Archive for August, 2022

“Shakespearean Tragedy” by Kiernan Ryan

The title, of course, is Bradley’s. A. C. Bradley’ famous book, published nearly 120 years ago now, still looms large in the field of Shakespeare criticism, and, as the borrowing of the title indicates, is a major presence in this book. Ryan frequently quotes Bradley, often at length, and mostly in agreement. But this isn’t, of course, a mere re-tread of Bradley’s interpretative ideas: that would be pointless. But neither is it entirely a refutation. Ryan, in the introduction, says that his own interpretative ideas have “profited from building on and arguing against Bradley’s views”, but “have conscripted Bradley in the service of a conception of Shakespearean tragedy and interpretations of the plays that are radically different from his”.

Bradley viewed these tragedies primarily in terms of character, of the particular internal workings of the characters’ minds; but Ryan extends this to consider the impact of the society these characters inhabit, and, in particular, the systemic injustices of that society. Too much Shakespearean criticism, Ryan goes on to argue, underestimates the impact of the latter.

Perhaps Bradley’s focus on the internal workings of the characters’ minds is understandable: we like to think of these tragedies as being universal, but if the cause of the tragedy lies in specific features of society that may be changed, then, once the changes are implemented, there can be no further cause for tragedy; and hence, no sense of universality. Ryan argues that attributing the cause of the tragedy primarily or even entirely to the personal flaws and shortcomings of the protagonist leads to reductive readings, reducing these tragedies merely to fables or to morality plays; this is certainly true: one need not look too far to find earnest enquiries into characters’ “tragic flaws”, as if identifying Othello as jealous or Hamlet as indecisive somehow helps us understand and clarify these works. But equally, placing the cause of the tragedy to systemic injustices of society also runs the risk of reduction: a depiction of tragedy caused by such systemic injustices is, implicitly at least, a call to reform society, so that such tragedies can no longer happen; and calls for social reform cannot be seen as anything other than social manifestos, or even, perhaps, as agitprop. And this, too, is a reduction.

But of course, Ryan is too subtle a critic to go too far in that direction: while a summary of his thesis in his introduction inevitably presents a simplified view, in the detailed analyses that follow, his interpretative ideas prove considerably more complex and nuanced. At any rate, his impatience with the “find the tragic flaw” school of criticism, which, to judge by its prevalence online, still seems to be widely taught in the classroom, is refreshing.

Like Bradley, Ryan focuses primarily on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, but he includes also shorter chapters on the other tragedies (except for that rather curious stump of a play Timon of Athens); and also on Parts 2 and 3 of Henry VI. (Part 1 he dismisses as not being part of the series, whatever the titles given in the First Folio may indicate).

In these two Henry VI plays, there are two characters who seem well placed to be seen as tragic heroes – Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester in Part 2, and Richard Duke of York in Part 3 – both highly placed men of power, who meet with tragic downfalls. But more interesting than either is the character of Henry VI, a quiet, gentle man, who has no appetite for the wicked power games played around him, and is horrified by the carnage they bring about, but is unable to stop any of it. It has been argued that it is Henry’s weakness of character that expedites the bloodbath, but Ryan rejects this: the carnage is caused by strong, bloodthirsty, warlike nobles, all jockeying for power, and the contention that the bloodshed may have been averted by Henry acting in a similar manner, Ryan rightly argues, doesn’t bear scrutiny. What interests Ryan is not so much the alleged weakness of Henry’s character, but, rather, the division between Henry’s public role as a monarch, which Henry finds oppressive and hateful, and his private inner self, that desires escape from the endless horrors. This division is made clear in Henry’s lines in Part 2 when his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, is stripped of power. As Henry leaves the court, in the deepest dejection, he says to the assembled court: “what to your wisdoms seemeth best / Do, or undo, as if ourself were here”. This, Ryan argues, “bespeaks a disengagement strikingly at odds with the tender, imaginative empathy he displays” elsewhere for the doomed Duke of Gloucester; but “it chimes perfectly with his desire to withdraw himself from ‘ourself’, from the virtual royal self he appoints to remain present in his absence”; he recoils from “his own intolerable identity”. The compassionate self breaking away from an identity imposed upon him by an iniquitously hierarchical society is an early indication, Ryan argues, in what may well be Shakespeare’s earliest existing play, of the tragic vision developed more fully in the more mature tragedies – a vision that is predicated upon the inner being of the individual struggling against the expectations and responsibilities placed upon it by an external, systemically unjust society.

That this external society is systemically unjust, Shakespeare is in no doubt. Throughout his work, there is an awareness of this injustice, and also intimations of a utopia. In our own time, as we look back upon the attempted establishments of various heavens on earth, and the hells on earth that have in each case ensued, we are rightly suspicious of utopian political ideals. But that does not banish thoughts of a utopia – built upon an awareness that what we have now is iniquitous. From the earliest existing plays to the last, Shakespeare has this dream of a utopia in mind, and, Ryan argues, his tragic vision has its roots in his protagonists inhabiting a world that falls far short of what it should, and maybe could, be; the tragedy is not merely an outcome of a “tragic flaw” peculiar to the protagonist, but, rather, of the protagonist struggling against being “cabin’d, cribb’, confined” within the limitations of a grossly imperfect world.

In Henry VI Part 2, the utopian vision is given explicit expression in the scenes of Jack Cade’s rebellion. Cade is, it is true, a cruel and often absurd figure, and his followers recognise this in their sarcastic undercutting of his pretensions to royalty; but they follow him all the same, because the utopianism he preaches – of a land where all wealth is literally held in common – is one that appeals. And in any case, his cruelty is no more barbaric than that of those he is rebelling against: if we are sickened by the plethora of severed heads that appear on stage in the scenes depicting his rebellion, Shakespeare follows it up with a similar plethora of severed heads in very next act, in the aftermath of the Battle of St Albans. Severed heads continue to make their presence felt in various other scenes of Part 3. If this first batch of severed heads is a symbol of Cade’s barbarity, what are we to make of the severed heads that appear as a consequence of the nobles’ struggles for power? Is there any reason to take the ruling elites as any more civilised than Cade?

The vision of utopia is presented here in the scenes of Cade’s rebellion, along with the inevitable contradictions inherent in such a vision: the classless society Cade propounds can only be established with Cade becoming king, and his own followers aren’t blind to this irony. The same vision of utopia, and the same inherent contradiction, appear also in the play believed to be the last that Shakespeare wrote (apart from a few late collaborations): in The Tempest, Gonzalo too imagines what an ideal state would look like, and again, he imagines a state without hierarchies. “No sovereignty”, he says, at which point the scoffing Sebastian breaks in: “Yet he would be king on’t”. Shakespeare seemed to realise, throughout his career, that such a utopia, harbouring as it does such profound internal contradictions, is not achievable.  And yet, that dream of utopia has persisted: it is apparent in the last play, The Tempest, as well as in the first, Henry VI Part 2. And from first to last, these utopias look much the same: all wealth held in common, no social hierarchy, equality between all its citizens, and so on. Whether attainable or not, it is a dream Shakespeare cannot help but harbour. And this dream is implicitly – and sometimes more than just implicitly – present also in the plays that come between the first and the last. These plays, argues Ryan, view the action from the perspective of such a utopia: the cause of the tragedy is not just in the specific internal workings of the protagonists’ minds, but in the conflict that arises between the characters’ greatest inner needs and desires, and the iniquitous society within which their inner selves are cabin’d, cribb’d, confined. And also – and this, I think, is a particularly subtle point – in the way that the values of this iniquitous society infiltrate the mind of the protagonist, so that the struggle is not merely between the individual and the outside world, but also one between the character’s world-corrupted mind, and the nascent inner self that resides within.

As an example of this, we may consider the character of Othello. When, in the first act, Othello defies convention and marries a white woman, her father, Brabantio, accuses him of witchcraft, as he feels it is unnatural for his white daughter to actually wish, of her own volition, to want to marry a black man. Othello, positioning himself here as a utopian who insists upon racial equality, summarily dismisses this: he is in a powerful enough position here not to have the worry about defying of social customs. And yet, in Act 3, when Iago makes exactly the same point, Othello, his mind now under pressure, gives way to it: “And yet, how nature, erring from itself…” The racist assumption (and Ryan, quite rightly, has no compunction about calling it racist) that attraction between races is “unnatural”, has infiltrated Othello’s mind also: what he had once easily dismissed he can no longer put out of his mind, so subtle and so powerful are the forces of the society he inhabits. External forces of society he could oppose while they remain external, but once they become part of him, it’s a different matter.

Titus Andronicus

It is within this framework of the mind tragically at war, knowingly or unknowingly, with the forces of an iniquitous society, that Ryan analyses these plays. He manages to make more of a case for Titus Andronicus than I would have thought possible: this is, after all, the only play in the canon I have wished Shakespeare had not written. My objection is not so much to the extreme violence – there was no shortage of severed heads in the Henry VI plays, for instance, and one hardly needs reminding of the horrendous onstage eye-gouging scene in King Lear – but, rather, to what seems to me an inadequate response to the horrors. The only reaction of the characters to unmitigated violence is to respond with even greater violence, as if humans were merely machines programmed to commit unspeakable outrages against each other. It may be that this is what humans are, but if so, they aren’t, it seems to me, worth writing plays about. In Ryan’s analysis, though, Titus does learn humanity – at least, up to a point: to begin with, he is a man who has bought in to the brutal values of Imperial Rome to such an extent that he kills even his own son when he stands in his way, and never shows any remorse for it. However, Ryan argues, after the horrific violence on his daughter Lavinia, Titus, perhaps for the first time in his life, begins to feel compassion for a fellow creature. It still doesn’t prevent the explosion of grotesque violence in the final scene, but nonetheless, Shakespeare dramatises the presence of an inner, compassionate being lurking underneath the inhuman values absorbed from an inhuman society.

Ryan shows a particular interest in the character of Aaron – a villain, certainly, but no more morally depraved than the society he strives against. He is a close relative of Jack Cade, of course, and also of the Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III); and, in later plays, of Iago and Edmund. These villains can confide in us, the audience, and even make themselves likeable to us, for we too are products of an iniquitous society. We may object that we aren’t villains, as they are, but they may respond that they are at least being honest in having no illusions about the society in which they live. This is why, Ryan argues, it is difficult to present these characters in performance as unlikeable, despite their obvious evil. And yet, by presenting themselves as likeable, on a certain level at least, they implicate us in their evil.

Romeo and Juliet

In his essay on Romeo and Juliet, Ryan expands on his idea that “Shakespearen tragedy is conceived and scripted from the vantage point of a possible future foreshadowed by the present”. The love the two protagonists feel for each other, equally given and received by both and free from any taint of domination or submission, is not consonant with their times: it belongs to some future time unthinkable in the volatile macho environment of Verona, with its pointless deadly enmities, its sporadic outbursts of violence.

“You kiss by the book,” Juliet says teasingly to Romeo at their first meeting; and indeed, Romeo is still in thrall to the “book”, that is, to what is sanctioned by convention; but the feelings that both protagonists find overtaking them is new – it belongs to some possible future age, free from the bounds of a dead and deadening convention. However, “what they show to be humanly possible is not historically possible”; and therein lies the tragedy.

Julius Caesar

In Julius Caesar too, Ryan finds the characters inextricably tangled in historic complexities that they themselves are not fully aware of. Brutus may speak of his honour, of his love of Rome, but the arguments of Cassius that move him do not point to such things: rather, they are aimed to arouse is Brutus the same resentment that Cassius himself harbours – resentment that Caesar, a fellow patrician, could rise above them. This hidden motive of Brutus accounts for the unconvincing arguments he makes to himself for Caesar’s assassination (“It must be by his death…” in II,i). As Coleridge had observed, Shakespeare could easily have given Brutus convincing reasons, but he didn’t. Brutus’ arguments aren’t convincing because he himself is not really convinced by them: he is merely deluding himself about his altruistic love of Rome, and he is deluding himself because his true motive – his patrician pride, handed down from earlier generations – is too ugly, too uncomfortable to be faced. So, far from being a tragedy about honour and decency misled by faulty reasoning, we have, in Ryan’s words, a “clinical indictment of a society … that privileges the gratification of the powerful over the needs and rights of a powerless multitude, while masquerading as a society that has the best interests of all its citizens at heart”. As in Romeo and Juliet, the iniquitous conventions of past generations continue to weigh down heavily upon the protagonists. And this heavy burden Shakespeare dramatises from the perspective of a future that can recognise these iniquitous conventions for what they are.

In the longest section of the book, Ryan focuses in depth, as Bradley had done, on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth.  


Naturally, Ryan has little time for attempts to find flaws in Hamlet’s character that cause the tragedy: the formulation presented explicitly in Olivier’s film  version of “a tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind” is rightly dismissed as too banal to merit serious consideration. Ryan summarises a few other formulations too of what Hamlet’s “tragic flaw” might be, before declaring it would be “otiose to review all the permutations of this line of thought” – all these permutations assuming, as they do, and without justification, “that the problem lies with Hamlet rather than with the world and the situation in which he finds himself”.

What makes the situation even more complex is that Hamlet assumes this himself: Hamlet, too, is constantly questioning why he does not carry out the revenge that he is sworn to, and becomes frustrated that he cannot pluck out the heart of his own mystery. Ryan shows through thorough and careful references to the text that none of the formulations concerning Hamlet’s supposed flaw, including those made by himself, squares with what is actually in the play. But the play does, Ryan insists, “guide us towards its own quite different conception of Hamlet’s tragic predicament”; however it does so “by the indirect art of implication”; and so, as Polonius says to Reynaldo, we must by indirections find directions out.

In Ryan’s analysis of the play, the question besetting Hamlet is not so much “Why do I not carry out the revenge?” – although Hamlet poses this question to himself quite explicitly – but, rather, “How may one live in a world filled with such wickedness and iniquity?” The revenge is finally achieved in the last scene, but not as a consequence of premeditated strategy towards that end: indeed, at no point in the play, not even in the final act, is there any strategy on Hamlet’s part. The revenge, if such it is, comes about arbitrarily, committed in the heat of the moment. And even then, Ryan points out, there is no mention on Hamlet’s part, not even the slightest hint, that he is paying his uncle back for having murdered his father, the elder King Hamlet. This final scene wraps up the plot, but, as Shaw had commented, the Gordian knot is cut rather than untied. “The only thing that could untie the knot for Hamlet,” Ryan continues, “would be the transformation of society into one fit for what human beings could be, instead of one fit for scoundrels, pawns, and parasites it forces most of them to become”. Such a utopia is not achieved within the play, and one cannot help wondering whether such a utopia can be achieved at all: I suppose this depends on the extent one thinks society is responsible for the creation of “scoundrels, pawns, and parasites”, and to what extent one thinks the potential to be “scoundrels, pawns, and parasites” lies latent in humanity, ready to bubble up to the surface regardless of how society is structured.

For Hamlet himself is not, after all, immune to moral corruption. The image of a disease that spreads and corrupts is, after all, central to this play, and Hamlet, being but human, is prey to it also. His heartless treatment of Ophelia is much mentioned, as is his utter lack of remorse for his part in her tragic fate (his declaration of love for Ophelia in the graveyard scene is more a parody of Laertes’ bombast than it is an expression of anything heartfelt, and, it may be argued, parodying the grief of a bereaved brother is itself cruel and heartless). Throughout the play, it seems to me, we see Hamlet’s increasing intolerance with human weaknesses, even where, as with Ophelia, that weakness is understandable given the circumstances. And there is, it seems to me, something inhuman about such intolerance: such intolerance of human flaws can itself be seen as a human flaw.

Ryan notes the identification at certain points of the character of Hamlet with that of Claudius – such as at the electrifying moment in the play-within-the-play where the murderer, Lucianus, turns out not to be the brother of the king, as might have been expected, but the nephew: this makes the play-within-the-play a threat as well as a re-enactment, but also, quite startlingly, it aligns the projected act of revenge with the original crime. This could indeed be a eflection of Hamlet’s fear that in carrying out the revenge – the revenge that is demanded by the code of the society that Hamlet inhabits – he but becomes an epigone of that which he hates, but I wonder if this is all there is to it: even if we reject the code of blood revenge, killing to achieve a justice that cannot be achieved by the formal processes of law is surely different in nature from killing for power and for lust. Rather, it seems to me, the aligning of the two characters at this point – at the mid-point of the play – serves to underline the extent to which Hamlet’s moral character has already been corrupted. And this, it seems to me, is an important aspect of the tragedy of Hamlet: Claudius’ fratricide – an image of the first instance of bloodshed in the Book of Genesis – creates waves of evil and of corruption that engulf all in their path, and not even Hamlet can be immune.

But the greater point remains, I think, that the problem, the root of the tragedy, lies not so much in Hamlet himself, but in the world that he inhabits, and that looking for a flaw in Hamlet’s character to account for the tragic outcome – especially when the flaw is identified as something so banal as indecisiveness – is misconceived.

Equally misconceived are questions regarding Hamlet’s failure to carry out the revenge. Hamlet is a revenge tragedy where revenge is not really at the centre of the play: by the time we get to the final act, except for the brief passage where Hamlet tries to justify to Horatio his hatred of Claudius, revenge is not mentioned at all – not even at the point where it is finally carried out. The focus of the play has moved way, way beyond that.


Ryan has no problem using the term “racism”. It is often objected that the term – indeed, the concept itself – is the product of a later era, but if the features we now understand as “racism” are depicted by characters in a Shakespeare play, why shouldn’t the term be applied?

For the society Othello inhabits is certainly racist. Iago, Rodrigo and Brabantio all come out with racist slurs. The inter-racial marriage between Othello and Desdemona Brabantio considers unnatural: how could a white girl actually want, of her own free choice, to marry a black man? There must be witchcraft involved – some drugs, perhaps that have affected her judgement. The Venetian court overrules Brabantio, but only because it desperately needs Othello’s services.

This is also a deeply misogynist world – a world in which women are expected to be unfaithful, and cuckoldry is a running joke and something to be feared, because, in a society where the man is expected to be in command of his household, cuckoldry exposes the husband’s lack of virility and of authority. And a consequence of this fear of cuckoldry is an extreme jealousy: Iago too is not immune from this.

In Ryan’s reading, neither Othello nor Iago is a startling anomaly: both are very obviously creations of a deeply imperfect and unjust society. Othello is easy prey because the circumstances of his inter-racial marriage, regarded as “unnatural”, predispose him towards insecurity: as soon as Iago mentions that Desdemona’s love for a man of a different race is unnatural, Othello, instead of dismissing it out of hand as he had done in the first act (when he had known he was in a position of power), takes it seriously. He doesn’t even have to think about it.

As for Iago, Ryan dismisses Coleridge’s formula of “motiveless malignity searching for a motive”. Now, this is a formulation that I have in the past found convincing, and so, as I started to read this passage in Ryan’s book, I marshalled to my mind the various reasons why Iago’s stated motives – that he was passed over for promotion, and his own jealous suspicions that his wife Emilia had had an affair with Othello – may be considered insufficient to account for what he does. But I needn’t have bothered: Ryan is – as is to be expected, I guess – well aware of all this: his point is that Iago does have a motive, and that motive is that he simply hates Othello. And where I had seen this as a brute fact that could be delved into no further – and hence, inscrutable – Ryan locates the source of this hatred in the values of the society that both Iago and Othello inhabit. Iago, far from being a mysterious font of inexplicable evil, is, to Ryan, all too explicable: there is nothing mysterious about him at all. The motives Iago states are, it is true, symptoms rather than causes of his hatred, but the hatred itself is not a mystery: it can be traced back to the vile and malignant values of a vile and malignant society.

Ryan applies a similar lens to Desdemona. After she has been humiliated by Othello, there is a strange passage beginning “’Tis meet should be used so, very meet…”. This passage is usually taken as ironic, because there seems no other reasonable way of taking this, but Ryan raises the possibility that, just as Othello has internalised the racism around him, Desdemona may also have internalised the misogyny. If so, this is particularly troubling. It could also mean that Desdemona’s final words, in which she refuses to blame Othello for her murder, are also indicative of the same internalisation. It is a coherent view of the play, no doubt, but it leaves me uneasy. Desdemona’s words, virtually from beyond the grave, seem to me miraculous in every sense, a breathtaking testament to the power of human forgiveness; but I appreciate that such an interpretation could be seen as merely sentimental. Nonetheless, viewing these words, which had seemed to me (and seem to me still) as nothing short of miraculous, as but a pathetic utterance of a woman deluded even at the point of death, I cannot help but seeing as reductive – reducing a tragedy of cosmic dimensions but to a sordid little tale of delusion and of domestic violence.

However, Ryan merely holds out the possibility of this particular interpretation: he does not insist upon it. What he does insist upon, quite rightly, is the wrongness of seeing the tragedy as a consequence merely of Othello’s personal character flaw – of his mistaken conviction of his wife’s infidelity, with the distasteful unspoken implication of such an interpretation that had the conviction not been mistaken, his actions would have been justified. It is, rather, as Ryan presents it. a tragedy of people whose utopian love, in defiance of the stultifying values commonly accepted by the world in which they live, is eventually corrupted and destroyed by those same stultifying values.

King Lear

Of all Bradley’s essays, the ones on King Lear have longed seemed to me the least convincing, and this because his approach, focusing as it does on analysis of character, is least appropriate for this play. For the characters here – at least, compared to the characters in Shakespeare’s other tragedies – are quite simple. The scope of the tragedy, its causes, its consequences, stretch out far beyond the characters, and encompasses the world itself. And perhaps even further. It is not just the characters’ minds that are in turmoil here: the entire fabric of the universe itself seems to undergo violent convulsions, and, at points, as in the Fool’s strange speech in III,ii where he appears to prophesy a prophecy (“This prophecy Merlin shall make, for I live before his time”), we lose whatever temporal bearings we may have had: time itself suddenly seems unstable and insecure.

Ryan focuses on the significance of the word “nothing” – clearly an important word in the play, and repeated many times in many different dramatic contexts. But first, he draws our attention to a striking passage from Timon of Athens, a play Shakespeare had been working on possibly just before writing King Lear, and which was probably, for whatever reason, abandoned:

Why, I was writing of my epitaph.

It will be seen tomorrow. My long sickness

Of health and living now begins to mend.

And nothing brings me all things.

The quality of nothing is not here merely an absence of something: it is referred to by Timon as something positive, something actually to be desired. It is what Cordelia says she has for Lear when she is asked how much she loves him: nothing. When Edgar decides to disguise himself as Poor Tom, he says: “That’s something yet; Edgar I nothing am.” He could easily have said something like, say, “Edgar I am no more”, but Shakespeare structures that line such that the words “something” and “nothing” counterpoise each other, so that the “nothing”, rather than denoting merely an absence of “something”, is, as it had been with Timon, a quality in its own right,

Lear, too, is reduced to a nothing, and again, Ryan asks whether this “nothing” is merely negative – merely an absence. In I,iv, when Lear first begins to notice his authority questioned, he speaks of himself in the third person:

This is not Lear:
Doth Lear walk thus? speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, his discernings
Are lethargied – Ha! waking? ’tis not so.
Who is it that can tell me who I am?

To which the Fool answers “Lear’s shadow”. Once again, Lear’s speech can be taken purely as enraged irony on his part, but Ryan intriguingly poses a different possibility. Should the “shadow” mentioned by the Fool be seen as entirely negative? Through the course of the play, we see a transfiguration in Lear: the man who could actually say to his daughter that it would have been better for her not to be born than not to have pleased him better, comes, by the third act, to recognise that he is just a poor, bare, forked animal, no different from the lowest beggar and outcast. One persona gives place to another. And it is in this context that Ryan asks us to consider this earlier passage. In this passage, when cracks in the person Lear had been begin for the first time to appear, he does not truly know who he is; and this is why he speaks of himself in the third person; and this is why he has to ask “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” The Fool’s answer – “Lear’s shadow” – can certainly be taken to mean that Lear is now but the shadow of the man he used to be; but, more intriguingly, the Fool may intend the “shadow” to denote nothing – a nothing that is nonetheless positive, for from this nothing may arise a being that had previously lain dormant within. It is a nothing that, as Timon had recognised, brings all things.

Lear’s transformation from a king to a nothing – a nothing that is nonetheless greater than the something he had previously been – has antecedents in Shakespeare’s plays, and Ryan traces these carefully. There was Henry VI, of course, whose inner being retreats in revulsion from his kingly self; there’s Richard II, who, once stripped of his kingly status must try to understand what the being is within. Hamlet too had quizzically said that “a king is a thing of nothing”.  But in none of these earlier plays had the focus fallen so explicitly on social iniquities, on the poor naked wretches who have to bide the pelting of pitiless storms. Lear comes to recognise that he had “ta’en too little care of this”, but, as Ryan says, Shakespeare has to take him further: it is not merely that the rich should look after the poor better; a commonality in our shared humanity must be recognised. Immediately at the point where Lear prays for those of whom he had ta’en too little care, there appears Poor Tom – a man who does not even have the necessities without which, Lear had previously thought, man’s life were as cheap as beast’s. And Lear, to his horror, recognises his own commonality with this poor, bare, forked animal that now appears before him.

It has been objected that the fact of Poor Tom being Edgar weakens the point, but Ryan takes an opposite view: the point of our common humanity is emphasised rather than negated by Edgar too being such a poor, bare, forked animal beneath his robes and furred gowns that had previously hidden his unaccommodated self. Edgar has taken on this persona that goes way beyond what was required merely for coherence of plot, and it is important to question why: Edgar, too, like Lear, and like Gloucester afterwards, had to become a nothing – a nothing that could, perhaps, bring him all things. Edgar he nothing is.


Macbeth fits easily into the traditional patterns: two protagonists, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, share a tragic flaw – in this case, ambition – and, as a consequence of this flaw, commit the most terrible crime, thus disrupting the fabric of the society in which they live, as well as damning their own souls; but it is all put right at the end when they are defeated by good people. Their souls remain damned – that’s their tragedy – but the breach they made in nature is set right. And of course, none of this would have happened if the protagonists had been able to rein in their “tragic flaw” in the first place.  

This does make a coherent reading, and is consistent with the text. But clearly, such a reading presents the drama as, essentially, a morality tale: do not be over-ambitious, and do not commit murder, for that way damnation lies. But clearly, there is more: a mere morality tale such as this is unlikely to shake us to the extent that this play does. To investigate what more there is, Ryan first of all examines the patterns of language used throughout the play. And in doing so, he finds that the patterns used by the witches occur throughout the play: they crop up not only in the speeches of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, but also, perhaps surprisingly, in the speeches of various other characters too – both major and minor. For instance, the witches’ incantatory “Fair is foul and foul is fair” is echoed almost immediately by Banquo (“So fair and foul a day I have not seen”); the witches’ rhyming of “done/won” (“When the hurlyburly’s done, when the battle’s lost and won”) is echoed in the very next scene by Duncan and Ross:


…And with his former title greet Macbeth.


                                                        I’ll see it done.


What he hath lost noble Macbeth hath won.

The witches’ “Double double, toil and trouble”, Ryan demonstrates with copious examples, finds echoes throughout the play. And so on.

All this, says Ryan, has been commented on, but “their implications for our understanding of the play as a tragedy have not been appreciated” (author’s italics). “The cumulative effect,” Ryan continues, “of hearing …  distinctive speech habits of the witches or of the Macbeths at home is to involve them all in the attitude articulated in the idiom they share”. Macbeth’s ethos, in other words, is not greatly different from that of the society he inhabits, any more than are his speech patterns. Of course, needless to say, Macbeth reacts to it in a far more extreme way than do the other characters, but he is a product of that society, rather than an anomaly.

The murderous thoughts that immediately strike Macbeth after meeting with the witches are entirely his own: at no point do the witches suggest murder, not even implicitly. When Lady Macbeth calls on evil spirits to possess her, she calls them “spirits that tend on mortal thoughts”: tend, not instigate. The thoughts are purely human, and whatever thoughts humans have, the spirits do no more than tend.

Ryan goes on to demonstrate how widespread are the treasonous and bloodthirsty thoughts in general throughout this play. Even honest Banquo is clearly afflicted with evil thoughts, the wicked nature of which he is well aware (“merciful powers, / Restrain in me the cursed thoughts that nature / Gives way to in repose!”); and all other seemingly good characters are tarred to some lesser or greater extent. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are no anomalies: the moral sickness from which they suffer is widespread in the society they inhabit.

And at the root of this moral sickness, Ryan finds “a potent but toxic idea of masculinity, of what it means to be a man”. This is not new in Shakespeare. “If it be man’s work, I’ll do it,” says the officer in King Lear charged with hanging Cordelia, and this leads us naturally to ask: “What is man’s work?” The officer in King Lear had not thought that hanging Cordelia was inconsistent “man’s work”. Macbeth tells the murderers he employs to kill Banquo that the work of the highest rank of men is to kill without qualm of conscience. Lady Macbeth calls upon spirits to “unsex” her, to implant into her a male spirit, so she too could partake in acts of “the direst cruelty”. When Macbeth wavers, it is with his lack of virility that she taunts him (“When you durst do it, then you were a man”).

But the curious fact in all this is that Macbeth does waver: not for him the cheerful amorality of Richard III, who also murders his way to the top. Lady Macbeth is aware of this element in his character: he is too “full of the milk of human kindness”. Ryan reminds us that at this point (and elsewhere) in the text of the First Folio, this famous phrase appears as “the milk of humane kindness”: “human” is an emendation of Rowe’s that all subsequent editors have followed. But there is clearly a conflation in the original text between what we now understand as “human” – that is, pertaining to the species homo sapiens – and “humane”, that is, compassionate.

It may seem strange that Macbeth, who has now become emblematic of homicidal evil, should be described in such terms; but the fact remains, he is. And also that Lady Macbeth knows him well. But what is particularly interesting here is the image of “milk”: it conjures up the image of a baby feeding at its mother’s breast. And indeed, in a passage shortly afterwards, this image of the baby at the breast is evoked more explicitly, but in the vilest of contexts: to urge her husband on, Lady Macbeth evokes the most disgusting image of plucking a baby from her breast whom she had been suckling, and dashing its brains out. The image here is, of course, is that of an innocence horribly destroyed; but if “milk” is an image of  innocence, that innocence, Lady Macbeth realises, lies also in her husband. And this is why he wavers. This is why he knows immediately after the murder that he shall never sleep again. This is why he knows that had he died but an hour earlier, he “had lived a blessed time”. This is why he never for a moment enjoys that which he had most ardently desired. There is, inside him, the milk of human (or humane) kindness – a baby, innocent and defenceless, and yet powerful enough to stride the blast; or, to employ the imagery so prevalent in King Lear, there is in him a nothing that, though savagely suppressed, has the potential in some hereafter to be stronger and more powerful than the something that Macbeth has made of himself.

And here lies the essence of the tragedy both of Macbeth and of Lady Macbeth. From the society around them, virtually from the air that they breathe, they have imbibed those values of a poisonous notion of masculinity that makes them something, but, all the while, there is, hidden deep inside them, a nothing, that, in some conceivable utopia, might have brought them all things.

Antony and Cleopatra

More, perhaps, than in Shakespeare’s other plays, Antony and Cleopatra presents us with different perspectives, often contradictory each with the other, that are nonetheless true at the same time.  From the Roman perspective, Cleopatra is merely a depraved and lascivious woman, and Antony is playing the fool in neglecting his duties, and being so utterly besotted with her. This is the way they had both been depicted, Ryan tells us, in “nearly all medieval and early modern takes on the story”. Dante, Ryan reminds us, had placed Cleopatra in that circle of the Inferno reserved for “carnal sinners”. Shakespeare, however, while not by any means neglecting this perspective, presents us with something quite different: in the late flowering of love between these two deeply flawed and even, at times, absurd creatures, there is something that is nonetheless magnificent.

What exactly there is that is magnificent is easier felt that described, but it’s there: even the cynical and down-to-earth Enobarbus can’t help but recognise the magnificence. It is easy to point out all the defects in the characters of the two lovers, but, as Enobarbus says, Cleopatra “make[s] defect perfection”. The more “irrational, perverse and aggravating” Cleopatra is, the more Antony loves her; and the further Antony sinks, the more immovable seems Cleopatra’s love of him. And somehow, miraculously, by some magic that I still cannot come close to accounting for, we, the audience, feel the same way: we see Antony and Cleopatra, despite being in positions of power and responsibility, neglecting their duties: they are clearly bad rulers. We see the acting irresponsibly, even reprehensibly. But, as with Enobarbus, against all reason, we can’t help but find something quite magnificent about them.

Not that the Roman view is necessarily an admirable one. As Ryan emphasises, Antony and Cleopatra, whatever the historic accuracy, are, in this play, of different races: Cleopatra is contemptuously referred to as a “gypsy”, and as “tawny”, and Cleopatra herself speaks of being “by Phoebus’ amorous pinches black”. Race is not as major an issue here as it had been in Othello, but disapproval of their union on the grounds of racial difference isn’t absent here either.

But Antony, even while speaking of breaking free from “Egyptian fetters”, is most oppressed by the Roman fetters that bind him: “Let Rome in Tiber melt!” declares this triple pillar of the Roman world, before adding, quite magnificently, “kingdoms are clay”.

But neither he nor Cleopatra can wish away the realities of this imperial world: far more so than the loves of the previous tragic couples – Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Desdemona – their love is played out entirely in public view, and their fates are inextricable from the wider politics.

The conflict between the real world that they must live in, and a world in which their deepest needs may be met and their deepest desires flourish, is too obvious to be spelt out. At the end, with Antony already dead and with Cleopatra’s interest in living in the real world waning, she creates from her imagination an image of Antony as he had never been. Ryan gives much emphasis to the speech of hers that follows, beginning with “But if there be nor ever were one such…” It’s a difficult speech, with complex syntax, but the upshot of it is that creations of the imagination, according to Cleopatra, are not merely fantasy, for that imagination itself is a creation of the real world. And so she mythologises Antony, and, at the point of death, mythologises herself to be the great queen she never had been in real life.

And yet, her final image of herself is not that of royalty: “Dost though not see the baby at the breast / That sucks the nurse asleep?” Ryan adds: “Death liberates Cleopatra from her royalty to enjoy, if only for a moment in her imagination, something far superior to royalty: the simple bond of nurturing motherhood.” Charmian understands: Cleopatra was not a “queen unparalleled”, as may have been expected, but “a lass unparalleled”.

It is Octavius who actually refers to a utopia: he senses a time of “universal peace” near at hand. This universal peace would, of course, be on Octavius’ terms, and we would be right to be suspicious of it; but nonetheless, “universal peace” is a concept that would have been unthinkable to either Antony or to Cleopatra. But it is a rather different kind of utopia they evoke – a utopia in which kingdoms really are clay.


Shakespeare ended his sequence of tragedies with two Roman plays written in close succession – the very opulent Antony and Cleopatra, and the very austere Coriolanus. But one feature shared by these two very dissimilar plays is that the tragedy of the protagonist is inseparable from the social context. And the social context here is very much that of class warfare. We are plunged into this right from the start. Plutarch, Ryan tells us, tells of the plebians’ revolt some way into his narrative, but Shakespeare opens the play with it. And the plebians’ cause is the most basic: they face starvation because the patricians are hoarding grain.

The contempt in which the patricians hold the people is apparent. The patrician Menenius tries to soft-soap the plebians, but when that fails, his true feelings come out: “Rome and her rats are at the point of battle.” The people of Rome are but vermin. Caius Martius (as Coriolanus is known to begin with), when he enters, doesn’t even pretend: when he hears of likely wars, he says he is glad of it, as that will help cull some of the “musty superfluity”.

It is sometimes said that Coriolanus presents class war from a neutral viewpoint, but Ryan rejects that: true, Shakespeare doesn’t hesitate to show the people as “spineless, gullible, vacillating”, but this does not invalidate their cause, and nor does it justify the patricians. And, Ryan says, “the values on which the plebian rebellion against the patricians is based form the ethical bedrock on which the entire tragedy is built”.

For Coriolanus’ hatred of the people is “born of a horror of having anything in common with them”, and in this, he is no anomaly: this hatred is endemic to his class, though Coriolanus exhibits it more clearly. But the tragedy comes when, at a crucial moment, a being within Coriolanus that had till then been suppressed comes to the fore – when he accepts his mother’s plea to spare Rome. Of course, he signs his own death warrant in doing so, but it is here, Ryan says, that “the universal bond between mother and son prevails, [and] we see and hear the vulnerable, compassionate human [who had been] imprisoned within Coriolanus since childhood”.


In the above, I have summarised as best I could Ryan’s arguments – or, at least, my reading of his arguments, which may not be quite the same thing. But, inevitably, summary implies a simplification, a flattening out of subtleties and nuance, and a straightening out of complexities. So I really should emphasise that any flaw detected in the arguments presented in this post is most likely to be a flaw in my own understanding, or my own summarising, rather than a flaw in Ryan’s arguments.

These arguments are presented throughout with admirable lucidity, and are completely free of jargon; and they are always justified by the text, rather than imposed upon them. I won’t say that they have changed my view of these plays overnight: when one has lived with these works for some half a century or so, as I have, certain ways of looking at them become imprinted in the mind, and it becomes hard to change. But they have certainly thrown new light on these works, and have, among other things, provided me with an explanation of why I have found so unsatisfactory those interpretations predicated primarily – or even solely – upon the character flaws of the protagonists.

These plays have long been the works that I think I love more than any other work of art, in any form or medium, and reading such absorbing and penetrating analyses of them has been an unmitigated pleasure. If I have any complaint at all about this book, it is that I could wish the chapter on Antony and Cleopatra – the play in the canon I think I love most – to have been longer, and that Ryan had given it as profound and as detailed a consideration as he does Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. But no matter. This book demonstrated for me, yet again, the sheer inexhaustibility of these endlessly entrancing works.