The urge to gain or hold onto power over other people is a prominent motive for the characters in Shakespeare’s plays, as it is in many – if not most – aspects of human life. Shakespeare’s kings, tyrants, military and ecclesiastical leaders, and also his parents, siblings, and even his lovers are in many scenes of any play trying to wrest or retain power, to have some sort of control over someone else, or the nation, or simply the situation at hand.
“To listen is to cede power, however briefly.”
~ Brenda Walker, TLS Aug. 21, 2020
The urge to gain or hold onto power over other people is a prominent motive for the characters in Shakespeare’s plays, as it is in many – if not most – aspects of human life. Shakespeare’s kings, tyrants, military and ecclesiastical leaders, and also his parents, siblings, and even his lovers are in many scenes of any play trying to wrest or retain power, to have some sort of control over someone else, or the nation, or simply the situation at hand. While kings and generals have larger issues of power, they too may have wives, children or lovers who contradict them and their wishes, and engage them in a struggle for control. A witty, amorous, deluded, or sometimes deadly conflict between a woman and a man occurs in virtually every play of Shakespeare’s, and may well be at the heart of it. Some of these characters, particularly in the comedies, do find a way to resolve the power struggle, even if briefly, while in the tragedies and ‘problem plays’ the abuse of power has an unhappy result.
Power struggles between men and women are shaped to some extent by the restrictions, usually on women’s behaviour, imposed by any given society. In terms of legal rights and social position, women in Renaissance England had far less power than men, and in some of Shakespeare’s imagined worlds they had even less – as in the quasi-mythological Athens of A Midsummer Night’s Dream where the plot is set in motion by Hermia’s father determination to invoke a city law giving a girl’s father the right to make her marry, on pain of death, the man he chooses for her. For the most part, however, in the tragedies as well as the comedies, Shakespeare’s women select the men who please them, rather than the choices of their male relatives.
Antonio: Well, niece, I trust you will be ruled by your father.
Beatrice: Yes, faith, it is my cousin’s duty to make curtsy and say ‘Father, as it please you’: but yet for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsy and say “Father, as it please me.’ (Much Ado, II, i)
Of course, both parent and daughter may make a bad choice. But it is worth remembering that for most of Shakespeare’s working life England was governed, directly and very effectively, by a woman – Elizabeth I, whose marital options were a subject of great public interest and concern. Deciding who to marry, or not to marry at all, was the prerogative of the Queen, and many of Shakespeare’s young women make it their prerogative as well, in defiance of masculine authority. The gentle Desdemona defies her father to marry Othello, whose stirring stories of his struggles and adventure have won her love. Ophelia, on the other hand, is deterred from responding to Hamlet’s overtures of love by the cautious advice of her brother and her father: unsure whom to believe, or listen to, she chooses Polonius over Hamlet.
Just as Desdemona’s love is awakened by listening to Othello’s stories, Shakespeare often shows love, with a consequent relinquishment of the desire to dominate or defeat, following from an attentive hearing of another person’s account or story. The wise young women in Shakespeare’s plays listen – to both words and the subtext behind them, and the wise men do likewise, sensing who is most worth listening to. Lear is given wise counsel by both Cordelia and Kent, but prefers the deceptive flattery offered by his other daughters. Othello, alas, listens to Iago’s poisonous insinuations, rather than to Desdemona, and hears her innocent comments in the sickly-green light of his awakened jealousy. In the great comedies, however, intelligent listening enables the principal characters to distinguish truth from flattery, and a genuine love from a passion which seeks domination and power.
The two most powerful characters in Twelfth Night, the Duke Orsino and Countess Olivia, imagine themselves to be in love – the Duke with Olivia, and Olivia with the youth she imagines to be Orsino’s page (actually Viola, in male garb). Orsino’s romantic posturing (“if Music be the food of love, play on; give me excess of it. . .”) is just that: he seems actually in love with his own role as lover, and will not listen to Olivia’s firm refusals. Viola quickly falls in love with Orsino, but cannot reveal her true identity. Serving as his page boy, she is goaded by his callow remarks about the superficiality of women and their incapability of true feeling, and tells him a story – speaking indirectly of her own love for him.
“I know,” she says,
Too well what love women to men may owe:
In faith, they are as true of heart as we.
My father had a daughter loved a man,
As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,
I should your lordship.
Orsino: And what’s her history?
Viola: A blank, my Lord. She never told her love.,
But let concealment, like a worm i’th’bud,
Feed on her damask cheek: she pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was this not love indeed?
With the sad story of her supposed sister’s love, Viola catches Orsino’s interest, and attention; he asks questions about the sister, and at the climax of the play remembers Viola’s words and claims her love. In the spate of romantic coincidences which conclude the play, Orsino finds that the love which his wealth, power and threats cannot achieve for him is eventually granted through his memory of Viola’s words.
Another of the great comedies, Much Ado About Nothing, also ends in a double wedding. Two of the lovers really don’t know each other at all – evidently have never even talked to each other: little wonder, then, that a dreadful misunderstanding occurs. The other wordy, witty pair scorn each other and squabble fiercely, only to discover, to their surprise, that they are indeed in love, and understand each other very well. In the main plot of the play, a group of soldiers returns to Messina after a military victory, and a marriage is arranged between a dashing young soldier, Claudio, and a naïve, innocent girl, Hero. They are an attractive pair, and the marriage is approved by all, but we don’t see them so much as exchange a few lines of dialogue, and the courting of Hero is done by the Prince of behalf of Claudio. Thus Claudio is rather easily deceived into thinking he sees Hero being unfaithful, and he denounces her at the wedding. Eventually, a wicked plot is uncovered and the marriage goes ahead, though it’s stretching credulity to feel it could be a very happy one after such a beginning.
Hero’s cousin Beatrice, on the other hand, has some experience of the world and, apparently, men, and says what she thinks about it all – with a sometimes caustic humour. A particular butt of her joking is Benedick, an older soldier and good friend of Claudio. However, her first question on learning of the battle is whether or not Benedick (to whom she refers by a cheeky nickname) has returned safe. She merrily turns every attempt to praise him, and of his to defend himself, into a clever jibe and insult. The details of the jibes do show, however, that she has given him a fair amount of attention,
Benedick: “I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and
so good a continuer. But keep your way, . . . I have done.”
Beatrice: “You always end with a jade’s trick. I know you of old.”
Although Benedick retorts rudely to such taunts, he comments to Claudio that Hero can’t compare in beauty to Beatrice:
“There’s her cousin, an she were not possessed with a fury, exceeds her as much in beauty as the first of May doth the last of December.” (I,i)
The friends of this sparring couple, probably picking up on the clues that they are actually very interested in each other, lay plots to draw them together: the girls arrange for Beatrice to overhear them saying that Benedick is suffering for love of her, and the men similarly convince Benedick that Beatrice longs for him. Listening to their friends, on a subject close to their hearts, makes the trick work:
Beatrice: Contempt farewell, and maiden pride adieu!
No glory lives behind the back of such.
And, Benedick, love on, I will requite thee,
Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand.” (III, ii)
Sobered by the humiliation of Hero on her wedding day, Beatrice and Benedick acknowledge their love to each other.
Benedick: I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?
Beatrice: As strange as the thing I know not. It were as possible for me to say I loved nothing so well as you, but believe me not and yet I lie not. I confess nothing, nor I deny nothing. I am sorry for my cousin.
Benedick: By my sword, Beatrice, thou lovest me.
Beatrice: Do not swear by it and eat it.
Benedick: I will swear by it that you love me, and I will make him eat it that says I love not you.
Beatrice: Will you not eat your word?
Benedick: With no sauce that can be devised to it. I protest I love thee.
Beatrice: Why then, God forgive me.
Benedick: What offence, sweet Beatrice?
Beatrice: You have stayed me in a happy hour I was about to protest I loved you.
Benedick: And do it with all thy heart.
Beatrice: I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest.
This dialogue, like so many of their exchanges – whether insulting or loving, or both at once, shows how attuned the lovers are to each other: they pick up and play with each other’s metaphors, and echo each other’s language with equal skill and felicity. While the destructive power of a patriarchal society fells poor Hero for a while, Benedick wields no such power over Beatrice. Rather, he rejoices in their prickly proximity.
Others in the play appreciate Beatrice’s intelligence and playful ability to assert herself. During the early scene of the masked dance, the Prince [Don Pedro] himself is intrigued by her spirit.
Beatrice: Thus goes everyone to the world but I, and I am sunburnt. I may sit in a corner and cry “Hey-ho for a husband.”
Don Pedro: Lady Beatrice, I will get you one.
Beatrice: I would rather have one of your father’s getting. Hath your grace ne’er a brother like you? Your father got excellent husbands, if a maid could come by them.
Don Pedro: Will you have me, lady?
Beatrice: No, my lord, unless I might have another for working days: your grace is too costly to wear every day. But I beseech your grace pardon me. I was born to speak all mirth and no matter.
In performance, a startled pause after Don Pedro’s words often emphasizes the impressive offer Beatrice has received, and then the skillful delicacy with which she refuses it. Wisely, Beatrice will prefer the man who equals her in station and in wit: no power will be exerted over her or by her in her marriage to Benedick. Even in their acknowledgement of love, they take turns, listening to and joking with each other as they plan how to save Hero’s honour, and their future together.
Establishing their love by playing with words together is the means by which Shakespeare convinces us of the sudden, intense passion of a very different pair of lovers – Romeo and Juliet. In the scene of their meeting at a dance, Romeo is struck by her beauty and as he dances with Juliet, palm to palm in the stately motions of a Renaissance court dance, he finds her quick to respond to the religious imagery of his speech – comparing the lovely girl to a shrine, and his lips to pilgrims.
Romeo: If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle sin is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.
Juliet: Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this,
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.
Romeo: Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?
Juliet: Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
Romeo: Oh then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do . . .’ (I.iv)
The simile continues, as the young couple recognize in each other their quick intelligence and a gentle courtesy. In their other two major scenes together, on the balcony and in the bedchamber before Romeo must flee Verona, they are similarly attentive to the words being used – both the meaning, and the metaphors: they pick up images from each other, exploring how they can express the intense emotions they both feel. Ultimately the power of the city state and of bitter family hostilities is exerted to part, and destroy, the young lovers. In their death, however, grief at their loss and recognition of the intensity of their love does finally enable the Montagues and Capulets to hear the sorrow of the other grieving family and listen to the Prince who commands an end to their enmity.
As we see in the tragedies of Othello and Hamlet, listening to the wrong person, and thus ceding power to them, can lead to disaster. Coriolanus, in the play named for him, is a Roman military hero remarkable for his disinclination to listen to anyone. Throughout the play, the wily politician and good old friend Menenius tries to guide Coriolanus to discretion in his dealings with the populace of Rome, but the arrogant soldier pays little heed. His sense of himself, and of what matters in life, is rooted in a code of personal honour, valour, and pride instilled in him by his mother, the formidable Volumnia. When anger at the refusal of the Roman populace to suitably reward his military services leads Coriolanus to join with his old enemy Aufidius to attack Rome, he remains deaf to all pleas to spare the city. Eventually, Volumnia herself comes outside the gates of Rome to confront her son and, eventually, he listens, and gives in to her. Listening to his mother, however, costs Coriolanus his life, as Aufidius promptly stabs him for his betrayal.
The humorous fat knight Sir John Falstaff in the two parts of Henry IV is an opposite of Coriolanus, as he explains in his prudent speech at the Battle of Shrewsbury:
Prince Henry: Why, thou ow’st heaven a death. (exit)
Falstaff: ‘Tis not due yet. I would be loath to pay him before
his day. What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me? Well, ‘tis no matter, honour pricks me on. But how if honour prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word. What is that word ‘honour’? Air. . . . Therefore I’ll have none of it. (VI, 1)
Falstaff listens to his own cautious common sense, rather than the fine language and high principles of military oratory.
Although – and perhaps because – he’s thoroughly unprincipled, Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s most enjoyable characters, and his role is critical in making human the character of the Prince, a dissolute boon companion of Falstaff, who later becomes the idealized Henry V. Not unlike the verbal sparring of the pairs of lovers mentioned earlier, the banter of the two friends depends on each picking up the metaphorical language of the other and playing with it – listening carefully to each other, and responding in kind. But while the Prince is very aware of Falstaff’s limitations, and the danger of being too closely allied with him, Falstaff does not listen at all when the Prince cautions him, several times, that their association must end when he becomes King. He is confident in his power over the Prince, and ability to tease him out of anger or disapproval.
Falstaff: No, my good lord, banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish
Poins, but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff . . . banish not him thy Harry’s company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.
Prince Henry; I do, I will. (II, 4)
The roguish Falstaff is not easily put down, and can talk his way out of most of the awkward situations he gets himself into. At the end of the final scene of Henry 1V, Part Two, however, his confidence in his power over the new King, of which he has boasted and which he intends to continue using to his own advantage, leads him to a nasty shock when he greets his newly-elevated friend.
Falstaff: Save thee, my sweet boy!
King Henry V: My Lord Chief Justice, speak to that vain man.
Falstaff: My king, my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart.
King Henry V: I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dreamed of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old and so profane,
But being awake, I do despise my dream. (V,v)
The audience is less shocked than Falstaff by this rejection, as we have seen the reformation of the playboy Prince signalled in other scenes where Falstaff was not present, but the pathos of it, and of the fat knight’s humiliation, is a memorable piece of theatre. Like so many of us, Falstaff listens to what suits him, and chooses not to listen to some important warnings.
Power over other people, in many different types of human relationships, involves the assertion of one’s own will, and sometimes one’s sense of what is right or necessary. But the kind of attentive listening we see given by some of the characters in Shakespeare’s dramas leads them, as Walker says, to cede what power they may have, at least temporarily, to recognize instead the needs and wishes and reality of another person. However briefly, this willingness to listen can enlighten, soften, and alter the understanding of the powerful or power-seeker. ♦