Michael Bogdanov: ‘The Readiness is All: Existential Shakespeare’

[This paper was given on October 24, 2013 as part of the series on Shakespeare and Philosophy]

Michael Bogdanov at KiSS 2
The Readiness Is All

Good evening. For the purposes of this lecture,  I am going to concern myself with six plays – Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Henry IVth, more particularly the character of Hal/Henry Vth, Richard III, Macbeth and The Tempest.

The world of Shakespeare is one of a continual power struggle – the power of the imagination versus real-politik.  The pragmatic versus the creative.  Greed, avarice, war, aggression, slaughter in God’s name.  Richmond in Richard III – God give me strength  to kill as many of my enemies as possible. Macbeth – bathed in reeking wounds, memorizinig another Golgotha.   Bolingbroke’s dying advice to Hal – “Busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels”.  Get out there, son, and deflect the country’s attention away from the problems of unemployment, taxation, homelessness, with a “just” war, trumped up by the Church against the French.  Nearly six hundred years later Thatcher triumphed domestically the same way, the Archbishop blessing the troops at Plymouth as they left for the Falklands.  Richard III, the man who says, “This is what I’m going to do”, and does it.  Hamlet and Claudius, two men caught midway between the thought of action and the act itself. the one starting as man of action, the other finishing.  In the middle, meeting in indeterminate indecision.  Prospero, the man for whom it all happens in his head.  He may conceive of overturning the natural order, reversing the laws of the universe, plan revolutionary systems, humble and humiliate his enemies, but at the end of it all, he will wake up, get up from his café table, pay for his croissant and his coffee and wander off down the street, exactly the same as when he started.

How to rule without being a ruthless pragmatist?  Is it possible?  Why can good government not encompass imagination and humanity>?  Why must it always consist of inhuman decisions to combat inhuman situations?  As Alcibides says in Timon of Athens when he, a usurper, comes storming in – “I shall use the olive with the sword”.  The problem is, how much olive, how much sword?  Once force is used, where does it stop?  Violent ends and violent means.  The lesson of history continually unlearnt, as the West has found to its cost this century  in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Arab Spring.

Throughout the cannon Shakespeare is obsessed with the nature of action, how far short we fall of our own expectations of ourselves, the discrepancy between the thought of action and the act itself. the power of the mind to conceive of systems, universes, utopias, versus the gulf that exists between these dreams and the reality of coping with the kind of environmental, cultural and economic disaster that e’en now is engulfing the world  with ever greater rapidity.

HAMLET:       ‘Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell

And count myself a King of infinite space,

Were it not that I have bad dreams.’

(Act II: Scene II)

As long as we do not allow the imagination to take over, have bad dreams, we are capable of anything.  The man who succeeds is that man who says ‘this is what I am going to do’ and does it.  The Realpolitiker.  The pragmatist.  Richard III is fine until his imagination takes over.  Antonio,  takes over Milan after years of neglect by his brother, his only contribution in the final twenty minutes of the play to Prospero’s attempt to illicit feelings of guilt from him, an objective appraisal of Caliban’s financial worth.  ‘A queer fish and no doubt marketable’.  Prospero, for whom everything happens in his head, taking revenge, re-ordering the Universe…until he wakes up from his dream.

So often Shakespeare poses a status quo against which he pits a protagonist.  This protagonist usually smashes him or herself to pieces on the rock of state, temporarily turning the turtle over on its back, before the turtle rights itself again and lumbers on its reactionary way.  What lessons have been learnt?

The pyramid of power remains intact, the territorial imperative is exercised once again in the name of Justice, divine right, necessity of state, etc.  Pragmatism.  Real politik.  As Bolingbroke says in Henry IV, Part 1, “If these things be necessities, let us treat them like necessities”.  Blair played the part to perfection.

Hamlet is the play that is buried most deeply in the English nations’ consciousness.  It is arguably the most famous play in the world, the most popular, the most quoted, the play that has given the English speaking peoples a sizeable chunk of its vocabulary.  It is seen variously as a play about the individual versus the state, freedom of choice, good and evil.  It is a play of great soaring power and beauty in its language and a philosophical and theological debate about the meaning of existence.

It is also a play about a Northern European power struggle.  For no matter whether Hamlet is a homosexual misogynist, an Oedipal ditherer, or a noble nutter, he is caught up in the mechanism of a great wheel that rolls inexorably over the Danish soil.  Hamlet  is the cog that comes loose in that great wheel and sends the Claudius steam roller careering downhill to crush them both at the feet of the conquering Norwegian army.  And the straight fight between Hamlet and Claudius, the outsider versus the forces of the ‘massy wheel’, is the climax of a thrilling political story that often remains buried in a dungheap of psychological self-indulgence.  In other words, familiarity with this language, the fact that Hamlet is one of the principal cultural icons that mixed-metaphorically drip feed the  conservatism of educationalists and politicians alike, has helped to disguise the fact that  it is the one of the great existential and powerfully political plays of all time.

Hamlet begins with an act of usurpation by a man of action, and finishes with one.

When we first meet Claudius he is in control.  He has killed the King and is himself King, He sets about running Denmark.  Military preparations are made.  Two ambassadors are despatched with ultimata.  Hamlet is told to stay at home in Elsinore. ‘For your intent in going back to Wittenberg it is most retrograde to our desire’ – after all, we can’t have the rightful heir to the throne running round a foreign country,  brooding on whether he should have been King, enlisting foreign support, returning with an army……’be as ourselves in Denmark’. The ‘massey wheel is turning, as yet no spoke has been thrust in its mechanism, bringing it to a grinding halt.  Gradually the antics of Hamlet begin to prey on Claudius’s mind.  By the time the Ambassadors return he is more interested in news of Hamlet than in the news of Norway.  And what a poser ‘Old’ Norway has set him! Voltimand and Cornelius arrive back waving a piece of paper that ostensibly says ‘Peace in our time’.  Not only has ‘Old’ Norway given Fortinbras more money, he has given him more soldiers in return for a promise not to go invade Denmark, and, what is more, he has asked Claudius’ permission to march across Denmark to fight Poland.  What does Claudius do?  Say no and risk Norway’s anger?  Say yes and have twenty thousand foreign troops on his soil?  No wonder he is ‘like a man to double business bound’ and ‘stands in pause’ where he shall ‘first begin’ and both neglects’.  (Act III Scene III)

Deal with Hamlet – or with Fortinbras?  Claudius fiddles, Denmark burns and Fortinbras ends up annexing Denmark as he annexed Poland, the usurper at the gates  (so that’s why he bypassed Elsinore on the way out)

FORTINBRAS:         ‘I have some rights of memory in this Kingdom,

Which now to claim my vantage does invite me’


(Act V: Sc.11)

What rights? Oh yes, Hamlet did say something about that. ‘I prophesy the election lights on Fortinbras’.

HORATIO:     ‘Of That I shall have also cause to speak,

And from his mouth whose voice will draw on more.’

Too late Horatio.  It would not have made a jot of difference if Hamlet had ‘prophesied’ or not.  Fortinbras is going to rule Denmark.  He accomplishes it without bloodshed.  That has been done for him.  He will rule until the Danes decide they do not want a foreigner as their leader, then another act of deposition will follow, bloody or otherwise.  The lesson of history never learned  And just in case there is some public unrest we’ll make a show of Hamlet, place him high above stage.

‘but let this same be presently performed

Even while men’s minds are wild; lest more mischance

On plots and arrows happen’.

Pacify the people, the world loves a good state funeral. Thatcher ahoy!

To opt in or to opt out.  What Does Hamlet do?  If he kills Claudius he will be King.  Does he want to be?  What sort of King would he be? A Caligula–type king?  Would his humanitarian and egalitarian feelings have taken over?  The levelling of beggars and Kings?  Certainly the Arts might have flourished.  Or would his ruthlessness have come to the fore?  Viz: his callous treatment of  Rosencratz and Guildernstern, sending those two unfortunate nonentities gratuitously to their deaths, not near his conscience.  Only at this stage, far too late, is his indecision over.  He realises finally the existential truth of taking responsibility for your actions.

HAMLET:               ‘If it be now , ‘tis not to come;

If it be not to come, it will be now;

If it be not now, yet it will come.

The readiness is all.’


(Act V: Scene 11)

Too late.  In his death, far from avenging his father’s murder, he only succeeds in bringing about what, thirty years earlier, his father had fought to avoid.  Norway conquering Denmark.  ‘Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all.’

Action.  Inaction.  The final shoot out between Hamlet and Claudius is inevitable.  They begin poles apart but, as with the sound of marching feet coming closer to the gates of Elsinore, so Claudius and Hamlet come inexorably together.

                        ‘Oh, tis most sweet

When in one line two crafts directly meet.’


(Act 111 Scene IV)

Indecision brings chaos, the winner is he who decides – and does it.  The readiness is all.


In his introduction to the Arden edition of Macbeth  Kenneth Muir cites with ideological certainty a number of  conservative analyses of the play. : It is, ‘a statement of evil’: ‘ a picture of a special battle in a universal war and the battleground is in the soul of Macbeth and his wife’…. ‘ Shakespeare’s most profound and mature vision of evil’: ‘The whole play may be writ down as a wrestling of destruction with creation’ ‘The contrast between light and darkness is part of the general antithesis between good and evil, devil and angels, evil and grace, hell and heaven’.

What Gove could resist such an inviting Christian analysis?  With such deeply entrenched conservative views as a benchmark for study what pupil would dare challenge such authoritative assumptions? For the problem that arises with the use of the word ‘evil’ is one of metaphysical subjectivity. What is ‘evil’? How do you define it? Who defines it? It is an abstract, dependant on a Christian theology that posits an opposite force in Satan and Mephistopheles.

Macbeth is not ultimately a man driven to extremes by forces of darkness beyond his control. He is the ultimate existentialist, someone for whom the awakening of the realisation that he alone is responsible for his actions leads to Shakespeare’s most definitive existential statement of the nihilism of power,  the – ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow speech positing life as ‘a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.’

This is the creed of ruthless individualism, someone for whom for his ‘own good/All causes shall give way’, a modern creed that strikes a resonant chord with post generations of Thatcher’s children and today’s posh boy bankers. I resist the temptation to change the ‘b’ to a ‘w’.

So what kind of Scotland is left behind after MacBeth’s demise?  What deal did Malcolm do with the English king get the loan of ten thousand troops?

                                                                        …..before thy here-approach,

Old Seyward with ten thousand war-like men,

Already at a point, was setting forth.

Act IV, Scene iii

Ten thousand is worth a 100,000 now. And there is no country in the world that would take part in such an invasion without doing some kind of quid pro quo deal  involving  the carve up of the country that it is invading. Witness the desperate attempt of Bush and the assembled might of the US Right to bribe and coerce other nations into helping it invade Iraq with promises of billions of aid. Malcolm has sold Scotland down the line in order to secure his throne – there is no way back from a deal that carves Scotland up with the English.

Malcolm:        ‘My thanes and kinsmen,

Henceforth be earls; the first that ever Scotland

In such honour named.’

Act V, Scene v

Note the invisible bullet  (pace Stephan Greenblatt) the Thanes, the chiefs of the clans, the leaders of Scottish society are to be transformed into Earls, Anglicised, colonised, the passing of an era. ‘Fair is foul, and foul if fair’.  From this moment on Scotland will be ruled historically from Westminster –  leaping forward in time, the court of James 1st and 6th. It is Malcolm’s final speech that sets him apart from  his predecessors and most clearly marks the transition of Scotland from a feudal power to a subservient colony.

For Malcolm is the apotheosis of realpolitik,. Malcolm the materialist,  Malcolm the politician. Malcolm, like Prince John in Henry IV Part Two, heralding in a new era of ruthless, pragmatic government. What is his reaction on being present when Macduff receives the news of the slaughter of his family?

‘Be this the whetstone of your sword; let grief

Convert to anger; blunt not the heart, enrage it.’

Use it, Macduff, use it!

The readiness is all. Malcolm seizes the opportunity offered him on a plate with alacrity. Here’s the perfect guy to do the work of sorting out Macbeth for him. Macduff’s consuming desire for revenge makes him the ideal weapon of mass destruction. Malcolm can send him in to do battle against Macbeth without having to put himself anywhere near the front line. Then walk in and claim the victory. What a shit.

Shakespeare forensically analyses throughout the canon the obsession that motivates people to take power. The killing of the king is a primal urge in society, whether at a national or boardroom level,  and if, with Richard III, he reaches new heights of butchery, then MACBETH begins where Richard leaves off. Notwithstanding Macbeth’s conscience, his need to murder Duncan is imperative. And, if Hamlet attempts to objectify, to analyse, then Macbeth is ‘In blood stepp’d in so far’, that there is only one inevitable path to the end. He is the most extreme of Shakespeare’s creations. There is no death speech, so soliloquy, no recantation, only a belief that, as a man, he had to act as he did. He hurls himself  existentially towards his death, flying in the face of prophesy, emulating the Thane of Cawdor whose title he took, of whom it was said ‘Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it’.

Could not such energy and poetic drive have been used otherwise? In Macbeth’s demonic descent into the cauldron of civil butchery, and in his desperate search to give coherence to the blackness that wells up within his mind, we find echoes of Schiller’s Franz Moor in Die Raűber who says ‘God forgive me, I am no ordinary murderer. I demand to be judged for my crimes as others are judged for their good deed.’

What of the prophesies of ‘the weird sisters’? Notwithstanding Lady Macbeth’s belief that the events of the play are the result of ‘Fate and metaphysical aid’, what we actually see is a series of existential man-made choices, decisions taken without a fate or a fury in sight.. The witches appear at just the right psychological moment, at the point where Macbeth and Banquo are riding across the heath, high on killing, exhilarated after the bloodbath of the battle. The seeds of his downfall and his ambition are already contained within Macbeth himself. The savagery, the power released by the strength in his arm, the blood lust, the ambition, the belief in invincibility. That seed is nurtured by the weird sisters, but it would not have grown to fruition if the thought had not already been present in Macbeth. His is an existential choice, to make the witches prophecy come true. He could have chosen to ignore their advice (after all, he doesn’t  have to kill Duncan) but they feed his ego, they feed his ambition. It is not so much a question of prophecy, more one of autosuggestion. The witches only articulate things that are known, or could be deduced. We the audience  know, before the witches tell Macbeth, that he has been made Thane of Cawdor. It is therefore common knowledge. And if Macbeth had been patient, despite Malcolm, the step over which he must stumble, it is odds on that given his popularity and prowess, one day he would have possessed the golden round legitimately. A bit old maybe – Charly Macbeth. The witches only articulate the ‘black and deep desires’ that are already fermenting in his mind. Making the prophesies come to pass depends entirely on Macbeth’s desire to make them concrete. The wish is father to the thought, though it may take a little while for him to put two and two together. (With a little help from his wife.).

The supernatural element gradually weakens  as the strength of Macbeth grows. The imaginary dagger, Banquo’s ghost and the apparitions all disappear, and wiccery is replaced by the plausible and the practical. Ultimately, the two great prophecies, Burnham Wood coming to the Dunsinane, and Macbeth succumbing to ‘a man of no woman born’ are confidence tricks. The first is no more than a tactical military exercise in camouflage that was well known in the history of European battles, the sprig of leaves on John le Mesiurier’s Dad’s Army helmet. If the story had not come such a long way in its power, it would be laughable. In the second prohesy Macbeth meets his nemesis, not at the hands of a superman, someone ‘not of woman born’, but an ordinary mortal in the shape of Macduff born by Caesarean, ‘untimely ripped of his mothers womb’. In such a closed and small community of ruling Thanes the circumstances of MacDuff’s birth would have been universally known. The logic of these two prophecies is that had Macbeth not at this moment been subject to his own psychological doubts and fears and had logically and pragmatically analysed the ‘prophecies’, he might have come to the right conclusions. The imagination for Shakespeare is a dark, primordial labyrinth where the battleground of our fantasies wrestles with the daylight of action. (‘In the night, imagining some fear, how easy is a bush supposed a bear’: A Midsummer Night’s Dream). There are no miracles. Statues do not come to life – Hermione’s resurrection in The Winter’s Tale a similar con trick. Woods do not move. Men are born of women. Dragons are a myth. But, by then, his mind is too far gone, he has succumbed and become a victim, like Brutus, like Richard III, of his own fantasies and insecurities.

The witches, those ’black and midnight hags’, complicate our reading of the story, imposing as they do  a false trail of reliance on external forces to explain Macbeth’s actions. Yet they themselves have their origin in entirely explicable circumstances, creatures on the fringes of society, outcasts. In Elizabethan terms, witches were often single women, spinsters, living on the outskirts of villages, midwives, nursemaids. Their magic is not black, satanic. It is practical, the use of herbs for healing.. Some of the viler ingredients of the cauldron turn out to be nothing more than harmless country names for wild flowers and roots. But the witches represent a typical Shakespearean sociologic reversal of the natural order. Those with nothing ostensibly control the life of him who has everything. A contrast between those who have, and those who have not. The single female was often thought to have supernatural powers which gave rise to the fear in men that she could be credited with certain kinds of knowledge to do with life and death. A society which does not give women power, fears their mystery.

Macbeth – ‘To know my deed t’were best not know myself’ – has looked into the future and seen that his one act of regicide  will unleash a whole chain of killing.

Killing in war is legitimate , of course. He has, through the strength of his fighting ability, killed and butchered, ‘and seamed from the ‘nave to the chops’ a thousand opponents. What a good chap, they all cry. But this one act of killing in peace time is unacceptable. Where is the moral line to be drawn? Kill a thousand in the name of some dubious cause and be praised? Or one, and be judged. ‘God forgive me, I am no ordinary murderer.’ The line, like the story of Macbeth, is as direct as an arrow – from Nietsche, down through Schopenhauer, to Hitler et al. It is a question that we still must answer in the twenty-first century. Do we paradoxically admire the poetic imagination of Macbeth while celebrating his departure? Does he appeal to those latent forces that lie dormant within us all waiting to be unleashed? Duncan, Malcolm, Macbeth, Macduff – who would you choose? Hands up.


Any production of ROMEO AND JULIET must begin with an analysis of the social responsibility for the deaths of the two young people.  The acceptance on the part of much critical thinking that the two lovers had to die in order to a) reconcile their parents hatred, and b) show society the way forward, begs the question as to whether the deaths might have been avoided in the first place, and prompts the debate about such measures that could and should have been taken to stop the feuding in Verona’s streets.

In other words – was the tragedy man made?  Did it stem from choices and decisions, taken at certain critical moments, by consenting adults, that were wrong or at best unthinking, governed by self-interest, muddled do-gooding -whatever?  Society is past-master at stable-door bolting, whether the shrill cries of outraged indignation are directed towards oil-spilling tankers, rail crashes, underground station fires, or famine.  But whatever the size or nature of the disaster, the root cause is always human error, and, more often, human greed.  And we know that when that first outcry of public indignation dies down, apathy and self-interest will reassert themselves and a new variant of the old catastrophe will re-occur.  In the wake of public protest legislation is sometimes rushed through in an outward display of governmental action, seemingly to prevent a repeat of a particular disaster.  But where commercial interest is involved, these measures are usually half-hearted, half-baked and in effect an avoidance of political and social responsibility, with no long term benefit.

‘A pair of star-cross’d lovers’.  References to fate and destiny abound, principally from Romeo –  ‘…he that hath the steerage of my course, direct my sail’;  ‘Oh, I am fortune’s fool’;  ‘I defy you stars.’  Attributing the deaths of Romeo and Juliet to forces outside of their control is true.  But these forces, these circumstances and events in which the pair find themselves caught up are entirely man-made and their deaths  the result of a complete abdication on the part of society of all social responsibility.  Their mistake, made because of youth and immaturity, was to place their trust in an adult world of incompetence.  The choices and decisions that were taken on the part of those people they trusted, (principally the nurse and Friar Laurence), and who should have known better, are the real reasons why Romeo and Juliet died.

Who can Romeo and Juliet turn to for help?  For Juliet it is the nurse, a surrogate parent, her confidante, her companion, her adviser (it seems that Lady Capulet has a tentative relationship with Juliet to say the least.  Probably jealous.  Too close in years.  After all, she is young by modern standards.)  What should the nurse have done?  She certainly should not have encouraged the relationship.  But this desire to extract vicarious pleasure from the thought (and act) of Juliet losing her virginity, leads her to abandon all sense of her position and her responsibility.  After all, it’s fun running around with rope ladders in order to climb moonlit walls and an act as go-between; pass love notes and trinkets from one to the other.  ‘I am the drudge and toil in your delight, but you shall bear the burden soon at night’, (nudge, nudge, wink, wink.)  That’s how the old biddy gets her sexual rocks off. She encourages the liaison with disastrous consequences.  Juliet has had her fun.  Romeo is banished and a husband  not in the bed may as well be dead.

‘Faith, I think it best you marry with the County (Paris),

Oh, he’s lovely gentleman, Romeo’s a dishclout to him.’

‘Is that what you really think?’ ‘ Cross my heart and hope to die’.  Total irresponsibility.  Juliet is abandoned.  The nurse, having wrung the last drop out of her love, squeezed her emotions dry, tosses Juliet aside like a rag doll.  The nurse has had her fun.  Back to the reality of a proper marriage, there’s a good girl.  Sleep tight.

Friar Lawrence, confessor to both children, their spiritual advisor, Romeo’s mentor, desperately attempts to cover up his mistake and compounds it even further,  conjuring up a fantastical plot, fraught with so many difficulties that it was odds on to fail.  And what is it that he is asking a young girl to do?  Take a potion that counterfeits death for forty two hours and, when she wakes up, she’ll be incarcerated in a vault with the decomposing bodies of her uncles and aunts.

What sort of crazy plan is that?

The Friar, as the one having spiritual responsibility for the well being of the children, should have known better.  The nurse, having material responsibility for Juliet, should have proceeded with equal caution.  Love is not a game.  All the events in the play could have been foreseen and averted.

People make bad decisions and then use destiny, the fates, the heavens, the stars to excuse them.  It is a play about social responsibility and existential choice.  There is a social system operating where, unless specific fundamental reforms occur,  just such a tragedy is waiting to happen again.

This is a mercenary society, grasping, greedy, avaricious, uncaring and any individual who pits him or herself against it, is doomed.

The overriding preoccupation of the Montagues and the Capulets is made clear in the aftermath of the tragedy when the two bereaved fathers promise to set up golden statues to each others children.

MONTAGUE:            ‘…I will raise her statue in pure gold;

That while Verona by that name be known,

There shall no figure at that rate be set

As that of true and faithful Juliet.


CAPULET:                As such shall Romeo by his lady lie.’

Even now, they choose to express their loss in monetary terms.  For the only way they can measure the value of their children, is by financial sacrifice.  But the children died because Capulet wanted more wealth and was prepared to disinherit Juliet if she refused to marry Paris, a relative of Prince Escalus, and thus move the family closer to the seat of power.  Juliet is treated like a chattel by her father, a pawn in a game of power, whose feelings are of minimal interest to him. ‘The most you wanted was her advancement’, says the friar, in a rare flash of insight.

In its commitment and extravagance, the passion of Romeo and Juliet stands out against a background of licentiousness, on the one hand, and commercial transaction, (the usual preliminary to marriage) on the other. And Romeo meanwhile?  He is in Mantua still believing in fates and stars:

                        ‘If I may trust the flattering eye of sleep

My dreams presage some joyful news at hand:

In the next moment, when he receives the news of Juliet’s supposed death, there occurs one of those astonishing Shakespearean objective flashes of insight into the way the world wags, his real view of what surrounds him.  In buying poison from an apothecary with which to kill himself, Romeo suddenly steps right outside the character of a wimpish, lovelorn loon, tossed hither and thither like flotsam and jetsam on the tide of man made idiocy and delivers a devastating comment on the society in which he finds himself.  He pays the apothecary.

                        ‘There is thy gold.  Worse poison to men’s souls,

Doing more murders in this loathsome world

Than these poor compounds that thou may’st not sell.

I sell thee poison, thou hast sold me none.’

In this moment, he reveals a social conscience and an acute awareness of the motives of greed and avarice that dominate all thinking, an echo of his opening encounter with Benvolio.

It is Shakespeare the egalitarian, the humanist at work.  Romeo instinctively and ideologically comprehends the very root-rottenness at the base of not just Escalus’s regime but of all regimes that treat women like cattle at auction and put commerce before humanity.  Compare Romeo’s speech on gold with one from TIMON OF ATHENS: Act 4, Scene 3

‘Gold? Yellow, glittering, precious gold?

…………..   thus much of this will make

Black white; foul fair; wrong, right;

Base, noble; old, young; coward, valient


Marx analysed it thus Money is the pimp between the desire and the desired, between life and man’s means of living. ‘Shakespeare paints a brilliant picture of the nature of money. He brings out two properties in particular. One, money is the visible divinity, the transformation of all human and natural qualities into their opposites. Two, money is the universal whore, the universal pimp of men and peoples. The inversion and confusion of all human and natural qualities.

Money is both a pimp and a whore, the real poison in the world. As with so many of the visible and invisible bullets in the plays, here, in this little scene with the apothecary we have the real story of why Romeo and Juliet died. What we would today recognise as capitalist greed. And recognising this reality, the scales drop from Romeo’s eyes. ‘I defy you stars’, he cries.

He has reached the existential point arrived at by so many of Shakespeare’s protagonists, where the realisation sets in that one’s destiny is in one’s own hands and in no-one else’s.

No stars, no heavens, no Fates. ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.. ‘ We are such stuff as dreams are made on’. ‘On, on, if not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell’, ‘It is a tale told by an idiot ’, ‘The readiness is all’. Hamlet, Richard iii, Macbeth, Antonio, Coriolanus – Romeo is now a man of action. He will buy poison, go to Verona, prise open the tomb, die with Juliet, decision at last. No longer ‘fortune’s fool’. And nobody will get the blame. The Friar is exonerated. Escalus says to him, ‘We still have known thee for a holy man’. At least in the Brooke poem from which Shakespeare took the original story, Friar Lawrence is banished for his part in the tragedy.  But no, there are no scapegoats in Verona, everything, as is customary in politics, is smoothed over. Important to present a united front in these matters.

And those gold statues will atone. They cost a lot of money.


Despite coming out of order, Richard III is the natural culmination of two tetralogies, spanning the 100 years from Richard II, of bloody slaughter in the name of divine right.  Brother kills brother, mother betrays son, cousin fights cousin, father slaughters son, all in the name of “the golden round”, “the hollow crown”, “a little brief authority”, proving – if it ever needed proving – that blood is not thicker than water when it comes to the exercise and possession of raw, naked power:


Accursèd and unquiet wrangling days,

How many of you have mine eyes beheld!

Act II.4 ll 55-65

Is this slaughter divine?  Henry V attributes the carnage at Agincourt of 10,000 French dead to twenty-nine English to an act of God, not the inferior tactics on the part of the French or the more sophisticated fire power of the Welsh archers on the part of the English.  Richmond, at the end of Richard III, prays to the Almighty to give him the strength to kill as many as possible.  Once again, it takes a butcher to beat a butcher – a Churchill to overcome a Hitler, a Bush to beat a Hussein.  Ruthless pragmatism.  If God is around, so much the better, but don’t bank on it.  Better get out the Bullworker, practise your place kicks.  Won’t do to have God standing by helplessly as you miss a penalty.  Richard understands this.  He is the quintessential man of action.

Clarence hath not another day to live;

Which done, God take King Edward to his mercy

And leave the world for me to bustle in!

For then I’ll marry Warwick’s youngest daughter.

What though I killed her husband and her father?

The readiest way to make the wench amends

Is to become her husband and her father,

Act I.1

At a time when the authority of the Church held the world in awe of its power, where fear of retribution in this life and after held sway, and superstition bred terror in ready minds, the man of no belief in anything other than existential action is a killer.  And if he has a smile on his face at the same time, we love him.  Until we, too, succumb to his savagery.  Sharing knowledge and insight with Richard, even sympathising with him against our better judgement, we are not just detached spectators:  Richard enlists us as his accomplices and, like the character of  Vice in the old morality plays, presents himself as a friend to the audience.  But, as the play develops, we discover that this friend is not to be trusted.  Appalled, we realise that we have let him get away with murder – literally. (“One person can make a difference and every person must try” said JFK.)  It is easier to stand by, do nothing, appease, rather than stick one’s neck out and risk having it cut off.

Acres of paper have been covered in rationalising Richard’s behaviour as a result of the debit in his psychological makeup caused by his (Shakespeare’s) deformity.  Not helped of course by Richard’s own admission of his personal problem in coming to grips with his physical defects.  We gather as much as early as Henry VI Part 3, Act III.2, when he declares “love foreswore me in my mother’s womb” and resolving,

… Since this earth affords no joy to me

But to command, to check, to o’erbear such

As one of better person than myself,

I’ll make my heaven to dream upon the crown.

We are thus totally prepared for the amplification of this when immediately as part of his opening soliloquy in Richard III  he turns and fixes us with his engaging grin and declares:

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks

I am determined to prove a villain

And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

Do we go Freud’s route of the twisted adult bruised by childhood experience – bullying at school, jeering in the shower – and now hell-bent on revenge?  Or is it hatred of his mother?


God bless thee and put meekness in thy breast;

Love, charity obedience and true duty.



Amen; (Aside)  And make me die a good old man –

That is the butt-end of a mother’s blessing:

I marvel that her grace did leave it out.

Act II.2 ll 107-111

Envy of his brother?  (“Simple, plain Clarence, I do love thee so/That I will shortly send thy soul to heaven” (I.1))  Of the world?  (See above)  Whatever the cause, Richard’s descant on his own deformity is a mocking self-cynicism that invites us to agree with him about how ugly he is, and therefore complicitly involves us in his deeds.  Are the monstrous aspects of his appearance a reason or a pretext – merely an excuse in order to use them as a source of malevolent power?

As with other existential figures in Shakespeare, Richard is going along fine until doubt sets in.  As long as the mind is moving forward, for men of action there is no problem.  As soon as you start looking over your shoulder, that’s the danger sign.  The great poker player always plays the odds – is never tempted into a rash bet because of a hunch.  That isn’t to say that risks aren’t taken, but along with that taken risk goes calculation.  No leader ever lasted long merely by betting on certainties, but the successful ones ( successful in their terms  – notice I don’t say “good”) know that nine times out of ten the risk that they take will pay off.  Because the world believes that people are inherently “good”, it trusts the tiger with the wide grin, not recognising that the spread of the jaw is a prelude to devouring the onlooker.  The Richard of action travels an almost obstacle-free path to the throne, the fox among the chickens.  The Woodvilles and Greys make an awful lot of clucking, rushing around headless until the farmer arrives to sort it all out with his shotgun.

But the seed of Richard’s downfall has already been planted in his own head.  “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams”.  Richard has bad dreams.  His infinite space disappears.  He turns inward.  Instead of setting about cementing his relationship with the country, outflanking his enemies by turning domestic politician, paranoia sets in.  Like Macbeth before (or, rather, after) him, he is

… in blood

Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more

Returning here as tedious as go o’er.

Act III.4

and like Lady Macbeth, Buckingham can no longer follow where Richard leads.  Both Lady Macbeth and Buckingham fail to understand the nature of the beast to which they are yoked.  Neither sees beyond the point of achieving the throne.  To stay there at the top demands the purge, the elimination, the Night of the Long Knives, of all possible challengers.  The uneasy head is prey to his own imagination.  “In the night imagining some fear/How easy is a Bush supposed a Blair” (A Midsummer Nightmare). He has forgotten that ‘The readiness is all’.


I don’t buy Hal.  He’s a little shit.  Sure, he makes some great war speeches but so did Churchill. When you’re trying to persuade folks to get themselves killed to keep you in Mars Bars, it’s amazing how the rhetoric flows.  This “star of England” embodies perfectly the dichotomy that Shakespeare finds in all rulers, the balancing act that they have to perform on the tight-rope of real politik and idealism; and expediency wins out every time.  Hal, unlike Macbeth, Richard III, Brutus, et al, doesn’t let his imagination get a grip on him.  He neatly sidesteps the pitfalls of ego and religion to emerge triumphantly at the end of Henry V with his reputation intact and France dangling at the end of his rod.  How does he pull it all off without being rumbled?

There are two kinds of suspense drama.  One where we are on the edge of our seats right until the last moment, waiting to find out whodunit.  The other where we know the guilty party up front – either through a flash-back to the crime or through a self-confession.  The Henry IVs and V fall into this latter category. As early as Act 1.2 of HernrIV, Part 1 Hal says –

I know you all, and will awhile uphold

The unyoked humour of your idleness.

I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill,

Redeeming time when men think least I will.

There it is, up front, a statement of intent.  True or false?  Is Hal the blagger of all time, wool-pulling over his and our eyes, a Mitty-esque figure fantasising about reforming his nature?  There is no sense of irony in the speech, no petulant defiance, immaturity (though of course an actor could bring out all three of these characteristics).  No – there is only the simple “I know you all” – an objective appraisal of the intrinsic falsehood of the life he is leading and that at some point he will have to abandon.  The gap year.  Bumming it in Thailand.  The losers will be his companions, those who are conned into believing that they have captured the ear of the future king and who will, at a Caligula-like stroke, fill positions in the law courts and treasury, instigate a Cade-like land where the pissing conduit will run with claret.  Some hopes.

Hal plays a long game.  For close to eight hours we wait for the pay off.  It comes at the conclusion of Henry IV, Part 2 as the newly-crowned king, Henry V, chucks Falstaff out of his kingdom with the cursory couplet – “I know thee not, old man.  Fall to thy prayers.”

We search every moment of Hal’s exploits with Falstaff, Poins, Pistol, Bardolph, for double meanings or a hidden agenda, forewarned with the knowledge that it’s all a game; fascinated to see how he will pull it all off – will he/won’t he?  Is he just a loud-mouthed no-hoper?  But because we know what’s going on we look for the clues.  At the climax at the Boar’s Head Tavern charade where Hal and Falstaff take turns to act out King and vassal (Act II.4), Falstaff says, “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world”.  Hal replies “I do, I will”.  The signal for uncontrolled mirth and hilarity at the absurd proposition that when Hal is king he will get rid of his roistering companion in drink and sex?  Or a chilly, prophetic indication of what will happen?  No one in the bar knows.  But we do.

Dodging, ducking, diving, weaving, Hal shimmies past desperate tackles, slips through outstretched arms to triumphantly touch down between the posts, leaving behind a trail of wrecked lives and the deaths of those with whom he purported to be friends; the rejection of a class of which he purported to be the champion, and who he treats with contempt.  Falstaff?  Banish the fat slug.  Bardolph?  Hang him.  “We would have all such offenders so cut off”.  Poins?  Marry your sister?  In yer dreams.  “Well, thus we play the fools with the time, and the spirits of the wise sit in the clouds and mock us.”  Francis the drawer?   Take the piss mercilously, cruelly: Ho, ho, a bundle of laughs.  It’s enough to make you ban hunting, not because of the fox but because of the hunter.  A cruel exercise in class power.  What on earth has the poor lad done to deserve such callous treatment?    Mistress Quickly?  Doll?  Beat ‘em up.  Throw ‘em in gaol.  “O God, that might should thus overcome right.” Williams?  Humiliate him. Take no prisoners.  In fact, if you do, kill ‘em all.  Subjugate Kate.  Crush France.  Henry Vth – the ultimate existential pragmatic realpolitiker. What a cunt. No, I don’t buy Hal.


In THE TEMPEST old friends meet for the last time; Man of Action friend, man of imagination friend, nature versus nurture friend, usurpation friend, theatrical friend, power friend. A man sits in exile in a café in Paris, Prague, Miami. Bogota – and dreams of revenge on those who have booted him out of his kingdom. It is waking dream, a sleeping dream, a daymare, a nightmare. He wakes up, pays for his coffee, his croissant. Goes off down the street, maybe picks up a cigarette butt, or if you are Imelda, tries on one of a thousand shoes. Nothing has changed, he is still the same, others are still in charge. He is still in exile, the café table his world, his distracted globe, his mind : ‘Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams’.

I was once standing in a toilet in Neary’s bar in Dublin and there was a man standing next to me doing what is necessary. A great, big, broad hunk of a fella in a shabby suit, and he said to me –  ‘I’m the king of Connaught’,

‘I beg your pardon?’ I said.

‘I’m the fuckin‘ king of Connaught’. (Don’t ask me why the king of Connaught spoke with a Dublin accent but he did), ‘And do you know where the king of Munster is?’ ‘No’ I said.

‘He lives in a bungalow in Brighton’.

So I thought, ‘Well, yes, all right, so the king of Munster lives in a bungalow in Brighton, I suppose that’s the fate of contemporary Irish kings who have no hope of ever inheriting the land again’. But somewhere in Brighton the King of Munster is still sitting there with his sword and insignia, hoping and pretending that there is life after republicanism. So exile could be anywhere. It could be a café table, it could be lying in bed, on top of a bus, it could be a desert island. Or a bungalow in Brighton.

The magic of the island as represented by Ariel and Caliban and the restoring of harmony to a disordered universe by the old wizard himself, has conditioned critical thinking on THE TEMPEST for almost four centuries. This thinking, and the classification of the play as a romance, has successfully served to disguise the fact that THE TEMPEST is a vicious play about a wish-fulfillment dream of political revenge. The story is simple.

Prospero, the ex-duke of Milan is obsessed with his brother, Antonio, who has usurped his position as Duke and with those who have aided him, principally an old enemy, Alonso the King of Naples aided by his brother Sebastian. It is yet another turn of the old screw that Shakespeare uses in earlier plays; the theme of usurping brother, of blood not being thicker than water etc. But this time it is a political killing rather than a literal one. Usually a brother kills a brother to take over the throne, whether it is Claudius killing Old Hamlet, or Richard III killing everybody. Here, Antonio metaphorically ‘kills’ Prospero by sending him into exile. Everything that happens in the play stems from that one act of usurpation. Prospero then sits in a bungalow in Brighton for twelve years, brooding on revenge. That is the story. Simple.

We are concerned here with the power of an imagination that is released by dreaming, the power of the mind to conceive of things that, paradoxically, the mind does not even comprehend. It is this boundless infinity of the imagination, a consequence of all our thoughts, our hopes, and aspirations, that Shakespeare analyses. But the power of man to accomplish what he achieves in those dreams is not infinite, it is very finite. Put more simply it’s the discrepancy once again between the thought of action and the act itself.

This ,tempest of the soul’, this dream of Prospero’s, is the same dream that we all have, for example, when, on being sacked from our job, we go out of the office and think of what we should have said. How we should have cut the boss, the teacher, the tax inspector down to size, stood up for our rights. In any situation in which we are humiliated by someone more powerful, we experience a well of frustration, of impotence, of injustice, of anger that surges up through our souls and we replay that moment of humiliation over and over again, inventing for ourselves a completely different scenario of what we should have done, of what we should have said, of how we’d handle the situation if it were ever to happen again. It does not obscure the fact, however, that we are still standing outside that office door having got the sack, fantasising about how we should have finally taken over the firm, the country, the universe ourselves. In other words, that same wish-fulfillment dream  of Prospero’s to re-instate himself as Duke of Milan that is at the very heart of THE TEMPEST.

In all our dreams we can all win the Olympic hundred metres, beat Usain Bolt in a world record time – do it in our heads.  I’ve just done it. I’ve just done it again! The actuality of it is that this morning I ran up and down on the spot 140 times and took five minutes to do it (in an effort to get fit – yet again!) The actuality, of course, is ‘bounded’ in a nutshell’; it is the narrowest channel of thought that corresponds to how we perform.

J.A. Hadfield: Dreams and Nightmares.

‘When the down-trodden underling has to yield to circumstance and to take things lying down, he dreams of himself standing up for his rights and being victorious. He did not realise that he had it in him until he dreamed of himself actually living that role. The very fact of having that dream boosts his self-esteem: he squares his shoulders, is encouraged to have another shot at it, and he comes out successfully. Thus a dream is not merely a wish, it is an encouragement and inspiration. Because it shows a man what he can be, it enables him to become so, The dream is not merely wishful thinking, it is creative and purposive; it does not merely allow us to sleep in the night, it encourages us to action in the day…’

Encourages us to action, the realpolitiker, the man who seizes the moment, the man who is capable of extending his capacity along the lines that correspond to what he is capable of conceiving in his mind. In The Tempest Antonio is that man. Prospero is the man of inaction, caught halfway between his responsibilities as a leader of the state and at the same time involved in other intellectual pursuits that lead him to be a bad ruler.

This is one of the prime tenets of the play – that the regime of Prospero was obviously one that was on the slippery slope. The similarity is with the rule of Old Hamlet or that of Richard II. The state or country is on the slide, and therefore the need to reinstate firm government, to re-establish the status quo, is seen by those surrounding the leaders –  a brother and a king, in this instance – as the moment to move in and right the tottering regime. (The Vienna ofThe Duke in Measure for Measure has similarities with this, but his solution is other).

Prospero’s mind is trapped in the thought of vengeance, and until that vengeance has been exacted, he cannot relax. His mind is twisted in bitter torment. Only when he has smashed and pomelled his enemies into submission can Ariel be released from that torment, the ‘cleft pine’ that he h as inhabited for twelve years. Twelve years. The exact time that Prospero has been in exile, his head trapped in the pine and pain of the past. Only when he has purged himself of those feelings can he release his mind from the bonds that bind it. Be free. Move forward. It has taken him twelve years to tell Miranda the story. The play progresses in a very clear pattern of vengeance for power taken and power to be regained. And there is haste, there is speed. Time is not on Prospero’s side. Time is not on your side when, in your dream, you run to catch the train,  sprinting  like mad to keep up with it. Sometimes you succeed in jumping on and you breath a sigh of relief. Sometimes you relax and say ‘fuck it’, ‘I’ve missed it’, and wake up. The time element of the dream is absolutely crucial – there is haste, there is speed – Prospero’s plans have to be accomplished within a certain timespan – what’s the time, what’s the time? Two o’clock, three o’clock, four o’clock. It must be done by six o’clock’

Ariel:   ‘Is there more toil…

Let me remember thee what thou haast promised

Which is not yet performed me.’


Prospero:       ‘How now, moody? What is’t thou can’st demand?’

Ariel:   ‘My liberty.’

Prospero:       ‘Before the time be out? No more.’

Freedom, highday, highday, freedom. Get a new master, get a new man. Take these chains from my mind and set me free. By six o’clock. Sebastian and Antonio would murder Alonso – Brothers in arms. Trinculo and Stephano would murder Prospero. Wake up! Wake up!

Correspondingly, through this mirror imagery, the timespan of the play may be that of an afternoon performance on a stage, artificially, in front of an audience. That artificiality, that act of creation of a piece of theatre that we see mirrored in the time of the real world, is yet again, the acceptance that a play is like a dream, that it is not real – that spectators and actors alike are drawn into a relationship with each other suspending disbelief together in a unifying act that is broken and smashed the moment the performance is ended and the audience exits into the street. On that stage, we’ve fought for crowns and battled with monsters, we’ve created fantastical images and wrestled for kingdoms, but, we go out into the dark of a Dublin night, among the tin cans and the rubbish and the lorries belching our fumes. Out into reality. In other words, nothing has changed; only, for a short period of time, we have suspended ourselves in animation before going back out into the real world. So it is with Prospero, so it is with the performance – the two things running parallel. Prospero does not have much time, he has the length of the dream in which to accomplish everything. But, when Prospero, having gone through this exorcism finally goes back into the real world, he will be the same old Prospero who was booted out of Milan. The same old man sitting on the park bench. The same old Russian waiter in exile. The same old heir to the Romanian throne fighting with somebody in a garret in New York over who is next in line to take over. The King of Munster in his Brighton bungalow. He’s me, still doing my 140 running on the spot jogging exercises!

Why didn’t Prospero finish Antonio, Senastian and Alonso off while he had the chance? He was too soft. That is why he will never return to Milan and regain his dukedom. If he did, Antonio would take it all over again. He, Antonio, had no need to kill Prospero. He knew that Prospero was too ineffectual to be able to combat him.

Miranda:        ‘Wherefore did they not at that hour kill us?’

Prospero:       ‘Dear, they durst not’.

Durst not? That man? What a joke. There was no need. But Prospero has a need to kill Antonio, and yet he doesn’t, he forgives him. Wrong. As the dream starts to fade as morning approaches, as his mind starts to clear, so the effort of the night is banished and the desire for total revenge fades.

Prospero:       ‘The charm dissolves apace;

And as the morning steals upon the night,

Melting the darkness, so their rising senses

Begin to chase the ignorant fumes that mantle

Their clearer reason.’

And throughout the final scene, during these waking moments, as the mind swims up to the consciousness to take in the ugly industrial wasteland of a world that is there instead of the desert island, so Prospero’s strength ebbs too. From being at the first bewildered and disbelieving, the arrogance of the court reasserts itself. As ‘miracle’ succeeds miracle, so the revelations become commonplace. It is like attempting to keep up with modern technology. Wonders will cease. Prospero doubts himself. They doubt him. Dressed in his everyday clothes he is no longer a magician. His staff is broken, his strength is his own, which is most faint. And, as this insubstantial pageant fades leaving not a wrack behind, so he is left at his café table, on his bench, in his bed.

And Antonio? Not a word of forgiveness for him. ‘Ha, Ha, Brother’ says Prospero. ‘Bet you’re sorry now’. Not a bit of it. Antonio says nothing in the last scene except to comment on the commercial viability of exploiting Caliban.

Sebastian:     ‘Ha. Ha. What things are these? Will money buy ‘em?’

Antonio:         ‘Very like. One of them is a plain fish and, no doubt marketable’.

The nature of Antonio has not changed one iota. He is still the synthesis of realpolitik, of Machiavelli, as Prospero has known very well all along. In that one line, as so often is the case in the final scenes of Shakespeare’s plays, a bullet is fired with a ferocity that shatters all illusion. No play about forgiveness this. The fundamental clash is between the man of action and the man of imagination. The polarity of the canon itself. As long as we believe in a system of acquisition and exploitation the Antonios will always triumph over the Prosperos.

So, that then is THE TEMPEST. Scenic splendour, allegory, what you will the various pieces of the jigsaw must fit together. Written in the sparest of language, each gem an intricate and delicate facet of a jewellers mosaic, it is a revenge dream of enormous political potency. It is once more the perennial struggle for power, the gulf that exists between thought and action that we see in Hamlet,  that we see in all the plays, played out on a stage all over the world. Man fighting man for greed and gain, for who is to have the ultimate say in government. Fighting for the crock of gold that lies at the top of the pyramid of power. Jan Kott’s grand mechanism, the escalator shuttling the contenders up to the top until they reach out and topple off the edge. And at the same time there is another system to be comprehended, another way of ruling; that life cannot always be this perennial  struggle to put the boot in the faces of those who are weakest. That somewhere there is a system – maybe it’s that of Gonzalo- the commonwealth system, based on Montaigne and his theories of fertility and abundance and shared organic growth, no machines, no science, although this is a commune with a king (Gonzalo’s mind does not stretch as far as a Marxist redistribution of power and wealth) Maybe it is a world where those who toil, where those who use their hands and not their minds are the real Kings of the universe – ‘The gunner, the bosun, the swabber and I’ What use is territorial  ambition  if ‘Alexander dead and turned to clay might stop a hole to keep the wind away’?

Ambition. We all go ‘a process through the guts of a beggar’ merely to end up in the ground, or as a piece of clay stuck in a hole in a wall to stop the wind coming through. Buried in THE TEMPEST, once again, is that strange, not even subconscious feeling from Shakespeare that something else must be there to put in the place of this extraordinary avaricious existence and brutalising system of government. There IS a choice. An existential one. ‘My ending is despair’.


Michael Bogdanov

Hamburg, October 2013


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1 Response to Michael Bogdanov: ‘The Readiness is All: Existential Shakespeare’

  1. Pingback: Michael Bogdanov | Kingston Shakespeare Seminar

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