Monday, 15 February 2021

Shakespeare and the empty words of consolation

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: 


Be comforted.

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.


  1. This reminds me of a passage of Hamlet, where the Player Queen tries to consolate in advance the Player King about his future death, swearing she will be faithful to him after his death and never to remarry. The Player King is no fool of her promises, and believes she is sincere at the moment, but is aware of how human beings change over time despite their former selves and promises.
    The second dialogue of the Player King is full of understanding wisdom and is some sort of anticipated forgiving (I have shortened the passage though, which might appear as some sort of heresy !), although he didn't know of course that her second husband would be his murderer !


    Faith, I must leave thee, love, and shortly too.
    My operant powers their functions leave to do,
    And thou shalt live in this fair world behind,
    Honour’d, beloved, and haply one as kind
    For husband shalt thou–

    O, confound the rest !
    Such love must needs be treason in my breast.
    In second husband let me be accurst ;
    None wed the second but who kill’d the first. […]
    The instances that second marriage move
    Are base respects of thrift, but none of love.
    A second time I kill my husband dead
    When second husband kisses me in bed.

    I do believe you think what now you speak ;
    But what we do determine oft we break.
    Purpose is but the slave to memory,
    Of violent birth, but poor validity,
    Which now like fruit unripe sticks on the tree,
    But fall unshaken when they mellow be.
    Most necessary ’tis that we forget
    To pay ourselves what to ourselves is debt:
    What to ourselves in passion we propose,
    The passion ending, doth the purpose lose. […]
    That even our loves should with our fortunes change;
    For ’tis a question left us yet to prove,
    Whether love lead fortune, or else fortune love. […]
    Our wills and fates do so contrary run,
    That our devices still are overthrown ;
    Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own:
    So think thou wilt no second husband wed;
    But die thy thoughts when thy first lord is dead.

    Nor earth to me give food, nor heaven light,
    Sport and repose lock from me day and night,
    To desperation turn my trust and hope ;
    An anchor’s cheer in prison be my scope,
    Each opposite that blanks the face of joy
    Meet what I would have well, and it destroy,
    Both here and hence pursue me lasting strife,
    If, once a widow, ever I be wife.

    1. I think I'll get back to this after I reread the play, haha.


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