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Six essays written on the following Shakespeare plays, all based on prompts: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, and The Winter's Tale.
















A Midsummer Night's Dream

There is one primary way in which Athens and the fairy forest are different in A Midsummer Nights Dream.  The first difference is in the representation of order and chaos.  Athens represents order and law, where the fairy forest invokes chaos. 

            Athens carries the aspect of strict order for the play.  It is a place of law where all are expected to comply.  Peoples places in life are determined and people are expected to fulfill those roles.  This principle is made clear at the very beginning in the conversation between Theseus, Egeus, and Hermia.  Egeus makes his case before Theseus based on the law of Athens, which serves as the springboard for the rest of the conversation.  And so Thesus makes his case by saying, I beg the ancient privilege of Athens,- / As she is mine, I may dispose of her: / Which shall be either to this gentleman / Or her death, according to our law / Immediately provided in that case (1.1.41-45).  This order is reemphasized at the end of the play where all the couples are returned to order through marriage, which in theory is somewhat more orderly and lawful than the alternatives.  Everyone takes his or her place in the orderly society. This idea of the law of Athens permeates the rest of the time the characters are in Athens and causes the main action of the play.  As the characters are constrained by the law and strict order of Athens, they leave for the chaos of the fairy forest where they can be as they wish. 

            And so as Athens represents order, the fairy forest is symbolic of chaos.  This is easily seen by the unusual and chaotic nature of all that takes place in the forest.  The forest seems to be filled with nonsensical events, ranging from changes in the climate due to the argument between Oberon and Titania to the chaotic shifting of loyalties between the four lovers.  And through it all, Puck perhaps displays best the nature of the fairy forest by making statements such as When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile, / Neighing in likeness of a filly foal: / And sometime lurk I in a gossips bowl, / In very likeness of a roasted crab (2.1.45-48).  Puck explains his character, and it is certainly one of pranks and chaos.  It is also through Pucks mistake that the lovers are first confused and then later returned to order.  But as well as the lovers plight, there are also the misguided relationship between Titania and Bottom and the stormy climate changes accompanying the problems between Titania and Oberon.  There is also the simple fact that the untamed forest is inherently a more wild and chaotic place than a well-ordered city.  All of these combine in the wild woods to provide a chaotic, fantastic symbol of chaos.

            And so Athens and the fairy forest provide symbols of order and chaos.  Everything about Athens is structured, from its laws to its established roles within society.  In the fairy forest, natural inclinations and events are twisted in bizarre and unusual ways.  Titanias love for Bottom shows this perhaps most clearly.  But the use of both chaos and order in the relationships of the four lovers shows the audience a more complete view of loves role in life and the relationships between men and women.  In order to achieve the established and structured end of marriage, the lovers must first pass through a chaotic time before that.  It is only through the chaos that order is achieved.  Even as the apparently structured and formal marriage between Theseus and Hippolyta was achieved through the chaos of war, the marriage of the lovers was achieved through the chaos induced by the fairy forest.

 

Romeo and Juliet

Fate plays a large role in Romeo and Juliet.  Although independent actions and decisions determine events, the outcome is determined by fate.  This is made clear both by the prologue and by the events that are implied as having taken place prior to that action in the play.  The characters of Romeo and Juliet only work within the framework provided by fate.

            The prologue sets the initial entry of fate when the Chorus says, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean. / From forth the fatal loins of these two foes / A pair of star-crost lovers take their life; / Whose misadventured piteous overthrows / Doth with their death bury their parents strife (Prologue 4-8).  Already, at the very outset of the play, the audience learns that the pair is doomed to failure.  The term star-crost simply means that the stars are working against the lovers in an astrological sort of way.  The implication here is clear.  If the stars were not working against the two, it is entirely possible that things may have ended differently than they did.  But not only are the two doomed to fail, but they were fated to meet and love.  Otherwise, how could they have been fated to fail?  From the very outset the couple is doomed not only to fail, but to die.  And the way that this fate works is through their families.

            Fate has established that this pairing would come through two opposed and embittered families.  In the above quote, the Chorus refers to both the doomed nature of the love and to the families.  The implication, once again, seems clear.  The purpose of the fated doom is to cause a cessation of hostilities between these two families.  At the end of the play Prince Escalus restates this idea when he says, See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate, / That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love! / And I, for winking at your discords too, / Have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are puisht (5.3.92-95).  Once again, the heavens are cited as having conspired to cause a specific fate.  The aim is to repair the rift between these two families.  And the way that fate chooses to do this is through the love and destruction of Romeo and Juliet.  And so the implied history of animosity between the Montagues and Capulets plays an important role in the fate provided for Romeo and Juliet.

            Throughout the play Romeo and Juliet act out of independence and not in a fated manner.  It is not the separate individual actions that are fated, but only the demise of the lovers and the eventual moderating of the feuding families.  Romeo and Juliet, Friar Lawrence, and the prince could have acted differently at any point in the story.  Friar Lawrence could have chosen not to marry the two.  The prince could have chosen not to overlook the feud, but to take steps to end it.  But none of this would have changed the outcome.  If Friar Lawrence had not married them, either another priest would have or the lovers would have remained in an unmarried relationship.  In the latter case, they could be facing death by law or family.  The outcome would have been the same.  If the prince had chosen to force the issue and force the families to stop feuding, it is likely that the anger would have only grown hotter between the Montagues and Capulets, so nothing would have changed.  Even though independent actions were not determined by fate, the stars had predestined the outcome.  In reality, the love and death of Romeo and Juliet were incidental, with the real point being the end of the feud.

 

Henry V

King Henry is portrayed as a noble, heroic Christian king in Shakespeares play.  He is to be admired and loved as the model king.  His actions and words, as well as those comments made by others, ensure that the audience sees Henry V in a good light.

            His actions are those of a good king, of a king who serves God above all else.  In Act III Scene III good King Henry stands before the town of Harfleur, and speaks of the great calamity that will befall the inhabitants if they do not surrender to the English forces.  He warns that he will, in battle, be unable to restrain his men and that all kinds of atrocities will take place: the killing of the women and children, looting, the elderly slain, and the women raped.  This is a grim picture of a possible future, and one is inclined at first to picture Henry as a bloodthirsty savage out for blood.  However, when the town surrenders peacefully, he treats them with respect and mercy.  It is more likely that in order to prevent all these terrible things from actually happening, he described it in as gory detail as possible to ensure capitulation of the French village.

            Henrys discussion with his soldiers in Act IV Scene I shows another side of Henry.  Here he discusses morality and more immediately, who is responsible for the souls of slain soldiers.  He reasons with his men, explaining why it is his belief that each soldier is in charge of their own soul, and that the manner of his death (even if he should die in an unjust war) is not what is important.  This passage reveals several traits about Henry.  The first is that he is willing to listen to the complaints of the common soldiers, that he does not view himself as superior to them.  This is indeed a marvelous trait for a king and a leader in battle to have.  He does not ridicule the ideas that he disagrees with, but rather rationally counters the idea.  This also shows intelligence on the part of Henry.  Here is no spoiled kinglet, but a true king, one who thinks and ponders deep things.  Which leads to the third point that this passage brings out.  That is that Henry is a king concerned about the souls of his men, which is a very noble thing.

            In the Prologue and the Epilogue, the Chorus describes how great of a king Henry was.  In the Prologue the Chorus apologizes for the actors to attempt to portray the king.  He acknowledges that it is a lofty ambition, and one that is not easily fulfilled.  This sort of speech could only be made about a good king, not a despot or tyrant.  Likewise, in the Epilogue, the Chorus speaks of how Henry conquered France, but England lost its possessions on the continent after Henry V was gone.  This makes a clear point about the power and strength of Henry.  While he was able to accomplish this great feat of conquering France, his successors could not even maintain it.  It elevates him to a height above that of other English monarchs.

            Yes, in Henry V, King Henry is portrayed in a very good light.  He is shown to be a powerful, Godly, intelligent monarch whose ability as a ruler far surpassed those who followed him.  His every action, from the band of brothers speech to the way he speaks to Catherine shows ability.  He does not place himself on a pedestal above the common man, but rather is placed there by the play.  He does not simply take Catherine as his right, but rather wishes to woo her and win her over to him.  It is a concerned, thoughtful Henry we see in this play, one who is noble and just, one who serves that cause of good over the cause of evil.  Yes, in this play Henry is indeed the mirror of all Christian kings.

 

Much Ado About Nothing

Benedicks soliloquies in Much Ado About Nothing show two sides of the same person.  Although the position held by Benedick is opposite the other in each soliloquy, the basic underlying character as not changed.  In short, the opinion has changed, but not the person.  Benedick remains proud and confident in himself.

            In the first soliloquy in the third scene of act II, Benedick lightly mocks his friend Claudio for falling love and seeking marriage.  He ridicules this idea, using terms such as foolish, shallow follies, and like language.  He ridicules the reasons for marrying.  He laughs at marrying someone for her beauty, wisdom, virtue, and wealth.  He says that those each of these is good; its not enough unless a woman has all these traits, all the while implying that there is no such person.  In short, he is against marriage.

            In the second soliloquy, Benedick takes the opposite viewpoint towards marriage.  He rationalizes his other statements on the subject, working to twist them to this new outlook, saying things such as, When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married.  Obviously Benedick is trying to justify his earlier statements, twisting his statement on marriage into a doubt as to his lifespan as a soldier.  Which is quite obviously not what he had intended when he said it.  He also works to backtrack some on one of his earlier statements.  He speaks earlier of the traits that are desirable in a female mate, and says that there is no one with all of them.  Now he changes his tune and begins to list the ways in which Beatrice meets these required traits, and speaks of her beauty and wisdom.  He also admits to having spoken against marriage, but also admits to himself that tastes and attitudes change, that it is unnatural to hold to the same view and standpoint for ones entire life.

            Even though Benedicks view of marriage and love changes radically, his basic character does not change with it.  He maintains his confidence and pride.  This comes through in his first soliloquy simply in the manner in which he speaks.  He is mocking his friend, laughing not only at him, but also others who are at the same point and want the same things as his friend Claudio.  He sees himself as being apart and, most likely, above them for his views.  In any case, he sees himself as being better than that.  When he succumbs to love, his confidence and pride remains unshaken.  Instead of really admitting he was wrong, he instead works things in his own mind to provide continuity for his thoughts and attitudes.  His confidence unshaken, he proceeds at a rush in this new direction.

            These speeches reveal an interesting aspect of Benedicks character, and through his character to human character in general.  Individual and separate attitudes and thoughts can be changed without remaking the basic character of a person.  Benedick maintains his strength and momentum, but simply applies it in an opposite direction. 

 

Othello

Othello possesses a darker color skin than do those around him.  He is a different race than those around him.  However, it is not this specifically that plays a major role in the play.  What is important is that he is an outsider.  Any outsider would have done, but Shakespeare chose to make Othello a Moor.  The fact that Othello is an outsider is important only for providing a reason for the title character to feel insecure, and for providing a way for Iago to cause his desired end.

            The difference separating Othello from his fellows is race.  However, the same effect could have been had by simply having him  as a common man, from the wrong part of Venice, or some distinguishing characteristic, such as being the only blond among dark haired people, being much taller or shorter than the others, or simply by having him dress in an unusual manner.  If the old black ram had instead been tow head or dwarf or some such, the same effect would have been had.  All that is important is that Othello is different.

            It is this difference that weighs heavily on Othello and creates insecurity.  The fact that he is different from those around him, among other things, creates insecurity towards Desdemona.  In Act III, Scene III, starting at about line 331, Othello says, Ay, theres the point: --as--to be bold with you--not to affect many proposed matches of her own clime, complexion, and degree whereunto we see in all thing nature tends.  Notice that race is only one of three things that Othello mentions.  Othello was an outsider in other ways besides his race.  He was raised from the lowly state of a slave, and is much older than is Desdemona.  These things work together to create a feeling of insecurity in Othello.

            It is also interesting that Iago pays only partial attention to Othellos difference in race.  Instead of race dominating the play, it plays a role much like other things do, but does not assume the main thrust of the play.  He uses race as reason in the first act, when he speaks to Senator Brabantio, he makes brief reference to it in the third act, and at various other points in the play he drops lines about Othellos skin color.  But he also uses Othellos lowly birth status and his age in attempts to incite others against the Moor and to inflame Othellos jealousy.

            And jealousy is the central theme of the play, not race.  Iago is jealous of Cassio when he says, Cassios a proper man: let me see now;/To get his place and to plume up my will (I. III. 62-63).  He turns this against the Moor.  And because it is incited by jealousy, at least in part, it is proper that Iagos methods aim at creating jealousy in Othello.  He warns Othellos in the 165th line of the third scene of the third act to beware, my lord, of jealousy;/It is the green-eyed monster, all the while working to raise jealousy in Othello.

            Race is not important for jealousy.  Jealousy can be found in any race, and in either gender.  Instead, race was used along side other factors to create an insecurity that could be used to allow jealousy to grow.  If race is taken to be the central theme of the play, than age and class must also be taken to be central ideas of the plot.  No, what is important is that Othello is an outsider, that he is different.  This allows him to grow insecure and to allow the jealousy cultivated by Iago to grow.

 

The Winter's Tale

In act IV scene IV, lines 72-108, Perdita and Polixenes do some polite verbal sparring on the subjects of art and nature.  Polixenes, it appears, sees art in a controlled nature.  In other words, that when humans modify nature, it can create better art.  Perdita, however, seems to believe that only by near non-involvement can the true beauty and art of nature be revealed.

            Perdita, for example, refuses to mix the flowers of that time of the year with others.  She allows flowers to bloom in their time and as they will.  Polixines, however, argues that the flower garden can be improved by introducing these foreign flowers, Then make your garden right in gillyvors, and do not call them bastards (IV. IV. 101-102).  This is all very basic and simple, but it takes an ironic twist just before this in line 95 when Polixenes states that, we marry a gentler scion to the wildest stock. 

            Polixines is, in effect, making the opposite argument in horticulture that he proposes to make in reality.  He believes that by mixing different qualities of flowers, a garden can be made better.  However, he is firmly set against his son Florizel marrying Perdita, who he believes to be a common shepherdess.  His ideas are incompatible and at odds with each other.  By Perdita arguing against this point, she is instead backing Polixenes belief against the intermarriage of royal blood and common blood.  The two are arguing the points of the other!  Or at least, so it seems.  Indeed, since Perdita is actually of royal blood it might be said that her arguments hold more weight than even she believes.  Her arguments are only apparently working against herself.  If she should know her proper identity, however, her arguments would work in her own favor.

            To further confuse the issue though, it is shortly after revealed that Florzel is known to Perdita as Doricles.  Doricles, as I understand it, appears to be of noble birth, but is not so high as to claim royal blood.  So in this sense, Perditas conviction against the interbreeding of flowers holds true to how she sees reality, that is, that she and her love are equal.  Everyone in this section has a skewed sense of reality, and the identities of the participants are often hidden to various degrees.  Polixenes argues for a point that in all other ways he abhors.  Perdita argues a point that appears to her to hold true, but doesnt hold true as far as anyone else can know, but which is in reality true. 

            This scene also removes sympathies the audience might harbor for Polixenes.  By having him embrace a conviction about flowers that is obviously against his other beliefs, and by having him show how nature might be improved to some degree by a humans mixing of the natural order, he destroys his won arguments against his sons relationship with an apparent shepherdess.  After this, there can be no doubt as to who is in the right, and the Perdita Florizel relationship becomes even more appealing to the audience.