Category Archives: Plays (Reading Analysis and Interpretation)


The hurlyburly’s done, and just as they promised, the Witches are back in 1.3 to wait for Macbeth. The actors can hardly have been off the stage for more than a couple of minutes, but the Witches have been busy. And notice how we’re carried along by the action to feel that they have been wreaking havoc all over the world in just those few minutes. We don’t really know how much dramatic time 1.2 takes, but it is so short that we feel the Witches have been gone only for minutes in dramatic time as well as real time. This is the first example we’ve considered of how Shakespeare plays with time for dramatic effect. We’ll see many more, and more famous examples, as we continue through the plays.

The Second Witch has been “killing swine” (1.3.2), and the First Witch has been rebuffed by a “rump-fed” woman whose chestnuts she coveted (several interpretations of “rump-fed” have been offered; I like “fat-assed” myself), and plans to take revenge on her sea-captain husband: “But in a sieve I’ll thither sail/And like a rat without a tail/I’ll do, I’ll do, and I’ll do” (1.3.7–9). The other Witches offer their help: “I’ll give thee a wind . . .And I another” (10, 13). I can’t help but think this is a fart joke. As they finalize their plans, a drum sounds: “Macbeth doth come” (31), and they recite a little chorus:


The Weird Sisters, hand in hand,
Posters of the sea and land,
Thus do go about, about:
Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,
And thrice again, to make up nine.
Peace!—the charm’s wound up.


I quote this to give you the flavor of the Witches’ language—singsongy, in tetrameter (four beats rather than the pentameter, or five beats, of blank verse) couplets, distinguishing them from any other character. This seems to be one of the reasons some scholars regard much of the Witches’ scenes as spurious—as if Shakespeare would never conceive of varying his language to suit his characters, or perhaps as if he would never write about anything so infra dig as witches. (The influence of the folk and fairy tale traditions on Shakespeare is greater than I see generally recognized; I’ll be pointing it out throughout.)


*         *         *


The previous scene opened with a bloody man, a soldier literally covered in blood. This scene gets going with the entrance of a man metaphorically covered in blood; a man whose soul is bloody and who soon will have blood on his hands in more ways than one.

Enter Macbeth.

Note well his first line:

So foul and fair a day I have not seen.

Nobody could possibly miss this callback to the Witches’ first appearance, but what does it mean? One scholar’s suggestion that Macbeth refers to the foulness of the weather contrasted with the fairness of his day of victory is surely accurate; it’s certainly what Macbeth must be thinking. But it is too literal to exhaust the meaning.

Shakespeare must have had a reason for making this first line a callback. The most obvious reason is to signal that we are back in the realm of the uncanny, where everything is turned on its head. But why does Macbeth rather than his comrade-in-arms Banquo make this observation? There is plainly some connection between Macbeth and the Witches. But what is its nature? Should we agree with the nineteenth-century critic Edward Dowden, who wrote that “although Macbeth has not yet set eyes upon these hags, the connection is already established between his soul and them. Their spells have already wrought upon his blood”? That would imply that he is already lost. (Those of you who are reading this to write your term papers on whether Macbeth is evil or just weak, take note. But I’m not writing that paper for you.) But that seems to me to go too far.

Think yourselves back, once again, into the world premiere audience. No more than Macbeth do you have any idea what is about to happen, apart from one huge advantage; you know what the Witches said earlier. Macbeth doesn’t. He doesn’t know he is echoing what you heard them say. He does not know they are specifically waiting for him (not Banquo); you do. You, as an attentive listener in the Jacobean audience, can already sense that this is going to end in tears. If Macbeth did, he would run the other way.

Macbeth is shot through with the form of situational irony that perhaps made its first, most memorable appearance in Western literature in Oedipus Tyrannos. Oedipus flees Thebes to thwart the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, and ends up unknowingly doing both. Irony flourishes in the gap between the audience’s knowledge and the character’s ignorance. The famous examples in Macbeth, as we’ll see and you probably already know, relate to Macbeth’s trust in the Witches’ prophecies; here we see it at work even before he meets them.

What Is a “Thane”?

One problem with Macbeth is the possibility of getting thrown by vocabulary that would have been familiar to any self-respecting eleventh-century Scot but that we never use. The most conspicuous such word is “Thane.” I’m willing to bet that you will never see this word in any context other than that of Macbeth.

So what is a thane? This is what glossaries are for, but in case your copy of the play doesn’t have one, I’ll beat you to Wikipedia and note that “Thane was the title given to a local royal official in medieval eastern Scotland, equivalent to a count, who was at the head of an administrative and socio-economic unit known as a shire or thanage.” See? I’m here to help.

You all know what a “shire” is. You’ve seen those interminable hobbit movies. Just don’t imagine that Macbeth is three feet tall and that his feet are covered with hair. And don’t expect any dragons. There are no dragons in this play.

Yes, I admit it. This post is clickbait. Well, not really, since I haven’t done any serious search engine optimization on it except for the title. It’s more of an experiment to see whether this post, a simple explanation of a term that can be easily found elsewhere, gets appreciably more clicks than others. (I’ve been curious for some time because one of my Romeo and Juliet posts gets substantially more traffic than others, perhaps because it has such an explanation.) If it does, more to follow. I’m trying to learn how to revel in my shamelessness.

There Will Be Blood

The witches depart—and what is the first thing we see? A “bleeding Captain.” A man covered in blood—another apparition. Although, as this post indicates, we don’t know how much was used for any particular play, real blood (animal and perhaps even human) probably was used on the Elizabethan/Jacobean stage; after all, it “could not have been very hard to obtain!” It stands to reason that blood would have been splashed liberally at least on the Captain’s face and hands, emphasizing that we are still in the realm of the uncanny.

What are the first words we hear? “What bloody man is that?” They are spoken by Duncan, the king of Scotland, who little reckons that the central action of the play will be to make him a “bloody man” (“his silver skin lac’d with his golden blood,” as Macbeth thrillingly says at 2.3.110; I don’t usually like to do the term-paper motif-tracing thing, but it’s hard to ignore all the references to blood in this play. Scholars have counted over 100.).

The bloody Captain relates the outcome of the triple battle in which Duncan’s forces have been engaged. In one phase, the rebellious Macdonwald (“Macdonald”) is about to prevail when “brave Macbeth . . . unseam’d him from the nave to the chops/And fix’d his head upon our battlements” (1.2.16, 22–23). But there is little time to celebrate, as the “Norweyan [Norwegian] Lord” takes the opportunity to attack. The exhausted Captain gives way to one Rosse, who recounts the third phase of the battle; the king of Norway himself, aided by the treacherous Thane of Cawdor, “began a dismal conflict” but—again!—was defeated by Macbeth just in time. Duncan is not amused by the Thane’s behavior: “Go pronounce his present death/And with his former title greet Macbeth” (1.2.66–67).

It all seems straightforward enough: Macbeth has fought with uncommon valor for his king, and is to be rewarded with the title of Thane of Cawdor. But what was that I said about everything in this play going topsy-turvy without warning?

Two Gentlemen–Enter Julia (1 of 2)

With Proteus left to fear the worst about Julia’s reaction to his letter, our scene shifts to the love object herself, talking about boys in private with her maid Lucetta:


But say, Lucetta, now we are alone,

Wouldst thou then counsel me to fall in love?


Ay, madam, so you stumble not unheedfully.


Of all the fair resort of gentlemen

That every day with parle encounter me,

In thy opinion which is worthiest love?


Please you repeat their names, I’ll show my mind

According to my shallow simple skill.


What think’st thou of the fair Sir Eglamour?


As of a knight well-spoken, neat and fine;

But, were I you, he never should be mine.


What think’st thou of the rich Mercatio?


Well of his wealth; but of himself, so-so.


What think’st thou of the gentle Proteus?


Lord, Lord! to see what folly reigns in us!


How now! What means this passion at his name?


Pardon, dear madam: ’tis a passing shame

That I, unworthy body as I am,

Should censure thus on lovely gentlemen.


Why not on Proteus, as of all the rest?


Then thus: of many good, I think him best.


Your reason?


I have no other but a woman’s reason:

I think him so because I think him so.


And wouldst thou have me cast my love on him?


Ay, if you thought your love not cast away.


Why he, of all the rest, hath never moved me.


Yet he, of all the rest, I think, best loves ye.


His little speaking shows his love but small.


Fire that’s closest kept burns most of all.


They do not love that do not show their love.


O, they love least that let men know their love.


I hate to do this for the third consecutive post, but again I have to remark on how this situation recurs in Shakespeare’s later work, and it’s better done. That’s not to say that this passage is bad—it isn’t at all, although the stichomythia comes across a little singsongy. It’s funny, and it moves the story forward, putting Proteus into romantic play. It is even thematically apposite; note how both Julia and Lucetta bring in the term “gentlemen.”

But compare it with Shakespeare’s better-known treatment of the same situation in The Merchant of Venice. There, when we meet the heroine Portia and her maid Nerissa, they are trash-talking the heroine’s suitors like Julia and Lucetta. The passage is very long, and mostly prose, but let’s have the whole thing after the jump:

Continue reading

A Touch of Speed

Valentine’s departure is followed by the appearance of his servant Speed. This tardiness might seem to belie Speed’s name, but there’s a reason for it; he’s been busy delivering a letter from Proteus to Julia. (Commentators have wondered why Proteus doesn’t ask his own servant, Lance; some have taken this as evidence that Lance’s part is a later addition for the clown Will Kemp.)

Speed is the Clever Servant, a stock comedy figure that goes back to the Roman playwright Plautus. In this scene, though, I feel Shakespeare goes way overboard in demonstrating his cleverness. Hearing that Valentine has departed, he reacts: “Twenty to one, then, he is shipped already, / And I have played the sheep in losing him” (1.1.72-73). This play on “ship” and “sheep” touches off a series of (deliberately) labored plays on “sheep” and “shepherd” (with a side trip to that old favorite, “horns”) that goes on for twenty lines and contains not one but two mock syllogisms. Speed might be speaking for the audience—he’s speaking for me—when he says at the end of this logomachy, “Such another proof will make me cry ‘baa’” (91). The problem with this exchange is less that it isn’t very funny as that it stops the action dead at a point where it’s barely begun. Shakespeare certainly has dueling wordsmiths in other plays, but either the wordplay advances the action (as with Samson and Gregory) or comes when the audience and the action can use a break (Dromio of Syracuse’s geographic catalogue of Nell the kitchen wench in The Comedy of Errors). It’s only after all this that Proteus gets to the question that presumably is uppermost in his mind when he lays eyes on Speed, “Gav’st thou my letter to Julia?” (93). Speed then takes another fifty lines before telling Proteus that Julia said nothing when she took the letter, with still more sheep puns (he calls her a “laced mutton,” i.e. a prostitute), and reasonable complaints that neither party has paid him for his pains.

Speed will reappear shortly with Valentine and later with Lance; look out for how he interacts with these different characters.

Two Gentlemen of Verona: The Bromance Boys

Two Gents opens, appropriately, in the middle of a discussion between our bromance buddies. Valentine is about to leave Verona for Milan. He wants Proteus to come with him, but Proteus refuses his entreaties because he is enamored of Julia (you can already see the effect this stuff is having on my style). Valentine attempts to persuade him by lecturing him about the folly of love, but fails, and the friends make their adieux; they won’t see each other until; about halfway through Act II scene iv.

All this is pretty standard bromance stuff, and the irony is broad; even in Shakespeare’s time you could predict that Valentine is being set up to fall in love hard himself. And yet even in this early play, Shakespeare has a couple more twists of the knife in waiting. Consider the following passage, which is all I’m going to quote from this exchange. The story of Hero and Leander derives from myth: Leander so loved Hero that he tried to swim the Hellespont to reach her, only to drown, so he symbolizes the passionate lover in all kinds of ways. Shakespeare scholars love to find allusions to Marlowe, but in this case they are surely right to find one to his poem Hero and Leander.

And on a love–book pray for my success?
Upon some book I love I’ll pray for thee.
That’s on some shallow story of deep love —
How young Leander crossed the Hellespont.
That’s a deep story of a deeper love,
For he was more than over–shoes in love.
’Tis true; for you are over–boots in love
And yet you never swam the Hellespont.
Over the boots? Nay, give me not the boots.
No, I will not, for it boots thee not.
PROTEUS                                    What?
To be in love, where scorn is bought with groans,
Coy looks with heart–sore sighs, one fading
  moment’s mirth
With twenty watchful, weary, tedious nights.
If haply won, perhaps a hapless gain;
If lost, why then a grievous labour won;
However, but a folly bought with wit,
Or else a wit by folly vanquished.
So, by your circumstance, you call me fool.
So, by your circumstance, I fear you’ll prove.


This is young Shakespeare pulling out all the stops. The stichomythia (one line per character) is like a tennis match and the wordplay is as sharp. Note particularly lines 25-28, where Valentine and Proteus bat no fewer than four senses of “boots” back and forth (“over-boots” completing the proverbial expression “over-shoes, over-boots”; “Over the boots” apparently meaning literal boots; “give me not the boots” another idiom meaning “don’t make fun of me,” and “boots” meaning “profits” in “it boots thee not”). Note also the sexual innuendoes at Valentine’s lines 28-31 (the “groans” of orgasm in love, the “fading moment’s mirth,” orgasm again, bought with “tedious nights” consumed by jealousy).

Pretty good stuff. But doesn’t it sound somehow like we’ve heard it before? Indeed we have. The verbal Ping-Pong match reminds us Samson and Gregory’s dialogue at the beginning of Romeo and Juliet, and the innuendo anticipates Mercutio’s (remember his “If love be rough with you, be rough with love / Prick love for pricking, and you beat love down”?). So here at the very beginning we see one of the most characteristic features of Two Gents I mentioned: situations and incidents Shakespeare will use to better effect in later plays. And we’ll see another very shortly.

One other point to note. Valentine is going to Milan. He says so (line 57). But to do so he is getting on a ship, when both Milan and Verona are inland. This is the first of a number of confusions, geographical and otherwise, that lead most commentators to conclude that the young Shakespeare was not yet in full control of his material—and that he had no clear idea of Italian geography. If you want these confusions spelled out in great detail, get hold of the Arden Second Edition of the play; the editor, Clifford Leech, lists 41 of them in two separate lists (relating to geography and others).

“I Love You, Man!” Shakespeare’s Bromance

The Male Friendship Tradition

Male-male friendship has always existed. Unfortunately, so has the concept that it is somehow better than male-female friendship—frequently hand in hand (so to speak) with the disturbing claim that male-female and female-female friendship isn’t even possible. Shakespeare’s contemporary Montaigne is currently fashionable, but not, I think, for passages like this from his essay “On Friendship”:

 To compare this brotherly affection with affection for women . . . it cannot be done; nor can we put the love of women in the same category. Its ardor, I confess . . . is more active, more scorching, and more intense. But it is an impetuous and fickle flame, undulating and variable, a fever flame, subject to fits and lulls, that holds us only by one corner. In friendship it is a general and universal warmth, moderate and even, besides, a constant and settled warmth, with nothing bitter and stinging about it. (“On Friendship,” The Complete Essays of Montaigne, tr. Donald M. Frame, p. 137)

If it’s bad enough to discover that Montaigne is the Billy Crystal of the early modern era—sexual attraction gets in the way of friendship between man and woman—consider his explanation; it’s because women are inferior.

Besides, to tell the truth, the ordinary capacity of women is inadequate for that communion and fellowship which is the nurse of this sacred bond [of friendship]; nor does their soul seem firm enough to endure the strain of so tight and durable a knot. . . . [T]his sex in no instance has yet succeeded in attaining it, and by the common agreement of the ancient schools is excluded from it. (“On Friendship,” p. 138)

From Aristotle onward the idea is that in a true male-male friendship the friends are so close as to be an alter ego, or other self, a thought expressed by many, many later writers. Here is Montaigne again (notice how “wives” comes after “goods” in the following list):

Everything actually being in common between them—wills, thoughts, judgments, goods, wives, children, honor, and life—and their relationship being that of one soul in two bodies, according to Aristotle’s very apt definition, they can neither lend nor give anything to each other. “On Friendship,” p. 141)

The term you’ll see in academic studies “of, relating to, or involving social relationships between persons of the same sex and especially between men” (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.) for close male-male (and female-female) relationships, and spheres in which they are predominant, is “homosocial.” So, for example, the locker room, the military, or the court of James I would be homosocial environments. I think the term is unfortunate. Ever since Freud we are conditioned to think that everything, all the time, is about sex, so the slide into “homosexual” is all too easy. You only have to change three letters. Homosocial environments can be conducive to homosexual conduct, I need hardly say, and there’s surely a sexual undercurrent in many close male-male relationships, but homosociality and homosexuality aren’t necessarily connected. In addition, since there is a controversy about Shakespeare’s sexuality, using “homosocial” in discussions of Shakespeare can convey unwarranted implications. Perhaps by design. For all these reasons, in preference to “homosocial” I’ll use the more recent term “bromance.”

What Is a Bromance?

 As we understand the term today, a bromance is a close male-male friendship relation. (OED: “Intimate and affectionate friendship between men; a relationship between two men which is characterized by this. Also: a film focusing on such a relationship.” It’s amusing that the OED’s first recorded instance, from 2003, is to a use in the Usenet group rec.windsurfing.)

Trolling the Internet brings up examples like Kirk and Spock, Butch and Sundance, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. “Bromance” has also come to replace the term “buddy comedy,” i.e. a comedy revolving around such a relationship, such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Apply it specifically to romantic comedies (brom-coms?), and you’ll be able to see why I use it for Two Gentlemen. Proteus and Valentine are prototypical bromance buddies.

The Western Bromantic Tradition

Moreover, the buddies fall in line with a long bromance tradition in Western literature that is a crucial influence on Shakespeare. As noted, the theory of male-male friendship goes back at least to Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics; Shakespeare (with Fletcher) will return to it in The Two Noble Kinsmen, which is an adaptation of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale. And so on it goes, right up to The Hangover, Part 3.

I will only mention one of Shakespeare’s most important precursors. The story of Titus and Gisippus goes back to Boccaccio’s Decameron; Shakespeare followed an English version that appeared in 1531. Titus and Gisippus embody the “one soul in two bodies” idea by being twins. Gisippus is pressured into marrying Sophronia, with whom Titus falls in love so violently it makes him sick unto death. To save him, Gisippus gives him Sophronia, a gift effected by means of a “bed trick”; the identical Titus is substituted in the marriage bed for Gisippus, where he performs the formalities necessary for a valid marriage. In the second part of the story, Gisippus is accused of murder and Titus offers to take the rap. Greater love than this no bro hath! The main point of this very brief summary is to note that there is an offer of a woman by one friend to the other in one of Shakespeare’s sources. There are clear differences (for example, Titus didn’t try to rape Sophronia, she seems copacetic with the situation, though—like Silvia in Two Gentlemen—being a piece of property she doesn’t get to speak, and it is really surprising that Shakespeare didn’t use the bed trick), but the incident is there.

We’ll see the bromantic tradition working itself out as we proceed through Two Gentlemen, so let’s turn to that task now. Just keep in mind: Valentine and Proteus fit neatly into a (basically adolescent) tradition in which male friendship is more important than adult relationships with women.