The Seventh Age of Man-Shakespeare’s Character Deaths

Shakespeare“Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

-Jacques, As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII

This, of course, is the final part of the famous, “All the world’s a stage” speech, but I am highlighting this one specific part for a reason. Saturday, April 23rd was not only Shakespeare’s 452nd birthday, but it was also the 400th anniversary of his death.

The cause of Shakespeare’s death is a topic of some debate. This, however, did make me think about the deaths of so many of Shakespeare’s characters. So, rather than talk about the death of Shakespeare, I figured I would elaborate on the death of his characters.

Many of Shakespeare’s characters met with an untimely demise, particularly in his histories and tragedies, with three of his comedies also having character deaths; these deaths though, are more minor characters, and happen offstage.

Stabbing and poison tended to be the two most popular means by which a character died. Execution, (i.e. for a crime, etc), was also common. It would be safe to assume that, in Shakespeare’s day, anyone condemned to execution was probably either beheaded or hanged. And anyone who died in combat or a battle, was most likely stabbed. But as you will see below, almost nothing was off-limits. I will do my best to include all characters who die in a play, in the order that they die, including even the most minor characters, and the ones who die offstage or before the beginning of the play.

I’ll go by play and begin with the histories.

Shakespeare wrote these plays out of order. This is to say, that he did not write the histories in the order in which these events actually occurred. Nonetheless, with the exception of Henry VIII, when read in the correct order, one history play leads right into the next one. I will go through the histories chronologically.


The Life and Death of King John

Limoges, Duke of Austria:  Beheaded during battle by the Bastard. Austria was believed to have been the one responsible for the death of King Richard.


First page of King John in the 1623 First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays.

Arthur: Jumps off a wall, though it is unknown whether this was an act of suicide or an attempt to escape his English captors.

Melun: A Frenchman who is already dying when he warns the English nobles that King Louis plans to kill them following his victory. Melun is a very minor character, only appearing this one time, and cause of death unknown, but most likely wounded during the battle.

King John: As is common, the titular character of Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies usually meets his or her demise eventually. And for King John, it happens when a discontented monk poisons him.


The Life and Death of Richard II

John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster: Dies of an illness. Richard than immediately seizes all Gaunt’s land and money, that would rightfully belong to Gaunt’s temporarily exiled son, Bolingbroke. The latter, by the way, becomes King Henry IV.

Bushy and Green: Two faithful supporters of Richard, who are executed by Bolingbroke, to win over the Duke of the York and gain his support.

Duke of Aumerle’s co-conspirators: Bolingbroke has now crowned himself King Henry IV, and the Duke of Aumerle, along with a group of others plan to rebel against Henry. Henry executes Aumerle’s company, but spares Aumerle himself.

King Richard II: Executed by mistake when a nobleman, Exton, murders him, falsely believing that was King Henry’s wish.


King Henry IV, Part One

Harry Percy, Hotspur: Killed by Prince Hal in single combat.

Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester: Captured during the Battle of Shrewsbury and sentenced to death by Henry.


King Henry IV, Part Two 

King Henry IV: Dies of an illness. His son, Prince Hal, becomes King Henry V.



Depiction of the Battle of Agincourt.

The Life of King Henry V “Once more unto the breach, dear friends.”


Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scrope, and Sir Thomas Grey: This trio plans to kill King Henry, and when Henry learns of their plot, he calls for their executions.

Sir John Falstaff: Falstaff’s death is not seen; we only hear about his passing. We learn that he died of a broken heart, after King Henry, who was one of Falstaff’s dearest friends when he was a prince, rejected him when he came to Henry’s castle and said that he never wanted to seem him again.


King Henry VI, Part One

King Henry V: He dies unexpectedly at the prime of his life, leaving England in turmoil, and his son to succeed him.

Duke of Bedford: Dies in France, following the Battle of Rouen.

Lord Talbot and his son, John Talbot: They become trapped by the French Army and then subsequently killed by them, when Lord Talbot’s request for reinforcements goes unanswered.

Joan la Pucelle, a.k.a. Joan of Arc: Burned to death by the Duke of York.


King Henry VI, Part Two  

Duke Humphrey of Gloucester: Accused of treason, Suffolk has Gloucester imprisoned and then executed before he can be tried.

Cardinal Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester: Contracts a fever and subsequently dies.

Wars of the Roses

The beginning of the Wars of the Roses in King Henry VI, Part 2.

William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk: Killed by pirates while banished for his role in the death of Gloucester.

Jack Cade: Looking for food, Cade climbs into the garden of Alexander Iden and killed by Iden himself.

Duke of Somerset: Killed by Richard during a battle at St. Albans.

Lord Clifford: Killed by York during a battle at St. Albans.


King Henry VI, Part Three

Edmund Plantagenet, Earl of Rutland: During an attack on York’s castle, York’s son, twelve-year-old Rutland, is murdered by Clifford.

Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York: Stabbed to death by Clifford and Margaret, but not before they forced him to stand on a molehill and wipe his brow with a handkerchief smeared with the blood of his son, Rutland.

Earl of Warwick: Killed at the Battle of Barnet.

John Neville, Marquis of Montague: Warwick’s younger brother, also killed at the Battle of Barnet.

Father (Son Who Has Killed His Father): During the Battle of Barnet, a young man enters dragging the body of a man he has killed. He lifts the man’s helmet off and realizes that he unknowingly killed his own father.

Son (Father Who Has Killed His Son): Shortly thereafter, during the Battle of Barnet, a man enters dragging the body of a younger man that he has killed. When he lifts this young man’s helmet, the older man realizes that he unknowingly killed his own son. Henry witnesses both of these incidents.

Duke of Somerset: During the Battle of Tewkesbury, he is captured with three others, and sentenced to death.

Prince Edward: Also captured at the Battle of Tewkesbury, and stabbed to death by York’s three sons when Edward refused to recognize the House of York as the legitimate royal family.

King Henry VI: Henry was captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London. Richard goes there to kill him, and after an argument between the two, Richard stabs Henry in a rage. This is the Richard who goes on to become Richard III.



King Richard III.

The Life and Death of Richard III “Now is the winter of our discontent.”

George, Duke of Clarence: Sent to the Tower of London based on false accusations made to King Edward by Richard. Richard later orders two men to kill Clarence. Believing that Edward ordered his death, Clarence tells his murderers that his brother, Gloucester (Richard), will pay them more for his life than the king will for his death, and refuses to believe them when his murderers tell him that Gloucester ordered his death.

King Edward IV: King Edward is already ill, and Richard uses the news of Clarence’s death to bring about the King’s death quicker.

Rivers: With Clarence and Edward out of the way, Richard orders the murder Lord Rivers to isolate the Queen and prevent the immediate crowning of the Prince.

Lord Hastings, Lord Grey, and Sir Thomas Vaughan: Relatives of the Queen, who are arrested and then beheaded by Richard, as they accompany the young Prince en route to his coronation.

Edward, Prince of Wales and Richard, Duke of York: After being led to the Tower of London by Richard, the latter orders Buckingham to kill them. When Buckingham refuses, Richard hires Sir James Tyrell, who finishes the job.

Lady Anne Neville: Richard’s queen, yet he poisons her so that he can be free to woo his niece, and Edward’s remaining heir, Elizabeth of York.

Duke of Buckingham: After being Richard’s ally before, Buckingham later rebels against him, is captured and executed.

Sir Robert Brackenbury: It is announced that Sir Brackenbury has died fighting for Richard in The Battle of Bosworth Field.

King Richard III: At the climax of the Battle of Bosworth Field, Richard is unhorsed, (“A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”) and subsequently killed by Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, who now becomes Henry VII.


The Life of King Henry VIII

Duke of Buckingham: Cardinal Wolsey falsely accuses Buckingham for treason and has him arrested. He is later executed.

Cardinal Wolsey: After his villainous scheming is discovered by the king, Wolsey quickly falls from grace. Now following the path of humility and honesty, Wolsey leaves the court for a monastery, where dies soon after.

And now, onto the tragedies.

I will do these in a certain order as well, from the least bloody play with the least amount of deaths, leading up to the bloodiest play with the most fatalities.


A scene from the final act of Coriolanus, where Volumnia pleads with her son to reconsider his attack on Rome.


The Tragedy of Coriolanus

Caius Marcius, Coriolanus: He is killed by Volscian conspirators for betraying them. He halted his attack on Rome and formed a peace treaty between the Volscians and the Romans, after he had told the Volscians that he would lead them to a victory against Rome.


Timon of Athens

Man: A junior officer of Alcibiades kills a man in “hot blood”. This man is a minor character, and this is all we know about his death.

Timon: He dies in the wilderness, having lost all money and means. His overt generosity and compassion has undone Timon, causing his friends to take advantage of him and ultimately betray him.


Troilus and Cressida

Patroclus: Killed by Hector during battle.

Hector: Captured by Achilles who then instructs the Myrmidons.



Othello and Iago.

Othello, the Moor of Venice

Rodrigo: Stabbed in secret by Iago, to stop Rodrigo from revealing their plot to kill Cassio.

Desdemona: Smothered to death by Othello, who thinks that Desdemona has been unfaithful to him.

Emilia: When she realizes Iago’s plan to make Othello think that Desdemona had been unfaithful, she exposes her husband to Othello, and Iago fatally stabs her for it.

Othello: Othello then realizes Desdemona’s innocence and overcome with grief and guilt over killing her, kills himself.


The Life and Death of Julius Caesar “Beware the ides of March”

Julius Caesar: Assassinated by Cassius, Marcus Brutus, Casca, Decius Brutus, Lucius Cinna, Metellus Cimber, Trebonius, and Caius Ligarius in the Capital.

Cinna: An innocent poet who, mistaken for the conspirator Lucius Cinna, is killed by a mob who has formed to drive Caesar’s murderers from Rome.

Portia: Brutus’s wife who, under the stress of his absence from Rome, committed suicide by swallowing hot coals.

Cassius: Asks his servant Pindarus, to kill him after hearing that his best friend Titinius has been captured.

Titinius: It turns out that he was not captured, but upon seeing Cassius’s corpse, kills himself.

Marcus Brutus: After losing his latest battle, he commits suicide by asking another soldier named Strato to hold his sword while Brutus runs onto it.


Romeo and Juliet

Mercutio: Tybalt challenges Romeo to a duel and when Romeo declines, his best friend, Mercutio, agrees to fight Tybalt instead. Tybalt ends up fatally stabbing Mercutio.

Tybalt: Stabbed by Romeo for killing Mercutio.

Count Paris: A suitor to Juliet. He is stabbed by Romeo when he startles the latter at Juliet’s gravesite.

Romeo: Believing that Juliet is dead, Romeo drinks poison and then lays down beside her.


Romeo and Juliet.

Juliet: Wakes up from the deep sleep she was in; the reason everyone thought she was dead. When she sees Romeo’s dead body beside her, she stabs herself with her dagger.

Lady Montague: Romeo’s mother, who we hear died from grief over the death of her son.


Antony and Cleopatra

Fulvia: Third wife of Mark Antony, who prior to the beginning of the play, had rebelled against Octavius and then died.

Enobarbus: He deserts Antony and goes to Octavius’s side. Antony sends Enobarbus his goods rather than confiscating them. Enobarbus is so overwhelmed that he dies from the shame of his disloyalty.

Eros: Antony asks Eros to kill him by running him through with a sword. Unable to do it, Eros kills himself.

Mark Antony: In an attempt at suicide, he manages to only wound himself. He is hoisted up to Cleopatra’s monument and dies in her arms.

Cleopatra: She refuses to surrender. Betrayed and captured by the Romans, Cleopatra learns that Octavius will parade her once he triumphs. She kills herself by getting bitten by an asp.

Iras and Charmian: Cleopatra’s serving-maids who kill themselves after Cleopatra dies.


The Tragedy of Macbeth “Double, double, toil and trouble.”

King Duncan: Stabbed by Macbeth, in order to fulfill the Witches’ prophecy that Macbeth will one day become king.

Two Guards: Framed for Duncan’s death by Lady Macbeth, Macbeth later kills them to keep them from professing their innocence.

Banquo: Killed by three assassins that were hired by Macbeth. They were supposed to kill Macbeth’s son, Fleance, as well, but he escapes. Macbeth arranges for the murder of Banquo and Fleance, because he fears a prophecy that says that Banquo will father a line of kings.

Lady Macduff and her son: When Macbeth learns that Macduff has fled to England, he demands that Macduff’s castle be seized and that he and his family be killed. Macduff is not at the castle when it is seized by his wife. Lady Macduff, and their young son, are killed.

Lady Macbeth: Overcome with guilt for the deeds that she and her husband have committed, Lady Macbeth goes mad and eventually kills herself.


Macbeth and Banquo encounter the three Witches (top) Hamlet and Horatio in the graveyard with Yorick’s skull (bottom).


Young Siward: Killed in combat by Macbeth.

Macbeth: Macbeth was told by the Witches that he cannot be killed by any man of woman born, so he does fear Macduff when he encounters him in battle. Macduff reveals that he was born, not naturally but, “from his mother’s womb, untimely ripp’d”, meaning that he was born by Caesarean section. He then beheads Macbeth, thus fulfilling the Witches’ final prophecy.


The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark “To be, or not to be. That is the question.”

King Hamlet: Hamlet’s father, who is killed before the play begins. It is said that he died of a snakebite, but his ghost comes to Hamlet and tells him that he actually died at the hands of his own brother, Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, who poured poison into his ear. This way, Claudius could marry Gertrude and become the King.

Polonius: Stabbed by Hamlet, while hidden behind an arras. Hamlet kills Polonius, thinking that it is the king who is hidden there.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: Hamlet’s friends who, at the King’s request, escort him to England. Unbeknownst to them, they carry a commandment from the King that orders Hamlet’s death. Hamlet figures out what’s going on and secretly switches the commandment for his death, with one that orders the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet escapes them when they are attacked by pirates. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continue onto England and their fate. In the final scene of the play, we learn that indeed, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.”

Ophelia: Driven mad by the death of her father, Polonius, at the hands of Hamlet no less, she drowns herself in the nearby brook.

Queen Gertrude: The first of several deaths that occur in the final act. The King has poisoned a cup of wine that he intends to give to Hamlet if he survives his challenge with Laertes. When Hamlet gets a hit on Laertes, the Queen, not knowing that the cup is poisoned, raises the cup to him. The King tries to stop her, but she drinks from it anyhow and dies.

Laertes: He had conspired with the King to kill Hamlet, as he was angry with Hamlet for killing his father, Polonius. He envenomed the tip of his sword and cut Hamlet, there was then a skirmish, in which Laertes and Hamlet switched swords, and Hamlet cut Laertes with the poisoned tip. With his dying breath, he tells Hamlet that the King is to blame and offers peace between himself and Hamlet. He dies shortly after the King does.

King Claudius: Hamlet, enraged at Claudius for everything that he has done, stabs him with the poisoned sword and pours the poisoned wine between his lips, thus killing the King.

Hamlet: By now, the poison from Laertes’s sword is overtaking Hamlet. He calls Horatio to his side and proclaims Fortinbras as his successor, before dying and…”The rest is silence.”


King Lear

Duke of Cornwall: Killed by a servant of his who is enraged when he sees Cornwall and Regan gouging out Gloucester’s eyes.

Servant who killed Cornwall: Killed by Regan for killing her husband, the Duke of Cornwall.


King Lear and his Fool, as Lear madly rages at the wind.

Oswald: Killed by Edgar, when he tries, on Regan’s orders, to kill Edgar’s father, Gloucester.

Regan: Poisoned by her sister Goneril, when she learns that Regan planned to marry Edmund, who was wooing both sisters at the same time.

Edmund: Wounded by his brother, Edgar, in a trial by combat.

Earl of Gloucester: Edgar announces that Gloucester has died. He believed Edgar to be dead, and then died himself from the shock and joy of learning that Edgar was still alive, once Edgar revealed himself to him.

Goneril: Commits suicide when she realizes that all of her evil plans have failed.

Cordelia: Prior to his death, Edmund had sent Cordelia and Lear off with secret joint-orders from him and Goneril for the execution of Cordelia. As he dies, Edmund tries to stop the order for her death, but he is too late.

Executioner: Killed by Lear when he killed Cordelia.

King Lear: He dies from a combination of grief over Cordelia’s death and all of the hardships he has recently endured.


And yet, of these last three, neither Macbeth, Hamlet, nor King Lear is Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, nor the one with the most deaths.

That prestige goes too…

Titus Andronicus


Aaron cutting off Titus’s hand, as the handless Lavinia looks on.

Titus Andronicus is so rarely performed today because of its gory content. In fact, during the Victorian era in England, this play was banned. Understandable, as the play includes stabbings, beheadings, rape, loss of body parts, and a pie reminiscent of something that could have been served by Hannibal Lector.

Alarbus: Oldest son of Queen Tamora. Sacrificed by Titus in order to avenge the deaths of his own sons during the war.

Mutius: Accidentally killed in a scuffle by his own father, Titus.

Bassianus: On the advice of Aaron, Bassianus is killed by Demetrius and Chiron, so that they can rape Lavinia.

Martius and Quintus: Titus’s sons whom Aaron frames for the death of Bassianus. Enraged that they murdered his brother, Saturninus sentences them to death.  Aaron then falsely tells Titus, that Saturninus will spare Martius and Quintus. When Titus cuts off his hand and sends it to Saturninus, the latter sends him the severed heads of his sons along with Titus’s own severed hand.

Nurse: Tamora gives birth to a mixed-race baby fathered by the Moor, Aaron. To keep the race of the child a secret, Aaron kills the Nurse.

Demetrius and Chiron: Tamora’s sons who raped Lavinia and then cut off her hands and cut out her tongue so that she could not identify them. But she wrote their names in the dirt using a stick held with her mouth. Because of what they did to his daughter, Titus cuts their throats and drains their blood. He then says he will “play the cook.” He grinds their bones into a powder and bakes them into a pie that he later serves to their mother.

Clown: Titus encounters the Clown and asks him to deliver a message to Saturninus on his behalf for payment. The Clown agrees, but when he delivers the message to Saturninus, the latter has the Clown hanged, and it seems that there is no apparent reason for this.

Lavinia: Titus asks Saturninus if a father should kill his daughter if she has been raped. When Saturninus answers yes, Titus kills Lavinia and tells Saturninus what had happened to her.

Tamora: She did not know what had happened to her sons, Chiron and Demetrius. Titus serves her the pie that he baked her sons into, and she, not knowing of the ingredients, eats it. Once she is done, Titus tells Tamora that her sons had been baked into the pie that she was just eating. Titus then kills Tamora.

Titus Andronicus: Immediately after Titus kills Tamora, Saturninus, who was married to Tamora, kills Titus.

Saturninus: Right after Saturninus kills Titus, then he is killed by Titus’s son, Lucius.

Aaron: For all of his evil deeds and schemes, Aaron is buried chest-deep and left to die of thirst and starvation.

Last, but not least, the three comedies that included character deaths.


Cymbeline “Fear no more.”

Cloten: Guiderius meets Cloten outside of the cave where Guiderius lives with his two Faed_postumus_and_imogensons. Cloten does nothing but insult Guiderius which leads to a sword fight, that ends with Guiderius beheading Cloten.

Queen: She has been slowly wasting away because of the disappearance of her son, Cloten. It is later announced that she has died suddenly, and that, upon dying, she was unrepentant and that she confessed to villainous schemes against her husband and his throne.


Pericles, Prince of Tyre

Cleon and Dionyza: Cleon is the governor of Tarsus and Dionyza is his wife. When Pericles leaves to rule Tyre, he leaves Marina, his infant daughter, with the couple. As she grows, however, they realize that Marina is more beautiful than Philoten, the true daughter of Cleon and Dionyza, so the latter decides to murder Marina. Pirates soon kidnap Marina, and when Pericles arrives in Tarsus, Cleon and Dionyza falsely tell him that Marina has died. They are later killed by the people of Tarsus for their plot to kill Marina, and for lying about her fate.


The Winter’s Tale

Mamillius: Died of a wasting sickness and grief that was brought on by the imprisonment of his mother Hermione, by his father Leontes.

Wheatley, Francis, 1747-1801; 'The Winter's Tale', Act IV, Scene 3, Perdita, Florizel and Polixenes

Polixenes (seated), Perdita, and Florizel.

Antigonus: Exit, pursued by a bear. One of Shakespeare’s most famous stage directions, and while we don’t see or hear about Antigonus meeting his end, it tells us exactly how he died.

So, while the true cause of Shakespeare’s death may be uncertain, the fate of several of his characters most certainly is not.









Happy 450th Birthday to William Shakespeare!

Today, April 23, 2014, marks the birth of William Shakespeare, exactly 450 years ago. Shakespeare’s process of play writing began in 1591 with Henry the Sixth, Part One and ended with the The Two Noble Kinsmen in 1613, three years before Shakespeare died, on his birthday, in 1616.


William Shakespeare (April 23, 1564-April 23, 1616).

However, I would bet that at no point in his illustrious career did Will ever dream that over 400 years later, his plays would still be read, studied, performed, and brought into mediums that did not exist in his day, such as television and film.

I would like to focus a bit on the latter two, as well as music and songs inspired by Shakespeare. Each of Shakespeare’s plays was at one time filmed and shown on BBC, and these versions can sometimes be found on DVD. And of course, movies of Shakespeare’s films have made their appearance as well. Laurence Olivier did many Shakespeare films, and he did some stage acting as well. However, I think that Olivier’s version of Hamlet, may be one of the earliest filmed versions of the play.


“Alas, poor Yorick!” Kenneth Branagh in Hamlet.

More recently, Kenneth Branagh directed, and usually starred in, film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays. These are the ones that I own and have watched countless times. His first one was Henry V, where Branagh played the title character, in 1989. These were followed by Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Hamlet (1996), Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000), and As You Like It (2006). Henry V, Much Ado, and Hamlet were film adaptations of the full play; and as Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, the movie is 242 minutes (4 hours and 2 minutes) long, and split onto two DVDs or two Blu-ray discs. However, it is the best and most comprehensive film version of Hamlet that I have seen yet, and it is well worth the time spent watching it.

Love's Labour's Lost-Branagh

A scene from Branagh’s musical version of Love’s Labour’s Lost.

Branagh’s version of Love’s Labour’s Lost is in the style of a 1930s musical. The dialogue in between songs is strictly Shakespeare’s words, but included are song and dance numbers to famous musical songs such as “I’d Rather Charleston”, “The Way You Look Tonight”, and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” among many others; not to mention that there is also some tap dancing in iambic pentameter. As I mentioned, the dialogue is Shakespeare’s, and so is the plot, it’s just set in a later time period with musical numbers that move the story along. Still a lot of fun to watch.


Gary Oldman and Tim Roth in the film version of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

A 1966 play by Tom Stoppard called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a comedic play told from the viewpoint of the two title characters, who are of course, somewhat minor characters, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The play was made into a movie in 1991 starring Gary Oldman as Rosencrantz, Tim Roth as Guildenstern, Richard Dreyfuss as the Player, and Iain Glen as Hamlet. The play and the movie are both hilarious, and it is a brilliant retelling of Hamlet seen through the eyes of his two friends, who really don’t know what their doing in Elsinore to begin with.

And in 2012, Joss Whedon did a version of Much Ado About Nothing. The movie is in black and white, was filmed over a span of a few days at Whedon’s home, and takes place in the present day, but using Shakespeare’s language. The film includes Clark Gregg (Don Leonato), Nathan Fillion (Constable Dogberry), Sean Maher (Don John), Reed Diamond (Don Pedro), Alexis Denisof (Benedick), Amy Acker (Beatrice), Fran Kranz (Claudio) and Jillian Morgese (Hero).

Benedick and Beatrice-Whedon

Alexis Denisof (Benedick) and Amy Acker (Beatrice) in Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing.

There was also a new version of Romeo and Juliet released last year with Douglas Booth and Hailee Steinfeld as the title characters.

The Broadway musical “Kiss Me, Kate” was adapted from Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew. This show had many wonderful songs, however my favorite one is a song called “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”. It’s a fun song, with many puns using the title of Shakespeare’s plays, and the song is enjoyable even if you’ve never seen the play, though it is a good show and I do recommend it. There is also a longer version of the song; the one in “Kiss Me, Kate” is shorter. It’s good too of course, but if one were going to look for this song, I would suggest finding the full version of it.

Kiss Me, Kate

Movie poster for “Kiss Me, Kate”.

Speaking of musicals and songs, the musical “Hair” has a song called “What A Piece of Work Is Man”, which of course is from Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2. The song uses Hamlet’s entire speech from this scene and puts it to music, and even though it doesn’t rhyme as most songs do, it is done beautifully.

One more note on Shakespearean-themed songs: in the late 1990s, there was an animated television show called “Histeria!”, it aired on Kids’ WB and was a show about history and historical events that were told in a factual, yet humorous way. They did one episode on famous writers, and this of course, included Shakespeare. The cast then did an entire song where they told the plots of all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays. I don’t believe that show is on DVD, but one may be able to find the song somewhere, maybe on YouTube or something like that. Anyway, it’s a great song if you can find it.

The Comedy of Errors-Folger Edition

Folger Library Edition of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors.

I’m certain that there are some stage, film, television, and song adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays that I did not mention here, and of course, any of them are worth checking out. And I encourage anyone, if you have never read one of Will’s plays, pick one up. If you think you won’t understand it, I have seen versions of his plays where they have the original text alongside modern English. Read the modern English, and then go back and read it the way it was originally written, and you’ll see that Shakespeare’s language isn’t too hard to grasp, and that in fact, many things that he said then, have the same meaning and translation today.

And if you, like me, have read Shakespeare’s plays, keep doing so, and continue to find ways to share his work.

Ben Jonson was a contemporary playwright of Shakespeare’s; Shakespeare’s acting company, the King’s Men, often performed Jonson’s plays at the Globe. Upon the death of Shakespeare, Jonson wrote a long, touching, and beautiful poem in memory of William Shakespeare. Just Google: Ben Jonson’s poem about Shakespeare–and you should be able to find it.

Ben Jonson

Ben Jonson.

I will end here with a poem that I wrote about Shakespeare. However, I will preface this by saying that I am writer, but I am not a poet. So I know that this poem isn’t among the greatest, could have probably been a lot better, and certainly pales in comparison to Jonson’s poem. I have a deep level of respect for poets and their ability to take words and phrases and transform them into beautiful and visionary verses, rhyming or not. And I love to read poetry, but writing it is a whole other animal, and not something I excel in. Yet, I decided to give it a shot, so here it is:


Birthday Ballad for the Bard


In Stratford-Upon-Avon was a boy born,

on April twenty-third, fifteen sixty-four.


For John and Mary Shakespeare

having lost two daughters previously,

now had their first son to hold dear.

The oldest of six was he.


However, no one yet knew what treasures William Shakespeare would bring,

to the world on and off the stage.

For he was to teach us that ‘the play’s the thing’

and his wonderful wit would soon fill many a page.


He was married to Hathaway, first name Anne,

Susanna was their first child, then the twins Judith and Hamnet.

And so in order to support his clan,

William left to find trade in his talent.


In London, Will found the King’s Men

and joined their acting troupe.

Full plays he would write for them with ink and pen,

he was a well-respected member of their group.


His first play was Henry the Sixth, a history,

and from here would he write thirty-six more.

Will also composed a total of four works of poetry.

Not to mention his sonnets; all one-hundred and fifty-four.


Most noted for his dramatic works though,

Shakespeare presented us with some of today’s most well-known plays.

Many words and phrases to him do we owe.

We use them to these very days.


Amongst his famous histories

were Henry the Fifth and Richard the Third.

Characters like Falstaff gave us comic memories

and the past brought to life through Will’s every word.


His comedies include such celebrated titles as

Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

To make us laugh, these and many others written he has,

with frivolity as their collective theme.


Tragedies by him of course are well-noted,

giving us Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth.

Darker plays, though often well-quoted,

of usurpation, ill-fated love, and death.


Will gave us lore as timeless as he is,

and as legendary too.

For his words and wit, ageless ‘tis,

Gentle Shakespeare, we owe much to you.


These characters, and these plays, all are Shakespeare’s,

and timeless, he will last much longer, than even another 450 years.



Happy birthday Mr. William Shakespeare!  And now, to use my favorite stage direction by the Bard…

(Exit, pursued by a bear).


Much Ado About Characters

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

As referenced by my previous three posts about Shakespeare, I am an avid fan of the Bard. Shakespeare himself is interesting of course, but what is he most well-known for? His plays. Comedies, tragedies, and histories, that explore love, loss, gain, greed, power, corruption, and other definers that make us laugh, cry, yearn, or think.

Many components of any dramatic piece make up the whole of the play. The idea of the play and what it will be about, the playwright who puts that idea onto paper, the actors who crawl into the skins of their characters and bring them to life before our very eyes, and of course, the characters themselves.

Shakespeare’s plays are ripe with characters that are brave and weak,  courageous and cowardly, courteous and greedy. Kings, queens, servants, messengers, husbands, wives, knights, soldiers, and lovers all have a place amongst the broad spectrum of Shakespeare’s plays. His major characters, and even some of the minor ones, stay with us long after we have read the play or seen a production of it.

I cannot go into detail about every single one of Shakespeare’s characters, there are far too many. So what I will do, is define some of my favorite Shakespearean characters, who in some cases, are also some of the Bard’s more famous ones.

Much Ado About Nothing

Facsimile of the title page of the quarto version of Much Ado About Nothing.

Much Ado About Nothing:  Benedick

In this Shakespearean comedy the villainous Don John feels that his brother, Don Pedro, has promoted another man, Claudio instead of Don John himself, and Don John than sets out to ruin the wedding day of Claudio and his fiancée, Hero. A plot that almost works too. However, amidst all of this, is the merry war of wits between Signior Benedick, one of Don Pedro’s men, and the lady Beatrice, cousin to Hero. It is implied that the two of them had a brief, one-night fling in the past and now whenever they meet, the insults fly fast and furious between the two.

Benedick is not only my favorite character in this play, but he is also one of my two favorite Shakespeare characters. However, you can barely talk about Benedick, without also talking about Beatrice.

Benedick is actually one of the more comical characters in this play. He is not a clown by any means, but his determination to remain a bachelor his entire life, and to never love any woman, makes way for his friends to mock him. His responses are always cynical views toward love, but funny nonetheless. Don Pedro credits Benedick as a man who can cheer up the rest of them because of his humor. Benedick cannot understand why any man would want to marry, and mocks Claudio’s resolution to wed Hero. Despite his humor however, Benedick also proves to be a courageous and loyal friend; his loyalties lying first with Don Pedro and Claudio. However, when Don John disgraces Hero by falsely accusing her of being unfaithful to Claudio, Benedick, knowing this is untrue, and also knowing that Claudio believes these rumors, challenges Claudio to a duel.

The Benedick and Beatrice “skirmish of wit” is an ongoing theme throughout the play, and Beatrice’s views toward love and marriage mirror those of Benedick, which of course, makes them the perfect match for each other in the long run. As she tells Benedick, “I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me.”

Benedick and Beatrice-Branagh and Thompson

Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh as Beatrice and Benedick in the 1993 film adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing.

The first time we see these two together, we know that there is some kind of feud between them. After all, the first thing that Benedick says to Beatrice is, “My dear Lady Disdain, are you yet living?” Even Beatrice’s comments about Benedick before he first appears, give us some insight into their relationship, or lack of one. Yet these strong feelings of contempt toward each other, are also hiding their almost unwilling feelings of affection toward each other.

Don Pedro however, knows that these two should be brought together, and he plans a way to bring Benedick and Beatrice “into a mountain of affection, the one with the other”. Don Pedro, Claudio, and Hero’s father, Don Leonato, pretend to have heard that Beatrice is in love with Benedick, while making sure that Benedick can hear them. Hero, and one of her waiting women, Ursula, play the same trick on Beatrice, by pretending to have heard that Benedick is in love with her. Their views toward love, and each other, instantly change, and by the end of the play they are married to each other.

It shows a sort of transformation for these two characters, or maybe, more of a realization. They know that they love each other, but are unwilling to show or admit it. And the resolution of both Benedick and Beatrice to remain unmarried for the rest of their lives, almost seems as if they were holding out for each other. And for Beatrice it could also be because of how she was spurned by Benedick in the past, and she now refuses to trust or love any man.


Title Page to the second quarto version of Romeo and Juliet, 1599.

Romeo and Juliet:  Mercutio

We may not know much about Mercutio’s back story or family, beyond the fact that he has a brother named Valentine, yet his presence in the play, is vital to a major plot point later on. I mentioned above that Benedick is one of my two favorite Shakespearean characters; Mercutio is the other one.

Mercutio is a close friend of Romeo’s and is always hanging around with him, and Romeo’s cousin, Benvolio. We also know that he is related to the prince somehow as well. Mercutio is not a Montague nor a Capulet, but because of his close association with Romeo, he still partakes in the feud on the side of the Montagues.

Mercutio is a frivolous and mischievous character, yet he is also very hot-blooded, and is easily offended, especially by anything that the Capulets say against himself or his friends. He has a particular quarrel with Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt. He is also the bawdiest character in this play, and possibly in any of Shakespeare’s plays. Most of the sexual innuendos in the play come from Mercutio, and about half the things that Mercutio says are sexual innuendos. He is a loyal and loving friend toward Romeo, yet mocks the fact that Romeo is in love; though Mercutio knows nothing about Juliet, and thinks that Romeo is still in love with Rosaline, the girl he is in love with at the beginning of the play. His take on love is not really cynical like Benedick’s view is, but a rather more carnal outlook on love. And his humor overall is on the more coarse and carnal side. Mercutio also angers Juliet’s nurse as well with his perverse behavior, but in his own light-hearted way, also makes jokes about the Nurse’s age, calling her “ancient lady”. Needless to say, Juliet’s nurse is not amused in the least, and she calls Mercutio a “scurvy knave”, and perhaps he is. He is also witty and clever, as he demonstrates in his Queen Mab speech. Mercutio’s name was derived from mercurial, which means, “having an unpredictable and fast-changing mood” as Mercutio does, and the origin of the word “mercurial” comes from the Roman messenger god, Mercury.

R&J A3, S1,The Death of Mercutio Remeo's Friend Edwin Austin Abbey, 1904

Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene 1, The Death of Mercutio, Romeo’s Friend by Edwin Austin Abbey, 1904.

However, Mercutio’s death at the hands of Tybalt is a major point in the play, and it kind of sets the whole latter half of the play into motion. Mercutio and Benvolio encounter Tybalt and a group of his friends. Tybalt seems ready to challenge Mercutio, but he is really seeking Romeo, who enters the scene then. Tybalt challenges Romeo, but unbeknownst to anyone present, Romeo has just secretly wed Juliet, and he refuses to fight any of her kinsmen. Mercutio calls Romeo’s refusal “vile, calm, dishonorable submission” and challenges Tybalt on Romeo’s behalf. Tybalt accepts, and when Romeo tries to part them, he only unintentionally helps Tybalt to strike Mercutio. Tybalt reaches under Romeo’s arm, and fatally stabs Mercutio. As Mercutio is dying, he asks Romeo, “Why the devil came you between us? I was hurt under your arm.” Mercutio dies, and his final words are putting a curse on both, the house of Montague and the house of Capulet; a curse that seems to carry through.

Romeo, feeling grief over the death of his best friend, and guilt by knowing that Mercutio was killed, not only on Romeo’s behalf, but also by way of Romeo’s intervention, challenges Tybalt when the latter reenters after having fled once he fatally hurt Mercutio. In this duel, Romeo kills Tybalt, and is exiled for it. Meanwhile, Juliet is on an emotional roller coaster of her own when she learns of this. She is devastated by the death of her cousin, angry with Romeo for killing him, and also distraught over her new husband’s exile, whom she still loves, despite the fact that he murdered her cousin.

Mercutio’s death is a turning point in the play, because of the domino effect that occurs from there onward. Up until this point, everything seemed to be going relatively well, at least for Romeo and Juliet. Their families were still feuding with each other, but they were married now, and they hoped that their marriage would put an end to the feud. Mercutio’s death changes the play’s outcome from what could have been a happy and harmonious ending, to the tragic one that it becomes. It is possible that without Mercutio’s presence in the play, or without his death at the very least, Romeo and Juliet  may not have been a tragedy at all.

Title Page of Q2, 1605

Title Page of the second quarto version of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, 1605.

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark:  Hamlet, Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern

Yes, I have four favorite characters from this play, and no, I can’t say that I like any one of them more than the other three.

Hamlet of course, is a rather complex character, and based on what’s going on in his life, it’s no wonder. While Hamlet’s away in Germany at school, his father suddenly dies, and even though Hamlet is next in line, his uncle Claudius usurps the throne to become the king, and subsequently marries Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. Yes, it’s enough to drive anyone insane. Although Hamlet’s seeming madness is only an act put on by the prince himself. But there’s a method to his madness, so to speak.

By now, the ghost of Hamlet’s father has told Hamlet that he was murdered at the hands of Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius. He fears that the ghost could have been the devil and before taking revenge against his uncle, first wants to have proof that he really did kill Hamlet’s father. Hamlet figures that if others think he is mad, then they will talk freely around him.  While Hamlet is trying to get evidence of his uncle’s act of murder, Claudius and Gertrude are attempting to learn the cause of Hamlet’s madness. They send for his childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to see if they can “glean what afflicts him”. Polonius, thinking that Hamlet’s madness may have to do with unrequited love from his daughter Ophelia, arranges for her to meet with Hamlet alone, with Polonius and Claudius secretly watching. After a normal and courteous greeting toward each other, Hamlet suddenly turns cruel toward Ophelia, mocking her, insulting her, and telling her to go live in a nunnery. Though we later learn that this was all part of the same act, and that perhaps Hamlet knew that Polonius and Claudius were watching. For after Ophelia dies, Hamlet shows up at her funeral, and declares, “I loved Ophelia!” .

Hamlet’s murder of Polonius prompts Claudius to send Hamlet away to England. And Polonius’s murder kind of sets the stage for everything that happens after. His murder causes Ophelia to go mad, and ultimately kill herself. It brings her brother, Polonius’s son, Laertes, back from France to  avenge his father’s death. Thus, Claudius arranges for a duel between Hamlet and Laertes, with Laertes having a poisoned sword tip. He cuts Hamlet with the poison sword, Hamlet gets the sword and hurts Laertes, Gertrude unknowingly drinks the poison wine that Claudius meant for Hamlet, and as Laertes dies, he admits that the king is to blame. Hamlet calls Claudius, an “incestuous, murderous, damned Dane”, and kills him with both the poison sword and the poison wine.

Horatio-in red & Hamlet-in black-Gravedigger Scene-Eugene Delacroix

Horatio (in red) and Hamlet (in black). The Gravedigger Scene by Eugene Delacroix, 1839.

Hamlet seems mad, but he is actually witty, clever, and a bit light-hearted in the way he portrays his madness. He also gives us some of Shakespeare’s most well-known lines and speeches: “To be, or not to be”, “the play’s the thing,” “Alas, poor Yorick!”, and so on.

Horatio is Hamlet’s schoolfellow and closest friend, and really the only true friend that Hamlet has. Horatio is also the only major character in Hamlet, who does not die during the play’s events, and is in fact very much alive at the end of the play. As Horatio is the only one that Hamlet can safely confide in, he is the only person who knows that Hamlet’s madness is not really madness at all. And in a way, Horatio may be the one device that keeps Hamlet sane. After all, Hamlet can’t trust most of the people that he is surrounded by, and the majority of them don’t trust Hamlet, but Hamlet does have Horatio, whom he knows is trustworthy, and who does not fear Hamlet’s madness, because he knows that Hamlet is not mad at all. Horatio is also the only person in which Hamlet divulges the message from his father’s ghost, regarding his uncle’s murder.

Horatio is a philosopher, and does not believe in the paranormal or supernatural. Thus, when the guards tell him of seeing Hamlet’s father’s ghost, he does not believe them, and agrees to watch with them the third night, mainly to prove them wrong, but he is horrified when the spirit really does show up. To everyone else in the play, Horatio possibly comes off as a more serious  and dry character, and in a way, he is.  But he is not boring, and when alone with Hamlet, we can see the depth of his emotions. With Hamlet, Horatio is a bit more carefree and can even joke around with the prince, and when he learns of the duel between Hamlet and Laertes, he advises Hamlet not to answer it, because he knows that Hamlet will lose, and there is a kind of genuine sadness in him when he voices this, because he cannot bear the thought of seeing his friend get killed. He tells Hamlet, “If your mind dislike any thing, obey it: I will forestall their repair hither, and say you are not fit.” But Hamlet tells Horatio that if he does not fight Laertes now, he will eventually have to fight him later. Gertrude, Laertes, Claudius, and then Hamlet, all die in this last scene. And once more, we see how much Horatio cared for his friend, when he says, “Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

Lithograph, R&G in flute scene-Eugene Delacroix

Hamlet (center), Guildenstern (left), and Rosencrantz (right).
Lithograph, Hamlet with Guildenstern by Eugene Delacroix, 1835-43.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; you can’t talk about one without the other. Indeed, they are a unit; never appearing separately in the course of the play. They are two of Hamlet’s childhood friends, that Claudius and Gertrude send for in the hopes that they can cheer up Hamlet and learn the cause of his madness. When they first arrive, Hamlet greets them enthusiastically, and after some playful conversation and banter, Hamlet asks them if they are visiting him on their own, or if the king and queen have sent for them, causing Guildenstern to eventually admit, “My lord, we were sent for.”

In a way, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are minor characters, who play a major role in Hamlet‘s plot. They come in about halfway through the play, and we’re not given much information about them, except for the fact that they were friends of Hamlet’s when they were all younger. They showed up because the king and queen asked them to, Hamlet knows this and he knows why they were sent for, therefore, he does not trust them. He’s friendly enough with them at first, and cheerfully talks with them about the acting troupe who is on their way to put on a performance at the court that night. But after this, he acts just as mad around them as he does around everyone else, and when they ask him questions in an attempt to learn what’s troubling him, he only gives inane responses that have no relevancy to the question, such as, “I am but mad north north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.” He feels he cannot trust them, so he gives nothing away to them. After Hamlet kills Polonius and Claudius sends Hamlet away to England, he sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to safely see him there. To further prove his distrust of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, when Hamlet tells his mother that they are escorting him to England, he says, “My two schoolfellows, whom I will trust as I will adders fang’d, they bear the mandate; they must sweep my way, and marshal me to knavery.”

Unknown to anyone else, Claudius is sending a letter with them that asks the king of England to immediately put Hamlet to death. Hamlet suspects this and in the middle of the night, he writes another letter, signs it with Claudius’s name, and asking the king of England to immediately put Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death. That night they are attacked at sea by pirates who abduct Hamlet. He asks them to bring him back to Denmark in exchange for money, which they do. When Horatio asks Hamlet about the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet replies, “Why, man, they did make love to this employment. They are not near my conscience.”

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Oldman and Roth)-flipped

Tim Roth (Guildenstern) and Gary Oldman (Rosencrantz) in the 1990 film Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, based on the play of the same name by Tom Stoppard.

Yet, it can appear as though Hamlet’s distrust of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may be a bit unfounded. Yes, they did only come after the king and queen asked them to, and they did try to get answers from him to learn the cause of his madness. But they also seem to be genuinely happy to see their old friend, Hamlet, and they really had no way of knowing that the king was going to ask them to escort Hamlet to his doom. And it does not look as if they knew that the document they carried from the king commanded Hamlet’s death. They appear to have been innocent victims, who were brought, unwillingly or no, into a game of power, greed, and vengeance, that eventually led to their untimely fate.

Poetry of the Bard–His Shorter Poems

Last time, I discussed William Shakespeare’s narrative poems: Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece. This time around, I will discuss his remaining poems,Poems written by William Shakespeare A Lover’s Complaint, The Phoenix and the Turtle, and the five of his poems that appeared in a collection entitled, The Passionate Pilgrim.

A Lover’s Complaint

This poem focuses on a young girl who was spurned by a young man that she loved. She sits upon a hill, throwing letters, jewelry, and other favors that he has given her, over the side of it. This is witnessed by the poem’s narrator:

From off a hill whose concave womb reworded                                                                                                                                                                             A plaintful story to a sistering vale,                                                                                                                                                                                   My spirits to attend this double voice accorded,                                                                                                                                           And down I laid to list the sad-tuned tale;                                                                                                                                                         Ere long espied a fickle maid full pale,                                                                                                                                                                Tearing of papers, breaking rings a-twain,                                                                                                                                                   Storming her world with sorrow’s wind and rain.                                                                                                                               

Upon her head a platted hive of straw,                                                                                                                                                       Which fortified her visage from the sun,                                                                                                                                               Whereon the thought might think sometime it saw                                                                                                                                    The carcass of beauty spent and done:                                                                                                                                                          Time had not scythed all that youth begun,                                                                                                                                                   Nor youth all quit; but, spite of heaven’s fell rage,                                                                                                                                   Some beauty peep’d through lattice of sear’d age.

Here the narrator lists some of the things that the young girl is discarding:

Of folded schedules had she many a one,                                                                                                                                                                                     Which she perused, sigh’d, tore, and gave the flood;                                                                                                                                                                                Crack’d many a ring of posied god and bone                                                                                                                                                                                  Bidding them find their sepulchres in mud;                                                                                                                                                                                         Found yet moe letters sadly penn’d in blood,                                                                                                                                                                            With sleided silk feat and affectedly                                                                                                                                                                   Enswathed, and seal’d to curious secrecy.

Soon, an old shepherd tending to his flock nearby, sees her and sits beside the young girl, curious about her grief, and willing to lend a sympathetic ear:

A Lover's Complaint-1609

A Lover’s Complaint in Shakespeare’s Sonnets, 1609.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       A reverend man that grazed his cattle nigh                                                                                                                                                                                                                   Sometime a blusterer, that the ruffle knew                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Of court, of city, and had let go by                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  The swiftest hours, observed as they flew–                                                                                                                                                                                                                 Towards this afflicted fancy fastly drew,                                                                                                                                                                                                                       And, privileged by age, desires to know                                                                                                                                                            In brief the grounds and motives of her woe.

So slides he down upon his grained bat,                                                                                                                                                          And comely-distant sits he by her side;                                                                                                                                                       When he again desires her, being sat,                                                                                                                                                              Her grievance with his hearing to divide:                                                                                                                                                          If that from him there may be aught applied                                                                                                                                             Which may her suffering ecstasy assuage,                                                                                                                                                    ‘Tis promised in the charity of age.

The young girl begins telling the shepherd about the boy that she loved.  He had curly brown hair, enchanting eyes, and a handsome face. He had but an early growth of a beard, was courteous, and could ride a horse well:

‘His browny locks did hang in crooked curls;                                                                                                                                               And every light occasion of the wind                                                                                                                                                            Upon his lips their silken parcels hurls.                                                                                                                                                    What’s sweet to do, to do will aptly find:                                                                                                                                                     Each eye that saw him did enchant the mind,                                                                                                                                                For on his visage was in little drawn                                                                                                                                                            What largeness thinks in Paradise was sawn.

‘Small show of man was yet upon his chin;                                                                                                                                                    His phoenix down began but to appear                                                                                                                                                              Like unshorn velvet on that termless skin                                                                                                                                                      Whose bare out-bragg’d the web it seem’d to wear:                                                                                                                                           Yet show’d his visage by that cost more dear;                                                                                                                                               And nice affections wavering stood in doubt                                                                                                                                                    If best were as it was, or best without.

A Lover's Complaint Ill. John Bell, 1774 ed.

A Lover’s Complaint illustration by John Bell, in the 1774 edition of Shakespeare’s works.

He impressed both men and women, and many of the latter fantasized about being his mistress. This girl however, had always kept her distance. All too soon however, she too, gave in to his charms, even though she knew that he could not be trusted, that he was unfaithful, treacherous, and had many illegitimate children:

“So many have, that never touch’d his hand,
Sweetly supposed them mistress of his heart.
My woeful self, that did in freedom stand,
And was my own fee-simple, not in part,
What with his art in youth, and youth in art,
Threw my affections in his charmed power,
Reserved the stalk and gave him all my flower.

“Yet did I not, as some my equals did,
Demand of him, nor being desired yielded;

Finding myself in honour so forbid,
With safest distance I mine honour shielded:
Experience for me many bulwarks builded
Of proofs new-bleeding, which remain’d the foil
Of this false jewel, and his amorous spoil.”

Yet this young man was able to woo her nonetheless. He asks her to have pity on him, and says that he never loved a woman as much as he loves her:

“And long upon these terms I held my city,
Till thus he gan besiege me: ‘Gentle maid,
Have of my suffering youth some feeling pity,
And be not of my holy vows afraid:
That’s to ye sworn to none was ever said;
For feasts of love I have been call’d unto,
Till now did ne’er invite, nor never woo.”

He offers to her, favors that he received from other women:

”Look here, what tributes wounded fancies sent me,
Of paled pearls and rubies red as blood;
Figuring that they their passions likewise lent me
Of grief and blushes, aptly understood
In bloodless white and the encrimson’d mood;
Effects of terror and dear modesty,
Encamp’d in hearts, but fighting outwardly.”

Next he tells her of a nun who, once she saw him, wished that she had never taken her vows and wanted to leave the cloister to be loved by him. He tearfully says that his heart aches because of the young girl’s resistance, and this is to further convince the girl of this young man’s faithfulness:

”My parts had power to charm a sacred nun,
Who, disciplined, ay, dieted in grace,
Believed her eyes when they to assail begun,
All vows and consecrations giving place:
O most potential love! vow, bond, nor space,
In thee hath neither sting, knot, nor confine,
For thou art all, and all things else are thine.

”When thou impressest, what are precepts worth
Of stale example? When thou wilt inflame,
How coldly those impediments stand forth
Of wealth, of filial fear, law, kindred, fame!
Love’s arms are peace, ‘gainst rule, ‘gainst sense,
‘gainst shame,
And sweetens, in the suffering pangs it bears,
The aloes of all forces, shocks, and fears.A Lover's Complaint book

”Now all these hearts that do on mine depend,
Feeling it break, with bleeding groans they pine;
And supplicant their sighs to you extend,
To leave the battery that you make ‘gainst mine,
Lending soft audience to my sweet design,
And credent soul to that strong-bonded oath
That shall prefer and undertake my troth.”

Because of his tears, and his words of passion, she gives herself to him, believing that he would be true to her. Instead, he broke her heart and left, just as he had with others before:

“For, lo, his passion, but an art of craft,
Even there resolved my reason into tears;
There my white stole of chastity I daff’d,
Shook off my sober guards and civil fears;
Appear to him, as he to me appears,
All melting; though our drops this difference bore,
His poison’d me, and mine did him restore.

“In him a plenitude of subtle matter,
Applied to cautels, all strange forms receives,
Of burning blushes, or of weeping water,
Or swooning paleness; and he takes and leaves,
In either’s aptness, as it best deceives,
To blush at speeches rank to weep at woes,
Or to turn white and swoon at tragic shows.

She ends, saying that even though she regrets falling for him once, she would fall for him again. His infectious tears, his blushing, and words of love, could all betray her once more:

“Thus merely with the garment of a Grace
The naked and concealed fiend he cover’d;
That th’ unexperient gave the tempter place,
Which like a cherubin above them hover’d.
Who, young and simple, would not be so lover’d?
Ay me! I fell; and yet do question make
What I should do again for such a sake.

O, that infected moisture of his eye,
O, that false fire which in his cheek so glow’d,
O, that forced thunder from his heart did fly,
O, that sad breath his spongy lungs bestow’d,
O, all that borrow’d motion seeming owed,
Would yet again betray the fore-betray’d,
And new pervert a reconciled maid!”

The Phoenix and the Turtle

The Phoenix and the Turtle

The Phoenix and the Turtle, first published in Robert Chester’s Love’s Martyr, 1601.

This is an allegorical poem, and is much shorter than A Lover’s Complaint and the two narrative poems. It is about a phoenix and a turtledove who were in love with each other, and died engulfed in the phoenix’s flames. Other birds have come to the funeral, yet some birds are not allowed to attend.

This poem I will post in its entirety, and under each verse, I will describe what that verse means:

Let the bird of loudest lay,
On the sole Arabian tree,
Herald sad and trumpet be,
To whose sound chaste wings obey.    
“The bird of loudest” is the nightingale, and he sits on the Arabian tree where he calls the two birds, (the phoenix and the turtledove), together.

But thou shrieking harbinger,
Foul precurrer of the fiend,
Augur of the fever’s end,
To this troop come thou not near.                                                                                                                                                                    
The “shrieking harbinger” is the owl, who was known to be an omen of death, and is therefore unwelcome at the funeral of the two dead birds.

From this session interdict
Every fowl of tyrant wing,
Save the eagle, feather’d king:
Keep the obsequy so strict.
                                                                                                                                                                                 “Every fowl of tyrant wing” refers to birds of prey, who are also unwelcome. The exception to this is the eagle, who is allowed to come in, and stand guard as it were, to make sure the unwelcome birds stay out.

Let the priest in surplice white
That defunctive music can,
Be the death-divining swan,
Lest the requiem lack his right.
                                                                                                                                                                   Because of his white coat, the swan will be the priest. “Defunctive music” referring to the fact that swans cannot sing as other birds can, and he will speak the requiem.

And thou treble-dated crow,
That thy sable gender mak’st
With the breath thou giv’st and tak’st,
‘Mongst our mourners shalt thou go.
                                                                                                                                                               The crow, already in mourning black, and believed to be able to take and give life, is also allowed inside.

Here the anthem doth commence:
Love and constancy is dead;
Phœnix and the turtle fled
In a mutual flame from hence.
                                                                                                                                                                         Love and truth died when the phoenix and the turtledove died.

So they lov’d, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
                                                                                                                                                                               Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.                                                                                                                                                                          They were two beings, but had only one soul. No division could come between them; the idea of numbers was meaningless to them.

Hearts remote, yet not asunder;
Distance, and no space was seen
‘Twixt the turtle and his queen:
But in them it were a wonder.                                                                                                                                                                          
There was no distance nor space between their hearts.

So between them love did shine,
That the turtle saw his right
Flaming in the phœnix’ sight;
Either was the other’s mine.
Between them did love shine bright; they belonged to each other.

 Property was thus appall’d,
That the self was not the same;
Single nature’s double name
Neither two nor one was call’d.
                                                                                                                                                                         One of them being by themselves was not the same as being together. Their souls were merged with each other, and were not two separate souls.

Reason, in itself confounded,
Saw division grow together;
To themselves yet either neither,
Simple were so well compounded,
                                                                                                                                                                       Reason was confused by their union.

That it cried, “How true a twain
Seemeth this concordant one!
Love hath reason, reason none,
If what parts can so remain”.
                                                                                                                                                                                  Reason could see that love has no reason, and reason has no love.

Whereupon it made this threne
To the phœnix and the dove,
Co-supremes and stars of love,
As chorus to their tragic scene.
                                                                                                                                                                          And so, Reason made the following threne in memory of the phoenix and the turtledove, as a chorus to the ends of their lives.

The Phoenix and the Turtle audioThrenos

Beauty, truth, and rarity,
Grace in all simplicity,
Here enclos’d in cinders lie.
                                                                                                                                                                               Beauty–the phoenix, truth–the turtledove, along with rarity and grace, are now all burnt to ashes.

Death is now the phœnix’ nest;
And the turtle’s loyal breast
To eternity doth rest,
                                                                                                                                                                                               In death, the phoenix and the turtledove are together forever.

Leaving no posterity:
‘Twas not their infirmity,
It was married chastity.
                                                                                                                                                                                    They did not have any children, but it was not because they were infertile, but because they were chaste.

Truth may seem, but cannot be;
Beauty brag, but ’tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.
                                                                                                                                                                            Truth cannot exist, nor can beauty boast, because both are buried with the two birds.

To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair;
For these dead birds sigh a prayer.
                                                                                                                                                                 Anyone who is either true or fair, particularly in love, should pray for the phoenix and the turtledove.

The Passionate Pilgrim

The Passionate Pilgrim-1599

Title page of The Passionate Pilgrim, 1599.

This was a collection of twenty poems, that were collected and published by William Jaggard, and the entire collection was  attributed to “W.  Shakespeare” on the title page. Further study however, could only prove five of the poems as being authentically written by the Bard.  Two of them are two of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. The other three are from his comedic play, Love’s Labour’s Lost.

The first poem in The Passionate Pilgrim is an early version of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138. Even the authorship of this version of the sonnet has been in dispute, but it is more widely accepted as Shakespeare’s own. Especially as the last line mirrors a line from Shakespeare’s tragic play, Othello, the Moor of Venice. In his collection of Sonnets, number 138, is a part of his series of Sonnets about the Dark Lady:

When my love swears that she is made of truth,
I do believe her (though I know she lies)
That she might think me some untutored youth,
Unskillful in the world’s false forgeries.
Thus, vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although I know my years be past the best,
I, simply, credit her false-speaking tongue,
Outfacing faults in love, with love’s ill rest.
But wherefore says my love that she is young?
And wherefore say not I, that I am old?
O, love’s best habit’s in a soothing tongue,
And age in love loves not to have years told.
Therefore I’ll lie with love, and love, with me,
Since that our faults in love thus smothered be. 

He believes his love when she says that she is true to him, even though he knows that she is lying. She thinks him too young to know that she is being false, but he is old enough to know. Even so, he lies with her, hoping that their faults will be smothered by love.

The second poem in The Passionate Pilgrim, is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 144. Up until Sonnet 126, Shakespeare’s sonnets were addressed to a young man. In Sonnet 127, the Dark Lady comes in. This Sonnet 144, portrays the conflicted relationship of the speaker, the Dark Lady, and the young man:

Shakespeare's Sonnets

Title page of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, 1609.

Two loves I have of comfort and despair,
Which like two spirits do suggest me still:
The better angel is a man right fair,
The worser spirit a woman colour’d ill.
To win me soon to hell, my female evil
Tempteth my better angel from my side,
And would corrupt my saint to be a devil,
Wooing his purity with her foul pride.
And whether that my angel be turn’d fiend
Suspect I may, but not directly tell;
But being both from me, both to each friend,
I guess one angel in another’s hell:
Yet this shall I ne’er know, but live in doubt,
Till my bad angel fire my good one out.

The speaker talks of two loves he has, (the young man–“a man right fair”, and the Dark Lady–“a woman coloured ill”). He sees the young man as the good spirit, and the Dark Lady as the evil spirit; he is also convinced that the Dark Lady will attempt to steal the young man away from him. She will seduce him and turn him to evil as well. He cannot say whether or not his angel (the young man), will be turned into a devil, but as both the young man and the Dark Lady are away from him and yet friend to each other, he figures that one angel is in the other’s hell. He must live in doubt until the bad angel drives away the good one.

The remaining three poems in The Passionate Pilgrim that have Shakespeare as their original author, are from his comedy, Love’s Labour’s Lost. In that play, the King of Navarre, and his three fellow scholars, Berowne, Longaville, and Dumain, all swear to study for three years, and during that time, they also swear not to see women, and not to love any either. So of course, this is when the Princess of France shows up with her three women, Rosaline, Maria, and Catherine. The King falls in love with the Princess, Berowne with Rosaline, Longaville with Maria, and Dumaine with Catherine. Yet because of the vows that the men made against women, the three men attempt to hide from each other, the fact that they are in love.

The following three sonnets in the The Passionate Pilgrim are letters written by the men for the women that they love. This first is Longaville’s letter to Maria:

Love's Labour's Lost title page-1598

Title page of the first quarto of Love’s Labour’s Lost, 1598.

Did not the heavenly rhetoric of thine eye,
‘Gainst whom the world could not hold argument,
Persuade my heart to this false perjury?
Vows for thee broke deserve not punishment.
A woman I forswore; but I will prove,
Thou being a goddess, I forswore not thee:
My vow was earthly, thou a heavenly love;
Thy grace being gained cures all disgrace in me.
My vow was breath, and breath a vapour is;
Then thou, fair sun, that on this earth doth shine,
Exhale this vapour vow; in thee it is:
If broken, then it is no fault of mine.
If by me broke, what fool is not so wise
To break an oath, to win a paradise?

Here, Longaville is attempting to justify his love for Maria, by saying that he swore not to see women, but that she is a goddess, so therefore he is not forsworn in loving her. His vow was earthly, and she is of heaven. His vow was only breath, and breath is only a vapor. She is the sun who shines on the earth and dissolves that vapor.  So if his vow is broken, it is not broken by him. But even if it is broken by him, who would be so foolish, that they would not break their oath to gain paradise?

The next one is Berowne’s poem to Rosaline:

If love make me forsworn, how shall I swear to love?
O, never faith could hold, if not to beauty vowed:
Though to myself forsworn, to thee I’ll constant prove;
Those thoughts, to me like oaks, to thee like osiers bowed.
Study his bias leaves, and makes his book thine eyes,
Where all those pleasures live that art can comprehend.
If knowledge be the mark, to know thee shall suffice;
Well learned is that tongue that well can thee commend;
All ignorant that soul that sees thee without wonder;
Which is to me some praise, that I thy parts admire:
Thy eye Jove’s lightning seems, thy voice his dreadful thunder,
Which (not to anger bent) is music and sweet fire.
Celestial as thou art, O, do not love that wrong,
To sing heLove's Labour's Lost-Folgeraven’s praise with such an earthly tongue.

Berowne is saying that if love makes him forsworn than how can he swear his love for Rosaline; faith could never hold a vow made to beauty. He will be forsworn to himself, yet be constant and true to her. These thoughts are like oaks on a tree to him, like a willow to her, both that can easily bend and possibly be broken. He sees in her eyes a book of all of life’s pleasures. If knowledge be all, then it is enough to know her. Intelligent is the person who can speak of her with praise, and ignorant is the person who looks at her, and does not wonder about her beauty. This is praises himself as well, since he so admires her, (and is therefore intelligent). Her eye is like Jove, and her voice is like Jove’s thunder, which sounds like music and sweet fire. She is celestial, and he does love wrong, to praise she who is heavenly, with earthly words.

The last of the poems by Shakespeare in The Passionate Pilgrim, is Dumaine’s sonnet to Catherine:

On a day (alack the day)
Love, whose month was ever May,
Spied a blossom passing fair,
Playing in the wanton air.
Through the velvet leaves the wind
All unseen, gan passage find;
That the lover (sick to death)
Wished himself the heaven’s breath.
“Air,” quoth he, “thy cheeks may blow;
Air, would I might triumph so.
But (alas) my hand hath sworn
Ne’er to pluck thee from thy thorn:
Vow (alack) for youth unmeet;
Youth, so apt to pluck a sweet.
Thou for whom Jove would swear
Juno but an Ethiope were;                                                                                                                                                                                  And deny himself for Jove,
Turning mortal for thy love.” 

On a day in May, which is the month of love, is when Dumaine saw Catherine–“a blossom passing fair”. Through leaves, wind can pass unseen and find passage, and thus a lovesick man might wish himself to be nothing but air, so that he can pass by unseen as well. But he has sworn his vow. It was a vow for unseemly youth, and he is that youth who is likely to fall in love–“pluck a sweet”–even though he swore that he would not love. For Catherine, would Jove, (the supreme god in Roman mythology), himself swear love. And would Jove then deny Juno, (Jove’s wife), and choose to become  mortal for Catherine’s love.  The interjection, “alack”, is used to express sorrow, grief, or regret.

Love's Labour's Lost-Branagh

A scene from Kenneth Branagh’s musical version of Love’s Labour’s Lost, 2000.

A Lover’s Complaint is only summarized here, but it, as wells as The Phoenix and the Turtle,  are meant of course, to be read in their entirety. And I would encourage anyone who is interested, to find the full text of these poems, (either in books or online), and read them through. And also for his longer, narrative poems, that I covered in my previous post, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. And while you’re at it, you may just want to take a look at Shakespeare’s 154 Sonnets as well.

Enjoy the upcoming weekend everyone, and Happy Thanksgiving!

Poetry of the Bard–His Narrative Works


William Shakespeare

Being a self-proclaimed “Shakespeare Nerd” I am not only interested in the Bard’s life and plays, but in his poetry as well.

Many people know of William Shakespeare’s plays, or specific lines from them, (i.e. “To be, or not to be”), even if they have not read many, or any, of his plays. Now for the nerds like myself, if you love Shakespeare as much as I do, then chances are that you know of his poems as well. But even so, there may be some who are not as familiar with Shakespeare’s poems as they are with his plays. So I’ve decided that I will discuss the poems here, in chronological order, as a two- or three-part blog. I will talk about his poems, describe what they are about, and where Shakespeare gained the inspiration for them.

In his life, Shakespeare wrote four poems and 154 Sonnets. This time, I will discuss his first poems, two narrative poems titled, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

Poems written by William Shakespeare

Poems Written by William Shakespeare. Small octavo of the First Edition of Shakespeare’s Poems, 1640.

Venus and Adonis

In 1593, the theatres were all closed down due to the plague; this would happen a couple of times more later on. Yet during this first time, Shakespeare wrote his first narrative poem, and it was dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, thusly:

To the Right Honourable

Henry Wriothesley

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, attributed to John de Critz, 1603.

Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton and Baron of Tichfield.
Right Honourable,
I know not how I shall offend in dedicating my unpolished lines to your lordship, nor how the  world will censure me for choosing so strong a prop to support so weak a burden: Only, if your honour  seem but pleased, I account myself highly praised, and vow to take advantage of all idle hours, till I  have honoured you with some graver labour. But if the first heir of my invention prove deformed, I  shall be sorry it had so noble a god-father, and never after ear so barren a land, for fear it yield me still  so bad a harvest. I leave it to your honourable survey, and your honour to your heart’s content:  which I wish may always answer your wish, and the world’s hopeful expectation.
Your honour’s in all duty,
William Shakespeare.

Venus and Adonis is 1,194 lines, and tells the story of Adonis, the Greek god of beauty and desire, who is pursued by the Roman goddess of love and beauty, Venus. Venus attempts to woo Adonis, and get him to fall in love with her, but he is only interested in hunting, and the more that Venus tries to win him, the less interested he becomes in her. This is established in the poem’s opening stanza:

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 loved, but love he laugh’d to scorn; 
Sick-thoughted Venus makes amain unto him, 
And like a bold-faced suitor ‘gins to woo him. 

Through the course of the poem, Venus continues to lust after Adonis, while he is only irritated and annoyed by her persistence:

Once more the engine of her thoughts began: 
“O fairest mover on this mortal round, 
Would thou wert as I am, and I a man, 
My heart all whole as thine, thy heart my wound; 
For one sweet look thy help I would assure thee, 
Though nothing but my body’s bane would cure thee!” 

“Give me my hand,” saith he, “why dost thou feel it?” 
“Give me my heart,” saith she, “and thou shalt have it: 
O, give it me, lest thy hard heart do steel it, 
And being steel’d, soft sighs can never grave it: 
Then love’s deep groans I never shall regard, 
Because Adonis’ heart hath made mine hard.” 

“For shame,” he cries, “let go, and let me go; 
My day’s delight is past, my horse is gone, 
And ’tis your fault I am bereft him so: 
I pray you hence, and leave me here alone; 
For all my mind, my thought, my busy care, 
Is how to get my palfrey from the mare.” 

This is after Adonis’s horse, seeing a mare, broke free of his bounds and went after her. Venus tries to convince Adonis, that he should do as his horse did:

Venus and Adonis-Quarto

Title page of the first quarto of Venus and Adonis, 1593.

Thus she replies: “Thy palfrey, as he should, 
Welcomes the warm approach of sweet desire: 
Affection is a coal that must be cool’d; 
Else, suffer’d, it will set the heart on fire: 
The sea hath bounds, but deep desire hath none;
Therefore no marvel though thy horse be gone.”

Adonis maintains his view on love:

“I know not love,” quoth he, “nor will not know it, 
Unless it be a boar, and then I chase it; 
Tis much to borrow, and I will not owe it; 
My love to love is love but to disgrace it; 
For I have heard it is a life in death, 
That laughs and weeps, and all but with a breath.”

He manages to free himself from Venus’s embrace, and goes after his horse, and the boar he was hunting beforehand. It comes to a tragic end however, when Venus finds Adonis killed by the boar instead:

As falcon to the lure, away she flies; 
The grass stoops not, she treads on it so light; 
And in her haste unfortunately spies 
The foul boar’s conquest on her fair delight; 
Which seen, her eyes, as murder’d with the view, 
Like stars ashamed of day, themselves withdrew.

Adonis being taken away from her so suddenly and violently, causes Venus to curse love, and anyone who ever loves someone else:

Since thou art dead, lo, here I prophesy: 
Sorrow on love hereafter shall attend: 
It shall be waited on with jealousy, 
Find sweet beginning, but unsavoury end, 
Ne’er settled equally, but high or low, 
That all love’s pleasure shall not match his woe. 

It shall be fickle, false and full of fraud, 
Bud and be blasted in a breathing-while; 
The bottom poison, and the top o’erstraw’d 
With sweets that shall the truest sight beguile: 
The strongest body shall it make most weak, 
Strike the wise dumb and teach the fool to speak. 

Venus and Adonis by Titian

Venus and Adonis by Titian, 1554.

It shall be sparing and too full of riot, 
Teaching decrepit age to tread the measures; 
The staring ruffian shall it keep in quiet,
Pluck down the rich, enrich the poor with treasures; 
It shall be raging-mad and silly-mild, 
Make the young old, the old become a child. 

It shall suspect where is no cause of fear; 
It shall not fear where it should most mistrust; 
It shall be merciful and too severe, 
And most deceiving when it seems most just; 
Perverse it shall be where it shows most toward, 
Put fear to valour, courage to the coward. 

It shall be cause of war and dire events, 
And set dissension ‘twixt the son and sire; 
Subject and servile to all discontents, 
As dry combustious matter is to fire: 
Sith in his prime Death doth my love destroy, 
They that love best their loves shall not enjoy.’ 

The mythology of Adonis, speaks of his rebirth as well, which is also featured in Shakespeare’s work:

By this, the boy that by her side lay kill’d 
Was melted like a vapour from her sight, 
And in his blood that on the ground lay spill’d, 
A purple flower sprung up, chequer’d with white, 
Resembling well his pale cheeks and the blood 
Which in round drops upon their whiteness stood. 

Distraught, Venus plucks the flower and takes it with her as she flies away, planning to confine herself, and never be seen by the world again:

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.

Ovid by Signorelli

Ovid by Luca Signorelli.

Shakespeare is said to have gleaned the inspiration for Venus and Adonis from the work of Publius Ovidius Naso a.k.a. Ovid.  Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 10,  tells the tale of Venus and Adonis, yet in a different way.

Ovid’s version not only says that Venus took Adonis as her first mortal lover, but that they were close consorts, and she accompanied him on his hunting expeditions. It ends the same way however. Venus warns him against hunting dangerous animals, and Adonis is killed by a boar.

The Rape of Lucrece

This play was written in 1594, one year after Venus and Adonis, and is 1,906 lines long. This too, was dedicated to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton:

To the Right Honourable

Shakespeare's dedication to Southampton in Lucrece

Shakespeare’s dedication to Wriothesley in The Rape of Lucrece, 1594.

Henry Wriothesly, Earl of Southampton and Baron of Tichfield.
The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end; whereof this pamphlet, without beginning, is but a superfluous moiety. The warrant I have of your honourable disposition, not the worth of my untutored lines, makes it assured of acceptance. What I have done is yours; what I have to do is yours; being part in all I have, devoted yours. Were my worth greater, my duty would show greater; meantime, as it is, it is bound to your lordship, to whom I wish long life, still lengthened with all happiness.
Your lordship’s in all duty,
William Shakespeare.

In his dedication to the Earl in Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare promised to write him a “graver labour”. He accomplished this with his second, and last, narrative poem. As the title implies, this poem is indeed “graver” and darker than Shakespeare’s first poem.

The poem begins with the Argument, which tells what the poem is about.

Set in ancient Rome, 509 BC to be exact, an army meets at the tent of Sextus Tarquinius, (Tarquin), and each man praises the virtues of his wife. Collatinus remarks on the chastity of his wife, Lucrece. Once he is back in Rome, Tarquin steals off to where Lucrece and Collatinus live, her husband not yet returned home:

From the besieged Ardea all in post, 
Borne by the trustless wings of false desire, 
Lust-breathed Tarquin leaves the Roman host, 
And to Collatium bears the lightless fire 
Which, in pale embers hid, lurks to aspire 
And girdle with embracing flames the waist 
Of Collatine’s fair love, Lucrece the chaste. 

Collatinus’s boasting about Lucrece has already driven Tarquin into desire, and once he sees her, he is captivated by her beauty. In fact, he feels that Collatinus has not praised Lucrece enough:

Now thinks he that her husband’s shallow tongue,–
The niggard prodigal that praised her so,– 
In that high task hath done her beauty wrong,
Which far exceeds his barren skill to show:
Therefore that praise which Collatine doth owe
Enchanted Tarquin answers with surmise,
In silent wonder of still-gazing eyes.

Lucrece suspects nothing of Tarquin and he hides his intentions for the moment, instead telling Lucrece of wondrous deeds achieved by her husband:

He stories to her ears her husband’s fame,
Won in the fields of fruitful Italy;
And decks with praises Collatine’s high name,
Made glorious by his manly chivalry 
With bruised arms and wreaths of victory:
Her joy with heaved-up hand she doth express,
And, wordless, so greets heaven for his success.

He goes to bed soon after this, but cannot sleep. He can only think of Lucrece, and debates with himself, whether he should act on his intentions or not:

As one of which doth Tarquin lie revolving
The sundry dangers of his will’s obtaining;
Yet ever to obtain his will resolving, 
Though weak-built hopes persuade him to abstaining:
Despair to gain doth traffic oft for gaining;
And when great treasure is the meed proposed,
Though death be adjunct, there’s no death supposed.

He deliberates with himself on the lasting effect this will have on him, if he gives in, and tries to think of ways to justify his lust, and his willingness to act upon it:

“Yea, though I die, the scandal will survive, 
And be an eye-sore in my golden coat;
Some loathsome dash the herald will contrive,
To cipher me how fondly I did dote;
That my posterity, shamed with the note
Shall curse my bones, and hold it for no sin
To wish that I their father had not bin.

“What win I, if I gain the thing I seek?
A dream, a breath, a froth of fleeting joy.
Who buys a minute’s mirth to wail a week?
Or sells eternity to get a toy? 
For one sweet grape who will the vine destroy?
Or what fond beggar, but to touch the crown,
Would with the sceptre straight be strucken down?”

Lucrece title page

Title page of the sixth edition of The Rape of Lucrece.

Collatinus is his friend, so he cannot take his wife for purposes of revenge. He could beg Lucrece for her love, but she is so loving to her husband, that Tarquin knows she would never swear her love for him:

“Had Collatinus kill’d my son or sire,
Or lain in ambush to betray my life,
Or were he not my dear friend, this desire 
Might have excuse to work upon his wife,
As in revenge or quittal of such strife:
But as he is my kinsman, my dear friend,
The shame and fault finds no excuse nor end.

“Shameful it is; ay, if the fact be known: 
Hateful it is; there is no hate in loving:
I’ll beg her love; but she is own:
The worst is but denial and reproving:
My will is strong, past reason’s weak removing.
Who fears a sentence or an old man’s saw 
Shall by a painted cloth be kept in awe.”

The longer he thinks on it, the stronger his lust for Lucrece grows, and he heads for her bedroom.

He is resolute; determined. Even the several locks on her chamber door, and the wind threatening to blow out his torch will not stay him. He considers praying for success, but realizes that the powers that be frown upon the act that he is about to commit. He enters her room, and gazes at her sleeping there:

Her hair, like golden threads, play’d with her breath;
O modest wantons! wanton modesty!
Showing life’s triumph in the map of death,
And death’s dim look in life’s mortality:
Each in her sleep themselves so beautify, 
As if between them twain there were no strife,
But that life lived in death, and death in life.

Her breasts, like ivory globes circled with blue,
A pair of maiden worlds unconquered,
Save of their lord no bearing yoke they knew, 
And him by oath they truly honoured.
These worlds in Tarquin new ambition bred;                                                                                                                                                                                                                             Who, like a foul usurper, went about                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 From this fair throne to heave the owner out.

He cannot resist his temptation or his beating heart:

His drumming heart cheers up his burning eye,
His eye commends the leading to his hand;
His hand, as proud of such a dignity,
Smoking with pride, march’d on to make his stand
On her bare breast, the heart of all her land; 
Whose ranks of blue veins, as his hand did scale,
Left there round turrets destitute and pale.

Lucrece wakes up, alarmed and frightened. He tells her what he means to do and says that it’s her fault because she is so beautiful, and that for the sake of her husband and children, she should yield to him. He explains that he debated with himself whether or not he should do this. If she resists, Tarquin says he will kill her and one of her slaves, and swear that he found them in bed together:

“Lucrece,” quoth he, “this night I must enjoy thee:
If thou deny, then force must work my way,
For in thy bed I purpose to destroy thee: 
That done, some worthless slave of thine I’ll slay,
To kill thine honour with thy life’s decay;
And in thy dead arms do I mean to place him,
Swearing I slew him, seeing thee embrace him.”

She pleads with him, but his ears are deaf to her prayers. She reminds him that he is a knight, and a gentleman who must set examples for others. She speaks of his close friendship to her husband, and the hospitality that she has shown him. She continues to implore him, but Tarquin  cannot ignore the lustful desire within him. He puts out the light and takes her, muffling her cries with her bedclothes:

This said, he sets his foot upon the light,
For light and lust are deadly enemies: 
Shame folded up in blind concealing night,
When most unseen, then most doth tyrannize.
The wolf hath seized his prey, the poor lamb cries;
Till with her own white fleece her voice controll’d
Entombs her outcry in her lips’ sweet fold:

Lucrezia e Tarquinio by Luca Giordano

Lucrezia e Tarquinio, (Lucretia and Tarquin), Luca Giordano.

For with the nightly linen that she wears
He pens her piteous clamours in her head;
Cooling his hot face in the chastest tears
That ever modest eyes with sorrow shed.
O, that prone lust should stain so pure a bed! 
The spots whereof could weeping purify,
Her tears should drop on them perpetually.

But she hath lost a dearer thing than life,
And he hath won what he would lose again:
This forced league doth force a further strife; 
This momentary joy breeds months of pain;
This hot desire converts to cold disdain:
Pure Chastity is rifled of her store,
And Lust, the thief, far poorer than before.

Once the act is done, Tarquin leaves, now bearing a guilty mind, and fearful of what he has committed:

Even in this thought through the dark night he stealeth, 
A captive victor that hath lost in gain;
Bearing away the wound that nothing healeth,
The scar that will, despite of cure, remain;
Leaving his spoil perplex’d in greater pain.
She bears the load of lust he left behind, 
And he the burden of a guilty mind.

Lucrece considers sparing her husband this dishonor by killing herself. She curses Oppurtunity for allowing this to happen, and she asks Time to kill her. She wants to put a curse on Sextus. Suicide seems to be the only option for her, but she will wait until she can tell her husband what has happened. Lucrece sends for her maid, who sympathizes with Lucrece, but knows not why her lady weeps. She asks her maid to bring her quill, ink, and paper.  Here, the author/narrator offers an apology to relieve Lucrece of her guilt. She cannot be to blame for what happened to her, as she was taken ‘by force’:

For men have marble, women waxen, minds,
And therefore are they form’d as marble will;
The weak oppress’d, the impression of strange kinds
Is form’d in them by force, by fraud, or skill:
Then call them not the authors of their ill,
No more than wax shall be accounted evil
Wherein is stamp’d the semblance of a devil.

Lucrece then sends a letter to her husband, urging him to come home as soon as possible, but not yet telling him what happened. Meanwhile, she considers a tapestry on the wall that depicts the fall of Troy, which was also prompted by a rape:

At last she calls to mind where hangs a piece
Of skilful painting, made for Priam’s Troy:
Before the which is drawn the power of Greece. 
For Helen’s rape the city to destroy,
Threatening cloud-kissing Ilion with annoy;
Which the conceited painter drew so proud,
As heaven, it seem’d, to kiss the turrets bow’d.

Lucrece’s husband returns, along with her father, and Lucius Junius Brutus. She tells them what happened to her:

“Then be this all the task it hath to say
Dear husband, in the interest of thy bed 
A stranger came, and on that pillow lay
Where thou was wont to rest thy weary head;
And what wrong else may be imagined
By foul enforcement might be done to me,
From that, alas, thy Lucrece is not free.

“For in the dreadful dead of dark midnight,
With shining falchion in my chamber came
A creeping creature, with a flaming light,
And softly cried ‘Awake, thou Roman dame,
And entertain my love; else lasting shame 
On thee and thine this night I will inflict,
If thou my love’s desire do contradict.”

Lucrece asks the men to kill her attacker, and they agree to do so. She then asks how this stain can be wiped from her, and the men all reply, that her mind being untainted, clears her body of that dishonor. She then names Tarquin as her rapist, and stabs herself:

The suicide of Lucretia by Jorg Breu the Elder

The Suicide of Lucretia by Jörg Breu the Elder.

 Here with a sigh, as if her heart would break,                           
She throws forth Tarquin’s name; “He, he,” she says,
But more than “he” her poor tongue could not speak;
Till after many accents and delays,
Untimely breathings, sick and short assays,
She utters this, “He, he, fair lords, ’tis he,
That guides this hand to give this wound to me.”

Even here she sheathed in her harmless breast
A harmful knife, that thence her soul unsheathed:
That blow did that it from the deep unrest
Of that polluted prison where it breathed:
Her contrite sighs unto the clouds bequeath’d
Her winged sprite, and through her wounds doth fly
Life’s lasting date from cancell’d destiny.

The men are astonished at what has just taken place before them. Her father is most distraught:

“Daughter, dear daughter,” old Lucretius cries,
“That life was mine which thou hast here deprived.
If in the child the father’s image lies,
Where shall I live now Lucrece is unlived?
Thou wast not to this end from me derived.
If children predecease progenitors,
We are their offspring, and they none of ours.” 

And then Lucrece’s husband, Collatine, comes out of shock, and weeps for her as well:

By this, starts Collatine as from a dream,
And bids Lucretius give his sorrow place;
And then in key-cold Lucrece’ bleeding stream
He falls, and bathes the pale fear in his face,
And counterfeits to die with her a space;
Till manly shame bids him possess his breath
And live to be revenged on her death.

Both, Lucrece’s father and her husband, contend for who grieves for her the most. Then Brutus reminds them of the revenge they vowed on Tarquin, and raises them to action:

“Why, Collatine, is woe the cure for woe?
Do wounds help wounds, or grief help grievous deeds?
Is it revenge to give thyself a blow
For his foul act by whom thy fair wife bleeds?
Such childish humour from weak minds proceeds:
Thy wretched wife mistook the matter so,
To slay herself, that should have slain her foe.”

The three men then agree to avenge the death of Lucrece, and banish the Tarquin’s from rule. After which, they bear Lucrece’s body through Rome, to show the consequences of Tarquin’s offense, and  force the Tarquins’ exile. Thus ending the reign of Kings in Rome, and beginning the Roman Republic:

This said, he struck his hand upon his breast,
And kiss’d the fatal knife, to end his vow;
And to his protestation urged the rest,
Who, wondering at him, did his words allow:
Then jointly to the ground their knees they bow;
And that deep vow, which Brutus made before,
He doth again repeat, and that they swore.

When they had sworn to this advised doom,
They did conclude to bear dead Lucrece thence;
To show her bleeding body thorough Rome,
And so to publish Tarquin’s foul offence:
Which being done with speedy diligence,
The Romans plausibly did give consent
To Tarquin’s everlasting banishment.

In great detail, Shakespeare explores the impact that the rape has on Lucrece, from the time Tarquin departs, and up until her suicide. He also reflects on the guilt, shame, and fear that Tarquin feels after committing this horrid act.



Like Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare’s inspiration for Lucrece, also came in part, from Ovid through his work entitled Fasti; a six-book Latin poem.  Every year on February 24th, the Romans would celebrate Regifugium or Fugalia (“King’s Flight”). There are different opinions about what this day truly commemorated, but according to Ovid, it celebrated the flight of the last king of Rome, Tarquin.   February (Book Two of the six), ends with Ovid describing the “flight of the King”, (the king being Tarquin, fleeing after committing the rape).

Shakespeare’s Lucrece is also based on Livy’s History of Rome.  Livy, (Titus Livius Patavinus), was a Roman historian. He published the first five books of history between 27 and 25 BC. And then continued to work on Roman history for the remainder of his life, publishing each new book as demand for them populated. The first one ends with Lucius Junius Brutus and Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus being elected as consuls in Rome.

Both of these poems are worth reading; I only highlighted some of the verses of each poem here. Mostly the ones that I thought explained the basic premise of the poems. But if you are so inclined, I heartily suggest that anyone who is interested, pick up a copy of Shakespeare’s poems and read them in their entirety. The way that they were meant to be read and enjoyed when William Shakespeare first wrote them for Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton.

Next time: Shakespeare’s remaining poems: A Lover’s Complaint, The Phoenix and the Turtle, and the three of Shakespeare’s poems that appear in the collection entitled The Passionate Pilgrim.


Happy birthday to the Bard

I was once asked, “If you could go back in time and meet any one person, who would it be?”

My immediate answer: William Shakespeare.                      William Shakespeare

Sure, there are a few others, i.e. Abraham Lincoln, Plato, Edgar Allan Poe, etc.  But my first choice would be the Bard.  I mean if I could step into my time machine, (assuming that I had a time machine), and go back in time, my first stop would be Stratford-Upon-Avon, or London, England in the late 16th or early 17th century.  The location in England would depend on the date that I arrived there; Shakespeare was born, raised, and retired in Stratford, but he lived in London for most of his life.

Today is April 23rd, 2013, William Shakespeare’s 449th birthday.  (I’ve also read that it’s National Talk Like Shakespeare Day.  I haven’t found any other sources to back this up, but I like the idea.  I don’t do it though, because hardly anyone would know what I was talking about, and I would probably only receive odd looks from anyone that I said this to, “Good day, how art thou?”)

So in the birthday spirit of, in my not-so-humble opinion, the greatest playwright who ever lived, I am wearing my ‘Got Shakespeare?’ tee shirt, and writing this blog.

Now, I’m not going to go into Shakespeare’s life story here.  Plenty of websites and books do that as it is.  But I figured that I would give phrases that were coined by Shakespeare, and give a list of my six favorite Shakespearean plays in chronological order, and their characters.

Common phrases attributed to Shakespeare:

It was Greek to me. (Julius Caesar)

What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. (Romeo and Juliet)

Bated breath. (The Merchant of Venice)

To thine ownself be true. (Hamlet)

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet

All that glitters is not gold. (The Merchant of Venice)

Dead as a doornail. (Macbeth)

For goodness’ sake. (Henry VIII)
Devil incarnate. (Titus Andronicus/Henry V)
Elbow room. (King John)
Eaten me out of house and home. (Henry IV, Part 2)
Fancy-free. (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Good riddance (Troilus and Cressida)

‘Tis high time. (The Comedy of Errors)

Knock knock! Who’s there? (Macbeth)

In a pickle. (The Tempest)

In my mind’s eye. (Hamlet)

Much Ado About Nothing (Title)

All’s Well That Ends Well (Title)

Parting is such sweet sorrow. (Romeo and Juliet)

Time is out of joint. (Hamlet)

Once more into the breach. (Henry V)

What’s past is prologue. (The Tempest)

Star-crossed lovers. (Romeo and Juliet)

Pomp and circumstance. (Othello)

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? (Sonnets 18)

Primrose path. (Hamlet)

Pound of flesh. (The Merchant of Venice)

Something wicked this way comes. (Macbeth)

Henry V

Henry V

The course of true love never did run smooth. (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Play fast and loose. (King John)

The short and the long of it. (Merry Wives of Windsor)

Double, double, toil, and trouble. (Macbeth)

There’s the rub. (Hamlet)

This mortal coil. (Hamlet)

Lord, what fools these mortals be! (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Wear my heart upon my sleeve. (Othello)

A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse! (Richard III)

What’s done is done. (Macbeth)

Too much of a good thing. (As You Like It)

What the dickens? (The Merry Wives of Windsor)

Wild-goose chase. (Romeo and Juliet)

These aren’t all the phrases attributed to Shakespeare, but some of the better-known phrases of our time.

My favorite Shakespeare plays:

The Comedy of Errors:  favorite characters:  Antipholus of Ephesus and Dromio of Ephesus

Romeo and Juliet:  favorite character:  Mercutio

Much Ado About Nothing:  favorite character:  Benedick

Henry V:  favorite characters:  Henry V and Bardolph

Hamlet Kenneth Branagh

Hamlet with Kenneth Branagh. “Alas, poor Yorick!”

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark:  favorite characters:  Hamlet, Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern

Macbeth:  favorite character:  Banquo

Note:  Mercutio and Benedick, along with Philip Faulconbridge (King John), are my favorite Shakespeare characters.

So once more, Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare! And if time travel ever becomes available in my lifetime, I just might meet you one day.

And now I pose this question to you: If you could go back in time and meet any one person, who would it be?