Though they have what might be termed offside aspects, the three comedies I looked at earlier are enormously jolly, and their happy endings perfectly satisfactory. Very different are the dark comedies, where the happy couplings with which the plays end result from very dark beginnings.
The action of two of these plays springs from what seems perverse jealousy. In The Winter’s Tale, King Leontes of Sicily suspects his wife of being too close to his old friend, Polixenes the King of Bohemia, and torments her to what he believes is death. He has also packed off to be killed the newborn child he suspects is not his own. The nobleman he assigns for this task does die, being last seen, in the most horrid stage direction in Shakespeare, being pursued by a bear. But the child is found and – being therefore called Perdita – survives to be reunited with her father. At this point it transpires that his abused wife did not in fact die, and what is supposed to be a statue of her comes back to life, after which the perverse king presumably lives happily ever after.
Jealousy of a different sort propels the action of Cymbeline, where the Roman husband of Imogen, the daughter of the British King Cymbeline, has a bet about his wife’s chastity while back in Rome. The villain who cannot seduce Imogen tricks Procopius, who disowns his wife, and there is much suffering before his faith in her is restored and we have a happy ending.
What relieves the darkness of these plays is the joy with which Shakespeare endows the rural simplicity into which the deprived women are driven. Imogen in fleeing the court finds herself in a cave where her brothers who had been stolen away beforehand live a rustic life. They, and Perdita and her foster family in the greenwood, are great fun.
Perhaps the best known lines from Cymbeline are from the dirge sung by Cymbeline’s sons over the supposed dead body of the young man, in fact their sister, who had sought shelter with them –
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
In a different vein, the beastly Iachimo, who has stolen into Imogen’s bedchamber to describe her in bed to win his bet, has a lyrical account of the sleeping princess –
Tis her breathing that
Perfumes the chamber thus; the flame of the taper
Bows toward her, and would under-peep her lids
To see the enclosed lights, now canopied
Under these windows, white and azure laced
With blue of heaven’s own tinct.
But noteworthy too is Shakespeare’s awareness of the limitations of the greenwood, as one of the princes stolen away in his youth laments –
What should we speak of
When we are old as you? when we shall hear
The rain and wind beat dark December, how,
In this our pinching cave, shall we discourse
The freezing hours away? We have seen nothing;
We are beastly, subtle as the fox for prey,
Like warlike as the wolf for what we eat;
Our valour is to chase what flies; our cage
We make a quire, as doth the prison’d bird,
And sing our bondage freely
The Winter’s Tale is generally darker, given the brooding nature of King Leontes. There is great irony in the description of their childhood friendship given by Polixenes –
We were, fair queen,
Two lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day to-morrow as to-day,
And to be boy eternal.
We were as twinn’d lambs that did frisk i’ the sun,
And bleat the one at the other: what we changed
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dream’d
That any did. Had we pursued that life,
And our weak spirits ne’er been higher rear’d
With stronger blood, we should have answer’d heaven
Boldly ‘not guilty;’ .
Happily, though the gloomy preamble goes on for three acts, more memorable are the exchanges, delightful examples of what are termed sweet nothings, between Perdita and her suitor, who just happens to be the son of Polixenes –
When you speak, sweet.
I’ld have you do it ever: when you sing,
I’ld have you buy and sell so, so give alms,
Pray so; and, for the ordering your affairs,
To sing them too: when you do dance, I wish you
A wave o’ the sea, that you might ever do
Nothing but that; move still, still so,
And own no other function: each your doing,
So singular in each particular,
Crowns what you are doing in the present deed,
That all your acts are queens.
Getting lost and being found again is an occupational hazard for Shakespearian heroines, as we see also in Pericles (though it should be noted that this play was not printed in the First Folio which brought Shakespeare’s plays together, and it is widely believed that only some of it is by Shakespeare). The play, perhaps because it too has Greek connotations (though Pericles is supposed to be a Prince of Tyre, in what is now Lebanon and used to be Phoenicia, rather than Greece), is also remarkably ambiguous, with his lost daughter Marina getting caught up in a brothel, though she remains miraculously untouched. The account of how she escaped is given by the old English poet Gower who provides a running commentary to the play
Marina thus the brothel ‘scapes, and chances
Into an honest house, our story says.
She sings like one immortal, and she dances
As goddess-like to her admired lays;
Deep clerks she dumbs; and with her needle composes
Nature’s own shape, of bud, bird, branch, or berry,
That even her art sisters the natural roses;
Her inkle, silk, twin with the rubied cherry:
That pupils lacks she none of noble race,
Who pour their bounty on her; and her gain
She gives the cursed bawd.
But Pericles is pure fantasy, with Marina’s mother, thrown overboard when believed dead, also recovering and being discovered in the Great Temple of Diana at Ephesus, after Diana herself obligingly appears to Pericles and enlightens him. This is perhaps understandable in a play that begins with incest, between King Antiochus and his daughter, whom he has promised to give in marriage to anyone who solves the riddle he sets them. The riddle is about the incest and Pericles guesses at once the meaning of the verse he is given. The transition from the reading of the riddle to his expression of revulsion is masterly, though it may not have been by Shakespeare –
I am no viper, yet I feed
On mother’s flesh which did me breed.
I sought a husband, in which labour
I found that kindness in a father:
He’s father, son, and husband mild;
I mother, wife, and yet his child.
How they may be, and yet in two,
As you will live, resolve it you.
Sharp physic is the last: but, O you powers
That give heaven countless eyes to view men’s acts,
Why cloud they not their sights perpetually,
If this be true, which makes me pale to read it?
Fair glass of light, I loved you, and could still,
(Takes hold of the hand of the Daughter of ANTIOCHUS)
Were not this glorious casket stored with ill:
But I must tell you, now my thoughts revolt
For he’s no man on whom perfections wait
That, knowing sin within, will touch the gate.
You are a fair viol, and your sense the strings;
Who, finger’d to make man his lawful music,
Would draw heaven down, and all the gods, to hearken:
But being play’d upon before your time,
Hell only danceth at so harsh a chime.
Good sooth, I care not for you.
This contrasts with the enthusiasm he had expressed on first seeing the girl –
See where she comes, apparell’d like the spring,
Graces her subjects, and her thoughts the king
Of every virtue gives renown to men!
Her face the book of praises, where is read
Nothing but curious pleasures, as from thence
Sorrow were ever razed and testy wrath
Could never be her mild companion.
You gods that made me man, and sway in love,
That have inflamed desire in my breast
To taste the fruit of yon celestial tree,
Or die in the adventure, be my helps,
As I am son and servant to your will,
To compass such a boundless happiness!
Despite the incest and the brothels in this play, the darkest of Shakespeare’s comedies is I think Measure for Measure. Its heroine is the nun Isabella, who resists seduction by the villain Angelo, but then agrees to marry the Duke, the apparent hero of the play. Angelo however also gets a happy ending, though it involves having to marry Mariana, whom he had seduced and abandoned. Meanwhile Isabella’s brother Claudio, who had been condemned to death also for sexual excesses, on whose behalf Isabella had gone to plead with Angelo who was acting on behalf of the Duke, also wins pardon.
All this is possible because the Duke had not really gone away, but was keeping a watching brief on his ostensibly puritan Deputy. This about sums up the complex or perhaps neurotic motivations of all the characters, but somehow Shakespeare triumphs over the preposterous nature of his plot, and actually interests us in the love stories of these strange individuals.
Understandably, for such a complex play, the most memorable passages are analytical, as when Isabella criticizes Angelo’s excessive strictness –
Could great men thunder
As Jove himself does, Jove would ne’er be quiet,
For every pelting, petty officer
Would use his heaven for thunder;
Nothing but thunder! Merciful Heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Split’st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle: but man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.
And in the scene in which the disguised Duke visits Claudio in prison, we have vivid descriptions of both life and death. The first is the Duke’s effort to convince Claudio that death is not such a bad thing, given the drawbacks of life –
Thou hast nor youth nor age,
But, as it were, an after-dinner’s sleep,
Dreaming on both; for all thy blessed youth
Becomes as aged, and doth beg the alms
Of palsied eld; and when thou art old and rich,
Thou hast neither heat, affection, limb, nor beauty,
To make thy riches pleasant. What’s yet in this
That bears the name of life? Yet in this life
Lie hid moe thousand deaths: yet death we fear,
That makes these odds all even.
But this is trumped by Claudio’s abhorrence of death, as he tries to persuade his sister to give in to Angelo, so that his life might be spared –
Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendent world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thought
Imagine howling: ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death