Mind-Blowing Tech No Match for Monster on ‘Forbidden Planet’

Forbidden Planet is special for many reasons. It’s the first science fiction film to show humans traveling in a starship of their own making to an interstellar world far from Earth. It marks the cinematic debut of Robby the Robot, who went on to enjoy a rich film and television career and even has his own IMDb page, and stars a young Leslie Nielsen in a serious role as a rational and believable leading man. Considered one of the great science fiction films of the 1950s, it had a huge influence on later science fiction, particularly Star Trek. The story is well crafted and richly layered, exploring humanity’s potential for both intellectual achievement and sinful degradation. Besides all that, it’s wonderfully entertaining, with beautiful special effects, solid acting, and a clever, thoughtful script.

forbidden planet bigger still

The film came out in 1956, smack-dab in the middle of a decade when science fiction was growing in popularity as space travel began to look really achievable. It was an optimistic time, but with an undercurrent of anxiety. Wages were high, but the arms race kept people on edge; school children practiced “duck and cover” drills in case of nuclear bombing. While Americans loved their technology and the prosperity it made possible, they also feared its potential for destruction. This ambivalence provides much of the tension in Forbidden Planet.

The film is often compared to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and there are striking similarities between the two. A man with secrets, grudges, and mysterious powers—a magician of sorts—is marooned on a strange world with a daughter who’s been raised in such profound isolation that the sight of any man other than her father is cause for marvel. They have two servants—one good and reliable, non-human but anthropomorphic, and another of questionable origin, a violent savage not above murder. And when visitors arrive from the magician’s world of origin, things quickly hit the fan.

commander adams and crew

The film opens with Commander Adams and crew coming to Altair 4 to check on some colonists who settled there twenty years earlier and haven’t been heard from since. While his ship is still in the atmosphere, Adams is contacted by someone on the planet who tells him everything’s perfectly all right now, we’re fine, we’re all fine here now, thank you, so just move along. When Adams refuses to abandon his mission, his contact on the planet grudgingly permits the ship to land but says he won’t be answerable for the safety of ship or crew.

The contact turns out to be Dr. Edward Morbius. He’s a philologist, a specialist in language and linguistics—no doubt a useful person to have in a party of space colonists, but not one you’d expect to thrive alone on a hostile alien world. Morbius is the sole survivor of the original party. All the others—except his wife, who died later of natural causes—were mysteriously and violently killed by an invisible being not long after arrival, and Morbius fears that Adams’s crew will suffer the same fate. Morbius himself, and his daughter Alta, are “immune” to the creature’s rage.

The name Morbius suggests the Latin “morbus,” meaning mental illness; it was later reused for an unstable renegade Time Lord in an episode of Doctor Who. It’s an apt enough name in Dr. Morbius’s case. Dressed in black from head to toe, sporting a widow’s peak and a neatly trimmed beard, living on a fortified extraterrestrial compound with mind-blowing technology, a robot servant, and a free-roaming tiger, the guy is bound to have some supervillain tendencies at the very least.

dr. morbius

Robby the Robot, played by himself, is a delightful character with a dry wit, a plodding gait, and a talent for replicating things at a molecular level. He appears to be programmed with at least the first two of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics: he will not harm a human, and he obeys all his master’s commands except when doing so would violate the first law. When the two do come into conflict—when obeying a command would harm a human—the dilemma sends Robby into a temporary electro-sizzling paralysis.

robby the robot dilemma

Both Morbius and Prospero have a second, less tractable servant. In The Tempest, it’s Caliban; in Forbidden Planet, it’s a mysterious, deadly presence, referred to at first as the Planetary Force and later as the Monster. In both film and play, there is some question as to just what this troublesome being is. Caliban is in fact a man, though a coarse and unwashed one, but characters who see him for the first time always express some doubt. He is so weird-looking and bad-smelling that humanity doesn’t want to claim him. Like the Monster, he’s driven by primitive and violent impulses beyond his own comprehension.

In both stories, the master-servant relationship is uneasy, even torturous. Both Caliban and the Monster are referred to as devilish in origin; both are closely associated with dreams. Both have masters who would like them to just go away. At one point Morbius cries out in anguish to the Monster, “Stop! No further! I deny you! I give you up!” But giving it up is easier said than done. Morbius can’t just renounce the darkness and make it go away. It’s as systemic to him as sin itself.

Morbius’s compound sits above an underground laboratory built by the planet’s former inhabitants, the now-extinct Krell. Before their mysterious disappearance, the Krell developed a machine capable of harnessing the imagination to make material projections. It was an incredible intellectual achievement, but exacted a terrible cost. (Imagine a tangible demonstration of Luke 6:45.)

krell lab

In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul says that wisdom can’t save us. Wisdom is an excellent and praiseworthy thing, as the Bible makes clear elsewhere, but we don’t have all the wisdom, and our sin makes us incapable of properly exercising whatever wisdom we have. It is only power that can save us—Christ’s power over sin.

Often we pretend that knowledge is the only issue. When speaking of someone who is smart but morally compromised, we often add, “Well, I guess he isn’t that smart”—as if it’s only lack of information or comprehension that makes people behave badly, and smart people are never selfish or violent or perverse. We speak euphemistically of “bad decisions” rather than sin. We don’t want to acknowledge that our problem is deeper than ignorance; we want to believe that pure pragmatism can govern our behavior, molding it into something benign and harmless that will never bother anyone. But even if we could be governed that way, we wouldn’t want to, not really. Not making waves, not getting into trouble, isn’t enough for us. We want the twisted excitement of the forbidden. Bland security is boring, a sated inactivity where our darkest impulses are not satisfied.

Who among us doesn’t have something evil lurking in the heart, waiting for the right opportunity to be brought forth? And if the power existed to give physical form to everything the mind could imagine, who wouldn’t have just cause for fear?

Forbidden Planet addresses these questions deftly and thoughtfully, without ever bogging down or getting too heavy. The issue that so preoccupied American society in the 1950s—man’s uneasy relationship with technology—turns out to be a portal to something even more terrifying: man’s relationship with himself.

“So Swift and Excellent a Wit”: Reason and Intuition in Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing opens with a messenger newly arrived to say that visitors are on their way. Don Pedro, Prince of Arragon, has just finished some military action and is bringing his men to Messina for a visit. The news is received by Leonato, Governor of Messina; Hero, his daughter; and Beatrice, his orphaned niece. Leonato inquires about the campaign; the messenger answers. They chat a bit.

Then Beatrice speaks up. “I pray you, is Signior Mountanto returned from the wars or no?” The messenger says, “I know none of that name, lady. There was none such in the army of any sort.” Leonato asks, “What is he that you ask for, niece?” Then Hero says, “My cousin means Signior Benedick of Padua” (I.i.27-31).

much ado beatrice

Montanto is a fencing term for a strike or jab made in an upward direction with a sword. “Mr. Fancy Fighter” is perhaps the most innocent interpretation that could be given to the name “Signior Mountanto.” Whatever Beatrice means here, it isn’t something flattering.

The messenger answers, “O, he’s returned, and as pleasant as ever he was” (I.i.32-3). Beatrice responds with more Benedick-insulting nonsense; the messenger gives another straight answer. They go back and forth for a while, the messenger growing increasingly puzzled. Finally Leonato tells him, “You must not, sir, mistake my niece. There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her. They never meet but there’s a skirmish of wit between them.”

much ado beatrice benedick

Constant heckling gets tiresome, and Benedick and Beatrice could easily be insufferable boors. They are saved from this by their genuine good will and affection for others. The reactions to them by the characters who know them best make it plain that they are well liked. They are both described as having no trace of melancholy; they aren’t moody or introspective. The word merry is used ten times in the play, seven of which are in connection with Beatrice and Benedick. The messenger, after his prolonged teasing by Beatrice, ends by saying, “I will hold friends with you, lady,” to which Beatrice replies, “Do, good friend” (I.i.80-1). For a stranger to perceive the playful good humor behind her wit is testimony to her personal warmth.

The word wit occurs thirty-three times in this play. Twenty of these are in reference to Benedick and Beatrice. Wit can be defined as “a natural aptitude for using words and ideas in a quick and inventive way to create humor.” This is the normal mode of communication for Benedick and Beatrice. Their speech is filled with puns (often bawdy), hyperbole, and bewildering turns of fancy. Benedick’s fellow soldiers are so used to hearing him speak this way that when at last they hear him speak plainly (which happens no earlier than Act V), they don’t believe him, even after he repeatedly insists he’s serious. And anytime Beatrice and Benedick are together with their respective wits, things escalate fast.

Humor can be used to disguise meaning, to deflect perception, to have it both ways. You can wrap up some genuine inquiry or declaration in humor to see how it’ll be received; if not so well, you can always say, I was only joking. In this way you can feel out the other person without communicating your true self, take without giving, and avoid looking like a fool.

Beatrice and Benedick have much to disguise, even from themselves, for they have been in love for some time. The audience realizes this long before they do. When the messenger first arrives, Leonato asks how many soldiers were killed in the recent action; the messenger says only a few but doesn’t name names. Beatrice wants to know particulars. What about Benedick? Is he alive? What’s he doing? Who’s his companion? But to ask directly would betray her feelings, so she couches her inquiry in an insult. Her listeners are too dazzled by her wit to realize she asks no fewer than seven questions about Benedick’s doings. She doesn’t inquire about any other soldier in Don Pedro’s company.

The soldiers arrive, and before Benedick has had a chance to say more than a few lines of pleasantries to his host, this exchange takes place between him and Beatrice.


I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick. Nobody marks you.


What, my dear Lady Disdain! are you yet living?


Is it possible Disdain should die while she hath such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick? Courtesy itself must convert to Disdain if you come in her presence.


Then is courtesy a turncoat. But it is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted; and I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart, for truly I love none.


A dear happiness to women! They would else have been troubled with a pernicious suitor. I thank God and my cold blood, I am of your humor for that. I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow than a man swear he loves me.


God keep your ladyship still in that mind! So some gentleman or other shall scape a predestinate scratched face.


Scratching could not make it worse an ’twere such a face as yours were.


Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher.


A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of yours.


I would my horse had the speed of your tongue, and so good a continuer. But keep your way, a God’s name! I have done.


You always end with a jade’s trick. I know you of old. (I.i.103-30)

much ado jade's trick

Why does Beatrice say no one marks Benedick if in fact no one does mark him? Why point out that no one is listening to him if no one really is? She, for one, is certainly listening, and once she delivers her jab everyone else within earshot will be listening as well. Benedick takes up the exchange eagerly, as if he was just waiting for an opportunity; he fairly pounces on her words. He is quick to introduce the subject of love to the conversation and to remind everyone present that he loves none; and Beatrice is just as quick to say that she feels the same way. In this, their opposition to love and marriage, they are strangely united. They are alike; they are superior to ordinary mortals who let their feelings run away with them. Beatrice’s final line is most intriguing of all: “I know you of old.” Benedick and Beatrice have a history, often hinted at but never fully explained.

Neither of them is accomplishing anything here; neither is really trumping the other. Everything they say is designed to prolong the encounter, effectively daring the other to top that, if you may. If they disliked each other as much as they claim, they could easily say something game-ending or say nothing at all.

The women withdraw, and Benedick’s friend Claudio, a young count who has distinguished himself in the recent action, asks Benedick’s opinion of Hero.

much ado claudio


Benedick, didst thou note the daughter of Signior Leonato?


I noted her not, but I looked on her.


Is she not a modest young lady?


Do you question me as an honest man should do, for my simple true judgment? or would you have me speak after my custom, as being a professed tyrant to their sex?


No, I pray thee speak in sober judgment.


Why, i’ faith, methinks she’s too low for a high praise, too brown for a fair praise, and too little for a great praise. Only this commendation I can afford her, that were she other than she is, she were unhandsome, and being no other but as she is, I do not like her.


Thou thinkest I am in sport. I pray thee tell me truly how thou lik’st her.


Would you buy her, that you enquire after her?


Can the world buy such a jewel?


Yea, and a case to put it into. But speak you this with a sad brow? or do you play the flouting Jack, to tell us Cupid is a good hare-finder and Vulcan a rare carpenter? Come, in what key shall a man take you to go in the song?


In mine eye she is the sweetest lady that ever I looked on.


I can see yet without spectacles, and I see no such matter. 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.143-71)

much ado hero beatrice

Much of the humor in this scene arises from the contrast between Claudio’s deadly seriousness and Benedick’s jests. And though he is jesting, Benedick is something of a straight man here; Claudio is the one using inflated language. But Benedick’s plain-spoken, sober-minded praise of Beatrice’s beauty resonates more, is more valuable, than Claudio’s contrived raptures about Hero.

Claudio confides to Don Pedro that he’s in love with Hero. Don Pedro approves, and furthermore, offers to woo Hero in Claudio’s place that very night at a masked dance. This interference seems a bit much even for a well-intentioned commanding officer and nobleman. As is admitted outright later in the play, the soldiers are bored and ready to stir things up, and some of their stirring up ultimately leads to a lot of trouble and heartache for themselves and Leonato’s household. Much could be drawn from this play about the effect of too quickly reintroducing men newly returned from combat back into civilian society. The Prince and Claudio behave like warriors with Issues: quick to close ranks, exaggerating perceived threats, overreacting to provocation, and dispensing summary justice.

much ado guys

The ultimate source of the provocation is Don John, the Prince’s illegitimate brother, who stood against the Prince in the recent military action. He was defeated and is now in a sort of probation. This chafes at him. He isn’t truly repentant at all and would love nothing more than to stir up trouble, especially for his brother and Claudio, whose recent renown came at Don John’s expense. At the masked dance, Don John, pretending to mistake Claudio for Benedick, tells him that Don Pedro is wooing Hero for himself, and Claudio believes him. But the misunderstanding is soon cleared up, and Hero and Claudio agree to marry as soon as possible.

Disguise is a recurring element in this play. Characters are often masked, literally or figuratively. Unlike Rosalind and Viola, other romantic heroines of Shakespearean comedies, Beatrice does not dress up in men’s clothing, but she and Benedick both use wit as a disguise.

much ado masks

They share a dance. Benedick wears a mask, and he pretends to be someone else and tells Beatrice all the unpleasant things he has heard about her. She sees through this transparent ruse but plays along and gives him what-for by abusing Benedick to himself. Her insults leave his in the dust.

Why, he is the Prince’s jester, a very dull fool. Only his gift is in devising impossible slanders. None but libertines delight in him; and the commendation is not in his wit, but in his villainy; for he both pleases men and angers them, and then they laugh at him and beat him (II.i.122-7).

Beatrice criticizes Benedick for being critical, which is appropriate considering that he just criticized her, and also ironic because she is just as habitually critical as he is. Her jabs hit home; Benedick seems truly hurt by the suggestion that people dislike him, and tries to reassure himself afterwards that this isn’t true.

Later he vents to the Prince and Claudio.

O, she misused me past the endurance of a block! An oak but with one green leaf on it would have answered her; my very visor began to assume life and scold with her. She told me, not thinking I had been myself, that I was the Prince’s jester, that I was duller than a great thaw; huddling jest upon jest with such impossible conveyance upon me that I stood like a man at a mark, with a whole army shooting at me. She speaks poniards, and every word stabs. If her breath were as terrible as her terminations, there were no living near her; she would infect to the North Star. I would not marry her though she were endowed with all that Adam had left him before he transgressed. She would have made Hercules have turned spit, yea, and have cleft his club to make the fire too. Come, talk not of her. You shall find her the infernal Ate in good apparel. I would to God some scholar would conjure her, for certainly, while she is here, a man may live as quiet in hell as in a sanctuary; and people sin upon purpose, because they would go thither; so indeed all disquiet, horror, and perturbation follows her (II.i.214-35).

This is a long speech with lots of hyperbole. There is nothing understated or subtle about Benedick or Beatrice. Benedick says he would not marry Beatrice if she were basically endowed with every conceivable virtue; well, who’s asking him to? Who brought up marriage but himself? He says, “Come, talk not of her,” and then proceeds to go on talking of her. No one else talks about her half as much as he does. No one else has anything like his interest in the subject.

much ado benedick

After the dance, Benedick reflects on Claudio’s defection to the ranks of lovers and ponders whether he himself might one day fall in love.

I do much wonder that one man, seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates his behaviors to love, will, after he hath laughed at such shallow follies in others, become the argument of his own scorn by falling in love; and such a man is Claudio. I have known when there was no music with him but the drum and the fife; and now had he rather hear the tabor and the pipe. I have known when he would have walked ten mile afoot to see a good armor; and now will he lie ten nights awake carving the fashion of a new doublet. He was wont to speak plain and to the purpose, like an honest man and a soldier; and now is he turned orthography; his words are a very fantastical banquet—just so many strange dishes. May I be so converted and see with these eyes? I cannot tell; I think not. I will not be sworn but love may transform me to an oyster; but I’ll take my oath on it, till he have made an oyster of me he shall never make me such a fool. One woman is fair, yet I am well; another is wise, yet I am well; another virtuous, yet I am well; but till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace. Rich she shall be, that’s certain; wise, or I’ll none; virtuous, or I’ll never cheapen her; fair, or I’ll never look on her; mild, or come not near me; noble, or not I for an angel; of good discourse, an excellent musician, and her hair shall be of what color it please God. (II.iii.7-32)

Benedick’s defense against falling in love is that it will take no less than a flawless paragon of beauty, intellect, and virtue to win his heart, but very soon after he is undone by a simple hoax. The Prince decides to amuse himself in his down time by bringing Beatrice and Benedick together. Claudio, Hero, and Leonato all agree to help. Because the two potential lovers are so contrary, they must be tricked: the men will speak so as to be overheard by Benedick about how Beatrice is secretly in love with him, and Hero and her maid Ursula will serve Beatrice the same way.

much ado benedick listening

The plan goes off beautifully. With Benedick eavesdropping from the arbor, Claudio, Don Pedro, and Leonato talk at length about how hopelessly Beatrice is in love with him, how worthy a woman she is, and how Benedick is too proud and disdainful too ever requite her. When they are gone, he reflects on what he has heard.

This can be no trick. The conference was sadly borne; they have the truth of this from Hero; they seem to pity the lady. It seems her affections have their full bent. Love me? Why, it must be requited. I hear how I am censured. They say I will bear myself proudly if I perceive the love come from her. They say too that she will rather die then give any sign of affection. I did never think to marry. I must not seem proud. Happy are they that hear their detractions and can put them to mending. They say the lady is fair—’tis a truth, I can bear them witness; and virtuous—’tis so, I cannot reprove it; and wise, but for loving me—by my troth, it is no addition to her wit, nor no great argument of her folly, for I will be horribly in love with her. I may chance have some odd quirks and remnants of wit broken on me because I have railed so long against marriage. But doth not the appetite alter? A man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age. Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humor? No, the world must be peopled. When I said I would die a bachelor, I did not think I should live till I were married. Here comes Beatrice. By this day, she’s a fair lady! I do spy some marks of love in her (II.iii.202-25).

For such a professed cynic, Benedick is easily taken in. The possibility of deception is mentioned in his very first sentence, only to be dismissed at once. Thinking you’re clever can make you easier to fool, but something more is going on here. Benedick’s objections to marriage, and to Beatrice in particular, could not be so quickly overcome if they had not been so flimsy to begin with. Truth is, he’s glad for the excuse.

Not long after, Hero arranges to have Beatrice listen in on her conversation with Ursula. They speak of Benedick’s merit and Beatrice’s scorn; they agree that it’s a hopeless case. Their words hit home.

much ado beatrice listening

After they depart, Beatrice says,

What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true?

     Stand I condemned for pride and scorn so much?

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.

If thou dost love, my kindness shall incite thee

     To bind our loves up in a holy band;

For others say thou dost deserve, and I

Believe it better than reportingly (II.iii.107-16).

Before either of them can make a move, the time comes for Hero and Claudio’s wedding. After Don John’s lie to Claudio fails to amount to much mischief, he hatches a far more ambitious scheme. One of his own men, Borachio, proposes to have a romantic encounter with Margaret, one of Hero’s maids, in Hero’s window for Claudio and the Prince to see. Claudio will mistake Margaret for Hero and call off his marriage; Hero’s reputation and future prospects will be ruined; her family will be shamed. Don John revels in the collateral damage; the more people are made miserable, the better satisfied he will be.

much ado baddies

The ruse succeeds. Don John slanders Hero to the Prince and Claudio, saying that she has had many illicit lovers, and arranges for them to see the tryst at the window. Claudio is incensed. He vows to keep his rage in check until the day of the intended wedding, when he will publicly shame Hero at the altar before her family and the entire community. And this he does, with the Prince backing him up. Hero faints from shock and grief, and Don John, Don Pedro, and Claudio stalk off.

Leonato’s behavior in the altar scene is appalling. At first, when the reason for Claudio’s sudden coldness to Hero is unclear, Leonato almost bends over backwards to smooth things over, calling Claudio son and dear my lord. After Claudio accuses Hero of being unchaste, Leonato assumes that Claudio himself seduced her, and he is absurdly conciliatory, almost apologetic. But once he fully understands the allegation, he turns on Hero with startling ferocity, shaming her and wishing her dead. When she protests her innocence, he retorts, “Would the two princes lie? and Claudio lie,/Who loved her so that, speaking of her foulness,/Washed it with tears?” (IV.i.149-51) This is as much as to say that Hero would lie, that he believes their word over hers. Also, this all takes place shortly after Leonato himself has taken part in a successful trick on Benedick. Though deceived, Leonato is much to blame.

much ado post accusation

Beatrice defends her cousin, but blindly; she is bewildered as to why the Prince and Claudio would lie or how they could have made such a mistake.

Benedick doesn’t storm off with his fellow soldiers, he remains with Beatrice, Hero, and Leonato. In the midst of the vitriol and drama, his words are a balm, though all he says is that he doesn’t understand what’s going on. Under the circumstances, withholding judgment is the most reasonable and fair-minded thing he can do.

Then the friar speaks. He has been watching Hero closely throughout the ordeal and is convinced that she is telling the truth. He says that the princes—Don Pedro and Don John—must be mistaken, and Benedick suddenly realizes that Don John must be to blame.

The friar proposes that Leonato pretend that Hero has died of grief. In this way he will allow some time for the truth to come to light and for Don Pedro and Claudio to repent of what they’ve done. This might seem like an extreme course of action, but in a culture that highly valued a woman’s reputation for virtue, the loss of a good name was a serious, life-altering thing. Benedick agrees with the friar’s plan and vows to keep it secret from the prince and Claudio.

The others exit, leaving Benedick and Beatrice alone. They have this exchange.


Surely I do believe your fair cousin is wronged.


Ah, how much might the man deserve of me that would right her!


Is there any way to show such friendship?


A very even way, but no such friend.


May a man do it?


It is a man’s office, but not yours.


I do love nothing in the world so well as you. Is not that strange?


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.


By my word, Beatrice, thou lovest me.


Do not swear and eat it.


I will swear by it that you love me, and I will make him eat it that says I love not you.


Will you not eat your word?


With no sauce that can be devised to it. I protest I love thee.


Why then, God forgive me!


What offense, sweet Beatrice?


You have stayed me in a happy hour. I was about to protest I loved you.


And do it with all thy heart.


I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest.


Come, bid me do anything for thee.


Kill Claudio.


Ha! not for the wide world!


You kill me to deny it. Farewell.


Tarry, sweet Beatrice.


I am gone, though I am here. There is no love in you. Nay, I pray you let me go.




In faith, I will go.


We’ll be friends first.


You dare easier be friends with me than fight with mine enemy.


Is Claudio thine enemy?


Is ’a not approved in the height a villain, that hath slandered, scorned, dishonored my kinswoman? O that I were a man! What? bear her in hand until they come to take hands, and then with public accusation, uncover slander, unmitigated rancor—O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market place.


Hear me, Beatrice—


Talk with a man out at a window!—a proper saying!


Nay, but Beatrice—


Sweet Hero! she is wronged, she is slandered, she is undone.




Princes and Counties! Surely a princely testimony, a goodly count, Count Comfect, a sweet gallant surely! O that I were a man for his sake! or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake! But manhood is melted into cursies, valor into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones too. He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie, and swears it. I cannot be a man with wishing; therefore I will die a woman with grieving.


Tarry, good Beatrice. By this hand, I love thee.


Use it for my love some other way than swearing by it.


Think you in your soul the Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?


Yea, as sure as I have a thought or a soul.


Enough, I am engaged. I will challenge him.


This is as riveting a back-and-forth as any they have had so far, and more, because for the first time they are speaking plainly without a single jest. The depth of Beatrice’s character is revealed—her ferocious loyalty, her sense of justice, her desire for vindication of her cousin’s good name. When she says she would be willing to fight to defend Hero’s honor, we believe her. And Benedick agrees to fight a duel with a comrade at arms whom he loves like a brother, based on Beatrice’s assurance of her cousin’s innocence. He trusts her that much, and values honor as much as she does.

One of the most beautiful things about this play is also what keeps it from being too dark for a comedy while still allowing the characters a broad emotional range. After the staged scene at the window between Borachio and Margaret, but before Hero has been accused, the members of the watch overhear Borachio as he is bragging about the success of his evil scheme and arrest him. Dogberry, the constable, actually tries to tell Leonato this before the wedding, but his manner of speaking is so obscure, so overblown and full of malapropisms, that Leonato brushes him off. But we are confident that Dogberry will return and the truth will out. Even as Leonato is refusing to be comforted, the sexton is on his way with good news. We can sympathize with the characters’ misery, but we know their deliverance is nigh.

much ado dogberry

By the time Benedick confronts Don Pedro and Claudio, they have received word that Hero is dead. Benedick rebukes them both and challenges Claudio to single combat.

You are a villain. I jest not; I will make it good how you dare, with what you dare, and when you dare. Do me right, or I will protest your cowardice. You have killed a sweet lady, and her death shall fall heavy on you. Let me hear from you (V.i.143-7).

much ado challenge

Claudio and the Prince think Benedick is joking, and they joke back with him, showing no remorse over Hero’s supposed death. Perhaps there is some suppressed guilt in their humor; it certainly goes on a long time, long after it ought to be plain to them that he is serious, long beyond the bounds of good taste. Finally Benedick tells Claudio,

Fare you well, boy; you know my mind. I will leave you now to your gossip-like humor. You break jests as braggards do their blades, which God be thanked hurt not. [to the Prince] My lord, for your many courtesies I thank you. I must discontinue your company. Your brother the bastard is fled from Messina. You have among you killed a sweet and innocent lady. For my Lord Lackbeard there, he and I shall meet; and till then peace be with him (IV.i.178-186).

Many reversals occur here. For the first time, Benedick is the serious one, and Claudio and the Prince can’t stop joking. Furthermore, Benedick is turning his back on the male companionship and camaraderie that mean so much to him. By now the audience has laughed at his wit many times, but this is his first opportunity to demonstrate that he is a good man.

Immediately after Benedick leaves them, Dogberry shows up with his prisoners.


Officers, what offense have these men done?


Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover, they have spoken untruths; secondarily, they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady; thirdly they have verified unjust things; and to conclude, they are lying knaves.


First, I ask thee what they have done; thirdly, I ask thee what’s their offense; sixth and lastly, why they are committed; and to conclude, what you lay to their charge.

Who have you offended, masters, that you are thus bound to your answer? This learned constable is too cunning to be understood. What’s your offense?


Borachio confesses all and concludes by telling Don Pedro and Claudio, “I have deceived even your very eyes. What your wisdoms could not discover, these shallow fools have brought to light” (V.i.221-3). Dogberry has neither wit nor wisdom to guide him, and he can’t even count to six, but he means well and manages to uncover the truth, foiling the plans of clever criminals almost in spite of himself. In this case, a good heart triumphs over a sharp wit.

Claudio and the Prince both protest to Leonato that they “sinned…not but in mistaking” (IV.i.261-2). This is not satisfactory. The testimony about Hero’s habitual promiscuity was mere hearsay from Don John, and the evidence of their eyes was inconclusive, since they obviously weren’t close enough to see the woman’s face. They could and should have made inquiry and spoken to Leonato privately. Instead they publicly shamed Hero based on circumstantial evidence and an unconfirmed report, all originating from a person they knew to have been previously untrustworthy. Their behavior was graceless, harsh, and based on too high an opinion of their own understanding and importance. They lacked the humility to realize they could be fooled.

From start to finish, the romance between Claudio and Hero has been in sharp contrast to, and less satisfactory than, the one between Benedick and Beatrice. The former is based on very little prior acquaintance; Benedick and Beatrice have known each other a long time. Claudio falls in love based on a visual impression of Hero’s beauty and the virtue that he intuitively imputes to her character; Beatrice and Benedick know one another’s mind. Claudio and Hero are usually speechless in each other’s presence; Beatrice and Benedick won’t stop talking.

much ado claudio hero

Claudio’s love originates in a kind of unreasoning, impressionistic faith, but his rejection of Hero arises from strict (though limited and misguided) factual deduction. His restoration involves a return to faith. Penitent, he yields himself completely to the will of Leonato. Leonato offers an unexpected grace: since Claudio could not be his son-in-law, he will be his nephew instead, and marry the daughter of Leonato’s brother. Claudio agrees. After an all-night vigil at Hero’s grave, designed to inform the entire community of Messina that the accusations against her were false, he arrives at the chapel. Four women are brought out, all masked: Hero, Beatrice, and two maids.

“Which is the lady I must seize upon?” Claudio asks (V.iv.53). Leonato brings Hero forth. Claudio asks to see her face, but Leonato says, “No, that you shall not till you take her hand/Before this friar and swear to marry her” (V.iv.56-7). Formerly taken in by the faulty evidence of his eyes, Claudio must abandon completely his own judgment and outer eye. He must give himself over wholly to the will of another and proceed on faith, which is what he should have had in Hero before. And he does. He says to the masked woman, “Give me your hand before this holy friar./I am your husband if you like of me” (V.iv.58-9).

Removing her mask, Hero replies,

And when I lived I was your other wife;

And when you loved you were my other husband….

One Hero died defiled; but I do live,

And surely as I live, I am a maid (V.i.60-1, 63-4).

Then Benedick steps forward, and before the whole assembly, says,


Soft and fair, friar. Which is Beatrice?

BEATRICE [unmasks]

I answer to that name. What is your will?


Do not you love me?


                                    Why, no; no more than reason.


Why, then your uncle, and the Prince, and Claudio

Have been deceived—they swore you did.


Do not you love me?


                                    Troth, no; no more than reason.


Why, then my cousin, Margaret, and Ursula

Are much deceived; for they did swear you did.


They swore that you were almost sick for me.


They swore that you were well-nigh dead for me.


’Tis no such matter. Then you do not love me?


No, truly, but in friendly recompense.

Leonato calls out, “Come, cousin, I am sure you love the gentleman,” and Claudio adds,

And I’ll be sworn upon’t that he loves her;

For here’s a paper written in his hand,

A halting sonnet of his own pure brain,

Fashioned to Beatrice (V.iv.85-8).

Then Hero says,

And here’s another,

Writ in my cousin’s hand, stol’n from her pocket,

Containing her affection unto Benedick (V.iv.88-90).

much ado sonnets

They’re trapped now, but they don’t seem to mind. Benedick says,

A miracle! Here’s our own hands against our hearts. Come, I will have thee; but, by this light, I take thee for pity (V.iv.91-3).

Beatrice replies,

I would not deny you; but, by this good day, I yield upon great persuasion, and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption (V.iv.94-6).

Those are the last words Beatrice speaks. Benedick replies, “Peace! I will stop your mouth,” and kisses her—which is a pretty good way for wit to conclude (V.iv.97).

much ado stop your mouth

Grace and Redemption in Cymbeline

New York Daily News

Years ago my young son and I were listening to a modern Scottish folk song called “Knock Knock Knock.” Daniel wasn’t following the song’s plot, so he asked me what it was about. I told him, “Well, this noble Scotswoman’s husband goes off to war, and she tells a page to bring her news of how the battle goes. If her husband survives, the page is to knock twice; if he’s killed, the page is to knock three times. The husband survives, but the page gets killed, and no one else knows about the knocking code. Whoever brings the lady the news knocks three times, and in despair she throws herself out the window to her death without ever answering the door.”

Daniel thought about this, then said, “You know…if the people in these songs would just stop and think things through before taking action, they’d be a lot better off.”

He was right. But the nature of tragedy requires that characters not think things through. At the end of a tragedy the reader or audience is left with a lot of if-only’s. If only they’d waited. If only he’d kept control of his temper. If only she’d been more patient. If only they hadn’t been so unyielding or hasty or impetuous or ambitious or prideful. If only they’d allowed time for further developments or revelations to manifest, or simply for that first overwhelming wave of raw emotion to pass.

Tragedy can be defined as a drama or literary work in which the main character is brought to ruin or suffers extreme sorrow, especially as a consequence of a tragic flaw, moral weakness, or inability to cope with unfavorable circumstances. Indeed, a tragic hero is ultimately someone unable to cope. He cannot or will not learn or adapt or conceive of possibilities beyond some all-encompassing obsession. He may have many admirable qualities, but his character is narrow in scope. He is defined primarily by a few unyielding and overweening characteristics such as jealousy, impetuosity, or pride, and ultimately these cramp and stunt his better qualities. He is like that person we all know who has so much going for him but can’t escape the power of some flaw or addiction—the one who makes us think, I have seen people just like you do exactly what you are doing and fail spectacularly, bringing shame and misery on themselves and everyone close to them. You think you’re different, you think you’re strong enough, but you’re not. And unless you turn from the path you’re on, you’re going to come to a bad end.

The thing about tragedy that works us up emotionally is the feeling that it didn’t have to be this way. All through the unfolding of the plot, we’re thinking, Don’t do it! Don’t send that letter. Don’t insult that person. But the hero does. And that action leads him to a different set of choices, where, again, there’s still a chance to do the right thing—which the hero fails to do. And the further the plot progresses, the more the character’s range of choices diminishes. Early on it’s possible to salvage a lot of future happiness; later, not so much. But right up until the final choice is made, there’s still time for the hero to at least be saved from utter ruin and find a measure of peace. After that, his doom is sealed. There are storms you can’t weather and falls you can’t get up from.

But sometimes, in art and in life, somewhere along that path of destruction the hero chooses rightly. Yes, he’s been morally compromised to a greater or lesser degree, but he still has many opportunities before him, and his experience has taught him wisdom and appreciation for things of value. This is the nature of grace, to be pulled back from the precipice, rescued, rehabilitated, and fitted for a full and productive and joyful life.

It’s also the nature of the romance plot. Romance is tricky to define because the word is used for wildly different applications, but dramatic romance might informally be thought of as a potential tragedy in which the hero stops and thinks, to good effect.

There’s a scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indy and his father are trapped in a stone chamber with no way out. Indy starts beating himself senseless against a wall trying to force a way through, but Henry Senior calmly takes a seat and says, “I find that if I just sit down and think…” Before he’s finished the words, a hidden staircase opens up, triggered by Henry’s weight on the chair. Henry finishes up cheerfully, “…a solution presents itself!”

So the hero in a dramatic romance stops and thinks, and learns, and grows, and triumphs. He moves from a tragic hero’s narrow focus to a place of wisdom and perspective and maturity.

The designation of dramatic romance is a relatively modern one. Shakespeare himself didn’t use the term. Seven years after his death, when thirty-six of his known thirty-seven plays were published in the First Folio, they were all categorized as tragedies, comedies, or histories. Of the plays that were later reclassified as romances, The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale were called comedies in the First Folio, Pericles of Tyre wasn’t included at all, and Cymbeline was listed as a tragedy.

Dramatic romance does have much in common with tragedy on the one hand and comedy on the other. (An Elizabethan dramatic comedy is primarily defined by its happy ending and usually includes greater emphasis on situation than character, wordplay humor, multiple intertwining plotlines, mistaken identity, separation and reunion, and lovers who triumph in spite of opposition.) A contemporary of Shakespeare’s, John Fletcher, actually used the term tragicomedy to define the emerging genre that united tragic and comedic elements.

It wasn’t until 1875 that Irish critic and poet Edward Dowden proposed that Shakespeare’s late plays—The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale, Pericles of Tyre, and Cymbeline—should be classed as dramatic romances. Dowden argued that these plays resembled late medieval and early modern romances—which, interestingly, had gone out of fashion by the time Shakespeare wrote his late plays. Miguel de Cervantes was satirizing medieval romances in Don Quixote around 1600; Shakespeare’s romance plays were probably written between 1608 and 1612. Other critics agreed with Dowden that the late plays represented a more complex kind of comedy and ought to have a special designation of their own. Romance is just a label, but a useful one here.

Like a comedy, a dramatic romance has a happy ending involving the reunion of long-separated lovers or family members. A dramatic romance also contains a contrast of scene, courtly and pastoral, and often exotic; magic and other fantastical elements; and the presence of pre-Christian, masque-like figures. In The Tempest we have Prospero summoning goddesses; in Cymbeline, which takes place in pre-Christian, Roman-ruled Britain, we have an actual appearance by Jupiter (though there is some question as to the authenticity of this scene).

Most significantly, the plotline of a romance is described as redemptive. And where there’s redemption, there’s some egregious badness from which characters need to be redeemed, a potential tragedy caught in time before all is lost.

The romance Cymbeline shares some similarities of plot with Romeo and Juliet and Othello, which are tragedies, but with significant differences. A woman wakes from a death-like sleep beside a corpse that she believes to be her husband’s. Juliet stabs herself and dies, but Innogen, though she grieves and loses consciousness from shock, doesn’t commit suicide or consider doing so. A gullible man is persuaded by a scheming Italian that his wife is unfaithful to him. Othello goes right to work killing Desdemona with his bare hands, but Posthumus engages a very unreliable assassin, and his later ruminations make it evident that he didn’t expect the assassin to follow through. Later, Posthumus gets word that Innogen is dead; he’s tormented by grief and self-loathing, but unlike Romeo and Othello, he doesn’t kill himself. He joins a battle, and hopes and expects to meet death while fighting for his country.

Robert Heilman writes,

Different conventions are at work…those of tragedy…those of dramatic romance. As it is used here, convention does not mean a formula, stereotype, or constricting rule, but rather a certain point of view, a way of perceiving human behavior, of understanding it and responding to it emotionally….The tragic convention interprets life as a clash between, on the one hand, transcendent principles of order and, on the other, urgencies of desire and intensities of feeling that, once they are in play, lead inevitably to destructive encounters and somber catastrophes. The convention of romance approaches life in terms of the ultimate reconcilability of desires and circumstances; though ambitions and needs may be great, they tend to fall within a realm of moral possibility; and circumstances, though they may be antagonistic for a long period, eventually yield to meritorious humanity. The tragic involvement is total, reckless, irremediable; the protagonist is wholly committed to a situation which seems to enfold all of life’s possibilities. In contrast, in the convention represented in Cymbeline the personal impulse does not become identical with, or aspire to dominate, all of reality; beyond the individuals there is an independent life that makes legitimate claims or offers alternative possibilities.

This is not to imply that romance is “tragedy lite.” Heilman also writes,

Romance is not watered-down tragedy; it is another way of looking at conduct and experience. It is equally aware of serious dangers to life and well-being and of preventives, safety devices, the means of return from the shadows. It does not fall short of something that might be expected of it; rather it adopts a different perspective, and the better the individual romance is, the greater its ability to persuade us of the validity of its perspective.

Shakespeare’s tragedies currently enjoy greater popularity than his romances—The Tempest is probably the only one of the romances familiar to modern audiences—but at one time the romance Cymbeline was very popular. It was a favorite of literary critic William Hazlitt and of John Keats. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s favorite Shakespearean line is from the final scene of Cymbeline.

The hero of Cymbeline is Posthumus Leonatus. The title character, Cymbeline, is mostly a figurehead; he errs and is redeemed, but the play is primarily concerned with Posthumus and with Cymbeline’s daughter Innogen.

Twenty years before the play’s action begins, a British ruler and warrior called Sicilius Leonatus loses two grown sons in battle and dies of sorrow before the birth of his youngest son, who is therefore called Posthumus Leonatus. Postumus’s mother dies while in labor with him; he’s born by Caesarian after her death. From the very beginning of his life, Postumus is alone in the world.

The baby is adopted by Cymbeline, a Briton king. Like Posthumus’s father, Cymbeline has lost two sons, taken from him at two and three years of age by a courtier named Belarius, whom Cymbeline wrongly accused of treason. Cymbeline lavishes Posthumus with the care and education he would have given his own sons. Posthumus thrives in this environment and grows into a beloved and respected man.

Cymbeline has another child, Innogen, a daughter of excellent character and intelligence. Innogen and Posthumus, raised together from childhood, fall in love. But Cymbeline, like many widowed kings in stories, has chosen badly in his second marriage, and his second wife disapproves the match. The queen is self-serving, murderous, and manipulative, and her son from her first marriage, Cloten, is as wicked as his mother and just clever enough to be dangerous. With Cymbeline’s own sons missing for twenty years and presumed dead, Innogen is the heir to the kingdom. The queen wants the throne to pass to her own son, so she persuades Cymbeline to make Innogen marry Cloten.

The character of Innogen is considered one of this play’s greatest strengths. Heilman writes,

Even allowing for the susceptibility of male critics to so charming and devoted a creature as Innogen, whose attractions, ranging as they do from sweetness of affection to sharpness in repartee, from blind fidelity to keen insight into motives and character, from cookery to courage, make her virtually a dream girl, there is no doubt that she is one of the most substantially characterized, and hence convincing, of Shakespeare’s romantic heroines.

Innogen is innocent (the similarity of sound is probably no accident) but shrewd. She isn’t fooled as her father is by the counterfeit charms of the queen. She loves and respects her father but she doesn’t mince words when telling him of her contempt for Cloten, and when Cymbeline insults Posthumus she talks back and defends Posthumus in no uncertain terms. In the opening scene, one unnamed gentleman fills in another on Posthumus’s history.

The King he takes the babe

To his protection, calls him Posthumus Leonatus,

Breeds him and makes him of his bedchamber,

Puts to him all the learnings that his time

Could make him the receiver of, which he took

As we do air, fast as ’twas minist’red,

And in’s spring became a harvest, lived in court—

Which rare it is to do—most praised, most loved,

A sample to the youngest, to th’ more mature

A glass that feated them, and to the graver

A child that guided dotards. To his mistress,

For whom he now is banished—her own price

Proclaims how she esteemed him and his virtue.

By her election may be truly read

What kind of man he is (I, i, 47-61).

After giving Posthumus a glowing commendation, the gentleman winds up by saying that the highest praise he can offer of Posthumus is to say that Innogen loves him.

Innogen and Posthumus marry in secret and exchange jewelry as tokens—a bracelet for her, a diamond ring for him. After learning of their elopement, Cymbeline banishes Posthumus on pain of death and imprisons Innogen to coerce her into marrying Cloten anyway.

Meanwhile, the queen goes to work compounding a poison, planning to murder both Innogen and Cymbeline after Innogen’s wedding to Cloten. She asks Cornelius, the royal physician, for the ingredients. Cornelius finds this just a little suspicious and supplies her instead with a potion that will give the temporary appearance of death without causing permanent harm.

The banished Posthumus goes to Rome and meets an Italian named Iachimo. After hearing Posthumus praise Innogen’s virtue, Iachimo challenges him to a wager. If Iachimo can go to Britain and seduce Innogen, Posthumus will give Iachimo the diamond ring that Innogen gave him. If Innogen remains true, Iachimo will give Posthumus ten thousand ducats and meet Posthumus in combat.

The idea of giving some yahoo you just met (or anyone else) permission to go to Britain to try to seduce your wife while you stay behind in Italy is obviously insane to a modern reader, but according to the conventions of the time it’s perfectly reasonable behavior. Posthumus and Iachimo even draw up a written contract to formalize the arrangement.

Even when viewed from a more modern sensibility, Posthumus’s actions in this scene are not as bad as they might be. The scene is a good one, lively and quick-paced, and Posthumus shows himself courteous, well-spoken, and intelligent. He adores his wife and is quick to feel any slight to her honor. Once her virtue is questioned, it must be vindicated. At this stage Posthumus never doubts her; he wants to see her rightly honored. His faith in her is an excellent thing in itself but ought to be balanced by foresight and self-control. Like a typical tragic or near-tragic figure, Posthumus is too narrowly focused.

Posthumus underestimates Iachimo’s cunning and his determination to win at any cost. Perhaps judging Iachimo by his own character, Posthumus unconsciously expects his adversary to play fair. Much is made in the play of Latin cunning versus British forthrightness; the contrast between Iachimo’s scheming and Posthumus’s naïveté is the most striking example. Heilman describes Iachimo as “an Italian rascal, a conventional source of agreeable shudders in Renaissance England.”

Iachimo presents himself to Innogen as a friend of Posthumus’s from Rome. She’s eager for news of her husband, and Iachimo tells her that Posthumus is very well, very well indeed, not despondent at all; in fact he’s known in Rome as the Briton reveller and spends himself on prostitutes. Iachimo tells this as if reluctantly, saying that Innogen’s beauty and obvious good character compel him to make the painful truth known. At this point Innogen is distressed but not fully convinced. And once Iachimo professes his own admiration for her and offers himself as a lover so she can be revenged on Posthumus, her response is swift and certain.

Away, I do condemn mine ears that have

So long attended thee. If thou wert honorable,

Thou wouldst have told this tale for virtue, not

For such an end thou seek’st, as base as strange.

Thou wrong’st a gentleman who is as far

From thy report as thou from honor, and

Solicit’st here a lady that disdains

Thee and the devil alike (I, vi, 141-8).

But Iachimo is not called an Italian rascal for nothing. Here is his response.

O happy Leonatus! I may say

The credit that thy lady hath of thee

Deserves thy trust, and thy most perfect goodness

Her assured credit. Blessèd live you long,

A lady to the worthiest sir that ever

Country called his, and you his mistress, only

For the most worthiest fit. Give me your pardon.

I have spoke this to know if your affiance

Were deeply rooted, and shall make your lord

That which he is, new o’er; and he is one

The truest mannered, such a holy witch

That he enchants societies into him.

Half all men’s hearts are his (156-68).

Clever Italian! He says he propositioned Innogen only to test her virtue, because he thinks so highly of her husband! Now he rejoices that he can give Posthumus a good report. Innogen, herself a forthright Briton, believes him.

Then Iachimo asks a favor. He’s carrying a chest full of treasures for a gift to the Emperor and wants to keep it safe. Might Innogen be willing to hide it for him overnight? Innogen agrees to stow the chest in her own bedchamber.

That night, after Innogen goes to sleep, Iachimo climbs out of the chest. He writes down a description of the arrangement of Innogen’s bedroom, examines her naked body, makes note of a distinctive mole under her left breast, and removes from her arm the bracelet that Posthumus gave her. Then he climbs back into the chest to wait for morning. This is villainy on a high order, something that Posthumus and Innogen in their innocence would never have guessed.

In the morning, Cloten urges Innogen to forget Posthumus and take him instead. Weary of his odious advances, she rejects him soundly in terms that demonstrate that though naturally courteous, she’s quick in repartee and willing to be blunt when necessary. Then Cloten insults Posthumus and mocks him for being an orphan dependent on the charity of Innogen’s father. Innogen replies,

Profane fellow!

Wert thou the son of Jupiter, and no more

But what thou art besides, thou wert too base

To be his groom. Thou wert dignified enough,

Even to the point of envy, if ’twere made

Comparative for your virtues to be styled

The under-hangman of his kingdom, and hated

For being preferred so well (II, iii, 124-130).

Cloten responds by calling down a curse on Posthumus, and Innogen continues,

He never can meet more mischance than come

To be but named of thee. His meanest garment

That ever hath but clipped his body is dearer

In my respect than all the hairs above thee,

Were they all made such men (132-6).

Suddenly Innogen notices that her bracelet, which she’s certain she was wearing last night, is missing. While she’s puzzling over this, Cloten, stunned by her rejection, keeps repeating, “His garment?” and “His meanest garment?”

Meanwhile, Iachimo returns to Rome and tells Posthumus that he seduced Innogen without much effort at all. Iachimo describes Innogen’s bedchamber in detail; Posthumus replies that this is insufficient proof. Then Iachimo produces the bracelet, saying Innogen gave it to him. The final blow is Iachimo’s description of the mole under Innogen’s breast, which he dwells on with particular alacrity. Posthumus, convinced and devastated, hands over his ring.

Posthumus writes to Innogen, telling her to meet him in Milford Haven. He also writes to Pisanio, a servant he left behind in Britain, telling him to kill Innogen. Pisanio, baffled and distressed and knowing Innogen to be innocent of the unfaithfulness Posthumus charges her with, keeps quiet for the time being and takes Innogen to Milford Haven. There he shows her Posthumus’s letter and tells her not to return to court but to remain at Milford disguised as a man while they figure out what to do next. He also gives her a box of medicine given to him by the queen, which he says and believes will cure her of any indisposition she might suffer while away from home.

Meanwhile, Lucius, a representative from Rome, travels to Britain to collect tribute. Cymbeline, prompted by the queen, refuses. Lucius warns that this means war; Cymbeline cordially encourages him to bring it.

Lucius goes to Milford Haven to prepare for war against the rebellious Britons. Cloten, still stung by Innogen’s latest rejection of him and her preference of Posthumus’s meanest garment to his entire person, finds out that Innogen has gone to meet Posthumus at Milford Haven. Cloten obtains the same suit of clothes Posthumus wore when Innogen last saw him and announces his intention of finding the lovers in Milford Haven, murdering Posthumus in front of Innogen, and raping Innogen in the presence of Posthumus’s dead body while wearing Posthumus’s clothes.

Innogen, disguised as a young man, takes the name Fidele. Near Milford Haven, she meets Belarius, her father’s banished courtier, and her two brothers, Guiderius and Arviragus, who are living under different names given to them by Belarius, who has raised them as his own sons and kept their origins secret. The brothers are strangely drawn to Fidele/Innogen and invite him/her to stay with them at their cave and cook and keep house for them.

Belarius and the brothers go hunting, leaving Innogen alone at the cave. Innogen, worn out with travel and sorrow and living outdoors, takes the tonic given to her by Pisanio, not knowing that it was given to him as poison by the queen, who in turn did not know that Cornelius tricked her by supplying a harmless but death-like coma-inducing potion.

Meanwhile, Cloten, still wearing Posthumus’s clothing, meets Belarius and the brothers. Cloten attacks Guiderius, and Guiderius kills Cloten and cuts off his head with Cloten’s own sword. After Belarius recognizes Cloten as the queen’s son, Guiderius throws the head into the creek so Cloten’s body can’t be identified. Arviragus returns to the cave, where he finds Fidele/Innogen apparently dead and carries her body out to the other two. The brothers sing a song of mourning for Fidele/Innogen, then lay her and Cloten out for burial, cover them with herbs and flowers, and depart.

Innogen awakes beside a decapitated corpse dressed in her husband’s clothing and assumes the worst. She deduces that Pisanio forged the letters from Posthumus and conspired with Cloten to kill them both. She throws herself on Posthumus’s supposed body and faints. Later she is revived by Lucius, who assumes she is a page whose master has been slain. Lucius takes Fidele/Innogen under his protection.

Guiderius and Arviragus, aware of the coming battle between Britons and Romans, resolve to leave the forced seclusion Belarius has kept them in since childhood and fight on Britain’s side. Belarius, seeing their determination, joins them. Meanwhile, Posthumus, in Milford Haven as part of Lucius’s company, has received word from Pisanio that Innogen is dead. Filled with remorse, Posthumus disguises himself as a British peasant and leaves the Romans to fight on the British side, pledging to fight so recklessly that he can’t possibly survive.

Posthumus meets Iachimo in battle and vanquishes but does not kill him. Belarius, Guiderius, Arviragus, and Posthumus fight valiantly and save the life of the king. At this point Posthumus and Belarius both have reason to resent the king but fight for him anyway, though their identities are concealed and neither one expects a reward. To Guiderius and Arviragus, Cymbeline is a stranger; they have no idea it’s their father they’re defending.

The young princes rally some terrified British troops, restoring their courage and turning the tide of the battle. Posthumus, unable to find death in combat and aware that the Britons have won the day, surrenders himself to the Britons, claiming to be a Roman.

While awaiting execution, Posthumus falls asleep, and his cell is visited by the ghosts of his father, mother, and brothers, who express their love for him and rail against Jupiter for bringing such misfortune on him. Then Jupiter “descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle,” and throws a thunderbolt. He rebukes the ghosts, telling them he has plans for Posthumus and Innogen that they know not of.

Posthumus wakes to find Jupiter and the ghosts gone. A jailer takes him away to be hanged.

Cymbeline praises Guiderius, Arviragus, and Belarius for their valor in battle and knights them, not knowing them for his long-lost sons and former courtier. Cornelius, the royal physician, arrives and tells Cymbeline that the queen has died in a fit of madness brought on by her anxiety over Cloten’s disappearance. Before her death, she unrepentantly confessed her abhorrence of Cymbeline and her plans to murder him and Innogen by slow-acting poison and make Cloten king.

The prisoners of war, including Lucius, Iachimo, Fidele/Innogen, and Posthumus, are brought to Cymbeline prior to execution. Lucius asks Cymbeline to spare the life of Fidele/Innogen, and Cymbeline, strangely drawn to her just as her brothers were, does so. At this point, almost all the characters who are still alive are together but largely unknown to each other; most of them are wearing disguises and/or using assumed names.

Innogen sees Posthumus’s ring on the hand of Iachimo and demands to know where he got it. Iachimo, full of remorse, confesses his villainy against Posthumus and Innogen, not realizing that both are present. Posthumus, now aware of the deception practiced on him, raves against Iachimo and himself and confesses to the murder of Innogen. Innogen throws herself into his arms, and he, not recognizing her in man’s attire, thrusts her roughly away from him. Pisanio recognizes Innogen and tries to help her, but she accuses him of having tried to poison her. Then Cornelius speaks up and tells Pisanio the truth about the supposed restorative he had from the queen. Innogen and Posthumus embrace, and Cymbeline makes peace with his daughter. Pisanio reveals that Cloten left home in Posthumus’s clothes in search of Posthumus and Innogen, Guiderius reveals that he killed Cloten in a fair fight, and Belarius reveals that Guiderius and Arviragus are the king’s own sons. Cymbeline, humbled and wiser, issues pardons all around and pledges to voluntarily pay tribute to Rome as before.

It’s quite the plot—all those characters running around with their various schemes and deceptions and misconceptions, meeting and parting, instinctively loving or hating and sometimes beheading one another. In spite of all the subplots things never get confusing. The final scene is particularly well-paced with revelation after revelation after revelation, each given at the proper time, with characters giving appropriate reactions in brief asides. Not one of these revelations is a surprise to the audience. We’ve had the information all along. But we enjoy watching as the characters make their disclosures and assemble the full truth together.

Heilman writes,

In both tragedy and romance human beings are reservoirs of strong passions. Yet romance has a greater sense of limits—of the decorum or principle or rational endowment or even pragmatic awareness that balances off the passion and holds it back from the irretrievable.

It’s in the final scene—which, along with the character of Innogen, is commonly considered one of Cymbeline’s greatest strengths—that we see this balance fully restored. Iachimo’s confession speech is an emotionally satisfying piece of histrionic remorse. Like Iago, he is a theatrical villain, but unlike Iago, he repents. He tells Cymbeline,

Upon a time—unhappy was the clock

That struck the hour!—it was in Rome—accursed

The mansion where!—’twas at a feast—O, would

Our viands had been poisoned, or at least

Those which I heaved to head!—the good Posthumus—

What should I say? He was too good to be

Where ill men were, and was the best of all

Amongst the rar’st of good ones—sitting sadly,

Hearing us praise our loves of Italy

For beauty that made barren the swelled boast

Of him that best could speak; for feature, laming

The shrine of Venus or straight-pight Minerva

Postures beyond brief nature; for condition,

A shop of all the qualities that man

Loves woman for; besides that hook of wiving,

Fairness which strikes the eye—(V, v, 153-68)

Impatient, Cymbeline interrupts, saying, “I stand on fire. Come to the matter.” But Iachimo is not going to have his scene rushed. He replies,

All too soon I shall,

Unless thou wouldst grieve quickly. This Posthumus,

Most like a noble lord in love and one

That had a royal lover, took his hint,

And not dispraising whom we praised—therein

He was as calm as virtue—he began

His mistress’ picture; which by his tongue being made,

And then a mind put in’t, either our brags

Were cracked of kitchen trulls, or his description

Proved us unspeaking sots (169-178).

Again Cymbeline interrupts, saying, “Nay, nay, to th’ purpose.” Iachimo goes on,

Your daughter’s chastity—there it begins.

He spake of her as Dian had hot dreams

And she alone were cold; whereat I, wretch,

Made scruple of his praise and wagered with him

Pieces of gold ’gainst this which then he wore

Upon his honored finger, to attain

In suit the place of’s bed and win this ring

By hers and mine adultery. He, true knight,

No lesser of her honor confident

Than I did truly find her, stakes this ring;

And would so, had it been a carbuncle

Of Phoebus’ wheel, and might so safely, had it

Been all the worth of’s car. Away to Britain

Post I in this design. Well may you, sir,

Remember me at court, where I was taught

Of your chaste daughter the wide difference

’Twixt amorous and villainous. Being thus quenched

Of hope, not longing, mine Italian brain

Gan in your duller Britain operate

Most vilely; for my vantage, excellent.

And, to be brief, my practice so prevailed

That I returned with similar proof enough

To make the noble Leonatus mad

By wounding his belief in her renown

With tokens thus and thus; averring notes

Of chamber hanging, pictures, this her bracelet—

O cunning, how I got it!—nay, some marks

Of secret on her person, that he could not

But think her bond of chastity quite cracked,

I having ta’en the forfeit. Whereupon—

Methinks I see him now—(179-209)

He does indeed. Posthumus advances on him, saying,

Ay, so thou dost,

Italian fiend! Ay me, most credulous fool,

Egregious murderer, thief, anything

That’s due to all the villains past, in being,

To come! O, give me cord or knife or poison,

Some upright justicer! Thou, King, send out

For torturers ingenious. It is I

That all th’ abhorred things o’ th’ earth amend

By being worse than they. I am Posthumus,

That killed thy daughter—villain-like, I lie—

That caused a lesser villain than myself,

A sacrilegious thief, to do’t. The temple

Of virtue was she; yea, and she herself.

Spit, and throw stones, cast mire upon me, set

The dogs o’ th’ street to bay me; every villain

Be called Posthumus Leonatus, and

Be villainy less than ’twas! O Innogen!

My queen, my life, my wife! O Innogen,

Innogen, Innogen (209-27)!

Posthumus spends less than one full line rebuking Iachimo and seventeen rebuking himself. He has matured; he has gained perspective.

Heilman writes,

In adopting the genre of romance, then, Shakespeare exploits all its potential variety, at one level by an always lively movement of scene and plot, and in a more fundamental way by examining characters with either an amused detachment or a fullness that stops just short of tragic complications….The characters who survive have not been merely lucky; they have been modified, have learned somewhat better or wiser ways of confronting the unexpected.

The most notable passion to be modified in Cymbeline is the desire for quick revenge: Cymbeline against Belarius, Cymbeline against Posthumus, Posthumus against Innogen, even Britain against Rome. The resolution is marked by forbearance, generosity, restoration, and grace. The pivotal point appears to be when Cymbeline observes Innogen during the tranquil scene. He notes,

Posthumus anchors upon Innogen,

And she like harmless lightning throws her eye

On him, her brothers, me, her master, hitting

Each object with a joy; the counterchange

Is severally in all (393-7).

Then Cymbeline immediately turns to Belarius and says, “Thou art my brother; so we’ll hold thee ever.”

Iachimo, realizing that Posthumus spared his life in the recent battle, kneels before him, saying,

I am down again,

But now my heavy conscience sinks my knee,

As then your force did. Take that life, beseech you,

Which I so often owe; but your ring first,

And here the bracelet of the truest princess

That ever swore her faith (412-7).

Posthumus replies,

Kneel not to me.

The pow’r that I have on you is to spare you;

The malice towards you to forgive you. Live,

And deal with others better (417-20).

Then Cymbeline says,

Nobly doomed!

We’ll learn our freeness of a son-in-law:

Pardon ’s the word to all (420-2).

With so much to be humbly thankful for, hostility is not worth holding onto. Characters who have themselves been the recipients of saving grace pass the grace along. Magnanimity is the order of the day.

In dramatic romance, redemption is key. Characters are flawed but have intrinsic worth, and when they err they are given a second chance. Catastrophe is followed by good news. Someone thought dead is alive; someone lost is found. A relationship that seemed irrevocably broken is restored, instantly, with the need for forgiveness scarcely even noted by the offended party. The overall mood is like that in the parable of the prodigal son, whose father is in full celebration mode before the son can deliver his rehearsed confession speech. Potential tragedy is arrested by grace, which generates a richly happy ending made all the more satisfying for the brush with disaster.

The play closes with a pledge by Cymbeline to forestall future bloodshed by continuing to pay tribute to Rome, though the Britons have won today’s battle. The peace that’s been restored in Cymbeline’s family will be extended to the entire kingdom. The king concludes with the words,

Never was a war did cease,

Ere bloody hands were washed, with such a peace (483-4).

Revisiting Richard II

I was nineteen years old, an English major, an eager front-row student, quick to answer questions and share my opinions. I loved Shakespeare as a matter of course and was ready to be pleased when Dr. Platt, my Honors Humanities professor at UNT, started in on The Tragedy of King Richard the Second.

I ended up being more pleased than I’d expected. “Blown away” is more accurate. I listened with edge-of-my-seat excitement to Dr. Platt’s reading and explication of Act I, Scene i. What appeared to be a simple conversation between Richard, Mowbray, and Bolingbroke is actually backed by a rich subtext. The king is hiding something, something which will set in motion the bloody events of the rest of the play. If you miss that subtext, you miss a lot. This was my introduction to a concept that has proved crucial to my own fiction writing: that what characters don’t say is often at least as important as what they do say.

The excitement did not let down. It carried over into King Henry IV, parts 1 and 2. Happily for me, UNT put on a production of 1 King Henry IV that year. Seeing it performed was a pinnacle of pleasure—the calculus to the algebra of studying the play in the text. Reading Shakespeare is all well and good, but plays are meant to be performed. It’s one thing to read the words and quite another to hear them spoken and inflected by all the separate voices of enthusiastic, well-trained actors. And written stage direction such as They fight and The Prince killeth Percy can scarcely be compared to an intelligently choreographed, flesh-and-blood fight scene. I don’t remember the names of the drama students who played Hotspur and Prince Hal, but their faces are imprinted in my memory as the definitive faces of those characters.

A genealogical chart of the descendants of Edward III—Appendix A, p. 546 of my Pelican Shakespeare. I’ve consulted it so often that the book seems comfortable when opened to that page.

Years later, I decided to read again the Shakespeare histories I’d studied under Dr. Platt. I had a newborn, my third, and if I was going to lose sleep for middle-of-the-night feedings, I was going to fill my mind with something of substance.

I started as Dr. Platt had, with King Richard II. I approached the scene with Richard, Mowbray, and Bolingbroke with great anticipation, remembering Dr. Platt’s marvelous, near-superhuman explication. Imagine my surprise when I found the gist of the subtext summed up neatly in a casual little footnote in my Pelican Shakespeare—the very volume I’d used in Dr. Platt’s class! It had been right there before my eyes the whole time! Indeed, a shrewd reading of the actual text would have revealed what was going on beneath the surface in the scene.

But I was not at nineteen the same reader I was at twenty-seven, and I owe much of the difference to Dr. Platt. He taught me to dig out subtext for myself; he taught me to think. I have tried to pass the lessons on.

What a powerful thing it is, to teach! A teacher weaves himself into your consciousness and colors your perceptions and recollections with his own personality, for better or worse. A sermon by my friend Wayne Stiles changed how I think about friendship–not all at once, but slowly and surely as the words sank in and the truth blossomed. I’ve been blessed with many excellent teachers over the years; I’m grateful to have fallen into such capable hands.