Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, (2021)

Trailer for Globe Theater’s 2021 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

What do you think of when you think of “Shakespeare?” What do you think of when you think of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream?” 

    Ruffs and Tights?

    Mostly white dudes?

    Elizabethan music?

    Dark night and moon?

This production, directed by Michelle Terry, is gleefully throwing out every preconceived notion of what A Midsummer Night’s Dream can or should be. In terms of design, casting, music, and interpretation, it breaks all the rules, while still remaining true to the text. This allows the production to appeal to not only hard-core Shakespeare fans, but first time audiences and children too!

I got to see this production thanks to the Globe’s online streaming library. My mother kindly shared me a link to this recording from the summer of 2021. You can watch it yourself on: https://www.shakespearesglobe.com/watch/#full-length-productions

I would describe the concept behind the show as “Suggestive,” that is, it doesn’t belong to a literal time and place. Even though the play is set in Ancient Greece, the play refuses to be constrained by historical accuracy, which arguably, fits nicely with Shakespeare in particular, and the Globe itself; a modern building in a modern city, based on a 400-year-old building.

The music and costumes evoke a New Orleans Mardis Gras, a Pride parade, or a Spanish pinata with its bright colors, heavy use of fringes, and bright, energetic jazz music. The only people who don’t wear bright colors are the four lovers, which reflects their continuous frustration with being unable to marry the person they really want.

The show is also Color blind and gender blind, with women playing men’s parts and a cast with black, white, and mixed race actors. Terry’s direction also calls attention to the patriarchial, racist, and sexist elements of Athens which are often overlooked in other interpretations of Dream that I’ve seen or read about. Rather than being a hero, Theseus is a horny old man in a ludicrous pink uniform, looking like a cross between M. Bison and a Christmas nutcracker. To reinforce this point, the actor chose to perform one of Theseus’ most patriarchial speeches as a joke:

Theseus. What say you, Hermia? be advised fair maid:50
To you your father should be as a god;
One that composed your beauties, yea, and one
To whom you are but as a form in wax
By him imprinted and within his power
To leave the figure or disfigure it. -Midsummer Night's Dream, Act I, Scene i.

I’ve seen this speech heavily cut and played seriously, but never till now did I see it played to ridicule the ludicrous notion that women are in any way bound to worship their fathers.

In another nod to contemporary gender politics, the actress who plays Hippolyta and Titania chose to perform her role on crutches. As far as I can tell, this was a deliberate choice and not a result of real injury. There is a precedent for this: In 1984, Sir Antony Sher performed Richard iii on crutches because it highlighted the cruelty people with disabilities often suffer.

I could be wrong, but I think that the reason the actress was on crutches was a symbolic way of confronting the way gender politics can cripple women.

Many scholars have pointed out how Hippolyta rarely speaks despite the fact that she is supposed to be the powerful Queen of the Amazons, and Theseus’ fiance besides. Shakespeare makes it clear that their marriage was arranged as a political alliance after the Amazons lost to Athens in a war:

Hippolyta, I woo'd thee with my sword,
And won thy love, doing thee injuries;20
But I will wed thee in another key,
With pomp, with triumph and with revelling.

With this in mind, it makes sense to have Hippolyta on crutches as a result of her injuries. Those injuries might also explain her silence; she has lost her agency now that she is essentially Theseus’ prisoner. One might think of any number of war atrocious where women have been sold to powerful men over the centuries. In short, by putting Hippolyta on crutches, we see a glimpse into her tragic story that most productions just gloss over- that she has lost a war, been separated from her people, and is now her enemies’ prisoner through marriage.

I’ve come to expect high quality acting from The Globe Theater Company and this cast did not disappoint. As we watched it together, my family concluded that this was one of the best acted productions of Dream that we’ve ever seen, which between us has to be over 30 plus productions.

The delivery is crisp and fast paced. Every actor has taken these words and made them their own. They speak them as if they were written yesterday. One thing I love about the Globe is that the directors encourage this kind of fast paced delivery; with no distracting special effects or sets, the actors have to captivate the audience with their delivery of Shakespeare’s text, without being melodramatic or self-indulgent. I’m pleased to say that this cast does a fantastic job of telling this magical story in a compelling and very modern way.

I’ve shown my recording to kids, teens, adults, and my family, and everyone has a different reaction to the show. Maybe this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but the concept is sound, the acting is high caliber, and it utilizes the Globe’s unique qualities extremely well. 




I personally didn’t care for Bottom just because I felt the actress was playing a very energetic part with too much sarcasm and tongue in cheek, but that’s mostly personal preference. I did however love Peter Quince, Snout, Snug, and the rest of the Mechanicals. Peter Quince is a rather thankless part but it’s great to see someone balance being a straight man trying to reign in Bottom’s antics. and an idiot who has no idea how to direct a company of actors, which the actress playing Quince did very well.

Shakespeare’s Roman Women

Since it’s Women’s History Month, and we just had the Ides of March last week, I thought it might be a good idea to analyze some of Shakespeare’s  female characters in his Roman plays. I’ve talked a lot about the men in Julius Caesar, Titus, Andronicus, and Coriolanus, but haven’t examined the female characters much, so that’s what I’m going do discuss today.

Examining these characters is important because many are based on real Roman women, and Shakespeare’s sources reveal what Roman culture thought about women’s roles. This is particularly relevant to those of you reading this in the west because Roman culture influenced the Elizabethans and they set the foundation for our culture today. Feminist criticism has been much maligned, (and I’m certainly not an expert on feminism), but I do know this: it exists to question the values and conventions of our culture, so we can identify what works and what needs to change to build a more egalitarian society.

When it comes to Shakespeare female characters in general, he challenges the status quo, but also reinforces it: There’s always a character who challenges traditional gender roles like Katherine and Beatrice, but, (with the exception of Twelfth Night), for every one of these there’s also a Bianca or a Hero; characters who embody traditional famine roles and virtues of chastity, meekness, and yes, marriage and childbirth.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Shakespeare’s Roman plays where there are always two female characters and they usually embody opposite views of women’s roles and a woman’s duty to her country and the men in their lives

1. Tamara from Titus Andronicus

Titus was Shakespeare’s first tragedy and his first Roman play. As we shall see, as Shakespeare went through his career we see a more nuanced view of women’s roles and a greater appreciation for women who disdain or challenge patriarchal society. The characters Lavinia and Tamara are perfect examples and counterexamples respectively of traditional feminine roles.

When we first meet her, Tamara is the queen of the Goths- an enemy tribe that Rome has just conquered. Everything about Tamara from her foreign upbringing, to her personality, is a counter-example of what Romans prize in women. She is portrayed as savage and bloodthirsty, motivated by revenge against Titus, (who in the first scene of the play, kills her eldest son. Tamara responds by masterminding the murder of all of Titus’ children. She is also sexually liberated and uses her sexuality to further her revenge. Tamara seduces the Emperor to get him on her side, and gets the Emperor to condemn Titus’ sons to death. Her adultery with Aaron is another way she uses her sexuality to get revenge; she brings ruin the monarchy by cuckolding the Emperor. Thus Tamara’s sexuality and bold personality is framed in the play as an existential threat to Rome itself.

Tamara’s chief and only virtue is her love for her children, as you can plainly see in this scene from the play. Her love for her son Alarbus is why she begs Titus for his life, and afterwards, when he sacrifices Alarbus, Tamara’s love for her son turns into deadly hate to Titus. It is her motherly devotion that makes Tamara simultaneously human, and inhuman. As the play progresses however, Tamara is referred to in increasingly inhuman and savage terms. She dresses up as the goddess Revenge to torment Titus, and after she dies, Lucius, the new Emperor (and Titus’ only surviving son), calls her a “ravenous tiger,” and calls for her body to be thrown to beasts, since “Her life was beast-like.” Tamara is unquestionably the villain- a femme-fatale and a threat to all the Roman characters, but especially Titus’ daughter Lavinia.

2. Lavinia from Titus Andronicus

For the entire play, Lavinia embodies  traditional Roman female virtues, in that she is defined by the men in her life, and her chastity. The Romans actually invented the term castitas to refer to the female virtues of modesty and chastity, that is, only having sex with the man you are married to. Lavinia fits this mold perfectly. She’s a devoted daughter, wife, and sister. When we first meet her, she is a model of duty- greeting her father and asking for his blessing when he returns to Rome, and shedding tears for her brothers that were slain in the war:

In the cruelest and most barbaric scene in all of Shakespeare, Lavinia is raped by Tamara’s sons. Then, to keep her from identifying her attackers, they cut out her tongue and cut off her hands. The mutilation is grotesque, but for Titus, the Romans, and for the Elizabethans Shakespeare was writing for, the cruelest loss for Lavinia was the loss of her chastity. Now that she isn’t a virgin, Lavinia is marked with the opposite of chastity, incestum, or infamy. Even though the rape was not her fault, Lavinia is marked with shame. The Romans took unchastity extremely seriously; they used to punish it by throwing the adulteress to her death off the Tarpeian Rock. As you can see in this video, when a woman who was supposed to live chaste is even suspected of adultery, her very life is now in jeopardy:


When she loses her virginity, Lavinia becomes a silent creature of sadness. She is no longer a person, but a motivation for Titus’ revenge. Even if she hadn’t lost her tongue, she would still have little agency in the plot. This is why Titus kills her; to remove her incestum, and end her suffering.  Lavinia embodies the the cruel truth that women had to face in ancient Rome- once they lose their virginity, they are already dead in the eyes of most of Roman society.

Lavinia’s death scene from Titus, 1999, directed by Julie Taymor.

3. Portia (Julius Caesar)
If Shakespeare only wrote these two  female characters, you might rightly assume that he was a vile sexist, who defines a women’s usefulness simply by her chastity or lack thereof, and who thinks the proper function of a woman is to be quiet, demure, chaste, and obedient. Thankfully Shakespeare created Portia in Julius Caesar, and she defies many of the stereotypes associated with women in Ancient Rome.

Portia marks a turning point in Shakespeare’s Roman female characters as we we go from more ‘traditional’ female characters, to ones who exemplify masculine virtues. Instead of women being subordinates to men’s affairs and keeping out of religion, politics, and the affairs of Roman society, Portia is a character who demands respect, and to share her husband’s dangers. Some ancient sources suggested possibly Portia might have been the one who inspired Brutus to kill Caesar, (more on that later), but in any case Portia is not a character who is subordinate to men, but who demands to be treated as a Roman citizen.

In one of the strangest passages of the play, Portia reveals that she has willingly injured herself by stabbing herself in the thigh. She does this as a way of establishing her tolerance for pain and her desire to be taken seriously by her husband:

Brutus. You are my true and honourable wife,
As dear to me as are the ruddy drops
That visit my sad heart
Portia. If this were true, then should I know this secret.
I grant I am a woman; but withal920
A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife:
I grant I am a woman; but withal
A woman well-reputed, Cato's daughter.
Think you I am no stronger than my sex,
Being so father'd and so husbanded?925
Tell me your counsels, I will not disclose 'em:
I have made strong proof of my constancy,
Giving myself a voluntary wound
Here, in the thigh: can I bear that with patience.
And not my husband's secrets?930
Brutus. O ye gods,
Render me worthy of this noble wife!

Romans have always had a connection with blood. Blood is a connection to duty; we owe our lives and our blood to Rome; the Gladiator whose blood honours the dead, the sacrifice of the enemy soldiers in Titus Andronicus, and the blood of the Roman soldier shed in service of the country. Rome is almost a culture that is built on blood. Portia in this gesture makes it clear that she is willing to shed blood just as much as her husband, who of course, will shed blood, (just not his own). In a way, Portia’s wound makes her more heroic than Brutus, because she is willing to suffer for the good of Rome, while Brutus kills for the good of Rome.

Shakespeare’s Roman characters, (male and female), extol the questionable virtue of the noble death. Historically when a Roman conspiracy failed, the conspirators had a choice; they could be paraded back to Rome humiliated and disgraced, or they could kill themselves and show defiance in the face of their conquerors. In some cases suicide was actually encouraged by the conquerors, as it meant that the threat was neutralized. In response, the conquerors would go easy on the wife and children.

Portia kills herself after Brutus is on the run. There could be two equally important reasons why she does this. First, she might be attempting to gain favor with the triumvirate by killing herself, (since she is complicit in the assassination), in the hopes that Anthony and a and Octavian will take pity on a Brutus’ children. It’s also possible that Portia kills herself because with the tide of battle turning, she might be next. Portia might be showing the same sort of resolve their husband later shows when he commits suicide to appease Caesar’s ghost and to defy his enemies the honor of capturing him.

Since Portia has a lot of her husband’s same virtues, the inevitable question I come to is to wonder what if; what if  Shakespeare’s Brutus had a listened to Portia more,what might he have done?

The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, Jacques Louis David, 1789.

This painting by Jacques Louis David depicts Brutus’ ancestor Junius Brutus. We see that he is utterly removed and stoic him in the face of death. He has ordered the execution of his own sons for trying to bring back the monarchy. In the background, Brutus’s wife and daughters are mourning the death of their son and brothers. Men like Brutus, with their Republican ideals, take little stock in the consequence of their actions.

One can only wonder if Brutus had had confided in Portia, would she have condemned his actions, or could she have led him to a more constructive path, that might have a prevented Brutus’ death, and maybe even stopped the coming days of the Empire?

Valumnia (Coriolanus)
In Shakespeare’s later Roman tragedy Coriolanus, we again see a young, chaste woman and an older mother figure, but unlike in Titus, the older Volumnia is much more heroic than the young maid Virgilia. Both show loyalty to Rome and devotion to Coriolanus, but Volumnia is not only a hero, she is in many ways a complete inversion of the Roman mother trope.


Volumnia is fanatically devoted to Rome and its army and like her son. She finds war more beautiful than symbols of peace, especially those associated with motherhood. In Act I, Scene iii, she says that the breasts of the Trojan Queen Hecuba were not as lovely as her son’s forehead when it spit blood in battle. She is an inversion of the traditional motherly character; because of her devotion to Rome and  her son,
she is more outspoken than other women and not afraid to talk back to anyone who questions Rome. In a way she is more of Coriolanus’ general or his father than a traditional mother. Her love of Rome is inextricably tied to her love of her son. She raises her son to be a warrior for the Senate and the people of Rome, exhorting him to either return in glory, or die. Observe this passage where she tells Coriolanus’ wife that she was never proudest than when she sent her son off to war:

Volumnia: I pray you, daughter, sing; or express yourself in a
more comfortable sort: if my son were my husband, I
should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he
won honour than in the embracements of his bed where
he would show most love. When yet he was but
tender-bodied and the only son of my womb, when
youth with comeliness plucked all gaze his way, when
for a day of kings' entreaties a mother should not
sell him an hour from her beholding, I, considering
how honour would become such a person. that it was
no better than picture-like to hang by the wall, if
renown made it not stir, was pleased to let him seek
danger where he was like to find fame. To a cruel
war I sent him; from whence he returned, his brows
bound with oak. I tell thee, daughter, I sprang not
more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child
than now in first seeing he had proved himself a
man.

Although Virgilia fits the bill of the modest, chaste, and loyal Roman housewife, Volumnia is framed as much more heroic. She even uses her mighty stoicism to save Rome! After Coriolanus rebels against Rome and joins the Volscis, Volumnia gets him to agree to make peace with Rome. She does this by kneeling before her own son; humiliating herself for the good of Rome. This act of self-humiliation changes Coriolanus’ mind. Observe how shocked Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes) is when his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) kneels in this scene from the movie Coriolanus (directed by Ralph Fiennes in 2011).

4. Julia (Antony and Cleopatra) and with Cleopatra

With these final two examples, I’ve chosen two character who, (at face value), resemble Lavinia and Tamara. One is a dutiful, chaste Roman wife, related by blood to the Imperial family. Octavia was beloved throughout Rome for her chastity and kindness, and the citizens were outraged when her husband Marc Antony, abandoned her for Cleopatra, who was seen by many as a murderous, barbarous, lustful and an evil sorceress. However, Shakespeare paints a much more complex picture of Cleopatra, and though Octavia retains her chastity and is praised for her virtue, Cleopatra is unquestionably the star of the show, and ultimately commands more respect, awe, and even sympathy from the audience.

In Shakespeare’s play (and in real life), Cleopatra used her beauty as a propaganda tool. As I mentioned the Game of Thrones post, she deified herself in order to be taken seriously. In the 1st century AD, the system was very much rigged against female authority and so women had to resort to terrible measures in order to secure power for themselves.

If you look at the play again especially near the end, Cleopatra doesn’t come across as a femme fatale, she comes across as a woman who is trying to keep her Kingdom and her son Cesarian safe, and she will do anything to protect him. As the name suggests, Cesarean was Cleopatra’s love child of Julius Caesar, so the entire Roman world wanted him dead, because he was a threat to Octavian’s claim to the throne. To keep her son safe, Cleopatra seduces Marc Antony, hoping a powerful Roman alliance will keep her crown safe, and her son alive. Sadly for her, Octavian would stop at nothing to bring down all threats to his power, including Cesarian and Marc Antony. Arguably, the only reason he married Marc Antony to Octavia in the first place, was that he knew if Antony committed adultery, it would give Octavian the perfect excuse to raise an army and destroy Antony. Cleopatra got caught up in the political machinations of the most powerful and cunning man in the ancient world, and held him off as best she could.

Cleopatra struggles through the whole play to keep Antony, her people, and the situation in Rome under control. Antony never respects her as a queen and treats her like a jealous boyfriend, which is why they frequently get into fights.

However, after Antony’s suicide, the audience sees that Cleopatra also genuinely loved him back, and weeps for him as a wife, not an ally. Yet, quickly she regains her royal composure once Octavian threatens to take her back to Rome in chains. She decides to simultaneously deny Octavian the satisfaction, protect her son, and join her husband in the afterlife with her regal suicide:

Cleopatra: Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me: now no more
The juice of Egypt's grape shall moist this lip:
Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hear
Antony call; I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act; I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath: husband, I come:
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life. So; have you done?
Come then, and take the last warmth of my lips.
Farewell, kind Charmian; Iras, long farewell.
[Kisses them. IRAS falls and dies]
Have I the aspic in my lips? Dost fall?
If thou and nature can so gently part,
The stroke of death is as a lover's pinch,
Which hurts, and is desired. Dost thou lie still?
If thus thou vanishest, thou tell'st the world
It is not worth leave-taking.

In conclusion, Shakespeare couldn’t go too far against the grain with challenging traditional patriarchal views of women, but in his Roman plays, we see characters who are simultaneously mothers and murderers, chaste and intelligent, citizens and devoted wives. I’m not trying to say that Shakespeare invented feminism, but I do believe his characters remind us that it is folly to try to box either gender into such stale old Roman categories as masculine or feminine. Perhaps we should all aspire to be like Cleopatra, whose infinite variety allowed her to succeed in a man’s world, while still being a wife, a mother, a lover, and a queen.

Crafting a Character: Brutus

Happy Ides of March every one. I hope you have enjoyed all the posts for my Roman week. If I have time, I will try to post a few more, since I have not touched on Cymbaline or Titus Andronicus.This will not be an in depth character analysis. I won’t go into every scene and speech of Brutus’. My goal is to look at the history and the actions of Brutus in the play to show why he is such an amazing and ambigous character.

Marcus Brutus was born in 85 BC. Shakespeare’s source for the play, Plutarch’s lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, mentions that his desire to kill Caesar might have been tied to his family: Brutus’ ancestor was Lucius Junius Brutus, the man who drove out the last king of Rome, and first consul. Below is the famous painting of Lucius foiling a plot to restore the monarchy, but to do so, he had to sentence his own sons to death:

Jaques Louis David, The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons, 1789.

https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/monarchy-enlightenment/neo-classicism/v/david-the-lictors-returning-to-brutus-the-bodies-of-his-sons-1789

This was how seriously the Brutus family took defending the Roman Republic, they valued it even beyond their own family.

Brutus’ mother was Servilia, half sister of Caesar’s longtime critic, the senator Cato. He even married Cato’s daughter Portia! So you can see that once Caesar starts acting like a king, Brutus must have felt a tremendous amount of pressure from his Family to stay true to his Republican ideology. On the other hand, Servillia was actually Caesar’s mistress and Brutus owed his life to Caesar. After Brutus fought against Casesar, they reconciled after the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC:

Most of those who were taken alive Caesar incorporated in his legions, and to many men of prominence he granted immunity. One of these was Brutus, who afterwards slew him. Caesar was distressed, we are told, when Brutus was not to be found, but when he was brought into his presence safe and sound, was pleased beyond measure- Plutarch, retrieved from: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Caesar*.html

Despite his close ties to Caesar, Brutus chose to betray and assassinate him, so the question remains, why?

In the play and in Plutarch, Brutus is persuaded by Cassius Longinus, his brother in law and colleague in the Roman Senate. As you remember from my post on “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” there are three basic kinds of persuasive speech, and Cassius uses all three:

1. Ethos “If you do know that I do fawn on men, and hold them hard, and after scandal them… then hold me dangerous.”

2. Logos- Cassius points out a series of embarrassing stories about Caesar that set up the following argument:

• Caesar is weak and frail

• Gods cannot be frail

• Why is Caesar treated like a god?

3. Pathos

• The people

• Fear of tyranny

• Brutus’ family honor- this is the real knife that kills any doubt Brutus had. Cassius reminds Brutus of his ancestor Lucius and how he would rather die than see a king in Rome again.

The soliloquy

Brutus. It must be by his death: and for my part,
I know no personal cause to spurn at him,

But for the general. He would be crown’d:
How that might change his nature, there’s the question.
It is the bright day that brings forth the adder;
And that craves wary walking. Crown him?—that;—
And then, I grant, we put a sting in him,
That at his will he may do danger with.
The abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins
Remorse from power: and, to speak truth of Caesar,
I have not known when his affections sway’d
More than his reason. But ’tis a common proof,
That lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round.
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend. So Caesar may.
Then, lest he may, prevent. And, since the quarrel
Will bear no colour for the thing he is,
Fashion it thus; that what he is, augmented,
Would run to these and these extremities:
And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg
Which, hatch’d, would, as his kind, grow mischievous,
And kill him in the shell.

• This speech is a direct predecessor for “To be or not to be,” and Macbeth’s “If it were done,” soliloquy. https://youtu.be/IoDwXjKIenI

  • All three speakers are talking about murder and can’t bring themselves to say either the word murder, nor mention the name of the man who will die.

• All references to murder are in passive voice, as if Brutus wishes a lightning bolt would kill Caesar, so he doesn’t have to accept the responsibility of killing.

•Compared to Hamlet and Macbeth, Brutus’ text is flat, The speech depends on the actor to show the torment in his soul.

  • One question that the actor must answer for himself is, is Brutus really concerned for the well being of Rome, or does he want Caesar dead for another reason?

After the soliloquy, Brutus throws himself into the role of head conspirator: https://youtu.be/ibzqdoV-BcU https://youtu.be/ibzqdoV-BcU

You can see in this video that Brutus speaks eloquently about how just the cause is and how only Caesar will die. This illustrates that Brutus is well spoken but not pragmatic. As we all know, Marc Anthony eventually gets the crowd to turn on Brutus and will become part of the army that hunts him and Cassius down. The dramatic irony is what helps the argument that Brutus is the real tragic hero of this play.

The murder and its aftermath

The rest as they say, is history. On March 15th, 44 BC, Brutus and the conspirators stabbed Caesar 17 times. In the play, before Caesar dies, he utters the famous line, “Et tu, Brute? Then fall Caesar!”

The line stands out because it is the only time anyone in this Roman play speaks in Latin. Now, I have heard a compelling argument from Professor J. Rufus Fears, that this might actually be a misquote, and what Caesar really said will amaze you. As I have mentioned, Brutus’ mother was Caesar’s mistress and the two of them were very close. At the time of Caesar’s death he was 40, while Caesar was 16 years his senior. Why did Caesar forgive Brutus fighing against him? Is it not possible that what he actually said was: “Et tu, son?” That’s a question for directors and actors, but it does heighten Brutus’ emotional conflic. Much like his ancestor Lucius, Marcus Brutus is caught between his ideals and his family.

During the funeral, Brutus has a very well crafted speech where he lays out his reasons for killing Caesar. He sets himself up as the friend of Rome. This video from the Royal Shakespeare Company explores the techniques that Brutus uses to get the crowd on his side: https://youtu.be/nyPlvuv8SSk

After Antony makes his speech however, the mob burns Brutus’ house and even slaughters a man just because he shares a name with one of the conspirators. Brutus and Cassius take their armies and flee Rome, and prepare to take on Antony and Octavian. The adversity Cassius and Brutus go through pushes them together and they behave like brothers; they fight and reconcile constantly: https://youtu.be/K9EAxjVC22M

In a way, these men are two sides of the same coin: Cassius is fiery but pragmatic while Brutus is stoic and idealistic. It’s like a tragedy in and of itself that these men weren’t melded into one man with Brutus’ heart and Cassius’ mind.

Is Brutus A Traitor?

Unlike Macbeth, Shakespeare’s text leaves it ambiguous as to whether Brutus was right or wrong to kill Caesar. Even Antony, who leads an army against him, ends the play by calling Brutus “The noblest Roman of them all.” Shakespeare also gives us few clues to Brutus’ motivations other than the speech I quoted earlier. Mainly we have to go on Brutus’ actions and their consequences.

One moment that I think perfectly encapsulates the ambiguity of Brutus’ actions is the moment where he’s visited by Caesar’s ghost. In other tragedies like Macbeth and Richard III, the villain is tormented by the ghost or ghosts of people he murdered. The ghost serves as a manifestation of the murderer’s guilty conscience and torments him before his death. When Brutus sees Caesar, he does not follow this trope. He isn’t horrified, not struck by guilt, in fact, he wishes that the ghost would stay longer.

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

Julius Caesar book cover

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In Act 4, why does Caesar’s ghost appear? I don’t understand why Caesar’s ghost shows up. I dont understand the significance of that scene.

Expert Answers info

JUANAMAC

eNotes educator

| CERTIFIED EDUCATOR

Shakespeare, as other Elizabethan writers, uses the idea of ghosts in his plays usually as a foreshadowing of events to come. In “Hamlet,” Hamlet has to deal with working out what to do with his father’s request for revenge, and also, whether the ghost is indeed his father. In “Macbeth“, Macbeth has to deal with the Ghost of Banquo showing up to dinner, literally haunting him. In “Richard III“, Richard deals with the ghosts of the men he has wronged right at the start of the play.

This haunting is significant also in “Julius Caesar“. The Ghost of Julius arrives on the eve of battle to literally haunt Brutus. Brutus had hoped that by killing Caesar he would enact change in Rome, however, the Roman Empire goes on, as does the reign of Caesar (albeit, a new Caesar).

As Brutus goes into battle, and the battle doesn’t go his way, he again turns to Julius Caesar, blaming him for the outcome of the battle,

O Julius Caesar, thou art mighty yet!
Thy spirit walks abroad, and turns our swords
In our own proper entrails. (5.3.94–96)

Shakespeare’s ghosts are visible to one person (as well as the audience, clearly) so those who react to the ghost are the ones who are supposed to learn from the arrival of the ghost, heeding the message from beyond the grave.

Enter the Ghost of CAESAR

How ill this taper burns! Ha! who comes here?
I think it is the weakness of mine eyes
That shapes this monstrous apparition.
It comes upon me. Art thou any thing?
Art thou some god, some angel, or some devil,
That makest my blood cold and my hair to stare?
Speak to me what thou art.

GHOST

Thy evil spirit, Brutus.

BRUTUS

Why comest thou?

GHOST

To tell thee thou shalt see me at Philippi.

BRUTUS

Well; then I shall see thee again?

GHOST

Ay, at Philippi.

BRUTUS

Why, I will see thee at Philippi, then.

Exit Ghost

Now I have taken heart thou vanishest.
Ill spirit, I would hold more talk with thee.

The ghost itself also resists the clearcut definition as a sign of a guilty conscience. It doesn’t accuse Brutus of murder, it doesn’t curse in fact, all the ghost says is that Brutus will see him at Philippi. Unlike Richard III or Macbeth, the ghost utters no curses or scare Brutus out of his mind.

The only conclusion that Brutus gleans is that his end is near. According to Dr. John Langdon, many Elizabethan ghosts serve as a shorthand to indicate that the play’s denouement is on its way. Brutus seems aware of this as well- he knows that if he sees a ghost, he’s likely to be one soon. Yet the reality of his impending death doesnt change Brutus; he doesn’t express remorse like Richard III or hopelessness like Macbeth, if anything his stocism and seeming world weariness makes him seem more like a hero like Hamlet during his “Not a whit, we defy augery,” speech. This passive embrace of fate is at the core Brutus and it illustrates how hard it is to truly decide if he is a villain or a hero.

Though Shakespeare wrote the character of Brutus as ambiguous, over the centuries many artists and cultures have passed judgment on Brutus. Dante in his book Inferno example places Brutus and Cassius in the lowest circle of Hell, who along with Judas Iscariot, are being forever devoured by Satan himself, imagined below in a medieval illustration as a three-headed beast. You can see the name Brut in the head on the right.

By contrast, during the French Revolution, many statesmen referred to Brutus as a hero for his noble attempt to destroy a corrupt monarchy.

One day men will be astonished by the fact that humanity in the eighteenth century was less advanced than in the time of Caesar. Then a tyrant was slain in the midst of the Senate with no formalities but thirty blows of a dagger and with no other law save the liberty of Rome Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, November 13th, 1792, (2 months before the execution of Louis XVI).

As I have written before, in the 20th and 21st centuries, America has a somewhat more complex relationship with the character of Brutus. On the one hand, America was founded on the principle of resisting tyranny; it’s even on the state flag of Virginia, which is why some early productions of the play make Brutus a hero. On the other hand, as you see above, rebels and traitors like John Wilkes Booth have also taken inspiration from Brutus. His father and brother’s middle name was Brutus and all three brothers performed in the play one year before John turned theater performance into American tragedy.

Like Brutus, Booth seemed amazed with the world’s reaction to his deed, for after he assassinated the president, he wrote this in his journal:

[W]ith every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why; For doing what Brutus was honored for … And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat.”

John Wilkes Booth, April 21, 1865.

The most recent controversy over Brutus’ actions is the 2017 Shakespeare in the Park production of Caesar directed by Oscar Eustis. As I wrote before, when portraying Caesar as an American president, it tends to anger the political party of his supporters, but the play shows how unplanned political violence can destabilize a country. In these productions, Brutus seems a bit of a well meaning dupe or an naive patsy acting out of fear. On the other hand in cultures that have suffered many violent uprisings, Brutus is a figure that is all to common in places like Uganda, Iran, and the Taliban controlled world: https://youtu.be/5HU8SA33j2w

Brutus is a great character because Shakespeare keeps enough of his motives in the dark to allow for new interpretations, but also showing a man with relatable desires and fears get swept up in a dangerous and unpredictable time.

Close Reading: Friends, Romans, Countrymen

Today I’m going to do an analysis of one of the most famous speeches in all of Shakespeare: Antony’s Funeral Speech in Act III, Scene ii of Julius Caesar, commonly known as the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech.

I. Given Circumstances

Antony is already in a very precarious position. His best friend Julius Caesar was murdered by the senators of Rome. Antony wants vengeance, but he can’t do so by himself. He’s also surrounded by a mob, and Brutus just got them on his side with a very convincing speech. They already hate Antony and Caesar. His goal- win them back. Here is a clip of Brutus (James Mason) speaking to the crowd from the Joseph Mankewitz movie version of Julius Caesar:

So the stakes are very high for Antony: If he succeeds, the crowd will avenge Caesar, and Antony will take control of Rome. If he fails, he will be lynched by an angry mob.

II. Textual Clues

If you notice in the text of the speech below, Antony never overtly says: “Brutus was a liar and a traitor, and Caesar must be avenged,” but that is exactly what he gets the crowd to do. So how does he get them to do so, right after Brutus got them on his side?

Antony. You gentle Romans,— 1615

Citizens. Peace, ho! let us hear him.

Antony. Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;

I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

The evil that men do lives after them;

The good is oft interred with their bones; 1620

So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus

Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:

If it were so, it was a grievous fault,

And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.

Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest— 1625

For Brutus is an honourable man;

So are they all, all honourable men—

Come I to speak in Caesar’s funeral.

He was my friend, faithful and just to me:

But Brutus says he was ambitious; 1630

And Brutus is an honourable man.

He hath brought many captives home to Rome

Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:

Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?

When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept: 1635

Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:

Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;

And Brutus is an honourable man.

You all did see that on the Lupercal

I thrice presented him a kingly crown, 1640

Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?

Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;

And, sure, he is an honourable man.

I speak not to disprove what Brutus spoke,

But here I am to speak what I do know. 1645

You all did love him once, not without cause:

What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?

O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,

And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;

My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar, 1650

And I must pause till it come back to me.

First Citizen. Methinks there is much reason in his sayings. Julius Caesar Act III, Scene ii.

The two main methods Shakespeare uses to infuse Antony’s speech with powerful persuasive energy are the way he writes the verse, and his command of rhetoric.

A. Verse

The greatest gift Shakespeare ever gave his actors was to write his plays in blank verse. It not only tells you which words are important to stress, it gives you clues about the character’s emotional journey; just as a person’s heartbeat can indicate their changes in mood, a subtle change in verse often betrays the character’s pulse and state of mind. Antony uses his own emotions and his powers of persuasion to manipulate the crowd, so his verse helps show how he changes the pulse of the Roman mob.

I could write a whole post on the verse in this page, which I don’t need to do, since The Shakespeare Resource Center did it for me: http://www.bardweb.net/content/readings/caesar/lines.html What I will do is draw attention to some major changes in the verse and put my own interpretations on how Antony is using the verse to persuade the crowd:

  1. The first line of the speech grabs your attention. It is not a standard iambic pentameter line, which makes it rhythmically more interesting. In the movie version, Marlin Brando as Antony shouts each word to demand the crowd to just lend him their attention for a little while. He uses the verse to emphasize Antony’s frustration.
  2. “The Evil that men do, lives after them”- Notice that the words evil and men are in the stressed position. Antony might be making a subconscious attempt to say Brutus and the other evil men who took the life of Caesar are living, when they deserve to die.
  3. If it were so..” Again, Antony might be making a subtle jab at the conspirators. Brutus said Caesar was ambitious and Antony agrees that ambition is worthy of death, but he also adds an If, to plant the seeds of doubt in the crowd’s minds. To drive it home, the word if is in the stressed position, making it impossible for the crowd to not consider the possibility that Caesar wasn’t ambitious, and thus, didn’t deserve to be murdered.

B. Rhetoric

One reason why this speech is so famous is its clever use of rhetoric, the art of persuasive speaking. Back in ancient Rome, aristocrats like Antony were groomed since birth in the art of persuasive speech. Shakespeare himself studied rhetoric at school, so he knew how to write powerful persuasive speeches. Here’s a basic breakdown of the tactics Antony and Shakespeare use in the speech:

Ethos, Pathos, and Logos

The three basic ingredients of any persuasive speech are Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. Ethos is an appeal to the audience based on the speaker’s authority. Pathos is an appeal to the emotions of the crowd, and Logos is an appeal to facts and or reason. Both Brutus and Antony employ these three rhetorical tactics, but Antony doesn’t just appeal to his audience, he manipulates them to commit mutiny and mob rule.

Logos Antony has very few facts or logical information in his speech. His major argument is that again, since Caesar wasn’t ambitious, (which is very hard to prove), his death was a crime. Antony cites as proof the time Cæsar refused a crown at the Lupercal, but since that was a public performance, it’s hardly a reliable indication of Caesar’s true feelings.

You see logos as a rhetorical technique all the time whenever you watch a commercial citing leading medical studies, or a political debate where one person uses facts to justify his or her position. If you look at Hillary Clinton during the 2016 Presidental Debate, she frequently cited statistics to back up her political positions

Ethos-

Ethos is an argument based on the speaker’s authority. Brutus’ main tactic in his speech is to establish himself as Caesar’s friend and Rome’s. He says that he didn’t kill Caesar out of malice, but because he cared more about the people of Rome.

BRUTUS: If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar’s, to him I say, that Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer:

–Not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. JC, III.ii.

Antony employs the exact same tactics, establishing himself as Caesar’s friend and telling the crowd that, as Caesar’s friend, Antony believes that Caesar did not deserve his murder. His use of Ethos therefore, helps Antony refute Brutus’ main claim.

Again, the 2016 debate is another excellent way of showing ethos in action. Hillary Clinton and Brutus frequently cited their political experience and their strength of character to justify their views. There’s an excellent article that examines Hillary’s use of Ethos in her political rhetoric: https://eidolon.pub/hillary-clintons-rhetorical-persona-9af06a3c4b03

Pathos

Pathos is the most frequently used rhetorical tactic: the appeal to emotion. Donald Trump uses this constantly, as you can see in this clip from the 2016 debate:

https://youtu.be/wMuyBOeSQVs

Pathos is bit more of a dirty trick than Ethos and Logos, which is why Brutus doesn’t use it much. As scholar Andy Gurr writes:

Brutus is a stern philosopher and thinker. His faith in reason fails to secure the crowd from Antony’s disingenuous appeal to their affections, which uses sharp sarcasm and some twisted facts.

Antony’s major appeals to emotion:

  • His grief over losing Caesar
  • His painting of Cæsar as a generous, faithful friend
  • Shaming the crowd for not mourning Caesar’s death
  • Appeal to piety by showing the body funeral reverence.
  • His use of Caesar’s bloody body and mantle to provoke outrage from the citizens.
  • His use of Caesar’s will to make the crowd grateful to Caesar, and furious at Brutus.

Rhetorical Devices

If Ethos, Pathos, and Logos are the strategies of rhetorical arguments, rhetorical devices are the artillery. If you check out the website Silva Rhetoricae, (The Forest Of Rhetoric), you can read about the hundreds of individual rhetorical devices that politicians have used in speeches and debates since ancient history. I will summarize here the main ones Antony uses over and over again in “Friends, Romans, Countrymen.” For another more compete analysis, click here: https://eavice.wordpress.com/2011/02/05/jv-rhetorical-devices-in-antonys-funerary-speech-from-shakespeares-julius-caesar/

  • Irony The way Antony keeps repeating “Brutus is an honorable man,” is a particularly sinister form of irony, which here means to imply the opposite of what you have said to mock or discredit your opponent. The irony is that the more Antony repeats this idea that Brutus is honorable, the more the crowd will question it. If Brutus were truly honorable, he would not need Antony to remind them. Of course, Brutus can still be honorable whether Anthony mentions it or not, but this repetition, coupled with Antony’s subtle rebuttals Of Brutus’ arguments, manages to shatter both Brutus’ motives, and his good name, at least in the eyes of his countrymen.
  • Antimetabole is the clever use of the same word in two different ways. Antony manages to work it in twice in this speech:
  • “If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
  • And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.”
  • “You all did love him once, not without cause: What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?”
  • Rhetorical question This is the most famous rhetorical device which by the way in Antony’s day would have been known as Erotema. Antony asks a series of questions designed to refute the notion that Caesar was ambitious, from his mercy to his captives, to Caesar’s tenderness to the poor, and of course his refusal to take the crown during the Lupercal. Each question calls Brutus’ claims into question and seeds doubt in the crowd.

Performance Notes with link to Globe performance

https://youtu.be/1RL8Wg-b8k

Unlike most Shakespearean plays, with Julius Caesar, we have an eyewitness account of how the play was originally performed. Swiss student Thomas Platter wrote a long description of watching the play at the original Globe Theatre in 1599. This is a translation that I found on The Shakespeare Blog:

On September 21st after lunch, about two o’clock, I and my party crossed the water, and there in the house with the thatched roof witnessed an excellent performance of the tragedy of the first Emperor Julius Caesar, with a cast of some fifteen people; when the play was over they danced very marvellously and gracefully together as is their wont, two dressed as men and two as women…

Thus daily at two in the afternoon, London has sometimes three plays running in different places, competing with each other, and those which play best obtain most spectators.

The playhouses are so constructed that they play on a raised platform, so that everyone has a good view. There are different galleries and places, however, where the seating is better and more comfortable and therefore more expensive. For whoever cares to stand below only pays one English penny, but if he wishes to sit he enters by another door, and pays another penny, while if he desires to sit in the most comfortable seats which are cushioned, where he not only sees everything well, but can also be seen, then he pays yet another English penny at another door. And during the performance food and drink are carried round the audience, so that for what one cares to pay one may also have refreshment.

The actors are most expensively costumed for it is the English usage for eminent Lords or Knights at their decease to bequeath and leave almost the best of their clothes to their serving men, which it is unseemly for the latter to wear, so that they offer them for sale for a small sum of money to the actors.

Thomas Platter, 1599, reprinted from: http://theshakespeareblog.com/2012/09/thomas-platters-visit-to-shakespeares-theatre/

So the conclusions we can draw based on Platter’s account include that Antony was standing on a mostly bare stage with a thatched roof, raised slightly off the ground. We can also guess that, since the merchants were selling beer, fruits, and ale, that the audience might have been drunk or throwing things at the actors.

As Platter notes, and this page from Shakespeare’s First Folio confirms, there were only 15 actors in the original cast, so Shakespeare’s company didn’t have a huge cast to play the gigantic crowd in the Roman street. In all probability, the audience is the mob, and Antony is talking right to them when he calls them “Friends, Romans, Countrymen.” I believe that the audience was probably encouraged to shout, chant, boo, cheer, and become a part of the performance which is important to emphasize when talking about how to portray this scene onstage. A director can choose whether or not to make the audience part of the action in a production of Julius Caesar, which can allow the audience to get a visceral understanding of the persuasive power of politicians like Brutus and Antony. Alternatively, the director can choose instead to have actors play the crowd, and allow the audience to scrutinize the crowd as well as the politicians.

In conclusion, the reason this speech is famous is Shakespeare did an excellent job of encapsulating the power of persuassive speech that the real Antony must have had, as he in no small way used that power to spur the Roman crowd to mutiny and vengeance, and began to turn his country from a dying republic into a mighty empire.

If you liked this post, please consider signing up for my online class where I cover the rhetorical devices in Julius Caesar and compare them with several other famous speeches. Register now at http://www.outschool.com

For a fascinating look at how a modern cast of actors helps to create this scene, check out this documentary: Unlocking the Scene from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production in 2012, with Patterson Joseph as Brutus, and Ray Fearon as Antony:

◦ Interview with Patterson Joseph and Ray Fearon RSC: https://youtu.be/v5UTRSzuajo

And here is a clip of the final scene as it was performed at the Royal Shakespeare Company:

References

1. Annotated Julius Caesar: https://sites.google.com/site/annotatedjuliuscaesar/act-3/3-2-57-109

2. Folger Shakespeare Library: Julius Caesar Lesson Plan: https://teachingshakespeareblog.folger.edu/2014/04/29/friends-romans-teachers-send-me-your-speeches/

3. Silva Rhetoric http://rhetoric.byu.edu/

3. Rhetoric in Marc Antony Speech

https://www.google.com/amp/s/eavice.wordpress.com/2011/02/05/jv-rhetorical-devices-in-antonys-funerary-speech-from-shakespeares-julius-caesar/amp/

4. Shakespeare Resource Center: http://www.bardweb.net/content/readings/caesar/lines.html

Where Did This Play Come From?

Poster for a production of “Romeo and Juliet,” that I worked on in 2012.

When I say that the story of Romeo and Juliet is timeless, I mean that the story’s roots go back almost to the beginnings of time. According to Sigmund Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the desire for love is inexplicably tied to the desires for creation, and destruction. These contradictory forces live deep in the human psyche, which explains why stories of doomed love have been re-interpreted throughout history. What follows is a short history of the stories that inspired Shakespeare, so you can see how this archetypal story has evolved into the one we still read today.

Ancient Sources

When Shakespeare was going to school in the late 1560s, Elizabethan boys were expected to read ancient Greek and Roman writers, who wrote many of the classical love stories listed below. We know that Shakespeare remembered of all these stories because he gives a brief homage to them in Ac II, Scene iv of Romeo and Juliet:

MERCUTIO

Now is he [Romeo] for the numbers
that Petrarch flowed in: Laura to his lady was but a
kitchen-wench; marry, she had a better love to
be-rhyme her; Dido a dowdy; Cleopatra a gipsy;
Helen and Hero hildings and harlots; Thisbe a grey
eye or so, but not to the purpose.

Mercutio’s opinion of these old love stories is that they are based on a false concept of true love, when in fact, love for Mercutio is merely lust and obsession.

Hero and Leander

Leander swimming across the Hellespont. Detail from a painting by Bernard Picart.

          • Author– Unknown (traditional Greek Myth)
          • Date Of Composition 1400- 300 BC (approx)
          • Plot– Hero, a prophetess of Aphrodite loves Leander, a young man from the other side of her temple across a river called the Hellespond. As a priestess, Hero is supposed to remain a virgin, but Leander convinces her to make love to him, and visits her several times by swimming across the Hellespond. Their affair comes to a tragic end when on one stormy night, Leander is overcome by the waves and drowns on his journey to be with his beloved Hero. Consumed with grief, Hero throws herself off the temple tower to be with him.
          • Moral– love (or at least lust), destroys and kills.

The Iliad

        • Author– Homer
        • Date Of Composition 800 BC (approx)
        • Plot– Paris, the prince of Troy abducts and ravishes Helen, the queen of Sparta in Greece, leading to a 10 year war between the Greeks and the Trojans. This war divides everyone in both countries, even the gods, leading to the question of whether love is more important to loyalty to one’s country or family.
        • Moral– Ambiguous- The Greeks fight the Trojans bravely, but only to destroy Troy. Whereas the Trojans are often more sympathetic than the Greeks, but their decision to protect Paris and Helen’s adulterous affair is very unwise. The characters in this story strive to answer the question of what is the most important thing in life- desire for power, fame, to protect one’s home, or love?

Tristan and Isolde

        • Authors– Various, including the French bards Thomas and Beroul
        • Date of Composition– somewhere around the 12th century AD.
        • Plot– Similar to the Trojan War story, but in a medieval context: a young English knight named Tristan meets the heroine, a princess from Ireland, who is engaged to his country’s king. Their passion is instant and fiery, (sometimes it is the result of a love potion they accidentally drank), but it also forces them to make a terrible choice- If Tristan carries off Isolde, he will be disobeying his king, destroying a peaceful alliance, and forcing England and Ireland to go to war. However, it is clear from the beginning that Isolde does not love the one-eyed English king, and  if she marries him, Isolde will be miserable her whole life. Tristan fights gallantly to protect both Isolde and her honor and it puts Tristan, the king, and Isolde into a torturous love triangle, which usually ends with Tristan and the king fighting to the death.
        • Morals
          1. Arranged marriages ruin everything,
          2. love is like a drug,
          3. “Bros before, [you know-what].”
        • Note– This story was also the root of the story of Lancelot in the Arthur myths. In the version created by Thomas Mallory in the 15th century, Lancelot falls in love with Queen Guineveere, and betrays King Arthur, whom he loves like a father. Lancelot’s adultery eventually destroys the fellowship of the Round Table, and allows Arthur’s wicked bastard son Mordred to kill Arthur and ruin Camelot.

Renaissance Sources

Here is a brief timeline of the narrative sources dating from 1530-1580 that Shakespeare used to create his own masterpiece. As you can see, they differ considerably from the ancient sources in plot, and overall morals.

Timeline Of the Narrative Sources of Romeo and Juliet:

Romeo and Giulietta

Da Porto's Novel "Newly found story of two noble lovers"-1530

        • Author– Luigi Da Porto in his novel Historia novellamente ritrovata di due nobili amanti (“Newly found story of two noble lovers”
        • Date of Composition- 1530
        • Background– Da Porto was a soldier and a brilliant story writer. Some claim that he based his tale on an earlier story, while some claim he based it on his falling in love with a girl at a masked ball. In any case, Da Porto was the first to set the story in Verona, created the characters of Mercutio and Benvolio, and also the first author to change the context of the story into two warring households, rather than great empires or kingdoms. This small change helps the audience sympathize with the lovers more, since they are not guilty of treason or adultery.
        • Plot– Two noble houses, the Montecchi and the Cappelletti are at war. The hero  Romeo meets Giulietta at a Carnival ball, which makes him forget about an unrequited love he has for an unnamed girl (the name Rosalind is Shakespeare’s invention).  The two lovers have several liasons over a much longer period than in Shakespeare’s play at Guilietta’s chamber window. Also, although they are married in secret and Romeo is banished just as in Shakespeare’s version, the character he kills is not related to Guilietta. However, the plot device of the sleeping potion and  Romeo’s suicide is also consistent with Shakespeare’s version of the story.

Romeus and Juliet

Arthur Brooke's Romeus and Juliet

        • Author– Matteo Bandello’s in his story Novelle,
          (translated into English) by Arthur Brooke in 1587.
        • Date of Composition– 1554, (translated in 1562, re-printed 1587)
        • Background– Bandello adapted Da Porto’s version of the story and developed the supporting characters, adding The Nurse, the Friar and the Apothecary, and developing Benvolio (without giving him a name).
        • Plot– This plot is almost exactly the same as Shakespeare’s play,but it does reveal some narrative details that Shakespeare omits. Bandello’s poem reveals the origin of the Capulet/ Monegue feud, as well as the ultimate fates of the surviving characters.
        • Moral– Like many other interpretations, the author (or at least the translator) seem to be struggling with the Christian taboo of premarital sex, which to some extent condemns the protagonists. In the English translation by Arthur Brooke, the Preface makes it very clear that Brooke is not condoning Romeus’ premarital sex or his blatant disregard for his parents’ authority. Brooke claims that the story is intended to show the actions of bad people being punished for their actions:

The good man’s example biddeth men to be good, and the evil man’s mischief warneth men not to be evil. To this good end serve all ill ends of ill beginnings. And to this end, good Reader, is this tragical matter written, to describe unto thee a couple of unfortunate lovers, thralling themselves to unhonest desire; neglecting the authority and advice of parents and friends; conferring their principal counsels with drunken gossips and superstitious friars (the naturally fit instruments of unchastity); attempting all adventures of peril for th’ attaining of their wished lust – (Brooke, Romeus and Juliet )

    • On the other hand, at the end of the poem, Bandello describes Romeus and Juliet’s love (or at least Brooke’s translation), as: “so perfect, sound, and so approvéd love,” which suggests that the author at least approve of the lover’s actions. One can almost imagine Italian passion fighting with English morality in the dueling pens of Brooke and Bandello. It was up to Shakespeare to try and resolve this conflict in his own version.

Romeo and Juliet

Romeo and Juliet 1st Quarto.

      • Author– William Shakespeare
      • Date of Composition 1593 (approximately)
      • Plot– One of the most interesting things about Shakespeare’s play is that he develops the characters of Mercutio, the Nurse, and Friar Lawrence, but deliberately omits certain plot elements such as why the feud began between the Capulets and Montegues, and what happened to The Apothecary, Nurse, and Friar Lawrence after the Prince found out about the lovers’ suicides. This effectively makes the Capulet/Montegue feud seem pointless, which allows the audience to focus more on the lovers. On the other hand, Shakespeare also compresses the time Romeo and Juliet know each other from 9 months as in Brooke’s version to 5 days, making the love affair seem even more rash. These changes in plot make the story much less a morality tale about morally wrong love, and more about the war between creative and destructive love that play in the human psyche.
        • Moral– As we’ve seen, most interpretations of the story condemn the lovers as rash, foolish, and adulterous. Shakespeare refuses to condemn or condone. That is Shakespeare’s great gift for storytelling- he doesn’t give us clear answers because he knows life is more complicated than that. He merely provides two sides of an issue and lets the reader sort it out for themselves.

How did Shakespeare get away with ripping off material this old? You’d think that, since every English schoolboy knew this story for over 1000 years, nobody would see this play since there would be no surprises. The answer is that Shakespeare writes primarily for characters, not plot. He infuses old characters like Romeo and Juliet with a new language that makes them more complete, more modern, and more timeless. That’s why stories like R&J, which was already known to Shakespeare’s audiences, are still entertaining and compelling, even after you read it 100 times, and see hundreds of different productions.

I hope this short history of the sources of Romeo and Juliet allows you to ponder the complex theories behind love and lust that authors have struggled to explain in the history of this story. Each age debates the values of love and whether it’s worth fighting or dying or killing for. Perhaps the best thing about Shakespeare’s version is that it tries to provide the most complete summary of the question, without giving us an answer, allowing us to marvel at how complex it is.

Thanks For Reading!

Shakespearean Student

O Fortuna!

Today, June 24rth, is the ancient Roman festival of Fortuna, the goddess of luck and worldly fortunes. I’ve chosen to use this opportunity to explain a little bit about the concept of Fortune, which Shakespeare uses frequently in his tragedies. But first, a short musical interlude:

Does this song sound familiar? You’ve probably heard it underscored in hundreds of commercials, TV shows, maybe even in concerts, it’s a song composed by composer Carl Orff called “O Fortuna.”

The Roman goddess Fortuna
The Roman goddess Fortuna with her wheel and orb.

In Roman mythology, Fortuna was the goddess of luck, wealth, and fertility. If you listen to the lyrics of the song above, you can see that for centuries, people chose to represent Fortune as a fickle, changeable, and irresponsible goddess. Unfortunately, one of the reasons she’s personified as a woman is the long-held prejudice that women are weak, have frequent changes of mind and mood, and can’t commit to one person, (a view of women that I and Shakespeare believe to not be true). However, based on his writing he does seem to think Fortune fits these characteristics:

“I am Fortune’s fool” –Romeo and Juliet

O fortune, fortune! all men call thee fickle:                If thou art fickle, what dost thou with him.   That is renown’d for faith? Be fickle, fortune; For then, I hope, thou wilt not keep him long, But send him back. –Romeo and Juliet

“When Fortune means to men most good,           She looks upon them with a threatening eye.” King John

Out, out, thou strumpet, Fortune! All you gods,       

In general synod ‘take away her power;       

Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,           

And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven,        

As low as to the fiends! -Hamlet

In Dante’s Inferno, Fortuna lives in the Underworld with Plutus the god of gold, helping to distribute the god’s wealth to people above ground. In the Middle ages she was an explanation for why some people have good luck, some have bad, and why luck frequently changes.

The Wheel of Fortune. 

Fortuna’s most recognizable symbol is her wheel; the symbol of how luck can change; just when you think your life is perfect, the wheel turns and you find yourself on the bottom. Frequently in tragedy when things go wrong, the characters blame Fortune, such as when the Lord of Kent finds himself put in the stocks like a common thief and gripes: “Fortune good night, smile once more, turn thy wheel,” King Lear, Act II, Scene ii. And yes, the real game show was partially inspired by the goddess’ most famous symbol.

Fortuna In Tragedies

Shakespeare mentions fortune over 500 times in his plays and frequently in his tragedies. Characters in Shakespearean tragedy frequently single out Fortuna as the cause of their unhappiness and curse her as a liar and a strumpet. In a Christian society, it was a lot more appealing to blame a pagan goddess than a loving, Christian god, (which would probably be considered blasphemous). Now you see why she has become a popular scapegoat for misfortune in tragedy. At the same time, all tragedy raises questions about the nature of free will; how much of bad fortune is the result of fate, and how much is a direct result of the character’s bad choices? Edmund in King Lear laughs at the notion of any kind of fate, and accuses all of humanity of shirking responsibility in this speech:

EDMUND

This is the excellent foppery of the world, that,
when we are sick in fortune,–often the surfeit
of our own behavior,–we make guilty of our
disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars: as
if we were villains by necessity; fools by
heavenly compulsion; knaves, thieves, and
treachers, by spherical predominance; drunkards,
liars, and adulterers, by an enforced obedience of
planetary influence; and all that we are evil in,
by a divine thrusting on: an admirable evasion
of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish
disposition to the charge of a star! (King Lear, Act I, Scene ii).

At the same time, the audience also knows that Edmund was cursed by Fortune from the beginning, since he is the illegitimate child of the Duke of Gloucester, which might prove exactly the opposite point of his speech. He may act like he is absolute in his free will, but his behavior and his violent end suggests otherwise. So when characters curse Fortune or Fortuna in Shakespeare’s plays, take a look at the language they use to characterize this abstract concept. The way we think about luck or fate helps shape our perspective of our own lives, and therefore how playwrights depict this mysterious goddess helps us see the possibilities of human choice, and maybe help us make better choices than the tragic men who slander her in these plays!

For more insight into this topic: Click here to listen to my podcast about this week’s post:
https://www.buzzsprout.com/45002/284936-the-shakespearean-student-episode-6-o-fortuna

For Further Reading:

  1. Brittanica.com: Fortuna: http://www.britannica.com/topic/Fortuna-Roman-goddess
  2. Internet Shakespeare Editions: Fortuna in Medieval Drama: http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/SLT/drama/early%20tragedies/medievaltragedy.html#boethius 
  3. Encyclopedia Mythica: Fortune: http://pantheon.org/areas/mythology/europe/roman/articles.html
  4. The Obscure Goddess Online Dictionary: http://www.thaliatook.com/OGOD/fortuna.html