How did Cordelia die?

It’s not uncommon for Shakespeare’s characters to die offstage, no matter how significant the character. Unfortunately this can make it difficult to understand how that character died. There’s a world of difference between seeing someone drink poison, and someone running on stage to announce, “She’s dead, she drank poison!”

So it is with King Lear‘s Cordelia. Her death, and the way Shakespeare chooses to present it, is easily one of the most tragic scenes ever put on stage.

King Lear with Cordelia's dead body
Image via Wikimedia Commons

Lear and Cordelia have been captured by Edmund, but Lear doesn’t even seem to mind because he’s so happy to be with the daughter that he thought had left him forever. As they are taken away to prison he says:

Lear. No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too-
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out-
And take upon ‘s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies; and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by th’ moon.

Edmund is challenged to a duel by a mysterious opponent who turns out to be his brother Edgar. Edmund is defeated, and tries to make amends for the wrongs he has committed before he dies. He tells his guards:

Edmund. I pant for life. Some good I mean to do,
Despite of mine own nature. Quickly send
(Be brief in’t) to the castle; for my writ
Is on the life of Lear and on Cordelia.
Nay, send in time.

“My writ is on [their] lives” means that he has ordered their execution.  Quickly, messengers are dispatched to the prison to stop the order.

What happens next? Does the messenger arrive in time? No, this is a tragedy, we know that’s not the case. Does a messenger return and say, “Too late!”  No. That would be too easy. (This is exactly how the end of Romeo and Juliet plays out, with that glimmer of hope that Romeo will reach Juliet in time…)

King Lear enters, carrying the lifeless body of his daughter, and the audience sees for themselves that it is too late.

Lear. Howl, howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stone.
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’ld use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone for ever!
I know when one is dead, and when one lives.
She’s dead as earth. Lend me a looking glass.
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why, then she lives.

If the question is how exactly did Cordelia die, her father answers it while weeping over her body, conversing with her as if she is still with him:

Lear. A plague upon you, murderers, traitors all!
I might have sav’d her; now she’s gone for ever!
Cordelia, Cordelia! stay a little. Ha!
What is’t thou say’st, Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle, and low- an excellent thing in woman.
I kill’d the slave that was a-hanging thee.

That last line provides the detail – they were in the process of hanging Cordelia, when he attempted to rescue her.

 

 

 

 

 

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Why does Hamlet call Polonius “Jephthah”?

Stained glass Polonius
A stained glass image of Polonius. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Jephthah is not a word you hear every day. How often does phth show up in the middle of a word? Sounds onomatopoetic, like blowing someone a raspberry every time you say it. With words like that scattered around the play, of course it’s got a reputation for being difficult to read and understand.

Before we look at who Jephthah was, let’s first look at the scene where Hamlet uses the term (in Act 2 Scene 2). Hamlet has already visited with the ghost of his father, learned of his father’s murder, and has enacted his plan to “put an antic disposition on,” in the hopes of gathering evidence against his uncle Claudius. So basically he can say whatever he wants to whoever (whomever?) he wants. Part of the fun for Hamlet is in saying seemingly random things that actually have a deeper meaning.

Polonius, meanwhile, is convinced that Hamlet’s madness is love sickness, because he can no longer see Ophelia. Polonius even offers to prove his theory by putting out Ophelia as bait while they hide and watch how Hamlet reacts to seeing her, but Hamlet figures out their plan.

Hamlet. O Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!

Polonius. What treasure had he, my lord?

Hamlet. Why,
‘One fair daughter, and no more,
The which he loved passing well.’

Polonius. [aside] Still on my daughter.

The story of Jephthah is recounted in Judges 11:31, where Jepthah is about to go into battle with the Ammonites and makes a vow to God, offering as a sacrifice, “whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”

Well, his daughter is the first to come out and meet him. So he inadvertently sacrifices his own daughter.

Polonius is so caught up in his own “love sick” theory that as soon as he sees a daughter reference he sees it as proof of his own theory (“He’s still obsessed with my daughter!”) He doesn’t appear to get the “sacrificed his own daughter” connection.

Irony : The expression “There’s a method to his madness” comes earlier in this scene, spoken by Polonius. So he does recognize that there’s a deeper, relevant meaning in the seeming gibberish that Hamlet is spouting. He just doesn’t realize it’s anything more than coincidence.

 

 

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What lie does Iago tell Montano about Cassio?

But is he often thus?
Governor Montano falls for Iago’s lies.

Othello has appointed Cassio to the job that Iago wanted. It is Iago’s ultimate plan to bring about the downfall of Othello, but he’s not above ruining Cassio’s career at the same time. In Act 2 Scene 3, Iago gets Cassio drunk and then plants the idea in Governor Montano’s head that Cassio is an alcoholic, and that he worries about the trust Othello has put in him:

Iago You see this fellow that is gone before;
He is a soldier fit to stand by Caesar
And give direction: and do but see his vice;
‘Tis to his virtue a just equinox,
The one as long as the other: ’tis pity of him.
I fear the trust Othello puts him in.
On some odd time of his infirmity,
Will shake this island.

Montano But is he often thus?

Iago ‘Tis evermore the prologue to his sleep:
He’ll watch the horologe a double set,
If drink rock not his cradle.

(Literally, Iago is saying “You’ve seen the virtues the man has to offer, but now you realize he’s got just as many vices.” He then goes on to suggest that Cassio drinks himself to sleep every night.)

The truth of the situation is that Cassio is a lightweight drinker and he knows it. When Iago first offers him wine he responds , “I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking” and “I have drunk but one cup to-night, and…
dare not task my weakness with any more.” What Cassio does not realize is that you can’t tell Iago something like that. He’s going to use it against you.

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Why does Iago hate Othello?

The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice actually opens with Iago and Roderigo discussing this exact subject, though the audience does not yet realize the subject of their conversation:

Roderigo. Thou told’st me thou didst hold him in thy hate.

Iago. Despise me, if I do not.

Iago goes on to offer several reasons why he hates this person, whoever this person is.

…Three great ones of the city,
In personal suit to make me his lieutenant,
Off-capp’d to him: …and, by the faith of man,
I know my price, I am worth no worse a place:
But he; as loving his own pride and purposes,
Evades them, with a bombast circumstance
Horribly stuff’d with epithets of war;
And, in conclusion,
Nonsuits my mediators; for, ‘Certes,’ says he,
‘I have already chose my officer.’
And what was he?
Forsooth, a great arithmetician,
One Michael Cassio, a Florentine,
A fellow almost damn’d in a fair wife;
That never set a squadron in the field,
Nor the division of a battle knows
More than a spinster; unless the bookish theoric,
Wherein the toged consuls can propose
As masterly as he: mere prattle, without practise,
Is all his soldiership. But he, sir, had the election:
And I, of whom his eyes had seen the proof
At Rhodes, at Cyprus and on other grounds
Christian and heathen, must be be-lee’d and calm’d
By debitor and creditor: this counter-caster,
He, in good time, must his lieutenant be,
And I—God bless the mark!—his Moorship’s ancient.

Edwin Booth as Iago
Edwin Booth, brother of John Wilkes Booth, as Iago. Image via Wikimedia Commons

What does that all mean? Iago was lobbying for the lieutenant’s position under Othello (“his Moorship”) and even had some high-powered citizens/politicians (“great ones of the city”) go and offer their personal recommendation, only to find that Othello had already chosen Michael Cassio. Iago is not happy with this decision, and has nothing good to say of Cassio, who has no battle experience (as Iago does), and is instead what today might be called “book smart.”

 

But! Is this the real reason? Or is this just the reason that Iago is feeding Roderigo? At the close of Act 1, alone on stage, Iago reveals a deeper reason for his hatred:

…I hate the Moor:
And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety.

“Twixt my sheets done my office” is a polite way of saying, “Slept with my wife.” Iago even admits to not knowing if it is true, but doesn’t care.

So, again, is this the reason? Or is this again another justification for something deeper? This sounds more like he’s preparing an alibi, in case he ultimately needs one.

Does it go back to the racist thing? Maybe Iago doesn’t even want the lieutenant’s job, maybe he’s furious that Othello is in charge at all? He’s not shy about hurling racial epithets at Desdemona’s father in Act 1, Scene 1:

Iago. ‘Zounds, sir, you’re robb’d; for shame, put on
your gown;
Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul;
Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is topping your white ewe. Arise, arise;
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you:
Arise, I say.

…Because we come to
do you service and you think we are ruffians, you’ll
have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse;
you’ll have your nephews neigh to you; you’ll have
coursers for cousins and gennets for germans.

Twice he refers to Othello as an animal (along with the associated suggestions of bestiality) and once as the devil.

But, again – maybe he’s just saying these things because he knows that they will upset Desdemona’s father Brabantio?

Maybe it’s none of these things. Maybe Iago is a sociopath who truly has no specific reason for his hatred of Othello. That’s what makes this character one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations. Every actor must decide for himself the source of Iago’s motivation. Maybe we can never truly know because there just isn’t a single right answer.

 

 

 

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The earth has music for those who listen.

Viola & Olivia & Orsino & SebastianAlso “The earth has music for those who will listen,” “The earth has its music for those who listen,” and so on.

This one is easily mistaken as Shakespeare because the words remind us of “If music be the food of love play on” while the sentiment closely echoes Caliban’s “Be no afeard, the isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.”

However, this one is George Santayana:

“The earth has its music for those who will listen,
Its bright variations forever abound;
With all the wonders that God has bequeathed us,
There is nothing that thrills like the magic of sound.”

Thanks to “That’s Not Shakespeare,” who looks to be as upset about misattributed Shakespeare as I am 🙂

UPDATED September 8, 2014: I was asked to provide a citation that this is Santayana. And you know what? I can’t. It’s quite possible that this quote has fallen victim to that same logic that gets us so many “Not by Shakespeare” quotes, where you find a couple of blogs saying something so it must be true.  I can’t speak for the entirety of Santayana’s work but I can safely say that it’s definitely not in Shakespeare’s work. If anybody can cite exactly where it occurs, we’d all be very grateful!

 

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Romeo and Juliet : How old is Romeo?

Mercutio Drew FirstThere’s a simple question. How old is Romeo? Sure, we all know that Juliet is 13, the Nurse comes right out and tells us. And often I think that we then make the leap and assume that Romeo is 13 as well.

But that’s hardly true, is it? Would that imply that Mercutio, Tybalt and Paris are also all about 13? Surely it was the case that men simply chose younger wives (Capulet is much older than his wife, is he not?), and actually we can assume that Romeo and the others are what, maybe late teens, early 20’s?

It wouldn’t stage well these days to point out that age difference, of course. I can just imagine R&J being closed down because it promotes pedophilia or something. But honestly I’m cool with it (the age difference, not the pedophilia!)  The more I read the play, the more I appreciate that Juliet is the most mature person in it. That she’s 13, surrounded by people generations older than her, is quite impressive. I don’t need to make her older to justify anything, and I don’t need to make Romeo younger to get it to balance out.

Romeo can be older and still be rash and impetuous. Juliet can be young and be the smart one. Better than trying to imagine 13yr old Tybalt saying, “I hate the word as I hate Hell….”

Update!

While looking at the trivia for Luhrman’s movie, I learned something interesting. Apparently Natalie Portman auditioned for the role of Juliet. But because of her small frame, in her words, “Leonardo looked like he was molesting me.”  The director said the same thing I said above, only backwards — “Leonardo was 21, but could look 18 – and she made him look 21.” In other words he looked too old, not that she looked too young.  So that certainly backs up the idea that you have to cast R&J of roughly equivalent ages to avoid squicking out your audience.

 

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