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.

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Detailed Synopsis of ‘Hamlet’

Act One: Bernardo relieves Francisco as night watch on the guard platform of Elsinore Castle in Denmark.  It’s a cold night, and the threat of invasion looms in the air.  Another night watchman, Marcellus, arrives with Horatio, Prince Hamlet’s good friend, to see a ghost the guards have seen two times already.

Horatio is skeptical till the ghost appears, terrifying all the men.  The ghost is that of Old King Hamlet, who died less than a month before.  He is clad in his armour, from head to toe, with a sorrowful expression on his face.  Horatio would have the ghost speak, but it soon disappears.

Horatio tells the guards of how the ghost looks exactly as the late king did when he killed Old Fortinbras of Norway and took, for Denmark, Polish territory formerly occupied by Norway.  Horatio then explains the reason for Denmark’s preparations for war: young Prince Fortinbras wishes to avenge his father by taking back the Polish lands and invading Denmark.

The ghost reappears.  Horatio again entreats the ghost to tell them what can be done to do it ease, or what the fate of Denmark is, but it still won’t say a word.  As it disappears, Marcellus futilely tries to strike at it with his partisan.  They decide to tell Prince Hamlet about the ghost.

Hamlet’s uncle (see Quote 1 of my ‘Analysis of Hamlet‘), Claudius, has married Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, and become the next king of Denmark, thus stepping in the prince’s way of succession to the throne, committing incest with her, and dismaying Hamlet to the point of despair.

The king sends ambassadors Cornelius and Voltemand to Norway to entreat Fortinbras’s bedridden uncle, Old Norway, to stop the Norweigan prince from making war with Denmark.  Claudius then permits Laertes, son of Lord Chamberlain Polonius, to return to the university in France, since the young man has finished in his duty to the king by attending his coronation and wedding to Gertrude.

Now the king and queen turn to Hamlet, urging him to end his mourning for his father, for the prince seems to have mourned too long.  They also don’t want him to return to the university in Wittenberg; they’d have him stay in Elsinore.  He sadly acquiesces to their wishes.

Everyone except Hamlet leaves, and the prince in a soliloquy expresses his chagrin over his mother’s hasty, incestuous marriage to his father’s brother.  The weak will Gertrude has shown in allowing Claudius to win her over especially distresses him, causing him to assume all women have this fault (see Quote 2 of my ‘Analysis of Hamlet‘).

Horatio and Marcellus enter, Hamlet’s friend also noting how inappropriate it is, so soon after the old king’s death, that Gertrude has married Claudius.  Hamlet bitterly jokes of how economical it is to have the funeral leftovers for the wedding feast before they go bad.  Horatio then tells Hamlet of seeing his father’s ghost at night with the guards.  Suspecting foul play, Hamlet will join Horatio and Marcellus that night to see the ghost again.

At the docks and ready to sail for France, Laertes says goodbye to his sister Ophelia, warning her not to take Hamlet’s love too seriously.  As the prince and, therefore, future king of Denmark, Hamlet’s choice for a bride must result in a political alliance good for the health of the nation.  She, on the other hand, must guard her virtue in not yielding it to the prince.

Polonius comes over, telling Laertes to hurry and get on the boat.  He also gives his son a prolix speech of advice on how best to conduct himself in France: Laertes should avoid fights, but if in them, he should fight so as to make his enemies fear him; he should listen more than speak; he should dress well, but not overly so; he should neither borrow nor lend money (see Quote 3 of my ‘Analysis’); and most importantly, he should be true to himself (see  Quote 4).

Laertes leaves, and the ever-nosy Polonius asks his daughter what she was talking about with Laertes.  When Ophelia says the conversation was about Hamlet, Polonius berates her for her naiveté about the prince’s intentions, which she believes to be those of honourable love, but which her father believes to be no such thing.  Accordingly, Polonius forbids her to encourage Hamlet’s suit of love.

That night, on the guard-platform of the castle, Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus are waiting for the ghost to reappear.  They can hear trumpets and canons go off; the king is indulging in drunken revelry, something he does habitually, which gives Denmark a bad reputation among other nations.

Hamlet then mentions how some people, however virtuous in all other ways, nonetheless may have one particular fault or another, a vice that corrupts those people utterly, their other virtues incapable of reversing the corruption.

The ghost appears, frightening all three men.  It beckons Hamlet to go with it to a removed place for private conversation, and Hamlet would eagerly follow; but Horatio and Marcellus restrain the prince, fearing that further contact with the ghost may drive him mad.

Hamlet pulls free of Horatio’s and Marcellus’ restraining arms, pulls out his rapier, and threatens to kill them if they continue to stop him from following the ghost and facing his fate.  Hamlet and the ghost leave, while Horatio and Marcellus fear for him (see Quote 5).

When Hamlet and the ghost are alone, it tells him of the horrors of Purgatory, which it must suffer by day, then at night it haunts Elsinore Castle.  All of Denmark has been deceived, the ghost tells Hamlet, with a lie that Old Hamlet was killed by the bite of a poisonous snake.  The ‘snake’ that poisoned Old Hamlet is now the new king; this confirms Hamlet’s suspicions that Claudius murdered his father.  Old Hamlet was killed before he even had a chance to go to confession: hence his suffering in Purgatory.  The prince is horrified.

When Old Hamlet, as was his habit, was sleeping in his orchard in the afternoon, Claudius snuck up to him with a vial of poison and poured it into the sleeping king’s ear.  The poison coursed through Old Hamlet’s body, killing him.  Then, most heartbreaking of all, the would-be virtuous Gertrude accepted Old Hamlet’s brother as her new husband.

Now, if Hamlet truly loves his father, he must avenge Old Hamlet’s murder.  He mustn’t allow Denmark to be ruled by an incestuous royal couple: Claudius must be killed.  The ghost urges Hamlet, however, not to be violent against his mother; her guilt will punish her during all her sleepless nights.

The dawn is approaching, and the ghost must leave.  It says, “Adieu, adieu, adieu!  Remember me.”  Wild with excitement, the prince rants and raves about how he must focus his every single thought, to the exclusion of anything else, on avenging his father and killing his uncle, that “smiling, damned villain!”

Horatio and Marcellus come to him, asking him what’s happened.  Still speaking wildly, (Quote 6), Hamlet makes them swear four times, hands on his rapier, never to reveal to anyone what they’ve seen this night.  The ghost’s voice can be heard commanding them to swear each time.  Even if Hamlet seems to be acting like a madman, Horatio and Marcellus mustn’t imply knowledge of his plans.  As the sun is rising, the three men head back inside the castle (Quote 7).

Act Two: In his house, Polonius tells Reynaldo to go to France and spy on Laertes.  Reynaldo is instructed to imply, in his conversations with any Frenchman who may know what Laertes is up to, that he perhaps is indulging in such vices as gambling, swearing, or even seeking prostitutes.  Though Reynaldo thinks this last vice would dishonour Laertes, Polonius insists it’s an acceptable sullying; and if those Frenchmen Reynaldo is speaking with confirm any of the vices mentioned, Polonius can know what naughtiness his son is really indulging in.  Reynaldo leaves.

Ophelia bursts into the room frightened and in tears.  She tells her father that Hamlet came to her room, with his clothes all in disorder, and with the wild look of a madman in his eyes.  He said nothing to her: he just approached her, held her hard by the wrist, put his hand over his brow, perused her face a long while, moved his head up and down three times, and let out a heavy sigh; then he walked away, still looking back at her, leaving the room without needing to see where he was going.

Polonius assumes Hamlet has gone mad from her rejection of his love (for she has indeed obeyed her father in not allowing the prince to continue wooing her).  Polonius now realizes that Hamlet wasn’t merely playing with Ophelia as he’d assumed; Polonius will tell the king and queen.

Claudius has sent for two old school friends of Hamlet’s, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to watch the prince and report to the king and queen about anything Hamlet says or does that may give insight to his erratic behaviour.  Claudius and Gertrude thank the two young men for coming.

After Rosencrantz and Guildenstern leave, Polonius comes and tells Claudius that the ambassadors, Cornelius and Voltemand, have returned from Norway; Polonius also tells the king that he believes he knows the cause of Hamlet’s lunacy.  Claudius is eager to hear this, but first he speaks to the ambassadors.

Voltemand tells Claudius the good news that Old Norway, the sick uncle of Fortinbras, has stopped the Norwegian prince from invading Denmark.  Instead, Fortinbras will pass with his army through Denmark and into Poland to reclaim the territory Norway lost.  The threat of him invading Denmark seems to be no more.

The ambassadors leave, and Polonius goes into a needlessly wordy speech about the cause of Hamlet’s madness, claiming, fantastically, that he’ll be brief about it (Quote 8).  He says that Hamlet has gone mad.  Then he reads to Claudius and Gertrude a love letter Hamlet has written to Ophelia, showing the sincerity of the prince’s love for her.  Polonius explains that he told Ophelia to reject any further wooing from Hamlet; when she did, he went mad from a broken heart.

Polonius tells the king and queen they should plan to hide and watch Hamlet as he walks through the halls of the castle, a habit of his.  Polonius can arrange for Ophelia to be there, so they can watch the prince’s interactions with her.

Just then, Gertrude sees Hamlet walking with a book in his hand.  Polonius asks her and Claudius to leave while he talks with Hamlet.  The king and queen go; Polonius approaches Hamlet.

During their conversation, Polonius notes that Hamlet speaks in the erratic manner of one mentally ill, yet there’s an odd rationality to what the prince says.  (Quotes 9 and 10)  Polonius also notes with interest Hamlet’s references to Ophelia.  Polonius leaves.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive, and after exchanging a few bawdy remarks about the ‘strumpet’ goddess of Fortune, Hamlet asks them why they have come to the ‘prison’ of Denmark.  The two school chums wonder why the prince thinks Denmark is a prison, but he insists it is, since anything can seem good or bad according necessarily to our thoughts (Quote 11).

Hamlet quickly realizes that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have come to see him not of their own accord, but because Claudius sent for them.  Assuming they want to find out, for the king’s sake, what’s troubling Hamlet, he gives them a vague, general explanation of his melancholy (Quote 12).  Rosencrantz laughs at these musings, thinking Hamlet won’t enjoy the entertainment the arriving actors will give.

Hamlet is delighted to see them in Elsinore.  He asks the First Player to give a “passionate speech”, one of Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, avenging his father’s death by killing King Priam during the sacking of Troy.  The First Player vividly describes the weak old king’s pitiful attempts to defend his besieged, burning city, then Pyrrhus’ raising of his sword against Priam, briefly pausing, and finally bringing his sword down to kill him.

Polonius interrupts the speech for being too long.  Hamlet snaps at him, contemptuously dismissing his tastes as philistine.  The prince asks the First Player to “come to Hecuba”, the Queen of Troy.

The First Player’s powerful description of Hecuba lamenting the slaying of Priam is such that the actor has tears in his eyes.  Hamlet is profoundly moved (one imagines that the prince wishes his mother would have shown similar love for Old Hamlet, rather than marrying his brother less than a month later).

Hamlet tells Polonius to accommodate the actors, and asks the First Player to have his actors perform The Murder of Gonzago before Claudius and Gertrude the next evening, and to include a speech Hamlet will write and insert into the play.  Polonius leads the actors away, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern also leave, and Hamlet is alone at last.

In the ensuing soliloquy (Quote 13), Hamlet confronts, for the first time, his inability to act, to go ahead with his revenge and kill his uncle.  Hamlet is amazed that an actor can show so much emotion–to the point of actually weeping–for the suffering of Hecuba, a mere mythical character!

Had the actor been portraying Hamlet’s situation, he’d weep an ocean of tears and shock his audience utterly.  Hamlet himself, however, having really lost his father to murder, and his mother debauched, can do nothing.  Imagining himself a coward, he acts out the taking of his revenge, as if in a play; now he’s disgusted with himself that he can only talk about getting revenge.

Knowing that guilty people often confess their crimes when watching their wicked acts performed in a play, Hamlet decides to have the king watch, in The Murder of Gonzago, a murder and usurpation exactly like that which Claudius is accused of by the ghost.  If his uncle winces at the performed murder, Hamlet will know he’s guilty.

After all, the ghost Hamlet’s seen may be a demon in disguise, deceiving the emotionally vulnerable prince into murdering an innocent man.  This would send Hamlet straight to Hell.  Better assurances than the dubious testimony of a ghost will be needed; Claudius’ viewing of the play will determine whether or not he’s guilty.

Act Three: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell Claudius and Gertrude that Hamlet speaks only of a general sadness; they also tell the king and queen of the play about to be performed.  The two young men leave, as does Gertrude.

Polonius and Claudius will hide while Ophelia waits for Hamlet, ever wandering in the halls, to meet her.  As the king and Polonius listen to her conversation with the prince, they hope to gain further insights into Hamlet’s madness.  Claudius and Polonius hide nearby, and Ophelia waits.

Hamlet appears, contemplating suicide in a soliloquy (Quote 14).  If death is like eternal sleep, with no more of the pain of sentient life, doesn’t that sleep include dreaming (i.e., an after-life–heaven, or, for suicide, Hell)?  If the everlasting nightmare of Hell results from suicide, then killing oneself doesn’t end one’s pain, and therefore suicide is useless.  Too afraid to risk Hell, Hamlet chooses to continue living.

He sees Ophelia, who wishes to return gifts he’s given her during their wooing.  He flies into a rage and accuses her of being a whore (Quote 15).  He also rightly suspects that Polonius is listening to their conversation.  After continuing his abusive ranting at her for a while longer, he leaves.  She weeps copiously, devastated that the man she loves has lost his mind.

Polonius and Claudius come out of hiding, her father comforting her and the king suspecting danger in Hamlet.  Claudius decides the prince should be sent to England, ostensibly to calm him.

With the actors now, Hamlet tells them not to overact, but to play their roles naturally and realistically.  (Quote 16)  Then he tells Horatio to watch Claudius carefully as the play is performed, and to note his reaction when the murder happens.

The king and queen come, as do Ophelia, Polonius, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Hamlet sits by Ophelia and makes bawdy remarks about her ‘lap’.  Polonius still assumes Hamlet’s madness is all about her.  The prince’s erratic behaviour and outbursts continue during the play, which now begins, with a pantomime to summarize the play’s action.

The First Player (as King Gonzago) enters with another actor playing Gonzago’s queen.  (One can safely assume that this dialogue is what Hamlet wrote and had inserted into the play.)  The aged ‘king’ tells his ‘queen’ that he will die soon, and she then presumably will find a new husband.  She protests lengthily that doing so would be tantamount to treason against Gonzago; sleeping with another man would be like killing the ‘king’ a second time.

She leaves him, and he takes a nap.  The scene is over, and Claudius and Gertrude have been made very uneasy by what ‘Gonzago’s queen’ has said, implying that Gertrude is guilty of such treason with Claudius.

Hamlet asks his mother how she likes the play; she doesn’t like the, to her, prating ‘queen’ (Quote 17).  Claudius, clearly offended by the play, asks Hamlet about the story.  As the play continues, Hamlet comments on the action in his usual wild manner. When the ‘villain’ pours poison in the ‘king’s’ ear, Claudius can bear no more.  He gets up and demands to be given some light.  Polonius stops the play, and pandemonium ensues.  Claudius and Gertrude leave.

Hamlet is gloating deliriously over confirming his uncle’s guilt; Horatio attests that he, too, saw the king’s guilty reaction.  The ghost told the truth!

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell Hamlet of how angry the king is; the prince’s gloating is most inappropriate.  Though Rosencrantz and Guildenstern insist they are Hamlet’s friends, he knows better.

He gets a recorder and asks Guildenstern to play it; the false friend insists he can’t.  Hamlet angrily wonders how Guildenstern can imagine he can ‘play’ the prince, but not a pipe.  Is Hamlet so unworthy that he is easier to play than a mere pipe?

Polonius tells Hamlet the queen wishes to speak to him in her bedroom.  Ever erratic and wild in his behaviour, Hamlet says he’ll be with her “by and by”.  Everyone leaves him: he’s thinking bloody thoughts, but he reminds himself not to be violent to his mother in any more than words.

In his room, Claudius tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern they must take Hamlet to England.  The two boot-lickers are prolix in saying that the safety of Denmark depends on the king’s safety.  Polonius tells Claudius he will hide in Gertrude’s room and eavesdrop on her conversation with Hamlet.  Claudius is left alone.

In a soliloquy, the king gives full vent to his guilt over killing his brother.  He knows that in this corrupt world, one can hide one’s crimes, but one can’t hide them from heaven’s all-seeing eyes.  He would be free from his sins, but he can’t repent; for to do so would mean giving up everything–his crown, his queen, and his life.  Hopelessly groping for forgiveness, he tries praying.

Hamlet sneaks over, seeing a perfect opportunity to kill Claudius.  If he kills the king while he’s praying, however, he’ll send him to heaven.  He’d rather kill Claudius when he’s enraged, swearing, committing incest with Gertrude, or doing anything contrary to piety. Hamlet would ensure his uncle goes straight to Hell.  He leaves Claudius, who finishes praying.

In his despair, the king knows that his insincere prayers will never be heard in heaven (Quote 18).

In Gertrude’s room, Polonius advises her to be firm in showing her displeasure with Hamlet, who can be heard approaching.  Polonius hides behind an arras.  Hamlet enters.

Mother and son exchange angry words, her accusing him of offending his adoptive father (Claudius), him accusing her of offending his real father by marrying Claudius.  Their anger escalates, and when he pulls out his rapier to stop her from walking out, she thinks he’s threatening to kill her.  She screams for help, as does ever-nosy Polonius.

Hamlet impulsively stabs through the arras and kills Polonius.  She is horrified at her son’s violence, but he continues ranting at her for her disloyalty to his father.  He compares pictures of his father and uncle, respectively on his and her necklaces, noting the nobility of his father and baseness of Claudius.

He can’t imagine how she could choose Claudius to replace Old Hamlet.  She can’t bear to hear his dagger-like upbraiding.  Then the ghost appears.

Only Hamlet can see it, so when he speaks to it guiltily of how he hasn’t obeyed its command to kill his uncle, she assumes he’s mad, hallucinating.  It reminds him to get on with the revenge, but also tells him to comfort his frightened mother.  When she asks him who he’s talking to, he says it’s the ghost of his father, which is now leaving.

When she says the ghost is a mere figment of his mad imagination, he insists he’s perfectly sane.  He begs her to stop sleeping with Claudius, to bring herself back into a virtuous frame of mind.  He also tells her not to tell Claudius that he’s only pretending to be mad.

As for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet reminds her that he must go with those false friends to England.  He knows they’re working with the king against him: he’ll allow their plan to be played out, while he figures out a way to turn their plan against them (Quote 19).

He leaves her, lugging Polonius’ dead body away and finding a place to stow it.

Act Four: When the king arrives with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, she tells them about mad Hamlet’s killing of Polonius.  Shaken with knowing how dangerous the prince is growing, Claudius has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find him.

They find him, and take him to Claudius, who asks where Polonius’ body is.  After making a number of cryptic remarks that try the king’s patience, Hamlet tells him.  Claudius tells Hamlet he must go with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to England.  When everyone else leaves, Claudius expresses his exasperation with, and wish to have England kill, Hamlet.

Outside, Fortinbras tells a soldier of his to go and ask Denmark permission to pass through so his army can invade Poland.  The soldier goes.

Hamlet, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are by the boat to take them to England.  The prince sees the Norwegian army, and asks Fortinbras’s soldier, who’s passing by, what they’re all doing.  The soldier tells Hamlet that Fortinbras is leading them to invade a worthless patch of Polish land.  Though Hamlet doubts the Poles will defend it, the soldier says they’ve already garrisoned it.  The soldier leaves.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern get on the boat first, and before Hamlet follows them on, he contemplates again his delayed revenge in light of the activity of the Norwegian army.  A man who only eats and sleeps is no more than an animal; surely God didn’t give us brains so they’d sit unused in our heads.

Everywhere Hamlet sees people inspiring him to revenge, yet he’s done nothing to achieve it.  An army eagerly marches to its death for a worthless piece of land; Hamlet’s father is murdered and his mother made a whore, and he doesn’t know why he hasn’t acted.  If his next thoughts aren’t of killing Claudius, they’re worth nothing!

Back in Elsinore Castle, Horatio and a gentleman tell Gertrude that Ophelia has gone mad.  They explain the wildness of her condition to the queen, who tells them to let the girl in.

Ophelia enters, speaking incoherently and singing songs, apparently either about Hamlet or about Polonius.  The king enters, as shocked by her behaviour as the others are.  Her singing turns bawdy, implying that Hamlet has enjoyed her in bed and abandoned her.

Then she laments of her father being buried, warns everyone that Laertes will hear of their father’s murder, then leaves.  Claudius tells Horatio and the gentleman to watch her closely.  He bemoans the deplorable situation (Quote 20).

The king and queen hear a noise from outside.  A gentleman comes in to tell them that Laertes, furious, has returned from France and, backed by a mob of angry men, would overtake the castle, kill Claudius, and be the next king!

The queen is incensed by their treason.  The doors are broken open, and Laertes enters.  He wrathfully demands revenge for the murder of his father, screaming contemptuously of allegiance to the king.

Claudius and Gertrude tell him they are not responsible for Polonius’ death, but are as grieved of it as Laertes is.  He calms down.  Then Ophelia returns with flowers.  At the sight of his sister’s obviously insane manner, her handing out the flowers to everyone, his rage has turned to heartbreak.  She leaves.

Claudius will explain to Laertes who killed his father, and will help him get satisfaction.  The two men leave together.

Elsewhere in the castle, an attendant tells Horatio of sailors who have letters for him.  One of the sailors gives Horatio a letter, which he reads (it’s from Hamlet).

The prince has written that there are letters for Claudius, too.  When Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were sailing to England, pirates attacked their boat.  During the ensuing fight, Hamlet went on the pirates’ boat; he is now their prisoner.  Horatio must take the sailors to the king, and if Claudius does the pirates a good turn, Hamlet will be freed.  When he meets with Horatio, he’ll tell him shocking things about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Horatio takes the sailors to Claudius.

In another room of the castle, Claudius explains to Laertes that Hamlet killed his father, and meant to kill Claudius.  Laertes asks why the king didn’t have Hamlet executed.

Claudius gives two reasons: first, Gertrude loves her son, and Claudius loves her so much that he can’t act against her wishes; second, Hamlet is well loved of the Danish people, so executing him would make the king unpopular.

A messenger gives Claudius letters from Hamlet, saying that he’s back in Denmark, and–begging the king’s pardon–wishes to return to the castle.

Laertes would be happy to have the prince return, so he can have his revenge.  The king will, of course, help: they plan to arrange a game of duelling with rapiers, Laertes’ having a sharp point.

Laertes adds that he’ll dip his sword in a powerful poison he bought.  Being merely scratched with the envenomed sword, Hamlet will surely die: no antidote will save him.  Claudius will offer Hamlet poisoned wine in case the plan fails.

Gertrude enters with sad news: Ophelia has drowned.  While picking flowers by a brook, she fell in; and instead of pulling herself out, she just lay floating on her back, in her madness still singing her songs.  Soon the water filled her stretched-out clothes, and weighing her down, pulled her under the water.  Too insane to save herself, she stayed under and drowned.

Laertes, though ashamed to weep, nonetheless does so for his dead sister.  He leaves.  Now the king must calm him down again.  Claudius and Gertrude follow Laertes out of the room.

Act Five:  In a churchyard, two clowns are digging a grave for Ophelia, and debating–in a parody of legal language–whether or not she, an apparent suicide, deserves a Christian burial.  Did she intend to drown, or was her fall into the brook an accident?  In any case, it seems unfair to the clowns that a woman of high birth can kill herself and still be considered Christian.

Hamlet and Horatio appear.  The second clown leaves, while the first continues digging while singing merrily.  Hamlet can’t imagine how the gravedigger can be so cheerful in such a ghoulish setting; Horatio assumes he’s simply inured to it.

As the clown is picking up skulls and tapping them with his spade, Hamlet thinks it grossly disrespectful: after all, those could have been the skulls of lawyers, politicians, or courtiers, men of much higher social standing than that of the clown.

Hamlet asks the gravedigger whose grave it is: after a stretch of comically equivocal questioning and answering, the clown says it’s a woman’s grave.  At one point in their conversation, the clown shows Hamlet the skull of Yorick, the king’s old jester.  Hamlet asks to look at it.

Now with Yorick’s skull in his hand, Hamlet tells Horatio about the jester (Quote 21).  Hamlet reminisces about how witty and beloved Yorick was, and meditates sadly on how death has reduced the jester to nothing, as it also did Alexander the Great.  Hamlet tosses down the skull.

A funeral procession is approaching: Hamlet and Horatio hide while watching.  They see, among the mourners, Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, and a priest.  Hamlet wonders who has died.

Laertes is annoyed with the priest for making a brief ceremony of Ophelia’s funeral.  The priest insists that he cannot do any more, for her death may have been a suicide.    She is interred.

As the dirt is being poured on her body, Laertes jumps in the grave in a fit of passion.  Imagining his sister a better angel in heaven than the “churlish priest” will be one day, Laertes demands to be buried alive with his sister.

Horrified to know that it’s Ophelia who has died, and enraged by what to him seems excessive grief on the part of Laertes, Hamlet emerges and jumps into the grave.  Laertes and Hamlet briefly grapple before being separated.  They come out of the grave.  Claudius tries to calm Laertes by reminding him of Hamlet’s madness.

Hamlet rants of how he loved Ophelia more than forty brothers could.  He could far outdo Laertes in the proof of his love, including live burial with her.  The two men calm down, and Hamlet, not yet understanding why Laertes attacked him, leaves with Horatio soon following (Quote 22).

Inside the castle, Hamlet tells Horatio what happened in the boat with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  Unable to sleep, Hamlet groped about in the dark and found the commission Claudius had written to the authorities in England.  It demanded that they execute Hamlet!

The prince wrote a new commission, with all the pompous, flowery language conventional in such writing, to replace what Claudius wrote: it asked, instead, for the execution of the commission’s bearers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern!

Hamlet feels no guilt over sending those false friends to their deaths.  Horatio is shocked at so evil a king, though Hamlet isn’t surprised, knowing he killed Hamlet’s father and shamed his mother.

Hamlet regrets, however, his rage against Laertes, since he knows the son of Polonius has the same cause for revenge as he has.

Osric, a foppish and loquacious courtier, enters with news of Laertes’ challenge to a sword-fighting game with Hamlet.  The prince and Horatio sigh in annoyance with Osric’s prolix praises of Laertes, but Hamlet accepts the challenge.  Osric leaves.

A lord then enters, asking if Hamlet would play with Laertes now, or later.  Hamlet is at leave to play at any time.  The lord leaves to tell everyone to get ready.

Horatio is worried that the game is a plot to kill Hamlet, who assumes the same thing.  Nonetheless, Hamlet must confront his fate, as long as he’s ready for it (Quote 23).

Everyone in the castle assembles in a large room for the sword-fighting game.  Before choosing their rapiers and daggers, Hamlet apologizes to Laertes, using his madness as an excuse.  Laertes says in as gentlemanly a way as possible that he will accept no apology.  They choose their weapons, Laertes ensuring that he has the sharp, poisoned rapier.

Claudius tells Hamlet that if he wins the first or second hits with his sword, the king will drink to Hamlet, put a pearl in the cup of wine (the pearl is poisoned), and pass it to Hamlet to drink.  The game begins.

Hamlet is clearly the better swordsman, winning every time and frustrating Laertes.  Claudius drinks to Hamlet, drops the pearl in the cup, and has it passed to Hamlet, who sets it aside, not wishing to drink yet.

Gertrude goes up to him and with a handkerchief wipes his brow.  She picks up the cup to drink; Claudius tries to stop her, but she still drinks from the poisoned cup…it’s too late for her.

As the two young men continue playing, Laertes cheats and scratches Hamlet with the poisoned sword; rightly suspecting treachery, the prince now angrily fights with Laertes, managing to switch swords with him.  Now Laertes is nervous.

Claudius tries to have them separated, but Hamlet wounds Laertes.  Gertrude, sick from the poison, collapses.  Claudius lies, saying she’s fainted from all the blood, but she in a weak voice says the wine is poisoned.  She dies.

Hamlet demands that the doors be locked to catch the villain poisoner, but dying Laertes confesses his and the king’s plot to kill Hamlet with Laertes’ unblunted, poisoned sword, now in Hamlet’s hand.  The prince hasn’t even a half hour to live, and no medicine can cure him.

Finally, Hamlet takes his revenge and stabs the king.  Everyone shouts, “Treason!  treason!”  Then Hamlet takes the cup of wine and forces Claudius to drink it, killing him.  Hamlet and Laertes exchange forgiveness before the latter dies.

Now feeling the effects of the powerful poison, Hamlet is weakening.  He says he would explain everything to all the shocked onlookers, but his imminent death won’t let him.  He asks Horatio to explain for him.

Horatio would rather drink any remaining poison in the cup and die with his friend; Hamlet begs him not to, but first to tell everyone all the events that led up to all these deaths.

The sound of an approaching army is heard from outside.  Osric tells everyone Fortinbras is coming in conquest.  English ambassadors are also coming.  Hamlet assumes Fortinbras will be the next king.  After a few final words, Hamlet dies (Quote 24).

Horatio grieves for his friend (Quote 25).

Fortinbras and the English ambassadors enter.  The Norwegian prince is shocked at the sight of so many bodies, as are the ambassadors, who assume they will not get the thanks they deserve for executing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Horatio explains that, had Claudius still been alive, he wouldn’t have thanked England for their deaths, having never ordered them.  Then Horatio tells Fortinbras and the ambassadors that he will relate a shocking story “Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts.”  Fortinbras will eagerly hear.

Horatio would have Hamlet be given an honourable burial; Fortinbras agrees, sadly taking the throne of Denmark.  The new king has the bodies taken out and the soldiers will shoot for them.

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Analysis of ‘Hamlet’

Hamlet is a tragedy Shakespeare wrote between 1599 and 1602.  A revenge play, it is his longest, lasting about four hours if performed uncut.  It is also his most experimental, since its hero is a self-doubting thinker given to long-winded speeches, not a doer.  In spite of how long it takes him finally to avenge his murdered father and kill his uncle, Hamlet has always been one of Shakespeare’s best-loved plays.

The play is profoundly philosophical, touching on such issues as existentialism; and the reason for Prince Hamlet’s inability to kill his uncle, the usurping King Claudius, is one of the great mysteries of literature, for which many theories have been proposed.  Some of these, as well as one of my own, will be examined below.

Hamlet is a goldmine of famous quotes.  Here are but a few:

1.  “A little more than kin, and less than kind.” –Hamlet, Act I, Scene ii, line 65

2.  “Frailty, thy name is woman!”  –Hamlet, Act I, Scene ii, line 146

3.  “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”  –Polonius, Act I, Scene iii, line 75

4.  “This above all–to thine own self be true.”  –Polonius, Act I, Scene iii, line 78

5.  “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”  –Marcellus, Act I, Scene iv, line 90

6.  “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  –Hamlet, Act I, Scene v, lines 166-167

7.  “The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right!”  –Hamlet, Act I, Scene v, lines 189-190

8.  “…brevity is the soul of wit,…”  –Polonius, Act II, Scene ii, line 90

9.  “Words, words, words.”  –Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii, line 191

10.  “Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t.”  –Polonius, Act II, Scene ii, lines 203-204

11.  “…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”  –Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii, lines 249-250

12.  “I have of late–but wherefore I know not–lost all my mirth, foregone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory.  This most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.  What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason!  how infinite in faculty!  in form, how moving, how express and admirable!  in action how like an angel!  in apprehension how like a god!  the beauty of the world!  the paragon of animals!  And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?  Man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though, by your smiling, you seem to say so.”  –Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii, about lines 295-309

13.  “O! what a rogue and peasant slave am I!/Is it not monstrous that this player here,/But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,/Could force his soul so to his own conceit/That from her working all his visage wann’d;/Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect,/A broken voice, and his whole function suiting/With forms to his conceit?  And all for nothing!/For Hecuba!/What’s Hecuba to him or him to Hecuba,/That he should weep for her?  What would he do,/Had he the motive and the cue for passion/That I have?  He would drown the stage with tears,/And cleave the general ear with horrid speech;/Make mad the guilty, and appal the free,/Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed/The very faculties of eyes and ears./Yet I,/A dull and muddy-mettl’d rascal, peak,/Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,/And can say nothing; no, not for a king/Upon whose property and most dear life/A damn’d defeat was made.  Am I a coward?/Who calls me villain, breaks my pate across,/Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face,/Tweaks me by the nose, gives me the lie i’ th’ throat/As deep as to the lungs?  Who does me this?/Ha!/’Swounds, I should take it; for it cannot be/But I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall/To make oppression bitter, or ere this/I should ‘a fatted all the region kites/With this slave’s offal.  Bloody, bawdy villain!/Remoreseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!/O, vengeance!/Why, what an ass am I!  This is most brave,/That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,/Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,/Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,/And fall a-cursing like a very drab,/A scullion!  Fie upon’t! foh!/About, my brains.  Hum–I have heard/That guilty creatures, sitting at a play,/Have by the very cunning of the scene/Been struck so to the soul that presently/They have proclaim’d their malefactions;/For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak/With most miraculous organ.  I’ll have these players/Play something like the murder of my father/Before mine uncle.  I’ll observe his looks;/I’ll tent him to the quick.  I ‘a do blench,/I know my course.  The spirit that I have seen/May be a devil; and the devil hath power/T’ assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps/Out of my weakness and my melancholy,/As he is very potent with such spirits,/Abuses me to damn me.  I’ll have grounds/More relative than this.  The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” –Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii, lines 543-601

14.  “To be or not to be, that is the question:/Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/And by opposing end them?  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 wish’d.  To die, to sleep;/To sleep, perchance to dream.  Ay, there’s the rub;/For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/Must give us pause.  There’s the respect/That makes calamity of so long life;/For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,/Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,/The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,/The insolence of office, and the spurns/That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,/When he himself might his quietus make/With a bare bodkin?  Who would these fardels bear,/To grunt and sweat under a weary life,/But that the dread of something after death–/The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn/No traveller returns–puzzles the will,/And makes us rather bear those ills we have/Than fly to others that we know not of?/Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;/And thus the native hue of resolution/Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,/And enterprises of great pitch and moment,/With this regard, their currents turn awry/And lose the name of action.–Soft you now!/The fair Ophelia.–Nymph, in thy orisons/Be all my sins rememb’red.”  –Hamlet, Act III, Scene i, lines 56-90

15.  “Get thee to a nunnery.”  –Hamlet, Act III, Scene i, 121

16.  “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounc’d it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.  Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.  O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who, for the most part, are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise.  I would have such a fellow whipp’d for o’erdoing Termagant; it out-herods Herod.  Pray you avoid it.”  –Hamlet, Act III, Scene ii, lines 1-14

17.  “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”  –Gertrude, Act III, Scene ii, line 225

18.  “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below./Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”  –Claudius, Act III, Scene iii, lines 97-98

19.  “Let it work./For ’tis the sport to have the engineer/Hoist with his own petard; and’t shall go hard/But I will delve one yard below their mines/And blow them at the moon.”  –Hamlet, Act III, Scene iv, lines 205-209

20.  “When sorrows come, they come not single spies,/But in battalions!”  –Claudius, Act IV, Scene v, lines 75-76

21.  “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio.”  –Hamlet, Act V, Scene i, about lines 179-180

22.  “Let Hercules himself do what he may./The cat will mew, and dog will have his day.”  –Hamlet, Act V, Scene i, lines 285-286

23.  “Not a whit, we defy augury: there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.  If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come–the readiness is all.”  –Hamlet, Act V, Scene ii, about lines 211-216

24.  “The rest is silence.”  –Hamlet, Act V, Scene ii, line 350

25.  “Now cracks a noble heart.  Good night, sweet prince,/And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”  –Horatio, Act V, Scene ii, 351-352

There are so many themes in this great play as almost to overwhelm the analyst, so we will start by listing those that will be looked at here.  They are the following: sons avenging fathers; death–in the forms of murder (including regicide) and suicide; madness (real and feigned); action vs. inaction; and the uselessness of words vs. the need for action.

Hamlet isn’t the only son avenging his father’s murder.  So is Laertes, who zealously wishes to avenge the murder of his father, Polonius, at Hamlet’s rash hand.  Elsewhere, young prince Fortinbras wishes to avenge his father by taking back for Norway all the territory that Old Hamlet took from Old Fortinbras (Old Hamlet also killed Old Fortinbras).  Then there is Pyrrhus who, as recounted by the First Player in his “passionate speech”, avenged the murder of his father, Achilles, by killing King Priam during the sacking of Troy.

Death is an extensively explored theme in this play.  One poignant example is when Hamlet holds Yorick’s skull and, with Horatio in the graveyard scene (see Quote 21), meditates on the dead jester’s life.  It saddens Hamlet to contemplate how this jester, so dear and beloved to Hamlet when he was a child, is now reduced to nothing by death…and Hamlet is now actually holding Yorick’s skull in his hand!

Similarly, great men of history, like Alexander the Great, are now each reduced to a skull and bones, no better than a beggar.  Also, it astonishes Hamlet that the First Clown (the gravedigger) can so coolly, and disrespectfully, pat with a spade the skulls of men who once may have been lawyers or other respectable men of society.  Death makes us all equal.

Moving over to more particular forms of death, there is much murder, especially regicide, in Hamlet.  Old Hamlet was the king of Denmark until his murder, before the play begins.  Prince Hamlet must avenge him by killing Claudius, the prince’s uncle and usurping king.  And by killing his uncle, Hamlet will be as guilty of regicide as Claudius is.

These aren’t the only regicides, though.  Old Fortinbras was killed by Old Hamlet.  Then there’s the First Player’s recounting of Pyrrhus’ killing of King Priam.  Also, Polonius mentions portraying, when he was young, Julius Caesar in a play, killed by Brutus; now, though Caesar was a dictator rather than a king, his assassination is close enough to be at least a variation on regicide.  It’s certainly no less a murder.

Other murders, accidental or deliberate, are those of Polonius, Gertrude, Laertes, and Hamlet himself.

From murder we move on to suicide, whether successfully (if accidentally) committed or merely contemplated.  Ophelia drowns herself in a brook: at the very least, she, in her madness, fails to pull her head above water; at most, she deliberately drowns herself in her despair over losing Hamlet’s love (or so it seems to her), losing her father Polonius, and losing her sanity.  The clownish gravediggers later debate, in a parody of legal language, whether or not she’s committed suicide, and therefore deserves a Christian burial.

Contemplations of suicide are done by Hamlet (“O that this too too solid flesh would melt,/Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!/Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d/His cannon ‘gainst self-slaughter!  O God!  God!”; see also Quote 14), and by Horatio at the end of the play, when he wishes to drink from the poisoned cup as he watches Hamlet dying.

From death we must move to the theme of madness.  We’ve already briefly looked at Ophelia’s madness, she who sings bawdy songs and acts wildly after enduring (as she sees it) Hamlet’s madness, his ill-treatment of her, and his murdering of Polonius.

Then we have Hamlet’s madness.  Presumably, he’s only faking it to distract everyone from his plotting to kill Claudius.  Certainly he insists he’s only “mad in craft,” and, interesting first word here, “essentially…not in madness.”

Could he, however, really be mad?  Hamlet himself wonders about that possibility from time to time (Raving abusively at poor Ophelia during his ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ rant in Act III, Scene i, he shouts, “Go to, I’ll no more on’t; it hath made me mad.”).  He has, after all, seen a ghost, and in the pre-modern world of this play, when people were ignorant of modern psychiatry, seeing a ghost is pretty much tantamount to being possessed by an evil spirit, and therefore to going mad.  To be sure, Horatio and Marcellus warn Hamlet not to go alone with the ghost of Old Hamlet, for fear of the prince going mad (Horatio warns Hamlet in Act I, Scene iv, “What if it [the ghost] tempt you toward the flood, my lord, […]/And there assume some…horrible form,/Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason/And draw you into madness?  Think of it…”).

Next, we must examine the theme of action versus inaction.  We all know of Hamlet’s inability to act, except at the end of the play, when he knows he’s dying from the scratch of a poisoned rapier.  (We will leave discussion of this famous mystery until the end of the analysis.)  Other examples of this theme, from one extreme to the other, and with several intermediate points along the continuum, are worth exploring first.

Fortinbras represents the extreme of action; his name literally means, ‘strong arm’.  The only thing that keeps him from achieving his goal, reached at the very end of the play, is geography: the Norwegian prince must travel a great distance with his army to reconquer the Polish lands, then conquer Denmark and become its new king.  He is, nonetheless, firmly resolute in going after what he wants.

Perhaps only slightly less resolute is Pyrrhus, who briefly hesitates before striking down King Priam with his sword.  (So recounts the First Player: “So, as a painted tyrant, Pyrrhus stood/And, like a neutral to his will and matter,/Did nothing./[…] so, after Pyrrhus’ pause,/A roused vengeance sets him new a-work;/And never did the Cyclops’ hammers fall/On Mars’s armour, forg’d for proof eterne,/With less remorse than Pyrrhus’ bleeding sword/Now falls on Priam.”)

Next, we have Laertes, who, though wildly resolute in avenging his father, even to the point of traitorously threatening Claudius, nonetheless cools off somewhat as he and Claudius plot the killing of Hamlet in a duel.  Certainly Claudius wonders about Laertes’ commitment to revenge.  (In Act IV, Scene vii, the king says, “Not that I think you did not love your father;/But that I know love is begun by time,/And that I see, in passages of proof,/Time qualifies the spark and fire of it./There lives within the very flame of love/A kind of wick or snuff that will abate it;/And nothing is at a like goodness still;/For goodness, growing to a pleurisy,/Dies in his own too much.  That we would do,/We should do when we would; for this ‘would’ changes,/And hath abatements and delays as many/As there are tongues, are hands, are accidents;/And then this ‘should’ is like a spendthrift’s sigh/That hurts by easing.”)

Perhaps the crowning theme of this play is the uselessness of words versus the need for action.  Hamlet isn’t Shakespeare’s longest play for nothing.  Indeed, it is overloaded with words and very slow-moving action (see Quote 9), not that this apparent lop-sidedness detracts from the play’s worth, of course; for the whole message of the play can be summed up in the old cliché, ‘action speaks louder than words’.

Reference is constantly made to any character’s effusive or bombastic use of language.  For example, when Polonius tells Claudius and Gertrude what he believes to be the “very cause of Hamlet’s lunacy,” all he needs to say is that Hamlet has gone mad from Ophelia’s rejection of his love; instead, Polonius speaks in the most absurdly prolix manner, even hypocritically saying that being laconic is preferable to being loquacious (see Quote 8).  Gertrude feels compelled to tell the chatterbox to use “More matter with less art.”

Earlier, he is similarly hypocritical with Laertes in advising his son to “Give everyone thy ear, but few thy voice.”  Then there’s his disparaging of the First Player’s passionate speeches about Priam and Hecuba, his own interrupting words angering Hamlet (Polonius: “This is too long.”  Hamlet snaps, “It shall to the barber’s, with your beard.”).

Another example of needlessly pompous language is towards the end of the play, when Osric tells Hamlet of Laertes’ challenge to a sword duel.  (The foppish courtier says, “Sir, here is newly come to court Laertes; believe me, an absolute gentleman, full of most excellent differences, of very soft society and great showing.  Indeed, to speak feelingly of him, he is the card or calendar of gentry, for you shall find in him the continent of what part a gentleman would see.”)  Indeed, Hamlet and Horatio comment on what a pretentious fool Osric is, right to his face.

During the same scene, Hamlet tells Horatio of when he was on the boat to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  He forged letters replacing the original order to kill him with one to kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; and he, for a change, made practical use of the grandiloquent writing style, overloaded with similes and metaphors, that is the convention used in such letters.  (“I sat me down/Devis’d a new commission; wrote it fair./I once did hold it, as our statists do,/a baseness to write fair, and labour’d much/How to forget that learning; but, sir, now,/It did me yeoman’s service.”  Hamlet goes on to describe the letter, quoting what he wrote thus: “An earnest conjuration from the King,/As England was his faithful tributary,/As love between them like the palm might flourish,/As peace should be her wheaten garland wear,/And stand a comma ‘tween their amities,/And many such like as-es of great charge.”)

Hamlet feels no prickings of conscience from sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths, for, when Claudius–fearful of his royal person–tells the prince’s two false friends to take Hamlet to England, even though they perhaps don’t know they are to be taking Hamlet to be executed there, they are clearly on the corrupt king’s side.  Indeed, they saturate Claudius with boot-licking words of how dependant all of Denmark is on the king’s safety.  (Rosencrantz says, ” The single and peculiar life is bound/With all the strength and armour of the mind/To keep itself from noyance; but much more/That spirit upon whose weal depends and rests/The lives of many.  The cease of majesty/Dies not alone, but like a gulf doth draw/What’s near it with it.  It is a massy wheel,/Fix’d on the summit of the highest mount,/To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things/Are mortis’d and adjoin’d; which when it falls,/Each small annexment, petty consequence,/Attends the boist’rous ruin.”)

Now we must go to an exploration of how none of this useless garrulousness can replace much-needed action.  When Hamlet is angry over his mother’s incestuous marriage to his uncle, he says, “break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.”  Indeed, he must not speak: he must act, and we all know he can’t do that.  He can’t even act on his contemplated suicide in the ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy.

Hamlet isn’t the only one who cannot act, though: neither can Claudius, racked with guilt over having murdered his brother, and incapable of real repentance.  For if he repents, he must give up everything–his crown, his queen, and his life.  After being executed for murder and treason, he’d have his memory stained also as an incestuous adulterer.  All he can do is insincerely pray for forgiveness: more useless words!  (See quote 18.)

And what of Ophelia?  Did she really actively commit suicide in falling into the brook, or did she merely passively allow herself to be submerged while she, in her madness, distractedly sang the words of her songs?  The gravediggers debate whether or not she acted in her drowning, as we discussed above.

And finally, we must come to Hamlet’s own inaction…till the end of the play.  He finally does act, but why wait till after so many deaths?  He’s not afraid to kill: after all, he reverses the king’s order for his own execution in England so Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will be killed instead; he also, quite impulsively and thus contrary to his normal sense of caution, kills Polonius.

Indeed, where did this wanton killing of Polonius come from?  He claims he thinks it’s the king behind the arras, but why would Claudius hide there, so soon after praying in his own room?  Surely Hamlet knew it was probably someone other than the king.  Most likely, conflicted Hamlet just lashed out and killed someone, out of a wish to have at least acted in some general sense.

Many theories have been proposed for Hamlet’s delayed revenge, and I will look at some of these, while showing their faults, before proposing my own explanation.

The first is a simple, practical explanation: delaying Hamlet’s revenge is a plot device, intended to lengthen the play to a duration sufficient for the Elizabethan equivalent of a feature film.  The prince would have had easy access to Claudius.  All he’d need to do is ask for a private moment with the king, then when the two were all alone, Hamlet would pull out his rapier and kill Claudius. Had the prince no inhibitions about getting his revenge, the play would have been over in about a half hour.

Such an explanation shows Shakespeare’s reasons for having Hamlet delay, but it doesn’t provide Hamlet’s reasons for waiting so long.  Indeed, Hamlet himself doesn’t know.  (Before getting on the boat for England, he says, “Now, whether it be/Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple/Of thinking too precisely on th’ event–/A thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom/And ever three parts coward–I do not know/Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do’,/Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means,/To do’t.”)

Some have suggested that Hamlet, knowing he was no better, felt sorry for Claudius: I don’t see how the prince, spewing such contempt on his uncle, would ever sympathize with him.  Consider when he rants at his mother in her bedroom: “Here is your husband, like a mildew’d ear/Blasting his wholesome brother.  Have you eyes?/Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed,/And batten on this moor?”

It is true that Hamlet, in killing Claudius, would be as usurping and regicidal as his uncle was in killing Old Hamlet, and therefore would be no better than Claudius.  Such moral hypocrisy would send Hamlet to Hell.  This proposed idea would explain Hamlet’s delay, but not his final killing of Claudius.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche wrote that Hamlet knew that his revenge would make no difference in the larger sphere of things.  We all live, and we all die: the universe rolls merrily along, as it were, regardless of what petty decisions we make in our all too brief, all too insignificant lives.  Hamlet thus sees getting revenge as pointless.  Again, Hamlet’s delaying is explained, but his final getting of revenge is left unanswered.

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud gives a fascinating theory–the Oedipus Complex.  Claudius, in murdering Hamlet’s father and marrying his mother, has acted out an unconscious fantasy of the prince’s.  Though Hamlet doesn’t know it, deep down, he wishes he’d killed his father and climbed into bed with Gertrude!  (20th century productions so often show Hamlet having a thing for his mother.)

He can’t bring himself to kill Claudius, because he’s always wanted to do what his uncle has done.  Again, Hamlet fears moral hypocrisy sending him to Hell.  And again, this theory explains the delay, but not the final act of vengeance.

Now I will propose my theory.

I believe that part of what makes Hamlet, like Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, one of the greatest tragedies ever written, is its treatment of the subject of regicide, a crime that dates back to prehistoric, pagan times, when the aging king was killed by his younger replacement in a rite of human sacrifice (see such books as Frazer’s Golden Bough for a plethora of examples).  Though a horrible thing to do, killing the sacred king was considered necessary for the survival of the community.

These killings were distorted in the ancient memory of oral tradition and transformed into myths of, for example, dying and resurrecting gods (see Robert Graves’s The Greek Myths for many examples).  Hamlet, I believe, can also be considered such an adaptation of a crime committed throughout history and lodged in our unconscious minds, ever eager to be given new expression in a myth or play.

Killing a king is considered one of the worst crimes to commit, for it combines murder with treason. Furthermore, Claudius commits fratricide as well as regicide, and Hamlet must also kill a family member, making the crime all the more hideous and unnatural.  Yet to leave his father’s murder unavenged would be utterly unfilial.  Hamlet must kill Claudius.

Hamlet must examine his true motives for revenge, already an act that’s paralyzingly paradoxical in its extremes of good and evil.  Is he killing Claudius for his father, or for himself, so he can be the next king of Denmark?

As long as Hamlet is alive and well, he cannot go through with the revenge and physically do it: he can only plot, talk about it in long-winded speeches (Quote 13), and kill other people, those far from his conscience.  It’s often said that he can’t make up his mind, but he has made it up: he just can’t act.

He is psychologically paralyzed by the extreme good of his necessary revenge (revenge for the love of his father, and the morally needed killing of an incestuous regicide) and the extreme evil of his vengeance (Hamlet’s own guilt in committing regicide).

It is only when he knows he’s dying from “the point envenom’d” that he kills Claudius, and when he finally acts, he acts quickly and decisively, totally unlike his hitherto hesitant attitude.  Presumably, when he finally acts, he can feel the poison’s beginning effect on his body, and thus knows there’s no doubt he’s really dying.

Because he’s dying, he knows his revenge can’t at all be from selfish motives: he won’t replace Claudius as king; as he hears Fortinbras approaching with his army, he predicts the Norwegian prince will be king instead.  Now Hamlet’s revenge is only for his father, so he can do it guiltlessly.  The real tragedy of the play, however, is that not only he, but so many others must die alongside Claudius.

Detailed Synopsis of ‘King Lear’

Act One:  King Lear, an octogenarian monarch of pre-Christian England, has assembled all of his nobles to discuss the future rule of his kingdom after he relieves his aged self from its burdens.  Before he arrives with his daughters and their husbands, the Earls of Kent and Gloucester discuss how they think Lear will divide the kingdom.  Will it be equally divided?  If not, which son-in-law will be favoured with a better portion?

Edmund, who is with the two earls, now becomes the subject of discussion.  Gloucester tells Kent that Edmund is his illegitimate son, describing with lustful glee how much he enjoyed the night he slept with Edmund’s mother.  All Edmund can do is quietly, patiently listen to his father speak disrespectfully of his mother to Kent (one can safely assume Edmund’s had to put up with this kind of thing his whole life).

Lear and the others arrive.  Lear tells Gloucester to get the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy, suitors to Lear’s youngest daughter, Cordelia.  Gloucester leaves to get them.  Lear announces his plan to retreat from the burdens of rule (though he’ll keep the title and dignity of king), and to give those responsibilities to his daughters and their husbands.  Whichever daughter loves him the most, and can thus express that love the best (see Quote 1 from my ‘Analysis of King Lear‘), will receive the best third of the kingdom.

Goneril, the eldest, speaks first, giving a flowery speech about how she loves her father more than words can say, more than any of the most basic human needs.  Flattered and contented, Lear gives one third of the kingdom to her and her husband, the Duke of Albany.

Nervous Cordelia doesn’t wish to flatter her father with phoney speeches of love just to gain land.  She’d rather “Love, and be silent.”

Regan, the middle-born daughter, is next to speak.  Like Goneril, Regan gives her father a honey-tongued speech of her ‘love’ for Lear, going so far as to say Goneril’s speech describes Regan’s very love of her father, though her own love surpasses Goneril’s by far.  Regan says nothing else gives her happiness but Lear’s love.

Again pleased, and not at all aware of how fake these speeches are, the vain king gives Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, their third of the kingdom. Though Cordelia doesn’t want to flatter the father she so dearly loves, she’s confident he’ll know the sincerity of her love well enough to overlook her laconic expression of it.

Unfortunately, she’s wrong, for he turns to her and, since she’s his favourite daughter, he expects an even more poetic speech from her, resulting in the best third of the kingdom.

She insists that she has “Nothing” to say; he warns her that the lack of a pretty speech will result in the lack of a third of the kingdom (see Quote 2 from my ‘Analysis’).  She says that she returns his love as is fitting a daughter, “no more nor less.”  She adds that when she marries, half of her love will go to her husband; she finds it odd that her married sisters give all their love to Lear.

Angered by Cordelia’s bluntness, the vain king suddenly disowns her.  Shocked, the Earl of Kent intervenes and passionately pleads for her, saying she loves Lear no less than Goneril or Regan, but rather doubtlessly loves him much more, given the phoniness of the elder sisters’ speeches.  Lear warns Kent not to continue, but Kent does, arguing that Lear’s actions are dangerously foolish, and Kent has always done everything he could to protect his king, faced every danger, and even now does so, risking the king’s displeasure, to protect him from his “hideous rashness.”

Lear can no longer endure Kent’s upbraidings and banishes him, giving him five days to leave England.  Kent leaves after wishing Cordelia well and hoping, though doubting, that Goneril’s and Regan’s treatment of Lear will match the words of their gushing speeches of love.

Gloucester enters with the King of France and Duke of Burgundy.  Lear offers Cordelia to them, but with no dowry, indicating only his “hate” for her as his reason.

The King of France is shocked to hear this change in Lear’s attitude, for the French king knows Cordelia was always Lear’s favourite daughter, and he wishes to know what monstrous thing she could possibly have done to deserve no dowry and such hate.  Cordelia says it is no sin not to flatter, and that, though she’s unhappy to have displeased her father, she’s glad she has no glib tongue.

Impressed with her virtue and honesty, valuing them over a lust for land and power, the French king would happily have the dowerless bride.  He asks Burgundy if he would have her, for “She is herself a dowry.”

Burgundy will have her only with the dowry, but Lear coldly says, “Nothing.”  Burgundy apologizes to Cordelia, regretting that she must lose a father and a husband in himself.  Knowing he wants only the dowry, she sees no loss in Burgundy’s ended suit.  He leaves with Lear.

The King of France accepts her as his queen, and before they leave, he’d have her say goodbye to her sisters.  She asks them to take good care of Lear, though she has every reason to believe they won’t.  When Goneril and Regan tell her not to prescribe to them their duty, we see the evil daughters’ true colours for the first time.  Cordelia and the French king leave; then Goneril and Regan discuss Lear.  They worry about how rashly he has disowned his favourite daughter, knowing it’s because his aged mind is going, and that he has little knowledge of his true self.  They plan to correspond regularly with each other, informing each other of any volatile changes in his mood that could be a danger to them.  They leave, as does everyone else.

Edmund is alone in Gloucester’s castle, expressing his resentment over custom’s unfair preference of legitimate children over those, like him, born out of wedlock.  Envying his legitimate brother Edgar, Edmund plans to cheat him out of his inheritance from their father.  Edmund holds a letter he’s forged, one imitating Edgar’s handwriting, one that purports to persuade Edmund to help Edgar kill their father and take all of his land and property.

Gloucester enters, and Edmund hides the forged letter, doing so in a way so as to attract Gloucester’s curiosity about its contents.  When Gloucester asks what the letter is, Edmund guiltily says, “Nothing,” and continues to seem reluctant to have his father read it, though of course he very much wants Gloucester to read it.

Gloucester insists on reading it, and Edmund sheepishly gives it to him, saying he hopes Edgar is merely testing Edmund’s loyalty to their father by writing it.  Gloucester is shocked when reading the contents, calling Edgar an “Abominable villain!”  He then hopes Edgar doesn’t really feel the way the letter makes him seem to feel.  Edmund pretends to hope the same thing.  They will note Edgar’s future words to see if they match his words in the letter.

Gloucester then mentions Kent’s banishment for the crime of “honesty”; he imagines an unfavourable astrological influence is to blame for everyone’s recent misfortunes.  Gloucester leaves, then Edmund speaks contemptuously of people’s foolish faith in astrology.

Edgar enters, and Edmund now speaks as though he himself believes in astrology.  Then he tells Edgar that their father is mad at him.  Edgar rightly assumes someone has done him wrong; Edmund, of course, agrees that there’s an unknown villain among them, and advises Edgar to avoid their father for his safety.  Edgar leaves, knowing he’ll stay in Edmund’s home; Edmund gleefully contemplates his imminent inheritance of Gloucester’s land.

A month later, and in Goneril’s castle, she complains to her servant Oswald about the noisy, troublesome hundred knights Lear has with him; she also tells Oswald to slacken in his service to Lear, as should the other servants.

Kent has shaved, changed into the clothes of a poor man, and will speak in a different accent to disguise himself while in Lear’s presence; thus he’ll be able to continue to serve his king.  He’ll call himself ‘Caius’.

Lear enters with his retinue of one hundred knights.  ‘Caius’ introduces himself to Lear and offers the king his services.  Lear accepts, and asks where his fool is; the Fool is so saddened over the disowning of Cordelia that he’s avoiding others’ company for the moment.  Oswald walks by, and Lear calls to him, but he ignores the king.  Furious, Lear has a knight fetch Oswald back, but the knight returns without Oswald, and sadly tells Lear that he doesn’t believe the king is any longer being given the ceremonial respect he deserves.

Oswald finally comes back, and Lear stops him angrily, asking him who Lear is; Oswald impudently says Lear is Goneril’s father, rather than the king, which angers Lear even more.  ‘Caius’ then trips Oswald and scolds him for his lack of deference.  Oswald runs off, and Lear pays ‘Caius’ for his service.

The Fool enters, offering his coxcomb to ‘Caius’ for following a foolish king.  The Fool continues to indulge in a series of witticisms, indicating how Lear is the real fool for giving all his power to Goneril and Regan, and for disowning Cordelia, the only daughter he can really trust.

Goneril enters, complaining to Lear about his noisy, riotous hundred knights.  Lear insists they’re well-behaved, but she would have half the number dismissed, leaving Lear with fifty to follow him.  Lear is enraged at this.  The Duke of Albany, having just entered the room, is at a loss as to what has angered Lear so.  Lear curses at Goneril, wishing either sterility on her, or for her to bear children as cursed with thanklessness as she is; then he leaves her for Regan’s castle.  ‘Caius’, the Fool, and Lear’s knights follow, ‘Caius’ to rush ahead with letters for Regan and Gloucester, preparing them for Lear’s arrival.

The Fool continues his witticisms with Lear, explaining that Lear shouldn’t have gotten old till he’d become wise.  Lear hopes he won’t go mad.

Act Two: In Gloucester’s castle, Edmund warns Edgar of their father’s wrath, and before Edgar runs away, he and Edmund act out a brief sword fight, Edmund yelling for help.  Alone, Edmund cuts his arm, and when Gloucester and his servants arrive, Edmund tells his father that Edgar has wounded him.  Gloucester tells his servants to chase after Edgar.

Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, arrive.  Gloucester expresses his grief at Edgar’s apparent disloyalty; Regan tells of how she doesn’t wish to receive Lear at her castle, having received letters from Goneril of Lear’s rage, something with which neither daughter sympathizes.

‘Caius’, having already arrived at Gloucester’s castle, sees Oswald come, and he speaks abusively to Oswald, knowing the knavish servant of Goneril is no friend to Lear.  ‘Caius’ then threatens physical violence against Oswald, who cries for help like the coward he is.

Gloucester, Regan and Cornwall arrive, asking what the matter is.  Oswald claims that ‘Caius’ is a ruffian whose life he’s spared out of respect for his age; ‘Caius’ says Oswald is a cowardly knave.  Having no sympathy for ‘Caius’, Cornwall asks what Oswald’s fault is, then says ‘Caius’ is the real knave, since he affects “a saucy roughness” and is proud of his bluntness.  Cornwall and Regan have him put in the stocks, his legs bound; ‘Caius’ says it’s a shocking thing to stock the king’s messenger, but Cornwall will gladly take responsibility for that.

Everyone leaves ‘Caius’ after Gloucester has apologized for Cornwall’s excessive punishment.  Alone, ‘Caius’ takes out a letter he’s received from Cordelia, one which says she’s raising the French army to invade England and restore Lear to the throne.  He falls asleep.

Having run a long time to escape his father’s pursuing servants, Edgar is in the open country, and in a soliloquy discusses his plan to remove his clothes and cover himself with mud.  He’ll pretend to be ‘poor Tom’, a mad Bedlam beggar, so no one will know his true identity.

Lear, the Fool, and the knights arrive at Gloucester’s castle, shocked to see ‘Caius’ in the stocks.  Lear can’t believe his daughter and son-in-law would dishonour him by stocking his messenger, but ‘Caius’ insists they have.

Lear has Gloucester fetch Regan and Cornwall, so they can explain themselves; Gloucester returns, saying they say they are tired from travelling long (a feeble excuse not to obey their king) and won’t come at the moment.  Enraged that he is being treated with the same lack of respect he received in Goneril’s castle, Lear demands that Gloucester go back and fetch them.  Embarrassed, Gloucester goes back to get them.

‘Caius’ is released from the stocks, and Lear is angry to know that Cornwall, having finally arrived with Regan, is indeed responsible for stocking ‘Caius’.  When Lear complains of Goneril’s attitude, Regan rationalizes her sister’s actions and asks Lear to return to her castle with only fifty knights.  When furious Lear says Goneril has his eternal curses, manipulative Regan tearfully complains that he’ll curse her when he’s again in a rash mood; but he reassures her that he never will.

Goneril arrives, to Lear’s dismay, and he is further chagrined to see Regan hold her sister’s hands, loyal to her rather than to him.  He says that Goneril is his only in the sense that a disease or a boil on the skin belongs to someone, out of unfortunate necessity, rather than out of love.

Goneril and Regan rationalize the reduction of knights to fifty, saying it would be almost impossible to provide for one hundred men, and that fifty should be more than sufficient.  Furthermore, Goneril’s and Regan’s servants should be sufficient to attend to Lear’s needs.  This upsets the king all the more.

Regan finds attending to even fifty knights to be too burdensome, and says she’ll reduce Lear’s number to twenty-five.  Since Goneril’s love seems to double Regan’s, he says he’ll return to her; but even Goneril won’t accept fifty knights now.  She and Regan wonder why he needs even twenty-five knights, or any at all!

Now without even one knight, Lear knows he has lost all power and authority, and in his feelings of having been betrayed, he’s even losing his sanity.  In a fury, he leaves the castle with ‘Caius’ and the Fool.

A rainstorm has begun outside, and Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall fear that Lear and his dismissed knights may storm the castle.  Gloucester is ordered to lock his castle doors, leaving the old king homeless in the storm at night.  Gloucester reluctantly does so.

Act Three: Out in the rainstorm, Kent tells a gentleman about the division between the Dukes of Albany and of Cornwall, and about the plan to take Lear to Dover, where the French army will be, to help settle the dispute.

In his madness, Lear rants and raves while being soaked in the rain and wind.  (See Quote 3 from my ‘Analysis’.)  He insists that he finds no fault with the inclement weather, since he gave nothing to it, as he gave Goneril and Regan, who should be grateful.  He “will be the pattern of all patience”; he will endure whatever harshness the wind and rain hits him with, for his daughters’ wickedness is far more insupportable.  (See Quote 4.)  ‘Caius’ and the Fool urge Lear to find shelter, but the mad king insists on braving the weather still.

In Gloucester’s castle, Gloucester tells Edmund of the plan to restore Lear to the throne, the French army having landed in Dover.  Though Gloucester assumes Edmund won’t tell Goneril and Regan about what they will consider treason, he of course will.

Still standing in the storm, Lear imagines the suffering of the homeless during this night; his heart aches to know that he, their king, has done too little for them.  To be in their wretched condition seems therapeutic to Lear, for he can truly pity them, and by becoming their equal, he knows justice is finally being done for them.

The Fool goes into a hovel where he and ‘Caius’ hope Lear will soon take shelter, but the Fool is frightened by a madman in there; both come out.  The madman is really Edgar, covered in mud and calling himself ‘poor Tom’.  He rants and raves wildly about all the devils he’s known and been possessed by.  Lear assumes ‘Tom’ is mad because his daughters have betrayed him, as Lear’s have him.  As ‘Tom’ continues ranting about devils (Quote 5), Lear is impressed, imagining the madman to be a “Noble philosopher.”

Gloucester has come out to them, and he leads them to an outhouse nearby his castle, where they can sleep for the night.

When Cornwall learns of Gloucester’s colluding with Lear and the French army, Gloucester is deemed a traitor.  Cornwall promises to make Edmund the next Earl of Gloucester; Edmund pretends to be sad about betraying his father.

In the outhouse, Lear gives an imaginary trial for Goneril and Regan.  Edgar, noting the real insanity of Lear, finds relative comfort in how his own sufferings aren’t as severe.

In Gloucester’s castle, when Goneril and Regan learn of Gloucester’s treason, the former suggests plucking out his eyes.  Goneril, Edmund, and Oswald leave, while Gloucester is searched for.

Gloucester, now apprehended, is brought in and pinioned to a chair by two or three servants.  He demands of Regan and Cornwall why he, the host of his castle, is being so mistreated by his guests.  Regan and Cornwall call him a traitor; Regan plucks his white beard contemptuously.  She and Cornwall ask where “the lunatic king” is being sent.

Gloucester tells of receiving a letter from “a neutral heart”, and of sending Lear to Dover.  When they angrily demand why to Dover, Gloucester says he’d not have them pluck out poor old Lear’s eyes.  Though he hopes to see the day of Lear’s revenge, Cornwall says he never will.

Cornwall puts out one of Gloucester’s eyes, leaving him with only one.  One of the servants fights with Cornwall, trying to stop him from putting out Gloucester’s other eye.  Cornwall is mortally wounded, but Regan takes a sword and kills the rebelling servant.  Cornwall goes back in pain to Gloucester and puts out his other eye.

In his agony, Gloucester calls out for Edmund, but Regan tells him that Edmund, having informed them of Gloucester’s treason, hates him.  Now Gloucester, like Lear, despairingly knows which of his offspring to trust, and which not to.  Regan has him thrown outside.  Cornwall dies of his wound, though Regan, secretly in love with Edmund, doesn’t care.

The servants, pitying Gloucester, will get flax and egg-whites to apply to his eyes.

Act Four: Outside, Edgar is horrified to see an old servant guiding blind Gloucester, who in his despair doesn’t want any help.  Gloucester has no way to go; having distrusted the wrong son, he stumbled when he saw.  If he could only have Edgar with him again, it would be as though he had eyes again.

The heaviness of Edgar’s sorrow returns to see his father in such a wretched condition.  Still all covered in mud, he’s still known to everyone as ‘poor Tom’, the mad beggar.  Gloucester imagines a similar cruelty inflicted on ‘Tom’ as on himself, a cruelty the gods inflict on all of us (Quote 6).  He tells the servant to find clothes for ‘Tom’, since he wants the madman to lead him from now on.  After all, only a madman would willingly lead Gloucester to a cliff in Dover, from which the suicidal blind man hopes to jump.

Before Albany’s palace, Oswald tells Goneril of how the Duke of Albany, her husband, is gladdened by the arrival of the French army, and saddened by her coming.  She assumes Albany acts this way out of cowardice and weakness.  Secretly in love with Edmund, as Regan is, Goneril gives him a love-token and a kiss.  Edmund leaves, and Albany enters; the latter has even more contempt for her than she has for him, knowing what she, Regan, and Cornwall have done to Lear.  He’s then horrified to learn that Gloucester’s been blinded, and though Albany must help fight against the French invaders, he hopes to avenge Gloucester for his eyes.

Kent and Lear have arrived at the French camp near Dover.  Kent speaks with a gentleman about the current situation, and about Cordelia, who is deeply distressed for her father.  They must prepare for the armies of Albany and Cornwall; Kent will take the gentleman to where Lear is.

Also in Dover, Cordelia has her men search for her mad father, whose head is crowned with weeds, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers, etc.

Regan, aware of Goneril’s love of Edmund, and therefore jealous, tells Oswald to give Edmund a note she’s written.  She says that since she is now a widow, Edmund is more appropriate as a husband for her than for Goneril, who obviously doesn’t love her husband.  She also tells Oswald that if he should find Gloucester, he should kill him–he’ll be rewarded for such service.

Now also in Dover, Edgar leads Gloucester to what he says is a cliff; to look down at such a deep fall, Edgar says, is frightening.  Gloucester gives ‘poor Tom’ a jewel in a purse and tells him to leave.  Edgar steps back, whispering that his plan is to cure his father of his despair by pretending to indulge it.  Gloucester says some loving words for Edgar, then jumps.

The ‘cliff’ that Gloucester has fallen from is nothing of the sort; he’s done little more than fallen down.  Edgar, now pretending to be a man in the country (for that’s where they actually are), comes over to Gloucester and praises the gods for preserving him after such a long fall.  Gloucester is confused as to whether he’s actually fallen or not; Edgar says that a vile-looking devil at the top of the cliff was with Gloucester when he fell.  Edgar says the gods, in preserving Gloucester’s life, surely want the blind old man to continue living.

Edgar and Gloucester find mad King Lear, dressed in weeds.  Lear rants on and on about how Goneril and Regan lied in their professing of their love for him.

Gloucester, recognizing Lear’s voice, asks if he’s the king; Lear affirms this, as if it were obvious (Quote 7).  Lear continues ranting insanely, imagining he’s forgiving men for adultery, since illegitimate Edmund seemed better to Gloucester than legitimate Goneril and Regan were to Lear.  Besides, he needs soldiers, so he would have “copulation thrive”.  Edgar can only pity Lear’s “Reason in madness!”

A gentleman and attendants come to get Lear and take him to Cordelia; but first they have to chase after the mad king, for he suddenly runs away.

Oswald then finds Edgar and Gloucester, and brandishing a sword, prepares to kill the blind old man, who welcomes the thought of being put out of his misery.  Edgar fights Oswald and mortally wounds him.  Before Oswald dies, though, he tells Edgar of a letter Goneril has written for Edmund to read.  Edgar reads it, scowling from learning of her plot to kill Albany and marry Edmund.

In Cordelia’s tent, Lear has been bathed, changed into clean clothes, and tended to by doctors, who have used medicines to treat him.  He is sleeping.  Cordelia thanks Kent for his efforts to take care of her father; he doesn’t want her to reveal that he’s Kent until he deems the time fit to do so.  She continues to worry about her father.  The doctor would have Lear wake, since he’s been sleeping for a long time.

Lear wakes up and looks at her; he’s not sure, but he thinks she’s Cordelia.  She tearfully affirms this, while he assumes she hates him for disowning her; she, of course, can easily forgive his rash treatment of her at the beginning of the play.  He now knows that, underneath all the kingly pomp, he’s just a foolish old man.

Act Five: At the British camp near Dover, Goneril and Regan continue in their jealous rivalry over Edmund, bickering with each other, with him and Albany present.  The sisters and Edmund leave.  When Edgar, still in a poor man’s rags, has a chance to speak alone with Albany, he gives him Goneril’s incriminating letter.  Albany reads the letter, and is horrified at his wife’s treachery.  Edgar says a man will challenge Edmund to a duel after the war; he leaves Albany.

Edmund has promised himself to both Goneril and Regan.  Whichever sister he chooses, he knows the power he’ll acquire mustn’t be threatened by Lear or Cordelia, whom he plans to have executed after the war.

The war happens, and the French lose.  Edgar tells Gloucester they must leave, for Lear and Cordelia have been taken prisoner.  Gloucester is still in bad thoughts, and his son must continue to try to comfort him.

Though Lear is Edmund’s prisoner, he’s content to have Cordelia’s love, and so he says that, in prison, they’ll “sing like birds i’ th’ cage.”  She asks if he wants to see Goneril and Regan; he says emphatically that he doesn’t, and guards take them away.  Edmund gives a captain a note, telling him to have the two prisoners executed.

Albany enters, demanding to have Lear and Cordelia under his protection.  Goneril and Regan continue in their bitter rivalry over Edmund, though Regan is ill.  (In an aside, Goneril admits to having poisoned Regan: see Quote 8.)  Regan, growing sicker, leaves.  Albany accuses Edmund of treason; if after a trumpet blows, and no man appears to challenge Edmund to a duel, Albany will.

The trumpet blows, and a masked man appears, accusing Edmund of disloyalty to his family and to his country.

The two men fight, and Edmund is mortally wounded.  Goneril is hysterical over dying Edmund.  Albany produces her incriminating letter, and she runs away to kill herself.

Dying, Edmund asks who the masked man is.  The mask comes off, and it’s Edgar, who then tells the story of how he took care of their blind father; then, when he finally revealed himself as Edgar, Gloucester died of a heart attack, being caught between extremes of joy and grief.

Edmund is actually moved to hear the story of his pitiful father.  A gentleman holding a bloody knife informs all that Goneril has killed herself with the knife, and Regan has died of the poisoning.  Kent appears, no longer as ‘Caius’, and asks where his king is.  Edmund tells them that Lear and Cordelia are to be executed; in spite of his nature, Edmund will do some good in reversing the order of execution.  A servant rushes off with Edmund’s sword as proof of the order’s reversal.  Edmund is borne away.

While Lear has been saved, it’s too late for Cordelia.  A wailing Lear enters carrying her lifeless body (Quote 9).  Lear would have a glass put by her mouth; if by chance the glass fogs up with her breath, she’ll still be living.  He killed the servant who hanged her.  Kent, Edgar, and Albany watch the king in horror and profound pity for his suffering.

A messenger enters, mentioning the death of Edmund.  Albany dismisses his death as a trifle in comparison to the tragedy he’s watching with Kent and Edgar.

Lear says his “fool is hanged”: is this the Fool, or his daughter (i.e., his ‘foal’)?  He asks why an animal should be allowed to live, but not Cordelia.  Then suddenly, Lear thinks he sees her lips moving; in a confusion of joy and grief similar to that of Gloucester, Lear dies of a heart attack.

Kent is amazed that Lear was able to endure for so long.  Albany imagines the rule of England will be divided between Edgar and Kent; but Kent, hearing the voice of Lear’s ghost, must kill himself to continue serving his king in the afterlife.

Edgar concludes the play by saying we must “Say what we feel, not what we ought to say.”

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Analysis of ‘King Lear’

King Lear is a tragedy Shakespeare wrote between 1603 and 1606.  It is based on the legendary King Leir of Britain, an ancient pagan king who foolishly gives his power to his two evil daughters, Goneril and Regan, while banishing his good daughter Cordelia for not flattering him as her sisters have.  After Leir has lost everything due to the wickedness of her sisters, Cordelia–having married the King of France–raises the French army, invades England, and restores the throne to Leir.

Shakespeare replaced the legend’s happy ending with a heartbreakingly tragic one, shocking his audience, who were used to the original story.  Because his version was too sorrowful for most people at the time to bear, a happy ending was created by Nahum Tate later in the 17th century, after the Restoration; this version–in which Lear’s throne is restored (a fitting reference to Charles II’s own restoration), the Fool is omitted completely, and Cordelia lives and even marries Edgar–was used until the 19th century, when Shakespeare’s ending was reconsidered and restored.

Now, the tragic ending is not only preferred, but is considered, along with the rest of the play, a supreme artistic achievement, on a level with Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, or Michelangelo’s Pieta.  King Lear is a profound analysis of human suffering in all its forms, therefore justifying the tragic ending.

Here are some famous quotes:

1. “Which of you shall we say doth love us most?” –Lear, Act I, scene i, line 50

2. “Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.” –Lear, Act I, scene i, line 89

3. “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks; rage, blow./You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout/Till you have drench’d out steeples, drown’d the cocks./You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,/Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunder-bolts,/Singe my white head.  And thou, all-shaking thunder,/Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world;/Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once,/That makes ingrateful man.” –Lear, Act III, scene ii, lines 1-9

4. “I am a man/More sinn’d against than sinning!” –Lear, Act III, scene ii, lines 59-60

5. “The prince of darkness is a gentleman.” –Edgar, as ‘poor Tom’, Act III, scene iv, line 139

6. “As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods–/They kill us for their sport.”  –Gloucester, Act IV, scene i, lines 37-38

7. “Ay, every inch a king.” –Lear, Act IV, scene vi, line 107

8. “If not, I’ll ne’er trust medicine.” –Goneril, on having poisoned Regan, Act V, scene iii, line 97

9. “Howl, howl, howl, howl!  O, you are men of stones!/Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so/That heaven’s vault should crack.  She’s gone for ever./I know when one is dead and when one lives;/She’s dead as earth.  Lend me a looking-glass;/If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,/Why, then she lives.” –Lear, Act V, scene iii, lines 257-263

As was mentioned above, this play is a profound exploration of human suffering in many forms. One form in particular is loss.  Lear loses everything in this play: by first giving up his kingdom to his two wicked daughters, foolishly thinking they love him, he loses the one hundred knights he reserved for himself.  Then he loses all his power and authority as king.  When he’s locked out of Gloucester’s castle during a stormy night, he’s lost the protection of shelter.  Reduced to the status of a homeless beggar, and realizing his foolishness in trusting evil Goneril and Regan, but not good Cordelia, Lear loses his sanity.

After he’s taken to Dover and restored to health by a doctor Cordelia’s provided, Lear temporarily regains his mental health, as well as gets her back, of course.  But after her army loses the war against that of Goneril and Regan, and she is hanged, Lear loses that so fragilely regained wellness of mind; and finally in his heartbreak over losing her forever, the old man loses his life with a heart attack.

He does gain one thing, though: self-knowledge.  Underneath the royal pomp, he’s just an old man…and a foolish one, at that.  His lack of self-understanding at the beginning of the play is noted by Goneril and Regan, who say he’s only “slenderly known himself.”  Later, Lear himself says, “Who am I, sir?” to impudent Oswald, and then to Goneril et al, “Does any here know me?  This is not Lear./Does Lear walk thus?  Speak thus?  Where are his eyes?/Either his notion weakens, or his discernings/Are lethargic.–Ha! waking? ‘Tis not so.–/Who is it that can tell me who I am?”

He isn’t the only one to suffer loss, though.  In a subplot that parallels the Lear story, the Earl of Gloucester is deceived by his evil, bastard son Edmund into believing that his good, legitimate son, Edgar, is plotting to kill him to gain his land.

Later, when Edmund betrays Gloucester for trying to help Lear against the machinations of Goneril, Regan and her husband, the Duke of Cornwall, they accuse him of treason, and Cornwall puts Gloucester’s eyes out.  Only then does he brokenheartedly realize which son is the good one, and which the bad.

Edgar, taking care of his blind father after he’s been thrown outside as Lear was, manages to dissuade Gloucester from committing suicide; but when Edgar reveals himself, Gloucester also has a heart attack, and loses his life.

With all of the loss and suffering, we come to another important theme in the play: nihilism.  As we have seen, Lear and Gloucester are reduced to nothing.  Other characters to die are, as we have seen, Cordelia, Goneril, Regan, Cornwall, Oswald, and Edmund, though we may not mourn the loss of those last five so much. The kingdom of England all but falls to pieces by the end of the play, its fragile state to be restored by Edgar and the Duke of Albany.  The Earl of Kent will kill himself, since he senses the ghost of Lear requiring his continued services in the afterlife.  Words of negation, like ‘nothing’ and ‘never’, are stated many times throughout the play.  Then there is mad Lear’s shout, “kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!”

Sometimes when we compare levels of suffering, one can find comfort for oneself in pitying the greater suffering of another, as Edgar does in a soliloquy in a shelter Gloucester has provided for homeless Lear et al.  Edgar’s witnessing of Lear’s real madness in the storm, as opposed to Edgar’s feigned insanity in his role as ‘poor Tom’, makes him realize his persecution by his father isn’t so bad a situation to be in.  But the next day, when he sees his eyeless father driven to despair, the heaviness of Edgar’s sorrow returns.

One particularly striking feature of this tragedy is how it inhabits an upside-down world.  In this world, as in Macbeth, what is normally bad is good, and what is normally good is bad.  Those who speak bluntly or rudely (Cordelia, Kent, and the Fool) are good, and they are censured, punished, and even banished by the wicked Cornwall or foolish king.  Those who speak politely, who flatter, are evil, as Goneril, Regan, and Cornwall are (see also Quote 5).  To be a traitor against England, as Gloucester is against the rule of Goneril and Regan, is good; to be loyal to their rule is evil, as Oswald is.  To invade England, as Cordelia’s French army does, is good.

Good sons and daughters are confused with evil ones, as we have seen.  Sons and daughters switch roles with parents, since Goneril and Regan are supposed to give shelter to retired Lear in their castles, while Cordelia actually takes care of him in Dover, and Edgar protects his blind father.  The Fool even notes the switch of parent/daughter roles, mentioning the foolish notion to Lear: “…e’er since thou mad’st thy daughters thy mothers; for when you gav’st them the rod, and put’st down thine own breeches…” (Act I, scene iv, lines 170-173)

To disobey an edict of banishment is good, as Kent does in disguising himself as Caius and continuing to serve Lear, and Cordelia does in coming back to England with the French army.

A king is reduced to a beggar: in his homelessness in the rainstorm, he contemplates his meagre charity to other wretches in the same plight.  He says, “Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,/That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,/How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,/Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you/From seasons such as these?  O, I have ta’en /Too little care of this!  Take physic, pomp:/Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,/That thou mayst shake the super flux to them,/And show the heavens more just.”

The feigned madness of ‘poor Tom’ seems like philosophy to deranged Lear.  Indeed, as Edgar is maniacally ranting, Lear wishes to continue listening to “this philosopher”, “this same learned Theban”, “Noble philosopher”, and “good Athenian”.

When Lear has his sanity, he foolishly and vainly believes Goneril’s and Regan’s empty words of flattery are truth; in his madness, he finally knows the wicked daughters’ true nature.  A sane Lear banishes Kent and disowns Cordelia: fatally foolish mistakes.  In his mania, he realizes they are his true friends, as is the blunt Fool, who, no real fool, speaks only witty wisdom throughout the play, telling Lear of his folly.

When Gloucester has his eyes, he is blind to Edmund’s slanders about Edgar; in his blindness, eyeless Gloucester knows which son is truly good, and which truly evil.

When Cordelia refuses to flatter her father, she is truly loving, for she won’t speak loving words just to gain land and power; Goneril and Regan gush with speeches of love, but think only of gaining his land.  Kent is similarly rude to his king, but loves him and cares for him so much, he’ll kill himself to serve his master’s ghost.

Illegitimate Edmund will gain his father’s land, but legitimate Edgar, forced to flee his home, is hounded by his father’s servants.

All of these examples of an upside-down world indicate its chaos, symbolized by the storm that occurs appropriately right in the middle of the play, when the king is made into a beggar.  Small wonder Akira Kurosawa called his Japanese movie version of King Lear by the name of Ran, meaning ‘chaos’, ‘disorder’.

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Detailed Synopsis of ‘Julius Caesar’

Act One: The citizens of Rome are celebrating Caesar’s defeat of Pompey, having Caesar’s statues “deck’d with ceremonies”.  Flavius and Marullus, tribunes sympathetic to Pompey and annoyed with Caesar’s growing power, rebuke the people and tell them to disperse and end the celebrations.  After the people leave, the two tribunes start taking the “trophies” off the statues.

Caesar, his wife Calpurnia, his friends Brutus and Mark Antony, Cassius, and Casca enter, triumphant after Pompey’s defeat.  Mark Antony is to run a race in the celebratory games of the Lupercalia.  A soothsayer warns Caesar of the upcoming March 15th (see quote 1 of my ‘Analysis of Julius Caesar‘), the day Caesar was murdered in 44 BC.  The soothsayer is ignored, and Mark Antony goes to run the race, being followed by all except Brutus and Cassius.

Cassius asks Brutus why he seems not to show him friendship as he had before.  Brutus insists he’s never grown cold to Cassius, but rather is preoccupied with his own personal issues.  They hear, from over where the race is being run, cheers for Caesar.  Brutus says he fears the people will make Caesar their king.  Emboldened, Cassius begins discussing Caesar’s alarming rise to power (see quote 2 of my ‘Analysis’).  He tries to convince Brutus of Caesar’s unworthiness of such ascendancy, citing two examples of weakness in a younger Caesar: once, Caesar in a swimming race with Cassius, gasped for help when almost drowning; another time, Caesar complained of sickness.  “And this man/Is now become a god,” gripes Cassius.

Brutus, a good friend of Caesar’s, says he will consider what Cassius has said.  Caesar and all the others return.  Caesar looks with suspicion on Cassius, and tells Mark Antony of his misgivings.  Mark Antony tells him not to fear Cassius.

Casca meets with Brutus and Cassius. He tells them of what happened during the race.  When Brutus and Cassius ask Casca what the cheering was about, Casca explains that Mark Antony three times offered Caesar a small but kingly coronet; Caesar refused it each time, though each refusal was weaker and weaker.  Casca, as much as Cassius, fears Caesar’s rise to power.  He says that Cicero gave a speech in Greek, something some of the others understood, but not Casca (see quote 3).  Then Casca mentions the arresting of Flavius and Marullus for having removed garlands from Caesar’s statues.

Casca, leaving, accepts an offer to dine with Cassius and further discuss these matters, if the meal is good.  Brutus also leaves.  Cassius, alone, tells of his plan to forge letters complaining of Caesar’s disturbing rise to power, and to have them delivered in the windows of Brutus’ home; this deceit, Cassius hopes, will convince Brutus to join the conspirators.

On the night before the ides of March, there is a terrible, frightening storm, full of omens portending the assassination of Caesar.  Casca fearfully discusses these portents with Cicero and Cassius.  Cassius has fellow conspirator Cinna cause a few more forged letters to be in Brutus’ possession.

Act Two: Brutus, troubled and unable to sleep, walks about his home, thinking about his friend Caesar and his problematic ascent to dictator.  While Brutus sees no actual evidence of ambition in Caesar, he recognizes the reality of ambition in most politicians, and their contempt for those below them.  Lucius, Brutus’ young servant, gives him one of Cassius’ letters; the boy then confirms that the next day will be the ides of March, and he goes to the door to let in the just-arrived conspirators.

Cassius introduces them to Brutus: they include Casca, Cinna, Trebonius, Decius Brutus, Metellus Cimber, and Ligarius.  Cassius suggests killing Mark Antony along with Caesar: Brutus rejects this idea, preferring to minimize violence and seeing no need to fear Mark Antony.  They agree to this and leave.

Brutus isn’t alone again for long; Portia, his wife, comes to ask him what’s troubling him.  He denies feelings of inquietude.  She insists that if he truly honoured her as his wife, he would tell her: though regarded as women are in this patriarchal society, she is of noble birth.  She proves her constancy to him by showing him a wound she’s given herself in the leg.  He wonders how he can be worthy of such an honourable wife.

The next morning, in Caesar’s home, Calpurnia complains to her husband of a terrible nightmare she’s had.  Reminding him of the recent ill omens, she begs him not to go to the Capitol that day.  Caesar insists he has nothing to fear; she insists he’s over-confident (see quote 4).  The entrails of a slain animal are examined for omens: the beast has no heart.  Finally, to allay her fears, he says he won’t go.

Decius Brutus arrives in Caesar’s home to take him to the Capitol, but Caesar refuses to go.  Decius Brutus asks for a reason: not wishing to seem weak, Caesar says, “The cause is in my will: I will not come.”  Then Caesar tells him of his wife’s dream–a statue of Caesar spouting not water but blood, in which many Romans wash their hands.

Decius Brutus reinterprets the dream, saying it symbolizes how Caesar will suck reviving blood of Rome; he need fear no danger at the Capitol, where the Senate will offer him a crown.  They may change their minds, however, if he doesn’t go: this piques Caesar’s ambition, and now he is embarrassed at having listened to his fearful wife.  He is resolved to go to the Capitol.

The other conspirators arrive, as does Mark Antony.  They go with Caesar to the Capitol.

Artemidorus, a Sophist, has written a letter for Caesar to read, warning him of the conspirators.

Portia has her servant, Lucius, go to the Capitol to see if Brutus is well.  She speaks with the soothsayer about whether Caesar is at the Capitol or not.  The soothsayer wishes to warn Caesar again.  She continues to fear for her husband and his plot against Caesar.

Act Three: Caesar, Brutus, Cassius, Casca, Decius Brutus, Metellus Cimber, Trebonius, Cinna, Mark Antony, Lepidus, Artemidorus, and the soothsayer are before the Capitol.  Caesar says to the soothsayer, “The ides of March are come.”  The soothsayer says, “Ay, Caesar, but not gone.”

Artemidorus tries to give Caesar his letter, but Decius Brutus stops him by having Caesar read a letter of Trebonius instead.  Cassius then tells Brutus his fears that the conspiracy is publicly known; Brutus reassures him that all is well, for Popilius Lena is taking Caesar aside.  Trebonius similarly takes Mark Antony aside, distracting him.  All preparations are being made to ensure that the assassination runs as smoothly as possible.  Caesar and the conspirators enter the Capitol.

Metellus Cimber begs Caesar to repatriate his banished brother Publius; Caesar refuses to.  The other conspirators kneel before Caesar one by one, asking of him the same repatriation; of course, they’re really distracting him.

Finally, Casca says, “Speak, hands, for me!” and gives Caesar the first stab.  The other conspirators brandish their blades and stab him; Brutus, the last one, stabs Caesar, who gasps his feelings of betrayal before dying (see quote 5).  The conspirators triumphantly proclaim liberty for Rome, promising no harm to any of the stunned senators still in the Capitol.

Brutus tells the conspirators to bathe their hands in Caesar’s blood.  Cassius imagines actors in the future performing plays of this great moment in history.  The conspirators plan to go outside to appease the terrified citizens and explain why they killed Caesar.

Mark Antony enters the room and coolly shakes the hands of the conspirators; though outraged, he must hide his fury for the sake of his safety.  He claims to be their friend, asking only for a just reason for Caesar’s murder.  Brutus promises to be generous with such reasons, and allows Mark Antony to honour Caesar’s memory in his funeral, so long as the conspirators aren’t vilified.

Cassius takes Brutus aside, saying it will be dangerous to allow Mark Antony to address the crowd.  Brutus reassures him that allowing Caesar’s friend to speak for him in his funeral will make the conspirators look generous.

The conspirators go outside to speak to the people and to calm them.  Alone, Mark Antony finally expresses his rage, begging Caesar’s pardon for being “gentle with these butchers.”  Over Caesar’s wounds, he prophesies all of Rome rising in civil war to avenge Caesar’s murder, killing scores of men to appease Caesar’s ghost (see quote 6).

Outside, Brutus addresses the people, explaining that while he was friend to Caesar, he was more friend to Rome in killing him, out of a fear that he would turn tyrant.  Only those un-Roman enough to want to be slaves to Caesar would be offended at Brutus’ slaying of him.  The easily manipulated crowd now sympathizes with Brutus.

Mark Antony comes out with Caesar’s bloody body.  Brutus asks everyone to stay and listen to Mark Antony; Brutus leaves.

The angry crowd, now hating Caesar, at first refuse to listen to his friend’s cries for their attention (see quote 7).  In a masterstroke of political rhetoric, Mark Antony turns the crowd’s sympathies back to Caesar and away from the conspirators by only sarcastically calling them “honourable men/Whose daggers have stabb’d Caesar” (see also quote 8), and reminding the people of Caesar’s generosity to them.  By the end of Antony’s speech, when he’s disclosed Caesar’s will–giving all Romans the freedom to enjoy walking about his private parks and orchards, and giving each Roman 75 drachmas–after teasingly delaying the will’s revelation, the people riot in the streets.  Mark Antony is content to have this disorderly rage, for he can use it to his political advantage.

The rioters find a poet who, after revealing his name to be Cinna (unluckily also a name of one of the conspirators), is killed by them.

Act Four: Mark Antony, Octavius (the future emperor Augustus) and Lepidus form the Second Triumvirate, and check off a list of those to be executed for their involvement in the conspiracy against Caesar.  After Lepidus is sent off to Caesar’s home to fetch the will, Antony disparages him as the weakest of the three triumvirs.  Octavius defends Lepidus, calling him “a tried and valiant soldier,” though Antony won’t acknowledge this.  (In the interactions between Antony and Octavius, there is a hint of the antagonism that would be fully developed in another Shakespearean Roman tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra.)  They will prepare their armies to fight those of Brutus and Cassius.

Cassius comes to where Brutus’ army is, and angrily enters Brutus’ tent.  He says Brutus has done him wrong in accusing soldiers in his army of taking bribes.  Brutus is not at all moved by Cassius’ sword and threats, for Brutus is “arm’d so strong in honesty”, and despises all corruption, be it that of Caesar or of Cassius.

Cassius is thus put in his place, and shocked when Brutus speaks of Portia’s suicide by swallowing fire, after worrying so much of her husband’s fortunes.  Titinius and Messala enter the tent, and the four men discuss the coming battle: Cassius believes they should wait for the enemy to come, tired from marching, while their own armies are well-rested; Brutus, not wanting the enemy to gain the aid of the men “in a forc’d affection” between the armies of the enemy and those of Brutus and Cassius, would have their armies march ahead to meet the enemy (see quote 9).  Messala tells Brutus of Portia’s suicide: Brutus responds stoically.

Brutus is left alone in his tent at night; his weary servant, Lucius, plays a tune on his harp, but falls asleep in the middle of playing.  Brutus, wishing to be kind to the boy, lets him sleep, then begins reading a book.

Caesar’s ghost appears to Brutus, saying they’ll meet again in Philippi.  Frightened Brutus wakes the boy and two other servants of his, asking if they’ve seen or heard anyone: they haven’t.

Act Five: Antony and Octavius meet with Brutus and Octavius, exchanging harsh words before preparing for battle.  Brutus and Cassius say farewell, knowing this may be the last time they see each other.

The battles begin, and though Brutus’ army is fairly successful at first, Cassius’ is clearly losing.  When he mistakenly thinks his best friend Titinius has been captured by the enemy, he feels ashamed to be still living, and has Pindarus stab him with the sword he used on Caesar.  Titinius returns with good news of the battle, but seeing his good friend Cassius dead, kills himself.  Brutus comes by and sees the two dead men; he notes the power of Caesar after death, causing his enemies to kill themselves.

In the final battle, Brutus’ army is losing, and he asks soldier after soldier to hold his sword while he runs on it; all of them refuse except Strato.  As Brutus is dying, he hopes Caesar’s spirit will rest in peace (see quote 10).

Mark Antony and Octavius arrive and look down on Brutus’ body.  Antony praises Brutus, the only conspirator to act not out of envy of Caesar, but for the good of Rome.  Octavius calls for rejoicing over their victory.

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Analysis of ‘Julius Caesar’

Julius Caesar is a tragedy Shakespeare is believed to have written in 1599; the play is based on the assassination in 44 BC of the ancient Roman dictator and its aftermath in the Battle of Philippi.  While Dante, in his Inferno, portrayed both leading conspirators, Brutus and Cassius, as traitors whose treachery is comparable to that of Judas Iscariot, Shakespeare portrays Brutus as being the only conspirator who acted selflessly, for the good of Rome.

Here are some famous quotes:

1. “Beware the ides of March.” –Soothsayer, Act I, Scene ii, line 18

2. “Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a Colossus, and we petty men/Walk under his huge legs, and peep about/To find ourselves dishonourable graves./Men at some time are masters of their fates:/The fault, dear Brutus, is  not in our stars,/But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”    –Cassius, Act I, Scene ii, lines 135-141

3. “…but for mine own part, it was Greek to me.” –Casca, Act I, Scene ii, around line 282

4. “Cowards die many times before their deaths;/The valiant never taste of death but once./Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,/It seems to me most strange that men should fear;/Seeing that death, a necessary end,/Will come when it will come.” –Caesar, Act II, Scene ii, lines 32-37

5. “Et tu, Brute?  –Then fall, Caesar!” –Caesar, Act III, Scene i, line 77

6. “Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.” –Mark Antony, Act III, scene i, line 274

7. “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;/I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him./The evil that men do lives after them;/The good is oft interred with their bones;/So let it be with Caesar.” –Mark Antony, Act III, Scene ii. lines 73-77

8. “But Brutus says he was ambitious,/And Brutus is an honourable man.” –Mark Antony, Act III, Scene ii, lines 86-87

9. “There is a tide in the affairs of men/Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;/Omitted, all the voyage of their life/Is bound in shallows and in miseries./On such a full sea are we now afloat;/And we must take the current when it serves,/Or lose our ventures.” –Brutus, Act IV, Scene iii, lines 216-222

10. “Caesar, now be still:/I kill’d not thee with half so good a will.” –Brutus, Act V, Scene v, lines 50-51

The main theme of this play is constancy versus inconstancy, everyone in the play manifesting varying combinations of these two opposites.

First, we’ll look at examples of constancy.  At the end of the play, Mark Antony honours Brutus for being the one conspirator who acted not out of envy, but for the good of Rome.  Indeed, his constant loyalty to Rome even outweighs his loyalty to his friend, Caesar.  In all of Brutus’ speeches, be they public or private, he always puts Rome first.  In his home at night, before the other conspirators arrive, he speaks of how those who gain power often ignore the base degrees from which they’ve climbed.

“Th’abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins/Remorse from power; and to speak truth of Caesar,/I have not known when his affections sway’d/More than his reason.  But ’tis a common proof/That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,/Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;/But when he once attains the upmost round,/He then unto the ladder turns his back,/Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees/By which he did ascend.  So Caesar may.” (Brutus, Act II, Scene i, lines 18-27)

During the plotting with the conspirators that night, Brutus rejects Cassius’ recommendation to kill Mark Antony, too, feeling their “course will seem too bloody”.  Only Caesar has to die.  After killing Caesar, Brutus tells the other conspirators to dip their hands in Caesar’s blood, and to plead their cause to the people: killing Caesar was for the good of Rome, not for the conspirators’ private profit, and they are to reveal themselves proudly as liberators from Caesar’s growing tyranny (Act III, Scene i).

Later in that scene, Brutus’ constancy is so full that he would allow Mark Antony to honour Caesar in his funeral for the good he did in his life; this generosity, of course, is a risk Brutus is taking, and one that ultimately leads to his death, but it also shows how constant he is.

When Brutus learns of officers in Cassius’ army taking bribes, he shows his opposition so openly that he wounds Cassius’ pride, resulting in a quarrel (Act IV, Scene iii). Brutus’ duty to Rome outweighs his kindness to his friends; such noble constancy is rare.

Finally, when all is lost in the wars between Brutus’ army and those of Mark Antony and Octavius (later Augustus), Brutus runs into his sword, accepting the continuing power of Caesar even after his death (see quote 10).

Portia, Brutus’ wife, is offended that he won’t tell her what’s troubling him and keeping him awake at night (Act II, scene i); she feels he doubts her constancy, which she proves by cutting a wound in her leg.  Later, when she fears for him and his shaky fortunes in the wars after killing Caesar, we learn she’s killed herself by swallowing burning coals, or fire, as it says in the text (Act IV, scene iii).

Julius Caesar’s constancy seems the greatest of all.  Though fearing suspicious types like Cassius, he insists “always I am Caesar” (Act I, scene ii).  He says “I am constant as the northern star” when he is asked for pardon for the banished brother of Metellus Cimber, one of the conspirators (Act III, scene i).  The conspirators, of course, almost immediately after, in the same scene, show their inconstancy to Caesar by stabbing him to death.

His power lives on after his death, though, for Mark Antony and Octavius act as his avenging agents.  His ghost appears to Brutus (Act IV, scene iii), showing us how Caesar still exists, even if no longer in physical form.  Brutus acknowledges the constancy of Caesar’s power when his avengers defeat Brutus and Cassius in the battles toward the end of the play, causing Cassius and his loyal friend, Titinius, to kill themselves.  “O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!/Thy spirit walks abroad and turns our swords/In our own proper entrails.” (Brutus, Act V, scene iii, lines 93-95)

Now we’ll examine inconstancy, of which there’s plenty in this play.  Cassius’ inconstancy is particularly blatant.  He fears the growing power of Caesar, but is inconstant with the truth when he forges letters of complaint about Caesar’s tyranny, and has them tossed in the windows of Brutus’ home to trick him into joining the conspirators.  “I will this night,/In several hands, in at his windows throw,/As if they came from several citizens,/Writings, all tending to the great opinion/That Rome holds of his name; wherein obscurely/Caesar’s ambition shall be glanced at.” (Cassius, Act I, scene ii)

Cassius is opposed to Caesar’s corruption, but is lenient over the bribery his soldiers are guilty of; hence Brutus’ accusation that Cassius has an “itching palm” (Act IV, scene iii, line 10).

Cassius is constant, though, towards his friend, Titinius, when he, believing his friend has been taken by the enemy, kills himself.  “O, coward that I am to live so long/To see my best friend ta’en before my face!” (Cassius, Act V, scene iii, lines 34-35)  When Titinius, having not been taken, returns and sees Cassius lying dead on the ground, he kills himself, too.  “Brutus, come apace,/And see how I regarded Caius Cassius./By your leave, gods.  This is a roman’s part./Come, Cassius’ sword, and find Titinius’ heart.” (Titinius, Act V, scene iii, lines 87-90)

Conflicted Brutus is constant in his loyalty to Rome, but inconstant is his loyalty to his friend Caesar; hence, after his reluctant stab at Caesar, the betrayed, dying dictator gasps out his last words, “Et tu, Brute?” (Act III, scene i, line 76)

When Brutus, Cassius, Titinius, and Messala discuss the battle plans against the army of Mark Antony and Octavius, there is disagreement over where to meet the enemy: should they wait for them to arrive, tired from long marching, while their own armies are well-rested and ready, or should they march on and face the enemy farther ahead?  Cassius argues for the former, while Brutus argues the latter, based on the principle of inconstancy.

“The people ‘twixt Philippi and this ground/Do stand but in a forc’d affection;/For they have grudg’d us contribution./The enemy, marching along by them,/By them shall make a fuller number up,/Come on refresh’d, new-added, and encourag’d;/From which advantage shall we cut him off,/If at Philippi we do face him there,/These people at our back/…You must note beside/That we have tried the utmost of our friends,/Our legions are brim full, our cause is ripe./The enemy increaseth every day:/We, at the height, are ready to decline” (Brutus, Act IV, scene iii, lines 202-210, 210-215; then see Quote 9 above)

Brutus wants to fight Mark Antony and Octavius while his and Cassius’ armies still have the men “‘twixt Philippi and this ground” on their side, for, being “but in a forc’d affection”, those men may switch to the enemy’s side if Mark Antony and Octavius meet them before the battle.  If Brutus’ and Cassius’ armies cut the enemy off before they can meet those men in between, inconstancy won’t have an opportunity to give those men over to the enemy.

Elsewhere, Mark Antony seems constant in his loyalty to Caesar and to Rome in his “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech, in which he passionately demonstrates Caesar’s love of the Roman people while sarcastically parroting Brutus’ “honourable” intentions.  Once he has the ever-malleable crowd following him, however, he seems happier to use this support for his own political ascendancy than for Caesar’s revenge.

“Now let it work.  Mischief, thou art afoot,/Take thou what course thou wilt,” Antony says as he watches the people of Rome riot, loot, and search for revenge for Caesar’s death (Act III, scene ii, lines 261-262).

Caesar himself is mostly constant, though he fears “lean and hungry” Cassius, and wants fat men about him; almost in the same breath, however, he says, “always I am Caesar”.  Also, he thrice refuses a kingly crown, though, as Casca reports, he refuses it less and less.  (Act I, scene ii, lines 220-240, etc.)

On the day of his murder, he allows the entreaties of his wife, Calpurnia, to make him stay at home (Act II, scene ii) when she tells him of a dream she’s had, seeming to portend his bloody death; yet when Decius Brutus gives a misleadingly positive interpretation of the dream, Caesar quickly changes his mind and leaves home with the conspirators.

The most blatant example of inconstancy, however, is that of the crowd of common Romans outside the Capitol after Caesar’s murder.  At first, they’re shocked and horrified that their beloved leader has been assassinated in a conspiracy (Act III, scene ii); Brutus quickly sways their opinion in his favour in a brief speech:

“If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar’s, to him I say that Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his.  If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: Not that I lov’d Caesar less, but that I lov’d Rome more.  Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men?”

Then Mark Antony sways the people’s opinion back against the conspirators in his repeated ironic reference to Brutus, Cassius, et al as “honourable”, during his “Friends, Romans, countrymen,” speech.  All of this swaying of public opinion happens in the same scene, within a period of about a half hour.  How quickly a mob can be manipulated.  As passionate as they may be, they are rarely constant.

Detailed Synopsis for ‘The Taming of the Shrew’

Induction: Christopher Sly, a drunken tinker, rudely refuses to pay for his ale in an alehouse in England, annoying the hostess.  He falls asleep at his chair.

A lord and his men come to the alehouse after a hunt.  They see Sly asleep, and regarding him as contemptuously as the hostess has, the lord decides to play a trick on him.  He tells his men to carry the drunkard to his bedchamber.  There, they will trick him into thinking he’s a lord.

The lord has his page, the boy Bartholomew, dress up as a woman and pretend to be Sly’s dutiful, obedient wife.  When Sly wakes up, he finds himself wearing a lord’s bedclothes, and lying in a luxurious bedchamber.  Naturally confused, he insists he’s Christopher Sly the tinker; they say his identity as a tinker is the result of a dream he’s had during a fifteen-year coma, from which he’s just woken, to the tears of joy of his long-suffering wife.

The lord says Sly will now watch ‘a pleasant comedy’ that a group of actors has prepared.  Sly’s doctors say the entertainment will be good for his recovery.  The play begins:

Act One: Lucentio and his servant Tranio are entering Padua, since Lucentio is to study at the university there.  They see Baptista Minola and his two daughters, the shrewish Katherina and her younger sister Bianca.  Two suitors to Bianca, the elderly Gremio and foolish Hortensio, are disappointed to hear that Baptista won’t allow any wooing of Bianca until a husband can be found for Katherina.

Lucentio falls in love with the pretty Bianca instantly, forgetting all about his studies while focusing all his energy on winning her love.  Though Baptista won’t allow her to be married until the ‘too rough’ Katherina is wed, he wishes to find music and poetry teachers for both his daughters.  Lucentio thus plans to disguise himself as a Latin poetry teacher, calling himself ‘Cambio’.  Tranio is to pretend he’s Lucentio, and woo Bianca in the real Lucentio’s stead.  Master and servant swap clothes in the street, when Biondello, another servant of Lucentio’s, arrives, all confused to see his master dressed as Tranio, and vice versa.  Lucentio explains the whole plan to Biondello.

(The actors note that Christopher Sly, bored with the play, is nodding off.  He politely insists that he’s enjoying the performance, asking if there’s more…Actually, he wishes it was already over.)

Petruchio and his servant Grumio enter Padua.  Petruchio would have Grumio knock at the door of Hortensio’s home; and when Grumio grows argumentative over Petruchio’s ambiguous words, Petruchio threatens to knock his servant over the head.  When Grumio shouts in fear of his ‘mad’ master, Hortensio appears.

Petruchio and Hortensio greet each other, and Petruchio explains that his father has died, and he, without money, hopes to marry a woman and get a generous dowry.  He doesn’t care what the bride is like, as long as he gets lots of money.  The fact that Petruchio is Hortensio’s good friend is a deterrent from Hortensio telling Petruchio about the shrewish Katherina.  Still, Petruchio would get a good dowry from Baptista, so he willingly accepts.

Delighted with the hope of Katherina soon being married off, Hortensio tells Petruchio of his plan to disguise himself as ‘Licio’, a teacher of the lute.

Gremio comes with ‘Cambio’, hoping the would-be Latin teacher will woo Bianca on his behalf.  When Hortensio tells Gremio of Petruchio’s intention to marry Katherina, Gremio worries that Petruchio will change his mind when he learns of “all her faults.”  Petruchio reassures the others that he, being used to the harsh sounds of war, has no fear “of a woman’s tongue.”

Tranio appears, calling himself ‘Lucentio’ and telling everyone of his plan to woo Bianca, to the annoyance of Gremio and Hortensio.    All the men go to the Minolas’ house.

Act Two:  Angry and envious Katherina has Bianca’s hands tied, and demands that her sister tell her which man she loves the most.  Bianca says that she doesn’t love any particular man yet.  Katherina hits her.  Baptista comes over to break up the fight, pitying poor Bianca and unbinding her hands.  She leaves.  Katherina grows more enraged, imagining their father loves Bianca more, and that Bianca will be married first, thus shaming elder Katherina, who leaves in a fury.  Baptista laments his ill fortune as a father.

All the suitors arrive.  Gremio greets Baptista, and Petruchio asks about Katherina, praising her “beauty and her wit,/Her affability and bashful modesty./Her wondrous qualities and mild behaviour.”  Everyone hearing these words cannot believe his ears.  Petruchio introduces ‘Licio’ to Baptista as the girls’ music teacher.

Gremio introduces ‘Cambio’ to Baptista.  ‘Lucentio’ introduces himself as a suitor to Bianca.  A servant leads ‘Cambio’ and ‘Licio’ to the girls to begin their lessons.  Petruchio asks Baptista of the dowry he’ll receive for marrying Katherina.  Baptista offers a generous dowry, which more than satisfies Petruchio.  The only challenge will be gaining the shrew’s love.  Petruchio has no fears of not gaining it.  (See the first quote from my ‘Analysis of The Taming of the Shrew‘.)

‘Licio’ enters the room, his head beaten.  He explains how he tried to explain the proper fingering of the lute to Katherina, who’d gotten it wrong.  Angry with his corrections, she broke the lute over his head.  Petruchio is delighted, saying he loves her all the more, and eagerly wishing “to have some chat with her.”

Baptista goes to send her over to meet Petruchio.  As he is waiting, Petruchio goes over his plan to deny her every word of nastiness or unwillingness to marry him.  He’ll insist she’s sweet and gentle instead, as well as eager to marry him.

Katherina arrives: Petruchio addresses her as ‘Kate’.  She says she’s known as Katherina, but he insists she’s ‘Kate’.  She scoffs at his plans to marry her.  The arguing between them escalates till she slaps him for making a lewd joke.

When Baptista returns with Gremio and ‘Lucentio’, Petruchio denies Katherina’s reputed shrewishness and unwillingness to marry him, claiming her nastiness is all just an act she puts on in public, while privately she’s sweet and mild (and the only time to know a woman for real is in private).  They’ll be married on Sunday.  (She’d have him hanged then instead.)

The others would much prefer Petruchio’s story to hers, so the wedding is settled.  Now gleeful Baptista is ready to accept the best dowry offer of Gremio or ‘Lucentio’.  The latter offers a better one, so as long as ‘Lucentio’ can prove that his father can pay the dowry, Baptista prefers him as a husband for Bianca.  Baptista and Gremio leave.  Now Tranio must find someone to pretend to be Vincentio, Lucentio’s father.

Act Three:  ‘Cambio’ and ‘Licio’ are vying over who gets to teach, and therefore woo, Bianca.  ‘Cambio’ wins, slipping in his wooing words between Latin phrases; meanwhile, ‘Licio’ is tuning his lute.  Bianca tells ‘Cambio’, in Latin phrases alternating with her responding words, that he must try harder to win her heart, but not give up, for she clearly prefers him.  ‘Licio’ increasingly suspects him to be a suitor rather than a teacher; he also increasingly realizes he’s losing the suit.

On Sunday at the church, everyone is waiting for the very late Petruchio to arrive.  Katherina complains that everyone will say, “Lo, there is mad Petruchio’s wife,/If it would please him come and marry her!”  Indeed, Baptista acknowledges that she has good reason to be angry.

Finally, Petruchio and Grumio arrive, but they are dressed absurdly.  Biondello describes Petruchio as wearing “a new hat and an old jerkin; a pair of old breeches thrice turn’d; a pair of boots that have been candle-cases, one buckled, another lac’d…”, et cetera.  The others chide Petruchio for his clothes, and offer him better ones to change into.  He insists Katherina’s marrying him, not his clothes.  She very unwillingly goes with him into the church.

The comical goings-on during the ceremony are described by Gremio.  Petruchio “swore so loud/That, all amaz’d, the priest let fall the book;/And as he stoop’d again to take it up,/This mad-brain’d bridegroom took him such a cuff/That down fell priest and book, and book and priest.”

Petruchio and Katherina come out of the church, but he refuses to attend the wedding party, claiming he has urgent business to attend to back home.  Katherina won’t go with him, and the others sympathize with her; but he insists she’s his ‘goods’, his ‘chattels’, his ‘any thing’.  Acting like a madman, he pretends the others are trying to take her away, and he and Grumio, brandishing swords, claim to be protecting her as they take her with them to Verona.  An exasperated Baptista allows them to go.

Act Four: In Petruchio’s country house in Verona, Grumio arrives first, telling Curtis, another servant, of Petruchio’s mad, ungentlemanly treatment of Katherina during the journey from Padua to Verona.  She fell off her horse and into the mire, and he wouldn’t help her back on; he beat Grumio instead.  Grumio then tells Curtis to have all the servants ready to meet their master and Katherina.

Petruchio soon arrives with his filthy, exhausted, and starving bride.  He bullies his servants into making dinner quickly for them.  Dinner is served, but Petruchio rants and raves like a maniac that the meat is burnt (it isn’t).  A terrified Kate tries to reason with him; he then throws all the meat at the servants.  Poor Kate must now do without supper.

He plans to be similarly abusive when he sees the condition of her bed, not letting her sleep in it.  In a soliloquy, he tells of his plans to tame Kate (see quote 2 of my ‘Analysis of The Taming of the Shrew‘), saying that all of his depriving her of food and sleep is out of perfect love for her, since the rejected necessities haven’t been worthily prepared for so fine a wife.  He’d be happy to see if anyone knows a better way to tame a shrew, for “‘Tis charity to show.”

Tranio (still pretending to be Lucentio) and Hortensio (no longer pretending to be Licio) speak of how ‘Cambio’ is successfully courting Bianca: they watch the two lovers walk by.  Hortensio speaks of his plans to marry a wealthy widow instead, then leaves.  Tranio is now speaking with Lucentio and Bianca, and all three are happy to be “rid of Licio.”

Biondello comes, telling of a pedant whom they can use in their plans.  The pedant arrives, saying he’s from Mantua; but Tranio tells him “‘Tis death for any one in Mantua/To come to Padua.”  For the dukes of each city have a ‘private quarrel’ now publicly proclaimed.  The pedant, to protect himself, must disguise himself as Vincentio, a man of Pisa, and help Lucentio in promising to pay the dowry for Bianca’s hand in marriage.  The pedant agrees to do so.

In Petruchio’s country house, poor Kate continues to go hungry and without sleep.  (See quote 3 of my ‘Analysis’.)  Grumio tortures her by speaking of delicious meats, then denying her the food, claiming “it is too choleric a meat.”  She begins beating him when Petruchio and Hortensio arrive with meat.  Petruchio offers her the meat, which he has lovingly prepared himself for her; he is sure his ‘diligent’ work deserves some thanks.  She reluctantly thanks him, but he’d have Hortensio eat it instead.

Since Bianca is about to be married, Petruchio and Kate are to wear their finest clothes and go to Padua.  He’s had a tailor and haberdasher prepare a gown and hat for her to wear; she loves the clothes, but he is quick to find fault with them.  She insists that all gentlewomen wear hats like the one made, but he won’t have her wear one until she learns to be gentle.

When he says the gown hasn’t been made in accordance with his instructions, the tailor insists that it has, and even shows Petruchio and Grumio them in writing; but they both deny this.  So Kate won’t have the dress, either.  She and Petruchio will have to go to Padua in their modest attire instead; the clothes don’t make the man (or woman), anyway.

Petruchio claims it is seven o’clock, but when she says it’s about two, he says they won’t go to Padua unless she agrees with his incorrect estimation of the time.  Defeated, she agrees with it.

In Padua, the pedant as ‘Vincentio’ helps Tranio (as ‘Lucentio’) with the promising of payment of the dowry in a scene with Baptista.  Plans are made for the real Lucentio to marry Bianca in a church.

On the road to Padua with Hortensio, Petruchio looks up at the sun and calls it the moon.  When Kate says it’s the sun, he threatens to take her back home unless she says it’s the moon, which she now does.  Then he corrects her, saying it’s the sun, and she says it’s whatever he wants it to be.  Hortensio is impressed, hoping he can similarly tame his shrewish new wife, the wealthy widow!

They see an old man approaching, and Petruchio calls him a pretty young maiden.  He tells Kate to “embrace her for her beauty’s sake”.  Kate immediately greets the “Young budding virgin, fair and fresh and sweet”.  Petruchio now corrects her, saying she’s spoken to an old man.  She begs his pardon for her “mad mistaking”.

The old man, having overcome his surprise and confusion at the ‘merry’ woman,  then introduces himself as Vincentio of Pisa, on his way to Padua to visit his son.  Since Petruchio and Kate are going there too, they all decide to go there together.

Act Five: In Padua, Lucentio and Bianca prepare to get married, when Petruchio, Katherina, Vincentio, and Grumio arrive.

Vincentio is enraged to find the pedant pretending to be him, and even more so to find Biondello, Tranio (dressed in Lucentio’s clothes), and Baptista all confirming that the pedant is ‘Vincentio’, while Tranio is ‘Lucentio’.  Convinced of his servants’ villainy, Vincentio accuses them of having murdered his son.  Tranio, wishing to protect himself from getting into trouble, calls for an officer to have Vincentio arrested.  Baptista agrees with ‘Lucentio’ that the old ‘dotard’ should go to jail.

Lucentio and Bianca, now married, arrive, apologizing to Vincentio and explaining away all the disguises and deceit.  Now Baptista is angry that his daughter has married a man without her father’s consent.  All will be explained and resolved when they go.

Kate wishes to follow them and watch the resolution: Petruchio agrees, but wants her to kiss him first.  She is too shy to kiss in public, so he threatens to take her back to Verona.  She now agrees to kiss him.

Finally, all are in Lucentio’s house, celebrating at the wedding party.  Bianca, and especially the widow, prove themselves to be even more shrewish than Kate.  Indeed, Kate is quite annoyed with the widow’s meanness.  At one point, the three women leave the room, and all the men assume Kate to be still the most shrewish of the three.  Petruchio denies this, confidently entering a wager with Lucentio and Hortensio.  Each man will call his wife back into the room; the first wife to come, thus being the most obedient, will cause her husband to win the wager.

Overconfident Lucentio goes first, telling his father he’ll pay in full if he loses.  He has Biondello fetch Bianca; the servant returns without her, reporting that she says she is busy and cannot come.  All are shocked.

Hortensio nervously has Biondello entreat his wife to come.  Biondello returns, saying the widow refuses to come; she’d have her husband come to her!

“Worse and worse; she will not come!” Petruchio says to this.  The other two husbands insist, though, that Kate will be the most disobedient of all.  Petruchio is sure she will obey, and he tells Grumio to tell Kate that he commands her to come.  Grumio fetches her, and she comes immediately, in all submission.  Everyone is amazed.

Petruchio tells her to get the other two wives, and bring them back, by force if necessary.  She goes to get them.  Petruchio promises to show the stunned spectators more proof of the obedience of his transformed wife.  She returns with Bianca and the widow.  Petruchio tells Kate to remove her cap, as he doesn’t like how it looks on her, and drop it at her feet.  She immediately does so, to the continued amazement of all in the room.

Bianca and the widow find Kate’s obedience silly; Lucentio wishes he’d gotten such silliness from Bianca, so as not to lose the large sum of money he’s lost in the wager.  Bianca calls him a fool for relying on her obedience.

Petruchio tells Kate to tell “these headstrong women/What duty they do owe their lords and husbands.”  The widow will hear none of it; Petruchio demands she listen.  Kate chides Bianca and the widow in a long speech about why wives should obey their husbands.   (See quote 4.)

Petruchio is touched and appreciative of Kate’s love and duty (quote 5).  He triumphantly leaves the party with Kate, while the others are left wondering how he succeeded in taming her.

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Analysis of ‘The Taming of the Shrew’

The Taming of the Shrew is an early Shakespeare comedy, believed to have been written between 1590 and 1592.  Though this farce has always been a popular one, it isn’t without controversy.  The traditionalist attitude towards women that is depicted, especially in Katherina’s closing speech–about a wife’s required obedience to her husband, was problematical even back in Elizabethan times.  For this reason, modern productions try to soften the perceived sexism in various ways: for example, at the end of the Franco Zeffirelli film version, Katherina (played by Elizabeth Taylor) walks out on Petruchio (Richard Burton) without his permission; and in the 1929 film version with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (Petruchio), Katherina (played by Mary Pickford) gives Bianca an ironic wink during the closing speech.  There is always an indication that Katherina’s feisty spirit hasn’t been, and never will be, broken by any man.

I will argue, however, that there is absolutely no need to alter the ending for feminism’s sake.  What must be remembered is that the Petruchio and Katherina story is just the play-within-the-play, a farce staged for Christopher Sly, the main character of the Induction.  Though all too often cut out of productions, this Induction is, in spite of its brevity, the real story of the play.

Here are some quotes:

“I am as peremptory as she proud-minded,/And where two raging fires meet together,/They do consume the thing that feeds their fury.” –Petruchio, Act II, scene i, lines 130-132

“Thus have I politicly begun my reign,/And ’tis my hope to end successfully./My falcon now is sharp and passing empty,/And till she stoop she must not be full-gorg’d,/For then she never looks upon her lure.” –Petruchio, Act IV, scene i, lines 172-176

“What, did he marry me to famish me?”  –Katherina, Act IV, scene iii, line 3

“FIe, fie!  unknit that threatening unkind brow,/And dart not scornful glances from those eyes/To wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor./It blots thy beauty as frosts do bite the meads,/Confounds thy fame as whirlwinds shake fair buds./And in no sense is meet or amiable./A woman mov’d is like a fountain troubled–/Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty;/And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty/Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it./Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee,/And for thy maintenance commits his body/To painful labour both by sea and land,/To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,/Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;/And craves no other tribute at thy hands/But love, fair looks, and true obedience–/Too little payment for so great a debt./Such duty as the subject owes the prince,/Even such a woman oweth to her husband;/And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,/And not obedient to his honest will,/What is she but a foul contending rebel/And graceless traitor to her loving lord?/I am asham’d that women are so simple/To offer war where they should kneel for peace;/Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,/When they are bound to serve, love, and obey./Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,/Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,/But that our soft conditions and our hearts/Should well agree with our external parts?/Come, come, you froward and unable worms!/My mind hath been as big as one of yours,/My heart as great, my reason haply more,/To bandy word for word and frown for frown;/But now I see our lances are but straws,/Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,/That seeming to be most which we indeed least are./Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,/And place your hands below your husband’s foot;/In token of which duty, if he please,/My hand is ready, may it do him ease.”  –Katherina, Act V, scene 2, lines 136-179

“Why, there’s a wench!  Come on, and kiss me, Kate.”  –Petruchio, Act V, scene 2, line 180

The Induction is the key to understanding this play, for it is the real story, not the Petruchio and Katherina one.  The Induction’s brevity should not distract us from its centrality.  The play staged before Christopher Sly should be regarded as no more important than the plays-within-plays in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Hamlet.  The length of the Petruchio and Katherina farce, admittedly covering the vast majority of The Taming of the Shrew, nonetheless shouldn’t deflect us from the conclusion that it’s of secondary importance to the Christopher Sly story.

It is unfortunate that the Induction is so often trivialized as a mere appendage, or framing device, that can easily be discarded from productions as superfluous.  It is key to understanding the play’s themes of deception, illusion, and denial of reality.

The shrew of the Petruchio story may be Katherina, but Christopher Sly is the shrew of the Induction.  We must remember that, in Shakespeare’s day, a shrew could be a nasty person of either sex, not just a woman, as ‘shrew’ is understood today.  Sly, a drunken oaf who refuses to pay for the ale he’s drunk at an alehouse in England, is just the kind of charmless fellow in need of a good taming.  In fact, he will be so well tamed that he’ll nod off during the performance of the play.

A lord and his men come to the alehouse after a hunt, and they see the drunken slob sleeping at a table.  As contemptuous of Sly as the annoyed hostess is, the lord decides to play a trick on him.  Sly is carried to a bedchamber in the lord’s house, carefully so as not to wake him.  When he wakes in bed, he’s been changed into the clothes of a lord, and a boy is dressed like a woman, pretending to be the lord’s obedient wife (!).  This tricking of Sly, that he’s a lord, should clearly indicate what we are to think of the ‘lord’ of any house, and of his ‘obedient’ wife: it’s all an act.

Sly is told that all of the life he remembers, that of a tinker, is a mere dream he’s had while being in a coma for fifteen years.  His life as a lord, into which he has woken, and surprisingly so, is his ‘real’ life.  His real life has been an illusion, apparently.

Next, he is to watch ‘a pleasant comedy’, since his would-be doctors say such entertainment would be conducive to the restoration of his health.  The play, that of the Petruchio and Katherina story, is so long that we, the audience, forget about the main story, the Induction, and are deceived into thinking that this mere play-within-a-play is the real story.  This switching of real and illusory events (i.e., Induction and play-within-a-play) parallels the trick played on Sly, whose sense of reality and illusion are also reversed (i.e., his comatose dream-life as a tinker versus his supposedly actual life as a lord).

We must always remember how sensitive the Bard was to the illusory nature of theatre, a notion he exploited for artistic effect in several of his plays.  The Taming of the Shrew is no exception to this: the play-within-a-play is to be understood as mere theatrical illusion, while the Christopher Sly story is the real one.

Another thing about Shakespeare: with his deep, penetrating insight into human nature, one of the main reasons his plays have endured for so many years, it is inconceivable that he could have had so simple-minded a view of humanity as to think that men are the natural rulers of women, however dominant such a bigoted view may have been in Elizabethan times.  The Taming of the Shrew, far from being a sexist play, very subtly satirizes male chauvinism, particularly in the Induction.

The play staged before Sly, being mere theatrical illusion, needn’t–and mustn’t–be taken seriously.  It’s just a farce, and its attitude towards women is accordingly absurd.  The themes of deception and denial of reality within the Petruchio and Katherina story only reinforce the absurd illogic of sexist thinking.

When Lucentio sees and falls in love with Katherina’s pretty younger sister Bianca, he cannot woo her, for their father Baptista insists on finding a husband for shrewish Katherina first.  Lucentio thus disguises himself as a teacher of Latin (‘Cambio’), while his servant Tranio pretends to be Lucentio.  Lucentio and Tranio even exchange clothes in the street, this seeming role reversal astonishing Biondello, Lucentio’s other servant.  Servant is master: this can be seen as a subtle indication of the true husband and wife relationship.

Similar to Lucentio’s deception, another suitor to Bianca, Hortensio, disguises himself as a music teacher, ‘Licio’.  When Baptista agrees to have ‘Lucentio’ marry Bianca (after Petruchio agrees to marry her nasty sister), a pedant from Mantua, deceived by ‘Lucentio’ into believing Mantuans’ presence in Padua is illegal (on pain of death), agrees to pretend to be Vincentio, Lucentio’s father, and pretend to agree to pay the dowry for Bianca’s marriage.  All acting and pretending, just like the chest-thumping, ‘dominant’ husband of traditional marriage.

Speaking of dominant husbands, Petruchio quickly shows himself to be as much of a shrew as Katherina (see quote one).  He beats his servants, shouts at them abusively, and behaves like a madman.  He denies reality throughout the story, pretending that his bride’s real name is Kate, that she’s sweet and gentle, and that she wants to marry him as much as he does her (she of course doesn’t want to marry him at all).

More denial of reality comes after their marriage.  When Kate is in his house in Verona, he raves wildly at his servants that his dinner is badly cooked (it’s fine) and her bed is unfit for her to sleep on (it’s also fine).  Later, he rejects a beautiful, perfectly good dress Kate would have worn to Bianca’s wedding, claiming the tailor got the measurements wrong (the tailor hadn’t, and insisted he had the correct measurements from Petruchio, while Petruchio’s servant Grumio denies it, knowing full well that no mistake was made).

Petruchio pretends the time is seven o’clock, when it is actually about two; he insists that she agree with his deliberate inaccuracy (Act IV, scene iii).  On the way to Padua to attend Bianca’s wedding (Act IV, scene v), Petruchio pretends the sun shining in the sky is actually the moon, and that an old man (the real Vincentio) is a pretty young woman, again demanding that Kate go along with his bizarre distortion of reality.

All of these caricatures of reality symbolize the phoniness of male dominance of women, a phoniness that is most clearly shown in the final scene, when Bianca and a widow prove themselves to be even more shrewish towards Lucentio and Hortensio than Kate has ever been.  When Kate gives the final speech about obedience to husbands, we should clearly see that this is the ultimate denial of reality: wives are, always have been, and always will be, thoroughly indomitable.  Shakespeare knew–he just pretended he didn’t.

Detailed Synopsis for ‘Macbeth’

Act One: Three witches are in an open place, discussing how they’ll meet again before the sun sets, after Scotland wins a war they’re waging against Norway and Ireland, when they’ll meet Macbeth.  (See first quote from my ‘Analysis of Macbeth’.)

King Duncan, his sons, and some Scottish nobles discuss the outcome of the war with a wounded soldier, who praises Macbeth’s valour; he mentions how Macbeth confronted the enemy and killed him with his sword–he “unseam’d him from the nave to th’ chaps.” The king has the soldier taken away to be treated for his wounds.

The Thane of Ross discusses Scotland’s victory against Norway and Ireland, the heroism of ‘Bellona’s bridegroom’ (Macbeth), and the traitor Macdonwald, Thane of Cawdor, who has been captured and will be executed.  Duncan tells Ross and the other nobles to confer on Macbeth the title of Thane of Cawdor.

The three witches meet again on a blasted heath, waiting for Macbeth to appear.  One speaks of a woman who munched on some nuts.  When the witch asked for some, the woman shouted at her to go away, calling her a witch.  The witch will have her revenge on the woman by causing her husband to suffer in a tempest at sea.

Macbeth and Banquo walk together towards where the witches are.  (See second quote of my ‘Analysis’.)  The witches accost them, each greeting Macbeth with the titles ‘Thane of Glamis‘ (his original title), ‘Thane of Cawdor’, and ‘king hereafter’.  He is shocked, even frightened, by such a ‘prophetic greeting’.  Banquo asks of his future; the witches predict that he will beget a line of kings, though he himself will be none.  The men demand that the witches explain their meaning more clearly, but the three mysteriously vanish.

The Scottish nobles greet Macbeth with the title ‘Thane of Cawdor’, thus confirming one of the witches’ predictions.  Macbeth is dazed with his growing ambition to be king, and his fear of it.  (Quote 3)  The nobles explain that Macdonwald, the original Thane of Cawdor, gave aid of some sort to the enemy, thus deserving execution for treason, and making Macbeth his replacement.  They leave to meet the king.

With the king now, Macbeth and Banquo are honoured for their valour during the war.  Malcolm, Duncan’s son, tells of the execution of Macdonwald.  Malcolm is made Prince of Cumberland: Macbeth knows this appointment is an obstacle to his becoming king.  They will go to Macbeth’s castle to celebrate the victory and stay the night.

At his castle, a letter he’s written is being read by his wife, Lady Macbeth.  She reads of one of the witches’ prophecies coming true, thus making that of his becoming king also quite possibly true.  Now her ambition has been fired up; but she knows her husband is “too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness/ To catch the nearest way”, so she must be especially ruthless to compensate for his weakness.  She calls on devils to fill her “from the crown to the toe, top-full/ Of direst cruelty.”

Macbeth arrives at his castle, greeted by Lady Macbeth as “Great Glamis!  Worthy Cawdor!”  They plan to kill Duncan that night in Macbeth’s castle.  This is too perfect an opportunity to pass up.

When Duncan arrives, he says, “This castle hath a pleasant seat.”  Lady Macbeth cordially greets him, and a feast is prepared.  During the banquet, Macbeth goes off alone, and in a soliloquy expresses his doubts and fears.  He notes the kindness of the king, who’ll plead for mercy like angels if Macbeth cruelly kills him.  He realizes that only his ambition pushes him to want to kill Duncan. (See fourth quote.)  He resolves not to do it.

Lady Macbeth finds him and asks him why he isn’t with the others.  When he remorsefully says he won’t kill Duncan, she questions his manhood and reassures him that they can succeed.  The men guarding Duncan’s prepared room for the night will be given drugged wine, which will knock them unconscious when Macbeth is to kill Duncan; Macbeth is to put the bloody daggers in the sleeping guards’ hands to incriminate them.  Macbeth is turned back toward the plan.

Act Two: There is a brief scene between Banquo and his son Fleance; then Banquo and Macbeth chat about the witches.  Banquo speaks of dreaming about them, while Macbeth lies that he doesn’t even think about them.  Banquo and Fleance leave to go to sleep.

Macbeth is alone, about to go to Duncan’s room.  He hallucinates, seeing a dagger hovering in front of him.  (See fifth quote.)  It seems as real as the daggers he has to kill Duncan with, but it seems to be “a dagger of the mind”, a product of his stress and fear.

As he continues on to Duncan’s room, Lady Macbeth is emboldened by the wine she’s drunk, though an owl’s hoot briefly frightens her.  Nonetheless, all is ready: Duncan’s guards have drunk the drugged wine, and they’re unconscious.

Macbeth returns with bloody daggers, shaking after having murdered Duncan.  (See sixth quote.)  Lady Macbeth tries to calm him, but is shocked to see the daggers in his hands.  He doesn’t dare return to the murder scene, so Lady Macbeth takes the daggers from him and puts them in the hands of the sleeping guards.  Now her hands are as bloody as Macbeth’s.  They hear a knocking on the front door of the castle, so they must quickly wash the blood off their hands and remove all evidence linking them to the murder.  Still, Macbeth is too scared to move, the loud knocking continues, and Lady Macbeth must push him to action.

A porter goes to answer the knocking.  His scene is one of comic relief.  He jokes about being porter to the gates of Hell, and speaks of a damned ‘equivocator’, among other unrepentant sinners.  He opens the door and in come Macduff and Lennox who, needing to speak with the king, ask why the porter is so slow to answer the door.  The porter explains how everyone in the castle was drinking wine and celebrating till late; then he jokes about how wine equivocates by provoking sexual desire, but taking away the male ability to perform sexually.  Macbeth appears, and takes Macduff to Duncan’s room.

Horrified to see the king murdered, Macduff shouts and wakes everyone up.  Lady Macbeth feigns fainting to hear the news, and Macbeth confesses to having killed the guards out of a fit of passion (actually, to silence them).  Now plans must be made to learn who “suborn’d” the guards, and to crown Duncan’s successor.  (Speaking of whom, the king’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, plan to flee immediately to England and Ireland respectively, for fear of their lives.  Later this will cause them to be suspected of plotting their father’s murder.  The way is clear for Macbeth to be the next king.)

Act Three: Macbeth is now king.  Banquo is impressed with the accuracy of the witches’ predictions, but he wonders if Macbeth “play’dst most most foully for’t.”  He also remembers the prophecy that his descendants would be kings.  He tells Macbeth he has urgent business to attend to, and will be late for a banquet Macbeth has invited all the nobles to that night.  Banquo leaves.

Macbeth also remembers the witches’ prophecy about Banquo, and he fears the future of his own rule.    Macbeth hires two murderers who, hating Banquo for past injuries he’s done them, are to kill him and his son Fleance when they approach Macbeth’s castle that night.  Lady Macbeth worries about how Macbeth has changed from a good man into a power-obsessed ruler.

That evening, Banquo and Fleance are nearing the castle while the murderers, suddenly and awkwardly joined by a third, lie in wait.  The three murderers surprise Banquo and Fleance, killing the father while the son escapes.

One of the murderers tells Macbeth at the banquet that Banquo’s ‘throat is cut’ (which the reporting murderer himself did), “With twenty trenched gashes on his head”, but Fleance escaped.  Macbeth is not pleased with the latter news.  He joins his guests and drinks a toast to Banquo, who he says sadly isn’t with them.

The Thane of Ross asks Macbeth to sit with them, but Macbeth sees someone sitting at the chair Lennox gestures to.  No one else sees anyone sitting there, but Macbeth insists the chair isn’t vacant.  He looks closer, and is shocked to see Banquo’s ghost.  Everyone is surprised at Macbeth’s wildly fearful reaction, since only he sees the ghost.

Lady Macbeth takes him aside, demanding that he control himself.  She makes up an excuse to their guests that Macbeth has suffered a psychological condition from childhood, causing momentary fits that will soon pass.

The ghost disappears, and Macbeth is calm again.  He confirms Lady Macbeth’s excuse about his ‘infirmity’, then he drinks another toast to absent Banquo, whose ghost suddenly reappears.  Macbeth’s manic reaction shocks everyone so much that Lady Macbeth tells everyone to leave.  The guests wish good health on the king before leaving.

As Macbeth is calming down (the ghost is gone), he wonders why Macduff never attended the banquet.  Macbeth also says he wants to visit the witches again.

(An apocryphal scene has the goddess Hecate reprimanding the three witches for using their art on Macbeth without involving her.)

Lennox and a lord discuss the current, wretched state of Scotland: word is out that Macduff has joined Malcolm in England to raise up an army to invade Scotland, kill the increasingly suspect King Macbeth, and give Malcolm the crown.

Act Four:  The witches prepare a spell, throwing such ingredients as ‘Eye of newt’, ‘Nose of Turk’, and ‘Liver of blaspheming Jew’ into the cauldron (Seventh quote.).  One of the witches says, “By the pricking of my thumbs,/Something wicked this way comes.”  “Open locks, whoever knocks,” when Macbeth arrives.

He asks them of his fate.  Their ‘masters’ tell Macbeth, in visions, three prophecies: beware Macduff, the Thane of Fife; none of woman born will ever kill Macbeth; and he won’t fall until Birnham forest moves to high Dunsinane hill, where his castle is.  The second two prophecies give him a false self-confidence, since he imagines it impossible for them ever to be manifested.

Then he asks of Banquo’s future.  The witches reluctantly show him a vision of Banquo’s descendants, a long line of kings that seems to stretch out till the end of time.  This upsets Macbeth terribly.

He learns, from Lennox, of Macduff joining Malcolm in England: this makes Macduff a traitor.  Macbeth would have Macduff’s castle surprised, and his family slain.

At Macduff’s castle, Ross has informed Lady Macduff of her husband’s flight to England.  She is upset that Macduff could abandon his whole family so suddenly.  Ross leaves.   She talks with her son about Macduff.  The boy’s clever remarks about traitors are touching to hear; this makes the coming tragedy all the more heartbreaking.

A messenger warns her of hired murderers coming to kill them; he leaves, making her wonder where she could go.  She imagines that, being innocent, she needn’t fear danger; but in this corrupt world, it is often the innocent who are harmed, while the guilty prosper.

The murderers arrive and call Macduff a traitor.  The boy angrily calls his father’s accuser a ‘shag-ear’d villain’, and is stabbed.  Then they kill Lady Macduff.

In England, Macduff tries to convince Malcolm to fight for his right to the crown.  Malcolm, testing Macduff’s loyalty, pretends to be unworthy of being king.  He claims his lust and greed are limitless; then Macduff says they can find plenty of willing women and gold to satisfy Malcolm’s thirst for them.  Malcolm then insists that he has no virtues to compensate for his vices.  Macduff despairingly laments the dismal fate of the country he’s exiled himself from.

Satisfied that Macduff has proven his loyalty, Malcolm disavows all the vices he’s claimed to have had.  Macduff, surprised, finds it difficult to reconcile these opposing self-characterizations.

Ross arrives with bad news from Scotland, still mired in Macbeth’s tyranny.  When Macduff realizes evil has come to his family, he demands Ross tell him quickly.  Ross delays as best he can, then finally tells Macduff his whole family has been “savagely slaughter’d”.  Malcolm tries to comfort Macduff, who in his shock at first can’t seem to believe what he’s heard.  Malcolm advises him to “let grief/ Convert to anger”.  They all resolve to raise an army to invade Scotland.

Act Five: At night, a doctor has been asked by a gentlewoman to watch Lady Macbeth, who has been sleepwalking and confessing her and Macbeth’s crimes.  The doctor and the lady watch sleepwalking Lady Macbeth enter the room; she seems to be washing her hands in imaginary water.  Her eyes are open, but she sees only her dream.  Guilt is overwhelming her.

She despairs that she can never get the blood off her hands (8th quote).  The doctor and lady are shocked to hear Lady Macbeth confess to the murders of Duncan, Banquo, and Lady Macduff.  Lady Macbeth imagines she’s hurrying Macbeth out of the room, as she had on the night he’d killed Duncan.

Lennox and other nobles have shifted their loyalty away from ‘the tyrant’ and towards “Malcolm,/ His uncle Siward, and the good Macduff” in England.  They know that Macbeth’s men obey him only from fear, not from love.  They plan to meet the English army at Birhnam wood, and join them in the invasion of Scotland.

In his castle, Macbeth receives messages of the army from England coming to challenge him.  Macbeth is still overconfident, remembering the second and third prophecies of his fate.  He asks the doctor why he can’t cure Lady Macbeth of her “mind diseas’d”.  The doctor says only she can do that for herself.  Macbeth curses medicine as useless.

Malcolm leads the English army to Birnham wood, where he tells them to cut off branches of the trees, and carry them to Dunsinane, to hide their soldiers’ numbers.  The men do so.

As Macbeth and the men in his castle prepare for war with the English, the cry of  women is heard.  Seyton goes to find out what’s happened.  He returns, telling Macbeth, “The queen, my lord, is dead.”

Macbeth gives a speech on the meaninglessness of life (9th quote).  A watchman calls out that he sees trees from Birnham forest moving as a group toward the castle.  Macbeth threatens to kill him if he’s lying.  Now he begins to see the worthlessness of the witches’ equivocal prophecies.  He tells his men to prepare for battle, knowing that at least they’ll die bravely.

Malcolm, Macduff, and the English soldiers arrive at Dunsinane.  Malcolm tells them to throw away their branches.

The battle begins.  Macbeth, though fighting fiercely, wonders in frustration who wasn’t born of woman.  Macbeth fights young Siward, who, fighting bravely, is soon killed by Macbeth.  The king says, “Thou wast born of woman.”

It’s clear that all is lost for Macbeth.  Macduff, knowing the ghosts of his family will haunt him forever if he doesn’t avenge them, frantically searches for Macbeth.  They find each other.

Macbeth remembers he must beware Macduff, and after fighting awhile, Macbeth proudly says he bears “a charmed life, which must not yield/ To one of woman born.”  Macduff tells him to despair of his charm, for Macduff was born of Caesarean section.  Macbeth now is too afraid to fight.  Macduff says Macbeth will thus be publicly shamed as a coward before the rabble.

Now Macbeth’s pride is piqued, and he’ll “try the last”, that is, fight to the death, preferring that to dishonour.  They fight, and Macduff kills him.

In the final scene, Macduff brings the severed head of Macbeth to Malcolm and the others to see.  They note that Lady Macbeth is also dead, a presumed suicide.  Sympathy is shown to old Siward for the slaying of his son; the father, however, is comforted knowing young Siward fought bravely.  Malcolm will be crowned king at Scone.

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