King John

Shakespeare’s play about King John sticks out like a sore thumb. Nobody knows when it was written. To me it seems like an early and very clumsily-written play, almost as bad as Two Gentlemen of Verona. There are so many false starts in the plot that Shakespeare either didn’t know what he was doing — or else he knew exactly what he was doing.

Emma Smith, in her video introduction to the play for the Shakespeare 2020 project, takes the latter position. She argues that Shakespeare knew what he was doing: the lack of connection between cause and effect, she says, is intentional and is part of the pleasure to be had from the play.

I’ve tried to put myself in that frame of mind, but I can’t get myself to go there. It would make this a one-off experiment for Shakespeare. None of his other plays work that way. I’m not aware of many plays that work that way prior to the 20th century, except for a handful designed to mimic dreams. King John is emphatically not a dream: it’s a history play; it dramatizes what are supposed to be real events. I just can’t escape the feeling that it does it badly.

So what is it about the action of the play that I find so goofy?

Basically it’s because nothing in the story ever stays nailed down. The action winds and unwinds with no particular point or momentum: often a great deal of energy is expended backing and forthing only to end up in the same place.

A prime example: in the central sequence, France and England meet on a battlefield near the city of Angiers. John has claimed the throne of England, but King Philip of France has championed John’s nephew Arthur. Angiers is key. Both sides demand the support of the city, but the civic leaders are in no rush to choose between them. You decide who’s the rightful king of England, they say, and we’ll bend the knee to him. The armies come together in a mighty but inconclusive battle. Both sides claim victory and both demand the city accede to them. But the city elders still refuse to pick sides. So the two armies decide to join together and attack the city. Once it’s been reduced to ashes, they say, they’ll meet back on the field and settle their own quarrel.

But wait: the city leaders, desperate to prevent bloodshed and destruction, propose a peace settlement: what if King John’s daughter Blanche were to marry the French dauphin Lewis? Of course that would mean setting aside Arthur’s claim and make the King of France a liar, but he decides he’s OK with that. He agrees to the match, in witness whereof he takes King John by the hand. Peace is breaking out all over. The marriage preparations move forward with alacrity.

But wait: just as the happy couple is leaving the church, Pandulph, a papal legate, enters and demands that the French King abandon his alliance with John, because John — held up, anachronistically, as a kind of Protestant hero — refuses to accept the Pope’s choice for Archbishop of Canterbury. Since John not only continues to refuse but engages in a righteous rant about the evil Italian Priest (ie the Pope), he is excommunicated. If King Philip, who is still holding John’s hand, doesn’t let go, he’ll be excommunicated too.

Reluctantly he lets go. And so France and England are back at war again, and the battle is joined. Nothing has changed, despite the intervening hurly-burly of city/king/marriage/pope. From the standpoint of dramatic tension, it’s all been wasted energy.

The winding and unwinding doesn’t stop there. In the battle that follows, King John takes Prince Arthur prisoner. (Arthur is his nephew and another claimant to the throne.) John wants to eliminate Arthur and wishes he could communicate his intentions mentally to the jailer, Hubert, rather than speaking them out loud. But Hubert plays dumb and forces John to say flat out that he wants Arthur dead. Hubert agrees to do it.

But wait: when we next meet Hubert and Arthur, the irons are in the fire — literally — and Hubert has a signed warrant to put out Arthur’s eyes. What happened to the plans to kill him — without writing anything down? Arthur pleads for mercy, and Hubert backs off.

But wait: knowing his own life is on the line, he goes to tell John that Arthur is, in fact, dead. He hopes to secrete Arthur somewhere safe and get him out of the country. John, aware now that killing Arthur was a mistake, turns on Hubert and berates him for taking his “order” literally. But, says Hubert, “here is your hand and seal” for the deed. Clearly he shows a warrant to John; but which one? The one he showed to Arthur — the one that says Arthur is to be blinded? Or the one that says Arthur is to be killed — a warrant that John explicitly refused in the earlier scene to provide?

In any case, don’t worry, says Hubert, I didn’t really do it after all. Arthur is still alive and safe.

But wait: in the meantime, unbeknownst to Hubert, Arthur tries to escape by leaping from a window and dies on the rocks below. His body is found by a group of nobles who blame John for his death and turn against him. So once again, after all the hurly burly, we’re right back where the story was headed anyway, and most of the intervening action has been for nought.

It’s almost as if two playwrights were working on the play but not exchanging notes while they worked — or worse, that Philip Henslowe decided to have a laff by giving them conflicting plots, to see how long it would take them to find out.

You definitely need a dance card for this one.

One of the things that complicates the history of the text is the presence of another play about King John, The Troublesome Reign of King John. It follows the structure of Shakespeare’s play closely and is widely thought to be one of his sources. I hope to have more to say about The Troublesome Reign in a later post: I downloaded the text from WikiMedia and plan to read it and comment on it. Meanwhile…. Shakespeare’s play.

There’s enough humor in the play that makes me wonder if it’s a satire. If so, that would explain a lot about the on-again off-again structure. The label “satire” sits comfortably with the first scene, where Philip and Robert Faulconbridge argue over who is the legitimate heir of their father’s estate. But it sits less comfortably with the grief of Constance after her son has been captured by John, and she knows he’s as good as dead.

O Lord, my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow-comfort, and my sorrows’ cure!

or with the agony John expresses as he dies of poisoning:

Poison’d—ill fare! Dead, forsook, cast off,
And none of you will bid the winter come
To thrust his icy fingers in my maw,
Nor let my kingdom’s rivers take their course
Through my burn’d bosom, nor entreat the north
To make his bleak winds kiss my parched lips
And comfort me with cold.

So…. I’m puzzled. I don’t really know what to make of it. I’ve seen one televised production and heard a couple of audio productions and none of them brought me any closer to an understanding of the play. Until I come across something better, I’m taking refuge in the notion that it’s an early play, maybe even earlier than any of the Henry VI plays, and represents a first, unsuccessful effort on Shakespeare’s part to bend the chronicle materials to his dramatic purposes.

One of the things he’s experimenting with here is a subplot that centers around a fictional character, someone made up out of whole cloth and shoe-horned into the historical narrative. He didn’t do this much in the Henry VI plays and not at all in Richard II, but he made extensive and brilliant use of it in Henry IV and Henry V. With the Bastard, he has someone he can employ to expand and comment on the narrative wherever needed. And boy, does he comment! (Commodity means expediency: something akin to realpolitik.)

And this same bias, this commodity,
This bawd, this broker, this all-changing word,
Clapp’d on the outward eye of fickle France,
Hath drawn him from his own determin’d aid,
From a resolv’d and honorable war
To a most base and vile-concluded peace.
And why rail I on this commodity?
But for because he hath not woo’d me yet:
Well, whiles I am a beggar, I will rail,
And say there is no sin but to be rich;
And being rich, my virtue then shall be
To say there is no vice but beggary.
Since kings break faith upon commodity,
Gain, be my lord, for I will worship thee.

Of course, one of the ironies is that the Bastard turns out to be one of the most honorable and loyal characters in the play. Once he declares himself for John, he stays with him to the end: curses the nobles for leaving him, rouses his side to battle when they seem ready to give up, and delivers the heroic couplet that closes the play:

Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.

Pandulph, the Papal legate, is another piece of work, the polar opposite of the Bastard. I’ve read that Shakespeare tones down the anti-Catholic bias of The Troublesome Reign: it doesn’t seem as though he could have toned it down much, because if there’s a true Machiavel in the play, it’s Pandulph, and the whole edifice of Catholicism behind him. In the Arkangel recording, he’s played with delightful cynicism by Bill Nighy.

When everyone else is mourning the capture of Arthur, Pandulph thinks it’s a great thing. As he tells Lewis, the Dauphin (as always in Shakespeare, spelled Dolphin in the original):

John hath seiz’d Arthur, and it cannot be
That whiles warm life plays in that infant’s veins,
The misplac’d John should entertain an hour,
One minute, nay, one quiet breath of rest.
A sceptre snatch’d with an unruly hand
Must be as boisterously maintain’d as gain’d;
And he that stands upon a slipp’ry place
Makes nice of no vild hold to stay him up.
That John may stand, then Arthur needs must fall:
So be it, for it cannot be but so.

But what shall I gain by young Arthur’s fall?

You, in the right of Lady Blanch your wife,
May then make all the claim that Arthur did.

In other words: off with his head: so much for Arthur. A small price to pay for your accession to power, don’t you think, your Grace? The only thing missing from the play (apart from narrative logic in general) is a scene where the Bastard skewers Pandulph.

Sidebar: the character of Pandulph is not the only trace of anti-Catholic bias in the play. John refers to the Pope as an “Italian priest” with no particular authority over England, a common Protestant argument. And he sends the Bastard back to England to loot the churches and monasteries, some 300 years before Henry VIII. While it’s nearly always a mistake to argue from the Works back to the Life, I’m going to make that mistake on purpose. This bias in the play is not an unconscious attitude that has somehow crept into the play. Even if it’s an inherent part of the earlier play, Shakespeare chose to carry it forward. Why is this significant? Because a case has been made by Stephen Greenblatt and others — wrongly, I think — that John Shakespeare was a closet Catholic and that his son William grew up with this “dark secret” at the heart of his identity. My own opinion is that Shakespeare was an outwardly conforming member of the Church of England, and that his private religious feelings, while unknowable, were unlikely to be Catholic. End of sidebar.

The scene where Arthur dies trying to escape is worth mentioning. It shows the multiple levels of the stage being put to good use. Arthur is clearly on the upper level, the “gallery.” When he throws himself to the ground, as if from a tower, he jumps to the main stage. I’m not sure what the distance would have been, but the landing would have been a hard one, and making the jump safely would have required skill and practice. (Speaking of the Arkangel recording, this scene contains one miscalculation: Arthur’s jump should be followed by the sound of breaking bones and a scream of anguish, but…. nothing. The series is so explicit about violence elsewhere that its absence here seems odd.)

Having jumped and “died,” Arthur lies there cold and still for quite a while as others enter and find his body. It makes for a series of striking tableaux — and it gives the Bastard his one moment of hesitation about following John, which makes him seem a bit more believable.

All in all, some points of interest, but not one of my favorites. In that respect, it joins Two Gentlemen, Love’s Labours Lost, Troilus and Cressida, and Timon of Athens as plays that have just never worked for me.

Two Gentlemen: Two Cuts

I’ve been studying that last scene in Two Gentlemen of Verona, and I think two modest cuts would restore the play to a semblance of respectability. Bear with me. I’m quoting a lot to show the cuts in context.

Thou hast no faith left now, unless thou’dst two,
And that’s far worse than none: better have none
Than plural faith, which is too much by one.
Thou counterfeit to thy true friend!

In love
Who respects friend?

All men but Proteus.
[Omit attempted rape.]
(Coming forward.)
Ruffian! [Minor cut] Thou friend of an ill fashion!


Thou common friend, that’s without faith or love,
For such is a friend now!
.... [Lines omitted from example only to save space]
The private wound is deepest: O time most accurst!
’Mongst all foes that a friend should be the worst!

My shame and guilt confounds me.
Forgive me, Valentine; if hearty sorrow
Be a sufficient ransom for offense,
I tender’t here: I do as truly suffer
As e’er I did commit.

Then I am paid;
And once again I do receive thee honest.
Who by repentance is not satisfied
Is nor of heaven nor earth, for these are pleas’d;
By penitence th’ Eternal’s wrath’s appeas’d.
(They embrace.)
[Omit offer of Sylvia and Julia’s fainting.]
O good sir, my master charg’d me to deliver a ring to Madam Silvia, which (out of my neglect) was never done....

Something like this might almost work — especially for audiences that weren’t familiar with the play and wouldn’t notice that anything was missing.

Two Gentlemen revisited one last time

This is another placeholder. I wrote up my thoughts about Two Gentlemen of Verona some time ago and have no wish to repeat myself here. If you are interested in seeing what I wrote earlier, follow the Two Gentlemen category link.

It’s a silly comedy, and rough and imperfect as it is, it has a lot of charm — until the last scene. The last scene is unforgiveable. It’s worse than Taming of the Shrew: there are ways you can stage Shrew to blunt or subvert the misogyny of Katherine’s final speech, but there’s no way you can stage-business your way out of an attempted rape.

Do yourself a favor. Either rewrite the ending, or don’t try to do this play. You can’t make it work.

Julius Caesar

A few years ago I saw a production of Julius Caesar that updated the time and place, apparently for the sake of variety. It was set in a Latin American “banana republic,” and most of the men ran around carrying assault rifles and wearing battle fatigues.

I’m actually not opposed to updates like this, at least not on principle. But they have to serve the play. And the one important aspect of the play that was not served by this was the scale. “He doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus,” one character says of Caesar. They had the “narrow world” right, but their Caesar was no Colossus. His country, at its largest extent, would have fit inside Wisconsin.

It’s certainly true that there’s a big difference between the world as it exists and the known world as it existed in Caesar’s time. But even so, the Roman Empire was enormous, and the fate of generations on several continents were at stake. In Julius Caesar, the stakes are big. They extend beyond those of any one country.

Caesar badly wants a male heir, and the only reason for his wanting one so badly — other than the usual machismo — is that he plans to make his office hereditary. He’s already dictator for life, and dictator + hereditary office = king. The idea of a king is anathema to aristocratic Romans: their whole historical tradition is based on the tyranny and oppression of the Tarquin kings, who were thrown out about 450 years previously. (One of the leaders of that revolt was another Brutus.) So…. Caesar has to die. The conspirators need Brutus to be the face of the assassination, because sure, Brutus is an honorable man.

The second scene of the play, which flows straight out of the first one — probably with no discernible scene break in the original staging — is a remarkable, sprawling thing. It opens as a big crowd scene, shrinks into an intensely intimate scene between Cassius and Brutus — almost a seduction that doesn’t quite come off — and then explodes into another crowd scene before ending. There’s a festival, a race, a soothsayer; offstage there are repeated cheers as Marc Antony tries to offer a crown to Caesar. The cheers interrupt Cassius as he tries to get Brutus to agree that Caesar is someone who needs killing. Brutus plays hard to get: he won’t give Cassius the satisfaction of a straight answer. Then the Caesar party bursts back onstage, with Caesar in a foul mood, and storms off: it seems that something about the staged offer of a crown didn’t quite go the way he wanted.

Brutus tells Cassius he’ll think about it.

The scene covers a lot of ground. It demonstrates Caesar’s ambition, although maybe not quite to the extent that Cassius claims. But the scene also demonstrates his frailty. He is partly deaf and has to turn one side toward a speaker to hear them clearly. He’s not a strong swimmer and panics when he’s trying to cross a churning river. After being rescued from drowning, he shakes like a leaf. And he has epilepsy: at one point, being cheered by the crowd, he collapses in convulsions. This is the man who would have us crawl around on the ground at his feet, peeping between his legs?

Cassius is someone to fear, Caesar says. Of course I don’t fear anyone, because I’m Caesar. I’m just telling you that FYI. Would he were fatter.

But Shakespeare plants some seeds about Brutus’ character as well that are less than flattering. Like a certain politician who holds sway as I write this, he is easily manipulated by flattery, and Cassius takes advantage of that by planting anonymous flattering notes around the city where Brutus will find them.

And Brutus does give in to the flattery and commit to the conspiracy, although he has a bizarre idea of what they’re trying to accomplish. They’re talking about springing on Caesar by surprise and stabbing him some dozen or sixteen times. Brutus refuses to recognize the raw violence of what they’re planning to do.

And, gentle friends,
Let’s kill him boldly, but not wrathfully.
Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods,
Not hew him as a carcass fit for hounds.

Is this guy for real?

The murder of Caesar has to be one of the most grotesque scenes in Elizabethan drama. I’m assuming that it required buckets of blood: the Elizabethans liked their gore to look real. So here we have Caesar lying in a pool of blood; and here we have Senators dressed in their best — maybe togas, maybe doublets and hose (Cassius and Brutus are both described at different points as being “unbraced,” a term that only makes sense if they are wearing doublets). They stoop down and coat their hands and arms with the gore. We’re not talking isolated smears of Karo syrup on shirtsleeves; we’re talking dark red rivers and clots of blood pouring onto the floor, blood probably taken from a butcher’s shop that morning and carried into the theater literally in buckets.

Stoop, Romans, stoop,
And let us bathe our hands in Caesar’s blood
Up to the elbows, and besmear our swords;
Then walk we forth, even to the market-place,
And waving our red weapons o’er our heads,
Let’s all cry, “Peace, freedom, and liberty!”

The contrast between the fancy dress and the barbaric slaughter is appalling. The closest thing to it I can think of, outside of Titus Andronicus, is the scene in Lear where Cornwall, in full ducal regalia, rips out Gloucester’s eyes with his bare hands. And of course when Marc Antony goes around the circle and shakes hands with all the conspirators, his hands are covered in blood as well.

Blood is always shocking. Blood is supposed to be inside. Blood is supposed to be unseen. Blood is life, but only when it pulses invisibly through a living body. Spread out in the open, it represents decay, death, and chaos.

It’s followed a few scenes later by an even more horrifying one. An innocent poet who happens to be named Cinna — the name of one of the conspirators — is set on by the mob and literally torn to pieces. (I say “literally” because that’s what the stage action is meant to convey. It must have presented a challenge to the Elizabethan actors, if for no other reason than the fact that the wretched actor had to be gotten offstage somehow. Maybe he was dragged off and severed arms and guts were thrown back onstage for laughs.)

Mob violence at this level is not an exaggeration. I don’t know the details of Roman history on this point, but in the French Revolution mobs dismembered many people with their bare hands and paraded the body parts around the city. In one riot, the head, limbs, and vagina of an aristocratic woman were given special prominence. This was, in case you were wondering, before the guillotine began its grisly work.

But back to the play that should be called The Ides of March.

It’s an interesting play with plenty of dramatic confrontations, but it doesn’t burst open with life the way so many of his other plays do. The character we’re most in touch with, Brutus, is a boring sober-sides who thinks he’s acting out of principle when he’s really acting out of pique and self-interest. (I almost always start to nod off in Act 2 Scene 1 when Brutus parades his self-righteousness before himself and then before his fellow conspirators.) He doesn’t have a very clear view of his own self-interest, either. Over and over again he rejects level-headed advice from Cassius, partly because he didn’t think of it himself. He’s a priss and a prude and he brings them all down with his stupidity.

The number of mistakes he makes is shocking. He refuses to kill Marc Antony at the same time as Caesar, in spite of Cassius’s strong recommendation. He refuses to bring Cicero into their conspiracy, who as one of Rome’s greatest orators would have been a tremendous asset to their cause. (Ironically, his reason for this refusal is that Cicero never approves of an idea unless he thought of it himself. The pot calleth the kettle black.) He agrees to let Antony give Caesar’s funeral oration, even though Cassius argues — correctly — that Antony will be able to turn the mob against them. And he makes the fatal error of forcing a battle with Octavius and Antony at Philippi rather than following Cassius’s superior strategy of making the enemy pursue them to the point of exhaustion.

He also demonstrates time and again that he’s a self-righteous prig. He accuses Cassius of having a greasy palm, and then turns around and berates him for not sending money when requested. You can’t expect me to dirty my hands gathering money from the peasants, can you? he says. But it’s OK for you to do that and then pass the money on to me.

His chief opponent, Marc Antony, is no great hero either. He whips the crowd into a murderous frenzy by promising them a fortune in gifts from Caesar’s coffers. In the very next scene, at the same time he’s calmly and brutally making a list of enemies to kill (without trial), he’s trying to figure out how to walk those promises back, presumably so he and his conspirators can keep the remainder.

But, Lepidus, go you to Caesar’s house;
Fetch the will hither, and we shall determine
How to cut off some charge in legacies.

Bastards one and all. We’re out of fantasy-land into historical times, but we’re not that far removed from the “wilderness of tigers” of Titus Andronicus.

To top it off, there are no clowns, no music (except a couple of half-hearted tunes on a lute), no double-entendres, no sexual sparks, no stinging dialogue. It’s all by the book, the book being Plutarch, and it seems to have been written with prudish Southern Baptist high school teachers of the 50s and 60s in mind — because criminey, did they go apeshit over it.

The one scene that makes my jaw drop is the one between Brutus and Portia. She’s trying to get him to confide in her. She knows something is up. He hesitates. She lowers the boom.

Tell me your counsels, I will not disclose ’em.
I have made strong proof of my constancy,
Giving myself a voluntary wound
Here, in the thigh; can I bear that with patience,
And not my husband’s secrets?

“O ye gods!” says Brutus. “Render me worthy of this noble wife!”

It’s worth pausing to think about this for a second. What the dialogue seems to be saying is that Portia pulls her dress aside and shows a terrible wound in her thigh. It has to be a terrible wound, or Brutus’s reaction would make no sense. And it has to be fresh. It has to be still bleeding. Presumably she made it just before she entered, but it’s possible that she throws her dress open and cuts herself even as she speaks the line, the blood spurting into the air around her hand.

This is the same woman who later, fearing that all is lost, “swallows fire.” In other words, she picks up a shovel of burning coals from the fireplace, opens her mouth, and shoves it down her throat, to fall screaming in agony to the ground before she finally expires.

This is a woman with a stronger will than any of the men around her: strong in a way that is shocking because it so easily turns to self-destruction.

(A note per Isaac Asimov: see below for my gratitude to Asimov for his compendium of background info on Shakespeare’s plays. Regarding Portia, he suggests two slightly less dramatic interpretations of these incidents: that she’d cut herself; it became infected; and she endured the subsequent pain and fever without saying anything to Brutus. That was her evidence that she could keep a secret. Asimov also politely wonders about the state of their marriage if Brutus had failed to notice the wound for the time it took to heal — one reason, in fact, I would argue for her doing it in his presence. And about the coals: he suggests carbon monoxide poisoning from a coal fire. I prefer my own interpretations because they hurt more.)

One thought about the staging. Act 4 Scene 1 — the scene where Brutus and Cassius confront each other in Brutus’ tent — is another one of those expansive scenes where the action moves from outside the tent to inside the tent without a scene break. Editions that mark a scene break at the transition are wrong, and I say that even if that includes the Folio. There is no question that the action is continuous, but the layout of the text has led generations of actor-managers to draw the curtain and make elaborate changes, destroying the momentum. If Shakespeare were thinking in cinematic terms, this would be a single tracking shot, not even a cut.

And the scene goes on to include the argument and reconciliation of Brutus and Cassius (Cassius really does have to put up with a lot from his “friend”). And the midnight candle, and Brutus reading the book (and earning the enmity of 500 years of librarians by turning down the page corner rather than using a bookmark). And it has the appearance of great Caesar’s ghost. (Shades of Perry White — did I just give away my age?).

Two things about the appearance of that Ghost. It’s so brief compared to the extended ritual enacted in Richard III. Here Caesar says a line or two and he’s gone. Brutus shrugs it off, although he also admits his hair is standing on end. Also, according to the dialogue, the three servants who are sleeping in the tent cry out in fear when the Ghost appears, although they remain asleep. In a number of productions I’ve seen or heard (including the otherwise excellent Arkangel recording), they don’t cry out: Brutus seems to be making it up, for reasons unknown. I think this is short-sighted. I think this is exactly the kind of line in Shakespeare that needs to be taken literally.

It’s like the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Quite apart from the head-to-toe armor he needs to be wearing — the dialogue is uncompromising on this point — he needs to be carrying a truncheon: one of the characters says they were “within his truncheon’s length.” He’s not speaking figuratively. Shakespeare is one of the most concrete writers who ever lived, and he meant what he said. If he said the servants cried out, then by golly they cried out.

Not much more to say except that Shakespeare seems to be setting the stage for Antony and Cleopatra. At the very least, he’s got a handle on the relationship between Octavius, Marc Antony, and Lepidus that will carry over into the later play.

It’s a godless play, from the standpoint of Shakespeare’s religious age. People commit suicide with shocking regularity, another aspect that carries over into Antony and Cleopatra. People call on the gods and talk about fate, but all they really seem to care about is the fame that will live after them, and sometimes the only way to make sure of that is to kill yourself before someone else gets there first. I’m thinking those high school teachers maybe didn’t pay close enough attention to that part.

And Shakespeare gets in one of those eerie images, the kind that make my hair stand on end like Brutus’s.

Blood and destruction shall be so in use,
And dreadful objects so familiar,
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quartered with the hands of war;
All pity chok’d with custom of fell deeds;
And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Até by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch’s voice
Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war.

It may be the role that Até plays in The Iliad that make this such a powerful image for me. It’s right up there with the “thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice” in Measure for Measure, or this chilling image from Macbeth:

His virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongu’d, against
The deep damnation of his taking-off;
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubin, hors’d
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind.

This is apocalyptic.

Before I go…. I’ve mentioned a book I’ve dipped into from time to time for the history plays: Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare. I found it particularly helpful for this play. Roman government is a black box as far as I’m concerned, but Asimov makes it a little less opaque.

He was a biologist and had no expertise in any of the fields he writes about in his Guide. Mostly he explains the history and the mythological and religious references from the standpoint of a generalist. There’s nothing in here that any intelligent well-educated person couldn’t dig out for themselves — if they had a few decades to devote to the task. The genius of the book is (a) he did it; (b) he did it phenomenally fast; and (c) he assembled the information in a way that makes it accessible, clear, and fun to read. It’s no small achievement, and I’ll be forever grateful to him for doing it.

Sadly, new culture sometimes overwrites old culture. I can never read the line “Cry havoc! and let slip the dogs of war!” without thinking of Christopher Plummer as General Chang in Star Trek VI.

The Master Playwright

When we last saw William Shakespeare, he had joined the Chamberlain’s Men in 1594 as one of their principal players. The Shakespeare 2020 project is jumping the gun chronologically, so as to get Julius Caesar (which first appeared in 1599) into the schedule in time for the Ides of March. I had originally planned to wait and cover the 5 years between 1594 and 1599 in two smaller chunks. But to keep this relatively coherent, I’ll go ahead and do it all in one fell swoop.

There are several banner years along the way. We’ve talked about 1594, when the plague finally let up, the theaters reopened, and Shakespeare found his theatrical home. He continued with the same group of actors, and in one sense in the same physical theater, for the rest of his professional career.

He became a prosperous man, mainly from his share of the company’s income rather than payments for his plays. Playwrights were reasonably well paid, but not in a way that would make them independently wealthy. The going rate was £5 for a full-length play. Using a shilling a day as a typical laborer’s wage, and 6 days as a typical work-week, that would be the equivalent of roughly 4 months’ wages. Given that it might take that long to write a play — Shakespeare seems to have worked at the rate of 2 plays a year during his peak period — you might just be able to scratch out a living. Shakespeare had that income, but on top of that, and far more significantly, he had a share of the daily take.

He plowed his earnings back into Stratford. His father had, decades ago, applied for a coat of arms; in 1596, “Shakespeare ye Player” renewed the application and saw it through. His father could now legitimately style himself a gentleman (as could Will, once his father died). The family crest was an eagle shaking a spear, and the motto was Not Without Right. This somewhat defensive motto was parodied in later years by Ben Jonson as Not Without Mustard.

Shakespeare cast about for a dwelling and bought a substantial five-gabled house on the main north-south thoroughfare in Stratford, a house known as New Place. His wife and children could move there, and servants could be hired who could maintain the house and grounds.

But the family had been tragically reduced in size. In 1596 his son Hamnet died, cause unknown. Did he drown? Did he fall and break his neck? Did he die of the flu or some other contagious disease? Nobody knows. What we do know is that Hamnet’s twin sister Judith survived well into her 70s, and William Shakespeare remained obsessed with having a male heir until the day of his own death. (We know that from his will, which we’ll get to eventually.)

Nobody knows how Anne Shakespeare felt about any of this. Did she approve of Will’s profession? Did she approve at least of his success in his profession? Was she one of the many people of the time who could read but not write? (They were taught as separate skills.) When he made him home after hearing about the death of his only son, did she scream at him?

Did she love him?

Did he love her?

If he hadn’t been away most of the year, would they have grown closer — or ended up killing each other?

Ransack his writings for answers all you want. It’s a fool’s errand. Among all types of writers, playwrights disappear the most completely into their characters, or at least the good ones do. You won’t find many arguments better than Brutus’s for offing your country’s leader. Does that mean Shakespeare’s phone should have been tapped? Was his phone tapped? Was he a secret Catholic, as Stephen Greenblatt argues on the basis of no discernible evidence? Or was he just, like his father, a merry cheek’d (young) man, who durst have cracked a jest at any time?

I won’t speculate about specific passages in his plays that may echo Shakespeare’s grief over the loss of his son. It’s clear from his writing that he was a man of deep feeling; but it’s also clear from his life records that he was a man of great resilience. There is one interesting point worth making, though — at least I find it interesting, and apparently so does Jonathan Bate. (If I remember correctly, I first read it in Anthony Burgess.) Hamnet and Judith Shakespeare were named after neighbors of the Shakespeares, Hamnet and Judith Sadler. Hamnet Sadler was one of the witnesses to Shakespeare’s will. And when he signed his name, he wrote it as “Hamlett.” The names were interchangeable, like the names Anne and Agnes. So…. Shakespeare had a son named Hamlet… sort of.

….and the play Hamlet seems to have achieved its final form around 1601 — the year Shakespeare’s own father died.

Enough said on that subject. As I said, it’s a fool’s errand.

His neighbors in Stratford began to notice his growing prosperity. One of them, Richard Quiney, was visiting London in 1598; he needed money to carry out some business project, and he thought of Shakespeare. He wrote him a letter asking for a loan. We know he wrote the letter, because a copy of the letter in his handwriting was found among Quincey’s papers. What we don’t know is whether he ever actually sent the letter, and if so, whether Shakespeare came up with the money. It was a considerable sum — £30, almost 2 years’ wages using our rule of thumb — and one of Quiney’s friends in Stratford sounded skeptical that Shakespeare would be in the giving vein. In your letter, he wrote to Quincey, you said “our countryman Mr William Shakespeare would procure us money,” he wrote, “which I will like of as I shall hear when & where & how.”

During that period of growing prosperity, Shakespeare was increasingly noticed by London theater-goers. When his plays were published in quarto form (basically mass market paperbacks), his name began to appear on the title page. It even began to appear on the title page of plays he didn’t write, which suggests his name was a selling point. One enterprising publisher, William Jaggard, gathered up a couple of his sonnets that had been circulating privately, extracted some of the sonnets that had appeared in his plays, combined them with a bunch of poetry by other people, and published it as The Passionate Pilgrim by W Shakespeare.

Students of good writing noticed. A man named Frances Meres published a tedious book in 1598 comparing English authors to classical models, mostly famous nowadays because he mentioned Shakespeare and listed all the plays he knew about.

As Plautus and Seneca are accounted the best for Comedy and Tragedy among the Latins, so Shakespeare among the English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage; for Comedy, witness his Gentlemen of Verona, his Errors, his Love Labor’s Lost, his Love Labor's Won, his Dream, and his Merchant of Venice; for Tragedy, his Richard the 2, Richard the 3, Henry the 4, King John, Titus Andronicus and his Romeo and Juliet.

(We can’t prove from the list that those were the only plays he’d written by 1598, but we can be certain that the ones Meres names were written by 1598. Missing from Meres’ list but accepted by most scholars are the Henry VI plays and The Taming of the Shrew. The play Love Labor’s Won is a puzzle. I think it’s a lost play, because to my way of thinking the ending of Love’s Labours Lost strongly implies a sequel where everyone meets again after a year, and presumably with a happier ending. Meres is not the only evidence for the existence of a play with that title. Maybe, as Samuel Schoebaum once fantasized, it will turn up in some bookseller’s cart in Amsterdam.)

Students at Cambridge began to notice. A set of satirical plays written between 1598 and 1601 mentioned Shakespeare a couple of times, both as poet and as playwright:

Few of the University men pen plays well, they smell too much of that writer Ovid, and that writer Metamorphosis, and talk too much of Proserpina and Jupiter. Why, here’s our fellow Shakespeare puts them all down, aye and Ben Jonson too. O that Ben Jonson is a pestilent fellow, he brought up Horace giving the poets a pill, but our fellow Shakespeare hath given him a purge that made him bewray his credit.

And this:

Who loves not Adonis’ love, or Lucrece’ rape?
His sweeter verse contains heart-throbbing line,
Could but a graver subject him content
Without love's foolish lazy languishment.

And law students in London began to notice, making him one of the agents in a bawdy joke:

Upon a time when Burbage played Richard the Third there was a citizen grew so far in liking with him, that before she went from the play she appointed him to come that night unto her by the name of Richard the Third. Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion, went before, was entertained and at his game ere Burbage came. Then, message being brought that Richard the Third was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard the Third.

This story is totally true. Why? Because I want it to be.

During this period Shakespeare wrote plays in every genre. He began a series of delightful comedies with nonsensical titles: Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, Twelfth Night, or What You Will. He began and completed a second tetralogy of history plays, this one covering the “original sin” of Richard II’s murder, the troubled reign of his usurper Henry IV, and Henry IV’s highly-regarded son, the war criminal Henry V. He also found time to do a “satyr play” variation on the Henriad theme with a domestic comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor, starring his crew of cranks and conmen, Falstaff, Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol. He ventured into tragedy, using a political canvas rather than the private one he’d used previously: he wrote Julius Caesar and, not long afterwards, Hamlet.

At the very end of the 16th century, the Chamberlain’s Men undertook one of their most ambitious projects. They owned the building, the Theatre, where their plays were performed, but not the land on which it stood. When they were unable to reach an agreement with the landowner over new terms, they located a new plot south of the river. Then one icy day they showed up with crowbars and hammers and began the laborious process of disassembling the Theatre. In the spring the timbers were transported across the Thames to the new location, not far from Henslowe’s Rose Theatre, and there the Chamberlain’s Men built a new structure: the Globe.

Shakespeare was deeply embedded in the company. He owned shares in the company and in the theater: whether a part of the profit went to the company account or to the building account, Shakespeare got a small cut of it. It added up. In another couple of years, he was in a position to make long-term investments of several hundred pounds. His income as a playwright was a pittance in comparison. (On the other hand, without his obviously brilliant scripts, maybe the other money wouldn’t have been as plentiful.)

Given various bits of evidence, it seems likely that two of the plays to appear during the first year of the Globe’s existence were Julius Caesar and Henry V. Henry V rounded off Shakespeare’s history cycle with a triumphant account of that King’s successful campaign in France. (OK, maybe the heroics were just a little undercut by the pointed satire that crops up here and there in the play…. satire that Laurence Olivier, the chump, chose to leave out of his mock-epic film version, once described by Orson Welles as “a bunch of men in armor riding horses around a golf course.”)

Hamlet was definitely produced there. One of the features of the Globe was that the roof over part of the open stage was painted with sun, moon, and stars.

I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition, that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.

Richard Burbage, playing Hamlet, probably gestured toward the painted “majestical roof” over his head as he said this line.

Let’s take a brief look at the 1594-1599 chronology. It will keep us oriented as we jump around a bit in some of the later reading. This is my chronology — it doesn’t quite match anybody else’s that I know of. (Obviously in real life it wouldn’t have been so neatly compartmentalized. Shakespeare may have started one play, set it aside, written another, and gone back to the first. And he might, God save the mark! have started writing a play in December of one year and finished it in March of the next. He may, like Lennon and McCartney at Rishikesh, have sketched out a dozen plays that he slowly revised and released over the coming years.)

1594: Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labours Lost, Love’s Labours Won

1595: Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Merchant of Venice

1596:King John, Richard II

1597: Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2

1598: Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado about Nothing

1599: As You Like It, Julius Caesar, Henry V

In other words…. the work Shakespeare turned out in his first 5 years with the Chamberlain’s Men is mind-blowing. And really, to tell the truth, he was just warming up.

Richard III

Richard III did it, in case you’re wondering. He totally killed the princes in the Tower. Alison Weir, Dan Jones, and Desmond Seward all said so (although they disagree about some of the specific dates), and I believe them.

The question of Richard’s deformity, by the way, was settled a few years ago when his skeleton was unearthed in a parking lot. He had a severe case of scoliosis: he wasn’t a hunchback, and he didn’t have a withered arm, but the scoliosis might account for the description by eyewitnesses that one of his shoulders was higher than the other. He was slightly off, in other words, and his enemies embellished the record. Shakespeare was keying off the conventional picture of Richard. I’m not sure if sources were available to him presenting an alternative view — the skeleton certainly wasn’t.

Shakespeare goes to great lengths to damn Richard for the murder of his brother Clarence, but in this as well he was being very unfair. It was Edward IV himself who was determined to do away with Clarence. During the recent civil war between York and Lancaster, Clarence had switched sides several times; and since Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, Clarence continually and openly sniped at and conspired against the Queen’s family. He really had no one to blame but himself. He was fecklessness personified.

In any case, there was no “tardy cripple” bearing either a warrant for execution or a reprieve. Clarence was tried and convicted of treason in open parliament, with the charges against him read out by the king himself. Having obtained a conviction, Edward hesitated for a few days to carry it out, but the Commons forced his hand and demanded that execution be done. This may have been judicial murder, but it wasn’t engineered by Richard.

On the other hand, Richard most likely was Edward’s agent for the murder of the imprisoned King Henry. This happened at the earliest possible moment after the battle of Tewkesbury — the same battle where Henry’s son Prince Edward was killed. Henry was the last Lancastrian standing, and he was in custody. What else did anyone think was going to happen? Deposed kings have an extremely short life expectancy. We know for a fact that Richard of Gloucester made a trip to the Tower after Tewkesbury and was present in the Tower the night Henry was killed. Shakespeare, of course, shows Gloucester wielding the knife himself, which seems unlikely; in any case, when Henry’s body was examined in later centuries the cause of death appeared to be a crushed skull. But Gloucester would certainly have been the logical person to see that orders from Edward were carried out. For there to be no connection between his presence on the scene and the murder of Henry strains credulity.

There’s an interesting footnote to these proceedings. After the battle of Tewkesbury, Gloucester had several leaders of the Lancastrian army forcibly removed from sanctuary and beheaded without a trial. Proponents of a gentle Richard meek and mild have to find some way of accounting for this ruthlessness. This isn’t entirely irrelevant, because the question of forcible removal from sanctuary does in fact come up again, during Gloucester’s maneuvering for the throne.

There are two other great crimes Shakespeare accuses Gloucester of committing. One is the judicial murder of William Hastings, the Lord Chamberlain. Gloucester’s brother, King Edward IV, had died, leaving behind several daughters and two sons: Edward, Prince of Wales, and Richard, Duke of York (aged 12 and 10), both in direct line of succession. More about Gloucester, the succession, and the two princes in a moment. What no one disputes (to the best of my knowledge) is that Gloucester sounded out Hastings as to whether he would support deposing the future Edward V and setting up Gloucester as King in his place. When Hastings said no, Gloucester staged a Council meeting where Hastings was accused of treason, arrested on the spot, and summarily beheaded.

And what about those two princes, the nephews of Gloucester who stood between him and the throne? Many people at the time, and in the years immediately following, concluded that Gloucester had them imprisoned in the Tower and murdered. That’s what Shakespeare dramatizes. Gloucester is not without his champions, most famously Josephine Tey. But some of the documents in the case have come to light since Tey’s novel The Daughter of Time was written. To me the chronology alone is pretty stark. All of this happened over the course of a few weeks in 1483.

The players I want to focus on include:

  • Edward IV and his brother Richard of Gloucester, the Yorkist victors of the Wars of the Roses
  • Edward’s wife, Queen Elizabeth (Woodville) and her Woodville relatives: her brother Earl Rivers, her son by an earlier marriage Richard Grey, and her sons by Edward, Edward and Richard
  • the Duke of Buckingham, a staunch ally of Gloucester
  • William Hastings, the Lord Chamberlain, an ally of Edward IV and Gloucester but a long-standing enemy of the Woodvilles

9 April – Edward IV dies

14 April – the news reaches Rivers, Grey, and Prince Edward (the 12-year-old Edward V) at Ludlow

24 April – Rivers and Grey set out from Ludlow for London with Edward V

30 April – Rivers and Grey are intercepted at Northampton and arrested by Gloucester and Buckingham; they are sent to prison in the north

1 May – upon hearing of the arrests, Queen Elizabeth flees to sanctuary at Westminster with her other son Richard of York

4 May – Gloucester and Edward V enter London. Edward takes up temporary residence in the Bishop of London’s Palace.

10 May – Council decides to move Edward to the royal residence in the Tower prior to coronation

10 May – Council decides on 22 June as date for coronation

10 May – Richard is named Protector by the Council. One unusual feature of his Protectorship is that he has charge of the affairs of state and of the King’s person. Previous Protectorships usually split those duties as a form of checks-and-balances.

10 May – Gloucester tries (and fails) to have Rivers and Grey condemned as traitors by the Council. Gloucester (illegally) seizes their estates anyway.

At this point a month goes by. The situation remains as follows: Gloucester is Protector. Edward V is in the Tower. Queen Elizabeth is still in sanctuary. Rivers and Grey are still in prison in the north. Whether Gloucester’s usurpation was planned from the beginning or not, something happened during this month that forced the situation into crisis mode. What happened in June took about two weeks.

10 June – Gloucester summons troops from York to London

13 June – After rebuffing feelers from Gloucester, Hastings is accused of conspiring with the Woodvilles and executed. (Some say he was cut down on the spot.) Given their history of enmity, the accusation is transparently false.

16 June – Richard Duke of York is removed from sanctuary under threat of force and brought to join Edward in the Tower

22 June – (the day that was to have been Edward V’s coronation) – the princes in the Tower are proclaimed bastards in a sermon at Paul’s Cross

25 June – Rivers and Grey are executed at Pomfret Castle in defiance of the Council. (Pomfret Castle is where Richard II was executed after he was deposed, some 80 years earlier.)

26 June – Richard III’s reign is officially declared to begin on this date

6 July – Richard III and his wife Anne Neville are crowned

9 July – last recorded payment for any servants attending on Edward and Richard in the Tower

Sure looks like a coup to me.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, we can take a look at the play Shakespeare wrote about him.

The operative phrase in that sentence is “about him,” because Richard’s play is about him in a way none of Shakespeare’s plays have been about a single person up to this point. He was clearly fascinated by the character and began pouring dramatic energy into him while writing The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York (aka Henry VI Part 3). Richard of Gloucester, as he’s mostly known before he becomes king, wants the throne with a single-mindedness of purpose that exceeds even that of his father (the said Duke of York). Anyone standing between him and the throne — the previous king Henry, that King’s son Edward, Richard’s own brothers Edward and Clarence, his nephews Edward and Richard — they are all fair game, and all end up dead; only brother Edward dies of natural causes, and who knows? maybe not a moment too soon.

Richard’s father York spent a fair amount of time thinking out loud. Richard — with Shakespeare’s help — takes it one step further, addressing the audience directly, gleefully taking us into his confidence, allowing us to share his growing confidence in his improvisational skills. In other words, we overhear York; but Gloucester knows we’re there, and he talks to us directly. He wants us to see what he’s doing before he does it. He doesn’t really care if we approve or not, because he knows if we declare our disapproval, we’re being hypocrites. He’s brilliant, and we love watching his brilliant schemes play themselves out — and he knows that. As bad as he is, we want him to succeed.

Shakespeare makes extensive use of something called “maiméd rites.” I first learned about maiméd rites from a book that I’ve never read about anywhere else, so my conclusion is that it’s not highly regarded. At one point in my life I found it useful, though, so I’ll note it here: The Director: a Guide to Modern Theatre Practice by WA Gregory (Funk & Wagnalls, 1968). The point Gregory made is that many scenes are built around a common ritual — a dinner, a wedding, a birthday party, a trial — but something happens to disrupt and upend the ritual.

Early in Richard III, the principal antagonists have gathered in the presence of Edward IV for what would have been considered a “love day.” This ritual required members of court factions to embrace each other and swear their support for each other, and to march in procession together. At one such ceremony during the reign of Henry VI, the Duke of York — originator of most of the trouble that followed — walked arm in arm with Queen Margaret, with whom he had only recently fought on the battlefield.

I believe that Act 2 Scene 1 of Richard III enacts a Love Day. Richard of Gloucester enters a bit late, but makes fulsome declarations of good will toward all.

If I unwittingly, or in my rage,
Have aught committed that is hardly borne
By any in this presence, I desire
To reconcile me to his friendly peace.
’Tis death to me to be at enmity;
I hate it, and desire all good men’s love.

An actor can have a lot of fun with this. I would think it’s best played straight. He doesn’t mean a word of it, but the audience already knows that.

Knowing he isn’t likely to get love from anyone else in the room, he sprinkles a little praise on himself.

I thank my God for my humility.

But when Queen Elizabeth says she’d like to see Clarence set at liberty so he can be a part of the celebration, Richard turns on her with fury.

Why, madam, have I offered love for this,
To be so flouted in this royal presence?
Who knows not that the gentle duke is dead?

He knows perfectly well that nobody knew, because he’s the one who planned it and hired a couple of hit men to carry it out. So much for the love day. The rite is maimed, and King Edward, shaken to the point of apoplexy, staggers offstage. Richard would have made a great playwright if he weren’t a murdering tyrant. Come to think of it, there’s nothing in the job descriptions that make them mutually exclusive….

This is only one kind of structural pattern Shakespeare uses. A number of scenes are set up with a deliberate antiphonal structure, almost as a kind a liturgical chant: the women repeatedly sounding the knell of grief, the ghosts of the dead sounding the drumbeat of threat to one side, promise to the other. He’d used this technique for several scenes in Henry VI Part 3, such as the battle of Towton. It’s artificial, and nothing is to be gained by trying to make it appear naturalistic. The Naxos recording uses the tolling of a bell to mark the divisions of the laments. The film directed by Richard Loncraine dispensed with these scenes for the most part, having no way to integrate them into its realistic 1930s milieu. Some of the dialogue was preserved, but chopped up and redistributed.

The language in these scenes is like nothing ever spoken by homo sapiens, except maybe Samuel Johnson. The aging Margaret (an unhistorical holdover from the Henry VI plays) is undisputed queen of the “balanced periods.”

I had an Edward, till a Richard killed him;
I had a husband, till a Richard killed him:
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard killed him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him.
Decline all this, and see what now thou art:
For happy wife, a most distressèd widow;
For joyful mother, one that wails the name;
For one being sued to, one that humbly sues;
For queen, a very caitiff crowned with care;
For she that scorned at me, now scorned of me;
For she being feared of all, now fearing one;
For she commanding all, obeyed of none.

Richard wastes no times setting his plot in motion. When I read the play this time around, I was surprised at how quickly he moves. Buckingham is in on the plan from the beginning. Right after Edward IV’s death, when plans are being made to bring young Prince Edward to London, Richard and Buckingham have a brief exchange.

My lord, whoever journeys to the Prince,
For God sake let not us two stay at home;
For by the way, I’ll sort occasion,
As index to the story we late talk’d of,
To part the Queen’s proud kindred from the Prince.

My other self, my counsel’s consistory,
My oracle, my prophet, my dear cousin,
I, as a child, will go by thy direction.
Toward Ludlow then, for we’ll not stay behind.

To clear the way for Richard’s ascent to the throne, they have to separate the young king from his Woodville cousins. If there’s any doubt about Richard’s intent, Buckingham clears it up a couple of scenes later. He and Richard have succeeded in separating the new King from the Woodvilles, and they have just packed the boy and his brother off to the Tower for their “protection.”

Come hither, Catesby.
Thou art sworn as deeply to effect what we intend
As closely to conceal what we impart.
Thou know’st our reasons urg’d upon the way;
What think’st thou? Is it not an easy matter
To make William Lord Hastings of our mind
For the installment of this noble Duke
In the seat royal of this famous isle?

Hastings doesn’t join their conspiracy, so they cut off his head.

One thing Richard seems to hold against Hastings is his long-standing and very public affair with Jane Shore (actually Elizabeth Shore, but there are already too many Elizabeths in the play), wife of a London merchant. He harps on it several times, and reading it this time I began to wonder if there’s not a raw wound under his self-deprecating joke about not being made for “sportive pleasures.”

We speak no treason, man. We say the King
Is wise and virtuous, and his noble queen
Well struck in years, fair, and not jealous;
We say that Shore’s wife hath a pretty foot,
A cherry lip, a bonny eye, a passing pleasing tongue;
And that the Queen’s kindred are made gentlefolks.
Tell him, Catesby,
His ancient knot of dangerous adversaries
Tomorrow are let blood at Pomfret Castle,
And bid my lord, for joy of this good news,
Give Mistress Shore one gentle kiss the more.
Look how I am bewitch’d; behold, mine arm
Is like a blasted sapling, wither’d up;
And this is Edward’s wife, that monstrous witch,
Consorted with that harlot, strumpet Shore,
That by their witchcraft thus have marked me.
So smooth he daub’d his vice with show of virtue
That, his apparent open guilt omitted—
I mean, his conversation with Shore’s wife—
He liv’d from all attainder of suspects.

Hastings aside, Richard is a genius at persuading people to do what he wants. He’s so good at it that he doesn’t bother hiding his motives. He stages a scene that pushes the Mayor and citizens of London into calling for him to accept the crown. Why does he need the idea to come from them? He tells them.

Since you will buckle Fortune on my back,
To bear her burden whe’er I will or no,
I must have patience to endure the load;
But if black scandal or foul-fac’d reproach
Attend the sequel of your imposition,
Your mere enforcement shall acquittance me
From all the impure blots and stains thereof.

In other words…. hope you enjoy being the scapegoat, because guess what?

At long last having the throne, he reveals the final step in his plot to Buckingham, who shudders and hesitates — fatally. It’s a little hard to believe Buckingham didn’t see where this was going, especially when he so enthusiastically participated in the murders of the Woodvilles and of Hastings. But he seems genuinely shocked.

Thus high, by thy advice
And thy assistance, is King Richard seated;
But shall we wear these glories for a day?
Or shall they last, and we rejoice in them?
Young Edward lives: think now what I would speak.

Say on, my loving lord.

Why, Buckingham, I say I would be king.

Why, so you are, my thrice-renowned lord.

Ha? Am I king? ’Tis so--but Edward lives.
Cousin, thou wast not wont to be so dull.
Shall I be plain? I wish the bastards dead,
And I would have it suddenly perform’d.

Off with his head. So much for Buckingham. (Actually, that line isn’t in the play; it was added by an 18th century actor-manager because he loved the sound of his own voice, and it was retained by Laurence Olivier in his film because he loved the sound of his voice. Olivier, in my opinion, in case you hadn’t noticed, was a chump.)

Richard’s mother gives up on him and delivers a bone-chilling curse on her way out the door.

What comfortable hour canst thou name
That ever graced me with thy company?
Either thou wilt die by God’s just ordinance
Ere from this war thou turn a conqueror,
Or I with grief and extreme age shall perish
And never more behold thy face again.
Therefore take with thee my most grievous curse,
Which in the day of battle tire thee more
Than all the complete armor that thou wear’st.
....Bloody thou art, bloody will be thy end;
Shame serves thy life and doth thy death attend.

Richard takes it in stride. No Oedipal complex for this Dear Leader.

Shakespeare seems to always be looking for a way to top himself — either from one play to the next, or as in this case within the same play. He gives Richard two long wooing scenes. In the first one, near the beginning of the play, he tries to woo Anne Neville. She had been engaged to marry Prince Edward of the House of Lancaster, whom Richard helped to murder in Henry VI Part 3. When Richard meets her in the street, she was bringing the body of Prince Edward’s father, the deposed Henry VI, for burial. As it happens, Richard had also murdered Henry VI. Anne knows about both murders, and Richard knows that she knows. But in his bizarre, narcissistic view of life, he believes he can turn the situation around and use the murders as arguments in his favor. Why did he kill them? he says. Because he was so desperately in love with Anne that he was trying to clear a path to her bed.

To her eternal discredit — not to mention her personal doom — she allows herself to be persuaded. She marries Richard, she’s crowned with him, and then she disappears. Richard gives out word that she’s sick and like to die, and a little bit later that she is dead. The implication is that Richard killed her. The Richard Loncraine movie shows her using a hypodermic needle just before the coronation to numb the pain of being Richard’s wife. The implication is that she overdosed: the next time we see her, her eyes are wide open and a spider is crawling across her face.

In his second wooing scene, Richard’s approach to the widowed Queen Elizabeth is somewhat less direct. He’s not wooing her; he’s trying to find out how he can best woo her daughter. Bit of a problem, that, considering that he’s murdered her brothers and a few of her uncles. The Queen throws that back in his face. You want to woo her? she says.

Send to her by the man that slew her brothers
A pair of bleeding hearts; thereon engrave
“Edward” and “York”; then haply will she weep.
Therefore present to her – as sometimes Margaret
Did to thy father, steeped in Rutland’s blood –
A handkerchief, which say to her did drain
The purple sap from her sweet brother’s body,
And bid her wipe her weeping eyes withal.
If this inducement move her not to love,
Send her a letter of thy noble deeds.
Tell her thou mad’st away her uncle Clarence,
Her uncle Rivers, ay, and for her sake,
Mad’st quick conveyance with her good aunt Anne.

Richard clears his throat, or bites his lip, or drums his fingers on the table, or takes a long draw on his cigar.

You mock me, madam. This is not the way
To win your daughter.

You think?

But Elizabeth realizes the only way she can make her escape is by pretending to agree with him. So she does — and Richard is so infatuated with himself that he doesn’t see what’s really going on behind her eyes. He is so oblivious to other peoples’ emotions that he — assuming this will somehow reassure her — admits he murdered her children, but says he will bury them in her daughter’s womb, “that nest of spicery.”

Umm…. in other words…. his niece’s vagina. That the language is vaguely reminscent of Song of Songs can’t hide the fact that Richard is a pervert on top of everything else.

But unfortunately at this point the play begins to drag. We should be barrelling toward an explosive conclusion, but instead Shakespeare indulges in a stately, symmetrical, almost euphuistical scene of the night before the battle. It’s a scene that once again shows the fluid mechanics of Elizabethan staging, as the action moves from one tent to another and from inside one tent to another, without a scene break…. but, um…. c’mon. The play is already one of the longest Shakespeare ever wrote.

Richard sets up a tent on one side of the stage and talks to his men. Richmond sets up a tent on the other side and talks to his men. Then the scene shifts inside Richard’s tent, and he talks to his men. Then the scene shifts inside Richmond’s tent as he talks to his men. Then everybody goes to sleep.

Then the Ghost of Prince Edward appears, walks to Richard’s side of the stage and curses him, then walks to Richmond’s side of the stage and blesses him. Then the Ghost of Henry VI does the same. Then the Ghost of Clarence. Then the Ghosts of Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan. Then all the Ghosts So Far in unison. Then the Ghosts of the Princes. Then the Ghost of Hastings. Then the Ghost of Anne. Then the Ghost of Buckingham.

Then Richard wakes up and talks to his men. Then Richmond wakes up and talks to his men.

Then Richmond gathers everyone around him and makes his official Oration to his Soldiers.

Then Richard talks to his men.

Then Richard gathers everyone around him and makes his official Oration to his Army.


I don’t know about you, but by then I was climbing the wall. It was worse than the nine endings of Peter Jackson’s film The Return of the King. Shakespeare had a long way to go to get to A Little Touch of Harry in the Night.

But the play does finally end in explosive triumph. When Richard’s voice is stilled on the battlefield at Bosworth, we are left with a sense of emptiness. A power has gone out of the world. Yes, it was an evil power, but it was a great power, and it made things happen, and now it’s dead and gone. The Arkangel recording makes this point brilliantly by having Richard’s last cry of anguish fade into reverberations, followed by a sudden and total silence.

And then Richmond reappears to speak the conclusion, fulfilling the hopes of all, and especially the prophecies of the ravaged Margaret of Anjou, who has returned to France.

God and your arms be praised, victorious friends!
The day is ours; the bloody dog is dead.

Romeo and Juliet

I’ve been dreading this play. It’s one of the most painful things I’ve ever read or seen. For the longest time, I was convinced that Romeo and Juliet did nothing wrong; that they were doomed only by bad luck, and by their shitty parents. I’ve had to modify my thinking this time through. Juliet did nothing wrong. Romeo is another matter altogether. More about that in a minute.

Shakespeare was in a particularly lyrical period when he wrote this. His Comedy of Errors was filled with rhyme, and so is this. In fact, Romeo and Juliet is filled not only with rhyme but with sonnets. The choruses that precede Acts 1 and 2 are sonnets, as is the play’s epilogue; and Romeo and Juliet’s first encounter is written as a sonnet. The dialogue breaks out into rhymed couplets at the drop of a hat.

Now, by the stock and honor of my kin,
To strike him dead I hold it not a sin.

Why, how now, kinsman? Wherefore storm you so?

Uncle, this is a Montague, our foe,
A villain, that is hither come in spite
To scorn at our solemnity this night.

Or this:

Holy Saint Francis! What a change is here!
Is Rosaline, that thou didst love so dear,
So soon forsaken? Young men’s love then lies
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes.

Mercutio bursts into the play like a Roman candle. It’s hard to see where he could have come from: I can’t think of anyone like him in any of Shakespeare’s earlier work. Maybe Richard III, since that play most likely came before Romeo and Juliet; but even at his most verbally pyrotechnical, Richard stays on point. Mercutio goes off into the stratosphere.

Running a close second behind him is the Nurse, who goes wandering off into tangents worse than Tristram Shandy. It’s an embarrassment of comic riches. The characters are so complete and compelling they seem, more than any other characters in Shakespeare to date, to have been drawn from life.

But from who? (Or whom, for you sticklers?) Here’s a thought you can choose (or choose not to) take seriously. Several years after Shakespeare died, as I noted in an earlier post from a few years ago, Ben Jonson said about him:

I loved the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any. He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped.... His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too.

Just imagine for a moment that Jonson is talking about Shakespeare the person, not Shakespeare the writer. Peace, peace, good ticklebrain: thou talk’st of nothing.

It’s a possibility.

Some thoughts about the structure. This is tentative, and I’m not offering it as a formula or a ”paradigm” (a la Syd Field). I haven’t developed the ideas enough to slap a patent on them, so feel free to use or abuse them as you see fit. If you’ve spent time poring over old books on the subject, you may recognize the influence of William T Price and Bernard Grebanier in what follows.

I see the action of a conventionally structured play as falling into four main segments. (In other words, Aristotle was wrong.) The first segment initiates the action. The second brings it to the point of no return. The third pushes the protagonist to his or her greatest possible distance from the goal. The fourth brings the action to a conclusion.

If you lay this template against Romeo and Juliet, it looks something like this.

(1) Romeo meets Juliet and they fall madly in love with each other. (Grebanier would add an “although” to this to make the problem of the play explicit: although their families are in deadly enmity, Romeo meets Juliet and they fall madly in love with each other.

Falling in love is one thing. Declaring your love is another. But really, nothing has happened so far that can’t be undone, until….

(2) Romeo and Juliet get married.

This is the point of no return.

(3) Now we look for the point where Romeo and Juliet are furthest apart. The distance doesn’t always have to be physical, but in this case it is. Locating this point in Romeo and Juliet doesn’t take a magnifying glass: Romeo kills Tybalt and is banished.

Let’s glance aside at Hamlet for a moment. When is he furthest from achieving his goal of revenging his father’s murder? I would argue that it’s when he murders Polonius, and with that as a cover, the King ships him off to England.

These two examples highlight another interesting point in Grebanier’s theory. The first two movements in the play, the initiating of the action and the point of no return, typically involve the protagonist and antagonist.

’Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes
Between the pass and fell incensed points
Of mighty opposites.

The third movement, if you follow Grebanier’s thinking to its conclusion, involves the protagonist and a third person: the protagonist does something to a third person that makes the ending inevitable. Romeo kills Tybalt and is banished, which sets the tragic ending in motion. Hamlet kills Polonius and is sent to England, which leaves him with few options for revenge except open defiance. Grebanier’s argument makes sense for some plays but not for all: it makes a two-person play impossible on principle. That’s why, even though it seems to fit in these two cases, I prefer to leave it at the more general level of four “movements.”

(4) From the point of Romeo’s banishment, everything that could go wrong does go wrong, and Romeo and Juliet end up together and dead. In a final cackle of cosmic ha-ha, their death brings about the end of the feud that helped to cause their death in the first place.

It’s one way of looking at the overall structure of the play.

While I’m on the subject, here’s another one. I picked this up from The Writer magazine 40 years ago, and I have no idea who wrote it or what issue it was in. The author argued that for an emotionally satisfying plot, some form of achievement/sacrifice needed to be employed.

Some examples: Hamlet revenges his father’s death (but dies in the process). Oedipus frees his city from the plague (but destroys himself and his family). Thomas More preserves his integrity (but dies). Romeo and Juliet…. well, they do have one good night together, I guess. And Othello and Desdemona? ….yeah, I’m definitely feeling some limits on this one. But it works sometimes, for some plays.

But back to this play.

It must be one of the bawdiest plays Shakespeare wrote. When the young men are out roaming the streets, every other line refers to a penis. Pretty much any reference to a weapon, tool, tail/tale, or a piece of flesh has at least this double meaning (and often it’s the primary one); any reference to standing means having an erection; any reference to a “case” or “hole” implies a vagina.

I saw no man use you at his pleasure. If I had, my weapon should quickly have been out, I warrant you.

Me they shall feel while I am able to stand; and ’tis known I am a pretty piece of flesh.... Draw thy tool! ....My naked weapon is out.

For this driveling love is like a great natural that runs lolling up and down to hide his bauble in a hole.

Thou desirest me to stop in my tale against the hair [ie, pubic hair].

Thou wouldst else have made thy tale large.

O, thou art deceived! I would have made it short [ie, limp]; for I was come to the whole depth of my tale, and meant indeed to occupy the argument no longer.


Having fallen in love with Juliet, Romeo hastens to Friar Laurence and asks him to marry them. The friar is astonished, maybe even appalled, at Romeo’s fickleness — you still have a dried tear on your cheek, he says, that you wept for Rosaline — but he agrees to perform the ceremony because it will unite the two warring families. (And once again I find myself baffled by the ease with which Shakespeare’s characters get married: no parental consent, no licenses, no public crying of the banns: they just up and do it in hugger-mugger and damn the torpedoes. Clearly this was a stage convention. It didn’t happen that way in the world Shakespeare actually lived in.)

Meanwhile it appears that Tybalt has challenged Romeo to a duel — in writing; Romeo doesn’t know it yet. Mercutio worries that Romeo is too lovesick a contender to hold out against a punctilious swordsman like Tybalt.

He [Tybalt] fights as you sing prick song – keeps time, distance, and proportion; he rests his minim rests, one, two, and the third in your bosom! the very butcher of a silk button, a duelist, a duelist! a gentleman of the very first house, of the first and second cause. Ah, the immortal passado! the punto reverso! the hai!

And of course we know where all this ends. Romeo, having married Juliet, refuses to fight her cousin Tybalt, so Mercutio takes up the cause of honor in his place. Tybalt kills Mercutio, Romeo kills Tybalt, the Prince banishes Romeo, and the house of cards crashes to the ground.

One thing occurred to me this time through that I hadn’t noticed before. The participants in the Shakespeare 2020 group have been, on the whole, major champions of Juliet, and she really is amazing, far more so than Romeo, who’s a bit of a sap. This comes back to the point I raised in the first paragraph. In light of the group’s comments, focusing more on Juliet this time, I suddenly realized: getting married is her idea. In the balcony scene, Romeo makes many protestations of his love for her, and I don’t doubt his sincerity; but his declarations are a bit on the generic side, and when he cries out, “O, wilt thou leave me so unsatisfied?” — he may have a more short-term goal in mind, his major complaint about Rosaline having been her chastity. Juliet is the one who raises the stakes.

If that thy bent of love be honorable,
Thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow,
By one that I’ll procure to come to thee,
Where and what time thou wilt perform the rite;
And all my fortunes at thy foot I’ll lay
And follow thee my lord throughout the world.

Romeo is struck speechless and remains so for several lines. And he doesn’t explicitly commit to the plan until the last two lines of the scene.

Hence will I to my ghostly sire’s close cell,
His help to crave and my dear hap to tell.

Yet despite the stakes, despite his supposed total devotion to this stunning young woman, he can’t keep his hand off his sword long enough to let justice take its course. Tybalt kills Mercutio; the penalty will almost certainly be death. (Romeo’s sentence is commuted to banishment because of the extenuating circumstances.) Had Romeo been able to bide his time even a couple of hours, he and Juliet would have been in an entirely different and far more promising situation.

Juliet is courageous far beyond her 13 years (or is it 14? I’m a little unclear on that point). The people she ought to be able to rely on are peeled away one by one. Her husband Romeo climbs down from her bedroom on a rope ladder and flees. Her parents are absolutely horrible to her. Her father screams at her, strikes her repeatedly (though that’s up to the director, of course), curses her, swears she’ll be married to the man he picks for her or else. Her mother is colder than death.

Talk not to me, for I’ll not speak a word.
Do as thou wilt, for I have done with thee.

She turns to the Nurse, who in a final betrayal says, in effect, you may as well make the best of a bad situation; Paris is a far better man than Romeo, and Romeo will be in no position to object. At that point Juliet realizes she is almost totally alone; Friar Laurence is her last hope, and she’s not so sure about him. It is a desolate and desolating scene.

Go, counselor!
Thou and my bosom henceforth shall be twain.
I’ll to the friar to know his remedy.
If all else fail, myself have power to die.

She’s grown tremendously since we first met her. Juliet has become the emotional center of the play.

The ending depends on a kind of Agatha Christie contrivance. When I say that, I don’t mean that as a criticism of Agatha Christie, whose novels I enjoy. But even fans have to admit that the crimes in some of her novels depend on split-second timing; all the dominoes have to fall just so. Shakespeare made use of this approach more than once — I’m thinking of the bed trick in All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, or the different dress colors in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Here the Friar, in his overconfidence, sets the wheels in motion with no plan B. He should have taken a lesson from the King in Hamlet.

If this should fail,
And that our drift look through our bad performance,
’Twere better not assay’d; therefore this project
Should have a back or second, that might hold
If this did blast in proof.

But Shakespeare knows that having a back or second would ruin the ending he has in mind, so…. the Friar and Juliet forge ahead.

And once again Romeo can’t keep his hands still long enough to see how things will play out, and so not only he and Juliet but the completely innocent Paris lie dead in the churchyard. The community is destroyed.

Where be these enemies? Capulet! Montague!
See what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
And I for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen. All are punish’d.

The staging of that last scene deserves comment. It illustrates more clearly than almost any scene we’ve studied to date how fluid the Elizabethan stage was. Without a curtain, with the barest of sets (perhaps only the “tomb doors”), without lighting changes, with only a handful of props, the stage represents in turn the cemetery outside the tomb, the inside of the tomb, outside the tomb again, inside the tomb, and finally outside for the conclusion, with no shifts or pauses in between. The great 19th century actor managers who insisted on vividly realistic sets for Shakespeare nearly killed the plays they were trying to produce. One thing all of Shakespeare’s plays have in common is momentum.

I have to admit I’m not crazy about the idea of assigning this play to high school students. Maybe I’ve just had the misfortune to know too many who have killed themselves, or tried to.