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Shakespeare and the Dramatic View of Life

Robert Crosman
Academica Press, LLC

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Crosman, Robert, 1940The world's a stage : Shakespeare and the dramatic view of life / Robert
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 1-930901-92-5
1. Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616KnowledgePerforming arts. 2.
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616Technique. 3. Performing arts in literature.
4. Theater in literature. 5. Acting in literature. 6. Play within a play.
I. Title.
PR3034.C76 2005
British Cataloguing data are available

Copyright 2005 by Robert Crosman

All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this
book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written
permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and

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Academica Press, LLC
7831 Woodmont Avenue, #381
Bethesda, MD 20814
To order: (650) 329-0685 phone and fax


Commendatory Foreword


CHAPTER ONE: Shakespeare and the Dramatic View of Life

CHAPTER TWO: The World as Stage in The Taming of the Shrew


CHAPTER THREE: What is the Dream in

A Midsummer Nights Dream?


CHAPTER FOUR: I Shall Henceforth Be Myself:

Henry V, King of Players or Royal Hypocrite?


CHAPTER FIVE: Rosalind as Player-Playwright in As You Like It


CHAPTER SIX: Tonight We Improvise: Hamlet and the Limits

of Playing


CHAPTER SEVEN: If I Ruled the World:

Duke Vincentio Plays God in Measure for Measure


CHAPTER EIGHT: Shakespeares Goodbye to the Stage:

The Tempest and Its Afterlife


CHAPTER NINE: Shakespeares Final Ambiguity:

The World is and is Not A Stage


Works Cited





In Jaquess famous observation from As You Like It that All the worlds a
stage, Professor Crosman discovers the distillation of Shakespeares theory of
his dramatic art implicit in the many metatheatrical occasions in his plays, where
characters consciously play roles, don disguises, script scenes, and direct others
how to act, or conversely, where audiences discover that characters are
unconscious actors in plots divinely ordained. Crosman convincingly explores
this thesis by carefully explicating seven representative plays from throughout
Shakespeares career.
By putting the spotlight on sheer play-acting, Crosman confronts longstanding critical cruxes. For example, Katherines speech at the end of The
Taming of the Shrew is neither a capitulation nor a deception but proof of her new
acting skills. Henry V is neither a Machiavellian cynic nor a divine mirror of all
Christian kings but a genius at manipulating public pageantry. On the other hand,
supernatural playwrights hold ultimate authority.

Hamlet, a prince endlessly

rewriting his own part, surrenders to the divinity that shapes our ends, and in A
Midsummer Nights Dream the mysterious agency of fairies belies every effort at
rational argument. A conscious role-player may even usher in the divine scriptmaker; in As You Like It, Rosalind plays her masculine role long after she reaches
her fathers protection in Arden, but to take the new role of wife she requires the
intervention of the god of marriage, possibly played Shakespeare himself, or as
Crosman call him, the Divine Will.
The authorial voice of The Worlds a Stage is as personable as it is
scholarly. The author quotes liberally from the plays and contextualizes the
quotations in deft plot summaries, while he confines half his critical apparatus to
detailed footnotes. Though clearly influenced by New Historicism and sensitive


The Worlds A Stage

to the need for gender-inclusive language, he writes with a humanist appreciation

for his subject, not as the proponent of a single critical theory. The introduction
of each chapter displays a surprising affinity between each play and some element
of popular culture. So Crosman cites James I on the divine right of kings to
introduce the Dukes dangerous efforts to play God in Measure for Measure. He
uses Mel Gibsons talk-show puzzlement over Hamlets psychological
motivations to stress that first of all Hamlet is consciously acting a part. He also
quotes a statement by Ronald Reagans biographer that the president owed his
political success to his acting skill to lead into a discussion of Henry V.
This is a valuable book for all readers who find Shakespeare intriguing. It
discusses the persistent metatheatricality of his plays from the perspectives of
both history and performance, and its clear prose invites a continuation of that
discussion not only by academic scholars and teachers, but also by actors,
directors, and audience members who enjoy puzzling out the themes, dramatic
structures, and complex characterizations of the plays.

In the classroom, it

stimulates lively discussion. In his conclusion, Crosman writes, Wisdom, for

Shakespeare, lies in recognizing our ability to control events by deploying the
dramatic powers of acting, role-playing, stage-direction, and script writing. But
equally, wisdom resides in recognizing when we must bow to the force of events
that are beyond our control. The concept extends beyond Shakespeare studies
into the culture at large.

Gayle Gaskill
The College of St. Catherine
St. Paul, MN


Remember that you are an actor in a play, and the Playwright chooses the
manner of it: if he wants it short, it is short; if long it is long. If he wants
you to act a poor man you must act the part with all your powers; and so if
your part be a cripple or a magistrate or a plain man. For your business is
to act the character that is given you and act it well; the choice of cast is
Anothers. (Epictetus; c. 100 A.D.)
Shakespeares most famous tag-line, that All the worlds a stage, and all
the men and women merely players, was for him no mere conceit. William
Shakespeares preeminence as a dramatist derives from it: without that informing
insight, his vaunted powers of imagination and language would have lacked a
form and a focus. Nothing is clearer in the plays he wrote than that he saw the
world in dramatic terms. His deepest conviction, I infer, was that the world is a
stage, and that his stage is therefore as true a picture of reality as human beings
Yet there is greater complexity to this informing insight than would at first
appear. This is because the idea that the world is a stage can be used to express
any point of view on human agency, from the most powerless and passive to the
most energetic and masterful. In the passage quoted above, Epictetus, a Stoic
philosopher with a bias toward resignation, not surprisingly emphasizes the lack
of control we human beings have in choosing the roles we play. But others have
seen in the analogy precisely the oppositethe world is a stage to be dominated
or even transformed by the best actors. Strangely, every one of these points of
view is taken by one or more of Shakespeares characters, and is variously
illustrated in the plays he wrote.

The Worlds A Stage

My purpose in this book is to demonstrate this conviction in the plays he

wrote, and to document the ways in which they are interpretable from that point
of view. Shakespeares meanings can never be exhausted, since they vary with
the interpreter and with the viewer. But the pre-condition for all his meanings
and in that sense his deepest meaningis the sustained connection he draws
between world and stage. For Shakespeare, this connection made it possible to
understand the course of human destiny, and to present that trajectory truly before
an audience in his theater.
Yet even though the world-stage comparison was old when Epictetus used
it, there is widespread resistance to the idea that life is a play. Its fortunes have
risen and fallen with the theaters own value and prestige. The comparison went
out of fashion during the anti-theatrical middle ages, but was revived in the
intensely theatrical Renaissance. Thus, we may surmise, the quality of an eras
drama depends in some significant degree on how willing playwrights and
audience alike are to see the world as a stage.

In Shakespeares hands the

comparison underwent an expansion into a comprehensive view of human life and

This expansion was accomplished by his use of what has come to be
known as metatheater, the presence of drama within drama. By mentioning,
discussing, and above all staging drama upon his stage, Shakespeare invites his
audience to think of their own lives in theatrical terms. This Shakespearean
technique, revived by twentieth-century dramatists such as Pirandello and
Beckett, was for a while an important object of Shakespearean analysis, until it
evolved into its apparent opposite, the contextual critical approach known as New
Historicism. By applying the concept of metatheater not merely to Shakespeare
but to his social context, New Historicists such as Stephen Greenblatt argued that
not merely Shakespeares drama but his age was theatrically self-conscious, and
subject to analysis in theatrical terms.
It would be foolish to deny the contributions of New Historicism to
changing and deepening our conception of the context in which Shakespeare
wrote and performed his plays. But New Historicism, by adopting Marxist and



social-scientific models of cultural analysis, relies on a deterministic model of

human activity, while Shakespeare employs both free-will and determinism as
valid (though competing) explanations of human destiny.
What enabled Shakespeare to use metatheater so effectively was its
paradoxical implications for him and his age. This paradox pointed both in the
direction of a predetermined script (written by God, fate, or the playwright) and
of a man-made world in which the players are free to improvise, with success
going to the most accomplished actors. It is between these two metatheatrical
poles that Shakespeares plays oscillate.
The latter view is in the ascendant in The Taming of the Shrew, for
example, which demonstrates how Petruccio teaches Katherine that Loving
Wife is a better part for her than that of Shrew. By putting that story in the
metatheatrical half-frame of Christopher Slys hoodwinking, Shakespeare shows
that already at this early stage of his playwriting career he is interested in the
theatrical nature of human experience. He thereby calls our attention to the
dramatic nature of life outside the theater doors.
Yet the world/stage comparison is fundamentally ambiguous: it can
suggest both the ability of human beings to control themselves and others by a
mastery of roles, and the contradictory view that we are merely characters in a
play not of our own making. Thus in A Midsummer Nights Dream Shakespeare
turns around and argues the other side of the paradox. This play undermines the
distinction between reality and dream in order to show that we do not
understand the world we live in, where we play parts written for us by an unseen
Toward the middle of his career, Shakespeares interest in the potential of
skilled role-players to control their world seems to have been especially keen. In
Henry V, for example, the playwright, following Machiavelli, displays Henry as
the paradigm of Renaissance rulers by virtue of his ability to play a wide variety
of roles. The mystery of Henrys motivation is dispelled if we see that he is in
fact an actor, determined to play the part of king to the best of his ability. And
yet the Epilog announces the failure of all his endeavors when the Playwright


The Worlds A Stage

rings down the curtainthereby maintaining the ambiguity of the world-stage

Rosalind is another example of an accomplished role-player dominating
the life around her by virtue of her dramatic abilities. In As You Like It
Shakespeare extends to a seemingly powerless woman the same abilities that
enable his masterful male characters like Petruccio and Richard III to take control
of events not merely by role-playing, but by actually becoming stage-directors
who coach others in how to perform their parts. Rosalind is driven by necessity
first to play the part of a man, and then to repair her own life and the lives of those
around her by directing the play in which she finds herself, even to the extent of
coaching others in the words they must say and how they must speak them. In
rewriting the scripts of others, Rosalind verges on becoming a playwright.
The power conferred upon a playwright on the stage of life is both
demonstrated and undermined in Hamlet. Hamlet is a versatile and effective roleplayer; who like Rosalind tries to take charge of his life by rewriting its script.
But he fails, and in failing he demonstrates the limits of the control that
dramaturgy gives us over our lives: There is a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.
But having set forth the limits of human control over human destiny,
Shakespeare did not thereby abandon the world-stage comparison. Rather, he
continued to explore its potential for statecraft. In Measure for Measure he
demonstrates that a masterful character like Duke Vincentio can actually play the
role of Gods terrestrial substitute to reverse the course of human destiny. In
order to solve the problems of his city, the duke engages in an elaborate role-play
that rewrites the script and thereby imitates the providential role of God.
Yet the paradoxical force of the analogy is always present in Shakespeare,
and although Prospero in some ways resembles Vincentio, at the end of his career
Shakespeare wearies of the godlike power that dramatic mastery confers,
recognizing that a wise reliance on luck or providence is necessary as our life
nears its final scene. This reading conflicts with the currently prevailing New
Historicist reading of The Tempest as an apology for colonialism. Prosperos



renunciation of his powers and his abandonment of Calibans island sends a more
complex and ambiguous message from that of contemporary advocates for
colonialism. Stripped of his authority by usurpation and exile, Prospero possesses
a certain measure of power due to his magic art. Yet his power has distinct

It enables him to bring a passing ship to his island, but not to be

transported back to Milan and reinstalled as its ruler.

To accomplish the latter goal, he must stage a drama that brings about a
change of heart in those who have wronged him. He must improvise a plan that
maneuvers several sets of characters into position to do the right thing, while he
keeps watch over the plans of blackguards to commit violence against himself and
others. The exercise of his power taxes him to the utmost, and leaves him at the
plays end happily planning to give it up and retire.
The world/stage identity is in Shakespeares theater so powerful an idea
precisely because it is capable of carrying opposite meanings: human beings,
capable of controlling so much of their own destinies, are ultimately characters in
a play written by a power greater than ours. Wisdom, for Shakespeare, lies in
recognizing both our ability to control events by deploying the dramatic powers of
acting, role-playing, stage-direction, and script writing, and, on the other hand,
recognizing when we must bow to the force of events that are beyond our control,
to the divinity that shapes our ends. It is this very ambiguity that gives the idea
such great effectiveness as the animating principle of Shakespeares theater.


The Worlds A Stage


The 1990 London production of Chekhovs The Three Sisters was a

troubled one. Its two stars, the famous Redgrave sisters, had stopped speaking to
each other. A whole lifetime of resentment of her prima donna older sister was
the background for Lynns anger, yet the occasion for her outburst was political.
Vanessa had used her celebrity as a platform from which to speak out against the
United States treatment of Palestinian Arabs. Lynn in turn criticized her sisters
presumption, saying Vanessa had no qualifications as a politicianshe was only
an actress: I think she always thought of herself as Joan of Arc, Lynn
complained. There is definitely a dramatic angle attached. Perhaps it is the
ultimate in being center stage.1
Apparently celebrities are not much different from you and me. Who
among us hasnt objected to some word or deed from a relative, colleague, or
acquaintance for being theatrical: for playing a part; putting on an act, or
making a scene? The linguistic fallout extends from the mild reproach of
youre dramatizing to dreadful words like histrionic and hypocrite, derived
from Greek and Latin words for actor.2 In the eyes of her sister, at least, not
even her profession of actress excuses Vanessa for acting. To play Joan of Arc in
the theater of political life is to exceed her prerogativeif not lying, it is nearly
so, a false claim to authority or expertise. This is the criticism Lynn made of
Vanessa, and the same logic underlies all such criticisms of the inappropriately
theatrical. Shakespeare to the contrary notwithstanding, even a theater person
like Lynn Redgrave dislikes the proposition that the world is a stage.
All the worlds a stage, one of Shakespeares most familiar half-lines,
was a pre-Socratic truism long before Shakespeare put it into the mouth of Jaques

The Worlds A Stage

in As You Like It.3 Original or not, it summarizes what every schoolchild knows
about our greatest playwrights view of life. And thats just the troubleit is so
familiar that we gradually forget how shocking and disturbing an idea it is in other
contexts. When, on occasion, we speak of the world in theatrical terms, we are
likely to mean that things are out of joint.
Witness the eminent historian William H. McNeill, who finds a symptom
of the diseases of our age in misplacedi.e. off-stagetheatricality:
Clear signs of trouble in American society and economy [he writes] are
not far to seek. The persistent trade deficit and the unwillingness of our
political leaders to balance government income and outgo by raising taxes
or lowering expenditures are outward indicators of deep-seated ills. Drug
addiction and crime are probably more important symptoms. Ethnic
frictions, creeping bureaucratization (private as well as public) and the
theatricalization of politics and society perhaps count as additional
indicators of social malfunctioning.4
Political life he finds is increasingly staged for Americans, who can be tricked
into adopting whatever view the politicians wish them to take. Yet we might ask
McNeill how modern theatricalizationghostwriters, presumably, spin-doctors,
entertainment news shows, and media-staged political eventsdiffers from the
effective use of the age-old arts of political persuasion? If those same techniques
were used in the service of what McNeill approvesraising taxes; controlling the
trade deficit; reducing drug addiction, crime, and ethnic tensionswould he
complain about the theatricality of the process? I think not; but I also think he
would not refer to it as theatrical. We save this word to stigmatize illegitimate
persuasion. When, on the other hand, the arts of representation are employed in
public life to advance what we consider righteous causes, then we are very
unlikely to think of those means as theatrical.
If Lynn Redgrave had approved Vanessas support of the Palestinian
cause, or if her sisters dramatic gifts had been used in support of a cause Lynn
agreed with, would she have reproached her actress sister for acting? My guess
based on her own television commercials portraying herself as someone who has
enhanced her life by eating frozen diet entrees - is that she would not. She might

Chapter One: Shakespeare and the Dramatic View of Life

defend the latter as truthful, but this is precisely how Vanessa views her support
of Palestinian refugees. One persons deception or manipulation, we must
conclude, is anothers persuasion, and when we approve of its motives we rarely
if ever call it or think of it as theatricality.

The skillful use of theatrical

techniques confers power, and it is this powerin the wrong handsthat we

consistently want to unmask by labeling it as deception.
But when Jaques makes his famous claim that All the worlds a stage he
does not even mention deception. Duke Senior introduces the topic of theater
when he observes that we human beings are both audience to the spectacle of
human suffering, and actors in our own spectacle:
Thou seest we are not all alone unhappy.
This wide and universal theatre
Presents more woeful pageants than the scene
Wherein we play in.
(As You Like It, 2.7.135-8; my emphasis)5
For the Duke, the world is a universe of scenes in which we perform for
the edification of others, while we watch them similarly playing out their lives for
our enlightenment. In this world-theater, every actor is also a member of the
audience. This, be it noted, is an entirely natural, or at least an involuntary
function of humanitys histrionic propertieswe are actors and audience whether
or not we choose to be, or even notice that we are.
Jaques adopts the Dukes conceit of a universal theatre, expanding it to
enumerate the variety of roles we play in the course of a lifetime. Ignoring
deception, as had the Duke, he further naturalizes role-playing by making it a
function of aging. In Jaques version, human beings play a prescribed sequence
of roles, from infancy to a senile second childhood; yet at any one time, he
implies, we are trapped in the role assigned us by our time of life:
All the worlds a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. . . . (2.7.138-42)

The Worlds A Stage

Over a lifetime we play a succession of roles, starting with that of infant,

and then going on to school child, lover, soldier, judge, and geezer, until finally
senility brings us to second childhood:
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange, eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. (162-5)

Jaques equation of these seven ages of man to a sequence of seven

roles in the human life-cycle argues that none of us is a single stable person, but a
succession over time of a series of biologically-determined social identities.6 But
this scheme allows for no choice in our selection of roles: we change, perforce, as
we age, but we have no control over the process, nor do we have a repertoire of
roles such as a deceiver would need. Instead we are locked into a particular
persona for, on average, ten years at a stretch.
Duke Senior too, though his comparison of world to stage includes
audience as well as actors, seems to allow little choice in the roles men and
women can play, and hence little room for deception. Deception is a crux for
those who attack theatricality in everyday life. Although stage-plays do not aim
to deceive us, but merely to reproduce reality for our enjoyment, when deception
is present in real life, then the theater has crossed a moral line.
But Shakespeare does not seem to agree with this wholesome moralism. His
plays, at least, do not clearly endorse our deeply held beliefs in the importance of
sincerity and authenticity. Deceivers and their gulls include most of his protagonists
and antagonists from Proteus and Julia to Prospero and his brother. Shakespeares
characters deceive each other for good as well as bad motivessome of his best
human beings, like Viola and Rosalind, Kent and Edgar, Hamlet and Duke
Vincentio, Portia and Hermione, engage in elaborate deceptions in order to compass
their ends. This willingness to deceive, we might be forced to admit, is what makes
the plays they inhabit good theateri.e. theatrical.
Even blunt, plainspoken characters like Bolingbroke in Richard II, and Kent

Chapter One: Shakespeare and the Dramatic View of Life

in King Lear, are adept at role-playing when they need to be. From these examples
and a host of others we might easily infer that Shakespeare not only sees everyone in
this world as an actor, unable to put off one mask except by putting on another, but
actually advocates role-playing as a solution to lifes more difficult dilemmas.
A simple dichotomy between truth-tellers and liars is not his way of
thinking. To Shakespeare it is not so clear whether Bollingbroke is right to depose
Richard, whether Iago has a legitimate grievance against Othello, or Shylock against
Antonio, whether whoever loves loves at first sight, or even whether it is important
above all things to be true to oneself. All of these views are affirmed at certain
places in his plays, only to be denied at others. For Shakespeare we are all actors,
who differ from each other chiefly in our degree of awareness that we are acting, in
the degree of skill with which we play our parts, and in the goodness or badness of
the motives from which we act.
Yet even with these criteria in mind, we will often be hard-pressed to
discover what he thinks of his creatures.

Morally, as on most other matters,

Shakespeare is complex, even ambivalent, in his outlook. Like the great globe itself,
Shakespeare does not take sides, but allows each actor to strut and fret his hour upon
the stage. He has his favorites, like Hamlet or Cordelia, but often reserves his
cruelest outcomes for them. There is much stripping away of illusion to get at
reality in Shakespeares plays, but even those apparent realities are contested. At the
end of A Midsummer Nights Dream, for example, the wedding guests laugh at a
silly play, wholly unaware that they are characters in a silly play watched by an
audience invisible to them. When we laugh at their smugness, we fail to consider
the possibility that we too are being watched, and laughed at.
The true contest in Shakespeare is not between illusion and reality, but
between various views of reality, each competing with the others for dominance.
Yet his plays are not spineless, nor are they incoherent. Rather, from first to last, but
with a growing depth of insight, they argue, illustrate, and model their creators
deeply held belief that the world is a stage.

The Worlds A Stage

To test this idea, lets enter his theater. The First Part of Henry VI,

perhaps his earliest play, is beginning.7 The Duke of Bedford walks on stage to
inform us that Englands heroic King Henry V is dead. Bedford gestures upward:

Hung be the heavens with black! Yield day to night!

(1HVI, 1.1.1)

World and stage merge in an unobtrusive pun on heavens, the name of

the roof over an Elizabethan theaters thrust stage. If this were a tragedy the
heavens would indeed be hung with black draperies, but Bedford asks us to
imagine it instead, at this tragic moment in Englands history, the beginning of the
civil wars called the Wars of the Roses.
With the same words Bedford is also commanding the bright afternoon of
an outdoor performance to yield to an imagined nighttime, and indeed light seems
to dim. The world itself is Gods handiwork, so it is easy to see the world as a
stage, where Gods creatures act out His purposes. Made in the image of God,
man too is a creator, so it is easy to see the stage as a world created by human
beings, mimicking God.
The reference of the word heavens to a stage-canopy no longer applies
to indoor stages, but if we return for the sequel, we will see Queen Katherine put a
paper crown on her prisoner, the rebel Duke of York, to mock him as a "player
kinga pretender. (3HVI , 1.4.57-109) Yet the man upon whose head the crown is
placed is, to the audience, also a pretender in a second sensenot a real king but an
actor impersonating the Duke of York, a fraud impersonating another fraud. The
world is again, momentarily at least, revealed as just another stage.
And later in the same play the newly deposed King confronts his would-be
murderer with: What scene of death hath Roscius now to act? (3HVI, 5.6.10)
Again the allusion to a stage play is perfectly casual and appropriate: for a
moment Henry sees himself as an actor in a stage-play, which is also true at this
moment of the actor playing Henry.

Chapter One: Shakespeare and the Dramatic View of Life

Nothing is required of the audienceno alienation effect, no shiver of

the uncanny, no recognition that Henrys words are true in more ways than one.
For this audience Henrys historic death in 1471 is not identical to its reenactment
on stage, but neither is it entirely distinct. Like the Eucharist, simultaneously
bread and wine on the one hand and flesh and blood on the other, the actor
playing Henry is both himself and Henry at the same time, just as Henry is both
himself and the Roman actor Roscius.
Certainly there are distinctions between the man and his role, but they are
not so sharp and absolute in Shakespeare as they became when the age of
reason insisted on the total distinction between word and thing, stage and world.
In fact, even today, unless we are in the grip of our philosophical prejudice
against theatrical representation, I think we still do confuse actor and role, and
respond to events on stage or screen as though they were really happeningas
in a real sense they are.
In another early play, Titus Andronicus, the raped and mutilated Lavinia
opens her fathers Ovid to a story that mirrors her trauma, hoping thus to
communicate without words what has happened to her. The stratagem works, and
her father guesses her purpose:
TITUS Lavinia, wert thou thus surprised, sweet girl,
Ravished and wronged as Philomela was,
Forced in the ruthless, vast, and gloomy woods?
The tongueless woman emphatically assents, and Titus calls to mind a likely
spotAy, such a place there is where we did huntwhereupon his outraged
brother Marcus shouts: O, why should nature build so foul a den, Unless the gods
delight in tragedies? (4.1.51-9)
All of these moments are brief and unemphatic. They scarcely risk breaking
the illusion that what we are watching is real life, rather than a staged
representation. Yet they are early instances of what would later become elaborate
explorations on Shakespeares part of what it means for the world to be a stage, the
stage a world.

The Worlds A Stage

Shakespeare raised the question of the ontological statusthe realityof

what he was staging in two of his early plays: in the Induction to The Taming of the
Shrew and in the Epilogue to A Midsummer Nights Dream.8 The foregrounding of
artifice in those plays, the plays-within-plays, the admission, or boast, that his drama
was but a dream (MND, Epilogue, 6) were not welcome to subsequent critics,
starting in the Restoration period, who saw him as the untutored poet of Nature, and
deplored in Shakespeare whatever smacked of artifice and self-consciousness.
The view of Shakespeare as Nature's poet had a very long runthe
difference between Samuel Johnson in the mid-eighteenth century and A.C. Bradley
one hundred and fifty years later is measured in the fact that while Johnson
condemned Shakespeare's artificiality Bradley simply ignored it.9 Since "Realism"
in the sense of truth to the scientific picture of reality was the highest literary
criterion of his time, Bradley could hardly afford to emphasize Shakespeare's
theatrical view of life.10
Not surprisingly, given this longstanding reputation for being Natures poet,
Shakespeare was a late addition to the list of those writers who were seen as having
anticipated modernism. Self-conscious art only gradually became palatable to the
public, especially in the realm of "the classics," which enjoyed their status due to a
supposed correspondence to unchanging nature.11 So it was only in the 'sixties that a
global term was found to designate Shakespeares repeated equation of the world
and the stage. In his book Metatheater: A New View of Dramatic Form, Lionel Abel
took for granted that this equation, which he called metatheater, is invariably a
distancing device, and that Hamlet is the grandaddy of the modernist plays of
Pirandello, Genet, Beckett, and others.
For Abel the essence of tragedy was the playwright's and audience's shared
belief in God or "the gods." Without that belief there is no transcendence, and life is
absurd: it has only the contingent, variable meaning given it by our own minds: "I
have defined metatheater as resting on two basic postulates, Able writes: (1) the
world is a stage and (2) life is a dream." (105)
Abel assumed that the inevitable effect of theatrical self-reference would
be to call into question the realism or truthfulness of the world apparently

Chapter One: Shakespeare and the Dramatic View of Life

conjured up upon his stage. But when Shakespeares plays draw attention to their
own theatricality, the effect is not to disillusion the audience about the
performance, but rather to argue that the world, too, is a stage.
Shakespeare is ambiguous about the degree of human freedom and power
upon that stage. Sometimes, as when Petruccio tames a shrew, the power of
human beings to control the world seems great. But at other times Shakespeare
views the world as a stage on which we have no control, where we are forced to
perform tragedies for the savage entertainment of the gods. In two early plays,
The Taming of the Shrew and in A Midsummer Nights Dream, probably written
close together, he explores opposing views of human versus divine control of the
world. Later, as in Hamlet, he has it both ways at once.
Near the end Hamlet reports to Horatio his discovery that his life resembles a
Our indiscretion sometime serves us well
When our dear plots do pall, and that should teach us
There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.(5.2.8-11)
"Deep plots," Hamlet asserts, like those he and the king have constructed to
ensnare each other, have been miscarrying since Act One. Now, however, Hamlet
likens his own life to a play in which he is not free to plot, but yet can play his
assigned part well if he chooses, and thereby derive satisfaction from the outcome.
He discovers the full dramatic view of life, and he communicates that discovery to
us, his audience, as well as to Horatio.
Such moments of theatrical self-awareness, where characters speak or act as
though they knew they were in a play, are not uncommon in Shakespeare, but only
in the past few decades have critics been able to discuss them as a global
phenomenon. According to Lionel Abel, when the metatheatrical play reveals itself
to be an illusion, it gives us a truthful picture of the world as well, which is also an
Yet often enough Shakespeare's metatheatrical moments do not assert that
the world is a human fictionthey suggest rather that the world is like a play written


The Worlds A Stage

by a superhuman hand. On such a view the world unfolds for its human cast and
audience like a playscript, of which God (or some transcendent entity) is the
playwright, and we discover as we strut and fret upon his stage whether we are hero,
villain, or foolPrince Hamlet or an attendant lord.
At about the same time as Abel, Anne Barton, without benefit of the term
"metatheater," set herself to account for the obsessive pattern of theatrical selfreference and plays-within-plays in Tudor and Stuart drama, and most of all in

In a frame-play, a favorite metatheatrical device of Elizabethan

dramatists, the actors on stage explain to the audience what is going to happen and
then settle in to watch, thereby modeling behavior for the real audience. When the
audience quieted down, Barton tells us, they found that they had a new and
wonderful experience, that of illusion: they were transported to other times and
places, while skillful professional actors counterfeited the actions of historical or
imaginary people in language of wonderful mimetic and evocative power.
Theatrical self-consciousness, according to Barton, did not destroy the
reality-effect but enhanced it rather.

Audiences, she wrote, found realism in

Shakespeare's theater because they too regarded the world as a stage:

In sermons and song-books, chronicles and popular pamphlets, Elizabethans
were constantly being reminded of the fact that life tends to imitate the theater. .
.. It was this general recognition of the theatrical nature of life which made the
new relationship of actors and audience possible. . . . It allowed Elizabethan
dramatists to write plays that were perfectly self-contained, to invent fragile,
romantic countries upon which the audience could not safely intrude, and yet at
the same time preserve a sense of rapport with the galleries and pit.12
But if thinking changes, and the audience is no longer willing to see the
world as a stage, then all of Shakespeare's self-referential devices will come to seem
"artificial," as they came to seem in the age that succeeded Shakespeare's.13 In fact,
however, artifice is in the eye of the beholder. Such devices as the play-within-aplay can equally well be taken as reflecting either nature or artifice depending upon
the audience's sense of whether the world is properly represented as a stage.14 My
guess is that in Shakespeares metaphysically perplexed time they could be taken as

Chapter One: Shakespeare and the Dramatic View of Life


either natural or artificial, and by some supremely balanced mindsthe Bards

includedas both simultaneously.
Not that ambiguity was unique to Shakespeare and his age. Ambiguity is
present in every eras attempts to explain the cosmos and humanity's place within it,
but different periods of Western culture have dealt differently with their need for
competing, mutually exclusive paradigms of reality.

At either end of the

Renaissance, in the high Middle Ages and again in the eighteenth century, the
dominant European opinion-makers were equally intolerant of ambiguity. In the
high middle ages, St. Thomas Aquinas subordinated reason to faith by "reconciling"
Aristotle to Christian metaphysics, and his successors waged a long war in







heliocentrismthat seemed to undermine Biblical authority. When, five centuries

after St. Thomas, the Age of Reason invoked God as the First Cause, the enabler of
universal reason, it did so in order to dismiss Him as beyond the scope of rational
inquiry: "Presume not God to scan. The proper study of mankind is Man," wrote
Alexander Pope, in An Essay on Man.15 And of course the Enlightenments tools for
studying Man were human observation and reason, not faith and Scripture. Since
then, despite all attempts to make the words under God part of our public
discourse, study of mankind and the natural world have in the West far outstripped
our interest in the divine.
But philosophically the period in which Shakespeare wrote is defined as the
period in which these cosmological issues were not definitively settled. In the
Renaissance, theocentrism and anthropocentrism engaged in a mighty tussle for
ascendancy, and Shakespeare, no philosopher, had no need even to appear to
commit himself to one single model exclusively. Routinely a Shakespeare play
straddles competing paradigms, as in "What a piece of work is Man ... Yet Man
delights not me" or "there is a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how
we will." From the instability and tension of competing paradigms he drew the
epistemological energy that lies behind his drama. As audience we often must (and
do) resolve such ambiguities, but Shakespeare's plays do not answer them for us, and


The Worlds A Stage

our struggle to resolve Shakespeare's ambiguities is what makes interpreting the

plays meanings so involving, and yet so endless, a task.
Many Shakespeare scholars have not recognized the full metaphysical
implications of Shakespearean ambiguity, and thereby have diminished his plays in
the name of clarifying them.16

The best critics, however, are able to tolerate

Shakespeares ambiguity. Alvin Kernan, in his book, The Playwright as Magician

(1979), draws a portrait of Shakespeare as a world-creating artist, a modernist
"magus" who relishes playing God and yet is aware that he is only playing. Kernan,
in short, recognizes the ambiguity of the world-stage analogy, which can stand both
for the degree of control we human beings have over our lives, and for our ultimate
lack of control.
But one large problem of would-be biographers emerges from Kernan's book
as wellnamely that an inner life must be invented for the playwright to match a
reading of immensely complex, infinitely interpretable plays.

Since details of

Shakespeare's life are not abundant, the hermeneutic circle is particularly vicious in
his casein the richly ambiguous plays and the spare, minimal life-records almost
any pattern may be, and has been, discovered.17 Enter Stephen Greenblatt, who
converted Kernans biographical argument into an historical one.
Like his earlier book on Sir Walter Raleigh18 Stephen Greenblatt's
Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980) begins in what seems the biographical mode,
applying the world-stage equivalence to certain virtuoso performers of the English
Renaissance who rose to fame, power, and occasional martyrdom by role-playing
and a gift for self-invention.19 Yet as the book moves from Thomas More and
William Tyndale, to the poets Thomas Wyatt and Edmund Spenser, and then to
Christopher Marlowe and finally to Shakespeare, Greenblatt shifts his attention
away from writers who were public figures toward the more elusive sphere of the
playwright. Marlowe and above all Shakespeare were writers whose "identity" we
do not know, but whose work comes close to epitomizing an entire culture.
The effect of this progression is to suggest that the connections between
literature and the real world are as present in Shakespeare as they were in Raleigh or
More, but that Shakespeare's fictions mirror not one egocentric individual but a

Chapter One: Shakespeare and the Dramatic View of Life


whole culture. Englandindeed all of Western Europewas in the initial stages of

reaching out to dominate the entire world by means of its ability to play multiple
roles, and Renaissance Europe found in Shakespeares plays its quintessential
Where earlier critics saw Shakespeare the playwright epitomized in
Prosperothe white magician who has great power to change certain facts of life
but also has learned from sad experience his own limitsGreenblatt sees
Shakespeare most urgently in Iago, the liar as culture hero. Thus for the first time in
recent memory not The Tempest, Hamlet, or King Lear, but Othello is offered as the
quintessential Shakespeare play, and that play is read as the metadrama, Iago:
Master of Deceit.
For Greenblatt Iago is, as Shakespeare probably was, the hollow man who
can be filled only by adopting the language and the purposes of another, in order
to dominate that other. Empathic toward those who have what he wants, namely
rank and status, Iago intuits that Othello feels adulterous in his marriage, and uses
Othello's guilt to turn him against Desdemona. Ultimately the play seems to
condemn Iago, but only after allowing him to fascinate us for four and one-half
actsfor after all, can Shakespeare have been so different from Iago?


possessed," Greenblatt observes,

a limitless talent for entering into the consciousness of another, perceiving its
deepest structures as a manipulable fiction, reinscribing it into his own
narrative form. . . . Shakespeare became the presiding genius of a popular,
urban art form with the capacity to foster psychic mobility in the service of
Elizabethan power . . . the power of the prince who stands as an actor upon a
stage before the eyes of the nation, the power of God who enacts His will in
the Theater of the World. (Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to
Shakespeare, 252-3.)
If we hark back to Anne Barton's innocent statement of the Elizabethan
theatrical view of life"It allowed Elizabethan dramatists to write plays that were
perfectly self-contained, to invent fragile, romantic countries upon which the
audience could not safely intrude" (cf. above, p. 9)we can see how much darker,
how much more power-centered, is Greenblatt's interpretation of the world as stage.


The Worlds A Stage

Why does Greenblatt see Shakespeare as so sinister a phenomenon? The question

raises the whole issue of the shift in the last twenty years from a modernist to a
postmodernist agenda in Shakespeare studies.20 In his methodological introduction
to Renaissance Self-Fashioning Greenblatt pays large tribute to cultural
anthropology, particularly the work of Clifford Geertz, for perfecting the Marxist
materialist view of culture by explaining the role of human discourselanguage,
writing, textsin the functioning, transmission, and gradual transformation of
human culture. Geertz defines "culture" as "a set of control mechanismsplans,
recipes, rules, instructions . . .for the governing of behavior." (Geertz, 44, 49;
quoted by Greenblatt, Renaissance Self Fashioning, 3).
So defined, culture is virtually synonymous with symbol-systems and their
deployment in discourse, for what else are "control mechanisms" but discourse
embodied in and enforced by human agents? Literature, an important sub-set of
human discourse, is according to Greenblatt one more set of controls on human
behavior: "Literature functions . . . as a manifestation of the concrete behavior of its
particular author, as itself the expression of the codes by which behavior is shaped,
and as a reflection upon those codes."(RSF 4)
So understood, the plays of Shakespeare are supremely artful examples of
the replication of cultural codes in readers and audiences for the purpose of mindcontrol. New Historicism, like other versions of post-modernism, is radically
deterministic, with an hypostatized Culture taking the place of chance, fate, or
Gods will.

But Shakespeares paradoxical understanding of the human

situationfree, yet subject to the influence of a higher powershould not lightly

be identified with either a radical Existentialist individualism, as modernism
taught, or with a Marxist determinism, as New Historicism would have it.
As a term that accommodates both determinism and free will, metatheater is
a viable metaphor for what goes on in the worldhuman activity and experience
resembles a play, both in its susceptibility to human agency, and in the limits to
which human agency is subject. If not, if metatheater applies merely to plays, then it
is merely a category of formalism, and it will not answer to our history's need for
cultural criticism. Is the world a stage, and are we merely actors? And if so is this a

Chapter One: Shakespeare and the Dramatic View of Life


malignant phenomenon, one more way in which ruling classes dominate and control,
as New Historicism often argues or implies? Or does the analogy also have positive
potential as well? Are individualism's days numbered, or is there cultural value
even for the oppressedin an individual mastery of roles? On such questions may
hinge the future usefulness of the concept of metatheatrical criticism. Modernism's
man-centered, existentialist metatheatricalism is no less one-sided than is
postmodernism's deterministic version, but the strength of the world/stage equation
lies in its ambiguityits ability to suggest both freedom and determinism.21
In my own teaching, I find "all the world's a stage" a useful way of summing
up the world-view of Shakespeare's plays. Most of his memorable characters, from
Petruchio to Prospero, are role-players, improvisers, and even "playwrights," and
most of the action of his plays can be analyzed as "acting": i.e. the attempt to
influence the behavior of other characters by the arts of language and representation.
Frequently deception is involved, but not always; and even when deception is
involved, Shakespeare does not seem to condemn it automatically, but only if it is in
the service of wicked ends.
The goodness or wickedness of ends is the province, for Shakespeare, of
Christianity. We may define our higher power differently, but even if we worship
the goddess Culture we will not therefore exempt ourselves from recognizing that
though the aims are ours, the ends are none of our own. There is a divinity that
shapes our ends, whatever guise our divinity wears.
This dualistic, "both/and" approach to Shakespeare's world, and to our own,
is a metatheatrical approach to the plays, but it is not a mere formalism, since it is
connected to the real world both ethically and descriptively. And it is a profoundly
ambiguous approach, since at any time in any Shakespeare play, and in our own
lives, the role-players inside or outside the theater may be seen as not free, but in the
control of an unseen Playwright. This is a part reserved in our world for God, or
increasingly in our more secular agefor some equivalent higher power like History
or Culture.
When we have done blaming Shakespeare for his part in creating or
reinforcing the patriarchal authority-structures that we seem at last to be outgrowing,


The Worlds A Stage

we may once again be grateful for the supreme insight into the world that he left us,
a pre-Socratic truism that he turned into a philosophic synthesis of Western culture
and exemplified with a multitude of the most profound and useful parables in our
entire cultural heritage: all the world's a stage, and the people in it merely players,
and each of us in our time plays many parts.
Therefore: Play well! And above all: Play good!


Anchorage Daily News, March 5, 1991, p. A-2

With infrequent exceptions, terms borrowed from the theatertheatrical, operatic,

melodramatic, stagey, etc.tend to be hostile or belittling. And so do a wide range of
expressions drawn from theatrical activity expressly to convey disapproval: acting, play
acting, playing up to, putting on an act, putting on a performance, making a scene,
making a spectacle of oneself, playing to the gallery, and so forth. . . . Others like
showing off, grandstanding, playing to the crowd, point to an insistence on being at the
center of attention. The same notion appears in other languages . . . . (Barish, 1;155-6)

The pre-Socratic philosopher Democritus (c. 460-380 B.C.) is credited with saying
something to the effect of:
The Worlds a Stage, Lifes a Play
You come, you look, you go away.
Here the use of the word stage is an anachronism, however: Greek drama was not
performed on a stage, but in front of a tent (skene, hence our word scene) where the
actors could change costume. Lynda Christian, in Theatrum Mundi, points out that there
were no theaters in Democrituss time, and obviously, the metaphor cannot predate
theaters and acting.(2) Democritus is known only from the citations of later writers, and
the anachronism is resolved if we posit that originally he referred not to the play-acting of
a later age, but to the pageants or spectacles attendant on religious festivals.

"Winds of Change", in Foreign Affairs 69:4 (Fall '90), p. 159.

References to the works of Shakespeare are to Stephen Greenblatt, et. al. eds. The
Norton Shakespeare (New York: Norton, 1997).

Commenting on this passage, Louis Montrose observes that Shakespeare frequently

focuses dramatic action precisely between the social acts, between the sequential ages, in
the fictive lives of his characters. Many of the plays turn upon points of transition in the
life cyclebirth, puberty, marriage, death (and, by extension, inheritance and
succession)where discontinuities arise and where adjustments are necessary to basic
interrelationships in the family, the household, and the society at large. These dramatic
actions have a partial affinity with rites of passage, which give a social shape, order, and
sanction to human existence. (Purpose of Playing, 33)

Chapter One: Shakespeare and the Dramatic View of Life


Many scholars believe, on grounds of stylistic and textual evidence, that 1HVI was
written after 2HVI and 3HVI, but it seems to me as likely as any to be Shakespeares
earliest extant play. According to Philip Henslows record, Lord Stranges Men
performed Harey vj and Titus and Vespacia in 1592. Assuming that these were
Shakespeares plays, they are the first to receive recorded notice, but although Titus
Andronicus was soon published (1594), The First Part of Henry the Sixth was not printed
until it appeared in the First Folio of 1623. Since the same is true of half of
Shakespeares plays, however, including others that are indubitably early, I suggest that
he began the story at the beginning, with 1HVI, and that it may be the play listed by

Shrew was first published in the First Folio in 1623, but a play closely resembling it,
and thought to be based on Shakespeares play, was printed in 1594. Dream was printed
in 1600, but was mentioned in Thomas Meres Pallidis Tamia in 1598. Current wisdom
assigns Shrew to 1592 or thereabouts, and Dream perhaps to 1595 or 96, which puts
them both in the first quartile of a playwriting career that lasted from about 1590 to about

Preface to Shakespeare, p. 673.


Well into the twentieth century it was left to the otherwise obscure Doris Fenton, in the
high-noon of the modernist period, to point out what should have been (and doubtless
was) obvious to any schoolchildthat Shakespeare repeatedly breached the eternal rules
of stage realism by periodically reminding his viewers that they were watching a play
(The Extra-Dramatic Moment in Elizabethan Plays before 1616 [Philadelphia: Univ. of
PA, 1930]). Fenton takes a stance of scientific neutrality toward her topic, which she
subdivides into four types: "the comic address", "appeals for sympathy", "expository
addresses", and "didactic addresses." She is aware that Eugene O'Neill recently revived
the soliloquy in his play, Strange Interlude, but she cannot resist calling the
Shakespearean fondness for "extra-dramatic" speech "childlike"(11), nor does she dissent
from pre-modernist standards of stage realism that she considers "absolute""Judged by
an absolute standard of dramatic technique, their shortcomings are undeniable"(87)
even though by 1930 this supposedly absolute standard had already been subverted by a
generation of modernist self-consciousness.

At mid-century even first-rate critics like William Empson and Maynard Mack could see
in Hamlet's pervasive metatheatricality only one more symptom of Denmark's rottenness.
Empson argued that Shakespeare's way of handling the problem of Hamlet's baffling
motivation was essentially to have the prince inform his audience in soliloquy that even he
(Hamlet, Shakespeare) could not imagine a plausible motive for delay:
I think Shakespeare's audiences did regard his Hamlet as taking a "modern"
attitude to his situation, just as Bernard Shaw did. This indeed was one of the
major dramatic effects of the new treatment. He walks out to the audience and
says "You think this an absurd old play, and so it is, but I'm in it, and what can I
do?" (William Empson Essays on Shakespeare (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986)
pp. 102, 104. The essay was originally published in Sewanee Review 61[Winter and
Spring 1953].)


The Worlds A Stage

And Mack justified the presence of such self-referential devices as the play-within-a-play
by making them stand for the epistemologically negative quality of illusion:
Here on the stage before us is a play of false appearances in which an actor called
the player-king is playing. But there is also on the stage, Claudius, another playerking . . . . ("The World of Hamlet")

Pp.83-4. Eventually Barton granted that in Shakespeare's hands dramatized drama became
more than a technical device: it is also "a meditation upon the nature of the theater, a
meditation which, between the Henry VI plays and The Tempest, reflects a series of
changing attitudes towards the relation of illusion and reality."(89) Barton sees this change
as occurring after Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, which unlike Empson she sees as "the last in
a series of vindications of the theater, an affirmation of the power of the stage."(164) But,
she goes on "ideas of disorder, futility and pride . . . came to surround the actor and the play
in Shakespeare's work after Hamlet."(169)

Soliloquies, for example, are not unheard-of in "real life": people sometimes talk to
themselves when they are alone, or think they are, and sometimes Shakespeare's characters
are overheard while soliloquizing, as Malvolio is overheard while reading a forged letter
from Olivia. Sometimes too people think out loud in front of other people. Perhaps the
chief epistemological ground for the soliloquy and the aside, however, is that God was
thought of as seeing into the human soul, and the theater audience could from time to time
be granted this godlike omniscience too. It is the "godlike" perspective that has come to
seem increasingly problematic since Shakespeare's time: even if God exists, how can we
know how He views things? Meanwhile, we human beings are unable to overhear people's
inner thoughts in the real world, and so to have that power in the theater is an artificial
departure from verisimilitude.


As Maynard Mack put it in a later article:

The effect of the stage and world comparison is to pull us in both directions
simultaneously, reminding us of the real world whose image the playhouse is, but
also of the playhouse itself and the artifice we are taking part in. If the travelling
players in Hamlet solidify the realism of the play by the lesser realism of the fictions
they bring to it, they also nourish our sense of the play as an artful composition
made up of receding planes where almost everybody is engaged in some sort of 'act'
and seeks to be 'audience' to somebody else. ("Engagement and Detachment in
Shakespeare's Plays," 281).

Here Mack seems to admit that an inset play can have either effect on an audience. Either it
can make the main play seem realer by comparison, or it can remind us that we too are
watching a play. In either case, however, the presence of drama-within-drama had become a
more important fact for Mack in 1963 than it had been a decade earlier, probably because the
ascendancy of modernism as an aesthetic had made self-reference on stage no longer seem a
flaw but a virtue, and ambiguity of effect no longer an irritant but a complex, "sophisticated"
puzzle for the audience to struggle with.

Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man (1733-4) Second Epistle, line 2.

Chapter One: Shakespeare and the Dramatic View of Life



Thomas Stroup, for example, , tried to demonstrate that Shakespeare was unequivocally
theocentric. As best I can judge, he writes:
the Elizabethan stage was as realistic as it could easily be in the representation of
what it was pretty obviously designed to represent: a little world where men could
see themselves represented, as in Sidney's speaking picture, strutting, fretting, torn
and tested, but always maintaining their proper place in the world and their proper
relationship with the whole of creation. . . . On this basis we may the better explain
the disregard for classical precepts and practices such as the mixture of tragic and
comic, or the better realize the encompassing actions of the plays, or the better
account for the remarkable amount of pageantry and ritual in them, or explain why
all estates and degrees of men are found in almost all plays, or why the scenes of
any one play, often quite indefinitely indicated, may reach from heaven to hell or be
scattered over the face of the earth, or why the motif of testing the Christian hero is
so prevalent in both tragedy and comedy." (35-6).

The problem with Stroups admirable summary of the medieval elements in Shakespeare is
that it completely misses the ways in which the latter puts in question the very paradigm that
Stroup demonstrates it was built on, just as Abel misses what Stroup sees, and mistakes
Shakespeare's problematizing of the medieval Christian cosmos for agreement with Abel's
own existentialism.

Such, at least, is the thesis of Shakespeare's most scholarly biographer, Sam Schoenbaum,
in his book on Shakespeare's biographers, Shakespeare's Lives. New ed. (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1991), and on Shakespeare's life: William Shakespeare: A Compact
Documentary Life, Rev. ed. (NY: Oxford UP, 1987).


Sir Walter Ralegh[sic]: The Renaissance Man and His Roles (1973) Not a full-blown
biography, but not simply a discussion of Ralegh's literary production either, this book
argues that Raleigh's life and his art have a common theme: the world is a stage, and we are
all actors on that stage. "At his execution," Greenblatt writes,
as at other crucial moments of his life, Ralegh displayed the talents of a great actor.
Again and again we see him performing a brilliant part in what he called "this stageplay world", reciting his splendid lines, twisting facts for dramatic effect,
passionately justifying his actions, and transforming personal crises into the
universal struggle of virtu and fortuna. Emotions are exaggerated, alternatives are
sharpened, moods are dramatized. Ralegh's letters, like his actions, reveal a man for
whom self-dramatization was a primary response to crisis.(xi)
Yet something more is going on in Raleigh's role-playing than Faustian self-assertion, as
Greenblatt readily acknowledges:
In the ensuing pages, I shall frequently use the word "role." I have adopted the term
more for its convenience than its precision; indeed its very vagueness is of some
value in this context. For I wish to have a single term to designate a variety of related
aspects of Ralegh's personality and behavior, ranging from a deliberate and
prearranged performance to an all but unconscious fashioning of the self. . .
Regardless of the consequences, Ralegh had to maintain his vision of himself as the


The Worlds A Stage

discoverer of a golden world. This role was part of his very identity; he could not put
it on or off like his feigned sickness on the road to London.(7)
This unconscious is not Freudian, for it has nothing to do with repressed sexuality or
other taboos. It is closer to the Jungian "collective unconscious," but although Raleigh
sometimes portrayed himself as a new Odysseus discovering gold in the Hesperides, he
was actually a pirate who plundered Spanish galleons and a would-be conquistador trying
to enrich himself and his queen by plundering the New World. The "unconscious" that
Greenblatt is working his way toward will be revealed in his next book to be none other
than the goddess Culture.

A likely source of Greenblatt's key term, "self-fashioning," is to be found in Thomas

Greenes "The Flexibility of the Self in Renaissance Literature." In that article, Greene
traces the humanist idea of human freedom from its extravagantly optimistic origins in Pico
della Mirandola and Juan Luis Vives to disillusionment in Don Quixote.


Ambiguity is inherently unstable. The human mind wants to tilt toward one horn or the
other, and by and large modernist critics liked to resolve the dilemma in favor of existential
freedom. But modernism lost its hold on academic taste sometime around 1980, after which
the trend favored a new kind of determinism, which named itself Cultural Materialism (in
Britain) or the New Historicism (in the United States). The equilibrium in metatheatrical
criticism between competing paradigms began tilting the other way, as politics decreed
paradox to be a dilettante evasion of the real issues.
In Shakespeare studies, this repositioning is interestingly registered in the personal
epilog to Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (1980), where
Greenblatt registers his own sense of having lived through a paradigm-shift, a reversal of
figure and groundthe moment (though he does not use these terms) when modern
Shakespeare studies became postmodern.
This shift reflected, or resulted in, a shift in power to a younger generation of
scholars and critics who saw the world in different terms from their older colleagues.
Because power is at stake, banner-words like "modernism" and "postmodernism" are
politically charged terms, whose definitions are contested. In my view, modernism is best
described as the aggregate of literary theories propounded by Joyce, Pound, T.S. Eliot, and
Virginia Woolf, writers who disagreed among themselves a good deal, yet who all were
literary artists of the first order committed to breaking with the literary practices of their
immediate predecessors. Thus they all agreed with Pound's war-cry: "Make it new!" and
this, I think, is the essence of modernism, to the extent that it had an essence. Its Latin root,
modo, expresses the ideas of change and newness.
The very word "postmodern" is paradoxicalwhat can be newer than new? but
also derivative, leeching whatever force it has from the term it claims to replace. Doubly
paradoxical, it can mean both "hyper-modern" and "anti-modern," as if its mission were
simultaneously to affirm and to deny the value of modernism. Since unlike modernism it is
not a name that imaginative writers invented or apply to their own work, "postmodernism"
looks to be a nonce-coinage invented by critics in an increasingly fragmented art scene to
validate whatever trend the critic sees as significant and worth fostering: "the art of the
future," as it were, "the next big thing.
Unless or until one version of postmodernism prevails over its rivals, we are left with a
scene in which the word implies different attributes to different groups of critics. John Carlos
Rowe's essay "Postmodernist Studies" in Redrawing The Boundaries, an in-house set of
position papers by established academic critics, breaks the postmodernist era down into three

Chapter One: Shakespeare and the Dramatic View of Life


periods, each of which is characterized by a different agenda. Rowes chronological

arrangement is convenient for those who favor the claims of New Historicism to be the latest
postmodernism, but really the trends Rowe discovers are not sequential but more or less
synchronousJohn Barth did not stop writing in 1965, nor did Jacques Derrida in 1985.
They merely do not agree with Stephen Greenblatt, and hence are not "political"
postmodernists. And since the only content to the term postmodern is a claim to be
different from, and newer than modernism, any present-day trend other than old-fashioned
modernism itself can justly claim to be postmodern.
Though the modernists often claimed that unlike their immediate predecessors
they were "classicist," modernism was also Romantic and Existentialist in its heroizing of
the individual artist, and in the large claims it made for the artistic imagination, which
was the faculty by means of which "newness" would be achieved. Postmodernism is far
less enchanted by the supposed heroism of the individual artist or by the power of his or
her transformative imagination. To the degree that artistry and imagination are important
at all for postmodernists, who focus not on the creative process but on the cultural scene
in which it takes place, the latter invest this power not in the individual artist, but in the
culture as a whole. "Literary criticism," writes John McGowan, as well as its new
colleague literary theory, began to explore the complex relations between the artwork and
its social contexts:
Generally speaking, the formal analysis of the artwork in isolation yielded to an
exploration of the social determinants of the work and to the ideological impact the
work had on its audience. (This shift took some twenty years, with 1965-85 the key
period of transition.) The postmodernists argue that the belief that intellectuals and
artists can enjoy an autonomy from capitalism is both illusionary and sterile
artistically and politically: illusionary because the very materials of their work
(language, images) come from the culture and because, even more radically, the
individual creator is permeated with, even constituted by, that culture; sterile
because the purity of the alienated artist forecloses access to the energies and
disputes that are lived in the culture while also severing any connection to an
audience beyond the artistic elite. The modernist artist is left high and dry.
(McGowan, 585)
Accordingly, at least until some newer newness is discovered, "postmodernism"
in Shakespeare scholarship may be defined as the ideological and methodological
decision to regard the plays as reflections of the historical processes of the culture that
produced them, rather than products of the individual genius of the artist who signed
them. For postmodern critics the isolated work of art is less important than it was
according to the aesthetic of modernism, and its historical, political, and cultural context
considerably more importantmore important than it once was, certainly, and in many
cases more important than the work itself, as the whole is more important than any part.

Musing on the binary opposition between two central New Historical terms, subversion
and containment, Louis Montrose observes that Critics who emphasized possibilities for
the effective agency of individual or collective subjects against forms of domination,
exclusion, and assimilation energetically contested critics who emphasized the capacity
of the early modern state, as personified in the monarch, to contain apparently subversive
gestures, or even to produce them precisely in order to contain them. (The Purpose of
Playing, 8) Thus the issue of freedom vs. determinism was inscribed within New


The Worlds A Stage

Historicism, too. Montrose now proposes that these are two ways of interpreting the
same phenomena:
whether the focus of our analysis is upon late sixteenth-century England or late
twentieth-century America, we should resist the inevitably reductive tendency to
constitute our conceptual terms in the form of binary oppositions. Rather, we
should construe them as conjoined in mutually constitutive, recursive, and
transformative process. (14; emphasis is Montroses)
In other words, cultural determinism and individual freedom must somehow be
acknowledged both to exist. How this can be is of course, as always, something of a
mystery. The closest we can come to understanding their coexistence is to admit that
they are two complementary, though mutually exclusive, ways of interpreting the
phenomena, as are the wave and particle theories of lightboth necessary at times,
though they contradict each other.


LUCENTIO: Tis a wonder, by your leave,

she will be tamed so.(TS 5.2.193)
How does Petruccio do it? Lucentios eye-rubbing astonishment at the
change Katherine has undergone at the end of the play echoes what many sitting
in the audience have thought. How can the erstwhile shrew have so quickly
become a model wife, preaching obedience to her wayward fellow-wives?

[KATHERINE:] Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,

Thy head, thy sovereign . . .
Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord? (5.2.148-9;157-62)
Katherines sudden mastery of the wifely role argues the genius of her
teacher, Petruccio, yet his mastery strains credulity, for he wins each round in their
contest of wills and still gets her love in the bargain. Improbably he receives
precisely the help he needs, not just from the supporting cast but from the lady
herself, whose every reaction he is uncannily able to anticipate. Besides being
immensely resourceful and insightful, Petruccio is also unbelievably lucky
which means that the playwright has rigged this contest and the fix is in.
Petruccio may seem to control Katherine, but in fact Shakespeare controls her,
and therein lies the vast difference between the world we enter in the theater and
the one we join again when we leave. Our world is a mysterious, incalculable
place, where it is not just immoral but impossible to manipulate and control others


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as Petruccio does Katharine . . . or so weve been taught to believe, and

experience tends to confirm our prejudice.
This outright assertion of feminine subservience is all the more offensive to
modern sensibilities because Katherine before her taming has moments when she
can make us feel her pain:

My tongue will tell the anger of my heart

Or else my heart, concealing it, will break,
And rather than it shall, I will be free
Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words. (4,3.77-80)
Something dies in Katherine before she can be reborn as a dutiful wife,
and witnessing its death-throes is distinctly unpleasant for a modern audience.
But whereas it once seemed safe to assume that however we feel about
Katherines taming Shakespeares audience would have approved, now even
that assumption is in doubt. As Graham Holderness observes:

The agents of patriarchal authority in church and state recorded their

views on the nature of marriage and the necessary subordination of women:
while most of Shakespeares audience went to their graves in silence. It
remains nonetheless possible to attempt some speculations about probable
contemporary reactions to a play like The Taming of the Shrew. As a rule
Renaissance plays express a positive appreciation of free choice,
companionate relationship and romantic individualism in marriage, as
opposed to parental authority, domestic inequality and impersonal contract.
The audiences were metropolitan, more likely to be attuned to the more
modern currents of contemporary thought: it was certainly illegal in London
to batter a wife or even to call a woman a whore. . . . The audiences
contained women as well as men; and the two genders could be
differentiated and addressed by the actors as separate constituencies within
the unified audience. . . . It seems highly improbable that the bland
assertion of patriarchal power in the Shrew could have successfully imposed
an ideological uniformity on such an audience. The very sharpness of its
sexual politics would seem to make the play provocative and polemical
rather than persuasive: offering different kinds of challenge to both genders
in the audience. (23-4)
Nowadays Katherines final speech is sometimes interpretedby actresses,
directors, and criticsas ironic, but Holderness is pointing to something more

Chapter Two: The World as Stage in The Taming of the Shrew


equivocal than irony, to an audience divided in its loyalty to patriarchal codes. To

speak the authorized script of patriarchy in so calm and eloquent a manner argues a
performance that sidesteps the issue of sincerity versus sarcasm. What Katherine
voices at the end of the play is neither straightforward subservience nor an extremely
deadpan irony, but a new appreciation of the power conferred by a mastery of social
Under what conditions might such a role-play confer power? First, when the
role, like that of dutiful wife, is a more powerful one than its alternative, shrewish
maiden. Second, when the role is well-played, as Katherine obviously has mastered
not merely the words but the tune. And third, rather surprisingly, when everyone
knows that it is an act, as Katherines sudden change of part makes clear to both the
other members of the wedding party, and to us in the audience.
If Katherine wished to be perceived as ironic she would have to tip us some
rhetorical winksay by exaggerating her subservience to the point of absurdity. On
the contrary, she carefully remarks on the limits of a wifes duty to a husband, as
when she stipulates that his will must be honest. This is not comic exaggeration.
She cannot be taken to be fully sincere, however, because her words are neither
consistent with views she has earlier expressed, nor does she convey any sense of
having newly discovered that she has been wrong all along. Instead, she speaks as
though she had always held these views, which we know is not the case. The fact is
we cannot tell whether she believes what she says, although she clearly understands
it well enough to state it eloquently. Rather, she is a woman who has learned to act
and who is trying out a new role.
"'Tis a wonder, by your leave, she will be tam'd so" (5.2.193) is the final line
of the play, a bewildered testimonial from Lucentio, who has just discovered that his
new wife, the previously tractable Bianca, may now be the shrew who needs taming.
But Lucentio's comment also voices and leaves hanging in the air the incredulity
everyone in the play feels at the wonder Petruccio has performed, an incredulity that
many of us in the audience share, too. Judged by the standard of Katherine's
complete submissiveness, every other woman in the play now seems in need of


The Worlds A Stage

taming, but there is no sign that the other husbands, Lucentio and Hortensio, have
learned anything from the pageant they have just witnessed.
Such is not the case, however, at the end of the anonymous play published in
a quarto dated 1594 and titled The Taming of A Shrew (emphasis added). This play,
which may be the source of Shakespeare's The Shrew, or a memorial reconstruction
of it, or even an early version from Shakespeare's hand, ends quite differently. In it,
Slie, the dramatized audience-of-one for whom the entire play ostensibly has been
performed, takes it as a dream that instructs him how to treat his own wife:

I know now how to tame a shrew,

I dreamt upon it all this night till now,
And thou hast wakt me out of the best dreame
That ever I had in my life, but Ile to my
Wife presently and tame her too
And if she anger me. (Bullough 108)
Slie is speaking to a male Tapster, who (no doubt having a wife himself)
decides to accompany Slie home to watch and learn. Thus that other play, The
Taming of A Shrew, ends by implying that its lesson may be passed from one
husband to the next until all shrews have been tamed: a vindication of Duke Senior's
view of the world as a series of instructive pageants.
In Shakespeares play, however, Sly is not heard from after the play's third
scene, when he has to be kept from falling asleep. "Would t'were done!" Sly's final
pronouncement on the play, comes in Act One Scene One (ll.246-7).


presumably relapses into slumber and so misses whatever instruction the play has to
offer. Moreover, it is puzzling to know what the actor playing the part is to do for the
rest of the performance, since the text never returns to him, not even to get him off
the stage.1
By the end of the Induction we have witnessed the birth of a scenario (the
plot to fool Sly), the assumption of roles by "real life" people (the Lord plays Sly's
attendant; the Page plays Sly's lady), and the entrance of a troupe of actors who will
now re-enter as characters in a play set in Padua. That actors and non-actors alike
take up and put down roles in order to accomplish their purposes has been

Chapter Two: The World as Stage in The Taming of the Shrew


established before we ever meet Petruccio and his strange assortment of

impersonations designed to persuade Kate to drop the role of shrew, and to learn the
more rewarding part of obedient wife instead. This is what connects the frame and
inset plays, what makes Sly's story so usefulit models not didacticism but artifice,
the way human role-playing is conceived somewhere out of the world, but then not
only joins that world but (occasionally, at least) transforms it.
In this sense of the perpetual power of human role-playing to create, sustain,
and even transform the world, "All the world's a stage" becomes a much more
important and interesting idea than it was in the hands of Duke Senior and Jaques.
When the former compares the world to a theater, he is thinking of the way that life
composes itself spontaneously into instructive tableaux; when the latter takes over
the conceit, his theme is the sequence of roles that chronology forces us to play. But
in The Taming of the Shrew the Lord doesn't wait for Nature or Time to stage a
scene, but intervenes instead. Nor does he do so for Sly's benefitthis is all to be a
joke at Sly's expense. The cream of the jest will be to arouse Sly's desire for his
pretty young "wife", and then to unmask "her" as the Lord's page. The chance
appearance of the players affords a pretext for delaying the moment when the joke is
over, but it also redoubles the opportunities for fun: the Lord and his servants can act
in one "play" while they watch another.
"Role-playing" is in short not something confined to the theater, but
something that lords and pages alike engage in when it suits their purposes. Here
however their purpose is entertainment, a variation on the amateur theatricals that
Shakespeare's characters, like his contemporaries, so gladly engaged in. The play
they settle down to watch is full of role-players and even of actor-directors, who not
only play their parts but coach others on how to play theirs, and who, like the Lord,
stage entire scenes in order to work their will. Their goal, however, is no longer
mere entertainment, but the rearrangement of their lives into more satisfactory
configurationsto replenish their fortunes, to marry off their daughters, to acquire
husbands or wives. Thus "make-believe" enters the "real" world in an attempt to
transform it. Until the plays last line calls us back from fantasy land, the miracle of
Kates taming seems quite credible, and the world so transformed very much like


The Worlds A Stage

our own. The wonder is that we behold all this and never doubt that it could
Chief of the role-players, most successful of the player-directors, is
Petruccio, who virtually writes the other characters into his own play and at the end
of it wins a dramatic competition with a substantial monetary prize contributed by
them. But the others are also engaged, with varying degrees of ability, in playing
roles, and many of them are quite adroit.
In the frame-play, as we have already seen, everyone is involved in a degree
of pretense. Sly himself, informed of his new identity, tries his imperfect best to
impersonate a lord. It is in the inset play, however, that roles really become
complicated. Lucentio casts his servant Tranio as himself, leaving himself free to
assume the role of a schoolmaster, in order to get near to the woman he loves.
Bianca herself, the very image of a docile maiden, throws herself eagerly into the
deception, not only fooling her trusting father but carrying on a marriage-negotiation
right under the jealous eyes of Hortensio, a rival suitor disguised as a music teacher.
Bianca's third suitor, Gremio, a "lean and slipper'd pantaloon" (AYL,2.7.157) is
unsuited to the part of lover because of his age, and by the end of the play is reduced
to the role of mere spectator, but late in the play there is another old man, the Pedant,
whom Tranio tricks into impersonating Lucentio's father. Finally, even characters
not explicitly bent upon deception, like Baptista, can be detected at role-playing. No
one of any importance in the play is entirely innocent of acting and pretense.
But these "actors" and their various skits are only foils to the main action of
the play, which concerns Petruchio's plot to "wive it wealthily in Padua" by wedding
and subduing the previously untameable Katherine.

When we first meet her,

Katherine is as trapped in her single unsatisfactory part as Sly is in his, as unfit to

assume the role of wife as Sly is to become a lord. Yet in her there is an element of
perverseness, even self-destructiveness, that is missing from the beggar. Sly, after
all, is willing enough, but merely lacks the capacity to play a lord. Kate, on the other
hand, fights tooth and nail to avoid being a wife, though in other respects she is well
qualified to be one.

Chapter Two: The World as Stage in The Taming of the Shrew


This perverseness is remarked upon by those around her, who can think of
no other reason why she should be so than that she is possessed by a devil"thou
hilding of a devilish spirit" Baptista calls her (2.1.26), and the suitors refer to her six
times in 1.1 as a devil from hell. Indeed, like the devil, her mind is a hateful siege of
contraries. She says she has no use for Bianca's suitors Gremio and Hortensio, yet
she expresses chagrin that she must "dance barefoot on [her sisters] wedding
day"(2.1.33), and tries to force Bianca to reveal which suitor she is in love withas
though love and marriage were a matter of eager interest to Katherine. Yet when
Petruchio appears and speaks her fair, she will have none of him.
Obviously, though, neither Petruccio nor Shakespeare subscribes to the
popular explanation of demonic possession, nor to the other frequent explanation
that Katherine is "curst"i.e. divinely predestined to be what she is. She is, no
doubt, partly a victim of her father's preference for the adorable Bianca, and partly a
rebel against the lack of freedom that the Elizabethan system imposes on
marriageable women, forced to content themselves with their fathers' choice of a
spouse. But Petruccio prefers to see her not as a victim of her past, but as an agent
capable of change.
That there are ways around this patriarchal power Bianca goes on to
demonstrate in her surreptitious intriguing with the disguised Lucentio, but Bianca
seems to have the same values as her father, and to choose Lucentio as much for his
fortune as for his person. As Katherine's frustration demonstrates, resistance to the
system of patriarchal power is useless; but a deceptive evasion of it may be
ultimately self-defeating. Is there a third alternative? The example of Katherine's
"taming" may be a clue.2
Katherine before she is tamed is the hardest character to convict of roleplaying. Until late in the play she is always herself, always the shrew. She accuses
both her father and sister of falseness toward her, but when Bianca returns the
charge"Nay then you jest, and now I well perceive You have but jested with me
all this while"(2.1.19-20)Katherine gets so angry that she strikes her sister, as
though her own superior sincerity were a point of great personal pride. She thinks of
herself as the only genuine person in a world of role-players, yet Petruccio takes the


The Worlds A Stage

more hopeful view that she is merely trapped inside a single, unprofitable role. This,
then, may be the crux of Katherine's identityis it possible for her to opt out of the
human condition as role-player, and in the name of sincerity to refuse to be an actor?
Or is this itself a kind of pose or act, a headstrong or fearful refusal to learn the parts
each of us was born to play? If the world is a stage, then is it even possible to
choose not to act?
Katherine's inability or unwillingness to vary her role is certainly the cause
of her own unhappiness, as it is a trial to everyone else. Far from freeing her, it
frustrates her desires, and even subjects her to the will of others. To get her to enter
the house, for example, Baptista has merely to order her to do the opposite:

[Baptista:]Go in Bianca. . . .
Katherina, you may stay;
For I have more to commune with Bianca.
Why, and I trust I may go too, may I not?
What, shall I be appointed hours; as though, belike,
I knew not what to take, and what to leave? Ha!(1.1.91-104)
Here, and elsewhere, she is trapped in a habit of contrariness. To thwart
others she must thwart herself, a "lose/lose" strategy that she would be wise to
abandon. Yet without help she is likely never to do so.
The play allows us to feel a good deal of sympathy or even admiration for
Katherine, whose resistance to Baptista and Petruchio is in part a hopeless protest of
her lowly status as chattelshe has taken on the role of shrew as a way of defending
herself against their attempts to "tame" her. She insists that her father's love for her
is a mere act, and that her sister too is merely impersonating the submissive
daughteran insight that is shortly to prove accurate. Submission does not come
easily to this strong, intelligent, assertive person. But there is no suggestion that
Katherine is happy in her unmarried state, or that even if her father gave up on trying
to marry her off she would then be content.3
As Katherine herself observes, the role of old maid is an unrewarding one to
play. Although she rightly scorns Bianca's suitors, Gremio and Hortensio, she might

Chapter Two: The World as Stage in The Taming of the Shrew


(we infer) willingly be married to a suitable man, if one could be found. But her
father, who thinks as badly of her as does the rest of Padua, would happily marry her
off to the first willing fortune-hunter, if she werent fighting tooth and nail against it.
In a very inept way Katherine is endorsing the Shakespearean precept that Baptista
pays mere lip-service to, when he warns Petruccio that he must win her love, for
that is all in all. (2.1.126-7)
Petruchio's mission is to teach Katherine a better role to playby playing a
"shrewish" role himself he teaches her that shrewishness is no less a part than are
those that she correctly perceives are being played around her; that it is an ugly,
futile role however; and that she can learn to play other, better parts. In other words,
Petruchio undertakes to teach Katherine that in this stage-play world, the greatest
rewards go to the best actors.
When we first meet him, Petruchio, who is blunt in announcing that he has
"come to wive it wealthily in Padua" (1.2.73), contrasts unfavorably with Lucentio,
the model romantic lover; and yet the closer we look at Lucentio the harder it is to
deny that he too is acting: not that his sudden love for Bianca is insincere, but that
the words he uses to express that love are waiting for him, ready-made, in a script
that was written long before his birth:
O Tranio, till I found it to be true,
I never thought it possible or likely.
But see, while idly I stood looking on,
I found the effect of love in idleness,
And now in plainness do confess to thee,
That art to me as secret and as dear
As Anna to the Queen of Carthage was,
Tranio, I burn, I pine, I perish, Tranio,
If I achieve not this young modest girl.
Counsel me, Tranio, for I know thou canst;
Assist me, Tranio, for I know thou wilt.(1.1.148-58)
Not insincerity but lack of originality is Lucentios flaw.

Though he

conforms better than Petruchio to the stereotype of young lover"sighing like

furnace"(AYLI, 2.7.147)he expresses himself in stale and threadbare language. If
Shakespeare had wanted to make Lucentio a more appealing, passionate lover, he


The Worlds A Stage

surely could have done sowitness Romeo and Juliet, written at about the same
time. Instead he has subtly suggested with this slightly shop-worn speech that even
when Lucentio is most sincere, he too is a role-player, and a tiresomely conventional
one at that, at least in contrast to the inventive, pyrotechnic Petruccio.
Lucentio, whose professed bewilderment does not prevent him from
devising an elaborate hoax to delude his prospective father-in-law, is obviously a
role-player, but what of that worthy himself, good old Baptista, who seems so honest
in refusing to take advantage of strangers?
I am a gentleman of Verona, sir,
That, hearing of her beauty and her wit,
Her affability and bashful modesty,
Her wondrous qualities and mild behavior,
Am bold to show myself a forward guest
Within your house, to make mine eye the witness
Of that report which I so oft have heard.
Y' are welcome sir, . . .
But for my daughter Katharine, this I know,
She is not for your turn, the more my grief. (2.1.47-53;62-4)
It would do Baptista no good to pretend that his elder daughter is as
Petruccio describes herone glimpse of Katherine would disabuse him. So it costs
the father nothing to appear honest, while he assesses whether Petruccio is in fact
attracted by Katherines principle assetnamely, her fat dowry. We have already
witnessed Baptista practicing reverse psychology on his headstrong daughter, and he
may be trying the same tactic with the headlong Petruccio. At all events, although
he makes a further show of allowing his daughter a free choice of suitorAy,
when the special thing is well obtain'd, That is, her love; for that is all in all (1289)in fact he is prepared to ignore her strenuous protests that she does not love
Petruccio. Baptista, the audience soon learns, is not so artless as he pretends to be,
nor so good-hearted. What he expends on Katherine he plans to make up, with
interest, on the desirable Bianca, whose "dowry" (more accurately a bride-price) is
payable to him, not to her future groom. Nor do we hear from Baptista that Bianca

Chapter Two: The World as Stage in The Taming of the Shrew


is also free to marry where she lovesshe will, her father decrees, marry the highest
So, while Petruccio is transparently, hyperbolically role-playing the eager
lover, Baptista is much more subtly and deviously working to set the hook in
Petruccio's lip. Subsequently Baptista will play along with Petruccio's transparent
fiction that Katherine does indeed love him, not because he is fooled, but because it
suits his wish to be rid of his shrewish elder daughter. In contrast to Baptista,
Petruccio is an open bookto the audience even more than to Baptistaand no
sooner is he alone on stage than he explains his strategy:

I'll attend her here,

And woo her with some spirit when she comes.
Say that she rail, why then I'll tell her plain
She sings as sweetly as a nightingale.
Say that she frown, I'll say she looks as clear
As morning roses newly wash'd with dew.
Say she be mute and will not speak a word,
Then I'll commend her volubility
And say she uttereth piercing eloquence.
If she do bid me pack, I'll give her thanks,
As though she bid me stay by her a week.
If she deny to wed, I'll crave the day
When I shall ask the banns and when be married.
But here she comes; and now, Petruchio, speak.
Presumptuously addressing Katherine as Kate, Petruchio invents fictitious
reports of her mildness and beauty, and engages in a duel of wits with her. When
she strikes him, he threatens retaliation.4 When she tries to escape his presence, he
prevents her by seizing hold of her:
[Katherine:] Let me go.
[Petruccio:] No, not a whit. I find you passing gentle.
'Twas told me you were rough and coy and sullen
And now I find report a very liar,
For thou art pleasant, gamesome, passing courteous,
But slow in speech, yet sweet as spring-time flowers.
Thou canst not frown, thou canst not look askance,
Nor bite the lip, as angry wenches will,


The Worlds A Stage

Nor hast thou pleasure to be cross in talk;
But thou with mildness entertain'st thy wooers,
With gentle conference, soft and affable.
Why does the world report that Kate doth limp?
O sland'rous world! Kate like the hazel-twig
Is straight and slender, and as brown in hue
As hazel nuts, and sweeter than the kernels.
O, let me see thee walk. Thou dost not halt. (2.1.238-53)
On stage, the tussle that is going on between Kate and Petruccio is in utter

contrast to his gallant words. Naturally, she must think him either a fool or an
actorshe calls him both (254;259). He demonstrates that he is not a fool by
explaining the political and economic facts of life:

Your father hath consented

That you shall be my wife; your dowry 'greed on;
And will you, nil you, I will marry you.
Now, Kate, I am a husband for your turn;
For, by this light, whereby I see thy beauty
Thy beauty that doth make me like thee well
Thou must be married to no man but me
For I am he am born to tame you, Kate,
And bring you from a wild Kate to a Kate
Conformable as other household Kates. (266-75)
If not a fool then he must be an actor, and when, in the above speech, he
switches from praise to threats he implicitly concedes that his courtliness has been
an act. When Baptista reappears Petruccio resumes the courtly role, however,
maintaining that Katherine's continued shrewish behavior in public is itself only an
act"'Tis bargain'd 'twixt us twain, being alone, That she shall still be curst in
company."(301-2) Katherine loves him, he asserts, and although she proclaims this
is not so Petruccio manages to shout her down. Baptista can see his daughter fuming
impotently at her inability to unmask this poseur, but it suits his purposes too well to
have Katherine off of his hands for him to question the truth of Petruccio's
allegations. Thus no one is fooled by Petruchio's transparent act, and yet he works
his will!

Chapter Two: The World as Stage in The Taming of the Shrew


When on the day of the wedding Petruccio does not appear, the previously
unwilling Katherine is beside herself with indignation that he has not come to marry
her. Far from being averse to marriage, she is disappointed that the "mad-brain
rudesby" (3.2.10) has apparently let her down. Petruccio shows up at the last instant
so badly mounted and clownishly attired that the entire wedding party doubts his
sanity. Yet no amount of bad behavior on his part keeps Katherine from taking the
wedding vow. By sheer force of personality Petruccio compels the wedding to take
place, despite the fact that his behavior, as reported by Gremio, is even more
eccentric than his dress:

When the priest

Should ask if Katharine should be his wife,
"Ay, by gogs-wouns," quoth he, and swore so loud
That, all amaz'd, the priest let fall the book,
And, as he stoop'd again to take it up,
This mad-brain'd bridegroom took him such a cuff
That down fell priest and book and book and priest.
Now take them up, quoth he, if any list.(3.2.157-64)
Petruccio's behavior here is often described as a mirror-image of Katherine's
shrewishness, meant to show her how she looks to the world, but it is far worse than
anything we know of herblasphemous to such a degree that it must be reported
rather than staged, despite its obvious comic potential. As a servant observes later,
He kills her in her own humour (4.2.161) not merely by copying but by
exaggerating her behavior to the point of absurdity.
What does Petruccio hope to achieve by such zany behavior? Since Baptista
and even Katherine have accepted him as a groom, why does he risk offending them
by disrupting the wedding? Baptista, we may assume, is so resolved to have his
older daughter off his hands that he will put up with any amount of bad behavior
from his future son-in-law. But why Katherine herself, at the one moment when she
could effectively resist her father and suitor by refusing to say the words I do,
apparently agrees to marry, is not explained. So mysterious is that moment that
Gremio omits it, as though in the general tumult Katherines assent is merely


The Worlds A Stage

assumed. Luckily for Petruccio, the playwright has arranged matters in such a way
that Katherine can become his property without ever having a say in the transaction.
Petruccios hand is so strong that he is able to think beyond the mere fact of
possessing the shrew to further steps in his campaign to tame her. For the
implication of his misbehavior at the wedding is that his will and his word have an
absolute priority over hers. However offensive his behavior, as his possession she
must accept that behavior, and submit to his whims such as his whim that he and
Katherine must miss the wedding banquet. Clearly this is a blow to her, who has
been looking forward to presiding at a feast in her own honor. So keen is her desire
not to miss the party that for once she abandons shrewishness and asks for
something politely:

[Katherine:] Let me entreat you.

[Petruccio:] I am content.
[K:] Are you content to stay?
[P:] I am content you shall entreat me stay;
But yet not stay, entreat me how you can. (3.3.73-6)
If this is cruel, at least it is not stupid cruelty, but has a purpose, which is to
teach Katherine a lesson. Petruccio rewards Katherine's good behavior with praise,
yet continues to assert the sovereignty of his own will. The point, from Petruccio's
and (I infer) from Shakespeare's perspective, is not merely to teach Katherine more
gracious behavior, but to teach her that her will must at all times be subordinate to
her husbands.
That Katherine is beginning to learn to role-play is apparent in her moment
of new-found politeness; that she has as yet no conception of the scope of her role is
clear when she returns to asserting her own will against that of her husband's: "I will
not go today, No, nor tomorrow, not till I please myself. . . . I'll not be gone till I
please myself."(79-80;83)
Such an assertion of self-respect can hardly fail to win the admiration of a
modern audience. Even an Elizabethan audience, I imagine, would have had a hard
time seeing Katherine's wish to attend her own wedding-celebration as willful or
insubordinate, especially since Petruccio's behavior has been so lacking in sense or

Chapter Two: The World as Stage in The Taming of the Shrew


decorum. He has been deliberately extreme and arbitrary, in order to make a point:
Kate has no rights independent of her husband's will. Kate is property!
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 any thing. (100-3)
When Petruccio offers to defend his claim with his drawn sword he is in
dead earnest, means precisely what he says. And yet it is plain to see that he has
meant all along to make this speech, and that it is rehearsed. Words and weapon
together make his pointshrewishness or even moderate self-assertiveness are no
longer options for Katherine.
In the Fourth Act, Petruccio's project of reprogramming Katherine hits full
stride. Though he does not lay a hand on her, he puts her in situations where she
suffers physical distress, allowing her to fall under her horse into a mire, and then
when they reach home depriving her of a meal by claiming that it is unfit to eat.
Equally stressful is the intimidation he subjects her to by his violent behavior toward
the servants, who nonetheless seem to understand his motivation: "He kills her in her
own humor" (4.1.168) Peter observes to Nathaniel.

Lest we miss the point,

Petruccio explains his plan to the audience in a soliloquy that compares it to taming
a hawk for falconryKatherine will be deprived of food and sleep until her "mad
and headstrong humor"(197) is curbed.
Indeed, Katherine has already adopted a milder tone in dealing with her
husband, interceding with prayers in behalf of the beaten Grumio, and again when
Petruccio pretends to find the meat overdone: "I pray you, husband, be not so
disquiet. The meat was well, if you were so contented." (156-7) Katherine begins to
sound such milder notes at moments of desperation, after her more habitual
strategies of self-assertion have failed; they are signs of the weakening of her faith in
shrewish behavior to win her point, and steps in the direction of her husband's
wishes, but Petruccio will not settle for half-measures. To ensure that Katherine
learns her part perfectly, he will continue to provoke, and then punish, resistance
from her. Not until she has learned never to oppose his wishes will he let up.


The Worlds A Stage

Next day, still unfed, Katherine bewails her situation to Grumio:
I, who never knew how to entreat,
Nor never needed that I should entreat,
Am starv'd for meat, giddy for lack of sleep,
With oaths kept waking, and with brawling fed.
And that which spites me more than all these wants,
He does it under name of perfect love. (4.3.7-12)
Here Katherine compares her own lack of ability to role-play ("never knew

how to entreat") with her husband's falseness and pretense ("He does it under name
of perfect love"). Nothing better illustrates her quickness at learning her new part
than does this ability to conceptualize it. She is learning fast, and at Grumio's offer to
bring her various dishes she stoops to begging from a serving man: "I prithee let me
have it."(18) Grumio, too, is role-playing, however, and when she perceives this,
she falls back on beating and abusewhich, after all, work for her husband, but do
her no good at all.
Petruccio next appears with food, but when Katherine fails to thank him
quickly removes it, and then does the same with a new hat and gown. In each case,
Katherine likes what her husband has provided, but fails to understand, or to accept,
that her judgement is to be governed by his, even in matters as personal as her own
taste in food or choice of costume. When he contradicts her approval of both cap
and gown she again gives voice to the integrity and dignity of her own independent
My tongue will tell the anger of my heart
Or else my heart, concealing it, will break,
And rather than it shall, I will be free
Even to the uttermost, as I please, in words. (77-80)
But Petruccio blandly "mishears" her protest as agreement and refuses the stylish
apparel that pleased Katherine so.
Finally he absurdly promises they will reach her father's house by
"dinnertime" (i.e. mid-day), when she knows it is past that time already:

Chapter Two: The World as Stage in The Taming of the Shrew


[K:] I dare assure you, sir, 'tis almost two,

And 'twill be suppertime ere you come there.
[P:] It shall be seven ere I go to horse.
Look what I speak or do, or think to do,
You are still crossing it.Sirs, let 't alone.
I will not go today, and ere I do,
It shall be what o'clock I say it is.(185-91)
Here of course Petruccio makes not even a pretense to being reasonable.
Kate will speak not those words that her heart conceals, nor even those that common
sense dictates, but those that are in agreement with her husband's, no matter how
mistaken these may be. Katherine must play the role of submissive wife, no matter
what absurdities it may cause her to speak, or she will not have anything she wants.
They set off for Padua. On the road Petruccio calls the sun the moon and
Katherine must agree, only to bear correction patiently when he contradicts her. His
insistence that she call old Vincentio a "Fair, lovely maid"(4.5.33) is likewise
contradicted, as Petruccio expresses doubts about her sanity. Now, however, she has
learned how to deal with such correction, and she takes it in stride:

Pardon, old father, my mistaking eyes,

That have been so bedazzled with the sun
That everything I look on seemeth green.
Now I perceive thou art a reverend father.
Pardon, I pray thee, for my mad mistaking.(44-8)
At last Katherine has learned how to act in agreement with her husband, no
matter how senseless or embarrassing such agreement is. Petruccio knows, and
shows he knows, that the sun is not the moon, nor is an old man a young maid. He
is role-playing transparently in order to show Katherine how to do it, and she finally
gets itand this I would maintain constitutes Katherines true taming. Katherine
learns to act the part of an obedient wife, but in the full knowledge that it is (merely)
an act.
Meanwhile the subplot has been working itself out. By the time Katherine
and Petruccio reach Padua Bianca and Lucentio have been secretly wed, and nothing
remains but to reveal the various deceptions and to win their fathers' approval of the


The Worlds A Stage

alliance of the two wealthy families, which is accomplished with only momentary
indignation on the part of the paternal dupes.

To this drama of disproved

suppositions Katherine and Petruccio are an interested audience, and when the
drama moves indoors to celebrate the newlyweds with a banquet, Katherine
proposes that she and Petruccio follow: "Husband, let's follow, to see the end of this
ado."(5.1.134) Katherine's "taming" hasn't destroyed her initiative, nor is it meant
to, but Petruccio now demands a kiss, which Katherine refuses, since it is not proper
to kiss in the public street.

[P:] What, art thou asham'd of me?

[K:] No, sir. God forbid, but asham'd to kiss.(137-8)
Sensing opposition, Petruccio immediately threatens to cancel the entire
plan, and to return home: "Why then, let's home again. [To Grumio.] Come, sirrah,
let's away."(139) At which Katherine yields: "Nay, I will give thee a kiss. Now
pray thee, love, stay."(140) The "lapse" is momentary on Kate's partshe knows
now how to prevail by yieldingand the grace-note "love," her first loving word to
Petruccio in the entire play, suggests that as she has learned the role of wife, she has
even come to feel it, as though changes in our deepest feelings may start with
impersonation. Nothing remains but the final scene, in which Petruccio, teased that
he has wed a shrew, wagers with the other newlywed husbands that Katherine will
prove more obedient than their wives. And so she does, not only coming at his
command, but also returning to fetch the other two women who, secure now as
wives, are proving recalcitrant.
In view of the presence everywhere in the playespecially in Katherines
own growing ability to follow her husbands leadof an awareness that social
power is gained through the mastery of appropriate roles, what is then so shocking
about Katherines deployment of the doctrine of wifely obedience in order to gain
not only her husbands approval but her sisters discomfiture?

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,

Thy head, thy sovereign . . .

Chapter Two: The World as Stage in The Taming of the Shrew


Such duty as the subject owes the prince,

Even such a woman oweth to her husband;
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord? (5.2.148-9;157-62)
In the end, Katherine freely chooses to speak this script, and she speaks it
very well. Yet we cannot deny that she has been subject to systematic coercion to
adopt the role she now plays so well.
Today, when women have the same legal rights as men, Petruccio would not
have the massive social support he needs to back up his campaign to tame Katherine.
Yet coercion still goes on, and even our more egalitarian society has no absolute
respect for individual autonomy. Even today we are forced, if we wish to lead
happy lives, to play a complex series of social roles; the alternative is to suffer, as
did Katherine before her taming, dire consequences.

In the face of these

alternatives, most of us learn to adopt these roles cheerfully and to strive for mastery,
just as she does. Seeing the Katherine of Act Five as neither broken in spirit, which
she clearly is not, nor as a disaffected proto-feminist, which would spoil the plays
comic impact, but rather as a woman who, like her husband, has learned to get what
she wants by playing roles, allows us to laugh without feeling guilty.
Katherine voices at the end of the play her new comprehension of her
husband Petruccios implicit message: women, like men, get power by a mastery of
a repertoire of social roles. What we hear in Katherines final speech is neither
sincerity nor irony but some third thingthe recitation of a socially approved script
that she means to employ for her own needs and wishes. Katherine has learned to
Under what conditions might such a role-play confer power? First, when the
role, dutiful wife, is a more powerful one than its alternative, shrewish maiden.
Second, when it is well-played, as Katherine obviously has mastered the lingo of a
dutiful wife. And third, rather surprisingly, when it is clear to everyone that it is an
act, as Katherines sudden change of part makes clear to both the other members of
the wedding party, and to us in the audience. So far as the audience can tell,


The Worlds A Stage

Katherine is not ironic in the sense of meaning something other than she says, nor is
she fully sincere, because her words are neither consistent with views she has earlier
expressed, nor does she convey any sense of having just been converted. Instead,
she speaks as though she had always held these views, which as we know is not the
case. The fact is, we cannot tell whether she believes what she says, although she
clearly understands it well enough to state it eloquently. Rather, she is a woman
who has learned to act and who is trying out a new role.6
As for Shakespeare, we might say that he teaches a new attitude toward an
old social role to Elizabethan women whose powerlessness could be described as a
lack of a sufficient variety of roles that they knew how to play, or were allowed to
play. As Jonas Barish argues in The Anti-Theatrical Prejudice, the ability to act, to
have a repertoire of roles, is a source of power that in conservative social systems is
jealously guarded and restricted, because the theater and theatricality are instruments
of social change, and the anti-theatrical prejudice enforces stasis:
The prejudice . . . belongs . . . to a conservative ethical emphasis in
which the key terms are those of order, stability, constancy, and integrity,
as against a more existentialist emphasis that prizes growth, process,
exploration, flexibility, variety and versatility of response. In one case we
seem to have an ideal of stasis, in the other an ideal of movement, in one
case an ideal of rectitude, in the other an ideal of plenitude.(Barish 116-7)
In teaching Katherine to vary her role, Petruchio has willy-nilly put the
power of intelligent role-playing into her hands, where it may become an instrument
of social mastery, very like his own. Petruchio undertakes to teach Katherine that
the world's a stage, and that the greatest rewards go to the best actors. No one is
fooled by Petruchio's transparent act, and yet he works his will. His is a deliberately
see-through performance, in which it is clear to her that he is acting to achieve his
goals, and that, moreover, the others know he is acting, and conspire to support the
act, because it suits their own purposes. Thus, although Petruccio imposes his will
on hers and compels Katherine to change her role, he does so by showing her that
her shrewish behavior is itself a role-play, and that one achieves power by
consciously adopting the appropriate, socially approved role. At the end of the play,

Chapter Two: The World as Stage in The Taming of the Shrew


apparently, Katherine willingly adopts what she has previously been fightinga role
that gives her the status and acceptance she craves, and also a measure of power,
though she is still subject (as we all are in each of our social relationships) to the
honest will of the others involved in our relationships.
Thematically the story of the Lord's clever (if heartless) plot to recast a
drunken tinker as an aristocrat, and the tinker's subsequent inability to play that role
satisfactorily, contrasts wonderfully with Petruccio's successful recasting of
Katharina in the role of an obedient wife. But by the time the audience discovers
what Petruccio has afoot, Sly has been long forgotten. And indeed, a common
modern staging practice has been simply to omit the Induction entirely, as in
Jonathan Miller's televised version for the BBC, starring John Cleese as Petruchio.7
Yet Shakespeare was the consummate professional playwright, who did not
write scenes unless he meant them to be performed. Assuming that The Lord
Chamberlain's Men performed the play as we have it, then the actors of the eleven
speaking parts in the Induction simply left the stage and reappeared as characters in
the main play. As all students of Shakespeare know, this habit of playing multiple
parts is called "doubling," and was an economic necessity for a troupe of about a
dozen members that would have to pay any additional outside actors needed to flesh
out a larger cast.8
Doubling also could apparently be used to achieve certain metatheatrical
effects, however, and it is interesting to speculate on which of the parts in the
induction was doubled with which part in the main play. The two principal parts,
Sly and the Lord, would likely go to principal actors, and my guess is that Petruchio
and Grumio are their parts in the main play, though who plays which part is hard to
decide. The most pleasing combination would be for the actor of Sly to reemerge as
Petruchioa dazzling demonstration of the power of a good actor to transform
himself from a hapless character into a masterful one, simply by changing his role.
The presence of the frame-play in Shrew, though it adds to the technical
challenges of staging9, does make possible a kind of semi-transparent, see-through
doubling of parts that itself wonderfully reminds the audience that the Padua
represented on Shakespeare's stage is itself a stage, and that the roles these people


The Worlds A Stage

seem so naturally to inhabit are themselves "scripts" that can be tinkered with,
improved, or at times simply abandoned outright, as need dictates, or opportunity
Thus the Shrew's frame play asserts what the play as a whole ultimately
shows: that the world is a stage and is under the sway of those human beings who
are the best actors, directors, and playwrights. Petruchio tames the shrew because he
is a consummate actor, who forces Katharina to abandon a role that neither she nor
anyone around her has had the wit to perceive is a role (rather than her God-given
evil nature) and hence is capable of being changed;10 the frame-play underlines the
theatrical nature of human behavior, while it also disclaims any implication that the
transformation wrought on stage may be duplicated by members of the audience at
homeit is merely a play, after all, and Sly has been unable to make himself over
into a Lord, even though given every incentive: some roles are beyond some people.
When we juxtapose two comedies probably written close together, the
contrast between these two paradigmsman-centered vs. God-centeredis
particularly striking and illuminating, suggesting that Shakespeare was trying out
each for its dramatic power, and perhaps also for its truth. While in The Taming of
the Shrew nearly everyone is consciously role-playing, with the highest prizes going
to the best actors, in A Midsummer Nights Dream, no one shows any awareness that
the world is a stage, nor with the exception of the inept mechanicals does anyone
even attempt to act. No one, not even Theseus or Oberon, occupies the position of
power enjoyed by Petruccio. For while The Taming of The Shrew demonstrates the
degree of control human beings can enjoy when they have mastered the theatrical
arts, A Midsummer Nights Dream argues the oppositethat we are pawns in the
hand of a divinity the shapes our ends.


So superfluous has Shakespeare's Sly seemed to many readers that his two-plus scenes
have simply been cut from many stage and screen productions, and scholars often attribute
his very existence to some sort of vestigial loyalty on Shakespeares part to his sourcean
awkward theory, since even if we assume that The Taming of a Shrew is that source, we still

Chapter Two: The World as Stage in The Taming of the Shrew


need to explain why Shakespeare felt free to cut Sly from the rest of his play but not from its
first three scenes.
Moreover, as Geoffrey Bullough observes, "The two [Sly] scenes in The Shrew are
among the richest pieces of comedy ever written by Shakespeare" (Bullough, 59). But if
Shakespeare could write two such hilarious scenes, why couldn't he go on and write one or
two more? Bullough thinks that he did write them, but that they have been somehow lost:
It is hard to believe that Shakespeare left the play so, when one recalls his care to
finish the framework of the Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Pope therefore inserted the Sly passages absent from The Shrew in his edition of that
play, though he did not think Shakespeare wrote most of 'the old play'.(60)
Many readers share Bullough's impression, and Pope's, that the play as printed in the
First Folio is incomplete, but it seems to me wiser to assume that it is the latest and best
version of Shakespeares play, one that remained so long in repertoire that it was never
printed during his lifetime. Shakespeares first editors, his colleagues Heminges and
Condell, who worked from what Bevington thinks was "Shakespeare's working
manuscript"(1613), gave us the play as we now have it in the First Folio, our only
authoritative text of the play. Whatever the relationship is between A Shrew and THE
Shrew, the superiority of the latter to the former is as evident in the way Sly is handled as it
is in any other point of comparison.
With no frame, Shakespeare's play would seem a mirror held up to nature, an attempt at least
at an illusionistic image of the real world; with a complete frame, the play's artificiality is
foregrounded, a lesson staged for Sly's benefit. But with the present half-frame, artificiality
and illusion are nicely balanced: the Kate-Petruccio story begins as a play within Sly's
world, and then that play takes over the stage and becomes the world, while Sly completely
disappears. Now: handy-dandy, which is the stage and which is the world? Technically the
story of Katherine and Petruccio is at two removes from reality, but is by far the livelier and
more imaginatively commanding. This reversal may be one more of Shakespeare's
"wonders," his discrete display of the power of his art to proclaim its fictiveness and yet win
our belief, but it also suggests a complex interest in the world-as-stage idea.

Patricia Parker sees Katherines mastery of social roles as reinforced by other patterns
in the plot: The first wifely subordinate in Shakespeares Taming is the transvestite page
of the Induction so often mistakenly severed from the taming plot. This figures adoption
of the role of an obedient wife involves not only a reminder, before the fact, of the
transvestite theatrical context of the taming plot itself, including its disciplining of a
purportedly female tongue, but also an explicit following of a masters fantasy and
script. The fact that Lucentios intended mastery of Bianca in Act III summons the
notion of the preposterous, in lines that recall the prescribed and natural ordering of the
genders from the Ceremony of Matrimony, gives, therefore, support to readings of the
play that see its apparent affirmation of patriarchy as the self-conscious following of yet
another script. (Parker, 34)

Shakespeare himself, like his age, seems to have seen all young women as potential
wives and mothers. He portrays most unmarried women as keenly interested in
marrying, and the few who are not, like Katherine in The Shrew and Beatrice in Much
Ado about Nothing, have their minds changed by the end of the play. About the greatest
respect he shows to a young woman resolved to lead the single life is to Isabella in
Measure for Measure, who as a would-be Catholic nun on an aggressively Protestant


The Worlds A Stage

stage must nonetheless be married off to the Duke at the end of the play. His sonnets
begin with a long paean to human procreation, and whether or not they are written in his
own voice, they reflect a similar positive view of fecundity in his plays. There can be
little doubt, then, that Katherine's rejection of love and marriage is meant to seem
perverse to Shakespeare's audience, as it does to those around her in the play. Yet her
father's favoring of Bianca, the latter's hypocrisy, and the unsatisfactory nature of the
available men are all mitigating factors. It could be argued that the role of shrew is one
Katherine has adopted in order to escape from her fathers plan to marry her off to any
man he can bribe into taking her, but her fractious personality is clearly of long standing,
and she has apparently lost the will to be anything else but a shrew. Like practitioners of
modern family therapy, who see the problem child as "acting out" the stresses and
contradictions of the whole family unit, Shakespeare ascribes Katherine's problems not
merely to her own perversity, however, but to the failure of all around her to understand
and play their proper social roles.

Petruccio is sometimes accused of being violent, but though he occasionally gives Grumio
a box or a tweak, such behavior toward servants is a comic turn common in farce, which The
Taming of the Shrew is akin to. In Katherine's presence, such violent behavior as Petruccio
engages in, like throwing the dinner on the floor, is meant to intimidate Katherine, and his
threat here to box her back has the same motivation. Petruccio, I would say, is intimidating
toward Katherine, but not violentit is she, after all, who strikes him, while he limits
himself to a threat to strike her back if she repeats the performance.
The approved doctrine of the English church of Shakespeares time speaks of a wife
not as property (a secular, legal concept) but as "one flesh with her husband, who is head
of the marital body. Accordingly, the Book of Homilies, twelve sermons promulgated in
1571 by Henry VIII for the spiritual guidance of English Protestants, explicitly forbids the
husband to beat his wife, and recommends prayer instead as the remedy for fractiousness:
Chafe not in anger, but pray unto almighty God. Let her be admonished and helped
with good counsel. . . . But if thou shouldst beat her, thou shalt increase her evil
affections, for frowardness [i.e. perverseness] and sharpness is not amended with
frowardness, but with softness and gentleness. (Pinciss and Lockyer, 43).
Admittedly, while Petruccio heeds the warning against physical violence, only his rhetoric is
soft and gentle toward Kate until he has won her compliance.

As recently as twenty years ago, it was generally assumed that Katherine's sermon spelled
out the values of Shakespeare and his age, values that seemed extreme by modern standards,
but not really wicked or (in their historical context) objectionable. By todays standards,
however, both Katherines final speech and Shakespeares intention in the play as a whole
can be saved only if they can be read as ironic, which is precisely what some feminists are
prepared to do. As John C. Bean puts it:
revisionists have argued that Kate's notorious last speech is delivered ironically and
that Kate, in retaining her psychological independence from the "duped" Petruchio,
remains untamed. As seen by the revisionists, The Taming of the Shrew is a
relatively sophisticated social comedy, the ironic texture of which directs our
attention not primarily to Kate's psychological illness but to the social illness of a
materialistic patriarchy. The anti-revisionists, on the other hand, insisting on
historical accuracy, have argued that Kate is tamed through the reductive procedures

Chapter Two: The World as Stage in The Taming of the Shrew


of rollicking, old-fashioned farce. In The Taming of the Shrew, argues the antirevisionist Robert B. Heilman, 'Kate is conceived of as responding automatically to
a certain kind of calculated treatment, as automatically as an animal to the devices
of a skilled trainer.'(Bean 65; Heilman 155)
As Bean explains, the play provides evidence for both feminist revisionism and its
opposite. Certainly, while Katherine's moments of eloquent suffering make it hard to see
The Shrew simply as rollicking farce, Heilman reminds us that Petruchio's soliloquy
comparing his behavior to falcon-training is hardly respectful of her personhood:
My falcon now is sharp and passing empty,
And till she stoop she must not be full-gorged,
For then she never looks upon her lure.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
She ate no meat today, nor none shall eat.
Last night she slept not, nor tonight she shall not.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
This is a way to kill a wife with kindness,
And thus Ill curb her mad and headstrong humour.
He that knows better how to tame a shrew,
Now let him speak. Tis charity to show. (4.2.171-92)
But if Katherines final speech can be made to seem ironic, then perhaps there is an
ironic intention on Shakespeares part in Petruchios animal-training simile as well?
As Coppelia Kahn writes:
The animal metaphor shocks us and I would suggest was meant to shock
Shakespeare's audience, despite their respect for falconry as an art and that
reverence for the great chain of being emphasized by E.M.W. Tillyard. The
blandness of Petruchio's confidential tone, the sweep of his easy assumption that
Kate is not merely an animal, but his animal, who lives or dies at his command, has
a dramatic irony similar to that of his exit speech in the wedding scene [3.2.221-38]
(Kahn 110)
Linda Bamber, on the other hand, rejecting the invitation to see Shakespeare as
writing with tongue-in-cheek, denies that an ironic reading can save the play for feminists:
Kahn's article illuminates both the play's intentions and its limitations when judged
from a feminist point of view. Kahn's major argument is that Petruchio 'has gained
Kate's outward compliance in the form of a public display while her spirit remains
mischievously free'[Kahn, 115]. Surely the play invites us to accept just such a
distinction between Kate's public and private selves and to agree that Kate's taming
has not crushed her spirit. . . . But the distinction between Kate's public and private
selves seems to me a false one. The public forms of equality are important (as
Kahn, elsewhere in her article, agrees) because they affect the life of the spirit itself.
. . . Kahn sometimes seems to accept the bargain Shakespeare offers in The Taming
of the Shrew: if women will go along with male dominance as a mere formality, we
may all agree that it is as silly a formality as you like. But the price is to go along
with it.(Bamber 34)


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Although Bamber rejects what Kahn seems to find acceptable, both agree that
Katherines apparent compliance with patriarchal norms can be seen neither as entirely
sincere nor ironic but as something distinctas an actress playing a part she has finally
learned. At issue, really, is whether Katherine has by the end of the play adopted this part
willingly, or only under compulsion. As Richard Henze puts it: "Kate plays her obedient
wife part . . . so well that one cannot say for sure whether or not she is an obedient wife at
heart; one can only say that she plays the part well enough to encourage us to imagine
that she is obedient indeed. . . . "(234-5)
Karen Newman, who is both a feminist and a New Historicist critic, also manages to
straddle the fence with regard to Katherine's integrity at the end of Shrew. As a New
Historicist, Newman wants to see literary works as voicing the same ideological discourses
as non-literary and pragmatic textsin this case, court records of trials involving cases of
shrewishness. Newman therefore begins by comparing Shakespeare's play to a nearcontemporary account in court records of a "skimmington," in which neighbors acted out the
drunken behavior of one Nicholas Rosyer and his wife's shrewish reaction. Newman points
out that this ritual shaming was a traditional way of enforcing patriarchal norms, but that the
performanceespecially the portrayal of Rosyer's wife by a manalso reveals that social
roles are "humanly constructed social product[s]".(Newman 36)
Merely to dramatize shrewish behavior can therefore be to suggest that social
behavior is role-playing that can be modified. But whereas Rosyer's wife does not speak in
the court record, Newman observes that Katherine speaks loudly in Shakespeare's play. Far
from merely reflecting the world of Elizabethan England, the play dramatizes an intelligent,
spirited woman objecting to being treated as chattel. Thus even if Katherine's final speech is
not ironic, Newman finds that it subverts its own message:
To dramatize action involving linguistically powerful women characters
militates against Tudor and Stuart ideologies of women's silence. . . . The conflict
[is] between the explicitly repressive content of Kate's speech and the implicit
message of independence communicated by representing a powerful female
protagonist speaking the play's longest speech at a moment of emphatic suspense
. . . .(48)
The fact is that, whatever she is saying, Katherine has a strong voice and presence at
the end of the play, and uses it to remind us that women do not accept subservience
For Newman The Taming of the Shrew does not merely record or reflect the power
struggle between patriarchal men and rebellious women, but is also one of the battlefields of
that war. If men left the theater determined to tame their own shrews, women might equally
well leave prepared not to be so tamed, or to follow Katherine's example of using patriarchal
discourse to their own advantage. In lieu of the monolithic impact that Kahn and Bamber
see in the play, Newman expects the play to arouse different responses in different members
of the audience. And in some women, at least, mastery of the socially-approved role of
dutiful wife will not crush their spirit, as Bamber assumes, but will confer power.

The first wifely subordinate in Shakespeares Taming is the transvestite page of the
Induction so often mistakenly severed from the taming plot. This figures adoption of the
role of an obedient wife involves not only a reminder, before the fact, of the transvestite
theatrical context of the taming plot itself, including its disciplining of a purportedly
female tongue, but also an explicit following of a masters fantasy and script. The fact

Chapter Two: The World as Stage in The Taming of the Shrew


that Lucentios intended mastery of Bianca in Act III summons the notion of the
preposterous, in lines that recall the prescribed and natural ordering of the genders from
the Ceremony of Matrimony, gives, therefore, support to readings of the play that see its
apparent affirmation of patriarchy as the self-conscious following of yet another script.
(Parker, 34)

Holderness, who gives an account of this production, along with two earlier stage
productions and Zeffirellis 1966 film, blames producer Miller roundly for omitting the
Induction, yet in this case I am forced to agree with Miller that There is something about
television that makes it not altogether friendly to the enterprise of the Shakespearean
drama. (quoted by Holderness, 99) To demonstrate that the world is a stage would be
pointless, even if it were possible, in the quite different medium of television, and the
equivalent notion that we are all playing in the TV program called Life has only
recently occurred to the new medium. Although Zeffirelli also omitted the Induction,
Holderness praises him for substituting a non-Shakespearean carnevalesque scene at his
films opening, which Holderness sees as equivalent to the debunking role-reversal of
Slys unwitting impersonation of a lord. In theory this sounds good, but most directorial
embellishments of this sort, no matter how appealing to their initial audiences, have come
to be recognized over time as both foreign and inferior to the texts they aim to improve.

For an enthusiastic account of the possibilities of metatheatrical meaning in the

Shakespearean practice of doubling parts, see Stephen Booth's "Appendix 2: Speculations on
Doubling in Shakespeare's Plays," in his King Lear, Macbeth, Indefinition, and Tragedy
(New Haven: Yale U.P., 1983), pp. 129-55. Booth suggests dimensions of meaning to be
found in the audience's perception of doubling in a number of plays (see his remarks in the
next footnote) including A Midsummer Night's Dream, but does not mention The Taming of
The Shrew.

To my suggestion that the actors who play Sly and the Lord return as Petruchio and
Grumio it may be objected that Sly is still present "above," and comments on the Shrew
play"Would 'twere done" (1.1.254)just before Petruchio and Grumio enter, for the first
time, below. The upper stage, however, is enclosed, and if Sly were seated in the corner,
feet propped up on the railing, it would be a simple matter for him to speak his final lines,
put dummy shoes back on the rail in place of his own feet, lean back in the shadow and then
abscond, to appear a minute later on the main stage as either Petruchio or Grumio. Not Sly,
then, but his shoes merely, would have to bear silent witness to the rest of the play from that
vantage pointthe implication being that he has fallen asleep, as he already was in the
process of doing when the Page shook him awake to speak his last lines.
Alternatively a stand-in could speak the thirty words of Sly's last appearance in the
play, from the recesses of the upper stage, leaving the principal actor free to change into
another costume at his leisure. If we admit that such a doubling is possible, it is an
undeniably appealing device in a play that makes such important use of the motifs of
changing roles. A few lines earlier, for example (1.2.218), the audience has witnessed
Lucentio and Tranio switching clothes and exchanging identities.
For a dazzling account of how doubling affects an audience by achieving
metatheatrical effects, see Stephen Booth's eponymous report on "The Shenandoah
Shakespeare Express," in Shakespeare Quarterly, 43:4 (Winter, 1992), pp. 479-83. Booth
summarizes: "What I learned from The Shenandoah Shakespeare Express about audiences
and the principles on which they allot their admiration, I learned as a result of doubling,
tripling, and quadrupling of roles, a practice in which Shenandoah revels and in which


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audiences join them. What happens, oddly enough, is that the productions insist that we
notice the acting of actors we would otherwise take for granted."(481-2)

Richard Henze, in "Role Playing in The Taming of the Shrew," writes: "Kate plays her
obedient wife part . . . so well that one cannot say for sure whether or not she is an obedient
wife at heart; one can only say that she plays the part well enough to encourage us to
imagine that she is obedient indeed. . . . Because Petruchio plays contradictory roles with
equal effectiveness, we cannot say simply that Petruchio is a possessive husband or a tamer
or a wooer any more than we can say that Kate is simply obedient or shrewish or that
Baptista is simply mercenary when he holds his auction . . . (2.1.328-9). We can say,
however, that Petruchio plays each part quite well, that the roles are 'aptly fitted and
naturally perform'd.'"(234-5)

At the end of the play the newlyweds retire to bed, leaving Theseus's
Athenian palace to fairies of whose existence they are still unaware. Then Puck
addresses the audience with one of those deferential closing speeches that not only
begs for applause but also subtly complicates our response to the play we have just
seen by giving something that is almost (but not quite) that rarest of Shakespearean
moments, authorial comment:

If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here,
While these visions did appear;
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.
And as I am an honest puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to scape the serpent's tongue,
We will make amends ere long,
Else the puck a liar call.
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
On its face, this speech seems to explain the play's title: what we have just
witnessed was merely a dream, and thus there is no offense in it, no offense in the
world! The offense would presumably be the plays benign view of fairies in the
face of an orthodox Protestant Christian belief that, if they existed at all, fairies were
evil spirits.1 But Robins professed fear of offending is itself light-hearted: if
Shakespeare were seriously worried about frightening his audience with


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demonology, then he would not have put his apology into the mouth of the
mischievous, unreliable Puck. Far from abandoning his trickster character, Puck in
his epilog persists in equivocating: As I am an honest puck . . . Else the puck a liar
call. These lines remind us that Puck is a trickster, and again put into question his
ambiguous assertion that the play has been but a dream.
Christopher Slye, be it remembered, fell asleep at the beginning of The
Taming of the Shrew, and never spoke again after one attempt to rouse him. In the
epilog of The Taming of A Shrew, however, Sly awakes convinced he has dreamt the
story of the shrews taming, and prepared to apply its lessons to his own marriage.2
The joke here, of course, is that it was no dream at all, and Sly has been fooled into
believing that it was . . . unless we believe that plays, too, are dreams, which is
what Puck asserts in the epilog to A Midsummer Nights Dream.
I suggest that Puck is merely teasing us, however, and that both he and his
creator knowand expect us to know toothat like Sly we have not dreamt any of
what the players have performed. To accept Puck's retractions at face value is to
miss the sly ironic note of "If" and of "Think but this," which does not quite have the
force of "remember this," but rather that of "assume," or even of "imagine": If you
have trouble accepting the presence of fairies in the lives of flesh-and-blood people,
Puck is saying, then think of the adventures you have just witnessed as a dream
(even though they werent) is silently signaled.3
In the play itself, it is the sage and serious Duke Theseus who is the major
exponent of the it was only a dream theory of what we have witnessed, and his
new wife Hippolyta who doubts it.
I never may believe, he says,
These antique fables nor these fairy toys.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Such tricks hath strong imagination
That, if it would but apprehend some joy
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear! (5.1.2-22)

Chapter Three: What is the Dream in A Midsummer Nights Dream


To this, she mildly remarks that although strange and admirable there is
something more to the story than fancyfor one thing, they all four tell the same
story! (23-7)
If you take Puck's advice at face value and regard the events in the woods as
moonshine, then I think you will be just as sensible and hard headed as Theseus, but
just as wrong. This I infer not only from the verbal irony of Puck's last speech, but
from the dramatic irony of Theseus's reasonable but mistaken reaction to "the story
of the night." The world of A Midsummer Nights Dream, in paradoxical contrast to
The Taming of the Shrew, is not a world that is dominated by the best human actor,
but one where human beings are controlled by higher powers of whom they are
Most critics write, however, as though Puck spoke Shakespeares own
thoughts, without irony. "Shakespearean dreams are always 'true,' when properly
interpreted," Marjorie Garber writes, "since they reflect a state of affairs which is as
much internal and psychological as it is external."4 Garbers view is an excellent
way of recuperating the play for a modern audience troubled by fairies on stage, who
are comfortably transformed into mere phantasms of the wayward psyche. This is
more or less what Theseus mistakenly argued about the story told by the lovers
that under emotional stress they simply imagined it. What the play leaves openthe
existence and status of fairiesGarber wants to close off in favor of a modern
secular materialism. Since fairies do not exist, Shakespeares must be symbolic of
certain mental states. But Theseuss mistaken dismissal of the nights events, no
more than Puck's suggestion that they are part of a dream, does not do away with our
uncertainty: what in this play do Shakespeare and Puck mean to designate as
"dream"? Since the lovers, though they themselves have come to doubt it, did not
dream the substance of their story, what is the dream in this play, and who has it?
We ourselves have just witnessed those events and can vouch for their reality
as surely as we can for the resulting weddings. In the world of the play that story
really happened, but it is fantastic, and many critics beside Garber deny the evidence
of their senses and agree with Theseus that the four are guilty of hyperactive
imaginations. "Did it happen, or didn't it happen?" asks C.L. Barber. "The doubt is


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justified by what Shakespeare has shown us. We are not asked to think that fairies
exist. But imagination, by presenting these figments, has reached to something, a
creative tendency and process." (Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, 162)
But, within the play at least, fairies do exist. Of course, this is all a fiction,
like Romeo & Juliet or The Merry Wives of Windsor. Yet Barber would never ask if
those plays happened, or if the star-crossed lovers exist. Shakespeare wrote
many fictional plots, but designated only this one as a dream. Since there can be
no doubt that the fairies are real (in the play), and that it is Theseus who mistakenly
thinks otherwise, we can only wonder that Barber decides that the fairies are
"figments." The reason is, of course, that he doesn't believe in fairies, and would
like to think that Shakespeare, too, dismissed them as fantasies and delusions. Yet
whatever Shakespeare thought of the existence of fairiesthere were, as Peter
Holland reminds us, various schools of thought on the issuein A Midsummer
Night's Dream he depicts a world where people who have practical, materialist
views of the world mistakenly regard their strange experiences as "dreams," and are
thus unaware of the real, unseen forces that shape their lives.
Still, the plays title does mention a dream, leaving us to wonder what is
being referred to.

James L. Calderwood thinks that what happens in the forest is

dreamt jointly by Theseus and his fiancee: "what happens to Titania is as much
Hippolyta's nightmare-dream as it is Theseus'." (414) Although there is no sign in
the text that we are to take Oberon and Titania as dream-projections of Theseus and
Hippolyta, Calderwood thinks that the effect of doubling the roles would make that
point to the audience. Since the two are never onstage together, the actor who plays
Theseus would be free to play Oberon, and the same option is available to double as
Titania the actress who plays Hippolyta. In a theater where actors routinely played
multiple parts, however, it seems to me unlikely that an audience would
spontaneously surmise that one character was merely another's dream-projection,
unless given some clearer signals. Not only are the fairies presented on stage as if
they were real, not dream-figures, but when Theseus and Hippolyta later hear an
account of the fairies nocturnal activities they experience no shock of recognition,

Chapter Three: What is the Dream in A Midsummer Nights Dream


which would seem an appropriate reaction if, as Calderwood maintains, it is they and
not the four young lovers who have had the dream.
Dream, in other words, is what waking people in this play label aspects of
their experience that they cannot otherwise account for. By invoking the word, Puck
and Shakespeare jointly ask us to consider the hypothesis that the fairies are not real
but imaginedwhich we are all too eager to do, since we are no more receptive to
the notion that fairies intervene in our lives than are Theseus or the lovers. But
clearly the play asks us to do the opposite, too: to consider that the fairies may be
real, and that like all of the human characters in the play, we are dreaming when
we imagine that they are not. As David Young puts it:
if we are willing to say that the play is a dream, and, as a result,
inconsequential, then we are no better than the characters we have just been
laughing at. If we have learned anything from the play, we have learned to
be wary of dismissing unusual experiences as meaningless dreams and of
regarding dreams as yielding no significant knowledge. Puck's invitation
must be heard or read in the light of these perceptions. It then becomes one
more blow at the customary distinction between dream experience and
waking experience.5
Modern reluctance to follow Shakespeare into the realm of the spirits is not
surprising in a secular age like ours. Marjorie Garber is only one of many who have
a blind spot when she refers to Macbeth's witches, Banquo's ghost and Hamlet's
fathers spirit as dreams they are no such thing. Yet to take them at face value
violates our scientific world-view, which denies the existence of witches and ghosts.
That poets, madmen, and lovers have the ability to people the world with imaginary
beings is indeed a naturalistic account of how such things as fairies come to be
imagined, but it is Theseus's explanation, not Shakespeare's, and in this play Theseus
is mistaken.
Of course, the supernatural experience had by the sojourners in the woods
and most of all by Bottom, who alone actually sees the fairieshas been imagined
by Shakespeare: his fairies are mostly his own invention. But that supernatural
experience in general is purely imaginary is a hypothesis that some of his characters
assert, but his plays themselves elsewhere do not support. Ghosts and witches, the


The Worlds A Stage

god Hymen in As You Like It and the angels that bring Richard III bad dreams on the
eve of battle are really there in the world of the play, and cannot be dismissed as
projections of the characters' imaginations.
If by dream we understand illusion, then the "dreams" of A Midsummer
Nights Dream are strangely inverted. At one point or another many of the
principal characters fall asleep. Of those who sleepthe four lovers, plus Titania
and Bottommost refer to the odder aspects of their nocturnal adventures,
including love-affairs with unsuitable or fantastic partners, as "dreams" they have
had. But we in the audience have witnessed these adventures, and know that they
were no dreams: Hermia has been scorned by her lovers and Helena loved by her
scorners; Bottom has been loved by a fairy queen and Titania has loved an ass.
When the characters were wide awake at home in Athens, they were "dreaming"
in the sense of being deluded, and when they enter the dark woods their
adventures are real, not illusory, their only delusion being to disbelieve the reality
of what they take to have been dreams. As Harold Goddard puts it: "this world of
sense in which we live is but the surface of a vaster unseen world by which the
actions of men are affected or overruled." (74). 6
The magical way in which their lives are fantastically disordered and then
re-ordered by magical beings whom they cannot see and do not inferthis whole
adventure is no dream. Rather, the dream is the illusion that they were in control
of their lives in the first place. The "dream" is this waking life, which they
foolishly believe they have understood and mastered, but which is actually in the
control of forces far greater than they: the fairies, the Moon, the Fates, and
ultimately the Playwright HimselfGod, or Shakespeare.
No more than most other men and women of his day did Shakespeare
disbelieve in the supernatural realm. Accordingly, his analogy of the world to a
stage points in two opposite directions. It can suggest (as in The Taming of The
Shrew) that the world is a stage upon which human actors hold sway, but it can
just as well suggest that we are puppets in the hands of a divine puppeteer. One
hypothesis leads forward to our modern secular-scientific world-view, while the
other looks backward to a numinous world of magic and religion. Angels?

Chapter Three: What is the Dream in A Midsummer Nights Dream


demons? spirits of another sort? or mere figments of the human mind? Who knows!
I am not saying that fairies are real, nor even that Shakespeare thought so, but
merely that A Midsummer Nights Dream exploresand exploitsthe possibility
that fairies or other unseen, spiritual beings may be real, and may intervene in our
There are a great many illusions on show in the play, of course, but most of
these occur not in fairyland but back in Athens. Back in Athens Demetrius "dreams"
that he loves Hermia, Egeus "dreams" that his daughter must marry his favorite
suitor, Theseus dreams that the laws of Athens compel him to enforce Egeus's fancy,
and Helena dreams that she will benefit by informing Demetrius that Hermia and
Lysander have eloped. Their own waking life, then, is the dream from which
these characters need to awake.
In other plays some of the wiser of Shakespeares characters suspect that
they are characters in a play, but to do so they must first notice their affinity to
actors. No one in A Midsummer Night's Dream is wise enough to grasp that the
world is a stage, and this may be because there are no conscious role-players in it.
Everyone is painfully sincereor more properly, each is trapped inside one banal,
limited role. "The conventions are entrapping," as J. Dennis Huston puts it, "because
the nature of the lover's role is already determined for him(104). Unlike the
characters in plays such as The Taming of The Shrew and Hamlet, where the
theatrical nature of waking life is suggested by their obsessive roleplaying, all the
human characters in A Midsummer Night's Dream behave precisely as themselves,
and all are trapped in the role of their own inflexible identities and impulses.
Though Hermia and Helena are indistinguishable in everything but height,
the interchangeable lovers Demetrius and Lysander are certain that life with one of
them will be bliss, while with the other it will be hell-on-earth. Yet half way
through the play the two women switch their positions in this formula. Helena
accuses the men of deception, but she is mistaken: after being given a love-potion
they are as genuinely in love with her as they were a few minutes earlier with
Hermia. Meanwhile Egeus has set his mind on his daughter Hermia marrying
Tweedledum, but never Tweedledee, while Duke Theseus regretfully observes that


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though he sees the absurdity of Egeus's position he can only enforce the ineluctable
laws of Athens (1.1.119). Later, he changes his mind, and no heavens crumble.
Nor when we get to fairyland do we encounter much in the way of conscious
role-playing. Titania and Oberon are themselves at all times, except when pansyjuice has caused Titania to fall in love with Bottom. Given the antidote, she saves
her self-esteem by imagining that she has merely been dreaming. Puck alone is
called upon to role-play a littlehe impersonates Demetrius' and Lysander's voices
at one pointbut Puck like his master Oberon prefers to accomplish his deceptions
by simply going invisible and applying a potion rather than by taking the trouble to
disguise himself.
So it is really only the "mechanicals" who act parts, and they are of course
marvelously inept at role-playing. That these simpletons take it into their minds to
write and perform "the most lamentable comedy"(1.2.11-2) of Pyramus and Thisbe
is a wonderful joke that enlivens Shakespeare's play with an example of how not to
put on a play. For example: Shakespeare's play, much of which takes place by
moonlight, must evoke the presence of that moon despite the fact that it normally
would be performed in the open air, in broad daylight.7 This Shakespeare
accomplishes by poetic appeals to the imagination, a recurrent evocation of the
moon by mentioning it, by describing the world of the forest as it would appear by
moonlight, and most of all by poetry. He employs a kind of "versified moonlight"
a magical, incantatory verse that suggests a land of darkness, fairies, and silvery
The mechanicals, on the other hand, after considering and rejecting the
option of merely opening a casement window to the moon that will be shining on the
night of their performance, decide to appoint one of their number to impersonate the
moon. This he does by carrying a lantern, and by announcing his identity to the
audience. Needless to say, the audience is not persuaded, and makes merry with
poor Robin Starvling, and with Bottom's woeful attempt to evoke darkness in
immortal lines such as:

Chapter Three: What is the Dream in A Midsummer Nights Dream


O grim-looked night, O night with hue so black,

O night which ever art when day is not;
O night, O night, alack, alack, alack, . . . (5.1.168-70)
Thus the mechanicals are unable to create the illusion of night, even though
they have the advantage of playing their scene late in the evening, by artificial
Yet these players amusingly persuade themselves that they are performing a
highly illusionist drama, from which the audience must be protected by being
informed that certain powerful effects are only make-believe:
[BOTTOM:] Write me a prologue, and let the prologue seem to say we will
do no harm with our swords, and that Pyramus is not killed indeed; and for
the more better assurance, tell them that I, Pyramus, am not Pyramus, but
Bottom the weaver. This will put them out of fear. (3.1.15-20)8
Other measures must be taken, too, to prevent their drama from appearing
too realistic. The lion must be recognizably a man in disguise, and he must speak
words of reassurance: "'I am a man as other men areand there, indeed, let him
name his name, and tell them plainly he is Snug the joiner."(3.1.38-40)
Paradoxically, though, the more the mechanicals laboriously spell out the
falsity of what they are performing, the more engaging and credible these characters
become. As we watch these very sincere people fail to become the characters they
hope to impersonate it still does not occur to us to say to ourselves: "This is not
Bottom the fool speaking, but rather it is Charles Laughton [or whoever] the
celebrated, intelligent actor."9
Such facts are too obvious to state, for one thing; but also it would spoil our
illusion to recognize that Bottom and his excellent foolishness are not real, but rather
the brilliant inventions of a clever actor and a clever playwright. And so when it is
agreed upon that Robin Starveling shall represent the moon, abetted by a bush and a
lantern, though we laugh at the foolish device we do not doubt that this is actually
Robin Starveling who will perform it, or that the troupe believe in its effectiveness.
Nor (least of all) do we pause to think that we ourselves have already been


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hoodwinked into imagining a moon present in this play when there was only
So, when the last scene in the play arrives, and the mechanicals perform their
lamentable comedy, we watch and listen approvingly as the aristocratic,
sophisticated audience makes merry at the poor actors' expense. This is a wedding
feast, and these tipsy newlyweds are determined to laugh, just as we are. And, since
the story itself is anything but merry, the audience must be merry at the actors
expense, even though to do so they must be unfair, if not downright unkind:

STARVELING [as Moonshine] This lantern doth the horned moon present.
DEMETRIUS He should have worn the horns on his head.
THESEUS He is no crescent, and his horns are invisible within the
STARVELING (as Moonshine) This lantern doth the horned moon present.
Myself the man i'th moon do seem to be.
THESEUS This is the greatest error of all the restthe man should be put
into the lantern. How is it else the man i'th moon?
DEMETRIUS He dares not come there for the candle; for you see it is
already in snuff.
HIPPOLYTA I am aweary of this moon. Would he would change.
THESEUS It appears by his small light of discretion that he is in the wane;
but yet, in courtesy, in all reason, we must stay the time.
LYSANDER Proceed, Moon.
STARVELING All that I have to say is to tell you that the lanthorn is the
moon, I, the man i'th moon, this thornbush my thornbush, and this dog my
DEMETRIUS Why, all these should be in the lantern, for all these are in the
moon. But silence; here comes Thisbe. (5.1.231-51)
Many of their criticisms are not apt, and arise from a determined literalmindednessa refusal or inability to "dream"on the part of an audience who have
given up trying (if they ever have tried) to enter into the play's illusion. Poor Robin's
moon is "horned" because it is a crescent, and because it is represented by a
"lanthorn" (in the Folios original spelling); such facts have nothing to do with
Demetrius's stock response inferring cuckoldry.

And Theseus's objection to

Starveling's carrying his lantern is mere quibbling. The lantern fairly represents the
moon's light, and Theseus cannot seriously suppose that constructing a lantern large

Chapter Three: What is the Dream in A Midsummer Nights Dream


enough for Starveling to be inside of would be any improvement. Theseus is merely

carping to amuse himself and his companions. The other quibbles are equally
specious, and reflect an audience determined to amuse themselves by finding fault
with a performance that is otherwise devoid of amusement for them. And yet most
of their wit is rather lamelook at Demetrius, who after his cuckoldry cliche tries
next to get a laugh out of a joke that Theseus has already made.
As these nobles see it, they are being gracious merely to allow the
mechanicals to perform at their wedding-banquet. Theseus, the largest-minded and
highest-ranking member of the party, has already explained that since he knows the
play will be terrible, it is a mark of nobility on his and everyone else's part to endure
it patiently:

I love not to see wretchedness o'ercharged,
And duty in his service perishing.
Why, gentle sweet, you shall see no such thing.
He says they can do nothing in this kind.
The kinder we, to give them thanks for nothing.
Our sport shall be to take what they mistake,
And what poor duty cannot do,
Noble respect takes it in might, not merit.(5.1.85-92)
The whole scene, in short, is one in which an audienceincluding us, by
implication, the audience at Shakespeare's playis depicted as discerning and
aristocratic, while actors are portrayed as bumbling plebeians. Moreover, rude
heckling and interruption from that aristocratic audience are described by its most
authoritative voice as patience, kindness, and "noble respect"and are in any case
preferable to Hippolytas suggestion to call the whole thing off. The mechanicals,
who appear not to mind the constant interruption, would be far more crushed by not
being permitted to perform at all, and thus missing out on the payment they hope to
earn. 10


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But isn't the joke ultimately on Theseus and the rest of these self-pleased

pseudo-sophisticates? For though they laugh at the mechanicals' simple antics, there
is a race of beings superior to them who actually control their destinies as surely as
Theseus rules in Athens, and who see and laugh at their follies[PUCK] "Lord,
what fools these mortals be!"(3.2.115) On the whole these superior beings are
patient and kind, as is evidenced by their straightening out of the tangles that the
lovers and patriarchs have made of their lives, yet Theseus's thickheaded assurance
that he understands how the world works is utterly belied by facts of which he is
blissfully ignorant:

'Tis strange, my Theseus, that these lovers speak of.
More strange than true. I never may believe
These antique fables nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold:
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination
That, if it would but apprehend some joy
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!
But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy's images,
And grows to something of great constancy;
But howsoever, strange and admirable.(5.1.1-27)

Chapter Three: What is the Dream in A Midsummer Nights Dream


Only Hippolyta voices any belief that the lovers' strange tale of adventure in
the forest may be other than a simple delusion, but her doubts are brushed aside by
her hardheaded spouse, who knows how to keep imagination in its place. And yet it
is she, not he, who intuits the truth as we have witnessed it.

The play the

mechanicals have just performed may be moonshine and foolishness, yet the
audience who deride it are equally foolish in their smug assurance that they know
what truth is and what is fantasy.
Around them, and all unseen, a race of superhuman beings straightens out
their love lives, blesses their marriage beds, gives them healthy children, protects
them from malign influences, and in return asks only the simple pleasure of being
allowed to watch and laugh at their follies. And all in turn are watched over by the
influential moon and stars, and by their Creatorand of course by us, who sit in
Shakespeare's audience sublimely unaware (unless we are very perceptive) that we
in turn may be watched by higher powers that find us diverting.
There are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in our
philosophy, and it is this openness to all possibilities, Shakespeares unwillingness
to choose between contradictory viewsbe they spiritualist or materialist,
theocentric or anthropocentricthat is conveyed most powerfully by means of
metatheater. The play-within-a-play in A Midsummer Nights Dream enables the
playwright to model the ambiguities not merely of the rest of his play, but also of the
world outside the theaters wallsthe real world, as we complacently call it.
Lord, what fools we mortals be!


For a survey of contemporary views on fairies, see Peter Hollands introduction to his
edition of A Midsummer Nights Dream (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994) 21-34.

The Norton Shakespeare prints as an appendix to the play five additional passages
from the 1594 text of The Taming of a Shrew. The quoted passage appears on page 200.

Though Hamlet famously asserts that thinking makes it so (Hamlet, 2.2.50-1),

Bollingbroke in a play closer in date of composition to A Midsummer Nights Dream, has no
trouble showing that this is not always so:


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O, who can hold a fire in his hand

By thinking of the frosty Caucasus?
Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite
By bare imagination of a feast?
(Richard II 1.3.280-81;294-97; my emphasis)
Unless Puck is suggesting that the audience has been literally asleep and dreaming, which is
manifestly untrue, then he is speaking metaphorically, and weakening the comparison by
pointing out its hypothetical status: if we wish we may think of the play we have just
witnessed as a dream . . . but it wasnt.

Dream in Shakespeare: From Metaphor to Metamorphosis (New Haven: Yale U.P., 1974),

David Young, Something of Great Constancy: The Art of "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
(New Haven: Yale U.P., 1966), p. 125.

There is one actual dream in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Hermia has it. When she
awakes from this bad dream she cries to her absconded former lover:
HERMIA Help me, Lysander, help me! Do thy best
To pluck this crawling serpent from my breast!
Ay me, for pity. What a dream was here?
Lysander, look how I do quake with fear.
Methought a serpent ate my heart away,
And you sat smiling at his cruel prey.
Lysanderwhat, removed? Lysander, lord
What, out of hearing, gone? (2.2.151-158)

Dramatically the function of this dream is to waken Hermia, while psychologically it tells us
something about Hermia's fears of being hurt by Lysander, who as a potent young male
resembles a snake both anatomically and in his capacity to deceive her, as the serpent
deceived Eve.
Norman Holland makes a good deal more of this dream, seeing it as emblematic
of the play as a whole"Literature is a dream dreamed for us" he assertsbut his
interpretation turns on taking Puck's epilog seriously (62). By ignoring Puck's playful,
ironic way of suggesting that we may take the play for a dream if we choose, Holland
reduces the play as a whole to the rather questionable status of Hermia's dream, which is
an illusionin Theseus's commonsense psychology, she has mistaken a bush for a bear
(5.1.22) The "truth" of the play, for Holland, like that of Hermia's dream, is entirely
symbolic: no serpent ate her heart, just as no fairies fixed her love-life. Yet manifestly
spirits did intervene in her life, and so the analogy between Hermias dream and the play
in which she dreamt it is not a good one. The most famous dream in the playthough
it was in fact realis Bottoms dream, discussed below (note 9).
The plays fantastic content would seem to make it a poor candidate for feminist
or New Historicist analysis, and yet Louis Adrian Montrose has produced a muchadmired reading, "'Shaping Fantasies': Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan
Culture," in which he argues that "the festive conclusion of A Midsummer Night's Dream
depends upon the success of a process by which the female pride and power manifested

Chapter Three: What is the Dream in A Midsummer Nights Dream


in misanthropic warriors, possessive mothers, unruly wives, and wilful daughters are
brought under the control of lords and husbands."("'Shaping Fantasies') For him the play
is not festive at all, but rather a sort of collective dream, in which the society of
Shakespeare's day tried to reconcile the fact of patriarchal hierarchy with the desire for
equality and social justice. The only irony Montrose hears in Puck's epilog is that, since
it is a dream, the play achieves merely the illusion of justice. In effect Montrose is
trying to shake us awake from the delusive dreams on which patriarchy is based.

The Lord Chamberlain's Men made their livelihood principally by selling admission to a
public theater that was illuminated by natural daylight. Yet the common supposition that A
Midsummer Night's Dream was written for a noble wedding, though there is not a shred of
external evidence for this speculation, invokes a picture of its being written to be performed
indoors, perhaps at night, and certainly under conditions that were rather dim. Shakespeare
could have been challenged by such circumstances to invent a play that made use of the
darkness of the hall in which it would be played. The play he wrote, however, would have
had to evoke nighttime even on a sunny afternoon on an outdoor stage.

The similarities of content between the mechanicals multiple apologies, including Peter
Quinces prolog (5.1.108-17) apologizing for any offense to the audience, and Pucks
apologetic epilog again suggests that Shakespeare has his tongue in his cheek when he
has Puck dismiss his play as a dream. Metaphorically all plays are dreams, which
has never kept them from offending those who rightly suspect that they point to
unwelcome truths about the world beyond the playhouse doors.

Bottom too has a dream, more famous by far than Hermias, and perhaps the one referred
to in Shakespeares title. However, fantastic as it is, it is not a dream, though Bottom tries to
dismiss it as such:
I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what
dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about texpound this dream. Methought
I wasthere is no man can tell what. Methought I was, and methought I had
but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had. The
eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to
taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. I will
get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream. It shall be called Bottom's
Dream, because it hath no bottom, and I will sing it in the latter end of a play,
before the Duke. Peradventure, to make it the more gracious, I shall sing it at her
[Thisbe's?] death. (4.1.199-211)
Bottom's "dream" is different from that of the four lovers because he has seen
Titania and her fairy train, while they have merely felt the effects of Pucks tricks and
potions. Bottom has been given a vision of divinity, but that very transcendence makes it
impossible even for him to believe in it, and he never reports it to Peter Quince or to anyone
elseapparently it is far too strange to be believed.
Bottoms words, as is well known, parody St. Pauls famous reference to transcendent
reality ("Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the
things which God hath prepared for them that love him." [I Corinthians 2:9]) But the parody
cuts two ways: while Bottoms version may be said to mock Scripture, Scripture may also be
dignifying Bottoms dream, as Christians are reminded that there is such a thing as


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transcendent reality, invisible to the fleshy eye. No serious Christian can dismiss the
supernatural realm as an illusion, even if the status of fairies within that realm is dubious.

Meredith Skura confutes the view of Theseus as the voice of the playwright by pointing
out that he is not only stupid and rude, but anti-theatrical as well: "Theseus's rudeness to the
players is telling, though it is less vicious than Navarre's or Berowne's in Love's Labour's
Lost. Once again the nobles insult, or even merely analyze the players as if they were not
therelike children, or slaves, or animals. The aristocrats, women as well as men this time,
use the mechanicals' performance as an occasion to show off their own wit, ironically
turning the clowns' own weapon against them and resorting to word-play for subversion. . . .
Even Theseus's famous defense of 'Pyramus and Thisbe,' after Hippolyta calls it 'the silliest
stuff that I ever heard,' is no more than faint praise (MND 5.1.207); and he goes on to a
patronizing dismissal of playing which extends to all professionals as well as to the tacky
amateurs on stage at the moment." (112-3)


Interviewer (Juan Williams): Youve said that you found Ronald Reagan
mysterious as a human being. What did you mean by that?
Edmund Morris (author of Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan): The
private Reagan was perplexing, in the sense that there didnt seem to be
much there. . . . Ronald Reagan was born thespian. Which is to say he
was born an actor. When he had an audience, when he had things to
articulate, to move people and instruct them and cajole them, he was
splendid and moving. But in private Reagan was almost totally colorless.
He could be astonishingly boring, astonishingly ignorant. He never said
anything original, because he was not curious about himself. You got up
and walked out thinking: How can this man be as potent as he is? It
was only when he walked out onto a stage that he became magical. Now
that is mysterious. Its part of the mystery of theater, and of leadership.
Charles de Gaulle, who certainly knew more about leading than just about
any other large character of the 20th century, said il faut cultiver le
mystere: it is necessary to cultivate mystery.
Williams: But you must have a base of intellect if you are to move on the
world stage. Are you describing a leader who simply reflected the agenda
of other people?
Morris: No. Part of the paradox of Ronald Reagan was an actor who
relished having a script thrust into his hand, who was at the same time a
fully formed political thinker. His intellect was quite formidable, though
not cerebral in the sense that a Woodrow Wilson or Theodore Roosevelt
was cerebral. He was not particularly well read, although he was
insatiably curious when he was younger. But his intellectual equipment
was nevertheless very strong. Hed formed it very slowly over the course
of his adult life, and the experiences of all these yearsin the 1930s and
through WWII and the labor agitation of the late 1940s and the outbreak
of international communismall these things contributed to the slow
formulation of his philosophy. [Talk of the Nation, NPR, Feb. 6, 2001]
It is not welcome news for someone like me, who missed no opportunity
to vote against Ronald Reagan, that he was a man of intellect with a thought-out


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political philosophy.

When he was on the national stage, I saw him as a

ventriloquists dummy of the corporations that bankrolled his political campaigns.

True, he was a great communicator, but what he communicated was, to my
mind, a philosophy of aggressive personal and national selfishness, though often
couched in a Frank Capra-esque, feel-good, populist rhetoric. Yet his biographer
looks at what I saw as a hollow man and sees a deep and complex personality, as
riddled by paradox and shrouded in mystery as great presidents like Jefferson and
Perhaps Edmund Morriss Reagan is no more Reagan as he really was
than Shakespeares Henry V is the real Henry. But the extraordinary fact remains
that Reagan on the page and Henry on the stage are thespians to their fingertips,
and great characters not despite but because they are so. Alone, without an
audience, they can scarcely be said to exist. In a sense they have no selves other
than actors perpetually studying a part or putting on an act. They are their roles,
and yet to many in their audience they are great leaders and rulers.
So thoroughly is he given to role-playing that the question of Henrys
true self is as puzzling as it is in the case of Ronald Reaganbehind his roles
we can scarcely discern who he is. The play repeatedly suggests that he is a
providential figurea sort of secular equivalent of Christ the Redeemer, sent by
God to rescue England from the sins of usurpation and civil war. Yet he shares
with this prototype an inscrutability that makes him seem more than, or other
than, human. The playwright has endowed Harry with all the kingly character
traits, above all an utter dedication to the job of king. Courageous and resourceful
as he naturally is, these virtues are managed with a consummate art that is more
than leadership, more than rhetoric, more than statesmanship. As with Ronald
Reagan, it is dramatic art, in a fully developed sense: Harry is not only an actor,
but has mastered every theatrical skill.
Who is Henry?

I shall hereafter, my thrice-gracious lord, be more

myself, Prince Hal tells his father midway through Henry the Fourth, Part One
(3.2.92-3). By this he means he will be more like the prince he is, and less like
the wastrel he has been impersonating.

For a prince to be himself requires

Chapter Four: Henry V, King of Players or Royal Hypocrite?


more than sincerity, howeverearly in Henry the Fourth, Part Two, Prince Hal
has a sincere moment and is scolded for it:

PRINCE Before God, I am exceeding weary. . . . Doth it not

show vilely in me to desire small beer?
POINS How ill it follows . . . you should talk so idly! Tell me,
how many good young princes would do so, their fathers being
so sick as yours at this time is?
PRINCE Marry, I tell thee, it is not meet that I should be sad now
my father is sick; albeit . . . I could be sad; and sad indeed too. . . .
I tell thee, my heart bleeds inwardly that my father is so sick; and keeping
such vile company as thou art hath, in reason, taken from me all
ostentation of sorrow.
POINS The reason?
PRINCE What wouldst thou think of me if I should weep?
POINS I would think thee a most princely hypocrite.
PRINCE It would be every mans thought, and thou art a blessed
fellow to think as every man thinks.(2.2.1-44)
As heir apparent to an ailing monarch, Hal perceives that he is onstage,
the object of his subjects skeptical scrutiny, and not permitted to grieve openly.
He is forced to hide his grief, lest he be accused of faking it. Other men and
women can afford to let the mask slip once in a while, but Hal cannot give
himself even the momentary relief of expressing genuine feelingand this is
exactly because all sincerity in him is automatically discountedhe is assumed
always to be role-playing. In Shakespeares world a ruler is expected to be in
absolute control of himself and othersand usually of events as well. In order to
be, or at least to seem, in control, Shakespeares kings must master a wider range
of roles than any of their subjects. And they are expected, and expect themselves,
to be perfect in every role.
Thus conceived, royalty demands uncanny timing, a sense of which role to
pull from ones repertoire at each moment. Poins knows this, and automatically
attributes Hals grief to hypocrisy (hypocrite, remember, is derived from the
Greek word for actor). And indeed, in Henry IV, Part One, Hal announces in
an early soliloquy that he is acting:


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I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
So when this loose behaviour I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify mens hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittring oer my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set off. (1.2.173-193)
Hal explains his unseemly consorting with thieves and publicans in several

ways. He is having a holiday (182), he says, meant to recreate his spirit before
undertaking the arduous task of rulership; elsewhere he describes himself as
learning how to speak to the men who will one day be the rank and file of his
army (when I am King of England I shall command all the good lads in
Eastcheap. [1HIV 2.5.12-3]) But above all it is an act calculated to disarm his
enemiesas it causes Hotspur to underestimate Hal in their fatal dueland
dazzle his future subjects with the appearance of a miraculous transformation.
Heir to a usurped throne, Hal needs a miracle (or the appearance of one) that will
be taken by his subjects as a sign from heaven that God has blessed his reign, and
will seem to legitimate him.
He explains as much to the dying Henry IV, who fears that his sons
dissolute wildness is punishment for the bypaths and indirect crookd ways I met
this crown.(2HIV 4.3.322-3) No, replies Hal, he plans a noble change (282)
which indeed he subsequently accomplishes. As the Archbishop of Canterbury
describes it in the sequel, Hals character-change was nothing less than an
instance of Gods gracious intervention:

Chapter Four: Henry V, King of Players or Royal Hypocrite?


The breath no sooner left his fathers body

But that [Henrys] wildness, mortified in him,
Seemed to die too; yea, at that very moment
Consideration like an angel came
And whipped th offending Adam out of him,
Leaving his body as a paradise
T envelop and contain celestial spirits. (Henry V, 1.1.26-32)
But we in the audience see a more nuanced picture. Hals transformation,
from scapegrace to gracious sovereign, though it seems a miracle, is actually the
result of a conscious plan he adopted long ago, when he was still playing at
depravity. Once he is king, he puts on a different part.
Harry is not only an actor, but has mastered every theatrical skillfor
example that of drama coach. At the battle of Harfleur he motivates his reluctant
soldiers to risk their lives by an intensive lesson in method-acting. I will take this
longish speech a bit at a time, to make its latent dramatic content more apparent.
King Henry begins by exhorting his troops to risk death by entering the citys
breached wall:

KING HARRY Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
[If the soldiers were at this point willing to follow him, Henry could end
his speech here. But a simple command is not sufficient, not even when
backed by the kings example. Henry appears brave to the soldiers, they
believe he is brave, but they know themselves to be frightened. It is his
job to persuade them that they too are brave, and so he continues:]
In peace theres nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility,
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger.
Stiffen the sinews, conjure up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage.
[Henry, who himself feels natural fear, does not reproach his cowed, silent
soldiers with cowardice. Rather he excuses their demeanor as civility.
They look, Henry says, like citizens in peacetime. They have forgotten
where they are, and thus have failed to assume the role necessary for men


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in battle to play. To get in character once again, they must put on a
warlike face and demeanor.]
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect,
Let it pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon, let the brow oerwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
Oerhanging and jutty his confounded base,
Swilled with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath, and bend up every spirit
To his full height.

[They must frown and glare, grit their teeth and flare their nostrils. To
appear really fierce, it will help to summon up fierce images, as of cannon and of
rocky, storm-tossed coasts. Try to become these fearful things, advises
Stanislavsky/Henry. In looking brave they will start to feel brave too.]
On, on, you noblest English,
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof,
Fathers that like so many Alexanders
Have in these parts from morn till even fought,
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument.
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you called fathers did beget you.
[Henry exhorts his officers, the nobility and gentry among his listeners, to
think of their warlike ancestors, to visualize father and mother as watching
them! They have something to prove to their parents and to the world.
Born from such stock they have brave natures, but this nature must be
remembered, summoned up, and demonstratedto their parents, King,
themselves, and above all to their own soldiers:]
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeomen,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breedingwhich I doubt not,
For there is none of you so mean and base
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
[The common soldiers, too, have a warlike heritage and substance, but
they must show their mettle. Henry sees it already, in the noble luster of
their eyesa hint at the royal prerogative to reward the outstanding
soldier with a battlefield commission. If they show nobility they may
achieve it.]

Chapter Four: Henry V, King of Players or Royal Hypocrite?


I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,

Straining upon the start. The games afoot.
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry, God for Harry! England and Saint George!(3.1.1-34)
Thus Henry is not merely exhorting his men to be braveif they knew
how they would do sobut coaching them on how to appear brave, both to
others and to themselves. By acting brave they will begin to act bravelyas
though impersonating courage were the first step toward achieving it. Harry has
instructed them, and they have learned. Now he raises their spirits to a fighting
pitch by playing the appreciative audience. He gives them a picture of how he
sees (or purports to see) themeyes shining, straining like greyhounds at the start
of a huntand only then does he allude to their inner spirit that it has been his
task to instill. This time when he gives the command to attack they follow him
into battle.
Worth stressing, because it is so foreign to the way we normally think of
inner states like bravery, is the function of the audience, or audiences, in all this.1
Henry suggests that his soldiers are being watchedby the enemy, by each other,
by him, by their parents, ancestors, and countrymen. If they think of themselves
as performing before these multiple audiences, they will be the brave actors they
are supposed to be. Remembering the role is all in all.
Thus explicated, it is clear how much of this famous battle-speech may
also be read as advice to an actor. Normally we do not think of it as such,
however, because to do so would be to cheapen it. We habitually treat the two
meanings of the verb to act as though they were perfect antonyms. Pretense is
synonymous with lying. To imitate the tiger, to put on a warlike face with glaring
eye and taut sinews, is to pretend to be brave, which for most of us is at best
irrelevant and at worst antithetical to actually being brave. Thus Anne Barton,
after tracing the player king motif through the first three plays of the tetralogy,
pronounces that


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Henry V is not a Player King, as the Dauphin discovers to his sorrow. The
image of the actor cannot really be associated with his reign, except in the
momentary misapprehension of an enemy.2
By Player King Barton means someone like Richard II, who was

unequal to the actual task of ruling. Clearly, Henry is not incapable of wielding
power, yet he is constantly playing one role or another, a supremely effective king
because he is a consummate actor.

Bartons surprising blindness to the

overwhelming evidence of Henrys brilliant application of stagecraft to politics,

war, wooing, and the like seems derived from a latent anti-theatrical prejudice.
Like most of us, she sees acting on a stage as the polar opposite of effective action
in the real world: to really be brave, resourceful, discerning, confident, and so
forth, we must avoid pretending to be these things. I submit, however, that
Shakespeares plays do not endorse such a view, and that experience, too, fails to
support it.

On the evidence of Henry and of others of Shakespeares most

beloved protagonists, like Rosalind and Hamlet, Henry is a successful king

precisely because he is a good actor.
Prince Hal, the future King Henry V, is first mentioned in Richard II,
where King Henry IV, having deposed King Richard, begins to concern himself
about the safety of his own succession:

KING HENRY Can no man tell of my unthrifty son?

Tis full three months since I did see him last.
If any plague hang over us, tis he.
I would to God, my lords, he might be found.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
HARRY PERCY My lord, some two days since, I saw the Prince,
And told him of these triumphs held at Oxford.
KING HENRY And what said the gallant?
HARRY PERCY His answer was he would unto the stews,
And from the commonst creature pluck a glove,
And wear it as a favour, and with that
He would unhorse the lustiest challenger.
KING HENRY As dissolute as desperate. Yet through both

Chapter Four: Henry V, King of Players or Royal Hypocrite?


I see some sparks of better hope, which elder days

May happily bring forth. (Richard II, 5.3.1-22)
The king here discerns sparks of better hope in his sons spirited
rebelliousness, but elsewhere he seems convinced that Hal will be the death of
him. In the next play he goes so far as to wish that he could swap sons with Harry
Percys father:

KING HENRY O, that it could be proved

That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle clothes our children where they lay,
And called mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine. (1Henry IV, 85-9)
But what the honor-obsessed Hotspur lacks is what father and son so ably
display: the ability to play more than one role.
The deposed King Richard, though legitimate, was unequal to the real
work of ruling, and instead contented himself with the trappings of kingship.
That he was a player king is evident from his histrionic display in the latter part
of the play, but is a truth about himself that he never discovers. His antagonist, the
politic Bolingbroke, had the advantage of knowing from the start that he was an
actor. Since he was not born a king, Bolingbroke had to earn his subjects
allegiance, so he did not neglect to portray himself both as a champion of the
wronged nobility, and as the people's friendroles that won him followers. But
Prince Hal far surpasses his two predecessors, both in his acting abilities and in
his awareness of the fact that he is role-playing.3
Even in his first soliloquy, beginning I know you all, Hals conception
of himself is thoroughly theatrical. And when he compares himself to the sun and
to Christ the Redeemer, his emphasis falls heavily on how he will look to his
audience, the people of England, when he reforms himself. Usually we think of
Hal as adopting the guise of black sheep in order to get to know the common folk
whom he will one day govern, or to discover his own basic humanity. But here he
speaks as though it is the drama of his apparent redemption that he has foremost


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in mind. Transforming himself into the image of a perfect king will help
transform his subjects into loyal supporters, and remove from him the taint of
usurpation that has spoiled his fathers reign.
Throughout the two Henry IV plays, Hal ably impersonates the other
characters, including a pompous King Henry IV (1HIV 2.5.401-39), a tavern aledrawer (2HIV 2.4.208-55), and in one hilarious speech, Harry Percy and his wife:

PRINCE HARRY I am not yet of Percys mind, the Hotspur of the

Northhe that kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast,
washes his hands, and says to his wife, Fie upon this quiet life! I want
work. O my sweet Harry, says she, how many hast thou killed today?
Give my roan horse a drench, says he, and answers, Some fourteen, an
hour after; a trifle, a trifle. (1HIV 94-9)
He also stage-manages the Gadshill robbery scene, directs Falstaff in their
extempore skit and switches roles with him halfway through, coaches characters
as to how to play their roles, disguises himself and Poins to make an unseen
audience (2HIV 2.4) and throughout plays the critic to Falstaff and company. In
fact, Hal is frequently a chorus, author-surrogate, and audience: directing,
analyzing, commenting on, and judging the other characters in the play, high and

His sway extends even to the audience, who by the conventions of

Elizabethan soliloquy are as much included in Hals I know you all as are the
just-exited Falstaff and Poins. Thus we too, idly attending a stage-play, are
among the number of those Henry knows to be in need of redemption by the
intercession of a perfect leader.
The image of Henry as Englands redeemer is introduced early into Henry
V, when two princes of the church discuss his surprising personality-change
(1.1.25-32). Since the archbishop has not heard Hals I know you all soliloquy
in 1 Henry IV, he can only assume that the divine protection extended to anointed
kings has in Henrys case proved especially efficacious. We know that Henry has
always planned such a reformation as a matter of policy, yet if this is Henrys
doing, not Gods, it seems only a shade less providential and miraculous. As his
victories continue in this play, against longer and longer odds, Henry himself

Chapter Four: Henry V, King of Players or Royal Hypocrite?


express more and more frequently a sense that he has been helped by a higher
power. Without such help not all the skill and virtue in the world could have
accomplished what Henry accomplishes, and he acknowledges this fact more than
once, especially after the battle of Agencourt.
It is tempting in our secular day to dismiss Henrys piety as mere windowdressing for vaulting ambition, but Henry is no more nor less a role-player toward
God than he is toward everybody else. If it is not possible in Christian teaching
for any fallen mortal to be perfect, yet it is apparently possible, in Henrys case, to
act perfectly. Henry is the ideal king because he is the perfect actor, one of whose
audiences is God himself.
But what counted as royal perfection in Shakespeares dayparticularly
the ability to wage and win aggressive warhas a far different aura today, at least
among Shakespeare critics. To many of todays interpreters Henry seems a
power-mad hypocrite, an infamous war-lover who wasted his own brief life and
the lives of his soldiers in a futile, criminal pursuit of conquest and domination.
His invasion of France, which follows his fathers advice to unify his rebellious
kingdom by waging a foreign war, is predicated on the shaky claim the
Plantagenets have on the French throne. That claim is in turn vouched for by
bishops who, far from being disinterested, hope to ward off a threatened royal
expropriation of the church by turning Henrys attention elsewhere. Historically
speaking the bloody invasion of France was only temporarily successful. As
Shakespeares contemporary audiences were well aware, England after Henrys
early death became embroiled in sixty-three years of a civil war between rival
claimants to the throne that Bolingbroke usurped. During that time the English
were expelled from France, leaving the story of Henrys temporary glory to be
weighed against a dismal record of subsequent defeat and futility. Still, Henrys
legend lived on as the one English king who was successful in foreign wars.
Alas, Shakespeare, no pacifist, seems to have regarded force, intelligently
used, as a necessary instrument of statecraft. Many dynastic changes result from
force, and the best test that a new royal family enjoys legitimacy is durationa
test that is passed, in turn, by reliance on the effective use of force. Henrys claim


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to the English throne was stronger than his fathers, simply because the son did
not have to defeat, depose, or murder his predecessor, but he still has to face
sedition from supporters of a rival claimant. He comes to the throne through
legitimating rituals of a dynastic succession, while his apparently miraculous
transformation from black sheep to national redeemer is taken as a sign of divine
favor that adds a further coat of gloss to his legitimacy. Yet in Shakespeares play
Henry is painfully aware that his claim to the throne is shaky. His project of
testing in battle his claim to the French throne is a risky but, he apparently feels, a
necessary way to demonstrate his right to occupy the throne of England as well.
Victory in France will show Gods favor, and drown his subjects doubts in a tide
of national pride and conquerors prosperity.
This is essentially trial by combat, a necessarily bloody enterprise, and
there are moments when Henry sounds so bloodthirsty that modern audiences
may have a hard time stomaching him. But if we look closely at one such
momenthis speech describing the impending carnage to the stunned Governor
of Harfleurwe will see a different picture:

Take pity of your town and of your people

Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command,
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
Oerblows the filthy and contagious clouds
Of heady murder, spoil, and villainy.
If notwhy, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herods bloody-hunting slaughtermen.
What say you? Will you yield, and this avoid?
Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroyed? (3.3.105-120)
Laurence Olivier deleted this speech from his patriotic World War II film
version. Legend has it that Prime Minister Winston Churchill requested that

Chapter Four: Henry V, King of Players or Royal Hypocrite?


Olivier do so, lest its savagery compromise the British reputation for fair play.
The more recent Kenneth Branagh film (1989) restores the cut, and makes of the
speech before Harfleue a grim epitome of what is wrong with war, with conquest,
and indeed with Henry.
Yet, since language already bears most of the burden of representing the
deeds of war in this play, it is easy to forget as we read that the horrid slaughter
Henry depicts for the Governor of Harfleur does not actually occur. Gruesome as
is the picture Henry paints, it has a happy effect upon the governor, who promptly
surrenders to the English and thereby circumvents the predicted carnage. Henrys
words paint a picture of hypothetical brutality, of what may happen if the citizens
persist in defending their town. In fact, since Henry holds his soldiers on a tight
leash when it comes to the grosser infamies of war, his picture of the English
army raging out of control is a deliberate overstatement of what is likely to occur
if Harfleur is taken by force.4
What Henry is actually about is a verbal conquest: his picture of an
English sack of the town is so vivid that it does the actual work of conquest with
no further bloodshed on either side. Poetry, rhetoric, and drama here win a
bloodless victory for Henry, a further confirmation of the playwrights subversive
knowledge that acting is frequently a better alternative than action.
This is not to say that Henrys only skills are wielding words and playing
roleshe is a brilliant statesman who seems to have instinctive knowledge of
when a king may be merciful and when he must be stern, as he is to the
conspirators Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey. As would-be regicides these lords
richly deserve the executions they receive, unlike the drunken commoner who
railed against [Henrys] person (2.2.41). Yet the king turns the occasion of his
judging them all into a little drama that tests the conspirators, reveals their lack of
humanity when they recommend harshness toward the harmless drunk, and
teaches everyone present, including the audience, how to balance justice with
mercy. As a Christian should, Henry forgives the conspirators for their sins
against his person, and yet sends them to be executed for crimes against the
crown, after first allowing them to repair the state of their souls by unforced


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confession. Good statecraft, Shakespeare implies, requires proper stagecraft to

ensure that the truth emerges, the proper results are achieved, the right lessons
taught and learned. Ultimately it is all of the rulers subjects, including those
sitting in Shakespeares London playhouse, who are Henrys pupils.
Henrys ability to command an army, too, is no mere pretense. Proved by
his unexpected defeat of Harry Hotspur in single combat, Henrys skills as a
soldier are unquestioned, though we never see him wield a sword again after the
Battle of Shrewsbury in 1 Henry IV, 4.1.5 But Henrys generalship is in
Shakespeares account due most of all to his wisdomI can find no narrower or
less value-laden a term to cover what Henry has. This is an understanding of
himself and of human nature that leads to a near-perfect sense of timing: the
ability to know what role to play on every occasion. The Archbishops view that
Henry is under the special care of God would seem a necessary hypothesis, if
Henry had not earlier explained his apprenticeship as a deliberate program of selfperfection.
In Shakespeares version, Henrys character flaws in the earlier plays were
more apparent than real. Once he is crowned, he abandons even the appearance
of vice, and becomes a model of what a Renaissance king was expected to be. But
to call him a perfect king is to risk making what sounds like a moral
endorsement, which is not my purpose. One speaks, after all, of a perfect disaster
or a perfect murder, merely suggesting completeness or flawlessness of
execution.6 In this strict sense Shakespeares Henry is as close to the perfect ruler
as can be imaginedhe is all that a ruler can be expected to be. Machiavellis
real-world example of a perfect ruler was Caesare Borgia, not because the latter
was a good man, which he was not, but because he had an excellent plan for
acquiring princely powerand it nearly worked.7
Chief among Henrys many strengths as a general is his knowledge of
men, which he displays in every scene, but never more than in his nocturnal
journey through the camp on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt. It is a journey he
makes twiceonce as himself, to bolster the morale of his outnumbered troops,

Chapter Four: Henry V, King of Players or Royal Hypocrite?


and a second time in disguise. During the first trip, the Chorus describes Henry as
acting out a confidence he does not feel:

Upon his royal face there is no note

How dread an army hath enrounded him.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
[E]very wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks.
A largess universal, like the sun,
His liberal eye doth give to everyone,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night. (4.0.35-47)
This portrait of Henry is of an actor playing to an audience, accomplishing a
redemptive effect on them by his histrionic abilities, disguising his own fear and
discouragement under a mask of calm and confidence
As it has done in the prologs to each act, the Chorus is here heroizing
Henry, but can we assume that Shakespeare, too, took this simple heroic view of
Henry? Not according to Matthew Wickander, who claims: in Henry V the epic,
historical, narrative voice of the Chorus is severely challenged by the very actions
it glorifies and presents.(29) Of course, there is nothing simple about the picture
of Henry we get from the play as a whole. Still, Shakespeare wrote the Choruss
prologues as well as all the other lines in the play, so the effect they produce on an
audience should contribute to its overall effect.

Are we meant to detect

discrepancies between what the Chorus tells us and what the action subsequently
shows, as Wickander claims? For example, he writes that
The audience is asked only to place the Choruss formulations and
the events it witnesses side-by-side. Behold, as may unworthiness
define,/ A little touch of Harry in the night (4.0.46-7), urges the Chorus
to act IV: what we see instead of the king bestowing a largess universal,
like the sun (l. 43) is the king skulking about the camp in disguise,
quarreling with Bates and Williams and getting the worst of it, and
bemoaning the hard condition of royalty in language reminiscent of
Henry IVs despair.8


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But if indeed Henry skulks, quarrels, and bemoans his condition, he does

so without revealing to anyone onstage that it is a king who does so, and in the
process he proves to us that he is but a man. Henry does not persuade the
hotheaded Williams on any point they debate, but he does convince Bates (and
perhaps the silent Court as well) that the king is not responsible for the fate of his
soldiers souls should they die in battle. More deeply, however, his purpose is to
address the state of his own soul, to face his accusers and to beg Gods pardon for
any faults they expose.
In fact, this trip into the night is not the one described by the Chorus at all.
Rarely does the Chorus give alternative versions of the events enacted in the rest
of the play, and when it might seem to do so, this is not to introduce cognitive
dissonance but to apologize for being unable to stage them properly. The force of
the Choruss epic voice is to shape the audiences response, not merely by
imaging what Shakespeares theater is unequipped to show, but also to help us to
imagine him as the perfect king that, God knows, few if any actual rulers have
ever been.
In the case of the prologue to Act 4, the first twenty-seven lines set a
scenenight in the English camp before Agencourtthat will be seen by the
audience only in its minds eye. Cocks will not crow, horses will not neigh, fires
will not burn, except in our imaginations. The next twenty lines describe Henry
putting on a cheerful semblance in order to give comfort to his soldiers, either
because Henrys trip through a large army is better imagined than inadequately
staged, or to spare us the monotony of witnessing two such trips. When the next
scene begins, Henry is still striking the falsely cheerful note in his first words to
his brothers, the Dukes of Gloucester and Clarence, joking that battle has this
silver lining: one rises early to work. The last six lines of the prologue, finally,
apologize that the players cannot stage a battle convincingly.
The discrepancy between what the Chorus tells us of Henrys trip through
the camp playing the morale-raising general, and the trip he takes in disguise in
the ensuing scene, arises simply because he makes not one trip but two. After
having done what he can in his own person for morale, Henry makes a second trip

Chapter Four: Henry V, King of Players or Royal Hypocrite?


that has a different purpose. In disguise Henry is relieved of the burden of

playing the confident king, and can both express his true feelings and expose
himself to the true feelings of others. But this he does only by virtue of the
disguise he assumes. Often in Shakespeare, donning a disguise enables one to
discover concealed truths. This was the case in the previous two plays, when Hal
and Poins disguised themselves in order to expose Falstaffs cowardice and
chicanery. Here, in addition, his disguise enables the wearer to reveal truths that
he otherwise would be obliged to conceal, but that he himself needs to grapple
During his trip he hears from his soldiers not what he wants to hear, nor
what they want him to hear, but what they really think. Of course, he knows
already that they are displaying sham confidence to him just as he has been
showing it to them. We see this when he describes Sir Thomas Erpingham, who
has just been making a show of enthusiasm (4.1.16-7), as foreseeing disaster:

WILLIAMS I pray you, what thinks he of our estate?

KING HARRY Even as men wrecked upon a sand, that look to be
washed off the next tide. (4.1.94-6)
Yet he also hears some reassuring news when he learns that Bates, though
similarly pessimistic, determine[s] to fight lustily for him. (175)
Henry wants truth; he wants to know where he stands, wants to examine
his own conscience and confess his sins while there is yet time. In this he is
following his own advice to the three common soldiers to confess to God and ask
forgiveness before a battle in which they may die.9
One truth Henry does not like to hear from them is that his claim to the crown of
France may not be validif so they are risking their lives in an unjust cause.
Worse yet, they believe that if they die in battle, Henry will be responsible for the
state of their souls:

WILLIAMS I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle, for
how can they charitably dispose of anything, when blood is their
argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for


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the King that led them to itwho to disobey were against all proportion of
subjection. (4.1.134-8)
Henry disputes this, reasoning that if the cause be not just and his mens

lives are lost, the king is responsible for their deaths, but not for the state of their
souls. He convinces Bates, who pronounces Tis certain, every man that dies ill,
the ill upon his own head. The King is not to answer for it. (173-4) But the
heaviest truth Henry learns from these men is that they see him as responsible for
everythingwhether they win the battle or lose it, whether they live or die, and
even whether they go to heaven or to hell.
Henry tries to disabuse them of this comforting abdication of personal

[KING HARRY:] I think the King is but a man, as I am. The violet smells
to him as it doth to me; the element shows to him as it doth to me. All his
senses have but human conditions. His ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness
he appears but a man . . . . Yet, in reason, no man should possess him with
any appearance of fear, lest he, by showing it, should dishearten his army.
Henrys self-description is, to the audience, a tautology and a joke, since
of course he and the king, being the same person, share the same humanity. To
the soldiers, however, he is making a deeper pointsubjects and king differ only
in the roles they play: His ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a
man. Henry hits on the word ceremony to define the role of a king, and likens
it to a gorgeous garment that hides the similarity of the kings naked body to those
of his subjects. Underneath his clothes a king is simply a man like other men, but
he is forced to disguise his common humanity in order to command their
If so, then Henry in the disguise of one of his officers is no more
dissembling than Henry when dressed in the gorgeous robes of royalty. This in
Henrys meditative soliloquy (211-66) is truer in a more profound sense than the
Chorus intended in Act 1, when he advised us tis your thoughts that now must
deck our kings (l. 28). Real kings, like stage kings, are deckeddressed

Chapter Four: Henry V, King of Players or Royal Hypocrite?


with the thoughts of their beholders. And so what is by nature only a man like
any other, is dressed to become, on the stage or on the throne, a figure endowed
by his subjects with magical, quasi-divine powers that are then thought to protect
him from harm and relieve them from responsibility.
After the soldiers departure, Henry continues to meditate on ceremony,
a word that occurs no less than seven times in his ensuing soliloquy. He portrays
the king as a kind of Christ-figure to his subjects, who make him responsible, as
Williams has just done, even for their salvation or damnation. But this, continues
Henry, is mere idolatry (Thou idol ceremony [222])for the king only appears

[KING HARRY:] What kind of god art thou, that sufferst more
Of mortal griefs than do thy worshippers?
What are thy rents? What are thy comings-in?
O ceremony, show me but thy worth.
What is thy soul of adoration?
Art thou aught else but place, degree, and form,
Creating awe and fear in other men?
Wherein thou art less happy, being feared,
Than they in fearing. (223-31)
Since it is mere show, ceremony can produce fear in its audience, the
kings subjects, but it can do nothing for the Kings own happiness. Nor can it
banish sickness (247-54), nor can it summon sleep (254-65). The king (Henry
continues) is responsible for maintaining the countrys peace, but it is the peasant
who enjoys that peace, while cares keep the king awake. And what has the king
to console him for his cares? Nothing but the waking dream of ceremony. Thus
formulated, the role of king seems a particularly thankless one, precisely because
it is a mere role, lacking the inner substance of the divine power that it
My argument that Henry sees himself as an actor whose stage is the world
is no more than a restatement of what he says in this soliloquy. By describing
himself as a mere man dressed in the deceptive robes of ceremony, Henry
acknowledges that he sees the kingly functions of ruling, judging, commanding


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troops and so forth as various scripts to be studied and performed as they are
called for. Yet his perpetual awareness of the fact of his role-playing includes an
awareness, too, of limits beyond which even the most accomplished actor cannot

King is the most difficult role an actor can be asked to perform,

demanding the greatest range of abilities and punished with the most severe
penalties for any lapse. Therefore the actor is supremely aware of the fact that he
is not in control, that the hand of the Playwright is visible in each new twist of the
There was, of course, his earlier joke about the king being a man, even as
I am (4.1.99), which begs the question of Henrys unquestioned excellence as a
man and king. He is aware of his own unique gifts and skills, but escapes
arrogance by knowing that these are not enough to save him without outside help.
Even in Henrys humility there is method, however, showing he knows no better
way to live than by performing. In disguise he maintained the kings humanity to
three lowly foot soldiers. Then he persuaded the audience not to envy the king for
the trappings of rule. Finally he turns to God himself to ask for continued favor:

[KING HARRY] Not today, O Lord,

O not today, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown.
I Richards body have interred new,
And on it have bestowed more contrite tears
Than from it issued forced drops of blood.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
More will I do,
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after ill,
Imploring pardon. (4.1.274-87)
In admitting his fathers fault, and his own complicity in the fault by
accepting a crown stained with Richards blood, Henry is doing what he has just
suggested to his men that they doi.e. confess their sins to God before a battle in
which they may die (4.1.165-72). On balance, Henry makes the best of a difficult
assignment, managing to show both piety and remorse, and yet subtly

Chapter Four: Henry V, King of Players or Royal Hypocrite?


understating the damning facts about his own claim to the English throne in a way
that may fool his human audience without offending his divine one. In effect, he
admits to God that his penance is a mere act, but buys some time with his
When Mountjoy brings news of the French surrender, Henrys first
reaction is to thank God for the victory: Praised be God, and not our strength, for
it! (4.7.86) And thereafter the name of God is absent from no ones lips in
reference to this miraculous triumph over long odds.

Yet he turns effortlessly

from this display of piety to the levity of inciting a quarrel between Fluellen and
Henry is a master of every occasion, able to curry favor with God for his
piety, while he claims a divine judgement for his cause, and at the same time able
to joke with his men in a way that enhances both their dignity and his own. This
is, the Chorus assures us, a true reflection of his inner self, Being free from
vainness and self-glorious pride, Giving full trophy, signal, and ostent Quite from
himself, to God. (5.0.20-2)

The Chorus seems to equate virtuein this case

Henrys humilitywith its outward signs. In giving God credit for the victory,
Henry shows himself to be genuinely humble.

Perhaps this humility is

spontaneous; but perhaps, as he advised his soldiers to feel brave by appearing

brave, Henry succeeds in being humble by acting humble.
That Princess Catherine is interested in Henry as a potential suitor is
suggested by her desire to learn English in 3.4. This is a comic scene, which
devolves into a series of smutty double-entendres as Catherine discovers that
English words like foot and gown sound like naughty French words that she
is embarrassed to admit to knowing. Initially English is, to Catherines ear, a
crudely sexual language, which she nonetheless desires to speak. But like any
woman she wants to be wooed before she gives her love. Is Henry going to insist
on his rights of conquest, or recognize that in asking for her love he must first win
If he wants a happy marriage, Henry must woo, and to win her love, he
must be able to remove the robes of ceremony and speak as a mere man, prey to


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the same frailties and doubts as any less exalted mortal.

Henry, who has

conquered France not merely with his arm but also with his words, has France and
Catherine in his power, and he seems confident he can win her with words as
well. He begins in verse with the stale conceit of the conqueror conquered by
love (5.2.98-101), but when she fails to understand this conventional (and selfcongratulatory) gallantry Henry switches to prose: Do you like me, Kate? (106)
This leads to another bit of romantic gallantry (109-10), for which he is justly
The like an angel tactic was a mistake, Henry recognizes, but a least he
has now got the measure of the adversary, and can improvise a new strategy.
Now the soldier persona can be made to justify a style that Henry calls plain
and blunt, though it is neither. Rather it is eloquent in a folksy way, rhetorically
complex but earthy in its vocabulary, boasting, under the guise of apology, that
Henry is unable to do what Catherine has just condemned as deceitful, i.e. play
the role of courtly lover:
Before God, Kate, I cannot look greenly, nor gasp out my eloquence, nor I
have no cunning in protestationonly downright oaths, which I never use
till urged, nor never break for urging. (140-3)
Henry does indeed make a point of keeping his promises, whether from
honor or policy. Yet he is as resourceful as the playwright in cunningly disguising
self-praise as apology. Henrys claim that he is too simple to lie resembles the
disingenuous rhetoric of Shakespeares prologues, in which the Chorus confesses
to an incapacity to show things that he is actually enacting in the imaginations of
his audience as he apologizes for being unable to do so. Both Henry and his
creator have perfected the art of creating a false impression without actually lying.
Henrys claim to be a tongue-tied soldier is pure moonshine, as the audience by
this time is well aware. Thus we can both appreciate Henrys deception and at
the same time marvel at Katherines capacity, and our own, to be taken in by it.
Although Henry claims to be inarticulate, his campaign to win Katherines
heart is a masterpiece of rhetorical composition.

Brian Vickers lists


Chapter Four: Henry V, King of Players or Royal Hypocrite?

antemetabole, eparnorthosis, gradiatio, epistrophe, as well as more pervasive

qualities of parallelism and disjunction, symmetry and its apparent opposite,
as in the sweet disorder of Henrys French.11 Yet, when Henry follows Catherine
into prose at line 102Your majesty shall mock at me. I cannot speak your
England she informs himhe gives the impression of spontaneity and
Henry, true to his soldier persona, improvises his wooing strategy as
though it were a campaign of conquest. As in battle, what is happening is
unclearis Henry courting Catherine or threatening her? Is he trying to disguise
his role-playing, or demonstrating how well he knows how to play? Is he witty or

Are we expected to laugh, to admire, or perhaps to cry?


Catherine yields:

KING HARRY Wilt thou have me?

CATHERINE Dat is as it shall please de roi mon pere.
KING HARRY Nay, it will please him well, Kate. It shall please him,
CATHERINE Den it sall also content me. (228-32)
does she do so lovingly, or is she bowing to the inevitable? So many linguistic
and cultural codes are being voiced here, both reinforcing and interfering with one
another, that we are prevented from making any sure interpretation, even of such
obvious things as the behavior and motives of the characters standing before us.
Even in performance, there may be some room for doubt. Whether we see
Catherine as sulky or serene, Henry as brutal or suave, the fact is that he has used
his arts of language and drama to win his final objectivesuccession to the
throne of France.
The best word for King Henrys character, whether we admire or dislike
him for it, is mastery. Henry masters Catherine as he had earlier mastered Francis
the Drawer, Hotspur, his father, Falstaff, the bishops, the plotters, the army,
England and France, and for a time God himself. He achieves this personal
mastery by being in control of the arts of language, of war, and of princely rule.
Scholar, soldier, statesman, he is the complete Renaissance prince. And when he


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promises to add to these roles that of loving, faithful spouse he adds one more
item to the list of his own unique accomplishments, and yet paradoxically merges
with every one of us, who are or have been or can expect to be spouses. In suing
for Catherines love, Henry is but a mana man who has mastered himself.
Hero or fraud? The apparent paradox of this epitome of rulers being a
royal hypocrite is dispelled if we see that Henry is not in fact a fake anything but
a genuine actor, determined to play the part of king to the full extent of his superb
ability.12 Shakespeare, an actor himself, recognized ruling and playing as having
much in common. Of course to rule well requires great acting skill, and yet the
epilogue announces the failure of all Henrys successful role-plays when the
Playwright rang down the curtain:

CHORUS Thus far with rough and all-unable pen

Our bending author hath pursued the story,
In little room confining mighty men,
Mangling by starts the full course of their glory.
Small time, but in that small most greatly lived
This star of England. Fortune made his sword,
By which the worlds best garden he achieved,
And of it left his son imperial lord.
Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crowned king
Of France and England, did this king succeed,
Whose state so many had the managing
That they lost France and made his England bleed,
Which oft our stage hath shownand for their sake,
In your fair minds let this acceptance take.
According to the Chorus, Henry achieved his objectives, and left his heir
secure on the English throne as well as on the newly acquired throne of France.
This was a claim that Queen Elizabeth still stubbornly asserted, unable to accept
the fact that English rule had by her time been quite extinguished in France. The
epilogue celebrates Henry for successfully waging foreign war, and blames the
civil war that followed his death on others, not on Henry or on his son and

The Chorus credits Henry for having done everything humanly

possible to bring back This other Eden, demi-paradise that according to John of
Gaunt King Richard ruined (Richard II, 2.1.42). The mood is elegiac, as of a

Chapter Four: Henry V, King of Players or Royal Hypocrite?


brief, shining hour of Camelot: Henry did his best, but the failures of others or the
will of Fortune destroyed his accomplishments.
The most beautiful paradises are those that are lost, says Proust. When
Richard ruined Eden-England, so goes the myth of the second tetralogy, it fell to
the condition of a theater, where Englishmen betray and kill each other. Honesty
is no longer current; everyone must dissemble. In such a world, role-playing is
essential, and within the limits of the roles they are given to play, the prizes go to
the best actors. The tone of the epilogue is muted, somber perhaps, but This star
of England shines even more gloriously in the gathering darkness. The
evanescence of Henrys achievement, Which oft our stage hath shown, is made
to enhance his splendor by framing it in black.
Yet, though the world Henry V lives in is implicitly a theater, the Chorus
does not call our attention to that fact. Rather, he harps on ways in which his
stage differs from Henrys world, as though to validate the kings heroism and the
greatness of his achievements by saving the stigma of theatricality for the theater
alone. In this Shakespeare makes a rhetorical move even cleverer than Henrys
on Princess Catherine, and equally effective: he apologizes for what is, in fact, his
greatest strength, and thereby enhances that strength by disarming us against it.
Onstage Henry is a heroic figure, but his stature is greatly enhanced by the
Chorus, whose epic voice shapes the audiences response by assuring us that
Henry is as inwardly good as he outwardly appears. Although the Chorus dwells
on the mimetic limitations of Shakespeares theater, he never suggests that Henry
is in any way theatrical. Only with repeated readings or viewings will any in the
audience ever think of Henry as an actor, or the world he dominates as a stage. And
that is true most of all because the Chorus continually insists that what we are seeing
on Shakespeares stage and the events themselves are utterly different:

CHORUS O for a muse of fire . . .

A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene.
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars . . .
Can this cock-pit hold


The Worlds A Stage

The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
let us, ciphers to this great account,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies . . .
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts . . .
For tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings . . . (1.0.28)
In retrospect, this may be Shakespeares most deceptive move: to enhance

Henrys historical stature and augment the power of his career onstage by denying
the ability of that stage to do him full justice. In fact, it does him more that
justice, and elevates a flawed historical figureone who overreached and thereby
failed at everything, leaving his heirs and countrymen to pick up the piecesto
the status of a legendary hero, a paradigm of greatness worthy of emulation by all
our worldly rulers, as the Chorus may be proposing when it alludes to the Duke of
Essex (5.0.22-34). In the event Essex, like the historical Henry, overplayed his
hand and was executed for trying to overthrow the aging Queen.
But Shakespeares Henry is a survivor, who knows which role to play at
any time. I shall hereafter, my thrice-gracious lord, Be more myself, he once
told his reproving father (1HIV 3.2.192-3). But what is himself if not a protean
actor, always wearing some mask? Following Machiavelli, Shakespeare recreates
Henry as the paradigm of Renaissance ruler by virtue of his ability to play a wide
variety of roles. The mystery of Henrys identity is solved if we see that he is in
fact an actor, determined to play the part of King to the best of his ability. And
yet the epilogue announces the failure of all his endeavors, for the cosmic
playwright, not the actor, controls our destiny at plays end.
Presently Ronald Reagan, newly deceased, is being celebrated as one of
our greatest presidentswinner of the Cold War, herald of the boom economy of
the nineties, far-seeing architect of American world hegemony. Whether his
exploits will shine as brightly as years go by has yet to be determined, for as our
needs change our heroes grow or shrink in stature. Yet our picture of Reagan as
thespian to his fingertips is now clearly in focus and unlikely to change.

Chapter Four: Henry V, King of Players or Royal Hypocrite?


In a world that is often portrayed as governed by the mass media, where

increasingly what is considered politically important is not the facts but the
publics perception of those facts, where what happens on TV seems truer than
what happens before our own eyes, and where actors become politicians, it does
not seem outlandish to suggest that all the world is a stage, and the ablest actor
will beGod willingthe most successful ruler. Such, at least, is in my view the
most satisfactory meaning that can be derived from Shakespeares great play,
Henry V.

Normally bravery is spoken of today as though it were a quality that the brave person
does not know he possesses: he or she is doing her job, or doing what he has to do.
The brave, we believe, are utterly unselfconscious. By this logic, the brave among
Henrys soldiers would unthinkingly follow Henry into danger, since it is their job. The
rest, presumably, would be beyond exhortation. But Henrys soldiers are not
unthinkingly brave, though Henrywhom no one has exhorted or coachedseems to be.
However, I think it reasonable to suppose that the king is using on his soldiers techniques
that he practices himselfelse how would he know them?and that he and they are
equally practicing what Shakespeare thinks constitutes actual bravery in the face of
imminent deaththe capacity to overcome ones natural fear by art and mental

Barton, 120. The term player-king was used by Shakespeare to designate the king in
The Murder of Gonzago, the play-within-a-play in Hamlet 3.2. Barton applies it to an
actual king, Richard II, to suggest that he too was a mere actor. She traces the idea
back to ancient societies, who (according to Sir James George Frazer in The Golden
Bough) ritually killed their rulers in order to distinguish between the mortal man and his
immortal office, which could be passed in an orderly manner to his successor. The
medieval emphasis on this world as a preparation for the next, Barton believes, underlies
Shakespeares distinction between the human king and his divinely appointed role, but
she finds little anticipation of the specific concept of player king before Shakespeare,
whom she credits with originating it in 1 Henry VI, in the mock coronation of the
defeated pretender, Richard of York. Queen Margaret puts a paper crown on his head,
ridicules his attempts to win Henry VIs throne, and then stabs Richard. Barton sees in
this scene a creative reinterpretation of the village custom of crowning a Lord of
Misrule, who presided over carnival or May Day celebrations. The mock-coronation
incident does seem to be historical, however, and is recorded in Holinsheads Chronicles.

In the opening scenes of Richard II (1.1 and 1.3), Richard plays his royal part with great
pomp and ceremony, yet is unable to sway his subjects, Mowbray and Bolingbroke, from
accusing each other of treason, or from demanding trial-by-combat. In the very next
scene we meet Richard behind the scenes, as it were, plotting with intimates to
expropriate Bolingbroke, whom he has just exiled. Later in the play (3.2, 3.3, 4.1, 5.5) he


The Worlds A Stage

tears a passion to tatters expressing grief that he was not equal to the role of king. Unlike
a true actor, however, Richard is his own favorite audience, and is utterly persuaded by
the performance. Though we see him as self-dramatizing, Richard never recognizes
himself as a player, though he shrewdly observes his cousin Bolingbroke playing to the
crowd: Ourself . . . Observed his courtship to the common people . . . What reverence he
did throw away on slaves, Wooing poor craftsmen with the craft of smiles . . . Off goes
his bonnet to an oysterwench. A brace of draymen . . . had the tribute of his supple knee
With Thanks, my countrymen, my loving friends . . . . (2.1.22-33)
Richards lack of self-knowledge, his lack of awareness that he, no less than
other men, is an actor, a role-player, is what dooms him. And it is this awareness that Hal
supremely possesses, as he demonstrates most explicitly in his soliloquy on ceremony
(HV, 4.1.212-66)

When he receives the news that following his own orders Bardolph has been sentenced
to hang for robbing a church, Henry approves the sentence with no apparent grief at the
loss of an old friend:
KING HARRY We would have all such offenders so cut off, and we here give
express charge that in our marches through the country there be nothing
compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the French
upbraided or abused in disdainful language. For when lenity and cruelty play for
a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner. (3.6.98-103)

Henry is cruel to his friend, and perhaps to his own feelings, in order to be kind to his
French adversaries, whom he hopes to turn into loyal subjects. This he explains as
neither a matter of morality nor sentiment, but rather of policy. He may seem coldblooded here, but by emphasizing the self-interest behind his lenity toward the French he
increases the chances that his troops will actually carry the policy out, since it will make
their job of conquest easier and less likely to cost them their lives. The actor playing
Henry can easily read the lines in a way that shows the kings pain at having to execute
the dear old toper.
The cruelty for which Henry is most often blamedkilling the French prisoners
during the battle of Agencourtis in fact his response to a moment of exigency in the
battle, a fear that prisoners will encumber his armys resistance to a French counterattack:
KING HARRY But hark, what new alarum is this same?
The French have reinforced their scattered men.
Then every soldier kill his prisoners.
[The soldiers kill their prisoners] (4.6.35-8)
Although a few lines later (4.7.7-8) Captain Gower interprets the kings order as
retaliation against an illegal slaughter of English non-combatants, it is apparently merely
a miscalculation on Henrys part that leads to the killing of prisoners. He misinterpreted
the French attack against the boys and luggage as a renewal of combat instead of what it
wasa cowardly retaliation against the defenseless, and hence a backhanded admission
of failure on the part of the French knights, who know they cannot defeat their armed
adversaries. Shortly thereafter Henry describes himself as angry (4.7.47) when he sees
a company of French knights advancing on him. He threatens to murder his French

Chapter Four: Henry V, King of Players or Royal Hypocrite?


prisoners along with any he subsequently takes (4.7.55-7), but in fact it is the French
herald Mountjoy who approaches, announcing that the English have won the field.
Thus it appears that Shakespeare has rather artfully contrived to soften the impact of
Henrys cruelty on this occasion by making the killing of the prisoners not the result of
anger, nor a retaliation for the slaughter of the boys, but rather a misreading of an
unforeseen event in the heat of battle. Gowers misinterpretation of the deed as
retaliationTis certain theres not a boy left alive. . . . wherefore the King most
worthily hath caused every soldier to cut his prisoners throat. O tis a gallant king.
(4.7.4-8)is the one that Shakespeares sources gave him, and is likely the one that
audiences will take away from the play, but is actually at variance with the action of the
play itself.

Harrys personal defeat of Hotspur is not a matter of historical record, which is perhaps
why Shakespeare has Falstaff claim the victory, with Harrys tacit support. How a life of
even feigned dissipation prepared the prince to defeat Englands foremost swordsman is
not clear, but the fight with Hotspur is usually staged to make it appear that Harrys
victory is luckyor, granting God a hand in shaping human history, providential. What
he contributes to his own victory is self-confidence, faith in himself as destined to be
Englands ruler and redeemer. In the event, Godor chancevindicates his faith in
Matthew Wickander, whose subtle epistemological reading of the second
tetralogy leads him to condemn Henrys acting as lying, sees the princes yielding of the
Hotspur trophy as sinister: The princes retreat into falsehood sabotages the neat
equations of the moralized spectacle in which he has bid farewell in turn to Hotspur
(vanity of spirit) and Falstaff (vanity of the flesh). . . . Hal, acutely conscious of his
own moral status, elects to gild Falstaffs lies at the end.( 24) But these gilding lies are
sinister only if all lies are automatically so, a proposition Shakespeares plays
emphatically repudiate. Wickanders interpretation is untrue to the effect of this scene,
which shows Hal not only as victorious over his arch rival, but generous both to Hotspur
in his elegiac encomium over the latters corpse (5.4.86-99) and to Falstaff in giving him
the honors of Hotspurs death. Since nothing would redeem Hal in his fathers eyes
better than credit for such a victory, Hals generosity to Falstaff at such a moment is
almost incredible. It is his generosity and modesty, not his dishonesty, that are likely to
strike an audience at this moment in the play.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives seven definitions of the adjective
perfect, three of them obsolete, before reaching one that includes the notion of moral
excellence. Etymologically the word derives from a Latin root meaning finished or
complete. Thus the root sense of the word implies not moral flawlessness, or any sort
of flawlessness except that of completeness. A perfect king is possessed not of all moral
virtues, but merely of those qualities and abilities we expect from a ruler. A flawed
human being could very well be a perfect king, if his flaws did not interfere with his
ability to rule properly. This is the force of James Calderwoods remark, I do not
suppose that Shakespeare was entirely happy with Harry, but I think he may have
regarded him as an ideal English king without feeling he was an ideal character.
(Metadrama, p.142 n.6) The word ideal, with its hint of insubstantiality, is perhaps a
better word for Shakespeares Henry, who differs substantially from the Henry we meet
in history books.


The Worlds A Stage

Phyllis Rackin applies the non-moral meaning of perfect to Henry when she
It takes three plays for Henry to reconstruct the royal authority that was lost when
Bullingbrook usurped the English throne, and although he finally succeeds in
producing the perfect icon of royal authority in Henry V, the authority he
reconstructs is deeply compromised by his recourse to Machiavellian strategies
of political manipulation and theatrical display. His constant role-playing
celebrates the power of theater to produce the perfect image of royalty, but it also
compromises the authority it produces by associating it with the ambiguous
figures of actor, Machiavel, and merchant. (Rackin, 80; my emphasis)
Rackin sees Henry as morally more ambiguous than I do, partly because, having
exposed some of the ways in which Henry applies theatrical arts to the arts of generalship
and rule, she then condemns them as deeply compromised.
Shakespeares age, as we have seen in Chapter One, was at once intensely
theatrical and yet anti-theatrical in the fears it expressed of the power of drama to shape
consciousness and influence behavior. But that Shakespeare was anti-theatrical, as
Rackin here seems to assume when she describes Henry as compromised by his theatrical
role-playing, is not the case, at least not in his creation of King Henry V, who is not
merely the perfect image of a Renaissance king, but the thing itself.
Henrys resemblance to an actor, his skill as a role-player, etc. is never mentioned
explicitly in the play. That is, the audience is never invited to think of Henry as an actor,
much less as a Machiavel or merchantno doubt because to identify him in these ways
would risk compromising him in the eyes of the audience in the way that Rackin
suggests that he is compromised.

Eileen Jorge Allman quotes Ben Jonson on the ideal prince as Shakespeares time
conceived him:
[Let him] Study Piety toward the Subject: Shew care to defend him. Bee slow to
punish in diverse cases; but be a sharpe, and severe Revenger of open crimes.
Breake no decrees, or dissolve no orders, to slacken the strength of Lawes.
Choose neither Magistrates civill, or Ecclesiastick, by favour, or Price: but with
long disquisition, and report of their worth, by all Suffrages. Sell no honours, nor
give them hastily; but bestow them with counsell, and for reward; If hee doe,
acknowledge it, (though late) and mend it. For Princes are easie to be deceivd.
And what wisdome can escape it; where so many court-Arts are studied? But
above all, the Prince can shun, there will be requird of him a reckoning for
those, whom hee hath trusted; as for himselfe: which hee must provide. And if
Piety be wanting in the Priests, Equity in the Iudges, or the Magistrate be found
rated at a price; what Iustice or Religion is to be expected? Which are the only
two Attributes make Kings a kinne to Gods; and is the Delphick sword, both to
kill Sacrifices, and to chastise offenders. [Herford and Simpson (eds.), Ben
Johnson, VIII, 602-3]

This description, Allman observes, resembles Henry V in his activities in law and
religion. . . . The one advantage Henry V has over Jonsons Prince is his ability to see
through deception, having himself lived the roles that tutored him in its nature and
expression. (99)

Chapter Four: Henry V, King of Players or Royal Hypocrite?


Wickander, p.35. Another voice for this unreliable narrator version of Shakespeares
Chorus is John W. Blanpied, who writes of the prologue to Act 4:
Working hard, [the Chorus] tries to evoke sympathy for an idealized version of
Henry-as-brother, inspiring his troops by his presence, so that every wretch,
pining and pale before, / Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks. But
this is a spurious sentiment, just the kind of self-gratifying fantasy of control that
Henry must repudiate. Once again, the Chorus urges us to envision a scene (A
little touch of Harry in the night) quite different from the one we actually get. .
. . The discrepancy is not always noticed by critics, and it can certainly be
rationalized, but the question is, why bother? The Chorus, in his habitual
manner, clearly seems to be introducing the scene to come rather than narrating
different events than those dramatized. (228; 266)
The Chorus, however, habitually does fill in what isnt dramatized, like gaps in time,
while it apologizes artfully for being unable to stage battles and fleets that it paints in the
minds eye far more effectively than they would be had they been staged. Above all,
however, the Chorus supports the rest of the play in projecting a resolutely heroic portrait
of Henry, while it avoids commenting on the morally questionable side of, say, the
prelates advice to Henry as to his claims to the French throne. Evidence that Henry is a
conscious role-player who practices Realpolitik is abundant in the text of the play, but is
not cited by the Chorus, whose job is to heroize Henry.

[KING HARRY:] Every subjects duty is the Kings, but every subjects soul is his
own. Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed:
wash every mote out of his conscience. And dying so, death is to him advantage,
or not dying, the time was blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained.
And in him that escapes, it were not sin to think that, making god so free an offer,
he let him outlive that day to see his greatness and to teach others how they
should prepare. (4.1.164-72)

If we apply this advice to Henrys own behavior, we can see that his prayer
(4.1.271-87) seeks a similar advantage with God. By confessing his ongoing complicity
in the sin of usurpation, and his attempts at amendment, he holds out hope that if he
survives this days battle he will ultimately succeed in cleansing himself of that sin too.

The many critics who want to condemn Henry for his role-playing tend to equate it
with Machiavellianism, which itself can mean many things, but typically is taken to
mean a justification of any means that achieve the end of power. For example, Vickie
Sulivan writes:
Henry is all theater; he is an actor in the scenes of which he himself is the author.
Because Henry has proven himself to be such a master of artifice, one cannot
help but question his sincerity in claiming to be Gods agent in his military
conquest of France. . . . He displays such an arrogance in asserting his own
autonomy that he appears to wish to displace the role of God as author. . . . In
private converse with God, Henry does not speak of his agency in Gods


The Worlds A Stage

purposes. One possibility for Henrys omission is that he is not confident that his
purposes warrant Gods direction, his cause not being good. (141-3)
Of course Henry does not take Gods purposes for granted. Nor if he wants his prayer to
be granted should he. Rather, he recognizes the moral ambiguity of his position
claimant to the French throne on behalf of the English throne he occupies illegitimately
and asks God not to visit punishment on a just cause because of his own illegitimacy. His
concern is that his cause and his men not be punished for the fault My father made in
compassing the crown. Asserting that as Gods agent he is owed a victory would hardly
show the humility and contrition that Henry hopes will delay Gods judgement on

Vickers, 167-9. For more on Shakespeares prose, see my article, The Pivotal
Position of Henry V in the Rise and Fall of Shakespeares Prose, in Connotations 2:1
(1992), 1-15.


If, as Alfred Harbage once observed, Shakespeare wanted to say what his audience
wanted him to say, then it may be that the plays blatant patriotism suited his original
audience, while todays anti-war and anti-imperialist audience hears what it wants to hear
in the plays ironic undertones. Norman Rabkin, looking at the evidence critics have
supplied for both interpretations, suggests that the play is analogous to the rabbit-duck
discussed by E.H. Gombrich in his book Art and Illusion: audiences can see either play,
depending on their expectations, or even both plays, sequentially, but not both at once.
This suggests, Rabkin argues, that Shakespeare himself had not made up his mind when
he wrote the Henry plays about whether it is possible to be an effective ruler and a good
person at the same time. Henry himself is the rabbit-duck, who looks heroic or villainous
depending upon how you look at him:
Henry V [Rabkin writes] is most valuable for us not because it points to a crisis in
Shakespeares spiritual life, but because it shows us something about ourselves:
the simultaneity of our deepest hopes and fears about the world of political
action. In this play, Shakespeare reveals the conflicts between the private selves
with which we are born and the public selves we must become, between our
longing that authority figures be like us, and our suspicion that they must have
traded away their inwardness for the sake of power. The play contrasts our hope
that society can solve our problems with our knowledge that society has never
done so. The inscrutability of Henry V is the inscrutability of history. And for a
unique moment in Shakespeares work ambiguity is the heart of the matter, the
single most important fact we must confront in plucking out the mystery of the
world we live in. (59-60)

Just as there is no bottom line or final analysis in history, Rabkin concludes, so there
is none in Henry V.
Jonathan Dollimores and Alan Sinfields cultural materialist analysis of the play
does not privilege, as Rabkin does, the realm of inwardness and the private self, yet
they agree with Rabkin that the play has no final, unambiguous meaning (or, as they put
it, ideology). In the act of answering all the various critics and potential opponents of
Henrys rulethe Church, the aristocratic conspirators, the criminal element, the nonEnglish ethnics, the lower classesthe play, they conclude, gives considerable scope
and voice to points of view subversive to the crown:

Chapter Four: Henry V, King of Players or Royal Hypocrite?


Henry V can be read to reveal not only the strategies of power but also the
anxieties informing both them and their ideological representation. In the
Elizabethan theatre to foreground and even to promote such representations was
not to foreclose on their interrogation. We might conclude from this that
Shakespeare was indeed wonderfully impartial on the question of politics . . . ;
alternatively, we might conclude that the ideology which saturates his texts, and
their location in history, are the most interesting things about them. (226-7)
What Rabkin calls inscrutability, and Dollimore-Sinfield call impartiality, I prefer to
call theatricality. As Stephen Greenblatt observes:
Elizabethan power . . . depends upon its privileged visibility. As in a theater,
the audience must be powerfully engaged by this visible presence and at the same
time held at a respectful distance from it. We princes, Elizabeth told a
deputation of Lords and Commons in 1586, are set on stages in the sight and
view of all the world. (Negotiations, 64)
In Invisible Bullets, the chapter from which this quotation is taken, Greenblatt
identifies Shakespeares Henry V with strategies of rule that helped Englands rulers
manipulate their British subjects and subdue their conquered subjects in their overseas
colonies, from Ireland to mainland North America.
In seeing Shakespeare as a Machiavellian tutor of royalty, Greenblatt aligns
himself with the Puritan condemnation of acting as lying, and in deploring the the
dramatic view of life when it is used to acquire and exercise power. Though I agree with
Greenblatt that Shakespeare portrays the world as susceptible to manipulation by skillful
actors and stage-managers, I dont find such manipulation in Shakespeares plays to be as
invariably sinister as Greenblatt finds it. To him, Iago is the archetypal actor; to me, he is
a negative extreme: for every Iago and Edmund there is a Rosalind and Edgar. To this
degree, at least, Greenblatt is antitheatrical: he believes kings should not be hypocrites,
dissemblers, actors. Shakespeare, I think, shows us a world where everyone is an actor,
and where it is therefore incumbent on each of us to play well and with good motives.


In the delightful 1998 movie, Shakespeare in Love, a stage-struck young

gentlewoman, Viola de Lesseps, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, disguises herself as
a man in order to escape the Elizabethan prohibition against women on the public
stage. So disguised, she succeeds in being cast as Romeo in Shakespeares new
play. But the young, handsome playwright (played by Joseph Fiennes) uncovers
her deception, unwinds the cloth that flattens her breasts, and begins a love-affair
with the bardolatrous maiden, despite the fact that he is married and she is
betrothed to a lord.
When the authorities learn that Viola is a woman, they close the Rose
Theater, but the actors move to Burbages Curtain. There the newly married
Viola escapes her bridegroom long enough to perform not Romeo but Juliet,
taking the place of a teenaged boy-actor whose voice has inconveniently broken.
Shakespeare himself plays Romeo. Queen Elizabeth, disguised in order to attend
the public theater, attends the premiere. At the plays end, the queen reveals her
presence and decrees a moderately happy ending. Although Viola must sail for
the New World with her husband, William gets the fifty pounds he needs to join
Burbages company. He also now has inspiration for a new play, Twelfth Night,
about a heroine named Viola who lands on a distant shore and disguises herself as
a man.
The script of Shakespeare in Love, by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard,
has the charm of humanizing Shakespeare as a confused young man with a
susceptible heart and writers block. It also addresses what is to the modern
sensibility the most anomalous and puzzling aspect of Shakespeares stage, the


The Worlds A Stage

fact that boys played the womens parts. The movie straightens out a
convention of Shakespeares theater with the natural arrangement of ours the
film imagines a first performance of Romeo and Juliet acted with a female actor
playing the female lead.
As You Like It is a play that like Shakespeare in Love exposes the
artificiality of gender stereotypes.

Although Elizabethan laws forbid cross-

dressing, Rosalind is driven by the higher law of self-preservation to dress as a

man. She finds, however, that her masculine appearance creates problems as well
as solves them. Thereupon, she reaches deep into her actors toolbox to take
control of events by role-playing, stage direction, and even play-doctoring. In
effect she rewrites the play in which she finds herself.
In order to do so, she must overcome formidable obstacles, the chief being
the limitations society places upon her gender. When we first meet her, Rosalind is
thoroughly enmeshed in a plot not of her own choosing, and her cousin Celia
suggests that they cheer themselves up by mocking at misfortune:

CELIA: Let us sit and mock the good housewife Fortune from her wheel,
that her gifts may henceforth be bestowed equally.
ROSALIND: I would we could do so, for her benefits are mightily
misplaced; and the bountiful blind woman doth most mistake in her gifts to
CELIA: Tis true; for those that she makes fair she scarce makes honest, and
those that she makes honest she makes very ill-favouredly.
ROSALIND: Nay, now thou goest from Fortunes office to Natures.
Fortune reigns in gifts of the world, not in the lineaments of nature.
Enter [TOUCHSTONE the] clown
CELIA: No. When Nature hath made a fair creature, may she not by
Fortune fall into the fire? Though Nature hath given us wit to flout at
Fortune, hath not Fortune sent in this fool to cut off the argument?
ROSALIND: Indeed, there is Fortune too hard for Nature, when Fortune
makes Natures natural the cutter-off of Natures wit.
CELIA: Peradventure this is not Fortunes work, either, but Natures who
perceiveth our natural wits too dull to reason of such goddesses, and hath

Chapter Five: Rosalind as Player-Playwright in As You Like It


sent this natural for our whetstone; for always the dullness of the fool is the
whetstone of the wits. How now, wit: whither wander you? (1.2.26-47) 1
When Rosalind observes that fortune treats women worse than men, she is
likely thinking that women are less able than men to take matters into their own
hands and change their fortune. Lacking the power to control events, women learn
to accept whatever comes their way. And yet this passivity is itself an obstacle: to
overcome their social disadvantages women have to be more energetic and make
their own luck. But how, within the narrow confines of role that their culture allots
them, are they to take action successfully?
Womens passivity was of course a cultural norm of Shakespeares
England. Despite the fact that their extremely effective ruler was a woman, the
convention was that women were, or ought to be, weak, timid, and intellectually

As Joseph Alulis explains, Rosalind is complaining about the

conventional arrangements that govern the relations of men and women:

Rosalinds thought . . . is that, in general, because women are weaker
than men, fortune treats them less well. But Rosalind does not make her
complaint against nature for making women physically weaker. Nature,
presumably, has supplied ample compensation for the difference in bodily
strength. For Rosalind, what is at issue is not nature but how we respond
to nature; that is, the conventional arrangements that govern the relations
of men and women. The natural physical weakness of women does not
dictate that they be accorded an inferior status: that is the work of
convention, the will of the fathers. If the good hussif Fortune is
especially unjust in her treatment of women, it is only because of the
antecedent injustice of the fathers.(42)
Rosalind is doubly deprived of a fatherfirst by exile, then by the
unkindness of her surrogate father, the new duke, Frederickbut this dangerous
situation is also an opportunity, for it requires her to look after herself.
Shakespeare knew, of course, that much of womens apparent misfortune was
actually due to the inequality of social arrangements, and to this extent Alulis is


The Worlds A Stage

right to gloss Shakespeares word fortune as convention.

But if social

arrangements account for some of the gifts of the world, so often does chance.
The vicissitudes of Fortune happen to us as individuals as much as they are
visited on entire genders or classes. Individuals may not be able to change their
natures, but they are able to influence their luck. Rosalind has not yet realized
that she can do something about her misfortunes, however.
If feminine gender is itself a misfortune, yet the whole conversation
implies a remedy as well.

What the young women call wit, which in

Shakespeares day could mean not just humorous banter but also intelligence as
well, is the implicit solution.2

By wit in both senses natures gifts may be

improved, fortunes injustices moderated or at least laughed away, and words

mastered to give us the consolations of philosophy. Wit often helps us dispel the
apparent inevitability of social conventions stupidly applied. In the mocking
hands of a Touchstone, wit reveals the foolishness of apparent sense; in others,
wit can also discover new meanings and previously unsuspected solutions.
Wit is both natural and acquireda native mother wit may be improved
and perfected by a sound education. Nature by itself is insufficient, if only
because, as Celia observes, accidents may mar it. And fortune is always fickle.
What those who have some natural gifts and average luck need is the art of
making the most of both. Social arrangements have made women even more
vulnerable than men to bad luck, but wit may prove even more valuable than
masculine gender when, as sooner or later it a always does, misfortune comes our
Orlando, for example, is a young man of natural endowments who is
equally out of favor with fortune. When he learns that his older brother plans to
murder him, he too is forced to flee to the forest. Orlandos gender does not
protect him either from bad luck or from social injustice. In his case, the legal
practice of primogeniture has made him as much a victim as Rosalind.3 True, his
physical strength and skill protect him against the wrestler who has been
commissioned to kill him in a match, and as a man Orlando has no need to

Chapter Five: Rosalind as Player-Playwright in As You Like It


disguise himself when he flees, but he crucially lacks what Rosalind hasan
education to perfect his native wit. Thus it is she, not he, who must take over the
management of falling in love.
As the contrast between Rosalind and her more orthodox cousin reveals, she
is an unconventional young woman, not afraid to initiate falling in love.
Convention decrees against it, but Rosalind does not hesitate to take the initiative in
the next scene, when she is smitten by the sight of the young Orlando stripped for a
wrestling match. Sir, you have wrestled well, and overthrown more than your
enemies (1.2.220-1) she says, and boldly gives him a chain as a token of her regard.
He, however, is unable to reply to her rather daring declaration of sympathy, and can
only berate himself afterward for being tongue-tied:

ORLANDO: What passion hangs these weights upon my tongue?

I cannot speak to her, yet she urged conference. (1.2.224-5)
The stage is set for romantic role-reversal: since Orlando cannot speak to the
woman he loves, she will contrive to meet him as a man. The convention that
decrees the male to be the romantic aggressor, and the female to wait to be courted,
will be overthrown by the liberty of the pastoral setting and the liberating effects of
cross-gender disguise.
In Shakespeare in Love it is the experienced male lover who introduces the
blushing maiden to the arts of love. But As You Like It cheerfully practices rolereversal. The chaste and yet relatively sophisticated young woman initiates the
artless young man into the ways of wooing as a woman would be wooed, which for
Shakespeare is always the direct and heartfelt expression of feeling, as opposed to
wooing by the book.

But as the example of King Henry and Catherine

demonstrates, even plain speaking is a rhetorical art that must be perfected. Raised
like a peasant (1.1.58) Orlandos very lack of polish emerges not in russet yeas,
and honest kersey noes, but in very lame (and very funny) verses. He has somehow


The Worlds A Stage

acquired just enough knowledge of the traditional language of courtly love to make a
fool of himself. Like many an artless person, Orlandos passion expresses itself as
bombast. He is both foolish and endearing in his attempt to catch the inflection of
true love, just one quatrain short of a sonnet:

ORLANDO Hang there, my verse, in witness of my love;

And thou thrice-crowned queen of night, survey
With thy chaste eye, from thy pale sphere above,
Thy huntress name that my full life doth sway.
O Rosalind, these trees shall be my books,
And in their barks my thoughts Ill character
That every eye which in this forest looks
Shall see thy virtue witnessed everywhere.
Run, run, Orlando; carve on every tree
The fair, the chaste, and unexpressive she. (3.2.1-10)
This is so inept that it manages perversely to be charming. But it may be that
Orlando is merely in love with love. To be certain that it is not loves rhetoric and
trappings that attract him, rather than the woman herself, Rosalind will need to
expose him to romantic realism.
Rosalind sees that the verses Orlando hangs on the trees have more feet
than the verses would bear, (3.2.153) but she nonetheless feels an ardent curiosity
to know who is papering Arden with her name. When she learns that it is the man
she loves who is so berhyming her, she is delirious with happiness, despite the
lameness of the verses. This is not the kind of courtship a young lady of good
breeding would normally wish herself, but finding herself in a forest, disguised as a
shepherd, Rosalind feels liberated to follow her inclinations in novel ways.
One lesson that Rosalinds triumph in the woods suggests is that when in
disgrace with fortune and mens eyes, we would be well advised to go elsewhere. In
a different setting, conditions may permit us to apply our intelligence and education
to the problem at hand. Nature and fortune can both be limitations, but our best
chance is to play the hand dealt us as well as it can be played. As the confusing
debate between the witty young women demonstrates, it really is impossible to sort

Chapter Five: Rosalind as Player-Playwright in As You Like It


out in most instances what is due to nature and what to fortune. Either evil fortune
or Duke Fredericks jealous nature exiles Rosalind like her father before her. Either
Celias good nature or Rosalinds good fortune causes her cousin to accompany her
into exile. And as for Orlando, it is either his natural virtue or just bad luck that puts
him at odds with his jealous brother and the duke. Coincidentally, he and the
woman he loves head simultaneously for the Forest of Arden, but there they need
more than coincidence to cement the relationship. Some skill of their own is
required beyond what they were born with. Art can perfect nature and liberate us to
some degree from the vicissitudes of fortune. Once in Arden, Rosalind reaches into
her well-furnished mind and comes out with . . . a role-play!
While a woman may hold back, a man must assert himself, and Rosalind
makes herself do so, however awkward she feels:
ROSALIND Were it not better,
Because that I am more than common tall,
That I did suit me all points like a man,
A gallant curtal-axe upon my thigh,
A boar-spear in my hand, and in my heart,
Lie there what hidden womans fear there will.
Well have a swashing and a martial outside,
As many other mannish cowards have,
That do outface it with their semblances. (1.3.119)
Despite this brave resolve, when first we encounter her in male attire she is
struggling to stay in character as a man:

ROSALIND O Jupiter, how weary are my spirits!

TOUCHSTONE I care not for my spirits, if my legs were not weary.
ROSALIND I could find it in my heart to disgrace my mans apparel
and to cry like a woman. But I must comfort the weaker vessel, as doublet
and hose ought to show itself courageous to petticoat; therefore, courage,
good Aliena! (2.4.1-6)


The Worlds A Stage

The difficulty of finding masculine qualities in her feminine nature is a

repeated feature of Rosalinds impersonation. But to impersonate courage in order

to encourage another is, arguably, a more courageous action than to be unthinkingly
brave. So by discipline and resolve Rosalind finds the art to overcome nature,
recognizing that she must find it in herself to play the appropriate masculine role,
even for Celia (in disguise as Aliena) who knows her to be a woman. Feigning
courage is for many men, as Rosalind recognizes, a way of disguising an inner lack
of heart. And arguing from results, at least, Rosalinds courteous address to Corin
(2.4.66-70) is more truly manly than are Orlandos ineffective bluster and threats
with a drawn sword: I almost die for food; and let me have it. (2.7.103)
Ridiculous as Orlandos love poems are to the rest of the world, they excite
Rosalind to a frenzy of curiosity:

Good my complexion! Dost thou think, though I am
caparisoned like a man, I have a doublet and hose in my disposition? One
inch of delay more is a south Sea of discovery. I prithee tell me who is it
quickly, and speak apace. I would thou coudst stammer, that thou mightst
pour this concealed man out of thy mouth as wine comes out of a narrowmouthed bottleeither too much at once, or none at all. I prithee, take the
cork out of thy mouth, that I may drink thy tidings. (3.2.178-85)
Here, as elsewhere, Rosalind openly discloses her feminine gender and her
true feelings when it is safe to do so. Yet when Orlando subsequently appears, she
immediately masters her feelings and gets into character once again:
ROSALIND [to CELIA] I will speak to him like a saucy lackey, and
under that habit play the knave with him. (3.2.270-2)
Unlike her initial decision to dress as a man for protection, was
premeditated, Rosalinds approach to Orlando is pure improvisation, begun partly in
the spirit of sport, but also in hopes of getting to know him better. She engages
Orlando in some witty repartee that attracts his interest long enough for him to
notice that (s)he is a pretty youth, and quickly she works the conversation around

Chapter Five: Rosalind as Player-Playwright in As You Like It


to love, inventing an old religious uncle who supposedly taught her/him to avoid
the flawed sex: I thank God that I am not a woman, to be touched with so many
giddy offences as he hath generally taxed their whole sex withal. (304-18)
Hoping to be disproved, Rosalind/Ganymede denies that Orlando is truly
smitten, since he lacks the haggard appearance associated with the true lover. Fair
youth, Orlando replies, I would I could make thee believe I love. (348) But, as
Rosalind points out, women must use doubt to defend themselves against deceivers:

ROSALIND Me believe it? You may as soon make her that you love
believe it, which I warrant she is apter to do than to confess she does. That is
one of the points in the which women still give the lie to their consciences.
But in good sooth, are you he that hangs the verses on the trees wherein
Rosalind is so admired? (349-54)
There is great pleasure for her in having Orlando confess I am that he,
whereas were he to recognize her as Rosalind he would likely be tongue-tied once
again. Instead she relishes the luxury of repeated avowals:

ROSALIND But are you so much in love as your rhymes speak?

ORLANDO Neither rhyme nor reason can express how much. (358-9)
Rosalinds intention to play the knave involves subjecting Orlandos
love to the test of doubt, which will also involve the happy need for repeated
meetings between her and her lover. Accordingly she invents an ability to cure
the madness of love. I would not be cured, youth,(380) Orlando replies. But
when the pretty youth offers to act the part of Rosalind and receive him for daily
visits, Orlando sees a charm in the suggestion. He is determined to resist the cure,
and thus to vindicate his love to the doubting Ganymede, who in fact bears a
striking resemblance to his beloved.
But why does Rosalind continue the charade? Orlando is very publicly in
love with her, and she has already declared to Celia that she loves Orlando. She


The Worlds A Stage

has only to reveal her identity, one would think, for their love to be secure. The
disguise has become an inconvenience, as Rosalinds plaintive Alas the day,
what shall I do with my doublet and hose! (3.2.200-1) testifies. But despite her
decorous disavowals, Rosalind takes a very real pleasure in playing an active,
masculine role in her own wooing, and this new sense of freedom and power
also accounts for her intervention in the unhappy relations between the shepherd
Silvius and his disdainful mistress, Phoebe. Gaining confidence in her role,
Rosalind is eager to apply her new powers where it may do some good to others
as well as to herself.
Her tack is to convince Phoebe, the merciless shepherdess, that she can ill
afford to spurn an honest shepherd who loves her:

ROSALIND Mistress, know yourself; down on your knees

And thank heaven, fasting, for a good mans love;
For I must tell you friendly in your ear,
Sell when you can. You are not for all markets. (3.5.58-61)
But here she finds that she has overreached herself, for Phoebe falls in love with
the man Rosalind is pretending to be.
What is it about Rosalinds pretty youth that causes Phoebe to fall in
love? Rather than deriving from latent lesbian tendencies on Phoebes part, her
perverse attraction is to the fact that Ganymede rejects and criticizes her: his
pride becomes him, (3.5.115) she says. Ganymedes court-bred haughtiness
appeals to Phoebes ambition to better herself, and in representing a challenge
Ganymede arouses the activist suitor in Phoebe, too. She writes him a letter and
orders Silvius to deliver it.
But Rosalind disguised as a boy also may represent an epitome of sexual
attractiveness. Elizabethans, according to Stephen Orgel, readily acknowledged
the erotic attraction of both sexes to androgynous youth.4 Ganymede appeals both
to Orlando and Phoebeand even to Jaques, apparently, who skulks off when
Orlando interrupts his conversation with what he believes to be a young man:

Chapter Five: Rosalind as Player-Playwright in As You Like It


ORLANDO Good day, and happiness, dear Rosalind.

JAQUES Nay then, God bwiyou an you talk in blank verse.(4.1.27-8)
Here Jaques behaves suspiciously like a defeated rival, objecting not to the
feminine name by which Orlando calls the pretty youth, but only to his speaking,
like a lover, in blank verse, at which Jaques has neither the temperament nor the
ambition to compete with him.
But Rosalind, too, distrusts the arts of courtly love. When she confessed
her love for Orlando to Celia, Celia replied with stock feminine caution against
being taken in by a fickle suitor: O thats a brave man. He writes brave words,
swears brave oaths, and breaks them bravely . . . . (3.4.35-6) Accordingly, the
text of Rosalinds cure is a debunking of the whole rhetoric of romantic love, as
epitomized in her most famous line: Men have died from time to time, and
worms have eaten them, but not for love. (91-2)
Ganymede is not only pretty, but has an uncanny resemblance to his
Rosalind, yet it never occurs to Orlando that the two are one and the same, despite
her repeated assertions of exactly that fact.

Indeed none of Shakespeares

transvestite heroinesJulia, Portia, Rosalind, and Violais ever detected while

in disguise, a device that strains our modern credulity, but no doubt works
wonderfully when the woman disguised as a youth is in fact a young male actor.
Ganymedes teasing assertions of his real identity are partly there for the delight
of the audiencewho are invited to see through the disguise and hence to marvel
at Rosalinds acting skill and Orlandos gullibilitybut they also constitute a real
invitation to her lover to penetrate the disguise and end the charade.
But gender is so fundamental a feature of identity that Orlando, who has
no reason to suppose that Rosalind is not where he last saw her, back at court,
cannot suspect that the youth in front of him might actually be a woman, however
much Ganymede urges him to think exactly that. Before we relegate this idea to
pure stage convention, we should remember that there are documented cases of


The Worlds A Stage

women passing themselves off as men from Shakespeares day to our own.5 Still,
Rosalinds bold decision to impersonate herselfRosalind playing Ganymede
playing Rosalindis indeed a daring stretch.
Yet disguise is for Rosalind, as it was for King Harry in the night before
Agencourt, paradoxically a way of speaking truths that ordinarily could not be
voiced. Under color of curing Orlando she warns him that a wife with a
modicum of wit can always make a man a cuckold and blame her husband for the
fault. But Orlando brushes aside the invitation to doubt his Rosalinds virtue, and
thereby demonstrates to her delight that he is thoroughly in love.
She in turn protests that she cannot lack thee two hours (153) when he
departs. Orlando must dine with the duke, but not until he has sworn an oath to
return at two. After he leaves, Rosalind proclaims to her cousin that she cannot
be out of the sight of Orlando. Ill go find a shadow and sigh till he come. (1856) He has proved to her satisfaction and to ours that he truly loves.
Disguise has accomplished a backhanded wooing, but disguise has its
concomitant disadvantages as well, and in comes Silvius, bearing a letter from
Phoebe declaring her love for Ganymede. The declaration is so unwelcome that
Rosalind first misrepresents the letters contents:

[ROSALIND:] She says I am not fair, that I lack manners;

She calls me proud, and that she could not love me
Were man as rare as Phoenix. (4.3.15-7)
When Silvius gladly believes Rosalinds misrepresentation, Rosalind
reverses field, trying to cure Silvius by reading Phoebes love letter aloud to

The shepherd is of course crushed, but though Celia feels womanly

compassion for his pain, Rosalind is judgmental:

CELIA Alas, poor shepherd.

ROSALIND Do you pity him? No, he deserves no pity. (65-6)

Chapter Five: Rosalind as Player-Playwright in As You Like It


Observing that Silvius is beyond cure, Rosalind determines to intervene

with Phoebe, not merely by insult and exhortation, as she did in 3.5, but by using
the power that her masculine persona gives her over Phoebe:

[ROSALIND] Well, go your way to herfor I see love hath made thee a
tame snakeand say this to her: that if she love me, I charge her to love
thee. If she will not, I will never have her unless thou entreat for her. (69-72)
Though she can master Silviusand hope to master Phoebewith her
impersonation of a man, Rosalind cannot master herself when Oliver comes in with
the dreadful news of Orlandos fight with a hungry lioness. At the sight of her
lovers blood Rosalind faints, thereby revealing once again that at heart she is a

OLIVER Be of good cheer, youth. You a man? You lack a mans heart.
ROSALIND I do so, I confess it. Ah, sir, a body would think this was well
counterfeited. I pray you, tell your brother how well I counterfeited. Heightho!
OLIVER This was not counterfeit. There is too great testimony in your
complexion that it was a passion of earnest.
ROSALIND Counterfeit, I assure you.
OLIVER Well then, take a good heart, and counterfeit to be a man.
ROSALIND So I do, but Ifaith, I should have been a woman by right.
Again, nature and fortune are strangely interrelated in the improbable
resolution of the outer plot concerning the injustices done Orlando and Duke
Senior by their unnatural brothers. In the case of Oliver adversity has perhaps
taught him the futility of his persecution of Orlando, and thus prepared him to accept
his miraculous rescue at the hands of the brother he had mistreated. When Orlando
discovers his brother powerless before a hungry lioness, his worse and better natures
struggle for control:


The Worlds A Stage

ROSALIND But to Orlando. Did he leave him there, Food to the sucked
and hungry lioness?
OLIVER Twice did he turn his back, and purposed so. But kindness,
nobler ever than revenge, And nature, stronger than his just occasion,
Made him give battle to the lioness . . . . (4.3.126-9)
It is this natural goodness on Orlandos part that Oliver credits with

converting him to good:

OLIVER Twas I, but tis not I. I do not shame

To tell you what I was, since my conversion
So sweetly tastes, being the thing I am. (134-6)
The old Oliver would have hated his brother all the more for placing him
under a debt of gratitude by rescuing him. What has intervened in the time
between events, and thus made his conversion more plausible, is Olivers own
failure to prosper through unnatural villainy. Despite his hatred of Orlando,
Oliver has been dispossessed by Duke Ferdinand of all his lands and property,
because the Duke suspects Orlando of having a hand in the disappearance of
Rosalind and Celia from court. Now Oliver glories in the fraternal love that he
once did everything to deny. Converted to goodness, Oliver at once wins the love
of an admiring Celia, and (without, apparently, consulting her wishes) resolves to
remain in the forest as a shepherd, giving his entire estate to Orlando.
Such an improbable twist of events fits the far-fetched romance plot that in
fact it is. Still, Oliver is present to explain his conversion as best he can in terms
of a tangled motivation of better and worse impulses. It is not impossible to
believe that a temporary euphoria at having been rescued from death, enhanced by
the moving spectacle of a brother returning good for evil, would bring out his
better nature. And that better nature having been rewarded by the gift of Celias
love, it is not impossible to believe that Oliver, hating the thing he was, would
give away his estatein any case already confiscated by Duke Frederickto his
noble and forgiving brother. We can, moreover, easily imagine that the generous

Chapter Five: Rosalind as Player-Playwright in As You Like It


Orlando will see to it that his brother and brothers wife are amply provided for,
wherever they choose to reside in the future.
These changes in Oliver are far-fetched, but not so hard to swallow as
Duke Fredericks conversion to good after no more than a conversation with a
holy man:
Duke Frederick, hearing how that every day
Men of great worth resorted to this forest,
Addressed a mighty power, which were on foot,
In his own conduct, purposely to take
His brother here, and put him to the sword.
And to the skirts of this wild wood he came
Where, meeting with an old religious man,
After some question with him was converted
Both from his enterprise and from the world,
His crown bequeathing to his banished brother,
And all their lands restored to them again
That were with him exiled. This to be true
I do engage my life. (5.4.143-55)
Religious legends recount miraculous conversions such as this, and even
historical rulers like the Habsburg emperor Charles V, after a lifetime of hardnosed statecraft and war, have retired from the world in favor of a monastic life
and a search for personal salvation.6 But so rapid and unprepared a conversion
must seem too coincidental and convenient to an audience, and thus reveal the
presence of a playwright concerned to bring about the promised happy ending. If
it suited Shakespeare to disguise his shaping hand he could have produced a less
willed and arbitrary outcome.
True, Shakespeare has taken his story from Thomas Lodges prose
romance, Rosalynde (1590), whose plot includes Olivers instant conversion from
evil to good following his rescue at the hands of Orlando.7 In Lodges version,
Duke Frederick is disposed of by military defeat. This is puppeteering, writes
Agnes Latham, more than usually clever and more than usually charming. (xlii)


The Worlds A Stage

Yet Shakespeare, in disposing of the need for so small a thing as a narrated battle,
introduces a religious conversion that is even more surprising and unmotivated. If
anything, he has made himself more of a puppeteer than Lodge.
It is possible to maintain, I suppose, that an audience will neither notice
nor care that Shakespeare has gone to some trouble to make this aspect of his
happy ending seem purely providential, rather than rooted in the characters of his
reformed villains. But at the very least an audience is bound to notice some
improbability, and will have a dazed sense of watching an existence that suddenly
is charmed. In the plot Shakespeare, it seems to me, deliberately tips his hand,
revealing that behind the events in the Forest of Arden there is a playwrightdivinity shaping ends undreamed of by the players. Rosalinds improvising roleplay takes place, and is effective, inside a larger plot that is none of her doing.
Fortunes wheel, which decreed her own unhappy state at the plays beginning,
now comes full circle and restores her to her old condition, with the added benefit
that she has gone out to see the world, and has found a suitable mate.
The outer plot converts the plays two villains to an improbable
goodness, restores Duke Senior and his daughter to their rightful places, provides
Rosalind and Celia with acceptable suitors, and provides Orlando with an ample
estate and the expectation of considerably more when he marries an heiress. But
these miraculous reversals are balanced and completed by an inner plot of lovematches that Rosalind contrives to bring about:

DUKE SENIOR Dost thou believe, Orlando, that the boy

Can do all this that he hath promised?
ORLANDO I sometimes do believe, and sometimes do not,
As those that fear they hope, and know they fear.
Enter ROSALIND [as Ganymede], [with] SILVIUS And PHOEBE
ROSALIND Patience once more, whiles our compact is urged.
[To the DUKE] You say if I bring in your Rosalind?
You will bestow her on Orlando here?
DUKE SENIOR That would I, were I of all kingdoms king.
ROSALIND [to ORLANDO] And you say you will have her when I bring

Chapter Five: Rosalind as Player-Playwright in As You Like It


ORLANDO That would I, were I of all kingdoms king.

ROSALIND [to PHOEBE] You say youll marry me if I be willing?
PHOEBE That will I, should I die the hour after.
ROSALIND But if you do refuse to marry me
Youll give yourself to this most faithful shepherd?
PHOEBE So is the bargain.
ROSALIND [to SILVIUS] You say that youll have Phoebe if she will.
SILVIUS Though to have her and death were both one thing.
ROSALIND I have promised to make all this matter even. (5.4.1-19)
The entire company still is in the dark as to Ganymedes identity,
though the duke remarks I do remember in this shepherd boy Some lively
touches of my daughters favour, (26-7), and Oliver affirms that the two
resemble each other as closely as brother and sister. This is the nearest any of the
plays characters come to seeing through Rosalinds impenetrable disguise.
But disguise is apparently not in question for Hymen, the strangest
character in As You Like It. Are we to believe that this is in fact a supernatural
personage, like the fairies in A Midsummer Nights Dream, or has Rosalind
merely arranged for one of the characters not present in this final scene to dress
up and learn some lines?8 The latter is an attractive hypothesis, since Rosalind
has in other respects contrived to bring about this climactic scene of multiple
marriages, but the fact is that nearly all the principals are onstage in this final act,
and hence not available to impersonate the Roman god of marriage.
Shakespeares company consisted in 1599 of a dozen shareholders, but
Hymen constitutes a thirteenth character onstage when he arrives at 5.4.97. The
cast of As You Like It would in any case need to be eked out with a few extras
hired for the occasion. Whatever his ontological status, Hymen was played by
some actor, shareholder or hireling, who, economy decreed, would also have
doubled as one or more of the persons not present in this last scene.


Frederick, the courtier Le Beau, Olivers servant Denis, and Charles the wrestler
are not present in Arden. This leaves Rosalind only Old Adam, the shepherd


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Corin, a simpleton named William, and the hedge-priest Sir Oliver Martext to
dress up as a god.
None of these, however, is in the least suitable. Adam and Corin are too
old to impersonate the stripling youth, Hymen. Sir Oliver would be unwilling to
recite the pagan speech Hymen is given, and William unable to remember even
one-twentieth of it:


Then is there mirth in heaven

When earthly things made even
Atone together.
Good Duke, receive thy daughter;
Hymen from heaven brought her,
Yea, brought her hither,
That thou mightst join her hand with his
Whose heart within his bosom is.

And so on for twenty-two more lines, the last six of which he sings. Of course the
actors playing these roles need not have been old or simple, but they could hardly
act, say, Adam-playing-Hymen without needing to stay in character.
Besides the fact that there is no indication in the text that Hymen is
another character in disguise, there really is no one available to play him who is
not already onstage.

A few extras may have been necessary to play the

anonymous lords, pages, and attendants, but these would not be memorable
enough for the audience to recognize as one character playing another. In short,
then, it would be next to impossible for Rosalind to return with some character
from Arden impersonating a celestial being. Hymen must, then, be what the
plays text asserts he isthe god himself, and not one of the plays characters
portraying him, as Rosalind portrayed Ganymede.
If the Roman god of marriage appears onstage to observe Rosalinds
wedding-skit, then the implication is that marriage is in fact a divine sacrament,
and that divinity is tangibly present at any proper marriage. The apparent miracle
of Rosalinds sudden reentry as herself is underscored by the real miracle of the

Chapter Five: Rosalind as Player-Playwright in As You Like It


gods appearance. The duke seems to draw this inference, for there is not even a
hint that he recognizes Hymen as one of his familiars in disguise.
Perhaps there was for Shakespeares first audiences an extra dimension to
Hymens appearance onstage, however, for one of the characters not present in
the final scene is old Adam, who by a memorial account was first played by
Shakespeare himself. And another of the smaller parts, the simpleton who is
Touchstones defeated rival for the foul hand of the goatherd Audrey, is
suggestively named William. It may be that the member of the company who
played the god Hymen, as well as old Adam and simple William, was the
playwright himself, William Shakespeare. Tradition has it, writes Jonathan
Bate, that Shakespeare excelled more as a writer than an actor. He may well
have given most of his energies in rehearsal to directing the company, showing
them how to translate his words into stage actions; his own acting roles were
therefore likely to have been confined to brief cameos. He is supposed to have
played old Adam, Orlandos loyal servant, in the opening scenes of As You Like
It. The company joke would be complete if he also doubled in the role of young
William towards the end of the play. William plays William in order to make fun
of his own rural origins.9
If Bate is right in this pleasant speculation, then in an insider sort of way, the
playwright may also have identified himself as the flesh and blood behind the timely
intercession of Heaven into the tangled affairs of humanity. The joke was even
better if the playwright played a servant, a simpleton, and a god who governed the
outcome of the play.
As I have argued in earlier chapters, Shakespeare and his age swung
between competing paradigms of realityGod-centered vs. man-centered
which give antithetical views of causality. According to one, we human beings
control our own destinies, while according to the other there is a divinity that
shapes our ends. While The Taming of the Shrew depicts a world in which a
strong character like Petruccio can master destiny and perform apparent miracles,


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A Midsummer Nights Dream embodies the opposite paradigma world in which

no one controls his fate but all are governed by unseen powers.
As You Like It, a high comedy that has less of farce than those earlier
comedies, and more various kinds of character comedy from a more varied cast of
better-rounded characters, is as nicely balanced in its epistemology as it is in other
ways. Rosalind accomplishes feats of mastery as astounding in their way as
Petruccios, and yet the plots final scenes reveal a benign divinity shaping ends
that lie beyond the power of human agency to compass.

The sweetness of

Orlandos nature, the power of Rosalinds art make the best of an apparently
hopeless situation, but all might be futile without an intervening, gracious,
presiding deityHymen, or (as we might say) the Divine Will.


The exchange between the two women probably strikes many in the theater audience as
what Alfred Harbage calls it: logic chopping about Nature and Fortune [that] will do as
a sample of small talk between lively and cultivated girls, but [that] seems to come from
the top of their heads. (225) But John Shaw points out that While this engaging banter
need not be interpreted too seriously, on one level the passage may serve as the plot of As
You Like It in epitome: when the play opens the good housewife Fortune has obviously
mightily misplaced her benefits, the good Duke Senior having been banished by his
humorous brother, and the naturally refined and popular Orlando having been cheated
out of his patrimony by Oliver. Nor is it long before Rosalind is outrageously exiled by
the usurping Duke Frederick.(46) Shaw connects nature with the Forest of Arden,
where Duke Senior lives a relatively natural life in exile, and fortune with the
oppressive life of policy and cunning in Duke Fredericks court. (48)

Knowles observes of Shakespeares use of the word wit: In Shakespeare this highly
volatile word, which occurs 23 times in this play, is used in several overlapping senses
not always easily differentiated. In the range of meanings which includes the mind,
intellect, reason and intelligence, quickness of apprehension, mental resourcefulness,
cleverness nice discrimination is often impossible. (31) Here, for example, in Celias
remark that nature hath given us wit to flout at Fortune, (215) her use of the word wit
combines a whole spectrum of meanings, from verbal agility to wisdom and points in
between. Surely, though the nature/fortune antithesis is the manifest content of the young
womens debate, wit is its argument and subtext.

For an interpretation of As You Like It as a critique of primogeniture as it was practiced

in Shakespeares England, see Louis Montrose, The Place of the Brother In As You

Chapter Five: Rosalind as Player-Playwright in As You Like It


Like It: Social Process and Comic Form, Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 32 (Spring, 1981),
pp. 28-54.

See his Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeares England, and

especially Chapter 3, Call Me Ganymede, passim. As proliferating studies in the
history of sexuality have shown, the binary division of sexual appetites into the normative
heterosexual and the deviant homosexual is a very recent invention; neither
homosexuality nor heterosexuality existed as categories for the Renaissance mind. . . .
For Renaissance society . . . Boys were, like womenbut unlike menacknowledged
objects of sexual attraction for men. . . . The boy player was apparently as much an
object of erotic attraction for women as for men . . . Rosalind and Celia comment on
Orlandos extreme youth (1.2.139ff.). (59;70;71)

Middleton and Deckers play, The Roaring Girl, (1610) chronicles the real-life
adventures of Moll Firth, a woman who in Shakespeares England dressed and acted like
a swashbuckling man. In our day, Dianne Middlebrooks Suits Me, The Double Life of
Billy Tipton (1999) recounts the true life adventures of a woman who lived publicly as a
man and even deceived the three women he was married to for fifty-four years. The
film Boys Dont Cry recounts a similar true life adventure of Teena Brandon, who as
Brandon Teena impersonated a man well enough to fool a young woman into falling in
love with him.

Charles V (1500-58), Habsburg emperor and champion of the Counter Reformation,

abdicated in 1556 and retired to a monastery. Winifred Smith also finds a parallel to
Duke Fredericks conversion and abdication in an item of gossip in a letter from John
Chamberlain to Sir Dudley Carleton, 15 March 1599, about the Duke of Joyeuses
surrendering his state to become a Capuchin. From this one item Smith extrapolates a
perfect whirlwind of critical or admiring talk about this highly honored kinsman of the
Bourbon who had good-will envoys in Elizabeths court at the time. Shakespeare, she
suggests, would have learned of the incident from his Huguenot landlord, Christopher
Mountjoy; but there is no evidence that Shakespeare knew Mountjoy before 1602 or lived
with him before 1604. (Knowles, 371-2, citing Smith, The Humorous Duke of As You
Like It Shakespeare Journal 51 [1915],183-6.) In any case, these were men who had
long yearned for the religious life, while Duke Frederick has shown no signs of any
religious leanings, and on the contrary has gone out of his way to acquire power by an
illegal and irreligious act. The Duke Frederick we have seen had no apparent interest in
Christian salvation.

Shakespeare renamed most of Lodges characters: in Rosalynde, Orlando was named

Rosader, Oliver was Saladyne, and Duke Frederick was King Torismond.

It is left to the producer to decide whether the masque shall be plainly a charade got up
by Rosalind, or whether it is pure magic, like the masque in The Tempest, in which the
actors were all spirits. The part is often given to Amiens, whose entrance is indicated in
[the First Folio] but who has nothing to say. The two singing-boys of 5.3 are also


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available, should a solo singer be required, but the only indubitable song is choral.
(Latham, 126 note). According to the New Variorum, Dr. Johnson accepted Hymen as a
supposed aerial being, but those who have commented since have favored one or
another of the human characters in disguise: a forester, a page, a shepherd, Amiens,
Corin, even Sir Oliver Martext. (Knowles, 292) Hymen is a character in Ben Jonsons
masque Hymenaei (1606), but in that setting he would be clearly recognizable as a
personified abstraction. In Shakespeares naturalistic setting, such an allegorical figure
cannot intrude without raising questions as to his ontological status in the playa real
god or an impersonation?
Since the sacrament of Christian marriage could not legally be performed upon a
stage by actors impersonating clergy, the presence of pagan deities onstage was about the
only way that such a crucial dramatic event could be staged at all. Thus Hymen would
have been taken for a stand-in for a realChristianreligious presence, by an
Elizabethan audience who would know it was off-limits for an acting troupe to stage a
real Christian wedding.

Bate, The Genius of Shakespeare, p. 7. George Steevens in 1773 remarked that

Shakespeare has on this occasion forgot old Adam . . . whose fidelity should have
entitled him to notice at the end of the piece, as well as to that happiness which he would
naturally have found, in the return of fortune to his master. (Knowles, 5) The chorus of
critics protesting against the absence of the good old man swelled until the onset of the
twentieth century, after which Adams disappearance was explained as thematically
appropriate, the stage belonging at the end to the young marrieds. In 1922 Albert Tolman
accounted for Adams absence from the last three acts, as I do, on grounds of the
theatrical practice of doubling: the actor taking the part of Adam was too important to be
kept for that role, which would necessarily be a minor one after Adam and Orlando reach
the forest. (Knowles, 5) Bate, as we have seen, has suggested that this actor was then
free to play William and that this actor could have been Shakespeare himself, but no one
to my knowledge has identified Hymen as a part that Shakespeare also might have
As it happens, old Adams is one of the few roles for which credible evidence
exists that Shakespeare may have played it. A traditional story around Stratford,
reported by Edward Capell in 1774, and attributed in 1778 to the recollections in old age
of one of Shakespeares younger brothers, describes Shakespeare acting the part of a
decrepit old man, he wore a long beard, and appeared so weak and drooping and unable
to walk, that he was forced to be supported and carried by another person to a table, at
which he was seated among some company, who were eating, and one of them sang a
song. (Johnson and Stevens, Plays, 1:204; cited by Knowles, 138) This is hearsay, of
course, and hardly conclusive. On the other hand, if legend were at work here, then we
might expect it to have elevated the great bard to other, more heroic and important
partswhy not Hamlet, or at least (as in Shakespeare in Love) Romeo?


That theatrical prince, Hamlet, is the perfect epitome of the

courtier who watches himself perform in the theatre of the court
and the theatre of the mind, uncertain as to whether he is the
playwright, the actor or merely the audience. (Briggs, 249)

It has always been recognized that Shakespeare's Hamlet is not only a great
play but a great puzzle. At its simplest the puzzle is "why does Hamlet delay his
revenge?" a question that the hero asks himself more than once. Some argue that
Hamlet doesn't delay but is merely faced with a difficult task that takes a while to
sort out, but it is hard to get around the scene in 3.3 when Hamlet passes up a clear
chance at his enemy on the pretext that Claudius is praying and therefore will go to
Heaven if he is murdered on the spot. This missed opportunity, plus Hamlet's own
self-reproach for having missed it, make it difficult to deny that the issue of Hamlet's
delay is a real problem in the play, one that will not be laughed away by pointing out
that Shakespeare needs five acts and therefore cannot allow his hero to kill his
villain in Act 3.
No, the substance of Hamlet's tragedy is his delay; it, like Othello's jealous
murder of Desdemona, Macbeth's ambitious murder of Duncan, and Lear's foolish
abdication, is the "action" that dooms him. But because it is not an action but a
failure to act its motivation is obscure. Why does Hamlet delay? He doesn't seem to
know the answer himselfat first he wants more proof of the king's guilt, then he is
refrains because of a scruple, then when he finally does act impulsively he kills the
wrong man! Thereafter, until the end of the play, he simply lacks opportunity.


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Audiences have no clear idea of why Hamlet delays for so long, and the conclusion
seems irresistible that Shakespeare himself doesn't know.
Audiences love the play anywaywith its marvelous variety of moods and
actions, and its heros unceasing torrent of morbid wit and baffled eloquencebut in
the 20th century critics took to saying that the point of the play is its undecidability
i.e. the play enacts in the audience's mind the same indecision that is present in its
main character. In a famous essay, T.S. Eliot argued that the play Hamlet is
incoherent; Frank Kermode, paraphrasing Whitehead on nature, declared that
Shakespeare "is patient of interpretation in terms of laws that happen to interest
us"Hamlet, accordingly, means whatever our methods of interpretation tell us it
means; Stephen Booth, in his great essay, "On the Value of Hamlet," argued that the
play illustrates, and thereby endorses, its hero's observation that "there are more
things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy"; and
Jacqueline Rose, even in the act of blaming the play for making "the mother the
cause of all good and evil," endorses Eliot's description of the play as "'the Mona
Lisa of literature', offering up in its essentially enigmatic and indecipherable nature
something of that maimed or imperfect quality of appeal which characterizes
Leonardo's famous painting."1 Of all famous, controversy-generating classics,
Hamlet seems preeminent in the amount of critical scrutiny that it has been subjected
to, and for the variety of "meanings," many of them incompatible with each other,
that interpreters have found in it.
At a deeper level, then, the puzzle of Hamlet lies in the question of
"meaning," and again it is Hamlet himself who raises the question. Doubtless we
can learn from Othello and Macbeth that it is wrong to murder out of jealousy and
ambition, and from Lear that giving away everything can lead to dire consequences,
but these "lessons" are not the point of their respective dramas, which help us
vicariously to feel how hard it can be not to make these mistakes. The "meaning"
that audiences and readers seek in these plays could best be described as the answer
to a question such as this: "What sort of a world is this, where such mistakes can be
made, and such consequences follow?" Where Hamlet differs from these other great

Chapter Six: Hamlet and the Limits of Playing


tragedies is that the hero himself raises and attempts to answer this question. Hamlet
is a tragic character whom we overhear meditating on the tragic nature of existence.
Othello, Lear, and Macbeth give no more than glancing attention to their
own motives for action, but Hamlet is obsessed with his own motivation. At base,
his problem is philosophical: what can it mean that this highly educated, sensitive
and moral person, who wants only to know what the right thing is so that he can do
it, is commanded by a supernatural being who is the ghost of his own beloved father
to execute the reigning king for the high crimes of regicide and incest? Will the
ensuing action be God's justice, or brutal murderin fact, the same crime of
regicide of which Claudius stands accused? If he obeys his father's command, will
Hamlet be enacting justice, or making himself as bad as the murderer he hopes to
Thus Hamlet's problems are not merely practicalhow to kill the kingbut
epistemological and metaphysical as well: how can Hamlet know that Claudius is a
murderer, and what is the nature of a universe in which it is up to Hamlet to punish a
king for murder, at the likely cost of his own life? From his soliloquy on being and
nothingness to his dying hints to prophetic powers"Had I but time . . . O, I could
tell youBut let it be" (5.2.338-40)Hamlet himself ponders the meaning of his
own life, but does not share whatever answers he finds with his audience, who are
left to puzzle them out for ourselves.
There is, in addition to the psychological puzzle of Hamlet's motivation and
the metaphysical puzzle of the play's larger meaning, a question that concerns the
structure of the playI mean the question of the large-scale presence of metatheater
in it. In itself this might not seem a puzzle, for Shakespeare is recurrently, almost
obsessively concerned with including frame-plays, plays-within-plays, skits, roleplays, and discussions of theater in his plays. But Hamlet is a very long play, with a
running time of about four hours, which makes it hard to understand why the play is
padded out with discussions of acting that occur in not one but two scenes, 2.2 and
3.2. The performance of the playlet, "The Revenge of Gonzago," which Hamlet
arranges to be staged in front of the king and queen, cannot be entirely cut, since it
produces effects in Claudius that Hamlet takes as confirmation of the former's guilt.


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Yet it and the preceding dumb show do drag a bit in performance, leaving one to
wonder why Shakespeare did not use some more efficient way of revealing
Claudius's guilt. And the earlier advice to the actors scene is frequently shortened
or cut by directors who need to save running time.
Shakespeare was a man of the theater, who probably agreed with Hamlet that
actors do something important"to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature, to show
virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his
form and pressure"(3.2.21-4). Therefore it seems likely that the attention he gives to
actors, acting, playwriting, directing, and play-going in Hamlet reflects some of his
own strongest interests and beliefs. But no audience cares very much about a
playwrights theories of craft, and Shakespeare was by mid-career too good a
playwright to let merely personal preoccupations take over and spoil so public an
event as the performance of a play.

He had to see some reason for all the

metatheatrical to-do in Hamlet. He had to believe that at least some audience on

some occasion would sit still while Hamlet and the First Actor quote a bombastic
speech on the death of King Priam and discuss the advent of boy-actors, while
Hamlet harangues Polonius and others with the importance of theater to the health of
the body politic.
I suggest that three seemingly disparate puzzles the psychological problem
of Hamlet's delay; the metaphysical problem of the "meaning" of Hamlet, which is
the question of what is the nature of the universe in which Hamlet suffers and dies;
and the structural puzzle of why there is so much theatricality and metatheatricality
in the playhave a single answer. The "meaning" that Hamlet gradually intuits as
he lives through his drama is that he inhabits a universe that is a theater in which a
play is being performed. The clues that Shakespeare has implanted to that effect
include, importantly, all of the dramatic activity that Hamlet instigates, witnesses,
and takes part in. And it is this discovery that Hamlet hints at when near the end he
addresses the "audience" at his death:
You that look pale and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes or audience to this act,
Had I but timeas this fell sergeant, Death,

Chapter Six: Hamlet and the Limits of Playing


Is strict in his arrestO, I could tell you

But let it be.(5.2.336-40)
The worldHamlet's world, surely, and he implies ours as wellis a stage;
our freedom lies in discerning the script we have been given to perform, and in
playing it to the hilt. Hamlet himself has made out of the surprising, unpromising
role of "reluctant avenger" a supremely noble and tragic figure, and thus dies
fulfilled. And the presence of metadrama is meant to focus our attention on the fact
that Hamlet is a character in a play, so that first he, and then we, may come to grasp
what has happened, and what it means.
If we describe the play as being about the theatricality of human experience,
if we describe its plot as one in which the hero discovers that his own experience is
very like a play, that it is a play, perhaps, then its ambiguity is not only intelligible
but may even become a principle of coherence. Critics have always been aware that
this play is a very theatrical one, but I want to enlarge our sense of its theatricality
even more, into something like the following: that in the play Hamlet both the hero
and the playwright explore the proposition that all the world's a stage, and all the
people in it merely players. If this proposition is truenot merely of the world of
Hamlet, but of our world, the worldthen greater success, greater applause goes to
the best actor, but the position of true power is that of Playwright, watching unseen,
absent from his creation, paring his fingernails.
Like Henry V and Rosalind, Hamlet is a versatile and effective roleplayer.2 Like Rosalind, he also tries to take charge of his life by rewriting its
script in a way that concludes more to his satisfaction. But he fails, and in failing he
demonstrates the limits of the control that dramaturgy gives us over our lives.
After the failure of his play, "The Mousetrap," to lead to the confession of the queen
and the successful execution of the king, Hamlet surrenders to the play-as-written,
and learns to improvise within the limits of the script he has been given. In so doing
he fulfills his tragic destiny, necessarily dying in the moment of his success:
Theres a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough-hew them how we will.
Written about 1601, shortly after Henry V and As You Like It, and shortly
before Twelfth Night, Hamlet is the high-point of the longest run of metatheatrical


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plays that Shakespeare ever wrote. Yet of course the word metatheater was coined
only in the mid-twentieth century, and if I had said in 1601 that the hero of
Shakespeares new play was theatrical, I could have been making only the banal
observation that he was to be found in a theater.

Theaters in England were

themselves a brand new phenomenon in Shakespeares day: William Shakespeare,

born in 1564, was older than the first English theater. When James Burbage built his
playhouse in 1576 he could call it the Theater, because there were no others. There
were of course plays written and performed in England long before Shakespeares
birth, but these were acted in halls or courtyards or in the street or the church. Only
in Shakespeares time were playhouses built; only in his time could English people
go to the theater. And not until well after his death did the words theatrical and
theatricality acquire their negative connotations.
Not until 1649, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, did the word
theatrical take on meanings of artificiality and affectation, and by then, of course,
there were no public theaters, since the Puritan Parliament had closed them in 1642.
Theatricals, when they happened at all, were at that time staged by amateurs in
places built for other uses. Perhaps for this reason, or because the Puritan new age
was opposed to the theaters, the words theatrical and theatricality took on meanings
of pretense, of excessive display, of falseness.3 When theaters opened again in 1660,
they had been put on notice: society was now aware that what they peddled was
make-believe, made sinister by its capacity to be taken for the truth.


accordingly had better try to be truthful, by whatever standards of truth were

currently in place, but when they fell short of the truthas inevitably they must
then they had better do so honestly, by openly admitting that they were being
frivolous, antic that is to say, theatrical.4
So, if we want to say that Hamlet when we first meet him seems stagy,
histrionic, or theatrical, we are describing him in terms not available to Shakespeare
or his characters.5 Nonetheless, those around Hamlet sense an aura of performance
in his black costume, in his sitting apart, in his sarcasms and muttered asides. As
best they can, they try to get Hamlet to face reality, as they conceive it, and to stop
playing the outworn role of grieving son:

Chapter Six: Hamlet and the Limits of Playing


QUEEN GERTRUDE Good Hamlet, cast thy nightly colour off,

And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust.
Thou knowst tis commonall that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.
HAMLET Ay, madam, it is common.
Why seems it so particular with thee?
HAMLET Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not seems.
Tis not alone my inky cloak, good-mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shows of grief
That can denote me truly. These indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passeth show
These but the trappings and the suits of woe. (1.2.68-86)

The issue in this scene could accurately be formulated as: who is being
theatricalHamlet, for expressing his grief, or the others for denying its
appropriateness? To Gertrudes suggestion that he may be expressing more grief
than he actually feels, Hamlet takes strong exception: if actions that a man might
play are open to criticism, the others should examine themselves, not him. Thus,
even without the rich resources of the pejorative anti-theatrical vocabulary the
Puritans of a later age have supplied us, Hamlet is able to compare Claudiuss court
to a stage play. As it turns out, Hamlet is right: those who accuse Hamlet of roleplaying are playing roles themselves.
The issue of who is acting here is an instance of the plays ambiguitynot
a famous instance, because eventually we learn the answer; yet it gives us a clue to
the source of the play's undecidable ambiguities, for the scene we have been
examining is the site of a struggle between two different versions of realityone
might even say between two different playseach forcefully evoked by an eloquent
speaker. Claudius speaks first and longest, entirely dominating the scenes first half,
up to the point where he exits. Since he entirely sets the agenda for the other


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characters and speaks most of the lines (92 out of 128) it is not surprising that the
picture we get of the Danish court is what Claudius wants us to see. Hamlets
graceless replies to his uncles and his mothers kindness, along with their gracious
resolve to overlook his rudeness, cast him as the villain of Claudiuss play.
At the same time, however, by refusing to play along, Hamlet is
establishing an independent voice, which takes over the stage after the kings
departure and gives us a far different picture of what we have just seen:

[HAMLET] That it should come to this

But two months deadnay, not so much, not two
So excellent a king, that was to this
Hyperion to a satyr, so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her fact too roughly! Heaven and earth,
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on, and yet within a month
Let me not think ont; frailty, thy name is woman
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor fathers body,
Like Niobe, all tears, why she, even she
O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourned longer!married with mine uncle,
My fathers brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules; within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing of her galled eyes,
She married. O most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! (1.2.137-57)
Here is an utterly different version of the same facts that Claudius rehearsed
in his first speech, and it shows the principals in an entirely different light. The
chastened but stable, even somewhat cheerful court scene that Claudius has just
staged becomes in Hamlets version an unweeded garden (135), and the majestic
King himself is refigured as a satyr. Of course Hamlets is the version we readily
adopt, not only because we know from the title that he is the hero, and because he
speaks after Claudius, but because the force of his impassioned soliloquy is so much
greater than Claudiuss strained rhetoric.6 The point is, however, that such shifts of

Chapter Six: Hamlet and the Limits of Playing


viewpoint are common in Hamlet, and lead to a sense of ambiguity or indeterminacy

that Hamlet himself later notices and comments on: our sense of what is happening
is constantly being revised; we are kept off-balance.
But two different points of view are manageablethey can be kept in the
head as a stable either/or, and we have no trouble deciding discrepancies in Hamlets
favor. Beyond the two different scripts that Hamlet and Claudius are following,
however, there is a third play, Shakespeares, that surrounds and subsumes both of
theirs. Neither of them knows, but we know, that a ghost identified as Hamlets
fathers has been seen walking outside the castle walls, that it appears to have some
dread news to impart, and that it seems to be seeking Hamlet. With Shakespeares
help, then, we see more than Claudius sees, and more than Hamlet sees as well. The
larger play adds a third perspective to the issue between them, making it even harder
for an audience to trust anything it sees or hears.
Hamlet is ceaselessly trying to figure things outwho did what to whom,
and how he should reactbut until the last scene of the play Hamlet is always
behind the curve of the audiences knowledge of his situation. Yet, in an unusually
large number of soliloquies (7), and in private exchanges with Horatio, Gertrude,
and Ophelia, Hamlet keeps us posted on what he knows and thinks. In keeping us so
thoroughly informed, Hamlet becomes more than a character: he becomes in a sense
the plays narrator as well, not unlike the narrator of a first-person novel, or even
the Chorus in Shakespeares Henry V, which like Hamlet is constantly criticizing
itself for imagined failures. Indeed, the standard interpretation of the play as being
about the dangers of indecisiveness (the tragedy of a man who couldnt make up
his mind, as a narrator intones at the beginning of Oliviers 1948 film7) derives
from Hamlets repeated self-castigations in this veinO, what a rogue and peasant
slave am I, etc. (2.2.527)
Yet, as narrator of his own story, Hamlet is far from being omniscient, and in
that sense, at least, he is unreliable. He is unreliable, too, I believe, in his view of
himself as a John a Dreams who is afraid of actingthat is, of taking action.
Until the last act, when he surrenders to the divinity that shapes our ends (5.2.10)
Hamlets goal, I think, is to achieve true omniscience, as though he could become


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the author of the play he inhabits, and then to take deliberate action that is fitted to
the degree of guilt of all the playersClaudius, of course, but also Gertrude,
Ophelia, Laertes, and (until their respective deaths) Polonius, Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern. Thus Hamlet seems to discover by his own unreadiness to take action
the ambiguity of the verb to act. As a prelude to taking decisive action, he resorts
first to role-playing, then to dramatic coaching, and finally to playwriting, in his
attempt to read the minds of the other characters and bend them to his will.
Hamlet wishes to become the playwright and rewrite the play in which he
finds himself acting. Only in the last scene of the play does he surrender completely
to his unseen Author and consent to be led, resigned at last to playing the part of
tragic hero, rather than trying to rewrite the play of his life (as he rewrote The
Murder of Gonzago) into a more satisfactory outcome. If I am correct, then Hamlet
is intelligible only if we factor in his theatricalitynot merely that he is a
character in a play, but that he in fact sees himself as such, and behaves accordingly.
From the first interchanges between Hamlet and his mother, the issues are
ones of costume, role-playing, and deception. Reproached by his mother for his
persistent, ostentatious grief, Hamlet indignantly protests that he "know[s] not
'seems'," and when he learns that his uncle is a murderer he writes down in his
commonplace book the apparently novel insight That one may smile and smile and
be a villain." (1.5.109) Apparently heretofore he had thought that such treachery
was confined to stage-plays. But a bit later he too begins to put on a deceptive mad
act in order to mask his genuine upset at the ghost's terrifying news. Awareness of
the theatricality of the world around him seems to proceed by the following steps:
(1) People around me are behaving strangelyeither inconsistently (as in
the strange absence of grief) or inappropriately (the overhasty remarriage). This
leads me to suspect that they either were or are playing a part.
(2) My sincerity in the face of their hypocrisy puts me in a vulnerable
position. In order to defend myself, I too must play a part.
(3) Now that we are all acting, I need to get control of the situation by
manipulation and control. I must work to discover their secrets while protecting

Chapter Six: Hamlet and the Limits of Playing


my secrets from them. My "script" must be superior to theirs, or they will ensnare
me in it. To protect myself, I must ensnare them.
Clearly, theatricality operates in the arena of interpersonal relations, which
play a predominant part in the lives of social animals. But there are areas of our
lives beyond the reach of society. Acting and pretense do not control the realm of
nature: we cannot keep the sun from rising or the rain from falling by theatrical
means, nor can we prevent ourselves from feeling the effects of nature on us
hunger, say, or agingthough we can temporarily disguise those events and those
effects by theatrical means. The passions, too, are spontaneous, and though they can
be masked or simulated, true feelings like love and hatred are not subject to human
control but are a part of our human nature.
Supernature is equally outside the control of human actingGod sees into
our hearts, hence pretense is impossible, and His divine insight is shared to a lesser
degree by all of the spirit world. But while the Ghost is not susceptible to Hamlet's
wiles, Hamlet suspects that it may be acting a part toward him, and he is at pains to
test its story by independent observation. God too, through his providence, is
conceived as having a plan for each of us, though how this accords with human
freedom is so problematic that it was the great theological issue of Shakespeare's
age. In its extreme form Calvinism, the coming trend in Protestant religion in
Shakespeare's day, denied human freedom as an illusionGod was omnipotent, and
all decisions about our lives had already been made by Him. Human initiative
consisted solely in trying to discover what God's will was, and in accepting it.
This is an extreme position, however, that was qualified in all sorts of ways.
Hamlet's decision late in the play that "There's a Divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them though we will," (5.2.10-11) is more or less the mainstream of
Christian doctrine, as expressed in the proverb "Man proposes, God disposes"i.e.
human beings have some free will, but ultimately the important issues are decided
by God. We are like characters in a good play, who have some life of their own, but
who ultimately dance to their creator's tune. This is Hamlet's final position, and I
think it is Shakespeare's, too. But since there is no way to know in advance precisely
how much control we can exert over a particular situation, and since our adversaries


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are already engaged in trying to control it to our disadvantage, it behooves us to

assume that we can master our lives theatrically, before we are so mastered.
Inevitably we will fall short of complete mastery, but we can never tell in advance
precisely how far our freedom to control events extends. Hence we must do our best
to control events, or resign ourselves to being controlled, not merely by God, but by
our fellow human beingsGod helps those who help themselves.
When we first meet him, Hamlet seems entirely paralyzed, captured by the
king's words, which silence him, and the king's actions, which label him a depressed,
discontented outsider. Hamlet is powerless to control events because he is too late,
both in various practical ways, and also in the archetypal sense in which we are all
too late, since all of us entered the world after the play has started.8 He has been
playing roles long before he recognized that he was doing so, and now that the main
props of his social identity, his father and mother, have been taken from him, he
suffers an acute "identity crisis." Like an adolescent who perceives that he cannot
go on playing the role of child, but who is uncertain that he will be able to
impersonate an adult, Hamlet experiences a loss of identity. Not only does he not
know who he is, but he comes close to doubting that he is"To be or not to be,"
besides raising the issue of suicide, suggests a kind of ontological despair, a
skepticism on Hamlet's part that he even exists!9
The Ghost offers Hamlet a solution to his crisis of identity that is both a short
cut and a dead end. On the one hand, by bravely confronting the Ghost, while
Horatio and the others are frightened and passive, Hamlet can assert his manly
courage and mastery. On the other hand, when he is alone with the Ghost he can
submit to its voice and its will, as he submitted in childhood to his father. The
Ghost's revenge scenario gives Hamlet the semblance of a grown-up agenda, yet it is
not really his own. Until it has been completed, Hamlet's job of finding his own
agenda can be put on hold. If the job of revenge results in Hamlet's own death, then
the deferred business of growing up will never have to be faced, and Hamlet can be
content "not to be."
Most of these psychological observations are commonplace, but their
relation to theater and role-playing is crucial. Suicide, as we know, is particularly

Chapter Six: Hamlet and the Limits of Playing


tempting to adolescents, who have to leave childhood behind and "become adult"
(which is what the word adolescent means) without the assurance that there is any
valid adult role waiting for them. Under such circumstances they are apt to "roleplay"i.e. assume extravagant dress and demeanoras though their distinctive
"identity" had to be aggressively asserted to a world that was bent on denying them
their place in the ranks of adulthood.
Thus in Hamlet issues of theatricality and issues of true, inner identity are for
once the same issuesHamlet's profoundest, most inner and authentic "self" is the
protean identity of an actor: It is Hamlet's nature to be artificial. Even when faced
by the authoritative voice of Supernature, in the person of the Ghost (played with an
uncanny symbolic rightness, records inform us, by Shakespeare himself) Hamlet
thinks in theatrical terms. He refers to the Ghost as "in the cellarage" (1.5.153)i.e.
under a trap door of a stage. If this was not meant to break the frame of the illusion
entirely and summon the audience back from Elsinore to the Globe playhouse, at
least shows that at this moment Hamlet sees himself as though he were in a play.
Hamlet's bewildering behavior during the two scenes between him and the
Ghost (1.4 & 1.5) though not inappropriate to someone who is seeing the ghost of
his murdered father, shows him running through a succession of roles. He is first
fearless, then frightened, manly, boyish, crafty, judicious, jocular, babbling,
"crazy"as he looks for the right role to play. His final aim is to hide from his
companions what the Ghost has told him, and he swears them to secrecy to conceal
even what little they do know. Three scenes ago it was Hamlet's boast that he
"know[s] not 'seems'"(1.2.76). Now he is ready to deceive everyone. Since they
want to role-play, Hamlet will join and beat them at their own game.10
Unfortunately for Hamlet, the other side is also planning new and better
stratagems. Polonius decides to use his daughter to test the nature of Hamlet's
madness, and the king and queen send Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to perform the
same office. Though Hamlet easily sees through his one-time chums, Ophelia
proves a bigger problem, since he cannot penetrate her disguise. Convinced that she
is playing a part, but unable to shake her out of it, he falls to denouncing Ophelia as
potentially as fickle as his mother, hence a whore. In fact she is what she seems, a


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neglected sweetheart who is genuinely distraught over Hamlet's sudden change of

Moved by his strong feelings of betrayal, Hamlet forgets his role of rejected
suitor. This slip convinces the king and Polonius, who are spying on the encounter,
that Hamlet is not love-mad. They therefore proceed to plan Hamlet's departure to
England, where he can be disposed of. Just as the Ghost has unmasked Claudius, so
the scene between Hamlet and Ophelia (3.1.90-160) has betrayed Hamlet, and
caused the king to generate a new and deadly plan for dealing with his enemy.
Hamlet, too, is in need of a new counter-stratagem, and he finds it in the opportune
arrival of the players to Elsinore.
Until his father's death, Hamlet says, he believed that he lived in a world
where people were what they seemed. Now suddenly he is aware that people play
roles. Though he was already a theater buff, he made a distinction between art and
life. Now suddenly it seems to him the line has been blurredreal people pretend to
weep, while an actor sheds real tears. Accordingly he reaches into the make-believe
realm of the theater to gain control over the script, in hopes of influencing events in
the world as well. The result is this play's centerpiece, the play-within-a-play, "The
Hamlet's frantic enthusiasm at the players' arrival is his least ambivalent
response to any event in the entire play. He greets them with a whole-heartedness
elsewhere missing from his complex, self-involved speeches: "You are welcome,
masters; welcome, all. I am glad to see thee well. Welcome, good friends. O, old
friend! . . . Masters, you are all welcome." (2.2.405-412) Unable to wait, Hamlet
calls for a speech immediately, and recites, extempore, some dozen lines of it
himself (432-44). The speech, as performed by the First Player, is dreadful stuff,
pseudo-Marlovian bombast, as even Polonius recognizes: "This is too long. . . .
Prithee, no more."(2.2.478;500) But it is the speech of a son (Aeneas) recounting
the violent death of his father (Priam) as his horrified mother (Hecuba) looked on,
and Hamlet finds it quite moving: it is an image of how a family ought to react to
murder. If the actor is moved to shed real tears at even an imagined sorrow, then

Chapter Six: Hamlet and the Limits of Playing


shouldn't Hamlet be able to do much more with the real grief and sorrow that he
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears,
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculty of eyes and ears.(2.2.536-543)
He first tries to impersonate an avenger
Who calls me villain . . .
ere this
I should a fatted all the region kites
With this slave's offal. Bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!
O, vengeance! - (548-59)
but he really has no stomach for the role. There is something in the avenger's role
that doesn't suit Hamlet, who is therefore forced to improvise a new one.12 Not
content with the scripts handed him by others, he decides to write his own play
rather than be forced to act in someone else's. He will re-stage the Ghost's story of
the murder, and once the King has started up like a guilty thing surprised, it will be
easy (so Hamlet thinks) to punish him for regicide, rather than seem to commit the
crime himself. Thus Claudius's punishment will be certainly and visibly just, rather
than a desperate, illegal and unchristian act. Theater has moved Hamlet to take arms
against a sea of troubles, but with a pen, not a sword, and theater will make it
possible for him to achieve what might otherwise seem impossible: the oxymoron of
a just revenge.
As the audience assembles and the play begins, Hamlet is as excited as an
author on opening nightordering attendants about, seating the guests, flirting with
Horatio in a friendly and with Ophelia in a bawdy way, explaining the dumb-show
to her and the plot to everyone, discussing the Player Queen's motivation with his
mother, assuring the king that "there['s] no offense in 't,"(3.2.213) and throwing in
some mad-talk from time to time to maintain his own cover. He asks Horatio to


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observe Claudius's reactions closely during the play, then lies back in Ophelia's lap,
one eye on the players and one on the suspect. The world has become a stage, and
Hamlet is in control of itas playwright, director, and audience, too: the observer of
all observing.
The stratagem works beautifully. Claudius, as anticipated, cannot stand to
see his crime reenacted; he interrupts the performance at the point where Gonzago is
murdered; rising, he calls for light, and abruptly exits. Now at last Hamlet is sure
that the king did in fact murder his father, as the Ghost has alleged, and he is ready
to avenge that murder by killing Claudius.
And yet one scene later, less than ten minutes' playing time and not much
more than that in represented time, Hamlet passes up the perfect opportunity to kill
Claudius. This is the play's great turning point, for if Hamlet kills the king the result
will not only be a satisfactory revenge and an end to the Ghost's troubling demands
on Hamlet, but also an opportunity for Hamlet to succeed his father as lawful king of
Denmark, an end to his mother's incestuous coupling with her husband's murderer,
the public punishment of private crime at the highest levels, and a restoration of the
troubled kingdom's health. Marriage to Ophelia can be the next order of business,
the begetting of an heir, and perhaps a war against Fortinbrass Norwegians to unite
the country patriotically behind their dashing young monarch.
Instead, Hamlet hangs back, considers too curiously the details of his
revenge, and decides to delay its enactment:

Enter [Prince] HAMLET [behind king]

HAMLET Now might I do it pat, now a is praying;
And now I'll do 't,
[He draws his sword]
and so 'a goes to heaven,
And so am I revenged. That would be scanned.
A villain kills my father, and for that
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge!(3.3.73-9)

Chapter Six: Hamlet and the Limits of Playing


As a direct result of this delay he loses any opportunity to kill Claudius,

because the king recognizes that Hamlet has found him out, and decides to send him
to England, where he plans for Hamlet to be executed. Not only does Hamlet by this
delay fail to bring about Claudius's death, but he sets off an avalanche of unforeseen
consequences. Since Hamlet judges the time as unripe for the king's execution, he
continues on his way to his interview with Gertrude, his purpose being, it would
appear, to test her further for complicity in his father's murder. Although common
sense would dictate that Hamlet dispatch Claudius before proceeding to judge his
mother, he is in a perturbed state of mind and not thinking clearly. He has promised
not to hurt her, but gets verbally violent, and finishes by stabbing Polonius through
the tapestry, under the excited misapprehension that he is the King.
This, along with the decision not to kill Claudius in the previous scene, is
Hamlet's second fatal mistake, and it proves even more tragic, since the killing
cannot be undone. From it all the rest of the ensuing tragedies flow. Shaken,
Hamlet allows himself to be carried away to England. Ophelia's wits are turned by
the complex misfortune of her lover slaying her father, and she drowns herself.
Laertes swears vengeance and allows himself to be used by the king in his plot
against Hamlet. And the result of that plot is the deaths of Claudius, Gertrude,
Hamlet, and Laertes himself, falling like dominoes from the initial mistake of
slaying Polonius instead of the king. What went wrong?
Generically, of course, tragedy is an affair of mistakes and flaws: had
Hamlet killed the right man there would be no tragedy. Hamlet's double mistake of
taking thought when he should act and acting when he should take thought is the
hinge of the plot, the double event that makes Hamlet a tragedy. And yet to be a
good plot, the important events must be motivated. There ought to be some reason
why Hamlet errs at these moments, but his motivation is not clear. It does no good
to say that Hamlet thinks too much, for this does not account for his rash execution
of Polonius, and to say that he is "mad" is simply to excuse ourselves from looking
for motivation: a madman's deeds are beyond understanding.
In fact Hamlet's motivation does make sense. Although at moments
particularly those when he is literally seeing a ghostHamlet is temporarily


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deranged, this is a normal reaction to the situation in which he finds himself.

Otherwise, though at times he counterfeits madness, Hamlet is essentially sane, and
is motivated by a hopelessly conflicting set of ideals and perceptionsnamely his
fervent wish, on the one hand, to fulfill his duties as a son, and on the other his own
doubts about revenge, especially since he has himself had the unconscious wish to
be rid of his domineering father. Though he several times tries to put on the role of
the remorseless avenger, he fails to do so in both the third, "what's he to Hecuba,"
soliloquy (2.2.527-82) and again in the sixth soliloquy (3.3.73-96), spoken over
Claudius's kneeling prayer:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in th' incestuous pleasure of his bed,
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in 't,
Then trip him that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damned and black
As hell whereto it goes.(3.3.89-95)
Cold-blooded killer is apparently one role Hamlet is unable to play.
Because we hear the king's failed attempt at repentance before Hamlet
enters, and his acknowledgement after Hamlet leaves that his prayer has
accomplished nothing, we knowbut Hamlet does notthat his perfectionistic
scruples against killing Claudius when the latter is in a state of grace are groundless.
On the surface, at least, his decision not to kill the king at this moment is a simple
What Hamlet represents as zeal for a perfect revenge, however, may be
better understood as a profound distrust of the whole revenge code. Hamlet takes
very seriously the charge laid upon him by his dead (and possibly damned) father to
take revenge, but this after all is the voice of Hell, crying out for more inmates. If in
satisfying his father's wish for vengeance Hamlet loses his own soul, what justice
has that accomplished? How can a damnable action be considered justice?
Though he frequently reproaches himself with substituting action for
thought, his rashness in killing Polonius is even more calamitous, in ways I have
already discussed, than his scruples against killing Claudius in the previous scene.

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Hamlet is caught on the horns of a dilemma, unable to decide which of two

competing paradigms has the greater claim on him: the code of filial piety, which
demands fast and brutal punishment of his father's murderer, at whatever physical or
spiritual cost to the avenger; or the code of Christianity, which urges a prior
obligation to obey his heavenly father"Vengeance is mine . . . sayeth the Lord."13
Unable to choose between competing imperatives, he temporizes, both on the pretext
of amassing more datahis visit to Gertrude stages another little drama, in which
her degree of guilt for her husband's death can be assessedand because he needs
more time to decide how best to proceed. Between the two horns of his dilemma,
Hamlet steers a middle course: he tries to accomplish by words, by role-playing, by
theatrics what his inner scruples will not allow him to accomplish with his sword.
From the standpoint of the play's underlying Christianitywhich we meet
repeatedly, from Marcellus's early discussion of the impotence of ghosts and other
evil spirits at Christmastide to Horatio's valediction to Hamlet's heaven-bound soul
near the play's end14Hamlet ought to delay his revenge, and to try to find ways, as
in his theatrical stratagems, to discover the guilty parties, and to bring them to a
lawful justice rather than a private vengeance. However, when the guilty party is the
King, the official ultimately responsible for administering justice, then how is
punishment to be accomplished by lawful means? Presumably as the legitimate heir
to the throne of Denmark, Hamlet could punish Claudius not merely for his
presumed guilt in King Hamlet's murder, but also for his manifest act of usurpation.
But such punishment would have to be done in such a way as to make clear to the
Danish public that Hamlet is punishing usurpation and regicide, rather than (as it
would likely seem) committing these very crimes.
Whether Hamlet is aiming at perfect vengeance or perfect justice is, in other
words, not easy to determinenot even Hamlet can decide this issue. He has so
many reasons for wanting Claudius dead that not even he can sort them out. But
what is especially salient in everything Hamlet does is this very perfectionism, the
demand that he places upon himself to be completely in control of events.
Powerless when we first meet him, Hamlet has seen a dramatic reversal of his
fortunes so that by Act 3 he feels in control of the situation. With the success of


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"The Mousetrap," Hamlet believes that he can "play God," thinks he can read
Claudius's soul in the action of kneeling in prayer, thinks he can judge and punish
his mother, thinks he can tell from the sound of a voice behind the arras who is
hidden there. In each case he is badly mistaken, however, and the consequence of
these mistakes is a whole series of deaths, ending with his own.
Hubris, the Greek name for the fatal flaw of pride or self-overestimation,
which Aristotle said in his Poetics was the characteristic flaw of tragic heroes, is the
plausible cause of Hamlet's undoing.15 And when we look to find what in the play
may have led Hamlet to overestimate his own considerable powers of discernment
and insight, we are driven back to the play-within-a-play and Hamlet's plan to
expose Claudius's guilt by staging before an audience deeds that the king believes to
have been secret. Hamlet chooses the play, Hamlet inserts a "speech of some dozen
or sixteen lines," (2.2.518) Hamlet instructs the players, Hamlet renames the piece,
assures the king that there is "no offense in it," critiques it with Gertrude, positions
himself to observe the king's reaction, lolls in Ophelia's lap making smutty doubleentendres in order to appear at ease, and then excitedly discusses the dazzling
success of his stratagem with an obviously impressed Horatio.
Yet Hamlet overestimates himselfbelieving that he has attained the
godlike position of omniscience and omnipotence enjoyed by an author over his
play, but enjoyed by no one in "real life," except by God himself. As the Ghost and
the king both succeed in demonstrating, Hamlet is not the author of his own play,
but merely a character in someone else's: God's, or Shakespeare's.
By failing to kill Claudius when he had the chance, and by rashly killing
Polonius by mistake, Hamlet has missed his God-given chance to set Denmark right,
has tipped his hand to the now thoroughly alarmed king, and has given the initiative
back to Claudius, who prudently decides to get rid of Hamlet as soon as possible.
Hamlet's mission to England, mentioned before Polonius's death, now is expanded to
include plans to have him murdered while he is there.
Strangely, Hamlet also seems to welcome his departure.

Perhaps he

recognizes the mission as a plot against him, and sees it as a way of risking his own
life as a way of redeeming the mistake of killing Polonius. Though in the heat of the

Chapter Six: Hamlet and the Limits of Playing


moment Hamlet spoke of the meddling old man as a "wretched, rash, intruding
fool,"(3.4.30) whose death was his own fault, he now recognizes that he may have to
pay for his own "rashness" in killing him. That Hamlet is not in perfect control of
events is now clear, but, paradoxically, this realization seems to invigorate him. In
his seventh (and last) soliloquy, he again reproaches himself for his delay, but speaks
in a soberer, more rational way about his obligation to avenge his wrongs than was
earlier the case:

[HAMLET] Rightly to be great

Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honor's at the stake. How stand I then,
That have a father killed, a mother stained,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep . . . ?(
Hamlet has picked a strange moment to calm down. Now that he is about to
depart for England, his chances of confronting Claudius have become remote, and it
will take skill on his part merely to survive this detour and to return to Denmark.
His vow that "from this time forth My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing
worth!"( seem strangely inappropriate, distant as he will be from his
enemy. With nothing to show for all his schemes of revenge except Polonius's
death, Hamlet seems to realize the vanity of trying to control events, and to
recognize at last how much a simple fixity of purpose, like Fortinbras's, can surpass
subtlety and guile. Hamlet is discovering his own limitations, learning modesty.
Recognizing limits on his own ingenuity, Hamlet seems more at peace. He
has drawn blood, he has bested some of his adversaries, he has entered the fraynot
gloriously but ineptlyand he seems to renounce the high expectations he
previously had of himself. There is already a sense of doom in this soliloquy
images of sleep, death, and bestial insentience recur, not now as of a consummation
devoutly to be wished, but as the necessary retribution for his sins.
Hamlet now is a sinner, not merely in thought but in deed. His self-image as
someone striving for perfection died with Polonius. Where once he would have


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mocked Fortinbras for conquering "an eggshell"(53), he now admires such

resolution. He has come to expect less of himself, and is willing to be led to
England, or to Hell.
But in Hamlet's absence the unforeseen, evil consequences of his actions
become worse: Ophelia goes mad and drowns herself, as a direct result of Hamlet's
rejection of her, and especially of his killing her father. Deprived of the two men
who gave her an identitydutiful daughter and expectant brideOphelia finds
herself without any role to play, except the dead-ended ones of rejected lover and
grieving, bereaved daughter. As Joan Montgomery Byles puts it:
Ophelia . . . has submitted to being made practically speechless, robbed of
her history, her responsibility for herself as a person. . . her distracted speech
reveals her inner reality in a way she did not/could not allow herself when
sane. Her madness frees her to experience and express her powerful
emotions, which have been denied by Hamlet, her brother, and her father.
Her speech, her real script, confers a meaning on the functional constrictions
her language has suffered from. . . . Her problem has been one of self
representation; she has always seen herself as being constructed almost
entirely out of the perceptions of her father, her brother and her lover.17
Having given her heart to Hamlet, Ophelia has been, psychologically at least,
seduced and abandoned. Significantly, her mad-speeches (4.5) are snippets of
popular songs, strung together, as though the only "script" left to her is the utterly
anonymous discourse of popular culture, which defines young women like her as
pathetic, doomed victims: Her identity simply fragments, becomes the effect of the
common non-individuated discourse of popular ballads and proverbial phrasing.
(Burns, 144) She adopts the cultural stereotype of the ruined maid as the only role
available to match her feelings of being used and deserted by the men in her life. To
survive, Ophelia would have to have some other role available to her. Ultimately
her death wreaks less havoc than Hamlet's or Laertes's, but she dies in a way that
demonstrates the need for versatility in the roles we can play, and the dearth of roles
available to Renaissance womenunless, like Rosalind, they were prepared to
transgress the boundaries of social norms.

Ophelia is too goodi.e. too

Chapter Six: Hamlet and the Limits of Playing


obedienta daughter to do so, and her father, unlike Duke Senior, is too
domineering a father to let her choose for herself.
Meanwhile Laertes is storming the castle, bent on a rash and remorseless
revenge, willing "To cut [Hamlet's] throat i' th' church."(4.7.98) He is momentarily
moved by the "prett[y]" (4.5.184) spectacle of the mad Ophelia, but his only idea for
helping her is to add her to the list of his grievances against his father's murderer.
Yet Claudius has no trouble in deflecting Laertes's anger onto Hamlet, and in
enlisting him in yet another plot to rid him of this persistent nuisance.
Hamlet is more heart-whole after his return from England: one sign is that he
no longer is the ironist and clown, surrendering that role to the Sexton who is
digging Ophelia's grave (5.1). Another sign is that he can acknowledge his own
feelings without hesitation or ironysorrow for Yorick, fierce grief for Ophelia, and
retrospectively love for her too: "I lov'd Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers Could not,
with all their quantity of love, Make up my sum."(5.1.254-6) This is hyperbolic, of
course, but if Hamlet is "mad" at this moment, as both the king and queen allege, it
is the loss of control that perfectly sane people experience under the crushing burden
of bereavement. One lesson the audience learns from Hamlet is that sometimes the
sanest reaction we can have is, or resembles, madness.
The play's last long scene begins with Hamlet's account of what happened to
him on the high seas. Despite his testimonial to the "divinity that shapes our ends,"
and his newly discovered enthusiasm for rashness, he continues to speak of himself
as a character in a play:
Being thus benetted round with villainies,
Or I could make a prologue to my brains,
They had begun the play. (5.2.30-2)
Here it is unclear if the antecedent of "they" is "brains" or "villainies,"
preventing us from knowing whether Hamlet is crediting himself or his adversaries
with beginning the "play." In either case, however, Hamlet is again giving us a
reading of effective action as a mixture of heaven-sent opportunity and a canny
seizing of such opportunities by human initiative.


The Worlds A Stage

Hamlet displays great skill in forging a commission that will take his

companions to their doom. Yet his escape is due primarily to instinct and good
fortune: his sleeplessness, his lucky possession of a signet ring, the chance arrival of
pirates whom he persuades to deposit him back on shore in Denmark. Hamlet's aim
is no longer to control events absolutely, but to recognize the opportunities that
chance or fate opens to him:

Rashly And praised be rashness for it: let us know,

Our indiscretion sometime serves us well
When our dear plots do pall, and that should teach us
There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will(5.2.6-11)
This is not, an unqualified praise of rashness, which serves Laertes no better
than it served his father (a "wretched, rash, intruding fool"), or indeed than it served
Hamlet when he slew Polonius. Rather, it is a recognition that calculation is only
one ingredient in successful action, which requires also a willingness to improvise:
"Our indiscretion sometime serves us well When our dear plots do pall." (5.2.8-9)
Yet when Osric arrives with his invitation to a dueling contest with Laertes,
Hamlet is not overhasty to accept. In view of his recent escape from murderers and
pirates this duel seems like pretty tame stuff, and Hamlet no longer has any taste for
strutting and fretting before an audience, though he still can puncture a windbag like
Osric with mimicry:
HAMLET Sir, his definement suffers no perdition in you, though, I know
to divide him inventorially would dizzy th' arithmetic of memory, and yet
but yaw neither in respect of his quick sail. But, in the verity of extolment, I
take him to be a soul of great article, and his infusion of such dearth and
rareness as, to make true diction of him, his semblable is his mirror, and who
else would trace him his umbrage, nothing more.
OSRIC Your lordship speaks most infallibly of him. (
We know, though Hamlet does not, that the duel is a final trap, in which the
king and Laertes plan to murder Hamlet three times over: with an unbated rapier, a
poisoned tip, and (for thoroughness's sake) a poisoned drink as well. Hamlet

Chapter Six: Hamlet and the Limits of Playing


suspects a trickanyone in his position wouldand at first he seems to refuse the

gambit: "How if I answer no?" he replies to Osric's invitation. (126)
The question reaches right off the page, or stage, to confront us with the fact
that Hamlet has a choice, can hasten toward or seek to delay his tragic end. It is like
the moment in King Lear when blind, despairing Gloucester crashes to the boards,
showing us that they are no more the meadow we were pretending to think them
than they are the cliff he believed them to be, but a stage instead. Even after hitting
wood Gloucester does not recognize where he really is, but I believe Hamlet does
he is free to "answer no," but it will do him no good, because he is not his own play's
principal author.
What if Hamlet answers no? Will Claudius give up trying to kill Hamlet?
Will Laertes abandon his vengeance? Of course not. The only way to deal with
their hatred is to face and overcome it if he can. Hamlet must face the music, either
now or later; the question is one of knowing when to take arms against a sea of
troubles, and as his recent experience has taught him there is no sure calculus of
timing. You merely do your best, and hope:
HAMLET Theres a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be
now, 'tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now,
yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man has aught of what he
leaves, what is 't to leave betimes?(157-61)
By first showing that he is free to refuse the gambit, and then accepting it
nonetheless, Hamlet demonstrates to himself and to the audience that he is freenot
a knee-jerk revenger, and not a dupe, but a free moral agent who has chosen where
to take his stand.
And yet the event is so deadly! First Gertrude dies, poisoned by the cup
meant for Hamlet. Next Laertes, stabbed by his own rapier point, reveals to Hamlet
the villainous plot, asks (and gets) Hamlet's forgiveness, and dies. Then Claudius,
by both rapier and drink, as befits the arch-villain of the piece. Horatio, too, wishes
to die, but is restrained by Hamlet, who is himself dying of a scratch from Laertes'
poisoned foil. When it finally comes, Hamlet's vengeance is so thorough that no one


The Worlds A Stage

of Denmark's royal blood is left to carry on the dynasty, and the throne passes to a
foreigner and recent enemy of Denmark.
Death, the final act of both tragedies and lives, is yet the supreme
distinguisher between the world and the stageor so we tell ourselves. Here is how
we know whether we are actors or not. The actors will rise up, take bows, receive
floral tokens, wash and dress themselves, go out to dinner, and prepare themselves
for another performance, while we will not.
Or will we? I don't know, nor do I think others do, though many claim to,
including Shakespeares Hamlet, who teases us, before he goes, with hints of secrets
from beyond the grave:

You that look pale and tremble at this chance,

That are but mutes or audience to this act,
Had I but timeas this fell sergeant, Death,
Is strict in his arrestO, I could tell you But let it be. (276-80)
What is Shakespeare hinting at here? That there is an afterlife? That there
isn't? Or is this a mere theatrical flourish, another shiver for our spines, signifying
nothing? I don't know, but either way, the theatrical analogy continues to hold.
Either Hamlet and the others will rise up in the afterlife, like actors from a stage, and
go to their several dwellings; or they will be put in the earth, where audience and
actors (and playwright too!) will shortly join them. Whatever is true for them is true
for the rest of us, and that (I like to think) is what Hamlet would tell us, if he had
time, and if we were willing to listen: we are in the same boat with Hamletwe are
all actors on a stage. The only difference is: Hamlet knows it, and we don't.
Once, on a late-night talk show, I heard the actor Mel Gibson describing the
difficulty he had had in playing Hamlet in the Franco Zefferelli film version of the
play.18 He was unable to find, he said, the key to his characters motivation: Hamlet
is too protean a character to be entirely understood; his nature seems to change from
scene to scene.

Doubtless Gibson had considered the classic answers to this

questionHamlet is indecisive, or he is in love with his mother, or he is simply

madbut none of these worked. Trained as all actors are these days in one or

Chapter Six: Hamlet and the Limits of Playing


another version of the method, Gibson was trying to forget that he is an actor, in
order to sink himself in the identity of his character, imagined as a real person.
Alas, like Poes purloined letter, the secret to Hamlets motivation lay not
concealed, but too obviously exposed: Hes an actor! I wanted to shout at the
screen. Hamlets an actor, looking for the right role, for the perfect script. Thats
the key to his motivation! But of course it would have done no good to shout,
because that was not Mel Gibson at all. Far less than living actors on a stage, what I
was looking at was utterly unreala pre-recorded series of electronic impulses, a
pattern of dots on a cathode-ray tube, a shadow on a screen. And yet, how real it
The world's a stage, and the men and women in it merely players: Hamlet,
and Shakespeare, and you, and I. All players! That's why, I think, Hamlet addresses
the others on the stage as "audience," including them in our world, and us in theirs
really there is only one world, and we're all in it together. And that's why the bodies
are taken and displayed on a "stage"(340): the world's a stage, and the people in it
merely players.


T. S. Eliot, "Hamlet" (1919), in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (London:
Faber & Faber, 1975) p. 47; Frank Kermode, "The Patience of Shakespeare," in
Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne: Renaissance Essays (New York: Viking, 1971) p.158;
Stephen Booth, "On the value of Hamlet," in Norman Rabkin, ed. Reinterpretation of
Elizabethan Drama (NY: Columbia UP, 1969), 137-176; Jacqueline Rose, "Hamletthe
'Mona Lisa' of Literature," in Sexuality in the Field of Vision (London: Verso [New Left
Books], 1986), 123-40. My quotations are from pp. 139 and 123-4, respectively.

Any consideration of social form as play in Hamlet has to take account of the
extraordinary range and degree of informal play to be found in the tragedy, most of it
focussed on the protagonist. There is Hamlet the entertaining courtier, master of the
merry quip; Hamlet the sardonic satirist of courtly pretence and hidden corruption;
Hamlet the melancholic whose inappropriate jocularity is a classic symptom of his
emotional condition; Hamlet the cunning revenger whose assumption of an antic
disposition is more effective as an outlet for his bitterness than as a device for coping
with his enemy; Hamlet the theatrical producer and amateur playwright who introduces
and concludes his tragic show, The Murder of Gonzago, in a spirit of high glee (For the
king likes not the comedy . . . ). And in addition to the jesting, antic tragic hero there is
the Chief Councillor-Fool and the Gravedigger-Clown. (McAlindon, 118-9)


The Worlds A Stage

In the foreword to The Whole Journey, Richard P. Wheeler summarizes the late C.L.
Barbers thesis on the emergence of the popular theater at the time of the Protestant
Reformation: Barber connected the times intense interest in magic and in theater with
the Reformation renunciation of the efficacy of ritual and iconic resources central to
Catholic worship, which gave so much more physical embodiment to mystery than the
Protestants allowed. . . . The theater flourished in the generation after Protestantism
took over, and achieved enormous popularity in satisfying needs no longer met in the
church. (p. xx) Thus Puritanism and the professional theater were in Barbers view
born together in England, but they were born enemies.

In contrast to the realistic drama of a later age, the plays of Shakespeares age had not
yet learned to avoid exposing the fact that they were staged. When Shakespeare breaks
the frame of his drama to expose its illusions, which he does with some regularity, it is
usually to boast that he has had his way with us. An apparent exception to this rule, the
apologetic prologues of Henry V, actually extend the range of his mimetic powers,
enabling him to stage, in the audiences mind, scenes and events much vaster than any
he would be able to put on the boards of the Globe. As such, these apologies are not so
much confessions of failure as extensions of mastery over the audiences sense of what is
true. See Chapter Four, above.

Histrionic, though it is derived from histrio, a Latin word for actor, entered the
English language in 1648, according to the OED, already bearing the negative
connotations of falseness or staginess. The English word hypocrite (already in use in
Middle English) is similarly derived from a Greek word for actor. According to a book
of popular psychology, Maggie Scarfs Intimate Partners, (NY: Random House, 1987),
psychologists have recently renamed hysteria, giving it the name histrionic personality
disorder, (p. 219) in order to remove any sexist connotations. An unhappy result of this
change of name is that while wombs are no longer blamed for hysteria, actors now
receive this stigma, and language derived from the theater has undergone a further

An example of Claudiuss (literal) doubletalk: Therefore our sometime sister, now our
queen, Th imperial jointress of this warlike state, Have we, as twere with a defeated joy,
With one auspicious and one dropping eye, With mirth in funeral and with dirge in
marriage, In equal scale weighing delight and dole, Taken to wife. (1.2.8-14) Of
Claudiuss speeches in this scene, Barber and Wheeler comment: Such a cross-purposed
line as With an auspicious, and a dropping eye, if one stops over it, presents a
downright ridiculous imagebut Claudius keeps going. His plea that Hamlet end his
grief is likewise elaborated to a point where the appeal becomes involuntarily ironic.
When he offers himself as a substitute for the dead father, Claudiuss use of the royal
pluralthink of us / As of a fatherbetrays the hollowness of his public offer of
private solace. His reference to the first cor[p]se inadvertently alludes to Cain and the
primal, eldest curse of a brothers murder, still secret though perhaps half-guessed by
Hamlets prophetic soul.

MGM/UA Video. Theatrical release September 29, 1948. ASIN B00004Y87E.

Of Shakespeare's ten tragedies, the hero is absent from the first scene of only fourJulius
Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth. In terms of linesa truer measure of "belatedness,"
since Shakespeare did not break his plays down into scenesOthello is absent the longest:

Chapter Six: Hamlet and the Limits of Playing


he enters at the play's 186th line and speaks five lines later. Hamlet enters after line 175, but
does not speak until the play's 240th line. Thus, by the crucial measure of when he first
speaks, Hamlet is easily the most belated of Shakespeare's tragic heroes. If we widen the
category to include tragic heroines, only Juliet has to wait longer (358 ll.) to speak,
presumably because in addition to being, like Hamlet, someone's child, she is also a woman.

Charles Taylor, in his book Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity
(Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989), traces the first of three strands of philosophical "selfhood"
("modern inwardness, the sense of ourselves as beings with inner depths, and the connected
notion that we are 'selves'" p.x) from Augustine's sense of sin through Montaigne's
systematic skepticism to Descartes' answer to that skepticism: "I think, therefore I am."
Hamlet's "To be or not to be" (3.1.58) if taken as more than a simple raising of the issue of
suicide, can be seen as an inquiry that parallels both Montaigne's and Descartes. In my
interpretation, Hamlet is thinking something like the following: "In a fallen, rotten world, in
which I, too, am fallen and rotten, and therefore unlikely to realize any of my ambitions or to
be the man my father was, I see no point in continued existence. Christian authorities forbid
suicide, but the great Stoic teachers of antiquity saw it as permissible and in fact desirable
under certain circumstances. The fact that authorities disagree underlines the fact that I am a
free moral agent, entitled and empowered to decide whether I choose to exist or not. The
fact that I can choose not to be, however, argues that at present I am, since non-being has no
capacity to choose anything. Hamlet then goes on to wonder if being has the power not-tobei.e. if the death of his body will simply result in the damnation and eternal torment of
his soul. For fear, then, not of non-being but of the eternity of the soul, Hamlet rejects
At the end of the play Hamlet achieves the death he craved in Act 3, scene 1, and
Horatio asks flights of angels to sing Hamlet to his rest (5.2.362). Assuming the Ghost's
reports of the afterlife are reliable, there seems little doubt that Hamlet has by his delay
ultimately solved the problem of dealing with "The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns."(3.1.81) Hamlet has his revenge and his salvation too, though innocent
bystanders like Ophelia, Gertrude, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have also
perished (only Ophelia is entirely innocent, however).


Edward Burns's Character and Being on the Pre-modern Stage (London & NY:
Macmillan, 1990), argues against the notion that Hamlet has a self in the full modern
sense. Katherine Worth aptly summarizes Burnss argument as follows: "[Burns] focusses
on the assumption of pre-eighteenth-century theorists and playwrights that character is a
construct created out of a 'knowledge' shared by writer, reader/audience and actor. No such
concept as 'interiority' existed for Aristotle. Oedipus for him was the tragic plot that used the
name. . . . Shakespeare provides the strongest challenge to Burns's argument that only after
the revolution in acting style effected by Garrick was it possible to conceive of a stage
character as 'a coherent and consistent individual' created by the actor in a highly personal
way. . . .But what of Hamletsurely this is a case of 'interiority' if ever there was one? Not
really, says Burns. Of course the play is so rich that modern ideas of inwardness can be
applied, but we miss something if we fail to recognize that Hamlet's 'inward self', is 'in itself
a series of rhetorical strategies'. Being exiled from his royal, heroic identity, he struggles
and fails to construct a 'self apart from action'. Fortinbras gives him back his character when
he says, 'he was likely, had he been put on, / To have prov'd most royal.'" Katharine Worth
TLS, No. 4556, 7/27/90-8/2/90 p. 801.



The Worlds A Stage

The Hamlet-Ophelia relationship is to my mind the most puzzling and unsatisfactory one
in the play. Just at the level of brute facts, it is hard to determine when the two had time to
carry on a romancesurely not since Hamlet's return to Denmark, a period marked by
moroseness and grief on his part. Before his father's death Hamlet had been absent for some
time at Wittenberg, which belies the impression given by both him and her that the affair
was recent and intense. Yet at Ophelia's funeral Gertrude says that she had hoped the young
woman would marry Hamlet. No member of a theater audience could possibly be troubled
by these latent contradictions, however, which are another instance of Shakespeare's
theatrical sleight-of-hand, like the better-known double time-scheme in Othello.
More deeply troubling is that the Ophelia story reflects badly on Hamlet. While he
is the innocent victim of Claudius's villainy, Ophelia is Hamlet's victim, abused by her
erstwhile lover, and herself innocent of any wrongdoing toward him. Part of his
mistreatment of her is due to his correct suspicion that she is being used to spy on him, but
his conclusion that she is one of his enemies who is merely pretending to love him, though
reasonable, is mistaken.
Another part of his shabby treatment of Ophelia is due to his revulsion against
women and especially against their sexuality, because of his mother's "incestuous" coupling
with his uncle. Being a whore is a ludicrous charge to level at the chaste young woman, and
coming from someone she loves it contributes powerfully to her later going mad, and thus to
her death as well. The best that can be said for Hamlet's inexcusable behavior toward so
innocent and vulnerable a person as his former sweetheart is that he is "not himself," but this
in turn raises the difficult problem of to what extent Hamlet is truly mad, and thus not
responsible for his actions. In my view Hamlet is guilty of Ophelia's eventual death, though
he shares that guilt with the other schemersClaudius, Polonius, even Laerteswho turn
Elsinore into a chamber of horrors for her, and thus unhinge her sanity. Hamlet himself
recognizes in general terms that he, too, is a sinner, and hence liable to act unjustly, when he
observes to Ophelia that "We are arrant knaves, all,"(3.1.128-9), and in his earlier remark to
Polonius "Use every man after his desert, and who should scape whipping?"(2.2.508-9) Part
of Hamlet's tragedy is that though he is obsessed with acting justly, he behaves unjustly
toward someone who loves him, and whom he too loves, or at least did love in the recent
Had he wanted a perfectly innocent hero, Shakespeare could perhaps have
written Ophelia out of the play: though her presence is a convenience in several ways,
chiefly as a component of the failed love-story that is a sort of sub-plot to the HamletClaudius conflict, Ophelia is not absolutely essential to the plot. Her most important
function in the play is as a female foil to Hamlet, whom she resembles in many ways
like him she is struggling to discover an adult identity, despite a father's demands that she
subject her will to his; like Hamlet the violent death of that father unhinges her reason,
and drives her toward suicide; like Hamlet she is torn between conflicting loyalties to
family and lover; like Hamlet, she is killed by these unresolvable conflicts. Unlike
Hamlet, however, Ophelia is a woman, and her passive victimhood epitomizes the
inferior status of women, especially when contrasted to Hamlet's more strenuous, less
innocent, but ultimately more dignified fate. Although both Hamlet and Ophelia die in
the course of the play, his death is more energetic, and it accomplishes something: the
regeneration of the state of Denmark. Ophelia's death, on the other hand, accomplishes
nothing, except in the eyes of the audience, who are reminded that innocence and
goodness are victimized in this world, even by those of us who are not deliberately evil.
Even her death is made the occasion for more masculine strutting and fretting, as Hamlet
and Laertes theatrically grapple in her grave, ludicrously trying to establish by force of
arms which of them loved her more.

Chapter Six: Hamlet and the Limits of Playing



That something in the avengers role that does not suit Hamlet may be a high-minded
distaste for committing murder, or a more visceral sense of having himself felt an
unacknowledged wish for the death of his domineering father. In fact, the two motives
may both be present: Hamlet, though he detests Claudiuss murder of King Hamlet, feels
himself also a sinner in his heart, and thus unable to cast the first stone.


St. Paul, Epistle to the Romans, 12:19.16, in The Holy Bible, The New Testament
(King James Version): Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord. Also Epistle
to the Hebrews, 10:30.8: For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto
me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people. The
Old Testament passage they are citing is Gods promise to Moses to free the Hebrew
slaves from Egyptian bondage: To me belongeth vengeance and recompence; their foot
shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall
come upon them make haste. (Deuteronomy, 32:35.4). A modern translation, The New
English Bible, translates all three instances of the word vengeance as justice.


The passages I am alluding to are these:

Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our savior's birth is celebrated
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit can walk abroad,
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is the time.(1.1.139-45)

HORATIO Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince;

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest! (5.2.302-3)

Aristotles formulation of the appropriate character flaw for a tragic hero is hamartia, a
term that translates as error, mistake. The mistake may derive from either a flaw of
intellect or a moral failure. The appropriate tragic hero, he writes, is a man who is not
eminently good and just yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity,
but by some error or frailty. (45) One common form of hamartia in Greek tragedies
was hubris, that pride or overweening self-confidence which leads a protagonist to
disregard a divine warning or to violate an important moral law. (Abrams, 212)


The Norton Shakespeare uses the First Folio (1623) as its control text, but adds other
passages, like this entire soliloquy, that do not appear in the First Folio. Hamlets final
soliloquy, How all occasions do inform against me, is from the Second Quarto (1604)
and in the Norton is printed in italics and numbered separately. I have omitted the italics
but kept the numbering, which indicates that the lines quoted are from a passage added
after the First Folios ninth line of Act 4, scene 4.


Joan Montgomery Byles "The Problem of the Self and the Other in the Language of
Ophelia, Desdemona and Cordelia," in American Imago 46 (1989), pp. 46-7.


Warner Studios. January, 1991. ASIN B0000541VR.


God gives not Kings the stile of Gods in vaine,

For on his Throne his Scepter doe they swey:
And as their subjects ought them to obey,
So Kings should feare and serve their God againe.
If then ye would enjoy a happie raigne,
Observe the Statues of your heavenly King,
And from his Law, makes all your Lawes to spring:
Since his Lieutenant here ye should remain,
Reward the just, be stedfast, true, and plaine,
Represse the proud, maintayning aye the right,
Walke always so, as ever in his sight,
Who guardes the godly, plaguing the prophane:
And so ye shall in Princely vertues shine,
Resembling right your mightie King Divine.
(King James)
James disliked being on display far more than Elizabeth,
who cheerfully joined in her own celebrations.1
In 1603 James VI, King of Scotland, became James I, King of England.
He was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, executed in England for conspiring to
murder Elizabeth and restore Roman Catholicism.

Despite being a devout

Protestant himself, as well as Elizabeths second cousin and closest living

relative, James was not a popular choice to succeed her. Some feared that James
would upset the delicate balance of opposing forces that the old queen had
maintained by means of agile statecraft. Others worried that he would be too
effective, smothering English rights and liberties with his Continental ideology of
absolute monarchy. A few had even risen in insurrection to replace Elizabeth
with the home-grown Earl of Essex.2 But James was now king and had to be
dealt with. London held its collective breath.


The Worlds A Stage

As thirty-seven-year-old James entered and took possession of his new

capital, the thirty-nine-year-old Shakespeare was at the apogee of his power, too.
2 Henry IV, Much Ado About Nothing, Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It,
Hamlet, Twelfth Night, and Troilus and Cressida had all appeared within two
years, either way, of the start of the new century. Shakespeares company, the
Lord Chamberlains Men, resident since 1599 in the Globe playhouse, now
became the Kings Men. Shakespeare, one of the kings players, was himself the
king of the London stage and a gentleman of consequence, with a recently
purchased coat of arms.3
Yet starting with Hamlet, written around 1601, the plays became more
somber, more bitter. Tragedies began striking the true tragic note of failed greatness,
while comedies filled with love and merriment gave way to troubling tragicomedies
like Troilus and Cressida and Alls Well That Ends Well, in which sex features
prominently as a problem. To be sure, these changes began to appear in plays dating
slightly earlier than Jamess coronation, but by 1601 the queens death and Jamess
accession were clearly in the cards.
The darkening of Shakespeares mood is sometimes explained as nothing
more than a product of a change in tastethe famous Jacobean melancholybut
Shakespeare was by this time so much the monarch of the English stage that he
created as much as he followed trends. If other dramatists were affected by the same
bleakness as he, this was partly Shakespeares own doing.

But though his

seventeenth century oeuvre is not inferior to that of his earlier decade, it appears to
have been less popular as a whole. Except in Othello, Macbeth, and The Tempest,
neither Shakespeares darker mood, nor the resigned, serene note that followed it in
the late romances, seem to have pleased audiences as much as the jollity, romance,
and patriotism that began his career.
What occasioned this change of mood can only be guessed at. England
under King James was not as happy or prosperous as it had been in Elizabeths
heyday. Theaters were closed for nearly a year in 1603-04 because of the plague,
the longest closure since the great outbreak of 1593. Peacemaker Jamess Treaty of
London in 1604 ended the threat of a Spanish invasion, but it also ended the

Chapter Seven: Duke Vincentio Plays God in Measure for Measure


prosperity war had brought, including the plunder of Spanish galleons. Scottish
James, with his grandiose absolutism and personal vanity, was not English and was
not beloved. The king himself was the principal political problem of the new
Or perhaps more than national politics it was the death of his own father in
1601 that gave rise in Shakespeare to somber thoughts about his own mortality.4 His
son, Hamnet, had died in 1596, and the loss of his only male heir may have caused
the playwright to be more concerned with literary posterity than with gate receipts.
Perhaps Shakespeare, hoping to be not merely an entertainer but an informal
counselor of the state, tried to adjust his plays themes and moods to the kings own
habits and interests. For whatever reasons, Shakespeare wrote some troubling, unpopular plays after the arrival of King James, and Measure for Measure is one of
Death is normally not the subject of Shakespeares comedies, nor is sexual
sin, but Measure for Measure, technically a comedy, is full of both. Be absolute
for death, the most famous speech in Measure for Measure begins:

[DUKE] Either death or life

Shall thereby be the sweeter. Reason thus with life,
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep. (3.1.5-8)
Momentarily persuaded, the sexual sinner Claudio proclaims himself
prepared for death, but at the slightest glimmer of false hope his philosophic resolve
crumbles. The condemned prisoners powerful emotions quickly overcome the
dukes wise counsel, and thereby illustrate the problem with the dukes earlier
approach to ruling Vienna. Himself possessed of a complete bosom (1.3.3) he has
overestimated his subjects capacity to exercise a similar level of self-control.
Human beings, he is finally forced to recognize, cannot be governed merely by good
example and good advice. They need the restraint of laws, and the expectation
thatat least occasionallythose laws will be enforced.
Viennas laws prohibit sexual activity outside of wedlock (as did Englands


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in Shakespeares time) but the merciful duke has refrained from imposing the harsh
penalties for breaking them. Now, faced with a riot of licentiousness, he hits upon a
possible remedy: if he turns his judicial power over to the puritanical Angelo, then
miscreants may fear to take the laws lightly. To make certain that Angelos power is
credible, the duke plans to remove himself from the scene, leaving his delegate in
But there is a danger in trusting Angelo too much. Lest Angelo prove not as
incorruptible as he appears, the duke intends to remain in Vienna, disguised as a
holy friar, ready to intervene if need be:

[DUKE] Lord Angelo is precise,

Stands at a guard with envy, scarce confesses
That his blood flows, or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone. Hence shall we see
If power change purpose, what our seemers be. (1.3.50-4)
Of course, this creates what for many readers and playgoers is an
uncomfortable moral paradox: in order to discover the truth of Angelos character,
the duke plans to spy on him, like Polonius with Laertes. Do we smell a fault? Or is
the duke practicing a good deception, like Rosalinds in pretending to be a man,
or King Henrys disguise among his troops?
For the duke, the problem in this problem play is how a ruler can
enforce decent rules of sexual conduct when promiscuity, extramarital pregnancy,
prostitution, venereal disease, and sexual abuse are so common, and so difficult to

Frustrated in his more straightforward attempts to control sexual

immorality, the duke resorts to the theatrical arts of disguise, trickery, and
manipulation to do what laws alone could not do.
We can imagine the priggish James sympathizing with Vincentios
predicament, for the problem appears insoluble.5 A ruler would need to have
divine omniscience not only to see into the private places where sexual
misconduct takes place, but also into the dark recesses of the human heart to
assess the sinners capacity for amendment. Imposing sexual morality therefore
seems a lost cause, and yet lines must be drawn somewhere. Shakespeares duke

Chapter Seven: Duke Vincentio Plays God in Measure for Measure


is unwilling to give up trying to make his subjects behave decently toward each
other. His duty as ruler, he seems to believe, requires him to play God. And King
James, an enthusiastic amateur theologian as well as a theorist of absolute
monarchy, would probably have agreedGod gives not Kings the stile of Gods
in vaine, he wrote in the prefatory sonnet to Basilikon Doron, which appears at
the head of this chapter as an epigraph.
God, too, works in mysterious ways, but since he is not God, and since his
deviousness is never properly explained, a cloud hangs over Vincentios character
for us. How can we forgive him for turning his subjects over to the untested Angelo,
while he skulks around in disguise? As he might have foreseen, things start going
wrong immediately, and Vincentio, having laid aside his office, resorts to his own
latent dramatic powers to start rewriting the script.6
In fact, things start going wrong almost immediately. Angelo, determined
to set a tone for his new regime of virtue, immediately condemns a young
gentleman named Claudio, who has gotten his fiance pregnant. Death is an
extreme punishment for such a victimless crime, yet the laws against fornication
are strict, and Angelo, who believes himself impervious to sexual temptation, sees
Claudio as a hardened sinner, whose execution will send a loud message to
Viennas other sex-offenders. Even the condemned man accepts the punishment
in principle: yet still tis just (1.2.103) he admits (perhaps ironically), objecting
only to the laws uneven enforcement. Had fornication always been strictly
punished, he complains, he would likely have found it easier to avoid.
His sister Isabella, who is about to enter a convent, hurries to plead with
Angelo to spare her brother, although in her heart she agrees with Angelo that
laws must be enforced. So warmly does she invite Angelo to recognize her
brothers fault in himself that in the love-starved magistrate she arouses feelings
of desirefor Isabella!
Suddenly, Angelo is a fallen angel, who discovers that he is for the first
time vulnerable to lust. If Angelo had known himself better he might now be able
to deal honestly with his attraction to Isabella, but overwhelmed with a sudden
sense of sin he swings to the extremes of depravity and tries to force her to


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comply with his sinful desires. This is a far worse violation of the moral law than
was Juliets premature pregnancy. Claudio and Juliet were guilty of no more than
what millions of other lovers have done since time began, including, probably,
Shakespeare himself and Anne Arden, parents a scant six months after obtaining a
marriage license.7 Perhaps the laws of Vienna (and England) should have been
amended to exempt such victimless crimes (which dont bother us today in the
least) yet if a line must be drawn somewhere between fornication and licit sex,
where is there a clearer line than the performance of a wedding ceremony in
Without his understandable wish to collect a promised dowry, Claudio
might not have delayed the wedding. Without a young mans natural impatience
to sleep with his future wife, he might not now be condemned to die. If Isabella
had not been sent to plead for her brothers life, she would never have faced the
choicedreadful to herof losing her brother or her chastity, nor would Angelo
ever have been tempted to commit rape. Now, by insensible stages, they have all
been ensnared in sexual sin far blacker than the initial one of premarital sex. For
human reasons all of these characters have wandered into a perplexing morass
of deeper and deeper guilt, all precipitated by Claudios and Juliets apparently
victimless crime.
Yet the duke, having turned law enforcement over to Angelo, does not
intervene. In his guise of a holy friar he exhorts Claudio to resignation, delivering
his great contemptio mundi sermon, Be absolute for death (3.1.5-41) which I
have already quoted. It has an apparently good effect, as Claudio declares himself
truly penitent and prepared to atone for his sin: I humbly thank you. To sue to
live, I find I seek to die, And seeking death, find life. Let it come on. (41-3) Yet
a moment later his resignation is undone when Isabella arrives with news of
Angelos indecent proposal, which Claudio urges her to accept.
Virtue is so absolute! What a little thing it would be for Isabella to give in
to Angelo and earn a martyrs crown, if only her conscience did not regard it as a
mortal sin.8 By what she regards as a sure loss of her own salvation, Isabella
could spare Claudio the worldly consequences of his sin. But when he jumps at

Chapter Seven: Duke Vincentio Plays God in Measure for Measure


the chance to sacrifice his sister to save himself, he demonstrates that his brief
resignation was the result not of repentance but merely of despair:

CLAUDIO Sweet sister, let me live.

What sin you do to save a brothers life,
Nature dispenses with the deed so far
That it becomes a virtue. (3.1.134-7)
I suspect that even a modern audience, one that puts a far lower price on
virginity than does Isabella, will be shocked that Claudio, who has just accepted
the justice of his punishment, is now proposing to shift that punishment to his
innocent sister. Equally shocking, though, is the degree of Isabellas horror at her
brothers desperate suggestion:

ISABELLA O, you beast!

O faithless coward, O dishonest wretch,
Wilt thou be made a man out of my vice?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Take my defiance,
Die, perish!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Thy sins not accidental, but a trade.
Mercy to thee would prove itself a bawd.
Tis best that thou diest quickly. (3.1.137-53)
Isabella has the right of this argument, if only because (though she doesnt
foresee this) Angelo plans to renege on his side of the bargain and execute
Claudio after enjoying her. But the violence of her attack on her crazed and
helpless brother reflects badly on her own supposed sanctity. We can understand
the depth of Isabellas shock and indignation, since she equates chastity with
salvation. And yet her words are as excessive as his. Appalled at his suggestion,
she slanders him as a hardened sinner, when he is just a frightened boy. If her
virginity were truly a sign of grace she would not deny her brothers access to
spiritual forgiveness, whatever his faults.


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Grace comes, instead, when suddenly Duke Vincentio dreams up a

wonderful plan to satisfy Angelo and simultaneously to save her virtue. This is
the infamous bed trick, where a lady previously jilted by Angelo will replace
Isabella in his bed.

[DUKE] To the love I have in doing good, a remedy presents itself. I do

make myself believe that you may most uprighteously do a poor wronged
lady a merited benefit, redeem your brother from the angry law, do no stain
to your own gracious person, and much please the absent Duke, if
peradventure he shall ever return to have hearing of this business. (196-202)
The duke here is playing a shockingly arbitrary God, proposing to remedy
Angelos crime with the very sin for which Claudio was condemned to death.
Not squeamish about committing fraud, Vincentio also does not hesitate to suborn
Mariana to fornication, with Isabella as his accomplice! But for the dukeand
apparently Shakespeare agreesthere is such a thing as a good deception.
If Isabella, say, had come up with the bed-trick, and had successfully
executed it, we would probably enjoy the tit-for-tat, measure-for-measure justice
of its result. But is tricking Angelo into bed a good way for the civil magistrate to
deal with sexual sin? Shouldnt the duke, rather, as Gods appointed delegate, be
above such shady maneuvers as trickery and pandering? Shouldnt he simply stop
Angelos abuses and throw the wretch in jail, where he surely belongs? Like the
duke, we in the audience are asked to play God ourselves, and to judge whether
his motives and methods are virtuous and wise. Many in the audience will
doubtless think he is worse than Angeloa shady figure, a Duke of dark
corners (4.3.147) as Lucio calls him.9
If the duke, like Angelo, is suborning fornication, how can he escape
censure? Even though he thinks his motives godly, he may be self-deceived, just
as Angelo was when he sentenced Claudio to death. How can the duke (or we) be
sure that he is himself free from sinful motives?
At least one character, the dissolute Lucio, claims that the duke is well
acquainted with drunkenness and lechery in his own person, and has been
merciful toward these faults in others only because he shares them:

Chapter Seven: Duke Vincentio Plays God in Measure for Measure


[LUCIO] Ere he would have hanged a man for the getting a hundred
bastards, he would have paid for the nursing a thousand. He had some
feeling of the sport; he knew the service, and that instructed him to mercy.
DUKE I never heard the absent Duke much detected for women. He was
not inclined that way.
LUCIO O, sir, you are deceived.
DUKE Tis not possible.
LUCIO Who, not the Duke? Yes, your beggar of fifty; and his use was to
put a ducat in her clack-dish. The Duke had crotchets in him. He would be
drunk too, that let me inform you.
DUKE You do him wrong, surely.
LUCIO Sir, I was an inward of his. (3.1.360-72)
Here Lucio claims to be the dukes intimate, but Vincentio has no inkling
who he is (cf. line 395), and a minute later the good magistrate Escalus refutes his

[DUKE] I pray you, sir, of what disposition was the Duke?

ESCALUS One that, above all other strifes, contended
Especially to know himself.
DUKE What pleasure was he given to?
ESCALUS Rather rejoicing to see another merry than merry at anything
which professed to make him rejoice; a gentleman of all temperance. (45561)
This scene provides a good opportunity for us to weigh conflicting testimony, and
clearly it is Escalus who knows the duke personally, while Lucio does not.
Neither mans testimony can excuse the duke for what bothers us most
deeply about him, however, which is his potential for hubris, a problem Vincentio
addresses directly, in a second soliloquy:

DUKE He who the sword of heaven will bear

Should be as holy as severe,
Pattern in himself to know,
Grace to stand, and virtue go,
More nor less to others paying
Than by self-offenses weighing.
Shame to him whose cruel striking
Kills for faults of his own liking!
Twice treble shame on Angelo,


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To weed my vice, and let his grow!
O, what may man within him hide,
Though angel on the outward side!
How may likeness made in crimes
Make my practice on the times
To draw with idle spiders strings
Most ponderous and substantial things?
Craft against vice I must apply.
With Angelo tonight shall lie
His old betrothd but despisd.
So disguise shall, by th disguisd,
Pay with falsehood false exacting,
And perform an old contracting. (481-502)
Here the duke lay outs what seems to many the central problem with the

play, which is none other than the question that King James addresses in Basilikon
Doron: if it is the rulers absolute duty to regulate the health of his realm, what
limits should be imposed on his methods other than those his conscience imposes?
True, many a ruler will transgress, but for those awaits a confrontation with God
like the one awaiting Angelo with the duke. In the dukes view, any means are
permissible if the ends are godly, even deceit or the suborning of sexual sin. And,
just to make sure we get the message, he repeats the argument in the next scene,
after he and Isabella have secured Marianas cooperation in the bed trick:

DUKE Nor, gentle daughter, fear you not at all.

He is your husband on a pre-contract.
To bring you thus together tis no sin,
Sith that the justice of your title to him
Doth flourish the deceit. Come, let us go.
Our corns to reap, for yet our tilths to sow. (4.1.67-72)
Justice, the duke asserts, is in this case compatible with deceit. Longsuffering Mariana endorses this plan, just as the saintly Isabella had earlier done:

DUKE the doubleness of the benefit defends the

deceit from reproof. What think you of it?
ISABELLA The image of it gives me content already,
and I trust it will grow to a most prosperous perfection. (3.1.247-50)

Chapter Seven: Duke Vincentio Plays God in Measure for Measure


This is a sort of Christian Machiavellianism, if such an oxymoron is

possible. Deceit in a good cause is lawful, the duke asserts, and lovers who are
joined in a pre-contract are not fornicators.10

But this latitude of good intent

did not exempt Claudio and Juliet, who did no more than Angelo and Mariana
will do, and did without one tricking the other into bed. The difference seems to
rest entirely on results, on the good or bad effects that will flow from the crime
itself. No matter how small was Claudios and Juliets crime, it broke the law and
contributed to the laxness of sexual conduct in Vienna, while the same behavior in
Angelo and Mariana will be a means to a homeopathic cure of sexual sin.
Who is to make these subtle discriminations? In borderline cases at least,
crime is in the eyes of the judge: unlike Angelo, who was categorical, the duke is
willing to see that circumstances alter cases. But who is it that judges the dukes
plot and finds it to be godly?

Why, none other than the duke himself,

soliloquizing not so much to work the issue out for himselfhis speech has none
of the tentative, groping quality of thinking-through that we find in Hamlets
soliloquiesas to speak as the playwrights mouthpiece. Or so it seems.
Yet the price of such virtuous manipulation of others is isolation from

DUKE O place and greatness, millions of false eyes

Are stuck upon thee; volumes of report
Run with these false and most contrarious quests
Upon thy doings; thousand escapes of wit
Make thee the father of their idle dream,
And rack thee in their fancies. (4.1.56-61)
Its lonely at the top, mourns the duke! Like God, there can be only one of
him. If only there were someone fit to be his consort! We Americans, with our
settled distrust of authority, have trouble accepting the dukes complaints as
anything but the self-pity of an authority figure who is addicted to control, and
used to having his own way.

If Angelo is to be condemned for abusing his

authority, so must the duke be as well.


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But in this play at least, perhaps out of a wish to flatter his new king,

Shakespeare implicitly argues that a dramatic genius like the duke is necessary, or
at least desirable, in an office that bears such a heavy responsibility as that of
absolute monarch. Not only that, but king is just man writ large: we all
would benefit from some of Vincentios ability to deal with morally complex
situations by using dramatic skills. Seeing the world as a stage, Shakespeare sees
the arts of theatrical plotting and acting as prime examples of our human power to
shape our own destiny. Sometimes we do play God, and if our motives are godly
we deserve to succeed!
Granted, such a plot takes enormous risks of miscarrying in some wayit
is dangerous to play God, for God will judge us not by our good intentions
alone, but also by whether we are doing his sometimes inscrutable will, and doing
it effectively. Our motives must be good, but so too must be our results! Still, the
play seems to assert that only by resorting to such dramatic skills can some moral
problems be resolved. Often we flawed, fallible human beings have to be tricked
into doing the right thing.
After the bed-trick occurs (decorously offstage) the duke, lacking Gods
ability to see the future, confidently expects a good result. So steeped by now in
villainy is Angelo, however, that he refuses to honor his promise to excuse
Isabellas brother in return for her submission: why tarnish his reputation as a
severe judge, and also leave Claudio alive as a potential enemy? Isabella will
surely be too ashamed to complain publicly, and if she does . . . well, who will
believe her? Accordingly, the jailer receives the order to hang Claudio and then
send Angelo the head as proof.
The bed-trick, though it demonstrates the full extent of Angelos
depravity, has availed nothing for his victims. The duke must now improvise a
further plan to save Claudio, namely to send the head of another prisoner as a
substitute. The condemned man will not cooperate, however, and refuses to bail
out Claudio by dying in his stead:

Chapter Seven: Duke Vincentio Plays God in Measure for Measure


DUKE [to BARNARDINE] Sir, induced by my charity, and hearing how

hastily you are to depart, I am come to advise you, comfort you, and pray
with you.
BARNARDINE Friar, not I. I have been drinking hard all night, and I will
have more time to prepare me, or they shall beat out my brains with billets. I
will not consent to die this day, thats certain. (4.3.43-9)
The fineness of the dukes moral perception is illustrated in this unwillingness to
let Barnardine die, even to further his own merciful plans for Claudio:

PROVOST Now, sir, how do you find the prisoner?

DUKE A creature unprepared, unmeet for death;
And to transport him in the mind he is
Were damnable. (58-61)
Luckily, a second prisoner has died at just the right moment. His head
will do as a surrogate for Claudios! Such a happy accident was beyond the
dukes powers to arrange without committing murder, but clearly he is being
helped by a divine or human playwright in his attempt to solve his own and
others problems. O, tis an accident that heaven provides.(69) as the duke
rightly observesimplying that Ragozines opportune death shows that
Vincentios plan meets with divine approval.
At times Shakespeares God works in mysterious ways to keep his sinful
creatures from wrecking the worlds moral equilibrium, and the duke his agent
must sometimes also use secrecy, indirection, and even deceit. Although he shares
his plans with us, the duke intends to keep Isabella in the dark a while yet:

DUKE Isabel. Shes come to know

If yet her brothers pardon be come hither;
But I will keep her ignorant of her good,
To make her heavenly comforts of despair
When it is least expected. (4.3.99-103)
Give your cause to heaven, he advises her (4.3.116), and directs her to plead her
just cause before the duke.


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Thanks to a soliloquy (4.4.19-33) we learn how tortured Angelo is by his

black sinsincluding, as he believes, Claudios murderso that we may see his

subsequent pose of outraged rectitude as the flagrant hypocrisy it is. Yet he is
conflictedwracked with regret and remorse, yet unable to repent. Even if an
audience does not consciously think about it, the plot of this play is taking on a
strong resemblance to the Christian arch-narrative of temptation and fall.
This is not to say that the play is allegorical, or that it dramatizes
personified abstractions, like Sin, Justice, and Mercy. Angelo, Isabella, and even
Duke Vincentio are all flesh-and-blood human beings who are undergoing
extreme, painful experiences, and in the process learning profound lessons about
themselves and the world. Not allegory but typologythe habit of finding the
patterns of biblical history replicated in later events, including contemporary
historyis the habit of mind that the plot of Measure for Measure, with its
constant biblical echoes, exemplifies.
In the course of the play Angelo, Isabella, and even the duke learn that
they are, inevitably, actors and role-players. Only in understanding and accepting
the fact that the world is a stage can their problems, and Viennas, be solved.
Isabella, coached by Lucio, learns that to influence Angelo she has to identify
with his situation and evoke in him a sense of his own masculine propensity to
carnal desire.

Unwittingly, she also expresses some of her own repressed

eroticism, evoking in Angelo a response more direct and powerful than she ever
intended. Angelo in that same scene (2.2) acknowledges that he has learned a
terrible truth about himselfthat he is like other passion-driven menand
thereby recognizes that he has all along merely impersonated an angel.


compass his sinful plan, moreover, he becomes a conscious hypocrite, acting a

part in order to force Isabella into bed. But duplicity is a very common human
trait, and if given a chance to repent the evil he has tried to commit, Angelo might
learn to play a humbler role than that of incorruptible virtue. Having learned that
he is an actor on the stage of life, Angelo may adapt and change.
The duke, too, becomes a reluctant role-player only after failing in his plan
to rule Vienna by straightforward precept and example. His first plan was merely

Chapter Seven: Duke Vincentio Plays God in Measure for Measure


to disguise himself as an onlooker, but soon he is meddling in the lives of all of

the other principals: consoling Claudio, counseling Isabella, coaching Mariana,
spying on Lucio, and setting a trap for Angelo. When all his plots come to a
crisis, he is forced despite his reluctance to stage himself - onstage in an
elaborate pageant, in which all of the plays victims and villains are invited, or
compelled, to perform in front of the people of Vienna. In the process, of course,
the duke stages himself in an elaborate and instructive way that makes clear how
utterly he has abandoned his earlier resolve to live retired from the public eye and
to avoid putting on a show. By Act 5 the duke has learned that a ruler must act
in both senses of action and actingand so he has learned that good statecraft
includes, and often consists of, effective theater.
When at the start of Act 5 the duke returns to Vienna, Isabella, as earlier
instructed by the duke, immediately calls out against her persecutor. Although the
duke purports to disbelieve her eloquent denunciation of the devil, (5.1.29)
Angelo, he permits her to tell her story. Her story, however, includes the lie that
I did yield to him. (101)and the duke, pretending to side with his cousin
(164, 251) orders Isabella arrested.
Next Mariana testifies that it was she, not Isabella, whom Angelo had
carnal knowledge of. To resolve this conflict of testimony the duke orders Friar
Lodowick sent for, leaving Angelo to sort the matter out: be you judge Of your
own cause. (165-6) He departs, only to return twenty-two lines later disguised
as the friar.
Once again in disguise, the duke supports Isabellas and Marianas story,
and goes on to denounce the absent duke for delegating judgement to his
ministers, in effect accusing himself of permitting the corruption currently
rampant in Vienna (310-6). This Escalus calls slander to th state! (317) and
Lucio denounces the friar for having spread the very slanders that he, Lucio, has
in fact made.
But Satan, they say, is necessary to bring about Gods providential plan,
and here it is Lucio (whose name suggests Lucifer) who just as the disguised
duke is about to be carted off to prison throws back the friars hood and reveals


The Worlds A Stage

his true identity to the assembled crowd. Seeing that the duke knows like power
divine (361) the full extent of his villainy, Angelo at once confesses and pleads
only for a quick death. Instead, however, the duke insists that he marry Mariana
at once.
Tested, Angelo has revealed himself to be a sinner, although his
subsequent confession gives some hope of amendment. Next Isabella is tested
when the newly married Angelo is brought back on stage and sentenced to die for
the supposed judicial murder of Claudio.

But Mariana begs for her new

husbands life, and implores Isabella to plead with her:

Sweet Isabel, do yet but kneel by me.
Hold up your hands; say nothing; Ill speak all.
They say best men are moulded out of faults,
And, for the most, become much more the better
For being a little bad. So may my husband.
O Isabel, will you not lend a knee? (428-34)
It surely must be agonizing to be asked to pardon her brothers murderer.
Yet after hesitating Isabella kneels too and begs with Mariana for Angelos life.
The duke does not relent, however, and Angelo says that he in any case prefers
death to mercy:

ANGELO I am sorry that such sorrow I procure,

And so deep sticks it in my penitent heart
That I crave death more willingly than mercy.
Tis my deserving, and I do entreat it. (468-71)
In not seeking to escape his punishment, Angelo shows that his contrition is no
mere act, but is deeply felt.
As if to signal his merciful intent, the duke pardons the unrepentant
Barnardine, then pulls a rabbit out of his hat as the Provost (i.e. jailer) uncovers
Claudio, restored to Isabella by a final coup de thatre. And to this gift he joins
an abrupt and unforeseen marriage proposal:

Chapter Seven: Duke Vincentio Plays God in Measure for Measure


DUKE [to ISABELLA] If he be like your brother, for his sake

Is he pardoned; and for your lovely sake
Give me your hand, and say you will be mine. (484-6)
Up to this point, certainly, the duke has acted as Gods substitute on earth
in nicely blending justice with mercy. But nothing has more baffled and annoyed
some critics of Measure for Measure than the dukes sudden joining of the marital
dance, which seems both to discredit his earlier disinterested, superior stance and
to dishonor Isabellas sincere commitment to her religious vocation. Nor does her
silence in response do anything to clear up Shakespeares intentions on this point,
although the dukes next line[Claudio] is my brother too. But fitter time for
thatsuggests that he sees Isabella as too dumbfounded to react at all. In
admonishing Angelo to love his wife, the duke reveals that he has discovered in
himself the same weakness that Angelo displayedattraction to IsabellaI find
an apt remission in myself. (492) His offer to Isabellawhether she ultimately
accepts or notperhaps indicates that he is ready to rejoin the human race and
give up playing God.
If this play were written with one eye to interesting King James, then the
final punishment meted out by the duke is also one likely to please an insecure
monarch. When it is Lucios turn to be sentenced, the duke threatens not to
temper justice with mercy in his case, for slandering the ruler is a blow against the
Lucio, who had earlier boasted of having fathered a child by a prostitute,
is sentenced to marry the woman, a punishment he purports to find excessively

LUCIO Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and

DUKE Slandering a prince deserves it. [Exit LUCIO guarded] (515-17)
But the duke also practices mercy toward Lucio by remitting the whipping and
hanging. Lucio, like the other principals in this play, is sentenced to marriage.


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Marriage to a punk may seem like a strange punishment to mete out to

the slanderous Lucio, but again it is remarkably consistent with the dukes goal of
reforming Viennas sexual abuses.

The duke forgives Lucios crimes against

himself, but insists on his honoring his precontract commitment to the woman
he got with child. If every man caught with a prostitute were forced to marry her,
it would not take long to reduce the number of men resorting to hired sex. The
bachelors would be driven out of the market, while the married men would at
least be saddled with child-support and alimony, as well as with public shame.
Implicitly, the duke here seems to anticipate the feminist position of today,
which sees the real crime of prostitution as committed not by the women who sell
their bodies, but by their customers who prefer loveless sex to that available to
them through mutuality and commitment. Sex within a loving marriage is what
the duke has contrived to bring about for Claudio and Juliet, and (it is to be
hoped) for Angelo and Mariana as well. Lucio and his prostitute will likely not
fare so well, but it is, if not a lucky exchange for whipping and hanging, at least
poetic justice.

Like Gilbert & Sullivans Mikado, the duke has made the

punishment fit the crime.11

And, finally, the duke has himself learned something from his elaborate
contrivance of plot, role-play, disguise, and pageantry: he too is a man in want of
a wife. Apparently Duke Vincentio, in handling Isabella, has experienced
something like what Angelo felt when he found himself attracted to her beauty
and goodness. Unlike Angelo, however, the duke has been able to control his
passion until the moment when he can declare it in an upright way.
Like the God of the New Testament descending to merge with his
creatures humanity in the incarnation, Vincentio recognizes that in order to rule
his subjects effectively he must acknowledge the common human flesh that he
shares with them. He started the play boasting to Friar Peter that the dribbling
dart of love Can[not] pierce a complete bosom (1.3.2-3) such as his own. But
now he acknowledges that he too has learned to love:

Chapter Seven: Duke Vincentio Plays God in Measure for Measure


[DUKE] Dear Isabel,

I have a motion much imports your good,
Whereto, if youll a willing ear incline,
Whats mine is yours, and what is yours is mine. (527-30)
These are not words of passion, which would in any case be indecorous in
a public place, and inappropriate when spoken to a young woman who has as yet
given no sign that she would welcome such a declaration. That he is attracted by
her character as much as her beauty is clear, and when he speaks of what is
yours is mine, he is not speaking of any dowry but of gifts of spirit that will be
assets to him as a man and as a prince.
Having learned how to love, the duke has also learned how to govern his
people effectively. To the inner qualities of virtue, justice, and mercy that he
already possessed, he has added the skill of staging those qualities before an
audience of his subjects, and of using skills of acting, directing, and playwriting to
intervene with public life when pageantry is not enough. In staging the dramas of
rulership in terms often explicitly theatrical, Shakespeare showed that he was
keenly aware of the correspondences between the Globe theater and the great
globe itself.
However skilled a ruler may be at the theatrical arts, the ambition to play
God rests on an ability to hold opposing paradigmstheocentric and
anthropocentricsimultaneously in belief. Without a new humanistic faith in the
nearly limitless powers of human beings to control our own destinies through art,
skill, and knowledge, there would be no hope of taking control of our own lives.
And without a sense of a divinity and a providential plan, there would be no faith
that the play in which we are all actors is ultimately a divine comedy. Only
because Shakespeare held both world-views could he write the plays that so fully
embody, and vindicate, the dramatic view of life.
If wisdom is a matter of moral and political precepts, writes Jonathan
Bate, we can certainly find plenty of it in the plays.
Measure for Measure make[s] us think about the conflicting demands of
mercy and justice. But matter of this kind was usually derived by


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Shakespeare from his own sources. He was not a moral philosopher or a
deliverer of homilies. His interest was in dramatizing matter and if there
is a principal moral to be drawn from his work it is the one which
follows from his mastery of dramatic formthat any position may be
answered by a counter-position and that actions are worth more attention
than opinions. (159.)

We can go one step further and point out that for Shakespeare all the world is a
stage, with God and man contending for the role of playwright. By doing Gods
work the duke becomes Gods surrogate and is enabled, with help from above, to
play God.
This is not to say, however, that he is an appealing figure, any more than
the tricky, obscure, and frequently arbitrary God of the Protestant Reformation
appeals to us. On the whole, posterity has not loved the duke, who bends his own
rules to bring about an ending that, except for Claudio, may not be entirely happy,
and who relies, moreover, on a Higher Power to save his plots from miscarrying.
As to the Duke, Hazlitt comments,
who makes a very imposing and mysterious stage-character, he is more
absorbed in his own plots and gravity than anxious for the welfare of the
state; more tenacious of his own character than attentive to the feelings
and apprehensions of others. (Eccles, 396)
And Coleridge, calling the whole play painful, writes that

the comic and tragic parts equally border on the hateful, the one
disgusting, the other horrible; and the pardon and marriage of Angelo not
merely baffles the strong indignant claim of justice (for cruelty, with lust
and damnable baseness cannot be forgiven, because we cannot conceive
them as being morally repented of) but it is likewise degrading to the
character of woman. (Eccles, 396-7)
Refusing to see the duke as a public figure facing a difficult problem of
statecraft, most critics have criticized Vincentio as being passionless, while at the
same time he is inordinately vain, concerned not for his subjects but for his own

Chapter Seven: Duke Vincentio Plays God in Measure for Measure


Unless we buy into his beliefradical in his own day, outmoded in our
ownthat he is Gods earthly double, answerable to Him and to no one else for
the welfare of his subjects, we will have a hard time seeing the duke as other than
a monster of self-regard and manipulation. And yet he fixestemporarily, at
leastthe sins and crimes of the libidinous Viennese by means of what might be
called the marriage cure, and without shedding a drop of blood. Claudios life
and Isabellas virtue are spared, Juliet and Marianne get the husbands they desire,
Juliets baby gets a name, Lucio is forced to pay for his sexual transgressions
while an unnamed prostitute is given a name and a new lease on life, Isabella is
given a chance to benefit humanity and the duke is humanized by the love of a
good woman. The worst that can be said for this ending is that the duke never
seems to acknowledge how much luck he needed to bring it off. To him, perhaps,
the godliness of the plan makes its providential success almost a matter of course.
A character who emulates God is a difficult one to make human and
dramatically interesting.

Shakespeares success with Henry V involved the

development of the black sheep into the shining champion, while the shadow
hanging over Henrys right to the throne lent a lurking nemesis to his entire story.
After Measure for Measure Shakespeare continued to write comedies that stressed
the role of providence or divine grace in the production of a happy ending, but
only in The Tempest did he return to the godlike protagonist, and in that play he
was careful to humanize Prospero with failures and a recognition of the
presumption implicit in playing God.


Briggs, 249. The poem is a prefatory sonnet to Jamess treatise on divine right,
Basilikon Doron, quoted in Goldberg, 26-7.

Sunday, The Eight of February [1601], about ten of the clock before noon, Robert
Devereux Earl of Essex, assisted by sundry Noblemen and Gentlemen in warlike manner
entered the City of London at the Temple Bar, crying for the Queen. The rising failed,
and Essex yielded to arrest the same day.
Ash Wednesday, the five and twenty of February, the Earl of Essex was
beheaded in the Tower. . . . The Hangman was beaten as he returned thence, so that the
Sheriffs of London were sent for, to assist and rescue him from such as would have


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murdered him. (Shakespeare, Norton, 3383, quoting John Stows Abridgement of the
English Chronicle [1618]).

Preserved at the [Heralds] College are two rough drafts of a document, dated 20
October 1596 and prepared by Sir William Dethick, Garter King-of-Arms, granting the
request of John Shakespeare [William Shakespeares father] for a coat of arms. The
applicant had to show that he had the right to an escutcheon, but the Heralds College,
which subsisted on fees, could usually be trusted to find a connection with nobility or
gentry if the candidate could fund a sufficiently diligent search. (Schoenbaum, p. 228)

On 8 September 1601 John Shakespeare was buried in the churchyard of Holy Trinity
[the parish church at Stratford]. William Shakespeares only son, Hamnet, was buried on
11 August, 1596, also in Stratford. He was eleven and a half years old. (Schoenbaum, pp.
240; 224.)

King James himself was reputed to be a closet pederast. Robert Carr, the, Earl of
Somerset, and George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, were the sweete boyes whom
James gave rank and preferment because of their beauty and affectionate behavior toward
himfondling, kissing on the mouthled others to surmise that more was going on in
private. Cf. Goldberg, pp. 143-6.

Katherine Eisaman Maus rejects the idea that a ruler who emulates God might be
intended by Shakespeare to compliment the diffident King James. Rather, she finds no
better way to account for his deceptive meddling than to suggest that the duke makes
less sense as a psychologically realistic portrait than he does in terms of the functions the
plot requires him to serve.(Shakespeare, Norton, 2027) Such can be said, however, of
any of the principals in the play. Isabellas fanatical attachment to her virginity, Angelos
unprepared conversion from virtue to vice, even Lucios motiveless scurrility can all be
ignored if we posit that the play tells its strange and twisted story without trying to
account for its characters motivations.
But Duke Vincentioonstage more than any other characteris important to the play,
and cannot be so lightly dismissed. A comparison with his role in Shakespeares sources
shows that he is vastly more important in the play, and some attempt must be made to
understand his character and motivation. In none of Shakespeares sources is the ruler
variously an emperor, king, or dukethe central character. Duke Vincentios plan to
observe Angelo, his elaborate scheme to save Claudios life and Isabellas chastity, his
disguise, and his miraculous exposure of the miscreant, are all additions to his sources.
(See Shakespeare, The Complete Works, A-32 & 33.)
Plot is, as Aristotle observed, the soul of drama, but a good plot requires characters
whose actions are credibly motivated. Playing God may not be an attractive motivation,
but for better or worse it seems to be Duke Vincentios.

No record exists of eighteen year old William Shakespeares marriage to Anne

Hathaway (twenty-six at the time, if the inscription on her gravestone is correct), but a
license to omit reading the marriage banns was obtained from the Church consistory
court in Worcester on 27 November, 1582. Such a license would be necessary for a
couple to wed during the Christmas season (2 December to 13 January in 1582), when
reading the banns was prohibited. The christening of their daughter Suzanna on 27 May,
1583 suggests the reason for their haste in holding the wedding. (Schoenbaum, 77; 93)

Chapter Seven: Duke Vincentio Plays God in Measure for Measure


Is she right? Church authorities agreed with the desperate Claudio that being forced to
have sex was no sin, but Isabella is honestly not so sure that she is being forced, since she
can refuse Angelos offer. To hope to be exonerated of a sin she can avoid committing
seems to Isabella a poor way to inaugurate a holy vocation as a nun. For us to deny her
the value she imputes to virginity just because we dont share it seems uncharitable and
unwise, especially since Shakespeare and his age generally set this high value on an
unwed womans virtue.
Apart from all religious scruples, a woman who went to bed with a judge in order
to bribe him would be irreparably ruined in the eyes of Shakespeares contemporaries,
though compassion might leave further punishment to God. And for Isabel there is no
hope of hiding her shame from her all-seeing God. At the least she would have to give
up all hope of a religious life, and if her secret became public she might have to support
herself by prostitution. Claudio is therefore asking a great deal of his sister when he asks
her to sacrifice her life to save his, and (in her eyes, at least) her hope of salvation as well.
Would Shakespeare, and his audience, also find fault with Isabella? Be fruitful and
multiply is a religious injunction that Protestants took especially seriously, and
Shakespeare everywhere seems to celebrate marriage and procreation. On these grounds,
Protestant reformers not only ended clerical celibacy but also closed down the celibate
religious orders. As though to underline the unnaturalness of Isabellas ambition to lead a
life of sexual abstinence, Shakespeare has her repulse Angelos hypothetical question
What would you do? in sadomasochistic imagery that suggests erotic perversion:
[ISABELLA] were I under the terms of death,
Thimpression of keen whips Id wear as rubies,
And strip myself to death as to a bed
That longing have been sick for, ere Id yield
My body up to shame. (2.4.100-4)
Isabella is a vital, passionate woman who seeks out the cloister not as a refuge from the
world, but as a home where she can live a life of religious service to God and mankind.
But Shakespeare suggests that she pays for denying her sexual nature with perverse or
excessive feelings.

Joseph Mantegna, who played Dean Martin in a film called The Rat Pack (HBO,
1998) quoted the singers ex-wife as having said something to this effect: I met Dean
Martin, it was love at first sight, I knew nothing about him. We were married for twentythree years, we got divorced, and I still dont know anything about him (Fresh Air with
Terry Gross, National Public Radio, 19 August 1998). Public figures who aim at
greatness often attempt to achieve control by maintaining a deep personal reserve. God,
too, has the reputation of having mysterious ways.

Angelo and Mariana were once engaged to be married. Angelo refused to marry her
when a promised dowry was not paid. (Cf. 3.1.210-24) Vincentio who knew these facts
and previously did nothing about them, now considers the engagement still in force and a
license for doing precisely what Claudio and Juliet stand condemned to death for having


Henry V generously pardoned a man that railed against our person (HV 2.2.41) but
Lucios slander is far more systematic and deliberate than a single drunken act, and


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would if left unchecked prove far more damaging to the dukes deserved reputation for


Thanks to the heroic efforts of the late Sam Wanamaker and others, a new
Globe Theatre stands on the south bank of the river Thames, where any tourist
with a bit of money and the foresight to book ahead can now see a Shakespeare
play in a theater nearly identical to the one for which it was written.1 But although
the idea of witnessing Shakespearean performances under conditions as close as
possible to those of four hundred years ago is thrilling, the reality of the actual
experience is a chastening one, as a companion and I discovered a few summers
Perhaps Vanessa Redgrave felt overwhelmed by the challenge of playing
the male lead, but from where we sat it was impossible to tell whether her
performance was tranquilized, or simply too subtle and nuanced to reach us high
in the upper gallery. The stage below us was partly obscured by the overhanging
canopy that protected the actors, but not the audience, from intermittent showers,
while those not sitting in shadow needed visors when the sun came out. At that
distance Redgrave was hard to see and also difficult to hear, even when aircraft
were not roaring overhead.
Had they been able to sit, those in the pit would have had the best seats in the
housebut since groundlings stood in Shakespeares day they do so too in the new
Globe. Luckily for these slumping, leaning, posture-shifting standees there was one
enthralling character who could distract them from their aching feet. This was the
irrepressible Caliban, who capered among them, cuffing and shoving whoever got in
his way. He sprayed some with saliva, others with the shaken contents of a beer-can
cadged from an unwary patron, but they seemed to love it.


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Those of us safely out of his way also found Calibans performance

wonderfully audible and visible. He was comic in the disruptive, carnevalesque

way I associate with street theater and fraternity parties. He was the dynamo who
electrified this at times talky play, and who captured our hearts as he must have
done in Shakespeares day too. For that audience, at least, Caliban ruled!
Which is not to say that we entirely liked or admired him. Unlike the noble
savages of Montaignes essay On Cannibals, from whom he draws his name but
not his character, Caliban is a creature of ungoverned emotion and limited
intelligence, a stunted soul who can barely master the rudiments of being human,
and who therefore adopts only the most debased aspects of civilized culture.2 Hatred
and the other ugly passions are his birthright; he easily masters boozing and cursing,
groveling and cringing; but kindness, gentleness, sympathy, and self-restraint are
beyond him.
The arrival of new visitors to the island gives Caliban hopenot for freedom
but simply for revenge. He promises Stefano, in return for killing Prospero, to
become his slave, not knowing that the drunken servant has far worse plans for him
than anything Prospero has done. Calibans anger at his enslavement is one with
which we can easily sympathize, though his servility toward Stefano shows him to
be less than a freedom-fighter. Moreover, if he had been able to learn how to behave
in civilized society he never would have found himself enslaved in the first place
Prospero remembers treating him like a member of the family, until Caliban proved
unable to learn the rules of civilized behavior.
Civility is not innate, as Caliban demonstrates, but neither is it
automatically acquired by those who have been raised in civilized conditions, as
the plays several villains demonstrate. In one scene (2.2) Caliban meets lowerclass Trinculo and Stephano, whom he superstitiously worships as a new god,
while they make plans to sell Caliban down the river. In the preceding scene
high-born Antonio and Sebastian try to murder Duke Alonzo in his sleep,
prevented only by Ariels intervention, at Prosperos behest. Base and miscreant
natures are found in men of all ranks, the highest as well as the lowest, and
Prospero presides over their unmasking.

Chapter Eight: The Tempest and its Afterlife


Men worthy of command are also found at every level of society, as we

see in the plays opening scene, where the Boatswain directs the ships efforts not
to founder in a storm. This sailormerely one step up from a common seaman
offends several of the royal and noble passengers by his assertion of authority
while the storm rages. But as he explains to Gonzalo:
You are a councillor; if you can command these elements to
silence and work peace of the present, we will not hand a rope more. Use
your authority. If you cannot, give thanks you have lived so long and
make yourself ready in your cabin for the mischance of the hour, if it so
hap. . . . Out of our way, I say! (1.1.18-24)
In an emergency the normal hierarchy must yield to the authority of the person
best equipped to deal with ita social upheaval the nobles find as threatening as
the physical threat of the storm.
Caliban, too, claims that his authority over the island has been usurped by
Prospero, even as Prospero has been deposed by his brother:

[CALIBAN:] I am all the subjects that you have,

Which first was mine own king, and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest oth island. (1.2.344-7)
There is a degree of resemblance between Calibans circumstances and
Prosperos, both displaced rulers of their native lands. The parallelism is not
exact, however, for alone on his island Caliban ruled no one, but merely
subsisted on the natural environment, while Prospero was a legitimate ruler
playing a role defined by a system of laws. Civilization, which is the application
of the human mind to remedying, as far as possible, our natural defects creates the
need for organization and thus for hierarchy, and Calibans inability to master any
but the lowest role condemns him to the bottom rung of the ladder.
Lacking human companionship he was innocent of all society, and thus
scarcely human himself. Now, having failed to master any better one, his only
choice of civilized role is between being a faithful servant and a perpetual


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malcontent. He chooses the latter, and as such his purpose in life is not to be happy
himself, but to make us happy by playing this anarchic role to the hilt.
On the day I saw The Tempest at the new Globe some rain fell, but none
during the opening storm scene. Instead, actors had to be doused with water so
that they could Enter . . . wet (1.1.46) and they did their best to simulate a
storm-tossed ship, though standing on boards that stayed imperturbably level.
Somewhere a recording imperfectly counterfeited thunder. Although to jaded
modern tastes this was far from the perfect storm, we did our best to believe in it.
How could we imagine that the storm we were being helped to imagine
was in fact itself imaginary? We took for a tempest whatever effects the actors
and stage crew could muster, but soon enough we were disabusedthe storm at
sea was staged not merely for us in the audience but for the characters in the
play. And, as Prospero assures Miranda, the same art that produced the storm
has also kept its victims safe from harm:

The direful spectacle of the wreck, which touched

The very virtue of compassion in thee,
I have with such provision in mine art
So safely ordered that there is no soul
No, not so much perdition as an hair
Betid to any creature in the vessel,
Which thou heardst cry, which thou sawst sink. (1.2.1-32).
The shipwreck that we took for natural, was, Prospero informs Miranda, a
work of art. As Ariel reports a bit later:

I boarded the Kings ship. Now on the beak,

Now in the waste, the deck, in every cabin,
I flamed amazement. Sometime Id divide,
And burn in many places; on the top-mast,
The yards, and bowsprit, would I flame distinctly;
Then meet and join. Joves lightning, the precursors
Oth dreadful thunderclaps, more momentary
And sight-outrunning were not. The fire and cracks
Of sulphurous roaring the most mighty Neptune
Seem to besiege, and make his bold waves tremble,
Yes, his dread trident shake. (1.2.197-207)

Chapter Eight: The Tempest and its Afterlife


Sulpherous roaring suggests that Ariel used fireworks to counterfeit

lightning and thunder, and doubtless the Kings Men used similar means to the
same effect. Mirandas impression that the ship was Dashed all to pieces!(8)
though apparently confirmed by Prosperos thou sawst [it] sink (32), is then
contradicted by Ariels revelation that though all the passengers Plunged in the
foaming brine and quit the vessel, (212) the ship itself escaped harm and has
been safely brought to shore, along with the crew still on board. Prosperos art
is apparently to make Mirandaand the audiencebelieve in a sinking where
none occurred.
The Tempests storm at sea is thus a contrived theatrical event, staged by
Prospero for his audience as it is by the acting company for theirs. Prosperos
art, like theirs, is directed at controlling other people by creating illusions in
their minds. His world is as much a stage as is the stage upon which his world is
In Prospero we see the meeting of the two senses of the word art. Like
other masterful characters in Shakespeares plays he is an accomplished roleplayer, theater-manager, impresario, and playwright, but hes also a magician,
exercising control over the supernatural world.

Thus he is what several of

Shakespeares rulers aspired to bea god-man, exercising both divine and human
powers. And these powers are referred to as art. It is through art that the human
world-stage of actors meets and merges with the divine world-stage of puppets
moved by Gods hands. In Prospero Shakespeare offers us the playwright-artist
as the figure of the prophetic soul of the wide world dreaming on things to come.
But Prospero is merely the figure of such divinity, since in the end he recognizes
his human limitations, drowns his book, and retires to a hermits cell.
As with so many other subjects, we find Shakespeare elusive when we try
to determine the extent of his belief in magic. Along with Hotspur he seems to
mock Owen Glendowers boast that he could call spirits from the vasty deep, by
rhetorically asking But will they come when you do call for them? (1HIV
3.1.53) Yet magic, black and white, was as much a fact of life to the men and
women of Shakespeares day as the inexplicable wonders of modern science are


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to us. The fairies in A Midsummer Nights Dream and the witches in Macbeth are
simply the most famous of many instances. I have ever believed (and do now
know) that there are witches, wrote Thomas Browne in about 1635, and Browne
was a man of science.3

Isaac Newton, too, avidly pursued alchemical

Prospero is, however, unique in Shakespeares theater as a white

magician wielding genuine supernatural power. Storms at sea are part of a natural
realm that is normally beyond the reach of human power. Only the mightiest of
magicians would dare to attempt to recreate one.
To stipulate that Prospero is in fact a magician who can turn the world into
his own sound-and-light show might seem to put him beyond the limitations that
make role playing and other theatrical arts necessary to the rest of us. But though
his art is unique, Prospero is a recognizable typeone of the masterful
protagonists whom Shakespeare found so attractive. Petruccio mastered a wife
and King Harry a nation, Rosalind overcame the handicaps that Hamlet
succumbed to, Duke Vincentio merely played God, but Prospero is godlike in his
command of supernatural forces.
Modern critics, [writes Stephen Orgel] are made exceedingly
uncomfortable by the idea of Prospero as God. Can Shakespeare have
meant to deify a figure so arbitrary, ill-tempered, vindictive? But
Renaissance Christianity was not a comforting faith; we find Miltons God
equally unsympathetic, and for similar reasons. Even the gentle George
Herbert characterizes Christ in terms that are strikingly reminiscent of
Mirandas view of her father: Storms are the triumph of his art; and a
few lines later refers to him explicitly as the God of Power. [The Bag,
ll. 5,9.] We want our God all love, our Jesus meek and mild, but Herberts
God is, like Prospero, a god of storms and power too. (The Illusion of
Power, 49)
Orgel stops short of identifying Prospero with King James I, or of
speculating as many have done that The Tempest was written expressly for
performance during the wedding celebration of James daughter Elizabeth and
Frederick, the Elector Palatine.4

But the flattering picture of this ruler as

possessing godlike occult powers is one that might appeal to any monarch,
especially to one of Jamess absolutist predilections and occult interests.

Chapter Eight: The Tempest and its Afterlife


But we must not automatically condemn Prospero for playing God, for
if we do so the entire play makes little sense and cannot be enjoyed. Without his
magical power none of his good intentions might come to fruition, yet it is his
wisdom in compassing good ends that distinguishes Prospero as worthy of the
power he wields.

This wisdom is especially apparent in his matchmaking

between his daughter and the Prince of Naples, where his power to control
Miranda and Ferdinand would not bring about the desired effect without patience
and psychological insight.
We might wonder that Ferdinand, grieving as he is at the apparent death of
his father, is as susceptible as Miranda to love at first sight. She, on the other
hand, having seen only her father and Caliban, is mightily taken by the young
mans appearance:

MIRANDA I might call him

A thing divine, for nothing natural
I ever saw so noble. (1.2.421-3)
But Ferdinand, too, has been predisposed by Ariels singing to think he is in some
enchanted place, and that Miranda is a goddess. Having ascertained that she is
unmarried, and a virgin, he proposes at once to make her his wife.
Prospero has a heavy hand in matching this young man and woman to
each other. Prospero knows that his daughter has been raised to be an adoring
young woman likely to appeal to the forlorn and disoriented prince, who in turn
strongly appeals to her. Yet the spark of love that springs up between them is
their own, and beyond his powers to ignite. Rather, he relies on his knowledge of
human character to successfully engineer the match.
Prospero himself ardently wants the two to fall in love, yet no sooner has
this happened than he attacks Ferdinand as a usurper, putting obstacles in the way
of the match, lest too light winning Make the prize light. (1.2.455-6) The
guileless young couple must suffer through some emotional distress while the
father tests the strength of their feelings for each other.


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Miranda and Ferdinand are almost as innocent of role-playing as is

Caliban. What makes them so good, when hes so bad?

One tempting

explanation is their simple goodness of heart, but they are also deeply versed in
the codes of civility, whereas Caliban is not. Even Miranda, who has lived most
of her young life on a desert island, has had her cultivated father for her
upbringing, while Caliban was raised by a witch Prosperos and Mirandas
tutoring have come too late.5
Two successive scenes in the middle of the play show how Prosperos
dramatic art of role-playing and his magical art blend into each other. First, in
3.1, Ferdinand, whom Prospero has set to Calibans degrading job of hauling
firewood, feels glad to perform this labor since it means being near Miranda, who
gives him much sympathy for his servitude. He declares his love for her, and
throwing caution to the winds she proposes marriageI am your wife, if you
will marry me. If not, Ill die your maid. (83-4) This is indeed an Edenic
moment. Paradise is merely the presence of a love that turns even harsh manual
labor into a joyous act of service to the beloved, and that overwhelms fear with a
loving concern for another person. When they declare their mutual love, they are
like Miltons Adam and Eve, Imparadist in one anothers arms. (Paradise Lost,
Like Miltons God, Prospero watches from afar, pleased at these signs of
the selfless love and devotion they are displaying to one another. This part of his
design is going well, but he has more irons in the fire:

So glad at this as they I cannot be,

Who are surprised with all; but my rejoicing
At nothing can be more. Ill to my book,
For yet ere supper-time must I perform
Much business appertaining. (3.1.94-7)
The scene of drunken buffoonery and villainy that follows (3.2) seems
especially vilealthough funnyin juxtaposition to the sweet scene that
precedes it. Following their hearts as the lovers have followed theirs, these louts
concoct a plan to surprise Prospero during a nap, and to murder him before he can

Chapter Eight: The Tempest and its Afterlife


use his magic to defend himself. Unbeknownst to them, however, Ariel is

amongst them, unseen, sowing confusion by interjecting accusations, and by
playing music. Caliban explains to his befuddled companions that the island is
enchanted by Prosperos magic.
Meanwhile, among the high-born passengers another plot is hatching.
While King Alonzo mourns for his son, missing and presumed drowned,
Antonio and Sebastian plan to murder Alonzo under cover of night. Prospero,
however, enters on the top (i.e. on a platform above the upper stage) and
oversees his attendant spirits as they spread a banquet for the party, amid music
and dance. The plotters wonder what manner of beings these may bemen or
monsters, or perhaps spirits, damned or blessedbut when they attempt to fall to,
the banquet vanishes with a quaint device and Ariel descends like a harpy to
denounce them. He calls them men of sin(3.3.53) and reminds them of their
crimes in usurping Prosperos dukedom and exposing Him and his innocent
child (72) to the sea.
Ariel announces that I and my fellows Are ministers of fate, (60-1) but
more concretely it is Prospero who controls themThey now are in my power,
(90) he remarks as he departs to check on Ferdinand and Miranda once again.
And yet, though he exercises some of the powers of a god, he is not, like
God, exempt from harm at the hands of his enemies. Far from being truly divine,
his art masks and corrects for very human frailties. His vulnerability both to his
enemies and to his own limitations and passions make him less godlike. And it is
not merely these foibles but the humility with which he acknowledges them that
keep Prospero human and hence sympathetic.
When Ferdinand was Prosperos prisoner and slave, he accounted the
service fortunate since he performed it for Miranda and in her presence. Prospero
makes the same point when he releases the young man and gives permission to

PROSPERO [to FERDINAND] If I have too austerely punished you,

Your compensation makes amends, . . .
All thy vexations


The Worlds a Stage

Were but my trials of thy love, and thou
Hast strangely stood the test. (4.1.1-6)
Ferdinand has demonstrated his love for Miranda, and she for him, and so

Prospero consents to their wedding, which he has reasons of his own for desiring,
but with stern warnings to control their mutual passion until they have been
properly married, since unguarded passion can overwhelm anyone.
The wedding masque he then stages for their benefitalong with the other
strange devices that punctuate the plays action using his attendant spirits as
actorsmay have been the raison dtre for whole the play, so far as the first
production is concerned. The adherence to the classic unities of time, place,
and action facilitate a compact performance, such as would play well at court,
while the reliance on magic effectsthe suddenly disappearing banquet; spirits
raised and lowered on wiressuited the courts taste for the splendid and
elaborate trickery of the masques of Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones.
At the new Globe stagehands simply removed the banquet table, as if
acknowledging that they could manage no device that would excite much wonder
from an audience used to technological marvels. Yet it may be that for his first
audiences the masque elements, and especially the wedding masque in Act 4,
were the chief interest of the entire play, as Calibans antics were for us at the
new Globe in 2001. The content of the wedding masque is the assertion that
marriage is the crowning glory of civilization; as such it is a gift of the gods and
bears divine protection and blessing. This would be a cheering message for any
seventeenth-century audience, but especially for those attending a royal wedding.
But the form of Shakespeares masque is that of impersonationactors portraying
spirits portraying goddessesand all of this is magic controlled by a human
patriarch. What greater complement for a would-be absolute monarch who hopes
to ensure the happiness of a match he has instigated for dynastic reasons?
As Stephen Orgel has eloquently argued, the subject of the court masque
was power, with the implicit and often explicit message that the king before
whom it took place had a divine power reflected in the wonderful illusions
produced by the magic of the performance (The Illusion of Power, passim.) This

Chapter Eight: The Tempest and its Afterlife


power is on view in Prosperos masque, too, and yet Shakespeares dramatic

instinct is to interrupt the performance before it comes quite to its formal end. By
interrupting he heightens the contrast between the image of celestial harmony
surrounding the marriage of young lovers and the stresses and uncertainties of
worldly existence.

What Prospero stages is not paradise, but only an imperfect

I had forgot that foul conspiracy Of the beast Caliban and his
confederates Against my life, he exclaims (4.1.139-41), and what follows is in
effect an anti-masque of low and buffoonish humor, as the conspirators are hunted
by spirits dressed as dogs. This is Prosperos justice, yet even as he punishes
them his plans, like the Christian Gods, all end in mercy. (259)
Prosperos interruption exposes the artifice of the masque, the fact that it
is a human creation that at best merely mirrors in a distorted form the ineffable
truths of divinity. He explains as much to Ferdinand:

PROSPERO You do look, my son, in a moved sort,

As if you were dismayed. Be cheerful sir.
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-capped 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. (4.1.146-58)
The action on his stage is unreal, says Prospero, and yet that unreality
mirrors the great globe itself, and our own lives lived in this world. If life is a
dream, then what is it to awaken? Again, as in the earlier A Midsummer Nights
Dream, the metaphor of dream is used to evoke the Platonic idea that what is
real exists at a higher level than mortal consciousness can conceive:


The Worlds a Stage

The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is
not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my
dream was. (MND 4.1.204-7)
Having, for purposes of his days work, played God, Prospero is about to

lay aside his power, and to rejoin the ranks of humanity. At this hour Lies at my
mercy all my enemies, he observes as he puts to rout the anti-masquers. And as
Miltons God promises: Mercy first and last shall brightest shine. (Paradise
Lost, 3.134)
Ariel, who though not human is exhibiting some human emotions at the
imminent prospect that he will be set free, encourages Prospero in his forgiving
mood: Your charm so strongly works em, he says of the kings party, That if
you now beheld them your affections Would become tender. (5.1.18-20)
Prospero has been thinking along the same lines:

Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling

Of their affliction, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th quick,
Yet with my nobler reason gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance. (5.1.21-8)
If they will repent of their evil intentions against him, Prospero affirms, he will
forego further punishment and restore them to themselves.
Prosperos mercy and forgiveness is a reflection of Gods, yet Prospero is
not divine but human, as he readily admits. And here, at the culmination of his
plans, when his power has never seemed so complete or godlike, he vows to
surrender that power :

PROSPERO Ye elves . . .
by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimmed
The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,
And twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring warto the dread rattling thunder

Chapter Eight: The Tempest and its Afterlife


Have I given fire, and rifted Joves stout oak

With his own bolt, . . .
graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure. And when I have required
Some heavenly musicwhich even now I do
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, Ill break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
Ill drown my book. (5.1.33-57)
That Prospero is willing to give up his art comes as something of a
shock to the audience, and indeed the wand-breaking and book-drowning is left
for the indefinite future, after Ariel has wafted him and his new companions back
to Italy. Does Prospero really intend to abandon his art, and if so, why?
Well, first of course it was his too great love of his magic books that got
him into trouble in Milan, where, as he explained to Miranda in the First Act
(1.1.88-106) his neglect of his ducal duties led to his brothers usurpation.
Second, there is something sacrilegious in this magic art. Though Prospero is
explicitly not, like Sycorax, one of Satans minions, yet there is a Faustian flavor
to a magic that wakes the dead, as Prospero claims to have done. Such power is
the province of the Son of God; a mere mortal should not be performing such
feats, even if he intends no harm.6
Finally, though, Prospero abandons his art because he recognizes that
he is better off without it. If magic has helped him solve the problems that
isolation on a desert island entailed, it also put him on the island in the first place.
Not magic but Gonzalos pity spared his life and Mirandas when Antonio and
Alonzo combined to depose him, and it is not learning that now interests him, but
rather his daughters marital happiness and the well-being of his posterity. When
he returns to his books it will be to study not magic but religion.
The tension between Prosperos godlike role-play and his human nature is
worked out in the final act. Gospel themes of holiness, miracles, penitence,
mercy, and forgiveness sound through it. Prospero warns the plotters that he is


The Worlds a Stage

aware of their plan to kill the king (The devil speaks in him, [5.132] Sebastian
exclaims) but will say nothing for the present. Then he presents Alonzo with his
son Ferdinand, apparently come back to lifeSebastian, perhaps also undergoing
a change of heart exclaims A most high miracle. (180) The king is moved to
ask forgiveness of his host for the wrongs he has done him, yet the miracle is
simply the unmasking of the false report of Ferdinands drowning.
And finally Caliban enters with his co-conspirators, driven by Ariel who
has them still in thrall. This thing of darkness I Acknowledge mine, (278-9)
Prospero admits, owning responsibility for this demi-devil. (275) But even
Caliban is capable of improvement:

Ill be wise hereafter,

And seek for grace. What a thrice-double ass
Was I to take this drunkard for a god,
And worship this dull fool! (298-301)
Perhaps now the newly-wise Caliban will be capable of learning some civility
along with the religion (grace) he promises to acquire.
What future for Caliban? Abandoned on his native island, he may revert
to digging with his nails for pig-nuts, or he may find he longs for society.

lover of freedom, he may then dream of establishing a utopian society such as

Holy Gonzalo ( Prospero calls him this at 5.1.62) outlined to general derision
earlier in the play:

GONZALO Ith commonwealth I would by contraries

Execute all things. For no kind of traffic
Would I admit, no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourne, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation, all men idle, all;
And women toobut innocent and pure;
No sovreignty
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Chapter Eight: The Tempest and its Afterlife


All things in common nature should produce

Without sweat or endeavour. Treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth
Of it own kind all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people. (2.1.147-64)7
The benefits of civilization without its constraintsthis is indeed the
Promised Land and the New Jerusalem. But as Gonzalos companions observe
before he has a chance to finish, to establish such a society he would need an
authority that his own edict would undermine:

SEBASTIAN [to ANTONIO] Yet he would be king ont.

ANTONIO The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning.
Shakespeare is like Montaigne, I believe, in thinking that whatever the
arrangements of the natives of Brazil, Europeans are not apt to improve their
freedoms by opting for a state of nature. In a later essay Montaigne writes that
In my view there is, in public affairs, no state so bad, provided it has age and
continuity on its side, that is not preferable to change and disturbance. Our
morals are extremely corrupt, and have a remarkable tendency to grow worse;
many of our laws and customs are monstrous and barbarous: nevertheless,
because of the difficulty of improving our state, and the danger of a collapse, if I
could put a drag on our wheel and stop it at this point, I would gladly do so.8
Montaigne is a notoriously inconsistent political philosopher, as is
Shakespeare, but we meet this dislike of political reform at many places in their
respective writings. Fundamentally, I think it reflects a profound skepticism in
both men as to the ability of human institutions to cure the innate flaws in human
nature. No system of laws is good enough to guarantee justice, Montaigne and
Shakespeare seem to imply, and none is so imperfect as to prevent men and
women from acting justly. Therefore we are much better off trying to make the
present system work than when we try to fix it with innovation.


The Worlds a Stage

To this deeply conservative wish to maintain the status quo, Shakespeare

is willing to sacrifice even the glorious magic of his theatrical genius. For the
right audience, the masque at the heart of The Tempest renews our sense of the
true miracle of human love and fidelity. Art makes curious and new what
otherwise might seem too familiar to warrant attention. But how much better to
feel these truths without resorting to parlor tricks.
Prosperos repeated use of the word art whitens the traditionally dark
connotations of the word magic, but it also broadens and generalizes it to an
identity with other relevant arts, from statecraft to stagecraft. Through the word
art Prospero has something in common with rulers like King James and artists like
the playwright Shakespeare. When Prospero is read as a type of King James, his
example suggests that although rulers are beset by enemies against whom they must
practice a defensive "art of deception, connivance, and plotting, their best policy is,
when they have the upper hand, to be generous and forgiving. If we connect the
supernatural aspect of magic with the divine right of kings, then we can see that
Prosperos superhuman powers figure the kind of power that Shakespeare and his
age often attributed to their rulers. And yet this divine right was simply, for
Shakespeare, the right to impersonate a godas much in virtue as in power. At
base, as Henry V acknowledges, the king is but a man.
The Tempest, and especially Prosperos announcement that our revels have
ended, has always been recognized as Shakespeares acknowledgement that,
stripped of his art of illusion, the playwright, too, is but a man. The Tempest is
apparently the last that he wrote entirely by himself, although he collaborated with
John Fletcher, his successor as The Kings Mens principal playwright, on several
more. Shakespeare appears to have retired by degrees rather than all at once, and
even after he moved from London to Stratford he may have been on-call for a
certain amount of writing and play-doctoring. But as long as too much weight is not
put on the Prospero-Shakespeare identity, it is foolish not to hear in Prosperos
words some of Shakespeares own views as he prepared to retire from active playing
and playwriting.

Chapter Eight: The Tempest and its Afterlife


His epilog is spoken partly in character as a restored duke, and partly as an

actor begging for applause from a theater audience. But there is morethe presence
of an authorial voice:
PROSPERO Now my charms are all oerthrown,
And what strength I haves mine own,
Which is most faint. Now tis true
I must be here confined by you
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got,
And pardoned the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from the bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.9
Prospero, in claiming to have authored the plays events, mingles his
identity with that of the playwright, as they both assert authorship simultaneously.
Prospero isnt Shakespearehow could he be?but he is a figure of the
playwright and a spokesman for him, in a way that Puck or Rosalind were not.10
And what does he say? That he is going home, that he is giving up his
magic, that his art has abandoned him, but that this is a cause of satisfaction.
Playing is good, but home and hearth are better. The religious overtones of the
last few linesdespair cured by prayer, Mercy granting pardon, and
even the joking reference to Papal indulgences, which had long been a scandal to







Shakespeare and God as earlier between Prospero and God: they have not been
gods, but have merely played one for a while. Like his hero, Shakespeare wearies
of the godlike power that dramatic mastery confers, and recognizes that a wise


The Worlds a Stage

reliance on luck or providence is necessary as our life nears its final scene. The
rest, as Hamlet dies remarking, is silence!


The new Globe, opened in 1997, is as near a replica of the old one (1599-1644) as
circumstances would allow, given that we have no detailed description or exact plan of
the original. Considerable feats of imaginative reconstruction based on all sorts of
indirect and fragmentary information were greatly aided by the rediscovery in 1989 of the
foundations of the old Globe beneath a parking lot in Southwark, a section of downtown
London. In a few particulars, as in the dimensions of the seating, historical accuracy was
sacrificed to accommodate the different needs and broader bottoms of present-day

One of the few books known to have belonged to Shakespeare is a copy of Montaignes
Essays in the 1603 translation by John Florio, with Shakespeares signature on it.
Besides the anagram on cannibal in Calibans name, Gonzalos speech at 2.1.142-69
closely paraphrases a paragraph of Montaignes essay.

Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, Part One, Section 30, p.37. King James himself
believed in witches wholeheartedly, and wrote a book exposing their influence both on
him and on the world generally.

Records of performance are fragmentary, but the first recorded performance of The
Tempest was during the wedding celebration at Whitehall on Hallowmas Night
(November 1st) 1611.

The ending, however, suggests that Caliban is capable of learning from the mistakes of
the day on which the plays action takes place, and from the example of Prosperos
forgiveness, by becoming betterhe resolves to seek for grace, presumably by
becoming a Christian (5.1.299)

Harold Bloom ingeniously points out that Prospero . . . carries a name that is the
Italian translation of Faustus . . . . With Ariel, a sprite or angel (the name is Hebrew
for the lion of God), as his familiar rather than Marlowes Mephistopheles, Prospero is
Shakespeares anti-Faust, and a final transcending of Marlowe. (663)

This is a nation, I should say to Plato, in which there is no kind of commerce, no

knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no title of magistrate or of political superior,
no habit of service, riches or poverty, no contracts, no inheritance, no divisions of
property, only leisurely occupations, no respect for any kinship but the common ties, no
clothes, no agriculture, no metals, no use of corn or wine. The very words denoting
lying, treason, deceit, greed, envy, slander, and forgiveness have never been heard.
Michel de Montaigne, Of Cannibals, 110.

Of Presumption, 217.

Chapter Eight: The Tempest and its Afterlife


Crimes is puzzling in this context, where sins would fit better.

Prospero/Shakespeare can hardly claim to know that his entire audience is composed of
criminals, although it is standard Christian teaching that we are all sinners in need of
forgiveness. And although crimes too may be pardoned, papal indulgences pardon sins,
not crimes. The likely explanation for this apparent anomaly is that although The
Tempest, like most of Shakespeares later plays, has to do with sin and redemption, a law
of 1604 forbade explicit reference to the mysteries of the Church on the profane stage.
Thus, to avoid the appearance of presuming to offer remission of sin, Shakespeare had to
offer forgiveness for crimesa number of which have been committed by the plays less
savory characters.


The Epilogue to The Second Part of Henry the Fourth speaks directly for the author,
promising to bring back Falstaff in a subsequent play (a promise that was not kept) and
denying that Falstaff was modeled on the Protestant martyr Sir John Oldcastle, although
in fact he was. The Chorus in Henry V also speaks for the playwright, as he has before
each act, foretelling the death of King Harry, the loss of France, and the coming of the
Wars of the Roses. Other epilogues, like Rosalinds in As You Like It, mingle the persona
of the character and the actor portraying her or him. But only in The Tempest are actor,
character, and playwright so thoroughly fused into one collective identity, so that all the
words of the speech could be equally well attributed to any one of them.

The author of all our tragedies, hath written out for us, and appointed us all
the parts we are to play . . . . Certainly there is no other account to be made
of this ridiculous world than to resolve that the change of fortune on the great
theatre is but as the change of garments on the less.
(Sir Walter Raleigh, History of the World, quoted by Briggs, 292)
The idols of the Theater have got into the human Mind from the different
Tenets of Philosophers and the perverted Laws of Demonstration. All
Philosophies hitherto have been so many Stage Plays, having shewn nothing
but fictitious and theatrical Worlds.
(Sir Francis Bacon, Novum Organum Scientarum, Section II, Aphorism VII).
In his Preface to Shakespeare, Dr. Samuel Johnson, Englands greatest
critic, places Shakespeare ahead of all other English poets, yet he is scrupulous to
list the great playwrights defects along with his virtues. To Johnson, the first and
greatest flaw is that Shakespeare seems to write without any moral purpose.
(669) In addition, Johnson writes, Shakespeares plots are often ill-constructed,
his historical settings anachronistic, his comedy gross and bawdy, his tragedy
labored, his diction pompous and bombastic, and lastly, he was a compulsive wit
and punster, who could not leave any sad or noble moment alone without
embellishing it with wordplay: He is not long soft and pathetic without some
idle conceit or contemptible equivocation. (672) Having stated the prosecutions
case, Johnson goes on to defend Shakespeare against the many other rationalizing,
neoclassical strictures that the Bard had been subjected to by an age that admired
the imaginative power of Shakespeares plays, but deeply distrusted the
metaphysics, epistemology and ethics that they expressed.
Yet the double-entendre, the double meaning found in his characters and
their actions as well as in their words, the ambiguity of his plays as a whole and of


The Worlds A Stage

individual scenes, is his stock-in-trade. Instance the opening of The Tempest,

where on a stage that is not appreciably swaying actors pretending to be sailors
claim to be foundering. The stage is not foundering, of course, but the ship it
represents, we believe, isuntil we learn differently. Or do we? Miranda too
sees it happen! Ultimately the status of the storm, the ship, and the crew remain
uncertain. Shakespeare has it both ways: the ship both did and did not sink.
Whenever we are thinking about such logical distinctions, Shakespeares
both/and attitude is hard for our logical, either/or minds to adopt, or to accept.
It is muddled, analogical, imprecisethe sort of thing that the great simplifiers of
his time, the Bacons and Descartes, denounced, and tried to argue into oblivion.
According to the rationalism that gradually established itself during the 17th
century, Shakespeare was an incoherent, barbarous, irrational writer, guilty
most of all of mixing what should logically remain distinctcomedy and tragedy,
reason and emotion, virtue and vice, humanism and Christianity.
Of all this muddle and confusion, nothing offended a rational mind like
Samuel Johnsons more than the way Shakespeare mixed up the separate
meanings of words that logically had nothing to do with each other, though they
strangely shared the same morphology. A paltry, contemptible pun, Johnson
complained, was Shakespeares fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and
was content to lose it:
A quibble [i.e. pun] is to Shakespeare, what luminous vapors are to the
traveler; he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his
way, and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power
over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity
or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or
exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or
enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he
leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he
will always turn aside from his career or stoop from his elevation. A
quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight, that he was
content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth. A
quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra . . . .1

Chapter Nine: The World is and is Not a Stage


When we pun, we call up the plural meanings that almost any common
word possesses, in order to say several things at once. By Johnsons time the pun
was a vehicle of low humor, not merely because it was socially improperas in
Shakespeares obsessive sexual punningbut more profoundly because it
undermined the rational distinctions upon which Johnsons world-view was
based. When Othello, going to murder Desdemona, says Put out the light, he is
referring to a candle he means to extinguish before smothering her. Then he
reflects that what he is going to do to his wife is like snuffing a candle, so he
repeats the phrase in a second sense: and then put out the light. (Othello, 5.2.7)
To a rational sensibility like Johnsons, such mingling of murderous passion with
wordplay ruins what should be a solemn moment.
The ambiguity of a single word, the fact that light or any other word has
several meanings, is an instance of the ambiguity that Shakespeare and his age
saw at every level of discourse. Shakespeares use of language suggests that these
accidents of verbal similarity are not accidents at all, but are products of a
transcendent order: The King is dead. Long live the King! The king had two
bodiesa physical body like any mans, and a second body, what we would
call his office, which was not mortal but eternal. What we have learned to see as
nominal or conventional homologies, based on the metaphoric transference of
properties by the human mindessentially a human fiction, distinct from natural
factthe theocentric Middle Ages saw as divinely created correspondences.
And Shakespeares age lived at the fulcrum between competing
paradigmsthe God-centered universe of Christian teaching, and the mancentered universe of the pagan classics whose revival and reintegration into the
world view of western Europe goes by the name of the Renaissance. Puns were
thought of, not as accidental or trivial resemblances, but as indications of hidden
affinities or further meanings, as when Christ promised to found his Church on
Peter, whose name also meant rock. (Briggs, 170-1)
By happy accident Shakespeares chronological position at the fulcrum of
the shift between the two competing paradigms gave him full use of the
world/stage identity. Drama itself presents the paradox of live human beings


The Worlds A Stage

acting with apparent spontaneity who are nonetheless predetermined to act as the
playwright decrees. Sir Walter Raleigh, In his earlier life as a poet, courtier,
filibusterer, explorer, pirate, seducer, and colonial entrepreneur had been a
resolute and resourceful role-player in what he called this stage-play world, and
yet all his mastery had led but to a prison and a grave.

There was, he

acknowledged ruefully, a divinity that shaped his end.

Shakespeares important characters (and many of the less-important ones
as well) are paradoxical persons, toohuman puns, we might call them.
Prospero, the Faustian magician and paternal control-freak who goes from raising
the dead to preparing for his own death within a single long day is clearly one of
Shakespeares self-contradictory protagonists. But what of Caliban? Isnt he too
one of Shakespeares paradoxical characters, beloved by many an audience, yet
the butt of repeated humiliations? Though he might wish to deny it, Caliban
belongsfor many he is the most interesting, the liveliest character in the play.
From their point of view, and certainly from his, The Tempest is his playhe is
its hero, as he is of several re-workings of the story, like the twentieth-century
play, Une Tempte, by the Haitian poet Aim Csaire.2
Montaigne, an older contemporary of Shakespeare, thought that the
cannibals possessed natural virtue, in comparison with which European
morality was debased. He admired their bravery in battle, the simplicity of their
lives, their affection for their wives, and their religious piety.3 But with the
exception of the simple life, Caliban matches nothing of this profile.
Shakespeare, who owned a copy of the Essays, surely was familiar with
Montaignes thoughts on the subject, but he had other sources of information on
the inhabitants of newly discovered islands as well. He would have known, for
example, about Roanoke Island, where all 114 English settlers disappeared some
time between their arrival in 1587 and 1590. Local Calibans were thought to have
killed the men and abducted the women and children, none of whom were ever
seen again.4 Certainly this first experience in colonizing the Western Hemisphere
did not cause Elizabethan Englishmen to think romantically of American natives.

Chapter Nine: The World is and is Not a Stage


If Caliban derives his name from Montaignes noble savages, there is more of the
encounters of Roanoke Island in his nature.
But the figure of Caliban is yet more complex, for he is linked to the
luckless inhabitants of the Caribbean only by a riddling name, while he is in
literal fact the son of a witch living on an otherwise uninhabited island in the
eastern Mediterranean Sea.5 As is the case with many characters, events, and
ideas in Shakespeare, Caliban is complex to the point of contradiction.
Depending on which way we turn him, Caliban can be a sub-human brute or an
indomitable freedom fighter, but he is in either case a highly entertaining lord of
misrule. He is also an antagonist who wreaks havoc for a while, yet must be
subdued in the interests of a happy ending for the other characters.
And so it is wherever we look in the Shakespearean canon. The issues of
ideology are fudged in the interest of a well-made play that will have something in it
for everyonepolitical philosophy for the educated, sword-fights for young blades,
an unruly comic for earthier tastes, and young lovers to appeal to all. Shakespeares
universe is too large for a single ethical norm to prevail throughoutneither
Montaignes mellow pluralism nor Kurtzs desperate Exterminate all the brutes!
captures his stance toward Caliban. Whatever Shakespeare the man believed
personally, his theater is neither pro- nor anti-colonizationor rather, it is both,
depending on who interprets it.
At the end of thirty years of investigating Shakespeares ideology, Louis
Montrose concludes:
If we can isolate any relatively stable ideological position in the corpus of
Shakespeares playsif they can be said to champion, with any degree of
consistency, a particular set of interests within Elizabethan societyit is
precisely that of the professional theatre with which he was identified in a
perhaps uniquely comprehensive way.

By representing particular cultural forms and human actions within

fictional frames, Montrose continues,


The Worlds A Stage

Shakespeares theatre invited its audience to reflect upon those forms and
actions. But the theatre also reached out to frame and to elucidate the world
of the audience by means of its own cultural forma dramatistic paradigm
of social life, based upon the interaction of protean players. The heterodoxy
enacted in the plays performed at the Globe is the logical consequence of the
Elizabethan theatres claim to hold the mirror up to nature. And this theatre
holds the mirror up to nature precisely by reflecting upon its own artifice, for
not only does it exemplify the contradictions and conflicts of Elizabethan
society and culture but it also makes such contradictions and conflicts the
very subject of its plays. The professional players, playwrights, and
playhouses of Elizabethan London were abominations. They represented a
profound challenge to traditional modes of thinkingnot only to particular
orthodox beliefs and opinions but also to the dominant paradigm of agency
and authorityboth because they failed to fit conveniently into existing
cultural frameworks and because they presented an alternative framework, a
dramatistic or theatrical world picture. . . . If Shakespeare and his fellows
could convince their audiences that the theatrum mundi metaphor was both
accurate and usefulif all the men and women were, indeed, merely
playersthen people might go to the playhouses to learn, from experts, how
to play. (The Purpose of Playing, 209-11)
But learning how to play also includes learning when to surrender wisely

to the divinity that shapes our ends. The world/stage identity is in Shakespeares
theater so powerful an idea precisely because it carries opposite meanings: human
beings, capable of controlling so much of their own destinies, are ultimately
characters in a play written by a power greater than theirs.

Wisdom, for

Shakespeare, lies in recognizing our ability to control events by deploying the

dramatic powers of acting, role-playing, stage-direction, and script writing. But
equally, wisdom resides in recognizing when we must bow to the force of events
that are beyond our control.
We do not know the exact order of the composition of Shakespeares
plays. Eighteen of themabout halfwere printed only after his death, and
publication dates for the rest are not reliable guides to their dates of composition.
Records of performance are spotty; mention by other writers like Francis Meres
rarely yield exact dates; occasional references within the plays to datable events
are not certain and are subject to interpretation. So the trope of Shakespeares
development, a favorite of critics and scholars, is a game played in semidarkness with no fixed rules.

Chapter Nine: The World is and is Not a Stage


Nonetheless, as I have written the preceding chapters I have glimpsed a

progressive theme unfolding that is neither startling nor far-fetched. Certainly
Shakespeare was always interested in metatheater, but at first he may have seen it
merely as a dramatic convenienceas a way to bring the world onto his stage.
Acknowledgement from the stage that it is a stageas for instance in the opening
line of The First Part of Henry the Sixth, quoted in Chapter Oneis a way for
Shakespeare to overcome the limitations of his medium and to enlist his
audiences imagination in bringing his story to life on a stage. The best example
is in the Chorus passages of Henry V, where the audience is exhorted to Piece
out our imperfections with your thoughts. (Prologue, 23)
As early as 3 Henry VI, on the other hand, he shows an awareness of the
other side of the cointhat the world treated as though it were a theater is also a
way of commanding the audiences imagination. It simply makes good theater to
stage dramatic scenes that are staged by characters in the play. Whether it be
Queen Margaret crowning the Duke of York before she kills him, or Titus hosting
an elaborate banquet for the purpose of feeding Queen Tamora her sons, such
scenes of disguise and deception are effective because they are theatrical in
themselves. They express not merely Duke Seniors desire to learn from dramatic
moments in the lives of those we observe, but the more radical desire to contrive
and stage such moments for ourselves and others.
Already in another early play, The Taming of The Shrew, Shakespeare
fused the great world to the world of the theater by creating a frame-play to
foreground the artifice of the play of Petruccio and Katherine. The naked fact that
these characters are already actors in a playfurther highlighted, I believe, by the
open doubling of rolesdemonstrates that the world-stage equivalence has taken
hold of Shakespeares mind. That Petruccio teaches Katherine how to act is
visible to any attentive member of the audience, and it is not hard to grasp from
Petruccios success that the world is a stage over which the most effective actors
stride to victory.
Yet the plot of Shrew is itself contrived, illustrating the presence of a
playwright in helping Petruccio to achieve a happy outcome. If the world is a


The Worlds A Stage

stage, it is so because there are also higher powers at work - or so Shakespeare

and his age believed - arranging the plot as they see fit. In another early comedy,
A Midsummer Nights Dream, he shows the obverse of The Shrewthose
unwilling or unable to act the necessary part must rely on the intervention of a
higher power to save them.

The inept mechanicals receive the mercy of

Theseuss indulgence, while the lovers equally are dependent on the intervention
of fairies to sort out their love-lives and lead them to a happy ending.
These two early comedies depend on the world-stage analogy for their
very existence, and show in their structurethe frame play, the play-within-aplaythat their author was acutely aware of metatheater as a trope of the human
condition: we are all actors on the stage of life.
Not all of Shakespeares plays show an equal concern with laying out the
correspondence of the world to a stage so explicitly, but every one makes use of
the notion in one way or another. Usually the plays mention the fact at one point
or another, as does Cassius when he predicts:

How many ages hence

Shall this our lofty scene be acted over,
In states unborn and accents yet unknown! (Julius Caesar, 3.1.112-4)
At the moment when these lines are uttered, the audience is summoned back from
ancient Rome to contemplate the fact of actors on Shakespeares stage reenacting
Caesars murder, and thereby fulfilling Cassiuss prophecy even as it is made.
The high-point of Shakespeares concern with the world-as-stage idea comes
in about 1599-1601, in plays that are among his best lovedHenry V, As You Like
It, and Hamlet. Here the mastery of great actor-director-playwrights is displayed
and explored to its limits. Here also their limits are also reachedin the epilog to
HV, in the divine intervention of Hymen at the end of AYLI, and in the resignation in
Hamlets recognition of the divinity that shapes our ends. Thereafter, the dramatic
potential is most evident in villains like Iago and Edmund (although there is the
important counter-instance of Edgar), and in rulers like Duke Vincentio and
Prospero who enjoy the rare opportunity to play God. It is important to note,

Chapter Nine: The World is and is Not a Stage


however, that they clearly are playing, and do not make the mistake of believing
themselves to be omnipotent.
And in the end, as Shakespeare prepares to leave the stage, he acknowledges
in the figure of Prospero that it is the playwright alone, by means of his art, who
enjoys a degree of control over his stage comparable to Gods power over the world.
The last scene of each human life is one of surrender to the divinity that shapes our
endsOnly we die in earnest: thats no jest, a rueful Raleigh was forced to admit.6
The paradoxical force of the world/stage identity is that its very ambiguity is
what makes it so useful in Shakespeares theater. It matches, better than any other
ideology or meaning, the paradoxical universe in which we live, where events mean
differently depending on the angle from which we view them, and where mutually
exclusive propositions can be simultaneously true.
Is the world a stage? Not entirelyall analogies break down, even the best,
because every thing is itself, and not another thing. Most of all the world-stage
equivalence leaves untouched the mysterious questions of identity and agencywhy
are we ourselves? Whence come the imperatives to love, to feel, to act or not to act?
And how do we know when to assert control over ourselves and others, or when to
cede control to a higher power?
Faced with the certainty of death, as Prospero is, it is time to resign our
pretense to control our lives and to surrender ourselves to God, to fate, or to the

Our destiny is in the hands of another.

And this, I think, is

Shakespeares view of ultimate wisdom. To paraphrase a popular prayer of our own

day: we need the serenity to accept what we cannot change, the courage to change
what we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Shakespeares contemporary, Sir Walter Raleigh:
What is our life? A play of passion,
Our mirth the music of division;
Our mothers wombs the tiring houses be,
Where we are dressed for this short comedy;
Heaven the judicious sharp spectator is
That sits and marks still who doth act amiss;
Our graves that hide us from the searching sun
Are like drawn curtains when the play is done.

Or, in the words of


The Worlds A Stage

Thus march we playing to our latest rest,
Only we die in earnest, thats no jest.
The rest, as even the voluble Hamlet finally admits, is silence.


Preface to Shakespeare, p. 673.

Paris: ditions du Seuil, 1969; translated by Richard Miller, New York: Theatre
Communications Group, 1985; 1992.

They believe in the immortality of the soul, and that those who have deserved will of
the gods have their abode in that part of the sky where the sun rises; and those who are
damned in the West.(112)

Paul Johnson, 14-18. Roanoke was first visited in 1584 by two ships sent by Sir Walter
Raleigh. The next year a military force remained behind, managing to antagonize and
fight with the local Indians. The first non-military settlers arrived in 1587. Because of
the threatened Spanish invasion in 1588 ships were not permitted to leave England to
relieve the struggling colony until 1590. By that time the colonists had all disappeared.
A young mathematician, Thomas Herriot, part of the 1585 expedition, wrote A Brief and
True Report of Virginia (1588), which Shakespeare could have read.
A shipwreck off the island of Bermuda in 1609 ended more happilythe
colonists passed a mild winter building ships that took them on to Jamestown, founded
two years earlier. The proximity of this adventure to The Tempests date of first
performance (1611) is often cited as evidence that it inspired Shakespeares play. (Paul
Johnson, 24-5.)

Calibans name evokes the natives of the island of Hispaniola, discovered (from the
European point of view) a little over a century previously by an Italian sailor flying a
Spanish flag. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the word cannibal to a 1553 borrowing
of the Spanish name for the Carib Indians, whom Columbus encountered, tried to enslave,
and set on the road to extinction.

Sir Walter Raleigh, What is our life? in the Penguin Book of Elizabethan Verse, Edward
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__________, and Richard P. Wheeler. The Whole Journey: Shakespeares
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The Worlds A Stage

Bean, John C. "Comic Structure and the Humanizing of Kate in The

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Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy. 1904. 3rd ed. New York: St.
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Abel, Lionel, 8, 9, 10, 19, 209
Age of Reason, 11
Agencourt, battle of, 77, 82, 94, 112
Aliena, 107, 108
Alulis, Joseph, 103, 209
Angelo, 158, 159, 160, 161, 162,
163, 164, 165, 166, 168, 169, 170,
171, 172, 174, 176, 177
anthropocentrism, 11
Aquinas, St. Thomas, 11
Archbishop of Canterbury, 70
Arden, Forest, vii, 106, 107, 116,
118, 120, 160, 213
Ariel, 180, 182, 185, 187, 190, 191,
192, 196
Aristotle, 11, 142, 151, 153, 176
Athens, 56, 57, 58, 62
Bamber, Linda, 47, 48, 209

Banquo, 55
Baptista, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34,
35, 50
Barber, C.L., 53, 54, 150, 209
Barish, Jonas, 16, 42, 209
Barnardine, 167, 170
Barton, Anne, R., 10, 13, 18, 73, 74,
93, 209
Basilikon Doron, 164, 175
Bate, Jonathan, 119, 122, 173
Bean, John C., 46, 47, 210
Beckett, Thomas, x, 8
Bloom, Harold, 196
Bollingbroke, 5, 63
Booth, Stephen, 49, 124, 149, 210
Borgia, Caesare, 80
Bradley, A.C., 8, 210

Branagh, Kenneth, 79
Briggs, Julia, 123, 175, 199, 201,
Bullough, Geoffrey, 26, 45, 210
Burbage, James, 101, 128
Byles, Joan Montgomery, 144, 153
Calderwood, James L., 54, 55, 95,
Caliban, xiii, 179, 180, 181, 185,
186, 187, 188, 189, 192, 196, 202,
203, 208
Capra, Frank, 68
Cassius, 206
Celia, 102, 103, 104, 107, 108, 109,
111, 112, 114, 116, 120, 121
Chamberlain, Lord, 43, 65, 121, 156
Chekhov, Anton, 1
Chorus, 81, 82, 84, 87, 88, 90, 91,
92, 97, 131, 197, 205
Christianity, 15, 141, 184
Churchill, Winston, 78
Claudio, 157, 159, 160, 161, 162,
165, 166, 167, 168, 169, 170, 171,
172, 174, 175, 176, 177
Claudius, 18, 123, 125, 129, 130, 131,
132, 136, 137, 138, 139, 140, 141,
142, 143, 145, 147, 150, 152, 153
Copernican heliocentrism, 11
Cordelia, 5, 153
Demetrius, 57, 58, 60
Democritus, 16
Desdemona, 13, 123, 153, 201
Duke Ferdinand, 114


The Worlds A Stage

Duke Frederick, 107, 114, 115, 117,

120, 121
Duke of Bedford, 6
Duke of York, 6, 205
Duke Senior, 3, 4, 26, 27, 113, 116,
120, 205
Duke Vincentio, xii, 4, 162, 168,
172, 176, 184, 206
Duncan, 123
Egeus, 57
Eliot, T.S., 20, 124, 149
Elsinore, 135, 136, 152
Empson, William, 17, 18, 211
Epictetus, ix, x
Erpingham, Sire Thomas, 83
Escalus, 163, 169
Falstaff, 76, 83, 89, 95, 197
Fenton, Doris, 17, 211
Ferdinand, 185, 186, 187, 188, 189,
Fortinbras, 138, 143, 144, 151
Friar Lodowick, 169
Friar Peter, 172
Ganymede, 109, 110, 111, 112, 116,
118, 121, 214
Garber, Marjorie, 53, 55, 211
Geertz, Clifford, 14, 211
Gertrude, 129, 131, 132, 139, 141,
142, 147, 151, 152
Gibson, Mel, viii, 148, 149
Glendower, Owen, 183
Globe Theatre, 179, 188
Globe Threatre, 204
Gloucester, 82, 147
Goddard, Harold, 56, 211
Gonzago, 93, 125, 132, 138, 149
Greenblatt, Stephen, x, 12, 13, 14,
16, 19, 20, 21, 99, 211, 214
Gremio, 28, 29, 30, 35

Harbage, Alfred, 98, 120, 212, 213

Harfleur, 71, 78, 79

Hathaway, Anne, 176
Hecuba, 136, 137, 140
Heilman, Robert B., 47, 212
Helena, 56, 57
Henry IV, 69, 70, 74, 76, 80, 81, 156
Henry V, vii, viii, xi, 68, 71, 74, 76,
81, 91, 93, 96, 98, 99, 127, 131,
150, 156, 175, 177, 194, 197, 205,
206, 210
Henslow, Philip, 17
Henze, Richard, 48, 50, 212
Hermia, 56, 57, 64, 65, 212
Hermione, 4
Hippolyta, 52, 54, 61, 63, 66
Holderness, Graham, 24, 49, 212
Holland, Norman, 212
Holland, Peter, 54, 63, 212
Horatio, 9, 124, 131, 134, 137, 141,
142, 147, 151
Hortensio, 26, 28, 29, 30
Hotspur, 70, 75, 76, 80, 89, 95, 183
Huston, J. Dennis, 57, 212
Hymen, 56, 117, 118, 119, 120, 122,
Iago, 5, 13, 99, 206
Isabella, 45, 159, 160, 161, 162, 164,

166, 167, 168, 169, 170, 171, 172,

175, 176, 177
Jaques, vii, 1, 3, 4, 27, 110, 111
Johnson, Samuel, 8, 96, 122, 199,
200, 201, 208, 212
Jones, Inigo, 188
Jonson, Ben, 96, 122, 188
Joyce, James, 20
Juliet, 32, 101, 102, 151, 160, 165,
172, 175, 177
Jupiter, 107

Kahn, Coppelia, 47, 212

Kate, 27, 28, 33, 34, 37, 39, 40, 45,

46, 47, 48, 50, 88, 89, 210
Katharine, 24, 32, 35, 151
Kermode, Frank, 124, 149
Kernan, Alvin, 12, 212
King Alonzo, 187
King Henry V, 6, 74, 96
King James, 153, 155, 156, 157, 159,
164, 171, 176, 184, 194, 196
King Lear, 5, 13, 49, 147, 210
King Priam, 126
King Richard, 74, 75, 90
Laertes, 132, 139, 144, 145, 146,
147, 152, 158
Latham, Agnes, 115, 122, 213
Laughton, Charles, 59
Lavinia, 7
Lockyer, Roger, 46, 214
Lodge, Thomas, 115, 116, 121
London, 1, 20, 24, 80, 149, 151, 155,
156, 175, 194, 196, 204, 209, 210,
213, 215
Lucentio, 23, 25, 28, 29, 31, 32, 39,
45, 49
Lucifer, 169
Lucio, 162, 163, 168, 169, 171, 172,
175, 176, 177
Lysander, 57, 58, 64
Macbeth, 49, 55, 117, 123, 124, 125,

150, 156, 184, 210

Machiavelli, xi, 80, 92
Mack, Maynard, 17, 18, 213
Mariana, 162, 164, 165, 169, 170,
172, 177
Marlowe,Christopher, 12, 196
Martext, Sir Oliver, 118, 122
Maus, Katherine Eisaman, 176
McNeill, William H., 2, 213

metatheater, x, xi, 8, 10, 14, 63, 125,
128, 205, 206
metatheatrical, vii, xi, 9, 10, 15, 20,
43, 49, 126, 127
Middle Ages, 11, 201, 211
Milton, John, 184, 186
Miranda, 182, 183, 184, 185, 186,
187, 188, 191
Montaigne, 151, 180, 193, 196, 202,
203, 213
Montrose, Louis, 16, 21, 22, 64, 65,
120, 203, 213
More, Thomas, 12, 13, 20, 62, 82, 86,
152, 163, 211
Morris, Edmund, 67, 68
Mountjoy, 87, 95, 121
Natures poet, 8
New Historicism, vii, x, 14, 15, 20,
21, 22
Newman, Karen, 48, 214
Newton, Isaac, 184
Oberon, 44, 54, 58
Oliver, 113, 114, 115, 117, 118, 120,
121, 122
Olivier, Laurence, 78, 131
Ophelia, 131, 132, 135, 136, 137,
138, 139, 142, 144, 145, 151, 152,
Orgel, Stephen, 110, 184, 188, 214
Orlando, 104, 105, 106, 107, 108,
109, 110, 111, 112, 113, 114, 115,
116, 119, 120, 121, 122, 158
Osric, 146, 147
Othello, 5, 13, 123, 124, 125, 150,
152, 156, 201
Ovid, 7
Padua, 26, 28, 31, 39, 43
Paltrow, Gwyneth, 101
Paradise Lost, 186, 190
Parker, Patricia, 45, 49, 214


The Worlds A Stage

Petruccio, xi, xii, 9, 23, 25, 27, 28,

29, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38,
39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 119,
120, 184, 205
Phoebe, 110, 112, 113, 117
Pinciss, Geralk, 46, 214
Pirandello, x, 8
Plantagenets, 77
Plato, 196
Poins, 69, 76, 83
Polonius, 126, 132, 135, 136, 139,
140, 142, 143, 146, 151, 152, 158
Pope, Alexander, 11, 45
Portia, 4, 111
Pound, Ezra, 20
Priam, 136
Prince Hal, 68, 74, 75
Prospero, xii, 4, 13, 15, 175, 180,
181, 182, 183, 184, 185, 186, 187,
188, 189, 190, 191, 192, 194, 195,
196, 197, 202, 206, 207
Proteus, 4
Puck, 51, 52, 53, 55, 58, 64, 65, 195
Pyramus, 58, 59, 66
Queen Elizabeth, 90, 101
Queen Katherine, 6
Queen Tamora, 205
Rackin, Phyllis, 96, 214

Raleigh, Sir Walter, 12, 20, 199, 202,

Reagan, Ronald, viii, 67, 68, 92
Redgrave, Lynn and Vanessa, 1, 2,
Renaissance Self-Fashioning {S.
Greenblatt}, 12, 13, 14, 20, 211
Richard III, xii, 56
Robin, 51, 58, 59, 60
Romeo & Juliet, 54
Roosevelt, Theodore, 67
Rosalind, vii, xii, 4, 74, 99, 102, 103,
104, 105, 106, 108, 109, 110, 111,

112, 113, 114, 116, 117, 118, 120,

121, 127, 158, 184, 195, 197
Rose, Jacqueline, 101, 124, 149
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, 132,
135, 151
Schoenbaum, Sam, 19, 176, 214
Shakespeare, Suzanne, 176

Shrewsbury, Battle of, 80

Shylock, 5
Silvius, 110, 112, 113
Slie, 26
Sly, xi, 26, 27, 28, 43, 44, 45, 49, 52
Slye, Christopher, 52
Spenser, Edmund, 12, 149
Starveling, 59, 60
Stefano, 180
Stroup, Thomas, 19, 215
The Merry Wives of Windsor, 54
The Mousetrap, 127, 136, 142
The Playwright as Magician {A.
Kernan}, 12, 212
The Tempest, xii, 13, 18, 121, 156,
175, 182, 183, 184, 194, 196, 197,
200, 202, 208
theatricalization, 2
theocentrism, 11
Theseus, 44, 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 57,
60, 61, 62, 63, 64, 66, 206, 210
Tillyard, E.M.W., 47
Titania, 54, 56, 58, 65
Titus, 7, 17, 205
Titus Andronicus, 7, 17
Touchstone, 104, 119
Tranio, 28, 31, 49
Trinculo, 180
Tyndale, William, 12
Vienna, 157, 158, 159, 160, 165,
168, 169, 172
Vincentio, xii, 39, 158, 159, 162,
163, 166, 172, 174, 177

Wanamaker, Sam, 179
Wars of the Roses, 6, 197
Wickander, Matthew, 81, 95
Wilson, Woodrow, 67

Woolf, Virginia, 20

Wyatt,Thomas, 12
Yorick, 145
Young, David, 55, 64, 215