The History of Troilus and Cressida

In Troilus and Cressida Shakespeare creates a world of unresolved uncertainty, and while initially unsatisfying, it actually more accurately reflects reality than more tightly tidied plays. He leaves us hanging in many ways, and challenges the readers’ and the audiences’ need for resolution.

This play dangles us in limbo even before we begin reading. For one thing, the title misleads us into thinking the play is about the named couple. Not so much. It’s really about the Trojan war. T&C are just a minor, barely interesting subplot. Also, The Riverside Shakespeare Contents (p. vii) lists it 11th under Comedies. But it doesn’t quite fit there. Shakespeare included the word “History” in the title, but since it’s not about an English monarch, it doesn’t really belong in the Histories either. It has tragic aspects, but no central tragic hero or conundrum to teach the hero an important lesson, so it cannot take a place in that vaulted canon. And without that familiar central focus of troubled, intriguing father-daughter relationships, it doesn’t really qualify as a Romance either. So it is a play without a place that holds one of its own.

As the Prologue reveals, the play doesn’t start at the beginning, like a play typically would:

“To tell you, fair beholders, that our play/Leaps o’er the vaunt and firstlings of those broils,/Beginning in the middle; starting thence away/To what may be digested in a play.” (Pro,26-9)

Nor does it end at the end. The Trojans trek out to avenge Hector’s death, leaving poor Pandarus (Cressida’s uncle) alone on stage with the unenviable task of wrapping things up with nary a gift box or bow in sight:

“O [traders]and bawds how earnestly are/you set a-work, and how ill-requited! Why should our/endeavor be so lov’d and the performance so loathed?” (V,x,37-9)

So again, it doesn’t have a finite category, or a finite beginning or end.

Nor are any of the obvious conflicts resolved. Despite seven years of fighting and “Sixty and nine” (Pro,5) ships – not quite the mythical number that Troilus perpetuates, “Why, she is a pearl,/Whose price hath launch’d above a thousand ships.” (II,ii,81-2) – and countless troops, and innumerable deaths on both sides, The Helen of Troy remains firmly ensconced in the castle and in bed with her lover Paris. Her husband, Menelaus, pines. Both the Greek and Trojan boards of directors meet to engage in elaborate and lengthy debates over the merits of and strategies for waging the war over her, with some of the most complex and intricate language anywhere in Shakespeare. It is at once difficult and rewarding to read, but moves neither the play nor the problem toward a satisfying conclusion. This is most evident in Act I, scene iii, where even footnote #2 claims that “Both Agamemnon and Nestor speak repetitive commonplaces concealed in high-sounding and opaque language.” Ulysses joins in the fray with over 100 lines of dialectic, concluding with “To end a tale of length,/Troy in our weakness stands, not in her strength.”(I,iii,136-7) Phew. If he’d just said that first, he could have saved Shakespeare a lot of writing, me a lot of reading, and audiences (what I suspect is) a lot of snoozing. Just a lot of “words, words, words” as Hamlet says (II,ii,181). So does Troilus, almost verbatim: “Words, words, mere words.” (V,iii,108) Still, with all the words, they are no closer to a resolution.

Nor is the minor conflict of T&C’s love, for which the play is misguidedly named, ever resolved. Both their love and its evolution pale in comparison to the legendary romance and consequences of Paris’s taking of Helen. Cressida claims to play hard to get but quickly concedes to Troilus: “Boldness comes to me now, and brings me heart./Prince Troilus, I have lov’d you night and day/For many weary months.” (III,ii,113-5)

That’s just a pathetic passionless declaration of love. And when the Greeks demand Cressida in a hostage exchange, she not only goes willingly (unlike Helen) but falls for one of her captors. She throws Troilus over for him as easily as Achilles lets fly a javelin. She gives her new suitor Diomedes the sleeve, given to her by Troilus as a token of their love, without a moment’s hesitation. Diomedes wears it into battle on his helmet, leaving Troilus sleeveless with nowhere to wear his broken heart. The eponymous romance is neither convincing, nor worth naming the play after. We keep waiting to understand why the play is thus titled – waiting for more, but we never get it.

At first, being left in this purgatory between the heaven of a tidy, happily-ever-after comedy conclusion and the hell of a gory, gut-wrenching traditional tragedy, feels quite unsatisfying. A little Seinfeld-ian, in that not much really happens to further the plot.

But on closer examination, this uncertainty rings truer to life than either extreme. Seemingly inane conflicts – of both small and large scale – drag on endlessly. Lovers are left in the lurch. Politicians and business leaders pontificate ad nauseum, bringing to mind Macbeth’s description: “It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/signifying nothing.” (V,v,26-8)

Life is not always neat and tidy and resolved. This play is ultimately so satisfying because neither is it.

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Titus Andronicus

Titus Andronicus is both Shakespeare’s first tragedy, and the title character, his first tragic hero. But I’d argue that, according to Aristotle’s definition of both, Titus falls short. Shakespeare serves up a gruesome, almost cartoonish slasher movie romp: A chainsaw, a chain saw, my other hand for a chainsaw….This play would be more comfortable on the shelf with  the Quentin Tarantino or Monty Python oeuvres than Macbeth or Hamlet. Such relentless blood, gore, and violence make it hard for the audience to see anything behind the curtain of red.

Aristotle defines “Tragedy”: Tragedy depicts the downfall of a basically good person through some fatal error or misjudgment, producing suffering and insight on the part of the protagonist and arousing pity and fear on the part of the audience.

His “Tragic Hero” is a man of noble stature or high position. He is not an ordinary man, but a man with outstanding quality and greatness about him. His own destruction is for a greater cause or principle.

Titus Andronicus fails these tests on all counts. At the outset Titus’s brother Marcus paints a picture of an admirable man: “A noble man, a braver man,/Lives not this day within the city walls.” (I,i,25-6) Wow, we think, ok, so he’s been off fighting those pesky Goths to protect Rome. He has lost 21 of his 25 (yup, 25) sons to the struggle. So far so good. Despite Marcus’s convincing stump speech, he eschews the Emperorship and capitulates and confers it on Saturnine (the deceased Emperor’s son): “Give me a staff of honor for mine age,/But not a sceptre to control the world.” (I,i,198-9).

We can agree upon his ‘high stature and noble profession,’ then. And he certainly displays some of the errors in judgement that cause him grief, but they lack the gravitas and ardent dedication to a cause or personal belief that would elicit empathy from the audience or allow for his own development through epiphany.

Once he orders the execution of the captured Goth Queen Tamora’s oldest son – they lop off Alarbus’s limbs and “throw his entrails onto a fire (I,i,143-4) – he breaches the levies and sets off a bloodbath that rivals the cascade in the halls of the Timberline Hotel in The Shining.

When one of his remaining sons dare step in his way (remember, he’s buried 21), he runs him though with his rapier without a moment’s hesitation: “What, villain boy,/Barr’st me my way in Rome?” [Titus kills him]” (I,i,291-2) There’s no higher purpose here. Just an impetuous, dumbass reflexive mistake, which his son Lucius and brother confirm: “My lord, you are unjust, and more than so,/In wrongful quarrel you have slain your son.” (I,i,293-4), and “”O Titus, see! O, see what thou hast done!/In a bad quarrel slain a virtuous son.” (I,i,341-2)

Suffering abounds, insight is notably absent. Titus has no epiphanies. He shows no remorse, emotion, or empathy after he kills his own child, or when  Marcus presents him with his only daughter, Lavinia. Tamora’s surviving sons have gang raped her, severed both hands, and cut out her tongue so she cannot implicate them. His heart, alluded to in many references to stone, it hard as rock. Titus and Tamora alike suffer from a nearly completely disconnected inhumanity.

The violence piles up like so many dead bodies on the hand cart in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Funny there, it is gratuitous here, and creates a convoluted plot while failing to champion a higher purpose. I hesitate to blatantly retell the story in an essay, but this laundry list of atrocities bears repeating because a) it is impossible to comprehend unless seen in writing, and b) it illustrates the point that it, rather than any message or lesson, is the point:

  • Tamora’s sons kill Saturnine’s son Bassianus and Aaron frames Titus’s boys for the murder.
  • Tamora’s sons rape Lavinia, and relieve her of her tongue and hands
  • Saturnine orders the framed ‘perps’ to a fate worse than anyone’s ever thought up before
  • Titus cuts off his own hand thinking it’s in exchange for his boys’ lives
  • It is returned to him along with his boys’ heads
  • He carries one head off, gives the other to Marcus, and makes Lavinia transport his severed hand between her teeth
  • Titus lures Tamora’s sons to stay with him, kills them, and with Lavinia’s assitance, grinds their bones in to flour and mixes it with their blood to form a crust of the pies that he fills with their cooked heads (Sweeny Todd, anyone?)
  • Tamora, thus, eats her own children
  • Titus kills Lavinia to  save her from shame
  • Titus kills Tamora to keep her from life
  • Saturnine kills Titus to avenge his wife Tamora
  • Lucius kills Saturnine to avenge his father
  • Lucius sends Aaron to be buried “breast-deep in earth and famish him” (V,iii,179)
  • Lucius throws Tamora’s body to the birds to devour

This grand parade of gore is as tedious and absurd in the play as it is here. Titus, in begging for mercy from the tribunes, complains that “I tell my sorrows to stones.”(III,i,40) He ought to beg mercy from the audience, too, because it’s precisely this own lack of insight or greater cause that keep us stony, without the pity or compassion that Aristotle required of a true tragic hero.

Titus never experiences the anagnorisis that Aristotle demands of his tragic heroes – the moment when the hero makes that all-important discovery that results in an increased self-awareness and self-knowledge. Nope, none of that in sight.

Nor do we, as the audience, experience Aristotle’s required catharsis, or ‘transition through transformation.’ The play ought to carry us from fear and loathing to pity and compassion through to ‘relief and exhilaration.’ Again, nope. Seeing him slaughter his own mangled daughter, who he has failed to comfort in any way after her trauma, elicits neither.

Titus summarizes it best: “Why, foolish Lucius, dost thou not perceive/That Rome is but a wilderness of tigers? Tigers must prey.” (III,i,57-8) He’s right. This play is about a pack of wild animals operating from the basest of bestial instincts. Kill or be killed. They fight for neither higher principles, nor for the greater good. It’s an eye for an eye until they just about run out of bodies and body parts to pillage.

Shakespeare cut his teeth on this play. He certainly perfected the genre later. Perhaps Elizabethan audiences just wanted to escape the stress of their quotidian lives with a good cup of grog and a lively dose of carnage – in which case this play works really well. Aristotle would have been throwing rotten tomatoes.

(Aristotle references from

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Timon of Athens

This may be a cop out, but I am leaving for vacation today, and admittedly just want to get this one in the books. As for the play, I’d like to get it out of the book. I’m not sure what happened to Shakespeare when he wrote this.  Maybe he didn’t. Wait, no, I didn’t say that. It is an odd conflagration of King Lear and Julius Caesar, but it falls way short of all of those great tragedies.

Timon flees to nature, as does Lear, to escape a society that he feels has let him down.  Perhaps they have, or perhaps he was foolish in his dealings with them to begin with.  But unlike Lear, in his cathartic, heart wrenching epiphany in the storm, Timon just rants and raves, sounding more and more like a bitter, demented man than a tragic hero. He dies in the woods, not having learned much from his largely self-inflicted agony, fiddling, like Nero, as Athens burns in crisis around him.

I hoped, when the play opened with a “Poet, Painter, Jeweller,” in Act I, Scene i, that at least the artists might emerge as the sages who lead the politicians and financiers out of the muck with their aesthetic. But they turn out to be as mercenary as the other cast of dubious characters.

The final words of a play often enlighten or leave room for hope or cast ominous foreshadowing. This one ends as disappointingly as it begins. Alcibiades, the heir apparent of Athens, encourages the senators and other followers to “Prescribe to other as each other’s leech.” (V.iv,84).  The footnote indicates that he means “physician” (V,iv,note 84), however given all that’s preceded this perhaps well meant advice, it reads more like “let’s continue to suck each other dry.”

Yet although I disliked this play and initially felt disappointed with the bard, I ultimately took away an important lesson:  None of us can always perform perfectly. We will all have bad days. Bad plays. Bad essays. So I may earn a D+ on this one – I can’t grade the play much more highly – but that’s ok. This one essay won’t define me; I’ll do better next time.

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The Tempest

I see Shakespeare everywhere in modern life, and  modern life everywhere in Shakespeare. In many ways, that’s the essence of his appeal. As I reread The Tempest, I kept fuzzily thinking, “this reminds me of something,” and then it came into focus: The Wizard of Oz! While the two do not parallel each other as closely as West Side Story does Romeo and Juliet, the similarities are striking. It’s as if the seeds that Shakespeare sowed in The Tempest germinated and sprouted in L. Frank Baum’s mind to give us another flight of fancy that emphasizes similar universalities: The allure of home, the destructive nature of power, and the magic within.

Storms literally and figuratively set both stories in motion. Shakespeare certainly didn’t invent this literary device, but the tempest and tornado are two of the most iconic uses of tumultuous weather as a metaphor for internal and external struggle and angst.

Prospero and Miranda are forbears of the Wizard and Dorothy, involuntarily exiled and yearning for the familiarity and comforts of home. Prospero and the Wizard become reluctant rulers of strange new lands. In some cases out of fear and exigency, not always benevolently.

Prospero and the Wizard both have their “subjects” complete tasks as tests of their dedication and worth, that also serve as artful delay tactics. Prospero has Ferdinand move logs (in Julie Taymor’s beautifully rendered 2010 film featuring Helen Mirren as Prospera, they are boulders). The Wizard asks for the witch’s broom.

In both, supernatural forces lull the vulnerable to sleep in the wild –A forest in The Tempest, a poppy field in The Wizard of Oz — until a benevolent force wakens them and saves them from danger.

In both, the land to which they’ve been temporarily exiled is described as vividly colorful. The contrast between the black and white and the technicolor in The Wizard of Oz makes the colors even brighter. In The Tempest, Prospero paints the picture for us:  “green sea,” “azur’d vault,” “green sour ringlets,” and “pine and cedar.” (V,i,42,42,37, and 48) The blue sea and green island are as much of a character as the vibrant land of Oz.

In The Tempest, Juno, the goddess protector of womankind descends from the heavens like Glenda the Good Witch in her bubble to deliver benedictions to both young women:  “Go with me/To bless this twain, that they may prosperous be,/And honor’d in their issue.” (IV,i,103-5)

And, both Prospero and the Wizard doff their mystical accoutrements, and their magical powers along with them, once they have achieved their goals and know they’re homeward bound. Prospero proclaims: “But this rough magic/I here abjure; and when I have requir’d/Some heavenly music (which even now I do)/To work mine end upon their senses that/This airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,/Bury it certain fadoms in the earth,/And deeper than did ever plummet sound/I’ll drown my book.” (V,i,50-7)

Yet it’s not only the plot lines that converge at points in these two tales. They both emphasize similar common, age-old themes as well.

Both sets of protagonists are unwilling nomadic pilgrims whose drive to get home drives the plot. Dorothy’s famous “There’s no place like home” mantra could as easily come from Prospero’s lips. This makes them notable departures from the typical road trip literature or movies (eg, On The Road,Kerouac, 1957; Crosby/Hope Road to… movies; Thelma and Louise, Easy Rider), where either the trip is the point, and/or a happy ending does not always await the travelers. Miranda cannot wait to meet the “brave new world” (V,i,182) that has been so long a secret to her.

In both stories, the ruthless quest for power has detrimental fallout. As Lord Acton presciently predicted, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Antonio and the Wicked Witch of the West – so deliciously portrayed in green by Margaret Hamilton – are hellbent on mastering and maintaining their power at any cost. Prospero tells Miranda that, in his brother Antonio, power “Awak’d an evil nature” (I,ii,93). This maleficence evokes a karma which haunts him when his own men plot to kill him,  when he believes his son Ferdinand drowned in the shipwreck, and when the ‘ghost’ of the brother he exiled and believed dead reappears to claim what’s rightfully his. We know the terror that the Wicked Witch of the West wreaks. When she melts, the guards and the flying monkeys rejoice. Ding, dong, the witch is, indeed, dead.

Finally, both tales support and promote the notion that magic is as real as we believe it to be, and that we all have the potential for it within, ready to activate, well… at the click of our heels. Prospero studied to cultivate his art. Gonzalo outfits the small boat that ferries Prospero and Miranda away from home with some food and clothing, and books “From mine own library with volumes that/I prize above my dukedom.” (I,ii,167-8) Caliban, when instructing Trinculo and Stephano on how to ruin Prospero, advises: “Remember/First to possess his books; for without them/He’s but a sot.” (III,ii,91-3) Nowhere does Shakespeare imply that Prospero possessed the craft from birth or in Milan as Duke.  The Wizard may not have gained as much knowledge as Prospero; he just got busted. So he returns to Kansas, still full of hot air, in his balloon. Dorothy needs no such artificial inflation because the adventures and travails of her journey have revealed a wellspring of strength and courage. Glenda only needs to suggest that she dig deep inside to discover her own internal source of power. Oh, and then to click those ruby slippers together.



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The Taming of the Shrew

This play, categorized as a comedy, and presented as part of an elaborate ruse to confuse the “drunkard Sly” (Induction,ii,set direction), is anything but amusing. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s on-screen chemistry as Katherina and Petruchio (1967) might have electrified the audience, but the words as written are more like an execution via electroshock therapy to lobotomize the “fairer sex.” It is a tale of misogyny, abuse, and mind control. It evokes The Stepford Wives, Equus, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest more than a roiling Rom-Com. In all those works, as in this one, the protagonists are beaten and broken to comply with others’ molds and to meet others’ needs at the expense of themselves.

The title refers, ostensibly and derogatorily, to Katherina, but it is a miscue. One of Petruchio’s servants, Curtis, gets it right when he asserts: “By this reck’ning he is more shrew than she.” (IV,i,85)

Jumping at the chance to marry Katherina to assuage his dismal financial condition, Petruchio sees her as property and proceeds to suppress and subdue her to the other men’s delight. Yes, Katherina is assertive and expressive. Admittedly, perhaps, excessively so. But like in modern times, when a strong woman is called a “bitch,” Gremio exaggerates in calling her a “fiend of hell”(I,i,88). I suspect that the men resent her willingness to buck against the patriarchal minimization of the female sex. Yes, she acts inappropriately at times, but she’s more little child than criminal.

Perhaps, as the eldest daughter, Katherina suffered the unexplained loss and absence of her mother more acutely than her younger sister Bianca. Perhaps she has unresolved grief. Perhaps she never learned compassion from a distant and disinterested father struggling with his own grief. While Bianca may be more superficially compliant and gracious, Shakespeare firmly puts them on equal footing in naming them.  Bianca means ‘white;’ Katherina means ‘pure.’ He tells us that beneath their very different veneers, they both have unique but equal value.

Baptista, their frustrated father, has thrown up his hands as his own misguided and ineffective attempts to quell Katherina repeatedly fail. He just wants to hand her off to a husband, and the stakes rise when two suitors present themselves to vie for Bianca’s hand. Baptista can kill both of his birds with one stone by pawning off his problem child on someone else.

When Petruchio presents himself and treats Katherina like a coveted prize, Baptista is thrilled. He relinquishes her to this predator with less vetting than John McCain did of Sarah Palin. As soon as they are betrothed, Petruchio proves that it is really he who needs taming. He flaunts his true colors with Monty Python-like absurdity (in fact, John Cleese portrays him in a 1980 BBC production). A wolf in sheep’s clothing while wooing, he shows up as a cad in fool’s clothing to wed. Gremio gets it right this time: “Such a mad marriage was never before.” (III,ii,182)

Thus begins his systematic and increasingly egregious offenses against his new bride. He disrespects her and her family by virtually kidnapping her directly after the ceremony, depriving all of them of the opportunity to celebrate the nuptials.  Although if they knew what was in store for her, no celebration would have been warranted. He asserts to the befuddled Baptista: “I will be master of what is mine own./She is my goods, my chattels, she is my house,/My household stuff, my field, my barn,/My horse, my ox, my ass, my anything.”(III,ii,229-232) Petruchio absconds with her to his unkempt home; there is no stage direction for the carrying of the new bride over the threshold. I imagine Petruchio dispensed with that and any other niceties as he, by any civilized standards tortures her.

To subjugate her, he refuses her food and sleep: “She eat no meat to-day, nor none shall eat;/Last night she slept not, nor to-night she shall not;” (IV,i,197-8). In her depleted state he taunts with nourishment, rest, and clothing. He verbally abuses her: He “rails, and swears, and rates, that she, poor soul,/Knows not which way to stand, to look, to speak,” (IV,i,184-5).

He argues and disagrees with her over the time of day and celestial bodies to confuse her and impose his will over even her thoughts; he is the master of the universe. “It shall be what a’clock I say it is,” and “It shall be moon, or star, or what I list.” (IV,iii,195 and IV,v,7).

In triumphant return to her father’s (to celebrate Bianca’s wedding) he continues to mind-fuck her in her weakened state as if she were a terrorist enemy combatant under interrogation. At the banquet (which he permits her to attend, unlike her own, to show off his handiwork) he parades her and forces her to perform like a trained organ grinder’s monkey. She is brainwashed. Far from an amusing phrase of endearment, his refrain of “Kiss me, Kate,” (II,i,324 and IV,v,143) takes on the ominous tone of a sadomasochistic command to which he expects her to respond like a Pavlovian dog.

In addition to subjugating and humiliating his own wife into being a shell of her former self, he commands that she drag the other new brides into the shadows of themselves, like Dracula directing his brides to suck the lifeblood out of others. “Katherine, I charge thee tell these head-strong women/What duty they owe their lords and husbands.” (V,ii,130-1) She ends up literally and figuratively where he wants her: “you mean to make a puppet of me.”(IV,iii,104). Reversing the story of Pinocchio, she drinks the Kool-Aid and complies, telling her sister and the widow, “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/Thy head, thy sovereign.” (V,ii,146-7) Petruchio “kills her” (IV,i,180), squishing her spirit like a bug under his foot, as she tells us “place your hands below your husband’s foot.”(I,ii,177)

There is nothing either Rom or Com about this play.  Katherina is McMurphy to Petruchio’s Nurse Ratched. Alan to his Dr. Dysart. Joanna Eberhart to his Walter. Her brain is replaced by gruel, for which she will continually have to ask her master, “please, sir, I want some more.” Henceforth, Petruchio will even think for her, “For I am born to tame you, Kate,/And bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate/Comfortable as other household Kates.” (II,i,276-78) Petruchio goes way beyond what was acceptable male domination in Elizabethan England and models every abhorrent aspect of the abusive husband.



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The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet

Although I’ve seen Romeo & Juliet performed many times (I most recently re-watched Zeffirelli’s 1968 beautiful and seminal film), I have never read it before.  Shakespeare paints a picture of love so exquisitely that it’s almost painful to read.  Perhaps romantics would say that a love this deep cannot survive the pressure of its own intensity; it is destined to implode. But I disagree, because I feel that this play ultimately focuses more on sacrifice than love.

One could argue that R&J’s ardor is no more than ardent adolescent puppy love.  Romeo, smitten to the point of distraction with Rosaline at the play’s outset, drops her like the proverbial untouchable tuber when he sees Juliet, only 13.  Even in an era when marriage and childbirth happened much earlier than they do now, she is a child.

The tragedy lies not with the “star-cross’d lovers” (Prologue,6), but in the fact that Romeo knows on some deep level initially, and more consciously as the play progresses, that he must sacrifice himself to ameliorate the feud which none of the participating Montagues and Capulets ever really explain.  He must make peace in the Veronese valley, because the adults have mucked everything up beyond repair.  Even the ruling Prince cannot coax them to behave.

Romeo’s love for Rosaline must be unrequited because it is not with her that he will affect change. Only through his chemistry with Juliet can he perform alchemy and lay himself down as a conduit of peace between the warring factions.

There is no suspense in this.  The Prologue tells us all we need to know about the plot, with nary a spoiler alert:

“A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;/Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows/Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.” (Prologue, 6-8)

Shakespeare immerses us in Romeo’s innate and then overt understanding of his role in the family, the community, and the play. Ere we even meet him, Benvolio tells us that he suffers from a deep melancholy:

“With tears augmenting the fresh morning dew,/Adding to clouds more clouds with his deep sighs,” (I,i,132-3)

Romeo himself waxes so inanely metaphysical about his crush on Rosaline that it is a)absurd, and b)clear that something much larger concerns him:

“Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love./Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate!/O anything, of nothing first [create]!/O heavy lightness, serious vanity./Misshapen chaos of well [-seeming] forms,/Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health,/Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!” (I,i,175-181)

His overly oxymoronic world is turned topsy-turvy.  He think it’s because Rosaline won’t return his calls.  We know better. If it were just her, he’d have said her name.  He never does.  There’s something rotten in the state of Verona. His existential crisis arises from generations of irrational animosity: “Tut, I have lost myself, I am not here:/This is not Romeo, he’s some other where.” (I,i,197-8) In fact, like the J. Geils Band, Romeo thinks Love Stinks: “Is love a tender thing? It is too rough,/Too rude, too boist’rous, and it pricks like a thorn.” (I,iv,25-6)

As the action unfolds, Romeo constantly expresses self-awareness.  He knows in his bones what’s coming and rushes headlong toward it:

“I fear, too early, for my mind misgives/Some consequences yet hanging in the stars/Shall bitterly begin his fearful date/With this night’s revels and expire the term/Of a despised life clos’d in my breast/By some vile forfeit of untimely death.” (I,iv,104-111)

Even in one of the most tender moments in the play – perhaps in all of literature – he knows he, like Icarus, is destined to burn in his quest: “Juliet is the sun.” (II,ii,3) They are both “poor prisoners” (II,ii,179) in this passion play that is bigger than both of them. And more than in almost any other Shakespeare play I’ve read so far (29 down and nine to go) the language itself tells us this constantly.

Friar Lawrence sees a “tomb” and a “burying grave” in the earth he tills (II,iii, 12&13). Mercutio and Benvolio claim that Romeo is “already dead,” as they await him, and again “O flesh,/flesh, how art thou finished!” as he arrives. (II,iv, 13&37-8)  Dead man walking.

At the altar at his own nuptials Romeo welcomes “Then love-devouring death do what he dare.” (II,vi,7).  Friar Lawrence confirms his dark premonitions: “These violent delights have violent ends,/And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,/Which as they kiss consume.” (II,vi,9-11)

In the rumble scene (think West Side Story) Romeo intentionally puts himself in harms way by putting himself literally, physically in between his Montagues, and, now, his Capulets, as a Bridge Over Troubled Water. He”steps between them,” (III,i,89 stage direction) and in doing so, steps off the edge into tragic immortality.

After R&J finally consummate their relationship, Romeo speaks not of bliss, but of the end: “Let me be ta’en, let me be put to death.” (III,v,17), and “Come, death, and welcome.” (III,v,24)

Honestly, it’s like Shakespeare created foreshadowing just for this play.  He beats us over the head with it.  But I feel it’s so heavy-handed to make us realize that the love, while it’s lovely, is not the point.  Obviously, the Montagues and Capulets will be immensely pissed off at and resistant to R&J’s union. But their short-lived marriage will give birth to the progeny they never get to have by rebirthing  Verona.

Ironically, Romeo is happiest in exile in Mantua.  He feels optimistic now because he is on the verge of sacrificing himself to fulfill his destiny:

“My dreams pressage some joyful news at hand/My bosom’s lord sits lightly in his throne,/And all this day an unaccustom’d spirit/Lifts me above the ground with cheerful thought.” (V,i,2-5)

This is, ostensibly, the last thing in the world he ought to feel now.  The Prince has exiled him upon penalty of death for killing Tybalt. He may never again see his new wife, who is being forced to marry Paris. Yet it’s almost as if he’s become enlightened. His ethereal self has already risen above quotidian worries, and seeing the finish line brings him this sense of peace.

When he hears, ignorant of Friar Lawrence’s plot, of Juliet’s untimely death, he rushes to her side, and takes his own life, thereby fulfilling his mission, “Thus with a kiss I die.” (V,ii,120). It’s almost too sad to read when she awakens to find him dead, tries to die by kissing the poison from his lips, and finally falls on his dagger.

Then, and only then, does the fractured collection of Veronese become a community. The “plague a’ both houses” (III,i,91) that Mercutio cast on them has come to fruition. For the first time, Montague and Capulet look to each other for comfort. “O, brother Montague, give me thy hand.” (V,iii,296) Romeo was forced to be brave to give create this new world.

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The Tragedy of Richard the Third

When I read certain of these tragedies – particularly given the current backdrop of political armageddon in our country and seismic terrorism in the world – I wonder what could possibly drive someone to act with such myopic self interest and appallingly little regard for the sanctity of human life. It fills me with dismayed sorrow to imagine that anyone could feel so completely separate from every other being to believe that violence is:  a) a great idea, and b) will surely help solve problems and achieve goals.

We see this, though, over and over in Shakespeare.  As  RIII ruthlessly mows down everyone in his path – women and children included – I try to make sense of it (as I do, to no avail, with Donald Trump or the recent Brussels bombings).  But rules of rational logic do not apply in these situations.

Leaving the conundrums of the modern day behind, I circle back to two other villains:  Iago and Macbeth -to try to make some sense of their actions.   They,  like RIII, make quick work of the perceived obstacles to their success.  Examining their motivations and actions vis a vis RIII’s sheds some light on each of these bad guys.

Jealousy drives Iago.  He tells us why he is hell-bent on Othello’s demise as the play opens  (I,i,8-23):

“Three great ones of the city/In personal suit to make me his lieutenant,/Off-capp’d to him; and, by the faith of man,/I know my price, I am worth no worse a place./But he (as loving his own pride and purposes)/Evades them with a bumbast circumstance/Horribly stuff’d with epithites of war,/[And in conclusion]/Nonsuits my mediators; for, “Certes,”says he,/’I have already chose my officer.’/And what was he?/Forsooth, a great arimethmetician,/ One Michael Cassio, a Florentine/(A fellow almost damn’d in a fair wife),/That never set a squadron in the field,/Nor the division of a battle knows.”

Macbeth succumbs to the lure of power, ignited by the prophecy of three witches in the woods and his wife’s ambitions.  He may have hoped to be a king one day, but after the hags’ predictions his urgency surges.  When Lady Macbeth hears the news, she steels herself to aid and abet him (by taking on masculine attributes) in guiding and plunging the dagger into Duncan’s breast.  They unify and spur each other on to see the witches’ visions come to fruition.

RIII, though, never expresses any specific jealousy of others, nor does he even seem particularly interested in power or governing.  Like Iago, he clarifies his motivation as the play opens, on stage, alone (I,i,1-31):

“Now is the winter of our discontent/made glorious summer by this son of York;/And all the clouds that lowr’d upon our house/In the deep bosom of the ocean buried./Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths./Our bruised arms hung up for monuments,/Our stern alarums chang’d to merry meetings,/Our dreadful marches to delightful measures./Grim-visag’d War hath smooth’d his wrinkled front;/And now, in stead of mounting barbed steeds/To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,/He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber/To the lascivious pleasing of a lute./But I, that am not shap’d for sportive tricks,/Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;/I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty/To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;/I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportions,/Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,/Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time/Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,/And that so lamely and unfashionable/That dogs bark at me as I halt by them-/Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,/Have no delight to pass away the time,/Unless to see my shadow in the sun/And descant on mine own deformity./And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover/To entertain these fair well-spoken days,/I am determined to prove a villain/And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”

I take the time to replicate this portion of his opening salvo (and I must admit that I tear up every time I read it, so pathetic is he) because the play begins and ends here.  The rest is just him killing everyone until he is finally killed.  Oh, and just before that he famously beseeches “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”(V,v,7)

RIII reminds me more of Frankenstein’s monster or Karl Marx than Iago or Macbeth.  For this triad, living in an era that predates the wonders of modern medicine and psychotherapy, physical deformities shape not only their bodies, but others’ perceptions of them, and hence their psyches and attitudes toward the world around them.

In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the poor monster craves love and acceptance but elicits only fear and scorn.  Hell hath no fury like a scorned stitched-together corpse artificially infused with life.  Things go very awry from there.

Karl Marx suffered from “excruciating boils” (as a result of a chronic skin condition called hidratenitis suppurativa).  In his armpits and groin (ouch).  The condition which can  cause severe mental and emotional, as well as phyisical,  distress, “may well have influenced his writing” as a result of “self-loathing and alienation.”(, 10/30/07)

So with RIII.  We know, from his recently exhumed and examined remains, that he had severe scoliosis which spiraled, not hunched, him.  His right shoulder would have been higher than the left, and his torso would have been disproportionally small for his body.  He was likely 5’8” (average for the time) but looked much shorter (University of Leicester:, 5/30/14).

Untreated and misunderstood, this deformity literally twisted him and robbed him (and the monster and Karl Marx) of that which Lady Macbeth feared her husband had too much: “the milk of human kindness.” (Macbeth, I,v,17) We hear that modern-day mass shooters often lacked self esteem and confidence due to rejection and bullying.  Made to feel like outsiders by their peers, they react with disastrous results.  RIII’s rampage is  calculated and relentless, like some of those we read about with horror today.

In the end, Iago is busted, Lady Macbeth succumbs to guilt, and Macbeth to vengeance.But neither Iago nor Macbeth can hold a candle to the lengths to which RIII goes to delude himself and convince others of the legitimacy of his atrocities.  He is, truly, the monster. When he faces his atrocities on the eve of his destruction, he suffers a narcissistic crisis:

“What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by./Richard loves Richard, that is. I [am] I./Is there a murtherer here? No. Yes, I am./Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why -/Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?/ Alack, I love myself. Wherefore? For any good/That I myself have done unto myself?/ O no! Alas, I rather hate myself/For hateful deeds committed by myself./I am a villain; yet I lie, I am not.” (V,iii,182-191)

Yet do these insights into the individuals’ motivations satisfy my need to understand their actions?  Not really.  It seems to me that the evil enters when the protagonists decide how to act upon these impetuses.  Jealousy, ambition, and narcissistic self-consciousness and desperation may make them susceptible, but it is evil that turn these triggers into destructive action. Evil in the form of a  belief that there is no path to satisfaction or relief without violence.  A belief which history, and Shakespeare’s characters, proves time and time again, to be fallacious.




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