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A MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAMWritten in the mid-1590s, probably shortly before

Shakespeare turned to Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Nights Dream is one of


his strangest and most delightful creations, and it marks a departure from his
earlier works and from others of the English Renaissance. The play demonstrates
both the extent of Shakespeares learning and the expansiveness of his
imagination. The range of references in the play is among its most extraordinary
attributes: Shakespeare draws on sources as various as Greek mythology
(Theseus, for instance, is loosely based on the Greek hero of the same name,
and the play is peppered with references to Greek gods and goddesses); English
country fairy lore (the character of Puck, or Robin Goodfellow, was a popular
figure in sixteenth-century stories); and the theatrical practices of Shakespeares
London (the craftsmens play refers to and parodies many conventions of English
Renaissance theater, such as men playing the roles of women). Further, many of
the characters are drawn from diverse texts: Titania comes from Ovids
Metamorphoses, and Oberon may have been taken from the medieval romance
Huan of Bordeaux, translated by Lord Berners in the mid-1530s. Unlike the plots
of many of Shakespeares plays, however, the story in A Midsummer Nights
Dream seems not to have been drawn from any particular source but rather to
be the original product of the playwrights imagination.
PLOT OVERVIEW Theseus, duke of Athens, is preparing for his marriage to
Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, with a four-day festival of pomp and
entertainment. He commissions his Master of the Revels, Philostrate, to find
suitable amusements for the occasion. Egeus, an Athenian nobleman, marches
into Theseuss court with his daughter, Hermia, and two young men, Demetrius
and Lysander. Egeus wishes Hermia to marry Demetrius (who loves Hermia), but
Hermia is in love with Lysander and refuses to comply. Egeus asks for the full
penalty of law to fall on Hermias head if she flouts her fathers will. Theseus
gives Hermia until his wedding to consider her options, warning her that
disobeying her fathers wishes could result in her being sent to a convent or even
executed. Nonetheless, Hermia and Lysander plan to escape Athens the following
night and marry in the house of Lysanders aunt, some seven leagues distant
from the city. They make their intentions known to Hermias friend Helena, who
was once engaged to Demetrius and still loves him even though he jilted her
after meeting Hermia. Hoping to regain his love, Helena tells Demetrius of the
elopement that Hermia and Lysander have planned. At the appointed time,
Demetrius stalks into the woods after his intended bride and her lover; Helena
follows behind him.
In these same woods are two very different groups of characters. The first is a
band of fairies, including Oberon, the fairy king, and Titania, his queen, who has
recently returned from India to bless the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta. The
second is a band of Athenian craftsmen rehearsing a play that they hope to
perform for the duke and his bride. Oberon and Titania are at odds over a young
Indian prince given to Titania by the princes mother; the boy is so beautiful that
Oberon wishes to make him a knight, but Titania refuses. Seeking revenge,
Oberon sends his merry servant, Puck, to acquire a magical flower, the juice of
which can be spread over a sleeping persons eyelids to make that person fall in
love with the first thing he or she sees upon waking. Puck obtains the flower, and
Oberon tells him of his plan to spread its juice on the sleeping Titanias eyelids.
Having seen Demetrius act cruelly toward Helena, he orders Puck to spread
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some of the juice on the eyelids of the young Athenian man. Puck encounters
Lysander and Hermia; thinking that Lysander is the Athenian of whom Oberon
spoke, Puck afflicts him with the love potion. Lysander happens to see Helena
upon awaking and falls deeply in love with her, abandoning Hermia. As the night
progresses and Puck attempts to undo his mistake, both Lysander and Demetrius
end up in love with Helena, who believes that they are mocking her. Hermia
becomes so jealous that she tries to challenge Helena to a fight. Demetrius and
Lysander nearly do fight over Helenas love, but Puck confuses them by
mimicking their voices, leading them apart until they are lost separately in the
forest.
When Titania wakes, the first creature she sees is Bottom, the most ridiculous of
the Athenian craftsmen, whose head Puck has mockingly transformed into that of
an ass. Titania passes a ludicrous interlude doting on the ass-headed weaver.
Eventually, Oberon obtains the Indian boy, Puck spreads the love potion on
Lysanders eyelids, and by morning all is well. Theseus and Hippolyta discover
the sleeping lovers in the forest and take them back to Athens to be married
Demetrius now loves Helena, and Lysander now loves Hermia. After the group
wedding, the lovers watch Bottom and his fellow craftsmen perform their play, a
fumbling, hilarious version of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe. When the play is
completed, the lovers go to bed; the fairies briefly emerge to bless the sleeping
couples with a protective charm and then disappear. Only Puck remains, to ask
the audience for its forgiveness and approval and to urge it to remember the
play as though it had all been a dream.
CHARACTERS
Puck
Though there is little character development in A Midsummer Nights Dream and
no true protagonist, critics generally point to Puck as the most important
character in the play. The mischievous, quick-witted sprite sets many of the
plays events in motion with his magic, by means of both deliberate pranks on
the human characters (transforming Bottoms head into that of an ass) and
unfortunate mistakes (smearing the love potion on Lysanders eyelids instead of
Demetriuss).
More important, Pucks capricious spirit, magical fancy, fun-loving humor, and
lovely, evocative language permeate the atmosphere of the play. Wild contrasts,
such as the implicit comparison between the rough, earthy craftsmen and the
delicate, graceful fairies, dominate A Midsummer Nights Dream. Puck seems to
illustrate many of these contrasts within his own character: he is graceful but not
so saccharine as the other fairies; as Oberons jester, he is given to a certain
coarseness, which leads him to transform Bottoms head into that of an ass
merely for the sake of enjoyment. He is good-hearted but capable of cruel tricks.
Finally, whereas most of the fairies are beautiful and ethereal, Puck is often
portrayed as somewhat bizarre looking. Indeed, another fairy mentions that
some call Puck a hobgoblin, a term whose connotations are decidedly less
glamorous than those of fairy (II.i.40).
Nick Bottom
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Whereas Pucks humor is often mischievous and subtle, the comedy surrounding
the overconfident weaver Nick Bottom is hilariously overt. The central figure in
the subplot involving the craftsmens production of the Pyramus and Thisbe
story, Bottom dominates his fellow actors with an extraordinary belief in his own
abilities (he thinks he is perfect for every part in the play) and his comical
incompetence (he is a terrible actor and frequently makes rhetorical and
grammatical mistakes in his speech). The humor surrounding Bottom often stems
from the fact that he is totally unaware of his own ridiculousness; his speeches
are overdramatic and self-aggrandizing, and he seems to believe that everyone
takes him as seriously as he does himself. This foolish self-importance reaches its
pinnacle after Puck transforms Bottoms head into that of an ass. When Titania,
whose eyes have been anointed with a love potion, falls in love with the now assheaded Bottom, he believes that the devotion of the beautiful, magical fairy
queen is nothing out of the ordinary and that all of the trappings of her affection,
including having servants attend him, are his proper due. His unawareness of the
fact that his head has been transformed into that of an ass parallels his inability
to perceive the absurdity of the idea that Titania could fall in love with him.

Helena
Although Puck and Bottom stand out as the most personable characters in A
Midsummer Nights Dream, they themselves are not involved in the main
dramatic events. Of the other characters, Helena, the lovesick young woman
desperately in love with Demetrius, is perhaps the most fully drawn. Among the
quartet of Athenian lovers, Helena is the one who thinks most about the nature
of lovewhich makes sense, given that at the beginning of the play she is left
out of the love triangle involving Lysander, Hermia, and Demetrius. She says,
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, believing that Demetrius has
built up a fantastic notion of Hermias beauty that prevents him from recognizing
Helenas own beauty (I.i.234). Utterly faithful to Demetrius despite her
recognition of his shortcomings, Helena sets out to win his love by telling him
about the plan of Lysander and Hermia to elope into the forest. Once Helena
enters the forest, many of her traits are drawn out by the confusion that the love
potion engenders: compared to the other lovers, she is extremely unsure of
herself, worrying about her appearance and believing that Lysander is mocking
her when he declares his love for her.
Oberon - The king of the fairies, Oberon is initially at odds with his wife, Titania,
because she refuses to relinquish control of a young Indian prince whom he
wants for a knight. Oberons desire for revenge on Titania leads him to send Puck
to obtain the love-potion flower that creates so much of the plays confusion and
farce.
Titania - The beautiful queen of the fairies, Titania resists the attempts of her
husband, Oberon, to make a knight of the young Indian prince that she has been
given. Titanias brief, potion-induced love for Nick Bottom, whose head Puck has
transformed into that of an ass, yields the plays foremost example of the
contrast motif.

Lysander - A young man of Athens, in love with Hermia. Lysanders relationship


with Hermia invokes the theme of loves difficulty: he cannot marry her openly
because Egeus, her father, wishes her to wed Demetrius; when Lysander and
Hermia run away into the forest, Lysander becomes the victim of misapplied
magic and wakes up in love with Helena.
Demetrius - A young man of Athens, initially in love with Hermia and ultimately
in love with Helena. Demetriuss obstinate pursuit of Hermia throws love out of
balance among the quartet of Athenian youths and precludes a symmetrical twocouple arrangement.
Hermia - Egeuss daughter, a young woman of Athens. Hermia is in love with
Lysander and is a childhood friend of Helena. As a result of the fairies mischief
with Oberons love potion, both Lysander and Demetrius suddenly fall in love
with Helena. Self-conscious about her short stature, Hermia suspects that Helena
has wooed the men with her height. By morning, however, Puck has sorted
matters out with the love potion, and Lysanders love for Hermia is restored.
Egeus - Hermias father, who brings a complaint against his daughter to
Theseus: Egeus has given Demetrius permission to marry Hermia, but Hermia, in
love with Lysander, refuses to marry Demetrius. Egeuss severe insistence that
Hermia either respect his wishes or be held accountable to Athenian law places
him squarely outside the whimsical dream realm of the forest.
Theseus - The heroic duke of Athens, engaged to Hippolyta. Theseus represents
power and order throughout the play. He appears only at the beginning and end
of the story, removed from the dreamlike events of the forest.
Hippolyta - The legendary queen of the Amazons, engaged to Theseus. Like
Theseus, she symbolizes order.
Nick Bottom - The overconfident weaver chosen to play Pyramus in the
craftsmens play for Theseuss marriage celebration. Bottom is full of advice and
self-confidence but frequently makes silly mistakes and misuses language. His
simultaneous nonchalance about the beautiful Titanias sudden love for him and
unawareness of the fact that Puck has transformed his head into that of an ass
mark the pinnacle of his foolish arrogance.
Peter Quince - A carpenter and the nominal leader of the craftsmens attempt
to put on a play for Theseuss marriage celebration. Quince is often shoved aside
by the abundantly confident Bottom. During the craftsmens play, Quince plays
the Prologue.
Francis Flute - The bellows-mender chosen to play Thisbe in the craftsmens
play for Theseuss marriage celebration. Forced to play a young girl in love, the
bearded craftsman determines to speak his lines in a high, squeaky voice.
Robin Starveling - The tailor chosen to play Thisbes mother in the craftsmens
play for Theseuss marriage celebration. He ends up playing the part of
Moonshine.

Tom Snout - The tinker chosen to play Pyramuss father in the craftsmens play
for Theseuss marriage celebration. He ends up playing the part of Wall, dividing
the two lovers.
Snug - The joiner chosen to play the lion in the craftsmens play for Theseuss
marriage celebration. Snug worries that his roaring will frighten the ladies in the
audience.
Philostrate - Theseuss Master of the Revels, responsible for organizing the
entertainment for the dukes marriage celebration.
Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Mote, and Mustardseed - The fairies ordered by
Titania to attend to Bottom after she falls in love with him.
Themes
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary
work.
Loves Difficulty
The course of true love never did run smooth, comments Lysander, articulating
one of A Midsummer Nights Dreams most important themesthat of the
difficulty of love (I.i.134). Though most of the conflict in the play stems from the
troubles of romance, and though the play involves a number of romantic
elements, it is not truly a love story; it distances the audience from the emotions
of the characters in order to poke fun at the torments and afflictions that those in
love suffer. The tone of the play is so lighthearted that the audience never
doubts that things will end happily, and it is therefore free to enjoy the comedy
without being caught up in the tension of an uncertain outcome.
The theme of loves difficulty is often explored through the motif of love out of
balancethat is, romantic situations in which a disparity or inequality interferes
with the harmony of a relationship. The prime instance of this imbalance is the
asymmetrical love among the four young Athenians: Hermia loves Lysander,
Lysander loves Hermia, Helena loves Demetrius, and Demetrius loves Hermia
instead of Helenaa simple numeric imbalance in which two men love the same
woman, leaving one woman with too many suitors and one with too few. The play
has strong potential for a traditional outcome, and the plot is in many ways
based on a quest for internal balance; that is, when the lovers tangle resolves
itself into symmetrical pairings, the traditional happy ending will have been
achieved. Somewhat similarly, in the relationship between Titania and Oberon,
an imbalance arises out of the fact that Oberons coveting of Titanias Indian boy
outweighs his love for her. Later, Titanias passion for the ass-headed Bottom
represents an imbalance of appearance and nature: Titania is beautiful and
graceful, while Bottom is clumsy and grotesque.
Magic
The fairies magic, which brings about many of the most bizarre and hilarious
situations in the play, is another element central to the fantastic atmosphere
of A Midsummer Nights Dream. Shakespeare uses magic both to embody the
almost supernatural power of love (symbolized by the love potion) and to create
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a surreal world. Although the misuse of magic causes chaos, as when Puck
mistakenly applies the love potion to Lysanders eyelids, magic ultimately
resolves the plays tensions by restoring love to balance among the quartet of
Athenian youths. Additionally, the ease with which Puck uses magic to his own
ends, as when he reshapes Bottoms head into that of an ass and recreates the
voices of Lysander and Demetrius, stands in contrast to the laboriousness and
gracelessness of the craftsmens attempt to stage their play.
Dreams
As the title suggests, dreams are an important theme in A Midsummer Nights
Dream; they are linked to the bizarre, magical mishaps in the forest. Hippolytas
first words in the play evidence the prevalence of dreams (Four days will quickly
steep themselves in night, / Four nights will quickly dream away the time), and
various characters mention dreams throughout (I.i.78). The theme of dreaming
recurs predominantly when characters attempt to explain bizarre events in which
these characters are involved: 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,
Bottom says, unable to fathom the magical happenings that have affected him
as anything but the result of slumber.
Shakespeare is also interested in the actual workings of dreams, in how events
occur without explanation, time loses its normal sense of flow, and the
impossible occurs as a matter of course; he seeks to recreate this environment in
the play through the intervention of the fairies in the magical forest. At the end
of the play, Puck extends the idea of dreams to the audience members
themselves, saying that, if they have been offended by the play, they should
remember it as nothing more than a dream. This sense of illusion and gauzy
fragility is crucial to the atmosphere of A Midsummer Nights Dream, as it helps
render the play a fantastical experience rather than a heavy drama.
Motifs
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to
develop and inform the texts major themes.
Contrast
The idea of contrast is the basic building block of A Midsummer Nights Dream.
The entire play is constructed around groups of opposites and doubles. Nearly
every characteristic presented in the play has an opposite: Helena is tall, Hermia
is short; Puck plays pranks, Bottom is the victim of pranks; Titania is beautiful,
Bottom is grotesque. Further, the three main groups of characters (who are
developed from sources as varied as Greek mythology, English folklore, and
classical literature) are designed to contrast powerfully with one another: the
fairies are graceful and magical, while the craftsmen are clumsy and earthy; the
craftsmen are merry, while the lovers are overly serious. Contrast serves as the
defining visual characteristic of A Midsummer Nights Dream, with the plays
most indelible image being that of the beautiful, delicate Titania weaving flowers
into the hair of the ass-headed Bottom. It seems impossible to imagine two
figures less compatible with each other. The juxtaposition of extraordinary
differences is the most important characteristic of the plays surreal atmosphere
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and is thus perhaps the plays central motif; there is no scene in which
extraordinary contrast is not present.
Symbols
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract
ideas or concepts.
Theseus and Hippolyta
Theseus and Hippolyta bookend A Midsummer Nights Dream,appearing in the
daylight at both the beginning and the end of the plays main action. They
disappear, however, for the duration of the action, leaving in the middle of Act I,
scene i and not reappearing until Act IV, as the sun is coming up to end the
magical night in the forest. Shakespeare uses Theseus and Hippolyta, the ruler of
Athens and his warrior bride, to represent order and stability, to contrast with the
uncertainty, instability, and darkness of most of the play. Whereas an important
element of the dream realm is that one is not in control of ones environment,
Theseus and Hippolyta are always entirely in control of theirs. Their
reappearance in the daylight of Act IV to hear Theseuss hounds signifies the end
of the dream state of the previous night and a return to rationality.
The Love Potion
The love potion is made from the juice of a flower that was struck with one of
Cupids misfired arrows; it is used by the fairies to wreak romantic havoc
throughout Acts II, III, and IV. Because the meddling fairies are careless with the
love potion, the situation of the young Athenian lovers becomes increasingly
chaotic and confusing (Demetrius and Lysander are magically compelled to
transfer their love from Hermia to Helena), and Titania is hilariously humiliated
(she is magically compelled to fall deeply in love with the ass-headed Bottom).
The love potion thus becomes a symbol of the unreasoning, fickle, erratic, and
undeniably powerful nature of love, which can lead to inexplicable and bizarre
behavior and cannot be resisted.
The Craftsmens Play
The play-within-a-play that takes up most of Act V, scene i is used to represent,
in condensed form, many of the important ideas and themes of the main plot.
Because the craftsmen are such bumbling actors, their performance satirizes the
melodramatic Athenian lovers and gives the play a purely joyful, comedic ending.
Pyramus and Thisbe face parental disapproval in the play-within-a-play, just as
Hermia and Lysander do; the theme of romantic confusion enhanced by the
darkness of night is rehashed, as Pyramus mistakenly believes that Thisbe has
been killed by the lion, just as the Athenian lovers experience intense misery
because of the mix-ups caused by the fairies meddling. The craftsmens play is,
therefore, a kind of symbol for A Midsummer Nights Dream itself: a story
involving powerful emotions that is made hilarious by its comical presentation.

Written during the first part of the seventeenth century (probably in 1600 or
1601), Hamlet was probably first performed in July 1602. It was first published in
printed form in 1603 and appeared in an enlarged edition in 1604. As was
common practice during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Shakespeare
borrowed for his plays ideas and stories from earlier literary works. He could
have taken the story of Hamlet from several possible sources, including a
twelfth-century Latin history of Denmark compiled by Saxo Grammaticus and a
prose work by the French writer Franois de Belleforest, entitled Histoires
Tragiques.
The raw material that Shakespeare appropriated in writing Hamlet is the story of
a Danish prince whose uncle murders the princes father, marries his mother,
and claims the throne. The prince pretends to be feeble-minded to throw his
uncle off guard, then manages to kill his uncle in revenge. Shakespeare changed
the emphasis of this story entirely, making his Hamlet a philosophically minded
prince who delays taking action because his knowledge of his uncles crime is so
uncertain. Shakespeare went far beyond making uncertainty a personal quirk of
Hamlets, introducing a number of important ambiguities into the play that even
the audience cannot resolve with certainty. For instance, whether Hamlets
mother, Gertrude, shares in Claudiuss guilt; whether Hamlet continues to love
Ophelia even as he spurns her, in Act III; whether Ophelias death is suicide or
accident; whether the ghost offers reliable knowledge, or seeks to deceive and
tempt Hamlet; and, perhaps most importantly, whether Hamlet would be morally
justified in taking revenge on his uncle. Shakespeare makes it clear that the
stakes riding on some of these questions are enormousthe actions of these
characters bring disaster upon an entire kingdom. At the plays end it is not even
clear whether justice has been achieved.
By modifying his source materials in this way, Shakespeare was able to take an
unremarkable revenge story and make it resonate with the most fundamental
themes and problems of the Renaissance. The Renaissance is a vast cultural
phenomenon that began in fifteenth-century Italy with the recovery of classical
Greek and Latin texts that had been lost to the Middle Ages. The scholars who
enthusiastically rediscovered these classical texts were motivated by an
educational and political ideal called (in Latin) humanitasthe idea that all of the
capabilities and virtues peculiar to human beings should be studied and
developed to their furthest extent. Renaissance humanism, as this movement is
now called, generated a new interest in human experience, and also an
enormous optimism about the potential scope of human understanding. Hamlets
famous speech in Act II, What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason,
how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action
how like an angel, in apprehension how like a godthe beauty of the world, the
paragon of animals! (II.ii.293297) is directly based upon one of the major texts
of the Italian humanists, Pico della Mirandolas Oration on the Dignity of Man. For
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the humanists, the purpose of cultivating reason was to lead to a better


understanding of how to act, and their fondest hope was that the coordination of
action and understanding would lead to great benefits for society as a whole.
As the Renaissance spread to other countries in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries, however, a more skeptical strain of humanism developed, stressing
the limitations of human understanding. For example, the sixteenth-century
French humanist, Michel de Montaigne, was no less interested in studying human
experiences than the earlier humanists were, but he maintained that the world of
experience was a world of appearances, and that human beings could never
hope to see past those appearances into the realities that lie behind them. This
is the world in which Shakespeare places his characters. Hamlet is faced with the
difficult task of correcting an injustice that he can never have sufficient
knowledge ofa dilemma that is by no means unique, or even uncommon. And
while Hamlet is fond of pointing out questions that cannot be answered because
they concern supernatural and metaphysical matters, the play as a whole chiefly
demonstrates the difficulty of knowing the truth about other peopletheir guilt
or innocence, their motivations, their feelings, their relative states of sanity or
insanity. The world of other people is a world of appearances, and Hamlet is,
fundamentally, a play about the difficulty of living in that world.
Plot overview
On a dark winter night, a ghost walks the ramparts of Elsinore Castle in
Denmark. Discovered first by a pair of watchmen, then by the scholar Horatio,
the ghost resembles the recently deceased King Hamlet, whose brother Claudius
has inherited the throne and married the kings widow, Queen Gertrude. When
Horatio and the watchmen bring Prince Hamlet, the son of Gertrude and the
dead king, to see the ghost, it speaks to him, declaring ominously that it is
indeed his fathers spirit, and that he was murdered by none other than Claudius.
Ordering Hamlet to seek revenge on the man who usurped his throne and
married his wife, the ghost disappears with the dawn.
Prince Hamlet devotes himself to avenging his fathers death, but, because he is
contemplative and thoughtful by nature, he delays, entering into a deep
melancholy and even apparent madness. Claudius and Gertrude worry about the
princes erratic behavior and attempt to discover its cause. They employ a pair of
Hamlets friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to watch him. When Polonius,
the pompous Lord Chamberlain, suggests that Hamlet may be mad with love for
his daughter, Ophelia, Claudius agrees to spy on Hamlet in conversation with the
girl. But though Hamlet certainly seems mad, he does not seem to love Ophelia:
he orders her to enter a nunnery and declares that he wishes to ban marriages.
A group of traveling actors comes to Elsinore, and Hamlet seizes upon an idea to
test his uncles guilt. He will have the players perform a scene closely resembling
the sequence by which Hamlet imagines his uncle to have murdered his father,
so that if Claudius is guilty, he will surely react. When the moment of the murder
arrives in the theater, Claudius leaps up and leaves the room. Hamlet and
Horatio agree that this proves his guilt. Hamlet goes to kill Claudius but finds him
praying. Since he believes that killing Claudius while in prayer would send
Claudiuss soul to heaven, Hamlet considers that it would be an inadequate
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revenge and decides to wait. Claudius, now frightened of Hamlets madness and
fearing for his own safety, orders that Hamlet be sent to England at once.
Hamlet goes to confront his mother, in whose bedchamber Polonius has hidden
behind a tapestry. Hearing a noise from behind the tapestry, Hamlet believes the
king is hiding there. He draws his sword and stabs through the fabric, killing
Polonius. For this crime, he is immediately dispatched to England with
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. However, Claudiuss plan for Hamlet includes
more than banishment, as he has given Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sealed
orders for the King of England demanding that Hamlet be put to death.
In the aftermath of her fathers death, Ophelia goes mad with grief and drowns in
the river. Poloniuss son, Laertes, who has been staying in France, returns to
Denmark in a rage. Claudius convinces him that Hamlet is to blame for his
fathers and sisters deaths. When Horatio and the king receive letters from
Hamlet indicating that the prince has returned to Denmark after pirates attacked
his ship en route to England, Claudius concocts a plan to use Laertes desire for
revenge to secure Hamlets death. Laertes will fence with Hamlet in innocent
sport, but Claudius will poison Laertes blade so that if he draws blood, Hamlet
will die. As a backup plan, the king decides to poison a goblet, which he will give
Hamlet to drink should Hamlet score the first or second hits of the match. Hamlet
returns to the vicinity of Elsinore just as Ophelias funeral is taking place.
Stricken with grief, he attacks Laertes and declares that he had in fact always
loved Ophelia. Back at the castle, he tells Horatio that he believes one must be
prepared to die, since death can come at any moment. A foolish courtier named
Osric arrives on Claudiuss orders to arrange the fencing match between Hamlet
and Laertes.
The sword-fighting begins. Hamlet scores the first hit, but declines to drink from
the kings proffered goblet. Instead, Gertrude takes a drink from it and is swiftly
killed by the poison. Laertes succeeds in wounding Hamlet, though Hamlet does
not die of the poison immediately. First, Laertes is cut by his own swords blade,
and, after revealing to Hamlet that Claudius is responsible for the queens death,
he dies from the blades poison. Hamlet then stabs Claudius through with the
poisoned sword and forces him to drink down the rest of the poisoned wine.
Claudius dies, and Hamlet dies immediately after achieving his revenge.
At this moment, a Norwegian prince named Fortinbras, who has led an army to
Denmark and attacked Poland earlier in the play, enters with ambassadors from
England, who report that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. Fortinbras is
stunned by the gruesome sight of the entire royal family lying sprawled on the
floor dead. He moves to take power of the kingdom. Horatio, fulfilling Hamlets
last request, tells him Hamlets tragic story. Fortinbras orders that Hamlet be
carried away in a manner befitting a fallen soldier.
Polonius - The Lord Chamberlain of Claudiuss court, a pompous, conniving old
man. Polonius is the father of Laertes and Ophelia.
Horatio - Hamlets close friend, who studied with the prince at the university in
Wittenberg. Horatio is loyal and helpful to Hamlet throughout the play. After
Hamlets death, Horatio remains alive to tell Hamlets story.
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Ophelia - Poloniuss daughter, a beautiful young woman with whom Hamlet has
been in love. Ophelia is a sweet and innocent young girl, who obeys her father
and her brother, Laertes. Dependent on men to tell her how to behave, she gives
in to Poloniuss schemes to spy on Hamlet. Even in her lapse into madness and
death, she remains maidenly, singing songs about flowers and finally drowning in
the river amid the flower garlands she had gathered.
Laertes - Poloniuss son and Ophelias brother, a young man who spends much
of the play in France. Passionate and quick to action, Laertes is clearly a foil for
the reflective Hamlet.
Fortinbras - The young Prince of Norway, whose father the king (also named
Fortinbras) was killed by Hamlets father (also named Hamlet). Now Fortinbras
wishes to attack Denmark to avenge his fathers honor, making him another foil
for Prince Hamlet.
The Ghost - The specter of Hamlets recently deceased father. The ghost, who
claims to have been murdered by Claudius, calls upon Hamlet to avenge him.
However, it is not entirely certain whether the ghost is what it appears to be, or
whether it is something else. Hamlet speculates that the ghost might be a devil
sent to deceive him and tempt him into murder, and the question of what the
ghost is or where it comes from is never definitively resolved.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - Two slightly bumbling courtiers, former
friends of Hamlet from Wittenberg, who are summoned by Claudius and Gertrude
to discover the cause of Hamlets strange behavior.
Osric - The foolish courtier who summons Hamlet to his duel with Laertes.
Voltimand and Cornelius - Courtiers whom Claudius sends to Norway to
persuade the king to prevent Fortinbras from attacking.
Marcellus and Bernardo - The officers who first see the ghost walking the
ramparts of Elsinore and who summon Horatio to witness it. Marcellus is present
when Hamlet first encounters the ghost.
Francisco - A soldier and guardsman at Elsinore.
Reynaldo - Poloniuss servant, who is sent to France by Polonius to check up on
and spy on Laertes.
Hamlet
Hamlet has fascinated audiences and readers for centuries, and the first thing to
point out about him is that he is enigmatic. There is always more to him than the
other characters in the play can figure out; even the most careful and clever
readers come away with the sense that they dont know everything there is to
know about this character. Hamlet actually tells other characters that there is
more to him than meets the eyenotably, his mother, and Rosencrantz and
Guildensternbut his fascination involves much more than this. When he speaks,
he sounds as if theres something important hes not saying, maybe something
even he is not aware of. The ability to write soliloquies and dialogues that create
this effect is one of Shakespeares most impressive achievements.
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A university student whose studies are interrupted by his fathers death, Hamlet
is extremely philosophical and contemplative. He is particularly drawn to difficult
questions or questions that cannot be answered with any certainty. Faced with
evidence that his uncle murdered his father, evidence that any other character in
a play would believe, Hamlet becomes obsessed with proving his uncles guilt
before trying to act. The standard of beyond a reasonable doubt is simply
unacceptable to him. He is equally plagued with questions about the afterlife,
about the wisdom of suicide, about what happens to bodies after they diethe
list is extensive.
But even though he is thoughtful to the point of obsession, Hamlet also behaves
rashly and impulsively. When he does act, it is with surprising swiftness and little
or no premeditation, as when he stabs Polonius through a curtain without even
checking to see who he is. He seems to step very easily into the role of a
madman, behaving erratically and upsetting the other characters with his wild
speech and pointed innuendos.
It is also important to note that Hamlet is extremely melancholy and
discontented with the state of affairs in Denmark and in his own familyindeed,
in the world at large. He is extremely disappointed with his mother for marrying
his uncle so quickly, and he repudiates Ophelia, a woman he once claimed to
love, in the harshest terms. His words often indicate his disgust with and distrust
of women in general. At a number of points in the play, he contemplates his own
death and even the option of suicide.
But, despite all of the things with which Hamlet professes dissatisfaction, it is
remarkable that the prince and heir apparent of Denmark should think about
these problems only in personal and philosophical terms. He spends relatively
little time thinking about the threats to Denmarks national security from without
or the threats to its stability from within (some of which he helps to create
through his own carelessness).
Claudius
Hamlets major antagonist is a shrewd, lustful, conniving king who contrasts
sharply with the other male characters in the play. Whereas most of the other
important men in Hamlet are preoccupied with ideas of justice, revenge, and
moral balance, Claudius is bent upon maintaining his own power. The old King
Hamlet was apparently a stern warrior, but Claudius is a corrupt politician whose
main weapon is his ability to manipulate others through his skillful use of
language. Claudiuss speech is compared to poison being poured in the earthe
method he used to murder Hamlets father. Claudiuss love for Gertrude may be
sincere, but it also seems likely that he married her as a strategic move, to help
him win the throne away from Hamlet after the death of the king. As the play
progresses, Claudiuss mounting fear of Hamlets insanity leads him to ever
greater self-preoccupation; when Gertrude tells him that Hamlet has killed
Polonius, Claudius does not remark that Gertrude might have been in danger, but
only that he would have been in danger had he been in the room. He tells
Laertes the same thing as he attempts to soothe the young mans anger after his
fathers death. Claudius is ultimately too crafty for his own good. In Act V, scene
ii, rather than allowing Laertes only two methods of killing Hamlet, the
sharpened sword and the poison on the blade, Claudius insists on a third, the
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poisoned goblet. When Gertrude inadvertently drinks the poison and dies,
Hamlet is at last able to bring himself to kill Claudius, and the king is felled by his
own cowardly machination.
Gertrude
Few Shakespearean characters have caused as much uncertainty as Gertrude,
the beautiful Queen of Denmark. The play seems to raise more questions about
Gertrude than it answers, including: Was she involved with Claudius before the
death of her husband? Did she love her husband? Did she know about Claudiuss
plan to commit the murder? Did she love Claudius, or did she marry him simply
to keep her high station in Denmark? Does she believe Hamlet when he insists
that he is not mad, or does she pretend to believe him simply to protect herself?
Does she intentionally betray Hamlet to Claudius, or does she believe that she is
protecting her sons secret?
These questions can be answered in numerous ways, depending upon ones
reading of the play. The Gertrude who does emerge clearly in Hamlet is a woman
defined by her desire for station and affection, as well as by her tendency to use
men to fulfill her instinct for self-preservationwhich, of course, makes her
extremely dependent upon the men in her life. Hamlets most famous comment
about Gertrude is his furious condemnation of women in general: Frailty, thy
name is woman! (I.ii.146). This comment is as much indicative of Hamlets
agonized state of mind as of anything else, but to a great extent Gertrude does
seem morally frail. She never exhibits the ability to think critically about her
situation, but seems merely to move instinctively toward seemingly safe choices,
as when she immediately runs to Claudius after her confrontation with Hamlet.
She is at her best in social situations (I.ii and V.ii), when her natural grace and
charm seem to indicate a rich, rounded personality. At times it seems that her
grace and charm are her onlycharacteristics, and her reliance on men appears to
be her sole way of capitalizing on her abilities.
Themes
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary
work.
The Impossibility of Certainty
What separates Hamlet from other revenge plays (and maybe from every play
written before it) is that the action we expect to see, particularly from Hamlet
himself, is continually postponed while Hamlet tries to obtain more certain
knowledge about what he is doing. This play poses many questions that other
plays would simply take for granted. Can we have certain knowledge about
ghosts? Is the ghost what it appears to be, or is it really a misleading fiend? Does
the ghost have reliable knowledge about its own death, or is the ghost itself
deluded? Moving to more earthly matters: How can we know for certain the facts
about a crime that has no witnesses? Can Hamlet know the state of Claudiuss
soul by watching his behavior? If so, can he know the facts of what Claudius did
by observing the state of his soul? Can Claudius (or the audience) know the state
of Hamlets mind by observing his behavior and listening to his speech? Can we
know whether our actions will have the consequences we want them to have?
Can we know anything about the afterlife?
13

Many people have seenHamlet as a play about indecisiveness, and thus about
Hamlets failure to act appropriately. It might be more interesting to consider that
the play shows us how many uncertainties our lives are built upon, how many
unknown quantities are taken for granted when people act or when they
evaluate one anothers actions.
The Complexity of Action
Directly related to the theme of certainty is the theme of action. How is it
possible to take reasonable, effective, purposeful action? InHamlet, the question
of how to act is affected not only by rational considerations, such as the need for
certainty, but also by emotional, ethical, and psychological factors. Hamlet
himself appears to distrust the idea that its even possible to act in a controlled,
purposeful way. When he does act, he prefers to do it blindly, recklessly, and
violently. The other characters obviously think much less about action in the
abstract than Hamlet does, and are therefore less troubled about the possibility
of acting effectively. They simply act as they feel is appropriate. But in some
sense they prove that Hamlet is right, because all of their actions miscarry.
Claudius possesses himself of queen and crown through bold action, but his
conscience torments him, and he is beset by threats to his authority (and, of
course, he dies). Laertes resolves that nothing will distract him from acting out
his revenge, but he is easily influenced and manipulated into serving Claudiuss
ends, and his poisoned rapier is turned back upon himself.
The Mystery of Death
In the aftermath of his fathers murder, Hamlet is obsessed with the idea of
death, and over the course of the play he considers death from a great many
perspectives. He ponders both the spiritual aftermath of death, embodied in the
ghost, and the physical remainders of the dead, such as by Yoricks skull and the
decaying corpses in the cemetery. Throughout, the idea of death is closely tied to
the themes of spirituality, truth, and uncertainty in that death may bring the
answers to Hamlets deepest questions, ending once and for all the problem of
trying to determine truth in an ambiguous world. And, since death is both the
cause and the consequence of revenge, it is intimately tied to the theme of
revenge and justiceClaudiuss murder of King Hamlet initiates Hamlets quest
for revenge, and Claudiuss death is the end of that quest.
The question of his own death plagues Hamlet as well, as he repeatedly
contemplates whether or not suicide is a morally legitimate action in an
unbearably painful world. Hamlets grief and misery is such that he frequently
longs for death to end his suffering, but he fears that if he commits suicide, he
will be consigned to eternal suffering in hell because of the Christian religions
prohibition of suicide. In his famous To be or not to be soliloquy (III.i), Hamlet
philosophically concludes that no one would choose to endure the pain of life if
he or she were not afraid of what will come after death, and that it is this fear
which causes complex moral considerations to interfere with the capacity for
action.
14

The Nation as a Diseased Body


Everything is connected in Hamlet, including the welfare of the royal family and
the health of the state as a whole. The plays early scenes explore the sense of
anxiety and dread that surrounds the transfer of power from one ruler to the
next. Throughout the play, characters draw explicit connections between the
moral legitimacy of a ruler and the health of the nation. Denmark is frequently
described as a physical body made ill by the moral corruption of Claudius and
Gertrude, and many observers interpret the presence of the ghost as a
supernatural omen indicating that [s]omething is rotten in the state of
Denmark (I.iv.67). The dead King Hamlet is portrayed as a strong, forthright
ruler under whose guard the state was in good health, while Claudius, a wicked
politician, has corrupted and compromised Denmark to satisfy his own appetites.
At the end of the play, the rise to power of the upright Fortinbras suggests that
Denmark will be strengthened once again.
Motifs
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to
develop and inform the texts major themes.
Incest and Incestuous Desire
The motif of incest runs throughout the play and is frequently alluded to by
Hamlet and the ghost, most obviously in conversations about Gertrude and
Claudius, the former brother-in-law and sister-in-law who are now married. A
subtle motif of incestuous desire can be found in the relationship of Laertes and
Ophelia, as Laertes sometimes speaks to his sister in suggestively sexual terms
and, at her funeral, leaps into her grave to hold her in his arms. However, the
strongest overtones of incestuous desire arise in the relationship of Hamlet and
Gertrude, in Hamlets fixation on Gertrudes sex life with Claudius and his
preoccupation with her in general.
Misogyny
Shattered by his mothers decision to marry Claudius so soon after her husbands
death, Hamlet becomes cynical about women in general, showing a particular
obsession with what he perceives to be a connection between female sexuality
and moral corruption. This motif of misogyny, or hatred of women, occurs
sporadically throughout the play, but it is an important inhibiting factor in
Hamlets relationships with Ophelia and Gertrude. He urges Ophelia to go to a
nunnery rather than experience the corruptions of sexuality and exclaims of
Gertrude, Frailty, thy name is woman (I.ii.146).
Ears and Hearing
One facet of Hamlets exploration of the difficulty of attaining true knowledge is
slipperiness of language. Words are used to communicate ideas, but they can
also be used to distort the truth, manipulate other people, and serve as tools in
corrupt quests for power. Claudius, the shrewd politician, is the most obvious
example of a man who manipulates words to enhance his own power. The
sinister uses of words are represented by images of ears and hearing, from
Claudiuss murder of the king by pouring poison into his ear to Hamlets claim to
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Horatio that I have words to speak in thine ear will make thee dumb (IV.vi.21).
The poison poured in the kings ear by Claudius is used by the ghost to symbolize
the corrosive effect of Claudiuss dishonesty on the health of Denmark. Declaring
that the story that he was killed by a snake is a lie, he says that the whole ear
of Denmark is Rankly abused. . . . (I.v.3638).
Symbols
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract
ideas or concepts.
Yoricks Skull
In Hamlet, physical objects are rarely used to represent thematic ideas. One
important exception is Yoricks skull, which Hamlet discovers in the graveyard in
the first scene of Act V. As Hamlet speaks to the skull and about the skull of the
kings former jester, he fixates on deaths inevitability and the disintegration of
the body. He urges the skull to get you to my ladys chamber, and tell her, let
her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must comeno one can avoid death
(V.i.178179). He traces the skulls mouth and says, Here hung those lips that I
have kissed I know not how oft, indicating his fascination with the physical
consequences of death (V.i.174175). This latter idea is an important motif
throughout the play, as Hamlet frequently makes comments referring to every
human bodys eventual decay, noting that Polonius will be eaten by worms, that
even kings are eaten by worms, and that dust from the decayed body of
Alexander the Great might be used to stop a hole in a beer barrel.

Shakespeares shortest and bloodiest tragedy, Macbeth tells the story of a brave
Scottish general (Macbeth) who receives a prophecy from a trio of sinister
witches that one day he will become King of Scotland. Consumed with ambitious
thoughts and spurred to action by his wife, Macbeth murders King Duncan and
seizes the throne for himself. He begins his reign racked with guilt and fear and
soon becomes a tyrannical ruler, as he is forced to commit more and more
murders to protect himself from enmity and suspicion. The bloodbath swiftly
propels Macbeth and Lady Macbeth to arrogance, madness, and death.
Macbeth was most likely written in 1606, early in the reign of James I, who had
been James VI of Scotland before he succeeded to the English throne in 1603.
James was a patron of Shakespeares acting company, and of all the plays
Shakespeare wrote under Jamess reign, Macbeth most clearly reflects the
playwrights close relationship with the sovereign. In focusing on Macbeth, a
figure from Scottish history, Shakespeare paid homage to his kings Scottish
lineage. Additionally, the witches prophecy that Banquo will found a line of kings
is a clear nod to Jamess familys claim to have descended from the historical
Banquo. In a larger sense, the theme of bad versus good kingship, embodied by
Macbeth and Duncan, respectively, would have resonated at the royal court,
where James was busy developing his English version of the theory of divine
right.
16

Macbeth is not Shakespeares most complex play, but it is certainly one of his
most powerful and emotionally intense. Whereas Shakespeares other major
tragedies, such as Hamlet and Othello,fastidiously explore the intellectual
predicaments faced by their subjects and the fine nuances of their subjects
characters, Macbethtumbles madly from its opening to its conclusion. It is a
sharp, jagged sketch of theme and character; as such, it has shocked and
fascinated audiences for nearly four hundred years.
The play begins with the brief appearance of a trio of witches and then moves to
a military camp, where the Scottish King Duncan hears the news that his
generals, Macbeth and Banquo, have defeated two separate invading armies
one from Ireland, led by the rebel Macdonwald, and one from Norway. Following
their pitched battle with these enemy forces, Macbeth and Banquo encounter the
witches as they cross a moor. The witches prophesy that Macbeth will be made
thane (a rank of Scottish nobility) of Cawdor and eventually King of Scotland.
They also prophesy that Macbeths companion, Banquo, will beget a line of
Scottish kings, although Banquo will never be king himself. The witches vanish,
and Macbeth and Banquo treat their prophecies skeptically until some of King
Duncans men come to thank the two generals for their victories in battle and to
tell Macbeth that he has indeed been named thane of Cawdor. The previous
thane betrayed Scotland by fighting for the Norwegians and Duncan has
condemned him to death. Macbeth is intrigued by the possibility that the
remainder of the witches prophecythat he will be crowned kingmight be
true, but he is uncertain what to expect. He visits with King Duncan, and they
plan to dine together at Inverness, Macbeths castle, that night. Macbeth writes
ahead to his wife, Lady Macbeth, telling her all that has happened. Lady Macbeth
suffers none of her husbands uncertainty. She desires the kingship for him and
wants him to murder Duncan in order to obtain it. When Macbeth arrives at
Inverness, she overrides all of her husbands objections and persuades him to kill
the king that very night. He and Lady Macbeth plan to get Duncans two
chamberlains drunk so they will black out; the next morning they will blame the
murder on the chamberlains, who will be defenseless, as they will remember
nothing. While Duncan is asleep, Macbeth stabs him, despite his doubts and a
number of supernatural portents, including a vision of a bloody dagger. When
Duncans death is discovered the next morning, Macbeth kills the chamberlains
ostensibly out of rage at their crimeand easily assumes the kingship. Duncans
sons Malcolm and Donalbain flee to England and Ireland, respectively, fearing
that whoever killed Duncan desires their demise as well.
Fearful of the witches prophecy that Banquos heirs will seize the throne,
Macbeth hires a group of murderers to kill Banquo and his son Fleance. They
ambush Banquo on his way to a royal feast, but they fail to kill Fleance, who
escapes into the night. Macbeth becomes furious: as long as Fleance is alive, he
fears that his power remains insecure. At the feast that night, Banquos ghost
visits Macbeth. When he sees the ghost, Macbeth raves fearfully, startling his
guests, who include most of the great Scottish nobility. Lady Macbeth tries to
neutralize the damage, but Macbeths kingship incites increasing resistance from
his nobles and subjects. Frightened, Macbeth goes to visit the witches in their
cavern. There, they show him a sequence of demons and spirits who present him
with further prophecies: he must beware of Macduff, a Scottish nobleman who
opposed Macbeths accession to the throne; he is incapable of being harmed by
17

any man born of woman; and he will be safe until Birnam Wood comes to
Dunsinane Castle. Macbeth is relieved and feels secure, because he knows that
all men are born of women and that forests cannot move. When he learns that
Macduff has fled to England to join Malcolm, Macbeth orders that Macduffs
castle be seized and, most cruelly, that Lady Macduff and her children be
murdered.
When news of his familys execution reaches Macduff in England, he is stricken
with grief and vows revenge. Prince Malcolm, Duncans son, has succeeded in
raising an army in England, and Macduff joins him as he rides to Scotland to
challenge Macbeths forces. The invasion has the support of the Scottish nobles,
who are appalled and frightened by Macbeths tyrannical and murderous
behavior. Lady Macbeth, meanwhile, becomes plagued with fits of sleepwalking
in which she bemoans what she believes to be bloodstains on her hands. Before
Macbeths opponents arrive, Macbeth receives news that she has killed herself,
causing him to sink into a deep and pessimistic despair. Nevertheless, he awaits
the English and fortifies Dunsinane, to which he seems to have withdrawn in
order to defend himself, certain that the witches prophecies guarantee his
invincibility. He is struck numb with fear, however, when he learns that the
English army is advancing on Dunsinane shielded with boughs cut from Birnam
Wood. Birnam Wood is indeed coming to Dunsinane, fulfilling half of the witches
prophecy.
In the battle, Macbeth hews violently, but the English forces gradually overwhelm
his army and castle. On the battlefield, Macbeth encounters the vengeful
Macduff, who declares that he was not of woman born but was instead
untimely ripped from his mothers womb (what we now call birth by cesarean
section). Though he realizes that he is doomed, Macbeth continues to fight until
Macduff kills and beheads him. Malcolm, now the King of Scotland, declares his
benevolent intentions for the country and invites all to see him crowned at
Scone.
Macbeth
Because we first hear of Macbeth in the wounded captains account of his
battlefield valor, our initial impression is of a brave and capable warrior. This
perspective is complicated, however, once we see Macbeth interact with the
three witches. We realize that his physical courage is joined by a consuming
ambition and a tendency to self-doubtthe prediction that he will be king brings
him joy, but it also creates inner turmoil. These three attributesbravery,
ambition, and self-doubtstruggle for mastery of Macbeth throughout the play.
Shakespeare uses Macbeth to show the terrible effects that ambition and guilt
can have on a man who lacks strength of character. We may classify Macbeth as
irrevocably evil, but his weak character separates him from Shakespeares great
villainsIago inOthello, Richard III in Richard III, Edmund in King Learwho are
all strong enough to conquer guilt and self-doubt. Macbeth, great warrior though
he is, is ill equipped for the psychic consequences of crime.
Before he kills Duncan, Macbeth is plagued by worry and almost aborts the
crime. It takes Lady Macbeths steely sense of purpose to push him into the
deed. After the murder, however, her powerful personality begins to disintegrate,
leaving Macbeth increasingly alone. He fluctuates between fits of fevered action,
18

in which he plots a series of murders to secure his throne, and moments of


terrible guilt (as when Banquos ghost appears) and absolute pessimism (after
his wifes death, when he seems to succumb to despair). These fluctuations
reflect the tragic tension within Macbeth: he is at once too ambitious to allow his
conscience to stop him from murdering his way to the top and too conscientious
to be happy with himself as a murderer. As things fall apart for him at the end of
the play, he seems almost relievedwith the English army at his gates, he can
finally return to life as a warrior, and he displays a kind of reckless bravado as his
enemies surround him and drag him down. In part, this stems from his fatal
confidence in the witches prophecies, but it also seems to derive from the fact
that he has returned to the arena where he has been most successful and where
his internal turmoil need not affect himnamely, the battlefield. Unlike many of
Shakespeares other tragic heroes, Macbeth never seems to contemplate suicide:
Why should I play the Roman fool, he asks, and die / On mine own sword?
(5.10.12). Instead, he goes down fighting, bringing the play full circle: it begins
with Macbeth winning on the battlefield and ends with him dying in combat.
Lady Macbeth
Lady Macbeth is one of Shakespeares most famous and frightening female
characters. When we first see her, she is already plotting Duncans murder, and
she is stronger, more ruthless, and more ambitious than her husband. She seems
fully aware of this and knows that she will have to push Macbeth into committing
murder. At one point, she wishes that she were not a woman so that she could do
it herself. This theme of the relationship between gender and power is key to
Lady Macbeths character: her husband implies that she is a masculine soul
inhabiting a female body, which seems to link masculinity to ambition and
violence. Shakespeare, however, seems to use her, and the witches, to undercut
Macbeths idea that undaunted mettle should compose / Nothing but males
(1.7.7374). These crafty women use female methods of achieving powerthat
is, manipulationto further their supposedly male ambitions. Women, the play
implies, can be as ambitious and cruel as men, yet social constraints deny them
the means to pursue these ambitions on their own.
Lady Macbeth manipulates her husband with remarkable effectiveness,
overriding all his objections; when he hesitates to murder, she repeatedly
questions his manhood until he feels that he must commit murder to prove
himself. Lady Macbeths remarkable strength of will persists through the murder
of the kingit is she who steadies her husbands nerves immediately after the
crime has been perpetrated. Afterward, however, she begins a slow slide into
madnessjust as ambition affects her more strongly than Macbeth before the
crime, so does guilt plague her more strongly afterward. By the close of the play,
she has been reduced to sleepwalking through the castle, desperately trying to
wash away an invisible bloodstain. Once the sense of guilt comes home to roost,
Lady Macbeths sensitivity becomes a weakness, and she is unable to cope.
Significantly, she (apparently) kills herself, signaling her total inability to deal
with the legacy of their crimes.
The Three Witches
Throughout the play, the witchesreferred to as the weird sisters by many of
the characterslurk like dark thoughts and unconscious temptations to evil. In
19

part, the mischief they cause stems from their supernatural powers, but mainly it
is the result of their understanding of the weaknesses of their specific
interlocutorsthey play upon Macbeths ambition like puppeteers.
The witches beards, bizarre potions, and rhymed speech make them seem
slightly ridiculous, like caricatures of the supernatural. Shakespeare has them
speak in rhyming couplets throughout (their most famous line is probably
Double, double, toil and trouble, / Fire burn and cauldron bubble in 4.1.1011),
which separates them from the other characters, who mostly speak in blank
verse. The witches words seem almost comical, like malevolent nursery rhymes.
Despite the absurdity of their eye of newt and toe of frog recipes, however,
they are clearly the most dangerous characters in the play, being both
tremendously powerful and utterly wicked (4.1.14).
The audience is left to ask whether the witches are independent agents toying
with human lives, or agents of fate, whose prophecies are only reports of the
inevitable. The witches bear a striking and obviously intentional resemblance to
the Fates, female characters in both Norse and Greek mythology who weave the
fabric of human lives and then cut the threads to end them. Some of their
prophecies seem self-fulfilling. For example, it is doubtful that Macbeth would
have murdered his king without the push given by the witches predictions. In
other cases, though, their prophecies are just remarkably accurate readings of
the futureit is hard to see Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane as being selffulfilling in any way. The play offers no easy answers. Instead, Shakespeare keeps
the witches well outside the limits of human comprehension. They embody an
unreasoning, instinctive evil.
Banquo - The brave, noble general whose children, according to the witches
prophecy, will inherit the Scottish throne. Like Macbeth, Banquo thinks ambitious
thoughts, but he does not translate those thoughts into action. In a sense,
Banquos character stands as a rebuke to Macbeth, since he represents the path
Macbeth chose not to take: a path in which ambition need not lead to betrayal
and murder. Appropriately, then, it is Banquos ghostand not Duncansthat
haunts Macbeth. In addition to embodying Macbeths guilt for killing Banquo, the
ghost also reminds Macbeth that he did not emulate Banquos reaction to the
witches prophecy.
King Duncan - The good King of Scotland whom Macbeth, in his ambition for
the crown, murders. Duncan is the model of a virtuous, benevolent, and
farsighted ruler. His death symbolizes the destruction of an order in Scotland that
can be restored only when Duncans line, in the person of Malcolm, once more
occupies the throne.
Macduf - A Scottish nobleman hostile to Macbeths kingship from the start. He
eventually becomes a leader of the crusade to unseat Macbeth. The crusades
mission is to place the rightful king, Malcolm, on the throne, but Macduff also
desires vengeance for Macbeths murder of Macduffs wife and young son.
Malcolm - The son of Duncan, whose restoration to the throne signals
Scotlands return to order following Macbeths reign of terror. Malcolm becomes a
serious challenge to Macbeth with Macduffs aid (and the support of England).
20

Prior to this, he appears weak and uncertain of his own power, as when he and
Donalbain flee Scotland after their fathers murder.
Hecate - The goddess of witchcraft, who helps the three witches work their
mischief on Macbeth.
Fleance - Banquos son, who survives Macbeths attempt to murder him. At the
end of the play, Fleances whereabouts are unknown. Presumably, he may come
to rule Scotland, fulfilling the witches prophecy that Banquos sons will sit on the
Scottish throne.
Lennox - A Scottish nobleman.
Ross - A Scottish nobleman.
The Murderers - A group of ruffians conscripted by Macbeth to murder Banquo,
Fleance (whom they fail to kill), and Macduffs wife and children.
Porter - The drunken doorman of Macbeths castle.
Lady Macduf - Macduffs wife. The scene in her castle provides our only
glimpse of a domestic realm other than that of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. She
and her home serve as contrasts to Lady Macbeth and the hellish world of
Inverness.
Donalbain - Duncans son and Malcolms younger brother.
Themes
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary
work.
The Corrupting Power of Unchecked Ambition
The main theme of Macbeththe destruction wrought when ambition goes
unchecked by moral constraintsfinds its most powerful expression in the plays
two main characters. Macbeth is a courageous Scottish general who is not
naturally inclined to commit evil deeds, yet he deeply desires power and
advancement. He kills Duncan against his better judgment and afterward stews
in guilt and paranoia. Toward the end of the play he descends into a kind of
frantic, boastful madness. Lady Macbeth, on the other hand, pursues her goals
with greater determination, yet she is less capable of withstanding the
repercussions of her immoral acts. One of Shakespeares most forcefully drawn
female characters, she spurs her husband mercilessly to kill Duncan and urges
him to be strong in the murders aftermath, but she is eventually driven to
distraction by the effect of Macbeths repeated bloodshed on her conscience. In
each case, ambitionhelped, of course, by the malign prophecies of the witches
is what drives the couple to ever more terrible atrocities. The problem, the play
suggests, is that once one decides to use violence to further ones quest for
power, it is difficult to stop. There are always potential threats to the throne
Banquo, Fleance, Macduffand it is always tempting to use violent means to
dispose of them.

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The Relationship Between Cruelty and Masculinity


Characters in Macbethfrequently dwell on issues of gender. Lady Macbeth
manipulates her husband by questioning his manhood, wishes that she herself
could be unsexed, and does not contradict Macbeth when he says that a
woman like her should give birth only to boys. In the same manner that Lady
Macbeth goads her husband on to murder, Macbeth provokes the murderers he
hires to kill Banquo by questioning their manhood. Such acts show that both
Macbeth and Lady Macbeth equate masculinity with naked aggression, and
whenever they converse about manhood, violence soon follows. Their
understanding of manhood allows the political order depicted in the play to
descend into chaos.
At the same time, however, the audience cannot help noticing that women are
also sources of violence and evil. The witches prophecies spark Macbeths
ambitions and then encourage his violent behavior; Lady Macbeth provides the
brains and the will behind her husbands plotting; and the only divine being to
appear is Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft. Arguably, Macbeth traces the root of
chaos and evil to women, which has led some critics to argue that this is
Shakespeares most misogynistic play. While the male characters are just as
violent and prone to evil as the women, the aggression of the female characters
is more striking because it goes against prevailing expectations of how women
ought to behave. Lady Macbeths behavior certainly shows that women can be as
ambitious and cruel as men. Whether because of the constraints of her society or
because she is not fearless enough to kill, Lady Macbeth relies on deception and
manipulation rather than violence to achieve her ends.
Ultimately, the play does put forth a revised and less destructive definition of
manhood. In the scene where Macduff learns of the murders of his wife and child,
Malcolm consoles him by encouraging him to take the news in manly fashion,
by seeking revenge upon Macbeth. Macduff shows the young heir apparent that
he has a mistaken understanding of masculinity. To Malcolms suggestion,
Dispute it like a man, Macduff replies, I shall do so. But I must also feel it as a
man (4.3.221223). At the end of the play, Siward receives news of his sons
death rather complacently. Malcolm responds: Hes worth more sorrow [than
you have expressed] / And that Ill spend for him (5.11.1617). Malcolms
comment shows that he has learned the lesson Macduff gave him on the sentient
nature of true masculinity. It also suggests that, with Malcolms coronation, order
will be restored to the Kingdom of Scotland.
The Diference Between Kingship and Tyranny
In the play, Duncan is always referred to as a king, while Macbeth soon
becomes known as the tyrant. The difference between the two types of rulers
seems to be expressed in a conversation that occurs in Act 4, scene 3, when
Macduff meets Malcolm in England. In order to test Macduffs loyalty to Scotland,
Malcolm pretends that he would make an even worse king than Macbeth. He tells
Macduff of his reproachable qualitiesamong them a thirst for personal power
and a violent temperament, both of which seem to characterize Macbeth
perfectly. On the other hand, Malcolm says, The king-becoming graces / [are]
justice, verity, temprance, stableness, / Bounty, perseverance, mercy, [and]
lowliness (4.3.9293). The model king, then, offers the kingdom an embodiment
22

of order and justice, but also comfort and affection. Under him, subjects are
rewarded according to their merits, as when Duncan makes Macbeth thane of
Cawdor after Macbeths victory over the invaders. Most important, the king must
be loyal to Scotland above his own interests. Macbeth, by contrast, brings only
chaos to Scotlandsymbolized in the bad weather and bizarre supernatural
eventsand offers no real justice, only a habit of capriciously murdering those
he sees as a threat. As the embodiment of tyranny, he must be overcome by
Malcolm so that Scotland can have a true king once more.
Motifs
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to
develop and inform the texts major themes.
Hallucinations
Visions and hallucinations recur throughout the play and serve as reminders of
Macbeth and Lady Macbeths joint culpability for the growing body count. When
he is about to kill Duncan, Macbeth sees a dagger floating in the air. Covered
with blood and pointed toward the kings chamber, the dagger represents the
bloody course on which Macbeth is about to embark. Later, he sees Banquos
ghost sitting in a chair at a feast, pricking his conscience by mutely reminding
him that he murdered his former friend. The seemingly hardheaded Lady
Macbeth also eventually gives way to visions, as she sleepwalks and believes
that her hands are stained with blood that cannot be washed away by any
amount of water. In each case, it is ambiguous whether the vision is real or
purely hallucinatory; but, in both cases, the Macbeths read them uniformly as
supernatural signs of their guilt.
Violence
Macbeth is a famously violent play. Interestingly, most of the killings take place
offstage, but throughout the play the characters provide the audience with gory
descriptions of the carnage, from the opening scene where the captain describes
Macbeth and Banquo wading in blood on the battlefield, to the endless
references to the bloodstained hands of Macbeth and his wife. The action is
bookended by a pair of bloody battles: in the first, Macbeth defeats the invaders;
in the second, he is slain and beheaded by Macduff. In between is a series of
murders: Duncan, Duncans chamberlains, Banquo, Lady Macduff, and Macduffs
son all come to bloody ends. By the end of the action, blood seems to be
everywhere.
Prophecy
Prophecy sets Macbeths plot in motionnamely, the witches prophecy that
Macbeth will become first thane of Cawdor and then king. The weird sisters make
a number of other prophecies: they tell us that Banquos heirs will be kings, that
Macbeth should beware Macduff, that Macbeth is safe till Birnam Wood comes to
Dunsinane, and that no man born of woman can harm Macbeth. Save for the
prophecy about Banquos heirs, all of these predictions are fulfilled within the
course of the play. Still, it is left deliberately ambiguous whether some of them
are self-fulfillingfor example, whether Macbeth wills himself to be king or is
fated to be king. Additionally, as the Birnam Wood and born of woman
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prophecies make clear, the prophecies must be interpreted as riddles, since they
do not always mean what they seem to mean.
Symbols
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract
ideas or concepts.
Blood
Blood is everywhere in Macbeth, beginning with the opening battle between the
Scots and the Norwegian invaders, which is described in harrowing terms by the
wounded captain in Act 1, scene 2. Once Macbeth and Lady Macbeth embark
upon their murderous journey, blood comes to symbolize their guilt, and they
begin to feel that their crimes have stained them in a way that cannot be washed
clean. Will all great Neptunes ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?
Macbeth cries after he has killed Duncan, even as his wife scolds him and says
that a little water will do the job (2.2.5859). Later, though, she comes to share
his horrified sense of being stained: Out, damned spot; out, I say . . . who would
have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him? she asks as she
wanders through the halls of their castle near the close of the play (5.1.3034).
Blood symbolizes the guilt that sits like a permanent stain on the consciences of
both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, one that hounds them to their graves.
The Weather
As in other Shakespearean tragedies, Macbeths grotesque murder spree is
accompanied by a number of unnatural occurrences in the natural realm. From
the thunder and lightning that accompany the witches appearances to the
terrible storms that rage on the night of Duncans murder, these violations of the
natural order reflect corruption in the moral and political orders.
Shakespeare did not invent the story of Romeo and Juliet. He did not, in fact,
even introduce the story into the English language. A poet named Arthur Brooks
first brought the story of Romeus and Juliet to an English-speaking audience in a
long and plodding poem that was itself not original, but rather an adaptation of
adaptations that stretched across nearly a hundred years and two languages.
Many of the details of Shakespeares plot are lifted directly from Brookss poem,
including the meeting of Romeo and Juliet at the ball, their secret marriage,
Romeos fight with Tybalt, the sleeping potion, and the timing of the lovers
eventual suicides. Such appropriation of other stories is characteristic of
Shakespeare, who often wrote plays based on earlier works.
Shakespeares use of existing material as fodder for his plays should not,
however, be taken as a lack of originality. Instead, readers should note how
Shakespeare crafts his sources in new ways while displaying a remarkable
understanding of the literary tradition in which he is working. Shakespeares
version of Romeo and Juliet is no exception. The play distinguishes itself from its
predecessors in several important aspects: the subtlety and originality of its
characterization (Shakespeare almost wholly created Mercutio); the intense pace
of its action, which is compressed from nine months into four frenetic days; a
powerful enrichment of the storys thematic aspects; and, above all, an
extraordinary use of language.
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Shakespeares play not only bears a resemblance to the works on which it is


based, it is also quite similar in plot, theme, and dramatic ending to the story of
Pyramus and Thisbe, told by the great Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses.
Shakespeare was well aware of this similarity; he includes a reference to Thisbe
in Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare also includes scenes from the story of Pyramus
and Thisbe in the comically awful play-within-a-play put on by Bottom and his
friends in A Midsummer Nights Dreama play Shakespeare wrote around the
same time he was composing Romeo and Juliet. Indeed, one can look at the playwithin-a-play in A Midsummer Nights Dream as parodying the very story that
Shakespeare seeks to tell in Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare wrote Romeo and
Juliet in full knowledge that the story he was telling was old, clichd, and an easy
target for parody. In writing Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare, then, implicitly set
himself the task of telling a love story despite the considerable forces he knew
were stacked against its success. Through the incomparable intensity of his
language Shakespeare succeeded in this effort, writing a play that is universally
accepted in Western culture as the preeminent, archetypal love story.
In the streets of Verona another brawl breaks out between the servants of the
feuding noble families of Capulet and Montague. Benvolio, a Montague, tries to
stop the fighting, but is himself embroiled when the rash Capulet, Tybalt, arrives
on the scene. After citizens outraged by the constant violence beat back the
warring factions, Prince Escalus, the ruler of Verona, attempts to prevent any
further conflicts between the families by decreeing death for any individual who
disturbs the peace in the future. Romeo, the son of Montague, runs into his
cousin Benvolio, who had earlier seen Romeo moping in a grove of sycamores.
After some prodding by Benvolio, Romeo confides that he is in love with Rosaline,
a woman who does not return his affections. Benvolio counsels him to forget this
woman and find another, more beautiful one, but Romeo remains despondent.
Meanwhile, Paris, a kinsman of the Prince, seeks Juliets hand in marriage. Her
father Capulet, though happy at the match, asks Paris to wait two years, since
Juliet is not yet even fourteen. Capulet dispatches a servant with a list of people
to invite to a masquerade and feast he traditionally holds. He invites Paris to the
feast, hoping that Paris will begin to win Juliets heart.
Romeo and Benvolio, still discussing Rosaline, encounter the Capulet servant
bearing the list of invitations. Benvolio suggests that they attend, since that will
allow Romeo to compare his beloved to other beautiful women of Verona. Romeo
agrees to go with Benvolio to the feast, but only because Rosaline, whose name
he reads on the list, will be there.
In Capulets household, young Juliet talks with her mother, Lady Capulet, and her
nurse about the possibility of marrying Paris. Juliet has not yet considered
marriage, but agrees to look at Paris during the feast to see if she thinks
she could fall in love with him.
The feast begins. A melancholy Romeo follows Benvolio and their witty friend
Mercutio to Capulets house. Once inside, Romeo sees Juliet from a distance and
instantly falls in love with her; he forgets about Rosaline completely. As Romeo
watches Juliet, entranced, a young Capulet, Tybalt, recognizes him, and is
enraged that a Montague would sneak into a Capulet feast. He prepares to
attack, but Capulet holds him back. Soon, Romeo speaks to Juliet, and the two
25

experience a profound attraction. They kiss, not even knowing each others
names. When he finds out from Juliets nurse that she is the daughter of Capulet
his familys enemyhe becomes distraught. When Juliet learns that the young
man she has just kissed is the son of Montague, she grows equally upset.
As Mercutio and Benvolio leave the Capulet estate, Romeo leaps over the
orchard wall into the garden, unable to leave Juliet behind. From his hiding place,
he sees Juliet in a window above the orchard and hears her speak his name. He
calls out to her, and they exchange vows of love.
Romeo hurries to see his friend and confessor Friar Lawrence, who, though
shocked at the sudden turn of Romeos heart, agrees to marry the young lovers
in secret since he sees in their love the possibility of ending the age-old feud
between Capulet and Montague. The following day, Romeo and Juliet meet at
Friar Lawrences cell and are married. The Nurse, who is privy to the secret,
procures a ladder, which Romeo will use to climb into Juliets window for their
wedding night.
The next day, Benvolio and Mercutio encounter TybaltJuliets cousinwho, still
enraged that Romeo attended Capulets feast, has challenged Romeo to a duel.
Romeo appears. Now Tybalts kinsman by marriage, Romeo begs the Capulet to
hold off the duel until he understands why Romeo does not want to fight.
Disgusted with this plea for peace, Mercutio says that he will fight Tybalt himself.
The two begin to duel. Romeo tries to stop them by leaping between the
combatants. Tybalt stabs Mercutio under Romeos arm, and Mercutio dies.
Romeo, in a rage, kills Tybalt. Romeo flees from the scene. Soon after, the Prince
declares him forever banished from Verona for his crime. Friar Lawrence arranges
for Romeo to spend his wedding night with Juliet before he has to leave for
Mantua the following morning.
In her room, Juliet awaits the arrival of her new husband. The Nurse enters, and,
after some confusion, tells Juliet that Romeo has killed Tybalt. Distraught, Juliet
suddenly finds herself married to a man who has killed her kinsman. But she
resettles herself, and realizes that her duty belongs with her love: to Romeo.
Romeo sneaks into Juliets room that night, and at last they consummate their
marriage and their love. Morning comes, and the lovers bid farewell, unsure
when they will see each other again. Juliet learns that her father, affected by the
recent events, now intends for her to marry Paris in just three days. Unsure of
how to proceedunable to reveal to her parents that she is married to Romeo,
but unwilling to marry Paris now that she is Romeos wifeJuliet asks her nurse
for advice. She counsels Juliet to proceed as if Romeo were dead and to marry
Paris, who is a better match anyway. Disgusted with the Nurses disloyalty, Juliet
disregards her advice and hurries to Friar Lawrence. He concocts a plan to
reunite Juliet with Romeo in Mantua. The night before her wedding to Paris, Juliet
must drink a potion that will make her appear to be dead. After she is laid to rest
in the familys crypt, the Friar and Romeo will secretly retrieve her, and she will
be free to live with Romeo, away from their parents feuding.
Juliet returns home to discover the wedding has been moved ahead one day, and
she is to be married tomorrow. That night, Juliet drinks the potion, and the Nurse
discovers her, apparently dead, the next morning. The Capulets grieve, and Juliet
26

is entombed according to plan. But Friar Lawrences message explaining the plan
to Romeo never reaches Mantua. Its bearer, Friar John, gets confined to a
quarantined house. Romeo hears only that Juliet is dead.
Romeo learns only of Juliets death and decides to kill himself rather than live
without her. He buys a vial of poison from a reluctant Apothecary, then speeds
back to Verona to take his own life at Juliets tomb. Outside the Capulet crypt,
Romeo comes upon Paris, who is scattering flowers on Juliets grave. They fight,
and Romeo kills Paris. He enters the tomb, sees Juliets inanimate body, drinks
the poison, and dies by her side. Just then, Friar Lawrence enters and realizes
that Romeo has killed Paris and himself. At the same time, Juliet awakes. Friar
Lawrence hears the coming of the watch. When Juliet refuses to leave with him,
he flees alone. Juliet sees her beloved Romeo and realizes he has killed himself
with poison. She kisses his poisoned lips, and when that does not kill her, buries
his dagger in her chest, falling dead upon his body.
The watch arrives, followed closely by the Prince, the Capulets, and Montague.
Montague declares that Lady Montague has died of grief over Romeos exile.
Seeing their childrens bodies, Capulet and Montague agree to end their longstanding feud and to raise gold statues of their children side-by-side in a newly
peaceful Verona.
Romeo
The name Romeo, in popular culture, has become nearly synonymous with
lover. Romeo, in Romeo and Juliet, does indeed experience a love of such
purity and passion that he kills himself when he believes that the object of his
love, Juliet, has died. The power of Romeos love, however, often obscures a clear
vision of Romeos character, which is far more complex.
Even Romeos relation to love is not so simple. At the beginning of the play,
Romeo pines for Rosaline, proclaiming her the paragon of women and despairing
at her indifference toward him. Taken together, Romeos Rosaline-induced
histrionics seem rather juvenile. Romeo is a great reader of love poetry, and the
portrayal of his love for Rosaline suggests he is trying to re-create the feelings
that he has read about. After first kissing Juliet, she tells him you kiss by th
book, meaning that he kisses according to the rules, and implying that while
proficient, his kissing lacks originality (1.5.107). In reference to Rosaline, it
seems, Romeo loves by the book. Rosaline, of course, slips from Romeos mind at
first sight of Juliet. But Juliet is no mere replacement. The love she shares with
Romeo is far deeper, more authentic and unique than the clichd puppy love
Romeo felt for Rosaline. Romeos love matures over the course of the play from
the shallow desire to be in love to a profound and intense passion. One must
ascribe Romeos development at least in part to Juliet. Her level-headed
observations, such as the one about Romeos kissing, seem just the thing to snap
Romeo from his superficial idea of love and to inspire him to begin to speak some
of the most beautiful and intense love poetry ever written.
Yet Romeos deep capacity for love is merely a part of his larger capacity for
intense feeling of all kinds. Put another way, it is possible to describe Romeo as
lacking the capacity for moderation. Love compels him to sneak into the garden
of his enemys daughter, risking death simply to catch a glimpse of her. Anger
27

compels him to kill his wifes cousin in a reckless duel to avenge the death of his
friend. Despair compels him to suicide upon hearing of Juliets death. Such
extreme behavior dominates Romeos character throughout the play and
contributes to the ultimate tragedy that befalls the lovers. Had Romeo restrained
himself from killing Tybalt, or waited even one day before killing himself after
hearing the news of Juliets death, matters might have ended happily. Of course,
though, had Romeo not had such depths of feeling, the love he shared with Juliet
would never have existed in the first place.
Among his friends, especially while bantering with Mercutio, Romeo shows
glimpses of his social persona. He is intelligent, quick-witted, fond of verbal
jousting (particularly about sex), loyal, and unafraid of danger.
Juliet
Having not quite reached her fourteenth birthday, Juliet is of an age that stands
on the border between immaturity and maturity. At the plays beginning however
she seems merely an obedient, sheltered, nave child. Though many girls her age
including her motherget married, Juliet has not given the subject any
thought. When Lady Capulet mentions Pariss interest in marrying Juliet, Juliet
dutifully responds that she will try to see if she can love him, a response that
seems childish in its obedience and in its immature conception of love. Juliet
seems to have no friends her own age, and she is not comfortable talking about
sex (as seen in her discomfort when the Nurse goes on and on about a sexual
joke at Juliets expense in Act 1, scene 3).
Juliet gives glimpses of her determination, strength, and sober-mindedness, in
her earliest scenes, and offers a preview of the woman she will become during
the four-day span of Romeo and Juliet. While Lady Capulet proves unable to quiet
the Nurse, Juliet succeeds with one word (also in Act 1, scene 3). In addition,
even in Juliets dutiful acquiescence to try to love Paris, there is some seed of
steely determination. Juliet promises to consider Paris as a possible husband to
the precise degree her mother desires. While an outward show of obedience,
such a statement can also be read as a refusal through passivity. Juliet will
accede to her mothers wishes, but she will not go out of her way to fall in love
with Paris.
Juliets first meeting with Romeo propels her full-force toward adulthood. Though
profoundly in love with him, Juliet is able to see and criticize Romeos rash
decisions and his tendency to romanticize things. After Romeo kills Tybalt and is
banished, Juliet does not follow him blindly. She makes a logical and heartfelt
decision that her loyalty and love for Romeo must be her guiding priorities.
Essentially, Juliet cuts herself loose from her prior social mooringsher nurse,
her parents, and her social position in Veronain order to try to reunite with
Romeo. When she wakes in the tomb to find Romeo dead, she does not kill
herself out of feminine weakness, but rather out of an intensity of love, just as
Romeo did. Juliets suicide actually requires more nerve than Romeos: while he
swallows poison, she stabs herself through the heart with a dagger.
Juliets development from a wide-eyed girl into a self-assured, loyal, and capable
woman is one of Shakespeares early triumphs of characterization. It also marks
one of his most confident and rounded treatments of a female character.
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Friar Lawrence
Friar Lawrence occupies a strange position in Romeo and Juliet. He is a
kindhearted cleric who helps Romeo and Juliet throughout the play. He performs
their marriage and gives generally good advice, especially in regard to the need
for moderation. He is the sole figure of religion in the play. But Friar Lawrence is
also the most scheming and political of characters in the play: he marries Romeo
and Juliet as part of a plan to end the civil strife in Verona; he spirits Romeo into
Juliets room and then out of Verona; he devises the plan to reunite Romeo and
Juliet through the deceptive ruse of a sleeping potion that seems to arise from
almost mystic knowledge. This mystical knowledge seems out of place for a
Catholic friar; why does he have such knowledge, and what could such
knowledge mean? The answers are not clear. In addition, though Friar Lawrences
plans all seem well conceived and well intentioned, they serve as the main
mechanisms through which the fated tragedy of the play occurs. Readers should
recognize that the Friar is not only subject to the fate that dominates the playin
many ways he brings that fate about.
Mercutio
With a lightning-quick wit and a clever mind, Mercutio is a scene stealer and one
of the most memorable characters in all of Shakespeares works. Though he
constantly puns, jokes, and teasessometimes in fun, sometimes with bitterness
Mercutio is not a mere jester or prankster. With his wild words, Mercutio
punctures the romantic sentiments and blind self-love that exist within the play.
He mocks Romeos self-indulgence just as he ridicules Tybalts hauteur and
adherence to fashion. The critic Stephen Greenblatt describes Mercutio as a force
within the play that functions to deflate the possibility of romantic love and the
power of tragic fate. Unlike the other characters who blame their deaths on fate,
Mercutio dies cursing all Montagues and Capulets. Mercutio believes that specific
people are responsible for his death rather than some external impersonal force.
The Nurse - Juliets nurse, the woman who breast-fed Juliet when she was a
baby and has cared for Juliet her entire life. A vulgar, long-winded, and
sentimental character, the Nurse provides comic relief with her frequently
inappropriate remarks and speeches. But, until a disagreement near the plays
end, the Nurse is Juliets faithful confidante and loyal intermediary in Juliets
affair with Romeo. She provides a contrast with Juliet, given that her view of love
is earthy and sexual, whereas Juliet is idealistic and intense. The Nurse believes
in love and wants Juliet to have a nice-looking husband, but the idea that Juliet
would want to sacrifice herself for love is incomprehensible to her.
Tybalt - A Capulet, Juliets cousin on her mothers side. Vain, fashionable,
supremely aware of courtesy and the lack of it, he becomes aggressive, violent,
and quick to draw his sword when he feels his pride has been injured. Once
drawn, his sword is something to be feared. He loathes Montagues.
Capulet - The patriarch of the Capulet family, father of Juliet, husband of Lady
Capulet, and enemy, for unexplained reasons, of Montague. He truly loves his
daughter, though he is not well acquainted with Juliets thoughts or feelings, and
seems to think that what is best for her is a good match with Paris. Often
29

prudent, he commands respect and propriety, but he is liable to fly into a rage
when either is lacking.
Lady Capulet - Juliets mother, Capulets wife. A woman who herself married
young (by her own estimation she gave birth to Juliet at close to the age of
fourteen), she is eager to see her daughter marry Paris. She is an ineffectual
mother, relying on the Nurse for moral and pragmatic support.
Montague - Romeos father, the patriarch of the Montague clan and bitter
enemy of Capulet. At the beginning of the play, he is chiefly concerned about
Romeos melancholy.
Lady Montague - Romeos mother, Montagues wife. She dies of grief after
Romeo is exiled from Verona.
Paris - A kinsman of the Prince, and the suitor of Juliet most preferred by
Capulet. Once Capulet has promised him he can marry Juliet, he behaves very
presumptuous toward her, acting as if they are already married.
Benvolio - Montagues nephew, Romeos cousin and thoughtful friend, he
makes a genuine effort to defuse violent scenes in public places, though Mercutio
accuses him of having a nasty temper in private. He spends most of the play
trying to help Romeo get his mind off Rosaline, even after Romeo has fallen in
love with Juliet.
Prince Escalus - The Prince of Verona. A kinsman of Mercutio and Paris. As the
seat of political power in Verona, he is concerned about maintaining the public
peace at all costs.
Friar John - A Franciscan friar charged by Friar Lawrence with taking the news
of Juliets false death to Romeo in Mantua. Friar John is held up in a quarantined
house, and the message never reaches Romeo.
Balthasar - Romeos dedicated servant, who brings Romeo the news of Juliets
death, unaware that her death is a ruse.
Sampson & Gregory - Two servants of the house of Capulet, who, like their
master, hate the Montagues. At the outset of the play, they successfully provoke
some Montague men into a fight.
Abram - Montagues servant, who fights with Sampson and Gregory in the first
scene of the play.
The Apothecary - An apothecary in Mantua. Had he been wealthier, he might
have been able to afford to value his morals more than money, and refused to
sell poison to Romeo.
Peter - A Capulet servant who invites guests to Capulets feast and escorts the
Nurse to meet with Romeo. He is illiterate, and a bad singer.
Rosaline - The woman with whom Romeo is infatuated at the beginning of the
play. Rosaline never appears onstage, but it is said by other characters that she
is very beautiful and has sworn to live a life of chastity.

30

The Chorus - The Chorus is a single character who, as developed in Greek


drama, functions as a narrator offering commentary on the plays plot and
themes.
Themes
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary
work.
The Forcefulness of Love
Romeo and Juliet is the most famous love story in the English literary tradition.
Love is naturally the plays dominant and most important theme. The play
focuses on romantic love, specifically the intense passion that springs up at first
sight between Romeo and Juliet. InRomeo and Juliet, love is a violent, ecstatic,
overpowering force that supersedes all other values, loyalties, and emotions. In
the course of the play, the young lovers are driven to defy their entire social
world: families (Deny thy father and refuse thy name, Juliet asks, Or if thou
wilt not, be but sworn my love, / And Ill no longer be a Capulet); friends (Romeo
abandons Mercutio and Benvolio after the feast in order to go to Juliets garden);
and ruler (Romeo returns to Verona for Juliets sake after being exiled by the
Prince on pain of death in 2.1.7678). Love is the overriding theme of the play,
but a reader should always remember that Shakespeare is uninterested in
portraying a prettied-up, dainty version of the emotion, the kind that bad poets
write about, and whose bad poetry Romeo reads while pining for Rosaline. Love
in Romeo and Juliet is a brutal, powerful emotion that captures individuals and
catapults them against their world, and, at times, against themselves.
The powerful nature of love can be seen in the way it is described, or, more
accurately, the way descriptions of it so consistently fail to capture its entirety. At
times love is described in the terms of religion, as in the fourteen lines when
Romeo and Juliet first meet. At others it is described as a sort of magic: Alike
bewitchd by the charm of looks (2.Prologue.6). Juliet, perhaps, most perfectly
describes her love for Romeo by refusing to describe it: But my true love is
grown to such excess / I cannot sum up some of half my wealth (3.1.3334).
Love, in other words, resists any single metaphor because it is too powerful to be
so easily contained or understood.
Romeo and Juliet does not make a specific moral statement about the
relationships between love and society, religion, and family; rather, it portrays
the chaos and passion of being in love, combining images of love, violence,
death, religion, and family in an impressionistic rush leading to the plays tragic
conclusion.
Love as a Cause of Violence
The themes of death and violence permeate Romeo and Juliet, and they are
always connected to passion, whether that passion is love or hate. The
connection between hate, violence, and death seems obvious. But the
connection between love and violence requires further investigation.
Love, in Romeo and Juliet, is a grand passion, and as such it is blinding; it can
overwhelm a person as powerfully and completely as hate can. The passionate
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love between Romeo and Juliet is linked from the moment of its inception with
death: Tybalt notices that Romeo has crashed the feast and determines to kill
him just as Romeo catches sight of Juliet and falls instantly in love with her. From
that point on, love seems to push the lovers closer to love and violence, not
farther from it. Romeo and Juliet are plagued with thoughts of suicide, and a
willingness to experience it: in Act 3, scene 3, Romeo brandishes a knife in Friar
Lawrences cell and threatens to kill himself after he has been banished from
Verona and his love. Juliet also pulls a knife in order to take her own life in Friar
Lawrences presence just three scenes later. After Capulet decides that Juliet will
marry Paris, Juliet says, If all else fail, myself have power to die (3.5.242).
Finally, each imagines that the other looks dead the morning after their first, and
only, sexual experience (Methinks I see thee, Juliet says, . . . as one dead in
the bottom of a tomb (3.5.5556). This theme continues until its inevitable
conclusion: double suicide. This tragic choice is the highest, most potent
expression of love that Romeo and Juliet can make. It is only through death that
they can preserve their love, and their love is so profound that they are willing to
end their lives in its defense. In the play, love emerges as an amoral thing,
leading as much to destruction as to happiness. But in its extreme passion, the
love that Romeo and Juliet experience also appears so exquisitely beautiful that
few would want, or be able, to resist its power.
The Individual Versus Society
Much of Romeo and Juliet involves the lovers struggles against public and social
institutions that either explicitly or implicitly oppose the existence of their love.
Such structures range from the concrete to the abstract: families and the
placement of familial power in the father; law and the desire for public order;
religion; and the social importance placed on masculine honor. These institutions
often come into conflict with each other. The importance of honor, for example,
time and again results in brawls that disturb the public peace.
Though they do not always work in concert, each of these societal institutions in
some way present obstacles for Romeo and Juliet. The enmity between their
families, coupled with the emphasis placed on loyalty and honor to kin, combine
to create a profound conflict for Romeo and Juliet, who must rebel against their
heritages. Further, the patriarchal power structure inherent in Renaissance
families, wherein the father controls the action of all other family members,
particularly women, places Juliet in an extremely vulnerable position. Her heart,
in her familys mind, is not hers to give. The law and the emphasis on social
civility demands terms of conduct with which the blind passion of love cannot
comply. Religion similarly demands priorities that Romeo and Juliet cannot abide
by because of the intensity of their love. Though in most situations the lovers
uphold the traditions of Christianity (they wait to marry before consummating
their love), their love is so powerful that they begin to think of each other in
blasphemous terms. For example, Juliet calls Romeo the god of my idolatry,
elevating Romeo to level of God (2.1.156). The couples final act of suicide is
likewise un-Christian. The maintenance of masculine honor forces Romeo to
commit actions he would prefer to avoid. But the social emphasis placed on
masculine honor is so profound that Romeo cannot simply ignore them.
It is possible to see Romeo and Juliet as a battle between the responsibilities and
actions demanded by social institutions and those demanded by the private
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desires of the individual. Romeo and Juliets appreciation of night, with its
darkness and privacy, and their renunciation of their names, with its attendant
loss of obligation, make sense in the context of individuals who wish to escape
the public world. But the lovers cannot stop the night from becoming day. And
Romeo cannot cease being a Montague simply because he wants to; the rest of
the world will not let him. The lovers suicides can be understood as the ultimate
night, the ultimate privacy.
The Inevitability of Fate
In its first address to the audience, the Chorus states that Romeo and Juliet are
star-crossedthat is to say that fate (a power often vested in the movements
of the stars) controls them (Prologue.6). This sense of fate permeates the play,
and not just for the audience. The characters also are quite aware of it: Romeo
and Juliet constantly see omens. When Romeo believes that Juliet is dead, he
cries out, Then I defy you, stars, completing the idea that the love between
Romeo and Juliet is in opposition to the decrees of destiny (5.1.24). Of course,
Romeos defiance itself plays into the hands of fate, and his determination to
spend eternity with Juliet results in their deaths. The mechanism of fate works in
all of the events surrounding the lovers: the feud between their families (it is
worth noting that this hatred is never explained; rather, the reader must accept
it as an undeniable aspect of the world of the play); the horrible series of
accidents that ruin Friar Lawrences seemingly well-intentioned plans at the end
of the play; and the tragic timing of Romeos suicide and Juliets awakening.
These events are not mere coincidences, but rather manifestations of fate that
help bring about the unavoidable outcome of the young lovers deaths.
The concept of fate described above is the most commonly accepted
interpretation. There are other possible readings of fate in the play: as a force
determined by the powerful social institutions that influence Romeo and Juliets
choices, as well as fate as a force that emerges from Romeo and Juliets very
personalities.
Motifs
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to
develop and inform the texts major themes.
Light/Dark Imagery
One of the plays most consistent visual motifs is the contrast between light and
dark, often in terms of night/day imagery. This contrast is not given a particular
metaphoric meaninglight is not always good, and dark is not always evil. On
the contrary, light and dark are generally used to provide a sensory contrast and
to hint at opposed alternatives. One of the more important instances of this motif
is Romeos lengthy meditation on the sun and the moon during the balcony
scene, in which Juliet, metaphorically described as the sun, is seen as banishing
the envious moon and transforming the night into day (2.1.46). A similar
blurring of night and day occurs in the early morning hours after the lovers only
night together. Romeo, forced to leave for exile in the morning, and Juliet, not
wanting him to leave her room, both try to pretend that it is still night, and that
the light is actually darkness: More light and light, more dark and dark our
woes (3.5.36).
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Opposite Points of View


Shakespeare includes numerous speeches and scenes in Romeo and Juliet that
hint at alternative ways to evaluate the play. Shakespeare uses two main devices
in this regard: Mercutio and servants. Mercutio consistently skewers the
viewpoints of all the other characters in play: he sees Romeos devotion to love
as a sort of blindness that robs Romeo from himself; similarly, he sees Tybalts
devotion to honor as blind and stupid. His punning and the Queen Mab speech
can be interpreted as undercutting virtually every passion evident in the play.
Mercutio serves as a critic of the delusions of righteousness and grandeur held
by the characters around him.
Where Mercutio is a nobleman who openly criticizes other nobles, the views
offered by servants in the play are less explicit. There is the Nurse who lost her
baby and husband, the servant Peter who cannot read, the musicians who care
about their lost wages and their lunches, and the Apothecary who cannot afford
to make the moral choice, the lower classes present a second tragic world to
counter that of the nobility. The nobles world is full of grand tragic gestures. The
servants world, in contrast, is characterized by simple needs, and early deaths
brought about by disease and poverty rather than dueling and grand passions.
Where the nobility almost seem to revel in their capacity for drama, the servants
lives are such that they cannot afford tragedy of the epic kind.
Symbols
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract
ideas or concepts.
Poison
In his first appearance, in Act 2, scene 2, Friar Lawrence remarks that every
plant, herb, and stone has its own special properties, and that nothing exists in
nature that cannot be put to both good and bad uses. Thus, poison is not
intrinsically evil, but is instead a natural substance made lethal by human hands.
Friar Lawrences words prove true over the course of the play. The sleeping
potion he gives Juliet is concocted to cause the appearance of death, not death
itself, but through circumstances beyond the Friars control, the potion does
bring about a fatal result: Romeos suicide. As this example shows, human beings
tend to cause death even without intending to. Similarly, Romeo suggests that
society is to blame for the apothecarys criminal selling of poison, because while
there are laws prohiting the Apothecary from selling poison, there are no laws
that would help the apothecary make money. Poison symbolizes human societys
tendency to poison good things and make them fatal, just as the pointless
Capulet-Montague feud turns Romeo and Juliets love to poison. After all, unlike
many of the other tragedies, this play does not have an evil villain, but rather
people whose good qualities are turned to poison by the world in which they live.
Thumb-biting
In Act 1, scene 1, the buffoonish Samson begins a brawl between the Montagues
and Capulets by flicking his thumbnail from behind his upper teeth, an insulting
gesture known as biting the thumb. He engages in this juvenile and vulgar
display because he wants to get into a fight with the Montagues but doesnt want
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to be accused of starting the fight by making an explicit insult. Because of his


timidity, he settles for being annoying rather than challenging. The thumb-biting,
as an essentially meaningless gesture, represents the foolishness of the entire
Capulet/Montague feud and the stupidity of violence in general.
Queen Mab
In Act 1, scene 4, Mercutio delivers a dazzling speech about the fairy Queen Mab,
who rides through the night on her tiny wagon bringing dreams to sleepers. One
of the most noteworthy aspects of Queen Mabs ride is that the dreams she
brings generally do not bring out the best sides of the dreamers, but instead
serve to confirm them in whatever vices they are addicted tofor example,
greed, violence, or lust. Another important aspect of Mercutios description of
Queen Mab is that it is complete nonsense, albeit vivid and highly colorful.
Nobody believes in a fairy pulled about by a small grey-coated gnat whipped
with a crickets bone (1.4.65). Finally, it is worth noting that the description of
Mab and her carriage goes to extravagant lengths to emphasize how tiny and
insubstantial she and her accoutrements are. Queen Mab and her carriage do not
merely symbolize the dreams of sleepers, they also symbolize the power of
waking fantasies, daydreams, and desires. Through the Queen Mab imagery,
Mercutio suggests that all desires and fantasies are as nonsensical and fragile as
Mab, and that they are basically corrupting. This point of view contrasts starkly
with that of Romeo and Juliet, who see their love as real and ennobling.

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