Painting the Green World Red: The Brothel in Shakespeare’s Plays

by David P. Gontar (October 2013)

Northrop Frye is remembered for the wondrous notion of the Green World, that rustic site outside the royal court where Shakespearean protagonists are free to undergo growth, resolution and integration. The Forest of Arden in As You Like It, the Athenian wood in A Midsummer Night's Dream, even that humble graveyard in Act Four of Hamlet, among others, all function as places beyond the stresses of palace imbroglios, where the psyche can blossom, finding refreshment in nature and reconstitute itself. Less frequently noticed, perhaps, is another kind of space, located within or tangent to the city which affords retreat. That is the brothel. We see this far-less-favored venue featured in King Henry IV, Pericles and Measure for Measure. Unlike Shakespeare's pastoral scenes, those set in brothels are not intersections for the meeting of courtiers and gentle shepherds, but places where troubled protagonists rub shoulders with a rowdier social element and find themselves invigorated by a common and fundamental humanity. In long-faced dramas such interludes afford comic relief. It should be kept in mind that even in the Green World we encounter disfranchised urbanites, such as the bandits in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the genteel savages Guiderius and Arviragus in Cymbeline, King of Britain, the noble woodmen in As You Like It, and that begrimed and lunatic saint on the heath in Lear. The brothel in Shakespeare is a miniature urban wilderness, a place less insistent on formalities, social distinctions and decorum, allowing for a more direct encounter with the rudiments of life,  providing scope for characters to slough off expectations. Neither the Green World nor its ruddy cousin guarantee anything. What they offer is alterity, a shift in identity. How this is fashioned defines the character. Prince Hamlet seems to learn something from his encounter with pirates at sea and comes back to Elsinore rejuvenated. (IV, v, 16-21) Suffolk does not. (King Henry VI, Part Two,  IV, i) The readiness is all, after all.  

Let us take a moment to reconnoiter with Hal and Pointz in the Boar's-head Tavern, Marina and Lysimachus in Mytilene, and Isabella and hoi polloi in the stews of Vienna.

1.  The Boar's-head Tavern

Though Falstaff is not on stage in The Life of King Henry the Fifth, we know Shakespeare wants us to view it with him in mind. There he sets two scenes in the Boar's-head Tavern, including the off-camera death of Falstaff. (I, i, I, iii) We also know that while on military expedition in France, the past weighs heavily on Harry's mind. (V, i, 286-302) His burden of guilt cannot be gainsaid. Though he betrays Falstaff, banishing him from his court and life, it seems he cannot quite expel him from his thoughts. After all, he is fighting alongside the same boon companions as before: Nym, Bardolph, Pistol and the serving boy, Falstaffians loyal and true. Shakespeare doesn't want us to forget the rollicking Boar's-head days as we plough through Harfleur and Agincourt. Though his ghost does not appear onstage, Harry is haunted by Falstaff. 

The Boar's-head “Tavern” is, of course, one of the thinly disguised brothels in Eastcheap, London's red light district. 

(to Falstaff)

What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day?
Unless hours were cups of sack, and minutes capons,
and clocks the tongues of bawds, and dials the signs
of leaping houses, and the blessed sun himself a fair
hot wench in flame-coloured taffeta, I see no reason
why thou shouldst be so superfluous to demand the
time of the day.
(King Henry IV, Part One, I, ii, 5-12)

In other words, Eastcheap is the devil's bailiwick. Burning in the sky above is a gaudy wench presiding over endless debauch, a territory in which deadlines and appointments don't count. Law is mocked. Crimes are hatched here, not boring plans. Time itself has been exiled. Prince Hal projects this debased ambience on his host and mentor, Falstaff, but Hal is living here too, though his own doings are discreetly veiled. It is plain from the beginning that the Hostess, the proprietress, is actually a bawd, “Doll Tearsheet” a streetwalker.   If we conceive of Bolingbroke's court as the locus of dull labor, then the Boar's-head is a ludic realm, a Carnival. With Bacchic liberty and easy toleration come song, bombast — even impromptu theatrical performances: Hal and Falstaff take turns impersonating the King interrogating his wayward son. Of course, all of this is well-known.

What is not quite clear is the impact all this has on Hal. Is he daubed within by his scarlet exterior? The issue is underscored by the famous “I know you all” soliloquy (I, ii, 192-214) in which we are taken aback to hear that he is only pretending to be a part of the gaiety and merriment of the Boar's-head, that his friendships with these colorful figures are as false as a Mardi Gras leer. All this sound and fury is but a foil, a stratagem to make his stern reformation and putting on of royal power seem more impressive. But the interaction of prince and paupers is so vivid and compelling that it is nearly impossible to believe that Hal has no feeling, no love for his comrades. Could it all be a cheap charade?  

The Green World is a place where characters have adventures and develop in ways they might not have, had they remained at home. Demetrius, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example, abandons his unsuitable crush on Hermia, betrothed to Lysander, and returns to his affection for Helena. When he speaks of this at the play's end, we hear and believe:

DEMETRIUS (to Theseus)

My lord, fair Helen told me of their stealth,
Of this their purpose hither to this wood,
And I in fury hither followed them,
Fair Helena in fancy following me.
But, my good lord, I wot not by what power —
But by some power it is — my love to Hermia,
Melted as the snow, seems to me now
As the remembrance of an idle gaud
Which in my childhood I did dote upon,
And all the faith, the virtue of my heart,
The object and the pleasure of mine eye,
Is only Helena. To her, my lord,
Was I betrothed ere I see Hermia.
But like in sickness did I loathe this food;
But, as in health come to my natural taste,
Now do I wish for it, love it, long for it,
And will evermore be true to it.
(IV, i, 159-175)

Demetrius is transported by his experience in the Green World and returns to his original love object. What if Oberon's love juice had been smeared on the slumbering eyelids of Prince Harry, who on waking had first seen Doll Tearsheet —  or Falstaff himself? What then? There appear huge differences in the Prince — so long as he abides in Eastcheap — but on reversion to the privy chamber and his actual father, he chooses the grey field of work, not play. In so doing, he pays a heavy price. For one can only excise Falstaff from one's heart by sacrificing a piece of oneself.  Like Odysseus, tied to the ship's mast, auditing the song of the Sirens, Hal holds himself aloof. He loves Falstaff. He must. And yet . . .  it is as if his inner core is frigid and untouched, so that, unlike the case with Demetrius, what melts away at last is not the painted pomp of the court and idle ceremony, (IV, i, 237) but rather Falstaff, the very spirit of revelry.  

One disadvantage Hal faces is Pointz, a low-life fellow with an upper-crust bearing consistent with courtly indiscretion. It has been suggested with good reason that Pointz may well be Hal's elder brother, and that it was Pointz who was responsible for conducting Hal to the Boar's-head Tavern originally. (Gontar, 64, ff.) Because Pointz is forever at his elbow, Hal's immersion in the Red World is checked, never complete. Pointz is always drawing him aside, reminding him teasingly of his uptown pedigree. A careful reading of Part Two, Act II, scene ii, displays their casual intimacy, as though they had some hidden bond with one another. After chatting tongue-in-cheek about marrying Pointz's sister (that is, half-sister), Hal comments ironically: “Well, thus we play the fools with the time, and the spirits of the wise sit in the clouds and mock us,” (II, ii, 133-135), not exactly the sort of bonhomie to be appreciated by Bardolph, Nym or Peto. Hal and Pointz share the same patronizing view of their seedy surroundings. 


This Doll Tearsheet should be some road


I warrant you, as common as the way between
St. Albans and London.
(II, ii, 158-160) 

In plain demonstration of their shared condescension, Hal and Pointz once again plot to embarrass Falstaff.


How might we see Falstaff bestow himself
tonight in his true colours, and not ourselves be seen?


Put on two leathern jerkins and aprons, and wait
upon him at his table like drawers.


From a god to a bull — a heavy declension —
It was Jove's case. From a prince to a prentice — a low
transformation — that shall be mine; for in everything
the purpose must weight with the folly. Follow me, Ned.
(II, ii, 161-168)

That evening while Falstaff is disporting himself with Doll, cradling her on his knee, his supposed friends the Prince of Wales and co-conspirator Ned Pointz spy on him. They hear him declaim disparagingly about them both. Shakespeare's meaning is evident: despite the roistering and skylarking, the boozing and camaraderie, the Prince and Pointz don't belong. Their mocking behavior dovetails perfectly with Hal's aforementioned “I know you all” speech. Just as he acts the part of his father in the Boar's-head Tavern spectacle, so are all his doings parts he puts on. Hard as it is to believe in light of the sheer joviality of the vivid scenes Shakespeare gives us, we must conclude that Hal never gives himself to his new home with sincerity and depth. The risk is one he could never tolerate.     

Of course, if we stop and think about it, how likely is it that the future King of England would allow himself to become a bohemian, when at any moment he might be summoned to lead his nation? Falstaff was not totally naïve. At times he foresaw the truth with perfect accuracy, as when he pleaded with Hal not to banish him after assuming the throne. (II, v, 471-485) Hal would not take purses from the travelers at Gadshill. “Who, I rob? I a thief? Not I, by my faith.” (I, iii, 136) And though the Boar's-head Tavern is transparently a bordello, will the Prince permit himself to have relations with a Doll Tearsheet and risk the creation of another royal bastard? Absolutely not. At every step of the way it is evident that Hal is false. And 'False'-staff knows it. Yet, in his love of Hal and in his self-aggrandizing fantasies, he indulges in the silly notion that he would one day sit beside the King of England. The irony is that, truth be told, Hal needs Falstaff just as much if not more than Falstaff needs him. His guilt and loneliness on the eve of Agincourt tell the story. When Hal decides to morph into Bolingbroke, something goes out of him, something precious he possessed only in relation to that old fat knight. The enlargement offered by the Red World was genuine. Hal was not.

2.  The Brothel at Mytilene

One of the funniest episodes in the comedy Pericles, Prince of Tyre involves a girl without a funny bone in her body. Marina, born in a storm at sea, is the beautiful product of Prince Pericles' priceless Wanderjahre. Kidnapped by pirates, and sold into white slavery, she winds up in a trade withering from lack of business. Suffering congenital virtue, she cannot comprehend what she is asked to do, and takes every opportunity to put lusty patrons on the straight and narrow. This causes a fiscal crisis calling for emergency action. 


Did you ever hear the like?


No, nor never shall do in such a place
as this, she being gone.


But to have divinity preached there —
did you ever dream of such a thing?


No, no. Come, I am for no more
bawdy houses. Shall's go hear the vestals sing?


I'll do anything now that is virtuous,
but I am out of the road of rutting for ever. (Exeunt)

                Enter Pander, Bawd, and Boult


Well, I had rather than twice the worth of her
she had never come here.


Fie, fie upon her, she's able to freeze the god
Priapus and undo the whole of generation. We must
either get her ravished or be rid of her. When she
should do for clients her fitment and do me the kindness
of our profession, she has me her quirks, her reasons,
her master reasons, her prayers, her knees, that she
would make a puritan of the devil if he should cheapen
a kiss of her.


Faith, I must ravish her, or she'll disfurnish us of
all our cavalleria and make our swearers priests.


Now, the pox upon her green-sickness for me.


Faith, there's no way to be rid on't but by the way
to the pox.
(Scene 19, 1-24)

At this point in the action, Marina's father, presuming her mother to be dead, is drifting over the seas  in a cataleptic state. He still flees the specter of incest he first encountered when he sought to take possession of the daughter of King Antiochus, who was having an affair with her own father. Lingering in the background is the implicit possibility that Pericles might recover and unwittingly patronize the brothel where his now-grown daughter is employed. Instead, the Governor of the city of Mytilene, Lysimachus, steps across the brothel threshold incognito. As she did with the other gentlemen, Marina persuades Lysimachus to find something better to do than exercise wanton lust. Unbeknownst to anyone, Marina's mother is alive, and a votary of Diana, Goddess of chastity. Her genial piety reigns invisibly over all. 


Let not authority, which teaches you
To govern others, be the means to make you
Misgovern much yourself.
If you were born to honor, show it now;
If put upon you, make the judgement good
That thought you worthy of it. What reason's in
Your justice, who hath power over all,
To undo any? If you take from me
Mine honour, you're like him that makes a gap
Into forbidden ground, whom after
Too many enter, and of all their evils
Yourself are guilty. My life is yet unspotted;
My chastity unstainèd ev'n in thought.
Then if your violence deface this building,
The workmanship of heav'n, you do kill your honour,
Abuse your justice, and impoverish me.
My yet good lord, if there be fire before me,
Must I straight fly and burn myself?
(Scene 19, 98-113)

A bit more of this and Lysimachus departs in haste, but with the memory of Marina etched in his brain.


                                        I did not think
Thou couldst have spoke so well, ne'er dreamt thou couldst.

           (He  lifts her up with his hands)

Though I brought hither a corrupted mind,
Thy speech hath altered it,

           (He wipes the wet from her eyes)

                                           and my foul thoughts
Thy tears so well hath laved that they're now white.
I came here meaning but to pay the price,
A piece of gold for thy virginity;
Here's twenty to relieve thine honesty.
Persever still in that clear way thou goest,
And may the gods strengthen thee.
(Scene 19, 127-135)


Like Prince Hal, Marina resists the blandishments of the Red World, and teaches Lysimachus and others the same lesson. At this moment, like Lord Angelo in Measure for Measure, he falls instantly in love with his young teacher of sanctity. Outraged beyond all consolation, the Bawd and Pander relent when they discover that Marina can make money tutoring the youth of Mytilene in the liberal arts, all of which she has mastered. Soon thereafter, the barnacled vessel of old Pericles moors in the harbor. Marina is summoned thence to see if she can cure him of his depression. As Lysimachus watches from the sidelines, father and daughter realize their filial relationship, causing much relief and celebration. The couple plans to wed. Diana appears to Pericles with news that his beloved wife Thaisa is living still, serving her in Ephesus, to which everyone repairs in joy and happy reunion.

All seems well. But as is the case so often in Shakespeare, a subtle dilemma brews unnoticed. Marina, daughter of a votary of Diana and champion of chastity is marrying an habitual brothel patron. Is there a problem? Transfer this scenario to the real world, our world, and the question answers itself. Will they be content? Is Marina going to be the kind of wife her husband desires? When she is peevish, won't his former unbridled behavior rankle in her heart, rendering both partners miserable? This is the crux of the comedy. Incest has been avoided largely by Accident, which seems the ruling principle of the plot. But it's a narrow miss. Marina has taken a husband much older than herself, a father figure, accustomed to sexual license. Domestic tension is inescapable. 

On the surface, Lysimachus, native of the Red World, has been transformed. He loves the thing he would have used or abused. His dignity is restored. In that respect he recapitulates the conversion of Demetrius, who made his recovery in the World of Green. But even Helena might at some point wake up and recollect that her husband actually did woo the beauteous Hermia, a vexing thought. As for Marina, she has not dreamt but known first hand her husband's proclivities, and must face the prospect of backsliding at some point in the future. In a sense, it's up to her. It is Marina who has entered the Red World and encountered beings of a coarser kind, a kind she never knew before. Though she has avoided degradation, her shady surroundings have taught her the ways of the world. “I am a part of all that I have met,” says Tennyson's Ulysses. In spite of her non-cooperation, the mere exposure to such raw elements on a daily basis brings her a maturity more stable than adolescent optimism. She has seen more of life. If she can take these gleanings of the Red World and use them in charting a safe marital voyage with her good husband, the prognosis may yet be positive.

3.  Gates of Vienna, Gates of Hell

In The Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye, in introducing the Green World principle, remarks that “this second world concept is absent from the more ironic comedies All's Well and Measure for Measure.” (Frye, 182) And certainly, to the extent that 'second world' is identified with the Green World, that observation is quite correct. With particular reference to Measure for Measure, however, there do appear to be signs of what could be termed a 'second world', though one not so verdant as those of A Midsummer Night's Dream or The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Most readers today would probably agree that Measure for Measure represents the intersection of two distinct moral and social spheres, one ordered by the state, taken as the normal world, the other that of disorder, i.e., the brothel, which we have denominated a 'Red' zone. For in the Vienna of this play are many taverns in which pleasure may be purchased, while beyond the city gates lie innumerable “houses of resort” which openly do business without apprehension. The culture of indulgence and sans souci which prevails in these saloons and parlors is incommensurate with the rule-bound proprieties and gravities of conventional Vienna. That is the reason for their sequestration. The action of Shakespeare's 'problem play' or 'romance' is triggered by a municipal decision to shutter and destroy all brothels in the outlying districts. As an apparently large segment of the population has recreation and employment there, this action comes as a blow.


Thus, what with the war, what with the sweat [disease],
what with the gallows, and what with poverty, I am custom-

(Enter Pompey, a tapster)

How now, what's the news with you?


You have not heard of the proclamation, have


What proclamation, man?


All houses in the suburbs of Vienna must be
plucked down.


And what shall become of those in the city?


They shall stand for seed. They had gone down
too, but that a wise burgher put in for them.


But shall all our houses of resort in
the suburbs be pulled down?


To the ground, mistress.


Why, here is a change in the commonwealth.
What shall become of me?


Come, fear not you. Good counsellors lack no
clients. Though you change your place, you need not
change your trade. I'll be your tapster still. Courage,
there will be pity taken on you. You that have worn
your eyes almost out in the service, you will be
(I, ii, 80-103)

What is not anticipated by the authorities is that closing the brothels turns over a wasps' nest of unsavory characters who roam the streets in search of former occupations and diversions. Activities which had been confined to private residences now spill out into plain view. This requires an expanded system of watches, constabularies, prisons, and jurists, a burden on the public treasury. Meanwhile the administration has been turned over to  Lord Angelo, a junior magistrate, as Duke Vincentio goes on a mysterious sabbatical. Angelo responds to the crisis by conducting mass arrests and meting out Draconian penalties. The consequence is a sort of civil war, in which those in the demimonde square off against the establishment. Thus, while there are no distinctive brothel scenes in a Vienna which has forbidden the institution, the city has become a sudden confrontation of Red and grey factions. While ordinarily, as Prof. Frye taught, heroes in the quotidian sphere enter the Green World to be transformed, in Measure for Measure the tides of the Red World engulf its counterpart like a bloom of algae. 

Something is bound to ensue, and does.  

In the convent of the Sisters of Saint Clare is Isabella, a postulant. She is called by Lucio, a picaresque rogue, to come to the city to plead on behalf of her brother, Claudio, facing execution for fornication. Not delaying to even change her apparel, Isabella rushes to Lord Angelo to beg a reduction in the sentence. During her impassioned and provocative discourse, Angelo, rather like Lysimachus heeding Marina, finds himself overpowered by desire for this maid-in-nun's-attire, and tries to rationalize it as love. (II, iv, 141) Isabella thus functions in Measure for Measure as an unwitting emissary of the Red World, inflaming the heart of Angelo with an ardent emotion he can scarcely grasp. Her desperate oration is unconsciously filled with erotic tropes as she, the chaste novice of a convent, pleads that the law excuse her brother's laxity. Faced with temptation, Angelo yields to it, and proposes a shameful quid pro quo: he will spare brother Claudio's life if Isabella will give him her body for his pleasure. At first, innocent Isabella fails to get the message. 


Admit no other way to save his life —
As I subscribe not that nor any other —
But, in the loss of question, that you his sister,
Finding  yourself desired of such a person
Whose credit with the judge, or own great place,
Could fetch your brother from the manacles
Of the all-binding law, and that there were
No earthly mean to save him, but that either
You must lay down the treasures of your body
To this supposed, or else to let him suffer —
What would you do?


As much for my poor brother as myself.
That is, were I under the terms of death,
Th' impression of keen whips I'd wear as rubies,
And strip myself to death as to a bed
That longing have been sick for, ere I'd yield
My body up to shame.


Then must your brother die.


And 'twere the cheaper way.
Better it were a brother died at once
Than a sister, by redeeming him,
Should die forever.
(II, iv, 88-109)

As we read passages such as this in Measure for Measure it is natural to think again about the fate of Marina in Pericles. As was suggested above, stationed where she is in Mytilene, she could not shield herself from contact with the ruder elements of society, and though she never submits to libidinous propositions, she cannot stop her ears or don a blindfold. Perforce she learns much about men and what makes the world go round. She keeps her virginity but must be understood as suffering an internal sea change of which she has only the faintest awareness.

Isabella never occupies a house of ill-repute. She is spared that. And yet, the Red World reaches out to her through Angelo, and holds her in its grip long enough for her to be affected. Unlike Marina, who is pictured as a bluestocking or bonneted temperance worker, Isabella manifests an erotic energy which crackles just beneath the surface. Indeed, her request to the Order of St. Clare that there be greater restraints and strictures on its sisters (I, iv, 1-5) is suggestive of a person in flight from impulses she can barely contain on her own. Words and phrases in her plea to Angelo by which she means to convey her purity have an altogether opposed resonance in his ear, such as: “the impression of keen whips I'd wear as rubies,” “strip myself,” “a bed that longing have been sick for,” and “yield my body up.” These locutions sound with an almost sadomasochistic appeal, of which poor Isabella has no ken. Placed side by side, then, these two young ladies, Marina and Isabella, both of whom pray constantly for renunciation and purity, are subjected to the power of the Red World, with the result that neither of them continues with a life of dedicated abstinence. Rather, both marry and will submit to the embraces of a man. 

Further, as indicated above, whether these marriages will be successful is the challenge each couple will face. Marina will need to exercise caution in monitoring her recollections and reactions to the importunities of Lysimachus. As for Isabella, the conclusion of Measure for Measure places her under a distinct question mark. She has eluded Angelo's ugly demand for sex by use of the 'bed trick', in which, in a dark room, Angelo's former fiancée Mariana, jilted by him, is substituted for Isabella. After hearing Isabella's surprising plea that Angelo be spared the ultimate punishment, the Duke enjoins that Mariana and Angelo be married. It must be recalled that throughout the entire play, Duke Vincentio has been in disguise as Friar Lodowick. In the judgment scene by which the play concludes, the Duke unmasks himself for the first time, revealing that the fellow who helped Isabella save her virtue was not, as she had supposed, a religious monk, but the Duke himself, whom all supposed was absent from Vienna. 

Now, standing in front of her, he has the provost reveal that brother Claudio, whom Isabella believed was executed by Angelo in violation of the quid pro quo, is still alive. 


This is another prisoner that I saved,
Who should have died when Claudio lost his head,
As like almost to Claudio as himself.
(He unmuffles Claudio)
(V, i, 486-488)

Then, just as Isabella is trying to adjust to this momentous and sudden revelation, Friar Lodowick, now the Duke once more, speaks to Isabella.


If he be like your brother, for his sake
Is he pardoned; and for your lovely sake
Give me your hand, and say you will be mine.
He is my brother too. But fitter time for that.
By this Lord Angelo perceives he's safe.
Methinks I see a quick'ning in his eye.
Well, Angelo, your evil quits you well.
Look that you love your wife, her worth worth yours.
I find an apt remission in myself . . . .
(V, i, 489-497)

And there it is. No stage directions dictate that Isabella reciprocate and place her hand in his, though it would be hard to find a production in which the director did not call for that response. Just about every critic who writes about this play observes that the loquacious Isabella is stonily silent for its remainder. We never hear her accept the Duke's proposal. Admittedly, many proposals are not given immediate answers but are taken under advisement. But having witnessed the Duke reaching for her hand, who in the audience would not anticipate a gesture or some words from Isabella? 

Our prognosis must be guarded. Isabella is being called on to make an eventful decision on the spot after so many gut-wrenching experiences it is doubtful she'll be able to digest her dinner. She is at this moment still a novice in the Order of St. Clare, clad in its habit, and must shortly return to confer with the prioress. Her brother Claudio has been revealed as a “fornicator,” one thought dead, and now unveiled as hale and hearty. His fiancée, Juliet, Isabella's good childhood friend, is visibly pregnant. The magistrate before whom she pleaded with artless seductiveness, has been forgiven, largely at her own behest. What could be her feelings for him at his juncture? Few ask. And on top of all this, the man she trusted as Friar Lodowick turns out to be the canny Duke himself, who, in the presence of everyone in Vienna, proposes marriage! Is it any wonder she is mute? Is not Isabella similar to the fair Ophelia, brought down by her Prince and her flowers and water-laden garments? Isabella has wandered from the cloistered security of the nunnery into the confusion of the Red World, and is at least for the instant drowned by a mass of bewilderment. It will be a long while before she can think of herself as she had before. No match made in heaven this, it's not surprising this is termed a “problem play.”


It is to Northrop Frye's imperishable credit that we have the Green World to aid us in appreciating Shakespearean transformation. But as we all know, there are many ways in which change may occur, many catalysts in maturation and growth. A boy  goes to war and returns a man. Trauma may rob us of our amiability. Some grow old and bitter, others serene. Or, the unrelenting accretion of fortune's slings and arrows may usher in despair. Frye was especially intrigued by the operation of the Green World on account of its associations with myth and nature. But Shakespeare employed a palette of varied hues, and used many tinctures besides chlorophyll. Even within the urban ethos, a schism may occur, as when, in the 1960's, a counterculture of pacifism and free love arose fueled by uncontrolled substances. Those who entered in, were they not changed? Yes, Demetrius and Nick Bottom emerge from the Athenian wood richer and more insightful than when they strayed thence, but so, to a degree, do Hal and Marina. The proletarian dimension into which they were thrust is, of course, merely the necessary, not the sufficient, condition of evolution; had their resistance been less, their souls might have become more ample. Learning is not always in the classroom. As we all know, there may be insight in a chance encounter. Angelo and Isabella are caught in a social upheaval; ultimately they may be all the better for it. Having found unruliness within himself, Angelo might be a more compassionate magistrate. Having seen how the other half lives, Isabella may anchor those high-flown words that come to her so readily.  

The moral for the audience is that Hal, Marina, Isabella, Nick Bottom and the rest are only fictions, in the final analysis no more than spots of ink on the page. Of themselves, they'll leave not a wrack behind. It is we who have journeyed, not they. The 'second world' — of any color  — is the transformative power of the poet's art. The real changes occur in us, not in those beguiling creatures by whom we were so entranced.



Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton University Press, 2000.

David P. Gontar, Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays, New English Review Press, 2013.

William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, 2d ed., S. Wells and G. Taylor, eds., Clarendon Press, 2005.


David P. Gontar's latest book is Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays.


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