“Once More Unto The Breach, Dear Friends”: Shakespeare’s Power To Create Equality


The Past Catches Me

While going through my possessions and trying to decide what to take to grad school, I came across a pile of old ticket stubs and playbills. These priceless pieces of paper contain my memories from a short period of four weeks in 2009 when I was lucky enough to be studying theater in London. When I was there, everything seemed like a blur to me; taking classes, completing assignments all over the city, and going to one show after another. I lived it one moment at a time. If I understood the magnitude of my experiences then like I do now, I would have been overwhelmed.

Discoveries After Reflections

The playbills represent only one snapshot from my life, but what I realize now is that those four weeks – the productions that I saw – will always represent my piece of the London theater community. It is a piece of documented history that will always be my own. And yet it also belongs to so many other people – the other audience members, the actors, the theater spaces, the lines of dialogue, the costume designers, the set builders, and the city of London itself. I am part of their history and they are part of mine.

One of the things that I have truly come to love about theater and more specifically, Shakespeare, is that they are a powerful force for creating equality within a community. As I and many others have probably said before, Shakespeare’s plays endure because they are filled with universal human experiences. He tells stories that are beautiful in a sense that they are about what most everyone understands to be love, hurt, friendship, family, loss, vulnerability, and the joys to be had in simply living. Under the right conditions, an African woman who is a mother, and a white, male American CEO could go to see Romeo and Juliet.  They come from two very different places. However, the woman is moved because she’s a mother and the man is moved because Juliet might remind him of his wife.  For the span of 2-3 hours, the distances or breaches between both their life experiences don’t matter anymore because they are just two human beings enjoying Shakespeare. They might not have interpreted the story in the same way, but now they are equals in one respect: they have shared the experience of being moved by the same play.  Shakespeare emphasizes the fact that as humans we all have things in common and it is those universal emotions that can create equality.  Relational gaps or breaches made between us by differences in privilege, race, gender, and sexuality might be filled when suddenly we are moved at the same time by the same story.

I have found that one of Shakespeare’s plays in particular represents the idea that shared experiences can bind people together despite their differences.  The play is Henry V.  Henry has the challenge of uniting the men of England to a single cause which is winning back English lands from the French.  He must bring his men together and yet he also faces the questions: How can England be one united country when I am a privileged king standing above everyone else?  How can I be a leader amongst my men instead of a leader over them?  Henry V solves the problem as Shakespeare’s plays have done, by showing his followers that they have things in common.  First of all, that they are all human.  Second of all, that their shared experience of feeling passionate for their cause has made them all equal to the king.  Before battle Henry states, “For he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother (Shakespeare, Henry V 4.3.61-2).”  Despite the differences and breaches between us we are the same in the sense that we are all human and we all bleed.  Shakespeare creates complete equality amongst every man through the the fact that the history of England rests in all their hands.

I think the King is but a man, as I am. The violet smells to him as it doth to me; the element shows to him as it doth to me; all his senses have but human conditions. His ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man […] Therefore when he sees reason of fears, as we do, his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as ours are (Shakespeare, Henry V, 4.1.102-10).

A Perfect Theater Community

Perhaps the best example of how an (ideally) accessible theater community can create equality among people would be my own experiences in London. (Plus, there is a tiny bit of me that wants to brag.)  This is what I did.  I went to performances in the theater district.  I saw Judi Dench in Madame De Sade at the Donmar Warehouse – the same place where Jude Law would perform in Hamlet a day after I left, where Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ewan McGregor, and Tom Hiddleston performed Othello the year before, and where five years into the future Mark Gatiss and Tom Hiddleston would perform in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.  I saw Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in a play called Waiting for Godot and James McAvoy in Three Days of Rain.  I went to the madly popular productions of Wicked and Les Miserables.  I saw Romeo and Juliet performed at Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. I also went to tiny community theaters on the outskirts of London where actors (possibly driven by nothing but their own passions) performed in upper levels of cafes and spaces small enough to seat less than 100 people.  The cafe had bragging rights to the fact that some of the above mentioned celebrities had eaten their food and attended their performances.  I went to shows at the National Theater on the Thames where War Horse (to become a blockbuster film 3 years later that would feature Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston) was performed.  I spent multiple evenings listening to free musical concerts in the lobby of the same theater.

In addition, there are some things that I found out (I admit to being somewhat of a stalker) that relate to my experiences.  I have talked about the documentary Muse of Fire in previous posts.  It is a film  about the universal nature of Shakespeare.  I have come to conclude that the documentary was being made at or around the same time that I spent in London.  The movie features interviews with Jude Law about his experiences in Hamlet – the production that I would miss seeing by a day or two.  In an interview, Alan Rickman talks about how wonderful the same production of Romeo and Juliet that I had seen was for him.  In other interviews not related to Muse of Fire, Tom Hiddleston has talked about seeing War Horse at the National Theater, possibly within the same time and within the same space where I experienced London theater and those fantastic free concerts in the lobby.

The point of telling you all this is to show that the London theater community is varied, concentrated within a geographic area, and incredibly accessible to everyone involved within it.  I am not a wealthy person.  I’m from small-town Indiana – farm country – and yet I was able to go to the same theaters, to the same shows to which Alan Rickman and Tom Hiddleston were going to.  Indeed, the fact that the musical performances were free (though not of the same quality of Les Miserables) meant that anyone off the street could come in and enjoy entertainment in the same space in which the rich and famous have.  At the same time, celebrity actors I was seeing on stage were going to small theater performances that would be the common fare in my tiny hometown.  It seems like a long shot even still, but in terms of the theater community, could I not say that during my four weeks in London, I was an equal to Alan Rickman, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Tom Hiddleston, Pattrick Stewart, and James McAvoy?  We have the shared human experiences of enjoying Romeo & Juliet, of sharing the same stories within the same spaces.  Are we not all humans feeling the same emotions together?  Has theater and Shakespeare been a force that has closed the breaches in gender, nationality, and social classes between us?

And its not just about me now because there were also tons of school children watching Romeo & Juliet at The Globe.  There were old people and young people.  People from different countries who knew different languages.  Now they are also all equals under the understanding that they have all experienced universal human emotions through the same Shakespearean play.

I wonder now if a community like this one exists anywhere else in the world.  Could it exist in the United States?  London seems to be a unique situation and still not completely an ideal one.  In order for a theater community to work perfectly in order to create equality, it would have to be even more accessible to everyone both financially and intellectually.  And it would have to be highly promoted to everyone.  The random person on the street would have to want to see Shakespeare just as much Kenneth Branagh would want to.

In Today’s World

In June 2015, nine African Americans died after being shot by a white male during a Bible study inside of their own church in Charleston, South Carolina.  This tragedy has led the U.S. to a current struggle over the question of whether or not the Confederate Flag should be removed from certain government facilities.  To many people the flag is a representation of racial segregation and slavery.  To many others it is a symbol of historical and cultural identity that should be valued in honor of the men who died during the Civil War.

In Shakespeare’s play Henry V, King Henry V’s goal was to bring his countrymen together as one united force.  The king had to make himself an equal to any man who stood beneath him in order to gain victory for his entire country.  His is a mission of true patriotism.  The king declared that every single one of his men where equals in all ways because they had the universal experience of fighting for their country.

The Hollow Crown: Henry V film, 2012.  Henry V by William Shakespeare (4.3.61-2)

The Hollow Crown: Henry V film, 2012. Henry V by William Shakespeare (4.3.61-2)

During the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln’s goal was to bring his countrymen together as a single united nation.

Henry V achieved this goal through valuing universal human experiences.

Today we are still divided by different perspectives of which no one wants to let go.  It is difficult to make progress in resolving a conflict when everyone is pushed apart by their differences and refuses to see commonalities between themselves and others.

Different races, cultures, religions, and perspectives all exist together in the United States.  That is one thing that makes living here so wonderful.  I can write what I want to on a blog and people have the right to disagree with what I say.  Everyone has equal right to be different.  But sometimes it is also beneficial to remember that we are all the same in other ways – we all live in the same country, have families and friends here, know what it is to love and hate each other.  It is these human similarities which the freedom and equality in our country sought to honor.  Our shared experiences should not be forgotten because they are what have allowed us beautiful differences.

I would hope that in the end, we can say that we are all humans.  No matter what we look like, what we believe in, and where we come from, we still all feel the same emotions and have the same organs.  Because if it is true, think about how important it would be to our world.  What could we gain from Shakespeare and theater in a world where countrymen kill each other over skin color and argue about the symbolism of a flag?

Ay Me! Romeo and Juliet in Education (Part 2 of 2)

Educational Experiences and Analysis


Muse of Fire. Film, 2013.

I recently watched a documentary called Muse of Fire about two actors, Dan Poole and Giles Terera, who travel around the world attempting to define and debunk the myth that Shakespeare is terrifying and incomprehensible. The actors speak with all kinds of people about their first Shakespearean experiences and how that has influenced their opinion of the playwright. Many of these experiences documented in the film involved education and the difficulty of teaching Shakespeare to young people.

My own first experience with Shakespeare involved studying Romeo and Juliet in my first year of high school. We read the play out loud and each student was assigned a part. Before we began the teacher had us write down three of the characters that we wanted to be. I didn’t want to be Juliet. There was too much pressure in being Juliet. So I wrote down three of the minor male roles – Benvolio, Mercutio, and Tybalt. However, when the teacher announced our parts in front of the class, I had been given the role of Friar Laurence. I remember being horribly disappointed. It doesn’t seem like a big deal to me now as an adult, but it had happened in high school. I felt like a bit of an outcast.  I knew I was given the part because none of the other kids had wanted it. There were about six Romeo’s in our class. Couldn’t the teacher have made one of those six guys the Friar and made me a second Benvolio? Was it because I was the shy, overweight girl that I had to play the part of the fat, old man? Did the teacher think I wouldn’t complain about it, that she could get away with it because I was the quiet kid? Was it because I was a girl that I couldn’t play the part of one of the young males? This was high school so everyone judged everyone else based on what part they had. “Oh, Johnny is Romeo! Oh, Romeo! Johnny is so hott…” And I was the girl playing the fat, old man that no one else wanted. But everyone would think that I wrote down Friar Laurence on my paper like I wanted to be him.

As you can guess, this experience didn’t ruin Shakespeare for me, but it did ruin Romeo and Juliet. During my following high school years I was able to study Twelfth Night, As You Like It, and MacBeth. I enjoyed all of them, but Romeo and Juliet remained a boring cliché. The story had been done so many times that I didn’t have any interest in it. I couldn’t feel for any of the characters because I knew what was going to happen. The end was always the same and overused to the point of being satirical. I was incapable of feeling pity or grief for the lovers. The only emotional attachment I had to the characters was based on the fact that I felt humiliated for being forced to play Friar Laurence (No offense to the Friar. He is arguable more important to the story than Benvolio, Mercutio, or Tybalt put together.). It wasn’t until much later that I had the fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Romeo and Juliet as a groundling at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. Even then, I didn’t care about the play. I was going because it was at The Globe.  I will never forget that experience. When everyone thought Juliet was dead, they placed her body on a litter. Her family carried her through the audience to her tomb so that we all became a part of the funeral procession. I knew that she wasn’t dead, that she would wake up in few minutes. I cried anyway. Nothing of what I knew of the story before I came to that performance mattered anymore. It was like I had never read it, had never seen any of the movies, or heard any Romeo jokes. That was how powerful and captivating that experience was. On the other hand, if I had never had that, like almost all American high school students don’t, I would still be going through my life believing that Romeo and Juliet was an overused and boring.

Based on my own personal experiences, I believe that there were two main problems with learning Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet in the environment of a high school classroom: censorship and time constraints.

Today there is a lot of fear in education that teachers will say or do something that will upset a child’s parent. For example, the debate over whether or not it’s appropriate to teach evolution and creationism in schools has been huge within the last decade. It seems that there has also been an increased fear of sexual accusations made against teachers which can result in that teacher termination and/or arrest. Some of these cases are indeed serious problems, but a teacher’s fear of anything remotely related to sex or other taboo subjects can also create limitations for what a student learns in a classroom. Reading Romeo and Juliet as an adult, I realize that much of the meaning and content of the play was passed over. Bawdiness and sexual euphemisms are a huge part of Shakespeare and yet I had no idea of the true meaning of drawing a sword until I was well into college. In Romeo and Juliet there are whole scenes that are made up of jokes based sexual double-meanings. So that now as an adult, I feel like I only learned half of the content of the play in high school. None of the bawdiness was even mentioned. It makes me wonder about what my teachers expected us to get out of the play. Were they thinking, “Well, we can’t say anything about this scene or that scene, so the kids will just have struggle through that part on their own. I’m forbidden from teaching them the truth so we won’t teach it at all.” As a student, I feel lied to. I feel disrespected and insulted as an intelligent person. Did they think I was too stupid to handle the fact that Shakespeare wrote about sex? They could have at least told me that much without going into too many details. But I don’t think anyone said a word about it. What about the kid who was reading the part of Mercutio or the Nurse in front of other people? What if it were a real performance? Could we let that student read that part, perform that part, while keeping from them the truth of what they were saying in front of an audience? Would that be a good education?

I’m not just upset about missing out on a dirty joke. It’s so much more than that because Shakespeare’s bawdiness is also connected to a greater understanding of his work in general and also to the historical significance of the plays. Mercutio’s character is highly based on his sexual witticisms. Without that, his character is dull. We can’t understand him. Would we be able to understand the Nurse’s complex relationship with Juliet if we cannot understand the depth of the Nurse’s character? These holes create gray areas for a student, making Romeo and Juliet seem boring, unfeeling, and cliché when it is anything but that. We also miss some important historical background if we refuse to teach the bawdiness of Shakespeare. Shakespeare had a diverse audience. His plays were performed for the queen who probably would not be too pleased with talk of sex put right out in front of her. He had to hide his sexual content through wordplay and euphemisms. However, there were also everyday people listening who didn’t even know how to read and who (like most high school students) couldn’t give a half penny for iambic pentameter or all that “Phoebus’ lodging” type talk. They did understand how funny it was for the characters to talk about pricking each other. Without knowing this background, we lose part of the richness of what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare. And we lose something that could create a meaningful and powerful connection with lots of young students. Perhaps giving a proper explanation of the context and background for these bawdy jokes is also the key to teaching them in an appropriate manner in the classroom which is at the same time respectful to a student’s own intelligence and education.

In my opinion, the second problem with learning Shakespeare in a high school environment is that there is simply not enough time to teach it. I would estimate we covered the entirety of Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet in not much more than a few weeks. We had three classes a week – one thirty minutes and two ninety minutes. We learned a bit of history about Shakespeare himself, a bit of background on Romeo and Juliet, assigned roles, read the whole play in class, watched a movie (minus the scenes with Romeo and Juliet in a bed), and took a test. Most of the focus was on the most basic aspects of the content with very little information given on the language itself. It seems to me that teachers can’t teach everything. Therefore they have to choose and decide which parts of the vast information concerning Shakespeare, the story, and the characters are most important. Some things inevitably have to be left out. I would guess that a large part of what was taught was based on what the students would have to be able to answer on the test. I can imagine that this would put a lot of pressure on teachers. They have a classroom filled with thirty-some students all at different levels in a general English class. And somehow they have to make them all understand what is going on in a complicated story with unknown words and strange rhymes. With this in mind, I can understand why the bawdy double-meanings in the play had been skipped over. Though I would like to think that it was because of a lack of time rather than because of censorship.

As a lover of Shakespeare, I would be so much happier if all our young people were given the chance to see a live performance of a play or better yet create one of their own. I would like it if each student were given a chance to ask their teacher any questions that they may have about the part they have been asked to read, and their questions were answered honestly and completely. My own passion for Shakespeare has developed over the years, but is due little to my high school education. What if young people had the same understanding and passion for Shakespeare that I have gained over a period of ten years? What if that passion is instilled in them when they are sixteen years old, when they have greater opportunities to choose a future path? With that in mind, I think that the final question to ask is: How important can Shakespeare be in the wider scheme of things? Is it okay if we go through our lives never understanding his ideas? Does that outweigh the potential that Shakespeare has for influencing our own lives, binding us together through shared experiences, moving our hearts, and healing our hurts?

Muse of Fire Documentary

I would recommend the film, Muse of Fire to anyone who likes Shakespeare, is interested in teaching, or has even the tiniest amount of interest in either subject. The film features individuals from all different social classes, genders, nationalities, and religions. It was created in a way that if you are a person, you will be able to find some connection to it. The film was written, directed and produced by actors Dan Poole and Giles Terera. It also features interviews with Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Baz Luhrmann, Ralph Fiennes, James Earl Jones, Tom Hiddleston, Ewan McGregor, Jude Law, Ben Kingsley, John Hurt, Mark Rylance, Rita Dove, Harold Bloom, John Leguizamo, Brian Cox and more.

Below is a video of Dan Poole and Gile Terera speaking about a sickness they call of “Shakespism” which prevents us from understanding Shakespeare. They are at a TEDx event (localized version of TED Talks) in Madrid.

Ay Me! Romeo and Juliet In Education (Part 1 of 2)

Romeo and Juliet 1968

Romeo and Juliet. Film, 1968

I’m back at reading Shakespeare after about a 2-3 year break. I got stuck on Henry VIII, so I decided to skip that one for now and go on to Romeo And Juliet – a good place to start up again because it was my first experience with Shakespeare during my first year in high school. Romeo and Juliet is probably the best known of the plays, so I will look at it a bit differently by examining it through the characters rather than the plot. Then, in part two of this post, I will reflect on my experiences learning the play in school and think about the challenges of teaching Shakespeare to young people.


According to my text edited by David Bevington, Romeo And Juliet was written in the mid 1590’s, within the first decade of Shakespeare’s career. There are a number of sources for the origin of the story including the Latin comedy of Plautus which featured similar characters such as the commanding parents, multiple suitors (Paris and Romeo), and the nurse. Other aspects of the play such as the sleeping potion were common in Greek romance of the 1400’s (Bevington, 1005). Bevington explains that Italians Luigi da Porto and Matteo Bandello wrote novellas presenting the lovers’ characters in the early 1500’s. Bandello’s novella was translated into French. The French version became the source for an English poem by Arthur Brooke in 1562. This English poem was most likely Shakespeare’s main inspiration (Bevington, 1006).

Romeo and Juliet are special characters compared to what is usual in classic tragic theater. The play itself is seen as more of a comedy up to the point of Tybalt’s death. Unlike other tragic characters, Romeo and Juliet are extremely young, Juliet not yet 14 when the story begins, and they belong to the wealthy merchant class rather than to nobility (Bevington, 1005).

Along with Shakespeare’s other plays written around the same time – Midsummer Night’s Dream, Merchant of Venice, and Richard IIRomeo and Juliet contains various rhyme schemes. Bevington states that some of the speeches are even written in the form of a Shakespearean sonnet (1005). The Prologue of the story is a good example.

Two households, both alike in dignity,

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

From forth the fatal loins of these two foes

A pair of star-crossed lovers take their life;

Whose misadventure piteous overthrows

Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.

The fearful passage of their death-marked love,

And the continuance of their parents’ rage,

Which, but their children’s end, naught could remove,

Is now the two hours’ traffic of our stage;

The which if you with patient ears attend,

What here shall miss, our toil shall strive to mend (1.0.1-14).

Most often readers and viewers of the play focus on the fact that it is a story of a great love ripped apart because of a meaningless argument between the lovers’ families. However, the play is also about the temporary nature of youth and youth’s passions – the brevity of young love within the endless stretch of time. According to Bevington, the real tragedy of the play then comes when old age and time fails to understand or realize the great passions of the youth it once had (1005). These passions include not only Romeo and Juliet’s fierce love, but also the violent hatred that arises between Tybalt, Romeo, and Mercutio (Bevington, 1007). In this story, love and hate go hand in hand with one another and are both strong emotions which are acted on in haste. Time and age are both important within the play. The great youth of the main characters is put in sharp contrast to the family feud that has continued through countless generations. The lovers themselves measure their relationship through the passage of time. How long will it be until they can see each other again? One minute to them can seem like twenty years when they are apart. Shakespeare uses the passing of celestial bodies as the main way of counting time. The sun comes up and Romeo must leave. How long again until the moon arrives and Romeo returns? The movement of the planets is something eternal while their passing marks merely a day for us. The feud has raged on for ages like the continuance of a planet’s orbit, while Romeo and Juliet are only the tiniest bit of it. And so is their love affair which begins and ends within the span of days because of an age-old conflict which, in the form of the old, adult characters, refuses to acknowledge their love.


Romeo + Juliet. Film, 1996.


Verona – The setting itself can be seen as an innocent character in the midst of the family feud. The citizens of Verona are on neither side of the conflict between the Montagues and Capulets, but yet it’s residents must suffer the unrest and discontent of the long-standing grudge they aren’t involved in. They are the affected by-standers of the tragedy. There are three scenes set in public of Verona at beginning, middle, and end of the play.  Each of the three scenes is one of violence and how the citizens of Verona react to that violence (Bevington,1007).  The first scene introduces the families’ conflict.  The second one results in the death of Mercutio and Tybalt.  At the end of the play Romeo and Juliet’s deaths reveal their love affair and end the conflict.  At the end of the show, it turns out that the entire community has suffered from the conflict including the Prince, an unbiased and innocent party, whose kinsmen was the murdered Paris.

Capulet – Juliet’s Father. He adds to the ridiculousness of the family grudge. He still feels urged to fight Montague even though he is too old to do so. He calls for a long sword and his wife somewhat mockingly cries, “A crutch, a crutch! Why call you for a sword? (1.1.76)” Capulet represents the feud itself which has grown old and outlived its reasons for existence, but yet continues. He seems somewhat more sensible and open to peace than Montague in regards to the conflict.  He is a main player in forcing Juliet’s hand in marrying Paris.  HIs haste to marry Juliet to Paris reflects the lovers’ own haste for becoming man and wife; however, Capulet’s rushing Juliet to the altar is what causes her to feel trapped.  This haste and lack of choice (Marry Paris or we will kick you out on the street.) that her father gives her, leads Juliet to seek the Friar’s help in gaining her sleeping potion.  There is also the question of whether or not Capulet and his wife can be blamed for not understanding Juliet’s situation since she refuses to explain it to them.  Though is it her parent’s fault for not making her feel comfortable enough to explain her love for Romeo to them?

Capulet’s Wife – Juliet’s mother. She urges Juliet to marry Paris. She is also a great offender in keeping alive the enmity of the two houses. All she cares about is her own family and not necessarily the truth of a situation. When Tybalt is killed, she accuses Benvolio of lying about what happened in her nephew’s fight with Mercutio. Instead she makes her own story – that there seemed to have been twenty men fighting (perhaps against Tybalt?) and here he is dead. She makes up a story that suits her purposes (3.1.175-80).  She misunderstands the reason for Juliet’s grief after Tybalt’s death.  She believes Juliet is silly for crying so much, saying: “Some grief shows much of love, but much of grief shows still some want of wit (3.5.72-3).”  This misunderstanding and lack of sympathy eventually contributes to the lovers’ deaths.

Prince Escalus – Prince of Verona and relation to Paris. An outside moderator of the feud. An unbiased judge who doles out punishment to both families. However, these punishments are ineffective measures that do not solve the problems at the heart of the feud.

Benvolio – A Montague and Romeo’s friend. Though he is close to Romeo, Benvolio is a fair judge of events. He recounts the facts of the public fights between the houses without making accusations one way or the other.  He attempts to cheer up Romeo by getting him to think of women other than Rosaline. Mercutio accuses Benvolio of being a hypocrite. How can you be a part of this feud “and yet thou wilt tutor me [Mercutio] from quarreling! (3.1.29)”

Romeo – In act one, Romeo is the middle of a whiney lament for a woman named Rosaline. Rosaline is a chaste woman who refuses to “put out” for Romeo despite his advances. She won’t love him. This echoes Shakespeare’s carpe diem (seize the day) sonnets – which make admonishments for refusing to love while one is young and beautiful because youth won’t last forever. Romeo states that Rosaline’s “sparing makes huge waste / For beauty starved with her severity / Cuts beauty off from all posterity (1.1.218-20).” Her beauty is a waste because she will let it fade instead of passing it on through having a child – preferable with Romeo. We can also deduce that Romeo has possibly had more love interests by Juliet’s comment, “You kiss by th’ book (1.5.111).” Or, “Romeo, boy, you know what you’re doing.”

Romeo also starts to realize that he doesn’t know real love, or rather the truth of love. He once thought that love was wonderful and beautiful, but now because of Rosaline’s refusal he sees that the reality of love can also be painful and tormenting. Romeo throws out a list of opposites to prove this point and show how love and hate are linked. “Why, then, O brawling love, O loving hate, O anything of nothing first create, O heavy lightness, serious vanity, misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms, feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health, still waking sleep, that is not what it is! This love feel I, that feel no love in this (1.1.176-182).” He does not know the meaning of true love because no one has ever given him true love. Therefore, he is inconstant in his love. He cherishes Rosaline one minute and Juliet the next. For all that he talks of love, he has no idea what undying and faithful love means. Knowing how to kiss by the book does not necessarily mean that the act is sincere, he’s just following the manual without the true emotions that should come with the procedure.

The famous balcony scene in act two becomes Romeo’s enlightenment in the nature of true and constant love. Juliet is his teacher.  Though she has much less experience in relationships than Romeo, her innocence gives her a purer understanding of the emotion as it exists separate from all the nonsense of wooing upon which Romeo relies. Juliet chastises Romeo for his inconstancy, telling him not to swear because promises may turn out to be false.  She states, “Oh, swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon, that monthly changes in her circled orb, lest that thy love prove likewise variable (2.2.109-11).” Romeo then becomes a representation of the moon and of the night. He is changeable and due to the fact that the lover’s relationship must be kept secret, he may only appear to Juliet in the night as the moon does. Juliet is then his “fair sun,” his guiding force, the illuminator of true love (2.2.4). His ultimate test comes when Juliet says, “If that thy bent of love be honorable, thy purpose marriage, send me word tomorrow (2.2.143-4).” He passes his test as they are married at the end of the act.

After he kills Tybalt, it is again haste that nearly brings about Romeo’s death.  Because he is young, he is unable to see past his immediate situation.  He is unable to see his long future before him.  This brings him to focus only on his current banishment and desire for death.  Only Friar Laurence is able to talk him out of killing himself in act three.  Haste then indirectly causes his death as he rushes off to Juliet’s tomb with the poison.  If he had waited a bit longer, perhaps he would have gotten the Friar’s letter.  It is interesting to note that both Romeo and Juliet had been threatening to kill themselves since act three of the play.  Sometimes it seems as if they had always planned on dying.  Or Shakespeare could have used this ironic talk of suicide in his plot as foreshadowing the lovers’ later deaths.


West Side Story. Film, 1961.

Juliet – Related to the sun. She shares a bit of Romeo’s inconstancy, but is not nearly as changing as him. She at first seems indifferent to the idea of marriage put to her by her mother, but then immediately jumps towards marriage in her relationship with Romeo. I would account this inconstancy to her youth rather than something similar to Romeo’s ignorance of true love. Juliet is seen as mainly an object by the people around her – mainly her parents, saying that in marriage she will be as Paris’ fancy book cover where Paris is the pages inside (1.1.80-9). She is seen as being hid away and trapped within her room. She very rarely seems to go out of her conveniently balconied chamber. One of the times she does get to go out is her father’s party. She has just been told by her parents that she will most likely have to marry Paris, a man she knows nothing of and that she obviously does not choose for herself. In the freedom that her father’s party provides (everyone is masked and there is no difference between Capulets and Montagues), Romeo gives her attentions. And man is it fun! Juliet is freed for one night on the town and she’s going to make a bang out of it. No one has probably ever flirted with her before let alone wanted to kiss her! Why shouldn’t she enjoy herself? Taking Romeo’s love is something she can choose to do! Her heart is the one thing Mom and Dad can’t control. She makes the one free choice that she is allotted in her life and gives Romeo her heart and soul.

She later goes through a series of tortures. First she believes that Romeo is dead. Then that Romeo and Tybalt are both dead. Then that Romeo has killed Tybalt and Romeo is banished. Juliet is overcome by confusion. She keeps her faith in Romeo, believing that he is a good man. But then she can’t understand why Romeo would kill Tybalt. She must conclude that Tybalt tried to kill Romeo first. This is a comfort to her and she decides that she is upset because Romeo is banished.  While she is still grieving over the loss of Romeo, her parents trap her into a marriage with Paris.  This forces Juliet to be inconstant in her love and makes her feel as if she is being unfaithful toward Romeo who is her true husband.  Juliet has only one more person in her home that may help her – the Nurse.  The Nurse however, supports her parents wishes that she must marry Paris.  This leaves Juliet no other options but to take things into her own hands.  For her it is the lack of support and understanding from her family that leads her toward her death.

Mercutio – His name is related to the word “mercury.” Mercury is the planet closest to the sun which holds with Shakespeare’s use of celestial bodies in the play. The planet was named after the Greek/Roman god Hermes/Mercury. The god is related to delivering messages, communicating, traveling, and mercantilism. Mercutio is known for his wits and wordplay in communications, battling Romeo in a game of dirty jokes based on puns and euphemisms. There is hardly anything chaste nor dull that comes out of his mouth. Mercury is also an element which was once used as a treatment for syphilis, one of the STD’s most mentioned in Shakespeare as the French disease. This could also be related back to Mercutio’s dirty language. Mercutio seems to be the one youthful character who understands Romeo’s inconsistency in love for what it is. He calls Romeo out on his lament over Rosaline. Benvolio takes Romeo’s whining seriously and at face-value. When Romeo speaks romantically of dreams, Mercutio; however, tells Romeo how it is – that dreams are nothing but nonsense – that dreams are “more inconstant than the wind (1.4.100).” Mercutio’s name can come from “mercurial” or a person who is subject to unpredictable mood swings and inconstancy. Therefore Mercutio, unlike any of the other youthful characters is able see Romeo’s inconsistency in love and gives Romeo the most honest evaluation. He might even be classified as one of Shakespeare’s “wise fool” characters, seeming to have knowledge beyond his years, but he shows it through being a wit and joker. Only Juliet (the sun) is more enlightened about the true state of Romeo’s heart. Mercury is the closest planet to the sun.


Romeo and Juliet. Film, 2013.

Tybalt – Where Romeo represents the youthful passion of love, Tybalt represents the youthful passion of violence and rage. He is the nephew of Capulet and Juliet’s cousin. His anger is somewhat exaggerated, nearing satirical as he will draw a weapon upon the smallest of provocation. He hears Romeo’s voice at the masked ball and is sent into a rage without even putting a face to his enemy. Capulet objects to his behavior, calling Tybalt a “goodman boy (1.5.78).” Being called a boy is belittling, but “goodman” is also an address used for any man beneath the rank of gentleman. Capulet allows Romeo and his friends to stay at the party. This insult given to Tybalt on Romeo’s behalf increases Tybalt’s rage and gives it a specific target – Romeo.

Montague – Romeo’s father. At Tybalt’s death he claims that Romeo should not be punished further because Romeo was doing the law’s job of doling out punishment for Tybalt murdering Mercutio. The Prince needs to do nothing more because at that point both sides are even. The problem here is that there is still no assurance that the killing will stop. The Prince explains this in the line, “Mercy but murders, pardoning those that kill (3.1.196).” Leniency in this case will only lead to more killing later.  Montague suffers further with the death of Romeo and his wife at the end of the play.

Nurse – More of Juliet’s mother than her birth mother.  The Nurse’s own child died and so she was given the infant Juliet to nurse. It is unclear whether or not the nurse is sympathetic to Juliet’s relationship to Romeo or if she is as unable to understand the passionate love between the couple. In act two, scene five, she teases Juliet by withholding from her Romeo’s response to her marriage proposal. She could be ignorant as to how her behavior torments Juliet. Or she could be teasing Juliet on purpose. Nurse mentions in the previous scene that she upsets Juliet by telling her how good a man Paris is. Could she not be teasing Juliet the same way over Romeo?  The Nurse advises Juliet to marry Paris because the Nurse reasons that Romeo is not coming back.  Therefore how can Romeo be Juliet’s husband?  This leads Juliet to getting the Friar’s help in escaping her marriage to Paris.  It eventually leads to Juliet’s death.

Friar Laurence – A wise figure who acts in favor of the lovers.  He often advises Romeo to slow down and not be so hasty.  He wants Romeo to be thankful for what he has rather than lamenting his losses.  This advice however, is unsympathetic to Romeo’s passion. Though the Friar is a third-party helper and uninvolved in the larger family conflict, he still does not understand the couple’s young, passionate love. He chides Romeo for his changeability even though Romeo has decided to make a commitment of marriage. Laurence agrees to marry them not because he believes in their love, but because he hopes that their bond will help to end the conflict between the two houses.  In the same way, he provides Juliet with the sleeping potion not because he necessarily wants Romeo and Juliet to be together, but because he wants to prevent Juliet from killing herself in a hasty suicide.  The Friar’s plan to save the lovers would have worked if not for the accident that Friar John, who was carrying Laurence’s letter to Romeo, was detained from delivering the message because of an outbreak of plague.  Romeo, not receiving the knowledge that Juliet is just sleeping, runs off to her tomb with a cup of poison.  This accident follows Shakespeare’s comparison of short periods of time versus long periods of time.  An accident can happen in a mere second, while the effects of that accident can be deadly and permanent.

Paris – Romeo’s rival for Juliet’s hand and relation to Prince Escalus.  Juliet is his Rosaline.  Though Juliet rejects his love he is not a bad man.  He is concerned for her well-being after Tybalt’s death.  Up until the point of their marriage arrangement, Paris is very patient in his wooing and allows Juliet her own space.  He only agrees to the hasty marriage because Capulet claims that it will make Juliet happy once again.  We can also see Paris’ love for Juliet when he dies to defend her tomb from Romeo.


Shakespeare, William.  “Romeo and Juliet.”  The Complete Works of Shakespeare.  Ed. David Bevington.  6th ed.  New York: Pearson/Longman, 2009.  Print.

Theology and Characters in Shakespeare’s Richard III


It’s been a while since I posted about a history play so it might be a little confusing as far as how the characters in Richard III are related to the characters in the Henry VI plays.  In the Henry VI plays, King Henry goes up against the usurper Richard Duke of York.  Richard Duke of York is Richard III’s father.  Richard III’s mother is the Duchess of York.  Richard III has two brothers that you should be concerned about.  One of those brothers is King Edward IV who takes the throne at the end of 3 Henry VI.  Richard III’s other brother is George, Duke of Clarence.

The next most confusing thing about the characters in Richard III is that the children of the characters mentioned above have the same names.  King Edward is married to Queen Elizabeth.  They have two sons named Richard and Edward.  They also have a daughter named Elizabeth.  These children are often refered to as the young princes and princess.

At one point Richard III desires to marry a young woman called Lady Anne.  Anne was married to Henry VI’s son who was also called Edward.  Richard III then murdered her husband and her father-in-law King Henry VI.

Henry VI’s wife, Queen Margaret is also in the play Richard III.  She is no longer queen and should not be confused with Queen Elizabeth.

George, Duke of Clarence has two children who are called “Boy” and “Girl” in the play, but their real names are Edward and Margaret.

The characters Marquess of Dorset and Lord Grey are Queen Elizabeth’s sons from a previous marriage before she became queen.

Henry, Earl of Richmond who opposes Richard III will later become King Henry VII.

Don’t let these confusions keep you from reading the play.  Once you start to get to know the characters, it is much easier to keep track of who they are.  If you do get confused, the list of characters (usually found at the beginning of the play) can be extremely helpful.  The best way to figure out who the characters are is to just jump in and start reading.

Another interesting tidbit of news is that in Sept. 2012, archeologist believe that they found the body of Richard III buried under a parking lot in Leicester.  They believe it was Richard’s body because the skeleton had a curved spine and showed signs of battle wounds.  However, they still haven’t confirmed whether or not it was the remains of Richard that they found.

Richard III’s Character

David Bevington, the editor of the text that I’m using, offers several interpretations of Richard III’s character that are either religious and “psychological.”  Bevington makes it clear that Richard III contains a representation of the fight of good against evil with Richard as the “villain-hero” and Richmond as “righteous agent of devine and poetic justice.”  He states that Richard’s role as a treacherous and ever-changing character is based on the character of Vice in earlier morality plays.

The two interpretations stand mainly on how the reader views Richard’s relationship with his deformity.  From a psychological point-of-view, a reader might say that Richard’s deformity is the cause for his evil behavior and the need to control others.  Because his ugliness has caused others to disregard and ostracize him, he has a great need to prove himself through trickery and manipulation.  The religious interpretation is that Richard was born with his deformities because he was evil.  His evilness was an innate quality in him even before his birth.  This evilness is then manifested in his twisted form.  If one wants to take on this interpretation, than you can also view all the behaviors and fates of the characters to be that of devine will.  As much as Richard believes himself to have power over other characters, he is still subject to even greater powers controlling the universe.

My own interpretation of Richard’s character falls somewhere in between these two possibilities offered by Bevington.  The following comes basically from a paper that I wrote for my Shakespeare class during my undergraduate studies.

According to the Folger Shakespeare Library, William Shakespeare probably wrote the play Richard III sometime between 1592 and 94 (Folger).  Not long before this in the late 1580’s, England experienced conflict with Spain and in 1588 defeated the Spanish armada.  The cause of this war was not a simple matter, but it is certain that the conflict was in part caused because of religious unrest between Catholics of Spain and Protestants of England (British History).  In some ways Richard III reflects the religious conflict of this historic event.  Just as in the war against Spain, the play features a battle in its final acts in which everything works out for the best for England.  This battle in the play can then also be connected to religious matters.  Soon we learn that Richard has murdered at least two men before the play begins and he proceeds in causing the deaths of nine others before the play is over.  His character is the heart of evil in the play and can be described in theological terms as demonic.  Richmond, on the other hand, could represent the forces of good within the play.  At the final moments of the story he appears as a savior, killing Richard and ending the battle.  He also declares to have God on his side and receives blessings from the ghosts as if they were angels (V.iii.227-33, 240-2).  It is possible then that Richard III could be a representation of the Spanish Catholics whose religion threatened Protestant England.  The image Shakespeare has created of Richard being possessed by a kind of demon adds an interesting dimension to Richard’s character.  Shakespeare portrays Richard as being demonic and therefore Richard is a human character with inhumane character traits.

Richard appears to be demonic because he takes pleasure in his disfigurement and because of the way the other characters curse him.  Shakespeare gives readers the impression that Richard’s form must be in some ways terrifying.   Richard describes himself as “deformed, unfinished, sent before my time”(I.i.20).  The very last part of this line contains an idea related to people being sent to earth from God.  For some reason Richard was forced into the world by a divine power before the completion of his physically development.  In Shakespeare’s time a possible reasoning behind these kinds of birth deformities could be that there is sin or some form of evil connected to the child.  The child is then a manifestation of this evil.  Shakespeare could be using this idea to enhance the connection that Richard is in part coming from hell.  Another of Richard’s lines states, “that dogs bark at me as I halt by them” (I.i.23).  Often times it is thought that animals have a stronger ability to sense a hostile or demonic presence.  It could be that the dogs aren’t just barking because Richard is so unattractive, but because they sense danger or the demonic nature that Richard embodies.  The reaction to his deformity becomes a physical representation of his demonic character.

It is not just Richard’s deformity that causes his character to be demonic, but the fact that he takes pleasure from this deformity of evil.  Richard uses his deformity in order to get what he wants.  When he desires the death of Hastings, Richard uses his twisted arm to incriminate his believed enemy declaring, “Look at how I am bewitched!  Behold my arm!” (III.iv.68).  Richard’s ready use and revealing of his misshapen body shows that Richard is not ashamed of his disfigurement.  He takes pride in showing other people his evil nature and what this nature has done to his body.  His exclamation of his being bewitched can be interpreted not as disgust, but as excitement – like a child showing off a large insect they’ve just discovered.  He uses his deformity to draw attention to himself instead of hiding it with shame.  We also see the joy he takes in his deformity through Shakespeare’s use of shadows in connection to Richard.  He loves to see his shadow because of the way it reflects his appearance and inner darkness.  Richard tells us that he has “no delight to pass away the time / unless to see my shadow in the sun” (I.i.25-6).  This line could mean that he enjoys seeing the shadow because it resembles his own crippled body or it could be more of a metaphorical contrast between good and evil.  The sun here would represent the good and God while the shadow of his figure is the demonic taint on the world of God.   Later, after convincing Anne to marry him, he again makes light of his deformity, joking that he must be handsome if Anne accepted him.  He requests “shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass / that I may see my shadow as I pass”(I.ii.265-6).  Again Richard wants to see his own irregular appearance in a mirror so that he might enjoy it.  This not only shows that he likes his evilness, but in a way has a sense of vanity, a sin, in connection with it.  These lines give us an image of Richard’s deformity or evil and tell us that Richard is happy to be possessed of a demon because of the delight he takes in seeing his dark deformity in contrast to the sunny world around him.

The most convincing way in which Shakespeare gives the audience the idea of Richard as coming from hell is the language other characters’ use when referring to Richard.  At the death of her husband, Anne says to Richard, “Foul devil, for God’s sake hence and trouble us not / for thou hast made the happy earth thy hell”(I.ii.50-1).  These lines seem to be a type of exorcism declaring Richard is the devil creating a hell and that he should leave.   In the same scene Anne declares, “no beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity.”  Richard replies “But I know none, and therefore am no beast.”  According to Bevington, Anne interprets this line to mean that Richard is neither man nor beast and must be the devil (652).  She responds to Richard’s comment saying “Oh, wonderful, when devils tell truth” (I.ii.71-3).  In the next scene, Queen Margaret calls Richard “the slave of nature and the son of hell”(I.iii.230).  The first part of the line refers to how Richard is by nature deformed.  This makes a direct connection between Richard’s deformity and the fact that he is demonic by next stating his connection to hell.

Being possessed by a demon gives Richard the inhuman characteristic of lacking pity or emotion.  Through part of the play, Richard is keeping two young men locked in the Tower.  These men are Edward and Richard, the sons of Queen Elizabeth and King Edward’s heirs.  Even though the princes are fairly young, Richard of Gloucester shows no pity when he bluntly states, “Shall I be plain?  I wish the bastards dead” (IV.ii.18).  This bluntness in speech shows that Richard feels no guilt at his desire for the princes’ deaths.  He shows no emotion for the young men, not even much anger – just the simple desire for their deaths.  This lack of any sort of emotion makes Richard seem less like a human.  In another situation Richard is beating on a messenger that brings him bad news about Richmond’s armies.  Richard states as he is hitting the messenger “there, take thou that, till thou bring better news” (IV.iv.508).   This shows us that Richard has no empathy for the situations of other humans.  He doesn’t take into account that the messenger is not at fault and was just performing a task Richard had asked of him.  The two young princes are defenseless against any attack, and yet Richard lashes out regardless of the pain he is causing his innocent victims.   He even tells us that “tear falling pity dwells not in this eye” (IV.ii.65).  He explains to us that he feels no emotion, that no matter how much in pain someone might be, he would not be moved.  This lack of empathy can be explained by the demon inside Richard.  It is possible that this demon inside of Richard makes him inhuman to the point in which he can no longer understand the pain of others.

Right before the battle, we can see that Richard’s demon is fighting against the human part of Richard, which begins to feel doubt and guilt.  Richard tells his men “let not out babbling dreams affright our souls / conscience is but a word that cowards use” (V.iii.308-9).  The ghosts that Richard dreams of spark doubt into Richard’s mind about the wrongful actions he has taken against others.  But we can see that he is still fighting against his feelings and that the demon is trying to remind Richard that conscience of feeling is a weakness that should not be indulged in.

Although we can see that Richard is demonic, a human part of him is still present when his character can understand human nature in order to persuade other characters and in the vulnerability he shows before the battle.  One way that Richard persuades other characters is by falsely convincing them that he is on their side.  This is seen in Richard’s dealings with his brother Clarence.  When Richard is actually the man who is sending Clarence to the tower, he convinces Clarence otherwise by saying “I will deliver you, or else lie for you” (I.i.115).  This makes Clarence believe that Richard is trying to help him.  Richard may not be able to understand the pain of other humans, but he does seem to understand what will comfort a person.  Richard understands that people have vulnerabilities and at times need to be reassured.  Therefore he uses the human parts of his character to indulge the ambitions of the demonic and inhuman side of his nature.

Another way in which Richard manipulates other characters is by convincing them that he will make amends for his past actions.  When Richard is trying to persuade Queen Elizabeth to help him woo her daughter, Elizabeth refuses because of the trouble Richard has caused in the past.  However, Richard responds with the argument that if he makes Elizabeth’s daughter queen, this will make up for the death of Elizabeth’s other children. He speaks about the throne saying “to make amends I’ll give it to your daughter” and later that “all the ruins of distressful times” will be “repaired with double riches of content” (IV.iv.295, 318-9).  Despite the wrongs Richard has already done, he convinces Elizabeth by telling her he can now replace and give her what she had wanted – a child on the throne.  His human nature allows him to see what other characters desire.  His evil nature then uses this information to get what it wants no matter the costs that the characters have to pay.  Because Richard placates her desires and worries, Elizabeth is lead to believe that Richard will be able to provide something good for the future. He uses this method again when convincing Tyrrel to murder the princes.  Richard says “say it is done / and I will love thee and prefer thee for it” (IV.ii.80-1).  Here Richard is telling Tyrrel that if he performs these murders than in the future he will have the benefits of being in good standing with the king.  Richard’s humanness understands that Tyrrel might want positive attention from the king, so Richard uses that in order to carry out his evil plot of the princes’ murders.  This also shows that Richard can connect to the human need for comfort and the need for knowing that things will be better in the future.  He is able to make this connection because he himself feels human weakness.  However, he uses this human nature to perform vile demonic acts like murder.

The point at which Richard’s human half is strongest is before the battle against Richmond.  The angel-ghosts come to bless Richmond, but they also help Richard realize the part of him that is still human and separates this humanness from his evil intentions.  After the visit of the ghosts, Richard starts to see what he has done wrong and the human part of him starts to fear the demon he has inside.  Whereas he used to delight in seeing his shadow or the physical image of his evil, now the shadow acts as a reminder of his guilt and scares him.  Richard reveals his doubts to Ratcliff saying, “I fear, I fear!” Ratcliff then responds “Nay, good my lord, be not afraid of shadows” (V.iii.214-5).  Finally, Richard replies:

“By the apostle Paul, shadows tonight

Have struck more terror to the soul of Richard

Than can the substance of ten thousand soldiers” (V.iii. 216-8).

This shows that Richard is more afraid of his own evil self than he is of losing the battle to Richmond.  The shadows start to appear as the ghosts of the people Richard has killed and this shows that Richard is feeling guilt for his action rather than being completely emotionless.  The human of Richard is realizing the demon of Richard.  Again the quotation “let not out babbling dreams affright our souls / conscience is but a word that cowards use” (V.iii.308-9) tells us that what Richard fears is the guilt that his human conscience finally recognizes.  Richard is reassuring himself in this line.  He is saying “I’m not a coward so I can’t be feeling guilty about what I’ve done.”  The fact that he needs reassurance shows that he is worried about his guilty feelings.  It is possible that Shakespeare gave us a foreshadowing of this realization in a speech about Richard given by Queen Margaret.  Margaret speaks of Richard as “that dog, that had his teeth before his eyes” (IV.iv.49).  Margaret could be explaining to us that Richard does not see his wrongs and that he acted before seeing what he had done.  However, because his eyes are coming behind the teeth or actions, Margaret is saying that it will be possible for Richard to realize what he has done.  This fear that Richard expresses shows us that his human self is battling his evil self and that the human portion of him is now unsure of what to do about the demonic portion of him.

This characterization of Richard as partially demon and partially human is best summarized by a speech made by the Duchess.  In this speech Shakespeare uses a list of words with opposing meanings to describe Richard.  The Duchess states “dead life, blind sight, poor mortal-living ghost” (IV.iv.26).  “Dead life” can represent Richard’s unfeeling and emotionally dead traits compared to his understanding of life and the human need for comfort.  “Blind sight” shows us that Richard is blind and shameless towards his demon self and then as he becomes more human at the end of the play he finally sees the evilness of his shadowed figure.  Finally, “mortal-living ghost” gives us a contrast between the earthly human part of Richard and the theological nature of his evilness as a demonic spirit.

There should be a conclusion here, but I decided to leave it off.


“British History Timeline.” BBC: British History in Depth. Website.

“Richard III.”  Folger Shakespeare Library.  1996. Website.

Shakespeare, William.  “The Tragedy of King Richard the Third.”  The Complete Works of Shakespeare.  Ed. David Bevington.  6th ed.  New York: Pearson/Longman, 2009.  Print.

Quotes from Shakespeare’s Richard III

The Tragedy of King Richard the Third is one of the more quote rich plays written by Shakespeare.

Richard: “Now is the winter of our discontent

Made glorious summer by this son of York,

And all the clouds that loured upon our house

In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.

Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths,

Our bruisèd arms hung up for monuments,

Our stern alarums changed to merry meetings,

Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.

Grim-visaged War hath smoothed his wrinkled


And now, instead of mounting barbèd steeds

To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,

He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber

To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,

Nor made to court an amorous looking glass;

I, that am rudely stamped, and want love’s majesty

To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;

I, that am curtailed of this fair proportion,

Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time

Into this breathing world scarce half made up,

And that so lamely and unfashionable

That dogs bark at me as I halt by them –

Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,

Have no delight to pass away the time,

Unless to see my shadow in the sun

And descant on mine own deformity.

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover

To entertain these well-spoken days,

I am determinèd to prove a villain

And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,

By drunken prophecies, libels, and dreams,

To set my brother Clarence and the King

In deadly hate the one against the other;

And if King Edward be as true and just

As I am subtle, false, and treacherous,

This day should Clarence closely be mewed up

About a prophecy, which says that G

Of Edward’s heirs the murderer shall be.

Dive, thoughts, down to my soul; here Clarence


Brother, good day.  What means this armèd guard

That waits upon Your Grace?” (1.1.1-42)

This is the big opening speech of the play.  It reveals to use that the War of the Roses has lately ended, that Richard is deformed, and that he has evil plans to make enemies of his two brothers.

Second Murderer [on the subject of the conscience]: “I’ll not meddle with it; it makes a

man a coward.  A man cannot steal but it acuseth him;

a man cannot swear but it checks him; a man cannot

lie with his neighbor’s wife but it detects him.  ‘Tis a

blushing, shamefaced spirit that mutinies in a man’s

bosom.  It fills a man full of obstacles.  It made me once

restore a purse of gold that by chance I found.  It

beggars any man that keeps it.  It is turned out of

towns and cities for a dangerous thing, and every man

that means to live well endeavors to trust to himself

and live without it” (1.4.136-46).

Especially at the end of the play, the conscience plays a large part in Richard’s character.

Third Citizen: “Before the days of change, still is it so.

By a divine instinct men’s minds mistrust

Ensuing danger; as, by proof, we see

The water swell before a boist’rous storm” (2.3.42-5).

I chose to include this quote because I found that the discussion of the citizens on getting a new ruler related quite well to the feelings of some people during the U.S. presidential campaigns of 2012.

Duchess: “Dead life, blind sight, poor mortal-living ghost,

Woe’s scene, world’s shame, grave’s due by life usurped,

Brief abstract and record of tedious days,

Rest thy unrest on England’s lawful earth,

Unlawfully made drunk with innocent blood!” (4.4.26-30)

This speech by the Duchess (Richard’s mother) is often seen to be important to the play and features the use of words that are starkly opposite in meaning.

Queen Margaret [to Queen Elizabeth]: “Forbear to sleep the nights, and fast the days;

Compare dead happiness with living woe;

Think that thy babes were sweeter than they were

And he that slew them fouler than he is.

Bett’ring thy loss makes the bad causer worse,

Revolving this will teach thee how to curse” (4.4.118-23).

This quote relates to the shared losses of the women in the play, the prophecies that they have made, and how those prophecies have come true.

Ratcliffe: “Nay, good my lord, be not afraid of shadows” (5.3.215).

This line is important to Richard because it shows us how his character has changed from the beginning when he delighted in his evil deeds and enjoyed seeing his deformed shadow.

King Richard: “Conscience is but a word that cowards use” (5.3.309).

Another quote on conscience.

King Richard: “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!” (5.4.7)


Battles on Stage in Shakespeare’s 3 Henry VI

The Death of Prince Edward

Battles, Death, And Revenge

The Third Part of King Henry the Six is one of Shakespeare’s most battle rich plays.  The narrative covers the time period from 1460-1471.  In those eleven years and only a few hours on stage, Shakespeare includes four large battles and several other fights.  This results in the question: How did Shakespeare make battles on stage seem realistic?  He couldn’t have had enough actors to represent several armies fighting each other and there certainly was not enough space on stage for a battlefield.  Some of the battle has to occur off stage or in the mind of the audience.  This was done with music and alarums which called the soldiers to arms.  As many actors as possible we asked to fight each other.  They made rapid entrances and exits from the stage to make it appear as if there were more soldiers.  The Elizabethan playhouse often times had an upper gallery or balcony to the stage.  This gallery would represent the defensive walls around cities where more fighting could take place.  In addition, battles were represented by one-on-one confrontations between the hero figures of both sides of the conflict.

Revenge is a huge part of this play and the cause for much of the gruesome violence in the narrative.  The relationships between fathers, sons, and brothers is especially important.  The deaths of fathers and brothers lead to sons and other brothers seeking vengeance.  First, the young man, the Earl Rutland, is murdered by Lord Clifford.  The Duke of York is laughed at and forced to wear a paper crown before facing his death.  Clifford then dies with an arrow through his neck.  Prince Edward and King Henry are ruthlessly stabbed multiple times.  Prince Edward is stabbed by several individuals one right after the other while Henry’s body is stabbed even after he is already dead.

3 Henry VI is mostly about how the male relationships in the play lead to violence and revenge.  The ultimate result of this is more grief for everyone including those who are more innocent.


Act 1 – The play begins with the Yorkist faction in parliament.  Richard Duke of York, Edward; York’s eldest son, Richard; York’s 2nd youngest son, the Earl of Warwick, Marquess Montague, and the Duke of Norfolk are all present.  They talk about how King Henry left his army behind and fled to London.  We learn that the Earl of Northumberland, Lord Clifford, Lord Stafford, the Duke of Somerset, and perhaps the Duke of Buckingham are all dead in the battle.  York is forward enough to sit on Henry’s throne.  The Lancastrian faction enters.  King Henry, Northumberland’s son, Clifford’s son, the Earl of Westmoreland, and the Duke of Exeter find York seated on the throne.  Northumberland’s son, Clifford’s son, and Westmoreland all swear to get revenge against York for killing their fathers.  Exeter moves to the Yorkist faction.  Henry makes an agreement with York.  For the rest of Henry’s life, York will leave Henry alone.  In exchange Henry will allow York’s sons to inherit the throne after Henry’s death.  Northumberland (the son), Clifford (the son), and Westmoreland curse Henry for disinheriting the prince.  Queen Margaret and Prince Edward enter.  Both of them are also angry at Henry.  The Queen divorces herself from Henry’s table and bed.  She hopes to raise her own army to fight against York.

Richard convinces York, his father, to break the deal he made with Henry.  York did not swear his oath in front of magistrates so it is technically not binding.  The Queen’s army moves to attack York’s castle.

Clifford, “the butcher,” kills York’s youngest son, the Earl of Rutland.

The Queen’s army defeats York.  Both of York’s uncles are killed in the battle.  Clifford, Northumberland, and the Queen capture York.  The Queen tells York that Rutland is dead.  York is deeply grieved.  Clifford kills York.  This means that York’s son, Edward, is the new Duke of York and also Henry’s main rival for the throne.

Act 2 – Richard and Edward find out that their father is dead.  Richard swears to get revenge against Clifford.  Warwick enters.  He tried to attack the Queen, but failed.  Warwick has taken his forces along with the army of the Duke of Norfolk to join up with Edward’s soldiers.  Edward will take the combined forces to London where Henry’s previous oath is trying to be annulled.  We learn that the Queen is getting ready to attack the Yorkists again.

In the town of York, Henry tells God that York’s death was not his fault.  Clifford says that Henry is a weak and bad father.  Henry defends himself by stating that he would rather leave his son a moral character than a crown.  Prince Edward is knighted and reinstated as Henry’s heir.  The Yorkists arrive.  It is obvious at this point that Queen Margaret is the true commanding entity in the defense of England’s throne.  A battle at York begins.

Warwick’s brother, who is not an acting character in the play, is killed and Warwick is moved to avenge him.

Richard and Clifford fight each other.  Warwick comes to the aid of Richard.  Clifford runs away and Richard is angry at Warwick for not allowing him to fight his own battles.

Queen Margaret does not let Henry participate in the battle.  Instead he is sitting around wishing he could be a shepherd.  Henry spots a son who has unknowingly killed his father in the war.  Then a man arrives who has unknowingly killed his son in the war.  Father, son, and king all grieve together.  The Queen’s army runs away to the border of Scotland.

Clifford dies with Richard’s arrow shot through his neck.  Edward, Richard, and Warwick head to London in order to claim the throne.  So far we know that Richard the Duke of York had several sons.  Edward is the oldest.  The next oldest is George.  Then there is Richard and the murdered Rutland.  At this point in the play, Edward makes George the Duke of Clarence and Richard becomes the Duke of Gloucester.

Act 3 – Two gamekeepers near Scotland find King Henry wandering around.  From Henry we learn that Queen Margaret and Prince Edward have gone to France in order to beg help from King Lewis of France.  Warwick is also on his way to King Lewis to ask that Lewis’ daughter, Bona, marry Edward the new King of England.  The gamekeepers find out who Henry is and take him prisoner.

Meanwhile, Edward blackmails Lady Grey into agreeing to marry him.  If she does choose to wed him, Edward will return the land to her children which was owned by her now dead husband.  Lady Grey has no choice but to accept or her children will have nothing.  Richard starts to make a plan to take the crown for himself.

In France, Warwick arranges Edward’s marriage to Bona.  A messenger arrives and tells King Lewis that Edward is already married to Elizabeth Grey.  King Lewis and Warwick than choose to support Queen Margaret and Henry.  Warwick’s daughter is to be married to Prince Edward.  France sends an army to England.

Act 4 – Richard and George greatly disapprove of Edward’s choice in marrying Lady Grey.  Edward has married off Lady Grey’s children to lesser lords instead of offering them to his brothers.  This moves the line of inheritance away from the York family.  Edward prepares an army to meet the one Warwick is bringing back from France.  George and the Duke of Somerset decide to join Warwick and the Lancastrian faction.

Edward’s troops are carelessly guarded in Warwickshire.  Warwick and his men attack them by surprise.  George is to marry Warwick’s other daughter.

Warwick and his soldiers capture Edward and take the crown away from Edward.  Next they will go to London to free Henry from where he was being held in the Tower of London.

Edward’s wife, Queen Elizabeth Grey, is pregnant.  She decides to hide from the fighting in a church sanctuary.

Richard, Lord Hastings, and Sir William Stanley save Edward from where he is being kept prisoner by the Archbishop of York.

Henry is released from the Tower.  He appoints Warwick and George the Duke of Clarence as Protectors of England while Henry lives out the rest of his life in seclusion and peace.  Warwick and Clarence learn of Edward’s escape.  Henry prophesies that Henry Earl of Richmond will one day be king (Henry VII).  The Duke of Somerset and the Earl of Oxford take Richmond to Brittany so that Richmond will be protected.

Edward has gone to Burgundy in France and raised an army.  He is now staying at York.

Edward re-captures Henry and goes after Warwick.

Act 5 – Warwick’s army is at Coventry.  The Earl of Oxford, Marquess Montague, and the Duke of Somerset arrive with soldiers to reinforce Warwick’s forces.  Edward arrives.  Clarence chooses to rejoin his brother.  Edward and Warwick agree to have a battle at Barnet.

Warwick and Montague die.

Edward goes to meet Queen Margaret’s army at Tewkesbury.

Prince Edward and Edward Duke of York give speeches to encourage their troops.  Queen Margaret, Prince Edward, the Earl of Oxford, and the Duke of Somerset are all taken prisoner by Edward.

Oxford is sent as a prisoner to France.  Somerset is beheaded.  Edward, Richard, and Clarence all stab Prince Edward to death in front of Queen Margaret.  Margaret begs them to killer her also, but they refuse; saying that she must live with her grief.  Richard leaves to go to the Tower of London where Henry is being held captive.

Richard stabs Henry to death in the Tower.  He continues to stab Henry’s body after Henry is dead.  Richard then tells us that he is planning on killing his brother Clarence next.

Edward is now King of England and calls for celebrations.  Queen Margaret is sent back to live with her father in France.


Image from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_VI,_Part_3

Text: Shakespeare, William.  “The Third Part of King Henry The Sixth.”  The Complete Works of Shakespeare.  Ed. David Bevington.  6th ed.  New York: Pearson/Longman, 2009.  Print.

Quotes from Shakespeare’s 3 Henry VI

Richard Duke of Gloucester [to Edward Duke of York]: “Three glorious suns, each one a perfect sun,

Not separated with the racking clouds,

But severed in a pale clear-shining sky.

See, see!  They join, embrace, and seem to kiss,

As if they vowed some league inviolable.

Now are they but one lamp, one light, one sun.

In this the heaven figures some event (2.1.26-32).”

Before a battle Edward saw three suns in the sky.  He saw this as a good omen and so he represented himself in battle with an image of the sun .  In this above speech by Edward’s brother, Richard, the word sun could also be a play on words.  “Sun” could also mean “son.”  If this is true, the speech is also about the three sons of the Duke of York in this play or there are three sons who are joining together to seek revenge against the York family for killing their fathers.

Warwick [to Edward Duke of York]: “Then let the earth be drunken with our blood!

I’ll kill my horse, because I will not fly.

Why stand we like softhearted women here,

Wailing out losses, whiles the foe doth rage,

And look upon, as if the tragedy

Were played in jest by counterfeiting actors?

Here on my knee I vow to God above

I’ll never pause again, never stand still,

Till either death hath closed these eyes of mine

Or fortune given me measure of revenge (2.3.23-32).”

Here we see a common irony of Shakespeare’s to talk about his plays as plays in the performance.

Son: “Ill blows the wind that profits nobody.

This man, whom hand to hand I slew in fight,

May be possessèd of some store of crowns;

And I, that haply take them from him now,

May yet ere night yield both my life and them

To some man else, as this dead man doth me (2.5.55-60).”

This is an interesting way to think about war and mortality during times of war.  “Crowns” are a type of money – a coin.  “Haply” here means “by chance.”

King Henry [to Second Keeper]: “My crown is in my heart, not on my head;

Not decked with diamonds and Indian stones,

Nor to be seen.  My crown is called content;

A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy (3.1.62-4).”

I included this passage because I think it is a good description of King Henry’s character.  “Indian stones” are gems, in this case, most likely from India.

Richard Duke of Gloucester: “Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,

And cry “Content” to that which grieves my heart,

And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,

And frame my face to all occasions (3.2.182-85).”

This is also a good passage that describes the character of Richard, the son of Richard Duke of York.  Richard Duke of Gloucester is an actor who knows how to manipulate other characters into giving him what he wants.  There is more of this in Shakespeare’s Richard III.

Warwick [to Richard Duke of Gloucester]: “I had rather chop this hand off at a blow,

And with the other fling it at thy face…(5.1.50-1)”

This is just a funny image.

Warwick: “Ah, who is nigh?  Come to me, friend or foe,

And tell me who is victor, York or Warwick?

Why I ask that?  My mangled body shows,

My blood, my want of strength, my sick heart shows,

That I must yield my body to the earth

And, by my fall, the conquest to my foe.

Thus yields the cedar to the ax’s edge,

Whose arms gave shelter to the princely eagle,

Under whose shade the ramping lion slept,

Whose top branch overpeered Jove’s spreading tree

And kept low shrubs from winter’s powerful wind.

These eyes, that now are dimmed with death’s black veil,

Have been as piercing as the midday sun

To search the secret treasons of the world.

The wrinkles of my brows, now filled with blood,

Were likened oft to kingly sepulchers;

For who lived king, but I could dig his grave?

And who durst smile when Warwick bent his brow?

Lo, now my glory smeared in dust and blood!

My parks, my walks, my manors that I had

Even now forsake me, and of all my lands

Is nothing left me but my body’s length.

Why, what is pomp, rule, reign, but earth and dust?

And, live we how we can, yet die we must (5.2.5-28).”

I love the end of this speech by Warwick.  It again is an interesting way of thinking on our own mortality.

King Henry [to Richard Duke of Gloucester]: “And thus I prophesy, that many a thousand,

Which now mistrust no parcel of my fear,

And many an old man’s sigh and many a widow’s,

And many an orphan’s water-standing eye –

Men for their sons’, wives for their husbands’,

Orphans for their parents’ timeless death –

Shall rue the hour that ever thou wast born.

The owl shrieked at thy birth – an evil sign;

The night crow cried, aboding luckless time;

Dogs howled, and hideous tempest shook down trees,

The raven rooked her on the chimney’s top;

And chatt’ring pies in dismal discords sung.

Thy mother felt more than a mother’s pain,

And yet brought forth less than a mother’s hope,

To wit, an indigested and deformèd lump,

Not like the fruit of such a goodly tree.

Teeth hadst thou in thy head when thou wast born,

To signify thou cam’st to bite the world (5.6.37-54).”

These last two speeches are here because they are both extremely foreboding of what is to come in the next play, Richard III.  I also love the above speech by Henry because it contains some great alliteration.  Alliteration in poetry is when multiple words – usually next to each other – repeat the same sounds in the first syllable.  For example: “The night crow cried,” “Dogs howled, and hideous tempest shook,” “The raven rooked,” and “dismal discords sung.”

Richard Duke of Gloucester: “Indeed ’tis true that Henry told me of;

For I have often heard my mother say

I came into the world with my legs forward.

Had I not reason, think ye, to make haste

And seek their ruin that usurped our right?

The midwife wondered and the women cried,

“Oh, Jesus bless us, he is born with teeth!”

And so I was, which plainly signified

That I should snarl and bite and play the dog.

Then, since the heavens have shaped my body so,

Let hell make crook’d my mind to answer it (5.6.69-79).”

There’s just something so creepy about a baby born with teeth.


Text: Shakespeare, William.  “The Third Part of King Henry The Sixth.”  The Complete Works of Shakespeare.  Ed. David Bevington.  6th ed.  New York: Pearson/Longman, 2009.  Print.

Commoners and Prophecies in Shakespeare’s 2 Henry VI

The Commoners

The common people are some of the most important characters in Shakespeare’s 2 Henry VI.  They manage to convince Henry to banish the Duke of Suffolk and then it is the common people who kill Suffolk for convincing Henry to make a poor marriage.  The commoner John Cade later leads a rebellion against Henry and scares the king and queen away from London.

The character of John Cade works as a parody to the behaviors and thoughts of the higher class lords in the play.  Readers may laugh at Cade’s idea of a utopian society where men drink only the best beer and everyone is dressed exactly the same.  However, this is not less amusing than the lords’ constant attempts to undo one another and gain more power for themselves.  The fickleness of the commoners also matches the the fickleness in which the lords take sides first with one person and then the other.  Through the commoners, Shakespeare has found a way for the entire play to seem ridiculous and entertaining.


Another important part of the play are the prophecies.  As in Greek drama, the predictions made in 2 Henry VI are ambiguous up until the moment in which they are fulfilled.  Prophecies in the play come in several forms.  First the Duchess has what is called a morning dream.  In folklore, dreams in the morning are thought to predict true events.  The conjurers also call forth a spirit which gives several prophecies – first that Suffolk will die by water and secondly that Somerset will die near a castle.  Both of these predictions come true, but not in the way the characters expect (see summary for more details).  These prophecies work as divine judgement showing that those who deserve a foul ending shall receive that foul ending.


Henry VI – In 1 Henry VI, Henry was still a young child who had only a small role in the play.  In 2 Henry VI, Henry is now a married man.  He still greatly relies on his Lord Protector, Gloucester, to make decisions for him.  We see that he is weak and easily influenced by the common people of England.  He is a very pious man who believes that events are God’s will and that God will make things turn out for the best.  Readers could see Henry as being pure of heart, but this reliance on God can also be seen as another weakness.

Duchess vs. Queen – Both of the female characters in the play are struggling to gain more power.  They are both described by male characters as being too proud and ambitious.  I agree that this might be true for the Queen, but not so true of the Duchess.  For some reason the Duchess is much more likeable than the Queen and the Duchess gains more of my sympathies.  The Duchess does seem kind of ridiculous trying to use witchcraft in order to become more powerful, but I have to admire her desire for wanting to continue to improve her life.  The Queen on the other hand is ambitious and also cruel to Henry.  She criticizes Henry for being closer to Gloucester than he is to her.  Yet all the while the Queen is in love with Suffolk.  Her ambitions are more selfish than the Duchess’s.

Alexander Iden – The character of Alexander Iden works in this play to be a contrast to all the other ambitious lords.  Iden is very content living just as he is and likes to have peace more than power.

Lieutenant vs. Master – When Suffolk is beheaded by the mariners there are two characters who are referred to as “captains.”  The Lieutenant is an officer and the Master is the man who actually pilots the ship.


Act 1 – The play opens with the Duke of Suffolk presenting Queen Margaret to Henry.  Suffolk has stood in as a representation of Henry at a marriage ceremony with Margaret in France.  Then Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and Lord Protector, discovers that with Henry’s marriage to Margaret, Henry has lost land in France and was given no dowry.  Gloucester blames Suffolk for this and accuses Cardinal Beaufort of wanting to be Lord Protector in order to control the king.  The Cardinal explains that Gloucester is upset about Henry’s marriage because Gloucester (Henry’s uncle) wants to be heir to the throne.  The Duke of Buckingham suggests that he, Suffolk, the Cardinal, and the Duke of Somerset should join together to get rid of Gloucester.  Somerset warns Buckingham to be wary of the Cardinal.  Then Buckingham says that he or Somerset could double-cross the Cardinal and try to become the Lord Protector instead of the Cardinal.  Next the Earl of Salisbury who is a supporter of the Yorkist faction, suggests that the other Yorkists should lie in wait until Buckingham and Somerset bring down the Cardinal and Suffolk.  Richard, Duke of York, agrees and will wait until the other characters bring about each other’s doom before trying to claim the throne for himself.

Eleanor, the Duchess of Gloucester wants to rule England herself and is using witchcraft to help her achieve this goal.  A priest called Hume is also helping her.  Hume just wants money and was also hired by the Cardinal and Suffolk to get rid of Gloucester by disgracing the reputation of his wife.

Queen Margaret is unhappy with Henry allowing himself to be ruled by Lord Protector Gloucester.  We learn that the Queen has an intense rivalry with Eleanor.  Henry makes Somerset the Regent of France.  Then Peter Thrump an apprentice to the armorer Thomas Horner accuses Horner of treason.  Horner had said that Richard was the true King of England.  Thrump and Horner are to duel each other.

Eleanor has Bolingbroke; a conjurer, Margery Jordan; a witch, and another priest called Southwell bring forth a spirit.  The spirit makes prophecies about Henry and a duke.  Suffolk will die by water and Somerset will die near a castle.  Then York and Buckingham appear and arrest the Duchess and her conjurers for performing dark magic.

Act 2 – Henry and a party are hawking at St.Albans.  Suffolk, the Cardinal, and the Queen start abusing Gloucester for being too ambitious.  Henry tries to make peace between them.  Gloucester and the Cardinal talk about dueling each other without letting Henry hear them.  Then Simpcox, a blind commoner, approaches them.  Simpcox claims that his blindness has been healed by the shrine at St.Albans.  Henry is astonished by the miracle until Gloucester proves that Simpcox is a fraud.  Simpcox and his wife are to be whipped.  Buckingham arrives and announces the arrest of the Duchess.  Gloucester banishes Eleanor from his bed and company.

York explains to Salisbury and the Earl of Warwick why he is rightfully king.  Salisbury and Warwick swear loyalty to York.  York plans to stay out of things while Suffolk, the Cardinal, Buckingham, Somerset, and Gloucester destroy each other.

Margery Jordan is sentenced to burn.  Hume, Bolingbroke, and Southwell are to be hung.  The Duchess is banished to the Isle of Man.  Henry demands that Gloucester give up his office of Lord Protector.  Finally, Peter Thrump kills Thomas Horner.

Gloucester speaks to Eleanor before she must leave.  The Duchess asks Gloucester not to be upset because his doom is coming soon.  Gloucester disagrees and says that he will be fine as long as he is loyal to Henry.  He has committed no crime like the Duchess has.  He doesn’t say good-bye to her.  The Duchess is taken to the Isle of Man by Sir John Stanley.

Act 3 – Henry holds a parliament meeting.  The Queen, Suffolk, the Cardinal, York, and Buckingham warn Henry about Gloucester’s supposed ambition.  Henry won’t listen to them.  Somerset informs Henry that all of England’s lands and titles in France have been lost.  Then Gloucester is arrested on false accusations made by the other lords.  Gloucester is held prisoner by the Cardinal.  Henry is so grieved that he leaves the meeting.  The Queen, the Cardinal, Suffolk, and York plan to have Gloucester murdered.  At this time it is also made known that there is a rebel uprising in Ireland.  York is sent with an army of men to control this uprising.  While York is gone, York will have a commoner called John Cade start an uprising in England.  Cade will use the name John Mortimer.  John Mortimer was entitled to the crown.  York hopes that this will scare Henry.

Gloucester is murdered before his trial.  Henry faints and the Queen complains that Henry loves Gloucester more than her (even though she does not love Henry in the first place).  Warwick arrives and blames the Cardinal and Suffolk for the murder of Gloucester.  Warwick and Suffolk briefly fight each other.  The commoners demand that Suffolk be banished or killed.  If Henry does not do one of these things, the commoners will kill Suffolk themselves.  Henry decides to banish Suffolk.  Next the Queen and Suffolk speak privately of their love for each other.  The Cardinal becomes deathly ill and might be seeing Gloucester’s ghost.  The Cardinal dies.

Act 4 – Suffolk is taken prison by a group of mariners.  He is beheaded by a man named Walter (pronounced “water” and so the prophecy is fulfilled).  Suffolk’s head is taken to Henry.

John Cade and his rebels are introduced.  Sir Humphrey Stafford and his son William are trying to stop the rebels.  Dick the butcher, one of the rebels, kills both of the Staffords.  Cade takes control of London Bridge.  Henry believes Cade to be a threat to him so Henry and the Queen leave London.  The battle moves to Smithfield.  Lord Scales, Lord Saye, and Matthew Gough are now leading an army against the rebels.  Lord Saye is beheaded.  Buckingham and a Lord Clifford arrive and convince Cade’s men to abandon Cade.

York returns to England with an Irish army.  He claims that Somerset is a traitor.  Henry puts Somerset in the Tower of London.

Cade is starving and in hiding.  He is found in the garden of a gentleman called Alexander Iden.  Iden kills Cade.

Act 5 – Henry makes Iden a knight.  Somerset is released from the Tower.  York and his sons (Richard and Edward) finally state that they are trying to take the throne from Henry.  Lord Clifford and his son choose to support Henry.

Battle begins.  York kills Lord Clifford and Clifford’s son swears to get revenge.  Richard, York’s son, kills Somerset under the sign for the Castle Inn (the rest of the prophecy is fulfilled).  Henry and the Queen escape and head back to London.  York and his forces decide to follow Henry back to London as well.


Image from: http://fuckyeahhistoryofbritain.tumblr.com/

Text: Shakespeare, William.  “The Second Part of King Henry The Sixth.”  The Complete Works of Shakespeare.  Ed. David Bevington.  6th ed.  New York: Pearson/Longman, 2009.  Print.

Quotes from Shakespeare’s 2 Henry VI

Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester [to Duke of Gloucester]: “Why droops my lord, like overripened corn,

Hanging the head at Ceres’ plenteous load?

Why doth the great Duke Humphrey knit his brows,

As frowning at the favors of the world?

Why are thine eyes fixed to the sullen earth,

Gazing on that which seems to dim thy sight?

What see’st thou there?  King Henry’s diadem,

Enchased with all the honors of the world?

If so, gaze on, and grovel on thy face,

Until thy head be circled with the same.

Put forth thy hand; reach at the glorious gold.

What, is’t too short?  I’ll lengthen it with mine;

And having both together heaved it up,

We’ll both together lift our heads to heaven

And nevermore abase our sight so low

As to vouchsafe one glance unto the ground (1.2.1-16).”

Eleanor is very ambitious to gain the throne for herself.  She doesn’t just want to be married to a king, she wants to be the king.  She criticizes her husband, the Duke of Gloucester, for not taking steps to improve his social ranking.

Ceres is the goddess of the harvest.  Enchased means adorned and “heaved it up” is referring to the crown.

Duchess of Gloucester: “Were I a man, a duke, and next of blood,

I would remove these tedious stumbling blocks

And smooth my way upon their headless necks;

And, being a woman, I will not be slack

To play my part in Fortune’s pageant (1.2.63-7).”

Duchess of Gloucester [to the Queen]: “Could I come near your beauty with my nails,

I’d set my ten commandments in your face (1.3.141-2).”

The Duchess and the Queen have a fierce rivalry.  The ten commandments were inscribed using fingernails.

Duke of Gloucester: “Thus sometimes hath the brightest day a cloud,

And after summer evermore succeeds

Barren winter, with his wrathful nipping cold;

So cares and joys abound, as seasons fleet (2.4.1-4).”

Duke of Suffolk: “Smooth runs the water where the brook is deep,

And in this simple show he [Duke of Gloucester] harbors treason.

The fox barks not when he would steal the lamb (3.1.53-5).”

King Henry [to God]: “O Thou that judgest all things, stay my thoughts,

My thoughts that labor to persuade my soul

Some violent hands were laid on Humphrey’s life!

If my suspect be false, forgive me, God,

For judgement only doth belong to Thee.

Fain would I go to chafe his paly lips

With twenty thousand kisses, and to drain

Upon his face an ocean of salt tears,

To tell my love unto the his dumb deaf trunk

And with my fingers feel his hand unfeeling.

But all in vain are these mean obsequies (3.2.136-46).”

I chose to include this passage because King Henry has such a strong passion for the Duke of Gloucester.  I found it touching.  I also really like the line, “And with my fingers feel his hand unfeeling.”

“Mean obsequies” means deficient funeral rites.

Duke of Suffolk [to the Queen]: “If I depart from thee, I cannot live,

And in thy sight to die, what were it else

But like a pleasant slumber in thy lap?

Here could I breathe my soul into the air,

As mild and gentle as the cradle babe

Dying with mother’s dug between its lips –

Where, from thy sight, I should be raging mad

And cry out for thee to close up mine eyes,

To have thee with thy lips to stop my mouth.

So shouldst thou either turn my flying soul,

Or I should breathe it so into thy body,

And then it lived in sweet Elysium.

To die by thee were but to die in jest;

From thee to die were torture more than death.

Oh, let me stay, befall what may befall (3.2.388-402)!”

This speech by the Duke of Suffolk is one of the most sensual and romantic speeches by Shakespeare that I can recall reading.  Suffolk has been banished from England, but wants to remain in the country in order to be close to his love, the Queen.

After death, a person’s soul was thought to leave the body through their mouth.  Elysium is where the souls of people go if they are favored by the gods.  So Suffolk is saying that he wishes for his soul to go into the body of the Queen when she kisses his dying lips.  His soul being part of her body would then be like living in a type of heaven.  In a way this is romantically describing sexual intercourse.  There is also a poetic term, la petite mort, which is French for “the little death.” In poetry and literature, la petite mort means that the act of dying is being compared to orgasm.  We see la petite mort in the third to last line of Suffolk’s speech.

John Cade [to his men]: “Be brave, then, for your captain is brave, and

vows reformation.  There shall be in England seven

halfpenny loaves sold for a penny, the three-hooped

pot shall have ten hoops, and I will make it felony to

drink small beer.  All the realm shall be in common,

And in Cheapside shall my palfry go to to grass.  And

when I am king, as king I will be –

All: God save Your Majesty!

Cade: I thank you, good people – there shall be no

money.  All shall eat and drink on my score; and I will

apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like

brothers and worship me their lord.

Dick, the butcher: The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers (4.2.62-74).”

I included this passage because of the famous last line, “Let’s kill all the lawyers.”


Shakespeare, William.  “The Second Part of King Henry The Sixth.”  The Complete Works of Shakespeare.  Ed. David Bevington.  6th ed.  New York: Pearson/Longman, 2009.  Print.

Shakespeare’s The First Part of King Henry the Sixth

War of the Roses

The Henry VI series of plays tells the story of The War of Roses so it’s good to have an idea of what this conflict was about before reading these plays.  The War of the Roses was a civil war in England named after the symbols with which the warring factions were represented.  King Henry VI came from the line of Lancastrian kings.  This family line got it’s name from the fact that they for many years possessed the dukedom of Lancaster.  The men who supported Henry VI became known as the Lancastrian faction and used the red rose as a symbol of their support of the king.

Then there was another faction called the Yorkist faction.  The Yorkists were led by Richard Plantagenet or the Duke of York.  Richard had a claim to the English throne through Henry IV’s uncle, Lionel the Duke of Clarence.  Richard and his followers planned to overtake Henry VI and put Richard on the throne.  These Yorkists  used a white rose to represent their faction.

Many of the people in Elizabethan England believed the War of the Roses to be a punishment from God for bad behavior of the English people and their kings. King Henry IV came to the throne by executing his own cousin.  And so the major sinning to gain power had begun.  Shakespeare does not make this idea clear in his Henry VI plays.  The only time it can be seen to come forth is in Richard III, the final play relating to the aftermath of The War of Roses.  This idea that The War of the Roses was a punishment of God, was used mainly as propaganda by the Tudor kings who held the throne after King Richard III.  The Tudor king, Hernry VII’s, coming to the throne was then seen not as another cause for his rivals to rebel, but as God’s divine will.

Notes on Characters

– Henry VI: One thing that makes 1 Henry VI different from the other history plays is that Henry VI is a child throughout the play and is not crowned king until act 4.  Henry VI being a child adds to England’s predicament with the continuing battles with France and the forming of the Yorkist faction against the king.

– Falstaff: The knight called Falstaff in this play is not the same character that Shakespeare used in the Henry IV plays.  However, he could be a starting point for Shakespeare’s further developing the character later on in the Henry IV plays.

Order Of Plays

One important thing to note about Shakespeare’s histories is that the plays were not written in historically chronological order.    Shakespeare wrote the Henry VI series before he wrote the Henry IV series of plays.   Therefore, the order in which they were written is backward from the chronological order in which the events in the plays occurred in history. In fact, 1 Henry VI is thought to be the play that first concretely defined the genre of history play in England.  This fact might help you remember which plays were actually written first.

I have chosen to read the plays in order of historical events.  Choosing this order for reading the plays has made it easier for me to understand and follow the plots in the plays and has taught me a lot about English history.  However, if you’re interested in learning more about the development and changes in the use of language by Shakespeare, I suggest reading the history plays in the order that Shakespeare wrote them (Henry VI and then Henry IV).

Another good thing to remember about the order of the plays is that Richard II acts as a prequel to the Henry IV series and that Richard III is a kind of epilogue to the Henry VI series.


Act 1 – The play begins with the funeral of King Henry V.  On stage are the Duke of Bedford; Henry VI’s uncle and regent of France, the Duke of Gloucester; also Henry VI’s uncle and Lord Protector.  As Lord Protector Gloucester is in charge of ruling England until the young Henry VI is old enough to rule.  Also present on stage at this time are the Duke of Exeter; Henry VI’s great-uncle, and the Bishop of Winchester; another great-uncle to Henry VI.  The four men mourn the loss of King Henry V and ask that the King’s ghost protect England.  We learn that the French have reclaimed the cities Henry V previously won in France.  There is a new king in France, Charles VII, and this means that England has lost all titles in regards to France.  We learn that Lord Talbot, England’s bravest soldier in France, has recently suffered a defeat in France because of the cowardice of one of his knights, Falstaff.  Talbot has been taken prisoner.  Gloucester wishes to crown Henry VI king of England.  Winchester decides that he will try to control the young king in ways that will benefit the Church.  Next, Charles, the Dauphin of France tests Joan of Arc or Joan Le Pucelle to see if she is truly led by the divine.  Charles disguises Reignier, the Duke of Anjou, as the Dauphin.  Joan enters the chamber and immediately sees through Charles’ trick.  Charles decides to trust Joan to lead the French to victory against the English.  A rivalry rises between Gloucester and Winchester and they have an argument.  There is a battle at Orleans, France.  The English Earl of Salisbury is killed along with Sir Thomas Gargrave.  Joan and Talbot fight in the battle.  The French come out victorious and Charles decides to have a celebration.

Act 2 – While the French are unwary after their parties, Talbot attacks Orleans once more.  This time he manages to take back the city for England.  A sexual relationship between Joan and Charles is hinted at.  A funeral is held for the Earl of Salisbury.  Talbot is called to visit the Countess of Auvergne who plans on capturing Talbot.  Talbot, however, shows her his power and she decides to let him go free.  At this point the factions of the house of York and the house of Lancaster are created.  The Yorkists are headed by Richard Plantagenet who wants Henry off the throne.  Richard’s supporters include the Earl of Warwick and and a man named Vernon.  The Lancastrians or supporters of Henry VI include the Duke of Somerset and the Earl of Suffolk.  Richard goes to visit his uncle Mortimer at the Tower of London.  Mortimer tells Richard how their bloodline has been undone, which makes Richard more sure of his desire to get rid of Henry.

Act 3 – There is another argument between Gloucester and Winchester.  Henry VI makes Richard the Duke of York before preparing to go to France to be crowned king.  The French gain possession of the city of Rouen.  The Duke of Bedford dies and then England has no regent in France.  Talbot is going to see Henry VI.  Henry VI makes Lord Talbot the Earl of Shrewsbury.

Act 4 – Henry VI is crowned King of England.  The Governor of Paris swears loyalty to England.  Knighthood is taken from Falstaff because he is a coward.  The Duke of Burgundy, a Frenchmen had been fighting for England.  At this point he is convinced by Joan to rejoin the French.  Burgundy does so.  Henry sends Talbot to chastise Burgundy.  Richard is made the new Regent of France.  Somerset is to work with him.  Talbot goes to attack the city of Bordeaux and Charles.  Somerset is supposed to bring extra forces to join Richard’s army.  The combined forces will then go to Bordeaux to help Talbot.  However, Somerset is late in meeting up with Richard.  Richard blames Somerset for Talbot’s defeat while Somerset blames Richard.  Talbot’s son, John arrives to fight at Bordeaux.  Talbot asks John to leave, but John refuses.  John asks his father to leave the battle, but Talbot also refuses.  Father and son end up fighting and dying together.  Charles goes to Paris after the victory at Bordeaux.

Act 5 – Henry is given an offer of marriage to the daughter of the French Earl of Armagnac.  This would be a very good match that will bring power and peace to England.  Winchester, now a cardinal, is still keen on gaining power over Gloucester.  Paris then revolts against England.  The English attack the French city of Angiers.  Joan uses black magic to call upon evil fiends to help her in battle.  The fiends refuse to be of service.  Richard captures Joan.  The Earl of Suffolk falls in love with Margaret, the daughter of Reignier.  Suffolk is already married so he decides to woo Margaret for Henry.  Richard orders Joan to be burned at the stake.  She claims that she is pregnant in order to save her life – pregnant women were not to be executed.  Richard then mocks her for claiming to be a virgin.  Joan then can’t say who the father is.  Richard takes this to mean that she has had so many sexual relationships it is impossible for her to know who the true father is.  He sends her to burn.  England and France come to peaceful terms.  Suffolk tells Henry about the beauty of Margaret.  Henry becomes set on marrying Margaret even though he had already agreed to marry the daughter of Armagnac.  Margaret will not be a beneficial match, but Henry still wants to make her his queen.  The play ends with Suffolk stating his desires for having power over the new queen and the king.


Image from: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/30167/30167-h/30167-h.htm#Page_47

Text: Shakespeare, William.  “The First Part of King Henry The Sixth.”  The Complete Works of Shakespeare.  Ed. David Bevington.  6th ed.  New York: Pearson/Longman, 2009.  Print.