A Trio of Unconventional Shakespearean Couples
by Jaimie Crawford
"Who can be wise, amaz'd, temp'rate, and furious, loyal, and neutral, in a moment? (Macbeth 2.3.108-9). And if a choice must be made, is it "nobler to suffer the slings of arrows of outrageous fortune (like a woman) or to take arms against the sea of troubles (like a man)?"(Hamlet 3.1.56-8).
Who has not marveled at the metamorphosis of King Lear from dignified ruler to naked, dying old man; of Hamlet from grieving son to vengeful murderer; of Portia from dutiful daughter to self-righteous advocate? While the transformation of these characters may surprise some novice theater-goers, the Shakespearean audience expects evolution in his characters. In fact, in hindsight, it seems clear that beneath the order of Lear's kingdom runs an undercurrent of instability; that Hamlet's thoughtful inaction awaits the right "cue"; that Portia's cunning generosity needs a target. If these traits lay latent in the characters initially, however, what causes their manifestation?
According to Jung, these characters' transformations are symptoms of "individuation": a "union or reconciliation" of latent and manifest traits occurring during adulthood. Lear, at almost 80 years, reveals a kinder (feminine) side at the end of the play as he openly weeps on the corpse of his favorite daughter. Jung explains this development as a product of human biological and psychological bisexuality: during human development one set of traits, masculine or feminine, dominates the other. The more prominent these traits are in the conscious mind, the stronger their opposites will be in the unconscious, creating an "adrogenous equilibrium". Jung maps the path towards this equilibrium as a universal and autonomous struggle toward an achievement of wholeness and ultimately, a realization of the truth or meaning in life.
Jung and Freud saw an intriguing correlation between androgenous equilibrium and perceived "fulfillment" in the lives of their clients (Corsini and Wedding, 1989). In his "Shakespeare and the Art of Humankindness: An Essay Toward Androgeny" Robert Kimbaugh defines "androgeny as fully realized humanity...an overcoming of separation" (13). Indeed, this natural propulsion towards wholeness seems a driving force behind human motivation; members of every society struggle to make sense of their world, expanding their spiritual, intellectual, and emotional horizons through an integration of masculine and feminine characteristics.
Although Kimbaugh purports that "the experience of androgeny is [wholly] in the self"(137) and that marriage exists only as a symbol of the feminine and masculine combining in an individual, literature would be hard pressed to create an androgenous character outside of a union, be it one of friendship, family, or marriage. As social creatures, humans gravitate towards others for completion; the "couple" is the universal vehicle for the literary expression of androgeny. By coupling-modeling partners' characteristics latent and inaccessible in themselves-characters facilitate a break with dysfunctional polarized roles of masculine and feminine.
What serves as the impetus for this coupling? What makes a man love a woman or, for that matter, another man? Quite possibly the right combination of compensatory traits. "[Man's] day-dreams show that all his heroic exploits are carried out in order to please a woman...these fantasies are satisfactions of wishes proceeding from deprivation and longing" (Penguin Freud Library, 10: 87). A woman's animus, likewise, appears symbolically in her dreams and fantasies as male figures: husband, lover, next door neighbor...(Corsini and Wedding, 1989). Seeking out in others what we attempt to discover in ourselves, we select partners who, embodying our "other selves", will best help us attain an androgenous equilibrium.
While latent traits manifest themselves in the form of fantasies and dreams, a public mode of fantasy production exists in theater where, Freud believes, the creative writer presents us with his "personal daydreams" (PFL, 14:140). Allowing the audience to internalize the protagonist's struggle for "wholeness", this public forum allows for individuation through catharsis. The archetypes, independent-of-plot, contained in these plays so intensely resonate in the collective unconscious that they are revived generation after generation.
Whether Shakespeare's protagonists achieve an androgenous equilibrium or not is irrelevant. While their inability to do so results in a hunger unquenched (and an unsatisfied audience craving another taste), a balance attained calms the spirit, lifts the soul, and (no matter how unrealistic) provides an idealistic world in which perfection seems possible.
A Shakespearean tragedy is, by nature, an androgenous equilibrium unconsummated. The tragedies of Lear and Hamlet provide unique variations of "coupling"; while Hamlet exemplifies "Shakespearean effect" in psychoanalytic identity formation, Lear represents "Shakespearean cause" (Lupton 6). In other words, Lear is the Oedipal parent, perpetually coupling with his symbolic child. Hamlet, the Oedipal child, is likewise paralyzed, incapable of loving mother, blaming uncle, or avenging father.
Lear and Hamlet do not form unions, nor do they even seem to have "coupling" potential. Lear's wife is dead; Hamlet's fate with Ophelia is doomed early in the play when he murders her father. These tragic characters are governed by an urgency too potent and erratic to be complemented. Lear's incongruity seems to propel the play as he wavers between self-knowledge and ignorance, impotence and action, strength and infirmity. Hamlet, struggling with his own capricious identity, passes over the opportunity to couple with Ophelia. Unable to break from the unyielding yoke of his mother or to follow the ephemeral advice of his father, Hamlet plods backwards towards the innocence of the womb. Lear and Hamlet seek equilibrium in characters who are extensions of themselves: Hamlet in Horatio (his better self), Lear in his youngest daughter.
Cordelia, a creature who seems almost Athenian--sprouting from Lear's head with no trace of a mother, is his sole source of joy. His obsession with her is condemned to disaster for two reasons: 1) Cordelia has inherited all of the stubborn masculine pride of her father and can bring herself to offer "nothing" emotionally more than bare logic dictates, and 2) Lear's love for his daughter borders on the incestual; he seems to yearn for more than she can give physically and spiritually. The farther away from him, the healthier she seems, yet the more haunted he becomes with attaining her love.
After Cordelia refuses to compete for her father's land and declares to his "What can you say to draw a third more opulent than your sisters'?": "Nothing", Lear "disclaims all paternal care". Ironically, the play subsists after this point of Lear's trek towards a greater understanding of himself through the daughter whom he casts out as a "stranger to [his] heart".
Lear, like Hamlet, represents uncalibrated duality and seems "constantly trying to break through the barriers that divide the terrestrial from the spiritual"(Wells 267). The entire tragedy is polarized; its characters divided into the good(Cordelia) and the bad(Regan and Goneril) with Lear in between, painfully unable to attain the equilibrium the audience craves . Lear teeters between bestial monarch (masculine) and pathos-evoking infirm (feminine), convinced that "Unaccommodated man is no more but a poor, bare, forked animal"( 3.4.96-103). Cordelia, the only character capable of spiritually abetting him, later forgives her father; however, the inappropriateness of his incestual response (wistfully describing a magical life imprisoned with her and "the gilded butterflies") makes his later appearance on stage (as he carries her corpse) a hideous ending to the disturbing drama.
Lear finds peace only in his imagination: in a final hallucination, he believes Cordelia is alive again. He is no more able to find a balance between his stubborn machismo and pitiful (womanly) tears than Cordelia is between her logical (manly) truth and her unexpressed (feminine) emotions: disgust for her sisters and love for her father (Kimbaugh 145). Cordelia and her father do not "couple"; she offers "nothing" beyond their natural bond--a bond as pregnable as Lear's sanity. Her temporarily soothing clemency is soured by the bitter aftertaste of her death and her father's raging murder of her executioner. At the core of the tragedy lies unconsummated Lear. His last words "look on her! Look her lips..." emphasize a source of both Cordelia's spoken wisdom and her sensuality. Lear's obsession with her throughout the play seems in these final lines to be rooted not in incestual lust or longing for a return to paternal innocence, but in his desire for self-understanding.
As Lear is torn from his kingdom, Hamlet is torn from his educational womb at Elsinore and whisked into a world where he must assimilate disillusionment with womankind, the duty to avenge his dead father, love for his perfidious mother, and a hatred of his uncle (Wells 206). His emotional wounds are compounded by Gertrude and Ophelia's failure to liberate him from his wrenching internal struggle; he yearns for self-realization, lashing out at all those who fall short of his needs: "To post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets", "Get thee to a nunnery". Throughout almost the entire play, however, Hamlet is paralyzed, unable to forgive his mother, come to peace with Claudius, make amends with Ophelia, or revenge his father. His inaction is more the result of a preoccupation with identify than fear of consequence (Werder), sensitive temperment (Goethe), or philosophical nature (Storfer). Hamlet's inability to kill Claudius lies in Claudius' blood relationship to him ("a little more than kin and less than kind")--one which presents a piece of the "Hamlet puzzle" too precious to immediately toss out. His multi"coupling" throughout the play with his aloof (masculine) mother: "a beast would have mourned longer", waiflike (feminine) Ophelia: "God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another", and sensitive (feminine) Horatio: "If thou didst ever hold me in thou heart... tell my story" is motivated by a search for truth--the true Hamlet, the true events of the murder, the "truth" and meaning of life. In fact, the entire tragedy keeps the audience guessing as to whom Hamlet will turn next for answers to the question "who am I?"
A single character seems able to offer Hamlet solace in his desperation. His mother, expected to be the natural focus of his attention, is not. Of the "carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts (incest)" which Horatio describes in the final act, Hamlet knows of only the last at the onset of the play. Dover Wilson remarks, "The hideous thought of incest is the monster present in Hamlet's mind throughout the First Soliloquy. It is far more indecent than the haste of the wedding" (307). This arrow in his heart, the incest of his mother and uncle, dramatically affects Hamlet's later tribulations with Ophelia and promotes his general attitude: "Frailty, thy name is woman"(Jones 94). His fear of a subconscious lust for his mother and simultaneously his temptation piqued by her subtle advances, exacerbates his distress almost to the point of madness.
In every circumstance of Hamlet's reckless delirium, Horatio counterbalances with logic and composure. Horatio insightfully considers it "as needful in [his] love, fitting [his] duty" to reunite Hamlet with his father's ghost, yet bravely attempts to protect him from harm's way: "Be rul'd, you shall not go." Hamlet, after learning the insidious truth from his father, trusts no one but Horatio with his plans "to put an antic disposition on-" and later with the letter spelling out the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Yet, Horatio can never quite soothe him.
Hamlet's complex dissertation on "man" throughout the play elevates him from quintessential adolescent to scholar, yet he remains suspended between (feminine) thought and (masculine) action: "What a piece of work man is! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty...in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god"(2.2.299-309). Only in his final words to Horatio before his fight with Laertes, does he attain a balance: "We defy augury. There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow...The readiness is all. Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is't to leave betimes?" (5.2.165-70). Stanley Wells suggests Hamlet has reached "a serene emotional as well as intellectual acceptance of the fact that death is a part of life (212). This emotional balance is reached at Horatio' side, the only character genuinely motivated by an unconditional love for Hamlet. Wise, rational, and nurturing Horatio (a mirror of what Hamlet could have been sans murder, fate, and betrayal) alone is capable of stabilizing Hamlet's reckless temperament. Ready to take his life after Laertes has stabbed Hamlet, Horatio instead accepts Hamlet's request and lives, providing a brief but poignant union in the last scene of the play. In a way, Hamlet's character endures in Horatio, who promises to spend his remaining time on earth as a memorial of and testament to the prince's life.
Whereas Shakespeare's tragedies embody imbalance, his romantic comedies almost always incorporate in their conclusions a whimsical and unified knot in which loose ends are bound together and consummation is attained by the majority of the characters involved.
Portia and Bassanio, although more conventional in their husband/wife make-up than Lear/Cordelia and Hamlet/Horatio, incorporate a similar nontraditional element in coupling. Reversing customary gender roles, Bassanio is the archetypal "taker" and Portia, the money-holding, problem-solving, decision-making "provider". Just as Macbeth is "too full of the milk of human kindness to catch the nearest way" and must be coached by his wife, "sweet" Bassanio relies again and again on Portia to rescue him from adversity. Portia's victory over Shylock and her concluding "ring" trick provide archetypal symbols of prosperity--promoting marriage unity, immortal mercy, and (finally) an androgenous equilibrium consummated.
Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice uses contrast to satirize the dysfunctional polarization in his society of race, religion, and gender. Venice is the rough and virile home of dirty, daily business; Belmont, the ephemeral, magical land of the "immortal soul". Portia, capable, wealthy, wise, and merciful combines the best of both genders but in her roles with other characters (Nerissa, Bassanio, Antonio, and even Shylock) remains the (masculine) aggressor.
Portia lives in Belmont, and the fact that she must dress as a man to enter into Venice seems more Shakespeare's joke on society than an indication of her lack of confidence in an arena of men. By reversing Portia's role from feminine to masculine, he pokes fun at society's rigidity as well as promoting "hazard" as a metaphor for a successful (and equal) relationship. Neither "cuckold" nor victim, Portia embodies the issue of mutual sacrifice in marriage; unlike any other Shakespearean heroine, she does not involve herself in unions solely dependent upon male dominance. While Portia's dramatic purpose symbolizes Christian mercy, most of her lines seek "justice" and equality whether for her benefit or that of her loved ones: "be assur'd thou shalt have justice more than thou desir'st" (IV.i.315-16).
Bassanio as early as Act 1 ("my chief care is to come fairly off") parallels Portia's concern for equity although if actions speak louder than words, he is surely the less responsible of the pair, borrowing funds thrice from her throughout the play. His initial role of "subordinate" to Antonio mirrors his later role as Portia's husband, yet while his role of "receiver" from Antonio seems routine, it elicits some curiosity in his latter union. Four possible explanations for Shakespeare's portrayal of Portia's equality exist: 1) (the most obvious) Portia's moments of strength come either when she is in Belmont or when she is disguised as a man, 2) Portia openly discusses sacrifice and teaches those around her its true meaning, intensely aware of her own sacrifice (arising from an inability to control her own destiny), 3) The absence of Portia's father (as guardian and protector) offers her the unique opportunity of independence; unlike her peers, she does not get passed from under her father's wing directly to a controlling husband, 4) Portia's father leaves her with a sum of money (as well as a literally iron-clad will) which allows her freedom from economic and social shackles, making traditional and legal boundaries easier to disregard (Henderson, 80).
Portia's financial and intellectual prowess creates a vehicle for the fantastical view of marriage "for love"-"a metaphor for male advancement by merit rather than birth or influence"(Williamson 37). This literary marriage of achieved equality serves as compensation for the majority of marriages of the time which were for "convenience". Thus, Bassanio, by becoming the envy of every bachelor in the audience, draws attention away from the fact that Portia's wit, strength, and money are necessary for his well-being. He camouflages weakness with generosity, just as Portia disguises justice with mercy, and their relationship, based on the ideals of Christian sacrifice, challenges the masculine myth of superiority.
In three interactive scenes Shakespeare uses "hazard" metaphors to illustrate a successful relationship free from the fetters of social tradition. Portia's masculine desire for action in the casket scene tempts her to break her father's will: "Pause a day before you hazard...I could teach you, but then I am forsworn" (3.1.6-12). Bassanio reciprocates with sensitive confessions: "None but that ugly treason of mistrust which makes me fear th'enjoying of my love. There may as well be amity and life twen snow and fire, as treason and my love" (3.2.28-31). Portia's second hazard, "You will find me out", foreshadows her later disguise and explains to Bassanio that the inside of the casket will hold a discovery, something entirely unrepresented by its outer appearance. Her next line, "I stand for sacrifice", represents Portia's "sacrifice" in choice of husband (lost to her father's will), the promotion of the "correct" choice of bronze casket-- involving "sacrifice" or risk, and her own parallel with the "sacrificial" Christ (a symbol of both compassion and strength). Bassanio's choice of the correct casket marks Portia's first feminine outpour in the play. Her 25 line confession resembles Juliet's surrendering in Act II: "All my fortunes at thy foot. I'll lay and follow thee through all the world." Portia declares for all of Belmont to hear: "Myself and what mine to you and yours is now converted: but now, this house, these servants and this same myself are yours" (3.2.168-72). Bassanio's reply, "there is such confusion in my powers as, after some oration fairly spoke by a beloved prince", contrasting his own lovestruck bewilderment with Portia's aristocratic grace, grants her the same power which she has conceded to him. While Cordelia lost everything by submitting "nothing", by willingly relinquishing "everything", Portia loses nothing.
In the trial scene, by giving Shylock the same unconditional mercy she has earlier given to Bassanio, Portia breaks the cycle of "eye for eye" justice. Her demeanor combines traditional masculine power with the feminine insight which seems stronger as a result of her coupling with Bassanio. Portia's disguise, a final hazard, represents her spiritual loyalty (she breaks the law by impersonating an advocat) as well as her knowledge of men in general. Her competitive bantering with Nerissa, "I'll hold thee any wager...I'll prove the prettier fellow...speak...like bragging youth and tell quaint lies", smacks of a spirited love of sport, and Portia confronts the courtroom challenge with all the vigor that Bassanio earlier brought to the casket task. Her victory at trial, a mirror image of the casket scene, celebrates blind faith and the paradoxical necessity of hazard for success.
The ring Portia bestows upon Bassanio is a symbol of unity, eternity, and commensuration: "When this ring parts from this finger, then parts life from hence ...Bassanio's dead." Bassanio accepts Portia as "a great prince"; she has saved his credit "gold to pay the petty debt twenty times over"(3.2.306-7) and his life. Shakespeare uses the ring scene as one final test of the couple's strength. Like Lear who interrogates Cordelia on the subject of her filial love, Portia, disguised as advocat, attempts (ironically after she has saved his life) to confirm Bassanio's loyalty. His answer to her request for the ring, "I will be bound to pay it ten times o'er on forfeit of my hands, my head, my heart" (4.1.209-10) represents his willingness to risk everything, not for her, but for his friend, Antonio.
Merchant's ring scene does involve an important trial; however, the real test is not of Bassanio, but of Portia. If she rejects Bassanio, her motives will be envy, pride, and fear--the incentives of a tragic hero and not a romantic lover. Portia's rejection of Bassanio will end the play leaving audiences thirsting for completion and closure. Her acceptance of him will leave them with portentous notions of an equilibrium attained.
But is an achievement of wholeness, a realization of the truth or meaning in life so idealistic it is only appropriate as the material of comedy? The Shakespearean comedy, like the tragedy, presents a myth, an archetype, a distortion. It exists as a metaphor for life. "Androgeny" is "an artificial creation" which does not live in a linear land but is the vision of "unity, wholeness, harmony, and perfection" (Kimbaugh 170). It is to this unity, however, that humanity is attracted; to the symbol of the ring, the orb, the globe, the "couple" which allow humans to become their "better selves."
Portia, like Lear, has tested her beloved, and like him, she has two options: to accept Bassanio's love of Antonio as an advantageous personality trait or to break the engagement. Lear, by defining Cordelia's truth as lack of love, loses his daughter and his dignity. Hamlet, conversely, has previously had his dignity stripped by "carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts." He can only regain it by avenging his father (thus, ending his Oedipal complex and, simultaneously, his life). Portia, by equating Bassanio's willingness to save Antonio's life with her own "hazard" to save Bassanio's, sets precedents for her relationship of faith, mercy, and equality. Together, Portia and Bassanio can be "wise, amaz'd, temp'rate, and furious, loyal, and neutral"; their best defense against "outrageous fortune"-- their dexterity of "arms" provided by an androgenous equilibrium.
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