Die to Live

Tragic heroes have death to purify them. Death sets all to rights. Comedies have no such recourse: whatever transgressions have upset the social balance must be restored to rights by a wedding, a trope of the comic genre. But some comedies delve into waters too murky to fix with marriage alone. While no one can speak to authorial intent, it’s tempting to imagine Shakespeare’s interweaving of the two narratives into Much Ado About Nothing as an exploration of such murky waters, deliberately contrasting two different philosophies of love. In our sympathies, the text critiques one and exalts the other. One constellation of characters represents a Medieval template of chivalric love, wherein men of solid virtue (galvanized by war and homosocial bonds) woo women of blemishless honor—women who deign to step down from their pedestals only in acceptance of a decorous marriage proposal. Reputation weighs more, in this lofty love-trope, than human trust and respect. Don Pedro, Claudio, and Hero are of this category, and they are doomed to failure within the worldview of the play. In fact, their decisions go so terribly awry that a simple marriage isn’t enough to redeem them. A tragic death is necessary. Hero doesn’t really die, but her faked death, like the real death in a tragedy, restores the play’s moral equilibrium, and with it the play makes its main point: that the false ideal of courtly love should—indeed must—“die” to give room to more human-scale notions of sympathy, parity, and understanding in conjugal relationships.

To help us to this valuable lesson, we get the play’s other love prototype, Benedick and Beatrice. These lovers woo on equal footing to one another, and are well-matched in intelligence, agency, individuation, and humor. They are people, not abstractions. Their relationship is based not on any template of love, but on the true meeting of minds. The audience relishes their courtship, and the stilted relationship between Claudio and Hero becomes a low-fidelity shadow in comparison, moving to the back of the viewer’s mind. It is almost as if Beatrice and Benedick have been imported into Much Ado from a different play. To sweep out the cobwebs, perhaps?—to shine light into the dark corners of convention? They do to the language of the play what they do to its ethos—queer the pitch; lend their all-too-human wit and vitality to the tired rhetoric of courtship; fuel the drama with their inexhaustible, bawdy joy—and they do it with such panache that they are, for many viewers, the only memorable part of the play. See how, when Benedick is in the room, the language of the others changes. In Act I, when Claudio and Don Pedro speak, they follow the script of chivalric codes: Claudio asks of Hero, “Can the world buy such a jewel?” To which Benedick quips, “Yea, and a case to put it in” (I.i.175-6). Don Pedro attests to her “worthiness” as well, in a lordly dialect that matches Claudio’s (I.i.220). But within a few pages Benedick has them all talking with low-brow humor of sexual appetites, women’s infidelity, brothels and “horn-mad” husbands, making the mannered jargon of the previous pages feel stilted and out-of-date (I.i.250-60): he cannot help but replace ideals with life, real life, and this makes the audience his ally. This happens virtually any time Benedick is in the scene, and when he isn’t, the characters fall joylessly to their practiced scripts. Likewise, Beatrice runs circles around her dullard cousin with her wit until she fluffs Hero up into the same kind of boisterousness that keeps her real and lovable—and too large and human to fit into the two-dimensional “virginal maiden” schema.

It is unsurprising that masks and masquerades thread through this play, for the conflict between role-playing and authenticity lies at the crux of the drama. The scales fall from the eyes of our beloved hero and heroine when they trade in their sharp tongues—tongues that have insulated them from vulnerability—for self-knowledge and the authentic love of and for one another. For the characters still beholden to the Platonic shadows of the Romance genre, the transformation comes at a greater cost. The audience watches in horror as Claudio publicly shames Hero. We don’t cringe because he is wrong (though he is—on virtually every level), but because, the play suggests, this outcome is the inevitable result of holding a lover to unrealistic standards. The chivalric code forces us to be perfect, and to expect perfection from our potential spouse. That, Shakespeare suggests, isn’t tenable. We fall hard when we have that far to fall. Claudio becomes nearly irredeemable at his public humiliation of Hero, but Hero, for agreeing to play the part of the slandered maiden, is culpable as well. After all, if you play in a world where masks are more important than reality, a seeming betrayal, hid by the “sign and semblance of… honor” (IV.i.41) makes you as guilty as a real one: the seeming is everything. So she must be punished (it’s rather a shame that Claudio isn’t punished more, for his cruelty to a grieving father if not his unnecessary cruelty to a lover). She, like the de casibus hero (Hero?), must die. But her death is a kind of purgation, releasing the play from the stranglehold of the past, allowing her and her lover to be “re-born” into the more winsome world of Beatrice and Benedick.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. Signet Classics, 1998.

Parsing Our Discontent

Shakespeare's titular Richard III reveals his rhetorical brilliance in the play's very first line. “Now is the winter of our discontent” (I.i.1). Winter, in poetry and art, represents death, ending, hibernation, and privation—it is a catch-all metaphor for loss and melancholy. But he thwarts our expectations upon finishing the sentence. It is not winter, it is the winter (read: death) of our discontent. Richard creates, in effect, a rhetorical double-negative, suggesting that what is ending or dying is not the mortal body or the natural landscape, but the unhappiness that has subsumed England during the protracted War of the Roses. But his word choice—the double-negative aspect of it—suggests that this death of discontent might be, for him, a “winter” in a more traditional poetic sense. He goes on: “Made glorious summer by this son of York” (I.i.2), which carries the seasonal metaphor to its logical conclusion, yes, but also manages to slip some further wordplay into the mix: a theater audience might hear “son” as “sun,” and might be further aware that Richard’s brother Edward IV’s emblem was “three shining sunnes” (Henry VI, Folger Shakespeare). This single line takes us on a rollercoaster of emotions, from death, to the death of unhappiness, to the radiant and temperate warmth of the sun and summer, to perhaps admiration that this has all been accomplished with such verbal economy. Richard’s brilliance (and perhaps his untrustworthiness) are revealed in his first line and maintained throughout the speech. He’s clever. He’s a master wordsmith. He knows how to make allies, and he has already made allies of us (it almost feels the “our” in “our discontent” refers to the audience and Richard, rather than to those sharing his story, so chummy and intimate are his “honeyed” words). Or perhaps, as the speech goes on, we become not his allies, but his aiders and abettors, complicit in his crimes.

Richard spends thirteen lines total on metaphors of violence giving way to gentle calm, and then there is a turn in his rhetoric. This turn invites us further into his machinations, for we alone are privileged with his intimate private thoughts:

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking glass…                                    
                                           Sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them…
I… have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to see my shadow in the sun
And descant on my own deformity (I.i.14-27).

He has warmed us with the sun of his words, but now he reveals that he alone cannot enjoy the “sun” of his brother’s newfound peace. The lofty, chummy “we” has given way to a series of “I” statements, preceded by the word “but.” We might suspect, by now, that Richard is building a syllogistic argument, and it sounds like he is building it on solid logical grounds. The foundation? His is a body not built for peace. The winter of our discontent is the “spring” of his. This section lasts fourteen lines, in balance with the first thirteen. So far so cogent. He has won our sympathies—or at least our fascination—by “descanting” on his physical disfiguration (so dramatic that dogs howl when he passes). By the time we get to the soliloquy’s second turn—the “therefore” in the syllogism—we are his creatures. He seduces us as easily as he seduces the hapless Lady Anne later in Act I. No matter that this last part of the speech proceeds on logically fallacious grounds.

The final fourteen lines of Richard’s soliloquy bypass logic altogether. He draws a conclusion from the data he presented in the previous sections (the discontent is over; he is physically unable to enjoy the ensuing content), and his conclusion sounds logical:

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasure of these days (I.i.28-31).

No one has given Richard binary options—enjoy peace or be a villain—but that is where his equivocation leads, and we’re there with him. Or, more accurately, a step or two behind him. When we finally catch up, Richard has revealed that his dastardly plans are not occurring in some vague future, they are already in motion. He has set his brother king against his other brother Clarence. We don’t know yet (but suspect) that he has designs to steal the throne by removing all those before him in the line of succession, and he means to use wit, deceit, and subterfuge to do so, just as he’s done to us in the speech. By his own admission, he is “subtle, false, and treacherous” (I.i.37), a word trio that is manifest in his dealings with us so far, but which does little to alienate our sympathies. We want to watch him succeed through sheer willpower, even as we know that this fiery brand of intelligence, because it is built on such shaky ground, will burn itself out. A tragic fall is inevitable.

A savvy reader might here return to ponder the soliloquy’s first line again: “Now is the winter of our discontent.” Since winter is a process, not an end state, we can see the statement as both an observation first about the current state of affairs at the opening of the play, second a commentary about where the play is heading, and lastly an observation about history in general: it’s going to get worse before it gets better. We need to endure a lot more winter—in the form of murders, betrayals, deceptions, and the loss of Richard’s bantering confidence—before we get to the play’s conclusion, when the good and noble (but much less likeable) Richmond wrests the crown from Richard’s deformed hand. The seasonal metaphor suggests a cyclical, not teleological, end, which is more like actual history—tyrants and just leaders rise and fall, rise and fall, in a cycle almost as predictable as the seasons. The metaphorical War of the Roses, ergo, never ends. After this play’s winter, we get an ending that feels inevitable, and that is ethically satisfying, but that leaves us a little queasy. How could we have spent so long supporting a character who is wicked by his own admission? How come the flat affect of Richmond doesn’t stir us the way the villain’s sparkling and dangerous intellect does? We’ve been accomplices to evil, and in that sense the play warns us about the deceptive power of equivocation (a concept about which there was much anxiety in the Elizabethan era). But it also, in the words of one of our classmates, gives us “a joyride with the bad guy,” and that feels good. Maybe we all need a shot of “proxy evil” now and then to help keep us on the straight and narrow? Just a thought. Or maybe it’s I who’s equivocating.

Cited Sources

Shakespeare, William. Richard III. The Folger Shakespeare Library, 1996.

For Our Sins

Even though contemporary theories about Shakespeare's Hamlet often overlook its historical context, opting instead for a psychoanalytic read of its title character, it can also be read as a psychomachic exploration, building multiple cultural anxieties into a single psyche. Hamlet is a character of great sympathy, but one, perhaps, unfit for kingship, and not for the reasons he himself lays out (that he should be more like Fortinbras, acting for the sake of action). Difficulties of legitimate succession set the play within a constellation of political struggles that plagued England at the time of its writing, but that were illegal to openly discuss. A reading of Hamlet through this lens can therefore provide insight both into the play and into the political climate of Shakespeare’s day. Fin de siècle Elizabethan anxieties about succession predated Elizabeth I. They weren’t resolved (were perhaps intensified) by the end of her rule. She was, after all, the issue of the unpopular Anne Boleyn, who had been put to death for treasonous incest; she never married or conceived an heir; and she presided over a country deeply divided over religion. Hamlet, it could be argued, becomes a scapegoat for succession anxiety itself, presenting an inner debate that safely—that is, without threat of treason—explores issues of rightful kingship.

Anne Boleyn

Hamlet is naturally squeamish about his mother’s “o’erhasty marriage” (II.ii.57). The play evinces an almost prurient fixation on the couple’s “enseamed bed” (III.iv.94), driving home again and again the incest of the union. The former squeamishness can of course be explained away by grief for the lost father and the latter by the reality that marrying a sibling’s former spouse was legally forbidden at the time. But to an early modern audience the question must have cut deeper, resonating on a more proximate and politically dangerous level. Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, used the incest excuse on two separate occasions, first to sever from his wife Catherine (his brother’s former wife), and second from Elizabeth’s mother, whom he executed for the crime of incest. She may or may not have bedded her own brother, but in “The Fall of Anne Boleyn,” G. W. Bernard notes that the detailed voyeurism of the court transcripts show a country obsessed with the “rank sweat” of the antecedent of Gertrude’s “enseamed bed” (584). Hamlet overflows with language both fascinated and disgusted by incest. Contemporary theorists read Oedipal obsession into this detail, but front-and-center in an early modern consciousness was the incest trial of Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth’s legitimacy, it goes without saying, was compromised by the accusations against her mother, and continued to plague her during her rule. Her dying father wrote her back into the line of succession while still maintaining her illegitimacy—an old man’s last-ditch attempt to keep his own blood in the throne of England (Bernard 586). Hamlet’s Denmark has what England had been longing for: a savvy, intellectually astute, legitimate male heir of marriageable age. But Hamlet does not, mysteriously, inherit the throne. Rather, some sort of under-explained voting process has led to his murderous uncle’s ascendancy.

Thus the play confronts the reader with the question: why isn’t Hamlet king? In Saxo Grammaticus’ source material for the play, Geste Danorum, the hero Amleth kills his fratricidal uncle and assumes the crown. The restoration of bloodline sets all to rights (Grammaticus 128). Even if Hamlet had acted in time, the play does not assure us he would have been a strong leader. Hamlet is a puer aeternis, battling, literally, with the ghost of a dead father. He is far more obsessed with death and the dead than with life and the living. Further complicating the issue is the fact that Shakespeare renders Claudius as a shrewd politician, capable of intelligent decisions (where Hamlet’s father slaughters his enemies, Claudius avoids war through diplomatic avenues). Claudius gives Hamlet the pragmatic warning that “to persever / In obstinate condolement is a course / Of impious stubbornness. ‘Tis unmanly grief” (I.ii.92-4). He might be heartless and self-serving, telling Hamlet to stop mourning his dead father, but his advice to look forward instead of backward is politically appropriate: were Hamlet to become king, his solipsistic grief would conflict with affairs of state.

Hamlet’s refusal to give up the mien of grief appeals to our present-day sensibilities. In the Oxford lecture series “Approaching Shakespeare,” Emma Smith discusses how Hamlet is more comfortable in our contemporary world than in his own. Many critics, she says, credit Hamlet’s 20th century success to Shakespeare’s prescience: he was anticipating the existential angst of the modern psyche. She describes Hamlet’s soliloquies, in today’s conception of them, as the “completely overdetermined articulation of man caught in the process of emotional and intellectual formation” (Smith). She notes that this is not an early modern read: to the Elizabethan, Hamlet’s unhealthy and backward-looking preoccupation with the “golden age” of his father make him a poor choice for leadership, since a sovereign was the only one allowed to look forward. To imagine an “after” in the rule of a king was to imagine his death and thereby to commit treason (Bernard 601), whereas a king needed to make the arrangements for his own succession. Hamlet cannot look forward. Were he to inherit the crown, he could not do what a king must do. The play spends a lot of airtime on Hamlet’s ghost-fueled fantasy of a prelapsarian paradise wherein the play’s other “Hamlet,” the dead king, could sleep, unafraid, in a garden (an obvious biblical allusion, complete with serpent). This until, equally biblically, Claudius befouls the paradise by committing a crime with “the primal eldest curse upon’t / A brother’s murder” (III.iii.37-8). The “hyperion” father so overshadows the young Hamlet that he finds himself unable to succeed, both in the sense of legal succession and in the sense of personal success. Tellingly, Shakespeare deviates from the source material by doubling the name “Hamlet.” The first time we hear Horatio refer to “valiant Hamlet” (I.i.84) he is speaking of the dead king, not the living son, and this doubling is mirrored in the play’s foils, Fortinbras and his son. The younger Hamlet, we come to see, is paralyzed with hero-worship. Young Fortinbras' flaw is unreflecting. At a time in history when generations of monarchs were failing to produce legal heirs, and legal justifications were needed to name a successor (almost never without bloodshed), the play calls into question the notion that blood determines legitimacy. It does this within a well-established theatrical idiom that almost always makes the opposite point: the revenge play.

Finally, the play explores, in a circumspect way, themes of religion, creating a religious tension between a father whose very existence is “illegal” and a son struggling for legitimacy. The ghost returns to earth, “Doomed for a certain term to walk the night, / And for the day confined to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and purged away” (I.v.10-3). In Shakespeare’s day, purgatory was a banned belief. Hamlet must struggle with what must have been a recognizable conundrum to an English audience: Catholic fathers and their Protestant sons privately struggling to reconcile the enforced worldview shift—for to struggle publicly with it was to commit treason. Though Shakespeare needn’t name the university Hamlet attends, he goes out of his way to put him in school in Wittenberg, a city inextricably linked to Martin Luther and the protestant revolution. Horatio, too, is a student at Wittenberg, and warns Hamlet not to fall for the ghost’s tricks: “What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord, / Or to the dreadful summit of a cliff” (I.iv.69-70). He sees the ghost as the potentially dangerous vestige of a forbidden practice. Early modern audiences, too, would have been acutely aware of the issues of conflicting religions and the political dangers therein.

Shakespeare renders up Hamlet as a sort of sacrificial lamb to the prevailing anxieties of the day. He does so in part to get around the Bishop’s Ban, which prevented the exploration of similar themes reserved for the history play genre (Smith). Poor Hamlet dies for our sins. But he can rest easier in his grave: his suffering over the course of the play does for audiences what all great art does: it allows us to wrestle with our angels without threat to our persons, working through the tough questions in a kind of “trial run” in which no real person is sacrificed. He takes the fall for the anxieties of his time. And as with truly great art, he also allows contemporary audiences the same benefit: what we see in Hamlet is not what the early moderns saw, but as a character he provides as much grist for our contemporary mill as he did for our predecessors’, and who knows? Maybe Shakespeare was prescient enough to anticipate more issues of generations yet to come. Maybe Hamlet will reveal yet more of heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy…

Works Cited

Bernard, G. W. “The Fall of Anne Boleyn.” The English Historical Review: Vol. 106, No. 420 Jul., 1991. 584-610.

Grammaticus, Saxo. Gesta Danorum, Book 3-4. Tr. Oliver Elton. David Nutt, 1894.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Signet Classics, 1998.

Smith, Emma. “Approaching Shakespeare: Hamlet.” University of Oxford Podcasts. Mediapub, 2012. https://podcasts.ox.ac.uk