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Feb 11, 2014

A Theory About Shakespeare

As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.
- The Tempest, Epilogue, 19-20

[Preliminary Note: The following "theory" {the word is related to "theater" and etymologically it means something like a "way of seeing"} is mine in two possible senses of ownership. First, I have formulated it; second, I "believe" in it. It comes from two specific sources which I myself have combined. The "theory" also rests on my own occasional readings of Shakespeare's various plays, of course - in other words, it's not superimposed on Shakespeare (see my essay on "The Art of Reading"), it is implicit in his work . . . ]

Of Plots and Conflicts (and Young Women, of Course)

It seems that all of Shakespeare’s plays are variations on a theme. They certainly seem to be jigsaw puzzle-like pieces of an intricate and complex design/pattern/weave/text/texture. According the John Vyvyan’s Shakespeare and the Rose of Love, the scenario goes something like this: Shakespeare seems to have learned to plot his plays according to a design established by Terence, the Roman playwright. The “Terentian Pattern” is plotted according to the following structure:

Act I: Conflict is established (Vyvyan uses the metaphor of war) and the audience is “asked” to take sides. In Vyvyan’s words “the first act gives the rational and emotional background of the coming action” (12).

Act II: Suspense builds up as both the “good guys” and the “bad guys” make preliminary moves against one another.

Act III: Things begin to look as if the “bad guys” might win. The audience is worried.

Act IV: The “good guys” go for it. In Vyvyan’s words, “the act closes with everything prepared for the final victory, but just short of it” (ibid.)

Act V: There may be a “surprise” here (Vyvyan’s word), but the victory of the side which wins nevertheless follows a kind of “logic” (my word).


The first thing to know about this five-act structure is that Terence used it (and intended it) for comedy. Shakespeare, on the other hand, used it for both tragedy and comedy (in fact, he seems to have used it for the so-called dark comedies [such as The Merchant of Venice or Measure for Measure] as well as the so-called serene romances [his last four plays, of which The Tempest is the final]). In any case, this fact gives rise to the following interesting question: what (in Shakespeare’s scheme of things) makes a play (that is, causes it to be) a comedy rather than a tragedy, and vice versa? It is clear that the stuff of each kind of play is full of the potential makings of tragedy. This is especially true of the so-called dark comedies, which is precisely why they are so called. But even the “regular” comedies abound in the stuff (evil) of which tragedies are made. According to Vyvyan, it all depends on the Rose of Love. “Her fortunes . . . determine the outcome of life or death. She is a love-symbol. And the love-symbol, for Shakespeare, is something more than sex, passion or romance; these are parts, but their sum is not the whole” (21). For Vyvyan, the Rose of Love is either “Platonic love” or the “redemptive love of the Gospels” (ibid.). In the first case she is “passive,” in the second, “active” (22).

Things are, of course, a bit more complicated. I certainly don’t want to give you the impression that this is a static structure in Shakespeare. On the contrary, it is for all intents and purposes infinitely variable. Yet, with the possible exception of the so-called history plays, all of Shakespeare’s plays seem variations on the theme of love, passive or active. At the heart of the dynamic is the man/woman relationship usually with a dose of a father/daughter relationship thrown in for good measure. If the man rejects the love of the woman (the Rose), and if she lets him get away with it (in which case she is passive), we usually (not necessarily always) have a tragedy on our hands. If, on the other hand, she won’t let the man get away with rejecting the Rose or her love (in which case the Rose is active, of course), we usually (I think always) have a comedy on our hands. Just think, in this connection, of the Hamlet/Ophelia and the Ophelia/Polonius dynamic. Where does Hamlet send Ophelia? Right, to a “nunn’ry” (which also meant “whorehouse” in Renaissance slang). The trouble is that she lets him get away with this, partly because she is too obedient to her father (and Polonius isn’t exactly wise, you know, even though he is the one who says “this above all: to thine own self be true”). Ironically, Hamlet isn’t a dumb tragic hero (they’re usually dumb, you know); in fact, he is too smart for his own good (more of this later). A similar (yet different) example is provided for us in the Othello/Desdemona and the Desdemona/Brabantio dynamic. What does Desdemona do when Othello rejects her (they’re married, by this time, to boot). Why, she lets Othello get away with it, even though she has had the “active” gumption to marry him behind her father’s back in the first place. Othello (unlike Hamlet) isn’t very smart either (more of this later).

The difference between these plays and the comedies is clearly augmented by the difference between their respective heroines. Just think, in this connection, of the Orsino/Viola(Cesario) dynamic in Twelfth Night or the Orlando/Rosalind(Ganymed) dynamic in As You Like It. The first thing you will notice is that in these plays the heroines dress up as men in order to undo the “evil that men do.” What adds to the dynamic in question is, of course, the nature of the conflict (“war” in Vyvyan’s terminology) which is “about to break out” (Vyvyan 12) as each play opens. According to my own educated guess, the real conflict in Shakespeare’s plays is metaphysical. It usually takes some permutation of a clash between seeming and being (that is, appearance and reality). Shakespeare’s heroes are usually too dumb to detect the difference (which makes all the difference, of course) between seeming and being. Hamlet is an exception to this rule. Othello, on the other hand, may be the rule itself, if you will. And King Lear wouldn’t be far behind Othello, even though he is a much older and wiser man. In Hamlet’s case, the question of seeming and being revolves around the ghost. In Othello’s case, it revolves around Desdemona’s fidelity to her husband. In King Lear’s case, the question is, who loves “daddy” the most, those who claim they do (Regan and Goneril) or she who doesn’t claim anything beyond filial duty (Cordelia). But I think you are beginning to see the dynamic hinted at by John Vyvyan’s Shakespeare and the Rose of Love. Whether a play is a comedy or a tragedy, then, seems to depend on the kind of heroine we have (active or passive), for it is she who is the “trump card of life” (Vyvyan 20).

I hope the dynamic of this “theory” is readily relevant to your understanding of The Tempest so far. Clearly Miranda is an active Rose. It is also clear that Ferdinand doesn’t reject her. It is also clear that she both obeys her father and yet stands up to him, too. It is also clear that her father doesn’t reject her either. In fact, he admits his indebtedness to her influence. It is also clear that in this serene romance there is plenty of stuff that could easily have turned out tragically but for Miranda’s GRACIOUS AND REDEMPTIVE LOVE! But it is also clear (at least, it should be) that there is more to this business than meets the eye. In my humble attempt to get at this “more,” I shall indulge myself in another apparent digression.

Of Illusions and Illusions

If you know anything about Shakespeare at all, you probably know that he is famous for, among other things, such ejaculations as “the play’s the thing,” or “[a]ll the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players.” Many of Shakespeare’s plays do, in fact, have that curious phenomenon known as the play within the play in them. I am talking about actual theatrical performances here, such as those we find in Hamlet or in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. There are, of course, other kinds of “plays” within plays; disguises and pretenses, for example, where women dress up as men or where certain characters appear in costume, so to speak, for the sake of pretending to be something they are not. These sorts of deceptions usually mean something good. It’s (at times) almost as if Shakespeare had favored the fake as opposed to the genuine. Witness, for example, the following lines from As You Like It: “the truest poetry is the / most feigning.” Obviously it is curious to find seeming favored by a playwright who otherwise pits seeming against being in most of his plays at the expense of the former. This can only mean one thing: we must be dealing with two different kinds of seeming here. And we are. But (and at a most advanced level to boot) we may even find the distinction between the two collapse so that being itself may emerge as but a kind of seeming. This is the point to which I would like to take you now, while all along you should understand me as really talking about The Tempest.

One of the best known examples of a play within the play is the play in Hamlet. Hamlet, who has been told that his stepfather is a murderer and a usurper (doesn’t this remind you of Antonio, Prospero’s brother?), would like to be certain that what he has been told is the truth. In other words, he seems aware of the difference between seeming and being, and he considers the possibility that his father’s ghost may have been an evil spirit disguised as his father’s ghost, and so on. In any case, when the strolling actors arrive at the court (we are in Denmark here, where something is always already “rotten,” as you know), Hamlet sees a chance for the verification of the ghost’s story. He will have the players enact the story the ghost has passed on to him and he will scrutinize his stepfather’s reaction. Thus, as he tells us, “the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.” This is the significance of the play within the play from Hamlet’s point of view. Shakespeare’s point of view is another thing. One of the best explorations of the significance of Shakespeare’s point of view is in Leslie Fiedler’s splendid essay, “Shakespeare and the Paradox of Illusion.” Simply put, the issue is as follows: in order to enhance the reality of the illusion of the play (Hamlet, in this case), Shakespeare places a play within the play so as to make the play within which the play appears seem real in comparison to the play within the play. The trouble is, however (and this is precisely what Leslie Fiedler is interested in), that this ploy may backfire. Instead of producing the kind of “psychology” according to which the audience may exclaim: “the unreal play in the play makes the larger play seem real,” the audience may well ejaculate: “the play within which the play appears is only a play, too. In fact, it is precisely this play within the play which reminds me of the inescapable ‘playness’ of the play within which it appears.” Now this, according Leslie Fiedler, may be just the thing Shakespeare is after. Fiedler’s point is that what Shakespeare may ultimately be implying is that life itself is a play within which his own plays are but plays within a play, just as the play within any of his plays is a play within a play. This would make life itself a play within another play, God’s. As Fiedler puts it, “the metaphor of the play within the play . . . is the myth of the Cosmic Drama” (he is, I think, right to add that the “myth of tragedy is a pagan myth,” whereas the “myth of comedy is a Christian myth,” 279).

Are you, my beloved students, beginning to see the light that shines in the seeming darkness of our being? I hope so. And are you also beginning to see the relevance of all this to The Tempest? I most ardently hope so. This, then, is what I would add to the insights we have already gleaned from Vyvyan: the play in question is but seeming. In fact, the whole play is a play within a play where what seems is not what is and what is is not what seems. And Prospero (the “magician”) is both the playwright and the director of this special play within itself. And the theme of this play within itself is clearly that all the wrongs contemplated or committed are nevertheless forgivable. Before forgiveness, though, there must be repentance; and before repentance, crime. But perhaps “crime,” like “life” itself, is no more than an illusion in a larger, transcendent scheme in which it is a fervent hope that God will always already say about us, what Prospero says in the play about his “enemies”:

Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent,
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further.


With the exception of The Tempest (Signet Classics), all my citations from Shakespeare are from The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974). My spellings (e.g., “nunn’ry,” “Ganymed”) conform to the spellings in this edition. Note, by the way, that Measure for Measure seems to be an exception to the Rose of Love rule. Here it is Duke Vincentio who, having withdrawn himself from the deeply problematic world of the play, returns disguised as a friar to “fix” things. By virtue of his behind-the-scenes machinations, the Duke is clearly a forerunner or precursor of Prospero. Both characters are also images or “imitations” of God.

Works Cited

Fiedler, Leslie. “Shakespeare and the Paradox of Illusion.” 1948. Reprinted in The Collected Essays of Leslie Fiedler. New York: Stein and Day, 1971. I: 265-80.

Vyvyan, John. Shakespeare and the Rose of Love: A Study of the Early Plays in Relation to the Medieval Philosophy of Love. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1960.

*The writer notes: This essay was originally a handout I used in a number of different courses, including a Shakespeare course I had occasion to teach twice in my career. There is a lot written about Shakespeare, so I won’t make any grandiose claims for my contribution, but I do think that this particular way of looking at the Great Bard’s work is insightful and worthwhile.

Note also that originally this essay was an attempt to place The Tempest, Shakespeare’s last play, into a perspective of the whole of Shakespeare’s oeuvre.
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1 comment:

  1. Nobody is questioning that Shakespeare existed, just in the event that he was the person who composed all his plays and sonnets. A few people charge he was uneducated; he was in school at most until age 14, yet perhaps left sooner than that. So would he say he was only a virtuoso? Or, Do my Essay UK then again would he say he was utilized as a road for somebody who couldn't compose freely (like a lady or honorable individual)?


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