After several tragedies and comedies, I’m now reading a history play—Richard II.
Look at this passage:
O, who can hold a fire in his hand
By thinking on the frosty Caucasus?
Or cloy the hungry edge of appetite
By bare imagination of a feast?
Or wallow naked in December snow
By thinking on fantastic summer’s heat?
O no, the apprehension of the good
Gives but the greater feeling to the worse.
Fell sorrow’s tooth doth never rankle more
Than when he bites but lanceth not the sore.”
(Act 1 scene 3)
Such a moving speech. This is the response of Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford when his father John of Gaunt tries to get him to view the banishment positively.
Now look at this great speech in Much Ado About Nothing, when Antonio tries to console his brother Leonato about Hero, and Leonato responds:
I pray thee cease thy counsel,
Which falls into mine ears as profitless
As water in a sieve. Give not me counsel,
Nor let no comforter delight mine ear
But such a one whose wrongs do suit with mine.
Bring me a father that so loved his child,
Whose joy of her is overwhelmed like mine,
And bid him speak of patience.
Measure his woe the length and breadth of mine,
And let it answer every strain for strain,
As thus for thus, and such a grief for such,
In every lineament, branch, shape, and form.
If such a one will smile and stroke his beard,
And sorrow wag, cry “hem” when he should groan;
Patch grief with proverbs, make misfortune drunk
With candle-wasters; bring him yet to me,
And I of him will gather patience.
But there is no such man. For, brother, men
Can counsel and speak comfort to that grief
Which they themselves not feel; but, tasting it,
Their counsel turns to passion, which before
Would give preceptial medicine to rage,
Fetter strong madness in a silken thread,
Charm ache with air and agony with words.
No, no! ‘Tis all men’s office to speak patience
To those that wring under the load of sorrow,
But no man’s virtue nor sufficiency
To be so moral when he shall endure
The like himself. Therefore give me no counsel;
My griefs cry louder than advertisement.
Therein do men from children nothing differ.
I pray thee peace. I will be flesh and blood;
For there was never yet philosopher
That could endure the toothache patiently,
However they have writ the style of gods
And made a push at chance and sufferance.”
(Act 5 scene 1)
These words of consolation, though well-meant, are empty words—they cannot change the situation, and cannot change the way people feel.
There is a similar moment early on in Othello, when the Duke advises Brabantio (father of Desdemona) to cheer up “The robbed that smiles, steals something from the thief/ He robs himself that spends a bootless grief”, this is how he responds:
So let the Turk of Cyprus us beguile:
We lose it not so long as we can smile.
He bears the sentence well that nothing bears
But the free comfort which from thence he hears;
But he bears both the sentence and the sorrow
That to pay grief must of poor patience borrow.
These sentences, to sugar, or to gall,
Being strong on both sides, are equivocal.
But words are words. I never yet did hear
That the bruised heart was pierced through the ear.
I humbly beseech you, proceed to th’ affairs of state.”
(Act 1 scene 3)
We may judge Brabantio for disapproving of the marriage between Desdemona and Othello, but his pain feels real enough for him and it cannot be lessened with some clichés. Words are words.
In one of the most heartbreaking scenes in Macbeth, Macduff gets the news that his entire family was killed and Malcolm tries to soothe him with some cliché:
Let’s make us med’cines of our great revenge
To cure this deadly grief.
He has no children. All my pretty ones?
Did you say all? O hellkite! All?
What, all my pretty chickens and their dam
At one fell swoop?
Dispute it like a man.
I shall do so;
But I must also feel it as a man.
I cannot but remember such things were
That were most precious to me. Did heaven look on
And would not take their part? Sinful Macduff,
They were all struck for thee. Naught that I am,
Not for their own demerits but for mine
Fell slaughter on their souls. Heaven rest them now.”
(Act 4 scene 3)
It’s a different kind of platitude, but still a platitude—Malcolm tells Macduff to be comforted, to take revenge on Macbeth, and to “dispute it like a man”, but can any of that bring back his wife and children? Can any of that lessen his terrible pain? Macduff must “feel it as a man” just as Leonato “will be fresh and blood”.
These passages are different but they all have something in common—a character tries to soothe, to cheer up another character and the one in pain feels that it’s just empty words of consolation. Words are just words.
I know that we shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that Shakespeare is his characters, but look at all these examples—from Richard II, Much Ado About Nothing, Othello, and Macbeth. In the plays I’ve read, at least the recent ones, I’ve not seen a moment where a character is comforted or consoled after someone’s speech (unless the speech offers some practical solution or advice, such as Iago’s manipulative speeches to Roderigo or Cassio).
There is, I think, a distrust of words in Shakespeare: words can lie, words can be slander—see Don John and Iago; words are easy—Beatrice tells Benedick “Use it for my love some other way than swearing by it” (Act 4 scene 2), the princess and Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost don’t trust words but tell the prince and Berowne respectively to prove themselves, and of course we all know King Lear.
I can imagine what Shakespeare would have thought about motivational quotes.
Update on 29/3: I found a passage about the empty words of consolation in The Comedy of Errors. See my blog post about the play.