In addition to the Roman plays, Shakespeare also wrote a couple of Greek tragedies. Of them, Timon of Athens was an early play, and will not really repay discussion, though it is worth noting that the character of the misanthropic Timon displays understanding of monomania that is rare in a writer who was generally conscious of the fluidity of human motivation.
The other Greek tragedy, Troilus and Cressida, in one of Shakespeare’s most interesting plays, though it does not have the dramatic appeal of the greater tragedies. In one sense it defies analysis since, though its outcome is tragic, with the romance across racial barriers, Greek and Trojan, doomed to failure, it also covers a lot of other ground in its depiction of the relations between the various Greeks who have gathered at Troy. And the manner in which Cressida accepts her fate, when Troilus is placed beyond her reach, is perhaps a more realistic assessment of the way human nature reacts to disappointment, rather than the morbid despair of a Romeo and a Juliet.
Though the strength of the play lies in the volatility of the various exchanges, there are a few memorable lines, in particular Ulysses’ account of the transience of human success
Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back,
Wherein he puts alms for oblivion,
A great-sized monster of ingratitudes:
Those scraps are good deeds past; which are devour’d
As fast as they are made, forgot as soon
As done: perseverance, dear my lord,
Keeps honour bright: to have done is to hang
Quite out of fashion, like a rusty mail
In monumental mockery. Take the instant way;
For honour travels in a strait so narrow,
Where one but goes abreast: keep then the path;
For emulation hath a thousand sons
That one by one pursue: if you give way,
Or hedge aside from the direct forthright,
Like to an enter’d tide, they all rush by
And leave you hindmost;
Or like a gallant horse fall’n in first rank,
Lie there for pavement to the abject rear,
O’er-run and trampled on: then what they do in present,
Though less than yours in past, must o’ertop yours;
For time is like a fashionable host
That slightly shakes his parting guest by the hand,
And with his arms outstretch’d, as he would fly,
Grasps in the comer: welcome ever smiles,
And farewell goes out sighing. O, let not virtue seek
Remuneration for the thing it was;
For beauty, wit,
High birth, vigour of bone, desert in service,
Love, friendship, charity, are subjects all
To envious and calumniating time.
This striking philosophizing however has a special purpose, as is natural with the wily Ulysses, and he goes on, with a superb introductory line that is much quoted, to try to persuade Achilles to go back to the war from which he had withdrawn himself.
One touch of nature makes the whole world kin-
That all with one consent praise new-born gawds,
Though they are made and moulded of things past,
And give to dust that is a little gilt
More laud than gilt o’er-dusted.
The present eye praises the present object.
Then marvel not, thou great and complete man,
That all the Greeks begin to worship Ajax,
Since things in motion sooner catch the eye
Than what stirs not. The cry went once on thee,
And still it might, and yet it may again
Then there is the passionate but dutiful Troilus explaining why he must leave Cressida when dawn breaks, just before he is told that she must be sent away to Diomede
O Cressida! but that the busy day,
Waked by the lark, hath roused the ribald crows,
And dreaming night will hide our joys no longer,
I would not from thee
And, if one is not quite convinced by the conflicting emotions of Cressida as she succumbs to Diomede after she is sent back to the Greeks, the sorrow of Troilus, though expressed with youth’s intensity, is profoundly moving.
Never did young man fancy
With so eternal and so fix’d a soul.
Hark, Greek: as much as I do Cressid love,
So much by weight hate I her Diomed.
That sleeve is mine that he’ll bear on his helm;
Were it a casque compos’d by Vulcan’s skill
My sword should bite it.
This is matched by his awareness of what the death of his brother Hector means for his parents and for Troy
Hector is gone.
Who shall tell Priam so, or Hecuba?
Let him that will a screech-owl aye be call’d
Go in to Troy, and say there ‘Hector’s dead.’
There is a word will Priam turn to stone;
Make wells and Niobes of the maids and wives,
Cold statues of the youth; and, in a word,
Scare Troy out of itself. But, march away;
Hector is dead; there is no more to say.
A note of ambiguity can also be seen in Shakespeare’s Greek comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is supposedly set in Athens at the time of King Theseus. I say supposedly, because there is nothing Greek except their names about the main characters, or rather the main human characters. The play also includes a group of would be actors who are clearly English workmen, plus fairies who are not Greek at all, but rather mediaeval in origin. And the chief character amongst them, Puck, is emphatically English.
The play is a comedy with its various lovers finding happiness in pairs. But this has been achieved by a love potion which Puck smears on the eyes of the recalcitrant, so that they fall in love with whomsoever they first see. The comedy lies in the fact that Puck gets the wrong young man to begin with. He then gets the correct one also so, instead of Lysander and Demetrius both being in love with Hermia, they both become infatuated with Helena. The other major comic factor is that, to overcome the affection of Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, with an Indian boy, he gets her infatuated with the most absurd of the workmen, after he has endowed him with a donkey’s head.
Things work out in the end, but only because Demetrius, whom Helena loved, has been brought under the magic influence. Of course there is no point in thinking about the rationale for love or its permanence, nor do we feel any need to do this in reading or watching this play. But it is worth noting that Shakespeare bases his plot on the contingent nature of love, and evidently does not believe in the traditional, or perhaps idealistic, view of love at first sight (save through a magic potion) in terms of pairs made for each other.
This indeed is a feature of several of his most sunny comedies. In Twelfth Night Olivia falls for the young man who has been sent by Duke Orsino to woo her, not dreaming that this is a girl in disguise. Disaster, though we scarce thinks of this as the comedy moves to a satisfying conclusion, is only averted because Viola has an identical twin brother, who turns up in the nick of time to take over as the object of Olivia’s passion. And meanwhile the Duke grows fond of his young servant, and is delighted to find that he is in fact a woman.
The perverse nature of this plot does not prevent it giving rise to the most marvelous love poetry. Or perhaps I should say poetry about love, because Orsino’s opening celebration is of the idea of love, rather than its particular object –
If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.
Viola expresses a more committed love in describing her own situation to Orsino whilst still disguised as a boy –
She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i’ th’ bud,
Feed on her damask cheek. She pined in thought
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat like Patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?
We men may say more, swear more, but indeed,
Our shows are more than will; for still we prove
Much in our vows, but little in our love
Also perverse, though less markedly so, is As You Like It, where the lovers, Rosalind and Orlando, are in exile in the Forest of Arden (which is supposed to be in France but probably recalls Arden in Warwickshire, Shakepeare’s home area. Rosalind, daughter of the duke, has been banished by her wicked uncle, while Orlando, who had fallen in love with her when he first met her, has fled his nasty brother. Rosalind, disguised as a boy called Ganymede, undertakes to teach Orlando to get over his love, which he expresses in the most trite verses that he puts up on the trees. Practising his blandishments on Ganymede, Orlando becomes increasingly attracted, but fortunately discovers that Ganymede is indeed a suitable object of devotion.
As You Like it is notable for its songs, such as
Under the greenwood tree
Who loves to lie with me,
And turn his merry note
Unto the sweet bird’s throat,
Come hither, come hither, come hither.
Here shall he see
But winter and rough weather.
It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey-nonny-no,
That o’er the green cornfield did pass
In springtime, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, Hey ding a ding, ding.
Sweet lovers love the spring.
However, typically perhaps given the changeable nature of Shakespeare’s genius, perhaps the most memorable lines in the play are given to the misanthropic Jacques ….
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.