Saturday 25 March 2023

The Brothers Karamazov: characters and characterisation

Spoiler alert: Again, if you haven’t read the book, you probably shouldn’t read this blog post, in which I will discuss significant plot points. Whilst The Brothers Karamazov is not only a murder mystery and not only read for the plot, I do think the mystery is part of the enjoyment of the first reading. 

1/ I think Ivan is the most interesting of the Karamazov brothers. Both Dmitry and Ivan are more interesting than Alyosha because they are souls in torment. But between the two elder brothers, Ivan fascinates me more because Dmitry is hot-headed and often driven by animal passion whereas Ivan is the thinking man—“in the Hamlet mould”, as Ignat Avsey puts it—he thinks, he tortures himself, and he sees the devil.

The two most thought-provoking sections in the novel both involve Ivan: his discussion with Alyosha about God (“Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor”), and his talk with the devil. I am not religious, but the characters of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy ask serious questions and think deeply, and they get me to care about the things that torment them. 

I also find Ivan’s torment after old Fyodor’s murder more interesting than Dmitry’s, probably because he asks himself and raises questions for us about the nature of guilt and complicity. 

Why does Smerdyakov say that among the brothers, Ivan is most like his father? 

2/ Smerdyakov is another striking, vivid character. He’s full of contradictions—arrogant but servile, weak and seemingly cowardly but extremely sly, cunning, and manipulative—but he feels utterly real, at least within the world of the book.

Almost everyone in the novel, including old Fyodor and Dmitry, is deceived about his character, but the defence lawyer Fetyukovich seems to get right his arrogance, spite, and envy. The only thing he gets wrong is about the money—there is no indication that Smerdyakov has any interest in the money. 

The confrontations between Ivan and Smerdyakov are so good because Smerdyakov is Ivan’s alter-ego, his Hyde, and at the same time, Smerdyakov is like the devil himself—I don’t think it’s random that Dostoyevsky describes the room as unbearably hot—it’s hell. 

My friend Michael thinks:

“Smerdyakov’s obsession with Ivan is not overtly homosexual (there’s a similar relationship in the Devils that is far more overt), but I always felt that there was something in his obsession, his fawning desire for Ivan’s approval — and ultimately his killing for him, and his suicide at Ivan’s rejection — that seemed explicable as a kind of hidden or sublimated homosexual infatuation.”

As for the suicide, he thinks:

“There are multiple reasons, practical and existential. He committed the crime as a gift to Ivan, but Ivan rejects the gift and is going to turn him in. He also commits suicide because his nihilism is the ultimate dead end.

But there’s a heartbreak there too.

That’s what I think.”

Do I think it’s a kind of homosexual infatuation? I’m not sure. But I do think Smerdyakov has an obsession with Ivan, and there’s something in their final exchange—Smerdyakov provokes Ivan to kill him but he doesn’t, then: 

“‘Till tomorrow!’ shouted Ivan, and moved to go. 

 ‘Wait… show it to me once more.’ 

Ivan pulled out the banknotes and showed them to him. Smerdyakov looked at them for about ten seconds.

‘Well, off you go,’ he said waving him away. ‘Ivan Fyodorovich!’ he shouted after him suddenly. 

‘What do you want?’ Ivan, already on his way out, turned around.

‘Goodbye, sir!’ 

‘See you tomorrow!’ Ivan shouted again, and walked out of the house.” (P.4, B.11, ch.8) 

(translated by Ignat Avsey)

Smerdyakov clearly has made this decision then. 

3/ Himadri (Argumentative Old Git) thinks Alyosha is bland. In a way, he is, compared to the rest of the Karamazovs (including the one not officially named Karamazov). But I think Alyosha lightens up the book—which is filled with filth, sickness, and depravity—and the final chapter, the final speech from Alyosha makes me emotional. 

4/ Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov is also a striking character—I’ve written about him before. This speech from Starets Zosima is especially interesting: 

“‘… A man may be perfectly well aware that no one has offended him, that he has imagined it all and put about a lie just for the sake of it, blown it out of proportion so as to attract attention, deliberately picked on a word and made a mountain out of a molehill—he may very well realize all this, and yet be the very first to take offence, to the point of deriving enjoyment and pleasure from it, and so fall into a state of real animosity…’” (P.1, B.2, ch.2)

I’ve seen a lot of this online.  

5/ What about the female characters in The Brothers Karamazov? They’re all bonkers, as the male characters are.

I find it hard to write about Dostoyevsky’s characters as they are all insane, bizarre, unpredictable, and full of contradictions and tortured logic, and yet they’re so vivid, so utterly real within the distorted world of the book.

Among the female characters, I think I understand Katerina Ivanovna and Grushenka—up to a point—but generally I understand them, understand their spite and jealousy, understand why Katerina Ivanovna clings to Dmitry despite her love for Ivan and hatred for Dmitry, understand why Grushenka mocks and refuses to kiss Katerina’s hand, understand why Katerina testifies the way she does at the trial then completely changes her mind a moment later, understand why Grushenka wants to seduce Alyosha for the fun of it but stops at once and changes her behaviour the moment she hears of Zosima’s death, and so on.  

The one I completely fail to understand is Lise, Mrs Khokhlakova’s fourteen-year-old daughter. 

“‘… And then suddenly Lise woke up this morning, flew into a rage at Yulia and, can you imagine, slapped her face. […] Then, barely an hour later, she was hugging Yulia and kissing her feet. And she sent me a message saying that she wasn’t going to come to my room and that she never wanted to see me again, and then, when I dragged myself over to her room, she threw her arms round me, kissing me and crying, and then just pushed me away without a word, so I was none the wiser…’” (P.4, B.11, ch.2) 

The final scene between Alyosha and Lise is even more bizarre and dramatic. Dostoyevsky’s characterisation is always exaggerated and dramatic—his characters are all insane and always on edge—there’s always lots of shouting, shrieking, laughing, crying, wailing, teeth clenching, fist thumping, eye flashing, face contorting—but there’s a lot of it in that scene between Lise and Alyosha. Too much. 

This is a character I don’t understand. Why does she tell Alyosha she loves him, then later calls him an errand boy not suited to be a husband? Why does she offer herself to Ivan? Why does she deliberately hurt her finger? 

I don’t get any of it.

But more importantly, why does Alyosha love her? What does he see in her? 

6/ I do think Dostoyevsky is a great writer—Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky focus on different aspects and reveal different truths about human nature. 

And yet I don’t think of Dostoyevsky when I think of male writers great at writing women. Is it because his female characters are all deranged? But his characters, male and female, all are. Do I think Katerina Ivanovna, Grushenka, and other female characters are less successful than Dmitry, Ivan, Smerdyakov…? Not necessarily. Is it that they’re all driven by spite and there’s nothing particularly feminine about them? 

Is it because I have different criteria when I think of female characters, favouring the ones who are realistic, complex, and life-like? Or is it because, when I talk about male writers great at writing women, I’m not just talking about good female characters, but also talking about a deep understanding of women and feminine sensibilities? 

I don’t think of Dickens as one of the male writers great at writing women either, even though I do like some of his female characters. 

Or perhaps I’m just overthinking, and there’s a difference between being able to write women (Dostoyevsky and Dickens are) and being exceptional at it (like Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Chekhov).  

Friday 24 March 2023

The Brothers Karamazov: guilt

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read the book, you probably shouldn’t read this blog post, in which I will discuss significant plot points. Whilst The Brothers Karamazov is not only a murder mystery and not only read for the plot, I do think the mystery is part of the enjoyment of the first reading. 

1/ There are different levels to the concept of guilt in The Brothers Karamazov. On the most basic level is the trial of Dmitry.

The chapters about the investigation and the trial are magnificent, especially the trial. There are many twists and turns. After all the witnesses are examined and cross-examined, we hear a speech from the prosecutor, who uses psychology to explain the case and convince the jury that Dmitry must be guilty. 

Then the defence attorney speaks: 

 “‘… Gentlemen of the jury, I am deliberately resorting to psychology myself in order to demonstrate that one can make of it anything one wants. It all depends on who is using it. Psychology lures even the most serious people into realms of fantasy, and quite without their realizing it. I am talking about an excess of psychology, gentlemen of the jury, in effect, a kind of abuse of psychology.’” (P.4, B.12, ch.10) 

(translated by Ignat Avsey) 

That is what Fetyukovich does. 

“‘… You see, gentlemen of the jury, since psychology is a two-edged sword, let me actually apply the other side of the blade and see whether I get the same results…’” (P.4, B.12, ch.11) 

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky demonstrates that even when evidence seems overwhelming and everything seems to point at one man, things may not be as they seem; he demonstrates, through the prosecutor Ippolit Kyrillovich, how someone may completely misinterpret everything and come to the wrong conclusion through “abuse of psychology”; and through Fetyukovich, he shows how someone may also use psychology to look at the same people and the same evidence from a different perspective.

Throughout the whole novel but especially in these chapters, Dostoyevsky shows that he has the same quality I admire so much in Tolstoy and Shakespeare: presenting opposite points of view and arguing for different sides. 

2/ Dostoyevsky raises another interesting question about guilt: is Ivan guilty?

The confrontations between Ivan and Smerdyakov are some of the best chapters in the book—partly because Smerdyakov is so well-depicted, so vivid as a malicious, spiteful, and extremely cunning man, who knows how to manipulate everyone and hit their weakest spots; and partly because the struggle, the torment within Ivan is so interesting and thought-provoking.

See the conversation between Alyosha and Ivan before the trial:

“‘All I know is,’ Alyosha continued, still almost whispering, ‘it was not you who killed father.’

‘Not me! What do you mean “not me”?’ Ivan was thunderstruck. 

‘It was not you who killed father, not you!’ repeated Alyosha firmly. 

There was a long pause. 

‘I know perfectly well it wasn’t me! Are you raving mad?’” (P.4, B.11, ch.5) 

Why does Alyosha say that? It’s an electrifying moment. As it turns out, Ivan later doesn’t “know perfectly well” it wasn’t him.

Can Ivan say he’s not guilty if he chose to leave, knowing that some disaster would happen? Can he clearly claim he knew nothing? 

Is he guilty if he wants his father to die? 

3/ Fetyukovich, the defence lawyer, also raises interesting questions about the concept of parents and parents’ duties—parricide is seen as morally wrong, shocking, and more outrageous than most other murders, but should one look at it that way when Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov has never acted as a father? Do his children owe him anything if he has never done anything for them? 

I’m not condoning the murder, I’m talking about the case being seen as baser, more shocking because it’s patricide.

Three of old Fyodor’s sons want him dead. 


4/ Another level of guilt in The Brothers Karamazov is to do with religion, and this is where I fail. 

Starets Zosima says his brother believes “truly, each one of us is guilty of the sins of all other men” (P.2, B.6, ch.2)

The belief comes back to him before the duel: “each of us is truly guilty of the other’s sin, only people don’t want to acknowledge it, but if they were to acknowledge it—there’d be paradise on earth immediately.” (ibid.) 

And he thinks to himself: 

“‘surely that can’t be untrue? Truly, I am perhaps the guiltiest of the guilty, and the worst of men upon this earth!’” (ibid.) 

This is before his conversion—it is significant. 

In a section called “Can we sit in judgement over one’s fellow men? On keeping the faith to the end”, Zosima says: 

“If you are able to take upon yourself the crimes of the criminal standing before you, whom you are condemning in your heart, then do so immediately and endure the suffering for him, allowing the man himself to go free and unrebuked.” (P.2, B.6, ch.3) 

I guess “you” is the monks and other people in the monastery rather than everyone (is it?), but even then, it sounds nonsensical to me. 

“If men’s evil should arouse your indignation and cause you unbearable distress, even to the point of making you feel vindictive towards malefactors, fear this feeling more than anything; go at once and seek torments for yourself such as you ought to suffer were you yourself guilty of the crime. Take these torments upon yourself and endure them, and your heart will be appeased and you will understand that you too are guilty, for you could have been the one without sin and the guiding light unto the malefactors, and you were not…” (ibid.) 

This is the kind of teaching I cannot get behind. I refuse to accept it.

Oddly, Dmitry, knowing that he committed no murder and no robbery, says to Grushenka “It’s on account of the bairn that I must go to Siberia” (P.4, B.11, ch.1). Is that about shared guilt, or something else? 

Tuesday 21 March 2023

The Brothers Karamazov: children, innocence, and cruelty

I am, in many ways, not an ideal reader of Dostoyevsky. Firstly, I’m non-religious, indifferent to religion, and ignorant of theology. Secondly, I’m not much of a fan of novels of ideas. 

I started my blog post this way because I’m about to write about one of the things that puzzle me about The Brothers Karamazov.

Children, I’ve been told, are central to the meaning of The Brothers Karamazov. In “Rebellion”, one of the most important chapters of the novel, Ivan explains to Alyosha his struggle with God: 

“ ‘… Listen, if everyone has to suffer in order to bring about eternal harmony through that suffering, tell me, please, what have children to do with this? It’s quite incomprehensible that they too should have to suffer, that they too should have to pay for harmony by their suffering. […] And if the suffering of children is required to make up the total suffering necessary to attain the truth, then I say here and now that no truth is worth such a price. […] And that’s why I hasten to return my entry ticket. If I ever want to call myself an honest man, I have to hand it back as soon as possible. And that’s exactly what I’m doing. It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I’m just, with the utmost respect, handing Him back my ticket.’” (P.2, B.5, ch.4) 

(translated by Ignat Avsey)

He could talk about all suffering, but limits it to children because they “have eaten nothing and are still completely innocent”. 

It is a powerful chapter, and has a stronger emotional impact on me than “The Grand Inquisitor” does.

Later, during the interrogation, Dmitry falls asleep out of exhaustion and has a dream about a crying bairn. He wakes up saying he had a good dream, and it clearly has a significant effect on him, as he later says many times to Grushenka “It’s on account of the bairn that I must go to Siberia” (P.4, B.11, ch.1).

The theme of childhood innocence and children’s suffering is clearly important in The Brothers Karamazov.

And yet, when I look at the children Dostoyevsky depicts, I see not innocence but something else.

There are two children on whom Dostoyevsky focuses in the novel: Ilyusha and Kolya. 

The first time we see children in the novel, it’s a group of schoolboys throwing rocks at each other and at Alyosha. One of the boys is Ilyusha, the 9-year-old son of the Staff Captain who’s humiliated by Dmitry in public. Like most of the adults in the book, he’s full of anger and hatred, and takes it out on Alyosha by throwing rocks at him and biting his finger to the bone. I get it, but it remains nevertheless disturbing that Ilyusha physical hurts someone who has never done anything to him, and stabs in the thigh with a penknife someone who, as we later learn, has been protective of him. 

Not only so, it turns out that once Ilyusha learns from Smerdyakov and hides a pin in some food and lures a dog to eat it, just to see what happens.

Is that innocence? 

Having heard the dog cry in pain, he tortures himself with remorse afterwards, but do the adults not also feel bad after hurting others? 

The other child who features in the novel is 13-year-old Kolya, the one who gets stabbed in the thigh. He’s a precocious child, calling himself a socialist, rejecting God and medicine, and having opinions about all sorts of subjects, but he’s also known in the neighbourhood as a “desperado” because of his reckless pranks and dangerous games.

Note the story he tells at Ilyusha’s house: 

“‘… So I turned to this idiot and I reply, “I was wondering what a goose thinks about.” He stares at me like a real idiot, “What a goose thinks about?” “Well,” I say, “you see that cart full of oats standing over there. There’s a bag with oats spilling out of it, and a goose is sticking its neck right under the wheel to peck at the grain—do you see?” “Yes, so what,” he says. “Well now,” I say, “if one was to push the cart forward just a smidgen, would the wheel decapitate the goose or not?” “Certainly,” he says, “certainly”, and he grins a wide toothy grin, fairly beaming. “Come on then, old chap,” I say, “let’s do it.” […] I gave the lad a wink, he jerked the reins, and—crack, the wheel chopped the goose’s neck in half!...” (P.4, B.10, ch.5) 

There is a cruel streak in Kolya. 

The two children we see in close-up in The Brothers Karamazov both have something cruel in them. The other children aren’t much lovelier either: the schoolboys bully and humiliate Ilyusha mercilessly (though they do come, thanks to Alyosha, to make up with Ilyusha during his illness).

The only children who do seem nice and innocent in the book are Kolya’s little neighbours Nastya and Kostya, but they’re in a short scene.

I probably miss the point entirely. What do you think?  

Sunday 19 March 2023

The Brothers Karamazov: Katerina Ivanovna and Grushenka

It’s probably unwise to write about the characters whilst still reading the book, but I’m going to jot down some thoughts anyway. 

There are two women in the centre of The Brothers Karamazov, and in the centre of the conflicts of the Karamazov family: Katerina Ivanovna is engaged to Dmitry but loved by Ivan; and Agrafena Aleksandrovna, better known as Grushenka, is chased by both the father and Dmitry (she also wants to seduce Alyosha, but let’s ignore that for now).

The two women are different, though both are bonkers. How would you describe them? I think Katerina Ivanovna is more theatrical, and more like a masochist.

“‘… To put it simply, in a couple of words, I’ve already made up my mind, even if he does marry that… creature, whom I shall never be able to forgive, I shall never leave him! From now on I shall never, never leave him!’ she said, her voice quivering in barely concealed anguish. ‘What I mean to say is that I’m not going to chase after him, or irritate him constantly by my presence, or be a burden to him—oh no, I shall go and live in another town, no matter where, but all my life long I shall keep track of him whatever happens. And when he becomes unhappy with her, which he is bound to, then let him come to me, and he will find a friend, a sister… […] And let him see, as long as he lives, that I shall remain faithful to him till I die, and shall remain true to my word in spite of his infidelity and betrayal…’” (P.2, B.4, ch.5)

(translated by Ignat Avsey) 

Even Alyosha calls that theatre. 

Grushenka, in contrast, is a sadist and dominatrix. She has the men twisted around her fingers, and drives them all crazy.  

“People recounted with laughter how Mitya has got the local bumpkins drunk on champagne and had plied the village girls and women with sweets and Strasburg pies. They also laughed, especially in the tavern, at Mitya’s own candid and unsolicited admission (no one laughed in his face of course, for that would have been too dangerous) that, in return for the entire escapade, all that Grushenka had granted him was permission to kiss her foot, and that she had not allowed him to go any further.” (P.3, B.8, ch.5)

Dmitry feels nothing for Katerina Ivanovna despite her devotion and money, but he’s mad about Grushenka. 

But now I’ve realised, they aren’t so different after all.

This is what Grushenka says to Dmitry about the Polish officer who abandoned her: 

“‘Mitya, Mitya, I loved him, do you realize that!’ she began in whispers. ‘I loved him so much, all these five years, all that time! Was it him I loved, or merely my own spite?...’” (P.3, B.8, ch.8) 

Having met the officer again after 5 years, she realises she loves Dmitry: 

“’Will you forgive me for torturing you? I made you all suffer out of spite. I even drove that pathetic old man out of his mind through sheer spite… […] Don’t just stand there! Kiss me… harder, that’s better. Love me, love me more! From now on I’m your slave, torture me, do something to me… Oh, I really deserve to be tortured…’” (ibid.) 

About Katerina Ivanovna, Alyosha thinks: 

“And now, when Alyosha considered Mrs Khokhlakova’s direct and insistent assertion that Katerina Ivanovna, loved Ivan but that, as a result of a deep emotional crisis and a peculiar sense of gratitude, she continued in some kind of bizarre game perversely to delude and torture herself with a fanciful love for Dmitry, he was completely taken aback. […] Alyosha instinctively felt that a woman such as Katerina Ivanovna had an overwhelming need to dominate, but that she could only dominate someone like Dmitry and never someone like Ivan.” (P.2, B.4, ch.5)

In front of her, Ivan says to Alyosha that she “was constantly taking revenge on me for all the insults she suffered at the hands of Dmitry”, then leaves. But later on, when alone with Alyosha, he says: 

“‘… what you have to understand is that it will take her perhaps fifteen or twenty years to realize that she doesn’t love Dmitry at all, that she loves only me, whom she torments…’” (P.2, B.5, ch.3) 

The two women are similar after all: both are driven by spite, both deceive themselves and cling to someone who has treated them callously and cruelly, and both torment someone who loves them (that they themselves also love). 

But that’s not all. I’ve realised that almost all the characters in The Brothers Karamazov, except for Alyosha, are driven by spite: old Fyodor plays the buffoon and mocks everything out of spite; Dmitry and Ivan are both full of spite; the old Captain crumples up the money out of spite and out of shame, having shown too much pleasure upon seeing it; Rakitin takes Alyosha to Grushenka for money but also because of spite, and wants to see his downfall; Smerdyakov is full of spite and hatred for both his adoptive father, the old servant Grigory, and his biological father, old Fyodor; the townspeople flock to Zosima’s funeral out of curiosity and spite, and feel triumphant over his putrefaction and degradation; even the saintly Zosima’s spiteful when he’s young…  

I think it’s fair to say that Tolstoy and Chekhov have a wider range of characters and broader view of humanity than Dostoyevsky does. But spite is Dostoyevsky’s specialty—he is probably unsurpassed in his examination and understanding of spite, shame, humiliation, and irrationality. 

Thursday 16 March 2023

The Brothers Karamazov: Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky

I’m about halfway through The Brothers Karamazov—or The Karamazov Brothers in this edition—in Ignat Avsey’s translation. 

Perhaps the greatness of The Brothers Karamazov is undeniable, perhaps I picked the right translation, or perhaps I, a Tolstoy fan, have found the way to read Dostoyevsky. I’m very much enjoying the book.

People often say that we are either a Tolstoy person or a Dostoyevsky person, and I think it’s largely true that each reader would be more inclined towards one than the other. But as I read The Brothers Karamazov, I’ve realised that they have different visions, different styles, and different strengths, focus on different aspects and reveal different truths about human nature. Dostoyevsky fans like to say he’s the greater psychologist, his novels have more depth or reveal something deeper about human psyche, but I don’t think it’s true. I think they do different things: Dostoyevsky prefers to focus on the extreme and the abnormal, and he’s especially great at depicting spite, degradation, and humiliation. Through them, he reveals human beings’ irrationality. 

In The Brothers Karamazov for example, why does Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov keep playing the buffoon and debasing himself? Why does Alyosha visiting the grave of his mother, i.e. old Karamazov’s second wife, make the old man donate money in remembrance of his first wife, who beat him? Why does Katerina Ivanovna chase after Dmitry then take out her hatred on Ivan, who loves her? Why does the boy bite Alyosha’s finger to the bone when his father was humiliated by Dmitry, not Alyosha? Why does the old Captain crumple up the money and throw it on the floor, knowing how much it would help his family? 

Human beings are irrational. We sometimes, out of pride or spite or mere perversity, do things against our own interests. Dostoyevsky is extremely good at examining and depicting this. 

But something even more interesting I’ve discovered, reading The Brothers Karamazov, is that in some other ways, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are quite similar whereas Chekhov is apart. They’re both religious, placing religion at the heart of their works, whilst Chekhov is a humanist, sceptical of big ideas.

Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy have different views also when it comes to religion, but in the chapter about Zosima’s life history, the young Zosima has a duel with another man and the experiences forces him to rethink everything and changes his life—does that not remind you of Pierre in War and Peace? He then meets a murderer, who for 14 years has been living with the terrible secret and with great guilt—does that not sound like it could be one of Tolstoy’s fables? 

They’re more similar than people think.

In a blog post about The Brothers Karamazov, Himadri (Argumentative Old Git) writes about a mother’s grief, and writes: 

“…  I doubt too many other writers would have depicted so overpowering an emotion with such disconcerting directness.

But Tolstoy, I think, would. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are often held to be extreme opposites, and, in many ways, they are, but at points such as this, they seem to touch. For Tolstoy, too, depicted human emotions with a disconcerting directness.” 

I agree. Chekhov, in contrast, prefers subtlety and restraint, and tends to go out of his way to avoid overt drama.

Saturday 4 March 2023

The Two Noble Kinsmen, the last Shakespeare play

The play is attributed jointly to John Fletcher and William Shakespeare. It’s believed to be Shakespeare’s last play. 

1/ The first scene after the Prologue is clearly written by Shakespeare. 

“1 QUEEN We are three queens whose sovereigns fell before 

The wrath of cruel Creon, who endure 

The beaks of ravens, talons of the kites

And pecks of crows, in the foul fields of Thebes. 

He will not suffer us to burn their bones, 

To urn their ashes, nor to take th’ offense 

Of mortal loathsomeness from the blest eye 

Of holy Phoebes, but infects the winds

With stench of our slain lords…” 

(Act 1 scene 1) 

The three queens are kneeling and begging Theseus and his new wife Hippolyta to help them against Creon. 

That is so good. 

“2 QUEEN […] dear glass of ladies: 

Bid him that we, whom flaming war doth scorch, 

Under the shadow of his sword may cool us…”


The play begins with more excitement than Henry VIII. 

“3 QUEEN Oh, my petition was

Set down in ice, which by hot grief uncandied 

Melts into drops; so sorrow, wanting form, 

Is pressed with deeper matter. 


There, through my tears, 

Like wrinkled pebbles in a glassy stream, 

You may behold ’em. Lady, lady, alack, 

He that will all the treasure know o’th’earth 

Must know the centre too; he that will fish

For my least minnow, let him lead his line

To catch one at my heart. Oh, pardon me; 

Extremity, that sharpens sundry wits, 

Makes me a fool.” 


Metaphor piles upon metaphor. 

In the scene, the three queens interrupt the wedding and beg Theseus to wage war against Creon now, when he’s chilling and unprepared, because they’re afraid that after the wedding, Theseus would be too busy enjoying sex to “think of rotten kings and blubbered queens”. Makes sense. 

2/ I like Palamon’s speech about us being masters of ourselves: 

“PALAMON ’Tis in our power, 

Unless we fear that apes can tutor’s, to 

Be masters of our manners. What need I 

After another’s gait, which is not catching 

Where there is faith, or to be fond upon 

Another’s way of speech when by mine own 

I may be reasonably conceived, saved too, 

Speaking it truly? Why am I bound 

By any generous bond to follow him 

Follows his tailor; haply so long until 

The followed make pursuit? Or let me know 

Why mine own barber is unblessed, with him 

My poor chin too, for ’tis not scissored just

To such a favourite’s glass? What canon is there

That does command my rapier from my hip

To dangle’t in my hand, or to go tiptoe 

Before the street be foul? Either I am 

The fore-horse in the team or I am none

That draw i’th’sequent trace…” 

(Act 1 scene 2) 

Are these arguments for free will? 

In the late plays, Shakespeare’s language can often be knotty, as if he doesn’t care if the audience can understand him. 

Palamon and his cousin Arcite are talking about the tyrannical government of their uncle Creon. 

“PALAMON […] I think the echoes of his shames have deafed 

The ears of heavenly Justice. Widows’ cries

Descend again into their throats and have not 

Due audience of the gods.” 


The idea of people’s grief not being heard by the gods often recurs in Shakespeare’s plays. 

3/ In Act 2 scene 1, the Jailer’s Daughter speaks like Palamon and Arcite have been confined together for some time in prison, then in the following scene, it appears that they’ve met for the first time since imprisoned.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what happens when the play is written by two different people.

Their speeches about rotting away in prison are so good, especially Arcite’s. I don’t want to type the entire speech even though it’s so good, but here’s the final bit: 

“ARCITE […] This is all our world. 

We shall know nothing here but one another, 

Hear nothing but the clock that tells our woes. 

The vine shall grow but we shall never see it; 

Summer shall come and with her all delights, 

But dead-cold winter must inherit here still.” 

(Act 2 scene 2)

I also like Arcite’s speech about consoling themselves and thinking of the prison as a sanctuary from the pain and corruption of the world. But isn’t it against the theme I see over and over again in Shakespeare that thinking cannot change reality, that words of consolation are just empty? 

The feeling of contentment doesn’t last long. The warmth of friendship, after “Is there record of any two that loved/ Better than we do, Arcite?”, doesn’t last long. Everything changes the moment they see and both fall in love with Emilia, Hippolyta’s sister. Palamon’s even ready to kill Arcite over a woman he’s just met—isn’t that a bit… extreme?

In his (apparently) last play, Shakespeare revisits the theme of two life-long friends falling in love with the same woman, from one of his earliest plays, The Two Gentlemen of Verona. I don’t really remember the other play however, except Launce and his dog Crab. 

4/ For long stretches (at least they feel long), the play’s clearly written by Fletcher. He’s not bad—the scenes mentioned in number 3 are most likely Fletcher’s. 

One thing I’ve noted is that the play has several friendships, and they sound kinda gay.

“EMILIA How his longing 

Follows his friend! Since his depart, his sports, 

Though craving seriousness and skill, passed slightly 

His careless execution, where nor gain 

Made him regard or loss consider, but, 

Playing one business in his hand, another 

Directing in his head, his mind nurse equal 

To these so-different twins. […] 

HIPPOLYTA […] Their knot of love, 

Tied, weaved, entangled, with so true, so long, 

And with a finger of so deep a cunning, 

May be outworn, never undone…” 

(Act 1 scene 3) 

They’re talking about the friendship between Theseus (Hippolyta’s husband) and Pirithous, and Pirithous’s distraction since Theseus departed for war, then Emilia talks about “a time when I enjoyed a play-fellow” named Flavina:

“EMILIA […] The flower that I would pluck 

And put between my breasts (then but beginning 

To swell about the blossom), oh, she would long

Till she had such another, and commit it

To the like innocent cradle, where phoenix-like

They died in perfume…” 


Flavina died when they both were 11, but: 

“EMILIA […] That the true love ’tween maid and maid may be

More than in sex dividual.

HIPPOLYTA You’re out of breath! 

And this high-speeded pace is but to say 

That you shall never, like the maid Flavina, 

Love any that’s called man.

EMILIA I am sure I shall not.” 


Palamon and Arcite also talk like lovers, till they fall in love with Emilia and fall out with each other. 

Now look at the scene where Arcite, now disguised as a countryman, stands before Theseus and others after winning wrestling. 

“THESEUS You are perfect. 

PIRITHOUS [to Emilia] Upon my soul, a proper man.” 

(Act 2 scene 5) 

Do they not sound kinda gay? Both are much more enthusiastic than Emilia. 

Shakespeare plays a lot with gender (for example, Orsino and Olivia fall for Viola as Cesario), but in his plays, there are plenty of male friendships and female friendships that don’t sound gay. The friendships Fletcher writes in The Two Noble Kinsmen do. This is an observation, not a complaint.

The scene of Palamon and Arcite preparing for duel is hilarious—I’d love to see it performed. 

5/ The play’s split into 2 plots: about Palamon and Arcite and their fight over Emilia; and about the Jailer’s Daughter, who is unnamed.

The Jailer’s Daughter interests me as a character around the time she, out of love, helps Palamon escape, though not so much when she descends into madness. 

The Wooer’s description of her madness is reminiscent of Gertrude’s speech about Ophelia, but the “Willow, willow, willow” bit makes me think of Desdemona before her death. 

In Act 5, Shakespeare again takes over. The language is clearly different: better, but also knottier in long speeches.

In order to cure her insanity, the Doctor tells the Wooer to pretend to be Palamon. 

“DOCTOR […] If she entreat again, do anything. 

Lie with her if she ask you.

JAILER Whoa there, Doctor! 

DOCTOR Yes, in the way of cure. 

JAILER But first, by your leave, 

I’th’ way of honesty. 

DOCTOR That’s but a niceness. 

Ne’er cast your child away for honesty. 

Cure her first this way; then if she will be honest, 

She has the path before her.” 

(Act 5 scene 2) 

That’s disturbing. 

Before the characters go off, Shakespeare also adds these lines: 

“DAUGHTER And then we’ll sleep together. 

DOCTOR Take her offer. 

WOOER [to Daughter] Yes, marry, will we.

DAUGHTER But you shall not hurt me. 

WOOER I will not, sweet. 

DAUGHTER If you do, love, I’ll cry.” 


How should we feel about this? 

At the end of the play, we hear the Jailer tell someone else that she’s now cured and about to get married—but is she? 

6/ The main plot about Palamon and Arcite’s fight for Emilia is even more disturbing: what does Emilia think? Neither of them knows her, and she doesn’t know them. She cannot choose, but I think it’s less because she likes them both than because she doesn’t want either one to die because of her choice.  

“EMILIA Would I might end first! 

What sins have I committed, chaste Diana, 

That my unspotted youth must now be soiled 

With blood of princes, and my chastity 

Be made the altar where the lives of lovers—

Two greater and two better never yet

Made mothers joy—must be the sacrifice 

To my unhappy beauty?”

(Act 4 scene 2)

Almost the entire play is about the rivalry, and when we get to the end, the resolution is frankly ridiculous. Nonsensical ending. 


Having finished The Two Noble Kinsmen, I have now read all the Shakespeare plays!