In our third episode we meet Romeo & Juliet, played by podcast host Nic Moore and Dale Leonheart.

We learn a bit about what drew Dale and Nic to acting, a little of their process… and their passion for Shakespeare; Romeo + Juliet in particular.

And we get a sneak–preview from Act I, Scene 5 — Romeo and Juliet meeting for the first time.

One of the best known sentences in Shakespeare, indeed in all of literature, is Mercutio’s curse as he dies at Tybalt’s hand: “A plague on both your houses”.

And one of the major reasons for the deaths of both Romeo and Juliet is the failure of Friar Laurence to let Romeo know the details of his plan. Some time after Romeo was due to meet Juliet at the tomb, Friar John, a fellow Franciscan, explains that on his way to take the message to Romeo he was prevented from reaching Mantua where Romeo was holed up:

… the searchers of the town

Suspecting that we both were in a house

Where the infectious pestilence did reign,

Sealed up the doors and would not let us forth

So that my speed to Mantua there was stayed. (R&J  5,2,8-12)


And when Laurence asks who took the letter to Romeo, John gives the answer which is the literal key to the ultimate suicides of the lovers:

I could not send it – here it is again –

Nor get a messenger to bring it thee,

So fearful were they of infection. (R&J 5,2,1-16)


Apart from these two references the plague does not appear on the surface of Romeo and Juliet. Yet it was a threatening shadow throughout Shakespeare’s life and bubbles to the surface of his work with regularity. In the year of his birth the town of Stratford-upon-Avon recorded his baptism and the death by plague of a young apprentice, and in the margins of the latter was written hic incipit pestis, or here begins the pestilence.

Not much was known about the plague at the time. It came without warning. No one knew what caused it or how to treat it other than through the instinct to stay away from people with the symptoms: fever and chills to start with, weakness and vomiting, bleeding from everywhere, and swollen lymph nodes in the armpits and groin (buboes – thus ‘bubonic’). Death was agonizing. 

People lived with the plague in the way we never quite managed to live with our own pestilence, Covid-19. They took all manner of folk precautions, like burning herbs. That was not an unreasonable thing to do, of course. And some of those habits found their way through to the literature of the time.

It is hard to know how Shakespeare and his fellow theatre people dealt personally with the constant threat of plague. Public places including theatres were closed for long periods of time during outbreaks, and as a shareholder whose living depended largely (if not completely) on his earning, Shakespeare would have found the plague deeply threatening and frustrating. And between the closures we know they were constantly aware of it, and although Shakespeare did not make a central issue of it others did. I remember falling in love with a poem, “A Litany in Time of Plague”, by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Thomas Nashe, a relatively unsung poet and dramatist. He wrote the poem in 1593 after London had been ravaged by plague. It contains a line that has haunted me since I first read the poem some 50 years ago..This is an excerpt: 

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
  Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
  Lord, have mercy on us!

The plague turns up regularly in Shakespeare’s plays as the vehicle of a simile or metaphor. “Thou art a boil,” Lear tells his daughter Goneril, “A plague-sore, or embossed carbuncle / In my corrupted blood.” “Be as a planetary plague,” says Timon in Timon of Athens, “when Jove / Will o’er some high-viced city hang his poison / In the sick air.” And in Coriolanus the eponymous general shouts at the plebeians: “All the contagion of the south light on you / You shames of Rome, … You herd of—Boils and plagues / Plaster you o’er, that you may be abhorred / Farther than seen, and one infect another / Against the wind a mile.”And the plague gives us a tour de force in Twelfth Night when Olivia equates it with love, or vice versa:

Even so quickly may one catch the plague?
Methinks I feel this youth’s perfections
With an invisible and subtle stealth
To creep in at mine eyes. (Twelfth Night, 1,5, 265-8)

And in Much Ado About Nothing Beatrice uses this pestilent vehicle wittily to make fun of Benedick. In the opening scene of the play beatrice asks the messenger where Benedick is, and he replies that Benedick “is most in the company of the right noble Claudio”, to which Beatrice replies:

O Lord! He will hang upon him like a disease. He is sooner caught than the pestilence, and the taker runs presently mad. God help the noble Claudio. If he have caught the Benedick it will cost him a thousand pound ere he be cured. (Much Ado, 1,1,120-4)

While the plague in name bubbles irregularly through the surface of the plays, all of Shakespeare’s work develops its characters and relationships in the context of deep and widespread social disruption. The Shakespeare historian Stephen Greenblatt points us toward Macbeth, which was written during one of the most intense periods of the plague. When Macduff asks Ross how Scotland is faring under Macbeth, Ross answers

Alas, poor country,
Almost afraid to know itself. It cannot
Be called our mother, but our grave, where nothing
But who knows nothing is once seen to smile;
Where sighs and groans and shrieks that rend the air
Are made, not marked; where violent sorrow seems
A modern ecstasy. The dead man’s knell
Is there scarce asked for who, and good men’s lives
Expire before the flowers in their caps,
Dying or ere they sicken.  (Macbeth 4,3,189-198)

In Elizabethan English, as Greenblatt says, the word “modern” meant something like trivial, as when a character in All’s Well That Ends Well says “They say miracles are past; and we have our philosophical persons, to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless. Hence is it that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge, when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear.” “Ecstasy” meant any extreme degree of feeling, the state of being beside oneself. The upshot then is that the violence of emotion, the affliction of countless deaths, has become the way of life for people for whom the plague was a situation that, as far as anyone knew, had no end. Shakespeare’s genius, not just here but throughout his work, was to make a metaphoric comparison between the effect of the plague on society and everyday life, and the effect of tyrannical government.

Juliet’s death is, among other things, a supreme act of rebellion.

As a teenage undergraduate I had to read all of Shakespeare’s plays and write essays about themes and characterization, philosophy and structure. I recall an essay I wrote about female characters and rebellion: I was dreamily in love with an actress I had seen as Cordelia and Juliet in the same year, on stage. I was also in rebellion against my rather military and right-wing father, so these two characters seemed like soul mates. In fact, they still do, joined by Portia. It is only very recently that I have come to place the ‘shrew’ Kate in the same stable. At the same time I was reading Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Millet, Angela Davis, Juliet Mitchell and Monique Wittig, writers who established the intellectual framework of feminism for the second half of the twentieth century. What struck me way back then, and strikes me now, is that these daughters in Shakespeare rebel against a patriarchal structure that has changed far less than we would like to think. Their rebellion engenders anger and fear in their fathers and other men in authority, leading ultimately to narratives of revenge and control.

In 2016 I was in London visiting my (also rebellious) daughters and sat in on a lecture at the British Library by Kim Ballard, a teacher at a sixth form college in England and the author of a number of books on language. She was talking about language and Shakespeare, and about the language of strong female characters. She introduced a debate about daughters in Shakespeare that I found very thought-provoking. The British Library published her essay about the topic on its website, in the section on Renaissance literature. I thought readers of these blogs would like to be thought-provoked too.

Kim Ballard, Daughters in Shakespeare: dreams, duty and defiance, British Library, 2016

A number of Shakespeare’s plays show daughters negotiating the demands of their fathers, often trying to reconcile duty with a desire for independence. Kim Ballard considers five of Shakespeare’s most memorable literary daughters: Juliet, Desdemona, Portia, Katherina and Cordelia.

When we consider that Shakespeare lived in an age when all actors were male and the subject matter of serious drama focused heavily on the exploits of men, it’s hardly surprising that female characters are in a minority in his plays. And yet Shakespeare created many complex and engaging female roles for his young male actors to perform. Parent-child relationships feature heavily, and a significant number of these involve fathers and daughters. Interestingly, mothers are often absent from the drama, throwing the daughter/father relationship into sharp relief. A father of two daughters himself, Shakespeare’s dramatic daughters make a formidable line-up of young women, most of them at a transitional stage between the protection of their childhood home and an adult life beyond it. The transition is rarely a smooth one: in both comedies and tragedies, tension rises as daughters go in search of love, adventure and independence. Here are just a few of their stories.

Juliet: ‘yet a stranger in the world’

Romeo and Juliet may be a love story, but a daughter/father relationship lies at the heart of the play’s events. Juliet is not yet 14 when the young nobleman Paris approaches her father Capulet for permission to woo his daughter. At first, Capulet seems protective of Juliet, his only surviving child, and proposes that ‘two more summers’ should pass before ‘we may think her ripe to be a bride’ (1.2.10–11). But Paris is a good prospect, a relative of the Prince of Verona, so Capulet agrees to Paris’s request, inviting him to a family feast that very evening which Juliet will be attending.

In Shakespeare’s time, daughters of respectable families, like Juliet, could expect their fathers to have a significant involvement in choosing their future husband. This reflected the subordinate position of women in a patriarchal society, and particularly the traditional view that daughters were a commodity and could be used in marriage to forge useful alliances. Paternal involvement in husband selection provided fertile material for Shakespeare in many of his plays, and he makes considerable dramatic use of the resulting family clashes. Initially, Capulet is seemingly kinder than many fathers in allowing Juliet some say over her future husband: ‘But woo her, gentle Paris, get her heart, / My will to her consent is but a part…’ (1.2.16–17).

Later in the play, however, when the family is in shock after their kinsman Tybalt has been murdered, Capulet leaps ahead and sets an early date for the wedding without consulting his daughter first. ‘I think she will be rul’d / In all respects by me’ (3.4.13–14) he comments, clearly expecting Juliet to be compliant.

The obedient way young women of the 16th century were meant to behave towards their parents was not only reflected in religious teaching but also well documented in publications known as ‘conduct books’. At the beginning of the play, Lady Capulet – sent to speak to Juliet by her husband – tells Juliet about Paris’s interest in her, and encourages her to consider him. Juliet’s reply exemplifies the behaviour expected of her:

I’ll look to like, if looking liking move;
But no more deep will I endart mine eye
Than your consent gives strength to make it fly.

Unfortunately, Juliet’s dutiful words are soon forgotten when, overcome by her ‘warm youthful blood’, she falls in love with Romeo (the son of her father’s enemy) and marries him in secret. Inevitably then, she must disobey her father later in the play by refusing to marry Paris. Capulet is furious. Despite Juliet’s attempts to remain respectful towards him, ‘Good father, I beseech you on my knees / Hear me with patience but to speak a word’ (3.5.158–59), he threatens to disown her if she doesn’t comply with his wishes: ‘And you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend, / And you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets’ (3.5.191–92).

It’s part of Juliet’s tragedy that she’s unable to tell her authoritarian father about her marriage to Romeo, even though she could express her love with an eloquence that could overcome anger and hatred. Capulet is determined to ‘give’ her to Paris (a father’s prerogative, even enshrined in the marriage ceremony) and she feels she has little option but to agree to Friar Laurence’s drastic plan to fake her own death in order to extricate herself from this situation – a plan that is doomed to go horribly wrong.

Desdemona: maker of a ‘gross revolt’

Juliet is just one of several daughters in Shakespeare who make their own choice of husband, even at the risk or expense of displeasing their fathers and finding themselves torn between conflicting loyalties. The tragedy of Othello begins with the news that Desdemona, the daughter of the respected Venetian senator Brabantio, has not only secretly eloped, but has chosen a man of a different race – Othello, a Moor (and actually her father’s friend) – for her husband. On discovering this, Brabantio is outraged:

BRABANTIO Now, Roderigo,
Where didst thou see her? – O unhappy girl! –
With the Moor, say’st thou? – Who would be a father! –
How didst thou know ’twas she? – O, she deceives me
Past thought! – What said she to you? – Get more tapers;
Raise all my kindred. – Are they married, think you?

RODERIGO Truly, I think they are.

BRABANTIO O heaven! how got she out? O treason of the blood!
Fathers, from hence trust not your daughters’ minds
By what you see them act.

Brabantio sees Desdemona’s actions as nothing less than treachery. He can hardly believe she managed to ‘escape’ from the house, let alone deceive him in this way. In fact, he finds her actions so uncharacteristic of his quiet and diffident daughter, he takes some convincing that Othello hasn’t drugged her ‘with some mixtures pow’rful o’er the blood’ (1.3.104). However, Othello explains how he won Desdemona’s love and how, when he visited Brabantio, she would hurry through the ‘house affairs’ for which she was responsible in order to listen to his exciting tales of travel and adventure. She even expressed envy of Othello’s experiences, wishing that ‘heaven had made her such a man’ (1.3.163). A picture emerges of a dutiful but stifled daughter looking for a life beyond the confines of her family home

Unlike Juliet, Desdemona at least manages to give an account of her position to her father. She may have married without Brabantio’s consent, but she acknowledges her ‘divided duty’ between him and her husband, while making clear what her new situation demands:

My life and education both do learn me
How to respect you; you are the lord of duty;
I am hitherto your daughter. But here’s my husband;
And so much duty as my mother show’d
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor, my lord.

Perhaps softened by this declaration, Brabantio relents and (in another echo of the marriage ceremony) says to Othello:

I here do give thee that with all my heart
Which but thou hast already, with all my heart
I would keep from thee…

Before taking leave of the couple, however, he warns Othello about his new wife:

Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see;
She has deceiv’d her father, and may thee.

There’s an irony to this warning: Desdemona remains utterly faithful to her husband, but Othello’s willingness to believe she has indeed deceived him drives the play to its tragic conclusion.

Portia: ‘a lady richly left’

In his comedies too, Shakespeare exploits the dynamics of daughter/father relationships. While Juliet and Desdemona find themselves in direct confrontation with their fathers over their choice of husbands, Portia in The Merchant of Venice is ‘curb’d by the will’ of her deceased father (1.2.25). Thanks to her inheritance, she enjoys a degree of independence, but lacks the freedom to choose her husband. Instead, her suitors must undergo a test involving caskets of gold, silver and lead: the successful suitor – who cannot be refused – will be the one who finds her portrait within his chosen casket. Portia seems indignant at the imposition of this ‘lottery’, but her maid, Nerissa, reminds her that her father was ‘ever virtuous, and holy men at their death have good inspirations’ (1.2.27–28). Needless to say, it’s Portia’s hoped-for husband, Bassanio, who correctly opts for the casket of lead.

Having secured the man of her dreams by complying with her father’s wishes, Portia later takes on a role in which she acts independently of both her father and her new husband. Disguising herself as the highly capable lawyer Balthazar, she wins a legal case brought against her husband’s friend Antonio by Shylock the Jew. In a letter of introduction, Bellario (a lawyer who has sent Balthazar/Portia to act on his behalf) describes him in glowing terms:

He is furnish’d with my opinion, which better’d with his own learning, the greatness whereof I cannot enough commend, comes with him, at my importunity, to fill up your Grace’s request in my stead. I beseech you let his lack of years be no impediment to let him lack a reverend estimation, for I never knew so young a body with so old a head. (4.1.157–64)

In her scene as Balthazar, Portia certainly shows herself to be a highly educated woman. Although most daughters of the time were expected to occupy themselves primarily with domestic concerns (as Desdemona did), the tide was slowly turning against traditional patriarchal values and in favour of women’s education. The humanist scholar Juan Luis Vives, for example, who had tutored Elizabeth I’s half-sister Mary (Elizabeth’s predecessor as monarch), had written an influential conduct book on The Education of a Christian Woman (1524). By the reign of Elizabeth I – herself a highly educated woman, firm in her belief she could reign without marrying – a significant number of women from more privileged backgrounds were starting to enjoy a greater degree of freedom and learning. Portia may have submitted to the will of her father at the beginning of the play, but the ‘ring’ trick she plays on Bassanio at the end suggests she expects independence and equality within her marriage.


Katherina: ‘Renown’d in Padua for her scolding tongue’

Another comic heroine, Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, is the very opposite of the meek and dutiful daughter, a thorn in the side of her long-suffering father, Baptista. Modelled on the popular stereotype of the scolding woman, her behaviour appears particularly shrewish in contrast with her seemingly compliant younger sister Bianca. Wondering how he will ever marry off his older daughter, Baptista has decreed that Bianca will not be allowed to marry until a husband has been found for Kate. When Petruchio steps up to the challenge of taking her on, Baptista has to warn him to expect ‘some unhappy words’. Having met Petruchio, Kate even scolds her father for trying to organise a husband for her:

Call you me daughter? Now I promise you
You have show’d a tender fatherly regard,
To wish me wed to one half lunatic,
A madcap ruffian and a swearing Jack.

Against her will, however, Katherina is married to Petruchio who, wearing her down through hunger and exhaustion, succeeds in taming her, much to Baptista’s amazement.

Modern audiences can find qualities to admire in daughters like Juliet, Desdemona and Portia, who know their own minds and seek freedom from certain parental and social constraints. But Katherina presents us with a difficulty, changing as she does from independence to obedience. Here is an extract from her closing speech:

I am asham’d that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.

Many critics have grappled with the problem of Kate’s taming, not least because they find it hard to believe that Shakespeare could be so apparently sexist. They argue instead that the final twist is completely ironic, or that Shakespeare was really attacking those fathers and husbands who expected women to submit to them. Either way, The Taming of the Shrew contributes some thought-provoking material to any consideration of daughters in Shakespeare in terms of the wives they have become by the end of the play. However, in the last play included here, it is the daughter/father relationship that remains central to the drama to the very end.

Cordelia: ‘this unpriz’d precious maid’

The tragedy of King Lear is a play about the love between a father and his youngest and favourite daughter, Cordelia, the one he hopes will look after him in his old age. At the play’s opening, Lear has devised a game of flattery in order to divide the kingdom he no longer wishes to rule between Cordelia and her two older sisters, Goneril and Regan. Refusing to compete with the ‘glib and oily art’ (1.1.224) of their speeches, and pressed by Lear to say something more than ‘nothing’, Cordelia opts for simplicity and honesty in expressing her affection for him:

Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, lov’d me. I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all?


Unlike other daughters in Shakespeare, Cordelia’s defiance of her father is not about marriage, but about a principle. Lear’s disappointment with her speech earns her not land, but banishment.

Cordelia doesn’t reappear until the closing stages of the play, when she returns to Britain to rescue her father from madness and the cruel neglect meted out by her older sisters. In a moving reconciliation scene, Lear admits he was wrong to treat Cordelia as he did:

LEAR If you have poison for me, I will drink it.
I know you do not love me, for your sisters
Have (as I do remember) done me wrong:
You have some cause, they have not.

CORDELIA No cause, no cause.

In his final speech to her, after Cordelia’s forces have been defeated, he imagines the closing years of his life with the daughter he loves:

Come let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage;
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies.

Lear is not alone among Shakespearean fathers in regretting the rash and foolish way he has treated his daughter. From a psychological point of view, the tyrannical behaviour of fathers seems to stem from their fears of facing old age alone, as well as from the hopes and strong feelings they have for their daughters. Some commentators have even found an incestuous element at work in the unfolding of the plot of King Lear. Despite Lear’s earlier treatment of her, Cordelia’s kindness towards him and her willingness to risk her life in order to save his, is testament to the unbroken bond that exists between this particular father and daughter.


Shakespeare set about thirteen of his plays wholly or partly in Italy. An incomplete list includes: The Merchant of Venice, Othello, Julius Caesar, The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado about Nothing, Two Gentlemen of Verona, All’s Well That Ends Well, The Winter’s Tale, Twelfth Night, The Tempest, and of course Romeo and Juliet

We don’t know for sure what drew Shakespeare to Italy, but it is not hard to find probable reasons. To start with, Italy was attractive because it gave birth to a lot of the literary traditions that Shakespeare draws from, including courtly love, the troubadours, and the sonnet whose earliest form was established by Dante and Petrarch. We know that Shakespeare read translations of Italian work, not just what we now call literature but formative non-fiction as well: Macchiavelli’s The Prince and Castiglione’s The Courtier. It’s also possible that Shakespeare had a relationship with Emilia Lanier (née Bassano), whose father was born in Venice and was a leading court musician to Queen Elizabeth. 

Dramaturgically, Renaissance Italy was attractive as a collection of City States. Each city ruled itself, there was a complete range of social classes from the Prince to the peasants, and laws were made and enforced by the city itself. The Church was international rather than national, but in most domestic matters local friars and priests were more or less autonomous. As we know from a number of Shakespeare’s plays, he accorded friars and priests considerable power, not in a hierarchical sense but as meddlers, off-the-books players in the lives of his characters, not least in the lives of Romeo and Juliet separately and together. It is possible that Shakespeare saw in Italy a place where he could highlight dramatically the dynamics of power and love that he observed in London and the courts of Elizabeth.  

We know that R&J was based on Arthur Brooke’s Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, a long poem published in 1562 and reprinted twice by the editor of the Miscellany, Richard Tottel, in 1582 and 1587. Brookes’ poem is itself a distillation of a wide range of stories that go back to folk myth. Most good editions of the play provide excellent accounts and reading lists for anyone interested in the sources. My favorite is Dante’s invective in book 6 of The Divine Comedy, Purgatory, against an Italy that was servile to the feuds between powerful families, in which he invites the Emperor Albert – who was involved in the antipope crises of the early medieval church – to come and see the feuding families, the Montecchi and the Cappelletti (Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio, 6, 76ff). 

Dante’s feuding families were not associated with Verona, which during the Medieval and Renaissance periods of Italian history was a relatively small and neutral city. The current mayor of Verona often laughs as he watches the regular influx of tourists; while they come to witness the home of two famous lovers, it is in fact the English play alone that gives the city its reputation. Entrepreneurs in the city have been canny enough to take locations and landmarks from the play and find matching locations in the city itself. Francesco da Mosto,  a Venetian writer and architect who presented the BBC series Shakespeare in Italy in 2012, had this to say about Verona:

“In fair Verona, where we lay our scene” – Verona – a wonderful city surrounded by hills arranged like banks of theatre seats – is the city in which Shakespeare’s legacy is felt strongest. There is a saying in Italy that ‘Venetians are great lords, Paduans are great doctors, people from Vicenza eat cats [during wartime, allegedly] and people from Verona are all crazy’. People from Verona are full of life, very funny and welcoming, a curious breed who love to meet visitors and appreciate new influences.

Verona was not thought of as a city of romance before Romeo and Juliet – in fact, not many people would have heard of it as it was very much in the shadow of Venice at that time. It is now regarded as one of the most romantic places in the world, and thousands of lovers visit the city each year.

The city is full of sites associated with Romeo and Juliet. The famous balcony where Romeo is said to have declared his love to Juliet is close to Verona’s main promenade – although since the balcony was apparently added to a suitably old house in 1936, it’s doubtful it is the original! There is a statue of Juliet outside and her bedroom has been recreated inside (Via Cappello 23, 00 39 045 803 43 03). The stone architecture of the building’s courtyard, entered through a little arched passageway, has kept the otherworldly atmosphere of ancient times.

My favourite site in Verona is Juliet’s tomb (Via del Pontiere 9, 00 39 045 800 03 61). It’s in a 13th-century Franciscan convent, where Juliet died in the play – the only one outside the city walls at the time when the events were supposed to have taken place. People go there to pay tribute to Juliet and Shakespeare – even Dickens visited. It really does have a very special atmosphere. It feels like one of the saddest places in the world.”


While you’re reading this article you might want to listen to an excerpt from the Fantasia-Overture of Romeo and Juliet (1880) by Peter Tchaikowsky: The performance speaks to the global presence of Romeo and Juliet. The composer was Russian, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra is from Amsterdam, and the conductor, Elim Chan, is from Hong Kong. There is a beautiful intensity in the performers’ faces, and the rhapsodic music clearly brings pleasure to the conductor.

And I want to begin this article with a story. In 1997 I was on a train from London to Edinburgh when a trio of teenage girls got on and took the bench seats across the aisle from me. Their conversation was frank, personal and intense in the way of teenage girls, and it became more intense as they started discussing the film Titanic, which had just opened in UK cinemas with the 22 year old Kate Winslet (whose hand on the rear window of the car has become an erotic trope) and Leonardo de Caprio, who was 23.

“Have you seen it?” one of the girls asked.

“Of course,” said the second girl.

The third was silent, and the silence continued for a while until the first girl thrust her head forward and said, “You really haven’t seen it?”

The girl shook her head. “And I’m not going to see it, either.” 

There was a pause. “Why not?”

“Because I couldn’t bear to see him die twice.”

She was of course referring to Leonardo diCaprio, who dies as Romeo in  Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, which had come out a year earlier, and as Jack Dawson in Titanic. In R&J he dies together with the 17 year old Claire Danes in a tragedy that the world understands as a testament to passionate and rebellious young love. In Titanic, Leo (as the girls called him) plays a young Irishman who wins a seat on the doomed ship in a poker game and falls in love with a woman miles above his station, only to die in an extended feat of Arctic drowning when the ship hits an iceberg and sinks.

The two films share several themes that were key to the popular success of both: young love, desire and death, alienation from the society in which they live, and rebellion. As I listened to the conversation between the three girls I was interested that they did not differentiate between fiction and reality. It did not matter that Leo died twice in two separate movies with just a year between them. I also found it interesting that the girls talked about Romeo and Jack as though they were  a single character who was a real and legitimate object of their  attention and desire. Later, in the buffet car, I had a conversation with one of the girls. She talked about Romeo as the kind of boy (she said “boy”) they dreamed about but never encountered. When I suggested that Romeo’s character emerged from his responses to the more intentional and active Juliet, she sighed and said, “Yeah, girls gotta do all the work these days.” 

I asked her if she and her friends considered the two actresses, Clare Danes and Kate Winslet, as rivals for Leo’s love. 

“Oh god, no,” she said, laughing. “Those chicks are really cool.” 

Of course, I thought. “What makes them cool?” I asked.

She said, “They’re so bright, and they know what they want. And, you know, you just have to listen to them talk.”

They know what they want. They’re articulate. That girl in the buffet car didn’t know it, and nor did I at the time, but she was giving me a clue to the reason for the enduring popularity of Shakespeare’s play, to its constant attraction to artists and audiences throughout the world.

There are countless poems, plays, novels, movies and cartoons, songs and musicals, ballets and operas about young love, first desire, rebellion, dying young, romantic hope and romantic despair, sexual longing and sexual ecstasy. But the one that has them all and always stands out, that has generated countless productions and variations, is Romeo and Juliet. And I mean Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Even when we have the best variations in mind – like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet or West Side Story, the Shakespeare play is always there as a reference point.

Why? What does Shakespeare’s play have that keeps it in the mind of global audiences, even of people who have never seen the play.

One thing we all know about the play, almost as surely as we know what’s going on around us, is that it is located in conflict. That’s one of the rules of dramatic writing: you have to establish and delineate the conflict, give personality to the combatants, and show how your characters find their path through it to resolution. In London around the time Shakespeare was working on R&J, there were outbreaks of violence and civil unrest. In part they might have been caused by the residual effect of the plague, which killed around 20,000 Londoners in 1593 (that was 15-20% of the population). But there was also an ongoing protest against  poverty and social conditions. In June of 1595 around 1,000 apprentices – which might realistically have included men like Samson and Gregory from the Capulet household, and Abraham and others from the Montagues – rioted in protest against living conditions in the city.

In Romeo and Juliet the conflict is longstanding, parochial and familial, and although it’s set in Verona, in Italy, it reflects the constant battle for influence and position in the court of Elizabeth I.  The Verona of Romeo and Juliet (there is a separate blog on the subject of Shakespeare and Italy) is a complacent world in which family rivalry and egocentric carelessness are evident everywhere. As the Director for this year’s Curtain performance says in his introduction to the Program, “Verona is on the verge of anarchy”. But at the beginning of the play it’s a laid-back anarchy. The boys representing each family are a bit like gang members, but not completely. Sword-fighting and verbal baiting are regular, but people let it go. No one really enforces the city’s laws. The Prince has taken a back seat and the Watch (Elizabethan England’s minimal police force, the object of ridicule in some Shakespeare plays like Much Ado) does not appear until the tragic events of the final act. The moral role of the Church is embodied in the ego of the friar, who is obsessively distracted by unsaintly pursuits and the desire to be liked. He is long on words and short on common sense. He speaks with a tone of rationality yet the logic has often lost touch with the premise.

The job of policing the moral, social and political lives of the people of Verona falls to the families themselves. Their actions tend to be passive, responsive rather than proactive, and when the situation is made urgent by the death of family members, they intervene to secure their own interests. A major responsibility of the pater familias, in this case Capulet, is to deliver their daughters into marriages advantageous to the family. One much-used book  that sets out the socially desirable conduct of women was written by Juan Luis Vives for Princess Mary, daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon.  It was translated from Latin in 1557 by Richard Hyrde under the title The Instruction of a christen woman, and made the point succinctly: “it becometh not a maid to talk, where her father and mother be in communication about her marriage.” 

Into this sleepy hurricane come our young lovers, with hope and expectation and a certain amount of wonder. Romeo is a young man who is in love with the idea of love. Based on the sexual subcurrents of his banter with Mercutio he is probably bisexual, as were many men in Renaissance England, including, if we read the evidence correctly, Shakespeare himself. He has fixed his lover’s gaze on Rosaline. He speaks of her iambic hyperbole and romantic sonnets, not unlike Proteus in Two Gentlemen of Verona. Rosaline is an ethereal mannequin on which Romeo drapes his illusions, and as a character she never materializes.

Romeo, at this point more agape than eros, notices the beautiful Juliet and falls in love with the thought of falling in love with her. His modus is the Petrarchan sonnet, a form which represents the hyperbolic titillation of the duel between ice and fire rejection and desire. It is not until he discovers that Juliet is real and that she talks back that his experience of love changes.

As the play opens Juliet is a young woman with a beauty that attracts attention and an intellect that is already sharp and self-aware. She has not yet challenged her parents, so they can talk about arranging a match between her and her kinsman Paris without considering the possibility that she might resist. Her main relationship is with her nurse – who started as her wetnurse, breast-feeding her physically as well as being her main counsel. In her opening scene in the play Juliet has just seven lines. The nurse, a gem of a character, so characteristic of the mature Shakespeare, does all the talking, until Juliet’s mother introduces the idea of marriage. “Tell me, daughter Juliet” she says, “How stands your dispositions to be married?” To which Juliet replies, in a line that introduces the young woman who is becoming – in the parlance of Gen Z – her own agent, “It is an honour that I dream not of.” I love the wit and the ironic precision that we hear in that line: of course she has thought about marriage, but she does not dream of it; it is not in the wheelhouse of her desire.

Romeo is attracted by her beauty and by something in her character that is different: he has met his match. In describing to Friar Laurence the difference between Rosaline and Juliet he says: “Her I love now / Doth grace for grace and love for love allow.” (R&J 2,3, 81-2). He does not fully understand the difference, but he knows it’s there.

To go back to when he first encounters Juliet. He thinks and speaks in the mode of a Petrarchan courtier. When he says of her “… “she doth teach the torches to burn bright, / It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night / As a rich jewel in Ethiop’s ear.” (1,5,43-4) we are reminded of Sonnet 27, which is worth quoting in full because it so closely matches the themes of light and dark, love and consciousness, that pervade Romeo and Juliet:


Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,

The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;

But then begins a journey in my head,

To work my mind, when body’s work’s expired:

For then my thoughts (from far where I abide)

Intend a zealous pilgrimage to thee,

And keep my drooping eyelids open wide,

Looking on darkness which the blind do see:

Save that my soul’s imaginary sight

Presents thy shadow to my sightless view,

Which, like a jewel hung in ghastly night,

Makes black night beauteous and her old face new.

   Lo, thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,

   For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.


When Romeo first approaches Juliet after seeing her at the Capulet ball, he does so in courtly mode. He speaks first of the context, then goes straight to the pont: “My lips, two blushing pilgrims,” he tells her, are ready for a kiss. This is where we begin to see what makes this play so different from all others. In most Elizabethan literature, at least to this point, men are the ones who initiate contact and behavior, women are passive, and both social and literary convention would have required Juliet to be coy and blushing in response to Romeo’s advances (as Julia is in Two Gentlemen of Verona). Instead, she responds with a firm and resolute command, and between the two of them they create a sonnet:


If I profane with my unworthiest hand

This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:

My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand

To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.


Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,

Which mannerly devotion shows in this;

For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,

And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.


Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?


Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.


O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;

They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.


Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.


Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.


Remove the characters names and we have the perfect sonnet: it’s fourteen lines, it rhymes as a Shakespearean sonnet should: abab, cdcd, efef, gg. It has the dialectical structure of a sonnet (four line thesis, four line antithesis, volta – turning point – and six line synthesis). In this way, their declaration of attraction to each other – more sexual than emotional at this point – is equal. And one of the things it tells us is that Juliet ups the ante for Romeo, who has until now been the sole player in his poetic output. Now he is matched word for word, and Juliet’s command of the poetic structure of language shows her to have a mind that is already experienced in working through the complex territory of emotion and desire.

That most famous scene in Shakespeare, possibly in the whole of theater, is the balcony scene (R&J, 2,1). It is interesting to speculate on how the first audience must have taken it. Not only does Juliet refuse to be coy and innocent of desire, but she argues eloquently to herself the complex philosophical case of naming and identity:

’Tis but thy name that is my enemy.
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.

What’s Montague? It is nor hand nor foot,

Nor arm nor face nor any other part

Belonging to a man. O be some other name!

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet. (2,2, 38-44)

This tells us that Juliet is not caught up in the romantic impetus of her love for Romeo. She understands perfectly well, in a way the audience is not yet sure of, that her whole life will be upended by how she acts tonight; his too. As Romeo asks her how he can swear his love she warns him against poetic cliché: “O, swear not by the moon.” And then she goes on:

Well, do not swear. Although I joy in thee,
I have no joy in this contract tonight.
It is too rash, too unadvised, too sudden,

Too like the lightning which doth cease to be

Ere one can say it lightens … (2.2, 116-110)

It is Juliet who makes the running in this exchange between her and Romeo. She understands and knows more than anyone. As a young woman she has absorbed the reality of social and familial expectation. She knows that as a young woman she must deal with the plans other people have for her.

Following the deaths of Tybalt and Mercutio and the banishment of Romeo – whom Juliet’s father previously described as “a virtuous and well-governed youth” (R&J 1,5,66) – the mechanisms of social control begin to stiffen. Juliet seeks a solution, and knowing that her family and the society around her are not her allies, she goes elsewhere. She also decides to go ahead with her marriage night. She feels the full and compelling power of sexual desire, while recognizing that instead of allowing events to drive a wedge between her and Romeo, she should seek to be with him. The defining moment of the play is the extraordinary scene in which Juliet sets out the reality of her love and desire for Romeo while grappling with the additional reality that he killed a dear family member. “Gallop apace”, she says, asking the universe to speed her journey into womanhood. And then she goes on to explore the changes she is about to witness:

Come, night, come, Romeo, come, thou day in night,

For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night

Whiter than new snow upon a raven’s back.

Come, gentle night, come, loving, black-brow’d night,

Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die

Take him and cut him out in little stars,

And he will make the face of heaven so fine

That all the world will be in love with night

And pay no worship to the garish sun.

O, I have bought the mansion of a love,

But not possess’d it, and, though I am sold,

Not yet enjoy’d: so tedious is this day

As is the night before some festival

To an impatient child that hath new robes

And may not wear them. ( R&J, 3, 2, 17-25)

This speech is full of explicit physical and sexual imagery – she may be young but is not innocent or naïve – and the accelerating (“galloping”) fuel of secrecy. It shows us the transformation of Juliet from a child into a woman who has the mind and the desire to act for herself in awareness of the bigger world. Later in the scene she speaks to the nurse about the complex world in which circumstance has thrown her: “Shall I speak ill of him that is my husband?”  And later still she engages in debate with her mother over Tybalt’s death and the proposed hasty marriage with Paris. Capulet is aware, albeit without much understanding, that events have unleashed a burgeoning power in his daughter and he wants to use marriage immediately as a way of containing it. She resists him, and his response is swift and clinical:

How now, how now, chop-logic! What is this?

‘Proud,’ and ‘I thank you,’ and ‘I thank you not;’

And yet ‘not proud,’ mistress minion, you,

Thank me no thankings, nor, proud me no prouds,

But fettle your fine joints ‘gainst Thursday next,

To go with Paris to Saint Peter’s Church,

Or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither. (R&J 3, 5, 149-155)

Once he has calmed down a little from his anger he becomes cold and mean and sets out, succinctly and chillingly, his claim to fatherly ownership and his refusal to accept her independence:

An you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend;

An you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets,

For by my soul I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee

Not what is mine shall never do thee good. (R&J 3,5,192-195)

And it is partly with this stern reminder of patriarchal power that Juliet muses on her situation as she takes the potion the Friar has given her to simulate death. She is fully aware that this moment in her life, this departure from the familial convention her father wants her to perform, is a lonely one. She trusts none of the men who have authority over her, neither her father nor the friar:

I have a faint cold fear thrills through my veins,

That almost freezes up the heat of life….

… My dismal scene I needs must act alone.

Come vial.

What if this mixture does not work at all? (R&J 4,3, 15-21)

But she knows her own mind. She knows that there is no room for equivocation, that having known the ecstasy of love she would die if forced into marriage with someone she does not want or love in the way she wants and loves Romeo. So she goes ahead and drinks the Friar’s drug and says: “Romeo, Romeo, Romeo! Here’s drink. I drink to thee.’ (4.3.58)

One of the things that makes Juliet such a powerful character is her resolution. She lives in doubt and duality when she doesn’t understand a situation or does not see a path for herself, but when she knows what she wants she is clear and determined. When she explains to the Friar that she cannot marry Paris she talks about the way she has found certainty in the frightening world she has been thrust into:

O bid me leap, rather than marry Paris,

From off the battlements of any tower,

Or walk in thievish ways, or bid me lurk

Where serpents are …

And hide me with a dead man in his shroud,

Things that, to hear them told, have made me tremble,

And I will do it without fear or doubt,

To live an unstained wife to my sweet love. (R&J 4,1, 77-88)

Without fear or doubt. That’s the Juliet who emerges from this play. And in the end, when she thrusts the dagger into her belly, she makes a choice about the kind of life she will or will not live. In doing so, she also takes the plunge that will force the people of fair Verona to step out of their complacency.

 I asked Dale Leonheart,  the wonderful young actress who is playing Juliet in this production, which of the lines she speaks are her favorites. She smiled at me, and said she would think about it. Later, I revised the question slightly: which of her lines does she think most significant, most important? She did not hesitate. “Her last lines,” she said. “In the tomb. She is a woman with agency. She makes her mind up and does it.” Without fear or doubt.

…Then I’ll be brief. O happy dagger!

This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die. (R&J 5,3,169-70)

And Shakespeare must have thought so too. For when the servant leads the watchman to the tomb with the dead and bleeding Juliet, he says “This is the place, there where the torch doth burn.” And so we are taken back to Romeo’s first vision of Juliet:

Oh, she doth teach the torches to burn bright.




All quotes from Romeo and Juliet are from the third series Arden edition edited in 2012 by René Weis from University College, London.

Sonnet 27 is quoted from the third series Arden edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets edited in 1997 by Katherine Duncan-Jones from the University of Oxford.

Our second episode; Nic Moore (Romeo) speaks with the director of Romeo + Juliet, Stephen Beecroft. In this episode, Stephen shares about what drew him to directing for The Curtain Theatre, and a bit of his thought and vision of “the perfect storm” for the tragic, and hopefully cathartic, romance of Romeo and Juliet. You’ll learn how a trip to Italy sparks the idea for Stephen to bring out the development of the other characters of the story, and the environment itself, play into the “time and chance” of the disfunctional environment the young lovers are attempting to blossom in.

Romeo and Juliet are the quiet eye of a raging hurricane; and the eventual outcome… is hope.

#curtaintheatre #shakespeare #millvalley #romeoandjuliet #theatre #communitytheater

It has become a truism that Shakespeare’s plays are rich and complex. That is one of the reasons they have remained at the top of the chart for five centuries, not just in their Elizabethan English originals but in other languages and other artistic media such as opera. But that complexity can often seed confusion in the minds of both audience and actors. Shakespeare appears to say contradictory things about his characters, and they seem to speak and act in several directions at once.

In The Two Gentlemen of Verona Proteus appears to us at the beginning as a rather nice if overly abstract and ethereal young man. In the UK we might think of him as the Oxbridge student who will probably become a stockbroker; in the US he’s a frat boy from Yale or Harvard who might become a hedge fund manager and start a silicon company like Uber. He proclaims his love for Julia to his plodding friend Valentine, who’s about to leave the quiet and conservative Verona – a sort of Westchester, perhaps – to learn to play under the tutelage of the duke in the hot, steamy and progressive city of Milan. Valentine is unconvinced by his friend’s elaborate and hyperbolic proclamations and besides, he has more authentic matters to deal with.

But when Proteus sees Sylvia and is overcome with lust his presence crumbles and he re-forms as a predator. His language becomes progressively focused on persuading Sylvia to join him, and he discusses with himself in a kind of meta-transition the consequences of his actions. Yet he never really loses the qualities we first saw in him. He’s not like one of those TV series’ characters who seems charming until his real self emerges and the charming self melts away. No, Proteus remains the abstract and ethereal young man, he’ll probably continue to become  stockbroker, but he takes on the full horror of the effect of lust that Shakespeare unravelled in Sonnet 129 – “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action…” Contradictory tendencies and qualities live together in him, and however we think of the unseemly haste with which Valentine forgives him at the end, and the silencing of the steady and constant Sylvia, it is not surprising that he comes to some version of his senses. This is an early play for Shakespeare and he still had some maturing to do, so he writes as though Proteus has indeed lost the reason that he so frequently talks about. But it is interesting and revealing that as readers and audiences we remain aware of the complexities and multiplicities of this character.

Valentine and Sylvia are relatively unchanged during the play – that is their strength, and as Shakespearean characters it is also their weakness – as are the clowns, whose interactions with each other and the main characters hold mirrors up to the ligaments of gendered power (if you don’t know what I mean by that I’d love to explain). But Proteus and Julia both stay as they are and change very intensely throughout the play, Proteus as I have discussed above, and Julia through her growing awareness of her emerging self which involves another meta-transition: she goes from being the observed (as Proteus’ fantasy object) to the observer. She begins as a rather skittish young woman wholly reliant on her maid (Lucetta) for both her physical and emotional stability. Then, learning that the man she thinks she’s in love with, the man she thinks loves her, has fallen for the immeasurable Sylvia, she focuses her mind and her emotions and becomes an observer of her own self in situ. And so we get, In this early comedy, a scene that’s the match of many of the great scenes from the mature comedies. Dressed as a boy, a page, she watches Proteus ecstatic in the presence of Sylvia. She agrees to act as a messenger from Proteus to Sylvia. And then, in delivering the ironic message, she encounters Sylvia herself and immediately understands her virtue, or should I say quality. And then she examines and explores the whole situation and her contradictory emotions and inclinations in it:

And she shall thank you for’t, if e’er you know her.

A virtuous gentlewoman, mild and beautiful

I hope my master’s suit will be but cold,

Since she respects my mistress’ love so much.

Alas, how love can trifle with itself!

Here is her picture: let me see; I think,

If I had such a tire, this face of mine

Were full as lovely as is this of hers:

And yet the painter flatter’d her a little,

Unless I flatter with myself too much.

Her hair is auburn, mine is perfect yellow:

If that be all the difference in his love,

I’ll get me such a colour’d periwig.

Her eyes are grey as glass, and so are mine:

Ay, but her forehead’s low, and mine’s as high.

What should it be that he respects in her

But I can make respective in myself,

If this fond Love were not a blinded god?

Come, shadow, come and take this shadow up,

For ’tis thy rival. O thou senseless form,

Thou shalt be worshipp’d, kiss’d, loved and adored!

And, were there sense in his idolatry,

My substance should be statue in thy stead.

I’ll use thee kindly for thy mistress’ sake,

That used me so; or else, by Jove I vow,

I should have scratch’d out your unseeing eyes

To make my master out of love with thee! (4,4)

How do we think about these paradoxes of character, these quandaries of thought and action?

The great English poet John Keats, in December of 1817, was thinking about the same question as he walked home from a Christmas pantomime talking to his friends Browne and Dilke. In a letter later that month to his brothers Tom and George he wrote:

 … several things dovetailed in my mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason – Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.

This is a wonderful way of understanding this quality that Shakespeare had in abundance but that he shares with most great writers, composers and artists. For Keats negativity was not the objectionable quality it has become in our positivist century. Keats had been reading Hegel, whose Phenomenology put forward the idea that negation, or negativity, is essential to dialectical thinking.

Keats did not elaborate on the teasing and intuitive idea of ‘negative capability’. However he did continue to think about the way great writers create characters who cannot be bridled by ordinary reins. In a letter to his friend Richard Woodhouse in October the following year, he wrote that “the poetical Character is not itself – it has no self – it is everything and nothing – It has no character – it enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated – It has as much delight in an Iago (Othello) as an Imogen (Cymbeline). What shocks the virtuous philosopher delights the camelion Poet.”

We do not have to justify the way Shakespeare builds contradiction and paradox into even the most minor of characters. But it takes a lot of effort to put aside the Western habit of dissecting and seeking a reason or an excuse for everything.

Note: Keats’ letters are worth reading for their own sake as well as for their insights into creativity and art. There are various editions available online, in e-text versions and in bookstores. Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes (1807) (Phenomenology of Mind/Spirit) is available in various translations and also online etc. This work provided Karl Marx with a philosophical basis for his radical dialectic.


Peter Bradbury

August 2022

Once, when I disagreed with the Artistic Director of Curtain Theatre about the meaning of a passage from Twelfth Night, she smiled an enigmatic smile and said “Yes, academics love that passage.” She looked at me with a certain amount of empathy and after a few loaded moments she said, “But I have to make it work on stage.”

She was right of course. I had been thinking of that passage (“Make me a willow cabin at your gate” from Twelfth Night Act 1,5.) the way one might think of a poem on the page, letting the subtleties and contradictions unpick themselves slowly from the printer’s ink and take time to reach their crescendo of meaning. Of course one of the problems is, for the Director, that that passage, comes and goes in an actor’s breath.

There are plenty of such passages in Shakespeare, and not only do academics love to work on the plays that have such language in them, we also love to work on plays that aren’t altogether well-behaved when the stage director wishes them to be. In the Shakespeare canon we have several: Measure for Measure, Merchant of Venice, All’s Well That Ends Well (with which Two Gentlemen has a lot in common) Troilus and Cressida, and of course that favorite of academics, literati and the peddlers of polysemous porn, Hamlet. For one reason or another those plays contain problems of plot or moral compass that cannot be side-stepped but are difficult to deal with.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, one of the earliest of Shakespeare’s extant plays, offers us both the poetry and the problem. The problem is that one of the main characters becomes so obsessed with the object of his desire that he tries to force himself upon her; and though he is stopped in time by his friend and others around him, the script does not really know how to manage the denouement. The theme, which for many historic commentators was thought to be the supremacy of friendship over love, cannot carry the weight of the action. One reason that it cannot is that the strongest and most enduring language spoken in the play is not about friendship at all, but about love and desire, and a great deal of it is spoken not by the male characters but by the women.

Let’s start with the language, which greets us from the moment the play opens and throws us into the middle of a festival of lyric poetry. Proteus in particular draws on the Petrarchan sonnet tradition. The sonnet form was invented by the 14th century Italian poet Francesca Petrarca, was introduced to England by Sir Thomas Wyatt and the Earl of Surrey in the early 16th century, and was developed in 16th Century England by Sir Philip Sidney (Astrophil and Stella), Edmund Spenser (Amoretti)  and of course Shakespeare. Proteus also draws on the Latin poet Ovid’s theme of metamorphosis, which in Shakespeare’s time, and since, has been a major source for poetry, drama and thematic plagiarism. Chaucer and Shakespeare both came up with wonderful translations, and in the modern period we have Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney and my favorite, the Canadian philosopher-poet Ann Carson.

One of the most important features of the Petrarchan tradition is that it draws from the medieval theory of courtly love (developed by Andreas Capellanus in De Arte Honeste Amandi) in which an unattached young man of poetic inclination courts a married woman who encourages, then rejects, his suit. He writes her poems full of yearning and desire, and his erotic sensibility is caught between the extremes of ice and fire. There is an assumption on the man’s part that the more emphatically he states his love (by which he really means desire) the less resistance he will meet.

Both Valentine (in his tentative and clumsy way) and Proteus (with his tendency to over-confidence) are enamored in their different ways with the poetic hyperbole of courtly and Petrarchan love. Valentine puts it succinctly:

To be in love, where scorn is bought with groans;
Coy looks with heart-sore sighs; one fading moment’s mirth
With twenty watchful, weary, tedious nights:
If haply won, perhaps a hapless gain;
If lost, why then a grievous labour won. (1,1,28-32)

Of course Proteus claims to be in love at the beginning of the play. But his love for Julia  has little or no substance; hers for him is far more real. His elevated feelings are swiftly blown away. Which is not really surprising since it seems that he has in fact spent very little time with Julia, and their main communication – a source of comedy later on – has been by letter. His experience so far is not about Julia herself. Nothing that Proteus says about Julia tells us anything about her as a woman:

He after honour hunts, I after love:
He leaves his friends to dignify them more,
I leave myself, my friends and all, for love.
Thou, Julia, thou hast metamorphosed me,
Made me neglect my studies, lose my time,
War with good counsel, set the world at nought;
Made wit with musing weak, heart sick with thought. (1,1,63-69)

So Julia, as Ovid would have it, has metamorphosed Proteus, though it seems more likely that Proteus has metamorphosed himself and hung it on her. His take is a very abstract or ephemeral one: neglect, time, counsel, musing, thought. Valentine’s servant, Speed, whom Proteus has charged with delivering his letter to Julia, has a far more concrete and practical understanding:

Sir, I could perceive nothing at all from her;
No, not so much as a ducat for delivering your letter.
And being so hard to me that brought your mind,
I fear she’ll prove as hard to you in telling your mind.
Give her no token but stones; for she’s as hard as steel. (1,1,132-135)

Speed has, in fact, delivered the letter, and in one of the funniest scenes in the play Julia tears it up against the compulsion of her mind and her fingers. Having realized what she has done, she castigates herself for her young girl’s (maiden’s) impetuosity.  In a self-immolating speech that prefigures the violence that will come later in the play she reaches for metaphors that give her emotions a far more concrete and physical reality than Proteus’ abstractions:

Unkind Julia!
As in revenge of thy ingratitude,
I throw thy name against the bruising stones,
Trampling contemptuously on thy disdain. (1,2,109-112)

The crux of the play is the moment when Proteus looks on Sylvia and sees a real woman and feels what for him is the brute force of desire. At that moment everything changes. Sylvia is the daughter of the Duke of Milan, the big apple of Renaissance Italy. When the two friends leave conservative and gentle Verona their purpose is to test their identities on a larger playing field. Milan is sexy, exciting, vibrant. And Sylvia embodies all of that. Valentine, of course, is a bit slow when it comes to Sylvia. There’s true comedy in the scene where he fails to understand that Sylvia has asked him to write a letter to himself; and later when he exposes to Sylvia’s father his plan to climb to her window and take off with her. And in a similar vein he implores Proteus to see Sylvia as he does: “Have I not reason to prefer my own?” says Proteus when Valentine insists he agree that Sylvia should come first. And Valentine replies: “And I will help thee to prefer her too.”

But Proteus is sharp and ready. He has been playing with abstract ideas of love and has attached them to a woman he barely knows. So when he encounters physical desire for Sylvia he begins to lose his reason:

Even as one heat another heat expels,
Or as one nail by strength drives out another,
So the remembrance of my former love
Is by a newer object quite forgotten.
Is it mine, or Valentine’s praise,
Her true perfection, or my false transgression,
That makes me reasonless to reason thus? (2,4,189-195)

And with his reason he loses his falsely-pillowed love for Julia and his friendship – with all the accoutrements like loyalty, constancy and honor – with Valentine. As the director of this production, Stephen Beecroft, says, the myth of male friendship, a hugely influential driver of British boarding schools and governments for centuries – is exploded in the relationship between Proteus and Valentine.

In a sonnet written during the same period as this play, Shakespeare explores the anatomy of sexual desire, the condition that appears to have taken hold of Proteus. The opening two quatrains are a clear description of his loss of reason:

Th’ expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action; and till action, lust
Is perjured, murd’rous, bloody, full of blame,
Savage, extreme, rude, cruel, not to trust,
Enjoyed no sooner but despisèd straight,
Past reason hunted; and, no sooner had
Past reason hated as a swallowed bait
On purpose laid to make the taker mad… (Sonnet 129)

When Proteus attempts to persuade Sylvia to respond to his desire, ton allow his will to “compass” hers, she says:

My will is this,
That presently you hie you home to bed.
Thou subtle, perjured, false, disloyal man….. (4,2,90-93)

And the language in which “reason” becomes a central motif is not only spoken by Proteus. It is also part of the discourse of Julia and her maid Lucetta, who says when Julia is hell-bent on pursuing Proteus to Milan:

I do not seek to quench your love’s hot fire
But qualify the fire’s extreme rage
Lest it should burn above the bounds of reason. (2,7,21-3)

Lucetta is rather like the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, and the relationship with Julia is similar. It is interesting to note that in Romeo and Juliet in Act 1, scene 5, Romeo is the Pilgrim (“My lips, two blushing pilgrims”) and Juliet the Saint (“For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch.”) But in Two Gentlemen Julia decides to follow Proteus to Milan and casts herself as the pilgrim, and in this way Two Gentlemen identifies itself absolutely as a Shakespearean play in developing heroines (and their maids) who are strong and resolute and who are actors in their own narrative:

A true-devoted pilgrim is not weary
To measure kingdoms with his feeble steps;
Much less shall she that hath Love’s wings to fly,
And when the flight is made to one so dear,
Of such divine perfection, as Sir Proteus. (2,7,9-13)

This, of course, is an exemplary instance of Shakespearean irony at work since Proteus spends the entire play falling from grace – and of course “irony” is also beloved of academics and intellectuals –  and it’s also a complex and subtle inversion of the traditional role-status of men as the active agents and women as the objects. A further delicious complexity is created by Shakespeare here when Julia dresses as a page, not just a man but a servant whose presence does not announce itself, allowing her/him to observe what’s going on, leading to the most emotionally intense scene in the play in which Proteus declares his love to Sylvia as Julia looks on.

Proteus tries to tell a good story about the way his mind and heart have replaced Julia with Sylvia; he pretends that it’s an easy transition and a light one. But he descends quickly into the language of brutality and violence. “I will forget that Julia is alive / Remembering that my love to her is dead.” (2,6,27-8), he says, then outlines his plot to prevent Valentine from getting Silvia and claiming her for himself. While he speaks a little ruefully of the damage this will do to his friend he nonetheless appears to revel in the competitive prospect:

And Valentin I’ll hold an enemy
Aiming at Silvia as a sweeter friend.
I cannot now prove constant to myself
Without some treachery used to Valentin. (2,6,29-32)

The problem for Proteus here is that the forensic finger points directly to his intention. To use our modern language he shows a mindfulness in both his language and actions that underscores the treachery of his early claims to be both friend and lover. He is self-conscious and aware of what he’s doing. Julia sees this in her disguise as a pageboy and says: “but it hath been the longest night / That e’er I watched, and the most heaviest.” (4,2,135-6)

One of the prime ingredients in the measurement of friendship and love in the 16th century is constancy. In Thomas Elyot’s treatise of 1531, The Book of the Governor, in which he sets out guidance for the upbringing of future statesmen, constancy and loyalty are essential components of honor. And as Proteus becomes more determined in pursuit of Sylvia he recognizes that he has to re-think his own constancy – which, of course, is something that Iago does in Othello:

I cannot now prove constant to myself,
Without some treachery used to Valentine. (2,6,35-39)

One of the most interesting things about Two Gentlemen of Verona is that in her growing awareness of Proteus’ treachery, Julia begins to reflect back his own language to the audience:

And now am I, unhappy messenger,
To plead for that which I would not obtain,
To carry that which I would have refused,
To praise his faith which I would have dispraised.
I am my master’s true-confirmed love;
But cannot be true servant to my master,
Unless I prove false traitor to myself.

Mindfulness and self. A bit like 1970s (or 2020s) California. But Shakespeare’s plays were all over the complexities of identity and truth to self (constancy). I remember the essay I most enjoyed writing as an undergraduate was a response to the statement: “For Shakespeare, character is destiny”. I had recently discovered that the Aristotelean word “hamartia”, which had been translated during the 19th century, in what we now know as the genesis of lit. crit., as “fatal flaw”, actually meant “error in judgment”. So, instead of character being an irreversible outcome of some genetic screw-up, Shakespeare sees that character is who we think we are to the factor of what we do and how we do it. Proteus knows. He acts both through and across his understanding of the world. He succumbs willfully to the driving desires set out in Sonnet 129, past reason hunted….


But the “no sooner had” of the sonnet does not happen. Sylvia and Julia remain consistent and loyal despite everything that Proteus throws at them. As Sylvia says: “I am so far from granting thy request / That I despise thee for thy wrongful suit.” Proteus will not take no for an answer but he does not prevail. When he attempts to pressure Sylvia and is stopped by Valentine, he is suddenly remorseful and shamed. He forgets what he has tried to set in motion as quickly as he forgot Julia and Valentine.

And so we come to the aspect of Two Gentlemen that makes it a problem play, that has led to its being produced perhaps less than it deserves, especially by community theater groups and even by the professional stage; and that’s made it difficult especially for modern readers to engage fully with the play despite the sophistication of its language. That Proteus is driven by the kind of desire that is described in sonnet 129 is consistent with Shakespeare’s treatment of contradictory male characters; his ears perk up when he spies the onset of violence in the language of his characters. This is the Shakespearean universe (or “world view”, as E.M.W. Tillyard called it) we all know and love. But having been held at bay by a resolute and hugely constant Sylvia, Proteus is stopped in his tracks by Valentine and then does an unbelievable volte face that no one in the Shakespeare industry or the theater or the academic community has been able to deal with positively or even neutrally. I said at the beginning of this discussion that the denouement of Two Gentlemen has not been able to handle the narrative at its climax. What I mean is that having developed the eloquent strengths of Julia and Sylvia throughout the play and positioned the audience behind them, especially though Julia’s disguised presence during the middle and later parts of the narrative, the playwright leaves them in silence. Valentine says, shockingly, that his interest in Sylvia he now hands to Proteus, as though she were a piece of property (which in 16th Century England, and indeed for many centuries later, she would have been), but she has no say in the matter.

It is for this reason that one of our greatest writers in English, George Eliot, who was awaiting a resolution to her own situation in Dover while translating Spinoza’s Ethics and reading Shakespeare’s poetry and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, wrote in her journal that the play “disgusted me more than ever in the final scene where Valentine, on Proteus’ mere begging pardon when he has no longer any hope of gaining his ends, says: “All that was mine in Silvia I give thee”! – Silvia standing by.”

Leaving aside the introductions to the plays, one of the great developments in Shakespeare criticism in the last seventy or so years, since the development of academic feminism following the work of women like Kate Millett and Juliet Mitchell and later Catherine Belsey and Isobel Armstrong, has been the widened perspective provided by women as critics, actresses, directors and producers, and editors. We understand all Shakespearean characters much better as a result, not just the women. And we have deepened our understanding of Shakespeare as a writer who embraced and explored the strength and independence of women rather than seeing them merely as muses or objects. Some people understandably call Shakespeare a feminist. I don’t because that was not his purpose or the historical moment of his plays; but there is no doubt that Shakespeare gave voice to women in a way that was not equalled until the novels of Jane Austen and George Eliot.

But the only book of criticism I could find on this play, June Schlueter’s 1996 Shakespeare Criticism anthology, contains just two essays by women, and only a few essays written after the 1950s. Inga-Stina Ewbank’s 1972 essay, “‘Were Man But Constant, He Were Perfect’: Constancy and Consistency in The Two Gentlemen of Verona”, gives us interesting insights into the corresponding languages of Proteus and Julia, but chooses not to discuss the ending; she did not, I think, have the confidence that later feminist critics would have given her.

I remember an Oxford colleague talking about Two Gents, as he called it to my horror, and saying: “Pity Old Will isn’t alive today. We could take him aside and tell him, I say, old chap, that ending needs a bit of a rewrite.” And of course the old chap who wrote Hamlet or Lear or Twelfth Night might well have obliged. And that is the problem for the Director. Stephen Beecroft has dealt with the problem carefully and with an energy made possible by the Curtain Theatre’s predilection for great music, tomfoolery and dance. And that is something that I, as one of those pesky academics/intellectuals who love the language and the polysemous themes, have not had to deal with. But you know, my passion for digging into Shakespeare’s language and craft has been both surprised and gratified by this play. There are times when analyzing a speech by Julia or Sylvia brings Twelfth Night or Hamlet to mind. Think, for example, about that extraordinary scene in which Julia is looking at the painting of Sylvia:

O thou senseless form,
Thou shalt be worshipp’d, kiss’d, loved and adored!
And, were there sense in his idolatry,
My substance should be statue in thy stead.
I’ll use thee kindly for thy mistress’ sake,
That used me so; or else, by Jove I vow,
I should have scratch’d out your unseeing eyes
To make my master out of love with thee! (4,4,197-203)

Her sense of context, her consciousness of self, others and the others of others, is so comprehensive and sharp here that Julia could begin to challenge Olivia or Beatrice as a feminist icon.

The cultural and social status of women and their relationship with men is one of Shakespeare’s favorite themes. So too is the relationship between servant and master. I have merely hinted at it in this discussion. It’s something I hope to write about in another blog. But for the moment I would simply like to encourage you to enjoy the sophisticated and subversive way Shakespeare plays with their dynamics of power. Lucetta is a lady’s maid to Julia yet she has the power to mock, cajole, influence and subvert. Speed is servant to Valentine, yet is the first to get what is going on, for example when Valentine fails to understand that Sylvia has asked him to compose his own love letter. Yet with Proteus Speed meets his match as a wit: their exploration of what it is to be a sheep, socially speaking, is at least equal to the sheep scenes in Comedy of Errors. And Launce veers between his relationship with Crab the dog, and his relationship with the gap between the literal and the metaphoric meanings of words.

These are for another blog. Thank you for reading this.


Peter Bradbury

August, 2022



  1. Quotes from the play are from William Shakespeare, ed. William C. Carroll (2004), The Two Gentlemen of Verona, London & New York, Arden Edition, 3rd series.
  2. Inga-Stina Ewbank’s article was read in June Schlueter (1996), Two Gentlemen of Verona: Critical essays, Shakespeare Criticism Vol.15, Garland Reference Library of the Humanities, Vol. 1645, NY and Londo.

“This fellow is wise enough to play the fool

And to do that well craves a kind of wit (3,i,24-5)


In one of my favorite scenes in Twelfth Night, Feste, a jester employed by the household of the Countess Olivia and usually referred to as the Fool, returns from an unexplained absence.

“Take the fool away,” says Olivia.

But the Fool, knowing she needs to placate her boss, proposes the kind of game she knows will engage her because, after all, she has known her since she was born. She suggests that Olivia is in fact the fool: “Do you not hear, sir?” she says to the attendant servant Malvolio, “Take away the lady.”

The Lady responds with an acknowledgement of the game but she delivers it with a reprimand: “Go to, you’re a dry fool. I’ll no more of you. Besides, you grow dishonest.” And by “dishonest”, in Elizabethan English, she means unreliable because he has not been around for a while.

Feste replies: “Two faults, Madonna, that drink and good counsel will amend. For give the dry fool drink, then is the fool not dry … If that this simple syllogism will serve, so. If it will not, what remedy? The lady bade take away the Fool: therefore, I say again, take her away.” He goes on, via a little dabbling in Latin (“cucullus non facit monachum” – or “the hood does not make the monk”), to claim that he will prove her to be a fool:

Feste: Good Madonna, give me leave to prove you a Fool.

Olivia: Can you do it?

Feste: Dexteriously, good Madonna.

Olivia: Make your proof.

Feste: I must catechize you for it, Madonna. Good my mouse of virtue, answer me.

And so it goes. Feste is close to Olivia. She would have been an interesting, neutral and probably quite liberal companion at times during the childhood of the young noblewoman, and that closeness and affection are evident in the playful endearment “my mouse of virtue”. Throughout Twelfth Night the relationship between Feste and  Olivia is a kind of emotional bedrock. Feste knows his Lady well enough to be able to joust with her about her dead brother, and later in the play he challenges her in a way that does not undermine but supports her.

The tradition in which noble households employed a Fool, or a jester, as a kind of TikTok or Instagram, lasted through the medieval and tudor periods to the middle of the 17th century in England – longer in some European countries. Fools were originally entertainers, making jokes, singing and clowning. And almost all fools were men, though there are a few examples of women as fools, for example La Jardinière who was jester to Catherine de Médicis in the 16th century, and Astaude du Puy who was jester to Henrietta Maria, Wife to Charles 1 of France in the 17th century; some historians include Jane the Fool, who served Ann Boleyn, Princess Mary and Katherine Parr. So if you experienced a jolt when I used the pronoun “she” when I was referring to Feste at the top of this article (as I do), the reason is that in Curtain’s production this year Feste is played by a woman. Of the streamable productions mentioned in my blog on Editions and Resources for this production, only one has a female Feste, played by Doon Mackichan, who matches the female Malvolia played by Tamsin Greig in the National Theatre production of 2017.

The historical Fools may well have been close to their families of employment, rather in the way childminders are now. But the tradition took on a wider and more complex significance in literature, notably in the work of William Shakespeare. We can see that in the familiarity, at times quite intimate, between Feste and Olivia. Feste frequently calls her Madonna, or Good Madonna, and he uses the epithet as a kind of cord bringing her closer or turning her sideways, opening her up or drawing her attention. “Madonna” literally means “My Lady”, but in Elizabethan England as now it will have referred to an ideal Lady along the lines of the Virgin Mary; Feste’s reverence for Olivia is evident in the way he addresses her. 

The nature of the Fool in Shakespeare evolved. Shakespeare’s sophistication as a writer developed, allowing him to treat a wide range of themes and deal with multiple character traits deftly in a single character or exchange between characters. And during the rich and dynamic period in which Shakespeare’s plays were written and first performed there was an efflorescence of actors as Fools, who brought with them their own kinds of foolery and influenced Shakespeare in the way he wrote their parts. At least one of them, it seems, caused offence by over-stepping the mark. In Hamlet, when introducing the play-within-a-play to the small troupe of players, the eponymous prince gives this advice:

…let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them; for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That’s villainous, and shows a most pitiful ambition in the Fool that uses it. (Hamlet, 3,ii,38-9)

Theater historians wonder whether Shakespeare was directing his words at one of the regular fool-actors of the 1590s, and of course they tend to point their finger at Will Kemp, who was very popular, known for his ability to get a laugh out of the audience, and whose talent was grounded in physical strength and dexterity. He played Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream and Falstaff in Henry IV and Merry Wives; I don’t include Falstaff in a list of Shakespeare’s Fools, but there are critics and historians who do.

Though physical humor and music were hallmarks of the Fool in the earlier plays, the humor of Shakespeare’s Fools became more verbal (for example, the malapropisms of Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing) and ultimately philosophical. Twelfth Night’s Feste is a much-discussed example of the philosophical fool, along with poor Tom in King Lear; and Robert Armin, who appeared in many of Shakespeare’s later plays, performed them both. An interesting article on the men who performed as Shakespeare’s fools can be found in the British Library’s online article “Shakespeare’s Fools” by Eric Rasmussen and Ian deJong:

Feste is one of the complex fools, a great character who has been used in different ways by different directors. In Trevor Nunn’s film of the play (1996), Ben Kingsley plays the omniscient Fool, aware of everyone’s secrets and given to a melancholy commentary on the behavior and speech of the other characters; there is something a little existential about the way he is played. Tommy Steele, in the 1970 TV version with Joan Plowright, Alec Guiness and Ralph Richardson, does little more than make a few jokes and play music, which in its way is okay since this is one of the more substantially musical of Shakespeare’s plays. And Doon Mackichan in Simon Godwin’s production for the National Theatre in London combines wise-cracking and music as a way of amplifying the zany fluidity of the central plots – the love between the two central women, and the household’s rebellion against Malvolia who simply can’t stop herself from adjusting the furniture.

In any decent production Feste is a kind of amplifier. She does not initiate actions or thoughts or speech, but draws attention to their themes and meanings and joins the other characters in carrying plots through to their ultimate consequences. She engages with the other characters, turns the gain control on their words, comments on their actions, and draws a line of mascara beneath their quirks and quibbles. Indeed, she ironically draws attention to herself in this way, playing with one of the key jokes about late Shakespearean Fools, the fluid boundaries between foolery, madness, truth and deception. In her relationships with Olivia, Viola (as Cesario, a secret of identity that Feste seems to know) and Orsino she toys with their status using their honorifics, by drawing out their pronunciation or using them like punctuation points.

For example, when Viola, in the guise of Cesario, meets Feste on her way to Olivia, and asks if she is not Olivia’s Fool, Feste is playful yet cleverly accurate in her reply:

No, indeed, sir, the Lady Olivia has no folly. She will keep no fool, sir, til she be married, and fools are as like husbands as pilchards are to herrings – the husband’s the bigger. I am indeed not her Fool, but her corrupter of words. (3,i,30-35)

One of the things I find most interesting about an exchange like this is that it is not merely an example of banter between the Fool and the characters but an arrow of truth, indicating also a kind of darkness that pervades Twelfth Night, perhaps as a result of its place in a social world consumed by pestilence.

As part of her sly pursuit of the truth Feste plays with the role of being a philosopher – a kind of decoy, as it happens. She plays with logic: “If that this simple syllogism will serve, so”, she says to Olivia, who proceeds with a quasi logical debate about who’s the fool. She continues in the same vein with Orsino, in an exchange that touches on the relationships in the play which are not always as they appear on the surface, harboring a somewhat sinister thread of tension and menace:

Feste: Truly sir, the better for my foes and the worse for my friends.

Orsino: Just the contrary: the better for thy friends.

Feste: No, sir, the worse.

Orsino: How can that be?

Feste: Marry, sir, they praise me and make an ass of me. Now my foes tell me plainly I am an ass; so that by my foes, sir, I profit in the knowledge of myself, and by my friends I am abused. So, if your four negatives make your two affirmatives, why then the worse for my friends and the better for my foes. (5,i,11-22)

In a similar vein, Feste plays with the theme of disguise and appearance throughout the play. For example when she meets Sebastian, thinking perhaps that he might be Cesario, she says:

No, I do not know you, nor I am not sent to you by my Lady, to bid you come speak with her, nor your name is not Master Cesario, nor this is not my nose neither. Nothing that is so is so. (4,i,5-9) 

And later, when she is talking to Sir Toby and Maria just before appearing to the imprisoned Malvolio as the parson Sir Topaz, she quips: “For, as the old hermit of Prague, that never saw pen and ink, very wittily said to a niece of King Gorboduc, ‘That that is, is’; so I, being Master Parson, am Master Parson; for, what is ‘that’ but ‘that,’ and ‘is’ but ‘is’? (4,ii,12-16)

With most characters in the play Feste adjusts her levels and angles of address and debate to suit people and circumstances. She rarely makes a comment that can be taken as offensive or overly personal. The one exception is Malvolio. Early in the play, when Olivia and Feste are bantering with thoughts about who is more the Fool, Olivia asks Malvolio what he thinks of Feste. After a brief exchange of insults Malvolio says: “I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such a barren rascal. Look you now, he’s out of his guard already. Unless you laugh and minister occasion to him, he is gagged.” (1,v,80-85) Those words have stung Feste, who holds on to them and in the last moments of the play quotes them to explain why Malvolio’s punishment has been so steep.

But the animosity is not just personal. Feste is very protective of the good Madonna, his mistress Olivia. So she takes exception to Malvolio’s creepy designs on her and his upstart presumption that he will rise from the ranks of servitude, as it were, and enter the aristocracy as Olivia’s count. I would like to think that Shakespeare was resistant to the claims of the Elizabethan social order, that he was somehow as opposed then as I am now to aristocratic privilege. But in this case he was not. Feste is incensed by this social- climbing aspect of Malvolio’s demeanour. She also appears to agree with Maria in judging Malvolio to be “some kind of Puritan”. The steward’s attempt to impose a moral order on Sir Toby, Andrew Aguecheek and the rest of the gang rubs all of them up the wrong way, and though Feste doesn’t find it an altogether pleasant task she takes on the role of Malvolio’s torturer.

One of my favorite stories in the world of literature is Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. First published in 1837, it’s essentially a tale of innocence and hypocrisy, sycophancy and truth (wouldn’t it be good to have a version for the Trumpian present?) The emperor is a vain and foolish man who longs for clothes that will astound a public that he wants to adore him. He is tricked by a pair of fraudulent weavers who tell him that they have invented a cloth that is invisible to stupid people, and present him with a robe that they claim is made from it. Of course the cloth is in fact no cloth at all but the footmen who drape the emperor do not want to be thought idiots so they join in with the charade. When he goes out among the people, no one wants to be thought stupid – they all fear the executioner’s blade – and praise the quality of his new clothes despite the embarrassing evidence of his naked self. However, a young boy who is unimpressed with unscientific conspiracy theories and false claims is the exception. He points to the naked emperor and calls him out, and in the words of Frank Loesser and Danny Kaye he says “The king is in the altogether…”, thus levelling the moral altitude of the story. The Fool in Twelfth Night – like the fool in Lear – is like the boy. Knowingly, Feste points to the way we might find the truth through the barriers of disguise and deception- third party and self deception – that take place in the play.

Feste offers a sardonic commentary on the action of the play. She is, as Olivia describes him in Act 1, an “allowed Fool” for whom the ordinary rules of discourse do not apply. She has interesting and rich relationships with each of the main characters – from Olivia and Orsino to Cesario/Viola and Maria – and also, in a series of addresses and asides, with the audience. She moves apparently seamlessly between the world of the play and the real world. She can be everywhere, an observer or a catalyst, invisible or visible, permitted but not feared. In that wonderful scene where she meets Viola, dressed as Cesario, who is on her way to meet Olivia to find the truth behind the ring, Feste says:

Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines everywhere. (3,i,37)

The Fool is a remarkable tool for a playwright and as he did with so many tools Shakespeare makes the most of her. She is in some ways like a modern psychoanalyst, drawing out the truth that lives in the things that people say. Feste is one of the most complex and rich of Shakespearean Fools. And she is knowledgeable. In one of her songs, “Come Away Death” she is able to throw back at Orsino the memes and formal techniques of the inflated love sonnets the Duke is so fond of. And she banters with an apparent stranger whom she believes to be an enigmatic Cesario (who is in fact the brother Sebastian) who uses a word that would have only recently been introduced to the English language, “vent”, from the French word meaning “wind” or “:exclaim”. Feste plays with the word, and I will finish this brief blog with this wonderful illustration:

Sebastian: I prithee vent thy folly somewhere else. Thou know’st not me.

Feste: Vent my folly! He has that word of some great man and now applies it to a fool. Vent my folly! … I prithee now, tell me what I shall vent to my lady. Shall I vent to her that thou art coming? (4,i,10-15)

“Queer has been defined theoretically as ‘whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant …, as that which is ‘not yet conscious’ …; as the very status of unthinkability’.”

Clara Bradbury Rance, Lesbian Cinema After Queer Throry, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2019, p.10

In my post on this website, Master-Mistress: Love, gender and disguise in Twefth Night, I commented that the main erotic charge in the play is between Viola and Olivia. It has always seemed to me that Olivia is aware that the young man with “Diana’s lip” and the “small pipe” – Orsino’s boy as other characters call her/him – is in fact a woman. In Shakespeare’s England sexuality and desire were far more fluid than they have been since, though the superficial social rules of gender were perhaps more rigid. We know that Shakespeare’s work was remarkable in embracing a wide range of eroticisms. The Sonnets as a sequence includes acute renderings of desire for men, for women (a man, a woman, some might say) and for the androgynous being of Plato’s Symposium. Indeed, i would go so far as to say that one of the abiding tones in Shakespeare’s work, his poetry and his theater, is androgynous, and that one of the most open and productive ways of seeing Shakespeare is through a queer lens.

My purpose in the Master-Mistress post was to explore the ramifications of gender and disguise in the play. While my thinking these days is influenced by the open and fluid framework of queerness, I have not yet formulated a way to write about the nuanced differences this might make to my own writing about the play, so I was pleased to come across an essay by Miranda Fay Thomas in the British Library’s really, really useful online series Discovering Literature: Shakespeare and Renaissance. I will continue to work on a queer discussion of aspcts of Twelfth Night but inthe meantime here is Dr Thomas’ essay:


A Queer Reading of Twelfth Night


Miranda Fay Thomas explores how Twelfth Night interrogates conventional ideas about gender and sexuality, portraying gender as performative and suggesting erotic possibilities between same-sex pairs.

At the end of the film Shakespeare in Love, a heartbroken Shakespeare bids farewell to his lover and immortalises her in a new play that he begins to write as the film credits roll. When he first meets her, she is dressed as a boy as she is determined to act upon the Elizabethan stage despite its ban on female performers. Shakespeare writes his lady into a plot where, once again, she must disguise herself as a man, only to fall in love and be unable to declare it due to her newly assumed gender.

Of course, the plot of Shakespeare in Love is fictional: there is no evidence that Shakespeare based the character of Viola upon a real person. But the film introduces us to one of the key elements of Twelfth Night: the way in which gender can be constructed, or performed, by anyone with the means to do so. However, while Shakespeare in Love toys but briefly with the queerness of Shakespeare having a relationship with a person who dresses as a man, the plot ultimately reinforces heteronormativity (that is, traditional expectations of gender and sexuality) in a way that Twelfth Night more actively questions.

Gender as performance

Because female performers were banned from the English stage in Shakespeare’s day, all of a play’s characters – be they male, female, or somewhere in between – were played by men. While the audience would certainly suspend their disbelief over the actual gender identity of the actors, the effects of this casting should not be underestimated. First of all, it would have inevitably lent an extra frisson to the heterosexual relationships portrayed onstage, which would only be further enhanced by a play like Twelfth Night, where you have a boy actor pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man. But secondly, as Bruce R Smith has noted, it implies that gender,

is more like a suit of clothes that can be put on and taken off at will than a matter of biological destiny … However temporary such cross-dressing may be, it serves to remind audiences that masculinity is a matter of appearances.


When Viola dresses as Cesario, one of their most poignant lines is, ‘I am all the daughters of my father’s house, / And all the brothers too’ (2.4.120–21). Believing her brother to be dead, Viola keeps him alive by dressing in drag and assuming his identity. It is a beautifully genderqueer moment, and different productions of the play may interpret Viola’s gender presentation in a number of different ways. It could be interpreted as a new lifestyle choice, reflecting a truer version of the person that Viola/Cesario is but has never before had the opportunity to present; or more simply, it could be a plot device and part of the means to an end for the play’s storyline of confused lovers. But, as Valerie Traub notes, ‘it is as object of another woman’s desire that Cesario finds her own erotic voice’.[2] When Olivia falls for Cesario, she does so in the full belief of the servant’s masculinity. As famously declared by the gender theorist Judith Butler, ‘there is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender … identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results’.[3] Cesario dresses as a man, and therefore for all intents and purposes is a man in the eyes of the other characters. Cesario is both beloved of Olivia and infatuated with Orsino: gender fluidity, then, serves as the play’s central dramatic irony.

In her introduction to Shakesqueer, Madhavi Menon describes queerness as a concept which, ‘recognizes the absurdity of limits and interrupts the ways in which we live our lives and write our texts’.[4] While it is true that straightness (either in terms of sexual orientation or gender identity) as a category did not fully exist in Shakespeare’s day, some were outspoken against what would now be described as cross-dressing. The prolific pamphleteer Philip Stubbes writes in his Anatomy of Abuses (1584) that:

our apparell was given as a sign distinctive, to discern betwixt sexe and sexe, and therefore one to wear the apparell of an other sex, is to participate with the same and to adulterate the veritie of his own kind.[5]

But of course, that is the whole point of Cesario’s transformation: Twelfth Night depicts one’s gender as essentially a performed role, a simple change of costume marking a change in identity.

Shakespeare’s sources for Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night was written around 1601 and first performed in 1602. Composed at the end of the Elizabethan era, its plot is thought to spring from a number of possible sources, many of which influence Twelfth Night’s fixation with sexual identity and gender. The first of these sources is Plato’s Symposium, where Aristophanes describes the origin of love. Originally, he says, humans were conjoined, with each pair making a complete person. Some of these pairs were both male, some both female, and some partnerships contained a male and a female. However, Zeus decided to punish humans for their arrogance, splitting the creatures down the middle and detaching ourselves from our literal ‘other halves’. At the conclusion of Twelfth Night, Antonio uses language which recalls this story. Upon gazing at the identical twins, Viola and Sebastian, he is agog:

How have you made division of yourself?

An apple cleft in two is not more twin

Than these two creatures. (5.1.223–25)

Barnaby Riche’s Riche his farewell to his military profession (1581), contains a number of stories, the second of which is a source for Twelfth Night: ‘Apolonius and Silla’, a tale of two twins and their respective love interests. Unlike Viola, Silla takes the name of her lost brother, Silvio, when she presents as a different gender. The Italian play Gl’Ingannati has also been noted as a possible source for Twelfth Night. Its similarities of plot were first noted by John Manningham in 1602, whose diary records a performance of Twelfth Night he saw: he commented that it was ‘most like a neere to that Italian called Inganni’, given that the plays share a set of identical twins who are confused with each other. However, unlike Twelfth Night, Gl’Ingannati would have featured women on the Italian stage.

Shakespeare and sexuality

Questions of sexuality in Shakespeare, and indeed questions about Shakespeare’s own sexuality, began scarcely before the ink was dry. While married to Anne Hathaway, who remained in Stratford-upon-Avon throughout Shakespeare’s career in London, he addressed 126 of his sonnets to a young man. And yet as early as 1640, editors were keen to expunge any whiff of homosexuality from the sonnets, with John Benson publishing an edition of the poems with many of the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘his’ revised to ‘she’ and ‘her’. This dismissal of queerness in canonical works of literature, particularly from this period, is not only disappointing and intellectually dishonest; it is also simply inaccurate: labels such as homosexual or heterosexual ‘did not exist as conceptual categories’ at the time Shakespeare was writing.[6] As such, looking for LGBTQ identities in plays such as Twelfth Night enable us to rediscover approaches to gender and sexuality that defy the binaries imposed on Western society since the introduction of the terms ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ in the late 19th century. Finding queer love and identity in Shakespeare’s plays would not have been defined as queer back then, but the practice of censoring same-sex relationships in Shakespeare, from Benson and beyond, is still in the process of being righted and re-explored by both critics and performers. Twelfth Night, with its homosexual overtones and its depiction of a character presenting as an alternate gender, is a particularly rich case in point.

Sebastian and Antonio

Let us turn now to the characters of Sebastian and Antonio, described by Stephen Orgel as ‘the only overtly homosexual couple in Shakespeare except for Achilles and Patroclus’.[7] The Renaissance period was keen to promote the strong bonds of male friendships, but the words exchanged between these two characters certainly moves beyond this into the language of erotic love. Antonio says of Sebastian, ‘I do adore thee so / That danger shall seem sport’ (2.1.43–44). The gulf of social status between the two could be one reason for the language of servile devotion, which also occurs in the exchanges between Olivia and Cesario, and Cesario and Orsino; but if the latter two relationships are noted for their erotic charge, we must also consider the possibility of a romance between Sebastian and Antonio. Productions such as Lyndsey Posner’s for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2001 emphasise such readings, with the two men enacting Act 2, Scene 1 while getting dressed beside an unmade double bed.

The alternate title for Twelfth Night is What You Will, a phrase which nods to a freedom of agency in terms of both sexual orientation and gender identity, while also recalling the name of the playwright himself. We may never know Shakespeare’s own sexual identity, but it doesn’t matter. His works, such as Twelfth Night, remind us that identity itself is relative. If music be the food of love – that is to say, gay love, straight love, queer love, trans love – play on.


[1] Bruce R. Smith, Shakespeare and Masculinity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 3–4.

[2] Valerie Traub, The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 57.

[3] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York and London: Routledge, 2007 [1990]), p. 34.

[4] Madhavi Menon, ‘Queer Shakes’, pp. 1–27 in Shakesqueer: a Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare (Durham, N.C., and London: Duke University Press, 2011), p. 7.

[5] Philip Stubbes, The Anatomy of Abuses (London: 1584), p. 38; quoted in Dympna Callaghan, ‘“And all is semblative a woman’s part”: Body Politics and Twelfth Night’, in Twelfth Night: Contemporary Critical Essays, ed. by R S White (Hampshire and New York: Palgrave, 1996), p. 135.

[6] Mario DiGangi, The Homoerotics of Early Modern Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 39.

[7] Stephen Orgel, Impersonations: The Performance of Gender in Shakespeare’s England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 51. NB Achilles and Patroclus are from the play Troilus and Cressida.



Sir Toby, in one of his more sober and less cis moments, in the guise of Glenn Havlan, has drawn my attention to the following 2021 article on  the London Globe Theatre’s website: