Reading Large: The First Folio, the Invention of Shakespeare, and the Moral Luck of the Flower Princess

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2023 witnessed two Shakespearean anniversaries. Twenty-five years have passed since the publication of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, in which Harold Bloom argues that Shakespeare’s characters model―even originate―the advanced psychological evolution of becoming fully human, that is, self-aware and willfully dynamic, by hearing themselves speak, by talking themselves into who they become. In this Shakespeare “invented the human as we continue to know it” (xviii). This little crow-hop of a quarter century sets up a long throw all the way back to the publication of the First Folio in 1623 four hundred years ago. Here a fundamental thesis, both obvious and overlooked, underlies Bloom’s: the First Folio invented Shakespeare. Before the First Folio there were only scattered performances, plays, and poems; even the most avid Jacobean bibliophile would be lucky to possess half of Shakespeare’s works. The First Folio and its descendants, the Riversides and Nortons, the Arden and Oxford and Cambridge and more, have immeasurably enlarged the reading of Shakespeare to a new breadth, depth, and height of both expression and understanding. And in one particular exercise of this larger reading, the Folio challenges us how to best understand the central but puzzling concept of Moral Luck through the parallel characters of Ophelia and Perdita, two vastly different versions of the Flower Princess.

Reading Large

The largeness of Shakespeare lives and moves and has its being within the tensions of its disparate parts, primarily in the gathered plays, but the same phenomenon, writ small, can be felt in the sonnets, which tremble and shine with the complex interplay among discrete units. The most read pages of the modern Shakespeare anthology belong to the sonnets. Their assigned numbers assert the independence of each “little song” that readily rewards even just a few minutes of attention. And yet as one sonnet leads to another, ambitious readers quickly come to see how much more interesting the individual sonnets become in context of each other. Like calls to like, and the 154 sonnets readily divide into broad categories defined by the Young Man (1-126) and the Dark Lady (127-152) and poor neglected Cupid (153-154). The first of these mega sections further clusters around subjects and themes such as procreation (1-17) blending into ars longa (15-19, 54-55), the rival poet (78-86), and smaller cohorts such as the pair on sleeplessness (27-28).

The contrasts within the sonnets are still more provocative than the coherences, especially as they escape the linear numbered sequence to assert a new dimension and explore a true literary space. Compare how Sonnet 29 quietly confidently concludes:

For thy sweet love rememb’red such wealth brings,
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Fifty-eight sonnets later, the seemingly same I, whether the author outside the poems or the speaker within, turns upon his prior conclusion:

Thus have I had these as a dream doth flatter:
In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.

Or consider how, guided by I Corinthians 13, Sonnet 116 sets out to define and celebrate love, and then a mere thirteen sonnets later, the same voice defines and curses lust. And then in Sonnet 135, the Fair Youth himself crosses over to the Dark Side. Each sonnet remains its own self-contained unit, but the collective whole enables a much richer reading. The capacious reader takes into account all of the sonnets, how they build together, complement, qualify, counter, and sometimes deconstruct one another. Reading large illuminates the nooks and crannies of reading slow and close.

Oddly, although the sonnets were already published as a collection in 1609, they were not included in the First Folio, nor the second or third, and in fact did not join a collected edition until Edmond Malone added them in 1780 to Samuel Johnson and George Steevens’ 1778 second edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare in Ten Volumes, and even then still separated by their bindings. No mere quirk and curiosity, this long oversight is instructive when we think of gathering the complete Shakespeare. Abraham Lincoln, who honed his own voice reading and reciting Shakespeare, lends an enlightened perspective. In 1863 the Gettysburg Address dares not to claim an achieved equality, but rather speaks of a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” an aspirational phrase that still stands the test of time. The First Folio did not, could not, fully collect Shakespeare, but it was “dedicated to the proposition” of a complete Shakespeare. Four hundred years later we may still lament the loss of those that got away (Love’s Labor’s Won, Cardenio), or suspect those that may not belong (Edward III? “A Funeral Elegy”???), but an awareness of incompleteness also cultivates a modesty, really a blessing, of not presuming too much. Just as we can never fully and exhaustively know a friend or lover, leaving a certain mystery and room for growth, we can know enough to speak of Shakespeare but not so much as to presume and, too quickly, speak for him. There are far better editions of collected Shakespeare than the First Folio, but it is the First Folio that enabled its betters, and whichever we choose, these collected editions―let us call them the Folios―empower reading Shakespeare largely.

In their entirety the sonnets total 2154 lines (Sonnet 126 is just 12 lines), the rough length of a short play, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And of course it is the plays that made Shakespeare’s reputation and first modeled this largeness, in each individual play and then, gathering into something of still greater breadth, the collected whole. Consider the multiplicities within A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In their alliterative names, Hermia and Helena first ask to be compared. In turn each of the couplings comments upon the others: the overarching state affair of Theseus and Hippolyta; the young tempestuous lovers of Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius; the obscure faerie love of Oberon and Titania; the fictional “tragical-comical” love of Pyramus and Thisbe; and the bridging love of Bottom and Titania―all this in one of Shakespeare’s briefest plays. What then does the reader gather from the whole? Do we agree with Bottom that “in truth, reason and love keep little company now-a-days” (3.1.143-44)? Seconded by Theseus, who likens love and lunacy? Or does Hippolyta affirm a higher truth, closer to Shakespeare’s own ideal, of love that “grows to something of great constancy,” “strange” yet “admirable” (5.1.26-27)? Her concession to the “strange” allows her to absorb both the conflicts and the silliness into her nobler measured vision of love. This is how the plays typically require us to read, think, and respond, to integrate before we conclude.

The whole of Shakespeare presents a still greater complexity that requires the reader to balance one play against another, characters, scenes and images in their affinities and antinomies, before we can presume to speak for Shakespeare. Such reading is immeasurably more difficult yet still more rewarding. Using Shakespeare to interpret Shakespeare follows the biblical precedent of Scripture interpreting Scripture, a hermeneutic as old as the first inklings of a canon, greatly advanced in the shift from discrete scrolls to collected codices, refreshed by the Reformation, and powerfully practiced in the Authorized (King James) Version published in 1611, just twelve years before the First Folio. The singular name, The Bible, comes from the Greek Ta Biblia, literally, “the books.” Many gather as one, plural in Greek, singular in English. And once these individual books are gathered into one big book, collective reading is natural, a convenience for sure, but more so, the practice proves illuminating, in both Scripture and Shakespeare.

Reading Shakespeare in context of Shakespeare often yields the crucial clarifying perspective. Consider the much loved and quoted Sonnet 18 that begins, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely.” Young Padawans commonly conclude, especially on the evidence of the suggestively feminine lovely, that the sonnet is addressed to a woman. Those with a little learning are inclined to counter, often proudly, that the poem belongs to the Young Man sonnets. A more careful reader notes that the I-Thou relation in this particular sonnet, as well as in the vast majority of the sonnets, makes no indication of gender, part of the genius of their broad appeal and applicability, and, as Shakespeare may have had no control over the ordering of the sonnets and the grouping of their sections, the reader can rightfully assume any gender that one pleases. So reading enlarges from single word, line, image and poem to larger sequence (or play), and then ultimately to all the poems and plays. And the last of these yields a perfect analogue. Late in 1 Henry IV, on the eve of the Battle of Shrewsbury, Vernon returns from parley and reports to Hotspur who continues to disparage Prince Hal. Vernon counters how Hal has matured and now strikes a truly princely pose, leading his men:

…………………………..All furnish’d, all in arms;
All plum’d like estridges, that with the wind
Bated like eagles having lately bath’d,
Glittering in golden coats like images,
As full of spirit as the month of May,
And gorgeous as the sun at midsummer.     (4.1.97-102)

Sonnet and play develop the same metaphor toward similar objects. Reading from the play back to the poem, yes, it does seem likely then that the sonnet is addressed to a young man, but also, as Hal is presented in splendor and admiration but with a complete absence of erotic desire, that this same glowing tone may be read back into the sonnet’s summer day.

Reading large clarifies uncertainties, enhances nuances, deepens meaning, and can also serve as a check on readings that wander astray. Consider Matthieu Chapman’s recent essay on Midsummer Night’s Dream that burns with a passion. Chapman takes his title from Lysander’s cruel dismissal of his once and future Hermia, “Away, you Ethiop!” (3.2.257). Chapman concludes,

Shakespeare shouts, “Away, you Ethiop!” and his words kill. This black death echoes across four-hundred years and four-thousand productions and forty million black deaths and rings in my ears in the present.

But has Shakespeare shouted, said, or done any such thing? If one reads largely, in the play, in the poems, in all the plays, the answer clarifies: no.

In Act 3 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as a secondary effect of Puck’s love juice that makes Lysander instantly fall in love with Helena, Lysander rejects Hermia, to whom he had just professed his undying love. Apart from the potion which functions as emotional accelerant, Lysander’s fickleness is held up to ridicule, and the insult of “Ethiop,” here most likely indicative of darker hair and skin tones deeper than the fairest Celtic complexion, attaches his powerful emotions to the most shallow attributes (her Luck, to get ahead of ourselves). Moreover, the play goes on to reject Lysander’s second-hand “misprision” (a term Bloom gleaned from Shakespeare and applies to semi-conscious mis-reading), and as Lysander and Hermia, her color unchanged, are restored unto each other, their renewed “true love” becomes the very basis of Hippolyta’s observation of love growing into “something of great constancy” (3.2.90-91, 5.1.26). Shakespeare penned, “Away, you Ethiop!” but it is Lysander who shouts it, and for that he is mocked and held in high suspicion until he is restored to his senses. Even then, some readers never forgive him, though Hermia does.

The sonnets had already wrestled with the superficial beauty norms that Lysander had spouted in his delusion. The opening lines of the Dark Lady section pivot away from the old clichés:

In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were it bore not beauty’s name;
But now is black beauty’s successive heir.     (127.1-3)

Fair can mean both beautiful and light-skinned, as it does here, momentarily, until the sonnet and really the whole cluster go on to separate that association. Sonnet 130 most famously deconstructs the Petrarchan tradition of fair, golden beauty: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” (Meanwhile, the truly expansive reader is pondering this sun beside both the Young Man’s and Hal’s, but that is a proliferation for another day.) Sure enough, back in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in the very same woodland scene, Demetrius wakes under the influence of his own potion and naively parodies that same convention:

O Helen, goddess, nymph, perfect, divine!
To what, my love, shall I compare thine eyne?
Crystal is muddy. O, how ripe in show
Thy lips, those kissing cherries, tempting grow!
That pure congealed white, high Taurus’ snow,
Fann’d with the eastern wind, turns to a crow
When thou hold’st up thy hand. O, let me kiss
This princess of pure white, this seal of bliss!     (3.2.137-44)

Each in their own way, Lysander, Demetrius, and the Dark Lady sonnets all reject the old colorist clichés, first in their standards of beauty, and then in presuming such circumstantial beauty as any basis for true love. True, the Dark Lady sonnets go on to turn against their central subject, but it is for her character, not her shadings, and the character the speaker most laments is his own.

Still within Shakespeare the context for Ethiop further enlarges―away from Chapman’s reading of murderous racism. In Romeo and Juliet, most likely written in the same year as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and close in composition to the sonnets as well, when Romeo first observes Juliet at the masquerade, he rhapsodizes:

O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!
It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night
As a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear―     (1.5.44-46)

Is the Ethiop adduced only to be disparaged? Or is the formula more subtle, a complex of dark and light? So Byron admires,

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes.

The Shakespearean touch is to re-personify the image, from Juliet, through jewel, to yet another human face. Rather than erasing the Ethiop, Shakespeare has given him or her a place. Analogues ripple outward across the whole Folio. In Twelfth Night, Fabian advises Sir Andrew on his courtship of Olivia, “you are now sail’d into the north of my lady’s opinion, where you will hang like an icicle on a Dutchman’s beard” (3.2.26-28). Though everything has changed, the template of the imaging is the same for Ethiop and Dutchman, jewel and icicle. Shakespeare is inclusive, reaching outward, drawing in, fascinated by the many faces of humanity. The well-versed reader may well suspect that Shakespeare himself marvels with Miranda:

……………………………………………………….O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t!     (The Tempest 5.1.181-84)

In his own misprision, reading small, Chapman has mistaken his ally as an enemy.

Reading the whole of Shakespeare, as the Folios encourage, paradoxically preserves the individuality and distinctive perspectives of the smaller units. Just as the numbers preserve a little solitary integrity for each of the sonnets, the titles of the individual plays set boundaries for each to be understood on its own terms before being integrated into the whole. Consider the question of the honor and glory of war in the histories. Fraught with tension I Henry IV vibrates between Hotspur, eager to fight, who would “pluck bright honor from the pale-fac’d moon” (1.3.202), and Falstaff who cynically exposes the classism of war (the poor foot soldiers as disposable “food for powder,” 4.2.66) and deconstructs honor in his catechism (5.1.127-410). Shakespeare seems to side with the latter when at battle’s end both men lie “dead,” but Falstaff rises and lives again, with Hal’s blessing. Hotspur, however, has not disappeared but been absorbed by Hal. In the subsequent plays, it is Falstaff who is killed off, figuratively in 2 Henry IV, literally in Henry V, but he too lives on in Hal, now King Henry. The best qualities of Hotspur and Falstaff meet in Henry, and counteract the worst. And as the play marches toward Agincourt, Hotspur wields the larger influence. Henry casts off Bardolph, as lingering proxy for the flaws of Falstaff, and the St. Crispin Day speech is voiced in the key of Hotspur: “But if it be a sin to covet honor, / I am the most offending soul alive” (4.3.28-29). After the implausible victory, Henry concludes, “God fought for us” (4.8.120). The tetralogy seems to end in an affirmation of bravery and honor in war. So Laurence Olivier understandably concluded in his 1944 film of Henry V late in World War 2, just months after Allied forces similarly crossed the English Channel. With less social pressure Kenneth Branagh largely reaches the same conclusion in his 1988 film. But is this what Shakespeare concludes? There is still more to consider.

The Epilogue gets the last word in Henry V, enlarging the context still further by connecting to the prior tetralogy, and in the process casting some doubt by observing how brief the wondrous victory lasted, as the Chorus curiously draws attention to the “author,” as if taking the measure of Shakespeare himself: “Henry the Sixt . . . soon lost France and made England bleed.” And a still larger context and more incisive critique remain. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet the next year, and despite a whole different genre, changing history for tragedy, Hamlet’s cynical, almost Falstaffian observation on Fortinbras’ military adventurism uncannily applies to Henry’s conquests in France:

Witness this army of such mass and charge,
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff’d,
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell.     (4.4.47-53)

Who speaks for Shakespeare, Henry or Hamlet? or both? Reading largely, I would venture that Shakespeare himself believes that honor and bravery in war do matter and sometimes are blessed by a God who favors winners and grants miracles, whether at Agincourt or, say, Midway, but more often war is born of ambition and pride and devastates the winners as much as the losers.

Moral Luck and the Flower Princess

Reading large proves especially crucial to large ideas such as Moral Luck. The concept is inherently oxymoronic. To modern philosophers such as Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel, Moral Luck explores the tension between moral agency and mere circumstance or random chance. Shakespeare never uses the full phrase, but he does use luck 26 times, along with a few luckys and unluckilys. Surprisingly, only one tragedy uses luck, Antony and Cleopatra, while eight comedies and romances do, and five histories. Luck’s most frequent modifier is good (or better), ten times, though ill luck is the second most common, five times. And sometimes Shakespeare is perfectly equivocal―and dismissive―as in Sonnet 14 which (as we read largely), like Cassius in Julius Caesar, rejects the determinism of the stars, whether for “good or evil luck,” in favor of making smart self-determining decisions. The three lucks in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, already open at our elbow, are fairly representative: two of the lucks are good, and the third playfully rhymes with Puck.

More somber variations of Moral Luck include the tension between free will and fate, the ancient debate of old myths, philosophers and tragedians, while theologians tend to puzzle over free will and Providence, gently put, or, more sternly, Predestination. Befitting its medieval setting, Hamlet approaches the topic theologically and biblically. Having unexpectedly returned to Denmark, Hamlet explains to Horatio, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will―” (5.2.10-11). Beneath the serious theological term of “divinity” which takes a dominant role here, some of the lightness of luck lingers. The circumstances that brought Hamlet back to England and led him to this affirmation rank, unofficially, as one of the two most ridiculous moments in Shakespeare. (Absurdities abound in Shakespeare, but few figure in such a serious moment. Shakespeare in Love rightly mocks this contrivance with Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter.) The reader is asked to believe that Hamlet’s England-bound ship was overtaken by pirates, and in the grapple, Hamlet happened onto the pirate ship, which then kindly set him down back in Denmark. Silly as it seems, the twist has a profound influence on Hamlet, who then ascends from pirates ex machina to Jesus’ solemn assurance. With new confidence that “there is special providence in the fall of a sparrow” (5.2.219-20, cf. Matthew 10.29), Hamlet sets aside his moroseness and his inability to act. Trusting in Providence paradoxically activates his own moral agency as he takes control of his life: in the final scene alone he kills Claudius, satisfies his father, watches his mother die but not by his hand, makes peace with Laertes, nominates Fortinbras, and entrusts his story to Horatio. Hamlet dies, this reader senses, relatively contentedly, and a large part of that satisfaction, both Hamlet’s and the reader’s, is Hamlet’s rediscovery of his moral agency expressed in decisive moral actions.

But Hamlet is a huge play, Shakespeare’s longest, and still larger in its interior   “infinite space” (2.2.255). As antiphony, the inset Tragedy of Ophelia turns upon a very different sense of Moral Luck. Her tragedy is that she has little to no moral agency, and that is what destroys her long before she drowns, even as she drowns. She has no mother. Her father bullies her. When she speaks affectionately, modestly, somewhat tentatively, of Hamlet and their relationship, her father crushes her: “Think yourself a baby” (1.3.105). Nonetheless, she tries to please him, “I shall obey, my lord” (1.3.136), and gives up her moral agency “to a wretched, rash, intruding fool” (3.4.31). Polonius then conspires with Claudius to use her as a pawn against Hamlet: “I will loose my daughter to him” (2.2.162), a stunt which costs her the trust of Hamlet and what once seemed a true mutual love. When Hamlet kills Polonius, she has lost everything, both love and something much less than love but what brought a semblance of order to her life. Thus, she sinks into madness, and her tragedy is measured out in flowers, three times.

The flowers represent an attempted reversion to girlhood and innocence. She turns to Laertes, “There’s pansies, that’s for thoughts” (4.5.176-77). But the flowers fail, clashing with her age and the jangling discord of her songs, but what Polonius said of Hamlet holds as well for her: “though this be madness, yet there is method in’t” (2.2.205-206). Dealing flowers to Gertrude, Ophelia suggestively observes, “There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me . . . You may wear your rue with a difference” (4.5.172-74). The 1990 Zeffirelli film shows Ophelia, eerily played by Helena Bonham Carter, distributing bare stems, dry straw (on the textual basis of 4.5.6?), and old chicken bones, a wondrously unnerving visualization, but these “flowers” may well be real flowers, as flowers figure prominently in her drowning where she lacks the moral agency to commit suicide. Compare Hamlet who fully considers the possibility of suicide, then in Bloomian mode, talks himself out of it, and moves on, to live for now, later to act more boldly. Ophelia seems to die accidentally―in the philosophical sense of the word―while picking her flowers, slipping, babbling, floating with no effort to sink or swim, “as one incapable of her own distress” (5.1.178), finally drowning. In death as in life she exercises no moral agency, and her luck is extraordinarily bad.

Gertrude shares a special bond with Ophelia and her flowers. The distribution scene begins with Ophelia calling out, “Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” (4.5.21), and she saves her most insinuating flower for Gertrude. Ophelia’s death is actually narrated by Gertrude, as if the Queen watched from afar, at first, then somehow zoomed in, descriptively lingering upon the brookside flowers as if she were Ophelia herself. Finally, Gertrude places flowers on Ophelia’s casket:

Queen. [Scattering flowers.] Sweets to the sweet, farewell!
I hop’d thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife.
I thought thy bride-bed to have deck’d, sweet maid,
And not have strew’d thy grave.     (5.1.243-46)

As the only other woman to speak in the play, Gertrude functions as surrogate mother to Ophelia, tragically so as the sins of the mother (along with those of the father, brother, and lover) are visited upon the daughter who lacks all moral agency, as does Gertrude herself. Polonius tells Ophelia what to do; Gertrude tells Hamlet to tell her what to do. These women constitute a sample size small but consistent, which understandably leads Shashwat Jha to extrapolate from Hamlet that “The overwhelming misogyny in every section of the society left the women of medieval Europe with no other option but to succumb to the obnoxious male hierarchy.” Jha has read Ophelia sympathetically and Hamlet fairly, but not Shakespeare largely, for there is another Flower Princess; indeed there is “[an]other option,” who shows a powerful moral agency that effectually redeems her own tragically flawed world.

Remarkably, in The Winter’s Tale, first published in the First Folio, Perdita’s circumstances are, her initial luck is, no better than Ophelia’s in Hamlet, perhaps worse. Her father Leontes “kills” her mother Hermione―so it is thought, and so it is his intention. That same mad murderous energy descends upon Mamillius, as vulnerable as Ophelia, destroying the young prince. Leontes orders his best friend poisoned, and curses his loyal courtier Camillo who refuses to carry out the deranged order. Most pathetically, the newborn unnamed babe slandered with the stain of adultery, far more helpless than her mother or brother, is set out to die. She has every reason to flounder and perish as Ophelia does, and yet she does not.

Why does Perdita prosper and not Ophelia? Look to the bear, the other most ludicrous moment in serious Shakespeare. Hamlet’s pirates give Hamlet new energy and resolve so that even in death he conducts himself with moral agency, but the pirates and all they imply come too late for Ophelia. In The Winter’s Tale, however, at the end of Act 3, the ursus ex machina comes just in time to radically turn the entirety of the play. In a sudden development at once “tragical-comical,” to dip into Polonius’ categories (2.2.398), Antigonus “Exit[s], pursued by a bear,” and his mauling and death essentially conclude the tragedy.  The absurdity of the device, risible in reading, even more so in staging, elicits spontaneous chuckles, and the bear’s exit leaves behind a comedy embodied by the baby, and she in time and in turn changes everything.

In itself The Winter’s Tale is already writ large, as the final two acts graciously overcome the jealousy and misogyny of the first three. Reading a bit larger, we sense as well The Winter’s Tale, most likely composed in early 1611, perhaps as early and immediately as 1605, working toward a happier solution to the brutal jealousy of Othello (1604). In a still larger context, Perdita, set out to die like Oedipus, discharges the primal curse of that myth and character who suffers perhaps the worst Moral Luck, at the intersection of circumstance and moral agency, in all literature. Tightening the reading back to Shakespeare, Perdita presents a stark life-affirming contrast to Ophelia’s breathless death. This array of revolutions takes place in one play’s turn from tragedy to comedy, from “things dying” to “things new-born” (3.3.114).

Perdita’s happiness is part luck and part character, the two intertwining and inseparable. Both Perdita and Ophelia have foolish fathers, the Shepherd and Polonius respectively, but one is kind though uneducated and bumbling, while the other is ambitious and manipulative. Neither has much of a mother. Ophelia’s mother is never mentioned, and hapless Gertrude hardly helps. Perdita has been taken from her birth mother, and we do not know if she had any interaction with the Shepherd’s wife as step-mother. But her adoptive father does the girl a kindness (one repeated by Prospero to Miranda, The Tempest 1.2.36-59): he speaks lovingly of (so it was thought) the girl’s mother. The Shepherd’s wife had been the master-mistress of the sheep-shearing festival, “both dame and servant” (4.4.57). Now he calls upon his daughter to perform the same role, seemingly for the first time as she comes of age. Polonius insists that Ophelia not think for herself. The old Shepherd gives Perdita encouragement and then free license beyond himself to take up this complex and socially significant role. Ophelia wanted to please her father but never could. Perdita honors her father, integrating her will and his, as she exercises her own talents, gently greeting King Polixenes in disguise, “Sir, welcome. / It is my father’s will I should take on me / The hostess-ship o’ th’ day” (4.70-72).

As “mistress of the feast” (4.3.40), shy at first then quickly at ease with herself and all levels of society, Perdita admirably sings and dances and welcomes all―and discusses philosophy, aesthetics and genetics. She merges beauty and intellect, art and ideas, simple pleasures and serious thought, in ways that Ophelia never could. To draw that very comparison and contrast, Perdita plays the Flower Princess as she catalogues, characterizes, and aptly distributes her flowers, including “rosemary and rue” (4.4.74). In debate with Polixenes, she ably defends her preference for traditional genetically unmodified flowers. Unlike Ophelia disintegrating into madness, Perdita makes her case with intelligence, grace, and delightful poetry, gently yet strongly swearing against the new hybrids, “I’ll not put / The dibble in earth to set one slip of them” (4.4.99-100).

The irony of Polixenes and Perdita’s debate is that their respective positions on flowers (the king is pro-hybrid) contradict their positions on the mingling of the classes, of royalty and peasantry. Once the disguises come off, crown prince Florizel and Perdita are forbidden to marry, for the moment. This allows Perdita to exercise still more moral agency. In another fine paradox, the old Shepherd has so empowered his daughter as to disobey him―and the king―by eloping. That elopement takes everyone back to Sicilia, where a penitent Leontes and sequestered Hermione await a happy resolution to the former’s tragic jealousy. It is often observed that Hermione is unspeaking and relatively passive in the final scene (she speaks plenty and potently in earlier scenes), as if she has no agency as a woman, but it is no small thing to come to life, which in a way is her greater speech, and it is not men who take away her voice. Paulina is the master-mistress of the reconciliation scene, just as Perdita governs the sheep-shearing festival back in Bohemia, and Paulina speaks on Hermione’s behalf. Within a larger reading, The Winter’s Tale and its trio of women, Hermione, Paulina, and Perdita, emphatically refute Jha’s contention that “The overwhelming misogyny in every section of the society left the women of medieval Europe with no other option but to succumb to the obnoxious male hierarchy.” Jha simply has not read Shakespeare largely enough to speak for him.

Why Ophelia perishes and Perdita flourishes is in one sense as simple as genre. Ophelia lives and dies in a tragedy, under a black flag, literally, flying from the Globe. Perdita lives and loves under a white flag, a romance, but simply listed as a comedy in the First Folio. This comedic vision arises from an indivisible complex of character and luck. As for character, Perdita and her moral agency are the recipients of the kindness of two characters, notably men (Jha’s claim gets weaker and weaker the longer it is examined), the Shepherd as we’ve seen, and Antigonus, briefly yet crucially, the victim of the bear. Under orders to set the babe out to die, Antigonus rather equips her to live, names her, and blesses her with treasure and prayer. In quick answer the Shepherd takes the baby in, values the treasure not so much as a boon of self-serving wealth but as a sign, and nurtures the girl for 16 years. The enlightened moral agencies of these two men, Antigonus’ passive-aggressive obedience-defiance, the Shepherd’s immediate and whole-hearted commitment to life, enable Perdita’s own free and kind moral agency. Consistent with modern psychology and sociology, Shakespearean fathers, for worse and for better, play crucial roles in shaping their children’s moral agency, or lack thereof, in this case daughters. Polonius squashes Ophelia. Leontes would more dastardly destroy Perdita, but the Shepherd, along with the whole Bohemian pastoral far from court, fosters her life and lively character.

This exercise of free and enlightened will, from Antigonus through the Shepherd to Perdita, does takes place within a context of considerable luck, both pagan and Christian. The densely allusive oracle from Delphos declares judgments of fact upon the present but remains noncommittal about the future: “the king shall live without an heir, if that which is lost be not found” (3.2.134-36). Child abandonment, a kindly shepherd, and Delphos itself conspire to recall the inescapable doom inflicted upon Oedipus, from which this oracular phrasing then notably swerves. More gently, the “if” and passive voice cultivate a sense of open-ended but random chance, which in its own way minimizes human agency. Most profoundly, the last words of the oracle― “if what was lost be not found”―echo the refrain and resonant final phrase of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Shakespeare’s favorite parable, freshly translated in the same year The Winter’s Tale premiered, and itself rightly categorized as a comedy or romance (the elder brother casts a complicating shadow even unto the end). The Winter’s Tale never goes so far as to bow before fate, but vague passivity on one side and Christian Providence on the other do seem to crowd out much of the free play of moral agency.

A deeper metaleptic dive from play into parable, however, recovers a good deal of that same agency. In Luke the Prodigal Son talks himself into the decision to return to his father, which the narrator glosses: “he came to himself” (15.17). The process, though brief here, is Bloomian, though in being biblical and predating Shakespeare by centuries, it deflates the hyperbole that Shakespeare invented this. Well enough, Shakespeare did not invent it. But his characters wondrously demonstrate and enlarge the psychological process. Stripped of Bloom’s characteristically over-reaching claim, what is true and most important in his thesis abides as Prince Hal and Hamlet and so many others join the illustrious company of Job, David, Qoheleth, and here, in brief, the Prodigal Son, characters whose moral agencies prosper within Providence. Yet how free is the Prodigal Son? Even as he makes his decision and decisively acts upon it, the Father sees from afar and preveniently runs to meet him. If it seems we have read ourselves too far from The Winter’s Tale, it must be noted that Antigonus, who never heard the oracle, nevertheless reinforces the relevance of both oracle and parable in naming the child Perdita, little lost one―who of course will be found. The biblical allusion is as unmistakable and strong as Hamlet’s sparrow. Transcending genre, or perhaps reconciling, the tragedy and romance both affirm that, as in the Bible, so in Shakespeare, moral agency and Providence cleave in an irresolvable paradox.

Reading largely, parable by play and play by parable, the intertextualities enmesh, particularly the convergent endings. Every element of the parable’s final verse pertains to The Winter’s Tale. The Father explains to the begrudging older brother: “It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found” (Luke 15.32). “Make merry, and be glad”―for life is a divine comedy. Dead and alive, the relatively neglected parallel to lost and found, informs the suspended plot of Hermione who once was “dead” but “comes to life” in the final scene. Paulina’s penultimate speech discards the language of loss to gather only the positives together: Hermione “is living,” she “lives,” even as “Our Perdita is found” (5.3.115-21). The notable difference here between parable and play proves “one of the prettiest touches of all” (5.2.82). The biblical verse is spoken by a father to a son about another son, all men. In Shakespeare’s transformation, the climactic scene is governed by a woman as this late passage reunites mother and daughter in word and deed. “Every wink of an eye some new [dramatic] grace is born” (5.2.110-11).


Countless biographies of Shakespeare have been written. Some with great discipline have confined themselves to the meager facts. Others have supplemented by contextualizing these facts within a foreground and nearly infinite side- and back-grounds of the circulating social energies of his day. Most biographers have boldly risked the biographical fallacy by merging the scant personal record and broad social conditions with the enormous riches of Shakespeare’s works. It remains a tricky fallacy; Shakespeare is neither Hal nor Hamlet, let alone Puck or Juliet. But the practice is so common and the results so interesting that, fallacy aside, this approach has fashioned its own truth. When we speak of “Shakespeare,” as in Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, or Shakespeare and Moral Luck, we usually mean the totality of Shakespeare’s writing, conveniently embodied in the First Folio and regularly renewed and refined for each generation of new readers.

How many plays did Shakespeare write? The First Folio included 36. Subsequent Folios have added plays at the fringes while assigning portions of others to Middleton or Fletcher. These small changes hardly matter. The many Folios make a quiet but material case, literally weighty, that Shakespeare wrote one master work consisting of all his poems and plays and characters. Everyone’s Shakespeare is largely the same textually, but each reader’s Shakespeare differs in comprehensive reading. Ambitious readers tend to pick and choose and thereby to make Shakespeare in their own image. So Bloom, who could hardly confine himself to one play at a time, sees the cynical antinomian wit of Falstaff and the nihilism of stormy Lear as closest to Shakespeare’s own heart and mind. I prefer a happier Shakespeare, one whose Hal values that wit and insight but outgrows Falstaff’s drunkenness, lechery and cowardice. In reconciliation with Cordelia, Lear outgrows his own nihilism, and as we read larger, Leontes too looked unflinchingly into the abyss―“Why then the world and all that’s in’t is nothing” (1.2.293)―before concluding in an affirmation of life and love, both long-suffering and delighting. Against Bloom (a most provocative person to disagree with), my preferences draw support from the sequence of Shakespeare’s works, that he ended his career upon a string of romances. Just as the last two acts of The Winter’s Tale turn upon the first three, the romances as a whole turn upon the tragedies. Shakespeare unflinchingly portrayed the tragedy of Ophelia, but Perdita supersedes it, as does Miranda soon after. Coming late and nearly last, and in agreement, growing into “something of great constancy” in Hippolyta’s phrase, these young intelligent empowered women co-create a world where one kindness begets another, and together they strike the elusive sweet spot of moral luck. Still later, perhaps finally and truly last, Henry VIII, which Bloom idiosyncratically but compellingly groups among the late romances, ends with Archbishop Cranmer’s blessing of another girl, Elizabeth:

This royal infant―heaven still move about her!―
Though in her cradle, yet now promises
Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings
Which time shall bring to ripeness.     (5.4.17-20)

Bloom can keep his Shakespeare, but I have his and this one too.

The world hardly needs another Folio, but surely more will come. If I had editorial control over a new Folio, for the cover I would begin with the Droeshout portrait, as homage to the First Folio. Then I would freshen its familiarity with a stratagem borrowed from the first edition of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, published just 28 years after the First Folio. The upper frame of Leviathan’s frontispiece shows a generic king wielding a sword in his right hand and a crosier in the left, though these props do not matter to our purpose (we may set aside the lower panels as well). A closer look at Abraham Bosse’s etching shows the king to be composed of hundreds of smaller personages, the nation that he unites in governance. Such is Shakespeare, composer―and composed―of multitudes. He is the sum of his poems and plays, and thereby he is the totality of his characters. A closer look into this new portrait would show Romeo at Juliet’s balcony, Ophelia floating among her flowers, Macbeth transfixed upon a glinting dagger, and countless more vividly immediate scenes. Perhaps this portrait could be a lenticular image, changeable, dynamic as if alive with just a slight shift of the viewer’s perspective. Computer Generated Imagery would come still closer to achieving something like the Hephaestean artistry of the Shield of Achilles, which displays not simply portraits, landscapes and tableaux but evolving scenes graced with sound and scent, emotions and ideas. And just as the statue of Hermione comes to life, we could see Perdita break from her scenario to take Ophelia’s hand, pull her back to life, and give her the comfort that only she fully can, one Flower Princess to another. As Homer, Shakespeare and Bloom understand, reading large already does this in the capacious imagination which external technology is still trying to grasp.

The quatercentenary of the First Folio has come and gone. 2024 marks a mere forty years until the next grand occasion, the quincentenary of the author’s birth. Who will be there to celebrate it? Shashwat Jha and Matthieu Chapman will not. If their readings prosper, Shakespeare will no longer be celebrated. At best they read too small. At worst they would consume the host upon which they feed. Grimly, as Bloom warned, the “School of Resentment” just might win the academy. But it is far less likely that such readings win the best minds, the wild and lively imaginations, the culture as a whole. More likely, Shakespeare will continue to be read, performed, adapted, filmed, felt in the heart, impressed in memory, riddled upon the tongue. Bloom passed in 2019, but he is well positioned to join any future festivities. Recall the unaccustomed brevity of Bloom’s claim: Shakespeare “invented the human as we continue to know it.” The swift sequence of verbs runs from the past, through the present, to the infinitive, unbound by time. Shakespeare has continuance, to which Bloom has melded his own enduring relevance. In our belatedness we do not know who the Fair Youth was, but we do know who Shakespeare is. With a wink, it seems, and a this that enlarges from a single sonnet to a life’s work, the poet addresses both self and reader:

So long as men (and women) can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee―and me.



Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. Riverhead, 1998.

Byron, George. “She Walks in Beauty.”

Chapman, Matthieu. “’Away, You Ethiop!’: A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the Denial of Black Affect—A Song to Underscore the Burning of Police Stations.” Race and Affect in Early Modern English Literature, edited by Carol Mejia Laperle. ACMRS Press, 2021.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. London, 1651.

Jha, Shashwat. “How the miseries of Hamlet’s Ophelia portray the misogyny faced by women over the years.”

Shakespeare, William.  The Riverside Shakespeare.  2nd ed.  Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. London, 1623.