Asimov’s Guide To Shakespear
The Greek, Roman, and Italian Plays
Those of us who speak English as our native tongue can count a number of blessings. It is a widespread language that is understood by more people in more parts of the world than any other [Chinese has more speakers than English, but it is understood on a large scale only in eastern and southeastern Asia] and it is therefore the language that is most nearly an open door to all peoples.
Its enormous vocabulary and its relatively simple grammar give it un-equaled richness and flexibility and more than make up for its backward spelling. Its hospitality to idiomatic phrases and to foreign words gives it a colorful and dramatic quality that is without peer.
But most of all, we who speak English can read, in the original, the writings of William Shakespeare, a man who is certainly the supreme writer through all the history of English literature and who, in the opinion of many, is the greatest writer who ever lived-in any language.
Indeed, so important are Shakespeare's works that only the Bible can compare with them in their influence upon our language and thought. Shakespeare has said so many things so supremely well that we are forever finding ourselves thinking in his terms. (There is the story of the woman who read Hamlet for the first tune and said, "I don't see why people admire that play so. It is nothing but a bunch of quotations strung together.")
I have a feeling that Shakespeare has even acted as a brake on the development of English. Before his time, English was developing so rapidly that the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, written shortly before 1400, had become unreadably archaic, two centuries later, to the Englishmen of Shakespeare's time. Yet now, after three and a half centuries, Shakespeare's plays can be read quite easily and with only an occasional archaic word or phrase requiring translation. It is almost as though the English language dare not change so much as to render Shakespeare incomprehensible. That would be an unacceptable price to pay for change.
In this respect, Shakespeare is even more important than the Bible. The King James version of the Bible is, of course, only a translation, although a supremely great one. If it becomes archaic there is nothing to prevent newer translations into more modern English. Indeed, such newer translations exist.
How, though, can anyone ever dream of "translating" Shakespeare into "modern English"? That would do, perhaps, if one were merely interested in the contents of Shakespeare. (It is, by analogy, in the contents of the Bible that we are interested, not in its exact syllables.)
But who can bear to have nothing more than the contents of Shakespeare's plays? What translation, even merely from one form of English into another form, could possibly reproduce the exact music and thunder of Shakespeare's syllables, and without that-
Yet in one respect Shakespeare recedes from us no matter how faithfully we follow the very syllables he uses. He wrote for all time, yes (whether he knew it or not), but he also wrote for a specific audience, that of Elizabethan Englishmen and -women. He gave its less educated individuals the horseplay and slapstick they enjoyed, and he gave its more educated individuals a wealth of allusion.
He assumed the educated portion of the audience were thoroughly grounded in Greek and Roman mythology and history, since that was part (and, indeed, almost the whole) of the classical education of the upper classes of the time. He assumed, also, that they were well acquainted with England's own history and with the geography of sixteenth-century Europe.
Modern Americans, however, are for the most part only vaguely aware of Greek mythology or Roman history. If anything, they are even less aware of those parts of English history with which Shakespeare deals.
This is not to say that one cannot enjoy Shakespeare without knowing the historical, legendary, or mythological background to the events in his plays. There is still the great poetry and the deathless swing of his writing. -And yet, if we did know a little more of what that writing was about, would not the plays take on new dimensions and lend us still greater enjoyment?
This is what it is in my mind to do in this book.
It is not my intention to discuss the literary values of the plays, or to analyze them from a theatrical, philosophical, or psychological point of view. Others have done this far beyond any poor capacity I might have in that direction.
What I can do, however, is to go over each of the thirty-eight plays and two narrative poems written by Shakespeare in his quarter century of literary life, and explain, as I go along, the historical, legendary, and mythological background.
In the process, I will, in some places, spend many pages on a single short speech which requires a great deal of background knowledge for its proper total appreciation. I may, in other places, skip quickly through whole acts which require nothing more than an understanding of a few archaic words to be crystal clear. (On the whole, I shall make no attempt to translate simple archaisms. This is done, quite adequately, in any briefly annotated edition of Shakespeare.)
In dealing with the plays, I will quote whatever passage inspires an explanation, but I will quote very little else. If the reader is reasonably familiar with a particular play, he will be able to read through the chapter devoted to it without needing to refer to the play itself. If he is not familiar with a particular play, it would probably help to keep it at hand for possible reference.
One matter over which I hesitated for a considerable length of time was the question of the order of presentation of the plays. The traditional order, as found in most editions of Shakespeare's collected works, groups the comedies first, then the histories, then the tragedies. This traditional order is very far removed from the order in which the plays were written. Thus, The Tempest, which is the first play in the ordinary editions, is the last play that Shakespeare wrote without collaboration. The Two Gentlemen of Verona, which is next, is one of the earliest.
It is possible to prepare an edition in which the plays are presented roughly in the order of their writing, something of value to those who study Shakespeare's developing techniques and ideas. This order can only be rough because it is not always certain in exactly which year a particular play was written. Worse yet, placing the plays in the chronological order of writing disrupts the histories and places them out of order as far as the historical events they deal with are concerned.
Since I am chiefly interested in this book in the historical, legendary, and mythological background of the events described in the various plays, I have decided to place the plays in the chronological order of those historical events as far as possible.
To begin with, I divide the plays into four broad groups: Greek, Roman, Italian, and English.
The Greek plays will include those that have their basis in Greek legend, as for instance, Troilus and Cressida; or in Greek history (however faintly), as Timon of Athens. It will also, however, include pure romances, with no claim whatever to any historical value, except that the background is arbitrarily set in a time we recognize as Greek-as The Winter's Tale.
The Roman plays include those that are based on actual history, as Julius Caesar, or on utterly non-historical, but Rome-based, inventiveness, as Titus Andronicus. (As it happens, even historical fiction such as The Winter's Tale and Titus Andronicus can be faintly related to actual historical events. No fiction writer is an island and no matter how he tries to draw on his imagination alone, the real world will intrude.)
The Italian plays are those set in a Renaissance Italian setting (or in nearby places such as France, Austria, or Illyria) which cannot be pinned down to any specific period of time. I will present the plays in this section in the order in which Shakespeare (as best we can tell) wrote them.
The English plays include not only the sober historical plays such as Richard II or Henry V, but also those which deal with the legendary period of English history before the Norman conquest or even, in the case of King Lear and Cymbeline, before the Roman conquest.
There is some overlapping. The Greek plays set latest in time are later than the earliest Roman plays; and the latest Roman plays are later than the earliest English plays. The radical difference in scene, however, makes it convenient to ignore this slight chronological inconsistency. With that out of the way, the order of plays and narrative poems in this volume will carry us through some twenty-eight centuries of history, from the time of legendary Greece before the Trojan War, to Shakespeare's own time.
To make a reasonably even division of the book into two volumes, the Greek, Roman, and Italian plays-in that order-will be grouped into Volume One. This will leave the English plays, to which I have devoted a little more than half the book, to form Volume Two.
In preparing this book, I have made as much use as I could of all sorts of general reference books: encyclopedias, atlases, mythologies, biographical dictionaries, histories-whatever came to hand.
To one set of books, however, I owe an especial debt. These are the many volumes of "The Signet Classic Shakespeare" (General Editor, Sylvan Barnet, published by New American Library, New York). It was, as a matter of fact, while reading my pleasurable way through these volumes that the notion of Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare occurred to me.
Part I. Greek
1. Venus And Adonis
Of all Shakespeare's writings, Venus and Adonis is the most straightforwardly mythological and traces farthest backward (if only dimly so) in history. For that reason, I will begin with it.
Earl of Southampton
"Venus and Adonis" bears a dedication:
To the Right Honourable Henry Wriothesley, Earl of South ampton, and Baron of Tichfield.
Southampton was a well-educated youth of considerable wealth, who was presented at the court of Queen Elizabeth I in 1590, while he was still a boy in his teens. He quickly became a generous patron of poets, Shakespeare among them.
It is suggested that one of Shakespeare's early plays, Love's Labor's Lost (see page I-421) was written for a premiere performance at Southampton's house before an assemblage of his friends and guests. If so, the play must have pleased Southampton tremendously; his patronage to Shakespeare extended (so at least one report goes) to the gift of a thousand pounds-an enormous sum in those days-for the completion of some purchase. Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that Shakespeare made his dedication to Venus and Adonis florid, indeed.
Nevertheless, considering that we know Shakespeare as a transcendent genius, and that Southampton was merely a rich young man who was no more than twenty years old when Venus and Adonis was published, there is something unpleasantly sycophantic about the dedication. Shakespeare pretends to worry, for instance-
— how the world will censure me for choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burthen;
Can he really doubt his own power so, or overestimate the young man so egregiously? Surely not. Can he be indulging in sarcasm? That would be foolishly risky and nothing in Shakespeare's career would lead us to suppose him a devil-may-care. He was rather the reverse.
Well then, is he merely buttering up a patron with a fat money belt? Perhaps so. It is easy to believe that this is the ordinary language of poets to patrons but it would still hurt us to suppose that Shakespeare would conform to so degrading a custom.
But, to be complete, it is also possible that there was a homosexual attachment and Shakespeare was writing out of love. This is possible. Some think most of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets were written in this period of his life; most of them seem addressed to a young man, possibly (but not certainly) to Southampton [Shakespeare's sonnets, and a handful of other short poems attributed to him, are not taken up in this book. They are primarily emotional and personal, with little or none of the type of background I am dealing with here.]. The twentieth sonnet seems to have the frankest homosexual content. It begins:
A woman's face, with Nature's own hand painted, Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
But it denies overt homosexuality, ending:
And for a woman wert thou first created,
Till Nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting
And by addition me of thee defeated
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing.
But since she prick'd thee out for women's pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love's use their treasure.
In addition, there are a number of events in Shakespeare's plays that can be interpreted from a homosexual point of view, yet which Shakespeare presents most sympathetically. There are the close male friendships, even to threatened death, as is Antonio's for Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice (see page I-501). There is Lucius' passion for Fidele in Cymbe-line (see page II-72) and the scene in which Orlando woos Ganymede in As You Like It (see page I-571).
But too little is known of Shakespeare's life to go any further than this. Any speculations as to his homosexual urges and to the extent to which he gave in to them, if they existed, can never be anything more than speculations.
… the first heir of my invention …
Shakespeare goes on to say, in his dedication,
… if the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I shall be sorry it had so noble a godfather…
Venus and Adonis was published about April 1593, at which time Shakespeare was just twenty-nine. He had already established himself as a competent actor and had probably done considerable patching of old plays; notably Henry VI, Part One (see page II-640). Henry VI, Part Two and Henry VI, Part Three were mostly or entirely his and it is possible he had already written two comedies: The Comedy of Errors and Love's Labor's Lost. It is even possible that two more plays, Titus Andronicus and Richard III were in the process of production.
These works, however, were meant to be played, not read, and it was to be years before they were actually published. Venus and Adonis was the first piece of Shakespeare's writings that actually appeared in print, and it was in that sense only "the first heir of my invention."
Shakespeare seems, by the way, to have turned to narrative poetry only because of a siege of enforced idleness. The London theaters were closed between mid-1592 and mid-1594 as a result of a heightened incidence of plagues, and Shakespeare used the additional time on his hands to write Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.
The poem begins early in the day, with Adonis making ready to hunt:
Even as the sun with purple-colour'd face Had ta'en his last leave of the weeping morn,
Rose-cheek'd Adonis hied him to the chase. Hunting he lov'd, but love he laugh'd to scorn.
Adonis is the Greek version of a Semitic vegetation god. From the beginnings of agriculture, there must have been a kind of relief each year among the farmers that, after the death of vegetation in the fall, there was a rebirth in the spring. Rituals personifying this death-and-rebirth were invented and they must have been looked upon as a kind of flattering homage to Nature (or even as a hint to a possibly forgetful Nature), inducing her to continue. The feeling would surely arise at last that only a thorough-going carrying through of the ritual each year would bring about a fertile growing season and a good harvest, and upon that, life through the barren winter would depend.
In that sense, the type of myth of which the tale of Venus and Adonis is representative (though prettied-up from its straightforward origins by the sophisticated imaginations of the later classical poets), reflects the historic birth of agriculture. It can be tied to the great event, some seven thousand years before the Trojan War, that saw the first deliberate cultivation and harvest of wild grain in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains in what is now western Iran.
The Sumerians, about 2000 b.c., represented the agricultural cycle with a god, Dumu-zi, who died and was resurrected; a death-and-resurrection which was celebrated each year by the people of the land. The myth and the ritual were adopted by the later Babylonians and Assyrians-the Semitic peoples who succeeded the Sumerians in the land of the Tigris and Euphrates. In the Semitic language of Babylonia, the name of the vegetation god became Tammuz.
In the Tammuz myth, the god descends into the underworld after his death and all vegetation dies with him. A wailing goddess (variously described as his sister, mother, or wife) manages to rescue him. In the most familiar form of the myth, the rescuer is Ishtar, his wife or love.
The passionate rites for Tammuz were exceedingly attractive to women in particular. They found emotional relief in the wailing and utter grief that symbolized Tammuz' death and in the almost orgiastic joy that came when the priests raised the cry that he was reborn.
The stern prophets of Israel had a hard job keeping the Israelite women from joining in this pagan rite. The tale of Jephthah's daughter was possibly an attempt to solve the problem by converting the rite into a patriotic commemoration. The Israelite general Jephthah had beaten the enemy, after making a rash vow to sacrifice the first living thing that came to greet him on his return. It turned out to be his daughter, whom he sacrificed. The Bible goes on to explain: "And it was a custom in Israel, That the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year" (Judges 11:39-40).
If so, this pious wile did not work. Ezekiel, at the time of the Judean exile in Babylon, enumerated the sins of the Jews of the time and said that in the very Temple in Jerusalem "there sat women weeping for Tammuz" (Ezekiel 8:14).
And in one way, Tammuz has remained in Jewish consciousness ever since. The Babylonians named a month in honor of the god and the exiled Jews, in adopting the Babylonian calendar, adopted the month too. Even today, one of the months of the Jewish calendar (falling in the latter half of June and the earlier half of July) is called Tammuz.
The rites of a dead-and-resurrected God occur in the Greek myths too.
There is the case of Demeter (the grain goddess), whose daughter, Persephone, is abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld. While Persephone is gone, all grain withers, but finally Demeter manages to rescue her daughter under conditions that allow herself and Hades to share her, each for part of the year. The Eleusinian Mysteries, secret religious rites among the Greeks, seem to have involved the celebration of this death-and-resurrection, expanding it to include the resurrection of the human soul after the death of the human body.
As the Greeks and the Semites of the East gained more and more in the way of cultural interchange, the Tammuz version entered Greek mythology directly. Tammuz became Adonis.
The name shift is no mystery. Names of gods are always a little difficult to handle in any culture that considers the name of an object to be almost the equivalent of the object itself. To touch the name with one's own tongue and breath is a form of blasphemy and so circumlocutions are used. Instead of saying Tammuz, one says Lord (just as, in the Bible, Lord is used in place of Yahveh).
The Semitic term for "Lord" is "Adonai" and it was "Adonai," rather than "Tammuz," that was adopted by the Greeks. They added the final s, which is an almost invariable ending on Greek proper names, making it "Adonis."
Since Ishtar was the lover of Tammuz in the Babylonian myth, the equivalent of Ishtar would have to be the lover of Adonis in the Greek myth. The Greek equivalent of Ishtar was Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty.
The Greek myth had Adonis born the son of King Theias of Assyria. No such king existed in actual history, to be sure, but this is a hint of the Babylonian origin of the myth. We might suppose, therefore, that the scene of the poem is Babylonia, though Shakespeare never indicates any particular place-and perhaps gave the matter no thought at all.
Adonis' mother was Myrrha, who was herself the daughter of Theias. Myrrha had conceived an incestuous passion for her father and managed to sneak into his bed, with the result that she became pregnant by him. When the shocked father discovered the truth, he would have killed her, but the pitying gods changed her into the myrrh tree.
The myrrh tree yields a bitter resinous sap (myrrh), which oozes out when the bark is split. (The word "myrrh" is from an Arabic word meaning "bitter.") The sap is valued for its uses as incense and in cosmetics and embalming. (It was one of the three gifts brought to the infant Jesus by the wise men-"they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh," Matthew 2:11.)
The sap on being exposed to air hardens into resinous drops called "tears," and these are supposed to represent the tears of Myrrha over the terrible thing she had done. (Working backward, we can suppose that this part of the myth arose over the attempt to explain why a tree should seem to weep.)
In the Greek myth, the myrrh tree into which Myrrha had been changed split after nine months, and the infant Adonis emerged. Aphrodite (who had inspired Myrrha's fatal love in the first place) felt remorse at the event and rescued Adonis. She placed him in a box and gave him to Persephone, goddess of the underworld, for temporary safekeeping. Persephone, noting the beauty of the child, refused to give him back and there was a quarrel that ended with each having him part of the time.
Here again is the tale of whiter (Adonis with Persephone) and summer (Adonis with Aphrodite), enlivened, in the Greek way, by a story of forbidden love.
This, at least, is the myth as told by Apollodorus, an Athenian poet who lived in the second century b.c. Shakespeare does not follow this. He begins with Adonis as a grown man, says nothing of his origins, and concerns himself only with the final stage of the myth, following a version given by Ovid.
Ovid, who seems to have been Shakespeare's favorite classical author, is the Roman poet whose name in full was Publius Ovidius Naso. About a.d. 1 he was writing his most famous work-a version, in Latin verse, of those Greek myths that involved the transformation ("metamorphosis") of one living thing into another.
Ovid's book is therefore called Metamorphoses, and the myth of Adonis is included, since his mother had been turned into a myrrh tree.
In the final couplet of the first stanza, Shakespeare introduces the other member of the mythical duo:
Sick-thoughted Venus makes amain unto him And like a bold-fac'd suitor gins to woo him.
This is not Aphrodite, notice, as it would be if Shakespeare were following the work of the Greek poet Apollodorus. Shakespeare is using the name of a Roman goddess instead, the name used by Ovid.
The Romans in the early centuries of their history had a primitive religion, with numerous gods and goddesses of a rather arid nature who were not to be compared with the sophisticated deities of the much more cultivated Greeks. From the third century b.c. onward, the Romans fell more and more under the spell of Greek culture and were impelled to adopt the beautiful and intricate Greek mythology. They could not very well drop their own deities; instead they compromised by identifying their own gods with the roughly corresponding gods of the Greeks and retold the Greek myths using the Roman names.
Here is a list of the chief gods and goddesses in their Roman and Greek versions:
Jupiter Zeus chief of the gods
Juno Hera his wife
Minerva Athena goddess of wisdom and practical arts
Diana Artemis goddess of the moon and the hunt
Mercury Hermes messenger of the gods
Mars Ares god of war
Vulcan Hephaestus god of fire and the forge
Venus Aphrodite goddess of love and beauty
Neptune Poseidon god of the sea
Vesta Hestia goddess of the hearth and home
Dis Hades god of the underworld
Ceres Demeter goddess of grain and agriculture
Proserpina Persephone goddess of the underworld
One major god had, apparently, no Roman equivalent at all, which is not strange, for he was the most Greek of all the Greek gods. He was Apollo, the god of youth and the fine arts (and in later poetry, of the sun as well). The Romans used the Greek name, therefore. They also used Hades or, its equivalent, Pluto, in preference to their own Dis, since Dis (a fearsome underground deity) was not popular with them and they avoided naming him.
Two of the mortal heroes that people the Greek legends, and who play a prominent part in Shakespearean allusions, have altered names given them by the Romans. Thus, the greatest and strongest of all the Greek heroes was Heracles, but the Romans called him Hercules. Again, the wiliest of the Greeks at the siege of Troy was Odysseus, whom the Romans called Ulysses.
In medieval Europe the Greek myths reached the west only through such Roman filters as Ovid and therefore the names used were all Roman. Shakespeare uses the Roman names of the gods invariably.
I will conform to Shakespearean usage, though it goes against the grain to do so, since it is far more appropriate to use the Greek names in dealing with Greek myths. I will ease my conscience, therefore, by occasionally placing the Greek name in parentheses, just to remind the reader of its existence.
Shakespeare departs from his source material in one important way. He makes Adonis reluctant to respond to Venus. "Hunting he loved, but love he laughed to scorn" and Venus, out of sheer necessity, must reverse the role of the sexes and "like a bold-fac'd suitor" be the aggressor.
There is precedent for this in Greek mythology. There was, for instance, Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite. He was beloved by a fountain nymph, Salmacis, but he repulsed her coldly. Once, however, when he was bathing in her spring, she was able to unite with bun hi love, and fearing that she might never be able to repeat the act, prayed the gods that she might remain united with him physically forever.
Her prayer was granted and thereafter Hermaphroditus had the genital equipment of both sexes. The word "hermaphrodite" has, in consequence, entered the English language to represent that pathological bisexual condition.
A much better known example is mentioned by Venus herself in this poem. She complains of Adonis' coldness and accuses him of loving only himself. She warns him he runs risks in consequence, saying:
Narcissus so himself himself forsook, And died to kiss his shadow in the brook.
The tale of Narcissus begins with a nymph, Echo, who had, at Jupiter's orders, kept Juno busy with prolonged and idle gossip while Jupiter busied himself with various nymphs. When Juno found out, she punished Echo by depriving her of her voice-except that she was permitted to repeat the last words of anything said to her.
Unhappy Echo fell in love, thereafter, with Narcissus, a handsome youth who would love no one. She tried to woo him, but could only repeat his last words, and he fled from her impatiently, so that Echo pined away until only her voice was left.
And then one day Narcissus came across a clear spring in which he saw his own face. He had never seen his face before and, staring at it now, fell in love with it. He attempted to woo it, but the shadow could not respond and, in effect, rejected him, so that "himself himself forsook." Attempting, finally, to kiss his shadow, Narcissus drowned, and he too added a word to our language-"narcissism," the morbid love of one's self.
This trick of having Adonis cold to Venus gives Shakespeare a chance to turn his poetic powers to a less hackneyed motif than that of a man's praise of womanly beauty. He can turn to the harder and less familiar task of a woman's praise of manly beauty.
Then too, if we go along with the homosexual component of Shakespeare, it may be significant that a poem dedicated to young Southampton features the prolonged praise of manly beauty and a prolonged pleading for a love that is not, and cannot, be given.
… god of war
Venus points out that she is rarely refused when she asks for love:
"I have been wooed, as I entreat thee now, Even by the stern and direful god of war,
One of the most famous tales of Venus/Aphrodite is her love affair with Mars/Ares. The tale is told in the Odyssey (Homer's epic poem concerning the voyages of Odysseus), in which Venus is pictured as married to Vulcan/Hephaestus, the ugly and lame smith god. Venus is, under these conditions, quite ready to respond to the wooing of Mars.
Vulcan, suspecting that Venus is being unfaithful, rigged up a device whereby an unbreakable net could fall upon the bed and catch Venus and Mars in the position of love. This was done; Mars and Venus were helplessly bound together while the angry Vulcan called in the other gods to witness his wife's criminal behavior. Unfortunately for himself, the reaction of the gods was not one of sympathy for Vulcan, but rather of envy for Mars.
And Titan …
By now, the sun was high in the sky:
And Titan, tired in the midday heat,
With burning eye did hotly overlook them,
Wishing Adonis had his team to guide,
So he were like him, and by Venus' side.
In the Greek myths, Jupiter/Zeus and his fellow deities had not always ruled the universe. Before them had been a race of older gods whom they supplanted. (Perhaps this is a reflection in myth of the supercession of the pre-Greeks of the Balkan peninsula by the invading Greek tribes.)
These older gods were called Titans, and their chief was Cronus, whom the Romans called Saturn.
The Titan who served as the god of the sun was Hyperion. One way of saying this, mythologically, was to make him the father of Helios (the Greek word for "sun"). Both "Hyperion" and "Helios" are thus used in classic-minded literature to represent the sun. Since both are considered Titans, the sun can be called, as here, "Titan."
The sun was always pictured as a blazing, golden chariot, driven by a team of wild, fiery horses. It is with this in mind that Shakespeare pictures the "Titan" as wishing Adonis held the reins and he himself were lying by Venus.
In later Greek poetry, Apollo was made the god of the sun, and Shakespeare, in the course of his writing, uses "Apollo" to symbolize the sun too. The Titaness Phoebe, a sister of Hyperion, was the goddess of the moon, and the myths make Apollo a grandson (on his mother's side) of Phoebe. He inherits the ancient name in its masculine form, then, and is called Phoebus or Phoebus Apollo, "Phoebus" too is used by Shakespeare to represent the sun.
Thy mermaid's voice …
Adonis is only irritated by Venus' pleadings. While she keeps him back from the hunt with her attempted love-making, his stallion spies a mare and breaks loose. Adonis fails to recapture him and petulantly scolds Venus, blaming her for the loss.
Venus laments that she suffers twice, first because he will not speak to her, and second because when at last he does, it is to scold her. She says:
Thy mermaid's voice hath done me double wrong;
The Greeks had, in their myths, tales of beautiful young women, called sirens, who rested on the rocks of a seashore and sang in heavenly voices. Sailors passing by would be attracted by them and, steering their boats nearer, would meet death upon the rocks.
Originally sirens may have been wind spirits carrying off the souls of the dead, and were sometimes pictured with birds' bodies. However, the wind was more deadly on sea than on land, and the sirens became more and more closely associated with the sea until they were pictured as creatures who were women down to the waist and fish below that.
These are the "mermaids" ("sea-maids"), who bewitch sailors to their doom on the rocks, as they sit combing their long hair and singing. The famous German poem "Die Lorelei" is of such a creature.
So when Venus speaks of Adonis' "mermaid voice" she means a beautiful voice that is luring her to doom.
… worse than Tantalus'.. .
At this Venus is sent into a paroxysm of fear, lest he be killed in so dangerous a pursuit. She seizes him and they fall to the ground in the very position of love. Yet even so, to Venus' frustration, he will do nothing.
That worse than Tantalus' is her annoy To clip Elysium and to lack her joy.
Tantalus was a Peloponnesian king who was an intimate friend of Jupiter and the other gods. He was admitted to their feasts and in return he invited them to his house. For some reason, perhaps to test their divine knowledge, he served them the flesh of his own son when they were feasting at his house. The gods were horrified. They restored the son to life, and, for his detestable crime, Tantalus was killed by Jupiter's lightning bolt. What's more, Tantalus was sent to Tartarus, the region beneath Hades where particularly wicked people were specially punished.
Tantalus' punishment was to stand in water up to his neck in eternal frustration. He was consumed by thirst, but every time he stooped to drink, the water swirled downward. Fruit-laden branches hovered temptingly near and he was famished, but every time he reached to snatch a fruit, it whisked away. It is from this that the word "tantalize" is derived.
For Venus, to have Adonis exactly where he ought to be and yet have him make no use of the fact seems a frustration worse than that of Tantalus. She was in Tartarus, even though she was "clipping" (holding) Elysium, which was the Greek version of Paradise.
In the Homeric writings, Elysium or "the Elysian plain" existed in the far west, the dimly explored (and therefore wonder-filled) western regions of the Mediterranean Sea, where heroes were taken after death to live in eternal bliss. By later writers this had to be transported beyond the ocean rim, for explorers reached the westernmost point of the Mediterranean shores without finding Elysium. The Greek poet Hesiod, writing a century after Homer, speaks of "the Islands of the Blest" lying out in the Atlantic.
As geographic knowledge continued to broaden, the Roman poet Vergil, writing six centuries after Hesiod, was forced to move Elysium underground, making it a portion of Hades devoted to delight. It was suffused with an eternal spring. Its flowers, groves, and fountains were lit by soft sunshine during the day and by the familiar constellations at night. Then the righteous, resting on banks of resilient and perfumed flowers, lived in never-ending felicity.
… modest Dian ...
Venus urges Adonis to hunt foxes or hares, anything that is not dangerous, rather than boars. Adonis, having paid his kiss, finds that he still cannot disengage himself from her wild grasp. It is night already and he is annoyed at this, for it will be hard to find his way. Venus turns this too into praise of Adonis' beauty.
So do thy lips
Make modest Dian cloudy and forlorn,
Lest she should steal a kiss and die forsworn.
Now of this dark night I perceive the reason:
Cynthia for shame obscures her silver shine,
The Titaness who served as goddess of the moon was Phoebe. However, Hyperion, the Titan god of the sun, had not only Helios as a son but Selene as a daughter. "Selene" is the Greek word for "moon" and that name was the most common mythological representation of the moon.
The later poets, however, transferred the duty of serving as goddess of the moon to Diana/Artemis, the sister of Apollo. She is also called Cynthia because she was supposed to have been born on a mountain called Cynthus on a small island in the Aegean Sea. Apollo is therefore, but much less frequently, called Cynthius.
Diana is, of all the Greek goddesses, the most insistently virgin. Venus therefore says that Adonis may lose his way or trip because the night is dark; and the night is dark because the moon hides herself, lest while shining on Adonis' beautiful face she be unable to resist kissing him, thus ruining her rigid chastity.
A purple flower...
Venus' urgings are all in vain. The next day he hunts the boar and is slain. The horrified Venus finds him:
And in his blood, that on the ground lay spill'd
A purple flower sprung up, check'red with white,
Resembling well his pale cheeks and the blood
'Which in round drops upon their whiteness stood.
The flower that arose out of the blood, according to the myth, was the anemone, and its appearance makes a second reason why the tale qualifies for inclusion in Ovid's Metamorphoses.
This is not the only flower that was supposed to have originated out of the blood of a mortal loved by a god.
There was the case, for instance, of a beautiful Spartan prince, Hya-cinthus, with whom Apollo fell in love. (The Greeks had a tolerant and even approving attitude toward male homosexuality, and the Greek gods indulged in it too.) The West Wind was also in love with Hyacinthus and when Apollo and Hyacinthus were exercising by throwing the discus, the West Wind, out of jealousy, blew the discus against the boy's head, killing him. From the blood of Hyacinthus sprang the hyacinth, which carries on its petals markings that look like the first two letters of the name of Hyacinthus (in Greek), two letters which, coincidentally, mean "woe."
… to Paphos. ..
Shakespeare's version of the story ends there, with the disastrous climax of Adonis' death. The last, and 199th, stanza, reads:
Thus weary of the world, away she hies
And yokes her silver doves, by whose swift aid
Their mistress, mounted, through the empty skies «
In her light chariot quickly is convey'd,
Holding their course to Paphos, where their queen
Means to immure herself and not be seen.
The doves, for their amorous dispositions, their whiteness and gentleness, are fitting representations of romantic love and are therefore associated with Venus. Shakespeare makes a number of allusions to her doves in the course of his writings.
Paphos is a town on the western shore of the island of Cyprus, a town particularly dedicated to the worship of Venus. She is sometimes called the "Paphian goddess" as a result and sometimes "Cypris."
In the Greek myth, however, the tale of Adonis does not end with his death and Venus' mourning. In the proper fashion of death-and-resurrection, Venus goes to Jupiter and persuades him to make an arrangement whereby Proserpina, queen of the underworld, can have Adonis for half the year and she for the other half. And thus, Adonis, like the vegetation god he is, dies and is resurrected each year.
2. A Midsummer Night's Dream
The title of this play sets its tone. "Midsummer" refers to the summer solstice, when the noonday sun reaches the most elevated point in the heavens. By our present calendar, this is June 21. (To be sure this is only the beginning of summer by modern convention and by temperature considerations.)
The actual calendar day of the solstice has varied at different times because calendars themselves have. The Midsummer Day in English tradition is June 24, which is celebrated as the birthday of John the Baptist and which therefore has a Christian distinction as well as an earlier pagan one. The preceding night would be "Midsummer Night."
There is a folk belief that extreme heat is a cause of madness (hence the phrase "midsummer madness") and this is not entirely a fable. The higher the sun and the longer it beats down, the more likely one is to get sunstroke, and mild attacks of sunstroke could be conducive to all sorts of hallucinatory experiences. Midsummer, then, is the time when people are most apt to imagine fantastic experiences.
In calling the play A Midsummer Night's Dream, then, Shakespeare is deliberately describing it as a piece of utter fantasy. It does not imply, however, that the play actually takes place on Midsummer Night. Only one reference in the play seems to set a time and that makes it seem considerably earlier; see page I-45.
… fair Hippolyta. ..
The play opens in a spirit of high festivity. A marriage is about to take place. The scene is set in the palace of Theseus, Duke of Athens, and it is he who speaks:
Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace.
Four happy days bring in Another moon;
—Act I, scene i, lines 1-3
Theseus was the great hero of Athens, who (according to Greek legend) was the first to unify the peninsula of Attica under the rule of the city of Athens. He was supposed to have lived in the generation before the Trojan War and we may therefore put the time of the play as about 1230 b.c. (which makes this play the earliest from the standpoint of background chronology, so that I place it immediately after Venus and Adonis.)
As the centuries wore on, the imaginative Athenians invented more and more hero tales with which to adorn the life of their founder until, finally, he was second only to Hercules in the number of adventures he was given.
One tale involving Theseus concerns his expedition to a land of warrior women. The women, the legend tells us, cauterized the left breast in infancy so that it never developed and left that side free for the maneuvering of a shield. They were called "Amazons," from a Greek word meaning "breastless."
Theseus defeated the Amazons and captured their queen, Antiope, keeping her as his love. He married her and by her had a son, Hippoly-tus. The name of Hippolytus was famous in Greek legend because he was the center of a very famous tale involving the hopeless love for him of his stepmother, Phaedra.
A feminine version of Hippolytus' name, Hippolyta, worked its way backward therefore and was given to his mother in place of the older name, Antiope. This was all the easier to do because in the tale of another expedition against the Amazons, that of Hercules, Hippolyta was indeed given as the name of their queen. Shakespeare makes use of Hippolyta as the name of Theseus' Amazon queen, not only here, but also in The Two Noble Kinsmen (see page I-56).
Theseus is listed in the cast of characters as "Duke of Athens." This is an anachronism, for Athens was not a duchy or anything analogous to it in Theseus' time. It was what we would today call a kingdom and Theseus was its king.
The title "Duke of Athens" did not, however, come out of nowhere. In 1204 a party of Crusaders from the West (overthrew the Byzantine Empire, which then ruled Greece, took and sacked its capital, Constantinople, and divided up what they could of the Empire among themselves, fashioning new states, Western style. One of these fragments was the "Duchy of Athens," which included the regions about Athens and Thebes.
The Duchy of Athens continued in existence for • two and a half centuries. Finally, in 1456, it was absorbed into the empires of the Ottoman Turks. Shakespeare's play, probably written about 1595, \was only a century and a half removed from this Duchy of Athens, and the title of "Duke" would seem a natural one to the Elizabethan audience.
Since A Midsummer Night's Dream centers about a wedding, since it is gay and frothy and all about love and lovers, it seems natural to suppose that it was written for, and originally produced as, part of the entertainmerit at a wedding feast. Scholars have tried to guess which wedding it might have been and six different ones have been suggested, but none is very likely. The marriages of the two men most likely to have the use of Shakespeare's services in this way, the Earl of Southampton (see page I-3) and the Earl of Essex (Elizabeth's favorite and a great friend of Southampton), both took place in 1598, which is too late for the play.
… Cupid's strongest bow
The marriage festivities of Theseus and Hippolyta serve as the background plot, or the "frame," of the play. In the foreground are three other sets of events, Involving totally disparate groups of characters whom Shakespeare cleverly weaves together.
The first of these subplots is introduced at once, as a set of well-born Athenians break in upon Theseus. At their head is Egeus, who is vexed and annoyed because his daughter, Hermia, will not agree to marry a young man named Demetrius. Hermia insists stubbornly that she is in love with Lysander, of whom her father does not approve.
Lysander himself points out that Demetrius had previously been in love with Helena, a friend of Hermia's, and that Helena still returned that love.
All will not do. Despite Hermia's emotion and Lysander's reason, Egeus insists on having his way, as is his legal right. Theseus decides that by his own wedding day Hermia must have agreed to obey her father. The alternatives are death or lifelong celibacy. All then leave the stage, but Lysander and Hermia.
No recourse but flight seems left them. Lysander suggests that Hermia meet him in the wood outside Athens and that they flee to a rich aunt of his who lives outside Athenian territory. There they can marry.
Hermia agrees to meet him that very night, swearing to do so in a lyrical outburst of romantic vows:
/ swear to thee, by Cupid's strongest bow,
By his best arrow with the golden head,
By the simplicity of Venus' doves,
By that which knitteth souls and prospers loves,
And by that fire which burned the Carthage queen,
When the false Troyan under sail was seen,
—Act I, scene i, lines 169-74
Cupid is the Latin version of the Greek Eros, both of whom were personifications of sexual passion. Cupid (Eros) is earliest mentioned in the works of the Greek poet Hesiod, who wrote in the eighth century b.c. There he represented the impersonal force of attraction that created all things. In later centuries Cupid was personified as a young man, then as a boy, and finally as an infant rather like the cherubs in our own art.
In the Greek myths he was given various sets of parents; Venus and Mars (see page I-11) in the best-known version. He was considered to be mischievous, of course, as anyone could see who witnesses the ridiculous events brought about by love. He was sometimes depicted as blind, since love seemed to afflict the most mismatched couples (mismatched by all standards except those clearly visible to the lovers themselves).
He was supposed to possess a bow and arrows, for the onset of love (which is sometimes sudden, or seems sudden in later reminiscence) resembles a quick arrow in the heart. In later tales, Cupid was given two types of arrows, one with a golden tip to produce love, and another with a leaden tip to produce hate. Sometimes the hate arrows were made the property of a companion deity, Anteros ("opposed to Eros").
Doves were birds sacred to Venus (see page 1-15) and they too served as appropriate vehicles for lovers' oaths.
The "Carthage queen" is a reference to one of Shakespeare's favorite personages in classical legend and one to which he often refers. She is Dido, who in 814 b.c. (according to legend), founded the North African city of Carthage, which in later centuries dominated the western Mediterranean and rivaled Rome itself.
The best-known story in connection with Dido involves the Trojan hero Aeneas. Aeneas is one of the fighters on the Trojan side who survived the destruction of Troy. Indeed, at one point in the Iliad, Aeneas is on the point of being destroyed by the invincible Achilles, and is saved by the intervention of the gods. The excuse is that Jupiter (Zeus) "intends that Aeneas shall rule the surviving Trojan stock, and his children's children after him."
Naturally, numerous tales were later invented that gave Aeneas adventures after the fall of Troy. Of these, the one that is best known today was not told by a Greek at all but by a Roman poet, Publius Vergilius Maro (best known among English-speaking people as Vergil). In the reign of Augustus, first of the Roman emperors, in the last decades of the first century b.c., Vergil wrote a tale, in imitation of Homer, regarding the escape of Aeneas from burning Troy and his wanderings over the Mediterranean Sea. The epic poem he wrote was named Aeneid for its hero.
Eventually, Aeneas lands in Carthage and meets Queen Dido. (To be sure, the Trojan War was in 1200 b.c. and Queen Dido lived in 800 b.c., making four centuries between them, but Vergil didn't care about that and neither-if the truth be known-do we, in reading the Aeneid.)
Dido falls desperately in love with the handsome Trojan stranger; their love is consummated and for a moment it seems that all will be happy. But Aeneas is a "false Troyan" who betrays the Queen. The gods warn him that his divinely appointed task is to go to Italy, there to found a line which was eventually to give rise to Rome. Quietly, he sneaks away.
Dido, in despair, builds a funeral pyre on the shore, sets it on fire, and throws herself on the flames, dying with her eyes fixed on the disappearing ship. Few readers can feel any sympathy for Vergil's rather pallid hero. Despite Vergil's own attempt to make it all seem very pious of Aeneas to follow the divine dictates, our hearts are all with the injured Carthaginian and not with the scuttling Trojan. Dido has remained ever since an epitome of the betrayed woman.
Of course, it is anachronistic of Hermia to speak of Dido and Aeneas, since that took place after the Trojan War and Theseus lived before-but, again, that is a matter of little moment.
… when Phoebe doth behold
Helena now enters. She is a bosom friend of Hermia's and the friendship has remained unbroken, apparently, even though Demetrius, whom Helena desperately loves, is as desperately wooing Hermia.
The two lovers softheartedly decide to tell Helena of their own plan of flight, in order to reassure her that the obstacle to her love of Demetrius will be removed. Lysander says their flight will take place:
Tomorrow night, when Phoebe doth behold
Her silver visage in the wat'ry glass
—Act I, scene i, lines 209-10
Phoebe is a way of referring to the moon, making use of the oldest moon goddess in classical myth and harking back to the Titaness (see page I-12).
It is odd, though, that Lysander should refer to the moon as lighting up the night, for at the very beginning of the play, Theseus has specifically stated that it is only four nights to the next new moon. This means that the old moon is now a crescent which appears only in the hours immediately preceding the dawn.
Yet it is to be understood that the entire magic night that is soon to follow is moonlit. In a way, it is essential. The soft moonlight will be just enough to make things seem not quite what they are. Who would argue with it? Let there be a full moon throughout the night even if astronomy says it is impossible.
Of course, the kindly motive that led Hermia and Lysander to tell Helena their plans makes trouble at once. Helena, virtually mad with love, promptly tells Demetrius of the plan, hoping thereby to gam his gratitude (and failing).
… all our company…
The second scene of the play introduces a third strand of plot, one that does not involve aristocrats, but laboring men. Indeed, the second scene is laid in the house of one of them, a carpenter.
These laborers have none of the aura of Athenian aristocrat about them; indeed, they are in every respect, even down to their names, comic Englishmen. This sort of thing is true in all of Shakespeare's plays. Of whatever nationality and historical period the main characters are represented as being, the lower classes are always portrayed as Englishmen of Shakespeare's own time.
The leader of the group, the one in whose house they are meeting, looks about and asks, portentously,
Is all our company here?
—Act I, scene ii, line 1
[In numbering the lines for reference there would be no problem if nothing but verse were involved, as in Venus and Adonis and in the first scene of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Then the identity and numbering of the lines are fixed. Where we encounter prose, as we do now for the first time, the lines depend on the design of type and the width of the columns. The numbering then varies from edition to edition and can alter the number in passages of verse too, if they follow passages of prose in the same scene. In this book, I am using the numbering system given in "The Signet Classic Shakespeare." If the reader is referring to some other edition, he will often have to look a little to either side of the line number, so to speak, but he will not be far off and his search will not be difficult.]
This leader is Peter Quince, the carpenter, and it is possible in his case and in all the others to see a connection between the name and the occupation. According to a footnote in the Signet Classic Shakespeare edition, "quines" are blocks of wood used for building and therefore characteristic of carpenters.
The other men of the company are:
Nick Bottom the weaver; one of the numerous meanings of "bottom" is a "skein of thread."
Francis Flute, the bellows-mender, which is apt since the sides of a bellows are fluted.
Tom Snout, the tinker, who deals largely with the repair of kettles, which are characterized by a snout (or spout).
Snug the joiner, an occupation which joins pieces of wood, it is to be hoped snugly.
Finally, there is Starveling the tailor, a name which is evidence that there has long been a tradition that tailors are weak, cowardly, effeminate creatures, perhaps because they work so much on women's clothes and because it is so easy to assume that a manly man would not be interested in such an occupation.
"… Pyramus and Thisby"
The six laborers have met in order to arrange the production of a play intended to celebrate the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta. Quince announces the name of the play:
… our play is, "The most lamentable comedy, and most cruel death of Pyramus and Thisby."
—Act I, scene ii, lines ll-i;
The tale of Pyramus and Thisbe is found in Ovid's Metamorphose: (see page I-8) and has no known source beyond that.
Pyramus and Thisbe were a youth and maiden of Babylon who lived in adjoining houses and who loved each other but were kept separate by the enmity of their parents. They talked through a chink in the wall that separated the estates and arranged to meet outside the city one night.
Thisbe got there first, but was frightened by a lion and fled, leaving he: veil behind. The lion, who had just killed an ox, snapped at the veil, leaving it bloody. Pyramus arrived, found the lion's footprints and the blood; veil. Coming to a natural conclusion, he killed himself. When Thisbe re turned, she found Pyramus' dead body and killed herself as well.
There is a strange similarity between this tale and that of Romeo and Juliet, a play that was written at just about the time A Midsummer Night's Dream was being written. Did Shakespeare's satirical treatment of the Pyramus-Thisbe story get him interested in doing a serious treatment of it Was the serious treatment already written and was he now poking a little good-natured fun at it? We can never tell.
… play Ercles rarely …
The workmen are among Shakespeare's most delightful creations: nai'v and yet well-meaning. And of them all, the most naive and the best meaning is Bottom. Bottom no sooner hears the name of the play but he says, pompously:
A very good piece of work,
I assure you, and a merry.
—Act I, scene ii, lines 14-15
Since the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe was well known to any Elizabethan with the slightest education, and known to be an utterly tragic one DBF signed for reducing softhearted maidens to floods of tears, Bottom's own characterization of it reveals him at once. He is illuminated as the cock sure know-it-all who knows nothing; the fool who thinks himself CIS, and yet who, through the very enormity of his folly, makes himself lovable. The workmen are each assigned a role in the play and Bottom is given the part of Pyramus the hero. Despite Bottom's pretense of knowledge concerning the play, it promptly turns out that he doesn't know what kind of part Pyramus is. He is told that Pyramus is a lover and he is wistful over the possibility of other roles, saying:
… my chief humor is for a tyrant.
I could play Ercles rarely, or a part
to tear a cat in, to make all split.
—Act I, scene ii, lines 29-31
"Ercles" is Bottom's mispronunciation of Hercules (and much of the humor in Shakespeare's plays rests with the mangling of the English language by the uneducated-something sure to raise patronizing chuckles from the better classes in the audience).
Hercules (Heracles) was the greatest of the legendary heroes of the Greeks. He was a child of Jupiter (Zeus) by an illicit amour with a mortal woman. He thus incurred the vengeful enmity of Juno (Hera). As a result of a crime committed during one of his periodic fits of madness, he was condemned to perform twelve labors for an unworthy relative, Eurystheus, King of Argos.
The tale of his labors (which may originally have been inspired by the progress of the sun through the twelve constellations of the zodiac) were elaborated and interlarded before, between, and afterward by so many additions illustrative of his superhuman strength that Hercules became the most storied individual in Greek legend. He remained popular through all succeeding ages.
Since Hercules' forte was sheer brute strength, mingled with madness, he had to be played broadly with a rolling, bass voice, with rage and threats and much flexing of muscles.
The poorer plays of Elizabethan times were notorious for overacting, something beloved of the lower classes. Certainly Hercules could scarcely be portrayed satisfactorily without overacting, and it was just the sort of role a lovable dimwit like Bottom would yearn for and want to portray.
The "part to tear a cat in, to make all split" is probably a reference to Samson, the Israelite analogue of Hercules. At one time, the young Samson encountered a lion. "And the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and he rent him as he would have rent a kid, and he had nothing in his hand" (Judges 14:6). Samson would clearly have suited Bottom every bit as much as Hercules would have.
The remaining parts are then given out, with the proceedings interrupted at every point by Bottom's yearnings to play each part as it is described, offering to do it in any way that might be desired. It is only when he is told how unimaginably handsome Pyramus is that Bottom recognizes that only he can play the young man and reconciles himself to the task.
They then all agree to rehearse the play secretly in the wood outside Athens so that no outsiders learn their plans and steal their thunder (the same wood ha which Lysander and Hermia have been scheming to meet).
… the moon's sphere
The second act opens in this very wood, but with neither the well-born lovers nor the low-born actors in view. The wood is already occupied and we are now introduced to still another strand of plot, one that involves sheer fantasy, for it concerns fairies (drawn from Celtic legend rather than Greek mythology, but that doesn't bother anybody).
Two spirits meet to open the act. The more grotesque spirit asks the more graceful one (named simply "Fairy") where it is going. The answer is, in part:
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon's sphere;
—Act II, scene i, lines 6-7
Here we have a little Greek astronomy. The Greeks believed that the sun, the moon, and the various planets were each set in a transparent sphere. The various spheres were nested one beyond the other, all centered on the earth, which was the very core and midpoint of the universe.
The spheres moved in various complicated fashions and the end result was to cause the heavenly object attached to it to move against the back-ground of the stars in the fashion observed by human astronomers. The smaller, inner spheres turned more rapidly than the larger, outer ones. The moon was attached to the innermost, smallest sphere and therefore, since that sphere turned most rapidly, it moved against the stars most rapidly. -The Fairy boasts it can move even swifter than the swiftest heavenly body, the moon and its sphere.
The notion that all the spheres turned about the earth as a center was seriously challenged by the Polish astronomer Nicholas Copernicus in 1543. The issue was strongly disputed and was not finally settled in favor of Copernicus till after Shakespeare's death. Indeed, Copernicus' theory was not inconsistent with spheres (centered about the sun, rather than the earth) and it was not till Kepler showed that the planets moved in elliptical orbits (in 1609) that the notion of the celestial spheres began to die.
Shakespeare does not, be it noted, take the advanced position of agreeing with Copernicus. In science he is a thoroughgoing conservative who clings tightly to Greek teachings, and the notion of the spheres is a favorite of his. He refers to them in a number of places.
… the Fairy Queen The Fairy continues to describe her duties:
And I serve the Fairy Queen To dew her orbs upon the green.
-Act II, scene i, lines 8-9
Nowadays we think of fairies (when we think of them at all) as tiny little creatures with butterfly wings, suitable characters for children's tales. Tinkerbell, the fairy in Peter Pan, is a prize example.
This is strictly a modern, watered-down version, however; a notion to which, actually, the fairies of this very play, A Midsummer Night's Dream have greatly contributed.
In earlier centuries fairies were taken much more seriously, and well they might be, for they originated in part out of a dim memory of the pagan sprites of the woodlands: the fauns, satyrs, and nymphs of the Greco-Roman mythology, together with the gnomes, elves, and kobolds of the Teutonic imaginings and the sorcerers and "little folk" of Celtic tales. They were the mysterious forces of nature, usually capricious, often malevolent.
The vague old beliefs clung among the country folk and became old wives' tales, while the Church, recognizing their pagan origins, strove against them.
Naturally the fairies would have a king and queen, though their names and powers vary from region to region. (For a mythology to become standard, a sophisticated literature is required, and this could scarcely be found in the case of a set of beliefs driven by the Church into refuge among the rude and unlettered.)
To us, the most familiar name of the Fairy Queen is "Titania," which is the name Shakespeare uses. But it is familiar to us only because Shakespeare uses it in this play. As far as we know, he was the first ever to use that name for the Fairy Queen.
We can only speculate what inspired Shakespeare to use it. The most likely guess points to Ovid's Metamorphoses, which Shakespeare used so often. At one point Ovid uses the name "Titania" for the moon, referring to Phoebe (see page I-12) by the same line of reasoning that causes one to use "Titan" to refer to the sun (see page I-11).
This, after all, is a moon-drenched play, a tale of fantastic doings in the dim-lit night. It may have pleased Shakespeare to have the Fairy Queen a version of the moon goddess.
The "orbs upon the green" are circles of darker grass that can be found here and there on lawns. These are the result of a mushroom's activities: a mushroom which sends out threads in all directions and fruits now and then in gradually wider circles, or parts of circles. Those with sufficient imagination see in these circles the existence of tiny ballrooms for fairies (here viewed as miniature creatures). They are called "fairy rings."
… Oberon is passing fell…
The grotesque spirit, on hearing that the other is part of the train of the Fairy Queen, says:
The King doth keep his revels here tonight.
Take heed the Queen come not within his sight,
For Oberon is passing fell and wrath,
—Act II, scene i, lines 18-20
The name "Oberon" is not a creation of Shakespeare's. Indeed, it dates back to ancient Teutonic times. The old Germanic legends told of a variety of earth spirits. The dwarfs (undersized, deformed creatures, usually malevolent) had, as their chief occupation, mining. (This is still so, even in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.) We can only wonder whether the legend arose in part out of the first sight by Germanic hunters of miners, caked with soil-with most of them children or undersized adults, since a small body was at a premium for writhing through the underground passages.
In any case, the king of the dwarfs in the Teutonic tales was Alberich, who is best known to us today for the part he plays in the Nibelung tale as told in Richard Wagner's four operas that begin with the Rhinemaidens and end with the Twilight of the Gods. Alberich is the fiendish dwarf who steals the gold from the Rhinemaidens. When the gold is taken from him in turn, he lays a curse upon all future holders of the gold and it is the working out of this curse that finally ends the universe.
"Alberich" is softened into "Oberon" in the French. As king of the fairies, rather than of the dwarfs, he plays a part in a popular medieval romance called Huon of Bordeaux. Huon kills the son of Charlemagne in this tale and is sent off on a dangerous quest in punishment. He meets Oberon, who is described as the son of a most curious pair of parents: Julius Caesar of Roman history and Morgan le Fay of Celtic legend. (Yet is that so curious? Medieval French culture represented a mingling of the Celtic peoples of ancient Gaul with the Roman conquerors-together with the later Germanic conquerors, represented by Charlemagne. Huon and Oberon may represent the meeting of Frank with Gallo-Roman.-But never mind, it's Shakespeare I'm talking about in this book.)
Huon of Bordeaux was translated into English about 1540 by an English statesman and author, John Boucheir, 2d Baron Berners. Shakespeare must surely have been aware of it, and he borrowed "Oberon" from it.
Oberon and Titania are both in the heavens now. The German-English astronomer William Herschel, who had discovered the planet Uranus in 1781, detected its two outermost satellites (it has five altogether, as far as we know today) in 1787. Departing from the then universal habit of naming bodies of the solar system after Greco-Roman gods and goddesses, he resorted to Shakespeare and named them Titania and Oberon. Oberon is the outermost.
… so sweet a changeling
The reason for the quarrel between Titania and Oberon is explained to the audience at once, for the ungainly spirit says that Oberon is angry with Titania:
Because that she as her attendant hath
A lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king;
She never had so sweet a changeling.
And jealous Oberon would have the child
—Act II, scene i, lines 21-24
It was one of the more fear-provoking legends concerning fairies that it was their habit to steal healthy infants from their cradles, substituting sickly or deformed ones. The substituted infants found by the mothers were "changelings." The true horror of this legend lay not so much in the needless fear it provoked among parents but in the fact that when a deformed, retarded, or sickly child was indeed born, that poor infant was sometimes mistreated in order that the fairies might be induced to take it away again.
In this case, Shakespeare mistakenly refers to the stolen normal child as the changeling.
This speech, by the way, contains one of the numerous indications in the play that the fairies are very small in size, for the spirit says that whenever Oberon and Titania meet, they quarrel vehemently so that:
—all their elves for fear
Creep into acorn cups and hide them there.
—Act II, scene i, lines 30-31
The best that can be done on the stage, of course, is to have the fairies played by children, and that is really quite small enough, for in The Merry Wives of Windsor children pretend to be fairies (see page I-446) and succeed in fooling one of the characters, who is not portrayed as wondering that fairies are so large. Shakespeare may deliberately have reduced the fairies in this play to minuscule size to add to the fantasy.
Oberon and Titania, at least, give the appearance of being full-sized humans, if we consider what Shakespeare says of them.
… Robin Goodfellow
By this time the Fairy has recognized the spirit to whom it has been speaking. It says:
Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Called Robin Goodfellow.
—Act II, scene i, lines 32-34
The Fairy recites the mischievous deeds of Robin Goodfellow, but adds:
Those that Hobgoblin call you, and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck.
—Act II, scene i, lines 40-41
Puck, a king of the elves in Scottish mythology, was pictured as an evil demon, to begin with. His role diminished with time to that of a mere mischief-maker and it is this role Shakespeare gives him.
To avert the mischief, it was necessary to flatter him, to call him "sweet Puck" or use the euphemism "Goodfellow," with the friendly given name of "Robin" (of which "Hob" is the diminutive).
The Germans had a kind of earthy, mischievous creature in their legends, who behaved much like Shakespeare's Puck, and who were called "kobolds." "Goblin" may be a form of that word, so that "hobgoblin" means "Robin the Kobold." (People were sufficiently fearful of Puck's knavishness to make "hobgoblin" become synonymous with a besetting fear.)
Puck proudly admits his identity and describes himself as Oberon's jester, making the rather dour Fairy King laugh at the practical jokes the tricksy sprite plays on people.
… the shape of Corin …
Puck is scarcely finished when Oberon enters from one side and Titania from the other, each with their attendant elves. Both are angry at once and in no time at all are shrewishly raking up past infidelities. Titania says:
… I know
When thou hast stolen away from fairy land
And in the shape of Corin sat all day,
Playing on pipes of corn, and versing love
To amorous Phyllida.
—Act II, scene i, lines 64-68
It is not moderns only who long for a simpler past and who imagine a world of country joy and pastoral pleasures. The city folk of Shakespeare's time, and for that matter, those of ancient times, likewise turned away from what they conceived to be the corrupting influence of city life and longed for a magical land of shepherds and milkmaids ("Arcadia") that never really existed.
Pastoral plays and poetry were a fad in Shakespeare's time and one conventional name for the shepherd-hero was Corin. Indeed, Shakespeare makes use of that name for a shepherd in his own pastoral play As You Like It (see page I-568). As for Phyllida, that is a version of "Phyllis," a traditional name for a pastoral heroine, and a good one too, since it means "leafy" in Greek.
Titania accuses Oberon, further, of having arrived in Athens from India only to be at Theseus' wedding because he himself has been a past lover of Hippolyta.
Accusations like these make us think of Oberon and Titania as full-sized. To be sure, they can take any shape they wish (Oberon made love to Phyllida "in the shape of Corin") but it is difficult to think of them being lovingly interested in coarse humans if they themselves are dainty enough to fit in an acorn cup.
… Ariadne and Antiopa
Oberon, furious at Titania's scandalous allegations, accuses her in turn of being in love with Theseus and having caused him to betray earlier loves of whom she had been jealous. Oberon says:
Didst not thou lead him through the glimmering night
From Perigenia, whom he ravished?
And make him with fair
Aegles break his faith,
With Ariadne and Antiopa?
-Act II, scene i, lines 77-80
These were women whom Theseus met in the course of his adventures. Thus, Perigenia was the daughter of Sinis, a wicked bandit who lived at the Corinthian Isthmus. Sinis would bend the tops of pine trees to the ground and tie some luckless traveler's right foot to one pine tree, and left-foot to the other. He would then release the trees, which would spring upright, tearing the traveler in two.
Theseus wrestled with him and killed him, then discovered the bandit's daughter hiding in terror. She fell in love with him at once. Theseus had a child by her, but then gave her to one of his companions.
Aegles and Antiopa are two other loves of Theseus. In fact, Antiopa (Antiope) is the name of the Amazonian Queen, for which Shakespeare substituted the name "Hippolyta."
By all odds, the most famous of the forsaken maidens is Ariadne. She was the daughter of King Minos of Crete, who, when Theseus was a youth, held Athens under tribute, demanding seven youths and seven maidens each year. These were sacrificed to the Minotaur, a bull-headed monster. (This is a legendary memory of the time, prior to 1400 b.c., when Crete was the greatest naval power in the Mediterranean, and when bull worship was an important factor in its religion.)
Theseus had himself selected as one of the seven youths and sailed to Crete to place an end to the tribute once and for all.
The Minotaur was hidden in the center of a labyrinth so intricate that no one entering could expect to find his way out even if he were so fortunate as to kill the monster. (This may well have been a Grecian memory of the great palace at Knossos, the Cretan capital, which had so many rooms that the unsophisticated Greeks of the day must have wondered how anyone could find his way around within it.)
Minos' daughter, Ariadne, having fallen in love with Theseus, gave him a magic ball of twine which would unwind before him, leading him to the Minotaur, and which he could then trace back for the return. Theseus followed the twine, killed the Minotaur, and returned.
The Athenian had promised to make Ariadne his wife in return and when he left Crete, he took her with him. They landed on the Aegean island of Naxos and while she slept, Theseus and his party stole away and made for Athens without her. Why he deserted her the myths don't say, though Mary Renault has a fascinating conjecture concerning it in her novel The King Must Die.
... angry winter…
Titania, womanlike, dismisses the charges scornfully as fantasies born of jealousy. She speaks bitterly of their quarreling as having caused the very seasons to have grown confused (a dear reflection of the role of the fairies as nature spirits):
The spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries; and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which.
—Act II, scene i, lines 111-14
The interest here lies in that some critics see this to be a contemporary reference. The years 1594-96 were horrible, from the standpoint of weather, in England, and if the play had been written in 1595, Shakespeare might have been referring to the weather at this time.
Oberon points out that to end the quarreling, all that need be done is for Titania to give up the Indian changeling, but this Titania flatly refuses to do, and they part.
… certain stars shot madly …
The chafed Oberon decides to teach Titania a lesson. He calls Puck to him and reminds him of a time they listened to a mermaid (see page 1-12) sing. Oberon says:
… the rude sea grew civil at her song,
And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,
To hear the sea maid's music.
—Act II, scene i, lines 152-54
This represents the romantic belief that even inanimate nature responds to beautiful music. This is most commonly aired in connection with Orpheus, the musician of Greek legend, and a beautiful song on that subject is to be found in Henry VIII.
The Greeks supposed that the stars possessed a sphere of their own. The stars do not move relative to each other (they are "fixed stars" as opposed to the planets) and all were affixed to a single sphere, therefore. Shakespeare, however, mistakenly supposes each star to have its individual sphere and therefore says the stars shot madly from their "spheres."
The thought that a star could leave its sphere arises from the sight of "shooting stars," which are not stars at all, of course, but fragments of matter, often no larger than a pinhead, which in their travels about the sun collide with the earth and are heated to white brilliance by friction with the air.
… a fair vestal…
Oberon goes on:
That very time I saw, but thou couldst not,
Flying between the cold moon and the earth,
Cupid all armed. A certain aim he took
At a fair vestal throned by the west,
—Act II, scene i, lines 155-58
But Cupid's arrow, for a wonder, missed:
And the imperial vot'ress passed on,
In maiden meditation, fancy-free.
—Act II, scene i, lines 163-64
Vesta was the Roman goddess of the hearth; that is, of the household fire. The six priestesses in her service had, as their chief duty, the guarding of a sacred flame which must never be allowed to go out. This is perhaps a memory of a time when the art of lighting a fire at will was new and difficult, and when the loss of a household fire meant an uncomfortable period of cold and uncooked food. (It would be something like a breakdown in electric service these days.)
The priestesses were required to be virgins and to maintain an absolute chastity on pain of torture and death, and it is recorded that in eleven hundred years only twenty cases of violation of that rule were recorded.
The Vestal Virgins were venerated and had many privileges, taking precedence even over the Emperor on certain ceremonial occasions. The term "vestal" has come to be synonymous with "virgin" in the English language because of them.
Shakespeare's reference to the "fair vestal throned by the west" can be to none other than to Elizabeth I who, at the time the play was written had been reigning thirty-seven years, was sixty-two years old, and had never married. Non-marriage need not necessarily be equated with virginity, of course, and Elizabeth had had several favorites (including the Earl of Essex at the time the play was written) but her subjects accepted her virginity as fact.
In the early years of her reign, her failure to marry was of great concern to her advisers, for children were required if the succession was to be made sure. As the years passed and she grew too old to have children anyway, the best had to be made of it, and Elizabeth's reputed virginity became a source of pride. She became known as the "Virgin Queen," and when in the 1580s the first English settlers attempted to found colonies on what is now the east-central shore of the United States, they named the region "Virginia" in her honor.
Shakespeare's delicate picture of Elizabeth as a "fair vestal" whom not even "Cupid all armed" could defeat and who remained "in maiden meditation, fancy-free" must surely have pleased the aged Queen, who had always been terribly vain of her good looks, and who insisted on being treated as a beauty even after she had long ceased to be one. The terrible anachronism of placing her in the reign of Theseus would bother no one.
… a girdle round about the earth
Cupid's arrow, which misses the fair vestal, hits a flower which Oberon describes as:
Before milk-white, now purple with love's wound,
And maidens call it love-in-idleness.
—Act II, scene i, lines 167-68
The flower referred to is more commonly spoken of nowadays as the pansy. Oberon orders Puck to:
Fetch me this herb, and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league.
—Act II, scene i, lines 173-74
It is foolish, of course, to try to attach literal meaning to what is obviously poetic hyperbole, but-just for fun-"leviathan" is the whale, which can swim as speedily as twenty miles an hour. To swim a league (three miles) would require nine minutes.
/'// put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes.
—Act II, scene i, lines 175-76
It is interesting to note that Puck outdoes even the modern astronaut, who requires ninety minutes to go around the earth. To circumnavigate the planet in forty minutes means moving at the rate of 37,500 miles an hour or a little over 10 miles a second. Puck would be hard put to manage to stay close to the earth's surface at this speed, for he would well exceed the escape velocity.
However, Shakespeare was writing a century before Newton had worked out the law of gravity, and, in any case, we can assume that such mundane universal laws of the universe would not apply to Puck.
In the nine minutes allowed him by Oberon, by the way, Puck could, at this speed, flash to a point twenty-seven hundred miles away and back again. In short, he could fly from Athens to England and back with several minutes to spare, and it must have been in England that Oberon saw Cupid aiming at the fair vestal. -So through all the fantasy, Shakespeare manages (without meaning it, I'm sure) to allow Puck enough time.
Oberon plans to use the juice of the plant he has sent Puck for as a love philter. It will serve to make Titania fall in love with something abhorrent, and thus Oberon will have his revenge.
… you hardhearted adamant
At this point, Demetrius (warned by Helena of the lovers' flight) comes upon the scene in search of Lysander and Hermia, intent on killing the former and dragging the latter back to Athens. Helena tags after him, although Demetrius, utterly ungrateful for her help, does his best to drive her away. But poor Helena cries out:
You draw me, you hardhearted adamant;
But yet you draw not iron, for my heart
Is true as steel.
—Act II , scene i, lines 195-97
The word "adamant" is from a Greek expression meaning "not tamed." It was applied to a mythical substance that was so hard it could not be cut or broken and in that sense could not be tamed. The word has been applied to the hardest naturally occurring substance; that is, to diamond, and, as a matter of fact, "diamond" is a corruption of "adamant."
In the Middle Ages "adamant" was falsely related to the Lathi expression "adamare," meaning "to attract," so that it came to be applied to the magnet. Helena cleverly uses the word in both senses at once, for Deme-trius attracts her as though he were a magnet and his cruel heart is diamond-hard.
Apollo flies …
Demetrius desperately tries to escape her importunities, and Helena, still pursuing him, says sadly:
Apollo flies, and Daphne holds the chase;
—Act II, scene i, line 231
Daphne was a nymph, daughter of the Peneus River (which cuts across Thessaly in northern Greece). Apollo fell in love with her and when she refused him, he tried to rape her. She fled and Apollo ran after. Even as his hands were clutching at her shoulder, she prayed to the earth goddess, who changed her into a laurel tree.
To Helena, it seems that the old myth reverses itself in her case. Oberon, overhearing, pities her. He decides to use the love juice for Demetrius as well as for Titania. In this way do the fairy plot and the lovers plot intertwine.
Oberon does not count, however, on a second pair of Athenians creeping through the fairy-haunted wood. Lysander and Hermia, coming on stage, are overcome by weariness and lie down to sleep. Puck, returning with the love juice, is told by Oberon to anoint the eyes of an Athenian youth in the woods. Puck finds Lysander and Hermia sleeping, assumes Lysander is the youth meant by Oberon, and places the juice on his eyes.
Next comes Demetrius running through, outdistancing the panting Helena. Helena, who can run no more, finds Hermia and Lysander sleeping, wonders if they are dead, and wakes Lysander. He sees Helena through his juice-moistened eyes and falls madly in love with her immediately.
Helena assumes she is being mocked and runs away. Lysander pursues her and Hermia wakes to find herself alone.
... a bush of thorns. ..
Meanwhile, in that spot of the woods where Titania lies sleeping (hav-ng earlier been lulled to sleep by a fairy-sung lullaby), the Athenian laborers come blundering in to work out the production problems of Pyramus and Thisbe.
Those problems are many and difficult to their unsophisticated minds. Bottom points out, for instance, that when Pyramus draws a sword to kill himself, he will frighten the ladies in the audience. What's more, introduc-ing a lion will frighten them even more. It will be necessary, Bottom ex-plains, to have a prologue written that will explain that no harm is intended, hat the lion is not a real one, and so on.
There is next the question of moonlight. Will there be a moon that night? Quince checks the almanac and says:
Yes, it doth shine that night.
—Act III, scene i, line 55
This is odd, since the play is to be given at Theseus' wedding and Theseus himself has said it will take place on the night of the new moon, which means there will be no moon in the sky.
But it really doesn't matter. Even if there is no moon to shine naturally upon the stage, Quince has an alternative.
… one must come in with a bush of thorns and a lantern,
and say he comes to disfigure,
or to present, the person of Moonshine.
—Act III, scene i, lines 59-61
A man holding a lantern on high is an obvious representation of the moon. But why a bush of thorns?
The vague shadows on the moon's face, visible to the naked eye, are the marks of the "seas," relatively flat circular areas surrounded by the lighter cratered and mountainous areas. In the days before telescopes, the nature of the markings could not be known and an imaginative peasantry concerted the shadows into figures; most commonly the figure of a man. This was the "man in the moon."
Somehow the feeling arose that the man in the moon had been hurled there as a punishment and the particular crime was thought to have been described in the Bible. The crime took place when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. "And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day. And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron" (Numbers 15:32-33).
It is clearly stated that this sabbath breaker was stoned to death. Nevertheless, an alternate non-biblical version of his punishment arose and grew popular. This was that for breaking the sabbath he was exiled to the moon with the sticks he had gathered. The sticks gradually elaborated into a thornbush and a dog was often added too (either as a merciful gesture of company for the man or as an unmerciful representation of the devil, who forever torments him). When in the final act of A Midsummer Night's Dream the little play is actually put on at Theseus' wedding, the dog appears with Starveling the Tailor, who plays Moonshine.
… at Ninny's tomb
Puck enters, having taken care (as he supposes) of Demetrius, and now all ready to place the love juice on Titania's eyes. He finds, to his amazement, the rehearsal in progress. Bottom (as Pyramus) delivers his lines and exits, while Flute (as Thisbe) calls after him:
I'll meet thee, Pyramus, at Ninny's tomb.
—Act III, scene i, line 98
"Ninny's tomb" is Flute's mangling of "Ninus' tomb." Ninus, according to Greek legend, was the founder of the Assyrian Empire and the builder of Nineveh, its capital, which, as was thought, was named after him. Since the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe takes place in Babylon, which was an important part of the Assyrian Empire, a mention of Ninus' tomb is useful local color.
The Greek versions of Assyrian history are, of course, completely distorted. There was no historical character such as Ninus. There was, however, an early Assyrian conqueror, Tukulti-Ninurta I, who reigned about the time of the Trojan War. His fame may have dimly reached across Asia Minor, and his long name could have been shortened to the first half of the second part, with a final s (which ended almost all Greek names) added.
… make an ass of me …
/ see their knavery.
This is to make an ass of me; to fright me, if they could.
—Act III, scene i, lines 121-22
Bottom, who, figuratively speaking, has proved himself all through the play to have an ass's head, now owns one literally; and he is as unaware of his literal ass's head now as he had been of his figurative one earlier.
But he remains lovable in his folly even now. Titania, who has had the juice placed on her eyes, wakes at this moment and at once falls in love with Bottom in his grotesque disguise. She places her retinue of tiny fairies at his disposal, and Bottom, taking it all as his due, allows himself, most complacently, to be worshiped and adored.
… the gun's report Delighted, Puck races to report the event to Oberon. He describes the scene when Bottom returns with his ass's head and the other workmen scatter and fly:
As wild geese that the creeping fowler eye,
Or russet-pated choughs, many in sort,
Rising and cawing at the gun's report,
—Act III, scene ii, lines 20-22
Either Puck can foresee the future with remarkable clarity or this is a particularly amusing anachronism-guns in the time of Theseus.
But in comes Demetrius. He has found Hermia, who is berating him bitterly for having killed Lysander. Only Lysander's death could explain his having left her while asleep. She would not for one moment accept the possibility that he had crept away from her willingly:
/'// believe as soon
This whole earth may be bored, and that the moon
May through the center creep, and so displease
Her brother's noontide with th'Antipodes.
—Act III, scene ii, lines 52-55
The ancient Greeks were the first to realize that the earth was spherical in shape. (To be sure, they were not the Greeks of Theseus' time. The first who thought so lived seven and a half centuries after Theseus.) They realized that people who lived on the other side of the globe from themselves would have their feet pointing upward, so to speak, in the direction opposite from that in which their" own feet pointed.
The people on the other side of the globe would therefore be "antipodes" ("opposite-feet"). The name was applied to the other side of the globe itself as a result.
… the Tartar's bow
Demetrius desperately denies having killed Lysander, but Hermia scolds him fiercely and leaves. Demetrius, wearied, lies down to sleep. Oberon, seeing Puck's mistake, sends him angrily after Helena so that the mistake can be corrected. Puck, eager to calm his angry king, says:
/ go, I go; look how 1 go,
Swifter than arrow from the Tartar's bow.
—Act III, scene ii, lines 100-1
Europe, through its ancient and medieval history, has been periodically plagued by nomadic horsemen thundering west from the steppes of central Asia. The Cimmerians, Scythians, Sarmatians, Huns, Avars, and Magyars each in turn terrorized European territories. The nomads won their victories through superior mobility; through the dash of their swift and hardy horses, from whose backs the riders shot arrows that galled their slower-moving European adversaries.
The last and most terrible of the nomadic invaders were the Tatars or Mongols, who in the first half of the thirteenth century conquered both China and Russia. In 1240 the speeding Mongol horsemen darted into central Europe, smashing every clumsy army of armored knights that was raised to stop them, and spreading ruin and desolation almost to the Adriatic.
Far back in central Asia their ruler died and all the Mongol armies (undefeated) swept back to take part in the decision as to the succession. In 1241, therefore, the Mongols left and, as it happened, never returned.
The Europeans, however, were long to remember the dreadful period of 1240-41. They called the horsemen Tartars, rather than Tatars, thinking of them not as men but as demons from Tartarus (see page 1-13). The Tartars' arrows remained in mind and Shakespeare could use them as a metaphor for speed (even though they had entered European consciousness twenty-five centuries after the time of Theseus).
… high Taurus' snow
Oberon places the juice on Demetrius' eyes and Puck brings back Helena as ordered. With Helena, however, is Lysander, still under the influence of the juice and still pleading love. Helena persists in thinking Lysander is making cruel fun of her. The noise they make wakes Demetrius, who is now also in love with Helena.
Demetrius addresses her in the most elaborate lover's fashion, saying:
That pure congealed white, high Taurus' snow,
Fanned with the eastern wind, turns to a crow
When thou hold'st up thy hand:
O, let me kiss This princess of pure white…
—Act III, scene ii, lines 141-44
Helena is obviously a fair-skinned blonde, which in medieval times rep resented an ideal of beauty. Her skin is whiter than the snows of the Taurus Mountains, a range in southeastern Asia Minor.
When the German tribes tore the western provinces of the Roman Empire apart, they established themselves as an aristocracy over a Celto-Roman peasantry. The Germans were taller than the Celto-Romans on the average, and faker. Over the centuries, therefore, fair skin, blond hah-, blue eyes, and tall stature came to be associated with aristocracy and beauty; the reverse with peasanthood and ugliness.
Helena, completely confused, decides that both men have combined for some insane reason to make fun of her. Then, when Hermia enters and acts astonished, Helena maintains that her old girlfriend has also joined in the joke.
… you Ethiope
Poor Hermia can make nothing of what is going on. All she knows is that she has found Lysander again, but that Lysander is acting most peculiarly. She approaches Lysander timidly to find out what it is all about, but the erstwhile tender lover turns on the poor girl savagely and says:
Away, you Ethiope!
—Act III, scene ii, line 257
The expression "Ethiopian" is from Greek words meaning "burnt faces"-faces that have been darkened by exposure to the sun. It was applied to the races living south of Egypt and was eventually used for African blacks generally.
Here, then, the same principle that brings about praise for Helena's fair beauty brings contempt for poor Hermia's darker complexion.
Hermia has trouble understanding this, but when she does she leaps at once to the conclusion that Helena has stolen her love. She cries out furiously about Helena:
Now I perceive that she hath made compare
Between our statures; she hath urged her height,
And with her personage, her tall personage,
Her height, forsooth, she hath prevailed with hint.
—Act III, scene ii, lines 290-93
She advances upon Helena, nails unsheathed, and Helena fearfully shrinks away as both men vie in protecting her.
The exasperated Hermia accepts every remark as a reference to her plebeian shortness and Lysander, sensing her sensitivity, throws the fact of it in her face, saying:
Get you gone, you dwarf;
You minimus, of hind'ring knotgrass made;
You bead, you acorn!
—Act III, scene ii, lines 328-30
Knotgrass, a common weed, was supposed to stunt growth if eaten.
Lysander and Demetrius, angered with each other over their common love for Helena, as earlier they had been over their common love for Hermia, stride offstage to fight. At this, Helena, left alone with Hermia, flees, and Hermia follows.
… as black as Acheron
Oberon is terribly irritated and virtually accuses Puck of having done all this deliberately. Puck denies having done it on purpose, though he admits the results have turned out fun.
Oberon orders him to begin mending matters:
… Robin, overcast the night.
The starry welkin cover thou anon
With drooping fog, as black as Acheron;
And lead these testy rivals so astray,
As one comes not within another's way.
—Act III, scene ii, lines 355-59
Acheron is the name of one of the five rivers which the classical writers described as encircling the underworld. For some reason, the name of this particular river came to be applied to the underworld generally, so that "Acheron" came to be a synonym for "Hades."
Once the night is made dark, Puck is to mislead Lysander and Demetrius, weary them to sleep once more, rearrange their affections, entice them into considering it all a dream, and send all four safely back to Athens.
… Aurora's harbinger
Puck agrees, but urges haste:
For night's swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora's harbinger;
—Act HI, scene ii, lines 379-80
Aurora (known to the Greeks as Eos) is the goddess of the dawn. She is the third child of the Titan Hyperion (see page I-ll), a sister of Helios, god of the sun, and Selene, goddess of the moon.
Her harbinger is the planet Venus, shining as the morning star and rising only an hour or two before the sun and therefore not long before the dawn.
Oberon agrees and Puck accomplishes the task, sending all four Athenians into a scrambling confusion that wearies them to sleep once more. He then anoints Lysander's eyes in such a way that when all four awake, all shall be straightened out. Or, as Puck says:
Jack shall have Jill;
Nought shall go ill;
The man shall have his mare again, and all shall be well.
—Act III, scene ii, lines 461-63
"Jack and Jill" is a stock phrase for a man and his sweetheart or wife. Jack is clearly a generic name for a man generally, since it is so common (a diminutive of Jacob, which in one form or another-James in England, Hamish in Scotland, Jacques in France, lago or Diego in Spam and Portugal, and Giacopo in Italy-was an extremely popular name all over western Europe).
Jill is far less common and is usually considered a short version of Juliana. It was used, probably, because a one-syllabled girl's name starting with the J sound was needed, though it seems to me that Joan would have been more fitting. In any case, we ourselves know Jack and Jill primarily from the nursery rhyme that sends them to the top of a hill to fetch a pail of water.
Nor is this the only complication unraveled. Oberon meets Titania, who, in her entranced adoration of the ass-headed Bottom, freely gives up her Indian boy. She then has Bottom sleep with his long-eared head in her lap, and Oberon finally takes pity on her. He releases her from her spell and orders Puck to remove the ass's head from Bottom and send him back to Athens too.
And so at last are Oberon and Titania reconciled.
… with Hercules and Cadmus…
Now that the complications of the subplots are solved, Theseus and Hippolyta come on the scene again. They are following the hunt and Hippolyta says, in reminiscence:
/ was with Hercules and Cadmus once,
When in a wood of Crete they bayed the bear
With hounds of Sparta.
—Act IV, scene i, lines 115-17
The world of orthodox Greek myth comes swimming back. Hercules was indeed a contemporary of Theseus and the two are made companions in several myths.
Cadmus, in the legends, was a Phoenician prince. He had come to Greece in search of Europa, his sister. She had been kidnapped by Zeus in the shape of a bull and brought to Crete, where Minos was to reign and the Minotaur was to be found. As a matter of fact, Minos was the son of Europa.
Cadmus never found Europa (so that it isn't quite right to place him in Crete). Wandering in Greece itself, he founded the city of Thebes. The Greek legend has it that it was Cadmus who taught the letters of the alphabet to the Greeks. This is interesting since the alphabet did, in actual fact, originate with the Phoenicians and it is entirely appropriate that the Greeks be taught it by Cadmus, a Phoenician prince.
Sparta is mentioned in this passage too. In Theseus' time it was a city in southern Greece that was not particularly remarkable, though it was soon to become the home of Helen, whose beauty sparked the Trojan War. In later centuries Sparta was to become the most militarized and, for a time, the most militarily successful of the Greek cities.
… Thessalian bulls
Theseus says that his own hounds are of the same breed as the "hounds of Sparta" Hippolyta has mentioned:
… their heads are hung
With ears that sweep away the morning dew;
Crook-kneed, and dew-lapped like Thessalian bulls;
—Act IV, scene i, lines 123-25
Thessaly is a fertile plain region in northeastern Greece, much different from the rocky, mountainous area to the south where Greece's most famous cities, including Athens, Sparta, Thebes, and Corinth, were located. It would be naturally a place where horses would be useful and where cattle would be profitably bred. A Thessalian bull would be larger and better than a bull bred elsewhere in Greece.
The rite of May
In the wood, the hunting party, which includes Egeus, the father of Hermia, comes upon the four young people, still sleeping where Puck had left them.
Egeus frowns and begins to ponder on the meaning, but Theseus, depicted throughout the play as courtly and kind, quickly places a harmless interpretation on the matter. He says:
No doubt they rose up early to observe
The rite of May;
—Act IV, scene i, lines 135-36
May Day, the first of May, was a day of nature celebration in ancient times. Spring was definitely established by then; the greenery was growing; it was warm enough to spend the evening outdoors. It was a time for revelry and youth, and no doubt a time when the fertility of nature might best be imitated by the celebrants.
The Maypole about which the young people danced may well be what was left of a phallic symbol. Indeed, earlier in the play, Hermia had made use of just such an implication, perhaps. When she was terribly irritated at being scorned for her shortness, she turned on Helena and said,
How low am I, thou painted maypole? Speak!
—Act III, scene ii, line 296
Not only does Hermia in this way refer disparagingly to Helena as tall and skinny (and perhaps with as little figure as a maypole), but she also implies that the men, Lysander and Demetrius, are dancing about her with immoral intent.
Theseus' reference places the play well before Midsummer Day, by the way.
… Saint Valentine …
Perhaps Theseus is not unaware of the coarser ways of celebrating May Day, for as the hunting horns sound and the Athenian lovers rouse themselves, Theseus says, with light mockery:
Good morrow, friends. Saint Valentine is past:
Begin these wood birds but to couple now?
—Act IV, scene i, lines 142-43
St. Valentine's Day is certainly past, for, as we all know, it falls on February 14. Valentine's Day commemorates the martyred death of St. Valentine on February 14, 270 (which makes it a terribly anachronistic comment in the mouth of Theseus)., The romantic symbolism of the day antedated the good saint. There is a folk belief that the birds began to mate on this day (which is what Theseus is referring to) and this may have initiated fertility rites in pagan days. The Church would attempt to transfer the rites to a Christian commemoration and soften them too, and the story arose that St. Valentine made anonymous gifts of money to help poor girls to a dowry that would find them husbands. Thus, he became the patron saint of romantic love.
The ferocious Egeus, hearing Lysander confess he had intended to elope with Hermia, calls for his death and the marriage of Hermia to Demetrius. Demetrius, however, confesses that he now loves Helena. Theseus, listening politely, decides that each loving pair is now to be married, Lysander to Hermia, and Demetrius to Helena.
Meanwhile Bottom also rouses himself, finds his natural head restored, dismisses his vague memories as a dream, and returns to Athens and to his mourning comrades. They are delighted to meet him and continue to prepare their play.
"The battle with the Centaurs…"
The time of the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta is now at hand. Theseus has heard of the events of the magic night in the woods and dismisses them as fantasy. He turns to the list of entertainments proposed for the wedding feast and reads off the first item:
"The battle with the Centaurs, to be sung
By an Athenian eunuch to the harp."
We'll none of that. That have I told my love,
In glory of my kinsman Hercules.
—Act V, scene i, lines 44-47
Centaurs were common monsters of Greek myths, composite creatures with the head and torso of men affixed to the body of a horse. They were supposed to have been natives of Thessaly. Perhaps the notion originated with the first sight of men riding horses. The southern Greeks, in their narrow valleys, having been unused to horses for generations, would find men on horseback in the plains of Thessaly when they marched northward in battle and tales of centaurs would drift back to stay-at-homes.
The centaurs were considered to be barbaric creatures of the senses, given to gross eating, to drunkenness and lechery. The chief tale in which centaurs are prominent involves the marriage of Pirithous, a friend of Theseus (he does not appear in this play but he has a minor role in The Two Noble Kinsmen, see page I-56).
Pirithous, who was of the Thessalian tribe of the Lapiths, invited his kinsmen and friends to the wedding, Theseus among them. He also invited a party of centaurs. The centaurs, however, drank too much and, in a drunken fury, created a disturbance and tried to carry off the bride. At once a fight broke out and the Lapiths, with Theseus' stanch help, drove off the centaurs, killing many.
It could not be this tale that was to be sung by the eunuch, for Hercules is not involved and Theseus refers to a battle with centaurs that redounded to Hercules' honor. But then, Hercules had several encounters with centaurs and won every battle.
Theseus here and in The Two Noble Kinsmen (see page I-58) refers to "my kinsman Hercules." They were both great-grandchildren, through their mothers, of Tantalus (see page I-13).
… the tipsy Bacchanals
A second item on the list is:
"The riot of the tipsy Bacchanals,
Tearing the Thracian singer in their rage."
—Act V, scene i, lines 48-49
The Thracian singer was Orpheus, who played the lyre and sang so beautifully that wild beasts were calmed and the very trees and rocks left their place to follow him. He married Eurydice, whom he deeply loved, and when she was bitten by a snake and died, he descended into the underworld to reclaim her. So beautiful was his music that he even touched the cold heart of Hades, who agreed to let him take Eurydice back, provided he didn't turn to look at her till he was out of the underworld.
They were almost out, the light of day was ahead, when Orpheus, suddenly fearful that he was being tricked by a counterfeit, turned to look and Eurydice slipped forever away from him.
He emerged to wander about inconsolably. He met a group of bacchanals, women engaged in the wild and drunken rites that celebrated Bacchus, god of the vine. When Orpheus seemed oblivious to them, they interpreted his sad silence as scorn. They tore him apart and threw his head into the river. It floated down to the sea, still singing as it went.
… / from Thebes.. .
Theseus gives his opinion of the Orpheus item curtly:
That is an old device; and it was played
When 1 from Thebes came last a conqueror.
—Act V, scene i, lines 50-51
The myths do contain accounts of a victorious war fought against Thebes by Theseus. As a matter of fact, that war plays an important part in The Two Noble Kinsmen (see page I-59) where it is fought immediately before the wedding.
"The thrice three Muses …"
A third item is:
"The thrice three Muses mourning for the death
Of Learning, late deceased in beggary."
—Act V, scene i, lines 52-53
Theseus dismisses that as a satire too sharp to fit a wedding ceremony.
The nine Muses ("thrice three") were daughters of Jupiter (Zeus) who were the goddesses of the various branches of learning.
Some critics have tried to pick out some particular person meant by "Learning" in this passage. It is suggested, for instance, that the reference is to the death of the Italian poet Torquato Tasso, who died in 1595.
However, it seems most likely that Shakespeare is merely poking fun at the chronic complaints in his time (and in ours, for that matter) that everything is going to the devil, that the great feats of the past will never be equaled, and that the public taste is degenerating. To show that this was felt even in Theseus' time would be amusing.
But then Theseus' eye catches the notice of the play about Pyramus and Thisbe, and though the master of the revels snobbishly dismisses it as the pathetic attempt of ignorant workers and Hippolyta expresses her nervousness over their possible failure, Theseus nobly indicates he will hear it and that nothing can be a failure if it is presented with honest good will and out of a sense of duty.
… like Limander …
Now Bottom and company present their play, which, in the actual practice, turns out to be lamer and more ridiculous than even the rehearsals had prepared us for. They mangle classical references, as when Bottom (Pyramus) says:
And, like Limander, am I trusty still.
—Act V, scene i, line 197
Flute (Thisbe) replies to this:
And I like Helen, till the Fates me kill.
—Act V, scene i, line 198
There is no "Limander" anywhere in the corpus of Greek legends. If Flute really means "Helen," that must be the famous Helen of Troy, that paragon of beauty who was the cause of the Trojan War (see page I-76). In that case, Limander must mean Alexander, which is one of the alternate names for Paris, who eloped with her.
On the other hand, it is more likely that by Limander, Bottom meant Leander, the well-known hero of the romantic tale of a lover who nightly swam the Hellespont to be with his love and who, one stormy night, drowned in the attempt. In that case the girl would be Hero, not Helen.
… Shafalus to Procrus.. .
Bottom (Pyramus) also protests:
Not Shafalus to Procrus was so true,
—Act V, scene i, line 199
This is a mangling of Cephalus and Procris, a rather affecting myth about a loving husband and wife. Cephalus, an ardent hunter, had a spear that never missed. He went out hunting early every morning and finally Procris decided to follow him to see if he might not be meeting another woman. Cephalus, heated with hunting, rested and called on the breeze to cool him. Procris, imagining he was calling a woman, sprang from her hiding place and Cephalus, in reflex action, threw his never-missing spear and killed her.
O Sisters Three
The Play of Pyramus and Thisbe ends with a pair of the most terrific death scenes ever seen as first Pyramus and then Thisbe commit elaborate suicide. Thisbe cries out in her turn:
O Sisters Three,
Come, come to me,
With hands as pale as milk;
Lay them in gore,
Since you have shore
With shears his thread of silk.
—Act V, scene i, lines 338-43
The "Sisters Three" are the Fates, who govern all events and whose edicts neither gods nor men can defy. There are three of them by the natural division of time into past, present, and future.
Clotho represents the past and she spins the thread of life, causing life to originate and an individual to be born. Lachesis guides the thread, representing the present and its events. Dreadful Atropos is the future, for she carries the shears with which she snips the thread and brings death.
The three Fates play a much more serious part in Macbeth (see page I-160).
… the triple Hecate's team
The play within a play ends with a dance and with its audience amused and ready for bed.
Nothing remains but the final bit of entertainment, supplied by the fairy band. Puck comes on the stage alone to say that with the coming of night once more the fairies are back:
… we fairies, that do run
By the triple Hecate's team,
From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream,
Now are frolic.
—Act V, scene i, lines 385-89
Hecate was supposed to be one of the Titanesses in Greek mythology, but in the struggle that resulted in their supplanting by Jupiter (Zeus) and the other later gods, Hecate sided with Jupiter and remained in power. She was probably another personification of the moon.
There were three common goddesses of the moon in the later myths: Phoebe, Diana (Artemis), and Hecate. All three might be combined as the "triple Hecate" and Hecate was therefore frequently portrayed with three faces and six arms.
Later mythologists also tried to rationalize the difference in names by saying that Phoebe was the moon goddess in the heavens, Diana on earth, and Hecate in the underworld.
This connection with the underworld tended to debase her and make her a goddess of enchantments and magic spells, so that the fairies in following "triple Hecate's team" were following not only the pale team of horses that guided the moon's chariot (hence were active at night rather than by day) but also shared her power of enchantment and magic.
Her enchantments and magic made her sink further in Christian times until Hecate finally became a kind of queen of witches, and she appears in this guise in Macbeth (see page II-185).
Now in come Oberon and Titania with the rest of their fairies. They make their concluding pretty speeches, placing a good luck charm on all the couples being married in the play (and perhaps on the couple being married in the audience, if A Midsummer Night's Dream was performed to celebrate a marriage). Puck then delivers the epilogue and the play is over.
Nothing in the play indicates a tragic end to the love tale of Theseus and Hippolyta, and though it seems a shame to mention it after such a happy time, I will.
The Amazons, offended at Theseus' kidnapping of their queen, mounted an attack against him. They were defeated, but Hippolyta, fighting Amazonlike at the side of her husband, and against her own subjects of the past, was killed.
3. The Two Noble Kinsmen
In 1613, at the very end of his career, Shakespeare collaborated with John Fletcher in writing two plays.
Fletcher was fifteen years Shakespeare's junior and between 1606 and 1625 (he died in the latter year) he wrote, alone or in collaboration, some fifty plays. The most notable of these were with Francis Beaumont, so that "Beaumont and Fletcher" is almost a single word in the history of English literature.
The Shakespeare-Fletcher collaborations have all but vanished, as such. One of them, Henry VIII is generally included in editions of Shakespeare's collected works and is presented as solely by him, with no mention of Fletcher. The other collaboration, The Two Noble Kinsmen, is treated quite the reverse. It is generally omitted from Shakespeare's collected works.
Recent scholarship, however, seems to make it reasonably certain that Shakespeare wrote a major part of it, and it is included as one of the volumes of the Signet Classic Shakespeare. The authorship is given as by "William Shakespeare and John Fletcher."
Chaucer, of all admired…
The play begins with a Prologue (probably written by Fletcher) which gives the source of the content of the drama. Shakespeare had done this once before in connection with Pericles (see page I-181), written some five years earlier.
One cannot help wondering if this sort of thing isn't a sign of a certain insecurity on the part of the playwright. Uncertain as to the worth of the play, does he call on the name of a revered ancient as a shield against criticism?
Thus, the Prologue, hoping (rather timorously) that the play meets approval, says:
It has a noble breeder, and a pure,
A learned, and a poet never went
More famous yet 'twixt Po and silver Trent.
Chaucer, of all admired, the story gives:
—Prolog, lines 10-13
Geoffrey Chaucer was born about 1340 and died in 1400. He was at the peak of his fame during the reign of Richard II (see Richard II). His wife was a lady in waiting to the second wife of John of Gaunt, an uncle of Richard II and an important character in the play of that name. What's more, she was sister to John of Gaunt's third wife.
Chaucer is widely considered the first great writer in English (as opposed to the older Anglo-Saxon or Norman-French languages) and as the father of English literature. Placing him among the most prominent poets of western Europe (between the Po River in northern Italy and the Trent River in central England) is not an undue exaggeration.
Chaucer's masterpiece is the Canterbury Tales, published in the last decade of his life. This pictured a group of twenty-nine varied individuals, united in the accident that all were on a pilgrimage to Canterbury. They planned to amuse themselves on the way by each telling (according to the original plan) two stories, making fifty-eight in all. Only twenty-three stories actually appear, so that less than half the original plan was carried through, but what exists is still splendid because of the wide variety in content and style and because of the interesting characterization of each pilgrim, both in description and in the story he or she chooses to tell.
One of the pilgrims was a knight, and his tale was the first to be told. This "Knight's Tale," which serves as the source of The Two Noble Kinsmen is itself taken from the poem La Teseida of Giovanni Boccaccio.
It is a tale of courtly love, treating with seriousness that artificial game of man and woman popularized by the troubadours of southern France in the time of the Crusades. By the conventions of courtly love, a woman was treated in a semifeudal, semireligious manner, with the lover serving her as both a vassal and a worshiper. The lover had to fulfill every whim of his mistress and suffer the extremes of emotion in a manner that had little if any relation to real life, but has affected storybook romance down to our own day. Such love could not exist in marriage but, according to convention, had to face insuperable barriers, such as the marriage of the mistress to someone else. Courtly love was mock passion, mock heroics, mock poetry, with nothing real but the noise it made.
Near the beginning of his career as a playwright, Shakespeare satirized courtly love rather amusingly in his Love's Labor's Lost (see page I-437). (It was far more effectively blasted in the great Spanish novel Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, the first part of which appeared in 1605. The love of Don Quixote for Dulcinea del Toboso reduced the conventions of courtly love to ridicule once and for all.)
In The Two Noble Kinsmen Shakespeare and Fletcher treat courtly love seriously, but so lost are its conventions to us of the twentieth century that we cannot-even when Shakespeare asks us to. And at that, perhaps Shakespeare didn't try very hard to win us over. Those portions of the play which he wrote seem to have been pageantlike in nature. Shakespeare was writing "spectacle."
Than Robin Hood
The pageantry and spectacle of the play may even have been forced upon it by the pressure of having to live up to its Chaucerian source (like a modern trying to make a musical out of a Shakespearean play). At least, Fletcher, in the Prologue, begs the audience not to hiss lest Chaucer turn in his grave and say:
From me the witless chaff of such a writer
That blasts my bays and my famed works makes lighter
Than Robin Hood!"
—Prolog, lines 18-21
That great folk hero, Robin Hood, was known to the English public through a series of popular ballads which first appear (as far as modern knowledge is concerned) in Chaucer's lifetime. These ballads were enormously popular but as serious poetry were quite insignificant. They were analogous, in a way, to our own enormously popular but literarily insignificant TV westerns.
… child of Ver
The play opens with a scene which is thought to be Shakespearean.
Hymen enters. He is the Greek god of marriage, and is a mere personification concerning whom there are no well-known myths. Following Hymen are a variety of nymphs and then a wedding party-a groom, a bride, the groom's friend, the bride's sister. Everything is joyous and springlike and the first words of the play are a song about early flowers:
Primrose, first-born child of Ver,
Merry spring-time's harbinger,
—Act I, scene i, lines 7-8
"Ver" is an obsolete term for spring, from the French vert (meaning "green"-from which such words as "verdure" and "verdant" are also derived).
The marriage that is being so celebrated is between none other than Theseus and Hippolyta, the same couple who were being married at the start of A Midsummer Night's Dream (see page I-18). In fact, some critics suggest that Shakespeare used Chaucer's "Knight's Tale" as the original inspiration of A Midsummer Night's Dream, borrowing the marriage as the frame and then filling it with his own subplots. Here in The Two Noble Kinsmen he follows Chaucer in the subplot as well.
In The Two Noble Kinsmen, Theseus is supplied with a friend, Pirithous, who was lacking in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Pirithous is an authentic mythological character. It was at his marriage that a famous battle with centaurs took place (see page I-46).
The best-known myth concerning Theseus and Pirithous deals with an occasion when the latter decided to gain for himself the hand of none other than Proserpina, queen of the underworld (see page I-15). Theseus loyally offered to help and the two invaded Hades. There both were magically imprisoned in chairs from which they could not rise, and it seemed, in punishment for their presumption, that this situation would last eternally. Hercules, however, eventually rescued them. According to some versions, he rescued only Theseus and left Pirithous forever imprisoned in Hades.
Hippolyta in this play is given a sister whom she did not have in A Midsummer Night's Dream. This is Emilia, a character who does not belong to classical myth at all, but to medieval fiction. She is to be the heroine of this play, the puppet about whom will circle the mummery of courtly love.
… cruel Creon …
Before the marriage can take place, however, three queens enter. Each kneels, pleading, before a separate member of the wedding party, and a stately back-and-forth begins. The First Queen (given no other name in the play) falls at the feet of Theseus, and says:
We are three queens, whose sovereigns fell before
The wrath of cruel Creon; who endured
The beaks of ravens, talons of the kites,
And pecks of crows, in the foul fields of Thebes.
He will not suffer us to burn their bones,
To urn their ashes …
—Act I, scene i, lines 39-44
It was in Thebes that the famous legend of Oedipus was set. Oedipus, who had been cast away as an infant and had been brought up far away from Thebes, did not know he was the son of the Theban King and Queen. Visiting Thebes, he unknowingly killed the King and married the Queen-killing his father and marrying his mother, whence we get the expression "Oedipus complex." By his own mother Oedipus had two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, and two daughters, Ismene and Antigone.
After the truth of the matter came out, Oedipus blinded himself and went into voluntary exile, while his mother-wife, Jocasta, committed suicide.
Jocasta's younger brother, Creon, became effective ruler of Thebes. Creon supported Eteocles, Oedipus' elder son, for the succession. Polyneices, the younger son, went into exile and talked certain leaders of the city of Argos, sixty miles southwest of Thebes, into leading an army against his city.
Five Argjve leaders took up the struggle. With them was not only Polyneices, but also Tydeus, who was a refugee in Argos because he had fled his home town after accidentally killing his brother. Tydeus was the father of Diomedes, who was to be an important Greek warrior at the siege of Troy and an important character in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida (see page I-79).
The tale of the expedition of these leaders against Thebes is usually called "The Seven Against Thebes," though in The Two Noble Kinsmen the number is reduced to three.
The seven were defeated, and Creon remained master of the field. As a punishment for the aggressors (and particularly for Polyneices, who had warred against his own city-an act of treason for which no personal wrongs were deemed sufficient excuse), Creon ordered the fallen warriors on the Argive side to remain in the field unburied, a prey to carrion birds and beasts.
This was a terrible fate for Greeks, who felt that until a dead body had been burned with appropriate rites, its shade must wander restlessly about the border of Hades. In fact, it was held impious of Creon to dictate such a fate, since it was wrong to inflict it even on hated enemies.
The Greek playwright Sophocles wrote one of the greatest of the surviving Greek dramas on this subject. Entitled Antigone, it dealt with Oedipus' younger daughter, who felt that the religious obligation to bury her fallen brother, Polyneices, transcended all other considerations. She accomplishes the deed even though it means her own death.
The three queens apparently have attempted to do Antigone's deed but have failed, and now they have come to ask Theseus to invade Thebes, punish Creon, and see to it that the fallen warriors are duly burned.
King Capaneus. ..
Theseus is sympathetic to the appeal, for he has met the First Queen before. He says:
King Capaneus was your lord. The day
That he should marry you, at such a season
As now it is with me, I met your groom.
—Act I, scene i, lines 59-61
Capaneus was one of the seven against Thebes and his death was dramatic. He had placed a ladder against Thebes's wall and, climbing it, boasted that not even Jupiter (Zeus) could keep him out of the city now. Promptly, he was struck by a lightning bolt and killed. He had a son, named Sthenelus, who was to be at the siege of Troy as companion and friend of Diomedes. Sthenelus appears in the Iliad but not in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.
Capaneus' wife was named Evadne, and presumably it is she who is the First Queen.
… his Nemean hide
On the occasion of the marriage of Capaneus and Evadne, Theseus met the bride as well and found her beautiful. Nor was he the only one. Theseus says:
Hercules our kinsman, Then weaker than your eyes, laid by his club:
He tumbled down upon his Nemean hide
And swore his sinews thawed.
—Act I, scene i, lines 66-69
The reference is to the first labor (see page I-24) of Hercules. That was to kill a lion that infested the valley of Nemea, ten miles southwest of Corinth. This Nemean lion was no normal beast, but an enormous monster whose hide was impenetrable to any weapon.
Hercules tried arrows, sword, and club, but nothing would make an impression. He therefore seized the beast's throat and throttled it to death. He then flayed the creature with the only thing that could cut through its hide, its own razor-sharp claws. Forever after, he wore the lion's hide as a protective shield.
… the helmeted Bellona…
Theseus orders the Queen to stand, and accepts the task, saying:
O no knees, none, widow,
Unto the helmeted Bellona use them,
And pray for me your soldier.
—Act I, scene i, lines 74-76
Bellona is not a member of the Greek mythological group. She is a Roman war goddess (the Latin word for war is bellum) and was considered either the wife or sister of Mars. There was a temple to Bellona outside the city of Rome, and the Senate met there when negotiating with foreign ambassadors, or when greeting the return of victorious generals.
… the banks of Aulis…
The Second Queen pleads with Hippolyta, the Third with Emilia. Both are sympathetic but Theseus naturally wishes to continue with the wedding before taking care of Creon. The queens (and even Hippolyta and her sister) plead with Theseus to reverse matters and make war with Creon first.
Theseus agrees at last and says to an officer:
And at the banks of Aulis meet us with
The forces you can raise …
—Act I, scene i, lines 210-12
Aulis was famous as the place where the ships of the Greek host gathered (in the generation after Theseus) to sail to Troy. Shakespeare could not resist, therefore, having Theseus gather his army there.
Aulis is on the seacoast of Greece, just where the large island of Euboea comes nearest the mainland, leaving a strait, the Euripus, not more than a mile wide. In these constricted waters a fleet can gather in safety. From Aulis there is a sea voyage of 170 miles northeast, as the crow flies, to reach Troy.
Of what use, however, to assemble at a seaport in order to send an army from Athens to Thebes, since the two cities are separated by land? Thebes is thirty-five miles northwest of Athens, and to travel to Aulis improves the situation very little. Besides, Aulis is in Theban-dominated territory and an Athenian army would very likely have to fight a battle as soon as it gets to Aulis.
The scene now shifts to Thebes, and, specifically, to two young Theban soldiers. One of them begins:
Dear Palamon, dearer in love than blood
And our prime cousin …
—Act I, scene ii, lines 1-2
The speaker is Arcite. Needless to say, nowhere in the Greek body of myth are Palamon and Arcite to be found. They are creations strictly of the medieval romancers. They are ideal medieval knights, brave, noble, chivalrous beyond all qualification, and devoted one to the other.
They are apparently of the family of Oedipus, for as they bemoan the corruption and decadence of Thebes, Palamon begins to lay the worst of the blame on an individual that Arcite guesses at once, saying:
Our uncle Creon.
—Act I, scene ii, line 62
However, the news of Theseus' invasion comes and the two young soldiers, who had been planning to leave Thebes, realize that whatever their disenchantment with the city, they must fight for it against foreign invaders.
… great Apollo's mercy…
Theseus' victory over Thebes is mentioned, in passing, in A Midsummer Night's Dream (see page I-47). An affecting tale concerning Evadne, the First Queen, is not mentioned in The Two Noble Kinsmen. When her dead husband, Capaneus, was being burned, Evadne found she could not bear to part with him. She threw herself, living, on the fire, and burned to death.
The battle had had another result as well. It brought Palamon and Arcite into Athenian hands as prisoners. The Theban youths fought marvelously, but were overwhelmed and are wounded and near death. Theseus has, however, been impressed by their fighting and orders that physicians attempt to save their lives. He says:
For our love
And great Apollo's mercy, all our best
Their best skill tender.
—Act I, scene iv, lines 45-47
Apollo is the god of the fine arts, and apparently medicine was considered one of them. (He was also the god of disease, for it was his arrows which were pictured as striking down the population of a city struck by the plague.) Asclepius, who is described in the myths as a specific god of medicine, is a son of Apollo.
… a Parthian quiver…
Whereas the entire first act is considered Shakespeare's, most of the second, third, and fourth acts are considered Fletcher's.
Palamon and Arcite are recovered from their wounds, but they are in an Athenian prison now. They are guarded by a jailer who has a pretty daughter. Neither is given a name, but are called merely "Jailer" and "Daughter" in the stage directions. There is also a young man who is in love with the daughter, and he is called only "Wooer."
The two Thebans expect to remain in prison for life and together they mourn the joys they shall never taste again, such as hunting:
No more now must we halloo, no more shake
Our pointed javelins, whilst the angry swine
Flies like a Parthian quiver from our rages,
Struck with our well-steeled darts.
—Act II, scene i, lines 107-10
The Parthians were an ancient people who ruled over what is now Iraq and Iran and who were noted for their ability as horse archers. The Romans fought them for centuries and were occasionally defeated by them. A boar struck by many darts would be as full of arrows as a Parthian quiver.
The remark is anachronistic, of course, if we consider the time to be really that of Theseus. Parthia did not develop as a nation until about 250 b.c., a full thousand years after the time of Theseus. On the other hand, if we allow our mind to wander forward to medieval times in the Palamon and Arcite scenes, the reference to Parthia ceases to be an anachronism.
… a noble kinsman
Still, the two young men have each other and it occurs to them that while they are together, they have an important part of life. Each hymns the other's friendship, until it seems that their enforced company brings them to the height of bliss and that such friendship as theirs could not possibly be severed.
At that moment, though, Emilia and a maid come into the garden adjoining the prison. They gather flowers and Emilia comments on the myth of Narcissus (see page I-10).
Even while Palamon and Arcite are swearing total friendship, first Palamon, then Arcite, sees Emilia from a window and instantly (such is the convention of courtly love) falls entirely in love with her to the point where there is no room for any other emotion.
The two friends are suddenly competitors and Palamon claims sole right to the love since he saw Emilia first and called Arcite's attention to her. Arcite, however, points out that he too is subject to passions and says:
Why then would you deal so cunningly,
So strangely, so unlike a noble kinsman,
To love alone?
—Act II, scene i, lines 250-52
Here is the reference from which the title of the play is taken. Palamon and Arcite are "the two noble kinsmen."
… against the Maying
The quarrel between them is suspended when Arcite is called away. The news is quickly brought back to Palamon that Arcite, on Pirithous' request, has been released from prison, but banished forever from Athens.
Palamon fears that Arcite, free, may yet lead an army back to Athens to try to win Emilia. Arcite, on the other hand, as he takes the road back to Thebes, fears that Palamon, in Athens, though imprisoned, may have an opportunity to woo and win Emilia.
At this point, Arcite comes upon a group of country people intent on a holiday. One of them says, in fact:
Do we all hold, against the Maying?
—Act II, scene ii, line 36
Here, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream, that other play set against the Theseus-Hippolyta marriage, we have a group of members of the lower classes arranging a rustic performance. It is a May Day celebration, and A Midsummer Night's Dream seems to have taken place at May Day too (see page I-45).
Arcite decides to violate the exile order, join the countrymen, and in rustic guise participate in the athletic contests that accompany the May Day celebration.
As we might expect, he wins at wrestling before the eyes of Theseus and the court (who fail to recognize him-all disguises are effective in Shakespearean plays). Arcite even has the happiness of talking to Emilia and being accepted as her servant.
… the King of Pigmies
Arcite does not, however, have it all his own way. The Jailer's Daughter has fallen in love with Palamon and has let him out of his jail cell, though unable, at the moment, to arrange his liberation from the chains upon him.
Palamon finds Arcite and challenges him to a duel, but their old friendship is not entirely gone. Arcite helps him hide, then gets him food and wine, together with files with which to remove the shackles. They even try to reminisce fondly about earlier loves that did not come between them, but then Emilia's name comes up and they are ready for slaughter again.
Meanwhile, however, the poor Daughter, in a series of short scenes by herself, makes a gradual descent from love for Palamon, to a passionate search for him so that she might file off the shackles, to heartbreak at being unable to find him and fearing him dead, and, at last, to madness. She begins to talk nonsense built about her desire to know of the lost and absent Palamon:
Would I could find a fine frog; he would tell me
News from all parts o'th'world; then would I make
A carack of a cockleshell, and sail
By east and north-east to the King of Pigmies,
For he tells fortunes rarely.
—Act III, scene iv, lines 12-16
The Pygmies are first mentioned in Homer's Iliad, as a dwarfish people who perpetually war against cranes (and who, one would suppose, are therefore small enough to be eaten by cranes). The very word "pygmy" comes from a Greek word meaning the length of the arm from elbow to knuckles, which would imply that the little creatures were about a foot high. They were supposed to live somewhere in Ethiopia, the Greek name for the mysterious regions south of Egypt.
By modern times the Pygmies were dismissed as but another figment of the fertile Greek imagination, but then, oddly enough, a race of short human beings (not one foot high, to be sure, but averaging some four feet high) were discovered in central Africa in the nineteenth century.
It seems fairly reasonable to suppose that some of them were encountered by Egyptian armies adventuring southward, for, in the time of their stronger dynasties, the Egyptians controlled regions far into what is now the Sudan. Individual pygmies were very likely brought back as prisoners and rumors of such human beings, with the shortness exaggerated, would then serve as the basis for the Greek legend.
The Daughter also sings a sad song which deals with a maiden who searches for her love, and then, worn out and weary, she adds:
O for a prick now like a nightingale,
To put my breast against! I shall sleep like a top else.
—Act III, scene iv, lines 25-26
The nightingale's song can be heard all night long and it was a common folk belief that it had to lean against a thorn so that the pain would keep it awake and singing.
… Meleager and the boar
The countrymen have now worked out a dance with which to amuse and please Theseus and Hippolyta, who are out hunting. (This is reminiscent of the play Pyramus and Thisbe which entertained the same couple in A Midsummer Night's Dream.)
The countrymen are under the direction of a pedantic schoolmaster who interlards his speech with unnecessarily learned allusions. Thus, he tells them all to hide in the thicket and come out on signal to surprise Theseus:
/ fling my cap up-mark there-then do you,
As once did Meleager and the boar,
Break comely out before him…
—Act III, scene v, lines 17-19
Meleager, in the Greek myths, was a king of Calydon in Aetolia. He is best known in connection with a monstrous boar who had been sent by Diana (Artemis) to ravage the Calydonian countryside. A huge expedition was organized to track down and kill the "Calydonian boar," and, as a matter of fact, Theseus and Pirithous were among the heroes present on the occasion.
At one point in the hunt, the boar came dashing out of the thicket at Theseus, whose hastily thrown javelin went wide. He might have been killed but for the fact that Meleager, who was on the spot, threw more accurately, diverted the beast, then killed him.
Under the circumstances, the schoolmaster's allusion is most inappropriate.
… dance a morris
As the countrymen take their places, it turns out that one girl is missing. For a moment, it looks as though all is ruined, but the Jailer's Daughter, quite mad, wanders onto the scene and she is at once pressed into service.
Theseus and his party are now coming. The countrymen hide and the schoolmaster confronts Theseus, saying:
We are a merry rout, or else a rabble
Or company, or by a figure Chorus,
That 'fore thy dignity will dance a morris.
—Act III, scene v, lines 105-7
The "morris dance" was part of the May Day celebration. In its origins it was probably some kind of magical rite, involving men in the guise of animals, who are shot at. This may have been a way of ensuring successful hunting, and there may also have been included some general fertility rituals, involving a King and Queen of the May.
Indeed, the schoolmaster mentions them when he enumerates the company. He himself appears first, he says, and then:
The next the Lord of May, and Lady bright,
—Act III, scene v, line 124
There were other characters as well, including one at least who made the fertility nature of the celebration unmistakable. He was a farcical fool called the "Bavian" who was equipped with a tail which perhaps showed his descent from the tailed satyrlike fertility spirits of the wildwood. The schoolmaster, in preparing his muster earlier, was concerned lest the fool go too far, for he said:
Where's the Bavian?
My friend, carry your tail without offense
Or scandal to the ladies;
—Act HI, scene v, lines 33-35
But it is clear that the tail is not the only appendage the Bavian has. He has a phallus too, and a prominent one, which can scarcely avoid giving offense if the ladies are in the least delicate. Nevertheless, the schoolmaster in introducing the company before Theseus and his party officiously points out what needs no pointing out:
… and next the Fool, The Bavian
with long tail, and eke long tool,
—Act III, scene v, lines 130-31
Perhaps to lessen the pagan character of the May Day celebration and reduce churchly opposition, new and popular characters were introduced in the form of Robin Hood and Maid Marian (as the King and Queen of the May) together with other members of his band. After all, Robin hunted deer and so completely lived in the forest as to be considered almost a spirit of the wildwood. He would fit the celebration, and his popularity would help make the morris dance respectable.
Why morris dance, by the way? One theory is that the dance was brought in from Spain in the time of King Edward III (when his son, the Black Prince, campaigned for a time in that land; see page II-260). It was, according to that view, a Moorish military dance, and from Moorish dance to morris dance is but a step. Another theory is that the dancers blacked themselves as part of their disguise and were Moorish in that sense.
The dance, when given, adds another bit of pageantry to the play.
By Castor. ..
Arcite and Palamon are now ready for their duel. They help each other into armor with every sign of affection and with mutual praise, but they fight in earnest, for the requirements of courtly love are that a knight must sacrifice all else.
Theseus and his company, still hunting, come upon the duelers. Theseus is furious, for dueling is against the law. He says, angrily, even before he knows the identity of the fighters:
By Castor, both shall die.
—Act III, scene vi, line 137
It is unusual to swear by Castor alone, for he is one of an inseparable pair, Castor and Polydeuces (or Pollux). They were twin brothers who were the model of fraternal affection. They were born of Leda and were brothers of Helen, whose beauty later caused the Trojan War.
To swear by Castor is inappropriate for another reason, for Castor and his twin brother were contemporaries of Theseus and were still alive. They had not yet attained the status of gods.
In any case, Theseus' vow does not stand. Everyone, Pirithous, Hippolyta, and Emilia, pleads with him to let the warriors fight it out. Since Emilia refuses to choose between them but offers to accept the winner- quite in line with the conventions of courtly love-Theseus gives them a month's grace and then each, accompanied by three friends apiece, can join battle formally for the hand of the lady.
… as Iris
The Jailer's mad Daughter is back at home now and her faithful Wooer comes anxiously to learn of her. He had seen her roaming the countryside in her madness and had found her as beautiful
… as Iris
Newly dropped down from heaven.
-Act IV, scene i, lines 87-88
The name "Iris" means "rainbow" and she was the representation of that phenomenon. Since the rainbow seems like a delicate bridge in the sky, it was easy to imagine that it served as a route between heaven and earth. From the route itself, the name was applied to a messenger who plied that route, and Iris was therefore a messenger, carrying divine orders to mortals and serving Juno (Hera) in particular.
.. wanton Ganymede
Emilia has her problems. She is distressed that either Palamon or Arcite should die for her. She could prevent it if only she could choose between them, but she can't She has a picture of each, and each she in turns admires. Of Arcite, she says:
Just such another wanton Ganymede
Set Jove a-fire with and enforced the god
Snatch up the goodly boy.. .
—Act IV, scene ii, lines 15-16
Ganymede, in the Greek myths, was a beautiful Trojan prince, with whom Jupiter (Zeus) fell in love. Jupiter took on the guise of an eagle and carried Ganymede off, taking him to heaven where he became the wine pourer of the gods. This is another case of homosexuality attributed to the gods, as in the case of Apollo and Hyacinthus (see page I-15)-this time of Jupiter himself.
The use of Jove for Jupiter, as in this passage, is common. Jove is from a Latin word that means simply "god."
… Pelops" shoulder
Of Arcite's brow, Emilia goes on to say that it is
Arched like the great-eyed Juno's, but far sweeter,
Smoother than Pelops" shoulder!
—Act IV, scene ii, lines 20-21
Pelops was the son whom Tantalus killed and served as food for the gods (see page I-13). The gods recognized what was being served them and, with one exception, did not eat of the food. The exception was Deme-ter, who, sorrowing over Proserpina (see page I-7), had absent-mindedly eaten some of the shoulder. The gods, in bringing Pelops back to life, replaced the missing part with ivory so that Pelops' shoulder served, in literature, as a standard for smoothness.
—But then Emilia looks at Palamon's picture and thinks he is equally wonderful. She cannot choose.
… a piece of silver. ..
While this is going on, the Jailer has brought a doctor to treat his mad daughter. All she can do is talk of Palamon, nothing but Palamon. She thinks Palamon is dead and that in the next world Dido will abandon Aeneas (see page I-20) for Palamon's sake. The reference to Dido is as anachronistic here as it was in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
She seems to be thinking of death herself, to join Palamon in the after-world. This requires certain rites, of course:
… you must bring a piece of silver
on the tip of your tongue, or no ferry.
—Act IV, scene iii, lines 19-21
The Greeks felt that Charon, the ferrier of the underworld, would not take a shade over the Styx River into Hades unless he were paid, and for the purpose a small coin was usually placed in the corpse's mouth.
… pick flowers with Proserpine …
The Daughter imagines that once in the Elysian Fields (see page I-13), all would be well:
we shall come there, and do nothing all day long
but pick flowers with Proserpine.
Then will I make Palamon a nose gay…
—Act IV, scene iii, lines 24-26
Proserpina was picking flowers when she was carried off by Hades (see page I-7) and that action is therefore associated with her.
The doctor, listening to all this, decides that the only way the Daughter can possibly be cajoled out of her madness is to let her think she has Palamon. He therefore urges the Wooer to play the part of Palamon in all possible ways. The Wooer agrees and the Daughter accepts him in this role. Mad or not, the play ends happily for these two.
… methought Alcides…
The tournament between the knights led by Arcite and by Palamon is ready to begin, and in the fifth act Shakespeare's pen takes over for heavy pageantry. Both warriors must offer prayer to the gods. Arcite chooses to pray to Mars (Ares), the god of war, and receives the approval of his request for victory in the form of a short burst of thunder.
Palamon chooses to pray not to Mars but to Venus, the goddess of love (a wiser choice by the rules of courtly love), and he receives a positive sign too, in the form of music and doves.
Emilia prays also, to the virginal Diana (Artemis), asking that the one who best loves her should win her. She receives an answer as the sole rose falls from a rosebush.
The tournament is nip and tuck, but it is fought offstage. At first the cries seem to make Palamon the winner, but in the end it is Arcite by a narrow margin and Mars's omen is fulfilled.
Theseus greatly admires both. Palamon, the loser, is highly praised:
… methought Alcides was To him a sow of lead.
—Act V, scene iii, lines 119-20
Greeks generally had a single name. There was considerable chance of duplication, therefore, and it was necessary to identify people by their native cities or by their father's name. One might say "Diomedes, son of Tydeus" (see page I-57), or simply "son of Tydeus," as another way of referring to Diomedes. In Greek fashion, "son of Tydeus" would be "Tydides."
It was difficult to call Hercules by the name of his father, since he was the son of Jupiter, who had come to his mother Alcmene in the guise of her husband Amphitryon. With Amphitryon notoriously cuckolded, the myth-makers could scarcely call him "Amphitryonides." They evaded the issue by naming him for his grandfather, Alcaeus, Amphitryon's father. He is therefore called Alcides.
And yet though Arcite has won the battle by Mars's grace, Palamon wins the lady by Venus' grace. Arcite, in triumph, mounts a horse who, through accident, throws him and falls upon him. Arcite is brought onstage, dying, and gives his right to Emilia to Palamon. This is justified by Theseus' statement that Arcite had admitted, after all, that Palamon had seen the lady first.
With that, all the rules of courtly love are satisfied and the play can come to an end.
4. The History of Trolius And Cressida
The most famous event in the early history of Greece was the Trojan War, fought a generation after the time of Theseus-or shortly before 1200 b.c. Concerning that war, we have only the legendary tale told by Homer, a Greek poet who supposedly lived in the ninth century b.c.
Whether Homer actually lived, or whether the poems ascribed to him were written by one man or many, has exercised the ingenuity of literary critics for over two thousand years, but that is not the sort of problem that concerns us here.
What does concern us is that the Homeric poems have (along with the Bible and Shakespeare's plays) been the most notable and influential works of literature ever produced in the Western world, and that in 1601 Shakespeare wrote his own version of the Homeric tale.
Shakespeare was by no means the first, nor was he the last, to do a version of Homer.
Homer's poem may have first been put together about 850 b.c. and have been sung or recited by bard after bard, the tale being carried or from generation to generation through oral tradition. About 500 B.c it was carefully edited by Athenian scholars and placed into the form we now have.
Homer tells the tale of but a single episode in the long Trojan War which, according to legend, lasted ten years. The episode takes place in the tenth and last year and deals with a quarrel between two of the Greek leaders, with the near disaster that befalls the Greek cause as a result, and with the dramatic reconciliation that follows after all the participants have suffered tragic losses.
In the course of the epic, hints are given as to events that took place before the incident of the quarrel and of events that were to take place after the reconciliation. The popularity of Homer's tale led later Greek poets and dramatists to try their hand at telling other portions of the tale based on Homer's references and on other legends then extant but no surviving today.
Other ancient writers even tried retelling the tale of the quarrel itself in their own way, and the habit of doing so continued through the Middle Ages and into modern times. In 1925, for instance, the American write:
John Erskine published The Private Life of Helen of Troy, putting the tale of Troy into twentieth-century idiom.
Shakespeare tried his hand at it too, producing, alas, a play that is not considered one of his better productions and is by no means worthy of the grand original.
In Troy …
Shakespeare chooses to tell (more or less) the same incident that concerns Homer, which means that he too must concentrate on the final stages of a long siege. Where Homer was dealing with incidents in a war which (in his time) must have been well known to all Greeks, with its heroes' names being household words, Shakespeare was not quite in the same position.
Educated Englishmen in Shakespeare's time knew of the Trojan War, but chiefly through writings on the subject in Roman and medieval times. It was only toward the end of the sixteenth century that Homer's poem itself was translated into English by George Chapman (whose work inspired a famous sonnet by John Keats two centuries later). At the time Troilus and Cressida was being written, only a third of that translation had yet appeared, so it is doubtful how much firsthand knowledge of Homer's actual tale Shakespeare himself had and how much he had to depend on later (and distorted) versions of the Troy tale.
Shakespeare did not apparently feel safe in starting, as Homer did, toward the end of the war, and inserts a somewhat apologetic Prologue to set the stage. The Prologue begins directly:
In Troy there lies the scene.
—Prologue, line 1
The name of the walled city which endured the long siege was, apparently, Ilion (or Ilium, in the Latin spelling). Homer's poem is therefore called the Iliad. The region in which Ilium was located was known as Troas or the Troad, and from this, the city took the alternate name of Troia. It is the English form of this latter name, Troy, that is most familiar to us.
It is over three thousand years now since Troy was destroyed and yet, thanks to Homer, its name remains forever fresh to us.
Indeed, it remained fresh and alive through a period in early modern times when skeptical scholars considered the Trojan War to have been purely mythical and were sure that no city of Troy had ever existed. Considering that Homer filled his tale with gods, goddesses, monsters, and wonders, it was easy to feel skepticism.
However, after all the overlay of the marvellous has been scraped away, a core remains and, as it turns out, that core has value.
A German businessman, Heinrich Schliemann, who implicitly believed the essential truth of the Iliad (minus its gods), amassed wealth and in the late nineteenth century used it to go to Greece and Turkey, where he hoped to dig up the ruins of Troy and some of the great Greek cities of the time. From the 1860s to his death in 1890, he achieved phenomenal success, locating the site of Troy and other places mentioned in the Iliad.
Historians now know quite a bit about the early phase of Greek history, which they call the Mycenaean Age. From what they have learned, we find that Homer's tale is a surprisingly faithful rendering (though with a few anachronisms) of Mycenaean society. Historians are now just as certain that there was a siege of Troy, as a century ago they were certain there was not.
… isles of Greece The Prologue goes on to describe those who were attacking Troy:
From isles of Greece
The princes orgulous, their high blood chafed,
Have to the port of Athens sent their ships,
—Prologue, lines 1-3
According to the legend, it was a combined expedition of Greek forces drawn from all the petty kingdoms that were then to be found in Greece. In theory, all acknowledged an overlord who ruled in the southern portion of the peninsula and it was this overlord who acted as commander in chief of the expedition.
The overlordship was not tight, however, and the leaders of the various contingents were very aware of their own rights and privileges. There was a strong resemblance between the situation in Mycenaean Greece and that in medieval Europe, where a king was titular overlord but could only with the greatest difficulty induce his various dukes and counts to obey him. Shakespeare was not so far removed from this stage of history to fail to understand it, hence his reference to the princes "orgulous"; that is, "haughty."
The Greek forces, coming from various regions, had to meet at some gathering place to form a unified fleet. According to legend, that meeting place was at Aulis, a harbor in Boeotia, protected by the long island of Euboea (see page I-59).
Shakespeare here makes the gathering place Athens, which is incorrect
… toward Phrygia
Having gathered, the united fleet now moves on across the Aegean Sea toward Troy. The total number of ships is given:
… Sixty and nine, that wore
Their crownets regal, from th'Athenian bay
Put forth toward Phrygia;
—Prologue, lines 5-7
In Mycenaean times, a people we now call the Phrygians were in control of western Asia Minor. They still dominated the area in the supposed time in which Homer lived, three and a half centuries after the Trojan War, so he could speak of them familiarly. Their power was not destroyed till about 700 b.c. when the nomadic Cimmerians from the regions north of the Black Sea invaded Asia Minor and wreaked widespread destruction. The name "Phrygia" was still applied to a region of west central Asia Minor throughout ancient times, however.
The chances are that the Trojans (although pictured in the Iliad as being in no way different from the Greeks in language, customs, or religion) were Phrygians.
Shakespeare's mention of 69 ships is an extremely modest underestimate of the legendary number. The Iliad lists the numbers of ships brought by each Greek contingent in Book Two and the total comes to 1186. Christopher Marlowe in his play Dr. Faustus is closer to Homer, by far, when he has Faustus cry out at seeing the shade of the beautiful woman who, according to legend, brought on the war, "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships-"
The ravished Helen. ..
The basic cause of the expedition was undoubtedly most unromantic. Troy controlled the narrow waters between the Aegean Sea and the Black Sea and was, therefore, master of an important trade route. By charging tolls for passage, they grew rich, and this made the city a valuable prize for any freebooting expedition.
Not only did Troy's wealth form a tempting target, but the Mycenaeans were being prodded from behind. New tribes of Greeks from the north, relatively uncivilized ones called Dorians, were making their pressure felt. Conditions at home were less settled than they had been and the urge to take part in piratical expeditions overseas increased.
Indeed, the time of the Trojan War was one of great turmoil throughout the civilized world and it was not only Troy that was suffering harm from sea raiders. Other raiders ravaged the coast of Egypt and Canaan, for instance. Certain contingents of these raiders settled down on the Canaan-ite coast and became the Philistines, who strongly influenced Israelite history.
By Homer's time a much more trivial, but much more romantic, cause had been given for the expedition. Shakespeare gives it briefly here. The Greeks, he says, have sworn
To ransack Troy, within whose strong immures
The ravished Helen, Menelaus" queen,
With wanton Paris sleeps-and that's the quarrel.
—Prologue, lines 8-10
In ancient times piratical raids were common. Ships would come ashore and armed men would suddenly snatch up cattle and people, then sail away again. If the people captured (and intended for the slave-market) included any of prominent family, reprisal raids might be carried through. The immediate cause of the Trojan War could well have been such a raid, of which the Trojans may have been guilty or which it siuited the Greeks to say that the Trojans were guilty.
With time, the details of the abduction were adorned and elaborated with complicated myth, and this particular one has become world-famous. I'll give it briefly.
At a certain wedding (involving a bride and groom who will appear later in this chapter) all the gods and goddesses had been invited-with one exception. Eris, the Goddess of Discord, had been overlooked. She appeared unbidden and in anger tossed a golden apple (the "Apple of Discord") among the guests. It bore the label "To the Fairest."
At once three goddesses claimed it: Juno (Hera), the wife of Jupiter (Zeus); Minerva (Athena), the Goddess of Wisdom; and Venus (Aphrodite), the Goddess of Beauty.
The goddesses agreed to accept the decision of Paris, a Trojan prince, and each goddess tried her best to bribe him. Juno offered him power, Minerva offered him wisdom, and Venus offered him the fairest woman in the world for his bride. He chose Venus, which was probably the honest choice in any case.
There was a complication, though. The fairest woman in the world was Helen, who was already married to Menelaus, King of Sparta.
Guided by Venus, Paris arrived as a guest in Sparta, was royally treated by Menelaus, and then, when Menelaus was off on state affairs, Paris seized the opportunity to abduct the willing Helen (Paris was very handsome) and carry her off to Troy.
Menelaus was rightly angry over this and the result was the Greek expedition against Troy.
To Tenedos …
The journey of the Greek fleet is followed:
To Tenedos they come,
And the deep-drawing barks do there disgorge
Their warlike fraughtage. Now on Dardan plains
The fresh and yet unbruised Greeks do pitch
Their brave pavilions.
—Prologue, lines 11-15
Tenedos is a small island about four miles off the shore of Asia Minor, near Troy.
Troy itself is several miles inland and the plain between itself and the sea is the "Dardan plain." Dardania is a name for a section of the Trojan coast. The name is derived, according to the myth, from Dardanus, a son of Jupiter. A grandson of Dardanus was Tros, from whose name Troy was derived.
Having brought the Greeks to Troy, the Prologue now warns the audience that the play will not start at the beginning:
… our play
Leaps o'er the vaunt and firstlings of those broils,
Beginning in the middle,
—Prologue, lines 26-28
… Troilus, alas …
Yet though the play begins in the middle of a war, it does not begin with martial scenes or even with martial speeches. It begins with a rather sickly speech of love.
The fault lies not in Homer but in medieval distortions of the tale. In Shakespeare's time the most popular version of the tale of Troy was a twelfth-century French romance, written by Benoit de Sainte-Maure, called Roman de Troie. Even that wasn't based on Homer directly, but on works written in late Roman times which were themselves altered versions of the original account.
The Roman de Troie was written when the devices of courtly love (see page I-54) were taking France by storm, so that Homer's vigorously masculine tale became prettified with the addition of an artificial love story. It was the love story, rather than the Homeric background, that interested later writers such as Boccaccio in Italy and Chaucer in England, and through them, Shakespeare.
The first scene of Troilus and Cressida is in Troy. A young Trojan warrior comes on the scene, sulky and petulant because he is being frustrated in love. He is taking off his armor and won't fight, saying:
Each Troyan that is master of his heart,
Let him to field; Troilus, alas, hath none
—Act I, scene i, lines 4-5
As the name of the play tells us, the action is to revolve to a large extent about Troilus, but who is he?
In Homer's Iliad he is dead before the action starts, and he receives exactly one mention. Toward the very end of the book, when the aged King of Troy is making ready to go to the Greek camp to try to ransom the dead body of his most heroic son, he berates his remaining sons, saying,[In my quotations from the Iliad, I am making use of the recent translation by Robert Graves, The Anger of Achilles (Doubleday, 1959). ] "Your dead brothers were the best soldiers in my dominions. Mestor, Troilus the Chariot-Fighter, and Hector, a very god among men-yes, his aspect was rather divine than human-fallen and gone, and mere dregs left me."
That is all; nothing more..
The later poets and commentators filled in the gap, though, and invented various tales concerning Troilus that agreed in only one respect: he was eventually killed by Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors.
Since Troilus is heroic and since his tale is not told (and therefore fixed) by Homer, there is room left for addition in medieval fashion, when the medieval writers took their turn. It was Troilus to whom the tale of courtly love was affixed.
I'll not meddle…
With Troilus is an older man, Pandarus, who listens impatiently to the young hero's sighs. Apparently he has been doing his best to bring the love affair to a happy conclusion. Now he pretends to lose patience, saying:
Well, I have told you enough of this.
For my part, I'll not meddle nor make no farther.
—Act I, scene i, lines 13-14
Who is Pandarus? In the Iliad there is indeed a character by this name. He is pictured as an expert archer and appears in Homer's tale on two separate occasions.
His first appearance is in Book Four of the Iliad. A truce has been declared between the armies and for a moment it seems as though the war may end in a compromise with Helen returned and Troy left standing. Pandarus, however, treacherously shoots an arrow at Menelaus and wounds him. The war goes on.
Pandarus makes a second appearance in Book Five. He shoots an arrow at Diomedes, one of the major Greek heroes, and wounds him slightly. A little later, he encounters the enraged Greek at close range and is himself killed. Exit Pandarus.
Shakespeare's Pandarus has no more in common with this other one than the name. In Troilus and Cressida Pandarus is a genial old man, very interested in sex-a kind of voyeur, in fact-and so unashamed in his vicarious delight over the whole matter that he has given the word "pander" to the English language.
To be sure, it is not Shakespeare who is entirely responsible for this change. Pandarus appears as Pandaro in a short poem ("Filostrato") about this love affair published by the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio in 1338. In "Filostrato" Pandaro is the cousin of the girl whom Troilus loves.
The English poet Chaucer (see page I-54) published in 1385 Troilus and Criseyde, a much longer work, based on "Filostrato." In it Pandaro, the girl's cousin, became Pandare, the girl's uncle.
It was Shakespeare next who, using Chaucer's poem as a main source, wrote Troilus and Cressida and changed Pandare to Pandarus.
… fair Cressid.. .
Bumblingly, Pandarus urges patience on Troilus, and Troilus retorts that he is already superhumanly patient. He says:
At Priam's royal table do I sit,
And when fair Cressid comes into my thoughts-
—Act I, scene i, lines 31-32
Priam is King of Troy, the figure of a royal patriarch. He has, all told, fifty sons and twelve daughters by various wives, and Troilus is one of the sons. When the Greek expedition arrived before the walls of Troy, Priam was too old to fight, but he was still in full authority as king.
As for "fair Cressid," who is she? She is Pandarus' niece in the play and it is she with whom Troilus is in love, but where does she come from? She is not mentioned, not once, in the Iliad.
Yet, even so, we can trace her origin from the very first book of the Iliad. In that first book, Homer relates the cause of a quarrel between Agamemnon, the commander in chief of the Greek forces, and the greatest warrior in those forces, Achilles.
The army, it seems, has conducted a raid, carried off captives, and divided the loot. Agamemnon's share included a girl named Chryseis, while Achilles' share included another girl named Briseis. (The similarity in names is unfortunate and is a sure source of confusion.)
It turns out that Chryseis is the daughter of Chryses, a priest of Apollo. The priest comes to the camp to retrieve his daughter but when he is brusquely turned away by Agamemnon, Apollo (answering his priest's prayer) sends plague into the Greek camp. As a result, Achilles urges Agamemnon to return Chryseis and Agamemnon pettishly insists that, in that case, he will appropriate Briseis in return.
The quarrel flares and Achilles, in a rage, declares he will retire to his tent. He and his warriors will fight no more on behalf of this miserable leader. (And surely, our sympathies are all with the wronged Achilles at the start.)
The argument rests entirely on a matter of prestige. Agamemnon's view is that his prerogative as commander in chief is unassailable. Achilles insists that the commander in chief cannot hide behind his office while committing an injustice. The matter of the girls is a trifling symbol of the clash between central authority and individual rights. Homer does not introduce the thought that Agamemnon might be in love with Chryseis or Achilles with Briseis; certainly not in the medieval sense.
Later writers, however, more romantic than Homer and far less able, cannot resist stressing the love story, and make Achilles in love with Briseis.
In Benoit's medieval Roman de Troie, another factor is brought in to further complicate the matter and make the love tale even more interesting. The Trojan prince Troilus is also in love with Briseis, so that now there is a triangle of men, Agamemnon, Achilles, and Troilus, all competing for her.
Benoit distorts the name, and "Briseis" becomes "Briseide." Since it is almost impossible to avoid confusing "Briseis" with "Chryseis," "Briseide" easily becomes "Criseide." Hence Chaucer wrote of Troilus and Criseyde; and by a further small change Shakespeare wrote of Troilus and Cressida.
… Hector or my father.. .
Poor Troilus also complains that he must hide his aching heart and conceal the fact that he is hopelessly in love:
Lest Hector or my father should perceive me
—Act I, scene i, line 38
Hector was Priam's oldest son, his father's surrogate in the field, the commander in chief of the Trojan armies. He is the best and greatest warrior on the Trojan side, second only to Achilles as a fighter. He is one of the most attractive personalities in the Iliad and is the picture of patriotism.
The bias in his favor is far more pronounced in medieval versions of the tale, since the Trojans were supposed to be the ancestors of the Romans, and Rome always had a "good press" in the Middle Ages. Such a bias may also be expected in Shakespeare's play and it is there. Shakespeare consistently pictures Hector as braver and better than Achilles, for instance.
Why Troilus should be so reluctant to let Priam or Hector know of his love is not made clear in the play. One might argue that it was a time to fight and not to love and that father and older brother would object to having young Troilus moon away his time when the city was in such peril. More likely, however, courtly love is, by convention, supposed to be barred by tremendous hurdles; barriers of law or caste, parental disapproval, royal disfavor, and so on. Troilus must not be allowed to have it too easy, therefore.
… somewhat darker than Helen's
As for Pandarus, it is his task at the moment to keep Troilus' love in flame by a skillful praising of Cressida, saying:
An her hair were not somewhat darker than Helen's
—Act I, scene i, lines 43-44
He does not go on and really, the implication that Cressida might almost be compared with Helen can only be considered humorous.
Ever since the tale of the Trojan War has been extant, Helen has been considered beauty incarnate and beyond comparison. Notice, though, the implication that darker hair is, in itself, a blot on beauty (see page I-436).
… Cassandra's wit…
Pandarus continues to praise Cressida. Having compared her physical attributes with Helen's, in bumbling style, he searches for a way of praising her mind. He says:
… I would somebody had heard
her talk yesterday, as I did. I will not
dispraise your sister Cassandra's wit, but-
—Act I, scene i, lines 47-49
Cassandra was one of Priam's daughters Ad the most tragic of them. She was beloved by Apollo and had promise to yield to him if he would give her the gift of prophecy. When he had granted her that favor she nevertheless remained obdurate. The divine gift could not be withdrawn, but in revenge Apollo decreed that no one would ever believe her true prophecies. In other words, people believed her mad.
The comparison, then, with Cassandra in natter of wit is but another bumble, calculated, perhaps, to draw a laugh from the more knowing in the audience.
… behind her father …
Troilus continues to bemoan his fate, obvious to Pandaras' wheedling. The go-between therefore tries the other extreme. Violently, he disowns the whole business and washes his hands of i He will do nothing further for Troilus and says:
She's a fool to stay behind her father.
Let her to the Greeks, and so
I'll tell her the next time I see her.
—Act I, scene i, lines 83-85
Cressida's father is Calchas, a priest of Apdo. If Cressida's name is derived from the Iliad's Chryseis, her father's name must be derived from the name of Chryseis' father, Chryses. He too was a priest of Apollo.
Why "Calchas" from "Chryses"? Because there is also a Calchas in the Iliad. He is a skilled prophet or soothsayer on the Greek side, and can interpret the omens. It is he, for instance, who explained that the plague striking at the Greeks was the result of Agamemnon's refusal to surrender Chryseis to her father. Both Chryses and Calchas are thus involved in the demand that Agamemnon surrender Chryseis.
There is no hint in the Iliad that Calchas: anything but a Greek and certainly there is no confusion between him ad Chryses. In later stories, however, the confusion arises. Chryses the "Trojan priest of Apollo and Calchas the Greek soothsayer are combined ad the story arises that Calchas, a Trojan priest of Apollo, knowing through his prophetic arts that Troy must fall, deserts to the Greeks.
The story of the lost daughter is retained, though. Since Calchas/Chryses has now turned voluntarily to the Greeks to remain with them permanently, he can't be trying to retrieve a daughter from the Greeks. After all, he's there. He must, therefore, be trying to retrieve a daughter from the Trojan camp, a daughter he left behind in deserting to the Greeks. And it is this Trojan daughter, Cressida/Chryseis, whom Troilus loves.
… thy Daphne's love
Troilus is at once anxious to placate Pandarus, who, after all, remains the only bridge by which he can reach Cressida. Pandarus, however, pushing his advantage, rushes off, leaving Troilus behind to sing Cressida's praises, calling on Apollo (the god of poetry) to help him:
Tell me, Apollo, for thy Daphne's love,
What Cressid is…
—Act I, scene i, 102-3
It is interesting that Apollo, the personification of male beauty, is so often tragically unsuccessful in his loves. Cassandra refused him, for instance, and Daphne (see page I-36) is an even more famous love.
What news, Aeneas.. .
Troilus' soliloquy ends when another Trojan warrior enters. He is in full armor, on his way to the battle, and is rather puzzled that Troilus is lingering in Troy. Troilus asks:
What news, Aeneas, from the field today?
—Act I, scene i, line 11:
Aeneas, in the legends, is a son of none other than Venus, though hi father, Anchises, was a mortal man. Aeneas was not a Trojan exactly but a Dardanian; that is, the inhabitant of a district neighboring Troy proper He attempted to maintain neutrality in the war at first but the attacks c Achilles forced him to join forces with Priam and his sons.
None of this is in the Iliad. In the Iliad he is an ardent Trojan fighter second only to Hector. He is a darling of the gods and is saved by Venus and Apollo when about to be killed by Diomedes, and on another occasion by Neptune, when it is Achilles who is about to kill him.
Homer makes it quite plain that Aeneas is not fated to die in the general sack that destroys Troy (see page I-209). This was the basis of Vergil plot in the Aeneid, which deals with the wanderings of Aeneas after the destruction of Troy.
Because Aeneas was viewed as the ancestor of the Romans, he had to be treated with particular care by Western poets. The English had to 1 even more careful, for they aped the Romans in their search for a glorious beginning.
Several medieval chroniclers in England composed versions of a legendary past that traced the early Britons back to Troy. It seems, according them, that Aeneas had had a great-grandson, Brute, who, having inadvertently killed his father, fled Italy and finally landed in the northern island, which got its name of "Britain" from him.
There is absolutely nothing to it, of course, other than the accidental similarity between the common Roman name Brute or Brutus and the name of Britain. Nevertheless it gave the English a profound interest in the tale of Troy and a strong pro-Trojan sympathy. In particular, Aeneas must be, and is, idealized. In Troilus and Cressida he is gay, debonair, and the perfect medieval knight.
… Menelaus' horn
Aeneas tells Troilus that Paris has been wounded in a duel with Menelaus. (Such a duel is described in Book Three of the Iliad and it is after that duel, which Menelaus wins, that a truce is negotiated, a truce which is broken by Pandarus' arrow-see page I-79).
Troilus shrugs it off:
Let Paris bleed; 'tis but a scar to scorn:
Paris is gored with Menelaus' horn.
—Act I, scene i, lines 115-16
There was an accepted convention in Shakespearean England that a betrayed husband had horns; invisible ones, of course. This may be from a consideration of the sexual life of the polygamous stags, who fight each other for the possession of a harem of does. The deceived husband is, perhaps, likened to a defeated stag; hence his horns.
The husband whose wife had fooled him was universally viewed with amused contempt in Shakespeare's time. This attitude arose, perhaps, from the conventions of courtly love, (see page I-54) where the knight was, ideally, supposed to love the wife of another. In all such tales, the husband was the villain (witness the well-known romance of Tristan and Iseult) and the audience cheered when the horns were, so to speak, placed on his forehead.
The betrayed husband was therefore an inexhaustible theme for comedy and any mention of horns or horned animals, even any reference to foreheads, was the signal for laughter-and Shakespeare made the most of that.
Thus it is that Troilus scorns poor wronged Menelaus. To modern ears, which do not find adultery either as serious or as comic as the Elizabethans did, such jests fall flat.
Queen Hecuba …
The scene shifts to Cressida now. She enters with her servant, Alexander, looking after two women who have hastened by. She inquires who those were who passed and Alexander answers:
Queen Hecuba and Helen.
—Act I, scene ii, line 1b
Queen Hecuba (or Hecabe, in the Greek form) was the second wife of Priam. She bore him nineteen of his sixty-two children, including Hector, Paris, Troilus, and Cassandra of those mentioned so far. Because of her sufferings, she was a favorite character in tragic dramas devoted to the Trojan War and, indeed, in Hamlet Shakespeare makes use of this fact indirectly (see page II-115). Here, in Troilus and Cressida, however, she never appears onstage.
He chid Andromache …
Apparently the two women are hastening to the walls to see the battle, for they fear it may be going poorly. After all, even Hector is perturbed, or as the servant says:
Hector, whose patience Is as a virtue fixed, today was moved.
He chid Andromache, and struck his armorer,
—Act I, scene ii, lines 4-6
Andromache is Hector's wife. The last part of Book Six of the Iliad is devoted to a scene in which she hurries with her infant son, Scamandrius, to meet Hector before he leaves the city on his way to the battle. It is the most touching scene of married love in Homer. Andromache pleads with Hector to stay in the city, for all her own relatives are dead. "So, dear Hector," she says, "you are now not merely my husband-you are father, mother, and brother, too!"
But Hector must go and he reaches out his arms to give his son a farewell and to pray over him, hoping that someday the child's feats will be such that all will agree that "His father was the lesser man!" Alas, it was not to be, for Hector's son was killed when Troy was destroyed.
A lord of Troyan blood.,.
To make Hector scold Andromache, something most unusual must have happened. Cressida asks what that might be and is told:
… there is among the Greeks
A lord of Troyan blood, nephew to Hector;
They call him Ajax.
—Act I, scene ii, lines 12-14
Ajax plays a great role in the Iliad. He is one of two men in the epic that bears the name. Since the one here referred to is particularly large, he is called "Ajax the Greater." Of the two, only "the Greater" appears in Troilus and Cressida, so it suffices to call him Ajax.
In the Iliad Ajax is the strongest of the Greeks, save only for Achilles, but is considerably more renowned for his strength than for his subtlety. He is never wounded in the Iliad, and he is the only important hero who never at any time personally receives the help of a god or a goddess. He is the epitome of success through hard work, without inspiration.
He is not, in the Iliad, of Trojan blood; nor is he a nephew to Hector. The attribution of Trojan blood to Ajax is probably the result of confusion with Ajax's half brother (see page I-103).
… a gouty Briareus …
Alexander goes on to describe Ajax and makes him out to be a parody of the picture presented in Homer; as nothing more than a stolid, dim-witted man-mountain. He says of Ajax:
… he is a gouty Briareus, many hands and no use,
or purblind Argus, all eyes and no sight.
—Act I, scene ii, lines 29-30
Briareus was an earthborn monster with fifty heads and a hundred arms. The most important myth in which he figured was one in which the tale of a revolt against Jupiter is central. The other gods, led by Neptune and Apollo, succeed in binding Jupiter, and he might have been overthrown, but for the action of a sea nymph, who hastily brought Briareus to the rescue. The monster untied Jupiter and by his presence cowed the other gods.
As for Argus, he was a monster with a hundred eyes who was sent by Juno (Hera) in order that he might watch the nymph Io. Io had been one of Jupiter's many loves, and that god had turned her into a heifer to hide her from Juno, but unsuccessfully. Argus' vigilance (his eyes never closed in unison; fifty at least were always open and alert) would prevent Jupiter from ever turning Io back into human form.
Jupiter sent Mercury (Hermes) to the rescue. Mercury lulled Argus to a simultaneous hundred-eyed sleep with a soothing lullaby and then cut off his head. Juno placed Argus' many eyes in the tail of her favorite bird, the peacock.
Alexander's description of Ajax, in other words, is that of a man who has all the physical attributes required for a warrior but who lacks the intelligence to make those attributes work for him.
And, apparently, what bothers Hector is that this mule of a man has struck him down. Hector cannot help but feel the shame of it.
That's Anterior …
Pandarus arrives on the scene and at once begins busily to praise Troilus, hoping to arouse Cressida's ardor. Cressida, who knows exactly what he is doing, teases him unmercifully by never allowing his praises to stand but turning everything on its head.
Soon the men are returning from the field at the close of the day, and Pandarus decides to let Troilus' own appearance do the talking. He leads Cressida to a place where she can see them, continuing to promise her Troilus, but naming the others as they pass.
Aeneas passes first and is praised, of course. (Aeneas is always praised-he must be.) Then comes another, and Pandarus says:
That's Anterior. He has a shrewd wit, I can tell you;
and he's man good enough-he's one
o' the soundest judgments in Troy whosoever. ..
—Act I, scene ii, lines 197-99
In the Iliad Antenor was one of the elders of Troy. He was a councilor of Priam and a man of good judgment, as Shakespeare says, but far too old to fight. There is undoubtedly confusion here with Agenor, his son, who in the Iliad plays an important role as a Trojan warrior.
That's Helenus …
Pandarus' fussing becomes funnier and funnier. Hector and Paris pass and he praises them with forced enthusiasm, but keeps watching for Troilus and growing constantly more upset because Troilus doesn't appear.
When Cressida asks the name of one of the passing warriors, Pandarus answers absently:
That's Helenus. 1 marvel where Troilus is.
That's Helenus. I think he went not forth today.
—Act I, scene ii, lines 227-29
Helenus was another son of Priam and Hecuba,, and, according to some accounts, a twin brother of Cassandra. He was likewise blessed with the powers of a soothsayer and was a priest. He was the only one of Priam's sons to survive the fall of Troy (perhaps because of his priestly character) and in the end, according to some of the later tales, married Andromache, Hector's widow. Together they ended their lives ruling over Epirus, a district in northwestern Greece.
… That's Deiphobus
But Cressida is still teasing Pandarus unmercifully. She clearly knows all the men whom Pandarus is identifying. In fact, she sees Troilus before Pandarus does and asks in mock disdain:
What sneaking fellow comes yonder?
—Act I, scene ii, line 234
And, at the crisis, Pandarus fails to recognize him after all, saying:
Where? Yonder? That's Deiphobus.
—Act I, scene ii, line 235
Only belatedly does he realize it is Troilus.
Deiphobus is still another son of Priam and Hecuba. After Paris dies in battle, it is he who next marries Helen. As a result, when Troy is taken, he is killed by Menelaus and his corpse is hideously mangled.
Pandarus makes up for his tardiness in recognizing Troilus by setting up such a caterwauling after him that Cressida is embarrassed; not so embarrassed, however, that she fails to continue her teasing.
It is only after Pandarus leaves that she reveals in a soliloquy that she is actually in love with Troilus, but holds off because she thinks women are valued only as long as they are not attained.
… after seven years' siege.. .
With the third scene we find ourselves in the Greek camp for the first time.
There is a general air of depression over the camp and Agamemnon, the commander in chief, is trying to instill heart in the warriors. Their troubles are, after all, long-standing ones, so why be disheartened now?
… is it matter new to us
That we come short of our suppose so far
That after seven years' siege yet Troy walls stand;
-Act I, scene iii, lines 10-12
If this is the last year of the war, as it must be, then Troy's walls have been standing nine years, not seven-but that is a small error that makes no difference.
Agamemnon goes on to point out that the difficulty of the task but tests their mettle and tries their worth.
Agamemnon is in a difficult position, for as commander in chief of the Greek army, the chief odium will fall upon him if the expedition fails. He is commander in chief because he is the king of Mycenae, which at the time of the Trojan War was the chief city of Greece and gave its name to the Mycenaean Age. It declined soon after the Trojan War thanks to the devastation that accompanied the Dorian conquest of much of Greece. It was but a disregarded village in the days of Greece's greatest period, centuries later.
Mycenae, located in the northeastern Peloponnesus, six miles north of Argos, has been excavated in the last century, and ample evidence has been discovered of past greatness.
Agamemnon was the grandson of Pelops (see page I-68) and, in theory, he ruled over all of Greece, though in actual fact the princes of northern Greece (Achilles among them) were restive in the face of the claims of leadership on the part of the southern city, Mycenae.
He was married to Clytemnestra, the daughter of Tyndareus, King of Sparta, a city located some fifty-five miles south of Mycenae.
The younger sister of Clytemnestra was none other than Helen, over whom the Greeks and Trojans were fighting. Helen's beauty was such that her life, from beginning to end, was one of fatal attraction to men. While she was still a young girl of twelve, she was kidnapped, according to the legends, by the Athenian hero Theseus. She was rescued by her brothers, Castor and Polydeuces, and after she was restored, her father, Tyndareus, decided to marry her off and let her husband have the responsibility of holding her.
That was easier said than done, for when the word went out that Helen's hand was to be given in marriage, all the heroes of Greece came to Sparta to compete for her. It seemed impossible to choose one without making enemies of all the others.
It was Ulysses who had the solution. He had no real hope of gaining Helen for himself. He suggested to Tyndareus, therefore, that the competing heroes all be required to take an oath to agree to whatever decision was made as to Helen's husband and to promise to support that husband against anyone who might attempt to take Helen away from him. This was done and Ulysses was rewarded with the hand of Penelope, Helen's cousin.
It was Menelaus who was chosen as Helen's husband. For one thing, he was wealthy; for another, he was the younger brother of the King of Mycenae, Agamemnon.
Agamemnon himself could not compete for Helen because he was already married, but he pressed hard on behalf of his younger brother, and it was very likely because of the prestige and pressure of the "Great King" that Menelaus was accepted.
This was a good stroke of policy on Agamemnon's part. Menelaus succeeded to the throne of Sparta, as Helen's husband. Since Menelaus was a rather passive character, dominated by his more forceful brother, Agamemnon found himself greatly strengthened by his indirect control of the important city of Sparta.
By the same token, Paris' abduction of Helen was a serious blow to Agamemnon, for it weakened Menelaus' claim on the Spartan throne (which was Helen's rather than his own). Agamemnon had to push hard for a punitive expedition on Troy, and it may have been, again, the influence of the Great King, rather than any vow, which gathered the feudal lords of Greece into the expedition.
In the Iliad Agamemnon does not shine. His quarrel with Achilles, in which the Great King is entirely in the wrong, nearly wrecks the Greek cause, and on more than one occasion Homer (who is always respectful to him) shows him being deservedly corrected by others.
… Nestor shall apply
When Agamemnon is done, the oldest of the Greek leaders stands up to second his words:
With due observance of thy godlike seat,
Great Agamemnon, Nestor shall apply Thy latest words.
—Act I, scene iii, lines 31-33
In the Iliad Nestor is active among the Greeks despite the fact that he is described as ruling over the third generation of subjects. Although he is so old, he survives to see Troy sacked. Then, ten years after the fall of that city, when the last of the Greek warriors returns home, Nestor is still alive and still ruling in his city of Pylos on the southwestern shore of Greece. Pylos, like Mycenae, was an important center in the time of the Trojan War, but faded away in later tunes. It left not even a village behind.
The frequent reference to Nestor's age made some of the Roman writers grant him two hundred years, but that is not really necessary. In the Mycenaean Age it is quite likely that the life expectancy would be no more than twenty-five to thirty years, and that few men would reach forty before violence or disease laid them low. If Nestor was seventy years old at the time of the play he would be ruling over the third generation of men, and even ten years after the fall of Troy, he would be only eighty.
An occasional person could reach such an age, even in the short-lived times of the ancients, but certainly he would represent a marvel.
In the Iliad Nestor is shown in the field, driving his chariot. He does not actually engage in combat, but he is always there overseeing his forces. What's more, he is constantly giving advice in long-winded speeches, and although no one in the Iliad ever indicates that he is bored by Nestor, it seems clear that Nestor is a bore just the same. He is forever recalling the feats of his youth and one gets the idea that the same feats must surely have been recalled over and over again. The old man seems more obviously a bore in Shakespeare's version.
The gentle Thetis …
Nestor seconds Agamemnon's views. The old man points out that any-} one can succeed when the task is easy, but that great enterprises call out the best in man. On calm seas, any ship can sail, but on stormy seas, it is the strong vessel that makes its mark. Nestor says:
But let the ruffian Boreas once enrage
The gentle Thetis, and anon behold
The strong-ribbed bark through liquid mountains cut,
Bounding between the two moist elements
Like Perseus' horse,
—Act I, scene iii, lines 38-42
Boreas is the personification of the north wind and Thetis is used here as the personification of the ocean, but that is wrong. There is common confusion between Thetis and Tethys. The latter was a Titaness and the wife of Oceanus (who is clearly the god of the ocean), so that Tethys can serve as a feminine version of the personification.
Thetis, in her own right, plays an important role in the Greek myths and in the Iliad particularly. She is a sea nymph (all the easier to confuse her with Tethys) and it was she who brought Briareus to the rescue of Jupiter (see page I-86).
Thetis' beauty was such that both Jupiter and Neptune tried to win her, until they found out she was fated to have a son stronger than his father. It was unsafe for either god, or any god, to marry her in that case, and she was forced to marry a mortal. The mortal chosen was a Thessalian prince named Peleus, and at the marriage (pushed through much against the will of Thetis) all the gods and goddesses assembled.
It was at this wedding that Eris appeared with her Apple of Discord. What's more, born of this marriage was Achilles, who was, indeed, far stronger than his father Peleus.
In the Iliad Thetis makes several appearances in her role as Achilles' mother, bewailing the fact that her son was fated to endless glory but short life.
The reference to Perseus' horse is to the famous winged stallion Pegasus. Perseus was a Greek hero in the generations before the Trojan War, whose great feat was the destruction of Medusa, one of the three Gorgons, whose appearance was so fearful that they turned to stone anyone who looked at them. With divine help, Perseus was able to cut off the head of Medusa. The blood that dripped from it, on striking the ground, gave rise to Pegasus, who leaped up at once and winged his way into the sky. In that sense, he was Perseus' horse, though there was no further connection between the two.
… hear Ulysses speak
When Nestor is finished, the shrewdest of the Greeks arises, and addressing the two preceding speakers says:
… let it please both Thou great, and wise,
to hear Ulysses speak.
—Act I, scene iii, lines 68-69
As Nestor is the very personification of the rather tedious wisdom of age, so Ulysses (Odysseus) is the very personification of shrewdness and clever, but not always ethical, strategy. This comes out even better in Homer's companion poem, the Odyssey, which deals with Ulysses' return home after the fall of Troy, and of the ten years of adventures he survives through cleverness and endurance.
The later tales of the Troy cycle attributed to Ulysses all the clever stratagems devised by the Greeks, notably that of the wooden horse itself, with which the fall of Troy was finally encompassed. Since cleverness easily degenerates into slyness and rascality, some of the later myths picture Ulysses as a deceitful coward. None of that, however, appears anywhere in Homer, where Ulysses is depicted as uniformly admirable. Nor does it appear in Shakespeare's play.
… Prince of Ithaca
Agamemnon says at once:
Speak, Prince of Ithaca;
—Act I, scene iii, line 70
Ithaca is the home island of Ulysses; its exact location is not certain. Indeed, it has been an interesting game among classical scholars to try to determine which Greek island it might be from the descriptions given in the Odyssey.
The general feeling is that it is one of the Ionian Islands off the west coast of Greece. The particular island (called "Ithake" on modern maps) is small, only thirty-six square miles in area, and some twenty miles from the mainland. It is surrounded by larger islands, which presumably also represented part of Ulysses' domain.
… rank Thersites …
Agamemnon states that there is as much chance that Ulysses will utter folly as that:
When rank Thersites opes his mastic jaws,
We shall hear music, wit, and oracle.
—Act I, scene iii, lines 73-74
Thersites plays one small part in the Iliad. He is the only common man, the only non-aristocrat, mentioned by name, and Homer has a field day at his expense, describing him as: "-a certain Thersites, who had no control over his tongue, and poured out an endless stream of abuse against his superiors, saying whatever came into his head that might raise a laugh. Thersites was by far the ugliest man in the Greek army: bandylegged, lame, hump-backed, crook-necked and bald."
His appearance is in Book Two, where as a result of a miscalculation by Agamemnon, the Greek army is about to break up and make for home. Ulysses is desperately trying to stop them when Thersites breaks into invective against Agamemnon and keeps it up until he is stopped by a blow from Ulysses and some stern words.
That is all! It must be remembered that the Iliad was written about aristocrats and for an aristocratic audience, and, moreover, that it was aristocratic patronage that kept bards in comfort. Homer and those like him could scarcely afford to portray a common man successfully running down warriors and noblemen.
And yet, if one reads Thersites' speech in the one scene given him, it makes good sense. He scolds Agamemnon for hogging the best of the loot and for offending Achilles, on whom the Greek victory most depends. It was all true enough, and the blow he received did not alter that fact. Homer may have been having his moment of grim fun with the aristocrats.
Shakespeare, who was likewise patronized by aristocrats and who likewise rarely showed the common people in a good light, adopted Thersites as part of the comic relief in the play, though it is black comedy indeed. Thersites' mastic (that is, abusive) jaws never open without spewing out untold bitterness, and we are prepared for that in this comment of Agamemnon's.
… the glorious planet Sol
Ulysses points out that the trouble with the Greek force rests in its divisions, the existence within it of factions that neutralize its efforts. This lack of central authority, he maintains, is against nature itself, for inanimate nature shows the beneficial effects of order even in the heavens, where the planets move through the sky in strict accordance with certain rules:
And therefore is the glorious planet
Sol In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose med'cinable eye
Corrects the influence of evil planets,
—Act I, scene iii, lines 89-92
"Sol" is the Latin word for "sun" and is the personification of the sun in the Roman myths.
This passage sounds as though Shakespeare, through Ulysses' mouth, is proclaiming the sun to be the ruler of the planets, for he is "in noble eminence enthroned" and he governs and controls the others.
If so, this is a startlingly modern view, not only for Ulysses, but even for Shakespeare, for it seems to refer to the heliocentric theory of the solar system, which places the sun at the center and makes the planets (including the earth itself) revolve about it. The mere fact that the sun is at the center would make it appear to rule the planetary system (so that it is a solar system), and Isaac Newton eventually showed, some sixty-seven years after Shakespeare's death, that the sun's overwhelming gravitational force did, indeed, keep the planets in their place.
It is surprising that Shakespeare should seem to be giving this impression, for all through his plays he shows himself a complete conservative as far as science is concerned and accepts only the Greek view of the universe. To be sure, some Greeks, notably Aristarchus of Samos, about 250 b.c., claimed the sun was the center of the planetary system, but few listened to them, and the Greek majority view continued to place the earth at the center. This latter doctrine was made final by the grand synthesis of the astronomer Ptolemy, about a.d. 150. (The earth-at-center theory is therefore called the "Ptolemaic system" in consequence.)
In 1543 Copernicus advanced the same notion that Aristarchus once had, but with much more detailed reasoning. His view was not accepted by most scholars for a long time, and in Shakespeare's lifetime the Copernican view was still widely considered rather far out and blasphemous.
Can Shakespeare, then, be taking the progressive Copernican view against the conservative Ptolemaic attitude?
No! That he remains conservative is clear at several points. He refers, for instance, to the "planet Sol." The Greeks observed that several heavenly bodies shifted position constantly against the background of non-shifting of "fixed" stars. These bodies they called "planets," meaning, in English, "wanderers." The known planets included the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, seven bodies in all.
Once the Copernican view of the planetary system was established, it seemed unreasonable to call the sun a planet, since it didn't wander among the stars, really, but was thought to be the motionless center of the planetary system.
It fell out of fashion to call the sun a planet, therefore. The name "planet" was then applied only to those bodies which revolved about the sun. This meant that the earth itself would have to be viewed as a planet. The moon revolves about the earth, the only body to retain its Ptolemaic position, and it is not, strictly speaking, viewed as a planet any longer. It is a satellite. Of the Greek planets, therefore, only Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn retain the name and to these are added the earth and the planetary bodies since discovered: Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, and a host of tiny bodies called planetoids or asteroids.
Shakespeare refers to Sol as a planet, however, thus insisting that the sun moves and is not the center of the planetary system. He has the sun not merely enthroned but also "sphered." That is, it is embedded in a sphere that encircles the earth (see page I-25), whereas if it were the center of the planetary system, it could not be part of a sphere.
Finally, in speaking of the necessity of order in the heavens, Shakespeare has Ulysses say, a bit earlier in the speech:
The heavens themselves, the planets, and this center
Observe degree, priority, and place.
—Act I, scene iii, lines 85-86
That makes a clear distinction between the planets and "this center," that is, earth.
If the sun is "in noble eminence enthroned," then, it is only because, in Shakespeare's view, it is the brightest and most magnificent of the planets and not because it has a central position.
In evil mixture …
Ulysses goes on to point out the harmful effects of disorder in the heavens:
But when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues, and what portents, what mutiny,
—Act I, scene iii, lines 94-96
This seems to reflect the universal belief in astrology in Greek times, in Shakespeare's times, and, for that matter, in our own times. The planets were supposed to influence matters on earth by their ever changing positions against the stars and relative to each other. Certain positions foreboded evil and therefore represented "the planets in evil mixture."
And yet the motions of the planets followed a fixed pattern that could be worked out, and was worked out, by Greek astronomers (a thousand years after the Trojan War, to be sure) so that such "evil mixture" could not really represent disorder. They followed inevitably from planetary motion.
There were, however, some heavenly phenomena which were very spectacular and which took place only rarely; notably eclipses of the sun and of the moon. These therefore were particularly baleful and frightening, and remained signs of apparent disorder in the heavens even after they had been explained astronomically and had been proven to be predictable.
Still more frightening and disorderly were the occasional appearances of comets, whose comings and goings seemed utterly erratic and were shown to be governed by the sun's gravitational field only two centuries after Shakespeare's death.
The great Achilles …
Having established (most eloquently) the general principle that only in centralized authority accepted by all, only in an established hierarchy of mastery, is order and efficiency to be found, Ulysses descends to specifics. Agamemnon should be the autocratic head of the enterprise against Troy, but his subordinates flout him and, in particular:
The great Achilles, whom opinion crowns
The sinew and the forehand of our host,
Having his ear full of his airy fame,
Grows dainty of his worth, and in his tent
Lies mocking our designs.
—Act I, scene iii, lines 142-46
Achilles was certainly the foremost hero on the Greek side and in the Iliad he is by no means treated as a conceited fop. Before the poem opens, he has been the mainstay of the army; his expeditions have subdued the Trojan dominions in Asia Minor; he has fought harder than anyone.
It is only when Agamemnon tries to take away his lawful prize, the girl Briseis, and scorns him before the gathered army, that Achilles loses his temper and withdraws from the fight. He proves himself to be vengeful and cruel thereafter, but at least he has a reasonable cause for his anger.
In Roman and medieval times, however, the legend of the Roman descent from Aeneas swung popular opinion heavily in favor of the Trojans. Achilles was therefore downgraded and there seemed nothing wrong in having him sulk in his tent out of vainglorious conceit, rather than in righteous wrath. Furthermore, the proponents of courtly love did not fail to make use of later myths concerning Achilles' love for a Trojan princess. That will appear later in the play as a cause for his malingering.
… With him Patroclus
Nor is Achilles alone. He has a friend:
With him Patroclus
Upon a lazy bed the livelong day
Breaks scurril jests,
—Act I, scene iii, lines 146-48
Patroclus is one of the important characters in the Iliad and is pictured there as the bosom friend of Achilles. Homer makes nothing of the relationship beyond that of loving friendship, but the later Greeks casually assumed more. They saw nothing wrong in homosexuality and even felt it to be a superior form of love. Consequently they had no hesitation in seeing Achilles and Patroclus as lovers in the literal sense of the word. This did not prevent Patroclus from being portrayed as a noble character (indeed, the gentlest of the Greeks) and a brave warrior.
In Christian Europe, however, homosexuality was an abomination and the Greek outlook could not be retained on its own terms. Shakespeare is forced to present Patroclus as effeminate, though he does not deprive him of all our sympathy either.
… roaring Typhon …
Ulysses is offended at the fact that Patroclus mimics the Greek leaders for Achilles' amusement. Vehemently, Ulysses insists that the imitations are poor ones, though he does not hesitate to describe them with a realism that must surely be sufficient to embarrass the ones being imitated.
He describes Patroclus pretending to be Agamemnon, for instance, with an affectation of great self-importance and melodramatic language (undoubtedly not too much an exaggeration of the way Agamemnon should be played). The language Patroclus uses, says Ulysses indignantly, is so ridiculously exaggerated that:
… from the tongue of roaring Typhon dropped,
Would seem hyperboles.
—Act I, scene iii, lines 160-61
Typhon, in the Greek myths, was the largest monster ever born. His arms were a hundred miles long, his legs were serpents, his eyes flashed fire, and his mouth spewed forth flaming rocks. He may have been a personification of a volcano or, possibly, of a hurricane.
The gods themselves fled in terror before him and he was even able to capture Jupiter and for a while incapacitate him. Typhon was, however, eventually defeated and buried under Mount Etna, the largest and most fearsome volcano known to the ancient world.
Whether volcano or hurricane, it is clear that Typhon had a roaring voice, and that is the point of the metaphor.
… Vulcan and his wife
Ulysses next describes Patroclus imitating Nestor getting ready to speak, or to answer a night alarm, meticulously demonstrating how he acts the old, old man (again presumably very much the way Nestor is really acted). And Ulysses says indignantly:
That's done, as near as the extremest ends
Of parallels, as like as Vulcan and his wife,
—Act I, scene iii, lines 167-68
Since parallels never meet, they can be extended infinitely in either direction. The imitation is as far from reality, Ulysses' words are saying, as is an infinite distance in one direction from an infinite distance in the other. The other comparison of opposites is Vulcan (Hephaestus) and his wife, Venus (see page I-11).
He hath a lady. ..
Ulysses does not go on to say that Patroclus imitates Ulysses as well, but one can easily imagine he does and that that is what really annoys the Ithacan.
But further discussion is interrupted by a messenger who arrives from Troy. It is Aeneas, debonair and gay, bringing a challenge from Hector, offering single combat with any Greek. As a cause for combat, he sends a message which Aeneas delivers as:
He hath a lady wiser, fairer, truer,
Than ever Greek did compass in his arms;
—Act I, scene iii, lines 275-76
This is straight out of the medieval tales, when knights were supposed to fight in the names of their ladies in accord with the rules of courtly love (see page I-54). Agamemnon rises to the occasion, following the silly conventions on his own account, saying:
This shall be told our lovers, Lord Aeneas;
If none of them have soul in such a kind,
We left them all at home. But we are soldiers;
And may that soldier a mere recreant prove,
That means not, hath not, or is not in love!
—Act I, scene iii, lines 284-88
It is hard to believe that such lines can be read seriously in surroundings that even hint at the grandeur with which Homer surrounded the Trojan War.
… the great Myrmidon
Agamemnon leads Aeneas off to carry the challenge to the various tents, but it is clear that it is meant for Achilles.
When he is gone, Ulysses huddles with Nestor. Ulysses has an idea-Why send Achilles against Hector? Suppose by some accident Achilles is wounded. With Achilles known to be their best man, that would be disastrous.
If, on the other hand, someone other than Achilles is sent, and loses, it will still be taken for granted that Achilles would have won if he had fought. On the other hand, if the lesser man should win, not only would that be a terrific gain for the Greeks, but Achilles himself, suddenly finding himself in second place behind a new champion, would leave off his posturing and laziness and would buckle down to the serious business of fighting. Ulysses' advice is that they:
… make a lott'ry;
And by device let blockish Ajax draw
The sort to fight with Hector; among ourselves
Give him allowance for the better man,
For that will physic the great Myrmidon
Who broils in loud applause, and make him fall
His crest that prouder than blue Iris bends.
—Act I, scene iii, lines 373-79
At the start of Book Seven of the Iliad, Hector does challenge the Greek champions, though not with a silly make-believe excuse involving courtly love. Several Greek champions did accept the challenge, lots were drawn, and the choice did fall on Ajax, though Homer makes no mention of any device to do so.
As for the Myrmidons, they were a tribe in Phthia in southern Thessaly over whom Achilles ruled, hence the reference to him as "the great Myrmidon." The word seems to contain the Greek myrmex, meaning "ant," and the ancient mythmakers invented an explanation for this.
Aeacus, the grandfather of Achilles, ruled the small island of Aegina near Athens. Either it was not populated to begin with or its population was destroyed by a plague. In either case, Aeacus prayed to Zeus that he be given men to rule and in response the god converted the ants on the island into men. These Myrmidons followed Aeacus' son, Peleus, to Thessaly and from there a contingent went with Peleus' son, Achilles, to the Trojan War.
Iris is usually the personification of the rainbow (see page I-67), but here she is used to represent the sky generally.
I.. as Cerberus
Now we are ready to have our first glimpse of Ajax and Thersites. A proclamation has been posted concerning Hector's challenge and Ajax wants to know what it says. Since Ajax is illiterate, he must ask Thersites to read it for him and Thersites is not in an obliging mood. (He never is.)
Thersites scolds Ajax most viciously and eloquently and Ajax, who can speak only with his fists, uses those as arguments. Thersites strikes back (with words) where he knows it will hurt most, saying:
Thou grumblest and railest every hour on Achilles, and thou
art as full of envy at his greatness as Cerberus is at Proser
—Act II, scene i, lines 33-35
Cerberus is the ugly, slavering, three-headed dog that guards the gateway to the underground abode of the dead, serving to prevent any living from invading those regions and any of the dead from escaping. Proserpina, on the other hand, is the beautiful queen of the underworld, the daughter of Ceres, whom Hades had carried off (see page I-7).
… Achilles' brach …
Achilles and Patroclus come on the scene and prevent Ajax from striking Thersites further. Achilles is clearly amused at Thersites and encourages him to continue his scurrilous comments concerning Ajax, to the latter's huge annoyance. Nor does Thersites spare Achilles himself, and when the gentle Patroclus tries to quiet the lowborn railer, Thersites says, sarcastically:
/ will hold my peace when Achilles'
brach bids me, shall I?
—Act II, scene i, lines 119-20
"Brach" is an archaic word for a bitch and Patroclus is thus compared with a female animal. This is one of the few explicit and contemptuous references to homosexuality to be found in Shakespeare.
Thersites then departs, leaving Achilles to read the news of Hector's challenge to Ajax (pretending to care little about the matter for himself).
… Let Helen go
In the Iliad, the duel between Ajax and Hector takes up a good portion of Book Seven. It ends with both champions alive but with Hector having had clearly the worst of it. (This is reflected in the earlier statement in Troilus and Cressida that Ajax had beaten Hector down on one occasion, see page I-87.)
At the end of the duel, therefore, it is reasonable that the disheartened Trojans hold a conference and consider whether or not to offer to give up Helen, pay an indemnity, and buy off the Greeks. Antenor counsels this line of action, but Paris insists he will not give up Helen, and when the offer of an indemnity without Helen is made, the Greeks (heartened by Ajax's showing) refuse, so the war goes on.
Shakespeare changes this. Hector's challenge has been issued and it has not yet been taken up, yet the Trojans are now seen in council trying to reach an important decision. Nestor, on behalf of the Greeks, has offered to end the war if the Trojans surrender Helen and pay an indemnity. It seems unreasonable to suppose that the Greeks would make such an offer or the Trojans consider one while the issue of the duel remained in doubt.
Yet the council proceedings are presented. In Shakespeare, it is Hector who makes the plea for a peace even at the price of a virtual surrender, saying in part:
… modest doubt is called
The beacon of the wise, the tent that searches
To the bottom of the worst. Let Helen go.
—Act II, scene ii, lines 15-17
This is in character for Shakespeare's Hector and for Homer's Hector too. In the Iliad Hector is never pictured as a fire-eater for the sake of battle. He is pictured as knowing well that Troy is in the wrong and that Paris' abduction is indefensible, but he fights because Troy is his city. He is a fighter in a poor cause, but his own character enforces respect nevertheless.
… for an old aunt…
Paris argues the hawkish view in the Iliad, but it is Troilus who speaks first here. He points out that it was the Trojans who first suffered loss at the hands of the Greeks and that the abduction of Helen was but a retaliation that all the Trojans favored at the time it was carried through. He goes on to describe Paris' retaliation:
And for an old aunt whom the Greeks held captive
He brought a Grecian queen, whose youth and freshness
Wrinkles Apollo's and makes pale the morning.
—Act II, scene ii, lines 77-79
The "old aunt" is Hesione, a sister of King Priam. When Hercules captured and sacked Troy, he carried off Hesione into captivity. She was never returned despite Trojan demands.
The capture of Hesione plays no part in the Homeric tale, and the abduction of Helen could, in any case, never be viewed as a fair return for an earlier outrage. Hesione was captured as a war prisoner, and however deplorable we consider such things now, this was considered legitimate in ancient times. Paris, on the other hand, had taken Helen not as the spoils of war, but by treachery and at the cost of violating what was due his host, Menelaus, who was entertaining him with all hospitality. The two actions simply weren't comparable.
The tale of Hesione has another point of impingement on the tale of Troy. She was awarded to Telamon, the brother of Peleus. By her, Tela-mon had a son named Teucer, who is therefore first cousin to Achilles. Teucer does not appear in Troilus and Cressida but he does appear in the Iliad as a skilled archer.
Telamon, by a previous wife (an Athenian woman), had another son, who was none other than Ajax. Ajax is therefore first cousin to Achilles and half brother to Teucer. In the Iliad Teucer is always fighting at the side of Ajax and the two half brothers are devoted to each other.
Teucer, notice, is half Trojan through his mother and is actually a nephew of Priam and a first cousin to Hector, Troilus, Paris, and the rest, as well as to Achilles. At the beginning of the play, when Ajax is first mentioned to Cressida, he is described as "a lord of Troyan blood, nephew to Hector," which he isn't. The confusion is with Teucer, who is a lord of Trojan blood, cousin to Hector.
Our firebrand brother …
The council is interrupted by Cassandra, Priam's mad daughter, whose prophecies are always true, but never believed. She wails:
Cry, Troyans, cry! Practice your eyes with tears!
Troy must not be, nor goodly Ilion stand;
Our firebrand brother, Paris, burns us all.
-Act II, scene ii, lines 108-10
Just before Paris was born (according to legends that play no part in the Iliad) Hecuba dreamed she was delivered of a burning firebrand. A soothsayer, when consulted, said that this meant that Troy would be burned and destroyed because of the child about to be born. He urged that the child be killed as soon as born.
Priam, unable to bring himself to do the job or witness its being done, had a herdsman take the child, instructing him to kill it The herdsman could not do it either, but exposed the child in an uninhabited place. There it was found by a she-bear, which suckled it.
The herdsman, finding the child alive when he returned after some days, decided to bring it up as his own son, and it was while the young man was engaged in herding that the three goddesses Juno, Minerva, and Venus came down to have him decide which was the most beautiful.
After this, Paris, still in his role as herdsman, entered certain games being held in Troy, did marvelously well, even against Hector, and was recognized by Cassandra as the long-lost Paris. There was no thought of killing him; he was restored to his royal position and, eventually, proved his title to the firebrand dream by sailing to Sparta and abducting Helen.
… whom Aristotle …
Hector refers to Cassandra's cries as proof that Helen ought to be returned and the war ended, but Cassandra is simply dismissed as mad by Troilus. Paris rises and places himself on Troilus' side.
Hector is not convinced. He says his two younger brothers argue:
… but superficially: not much
Unlike young men, whom Aristotle thought
Unfit to hear moral philosophy.
—Act II, scene ii, lines 165-67
This is, actually, one of the most amusing anachronisms in Shakespeare. The dramatist forgets, for the moment, that he is discussing a war that took place in 1200 b.c., and has Hector refer to a philosopher who died in 322 b.c.-rune centuries later.
And yet, although Hector denigrates the arguments of Troilus and Paris, he cannot manage to stand against the kind of arguments that refer to such abstractions as honor, glory, and patriotism. It is decided (as in the Iliad) to keep Helen and let the war go on.
… thy caduceus…
The scene shifts back to the Greek camp, where Thersites, standing outside Achilles' tent, is brooding over his recent beating by Ajax. He inveighs against the stupidity of both heroes, Achilles as well as Ajax, and invokes the vengeance of the gods upon them, saying:
O thou great thunder-darter of Olympus,
forget that thou art Jove, the king of gods;
and, Mercury, lose all the serpentine craft of thy caduceus,
if ye take not that little, little,
less than little wit from them that they have;
—Act II, scene iii, lines 10-14
Jupiter (Zeus) was, in all likelihood, a storm god originally. His home would naturally be on a mountaintop where the clouds gather. Olympus was the one chosen by the Greeks, and it was a logical choice, for it is the highest mountain in Greece-although not so terribly high at that, only 1.8 miles. It is located in northern Thessaly, about 170 miles northwest of Athens.
As a storm god, Jupiter would naturally be in charge of the lightning. He would therefore be a thunder-darter, or, more correctly, a thunderbolt-darter.
Mercury (Hermes) was, in many myths, the messenger of the gods, a kind of male version of Iris (see page I-67). It is because of Mercury's swiftness in fulfilling his errands that he is usually pictured with small wings on his sandals and hat.
In carrying the messages of Jupiter, he was acting as Jupiter's herald or substitute and therefore carried with him the aura of Jupiter's majesty. In token of that he carried a staff, as earthly heralds did. In earliest times, the staff may have had flexible twigs at the end which would be wound back over the body of the staff.
In later times, these twigs, shown in representations of Mercury and misunderstood, became serpents. It is this serpent-bound staff, called the caduceus, which became a characteristic mark of Mercury. The caduceus was further confused in still later times with a magical wand, the agent by which Mercury, at the behest of Jupiter, brought about supernatural effects. Thersites therefore speaks of the "craft of thy caduceus."
… the Neapolitan bone-ache.. .
Having wished evil on Ajax and Achilles specifically, Thersites goes on to curse the Greeks generally:
After this, the vengeance on the whole camp!
Or, rather, the Neapolitan bone-ache, for that,
methinks, is the curse depending on those that war for a placket.
—Act II, scene iii, lines 18-21
The "Neapolitan bone-ache" is syphilis. This was not recognized as a serious, contagious disease until the early sixteenth century. Indeed, the story arose that it first appeared in Italy during battles at which some of Columbus' sailors were present. It therefore seemed that those sailors had picked up syphilis in the New World from the Indians and brought it back to Europe. (Europe sent the Indians smallpox in return.)
This may not be so and the disease may have occurred in Europe earlier, and been considered one of the forms of leprosy, perhaps; but if so, syphilis occurred less frequently then and less virulently. If the sixteenth century did not find it a new disease, it found it at least a more serious version of an old one, and it still required a new name.
This was difficult to find, for it was early recognized that contagion most easily resulted through sexual intercourse, so that it became shameful to admit the disease or even discuss it. It was natural for any group to consider it characteristic of a neighboring group. The French, for instance, would call it the "Neapolitan bone-ache," while the Italians would call it the "French disease."
In 1530 an Italian physician, Girolamo Fracastoro, wrote a Lathi epic poem which was a mock myth about a shepherd who offended Apollo and who fell victim to what Fracastoro called the "French disease." The shepherd's name was the Greek-sounding one (but not real Greek) of Syphilis, and it is this which gave the present name to the disease.
In Shakespeare's time the disease was still less than a century old in European consciousness. It had the doubtful virtue of novelty and of being associated with sex. Any reference to it, then, was good for a laugh, especially if it was arranged to have the laugh at the expense of foreigners. Thersites not only affixes it to the Neapolitans (making the reference doubly anachronistic, since Naples was not to be founded till some five centuries after the Trojan War) but makes use of the sexual angle as well by insisting it is to be what is expected for any army that wars for a placket (a petticoat, and therefore a coarse term for a woman).
References to syphilis abound in Shakespeare, usually at the expense of the French, but since moderns don't find the subject as humorous as the Elizabethans did, I shall pick up such references as infrequently as I can.
… a privileged man …
Thersites assumes, in this scene, a totally un-Homeric role. He is a jester; a man of quick wit (or perhaps slightly addled brains) whose remarks and responses are a source of amusement. He had apparently fulfilled that function for Ajax but Ajax had beaten him and he was now seeking employment with Achilles instead.
In return for amusing his master (in days when amusement was not yet electronified and easy to come by at the flick of a dial) a jester was allowed extraordinary leeway in his mockery and much more freedom of speech than anyone else might have. Naturally, this worked best when the jester's patron was powerful and could suppress the hurt feelings of underlings who might otherwise break the jester's neck.
Thus, when Thersites begins to perform for Achilles, Patroclus reacts with the beginnings of violence to one of Thersites' scurrilous remarks and Achilles restrains him by saying:
He is a privileged man. Proceed, Thersites.
-Act II, scene iii, line 59
Such a jester was often called a "fool" and many a Shakespearean play has someone listed as "Fool" in the cast of characters. This was not necessarily because they were foolish, but because very often they hid their sharp satire behind oblique comments in such a way that the points were not immediately apparent and therefore seemed foolish to the dull-witted. It also helped keep the jester from broken bones if he played the fool so that those he mocked might not be certain whether his remarks were deliberately hurtful or whether they were perhaps just the aimless maunderings of a lackwit.
Thersites is given this name a little later in the scene when Ajax is inveighing against Achilles and Nestor is surprised at the spleen of those remarks. Ulysses explains:
Achilles hath inveigled his fool from him.
—Act II, scene iii, line 93
… and a cuckold…
Thersites' bitter jesting for the benefit of Achilles, and largely at the expense of Patroclus, is interrupted by the arrival of a deputation from the Greeks. Achilles promptly retires into the tent, unwilling to talk to them, and before leaving himself, Thersites expresses his opinion of both sides of this inter-Greek friction:
Here is such patchery, such juggling, and such knavery.
All the argument is a whore and a cuckold…
—Act II, scene iii, lines 73-75
The whore is Helen, of course, and the cuckold (that is, the deceived husband) is Menelaus.
Why cuckold? The word is a form of "cuckoo." The common European species of cuckoo lays its egg in the nest of another and smaller bird, leaving to the foster parents the task of rearing the cuckoo fledgling. The male adulterer also lays his egg in the nest of another, to use the ribald analogy that must have occurred as long ago as Roman times, for the Romans called an adulterer a "cuckoo." The word shifted to "cuckold" and the name passed from the adulterer to the adulterer's victim. The name, or any guarded reference to it, was as sure-fire a source of laughter in Elizabethan times as any remark concerning horns (see page I-84).
… rely on none
The deputation of Greeks who have arrived at Achilles' tent intend to urge him to fight more vigorously.
This parallels, in a way, Book Nine of the Iliad, where the Greeks, having had some trouble in an immediately preceding battle, gloomily anticipate more and decide to try to win over Achilles once again.
A deputation of three, Ajax, Ulysses and Phoenix (the last an old tutor of Achilles), are sent. They offer to return the girl Agamemnon took from Achilles, together with additional rich gifts as compensation for Achilles' humiliation. By now, however, Achilles has so consumed himself with anger that he prefers his grievance to all else and he absolutely refuses.
In the Iliad Achilles puts himself in the wrong at this point, so that in the end he will have to suffer too, as well as Agamemnon and his Greek army. But if Achilles puts himself in the wrong, he does it at least in a grand fashion.
In Troilus and Cressida Achilles can offer nothing but petulance. Ulysses enters the tent and emerges to say that Achilles will not fight. When Agamemnon asks the reason, Ulysses replies:
He doth rely on none,
—Act II, scene iii, line 165
This is mere sulkiness, or, as it turns out later, lovesickness and treason, which is even worse. Shakespeare thus continues his Trojan-biased downgrading of the Homeric picture of the great Greek hero.
… more coals to Cancer…
It is time for the Greeks to make do without Achilles as best they can, obviously, and they begin to flatter Ajax into accepting the duel with Hector.
Thus, when Agamemnon suggests that Ajax be sent into the tent to plead with Achilles, Ulysses demurs grandiloquently and says that Achilles is not worth so great an honor as having a man like Ajax demur to him:
That were to enlard his fat-already pride,
And add more coals to Cancer when he burns
With entertaining great Hyperion.
—Act II, scene iii, lines 197-99
Hyperion (the sun, see page I-11) makes a complete round of the sky against the background of the stars in the course of one year. The stars in its path are divided into twelve constellations, which, all together, make up the Zodiac. (This is from a Greek phrase meaning "circle of animals" because so many of the constellations are visualized as animals.)
On June 21 the sun enters the sign of Cancer (the Crab) and summer starts on that day. Ulysses refers to summer heat in the notion of Cancer burning because of the entry of great Hyperion. Ajax kowtowing to Achilles would but make summer heat hotter; that is, it would make proud Achilles prouder.
Bull-bearing Milo. ..
The flattery grows grosser and grosser and Ajax, delighted, accepts it all. Ulysses says, in praise of Ajax:
… for thy vigor,
Bull-bearing Milo his addition yield
To sinewy Ajax.
—Act II, scene iii, lines 247-49
Milo was an athlete of Croton, a city on the coast of the Italian toe, whose feats of strength had grown legendary. The most famous tale was that he lifted a particular calf onto his shoulders every day. It grew heavier with age, of course, and finally Milo was lifting a full-grown bull. This was the reason for his addition (that is, tide) of "Bull-bearing," a title which, Ulysses was saying, he would now have to yield to Ajax.
This is another anachronism, of course, almost as bad as the one about Aristotle. Milo was not a myth but an actual historical figure (though the stories about him might be exaggerated, to be sure). He died about 500 b.c., seven centuries after the Trojan War.
Ajax is now thoroughly softened up and has played the scene as an utter puppet in the hands of Ulysses. This is completely unclassical, for Ajax is a truly heroic figure in the Iliad and was viewed as a sympathetic and tragic figure in later tales. Partly this was because he was considered an Athenian, for he was from the small island of Salamis, which, in the century when the Iliad was edited into its final form, had just been annexed by Athens.
Yet there is an echo of the classic too. After Achilles' death there was a competition for his armor, which narrowed down to Ulysses and Ajax. Ulysses won out and Ajax, in grief and shame, went mad. Ajax, it would seem, in one way or another, is always at the mercy of Ulysses.
This part of the task done, Ulysses now suggests that Agamemnon call a council of war, at which the arrangement to put up Ajax against Hector be completed. He says:
Please it our great general
To call together all his state of war;
Fresh kings are come to Troy.
—Act II, scene iii, lines 260-62
It would not have been reasonable to suppose that the city of Troy, all by itself, could have withstood a huge expeditionary force of a united Greece. Rather, it stood at the head of a large combination of forces itself. The tribes of Asia Minor stood with it and one of the most prominent Trojan heroes in the Iliad was Sarpedon, a prince of Lycia in southwestern Asia Minor, some three hundred miles south of Troy. He does not appear in Troilus and Cressida, but Pandarus, who does, is also a Lycian-at least in the Iliad.
In Book Ten of the Iliad, immediately after the unsuccessful deputation to Achilles, there is, indeed, the tale of a new reinforcement of the Trojans. This is Rhesus, a Thracian king who has led both men and horses to the aid of the Trojans. Thrace is in Europe, to be sure, but it lies to the northeast of Greece and was inhabited by non-Greeks. (Nor did it ever become Greek in the future. It is the region that makes up the modern kingdom of Bulgaria.)
In the Iliad Ulysses and Diomedes sneak into the Trojan camp under the cover of night and assassinate Rhesus, nullifying the effect of his reinforcement, but nothing of the sort takes place in Troilus and Cressida. The reference to fresh kings coming to Troy is all that is left.
O Cupid, Cupid, Cupid
As Act Three opens, Pandarus has finally made arrangements to bring Troilus and Cressida together for a night and has come to Priam's palace to persuade Paris to cover for Troilus, so that no one may suspect where the young prince is.
This gives Shakespeare a chance to place Helen herself on stage-in one scene only.
In the Iliad Helen's beauty is made overwhelming. All are victims of it and all are affected by it. Homer places her praise, with exceeding effectiveness, in the mouths of the old men of Troy, showing that even impotent age feels the influence. He says:
"At Helen's approach, these grey-beards muttered earnestly among themselves. 'How entrancing she is! Like an immortal goddess! Yes, marvellously like one! I cannot blame the Trojans and Greeks for battling over her so bitterly!'"
And Helen is her own victim too. She is conscious of herself as the cause of immense misery; she is contrite and ashamed, and, in the same scene referred to above, she says to Priam:
" 'I ought to have died before eloping with Prince Paris-imagine, leaving my home, my family, my unmarried daughter, and so many women friends of my own age! But leave them I did, and now I weep for remorse… Oh, I am a shameless bitch, if ever there was one.'"
Furthermore, Helen is intelligent and in the Odyssey, when, ten years after the fall of Troy, she is once again the wife of Menelaus and the two are entertaining the son of Ulysses in their home, Helen is clearly more quick-witted than her husband.
But how does Shakespeare present Helen in the one scene in which she appears? She appears as a vain, silly woman, with an empty head, unaware of (or uncaring about) what she has caused, and incapable, apparently, of making an intelligent remark.
Helen scarcely allows Pandarus the chance to make his arrangements with Paris and insists he sing for her, saying:
Let thy song be love.
This love will undo us all
O Cupid, Cupid, Cupid!
—Act III, scene i, lines 111-12
Cupid (Eros) is the god of love (see page 1-19).
This is Helen as viewed through the eyes of courtly love. By the convention of the troubadours, a woman need not deserve love, she need merely be a woman.
… be thou my Charon
The arrangements with Paris are made and Pandarus hurries back to bring Troilus and Cressida together. Troilus is waiting for him in a fever of impatience, and says:
I stalk about her door
Like a strange soul upon the Stygian banks
Staying for waftage. O, be thou my Charon,
And give me swift transportance to those fields
Where I may wallow in the lily beds
Proposed for the deserver.
—Act III, scene ii, lines 7-12
The Stygian banks are those that border the river Styx, which, according to the Greek myths, flows about Hades, separating it from the abode of mortal men. The spirits of dead men must wait upon those banks until a ferry, under the guidance of an underworld deity called Charon (see page I-68) ferried him across.
It is not to Hades itself that Troilus demands passage, of course, but to the Elysian Fields (see page I-13) where he can "wallow in the lily beds."
"As false as Cressid"
The lovers meet, with Pandarus licking his chops lecherously and doing everything but forcing them into embrace. The two young people make eloquent speeches to each other, protesting their love. Troilus swears his constancy, adding a new simile to the common comparisons for truth:
"As true as Troilus" shall crown up the verse
And sanctify the numbers.
—Act III, scene ii, lines 183-84
Cressida, similarly, makes up a series of similes for falseness, adding a new and climactic one, in case she should ever be unfaithful:
Yea, let them say, to stick the heart of falsehood,
"As false as Cressid."
—Act III, scene ii, lines 196-97
Pandarus too chimes in:
/ have taken such pains to bring you together,
let all pitiful goers-between be called to the world's end
after my name; call them all Pandars.
—Act III, scene ii, lines 201-3
All these wishes came true, as Shakespeare knew they would, for they were already current in his time, thanks to Chaucer's earlier tale. And, indeed, goers-between are still called Pandars (panders) to this day.
Let Diomedes.. .
But the young lovers have no sooner met and consummated their passion than the clouds begin to gather. In the Greek camp, remember, is Calchas, the renegade Trojan (the analogue of Chryses in the Iliad).
His services have been such that Agamemnon has always been willing to ask the Trojans to surrender Cressida in return for some Trojan who might be prisoner of the Greeks. They have always refused. But now the Greeks have captured Antenor and he is so important to the Trojans, says Calchas, that they will surely give up Cressida to have him back.
It is curious how this reverses the situation in the Iliad. In the Iliad Chryses the priest asks Agamemnon to return his daughter, Chryseis, who is held in the Greek camp. In Troilus and Cressida Calchas the priest asks Agamemnon to obtain his daughter, Cressida, who is held in the Trojan camp. In the Iliad Agamemnon refuses the request; in Troilus and Cressida he agrees.
Let Diomedes bear him,
And bring us Cressid hither; Calchas shall have
What he requests of us.
—Act III, scene iii, lines 30-32
Diomedes is the son of Tydeus, who was one of the seven against Thebes (see page I-57). Diomedes and the sons of the other fallen leaders swore to avenge that defeat. They were called the Epigoni ("after-born") and succeeded where their fathers had failed-taking and sacking Thebes.
Not long after that, Diomedes and his friend Sthenelus, the son of Capaneus (see page I-58), joined the expedition to Troy, leading the men of Argos.
In the Iliad, Diomedes is one of the most effective of the Greek warriors, third only to Achilles and Ajax. Indeed, in Book Five Diomedes wreaks havoc among the Trojans and not even Hector can stand against him. It is only in post-Homeric times that his role in the Troilus-Cressida story was invented.
… great Mars to faction
Diomedes is also taking the message to Hector that the Trojan's challenge has been accepted and that Ajax will fight with him.
With that done, Ulysses now tightens his net about Achilles. He suggests that the Greek princes pass the great hero by with slight regard, while he follows behind to explain to the startled Achilles that what is past is easily forgotten and that man's reputation depends on what he is doing, not on what he has done. It is Ajax who is now the darling of the army because he is going to fight Hector, and Achilles, who is doing nothing, is disregarded. Yet Achilles, he admits, is one
Whose glorious deeds, but in these fields of late,
Made emulous missions 'mongst the gods themselves
And drave great Mars to faction.
—Act III, scene iii, lines 187-89
In the Iliad the gods themselves take sides in the fighting. Most active on the Greek side are Juno and Minerva (who lost out in the contest before Paris) and Neptune (who had once built walls for Troy and then been defrauded of his pay). Most active on the Trojan side are Venus (who won the contest before Paris), her loving Mars, and Apollo (who had also been defrauded in the matter of the walls, but apparently didn't care).
At one point Mars actually joined in the spearing and killing as though he were human, until Diomedes, guided by Minerva, wounded him and drove him from the field.
The gods do not appear in Troilus and Cressida, and their fighting leaves behind but this one reference by Ulysses.
… one of Priam's daughters
Achilles says brusquely that he has his reasons for remaining out of the fight, whereupon Ulysses explains, dryly, that the reasons are not private:
'Tis known, Achilles, that you are in love
With one of Priam's daughters.
—Act III, scene iii, lines 192-93
The daughter in question is Polyxena. She does not appear in the Iliad, but later poets, anxious to add love and romance to Homer's austere tale, supplied her. Achilles was supposed to have fallen in love with her and to have been ready to betray the Greeks for her sake. Others write, variously, that she was indeed married to him eventually and that it was at the marriage rites that Achilles was slain by Paris (with Polyxena's treacherous help, according to some). Other versions are that she killed herself after he died, or was sacrificed at his burial rites.
Achilles writhes in embarrassment, but Ulysses says calmly that it is not at all surprising that his secret is known:
The providence that's in a watchful state
Knows almost every grain of Pluto's gold
—Act III, scene iii, lines 196-97
Pluto, as the god of the underworld, was naturally related to gold and to other forms of mineral wealth found in the ground. It was an easy transition to imagine Pluto to be the god of wealth. Actually, the personification of wealth was given the name "Plutus," a close variant of "Pluto."
In later myths Plutus was imagined to be the son of Ceres (Demeter). She is the harvest goddess and the reference to wealth in the grounds can refer to the richly growing gram as well as to the minerals. But then, Pluto (Hades) was the son-in-law of the same goddess, since it was he who carried off Proserpina, Ceres' daughter.
To be pedantically correct, one should speak only of Plutus in connection with wealth, but the mistake is a small one.
… young Pyrrhus. ..
Ulysses further turns the knife in the wound:
But it must grieve young Pyrrhus now at home,
When fame shall in our islands sound her trump,
And all the Greekish girls shall tripping sing,
"Great Hector's sister did Achilles win,
But our great Ajax bravely beat down him."
—Act III, scene iii, lines 209-13
Pyrrhus (also known as Neoptolemus) is Achilles' son, and his birth came about as follows.
Before the expedition to Troy began, Thetis had hidden her young son Achilles on the island of Scyrus, for she knew that if he went to Troy he would win deathless fame but die young. She preferred to have him live a quiet but long life. She had him disguised as a maiden at the court of the Scyran ruler.
The Greeks came searching for him in response to Calchas' warning that they could not take Troy without Achilles. Ulysses cleverly discovered which maiden was Achilles by presenting a display of jewels and finery, among which a sword was hidden. Where the real girls snatched at the jewels, Achilles seized the sword.
Apparently, Achilles also revealed himself to the other maidens in such a fashion as to father a son on one of them. That son, Pyrrhus, remained in Scyrus while Achilles was at Troy.
The accretion of myths and elaborate tales about the central pillar of Homer's story has made hash of the chronology of the affair.
For instance, it is at the wedding of Peleus and Thetis that the Apple of Discord is flung among the guests, and it is immediately afterward that Paris, still a herdsman, must choose among the goddesses. Paris must be a teen-ager at the time and Achilles is not yet born, so Paris must be at least fifteen years older than Achilles.
Eventually, Paris abducts Helen and the Trojan War starts. Now Achilles is old enough to go to war. Let us say he is fifteen at the start of the war and has already left a girl with child. By the time of the last year of the war, in which both the Iliad and Troilus and Cressida are set, Achilles is twenty-four and Paris is thirty-nine. Since Hector is the oldest son of Priam, he must be in his late forties at least.
This is bearable, perhaps, but now consider that Pyrrhus, at Achilles' death in the last year of the war, can scarcely be much more than ten years old. Yet according to the later legends, he is brought to Troy and fights with surpassing bravery in the final battles, to say nothing of being one of the crudest of the sackers at the end (see page I-209).
Such things did not bother those who listened to the tales, of course, and they don't really bother us, either, since the value of those tales does not depend on such mundane matters as precise chronology. However, it is a curiosity and so I mention it.
A valiant Greek …
Achilles is left shaken after Ulysses departs and Patroclus urges his great friend to return to the wars. (This Patroclus also does in the Iliad.) But Achilles cannot yet bring himself to do this. He suggests only that Ajax, after the combat, invite Hector and the other Trojan leaders to visit him under a flag of truce.
Meanwhile, Diomedes has brought Antenor to Troy. He is greeted by Paris and Aeneas and Paris says:
A valiant Greek, Aeneas; take his hand.
Witness the process of your speech, wherein
You told how Diomed, a whole week by days,
Did haunt you in the field.
—Act IV, scene i, lines 7-10
This reflects a passage in the Iliad, but one that is considerably softened in Aeneas' favor. In Book Five of the Iliad, the one dominated by the feats of Diomedes, Aeneas and Diomedes meet in the field and the latter has much the better of it. With a great boulder, Diomedes strikes down Aeneas and would surely have killed him except that first Venus and then Apollo swooped down to save him.
… Anchises' life
Aeneas is all chivalrous graciousness, in the best tradition of medieval gallantry, and says:
Now, by Anchises' life,
—Act IV, scene i, lines 21-22
Anchises is Aeneas' father. Venus fell in love with the handsome young Anchises and had Aeneas by him. She made Anchises promise, however, that he would never reveal the fact that he was the goddess' lover. Incautiously, Anchises let out the secret and was in consequence paralyzed, blinded, or killed (depending on which version of the story you read).
Anchises was far better known to Shakespeare's audience than one might expect from the Greek myths alone. He is the subject of a dramatic story in Vergil's Aeneid. The aged Anchises cannot walk (this fits in with the suggestion that he was paralyzed because of his indiscretion concerning Venus) and was therefore helpless at the time of the sack and destruction of Troy. Aeneas, therefore, bore him out of the burning city on his back, thus setting a greatly admired example of filial love, a love that is reflected backward by having Aeneas swear by his father's life.
By Venus' hand …
Aeneas goes on to combine hospitality and martial threat in courtly manner:
By Venus' hand 1 swear,
No man alive can love in such a sort
The thing he means to kill
—Act IV, scene i, lines 22-24
The mention of Venus' hand makes sense in light of the events in Book Five of the Iliad. When Aeneas lies felled by Diomedes' boulder, sure to be killed if the gods did not intervene, Venus (Aeneas' mother) flew down from Olympus to save him. The furious Diomedes cast his spear even at the goddess and wounded her in the hand. She fled, screaming, and it was only when the much more powerful Apollo took her place that Diomedes was forced to retire. Thus, Aeneas was swearing by that part of his mother which had been hurt on his behalf.
… Some say the Genius
On the very morning after their night together, the news comes to Troilus that he must give up Cressida and send her to the Greek camp.
Brokenhearted, Troilus and Cressida vow eternal fidelity. Troilus gives Cressida a sleeve (an arm cover which in medieval times was a separate article of clothing, not sewn to shirt or robe) and Cressida returns a glove.
The deputation waits outside for Cressida to be turned over to them, and when Aeneas calls out impatiently, Troilus says:
Hark! You are called. Some say the Genius
Cries so to him that instantly must die.
—Act IV, scene iv, lines 50-51
To the Romans, every man had a personal spirit (the equivalent of what we would call a guardian angel) which they called a "Genius." Every woman, similarly, had her "Juno," and Genius may be a masculine form of Juno. To this day, we speak of a man who is supremely gifted as a "genius," though we forget that by this we mean that the divine spirit is speaking through him with particular effectiveness.
Hosts of superstitions naturally arose concerning these Geniuses. It would warn the person it guarded of imminent death, for instance, as Troilus says here.
Fie, fie upon her
Cressida is brought to the Greek camp, where she is suddenly a different person. She has been flirtatious and a little hypocritical with Troilus, teasing and a little ribald with Pandarus, but nothing so bad. In the Greek camp, however, she is suddenly a gay wanton, joking with the Greek leaders and eager to kiss them all-even Nestor.
Only the clear-eyed Ulysses refuses, insulting her openly, and saying to Nestor after she leaves:
Fie, fie upon her!
There's language in her eye, her cheek, her lip;
Nay, her foot speaks. Her wanton spirits look out
At every joint and motive of her body.
—Act IV, scene v, lines 54-57
Without warning, Cressida is pictured as an utterly worthless woman.
Why so sudden a change? Surely there must have been room to express Cressida's side of the matter in at least one speech. She is torn away from home, and from love at the very moment of that love's height, with only her father at her side, frightened, uncertain, weak. Chaucer, in his version, presents Cressida's dilemma far more sympathetically and lets us pity her in her fall. Shakespeare only lets us despise her.
Might we speculate that Shakespeare is being savage to Cressida and showing her in the worst possible fashion because he wishes to make a point outside the play?
The play seems to have been performed first in 1602, and Shakespeare may have been writing it in 1600-1. Is there a possibility, then, that Shakespeare was influenced by a dramatic event that took place in the time when he was writing the play?
Shakespeare's patron, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton (see page I-3), with whom Shakespeare may have been on the closest possible terms, was himself a member of the faction of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex.
About the time that Shakespeare was beginning his career as a dramatist, Essex had become the favorite and lover of Queen Elizabeth I (who was thirty-three years older than he was).
Essex longed for a successful military career, though the sensible Queen saw that although he might be suitable for a lover, he was not suitable for a general. In 1596, however, he finally persuaded her to allow him to lead an expedition to Spain (with which England was still carrying on a desultory war, a war of which the defeat of the Armada in 1588 had been the high point). Southampton accompanied him on this expedition.
The expedition had a certain success, for the city of Cadiz was seized and sacked. Elizabeth I did not consider the results of the expedition to have been worth its expense, however-she was always a most careful lady with a shilling-and Essex did not receive the credit that he (and his faction, including Southampton and, presumably, Shakespeare) felt he deserved.
Essex, however, became more of a war hawk than ever, having tasted the delights of victory. In 1599 he talked the reluctant Elizabeth (who by now was beginning to feel he was becoming entirely too ambitious to be a safe subject) into letting him lead an expedition into Ireland to put down a rebellion there. Again Southampton left with him, but this time Elizabeth called him back, to his deep discomfiture.
The Essex faction had high hopes for the Irish adventure, and Shakespeare, writing Henry V while Essex was in Ireland, refers to the expedition most flatteringly in the chorus that precedes Act V of that play (see page II-508).
The expedition, however, proved a complete fiasco and Essex returned to England in absolute fury at what he, and his faction, believed to be the machinations of the anti-Essex group at the English court. It seemed to them that they had deliberately intrigued against Essex to prevent him from achieving military renown.
In desperation, Essex began to plot rebellion. Southampton arranged to have Shakespeare's play Richard 11 revived. It dealt with the deposition of an English monarch (see page II-304) and Elizabeth did not miss the point. Both Southampton and Essex were arrested, tried for treason, and convicted in February 1601. Essex was, indeed, executed on February 25, but Southampton's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and, after Elizabeth's death in 1603, he was released.
It is tempting to think that Shakespeare wrote Troilus and Cressida under the deep shadow of the misfortunes of Essex and Southampton.
To him, the expedition against Troy may have seemed very much like Essex's expeditions against Cadiz and, later, against Ireland. These expeditions were fought for what seemed to Shakespeare, perhaps, to be a most ungrateful and worthless woman who was oblivious to the sufferings of her faithful servants and whom he may have envisioned as amusing herself with Essex's rival, Sir Walter Raleigh, while the faithful Essex was suffering in the field. Could this be why Shakespeare draws Helen as so contemptible (see page I-111)?
The factions that disrupted the Greek effort on the fields of Troy were magnified by Shakespeare, perhaps as a bitter satire on the factions at the English court that had, in the view of the Essex faction, stabbed Essex in the back.
And Cressida, of course, would then be another aspect of Elizabeth- that false woman who had betrayed her lover and sent him to the gallows. Could Shakespeare have been working on the fourth act just when the execution of Essex came to pass (with Southampton still in prison)? Could he have turned to his pen for revenge on Cressida, making no effort whatever to explain her or excuse her? Did he want her defection to be as bare and as disgraceful as possible so that Ulysses' "Fie, fie upon her!" might reflect as strongly as possible upon the Queen?
The youngest son…
At last we are ready for the duel between Hector and Ajax. Since Ajax is a relative of Hector's (here again is the confusion between Ajax and Teucer) it is agreed that the fight is not to be to the death.
While they prepare, Agamemnon asks the name of a sad Trojan on the other side. Ulysses answers:
The youngest son of Priam, a true knight,
Not yet mature, yet matchless …
—Act IV, scene v, lines 96-97
It is Troilus being described here, in the very highest terms. The praise has nothing directly to do with the play, and one cannot help but wonder if Shakespeare intends it to refer to the betrayed and executed Essex; if it is his epitaph for that rash person.
This is an example, by the way, of the curious way in which in Troilus and Cressida the combatants on either side don't seem to know each other until they are introduced, although they have presumably been fighting each other for years.
This is true in the Iliad as well. In Book Three of that poem, when Paris and Menelaus are getting ready for their duel, Priam and his councilors sit on the wall and view the Greek army. Helen is there too, and Priam has her identify several of the Greek champions: Agamemnon, Ulysses, Ajax. Surely after nine years of war Priam ought to know these people. Perhaps the war was much shorter in the earliest legends (and, for all we know, in truth) but grew longer to accommodate the numerous tales added to the primitive story by later poets-and perhaps Homer's tale was tailored to correspond, unavoidably leaving inconsistencies as a result.
Not Neoptolemus …
The duel between Ajax and Hector is fought and ends in a draw and in a graceful speech by the chivalrous Hector, as does the similar duel in Book Seven of the Iliad (where, however, Hector clearly gets the worse of the exchanges).
Ajax, who is not very good at speaking, manages to express his disappointment at not having beaten Hector definitely.
To which Hector, rather vaingloriously, replies:
Not Neoptolemus so mirable,
On whose bright crest Fame with her loud'st "Oyes"
Cries, "This is he!" could promise to himself
A thought of added honor torn from Hector.
—Act IV, scene v, lines 141-44
The only Neoptolemus in the Greek myths was the son of Achilles (see page I-116), who was also known as Pyrrhus, meaning "ruddy," the latter possibly being a nickname. This is possibly an anachronism on Shakespeare's part, for Hector could scarcely be speaking of a boy who had not yet appeared in the war-or else it is Achilles who is being referred to rather than his son.
/ knew thy grandsire.. .
The Trojan leaders are then invited to the Greek camp under conditions of truce (as Achilles had asked, see page I-116). There they greet each other with careful courtesy, and old Nestor says to Hector:
I knew thy grandsire,
And once fought with him.
—Act IV, scene v, lines 195-96
Hector's grandfather was Laomedon, who built the walls of Troy. According to legend, he built them with the aid of Poseidon and Apollo, who were condemned to earthly labor by Zeus for their rebellion against him (which Thetis and Briareus thwarted, see page I-86). When the walls were complete, Laomedon refused the gods their pay and in revenge they sent a sea monster to ravage the Trojan coast.
The Trojans had to sacrifice maidens periodically to the monster, and eventually Laomedon's own daughter, Hesione, was exposed to him. She was rescued by Hercules. It was when Laomedon broke his word again and refused certain horses which he had promised in return for the rescue, that Hercules sacked the city and took Hesione captive. He also killed Laomedon and all but one of his sons. The sole surviving son was Priam.
Nestor is not recorded as having fought with Laomedon (either for him or against him, in either meaning of the phrase). There is, however, an odd coincidence here. Hercules is also recorded as having made war against Neleus, Nestor's father, to have slain Neleus and all but one of his sons and to have placed the one survivor, Nestor, on the throne of Pylos. In this respect, Priam and Nestor had a good deal in common.
… your Greekish embassy
Hector also greets Ulysses (who has cleverly cut off what promises to be a flood of Nestorian reminiscence) and says:
Ah, sir, there's many a Greek and Troyan dead,
Since first I saw yourself and Diomed
In llion, on your Greekish embassy.
—Act IV, scene v, lines 213-15
This represents a point of difference from the Iliad. Before the fighting began, the Greeks had sent Ulysses and Menelaus (not Diomedes) to Troy, under a flag of truce, to demand the return of Helen. This is referred to in Book Three of the Iliad.
It is, however, very easy to associate Diomedes with Ulysses, for they often acted in concert in the legends about Troy. In the Iliad it is Ulysses and Diomedes who act in concert in Book Ten to kill Rhesus the Thracian.
In later myths they are also joined. Thus, the two together sneak into Troy itself in order to steal the Palladium, an image of Minerva (Athena), who bore the alternate name of Pallas, after which the object, holy to her, was named. This was supposed to guard the city and it was not until it was stolen that the city became vulnerable.
Tomorrow do I meet thee …
As the fourth act ends, it would seem that a well-rounded climax is clearly being prepared. Troilus approaches Ulysses to ask where Calchas' tent might be located. Ulysses has shown that he admires Troilus and despises Cressida, and it is no great feat to guess that he will be the instrument whereby Troilus will learn of Cressida's infidelity.
As for Achilles, Ulysses' plan has worked wonderfully. He is a new man and when Hector twits him for not fighting, he says:
Dost thou entreat me, Hector?
Tomorrow do I meet thee, jell as death;
—Act IV, scene v, lines 267-68
What, then, ought we to expect in the fifth act? Troilus will learn of Cressida's faithlessness, we can be sure, and will go raving out on the field to avenge himself on the Greeks. Perhaps he is to be killed by Diomedes, perhaps by Achilles-but he must die. Troilus dies, in the Greek legends that deal with him, before Achilles' spear, and of what dramatic value is it to survive under the conditions of the tragedy as outlined in this play?
Achilles must also kill Hector, since that is an absolute necessity; all versions of the Troy legend agree there. In the Iliad Achilles returns to the fight only after Hector has killed Patroclus, but perhaps Shakespeare might not have needed that part of Homer's plot. After all, Shakespeare's presentation of Patroclus scarcely fits the notion of that effeminate as a doughty warrior. (Homer's presentation of Patroclus was quite different.) Shakespeare might well have felt it would be more satisfactory to have Ulysses' plan stand as the spring that set Achilles to fighting again.
Then, Cressida must die too. Perhaps by her own hand out of contrition or perhaps, in shame, after being cast off by a disgusted, or sated, or callous Diomedes.
Indeed, a century before Troilus and Cressida was written, a Scottish poet named Robert Henryson had written a continuation of Chaucer's tale and called it Testament of Cresseid. It was so close an imitation of Chaucer that for a while it was considered authentically Chaucerian and in 1532 was actually included in an edition of Chaucer's works.
In the Testament Diomedes grows tired of Cressida and casts her off. Cressida rails against Venus and Cupid and is stricken by them with leprosy in punishment. Her face and body utterly altered by this loathsome disease, she begs by the roadside, and Troilus, magnificent on his horse, passes her and tosses her a coin, without recognizing her.
It is a crude denouement, and a savage one, and we could hope that the gentle Shakespeare might never have felt tempted to adopt it, but it was popular and shows what an audience would like in the way of dramatic retribution.
What does Shakespeare really do, then?
Very little, really. The fifth act falls apart and Troilus and Cressida, which is tight enough and sensible enough through the first four acts, becomes a rather unsatisfactory play as a result of the fifth act. While it is not my intention in this book to make literary judgments, it appears that the fifth act is so poor that some critics have suggested that Shakespeare did not write it.
We can imagine such a possibility. Suppose that Essex's execution had taken place while Shakespeare was writing Troilus and Cressida. He might have written the fourth act savagely, putting Cressida in her place, and then have found the whole thing too unpleasant to continue. If he abandoned the play, some other member of the actors' company of which Shakespeare was a member may have worked up an ending for the play; one that could not match what had gone before, naturally.
Or perhaps we don't have to go that far. It is not absolutely essential to absolve Shakespeare of every inferior passage in his plays. He may have been the greatest writer who ever lived but he was still a man and not a god. He could still write hurriedly; he could still write halfheartedly. And with Essex's execution burning him, he may have botched the last act himself.
.. a letter from Queen Hecuba
Just as the fifth act begins there is a sudden retreat from the situation as it had been developed at the end of the fourth act. Suddenly Thersites delivers a letter to Achilles, who reads it and says:
My sweet Patroclus, I am thwarted quite
From my great purpose in tomorrow's battle.
Here is a letter from Queen Hecuba,
A token from her daughter, my fair love,
Both taxing me and gaging me to keep
An oath that I have sworn. 1 will not break it.
—Act V, scene i, lines 38-43
So all of Ulysses' careful planning, all his wisdom and slyness, go suddenly for nothing, and when Achilles is brought to battle it will be in Homer's fashion. In that case, why should Shakespeare have introduced Ulysses' plot at all? It is almost as though another hand, taking up the fifth act, having no idea as to what Shakespeare intended, fell back on Homer in default of anything else.
… Ariachne's broken woof…
Meanwhile Ulysses has guided Troilus to Calchas' tent, where the young man quickly sees that Cressida is false. The conversation is one long, shallow flirtation of Cressida with Diomedes. She even gives him as a token the very sleeve that Troilus had given her.
The brokenhearted Troilus tries to chop logic and convince himself that he does not really see his Cressida; that there are two Cressidas. One is Diomedes' Cressida, a faithless, worthless woman; and the other, secure in his own mind, is his ideal Cressida, faithful and true. Yet he must admit that this separation is not real, that somehow the two are one:
And yet the spacious breadth of this division
Admits no orifex for a point as subtle
As Ariachne's broken woof to enter.
—Act V, scene ii, lines 147-49
Arachne (not "Ariachne," a change Shakespeare makes to save the meter, apparently) was a Lydian woman so proud of her skill as a weaver that she challenged Minerva (Athena) herself to compete with her. In the competition, Arachne produced a tapestry into which those myths that were uncomplimentary to the gods were woven. When she was done, Minerva could find no fault with it and petulantly tore it to shreds. Arachne tried to hang herself, but Minerva, somewhat remorsefully, saved her life, changed the girl into a spider and the rope into a strand of spider web.
Troilus is saying that not even the finest strand of a spider's web can really be fit between the two Cressidas he is trying to conjure up. He realizes that there is only one Cressida and that he has been betrayed.
… The fierce Polydamas
And now suddenly the play explodes into a battle scene, something which the Iliad is fiercely crammed with. It begins with Hector arming himself for the fray despite the pleas of his wife Andromache, his sister Cassandra, and his father Priam. Troilus, on the other hand, urges him into the battle with savage forcefulness, for he longs for revenge on Diomedes.
The tide of battle goes against the Greeks to begin with and Agamemnon comes on stage to rally his men:
Renew, renew! The fierce Polydamas
Hath beat down Menon;
—Act V, scene v, lines 6-7
Polydamas appears briefly in the Iliad as a friend of Hector's, one who counsels moderation. In Book Twelve, when the Trojan fortunes are beginning to ride high, Polydamas cautions against cocksureness and predicts the end may be disaster. Trojans are winning victories because Achilles is not fighting, but what if he rejoins the battle?
It is to him that Hector makes a famous rejoinder. In quite an un-Homeric mood, he derides all the omens, all the worries about whether birds are flying on the right or on the left, and says: "A divine message? The best divine message is: 'Defend your country!'."
Menon, whom Polydamas has "beat down," does not appear in the Iliad, nor do most of the other names that Agamemnon calls out, recounting the tale of defeats in sonorous syllables.
One name, however, perhaps by accident, is memorable, though he does not appear in the Iliad. Agamemnon speaks of:
… Palamedes Sore hurt and bruised.
—Act V, scene v, lines 13-14
Palamedes appears in the later myths as a man almost as shrewd as Ulysses himself. When the heroes were gathering to go to Troy, Menelaus and Palamedes traveled to Ithaca to urge Ulysses to come. Ulysses had learned from an oracle that if he went he would not return for twenty years and then penniless and alone, so he pretended to be mad. He guided a plow along the seashore, sowing salt instead of seed. Palamedes watched the display cynically, and suddenly placed Ulysses' one-year-old son, Telemachus, in the path of the plow. Ulysses turned it aside and his pretense of madness was broken.
Ulysses never forgave Palamedes and eventually engineered his death by having him framed for treason. This happened before the Iliad opens and there is no hint concerning it in Homer's tale.
This speech of Agamemnon's reflects the situation in Book Fifteen of the Iliad. Achilles obdurately refuses to fight; a number of the Greek chieftains, including Agamemnon, Diomedes, and Ulysses, have been wounded, and the Trojan fortunes are at their peak. The Greeks have fallen back to their very ships and the Trojans, with Hector leading them on, are bringing the torches with which to set those ships on fire.
Patroclus ta'en …
But in the course of Agamemnon's cry, however, one significant phrase creeps in:
Patroclus ta'en or slain.
—Act V, scene v, line 13
Thus, in four words, is masked the most dramatic portion of the Iliad. Achilles, having brutally rejected Agamemnon's offer of amends in Book Nine, forfeits the side of right and must, in his turn, begin to pay.
That payment comes in Book Sixteen, when Patroclus, horror-stricken at the Greek defeat and at the imminent burning of their ships, begs Achilles to let him enter the fight. Achilles agrees. He allows Patroclus to wear Achilles' own armor, but warns him merely to drive the Trojans from the ships and not to attempt to assault the city.
Patroclus does well. The Trojans are driven back, but the excitement of battle causes him to forget Achilles' advice. He pursues the fleeing Trojans, is stopped by Hector, and killed.
… bear Patroclus' body…
Agamemnon's remark that Patroclus is either taken or slain is soon settled in favor of the latter alternative. Nestor enters, saying:
Go, bear Patroclus' body to Achilles,
—Act V, scene v, line 17
Again, in a few words, many dramatic deeds in the Iliad are slurred over. In Book Seventeen there is a gigantic struggle over Patroclus' body. Hector manages to strip the dead man of the armor of Achilles, but the Greeks save the body itself in a fight in which Menelaus and Ajax do particularly well. In the Iliad it is Menelaus who sends the message to Achilles, not Nestor, but then it is Nestor's son, Antilochus (who does not appear in Troilus and Cressida), who actually carries the message.
… Great Achilles Events follow quickly. Ulysses comes onstage, crying:
O courage, courage, princes! Great Achilles
Is arming, weeping, cursing, vowing vengeance!
Patroclus' wounds have roused his drowsy blood,
—Act V, scene v, lines 30-32
So it happens in the Iliad. Achilles, paid back for his intransigence, realizes too late that he has sulked in his tent too long. In the Iliad, however, he doesn't arm so quickly. He has no armor, for he had given it to Patroclus, who had lost it to Hector.
A new set of armor must be forged for Achilles by Vulcan himself, something to which Book Eighteen of the Iliad is devoted. In Book Nineteen there is the formal reconciliation of Agamemnon and Achilles, and only then, in Book Twenty, does Achilles join the battle.
.. . I'll hunt thee for thy hide
In Books Twenty, Twenty-one, and Twenty-two, Achilles is at war, and none can stand before him. Indeed, in those three books, no Greek warrior but Achilles is mentioned. It is as though he, a single man, fights alone against the Trojans (with occasional help from one god or another) and defeats them.
In Book Twenty-two, when the Trojan army has fled within the walls of Troy in fear of the raging Achilles, Hector at last comes out alone to meet him in the climactic battle of the Iliad. But the issue is never hi doubt.
The onrush of Achilles daunts even Hector, and at the last moment he turns to flee, trying to find his way safe through one of the city gates. Achilles heads him off and three times they run completely round the city (which can only be village-size by modern standards).
Only then does Hector turn, perforce, to face Achilles, and is killed!
None of this can appear in Troilus and Cressida. The medieval poets, with their pro-Trojan/Roman prejudice, had to treat Hector much more gently, and Shakespeare inherits that attitude from them.
He has the two champions fight indeed, but it is Achilles who has to fall back, weakening. Hector says, gallantly,
Pause, if thou wilt.
—Act V, scene vi, line 14
And Achilles goes off, muttering that he is out of practice.
Yet something must be done to account for the fact that Hector does indeed die at the hands of Achilles, so Shakespeare makes the former do a most un-Hectorish thing. Hector meets an unnamed Greek in rich armor and decides he wants it. When the Greek tries to run, Hector calls out:
Wilt thou not, beast, abide?
Why then, fly on, I'll hunt thee for thy hide.
—Act V, scene vi, lines 30-31
Nowhere in Homer, nor anywhere else in this play, does Hector give anyone reason to think he would ever call a foeman "beast" or take the attitude that war is a hunt, with other men playing the role of animals, and it is partly because of this that some critics doubt that Shakespeare wrote the last act. And yet it is necessary for Hector to do something of this sort, in order that he might earn the retribution that now falls upon him.
… Troy, sink down
Hector catches his prey and kills him. It is late in the day and Hector decides the day's fight is over. Perhaps he is helped to that decision by his eagerness to try on the new armor he has won. At any rate, he takes off his own armor, stands unprotected-and at that moment, Achilles and a contingent of his Myrmidons appear on the scene.
Hector cries out that he is unarmed, but Achilles orders his men to kill, and then says, in grim satisfaction:
So, Ilion, fall thou next! Come, Troy, sink down!
Here lies thy heart, thy sinews, and thy bone.
—Act V, scene viii, lines 11-12
For Achilles to kill Hector in this way is unthinkable in a Homeric context and must strike any lover of the Iliad as simple sacrilege. But there it is-the medieval pro-Trojan, pro-Hector view.
… wells and Niobes. ..
Troilus bears the news of Hector's death to the Trojan army:
Go in to Troy, and say there Hector's dead.
There is a word will Priam turn to stone,
Make wells and Niobes of the maids and wives,
—Act V, scene x, lines 17-19
Niobe was a Theban queen, a daughter of Tantalus (see page I-13), whose pride in her six sons and six daughters led her to boast herself the superior of the goddess Latona (Leto), who had only one of each. La-tona's children, however, happened to be Apollo and Diana.
To avenge the taunt, Apollo and Diana shot down all twelve children, the twelfth in Niobe's arms. She wept continuously after that, day after day, until the gods, in pity, turned her to stone, with a spring of tears still bubbling out and trickling down.
… no more to say
This essentially ends the play. As Troilus says:
Hector is dead; there is no more to say.
—Act V, scene x, line 22
To be sure, Troilus promises revenge on the Greeks and on Achilles particularly, but that is just talk. There can be no revenge. Troy must fall.
Nor has Troilus revenge on Diomedes or Cressida. Diomedes still lives and still has Cressida.
The fifth act is an ending of sorts, but it is not the ending toward which the first four acts were heading.
5. The Life of Timon Of Athens
Shakespeare wrote a narrative poem and three plays set in the legendary days of Greek history. He wrote only one play that was based- in a very tenuous way-in the days of Greece's greatest glory, the fifth century b.c.
This century was the Golden Age of Athens, when she beat off giant Persia and built a naval empire, when she had great leaders like Themis-tocles, Aristides, and Pericles; great dramatists like Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes; great sculptors like Phidias; great scientists like Anaxagoras; great philosophers like Socrates and Plato.
But Shakespeare chose to mark the time by writing a play, Timon of Athens, that is generally considered one of his least satisfactory. Many critics consider it to be an unfinished play, one that Shakespeare returned to on and off, never patching it to his liking, and eventually abandoning it.
… the Lord Timon.. .
The play opens in the house of a rich man. A Poet, a Painter, a Jeweler, and a Merchant all enter. They are given no names but are identified only by their professions. The Jeweler has a jewel and the Merchant says:
O pray let's see't. For the Lord Timon, sir?
—Act I, scene i, line 13
The Lord Timon is the owner of the house; the center toward which all these and others are tending.
Timon is, apparently, a historical character who lived in Athens during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.-eight centuries after the Trojan War), so that we may set the opening of the play in the last quarter of the fifth century b.c.
Timon's fame to his contemporaries and near successors, such as Aristophanes and Plato, lay entirely in the fact that he was a misanthrope. In fact, he was referred to as "Timon Misanthropes" ("Timon the ManHater"). He lived by himself, professed to hate mankind and to detest human society. To the sociable Greeks, to whom conversation and social intercourse were the breath of life, there was something monstrous in this. Plutarch, in his "Life of Mark Antony," describes how, at a low point in his career, Antony decided for a while to imitate Timon and withdraw from human society. Shakespeare may have come across this while working on his play Antony and Cleopatra (see page I-370) and conceived the idea of writing a play centered on the condition of misanthropy. And, indeed, Timon of Athens seems to have been written immediately after Antony and Cleopatra, in 1606 or 1607.
The senators of Athens …
Additional men enter and the Poet identifies them, saying:
The senators of Athens, happy men!
—Act I, scene i, line 40
Throughout the play Shakespeare treats Athens, with whose social and political life he is unacquainted, as though it were Rome, a city with which he was much more at home. Athens had no senators or anything quite equivalent to the well-known legislators of Rome. Yet Shakespeare, throughout the play, has the rulers of Athens act like the stern, irascible, grasping Roman aristocrats, rather than like the gay, impulsive, weathercock democrats they really were.
Indeed, so anxious does Shakespeare appear to be to deal with Rome rather than with Athens, that almost every character in the play has a Roman name. This is quite out of the question in reality, of course. No Roman name was ever heard of in Athens of Timon's time. Rome itself had never been heard of. If Rome had forced itself on the attention of any Athenian of the time, it would have seemed only a barbarian Italian village of utterly no account.
Feigned Fortune.. .
But Timon is not yet Misanthropes. He is, at the beginning of the play, an extremely wealthy man of almost unbelievable benevolence. He seeks for excuses to give money away and every man there is trying to get his share.
Yet the Poet, at least, is not entirely fooled by the superficial appearance of wealth and happiness that surrounds Timon. He speaks of his poetry to the Painter, and describes its content by saying:
Sir, I have upon a high and pleasant hill
Feigned Fortune to be throned.
—Act I, scene i, lines 63-64
The goddess of fortune (Fortuna to the Romans and Tyche to the Greeks) became popular in the period that followed Greece's Golden Age. Alexander the Great had come and gone like lightning across the skies, bringing Greece vast conquests and vast derangements. The individual Greek cities came to be helpless in the grip of generals and armies; culture decayed as materialism grew and the rich grew richer while the poor grew poorer.
Fortune was a deity of chance and was just right for the age following Alexander the Great; an age which saw the passing of youth and confidence, and in which good and evil seemed to be handed out at random and without any consideration of desert.
The Poet explains that Fortune beckons benignly and Timon mounts the hill, carrying with him all those he befriends. But Fortune is fickle and Timon may be kicked down the hill by her. In that case, none of the friends he took up the hill with him will follow him down.
Shakespeare is, in this way, preparing the audience for the consideration of what it was that made Timon a misanthrope.
Plutarch says only that "… for the unthankfulness of those he had done good unto and whom he took to be his friends, he was angry with all men and would trust no man."
Another similar treatment of Timon at much greater length was by a Greek writer, Lucian, born in Syria about a.d. 120. He had written twenty-six Dialogues of the Gods, in which he poked satirical fun at conventional religion, but so pleasantly that even the pious must have found it difficult to take offense.
His best essay is considered to be "Timon," in which he uses the theme of a man who has become misanthropic through the ingratitude of others to poke fun at Jupiter and at Wealth. He expands on the hint in Plutarch and makes Timon out to have been, originally, a fantastically generous man who beggared himself for his friends and then found none who would help him.
Shakespeare adopted this notion, but removed all the fun and humor in Lucian's dialogue and replaced it with savagery.
… a dog
Timon himself now enters, and moves among all those present with affability and generosity, giving to all who ask, denying no one. He accepts their rather sickening sycophancy with good humor, but accepts it.
There is only one sour note and that is when the philosopher Apemantus enters. He is churlish and his every speech is a curt insult The Painter strikes back with:
Y'are a dog.
—Act I, scene i, line 202
This is not a mere insult, but, in a way, a statement of fact, if a slightly anachronistic one.
About 400 b.c. a philosopher named Antisthenes taught that virtue was more important than riches or comfort and that, indeed, poverty was welcome, for wealth and luxury were corrupting. One of his pupils was Diogenes, who lived near Corinth about 350 b.c. and who carried Antisthenes' teachings to an extreme.
Diogenes lived in the greatest possible destitution to show that people needed no belongings to be virtuous. He loudly derided all the polite social customs of the day, denouncing them as hypocrisy.
Diogenes and those who followed him made ordinary men uncomfortable. These grating philosophers seemed to bark and snarl at all that made life pleasant. They were called kynikos ("doglike") because of their snarling, and this became "cynic" in English.
Diogenes accepted the name and became "Diogenes the Cynic." Apemantus is pictured in this play as a Cynic a century before the term became fashionable, and when the Painter calls him a dog, he is really dismissing him as a Cynic.
Apemantus' insults extend even to Timon. When the Poet tries to defend Timon, Apemantus considers it mere flattery and says, crushingly:
He that loves to be flattered
is worthy o'th'flatterer.
—Act I, scene i, lines 229-30
This is the first clear statement that Timon, despite appearances, is not entirely to be admired. He is extremely generous, but is it in order to do good, or in order to be flattered and fawned upon? There is something so public, ostentatious, and indiscriminate in his benevolences that they grow suspect.
A messenger comes in with the announcement of new visitors;
Tis Alcibiades and some twenty horse,
—Act I, scene i, line 246
Alcibiades is the only character in the play who has an important role in Athenian history. He was an Athenian general of noble birth, handsome and brilliant, who in the end turned traitor and did Athens infinite harm.
He is brought into the play because Plutarch uses him as an occasion for an example of Timon's misanthropy. The one man Timon made much of was Alcibiades, and when asked why that was, Timon answered, harshly, "I do it because I know that one day he shall do great mischief unto the Athenians."
This is rather better and more specific insight than individuals are likely to have, and in all probability the story is apocryphal and was invented long after Alcibiades had demonstrated the harm he did Athens.
… Plutus, the god of gold
Timon is giving a feast that night as he is wont to do. In fact, one Lord who means to partake of it says of him:
He pours it out. Plutus,
the god of gold, Is but his steward …
—Act I, scene i, lines 283-84
Plutus is related, by name and origin, to Pluto, the king of the underworld, and represents the wealth of the soil, both mineral and vegetable (see page I-115).
The later Greeks considered Plutus to be a son of Fortune, who had been blinded by Jupiter so that he gives his gifts indiscriminately. In Lu-cian's dialogue, Wealth is also pictured as blind and as giving his gifts to anyone he happens to bump into. Thus, once again, Timon's wealth is associated with chance and its slippery nature made plain.
What's more, Timon will give, but won't receive. He says as much to Ventidius, one of his guests at the feast. Ventidius tries to thank him for favors received, but Timon says:
You mistake my love;
I gave it freely ever, and there's none
Can truly say he gives, if he receives.
—Act I, scene ii, lines 9-11
In this respect, though, Timon seems to aspire to be a god, since surely only a god can always give, never receive. Furthermore, Timon would deprive others of the act of giving, which he apparently considers the supreme pleasure. Would he reserve the supreme pleasure exclusively for himself?
It is almost as though Timon were divorcing himself from mankind through the unique act of giving without receiving. He will not condescend to be human and in that respect he (so to speak) hates mankind. Perhaps Shakespeare meant to show (if he could have polished the play into final form) that a man does not become a misanthrope unless he has been one all along. Perhaps he meant to show that Timon did not pass from benevolence to misanthropy but merely changed from one form of misanthropy to another.
A thousand talents. ..
The banquet ends in a general donation to everyone by Timon, so that cynical Apemantus guesses that Timon will be going bankrupt soon. The guess is correct and even conservative, for though Timon doesn't know it (scorning, like a god, to inquire into the status of his wealth) he is already deep in debt.
His creditors (whom his steward has long been holding off) will be restrained no longer, and not long after the banquet Timon is told the situation. All astonished, he finds out that all his land is sold, all his cash is spent, all his assets gone. Yet he will not accept the reproaches of his steward but is cheerfully confident he can borrow from his many adoring friends.
He sends his servants to various people who are in debt to him for past favors and tells them to ask, casually, for large sums. The steward, Flavius, he sends to the senators so that the city treasury may reward him for money he had in the past given it. He tells Flavius:
Bid 'em send o'th'instant
A thousand talents to me.
—Act II, scene ii, lines 208-9
A talent was a huge sum of money. It is equal to nearly sixty pounds of silver, and by modern standards it is equivalent to about two thousand dollars. What Timon was so cavalierly asking for "o'th'instant" was two million dollars. The city of Athens could not possibly have made available that sum of money to a private person "o'th'instant."
The ridiculous size of the sum requested is sometimes taken as an indication that Shakespeare did not know how much a talent was worth, and either hadn't done the necessary research by the time he abandoned the play, or, if he had, never got around to changing the figures throughout.
What is even more likely to be a mistake appears a little later, as scene after scene passes in which Timon's servants vainly try to borrow money from those whom earlier the once rich man had so loaded with benefits. Thus, Lucius, one of those so benefited, says, incredulously, to one of the pleading servants:
/ know his lordship is but merry with me.
He cannot want fifty five hundred talents.
—Act III, scene ii, lines 40-41
He cannot indeed. That would be some 160 tons of silver. A private person of Timon's time simply could not have had so much wealth to hand out on the moment. Perhaps Shakespeare was dithering between fifty talents and five hundred talents, wondering if the latter was too great, and, having written in both, never got around to erasing one or the other by the time he had abandoned the play.
It is tempting to despise those whom Timon had so benefited and who were now so lost to gratitude. But let us be reasonable. Timon had forced the benefits on his friends, eager to demonstrate godlike generosity. Should those friends now deliver their money to someone who had displayed such abysmal lack of understanding of personal finance? Whatever they gave him would surely be lost forever and at once.
Naturally, Timon did not look at it that way at all. His pretensions to superhuman wealth and benevolence had been punctured and he found himself in a towering rage of frustration and humiliation as a result.
Meanwhile, Alcibiades is having an argument of his own with the Athenian Senate. Some soldier is under sentence of death for murder and Alcibiades is pleading for a reversal of the sentence on the grounds that death came as a result of an honorable duel fought in anger that had come about because the man under sentence had been bitterly offended.
Who the soldier is, what the occasion, why the Senate is so harsh or Alcibiades so insistent are not explained. Shakespeare had inserted the scene, perhaps the best in the play, but had never gotten around to supplying the mortar that would connect it properly to what had gone before. It seems clear, though, that Shakespeare is setting up a subplot to show another facet of the "ingratitude" theme. Alcibiades says of the soldier:
His service done
At Lacedaemon and Byzantium
Were a sufficient briber for his life.
—Act III, scene v, lines 60-62
This vaguely suits the Peloponnesian War, which was going on in the lifetime of Timon and Alcibiades. Athens was fighting a coalition led by the city of Sparta, of which an alternate (and, in some respects, more nearly official) name was Lacedaemon.
However, the speech makes it sound as though there was fighting at Lacedaemon, and that wasn't so. The city of Sparta, protected by its unparalleled army, was unapproachable throughout the sixth and fifth centuries b.c. It was not until Sparta suffered a shattering defeat at the hands of Thebes, thirty years after the Peloponnesian War, that the city became vulnerable.
Nor were there important battles at Byzantium (the later Constantinople and the still later Istanbul), though it occupied a strategic position at the straits between the Aegean Sea and the Black Sea, not very far from where Troy had once been situated.
We banish thee…
When Alcibiades continues to plead the soldier's cause, the First Senator, austere and obdurate in Roman rather than Athenian manner, finally says:
Do you dare our anger?
'Tis in few words, but spacious in effect:
We banish thee for ever.
—Act III, scene v, lines 95-97
In actual history, Alcibiades was indeed banished from Athens, but not for so personal and trivial a cause. In 415 b.c. he had urged that Athens end the long war with Sparta by a very daring move, nothing less than an invasion of Sicily and the capture of its chief city, Syracuse, which had been supporting the Spartan cause financially.
A victory in Sicily would have transferred Syracuse's navy and wealth to the Athenian side, given Athens a secure base in the west, and broken the morale of the Spartan coalition. It was a desperate gamble, but under Alcibiades it might just possibly have succeeded.
The Athenians, however, voted another general, Nicias, as co-com-mander, and this was a terrible mistake. Nicias was an "appeaser," anxious to make a deal with Sparta, and couldn't possibly be expected to supply vigorous leadership-especially since he was a most incompetent general in any case.
To make matters worse, just before the expedition was to set sail, certain religious statues in the city were blasphemously mutilated, and suspicion fell upon Alcibiades, who was a known agnostic.
To be sure, Alcibiades would scarcely have been so insane as to have chosen this time to play the scofier in so ostentatious a manner. Although the mystery of who mutilated the statues has never been solved, most historians feel it must have been Alcibiades' enemies who did it, and that Alcibiades was framed.
At first, proceedings against Alcibiades were ordered suspended till the Sicilian expedition was over, but then after the fleet got under way, the Athenians changed their mind and recalled Alcibiades. Alcibiades was certain that he couldn't possibly escape conviction and so he went voluntarily into exile.
The Sicilian expedition, be it noted, came to utter grief without him. A huge Athenian force, both men and ships, was utterly destroyed and Athens never truly recovered. She was never again, after the Sicilian expedition, what she had been before it. Because it was Alcibiades who had urged it on, he had brought great harm to Athens (as Timon, according to Plutarch, had foreseen) and was yet to do more.
… hated be of Timon…
Back we go to Timon's house, where Timon has called back his friends for another banquet. All the men who had just refused to lend Timon money are now back at their old places. They don't know how Timon has managed to recover, but if he is conducting feasts, they intend to be at the trough.
They are as servile as ever and Timon appears as affable as ever, but when it is time to eat of the covered dishes, Timon reveals them to be full of water and nothing more. Timon throws the water in their faces, curses them, and drives them away, crying out:
Burn house, sink Athens, henceforth hated be
Of Timon man and all humanity.
—Act III, scene vi, lines 105-6
There is the transition. Timon goes from universal benevolence to universal malevolence. In both roles, he has held himself far removed from ordinary mankind, but in the latter he at least requires no wealth.
Timon leaves his home and the city. He finds himself a cave outside Athens and spends his time in cursing. He digs and finds gold (a device borrowed from Lucian's dialogue), but that does not soften his hardened heart or soothe his poisoned soul.
This fell whore…
Now a parade of people comes seeking Timon in the cave. (After all, he is rich again.) The first, by accident rather than by design, for Timon's wealth is not yet known, is Alcibiades, who is marching against Athens at the head of a rebel army and who at first fails to recognize Timon.
Alcibiades is accompanied by two prostitutes whom Timon does not fail to condemn. He says to Alcibiades concerning one of them:
This fell whore of thine
Hath in her more destruction than thy sword,
For all her cherubin look.
—Act IV, scene iii, lines 62-64
The "fell whore" in question is Phrynia, whose name is inspired by a famous Athenian courtesan named Phryne who flourished in the time of Alexander the Great, a century after Alcibiades. She grew immensely rich from her earnings, for she had as her customers the most distinguished men of the time and she charged healthy fees. The most famous story told of her is that once when she was brought before a court, accused of profaning certain religious rites, she exposed her breasts to the judges and was acquitted on the spot.
… proud Athens on a heap
Alcibiades expresses sympathy for Timon, offers him money, and begins:
When I have laid proud Athens on a heap-
—Act IV, scene iii, line 102
The historical Alcibiades, when he fled Athens, went to Sparta, his city's bitter enemy, and there advised that enemy how best to conduct its war. For a period of time he virtually directed Sparta's armies, much more intelligently and effectively than Spartan generals had been able to do. In that sense, Alcibiades was marching against Athens.
But when, in the play, Alcibiades talks of destroying Athens, Timon interrupts to wish him all success in that task, together with the destruction of himself afterward. And before they go, he heaps bitter speeches on the courtesans as he gives them quantities of his own gold.
The middle of humanity. ..
Apemantus now comes in. The old and practiced Cynic can now bandy insults with the new-made Misanthropes. Shakespeare bases this on a tale of Plutarch's, intending to show how Timon, in his universal hatred, outdid the Cynics. He tells how Apemantus once, when dining with Timon, they two being all the company, commented on how pleasant it was to feast alone without hated mankind present, and Timon answered morosely, "It would be, if you were not present."
Thus, when in the play Apemantus offers to give Timon food, and mend his diet, Timon says:
First mend my company, take away thyself,
—Act IV, scene iii, line 284
But Apemantus is not fooled. He was not impressed by Timon playing god, and he is not impressed by Timon playing dog. (It is odd that in English, god and dog are the same letters in mirror image.) Apemantus says, cynically:
Art thou proud yet?
—Act IV, scene iii, line 278
He says even more sharply:
The middle of humanity thou never knewest,
but the extremity of both ends.
—Act IV, scene iii, lines 301-2
The rumor of Timon's gold spreads. Thieves come to relieve him of it, but he gives it to them with such malevolent glee at the harm it will do them that they leave most uneasily.
His old steward, Flavius, arrives weeping, and asks only to continue to serve Timon. Even Timon's withered heart is touched and he is forced to retreat one inch from his universal hatred. He says:
I do proclaim
One honest man.
Mistake me not, but one.
—Act IV, scene iii, lines 505-6
Here Timon seems to have faced mankind and found himself momentarily to be neither god nor dog, but "the middle of humanity." Had he found himself permanently back to that middle, the play might have been more satisfactory, but Shakespeare blunders onward through the thicket of unrelieved misanthropy.
… hang himself
The Poet and the Painter arrive to get their share of the gold by pretending selfless love of Timon, but Timon overhears their plotting and drives them away.
Then come Athenian Senators, pleading with Timon to take over the leadership of the city's forces in order to turn back Alcibiades, who is battering at the city's walls, but Timon states bitterly that he doesn't care what Alcibiades does to Athens. Shakespeare now makes use of still another anecdote in Plutarch.
He announces one favor he will do Athens. He has a tree that he is about to chop down, but he urges the Senators to announce to all Athenians who wish to take advantage of the offer to:
Come hither ere my tree hath felt the ax,
And hang himself.
—Act V, scene i, lines 212-13
Those enemies of Timon's. ..
Timon dies, unreconciled to the end, and Athens must surrender to Alcibiades.
This did not happen quite so in history.
Rather, Alcibiades finally fell out with the Spartans (the story is that he was a little too familiar with one of the Spartan queens and the Spartan King resented it) and returned to Athenian allegiance. They welcomed him back because the war was going more and more badly and they needed him. In 407 b.c. he made a triumphant return to Athens and in that sense, Athens might be viewed as having surrendered to him.
The Athenians, however, could never bring themselves to trust him, and the next year he was exiled again, this time permanently.
The play does not go that far. It ends with the reconciliation, as Alcibiades says:
Those enemies of Timon's and mine own
Whom you yourselves shall set out for reproof,
Fall, and no more.
—Act V, scene iv, lines 56-58
Alcibiades lets himself be placated and reconciled, where Timon did not, and it is plain that the former is displayed as the preferable course.
Timon is dead by then, but the epitaph he wrote for himself is brought in and Alcibiades reads it-Timon's final word (taken from Plutarch).
Here lie I, Timon, -who alive all living men did hate.
Pass by and curse thy fill, but pass, and stay not here thy gait.
—Act V, scene iv, lines 72-73
6. The Winter's Tale
The winter's tale is a romance. It has no historical basis whatever and none of the events it describes ever occurred; nor are any of its characters to be found in history, however glancingly. Nevertheless, its background lies in the pre-Christian Greek world. I therefore include it among the Greek plays.
It seems to have been one of Shakespeare's latest plays, too, having been written as late as 1611. The only later play for which Shakespeare was solely responsible was The Tempest.
.., the King of Sicilia means to pay Bohemia …
The play opens with two courtiers exchanging graceful compliments. The scene is set in Sicilia (Sicily) and one of the courtiers, Camillo, is native to the place. The other is a vistor from Bohemia.
The occasion is a state visit paid to Sicily by the King of Bohemia, and there may be a return visit in consequence. Camillo says:
I think this coming summer the King of Sicilia
means to pay Bohemia the visitation
which he justly owes him.
—Act I, scene i, lines 5-7
There is a queer reversal here. Shakespeare takes the plot from a romance written in 1588 by the English writer Robert Greene, entitled Pandosto. The Triumph of Time. In Greene's original romance the story opens with a visit of the King of Sicily to Bohemia, rather than the reverse. This reversal is carried all through the play, with the King of Sicily in The Winter's Tale playing the role of the King of Bohemia in Pandosto, and vice versa.
Did Shakespeare make a casual slip of the pen to begin with and then carry it through because he was too lazy to take the trouble to correct it? Or did he have some good reason?-I suspect the latter.
The King who is being visited behaves, in the first portion of the play, as an almost psychotically suspicious tyrant. Should this king be the King of Bohemia, as in Greene, or the King of Sicily, as in Shakespeare?
Suppose we look back into history. In 405 b.c., just ten years after the ill-fated Sicilian expedition of Athens (see page I-140), a general, Dionysius, seized control over Syracuse, the largest and strongest city of Sicily. By 383 b.c. he had united almost the entire island under his rule.
Dionysius is best known for the manner in which he kept himself in power for thirty-eight years in an era when rulers were regularly overthrown by palace coups or popular unrest. He did so by unending suspicion and eternal vigilance. For instance, there is a story that he had a bell-shaped chamber opening into the state prison, with the narrow end connecting to his room. In this way, he could secretly listen to conversations in the prison and learn if any conspiracies were brewing. This has been called the "ear of Dionysius."
He arrested people on mere suspicion and his suspicion was most easily aroused. Naturally, he left the memory of himself behind in most unsavory fashion and though he died in peace, he is remembered as a cruel and suspicious tyrant.
If Shakespeare had to choose between Bohemia and Sicily as a place to be ruled by a tyrant, was it not sensible to choose Sicily?
Of course, King Leontes of Sicily, the character in the play, is not to be equated with Dionysius. The Sicilian tyrant of old may simply have made Sicily seem the more appropriate scene for tyranny, but there all resemblance ends and nothing in the play has any relationship to the life of Dionysius.
Nevertheless, because of this tenuous connection between Leontes and Dionysius, and the fact that Dionysius lived a generation after Timon, I am placing this play immediately after Timon of Athens.
As for Bohemia… Later in the play there will be scenes of idyllic pastoral happiness in the kingdom of the visiting monarch. Shall that other kingdom then be Sicily, as in Greene, or Bohemia, as in Shakespeare?
To be sure, in ancient times Sicily was an agricultural province that served as the granary of early Rome. It might therefore be viewed as an idyllic place in contrast to citified and vice-ridden Rome itself. However, Sicily was also noted for its brutal wars between the Greeks and Carthage and, later, the Romans and Carthage. Still later, it was the scene of horrible slave rebellions.
What of Bohemia by contrast? The Bohemia we know is the westernmost part of modern Czechoslovakia and is no more a pastoral idyll than anywhere else. This Bohemia is inhabited by a Slavic people, in Shakespeare's time as well as in our own, and its origin, as a Slavic nation, dates back to perhaps the eighth century, something like a thousand years after the time of Dionysius.
This discrepancy in time did not bother Greene, or Shakespeare either, and would not bother us in reading the play. However, is it necessarily our
the winter's tale 149
present real-life Bohemia that Shakespeare was thinking of? Was there another?
Shortly after 1400, bands of strange people reached central Europe. They were swarthy-skinned nomads, who spoke a language that was not like any in Europe. Some Europeans thought they came from Egypt and they were called "gypsies" in consequence. (They still are called that in the United States, but their real origin may have been India.)
When the gypsies reached Paris in 1427, the French knew only that they had come from central Europe. There were reports that they had come from Bohemia, and so the French called them Bohemians (and still do).
The gypsy life seemed gay and vagabondish and must have been attractive to those bound to heavy labor or dull routine. The term "Bohemian" therefore came to be applied to artists, writers, show people, and others living an unconventional and apparently vagabondish life. Bohemia came to be an imaginary story land of romance.
Well then, if Shakespeare wanted a land of pastoral innocence and delights, should he pick Sicily or Bohemia? -Bohemia, by all means.
… tremor cordis.. .
The courtiers let the audience know that Leontes of Sicily and Polixenes of Bohemia were childhood friends and have close ties of affection. In the next scene, when the two kings come on stage themselves, this is made perfectly clear.
Polixenes has been away from home for nine months and pressing affairs must take him away. Leontes urges him strenuously to remain, and when Polixenes is adamant, the Sicilian host asks his Queen, Hermione, to join her pleas with his. She does, and after joyful badinage, Polixenes gives in.
Then, quite suddenly, without warning at all, a shadow falls over Leontes. He watches his gay Queen and the friend she is cajoling (at Leontes' own request) and he says in an aside:
Too hot, too hot!
To mingle friendship far is mingling bloods.
I have tremor cordis on me...
—Act I, scene ii, lines 108-10
An unnatural physical effect, a palpitation of the heart ("tremor cordis") has come over him. A sickness, an abnormality, makes of the genial host, without real cause, a jealous tyrant.
The sickness grows on itself. He wonders if he has been cuckolded (see page I-108) and is at once convinced he is. He seeks supporting opinion and consults his courtier, Camillo, who listens in horror and recognizes the situation as a mental illness:
Good my lord, be cured
Of this diseased opinion, and betimes,
For 'tis most dangerous.
—Act I, scene ii, lines 296-98
… sighted like the basilisk
Camillo's clear wisdom is greeted by Leontes with a howl of rage. The King makes it clear that if Camillo were a loyal subject he would poison Polixenes. Reluctantly, Camillo agrees to accept the direct order, provided the King will then offer no disgrace to his Queen.
By now, however, Polixenes notes that the warm friendship that had surrounded him but a short time ago has vanished and he is aware of an intensifying frigidity. He meets Camillo and questions him but Camillo can only speak evasively, and still in the metaphor of sickness:
I cannot name the disease; and it is caught
Of you, that yet are well.
—Act I, scene ii, lines 387-88
He is referring, of course, to the insane jealousy of which Polixenes is the unwitting and undeserved cause. Polixenes cannot understand and says:
How caught of me? Make me not sighted
like the basilisk. I have looked on
thousands, who have sped the better
By my regard, but killed none so.
—Act I, scene ii, lines 388-91
Another name for the basilisk is the cockatrice, a word that may have originated as a distortion of crocodile. The medieval European had little contact with crocodiles, though he had heard of them in connection with the distant Nile.
The crocodile, like the serpent, is a deadly reptile. It might almost be viewed as a gigantic, thick snake, with stubby legs. To Europeans, unfamiliar with the crocodile except by distant report, the snaky aspects of the creature could easily become dominant.
Once "cockatrice" is formed from "crocodile," the first syllable becomes suggestive, and the fevered imagination develops the thought that the monster originates in a cock's egg and is a creature with a snake's body and a cock's head.
The cockatrice is pictured as the ultimate snake. It kills not by a bite but merely by a look. Not merely its venom, but its very breath is fatal. Because the cockatrice is the most deadly snake and therefore the king of snakes, or because the cockscomb may be pictured as a crown, the cockatrice came to be called "basilisk" (from Greek words meaning "little king").
Camillo cannot resist Polixenes' pleadings for enlightenment. He advises the Bohemian King to flee at once. Since Camillo is now a traitor, saving the man he was ordered to kill, he must fly also. Together, they leave Sicily.
A sad tale's best.. .
Meanwhile, at the court, Mamilius, Leontes' little son, is having a pleasant time with the ladies in waiting. His mother, Hermione, it now turns out, is rather late in pregnancy. (Polixenes, remember, had been at the Sicilian court for nine months.)
The Queen asks her son for a story, and Mamilius says:
A sad tale's best for winter; I have one
Of sprites and goblins.
—Act II, scene i, lines 25-26
There's the reference that gives the play its title. The play is a sad tale of death-but also of rebirth. For winter does not remain winter always, but is followed by the spring.
… sacred Delphos…
The childish tale is interrupted by the arrival of the King and his courtiers. Leontes has learned of Polixenes' flight with Camillo and that is the last straw. He accuses Hermione of adultery and orders her to prison.
Neither her indignant and reasonable claims to innocence nor the shocked testimony of faith in her on the part of his own courtiers will turn Leontes in the slightest. His tyranny is in full course now.
But he will go this far-he will rely on divine assurance. He says:
/ have dispatched in post
To sacred Delphos, to Apollo's temple,
Cleomenes and Dion …
—Act II, scene i, lines 182-84
This more than anything else proves the play to be placed in ancient Greek times, when the oracle at Delphi (not Delphos) was in greatest repute.
The oracle, a very ancient one, was located on the Greek mainland about six miles north of the center of the Gulf of Corinth and seventy miles northwest of Athens. Its location was originally called Pytho and it contained a shrine to the earth goddess that was served by a priestess known as the Pythia. This priestess could serve as the medium through which the wishes and wisdom of the gods could be made known.
The oracle, along with the rest of Greece, was inundated by the Dorian invasion that followed after the Trojan War. When Greece began to climb out of the darkness in the eighth century b.c., Pytho had a new name, Delphi, and the nature of the shrine had changed. It served Apollo rather than the earth goddess.
Greek myths were devised to explain the change.
Those myths told that when the Titaness Latona (Leto) was about to give birth to children by Jupiter, the jealous Juno made her life miserable in a variety of ways. She sent a dragon or giant snake, named Python, to pursue her, for instance. Eventually Latona bore twin children, Apollo and Diana. Apollo made his way back to Pytho, where the Python made its home, and killed it. Apollo then took over the shrine itself and gave it its new name (though the priestess remained the Pythia).
For centuries Delphi remained the most important and sacred of all the Greek oracles. It was beautified by gifts made to it by all the Greek cities and many foreign rulers. It served as a treasury in which people and cities kept their money for safekeeping, since no one would dare pollute the sacred shrine by theft.
On the other hand, there is also a place called Delos, a tiny island no larger than Manhattan's Central Park, located in the Aegean Sea about a hundred miles southeast of Athens.
It too is involved with the tale of Latona and her unborn children. Juno, who was persecuting Latona in every way possible, had forbidden any port of the earth on which the sun shone to receive her. Tiny Delos, however, was a floating island which Jupiter covered with waves so that the sun did not shine on it. There Apollo and Diana were born. Thereafter, Delos was fixed to the sea floor and never moved again.
As a result, Delos was as sacred to Apollo as Delphi was, and it was easy to confuse the two. Thus, one could imagine the oracle at Delphi to be located on the island of Delos, and speak of the combination as the "island of Delphos." Greene does this in Pandosto and Shakespeare carelessly follows him.
… Dame Partlet. ..
In prison, Hermione is delivered of her child and it turns out to be a beautiful little girl. Paulina, the wife of the courtier Antigonus, is a bold woman with a sharp tongue. Passionately loyal to Hermione and uncaring for the consequences, she offers to take the child to Leontes in the hope that the sight of the babyish innocence might soften him.
With the child, Paulina forces her way into Leontes' presence. He won't look at the child and cries out impatiently to Antigonus:
Give her the bastard,
Thou dotard, thou art woman-tired, unroosted
By thy Dame Partlet here.
—Act II, scene iii, lines 72-74
This refers to an extremely popular medieval cycle of animal stories, in which human failings are placed in animal guise, a device that dates back to Aesop in the Western tradition. The cycle is known as a whole as "Reynard the Fox," for the fox is the rascal hero (much like Br'er Rabbit in the Uncle Remus stories).
The tales reached their final form about 1100 and grew so popular that some of the names of the animals entered the common language. Even more familiar than "Reynard" for fox is "Bruin" for bear, for instance.
"Dame Partlet" is the hen and Leontes is saying in angry, insulting tones that Paulina is an old biddy who has henpecked her foolish husband into giving up the roost; that is, the dominating position in the house.
Antigonus can scarcely deny it at that. When Leontes tells him he should be hanged for not quieting his wife, Antigonus says, resignedly:
Hang all the husbands
That cannot do that feat, you'll leave yourself
Hardly one subject.
—Act II, scene iii, lines 108-10
"… of high treason…"
Leontes' madness continues in full course. He orders Antigonus to carry off the baby girl to some desert spot and leave it there to die.
The King then gets news that Cleomenes and Dion, the ambassadors to the Delphos, are returning, and he hastens to prepare a formal trial for the Queen. She is brought out of prison to face her indictment. The officer of the court reads it out:
"Hermione, Queen to the worthy Leontes,
King of Sicilia, thou art here accused and arraigned
of high treason, in committing adultery with
Polixenes, King of Bohemia, and conspiring with
Camillo to take away the life of our sovereign lord the
King, thy royal husband. ..
—Act III, scene ii, lines 12-17
There must have seemed a strange familiarity in this scene to Englishmen, for scarcely three quarters of a century before, not one but two English queens had stood accused of a very similar charge. These were two of the six wives of Henry VIII (who had died in 1547, seventeen years before Shakespeare's birth). One was Anne Boleyn, Henry's second wife, tried for adultery in 1536, and the other was Catherine Howard, his fifth wife, tried for adultery in 1542. Both were convicted and beheaded, the former at the age of twenty-nine and the latter at the age of about twenty-two.
The Emperor of Russia…
Again Hermione defends herself with dignity and sincerity, carrying conviction to all but the insane Leontes. While she waits for the word of the oracle, she says:
The Emperor of Russia was my father.
Oh that he were alive, and here beholding
His daughter's trial!
—Act III, scene ii, lines 117-19
Russia was not, of course, in existence in the time when Sicily was under Greek domination. The Russian people first swam into the light of history in the ninth century when Viking adventurers from Sweden took over the rule of the land and established a loose congeries of principalities under the vague overlordship of Kiev. This "Kievan Russia" was destroyed in 1240 by the Mongol invasion.
A century before Shakespeare's birth, however, Russia was beginning to emerge from the Mongol night. In 1462 Ivan III ("the Great") became Grand Prince of Muscovy. He managed to annex the lands of Novgorod, a northern city, which controlled the sparsely settled lands up to the Arctic Ocean. This first gave Muscovy a broad realm, larger in terms of area than that of any other nation in Europe. With that, Muscovy became Russia.
In 1472 Ivan married the heir to the recently defunct Byzantine Empire and laid claim to the title of Emperor.
His successors, Basil III and Ivan IV ("the Terrible"), continued the policy of expansion. Ivan IV, who reigned from 1533 to 1584 (through Shakespeare's youth, in other words), defeated the remnant of the Mongols and extended the Russian realm to the Caspian Sea.
Not only did Ivan the Terrible's victories put Russia "on the map," but during his reign England gained personal knowledge of the land. In 1553 an English trade mission under Richard Chancellor reached Ivan's court, so that Shakespeare's reference to "The Emperor of Russia" was rather topical.
"Hermione is chaste …"
Cleomenes and Dion now bring in the sealed message from Delphos. It is opened and read. It states:
"Hermione is chaste, Polixenes blameless,
Camillo a true sub ject, Leontes a jealous tyrant,
his innocent babe truly begot ten, and the
King shall live without an heir,
if that which is lost be not found"
—Act III, scene ii, lines 130-33
This is clear, straightforward, and dramatic-and lacks all resemblance to the kind of oracles actually handed out by the real Delphi. In fiction, oracles may interpret present and foretell future with faultless vision; in actual fact, they can do nothing of the sort.
The real oracle at Delphi was extremely practiced at giving out ambiguous statements that could be interpreted as correct no matter what the eventuality. The most famous example of this (though by no means the only one) took place in 546 b.c. when Croesus of Lydia, in western Asia Minor, was considering a preventive attack on the growing Persian kingdom to the east of the Halys River, Lydia's boundary.
Croesus consulted the oracle at Delphi, of which he was one of the most munificent patrons. He was told: "When Croesus passes over the river Halys, he will overthrow the strength of an empire."
Croesus attacked at once, and realized too late that the oracle was carefully phrased so as to remain true whether he won or lost. He lost and it was his own realm that was overthrown. It is for reasons such as this that "Delphic" and "oracular" have come to mean "evasive," "ambiguous," "double-meaning."
And still Leontes does not give in. Like Pharaoh in the Bible, his heart hardens with each new thrust and he dismisses the statement of the oracle as falsehood.
But at this very moment a servant rushes in to say that Leontes' young son, Mamilius, ill since his mother was arrested, has died. At the news, Hermione faints and Paulina declares she is dying.
The King is stricken. The death of his son at the instant of his blasphemy against Apollo punishes that blasphemy and demonstrates the truth of the oracle ("the King shall live without an heir") simultaneously.
As suddenly as the disease of jealousy had seized upon him, it leaves him. In one moment, he is sane again, and cries out in heartbreak:
My great profaneness 'gainst thine oracle.
—Act III, scene ii, lines 150-51
He is anxious now to undo all he has done, but he cannot bring Mamilius back to life, he cannot unkill the Queen, he cannot find the child he has ordered exposed. He is doomed to live in endless remorse until "that which is lost" be found.
He can only bow his racked body before the harsh and indignant vituperation of Paulina.
… The deserts of Bohemia
But what of Antigonus and the little baby girl he had been ordered to expose?
In Pandosto the child is given to sailors by the Bohemian King. These take her to the sea and expose her in a boat during a storm. The boat, carrying the child, is carried to the seacoast of Sicily.
But Shakespeare has reversed the kingdoms. It is the Sicilian King, Leontes, who hands out the girl to be exposed. If the reversal is to continue, the ship must land on the seacoast of Bohemia, rather than that of Sicily, and so it does. Act III, scene iii has its scene set on "Bohemia, the seacoast."
The trouble with this is that while Sicily has a seacoast on every side, Bohemia-the real Bohemia-both in our day and in Shakespeare's is an inland realm and has no seacoast. It is, in fact, two hundred miles from the closest seacoast, at Trieste (nowadays part of Italy).
Shakespeare must have known this, of course, but what difference does it make, when Bohemia is not a real land at all, but is the Bohemia of idyll, and may have a seacoast just as well as it may have anything else?
Of course, if we want to be literal, there was a time when the real Bohemia had a seacoast. It was at the height of its power under the reign of Ottokar II ("the Great"), who ruled from 1253 to 1278. In 1269, at a time when the Holy Roman Empire was going through a period of weakness, Ottokar conquered what is now Austria and ruled over an enlarged Bohemia that stretched over much of central Europe, right down to the head of the Adriatic Sea. For four years, then (before the Holy Roman Empire regained these lost lands), and four years only, from 1269 to 1273, Bohemia had a seacoast in the neighborhood of modern Trieste.
The ship carrying Antigonus and the baby reaches land and Antigonus says to the sailors:
Thou art perfect then our ship hath touched upon
The deserts of Bohemia?
—Act III, scene iii, lines 1-2
By "deserts" Antigonus merely means an unoccupied region. If we are not contented with Bohemia as an imaginary kingdom but insist on the real one, we can pretend that Bohemia has its mid-thirteenth-century boundaries and that the ship has landed near Trieste. This is not bad. It would mean that Antigonus traveled from Sicily, through the length of the Adriatic Sea, a distance of some seven hundred miles.
Antigonus has seen Hermione in a dream and she has bidden him name the little girl Perdita ("the lost one"). He puts the baby down together with identifying materials, in case she should happen to be found and brought up. But even as he makes his way back to the ship, he encounters a bear and there follows the most unusual direction in Shakespeare's plays, for it reads "Exit, pursued by a bear."
… things new born
As Antigonus leaves, an old Shepherd and then his son come on the scene. The son is referred to in the cast of characters as "Clown," but in its original meaning of "country bumpkin."
The Clown has seen the ship destroyed by a storm and Antigonus eaten by the bear, but the Shepherd has found Perdita and says to his son:
Now bless thyself; thou met'st with things dying,
I with things new bom.
—Act III, scene iii, lines 112-13
It is the turning point of the play. Until now, the theme of the play has been a kind of dying, as Leontes went insane and drove person after person into flight, exile, or death. But the winter's tale is over and the spring begins, for Perdita the pretty child will not die. She has been found by the Bohemian shepherds and she will live.
… slide o'er sixteen years…
There comes a huge lapse of time between Act III and Act IV. The lapse is necessary and also occurs in Pandosto, which has as its secondary title The Triumph of Time.
This is a particularly radical violation of the "unities." There were three of these, according to the prescription in Aristotle's Poetics. There was the unity of time, since the entire action of a play should take no more than twenty-four hours; of place, since the entire action should be in one place; and action, since every incident in the play should contribute to the plot and there should be no irrelevancies.
These classical unities were taken up by the French dramatists of the seventeenth century, when France was the cultural leader of Europe.
Shakespeare could adhere to the unities if he chose (he did so, almost entirely, in The Comedy of Errors) but he felt no compulsion about it. His plays veered widely from place to place and covered events that took up the course of years. His plays had plots and subplots and occasional total irrelevancies. For this, he was sneered at by the classicists, who considered his plays to be crude, formless, and barbaric, though not without a kind of primitive vigor.
We don't think so at all nowadays. The observance of the unities can go along with great power in the hand of a genius. (No one can fault Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, which observes them rigorously.) On the other hand, in the hand of anyone less than a genius, the unities almost force tedium on a play, as they make it necessary to report action at an earlier time and a different place entirely through reports, so that all the play consists of one character explaining to another (for the benefit of the audience) what has happened or what is happening.
Shakespeare let time and place flash across the stage and by piling scene upon scene with spatial and temporal jumps lent his plays such a whirlwind speed that an audience could not help but be enraptured with action that never stopped and never allowed them to catch their breath.
Yet even Shakespeare must have felt that at this point in The Winter's Tale he might be going a little too far. (He had done much the same in Pericles, see page I-195, which he had written a year or two earlier.) He brings in Time as a kind of chorus, opening the Fourth Act, explaining the lapse of time and apologizing for it too:
Impute it not a crime
To me, or my swift passage, that I slide
O'er sixteen years…
—Act IV, scene i, lines 4-6
… Florizel I now name to you. ..
Time mentions one specific involved in the passing of years-the existence of a son of Polixenes. He had been casually mentioned early in the play, but he is now named for the first time. Time says:
I mentioned a son o'th'King's, which Florizel
I now name to you...
—Act IV, scene i, lines 22-23
We can suspect, if we have the slightest experience with romances, that Florizel will fall in love with the grown-up Perdita, so that a king's son will woo a girl who is (to all appearances) a shepherd's daughter.
This happens, of course, and "Florizel" became the epitome of the "Prince Charming," the handsome man who comes to sweep the poverty-stricken young girl out of her cottage and into the palace. Heaven only knows how many marriages have been ruined because real life could not fulfill the dreams of romance-fed girls.
To at least one actual woman there was a kind of literal fulfillment. In the early 1780s an actress named Mary Robinson was wooed by a rather dissipated young man, who called her Perdita and himself Florizel in the letters he sent her. He happened to be the Prince of Wales, the eldest son of King George III of England. He later became Prince Regent during his father's madness and King George IV in 1820 upon his father's death.
He never married Miss Robinson, of course, and he was a poor excuse for a Florizel anyway, except for his rank, as he became fatter, grosser, and more dissipated with each successive year. He was a most unlovable man and very unpopular with his subjects.
… named me Autolycus…
But we are in mythical Bohemia now, where Polixenes, grown older, is as virtuous as he ever was and still cherishes the good Camillo. Camillo longs to see Sicily again, for the repentant Leontes calls for him. Polixenes will not release him, however, and suggests instead that they find out why Prince Florizel haunts a certain shepherd's cottage.
But Bohemia contains more than virtue. Striding onstage is a peddler, singing happily. He makes his living by being a petty thief and confidence man. He says:
My father named me
Autolycus, who being, as I am, littered under
Mercury, was likewise a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.
—Act IV, scene iii, lines 24-26
Mercury (Hermes) was the god of thieves. It was appropriate, therefore, that there be myths involving a description of the clever thefts carried through by the god.
Thus, almost immediately after he was born, Mercury killed a tortoise, made the first lyre out of it, and used that to sing a lullaby that put his mother, the nymph Maia, to sleep. Freed of her supervision he went out into the world, found a herd of fifty cattle belonging to Apollo, and stole them, placing improvised shoes on their feet to confuse the tracks and forcing them to walk backward to make them seem to have gone in the opposite direction.
The furious Apollo found them at last and saw through Mercury's defense of being an innocent babe. Mercury could only placate him by giving Apollo the lyre.
Mercury, incidentally, was the patron god not only of thieves but of merchants as well, which indicates the rather mixed opinion that the ancients had of merchants-possibly with some justice.
A son of Mercury was Autolycus, who, like his father, was a master thief. He could steal cattle undetectably and helped himself to the herds of Sisyphus. As Sisyphus watched his herds melt away, he found himself suspecting Autolycus without being able to obtain proof. He therefore made markings on the soles of his cattle's hoofs and eventually found Autolycus in possession of cattle on whose hoofs were marked "Stolen from Sisyphus."
Autolycus' daughter married Laertes of Ithaca and their son was none other than Ulysses (see page I-92), who was the epitome of all that was shrewd and clever.
The peddler Autolycus in the play glories in his name and what that signifies and has a chance to demonstrate it at once. The Clown comes along, on his way to buy things for the great sheepshearing festival that is about to take place. Autolycus promptly pretends to have been robbed and beaten by a rogue, and the kindly Clown, helping him, has his pocket picked as a reward.
… but Flora
Back at the shepherd's cottage, Perdita, now a beautiful girl of sixteen, is the mistress of the feast and is dressed accordingly. Prince Florizel, overcome by her beauty, says to her:
These your unusual weeds to each part of you
Do give a life; no shepherdess, but Flora,
Peering in April's front.
—Act IV, scene iv, lines 1-3
Flora was the Roman goddess of flowers and the spring. Her festival was celebrated at the end of April and the beginning of May.
… the green Neptune
But Perdita is very nervous. Florizel stumbled upon her father's house when pursuing an escaped falcon and has fallen in love with her. Now he is attending the feast dressed as a shepherd and calling himself Doricles. Perdita fears his father the King will find him out and be furious. But Florizel says that even the gods stooped to low appearances for love:
Became a bull, and bellowed; the green Neptune
A ram, and bleated; and the fire-robed god,
Golden Apollo, a poor humble swain,
As I seem now.
—Act IV, scene iv, lines 27-31
Jupiter (Zeus) fell in love with Europa, a princess of Phoenicia. To win her, he turned himself into a snow-white bull and joined the Tyrian herd. Europa saw the new bull and was fascinated by it. It proved so gentle, she climbed on its shoulders at last, whereupon it ambled to the sea, plunged in, and swam westward. It arrived at Crete (a tidy swim of 550 miles) and there he eventually had three sons by her.
As for Neptune (Poseidon), called "green" because he was god of the sea, he loved Theophane. To steal her away from her other suitors, he turned her into a ewe and himself into a ram. Their offspring was a golden ram which, after death, yielded the famous Golden Fleece for which Jason adventured.
Apollo (called "fire-robed" and "golden" because he was god of the sun) had once offended Jupiter by killing the Cyclops, who forged the lightning which served as Jupiter's spears. Apollo was condemned to serve a Thessalian king, Admetus, as shepherd for punishment. Admetus treated the temporarily demoted god with every consideration, and in return, Apollo, still in shepherd's disguise, helped Admetus accomplish certain difficult tasks required for the winning of the beautiful Alcestis.
… Dis's wagon
Perdita's fears are well based, for Polixenes and Camillo do indeed come to the sheepshearing festival to spy on Florizel/Doricles' doings. They are greeted warmly by the unsuspecting Perdita in her role as hostess, and appropriate flowers are handed out. Perdita bemoans the lack of spring flowers that she might give the young ladies and says:
For the flow'rs now, that, frighted, thou let'st fall
From Dis's wagon.
—Act IV, scene iv, lines 116-18
Dis (Hades) had abducted Proserpina while she was picking flowers in the fields of central Sicily (see page I-7). She dropped those flowers as she was carried, shrieking, into the underworld.
… Cytherea's breath
Perdita describes some of these flowers, saying, for instance:
… violets, dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes,
Or Cytherea's breath;
—Act IV, scene iv, lines 120-22
Cytherea is an alternate name for Venus (Aphrodite). It comes from the island of Cythera off the southeast tip of the Greek mainland. On that island, as in Paphos (see page I-15), Venus had a well-known temple. Some versions of Venus' birth state that she rose from the sea, and, of course, some place the point of the rising near Paphos and some near Cythera.
… a tawdry-lace …
The disguised Polixenes and Camillo can't help but be taken by the pretty and sweet Perdita. The shepherds and shepherdesses dance; gaiety expands; and suddenly Autolycus appears at the door as a singing peddler and ballad seller.
The Clown, who is in love with Mopsa, a shepherdess, wants to buy her something, but he has reneged on previous promises and Mopsa says to him impatiently:
Come, you promised me a tawdry-lace,
and a pair of sweet gloves.
—Act IV, scene iv, lines 250-51
The expression "tawdry-lace" has a rather complicated background. It dates back to Anglo-Saxon England, much of which in the seventh century was still pagan. Egfrith, King of Northumbria, had a wife named Etheldreda, who listened with interest to Christian missionaries. She became a nun and established a religious community on land in her father's kingdom of East Anglia, becoming its first abbess in 673.
Etheldreda was eventually sainted and her name day, October 17, was celebrated at the site of the convent with a large fair, which drew crowds of the peasantry. With time, the Anglo-Saxon name of the saint was shortened to Audrey, so that it was the Fair of Saint Audrey that was celebrated.
At these fairs there was a brisk sale of souvenirs (as in modern fairs), and, in particular, cheap jewelry and showy lace could be bought-nothing really valuable, but strong on garish colors and elaborate frills. By further slurring the name of Saint Audrey, one came to speak of "tawdry lace," for instance, in connection with a cheap and showy specimen of that material. As a consequence, "tawdry" has now come to refer to anything of low quality that is cheap and tasteless.
… than Deucalion…
Ballads are talked of and a dance of satyrs is presented. It is all pas-torally delightful, but Polixenes and Camillo, still in disguise, grow less and less happy. They encourage the disguised Florizel (who does not recognize them) to tell his love. He does so, in complete abandon, and is willing to pledge betrothal to Perdita on the spot, and before witnesses, a deed that is equivalent to marriage.
Polixenes asks Florizel if he has a father who might attend the wedding. Florizel admits he has but says flatly that his father must remain ignorant of this. At that, Polixenes, in a passion, strips off his disguise. He threatens the Shepherd with death, and Perdita with mutilation to mar her beauty. He says further that if his son ever as much as thinks of Perdita again-
… we'll bar thee from succession;
Not hold thee of our blood, no not our kin,
Farre [farther] than Deucalion off.
—Act IV, scene iv, lines 433-35
Deucalion was a legendary ruler of southern Thessaly, and might be termed the Greek Noah. Zeus had sent a great flood over the earth to wipe out the human race, but Deucalion (warned by his father, the Titan Prometheus) built an ark in which he and his wife, Pyrrha, rode out the flood, coming to rest on Mount Parnassus after it was over.
They then prayed that mankind might be renewed and were told by a divine voice to turn their heads away and throw the bones of their mother behind them. The two reasoned that Mother Earth was meant. Turning their heads away they threw stones over their shoulder. The stones Deucalion threw became men and those Pyrrha threw women.
In this way the race of men and women could trace their descent to Deucalion and Pyrrha, and all men were related to at least the extent of being common descendants of Deucalion-except that Polixenes was going to deny Florizel even that much if he disobeyed.
… make for Sicilia
Polixenes leaves, but Florizel is not disturbed. He intends to marry Per-dita even if it means losing his kingdom. Camillo, much impressed by Perdita and longing to see his own country, now plans to do for Florizel what sixteen years before he had done for Florizel's father-help him escape and go with him. Florizel has prepared a ship for the escape and Camillo says, earnestly:
… make for Sicilia,
And there present yourself and your fair princess
(For so I see she must be) 'fore Leontes.
—Act IV, scene iv, lines 547-49
To get Florizel as far as the ship, Camillo disguises him in different fashion by making him change clothes with Autolycus, who now comes on the scene glorying in the success of his ballad selling and pocket picking.
The Shepherd and his son, the Clown, having been threatened with death by the King, are meanwhile in a state of abject terror. The Clown urges his father to reveal the fact that Perdita is not really a relative by showing the relics that had been found with her. In this way, the Shepherd and the Clown, proving not to be related to the real criminal in this matter of the enchantment of the prince, might escape punishment.
Autolycus overhears this and (in Florizel's clothes) pretends he is a courtier and easily cons the poor bumpkins into coming with him. He decides to bring them to Florizel on a gamble that this may bring him advancement.
Great Alexander …
For the last act the scene shifts back to Sicily, where Leontes' life is one long, wretched repentance. His courtiers are urging him to marry again, for the land is without an heir and the perils of civil war loom.
Paulina, however, the wife of old Antigonus, who had been eaten by a bear, is against it. The oracle from "Delphos" had predicted that the King would remain without an heir till "that which is lost" be found. Paulina considers this to mean the long-ago-exposed girl. She says to Leontes:
Care not for issue,
The crown will find an heir. Great Alexander
Left his to th'worthiest: so his successor
Was like to be the best.
—Act V, scene i, lines 46-49
Actually, this was a poor analogy. When Alexander the Great died suddenly in 323 b.c. (about two generations after the time of Dionysius of Syracuse, at which time I have arbitrarily placed the action of this play) at the age of thirty-three, he left behind a termagant mother, a foreign wife, a mentally retarded half brother, a half sister, and an unborn child. Not one could serve as a successor and the natural choice would therefore have rested among the very capable generals who had been trained by Alexander and his father, Philip.
Alexander might have chosen any one of the generals and his dying vote might have fixed that general in the throne and brought about the consolidation of the new and gigantic Macedonian Empire, changing the history of the world. Unfortunately, Alexander (for whatever reason) is supposed to have said, with his last breath, "To the strongest" when asked to whom he left his Empire.
If there had been a strongest, that would have been well, but there wasn't. No one general was strong enough to defeat and dominate all the rest. The result was that for thirty years a civil war raged among the generals. At the end, Alexander's Empire was worn out and fragmented. The fragments continued to war against each other with the result that within three centuries of Alexander's death, the eastern half of his Empire was retaken by native tribes and the western half was taken by Rome.
Surely this is not the fate for Sicily that Paulina was urging on Leontes.
In fact, she has other plans. She urges Leontes to vow never to marry anyone not chosen by herself. Leontes, who can never punish himself sufficiently, agrees.
… from Libya
Florizel is now introduced, arriving in Sicily with Perdita. Leontes greets the young man tearfully and inquires, with wonder, of the beautiful Perdita. Florizel, attempting to mask the truth as deeply as possible, says:
Good my lord,
She came from Libya.
—Act V, scene i, lines 156-57
Libya was the name given by the ancient Greeks to the entire north African coast west of Egypt. The two chief cities of Libya in the time of Dionysius of Syracuse were Cyrene, a Greek city five hundred miles to the southeast of Sicily, and Carthage, a non-Greek city, a hundred miles to the southwest.
… Julio Romano…
Events hasten now. Even while Florizel is embroidering his lie by making Perdita the daughter of a Libyan king, news arrives that Polixenes and Camillo are in Sicily. Polixenes sends a message demanding the arrest of Florizel.
However, the audience need not be alarmed. It is at once revealed that the Shepherd and the Clown are also in Sicily and they can reveal the truth of Perdita's identity.
What happens next is offstage. We would think that there should be a grand reconciliation scene as Perdita is shown to be Leontes' daughter, and there is, but not onstage. We learn of it only through a discussion among three Gentlemen.
This is odd and we might speculate that in the original form of the play the recognition and restoration of Perdita was the climax. Perhaps this ending turned out to be weak-after all, a very similar climax had been used only a year or two before by Shakespeare in Pericles (see page I-199). Pressure might have been applied to Shakespeare to make some alteration in that ending.
As a result, Shakespeare thrust Perdita's recognition offstage and prepared an even more dramatic scene involving Queen Hermione.
Paulina had reported her dead in Act III, and there has been no hint since that the report was wrong. Indeed, at the end of Act III, when An-tigonus is taking the little baby girl off to exposure, he dreams that Hermione's ghost appears to him, and this would make it seem that Shakespeare really did consider her dead.
Shakespeare, in his revision (assuming there was one), did not trouble to go back and put in some indication of Hermione's remaining alive, nor does he expunge the reference to the ghost, which is useful in explaining the name "Perdita."
Instead, he begins at this late date in the fifth act to start preparing the audience. The Third Gentleman mentions, for the first time, a statue:
… the Princess, hearing of her mother's statue,
which is in the keeping of Paulina-a piece many years
in doing and now newly performed
by that rare Italian master, Julio Romano …
—Act V, scene ii, lines 101-5
Julio Romano was a real Italian artist, known for his painting rather than for his sculpture, who had died in 1546, a little over half a century before The Winter's Tale was written. This is a startling anachronism, of course.
The Second Gentleman adds another vital item in the new build-up. Concerning Paulina, he says:
she hath privately, twice or thrice a day,
ever since the death of Hermione,
visited that removed house.
—Act V, scene ii, lines 113-15
Of course, the statue turns out to be the living Hermione after all. Why she has been kept from the so repentant King for sixteen years and been condemned to a life of solitary imprisonment; why Paulina has undertaken the backbreaking task of feeding and caring for her and keeping the secret; why the King has not had curiosity to see the progress of the statue during all the "many years" in which it was being made-these points are not explained. All this lack of explanation lends substance to the theory that the last half of the fifth act is a new ending, patched on imperfectly.
There is the final reconciliation scene and all ends in happiness. Paulina (who has now learned of her husband's death) marries Camillo, and even the Shepherd and the Clown now find themselves enriched, so that Au-tolycus, swearing to reform, is taken under their protection.
7. The Comedy Of Errors
The comedy of errors may possibly be the very first play Shakespeare wrote, perhaps even as early as 1589.
It is a complete farce, and it is adapted from a play named Menaechmi, written by the Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus about 220 b.c. If we assume that the events in Plautus' play reflect the time in which it was written (although Plautus borrowed the plot from a still earlier Greek play) we can place the time a century and a half after that of Dionysius of Syracuse. It is for that reason I place this play immediately after The Winter's Tale.
Plautus' play Menaechmi tells of the comic misadventures of twin brothers separated at birth. One searches for the other and when he reaches the town in which the second dwells, finds himself greeted by strangers who seem to know him. There are constant mistakes and cross-purposes, to the confusion of everyone on the stage and to the delight of everyone in the audience.
Shakespeare makes the confusion all the more intense by giving the twin brothers each a servant, with the servants twins as well. The developments are all accident, all implausible, and-if well done-all funny.
Merchant of Syracusa.. .
The play begins seriously enough in Ephesus. Solinus, Duke of Ephesus, appears onstage, with Egeon, a merchant of Syracuse. The title "Duke of Ephesus" is as anachronistic as "Duke of Athens" (see page I-18) and with even less excuse, since there never was a Duchy of Ephesus in medieval times as there was, at least, a Duchy of Athens.
There is hard feeling between Ephesus and Syracuse, to the point where natives of one are liable to execution if caught in the territory of the other. The Syracusan, Egeon, caught in Ephesian territory, stands in danger of this cruel law. The Duke says, obdurately:
Merchant of Syracusa, plead no more;
I am not partial to infringe our laws.
—Act I, scene i, lines 3-4
In the time of Plautus, the Greek city-states were as logically the scene of romantic comedy as were the Italian city-states in Shakespeare's own time. In both cases, the city-states were in decline but lingered in a golden afterglow.
Syracuse was no longer as great as it had been under Dionysius. It lived rather in the shadow of the growing Roman power, with which it had allied itself in 270 b.c.
In the course of the Second Punic War, fought in Plautus' middle age, Rome looked, for a while, as though it were going to lose, when the Carthaginian general Hannibal inflicted three spectacular defeats upon it between 218 and 216 b.c. Syracuse hastily switched to the Carthaginian side in order to be with the winner, but this proved to be a poor move.
Rome retained sufficient strength to lay siege to Syracuse and, after more than two years of warfare, took and sacked it in 212 b.c. Syracuse lost its independence forever. Plautus may have written Menaechmi in the last decade of Syracusan independence, but even if he wrote after its fall, it is not hard to imagine him as seeing it still as the important city-state it had been for the past five centuries.
For the other city, Plautus did not use Ephesus (as Shakespeare does) but he could have. Ephesus is a city on the Aegean coast of Asia Minor. Asia Minor fell under the control of various Macedonian generals after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 b.c., but individual cities flourished and retained considerable powers of local self-government. Indeed, Ephesus, in Plautus' lifetime, was geographically part of the kingdom of Pergamum, which made up the western third of the peninsula of Asia Minor. The city was at the very peak of its wealth and its commercial prosperity.
Of course, neither was in a position to carry on petty feuds with each other, and there is no historical basis for the opening situation in the play-but that is just to get the story moving.
To Epidamnum.. .
Duke Solinus points out that the penalty for being caught in Ephesian territory is a thousand marks. In default of payment of the fine, Egeon must be executed.
Egeon seems to think death will be a relief and the curious Duke asks why. Egeon sighs and begins his tale. In Syracuse, he had married a woman he loved:
With her I lived in joy, our wealth increased
By prosperous voyages I often made
—Act I, scene i, lines 38-41
Epidamnum (or Epidamnus) was a Greek city-state on what is now the coast of Albania; on the site, indeed, of Durres, Albania's chief port.
Epidamnum is, actually, the other city used by Plautus, in place of Shakespeare's Ephesus, and in a way it is more suitable. Epidamnum is three hundred miles northeast of Syracuse; Ephesus twice as far; and one might suppose that the nearer neighbors two cities are, the more likely they are to quarrel.
Epidamnum became Roman in 229 b.c., so that Plautus was writing the play not long after the end of the city's independence.
Why did Shakespeare switch from Epidamnum to Ephesus? Perhaps because Ephesus was far more familiar to Christians. Two centuries after Plautus' death it became one of the centers of the very early Christian church. One of the letters in the New Testament attributed to St. Paul is the Epistle to the Ephesians.