Sunday, August 16, 2015

Andrea Van Nort: “Shakespeare’s Nature”

Andrea Trocha-Van Nort

Expressing the Human Experience through Nature in Shakespeare: Analogy, Parable, and Parabola

Why, what is pomp, rule, reign but earth and dust?
And live we how we can, yet die we must.[1]

1> Reform and Counter-Reform campaigning destabilized the certainties promoted over ten centuries of unified Christian thought, a condition acknowledged on the early modern stage. This is, of course, in spite of the fact that religious topics had been banned from public entertainments by Henry VIII. Marienstras compares the providential certitude recorded by Shakespeare’s chroniclers with the dramatist’s own interrogative approach to history:

For the chroniclers from whom Shakespeare drew the matter of his histories…the collective suffering and the fall of the great were punishments inflicted by God on those nations in which the people and the kings had transgressed divine and human laws. Nonetheless, Shakespeare, who asks the question, keeps from answering with too great assurance: he leads one to see, feel, and think. The spectator can thus say that history is without a doubt made of chance and necessity, of accidents and constraints – and he could also meditate on this strange God who, to bring his peace to earth, needs such atrocious preliminaries. (82)[2]

2> Teleological supervision of men’s affairs was no longer envisioned through “punishments” for “transgressors”; instead, a skeptical mind sifting through empirical evidence – Marienstras’s “see, feel, and think” – would question and even test arguments of design. These “accidents and constraints” – Shakespeare’s “moving accidents”[3] – are easily perceived in the many fortuitous crossings of characters or limitations imposed by a multitude of factors. The effects of an aleatory human experience are explored in Shakespeare at the individual level through mimetic analogies, sometimes proverbial, sometimes not, but most often linked to nature. Much as Montaigne moves in his Essays from his own questions to classical thought and back to himself, characters in Shakespeare often reflect on these natural laws through simile or metaphor, observing those patterns visible in nature in the events of their own lives.

3> Here, we should provide a more symbolic view of the construction of these pairings of natural occurrences and the events of an individual’s life. By nature, the pursuit of analogical significance involves an encoding, one which moves as does the parabolic, from the quadrant of “the other” to that of “oneself.” Tension rises as the description becomes more complex, reaching its apex at the moment when the analogy crosses into the quadrant of the “now” for the character.  Table 1 illustrates this rise and crossing.

Table 1:
Implicate associations and the advancement of dramatic action

4> The upper left and right quadrants represent the two worlds of the analogy, in the left, the image separate from the lesson, and in the right, the clarity of the lesson learned, while the lower left and right chart the progression towards resolution in the play itself. The lower left represents the space of the developing action before the reflection, while the lower right continues the action post-reflection. The graph line departs at a level of higher dramatic tension, due to the gains made by the analogy. Shaped as a parabola, the reflective moment draws the audience away from the action itself and commands associative memory to complete the desired image. As an example, we could trace Coriolanus’s crafting of an image of easily-managed boats on a calm sea as compared to the skill needed to manage the same during a storm:

That when the sea was calm all boats alike
Show'd mastership in floating; fortune's blows,
When most struck home, being gentle wounded, craves
A noble cunning: you were used to load me
With precepts that would make invincible
The heart that conn'd them. (4.1.6-11)

5> Coriolanus compares the results of his mother’s instruction to that of “all boats alike” on a “calm” sea yet “crav[ing] / A noble cunning” when “fortune’s blows” test the captain’s “mastership.” This analogy, which makes use of the power of water to make its point, draws the listener into a world of shared understanding with Coriolanus, into a stock of shared knowledge that demands reflection, crafting an implicate comparison dependent upon memory to shape the present.[4] This mimetic, analogical reflex participates first in the growth of the character before contributing to the advancing action of a play. Morrison’s overview of Augustinian mimesis underscores the importance of mimetic analogy in the development of the individual:

The entire process of thought, as Augustine conceived it, was made up of a series of imitations in a field of asymmetries between the mind and objects of thought. We see because the image of something outside us is impressed upon our senses. We remember because a similitude of that image has passed into the memory. We think because the will composes an inner vision from the deposit of remembered similitudes […] But even this first stage of a complex process is only possible because of a prior mimetic reality. (59)[5]

6> In Shakespeare as in Augustine, a “field of asymmetries” develops as an individual recognizes a similitude that travels from the self to the image, then back to the self, creating a parabolic inflection from “what is elsewhere” to how the law governing that “elsewhere” also affects that individual’s life. The image surfaces through a sudden perception in the character’s imaginary, forcing recognition of what “has been” all along, and, importantly, replicates the foundations of the dramatic structure itself (rise and fall).  

7> Close readings, such as those we traditionally propose in a classroom, focus on these smaller parabola or inflected constructions related to parables.[6] These mimetic analogies characters draw from the realm of nature to read the world they inhabit and determine their response to it determine character development, as these analogies reveal characters’ approaches to reasoning, the logic behind their actions. Viewed from this perspective, these analogies constitute smaller parabola within the larger of each character’s struggle, illuminating the characters’ exercising of free will (the rise) while highlighting their inner motivations and recognition of what they consider natural laws (the fall).  From these brief passages the reader constructs a more distant view of the text, perceiving more acutely the “sad stories of the death of kings” (Richard II, 3.2.156) or the conventional de casibus rise and fall of royalty. Especially in the histories and the tragedies, though not exclusively, a character experiences the world as Fortune will allow, through “accidents and constraints,” charting a trajectory that traces a rise to an ideal, followed by a fall, even if the latter is only partially revealed.

8> Foiled human endeavor rhythms all of Shakespeare’s plays, these “moving accidents” from Fortune thwarting the efforts of even the most careful and calculating.  With this, I am stating nothing new.  However, I aim to prove in this paper that, a dual design of near and distant reading brings forward the smaller as well as the larger parabola which individualize characters and highlight their experience within the larger realm of nature.  Surprisingly, what remains from the accumulation of these smaller analogies which eventually give shape to the larger, distantly-viewed parabola, is less about the human and more about the reassuring perennity of the non-human, of matter, of its irrepressible forces and transcendent qualities, which become visible in emotional passages, especially in critical moments of peripeteia or anagnorisis.  Said otherwise, one can see the plays as constructed by imaginative parabola within larger, lived parabola, all participating in a pre-scientific view of an extensive and sublime universal nature. “That small model of the barren earth”[7] perceives and is perceived, yet participates only fleetingly, exceedingly quietly, in the larger realm of a vast, Lucretian nature.

9> Within the limits of this paper, I will discuss only the natural-world elements of the most critical mimetic analogies: matter, substance, and the larger realm of non-human nature. We recognize by “matter” those elements by which we are composed, more specifically as understood in the Lucretian sense and represented in Shakespeare as dust, clay, and earth; “substance” represents our living body, and in Greek, eusia suggests as well one’s being[8]; and finally, “nature” combines the natural world, of which humans are a part, with the cosmos. Occurrences of these elements are found throughout Shakespeare’s work,[9] and our study focusses on moving, for the most part, from earlier to later plays within each section. We will first explore the human bonds with matter and substance within the larger realm of nature itself.  How characters are brought to perceive their humanity, their mortality, and the infinity of nature will guide this examination. We then pursue the smaller parabola charted by individual mimetic analogies – some fundamentally proverbial, others not – linked to the natural world, a world to which a speaker often turns in order to express or comprehend a crisis. In this section we will focus on images related to dust and water as matter, as these are the most prolific sources for our study, with some necessary references to consuming fire. Finally, we will consider the embracing of the natural world in the face of death, marking the declining post-vertex stretches of the larger parabola, when a character forfeits earthly victory to Fortune.  

10> The artifice of drama is to bring artifacts of human existence – Lear’s “little world of man”[10] – into a rhythmed, measured whole; questions in early Shakespeare regarding the characteristics of that “whole,” and man’s embracing of, immersion into, and dispersion within nature are particularly profound.  We know that Seneca and Montaigne served Shakespeare throughout his career with reflections on human fallibility, epistemology, and finitude. The former obviously pleased through moral contemplations and Stoic thought, while the latter’s Essays explored Lucretian principles as well as Senecan thought.  Indeed, Montaigne cites Seneca more frequently than any other source, even more than Socrates or Plato. Lucretius would take fifth place after these and Horace.[11] As well, Virgil’s Georgics[12] and Eclogue VI[13] provide aesthetically-pleasing strains of Lucretian mereology and cosmology. Horace, with Satires I,[14]  demonstrates that the masters of the system, the gods, desist from helping men as the latter will never be satisfied, while The Aeneid dispassionately links the gods to victorious, though hardly a righteous, causes.  The influence of these writers on Shakespeare has been exhaustively studied; nonetheless, the exploration of the Lucretian influence has largely been limited to specific passages rather than as a basis for character and dramatic development.

11> Man’s being or “substance,”[15] the outcomes of his labors, and his fear of death are notions frequently reflected upon in Shakespeare’s plays: his preoccupation with substance, dust, and death, and his use of the topos of the similitude of sleep and death[16] syncretize ancient thought with Christian memento mori.  Indeed, matter is presented as the source of life and is linked to substance as well as to our fulfillment of the exchange of life for life in the Lucretian view: we receive life, but must die in order for life to continue.[17]  Likely the most obvious examples, Hamlet’s memento mori speeches diminish man’s influence in the larger view. More focused on the flesh, for example, in his grim equivocation over Polonius’s whereabouts, Hamlet’s implication that a king could “go a progress through the guts of a beggar” (IV.iii.30-31), unquestionably reduces humans to the benignly material.  By referencing a king (as he speaks to the king), he underscores not only our inevitable bodily decay, but also the senselessness of all human endeavor, from commoner to monarch.  Other characters suggest an awareness of the material within and without in a less formulaic manner.  For instance, in his last moments, King John sees his life as characters drawn in a text: 

There is so hot a summer in my bosom,
That all my bowels crumble up to dust:
I am a scribbled form, drawn with a pen
Upon a parchment, and against this fire
Do I shrink up. (5.7.28-32)

And in response to Faulconbridge’s inauspicious report:

And then all this thou seest is but a clod
And module of confounded royalty” (5.7.57-58).

12> The king, dying of a fever, senses his substance akin to “parchment” that shrivels in a fire.  His fever or heat harkens back to Lucretius, to his theory of atoms, movement, and collision[18]:  efforts to safeguard his crown and conduct his wars have consumed him. Though King John speaks of manuscripts, where characters are “drawn with a pen,” a close reader populates the image with the characters inhabiting Shakespeare’s source texts, which record the rise and fall of the great.  After his failed enterprise, “he that was King John” returns to earth with neither glory nor splendor: as a “clod,” all “royalty” is meaningless, as has been his undertaking to maintain his crown and lands.[19]  Here, the stricken king passes the stage of visualizing bones or even dust, accepting directly the clay of the earth.[20]

13> Substance, or a being incorporating matter, binds humans to the earth and to one another.  Indeed, 1 Henry IV opens with the king asserting that he and his lords are “those opposed eyes, / Which, like the meteors of a troubled heaven, / All of one nature, of one substance bred…did lately meet” (1.1.9-12).  As an exposition, King Henry’s words interestingly draw cosmological elements, “meteors,” into the human, our “nature” (which should be read as “type”), and conclude the subject with what we share as living beings: our “substance.” By affirming similitude, the King of course hopes to prevent future discord.  Analogously, Richard II plays on “substance” in his final speech before Bolingbroke, when the latter upbraids Richard for allowing the “shadow of [his] sorrow” to “destroy” Richard’s face: Richard’s response prefigures Hamlet’s mourning, with “these external manners of laments / Are merely shadows to the unseen grief / That swells with silence in the tortured soul. / There lies the substance” (4.1.296-299).  As for Henry V, “substance” binds humans through their strongest emotions.[21]  In later as well as early Shakespeare, humans are bound, however, not only by this common source but also by their fear of this truth. For example, substance is more directly reduced to matter in Duke Vincentio’s irreligious consolation speech to Claudio, as he underscores human frailties and references Lucretian atomism:

Thou'rt by no means valiant;
For thou dost fear the soft and tender fork
Of a poor worm. Thy best of rest is sleep,
And that thou oft provokest; yet grossly fear'st
Thy death, which is no more. Thou art not thyself;
For thou exist'st on many a thousand grains
That issue out of dust. (3.1.16-21)

14> Object of varying commentaries, the duke’s speech unmistakably posits an Epicurean ideal of peace acquired once the fear of death is dispelled by knowledge of what we are. Virgil’s Eclogue I – “Creation’s birth – how seeds of earth and air, / Of water and fluent fire were brought together and married / In a vastness of empty space” – again comes to mind, as well as Montaigne’s conclusion regarding the unreasonable fears men have of death in “Que Philosopher: c’est apprendre à mourir.”[22]  As well, the topos of sleep imitating death is readily recognizable, along with Lucretian atomism in the “thousand grains / That issue out of dust.” The duke hardly speaks like the friar whose robes he has assumed; rather, as a sophisticated though distant disciple of Epicurus, he asserts that matter reconciles as it reduces. We are dust, and therefore need not fear a return to it and to the earth.  Duke Vincentio cannot speak like a friar, as he is not one; unsurprisingly, then, he articulates a secular consolation to the doomed Claudio who himself concludes with the intricately chiastic lines, “To sue to live, I find I seek to die, / And seeking death, find life” (3.1.43-44).[23] Of course, Claudio unnerves once he must live up to his pronouncement, when he learns of the bargain for his life, a pact his sister intends to refuse.  Consistently nonconformist, Shakespeare pursues a specific line of thought only to uproot it incongruously shortly after, yet the exploration of the infinite through the minute – nature’s prerogative over one man’s life – fixes the play in a philosophical realm.  The Duke’s Epicurean speech is designed to offer Claudio a release:  matter and substance unite humans with one another and with the material world of which we are a functioning (though minute) part. A human being cannot surpass her earthly shell, in spite of any elaborate, ambitious schemes. An organic and immediate dramaturgy, to which Shakespeare’s stage gave rise, reproduces this mereological interdependency humans have with and within nature through context, speech, and outcomes.

15> Matter and nature also enable a character to comprehend human events more meaningfully, a tradition linked to the abundance of proverbial phrases and sententiae of the period. Resorting to an analogy (i.e. “as when…”) or a mental image, through fear or anguish, grants a speaker some distance between the source of fear and oneself.  It is revealing to read a Giordano Bruno, in dedicating his works (and thus hoping to avoid their destruction), speak in terms of natural imagery of the building case against him in Rome: he believes that under the dedicatee’s, de Castelnau’s, protection, his works won’t be “submerged by the iniquitous and tumultuous Ocean” which is his “foe.”[24]  Through these figurative terms, Bruno suggests not only the extent of his apprehensions, but also the relentlessness and inflexibility of those seeking his life.  Over his career Shakespeare differentiated himself from other playwrights[25] and poets by the mimetic complexity gained through sustained images of this nature.[26]  Frequently, water provides the basis of many of his comparisons, whether referring to the scale of an event or to the law of an observed phenomenon.[27]  The unequalled power of water creates a formidable, unavoidable foe in the plays:  “surges” can “wash both heaven and hell” in Pericles (3.1.2-3), or wreak havoc, as in King John, when half of Faulconbridge’s army is unexpectedly swept away.[28] Nor can the momentous storms in either Othello – “the wind-shaked surge with high and monstrous mane” (2.1.13) – or The Tempest – “the sea mounting to the welkin’s cheek” (1.2.4) – be forgotten. Richard III ironically uses water imagery in a neatly chiastic structure to convince the commoners of his lack of desire for the throne:

Yet so much is my poverty of spirit,
So mighty and so many my defects,
That I would rather hide me from my greatness,
Being a bark to brook no mighty sea,
Than in my greatness covet to be hid
And in the vapour of my glory smothered. (3.7.158-163)

16> Richard’s habile distortions of the truth through amplified rhetoric titillate an audience prepared to see evil at its worst. Falsely modest, Richard purports to lack “spirit,” and would rather “hide [himself] from [his] greatness,” an assertion that undermines any projected humility due to the use of “greatness,” and ends in his “greatness covet[ing] to be hid.” Richard’s characteristically adroit manipulation of language reaches its apex in the “bark” unfit for a “mighty sea.”

17> Despite his pretensions to the contrary, through Richard’s choice of analogy he discloses the true underpinnings of his self-image and his political potential. More often, however, the image is used without equivocation, as by the Gentleman (or Knight) in Lear when describing the king calling upon these menacing elements to end the hell he has created:

Contending with the fretful element:
Bids the winds blow the earth into the sea,
Or swell the curled water 'bove the main,
That things might change or cease; tears his white hair,
Which the impetuous blasts, with eyeless rage,
Catch in their fury, and make nothing of;
Strives in his little world of man to out-scorn
The to-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain.
This night, wherein the cub-drawn bear would couch,
The lion and the belly-pinched wolf
Keep their fur dry, unbonneted he runs,
And bids what will take all. (3.1.4-14)

18> To the Gentleman’s mind, “To out-scorn” nature is an impossible task, as the “to-and-fro conflicting wind and rain” never end, as echoed later by the Fool. The “curled water,” “impestuous blasts,” the “fury” consume the human and cannot be conquered by him. The subject, Lear, wishes for a second, more spectacular deluge, one that would “blow the earth into the sea.” Only complete destruction, complete erasure can change the course of events he himself has set in motion. Personification through “impetuous,” “fury,” and “eyeless rage” confer human elements on the storm, emphasizing its magnitude.  Lear’s angst reaches its most rational apex in the subsequent “Blow Winds and crack your cheeks!” (3.2.1-9) speech which demonstrates that his sense of guilt and bitterness have developed into a generalized misanthropy. Clearly, here as elsewhere, comparisons with this most visually overpowering of all elements bear the traces of paragone, because of the hyperbolic and emotive potentialities therein.  Movements of water, oceans, and rivers furnish analogies, comparisons, or extended metaphors such as Brutus’s “There is a tide” (4.3.212-223) speech, where a dishonorable life is led in the “shallows,” while Machiavellian virtue “must take the current when it serves.”  In Timon, a quite different conceit begins by drawing on the force of water and ending by a melee of good and evil: 

Lust and liberty
Creep in the minds and marrows of our youth,
That ‘gainst the stream of virtue they may strive
And drown themselves in riot!” (4.1.25-28).

19> “Creep” suggests something bestial, or at best animal-like, battling against the “stream of virtue”; the water brings an end, however, by drowning all “in riot.” Exploited in a much more tragic vein as a comparison in Titus Andronicus, a storm’s flooding becomes a euphemistic trifle next to a father’s tears:  “One hour’s storm will drown the fragrant meads: / What will whole months of tears thy father’s eyes?” (3.1.54-55). Marcus’s mind incorporates an image of beauty, “fragrant meads,” to offset the horror of what he sees, presumably for Lavinia’s sake, but also seemingly to imagine his brother’s horror in comparison to his own.  Interestingly, images linked to water recur throughout this play: in the same scene, Andronicus mirrors Marcus’s tears-rain comparison when scolding the others for not understanding his grief:

When heaven doth weep, doth not the earth o’erflow?
If the winds rage, doth not the sea wax mad,
Threatening the welkin with his big-swollen face?
And wilt thou have a reason for this coil?
I am the sea. Hark how her sighs doth blow.
She is the weeping welkin, I the earth.
Then must my sea be moved with her sighs,
Then must my earth with her continual tears
Become a deluge overflowed and drowned,
For why my bowels cannot hide her woes,
But like a drunkard must I vomit them. (3.1.222-232, my emphases)

20> Andronicus compares the sight of his maimed daughter to an overfilled ocean, “moved” and replete with the sky’s “weeping,” as he becomes a “deluge overflowed and drowned.” Even though he admits he is surrendering to his grief (and some could point to melodrama in his overstatements), the sublimation of sky and sea nonetheless exposes the depths of his pity for his daughter’s loss and his own grief at seeing her yet knowing her to be forever lost.[29]  Indeed, Marcus’s earlier, moving speech upon finding the raped and mutilated Lavinia prepare the reader to anticipate the depths of Titus’s anguish. Another intriguing reference to water comes from Saturninus in the same play, when he recognizes that his moment as Caesar must end:  “Is warlike Lucius general of the Goths? / These tidings nip me and I hang the head / As flowers with frost or grass beat down with storms” (4.4.69-71).  Saturninus, never quite certain of or comfortable in his power, employs images of frailty from nature – “flowers,” “grass” – images of the defenseless against the unavoidable “storm.”  The fact that his parabola is reversed, with introspection leading to the natural world, strikingly reveals his long-endured anxieties over his suitability for the throne.

21> The predictable vicissitudes of water can also forge an image to instruct.  Caesar’s prosopographia of the “common body” in Antony and Cleopatra makes a striking comparison with the random advances of water:  “Like to a vagabond flag[30] upon the stream, / Goes to and back, lackeying the varying tide, / To rot itself with motion” (1.4.44-47). Just as Bruno’s personification acts through “iniquitous,” here “lackeying” suggests a subordinate, aimless nature attached to the Roman commoners, ostensibly living only to “rot,” with “motion” that is suggestive of the rhythmic, repetitious movements linked to the “mechanical” plebeians.  One of Shakespeare’s most striking images with water and matter is also in this play, in Antony’s lines to Eros, when Antony has determined that Cleopatra has become a traitor to their cause.  The battle ended, a reflective Antony relates clouds and then water to the man he has become:

ANTONY.     Sometime we see a cloud that’s dragonish;
   A vapour sometime like a bear or lion,
   A tower’d citadel, a pendent rock,
   A forked mountain, or blue promontory
   With trees upon’t that nod unto the world
   And mock our eyes with air. Thou hast seen these signs;
   They are black vesper’s pageants.
EROS.     Ay, noble lord.
ANTONY.     That which is now a horse, even with a thought
   The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct,
   As water is in water.
EROS.     It does, my lord.
ANTONY.     My good knave Eros, now thy captain
   Is even such a body. Here I am Antony;
   Yet cannot hold this visible shape, my knave. (4.14.2-14)

22> A rather uncharacteristic and introspective speech, Antony’s reverie discloses the martial elements that populate his imagination:  something “dragonish,” “a bear or lion,” could (albeit, anachronistically) elicit a standard or a coat of arms, while “tower’d citadel,” “pendant rock,” “forked mountain,” and “promontory” suggest the climes traversed in campaigns of conquest. Each of these evocations thrusts Antony’s sense of self to the surface, clustering ideas from the imaginary, wild or untamable, to the fort to be taken and the terrain to be covered:  one is reminded of Othello’s “I had been happy” speech (3.3.348-360), with its wistful inventory of “plumed troops,” “big wars,” and “spirit-stirring drum.” Here, the “trees” on the promontory seem to pretend to bend in the wind and therefore “mock,” seducing earthly viewers into believing they are real.  Antony’s shift within the images, from “things” to “mocking things,” suggests the unreliability of the matter that makes the image possible at all, and in doing so, parabolically returns to his own dilemma but upon a new plane of understanding.  From there, the “black vespers’ pageants,” or illusions at dusk, and the collapsing of the images which by the clouds (“racks”) themselves – again, the medium – are “dislimned,” are dissolved, sublimated in the air, as “water is in water.”[31]  The image is destroyed by the very substance of which it is made; if we follow Antony well, our self-image is fraught with the same instability that governs the transient clouds, and we are no more unique than one drop of water falling into an ocean. Antony’s theme is echoed by Cleopatra shortly after:

Nature wants stuff
To vie strange forms with fancy; yet t’imagine
An Antony were nature’s piece ‘gainst fancy,
Condemning shadows quite. (5.2.96-99)

23> Nature’s substances, in the form of Antony, challenge human imagination:  ironically, it is Cleopatra’s fancy that speaks, revealing itself as rich, once again, though idealistic. It is indeed her human “fancy” or imaginativeness that crafts the paragone in the first place. The natural world thus serves as an objective mirror to visualize the self and others within the larger world, seeking natural laws and some certitude, should any exist.

24> Shakespeare’s plays focus upon human endeavor and ambition, especially in the historical and tragic modes where one rarely leaves the precincts of human failings.[32] The shifting elements of the natural world serve as tableaux for human toil, as Feste and Lear’s clown assert with the “wind and the rain” and “the rain it raineth every day.”[33] In fact, one might view the later storms and the inauspicious terrain[34] in Lear as the natural world smothering or drowning human activity. Human endeavor, from a distant perspective, can seem senseless, especially in the case of those characters who, by acting to avoid demise, ironically expose themselves to it: the parabola here would have them end with a new understanding of the fear with which they began.  To scale the trajectory, sleep and dream remain the instigators of action, as suggested in Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” speech (1.4.53-94):  the idle or sleeping mind opens to the strongest desires, which Queen Mab plays “midwife” to bring to life. She can even generate those dreams, as she “tickles a parson’s nose” or “driveth o’er a soldier’s neck” (80, 82), bringing their deep-seated desires into self-gratifying visions.  Mercutio’s odd speech ends in bawdy, clearly enough, yet the content adds to his character the rarity and complexity that make his death more disturbing.  More, Mercutio’s speech points to the underlying powers (and limitations) of sleep and dream – “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded by a sleep” confirms Prospero (4.1.156-158).  Like Antony’s vision in the clouds, Prospero sees that “this insubstantial pageant faded” will “Leave not a rack behind” (155-156), no cloud, no vision in the canvas of the sky.  Driven by dream, human aspirations can be sounded, studied, emulated, but recognizing the inevitable annihilation of our being, our dispersion into the elements, must conclude these mental wanderings if a character is to close life successfully, peacefully.  Indeed, moments of peripeteia can, importantly, bring characters to make significant use of nature, cleaving to matter in a last attempt to resurrect themselves as a part of an identifiable whole.[35]  As mentioned above, death compares convincingly to sleep in the ancient topos, but we are also interested in those cases evoking and embracing complete dispersion into the elements.  In later Shakespeare, Othello’s plea upon recognition of his error blends dispersal of the material with contemporary tortures:  “Blow me about in winds, roast me in sulphur, / Wash me in steep-down gulfs of liquid fire!” (5.2.282). After first imagining a body reduced by winds, he restores it to be immersed in sulphur or burnt at the stake.   “Wash” is particularly poignant, with “steep-down gulf,” both suggesting fears that Purgatory’s crushing tortures await.  The speech conveys that he wishes to cleanse the earth of his being, reducing his elements to dust, though caring to remove any danger of pestilence.[36]  Similarly, Enobarbus calls upon the moon, or “the mistress of melancholy,” to punish him, to bring him to account for his crime of deserting Antony:

Throw my heart
Against the flint and hardness of my fault,
Which, being dried with grief, will break to powder
And finish all foul thoughts. (4.9.18-21)

25> Antony’s largess upon the desertion has brought Enobarbus to recognize the measure of the man whom he betrayed, and his heart, “dried with grief,” or wasted away to its initial substance, represented here as “powder,” must be shattered on the “flint and hardness” of his repudiation of Antony.  His ensuing death, as if the orbs had satisfied his wish, rounds his otherwise uncomplicated character with an admirable close.  He begs for death, hoping to “finish all foul thoughts.”  Firmly placed in the Roman period most immediately affected by Lucretian ideals, Enobarbus seems to be in character, embracing the sleep where “foul thoughts” can no longer plague him.  His lament is thus no surprise. Interestingly, however, Christian King Richard II – much like the earlier King John – more strongly expresses awareness of his mortality and inevitable return to “nothingness”:

But whate’er I be,
Nor I, nor any man that but man is,
With nothing shall be pleas’d till he be eas’d
With being nothing. (5.5.39-42)

26> Throughout the latter acts of the play, Richard struggles with the impossibility of the two bodies of the king and his “unkinged” self (4.1.222).[37]  His recognition of human gain as transitory calls many sources to mind, from Ecclesiastes to Seneca; he thus echoes, among others, Warwick’s “pomp, rule, reign” speech cited in the epigraph of this paper and anticipates Duke Vincentio’s guidance to Claudio regarding the insignificance of earthly profit in the later Measure.  Richard’s repetition of “nothing” along with “be,” “is,” “pleas’ed” and “eas’d” suggests as well a close tie with Lucretian thought, as the mind is eased, and pleasure possible upon recognition of our unbearably slight role in the overwhelmingly vast nature and is unstoppable renewal.  Releasing oneself willingly to the elements which compose our human envelope, recognizing dream and its realizations as vanity: these reflexes bring succor and serenity.[38]  Human failings, writ large or individually, become sufferable for those who cease ascribing great influence to their individual lives and deeds.

27> The intermediary state, however, is unbearable, and such an agonized query on “quietus” is never more strongly explored than in Hamlet.[39]  The violence of the return of substance in the form of a ghost brings Hamlet to assume a heavenly hand at work to right wrongs.  When Hamlet first hears of old King Hamlet’s unnatural wanderings, he quickly references divine retribution, asserting that “foul deeds will rise” (I.ii.256), no matter how well hidden by the earth; despite early certitude, his conviction seems to have attenuated by 5.2, when he uses a more general “divinity” as the essential shaping force of our lives, “rough-hew” them as we will (10-11).   As mentioned above, a sharp turn is already announced with the memento mori notion that only worms should patiently await our “matter,” and that this uninterrupted cycle could somehow be part of a larger order marked by man’s insignificance.  Hamlet struggles – as Jacob with the angel? – over the truth of his existence, leaving the “sterile promontory” of Act 2 to embrace his own “quintessence of dust,” a fall that reaches its logical conclusion in 5.2, at the beginning as well as at the end of the scene, as he twice insists that Horatio remember the exact details of his story and promise to publish it widely, ostensibly providing his life some meaning beyond himself.  He has not reached the state of pleasure that comes from acceptance, but he has recognized the “thousand deaths” to be later mentioned by the Duke in Measure (3.1.40), which Hamlet deems a “thousand natural shocks.”  His misogyny at this stage thus develops into a more general misanthropy, like Timon’s, despising the “contumelious spirit” (2 Henry VI 3.2.204) or “vaulting ambition” (Macbeth 1.7.27) of humankind.  Timon, on the other hand, will depend upon his gravestone to communicate his message:

Come not to me again; but say to Athens,
Timon hath made his everlasting mansion
Upon the beached verge of the salt flood,
Who once a day with his embossed froth
The turbulent surge shall cover. Thither come,
And let my grave-stone be your oracle.
Lips, let four words go by and language end:
What is amiss, plague and infection mend!
Graves only be men’s works and death their gain;
Sun, hide thy beams, Timon hath done his reign. (5.1.219)

28> Intending to meld into the natural world, covered by the “turbulent surge,” Timon leaves only a gravestone as “oracle,” a sibylline message each takes for himself, reading “works” and “gain” as senseless striving, ignorant of mortality.  Even very early characters voice this message unequivocally, as Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, in 2 Henry VI, when she is led off to her exile following her public humiliation:  “…my joy is death / Death, at whose name I oft have been afeared, / Because I wished this world’s eternity” (2.4.88-90). A contrite Eleanor counterbalances her grasping character of 1.2, yet she of course is only one of many of the aspiring type in Renaissance drama.  Her suggestion is that death is only feared if one places all hope in worldly gain; her readiness to embrace death – though she is only going into exile – implies regret over her ambition. For Eleanor as for Enobarbus, foul thoughts end there.  Thus, the “paragon of animals” can only be a “quintessence of dust” (Hamlet 2.2.273-274), while nature itself, undying, overpowering, becomes not simply a stylistic reflex with which to compare human emotion, but rather a broader, more encompassing way of reading the world.  We sense the sublime, which we also feel in Lucretius, when contemplating the vast, a montage which can ridicule us if we look closely enough, as Clarence does in his dream in Richard III:

Methoughts that I had broken from the Tower,
And was embark'd to cross to Burgundy;
And, in my company, my brother Gloucester;
Who from my cabin tempted me to walk
Upon the hatches: thence we looked toward England,
And cited up a thousand fearful times,
During the wars of York and Lancaster
That had befall'n us. As we paced along
Upon the giddy footing of the hatches,
Methought that Gloucester stumbled; and, in falling,
Struck me, that thought to stay him, overboard,
Into the tumbling billows of the main.
Lord, Lord! methought, what pain it was to drown!
What dreadful noise of waters in mine ears!
What ugly sights of death within mine eyes!
Methought I saw a thousand fearful wrecks;
Ten thousand men that fishes gnaw'd upon;
Wedges of gold, great anchors, heaps of pearl,
Inestimable stones, unvalued jewels,
All scatter'd in the bottom of the sea:
Some lay in dead men's skulls; and, in those holes
Where eyes did once inhabit, there were crept,
As 'twere in scorn of eyes, reflecting gems,
Which woo'd the slimy bottom of the deep,
And mock'd the dead bones that lay scatter'd by.
…often did I strive
To yield the ghost: but still the envious flood
Kept in my soul, and would not let it forth
To seek the empty, vast and wandering air;
But smother'd it within my panting bulk,
Which almost burst to belch it in the sea. (1.4.9-41)

29> Clarence, desirous to die, to avoid the “sights of ugly death,” wishes physically to disperse into the sea.  Yet, he is “smothered” by his own “bulk,” the reasoning capacity of his substance, which forces him to see the “gold,” “heaps of pearl,” and “unvalued jewels” symbolizing human endeavor and tellingly placed in skulls, “wooing the slimy bottom,” the material of which we are made (wisely, then, do Antony and Cleopatra repeatedly call for strength from “Nilus’s slime” or “ooze”). Clarence’s dream prefigures Hamlet’s “calamity of so long life” (3.1.69):  to ignore our mortality brings us to live those “thousand natural shocks,” “bear those ills we have / [rather] Than fly to others that we know not of” (62, 81-82). Around Clarence’s remarkably prophetic dream – serving as a repoussoir device opening a perspective upon his own fate as well as that of many others in the play – coalesce the most obvious elements of vanitas art; disturbingly, however, the end of the scene makes a mockery even of the vanitas image itself, as Clarence’s inert body will indeed be drowned, but ignominiously, in a “malmsey butt” (Richard III, 1.4.269).  Clarence’s dream emblematizes the struggle not only in Richard III but also in the first tetralogy itself, while later plays will internalize this agon, making it the point of departure for introspection and revelation. Environed by evidence of their mortality, humans succumb to the overwhelming drive to preserve themselves and ensure their influence in the world. Efforts toward preservation drive the larger parabola of the drama higher, though the smaller parabola analogically mark its fall.

30> Shakespeare’s dramatic works illustrate on multiple levels the perils of vanity and impulsive human behavior,[40] thus sketching a parabola enhanced by smaller mimetic analogies which fall, in the end, into the category of the parable. However, differentiating Shakespeare’s de casibus structures from others’ is his mindfulness and close exploration of the sources of fear underlying that vanity, an awareness that emancipates any “insubstantial pageant faded” from its temporal trappings and poetic, parabolic limitations.  Fear of human insignificance within an ever-renewing nature – itself a form of divine Fortune – is only a season in hell, if one can embrace and conquer it. If “seeking to know” is “to learn how to die,” as Montaigne suggests, mastery of the art would be visible in the accepting of one’s finitude and in recognizing the vanity of the worldly – one’s own “eyeless rage.”[41] One could argue the valences of the dramatist’s two major sources of thought as surprisingly capacious:  through the parabola, large and small, Shakespeare discloses a defensible syncretism of pagan and Christian (especially Catholic) thought, a syncretism that appeases as it releases humankind from worldly care. As a close, Ecclesiastes 7:2 seems particularly compelling:  “Death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart” (NIV).[42] The best-known voice from an age of religious turmoil and doubt gives a reflective man’s “little world” significance and dignity by plotting a rise in the fields of the naturally quantifiable to fall, as parables, into the domain of human experience.


[1] Warwick, who dies soon after in 3 Henry VI, 5.2.27-28. All quotes from Shakespearean texts are from the most recent Arden editions.

[2] Shakespeare et le désordre du monde. Paris: Gallimard, 2012, my translation.

[3] Othello, 1.3.135.

[4] Implicate comparisons function through existing memory surfacing to read and react to the present.

[5] The Mimetic Tradition of Reform in the West. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1982.

[6] “Parabola” and “parable” are the same word in the modern Romance languages.

[7] Richard II, 3.2.154.

[8] Many thanks to Prof. William Mullen of Bard College for pointing out this denotation in the Greek as well as for all of his judicious criticism in the drafting of this paper.

[9] For this paper, I researched and studied all occurrences throughout Shakespeare’s works of my key terms, such as “dust,” various expressions describing water and bodies of water, as well as substance (often coupled with shadow). Unsurprisingly, these key terms appear most frequently in history plays and in the tragedies, but interesting examples can also be found in the comedies and tragicomedies.

[10] King Lear, spoken by the Gentleman, 3.1.10.

[11] “Que Philosopher, c’est apprendre à mourir” is obviously one of Montaigne’s most Lucretian essays.

[12] Especially Georgics II and III. Regarding fear of death and wasted earthly effort, see verses II.490-506:                

Happy, who had the skill to understand                
Nature's hid causes, and beneath his feet
All terrors cast, and death's relentless doom,
And the loud roar of greedy Acheron.
Blest too is he who knows the rural gods,
Pan, old Silvanus, and the sister-nymphs!
Him nor the rods of public power can bend,
Nor kingly purple, nor fierce feud that drives
Brother to turn on brother, nor descent
Of Dacian from the Danube's leagued flood,
Nor Rome's great State, nor kingdoms like to die;
Nor hath he grieved through pitying of the poor,
Nor envied him that hath. What fruit the boughs,
And what the fields, of their own bounteous will
Have borne, he gathers; nor iron rule of laws,
Nor maddened Forum have his eyes beheld,
Nor archives of the people.

With regard to the passing of time, of course, Georgic III.284-285 would be the best known: "But meanwhile time flees: it flees irretrievably, while we wander around, prisoners of our love of detail."

[13] 31-40 “For he sang how, through the vast void, the seeds of earth, and air, and sea, and liquid fire withal were gathered together; how from these elements nascent things, yes all, and even the young globe of the world grew together; how the earth began to harden, to shut off the Sea god in the deep, and little by little to assume the shape of things; how next the lands are astounded at the new sun shining and how rains fall as the clouds are lifted higher, when first woods begin to arise and here and there living creatures move over mountains that know them not.”

[14] “So we can rarely find a man who claims to have lived / A happy life, who when his time is done is content / To go, like a guest at the banquet who is well sated” (117-119). Though Horace is only fleetingly mentioned in Love’s Labour’s Lost (4.3.103), he is aptly exploited (in Latin) in Titus Andronicus, his Ode 1.22:

He who is upright in life and pure of sin
does not need Moorish javelins nor bow
nor a quiver swollen with poisonous
arrows, Fuscus…

G.K. Hunter excludes the Odes from “the center of [the Elizabethan] vision of classicism” (22), which would suggest more extensive reading of Horace by Shakespeare than what was customary. See his “Seneca and the Elizabethans.” Shakespeare Survey 20 (1967): 17-26.

[15] “Substance” is frequent in Shakespeare, early and late, and is often linked with “shadow.” This pairing has already been covered thoroughly; hence, I will limit my examination of “substance” to those instances that lend themselves to other readings.

[16] See Iliad XVI, the “twin brothers” of sleep and death, called upon by Zeus to protect Sarpedon’s body. Catto covers Lucretian influence succinctly with regard to sleep, touching on the interesting link between Lucretius’s “quie” and “quietus” in Macbeth. “Lucretius, Shakespeare and Dickens.” The Classical World 80.6 (1987): 123-127.  Chaucer and Spencer also reveal familiarity with Lucretius, as pointed out by Bradbrook in Shakespeare and Elizabethan Poetry, Oxford UP, 1952, 51-53.  Pasternak Slater reveals a different Lucretian influence in The Tempest, with “the creation of composite fabulous creatures like the centaur or the mermaid, where the image-film of two natural forms are super-imposed and fuse together in the mind of the perceiver” (128).  See “Variations within a Source: From Isaiah XXIX to The Tempest.” Shakespeare Survey 25 (1972): 125-135.

[17] Succinctly stated in Book I:

Whence Nature all creates, and multiplies
And fosters all, and whither she resolves
Each in the end when each is overthrown.
This ultimate stock we have devised to name
Procreant atoms, matter, seeds of things,
Or primal bodies, as primal to the world. (55-61)

[18] Book I, 901-914, 1021-1040 and Book V, 783-820, 953, 1011-1028. See as well Montserrat and Navarro, “The Atomistic View of Heat in Lucretius.” Centaurus 42 (2000):  1-20. “For Greek and Roman atomists, everything that exists in the infinite universe is constituted by indivisible, immutable and eternal atoms and by empty space. These atoms are always moving through empty space, colliding with each other.  For Epicureans and very probably also for the first Atomists, Leucippus and Democritus, the atoms are so small they remain individually far below the threshold of our senses. They are all comprised of the same stuff and the only qualities they have are size, shape and weight, which depends on size. They have no heat, nor cold nor tepidity, neither do they have colour, taste, odour, or sound” (4).

[19] An interesting, comic echo of these lines comes in Much Ado from Beatrice:  “Not till God make men of some other metal than earth. Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a piece of valiant dust, to make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl?” (2.1.6264).

[20] This passage compares interestingly with Macbeth’s final clairvoyance: “And all our yesterdays have lighted fools / The way to dusty death” (5.5.22-23). The brilliance of a king’s “yesterdays” has only served to guide the unthinking to a curiously metonymical “dusty death.”

[21] Lear’s description of Cordelia as “that little seeming substance” (1.1.214) reduces and separates her from Burgundy and the others, impoverished and stripped of a title as she is.

[22] “Mille hommes, mille animaux, et mille autres créatures meurent en ce même instant que vous mourez […] L’eau, la terre, l’air et le feu, et autres membres de ce mien bâtiment, ne sont non plus instruments de ta vie, qu’instruments de ta mort. Pourquoi crains-tu ton dernier jour? Il ne confère non plus à ta mort que chacun des autres. Le dernier pas ne fait pas la lassitude: il la déclare. Tous les jours vont à la mort: le dernier y arrive” (143-145). “Que Philosopher, c’est apprendre à mourir.” Les Essais. Paris: Livre de Poche, 2001. The second sentence is a direct translation from Seneca, Letters, 117, 23.

[23] Duncan-Jones makes the case for indirect influence of Senecan stoicism in this speech, bringing forward a 1592 edition of the Countess of Pembroke’s translation of Garnier’s Marc Antoine as a source for Antony and Cleopatra, though Bullough mentions only the 1595 text. The 1592 tome houses as well “A Discourse of Life and Death” by the Huguenot Philippe du Plessis-Mornay. Duncan-Jones argues that du Plessis-Mornay’s text served as a direct source for Duke Vincentio’s speech at 3.1. See “Stoicism in Measure for Measure: A New Source.” The Review of English Studies 28.112 (1977): 441-446. Du Plessis-Mornay sought refuge in England during the St. Bartholomew massacre and returned as Henry IV’s ambassador in 1591-1592. Quite compelling is the motto the countess gives the discourse, “Die to live, live to die” and its shared chiastic format with Claudio’s concluding lines (Duncan-Jones 445).

[24] Preface, Cause, Principle and Unity.  The passage is in fact part of an extended metaphor describing his plight and ending with a reference to his expansive (and fatal) view of space:  “…I who have already gained such indulgence from you as to be received, nourished, defended, freed, placed in surety, sheltered at port, as of one who, thanks to you, has fled a great and dangerous storm, it is to you that I consecrate this anchor, these shrouds, these battered sails, these goods, to me most dear, and to future generations most precious, so that, thanks to your beneficence, they may not be submerged by the iniquitous and tumultuous Ocean which is my foe. Hung in the sacred temple of glory, by their power against the effrontery of ignorance and the voracity of time, they shall render eternal testimony to your invincible magnanimity; so that the world may know that, thanks to you, this bountiful and divine progeny, inspired by lofty intelligence, conceived by a tempered spirit and born of the Nolan Muse, has not passed away in its infancy, and will live as long as the earth, whose surface is so full of life, turns beneath the eternal regard of the other shining stars.” Quoted from Blackwell and de Lucca’s edition, Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1998.

[25] Marlowe’s characters do make use of comparisons, but far more sparingly, with very few extended metaphors issuing from the comparison.  They often work to develop characters, giving them depth, and they are reserved to noble or central characters, such as Barabas (see the opening lines of Act II of The Jew of Malta).  Interestingly, his Edward II makes greatest recourse to analogies and figurative comparisons, but with only a few of them sustained.  The most elaborately drawn refers to his heraldry of a lion:

The griefs of private men are soon allay’d;
But not of kings. The forest deer, being struck,
Runs to an herb that closeth up the wounds;
But when the imperial lion’s flesh is gor’d,
He rends and tears it with his wrathful paw,
[And,] highly scorning that the lowly earth
Should drink his blood, mounts up into the air.
And so it fares with me, whose dauntless mind
Th’ambitious Mortimer would seek to curb,
And that unnatural queen, false Isabel,
That thus hath pent and mew’d me in a prison (5.1.8-18)

[26] In the development of this study, I am greatly indebted to Meek’s methodology in his study of ekphrasis in Shakespeare. Narrating the Visual in Shakespeare. London: Ashgate, 2009.

[27] Water and earth (dust) are of course only two natural elements exploited in Shakespeare, but as mentioned in the introduction, in order to narrow our research we will focus on this particularly fertile source of comparisons.

[28] The event is first recounted to Hubert, and then to a dying King John:

I’ll tell thee, Hubert, half my power this night,
Passing these flats, are taken by the tie;
These Lincoln Washes have devoured them;
Myself, well mounted, hardly have escap’d. (5.6.41-44)
                   [retells to King, 5.7.63-64]

                                Were in the Washes all unwarily
                                Devoured by the unexpected flood. [the King dies]

[29] Andronicus has lost the living part of his daughter, and only sees her maimed and voiceless shell. His expression of grief compares interestingly with that of Constance in King John, separated from her son and certain his death will follow:

Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words,
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form;
Then, have I reason to be fond of grief?
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
I will not keep this form upon my head,
When there is such disorder in my wit.
O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
My widow-comfort, and my sorrows' cure! (3.3.93-105)

[30] Arden editor Wilders reads “flag” as “reed,” though others go so far as “iris.” “Reed” seems more realistic here, in the context of the other earthier references to “Nilus,” to its “slime” or “ooze,” and resultant fecundity.

[31] One is reminded of Antipholus of Syracuse describing the difficulty of his task:

                                I to the world am like a drop of water
                                That in the ocean seeks another drop,
                                Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
                                Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.
                                So I, to find a mother and a brother,
                                In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself. (2.1.35-40)

Of course, the play’s outcome disproves the impossibility.

[32] “For who digs hills because they do aspire / Throws down one mountain to cast up a higher” (Pericles 1.4.4-5).

[33] Twelfth Night, Epilogue, and Lear, 3.5.75-77.

[34] Gloucester: “There’s scarce a bush” (2.2.492). The Gentleman’s description of Lear on the heath seems emblematic of man’s vanity in an immoral and inhospitable world:

Contending with the fretful element:
Bids the winds blow the earth into the sea,
Or swell the curled water 'bove the main,
That things might change or cease; tears his white hair,
Which the impetuous blasts, with eyeless rage,
Catch in their fury, and make nothing of;
Strives in his little world of man to out-scorn
The to-and-fro-conflicting wind and rain.
This night, wherein the cub-drawn bear would couch,
The lion and the belly-pinched wolf
Keep their fur dry, unbonneted he runs,
And bids what will take all. 3. (3.1.4-15)

[35] It is interesting to compare with Hamlet 2.2.475-478. Pyrrhus as “a painted tyrant” stops suddenly in his struggle to kill Priam.  He “stood…like a neutral to his will and matter, / did nothing.” Pyrrhus seems unready to break the known “whole” that is the war by ending Priam’s life. As Meek points out, Pyrrhus’s action parallels Hamlet’s in 3.3 when he decides not to slay a possibly penitent Claudius (105-110).  While most editors link “matter” to the more obvious “objective” Pyrrhus has set for himself, I would plead for polysemy to enrich the metaphor with “matter” succumbing to a halt, allowing his reflective “substance” to prevail momentarily. 

[36] See Marlow’s Massacre at Paris, 2.2.1-12, where commoners debate what to do with the Lord Admiral’s body. Burning will “infect” and “poison” the air, yet throwing him in the Seine would “corrupt” the water; they determine to hang him in a tree, though his body will later be tossed into a ditch.

[37] Richard’s earlier lines, suggesting “A little, little grave, an obscure grave,” then “buried in the king’s highway / Some way of common trade, where subjects’ feet / May hourly trample on their sovereign’s head” ends by rebuking those who “tread now” while he lives, but also discloses the obvious:  all graves will be obscure with time, and no one will remember who King Richard II was (3.3.154-159).

[38] Few are the convincingly pious:  Henry VI can close his life with “O God, forgive my sins and pardon thee!” (3 Henry VI, 5.6.60), and it should be said as well that his presence at the death of the Cardinal renders the latter’s torment and guilt credible (2 Henry VI, 3.3.19-33).  Nonetheless, Henry VI is the exception that makes others appear hypocritical when calling upon providence.  The dramatist limits use of the conventional close –those mirroring fervently pious scaffold speeches – maintaining a character’s consistency in dying as in life. We will provide a few examples from early Shakespeare here. York’s final words in 3 Henry VI – “Open thy gate of mercy, gracious God, / My soul flies through these wounds to seek out thee!” (1.4.179-180) – ring hollow after his murderous quest for power, a hollowness consistent with his astute Machiavellian appropriation of the throne. His words are, however, orthodox if one accepts John Cox’s reading of the scene as dependent upon medieval dramaturgy. See “3 Henry VI: Dramatic Convention and the Shakespearean History Play.” Comparative Drama 12.1 (1978): 42-60. Elsewhere, last words can apply to the larger dramatic struggle, as do Warwick’s.  For example, in Old Clifford’s dying words, “La fin couronne les oeuvres,” reverberate the brutality and senseless violence of the York-Lancaster conflict in an empty, formulaic manner (2 Henry VI, 5.2.28). In the same play, Suffolk refuses to climb down from his self-made pedestal, comparing himself to great historical figures brought low by the uncouth; his hubris makes his death even more ignoble. In later Shakespeare, Mark Antony, determined in his refusal to face his fate, begs Cleopatra to remember him as he “was.” Cleopatra, however, returns to the elements to describe the succor the asp provides:  “As sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle,-- / O Antony!--Nay, I will take thee too” (5.2.310-311). “Balm” evokes the major substance of the play, “Nilus’s slime,” while the “air” brings the “gentle” relief of oblivion.

[39]  Again, Catto brings forward a strong argument for direct Lucretian influence by Hamlet’s use of “quietus,” a single instance of the word in Shakespeare and linked to “the root quie to describe death in Book III (211, 910, 939, 1038). Though quies as a metaphor for death is common in Latin, its association with release from pain is particularly Lucretian” (427).

[40] One can hardly ignore Erasmus’s influence through adages in this regard, with his lengthy discussion of Festina lente. For the full discussion see The Adages of Erasmus. William Barker Ed. Toronto: the University of Toronto Press, 2001.

[41] Here, we can reference Stephen Greenblatt’s description in Shakespeare’s Freedom of the concept of autonomy as illustrated in the plays; striving to create one’s own vision of the self within the larger world of nature would be a part of this intellectual enfranchisement, though the author draws different conclusions from my own on the freedom to envisage mortality: 

… there is evidence that autonomy as a concept interested Shakespeare, even if the word itself remained unfamiliar to him. He reflected repeatedly in his plays on at least three different ways in which one might be at liberty to live after one’s own law. There is a dream of physical autonomy, exemption from the mortal vulnerability of the flesh or at least from the fear this vulnerability instinctively arouses. There is a recurrent dream of social autonomy, independence from the dense network of friends, family, and alliances that ties the individual to a carefully ordered world. And there is a dream of mental autonomy, the ability to dwell in a separate psychic world, a heterocosm of one’s own making” (Chicago U.P., 2010, 106).

[42] And, equally, “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? 2 You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:1-3 NIV).

Andrea Trocha-Van Nort lived in France and taught English and economics in private schools, private universities, and four different public universities over fifteen years. She relocated to the United States in 2007 to accept a position with the Department of English and Fine Arts at the United States Air Force Academy, where she currently holds the rank of associate professor. Dr Van Nort’s research focuses on Renaissance literature and Shakespeare studies, though her scholarly interests range from classical literature to war literature in general.

Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture,
Volume Eight (2015): Dialogues & Exchanges

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