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Bed tricks and broken women: Shakespeare’s guide to love

Every romance is also a bromance, you go to bed never knowing who you’ll wake up with, and the strongest marriage is the Macbeths’ … Shakespeare’s tangled take on love. Illustration: Matthew Richardson


What wouldn’t be in there is marriage. Shakespeare, our national playwright, is no poster boy for wedlock.

It has been noted many times that the only successful marriage in Shakespeare is that of the Macbeths. At least they talk to each other. But is murder a good basis for marriage?

The women in Shakespeare invariably get the worst of the marriage bargains, in the sense that their men are not their equals. In the comedies, where everyone is supposed to have a merry dance and live happily ever after by act five, the future – that is, the married future – is left open to speculation. We must decide how things will work out according to the evidence offered by the play we have just seen. In the most pessimistic, All Well That Ends Well, the devoted Helena ends up with a shallow cad whose own mother can’t stand him.

At least they talk to each other … the Macbeths, as played by Marion Cottilard and Michael Fassbender in the 2015 film
 At least they talk to each other … the Macbeths, as played by Marion Cottilard and Michael Fassbender in the 2015 film. 

She wins Bertram by a bed trick, that admirable device whereby one woman substitutes for another. Shakespeare will use this again in Measure for Measure. We have to remember that dark really was dark in those days. Illumination depended on a) the moon, b) a hired urchin with a flare to light your way on the streets, and c) a guttering candle threatened by draughts. In any case, to the men deceived by the bed trick, whether swinish Bertram or the psychopathic puritan Angelo in Measure for Measure, the woman each desires is a conquest only. When we are in love we don’t need a light to know the lineaments of our lover – he or she is printed on our fingertips and retina. But when we’re having sex with someone who means nothing to us, no light could be bright enough for us to recognise them.

At the end of The Taming of the Shrew, it is Petruchio’s maddening insistence that the moon is the sun or the sun the moon that finally breaks Kate, dragged about the roads by the ruffian she has been forced to marry, a man who cannot love a woman until she is broken. It is reasonable to wonder how Shakespeare was feeling about his own marriage – not because autobiography explains imagination, but because the atom-smasher of a writer’s mind is where autobiography and imagination collide.

An insight into Shakespeare’s own marriage? … The Taming of the Shrew.
 An insight into Shakespeare’s own marriage? … The Taming of the Shrew. 

Anne Hathaway was 26 when she married William Shakespeare in 1582. He was 18. Anne was already pregnant with their first daughter, Susannah. By the time that Shakespeare left Stratford for London, they had twins, too. Shakespeare seems to have managed married life for about four years. Once in London, he visited Stratford every year, but he did not settle there again with Anne until she was 54.

There are plenty of manipulative mature women in Shakespeare’s plays – think Goneril and Regan in King Lear or the overblown Gertrude in Hamlet. Lady Macbeth’s ambition, not Macbeth’s weakness and greed, is the engine of that play. And would anyone want Coriolanus’s mother Volumina to come to dinner? “Anger’s my meat. I sup upon myself / And so would starve with feeding.”

Cleopatra is magnificent, but even Antony can’t get a word in edgeways when he’s dying (or thinks he is) beside her. “Let me speak”… “No! Let me speak.”

In Twelfth Night, the Duke counsels: “O let thy love be younger than thy self / or thy affection cannot hold the bent.” But this is a man who can’t tell the difference between a boy and a girl, a man who never searches for an original line when a cliche will do. That is the trouble with Shakespeare – just when you think there’s a clue to the man in the work, the work reminds you of its ongoing doubleness.

The older woman … Anne Hathaway was 26 when she married Shakespeare. He was 18.
 The older woman … Anne Hathaway was 26 when she married Shakespeare. He was 18. 

But marriage remains an uneasy business at best. Desdemona and Hermione’s husbands are murderers; one succeeds, the other fails, but the impulse is the same. Both are overcome with remorse at the ultimate crime. Othello kills himself – but when we reach The Winter’s Tale, whose opening acts of suspicion, jealousy, betrayal and attempted murder play like Othello redone by Kick-Ass, Leontes is not allowed the luxury of self-murder. Only by staying alive does he learn love’s fundamental lesson: the person you love is not you, is not an extension of you, is not yours to treat or mistreat as you will.

This is radical love-talk. Women in Elizabethan and Jacobean England were property. Here’s Petruchio in The Shrew: “She is my goods, my chattels, she is my house, my household stuff, my field, my barn, my horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing.”

The exception, of course, was the woman who ruled England for most of Shakespeare’s working life, until her death in 1603. Elizabeth, hailed as Gloriana in Spenser’s epic poem The Faery Queen, was more than a monarch – even at a time when monarchy really meant something. The country was barely Protestant. Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy happened in 1535 but the brief succession of Catholic Mary I (Bloody Mary) kept the Protestant reformation politically insecure until Elizabeth declared herself supreme governor in 1559.

Politics are one thing; hearts and minds another. All the statues of the Virgin were removed from the “newly” Protestant churches, but where did the suppressed, lost, adored, worshipped, missed and mourned Catholic icon of the Virgin Mary go? In the national psyche she was projected on to Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen. This explains, in part, Elizabeth’s remarkable hold on the imagination of England.

‘Let me speak.’ ‘No! Let me speak’ … Antony and Cleopatra.
 ‘Let me speak.’ ‘No! Let me speak’ … Antony and Cleopatra.

The Virgin Mary herself belongs to a more ancient religious lineage – as mother of the world, she is the Great Goddess. This goddess, in her triple aspect of virgin, mother and wise woman, is ever present pre-Shakespeare in the medieval courtly love tradition, where the conceit, though not the reality, is that the lover must serve, and be subject to, his beloved. This is woman as totality and the central idea in Berowne’s argument in Love’s Labour’s Lost: “Women’s eyes … Are the books, the arts, the academes, that show, contain, and nourish all the world.”

It is the paradox of Shakespeare’s mind and his temporal reality that while 90% of women in Elizabethan and Jacobean England were illiterate – including his wife and his daughter Judith – there is at the same time the overarching, all-powerful female in the daily present form of Elizabeth.

Shakespeare’s private idolatry, his not so secret votary worship, is the Goddess of Love. His long poem Venus and Adonis (1593) is an exploration of the rejection of the total, unconditional love of sexy, intense, absolute Venus by the anal and uptight Adonis, who can love only himself. Adonis lectures Venus on her wanton behaviour and general inappropriateness. Shakespeare anticipates Twitter trolling by more than 400 years in this poem. Every time Venus opens her mouth, her arms or, most terrifyingly, her legs, there’s Adonis slut-shaming her.

The lady vanishes … the ‘adored, worshipped, missed and mourned Catholic icon of the Virgin Mary’.
 The lady vanishes … the ‘adored, worshipped, missed and mourned Catholic icon of the Virgin Mary’.

Adonis is the narcissistic masturbatory male we meet many times in Shakespeare. He can be amiable enough, like Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or lethal, like Angelo in Measure for Measure, or fatally without self-knowledge (until it is too late) like Lear, whose sexual disgust and self-regard are shone back at him through the pornographic projectors of Goneril and Regan and Edmund.

The hero need not be a woman-hater, though Richard III is one. Here he is talking about Anne: “Was ever woman in this humour wooed? / Was ever woman in this humour won? / I’ll have her, but I will not keep her long. / What, I that killed her husband and his father / To take her in her heart’s extremest hate.”

The heart’s extremest hate. Shakespeare the love god, the writer of the world’s best-known love story – Romeo and Juliet – is also the writer of some of the vilest rape fantasies and sadistic sexual hatreds this side of the Marquis de Sade. Women might be the beautiful beloved – sometimes – but “Down from the waist they are centaurs … To the girdle do the gods inherit / Beneath is all the fiend’s; there’s hell, there’s darknesss. / There is the sulphurous pit – burning scalding / Stench, consumption.” (King Lear)

Total, unconditional, one-sided love … Venus and Adonis, as seen in the RSC’s puppet production.
 Total, unconditional, one-sided love … Venus and Adonis, as seen in the RSC’s puppet production. 

The Shakespeare of the Sonnets has equal struggles between foul and fair, and this is more than issues with personal hygiene, ageing whores, visitations of the pox, and flighty behaviour. Women – fascinating, magnetic, necessary, often complete in a way that Shakespeare’s men are not (compare Rosalind with Orlando, Juliet with Romeo, Cordelia with Lear, Hermione with Leontes, Cleopatra with Antony, and so on) – still conjure up for Shakespeare and his dramatic heroes unfathomable terrors, deepest despair and annihilating rage. All in the name of love.

But the heroes and anti-heroes (or un-heroes) in Shakespeare’s plays are Shakespeare’s creations, and so, however hateful, flawed or wanting, they are designed for complexity. You can be a great leader and unable to manage intimacy. You can be charming, funny and shallow. You can murder your wife and still make us pity you. You can be thrillingly vile, a bedroom fantasy, an adolescent creep – and have such lines that will make us love you or identify with you, want to be you, want to be with you.

And forgive you. Yes, that most of all: forgive you.

I don’t want to say that his men and women are realistic, because they are bigger than that: they are dimensional in ways that everyday humans often are not. And of course they have language. And it is through language, and language alone, that Shakespeare goes to the heart of “extremest hate” and total, unconditional love.

What is it that Shakespeare explores more than any other theme in his plays and poems? The answer is simple: the fate of love.

And love, like language – Shakespeare’s other passion – is a capacity in humans that is innate but must be developed. We learn a language most easily when we hear it spoken. We learn to love in the presence of another.

“My bounty is as boundless as the sea / My love as deep. The more I give to thee / The more I have, for both are infinite.” This is Juliet, just 14, schooling Romeo in love’s constancy. This is the scene where she foreswears swearing love, calming his male rashness with gentle corrections and ending with her magnificent metaphor of endless and abundant love.

Only language lasts … Vanity, by Philippe de Champaigne
 Only language lasts … Vanity, by Philippe de Champaigne. 

What could Shakespeare do but kill them both at the end? In Sonnet 116Shakespeare says, “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds,” but marriage in Shakespeare is not an altered state to be desired. (Note the altar pun; sorry, but close reading of Shakespeare does this to you.) Romeo would get fat and womanise. Juliet would have too many children and too little else. Better to leave them as we remember them: always faithful, always true, their unbroken vows the war cry of love against time.

Time being the great factor in Shakespearean love. Life expectancy was not much past 50. Shakespeare was dead at 53. And the sonnets are full of blown flowers, scattered petals and poking worms. Love may not be time’s fool (“though rosy lips and cheeks within his bending sickle’s compass come”) but in Shakespeare only language lasts.

And he’s right. Everyone loves a love song, a love story, a love poem. Even Wayne Rooney writes them to Coleen. Most of us have written a love letter. Most of us have kept a love letter. Feelings fade. Lovers fail, yet “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” (Sonnet 18)

Shakespeare the man loved men as well as women. What must it have been like to watch men and boys play women because women were banned from the stage? We can recreate it nowadays, but our cultural milieu, at least in the west, is completely different.

‘Everyone loves a love song, a love story, a love poem. Even Wayne Rooney writes them to Coleen.’
 ‘Everyone loves a love song, a love story, a love poem. Even Wayne Rooney writes them to Coleen.’ 

So every romance was also a bromance. Romeo is in bed with a boy in the world’s most acted teenage sex scene. And Shakespeare’s delight in pushing this further – boys dressed as girls dressed as boys, like Rosalind in As You like It, and Viola in Twelfth Night, themselves used as love props by Orlando and Duke Signor – is his delight in unsettling the certainties of gender, and therefore of erotic attraction.

This unsettlement stretches across species, and is at its most playful in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Titania’s drug-fuelled enchantment with Bottom as an ass. It’s funny, but don’t we pause for a minute to wonder about our own brief encounters, one-night stands, unlikely crushes, sudden desires and … the laughter of our friends?

Love is irrational, says Shakespeare. We try to civilise it, codify it, cheat it, explain it, contain it, but it remains the glory, terror and saving grace of the world.

And hearts will always be broken. And Shakespeare will always be on the side of women. In one of his loveliest songs, he dries our tears. “Sigh no more ladies, sigh no more, men were deceivers, ever, one foot on sea and one on shore, to one thing constant never. Then sigh not so, but let them go, and be you blithe and bonney, converting all your sighs of woe into Hey Nonney Nonney.” (Much Ado About Nothing)

Every romance a bromance … Twelfth Night.
 Every romance a bromance … Twelfth Night. 

In the movement between the early love play Romeo and Juliet (1595) and Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest (1611) much has happened to the work and to the man, now wealthy and celebrated and no longer interested in the heroine sacrificing herself (one way or another) for the sake of the hero’s soul.

Prospero’s daughter Miranda will marry Ferdinand. She’s young and serious. He is vigour and declaration. We’re back where we were with Romeo and Juliet, but the warring families are gone, and the effects of male rage and hotheadedness are neutralised at last. This time Prospero, perhaps as a proxy for Shakespeare, is ready to hand over to the future, where no one will have to die for love. Or for anger. Or for jealousy. Or for lies. Or for stupidity. Or for anything.

In the previous play, The Winter’s Tale, we saw something unprecedented in Shakespeare: three generations of women (Paulina, Hermione, Perdita) on stage together, alive, in the final act. (The triple goddess?) The warring males, Leontes and Polixenes, are reconciled; the son, Florizel, is neither slain nor seeking revenge. The forthcoming marriage between Perdita and Florizel offers the future a future.

In The Tempest, the sacred marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda promises, at last, a marriage worth having – one that Shakespeare fantasised about years earlier in Sonnet 116: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.”

Minds, of course, are not bodies, and The Tempest is a play about disappearances – the “insubstantial pageant” of the world, and we humans who “are such stuff as dreams are made on”. This new future, too, will vanish, leaving behind the things that Shakespeare was sure about: language and its great subject, love.

Jeanette Winterson’s latest book is The Gap of Time (Vintage, £16.99). To order a copy for £11.89, or browse all the books in the Guardian Bookshop’s Shakespeare season go to or call 0330 333 6846.

Shakespeare: who put those thoughts in his head?

Today everybody reads Shakespeare. But what books did he read? on the writers who shaped the world’s greatest playwright – and the three books the Bard would pick for Desert Island Discs

What did Shakespeare believe? We can only guess. He left neither a diary nor a philosophical treatise. His only surviving letters and public statements are either conventionally – if supremely elegantly – phrased pleas for patronage, or words devoted to business transactions and legal cases. His will is orthodox and Anglican, but that is how wills were written. It doesn’t mean that he was orthodox and Anglican.

The only poems written in his own voice are the Sonnets. The man who wrote them clearly believed that love is a powerful and complicated thing, that poetry is an effective way of exploring its many dimensions, and – if his lines are to be taken at face value – that creative art is a way of achieving a kind of immortality for the beloved and perhaps for creative artists themselves. But his lines are not necessarily to be taken at face value. The “I” who speaks a poem, even an intimate love poem, is not synonymous with the person who writes the line. All poets rejoice in creating a persona. And if Shakespeare really believed that the purpose of writing sonnets was to immortalise the beloved, he might have taken the trouble to tell his readers the name of the addressee.

Accused of atheism … Shakespeare’s rival Christopher Marlowe.
 Accused of atheism … Shakespeare’s rival Christopher Marlowe. 

As for immortalising himself, he was lackadaisical about publishing his works. The sonnets may well have been published without his permission, and half his plays were unpublished at the time of his death. Had it not been for the diligence of his fellow actors in seeing into print the First Folio of his collected comedies, tragedies and histories in 1623, Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, The Tempest and a dozen more would be lost.

What kind of a thinker was Shakespeare? That is a better question. The patterns of his mind can be traced in his work and from his education. Here we need not guess. We can say many things that are incontestable. He loved words and wordplay. He was fascinated by every variety of human character. He thought by way of dialogue and debate. He was sceptical of generalisation about the ways of the world: almost every time a character in one of the plays gives voice to a piece of sententious wisdom, someone else says something that contradicts it – or a twist in the plot makes the seeming wisdom look foolish. “The Gods are just,” says Edgar in King Lear, but he has hardly closed his mouth before the old king comes on bearing the hanged body of his beloved, virtuous daughter Cordelia, most unjustly murdered.

Killjoy … Malvolio, as played by Stephen Fry.
 Killjoy … Malvolio, as played by Stephen Fry. 

The few moments in the plays where a sententious or philosophical discourse is vindicated rather than subverted by surrounding events tend to be those when a character says that life is like a play. Most famously, there is Jaques’s “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players” in As You Like It. As if to prove he is right, he has hardly closed his mouth when young Orlando comes on bearing the frail body of a man approaching the seventh and last age of human life. He is pointedly named Adam: he is Everyman. It would be hard to controvert the view that Shakespeare believed life is a kind of theatre and theatre a mirror of life. But an actor-turned-dramatist would believe that, wouldn’t he?

Did Shakespeare believe in God? Though he could not escape the Christian thought that saturated his society, the relationship between the church and the theatre was strained. Rival dramatist Christopher Marlowe was specifically accused of atheism. Puritans disapproved of players, especially when boys dressed as girls started kissing adult male actors on stage. At a deeper level, the Puritan abhorrence of theatre echoed an ancient quarrel. Plato argued that poets should be banned from the ideal republic not only because plays stirred up unhealthy emotions (he was thinking of Greek tragedy – anyone for revenge, rape and incest?), but also because if, philosophically speaking, the day-to-day world is a “shadow” (as on the wall of a cave by flickering firelight) of the true reality of ideal forms, then plays, imitations of those “shadows”, are shadows of shadows, at two removes from Reality with a capital R.

Puritan values … A father teaches his family psalms rather than ‘vayne and tryflying’ ballads, 1563.
 Puritan times … a father teaches his family psalms rather than ‘vayne and tryflying’ ballads, 1563. 

By the same account, extreme Protestantism, taking the biblical second commandment literally, regarded all graven images as idolatrous because they encouraged worship of the image of God as opposed to his ineffable Reality. When the Protestant revolution reached sleepy Stratford-upon-Avon, the treasurer of the town council, a certain John Shakespeare, paid for workmen to whitewash over the image of the Last Judgment in the Guild Chapel across the road from the well-appointed house that his son William would one day purchase.

Across the country, the old biblical mystery plays were banned, and in London Puritan pamphleteers railed against the idolatry of everything theatrical. Killjoy Malvolio in Twelfth Night is specifically described as a Puritan, while hypocritical Angelo in Measure for Measure is said to be “precise” – a “precisian” was another term for a Puritan. So one thing we can say for sure about Shakespeare’s beliefs is that he was not a Puritan.

The Merry Wives of Windsor.
 Shakespeare at his most English … The Merry Wives of Windsor. 

It has sometimes been argued, without any firm evidence, that he died a closet Papist. One suspects that throughout his career he had a vestigial love for the more theatrical aspects of the old faith – dressing up, ceremony, ritual. But the interest in resurrection and redemption that marks his last plays does not feel specifically Roman Catholic. His thinking seems to have been much more profoundly shaped by ancient Rome than modern, that is to say by the classical rather than the Judeo-Christian tradition, by the Renaissance rather than the Reformation or counter-Reformation.

Patterns of thought are learned at school. It was Stratford-upon-Avon grammar school that formed the mind of young William – to whom he surely nods in the scene in The Merry Wives of Windsor (his most English play) where a Welsh schoolmaster (he had one himself) gives a Latin lesson to a bright but cheeky schoolboy called … William. It was at the grammar school that he learned the art of rhetoric – the persuasive use of words, the elaboration of linguistic figures, the ability to argue both sides of a case. This art of rhetoric provided him with the building blocks of his literary achievement. And it was at the grammar school that he was introduced to classical literature.

It is reading that makes us into thinkers. So what were the books of which Shakespeare thought most highly? Castaways on Desert Island Discs are allowed to take three books with them: the Bible, Shakespeare and one other of their own choice. On the 400th anniversary of his death, the ghost of Shakespeare really should be invited on to the programme. When it comes to the books, I suspect he will say that he doesn’t want to bother with the Bible (he knew it well enough from compulsory churchgoing in his youth) and he has all of Shakespeare in his head, so could he choose three books, please?

Parody … Sir Epicure Mammon, played by Ian Richardson.
 Parody … Sir Epicure Mammon, played by Ian Richardson. 

One will be Plutarch’s Lives of the Most Noble Grecians and Romans, in the translation of Sir Thomas North. This was the book that got him thinking seriously about politics. Monarchy versus republicanism versus empire. The choices we make and their tragic consequences. The conflict between public duty and private desire. He absorbed classical thought, but was not enslaved to it. Shakespeare was a thinker who always made it new, adapted his source materials and put his own spin on them.

In the case of Plutarch, he feminised the very masculine Roman world. Brutus and Caesar are seen through the prism of their wives, Portia and Calpurnia; Coriolanus through his mother, Volumnia; Mark Antony through his lover, Cleopatra. Timon of Athens is alone and unhappy precisely because his obsession with money has cut him off from the love of, and for, women (the only females in Timon’s strange play are two prostitutes).

 Political advisor … Plutarch. 

Here is another thing that Shakespeare certainly thought: that women are more than the equal of men. Where most “thinkers” among his contemporaries took the traditional view of female inferiority, he again and again showed the girls to be smarter than the boys – think Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, Rosalind in As You Like It, Portia in The Merchant of Venice.

Another of his desert island books will be The Essays of Michel de Montaigne, in the translation of John Florio. The more philosophical tenor of the works in the second half of his career can attributed to his reading of this book when it was published in 1603 (or maybe to a first acquaintance with parts of it in manuscript some time before – there is good evidence that he knew translator Florio from his days in the household of the Earl of Southampton). When I tried to write an intellectual biography of Shakespeare in my book Soul of the Age, I came to the conclusion that if we can pin a philosophical pattern upon him, it would be one remarkably like that revealed by the progression of thought through the three books of Montaigne’s endlessly rereadable meditative essays: a broad movement from attention to the Roman Stoical idea that “to philosophise is to learn how to die” (which could stand as the set theme of Hamlet) to a severe scepticism about the Christian idea of God’s providence being revealed through natural justice (the position that Montaigne eviscerated in his lengthy Apology for Raymond Sebond, which is echoed very closely in the language of King Lear), to a coming to rest in a philosophy of acceptance associated with the Epicurean tradition.

Philosophy tutor … Montaigne.
 Philosophy tutor … Montaigne. 

Though sometimes parodied as an excuse for bodily self-indulgence (think Sir Epicure Mammon in Ben Jonson’s great comedy The Alchemist), Epicureanism was a serious philosophical tradition that proposed that the good life may be best achieved through the acceptance of limits: limits on our knowledge of God or the gods, and limits on our hopes about the afterworld. We should learn to accept, to live in the moment. We should cherish friendship. And we should not deny our bodily urges. It is foolish to pretend that we can live happily without sex, food and drink, though all should be consumed in moderation.

Almost the last words that Shakespeare wrote for the theatre were these, spoken by Duke Theseus of Athens at the end of his final (co-written) play, The Two Noble Kinsmen: “Let us be thankful / For that which is, and with you [the gods, if such there be] leave dispute / That are above our question.” That is Epicurean acceptance in a nutshell.

Kirsty Young will, however, interrupt desert island Shakespeare to tell him that it is cheating to have three books. He must choose just one. “In that case,” he will say, “it will be the one that first fired my imagination in school and to which I returned throughout my writing career. The Metamorphoses of Ovid. I will take it in the translation of Arthur Golding, because my Latin is rather rusty after these 400 years.”

More Metamorphoses … Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne.
 More Metamorphoses … Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne. 

Ovid was where he found the things that made him a poet and a dramatist: magic, myth, metamorphosis. He acknowledged as much by bringing a copy of the Metamorphoses on stage in his first tragedy, Titus Andronicus; by basing his first published poem, Venus and Adonis (the book that made his name), on one of Ovid’s tales; and by choosing another of them, Pyramus and Thisbe, for the play-within-a-play at the climax of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ovidian myth, magic and wonder form a golden thread that runs all the way through his career from these early works to the late visions of The Winter’s Tale, where the exquisite animation of Hermione’s statue nods to the story of Pygmalion, and The Tempest, which alludes to the sinister magic of the sorceress Medea.

Ovid was the master who taught Shakespeare that what makes great literary art is extreme human passion. Ovid showed him how to represent grief: in Hamlet it is learned from Hecuba, in Lear from Niobe. And Ovid gave him the theme that is the driving force of all his comedies and several of his tragedies: erotic desire.

Sinister magic … Medea.
 Sinister magic … Medea. 

What kinds of question did Shakespeare think most deeply about? The simplest but most essential ones. Such as: how do we cope with a father’s death (Hamlet)? How do we reconcile the pleasures of our youth with the responsibilities of adulthood and authority (Prince Hal’s growth to King Harry in the Henry IVplays)? And how do we make sense of the experience of falling in love? A Midsummer Night’s Dream is his best answer to this last question, and that is one of the several reasons that I increasingly feel it is not only his most Ovidian play but also his most Shakespearean.

Shakespeare still lives, and still matters, after four centuries because he reminds us of the value of the old answers to the perennial questions. We live in an age of increasing biological determinism. The neuroscientist will tell us that the experience of falling in love can be explained by brain chemistry – the activation of certain proteins and neurotransmitters. Sooner or later – probably sooner – in the style of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World some laboratory will produce a pill to make us fall in and out of love. But Shakespeare’s plays are there before us, as a laboratory – a safe space for experimentation – in which we witness the chaos that will be wrought by such a drug. He called it love-in-idleness, the juice that mischievous Puck applies to human eyes.

The Humbling by Philip Roth

the humbling

As can be seen from the following list, this is a relatively late Roth novel; along with Indignation and Nemesis and other late Roth novels it shows a mature master of the art of the novel at work. 

Goodbye, Columbus       1959

Letting Go                       1962

When She Was Good      1967

Portnoy’s Complaint        1969

Our Gang                        1971

The Breast                      1972

The Great American Novel 1973

My Life as a Man                      1974

The Professor of Desire  1977

The Ghost Writer             1979

Zuckerman Unbound      1981

The Anatomy Lesson      1983

The Prague Orgy            1985

The Counterlife               1986

Deception                        1990

Operation Shylock           1993

Sabbath’s Theater           1995

American Pastoral           1997

I Married a Communist    1998

The Human Stain            2000

The Dying Animal            2001

The Plot Against America                                        2004

Everyman                        2006

Exit Ghost                        2007

Indignation                      2008

The Humbling                  2009

Nemesis                          2010

A slight novel, it seems perfectly paced and structured, and the balance of all its elements is gloriously deft. It is another novel that deals with age, the end of life, in this case the end of the life of a great stage actor: what does it mean to come to terms with the end of your life? Roth shows us unflinchingly.


Mr A

When She Was Good by Philip Roth

when she was good Philip Roth

Another early novel of Roth’s. He is clearly honing his skill: how to construct a novel length narrative, how to control alternate perspectives, how to manage the reader’s empathy, how to generate suspense with such subtle story lines and sophisticated character flaws, how to balance these fairly maddening character flaws with the reader’s patience, and how to put together a coherent whole out of such scrag-ends of humanity. Nearly there.


Mr A

Letting Go by Philip Roth

Letting Go by Philip Roth

This is Roth’s first full length novel; it never reaches the heights of control and subtlety that his later novels do, those from the Zuckerman novels onwards, yet here is Roth at his most interesting too, dealing with a protagonist as beautifully flawed as Zuckerman. The novel is big, and tackles a few too many main characters, so there may be a question as to whether it works as a whole. But it is full of the great writing that will make Roth a great novelist in the years following.

Patrimony by Philip Roth

patrimony by Philip Roth

The true story of Roth’s father dying. A late Roth masterpiece. The New York Times opines “Looked at through the lens of poetry, Mr. Roth seems a notably pure fiction writer: intellectual, ironic and practical in a European way, never straining for the seedy romantic lyricism of some American novelists.” There is only one way to tackle the death of a loved one, unsentimentally. Yes, there is sentiment involved, in spades, but it is never shoveled on, as a bad author would do.


Mr A