Why Did Iago Leave Roderigo At Brabantio’s House?

The Shakespeare Answers category is here to answer questions people may have about Shakespeare’s work. If you’re just looking for the homework answers then you’ll find them here. I don’t love that, but I look at it this way. First, I can’t stop you, and if you didn’t find the answer here you’ll easily find it elsewhere. Second, by answering the question here maybe I can convince you that Shakespeare is interesting and worth learning more about.

Like so many of Shakespeare’s plays, we don’t actually see the title figure in the first scene.  Othello opens with Iago and Roderigo standing outside the window of Brabantio, a Venetian senator, and father to Desdemona.

Roderigo lusts after Desdemona, and Iago knows this.

Desdemona has run off with Othello, and Iago knows this.  Iago does not like Othello, to put it mildly.

Brabantio will not be happy to discover that his daughter as run off with Othello, and Iago knows this.

Iago’s manipulation drives everything in this play. He wants to get Othello in trouble, possibly to the point of having his command stripped, and sees an opportunity to use Roderigo as a puppet in making that happen.

So here we are, standing outside Brabantio’s window when the two begin hurling some of the vilest, most racist comments you’ll find in all of Shakespeare:

Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is topping your white ewe…

…the devil will make a grandsire of you…

…you’ll have your daughter covered with a Barbary horse…

It is Iago, not Roderigo, that hurls all those comments, as well as the most famous one:

…your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs.

But, here’s the thing.  When Brabantio asks for their names, the only one to answer is Roderigo.  Iago’s not stupid.  Roderigo still thinks that the plan is some version of “we’re going to get Othello in trouble by telling on him,” not fully appreciating the level of psychological manipulation going on.

Once Brabantio comes down the stairs, Iago runs for it.  He tells Roderigo:

…for I must leave you:
It seems not meet, nor wholesome to my place,
To be produced–as, if I stay, I shall–
Against the Moor

Which translates as, “It’s not a good idea for people to see me here, speaking out against my boss.”  Which is true. You can’t play the puppet master once people realize that you’re the one pulling the strings, and then realize that you’ve got strings attached to them as well.

Does that make him a coward? Hurling insults behind the mask of anonymity and then fleeing into the night?  That would suggest that Iago feels some degree of remorse or shame for his actions, which is hardly accurate.

The scene does a great job of setting up both characters. Roderigo is easily manipulated here and will be again.Othello and Iago

~ Leave a comment

Who is Ophelia’s Brother?

I never know what to say when I see questions like this in my logs. But then I think of it like this – if I invited my coworkers to see Hamlet, and during intermission one of them asked me, “I’m confused, which one is Ophelia’s brother?” I’m not going to point and laugh and say, “How dumb are you? It’s right there on the page!”  Instead I’m going to appreciate that this person is engaged enough to be here in the first place and is trying to follow along, but sometimes it’s not that easy.

Even though we typically think of Ophelia as Hamlet’s girlfriend, we never actually see them “together”. We first hear about their relationship first from Ophelia’s older brother Laertes before he leaves to return to school:

For Hamlet and the trifling of his favour,
Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,
A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute; No more.

Typical big brother stuff – you think Hamlet’s into you, but he’s really not, so don’t let him break your heart. This is typical of all the men in Ophelia’s life, they tell her what to do.

LaertesWe don’t see Laertes again until their father Polonius has been killed. He is then witness to Ophelia’s madness and eventual death. At her funeral he cannot bear the grief and jumps into her grave:

Hold off the earth awhile,
Till I have caught her once more in mine arms:

[Leaps into the grave]

Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead,
Till of this flat a mountain you have made,
To o’ertop old Pelion, or the skyish head
Of blue Olympus.

What he does not realize is that Hamlet has also returned and, seeing this over the top display, starts a fight over which of them loved her more:

I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?

What Hamlet does not know is that Laertes and Claudius have concocted a plan to let Laertes have his revenge, by poisoning Hamlet.  This plan either works perfectly or horribly depending on whether you see the glass half full or empty, because at the end of it Hamlet does end up dead.  But so do Claudius and Laertes. With his last breath, Laertes asks Hamlet’s forgiveness for betraying him.

~ Leave a comment

Why Does Hamlet Hesitate to Kill Claudius?

Why does Hamlet hesitate to kill Claudius?

There’s a few different ways to answer this question. I assume that most of the time people ask it, they’re referring to III.3, when he catches Claudius at prayer:

Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven,
And so am I reveng’d. That would be scann’d.
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge! [citation]

So the short and easy answer is, Hamlet tells us – by killing Claudius at prayer, his soul is clean, and therefore he’d go to heaven. This is not a luxury granted to Hamlet’s father, however, which is why he now roams the earth as a ghost.  Hamlet doesn’t feel that this is an even exchange.

You should, however, be saying “Seriously?” right now.  “You set the trap to prove Claudius’ guilt, it worked, now you’re behind him, there’s no witnesses, you could absolutely finish him off. And instead you’re thinking ahead to where he soul ends up?”

Precisely the whole point of the play. Hamlet’s indecisiveness is all. He can talk himself out of anything. Go back to I.5:

But know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Now wears his crown. [citation]

So your father’s ghost appears and says, “I was murdered by the king.”  Your first thought is, “I know, I’ll start acting crazy around everybody so they won’t know what I’m up to.”

At least point has a certain rationale, however. In Amleth, the source material for Hamlet, the hero believes that his life is in danger and decides to pretend that he is an imbecile so that he will not be perceived as a threat to the new king.

In Shakespeare’s version, however, that connection is lost — there’s no reason early in the play to think that Claudius is playing to kill Hamlet. So it ends up looking like Hamlet’s just coming up with reasons to delay action.

David Tennant as Hamlet Personally I’ve always held that it is his mother’s death, not his father’s, that ultimately spurs him into action. The entire play passes without him avenging his father, but it takes just 20 lines of dialogue between his mother’s death (“The drink! I am poison’d.”) and Hamlet’s action (“Follow my mother!”) There are those that argue that he finally sees his own mortality and knows, from Laertes, that he too has been poisoned and if he  does not act now he will never have the chance. But I’ve always felt that “Follow my mother” line is a big deal – it’s not as if he mentions his father.

 

~ Leave a comment

Why is Egeus Angry With His Daughter?

Question: Why is Egeus angry with his daughter Hermia?

A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens with Theseus, Duke of Athens, planning his wedding to Hippolyta. Shakespeare actually lifted this part of the story straight out of Greek mythology, if you’re interested. But that doesn’t answer the question.

Enter Egeus, and he does not look happy. I’ve seen productions where he marches Lysander, Demetrius, Hermia and Helena in at the point of his shotgun. And he says…

Full of vexation come I, with complaint
Against my child, my daughter Hermia.
Stand forth, Demetrius. My noble lord,
This man hath my consent to marry her.
Stand forth, Lysander: and my gracious duke,
This man hath bewitch’d the bosom of my child;
Thou, thou, Lysander, thou hast given her rhymes,
And interchanged love-tokens with my child:
Thou hast by moonlight at her window sung,
With feigning voice verses of feigning love,
And stolen the impression of her fantasy
With bracelets of thy hair, rings, gawds, conceits,
Knacks, trifles, nosegays, sweetmeats, messengers
Of strong prevailment in unharden’d youth:
With cunning hast thou filch’d my daughter’s heart,
Turn’d her obedience, which is due to me,
To stubborn harshness: and, my gracious duke,
Be it so she; will not here before your grace
Consent to marry with Demetrius,
I beg the ancient privilege of Athens,
As she is mine, I may dispose of her:
Which shall be either to this gentleman
Or to her death, according to our law
Immediately provided in that case.

What’s it all mean?  If you want the short answer, he’s saying, “I want my daughter Hermia to marry Demetrius, and if she won’t, then I want her executed.”

Yes, this comedy opens up with a father threatening to kill his daughter.

The longer version goes a little something like this (but ends the same way):  Lysander is the boy that Hermia actually wants to marry, but Egeus doesn’t blame her, he blames Lysander.  Lysander has “bewitched” his child by showering her with gifts, singing love songs at her window, that sort of thing. Otherwise she would know better than to disobey the will of her father.

Egeus isn’t the kind of father who is going to negotiate with his child. In the old days if you were a teenage boy acting up, your parents my threaten to enlist you in the army.  I only had a brother so I’m not sure what parents threatened teenage girls with, putting them in a nunnery?  Egeus knows the law, however, and goes straight to “dispose of her” if she doesn’t do what he wants.

I beg the ancient privilege of AthensThe good news is that Theseus has a calmer head on his shoulders, and after listening to Hermia’s side of the story offers her another alternative — a nunnery.  But luckily this is a comedy and everything works out in the end, everybody marries the right person, nobody ends up dead or locked away.

An interesting question to consider is whether Egeus actually meant to go through with his threat.  Plenty of old school parents drove their kids to the recruitment center and then turned around to come home. What would he have done if Theseus said, “Absolutely! Get the axe, we’ll have her head right now.” If you prefer your comedies without such a dark edge, you can imagine Hermia’s home life with a father that threatens her with the ancient privilege of Athens at the slightest infraction.  “Hermia, is dinner ready yet? I swear, I’ll dispose of you!  I mean it this time!”

 

Having been around for a dozen years at this point, the site attracts a good deal of traffic on the subject of Shakespeare. Much of it comes in the form of questions about the plays. Is this students looking for answers to their homework? Probably. But if they’re going to get the answers anyway I’d rather have them get the answer here, along with an explanation, in the hopes that we can make them interested in the topic.

 

~ 5 Comments

Is Caliban human?

Is Caliban human? The question comes through on my logs every now and then so we must have touched on the subject at some point.  I think that perhaps students are looking for help with their homework and just want a yes or no answer and maybe a citation, but I think it’s more complicated than that.

Then was this island–
Save for the son that she did litter here,
A freckled whelp hag-born–not honour’d with
A human shape.

The very first description we have for Caliban is “not honored with a human shape.”  Does that mean not human? The word “whelp” would normally apply to animals, but Prospero’s not saying that Caliban is closer to a dog than a person. (When I drive to work each morning and inevitably call someone a jackass I don’t literally mean he’s a donkey. How can you give someone the finger if you have hooves?)

Normally we would say, “Is Caliban human? Of course Caliban is human. He’s got a mind and free will of his own and can communicate. He loves his mother Sycorax and worships her god, Setebos.” By our modern biological standards, it’s a no-brainer.  There’s no creature other than humans that can do any of that.

But this is also a play with magic and fairies, witches and devils. So maybe our modern definitions don’t apply?

Is Caliban human?We’re told that Sycorax is a witch, and that she was banished here. Prospero goes one step more, telling Caliban that he is the offspring of his mother mating with the devil himself.

By modern standards, and by that I mean post Salem witch trials, we could interpret this to mean “Single woman gets pregnant, gets on the wrong side of a conservative society’s rules, and gets kicked out.”  By that logic Caliban is human.  A little wild, maybe, from growing up outside civilization (and civilized medicine), but basically human.  Personally I like this interpretation because it keeps the play universal.  Tell me what Caliban is like as a character because he’s human, and therefore at some level he is like all of us. If he’s not human, I can’t really learn anything from his plight because everything’s different. If he is, I can feel sympathy for him.

Did Shakespeare believe in witches?  It’s not known for certain, but it was certainly typical of the time. Whether the audience believes in witches or not, however, we have to suspend that belief because this play takes place in a universe where magic exists.  Prospero rescued Ariel from a tree, after he was imprisoned there Sycorax. So Sycorax did have powers (like Prospero), and therefore was an actual witch, so is it really that far fetched that she was impregnated by a devil?  And if that is the case in this universe, what exactly does that make Caliban?  Because “appearing human” would probably be closer than “actually human”.  If that’s the case then the play isn’t nearly the same to me.  I have no sympathy for Caliban if he’s just a walking, talking animal.

So, is Caliban human? I prefer to see it that way, but I think that Shakespeare probably didn’t. What does everybody else think?

 

~ Leave a comment

How does Horatio die in Hamlet?

 

Horatio at Hamlet's death
Horatio at Hamlet’s death. Image via Wikipedia commons

He doesn’t. He’s what you sometimes hear referred to as the “exception that proves the rule.”  Like how at the end of Hamlet, everybody dies. Except Horatio.

The official body count in the final scene (Act 5 Scene 2) of Hamlet is four:  Gertrude, Laertes, Claudius, Hamlet. Enter Fortinbras, who says “What happened here?” and Horatio is left to tell the tale.

Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film version may have also killed off Osric (the referee, for lack of a more description term), it’s difficult to tell. In Branagh’s version, Fortinbras is actively invading the castle while the final duel takes place between Hamlet and Laertes. Osric is seen being taken by surprise and stabbed. However, he then returns to the scene to deliver his line about Fortinbras’ “warlike volley.”

In some interpretations, such as Ingmar Bergman’s 1986 production, Horatio is killed at the end of the play. When Fortinbras orders, “Bid the soldiers shoot,” some directors have taken that as license to execute Horatio, presumably as the last remaining witness to all that had taken place. It’s important to note that there is nothing in the text to indicate this (just like Osric’s death above). However, there’s two ways to die in a play. Either the script says you die, or else you eventually just run out of lines. Once you’re no longer part of the action (such as Osric), you might fall victim to artistic license and find yourself dead at the end of Act 5 whether Shakespeare wanted it that way or not.

 

 

~ Leave a comment

Why did Hamlet kill Polonius?

There’s a short and easy answer to the question of why Hamlet killed Polonius. It was an accident. A case of mistaken identify, if you will. What he did next, however, certainly was no accident.

The story so far: Hamlet has sprung his mouse trap, playing out Claudius’ crime in front of him with the help of the actors. Claudius reaction has, as Hamlet anticipated, “caught the conscience of the king.” Gertrude, upset with her son for angering her husband, has requested Hamlet come to her bedchamber so she might speak with him. Polonius offers to spy on Hamlet by reaching the queen first and hiding in the arras (curtains).

Hamlet, in exultation at having proven Claudius’ guilt, comes to his mother’s bedchamber and intends to tell her off:

Hamlet. Now, mother, what’s the matter?

Gertrude. Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.

Hamlet. Mother, you have my father much offended.

Gertrude. Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue.

Hamlet. Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue.

Gertrude. Why, how now, Hamlet?

Hamlet. What’s the matter now?

Gertrude. Have you forgot me?

Hamlet. No, by the rood, not so!
You are the Queen, your husband’s brother’s wife,
And (would it were not so!) you are my mother.

Hamlet’s mood at this point is pretty obvious. He’s been unhappy with his mother and is letting it all out. You have my father much offended. You question with a wicked tongue. You are your husband’s brother’s wife.

If Hamlet had stormed off at this moment, having made his point, the play would have gone differently. Instead, Gertrude stands up and says, “I don’t have to take this!” and Hamlet shoves his mother back down, because he’s not done with her yet:

Gertrude. Nay, then I’ll set those to you that can speak.

Hamlet. Come, come, and sit you down. You shall not budge;
You go not till I set you up a glass
Where you may see the inmost part of you.

Gertrude is not prepared for Hamlet to put his hands on her. Remember that the whole castle believes Hamlet to have lost his mind. So it’s hardly unexpected when she yells to Polonius for help:

Gertrude. What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murther me?
Help, help, ho!

Polonius. [behind] What, ho! help, help, help!

Hamlet didn’t know someone else was in the room. He stabs blindly through the arras:

Hamlet. [draws] How now? a rat? Dead for a ducat, dead!

[Makes a pass through the arras and] kills Polonius.

Polonius. [behind] O, I am slain!

Gertrude. O me, what hast thou done?

Right now the audience is thinking the same thing that Gertrude is. What just happened? Hamlet’s a thinker and a talker, not a doer. Up to this point in the play he hasn’t really done anything.  Until now. Heard a noise? Kill it!

Hamlet. Nay, I know not. Is it the King?

Gertrude. O, what a rash and bloody deed is this!

Hamlet. A bloody deed- almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.

Gertrude. As kill a king?

Hamlet thought Claudius was hiding behind the arras! During this exchange, in fact, he still believes he has killed Claudius, which perhaps explains why he so blatantly accuses his mother of the crime, thinking that he has now avenged his father.

Hamlet discovers Polonius
Hamlet discovers Polonius. Image via Wikipedia commons

The timing here is subject to some debate. In the previous scene, on his way to his mother’s bedchamber, Hamlet had already passed Claudius at prayer. He has an opportunity there to kill him, but chooses not to take it. So, then, does Hamlet think that Claudius somehow beat him to the same destination? It’s possible that Hamlet took his time getting to his mother’s room eventually. Or that castles do tend to have secret passages and if there was a shortcut to Gertrude’s room, Claudius knew it. It’s also likely that in the heat of the moment Hamlet simply never thought of this.

So, Polonius’ death was an accident. What happens next is not. Hamlet hides Polonius body, refusing to let him have a proper burial. Act 4 scenes 2 and 3 are actually devoted entirely to the search for Polonius’ body:

Rosencrantz. What have you done, my lord, with the dead body?

Hamlet. Compounded it with dust, whereto ’tis kin.

Rosencrantz. Tell us where ’tis, that we may take it thence
And bear it to the chapel.

And then, when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can get no answers out on him, Hamlet is taken before Claudius:

Claudius. Where is Polonius?

Hamlet. In heaven. Send thither to see. If your messenger find him not
there, seek him i’ th’ other place yourself. But indeed, if you
find him not within this month, you shall nose him as you go up
the stair, into the lobby.

So Hamlet uses the dead body of his girlfriend’s father as a prop so he can tell Claudius to go to hell. Is this part of his crazy act? Or at this point does he truly care so little about such things that he doesn’t think twice about defiling a corpse?

~ 4 Comments

What does Juliet think about marriage?

Juliet’s thoughts on marriage change during the play, so the answer to the question depends on whether we look in Act 1 Scene 3 or Act 2 Scene 2.

Juliet is first mentioned when Paris comes asking her father for Juliet’s hand in marriage. Her father tells Paris that her opinion counts, and that he will not force her to marry someone she does not love:

Capulet. But woo her, gentle Paris, get her heart,
My will to her consent is but a part;
An she agree, within her scope of choice
Lies my consent and fair according voice.

We next see Juliet with her mother, who is working her from a different angle:

Lady Capulet. Marry, that ‘marry’ is the very theme
I came to talk of. Tell me, daughter Juliet,
How stands your disposition to be married?

Juliet. It is an honour that I dream not of.

There is the short answer for anybody just looking to get the homework answer. What does Juliet think about marriage? It is an honour she dreams not of.

Romeo at Juliet's Balcony
Romeo at Juliet’s Balcony. Image via Wikimedia Commons

But wait! She hasn’t met Romeo yet. Act 2, Scene 2, otherwise known as the famous balcony scene:

Juliet. Three words, dear Romeo, and good night indeed.
If that thy bent of love be honourable,
Thy purpose marriage, send me word to-morrow,
By one that I’ll procure to come to thee,
Where and what time thou wilt perform the rite;
And all my fortunes at thy foot I’ll lay
And follow thee my lord throughout the world.

This is Shakespearean for, “If you like it then you’d better put a ring on it.” Juliet has gone from “I’m not really interested in getting married” to “Just tell me the time and the place and I’ll be there.”

 

 

~ Leave a comment

Why does Viola dress as a man?

Twelfth Night opens with a shipwreck, but if you blink you’ll miss it. There’s no actual stage direction that says “And now a shipwreck happens,” unlike The Tempest which starts in exactly this way.

Instead, the first cue about what’s happened comes as Viola, the Captain and sailors enter (Act 1 Scene 2) and Viola asks, “What country is this?” and fears that her brother has drowned:

[Enter VIOLA, a Captain, and Sailors]

Viola. What country, friends, is this?

Captain. This is Illyria, lady.

Viola. And what should I do in Illyria?
My brother he is in Elysium.
Perchance he is not drown’d: what think you, sailors?

The Captain goes on to describe what he saw during the wreck, and gives Viola hope that her brother might indeed have survived (spoiler alert – he did!) But, still, that leaves Viola alone in a country unknown to her. The Captain tells her the story of the Lady Olivia and Duke Orsino. Viola wonders if she might become a servant for Olivia, but she is not seeing any visitors. So instead Viola decides that go into the service of Orsino, with the help of the Captain:

Conceal me what I am, and be my aid
For such disguise as haply shall become
The form of my intent. I’ll serve this duke:
Thou shall present me as an eunuch to him:
It may be worth thy pains; for I can sing
And speak to him in many sorts of music
That will allow me very worth his service.

She never says “help me dress like a boy”, of course, but it can be inferred from the clues (“conceal me what I am”, “present me as an eunuch to him”).

Viola as Cesario
Image via Wikimedia Commons

But why is this her plan? Surely there must be easier ways to survive in Illyria. There are a few theories:

  • It’s a matter of safety. She’s an unaccompanied woman in an unknown country (even though she is with the Captain, he’s still just a hired hand, not exactly a family member). She’ll meet with less trouble if people think she’s a man. This is the logic that one of Shakespeare’s other cross-dressing heroines, Rosalind, uses in As You Like It:

Rosalind. Alas, what danger will it be to us,
Maids as we are, to travel forth so far!
Beauty provoketh thieves sooner than gold.

Celia. I’ll put myself in poor and mean attire,
And with a kind of umber smirch my face;
The like do you; so shall we pass along,
And never stir assailants.

Rosalind. Were it not better,
Because that I am more than common tall,
That I did suit me all points like a man?
A gallant curtle-axe upon my thigh,
A boar spear in my hand; and- in my heart
Lie there what hidden woman’s fear there will-
We’ll have a swashing and a martial outside,
As many other mannish cowards have
That do outface it with their semblances.

  • She needs money. Viola’s first thought is to go into the service of Olivia until she can get her own situation together:

Viola. O that I served that lady
And might not be delivered to the world,
Till I had made mine own occasion mellow,
What my estate is!

  • The Captain’s description of the story between Orsino and Olivia has captivated Viola’s attention, and she wants to insert herself into the story. She believes that she will be of value to the Duke because she “can sing, and speak to him in many different sorts of music” and also “what else may hap to time,” so it’s quite possible that she’s already thinking about trying to play matchmaker.

 

 

~ Leave a comment

How did Lady Macbeth die?

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth
John Singer Sargent [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
It’s easy to miss when and how Lady Macbeth dies, because like so many other major character she dies off stage and her death is reported by a lesser character. In this case the news comes in Act 5 Scene 5, when Macbeth hears a scream and sends Seyton to investigate. Seyton returns and says, “The queen, my lord, is dead.”

Macbeth does not ask how she died. Before play ends, however, Malcolm gives more information about the circumstances in Act 5 Scene 8:

…Producing forth the cruel ministers
Of this dead butcher and his fiend-like queen,
Who, as ’tis thought, by self and violent hands
Took off her life;

Malcolm here appears to be confirming a rumor that Lady Macbeth killed herself. It is well established in other scenes that she has been slowly losing her mind. Shakespeare’s audience would have accepted as fact that she was possessed by demons at this point, and no additional detail would have been necessary.

 

~ Leave a comment