A Fragmentary Analysis of TIMON OF ATHENS (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia


A Fragmentary Analysis of TIMON OF ATHENS (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia


“Let death and exile, and all other things which appear terrible, be daily before your eyes, but death chiefly; and you will never entertain any abject thought, nor too eagerly covet anything.”

—Epictetus, The Enchiridion


“A friend asks only for your time and not money.”

—From a fortune cookie.  Chinatown, Chicago, 2019


Athenian lord Timon has an embarrassment of wealth, and he doesn’t seem in the least embarrassed about it.  He is generous—absurdly, promiscuously generous, prodigal to the point of profligacy.  His Lucullan feasts are well-attended.  Of course, he is parasitized by the mob—by the mob of disgusting parasites who call themselves his “friends.”  As if they were a pack of baphometic daemons, his “friends” eat up his money until he has nothing left.  When the creditors demand repayment, Timon has nothing to give them.  None of his “friends” helps Timon in his time of need; the pseudo-friends to whom he appeals for money—Lucullus, Lucius, and Sempronius—refuse his entreaties, even while they are wearing the jewelry that Timon gifted them.  Timon is soon on course for self-immolation.  He is so aggrieved that he spends the rest of his life in a wasteland, where he execrates the whole of humanity.

So goes the epitasis of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens (circa 1605-1608), largely based on Plutarch’s life of Antony and Lucian’s dialogue on Timon.  It is an allegory of language (this is not something that I will pursue in depth here) and an allegory of misanthropy and sounds particularly allegorical when Timon declares dismally to Alcibiades: “I am Misanthropos and hate mankind” [IV:iii].  It is clear that Timon is allegorizing misanthropy in the general and in the abstract.  However, Shakespeare’s great play, one of the most underestimated in the Western literary canon, is not a misanthropic play, despite appearances, but a subtle critique of Timonian misanthropy.



Timon retreats to the wasteland in order to avoid human contact and to correct the errors of his personal past, to correct the mistakes that he made when he was rich (profligate liberality, exploitability).  And what does he do while in the wasteland?  He socializes still!

Even while wasting away in the wasteland, Timon is thronged by other human beings.  In the same way that the Forest of Arden in As You Like It is an overpopulated desert, there are too many people in the wasteland, and Timon can’t escape contact with them.  Timon curses Alcibiades for approaching him: “The canker gnaw thy heart / For showing me again the eyes of man!” [IV:iii].  He withdraws from humanity and yet draws humanity to him at the same time.

The obvious question floating in my mind: If Timon wishes to be left alone, why does he ask Apemantus[1] to report to Athens that Timon has money: “Tell them there I have gold” [IV:iii].  He knows well, and Apemenatus tells him as much, that he will soon be thronged with Athenians.  Apemantus even affirms that the rogues of Athens will come for him, seeking money: “I’ll say thou’st gold: / Thou wilt be thronged to shortly” [IV:iii].  This is a strange paradox or a koan: If he wants to be left alone, why does Timon send Apemantus as a messenger to Athens?  And why is the message that Apemantus carries, in effect, “I have money.  Come to see me!”?

Apemantus and Timon are paradoxes: both misanthropes and social animals at the same time.  If Apemantus dislikes humanity so much, why does he attend Timon’s well-attended dinners?  He doesn’t eat the food that is prepared; he instead show-offily eats roots and drinks water.  Why even go to one of Timon’s parties if he is not there for the food?  Apemantus does relish piercing the revelers with caustic insults.  Everyone appears to know who he is, and he interacts with the partygoers.

The most interesting thing about Shakespeare’s punk-rock play is that it is a condemnation of the whole of humanity—and of Timon along with it!  This condemnation extends to misanthropy.  Timon’s misanthropy does not go far enough; it leaves Timon immune.  Timon is not apart from humanity; he is a part of humanity, even after he renounces it.  The play suggests the impossibility of liberating oneself from humanity, the impossibility of ever being alone while being alive, something that brings the work—the strangest, darkest, most nihilistic, most heterodox work in the Shakespearean canon—in close proximity to the shocking literature of Roland Topor.  Timon the Misanthrope thinks that he is soaring over the unhuman crowd, but he is one of them; he is a member of the crowd.[2]



Timon of Athens is an allegory of language.[3]  It suggests that language is empty.  Timon’s parasitical “friends” make empty promises and justify the non-performance of their promises with empty words.  Timon spends more money than he has and thus defaults on his loans.  The Poet promises to craft a poem in honor of Timon that he will never present, the Painter promises to paint a likeness of Timon that he has no intention of completing, etc.  Flavius claims that “the world is but a word” [II:ii], the world only extends as far as language does, and that the “breath is gone whereof this praise is made” [II:ii].

It is no wonder that Timon looks forward to the apocalyptic death of language, the reduction of human words to muteness, to silence.  Ultimately, all we have are words.  When human language dies, humanity dies—and this is something that Timon welcomes in his final words, as if the language of humanity will die when his language dies: “Lips, let sour words go by, and language end” [V:ii].  When his language ends, Timon suggests, all language shall end.



Timon moves from indiscriminate generosity to indiscriminate human-hatred.  Life is a zero-sum contest, for Timon.  He knows only absolutes.  Much as Coriolanus, another one of Shakespeare’s simpletons, either loves his motherland Rome or hates Mother Rome, Timon either loves Athens or hates Athens.

Timon is either a profligate prodigal or a human-hater.  There is no middle ground for him.  He is a quasi-borderline, as if he were afflicted with a version of Borderline Personality Disorder.  He absolutely loves or absolutely hates—not one individual, but the totality of humanity.

Note Timon’s use of the word “therefore,” as if he were drawing a logical conclusion:

There’s nothing level in our cursed natures,
But direct villainy.  Therefore, be abhorr’d
All feasts, societies, and throngs of men!

He proclaims that he holds no brief for human beings and their communities and rituals, holds no brief for those who compose the human species because they are unequal (it is as if he were attempting to refute Hobbes, whom Shakespeare certainly read, and read with great admiration, according to Ben Johnson).  Allow me to paraphrase further: “Human beings are unequal except that they are equal in villainy; therefore, all of human society should be hated!”

Again, Timon is either generous to everyone or generous to no one.  As we have known at least since Hegel, opposites interpenetrate.  Opposites are inwardly connected; they belong to the same system.

Leftism is nothing more than the inversion of rightism, and Satanism is nothing more than the obverse of Christianity.  An opposite is not completely different from the original term.  The opposite of something is related to that thing.

Timon, a man whose fortune suddenly changes to misfortune, is not a genuine misanthrope at all.  For he only hates humanity after he has been exploited.  Had he not been exploited, as Apemantus suggests, he would never have converted to misanthropy.  As Apemantus phrases it, Timon’s misanthropy is forced: “This is in thee a nature but affected” [IV:iii].  Timon’s human-hatred is a pre-reflexive, ungenuine, affected misanthropy.  It is an immature misanthropy.

Apemantus, who, in many respects, is the raisonneur of the play, is suggesting, quite rightly, that Timon’s rejection of sociality is the mere opposite of promiscuous sociality.  Apemantus says, in prose: “The middle of humanity thou never knewst, but the extremity of both ends” [IV:iii].  Apemantus has a more nuanced view of humankind than Timon does.

Jonathan Swift knew that Timon’s misanthropy is naïve and simplistic.  This is likely why Swift refuses to identify as a Timonian human-hater.  Swift acknowledges that he is a misanthrope, but not a misanthrope in Timon’s manner (see Swift’s letter to Alexander Pope, 29 September 1725).  Timon’s misanthropy is not intelligent enough for Swift.

Similarly, in Paragraph 379 of The Gay Science, Nietzsche distances himself from Timonian misanthropy.  Nietzsche knew not the love of hatred, but contempt.  Contempt is hatred’s icy cousin, and Nietzsche knew well the aristocratic pleasures of contempt, as he knew well that hatred is an all-enmeshing obsession.



Timon’s attitude toward art undergoes a change.  First, he believes that art is almost the direct representation of human nature: “The painting is almost the natural man” [I:i].  Art is like reality itself; it shows things as they are: “[T]hese penciled figures are / Even such as they give out” [I:i].  He is naïve, again, and has a naïve, pre-reflexive attitude toward art.  At the beginning of the play, he actually believes that art is honest!

In the fifth act of the play, Timon considers art to a sham, a kind of fakery, a confidence trick, a lie.  The Painter is said to draw “counterfeit” and the Poet is said to compose “fiction” [V:i].  Timon mockingly imitates the mocking imitators.

What Nietzsche writes about Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Julius Caesar may also be written about Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens: Shakespeare slyly ridicules poetry and all other forms of art.  There is in Timon of Athens the playful disparagement of poetry as a kind of frivolity (see Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, Paragraph Ninety-Eight).



Timon is a misanthrope, it is true, but it is also true that he misanthropizes himself.  His misanthropy comes from his autolatry, his self-worship, his narcissism, and his inability to forgive himself for his prodigal liberality.  It is for this reason that Flavius says of Timon: “[H]e is set so only to himself” [V:ii]

Timon, or Timonian misanthropy, presages the cultural movement in this century known as the “incel” movement.  “Incel” is a portmanteau abbreviation of “involuntary celibate.”  “Incels” are sexually disappointed young men, men who cannot find sexual release with women and who despise these same women for rejecting them.  Often, “incels” are “black-pilled,” which seems to mean that they are anticipating a dreary, hopeless future for themselves and, often, for everyone else.

I see the similarity in that “black-pilling” involuntary celibates transfer their self-hatred onto a world that does not bend to them, much in the way that Timon transfers his self-hatred onto a world that is indifferent to him.

Misanthropy is founded on narcissism and on narcissistic self-hatred.  Misanthropes project their hatred of themselves onto the numberless faces that they will never see.

Misanthropy is an immature response to the venality of humanity.  Rather than inventing more nuanced, cleverer ways of dealing with people, the misanthrope thinks: “Because a small group of people mistreated me, all of humanity should be condemned.”  It is as if the misanthrope were saying: “Because I was exploited and because no one helped me when I was abject, die, everyone, die!”

It is important to highlight that this play is critical of Timon’s liberality and his misanthropy.



In his final words, Timon says, dismally: “My long sickness / Of health and living now begins to mend” [V:ii].  Dying is the healing, the “mending,” of the sickness of life, the remedying of that disease which is life.  Timon reinterprets his personal exploitation as infection by pestilential humanity.

Timon is someone who seems endlessly fascinated by Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs), to the extent that I would describe him as a syphillographer, a syphillologist, and a syphillophile.  This makes perfect sense when we consider that Timon associates venereal disease with human life, since, after all, human life is a Sexually Transmitted Disease.



Timon of Athens sets forth the dreariest vision of humankind of any Shakespearean play.  In the fourth line of the text, the Painter says that the world “wears… as it grows” [I:i]: that is, the world is progressively wearing itself down, depleting itself, exhausting itself, decomposing, rotting, putrefying, in the same way that Timon’s fortunes are shrinking and shriveling.

Human relations are anthropophagous relations, the play is suggesting: In every relationship between any given two human beings, one is the cannibal and the other is the cannibalized, one is dominant and the other submissive.  Alcibiades looks forward ghoulishly to a “breakfast of enemies” that would be “bleeding new” [II:i].  Apemantus knows that wherever two human beings meet, one is the predator and the other is the prey, one is more active and the other is more passive: “What beast couldst thou be that were not subject to a beast?  And what a beast art thou already that seest not thy loss in transformation!” [IV:iii].  In other words, humanity has devolved into the purely bestial: “The strain of man’s bred out into baboon and monkey” [I:i].  Apemantus asks, rhetorically “Who lives that’s not depraved or depraves?” [I:ii], and it is the clear that Apemantus knows well that Timon’s friends are devouring him: “It grieves me to see so many dip their meat in one man’s blood” [I:ii].

The distinction between eater and eaten runs throughout the play.  Timon’s friend-enemies are feeding upon him, eating his flesh, slicing him up: “Cut my heart in sums—” [III:iv], Thomas cries out as the creditors come for him.  Flavius declares that the creditors ate of his “lord’s meat”; “they could smile and fawn upon his debts, / And take down th’interest into their gluttonous maws” [III:iv].  This is an interesting use of antiprosopopoeia (the representation of human beings as objects): Timon is represented as the meat on which his “friends” feast.  The creditors come, demanding payment and charging interest—they are metaphorically ingesting Timon.

Timon is preyed upon by creditors who wear the jewels that Timon has given them.  The “strange event,” Titus says of his master, is that “he wears jewels now of Timon’s gift / For which I wait for money” [III:iv].  Here is the sickening cosmic irony: Timon has given gifts to recipients who now demand payment for those same gifts.  In the very diagesis in which he claims to have warned Timon about keeping a tighter purse, Lucullus says that he ate Timon’s food!: “Many a time and often I ha’ dined with him, and told him on’t, and come again to supper to him of purpose to have him spend less…” [III:i].  The “friends” who are wearing Timon’s gifts refuse to lend him any money and charge Timon for the gifts that he has given them.

It as if Shakespeare were canalizing Machiavelli, whom Shakespeare might have read and who claimed, in The Prince, that human beings are, in general, “ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous.”  One might add, according to the metaphorics of Shakespeare’s underestimated play: self-interested, swinish, gruesome, callous, lazy, unreliable.



At the end of the third act, Timon feeds the parasites lukewarm water.  He tosses the water at the false friends and tosses them out of his house.  “Smoke and lukewarm / water / Is your perfection” [III:vii], he declares.  As Jesus evicts the money changers and the dove hawkers from the temple, Timon evicts the false friends from his house, baptizing them with tepid water, a kind of reverse christening.

Why water?  Why smoke?  The smoke is the vapor emanating, paradoxically, from the lukewarm water—and the vaporous, lukewarm water is the perfect metaphor for the reaving thieves and the watery nothingness of their words.  Water literalizes the metaphor of friendship as liquid—that is to say, as not solid, not trustworthy, not constant.  As Flaminius asks, rhetorically, “Has friendship such a faint and milky heart / It turns in less than two nights?” [III:i].

Liquid metaphors drench the text.  Apemantus is a root-eater and water-drinker, and water, as I will explain below, symbols the reversion to nature and the desertion of fortune.



Fortune overtakes nature, as it always does in Shakespeare.  Timon tells us, recalling As You Like It (written around ten years earlier), that brothers who are twins by nature will fight against each other as soon as one brother grows more fortunate than the other: “Twinned brothers of one womb / Whose procreation, residence and birth / Scarce is dividant, touch them with several fortunes, / The greater scorns the lesser” [IV:iii].

It is no wonder that Timon favors nature to fortune.  It is no wonder that Timon reverts to nature, to eating roots and drinking water: “Earth, yield me roots” [Ibid.].

The stage direction makes it plain: Timon digs in the earth [Ibid.], excavating for roots, much in the way that his model Apemantus does—Apemantus, the ape man whom Timon is aping.  Timon, then, turns against fortune and turns toward nature, for he knows well that fortune quickly converts into misfortune.



Only a coarse and lazy reading of the play would suggest that Timon is innocent of his exploitation and eventual destruction.  Sharper, more careful readers will not think of Timon as an innocent victim.  Both meanings are supportable: His friends are parasitical, and Timon is complicit in his demolition.



Timon refuses to allow the recipients of his gifts to give him anything of equal value.  It might be tempting to describe his gifts as a kind of potlatch, but let us remember that (according to Mauss and Bataille) potlatch places the recipient of the gift in the uncomfortable position of having to out-give the original giver.  This is not the case here.  Timon does not accept the repayment of debts—in that sense, Timon does not loan money; he gives it.  He refuses Ventidius’ offer to repay the money that Timon has given him.  Timon’s response is that gifts should be given freehandedly: “[T]here’s none / Can truly say he gives if he receives” [I:ii].  He gives promiscuously, but not entirely without the reciprocity of interest (I will discuss this matter later on).

Not only that: Timon cannot accept a gift without giving something to the giver in exchange.  When Lucullus gives Timon two brace of greyhounds, Timon’s response is that they should not be received “without fair reward” [I:ii].  As the Second Lord phrases it: There is “no meed but [Timon] repays / Sevenfold above itself, no gift to him / But breeds the giver a return exceeding / All use of quittance” [I:i].  In other words, Timon has the tendency of giving beyond compensation, beyond remuneration.

More so: Timon gives excessively.  He gives more than is asked for and then grows spiteful when his largesse is not returned.  He ransoms Ventidius from debtor’s prison—and even offers to support him financially after he is freed: “’Tis not enough to help the feeble up, / But to support him after” [I:i].  Timon is too trusting, too naïve, too credulous, and gives too readily, too quickly to the firstcomer; he guarantees more than is requested.  (When Timon is down in a financial hole, incidentally, Ventidius does not come to his aid.)

Worst of all, Timon is financially illiterate; indeed, his knowledge of money is at best lineamental.  He is not financially hyperopic enough to see that his lavish expenditures exceed his income.  When Timon complains that Flavius never warned him about the rapid decrease in his funds, the servant says: “You would not hear me: / At many leisures I proposed—” [II:ii].  Timon interrupts Flavius before Flavius can conclude his sentence of explanation, inadvertently proving Flavius’ point: Timon is a terrible listener and hence a terrible learner.  When, in his previous life, Timon is overly generous to those around him, he speaks of a “bond in men” to “build [the] fortune” of others [I:i; emphasis mine].  He uses this word—bond—as if it were a divine commandment to give his servant Lucilius a massive raise.



Timon seems to be a selfless giver—“more welcome are you to my fortunes / Than my fortunes to me” [I:ii], he says to Ventidius—and yet Timon does expect compensation.  He just doesn’t expect monetary compensation.  As Nietzsche reminds us, no one gives without expecting a reward.

Timon is every bit as parasitical as his so-called “friends.”  Timon says: “[W]hat need we have any friends, if we should ne’er have need of ’em?” [I:ii].  He is saying, in effect: “Because I give to you, you will give to me, if I ever need you!”  But this does not follow logically; it is an argument that contains false inference.  Timon discovers his non sequitur too late.

He is an exploiter in a culture of exploitation—he is as much of an exploiter as the flattering parasites who fawn over him.



Unfortunately, there is one thing about Timon that only changes very late in the play: Even while in self-imposed exile, even after renouncing and repudiating humanity, Timon gives away his money!

He gives money to Alcibiades (“There’s gold to pay thy soldiers—” [IV:iii]), he throws gold at the prostitutes without getting or asking for anything in return (“There’s more gold” [Ibid.]), he squanders money on thieves.  His gives money to everyone besides the Poet, the Painter, and the Senators.  What, then, has changed about Timon—if anything?

(Interestingly, one of the prostitutes is named Phrynia, a name which almost certainly is an allusion to Phryne, the high-end batrachian call girl of Ancient Greece.  And as deep readers of Greek history will know, the historical Alcibiades was a kind of prostitute himself.)

Has he changed at all?  He gives now out of spite, not out of love—but the ridiculous excessive liberality has not changed.  He gives out of different motives than he gave before, but he still gives—indeed, squanders—what he has.  “More whore, more mischief first—” [IV:iii], he says to the prostitutes, whom he pays to sow discord, and pays Alcibiades to wage war against the Athenians.  But he is still Timon the Spendthrift.  As far as the thieves are concerned: Timon might curse them, but the thieves might as well say, in contemporary American English slang, “I still got your money, dude.”

Has Timon truly changed?  Even while wasting away in the wasteland, Timon still gives money to the unworthy.  If I were to be even more curmudgeonly, I would like to suggest that Timon hasn’t learned his lesson: He is still giving to the parasites who are feeding upon him.



Timon of Athens is the complex character study of a misanthrope who never succeeds in hating humanity as much as humanity deserves to be hated.

Joseph Suglia


[1] Much like Thersites in Shakespeare’s earlier Troilus and Cressida, Apemantus is a cynical philosopher.  In the fourth act, Timon has transformed himself into the likeness, into a grotesque burlesque of Apemantus, the ascetic who eats nothing but roots and who drinks nothing but water (perhaps in denial of the opulent pleasures of affluence).  A defensible reading of Apemantus’ name would be Ape-mantus: the Ape Man, as well as the Man Who Is Aped.  He is an ape man, and he recognizes that other human beings are apes.  And he is aped by Timon, who takes on Apemantus’ misanthropy.  There is a flaw in Timon’s imitation of Apemantus, however.  Though Timon takes on the human-hating position of Apemantus, there is something forced, something affected in Timon’s misanthropy.  Apemantus is not a hater of the whole of humankind.  It would be accurate to say that Apemantus has contempt for humanity, but there is no evidence that he is gripped and entangled by that obsession which is called “hatred.”  Apemantus seems to approach Timon in the desert only in order to torment him further and to prevent him from copying his mannerisms: “Do not assume my likeness” [IV:iii].  Timon and Apemantus are not pleased to see their doubles.  It would not be relevant for me to pursue a sustained comparison between Thersites and Apemantus here.


[2] Here is another of the play’s cosmic ironies: In the sixth scene of the third act, Alcibiades pleads to the senators for the life of one of his rogue soldiers.  They banish him for his alleged impudence.  At the end of the play, these same senators will plead for their lives with the grinning submission of passive chimpanzees when confronted by a dominant chimpanzee.  The Third Senator proposes “decimation and a tithed death” [V:v] for the Athenian people.  “Decimation” does not mean “destruction.”  It means “the killing of every tenth being.”


[3] The thrust and the tenor of this essay is not to explore the ways in which the play is an allegory of language (I am more concerned here with the ways in which it is an allegory of misanthropy), but let me give some indications of how such an analysis would proceed.  There are apostrophes, in the rhetorical sense, throughout the text.  A (rhetorical) apostrophe is an address to someone or something that is absent.  Here is a partial list of apostrophizing in the text: The Poet addresses an absent Timon as “Magic of bounty” [I:i].  Both the Poet and the Painter frequently speak of Timon in absentia.  Flavius apostrophizes Timon in his lord’s absence: “My dearest lord…” [IV:ii].  Timon apostrophizes money: “O thou sweet king-killer…” [IV:iii].  In the third scene of the fourth act, Flavius apostrophizes the gods (“O you gods!”).


[4] This statement is every bit as insane as when Timon says to Apemantus: “[T]hou’rt an Athenian, therefore welcome” [I:i; emphasis mine].



An Analysis of THE TRAGEDY OF OTHELLO, THE MOOR OF VENICE – by Joseph Suglia


The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia


A question that arises in the minds of readers of The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice is inescapably the following: “Why does Iago have a pathological hatred for Othello?”  Well, why does anyone hate anyone?  Why does anyone love anyone?  The sources of hatred, as of love, are largely unconscious.  Hatred and love are not the products of conscious agency.  They are feelings that appear inexplicably in the mind.  The unconscious sources of human behavior can be marked in literature, however.  We are dealing here with a literary fabrication, a figure made of paper and ink, not a human being, and there might be textual clues that would explain Iago’s seething hatred for Othello.

There seem to be four hypotheses for the grounds of Iago’s vehement antipathy toward Othello:

  • Iago resents Othello for choosing Michael Cassio as his lieutenant.

Othello passes over Iago for promotion to lieutenant and instead selects him as his ensign or “ancient.”  He becomes someone who delivers Othello’s letters and carries his luggage.  Iago inveighs against the election of Cassio, whom he considers someone who has a merely theoretical knowledge of the science of death, a “great arithmetician… [t]hat never set a squadron in the field / Nor the division of a battle knows / More than a spinster” [I:i].  And yet Othello does raise Iago to the lieutenancy in Act Three, Scene Three.  Why, then, would Iago continue to hold a grudge?

  • Iago abominates Othello because he suspects that Othello has slept with his wife, Emilia.

This is mere rumor, and Iago knows that the rumor is probably a canard: “I hate the Moor / And it is thought abroad that ’twixt my sheets / He’s done my office. I know not if’t be true, / But I for mere suspicion in that kind / Will do as if for surety” [I:iii].  Iago admits that he has no evidence to support this hypothesis, and it doesn’t matter to him one way or the other whether Othello has cuckolded him.  Iago seizes upon the rumor as a pretext for his boundless negativity.

  • Iago is sexually jealous of Othello.  He is desirous of Desdemona, Othello’s wife.

This interpretation is not altogether without evidence, but it is not a comprehensive interpretation.  If Iago is sexually possessive of Desdemona, why, then, would he offer her to Roderigo?: “[T]hou shalt enjoy her—therefore make money” [I:iii].

Iago makes his lust for Desdemona plain in the following lines: “Now I do love her too, / Not out of absolute lust—though peradventure / I stand accountant for as great a sin— / But partly led to diet my revenge, / For that I do suspect the lusty Moor / Hath leaped into my seat, the thought whereof / Doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards…” [II:i].  This passage makes it clear that “love,” for the immoralist Iago, is the mere scion of lust and that his desire for Desdemona is really the desire to screw Othello over.  He cannot bear the thought that Othello has “leaped into his seat”—which is to say that Iago’s rivalrous-emulous identification with Othello takes precedence over his carnal interest in Desdemona.

  • Iago despises Othello for his race.

It is true that Iago repeatedly calls Othello “the Moor.”  Depriving someone of a proper name, and replacing that person’s proper name with a common noun, is a common way of depersonalizing someone.  George W. Bush engaged in this linguistic practice quite often, renaming Vladimir Putin “Ostrich Legs,” Tony Blair “Landslide,” Silvio Berlusconi “Shoes,” and John Boehner “Boner.”

There is no question that Iago uses ugly racist language: Othello is nominated “an old black ram [that is] tupping [Brabantio’s] white ewe” [I:i]; he is “a Barbary horse” that covers his daughter; “you’ll have your nephews neigh to you, you’ll have courses for cousins and jennets for germans” [Ibid.].  Consider the audience to whom this language is addressed.  Iago’s invective might be used for purely rhetorical purposes, in order to produce specific effects within Brabantio, Desdemona’s father.  Brabantio is clearly a hardcore racist idiot who thinks that all North Africans are witches and warlocks and that Othello, therefore, could only win his daughter through ensorcellment: “Damned as thou art, thou hast enchanted her” [I:ii].  He makes this point with deadening repetitiousness.  He cannot conceive of his daughter “fall[-ing] in love with what she feared to look on” and cannot comprehend why she would reject the wealthy “curled darlings” [I:iii] of the state in favor of the Moor.

Iago, the reptilian-Machiavellian manipulator, might be playing on the racist sympathies of Brabantio in the way that a clever lawyer might stir up the racist antipathies of a jury without being a racist him- or herself.  While it is possible that there is a racial element in Iago’s hatred for Othello, his hatred is not reducible to racism or racialized nationalism.

Iago’s hatred for Othello is an absolute hatred—a hatred absolved from qualification, from relation.  A textual clue for the unconscious sources of his hatred is contained in the following lines: “Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago… I am not what I am” [I:i].

Were Iago the Moor, Iago would not be Iago: Am I alone in hearing in this line an unforgiving self-contempt and the desire to become Othello?  Whenever a human being encounters a stranger, the question is always the same: “Who are you?”  In other words: Who are you in relation to me?  Are you similar to me?  Are you different from me?  To what degree are you different from me?  How do I measure myself against you?  In the case of the stalker Iago, there is, I suspect, the painful consciousness of his own inferiority vis-à-vis Othello and the painful desire to become Othello, which is an absolute impossibility.  This is the meaning of the last line quoted: “I am not what I am.”  Iago is not identical to himself because he identifies himself intimately and yet impossibly with Othello.  If you are obsessed with someone, you desire to become the person with whom you are obsessed.  This will never happen, but what will happen is that you will no longer be your own, you will no longer be yourself, for the object of your obsession will engulf you.

Iago’s rivalry with Othello embodies the dialectic of the self in relation to the other human being.  There is, on the one hand, the self-assumption of the self–which is based on the differentiation of the self from the other human being–and, on the other hand, the becoming-other (Anderswerden) that Hegel describes in The Phenomenology of Spirit.  In the lines cited above, Iago articulates how he imagines himself as other-than-himself–how he exteriorizes himself as Othello–and recuperates himself from this self-exteriorization.


Would Othello have murdered Desdemona even without Iago’s deceptions and interferences?  This, of course, is a silly question from a philological point of view, since we only have the text and any speculation about “what would have happened” outside of the text is absurd.  However, it is important to think through the necessity or the non-necessity of Iago in relation to the act of uxoricide that Othello performs.

Let me rephrase the question, then: How integral is Iago to the act of uxoricide that Othello performs?

My interpretation is that Iago plays a non-essential role in the murder of Desdemona.  He externalizes a jealous rage that is already within Othello.  Iago echoes prejudices and suspicions that are already seething inside of him.  From the third scene of the third act:

OTHELLO: Was not that Cassio parted from my wife?

IAGO: Cassio, my lord? no, sure, I cannot think it / That he would steal away so guilty-like / Seeing you coming.

Notice that Iago is merely reflecting Othello’s suspicions.  Iago is reactive, not active.  It is Othello, not Iago, who questions Cassio’s honesty:

OTHELLO: Is [Cassio] not honest?

IAGO: Honest, my lord?

OTHELLO: Honest? Ay, honest.

IAGO: My lord, for aught I know.

OTHELLO: What does thou think?

IAGO: Think, my lord?

OTHELLO: Think, my lord! By heaven, thou echo’st me / As if there were some monster in thy thought / Too hideous to be shown.  Thou dost mean something, / I heard thee say even now thou lik’st not that / When Cassio left my wife: what didst not like?

The monster does not dwell in Iago’s thought, but in Othello’s.  Iago draws out the monstrous thoughts that have been devouring Othello for some time.  It is Othello who does not like the way in which Cassio slinks away from Desdemona when her husband approaches.  It is Othello who finds Cassio’s behavior suspect, not Iago.  Iago eschews direct accusation and instead employs innuendo.

It is often said, as I discussed above, that Othello is a victim of racism and nationalism.  One should not also forget that Othello has nationalist prejudices of his own, absorbing, as he does, the idea that all Venetian women are whores—hence, his rush to judge Desdemona as licentiously “liberal” as he inspects her hand: “This hand is moist, my lady…  This argues fruitfulness and liberal heart: / Hot, hot, and moist. This hand of yours requires / A sequester from liberty, fasting and prayer, / Much castigation, exercise devout, / For here’s a young and sweating devil, here, / That commonly rebels.  ’Tis a good hand, / A frank one” [III:iv].

The inspection of Desdemona’s hand was Othello’s idea, not Iago’s.  Othello impulsively believes Iago’s every word condemning Desdemona, for Othello has already condemned Desdemona in his mind.  Just as Othello impulsively believes Iago’s every word condemning Desdemona, and denies Emilia’s every word defending her, Desdemona impulsively takes the side of Cassio, pledging to be his mediator until the end.  Both Othello and Desdemona are impulsive, acting without evidence.

Nor is Desdemona entirely innocent in her own annihilation.  When she falls in love with Othello, Desdemona falls in love with what she once and always has feared to look upon.  She loves Othello because of his violence, not despite his violence.  Desdemona is what psychologists call a “hybristophiliac”: someone who, like Rhianna or Bonnie Parker, is sexually attracted to violent criminals.  She is originally drawn to Othello for his adventurous exoticism and his proximity to death.  As Othello puts it in the first act of the play: “[Desdemona] loved me for the dangers I had passed” [I:iii].  Iago suggests to Roderigo that Desdemona will grow tired of Othello’s differentness and seek out another lover: “[Desdemona] must change for youth; when she is sated with [Othello’s] body she will find the error of her choice; she must have change, she must” [I:iii].  Is Iago wrong?  As Rene Girard suggests in A Theatre of Envy, Othello could eventually be replaced by a younger version of himself, for, in marriage, what husband could escape the crushing banalizations of the everyday?  The “extravagant and wheeling stranger” [I:i] would become a boring and bored husband like any other.  Othello, if he does not solidify his role as the death-giving general, is doomed to disintegrate into a cuckold.

In a sense, Othello is never other than who he appears to be.  By contrast, following Harold Bloom, Iago is engaged in a war against being.  Iago is anti-being or nothingness: He is not what he is.  When Iago says, “For I am nothing, if not critical” [II:i], this may be taken literally: He is divided against himself.  Othello, on the other hand, is always only what he is.  From the beginning of the play until its terrifying end, Othello is the violent warrior who loves death more than he loves love.

Joseph Suglia

THE MERCHANT OF VENICE (Shakespeare) by Dr. Joseph Suglia

by Joseph Suglia

Was Shakespeare a hater of Jews?

It is impossible to reconstruct the thought processes of dead author, as it is impossible to reconstruct our own thoughts.  All we have are the plays.  The question, then, ought to be revised:

Is The Merchant of Venice an Anti-Judaic play?  There are certainly disobliging and unflattering references to Jews in the text.  There are disobliging and unflattering references to Jews in other Shakespeare plays, as well.  Confer Much Ado about Nothing and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, for instance.

The frequent charges of Anti-Judaism that have been leveled against The Merchant of Venice perhaps derive from the play’s presentation of a relationship between Jewishness and the calculation of interest, or usury.  But more specifically, the play stages a relationship between the making of an oath and the accrual of a debt.

The debt that is owed to Shylock–a “pound of flesh”–is guaranteed by an oath.  The pound of flesh is not, according to The Merchant of Venice, a metaphor for money.  It refers literally to the flesh “nearest the merchant’s heart”:

And lawfully by this the Jew may claim
A pound of flesh, to be by him cut off
Nearest the merchant’s heart [IV:i].

The oath prevents Shylock from translating the debt into figurative terms, despite Portia’s urgent offer to give him three times the sum (“Shylock, there’s thrice thy money offered thee” [Ibid.]).  The debt of the “pound of flesh” must remain literal, not figurative–the phrase must refer to the excised human flesh, not to money.

If Antonio is compelled to liquidate the sum of money owed to Shylock, “the Jew” is not similarly coerced.  Portia’s injunction to forgiveness–“Then must the Jew be merciful” [Ibid.]–is groundless according to contract law.  There is nothing, no contractual obligation, no force of law that compels Shylock to be merciful and to forgive the debt: “On what compulsion must I? tell me that” (Shylock) [Ibid.].  For the hateful Christian Anti-Judaist, “The Jew” is one who clings to the letter of the law and not the law of forgiveness.  Justice and mercy may not coexist.  To show mercy would be, according to Shylock, to disregard the letter of the contract.  Nothing, according to Shylock, obligates him to forgive the debt or to be merciful.  The contract, however, which Shylock follows to the letter, requires repayment of the debt within three months.  Such is a way in which Christian Anti-Judaism is staged in The Merchant of Venice.

The law is transcendent and submission to it is mandatory, both for the Christian judge and the Jewish creditor:

It must not be, there is no power in Venice
Can alter a degree established:
’Twill be recorded for a precedent,
And many an error by the same example
Will rush into the state. It cannot be [Ibid.].

If the oath is binding, it is because it is based upon a transcendent law.  But what is the source of the transcendent law?  What gives it its force?  And what compels one to follow it?  The law, according to Shylock, has a divine origin:

An oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven.
Shall I lay perjury on my soul?
No, not for Venice [Ibid.].

And later:

I charge you by the law,
Whereof you are a well-deserving pillar,
Proceed to judgment; by my soul I swear,
There is no power in the tongue of man
To alter me.  I stay here on my board [Ibid.].

The law is beyond all human power and representation and demands absolute submission from humanity; it must be followed.  Human language, “the tongue of man,” is powerless against it, even though the word of the divine is written in the form of a contract, another instance of “the tongue of man.”  Divine law demands absolute fidelity and inscribes itself in the contract which is written in the tongue of man.  The contract–again, written in human language–is binding because of its divine provenance.  Here we encounter a Shakespearean version of the natural-law argument.  The naturalism of the moral law is evident in the contract itself, which “the Jew” knows inside and out, inwendig and auswendig.  Both Christian AND Jew are obligated to follow the law of Venice, which is theological in origin.

Portia’s response to all of this theological nonsense is a reductio ad absurdum argument. Dressed in the garb of a man, Portia will take Shylock’s desire for a “pound of flesh” to the limit:

Tarry a little: there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood–
The words expressly are “a pound of flesh”;
Take then thy bond, taken then thy pound of flesh,
But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are by the laws of Venice confiscate
Unto the state of Venice [Ibid.].

“The Jew,” according to the stupidity of conventional Anti-Judaism (and is there any Anti-Judaism other than the conventional version?), ignores the spirit of the law in favor of the letter.  “The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh’”: By literalizing his statement, Portia is able to undermine Shylock’s project to exact (and extract) from Antonio what these words denote.  There is an absolutely unified relationship between words and what they mean.  The codicil to the contract will state that “the Jew’s” property and land will be confiscated if the penalty is not carried out to the letter.

Shylock, of course, refuses to carry out the penalty; he refuses to punish the debtor, Antonio.  Soon thereafter, the stage direction is given: “Exit Shylock.” Shylock disappears rather early in the play (Act Four: Scene One).  The earliness of this disappearance is particularly strange for a Shakespeare play, given that the Shakespearean villain usually remains until the final act.  Shylock’s fate will be a forcible conversion to Christianity, thus firming the play’s staging of a vehemently Anti-Judaic stance.

The question still remains unanswered: Is The Merchant of Venice an Anti-Judaic play?  My impression is that it is.  The Merchant of Venice shows a rabid hatred of Jews, as it stupidly identifies Judaism with literalism and the literalization of metaphors.  The Merchant of Venice is about the literalization of the metaphor and the becoming-metaphor of the letter.

Joseph Suglia



An Analysis of ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL (Shakespeare) by Joseph Suglia


An Analysis of All’s Well That Ends Well (Shakespeare)

by Joseph Suglia

“Die Forderung, geliebt zu werden, ist die grösste aller Anmassungen.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, Volume One, 525

My argument is that Shakespeare is both the most overestimated and the most underestimated writer in the history of English literature.  His most famous plays are stupendously and stupefyingly overrated (e.g. The Tempest), whereas the plays that have been relatively understaged and underread until recently, such as Measure for Measure and Love’s Labour’s Lost (which, strangely, is never called a “problem play”), are his masterworks.  All’s Well That Ends Well is rightly seen as one of the problematical plays, since it does not exactly follow the contours of the Shakespearean comedy.

One could rightly say that all of the Shakespearean comedies are conjugal propaganda.  They celebrate marriage, that is to say, and marriage, for Hegel and for many others, is the foundation of civil society.  In the Age of Elizabeth, long before and long afterward, the way in which children are expected to have been begotten is with the imprimatur of marriage.

But there is no marriage-boosterism in All’s Well That Ends Well, no ra-raing or oohing and aahing over marriage.  In All’s Well That Ends Well, a celebration of marriage is absent.

Whereas Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream end in anti-orgies, in collectivized, communalized, semi-coerced marriages, the wedding in All’s Well That Ends Well takes place in the second act and is absolutely coerced.

The play is about a woman named Helena who forces a man named Bertram to marry her and to have sexual intercourse with her.  As blunt as this synopsis might be, it is nonetheless accurate.  A psychotic stalker, Helena will stop at nothing and will not take “Yes” for an answer.  She pursues Bertram relentlessly.  As I shall argue below, Bertram genuinely does not want to be married to Helena, nor does he wish to be physically intimate with her.  Not only that: There is absolutely no evidence that he desires Helena at the end of the play.  Quite the opposite, as I shall contend.  Much like her predecessor, Boccaccio’s Giletta, Helena is a monomaniac whose obsession ends in the achievement of her desire and her scheme: “[M]y intents are fix’d, and will not leave me” [I:i].  And yet, does obsession ever end?

When we are first presented with her, Helena remarks, “I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too” [I:i].  She means that she affects a sorrow for her father, who died not more than six months ago, but is genuinely sorrowful over the thought of the impossibility of possessing Bertram: “I think not on my father, / And these great tears grace his remembrance more / Than those I shed for him” [Ibid.].  Her indifference to her father’s death reveals that she is hardly the virtuous innocent that the Countess, Lefew, and (later) the King of France take her to be: “I think not on my father…  I have forgot him.  My imagination / Carries no favour in’t but Bertram’s” [Ibid.].  All she thinks about is Bertram, whose “relics” she “sanctifies” [Ibid.], much like a dement who collects the socks of her lover which she has pilfered from the laundry machine.

Even more revealingly, Helena’s love for Bertram has a social and political valence: “Th’ambition in my love thus plagues itself” [I:i].  Am I alone in hearing in the word ambition an envy for Bertram’s higher social status?  I am not suggesting that her love for him is purely socially and politically motivated.  I am suggesting rather that her love is inseparable from the desire for social / political advancement.

When he takes his leave, Bertram does not propose that Helena visit Paris to win the King’s favor, despite what Helena’s words might suggest: “My lord your son made me to think of this; / Else Paris and the medicine and the king / Had from the conversation of my thoughts / Haply been absent then” [I:iii].  Helena lies to the Countess—and/or lies to herself—when she says that her love “seeks not to find that her search implies, / But riddle-like lives sweetly where she dies” [I:iii].  No, Helena is indefatigable and is hardly the self-abnegating “barefooted” saint [III:iv] that she pretends to be.  Furthermore, she is lying to herself and to the Countess of Rossillion when she says that she is not “presumptuous,” as she is lying when she says that she would not “have [Bertram]” until she “deserve[s] him” [I:iii].  Who decides when she should “deserve” Bertram?  Apparently, Helena believes that only she is authorized to decide when she is deserving of Bertram.  Why is Bertram not permitted to decide when and if she is deserving of him?  Helena is sexually aggressive from the beginning unto the sour end.

The fundamental challenge of the play is not for Helena to find a way to become married to Bertram.  As I wrote above, Bertram is forced to marry Helena in the second act of the play.  The fundamental challenge of the play is for Helena to find a way to have sexual intercourse with Bertram—to couple with him, whether he wants to couple with her or not.

And Bertram has made it clear that he does not find Helena sexually attractive.  And yet Helena refuses to accept his rejection and sexually unifies with Bertram while dissembling herself as another woman, Diana Capilet.

Helena is not satisfied merely being married to Bertram.  Nor, it seems, would she be satisfied with Bertram’s assent and consent, even if he had assented and consented to the marriage.  She wants to possess Bertram against his own will: “[L]ike a timorous thief, most fain would steal / What law does vouch mine own” [II:v].

Why not take Helena at her word?  On the one hand, she is saying that she is lawfully entitled to the appropriation of Bertram’s body, but that is not enough for her.  She is saying that she has the power to break his life, but she would rather have the power to break his heart.  On the other hand, taking Helena at her word, she is the thief who would like to steal what is lawfully her own.  She would like to experience the thrill of transgressing the law without ever transgressing the law.  All’s well that ends well.  She does not want to take the wealth of his body; she wants to steal the wealth of his body.  Now, this might seem a curiously literal interpretation of the line, but does Helena not deceive her husband like a thief in the night [III:ii]?  She does not cheat on her husband; she cheats with her husband.  She is like the banker who steals from her own bank or like the casino owner who gambles at her own casino.

It would be a mistake to see Bertram as an erotophobe, since he does attempt to seduce Diana.  He is revolted by Helena.  The idea of having sex with her suffuses him with nausea.  Bertram acknowledges that he is married to a woman whom he does not love, but he swears that he will never be physically intimate with her.  In a letter to his mother, Bertram writes: “I have wedded [Helena], not bedded her, and sworn to make the ‘not’ eternal” [II:ii].  He is so disgusted by the idea of having sex with her that he goes to war to escape her: “I’ll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her” [II:iii].

Bertram’s reluctance to be yoked to Helena must be seen within the horizon of the early seventeenth century.  Let us not forget that Queen Elizabeth was the monarch at the time of the play’s composition, and within Bertram’s refusal to become the “forehorse to a smock” [II:i] (the leading horse in a train of horses spurred on by a woman) one can hear the resonances of Elizabeth’s reign.  However, it would be mistaken to suggest that Bertram does not want to marry Helena merely because she is a woman who has been invested with regal authority or merely because she was once lowborn and poor.  Again, he finds her physically repellent.

Helena does not stop until she couples with Bertram without his consent.  Is this not rape?  According to the standards of our day, impersonated sex is indeed sexual violation, but it is unlikely that it would have been considered ravishment in the Age of Elizabeth.

And is this not incest, for Helena and Bertram are sister and brother, disregarding the banality of biology?  There is a conversation about incest in Act One, Scene Three, the conclusion of which is: Helena would acknowledge the Countess as her mother, on the condition that the world does not recognize Bertram as her brother.  But are Helena and Bertram not sister and brother?  They grew up together in the same household, and it is possible that Bertram rejects Helena partly out of the fear of incest.

The Countess certainly sees Helena as her organic daughter: “If [Helena] had partaken of my flesh and cost me the dearest groans of a mother I could not have owed her a more rooted love” [V:v].  Helena is the replica that is naturalized, much like the artificial fruit in the bowl that lies upon your kitchen table, which you accept as natural.

Fortune (what is constituted after birth) and Nature (what is constituted at birth) reverse each other: Bertram becomes the bastard child; the orphan Helena becomes the proper daughter: “Which of them both / Is dearest to me I have no skill in sense / To make distinction” [III:iv].  Much worse: The Countess raises Helena to a status that is higher than that of her own son, who is written off by her as a reprobate.  When the Countess intones the opening line of the play, “In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband” [I:i], you do get the impression that her biological son is dead through the act of birth, that her son is a stillborn.

Throughout the play, there are posited false equivalences.  Convalescence is falsely equated to marriage, as virginity is equated to mortality.  Epexegesis: The revival of the King of France is equated to the compulsory marriage of Bertram to Helena (Bertram questions this false economics of equivalence: “But follows it, my lord to bring me down / Must answer for your raising?” [II:iii]), in a Bachelorette-style gameshow that is rigged in advance in which she nominates Bertram without ever taking any of the French lords seriously as his competitors.  The death of the King is equated to virginity, as virginity is equated to death in Parolles’ campaign against virginity (“He that hangs himself is a virgin; virginity murthers itself, and should be buried in highways out of all sanctified limit, as a desperate offendress against nature” [I:i]).  The King strikes a balance between Bertram’s loss and Helena’s gain: “Take her by the hand / And tell her she is thine; to whom I promise / A counterpoise, if not to thy estate, / A balance more replete” [II:iii].  A fake equivalence, false equation is again posited, between the sacrifice of Bertram’s social status and the elevation of Helena’s status.  One thing is taken for another, one person is replaced with another, as we see with the replacement of Diana with Helena.  Such is the logic of substitution or the logic of substitutability in All’s Well That Ends Well.

Those literary critics who praise Helena as an innocent are wrong (I am looking at you, Harold Bloom), in the same way that the Countess of Rossillion and Lefew are wrong about her “innocence”: Helena is not saintly, she is not simple, she is not unambiguously honest (unless by “honesty” one intends “virginity”), she is not unambiguously good, she is not uncomplicatedly “virtuous” [I:i].  She is not reducible to the role of the innocent that she plays.  Shakespeare’s characters are not undifferentiated.  His fools tend to be wise, and his characters in general are neither simply good nor simply evil, but rather both good and evil—sometimes, his characters are even good and evil at the same time.  This is stated almost aphoristically in the words of the First Lord, a gentleman whose role seems to be to emphasize that #NotAllMenAreSwine: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud if our faults whipp’d them not, and our crimes would despair if they were not cherish’d by our virtues” [IV:iii].  The proto-Nietzschean Shakespeare is ventriloquized through the First Lord, I think.  Both Nietzsche and Shakespeare admonish us against pouring all of humanity into twin buckets, one marked GOOD and the other marked EVIL.  Shakespearean characters are of overwhelming and self-contradicting complexity, assemblages of oxymoronic elements.

For this reason, those critics who condemn Bertram as a cad are wrong in the same way that Diana is wrong when she calls him simply “not honest” [III:v].  (Let me remark parenthetically that Parolles is the double of Bertram, as Diana is the double of Helena.  Parolles absorbs all of Bertram’s negative traits, particularly the tendency to seduce and impregnate washerwomen.)  (And here is a second set of parentheses: Parolles is also the double of Helena.  He ignores his social status when he refuses to call his lord Bertram “master” [II:iii].)  Those who suggest that Helena shyly longs after a man who is unworthy of her are as wrong as Lefew, who claims that the French lords reject Helena, when it is the other way around.  (I’m still looking at you, Harold Bloom.)  Bertram is a cad, a seducer, yes, but he is not reducible to his caddishness.

Despite her indifference to her father’s death, Helena identifies with her father, Gerard de Narbon, the physician, and uses her father’s recipes to heal the King of France.  When Bertram pleads to the Florentine washerwoman, “[G]ive thyself unto my sick desires” [IV:ii], it is apparent that he is conscious of his own sickness, and it is Helena who will wear the quackish mask of the physician once more.  The first half of the play folds upon the second half: In the first half, Helena cures the King of his ailment; in the second, Helena cures Bertram of the sickness of his lechery—against his will.

When the King’s eyes first alight upon Helena, she seems a radiant presence: “This haste hath wings indeed” [II:i], he says, as if she were a seraphic apparition.  It is Helena’s womanly charm, her femaleness, that resurrects him from the dead: “Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak / His powerful sound within an organ weak” [Ibid.].  It is her vixenishness that virilizes him.

The King is revived from the dead.  Now, Bertram has lost the right to say, “No” to Helena.  Love for Helena is now equated to the obedience to the King of France: “Thou wrong’st thyself if thou should’st strive to choose [to love Helena]!” [II:iii], the King screams at Bertram.  In other words, “You should not have to choose to love Helena.  I have commanded you to love Helena, and therefore you MUST love Helena.”  The word of the King is law, and to defy the word of the King is misprision.  Behind Helena’s monomaniacal pursuit of Bertram is all of the weight of legal and regal authority.  Love of Helena is bound up with love of the King, and an affront to Helena is an affront to the throne.  This is to say that Bertram is legally and politically obligated to love Helena, as if love is something that could be compelled, coerced, commanded.

Here, the King of France ignores that desire is not logical or causal and is not subject to regal injunction.  Desire cannot be systematized.  We cannot program our minds to love; we cannot download love applications into the smartphones of our minds.

Were she not such a monomaniac, Helena would have let Bertram go after he refuses her, but she does not.  Not once does Helena accept Bertram’s rejection.  Not once does she turn her attention to another man after Bertram scorns her.  Instead, she pretends to relinquish the man she is determined to appropriate: “That you are well restor’d, my lord, I’m glad. / Let the rest go” [II:iii].  When Helena says this, it is accismus, that is, the feigned refusal of that which is earnestly desired.  It is not a statement of resignation.  Nor should one mistake her demand to marry for a marriage proposal.  Helena does not propose marriage; she imposes marriage.

It would have been noble had Helena renounced Bertram upon learning that he is a marriage escapee, that he defected to Italy and entered the Tuscan Wars and a likely death to escape her.  However, this is not what Helena does: Instead, she pursues him to Italy.  Her path of reflection is as follows: “Bertram left France to escape me; therefore, I will leave France, as well—and follow him to Italy.”  Whereas Helena wants presence, Bertram wants absence: “Till I have no wife I have nothing in France” [III:ii], he writes to his mother.  To say that she wants everything would be a gross understatement.  She wants more than everything—she wants to eat her Key Lime Pie and refrigerate it at the same time.

Bertram gives away his six-generation family ring to Helena, who is disguised as a Florentine washerwoman, and this is ring will be returned to him.  The ring seals not only his marriage to Helena, but also seals his marriage to the community / to the collective.  The symbol of the ring is clearly the chief symbol of the play, for treason moves in an annular pattern.  Treachery is circular; treason is circular.  This is the meaning of the difficult and frequently misinterpreted words of the First Lord:

We are, the First Lord says, “[m]erely our own traitors.  And as in the common course of all treasons we still see them reveal themselves till they attain to their abhorr’d ends; so he that in this action contrives against his own nobility, in his proper stream o’erflows himself” [IV:iii].

I would translate these lines thus: “We human beings are traitors to ourselves.  We betray ourselves in the very act of betrayal.  As we betray others, we betray ourselves—that is, we reveal ourselves as traitors and thus we betray our own betrayals.”  According to a citation in The Oxford English Dictionary, “till” could mean “while” in 1603.  All’s Well That Ends Well is believed to have been written between 1604 and 1605.  If “till” meant “while” in 1603 in England, then this is a justifiable reading of the lines.

All of the main characters are unrepentant traitors, and traitors always betray themselves.  We see treacherous treason in the treacheries of Parolles, of Helena, and of Bertram.

Parolles intends to betray the Florentine army, but ends up betraying military secrets to the Florentine army.

Helena does, in fact, deceive her husband, but this deception ends in legitimized sexual intercourse.  Moreover, she lies when she says that she “embrace[s]” death to “set [Bertram] free” [III:iv], but she does so in order to affirm the sanctity of marriage.  She is a liar who feigns her own death—but she does so in order to honor marriage and thus to honor Elizabethan society.  In the eyes of the world, she has done nothing wrong.  Who could blame her for cozening someone who would unjustly win?  Would could blame her for deceiving her husband in order to sanctify conjugality?  A Casanova in reverse, she takes a honeymoon to Italy and has sex with her husband—only her husband thinks that he is having sex with someone else.  No one is devirginized, except for Bertram’s wife.

Bertram would betray Helena by cheating upon her, but he ends up betraying himself.  He intends to commit adultery on his own wife, but he ends up committing adultery with his wife.

From a purely external / legal / formal point of view, neither sin nor crime has been performed in each case.  In each case, the three characters have sinful intentions, and yet commit no sin.  All’s well that ends in a socially acceptable manner.  It is for this reason that Helena says that the reason within her treasonous marriage plot “[i]s wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act, / Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact” [III:vii].  And later in the play: “All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown. / Whatever the course, the end is the renown” [IV:v].  “Fine” here means “ending.”  The formal close of the plot sanctifies all of the deception that came before it.  The ring turns itself around; the end communes with the beginning.  The ring is closed, erasing all of the treachery and deception that was used to forge it.

No one is innocent, and no one is guilty.  Diana implies the innocent guilt of not only Bertram, but of all traitors, when she says: “Because he’s guilty and he is not guilty” [V:iii].  The traitors of the play (Parolles, Helena, and Bertram) are innocent, though their intentions are treasonous.

One character after the other intends to perform a treacherous action, but this action is transmuted into its opposite.  Such is the reversal of language: As the First Lord says to the Second Lord (in reference to a secret that will be communicated by the latter to the former): “When you have spoken it, ’tis dead, and I am the grave of it” [IV:iii].  Language kills.  That is: Language has the tendency to say the exact opposite of what we mean.  When we say or write, “I am lonely,” we cannot be lonely, for we open up the possibility of communication.  When we say or write, “I am sad,” we are not sad enough to stop speaking or writing.

Concerning the intentional errors of language: The bescarfed fool Patrolles misuses words throughout, and this is always Shakespeare’s way of ridiculing characters he does not respect.  For instance, Parolles says “facinerious” instead of “facinorous” [II:iii].  He uses an affected language, such as when he calls Bertram’s defection from marriage a “capriccio” [Ibid.].  He often cannot finish his sentences.  Again and again, his sentences are broken off with em-dashes (this is what rhetoricians call aposiopesis).  And yet there is some sense in his nonsense.  When he intones, “Mort du vinaigre!” [III:iii], this might seem to be mere babble, and yet might it not evoke the crucifixion of Christ, whose broken lips and tongue were said to be moistened by vinegar?  When Parolles is accosted by the Florentines, dressed as Muscovites, they utter gibble-gabble, such as “Boskos vauvado” and “Manka revania dulche” [IV:i].  And yet are they gabbling?  Dulche might invoke Dolch, a German word that means “dagger” (after all, the Florentines-dressed-as-Muscovites are pointing their poniards at Parolles), and boskos might evoke “bosk” or “boscage,” which makes sense, since the scene takes place in a forest.  Even though they are gabbling, there is significance in their gibble-gabble.  Shakespeare cannot allow his writing to be meaningless.  There is, in his writing, a tyranny of meaning.  Even the nonsense in his plays carries sense.

At the end of the play, which does not end well, and which therefore belies its own title, Bertram acknowledges that his wife is his wife, but he does so in formalistic and legalistic language: “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly / I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” [V:iii].  In other words, “I love you because I am socially, legally, and politically obligated to love you.”  He speaks as if the knowledge of information led to desire, as if the confirmation of a legal contract necessarily issued in passion.  Indeed, Helena has proven that she has fulfilled both conditions of the contract: that she pull the ring from his finger and that she produce a child of whom he is the father.  The ring is given as evidence to Helena’s kangaroo court; the parturition of the child is demonstrated, as if this were the Elizabethan version of a talk-show paternity test.  It is probable, however, that Bertram intended “ring” and “child” as metaphors—and yet Helena takes the letter as the law.  Helena literalizes what might have been intended metaphorically.

Is the social, legal, and political obligation to love another human being not the definition of marriage?  Kant defined marriage as the mutual leasing of each other’s genital organs, and philosophers since Hegel have criticized his glacial definition.  But was Kant incorrect?  All’s Well That Ends Well implies essentially the same thing.  It could be said, with only slight exaggeration or overstatement, that this play is a work of misogamy in contrast to the epithalamia Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Shakespeare’s most problematical comedy would suggest that marriage is the lie of all lies, the hoax of all hoaxes, and should be avoided by anyone who values solitude, privacy, and freedom.

When Bertram submits to the will of Helena and the will of the King the first time, it is hardly a profession of love: “I find that she, which late / Was in my nobler thoughts most base, is now / The praised of the king; who, so ennobled, / Is as ’twere born so” [II:iii].  This is the least erotic assent to marry someone that has ever been articulated.

“All yet seems well” [V:iii; emphasis mine].  There is the semblance of a happy closure, the simulation of a happy ending.  Simply because the circle has closed in a formal sense, this does not mean that anyone is happy.  All’s Well That Ends Well does not end well.  All is not well in All’s Well That Ends Well.  All’s ill that ends well.

Joseph Suglia



My Favorite Authors, My Favorite Films, My Favorite Music


My favorite music is German, African, and English Progressive Rock from 1969 until 1987.

My favorite films are an enigma.

My favorite writings include those of Gayl Jones, Roland Topor, D.H. Lawrence, J.G. Ballard, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, William Shakespeare, Martin Amis, Paul Valéry, Daphne du Maurier, Will Self, Herman Melville, Marcel Proust, Gore Vidal, John Wyndham, Richard Matheson, John Milton, Ambrose Bierce, Georg Trakl, Witold Gombrowicz, Henrik Ibsen, Georges Perec, Roald Dahl, Elias Canetti, Frank Wedekind, Epictetus, H.L. Mencken, Arthur Schnitzler, Michel Leiris, et al.

Joseph Suglia