Narrative Universals, Heroic Tragi-Comedy, and Shakespeare’s Political Ambivalence

Hogan, Patrick Colm

In The Mind and Its Stories (Hogan 2003b), I argue that three narrative patterns recur with remarkable frequency across cultures. Variations on these patterns account for as much two-thirds of the highly esteemed, prototypical plots in most, perhaps all, narrative traditions. Two of these structures-romantic and heroic tragi-comedy-dominate Shakespeare’s work as well.1 The romantic plot involves two people falling in love, some conflict between the lovers and their society (often parents), the separation of the lovers, and-in the full, comic version2-their eventual reunion. The heroic plot involves a usurpation of social power inside a society (e.g., the overthrow of a king) and an invasion of the home society by a foreign power. In the full, comic version, the usurpation is overturned and the invasion is repulsed.3

Most readers will probably recognize that many of Shakespeare’s plots involve these elements.4 On the other hand, Shakespeare’s plays are clearly not all the same. Indeed, most widely admired plots may approximate one or another of these structures. But it hardly follows that most widely admired plots are identical. There is a difference between Romeo and Juliet on the one hand and gakuntala (or, for that matter, Titanic) on the other. These differences result from the specification of prototypical structures (e.g., the development of the personality traits, appearance, and conditions of the lovers); the rearrangement of prototypical elements in discourse (e.g., altering the order in which the story is told or shifting the focus from the lovers to some apparently ancillary character); the deletion of prototypical events (as in tragedy, where the comic resolution is absent); the addition of further, complicating events, and so on.

A cognitive account of narrative5 includes not only the isolation of universality, but the study of how universality works itself out in particularity as well. This study of particularization subsumes at least two tasks. The first is to articulate the general principles by which universal structures are modified and specified. The second is to isolate social, typological, or individual patterns in the use of these principles. Historical periods, literary traditions, or individual authors may favor one or another way of forming characters, structuring discourse, and so on. Thus we find times and places where tragedy flourishes at the expense of comedy; we find literary traditions developing distinct (though not unrelated) character typologies; we find authors cultivating their own, individual poetic “voice.” In the following pages, I shall examine Shakespeare in relation to the final point. More exactly, I shall consider what makes a specifically Shakespearean heroic tragi-comedy (as opposed to the general, cross-cultural prototype for heroic tragi-comedy). However, before going into that, I need to outline the general features of the heroic plot more fully.

Heroic Tragi-Comedy

Due to the nature of the emotions involved in heroic plots, a complete, prototypical heroic tragi-comedy has two distinct components. The first is the usurpation sequence; the second is the invasion or threat/defense sequence. The two may and often do appear independently. The usurpation sequence involves the rightful leader being removed from his/her position of authority illegitimately. In the most common form of this plot, the ruler is sent into exile and nearly dies, but is ultimately able to return to his/her society and regain his/her position, defeating the usurper. The invasion sequence focuses on a conflict between societies rather than within one society. In this sequence, a foreign power attacks the home society, nearly causing the destruction or metaphorical death of the society. Ultimately, however, the invaders are defeated and the home society emerges triumphant. The two sequences may be combined in several ways. The most prototypical form links the defeat of the common enemy with the restoration of the proper ruler. Specifically, the exiled ruler manages to protect the home society against the external threat. Having succeeded in this task, s/he is able to reclaim his/her position from the usurper, usually by defeating him/her as well.

As I have been stressing, this is a prototypical structure. Thus it is organized by reference to a standard case. It is not a structure defined by strict rules giving necessary and sufficient conditions. As such, it appears in a number of variants that occur slightly less frequently and that are only a bit less prototypical. As already noted, each sub-sequence may appear independently from the other, forming a complete story. In addition, specific elements may be changed. For example, it is common to shift the focus of the story from the ruler to a loyal retainer, such that the plot revolves around the dispossession and exile, then restoration, of the loyal warrior. Sometimes, the rightful ruler is not evicted from rule, but prevented from attaining the position of authority that is his/her due. This is often a matter of a son or daughter being denied his/her rightful advancement. Indeed, in some cases of this sort, a father denies proper advancement to his own son. Another common variation occurs when the ruler is killed or dies before regaining his/her position and the restoration is left to his/her son or daughter.

We may distinguish between the basic narrative structure, on the one hand, and various ancillary motifs, on the other. Motifs are simply plot elements (usually characters or events) that may be inserted into different story structures in order to provide complication, increase suspense, or for some other reason. For example, one common motif associates the protagonist with one main companion. In a related motif, there is often an estrangement and reconciliation between these two figures in the course of the story.

In addition to basic structures and motifs, we may also isolate various “development principles.” These are procedures that may be applied to structures or motifs to intensify the emotion of a section, undermine expectations, prepare the reader for future developments, and so on. Two of these are worth mentioning in the context of the present study. The first is intensifying conflict through familialization. A common development principle in prototypical narratives is the particularization of conflicts as conflicts within a family. Thus usurpation is often the act of a family member. In some cases, even invasions involve familial conflict (as in the famous battle of Rostám and his son Sohráb in the Persian epic Sháhnâme). The second common development principle I should like to mention is the alignment of different registers in the plot. By this, I mean the establishment of parallels, such that, for example, natural conditions mirror social relations or the situation of a character. A common instance of this may be found in the association of a character’s death with winter.

Finally, in addition to structures, motifs, and principles, we need to add a set of functions that are common to prototypical narratives. Cross-culturally, heroic tragi-comedies have operated with astonishing frequency to cultivate a sense of devotion to and pride in an in-group (roughly, a national in-group), a sense of opposition to an out-group (including anger toward that group), and a sense of respect for hierarchies of authority within the in-group. The first and second are most clearly related to the invasion sequence, where a national out-group threatens the national in-group. The third (regarding hierarchy) derives primarily from the usurpation sequence, in which internal social order is disrupted.

There are three development principles that are particularly crucial to the political function of heroic tragi-comedy. The first is a form of alignment, though a form that differs from the one mentioned above. This is not simply a matter of contingent parallels across facts (e.g., death and winter). Rather, it involves the alignment of norms-moral, spiritual, and social. Specifically, the norms of the home society or in-group are presented as identical with transcendental moral norms, which are in turn presented as identical with divine preferences. Thus, in the usurpation sequence, the usurper violates social law (e.g., fealty), the higher ethical principles (e.g., those of loyalty) that underwrite the social law, and the divine will that underlies both (e.g.,”divine right” for English kings or the “mandate of heaven” for Chinese monarchs). Likewise, in the invasion sequence, the home society is ethically and spiritually superior to the foreign, “attacking” society. The in-group is aligned with ethical principles and divine prescriptions. In short, it is in the right. Even when it appears to be the aggressor, it is in fact acting defensively-not merely protecting life and property, but also, and more importantly, the principles that guarantee life and property.

The second and third principles are related to this. They both concern the construction of the plot. The prototypical plot structure in principle allows the addition of earlier or later events, back stories and epilogues. But normative and divine alignment entails a limitation on both the forward and backward extension of the story. Specifically, the evil of usurpation and attack rests on the absolute and singular origin of conflict. The usurpation itself must be the first act, the initiation of the series of events. It cannot be a response to prior usurpations, prior injustices, for, if it is, the narrative cannot function to foster respect for social order. In keeping with this, the invasion or related attack must be the start of conflict. If it responds to prior conflicts, then the functional alignment of norms is disturbed.

This takes us to the third development principle. Given divine sanction, there must be an absolute endpoint to the narrative, a happy conclusion in which good triumphs due to providence or some comparable divine principle. At the same time, that triumph itself is evidence of divine authorization. Since the godly side must win, whoever wins must be the godly side. If there are other stories to tell after the restoration of the rightful ruler or the repulsion of the enemy attack, then they are not continuations of this story. They are, rather, new stories with their own absolute and singular origins and their own providential conclusions.

In sum, the political function of the heroic plot is enabled by a lining up of norms with the ruler and the home society; the construal of usurpation and foreign attack as pure, historyless origins; and the determination of a providential, all-resolving conclusion.

Presidential speeches and government propaganda are fairly brazen in emplotting national history in these terms. However, canonical literary works are rarely if ever entirely unequivocal on normative alignment, absolute origins, or providence. Canonical works regularly develop at least some sort of complexity regarding both abstract rights and human sympathy. Indeed, this results in the frequent appearance of a third part of the heroic structure, what I have called the “epilogue of suffering” (see chapter four of Hogan 2003b). This sequence takes us beyond the obvious ending-the restoration of the rightful ruler and the defeat of the invaders. It stresses the suffering of the defeated enemy and presents the victorious leader as deeply remorseful, or as him/herself guilty of serious crimes. In either case, the hero often goes through a period of penitential suffering-including a further exile-before he/she takes up his/her rightful place in the home society.

Yet, despite all this, the broader justice of the home society and its hierarchy is rarely questioned even in the epilogue of suffering. Indeed, the epilogue of suffering itself may re-enforce the sense of hierarchical, in-group rightness by stressing the humane feeling and ultimate wisdom of the ruler.

Shakespeare’s Idiolect

Many of Shakespeare’s plays clearly instantiate the prototypical structure just discussed, manifesting usurpation and invasion sequences. However, Shakespeare does not particularize these structures in a random way. There are patterns to his individual practices. I will consider some individual plays below. For the moment, I would like to outline a few of his most common preferences, some of the things that make his use of the heroic plot distinctive.

Shakespeare takes up the standard motifs and development principles. He uses some only occasionally (e.g., the conflict between the loyal retainer and the ruler, which we find in the relation between Lear and Kent). He uses others more consistently. Indeed, in some cases, he intensifies or extends them. Consider descriptive alignment. Shakespeare might parallel nature, not only with society, but with the hero’s mental state and personal relations as well. Lear’s madness mirrors the disruption of the state (due to his dispossession), which in turn mirrors the disruption in his family (due to the rule of the children over the parent), which in turn mirrors the disruption in nature (due to the terrible storm). Another standard development principle, familialization, is also one of Shakespeare’s most common strategies. In keeping with a cross-culturally common principle, this familialization is sometimes literal (as in King Lear), but at other times a matter of imagery or a character’s associations, as in Lady Macbeth’s linking of Duncan with her father (“Had he not resembled/My father as he slept, I had done ‘t” [Il.ii.12-13]).

In some cases, Shakespeare takes up a common motif, but changes it in significant ways. For instance, the killing of an innocent youth is a fairly widespread motif in heroic plots cross-culturally. This killing is often performed by the hero or someone else on the “good” side. As such, it is a common trigger for the epilogue of suffering. Shakespeare incorporates such a murder with some frequency. However, he most often attributes this killing to the enemy or “bad” side (insofar as this is precisely determinable, an issue we will discuss below). In keeping with this, Shakespeare’s plays rarely involve an epilogue of suffering. Thus we find Macbeth murdering MacdufFs son; King John ordering the murder of Arthur (and causing his death, though in a somewhat more complex way than one might at first imagine); France killing all the youths who guard the luggage in Henry V (‘”Tis certain there’s not a boy left alive” [IV.vii.5]); and Richard III killing his nephews.

Shakespeare also makes use of less widespread motifs and principles. One is his intriguing characterization of figures seeking a change in power (whether through usurpation or restoration) as suicidal. Examples include Cassius, Brutus, Hamlet, Lady Macbeth, and Arthur (“As good to die and go as die and stay” [IV.iii.8]), as well as the poisoned monk (, from King John. Antony and Cleopatra vary this pattern only slightly. This connection is no doubt more salient and more intriguing today due to the prevalence of suicide bombings in recent years, though only the poisoned monk (who literally explodes []) fits the contemporary pattern very precisely.

A motif-or, rather, the combination of a motif and a development principle6-still more peculiar to Shakespeare is the death of the usurper’s beloved, often through suicide, and usually at a moment of particular conflict and suffering. This is presumably a technique of emotional intensification. As a character suffers political trials, he/she is suddenly faced with a deep personal loss as well. Thus Brutus learns of his beloved wife’s suicide just before battling Octavius; Macbeth receives news that his wife has killed herself just as he prepares for his final battle; Hamlet returns from exile and an attempt on his life to find Ophelia dead, perhaps by suicide. Antony and Cleopatra present a complex version. Antony commits suicide when he hears a false report of Cleopatra’s suicide just after his defeat; then Cleopatra, also following defeat, learns of Antony’s suicide and commits suicide herself. There are some more distant, but nonetheless recognizable variants also, as when King John discovers that his mother has died just as he learns of a rebellion and an invasion (see IV.ii.110-21) or when York learns that his “sister Gloucester” has died at the very moment when “a tide of woes/Comes rushing on this woeful land” (II.ii.90, 98-99). In some ways the most striking variant concerns Albany and Goneril. Goneril commits suicide more or less at the moment of Albany’s triumph. In this case, the event is not so much sorrowful as horrible, a continuation of the terrible devastation that marks this play, even in “success.”

There is even a structural feature that is altered in Shakespeare-consistently, thus not as an occasional variant produced by some development principle. Specifically, for Shakespeare, the exiled ruler or retainer rarely redeems himself by defending the home society against an invader. Rather, the exiled ruler joins the invader. Examples include King Lear, Arthur in King John, Macduff s children in Macbeth, and, with a slight alteration, Hamlet (in his concluding support for Fortinbras).

Needless to say, there are more features that collectively distinguish Shakespeare from other writers. In a short essay, one can hardly name-not to mention explore and develop-all these. However, it sometimes happens that there is a pattern to the particular motifs, principles, and structural variants that mark a writer. We find a striking case of this in Shakespeare. Specifically, Shakespeare’s use of familialization, his intensification of the suffering of the usurper figure (through the death of his/her beloved and his/her own suicidal tendencies), and his association of the deposed ruler with the invading enemy, all tend to make the heroic plot much more ethically ambiguous and emotionally ambivalent. Indeed, in Shakespeare’s heroic tragedies, even the division between usurper and rightful ruler or that between defenders of the home society and invaders is not entirely straightforward. Admittedly, one can in most cases plump for one side or the other. But the rights of the rightful ruler are rarely unequivocal; the justice of the home society in war is rarely unquestionable. Even the death of innocents, as it operates in Shakespeare, is consistent with this. Specifically, the uncertainty of in-group/out-group divisions and in-group hierarchies is not a matter of isolable incidents, such as the killing of a guiltless youth, rare deviations that necessitate temporary penance in an epilogue of suffering. This uncertainty is, rather, the result of a more encompassing situation in which the usual functional patterns are unclear.

In short, perhaps the most remarkable feature of Shakespeare’s heroic plots is that, with hardly an exception, they are not designed in such a way as to take up the usual political functions readily. Indeed, they routinely run contrary to the standard requirements of hierarchical and nationalistic function.7 Thus Shakespeare’s plays rarely present either usurpation or war as having an absolute and singular origin.They regularly indicate that there is a history of claims and counter-claims, a history of conflicts and injustices (or at least hurts and perceived injustices), that precede any usurpation or invasion. It is usually unclear whether there is any isolable origin to this sequence, or even whether it makes sense to ask about such an origin. In keeping with this, despite his intensification of descriptive alignment (setting up nature, mind, family, and society in parallel), Shakespeare most often disaligns the normative registers. In considering this, we might expand our catalogue from norms to a broader set of values, including emotional preference (i.e., sympathy) and prudential considerations (e.g., the relative skills in leadership possessed by the rival rulers), along with legal right, moral right, and divine choice. Shakespeare rarely constructs his plots in such a way that these five registers operate in parallel.8

Many authors at many times and in many cultures display a degree of ambivalence regarding emotional preference and even moral right. However, this rarely affects the central issues of the story. It is, rather, a matter of consequences. The in-group should win the battle, but the suffering of the outgroup excites our sympathy and makes us feel that they should not be punished too severely and that the in-group itself is guilty of some moral violations as well. Again, this is what gives rise to the epilogue of suffering. But Shakespeare commonly goes well beyond this. First, our personal preferences or sympathy may be divided and changeable. At least when paying careful attention to the plays, audience members are likely to find that the qualities and circumstances of characters shift, often systematically, such that they draw our sympathy in one scene only to lose it in another. The reasons for both usurpation and restoration are, most often, partially convincing, and partially unconvincing. The legal status of a particular ruler is rarely evident to a reader. The legal right to a disputed piece of land (in a threat/defense sequence) is rarely well established in the play itself. Ethical issues are usually mixed up as well, at least in the sense that no side appears to be engaging in strictly moral actions. For example, it is repeatedly unclear whether a given war is a matter of self-defense on one side and aggression on the other-in part because, in case after case, the precise origin of the conflict is not specifiable. Moral principles conflict and lead to contradictory conclusions, as do legal principles (e.g., supporting an illegitimate ruler may be unjust, but bloody insurrection, especially through foreign troops may be even more unjust). Legal right is not always consistent with prudence (e.g., rebelling against an illegitimate ruler may be justified, but imprudent, which is to say, bad for the home society). In Shakespeare’s heroic tragedies (as in life), the implications of these registers do not accumulate in force toward a single conclusion, but pull in different directions.9

Moreover, the sides are not clearly divided. Even when we have clear preferences for particular characters and actions, even when some characters seem to be choosing a moral option or to have a reasonable claim to legal right, those characters are not always on the same side. Conversely, the “evil” and unsympathetic characters are not necessarily bunched together and isolated from the rest. They too are sprinkled about, located in different camps. Indeed, the use of familialization and other techniques-including psychologically complex representations of characters from both sides, representations that show us members of each group in their own regular, human thoughts and actions-lead to a blurring of even pre-existing in-group/outgroup distinctions drawn from history. We might expect a sharp division between English and Scottish, Norwegian and Dane, Greek and Trojan, and a very clear sense of author- and audience-identification with one over the other. But this is not the case. Even the distinction between English and French, though not wholly undermined, is by no means absolute.

Finally, there is rarely any clear indication of divine preference. Shakespeare does regularly deal with the issue of providence and his characters routinely make statements about divine intervention in human affairs. But the events in the works are almost entirely inconsistent with these statements. This is true for two reasons, the first bearing on legal and moral issues, the second on personal sympathy. Regarding the former, the goodness of one side and thus the goodness of one outcome are, as I have said, rarely unequivocal. Therefore, even when a story ends with the “right” side winning, ambiguity about this “rightness” makes it difficult to see this triumph as the working out of a divine plan. Turning to sympathy, we find that, even when the story arrives at our “preferred final situation” (as Tan would put it [see Tan 1996]), it does not do so by “surgical” means (to use the popular military phrase). Conflict is not discriminating. Even when we have clear preferences for characters (and, again, this is not always the case), Shakespeare usually punishes the “good” along with the “evil.” Goneril and Regan die, but so does Cordelia; Edmund is about to die, but there are suggestions of Kent’s death as well, and Lear dies in despair. Moreover, even the suffering of the “evil” characters can be moving, can create a sense of their humanity, and thus produce an aversion to their pain. It is hard to accept such endings as the best of all possible worlds, shaped by an omnipotent and benevolent deity.10

In what remains of this essay, I will consider a few exemplary cases, focusing on this central principle of ambivalence. However, in order to clarify the ambivalence that pervades most of Shakespeare’s heroic plots, I would like to begin with a play, perhaps unique among Shakespeare’s works, that is apparently unequivocal in serving the nationalistic functions of heroic tragicomedy.

Henry V

Henry V is an invasion narrative interrupted by a brief and unsuccessful usurpation. The invasion is performed by the in-group against an out-group. But it is presented as a final defeat of a prior attack not treated directly in the play. Thus it is a very truncated version of the attack/defense sequence.

The play begins with a praise poem on the king. This sort of eulogizing is a common part of heroic works, though rare in Shakespeare. This might give rise to an expectation of straightforward nationalism. However, the opening scenes suggest some of the ambivalence that is characteristic of Shakespeare’s other plays. Specifically, the idea to invade France is proposed by the Catholic hierarchy-hardly guarantors of righteousness in Elizabethan England. To make matters worse, their reasons are entirely a matter of selfinterest. Moreover, the legal exposition putatively demonstrating the right of King Henry is convoluted and not altogether believable. The entire sequence suggests deep uncertainty about the absolute and singular origin of the conflict and about the English king’s rights.

In other plays, this ambivalence would be continued and extended. But this is where Henry V is different. The subsequent development of the story is one of the most unambivalently nationalistic uses of the invasion/defense plot with which I am familiar. The alignment of values is particularly noteworthy, and distressing. For example, in a manner all too familiar to Americans (and Iraqis) today, the national leader makes it clear that all atrocities of the war are the fault of the enemy leader (here, the French king) for not surrendering his usurped title (see II.iv.102-10). Later, the barbarous slaughter of prisoners of war is represented simply as a response to French perfidy in the killing of innocent boys (see IV.vii.1-67). In other words, the absolute and singular origin of that particular act-the killing of prisonersis the (by this account, unprovoked) French slaughter of innocents. The English have not committed a crime. The death of the French prisoners falls on the heads of the French themselves. In short, the moral and legal rights are with the English-or, rather, with Henry, -whose violent acts are implicitly identified as the acts of England. Indeed, even prudence favors Henry’s actions, for the war resulted in fewer than thirty casualties for the English and a great harvest often thousand dead Frenchmen (IV.viii.82-83,105-08).The suffering of the French is invisible, and even the ordinary humanity of the French is obscured by having much of their dialogue done in French, thus making them incomprehensible to most Anglophone audience members.

Unsurprisingly, all this feeds into the straightforward providentialism of the play, and the clear identification of the English with the party of God. The argument for war involves the citation of scripture (I.ii. 98) and the explanation that killing is necessary to fulfill “the will of God” (I.ii.289).The usurpation sequence follows, with the rebels characterized as “inhuman” (II.ii.93), “evil” (101), and associated with “devils” (114), the “fiend” (111), “hell” (113),”damnation” (115), and so forth. Even the rebels say that it is the work of God that the rebellion was discovered and foiled (151,157) and confess it a “damned enterprise” (164). Moreover, the rebels regret their rebellion, but they are so joyous about their failure, and even about their deaths, that we are not faced with their suffering-quite the contrary, in fact. We therefore have no reason to feel compassion for them. Subsequently, Henry’s speech at Harfleur concludes with the assertion of divine support for the home society against the foreigner and for the hierarchy of the home society: “God for Harry, England and Saint George!” (III.i.34), the image of St. George serving implicitly to dehumanize the French as a dragon. The St. Crispian’s Day speech re-enforces these themes, enhancing the role of providence (and thus the divine associations of the English) by stressing the physical inferiority of the English troops. Upon victory, Henry calls out, “Praised be God, and not our strength for it!” (lV.vii.89). Subsequently, Henry proclaims that no one may speak of the number killed by the English without explaining that “God fought for us” (IV.viii. 122).

Perhaps the most perverse use of providential thought comes in Henry’s conversation with Bates and Williams, who raise the issue of whether it might not be wrong to kill so many people. In hearing this, one might wonder briefly if there is a sudden re-entry of ambivalence into the play. But the objection to the war is introduced only to allow Henry to answer it. His argument is that God actually uses war to punish the guilty, so that, far from violating God’s principles in killing, the leader who prosecutes a war is actually providing the means for God’s justice (IV.i.170-76). On the other hand, those who are innocent and die in battle go to Heaven; for them, death in war is “advantage” (185). In short, a just war is just for everyone, guilty and innocent.

Like any other work, Henry V can be interpreted as ironic.11 Moreover, a given production may stress the illogic of its arguments. But, with small changes reflecting the alterations in time and place, the arguments are precisely those used by governments and military organizations throughout the world and throughout history (as recent events in the U.S. remind us). I do not know if this shows self-conscious propagandizing on Shakespeare’s part, an attempt to gain favor, external interference with the play (e.g., censorship), or a brief alteration in his unconscious processes, a change in the way his prototypes, motifs, and development principles operated to generate a heroic plot. However, it does not indicate some youthful jingoism, for the ambivalence discussed above characterizes plays written before Henry V as well as plays written later. It even pervades the work Shakespeare composed at the same time. Indeed, though almost exactly contemporary with Henry V, Julius Caesar is a clear case of Shakespearean ambivalence in heroic tragedy.12

Julius Caesar

Shakespeare’s play about the most famous Roman ruler takes up the standard heroic structure, including both the usurpation and invasion sequences, though with some twists. There is an initial rebellion with an overthrow of Caesar. Caesar is killed, so there is no issue of exiling him. As to his heirs, Octavius is already away from Rome and there is some initial uncertainty regarding the fate of Marc Antony. However, rather than Marc Antony being exiled, the usurpers are themselves exiled and Octavius returns. The usurpers then attack Rome and are defeated by Marc Antony (and, to a lesser extent, Octavius).Thus we have the usurpation sequence followed by the attack/defense sequence, with the difference that the usurpation is overturned before the invasion, though the threatened heir remains critical for the defense of the home society. (This is one of the rare cases where Shakespeare comes close to the more usual prototype of the usurped ruler returning to defeat external attackers.)

However, none of this is straightforward. Indeed, Shakespeare develops ambivalence so systematically that one suspects this is a self-conscious strategy, worked into the play methodically. The opening pages mention Pompey as a leader overthrown by Caesar (I.i.39-40, 53-54). This not only undermines any clear sense that the rebels are usurping right rule, it also undermines the notion that there is a single, absolute origin to the conflict represented in the play. The references to Pompey suggest an extended and ongoing sequence of usurpations. Such references turn up at crucial points in the play. A prominent instance occurs when the murder of Caesar takes place at the foot of Pompey’s statue (III.i.114-16). The current act of usurpation is thereby conjoined directly with the earlier act. The location of the murder at Pompey’s statue is subsequently recalled in Marc Antony’s speech (III.ii. 190), providing a brief reminder of ambiguity in a passage that otherwise indicates the perfidy of the rebellion. Another important reference is found near the end of the play, when Cassius compares himself to Pompey (Vi.74). The comparison suggests-contrary to all appearances at this point-that the forces of Octavius and Marc Antony are the usurping/invading army (like those of Caesar when he crossed the Rubicon).

After the opening, we experience many of the events along with Brutus and in many ways think through the story from his point of view. Berys Gaut refers to this as”epistemic identification.” As Gaut explains, “epistemic identification . . . has a tendency to foster empathy” (Gaut 1999,210). In this case, it tends to foster sympathy for Brutus and his side in the conflict. On the other hand, we actually see the brutality of the murder of Caesar and the obscene ritual of the murderers bathing their hands in Caesar’s blood. Moreover, we hear Caesar’s exclamation of astonishment at Brutus’ personal betrayal, “Et tu, Brute?” (III.i.77).That is not all. Prior to the murder, Brutus seems to work through the arguments for killing Caesar very carefully and to act on the basis of moral principle. However, the reasoning is prospective and conjectural. It all concerns what Caesar might do, not what he is currently doing. In this way, Brutus condemns Caesar on what are, in effect, imaginary grounds. Worse still, the reasoning entails a comparable condemnation of Brutus himself. Brutus’s entire argument regarding what might happen to Caesar if he is crowned-the change in his nature leading to “abuse of greatness” (II.i.18)-applies no less to the rebels themselves, including Brutus. This is indicated most clearly by the cries of the Plebians after Brutus’s speech: “Let him be Caesar” and “Caesar’s better parts/Shall be crowned in Brutus” (III.ii.52-54).B

Following the murder, Mark Antony’s speech is more powerful than Brutus’s speech.That, and the points just discussed, might sway us against the rebels. But, in the immediately following scene, we are faced with Marc Antony’s own brutality and the ruling triumvirate’s own bloodbath-later numbered at seventy or one hundred senators killed, including Cicero (IV.iii.l72-77).14 Along the same lines, Marc Antony’s speech appeals to the shared interests of the right rulers and the common people, thus prudential considerations, largely by reference to Caesar’s will. But, once the common people are out of earshot, he immediately tries to limit what will be paid out from that will: “Fetch the will hither, and we shall determine/How to cut off some charge in legacies” (IV.i.8-9). In this way, he at least partially defeats his own prudential argument, as well as his implicit claims to virtue, insofar as these derive from his solicitousness for the well-being of the common people. Moreover, some subsequent developments not only diminish our sympathy for the rulers, but enhance our sympathy for the rebels. Perhaps most importantly, we witness Brutus’s personal miseries, including that over the suicide of his wife. This tends to foster sympathy for him, sympathy that few audience members are likely to have for Marc Antony or Octavius.

In much of what follows, Shakespeare not only balances our sympathies and evaluations, he works to undermine any differences between the two sides. For example, the scenes with Portia mirror those with Calphurnia; a conflict between Cassius and Brutus (IV.iii) is followed by a conflict between Octavius and Marc Antony (Vi). More significantly, Brutus defeats Octavius in war -while Marc Antony defeats Cassius (V.iii.51-53). This suggests not only that the two sides are mirror images of one another. It also indicates that competence is not the monopoly of one side, nor is divine preference (certainly not of the sort that allowed Henry V to defeat a vastly larger French force with almost no casualties to his own side). The near indistinguishability of the two sides continues to Marc Antony’s final speech in which he praises Brutus as “the noblest Roman of them all” (Vv.68) and to Octavius’s statement that Brutus’ corpse will stay in Octavius’s tent until it receives the honors of burial (76-79). This is precisely what one would expect for a dead hero on the side of Octavius and Antony, not a dead enemy.

Needless to say, Marc Antony’s final praise of Brutus does not mean that Brutus was right. This is not a concluding resolution in favor of the rebels. Indeed, Marc Antony’s speech equally stresses the injustice of the other conspirators and it indicates his own generosity of spirit, just as Octavius’s surrender of his tent to the dead Brutus implies his own decency. Above all, audience members cannot help but be aware that everyone is only worse off for all the fighting and killing. In retrospect, Brutus’s justification of engaging in murder for “love [of] country” (III.ii.33) seems thoroughly implausible. The play runs directly against the triumphalistic patriotism that marked Henry V. There is no absolute and single origin to conflict, no stable lining up of values. At each point in the cycle of violence, either side could have ended the killing. When they do not, the result is not only massive death, but despair and suicide as well.15 In this respect also we see the two sides mirroring one another.

Finally, in keeping with the close parallel between the two sides, the play offers a remarkable criticism of group identification. Indeed, in one scene, it effectively undermines the entire idea of in-group/out-group opposition. Inspired by Marc Antony’s speech, a mob first confuses Cinna the poet with Cinna the conspirator. Then, faced with the error, they decide to kill Cinna the poet anyway. As one of them puts it, “It is no matter, his name’s Cinna; pluck but his name out of his heart” (III.iii.33-34). This may seem an isolated and accidental matter. But it is not. Shakespeare shows the absurdity of killing one “Cinna” due to anger over the acts of another “Cinna.”The point holds equally for killing one “Frenchman” (or 10,000 “Frenchmen”-or 100,000 “Iraqis”16) due to the acts of another. There is no more reason to blame other Frenchmen than to blame other Cinnas.

Richard II

It would be convenient if it turned out that Julius Caesar was a sort of turning point, with earlier heroic plays fitting well with the usual nationalistic function of the genre and later plays moving toward ambivalence. However, that is not the case, as we may see from such works as Richard II.

Richard II focuses on the usurpation sequence, though it does so almost in slow motion, dividing the usurpation into stages-thereby revealing another one of Shakespeare’s development principles. (We find something similar in King Lear.) The theme of usurpation is asserted at the outset when Mowbray and Bolingbroke accuse one another. In connection with this, the idea of providence-at least in the form found in Henry V-is almost immediately undermined as Richard shows no faith that a contest between the two will actually prove who is right and who is wrong. From this opening, Richard seems eminently reasonable in attempting to forestall the likely consequences should either of these nobles kill the other, thus perhaps initiating a cycle of violence. However, in the second scene, we hear that Richard is himself a usurper. Indeed, he is reported to be responsible for the very murder debated by Mowbray and Bolingbroke. This certainly taints Richard’s character. On the other hand, it does not undermine his actions regarding the duel. Even if he is guilty of the relevant murder17 it seems that he has nothing to lose by allowing the duel to proceed. Should Bolingbroke be killed, that eliminates one of Richard’s enemies. On the other hand, if Mowbray is killed, then (we may infer from events later in the play) that silences someone who might have testified to Richard’s guilt. Thus preventing the duel remains the reasonable act it seemed at first.

After these preliminaries, Bolingbroke is exiled. In keeping with the standard structure, right after the exile of Bolingbroke, the story turns to a threat, in this case from Ireland. In the usual manner of Shakespeare’s (slightly modified) prototypical structure, Bolingbroke does not return to fend off this threat. Instead, he makes use of the opportunity to stage his own invasion, supported by the Duke of Brittany. In this way, Shakespeare doubles the foreign attack sequence. (Doubling, or even tripling, is another development principle used by Shakespeare.) In part drawing our sympathy toward Bolingbroke, Shakespeare presents a series of complaints against Richard (e.g., II.i.246-55). But right after this we witness the affection Richard’s wife has for him (II.ii). This helps to re-humanize Richard and tends to foster compassion for his side in the conflict. Sympathy is not the only wavering value here. Law too is unclear. York states that legal right is on the side of Richard (II.iv. 167-68), while Bolingbroke claims illegal dealings on Richard’s part (II.iiil28-35). Bolingbroke then goes on to order executions with very flimsy justifications (Ill.i), a point with both legal and emotive ramifications. The ambivalence cultivated throughout the play (with its intensification through familialization) is stated directly by York when he says, regarding Richard and Bolingbroke, “Both are my kinsmen./Th’one is my sovereign, whom both my oath/And duty bids defend; t’other again/Is my kinsman, whom the King hath wronged/Whom conscience and my kindred bids to right” (II.ii.111-15).18

In direct contradiction of providentialism and the alignment of right -with might, once Richard’s defeat is certain, virtually all our sympathy is with him. The one exception to this is the trial regarding Gloucester’s murder. But, first, the trial is inconclusive (as both sides have reason to lie) and, second, the purges engaged in by Bolingbroke seem worse than anything done by Richard. Indeed, in a perversion of the idea of providence, we find Bolingbroke himself playing God in making his decisions as to whether others should live or die. In one such instance he is explicitly called “god on earth” (V.iii.135)-a sort of ultimate usurpation, but one not punished by divine intervention. In short, the only providence this play appears to accept, at least in the short term, is the providence of powerful rulers.

The play ends with Bolingbroke’s rejection of the henchman he used to kill Richard and Bolingbroke’s vow to “make a voyage to the Holy Land,/To wash this blood off from my guilty hand” ( The rejection may function to indicate some moral decency on Bolingbroke’s part, some lingering conscience. But it may equally operate to indicate that Bolingbroke lacks even that basic “honor among thieves” that we find in, for example, Macbeth. The pilgrimage is a projected epilogue of suffering. It is a Christian specification of the temporary exile, the time of repentance and spiritual renewal that precedes full accession to kingship in the complete prototypical structure. But here too there is ambiguity. The epilogue of suffering is usually the act of the rightful ruler, the ruler who has been overthrown and restored, or of the loyal retainer who was unjustly treated but has been returned to his rightful place. It is hardly clear that Bolingbroke is either. Moreover, the vow of the pilgrimage has the ambiguity of all epilogues of suffering. On the one hand, it is an expression of remorse and an act of penance. On the other hand, it is a cheap way of freeing oneself from guilt, purging one’s conscience and currying divine favor.

It is not entirely clear that, at this point, Shakespeare fully recognized the ambiguity in Bolingbroke’s remorse, or in the epilogue of suffering more generally. By the time of Hamlet, however, the hypocrisy, and Shakespeare’s recognition of that hypocrisy, are unmistakable. Claudius is, to my mind, far preferable to Bolingbroke in admitting that he cannot beg forgiveness for his murder of King Hamlet, “since I am still possess’d/Of those effects for which 1 did the murther:/My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen” (III.iii.53-55). On the other hand, if Shakespeare-and his audience-did not recognize the ambiguity in Bolingbroke s final speech, that only enhances the ambivalence of the play. It gives the audience some reason to sympathize with Bolingbroke s feelings of remorse, and to admire his spiritual dedication, even if this hardly counterbalances the affection most audience members have developed for Richard after his defeat.


As the preceding reference to Hamlet suggests, the anti-functional ambivalence we have been considering is also not confined to plays before Henry V. It spans Shakespeare’s career. Henry V does not mark a turning point from youthful non-conformity to mature traditionalism any more than it marks a shift from youthful conformism to mature emotional and evaluative complexity. The complexity is there from start to finish. Hamlet provides a clear instance.

Most of the action in Hamlet concerns usurpation. At least at one level, the play elaborates and complicates the restoration part of this sequence. Before the play begins, Claudius has usurped the kingdom from King Hamlet and thus prevented Prince Hamlet from gaining the throne. (The latter is, of course, the common preventive usurpation variant.) In keeping with the usual structure, Hamlet is exiled. He returns shortly before an enemy army enters the kingdom. Following Shakespeare’s somewhat idiosyncratic prototype, he sides with the entering army. In a variation on this structure, the invading army comes with a peaceful purpose. Moreover, the invading king only stakes his claim when the royal family of the home society has done itself in. Thus Hamlet does not join an invading army in battle. Rather, he in effect bequeaths the kingdom to the invader.

But, here again, things are curiouser than this summary indicates. Most importantly, in certain ways, Hamlet is the usurper. Thus, some things happen to Hamlet that typically happen to the usurper. For example, he suffers the loss of his beloved, perhaps through suicide, at the moment when his sufferings are accumulating toward a final defeat.

The play begins with a motif used elsewhere by Shakespeare, the return of the usurped victim’s ghost. But here the spirit does not haunt the usurper, as in the case of Caesar’s ghost, the ghost of Banquo, or the ghosts in Richard III. Indeed, initially we are unsure of the reason for the ghost’s appearance. He is wearing the armor he wore when he defeated Norway decades earlier, and we immediately hear that Denmark is currently preparing for an invasion from Norway. In other words, the play begins with a very strong suggestion that it will present the attack/defense scenario from the heroic plot. Here, as elsewhere in Shakespeare, the situation is almost immediately confused when we learn that King Hamlet won the disputed territory on a wager. Though Horatio asserts that the entire process was “ratified by law” (I.i.87), no argument is presented, and it is difficult to see how Denmark can justly claim the land. In any case, it is clear that the territory did once belong to Norway and thus that there is no simple, single origin to this conflict (i.e., a simple decision by Norway to invade land that was immemorialIy Danish). Moreover, the fact that the names are identical in the two generations-Hamlet and Fortinbras-may suggest just the sort of unending (thus non-telic, non-providential) cycle of violence that we saw in the earlier plays.

Of course, as it turns out, the ghost’s presence results from the other part of the heroic plot-not invasion, but usurpation. The ghost tells the story of how Claudius murdered him to gain the throne. The idea is plausible, but we are uncertain about the nature of the ghost. Hamlet himself says that the ghost may be “a spirit of health, or goblin damn’d,” bringing “airs from heaven, or blasts from hell” (I.iv.40, 41). Subsequently, the ghost confesses himself to be suffering “sulph’rous and tormenting flames” (I.v.3-4), though only “for a certain term” (10). In other words, he claims to have departed life, neither for heaven nor for hell, but for purgatory.This claim does not entirely resolve the issue. Indeed, it may confuse things further. Shakespeare’s Catholic audience members may have taken the ghost’s assertion as perfectly reasonable. But the Protestants could have seen this as evidence that the Ghost was untrustworthy, that he was lying in his reference to purgatory, a non-existent place, a Catholic fiction.19 Hamlet himself continues to doubt the provenance of the ghost, wondering if he is “a dev’l” who “Abuses me to damn me” (II.ii.579, 583). Even when we learn that the Ghost has spoken truthfully about the murder, his own nature remains uncertain. As Watts points out, “even a veracious ghost could still be diabolic, since the Devil can tell the truth to suit his purposes” (2002a, 18).

On the other hand, I imagine that most audience members are willing to accept that the Ghost is telling the truth, not only about Claudius (a point confirmed later in the play), but about his own identity and condition as well. (Even Protestant audience members may accept that purgatory is real in a fiction, even if it is a fiction in reality.) This gives Hamlet at least a partial justification for setting out to kill Claudius. Moreover, the entire play focuses on Hamlet. We share his point of view, and, what is crucial here, we know his suicidal despair. We see him love, act in friendship, joke, feel hurt by Ophelia’s apparent rejection. He is a full person for us, and a person whose father has evidently been murdered. Thus we have strong reasons for supporting him, for seeing his case as right and Claudius as wrong.

Yet, killing Claudius remains the killing of a king, thus an act of treason in many ways directly comparable to Claudius’s killing of King Hamlet.20 Indeed, the parallel goes beyond the act itself to the motivation. On the one hand, Hamlet desires to right a wrong. His goal is restoration. But the restoration is, of course, his own (as heir to King Hamlet), and part of his motivation is the simple desire to be king. Thus he tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he suffers grief because he “lack[s] advancement” (III.ii.320). Elsewhere, he explains that Claudius “Popp’d in between th’election and my hopes” (V.ii.65). Hamlet is, at least to some degree, motivated by the very feeling of ambition that drove Claudius to murder King Hamlet initially (for Claudius’s motivation, see III.iii.55). The identification is perhaps most striking in “The Mousetrap,” where the usurper is not the king’s brother, but his nephew.

Beyond all this, regicide is not merely a legal and moral issue, but a prudential one, for the murder of the king affects the entire society. Though said in flattery, Rosencrantz s comments on the life of a king are not invalid. He refers to the king as “That spirit upon whose weal depends and rests/The lives of many” (III.iii. 14-15), explaining that a king “Dies not alone, but . . . doth draw/What’s near it with it” (16-17). Again, a single murder-especially the murder of a ruler (whether the rightful heir or a usurper)-is never an absolute end and resolution. It is invariably a source of further death and destruction, a point borne out by Claudius’ and Hamlet’s murders in the course of the play.

The Tightness of Hamlet’s cause is enhanced when we learn at last that Claudius did in fact commit the murder, as claimed by the ghost (III.iii.3638). But the force of this revelation is diminished by a series of events surrounding it. First, Hamlet himself never hears Claudius’s confession. His evidence of the murder is all circumstantial.21 Our knowledge that Claudius is the murderer hardly justifies Hamlet’s revenge. Second, along with Claudius’s confession, we learn about his feelings of guilt. This at least creates some sympathy for, in Hawkes’s words, “the pitiable human situation . . . of a man torn by the conflicting demands of criminal passion and remorse” (2002, 183). Perhaps more significantly, it is difficult to align Hamlet with the good and the divine when he has to restrain his impulse to kill his mother (see III.iii.367-78), who presumably knew nothing of the murder.22 Moreover, in this speech, Hamlet explicitly associates his undertaking with “hell itself” (368). Along the same lines, there is some excess in Hamlet’s insistence that Claudius not merely die, but go to hell (see III.iii.95). After all, Hamlet’s father is suffering only purgatory. Finally, the whole scene between Hamlet and Gertrude disturbs any easy admiration for Hamlet. First, he seems poised to murder his mother, who cries out “Thou wilt not murther me?/Help ho!” (III.iv.21-22). Immediately following this, he does kill Polonius and shows no real remorse, but is, instead, quite “callous,” as Foakes puts it (2002, 93). Rather than recognizing that he has committed murder, he engages in a repellent fantasy of his mother’s sexual relations with Claudius (“In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed . . . honeying and making love” [III.iv.92-93]).

At this point, one might wonder if the play is establishing Claudius as a flawed, but rightful ruler and Hamlet as the usurper.23 But here Claudius initiates the plot to kill Hamlet. His subsequent scheming with Laertes only compounds the fault. These actions weigh heavily against Claudius-morally, emotively, and in every other way. Yet, even in this part of the play, things are not simple. Between Claudius’s two plots, Hamlet has forged orders for the King of England to kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, though there is no reason to believe that they knew anything about the plot on Hamlet’s life. Hamlet even admits to killing them simply because they became involved in royal affairs. “They are not near my conscience,” he tells Horatio. He goes on to explain that their death is their own fault because ‘”Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes/Between the pass and fell incensed points/Of mighty opposites” (V.ii.58-62).24 On the other hand, we do not see these deaths. We only hear about them, which diminishes their emotional force. Moreover, it is easy for an audience member, caught up in the events, to unthinkingly assume that Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern were necessarily parties to the plot against Hamlet’s life-though, at the same time, it is important that Hamlet himself does not use this as his excuse.

In short, the play derives directly from the usurpation sequence. But, like the other plays we have considered (excepting Henry V), it is insistently ambivalent. It systematically disaligns values and feelings. It indicates that heroic violence is an unending cycle with no absolute origin in unmotivated individual evil (e.g., the mere greed of Fortinbras) and no ultimate end in providential resolution. One point where this idea is strikingly articulated occurs when Hamlet compares himself directly to Laertes. Hamlet’s relation to Claudius, in this view, is the same as Laertes’s relation to Hamlet: “by the image of my cause I see/The portraiture of his” (V.ii.77-78). But, of course, Laertes is on the side of Claudius, against Hamlet. The parallel makes it impossible to choose one side as right and the other as wrong. Whatever might seem to justify one side directly justifies its opposite as well.

The few references to providence sustain or even advance the work’s ambivalence. Here as in other plays, “some ultimately beneficent, supernatural plan . . . is expressly invoked” only “to be shattered time and again by fresh horrors” (Ryan 2002, 96), horrors that do not bear on one side only. That is not all. At one point, character invokes providence with such palpable irony that it becomes almost impossible to take the idea seriously. When threatened by Laertes, Claudius affirms the divine determination of political events, claiming that Laertes cannot simply choose to rebel. The king is protected by God. Addressing Gertrude, who is trying to restrain Laertes, he says, “Let him go . . . do not fear our person:/There’s such divinity doth hedge a king/That treason can but peep to what it would” (IVv. 122-24). But of course the entire story we are witnessing would be impossible if this were true. Claudius knows perfecdy well that no divinity hedges a king, whether legitimate or a usurper, and that treason encounters no supernatural barriers. After all, he has successfully murdered a king himself. Given this, an audience member can only conclude that Claudius’s claim-and, more generally, the standard alignment of God and ruler-are merely self-conscious deceit and propaganda.

The play ends with a no less ambivalent treatment of the invasion sequence. Hamlet gives his “voice” to Fortinbras as the new ruler (V.ii.338). This is a strange choice, given that Fortinbras should have been the paradigm of the enemy. But it is consistent with what we have seen in other plays. In part, it shows a mixing up of in-group and out-group. In part, it represents a simple recognition that peace is better than war and that, without a peaceful ceding to Fortinbras, a war would follow. The idea is in keeping with Hamlet’s earlier account of Fortinbras, an account that seriously questions the nationalistic function of heroic plots.25 Hamlet meets a captain in Fortinbras’s army, who explains that the troops are heading off to war over “a little patch of ground/That hath in it no profit but the name” (IV.iv.16-17). Hamlet summarizes the theme, “Two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats/Will not debate the question of this straw” (25-26). He goes on to explain Fortinbras’s action as the result of “spirit with divine ambition pufFd” (49). Renaissance audience members should have immediately recognized “divine ambition” as the sin of spiritual pride, an intenser form of the same ambition that motivated Claudius and motivates Hamlet. But here the danger is not a single murder. It is “The imminent death of twenty thousand men” fighting “for a fantasy and trick of fame” (60-61)-precisely the fate that is both perpetuated and occluded by heroic tragi-comedy even to the present day.

The Tempest

It should be clear that such plays as King John, Richard III, Titus Andronicus, King Lear, Macbeth, and Coriolanus are robust, if highly complex instances of heroic plots, including usurpation, exile, invasion, alliance of the exiled leader with the invader, and so forth. Other works, such as Troilus and Cressida, Antony and Cleopatra, and Cymbeline, include partial heroic plots or elements of heroic plots as well.26 I will leave it to the reader to consider the precise relation of these plays to prototypical heroic tragi-comedy and the degree and nature of their ambivalence.

In conclusion, I wish to consider a play that is not so obviously an instance of heroic tragicomedy-The Tempest. At first blush, it may seem that The Tempest offers a romantic plot. And it does, to a degree. But it is also a heroic plot, despite its lack of “heroism.” I have chosen The Tempest because, like Henry V, it is a comedy, but it is a comedy that is consistent with the treatment of heroic structures in the other plays. That treatment, as we have seen, undermines the standard political function of heroic tragi-comedy. But it does so, in part, by making the vision of those plays deeply tragic. In short, those works show us -what is wrong with the propagandistic uses of the heroic structure. But they offer no positive alternative. Of course, Henry V is positive. But that is only because it accepts the propaganda exposed in the other plays. In contrast with both cases, The Tempest suggests how the heroic plot may be specified in such a way as to resist its usual ideological function while still permitting a comic conclusion. The idea has ramifications that go well beyond play writing.

Though it may not be evident at first, The Tempest is, at its heart, a play about usurpation. Like Hamlet, it focuses on the restoration part of the usurpation sequence. However, unlike Hamlet, it eschews violence as a means to attain restoration. That, I believe, is what allows it to be a comedy-in striking contrast with Henry V where the comic conclusion is premised on mass murder. Put differently, the play returns to the brief moment from early in Shakespeare’s career-the moment of Henry V-when he evidently believed that a comic resolution to a heroic plot was possible (assuming the development of that earlier play was not determined by political expediency or censorship). However, it retains the insight and attitude of the other heroic plays-that violence leads to violence, that there is no direct and evident providential decision by which God chooses one side over the other in conflict, that good and evil are not doled out as wholes. In short, it preserves the humane sense of ambivalence we have been treating, but it nonetheless allows a positive resolution.

The fundamental usurpation in the play is obvious. It is a familial betrayal by which a brother overthrows a brother (again, like Hamlet). It is preceded by Prospero’s delegation of authority to Antonio-a Shakespearean motif that we see also in King Lear and, in a different form, in Titus Andronicus. Alonso then joins with Antonio in what is effectively an invasion sequence. “A treacherous army” (I.ii.128) enters Milan and Prospero is exiled. Here, in a slight variation on Shakespeare’s prototype, the usurper joins with the invading army, rather than the exiled ruler doing so. This to some extent reduces the ambivalence of the plot, for Antonio is wrong on both counts: he has no right to rule, and he has betrayed his society to an invader. Yet Antonio does have some claim in terms of merit and ability. As in King Lear, it is not entirely unreasonable for someone who has all the responsibilities of rule to expect the pomp and ultimate authority of office as well. Moreover, he is not bloodthirsty. The rebels and invaders do not kill Prospero and his daughter. That not only affects our emotional attitude toward the play (contrast a play in which Prospero and Miranda narrowly escape an attempted execution). In many ways, this one reticence, the fact that “they durst not . . . set/A mark so bloody on the business” (I.ii. 140-43), allows the peaceful and comic resolution at the end of the play.

Of course, none of this makes Antonio or his ally, Alonso, sympathetic. We know Prospero intimately, whereas we know Antonio and Alonso only distantly. Moreover, law and moral principles clearly favor Prospero. On the other hand, the mere fact that Prospero is so adept at magic taints his actions and his character. His power is too close to witchcraft, too near to demonic practices. Moreover, the side of Antonio and Alonso is not without its positive merits. The compassionate Neapolitan, Gonzalo, who helped Prospero and Miranda at the moment of usurpation, remains with Alonso’s party. Alonso’s son, Ferdinand, appears generally admirable. He is certainly not guilty of his father’s crime. Any general attack on the side of Antonio and Alonso would be wrong in this context, for it would result in the suffering of innocents-the inevitable result of war, as the other plays show. In short, there is not a simple division of good on one side and evil on the other.

Beyond this, we develop sympathy with Alonso when the first of two usurpation subplots begins. Specifically, the play concerns not only the restoration of Prospero. It equally treats the failed usurpation of Alonso by Sebastian and Antonio. Indeed, this plot is worse, for it rests on the death of Alonso. This murderous project does operate to make Antonio a more damnable figure. But it establishes a parallel between Alonso and Prospero. While this conspiracy does not mitigate Alonso’s earlier crime, it makes the danger to his life more salient than his past treachery. In addition, the parallel with Prospero (along with Ferdinand’s developing romance with Miranda) helps to undermine what would otherwise be a simple ingroup/out-group division between Naples and Milan.

The third usurpation plot-manifesting Shakespeare’s development principle of narrative repetition with variation-complicates the situation still further. It concerns Stéphane,Trinculo, and Caliban, who seek to unseat Prospero. This is perhaps the point in the play where ambivalence arises most significantly. In some ways, the usurpation plot of this bibulous crew is farcical. However, there are serious elements to it. For example, Caliban treats wine as if it is sacred and Stephano as if he were a deity. On the one hand, this is absurd. On the other hand, it is difficult not to recall that, in Christianity, there is a close association between wine and sacredness. Indeed, Christian Europeans, encountering Caliban on an island, would have tried to convert him to a doctrine which preached precisely that God appeared in human form and poured out sacred wine to his followers.

More importantly, it is far from clear that this is the usurpation part of a usurpation sequence. In many ways, it is a failed restoration, with the usual Shakespearean variation of the deposed ruler (here, Caliban) allying himself with invaders (here, Stephano andTrinculo). Early in the play, Caliban offers a strong argument that “This island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,/Which thou tak’st from me” (I.ii.334-35).We are never given good reason to believe this is untrue. As Wheeler points out, “Caliban s experience of betrayal closely parallels Prospero’s story of an inherited claim usurped by someone he trusted” (1995, 141). Thus we have a triple parallel-Alonso is parallel to Prospero, -who is in turn parallel with Caliban. But there is a difference. Alonso remains the usurper of Prospero’s rule, and Prospero remains the usurper of Caliban’s inheritence. Caliban does not appear to have usurped anyone’s rule.

The subsequent revelation of attempted sex crimes certainly makes Caliban less sympathetic. But it does not entirely degrade him. First, the accusation is milder than what we would call “rape” today: “thou didst seek to violate/The honor of my child” (I.ii.349-50). Any attempt to have sexual relations without marriage-including the sorts of profession of love that apparently passed from Hamlet to Ophelia-could in principle be characterized in these terms. As long as Caliban bypassed the authority of Prospero in the matter, he was seeking to violate Miranda’s honor. Moreover, this does not seem to bear on the issue of usurpation-though Prospero presents it as his primary argument against Caliban’s claims. Finally, even relevant arguments would have no real force here. After all, Prospero is not a judge in some international criminal court, empowered to decide on the deposing of foreign rulers. Admittedly, he articulates another argument elsewhere-that Sycorax was not born on the island, but exiled there. However, it is not clear how this is relevant either, since Caliban’s claim to the island remains prior to that of Prospero. Stephano’s assertion of ownership of the island, an assertion that simply ignores Prospero, appears to be a mirror image of Prospero’s own assertion, with its simple ignoring of Sycorax and Caliban. Indeed, Stephano’s claim even involves the same liberatory rhetoric. Prospero implicitly justifies his domination of the island and of Ariel by the assertion that he freed Ariel from the pains imposed on him by Sycorax. In the same way, Stephano promised to liberate Caliban from the “tyrant” Prospero, as Caliban calls him (III.i.155).

Of course, Prospero repeatedly links Caliban with demonic origins and practices, as when he says that Caliban was “got by the devil himself” (I.ii.322). This may seem to undermine any ambivalence suggested elsewhere. But it does not, I believe, produce the simple godly/Satanic division one might expect in this context. Indeed, Caliban more convincingly, if implicitly, links Prospero with demonic practices when he claims that “by sorcery he got this isle;/From me he got it” (III.ii.50-51). Unsurprisingly, this too requires qualification. Most importantly, Prospero s use of sorcery is never fatal. It causes pain to Caliban, but frees Ariel from pain. In causing the tempest at the outset, Prospero is careful to keep everyone alive. Again, it is not that Prospero is the bad character. It is just that there is no simple alignment of sides and values, no simple statement about divine choice, social order, and the division of in-group and out-group.

The conclusion of the play is, again, comic. Prospero is restored, and he is restored entirely by policy-manipulative policy, but policy nonetheless, not murder.The play alludes directly to the sorts of violence that produce the epilogue of suffering. Ariel explains to Prospero that “The King,/His brother, and yours abide all three distracted .. .That if you now beheld them your affections/Would become tender” (V.i.12-13,18-19). Prospero does not press further, but responds, “And mine shall” (20). Rather than exacting revenge, he will stop before the cruelty that leads to remorse-and, as Shakespeare indicates, to a cycle of violence. He explains that “They being penitent/The sole drift of my purpose doth extend/Not a frown further” (V.i.28-30). Clearly, repentance is necessary. If Prospero became duke again, but Alonso and Antonio had no remorse for their prior usurpation, they would be likely to seek out any opportunity to repeat it. But, Prospero explains, he does not ask anything beyond this necessary condition, not even to the extent of a single frown. In keeping with the general attitude manifest in his heroic plays, Shakespeare here presents forgiveness and reconciliation as the only way to end the cycle of usurpations and invasions. That is the clear suggestion of the final lines, when Prospero addresses the audience, asking them, “As you from crimes would pardoned be,/Let your indulgence set me free” (Epilogue 20). To prevent further harm, Prospero refrains from revealing the treachery of Sebastian and Antonio (V.i.126-129). He punishes the plot of Stephano and Trinculo only with housekeeping (V.i.292-294).

Yet there is still something missing here. I have just referred to the Italian characters. But what about the characters Prospero found already on the island? Ariel is freed. Caliban is subjected to the same punishment as Stephano and Trinculo. But what is to happen to him after that? Prospero’s departure suggests that perhaps he has regained dominion over the island, that this usurpation too has ended in restoration (cf. Omesco 1993,164). In light of postcolonial interpretations of the play,27 this may seem slight. One might have wished Prospero to be remorseful over Caliban (perhaps even over Ariel) as Alonso is remorseful over Prospero. Perhaps this is hoping for too much. Or perhaps not. The epilogue to the play presents us with a vision of Prospero trapped, “confined” (Epilogue 4) on the island, as Ariel was “confme[d]” in the tree (I.ii.275) or Caliban was “confined” in the rock (364). Prospero is, in this way, no less one of islanders than he is one of the Italians.28 The point blurs the in-group/out-group division between them. Moreover, Prospero himself asks forgiveness. In a context that so clearly suggests Ariel and Caliban, the sins which he repents are almost certainly his treatment of these prior inhabitants of the island.

This multiplication of remorse, compassion, and forgiveness-extended from the characters to the real world members of the audience at the endculminates Shakespeare’s vision, or revision, of the heroic plot. It involves all the ambivalence we have seen in the other plays. But it uses that ambivalence positively to produce a comedy, however muted. The usurpation plot is finished. Restoration is accomplished. The invasion is ultimately unsuccessful. But these standard resolutions are not achieved by the good exterminating the evil. They are achieved by flawed people acting together with empathy, penitence, and mercy.29


I hope to have shown three things in the preceding pages. First, a large number of Shakespeare’s plays fall into the general, cross-cultural pattern of heroic tragi-comedy. In other words, Shakespeare is no exception to the universal predominance of the romantic and heroic plots. second, like any author, Shakespeare specified the heroic prototype in ways that are themselves patterned. The motifs and development principles he employed are largely universal. But the particular complex they formed was unique to him. One important part of this complex was a systematic development of ambivalence and a systematic undermining of the main ideological functions of heroic tragi-comedy-increased in-group identification, antagonism toward an out-group, and the alignment of positive values with the in-group as socially hierarchized. Finally, I hope to have shown that a cognitive approach of this sort is consequential for our interpretation of particular plays. In short, I hope to have indicated that the cognitive study of literature may help us understand the human mind in general-with its universals of narrative and emotion-as well as the individual works and broader, creative practices of particular human minds, including that of Shakespeare.


1 The third structure is sacrificial tragi-comedy. It does not appear to play an important organizing role in Shakespeare’s works.This is not to say that there are not sacrificial motifs in the plays. There are. These have been identified by a number of writers (see, for example, Girard 2002 on Julius Caesar).

2 I refer to the “full comic version” because some works end without a comic resolution and are, therefore, not tragi-comedies, but tragedies. A plot involves one or more characters pursuing a goal of happiness. Roughly speaking, if they achieve happiness, the story is a comedy; if happiness is lost, the story is a tragedy. The prototypical plot moves through a complete loss of the goal (e.g., the apparently permanent separation of the lovers) before happiness is fully and finally gained. A tragic work simply stops at the point of this loss. Thus, a tragedy is an incomplete tragicomedy.

3 The recurrence and prominence of these structures may be understood as deriving from universal principles of human emotion. For a full development of my argument and evidence, see Hogan 2003b. For a briefer summary, see 133-39 of Hogan 2003a. One reader was confused by the lack of reference to Shakespeare’s historical inheritance of these structures. S/he even suggested that I add a discussion of Shakespeare’s reading of the Romans. The entire point of the argument is that the three prototypes are not historically or culturally relative. In fact, they are ubiquitous. They pervade narratives cross-culturally. In this way, they are akin to, say, alliteration or metaphor. Yes, Shakespeare read the Romans, and they influenced his specification of these structures. But he would have formed the general prototypes without any exposure to the Romans. Maintaining that one needs to spell out the specific readings that allowed Shakespeare to acquire heroic tragi-comedy is like maintaining that one needs to spell out the specific readings that allowed him to acquire alliteration or metaphor.

4 Yet these patterns have hardly been discussed by critics in a systematic way. In part, this is a result of the preliminary organization of Shakespeare’s works. The division into histories, comedies, tragedies, and romances occludes the relevant patterns. Richard H, King Lear, and Tlie Tempest are (at least in part) heroic structures. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and Cymbeline are (at least in part) romantic structures. But standard classifications would separate these plays into history, tragedy, and romance in the first set; comedy, tragedy, and romance in the second set. We see the problem, for example, in McAlindon’s (2002) discussion of Shakespearean scholars’ failure to answer the question, “What is a Shakespearean tragedy?” In part, this failure results from a problematic initial organization of the plays.

5 My reference to a cognitive account of narrative has confused one reader. I trust that the general context of the issue on cognitive science and Shakespeare will serve to clarify the idea. Readers looking for a general introduction to cognitive science may wish to consult Dawson (1998). One particular confusion has concerned the relation of my analyses to evolutionary psychology. In fact, evolutionary psychology has no particular bearing on the present essay. Nonetheless, readers interested in learning about evolutionary psychology may wish to consult Pinker (2002). For a critical view of evolutionary psychology, they may look at the final chapter of Hogan (2003a). There has also been some confusion regarding the relation between cognitive science and structuralism. As far as I can tell, there is no overlap in the mental operations posited by the two approaches. Evidently, some readers see them as similar because they seek to derive general principles from empirical study-but that is common to all forms of research that do not claim a priori validity. A related point applies to questions about the relation between the narrative universals treated in Hogan (2003b) and some of the structures set out by Northrop Frye. First, the three narrative prototypes are, for the most part, different from the structures articulated by Frye. There is significant overlap only in the case of the romantic plot-though, even in that case, Frye s account is developed much more narrowly by reference to the European tradition. Moreover, at those places where our accounts of the romantic plot overlap, we are both drawing on well-known facts. In other words, writers on the European tradition have recognized these facts; so have writers on the Sanskrit tradition; so have writers on the Arabic/Persian ghazal tradition, and so forth. What is odd is that the recurrence of this pattern across traditions has largely gone unnoticed. For this reason, the cross-cultural, prototypical form of the romantic tragi-comedy has not been adequately described. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I explain these universals by reference to a well-defined, neuro-cognitive account of emotion, not by reference to the semi-mystical, Jungian idea of archetypes. For more on my relation to Frye, see Hogan (2003b, 13n.7).

6 Distinctions between motifs and development principles are not hard and fast. The division parallels that between representational and procedural schemas, which are cognitively distinct but always interrelated in practice.

7 The general point bears on Ebihara’s contention that criticism of Tudor political doctrine is central to Shakespeare’s dramas (1968).

8 Though speaking more generally, and in a different analytic context, Bill Rosen made a related point about “opposing values” in Shakespeare’s works (1960, 147; see also Kiernan [1996, 206 and 219]).

9 This is not to say that they do not produce unequivocal preferences in individual readers. They often do. This is true for two reasons. First, it is part of our emotional make-up that ambivalent inputs tend to produce singular emotional outputs (see Hogan 2003a, 171 and citations). More importantly, many readers are simply not emotionally sensitive to some of the complexities in Shakespeare’s works. For example, when reading King Lear, my (American) students seem to have no sense of the horror of a foreign invasion. They do not feel a sense of conflict between England and France. They are numb to the fact that talk of a French invasion was so threatening at Shakespeare’s time that it probably gave rise to censorship of the play (see Weis 1993, 28).This is not the result of some cognitive disability or of some emotional bluntness. It is, rather, a predictable result of personal experiences and interests as these occur in our current historical context-a context in which “terrorism” gives rise to a sense of horror, but invasion (with its prototype of benevolent American GI’s handing out peanut butter sandwiches to hungry Afghanis) is simply liberatory.

10 The preceding outline of patterns across Shakespeare’s works differs considerably from some proposals made by prominent Shakespearean scholars. Part of the reason for this has to do with my re-organization and re-categorization of the works, out of history, etc., and into heroic and romantic. But the differences are clear even when critics choose to focus on plays that are prototypical heroic tragi-comedies. For example, Fergusson isolates a very different pattern in Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. As Fergusson puts it, “the de facto ruler . . . creates a situation in his reign in which ‘God’s truth’ is lost to sight … .A series of blind struggles follows,” leading to “visions of anarchy,” and so on (1958,167). Moreover, Fergusson finds a different pattern in plays such us Julius Caesar (see 170-72). My analysis does not necessarily contradict Fergusson s. There is not one pattern only in Shakespeare’s works, or in anything else. However, I suspect that the relative neglect of the patterns just indicated is the direct result of critics not reading Shakespeare in the context of universal narrative patterns. Here the example of linguistics is instructive. If we analyze English grammar in isolation, it is likely to appear much more complex, much more a matter of arbitrary and diverse rules, than if we analyze it in the context of universal grammar, specified through the setting of parameters (on the Chomskyan idea of parameters in universal grammar, see Belletti and Rizzi 2002). We simply miss things about particulars when we fail to recognize their relation to universals.

11 On the other hand, even writers who look for ambiguity and irony often do not come up with much. For example, Khan focuses on “ambivalence” in the play (1976, 51), but only finds brief moments of uncertainty in a work that, as he puts it, “unashamedly undertakes to be simple and naïve” (64). Mason makes a more extended case. But it is difficult to imagine audience members taking the play to show “the brutal reality of war” (2002,185) in a way that does not simply blame the enemy for the brutality. For example, she writes that the audience is invited “to note the terrible inappropriateness of the position of a child in war” (188). But it seems much more likely that the French killing of the boys would be viewed as evidence of French perfidy, at least by Shakespeare’s own audience. Finally, some critics have focused on the fact that we learn about Henry’s killing of the French prisoners a few seconds before we learn about the French killing of the boys. But this is not really a problem. One only needs to assume, quite reasonably, that Henry knew about the boys before we did.

12 Though treated in very different contexts, the ambivalence of the play has been recognized for quite some time. As early as 1968, René Fortin argued that the “focal point of recent studies of Julius Caesar has been the very ambivalence of a play which has allowed for such contradictory responses” (1968, 341).

13 In keeping with this, Miles sees Brutus as “Caesar’s mirror-image” (1996, 134). Along the same lines, Girard discusses the ways in which “Brutus unconsciously turns into a second Caesar” (2002, 109). More generally, Rebhorn argues that the assassination of Caesar “is carried out by individuals whose actions are presented in the play in exactly the same way” as those of Caesar (2002, 29).The common factor is “the drive to excell all others” (29). Rebhorn convincingly ties Shakespeare’s development of this point to the historical condition of English political economy at the time.

14 Kiernan rightly emphasizes the rhetorical function of the scene as impugning the characters of the triumvirs (1996, 59).

15 As the preceding comments suggest, the crucial matter determining tragic outcomes in Shakespeare’s heroic plays is, I believe, violence. These outcomes are more commonly understood in terms of Renaissance ideas concerning ambition. For example, Watson writes that “The desire to transcend oneself, to become something greater than one was born to be, is a natural and seemingly noble human tendency; yet it becomes a means of self-destruction, a betrayal of nature and origins that invites primal punishment” (2002, 162). It is undeniable that issues of ambition, in this rather technical sense, are of central importance in Shakespeare’s works. However, what generates heroic tragedy is, I believe, not ambition per se, but violence-specifically, murder.This view is supported by the fact that the terrible, cyclic effects of violence are apparent in both Watson’s types of tragedies (those of ambition and those of revenge). Perhaps more importantly, it is supported by the existence of a late heroic comedy, The Tempest. In this play, it appears that tragic outcomes are avoided, not by the absence of ambition (which is ubiquitous in the play), but by the eschewal of violence in favor of forgiveness and empathy, and by the absence of murder. I will consider these points below in discussing The Tempest.

16 On the number of Iraqis killed by the current war, see Roberts, Riyadh, Garfield, Khudhairi, and Burnham (2004).

17 The accusation against Richard is unproven in the play.Though it may be historically accurate, its uncertainty in the text itself is what is most crucial here. For a discussion of this topic, see Watts (2002b).

18 Given that a conflict of values is explicit in the play, it is unsurprising that this has been recognized by critics. For example, Siemon, in a Bakhtinian context, writes that the play involves “multiple and overlapping commitments that are not easily . . . ranked on any single ladder of hierarchy” (Siemon 2002, 220).

19 Critics have remarked generally on the split in Catholic and Protestant ideas on this topic, drawing various conclusions (see, for example, Pearlman 2002, 81-82). Watts’s treatment is lucid and thorough (2002a). Of course, the most developed and influential treatment of the issue of purgatory in Hamlet is Greenblatt’s (2001).

20 A number of critics have commented on the parallel between Hamlet and Claudius in this regard. See, for example, Westlund (1978, 246). Kastan applies the point to the perennial dilemma of Hamlet’s inaction, explainging that revenge “makes action problematic” for “it duplicates the crime” (Kastan 1995, 199).

21 For example, as critics such as Foakes (2002) have pointed out, Claudius’ reaction to The Mousetrap is open to different explanations and hardly provides the definitive proof claimed by Hamlet. As Hawkes puts it, ” The Mousetrap doesn’t work very effectively” (183). See also Kastan (1995, 204).

22 For a discussion of this topic, see Kiernan (1996, 68-69).

23 As Levin points out, even “Maintaining .. . positive feelings for Hamlet is no simple task” (2002, 218).

24 As Ferguson indicates, this murder, which substitutes for Claudius’s planned murder of Hamlet, furthers the parallel between Hamlet and Claudius. This is particularly true as it is based on “the power to kill and … the tendency to justify killing with lines of argument unavailable to lesser men” (1995, 146).

25 Superficially, Hamlet praises Fortinbras. However, as Westlund points out, he does so “in such a way as to stress the emptiness and horror” of Fortinbras’s actions (1978,246).

26 In a cross-culturally common pattern, Shakespeare frequently combines heroic and romantic plots, not only in the plays just mentioned, but in more consistently heroic dramas, such as Hamlet.

27 See, for example, the essays in Graffand Phelan (2000,202-322 and citations).

28 One might even return here to Prospero’s line, regarding Caliban, “This thing of darkness I/Acknowledge mine” (Vi.275-76). Leslie Fiedler has argued that the placement of the caesura (“This thing of darkness I”) briefly suggests that the thing of darkness is “I,” the speaker, Prospero (1972, 249). He goes on to argue that, even when the sentence is completed, there is at least a partial identification of the two (249-50).

29 Broadly similar points have been made by other critics. For example, Ryan refers to “the renouncing of dominion and aggression in favor of empathy and concession” (2002, 149) with “closure in forgiveness, restitution and renewal” (155). From a rather different political perspective, Felperin (1995) argues that postcolonial critiques of the play have ignored Shakespeare’s larger criticism of oppression. While Felperin may overstate the cruelty ended by Prospero (and, by implication, the cruelty ended by European colonialism), he is, I believe, correct in recognizing that the political aim of the play is not to justify colonialism, but to criticize something more encompassing.

Works Cited

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Patrick Colm Hogan is a professor in the Department of English and in the program in Cognitive Science at the University of Connecticut. His recent books include Colonialism and Cultural Identity (2000), The Culture of Conformism (2001), Cognitive Science, Literature, and the Arts (2003), The Mind and Its Stories (2003), and Empire and Poetic Voice (2004).

Copyright West Chester University Winter 2006

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