The “Hamlet” Murder Mystery

1.  Old King Hamlet, sleeping in his orchard, was secretly murdered by Claudius, his brother and successor on the throne. His son, the Prince bearing his name, learns of this when he’s given a gruesome, detailed account of the crime from the Ghost of his father, the dead king returned from the grave. Prince Hamlet is disposed to accept what he’s told, as it ratifies his suspicions of his uncle’s deviousness. He comes to worry a bit that the Ghost might be an imposter, a demon intent on deceiving him, but is satisfied of the Ghost’s trustworthiness when he sees how his uncle reacts to a theatrical representation of a crime resembling the one that the Ghost had reported. Claudius undoubtedly murdered his brother. So Shakespeare would have us accept the Ghost’s story as fact, correct? Maybe not.

You see, there’s a problem with the Ghost’s testimony, even apart from the matter of his authenticity. A forensic incongruity, if you will. It doesn’t seem to get talked about much (so far as I know), but it hasn’t gone wholly unnoticed (as Ellen Tremper reminds me): James Joyce noticed it, and he slipped it into Ulysses. It’s in chapter 7 (“Aeolus”), during Stephen Dedalus’ visit to the newspaper office. (This takes place shortly before he is to give his lecture on Hamlet at the Dublin public library.) A phrase of the Ghost’s passes through Stephen’s mind, and he’s briefly struck by the difficulty. “How could he know that?” Stephen wonders. “He was asleep at the time.”

It’s a fair question. How can a man who was murdered in his sleep be so well informed of the means and the manner of his death?   Consider the story. The official explanation of what happened is that he was stung by a serpent during his daily nap in his orchard; this, the Ghost tells his son, was a lie, a fraud perpetrated upon the nation – “So the whole ear of Denmark / Is by a forgèd process of my death rankly abused.” What really happened, as the Ghost tells it, was this:

         …Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursèd hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour,
The leperous distilment, whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigor it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
Thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine,
And a most instant tetter barked about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust,
All my smooth body.


The brother sneaked into the orchard while the king slept, and poured into his ears a horrendously swift-acting poison, which literally curdled the king’s blood and caused his formerly unblemished skin to erupt with a “vile and loathsome crust” all over his body. Sudden death. So how could the victim know all these details?

Grant that the Ghost is indeed Hamlet’s father, briefly back from the dead, and grant that the horrible tale he imparts to his son is offered ingenuously, free of intent to deceive. Still – where is this story coming from, if he died in his sleep? Ghosts are allowed to know many things, a literary critic in my acquaintance assures me. Allowed by whom?, I want to know. He’s come back to earth on his own private business – his craving for familial revenge surely being of no great concern to the angels and ministers of grace. So there’s no obvious reason to assume he’s speaking on behalf of Omniscience. (Stephen Dedalus would have understood this.) By the Ghost’s own account, he’s presently suffering purgative torments in the afterlife, the precise nature of which he’s not permitted to tell. Does it sound like he’d be entitled to the complete dossier on all the stuff he missed when he died?

Is this just a blunder on Shakespeare’s part? I think not. I prefer to think that it might be deliberate. For there’s a certain logic to the incongruity, though it isn’t the logic of external fact. Shakespeare affords us the means to make sense of the story, consistent with the character and his circumstances.

The Ghost is indeed Hamlet’s father; the story he tells is the truth of his murder so far as he knows and recalls it. He was, however, asleep at the time the event occurred. People do know and remember things when they sleep; it tends to happen in ways that our author found interesting. Poison poured in his ears? A method which just happens to correspond literally to the king’s own favored metaphor for credulous susceptibility to deceit? (Cf. “the whole ear of Denmark… rankly abused”) The king’s youthful unblemished skin turned loathsome and vile, by the dark arts of a man whom the queen inexplicably finds attractive? There’s every reason to credit this as vitally real to the man, true to his experience. But not because it’s how it actually happened, that afternoon in the orchard.

It’s how the king experienced it, asleep at the time – in a dream.


2.How it actually happened, we have no idea. We do know the king was in fact murdered, and by his brother. We in the audience can be sure of this, because later we overhear Claudius, alone, brooding over his guilt in the crime of fratricide (of which he’s ashamed, but for which he feels helpless to repent). But it doesn’t follow from this that the murder was done in the manner that Hamlet was told by the Ghost. We can’t be so sure that Claudius is the expert, efficient killer he is made out to be in the Ghost’s testimony. And nor can we be so sure whether he even recognizes his crime in the lightly-fictionalized version of the Ghost’s story – The Murder of Gonzago, or The Mousetrap – that his nephew arranges to have staged in his presence.

But surely – you protest – he must. Doesn’t Claudius’ reaction to what he’s shown in The Mousetrap bear out the accuracy of the Ghost’s information? Most readers have thought so. If you’ve ever seen Hamlet performed, on stage or on screen, that’s almost certainly how you remember it happening. Only it isn’t so clear from the text.

Here is how one influential critic – John Dover Wilson, in What Happens in Hamlet – describes the behavior of Claudius on watching the poisoning scene of The Mousetrap:

His face grows livid, he clutches his arms to his seat, his eyes start from his head. He has forgotten everything, everyone, except the hideous spectacle before him. Yes, the murderer is pouring the poison into the ears of the sleeper. The secure hour, the kind of poison, thee flowery bank, the dozing king are the same. Just so, that is the way it should be done, that is how he poisoned is brother on that afternoon in the palace garden… The thing is clear. The plot of the interlude is his life’s history. Hamlet knows all! Claudius is not safe; anything may happen. He pulls himself to his feet, and squealing for light, he totters as fast as his trembling knees will carry him from the terrible, the threatening room.

And here is the corresponding passage of the text as we have it, inclusive of printed stage directions:

Ophelia: The king rises.

Hamlet: What, frighted with false fire?

Gertrude: How fare’s my lord?

Polonius: Give o’er the play.

Claudius: Give me some light. Away!

Polonius*: Lights, Lights, lights! [*Thus the Quarto; the Folio assigns this last line to “All”]

Exeunt all but Hamlet and Horatio

There’s not much there. “The king rises,” Ophelia says. (Contrast this with any number of times when Shakespeare conveys a sudden change in demeanor by how it registers to an observer.) Hamlet responds with sarcastic delight; Polonius sees the king rise, and calls for the play to be halted; the king calls for light (it’s dark, where he’s sitting), then roughly dismisses the company in attendance on him; all depart, leaving Hamlet alone with his friend. All of this is good enough for Hamlet, who’s giddy with excitement. And the king? Has he tottered, trembling at the uncanny replication of his deed? He is “marvelously distempered,” a courtier reports – disturbed, yes, but “with choler.” He’s angry.

Of course he’s angry. He has plenty of reason to be. His nephew’s behavior in mounting this play – and in commenting loudly through the performance – would be seen as outrageous insolence in any royal court of Shakespeare’s day, and quite possibly a seditious incitement, lèse majesté.   The Mousetrap‘s opening scene has the Player Queen swear to her husband that if she were to remarry after his death — as the actual queen now at Claudius’ side had recently done – would be tantamount to killing her husband twice over.   As if that weren’t blatant enough, Hamlet calls out to his mother, just then, “How like you the play, madam?” (It is in answer to this that Gertrude utters that much-quoted line, “The lady doth protest to much.”) That’s already enough to put Claudius on edge – it’s then he demands to know of Hamlet if he knows of anything offensive in what’s yet to come. Hamlet answers mockingly, “they do but jest, poison in jest, no offense in the world.” The Player King now sleeps on stage, stretched on a bank of flowers representing a garden – unmistakably like the circumstance in which, as is publicly known, an actual Danish king had been found dead just a few months before. When the stage-villain enters, the current king’s irksome nephew calls out again, with another familial reference: “This is one Lucianus, nephew to the king.” Nephew. Only it doesn’t yet register to the king (there’s no reason it would) what sort of part the stage-nephew is given to play in this drama put on by his actual nephew. Then it suddenly, sickeningly, becomes all too clear. Is the king to put up with this? It’s for his wife’s sake that he’s kept Hamlet around; he knows they were formerly close, though Hamlet clearly resents his mother’s remarriage. Lucianus, onstage, does his murderous business. Hamlet, apparently thrilled, comments to all in attendance: “You shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife.” (Gets the love: what sort of love is unstated.) Enough is enough.

Hamlet’s behavior would surely suffice to give Claudius motive enough to cut short the performance, dismissing his court in a hurry – which is all that the text informs us he does. Does this mean that Hamlet has spoiled his whole purpose in staging the drama? Must we conclude that his confidence in the Ghost is ill-founded? Perhaps not. It depends on what those purposes were, and wherein that confidence lies.

Hamlet does not  ever actually say that the point of the play was to frighten the king by replicating the precise facts of the murder. We assume this only because the detail of poisoning-through-the-ear is so striking and unusual, and because we then see that detail in the play that Hamlet puts on. When we first hear him speak of his plan (in the soliloquy at the end of Act II), he describes it like this:

               …I’ll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle. I’ll observe his looks,
I’ll tent him to the quick. If he do blench,
I’ll know my course.

The word ‘tent’ here means to test, to probe. We tend to assume, that the testing to which he refers is to involve nothing more than observing the king’s reaction, when shown a representation of the crime in its lurid details. Perhaps we might reconsider that, in light of how Hamlet conducts himself in the experiment. “I’ll have grounds / More relative than this,” he assures himself — more grounds for action against his uncle, that is, than the urging of a Ghost. By eliciting Claudius’ rage with The Mousetrap, he’s assured himself of those grounds – not in validating the Ghost’s story, but in gaining Claudius’ enmity. If that’s the purpose, the factual accuracy of the Ghost’s account may not matter. Might Hamlet be mindful of this?

For some must watch while some must sleep,
Thus runs the world away.

“King, Father, Royal Dane”? Hamlet’s Dubious Father

1.“Where  else in Shakespeare,” A.C. Bradley once asked, “is there anything like Hamlet’s adoration of his father? His words melt into music whenever he speaks of him.” Perhaps. But adoration seems not the word for Prince Hamlet’s feelings for his father, at least not in the word’s usual modern sense. At any rate, there’s little sign that the father and son had been close. When the Prince encounters his father’s Ghost, he greets him with a formulaic salutation – ‘King, father, royal Dane” – as if the Ghost’s status as father were itself but an honorific royal title. It may be, as Bradley insists, that the prince waxes lyrical whenever he has occasion to speak of his father’s high qualities, yet it’s all on that plane. There is nothing he says that involves any detail connected with Hamlet’s own past; nothing that seems to involve any memories of the prince’s childhood or upbringing. When this is noticed, it becomes impossible not to notice, too, how different is the response Hamlet has when met with another figure from out of his past – the king’s jester Yorick. “A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy,” Hamlet says, upon being told that the disinterred skull in his hands had been Yorick’s. “He hath bore me on his back a thousand times, and now how abhorred in my imagination it is… Here hung the lips that I have kissed I know not how oft.” The memory makes him uneasy – but that’s because it’s so vividly present to him, even now that the man is reduced to a fragment of bone. Nothing of the sort came to mind when he met with the Ghost of his father (even though the latter appeared to be in the flesh, fully clothed).

2. What sort of man had he been in his lifetime, this royal father whom Hamlet recalls so admiringly, though remotely?   The first (and nearly the only) information we’re given about the dead king is from a conversation in the opening scene between Horatio and the watchmen Marcellus and Bernardo. (This is just after the three have seen the king’s Ghost.) In response to a question about Denmark’s apparent state of preparation for war, Horatio tells of the late king’s slaying of Fortinbras, his Norwegian counterpart, when the two had arranged to fight one another in a contest of single combat. Horatio then goes on to explain that this Fortinbras, whom the elder Hamlet had slain, is survived by a son, also named Fortinbras; this son has lately been mustering men to invade, in the hope of recovering lands that his father had lost to Denmark in that contest. (From Horatio’s telling it isn’t yet clear that the younger Fortinbras is not Norway’s king, and nothing at all has been said at this point concerning the status of King Hamlet’s son. Only later does it emerge that in Norway and Denmark alike, the crown has somehow passed to the prior king’s brother.) In recounting the story of the late King Hamlet’s triumph over Fortinbras père, Horatio speaks of the victor as “valiant Hamlet / For so this side of our known world esteemed him. The same epithet, “valiant,” is used by the current king, Claudius, when he makes passing mention of the same event in a speech to the royal court.

All of this creates the impression that this triumph must have been recent enough to be fresh in memory. So does our learning that the king had been buried in the same suit of armour he had worn in that fight – the very armour that his Ghost now appears to be wearing. The impression is responsible for the critical commonplace that Shakespeare would have us infer that prince Hamlet’s father had been the consummate warrior-king, his reign – unlike that of his brother – an epoch of martial glory for Denmark. But that is to miss the significance of a detail that Shakespeare doesn’t let drop until late in the play, in Act V: King Hamlet’s triumph over Fortinbras had taken place in the same year as Prince Hamlet’s birth – which occurred thirty years prior to the time of the action of the play. (Yes, Hamlet is 30. His confidant Horatio must be at least a dozen years older than that, for he claims to have seen the king in his armour at the time he fought Fortinbras.) As King Hamlet had died less than two months before the time of the play, that means he had lived, on the throne, some three decades past the sole martial act — indeed, the only event of his reign – that anyone seems to recall with any distinctness.

Critics who cleave to the commonplace view tend to make much of tube contrast between the former king’s (supposed) warrior ethos and the present king’s penchant for drunken carousing – a “custom” his nephew the Prince roundly deplores (“More honoured in the breach than the observance,” he sniffs.). Yet Hamlet does not ever say that this “custom” was Claudius’ innovation; he implies just the opposite, in admitting that as a “native here,” he is himself “to the manner born.” True, nothing is said to link this particular custom with the prior king. But that is because there’s only one regular “custom” of the former king of which we’re apprized: his daily afternoon nap.

3. When Prince Hamlet first encounters the Ghost of his father, the recently-deceased king, the first thing he learns is his father’s   “Doomed for a certain term to walk the night / And for the day confined to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature / Are burnt and washed away.” What are those “foul crimes” for which the Ghost must now suffer fiery purgation?  In all all three of the modern critical editions that I’ve consulted, the editors are at pains to assure the reader that old King Hamlet’s sins can’t have been nearly so bad as all that; ’foul crimes’ is just an exaggerated way of referring to his everyday, venial sins. But in fact there’s zero evidence in the text, one way or another, regarding the gravity of the dead king’s sins. The only reason to think that those sins must have been fairly innocuous is that this seems to be the only way to make sense of how the Ghost can then go on to imply that his murderous brother is to blame not only for taking his life, but also for his horrible post-mortem suffering, by depriving him of the chance to receive the sacrament of absolution.

This simply shows the extent to which even scholarly readers are disposed to treat Hamlet’s father with all the solemn reverence shown to him by his son. For there’s another, obvious way to account for what Shakespeare is doing, in having the Ghost blame his present condition on his murder. We’re being a given a clue to a character trait that it’s apparent throughout the Ghost’s colloquy with his son, though seldom remarked on: his egregious self-pity. There’s no way around this: it’s a shallow, and profoundly un-Christian idea to blame one’s failure to repent of one’s sins before death on the unexpected suddenness of one’s dying. (It won’t do to claim that Shakespeare would have taken on this notion as proper to the world of the play, on account of its medieval setting. In Henry V, probably written just a year or two before Hamlet, Shakespeare has another pre-Reformation king lucidly expose the fallacy in the notion.) It may or may not be the case that King Hamlet’s sins were but trivial; he’s the one who calls them foul crimes, and his impulse in doing so seems to be nothing more than the wish to elicit the pity of his son. (He’s forbidden from disclosing anything specific about the nature of his term in the purgatorial “prison-house,” so he wants at least to convey that he’s not getting cushy treatment.) It doesn’t occur to him that describing his sins in that way might implicate himself as responsible for what he’s now suffering; he seems not to see the connection.

The Ghost’s self-pity is part of his overall self-absorption. It’s for nobody’s sake but his own that he imposes on his son the duty of avenging his murder; the duty is demanded as the proof of the son’s love for him. He rages against his brother not only for taking his life, but also for (afterwards) stealing his crown (and his queen) – as if he hadn’t quite grasped that he couldn’t have remained king, now that he’s dead. Does it never occur to him that his son might have his own reasons for resenting the current occupant of the throne?

Or might it be that father and son are not speaking candidly, even then?

A Tainted Election? “Hamlet” & Politics

For roughly the first half of Hamlet, the audience is left in suspense as to whether or not Claudius, the present king, had in fact secretly murdered his predecessor, Prince Hamlet’s father. Then the prince devises and executes a plan to find out, and deems his suspicions confirmed; we in the audience get to be privy to still more conclusive evidence of Claudius’ guilt. Mystery solved. Except that this isn’t the play’s only mystery, nor the most vexing one. For – despite what we’re tempted to think – the confirmation of Hamlet’s suspicions doesn’t resolve the unanswered question looming over the play from the start: how is it that Claudius, the murdered king’s brother, got to be king after him?

Never mind how the former king died. Why did the crown not pass to Hamlet, that king’s son and namesake? Shakespeare supplies us with just enough information to allow the inference that the Denmark of the play (like the Denmark of Shakespeare’s own time) is an elective monarchy, not a hereditary one. This doesn’t answer the question; it defines it. In the elective monarchies that Shakespeare’s audience knew, a king with a direct male heir would almost invariably be succeeded by him on the throne, barring exceptional circumstances. In Hamlet, the recently-deceased king is survived by an adult son, bearing his father’s name. Yet somehow the crown has passed not to the son but instead to the former king’s brother. We are told nothing about the procedure whereby he was elected, or who was involved. It seems to be connected somehow (whether as cause or consequence) with his having won the heart and the hand of Gertrude, the queen. Shakespeare withholds any definite information. He simply presents us with Claudius on the throne, his election a fait accompli.

This turn of affairs, however it happened, has left Hamlet in a state of incredulous, shocked disgust. He finds Claudius loathsome, a disgrace to the kingdom. He can barely contain his rage at his mother for having let herself be swayed to the side of a man so deplorable and disgusting. When he learns (from his father’s ghost) that his uncle had brought about his father’s death, he absorbs this disclosure as if it were something he might have known all along. As the son of the murdered king, he finds himself tasked with avenging the crime.

But make no mistake: what Hamlet seeks is not public justice, and his cause serves no useful political purpose.   The revenge he is tasked with is  merely a private affair, familial score-setting. For Claudius (we must assume) is Denmark’s legitimate king. He may be a treacherous, unscrupulous thug.  He might never have gotten his chance if he hadn’t committed a devious crime. But it wasn’t the crime that got Claudius his crown. He got elected.

Just how Claudius got elected, Shakespeare leaves unexplained. We’re given no information about the procedure, nor of the identities of the electors.   We’re not told whose support Claudius had relied upon for the election to go in his favor.  Maybe whoever it was  (Gertrude? Polonius? Osric? Others unmentioned?) would have chosen differently had they known of the candidate’s crimes in the run-up to his election.  Maybe; or maybe not. Maybe they were in a position to guess what he’d done; maybe they didn’t care. They might still have preferred him to the other available candidates, for reasons unknown to us.   In any event, it’s a moot hypothetical. A royal election can’t be revoked or retracted.

Hamlet generally seems to understand this.   He never speaks of his uncle as   a usurper, nor disputes the legitimacy of his title to rule. He accepts that Claudius is indeed Denmark’s king.  And yet his lucidity on the matter does seem to have limits. He cannot help himself from cruelly berating, and baiting, his mother, merely for having married the man. He rails at her pointlessly, wildly imagining he might shame her into abandoning him. It never occurs to him that she might have had her reasons for marrying, now that his father is dead. This is painful to watch.

There’s a reason why Hamlet so brutally and irrationally castigates his mother, as if she alone were responsible for Claudius’ ascendancy. It spares him the need to confront the hard truth – nowhere stated by anyone, but inscribed in the situation – that it isn’t his mother who bears the blame for enabling Claudius’ rise, but his father, the previous king. We tend not to notice this. But it’s true.

For consider: somehow the long-reigning King Hamlet had failed to ensure that the crown would pass to his son. Was his father a weaker, more pusillanimous king than Hamlet allows himself to remember? Was he merely negligent, and short-sighted? Might he not have cared for his son to succeed him, or cared to expend the political capital that would have been needed to assure his son’s success? Might it be that the father and son had been somehow estranged? Shakespeare withholds from us any basis for knowing, one way or another. The father is dead (though still haunting the place, now and then); the son is disappointed; the uncle is king. Later the uncle is dead, along with the son and the mother, and somebody else takes over. The rest is silence.

Bad Shakespeare, Bad Politics: The Case of the Central Park “Julius Caesar”

1. Unlike most of those who have felt the need to express an opinion of Oskar Eustis’s production of Julius Caesar at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, I’ve actually seen it. I attended a performance during the third of the three weeks of previews that preceded its formal one-week run — a couple of days before the furor over the production erupted into national news.  I found it to be reasonably entertaining — and embarrassingly confused:  dubious as a staging of Julius Caesar, and politically irresponsible.

I hasten to say that I see no merit at all in the indignant, opportunistic complaints of those who profess to be scandalized at Eustis’s choice to identify the character Julius Caesar with Donald Trump.    About those complaints, I will say only this. I can see nothing  objectionable in a theatrical representation of Julius Caesar as the sitting President of the U.S., even if that should include (as it inevitably would) on onstage assassination. A stage-play is not an incitement, period. In reply to the “serious question” hurled by the President’s son—in the words of his tweet, “When does “art” become political speech, and what difference does that make?” — I defer to the U.S. Supreme Court: Expression, artistic or not, counts as political speech the moment the attempt is made to suppress it for giving offense on political grounds; the difference that this makes is that it’s precisely then that the First Amendment kicks in with full force (vide R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377 (1992), Scalia, J., Opinion for the Court). The issue is much the same as with burning the flag. (I note without comment that the scandalized theatergoer who first put the would-be censors on the scent seems to have been as much scandalized by the sight of the Trump look-alike naked in the bathtub as by the assassination scene.) You don’t have to enjoy or admire the spectacle of it to acknowledge its legitimacy as political expression.     It confuses the issue to defend such expression on the grounds of its artistic worth or edifying value.

Among the unfortunate consequences of the controversy is that it’s shunted aside any serious discussion of the merits of Oskar Eustis’s staging. The play has been denounced on irrelevant, pernicious grounds by supporters of Trump, and embraced as a cause célèbre by the cultural establishment. An eminent scholar has assured the readers of The New York Times that the staging would have had the Bard’s own approval, and commended the production for illuminating our political circumstances. (The writer, James Shapiro, identifies himself as a consultant on the production, and I grant that his actual wording – although not the headline writer’s – is a bit more oblique.) I’m afraid I can’t agree.

As I say, the performance I attended was before all the nonsense went viral; I had the benefit of seeing it without any of that in my head.    I was disposed to enjoy it – waiting on line for five hours to get tickets does that to you. (Five hours in line is the standard procedure, for any Shakespeare in the Park production. The free tickets are distributed in Central Park at noon on the day of the performance; people start lining up even before the park opens at 6 a.m.) The actors’ performances  were consistently top-notch., and the details were  often clever.  But in the end the dramaturgy was incoherent, and the politics blinkered, or worse.   The representation of Caesar as Trump — that is to say, Trump as Caesar — has a certain specious believability, so far as it goes.  But it makes for a muddle of Julius Caesar, and muddled understanding of the political moment to which it purports to be tailored. Eustis has said that he looked to Julius Caesar to offer a parable for our time. But what he has made of the play isn’t a parable; it’s a proposition. It fails to carry conviction.

Preceding the performance (at least on the evening that I attended), a recorded audio announcement informs the audience that every line to be spoken onstage adheres to Shakespeare’s original (one small, immediately-recognizable topical joke excepted).  The same assurance is given in the director’s program note printed in Playbill.  The fidelity to Shakespeare’s text is cited as if this attested to the production’s coherence and seriousness.   In fact it’s part of the problem. It’s as if Eustis imagined that he need only supply the contemporary correspondences (a Caesar who talks and gesticulates like Donald Trump, an opponent of Caesar who sports a pink-pussy knit hat), and leave Shakespeare to do all the thinking.  The trouble is,  Shakespeare is thinking about other things.

2. That the actor in the part of Caesar, Gregg Henry, is meant to be taken for Donald Trump is uncontestable (and uncontested). His Caesar is not merely reminiscent of Trump, a Trump-like politician. He replicates all the signature mannerisms that are  unmistakably Trump’s.  Gregg Henry has mastered Trump’s verbal inflections and physical gestures with a literalness that by comparison makes Alec Baldwin look like, well, Alec Baldwin. That is to say, he approaches an order of verisimilitude that would interfere with Baldwin’s satirical purposes. The marvel of it, though, is that this is all done while speaking lines written by Shakespeare for Caesar. The lines Shakespeare gives Caesar to say are things we can well imagine Trump saying (were he a bit more verbally fluent).  Henry need only speak the lines in the manner we know to be Trump’s, and the fit appears perfect.

It’s a marvel, but it doesn’t get quite so far as all that.  The most that it shows is that Shakespeare’s idea of Caesar can pass fairly well for Trump’s idea of himself.    Caesar always delivers; he knows himself better than anyone. He’s the man that he takes himself for, the man that he gives himself out to be. Here is Caesar, explaining why he’d never reverse a prior decision:

…I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumber’d sparks,
They are all fire, and every one doth shine;
But there’s but one in all doth hold his place.
So in the world: ’tis furnsh’d well with men,
And men are flesh and blood; and apprehensive;
Yet in their number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshak’d of motion; and that I am he,
Let me a little show it…

The actor  need only supply Trump’s spoken inflections, and his air-slapping gestures, for this to pass for a genuinely Trumpian utterance.  The audience, lately familiar with this sort of thing, understands that it doesn’t correspond to anything actual. We recognize the speaker as a man for whom constancy means nothing real.

That isn’t how Shakespeare sees Caesar. More to the point – it isn’t how Caesar is seen by anyone in Shakespeare’s play; it gets no purchase whatever on the situation with which Shakespeare’s characters are confronted. What’s alarming to Caesar’s opponents is not Caesar’s outrageous indifference to truth, but precisely the fact that Caesar is just as he says. Caesar, truly, always delivers, at least to the limit his aging body allows.   That’s the reason why Caesar’s most bitter detractor, Cassius, is reduced to harping on his limited physical stamina.  (Hmm… ) It’s also the reason — the only reason — why Brutus becomes persuaded that that Caesar must die.

This last point is crucial, for making sense of the play Shakespeare wrote. It’s not for tyrannical personality traits that Brutus comes to see in Caesar a menace to the republic.  “To speak truth of Caesar,” he says — in the soliloquy in which he persuades himself to join the conspiracy,  “I have not known when his affections sway’d / More than his reason.”  What makes Brutus fear for Rome’s safety – so he tells himself, anyway – is simply that Caesar is peerless, in every sense of that word.   The menace is hypothetical, consisting  in what future abuses that any leader so universally admired and applauded might at length be tempted to commit. (“So Caesar may; / Then lest me may, [let us] prevent.”) Brutus  knows very well this won’t fly as a political argument —  “the quarrel / Will bear no colour for the thing it is.” He takes it for granted that normal political opposition, on grounds such as this, is futile.  Desperate measures are called for.

Brutus  convinces himself that his notional fears will be publicly validated, if only he shows how far he’s willing to go in acting on them.  His egregious misjudgment in this becomes obvious, after the fact, when he proves to be no match for Caesar’s friend and admirer Mark Antony in controlling the public understanding of the assassination. But it isn’t so clear what alternative there might have been, in the world of the play, given the premises. And it isn’t so clear on what other premises Caesar is to be seen as a menace. There are no actions in the play that attest to alternative means of resistance to Caesar’s ascendancy — and no voices that counsel their adoption. (It’s not an accident that the figure of Cicero is sidelined – not just by the conspirators, but by the playwright.)   The alternatives offered — as Caesar’s opponents see it — are violence or acquiescence.

I do not mean to imply that Eustis’s staging endorses assassination, or advocates violence. Eustis states in his program note, and has repeated in the press, that the lesson of his staging is that “those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic methods… pay a terrible price and destroy their republic.” It’s presumably meant to be highly significant that the set’s painted backdrop — a mural which depicts, along with portraits of Washington and Lincoln, an image of the parchment presentation text of the U.S. Constitution — is abruptly torn down immediately after the assassination. Out come the riot police, commanded by Caesar’s successors. (I was briefly confused when Octavius comes on stage; the actor looks nothing like Jared.)   James Shapiro explains: “Anyone who sits through the final scene will see the consequences of deposing the tyrant: The brutality of the victors, Antony and Octavius, is far worse than that of Caesar.”  That’s clear enough.    Now all we need is for someone to explain how this is supposed to speak to the present political moment.

3.  It actually isn’t true that everything said onstage is from Shakespeare.  The production’s vaunted fidelity to Shakespeare’s text is limited to the lines spoken by  the named characters; Eustis gives himself greater license with the anonymous persons who stand in for the populace — appearing onstage in crowds, and sometimes shouting from the audience.  Especially in the latter third of the play, with Trump/Caesar gone from the scene, these extras serve as the bearers of the play’s topical reference, and do so verbally. They carry signs recognizable from anti-Trump demonstrations of the past half-year (“Resist!”).   And they chant: “This is what democracy looks like.”

What does democracy look like, in this staging of Julius Caesar? Who are these chanting protesters, in relation to the named characters of the play?   Watching the performance, I had assumed that they were to seen as the partisans of  the conspirators — I took their clash with the riot police for Eustis’ rendering of the conflict between the  forces raised by Brutus and Cassius and those loyal to Antony and Octavius.    (The text refers only to “powers”  on either side.)  After reading the director’s various statements in the press, I suspect I had misread the intention.  Perhaps the idea is that the unnamed protesters are acting on their own initiative, a leaderless movement à la Occupy Wall Street — acting independently of the conspirators, innocent of the conspirators’ violence.  In that case, the point of the chant is not to identify democracy with the cause of Brutus & co., but instead to announce the emergence of a more authentically democratic alternative.  That would better comport with the lesson that Eustis has said he has meant to convey; there’s a logic to it.   The trouble is just that it corresponds to nothing that anyone says in the play of Shakespeare’s that Eustis has chosen to stage.  It means discounting everything said in opposition to Caesar by any of Shakespeare’s characters, so as to affirm an alternative  mode of  oppositional politics (call it “resistance”) of which those characters are apparently unaware, and which has no discernible impact on the political situation.  Grant that these other, nobler democratic citizens are innocent of complicity in the fatal misjudgments of  Brutus and Cassius.  By the same token, they’re just as innocent of  responsibility for everything else that occurs in the play.  Their innocence is the obverse of their  inefficacy, from beginning to end of the tragedy.  Some resistance. Some democracy.

4. Eustis has stated that he made the decision to mount this Julius Caesar on November 9, the day after Trump’s election. I get that. But we’ve all had a chance to learn a few things, in the interim.



[Original Title: “An Emperor Disrobed: Some Thoughts on Oscar Eustis’s Julius Caesar.” Revised for clarity, 6/19/17.]

Is Othello Insecure?

W.E.B. Du Bois coined the phrase ‘double consciousness’ to name the anxious self-doubt that is commonly suffered by those for whom social success or acceptance is barred by hostile race prejudices. “The facing of so vast a prejudice could not but bring the inevitable self-questioning, self-disparagement, and lowering of ideals which ever accompany repression and breed in an atmosphere of contempt and hate,” wrote Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk.  Does this diagnosis apply to  the hero of Shakespeare’s Othello?  Might it help account for Othello’s tragic susceptibility to  Iago’s deceit?

In the play’s opening scene, we hear Othello denigrated, behind his back,  on account of his foreign birth and exotic appearance (I.i.63; I.i.87).  Iago contemns him for being black; Roderigo derides him as “an extravagant and wheeling stranger / Of here and everywhere.” (1.1.134-5).  This talk sets us on edge, and so we may well surmise that such bias must figure as a factor in Othello’s eventual fall. But there’s little real reason to think so.  Du Bois wasn’t thinking of sixteenth-century Venice (nor seventeenth-century England), and the syndrome he descried is nowhere to be found in  this play of Shakespeare’s.  Othello is immune to self-doubt. He is indifferent to social acceptance or approval. He is a man of extraordinary self-assurance, convinced of his merit and proud of his parentage.  Socially-conditioned self-doubt is no factor in his tragedy. What makes him susceptible to Iago’s manipulation is not this, but a doubt over whether his new marriage might be unworthy of him – a stain on his native nobility.

There is only one time in the play that Othello is faced with what seem to be hostile prejudices on account of his race or his origin.  That is when he is forced to contend with the wild accusations from his new father-in-law, Brabantio,  who claims that his daughter Desdemona could not have agreed to marry “such a thing” as Othello unless she were drugged or bewitched (I.ii.71).  It isn’t entirely clear if Brabantio’s words are expressive of racial animus, or whether such animus is shared by others among the Venetian elite. But supposing that this is the case – the question then is, how is Othello affected by it? If Brabantio’s attitude toward Othello can be seen as indicative of a prejudice pervasive in Venice, then Othello’s response must be seen as indicative of his resilience in such an environment. His composure is perfect; whatever offense or insults are intended, he shows no sign of taking umbrage or affront. The only reason he  deigns to respond to Brabantio’s wild accusations at all is that they are made in front of the Duke and the Senate, who are about to commission him to lead the Venetian campaign against the Turks.  He shows every confidence that his words will be credited.

Othello couldn’t care less what Brabantio thinks.  After all, he’s just run off with the man’s daughter without  having bothered to notify him in advance, let alone ask for his blessing.  On first hearing of Brabantio’s wrath, he’s unfazed and dismissive.  His words at the time make it clear how little he depends on Venice’s favor to nourish his self-esteem. There’s no sign that he’d care to assimilate socially to the people whose state he serves, or pattern his life or his manners on theirs. There’s nothing shameful to him in his origins; just the contrary:  “I fetch my life and being / From men of royal siege” (I.ii.22-3). His sense of his native nobility is closely connected with his sense of the heroic qualities manifested through his career as a free-booting soldier of fortune.  If it weren’t for his love for Desdemona, he wouldn’t care in the least to be hitched to her narrow, circumscribed people.   But that I love the gentle Desdemona,” he says, “I would not my unhoused free condition / Put into circumscription and confine / For the sea’s worth.”  (I.ii.26-28).   Venice was known as an opulent mercantile power, owing its wealth to its control on Mediterranean shipping; “the sea’s worth” thus stands for all of the ease and prosperity enjoyed by Venetian society. Othello’s not interested.

There is one other time, later on in the play, when Othello might be thought to suffer self-doubt on account of others’ perceptions of him as a racially-different foreigner.  It occurs right after Iago first plants the seed of suspicion concerning Desdemona’s fidelity.   Iago casually speculates that even if Desdemona had cared for Othello initially, her affections were sure to revert in due course to men of “her own  clime, complexion, and degree” (III.iii.241).  Othello then cuts the discussion short, and Iago leaves him to ponder what he’s been told.  “Haply for I am black,” Othello wonders aloud,

And have not those soft parts of conversation.
That chamberers have, or for I am declined
Into the vale of years — yet that’s not much —
She’s gone, I am abused, and my relief
Must be to loathe her.  (III.iii.304-9)

Notice how he swerves, mid-sentence, never completing the thought.  That might be because the thought is too painful for him to bear.  But it’s far likelier that the idea has no purchase on him;  it’s as if he can’t fully make sense of it, or its ramifications don’t interest him.  In concluding that Desdemona is gone, what he means is not that she’s left him – he knows very well that she hasn’t – but that she’s rotten, ruined.  Nothing he says for the rest of the play shows him pained  at having been spurned by his wife, or resentful at her having preferred a man with advantages that he lacks.     From this point forward – until the play’s very end, when he learns at last of Iago’s deception – he is consumed with the thought that Desdemona has been indiscriminate with her favors – and that she is therefore worthless – a “cunning whore” (IV.ii.91). 

If Othello is so sure of himself, why then does he so quickly credit Iago’s insinuations concerning his wife’s infidelity?  It may seem tempting to take this fact alone as the evidence that beneath his seeming self-confidence lies a  stratum of nagging self-doubt. That would be to underestimate Iago’s cunning, and the deviousness of his lies.   Iago’s malign stroke of genius is to finger Othello’s lieutenant Cassio as Desdemona’s supposed paramour.  This is not because Othello envies the poise of his polished lieutenant (although Iago certainly does).    Cassio had played the part of the intermediary in Othello’s and Desdemona’s courtship (III.iii.71, 100).  Iago professes surprise upon hearing of this, when the topic comes up, but he’s presumably known of it all along; it’s part of his scheme to remind Othello at this when planting his fabrications.  Othello and Desdemona may have had little chance to speak to each other directly when he was a guest at her father’s house; perhaps they were seldom or never alone together. For whatever reason, they had relied on the help of the ever-solicitous Cassio to serve as their go-between.  What this means is that Othello not only had been dependent on Cassio to relay his feelings to Desdemona, but had also depended on Cassio’s attestations of her love for him.   By suggesting that there had been something illicit between Desdemona and Cassio, Iago effectively undermines Othello’s confidence in the truth of all that had passed between himself and his bride before they were married.  In that same stroke, he loses his confidence in the storybook quality of their romance.  That he is a marvelous hero he never doubts; he merely suspects that he might have been duped into a marriage unworthy of his nobility.  “Why did I marry?” he finds himself wondering, helplessly disoriented (III.iii.245).

The presence of Cassio in the play points to a further reason for Othello’s susceptibility.  Cassio is Othello’s opposite: unpracticed in war, at ease with “the soft parts of conversation” – the consummate ladies’ man.  Othello has never aspired to any of that. He sees himself as a marvelous hero, but only a hero of daring adventures – at the head of army, or alone. He has apparently never before played the part of a lover, nor greatly cared to do so.  If he had ever pined for love, that was long in the past – by his own admission, the “young affects” of erotic ardor are in him “defunct” (I.ii.265-6)    Ever since boyhood, his “dearest action” has been in “the tented field /  And little of this great world can I speak / More than pertains to feats of broil and battle.” (1.iii.88). 

Othello has the great fortune of winning the love of a woman who reveres him for the very qualities that he most prizes in himself, and who requires of him no change in his habits or manners.  “My heart’s subdued / Even to the very quality of my lord,” Desdemona avers, “And to his  honours and his valiant parts / Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.” (I.3.251-4).  He had reason to trust that this marriage would do nothing to hinder or hamper his way of life. And yet, even on the very night on his wedding, he betrays a certain uneasiness with the marital state, over whether it might constitute a distraction from “the serious and great business of war”  (I.iii.268).  The sign of this is the vehemence with which he insists  – without even having been asked – that having Desdemona with him in Cyprus would not interfere with his duties:

No, when light-winged toys
Of feathered Cupid seel with wanton dullness
My speculative and officed instrument
That my disports corrupt and taint my business,
Let housewives make a skillet of my helm
And all indign and base adversities
Make head against my estimation.   (I.iii.269-75)

In these lines he pledges never to let his intelligence and professional judgment (his “speculative and officed instrument”) be dimmed or impaired by Cupid’s darts;  he swears to surrender his  helmet for use as a housewife’s skillet should this ever come to pass. For a man who claims to find perfect bliss in the company of his bride, it’s an astonishing pledge – all the more so in being entirely unsolicited.  Why need he fear Cupid’s darts, if he’s happily married? It’s as if he believes that thing he must protect his intelligence from is the very condition of being in love –  as if to be in the thrall of a lover’s vexations would fatally compromise his martial vocation.

These words prove prophetic. The mere taste of jealousy – an anxiety foreign to him – is enough to leave Othello feeling not only deprived of his mental tranquility, but also bereft of his soldierly occupation (III.iii.369).  He finds this intolerable, an affront to his dignity. He refuses to be jealous – and chooses to loathe his wife, so as to spare himself of having the occasion to be.  “Think’st thou I’d make a life of jealousy / To follow still the changes of the moon with fresh suspicions?” he asks Iago, rhetorically. “No: to be once in doubt / Is once to be resolved”  (III.iii.180-2).  He would sooner persuade himself of Desdemona’s worthlessness than to suffer the least anxiety over the quality of their love.  “All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven: ’Tis gone!” (III.iii.448-9).



[Original title: “Othello’s Doubts”]