love forswore me in my mother’s womb;/And, for I should not deal in her soft laws,/She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe/To shrink mine arm up like a wither’d shrub;/To make an envious mountain on my back,/Where sits deformity to mock my body;/To shape my legs of an unequal size;/To disproportion me in every part,/Like to a chaos, or an unlick’d bear-whelp/That carries no impression like the dam./And am I then a man to be belov’d?/O, monstrous fault, to harbour such a thought!/Then, since this earth affords no joy to me/But to command, to check, to o’erbear such/As are of better person than myself,/I’ll make my heaven to dream upon the crown,/And, whiles I live, to account this world but hell/Until my mis-shap’d trunk that bear this head/Be round impaled with a glorious crown./And yet I know not how to get the crown,/For many lives stand between me and home,/And I, like one lost in a thorny wood,/That rends the thorns, and is rent with the thorns,/Seeking a way, and straying from the way,/Not knowing how to find the open air,/But toiling desperately to find it out,/Torment myself to catch the English crown;/And from that torment I will free myself,/Or hew my way out with a bloody axe./Why, I can smile, and murther while I smile,/And cry ‘Content!’ to that which grieves my heart,/And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,/And frame my face to all occasions./I’ll drown more sailors than the mermaid shall,/I’ll slay more gazers than the basilisk;/I’ll play the orator as well as Nestor,/Deceive more slyly than Ulysses could,/And like a Sinon take another Troy./I can add colours to the chameleon,/Change shapes with Protheus for advantages,/And set the murtherous Machiavel to school./Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?/Tut, were it farther off, I’ll pluck it down.” –Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Henry VI, Part III, Act III, Scene ii, lines 153-195

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York
;
And all the clouds, that lour’d upon our house,
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums chang’d to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visag’d war hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;
And now, — instead of mounting barbed steeds,
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,—
He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
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,—
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.” –Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Richard III, Act I, Scene i, lines 1-31

“Was ever woman in this humour woo’d?
Was ever woman in this humour won?
I’ll have her; — but I will not keep her long.” –Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Richard III, Act I, Scene ii, lines 227-229

“I cannot tell: the world is grown so bad,
That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch:
Since every Jack became a gentleman,
There’s many a gentle person made a Jack.” –Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Richard III, Act I, Scene iii, lines 70-73

“But then I sigh, and, with a piece of scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:
And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends, stol’n out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.” –Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Richard III, Act I, Scene iii, lines 334-338

“O momentary grace of mortal men,
Which we more hunt for than the grace of God!
Who builds his hope in air of your fair looks,
Lives like a drunken sailor on a mast,
Ready, with every nod, to tumble down
Into the fatal bowels of the deep.” —Hastings, Richard III, Act III, Scene iv, lines 98-103

“O bloody Richard! —miserable England!
I prophesy the fearfull’st time to thee
That ever wretched age hath look’d upon. —
Come, lead me to the block; bear him my head:
They smile at me who shortly shall be dead.” –Hastings, Richard III, Act III, Scene iv, lines 105-109

“I must be married to my brother’s daughter,
Or else my kingdom stands on brittle glass: —
Murder her brothers, and then marry her!
Uncertain way of gain! But I am in
So far in blood, that sin will pluck on sin.
Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye.” –King Richard, Richard III, Act IV, Scene ii, lines 62-67

King Richard: I am not in the giving vein to-day.
Buckingham: Why, then resolve me whe’r you will or no.
King Richard: Tut, tut, thou troublest me; I am not in the vein. —Richard III, Act IV, Scene ii, lines 120-122

“The sons of Edward sleep in Abraham’s bosom,
And Anne my wife hath bid the world good night.” –King Richard, Richard III, Act IV, Scene iii, lines 38-39

“Is the chair empty? is the sword unsway’d?
Is the king dead? the empire unpossess’d?” –King Richard, Richard III, Act IV, Scene iv, lines 470-471

“Despair and die!” –The Ghosts of Edward, Prince of Wales; Henry VI; Clarence; Grey; Rivers; Vaughan; Hastings; the boy Princes; Anne and Buckingham, Richard III, Act V, repeatedly throughout Scene iii

“Give me another horse! — bind up my wounds!
Have mercy, Sweet Jesu!” –King Richard, Richard III, Act V, Scene iii, lines 177-178

“I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die!
I think there be six Richmonds in the field;
Five have I slain to-day instead of him.” –King Richard, Richard III, Act V, Scene iv, lines 9-12

A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” –King Richard, Richard III, Act V, Scene iv, line 7, then again at line 13

“Inter their bodies as becomes their births.
Proclaim a pardon to the soldiers fled,
That in submission will return to us;
And then, as we have ta’en the sacrament,
We will unite the white rose and the red: —
Smile heaven upon this fair conjunction,
That long have frown’d upon their enmity!
” —Henry, Earl of Richmond, Richard III, Act V, Scene v, lines 15-21

“Off with his head; so much for Buckingham” –King Richard, Colley Cibber‘s 1699 adaptation of Richard III

“Richard’s himself again!” –King Richard, Colley Cibber’s adaptation of Richard III

Because Richard III is part four of a tetralogy, which Shakespeare assumed his audience had seen in its entirety, he makes allusions to the first three parts that would be lost on audiences who’ve only seen the last part. (Colley Cibber tried to solve this problem with his 1699 adaptation.) Hence, to understand Shakespeare’s play, one must give a précis of the first three plays; I refer mostly to those parts relevant to understanding Richard III.

Henry VI, Part I

Henry V has passed away, way before his time, meaning his son, the child Henry VI, must be the new king. Squabbling and mismanagement of the kingdom under the Lord Protector and other nobles, as well as rebellions led by Joan of Arc, have lost England the French territory won under Henry V’s rule. Factions in King Henry’s court choose to side either with the White Rose of York or the Red Rose of Lancaster. Suffolk‘s plan is for Henry VI to marry Margaret of Anjou, as against the advice of the Lord Protector, so Suffolk can control the king through her.

Henry VI, Part II

The king marries Margaret. Bickering between the two factions leads, by the end of the play, to the Wars of the Roses. The Lord Protector; Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, has been imprisoned for treason and killed by hired murderers. The Duke of York, claiming the right to the throne, fights against Henry VI’s Lancastrian faction. The king, too meek and pious to fight, will let his wife, Queen Margaret, lead the Lancastrians.

Henry VI, Part III

The Duke of York briefly gains the upper hand and is made king, but the Lancastrians regain power, put a paper crown on York to mock him, then kill him. Henry VI is king again, but not for long, as the Yorkists get the upper hand again, and York’s eldest son is made King Edward IV. Hunchbacked Richard, Edward’s youngest brother, is made Duke of Gloucester; he lusts for the crown, but in a soliloquy (see first quote above) speaks of how he doesn’t know how to get to it; he compares his difficult quest for power to cutting through a “thorny wood” to get to a clearing. During the ongoing civil war, Warwick is killed by King Edward, as is (in the Battle of Tewkesbury) the Lancastrian Prince of Wales by all three of York’s sons, Edward (the king), George, and Richard, the last of these three later killing imprisoned King Henry VI, who prophesies that the Earl of Richmond will be king after the future King Richard III’s reign. The Yorkists win, Margaret is banished, and the Yorkists celebrate.

Richard III

Only Richard, Duke of Gloucester, doesn’t celebrate with the others, for he is still scheming to eliminate his rivals to the crown. In a soliloquy (see second quote above), he speaks of the great change that has just occurred: from war to peace, from “the winter of our discontent” to “glorious summer by this sun of York” (that is, the Yorkist badge of the sun, or, son of the Duke of York, Edward IV). Instead of making war, the people are making love.

This soliloquy introduces the theme of vicissitudes, or continually revolving changes in condition or fortune (especially from good to bad luck, for as we will see, Gloucester hates this shift from killing to copulating). The theme is established clearly by repeating, over and over again, how bellicosity has changed to such things as “the lascivious pleasing of a lute”.

Gloucester, however, is too ugly to be a lover. No woman would want this hunchback, who has been “Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,/Deform’d”, with one leg longer than the other. So, since he “cannot prove a lover”, his emotional rejection, combined with his ambition, has him “determined to prove a villain”. He is determined by fate and by his resolve to become king.

Through Gloucester’s scheming, his elder brother George, Duke of Clarence, is being sent by Brackenbury to the Tower because a prophecy says that “G” (George, apparently, but actually Gloucester) will kill King Edward’s heirs. Thus we see the vicissitudes of Clarence’s fortunes, traded with those of Hastings, who has just been freed from the Tower, a change to ill fortune only in the eyes of his enemies, Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan.

To help secure him on the throne, Gloucester must wed Anne Neville, who hates him for having murdered her father, Warwick, her husband, the Prince of Wales at Tewkesbury, and his father, Henry VI. Getting her to change her attitude to Gloucester will be a formidable task for him, but he succeeds within one scene of fiery dialogue with her: he feigns both repentance and love for her, even offering either to have her stab him with his sword or to kill himself. She agrees, amazingly, to marry him by the end of the scene. Vicissitudes follow each other so closely, they’re like a pair of feet stepping on each other’s toes.

Indeed, immediately after she leaves, Gloucester has gone from imagining himself too repellent to woo women, to being a “marv’llous proper man”, and he wants to go out and buy himself some fashionable clothes and gaze on himself in a looking glass.

The nobles have changed from celebrating their victory to squabbling among each other. Elizabeth, Edward IV’s queen, knows how dangerous Gloucester is to her family. He stirs up more rancour among the nobles by comparing the rise in power of her family to how “wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch”. He claims that, in his opinion, lowly people like her family have become gentlemen, while truly noble people like himself have been abased. More vicissitudes, both real and imagined.

Speaking of abased nobles, Margaret of Anjou, former queen to Henry VI, has defied her banishment and walks among the, in her opinion, “every Jack [who] became a gentleman” and curses them for causing her ruinous vicissitudes. They all scoff at her curses (her curse at Gloucester seeming to be sent back to her by him–Act I, Scene iii, lines 216-234), but by the end of the play, they’ll be weeping or dead, and she will be seen as a prophetess (Act I, Scene iii, lines 299-303–more on the theme of curses, i.e., self-inflicted ones, later).

Gloucester has hired two murderers to kill Clarence in the Tower. He warns them to be quick about it, for if they let his brother speak, his clever words will surely dissuade them from doing the murder. Indeed, his words almost do, and only one of the murderers actually kills Clarence by drowning him in a malmsey butt of wine, presaged in a dream Clarence has had of being knocked off a boat by falling Gloucester, and drowning in the sea while seeing the horrid ghosts of all those Lancastrians Clarence killed (Act I, Scene iv, lines 9-23, then lines 43-63).

Act II begins with ailing Edward IV pushing the squabbling nobles to be reconciled with each other, getting forced exchanges of love between Hastings and Rivers, Buckingham and Queen Elizabeth, etc. All would seem well in the eyes of the smiling king, until Gloucester shocks everyone with the announcement of Clarence’s death. More vicissitudes come when the king dies of grief, causing, in turn, the mourning of the queen, Clarence’s children, and the Duchess of York, the mother of the dead king, Clarence, and Gloucester (Act II, Scene ii).

Though preparations are being made for Edward IV’s elder son, Prince Edward, to become King Edward V, Gloucester, as the Lord Protector, is making preparations to get rid of the twelve-year-old boy and his younger brother, Prince Richard of York.

Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan are to be executed on a trumped-up charge, causing lamentations in Elizabeth over “the ruin of [her] house” (Act II, Scene iv). As the three condemned men bemoan their vicissitudes, they remember Margaret’s curses not only at them, but at their enemies, Gloucester, Buckingham, and…Hastings, too! Now they can go to their deaths with a kind of gloating solace (Act III, Scene iii).

Elizabeth has her nine-(ten?)-year-old son, Prince Richard, Duke of York, put in sanctuary for his protection from Gloucester and Buckingham. The boy’s vicissitudes turn sour when Buckingham argues that he’s too young to understand, and therefore merit, the Church’s protection (Act III, Scene i, lines 44-56); so he’s taken out of sanctuary and into Gloucester’s ‘protection’ with his older brother, the boy who would be king…if not for Gloucester.

Though Lord Stanley warns Hastings of a bad dream he’s had presaging Hastings’s death at the hands of Gloucester (the boar), Hastings dismisses the danger, riding high on the news of the execution of his enemies, Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan (Act III, Scene ii). Catesby asks Hastings if he’ll support Gloucester over the two boy princes as the next king; Hastings says he’ll give up his own head before he’ll allow that. Vicissitudes lead to his head, indeed, being chopped off, and what a dramatic swing in fortune do we see when Hastings’s smile is so quickly changed to a frown, all from having said “If“.

So soon after the two princes’ rise in power do we see their vicissitudinous fall, first into the gaping mouth of the Tower, then to being slandered as bastard sons of lascivious Edward IV (Act III, Scene v, lines 72-94), then to their murder by men hired by Tyrell, who at first craves financial gain from just-crowned King Richard III (Act IV, Scene ii, lines 32-41), then quickly switches to remorse upon the sight of the smothered innocents in their bed (Act IV, Scene iii, lines 1-22).

The new king, fearing losing his power, is disappointed with Buckingham, who flinches at the idea of approving of the killing of the princes in the Tower. Buckingham has thus switched from being the king’s loyal friend–who had until now been crucial in helping Richard’s rise to power–to being his enemy. Irked at how the king “Repays…[Buckingham’s] deep service/With such contempt”, Buckingham changes his allegiance to Richmond.

Richard III has undergone vicissitudes, too: he’s gone from being a gleeful villain, who “can smile, and murder while [he] smile[s]”, to a paranoid tyrant who no longer has “that alacrity of spirit/Nor cheer of mind that [he] was wont to have”, and who increasingly hates himself, knowing no one–not even his mother, the Duchess of York–loves him (Act V, Scene iii, lines 177-206).

He’s had his queen, Anne, killed, and he feels the only way he can secure his kingdom is to marry the daughter of the former Queen Elizabeth, who naturally would abominate such a foul marriage, preferring an alliance of her daughter with Richmond. The king tries to charm Elizabeth into allowing the marriage as he did with Anne, but vicissitudes mean he hasn’t the success he had with Anne (Act IV, Scene iv, lines 196-431).

Indeed, the only way Richard can get even the semblance of an agreement from Elizabeth for him to marry her daughter is to curse himself if he ever proves false to her (Act IV, Scene iv, lines 397-417). Since he’s already proven false to that family (as well as to his own) so many times before, he doesn’t need to prove himself false to his would-be bride; so his pretend curse on himself comes true.

This unwitting curse on oneself is not unique to Richard. Anne Neville has cursed any future wife of his, not knowing “his honey words” would make her that accursed future wife (Act IV, Scene i, lines 66-86). Richard Gloucester turns one of Margaret’s curses on herself (Act I, Scene iii, lines 216-240), though this doesn’t stop her curses from having effect on the Yorkists. Buckingham curses himself if he ever proves unfaithful to Queen Elizabeth, saying his own friends, Gloucester et al, should likewise prove untrue to him (Act II, Scene i, lines 32-40)…and this curse, as we know, comes true (Act V, Scene i, lines 12-29).

These self-inflicted curses are made because Anne, Buckingham, and Richard are overconfident, not provident enough to consider how quickly vicissitudes can turn good fortune into bad.

Indeed, with the rise in Richmond’s power and decline in Richard’s, we see a perfect illustration of this trade in fortune in their shared dream, that of Richard’s victims (the Prince of Wales slain in Tewkesbury, Henry VI, Clarence, Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan, Hastings, the princes in the Tower, Anne, and Buckingham) cursing the tyrant to “Despair, and die”, then wishing success to Richmond in the upcoming Battle of Bosworth Field (Act V, Scene iii, lines 118-176).

During that battle, Richard fights bravely, but before his death, he despairs so greatly that, limping on the grass, he would trade the kingdom that has meant everything to him…just for a horse, so he can escape from his enemies.

From craving rule of the kingdom, craving it so much that he would kill anyone standing in his way (family, his wife, even children), to achieving it; then willingly trading that coveted kingdom for a mere horse: such extremity of vicissitudes.

Analysis of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’

Nineteen Eighty-Four is a dystopian novel written by George Orwell in 1948 and published the following year (the title of the novel seems to come from a reversing of the last two numbers of the year he was writing it). It is a political satire whose main target is the Stalinist USSR, but it can also be seen to satirize any totalitarian society, such as Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Francoist Spain, or even contemporary neoliberalism and the intrusive state apparatus that protects today’s capitalist class.

Given the current geo-political climate, I find it irresistible to compare Orwell’s Hell with ours today; and because this story is so rich with possible political interpretations, I will explore many of those here. Not all of these necessarily reflect my own personal political beliefs, but they’re here to show all the interpretive possibilities in such a literary masterwork.

Some right-libertarians like to misuse this novel, as well as Animal Farm, to suggest that Orwell was attacking socialism as a whole (while, adding to that, idiotically saying that Fascist or Nazi totalitarianism was also a brand of socialism, of which it was really the opposite). Actually, Orwell was committed to the ideal of democratic socialism; these two literary criticisms of Stalinism really show his anti-authoritarianism, not anti-socialism. His book, Homage to Catalonia, clearly shows his sympathies for a worker-ruled society.

In the 1930s, however, neither Stalin nor the leftist media, which propagandized for him, was very sympathetic to the Spanish Revolution, on the Republican side of which Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War; indeed, they denied that a socialist revolution was even going on there, because Stalin wanted to control the Spanish Republicans and purge them of Trotskyists and anarchists. Instead, Stalin’s meagre support of the Republicans against Franco‘s right-wing coalition of Nationalists was in the name of ‘defending liberal democracy’, not socialism, in order to appease Britain, France, America, and he hoped, get their help in fighting Nazi Germany later on. This Soviet betrayal of the Spanish leftists was what embittered Orwell against Stalin.

So, the ‘socialism’ that Orwell was criticizing in Nineteen Eighty-Four wasn’t really socialism per se; rather, Stalinism, as Orwell saw it, was a perversion of socialism, a bureaucratized bastardization of it, as symbolized by the Newspeak corruption of Oceania‘s ‘English socialism’ into ‘Ingsoc’ (this ‘socialism in England’, as opposed to worldwide socialism, suggests Stalin’s ‘socialism in one country‘). Similarly, Eurasia‘s political system is called ‘Neo-Bolshevism‘, implying a corruption of Leninism; and Eastasia‘s system is a kind of ‘Death-Worship’, or ‘Obliteration of the Self’. This religion-like quality brings to mind aspects of Juche in North Korea, with its infallible ‘Great Leader’, who does all the masses’ thinking for them. In other words, Orwell was satirizing authoritarianism, not socialism.

In fact, the Ingsoc short form resembles the Nazi short form for Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei. This suggests the state capitalism of fascism rather than socialism, since all left-leaning Nazis (except Goebbels) were purged from the party when Hitler came to power, propped up by big business. Moreover, the first people put in Nazi concentration camps were leftists. So Big Brother’s moustache may not only represent Stalin’s, but also Hitler’s. Not only Big Brother, but also BIG BUSINESS IS WATCHING YOU.

Another interesting concept in this novel is doublethink, in which two contradictory ideas can be simultaneously true. It can be considered a corruption of the notion of Marxist dialectics, when contradictions in material conditions are contemplated, and a unity seen in the contradictions leads to a refinement of one’s philosophy, then to be contradicted and refined, again and again. But where dialectics bring out a refinement, or improvement, in philosophy, doublethink uses contradictions for the sake of self-serving politicians.

Winston Smith‘s name was deliberately chosen by Orwell, suggesting the character’s everyman quality through Smith, a common English surname, and his anti-totalitarian stance (Winston, i.e., Churchill…not that Churchill is any kind of hero to self-respecting leftists, mind you; and just as we shouldn’t idealize Stalin, nor should we ignore Orwell’s faults). Indeed, the juxtaposition, Winston Smith, could be seen as an example of doublethink in itself: Winston Smith indicating that, if you will, IMPERIALISM IS POPULISM; after all, for all of Orwell’s faults, he always despised British imperialism, of which Churchill was its personification at the time, despite his anti-fascism.

Julia, as Winston’s love interest, suggests Juliet.

As members of the Outer Party, Winston and Julia are in a position analogous to the middle class (the Inner Party being the ruling class state capitalists, and the ‘proles‘, or proletarians, being the working class). Oddly, the Outer Party members are the most repressed in this society, since they are the biggest potential threat to the Inner Party. The proles, on the other hand, are given more lenience, since they, in their ‘low-class’ ignorance of political matters, are more easily controlled through pleasurable distractions (pornography, beer, football, etc.).

This acute repression of the middle-class Outer Party seems to presage the near-annihilation of the middle class by neoliberalism over the past thirty to forty years. Though Orwell’s novel has only a totalitarian state as the collective antagonist, we must remember the principles of doublethink. Since WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH, then, if you will, the FREE MARKET IS STATISM, too.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, deregulating capitalism and giving tax cuts to the rich allows them to accumulate obscenely large amounts of wealth, enabling them to buy corrupt politicians; elsewhere, they can use free trade deals (more deregulation) to get cheap labour overseas instead of paying local, unionized labourers; and endless imperialist war means profits through the sale of weapons, and through the plundering of Third World resources. All of this results in more private property that needs protection, hence the state expands rather than contracts, contrary to the fantasies of right-libertarians. The ‘free market’ (of which there really is no such thing, anyway) creates crony capitalism, or another kind of state capitalism.

Winston Smith’s job in the Ministry of Truth–whose short form, Minitrue, suggests the half-truth nature of the propaganda it spreads (TRUTH IS LIES, if you will)–is to eliminate all elements of the past considered politically troublesome to the Inner Party. He will eliminate all evidence of the existence of anyone guilty of thoughtcrime, those now rendered unpersons, just as Stalin used to take old photos including people considered enemies of the state and eliminate them from the pictures, so no memory of the hated people remains.

Similarly, today’s capitalist class can rely on us to forget the past provocations (e.g., the CIA giving money and weapons to Bin Laden and the mujahideen in the 80s, America and other Western countries aiding Iraq by helping develop chemical weapons during the Iran/Iraq War, the US creating the conditions out of which ISIS arose) that have led to the ‘War on Terror‘. Instead of blaming Western imperialism, we blame Muslims, just as the people of Oceania spit out their hostility to Emmanuel Goldstein during the Two Minutes Hate, then swoon in ecstatic adoration of Big Brother, whose Inner Party is their real oppressor.

Interestingly, the remaining part of the globe that isn’t a part of Oceania, Eurasia, or Eastasia–the disputed area where most of the war is going on–is most of Africa, much of the Arab world, and all of southeast Asia, or the Third World, which is the area most oppressed by Western imperialism today. How little things change.

The people of Oceania shout so loudly at the video of Goldstein–a Jew just like Leon Trotsky, so hated by Stalin; yet also a man representative of all the Jews, so hated by Nazis and today’s antisemites among the conspiracy theorists–that not one word of his can be heard. This is like how so many people today, so committed to one ideology, hate its antithesis so virulently that they won’t listen to its despised ideas. The ruling class, like the nomenklatura or the fascist totalitarian state, always makes sure we hate the wrong people.

The cult of personality surrounding Big Brother–just like that of Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, or even, arguably, Obama–makes him into a Godlike figure in opposition to the ‘devil’ Goldstein. Here we can see a critique even of religious authoritarianism: Jesus is Lord, but the liberal left are the spawn of Satan; Allahu Akbar, but the West is the Great Satan; etc. Accordingly, we aren’t even sure if Big Brother exists (or Goldstein, for that matter), as with God or the Devil. Big Brother is like a kindly older brother who protects us from bullies, but we sometimes forget that an older brother himself often bullies us, too.

The notion, ‘Who controls the past…controls the future: who controls the present controls the past,’ is pregnant with thought-provoking interpretations. It expresses the essence of propagandistic white-washing of the past. The current regime is free to vilify whoever was in power previously, comparing the present state of affairs favourably to that of the past by showing only the light side of now and only the shadows of yesterday. And in perpetuating this propaganda, the current regime will ensure that future generations have the ‘correct’ opinions.

Consider how synagogues, churches, and mosques have all blackened the memory of their pagan or secular predecessors or enemies, to ensure that the flock remains faithful. And not only did Stalin’s regime denigrate the names of ‘revisionists’ and ‘reactionaries’ like Trotsky to ensure the survival of his rule, but today the capitalist class portrays socialist states like the USSR (misusing Orwell, as we know) as evil dictatorships to discourage any reconsideration of socialism in today’s neoliberal society.

Similarly, the memory of the Black Panther Party is vilified to deter anyone in the struggle against white racism. Conservatives stereotype feminists as all being like Andrea Dworkin or Catherine MacKinnon to discourage any move away from traditional sex roles; while, on the other side of the coin, radical and third wave feminists propagandize about the past and about ‘patriarchy’ to justify current gynocentrism. And apologists of Western imperialism exaggerate the jihadist history of Islam to deaden sympathy for Muslims. The list of examples can go on and on.

Everywhere in Airstrip One, a deliberately dull choice for a name for England, there are telescreens, or two-way televisions through which the Inner Party and the Thought Police can watch everyone 24/7 in order to catch ‘thought criminals’. Today’s telescreen is the ubiquitous internet surveillance, through not only the NSA and other government organizations out to get any subversive types they can find, but also through capitalists who monitor all our online shopping and other interests to present us with products they hope we’ll waste our money on and fatten their wallets. Consumerism distracts us from activism.

Marriages and other relationships are bereft of affection in Orwell’s Hell, as they are in much of today’s society, with almost half of Western marriages ending in divorce. People would rather stare at a smartphone, tablet, or computer than communicate face to face with people; the emotionless conversations of all Outer Party members, including the public chats of Winston’s and Julia’s, reflect this grey reality. And while Winston is already guilty of thoughtcrime from the first word he’s written in his journal (actually, from when he bought it), it’s not until he and Julia have become lovers, copulating for their mutual enjoyment (‘sexcrime’) instead of for the sake of producing offspring for the state (‘goodsex‘), that they are finally arrested.

And when they are arrested, the symbolism is powerful. Winston and Julia–made to hold their hands behind their heads–are completely naked in the second-floor room of Mr. Charrington’s shop (he secretly working for the Thought Police). The lovers’ nakedness symbolizes their vulnerability and powerlessness, their secrets all known while their fully-clothed intruders needn’t worry about their own secrets being known.

Held in the Ministry of Love (a place of torture), Winston sees not only the usual police rough-housing of prostitutes and other common criminals among the proles, but also the detainment of Tom Parsons, a character known for his sycophantic adherence to Big Brother. Even a bootlicker like him can be a thought criminal! Parsons, a man who happily incorporates the corruption of English known as Newspeak into his speech, has been betrayed by his own daughter, a member of the Party Youth, who are like the Hitler Youth, or like today’s Social Justice Warriors, typically being young university students who have been fully indoctrinated in political correctness by the mainstream corporate media and the corporately controlled universities.

Newspeak is in itself a fascinating concept. Syme speaks of the beauty of the destruction of language. If no words exist for a concept, for example, freedom, then that idea won’t exist anymore, either. This is comparable to how political correctness tries to eliminate bad ideas by doing away with all those words associated with unacceptable ideas. Apparently,  if we dispense with words associating a job with only one sex–businessman, stewardess–and replace them with ‘gender-neutral’ language–businessperson, flight attendant–social attitudes will change such that people won’t be tricked into thinking that these jobs are exclusive to one sex or the other (Never mind that at least a whole generation using politically correct English has gone by, and there are still far more businessmen than businesswomen, and far more female flight attendants than male ones.). Similarly, if we do away with ‘ableist’ language–‘retarded’ as a synonym for stupid–it seems that people will stop showing contempt for mentally handicapped people (Never mind that the still-used words idiot, cretin, imbecile, and moron were once words used for mentally disabled people.).

In today’s world, we hardly need a totalitarian state to condemn someone for thoughtcrime. Merely use the ‘wrong’ vocabulary, or tell a politically incorrect joke, and the masses will go mad on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media, doxxing and shaming you, or destroying your career and reputation by spreading the word about what a ‘bad person’ you are. Though today’s militarized police are certainly frightening, we the common people are our own Thought Police. And remember: “Thoughtcrime does not entail death, thoughtcrime IS death”.

Winston’s next shock is seeing O’Brien, the man who gave him Goldstein’s book (The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, a parody of Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed), come into the room. But the greatest shock is knowing that O’Brien hasn’t been helping the resistance (which, incidentally, is called The Brotherhood), but has been working with the Thought Police all along. Like O’Brien, so many of us only seem to be against the system: ‘anarcho’-capitalists, who oppose the state, but support an economic system that can’t exist without the state; bickering leftists who get hung up on minor ideological differences instead of building solidarity, and betray each other in the manner described in the above paragraph; or ‘Democratic’ leaders like Obama who at first claim to want to ‘spread the wealth around’, then end up serving the same ruling class as eagerly as the Republican Party.

Along with the physical torture that O’Brien subjects Winston to, there is also psychological manipulation in the form of gaslighting. This includes bullying Winston into acceding that 2 + 2 = 5. Those in power can coerce or trick us into accepting all kinds of nonsensical beliefs, including the notion that more capitalism (the ‘free market’) is the solution to the evils of our current capitalist system, which apparently is so merely because the state is involved in it. Just minimize or remove the state and its regulations, and capitalism will be ‘purified’, demagogues like Ron Paul tell us. This is also what the Koch brothers have always said; and instead of liberating society, all their political influence has intensified our troubles. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY.

O’Brien burns pictures of the unpersons Aaronson, Jones, and Rutherford by dumping the photos down a memory hole, saying the men never existed, the lack of extant evidence of their existence being ‘proof’ of their never having existed. That they still exist in Winston’s mind is evidence only of his ‘mental illness’. This is like how authoritarian societies of all kinds, whether left or right-wing, disregard all memory of past offences, pretending they never happened, then pretend that defiant people are mentally ill (i.e. oppositional defiant disorder). “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face–forever,” O’Brien tells Winston.

Finally, Winston must be brought to ‘love’ Big Brother. Of course, to love Big Brother is to be a traitor to oneself, as loving Stalin was betraying the working class (from the anti-Stalinist point of view, at least), or loving Hitler was betraying Germany. To make Winston betray himself and Julia, he is brought to Room 101, with the cage of hungry rats strapped to the front of his face.

Earlier in the novel, he shrieked at the sight of a rat in Charrington’s second-floor room, when he was with Julia; later, Charrington revealed himself to be a rat, having informed the Thought Police of Winston’s and Julia’s affair. Now, Winston sees terrifying rats right before his face.

While, on the surface, his fear is of having his face destroyed by the rats, on a deeper level, his fear of them symbolizes his fear of himself as a rat, about to betray Julia. Seeing those rats is Winston looking at his own mirror reflection (all of which raises the question of how self-conscious Orwell may have been of his own ratting out of pro-Stalin communists). Those in power, whether they be Stalinists, fascists, religious fanatics, or capitalists, always stay in power by making us betray ourselves. Winston the anti-authoritarian is Churchill the imperialist.

We all long for freedom, but when the pressure is on, when we’re taken out of our comfort zone, our spirit is broken, sooner or later, as Winston’s is. We lack the necessary backbone; we are too complacent, especially in the First World; we lack true revolutionary potential. We all give in, and then everything is all right, we’re finished with the struggle, and we resume our obedient following of authority.

We love Big Brother.

Analysis of ‘The Graduate’

The Graduate is a 1967 comedy-drama directed by Mike Nichols, based on the 1963 novel by Charles Webb.  The film stars Dustin Hoffman in a career-making role as Benjamin Braddock, a 20-21-year-old who has just graduated from an unnamed university in the American northeast, and has returned to his home in Pasadena, California.  As the tagline in the movie ad reads, “He’s a little worried about his future.”

The film also stars Anne Bancroft as the seductive, scheming Mrs. Robinson (after whom the famous Simon and Garfunkel song is named), and Katharine Ross as the Robinsons’ daughter, Elaine (Benjamin’s love interest).  While the song ‘Mrs. Robinson’ wasn’t yet in its final form for the movie, a truncated version was used, and other songs by Simon and Garfunkel were also used, most notably “The Sound of Silence,” their version of “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” and “April, Come She Will.”

The American Film Institute in 1998 ranked the film #7 in its list of the 100 best films of all time; then in the 10th anniversary list, it was made film #17.  It was also listed the #9 comedy, “Mrs. Robinson” was listed the #6 song, and these quotes made the top 100 movie quotes:

“Plastics.” –Mr. McGuire, to Benjamin (#42)

“Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.  Aren’t you?” –Benjamin (#63)

The main themes of this movie include: parental dominance (and by extension, that of the “[don’t trust anyone] over thirty” generation); rebellion against authority (which came naturally in any late Sixties movie); alienation and isolation (which came naturally in the 20th century), and the loss of innocence.

Motifs in the film include water (the fish tank, the swimming pool, the rain), light and darkness (including their extremes, black and white), plants (flowers or ‘jungle’ plants), and clothes with animal designs, or designs suggestive of animals (leopards, giraffes, or zebras, worn by Mrs. Robinson and, to a lesser extent, Benjamin’s mother).

[This analysis is largely my own, but I owe a big debt to the influence of Howard Suber’s analysis of the film.  The analysis is only available on the Criterion Edition Laserdisk of the film that, I believe, was released in the 90s for a year or two, and is now rather hard to find.]

The movie begins with Benjamin in an airplane, being passively taken along, going where others would have him go.  “The Sound of Silence” begins with the line, “Hello darkness, my old friend.”  Benjamin is alone among all the other passengers, then in the airport he is seen on a treadmill, once again having something else move him instead of him directing his own movements.

The movie’s very use of “The Sound of Silence” is significant in itself, since the song’s about how people fail to communicate properly, “People talking without speaking/People hearing without listening.”  The paradoxical title expresses this idea aptly.  “And the people bowed and prayed/To the neon god they made,” but they paid no attention to its message, that “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.”  One of Benjamin’s biggest problems is how neither his parents nor any of the older people, those in authority, ever listen to him.

In his bedroom at home, he sits alone in the dim light (for darkness, suggesting a loss of innocence he will soon experience, and ultimately be liberated by, is his “old friend”), avoiding the mature guests at a graduation party his parents have arranged…more for themselves than for him.  Behind Benjamin is a fish tank, a symbol of the trap he’s found himself in.  All those fish swimming in that small space, unable to swim anywhere else; also, there’s a small black figurine of a scuba diver sitting at the bottom of it.

His father, not at all listening to him when he discusses his worries about his future, makes him go downstairs to meet the guests, all his parents’ mature friends and none of his own (indeed, Ben is so isolated and alienated that he seems to have no friends), of his graduation party.  The party is clearly to give face to his parents, it’s not for his sake; Benjamin, academic success and athletic star, is his parents’ jewellery, to be shown off to impress the neighbours.

One guest, Mr. McGuire, has one word to say to Ben: “Plastics.”  Apparently, there is a great future in plastics, an unnatural, man-made material.  In other words, Ben’s future will be successful, but also fake and phoney, hence his fears about it.  It’s all for his Mom and Dad, and not one bit for his own sake.

After putting up with the guests as best he can, Benjamin goes back up to his room.  Mrs. Robinson walks into the room suddenly, pretending she’s looking for the washroom.  She manipulates him into driving her home even after he’s given her his car keys.  Significantly, instead of just giving them to him, she throws them into the fish tank.  Keys, symbols of a way to freedom–they’re for opening doors or driving cars–have been tossed into Ben’s trap symbol.  In spite of her intentions, the sexual trap she’s luring him into will ultimately, and ironically, lead him to his freedom.

The key to Ben’s freedom is for him to lose his innocence, to go from boyhood to manhood (and be a graduate in a different sense), and feel himself so constricted by both the dominance of his parents and that of his symbolic parents, the Robinsons, that he must rebel against their authority to be free.  The only way he’ll be motivated to rebel–through his love for Elaine Robinson–is to be compelled to snatch her from those who forbid him to be with her, her parents.  And while his parents want to match him to her–for the sake of their own agenda, to create a bond between the Braddocks and the Robinsons (oddly, Mr. Robinson, Mr. Braddock’s partner in a law firm, doesn’t attend Ben’s graduation party!)–Ben would marry her for his own sake.

Ben dislikes his own parents’ oppressiveness so much that, at first, and despite his nervousness around the sexually aggressive Mrs. Robinson, he finds the Robinsons to be replacement parents in a kind of family romance.  Indeed, there is much Freudian symbolism in this movie, and Ben’s affair with Mrs. Robinson (his mother dresses similarly in some respects to her, and is similarly attractive and domineering), a woman twice his age, is clearly Oedipal.

In her home, at the back by the window to the backyard, Mrs. Robinson gives Ben a drink (not listening to his wish not to have one, let alone his wish to leave immediately) and plays some soft mood music.  The ‘cougar woman’ is wearing a dress with a zebra design, and a bra and slip with a leopard design (we’ll see the bra and slip later when she’s undressing in the bedroom); and looking out the back window whose awning has a zebra-like striped design, we see plants that make us think of the jungle.

His nervousness over her continuing seduction of him, with her spread legs, is Oedipal in how, deep down, he is as turned on as he is afraid.  (Later, she asks him if he wants her to seduce him.)  When he asks her if she’s trying to seduce him, we see him asking in a shot through her opened legs, which frame him in a triangle, trapping him in her sexuality.

A child’s Oedipal relationship with his mother can be a source of her dominance over him; and Mrs. Robinson, Ben’s symbolic mother here, is manipulating this Oedipus complex expertly.  When she asks him to bring her purse up to the bedroom, he’d rather leave it at the foot of the stairs; but the undressing beauty angrily commands him to bring it into the bedroom.  And there she displays her nakedness to his horrified–and horny–face.

When Mr. Robinson arrives, and obviously doesn’t know what his wife has just done, he becomes Ben’s symbolic father: he even tells Ben that he thinks of him as a son, and advises him to relax by chasing some girls.

On Benjamin’s 21st birthday (the year he comes of age), Mr. and Mrs. Braddock throw another party…but it’s clearly not for him–again, it’s for themselves, to gain face before their neighbours.  Benjamin is made to dress in a black scuba diving outfit (his birthday gift, it would seem) and go into the backyard swimming pool, an enlarged version of the fish tank, and he is an enlarged version of the scuba diver figurine at the bottom of the fish tank.  Similarly trapped, Ben lets himself sink to the bottom of the pool, and he passively sits there.

At the same time, though, we see the beginnings of Ben’s rebellion against his parents’ authority (like his avoidance of the guests at the graduation party), for instead of swimming about and putting on a show to entertain the neighbours, he just sits there at the bottom, like the figurine in the fish tank.  There is a dialectical tension between his increasing feeling of being trapped, and of his push to freedom.

As mentioned above, Ben was shocked at Mrs. Robinson’s attempted seduction of him, but also aroused.  He calls her from a hotel and asks her to join him.  Nervous as always, his id urges to have his symbolic mother are in a battle with his superego’s chiding him for acting out his taboo Oedipal fantasies.

After being annoyed by elderly guests, other symbolic authority figures, he sees Mrs. Robinson, who is wearing a leopard-skin coat, and we see them sit in an area decorated with more ‘jungle’ plants, appropriate for the ‘animal’ act they’re about to engage in.

After this commencement of their affair, and Ben’s loss of virginity (and innocence), he is now a man, and he lies on an inflatable raft, floating on the surface of the water in his pool, wearing black sunglasses and looking like a stud.  He isn’t trapped under the water of his ‘fish tank,’ so his loss of innocence is the furthering of his liberation, but he’s still in the pool; he must continue striving for freedom to get out completely.

A juxtaposition of images of him in the pool, with his parents, or with Mrs. Robinson ensues, suggesting the association between the Robinsons (his replacement parents in the family romance) and his actual parents.  This association also suggests his Oedipal relationship with his replacement mother.  The montage ends with Ben jumping on the inflatable raft, a visual that quickly switches to the hotel room, with him landing on Mrs. Robinson in bed: his affair with her, his loss of innocence, equals being on top of the pool water, freed (at least relatively) from his trap, the big fish tank that is the swimming pool.

His father is clearly unhappy with his free floating on the pool, drifting instead of ‘swimming’ under the water, if you will, for courses in graduate school.  The Robinsons, his substitute parents, then arrive: in the novel, it’s a very straight-forward get-together; but in the film, the scene is glowing, blurred (seen through his sunglasses), dream-like, for this is Ben’s family romance, with the mother of his new Oedipus complex saying hello to him.

His real mother asks him, while he’s shaving, where he’s going every night.  Like Mrs. Robinson, his mother is also pretty, and wears attractive clothes suggestive of dark sexuality, including the black top she wears in this scene–black, the colour of lost innocence.

After Ben ends the affair with Mrs. Robinson, who forbids him ever to date her daughter Elaine, his parents start pushing him to take her out.  Mr. Braddock is in black and white in the kitchen when he first suggests this (or gives the implied command, actually); then he and Mrs. Braddock pressure Ben some more in the swimming pool, and after Ben tries to resist, his mother says she’ll have to invite all the Robinsons over, causing Ben to fall off his raft and swim deep under the water.  He’s trapped again, like those fish in his fish tank.

After taking Elaine out, being rude to her, and quickly regretting his ungentlemanly behaviour, he opens up to her.  He soon realizes, for the first time in the movie, that he’s found a friend…someone his own age.  Her sweetness is in direct contrast to the vampishness of her mother, who wanted only sex and no conversation.  In Elaine, Ben has a most welcome reverse, which is appropriate, since innocent Elaine is the opposite of Mrs. Robinson.

When Ben is driving over to the Robinsons’ house to meet with Elaine, with whom he’s falling in love, Mrs. Robinson rushes over and gets into his car.  She threatens to tell Elaine about their affair if he continues dating her, putting Ben back into a trap.  Significantly, it’s been raining, and when Ben and Mrs. Robinson run into the house, both of them–two fish submerged in the watery trap of their own fish tank–are soaking wet.

Knowing Elaine hates him now that she knows (or thinks she knows) what happened between him and her mother, Ben contemplates his trap while looking at his fish tank.  The song, “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” can be heard while he’s watching her, separated by hedges and flowers.  The words, “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme,” are heard over and over; they rhyme with the line, “She once was a true love of mine.”  Innocent Elaine is the flower Ben loves, and her innocence is preventing him, the loser of his own innocence (and therefore of her), from getting her back.

Note how plants have represented both of Ben’s loves: the jungle plants of Mrs. Robinson, the wild woman, the whore; and the flowers of Elaine, the sweet, innocent virgin (as we can safely assume).  When we see Ben on the campus of Elaine’s university in Berkeley, we see an abundance of plants and flowers.

He later tells his parents of his plan to marry Elaine, something that delights them so much that his mother screams for joy (incidentally, Mrs. Braddock is wearing an outfit with a zebra-like design: she’s as wild an animal, in her own way, as Mrs. Robinson is).  The irony here is that all this pressure to comply with parental authority (dating a girl forbidden to him by her mother, his symbolic mother, who used her dominance to make him, symbolically her Oedipus, satisfy her sexually) is giving him the impetus to break free; for Ben doesn’t want Elaine for his parents’ sake–he wants her for his own.

Now, Benjamin is finally taking charge of his life, instead of just passively acquiescing to the demands of his parents, literal or symbolic.  As for his symbolic parents, the Robinsons, his family romance with them is over with, and his opportunity–and need–to rebel against all authority is fully realized.

And Ben sure has a lot of people to rebel against.  He loves Elaine, and even when he convinces her to forgive him and love him back, her parents will never forgive him for his affair with Mrs. Robinson, which has torn her family apart.  Mr. Robinson confronts Ben in his room in Berkeley, and here we see the Oedipal hostility between Ben and his symbolic father.  Elaine’s parents would have her marry Carl, some soulless, preppy type to ensure her never being with Ben.

But that won’t stop him.

As he’s racing in his car to Santa Barbara, the song “Mrs. Robinson” is heard.  Though the song isn’t heard in its final form, the finished lyrics do reflect what’s going on in the movie, and thus are worth referencing: we all wish to help fallen Mrs. Robinson, apparently, telling her to receive Jesus so her sins will be forgiven (in other words, this is salvation by social conformity, submission to authority, and the bourgeois hypocrisy of hiding the affair).  Still, she’s lost her innocence, as has Ben, and the symbols of good, heroic America have gone away, leaving us with the same old corrupt politicians, who’ll never change.

As Ben’s car slows and runs out of gas, so does the guitar strumming of the song; and in its turn, so does the hypocrisy of pretending to be innocent (i.e., Mrs. Robinson the whore attending church) run out of gas.

Ben arrives at the church too late: Elaine has already married Carl; but this won’t stop a man in love.  He bangs on the glass (rather like the fish tank glass) that separates him from the conformist attendees, who include Mrs. Robinson.  Her gloating over his misfortune, in what’s supposed to be a holy place, shows her authoritarian hypocrisy.

But Elaine sees Ben, knowing he truly loves her; and while her parents and Carl are seen yelling angrily at her for looking up lovingly at him, neither we nor Elaine can hear them, for their sound of silence is an oppressive authority we won’t listen to anymore.

Now Ben’s defying the authority of another father, God the Father; and after hitting Mr. Robinson, his symbolic father, Ben picks up a symbol of Church authority, a large Cross, and uses it to defy the authority of everyone in the church.  He swings it at the guests so he and Elaine can escape from the church together, then he bolts the front door of the church with it, trapping all the guests inside (we see them through glass, like those trapped fish in the fish tank), while he and his love run laughing to a bus.

The irony of using a crucifix–a symbol of authority–to liberate himself and Elaine from authority parallels how Ben used his parents’ wish for him to marry her as a way to liberate himself from their dominance.  Also, we must remember the irony of giving in to Mrs. Robinson’s sexual dominance, which started the chain of events–his loss of innocence, his breaking of social taboos, and his dating of her daughter against her wishes–that has led ultimately to not only Ben’s liberation, but also Elaine’s.

Indeed, though she remains (presumably) a virgin till the end of the movie, Elaine loses her innocence, too, by defying her parents and running off with Ben, right after saying her wedding vows!

With Ben and Elaine at the back of the bus, they laugh and grin in victory; but director Nichols wisely let the camera keep going, and after seeing a shot of mostly (if not all) elderly people staring at the young rebels, we see the two stop smiling, just before the ending credits.  This suggests that the movie has ended where it began, with young people passively being taken away instead of moving on their own initiative, and with them uncertain of their future.  After all, what will their parents think of what they’ve just done?

Detailed Synopsis for ‘Henry V’

Prologue: The Chorus wishes he and the actors of the play had ‘a Muse of fire’ to inspire them to a production that would do justice to the story about to be told.  If only the small stage they are to perform on were enough to show the vast fields of France.  For how can they show armies, horses, and quick changes of locale and time?  The Chorus asks us, the audience, to use our imaginations to fill in the gaps that a humble theatrical production cannot, and to judge the play kindly, and with patience.

Act One: The Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of Ely discuss the matter of the new king, who has surprised everyone in his “blessed…change” from dissolute prince (who, in the Henry IV plays, cavorted with the licentious likes of Sir John Falstaff) to sober, responsible king.  Worrying that Henry, of limited money, won’t give the Church the funding they are wont to have, these two not-so-scrupulous men of the cloth prefer to persuade their king that invading France will be morally justified.

In the king’s court, Henry has the Archbishop of Canterbury explain how he has a perfect right to be the next king of France.  The archbishop mentions the Salic Law, which forbids female succession in France for inheritance of the throne.  Henry’s connection with the French royal lineage is through his great-great-great-grandmother, and so the Salic Law denies him the right to succeed.

The archbishop, however, says that the Salic Land is in Germany, not in France, so the law was not devised for the French.  Furthermore, the French themselves have allowed female succession to their throne, and the archbishop gives examples of French kings who held the title through the female.  Therefore there is no reason to bar Henry from something French dynastic succession has allowed for the French.

When Henry asks Canterbury if he may in good conscience claim the French crown, the archbishop says he’ll bear the sin on his own head if he is wrong.  The king then allows the ambassadors of France to come in.

The first ambassador speaks of Henry’s reputation, when a prince, of carousing and revelry.  The French Dauphin, whom the ambassadors represent, suggests that, instead of trying to make war with France, Henry should pursue less ambitious goals, those more suited to his apparently feckless nature.  Therefore the Dauphin has given Henry a gift, in a chest, that is in keeping with such puerile pursuits.

Henry has his uncle, the Duke of Exeter, open the chest and see what’s inside.  Exeter opens it, and tells the king it is filled with tennis balls.  Keeping well controlled his fury at such an insult, Henry tells the French ambassadors that England will play such a set with these balls that far more will weep than laugh at the Dauphin’s proud jest; for no one knows what use Henry made of his days with Falstaff and the others in the Boar’s Head Tavern (that use being, to learn how scoundrels think and act, not to emulate them in any way).  The ambassadors are to be safely conveyed back to France.

Act Two, Prologue: The Chorus says, “all the youth of England are on fire.”  All prepare for war with France.  The French “Shake in their fear and with pale policy/Seek to divert the English purposes.”  In fact, they bribe three English nobles, Richard Earl of Cambridge, Henry Lord Scroop of Masham, and Sir Thomas Grey, knight of Northumberland: “Confirm’d conspiracy with fearful France.”  The king and his men will go to Southampton before sailing to France.

In front of the Boar’s Head Tavern, in Eastcheap, Nym is jealous of Pistol, who has taken Mistress Quickly–the hostess of the tavern–as his wife, after she promised to marry Nym.  He complains about this to Bardolph.  Then Pistol and his wife the hostess enter.  Pistol and Nym exchange angry words, then the two clownish men draw their swords; but Bardolph, his own sword drawn, stops them from fighting.

Then the boy, page to Falstaff, comes and tells them all they must come to his master.  Falstaff is sick, for as Quickly says, “the King has kill’d his heart.”  (At the end of Henry IV, part two, just after Henry V’s coronation, the new king snubbed Falstaff, since it had never been Prince Henry’s intention to stay friends with such knaves as Sir John.)  They all go to see Falstaff in bed.

In Southampton, Henry and his men prepare to sail to France.  Exeter and the other nobles are amazed to see the king still speaking on friendly terms with the three known traitors.

Henry discusses what should be done with a drunken man who spoke ill of him; in an indulgent mood, Henry figures the man had too much wine when he spoke so idly.  The traitors, in a vain attempt to appear loyal, insist that the man be punished.  Henry, smiling, still thinks the man’s distemper can “be wink’d at.”  Then the king gives each of the three false men a letter, so they’ll know the king knows their worth: the letters reveal Henry’s knowledge of their plot.

The traitors admit their guilt and, while asking for forgiveness, insist on receiving the harshest punishment, knowing such is the only honourable way to react.  They are taken away to be executed.  Now Henry and his men will sail to France.

In the Boar’s Head Tavern, Mistress Quickly and the others lovingly remember Falstaff, who has died from a broken heart.  She cannot imagine Falstaff being in hell.  Then Nym, Pistol, Bardolph, and the boy prepare to join the king in the invasion of France.  The three men, scoundrels that they are, plan to pillage and steal at the end of each battle; then, back in England, they’ll deceive everyone about fighting bravely.  They all say goodbye to the hostess, and leave.

In the French king’s palace, King Charles VI worries about the coming English.  His son the Dauphin proudly insists that, in defending France, the French army should do so with no show of fear; instead, they should act as though the English were doing no more than putting on a “Whitsun morris-dance,” since England “is so idly king’d” with the supposedly feckless Henry.

The Constable tells the haughty prince to be quiet, and that Henry is much stronger and more resolute than the Dauphin imagines.  Charles agrees, and fearfully remembers past quarrels between France and Henry’s family, as well as the great shame France suffered from defeat against the English.

Exeter enters with a message from Henry, warning the French king of the coming danger.  The Dauphin, pretending for the moment to be his representative, asks Exeter what Henry has for him.  Exeter says, “Scorn and defiance, slight regard, contempt.”  Now angry, the Dauphin proudly says that he is the one who sent Henry the tennis balls.  Exeter says, “He’ll make your Paris Louvre shake for it.”  After being told that Henry will know Charles’s mind tomorrow, Exeter leaves.

Act Three, Prologue: The Chorus tells us of Henry’s course to Harfleur, and that we must imagine Henry’s men going across the English channel, then attacking Harfleur.  We are to “Suppose th’ ambassador from the French comes back:/Tells Harry that the King doth offer him/Katherine his daughter, and with her to dowry/Some petty and unprofitable dukedoms.”  Henry, of course, rejects the offer.  Then we are to imagine the battle.

At the siege of Harfleur, Henry tells his men to go back in and fight.  Roused by the king’s speech, his men rush at the castle and resume fighting.  Nym, Bardolph, Pistol, and the boy, however, remain behind, hiding like the cowards they are; Fluellen, furious, growls at them to race in and join the fighting, so the three men rush in.  The boy, who for obvious reasons needn’t fight, nonetheless hopes that when he is a man, he won’t be as spineless as the three knaves he left England with.

A humourous conversation–one that exploits the stereotypes and accents of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland–ensues between Welsh Fluellen, Gower, Captain Jamy, and Captain Macmorris, an Irishman whom Fluellen scorns.  Fluellen is dissatisfied with the digging of the mines, for they are not up to the proper standards of military discipline, something he is very preoccupied with.

When Fluellen not only criticizes the digging of the mines in front of Macmorris, who is responsible for their supervision, but also makes slurs against Ireland, the Welshman and Irishman almost get into a fight.

The siege is over, and the English have clearly won.  Henry gives an ultimatum to the French, surrender, or die.  He gives a graphic description of how his men will rape the French women, bash the babies’ brains, and kill all the French men mercilessly if they don’t surrender.  The governor of Harfleur says the Dauphin’s powers are not ready yet to resist Henry; so because the people of Harfleur “no longer are defensible,” Henry’s men may enter the gates.  Henry tells his men to be merciful to the French.

In the French king’s palace in Rouen, the princess, Katherine, asks Alice about her time in England and acquaintance with the language.  Alice acknowledges she knows a little English.  The princess asks her how one says la main, les doigts, les ongles, le bras, le coude, le col, le menton, le pied, and la robe in English.  Alice says, with comically poor pronunciation, that these French words are translated, respectively, the hand, the fingers, the nails, the arm, the elbow, the neck, the chin, the foot, and the gown.

Unfortunately, Alice’s pronunciation of foot sounds like foutre, a vulgar French word for a vulgar English word that also begins with an f; and she pronounces gown as con, which sounds like a vulgar French word for certain feminine anatomy, for which the English vulgar equivalent also begins with c.  Katherine is scandalized, and cannot use such dishonourable language in conversation.  Nonetheless, she reviews all her newly-learned vocabulary with Alice, blushing and giggling at the sound of the last two.

Elsewhere in the French palace, all the nobles are alarmed at the advances of the English.  They worry that French women will prefer English manliness over that of the French, and giving themselves to English lust, they will litter France with bastard sons.  King Charles, therefore, has Montjoy, his herald, go and tell the English of France’s “sharp defiance.”  The Dauphin is annoyed, however, that his father wants him to stay out of the fighting for the moment.

The English army has set up camp in Picardy.  Pistol is fearful for the life of his friend Bardolph, who has been caught stealing from a church, and is to be hanged for it.  Pistol entreats Fluellen to use his influence to have Bardolph pardoned, but the Welshman insists on adherence to military discipline, and therefore Bardolph must be hanged.  Pistol curses at Fluellen and leaves angrily.  When Henry hears of the execution of his former drinking friend, he outwardly shows hardly any sign of emotion.

Montjoy arrives, telling Henry that the French could have defeated him in Harfleur, but will show the full might of their army soon enough…unless Henry pays a ransom for the destruction England has so far caused.  Henry says France will have only his dead body for ransom.  Montjoy leaves to relay Henry’s answer to King Charles.

In the French camp near Agincourt that night, the Dauphin, the Constable and the Duke of Orleans all engage in bragging: first, the Constable of his armour; then, Orleans of his horse; and finally, and more gratingly, the Dauphin of his horse, “the prince of palfreys”.  Indeed, the prince’s boasting is so obnoxious that he tries the patience of the other nobles.  All of them impatiently wait for the morning, so they can kill the English, who a messenger says are within fifteen hundred paces of the French tents.

Act Four, Prologue: The Chorus tells us of “The confident and over-lusty French/Do the low-rated English play at dice.”  In the English camp, though, the men “Sit patiently and inly ruminate/The morning’s danger.”  Henry will go about pretending to be one of them, to know their thoughts, and give them “A little touch of Harry in the night.”

Indeed, Henry borrows Sir Thomas Erpingham’s cloak and, thus disguised, goes about his men to know how they really feel about the battle to be fought the next day.  First he sees Pistol, who speaks of his love of the king, then of his spite for Fluellen, whom he’ll hit over the head with his leek on St. David’s Day, since David is the patron saint of Wales.

Then Henry sees Fluellen and Gower; the former tells the latter to keep his voice down, reminding him of the need for military discipline.  Then the disguised king comes to Michael Williams and some other soldiers.

When Williams expresses his doubts as to the justification for this war, after so many men are maimed or killed, Henry defends the carrying-out of the war.  The two men’s tempers flare as their disagreeing escalates, and they promise to settle their quarrel after the battle, if both survive.  They trade gloves to identify each other later, and part angrily.

Finally, after Henry returns Erpingham’s cloak, he contemplates his burdens as king, and prays to God to make his men brave.  He also begs God’s forgiveness for the sin of his father, Henry IV, who deposed Richard II and had him killed.

The next morning, the French army over-confidently prepares for battle; while in the English camp, the nobles are daunted by the superior numbers of the French–five French for every one English fighter.  Furthermore, the French “are all fresh,” says Exeter.  Salisbury says, “’tis a fearful odds.” Westmoreland wishes they had “ten thousand of those men in England/That do not work today.”

Then Henry arrives, wishing instead to have fewer men, since if they are defeated by the French, the English losses will be minimal; but if these few English win, each man will have a larger share of honour, which Henry covets.  Indeed, the king is willing to let any English go home who are reluctant to fight, so he and the remaining few can have even larger portions of honour.

The day of the battle of Agincourt is St. Crispin’s Day.  On this day in future years, those who will have fought with Henry will proudly show their scars as proof of their bravery.  The names of those who will have fought–Harry the King, Exeter, Salisbury–will be like household words.  St. Crispin’s Day will be remembered till the end of time because of these few happy men, this band of brothers.  It will not matter if one is of high or of low birth, for this battle will ennoble them all.

Those men now in bed in England, however, will feel like lesser men among any who speaks of his valour on St. Crispin’s Day!  The king’s speech fires up the morale of the men, who will now cheerfully face the French army.  Montjoy then arrives, asking if Henry will pay ransom, or be surely destroyed.

The king proudly says the French can have his joints for ransom.  Montjoy says he won’t ask for ransom again, but Henry fears he’ll be back again.

The battle begins.  The English longbow is very effective in cutting down the superior numbers of the French.  There is a comical scene with Pistol trying to communicate with a French soldier who surrenders and, knowing neither English nor what a cowardly rascal Pistol is, fears him.  The boy, who knows French, translates for them.

The French feel terrible disgrace at their defeat.  The Dauphin, Constable, and Orleans all lament their “perdurable shame.”

Later, Fluellen returns to the English camp and finds that the French have killed all the boys who were guarding the luggage!  He mourns their deaths, angrily calling this despicable act of cowardice “expressly against the law of arms” and an “arrant…piece of knavery.”  Henry is enraged at the sight of the boys’ corpses, and when Montjoy reappears, the king rails at him, assuming he wants to ask for ransom again; but he tells Henry that the English have won the battle.

Williams passes by, and Henry, recognizing his glove in Williams’s cap, asks him of it; Williams explains that it is the glove of “a rascal that swagger’d” with him, and whom he will fight, if he has survived the battle.  Williams leaves, and Henry asks Fluellen to wear Williams’s glove in his cap, and if anyone should challenge him by the glove, the challenger is an enemy to the king.  Fluellen is to apprehend such a villain, if he truly loves his king.

Soon enough, Williams meets with Fluellen, and assuming the Welshman to be the man he quarreled with the night before, challenges him to a fight.  Their altercation catches the attention of the king, who then makes it known to Williams that he was the other man in the previous night’s quarrel.  Embarrassed, Williams insists he meant no conscious offense to the king, and begs his pardon.

Later, a list of all the dead is shown Henry, and he is amazed at so many French dead, including many knights, esquires, and noblemen: “a royal fellowship of death!”  Even more amazing is how few English died: four of name, “and of all other men/But five and twenty.”

Convinced that God has fought the battle for the English, Henry forbids any to boast of this victory, which has been God’s only.  Non nobis and Te Deum are to be sung.

Act Five, Prologue: The Chorus tells of Henry’s return to England, and though his people would have him bask in his glorious victory over France, he forbids it, saying the victory was God’s.  Then Henry will return to France to settle a peace treaty there.

On St. David’s Day, Fluellen has a leek in his hat; he knows of Pistol’s threat to hit him on the head with his leek, and tells Gower he wishes to confront the scoundrel.  Pistol arrives, and Fluellen hits him on the head with the leek, then force-feeds it to him, all while Gower watches his humiliation.  After Fluellen and Gower leave, Pistol mourns the death of his wife, Nell Quickly.  He says, “To England will I steal, and there I’ll steal.”  Then he’ll lie to everyone that the scars he got were from the war in France.

In the final scene, Henry meets with King Charles and his queen to discuss the terms of the peace treaty.  The Duke of Burgundy laments the destruction that this war has caused France.  Everyone leaves to work out and sign the treaty, leaving only Henry, Princess Katherine, and Alice.

Henry begins a comically awkward wooing of the princess, whose English has improved somewhat, but is still far from fluent.  He asks, “Do you like me, Kate?”  She says, “I cannot tell vat is like me.”  He says, “An angel is like you, Kate, and you are like an angel.”

She wonders if she can love the “enemy of France.”  He says it isn’t possible, but to love him is to love the friend of France, for he loves France so much that he won’t part with one village of it.  Then he tries to woo her in French, which is as clumsily spoken as her broken English.  He can move her in French only to laugh at him.

Still he asks, “wilt thou have me?”  She says she must have the consent of her father the king; Henry assures her she’ll get his consent.

Finally, he asks to kiss her hand, then her lips, but in her maidenly modesty she says it isn’t the custom of France for girls to kiss before marriage.  He insists that kings and queens make the customs rather than bow to them.  Then they kiss.

The others return, the terms of the peace treaty are all agreed on, and Henry and Katherine are to be married.

The Chorus ends by reminding us of how Henry soon died, leaving his infant son, Henry VI, his successor; and the mismanagement of the throne by quarreling politicians caused England to lose France.  This story, of course, was already staged in the Henry VI plays.

Analysis of ‘Henry V’

Henry V is a history play that Shakespeare wrote in about 1599.  It is part of the second of two tetralogies he wrote to chronicle the history of England’s kings.  The first tetralogy, among his very first plays, were Henry VI, parts one, two, and three, and Richard III, his first great play; the second tetralogy dealt with the years before the first, and are thus a ‘prequel tetralogy,’ so to speak–Richard II, Henry IV, parts one and two, and Henry V.  While most of these plays are dark and gloomy, sometimes even tragic in tone (indeed, Richard III is fully titled The Tragedy of King Richard III), Henry V is largely the one ray of sunshine in the whole cloudy chronicling.

Here are some famous quotes:

1. “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend/The brightest heaven of invention.” –Chorus, Prologue to Act I, lines 1-2

2. “We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us;/His present and your pains we thank you for./When we have match’d our rackets to these balls,/We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set/Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.” –Henry, Act I, scene ii, lines 259-263

3. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;/Or close the wall up with our English dead./In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man/As modest stillness and humility;/But when the blast of war blows in our ears,/Then imitate the action of the tiger.” –Henry, III, i, 1-6

4. “This story shall the good man teach his son;/And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,/From this day to the ending of the world,/But we in it shall be remembered–/We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,/This day shall gentle his condition;/And gentlemen in England now a-bed/Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,/And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks/That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.” –Henry, IV, iii, 56-67

The main theme running through this play is that of pride, in all of its variations and permutations: arrogant, overweening pride, wounded pride, honour, shame, humility, and even maidenly bashfulness.

The play opens with the Chorus humbly admitting that an Elizabethan stage cannot properly show the vast fields of France (see Quote #1, above), or a battle with hundreds of knights either marching or on horseback.  Thus, with the play’s producers’ pride held firmly in check, the Chorus, speaking on their behalf, asks us, the audience, to use our imaginations to fill in the play’s imperfections, and to judge it kindly.

When King Henry V is presented with tennis balls, a gift meant as a slur on his abilities as a king, his pride is wounded (see Quote #2).  The sender of this insulting gift is the arrogant Dauphin of France, next in line to be the French king…except for Henry.  While feeling his power threatened by King Henry’s plans to invade France and claim the country as his by right, the Dauphin haughtily presumes that Henry is the same reputedly dissolute youth of his earlier years as a prince, and imagines Henry must be a similarly feckless king now.

With the ‘moral’ sanction of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely (who would rather their king invade and loot France, causing death and destruction there, than deprive the English Church of funds, for such is the arrogance of the Church’s sense of entitlement), and now angered by the Dauphin’s proud provocation, King Henry promises to “play a set” with those tennis balls that will so shock the Dauphin as to turn his pride into shame.

Speaking of shame, when the king is in Southampton preparing to cross the English Channel to France with his men, he uncovers a plot engineered by three traitors, Richard Earl of Cambridge, Henry Lord Scroop of Masham, and Sir Thomas Grey, who have been suborned by France to kill Henry.  When his knowledge of the plot against him is shown to the traitors, they admit to their guilt and shame, wishing only death for themselves, as their pride knows that receiving the death penalty willingly is the only honourable way out.

Other dishonourable knaves in the play show their pride in other ways.  Nym and Pistol squabble over who gets to have Mistress Quickly, hostess of the Boar’s Head tavern.  Pistol has already married her, but Nym is too proud to accept this.  Pistol comments on Nym’s excessive pride, saying, “O braggart vile and damned furious wight!”  A swordfight between them is stopped just in time by Bardolph.

Meanwhile, in France, the Dauphin continues to scoff at what he considers Henry’s weak resolution, saying the French court should consider the preparation for war to be little more than “a Whitsun morris-dance.”  Even his fellow courtiers cannot endure his presumption.  The king of France humbly holds his pride firmly in check when he acknowledges the strength of Henry and his family, who have shaken and shamed France in defeats in war in the past.  Indeed, the other courtiers (apart from the Dauphin) realize how much Henry has changed, and the Duke of Exeter, visiting the French king, relays the contempt of the English onto the proud Dauphin.

Already in France, Henry’s men have besieged the castle in Harfleur, where he urges them to carry on fighting (see Quote #3).  During peacetime, it is proper to be modest; but during war, one should fight as proudly as a tiger.

Later during that scene, we see such soldiers as the Welsh Fluellen and the Irish Macmorris proudly arguing over whether Ireland is deserving of the scorn Fluellen gives her, and whether Macmorris’s supervision of the digging of the mines is up to standard in “the disciplines of the war”.

The French princess and Alice discuss learning English; but the French princess is shocked at how some English words sound dangerously close to certain rude words in French.  Namely, Alice mispronounces ‘gown’ as ‘con,’ a French word that refers to a certain part of the female anatomy–one that in English also begins with a c; the other word, ‘foot,’ is mispronounced so as to sound like the French word for a certain intimate bedroom activity, a word for which the English equivalent also begins with an f.  The princess’s pride would rather not allow her to degrade herself by saying words of such an immodest sound.

When the French learn of Henry’s victory at Harfleur, they feel their pride wounded, and fearing that their women will dishonour them by preferring Englishmen as lovers who will litter France with bastard sons, the French king will have his army meet Henry’s with their “sharp defiance,” and his herald, Montjoy, is to send Henry a warning: either pay a ransom for the damages he’s caused France, or be her prisoner.  The Dauphin’s pride is wounded at not being allowed by his father, for the moment, to join the other French to fight Henry.

Montjoy meets with Henry and gives him the French king’s warning, saying proudly, “Though we seem’d dead, we did but sleep; advantage is a better soldier than rashness. Tell him we could have rebuk’d him at Harfleur, but that we thought not good to bruise an injury till it were full ripe. Now we speak upon our cue, and our voice is imperial.”

Henry proudly replies, “forgive me, God,/That I do brag thus! This your air of France/Hath blown that vice in me. I must repent./Go therefore, tell thy master here I am;/My ransom is this frail and worthless trunk,/My army but a weak and sickly guard;/Yet, God before, tell him we will come on,/Though France himself and such another neighbour/Stand in our way.”

On the night before the battle of Agincourt, in a tent in the French camp, the nobles all show proud impatience for the sun to come up, so they can kill the English and prove the valour of the French.  The Constable brags that he has “the best armour of the world,” and the Duke of Orleans brags of his horse; but the Dauphin’s boasting of his horse is so excessive that it annoys the other French nobles.

Meanwhile, in a tent in the English camp, Henry borrows a cloak from Sir Thomas Erpingham to cover himself with, and thus keep his identity unknown to his men as he goes about to learn of their true feelings about him and the next day’s battle.  In bringing himself down to their level, he briefly forgoes his royal dignity and pride, and humbles himself, for he needs to know how his men really feel.  And with “A largess universal” he “doth give to every one…A little touch of Harry in the night.”

When he encounters Williams’s proud disdain of the king’s–to him–questionable justification for war, and the risk of his men’s lives, Henry gets angry, and the two proud men agree to a personal quarrel after the battle, if both men survive.

The next morning, the English are daunted by the far greater number of French adversaries they must face.  Then King Henry approaches, and in his St. Crispin’s Day speech (see Quote #4), he proudly speaks of how he covets honour, greedily wanting as large a portion for himself, and for each of his men–however smaller a number they may be in total–as possible.  Indeed, he is content to allow any men without a stomach for the immanent battle to return to England.  And those men in bed in England on this day will, in the future, feel greatly wounded pride in the presence of any who have fought with the king on St. Crispin’s Day.

This rousing speech fires up the pride of Henry’s men, whose fear has been changed to steely valour.  In the ensuing battle, their smaller number gloriously defeats the over-confident French (thanks in no small part to the English archers and their use of the effective English longbow).  The pride of the French changes to the heaviest shame.

Their shame increases by their ignominious act of killing all the boys in the English camp, a deed that infuriates King Henry.  But when he learns of the huge number of dead French as against the small number of English dead, he forbids himself pride, insisting instead that God won the battle for him.  He has his men sing ‘Non nobis’ and ‘Te Deum’ to show their humble thanks to God.  After this moment of humility, Williams is made to realize that the man he was to quarrel with would have been the king himself, and Williams must humbly beg Henry’s forgiveness.

Later, Fluellen makes Pistol, who has insulted the Welsh, swallow his pride by force-feeding him a leek, the symbol of Wales.

When the English and French kings meet, with their respective nobles, to go over the terms of the peace treaty, Henry has a private meeting with the French princess, whom he hopes to marry.  As he woos her in English, she replies in her still far-from-perfect English; then he swallows some pride in speaking just-as-broken French, moving her only to laugh at him.

Finally, he asks to kiss her, but her maidenly modesty won’t permit her to do so, for her pride won’t allow her to dishonour herself.  But he proudly insists that kings and (future) queens are the makers of manners (“nice customs curtsy to great kings”), and then gets a kiss from her.

The play ends with the Chorus reminding us of how England, after her glorious victory over the French, all too soon would feel her pride wounded when the poorly-managed English kingdom of the child King Henry VI would lose France.  This story, of course, had been presented many times on the London stage, in the Henry VI tetralogy mentioned above.

Freud and Psychoanalysis

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was the father of psychoanalysis.  He was born in the Moravian town of Pribor, then part of the Austrian Empire, now part of the Czech Republic.  While he certainly didn’t invent the idea of the unconscious mind, he created a kind of road map, as it were, for navigating the unconscious; and the resulting insights have made him one of the most important psychiatric thinkers of the twentieth century, influencing art, literature, and film.

Here are some famous quotes of his:

“The interpretation of dreams is the royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious activities of the mind.”  —The Interpretation of Dreams

“A person who feels pleasure in producing pain in someone else in a sexual relationship is also capable of enjoying as pleasure any pain which he may himself derive from sexual relations. A sadist is always at the same time a masochist.”  —Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality

“Homosexuality is assuredly no advantage, but it is nothing to be ashamed of, no vice, no degradation, it cannot be classified as an illness.”  –Letter to an American mother’s plea to cure her son’s homosexuality (1935)

‘The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is “What does a woman want?” –said once to Marie Bonaparte; Sigmund Freud: Life and Work (Hogarth Press, 1953) by Ernest Jones, Vol. 2, Pt. 3, Ch. 16. In a footnote Jones gives the original German, “Was will das Weib?

“It is easy to see that the ego is that part of the id which has been modified by the direct influence of the external world.”  —The Ego and the Id

“What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books.”  –Letter to Ernest Jones (1933), as quoted in The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations (1993) by Robert Andrews, p. 779

I: Early Years

Freud was immensely learned, being proficient in many languages, including German, Hebrew, classical Greek and Latin, English, Italian, Spanish, and French.  He could actually read Shakespeare in the original English…from a young age!  Indeed, Shakespeare’s insight into human nature influenced Freud, who interpreted much in Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and other plays.  Other writers to have a strong influence on Freud were Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche.

He graduated with a medical degree, but never practiced internal medicine.  Instead, he studied cerebral anatomy, neurology, neuropathology (on which he was a lecturer from 1885 to the beginning years of the 20th century), cerebral palsy, and he even did investigations to find the location of the sexual organs of eels (!).

His research into neuropathology led to him trying to help patients with ‘nervous illness’ (neurosis).  He went to Paris to study and attend demonstrations of hypnosis by Jean-Martin Charcot.  Impressed by its apparent effectiveness in treating hysterical patients, Freud tried hypnosis on several hysterical patients of his during the 1880s, the most famous of whom was “Anna O,” who called Freud’s particular application of hypnosis, involving her speaking while hypnotized, the “talking cure.”  He published his Studies on Hysteria with his colleague of the time, Josef Breuer.

II: Free Association

He found, however, that hypnosis didn’t seem to effect a lasting cure for hysteria or neurosis, so he began to devise his own method called free association.  He could have the patient lie supine on a couch, thus relaxing the patient to the point of being in a state comparable to hypnosis, which would allow the patient’s unconscious mind to be open and accessible to the therapist.  Freud would then tell the patient to speak of anything on his or her mind.  There would be no rules at all: the patient just had to talk and talk.  There was no need to censor subject matter considered rude, sexually inappropriate, or in any way ‘irrelevant’; in fact, it would be necessary to include such talk, for this would give the therapist free flowing access to the patient’s unconscious mind.

As the patient continued talking and talking, however, he or she would sooner or later hit a wall, as it were, and stop talking.  Sometimes this was because the patient knew an anxiety-causing subject was coming dangerously close to being discussed; at other times, the patient simply didn’t know why no more subject matter could be thought of, to continue the chain of associations the therapist was writing down and linking together by way of recurring themes spotted.  In the latter case, Freud would assume that anxiety-producing subject matter was being repressed, deep down in the unconscious, so while the patient didn’t know why he or she couldn’t continue, Freud could link together the recurring themes of everything talked about, then speculate on what the cause of repression might be.

One early theory Freud had was called the seduction theory.  He found that a lot of his patients were describing sexual relationships with their parents, so he assumed they’d been sexually abused as children, and that this had caused their psychological problems.  As it turned out, the sheer proliferation of so many cases of apparent child sexual abuse, as well as his own self-analysis, caused Freud to change this theory into that of the Oedipus complex. Some think he fabricated this new theory to save his career and avoid dealing with the wrath of a mass of parents implicated as child molesters, but such speculations are far from proven.

III: Dreams

Another method Freud used in mapping out the unconscious mind was dream analysis.  Fortunately for the sake of his research, he had made a habit of recording his dreams in journals from childhood, so when he began analyzing himself, he had lots of dreams for material to work with.  From his research of his own dreams as well as those of his patients, he produced his first great work, The Interpretation of Dreams, published in 1899, but with the year 1900 printed on the title page, to usher in the twentieth century.  In this seminal book, he theorized that all dreams, without exception, even nightmares, were forms of wish-fulfillment.

Now, it is easy to see how having a dream about making love with an attractive partner, or about winning millions of dollars in the lottery, can be wish-fulfillment, but how can anxiety-causing dreams be?  Here, we must take into account conflict in Freudian psychology.  In our minds, part of us wants to do or have one thing, another part of us wants something contradictory to the first, and we mentally battle it out to see which instinctual drive wins out.  When these conflicts become too difficult to reconcile, anxiety results, and this unease can be reflected in the dream content.  Hence, nightmares can be an attempt at the fulfillment of contradictory–and anxiety-producing–wishes; they can thus simply be a failure of the dream to sustain sleep.

Let us imagine, for example, a young man who–though he sees himself as heterosexual, nonetheless has repressed homosexual feelings for his handsome male doctor.  His urges are so repressed that he isn’t even consciously aware of them, so shocking would they be if ever revealed.  Still, he has an odd habit of feeling so chronically ill that he must see his doctor for regular checkups.  Now, in his dreams, he probably wouldn’t see himself in bed with the doctor, for this would make him wake up bathed in sweat; for after all, the purpose of dreams is to ensure restful, uninterrupted sleep.

If, on the other hand, the young man dreamed of getting naked for his doctor in a physical examination, his wish fulfillment could thus be indirectly realized, by way of associative compromise; or he could symbolically fulfill his unconscious wish by dreaming of his handsome doctor putting a phallic tongue depressor in his mouth, or a shot from a needle in his behind.  There is much distortion of conflicting wishes in dreams, hence their strangeness; and the distortion can reconcile the conflict in a way that facilitates sleep.

But guilt and anxiety from such wishes, especially guilt imposed by an intolerant society, may require a ‘wish’ to be somehow punished or shamed for having these taboo desires.  Hence, in his dream, the naked young man, during his examination, may see the door to the examination room suddenly swing open, and all his family and friends outside see him.  Or the tongue depressor may be put too deep inside his mouth, causing him to gag or choke; or the shot from the needle may be especially painful.  Thus, an anxiety-causing dream fulfills taboo wishes–if only indirectly and symbolically–and also satisfies the wish to alleviate guilt by providing some form of punishment.  And the anxiety-causing nature of the ‘punishment’ results in a failure to sustain sleep–the dreamer wakes up from a nightmare.

Apart from Freud’s ideas about dreams as wish fulfillment, and the distortion of dreams, he also touched on such ideas as penis envy and the Oedipus complex.  This latter idea is dealt with in a special way, through his analysis of perhaps the two greatest tragedies in Western literature, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  Why is any work of art considered great?  Because it communicates ideas we can all relate to in some way, and Freud believed these plays to fulfill a man’s deepest unconscious fantasy: to be rid of his father and to have his mother.

In Oedipus Rex, the title character has directly, if unwittingly, fulfilled this wish, and the tragedy of the play comes from his horror and shame in realizing he has murdered his father and married his mother.  In the case of Hamlet, the fantasy is fulfilled vicariously by Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, and Hamlet delays his revenge because he unconsciously understands that he is no better than Claudius.  So he can’t bring himself to kill his uncle.  Productions of Hamlet throughout the twentieth century portrayed the Danish prince as having a thing for his mother.

IV: Errors and Humour

Freud’s next book was The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.  In this book, he theorized about the psychology of errors.  Slips of the tongue or of the pen, or mistakes of any kind were, in Freud’s opinion, not mere accidents: they expressed unconscious wishes.  Again, conflicting instincts in the mind–part of us wants to do something, another part of us doesn’t want to do this thing–cause us to resolve them by ‘half doing’ things, or doing them incorrectly.  Particularly amusing slips of the tongue, ones whose unconscious meanings are obvious, and often sexual, are called “Freudian slips.”

Let me tell you an amusing story.

Back in about 1997, at the English cram school where I was teaching Taiwanese kids, I had a habit, well known among my coworkers, of eating late lunches at the local Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) before teaching my later afternoon and evening classes.  One afternoon, I was outside the school, about to get something to eat, and I was chatting with an attractive young female Taiwanese teaching assistant.  Her English was reasonably good, but she made errors in grammar here and there.  During our brief chat, we were being flirtatious.  Our chat ended, and I was about to leave.  She said, “So, are you going to FCK now?”

Speaking of humour, another book Freud wrote around this time (early 1900s) was Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious.  In this book, he wrote of how all the jokes we tell reflect unconscious desires.

V: Stages of Psychosexual Development

Now, one of Freud’s most controversial ideas, particularly shocking during the prudish Victorian era, were his theories about childhood sexuality.  These ideas were dealt with in such writings as the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and “The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex,” among others.

The stages of psychosexual development have a child going through polymorphous perversity, when a child can be aroused by virtually anything, or have anything be an object to satisfy his libido, no matter how bizarre, since so young a person hasn’t yet been taught by society to focus his or her sexual energies on ‘acceptable’ objects.

The first of these psychosexual stages is the oral stage, during which an infant or child gains pleasure from sucking or biting on things.  Obviously, it is connected with the years when a baby is breast-fed.  If a person, however, is fixated on the oral stage later in life, he or she may express this fixation through such habits as smoking.  In light of Freud’s insight into such matters, it is astonishing how he, a lifelong smoker of cigars (which eventually gave him cancer of the jaw), wouldn’t give up his habit.

The next stage is the anal stage, when a child derives pleasure from defecating.  This is linked to a child’s potty training.  If one is fixated at this stage, and becomes anal retentive, one might develop the following personality traits: excessive cleanliness, parsimony, fastidiousness, stubbornness, and a need to be in control.  As Freud theorized in his paper, “Character and Anal Erotism,” one opposite may shift to the other (i.e., from filthy defecation to neat and tidy cleanliness and fastidiousness, through reaction formation); or preoccupation with this unclean state may be expressed associatively (i.e., filthy feces symbolized by a love for filthy lucre, hence, parsimony).

Next comes the particularly controversial phallic stage, when little boys and girls discover a certain anatomical difference between them, resulting in the castration complex.  Imagine, for example, a five-year-old boy and his four-year-old sister taking a bath together for the first time.  Their mother is getting the bath ready, and the boy and girl, naked, are facing each other, noting the difference between them.

Now imagine the boy’s reaction when he sees his sister, without a penis, but a slit in that place instead.  The slit seems to be a wound: has she been castrated?  With his Oedipal longing for Mommy and wish to dispose of Daddy, the young lad imagines his sister’s ‘castration’ has been her punishment for also wanting to take Mom away from jealous Dad.  Now, the boy realizes Dad may want to castrate him, too, for having the same Oedipal urges.  The fear that the boy has is called castration anxiety.

Castration anxiety has a profound effect on a boy’s psychological development, according to Freud.  It finds symbolic expression in a man’s fear of being humiliated, especially if this involves, for example, losing an argument with a woman.  After all, if women are just ‘castrated men’ in his eyes, then he will often have “an enduringly low opinion of the other sex [i.e., women],” as Freud said in a footnote, added in 1920, to the second of his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality.  Here, Freud is merely commenting on the reality of sexism: for what seems to be his agreement with sexism, read on…

For the girl’s version of the castration complex, the idea especially detested by feminists, Freud called it penis envy.  Imagine again the naked boy and girl in the bathroom.  When she sees the dangling members on him that she lacks, she feels “unfairly treated,” as Freud argued in his essay, “On the Sexual Theories of Children” (1908).  Why is she deprived of what he has?

Her resulting resentment–coming after a period of denial during which she, for example, attempts urinating while standing (her brother, too, at first denies her ‘castration,’ imagining her ‘penis’ is just really small, and will grow larger later)–causes her to feel a generalized jealousy, which Freud, in his 1925 essay “Some Psychical Consequences of the Anatomical Distinction Between the Sexes,” called a “displaced penis-envy.”  Some of this, Freud believed, resulted in feminism.  It also results, apparently, in women having, on average, relatively weak superegos.

Here, Freud’s sexism reached a particularly low point, since even though, in the aforementioned 1925 essay, he would “willingly agree” that most men fall far short of the masculine ideal, and that there is much psychic bisexuality in the personality traits of both sexes, and thus pure maleness and femaleness are socially constructed ideas “of uncertain content,” the historical, worldwide male denunciations of women’s inferior moral sense are, it seems, justified (!).

For feminist defenses of Freud, one can look to the writings of Juliet Mitchell (in particular, her 1974 book Psychoanalysis and Feminism: Freud, Reich, Laing, and Women) and Camille Paglia (she brings up Freud, the unconscious, and the danger of ignoring these ideas about 15 minutes into this video.  Here’s another, around 6:30 into it.)

Now, with the bringing on of the castration complex, another difference between the sexes arises: the boy’s Oedipus complex ends–or is, at least, repressed–out of the fear of the father’s retribution, replaced by identification with him; and the girl’s original Oedipal love for her mother, out of a belief that Mom castrated her, switches to a new Oedipus complex, hers being a love for her father and a hatred for her mother. Carl Gustav Jung called this the Electra complex (a term Freud scoffed at), also based on Greek myth; for Electra hated her mother, Clytemnestra, for plotting with her lover, Aegisthus, to murder Agamemnon, Electra’s beloved father.

With this new Oedipal attachment, girls apparently long to possess their father’s penis, and as they grow up, this desire to have that “little one” gets displaced, and the desire to have another “little one,” a baby, is supposed to come about in womanhood.  This verbal relationship between penis and baby, both called “das Kleine,” or “little one,” is described in Freud’s 1917 essay “On Transformations of Instinct as Exemplified in Anal Erotism.”

When the phallic stage is over, a period of lack of interest in sexual matters, the latency period, occurs from roughly the age of five or six until the onset of adolescence.  Then the sexual instincts reawaken, and if no fixation during any of the earlier stages has occurred, teenagers should have attained the genital stage, in which they derive pleasure from the genitals, a state of affairs considered normal and mature.  Along with this notion of sexual maturity, Freud insisted that a woman’s orgasms should be vaginally based; orgasms based on the clitoris, apparently, are sexually immature (!).

VI: The Theory of the Personality

According to Freud, we all begin with the id (Das Es, ‘It’).  This ‘thing,’ this primitive, selfish, savage animal inside us is on an endless quest for gratification.  It operates on the pleasure principle, which, put bluntly, says, “If it makes you feel good, do it.”  It is like a naughty, bratty, spoiled child, constantly demanding the satisfaction of its urges.

Imagine a little boy who hasn’t developed a sense of restraint yet.  The cookie jar in the kitchen is within his reach.  Without even a second’s consideration of the consequences, he impulsively grabs all the cookies he can eat and munches away.  Then Mom catches him, and he gets a spanking.

Having learned his lesson, the boy begins to develop an ego (Das Ich, “I”).  His id is pushed somewhat into his unconscious, and his ego operates on the reality principle, which is a modification of the pleasure principle, saying, “If it makes you feel good, do it, but only if it’s safe.”  Now if he wants to steal from the cookie jar, he must make sure neither Mom nor Dad catches him; if both are totally distracted by the TV in the living room, and if he doesn’t eat so many cookies that his parents know some are missing, he should get away with his act of petty larceny.  If his parents suspect that some cookies are unaccountably missing, perhaps he can blame the theft on a younger sibling!

So far, our boy still hasn’t learned about morality, but he will, from all the authority figures in his life: his parents, teachers, religious leaders, etc.  When he has learned about right and wrong, he has a superego (Das Uberich, “Over-I”), which demands that all his thoughts and behaviour conform to an ego ideal, or perfect standard of morality.  Now, whenever he is tempted to take a cookie or two from the cookie jar, not only does he have to avoid being caught, he has to wrestle with the guilt of knowing he is selfish and inconsiderate to his family.  Perhaps he is fearful of God watching down from heaven with a disapproving frown!

His id has now been repressed deep down into his unconscious; parts of his ego and superego, like an iceberg, are submerged down there, too; part of those two are also in the preconscious, which is just under the surface, and whose thoughts are accessible to the conscious mind.  And now the ego must act as mediator, managing the conflicting demands of libido, reality, and morality.  How can the ego do this?

VII: Ego Defence Mechanisms

Fortunately, the ego has a number of defence mechanisms, which aim to reduce anxiety and guilt.  We have already encountered a few of these, including these two: repression, which pushes unacceptable urges deep into the unconscious, so one doesn’t even know one has such feelings; and displacement, which moves one’s instincts from an unacceptable object to an acceptable one.

Imagine a man being yelled at by his boss in a manner that’s left him feeling humiliated.  He cannot direct his rage at his boss, of course; so when he goes home, fuming inside, he looks for an excuse to blow up at his wife (bad cooking, nagging at him, etc.) or at his kids (playing too loudly, not doing their homework, etc.).

A special kind of displacement is called transference, which involves, for example, displacement of a patient’s feelings (romantic love, hostility, etc.) onto his or her therapist.  When, for example, some of Freud’s female patients began falling in love with their therapists, at first he found the transference a discomfiting distraction from the psychoanalytic task at hand; later, he found it useful to work with the transference as part of the journey to find a cure for the patient’s neuroses.

Along with transference comes countertransference, when the therapist develops feelings for the patient.  Freud recoiled at this returning of feelings, fearing that an emotional involvement with the patient was unprofessional and damaging to the cool, scientific rigour of psychoanalytic investigation; but later analysts, such as those involved in object relations theory, found good uses for countertransference, feeling that it could simulate, and thus regenerate, relationships stifled in their patients’ childhood, a stifling caused by bad parenting.

Other ego defence mechanisms include suppression, a restraining of instincts, but allowing them to remain conscious.  Also, there is denial, whose guilt-relieving mechanism is self-explanatory; and projection, where one throws one’s anxiety-causing instincts onto others, blaming them instead of oneself for the fault.  For example, I could accuse others of being rejecting of me, when actually it is I who am being rejecting of them.  Rationalization, using excuses to justify unacceptable acts or desires, is another defence mechanism.

Yet another ego defence mechanism is reaction formation, where one creates a contrived reaction that represents the opposite attitude to one’s real, and guilt-causing instinct.  A perfect example is in the movie American Beauty, in which a retired marine (played by Chris Cooper) expresses the most hateful bigotry against homosexuals throughout the film; but near the end, he reveals that he himself has suppressed homosexual feelings when he kisses the protagonist (played by Kevin Spacey) on the lips.

One particularly interesting ego defence mechanism is sublimation.  Instead of the more usual, hypocritical defences, this one is actually quite positive in nature, for it redirects unacceptable impulses into creative outlets.  Homosexual Michelangelo’s paintings and sculptures of muscular naked men are a case in point.

Freud’s daughter Anna would develop and see more importance in ego defence mechanisms in her work, especially in her classic work, Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence (1936).  The significance of the unconscious portion of the ego means that in therapy much ego defence is unconscious, so the analyst mustn’t focus only on bringing out id impulses.  Hence, the origin of ego psychology.

VIII: Life and Death Instincts

For much of Freud’s career, he felt that the instinctual drives were all pleasure-based (libido), and sexual in nature.  This is part of the life instinct, also called Eros.

After the horrors of the First World War, however, his thinking about human nature took a darker turn, and would remain essentially thus for the rest of his life (the excruciating pain of his cancer wouldn’t help lighten things up much).  In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud discussed the more destructive side of human nature, and postulated a death instinct (Thanatos would be the word used, though not by him).  This would explain our aggressive and self-destructive sides, as well as our tendency to do the same irrational things over and over again (“the compulsion to repeat“).

All forms of pleasure, whether sexual or death-oriented, involve putting the body into a state of rest.  The cliché of a man and woman in bed after great sex, with him rolled over and fast asleep, and her smoking a cigarette, show how Eros (in this example, in the form of libidinal gratification) leads to a restful state.  As for Thanatos, there is no more absolute a state of rest than death.  As Hamlet said, “To die, to sleep–/No more; and by a sleep, to say we end/The heartache and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to, –’tis a consummation/Devoutly to be wished.  To die, to sleep…”  So here, the achievement of self-destruction in a nightmare can be seen as an exception to the idea of all dreams as pleasure-causing wish-fulfillment.

IX: Religion

Freud was born a Jew, but was also an atheist.  He believed that God represents the psychological need many of us have for a father figure.  His two major writings on religion, generally discredited since anthropology was not a field he specialized in, were Totem and Taboo, and Moses and Monotheism.  The former dealt with primitive taboos against incest, as well as with Freud’s belief that the killing and ritual eating of the primal father was common in primitive tribes; and in the latter, Freud theorized that Moses was an Egyptian adopted by the ancient Hebrews, who later killed him (this being a reiteration of his theories in Totem and Taboo), then by way of reaction formation assuaged their guilt by revering him as the founding father of their religion.

X: Post-Freud

As previously mentioned, his daughter Anna carried on the torch, with her focus on ego defence mechanisms.  Along with her among the Ego Psychologists was Heinz Hartmann, who focused on how the mind adapts in an evolutionary sense, rather than merely from psychic conflict and frustration.  Given the right environment, a child’s intrinsic potential for adaptation will help it adjust to the demands of the real world, an adaptive development that needn’t be conflictual.

Then there was object relations theory, which explains how problems in adult relationships can be traced to problems in the parent/child relationship.  Famous thinkers in this school include D.W. Winnicott, W.R.D. Fairbairn, and Melanie Klein, with her concepts of the good breast, which nourishes and brings out love, and the bad breast, which doesn’t feed or do any good for the infant, causing it to feel hostility instead.  Her ideas about projective identification expand on Freudian projection to show how a patient can make his projections become real in other people.  Her ideas were quite a break from Freud, though she considered them perfectly consistent with him.

Heinz Kohut, with his conceiving and development of self psychology, did much research and gained much insight into narcissism and NPD.

Jacques Lacan saw himself at one with, even returning to, Freud. Lacan’s notion, for example, that “the unconscious is structured like a language” was derived from Freud’s ideas about slips of the tongue and jokes as expressions of the unconscious.  Lacan’s ideas have greatly influenced postmodernism, poststructuralism, critical theory, feminist theory, and such contemporary thinkers as Slavoj Zizek.

Detailed Synopsis of ‘Othello’

Act One: Iago and Roderigo are outside the house of Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, one night on a street in Venice.  Roderigo expresses his displeasure at his (justified) belief that Iago has been dishonest with him.  Iago insists that he hates Othello for having promoted Michael Cassio to Lieutenant, when Iago, remaining merely the Moor’s ensign, feels he’s much more deserving of the promotion, since he has the military experience Cassio lacks.  Still, Roderigo doesn’t understand why Iago works for a man he hates; Iago explains that he’s only pretending to be Othello’s loyal servant, and when the opportunity comes, he will have his revenge on the Moor.  (See Quote #1 of my Analysis of ‘Othello’.)

Since Roderigo wishes to have Othello’s woman, Iago tells him to join him in shouting by her father’s window, to wake him up and tell him that Othello has eloped with Desdemona (which he has).  So both Iago and Roderigo shout at the top of their lungs to wake Brabantio up.  Her father is angry to see Roderigo there waking him up, and reminds the dissolute suitor that he has rejected his suit for Desdemona.  Roderigo and Iago tell him that Desdemona is not in bed where she should be; Iago uses particularly crude language to describe Othello’s enjoying of her (See Quotes #2 and 3 of my Analysis).  While Brabantio is even further annoyed with Iago’s foul mouth, Roderigo insists they can prove the truth of what they say, if the old man would come with Roderigo.  Iago tells Roderigo he must join Othello, pretending to be his friend, while Roderigo takes Brabantio with him to arrest the Moor.  Iago leaves, then Brabantio joins Roderigo in looking for Othello.

Iago meets with Othello and Cassio; the Moor has married Desdemona.  Cassio tells Othello that the Duke of Venice wishes to speak with him about a problem in Cyprus.  Roderigo and Brabantio come with officers to arrest Othello for using “magic” to win her heart, since Brabantio cannot imagine his daughter willingly going to “the sooty bosom/Of such a thing” as Othello.  The Moor is taken away by the officers.

The Duke of Venice, with a group of senators, discusses the imminent invasion of Cyprus, a Venetian territory, by the Turks.  They need Othello to lead their navy to repel the invaders.  Othello enters with Brabantio, Roderigo, Iago, and the officers.  Brabantio, with a broken heart, accuses the Moor of using witchcraft on Desdemona.

Othello defends himself in a long, eloquent speech (see Quote #4), telling of how he and Brabantio had been good friends, and Othello was often invited to Brabantio’s home.  Othello would tell stories of all the times he had fought in wars, been caught by the enemy and sold into slavery, and then escaped to freedom.  Othello speaks of how he has encountered many strange peoples in his travels, including cannibals and people whose heads were under their shoulders.

Desdemona loved to hear these stories, wishing not to miss a single word.  She pitied how he’d suffered, and he loved her for so pitying him.  She indirectly expressed her love for him by saying that if a man should ever want to win her love, telling such stories would win her to his heart.  Taking this hint, Othello pursued her, and they fell in love.  This is the only witchcraft that Othello has used on her.

The duke is so impressed with this story that he imagines his own daughter could be won by such a story.  Desdemona has been sent for to confirm the Moor’s story.  She arrives, and her father asks her to whom she owes her duty and obedience.  She says that while she owes duty to Brabantio for raising her, Othello is now her husband.

The duke tells Othello to get the navy ready to fight the Turks.  The Moor must hurry off to Cyprus.  Desdemona wishes to join him, so he will tell Iago, who is also to go to Cyprus, to bring his wife Emilia to attend on her.  Cassio will also go.

The marriage being thus confirmed, Brabantio must grudgingly accept it.  His last words to Othello are a warning that she may one day show deceitfulness to him, having already done so to her father (see Quote #5).  He leaves, as does everyone else except Iago and Roderigo.

This latter, despondent over losing Desdemona, wishes to drown himself.  Iago scoffs at Roderigo’s “silliness,” as he himself calls it, but he doesn’t know what else to do.  Iago advises him to collect all his money and join them on the boats to Cyprus.  Iago says that Desdemona will eventually tire of the Moor, then Roderigo will have his chance to woo her.  He should continue giving gifts to Desdemona, money or jewels, and Iago will (supposedly) continue delivering them for him.  This plan revives the hopes of gullible Roderigo, who will now sell all his land.

After Roderigo leaves, Iago speaks of how he’ll use this fool’s hopes for his own “sport and profit,” since cheating him of his money is Iago’s only reason for spending time with him (Quote #6).

Iago now gives the real reason for his, indeed, most virulent hatred for Othello, mentioning a rumour he’s heard that the Moor has slept with his wife, Emilia.  Iago doesn’t have proof of this adultery, but he’ll assume the story is true and act on this assumption.  He’ll take advantage of Othello’s trust of him, and weave Cassio into his schemes, knowing the lieutenant has a way with the ladies.  Since Othello “is of a free and open nature,” Iago can easily manipulate him.  The ensign now has the germ of a plan to destroy the Moor, his wife Desdemona, and Cassio.

Act Two: In Cyprus, Cassio, Montano, and the other Venetians wait as Othello’s ship sails on the stormy seas; everyone hopes the ship will arrive safely.

Desdemona, Iago, and Emilia arrive.  Cassio kisses Desdemona’s hand; Iago notes this innocent show of affection, and plans to make it seem much more than that.

The Moor arrives, and he will relieve Montano of the duties of governing Cyprus; he also has good news–the Turkish fleet perished in the storm, so there will be no invasion!  Everyone is to celebrate that night.  Cassio is commanded by Othello to watch over the city that night and ensure that the revelry doesn’t get out of hand.

Roderigo appears.  Iago tells Roderigo that Cassio’s kissing of her hand is proof that she is looking for new lovers.  Roderigo doesn’t believe this, thinking (correctly) that Cassio was only showing gentlemanly courtesy; but Iago insists that the kiss was an expression of lust.  He then tells Roderigo to pick a fight with Cassio that night, during the festivities, when the lieutenant is drunk.

When the celebrations begin, and everyone has had some wine, Cassio insists he’s had enough, and he must begin his work, watching over the town.  Iago asks him to have some more wine, but Cassio says he mustn’t have any more, since he cannot handle it well.  Iago insists, though, so Cassio reluctantly drinks some more.

Later on, after some singing and rowdiness, Cassio decides he must begin his work.  He is very drunk, but he refuses to admit it, his pride piqued at anyone even thinking he’s drunk.  He leaves to begin his night watch.

Iago speaks with Montano about Cassio, lying that the lieutenant regularly drinks to excess.  Montano finds it worrying that Othello would give such a man a position of such responsibility.

Suddenly, Cassio returns angrily after having fought with Roderigo.  When Montano tries to calm Cassio, he threatens to knock him over the head.  Montano says he’s drunk, provoking him.  Swords drawn, the two men fight briefly, and chaos ensues.  Montano is wounded by Cassio, and Othello arrives, demanding that everyone immediately stop fighting.  He demands an explanation: Montano cannot answer, since he’s badly hurt; the lieutenant is too ashamed to speak.  Othello then turns to Iago, and demands to know who started the fight.

Iago pretends to be reluctant about giving an answer to Othello’s question, acting as though he is loath to blame Cassio.  Othello insists that Iago speak.  Iago speaks in a manner as if only vaguely to justify Cassio’s aggression.  Othello responds in the manner Iago was aiming for: the Moor assumes his ensign is mincing matters to protect Cassio from judgement, but he punishes Cassio by stripping him of his rank of lieutenant.  He gives the responsibility of watching over the town to Iago.  Cassio is crushed.

Desdemona arrives, asking what the matter is; Othello expresses his annoyance that the brawl has woken her up.  He takes her and Montano away with him, since he will bandage Montano’s wound.  Everyone else leaves, except Cassio and Iago.

Cassio complains of how he has “lost [his] reputation,” and blames wine for bringing out the devil in him.  Iago says there is nothing wrong with wine when drunk in moderation.  He also tells Cassio that if he wishes to get his reputation back, he should plead his case to Desdemona, for the “General’s wife is now the General.”  She in turn will plead for Cassio’s sake, asking Othello to forgive him and reinstate him as lieutenant.  This gives Cassio hope, and he leaves.

Alone now, Iago insists he is being no villain for offering such good advice to Cassio (Quote # 7); and yet, it is Iago’s plan to make Othello believe that Cassio and Desdemona are having an affair.  With every appeal she makes to Cassio’s virtues, she will all the more arouse the Moor’s suspicions of her infidelity.  Thus will Iago turn her white virtue pitch black.

Roderigo appears, complaining to Iago about the beating he’s got from Cassio, and of how he’s spent almost all his money (given in gifts to Iago to give to Desdemona, but of course Iago keeps the gifts for himself).  Iago gives the foolish suitor more dubious encouragement by saying that the fight he provoked in Cassio caused him to lose his rank of lieutenant.  This loss of status should make Cassio unattractive to Desdemona, and then Roderigo can have his chance to win her love.  Cheered up, Roderigo leaves.

Act Three: In the garden of the citadel in Cyprus the next day, Cassio asks Emilia if he can speak with Desdemona: she takes him to her.  He asks Desdemona to beg forgiveness of the Moor, and she promises to help him.  He, grateful, says he is her “true servant.”  As they continue talking, Othello and Iago arrive: while the Moor thinks nothing of his wife talking with Cassio, Iago says he doesn’t like what he sees.  Cassio leaves, and Iago characterizes his going as guilty-looking.

Desdemona approaches Othello, asking him to forgive Cassio.  He says they can discuss that at another time, with her at first importuning him when.  She obediently leaves at his request, satisfied that they will resume the discussion of reinstating Cassio.  The Moor expresses his love for Desdemona (Quote #8).

Iago asks Othello about how he began to woo her.  He says Cassio already knew of his wooing of her, and was very diligent in going between Othello and Desdemona.  Iago says, “Indeed,” in a way insinuating bad intentions in Cassio.  Othello begins to wonder what Iago is implying; the Moor recalls when Iago said he didn’t like seeing Cassio guiltily chatting with Desdemona.  He presses the seemingly reluctant Iago to speak his mind.

Using reverse psychology, Iago speaks of how wrong it is to harm someone’s reputation by slandering it, all the while making Othello more and more suspicious of Cassio and Desdemona.  Iago continues to be evasive, pretending Othello shouldn’t think too much of the matter.

Iago climaxes his manipulative words with a warning to Othello about giving in to jealousy (Quote #9), saying it’s better to be a cuckold who is blissfully ignorant of his wife’s infidelities than to suspect an innocent wife of such disloyalty and to torment himself with such suspicion.

Now, ironically, the Moor is fully enmeshed in the net of jealousy, though he denies it.  Knowing this, Iago advises him to watch Desdemona when she is with Cassio.  He reminds Othello of how she’s deceived her father, but still tells him not to worry about this suspicion until better proof is available.  Iago leaves.

Othello ponders what Iago has said, imagining that Desdemona may not find him so attractive because of his dark complexion.  She returns, and seeing he is not well, she tries to wrap around his brow a handkerchief, one designed with a distinct strawberry motif.  He pushes it away, causing it to fall on the ground; the distracted wife follows him as he storms away, forgetting to pick the handkerchief up.

Emilia enters, finding it on the ground.  She picks it up, speaks of wishing to have the pretty thing copied, and remembers how her husband has wanted her to steal it for some unrevealed purpose of his.  He returns, and she tells him she has the handkerchief; she tells Iago that she hasn’t stolen it, but Desdemona left it on the ground “by negligence.”  He takes it from Emilia, but she worries about Desdemona not getting it back, since she will be in a terribly distressed state if she loses it, a special gift from Othello.  Iago tells Emilia to go away; she does.

Iago speaks of how jealous people will consider the most trivial of things to be firm proof of their suspicions.  He will leave the handkerchief with Cassio’s things, knowing this will aid him in his vindictive purposes.  Iago gloats as he sees returning Othello, who is increasingly coming undone.

The Moor angrily demands that Iago produce proof that Desdemona is a whore.  Iago speaks of how regretful he is of his “honesty” being so ill-appreciated.  Othello says he is torn between believing his ensign and trusting Desdemona, and that his vague, unproven suspicions are tormenting him; he must have proof.

Iago says it would be nearly impossible to arrange a viewing of her in bed with Cassio, something the Moor recoils at, saying, “Death and damnation!”  But if some kind of circumstantial evidence were provided, perhaps that would be sufficient for Othello.  He will indeed accept such evidence.

Iago speaks of a night when he and Cassio were sleeping side by side: Cassio, apparently, was talking out loud in his sleep, speaking of how he and Desdemona must hide their love from the Moor.  Then Cassio wrapped his leg around Iago and began kissing him, imagining in his dream that Iago was Desdemona.  Othello grows all the more unsettled by this revelation.

To make matters worse, Iago tells him of a handkerchief, “spotted with strawberries,” that he’s seen Cassio wipe his beard with: Othello knows this to be his gift to his wife, and he is going insane with jealousy now.  He makes Iago his lieutenant; Iago says, “I am your own for ever.”

Before the citadel, Desdemona is going mad herself wondering where her handkerchief is.  She tells Emilia she would rather lose her “purse full of crusadoes” than lose Othello’s dear gift to her.

He enters, finding it difficult to hide his jealousy; she says Cassio will come and speak with him, hoping to bring about a reconciliation between the two men.  This, of course, inflames his jealous rage further.

He asks her to wipe his brow with her handkerchief, but she can only do so with another handkerchief she’s using as a temporary replacement.  Having tested Iago’s story, and dismayed to see it so seemingly confirmed, Othello demands that she produce the strawberry-patterned handkerchief.  She says she cannot find it at the moment.

He tells her that the handkerchief was a magical gift an Egyptian gave to his mother.  As long as his mother had it, his father would continue loving her; but if she were to lose it, she would lose his father’s love.  The implications of the story for Othello’s love for Desdemona frighten her.

He demands again that she find it.  She says she’ll get it later, for now she sees it as a distraction from her suit to get him to reinstate Cassio.  He keeps demanding the handkerchief while she pleads for Cassio; he curses and leaves the room.  Emilia wonders if he is jealous, while Desdemona insists he’s never been that way.  Emilia says men are all stomachs, and women their food to be belched when the eaters are sated.

Cassio gives the handkerchief to Bianca, a girl he’s been seeing; he wants her to have it copied.  She jealously suspects he’s got it from another woman.

Act Four: Iago tells Othello of a time he heard Cassio speaking of lying in bed with Desdemona; Othello gets so upset that he has an epileptic seizure.  Iago gloats to watch Othello coming so unhinged.

After the Moor has swooned and fallen on the ground, Cassio comes by, and wonders what’s wrong with Othello.  Iago tells him the Moor has “fall’n into an epilepsy.”  Cassio suggests rubbing him on the temples, but Iago insists that the epilepsy must be allowed to follow its course.  Iago asks Cassio to leave, but would have him return soon, for he has something important to talk about with Cassio.  Cassio leaves.

The Moor comes out of it, and Iago says Cassio will return; while Othello is hiding, he can eavesdrop on a conversation between Iago and Cassio, one that will confirm the latter’s guilt.  Othello hides, and Cassio returns.

First, Iago speaks of Desdemona with Cassio, and of his hopes that Othello will forgive him.  Then Iago deftly changes the subject to that of Bianca, and in a way that makes Othello think the woman being discussed is still Desdemona.  Cassio laughs, speaking of how she (Bianca, or Desdemona?) is in love with him.  Othello is snarling as he listens to this.

Then, in a turn of fortune better than Iago could have devised, Bianca suddenly appears, showing off the handkerchief so Othello can see it, and complaining jealously that Cassio is seeing another woman, the handkerchief being proof of his two-timing.  She leaves angrily.  Cassio follows after her.

Othello emerges, asking Iago how he should kill Desdemona, now that he has apparent proof of her infidelity.  Iago suggests killing her in her bed, the one she has “contaminated.”  Othello considers this a just punishment.  Iago then offers to kill Cassio.

Lodovico, Desdemona’s cousin, has arrived in Cyprus to tell Othello he is to return to Venice.  The Moor is visibly upset as he reads the letter from the Duke of Venice with his orders to return, and for Cassio to be the new governor of Cyprus.

Lodovico wonders what is troubling him; Desdemona speaks of the friction between her husband and Cassio, a problem she wishes would end, for all the love she bears to Cassio.  Othello is especially offended to hear her dare to say that in front of him, and he slaps her in front of everyone!

She knows she doesn’t deserve such abuse.  Lodovico is shocked at what he’s seen, imagining no one in Venice would believe Othello could behave in such a way.  Surely his reputation as unflappable is in question.

Later, Othello questions Emilia if she has ever seen her mistress with Cassio in an intimate situation; Emilia, of course, hasn’t, for she has never left Desdemona’s company, not even briefly to get a fan or anything.  Emilia, not believed, is told to fetch Desdemona.  The Moor insists that his wife is “a subtle whore.”  Desdemona, frightened, returns with Emilia, and must defend herself against accusations of being a whore.

Othello leaves, and Desdemona complains of her troubles with teary eyes to Emilia and Iago.  They cannot imagine why Othello would slander her so.  Emilia insists some villain has told Othello slanderous lies about his wife, then Emilia recalls how someone similarly calumniated her to Iago about having had an affair with Othello, a vicious rumour that drove Iago to near madness.  Her husband dismisses the story angrily.

Desdemona, in her sweetness, cannot even say the word “whore,” let alone be one.  Iago reasons that Othello is simply annoyed at having to return to Venice, and is thus taking his frustrations out on Desdemona.  Dinner is about to be served, and Iago tries to cheer her up with that, and with hopes that all will soon be resolved.  The women leave.

Alone, Iago is accosted by a furious Roderigo, who demands satisfaction for having been duped by Iago all this time.  Roderigo has spent all his money in his foolish, futile suit for Desdemona, having given gifts to Iago to give to Desdemona, but Roderigo has gotten no desirable results at all.  Correctly assuming that Iago has been cheating him, Roderigo demands compensation and threatens Iago if he isn’t satisfied.

Quick-thinking Iago praises Roderigo for showing his manhood, and suggests that he use his apparent strength in a fight against Cassio.  Iago will help, it seems; then when Cassio is removed, Roderigo can have Desdemona.  Gullible Roderigo agrees to this plan.

After dinner with Lodovico, Othello tells Desdemona to go to bed alone, and to dismiss Emilia as soon as she has finished getting her ready for bed.  This command is surprising both to Desdemona and to Emilia when she hears it.

In Desdemona’s bedroom, as Emilia is getting her ready for bed, Desdemona remembers a maid from Barbary whose lover went mad and abandoned her.  The maid sang a sad song called ‘Willow,’ which Desdemona then sings.

She asks Emilia if there are any wives anywhere who commit adultery; Emilia says there surely are at least a few; for women have their ways of getting revenge on the wrongs their husbands inflict on them.  Emilia is sure that some women would gladly make their husbands cuckolds if doing so might make their men kings.  (Is she implying here that she, indeed, slept with Othello in the hopes that the Moor would, in return, make Iago his lieutenant?)  Desdemona, ever sweet and innocent, still cannot imagine any wife to be unfaithful to her man.  Emilia leaves her, and she goes to bed.

Act Five: Outside on a street at night, Iago and Roderigo are waiting for Cassio to leave Bianca’s home so they can assault him.  Iago realizes that this altercation will be crucial, for both men must die if Iago is to succeed in his plans.  This night will either make him, or undo him.  Iago and Roderigo are hiding in the shadows.

Cassio appears, and Roderigo attacks him.  Swords drawn, they fight, and Cassio wounds Roderigo.  Then Iago sneaks up behind Cassio with his rapier and stabs him in the leg.  Not knowing who has attacked him, Cassio calls out for help.

Othello watches from his window, and hearing the commotion on the street (as do Lodovico and Gratiano), assumes Iago has killed Cassio.  Satisfied with the achievement of this part of his supposed revenge, Othello heads for Desdemona’s bedroom.

On the street, Lodovico and Gratiano come to help Cassio.  Iago reappears from the shadows, pretending he’s only just arrived and knows nothing of what has happened.  Cassio says his wounded attacker is back somewhere in the shadows.  Iago goes over and mortally wounds Roderigo, who curses him before dying.  Then Iago yells for help.  He binds Cassio’s wound with his shirt.

Outside, Emilia and Bianca come to help Cassio.  Bianca is hysterical with grief over her lover’s hurt, but Emilia and Iago dismiss her as a tramp, implying Cassio’s injury to have been her fault, which she denies.  Cassio is taken away to be treated for his wound.

In Desdemona’s bedroom, Othello gazes on her sleeping body, his heart full of grief over the murder he feels he must commit, for the sake of honour.  He speaks of how he won’t shed her blood, or wound her beautiful skin, as “smooth as monumental alabaster.”

Extinguishing candles by her bed, he speaks sorrowfully of extinguishing the fire of her life (Quote #10), already imagining his regret over killing her, and knowing that, while one can light a candle again after wishing one hasn’t put the fire out, one cannot resurrect the victim one rues having killed.

He reaches over and kisses her several times, the last kiss waking her up.  He asks her if she has said her prayers for the night; she has.  He is glad of this, for he doesn’t wish, in killing her, to send her soul to hell.  She asks why he has murder on his mind, and he accuses her of having an affair with Cassio, who had the handkerchief.

She vehemently denies this adultery, asking to have Cassio summoned to corroborate her story.  Othello says her alleged lover cannot attest to her denial, for he has been killed.  She weeps for Cassio’s sake, infuriating the Moor.

He approaches her to commit the murder, but she begs him to banish her instead. He picks up a pillow and smothers her with it.  There is knocking on the door; Emilia comes in, telling him of Cassio’s injury.  Othello is annoyed to know he is still alive.

Emilia, however, is shocked to see Desdemona murdered; actually, she isn’t quite dead, but her last words are ones of love for Othello.  Then she dies.

When Othello justifies his murder by saying she was unfaithful to him, Emilia refuses to believe him.  He says Iago informed him of the adultery: too horrified to imagine her husband so wicked, she asks of Iago repeatedly to make sure, causing Othello to wonder why she needs to make this “iterance”.  She insists that if Iago really accused Desdemona of infidelity, he is a liar.  Sure of Iago’s reputation for honesty, Othello cannot believe that he lied.  Emilia cries out of the bedroom for help.  “The Moor hath kill’d my mistress!  Murder!  Murder!”

Montano, Iago, Gratiano, and others come into the bedroom.  She asks Iago if he told Othello that Desdemona had had an affair with Cassio: her husband admits that he said so.  Emilia is heartbroken that Iago could tell such “a wicked lie.”  He barks at her to go home; she refuses to, insisting that she have a chance to speak.

When Othello mentions her handkerchief in Cassio’s possession, Emilia is all the more horrified, now knowing Iago’s real purpose in having it stolen.  Emilia refuses to obey her husband’s command to be quiet and go home, for she must tell all.  Iago tries to attack Emilia with a sword, but is stopped by Gratiano, who is shocked he’d try to stab a woman.

When she tells Othello she stole the handkerchief to give to Iago, the Moor finally realizes how wrong and rash he was to murder his wife.  She carries on about how foolish Othello has been, murdering such a sweet and innocent wife.  He is already agonizing over his mistake.  Iago stabs his wife, then flees the room; he is pursued.

She lies beside Desdemona, weakly singing, “Willow, willow, willow,” before dying.  Othello continues grieving over Desdemona.

Iago has been apprehended and is brought back with Lodovico, Montano, and Cassio (who is carried in a chair), and officers.   Othello takes a knife and wounds Iago, who maliciously smiles at him and says the stab isn’t fatal; the Moor, preferring death to life, is glad to let Iago live.  Othello’s sword has been taken from him.

Cassio protests his innocence to Othello, who sadly acknowledges this and apologizes to him.  Othello wants to know why Iago has thus ruined him, but the villain refuses to say any more.

Othello is to be arrested for murder, but he wants a moment to speak, since he’s done some service to Venice.  He asks the people of Venice to speak truthfully “Of one that lov’d not wisely, but too well” (Quote #11).  At the end of his speech, he produces a hidden dagger and stabs himself.  He kisses Desdemona and dies (Quote #12).

Lodovico execrates Iago for his villainy, and demands the harshest punishments for him.  Lodovico must now return to Venice and tell this sad story with a heavy heart.

Analysis of ‘Othello’

Othello, the Moor of Venice, is a tragedy Shakespeare is believed to have written in about 1603.  It is based on the Cinthio short story Un Capitano Moro (‘A Moorish Captain’), and it is one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, dealing with such themes as jealousy, envy, undeserved reputations, gossip, and the issue of racial prejudice.

On this last issue, it is necessary to examine the unclear racial background of Othello the Moor.  He is referred to as, and calls himself, “black” several times in the play.  What is meant by black is open to interpretation.  Is he meant to be a sub-Saharan African, or a swarthy, dark-complexioned north African?  Both interpretations are possible, based on the vague way the people of Renaissance England used the word black to describe people.  One possible piece of evidence to suggest black, and not merely swarthy, is Roderigo’s pejorative description of Othello (in Act One, Scene i) as “the thick-lips,” but this is far from conclusive.

However Shakespeare meant the Moor to be, he was historically portrayed by white actors in blackface.  Some notable exceptions to this include the first black actor to play Othello, Ira Aldridge, in 1833; later, there was Paul Robeson’s Othello, with Uta Hagen as Desdemona in the hit Broadway run in 1943.  This use of blackface on white actors for the Othello role was finally starting to be faded out by the 1970s and 1980s: one of the last of these notable conservative productions being the BBC TV one with Anthony Hopkins in the title role.  Ever since then, black actors have usually been used; one noteworthy exception to this, however, was an inverted 1997 production with Patrick Stewart as Othello without blackface, and with a black cast playing everyone else.

Here are some famous quotes:

1. I am not what I am.  –Iago, Act One, scene i, line 66

2. Even now, now, very now, an old black ram /Is tupping your white ewe.  –Iago, Act One, scene i, lines 89-90

3. Your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.  –Iago, I, i, 117-118

4.  Most potent, grave, and reverend signiors,
My very noble and approved good masters,
That I have ta’en away this old man’s daughter,
It is most true; true, I have married her:
The very head and front of my offending
Hath this extent, no more. Rude am I in my speech,
And little bless’d with the soft phrase of peace:
For since these arms of mine had seven years’ pith,
Till now some nine moons wasted, they have used
Their dearest action in the tented field,
And little of this great world can I speak,
More than pertains to feats of broil and battle,
And therefore little shall I grace my cause
In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,
I will a round unvarnish’d tale deliver
Of my whole course of love; what drugs, what charms,
What conjuration and what mighty magic,
For such proceeding I am charged withal,
I won his daughter.  –Othello, I, iii, 76-94

5. Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see:
She has deceived her father, and may thee.  –Brabantio, I, iii, 292-293

6. Thus do I ever make my fool my purse:/For I mine own gain’d 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/He 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 up 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 the nose/As asses are./I have’t. It is engender’d. Hell and night/Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.  –Iago, I, iii, 377-398

7. 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/The 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 redeemed sin,/His soul is so enfetter’d to her love,/That she may make, unmake, do what she list,/Even as her 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 fortunes/And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,/I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear,/That she repeals him for her 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.  –Iago, II, iii, 325-351

8. Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul,/But I do love thee! and when I love thee not,/Chaos is come again.  –Othello, III, iii, 91-93

9. O!  Beware, my lord, of jealousy;/It is the green-ey’d monster which doth mock/The meat it feeds on. –Iago, III, iii, 169-171

10. It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,–/Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!–/It is the cause. Yet I’ll not shed her blood;/Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,/And smooth as monumental alabaster./Yet she must die, else she’ll betray more men./Put out the light, and then put out the light:/If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,/I can again thy former light restore,/Should I repent me: but once put out thy light,/Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,/I know not where is that Promethean heat/That can thy light relume. When I have pluck’d the rose,/I cannot give it vital growth again./It must needs wither: I’ll smell it on the tree. –Othello, V, ii, 1-15

11. Soft you; a word or two before you go./ I have done the state some service, and they know’t./No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,/When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,/Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,/Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak/Of one that loved not wisely but too well;/Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought/Perplex’d in the extreme; of one whose hand,/Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away/Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,/Albeit unused to the melting mood,/Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees/Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;/And say besides, that in Aleppo once,/Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk/Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,/I took by the throat the circumcised dog,/And smote him, thus.  –Othello, V, ii, 341-359

12. I kissed thee ere I killed thee, no way but this,/Killing myself, to die upon a kiss.  –Othello, V, ii, 361-362

Particularly obvious themes in Othello are those of jealousy and envy, but it is useful to distinguish between these two similar words.  Jealousy is usually used to describe someone who is afraid of losing a lover to a rival, whereas envy involves unhappiness or resentment over already not having what another has, and wanting to destroy the envied person.  Envy comes from the Latin invidia, which refers to looking at people with an evil eye, in other words, with a feeling of malice and hatred towards the envied one.  Iago, of course, perfectly personifies envy in Othello.

Iago envies Michael Cassio for getting the promotion to lieutenant that Iago feels he deserved.  Instead, Iago, a much more experienced soldier than Cassio, must remain merely Othello’s ensign (or ‘ancient,’ as he is called in the play).  Because Othello judged Cassio the better man for the promotion, the Moor must suffer; since Cassio got the promotion Iago should have been given, Cassio must suffer.

Though Othello suffers racial prejudice as a dark-complexioned Moor in Venice and Cyprus, both places dominated by whites, he is valiant, noble, and well-spoken; he only becomes violent when manipulated by Iago, the real beast of the story.  And for all of Iago’s reputation for being honest and good, he gives all the indications of his own bestial nature, right from his first appearance in the play.  Indeed, his first word is a blasphemy: “‘Sblood,” he says to Roderigo.  Soon afterwards in the same scene, he says, “Zounds”, and he speaks crudely of Othello’s seduction of Desdemona (Quotes #2 and 3 above).  Also, he constantly uses the imagery of beasts in his choice of words: ram, ewe, Barbary horse, baboon, cats, puppies, snipe, asses, “the green-ey’d monster,” etc.  All these word choices of his set the tone of his evil character: wild, and immoral.

Othello’s jealousy over Desdemona’s supposed affair with Cassio isn’t the only instance of jealousy in the play.  Roderigo is jealous of Othello’s marriage to her, hoping foolishly that she will get bored with the Moor (according to the lie Iago tells Roderigo), and then the buffoonish suitor will supposedly get his chance to have her.

Iago also grapples with jealousy when he has heard a rumour that Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia (see Quote #6).  This, given during a soliloquy, seems to be the greater reason for Iago to want revenge.  “And nothing can or shall content my soul/Till I am evened with him, wife for wife.” (II, i, 223-224)

Apart from these jealousies, there is also Bianca’s jealousy when she finds Desdemona’s handkerchief, “spotted with strawberries” (as Iago has earlier described it) among Cassio’s things, and assumes her lover has been seeing another woman.  Significantly, Othello has been secretly watching this altercation, and is himself even more inflamed with jealousy, assuming Cassio’s rumoured affair with his wife has been incontrovertibly proven.

Many reputations in this play are unjustly acquired.  Iago, a most heinous liar throughout the play, is honoured as “honest Iago” right up to Emilia’s accusation of him lying to Othello.  Iago feels Cassio doesn’t deserve the good name associated with being lieutenant, and easily engineers proof that, with a few cups of wine, Cassio can demonstrate his unworthiness of the rank.  Othello has a reputation for being unshakeable in the face of war and death, yet the mere suggestion that his wife could be having an affair makes him fall so to pieces that he strikes her in public, in front of Lodovico, her cousin!

Ultimately, the most undeserved of reputations is that of Desdemona as “whore”.  So guiltless is she that not only can’t she even say the word “whore” without difficulty, but she can’t even imagine any other married woman being unfaithful to her husband, as she says to Emilia on the night she is to be murdered.  Indeed, she keeps a perfectly Christian attitude right to the end, expressing her love and loyalty to the Moor by saying, “Commend me to my kind lord: O, farewell!”  Then she dies, after having been smothered by a pillow held in Othello’s hands.

It is her very sweetness that makes her unjust murder so especially horrific.

Detailed Synopsis of ‘The Merchant of Venice’

Act One: Antonio, the merchant of Venice, tells Salerio and Solanio that he feels sad and wearied for reasons he can’t understand.  His friends suggest that he’s worried about the ships carrying his money and goods: what if they’re lost at sea?  He says he isn’t worried about that.

Solanio imagines Antonio could be in love: he rejects the idea as absurd.

Bassanio and Gratiano enter.  Gratiano, a well-meaning, though rather rude and tactless fellow, prates about nonsense with Antonio until Bassanio stops him and apologizes for him.

Then Bassanio tells Antonio of his wish to marry a beautiful, wealthy heiress named Portia; he says she, having all the virtues of Brutus’ wife (see my synopsis and analysis of Julius Caesar), is aptly named.  Bassanio, however, has spent all his money, and ever in debt, hopes Antonio will lend him some for the trip to Belmont, which is about ten miles from Venice, in Villa Foscari, in Mira.

Antonio would gladly lend his friend all he needs (and without interest), but he himself has none, for he’s waiting for his ships to arrive.  He will, however, be a guarantor to any money-lender Bassanio can find in Venice; so they’ll look for a usurer to lend Bassanio 3,000 ducats.

In Belmont, Portia complains to Nerissa, her lady-in-waiting, about the predicament her late father has put her in.  Suitors from all over the Mediterranean and Europe hope to marry her, but she likes none of them (except for a handsome young man named Bassanio!).  She must marry the suitor who chooses the correct one of three caskets, each made of gold, silver, or lead.

What if one of the undesirables chooses the correct one?  She cannot, by oath, refuse him.  What if a desirable man chooses incorrectly?  She cannot, by oath, marry him.  Nor can she aid or deceive any suitor in his choice.

Nerissa comforts her by reminding her of her father’s wisdom; surely his system of three caskets will yield Portia a worthy husband.  Nerissa then asks what Portia thinks of the various suitors: Portia contemptuously dismisses all of them…except Bassanio.

The ladies must go meet a suitor–the prince of Morocco.

Back in Venice, in a public place, Bassanio finds Shylock, a Jewish usurer, to lend him the money.  Knowing Antonio will be Bassanio’s guarantor, Shylock considers the merchant a man of good credit (though not of good character); so Shylock agrees to lend Bassanio 3,000 ducats.  Bassanio invites Shylock to dine with him and Antonio; the Jew says he will do business with them, but neither eat nor pray with them.

When Antonio arrives to cement the deal, Shylock speaks to himself of how much he hates Antonio, not only because he is a Christian, but also because he scorns Shylock’s Jewish faith and lends out money gratis, thus hurting Shylock’s profits.  He hopes he can get an opportunity to trip Antonio up.

Shylock and Antonio begin discussing the deal with polite smiles to mask their mutual hate.  Shylock refers to the story in Genesis of how Jacob cleverly tricked Laban into letting him have the best sheep and goats, and that this was shrewd commerce.  Antonio considers such an interpretation of the Bible story to be a devilish advocacy of taking interest (see Quote #1 of my ‘Analysis of The Merchant of Venice‘), and says instead that God had intended this transaction for divine purposes.

Shylock mentions how Antonio spat on him the previous week, and how he’s often spoken disparagingly of Shylock’s Judaism; now Antonio needs money from a Jew!  Antonio proudly says he’d gladly spite the usurer again, and if Shylock won’t lend the money as a friend, he may do so as an enemy, taking as much interest from Antonio as he pleases if the debt isn’t paid on time.

Shylock pretends that he wishes he and Antonio could be friends; he offers not to require any interest from Antonio if he defaults, and instead–supposedly in jest–would have a pound of Antonio’s flesh, cut from whatever part of his body Shylock chooses.

Antonio happily agrees to this arrangement; he will follow after Shylock to the notary public and sign the bond.  Shylock leaves.  Antonio imagines the Jew is growing kind, and that he may even convert to Christianity one day.

Bassanio, fearing danger to his friend, urges Antonio not to sign the bond.  Antonio reassures him that his boats will arrive well before the due date, with more than enough money to pay the debt.

Act Two: In Portia’s house in Belmont, she and Nerissa meet the prince of Morocco and his followers.  He tells her not to dislike him for his darker skin, since many of the best-regarded virgins of his land have liked his hue.

Still, his aggressive manner frightens Portia, who hopes he’ll choose from the wrong caskets.  He is led to them.

In Venice, Launcelot Gobbo, a comical Christian, doesn’t enjoy working for Shylock.  Gobbo imagines a devil tempting him to end his services to Shylock and work for Christians instead, while his conscience tells him to stay in the Jew’s employ.  He sees his blind father, Old Gobbo, approaching, and for fun, briefly tricks him into thinking he isn’t his son.

Old Gobbo wishes to find and give a present to Shylock, and after Gobbo has had his fun, he takes his father to Bassanio instead of the Jew.  Then Gobbo tells Bassanio he wishes to work for him instead.  Bassanio agrees to hire him.

Gratiano wishes to join Bassanio on his trip to Belmont.  Bassanio tells Gratiano to be tactful in Belmont, so as not to endanger Bassanio’s hopes of winning Portia.  Gratiano promises he’ll watch his words.

In Shylock’s home, Gobbo knows of how Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, secretly wishes to elope with and marry the Christian Lorenzo.  Arrangements have been made to get her out of Shylock’s house that night, while he’s at dinner with Antonio and Bassanio, to give the latter the 3,000 ducats.

Jessica knows it’s shameful to scorn her own father, but she yearns to convert to Christianity and be Lorenzo’s wife.  Shylock commands her to keep the windows of his house closed while he’s out, since he doesn’t want her “to gaze on Christian fools.”  He doesn’t want to go out, for he knows the Christians aren’t his true friends; still, he leaves anyway.

That night, Lorenzo, Salerio, and Solanio come to Shylock’s house to get Jessica, who is disguised as a boy and embarrassed about it (see Quote #2 from my ‘Analysis’).  She steals small caskets of Shylock’s ducats and leaves with the men.

Back in Belmont, the prince of Morocco looks over the three caskets.  On the gold casket an inscription says, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.”  The inscription on the silver casket says, “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.”  That of the lead casket says, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”  Portia tells the prince that the correct casket has her picture in it.

The prince refuses to risk everything for mere lead.  He looks over all three inscriptions again after asking for divine guidance in his choice.  He looks at the gold casket’s inscription again, and, noting how many men desire Portia, he assumes her picture must be in such a beautiful casket; so he chooses gold.

He gets the key to the casket and opens it.  To his chagrin, he sees a skull and a scroll.  He reads it (Quote #3): many men desire gold, some getting killed in their quest for it.  Since this is a foolish thing to desire, the prince’s “suit is cold”.

He sadly leaves with his followers.

In Venice, Salerio and Solanio discuss the eloping of Lorenzo and Jessica, and Shylock’s rage over it.  They speak gloatingly about Shylock’s misfortunes: the Jew has been going all about Venice complaining about his disloyal daughter and stolen ducats.  They mock his ranting and raving, as have all the boys in Venice following him about.

They also mention a rumour that a ship, possibly Antonio’s, may have been lost at sea.  They fear for their friend.

In Belmont, the prince of Aragon, a pompous, foppish sort, arrives to try his fortune with the caskets.  He reads the inscriptions on each, scoffing at the “base lead” casket; and insisting he’s better than the lowly multitude, he assumes the gold casket is wrong too, for what he values is better than what “many men desire”.

He feels that the inscription on the silver casket is “well said”, for we can have things only with “the stamp of merit”.  Assuming he deserves Portia, he imagines her picture will be in the silver casket.  He asks for its key, and opens it.

Instead of seeing Portia’s picture, however, he sees that of “a blinking idiot”.  The accompanying scroll has a poem that says the picture is a representation of arrogant fools like him.  As disappointed as the prince of Morocco was, he leaves in annoyance.  Portia, of course, is relieved.

Act Three: On a street in Venice, Salerio and Solanio have confirmation that Antonio has lost a ship at sea; they both worry about their friend.  They give antisemitic scowls to Shylock, who is approaching and still ranting about Jessica.

When he speaks of how shocking it is for his own flesh and blood to have betrayed him by marrying a Christian, Salerio speaks of how she is more dissimilar to her father than red wine is to Rhenish, or than jet and ivory.

Shylock says Antonio should “look to his bond”.  Salerio asks Shylock what he could possibly want with a pound of Antonio’s flesh: Shylock gives all his reasons for wanting revenge on his Christian persecutor (Quote #4).

Shylock says Jews share all the same human qualities as Christians do, including vulnerability to pain, disease, and death; Jews can also be as villainous and vengeful as Christians.  Shylock will soon prove this last point.

Tubal, Shylock’s Jewish friend, appears; not willing to tolerate the presence of any more Jews, Salerio and Solanio leave.  Tubal has good and bad news for Shylock: Antonio’s ships are indeed lost, so Shylock can get his pound of flesh; but Jessica was seen having sold a turquoise ring (Shylock’s wife’s, therefore having sentimental value for him) in exchange for a monkey.  She also spent 80 ducats in one night, Tubal says.  This breaks Shylock’s heart.  He has Tubal find an officer to arrest Antonio.

Bassanio and Gratiano have arrived in Belmont, and Portia and Nerissa are with them.  (Gratiano and Nerissa quickly take a liking to each other.)  Since Portia likes Bassanio, she wishes he would wait and talk with her for a day or two before choosing from the caskets; for if he chooses incorrectly, he’ll have to leave immediately, and they’ll never see each other again.  Still, he cannot bear the suspense of waiting, and must make his choice and get it over with.

As he looks over the caskets and their inscriptions, a love song is sung during the comments he makes.  Knowing that outer appearances are often deceptive of inner reality, Bassanio wisely imagines the dull-looking lead casket, whose inscription threatens rather than promises, has Portia’s picture in it.

He gets the key, unlocks the casket, and finds her picture.  He and Portia are overjoyed.  When he reads the congratulating poem in the casket, he says, “A gentle scroll.”

Along with their imminent marriage, Gratiano and Nerissa tell of their having fallen in love and plan to be married.  The women give their men a ring, and make them swear an oath never to lose the rings or give them away.

Salerio has arrived in Belmont, and he enters with Lorenzo and Jessica with bad news from Venice: since Antonio’s boats are lost and he has no money to pay Shylock the 3,000 ducats, Shylock wants the pound of flesh.

Jessica knows of her father’s lust for revenge, and that no amount of money will deflect him from getting that pound of Antonio’s flesh.  Wealthy Portia considers any friend of Bassanio’s to be a friend of hers, so she will gladly pay twice the amount so the debt may be forgiven.

The two couples will be quickly married, then everyone, except Lorenzo and the ladies, is to make plans to hurry back to Venice and help Antonio in any way he can.

Back in Venice, Antonio tries to reason with Shylock, who has a gaoler arrest the merchant.  Shylock refuses to yield to Christian intercessors.  Antonio must accept the fact that the Jew hates him and seeks his life.

In Belmont, Lorenzo commends Portia for her patience in enduring the absence of her husband while he is in Venice trying to help his friend.  She has a servant go to Padua to see Bellario, a great lawyer, to get whatever notes and clothing he can give her.

Portia has devised a plan of her own to save Antonio: she will learn what she can of law from Bellario, then disguise herself as a man (Nerissa will be disguised as ‘his’ clerk).  The two faux lawyers will then go to Venice and help Antonio.

Gobbo jokes with Jessica about how her conversion to Christianity will raise the price of pork.  She shares the joke with Lorenzo.

Act Four: Back in Venice, the Duke of Venice enters a courtroom.  Shylock, Antonio, Bassanio, Gratiano, Salerio and Solanio are there.  The duke speaks to Shylock, hoping he’ll show mercy and forgive the debt.  Shylock refuses, insisting he has a legal right to a pound of Antonio’s flesh.

Why does he want it?  The desire for the pound of flesh is just a part of his disposition, Shylock says, as it is the disposition of others to dislike a pig or a cat.  He has “a certain loathing” of Antonio, and that is sufficient reason for him.

No one accepts this reasoning, though Shylock isn’t moved by their rejection of his attitude.  Antonio says nothing will move the Jew any more than telling the water not to reach its height on the beach.  Nothing will inspire pity in his hard “Jewish heart.”  Sentence should be quickly given, and one should just get this whole ordeal over with.

Shylock says that the slaves of many Venetians are legally the rightful property of their masters, who have paid dearly for them–we don’t ask the masters to free their slaves.  Similarly, the pound of flesh he has bought rightfully belongs to him.

Though the duke realizes that his refusal of Shylock’s legal right to the pound of flesh will render invalid the law of Venice, he will wait for Bellario to determine the case.  The duke is told of the famous lawyer’s inability to attend; he has, however, recommended a young lawyer named ‘Balthazar’ (Portia in disguise), whose wisdom with the law belies ‘his’ youth.  The duke wholeheartedly will have ‘Balthazar’ take the case.

‘He’ and ‘his clerk’ (Nerissa in disguise) enter.  ‘Balthazar’ being already thoroughly acquainted with the case, ‘he’ looks over the document allowing Shylock a pound of Antonio’s flesh if he defaults.  ‘He’ then says Shylock must show mercy; the Jew asks what compels him to.

‘Balthazar’ explains that nothing in the nature of mercy involves compulsion (see Quote #5).  Mercy blesses the giver as well as the receiver; this virtue is most becoming of kings, for it is an attribute of God’s.  We must remember that justice, strictly applied to all of us without mercy, would damn every one of us sinners.  Therefore, when we ask for God’s mercy, we are likewise well advised to show mercy to those who’ve wronged us.

None of this speech moves Shylock, who craves the law and will gladly accept all responsibility for his misdeeds.  He is offered twice the original amount; he refuses it, sharpening his knife.

When ‘Balthazar’ sees that Shylock will not be moved to mercy, ‘he’ says the law of Venice must be upheld, and Antonio must prepare his breast for Shylock’s knife.  Shylock praises ‘Balthazar’ for his learned understanding of the law.

Bassanio and Gratiano brace Antonio, and each of them says he’d gladly give up his beloved wife to save Antonio.  Little do these husbands know, of course, that the wives they’ve just proven disloyal to have heard their words, and are frowning at the sound of them.

Shylock similarly frowns, assuming this disloyalty to be typical of Christian husbands.  He’d prefer Jessica had married the worst of Jews rather than a Christian!  He says time is being wasted, and wishes the duke would pass sentence promptly.

As Shylock’s knife is being brought near Antonio’s breast, ‘Balthazar’ suddenly interrupts, saying that the law allows Shylock not one drop of blood–only Antonio’s flesh (Quote #6).  Technically, nothing in the bond says Shylock is to be awarded anything other than an exact pound of flesh–no more or less, by even the weight of a hair.

Shocked Shylock is immobilized; Gratiano mocks Shylock’s words of “learned judge”, and gloatingly thanks the Jew for teaching him such expressions as “a second Daniel”.

Shylock asks if he can at least take the 6,000 ducats, but ‘Balthazar’ reminds everyone that he rejected the money in open court; he cannot even have the principal.  The Jew, wanting only a pound of flesh, must take his legal property, at the risk of shedding Christian blood.

Demoralized, Shylock wishes to leave the courtroom, but ‘Balthazar’ says the Venetian law, so fetishized by Shylock, ironically has a further hold on him.  For a foreigner’s attempt, direct or indirect, on a Venetian’s life, the law can penalize the foreigner by seizing all of his property: half goes to the victim, the other half to the state, in the form of a fine.  Shylock’s life, on top of these punishments, is at the mercy of the duke.

Gloating Gratiano says Shylock should beg to hang himself; though he, now totally expropriated, hasn’t even the money to buy a rope.

The duke, demonstrating ‘Christian mercy’ over ‘Jewish mercilessness’, grants Shylock his life before he even asks it; nonetheless, all his money and possessions are to be claimed by Antonio and the state.  Shylock prefers death, knowing that he cannot live without any money or property.

‘Balthazar’ asks Antonio what mercy he can give Shylock.  Antonio asks the duke not to seize the state’s lawful half of Shylock’s assets; Antonio’s half will be reserved until Shylock’s death, then given to Lorenzo and Jessica.  Shylock groans at this.

Moreover, Antonio has another, more crushing condition for this ‘mercy’: Shylock must immediately convert to Christianity.  The Jew-no-longer is thus both materially and spiritually destroyed.

He tearfully accepts the terms, and will sign the requisite documentation at his home.  Not feeling well, he asks to leave.  The duke allows him to go; Gratiano continues to gloat as Shylock exits the courtroom.

The duke tells Antonio and Bassanio that they are most beholden to ‘Balthazar’ for saving Antonio’s life; they agree.  They approach the ‘lawyer’ and offer ‘him’ anything ‘he’ wishes for ‘his’ service to them.  At first ‘he’ says such gifts of gratitude are unnecessary, but they insist.  ‘He’ therefore asks Antonio for his gloves, which are promptly given him.

Not forgetting Bassanio’s willingness to give up his wife for Antonio, ‘Balthazar’ then asks for Bassanio’s ring.  Though he would gladly give the ‘lawyer’ the most valuable ring he can find, he cannot part with his wife’s gift.  ‘Balthazar’ makes him feel guilty for not giving ‘him’ the ring, and thus manipulates him into giving it to ‘him’.

Nerissa whispers in Portia’s ear that she’ll use the same tactics to get Gratiano to give her the ring she gave him.  The ‘clerk’ asks Gratiano to show ‘him’ where Shylock’s home is.

Act Five: In Belmont, Lorenzo and Jessica share a romantic moment together at night.  Launcelot Gobbo comes looking for Lorenzo.  Gobbo tells Lorenzo that Bassanio will be back soon.

Portia and Nerissa arrive, back in women’s clothes (see Quote #7); Portia would have none of the servants tell Bassanio or Gratiano, who they know will arrive soon, that she and Nerissa were absent.

Their husbands arrive and share a few words; then a quarrel begins between Nerissa and Gratiano over his having given up her ring.  He insists a clerk, about her height, insisted on having the ring as gratitude for having helped save Antonio.  She says, feigning jealousy, that Gratiano gave it to a girl he’s enjoyed.

Portia says Nerissa’s anger is justified; Portia gave Bassanio a ring, and says he’d never give it away.  Gratiano says Bassanio gave it to the lawyer who defended Antonio.  Now Portia is angry with her husband.

Bassanio tries to explain that his hand was forced in giving away the ring, but Portia will hear none of his excuses.  Antonio feels he is to blame for these quarrels, and asks how he can help resolve this fighting.

Portia gives Antonio an apparently new ring to give to Bassanio, who must now swear never to give it away; Antonio will be his guarantor again.  As Bassanio is about to swear his oath, he recognizes the ‘new’ ring as the original he gave ‘Balthazar’.  Portia claims to have slept with the lawyer, and to have gotten it from him.  She asks Bassanio’s forgiveness.

Nerissa similarly produces her ring, claiming she slept with the ‘clerk’ to get it.  She asks for Gratiano’s pardon, but he is furious about being made a cuckold.

Portia says she’ll explain everything soon enough, and that she and Nerissa were Balthazar and the clerk.  She then gives Jessica and Lorenzo a document that gives them Shylock’s property on his death.  She also gives Antonio a letter, which says all his ships have safely arrived in Venice after all.

(If you liked what you just read, please sign up for my free newsletter: a link to it is at the side of this page.)

Analysis of ‘The Merchant of Venice’

The Merchant of Venice is a tragi-comedy probably written between 1596 and 1598.  It is one of the ‘problem plays’, as it’s difficult to classify this play in either the tragedy or comedy category.  A controversial play, it deals with religious intolerance towards the Jewish faith, and thus, by extension, with antisemitism.  It is an open question whether the play openly promotes bigotry against Jews, or merely comments on such bigotry.  Both positions will be discussed below.

Here are some famous quotes:

1. “The devil can cite scripture for his purpose.” –Antonio, Act I, scene ii, line 93

2. “I am glad ’tis night, you do not look on me,/For I am much asham’d of my exchange;/But love is blind, and lovers cannot see/The pretty follies that themselves commit,/For, if they could, Cupid himself would blush/To see me thus transformed to a boy.” –Jessica, Act II, scene vi, lines 34-39

3. “All that glisters is not gold.” –Prince of Morocco, Act II, scene vii, line 65

4. “To bait fish withal.  If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge.  He hath disgrac’d me and hind’red me half a million; laugh’d at my losses, mock’d at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies.  And what’s his reason?  I am a Jew.  Hath not a Jew eyes?  Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is?  If you prick us, do we not bleed?  If you tickle us, do we not laugh?  If you poison us, do we not die?  And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?  If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.  If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility?  Revenge.  If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example?  Why, revenge.  The villainy you teach me I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.” –Shylock, Act III, scene i, lines 45-62

5. “The quality of mercy is not strain’d;/It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath.  It is twice blest:/It blesseth him that gives and him that takes./’Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes/The throned monarch better than his crown;/His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,/The attribute to awe and majesty,/Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;/But mercy is above this sceptred sway,/It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,/It is an attribute to God himself;/And earthly power doth then show likest God’s/When mercy seasons justice.  Therefore, Jew,/Though justice be thy plea, consider this–/That in the course of justice none of us/Should see salvation; we do pray for mercy,/And that same prayer doth teach us all to render/The deeds of mercy.  I have spoke thus much/To mitigate the justice of thy plea,/Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice/Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.” –Portia (as Balthazar), Act IV, scene 1, lines 179-200

6. “This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;/The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh’./Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh;/But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed/One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods/Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate/Unto the state of Venice.” –Portia (as Balthazar), Act IV, scene i, lines 301-307

7. “How far that little candle throws his beams!/So shines a good deed in a naughty world.” –Portia, Act V, scene i, lines 90-91

One important theme in The Merchant of Venice is outer appearance versus inner reality.  This is best and most easily seen in the matter of the three caskets.  The gold and silver caskets may be pleasing to the eye, but what’s inside them is utter ruin for the suitors who are superficial enough to choose them.  Bassanio, however, can see past the dull-looking lead casket, whose message threatens rather than promises; accordingly, he finds Portia’s picture in it, and may marry her.

Another example of this theme is how Lorenzo, in his love for Jessica, can see past her Jewish upbringing, so hateful to Christian bigots, to see the lovely girl she is inside.  Similarly, when she’s disguised as a boy during her eloping with Lorenzo, she feels foolish, “But love is blind,…” (See Quote 2)

Furthermore, in Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech (see Quote 4), he shows us how, underneath the surface differences between Christian and Jew, members of both traditions are equally human, reacting the same way to stimuli of pleasure or pain, with the Christian just as capable of vindictiveness as the Jew.

Indeed, the ‘mercy’ shown Shylock by the Christians is hardly mercy at all: he’s allowed to live, but he’s financially and spiritually ruined, giving up his money and property to the state and to Antonio, with Antonio’s half reserved for Shylock’s hated Christian son-in-law and disloyal daughter after Shylock dies.  To top his humiliation off, he’s forced to convert to Christianity.  Gratiano cruelly gloats as Shylock leaves the courtroom in near despair.

During that same courtroom scene, the Duke of Venice is advised to see beyond the physical youth of ‘Balthazar’ and see the age of ‘his’ wisdom.  Of course, neither he nor the husbands of Portia and Nerissa can see beyond the ladies’ disguises to realize who the ‘lawyer’ and ‘his clerk’ really are.

Materialism is a constant preoccupation in this play.  Bassanio spends money as fast as he borrows it, and needs it of Antonio to marry the wealthy Portia (Is this the real reason he loves her?).  Antonio, the merchant of the play’s title, waits for his ships to return from such distant places as Mexico to get his money, and he’s delighted that they’ve safely returned at the play’s end.

Usurer Shylock hates Antonio not only because he’s a Christian bigot against Jews, but because he lends money without interest, hurting Shylock’s business by lessening his profits.  Worse, his daughter Jessica steals from him when she elopes with Lorenzo.

The princes of Morocco and Aragon show their materialism when they choose the gold and silver caskets, only then to lose all hope of having Portia on not choosing the right casket.  The Moroccan prince thus bitterly learns, “All that glisters [i.e., glistens, glitters] is not gold.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Shylock is one of the least materialistic characters in the play, going against the Jewish stereotype at a time when one would assume playwrights were free to exploit prejudicial attitudes without fear of politically correct censure.  Shylock is angry with Antonio for lending out money gratis because this generosity hurts his very livelihood, not merely his ability to get rich.  (We must remember how pre-Enlightenment Jews in Europe were hardly allowed any livelihood other than that of usurer, a hated occupation.)

Jessica’s marriage to Christian Lorenzo upsets Shylock more than her stealing of his ducats; and a turquoise ring of his wife’s, also stolen by Jessica, has more sentimental than monetary value for Shylock.

Indeed, when offered, in the courtroom, twice the amount Antonio owes him, Shylock doesn’t accept it, preferring revenge to money.  The useless, valueless pound of flesh he wants is a possession wanted from malice, not materialism.  This malice is something he returns to the Christians for persecuting him with the same spite.

This brings us to the next theme: religious bigotry.  Shylock’s dislike of Christians is as apparent as their intolerance of Jews, which is not to say that Christians have actually suffered as much from Jewish bigotry as vice versa, but just that Shakespeare has thoroughly explored this theme from both points of view.

Before the story has begun, Antonio spat on Shylock; when he confronts Antonio with this abusiveness, Antonio proudly says he’d do it again.  When Shylock says he’ll take a pound of Antonio’s flesh instead of interest if he defaults on the loan, Antonio–assuming confidently that he’ll easily pay Shylock back in time–calls him a “gentle Jew”, then imagines “This Hebrew will turn Christian: he grows kind.”  Apparently, Jews can’t be kind–only Christians can.

Jessica can tolerate neither her own Jewishness, nor her father’s; thus, she eagerly wishes to leave him, marry Lorenzo, and convert to Christianity.  Often in the play, Christians use the word Jew as if it were synonymous with devil.  In fact, the explicit comparison of Shylock, or Jews in general, to devils is frequently made (see Quote 1 above, referring to Shylock’s ‘devilish’ interpretation of the Genesis story of Jacob’s dealing with Laban over sheep).

Two more examples of such antisemitism come from the mouth of Solanio in Act III, scene i: “Let me say amen betimes, lest the devil cross my prayer, for here he comes in the likeness of a Jew.” (lines 18-19); then, shortly after Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, when Shylock’s friend Tubal (another Jew) appears, Solanio says, “Here comes another of the tribe; a third cannot be match’d, unless the devil himself turn Jew.” (lines 66-67)

Because Shylock has suffered so much from Christian hate, he understandably returns their bigotry to them.  He says, of Antonio and Bassanio, “I am not bid for love; they flatter me;/But yet I’ll go in hate, to feed upon/The prodigal Christian.” (Act II, scene v, lines 13-15)

Later in the same scene, he says to Jessica, “Lock up my doors, and when you hear the drum,/And the vile squealing of the wry-neck’d fife,/Clamber not you up to the casements then,/Nor thrust your head into the public street/To gaze on Christian fools with varnish’d faces;/But stop my house’s ears–I mean my casements;/Let not the sound of shallow fopp’ry enter/My sober house.  By Jacob’s staff, I swear/I have no mind of feasting forth to-night:/But I will go.” (lines 28-37)

In the courtroom scene, when Bassanio and Gratiano show the limits of their love for their wives, in their willingness to sacrifice them to save Antonio, Shylock bitterly notes, “These be the Christian husbands!  I have a daughter–/Would any of the stock of Barrabas/Had been her husband, rather than a Christian!” (Act IV, scene i, lines 290-292)

Another theme in The Merchant of Venice is the breaking and keeping of oaths.  Portia has sworn an oath to obey her late father’s wish to abide by the conditions he’s stipulated in her suitors’ choosing of the three caskets.  If a suitor chooses silver or gold, she cannot marry him even if she wishes to.  If a man chooses lead, she must marry him, even if she doesn’t love him.  She keeps her oath, and is lucky to get Bassanio for a husband.

Similarly, the suitors swear an oath: if they choose of the wrong caskets, they are forbidden to marry Portia or any other woman, and mustn’t reveal what’s in the casket they’ve chosen.

The document giving Shylock legal permission to a pound of Antonio’s flesh, if he defaults, is essentially a legal oath.  Shylock says, “An oath, an oath!  I have an oath in heaven./Shall I lay perjury upon my soul?/No, not for Venice.” (Act IV, scene i, lines 223-225)  Thus, Antonio is legally bound to give Shylock that pound of flesh.

When Bassanio and Gratiano marry Portia and Nerissa, the women give the men rings, making them swear never to give the gifts away to anyone, under any circumstances.  After Antonio’s trial, Bassanio and Gratiano feel indebted to ‘the lawyer Balthazar’ (Portia in disguise) and ‘his clerk’ (Nerissa in disguise); the disguised women morally bind the men to give them the rings as proof of their gratitude.  This breaking of the original oath gives the women an excuse to be cross with the men–their revenge for Bassanio’s and Gratiano’s willingness to give their wives up to save Antonio.

With the breaking of oaths comes the choice to show mercy, or strictly and stone-heartedly adhere to law.  Here we come to certain stereotypical assumptions made about the difference between Judaism and Christianity.

Christian traditionalists tend to assume, as do the Christians in The Merchant of Venice, that the Mosaic law is stern, rigid, and unforgiving to those who transgress it.  Actually, Pharisaic law shows much leniency and mercy to those who study thoroughly all its nuances; but the average Elizabethan Christian would only have known the Jewish law as it’s more bluntly given in the Torah.  Hence the misunderstanding.

In light of this, we can see how Shylock is portrayed as an unbending advocate of the law, while Antonio and all the Christians urge forgiveness of the default on the loan.  Shylock asks ‘Balthazar’, “On what compulsion must I?  Tell me that.” (Act IV, scene i, line 178)  Then the ‘lawyer’ answers with the famous speech on the “quality of mercy”, assumed to be an exclusively Christian virtue, given through the blood of Christ on the Cross.

When Shylock has sharpened his knife and is ready to cut out his pound of flesh from Antonio’s vital organs, however, ‘Bathazar’ uses the rigidity of legal wording to stop the Jew.  Shylock is not permitted one drop of blood, for this is never given in the legal document he and Antonio have signed.  Nor does the document allow Shylock any more, or any less, than an exact pound of flesh.

Now that Shylock is finally cornered, the Christians use more of the Venetian law against him; for the punishment for a foreigner’s seeking of a Venetian man’s life is to forfeit the victimizer’s property, giving half to the victim, and half to the state.  The victimizer’s life is now at the mercy of the Duke of Venice.

The Duke, in an act of seeming generosity, grants Shylock mercy before it is even begged for; but what mercy is it to be allowed to live when one has had everything taken away?  Knowing this, Shylock himself would prefer death.

Christian ‘mercy’ is extended by allowing Shylock to keep the state’s half, and when Shylock dies, Antonio’s half would be given to Lorenzo and Jessica.  This of course humiliates the father of an already disloyal, thieving daughter.  The most humiliating condition of this ‘mercy’, however, is Shylock’s forced conversion to Christianity, all to the gleeful Schadenfreude of his enemies in the courtroom.

Knowing all that we do about this Christian ‘mercy’ versus the ‘Jewish’ nature of Shylock’s cruelty, we must now address a difficult question: is the play antisemitic, or is it merely an exploration of anti-Jewish hate?  The answer perhaps depends on the attitude of the viewers of the play, as well as its producers.

In productions up to the early 19th century, Shylock was portrayed as a grotesque, even comical villain, the actor wearing a red wig and a hook nose.  One can easily visualize the Christian audience booing him whenever he entered the stage.  These obviously would have been antisemitic productions.

Sympathetic portrayals of Shylock, however, began with Edmund Kean in the early 19th century, and most famous portrayals of Shylock since then were sympathetic.  (Some of the major exceptions to this sensitivity, of course, were the productions staged in Nazi Germany.)

Next, we must examine audience opinions of the play.  Conservative Christians would have little sympathy for Shylock and all the bigotry he’s endured; they would regard his “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech as him justifying his blood-lust.  They would also disregard his humiliation and losses and the end of the play as a just punishment for his violent attempt on Antonio’s life, and his forced conversion to Christianity would be seen as a joyous occasion, the winning of a Jew’s soul to Christ.

This conservative audience would also consider every antisemitic slur against Shylock as a statement of simple fact, whereas a sympathetic audience would consider the source of the bigoted remarks.  Sympathizers with Shylock will regard the slurs as a defect of their speakers, not as an attitude Shakespeare was necessarily trying to promote.

Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech would thus be understood as a legitimate expression of his grievances against his Christian persecutors; and while his thirst for revenge is assuredly going too far, it is seen as the understandable act of a man tragically pushed over the edge, not just an example of his ‘wicked Jewishness’.

In today’s more tolerant world, that the sympathetic interpretation is preferred to the antisemitic one is so obvious as not to need elaboration; there is, however, an artistic as well as humane reason for preferring the former.

The antisemitic reading results in one-dimensional characterizations that are not borne out in Shakespeare’s text–Christians thus would be stupidly good and the Jews dully evil.  The clean-cut happy ending of such an interpretation, with Jews converted to Christ, is also blandly simplistic.

The sympathetic reading, on the other hand, allows for a more complex, nuanced characterization that is evident in the text, with a subtler mix of good and evil in both Jew and Christian; this also accords with Shakespeare’s usual colourful development of his characters. Furthermore, the resulting tragicomic ending, where Antonio is saved, but Shylock is pitifully ruined, agrees with our more morally ambiguous sense of reality, and is thus more artistically satisfying.

(If you liked what you just read, please sign up for my free newsletter: a link to it is at the side of this page.)