Peter Womack as a guide?

I was casting about for a guide to other playwrights of Shakespeare’s time. I didn’t feel the need for one when reading Shakespeare himself, because I’ve been reading him most of my life. But now I’m venturing into territory that is somewhat unfamiliar. The introductions in the anthologies I’m using will help, but I want an overview.

One book I found is English Renaissance Drama by Peter Womack (Blackwell Publishing, 2006). It’s nicely organized and contains sections on the writers I’m interested in and more detailed sections on some of the plays I had on my list (and a couple I didn’t, which is always good).

I don’t know anything about Womack. I’ve had some good finds with Blackwell in the past, so I’m optimistic.

Agenda for 2021

I’ve said that I want to continue adding to and correcting the blog. I have three main areas of interest.

  1. In 2020, along with reading the plays, I listened to the complete set of Arkangel recordings. In 2021, I want to listen to some additional recordings and note any further insights into the plays they provide. Mainly this means listening to the 18 or 19 plays in the BBC Radio Shakespeare series, recently re-released in 4 handy anthologies. These are pretty sparse when it comes to the early plays, but they’re wonderfully produced audio dramas. And of course I’ll try to take in other productions as well, but I don’t get out much, and I love audio to distraction.
  2. I want to at least begin the process of studying Shakespeare’s contemporaries. I had a course in same as an undergraduate and still have the anthology. Between that and two more recent anthologies, I’ll have plenty of texts on hand to start with. The recent texts are a Norton anthology edited by David Bevington and a volume of “[Possibly] Collaborative Plays” edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, as a companion volume to their RSC Shakespeare. The RSC is one of my favorite one- volume Shakespeares; my other two are Norton and Bevington. So how could I go wrong?
  3. I want to re-visit what I wrote about Shakespeare’s life, revise it as needed, and complete it. — or, after reflecting on it, abandon the effort. I’m neither an historian nor a biographer, and I have no access to primary sources, so I don’t have anything original to contribute in that department except my own opinions. However, that being said, one of the surest ways to learn something is to try to explain it to someone else, so for that reason alone it may be worth my while to write down my thoughts about this, even if they’re not likely to benefit anyone else.

That’s what I’m thinking as I look ahead to the coming year. I don’t have a schedule. I signed up for the Dickens 2021 group (formed as a successor to Shakespeare 2020), which aims to read all of Dickens’ novels next year. That will be demanding enough. But I’ll have some spare time to devote to the blog anyway, because I’m not blogging about Dickens. (Did I mention that I adore Dickens almost as much as Shakespeare? Almost. The writer, not the man. The man was pretty awful to his family. But I am not blogging about him. I am not.)

First up on the Shakespeare’s contemporary list: Locrine. I’ve never read it, so it should be interesting. (Two of the plays in the Bate/Rasmussen anthology, Arden of Faversham and Edward III, are ones I’ve already “blogged,” and I won’t be doing them again just now.)

Two Noble Kinsmen

My usual practice during this year of reading Shakespeare has been to read an act or two and then listen to that part of the Arkangel recording of the play. A couple of times, as an alternative, I’ve listened to the play while following along in the text.

Neither worked with The Two Noble Kinsmen. From the beginning, I felt like I was entering an alien world where the usual rules of syntax and dramatic construction didn’t apply. This didn’t feel like anything Shakespeare had put together before. And no matter how many times I read, listened to, and consulted the notes, I couldn’t seem to get my mind around lines like this.

Yet what man
Thirds his own worth (the case is each of ours),
When that his action’s dregg’d with mind assur’d
’Tis bad he goes about.

The opening scene is a marriage ceremony interrupted by three queens pleading for assistance. Of course it’s three queens; it’s always three; and they make three speeches, one to each of the three principal members of the wedding party, and each principal member of the wedding party responds in turn like clockwork. If I were a groundling watching this at the Globe, I’d be biting my thumb and throwing walnut shells at the actors long before Theseus decides to take up the cause of the three queens.

It could have been different. The queens are complaining about Creon: he won’t bury their husbands, who died attacking Thebes. Creon has a long history of refusing to bury people, going back to the days of Sophocles and Antigone, and there’s dramatic dynamite waiting to be mined here. Antigone, after all, ends with Creon a destroyed man. But Shakespeare may not have known that play, and in any case the story has been filtered through centuries of different traditions. Chaucer, so we’re told, got it from Boccaccio, and by then Creon was just a prop in a tale of courtly love. The trouble with The Two Noble Kinsmen is that what worked so poignantly in Chaucer’s hands became a stilted, turgid ritual in the hands of John Fletcher (with what I hope were only some flecks of additional poetry by our friend Will).

[Addendum. That was my initial reaction. According to comments in the Oxford Companion, Shakespeare is generally credited with Act 1. So there you go. I don’t want to spend too much time stewing over who wrote which part — I don’t have the time at the moment to read up on it anyway. So for now I’ll just stick with the unnerving sense that this play is qualitatively different from just about everything else that Shakespeare wrote.]

I’m willing to admit that I’ve never liked the play, and also that some of my reaction relates more to the fact that Shakespeare2020 is coming to an end than to anything in the play itself. Have you ever given a month’s notice to an employer and then suddenly realized that you absolutely can’t stand that job for one more day? It’s kind of like that. I’m upset at this project ending, and so I can’t concentrate on this one last task. I’m dragging it out to the bitter end.

Ultimately I had to set the text aside and just listen to the Arkangel production.

The Arkangel project was and is one of the more spectacular endeavors of 20th century audio Shakespeare: every single play was given a full production with a brilliant cast of British actors, all directed by one man (Clive Brill), all with original music composed by Dominique Le Gendre. Production values, while not quite as cinematic as the typical BBC Radio production, are far more immersive than a simple recording of a stage play. The only thing that comes close to Arkangel is the Caedmon series of Shakespeare plays, which captured performances by an earlier generation of British masters of the craft. (Another series recorded by the Marlowe Society has equal claim to performances by some of the great lights of the mid-20th-century stage; those have recently been repackaged and released by Arco, and are worth listening to for the performances, but there is no question that they are basically recordings of staged readings. They use audio has a convenient method of delivery rather than as a medium in its own right.)

So…. as I said, I mostly just listened to the Arkangel recording of the play. When I do that, I do it with two helpers at hand: a scene by scene synopsis from The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare and a glossary prepared by Eugene Shewmaker called Shakespeare’s Language (Checkmark Books, 2008). (The Crystals, father and son, are usually the go-to guys for Shakespeare definitions, but for various reasons I find that Shewmaker’s book works better for me.) The synopsis keeps me oriented through the audio, and the glossary helps me if I hear a word or phrase that I find particularly baffling.

One conclusion I’ve drawn from this process is that The Two Noble Kinsmen plays a lot better than it reads. Some of the knotty syntax isn’t as obvious in performance, where the general sense is clear as the words glide by in a rush. And actually hearing the music, and hearing the ritualistic dialogue spoken as a ritual, creates an effect that is hard to grasp by simply reading the text.

And of course not everything in the play is as artificial and stagey as the opening scene, or the scene preceding the combat when Palamon, Arcite, and Emilia each pray to their favorite gods (once again observing the rule of three). One of the most remarkable scenes, in my opinion, is the friendly banter between Palamon in Arcite in the woods as they’re putting their armor on. They’re about to fight each other to the death, but if you didn’t know that ahead of time, I’m not sure you could figure it out from the dialogue.

This I’ll take.

That’s mine then.
I’ll arm you first.

Do. Pray thee tell me, cousin,
Where got’st thou this good armor?

’Tis the Duke’s,
And to say true, I stole it. Do I pinch you?


Is’t not too heavy?

I have worn a lighter,
But I shall make it serve.

I’ll buckle’t close.

By any means.

You care not for a grand-guard?

No, no, we’ll use no horses. I perceive
You would fain be at that fight.

I am indifferent.

Faith, so am I. Good cousin, thrust the buckle
Through far enough.

They seem to have grown up a bit since their first sighting of Emilia, when they were both prisoners and faced off like adolescents:

Might not a man well lose himself and love her?

I cannot tell what you have done; I have,
Beshrew mine eyes for’t! Now I feel my shackles.

You love her then?

Who would not?

And desire her?

Before my liberty.

I saw her first.

Of course deciding which one deserves Emilia most pales in comparsion to an even greater issue: deciding how to pronounce the name ARCITE. Chaucer, and the pronunciation preferred by Chaucerians, isn’t necessarily helpful. Here’s a quick rundown on the variants I’ve seen and heard. Note that the name can sometimes be two syllables and sometimes three, even in the same speech, depending on the metrical requirements.

  • AR site
  • AR site a
  • ar SITE a
  • AR si tay
  • ar SEET
  • AR chee tay (based on its origin in an Italian story, I guess)
  • AR kite
  • AR ki tay

One translator of Chaucer changes the spelling to Arcita, which helps in terms of the number of syllables, but otherwise doesn’t really clear up the question of pronunciation. (Personally I waver between the first and third versions listed above.)

A thought about the staging…. and another ride around the ring on one of my favorite hobby-horses. Palamon and Arcite have a long scene in prison early in the play. In some ways it’s one of the most important scenes: they start out as friends, almost as lovers, adopting a stoic attitude toward their prospects for the future, which are basically nil. Then they catch sight of Emilia in the garden, and they quickly become bitter enemies. It’s a fascinating bit of dramatic maneuvering, and it needs to take place in full view of the audience. — which is exactly why I’m skeptical of the conventional way the staging is described: Enter Palamon and Arcite, above.

Reconstructions of playhouses of the time show a railed gallery at the back of the main stage, supposedly serving as the walls of Orleans, Juliet’s window, and (as here) the prison cell of Palamon and Arcite. Emilia and her “woman” would then enter the “garden” on the main stage below.

This makes no sense to me. It’s a tremendous waste of space, and it puts the emphasis on the least important part of the scene. What we’re meant to be paying attention to is not Emilia and her brief conversation with her servant, but the appalling transformation in the relationship between Palamon and Arcite. Are we really supposed to watch that played out in a two-dimensional area behind a waist-high fence?

This is another situation where I think a case can be made for either (a) temporary playing areas erected on the main stage (a raised platform to serve as the “prison cell” in this case); (b) a permanent or semi-permanent bi-level design to the playing area of the main stage (harking back to the Henry VI plays and the throne-room/mole-hill); (c) a gallery area that, in contrast to the sparse visual evidence we have, did not simply run along the tiring house wall but extended some distance over the main stage, creating a second playing area with enough space for the actors to bustle in.

It was once fashionable to conceive of the Shakespearean stage as having a “discovery space” between two angled entrances in the tiring house wall. I think this is wrong, and I spent a good bit of time in graduate school arguing against it. It’s too pat, and it suffers from the same objections I have to the idea that Palamon and Arcite’s prison scene took place in a railed gallery at the back of the stage: a significant amount of the action staged there would be invisible to much of the audience.

But I do think the Shakespearean stage was designed to allow action to take place on multiple levels, sometimes simultaneously, and that there may have been quite a bit more use of ad hoc stage properties — platforms, pavilions, and furniture — than is commonly supposed. I’m not suggesting they would have been used to create an illusion of realism: nobody expected that and nobody delivered it. They would have been there for visual variety and as something for the actors to work with. What I am suggesting is that if the main stage wasn’t already equipped with a raised platform of some depth, the audience isn’t likely to have asked for a refund if they arrived at the theater and found one set up on stage for that day’s performance.

Shakespeare and Fletcher added a subplot involving the Jailer’s Daughter, who is so madly in love with Palamon that she…. goes mad. And of course, like any innocent virgin in the drama of the time, when she goes mad she lets her hair down (literally and figuratively) and starts talking about sex. Wandering through the woods and terrified that Palamon has been eaten by wolves, she cries out: “O for a prick now, like a nightingale, to put my breast against!” And yes, I know the story about nightingales leaning against thorns to keep themselves awake so they can keep singing; and I know that Freud supposedly said that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” But in Elizabethan and Jacobean theater, a prick is usually just a prick, and the Jailer’s Daughter is mad for one.

At first it seems bizarre and more than a little creepy to “treat” her madness by encouraging her suitor to have sex with her, while letting her think she’s having sex with Palamon. (She imagines him as an amazingly powerful lover, able to impregnate 200 women in the neighborhood, all of them with boys — “he has the trick on’t” — who will need to be castrated when they are 10 years old and put to work singing the Wars of Theseus.) I’m certainly not recommending this as a form of therapy for mental illness, but there is a nugget of truth buried in this, and it shows up in the surprisingly kind way the Daughter is treated.

My family has had some dealings with dementia, both personally and professionally. And there is a movement in the field that recognizes, as one specialist has said, that we have to accept the fact that people with dementia will never be able to join us in our world. We have to stop trying to bring them back. We have to join them in their world instead.

A couple of simple examples. One woman in a residential setting had finished her meal and refused to give up her tray. With a flash of insight, a worker realized that she wanted to wash the dishes, something she’d done all her life. Rather than fight over the tray, the worker said, “You wash and I’ll dry” — and they did. Another woman was fixated on the idea that her husband, who’d been dead for five years, was coming to pick her up. A worker, rather than drag her back through her grief, said, “He called and said he’d be late.” That gave them time to get her involved in another activity, and the fixation faded away.

Is it unethical to lie to someone in this situation? Only if your name is Gradgrind. No matter how many times you tell her, again and again, “Your husband is dead, you know he’s dead, will you stop with the bullshit?” — she will never be able to re-enter the world the two of you once shared. You have to go where she is.

It’s surprising and even a little shocking that in an age when mad people were chained and beaten and humiliated and paraded for the amusement of the public that two playwrights proposed a gentler approach. “By no mean cross her,” says the jailer’s brother. “She is then distempered far worse than now she shows.” (As it happens, Ophelia and Lear, both mad, are treated with similar forebearance.) Even if you object to having someone sleep with the Jailer’s Daughter while pretending to be Palamon, surely there can be no objection to their supporting her illusion of sailing a boat into the forest to look for him.

You are master of a ship?


Where’s your compass?


Set it to th’ north.
And now direct your course to th’ wood, where Palamon
Lies longing for me. For the tackling
Let me alone. Come weigh, my hearts, cheerly!

Owgh, owgh, owgh! ’Tis up! The wind’s fair.
Top the bowling! Out with the mainsail!
Where’s your whistle, master?

Let’s get her in.

Up to the top, boy!

Where’s the pilot?


What ken’st thou?

A fair wood.

Bear for it, master.
Tack about!

I love this scene. It could be played for laughs, but deep compassion lies at its core.

Emilia has been put into an impossible position. She’s the epitome of modesty and chastity, but because of her beauty and light-heartedness, two men — strangers to her — fall in love with her and threaten to kill each other. Ultimately she’s forced to choose one over the other, knowing the loser will be put to death. If she refuses to choose, both will be put to death.

What sins have I committed, chaste Diana,
That my unspotted youth must now be soil’d
With blood of princes? And my chastity
Be made the altar where the lives of lovers—
Two greater and two better never yet
Made mothers joy—must be the sacrifice
To my unhappy beauty?

In her situation, “chanting faint hymns to the cold fruitless moon” would be a blessing. But the play, following Chaucer, twists the knife even further by having one of her suitors win the trial by combat — and then, just when she’s reconciled herself to being his wife, killing him by having him thrown from his horse.

I re-read The Canterbury Tales about a year ago, making use of Burton Raffel’s stylish and readable translation. (Burton Raffel deserves a blog entry, if not a whole blog, of his own, but that will have to wait.) This time I skimmed the end of the tale in Chaucer but didn’t have the energy to do a full comparison. (Maybe I’ll take a closer look in 2021…. I do hope to add to and amend these notes with additional readings and reactions to performances as time goes on.)

For some reason the thing that sticks in my mind the most is the tag line, repeated by Chaucer at irregular intervals: “There is no more to say.” (For example, when Arcite first catches sight of Emilia, he says: “I am but dead; there is no more to say.” I realize this is pretty weak, but I wonder if this is an echo:

My cause and honor guard me!

And me my love!
	(They bow several ways; then advance and stand.)
Is there aught else to say?

One main difference between Chaucer’s ending and the play’s is that Chaucer drags out Arcite’s death. This is how it goes in Theodore Morrison’s translation, another one of my particular favorites (because it was my first, and you always remember your first).

The clotted blood, despite all medical skill, 
Festers, remaining in the tissue still. 
No cupping nor bloodletting gives him aid, 
Nor any drink of herbs, however made. 
The venom is past all virtue to expel. 
The passage of his lungs begins to swell. 
The poison and the festering congest 
His every muscle downward through his chest. 
No measure helps him, in his hope to live, 
Upward emetic, downward laxative. 
All organs in that region are disrupted 
And nature there is totally corrupted. 
When Nature leaves the victim in the lurch, 
Doctor, good-by! Go bear the man to church!

It’s at moments like this that I thank God for dramatic compression.

A biographical footnote: Shakespeare had personal experience with tournaments, though not with the kind of life-and-death stakes portrayed in The Two Noble Kinsmen. In 1613, he and Richard Burbage collaborated on an “impresa” for the Earl of Southampton to use in a Court tournament. As Samuel Schoenbaum explains: “These imprese were insignia, allegorical or mythological, with appropriate mottoes, the whole printed on paper shields.” (Burbage was a painter in his spare time, so presumably he did the artwork and Shakespeare supplied the motto.) For this, the two were paid 44 shillings each. It would be easy to imagine the closing scenes of Kinsmen being staged with two sets of imprese, one showing Mars and one showing Venus, for the two “teams” of combatants.

…. and on that note, my year-long effort to read all of Shakespeare and write something about each play and poem comes to an end. For future reference, this was done in 2020. Apart from this project, 2020 was a year of calamities the world over. My wish for everyone reading this, and for everyone who’s never heard of me or Shakespeare, is that 2021 be a year of health, happiness, and well-being.

May all beings be happy, peaceful, and free from suffering. And may I see all beings as equals.

The Funeral Elegy

The Funeral Elegy is a dreary, conventional, and long poem written in honor of William Peter, who was murdered in 1612. It wasn’t written by Shakespeare, and its chief interest (for me, at any rate) is the window it offers into the career of Donald Foster.

Foster was once a name to be reckoned with in attribution studies, although he’s been pretty quiet lately. One of his early claims to fame was using his computer techniques to identify the author of the anonymous novel Primary Colors. The novel was a scandal-ridden portrait of a presidential campaign, clearly based on that of Bill Clinton (memorably portrayed in the film version by John Travolta). Based on stylistic comparisons, Foster correctly identified the author as Time Magazine columnist Joe Klein. Foster also collaborated with law enforcement in a number of investigations — although I warn you in advance that searching the Internet for information about these cases will lead to a rabbit warren of conflicting claims and opinions. (So don’t.) The only thing it’s missing is a grassy knoll.

In Shakespeare studies, Foster used a database called SHAXICON to sift through the mounds of Elizabethan and Jacobean writings of uncertain authorship. One of his interesting theories — I call it interesting because I found it pretty convincing, and still do — is that the mysterious Master WH to whom the Sonnets were dedicated by the publisher is actually Shakespeare himself: he contends that the dedication contains a misprint and should have read “Mr WS” or “Mr WSh”. Foster made a strong case that by any reasonable interpretation of the words, “the only begetter of these ensuing sonnets” had to be the author.

Another of his intriguing projects was trying to identify the parts Shakespeare played. He did this by working backwards. To take a hypothetical example, he would identify an unusual cluster of words running throughout Henry IV Part 2, and then analyze the roles in Henry IV Part 1, looking for the role that contained the greatest concentration of the same cluster of words. The idea was that Shakespeare played that part while he was writing the next play, thus explaining the common occurrences running through the role and the play. Haven’t heard much about that project recently either.

The Funeral Elegy was a misfire, and as the evidence mounted up, Foster admitted his mistake and retracted the attribution. I believe most scholars now accept that John Ford wrote the poem, leaving the attribution to “WS” in manuscript unexplained.

I corresponded with Foster briefly at one point, but his techniques — in fact the whole field of attribution studies — are a black box as far as I’m concerned. It’s one of those areas where I can only accept the experts’ word at face value — and if they disagree, try to muddle through and decide who seems to be advancing the fairest arguments. It’s a sad fact of the human condition that that when you don’t understand the science, you can’t always tell who’s playing fair. It’s a problem that has no solution.

Is the Phoenix Queen Elizabeth?

Right after finishing my previous entry, I skimmed through Jonathan Bates’ introduction to The Phoenix and the Turtle in the RSC Shakespeare. He makes a strong case that the anthology was published to honor John Salusbury on the occasion of his knighthood, and that the Phoenix is the aged and childless Elizabeth.

It is hard to imagine Chester’s phoenix as anything other than a symbol for Queen Elizabeth. She was often so portrayed and, what is more, the phoenix was the symbol of her mother’s family, the Bullens (Boleyns)—throughout her life she wore a signet ring that opened to reveal images of Anne Bullen and a phoenix.

Maybe. But if the point of the poem is to point forward to hopes for a peaceful succession, it’s hard to make out why both birds are pushing up the daisies at the end of the poem. This, my friend, is an ex-Phoenix.

The Phoenix and the Turtle(dove)

This is an odd, and oddly haunting, poem that doesn’t seem to belong anywhere in Shakespeare’s output; it doesn’t even seem to belong in the book it was written for. In 1601, Robert Chester published a brief anthology of poems called Love’s Martyr. It included poems by Chester himself and by other writers, several of them addressing the theme of the phoenix and the turtle(dove), one of them being this one by Shakespeare.

The whole collection was strange, because the purpose was, apparently, to honor the 15-year marriage of Sir John Salusbury and Ursula Stanley. Why would you celebrate a successful marriage with an anthology whose main characters self-immolate? One reason might be to honor the couple’s offspring, entering adolescence in 1601, theoretically representing the rebirth of the phoenix (turtle, I guess, be damned).

If that’s the case, Shakespeare’s poem is even stranger, because it emphasizes the “married chastity” of the couple and the fact that they died without issue. Even at the time it must have been jarring for Salusbury’s 14-year-old daughter to read the poem about her parents, then very much alive:

Death is now the Phoenix’ nest,
And the Turtle’s loyal breast
To eternity doth rest.

Leaving no posterity,
’Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.

But however odd soe’er the poem, Shakespeare rarely topped the compressed and simple beauty of its verses.

Truth may seem, but cannot be,
Beauty brag, but ’tis not she,
Truth and Beauty buried be.

It might be an example of an artist setting out to create one thing and discovering, in the process, that the “one thing” has an integrity of its own that demands expression. It’s like the old chestnut about Michelangelo, who supposedly created a statue by taking a block of marble and chipping away the bits of marble that didn’t belong. Or that writer, I forget which one, who said he didn’t know what his novel was about, because he hadn’t finished writing it yet.

The Tempest

Shakespeare was definitely going for something different with The Tempest. He may have been responding to comments (from Ben Jonson and other people with sticks up their asses) complaining about his lack of adherence to classical unities. Or he may have been throwing it in their faces: you think your rules are so damn important? OK, here they are, with one hand tied behind my back.

Of course there never were “three unities” in classical times. Aristotle talked about having unity of action, but it was all tied together with his other precepts. (1) A play should represent action of a certain magnitude. (2) What magnitude? Well, generally speaking, getting a glass of water isn’t big enough; the action should represent a change of fortune in a person’s life: either from good fortune to bad, or from bad fortune to good. (3) To avoid confusion and episodic construction, a play should focus on only one such action: in other words, it shouldn’t try to tell the whole story of a person’s life, but choose one significant change of fortune in that person’s life and tell that story.

In the course of analyzing plays as they existed in the Greek theater of the time, Aristotle also noted that they tended to happen in one place and often over the course of one day. But many Greek tragedies handle things differently — Agamemnon, for example, certainly takes place over many days — and Aristotle’s writing about this was descriptive, not prescriptive.

Later writers were misinformed.

But Shakespeare took them at face value and danced circles around them. Actually he made it even tighter: The Tempest unfolds in real time. Reference is made several times to the fact that the visitors from Milan have been on the island for three hours. OK, that’s stretching things a little, because the play is only a little over two hours long, but that partly depends on how elaborately you stage the several songs and masques that pop up during the play.

There’s another thing he does here that I don’t think he does anywhere else. It’s almost as if he’s daring his critics to find fault with him. (Of course he had “critics.” Everybody in the public eye has critics. Read the front page stories in any newspaper: they’re filled with references to “critics of so-and-so,” or “critics of the proposal” or what have you.) Shakespeare starts off with an exciting storm at sea filled with almost incomprehensible dialogue (to me, at any rate) and follows it with a scene containing the longest straight-to-video information dump ever written. He knows that’s what he’s doing, and he knows it’s a challenge: that’s why he keeps pausing and accusing Miranda (and us) of not paying attention.

And he gets away with it. Because knows what he’s doing, even when it’s something he’s never done before.

And that’s one reason my jaw still drops four hundred years later when I read him. Fuck me, Will! How did you do that?

So was it his farewell to the stage? It used to be fashionable to consider Prospero’s great speech Shakespeare speaking in his own voice. It certainly sounds like it.

I have bedimm’d
The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,
And ’twixt the green sea and the azur’d vault
Set roaring war; to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire, and rifted Jove’s stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-bas’d promontory
Have I made shake, and by the spurs pluck’d up
The pine and cedar. Graves at my command
Have wak’d their sleepers, op’d, and let ’em forth
By my so potent art.

That’s a pretty decent description of what Shakespeare himself did for 25 years on the London stage.

Then it became fashionable to say sorry-not-sorry, but of course it couldn’t be Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage, don’t you know, because he went on to write two more plays, Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen.

I’d like to make a modest case for going back to the first way of thinking about the speech. The second way commits the historical fallacy of reading events backwards. It’s quite possible that when Shakespeare wrote The Tempest, he didn’t know he was going to write two more plays. And he probably wrote those plays from Stratford by request anyway, after he’d packed his bags and gone home; he certainly wrote them in collaboration, and there’s no evidence that he’s the one who proposed them. (A couple of correspondents in the Shakespeare2020 group pointed out there’s no evidence he didn’t, either. Spoilsports.)

So I’m OK with the idea that this is Shakespeare talking through Prospero, even if he went back a year later and changed his mind.

But this rough magic
I here abjure; and when I have requir’d
Some heavenly music (which even now I do)
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.

(So long, Will. It’s been real.)

Looking through the cast list, there are three principal bad guys in the play (aside from Caliban, and by report, his mother): Alonso, the King of Naples; his brother Sebastian; and Antonio, Prospero’s brother, who usurped his place as Duke of Milan.

Apportioning blame among the three is an interesting exercise. Antonio seems the most villainous, at least at the beginning of the play. He’s the one who actively conspired against Prospero and carried out the coup against him; Alonso and Sebastian only tacitly approved it. And it’s not at all clear that Sebastian, ambitious as he is, ever had an impulse to kill his brother and take the throne until Antonio suggests it to him; in fact he seems initially aghast at the idea. It seems clear to me that Shakespeare wants us to think of Antonio as a thorough-going criminal, the Iago of The Tempest.

But Prospero is no garden of roses himself. He and the play have both come in for a lot of criticism for engaging in European colonialism. Much of what Prospero does is in defense of his daughter, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s done at the expense of the original inhabitants of the island — Sycorax, Caliban, and Ariel. (We never find out what happened to Sycorax: Prospero describes her as being doubled over in pain, but all we know is that she’s dead; we don’t know how.)

He took Caliban into his home and treated him with kindness, and Caliban repaid his kindness by showing him the wonders of the island.

When thou cam’st first,
Thou strok’st me and made much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in’t, and teach me how
To name the bigger light, and how the less,
That burn by day and night; and then I lov’d thee
And show’d thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile.

But then Caliban tried to rape Miranda, and since then Caliban has been reduced to slavery, performing menial tasks and being punished with physical torment when he tries to stand up for himself.

The story about the attempted rape is Prospero’s. It’s possible that it’s the victor rewriting history to rationalize his own actions, but I think that Shakespeare meant us to take it at face value, because Caliban himself never contradicts it.

I have us’d thee
(Filth as thou art) with human care, and lodg’d thee
In mine own cell, till thou didst seek to violate
The honor of my child.

O ho, O ho, would’t had been done!
Thou didst prevent me; I had peopled else
This isle with Calibans.

I’ve read that Miranda has been played as sexually precocious, with the idea that the “rape” was more likely a “seduction” on her part, but if this is true, Caliban doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity to defend himself. “Would it had been done,” is all he says. (I don’t mean to suggest that adding sexual energy to the part of Miranda is a mistake per se: I think there are hints in the play about this.)

But Caliban isn’t Prospero’s only slave. There’s also Ariel. Ariel is a friendly sprite (played in a BBC Radio production with fluttering hummingbird wings) who was trapped in a tree by Sycorax — who then found that she was unable to free him even if she wanted to. Prospero freed him, but his price was a life of servitude. Caliban and Ariel have been slaves for 12 years.

Prospero, having no brutal overseers to carry out his intentions, relies on his magic to keep them in line. He threatens Caliban with cramps and dogs and threatens to put Ariel back in the tree he’d been imprisoned in. He does finally let both of them go free — Ariel with a blessing, Caliban with a curse — but it doesn’t change the fact that he’d taken 12 years out of their lives.

My knowledge of British colonialism during this period is weak to the point of being almost nonexistent. What I know mostly involves Virginia, because I was born there. In school we were taught the history of The First Permanent English Settlement in America, at Jamestown, at the bottom of “the Peninsula,” the arm of land between the James and the York Rivers. Sir Walter Ralegh had tried to found a settlement further south, in what later became North Carolina, about 10 years earlier, but it failed. In fact, it disappeared completely, and to this day no one knows what happened to the people. Jamestown, founded in 1607, roughly 3-4 years before The Tempest was written, survived, just barely. Colonists began spreading out from the wooden fort at the tip of Peninsula, moving inland, planting farms, pushing the existing residents deeper into the forests. Life for the colonists never moved beyond the hardscrabble phase until tobacco plantations began forming after 1612: at that point the Virginia economy exploded, and whatever chance the native population may have had to resist the incursion was lost forever. The first slaves from Africa, the other : curse that has damned America from that day to this, came in 1619. (If Shakespeare didn’t have concrete examples of slavery yet in the English colonies in America, he certainly had them in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies. Columbus himself taught Europe what slavery entailed for both slaves and slavers.)

One point of all this is that for the most part, English colonialism came too late to influence Shakespeare: it was still a piecemeal affair when The Tempest was written. But scholars have pointed out that a 1610 convoy meant to resupply Jamestown ran aground in Bermuda and survived there for 10 months before managing to get away. Part of the convoy continued on to Jamestown and part of it returned to England, where news of the expedition did reach Shakespeare and played a part in the writing the play. (At one point he mentions the “still-vexed Bermoothes,” although he moves the island to the Mediterranean.)

One of the people on the 1610 expedition was John Rolfe. He continued on to Virginia, and one of the things he brought with him was a smuggled form of Spanish tobacco that grew better and (apparently) smoked better than the kind that was native to Virginia, and it was under his auspices that tobacco plantations became a going concern.

And speaking of the corruption and suppression of the native population, Rolfe’s other claim to fame is that he converted Pocohantas to Christianity and married her. They came back to England in 1615, so it’s physically possible (but unlikely) that Shakespeare saw her, and it’s also possible (and somewhat more likely) that when she wasn’t the main attraction herself, she saw The Tempest performed; she settled near London, and could have attended the rebuilt Globe Theatre. There wouldn’t have been much time for her to become a fan, because two years later she was dead.

Native Americans were sometimes exhibited as a nine-days-wonder in London. Trinculo wishes he could do something similar with Caliban.

Were I in England now (as once I was) and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver. There would this monster make a man; any strange beast there makes a man. When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian.

The interest wasn’t always anthropological. The porter in Henry VIII, faced with a disturbance, immediately jumps to conclusions, in a reference that seems to point to an actual exhibition, though I haven’t been able to track down the documentation in any of my annotated copies yet.

Is this Moorfields to muster in? Or have we some strange Indian with the great tool come to court, the women so besiege us? Bless me, what a fry of fornication is at door! 

A “strange Indian with the great tool,” in case it isn’t already obvious, means a Native American with a penis big enough to draw a paying crowd and cause riots.

Dead Indians, well-endowed Indians, Indian princesses dragged across the Atlantic and put on parade…. followed in short order by human trafficking: the common denominator is exploitation of native peoples for the profit of white Europeans. The British colonial empire may have been just getting started, but Shakespeare had a sense of where it was headed, and he knew that men like the respectable, well-read Duke of Milan would be the kind of man who would be on the “winning” side.

There are other bad guys in the play as well, namely Caliban, Stefano, and Trinculo. Mostly they’re just hapless drunkards, but they do form a plot to kill Prospero, capture Miranda (and force her to be King Stefano’s wife), and take control of the island. They put their plan into motion, which in an American court would make them guilty of conspiracy to commit murder, if nothing else. But they remain hapless drunkards who are imitating their “betters” in both means and ends. It’s hard to see them as anything other than comic relief, even at their most nefarious.

Prospero wants revenge for the crime his brother committed against him. It presents an interesting dilemma. There’s not much religious dialogue in the play, but as citizens of Italy, the Europeans on the island are from a Christian background. And one of the key tenets of Christianity is to abjure revenge. “Revenge is mine, I will pay back, says the Lord.”

But the Lord hasn’t paid back. It’s been twelve years, and Prospero and Miranda are still abandoned on the island, and Antonio is still enjoying riches and status as the Duke of Milan, and he has no trouble sleeping at night.

I remember
You did supplant your brother Prospero.

And look how well my garments sit upon me,
Much feater than before. My brother’s servants
Were then my fellows, now they are my men.

But, for your conscience?

Ay, sir; where lies that? If ’twere a kibe,
’Twould put me to my slipper.

So Prospero has taken to his books and learned black magic, for which he should, by rights, be damned. (It’s an interesting side question as to how he acquires the actual power to do magic. He makes reference to his “magic cloak,” and it seems that he has to be wearing it to perform his spells. But where did he get it? Did he find it lying on the ground like Caliban’s gaberdine? Elsewhere Caliban says that without his books he’s powerless. Maybe all he means is that without the books he can’t remember the spells. But there seems to be an implication that the books themselves imbue him with some kind of magic power. If so…. they’re the same books he had in Milan; why couldn’t he do magic there? Was it only because he hadn’t had time to study them? But his backstory suggests that he was able to do magic and take over the island not long after he got there.)

Ultimately Prospero decides to forgive his brother and demand only that he be given his dukedom back. This is true even though he knows about the plot his brother instigated to kill the King of Naples. By letting him completely off the hook, isn’t he putting the King at risk? His only attempt at controlling the situation is to let Antonio know that he knows about the plot. (Somehow I wonder if a sequel to The Tempest would have such a satisfying ending.)

What persuades Prospero to forgive rather than to avenge? Could it be something as simple as this exchange with Ariel?

Confin’d together
In the same fashion as you gave in charge,
Just as you left them; all prisoners, sir,
In the line-grove which weather-fends your cell;
They cannot budge till your release. The King,
His brother, and yours, abide all three distracted,
And the remainder mourning over them,
Brimful of sorrow and dismay....
Your charm so strongly works ’em
That if you now beheld them, your affections
Would become tender.

Dost thou think so, spirit?

Mine would, sir, were I human.

And mine shall.
Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier mov’d than thou art?

To me, this dialogue seems more like a marker of the change than the actual trigger. Prospero goes on to suggest that he has been carrying on an internal struggle with himself, and that reason — interesting that it’s reason, not grace or charity or some other divine virtue — has finally won over his baser instincts.

Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,
Yet, with my nobler reason, ’gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further.

Ultimately Prospero forgives Caliban and sets him free as well, or at least promises to. He has one last task to perform, to decorate Prospero’s cell for a celebration. When everyone leaves for Italy, he will at last have his island to himself again.

Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That if I then had wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I wak’d
I cried to dream again.

We’re luckier than Caliban. Anytime we feel the yearning to dream again, all we need to do is open our copy of Shakespeare and read.

Prospero seems awfully worried about Miranda’s virginity. Of course in 1610 (and for centuries after that), a father was supposed to be worried about that. But Prospero keeps coming back to it like a dog to a bone. He tells Ferdinand:

Then, as my gift, and thine own acquisition
Worthily purchas’d, take my daughter. But
If thou dost break her virgin-knot before
All sanctimonious ceremonies may
With full and holy rite be minist’red,
No sweet aspersion shall the heavens let fall
To make this contract grow; but barren hate,
Sour-ey’d disdain, and discord shall bestrew
The union of your bed with weeds so loathly
That you shall hate it both.

(I can’t help wondering about Shakespeare’s own situation. He most certainly broke Anne Hathaway’s virgin knot before all sanctimonious ceremonies had been ministered; more about that shortly. This has led some scholars — or at least it used to — to read “barren hate” back into the marriage itself, citing the “second-best bed” as further evidence. We don’t have to go there. But surely it crossed Shakespeare’s mind that he was demanding a higher standard from Ferdinand than he had demanded from himself.)

Only moments later he’s harping on it again.

Look thou be true; do not give dalliance
Too much the rein. The strongest oaths are straw
To th’ fire i’ th’ blood. Be more abstenious,
Or else good night your vow!

I warrant you, sir,
The white cold virgin snow upon my heart
Abates the ardor of my liver.


And again, only moments later, the masque Prospero stages for the couple comes around to that same point again. Iris, messenger of the gods, assures Juno that Venus and Cupid will not disturb the chastity of the two young lovers.

Of her society
Be not afraid. I met her Deity
Cutting the clouds towards Paphos; and her son
Dove-drawn with her. Here thought they to have done
Some wanton charm upon this man and maid,
Whose vows are, that no bed-right shall be paid
Till Hymen’s torch be lighted.

Miranda herself seems the closest thing to an ice princess as anything in Shakespeare. But like any 14-year-old — Shakespeare is specific about her age: 14 going on 15 — hormones may be kicking in. The instant she sees Ferdinand she falls passionately in love with him.

And as it turns out, Prospero isn’t the only one concerned about her sexual innocence. For Ferdinand, it’s the sine qua non.

Is the third man that e’er I saw; the first
That e’er I sigh’d for. Pity move my father
To be inclin’d my way!

O, if a virgin,
And your affection not gone forth, I’ll make you
The Queen of Naples.

He professes undying affection for her, and she weeps with joy. But her response shows that even with someone as innocent as Miranda, Shakespeare can’t resist slipping in a few double entendres.

Wherefore weep you?

At mine unworthiness, that dare not offer
What I desire to give; and much less take
What I shall die to want. But this is trifling,
And all the more it seeks to hide itself,
The bigger bulk it shows. 

(Insert here the routine explanations about what Shakespeare’s audience would assume women desire to give and take, and what it meant in Elizabethan parlance to “die” — not to mention the trifling thing that seeks to hide itself but instead gets bigger.)

Once again, Shakespeare brings up the ritual of handfasting. It seems a little obsessive, and as mentioned a moment ago, it’s tempting (at least for me) to see some echoes of his own family situation in his repeated use of this transaction.

Ferdinand and Miranda get married in Act 3 Scene 1.

I am your wife, if you will marry me;
If not, I’ll die your maid. To be your fellow
You may deny me, but I’ll be your servant,
Whether you will or no.

My mistress, dearest,
And I thus humble ever.

My husband then?

Ay, with a heart as willing
As bondage e’er of freedom. Here’s my hand.

And mine, with my heart in’t.

This constituted a marriage contract. Witnesses weren’t required, although as it happens Prospero is watching this from his coign of vantage. Nor were clergy required. And yet, as in Shakespeare’s own case, it wasn’t quite enough to escape censure. Theoretically the couple could start having sex at that point without being guilty of fornication, but Prospero threatens them with “barren hate, sour-ey’d disdain, and discord” if they do so “before all sanctimonious ceremonies may with full and holy rite be minist’red.”

In the case of Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway, they jumped the gun and found themselves having to go to considerable trouble and expense to obtain a special license so the “sanctimonious ceremonies” could be performed before Anne’s pregnancy became obvious. In the case of Ferdinand and Miranda, they took advantage of their sort-of-married state to…. play a game of chess.

One last observation on the details. It seems clear from the dialogue that Caliban is a kind of fish-monster. Discussion on Shakespeare2020 revolved around whether some of this dialogue referred to his appearance or simply his smell. It’s certainly a reference to his smell, but I don’t see how that would be conclusive: from that they might just as well assume he’s a fisherman back from a big haul. (Knife goes in, guts come out. Knife goes in, guts come out.)

Confronted with a terrified Caliban, Trinculo tries to puzzle out what he is.

What have we here? A man or a fish? Dead or alive? A fish, he smells like a fish; a very ancient and fish-like smell; a kind of, not-of-the-newest poor-John. A strange fish! Were I in England now (as once I was) and had but this fish painted, not a holiday fool there but would give a piece of silver. There would this monster make a man; any strange beast there makes a man. When they will not give a doit to relieve a lame beggar, they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian. Legg’d like a man; and his fins like arms! Warm, o’ my troth! I do now let loose my opinion, hold it no longer: this is no fish, but an islander, that hath lately suffer’d by a thunderbolt.

So it’s clear Caliban is humanoid. But if he doesn’t resemble a fish in some striking way, why would Trinculo think he could make money exhibiting a picture of him?

The word comes up again in a later scene when Caliban calls Trinculo a coward. Trinculo defends himself.

Why, thou debosh’d fish thou, was there ever man a coward that hath drunk so much sack as I today? Wilt thou tell a monstrous lie, being but half a fish and half a monster?

Trinculo isn’t the only one who sees a resemblance between Caliban and a fish: Antonio does as well.

Ha, ha!
What things are these, my Lord Antonio?
Will money buy ’em?

Very like; one of them
Is a plain fish, and no doubt marketable.

Mark but the badges of these men, my lords,
Then say if they be true. This misshapen knave—
His mother was a witch, and one so strong
That could control the moon, make flows and ebbs,
And deal in her command without her power.

From this we learn two things: Caliban is misshapen, and something about him reminds Antonio of a fish.

To my way of thinking, it seems clear from the dialogue that Caliban is intended to be a kind of hybrid creature, part human and (visibly) part something else, and the comments in the dialogue are steering us toward a fish as that something else.

I wonder if anybody’s tried staging him as the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Na. Too distracting. The descriptions fit, though.

And finally…. a philosophical comment inspired by a line that Prospero almost throws away. He promises that when he gets back to Milan, every third thought will be of his grave. I’ve seen here and there mention of a “Third Thought Society,” but I’ve never pursued it, despite the fact that I think it’s a capital idea.

As I write this, I’m 68 years old, and with every year that goes by I become increasingly aware of my own mortality. Losing friends and family members can play a major role in that feeling. I know that when my younger brother died — he was seven years younger than me — the realization that I’d known him from the moment of his birth to the moment of his death suddenly made the finality of death very real.

This became all the more concrete for me a few months ago when a bleeding ulcer reduced my hemoglobin count from its usual 15 to 5. Five is close to, if not in, the region where irreversible organ damage occurs. I had no symptoms leading up to it. All I knew was that one morning I sat down on the couch to drink my morning coffee, and when I decided to go to the bathroom, I couldn’t stand up. I had no strength in my extremities, and the least effort brought on chest heaving and a sense that dark clouds were closing in.

I was sure it was Covid. A trip to the ER led to my being admitted to the hospital, and I spent a day and a half on the Covid floor waiting for the results of the test to come back. It came back negative, so they moved me to the GI unit. An endoscopy revealed the problem, and the doctors were able to pinch off the blood vessel. With that action, and with three units of blood, I began to recover, and I was discharged from the hospital a few days later when my hemoglobin came back up to 9. (As of this writing, it’s still moving slowly back up to its original baseline.)

But it could have ended differently. I could have died. I’d woken up that morning not expecting to do anything else that day but read Shakespeare. I hadn’t left any room in my schedule to die.

Every now and then, I remember that feeling: this is death. I’m dying. I’m going to lose consciousness and never come back. Please, please don’t let me lose consciousness.

Even before this happened, I thought about death a lot. It’s not morbid or depressing; it’s a realistic assessment of the human condition. From an actuarial standpoint, I’ve got about 10 years left. The occasional practice of meditation has brought me into contact, at least some of the time, with the Observing Self, and with the startling realization that one of the things that Self will observe is my own death. It hasn’t happened yet, as I write these words, but it’s an experience I absolutely know I will have.

So every third thought will be of my grave.

Stephen Batchelor, a Buddhist teacher, once phrased it something like this. The fundamental question each one of us must answer is this: since the fact of death is certain, and the time of death is uncertain…. what must I do?

Winter’s Tale

I’m wary of tying Shakespeare’s plays too closely to his life. But I think it’s worth noting his concern with daughters in his last plays — especially daughters who are lost and then found again. In Pericles we have Marina, the Child of the Sea. In The Winter’s Tale we have Perdita, the Child Who Was Lost. In The Tempest, we have Miranda, the Child of Miracles.

When Shakespeare retired from the theater and took up full-time residence in Stratford — sometime around 1610-1613 — he came home to his wife Anne and his daughter Judith. (To simplify the calculations, I’m going to use 1611 as the year of his retirement: it’s a year often suggested as the year for both The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, the last two plays he wrote without a collaborator.) Judith was 26 years old and unmarried. Her twin brother Hamnet had died 15 years earlier.

There had been other deaths marking the new century like a steady drumbeat. Grandfather John died in 1601, when Judith was 16. Uncle Ned — Shakespeare’s youngest brother — had been close to her in age and had lived in the same house with her for 11 years. Uncle Ned had followed his brother to London to become an actor, but he hadn’t cut much of a figure for himself when he died in 1607, at the age of 27. He was buried in the dead of winter, in a church a few blocks from the Globe Theater, on a day when the Thames itself was frozen solid.

By then Judith’s sister Susanna had married the physician and Puritan John Hall and moved out of New Place. The Halls had a child, Elizabeth, who would have been 3 years old in 1611.

Judith’s grandmother Mary died the year Elizabeth was born, in 1608, when Judith was 23. Uncle Gilbert died in 1612 just after our proposed date for Will’s retirement. Uncle Richard, the last of Will’s brothers, died a year after that.

When Will came home, he came home to a shrunken family. His sister Joan and her husband lived in the old place on Henley Street. His daughter and her small family lives at Hall’s Croft near the church. His wife and younger daughter lived with him at New Place. Nobody knows where his two surviving brothers lived: there may be a trace of Gilbert in London as a haberdasher, but he died in Stratford, unmarried; Richard died in Stratford too, but his life is a complete blank.

That was it.

So…. about Judith and marriage. People at that period in England tended to marry much later than now, often because of apprenticeships. If a man became apprenticed at 18 and served for the usual 7 years, he would be 25 before he was able to marry. As has often been pointed out, when William at 18 married Anne Hathaway at 26, he was the outlier, not her.

We don’t know anything about Judith’s private life and can’t read anything into her unmarried status except to note that several years after her (slightly) older sister had gotten married and started a family, she was still living at home. And it may be permissible to read backward from 1616, when she finally did make a match at the age of 31, only to have it turn out to be an exceptionally bad one. Her debt-ridden husband, after the marriage had occurred, ended up having to do public penance for fornication (the other party being a woman who died in childbirth, naming him as the father). Shakespeare revised his will the next day to make sure that Judith’s inheritance, meager as it was, was safe from her husband’s grasp. She and her husband Tom had several children together, all of whom died young.

Getting back to my original point after this long digression: I know this is the rankest kind of speculation, but is it possible that Judith Shakespeare is the Child Who Was Lost?

(The film All Is True seemed to take this line. On the whole, it did a good job giving a sense of what Shakespeare’s last years would have been like. But the plot device of having Hamnet take credit for Judith’s poetry and then drown in two feet of water…. and then having Anne lie to Will that Hamnet died of the plague, and Will taking 20 years to figure out that no one else had died of the plague that year, as if somehow he wouldn’t have known that…. nah. Didn’t work.)

Or coming at it from another angle…. Some scholars have suggested that the same boy actor played Mamillius and Perdita. How old is Mamillius? Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that Mamillius is a kind of stand-in for Hamnet and that he is around 11, the same age as Hamnet, when he dies; and that 16 years later, in the world of the play, he is “reborn” as his sister. Had Mamillius lived, he would be the same age as Hamnet at the time the play was written…. the same age that Judith, Hamnet’s twin, actually was. If Mamillius/Perdita is the Child Who Was Lost, both parts being played by the same actor, and somehow capturing some of the psychic energy of Hamnet/Judith, it may help explain in another way some of the great sadness that tinges this play.

This is all pure speculation and may all be hogwash. But there is a deep and poignant feeling of sorrow in the play, and I can’t help but wonder if Shakespeare’s personal situation added to its emotional charge.

And so in that roundabout way, we enter the world of The Winter’s Tale.

And what about that world? I’ll start off by observing that Leontes is insane. Like another orange-haired turd of my acquaintance, he evaluates his subordinates on a single criterion: loyalty. Do they support his crazy accusations or do they try to talk him out of it? Many of them, to their credit — chief among them Antigonus — try to talk him out of it. For his pains, Antigonus is given a dangerous mission that will, in fact, lead to his death.

Leontes feels nothing but rage when confronted with his newborn daughter. (She was born in prison, where the pregnant Hermione was confined when Polixenes escaped.)

This brat is none of mine,
It is the issue of Polixenes.
Hence with it, and together with the dam
Commit them to the fire!

He can’t touch Polixenes, safely stowed in his own kingdom, but he can burn his wife and his child at the stake. Most medieval and early modern forms of execution were painful, but burning to death was probably one of the most painful. Part of the entertainment value lay in the screams of the dying as they struggled against the ropes binding them to the stake. As a mercy, women were sometimes strangled before the fire was set, but not always.

Leontes orders Antigonus to take the child to the place of execution; otherwise he, Leontes, will kill it with his bare hands.

My child? Away with’t! Even thou, that hast
A heart so tender o’er it, take it hence,
And see it instantly consum’d with fire.
Even thou, and none but thou. Take it up straight.
Within this hour bring me word ’tis done
(And by good testimony), or I’ll seize thy life,
With what thou else call’st thine. If thou refuse
And wilt encounter with my wrath, say so;
The bastard brains with these my proper hands
Shall I dash out.

Leontes is sick in the head. All we’ve seen Hermione do is have a private conversation with Polixenes, and — if we take Leontes’ descriptions as accurate — affectionately hold his hand. But Leontes has already gone far beyond this in his mind. He describes their behavior thus to Camillo (in a speech that is, by the way, a textbook example of how to construct a Shakespearean speech).

Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? Stopping the career
Of laughter with a sigh (a note infallible
Of breaking honesty)? Horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? Wishing clocks more swift?
Hours, minutes? Noon, midnight? And all eyes
Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only,
That would unseen be wicked? Is this nothing?
Why then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing,
The covering sky is nothing, Bohemia nothing,
My wife is nothing, nor nothing have these nothings,
If this be nothing.

“Kissing with inside lip” must be what (in high school) we used to call “French kissing.” If so, then yeah, it’s a pretty safe bet that Leontes’ cause is lost. But Camillo recognizes the accusation as an insane fantasy, and the play loses all meaning if there’s the slightest hint that Leontes’ jealous fantasies might be true.

We don’t get to see him drawn into jealousy by an outside agitator like Iago. Before the play even begins, he’s already in the grip of a deadly passion, although it’s quite a ways into the first act before he lets us see it. The immediate trigger is his wife Hermione playing handsies with his best friend Polixenes.

But to be paddling palms and pinching fingers,
As now they are, and making practic’d smiles,
As in a looking-glass; and then to sigh, as ’twere
The mort o’ th’ deer—O, that is entertainment
My bosom likes not, nor my brows!

As a footnote, it’s a curious thing how often the “paddling” or “playing handsies” shows up in Shakespeare. The most immediate parallel is in Othello, where Iago observes Desdemona and Cassio making a little too free — so he thinks — with each other’s hands.

He takes her by the palm; ay, well said, whisper. With as little a web as this will I ensnare as great a fly as Cassio. Ay, smile upon her, do; I will gyve thee in thine own courtship.

Iago makes his meaning explicit when he talks to Roderigo later.

Bless’d pudding! Didst thou not see her paddle with the palm of his hand? Didst not mark that?

Yes, that I did; but that was but courtesy.

Lechery, by this hand; an index and obscure prologue to the history of lust and foul thoughts. They met so near with their lips that their breaths embrac’d together.

In Sonnet 128, he imagines a keyboard making free with his mistress.

How oft when thou, my music, music play’st
Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poor lips, which should that harvest reap,
At the wood’s boldness by thee blushing stand.

Hamlet is obsessed with the idea of “paddling” as well, although in his case the location has changed, and the effect is even seedier.

Let the bloat king tempt you again to bed,
Pinch wanton on your cheek, call you his mouse,
And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses,
Or paddling in your neck with his damn’d fingers,
Make you to ravel all this matter out....

But back to Leontes and his sudden rage. He fights with himself to avoid taking it out on his son, suspecting at the same time that his son might not be his.

Go play, boy, play. Thy mother plays, and I
Play too, but so disgrac’d a part, whose issue
Will hiss me to my grave: contempt and clamor
Will be my knell. Go play, boy, play. There have been
(Or I am much deceiv’d) cuckolds ere now,
And many a man there is (even at this present,
Now, while I speak this) holds his wife by th’ arm,
That little thinks she has been sluic’d in ’s absence,
And his pond fish’d by his next neighbor—by
Sir Smile, his neighbor.

The upshot is that he orders his underling Camillo to poison Polixenes. Camillo, who can see how irrational Leontes’ jealousy is, instead helps Polixenes to escape the city.

By the way…. I have to take a minute here to mention a particular image. Whatever else it has, The Winter’s Tale has one of my favorite lines in all of Shakespeare.

There may be in the cup
A spider steep’d, and one may drink; depart,
And yet partake no venom (for his knowledge
Is not infected), but if one present
Th’ abhorr’d ingredient to his eye, make known
How he hath drunk, he cracks his gorge, his sides,
With violent hefts. I have drunk, and seen the spider.

I have drunk, and seen the spider. As a Shakespeare quote, this doesn’t get nearly enough love. The shock of drinking — let’s say a mug of coffee for the sake of argument — and finding a spider at the bottom of the mug would be enough to put me in the hospital. Or at least send me to bed for a week.

The Norton editors, excellent in all other respects, apply their standard copy-editing rules to this passage and remove the final comma. For me, this ruins it. That last line needs a slight catch in the middle, a hesitation: otherwise it races on at breakneck speed and the line gets lost.

Fortunately Hermione has the presence of mind to meet the onslaught of Leontes with dignity and greatness of heart. Her trial is a mockery. As she says, her only defense is her word, and her word is exactly what she’s been charged with breaking.

Since what I am to say must be but that
Which contradicts my accusation, and
The testimony on my part no other
But what comes from myself, it shall scarce boot me
To say “Not guilty.” Mine integrity,
Being counted falsehood, shall (as I express it)
Be so receiv’d.

But she makes her case anyway, without descending into the kind of vituperative accusations that Leontes richly deserves. She is a wonderfully strong woman. Faced with this most horrible of accusations, she faces it down without flinching: at no point does she lose her self-possession or her calm dignity — not until the news of her son’s death causes her to collapse and (apparently) die of shock.

Leontes tries to cow her with a sentence of death.

You had a bastard by Polixenes,
And I but dream’d it. As you were past all shame
(Those of your fact are so), so past all truth;
Which to deny concerns more than avails; for as
Thy brat hath been cast out, like to itself,
No father owning it (which is indeed
More criminal in thee than it), so thou
Shall feel our justice; in whose easiest passage
Look for no less than death.

But she never falters.

Sir, spare your threats.
The bug which you would fright me with, I seek.

The oracle of Apollo vindicates her absolutely, without a trace of the ambiguity oracles were supposedly famous for.

Hermione is chaste, Polixenes blameless, Camillo a true subject, Leontes a jealous tyrant, his innocent babe truly begotten, and the King shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found.

But even then Leontes refuses to bend: instead, he curses the god as a liar. And then on the instant the gods break open the sky and pour down their revenge.

My lord the King! The King!

What is the business?

O sir, I shall be hated to report it!
The Prince your son, with mere conceit and fear
Of the Queen’s speed, is gone.

How? Gone?

Is dead.

At this news, “Hermione swoons,” and predictably her lady-in-waiting Paulina — the wife of bear-eaten Antigonus — announces that she has also died of grief and shame.

O lords,
When I have said, cry “Woe!”—the Queen, the Queen,
The sweet’st, dear’st creature’s dead, and vengeance for’t
Not dropp’d down yet.

The higher pow’rs forbid!

I say she’s dead; I’ll swear’t. If word nor oath
Prevail not, go and see. If you can bring
Tincture or lustre in her lip, her eye,
Heat outwardly or breath within, I’ll serve you
As I would do the gods. But, O thou tyrant!
Do not repent these things, for they are heavier
Than all thy woes can stir; therefore betake thee
To nothing but despair.

Leontes finally gets the message, but of course it’s too late. (The notes to the Signet Classic Shakespeare suggest that Shakespeare, at this stage in the writing, may not have decided yet to revive Hermione. In the original novel by Robert Greene, she’s dead and buried, and the Leontes character ends up dead by his own hand.)

The play is about to pull one of the greatest reversals in all of Shakespeare, a shift from this appalling tragedy to a song-filled pastoral with dancing, sheep, and pick-pockets.

But before that, of course, there’s the famous stage direction Exit, pursued by a bear and the problems of interpretation it entails.

I’ve heard it asked, as a serious question, whether the bear that pursues Antigonus (and rips out and eats his shoulder-bone offstage) was, in the original staging, a real bear or a man in a bear suit.


Let’s think about it for a minute. I won’t deny that some bears in London may have been trained to dance and entertain a laughing crowd. But the majority of bears were there for bear-baiting. They were trained to kill.

So…. a thought experiment. Here we have a scene, and Richard Burbage insists on using a live bear. There are several problems that have to be resolved. (1) The bear has to be quietly kept backstage until the time for his appearance arrives. No roaring, or the surprise is spoiled. In the meantime he has to be prevented from eating any of the actors in the tiring house. (2) Once on stage, he has to know that he’s supposed to chase Antigonus, and not anyone else who might happen to be onstage. (Sometimes wealthier spectators had seats on the stage, the better to see and be seen.) (3) He has to be prevented from eating Antigonus or any of the spectators. (4) There being no railing or anything else between him and the audience in the pit, he has to be prevented from leaping off the stage and massacring spectators in that trapped, enclosed location. (5) This has to be repeated every time the play is put on — kind of like Russian roulette.

All things considered, I’m pretty sure it was a man in a bear suit.

Antigonus is a kind of character type, one that Shakespeare turned to from time to time in the latter part of his career. He may have conceived of the type originally as a scaled-down version of Polonius. He’s a humorous advisor: humorous in the modern sense, not in the medieval sense: wise, good-natured, and a bit slow on the uptake. He played a supporting role in Coriolanus as Menenius. He turns up again in The Tempest as Gonzalo.

He assures Leontes his wife is honest.

If it prove
She’s otherwise, I’ll keep my stables where
I lodge my wife; I’ll go in couples with her.

“Going in couples” means being leashed together with her like two hounds on a hunt. He goes further.

Be she honor-flaw’d,
I have three daughters: the eldest is eleven;
The second and the third, nine, and some five;
If this prove true, they’ll pay for’t. By mine honor,
I’ll geld ’em all; fourteen they shall not see
To bring false generations. They are co-heirs,
And I had rather glib [castrate] myself than they
Should not produce fair issue.

A minor observation on this speech. He has three daughters, the eldest being 11 years old. In the normal run of things, this would put Antigonus in his mid-thirties — or possibly younger, if like many lords he married early. But he’s usually played as an older man, and his wife Paulina as an older woman. On the other hand, if they’re younger, it makes Leontes’ match-making at the end — marrying Paulina to Camillo — a little less grotesque.

His death is horrifying, though it can be and has been staged for laughs. Someone in the Shakespeare2020 group remembered a staging that I find particularly moving, and it’s the one I’d like to “remember” Antigonus by.

I never saw
The heavens so dim by day. A savage clamor!
Well may I get aboard! This is the chase;
I am gone forever.
	(Exit pursued by a bear.)

Thus the Folio. Picture it this way: the bear roars offstage, and Antigonus cries out “A savage clamor!” The bear enters and begins sniffing around the bundled child Perdita. To distract the bear, Antigonus shouts “This is the chase [the quarry]!” — in other words, Here I am, take me instead. So his death is not a comic interlude but a noble sacrifice.

I hereby declare this the Definitive Davis-Approved Staging of the Bear Scene. Accept no substitutes.

There’s a wonderful splash-panel of a scene in the fourth act, a country masque so artfully constructed that it almost seems to have been conceived as a stand-alone entertainment. It starts and ends with the thief and conman Autolycus, who shows up out of nowhere: and with him comes a glorious scene of springtime singing and dancing.

The lark, that tirra-lyra chaunts,
With heigh, with heigh, the thrush and the jay!
Are summer songs for me and my aunts,
While we lie tumbling in the hay.

“My father nam’d me Autolycus,” he says, “who being, as I am, litter’d under Mercury, was likewise a snapper-up of unconsider’d trifles.” There have been biographers of Shakespeare — AL Rowse was one — who thought this was an apt self-description: Shakespeare himself, taking clues and cues from everyone and everywhere, was himself a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles — trifles that he refashioned into masterpieces like this one.

As a footnote, the RSC editors gloss the name Autolycus as “the Wolf Himself” or “the Lone Wolf” — and add, helpfully, that the Wolf in myth was a sneak and a thief. That’s not the Wolf that I remember, but there you go. In Greek myth, at least to Homer, Autolycus was the grandfather of Odysseus.

As another footnote…. yeah, there’s a scene break between the scene with Autolycus and the sheep-shearing scene proper, but I’m ignoring it. On the fluid Elizabethan stage, it would all run together, and so I’m sticking to my story, even though the running-scene-happy RSC editors disagree in this instance. I’m staking the claim that Act 4 scenes 3 and 4 were written and staged as a single scene.

One the things Autolycus has for sale is ballads, and the country folk at the sheep-shearing are crazy about ballads. He sells out his stock almost immediately, and in the ensuing songfest he manages to steal a boatload of purses — some of the multitude being so distracted, he says, that he could have cut them off the very codpieces. In the course of the scene at least three ballads are performed — this is almost a scene out of a Broadway musical — and two major dance numbers, one a Dance of Shepherds and Shepherdesses and one a Dance of Twelve Satyrs.

Perdita, rescued by the shepherd and his son at the end of the first part of the play, has grown almost to adulthood here, and through one of the coincidences that writers like Shakespeare and Victor Hugo love to employ, she has fallen in love with Florizel, the son of Polixenes — the man Leonides tried to murder 16 years earlier. Leonides has come to his senses, and after the death of his wife and son and the disappearance of his newborn daughter — a disappearance that he commanded — he has reconciled with Polixenes, although they’ve had little to say to each other in the meantime. He has no way of knowing that his Child Who Was Lost has survived to become the beloved of Polixenes’ son.

Polixenes turns out to be not a very nice guy either. He spies out the way Florizel has been courting a lowly shepherd’s daughter, none of them (of course) suspecting the truth about Perdita, and he sails in during the sheep-shearing and busts everything up. He makes horrifying threats: he will disinherit Florizel, hang the shepherd for treason, and have Perdita mutilated so that she can never again use her beauty to tempt men. Fortunately Camillo is still around — Camillo, the man who saved Polixenes’ life when Leontes was trying to kill him; and Camillo works quickly behind Polixenes’ back to blunt the effect of his rage, with the side benefit of giving himself a chance to go home. Florizel loves Perdita? Very well; they can take ship for Sicilia, and Camillo will provide letters that will make it look like they’re on official business from Polixenes.

Meanwhile the shepherd and his son, terrified at the punishments they are threatened with, gather the evidence they found with the abandoned Perdita that prove she is not related to them and is in fact a rich heiress of somebody. Autolycus, still singing and chuckling over his day’s haul, impersonates a courtier and promises to help by bringing them to Polixenes. (But first he enjoys a little knife twisting by bringing up the threatened hanging again, and adding to it a threat to have the shepherd’s son flayed alive, then covered with honey and stung with wasps, then drenched with hard liquor, then left to bake in the sun and be “with flies blown to death.” Another nice guy.)

One sour note for me in the play is the old Hidden Royalty wheeze. Shakespeare likes to argue that blood will tell. Perdita proves herself worthy of marrying Florizel not because of her inherent personal qualities but because she is, by blood, an actual princess. The Shepherd found her with a treasure chest and knew she’d come from a rich background, but didn’t know how rich until the truth came out. But it didn’t matter what he knew or didn’t know. In Shakespeare’s thinking, high-born people have a different genetic makeup that will be evident in their behavior, in their graciousness, in every quality they possess, no matter what kind of environment they’re raised in. To someone like me, steeped in American democratic idealism, this is a particularly unsavory idea: it’s one of the biggest barriers to thinking of Shakespeare as “one of us.” Shakespeare sees society as deeply stratified and rightfully so. The rich are different from you and me: they’re better people — kinder, smarter, braver, better deserving of their positions of leadership. They have, as that other orange-haired turd would say, good blood.

A digression on wool. At the beginning of Act 4, the shepherd’s son is trying to work out a complicated sum.

Let me see: every ’leven wether tods, every tod yields pound and odd shilling; fifteen hundred shorn, what comes the wool to?

On the subject of how many tods may be had from so many sheep, and how much money can be expected as profit, it may be worth noting that Shakespeare’s father ran a side business — illegally — in wool. He was brought up on charges more than once for it. It was illegal because he wasn’t a member of the authorized guild for dealing in wool. It’s possible that a crackdown on such “wool-brogging” played a role in his financial difficulties, which in turn may have played a role in cutting short his son’s education.

By the time Shakespeare came to write The Winter’s Tale, it’s possible he’d been so long out of the trade that he had to check with someone to refresh his memory: Dickon, my friend, what pound and odd shilling does a tod yield these days? But whether he had the figures at his fingertips in 1611 or not, at one point in his life, he knew.

The sheep-shearing has ended in a kind of shambles (using the word in its figurative sense, of course), but there is a clear sense that the play is speeding toward a conclusion. Shakespeare still has a couple of major surprises up his sleeve, though.

Act 5 Scene 2 starts off in a way that uses several of the stage tricks we’ve seen before. The scene begins in the middle of a conversation. And it quickly becomes apparent that, although one of the participants is Autolycus, this is a variation on the old Two (or Three) Lord Exposition wheeze.

Beseech you, sir, were you present at this relation?

I was by at the opening of the fardel, heard the old shepherd deliver the manner how he found it....

I would most gladly know the issue of it.

I make a broken delivery of the business....
	(Enter another Gentleman.)
Here comes a gentleman that haply knows more. The news, Rogero?

Nothing but bonfires.

But there’s something even bigger going on here. Shakespeare has been rapidly building up to the Big Discovery Scene, when Leontes discovers that Perdita is his long-lost daughter, and Polixenes arrives to give his blessing at last to the marriage of Perdita and Florizel, and the Shepherd and his son are amply rewarded for taking care of the Princess for lo these many years (without ever suspecting who she was) and Peace Proclaims Olives of Endless Age.

And then Shakespeare doesn’t show us any of it.

He yanks the rug out from under our expectations and relates the whole scene in narrative between Autolycus and the Three Gentlemen (because of course a third one turns up to fill in the gaps in the story).

Did you see the meeting of the two kings?


Then have you lost a sight which was to be seen, cannot be spoken of. There might you have beheld one joy crown another, so and in such manner that it seem’d sorrow wept to take leave of them, for their joy waded in tears.

It’s not as if Shakespeare wasn’t able to write a scene like that if he wanted to. So…. he didn’t want to.

What, pray you, became of Antigonus, that carried hence the child?

Like an old tale still, which will have matter to rehearse, though credit be asleep and not an ear open: he was torn to pieces with a bear. This avouches the shepherd’s son, who has not only his innocence (which seems much) to justify him, but a handkerchief and rings of his that Paulina knows.

Why would Shakespeare suddenly pull up short and give us this scene by messenger? Because he’s just had a brainstorm — he’s going to bring Hermione back from the dead, and that’s going to be the big splash panel that ends the play, and he wants to make sure nothing distracts the audience’s attention from what he’s about to show them.

And a big splash panel it is too. This blog entry is going to end abruptly because I’m not sure how much I can say about the last scene of the play. There are few scenes in Shakespeare that move me to tears as profoundly as the end of The Winter’s Tale. It is almost enough to make me believe in the concept of grace. It is certainly enough to make me want to.

In three words, Shakespeare has rewritten King Lear and redeemed all the sorrows that ever that old man had felt.

O! she's warm!

and then…. she moves.

Timon of Athens

With Timon of Athens, Shakespeare is moving into the last stage of his career, and he is beginning to take on collaborators again (as he did in the beginning — or rather, as he was taken on as a collaborator by others). Thomas Middleton is one of his later teammates; he wrote many of the scenes in this play and also made changes to Macbeth. There’s no evidence that Shakespeare ever reacted to the presence of a collaborator with anything other than collegiality.

Timon shares a characteristic with some of the plays that came even later: the inclusion of a masque as part of the play’s action. Maybe it was the influence of Middleton: after all, the scenes he’s accused of adding to Macbeth are the awful musical numbers. Here, a troop of Amazonian ladies interrupt Timon’s feast and dance to the music of lutes, after which Timon invites them to make themselves at home among the guests. Masquing was not exactly an innovation. The English theater grew out of medieval church ritual, developing into re-enacted Bible stories and allegories and from there into plays on historical and classical themes. For years several cities in England presented elaborate stagings of Bible stories on rolling platforms that moved through the streets, stopping at specified corners to put on their show (which included scenes like Noah’s ark, the ranting of Herod, and the gaping burning mouth of Hell). So there was a longstanding connection between English theater and religious spectacle. At this point, some 30 years after the first permanent theaters were built in London, there seems to be a drift back toward ritual, however classicized and secularized.

For a long time the play was thought to be unfinished; now we’re told (by the introduction in the RSC Shakespeare and elsewhere) that the rough edges of the play are more likely the result of the collaboration with Milton. Maybe, although I’m not so sure. Granted that inconsistencies will creep in during a collaborative effort; but even in that situation major plot holes will usually be caught and fixed, and in Timon, sometimes they haven’t been.

Take the handling of money for instance. Five talents (the cost of buying freedom for Ventidius) is an enormous sum. According to the Junior Woodchucks’ Guide — in other words, Wikipedia — a talent was a measure of silver, and varied from place to place, but was typically 25-30kg. To put that in perspective, it states: “An Attic talent of silver was the value of nine man-years of skilled work.” So in the Greek world, Timon would be talking about a lifetime of income for an artisan (5 x 9 years). Nowadays, not so much, although it’s still nothing to sneeze at: based on web sites giving the valuation of silver, 125kg of silver would fetch something close to $100,000.

But that’s only the beginning of the play’s inconsistency about money. In a scene where creditors are counting up how much Timon owes, figures like “five thousand” and “nine thousand” are thrown about, but five thousand what is never made clear. Possibly not talents; but when Timon sends his servants out to beg loans from his friends, he asks for amounts ranging from 50 talents up to a thousand talents — several orders of magnitude larger than anything we’ve seen earlier in the play. In another scene, the debts are written down as 3000 and 5000 crowns. Elsewhere, the amounts borrowed become totally generic: “a thousand pieces” — pieces of what? you may well ask. (Brrawwwk! Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!) When Flavius asks one of Timon’s friends for a loan, the friend offers to give Flavius himself “three solidares” (glossed as “three shillings”) to pretend he never saw him. In the next scene, someone refers to Timon asking for “fifty, five hundred talents,” leading the Norton editors to suggest the author changed his mind but forgot to strike one of them out. (Other editors just change it to “fifty-five hundred [ie, 5500] talents.”) Sometimes the author, rather than giving a specific number, simply writes in a placeholder: “not long ago one of his men was with the Lord Lucullus to borrow so many talents.”

This is one of the reasons (among others) suggesting that Timon is the product of a collaboration, and most likely a collaboration that never went through a final once-over. It seems unlikely that the play would have been acted from the script as we have it. Surely before a live performance, Shakespeare’s company would have picked one or the other — talents, crowns, or pieces of eight — and revised the text accordingly. My guess is that at some point during the creative process, Shakespeare and Middleton decided the play was a nonstarter and abandoned it.

Timon is generous to a fault, and in his case that phrase should be taken literally: he’s so generous to other people that he’s bankrupted himself, although he doesn’t know it yet. If someone needs to pay a fine to get out of jail, Timon pays it. If a servant wants to marry a woman above his station, Timon gives him enough money to raise his station. If someone praises Timon’s horse, Timon gives him the horse. He gives lavish feasts and invites everyone and hands out jewels as door prizes. His servant Flavius knows he’s about to go bust, and the cynic Apemantus suspects as much; but Timon isn’t interested in discussing anything having to do with his affairs if there is anyone else needy close by.

Apemantus is a kind of cleaned-up Thersites. He’s been scrubbed and had his hair brushed and given a fresh suit of clothes. But he’s got the same nasty, biting attitude toward everyone.

How lik’st thou this picture, Apemantus?

The best, for the innocence.

Wrought he not well that painted it?

He wrought better that made the painter, and yet he’s but a filthy piece of work.

Y’ are a dog.

Thy mother’s of my generation; what’s she, if I be a dog?

Apemantus watches Timon’s extravagant generosity and shudders. He is even moved to prayer.

Immortal gods, I crave no pelf,
I pray for no man but myself.
Grant I may never prove so fond,
To trust man on his oath or bond;
Or a harlot for her weeping,
Or a dog that seems a-sleeping,
Or a keeper with my freedom,
Or my friends, if I should need ’em.

It should be noted that Dante put spendthrifts like Timon in the same circle of Hell as the misers. They were, he reasoned, guilty of the same sin, but in the opposite direction.

Of course the worm turns, and Timon’s creditors gang up on him at the exact moment he realizes he’s bankrupt. He tries to blame his faithful servant Flavius for not keeping him apprised of the true state of his finances, but Flavius protests that he tried time and again to raise the issue, only to be brushed aside.

Nobody wants to come to Timon’s rescue. That leaves Ventidius: Timon rescued him from debtors’ prison by paying 5 talents; since then Ventidius has inherited a fortune from his father; surely he’ll be willing to pay the money back. But Timon doesn’t go to him, and in fact Ventidius disappears entirely from the play, taking his subplot with him. Is this another indication that this is an early draft of the play, with the Ventidius subplot a planned development that was abandoned as the writing progressed?

It’s totally predictable that Timon’s friends will turn their backs when he comes begging, and so they do — with the most hypocritical excuses imaginable.

What a wicked beast was I to disfurnish myself against such a good time, when I might ha’ shown myself honorable! How unluckily it happ’ned that I should purchase the day before for a little part, and undo a great deal of honor! Servilius, now before the gods, I am not able to do (the more beast, I say!)—I was sending to use Lord Timon myself, these gentlemen can witness; but I would not, for the wealth of Athens, I had done’t now.

One has the nerve to refuse him because he wasn’t asked first.

Must I be his last refuge? His friends, like physicians,
Thrive, give him over; must I take th’ cure upon me?
H’as much disgrac’d me in’t, I’m angry at him,
That might have known my place. I see no sense for’t,
But his occasions might have wooed me first;
For, in my conscience, I was the first man
That e’er received gift from him;
And does he think so backwardly of me now,
That I’ll requite it last? No!

Timon, a ruined man, invites them to a banquet where he serves them dishes of steaming water — which he proceeds to douse them with. When we next see him, he will be on his way out of the city, cursing its citizens as he goes.

And he won’t be the only one. In a movement foreshadowing Coriolanus, a play that will come out in a year or two, the general Alcibiades finds himself banished. His crime? Pleading too strenuously that one of his men, charged with murder, be shown mercy. The Senators who refuse to cancel the execution have a point: murder is murder, after all. As it turns out, Alcibiades will follow the path of Coriolanus in more than one way: he will raise an army and return to conquer the city that expelled him.

(When writing this, I first suggested that Shakespeare wanted us to think of Alcibiades as a wronged man. Thinking about it some more, I’m not so sure. The man who is being executed is a murderer, and although Alcibiades seems to suggest it was done in self-defense, it’s not really clear what led to the killing. His main point seems to be that he and his men have rendered Athens more than enough service to be given a free pass. In other words, they could shoot somebody dead on Fifth Avenue, and in their opinion nobody should care.)

There are several “splash panels” in Timon. One is the banquet scene near the beginning, when he hands out jewels like party favors; another is the banquet scene with covered dishes of steaming water; and a third is the long scene, labeled Act 4 Scene 3 by most editors, where Timon in the wilderness is visited by a succession of Athenians.

We see him first digging for roots. He finds some — what would you use on a modern stage? carrots? turnips? — and praises nature for meeting his needs. But he also finds gold. He buries most of it, but he keeps some aside, apparently planning to make mischief with it.

The first person to encounter him near his cave is the banished Alcibiades. Alcibiades had raised an army to attack Athens, but he’s run out of money, and his soldiers are on the verge of deserting him. Even so, he offers Timon the small amount of gold he has left — which Timon angrily rejects. Instead, he turns the tables and gives Alcibiades gold, and gives some too to the two prostitutes hanging off Alcibiades’ arms.

….which brings us again to the question of what to make of Alcibiades. As far as we can tell from the play, he’s always treated Timon honorably, but he otherwise seems as corrupt as any of the Senators he is poised to attack. That of all the hangers-on of his rebellion, the two he actually shows up with are prostitutes must surely say something about his character.

But back to Timon and his cave. Alcibiades accepts the offered gold and marches off to drum and fife. Next appears the cynic Apemantus, and he and Timon descend into a shouting match about who hates humanity the most. But Apemantus isn’t as cruel as he appears at first glance, and taking pity on Timon’s sparse diet, he offers him some food — which Timon angrily rejects.

Their dialogue is a bitter denunciation of the human race, and to some extent it anticipates King Lear. (Digested and mulled over, it partly resurfaced in the transcendent dialogue between Lear and Kent.) It’s so bitter that it used to be fashionable to assume Shakespeare himself was cracking up — that Lear and Timon represent the low point of his life, a moral and emotional breakdown. Samuel Schoenbaum, analyzing these theories, suggested that someone paralyzed with depression would find it difficult to create as complex and demanding a work of art as King Lear: that Lear, however despairing the philosophy it embodies, shows a writer working at the peak of his creative powers. I agree with him on that (he said, as if Schoenbaum or anyone else would care what a rank amateur would think). And if that’s the case, then Timon is more likely to represent a professional misfire than a personal crisis.

After sending Apemantus packing, Timon is confronted with a band of thieves. Somehow they’ve heard that he has pots of gold, even though he only discovered the gold at the beginning of the same scene — more timey-wimey stuff that doesn’t bear close scrutiny. Timon throws gold at them, and they are stunned into almost giving up their trade…. but there’s time enough to go honest, they decide, after they see what happens with Alcibiades.

But Timon will still not be left in peace. The next person to seek him out is his weeping servant Flavius. Flavius has pieced together a small amount of gold that he offers to Timon, and Timon, although he has angrily rejected offers of help from everyone else, is touched by this evidence of his servant’s loyalty. He still has enough gold of his own, from the amount he set aside, to set Flavius up for life, and he gives it to him.

In most texts an act break occurs here, but of course on the Jacobean stage the action was continuous and the scene proceeds. Timon receives one more set of visitors, the fawning painter and poet who visited him in the first scene. They are chased away with the usual curses. (Some texts make an adjustment; the Pelican edition, for example, has Timon “retiring” at the end of the previous scene and “coming forward” to confront the painter and poet.)

Despite so much happening in one continuous scene, there’s a definite sense of time passing. No sooner has Timon discovered gold than a band of thieves hear about it and come looking for it. No sooner has he given a lot of his gold to Flavius than the Painter and Poet hear about it and come around, hoping to wheedle some for themselves. This is Shakespeare’s Tardis-style playwriting. If he can go from midnight to dawn rising over yon high eastward hill, in the same scene, with only about 10 minutes of dialogue in between, and without leaving the audience scratching their heads, he can have Rumors fly like the wind. Like a certain brand of computer hardware, Shakespeare just works. (The big difference is there’s no planned obsolescence with our friend Will.)

Verbally attacking the two prostitutes who are hanging off Alcibiades, Timon recites a catalogue of syphilitic symptoms.

Consumptions sow
In hollow bones of man, strike their sharp shins,
And mar men’s spurring. Crack the lawyer’s voice,
That he may never more false title plead,
Nor sound his quillets shrilly; hoar the flamen,
That scolds against the quality of flesh
And not believes himself. Down with the nose,
Down with it flat; take the bridge quite away
Of him that, his particular to foresee,
Smells from the general weal. Make curl’d-pate ruffians bald,
And let the unscarr’d braggarts of the war
Derive some pain from you. Plague all,
That your activity may defeat and quell
The source of all erection.

Down with the nose, down with it flat. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like in Jacobean London, in the days before penicillin, when people walked the streets with the marks of syphilis on their faces. I advise you not to do a web search for images of this. The least nauseating images show collapsed noses, with syphilis destroying both the bone and cartilage that give the nose its shape. Some common types of damage could be hidden with prosthetics: a metal nose could be tied on like a mask.

When I was a kid it used to be common to see men with grotesque facial deformities from wounds received in the Second World War and the Korean War. I imagine the experience must have been something like that. It would have been a terrifying prospect for an actor. In his novel Nothing Like the Sun, Anthony Burgess speculated that syphilis is what drove Shakespeare into retirement and killed him before his time. It’s a story revived by Katherine Duncan-Jones in her recent biography (Shakespeare: an Ungentle Life), where she not only suggests that Shakespeare may have had syphilis but seems to suggest, in one passage, that he died screaming and foaming at the mouth.

I kind of doubt it happened that way. But it certainly happened that way to people Shakespeare knew.

Apart from the burst of Amazonian masquers at Timon’s feast, the action of the play unfolds with an almost complete absence of women, one of the reasons the it has such an unpleasant feel. A couple of prostitutes show up near the end — camp followers of Alcibiades — but that’s it. There are no wives, not even one with a small bit part like Portia’s in Julius Caesar. Fortunately casting in “these our times” has shaken loose from the constraints of rigid adherence to the author’s intentions. I haven’t taken an inventory of the pronouns in the play, but given the almost total lack of sexual relationships, it seems especially well suited for gender-blind casting — especially for an audience that might otherwise be uptight about such things.

Shakespeare’s Daughters

I’m wary of tying Shakespeare’s plays too closely to his life. But I think it’s worth noting his concern with daughters in his last plays — especially daughters who are lost and then found again. In Pericles we have Marina, the Child of the Sea. In The Winter’s Tale we have Perdita, the Lost Child. In The Tempest, we have Miranda, the Miracle Child.

When Shakespeare retired from the theater and took up full-time residence in Stratford — sometime around 1610-1613 — he came home to his wife Anne and his daughter Judith. (To simplify the calculations, I’m going to use 1613 as his year of retirement.) Judith was 28 years old and unmarried. Her twin brother Hamnet had died 17 years earlier.

There had been other deaths marking the new century like a steady drumbeat. Grandfather John died in 1601, when Judith was 16. Uncle Ned — Shakespeare’s youngest brother — was only 5 years older than her and had lived in the same house with her for 11 years. Uncle Ned had followed his brother to London to become an actor, but he hadn’t cut much of a figure for himself when he died in 1607, at the age of 27. He was buried in the dead of winter, in a church a few blocks from the Globe Theater, on a day when the Thames itself was frozen solid.

By then Judith’s sister Susanna had married the physician and Puritan John Hall and moved out of New Place. The Halls had a child, Elizabeth, who would have been 5 years old in 1613.

Judith’s grandmother Mary died the year Elizabeth was born, in 1608, when Judith was 23. Uncle Gilbert died in 1612. Uncle Richard, the last of Will’s brothers, died a year later.

When Will came home, he came home to a shrunken family. His sister Joan and her husband lived in the old place on Henley Street. His daughter and her small family lived at Hall’s Croft near the church. His wife and younger daughter lived with him at New Place.

That was it.

At 28, the question of marriage for Judith must have come up. People at that period in England tended to marry much later than now, often because of apprenticeships. If a man became apprenticed at 18 and served for the usual 7 years, he would be 25 before he was able to marry. As has often been pointed out, when William at 18 married Anne Hathaway at 26, he was the outlier, not her. But Judith was at the age when it was becoming an issue.

We don’t know anything about Joan’s private life and can’t read anything into her unmarried status except to note that several years after her (slightly) older sister had gotten married and started a family, she was still living at home. And it may be permissible to read backward from 1616, when she finally did make a match, only to have it turn out to be an exceptionally bad one. Her debt-ridden husband, after the marriage was finalized, ended up having to do public penance for fornication (the other party being a woman who died in childbirth, naming him as the father). Shakespeare revised his will the next day to make sure Judith’s inheritance, meager as it was, was safe from her husband’s grasp. Judith and her husband had several children together, all of whom died young.

Getting back to my original point after this long digression: I know this is the rankest kind of speculation, but is it possible that Judith Shakespeare is the Child Who Was Lost?

(The film All Is True seemed to take this line. On the whole, it did a good job giving a sense of what Shakespeare’s last years would have been like. But the plot device of having Hamnet take credit for Judith’s poetry and then drown in two feet of water…. and then having Anne lie to Will that Hamnet died of the plague, and Will taking 20 years to realize no one else had died of the plague that year…. nah. Didn’t work, if for no other reason than because Shakespeare was in Stratford the very next year buying New Place.)