Benedick and the Mask of Misogyny

Originally published in The Mallard.

Among the first plays I often assign to my teenage tutorial students is Much Ado About Nothing. Written somewhere in 1598-1599 and within a year of Henry VJulius Caesar, and As You Like It, the play shows Shakespeare as by then a master of Comedy and features several tropes that exemplify the genre. The would-be disastrous elements that might threaten tragedy—the plot to deceive Claudio by soiling Hero’s name, the apparent death by grief of the heroine, the turning of brothers-in-arms against each other—are kept safely within the realm of Comedy via ironic backstops—the fact that the miscreants are already captured before the terrible wedding scene, the dramatic irony that the whole mess might have been cleared up if Leonato had stopped to listen to the constables’ report or if Dogberry knew the words he was using, &c.

Much Ado’s consistently exemplifying the upside-down nature of Comedy—a masquerade allowing characters to speak honestly, a pair of fake wooing scenes that leads to confessions of real love, a misunderstanding on the constables’ part that leads to correct apprehension of the villains—all make it my favorite of Shakespeare’s comedies. Just as I use it as my students’ inaugural Shakespeare, I usually recommend Much Ado to people who want a decent entry into Shakespeare outside of the classroom, especially if they can find a good production of it.

In addition to Shakespeare’s reworking of familiar tropes in new ways, readers and audiences will find in Much Ado another staple of Elizabethan Comedy: bawdy jokes. Within the first few lines, banter of a specific strain is introduced that underscores and arguably provokes the main conflict surrounding Claudio and Hero: that of cuckoldry. After some initial exposition of the recent battles by a messenger to the local governor Leonato (as well as a bit too much protesting on Beatrice’s part about a Signior Benedick), the soldiers show up, and the preeminent Don Pedro notes Leonato’s daughter, provoking the lewd joke and theme:

Don Pedro:

I think this is your daughter.


 Her mother hath many times told me so.


Were you in doubt, sir, that you asked her?


Signior Benedick, no; for then were you a child.

Don Pedro:

You have it full, Benedick; we may guess by this what you are, being a man.—Truly, the lady fathers herself.—Be happy, lady; for you are like an honorable father.

Along with the casual bombast that unites the men (in which Beatrice soon partakes with as much alacrity as they), there is a suggestion of Benedick’s reputation as a supposed worrier of husbands. Whether or not this actually is his reputation and character (doubtful, as we’ll see) or whether it is merely a ribald compliment by a man too old to have participated in the recent action, it establishes Benedick as synonymous with the play’s one-up-manship and humorous outrage, often at the expense of women—here, the joker’s dead wife.

And there’s the rub, at least for modern readers: can we enjoy a play that is built, from incidental banter to entire plot structure, on a suspicion of women? Furthermore, are we allowed to compass—and, God forfend, enjoy—a man like Signior Benedick?

No less than Shakespeare’s Globe has taken up the first question in an examination of the play by Dr. Miranda Fay Thomas, whose treatment is well done. Using Beatrice’s cry of “O God, that I were a man!” as a jumping-off point, Thomas explores the recourses available to men and not women through the play, from the initial male bonding to “the ability to take personal revenge on offenders like Claudio, openly defy father-figures like Leonato, or even simply to fall in love with a person of her choosing and for her affection not to be seen as weakness, nor her sexual desires be used as evidence of her inconstant character.” The article continues through an examination of possible reasons for the play’s focus on the men’s apparent insecurity; “the very fact that women can hurt them emotionally,” Thomas argues, “is a chink in their armour that they do not want to be exposed.” This theme, of course, can be found throughout the play, a fact of which Thomas argues Shakespeare, whom she demarcates from his characters, was conscious, using as he does the imbalance of female characters (notably played by men at the time) “to his advantage by allowing us to see how vulnerable women like Hero and Beatrice could be in Elizabethan society.”

Though I don’t share all her interpretations of either the play itself or of today’s society, I believe Dr. Thomas’s argument worth the read, and one that, unlike some takes, does constructively add to the discourse. The broader critique of Much Ado along these lines, if undertaken to add to rather than subtract from our enjoyment of the play and if one avoids substituting mere criticizing for literary criticism, is a legitimate and fruitful one—and, in fact, jejune to the text.

The play, itself, examines the “battle of the sexes” tropes of Comedy, though I think ultimately to edify and expand the genre. While I don’t believe for a second that Shakespeare’s primary goal as a writer was social critique, the entire structure and tension of several of his comedies rest on some kind of imbalance between men and women that must be resolved by play’s end, and he milks the dramatic potential of said imbalances for all they’re worth. Much Ado would be boring if Beatrice weren’t more than equal to Benedick—who, we should note, is usually the butt rather than head of the play’s jokes—and much of the play’s ado could have been spared had the men simply listened to the women (a common theme in comedy that venerates both sexes and their respective complement). So, if there is what we’d today call sexism in the play, it does not necessitate that we vilify the whole thing, itself, as sexist. Indeed, the way Much Ado works out undercuts the soldiers’ suspicion of women; such insecurity as is veiled in the above joke and the broader plot ends up doing more harm than good to the men, and is eventually chastised—a formula Shakespeare reused again more seriously in The Winter’s Tale, among others.

However, we are left with the question of what to do with Benedick. To first-time audiences, Benedick would be the obvious source of the play’s supposed misogyny. Besides the low-hanging fruit of his name (full pun intended—as Shakespeare meant such things to be!), his persona of being too good for most women and living proudly as a bachelor lends him to modern castigation.

In Act II, Scene 3, Benedick soliloquizes:

I do much wonder that one man, seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates his behaviors to love, will, after he hath laughed at such shallow follies in others, become the argument of his own scorn by falling in love…May I be so converted and see with these eyes? I cannot tell; I think not…One woman is fair, yet I am well; another is wise, yet I am well; another virtuous, yet I am well; but till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace. Rich she shall be, that’s certain; wise, or I’ll none; virtuous, or I’ll never cheapen her; fair, or I’ll never look on her; mild, or come not near me; noble, or not I for an angel; of good discourse, an excellent musician, and her hair shall be of what colour it please God.

One’s initial response, nowadays (to our absolute peril), might have to be an at least prudent, defensive cringe on Benedick’s behalf against his own words. With the speech’s objectification, impossible beauty standards, fat-shaming, slut-shaming, ableism, &c, one can imagine the modern response. Yet, to the student or prospective audience member who would question whether we should laud such a chauvinistic, misogynistic, ableist, probably racist character, I’d say yes—because I don’t think he’s any of those things.

One general piece of wisdom is that when Shakespeare hands us a foil, be it a sword or a character dichotomy, we should pick it up. Benedick’s words—indeed, his entire character throughout the play—must be measured against Claudio. Before the metaphysical battle in 19th-century art and literature between Romanticism and Realism, Shakespeare had already staged the fight in several of his plays and poems; in Much Ado, it can be seen in Benedick and Claudio’s contrasting approaches to love.

Like many other romantics in Shakespeare, the inexperienced Claudio is taken away by his passion for Hero. While he arguably has the flimsy excuse of being new to this sort of thing, several aspects of his behavior point to the shallowness of his passion. Besides the fact that much of his language regarding Hero is that of commodity and trade, Claudio is just as easily led out of love as he was into it—a function of his romance’s being, from start to finish, based on externals. If we didn’t already know it, the play, itself, shows us such things can mislead for both negative and positive effects; in lieu of a play-within-a-play we are even treated to a masquerade that serves as a microcosm of the play and concretizes several of its core themes. Although the blame for Claudio’s rejection at the wedding ceremony explicitly and legally belongs more to Don John and Boracchio’s deception than to Claudio, the young romantic who leaves himself most vulnerable to passionate love nonetheless causes much harm by it.

This is a far cry from the supposedly woman-hating Benedick. For all his defensiveness against romance—and I do believe it is a defensiveness, a control and limit around an existing vulnerability, as Dr. Thomas suggests above, though one I think constructed as much to protect women from his own actions as himself from theirs—Benedick causes very little anguish in the play. Not until his conflict, the quintessential questioning of that venerable dictum “Bros before hoes,” is concretized by Beatrice’s requirement that loving her means killing Claudio, is there any real possibility of Benedick’s causing pain to a woman. Even then, the bashful man who declares his love for Beatrice is very different from the one who previously enumerated the terms of his proud but stagnant bachelorhood (the embarrassing, quickening changes brought by love being another core trope of Comedy).

Examined again with his later humility in mind, the speech reveals that he is not as sure against love as he might wish to seem; leaving room for the scene’s humorous extemporizing, he has his list of traits ready. Furthermore, anyone who knows the blindness of love qua comic trope and has been paying attention can see that he is describing, for the most part, Beatrice, herself. “Fair…wise…virtuous…mild [(eh, can’t win ’em all)]…noble…of good discourse…” He has already admitted most of these about the woman before his notorious monologue. If he doesn’t have her consciously in mind, his subconscious is at least primed for the scene’s later ploy by the rest of the men to have him overhear words of Beatrice’s affection.

To the modern reader or student, I would submit that far from hating women Benedick actually respects both them and himself enough not to mislead them. Further, I don’t believe he is as uninterested in them as he makes out—for consider how quickly he is directed towards Beatrice. One cannot turn an engine empty of fuel. However, his shortsightedness aside, he apparently knows himself and what it will take to make him genuinely committed, not just in name like Claudio. I’d even read his high standards as a confession of a knowledge of his own passion, which he has wisely and philogynically kept controlled behind an off-putting mask of bravado and bachelorhood—a veritable Elizabethan St. Christopher! Perhaps that’s a bit far. Nonetheless, brash and arrogant he may be, but he’s not the one who ruins Leonato’s daughter’s wedding day (I write this as a new father of a daughter far prettier than I was prepared for).

It may seem contradictory to hide a respect and love for women behind a mask of brash misogyny; yet, it is not the only time Shakespeare uses the ploy. The oft-maligned Petruccio, with a more blatant misogyny than Benedick’s, mimics and turns the tables on Kate’s shrewish misandry and, in Dr. Peter Saccio’s words in his excellent lecture series on Shakespeare, thereby releases her from said misandry and “teaches her to play.” Or, consider Hamlet’s much more vicious and tragic rejection of Ophelia, which he, as prince, must arguably do for her own good (though, in my opinion and his mask of madness aside, Hamlet is more a Claudio than a Benedick, and, at the risk of channeling Polonius, I wouldn’t want him near my daughter). Finally, for a dramatized examination of Prince Hal’s mask, read the Prologue to my novel Sacred Shadows and Latent Light.

In a time where even the mention of certain words, concepts, or perspectives can lead to the extirpation of an artist or his or her work, the lesson of Benedick bears stating explicitly: yes, characters do not equal the author, but neither may our shallow interpretations of characters equal the actual character. Forgive my being anachronistic and offering yet more unasked-for wisdom for reading his writing, but if Shakespeare sets up a Chekov’s gun (or a Leonato’s joke, as it were), it will go off—or be undercut and nuanced—by play’s end. The outrage in Much Ado should not be read as misogyny for its own sake, nor should masks of things like misogyny, conscious or unconscious, be taken for the real thing; rather, the low view of women sets up for the comic treatment of masculine bravado—which, in the form of Benedick and the revealed depths of his character, bashfully wants to respect, protect, and be loved by the very femininity it warily eschews.

The remedy, to further take something from Nothing, is to trust that Shakespeare (and, dare I say, other authors of the canon) and his characters have more depth than we can initially see. Beatrice and Benedick cure each other of their respective shrewishness and bachelorhood; may it not be that learning to enjoy characters such as they and works such as Much Ado, would cure modern interpretations of their own mask of love and philanthropy, which, like that of Claudio or of Don John, may very well hide a much deeper misogyny?

This is not to say we should avoid legitimate criticism (though, again, literary criticism =/= merely criticizing the perceived faults of a work), but such examination, in addition to seeking to build our knowledge for present and future readers, should approach works directly yet humbly. As I have noted in previous pieces, authors like Shakespeare already contain in their works and answer many of the critiques we might make.


Dark Humour for the Red King: The Drunk Porter in Macbeth

Originally published by The Mallard.

“Knock, knock—who’s there?”

Whenever one of my tutorial students is assigned (or, let’s be honest, barely mentions) Macbeth, I go into a certain and by now well-rehearsed tangent on how Shakespeare’s arguably darkest play contains one of the most peculiar scenes in his canon—and the origin of what is now considered a passe pretext to employ a bad pun, the knock-knock joke. Mentioning that last part usually lands me at least a few minutes of fleeting teenage attention, wherein I talk about everything from Shakespeare, to dark humour, to how Shakespeare’s darkest tragedy produced one of our lightest joke forms.

Of course, the knock-knock joke, as we know it, owes less to Shakespeare than to the innovation of 1930s English radio host Wee Georgie Wood, with his turning the Porter’s words into his catch phrase of “knock, knock, who’s there?” By the middle of the Great Depression, when the average Joe and Jane were presumably in need of an easy laugh, the joke form was sufficiently popular in the US that a Columbus, OH, theater’s contest for the best knock-knock jokes was “literally swamped” with entries (I’m sure the $1 cash prize didn’t hurt the contest’s popularity). The popularity of the supposedly low-humour knock, knock joke amidst the depression (both economic and psychological) may not owe anything directly to Shakespeare, but I do think it relates back to the original Porter scene, which is the main subject of this article.

My purpose here is not to provide a definitive reading of the Porter’s monologue, nor to ultimately solve the puzzle of what, exactly, the scene is doing in the play; better scholarship is available for those interested than the motes I will, nonetheless, offer here. My aim is to consider what Shakespeare’s following arguably the least justified regicide in his canon with a comical drunk can tell us about humour’s role in helping people navigate tragedy. And, if it sheds light on why knock, knock jokes (or other seemingly low, tactless, or dark forms of humour) may grow especially popular in uncertain times, so much the better.

“Here’s a knocking indeed!”

Macbeth Act 2 Scene 3                                                      

[Knocking within. Enter a Porter.]                                                            

PORTER     Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were

porter of hell gate, he should have old turning the


The lone on-stage partaker in the carousing at King Duncan’s visit to Inverness, the drunken Porter is one of the play’s few examples of plebians not directly connected with the nobility. However, unlike Hamlet’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the Porter remains, like a latter day Falstaff, insulated against the intrigue that surrounds him by drink, imagination, and low jokes.

Brought onstage by the knocking of MacDuff and Lennox (as if in ironic answer to Macbeth’s present wish that Duncan might wake), the Porter shows that, like Macbeth, he has a very active imagination. In fact, since Coleridge’s dismissal and omission of the scene as an inauthentic interpolation, many 20th-century critical readings have safely secured it back in its rightful place by pointing out, among other things, the Porter’s not merely contrasting but paralleling his master. Presumably rudely awakened and hungover, he fancies himself the porter of Hell and in the employ of a devil. Of course, the supreme irony throughout the scene involves his ignorance of how close to the truth his fantasy comes.

(Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i’

th’ name of Beelzebub? Here’s a farmer that hanged

himself on th’ expectation of plenty. Come in time!                       5

Have napkins enough about you; here you’ll sweat for ’t.

The Porter imagines admitting three denizens, each of whom, scholars have noted, can stand as a metaphor for Macbeth and his actions. The first imagined entrant is a farmer who, having hoarded grain in expectation of a shortage, hangs himself at the price drop produced by a surplus. As the play, if not the tragic genre, itself, is about the ends not aligning with expectation, the image of the farmer of course foreshadows the results of Macbeth’s betting too much on the Weird Sisters’ presentiments. Although in the end it is Lady Macbeth who commits suicide, Macbeth’s language near the end becomes more fatalistic the more vulnerable he gets, with his final fight with the prophesied MacDuff amounting to arguable suicide (to see an excellent rendition of the swap of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s psychologies by play’s end, see Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth—and my review of it). Adding to the irony of the scene is the fact that, according to Christopher Jackson, Shakespeare, himself, was an investor in and hoarder of grain against shortages. One wonders how many times he had thought of the image before writing this scene—and if he smirked while employing it. 

(Knock.) Knock, knock! Who’s there, in th’

other devil’s name? Faith, here’s an equivocator

that could swear in both the scales against either

scale, who committed treason enough for God’s                           10

sake yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in,


Next in the Porter’s fantasy is an equivocator, one whose ambiguous use of language can help him with earthly scales but not heavenly. Historicist critics point to this moment as an allusion to the Jesuit father Henry Garnet, executed in 1605 for his participation in the Gunpowder Plot (to which 1606’s Macbeth can be read as a reaction). In his trial, Garnet was criticized for equivocating to keep from revealing details of the plot without explicitly lying; he was subsequently hanged, drawn, and quartered in May 1606.

While said reference is informative, if nothing else, about Shakespeare’s possible view of the Gunpowder Plot (unsurprising to anyone who knows what happens to regicides in his canon), one’s reading should not stop there. The Porter’s landing an equivocator in Hell points, again, to the play’s titular character. It should be remembered that before he commits the play’s central tragic act, Macbeth goes through a rigorous process of thought to spur himself to the deed, often playing on or completely omitting language—that is, equivocating—to justify the assassination (which, as a word, is first used in English in his “If it were done when ‘tis done” speech in I.7; not carrying the weight it does today, the coinage was an example of Macbeth distancing himself from the reality of the murder).

Furthermore, the Porter’s focus on equivocators here and later in the scene (he displays some comic equivocation of his own on the virtues and dangers of drink, unknowingly stalling MacDuff and Lennox long enough for Macbeth and Lady M. to cover up Duncan’s murder) foreshadows Macbeth’s beginning “To doubt the equivocation” of the Weird Sisters’ prophecy about Birnam Wood’s coming to Dunsinane (V.5). Indeed, the infernal dangers of ambiguous language (or of trusting one’s initial interpretation thereof) constitute one of the play’s primary themes. Among other things, Macbeth’s pointing this out establishes a further parallel between the Porter and himself.

(Knock.) Knock, knock, knock! Who’s

there? Faith, here’s an English tailor come hither for

stealing out of a French hose. Come in, tailor. Here

you may roast your goose.

The last of the Porter’s imagined wards has landed in Hell for cheating English courtiers while providing them with French fashion; whether he played on his customers ignorance of how much the new fancies cost or whether Shakespeare—err, the Porter—is making a joke about French fashion being worthy of eternal damnation, I’ll decline to decide. Perhaps both readings (or one I’m missing entirely) are meant, offering sympathetic humour to both courtiers who have been gulled with exaggerated prices and to the commons who might enjoy a good skewering of the foppish trends of their betters. The dual metaphor of the roasted goose—referring both to a tailor’s hot iron called a “goose” and to the idiom “his goose is cooked”—continues the play’s theme regarding the dangers of trying to succeed through proscribed means, besides adding to the dramatic irony of the Porter’s describing his own boss’s trajectory.

(Knock.) Knock, knock!                              15

Never at quiet.—What are you?—But this place is

too cold for hell. I’ll devil-porter it no further. I had

thought to have let in some of all professions that go

the primrose way to th’ everlasting bonfire. (Knock.)

Anon, anon!

The Porter, like Macbeth, seems to have an imagination as limitless as it is abysmal—such that he could presumably find a place in it for individuals of all professions. Also like his master, he fantasizes about a position higher (or, rather, lower) than he currently holds. That he stops not for lack of imagination but for the prosaic physical discomfort of being cold contrasts with how Macbeth eventually gives up all comforts in trying to achieve the crown. However, even here he parallels Macbeth, as both are ultimately unable to keep reality—whether the cold or the vengeance of the prophesied MacDuff—from interrupting their fantasies.

And yet, that the Porter identifies Inverness, itself, as too cold to sufficiently imagine Hell is, itself, a possible nod to the, under James I, verboten Catholic-Thomistic-Aligherian view of Hell’s lowest levels as being the frozen lake of traitors. However, Shakespeare skates past the Protestant censors, for it is not Hell the Porter is describing, but Scotland, and at its center at the very moment preceding this scene is not Satan, or the traitors Judas, Brutus, or Cassius, but Macbeth—who is, of course, all of these.

“…it provokes and unprovokes…”

 But why does the Playwright link the worst regicide in his canon to a comic scene? Of course, as I mention above, plot-wise the Porter stalls the discovery of the play’s central crime. Furthermore, thematically the Porter both contrasts and mirrors Macbeth, which in different eras has been interpreted as alternatively demonizing the latter by the monologue’s subject and humanizing him by stressing a congruence with the common man.

The impropriety of the scene—joking about souls lately gone to Hell, when the unshriven Duncan, himself, has just entered the afterlife—highlights the very tension from which the Jacobean audience may have needed relief. As has been pointed out, an assassination plot against James I and Parliament had just the year before been foiled. Moreover, set in a medieval context where the death of a monarch had cosmic repercussions, the choice to distance the focus from the play’s main action may have been meant to increase the suspense—here, not merely the suspense before an expected surprise, but also the chaotic metaphysical suspension between monarchs—rather than comically relieve it. And this is assuming the comic relief does not fail due to its utter tactlessness, or to a high number of Malvolios in the audience determined to see the scene as an interruption of the play’s sombre pathos.

And yet, even being outraged by dark humour accomplishes the humour’s possible goal of helping one navigate a tragedy. For that is what I believe this scene—and most dark humour—is meant to accomplish: facilitate the audience’s psychological survival of the author’s darkest tragedy. Both inappropriate laughter and rage at impropriety—and even confusion about the scene’s strangeness—are preferable to the despair that leads eventually to Macbeth’s nihilism and Lady Macbeth’s suicide.

The Porter is not a good guy; indeed, his humour, like Falstaff’s, inheres in his being disreputable. Similarly, the scene is not openly funny, nor does it offer any kind of saccharine “everything will be alright” triteness. I, myself, am not satisfied to read it the way the play at large has conventionally been interpreted, as an implicit promise that divine justice will prevail and Macbeth will get his comeuppance like the farmer, equivocator, and tailor do; there are too many questions about Scotland’s future left unsatisfied by play’s end to settle on such a reading, just as there are arguably as many parallels between Macbeth and the play’s hero MacDuff as between Macbeth and the Porter. Rather, the scene’s salutary power paradoxically lies in its pushing the horror of Duncan’s murder even farther—by joking about souls lately knocking at Hell’s gate, with the Porter standing in as a kind of anti-St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. In so doing, the Porter scene lampoons the Macbeths’ expectation that they can somehow cheat fate, and his scene, more than the one before it, foreshadows the trend of the rest of the play.

As with the subtext of other examples of ironic humour, the Porter is not mocking the sympathetic Duncan, but implicitly commiserating with him and other victims of fate, fortune, or perfidy. By following Macbeth’s crime with a drunken Porter utterly disconnected from it who, nonetheless, perfectly names and exagerrates the themes involved, Shakespeare subsumes the play’s tragic act into the absurd, at least for a moment—and a moment is all that’s needed. By pointing out the reality of the play’s horror while safely containing it within a hyperbolically ironic, almost Chaucerian, tableaux, Shakespeare sets the standard for how well-placed instances of low and dark humour—from knock-knock jokes to self-deprication to suicide memes—can help contextualize tragedy, depression, and trauma in manageable ways.

One might balk (quite rightly) at the idea of telling a joke right after a tragedy like the assassination of a beloved king, considering it too soon and not the time for humour, but Shakespeare? Apparently he thought that was exactly when to employ humour—especially of a certain darker yet therapeutic type. It’s taken a few centuries, but scientific studies, so far as they go, have caught up with and confirmed Shakespeare’s using such humour as a way to help his audiences regulate their emotions in his plays’ more dreadful moments. Far be it from us to censure what the Playwright thought within the pale—and how dare we dismiss even the humble knock, knock joke as anything but profound and, sometimes, just what we need.

Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth: An Examination and Review

Originally published by The Mallard.

A new film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Scottish tragedy, Joel Coen’s 2021 The Tragedy of Macbeth is the director’s first production without his brother Ethan’s involvement. Released in select theaters on December 25, 2021, and then on Apple TV on January 14, 2022, the production has received positive critical reviews as well as awards for screen adaptation and cinematography, with many others still pending.

As with any movie review, I encourage readers who plan to see the film to do so before reading my take. While spoilers probably aren’t an issue here, I would not want to unduly influence one’s experience of Coen’s take on the play. Overall, though much of the text is omitted, some scenes are rearranged, and some roles are reduced and others expanded, I found the adaptation to be a generally faithful one that only improved with subsequent views. Of course, the substance of the play is in the performances of Denzel Washington and Frances McDormand, but their presentation of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth is enhanced by both the production and supporting performances.

Production: “where nothing, | But who knows nothing, is once seen to smile” —IV.3

The Tragedy of Macbeth’s best element is its focus on the psychology of the main characters, explored below. This focus succeeds in no small part due to its minimalist aesthetic. Filmed in black and white, the play utilizes light and shadow to downplay the external historical conflicts and emphasize the characters’ inner ones.

Though primarily shown by the performances, the psychological value conflicts of the characters are concretized by the adaptation’s intended aesthetic. In a 2020 Indiewire interview, composer and long-time-Coen collaborator Carter Burwell said that Joel Coen filmed The Tragedy of Macbeth on sound stages, rather than on location, to focus more on the abstract elements of the play. “It’s more like a psychological reality,” said Burwell. “That said, it doesn’t seem stage-like either. Joel has compared it to German Expressionist film. You’re in a psychological world, and it’s pretty clear right from the beginning the way he’s shot it.”

This is made clear from the first shots’ disorienting the sense of up and down through the use of clouds and fog, which continue as a key part of the staging throughout the adaptation. Furthermore, the bareness of Inverness Castle channels the focus to the key characters’ faces, while the use of odd camera angles, unreal shadows, and distorted distances reinforce how unnatural is the play’s central tragic action, if not to the downplayed world of Scotland, then certainly to the titular couple. Even when the scene leaves Inverness to show Ross and MacDuff discussing events near a ruined building at a crossroads (Act II.4), there is a sense that, besides the Old Man in the scene, Scotland is barren and empty.

The later shift to England, where Malcolm, MacDuff, and Ross plan to retake their homeland from now King Macbeth, further emphasizes this by being shot in an enclosed but bright and fertile wood. Although many of the historical elements of the scene are cut, including the contrast between Macbeth and Edward the Confessor and the mutual testing of mettle between Malcolm and MacDuff, the contrast in setting conveys the contrast between a country with a mad Macbeth at its head and the one that presumably would be under Malcolm. The effect was calming in a way I did not expect—an experience prepared by the consistency of the previous acts’ barren aesthetic.

Yet, even in the forested England, the narrow path wherein the scene takes place foreshadows the final scenes’ being shot in a narrow walkway between the parapets of Dunsinane, which gives the sense that, whether because of fate or choice rooted in character, the end of Macbeth’s tragic deed is inevitable. The explicit geographical distance between England and Scotland is obscured as the same wood becomes Birnam, and as, in the final scenes, the stone pillars of Dunsinane open into a background of forest. This, as well as the spectacular scene where the windows of the castle are blown inward by a storm of leaves, conveys the fact that Macbeth cannot remain isolated against the tragic justice brought by Malcom and MacDuff forever, and Washington’s performance, which I’ll explore presently, consistently shows that the usurper has known it all along.

This is a brilliant, if subtle, triumph of Coen’s adaptation: it presents Duncan’s murder and the subsequent fallout as a result less of deterministic fate and prophecy and more of Macbeth’s own actions and thoughts in response to it—which, themselves, become more determined (“predestined” because “wilfull”) as Macbeth further convinces himself that “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill” (III.2).

Performances:  “To find the mind’s construction in the face” —I.4

Film adaptations of Shakespeare can run the risk of focusing too closely on the actors’ faces, which can make keeping up with the language a chore even for experienced readers (I’m still scarred from the “How all occasions” speech from Branagh’s 1996 Hamlet); however, this is rarely, if ever, the case here, where the actors’ and actresses’ pacing and facial expressions combine with the cinematography to carry the audience along. Yet, before I give Washington and McDormand their well-deserved praise, I would like to explore the supporting roles.

In Coen’s adaptation, King Duncan is a king at war, and Brendan Gleeson plays the role well with subsequent dourness. Unfortunately, this aspect of the interpretation was, in my opinion, one of its weakest. While the film generally aligns with the Shakespearean idea that a country under a usurper is disordered, the before-and-after of Duncan’s murder—which Coen chooses to show onscreen—is not clearly delineated enough to signal it as the tragic conflict that it is. Furthermore, though many of his lines are adulatory to Macbeth and his wife, Gleeson gives them with so somber a tone that one is left emotionally uninvested in Duncan by the time he is murdered.

Though this is consistent with the production’s overall austerity, it does not lend much to the unnaturalness of the king’s death. One feels Macbeth ought not kill him simply because he is called king (a fully right reason, in itself) rather than because of any real affection between Macbeth and his wife for the man himself. However, though I have my qualms, this may have been the right choice for a production focused on the psychological elements of the plot; by downplaying the emotional connection between the Macbeths and Duncan (albeit itself profoundly psychological), Coen focuses on the effects of murder as an abstraction.

The scene after the murder and subsequent framing of the guards—the drunken porter scene—was the one I most looked forward to in the adaptation, as it is in every performance of Macbeth I see. The scene is the most apparent comic relief in the play, and it is placed in the moment where comic relief is paradoxically least appropriate and most needed (the subject of a planned future article). When I realized, between the first (ever) “Knock, knock! Who’s there?” and the second, that the drunk porter was none other than comic actor Stephen Root (Office SpaceKing of the HillDodgeball), I knew the part was safe.

I was not disappointed. The drunken obliviousness of Root’s porter, coming from Inverness’s basement to let in MacDuff and Lennox, pontificating along the way on souls lately gone to perdition (unaware that his king has done the same just that night) before elaborating to the new guests upon the merits and pitfalls of drink, is outstanding. With the adaptation’s other removal of arguably inessential parts and lines, I’m relieved Coen kept as much of the role as he did.

One role that Coen expanded in ways I did not expect was that of Ross, played by Alex Hassell. By subsuming other minor roles into the character, Coen makes Ross into the unexpected thread that ties much of the plot together. He is still primarily a messenger, but, as with the Weird Sisters whose crow-like costuming his resembles, he becomes an ambiguous figure by the expansion, embodying his line to Lady MacDuff that “cruel are the times, when we are traitors | And do not know ourselves” (IV.2). In Hassell’s excellent performance, Ross seems to know himself quite well; it is we, the audience, who do not know him, despite his expanded screentime. By the end, Ross was one of my favorite aspects of Coen’s adaptation.

The best part of The Tragedy of Macbeth is, of course, the joint performance by Washington and McDormand of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The beginning of the film finds the pair later in life, with presumably few mountains left to climb. Washington plays Macbeth as a man tired and introverted, which he communicates by often pausing before reacting to dialogue, as if doing so is an afterthought. By the time McDormand comes onscreen in the first of the film’s many corridor scenes mentioned above, her reading and responding to the letter sent by Macbeth has been primed well enough for us to understand her mixed ambition yet exasperation—as if the greatest obstacle is not the actual regicide but her husband’s hesitancy.

Throughout The Tragedy of Macbeth their respective introspection and ambition reverse, with Washington eventually playing the confirmed tyrant and McDormand the woman internalized by madness. If anyone needed a reminder of Washington and McDormand’s respective abilities as actor and actress, one need only watch them portray the range of emotion and psychological depth contained in Shakespeare’s most infamous couple.

Conclusion: “With wit enough for thee”—IV.2

One way to judge a Shakespeare production is whether someone with little previous knowledge of the play and a moderate grasp of Shakespeare’s language would understand and become invested in the characters and story; I hazard one could do so with Coen’s adaptation. It does take liberties with scene placement, and the historical and religious elements are generally removed or reduced. However, although much of the psychology that Shakespeare includes in the other characters is cut, the minimalist production serves to highlight Washington and McDormand’s respective performances. The psychology of the two main characters—the backbone of the tragedy that so directly explores the nature of how thought and choice interact—is portrayed clearly and dynamically, and it is this that makes Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth an excellent and, in my opinion, ultimately true-to-the-text adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Shakespeare—That Villainous Abominable Misleader of Youth

Originally written for and published by The Mallard.

[They] Shall now…
March all one way, and be no more opposed
Against acquaintance, kindred, and allies.

King Henry IV, Henry IV Part 1, I.1

In her notes laying out the philosophy and character of Ellsworth Toohey, the primary antagonist of The Fountainhead who, from his perch as a cultural commentator, subtly seeks to effect a socialist takeover of the early 20th-century America of the book, Ayn Rand wrote:

“Communism…is not merely an economic theory…Communism is, above all, a spiritual theory which denies the individual, not merely as an economic power, but in all and every respect…In opposing the existing order of society, it is not the big capitalists and their money that Toohey opposes…He says that he is fighting Rockefeller and Morgan; he is fighting Beethoven and Shakespeare…”

(quoted in Leonard Peikoff’s afterword to The Fountainhead).

Now, I have already written about why one should read Ayn Rand with a grain of salt, and her evaluation of Shakespeare as the godfather of nihilism is, in my opinion, a short-sighted “her problem”. Nonetheless, written in 1935, Rand’s description of Toohey have stuck with me since first reading it over a decade ago. Of course, further reading of writers before and after Rand, as well as contemporary attempts to equalize elements of the culture along with elements of the economy, have confirmed such an idea: that the impulse to collective equity is and has always been aimed at art as much as at economics, and that, because of its more fundamental power and meaning, for Marxists art may be the more important of the two to equalize.

The conceit that the movement initially presenting itself as an economic and political one might eventually come for Shakespeare and other greats motivated me to prepare as I studied the canon, should such a thing start to happen—and it left me unsurprised when it did.

It was inevitable that the restructuring of society proposed by Marxism—coming through a restructured higher academia, which, ironic to its erstwhile identity as the safeguard of knowledge, has become the vanguard of anti-canon advocacy—would eventually come for Shakespeare. Many of the liberal assumptions of what we call “Western Culture” arguably find their best, if not earliest, concretization in his works. That the targeting of Shakespeare has required such a long and deep process shows that he and the canon he represents are more fundamental to Western Culture than the politics or economics of any one generation. To speak generally, we may as well call it “Shakespearean Culture,” since the men and women who formed the classical liberal tradition were entertained, vitalized, and tempered by his plays.

Of course, this touches on the main argument against Shakespeare. Far from attesting the idea that there are universal elements in human nature that can find expression in great art, regardless of its place and time of origin, the very ubiquity of Shakespeare’s acceptance in non-English communities around the world is taken as evidence of the rapacious past of Western Culture, which is all the more vicious for having been made attractive to other peoples through the inuring subtleties of art. It is not a full representation of humanity one sees onstage—it is cultural propaganda; it is not human catharsis one experiences at the climactic moment—it is the internalized acceptance of an imperialistic oppression. And as for those Englishmen and women who esteem Shakespeare, it’s not because he’s “good”—you’ve only been told he is by the dominant power structure (he said humbly as a damned Yank).

I am, I’ll admit, overstating things; after all, diversifying what and how we read, as many institutions are doing, is very different from cutting any one writer (even if that writer is foundational to nearly all other writers). Furthermore, I don’t doubt that many advocating a reevaluation of what and how works are taught in primary schools and universities are in earnest; having been a teacher for over a decade and a reader for longer than that, I, myself, believe in taking the occasional Nietzsche’s hammer to our literary assumptions, if only to rediscover why authors like Shakespeare are worth reading. Yet, those who want to humbly and seriously decolonize their bookshelf, as the saying goes, might find no greater ally than Shakespeare, should they dare to read him seriously.

“Shakespeare’s First Folio,” British Library
Photo Credit.

My purpose here is not to elaborate all the ways that our culture—not just Western Culture but also its various counterculture movements—finds much of its origin in Shakespeare’s works, though there are many examples thereof. From giving the perspective of and examining the psychology of seeming villains (Richard IIIHamletMacbeth), to examining the tension between the elites and the plebs (Henry VI Part 2Julius CaesarCoriolanus), to giving women their due as multifaceted beings who at times dwarf the men in their lives (Much Ado About NothingTwelfth NightThe Winter’s Tale), to undermining the assumptions surrounding gender and behavior (As You Like ItThe Merry Wives of WindsorCymbeline), to humanizing and taking seriously the perspectives of  the “other” and of minorities (The Merchant of VeniceOthelloThe Tempest), to exposing the pretensions of language and cultural myths (A Midsummer Night’s DreamHenry IV Part 1Romeo and JulietHamlet again, King LearPericles), Shakespeare’s works are as deep as we’re willing to look, and his corpus stands as an edgeless Rorschach test where people of diverse and opposite views can both find what they’re looking for (and fight over which side Shakespeare belongs to in the process!).

But no, I come not to praise Shakespeare, for academia hath told you Shakespeare was problematic, and academia is an honorable clan! My purpose here is, rather, to say that we do not need to fear the removal of Shakespeare from our higher institutions, for whom, it’s worth noting, he was not writing in the first place. He can defend himself better and more cannily than we can, and, if the experience of Prince Hal can tell us anything, it’s that Shakespeare knows how to survive a culture’s reevaluation of its fundamental premises.

“Well, God be thanked for these rebels. They offend none but the virtuous.”

Falstaff, Henry IV Part 1, III.3

Prince Hal did not choose the prince life—the prince life chose him. The son of Henry Bolingbroke, whose campaign to take back family land recently removed by Richard II puts him on the throne, Hal is described in Richard II as being notably absent, instead recreating “‘mongst the taverns…With unrestrained loose companions” (V.3). From his first mentioning, Prince Hal is caught between the chivalric tradition of King Richard’s court and the populism of his father’s move to usurp the king.

However, Richard II’s plot is no mere case of revolt against tradition. The play opens with Bolingbroke accusing the Duke of Norfolk (and, implicitly, the king) of killing the late Duke of Gloster to secure Richard’s claim to the throne. For all of his assuming the title and benefits of Divine Right and chivalric tradition established by Edward III and his son, Edward, Black Prince of Wales (called thus because of his dark armor—an aspect of the tradition Richard unpopularly neglects), Richard II is not a substantial representative of the forms he has received. Taking his authority for granted, he is blindsided when Bolingbroke, supported by the people and key members of the nobility, topples his pretentions and assumes the throne.

Yet, in doing so, Bolingbroke does not just kill a king and gain a crown. Because the royal hierarchy of Shakespeare’s plays is as metaphysical as it is literal and temporal, when Bolingbroke kills Richard (through insinuation, which he later denies, no less!), he is not just killing a man but the central source of authority and English identity—as well as the basis for his own legitimate rule. It should not be surprising, then, that for all his popular support, Bolingbroke is harried by counter-claims, rebellions, and his own neuroses throughout his reign. Once one shows that the previous source of authority can be questioned, how can one’s own authority with the same terms be assured? Does one simply try to uphold the previous forms of authority, or does one seek to further tear them down?

These are the two choices before Prince Hal in Henry IV Part 1, a main theme of which is the tension between Hal’s obligations as prince and future king and his lifestyle. The first choice is embodied in the “all-praised knight,” Henry “Hotspur” Percy, the other in Percy’s thematic opposite, the fat knight, Sir John Falstaff. While Hotspur presents himself as Harry’s rival (the characters compare the two from the first menion in RII V.3 to their climactic fight in 1HIV V.4), I believe it is Falstaff that is the greater threat to Prince Hal, and I believe the prince knows it. But more on that below.

The character who behaves the way everyone else expects Prince Hal to, Hotspur is all a father and king would want in a son and subject. He exemplifies the chivalry of England’s past, and even when he rises in rebellion against Henry IV, it is on behalf of maintaining honor against the slight of being dismissed by the king after helping him to the throne (Bolingbroke having recognized the awful truth that if Hotspur and his father, the Earl of Northumberland, can make a king, they can break a king). Reaching the point of caricature, Hotspur even flirts with his wife in a martial tenor (1HIV II.3).

However, because he so completely follows the form of the chivalric knight, Hotspur is easily manipulated. Previously used by Bolingbroke to achieve his throne in Richard II, Hotspur is similarly used and nearly abandoned by his uncle Worcester once his chivalric chauvinism becomes a liability. Not only does Hotspur’s tunnel-visioned maintenance of the old forms make him vulnerable to comprehension, but it blinds him to the threat that is Prince Hal. Dismissing him as the “nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales” (IV.1), implying that he believes Hal will run from battle, Hotspur is unprepared for the frat-boy-turned-warrior he meets and is killed by at Shrewsbury. Like Laertes in Hamlet, Hotspur’s refusal to pause and question his assumptions does not make him stronger but weaker, and he thus displays the danger for Hal to simply be the son his father wants him to be. To mimic Hotspur (who, himself, is a mimic and possible parody of previous knights) and simply play out the forms appropriate to his station would make Hal vulnerable to all the threats, martial and psychological, that surround his usurping father. Much safer (and more fun!) to let everyone believe, as does Hotspur, that he is merely a drunk in dereliction of his princely duties—or, as he calls them, “the debt I never promised” (1HIV I.2).

“Hal listens to Falstaff’s lies in Henry IV, Part 1,” Folger Shakespeare Library
Photo Credit.

And yet, the tavern is not without its dangers. If Hotspur represents an established but, thanks to Richard and Bolingbroke, empty tradition, then the knight of the public house, Sir Jack Falstaff represents the implicit razing of tradition and its hierarchy—again, both literal and metaphysical.

Falstaff advocates as much! In his first scene’s banter with Prince Hal, Falstaff pleads against punishing thieves with capital punishment. “[S]hall there be gallows standing in England when thou art king? And resolution thus fobb’d as it is with rusty curb of old father antick the law? Do not thou, when thought are king, hang a thief,” Falstaff asks, to which, in a phrasing readable as both humorous irony and ambiguous prophecy, Hal replies, “No; thou shalt” (1HIV I.2). In their ridiculous back-and-forths, which often contain as much sarcastic bite and, on Harry’s part, ominous prediction as open affection, Falstaff’s saturnalia and Harry’s royalty contest. Upon later hearing in Henry IV Part 2 that King Henry IV has died and Hal is king, Falstaff cries to his other taverngoers, “choose what office thou wilt in the land, ‘tis thine!…Let us take any man’s horses; the laws of England are at my commandment” (V.3). Throughout his time with Prince Hal, Falstaff represents and often advocates the overturning of the national order, placing thieves on top and men like the Lord Chief Justice (with whom he’s had a rivalry in 2HIV) on the bottom.

Like Falstaff’s gut, the irony of the situation is bottomless. One major joke is that in a state of usurpation, a thief is already on the throne, and the undoing of the metaphysical order of things has already been achieved. From this perspective, by advocating (not without constant irony and foolishness) his revolutionary goals for the court, Falstaff is merely making literal what is already implicit. The connection between Falstaff’s nihilism about royal hierarchy and the courts of Richard II and Henry IV is not merely theoretical; in a brief reference in 2HIV III.2, country justice Shallow reveals that Falstaff was once page to Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk—the same Norfolk used by Richard II to secure his throne, and who was exiled and died for the privilege. Knowing this, is it any surprise that, in V.1 of 1HIV, Falstaff should declare the emptiness of English chivalry, saying, “What is honour? a word…air”? Further, would not such a man try to prevent his young friend, Prince Hal, from assuming the highest position of that honor, at least not without a healthy dose of disillusionment?

I’ll so offend to make offense a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

Prince Henry, Henry IV Part 1, I.2

Just as the prince cannot afford to blithely act out the form of chivalry like Hotspur, Hal cannot safely doff the idea of that form, as Falstaff might implicitly have him do. Worse than killing a king is to kill the idea of kingship—to advocate the discarding of the virtues at the nation’s center. That such virtues have been emptied by such men as Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke is the central problem of Prince Hal’s accession to the throne: how to revive those virtues in an authentic and popularly-supported way.

Now, as with any virtue, such things must be lived out before they can be known as real, and nothing will lead to a disbelief in virtues as literally real things more than a literally real apathy concerning them. To paraphrase Aristotle, one must do courageous things before one experiences courage; so much for the confluence of Falstaff’s—or anyone else’s—unrestrained lifestyle, his seeming disbelief in things like honor, and his inveterate cowardice. Though the wild Prince Hal may be Hotspur’s worst enemy, Hotspur is not Prince Hal’s, since Hal is, after all, trying to restore the good aspects of Hotspur’s example. Harry’s real nemesis, so far as his kingship is concerned, is Falstaff, for he represents the nihilistic end and leveling of everything Hal is trying to resurrect. Hal identifies as much, as well as the caution with which he must treat Falstaff, et al., from the first. “I know you all, and will a while uphold | The unyoked humour of your idleness,” he says, switching from tavern prose to courtly verse as he predicts his future rejection of Falstaff just before his coronation in the final act of Henry IV Part 2 (1HIV I.2).

Of course, there are many worthwhile interpretations of this speech and its implications for the rest of the plays. Which is the real Hal, the one cavorting with Falstaff in the tavern, or the King Henry who hangs one of his previous tavern mates for stealing in Henry V? As Prince Hal transitions into King Henry V, is he progressively removing or putting on a mask? When are we hearing the real Harry? Between Bolingbroke and Falstaff, who is his more influential father figure, and who is Hal using to prepare him for his future? Or, in all of it, is the answer a nuanced mix, Hal being not a cipher for an ideology but a character—one of the roundest and most humanized in Shakespeare’s corpus?

These questions have enriched my life since my first semester of college, and I fully encourage my readers to consume Shakespeare’s history plays and decide for themselves. As with anything in life, we do not want to ask such questions without nuance; to assume we have Hal figured out is to risk being misled like so many Hotspurs. Harry can love and learn from Falstaff even while he rejects his politics—an enormous lesson there. Harry’s developing such nuance is kind of the point. In my opinion, Harry’s achievement is his realizing (indeed, surpassing) the popular support of his father while embodying chivalric honor in his campaign for land rightfully belonging to England. Against the constant criticism of Richard II and Henry IV for their lack of such a campaign, Harry’s revival of the mantle of English royalty last embodied by Edward III and his son is established in the words of the King of France in Henry V: “Think we King Harry strong…he is bred out of that bloody strain | That haunted us in our familiar paths…This is a stem | Of that victorious stock” (II.4).

Of course, cynics may say that this is just so much propaganda, placed into the enemy king’s mouth by an English author to justify imperialism—a criticism in which Shakespeare, himself, engages, having written King Harry to question the merits and methods of chivalric campaigning. Nonetheless, for the present argument, is King Charles VI here describing the same Hal who has previously described his own ability to drink with the lowest Londoner “in his own language,” and of humbly wishing for “small beer” (1HIV II.4; 2HIV II.2)? Yes—and that’s Prince Hal’s great power: that he is noble enough to embody the highest virtues of his country while still being humble enough to share life with the least of his constituents (politicians of all persuasions take heed!). Moreover, he is not precious about the forms wherein nobility appears, having learned the capacity of inherited traditions to inveigle reality, as well as the necessary balance between being and seeming.

(By the way, if anyone’s eyebrows rose at my painting Falstaff as Prince Hal’s ideological nemesis, I guarantee they did not rise so high as my faculty overseers’ when I claimed as much at my undergraduate thesis defense. Over a decade of further study, experience, and ruminating has shown me I dare not pretend to have Sir Jack Falstaff figured out; I doubt he is merely a short-sighted advocate of political saturnalia, just as I doubt he is a shrewdly disguised architect of the destruction of value. Indeed, from a certain perspective, Falstaff may very well want Hal to reestablish the authority of the crown, and is using his life as a wastrel as cover to cannily train Hal to understand and maneuver the absolute state of things. It’s noteworthy that for all his verbal poinards, he is always willing to be the butt of the joke, and that every exchange leaves Prince Hal looking better—or that may just be political expediency! Like the playwright whose name his parallels, Falstaff is smarter than we, and we underestimate him at our peril).

“A Trio of Fools”
Photo owned by Dustin Lovell

The thieves have bound the true men. Now could thou and I rob the thieves…

Prince Henry, Henry IV Part 1, II.2

But what does any of this have to do with the cancellation (real or threatened) of Shakespeare in our higher institutions? Well, what does the emptying of chivalry or the razing of the social hierarchy in Shakespeare’s histories have to do with Prince Hal? The answer is, everything, and our response should be Hal’s. If the institutions of recent generations have, like Richard II and Bolingbroke, shaken the past’s regard for Shakespeare, the answer may not be to do as Hotspur does and devote our energy to keeping that regard alive in those institutions; one does not beat a juggernaut by charging it head-on. Nor should we simply roll over and accept the premises of the anti-canon push by assuming, as do they, that because such things seem shakable they are meaningless or malignant. In the end, it may not be Shakespeare who has been shaken. If the academy has lost its conviction for Shakespeare, it is not Shakespeare who is dead, remains dead, and whom we have killed.

Though the subject of his education is fraught with debate and the vicissitudes of time, Shakespeare was notably the only member of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men who was not university-educated, which I think significant when considering the purpose of his work. Yes, the highest chambers of thought have discovered great revelations in his plays, but we must remember that they were written for entertainment, as much for the groundlings on the Globe Theatre’s floor as for the aristocrats in the box seats. They can be understood as well outside of the university as in—perhaps better! Frankly, the assumption that one needs to be more educated than was Shakespeare to understand Shakespeare is an honor I think he would have, in Falstaff’s words, considered “a mere scutcheon”—a coat of arms declaring one’s heroism after death and which can just as easily obscure the quality of their life (1HIV V.1).

Like Hal, we should consider the perspectives that might jeopardize the tradition. We should never read less, and, as I said above, supplementation is very different from cancellation. Indeed, perhaps a few years of focusing on other works will serve to make society, if not the academy, miss Shakespeare, that, “Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at, | By breaking through the foul and ugly mists | Of vapours that did seem to strangle him” (1HIV 1.2). If the self-declared point of universities is no longer to motivate and equip people to read writers like Shakespeare, we should be relieved that they are losing interest in him, taking succor from the fact that the pearl’s greatest defense against being mangled is its being unrecognizable to swine. Instead, let those who value the pearl sell all we have to purchase the field wherein it lies.

Indeed, while (or because!) we love him, perhaps, as conservatives—for all who love Shakespeare are, in their desire to maintain him, at least a mote conservative—we should eschew Shakespeare’s place at the head of university literature department curricula, at least for a time. After all, to prepare himself to reinvigorate the chivalric royalty Prince Hal leaves court to avail himself of the tavern. It may do more for Shakespeare to read his plays on one’s own, or listen to an audio lecture series on him, or take part in a discussion group, or join a local production, than to fight to maintain his position in institutions for whom, again, he was not writing. Doing so might even make explicit the choice before higher academia, which is the same as that before Henry Bolingbroke: will they seek to kill the king, and, thus, remove the basis of their own authority? They would do so at their peril, for it is they and their height, not Shakespeare and his, who are threatened by their opposition to the Playwright.

Good King Harry by Denise Giardina—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on

“Chivarly dead? Perhaps not! Perhaps it is the last battle to purify it. To rid it of hypocrisies ere this new age you speak of overtakes us.”—Earl of Warwick to King Henry V

In Good King Harry, Denise Giardina explores the life of Prince Hal/Henry V in the 14th and 15th centuries. Told in first person, the book covers Hal’s childhood, including his rejection by his father and his time at King Richard II’s court, his adolescent years campaigning in Wales against Owen Glyndwr, and his eventual ascension to the throne and retaking of English lands in France, ending the book with his death.

Throughout the story, Giardina explores the themes of courtliness and chivalry that characterized politics and war at the time, and how and why Harry would largely depart from both. She also shows the growing conflict between the Lollard movement and the English Catholic Church which would, a century later, become the Protestant Reformation. Generally following the historical timeline, though with definite nods to Shakespeare’s dramatizing of it (dividing sections with quotes from Shakespeare, including truncated version of some of King Henry’s great speeches), Giardina presents a compelling and sympathetic perspective on the conflicts and complexities of King Henry. Her Harry must maintain a balance between the courtliness of Richard II and the populism of Henry IV, as well as manage the transition out of the age of romantic chivalry while striving to maintain its best traits.

This account is a compelling and captivating piece of historical fiction, and I would imagine it would be as enjoyable for readers who are not familiar with Shakespeare’s Hal as it was for this one who is.

The Faith of William Shakespeare by Graham Holderness—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on

In The Faith of William Shakespeare, Graham Holderness argues from both biographical evidence and elements in his plays that Shakespeare was not, as others have argued, an agnostic, an atheist, nor a recusant Catholic, but a Calvinist Protestant in line with the reforming Church of England. Holderness is explicit about his aim and argument from the book’s Preface: “My own view…is that Shakespeare was, both as a believing individual and as a writer, a faithful Protestant.”

Holderness proceeds to introduce an interpretive summary of Calvinism and Catholicism in the English Reformation, though from a Calvinist perspective (he never gives the Catholic perspective on the doctrinal issues presented, including ones with which the Catholic Church agreed and which it had been teaching for centuries). He then identifies the tenets of his first chapter in Shakespeare’s plays to varying depth, focusing on one play per chapter. Starting paradoxically at the end of Shakespeare’s tenure (with a play on which he collaborated), Holderness examines Henry VIII, Richard II, Henry V, Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest. With each chapter he focuses on a different aspect of a play, whether explicit plot elements (HVIII, WT, Tempest) or language clues that he argues imply a Calvinist worldview (MM), among others. He is consistent in his argument, though he at times broadens it to show Shakespeare’s nuance with other religions (MV).

As can often happen, discussions about Shakespeare, especially his faith, often reveals more about writers, speakers, and audiences than about Shakespeare, himself. To Holderness’s credit, he is open about his book’s perspective, which agrees with several other writers on the topic. However, the work would be stronger if it devoted more time to admitting the limits of the Protestant Shakespeare argument.

A consistent problem with the book (though others may not see it as such) is not necessarily the argument, itself, but the supposed surety of its claims–for example, that more than following Protestant mandates on literary culture Shakespeare was a devout Calvinist and that this cannot but be seen in his plays.

At times this goes a bit far. Virtually every mention of the word “grace” in the focus plays is taken as an affirmation of the Calvinist tenet of Sola Gratia, and all elements that reference thankfulness for God’s providence or the Anglican Church are taken to be affirmations solely of Calvinism (the assumption that Anglican = Calvinist is another such package deal). Elsewhere, such as in his discussion of Richard II (which necessarily involves the Henry plays not mentioned in the book), he risks proving too much: in presenting Henry IV as a more pragmatic politician who reveals the supposed emptiness of the assumed divine mandate of Richard II, Holderness risks reading as Protestant the very Henry IV whose revolutionary actions create a series of upheavals which must be atoned for in Prince Hal’s restoring the majesty of the previous kings—all of which is ignored by Holderness in his reading of Henry V. At other times Holderness attempts to prove the negative that we can’t know Shakespeare wasn’t being sincere, despite the caveat that such outward signs of Anglicanism were requisite (to his credit, Holderness does reference, if briefly, other scholarship on the apparent Catholic recusancy of Shakespeare’s father). The supposed obviousness of Holderness’s findings of Calvinism in Shakespeare is reinforced by the lack of context which might weaken the argument, such as the real differences between Anglicanism and the Calvinism he describes, or the Greek tragicomic tradition which precedes the Church entirely, was common in the Renaissance, and was mimicked in Shakespeare’s Romance plots (read by Holderness as obviously Calvinist).

Again, Holderness’s argument may be true—and can certainly be supported—but to present his readings with such unconditional surety, unnuanced by at least even some concession, harms the argument, in my opinion. Catholics—or Anglicans, for that matter—might read the same passages and find in them signs of their faith as Holderness does of Calvinism. Protestantism is, of course, in the plays, but so are English Catholicism and budding Anglicanism. Ironically, eschewing a critical reading of his argument weakens it, besides presenting Shakespeare’s plays as implicitly hostile to the Catholic culture preceding (and still recusant in) Shakespeare’s generation. With this in mind, I would only recommend this book within the context of others.

(FWIW, I am neither Catholic, Anglican, nor Protestant, but Greek Orthodox; while I am not immune to my own third paragraph, I nonetheless do not to see in Shakespeare’s text the same exclusively Calvinist doctrines as Holderness, and certainly not with the same surety).

Benedick and the Mask of Misogyny

Over the past six weeks I’ve been reading through Much Ado About Nothing with one of my tutoring students, a middle schooler I’ve been working with for about a year and a half. He would read an act a week and write one discussion question per scene, and we’d spend our sessions reviewing and discussing the play, with lessons on Shakespeare’s scansion, his play structure, his foiling of characters, etc, throughout. Having finished the play, we had a final discussion in our last session (to prep for his 3-pg essay) before working on line memorization of Benedick’s speech on what type of woman it would take for him to change his bachelor ways.

As often happens, leading my student through Much Ado reminded me why I, myself, love the play. Its balance of would-be tragic elements (the plot to deceive Claudio by soiling Hero’s name, the turning of brothers-in-arms against each other) with comic backstops (the fact that Dogberry, et al, have already captured Boracchio before the wedding scene, and the dramatic irony that the whole mess might be cleared up if Leonato could stop to listen to the constables’ report—or if Dogberry knew the words he was using) makes it one of Shakespeare’s best comedies, and certainly one of my favorites. If someone wants an entry into Shakespeare, Much Ado is what I recommend, especially since the “he hates her, she hates him, get married already” plot between Benedick and Beatrice is still used today in many of our shows and movies (New Girl‘s Nick and Jess being just one possible example from the last decade). In my opinion, as a student and teacher of Shakespeare, we should ditch Romeo and Juliet from the freshman curriculum (or at least push it later) and swap in Much Ado.

However, there is the growing question over whether this incredible play, which has been sifted, explored, and performed for nearly four centuries, would survive the current generation, which more often reads the old books not to understand but to dismantle and ridicule. While I can appreciate deconstruction as a critical tool (which I examine in my previous post on Nietzsche’s Dawn), taken too far it becomes so much destruction of what is genuinely good under the guise of a pallid, mediocritizing salvation from things one may be better off not being saved from. Which brings me to the central question: would Much Ado stand up to the scrutiny of Generation Z?

Of course, the main culprit would be Benedick, himself. Besides the low-hanging fruit of his name (full pun intended, as Shakespeare meant it), his persona of being above most women and living the life of a bachelor would probably have him castigated as either a closeted homosexual or a blatant misogynist. While I think the former claim baseless and anachronistic, coming more from our culture’s combined lack of understanding of male friendship and our oversized focus on erotic love than from Shakespeare’s plays, and more to be found in As You Like It and Twelfth Night, etc, than Much Ado, the latter bears examination.

In Act II, Scene 3, Benedick soliloquizes:

I do much wonder that one man, seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates his behaviors to love, will, after he hath laughed at such shallow follies in others, become the argument of his own scorn by falling in love… 

May I be so converted and see with these eyes? I cannot tell; I think not…One woman is fair, yet I am well; another is wise, yet I am well; another virtuous, yet I am well; but till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace. 

Rich she shall be, that’s certain; wise, or I’ll none; virtuous, or I’ll never cheapen her; fair, or I’ll never look on her; mild, or come not near me; noble, or not I for an angel; of good discourse, an excellent musician, and her hair shall be of what colour it please God.

One’s initial response, nowadays (to our absolute peril), might have to be an at least prudent defensiveness on Benedick’s behalf against his own words, especially his listing of what traits he is able to ignore in a woman, or his ultimate list of what he’s looking for in one. Objectifying, much?! Impossible standards, much?! Fat-shaming, slut-shaming, ableism, (etc), much?! To the student who would ask these questions, I’d say no, not really.

One general piece of wisdom is that when Shakespeare hands you a foil, be it a sword or a character dichotomy, you pick it up. Benedick’s words—indeed, his entire character throughout the play—must be measured against Claudio. Before this scene even Beatrice had compared the two men, and their contrasting approaches to love are what fill the main and sub plots of the play.

Before the metaphysical battle in 19th-century between the Romantics and the Realists in art and literature, Shakespeare had already staged, if not settled, the fight in Much Ado. Like many other romantics in Shakespeare, the inexperienced Claudio is taken away by his passion for Hero. While he at least has the defense of being so new to love that has not become self-aware and subsequently decadent and banal in his persona (I’m looking at you, Duke Orsino), Claudio is just as easily led out of love as he was into it. Although the damage eventually done to Hero and her family by Claudio’s rejection at the wedding ceremony falls more on Don John and Boracchio’s deception than on the young soldier, it nonetheless stands that the character who leaves himself most vulnerable to passionate love causes the most harm by it.

Which brings us back to Claudio’s foil, Benedick. For all his defensiveness against love (for it is, I believe, a defensiveness—a control and limit against an existing vulnerability) Benedick causes very little anguish in the play. Not until his conflict—the quintessential questioning of the established dictum “bros before hoes”—is concretized by Beatrice’s requirement that if he loves her, he will challenge Claudio to a fatal duel, is there any major possibility of Benedick’s causing pain to a woman; even then, the Benedick who declares his love in the marriage-turned-denunciation scene seems a different man than the one who pronounced the terms of his bachelorhood, above. However, as Hamlet articulates, seeming is not being.

Examine the speech again. That he is contemplating what it would take to remove him from his implied solitude shows that the idea of marriage at least exists for him, even insomuch as he has his list of traits ready (leaving room for extemporizing). Yet, the irony is that anyone who has been paying attention can see that he is describing, for the most part, Beatrice, herself. “Fair…wise…virtuous…mild [(eh, can’t win ’em all)]…noble…of good discourse…” He has already admitted most of these about the woman. If he doesn’t have her consciously in mind, he’s at least priming himself for the ploy by the rest of the men later in the scene to have him overhear words of Beatrice’s affection.

To the Gen-Z student, I would submit the possibility that far from hating women, Benedick actually respects them, and himself, enough not to mislead them. Further, I don’t believe he is as uninterested in them as he makes out—for consider how quickly he is directed towards Beatrice. One cannot turn an engine that is empty of fuel. However, he is mature enough to know himself and what it will take to make him genuinely committed, not just in name like Claudio. I’d even read his high standards as a confession of a knowledge of his own passion, which he has wisely and philanthropically kept controlled behind a mask of bravado and bachelorhood. Brash and arrogant he may be, but he’s not the one who ruins Leonato’s daughter’s wedding day (he writes as a future father of a daughter).

This, of course, only serves to compliment Beatrice (which I’ll do till I meet her author in Paradise), who one could argue holds herself behind a similar mask. Just like Benedick with his standards, only a man who can survive Beatrice’s verbal assaults and surmount her intellectual defenses is worthy of her. This, by the way, is one of the best qualities of Shakespeare’s comedies, that they set such high and full standards for what a woman is and can be. I was blessed as a teenage and young adult man to have had such tutors as Beatrice, Viola, Portia, and Cordelia. That Benedick does, eventually, end up with Beatrice makes me know he must have done something right.

It may seem contradictory to hide a respect and love for women behind a mask of brash misogyny. Yet, it is not the only time Shakespeare uses the ploy (see Hamlet’s much more vicious and tragic rejection of Ophelia, which he, as prince, must arguably do for her own good—though Hamlet is more a Claudio than a Benedick, imo, and, at the risk of resembling Polonius, I wouldn’t want him near my daughter). Of course, anyone who would argue Benedick is an example of everything toxic about masculinity would, no doubt, argue that the whole plot of Much Ado, itself, is unacceptable, being premised as it is on the idea that believing one has seen one’s fiancee sleeping with another man the night before the wedding is grounds for rejection. However, that kind of eye is insatiate in its own way, and ironically already articulated by Shakespeare in this very play, in Don John. As a later archetype of resentful envy would describe it, it doth mock the meat it feeds on.

I’ve already written much on Shakespeare becoming the target of Gen-Z, who are aptly called, coincidentally or providentially, because they seem to be intent on making themselves the last generation by dismantling the past and making it unable to survive into the future. This whole blog started as a place for me to record my research and meditations for my (still unpublished) novel, Sacred Shadows and Latent Light, which follows a literature professor putting on a production of the Henry plays and thus unintentionally (but knowingly) starting an ideology war on his campus. And that was in 2017.

As Benedick says later in Act II Scene 3 to justify his own conversion (that he needs to justify it to us and himself is, itself, a confession of an already present desire!), “the world must be peopled!” This is as true of art as of children, and woe to us if we do not allow the metaphysical strengthening of the latter by the established substance of the former. It is fundamentally telling that many who would attack the greatest productions of art quite often advocate against having children; both are, in my opinion, symptoms of decadence. Indeed, they may be a single symptom, even a confession: of a satiety unto sickness, even self-destruction.

The remedy, to further take something from Nothing, is in the very thing we believe we so vehemently reject—to let, indeed, to make ourselves love that which so offends us. Beatrice and Benedick cure each other of their respective shrewishness and bachelorhood; may it not be that characters such as they, and works such as Shakespeare’s, would cure the growing generation of their own mask of love and philanthropy, which, like that of Claudio or of Don John, may very well hide a reality of a much deeper misogyny? Perhaps, like Hero, Shakespeare must, indeed, die for a time before we will experience a repentance like Claudio’s. If so, so be it; if Much Ado can tell us anything, it’s that Shakespeare knows his way out of an apparent grave.