Putting the Painful Past Behind Us

[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]

To stop myself from ruminating on my painful childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood–a bad habit I picked up, thanks to the emotional abusers I had to endure during those years–I recently found inspiration in Shakespeare. Yes, the immortal Bard wrote a not-so-well-known scene in one of his otherwise most popular comedies, a scene whose meaning I interpreted in a way that I now see (in the form of a meditation/self-hypnosis) as something that may help us forget the past, and focus on the present. Allow me to explain.

In my Analysis of The Taming of the Shrew, I argued that the Induction is the main story, not the Katherina (‘Kate’) and Petruchio story, which is just a play within a play, a further remove from the audience’s sense of reality than the Induction itself is (a full synopsis of the play can be read here, if you don’t have access to it or the time to read it).

In the Induction (<<<YouTube video of Scene i), a boorish, drunken tinker named Christopher Sly is tricked (<<<video of Scene ii) into thinking he’s a lord, after waking up from a fifteen-year coma (as his pranksters tell him), during which his memory of his whole life as a tinker has been only a dream. Lying in a luxurious bed, wearing the bedclothes of a rich man, and surrounded by people pretending to be his loving friends, servants, and wife (a boy dressed in women’s clothes), Sly is incredulous at first, but soon acquiesces to the whole thing, and then watches a farcical play of the Kate and Petruchio story.

As far as pranks go, this is a rather odd one. Why go to such lengths to flatter a drunken slob? Far from making Sly look foolish, the trick dignifies and ennobles him instead. What’s more, we never even see the prank brought to its conclusion. Sly nods off to sleep during the performance of the play (Act I, Scene i, lines 242-247), which is briefly halted to wake him up, then carries on till the end of the story; no more mention of Sly is ever made. We never see the pranksters reveal themselves as such, laughing at the fool for falling for the gag. It’s as if we, the audience, are also tricked into thinking the Kate and Petruchio story, rather than that of Sly, is the real one.

What comes later (Sly as a lord; the Kate and Petruchio story) comes off as real, and what came first (Sly’s life as a tinker; the Induction, often excluded from productions of the play, or movie and TV adaptations) is forgotten about and deemed irrelevant.

To relate the Induction to our lives, we can see Christopher Sly as representing us. We were originally treated with contempt as he was, and that contempt may have caused us to have a surly manner; after all, when we believe we’re unworthy, we often behave as unworthy people…not because we really are, but because we’ve been manipulated by our abusers to think of ourselves as unworthy. We must go from believing ourselves as base to thinking of ourselves as someone much better. Thus, we must trick ourselves.

As formerly emotionally abused children (or ex-boyfriends/girlfriends/spouses), we C-PTSD sufferers must trick ourselves into deeming as irrelevant the pain that came earlier in our lives, just as Sly is tricked into thinking his earlier life, as a contemptible slob, is just a dream (and as the audience watching Shakespeare’s play is tricked into thinking the play-within-a-play, rather than the Induction, is the real story).

We must imagine ourselves as having woken up from a nightmare (I’m assuming you, Dear Reader, have distanced yourself from your abusive family or ex, and gone NO CONTACT; if you haven’t, I urge you to do so; if you can’t do it yet, make it your ambition), and see our new life, our present life, as one of glorious new possibilities.

We must remember that our NOW is the only reality we have. Our memories are just ghosts haunting our minds, old object relations we need to eject from our consciousness (see these links for meditations on how to replace old, bad internal objects with new, good ones). The past is no longer real for us, except in our ruminations. We need to stop that obsessive over-thinking…but how?

I’ve already described in other posts how we can, in auto-hypnotic trance (a restful, focused state in which one is more suggestible), imagine our oneness with everything around us by getting our bodies so relaxed that we can feel ourselves vibrating all over. Those vibrations, in and around us, can be compared to a feeling like the waves of the ocean. In our meditative state, we imagine our bodies, our cohesive, non-fragmented Self–our Atman, if you will–as part of an infinite ocean, our surroundings, the whole universe–Brahman, as it were. This meditative state, our unity with everything, can cure us of our sense of isolation, provided we practice it, in sessions of substantial duration, every day over a lengthy period of time.

Added to this contemplation of The Unity of Space, as I call it, we can also contemplate what I call The Unity of Time, the eternal NOW. As we focus on those ‘waves’ passing through our vibrating bodies, which are part of the water of the infinite ocean of Brahman, we also focus on the present moment, doing our best never to let our minds wander and daydream of other things (if we let ourselves get distracted, we should gently but firmly bring our minds back to the present moment). This discipline will gradually take our minds off the past, to focus more on NOW. We must always keep our minds on those moving waves, for every second.

Another meditation we can do to say goodbye to the past is to lie in bed with our eyes closed, and after getting ourselves perfectly relaxed in the manner I described in previous posts (breathing in and out, deeply and slowly, focusing on all the parts of our bodies, from our toes up to our heads, until they’re vibrating with calm, counting down from ten, with our bodies getting more and more relaxed with each passing number), imagine waking up as Sly does, with loving family (the new, good one we’ve imagined, of course, not the original, abusive one) and friends all around our bed, teary-eyed with joy that we’ve revived from a ‘coma’.

adult affection bed closeness
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

We do not recognize these people, and are shocked to hear them say they are our family. They speak lovingly and respectfully to us, yet to be honoured in such a way feels alien to us, and we protest how odd they are behaving. Still, they insist that we are worthy of such love, and that we should cease this idle notion that we would “be infused with so foul a spirit” [Induction, Scene ii, line 15] as to deserve to be treated as we had been by our past abusers.

We feel dazed still, unable to believe what we’re hearing. We wonder, “do I dream? Or have I dream’d till now? / I do not sleep: I see, I hear, I speak; / I smell sweet savours, and I feel soft things.” [Induction, Scene ii, lines 67-69] We come to believe that we aren’t the person we thought we were before. We’re someone new, and we have a whole new life ahead of us!

With a bright smile on our face, we accept that this present moment is, indeed, our true life, and the painful past we’d experienced before was just a bad dream, something we can now brush aside and forget. We are the lord of our new, liberated life!

Now, the people in this meditation are not pulling a prank on us: they genuinely love and care for us. Though this is a meditation, we’ll do a dialectical flip, and imagine the present visualization to be reality, and our past to have been the illusion. Yes, we’ll be playing a benevolent prank on ourselves, tricking our minds into conceiving this present moment as our true reality.

And why not? The past is just ghosts and visions; NOW is the material reality before our eyes and all around us. By sustaining this meditative state for ourselves, as truly sly Christophers (or sly Christinas, if you’re female), for as long as we can, and doing this self-hypnosis regularly, every day (just after waking up, ideally, to get the best, most realistic effect), we can, over time, truly put the painful past behind us.

Imagine those loving faces around your bed, those people telling you that your painful past was all just a long, bad dream. You’ve just woken from a long coma of many years, and NOW is your real life, surrounded by people who love you. Flood your whole body with feelings of love, acceptance, and validation, what you’ve been cruelly denied for far too long. Don’t worry about visualizing accurate physical details; focus on the good feelings.

Since there’s a dialectical unity of opposites, we can feel free to turn our bad situation into its good opposite, a negation of the thesis that was once our awful lives, and work through the contradictions of our bad past and our good present, then sublate them into the synthesis that will be the basis of our new lives.

I’m not talking about deluding yourself: I’m advocating a disciplining of your mind to focus on now and forget about your past. When you’re no longer ‘tinkering’ with your painful memories, you’ll be lord (or lady) over your present life, you’ll be truly sly (that is, in your cunning but benevolent self-deceit), and the raging shrew inside you will be tamed. No, Christopher (or Christina), you aren’t a loser: you’re the master of your life.

Analysis of ‘Titus Andronicus’

Long time, no Shakespeare!

I’m going to do this analysis differently from my previous analyses of Shakespeare plays. I’m doing this for two reasons: as Titus Andronicus isn’t one of the famous classic plays, I won’t be doing a separate synopsis of the play for the sake of my students; though historically detested, Titus Andronicus has been experiencing something of a revival due to how its themes of cruelty and revenge are relevant in today’s increasingly harsh world; so unlike with my other Shakespeare analyses, I’ll be relating events in TA with contemporary issues.

Titus Andronicus is a tragedy Shakespeare apparently co-wrote (with George Peele, who many scholars think wrote the first act, as well as the the first scenes of Acts II and IV) between 1588 and 1593. It was his first tragedy, though his first great play, The Tragedy of King Richard III (actually a history) may have been finished earlier (in 1592). TA was a hit when first produced, since Elizabethan audiences loved gore in their plays, and revenge plays were very popular at the time.

It didn’t take long, however, for the play’s reputation to sink. Indeed, from the 17th century up till the mid-20th, TA was considered by many to be Shakespeare’s worst play. Its excesses of gore and cruelty are too much for many people to stomach. I, on the other hand, would say that Love’s Labour Lost, with its dated humour and pedantic, Baroque prolixity, is the Bard’s least successful play (Consider Kenneth Branagh‘s failed attempt at a film version, whose replacement of much of the text with old jazz standards was considered, if anything, one of the movie’s high points!). TA, however, has a relevance to today’s world that actually indicts contemporary violence, thus vindicating the play.

I feel no discomfort in thinking that Shakespeare wrote the whole play, even though it may very well have been a collaboration. It seems that scholars don’t want to credit the immortal Bard with such a harsh play, claiming it was a collaboration, a play written before his talents had matured, or one erroneously attributed to him. I believe TA has been derided because Shakespeare was exploring the dark shadows in our psyches, shadows we’d prefer to believe don’t exist. Cruelty is not a pleasant theme to develop, and Shakespeare developed themes to the hilt.

I believe Shakespeare was satirizing his contemporaries’ fondness for gore and revenge plays (as he had pastoral plays, I believe, with As You Like It) by delivering the violence in such extreme doses: fourteen killings, including two filicides, a rape, an act of cannibalism, six examples of dismembering, and a live burial. When we compare the Elizabethan love of gore with that of today (note the blood and guts in so many contemporary horror movies), we realize that Elizabethan bloodlust was not unique to their time. The fascination with the writings of the Marquis de Sade further illustrate my point, as do Freud’s writings on the death instinct, a result of his sorrow over the destructiveness of World War I.

Julie Taymor did a flamboyant movie adaptation of TA, Titus, and the BBC did a TV adaptation back in 1985. Both versions begin with Titus returning to Rome from victories against the Goths, taking their queen Tamora, her sons Alarbus, Chiron, and Demetrius, as well as Aaron the Moor, as captives; the written play, however, begins with brothers Saturninus and Bassanius with their respective followers, vying to be the next Roman emperor after the recent death of Caesar, their father. This switching of scenes is made to accommodate an often-omitted continuity error in the text (Act I, scene i, beginning at line 35), which refers to the killing of Alarbus, which hasn’t happened yet in the story.

This killing of Alarbus is the first act of cruelty in the play; it sets in motion all the violence and revenge to follow. He is to be killed in a rite of human sacrifice to appease the ghosts of those sons of Titus already killed in battle. His eldest son, Lucius, willingly carries out the slaying of Alarbus, which involves burning him alive and hacking off his limbs. Of course, Tamora begs and pleads for Titus to spare her first-born son, though Titus is deaf to her cries. All she can do is complain about “cruel, irreligious piety!”, a reference to how religion, founded largely on scientific ignorance, leads all too often to cruelty. Apparently, the capturing of the Goths and Aaron, a product of Roman imperialism, isn’t cruel enough.

Now, this act of cruelty merely gives Tamora and her sons a motive for revenge. Titus’ foolish declining of the offer of succession to be emperor, along with his support for Saturninus to succeed, leads eventually to the new emperor’s choice in Tamora to be his bride. Now, she and her sons have the opportunity for revenge.

Before the choice of Tamora for his queen, Saturninus chooses, in all capriciousness, Bassanius’ betrothed, Lavinia. This choice seems to be an act of spite towards his brother, cruelly depriving him and Lavinia of having each other’s love. When Bassanius takes her away, through the force of Titus’ sons, their again-foolish father, blindly loyal to Saturninus over his own family, kills his son, Mutius (this video from the 1985 BBC production) for blocking his way in the chase after Lavinia.

Indeed, we see a lot of foolishness in Titus, as in all the cruelty and violence seen in this play: his murder for religion (Alarbus); his filicides (Mutius and, in the end, Lavinia); his giving up of an opportunity to be emperor and thus protect his family from future reprisals; his all-too-quick giving up of his hand in a vain attempt to save the lives of his other two sons, Quintus and Martius; and his eventual descent into madness.

One criticism of this play is in how the excesses of violence seem more like a black comedy than tragedy; indeed, Harold Bloom once said that the best director for the play would be Mel Brooks. Consider the stage direction of having Titus’ severed hand carried in the mouth of handless Lavinia. But the whole point of the play is that cruelty is absurd and senseless.

Let us remember such atrocities as when the colonial rule of Belgian King Leopold II caused the deaths of about ten million Congolese back in the late 19th century. Consider the Armenian genocide in 1915, when between 800,000 and 1.5 million were killed. Or the Holocaust, in which not only were about six million Jews murdered, but also from 220,000 to 1.5 million Roma were murdered, as well as 2-3 million Soviet POWs; German gay men (from 5,000 to 15,000 imprisoned–it is uncertain how many died), leftists (among the first to be put in concentration camps), the disabled/mentally ill (about 270,000 killed), political and religious opponents, and Jehovah’s Witnesses were also among those persecuted.

Added to the absurdity of cruelty is that of revenge. How does revenge make the pain of the original wrong go away? For the killing of Alarbus, Tamora says, “I’ll find a day to massacre them all,/And raze their faction and their family,/The cruel father and his traitorous sons,/To whom I sued for my dear son’s life;/And make them know, what ‘t is to let a queen/Kneel in the streets and beg for grace in vain.”

With the help of her sons, Chiron and Demetrius, as well as Aaron the Moor, Tamora has Bassanius murdered and Titus’ sons, Quintus and Martius, framed for the crime, leading to their execution. Worse, she allows her sons to rape and mutilate Lavinia. Added to these outrages, Lucius is exiled, and Aaron tricks Titus into cutting off his hand in a fruitless ransom to save his two condemned sons. His reward is to be presented his hand with the heads of his sons. Tamara may have grinned maliciously at her achieved revenge, but how has this carnage brought Alarbus back to her?

The rape of Lavinia is especially cruel. One of the recurring themes of TA is that of begging for grace in vain. Lavinia thus pleads to leave her chastity intact, saying that slaying her unstained would make Tamora “a charitable murderer” (Act II, scene iii, line 178). All such pleas, including an appeal to Tamora’s womanhood, fall on deaf ears, just as Tamora’s weren’t heard by Titus, and his pleas to save Quintus and Martius, in turn, aren’t heard by the tribunes. Aaron pleads to spare the life of his illegitimate son by Tamora: by the end of the play, is the baby spared?

Not only is Lavinia brutally raped by Chiron and Demetrius, but they also cut off her hands and cut out her tongue, to ensure she has no way to accuse them. Any woman (or man or child) who has been raped feels every bit as unable to accuse, even with hands and tongue intact. Such is the power of the bully to silence the victim.

Next comes Titus’ final revenge on all his enemies. First, his exiled son joins the Goths and raises an army to invade betraying Rome, “a wilderness of tigers” (Act III, scene i, line 54), now considered as barbarous as the Goths. So upset is Saturninus with the bad news of  Titus’ complaints to the gods of the emperor’s wickedness, sent in notes fired by arrows up into the sky, that he has a clown needlessly hanged. But this is only the beginning…

Titus’ men apprehend Chiron and Demetrius. Before slitting their throats as Lavinia watches and holds between her stumps a bowl to catch the drops of blood, he tells them his plan to cook their flesh in meat pies and serve them to their mother in a feast! Indeed, as Tamora is unwittingly eating her sons’ cooked flesh, Titus kills his daughter in a kind of honour killing, rationalizing it more as an ending of his misery than hers, and an ending of her shame, when it is her rapists who truly bear the shame.

Consider how some Muslims, victims of the terrible crimes of Western imperialism, often turn to forms of extremism like  Wahhabism, then turn their violence on each other in such forms as honour killings, or resort to the terrorist killings of Western civilians, many of whom sympathize with their plight. Too often, we turn our wrath against the wrong people.

Next, we see a quick cycle of violence and revenge: when Titus tells Tamora she’s been feasting on the flesh of her sons, he kills her; then Saturninus immediately rises and kills Titus in a fury; then Lucius avenges his father by killing Saturninus.

We see similarly absurd violence in the imperialist violence against Iraq, Libya, and Syria, giving rise to ISIS, whose violence in such attacks as those in Paris prompts retaliations in Syria, out of which refugees are pouring. Violence merely begets more violence, which never ends.

The play ends with Aaron being buried alive, up to the neck, and left to starve to death. Anyone feeding or pitying him will be executed. His last words are, “If one good deed in all my life I did,/I do repent it from my very soul.” (Act V, scene iii, lines 189-190) This is what becomes of the soul of a man consumed by hate and malice: “Aaron will have his soul black like his face.” (Act III, scene i, line 206)

Lucius ends the play by commanding that Tamora’s body not be buried, and that she, having been without pity in her life, can “let birds on her take pity.” (Act V, scene iii, line 200) He is thus the dubious redeemer of the play, having started the cycle of violence with the ‘hewing’ of Alarbus’ limbs, and having ended it with these final cruelties.

Ending the play on such a dark note, the essence of its profound tragedy, leaves so many with such queasy feelings that that’s why TA has had such a bad reputation. Few of us can bear to see the darkest shadows of ourselves explored so thoroughly, and taken to such cruel conclusions. Yet the violence of today’s world shows us the relevance of this play, with such examples as the Rwandan genocide, whose own cycle of violence was ended with a relatively lenient punishment of most of the perpetrators. This ability to forgive is what we can learn about how to deal with our darker shadows.

Detailed Synopsis for ‘Henry V’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detailed Synopsis of ‘Othello’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of ‘Othello’

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

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

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

Here are some famous quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

6. Thus do I ever make my fool my purse:/For I mine own gain’d knowledge should profane,/If I would time expend with such a snipe./But for my sport and profit. I hate the Moor:/And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets/He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;/But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,/Will do as if for surety. He holds me well;/The better shall my purpose work on him./Cassio’s a proper man: let me see now:/To get his place and to plume up my will/In double knavery–How, how? Let’s see:–/After some time, to abuse Othello’s ear/That he is too familiar with his wife./He hath a person and a smooth dispose/To be suspected, framed to make women false./The Moor is of a free and open nature,/That thinks men honest that but seem to be so,/And will as tenderly be led by the nose/As asses are./I have’t. It is engender’d. Hell and night/Must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.  –Iago, I, iii, 377-398

7. And what’s he then that says I play the villain?/When this advice is free I give and honest,/Probal to thinking and indeed the course/To win the Moor again? For ’tis most easy/The inclining Desdemona to subdue/In any honest suit: she’s framed as fruitful/As the free elements. And then for her/To win the Moor–were’t to renounce his baptism,/All seals and symbols of redeemed sin,/His soul is so enfetter’d to her love,/That she may make, unmake, do what she list,/Even as her appetite shall play the god/With his weak function. How am I then a villain/To counsel Cassio to this parallel course,/Directly to his good? Divinity of hell!/When devils will the blackest sins put on,/They do suggest at first with heavenly shows,/As I do now: for whiles this honest fool/Plies Desdemona to repair his fortunes/And she for him pleads strongly to the Moor,/I’ll pour this pestilence into his ear,/That she repeals him for her body’s lust;/And by how much she strives to do him good,/She shall undo her credit with the Moor./So will I turn her virtue into pitch,/And out of her own goodness make the net/That shall enmesh them all.  –Iago, II, iii, 325-351

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detailed Synopsis of ‘The Merchant of Venice’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sadly leaves with his followers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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