Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Welcome to English 316

Welcome to E316, Shakespeares Major Plays

This blog will offer posts on all of the plays on our syllabus as well as introductory material on comedy, history, and tragedy. I will post two kinds of notes: general and act/scene-by-scene. Both kinds are optional reading, but I encourage you to read the entries as your time permits. While they are not exactly the same as what I may choose to say during class sessions (i.e. these are not usually exact copies of my lecture notes), they should prove helpful in your engagement with the plays and in arriving at paper topics. The edition used is Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

A dedicated menu at my wiki site contains the necessary information for students enrolled in this course; when the semester has ended, this blog will remain online, and a copy of the syllabus will remain in the Archive menu.

Introduction to Shakespeare

Shakespeare the Man, 1564-1616.

William Shakespeare, born in April 1564 at a home in Warwickshire’s Stratford-upon-Avon, was the third child of John Shakespeare and Mary Elizabeth Arden; only four aside from William survived to adulthood, and only one, his sister Joan, outlived him—Joan lived to 77, and passed away in 1646, four years after the beginning of the English Civil War in 1642.  He studied Latin grammar and possibly a bit of Greek (you can still view the popular grammar book by William Lily he would have used) at King Edward IV Grammar School in his hometown from 1571-78, but didn’t go to college like some other Elizabethan playwrights and authors such as the University Wits John Lyly, Thomas Lodge, Christopher Marlowe and Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, George Peele, and Thomas Middleton.  Not much is known of the time between 1578-92, other than that William married Anne Hathaway in 1582 and that he had several children: Susanna (1583-1649) and in 1585 the twins Judith (died 1662) and Hamnet (died 1596).

But whatever he was up to in the so-called “lost years,” by 1592 he was in London and beginning his career as a playwright.  Being part of stage life in London must have been exciting—the first theater was built there around 1576, and though there were predecessors to the stage such as the late medieval mystery cycles and morality plays like Everyman, the theater had an air of newness and played a significant part in the vibrant life of the great City.  Shakespeare attracted considerable notice from the outset since University Wit Robert Greene refers to him in his September 20, 1592 posthumous pamphlet in the following scornful terms: “there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and beeing an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey.”  (Now that is an Elizabethan snap, as we would call it today!)  His Henry VI, Part I was performed at the Rose Theatre in March 1592 by Lord Strange’s Men.  So his career as a poet and dramatist runs from around 1592 to 1610, when he moved back to a fine new home in Stratford, though he seems to have put in some London time even after that since his plays were still being performed to much acclaim.  For poetry (the Sonnets, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece), he had an aristocratic patron in Henry Wriothesley, Third Earl of Southampton (1573-1624).  Poetry was much more prestigious than life associated with the stage, so perhaps Shakespeare’s decision to go with drama was in part based on earnings potential.  Associated for most of his career with the playing company known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men when James I became monarch in 1603), Shakespeare produced an astonishing number of plays during his time as a dramatist—the posthumously gathered and printed First Folio of 1623 includes thirty-six plays, divided into comedies, tragedies, and histories.  He even acted in some of them, perhaps taking the role of old Adam in As You Like It and the Ghost of Hamlet’s father in Hamlet.  But his main players were the magnificent Richard Burbage for the tragic roles, and Will Kempe for comedy until 1599, after him coming the subtler Robert Armin.  But there were others as listed in the Folio.  Well before his death in 1616 from an illness of some sort, he had become a successful businessman (he owned part of the Globe Theatre that had been built in 1599 and the indoors Blackfriars Playhouse used from 1608 on during the winter, which yielded considerable revenue), and had interests in wheat and malt back home.  There were some rough spots in Shakespeare’s life: his son Hamnet died at the age of 11, and later, to this personal tragedy was added a moment of political peril when the rebellious Earl of Essex almost sucked the playwright into a 1599 rebellion by commissioning a performance of Richard II.  The performance enraged the savvy interpreter Queen Elizabeth, who got Essex’s point that she, like the king in the play, was a bad ruler who deserved to be deposed.  But Shakespeare had of course written the play years before the rebellion, so he wasn’t blamed.  It could be dangerous to write and stage plays during his time.  But on the whole it was a remarkable and successful career.  Shakespeare never cared to publish his work during his lifetime, though somewhat adulterated quarto copies circulated thanks to the lack of any copyright protection back then, but his fame was cemented in the memory of London playgoers and of course by the publication of the First Folio in 1623.

In politics Shakespeare seems to have been royalist enough (the relevant sovereigns are the Tudor Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603) and the Scottish Stuart James I (1603-25), and for the most part conservative in the sense that he consistently sides with the nobility over the rabble; the last years of his life were spent mainly in looking after his real estate holdings in Stratford.  This outlook stems from his bourgeois roots and lifestyle—Shakespeare grew up in the Warwickshire countryside; his father had some local influence and wealth when William was young (he was a local official and a glover and moneylender), but he seems to have fallen on hard times later on.  Shakespeare did pretty well for himself as a businessman, what with his excellent and crowd-pleasing playwright skills (he was also an actor), wise decisions about theater matters at the Globe from 1599 and later at the more intimate Blackfriars, and apparently in local side ventures like money-lending.  People who have property and wealth tend to support stability in the social and political realms, and Shakespeare was no different from most in that regard.

In religion Shakespeare may, as biographers such as Peter Ackroyd suggest, have had Catholic leanings even though he conformed to the Anglican Church that took its inception from Henry VIII’s inability to get the Pope to grant him a divorce from his first Queen, Catherine of Aragon.  So England joined the Protestant Reformation Martin Luther had begun in October 1517.  But it’s expecting a lot to suppose everybody in the “reformed” countries would automatically go along with the program.  Many English people tried to keep up the old faith, though they had to keep a lid on their activities since Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth in particular didn’t want their subjects reverting to Catholic forms and allegiances.  Shakespeare seems to have had a few closet Papists in his family—quite possibly his father John—and he also seems to have had connections with powerful Catholics beyond his family.

Shakespeare was probably more or less a traditionalist, affable (if brilliant) Englishman, not some atheist radical like Christopher Marlowe or an irascible ruffian like Ben Jonson, even if he knew and liked such men.  What does this biography mean for his poetics?  It’s hard to say, really.  John Keats wrote admiringly in his letters of the “chameleon poet” endowed with “negative capability” or the ability to explore a personality or a situation without need for immediate certainty in the moral or factual sense.  I suppose Keats must have been thinking of Shakespeare when he wrote that.  What besides “negative capability” and chameleonic tendencies would allow an artist so completely to enter into the mindset of a charming but thoroughly wicked character such as Richard III or Iago; or a flawed but noble one like the Roman general Coriolanus; or an all-purpose rogue like Jack Falstaff; or an intelligent, sensitive character like Macbeth whose ambition traps him in a downward spiral of preventive-strike murder and psychological “hardness,” to borrow a term from today’s hip-hop culture?  You couldn’t generate so many wonderful characters if you were intent on propagating some stolid moral drawn from your politics or religion.  Shakespeare disappears with remarkable ease into his multifarious characters, so that he really is what Samuel Johnson and others have called him: “a poet of nature” (human nature, animal nature, everything).

Shakespeare’s Era: Tudor and early Stuart England.

The Tudor Era begins with Henry VII (1485-1509), victor over the last Yorkist king, Richard III (1483-85);  it continues through the reigns of Henry VIII (1509-47), Edward VI (1547-53), Mary (1553-58), and ends after Elizabeth I (1558-1603).  The Stuart Era begins with the son of Mary Queen of Scots, James I (1603-25), his son Charles I (1625-49), and then after an interregnum period in which Cromwell and his Puritans ruled, is restored in the person of Charles II (1660-85).  The Hanoverian line, by the way, begins with George I (1714-27); the name changed to Saxe-Coburg-Gotha when Victoria’s son Edward VII (1901-10, the Edwardian Period) by the German Prince Albert of Sachsen-Coburg und Gotha reigned, and then changed again in the wake of WWI when that came to sound too Germanic, to the elegant “Windsor” with George V (1910-36) and stretches to today’s Elizabeth II, who has been Great Britain’s Queen since George VI died in 1952. 

Henry VII put an end to the Wars of the Roses, a period of dynastic strife between the descendants of Edward III (1327-77) stretching from 1455 to Henry’s ascension and even a few years after that, to 1487.  In essence, the throne was tossed back and forth between the Houses of Lancaster and York, with the incompetent Lancastrian Henry VI (son of Henry V, victor of Agincourt) ruling from 1422-61, and Yorkist Richard III getting rid of the heirs of his deceased brother and fellow Yorkist Edward IV (1461-83), who had defeated Henry VI, to rule in his own right for three fitful years.  Finally, Henry, Earl of Richmond, an exiled member of the Welsh Tudor clan, married Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth of York to unite the two great houses.  This Henry VII, of course, is the grandfather of that greatest of English rulers, Shakespeare’s own Queen Elizabeth I.  So the recent political past had been one of considerable strife and instability, with great nobles traversing England and at times treating the people with as little respect as foreign invaders might.  Elizabeth’s Tudor reign was also a time of international danger, with the massive Catholic Spanish Armada sent by Philip II of Spain (Elizabeth’s half-sister!) sent on a mission in 1588 to crush the English navy and then invade England itself; the Armada failed, but the threat was real.  This was a time of growing English nationalism, naval power, and exploration, with the Queen encouraging men such as Sir Walter Ralegh and Sir Francis Drake to set sail for the new world.  Royal power had been much centralized from the time of feudalism and the Court was a great factor in English life during Tudor and Stuart times, but Queen Elizabeth and her successor James I were by no means unencumbered absolutists, however fond the latter was of the doctrine of the so-called “divine right of kings.”  (In truth there was no coherent political philosophy in England until after the Restoration.)  In particular, the growing commercial class in London began to feel its power as an important economic force in the life of the nation, and religious Puritans began to take issue with the authority of the Crown and the Church of England (or Anglican Church) that Henry VIII had turned into a nationalist instrument when Pope Paul III excommunicated him in 1534.  The struggle between Puritans and the State intensified in the reigns of the Stuart James I and then of his son Charles I, who was executed in 1649 during the course of a bloody Civil War won by Oliver Cromwell and his faction, who were determined to establish the Rule of the Saints on English soil.  These theater-closing, anti-pleasure Puritans ruled for only a decade or so, with Charles II returning from the Continent to initiate the Restoration of 1660, but the monarchy has never been as powerful since their regicidal Interregnum.  Shakespeare, of course, didn’t live to see the Civil strife of the 1640s, though his sister Joan did, and so did his last descendant, granddaughter Lady Elizabeth Hall Barnard, who died childless in 1670, ten years after the Restoration.


But let’s leave aside political and religious history and move on to consider briefly Shakespeare’s London.  It was a thriving city of perhaps 200,000 people by his day, and the whole of England had perhaps five million inhabitants.  The neoclassical critic Samuel Johnson later wrote proudly that “he that is tired of London is tired of life.”  I don’t know if that eighteenth-century boast should be carried back to the late sixteenth century, but in any case the City must have been an exciting place to live, if not exactly a safe one.  Many of the protections you and I take for granted now simply didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s time.  Safe food and good sanitation?  Forget it.  Health care?  Not available—aside from perhaps some decent herbal remedies and advice to “take the waters” or avoid strenuous exertion, your physician was about as likely to kill you as cure you.  Consider that the germ theory of disease was unknown (in fact it’s more or less a nineteenth-century development) and that the average lifespan seems to have been around 35 years.  If you were very lucky and never contracted a serious illness or needed surgery, you might live to the biblical threescore and ten (70), but more likely you would go much sooner.  And there was still the Bubonic Plague to deal with in both London and the countryside—read Daniel Defoe’s post-Restoration book Journal of the Plague Year if you want to see just how horrifying and deadly a prospect that was.  Material life for London’s working class of servants and apprentices, etc., must have been rough, always a struggle.  It had its guildsmen and prosperous merchants, too, but all were subject to the difficulties of life in a noisy, dirty, dangerous environment. 

One thing to draw from this characterization is that life in early modern London retained some of the old uncertainties of medieval times, most particularly a profound sense of the tenuousness of existence itself—you never knew when you or someone you loved would be carried off by the plague or some other sickness, or by an accident thanks to unsafe conditions.  Death was an acknowledged, if feared, part of everyday life—that makes for a very different sensibility from ours because our culture tends to distance us from the presence and processes of death.  At the same time, London offered a new sense of possibility and liveliness, a sense of the larger world “out there,” the one beyond Europe being explored by Ralegh and Drake and others.  London was becoming to some degree cosmopolitan, a place that invited the world in rather than excluding it. 

The Theater.

The advent of the public theater in the 1580’s certainly testifies to a thriving intellectual climate in the City.  The Victorian critic Matthew Arnold was surely right when he mentioned Elizabethan London in the same sentence as Classical Athens in this regard.  Arnold wrote that Shakespeare didn’t need tremendous book-learning because a lot of his acumen came just from living in a culture that was truly alive to all that life had to offer in the early modern age.  He grew up in this heady atmosphere, and his audiences were receptive to the secular imaginative spectacles he staged for them.  So true was this that some acting companies performed up to twelve plays a week, so they had to foster a community spirit among the actors, who in truth didn’t seem to get much rehearsal time for their skilled performances.  Many Londoners of all classes had at least some leisure time, and aside from their attendance at crude spectacles such as bear-baiting and public executions, they flocked in impressive numbers to the several theaters (the Rose, the Swan, and others even before the Globe’s opening in 1599).  In Shakespeare’s Audiences, Alfred Harbage suggests that on any given day, several thousand inhabitants probably paid their penny or more to attend an afternoon theater performance, and the demand only went away when the Plague struck from time to time and closed the theaters down.  Harbage also deals temperately with the question of audience composition: the most extreme characterizations of the London playgoers, to be sure, are the product of Puritan loathing.  Not all of Shakespeare’s groundlings were prostitutes or pickpockets, though some of them were.  The profession wasn’t exactly considered rock solid in terms of class status, and women were not allowed to become actors because it was not deemed a respectable craft for them to practice.  Still, respectable people, male and female, attended the London theatres, which were a meeting ground for citizens from various stations and walks of life.  For that matter, Shakespeare’s players strutted their stuff at times even before the nobility and monarchs, so drama was an interest that cut across large sections of Elizabethan and Stuart society.  It was an impressive part of the life of a burgeoning early-modern nation.

Shakespeare’s Themes and Method of Composition.

We might expect an active playwright like Shakespeare to deal directly with the flow of modern life, but unlike Ben Jonson and some others of his time, for the most part he doesn’t do that.  London’s mercantile class was increasing, and nationalism was beginning to flex its muscle.  So why don’t we find London’s social structure “ripped from the headlines” in Shakespeare?  He deals with courtly environments and characters, and often at some historical distance, spanning from ancient Greece and Rome to the late Middle Ages in Europe: he represents monarchs as nearly unconstrained, not as having to deal with Parliament as they did by his own day, and his treatment of rank reinforces this preference.  Shakespeare concentrates on the parallel order of society and the grand cosmos, as in the Troilus and Cressida passage that runs “take but degree away . . . and hark what discord follows.”  Kings and high nobles, not commoners, are the center of his tragedies and histories in particular, but the same statement holds to a great extent for his comic and romance plays.  This may be due in part to what I called above a degree of conservatism in his approach to life and to his mid-level propertied station.  There’s also the simple fact that censorship was a fact of life in England; a dramatist’s scripts had to be cleared by Elizabeth’s Master of Revels before they were performed, and it was safer not to try to deal with current political affairs or great personages.

Questions to Ask about Shakespeare’s Plays.

To what extent do the main characters step out as strong individuals?
-- Generally, in comedy we are dealing with characters who fit into some recognizable pattern or type,
    but does that truism do justice to the play you’re studying?

What do the characters seek?
 -- Consider the varieties of desire and objects of desire.
    -- Characters seek not only love but also transcendence, security, understanding,
        clarity, etc.  (Evidently, there’s more to life than news, weather, and Cupid’s Arrow.)

What obstacles stand in the way of characters’ fulfilling their desires?
 -- There are both internal and external hindrances.
    -- That is, not everything is a matter of stern patriarchs getting in the way, etc.

How do the main characters react to the obstacles that stand in their way?
 -- Reactions, as always, can tell us a lot about a character’s depth and understanding.

What is the disposition of time and chance?
 -- Time is on the comic protagonist’s side, but what more is to be said in this regard  
     about the comic or romance or history play you are studying?
    -- Are time and chance dealt with in a more or less realistic manner, or a fantastical
        one?  Why might the playwright be dealing with these things in such a way?

Method of Composition.

The plays fall loosely into four categories: comedy, history, tragedy, and romance (though this last category doesn’t appear in the 1623 First Folio edition).  Shakespeare was clearly aware of basic theories about what a comedy or tragedy (the most “established” dramatic types) ought to be like, but he doesn’t seem to have spent much time worrying about whether he was conforming to such theories, and it’s extremely unlikely that he read Aristotle’s Poetics.  As Coleridge says in a lecture on Shakespeare, “no work of genius dare want its appropriate form.”  That’s downright romantic organicism, but when it comes to Shakespeare, I’ll pledge allegiance to it: I’ve long thought that Shakespeare, in spite of the occasional loosely constructed plot or reference to non-existent Bohemian seacoasts, anachronistic Roman chimney-tops, or silly devices like the criminal-minded “letter” Edmund the Bastard in King Lear ascribes to his brother “Legitimate Edgar” to fool their father Gloucester (why would you communicate by letter with someone you’re presently living with?), composed as something like a romantic poet.  Although he rather unromantically started out by borrowing from some source or other (no one cared about absolute originality in his day) he saw all sorts of possibilities in that source material, and his plays took shape in accordance with the necessities of their own characters, events, and structure.  You respond to a work of art as you create it, so that in a sense it “creates itself” processively.  Form and meaning aren’t simply imposed upon one’s material in cookie-cutter fashion; they develop dynamically in accordance with the “inner laws” of the work itself.  The romantic theorists and poets understood the creative process well, I think—imagine a sculptor facing his or her medium of blank stone: the first creative act is performed; the sculptor stands back and beholds the results in altered stone, which prompts another act, and on it goes in a ceaseless dialectic between mind and medium, until the demand for a “product” halts the process.  Or consider Beethoven starting with those famous four initial notes of the Fifth Symphony.  Well, he followed those notes where they just had to go—and where they had to go wasn’t always where you or I might have thought.  Beethoven consistently surprises us in this way, and so does Shakespeare.  None of this is to say that Shakespeare didn’t care a lick what his audiences wanted—of course he did; he wasn’t a “nightingale” singing alone in the woods like Shelley’s wan “unacknowledged legislator,” and he doesn’t seem to have assumed a deep chasm between art and the rest of life the way some of the romantic poets would later do.  But what I’m talking about is the inner core of the compositional or creative process, and I think any great artist is something of a romantic in this regard.  Jacques Diderot gives us a saucier, less dreamy way of describing literary creation: “my thoughts are my whores; they run, and I follow after.”

In practical terms for us as readers, this need not mean that we seek absolute coherency in the material; rather, it means we should be looking to tease out potential of whatever sort we find in one textual location and connect it to other locations in the same or other plays.  Shakespeare is capable of logical precision, but that’s schoolboy stuff: what really drives his plays is the sympathetic, imaginative connections he makes between character and character, event and event, predicament and predicament.  Above all, his brand of realism is psychological, not the realism of historical happening (though you can learn a lot about English history from his history plays). 

Above all, it seems best not to superimpose some scheme or pattern on any Shakespeare play prematurely—the plays make sense, but the sense they make isn’t and shouldn’t always be immediately reducible to neat formulae or critical principles.  Be especially mindful of this advice if you consult online materials like Sparknotes, etc.  Some of this stuff is actually pretty good nowadays; it isn’t always churned out by illiterate fools for lame students the way it used to be.  All the same, it comes at you saying “hey you, here are three key themes you can use to write a paper on The Merchant of Venice.  The themes identified may be worthwhile, but the more you allow yourself to be bound by them, the less room will there be for your own perhaps eccentric and more interesting interpretation of the play.  Maybe you will notice something in Act 2, Scene 4 that relates to other things that happen in the play but aren’t really dealt with by the geniuses over at Spark Notes.  And maybe that “something” is the thing you should really be writing about.  Good critics are basically good storytellers: they tell interesting, compelling (and yes, informative) stories about other people’s stories.  So if you use net-notes, use them to open up possibilities, not to reduce complex works of art to utter comprehensibility.

Shakespeare’s Language

Grammar and Rhetoric Issues (borrowed and slightly adapted from Shakespeare Resource Center’s Grammar Introduction.

A) Inverted syntax (word order): “John caught the ball” may be “John the ball caught.”

B) Rhetorical devices abounding:

alliteration: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought....” {Sonnet XXX})

metaphor: “Now is the winter of our discontent.”  “My love is a red rose.”

metonymy: “Lend me your ears,” etc.  (replacing a word with one closely related—here “ears” replaces “attention”); synechdoche substitutes the part for the whole, the general for the specifice, etc: “all hands on deck.”  (hands for “sailors”)

Elliptical expressions: “And he to England shall [go] along with you.” Hamlet, III, iii}
and a host of other devices.

C) Grammar Irregularities:

Anthimeria.   One part of speech is often substituted for another; this happens especially with nouns and verbs: Prospero says to Miranda in The Tempest: “What seest thou else / In the dark backward and abysm of time?”  The word “backward” is an adverb, but it is used as a noun here, producing a verse that is both beautiful and strangely apt, considering that Prospero is asking his daughter Miranda to recall her remote childhood—something hazy and mysterious, yet intimate.

Pronoun irregularity: “Yes, you may have seen Cassio and she together.” Othello 4.2.3.

Omission of relative pronoun: “I have a brother [who, omitted] is condemn’d to die. Measure for Measure 2.2.34.

Verb #: “Three parts of him / Is ours already.”  Julius Caesar 1.3.154-55.

Aside from these features identified by the Internet site, I should  add the following point: Shakespearean verse is so powerful on the stage in part because of a key feature, antithesis.  This is of course a rhetorical figure, which Hamlet is made to characterize generally as “setting the word against the word.”  Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more.  The effect of antithesis (implied or outright) is to render an utterance emphatic.  Consider the following part of Richard of Gloucester’s opening soliloquy in Richard III, which offers both alliteration and antithetical pairings to strengthen its appeal:

  GLOUCESTER. Now is the winter of our discontent
    Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
    And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
    In the deep bosom of the ocean buried. 
    Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
    Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
    Our stern alarums chang'd to merry meetings,
    Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
    Grim-visag'd war hath smooth'd his wrinkled front,
    And now, instead of mounting barbed steeds
    To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,
    He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
    To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
This sort of oppositional pairing is partly what makes Shakespeare’s verse so memorable; the words are knit together by alliteration and by antithetical imagery and concepts.  This is strong blank verse, the sort of stuff you can speak boldly without losing the sensitivity and psychological subtlety necessary for the successful representation of a complex character.  Rhyme is another way of making verse memorable and comprehensible, though Shakespeare uses that device less and less as he matures in his art.  The end of a scene is a good place to serve up a rhyme, as in Hamlet’s quip, “The play’s the thing, / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king” or Claudius’ anguished ending to a prayer for absolution, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; / Words without thought never to heaven go.”  Such rhymes, as in the latter example, often have something of the effect of medieval moral sayings known as sententiae, summings up of an ethical principle or lesson. 

One other point worth making is that while we may sometimes agree with Anatole France, who said that “Shakespeare tried every style except simplicity,” it’s not quite fair to persist in that view because the more flowery or purple or difficult patches one finds in the plays are usually cast as they are to suit the mentality of a silly or pompous character, a word-mangler like Dogberry from Much Ado about Nothing, or someone speaking in regional or other dialect, like Kent or Edgar disguised as Poor Tom in King Lear.  Under extreme pressure, too, a character’s speech may break down and become fragmented, as does Lear’s towards the end of King Lear.  There is some fine simplicity in Shakespeare, just as there is some deliberately hollow eloquence, like that of Macbeth as his life winds down and his only remaining strategy is to deaden his soul to the evil he has done.  He speaks beautifully, but the words seem to mean little to him and are cut off from a vital orientation towards action in the world, even if we find them moving.  I’m sure we can find some passages that seem to us rather ornate for the purpose or the person, but that’s because we are moderns and revel less in the sheer beauty of speech than we demand from it a consistent level of utility.  Keep that in mind (along with the situation and character’s mindset) when you hear a luxurious temporal description like the one Benvolio offers Lady Montague in Act 2 of Romeo and Juliet: 

         Madam, an hour before the worshipp'd sun
    Peer'd forth the golden window of the East,
    A troubled mind drave me to walk abroad;
    Where, underneath the grove of sycamore
    That westward rooteth from the city's side, 
    So early walking did I see your son.

In 2.4 of the same play, you’ll find the time described in a much lower register, when the rascal Mercutio scandalizes Juliet’s Nurse with the following classic: “the bawdy hand of the dial is now / upon the prick of noon.”  Shakespeare wrote both descriptions, and wasn’t one to pass up a bawdy pun—such things pleased his audiences, whose sensibilities were by no means delicate.

Introduction to Comedy

Introduction to Comedy.

Samuel Johnson tells us that Shakespeare was most comfortable when writing comic plays because they suited his genius best. Tragedy, according to Johnson, did not come naturally to Shakespeare, and there was always something a bit forced about his work in that vein. I don’t agree with him since I like the comedies, tragedies, histories, and romance plays equally, with a slight nod in favor of the tragedies.

Since Shakespeare wrote from ancient models, we should discuss ancient comedy at least briefly. It’s customary to distinguish between Greek Old Comedy like that of Aristophanes (circa 456-386 BCE) and the Greek New Comedy of Menander (circa 342-291 BCE) and other playwrights, such as his later Roman followers Plautus and Terence.

Old Comedy: If you’ve ever read or seen a comedy by Aristophanes (The Clouds, Lysistrata, The Birds, etc.), you know that it’s pretty rough stuff—mainly topical satire about famous politicians and philosophers. The Clouds, for example, is about Socrates as proprietor of the Thinkery or Think-Shop, where all sorts of ridiculously improbable notions are propagated for the benefit of fools. Outrageous, bawdy, bubbly humor is the essence of such plays, and they can pack a genuine political wallop as well: Lysistrata sets forth a plot in which Greek women withhold sexual favors from men until they agree to put an end to the ruinous Peloponnesian War. On the whole, characters are ridiculous in Old Comedy—a main subject is the perennial nature of human folly, selfishness, and vice.

New Comedy: The Greek Menander, and his much later Roman followers Plautus (circa 254-184 BCE) and Terence (circa 190-158 BCE), offer a different brand of comic play. The emphasis is on domestic matters rather than broad political issues. Love, or at least sexual desire treated sympathetically, is central to the action, and there’s also some concern for the relationship between the older generation and the younger, particularly between a father and his son, as well as some interest in relations between people of different status, such as masters and their clever slaves. Still, there’s plenty of fun at the expense of fools, dupes, lovers too old for the person they desire, etc. Stock characters are the order of the day in both kinds of ancient comedy, it seems. New Comedy is hardly rigorous in its morals: the characters who win out tend—surprise!—to be the ones the playwright reckons the audience will like. Sympathy trumps propriety. The popularity of comic mix-ups and disguises suggests that identities can be swapped at will, and because considerations such as wealth and social status are so important in structuring others’ perceptions of a given character, the new identity will be accepted long enough to get the job done.

The structure of Terentian drama is as follows: a) First comes the protasis, in which the basic characters and situation are established. This stage corresponds roughly to the first act of a modern five-act play. b) Then comes the epitasis in which events and characters are interwoven and complicated. This stage corresponds roughly to the second and third acts of a five-act play. c) Next comes the catastasis, in which the plot has just reached its high point, the action seems to be fully wound up, and starts to make its turn downhill, so to speak, towards the concluding event. For example, in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio asserts his power and marries Kate towards the end of Act 3. But of course that important event hardly concludes the story: Kate must still be “tamed,” which takes place partly during the trip back to Petruchio's lodgings. d) Last comes the final action, the catastrophe, which in comedy turns out to be a happy ending: errors are discovered, and situations become settled.

The modern situation comedy—Seinfeld would be a sophisticated example—is remarkably like New Comedy: a number of silly but mostly sympathetic characters get themselves into and out of preposterous scrapes from one episode to the next in a competitive world, and through it all they don’t change much. They get insulted, taken advantage of, take advantage of others (though not mean-spiritedly), fall in and out of love, misunderstand one another at every turn, get jobs and get fired from jobs, obtain pleasure and ease and then throw it all away on a whim or through error, and they’re ready for the next absurd thing life brings.

Comedy reminds us that we seldom learn as much as we should from our mistakes, but it also gives us credit for being optimists and opportunists in spite of the misfortunes life throws our way. There’s a bit of Bugs Bunny and the Roadrunner in many a comic character: that fur-bearing evildoer Wiley Coyote isn’t going to keep the “poor little Roadrunner” from its appointed rounds (BeepBeep!), nor is Elmer Fudd going to stop Bugs from doing whatever the wascally wabbit wants to do. In comedy, desire is subject to deferral and detour, but not to permanent frustration. The comic orientation towards time is a favorable one: time and chance (accident) are on our side, at least if we are amongst the likeable or generous. In comedy, life is rich and full of opportunities—la vita รจ bella, as the Italians say. This attitude contrasts markedly with that of tragedy, where the world is stark and unforgiving, and our attention is riveted upon the thoughts and actions of a superior character in confrontation with that stark world

Shakespearian Comedy

Shakespeare borrows a fair amount from the ancients in terms of his plots, conventions, and character delineation. Especially in his more rollicking, semi-farcical comedies like The Taming of the Shrew, we encounter a generous heap of characters pursuing their desires in a competitive environment, which results in complicated plots. Such light fare can get confusing at times—as James Calderwood of UC Irvine used to say, you really have to work hard to keep all those Demetriuses (not to mention Hortensios, Lucentios, Gremios, Grumios and Tranios) straight in your head. And again in the lighter comedies, our seekers of pleasure, wealth, and ease tend to be stock characters rather than three-dimensional ones like those in the more substantive comedies. Shakespeare’s genius, it should be said, often pushes a character towards lifelikeness even when a cardboard cutout would have met the minimum standard for success. Petruchio may not be Hamlet, but he’s a clever, thoughtful fellow all the same—one of greater substance than you’ll find in most ancient comedy.

To a recollection of ancient conventions, we must add an understanding of the Christian context that informs Shakespeare’s plays. This is not to say that Shakespeare wears his religious beliefs (be they Protestant or crypto-Catholic, as some biographers claim) on his Elizabethan shirt-sleeve or that he aims to promote whatever religious views he may hold. It is only to say that Christian theology and customs inform his plays of all kinds and figure indirectly to an important extent.

As a main example, let’s consider the concept of charity. I mentioned likeability with respect to ancient comedy: sympathetic characters win. We might reinterpret this notion by applying the Christian opposition between generosity and selfishness or, to use more productive terminology, between charity (charitas) and cupidity (cupiditas). Charitas has to do with a generous outflowing of love for one’s fellow human beings—it is something that helps to unite not only individuals into couples but indeed entire communities into a functioning civil society. It enjoins forgiveness of wrongs and a bearing of optimism and faith in the teeth of adversity. Cupiditas, by contrast, has to do with individual selfishness—a cupiditous person seeks and accumulates riches and status more to lord it over others than really to enjoy what has been gained. Perhaps Jesus’ remark, “he that would save his life shall lose it” (Matthew 16:25) says it best: selfish, greedy, mean-spirited people are losers because they misunderstand the purpose of life, and lose all the more when they win on their own terms. Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge is a fine example of this “lose-by-winning” outlook.
As in ancient comedy, in Shakespeare the comic orientation towards time is favorable: time and chance are friendly, at least if a character is amongst the likeable and generous. Consider the following passage from the Hebrew scriptures, specifically Ecclesiastes 9:11-12, which I’ll copy from the Bishop’s Bible of 1568 that Shakespeare would have known:
11. So I turned me unto other thinges under the sunne, & I sawe that in running it helpeth not to be swift, in battell it helpeth not to be strong, to feeding it helpeth not to be wyse, to riches it helpeth not to be a man of muche understanding, to be had in favour it helpeth not to be cunning: but that all lieth in tyme and fortune. 12. For a man knoweth not his tyme: but like as the fishes are taken with the angle, and as the byrdes are caught with the snare: even so are men taken in the perillous time, when it commeth sodaynly upon them. (Studylight.org’s online Bishop’s Bible, Ecclesiastes 9:11-12.)
In comedy, the characters may want change to happen in just the ways they specify (so that they can obtain their heart’s desire, whatever that may be). They may even want things to stay the same, but that kind of wish is seldom, if ever, granted. Situations—accidents and “tyme” seem to get the better of even the most fervent resolutions, the most serious invocations of dignity. As the Bible says, “all lieth in tyme and fortune.” A generous or charitable character, as described above, will most likely respond to the coming-on of time and accident in an open-minded, open-hearted way and will thereby befriend change, at least implicitly. The best example I can think of in this vein is what the shipwrecked maiden Viola says near the beginning of Twelfth Night: neither giving in to despair about the possible loss of her brother nor worrying about the particulars of her new plan to serve a widowed Illyrian noblewoman (she ends up serving the Duke instead), she declares, “What else may hap, to time I will commit” (1.2.60). Viola will face whatever comes with a bold, open spirit. She is both a woman of substance and a comic optimist. And in at least some of Shakespeare’s comedies, there’s a hint of Providence about the patterns of human desire that drive the plays towards successful resolution.

It is possible to deepen comedy and concentrate on human beings’ potential to change and grow and to accept the limitations imposed upon them by the world. Shakespeare’s best comedies do just that. While his earliest comedies tend towards farce, his more mature work strays from the standard models of ancient comedy and explores characters and subjects at will. The structure of this deeper Shakespearean romantic comedy, according to Northrop Frye and M. H. Abrams, is as follows: several characters leave the corrupt city and go to the forest or some other magical green world, and at last when all is well they return to the city or are about to do so when the play ends. In As You Like It, for example, Rosalind and Celia head for the Forest of Arden when the usurping Duke Frederick banishes Rosalind. In the romance play The Tempest, the setting is a strange island to which fortune or Providence has led Prospero after his banishment as Duke of Milan. In Twelfth Night, Viola and her brother wash ashore in Illyria after a shipwreck.

The aim of romantic comedy is broadly social: the kingdom or other city space is at first badly ruled or in turmoil for some reason—perhaps the values and institutions of the citizens and/or rulers are in need of some re-examination. What is the basis of those values and institutions—can people live comfortably or at all within them? How does a given society preserve order and its values from one generation to the next? Political and social regeneration, continuity for the ruling order, are central. The main characters leave (willingly or otherwise) the city setting and wind up in the countryside, in a pastoral setting. This setting is an enchanted, magic space that allows for the necessary re-examination of values and social roles. Magical transformations occur; characters are put in situations that could not subsist in the city or the kingdom; the forest or countryside’s magic opens up new possibilities. After this reappraisal and readjustment period has been completed, the main characters come together—the young by marriage, the foundational institution of the civil order and its only hope for regeneration, and the path is clear for a return to the corrupt setting from which they came.

Introduction to Histories


Normandy: William I (1066-87), William II (1087-1100), Henry I (1100-35)

Blois: Stephen (1135-54)

Plantagenet: Henry II (1154-89 “Anjou”), Richard I (1189-99), John (1199-1216), Henry III (1216-72), Edward I (1272-1307), Edward II (1307-27), Edward III (1327-77), Richard II (1377-99, deposed by Bolingbroke, i.e. Henry IV)

Lancaster: Henry IV (1399-1413), Henry V (1413-22), Henry VI (1422-61)

York: Edward IV (1461-83), Edward V (1483), Richard III (1483-85, killed at Bosworth by Henry Tudor)

Tudor: Henry VII (1485-1509), Henry VIII (1509-47), Edward VI (1547-53), Mary (1553-58), Elizabeth I (1558-1603)

Stuart: James I (1603-25), Charles I (1625-49, beheaded by Cromwell’s forces, 1649)

Interregnum: Council of State (1649), Protectorate (1653), Oliver Cromwell (1653-58), Richard Cromwell (1658-59)

Stuart: Charles II (1660-85, the Restoration), James II (1685-88, abdicated and fled to the Continent), William III and Mary (1689-1702, the Glorious Revolution of 1688), Anne (1702-14)

Hanover: George I (1714-27), George II (1727-60), George III (1760-1820), George IV (1820-30), William IV (1830-37), Victoria (1837-1901)

Saxe-Coburg: Edward VII (1901-10)

Windsor: George V (1910-1936), Edward VIII (1936, abdicated), George VI (1936-52), Elizabeth II (1952-present)

Shakespeare’s Focus on Two Periods in the History Plays:

Setting the Stage for the Hero-King Henry V: Richard II / Henry IV Parts 1, 2 / Henry V.

Wars of the Roses, Setting the Stage for the Tudors: Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, 3 | Richard III.

General Aims of Shakespeare’s History Plays

Shakespeare didn’t invent the dramatic genre we call “history plays”; it was a phenomenon of the 1590s, Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II is one fine example. But there wasn’t a long theatrical tradition to draw from; a growing sentiment of nationalism in Early Modern England probably led to the flourishing of this genre – the English apparently wanted to see their history reflected back to them, and Shakespeare was happy to oblige. But we should give him his due: if he didn’t invent the history play, it’s still true that English history retains its fascination for us moderns in large part because certain lucky kings and queens had a great dramatist to help them strut their stuff.

Consider a modern example: while JFK was a complex, intelligent man whose presidency was already consequential by the time he was cut down in November 1963, does anybody think he would exercise the continuing fascination that he does without the “Camelot” legend woven around him by his family, his advisors, and above all by his wife Jackie? She is the one who made her husband’s funeral an unforgettable national event – something for the ages. The business of life in D.C. and of governing the country went on with cold dispatch almost from the moment John Kennedy’s body was flown back from Texas to the Capitol: Lyndon Johnson was sworn in on the plane. But the Camelot legend ensured that “JFK” won’t fade into history. In an older context, Abraham Lincoln was remarkable enough to have been remembered no matter what, but Walt Whitman cemented his status as an American symbol with the elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

That is what Shakespeare has done for English history – Great Britain is a sophisticated little island country nowadays, not a great power like America, but to this day they cast a huge shadow over us: who is going to forget Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV, Henry V, or John of Gaunt, Buckingham, Clarence, and any number of other great nobles, now that they have been so well memorialized? America has a fine history, but as yet lacks the Brits’ long record of colorful rulers and events that Shakespeare borrowed for his history plays.

Are those plays history in the sense of “objectively true narration”? No. While there’s a factual basis for WS’s histories and they certainly render the grand sweep of English history, the playwright does a great deal of rearranging and telescoping of events, and the sources from which he drew (Holinshed’s Chronicles chief among them) were not objective in the first place – they read more like what Winston Churchill (himself a fine writer who penned A History of the English Speaking People) called the right kind of account: history as it ought to have been, not as it happened down to the last detail. There’s no proof, for instance, that Richard III really ordered those famous lads in the Tower snuffed out, but it’s logical to assume that either he or his high-ranking follower Buckingham were responsible since both wanted Edward IV’s heirs out of the way. Shakespeare’s play, in accordance with the Tudor bias against the Yorkist Richard III, casts this conviction as a moral imperative, an “ought.”

Aristotle sets the precedent in his Poetics that historians are at a disadvantage with respect to poets because they, unlike poets, are bound to represent the ugly and sometimes chaotic scenes of actual history. We know that sometimes the bad guys win and the good guys lose; things don’t always or even usually happen in an ethically satisfying or even coherent manner. History is the record of modern life, and it’s often a mess. Aristotle wisely points out that “the difference [between the historian and the poet] is that the former relates things that have happened, the latter things that may happen.” For that reason, he suggests, “poetry is a more philosophical and more serious thing than history; poetry tends to speak of universals, history of particulars” (1451b). So if we like that line of thinking, poets are free to give us an intelligible and, at least at times, morally satisfying representation of historical events and personages: they are at liberty to construct recognizable scenes from chaotic events, and to derive ethical and intellectual clarity from the welter of motivations that have driven the great men and women of history. Shakespeare’s history is at base teleological in that it leads us to the rightness of Queen Elizabeth I’s Tudor reign: all roads lead to Gloriana, the real-life Faery Queen celebrated by Edmund Spencer.

None of this is to say that Shakespeare gives us “history for dummies,” tales so black-and-white in their simplification that they insult our intelligence. In fact, if you read widely enough in his histories, what you’ll find is that the playwright manages to do two things at once: one, pay tribute to the muddiness of history and the complexity of historical agents, and two, give us a sense that it all still adds up to something, that there are some lessons to be learned about ethics and power from this pageant of people and deeds. This accomplishment is apparent in a few plays we don’t have time to study, but that are among Shakespeare’s best engagements with English history: let’s begin with some information about the Wars of the Roses and then briefly examine Richard III.

The Wars of the Roses Period: Setting the Tudor Stage with the Reign and Demise of Richard III

The Tudor Era begins with Henry VII (1485-1509), victor over the last Yorkist king, Richard III (1483-85) at Bosworth Field; it continues through the reigns of Henry VIII (1509-47), Edward VI (1547-53), Mary (1553-58), and ends with Elizabeth I (1558-1603).

Henry VII put an end to the Wars of the Roses, a period of late-feudal dynastic strife between the descendants of the Angevin Plantagenet line’s Edward III (1327-77) stretching from 1455 to Henry VII’s ascension and even a few years after that, to 1487. In essence, the throne was tossed back and forth between the Houses of Lancaster and York (branches of the old Plantagenet line), with the incompetent Lancastrian Henry VI (son of Henry V, victor of Agincourt in October, 1415) ruling from 1422-61, and Yorkist Richard III getting rid of the heirs of his deceased brother and fellow Yorkist Edward IV (1461-83), who had defeated Henry VI, to rule in his own right for three fitful years. Finally, Henry, Earl of Richmond, an exiled member of the Welsh Tudor clan, married Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth of York to unite the two great houses. This Henry VII is the grandfather of Shakespeare’s own Queen Elizabeth I.

So the recent political past had been one of considerable strife and instability, with great nobles traversing England and at times treating the people with as little respect as foreign invaders might. The larger historical background places the English strife as the immediate aftermath of the European Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between the House of Anjou (the Plantagenets, that is) and the House of Valois for the throne of France with the extinction of the direct Capetian line after French kings Philip V (1316-22) and Charles IV (1322-28). The House of Valois, though at great cost, succeeded by 1453 in expelling the English claimants from France, so Henry V’s victory at Agincourt was short-lived and his son failed to hold the lands previously secured. The English couldn’t sustain their larger territorial ambitions on the Continent, and withdrew to their own island. From that territory they would eventually enter the world scene as an impressive naval and commercial empire.

Biography is the easiest way to learn about history – dry descriptions of battles and analyses of treaties aren’t exciting, but the people behind them are often fascinating. Shakespeare starts from that insight, and the best of his history plays are vehicles for the stellar personalities of the English monarchs. Richard III seems much more gripping in this regard than its early companion Wars of the Roses plays, 1, 2, and 3 Henry VI. Richard of Gloucester, at least as Shakespeare paints him (thereby melodramatizing the already biased narrations of the Tudor chroniclers), was a charismatic monster somewhat like our modern fictional predator and scourge of the free-range rude, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. It’s this strange charm that Shakespeare makes the center of the play. Let’s watch a very brief segment from an excellent modern production in which Ian McKellen plays Richard of Gloucester and gets this quality just right. [SHOW CLIP – 1.2 in which Richard woos Anne Neville, wife of Henry VI’s heir Prince Edward]. As Richard himself asks, “Was ever woman in such humour woo’d?” Shakespeare, speaking through Richard’s boast, flaunts his own dramatic abilities in pulling off such a stunt worked up from the chronicles. The courtship scene is as unrealistic as anything we can imagine, but it works as drama: we can easily understand that the vulnerable Anne was buffeted about by ruthless dynastic forces, so seeking safety in a powerful man makes sense, and one can’t help but give Richard high marks for audacity in so enthusiastically seeking the hand of the woman whose princely husband he has just murdered. Her husband Edward was in fact killed at Tewkesbury in 1471, and Richard married Anne in mid-1472, so the remarriage happened quickly, but not practically the day Edward died, as Shakespeare represents it. There is still over a decade remaining in the reign of Richard’s brother Edward IV, too, so the play has greatly telescoped events originally spanning a few decades into what seems to theater-goers only months, or even weeks.

But Richard’s dynamic personality isn’t all the play gets right, at least in dramatic terms: there’s also the tangled web of relations and loyalties amongst the various characters to cover, and here there seems to be considerable historical truth in the portrayals. Shakespeare’s George, Duke of Clarence (Richard’s older brother) is given a sensitive, riveting speech about a nightmare he had – one that obliquely warns him that his brother Richard isn’t as friendly towards him as he pretends to be – but Shakespeare takes care to remind us that Clarence had once upon a time been a supporter of the embattled Henry VI and Warwick the Kingmaker against the current King Edward IV, before switching sides when that proved convenient. Neither do the other main characters escape critical portrayal – details aside, they appear as the men and women of fierce ambition, resentment, and divided loyalties that they were in life. To an extent, this is true even of the play’s Tudor hero, Richmond, who takes the crown from Richard in 1485 and becomes Henry VII, an icon of early English nationalism of the sort Queen Elizabeth I would come to depend on during her reign (1558-1603). Henry Earl of Richmond is certainly contrasted in a stark manner to the villainous Richard of Gloucester, but he’s still a human being, not a god or an angel. By Shakespeare’s own day, the chivalric ideals, the feudal loyalties, of older times had disappeared, but in Richard III the playwright brings them to life well at the point of their final disintegration. I’m suggesting by the above that in spite of the melodramatic quality of Richard III and its clear-cut contrast between hero Henry and rascal Richard, there’s no lack of sophistication or ambivalence, so in that broad sense the play is true to history. Shakespeare always gets human nature right, however much license he takes with the chronological unfolding of history.

But in the end, we must emphasize the both-and quality of the history plays and not insist too heavily on the tribute they pay to the maelstrom of historical confusion, as if Shakespeare were anachronistically channeling postmodern sentiments and expectations. Richard III’s mastery is short-lived, and the medieval-style moral pattern reinforced by this play is never in doubt. Richard’s own words suggest the reason for his speedy failure as a king: “I am in / So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin. / Tear-falling pity dwells not in this eye” (4.2.63-5). However courageous and crafty Richard may be, he has become the creature of his own evil deeds, doomed to repeat them with less and less control over the outcome, until disaster can no longer be kept at bay. Only his death at the hands of Henry Tudor, and Henry’s marriage as Henry VII to the Yorkist King Edward IV’s daughter Elizabeth, will put an end to the bloody chaos of The Wars of the Roses. The lesson of Richard III seems starkly Augustinian: sin begets sin, and free will negates itself thereby, so that all of Richard’s cunning schemes and furious action come to nothing. Shakespeare’s “speaking picture” (Philip Sidney’s phrase) of incarnate evil, like all evil, ultimately has no substance, no staying power – those who try to harness evil as the vehicle of their own advancement end up destroying themselves. That’s why Richard III isn’t a true tragedy but is instead a brilliant melodrama looking back to the late medieval period of English history.

Back to an Earlier Time: Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V

If Richard III partly showed us a consummate Machiavellian ruler going about his murderous business, Richard II serves as a prime example of Shakespeare’s interest in what happens when those who are the center of the whirlwind that is English history don’t know how to use the power they have. Richard II, in Shakespeare’s casting, is a wicked man but also a doomed poet-king who philosophizes about and dramatizes his downfall even as it is happening to him. The following passage from 3.2 speaks for itself as an indicator of Richard Plantagenet’s mindset; Richard is in the midst of preparations for battle with Henry Bolingbroke, who has returned from the Continent with an army to claim first the rights he lost when Richard stripped him of his inheritance from his father John of Gaunt (the third son of Edward III), and then the throne itself:

AUMERLE. Where is the Duke my father with his power?

KING RICHARD. No matter where--of comfort no man speak.
Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.

For God's sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been depos'd, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have depos'd,
Some poison'd by their wives, some sleeping kill'd,
All murder'd-for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court; and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp;
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear'd, and kill with looks;
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Were brass impregnable; and, humour'd thus,
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell, king!
Cover your heads, and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence; throw away respect,
Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty;
For you have but mistook me all this while.
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me I am a king?

CARLISLE. My lord, wise men ne'er sit and wail their woes,
But presently prevent the ways to wail.

Richard II is a master of words, but not a good ruler. As Carlisle tries to tell him, men in his position haven’t the luxury of sitting around and poeticizing: their task is to act quickly and resolutely. Chairman Mao famously said that “political power grows from the barrel of a gun.” That was largely true of the English monarchs in the time period Shakespeare covers – violence was never far from the throne, either in its getting or its defending. “Use it or lose it” is the first lesson of political power: if you are entrusted with authority and fail to use it, someone else will, whether their claim to wield that power is textbook legitimate or not. Legitimate is as legitimate does. (I suppose all the English rulers knew that primogeniture, legitimacy, and allied concepts were partly fictions.) I can’t do better than quote il brutto, Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez, from the 1966 Sergio Leone classic The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: “When you have to shoot, shoot, don't talk.” Ultimately, what we can draw from Richard II is Shakespeare’s interest in the pitiless dynamics of royal power; his concern for the necessarily close relationship between rhetoric and political action; and the fundamental need of a ruler to understand his own people. Richard II failed in all three regards, and so he fell to the ruthless and efficient claim to the throne advanced by Henry Bolingbroke.

From 1 and 2 Henry IV, I have time only to mention that the plays show the comic, redemptive disposition of time we have discussed in relation to Twelfth Night. Henry Bolingbroke or Henry IV was a powerful and competent man, but in Shakespeare’s handling, he is a guilt-ridden stage-setter for his prodigal son Prince Hal, who will in Henry V be represented as a great warrior-king and an icon of early English nationalism. Much of the two plays is taken up with Shakespeare’s interest in the playful, redemptive development of Hal from his troubled youth to maturity. The young man has time enough to run with the jovial but morally dangerous Sir John Falstaff and his crowd, even turning the tables on the old knight when he robs Sir John of the spoils he himself had won during an earlier robbery at Gadshill. What Hal learns during that long interval is not only who he is but who his subjects are – unlike Richard II, he is not an alien in his own land, but the living symbol of England whose power comes from the fact that he understands the kingdom he must govern and lead to victory in war; Hal understands as well that while being a king involves game-playing or role-playing, this “play” is no joke: it’s done in a spirit of deadly earnestness. It’s hard to miss the emphasis on the burdens of kingship in the Henry IV and Henry V plays.

Ultimately, the comic spirit or pattern pervades this set, and in fact it applies to all of Shakespeare’s history plays – even the ones labeled “tragedies” like Richard II, Richard III, and 3 Henry VI. That’s because in the future lies the teleological endpoint of Elizabeth’s Tudor reign and the Stuart line of James I, the two rulers during whose time Shakespeare lived and wrote: all of the events the playwright represents, we might say, were necessary to make the present possible, and all of the rulers and the great nobles were in that sense actors in a pageant larger than they could have comprehended. It seems that true tragedy is only possible when the universe crumbles around the characters who fall to their ruin, or at least it is shaken and shown to be fundamentally indifferent or even hostile to human aspirations. With the felicitous Tudor/Stuart endpoint of Shakespeare’s own day always in an audience’s mind, the tragic dimension cannot have been the primary one in his history plays; those plays essentially represent a comic or happy swath of time.

Introduction to Tragedy

Introduction to Tragedy and Ancient Greek Theater

Books and Online Resources:

Didaskalia: Ancient Theatre Today. http://www.didaskalia.net/index.html. 3-D theatre and mask reconstructions, excellent introductory material on Greek and Roman theatre and stagecraft.

Easterling, P. E. The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Kaufmann, Walter. Tragedy and Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992.

Ley, Graham. A Short Introduction to the Ancient Greek Theater. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1991.

McLeish, Kenneth. A Guide to Greek Theatre and Drama. London: Methuen, 2003.

Perseus Project. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/. Electronic texts (original languages and translations), critical studies, etc. An impressive resource for classicists.

Pomeroy, Sarah et al. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

Religious Roots of Tragedy: The Festivals of Dionysus at Athens were called the City Dionysia, which was held in March or April, and the Lenaea, which was held in January. Though classical theater flourished mainly from 475-400 BCE, it developed earlier from choral religious ceremonies dedicated to Dionysus.

The God of Honor: Dionysus was an Olympian god, and the Greeks celebrated his rites in the dithyramb. In mythology, his followers were satyrs and mainades, or ecstatic females. We sometimes call him the god of ecstasy, and as Kenneth McLeish says, he “supervis[ed] the moment when human beings surrender to unstoppable, irrational feeling or impulse” (1-2). His agents are wine, song, and dance. Song and dance were important to Dionysian rites, and the participants apparently wore masks.

At the festivals, three tragic writers would compete and so would three or five comedic playwrights. The idea was that each tragedian would present three plays and a satyr play; sometimes the three plays were linked in a trilogy, like The Oresteia. So the audience had a great deal of play going to do during the festival seasons; the activities may have gone on for three or four days, with perhaps four or five plays per day. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival provides something like this pace.

Organization: How were the festivals organized? Well, the magistrate was chosen every year by lot—the archon. Then, dramatists would apply to the magistrate for a chorus, and if they obtained a chorus, that meant that they had been chosen as one of the three tragic playwrights. After that affair was settled, wealthy private citizens known as choregoi served as producers for each playwright. The state paid for the actors, and the choregos paid chorus’ training and costumes. So there was both state and private involvement in the production of a tragedy or comedy.

The Playwrights: Aeschylus 525-456 B.C. / Sophocles 496-406 B.C. / Euripides 485-406 B.C.

Aeschylus composed about 80 dramas, Sophocles about 120, Euripides perhaps about 90. Aristophanes probably wrote about 40 comedies. Dramatists who wrote tragedies did not compose comedies, and vice versa.

The playwright was called a didaskalos, a teacher or trainer because he trained the chorus who were to sing and dance. As drama developed, the playwright also took care of the scripts and the music. He was something like a modern director, and may at times have acted in his own plays, especially in the early stages of his career. A successful dramatist could win prizes, but generally, playwrights were able to support themselves independently by land-holdings. Sophocles, for example, was a prominent citizen—he served as a general and treasurer. Aeschylus was an esteemed soldier against the Persian Empire, and his tombstone is said to have recorded his military service, not his prowess as a playwright.

The Theater: The theater for the City Dionysia was located on the south slope of the citadel of Athens, the Acropolis. The Didaskalia Classics site offers 3-D images of a later reconstruction: http://www.didaskalia.net/studyarea/recreatingdionysus.html.

The theater had three parts:

1. Theatron: this was for seating around 14,000 spectators; it was probably at first of wood, but later it was of stone. 2. Orchestra: this was for the chorus to sing and dance in and for the actors, when their function was developed. 3. Skene: this was at first a tent-like structure that served as a scene-building, and it had a door for entrances and exits. The Oresteia requires one, though perhaps the earliest plays didn’t. Costume was important, too, because it could be used to determine factors like status, gender, and age.

The chorus remained important in drama, especially in Aeschylus. At some point, a choregos (legend says it was “Thespis,” hence actors are “thespians”) stepped forth and became the first actor, or answerer (hypocrites). So the composer was the first participant to turn choral celebration into what we call drama, with a plot and interaction between characters. Apparently Aeschylus or Sophocles added a third actor. The former’s early plays required only two actors, but even that was enough to make for interesting exchanges between the chorus and the actors and, to some extent, between the actors and each other. With three actors, of course, the possibilities for true dramatic dialogue and action are impressive.

Audience: Would have consisted mostly of male citizens—the ones who ran Athenian democracy by participating in the Assembly. There would probably have been very few, if any, slaves or women present, and perhaps some resident aliens or “metics” and visiting dignitaries. Drama was surely a male-centered affair, as was the political life of Athens. Public speaking was vital in democratic Athens—anyone who was someone in the legal/political system needed to know how to move and convince fairly large numbers of men. Theater and political life, as we shall see from Aeschylus, were in fact closely connected: the same skills were required, and the same class of people participated (male kyrioi, or heads of households who also performed military service). So while the stuff of tragedy seems almost always to have been the ancient myth cycles, the audience watching the plays would have felt themselves drawn in by the dramatists’ updating of their significance for the major concerns of the 5th-century B.C. present. And that present was, of course, the age of the great statesman Pericles (495-429 B.C.), who drove home the movement towards full Athenian democracy from 461 B.C. onwards and who at the same time furthered a disastrous course of imperial protection and aggression that had ensued from victory in the Persian Wars around 500 B.C. Greek tragedy grew to maturity in the period extending from the battles of Marathon on land in 490 B.C. and the naval engagement at Salamis in 480 B.C., on through the Second Peloponnesian War from 431-404 B.C., in which the Athenians lost to Sparta the empire they had gained during half a century of glory following the victories over Persia. Athens’ supremacy didn’t last long as such things go, but it burned brightly while it lasted, and festival drama, along with architecture, sculpture, and philosophy, was among its greatest accomplishments. So the dramas took place in one of the most exciting times in Western history—both heady and unsettling at the same time, shot through with violence, democratic and artistic flowering, victory, and great loss.

Tragic Masks: The masks tell us something about tragedy: with linen or clay masks, a single actor might play several roles, or wear several faces of the same character. (Visit Didaskalia’s interactive 3-D mask page at http://www.didaskalia.net/studyarea/visual_resources/images/masks/mask_mm/rotmask1.html.) Wilde said, “give a man a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth.” His quip should remind us that masks don’t discourage expression—as Kenneth McLeish says, they had religious significance in the theater: participants in Dionysian rites offered up their personal identity to the god, and further, he continues:

“Wearing a mask does not inhibit or restrict the portrayal of character but enhances it, allowing more, not less, fluidity and suppleness of movement; and the character created by or embodied in the mask and the actor who wears it can feel as if it has an independent identity which is liberated at the moment of performance—an unsettlingly Dionysian experience” (9).

That emphasis on what we might call expression is important especially because—Aristotle’s claims about plot being the soul of tragedy notwithstanding—not much happens in many Greek tragedies. Instead, chorus members and characters “take up an attitude” towards the few well-packaged, exciting events that take place on or off the stage. The action is important, but the characters’ words and attitudes help us, in turn, gain perspective on the action. Perhaps when Aristotle emphasizes plot so much, he’s taking for granted the great power of the Dionysian mask to support the plot in driving the audience towards catharsis. Character, he says, will reveal itself in relation to the play’s action.

Aristotle’s Theory of Drama and Shakespeare’s Practice as a Dramatist

We will cover Aristotle briefly in our class, but if you would like to read something more detailed about his theory of drama, please see my Fall 2007 E491 Literary Theory blog (http://www.ajdrake.com/blogs/491_fall_07/), where (in the entry for Week 2) I cover The Poetics in some detail. In Aristotle’s view, a well constructed plot that follows probability and necessity will induce the proper tragic emotions (pity and fear or terror), with the result being “catharsis,” a medical term that may be interpreted as “purgation” (of emotion) and/or as “intellectual clarification.” I should think that the tragic emotions, once aroused, become the object of introspection; thereafter, the audience attains clarification about an issue of great importance—for instance, our relation to the gods, the nature of divine justice, etc.

Aristotle's theory of tragedy in The Poetics is simple in its essentials: the dramatist must craft a plot ("an arrangement of incidents") that follows the laws of necessity and probability and thereby represents a unified action. If the dramatist follows the precept that "plot is the soul of tragedy," the proper emotional effect should follow: the audience's pity and fear will lead them toward catharsis. The latter was a Greek medical term that had to do with purging the body by means of cutting a vein and "bleeding" the patient; it is usually interpreted to mean that a tragic play stirs up powerful feelings but also renders them harmless or puts them in the service of artistic reflection. To extrapolate broadly, we may leave the theater emotionally purified and much "clearer" intellectually about our own nature as human beings, our place in the universe, and our relationship with the gods. Aristotle was a scientist, and he considered the arts intellectually significant: he suggested that mimesis (imitation, representation) is one of the main ways we learn things from the time we are children onwards. Dramatic mimesis is a species of representation in general, so in that sense it's continuous with life beyond the theater. We find in Aristotle, then, a view that says carefully structured works of theatrical art open a window to an important emotional and intellectual experience, one that makes painful sights and stories worthwhile to see and reflect upon.

As for the precise nature of tragic insight, well, it varies from play to play. Aristotle knew that just saying a tragedy ends unhappily wasn't much of a description – what would we do then with Aeschylus' The Oresteia, a trilogy that ends in triumph for its remaining protagonist and glory for the city of Athens? But to take a prominent example of a play that really does end badly for its protagonist, what is the nature of the insight gained in Sophocles' Oedipus the King? Surely the lesson isn’t simply that you shouldn’t kill your father and then sleep with your mother. Those are primal taboos. Perhaps, then, we see the iron law of prophecy and divine sway brought home to us: Oedipus had tried to flee a prophecy, but the god’s words catch up with him anyway. Even this admirably clever character cannot outwit his own fate, and his very strengths (cleverness and determination, self-sufficiency in the face of hardship) become the engines of his destruction. Or perhaps we come to understand the painful process of gaining insight into the nature of things and of ourselves. Oedipus the King tells us something—to our discomfiture—about how we fit into a cosmic order presided over by difficult gods. Another example would be Sophocles’ Antigone—there are competing sets of laws and rights in the cosmos. Antigone asserts familial piety (she wants to bury her slain brother), while Creon asserts his prerogative to be obeyed as a king who had decreed it fitting to leave Antigone's brother unburied since the man had made himself an enemy to Thebes. Both are in their own context taking the moral high ground, so situation thereby yields us the Hegelian notion of tragedy that pits incompatible rights against each other.

There doesn't seem, then, to be any one thing to learn from ancient tragedy, except perhaps that the world never works they way we want it to but instead has its own ways. Greek tragedy teaches us that (contrary to what Protagoras said) man is not the measure of all things; humanity is certainly not the boss of the universe. We are caught up in nets of significance beyond our power to escape or perhaps even to understand fully, and the best we may be able to do is to seek clarity and maintain our dignity in the face of that harsh insight. But that's important, too: the Greeks cared a lot about how you faced up to a fate imposed upon you by forces beyond your control, about what attitude you struck up in the face of disaster and, sometimes, divine indifference or even hostility. In tragedy, as Northrop Frye and others have long said, it is death that gives meaning to life: which means that the art form pays homage to a kind of magnificent powerlessness: life only yields its full significance when we are on the verge of losing it. What good does "insight" do the protagonist (and us by implication) if consciousness is about to be extinguished and we won't be able to act upon our hard-won insight? Well, that's a very human question, one we might suppose tragedy to ask but not, I think, to answer to everyone's satisfaction. Maybe there's some value in not going to one's grave a dupe, an unwitting plaything of a hostile or uncaring universe: there's dignity in getting clear on things.

Of course, we need not suppose Shakespeare bothered much with literary theory; he almost surely never studied Aristotle's Poetics. He seems to have had a general (and not necessarily favorable) acquaintance with what would eventually become in eighteenth-century drama a rigid doctrine of the unities of action, time, and place, and of course he knew from any number of sources and influences (Horace, etc.) that art was a species of imitation. A dramatist or an actor "holds the mirror up to nature," as he makes Hamlet say. Aristotle offers us valuable insights in his own right, which can serve as a point of departure for thinking about Shakespeare's own idiosyncratic way of developing tragic plays. It's often said that the Renaissance's great minds drew from classical authors the courage they needed to step forth into the full development of their own humanity; that makes sense as a broad generalization, but there's another and more disturbing set of insights to be drawn from the Greeks and Romans all the way back to Homer, a poet often described as reassuring but who at least implicitly recognizes the "dark side" of Greek culture and thought: the stuff, that is, of Greek tragedy. This sense for the dark side, for the gap between knowledge and power, for the great distance between our need for intelligibility and security and the way the world and the gods treat us, may be what Shakespeare drew from the classical tradition.