Summaries of the Action of some of Shakespeare's Major Plays and Brief Comments on them:
King John / The Taming of the Shrew / Romeo and Juliet / The Merchant of Venice / Richard II / Much Ado About Nothing / As You Like It / Julius Caesar / Hamlet / Twelfth Night / King Lear / Macbeth / Othello / The Tempest
The Life and Death of King John
Scene 1: Court scene ; diplomatic conflict between King John and French ambassador, with interventions from John's mother Eleanor; John opts for war, refuses to turn over power to young Arthur. Robert and Philip Faulconbridge come in dispute over land, Philip being Richard Coeur de Lion's bastard son; John and Eleanor invite Philip to join them, leaving the family lands to his younger brother. He accepts and is knighted. The Bastard has a soliloquy on 'observation' before his mother comes and she, hearing that he has already given up the family name, confirms that he is Richard's son, for which he thanks her.
Scene 1: Military confrontation before Angiers; Arthur introduced
by Philip of France to Limoges-Austria (who killed Coeur de Lion). The
ambassador to John in Act I arrives only minutes before John and his army.
Confrontation between Philip and John, plus mothers Eleanor and Constance.
The Bastard also intervenes. Who will Angiers accept as king? John and
Philip speak their claims. City will accept whichever proves to be the
rightful king! The heralds issue the same challenge, same reply. The French
and English armies prepare to fight. Bastard suggests using the two armies
together against the city. Accepted; then Hubert (spokesman for Angiers
citizens) suggests a marriage of alliance between Blanche of Spain (John's
niece) and Lewis the Dauphin of France, to bring France and England together.
Accepted; Arthur named Duke of Britain by John, in compensation. Bastard's
soliloquy on 'commodity'.
Scene 2: Arthur's mother Constance horrified by the news.
Scene 1: Assembly of both courts together, including protesting
Constance. Papal legate arrives to deal with problem of John's actions
against Stephen Langton, the Pope's nominee as Archbishop of Canterbury.
John asserts absolute quality of national rights and laws, using Protestant
words ('usurped authority'). Legate threatens excommunication, urges France
to support him against John. Wavering, Philip asks for understanding, some
other method. Legate makes sophisticated speeches; Philip decides against
England; Blanche laments her divided loyalties. War!
Scene 2: Bastard brings in Austria's head. John entrusts captured Arthur to Hubert, sends the Bastard to get money from the churches in England. John indicates to Hubert that Arthur must die.
Scene 3: France has lost on all sides. Constance now full of bitterness and grief, to the point of madness. Legate Pandulf anticipates Arthur's death, suggests that it will benefit Philip, since Blanche then becomes heir to the throne, and people will be shocked by John's cruelty. Legate urges France to invade England.
Scene 1: Grisly preparations for blinding Arthur, pathetic dialogue,
Hubert decides not to hurt him.
Scene 2: John crowned again, for more security. The Lords scold him. They have heard of the plot against Arthur; John 'learns' he is dead, the Lords walk out in protest. Messenger announces France's arrival in England, the death of Eleanor, and of Constance. Bastard brings prophet from Pomfret who tells John he will give up his crown by Ascension Day noon. Hubert announces strange sign of 5 moons, and describes how people are in turmoil. John regrets death of Arthur, blames Hubert; Hubert reveals that he is alive. John asks him to tell the lords this.
Scene 3: Arthur dies trying to escape from the castle. Bastard and Lords find him, think it is murder. Hubert arrives, insists he was alive. Lords ride to join France, not believing him. Bastard confused, but sees that the fate of England is the main thing now.
Scene 1: Ascension Day; John gives up his crown to Pandulf, and
receives it from him again, so that he will stop the French invasion. Bastard
tells John of the Lords' desertion, death of Arthur... encourages John.
John says that the legate will stop the French; Bastard demands battle.
Scene 2: The agreement between the English lords and the Dauphin. Salisbury laments. Pandulf tells Dauphin to go back to France; he refuses. Bastard arrives to challenge the French, in high terms. Battle.
Scene 3: During battle John, sick, leaves the field. The Dauphin's ships are wrecked.
Scene 4: Wounded Melun tells the English lords that they will be killed if the Dauphin wins. Lords return to John.
Scene 5: The Dauphin learns of his losses.
Scene 6: Bastard and Hubert meet in the dark, fail at first to recognize each other. Hubert announces John is poisoned by a monk. Then tells that the lords are all come back, bringing Prince Henry with them. Bastard has lost half the army crossing the Wash.
Scene 7: Henry prepares for John's death. John brought on, in pain. Dies. Bastard prepares for desperate resistance against French. Salisbury announces that Pandulf has just brought terms for peace. All submit to Henry as King. Bastard declares English invincibility.
The Taming of the Shrew
Scene i. Christopher Sly, drunk, refuses to pay his account.
He falls asleep. A Lord decides to take him home and play a trick on him;
when he wakes he will be treated as the Lord of the house, while a page
pretends to be his wife. Some travelling actors arrive and are brought
into the game.
Scene ii. Sly is treated accordingly, and told he has been mad for 15 years. His 'wife' rejoices at his recovery but refuses to sleep with him for a few days yet when he becomes amorous. He is led off to watch a play performed by the actors.
Scene i. Lucentio and his servant Tranio arrive in Padua from
Pisa. Baptista and his two daughters Katherina and Bianca pass, pursued
by Gremio (a fool) and Hortensio who love Bianca. He tells them that she
cannot marry until Katherina has a husband. Katherina speaks outrageously.
Meanwhile he intends to hire tutors for Bianca. Luciano falls in love with
Bianca, decides to become her schoolmaster. He and Tranio will exchange
names and roles. (Sly watching the play is bored.)
Scene ii. Petruchio and his servant arrive in Padua from Verona, planning to visit Hortensio. They fight and Hortensio calms them. Petruchio says he wants a rich wife, Hortensio offers to marry him to Katherina, although he tells him of her reputation. Petruchio is not impressed; Hortensio plans to enter the house as a schoolmaster for Bianca introduced by Petruchio. Lucentio (disguised) has met Gremio, who plans to introduce him as a schoolmaster for Bianca so that he can speak to her on his behalf. Gremio is glad to hear of Petruchio's readiness to woo Katherine. Tranio (disguised as rich Lucentio) comes declaring his intention of wooing Bianca.
Scene i. Katherina has tied Bianca's hands and is trying to find out which suitor she prefers, apparently envious. The three suitors (Luciano and Hortensio as schoolmasters, Tranio as his master Lucentio) come in with Gremio and Petruchio. Petruchio presents his suit, the others are introduced to Baptista, who sends the two schoolmasters to his daughters. He warns Petruchio of Katherine, he minimizes the problem. Hortensio comes in, Katherine has broken a lute on his head. Petruchio prepares to meet her. Petruchio woos her by the name of Kate and they embark on a display of sharp wit which Petruchio hails as gentleness. Petruchio tells Baptista that the reports were wrong and that he will marry Katherine on Sunday. When she insults him, he says they have agreed to pretend to quarrel. He leaves for Venice until the ceremony. Tranio and Gremio begin to quarrel over Bianca, competing over the dower. Tranio offers more than Gremio can, but Baptista insists on having guarantees from his father or else will prefer Gremio. Tranio decides to get himself a false father.
Scene i. Lucentio and Hortensio quarrel over Bianca, she tells
them not to; Lucentio gives a mock Latin lesson in which he tells her about
himself while Hortensio is tuning his lute. Bianca responds positively
to Lucentio. Lucentio guesses that Hortensio is a disguised suitor. Hortensio
tells her about himself in a mock music lesson but Bianca responds negatively.
Hortensio suspects Lucentio.
Scene ii. The wedding day but no Petruchio. Biondello (servant) announces that he is coming in very odd clothes, riding a broken-backed horse, with a servant in rags. He arrives. Baptista asks him to change but he refuses. Tranio explains the situation to Lucentio, who would like to marry Bianca in secret. Gremio describes the crazy wedding. They return from church and Petruchio announces that they are leaving without eating. Kate resists but Petruchio affirms his rights over her and forces her to leave.
Scene i. Grumio comes in frozen and talks with Curtis to check
if things are ready. He tells of how Katherine's horse fell in the mud.
Petruchio comes in cursing the servants. When the food is brought in, he
says it is burnt and throws it at them. Kate tries to calm him (she is
hungry). Petruchio takes her to her room, talks about continence (no sex),
then returns to outline his strategy : no food and no sleep.
Scene ii. Hortensio realizes that he has no hope with Bianca, thanks to Tranio's trickery, and withdraws to marry a wealthy widow. Biondello sees someone coming who could be presented as Lucentio's father. He and Tranio ('Lucentio') tell this Pedant from Mantua that his life is in danger, and suggest he pretend to be Lucentio's father Vincentio from Pisa.
Scene iii. Katherine complains to Grumio of hunger and lack of sleep. Grumio plays the same game as his master. Petruchio brings food and forces her to thank him. He announces a visit to her father's and calls people to bring clothes for her, but then rejects them although she likes them. The tailor and Grumio quarrel. Petruchio decides they will go in their old clothes.
Scene iv. The arrangements are made for the contract to be signed between Baptista and the fake father of the fake Lucentio; Biondello tells the real Lucentio to take Bianca to church and marry her.
Scene v. The journey of Petruchio with Katherine, where he obliges her to agree with all he says, although it is nonsense. They meet Lucentio's (real) father on his way to pay his son a surprise visit; Katherine is forced to greet him as a young girl. Petruchio tells him that Lucentio has married Bianca (but how does he know?!).
Scene i. The lovers leave to get married. Petruchio etc arrive
at Lucentio's house, are greeted from a window by the false Vincentio (Pedant)
who insists he is Lucentio's father; Petruchio accuses the true father
of being dishonest. Biondello enters, sees no way but to deny the true
father, his former master; Vincentio beats him, they say he is mad; Tranio
enters and is recognized by Vincentio. Tranio and the Pedant claim to be
the true son and father, Vincentio is about to be arrested when Lucentio
and Bianca return. Lucentio kneels to his true father and admits to his
marriage. All is made clear and although the fathers are angry, Lucentio
is confident. Petruchio asks Katherine to kiss him, she refuses until he
threatens to go back home. They kiss.
Scene ii. A banquet for the wedding of Lucentio and Bianca, with Hortensio and his widow, Petruchio and Katherine. Joking dialogue in which the widow assumes Katherine is still a shrew. The women withdraw and the men discuss which of their brides is the worst shrew and least obedient; both the others assume that Katherine is, but Petruchio says not so. Bets are laid. Luciano and Hortensio send for their wives to come, both refuse. Katherine, sent for, arrives at once. Petruchio sends her to bring the other two. Petruchio tells her to take off her hat and throw it on the ground, she obeys. The other two women protest, Lucentio gets angry. Petruchio tells Katherine to teach the others their duties. Katherine's famous speech on a wife's duty. Petruchio and Katherine leave for their wedding bed.
Romeo and Juliet
Scene 1: (Sunday) Uproar in the streets of Verona between servants and members of the Montague and Capulet families. The Prince warns them all: peace or die. The Montagues and Benvolio discuss Romeo's odd behaviour. Romeo appears, lost in Petrarchan love metaphors.
Scene 2: Old Capulet and young Count Paris discuss Capulet's (still unnamed) daughter; Capulet says she is still too young for marriage. A party is planned so they can see one another.
Scene 3: Juliet with Mother and Nurse; discussion of her age, with humour from the Nurse. Mention of marriage with Paris.
Scene 4: Romeo joking with friends; Mercutio's flashy Queen Mab speech delays Romeo's mention of an ill-omened dream.
Scene 5: Party. Romeo sees Juliet; Tybalt starts to make trouble but is driven out by Capulet; the sonnet-encounter, Romeo and Juliet kiss; each discovers too late the identity of the other.
Scene 1: Romeo withdraws from still-joking friends.
Scene 2: The "Balcony Scene" with declaration of love, Juliet mentions marriage; next day rendez-vous. Farewells.
Scene 3: (Monday) Early morning. Romeo tells the Friar of the matter.
Scene 4: As his friends are joking with Romeo, the Nurse brings a message from Juliet, plans are made.
Scene 5: Juliet's impatience in monologue, then Nurse's teasing.
Scene 6: Romeo and Juliet come the the Friar's cell to be married.
Scene 1: Benvolio and Mercutio talking, Tybalt enters, then Romeo; Tybalt (Juliet's cousin) kills Mercutio while Romeo is trying to make peace. Romeo kills Tybalt and runs off. Prince sentences him to exile (or death).
Scene 2: Juliet's impatience for wedding night. Nurse comes weeping, Juliet believes Romeo is dead, until Nurse tells her what has happened. Juliet's mixed emotions.
Scene 3: Romeo runs to the Friar in despair. Nurse tells of Juliet's reactions; intense emotions. They go on preparing the wedding-night.
Scene 4: Old Capulet tells Paris that he shall marry Juliet on Thursday, because she is so sad for Tybalt.
Scene 5: (Tuesday) The morning after the wedding-night, the lovers part. Juliet and Mother talk. Mother tells of planned marriage with Paris, Juliet refuses, Capulet is furious, Nurse not helpful. Juliet decides to ask the Friar for help.
Scene 1: Friar's plan, the potion that will simulate death.
Scene 2: Juliet accepts her Father's will, he is so pleased, he advances the wedding to "tomorrow" (Wednesday).
Scene 3: The evening; Juliet drinks the potion, falls as if dead.
Scene 4: (Wednesday) Juliet discovered apparently dead. All lament. She is to be buried at once in the family vault. Comic interlude.
Scene 1: Romeo exiled in Mantua hears from his servant that Juliet is dead. Buys poison.
Scene 2: Friar learns that his message has not got to Romeo, the friar who was carrying it having been prevented from leaving.
Scene 3: The Crypt. Romeo arrives, encounters Paris, whom he fights and kills; he addresses the dead Juliet, drinks poison, and dies; the Friar arrives but Juliet wakes, sees Romeo dead and kills herself. Final Assembly learns what has happened. There is reconciliation of the warring families, but Romeo's mother has died, neither family has other children, all they can do is build a monument to "Juliet and her Romeo."
Several comedies written by Shakespeare in the mid-1590s (The Merchant of Venice, Much Ado about Nothing, All's Well that Ends Well, Measure for Measure), like this play, are based on novelle (Italian short stories in the style of those in Boccaccio's Decameron). All are concerned with threatened or fragile relationships between young people, and the problem of reconciling romantic love with social obligations.
The story of Romeo and Juliet developed in Italy out of various tales involving potions that give the appearance of death. The first version seems to be that published in 1476 by Salernitano, which inspired Luigi da Porto to publish in 1530 what he insists is a true story, set in Verona, involving Romeo and Giulietta from the feuding families of Montecchi and Capellati. The story Shakespeare dramatizes is essentially da Porto's. It seems sure that da Porto was influenced by Ovid's tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. The Italian Bandello adapted the story in his own novelle of 1554, adding a comic nurse and a Count Paris, and other details; this version was translated into French in 1559 in a version with much expression of strong emotion. Arthur Brooke translated the French tale into English, publishing it in 1562.
Brooke was reading Chaucer's Troilus as he worked, and introduced the theme of 'fierce Fortune' as his own contribution, as well as turning to Chaucer for the rhetorical style of heightened emotion. Shakespeare dramatizes Brooke's poem, and he too turns to Chaucer's Troilus for extra tragic dimensions, as well as to Marlowe's Hero and Leander and Dido for poetic intensity:
O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright.
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop's ear,
Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear.(Act I.v)
The love affair in Brooke covers nine months, the lovers meeting many times; in Shakespeare's play the play begins at dawn on a mid- summer Sunday, the lovers meet that evening and the balcony scene ends as Monday's dawn is breaking; they marry that midday and Romeo kills Tybalt on Monday afternoon. Their wedding night ends with Romeo's departure for Mantua at dawn on Tuesday. During the day Juliet is told that her marriage will take place the next day and she receives the potion from the Friar which she drinks that evening. On the dawn of Wednesday she is found 'dead' and the Friar has her body taken to the vault. Romeo is told of her death, arrives at the tomb in the evening and kills himself a few moments before Juliet recovers. Dawn is breaking as the play ends. In this way (as in Othello) Shakespeare makes Time the powerful instrument of Fate in a drama which links Love and Death in a remarkably powerful way.
The impatience of the lovers owes much to that of Astrophel in Sidney's sonnet sequence, and it is no coincidence that their encounter culminates in a sonnet:
Romeo. If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Juliet. Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.
Romeo. Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Juliet. Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
Romeo. O then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do:
They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.
Juliet. Saints do not move, though grant for prayer's sake.
Romeo. Then move not, while my prayer's effect I take. (They kiss) (Act I.v)
In dramatizing this story in which two children (Juliet is scarcely in her teens) defy parents, society, and death itself in the name of love, Shakespeare used techniques he had learned from Kyd's Spanish Tragedy. The audience is kept aware of the entire situation, while each group of characters on stage is unaware of an important part of what is happening. Irony and suspense combine to give maximum impact to the last words of Romeo in the vault, in a long soliloquy beginning:
A grave? O no, a lantern, slaughter'd youth.
For here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes
This vault a feasting presence, full of light. (Act V.iii)
The Merchant of Venice
Scene 1: (Venice) The merchant Antonio has made risky investments, but on learning of his friend Bassanio's need of money in order to go to woo Portia, Antonio offers to be his guarantor if he can borrow money.
Scene 2: (Belmont) Portia outlines her situation, the method of choice of a husband by casket fixed by her dead father, on condition that if suitors choose wrongly they promise never to marry at all. Present suitors shown as comic buffoons.
Scene 3: (Venice) Shylock's past treatment revealed in his discussions with Bassanio; Antonio agrees to the forfeit clause of a pound of flesh.
Scene 1: (Belmont) The exotic Prince of Morocco arrives.
Scene 2: (Venice) Young Gobbo (clown) meets his old father; Gobbo becomes Bassanio's servant, instead of being Shylock's.
Scene 3: Jessica (Shylock's daughter) involves Gobbo in an elopement plot, she wishes to marry Lorenzo.
Scene 4: Lorenzo elaborates the elopement plan.
Scene 5: Shylock leaves Jessica guarding the house.
Scene 6: The elopement of Jessica and Lorenzo.
Scene 7: (Belmont) Morocco chooses the golden casket after long description and analysis; "all that glisters is not gold."
Scene 8: (Venice) Shylock's reactions to the elopement reported; Antonio takes leave of Bassanio.
Scene 9: (Belmont) Prince of Arragon chooses silver casket. Bassanio's arrival announced, Portia (who has seen him in Venice) hopeful.
Scene 1: (Venice) Reports of Antonio's losses arrive; Shylock hears how Jessica is spending his money wildly.
Scene 2: (Belmont) Bassanio chooses the leaden casket and wins Portia; poetry of intense love interrupted by news of Antonio's ruin; servant Gratiano makes parallel marriage with Portia's servant Nerissa; Portia sends Bassanio with money to help Antonio, giving him a ring as a sign of their enduring love, never to leave his finger; Nerissa likewise with Gratiano.
Scene 3: (Venice) Antonio is arrested.
Scene 4: (Belmont) Jessica and Lorenzo arrive at Portia's house and are left in charge while Portia goes to pray (in fact to go to Venice with Nerissa).
Scene 5: (Belmont) Comic dialogues between Jessica, Lorenzo, Gobbo.
Scene 1: (Venice) The Trial Scene: Shylock rejects offers; Bellario (Portia disguised as a lawyer) arrives; makes speech on Mercy; Shylock demands the Law; Bellario gives Shylock the right to cut, then at the last moment reminds him that he must shed no drop of Antonio's blood (the bond only spoke of flesh); in punishment, Shylock looses all, and must become a christian; Bellario (Portia) asks for Bassanio's ring as a reward; he refuses but Antonio forces him to send it.
Scene 2: Portia/Bellario receives the ring, Nerissa decides to attempt the same with Gratiano.
Scene 1: (Belmont) Rhapsodic duet between Lorenzo and Jessica. The returns are announced; there is harmony and music. Portia returns first, then Bassanio etc arrive; Nerissa notices Gratiano's ring is gone, he explains, Portia criticizes him, until he tells her that Bassanio has done the same: "I will never come to your bed until I see the ring." Portia rejects all his arguments, saying that the lawyer now has the title to her body; Antonio intercedes, Bassanio repents; Portia produces the ring, "the lawyer was in my bed last night!" Rapid explanations follow, and reconciliation, after which Portia reports that Antonio's lost ships have come in safely; in future, all agree, they will care for their wives' ring!
A very ancient and widespread pound of flesh story seems to have been the source, in the form of a late 14th century Italian novella by Ser Giovanni, Il Pecorone, which Shakespeare perhaps read in Italian. Here we find all the main elements of the plot except for the choice of a husband by means of a choice of caskets, which is also a traditional narrative motif. When the play was published in 1600, from Shakespeare's manuscript probably, the title page mentions 'the extreame crueltie of Shylocke the Jewe towards the said Merchant, in cutting a just pound of his flesh' and this has always been more Shylock's play than Antonio's.
Until the 19th century, Shylock was usually acted as a comic villain; certainly there is some influence from Marlowe's Barabas in him. As the modern theater developed, however, Shylock was acted with more complexity, demanding more sympathy for his situation. In post-war European productions, the theme of anti-semitism has made the whole play something of a problem. Shylock as a Jew is loaded with extra layers of reference to recent history, a burden that the play's fragile thematic unity cannot really bear.
The great diversity of themes and plots is typical of Shakespeare's 'romantic' comedies, although the suspense during the trial, when it seems that Antonio must die in a messy way, introduces the more serious note of the question 'What price will love pay? What is love worth?' This is one main theme of the play. The speech on Mercy that Portia, disguised as a lawyer, makes early in the Trial Scene has become famous in its own right:
The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest,
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes,
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown. (Act IV.i)
Scene 1: Bolingbroke (John of Gaunt's son) accuses Mowbray of corruption and of the murder of the Duke of Gloucester (Gaunt's brother, the king's uncle).
Scene 2: Gaunt hears the pathetic complaints of Gloucester's widow.
Scene 3: A formal trial by combat (following chivalric codes) begins; the king stops it suddenly, and sends both into exile, Mowbray for ever, Bolingbroke for ten years. Gaunt appeals to him, and he reduces Boling- broke's term to six years. Sorrowful farewells.
Scene 4: Richard talks of Bolingbroke's popularity, mentions plans to fight in Ireland against rebels. Gaunt's illness welcomed as a possible source of funds.
Scene 1: Gaunt with his brother York laments the low state to which Richard's misrule has brought England ("This royal throne..."). The king comes, rejects his criticisms angrily, and when Gaunt's death is announced, at once confiscates all his belongings. York weakly protests, in vain; the lords are angry and Northumberland at once announces that Bolingbroke is returning with an army.
Scene 2: The young queen is anxious without reason, then news comes to justify her forebodings: Bolingbroke has landed, all are flocking to him. York shows his weakness, the corrupt favourites are mentioned.
Scene 3: Bolingbroke arrives, a true leader inspiring loyalty, affirming that he only wants his rights. York protests but entertains him. Scene 4: The Welsh troops, frightened by omens, desert Richard.
Scene 1: Bolingbroke has Richard's corrupt favourites executed without trial.
Scene 2: Richard lands from Ireland, speaking at length about royal power; he learns that his army has gone, that his subjects have denied him, that his favourites are dead; he laments ("Let's talk of graves..."). Hearing that York has sided with Bolingbroke, he despairs.
Scene 3: Richard inside Flint Castle confronts Bolingbroke from the walls, then descends on realizing that he has only the name of king, and surrenders without any demands being made.
Scene 4: The queen in a garden overhears gardeners who are comparing England to an overgrown garden. She learns of the king's situation from them.
Scene 1: Inquiries into Gloucester's murder stop on news of Mowbray's death. Richard's abdication is announced, the Bishop of Carlisle protests and is arrested. Richard unkings himself, handing the crown to Bolingbroke; he breaks a mirror as sign of his loss of identity. The Abbot of Westminster begins to plot against the new king in favour of Richard's restoration.
Scene 1: Richard meets the queen in the street, their final parting.
Scene 2: York describes to his wife the contrast between Richard's humiliating journey and Bolingbroke's triumph. His son Aumerle comes in, and York discovers he is involved in a plot against the new king. While the father decides to denounce his son, the Duchess urges the son to ask Henry for mercy first.
Scene 3: Bolingbroke is declared King Henry IV, and at once mentions the problem of his wild son, Prince Hal (later Henry V). Aumerle rushes in, followed by his father, followed by his mother. Henry shows wisdom and mercy, but the danger of having Richard alive is shown.
Scene 4: Exton plots to kill Richard on the basis of some ambiguous words of the king.
Scene 5: Alone in his cell in Pomfret Castle, Richard speaks a broken soliloquy on the theme of fortune, with memories of the past. A faithful servant visits him and tells of Henry's coronation. Exton kills Richard, then repents.
Scene 6: Henry is forced to be harsh in punishing many rebels; Exton brings Richard's body in a coffin. Henry compares Exton to Cain and banishes him, takes black clothing, promises to visit the Holy Land in penance.
Written not long after Romeo and Juliet, this play is remarkable for its ornate rhetoric; there is no prose, and many of Richard's speeches are formal set-pieces that slow down the action, without giving deep insight into his psyche. Instead they give him mythical and symbolic greatness in direct proportion to his loss of royal power, until he becomes virtually a Christ-figure, 'a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief'.
Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs,
Make dust our paper, and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth.
Let's choose executors and talk of wills.
And yet not so--for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
For God's sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been depos'd, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping kill'd,
All murthered--for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear'd, and kill with looks;
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Were brass impregnable; and, humour'd thus,
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king! (Act III.ii)
The fall of Richard marks the beginning of the process that was to lead to the Wars of the Roses, shown in the first tetralogy. In Richard's understanding, the killing of the king is a sacrilegious act, the king being seen as God's own image. This was a major theme in the Tudor state propaganda. Elizabeth was threatened in many ways, and this play is remarkable for putting on the stage the successful deposition of a king, then his murder. In the early quarto editions, the actual "deposition scene" was not printed, although it was probably acted.
The play was very popular, there were three quarto editions published in 1597-8. In early February, 1601, the Queen's former favourite, the Earl of Essex, attempted a revolt in London; the day before, he paid for a performance of Richard II at the Globe. His revolt failed, but the democratic cause went from strength to strength in the decades that followed. Some critics have claimed that Shakespeare's play supports the Tudor propaganda, that the Henry IV plays show the curse of disorder descending on England as divine punishment that can only be lifted by the blessing of Tudor rule.
This seems not to treat the texts quite seriously. Almost certainly, Shakespeare shared the opinion that the propaganda was designed to fight, that a ruler in England could only rule with the people's consent. Social harmony is his ideal, not royal absolutism. Shakespeare rewrote history, making old John of Gaunt into a prophet of England's future 'greatness' in a famous speech:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands;
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed, and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry
Of the world's ransom, blessed Mary's son;
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leas'd out--I die pronouncing it--
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of wat'ry Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds;
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death! (Act II.i)
In this play, and in Henry V, the English people are shown as helpless pawns in the power struggles of the mighty. Even in the heroic Henry V, war is shown as a very bad thing, bringing pain, grief, and destruction to the poor. There is no clear evidence of an increase of pain giving underlying shape to the second tetralogy. The flow of future history is certainly present in the audience's minds, creating a climate of unspoken irony that overshadows even the fervour of Henry V. As in King John, there is a strong warning to England that the 'enemy within' is more dangerous than any foreign army.
Shakespeare later wrote a play where regicide is followed by sufferings that affect society in general until at last the usurper is overthrown: Macbeth. It is instructive to compare the morality of that play with the structure of Richard II. It should be noted that Bolingbroke never once demands the crown, or seems to want to rule, while in Holinshed it is clear that the deposition of Richard was carefully orchestrated. By making queen Isabel older than the child she was, and by giving dramatic weight to Richard's pain, Shakespeare centres the play on his falling humanity.
Much Ado About Nothing (1598, published 1600)
Scene i. Messenger announces to Leonato (Governor of Messina)
the arrival of Don Pedro (Prince of Aragon) with a troop of soldiers, returning
from some kind of successful expedition. Claudio specially mentioned. Beatrice
asks about Benedick from Padua and mocks him at length. They all arrive,
including Don Pedro's brother John. There is a long exchange between B&B,
all but Benedick and Claudio leave, Claudio reveals his love for Hero.
He is not sure of her response, or her family's. They tell Don Pedro: more
joking. Don Pedro suggests a trick to make things easier for Claudio: he
will pretend to be Claudio (masked at a party) and will woo Hero in Claudio's
Scene ii. Hero's uncle learns of the plan, and intends to warn Hero so that she will know what is happening. Scene iii. Don John reveals his envious nature, his pleasure in causing pain to others. Borachio tells of Claudio's love for Hero, which John plans to cross.
Scene i. Leonato, Hero, Beatrice talking: Parallels drawn between
Benedick and John. Leonato instructs Hero. The party begins, all identities
hidden under masks. Pedro addresses Hero. Other couples form including
B&B. John tells Claudio that Pedro is going to marry Hero tonight.
Claudio (foolish) believes him. Benedick tells Claudio that Pedro has been
successful but is hurt by what Beatrice said about him, and does not bother
to correct Claudio's error. More joking about and between B&B. Pedro
gives Hero to Claudio, overjoyed. Pedro asks Beatrice if she would marry
him. Pedro and Leonato decide to get B&B to marry.
Scene ii. John and Borachio plot to prevent Claudio's marriage to Hero by using Margaret.
Scene iii. Benedick ponders on Claudio's madness in wanting to marry. Sees Pedro, Leonato, Claudio coming so hides. Song 'Sigh no more ladies' then trick conversation about how Beatrice loves Benedick, aware of Benedick listening. Benedick decides to accept her love. She comes to call him to dinner: short comic dialogue.
Scene i. Hero and her companion talk about Benedick's love for
Beatrice, Beatrice overhearing. Beatrice decides to accept his love.
Scene ii. Comic dialogue between Pedro, Claudio, Benedick. John tells them that Hero is unfaithful, to watch her window tonight.
Scene iii. First appearance of clowns Dogberry and Verges with guards. Comic dialogues making fun of law-keeping. The guards overhear Borachio boasting to Conrade of the trick John has played on Pedro, Claudio, using him with Margaret. The guards understand and arrest them.
Scene iv. Hero, her women, Beatrice talking about love and marriage, unaware though Hero feels odd.
Scene v. Dogberry comes to fetch Leonato to question the prisoners but is so incoherent (he mixes up words) that Leonato drives him away, telling him to interrogate them and thus not learning of the trick.
Scene i. The marriage ceremony. Claudio returns Hero to Leonato,
accusing her. Walks out. Hero faints. Leonato questions his paternity (theme
of nature). Friar reckons there is some error, suggests reporting Hero
dead, to see what impact that has on Claudio. B&B talk, confess their
love. Beatrice asks Benedick to kill Claudio, he hesitates, then accepts.
Scene ii. Dogberry continues his verbal confusions in questioning the prisoners, but the Sexton who is taking notes with the watchmen arrives at the truth and realizes that Leonato must hear the story.
Scene i. Leonato and his brother, Leonato laments. They meet
Pedro and Claudio, with whom they quarrel about Hero's guilt. Benedick
challenges Claudio, tells Pedro that John has fled. Dogberry brings in
the prisoners who fortunately tell their own tale to Pedro and Claudio.
The Sexton brings in Leonato after telling him. Claudio overcome with guilt,
still believing Hero dead, asks Leonato to decide on his punishment: he
is to mourn Hero publicly then marry a niece. Borachio declares Margaret
ignorant. Dogberry continues to use mistaken words to the end.
Scene ii. Benedick tries to write love-poetry but cannot. Beatrice comes, their sparring continues. Ursula announces the discovery.
Scene iii. Claudio's ritual of repentance at the tomb with verse and song.
Scene iv. All is now clear. Claudio will receive Hero disguised as Leonato's niece. Benedick says he wants to marry Beatrice. Pedro and Claudio come and Claudio accepts the hidden 'niece' who at once unveils as Hero. B&B discover that they have been 'misinformed' about the other's love, but both are confronted with love- poems they have written and decide to marry after all, in true B&B style. Only the prince remains unmarried. News comes that John has been captured.
As You Like It (1599?)
Scene 1: Orlando (younger son of dead Sir Rowland) tells old
servant Adam of his elder brother's harshness to him; Oliver, the elder
brother, comes, is haughty, so Orlando puts a wrestling lock on him, demanding
his inheritance; Oliver says he will give it, calls Adam 'old dog'. Oliver
and the Duke's wrestler Charles discuss the political situation: the old
Duke has been banished and his younger brother has usurped his place, then
Oliver tells Charles to hurt Orlando, and in a final soliloquy confesses
he hates his brother 'I know not why'.
Scene 2: Rosalind (daughter of banished Duke) and Celia (daughter of usurping brother) are close friends, Touchstone the clown jokes, Le Beau (courtier) talks of wrestling; the new Duke (Frederick) comes in with Charles, suggests the women persuade the unknown challenger (Orlando) not to wrestle. Orlando refuses and defeats Charles. Orlando identifies himself, the Duke says his father was his enemy and leaves. Rosalind (in love) tries to talk to Orlando, who is unable to reply (in love). Le Beau warns Orlando to escape from the Duke's anger, and tells him who the ladies are.
Scene 3: Rosalind weeps at Orlando's silence and confesses her love to Celia; Frederick suddenly decides that Rosalind is dangerous and orders her into banishment on pain of death; Celia decides to go too, in unity of friendship; Rosalind decides to go disguised as a boy Ganymede, and they take Touchstone the Clown with them.
Scene 1: Duke Senior (banished Duke) etc in the Forest of Arden.
Scene 2: Duke Frederick learns of the girls' escape, sends for Orlando.
Scene 3: Old Adam warns Orlando that his brother (Oliver) is planning to kill him; they decide to run away together.
Scene 4: Rosalind etc, tired, hear Corin (old) and Silvius (young) in dialogue about love. Offer to help Corin.
Scene 5: Amiens sings, Jaques philosophizes.
Scene 6: Orlando leaves Adam to go and find food.
Scene 7: Duke Senior with Jaques who laughs at Touchstone's philosophizing. Orlando comes in demanding food with a sword, then realizes these are noble people, goes to fetch Adam. Jaques speaks the famous lines 'All the world's a stage' on time and impermanence. Orlando comes with Adam, Amiens sings 'Blow, blow, thou winter wind' as they eat. Duke learns Orlando's identity, welcomes him for love of his father.
Scene 1: Frederick sends Oliver to find Orlando on pain of loosing
Scene 2: Orlando is hanging poems to Rosalind and writing her name on trees. Comic exchanges between Corin and Touchstone. Rosalind finds poems, Celia tells her she has seen Orlando, Rosalind very troubled; Orlando comes talking to Jaques; Rosalind talks with him about Time and love, testing him; then suggests he pretend she is his Rosalind.
Scene 3: Touchstone wooing Audrey, Jaques listening. Priest comes to marry them.
Scene 4: Rosalind tells of her love-frustration, mentions she has seen her father (problems of disguise); Corin announces the meeting of Silvius and Phebe; Phebe rejects his love, Rosalind intervenes to encourage her to love Silvius, Phebe falls in Love with 'Ganymede'.
Scene 1: Rosalind and Orlando playing their 'game' go so far
as to exchange wedding vows. Rosalind is deeply in love.
Scene 2: Jaques and hunters, song.
Scene 3: Silvius brings Phebe's message to Ganymede, who cannot take it seriously. Oliver arrives and tells of his conversion after Orlando saves his life, with message of Orlando's wound, Rosalind faints, confesses her disguise to Oliver.
Scene 1: Touchstone, Audrey, William.
Scene 2: Oliver in love with Aliena/Celia; news of Oliver- Celia's wedding makes Orlando feel lack of real Rosalind, so Rosalind promises a magic evemt; the arrival of Silvius and Phebe leads to more ambiguous exchanges and Rosalind promises weddings for all.
Scene 3: Song.
Scene 4: Rosalind solves the problems, Hymen brings in the un-disguised Rosalind. Old Sir Rowland's son arrives, brings news of the conversion of Frederick. Rosalind speaks epilogue.
Scene 1: Popular festival, until Flavius and Marullus (Tribunes) send the common people home, telling them not to celebrate Caesar's victories. Then they take ornaments off the statues.
Scene 2: Soothsayer warns Caesar of the Ides of March. During a ritual race, Cassius and Brutus talk, begin to conspire. Caesar returns, angry. Casca tells Brutus and Cassius that Antony offered him the crown three times, but he refused and the people cheered.
Scene 3: Casca and Cicero meet in the storm, talk of signs. Cassius and Casca conspire. Cinna too.
Scene 1: Brutus at home; letter found thrown through window (by Cassius). Brutus meets the conspirators, they plan to kill Caesar. Brutus refuses to have Antony killed too. His wife Portia heroically demands to share his plans.
Scene 2: Caesar reports Calphurnia's words in her sleep. Orders sacrifices, hears tales of night's horrors. Bad signs in sacrifices. Calphurnia begs him not to go out. He accepts, but when Decius offers another interpretation of her dream, Caesar decides to go. Conspirators come to fetch him.
Scene 3: Artemidorus writes a letter to warn Caesar.
Scene 4: Portia anxious for news.
Scene 1: Proud Caesar does not read Artemidorus's warning. The conspirators gather round and kill him. People shocked. "Peace, freedom and liberty". They dip their hands in the blood. Antony sends message asking to hear why Caesar had to die. Antony comes, offers to die if necessary. He shakes their hands, then praises Caesar. He asks to speak to the people at the funeral. Brutus allows this despite Cassius. Antony's soliloquy on "Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge." Sends messages to Octavius.
Scene 2: People demand explanations, Brutus speaks, convinces them he did right. Antony comes with the body, "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!" Stirs the people to other opinions. Reads the will of Caesar "If you have tears..." People in mutiny; Octavius comes into Rome, Brutus and Cassius leave it.
Scene 3: Death of the wrong Cinna at the hands of the angry mob.
Scene 1: Antony, Octavius, Lepidus decide unsentimentally who must die, even in their own families, discuss political morality. Preparations for war with Brutus and Cassius.
Scene 2: Brutus and Cassius in disagreement about money and bribes.
(Scene 3): Brutus very angry, Cassius threatens suicide, Brutus gives in, they are reconciled. News of Portia's death had made Brutus wild. News of Antony and Octavius. They prepare for battle at Philippi. Brutus works late, sees the ghost of Caesar.
Scene 1: Octavius and Antony arrive with their army at Philippi. They encounter Brutus and Cassius, challenge them. Cassius reports bad omens. Brutus and Cassius say farewell, feeling foreboding.
Scene 2: Battle. Brutus sees hope of victory.
Scene 3: Cassius's army flees. Cassius commits suicide: "Caesar thou art reveng'd," too early, for Brutus has won his side of the battle. Titinius kills himself to be with him. Brutus comes, speaks.
Scene 4: Brutus is nearly caught.
Scene 5: Brutus sees he has lost the battle; runs on his sword: "Caesar now be still." Antony and Octavius arrive. "This was the noblest Roman of them all."
The title of the play presents a problem, for Caesar is killed at the beginning of Act III, without having been on stage long enough for us to sense the deeper aspects of his character. In many ways, the play's protagonist is Brutus, it represents his fall, and he is brought down by the spirit of Caesar. Brutus is an idealist in a political world where other laws govern, he lacks the skill to dominate the course of history. After Brutus, Antony (in Antony and Cleopatra) will suffer a similar defeat, and the way will be open for Octavian to become the first Emperor, Augustus, under whose dictatorial reign the Roman empire took shape.
Brutus is representative of older republican values, of trust and simple honesty. He cannot see that the age in which he lives demands other forms of government to control the violence of mobs and usurpers. This is shown above all by the political error he makes in allowing Antony to address the fickle crowd of Romans; he sincerely thinks that the conditions he has imposed will be enough to prevent any damage. Antony, then, launches out on the great speech for which this play has long been famous.
In this play, as in his other Roman plays, Shakespeare strives to represent an ethos alien to his own age. The stress on personal honor and on civic virtues, the absence of Christian dimensions, and the use of heroic suicide are all features derived from the source in Plutarch. The political dimension is a clash between the Republican ideals represented idealistically (but unrealistically) by Brutus's attitudes, while the other Conspirators represent ambition, opportunism and anarchy. Caesar seems to represent the imperial model of power, by the authority he has acquired in life, although he refuses the crown Antony offers him. The audience knows what will follow in a few years' time, and there is sharp irony in the way Antony speaks the eulogy of Brutus's Roman virtues at the end of the play, for in Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare was to show Antony turning his back on Roman nobility in order to follow the exotic queen of Egypt:
This was the noblest Roman of them all.
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix'd in him, that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, "This was a man!" (Act V.v)
It is not by chance that Hamlet, written just after this play, is full of the question of what it takes to be a Man.
The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Scene 1: Horatio and guards see the ghost of the dead king.
Scene 2: King and queen with Hamlet contrasted with Laertes and his father Polonius; the dark mood of Hamlet illuminated in Soliloquy 1 (line 129) "O that this too too sullied flesh". Horatio tells him of the ghost.
Scene 3: Laertes warns Ophelia against Hamlet's approaches. Polonius (their father) gives Laertes parting advice, warns Ophelia.
Scene 4: (midnight). The Ghost appears, Hamlet follows it.
Scene 5: Ghost tells Hamlet of his murder. "Remember me!" Soliloquy 2 (line 93) "O all you host of heaven"
Scene 1: Polonius sends Reynaldo to spy on Laertes in Paris. Ophelia tells of Hamlet's strange behaviour in her room.
Scene 2: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive. Solution to Fortinbras crisis announced, he had been intending to attack Denmark. Polonius comments on Hamlet's madness, explaining it as frustrated love for Ophelia; Hamlet plays with him. Hamlet on "Man" (line 300); the coming of the Players announced. Polonius mocked. Hamlet and the players, the "Phyrrus" speech, ending in the actor's tears for Hecuba: Soliloquy 3 (line 515) "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I".
Scene 1: King etc prepare to spy on Hamlet's talk with Ophelia. Soliloquy 4 (line 56) "To be or not to be"; Hamlet with Ophelia, "Get thee to a nunnery".
Scene 2: (The Play Scene) Hamlet's advice to the Players on acting; he warns Horatio to watch the king during the play. The Court enters. The dumb show, the Play-within-the-play ("The Mousetrap", "The Murder of Gonzago"), the king storms out. The queen sends for Hamlet; dialogue about recorders. Soliloquy 5 (line 387) "Now could I drink hot blood".
Scene 3: King makes a plan with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to send Hamlet to England. Polonius promises to hide behind the arras to hear what Hamlet will say to his mother. King's Soliloquy (line 36) "O my offense is rank". Hamlet comes in, refuses to kill the praying king. Soliloquy 6 (line 73) "Now might I do it pat".
Scene 4: Polonius hides; Hamlet comes to the queen, and suddenly kills Polonius through the curtain. Hamlet talks with queen, compares the portraits of her two husbands. The Ghost appears to calm and encourage Hamlet. Hamlet asks his mother to tell the king he is mad, not to sleep with him, mentions the journey to England.
Scene 1: The queen tells the king what has happened to Polonius. The king sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to help.
Scene 2: Hamlet rejects them
Scene 3: Hamlet and the king, the king orders him to go to England. The king reveals his plot to kill Hamlet in a soliloquy (line 55).
Scene 4: Fortinbras passes through Denmark, resolved to capture a small piece of useless ground in Poland. Hamlet compares himself with him: Soliloquy 7 (line 32) "How all occasions do inform".
Scene 5: Queen with the mad Ophelia; the king comes. Laertes arrives seeking revenge, forces his way in. Ophelia enters, the flower gifts; king and Laertes agree to work together.
Scene 6: Horatio receives letter telling of Hamlet's escape from ship going to England during battle with pirates.
Scene 7: King and Laertes talk about Hamlet; Hamlet's letter arrives, announcing his return; they prepare a plot involving poisoned rapiers, with poison in a cup in case. Queen announces Ophelia's death.
Scene 1: The Grave-diggers joking and singing are overheard by Hamlet and Horatio; Hamlet joins the game, "Alas, poor Yorick!" Death theme. Ophelia's very simple funeral enters. Laertes and Hamlet fight in her grave. Hamlet: "I loved Ophelia".
Scene 2: Hamlet tells Horatio how he discovered the king's plot against him by reading the sealed letter asking for him to be killed, his revenge on R and G (sending them to their deaths in England), his escape. Osric, a comic courtier, brings the challenge to a test of skill. All enter, the duel begins. The queen toasts Hamlet with the poisoned cup. Hamlet is wounded, the rapiers change hands, Laertes is wounded. The queen collapses, Laertes tells Hamlet they will both die, "the king's to blame". Hamlet wounds king with rapier, then forces him to drink the poison. Hamlet and Laertes are reconciled, as Laertes dies. Horatio wants to join them in death, Hamlet asks him to stay alive to tell their story. Arrival of Fortinbras announced, Hamlet names him as next king. Hamlet dies. "Good night, sweet prince." Fortinbras enters, ambassadors from England announce deaths of Rosencrantz and Goldenstern. Bodies carried off. Guns fire salute.
One of the intriguing features of Hamlet is its great length; it cannot be acted without being heavily cut. The length of the text suggests a play which Shakespeare was writing for a private reason that we cannot know. Hamlet is often a play about the words people use, their limits, their futility and their fascination. The fact that he was revising, or re-creating, a once-familiar play may have inspired Shakespeare to fill his text with references to the theater in a way that makes it a prime example of Renaissance "meta-drama" or "self-conscious dramaturgy" in which the audience is invited to view a "mirror image" of the theatrum mundi (theater of the world) to which they belong.
Since the Romantic period, Hamlet has been considered the greatest of plays because the hero seems to be the essential intellectual, full of ideas but unable to act. Hamlet is the paradigm of modern humanity, but there is no character more variously interpreted. Hamlet is the focus of the audience's sympathy, yet certain critics have been very hostile to him.
The source is a primitive Scandinavian story of madness used as a disguise until revenge becomes possible. There is a similar tale told about the Roman hero Brutus who drove the Tarquins out of Rome. The story is found in a 12th century Latin History of the Danes by Saxo Grammaticus, from which it was developed by the French writer Belle- forest in his Histoires Tragiques first published in 1570. Since the play by Kyd (?) known as the Ur-Hamlet does not exist, it is not possible to judge whether Shakespeare knew Belleforest's French text, or simply applied his own imagination to the earlier play that was based on it.
The theme of revenge recalls Kyd's Spanish Tragedy; but in Hamlet the ghost intervenes directly in the plot in a way unparalleled in other revenge plays. Without the Ghost of his father (also called Hamlet), the son would not have known of his murder. Part of the theatricality of the play comes from this sudden call to become an Avenger addressed to a student who is not equipped for that role, by a ghost dressed in the old- fashioned armour of another age.
At the heart of Hamlet's predicament is the question of a son's relationship to his father, and to his mother. The strong sexual disgust Hamlet feels at his mother's remarriage with his father's brother is almost the first thing we know about him, continues to the end of the play, and is expressed with greater feeling than any distress at his father's death. Psychological interpretations based on Freud's theory of oedipal conflict have been popular, and in many productions Hamlet is shown in a more or less incestuous closeness to his mother.
One striking aspect of Hamlet is the use of soliloquies; in this way we are brought into Hamlet's mind in a unique way. In terms of plot action, the play is striking for what does not happen. More than any other tragedy, the centre of our interest is the mind of the protagonist. Hamlet takes each aspect of his situation and generalizes it by referring to universal realities of the human predicament. The most famous speech in the play comes in the first scene of Act III:
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die--to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: 'tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream--ay, there's the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause--there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
Th'oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of dispriz'd love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th'unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action... (Act III.i)
It is often said that in this speech Hamlet is thinking of committing suicide, that the question is whether to go on living or not. On the contrary, he is reflecting on the kind of life he cannot avoid living because suicide is not a possibility. The "question" of the first line is a "topic for discussion" in an academic disputation at university. The words "to be or not to be" are the familiar abbreviation of a popular debate topic: "even when there is pain, it is better to be alive (though unhappy) than not to be alive." The stress on the impossibility of suicide, or of any easy way out, leads to the conclusion that we have to waste a lot of time and energy thinking (conscience) because there seems to be nothing we can do! The university dispute was always inconclusive, there was never a single right answer to the question/topic proposed.
At the end of the play, when Hamlet first wounds the king and then forces him to drink the poison, he seems to be making him pay first for his own and Laertes's deaths (by the sword) and then for the queen's (by the cup). In this sense, the king's death is not in revenge for his brother's death at all, although it is a direct consequence of it. Shakespeare uses the conventions of revenge tragedy, but in a radically different direction from Seneca or Kyd, since Hamlet never looses his human dignity.
Scene 1: Count Orsino is love-sick for his neighbour Olivia, who rejects him on a pretence of mourning her dead brother.
Scene 2: Viola arrives in Illyria, shipwrecked and believing her twin brother has died; she will take disguise as a man and serve Orsino.
Scene 3: Sir Toby Belch, Olivia's drunken relative, and Maria her maid, are exploiting foolish Sir Andrew Aguecheek.
Scene 4: Viola, become Orsino's servant Cesario, is charged to woo Olivia but admits to us she would rather be Orsino's wife herself.
Scene 5: Humorous dialogue: Maria and Feste the Clown; Olivia, Malvolio, and Clown; Maria, then Sir Toby, then Malvolio, leading to introduction of Cesario; dialogue between Olivia and Cesario where Olivia falls in love with "him;" Olivia sends Malvolio after Cesario with a ring.
Scene 1: Viola's twin brother, Sebastian, enters, having also survived the shipwreck, with Antonio his friend; they set out for Orsino's court though Antonio has enemies there.
Scene 2: The haughty steward Malvolio gives Cesario the ring from Olivia: "I left no ring with her" "she loves me sure" "Time, thou must untangle this."
Scene 3: Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, drunk and boisterous. Clown sings, Maria comes; Malvolio scolds them all, they mock him, he gets angry; they plan a revenge trick.
Scene 4: Cesario and Orsino talk of love, Cesario with hidden meanings; Clown's song; further allusive talk "My father had a daughter loved a man."
Scene 5: The garden scene, in which Malvolio finds and reads a letter he thinks sent to him by Olivia, but in fact written by Maria, while Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Fabian, watch from behind a hedge.
Scene 1: Comic dialogue between Cesario and Clown; Sir Andrew notes difference between his own style and Cesario's; Olivia tells Cesario of her feelings, provoking a dialogue on the theme of illusion and reality.
Scene 2: Sir Toby plans a joke duel between Sir Andrew and Cesario; Maria announces that Malvolio has obeyed the letter, and is smiling, dressed in yellow stockings with tight garters.
Scene 3: Sebastian and Antonio arrive, Antonio lends Sebastian his purse.
Scene 4: Maria prepares the encounter between Malvolio and Olivia; the dialogue between them; Malvolio alone. Sir Toby and Maria say he is possessed. Sir Andrew writes a challenge to Cesario; they are brought together, both terrified of the other; Antonio intervenes, is arrested, asks for purse; Cesario cannot understand what he is talking about, wonders if Sebastian is alive.
Scene 1: Same misunderstanding in reverse, the Clown takes Sebastian for Cesario, brings him to Olivia; Sir Andrew thinks this is Cesario, hits him and really gets beaten; Olivia takes the bewildered but not-unwilling Sebastian home with her.
Scene 2: Malvolio is mocked by the Clown, before he brings paper for him to write a letter to Olivia.
Scene 3: Olivia prepares to be betrothed to Sebastian.
Scene 1: Clown refuses to show Fabian the letter; Orsino comes with Cesario and Antonio confronts them, tells his story both past and present, accuses Cesario; explanations are prevented by the arrival of Olivia, who rejects Orsino without a hearing. Orsino threatens to kill her, or Cesario whom he suspects. Cesario is willing to die at his hands. Olivia reveals her betrothal, which is confirmed by the priest; Sir Andrew comes in claiming to have been wounded by Cesario, but finds him here. Sir Toby arrives, also beaten. Sebastian enters, not seeing Viola, and addresses Olivia; mutual recognition, explanations. Duke asks Viola for her hand; Clown reads the letter, Malvolio is freed, the trick is revealed: "I'll be reveng'd on the whole pack of you!" Duke sends after him to entreat him to a peace. Feste sings "When that I was and a little tiny boy."
In writing Twelfth Night, Shakespeare was looking again at the play by Plautus, Menaechmi, in which separated twin brothers are mistaken for each other, that he had adapted as his Comedy of Errors. The main plot of this play, though, came from the tale of Apolonius and Silla in a collection by Barnabe Riche, which translated from the French of Belleforest a story by the Italian Bandello which was based on a play, Gl'Ingannati (The Deceived), acted in Siena in 1531 that Shakespeare may have known directly. Here the theme of a girl disguised as a boy being obliged to carry to another woman the love messages of a man she loves is central. Disguise and identity are the theme of this, perhaps the most warm-hearted of all Shakespeare's plays.
The only shadow on the sense of festivity comes from the kill-joy hypocrite Malvolio, who should not be seen as a sincere Puritan. It seems very likely that he is intended to be the parody of a particular enemy of Shakespeare's company in a quarrel they were having, the so-called Poet's Quarrel against Ben Jonson which John Marston had recently launched with a play called What You Will (the subtitle given to Twelfth Night, the only play to have such a subtitle). Malvolio may well have been recognized as Ben Jonson by people who knew him, especially in his social climbing, his hope of wooing a noble lady, his lack of any sense of humour, and his hostility towards his social equals. In modern productions, Malvolio has sometimes been acted with so much sympathy that it is the Clown, Sir Toby, or Maria who seem to be unkind! Yet the scene when he reads the letter they have planted, while they watch and make comments from behind the hedge, is probably the funniest in any of the plays.
One of the striking things in this play is the number of songs given to the clown; this is why Robert Armin has been credited with a fine voice! The songs often have little in common with the moment in which they come; one of the finest love songs is sung to Sir Toby and Sir Andrew when they are very drunk:
O mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O stay and hear, your true love's coming,
That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further, pretty sweeting:
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man's son doth know.
What is love? 'Tis not hereafter,
Present mirth hath present laughter:
What's to come is still unsure
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty:
Youth's a stuff will not endure. (Act II.iii)
Scene 1: Kent and Gloucester discuss Lear's planned division of the kingdom. Gloucester introduces Edmund as his bastard son. The court enters, Lear asks how much each daughter loves him; Goneril and Regan compete, Cordelia's "Nothing" disappoints. Lear is angry, he rejects Cordelia. Kent protests, is exiled. Burgundy will not take a dowerless bride, the King of France takes dowerless Cordelia as Queen. Goneril and Regan remark on the difficult character of old men, the need to do something.
Scene 2: Edmund's soliloquy: "Thou Nature art my goddess!" His plot, the false letter compromising Edgar with naive Gloucester. Edmund's cynical soliloquy.
Scene 3: Goneril with Oswald, begins the campaign against Lear.
Scene 4: Kent disguised joins Lear as his servant. Trips insolent Oswald. The Fool appears and blames Lear. Goneril blames Lear's 100 knights, wants to reduce their number, Lear's extreme reaction. Lear's decision to leave, his curse, his rage. Goneril writes to Regan, snubs her husband, Albany.
Scene 5: Lear with Fool: "O let me not be mad!"
Scene 1: Edmund and Curran mention conflict between Cornwall and Albany. Edmund organizes the discrediting of Edgar, Gloucester's anger. Regan and Cornwall arrive at Gloucester's house after hearing from Goneril that the king plans to stay with them.
Scene 2: Kent insults Oswald. Cornwall has him put in the stocks, despite Gloucester. Kent reads a letter from Cordelia, sleeps.
Scene 3: Edgar tells us of his plan to become Poor Tom.
Scene 4: Lear, finding Regan absent, arrives at Gloucester's home. Sees Kent in the stocks, grows angry. Signs of madness. Talks with Gloucester, who reports that Regan does not feel like seeing Lear. Regan comes down, Lear looks for her support, cursing Goneril. Goneril arrives, the two sisters join in reducing the number of knights: "What need one?" Lear rushes out into the storm.
Scene 1: Kent and Gentleman describe Lear's madness, announce the coming of Cordelia with the French army.
Scene 2: Lear and the Fool out in the storm, joined by Kent, the violent storm beating down.
Scene 3: Inside, trusting Gloucester tells Edmund of his secret cor- respondance with Cordelia. Edmund decides to use this to get his title and lands.
Scene 4: Lear, Kent, Fool in front of the hut, from which Edgar emerges as Poor Tom. Gloucester comes to help them.
Scene 5: Edmund tells Cornwall of his father's secret, action decided.
Scene 6: Lear and companions inside the hut, Gloucester returns to the house for food. Mock trial of Reagan and Goneril. Gloucester returns, sends them off to Dover to escape plot against Lear's life.
Scene 7: Gloucester arrested in his own home, Goneril and Regan insult him. Cornwall puts out one of his eyes; a servant protests, attacks and injures Cornwall, is killed by Regan, Cornwall puts out Gloucester's other eye. Gloucester thrown out.
Scene 1: Edgar meets his blinded father, becomes his guide as Poor Tom still.
Scene 2: Goneril returns home, hears that Albany does not approve. Sends Edmund back with promises of love, quarrels with Albany. A messenger tells of Cornwall's death, and Gloucester's blinding. Albany is horrified.
Scene 3: Kent reports Cordelia's emotions on learning of events.
Scene 4: At Dover, Cordelia learns of Lear's approach, and of the British army's.
Scene 5: Regan suspects Goneril of wanting Edmund.
Scene 6: Gloucester and Edgar at Dover, Gloucester thinks he has survived after falling over a cliff, thanks to Edgar's trick. Edgar assumes a simpler identity. They meet Lear, quite mad, he and Gloucester engage in crazy dialogue before Lear runs off. Oswald tries to kill Gloucester, is killed by Edgar who finds Goneril's letter to Edmund.
Scene 7: The Restoration scene: Lear wakes up sane, he and Cordelia are reconciled.
Scene 1: Preparations for battle against the French, uniting the two sisters, Edmund and Albany. Edgar slips a letter to Albany. Edmund soliloquizes on his love problems.
Scene 2: Edgar and Gloucester see the battle lost.
Scene 3: Lear and Cordelia prisoners. Edmund arranges their deaths. Conflict with Albany, and between sisters. Albany charges Edmund with treason, the formal challenge is announced. Regan is sick. Edgar wounds Edmund in combat. Albany produces Goneril's letter, Edgar reveals his identity, tells of Gloucester's death. Regan's death and Goneril's suicide are announced. Bodies brought in. Kent arrives, asking where is Lear? Edmund tells of the plot, sends a message to save them, too late. Lear carries in Cordelia's body. Last moments, Lear dies.
Very popular in the study and classroom, King Lear was for a long time less popular on stage. From 1681 until the mid-19th century it was always acted in a version by Nahum Tate where there was no Fool, Edgar and Cordelia had love scenes, Cordelia did not die, and there was a happy ending! Bradley is famous for having said that Lear was not a good play, but he probably never saw the complete Shakespearean text acted. Some modern stage and TV productions have been very impressive, and the play has been related to the Theater of the Absurd.
In the earlier scenes, Shakespeare's play follows the traditional story found in Holinshed, Spenser's Faerie Queene, and partly in the earlier play King Leir. In the sources, there is no storm or madness, only poverty and pain until at last Lear arrives in France; there Cordelia welcomes him, helps him regain his crown, and he dies peacefully, leaving Cordelia as queen. Later the children of Goneril and Reagan attack, imprison Cordelia, and she finally kills herself (hangs herself according to Spenser) in despair. The setting is some time around 800 B.C. The madness of Lear, and his restoration to sanity, the sub-plot of Gloucester and his two sons, and the murder of Cordelia that provokes the death of Lear, are all invented by Shakespeare. The older story had no dramatic ending, only a strong initial situation of family and social conflict in Lear's surrender of his kingdom to unworthy people, and his rejection of the one faithful daughter.
In Holinshed's chronicle (Appendix 2 in Kenneth Muir's Arden edition) we find the historian commenting on "the unkindness, or (as I may say) the unnaturalness which he found in his two daughters." This is one of the play's fundamental themes. In Chapter 10 of the second Book of Sidney's New Arcadia Shakespeare found the story of the "Paphalgonian unkind King and his kind son," which Sidney offers as an example "of true natural goodness, as of wretched ungratefulness." Here is the entire Gloucester story: the father deceived by his bastard son into rejecting his true son, blinded, and led faithfully by the true son who prevents him leaping in despair from a high cliff. This chapter in Sidney begins with travellers forced to seek shelter in the midst of an exceptionally violent storm, and may well have suggested to Shakespeare the entire shape and the exalted tone of the play's ending by its tragic intensity and pathos.
It may be partly the influence of Sidney that explains why so much of this play is in prose, or in a poetic style so plain that it approaches prose. The style of King Lear is austere; there are no lyric passages or soliloquies, and the play has far more shouted exclamations than is normal in Shakespeare:
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
You sulph'rous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity of the world!
Crack Nature's moulds, all germens spill at once
That makes ingrateful man! (Act III.ii)
Beside his reading in Sidney, Shakespeare had recently been in contact with Florio's translation of the Essays of Montaigne, from which he learned quite a large stock of new words, found in his works for the first time in King Lear.
One of the most debated elements in all of Shakespeare's plots is the brutal death of Cordelia. In part the problem arises from sentimentality. Many try to explain her death as the result of some kind of tragic fault (harmarteia). Shakespeare's tragedies, though, are not based on a world-view in which death comes as retribution, while the innocent die peacefully or not at all.
King Lear is a play in which the choices of good or evil are plainly defined in each character, except for Lear whose royal and paternal nobility is combined with a foolish blindness to the facts of human nature. As in many of Shakespeare's plays, the errors of the foolish and misguided bring suffering and death to others who are innocent. Shakespeare is concerned with the mystery of discontinuity in human nature; how can children having the same parents be so utterly different in their moral natures? How is it possible for some to act in direct contradiction to the demands of Nature ("Kind")? As in many plays, from Richard III on, we find an initial victory of ruthless villains changing into self-destroying defeat near the end of the play, so that the good who survive have the last word in a purified world.
Scene 1: Prelude with witches, "Fair is foul and foul is fair".
Scene 2: News of the battles, of the victory of Macbeth, Duncan names him Thane of Cawdor in place of the traitor.
Scene 3: The Three Sisters meet Macbeth with Banquo, greeting him as Glamis, Cawdor, and soon-to-be king; as they vanish, messengers greet him as "Cawdor": he shows signs of further ambition.
Scene 4: Duncan hears of the "noble death" of the former Thane of Cawdor; Macbeth arrives, hears of the naming of Malcolm as Cumberland (= heir). Ambitious aside.
Scene 5: Lady Macbeth reads Macbeth's letter, foresees his ambition and weakness and calls on the Spirits to "unsex" her.
Scene 6: Duncan arrives, welcomed by Lady Macbeth.
Scene 7: Macbeth's troubled soliloquy, Lady Macbeth encourages him.
Scene 1: Macbeth sees a dagger in the air, soliloquizes, goes to kill Duncan.
Scene 2: Macbeth returns, describes the deed; Lady Macbeth goes to bring back the daggers to the sleeping guards.
Scene 3: The drunken Porter admits Macduff. The murder is discovered. Malcolm decides to escape to England. Scene 4: The night's storm described, the flight of Malcolm etc.
Scene 1: Macbeth plots the murder of Banquo, out of jealousy and insecurity.
Scene 2: Macbeth refuses to tell Lady Macbeth what he is planning.
Scene 3: The murderers kill Banquo, but Fleance, his son, escapes.
Scene 4: The ghost of Banquo appears to Macbeth during the banquet.
(Scene 5: Hecate scene, surely not by Shakespeare)
Scene 6: Lenox and a Lord discuss the dangers of life under Macbeth.
Scene 1: Macbeth returns to consult the Three Witches about the future, his security; he is shown all Banquo's descendants as kings, and given assurances that he has nothing to worry about until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane, that he can be harmed by no man "of woman born." News of Macduff's flight to England makes Macbeth decide to kill his family.
Scene 2: Lady Macduff and her son in touching dialogue, before they are murdered by thugs.
Scene 3: In England, at the court of holy Edward the Confessor; the testing of Macduff by Malcolm; the power of the King to heal. News of the murder of Macduff's family. Plans for invasion.
Scene 1: Lady Macbeth's sleep-walking scene.
Scene 2: The armies arrive near Birnam wood.
Scene 3: Macbeth rejects all news of danger, secure in Dunsinane. News of Lady Macbeth's sickness does not affect him.
Scene 4: Near Dunsinane, Malcolm orders army to take branches for disguise.
Scene 5: In Dunsinane, a cry announces Lady Macbeth's death (suicide?). Macbeth's soliloquy "Tomorrow" is followed by news that Birnam wood is moving towards the castle.
Scene 6: Battle preparations.
Scene 7: Macbeth fights, kills Siward. Alarums.
Scene 8: Macduff "from his mother's womb untimely ripped" kills Macbeth off stage.
Scene 9: Macduff brings in Macbeth's head, Malcolm is acclaimed King of Scotland.
The play is a chronicle tragedy based mainly on Holinshed's account of the reign of King Makbeth of Scotland, although the murder of Duncan is modelled on that of an earlier king, Duff, also found in Holinshed (see the Appendix to the Arden edition). Shakespeare makes King Duncan a holy old man, while in the chronicle he was a weak king and not so old. In various ways Shakespeare stresses the personal responsibility of Macbeth and his wife, so that the play's Banquo is not involved in the murder, as he is in Holinshed, and Macbeth has no concrete grievance against the king as he did in the source, where he had a very strong right to the throne until Duncan made his own son the heir instead.
Shakespeare stresses the moral polarities in the play, and uses more of the heaven-hell imagery of the morality plays than in his other tragedies. The historical king Makbeth ruled wisely and well for many years; this is eliminated. The result is a tragic protagonist unique in Shakespeare, since Macbeth is directly responsible for the deaths of Duncan, his bodyguards, Banquo, Lady Macduff, her children and servants, and countless others, becoming at last "the tyrant;" yet he is no melodramatic monster, and the audience is invited to sympathize with his step-by-step descent into hell.
The use of supernatural elements, suggested by Holinshed, the mysterious three "sisters" (who seem to be spirits of fate, rather than mere "witches"), gives an added dimension of dread and mystery to a morality play showing that ill-gotten goods bring no delight. The sisters' messages do not diminish Macbeth's responsibility for his actions, they are promptings that kindle a fire in his mind, not more. Lady Macbeth, too, though she strengthens his resolve in the early stages, retires more and more from the action as Macbeth advances in increasing solitude towards his inevitable death, a death he insists he is not exposed to.
Macbeth searches for and then clings on to an assurance of invulnerability based on his second encounter with the sisters until the final moments of the play. This version of the classical theme of the "ambiguous oracle" heightens the tension surrounding Macbeth's last moments, bestowing on him a kind of charmed life that is at last stripped from him as Birnham Wood moves towards Dunsinane Hill and then Macduff reveals that he was not "born of woman" in the normal way.
Scene 1: Iago enters in mysterious dialogue with Roderigo. They noisily wake Brabantio (Desdemona's father), Iago making Roderigo tell of Desdemona's elopement. Brabantio expresses grief/anger.
Scene 2: Othello learns from Cassio of a problem in Cyprus, while Brabantio wants to attack Othello, or arrest him. The Duke is in Council, they all go there.
Scene 3: The Council hear that the Turks seem to be attacking Cyprus, decide to give the command to Othello, who enters with Brabantio who complains his daughter has been bewitched. Othello's defence. The story of their meeting. Desdemona comes, explains her position between father and husband. Duke tries to make peace. Desdemona demands to go to Cyprus with her husband. Final dialogue between Iago and Roderigo, followed by Iago's soliloquy: "I hate the Moor."
Scene 1: The boats arrive in Cyprus, after a great storm, one by one, Othello last, after conversations between Desdemona and Iago etc.. Iago and Roderigo talk, Iago persuades Roderigo that Cassio should be removed. Soliloquy of Iago tells his plan to make Othello jealous of Cassio.
Scene 2: A proclamation of celebrations.
Scene 3: During the celebrations, Iago makes Cassio drink (he cannot take wine), Roderigo provokes a quarrel, Cassio wounds Montano who tries to restrain him. Othello restores order, asks Iago who started it, Othello takes Cassio's rank from him. Iago comforts Cassio, encourages him to ask Desdemona to intercede for him. Iago's "Divinities of Hell" soliloquy.
Scene 1: Interlude with musicians. Iago and Cassio talk, Emilia helps Cassio.
Scene 2: Othello, in charge of the city, goes walking.
Scene 3: Desdemona tells Cassio she will help him; Othello and Iago see Cassio leave her, Iago says, "I like not that." Desdemona asks Othello to take Cassio back, insists. Iago and Othello talk, bringing the destruction of Othello's trust (line 246 "Why did I marry?"). Desdemona comes to fetch Othello for the banquet, tries to bind his head (headache cure), drops handkerchief, Emilia picks it up, gives it to Iago. Othello returns to Iago, already believes everything, demands proof. Iago relates Cassio's dream, says he saw the handkerchief in Cassio's hands. Othello swears revenge, Iago swears to help. Othello asks him to arrange Cassio's death: "now art thou my lieutenant."
Scene 4: Desdemona and clown interlude. Desdemona says Cassio will come to see Othello, Othello asks for the handkerchief, describing it with magic details. Desdemona does not take him seriously: "The handkerchief!" Cassio, Iago, Emilia comfort her. Cassio with Bianca, Cassio asks her to copy the handkerchief he found in his room.
Scene 1: Iago twisting Othello in all directions, Othello collapses. Cassio comes. Iago talks to him of women while Othello watches, and thinks that they are talking of Desdemona (only we hear both sides). Bianca brings in the handkerchief. Othello "I will chop her into messes." Messenger comes from Venice. Othello strikes Desdemona in public.
Scene 2: Othello questions Emilia, does not believe her. Othello confronts Desdemona. Iago and Emilia with Desdemona, various reactions. Roderigo challenges Iago about his promises; Iago suggests that Roderigo should kill Cassio.
Scene 3: Desdemona prepares for bed: the Willow Song.
Scene 1: The ambush of Cassio fails, Iago wounds him, he wounds Roderigo, Iago kills Roderigo, accuses Bianca.
Scene 2: The bedroom, Othello's soliloquy "Put out the light." Othello suffocates Desdemona. Emilia comes and announces Roderigo's death. Desdemona revives to speak, dies. Emilia confronts Othello: "My husband?" Iago and others arrive, Othello asks Iago to confirm the unfaithfulness of Desdemona, Emilia tells the truth about the handkerchief, Iago kills her. Othello made prisoner, his soliloquy "This look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven." Cassio and Iago brought in. Othello tries to kill Iago. Iago refuses to speak any more. Othello's makes last speech, kills himself "to die upon a kiss."
Here Shakespeare is again adapting an Italian novella, the story of an unnamed Moor and his wife Disdemona told by Giraldi Cinthio as the seventh in the third decade in his collection Hecatommithi (1566). A French translation was published in 1584; it is not certain which Shakespeare used. The novella gives the story of the Moor's love, the journey to Cyprus, and the destruction of the Moor's love by the cunning of his Ensign. The time scheme is much more relaxed, with the whole action covering a long period of time; the end of the story, the murder of Disdemona and its discovery, is unlike the play in almost every way.
In dramatizing a story that is centered on the romantic problem of "falling out of love," Shakespeare turns away from the socio- political chronicle sources underlying the other three great tragedies. In many ways he returns to techniques he used in Romeo and Juliet. In both plays the time-scheme is greatly condensed (from weeks to a few days or hours), although in both there are a few lines that suggest a double time scheme, a rhythm of events closer to the source that is useful dramatically. In both plays the audience is forced to watch the main characters making tragic decisions for lack of information that the audience has; the result is an element of suspense and horror unlike anything felt while watching Hamlet or King Lear.
The anonymous Moor of the source is given the name Othello, but it is striking to see that he is called the Moor, usually by Iago with much scorn, until the third scene when he is addressed as "Valiant Othello" by the Duke. Shakespeare leaves many things untold in this play, including how a Moor (from North Africa, black-skinned, normally a follower of Islam) comes to be a high general in the service of Christian Venice, fighting the Moslem Turks. In particular, the relationship between the blackness of Othello's skin and the tragedy that happens to him has been much discussed.
The play is an exploration of the way Othello's love for and trust of Desdemona is destroyed by the manipulations of Iago. The result is a frenzy of jealousy that can only be calmed by Desdemona's death. Critics often concentrate on the character of Iago, with his obvious links to the old morality plays' Vice. Once again, the question is Why? Why does Iago drive Othello to kill Desdemona? Coleridge made a famous remark about the "motive-hunting of a motiveless malignity" and certainly there are links with the destructive attitudes shown by Edmund in King Lear. The play is intensely concentrated; after the first act, the action proceeds without any obvious pause, and with no distraction. There is no subplot, no clowning, no fool. The whole play is summed up in the irony represented by the name given to Iago by almost every character: "Honest Iago."
One of the most terrible moments in the theater is that in which Othello prepares to murder Desdemona, assuring himself that he is doing the right thing:
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars:
It is the cause, yet I'll not shed her blood,
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth, as monumental alabaster;
Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light:
If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,
I can again thy former light restore,
Should I repent me; but once put out thine,
Thou cunning pattern of excelling nature,
I know not where is that Promethean heat
That can thy light relume: when I have pluck'd the rose,
I cannot give it vital growth again,
It must needs wither; I'll smell it on the tree, (kisses her)
A balmy breath, that doth almost persuade
Justice herself to break her sword: once more:
Be thus, when thou art dead, and I will kill thee,
And love thee after: once more, and this the last,
So sweet was ne'er so fatal: I must weep,
But they are cruel tears; this sorrow's heavenly,
It strikes when it does love... (Act V.ii)
The entire action is complete, Desdemona is dead and "honest" Iago has fallen silent, before the characters in the play recognize their error in using this word; by that time Othello has believed Iago and turned his light into darkness.
Scene 1: A ship seems to be wrecked in a storm.
Scene 2: Prospero comforts Miranda and tells her about their past. Prospero and Ariel discuss the safety of the shipwrecked people scattered around the island; they recall the past and Caliban's origins. There is a confrontation with Caliban; Ariel leads in Ferdinand with songs, Miranda feels admiration, Prospero fiercely uses magic to enfeeble him, with hidden purposes.
Scene 1: The court people: Alonso (king of Naples), Sebastian (his brother), Antonio (Prospero's usurping brother), the good Gonzalo, the lords Adrian and Francisco... Sebastian and Antonio mock Gonzalo's positive attitudes, his dreams of a Commonwealth. Ariel makes all sleep, except Antonio and Sebastian. Antonio suggests that Sebastian kill his brother to become king of Naples; Ariel prevents this by waking the king.
Scene 2: Caliban meets Trinculo the clown and the drunken butler Stephano, drinking; they make him drink too.
Scene 1: Ferdinand and Miranda meet and confess their love.
Scene 2: Caliban urges Trinculo and Stephano to murder Prospero and become lords of the island. Ariel overhears, plays trick with music, Caliban explains "the isle is full of noises."
Scene 3: The court people wander lost; Prospero watches as spirits offer them a banquet, which then disappears and Ariel speaks disguised as a Harpy, telling of their past misdeeds against Prospero. Alonso hears clearly and is filled with despair.
Scene 1: Prospero accepts the love of Miranda and Ferdinand and presents a masque of betrothals, which he interrupts: "I had forgot" about Caliban's conspiracy; "Our revels now are ended." Ariel delays Caliban's plot with magic; glistering apparel on a line attracts Trinculo and Stephano, they dress up. Prospero and Ariel lead in a pack of spirit-dogs and hunt them off.
Scene 1: Ariel describes the court people paralysed by magic, saying he feels pity for them. Prospero sends him to restore them. Prospero abjures his art. The court people come, under a spell still, Prospero greets each one, then dresses as Duke of Milan, while Ariel sings "Where the bee sucks." All awake, Alonso asks pardon; Miranda and Ferdinand are found playing chess; Alonso's joy, Miranda's admiration: "Brave new world!" Ariel brings in the sailors, then Caliban etc. for Prospero's judgement. All return to the cities now united with young rulers. Epilogue spoken by Prospero "Now my charms are all o'erthrown."
The main source for this play seems to have been a true story of shipwreck. In May 1609, a fleet of nine ships left England for the new colony in Virginia. In July, the ship Sea-Adventure with the leaders of the expedition was separated from the others during a storm, and finally ran ashore in the Bermudas. The ship remained unbroken, so that all escaped and were able to bring to land most of what it contained. In May 1610, they set out for Virginia and arrived safely, when everyone believed that they were long dead. The news of their safe arrival made a deep impression in England, as well as stories of the wonders they had seen on the island.
This true story sounds very like a traditional romance structure, with its interrupted journeys, and that is what Shakespeare may have seen in it. Using the story of a double shipwreck on an exotic island, Shakespeare tells of a father and daughter whose return to the outside world is preceded by a general recognition and reconciliation; they had been thought dead, and are alive. These themes are strong in all the last plays, but while there is much pain in plays like Pericles or The Winter's Tale, the atmosphere in The Tempest is closer to the happiness of earlier comedies.
This is stressed by the music, and in some ways the play is closer than any other to the court masques, with their exploration of exotic settings. Some of Shakespeare's most beautiful songs are from The Tempest. As Caliban says:
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 my ears; and sometimes 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. (Act III.ii)
Certain modern critics, looking for themes of contemporary interest, have made Caliban a victim of racism, a black "salvage" of the early colonial period, even a victim of Prospero's imperialism. Yet in the story told by characters in the play, Caliban's mother was a witch from Algiers, equally a stranger on this island, and his father a devil.
One of the main themes explored by the play is that of the harmony or conflict between nurture (we might say culture) and nature. Once more, as in King Lear, Shakespeare tries to come to terms with the difference in character and moral vision between people. In more recent terms, the play is about heredity and environment, with Miranda the true daughter and perfect pupil of Prospero.
In the light of the modern taste for moral ambivalence, Prospero is often viewed as a failed dictator. There have been performances in which Miranda and Ferdinand visibly disobey his command to refrain from sex! Certainly, the model of authority he represents is omniscient paternalism, and some Christians have read the play as an allegory of the Trinity: Father, Daughter, and Spirit (Ariel) find Satan (Caliban) making trouble in the garden. It is tempting but unwise to view the play as Shakespeare's farewell to the theater. Yet Prospero certainly has a theatrical side, both in his authorial manipulations of unsuspecting characters, and in his taste for masques.
The main reason for seeing the play as Shakespeare's final bow is the force of the speech by which Prospero explains his sudden interruption of the spirit-masque that celebrates the betrothal of Ferdinand and Miranda:
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great Globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.... (Act IV.i)
A few pages later he makes a solemn speech ending with the lines:
...this rough magic I here abjure... ...I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fadoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book. (Act V.i)
It is the way in which Prospero turns his back on the Art which has been his whole concern, and gives up his power to create illusions, that has drawn people to see Shakespeare in him, standing on the verge of final retirement to Stratford. Prospero's fulfillment, though, is in the promise of social peace he sees in the reconciling marriage of Ferdinand with Miranda. The happy ending of The Tempest is a joy of fictitious fatherhood, happy in the sweetness of mutual love seen in the young who must take charge of the future. As in the mature comedies, marriage gives joy and identity, and serves as a parable of social harmony. For Shakespeare, as for his audience, it was probably no little thing to be able to leave the theater with a message of hope for the future of humanity, of peace, forgiveness, and love.
The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare Studies, edited by Stanley Wells. Cambridge University Press. 1986.
Shakespeare: A Study and Research Guide, 3rd edition, revised, edited by David M. Bergeron and Geraldo U. De Sousa. Kansas University Press. 1994.
Shakespeare: A Bibliographical Guide, New Edition, edited by Stanley Wells. Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1990.
Andrew Gurr, The Shakespearean Stage 1574 - 1642, Third Edition. Cambridge University Press. 1992.