FATHERS, SONS, DUTY AND DECEIT
THEMATIC SIMILARITIES IN TERENCE AND SHAKESPEARE
PART II: SHAKESPEARE
No doubt, in both Athens and Rome audiences realized, if only subconsciously, that portraying the disruption of family order was tantamount to portraying the disruption of the state. In a democracy, since there is no single leader who might represent a father-figure, the analogy is so obscure as to be almost irrelevant. The same does not hold true under a monarchy. As we will see in Shakespeare's King Lear and Hamlet, when the central authority- figure is both monarch and father, and when he suffers displacement by the deceit of an undutiful relative, the results are tragic./1 Under Macedonian rule, which interrupted the period of Middle Comedy,/2 the jocular disruption of family order in comedy perhaps fell out of favor with the monarchical regime. This may be the reason that almost no Middle Comedy survives. By the same token, perhaps we see no New Comedy themes in Rome after the fall of the Republic./3
Hamlet would have been presented shortly before Elizabeth I's death, and very near the imminent accession of James I. England's empire was beginning to expand in the New World and Spain, a rival empire, was a formidable enemy. It was not the time to make light of family disruptions. Any social statement made to such an effect in the theatre would have had to be admonitory, not derisive. Terence's Comedies provided the perfect thematic models; they only needed to be manipulated so that the social disruptions within became tragic.
Total disruption of order begins almost immediately in King Lear. Not only does a monarch give away his empire, but he in fact splits it among three daughters. We can suspect that something is amiss when there are no sons involved in the inheritance. Furthermore, the two older daughters commit themselves to flattering Lear in an effort to win a greater share of his kingdom. We recognize a dottering old man who would offer such terms: "Which of you shall we say doth love us most?/ That we our largest bounty may extend/ Where nature doth with merit challenge" (I.i.51-53). The youngest daughter, Cordelia, refuses to offer mercenary professions of love, and thus the indignant Lear disinherits her. A serious disruption of order occurs: two deceitful children win their father's blessings, while the one dutiful child suffers his curse. Her disinheritance is the tragic fruition of Chremes' comic ploy against Clitipho.
Even before we see Lear's folly, we witness Gloucester's inhumane treatment of his son, Edmund. Through no fault of his own, Edmund was born illegitimate. Yet his father expresses his shame of the youth, introducing him to Kent as "the whoreson [who] must be acknowledged." Since Gloucester begat Edmund through his own ribaldry, his disdain for the youth, for the very product of his own loins, could hardly seem humane. In fact, perhaps Shakespeare wishes to underscore the inhumanity of such a law that imposed shame upon the helpless child.
Edmund's anger toward his father alone would be justified, but toward his brother, whose better position by birth is no more a matter of chance than his own illegitimacy, such vengeful trickery proves dark, malicious and tragic. He architects the ploy of deceit in order to usurp his brother's rightful inheritance./4 From this moment on, Edmund is doomed; greed has compelled him, in the same way as it has Goneril and Regan, to usurp a sibling's inheritance.
Edmund might remind us of Clitipho, who becomes involved in a scheme to filch money from his father to pay a mistress. Yet Chremes' son has no darker purpose than this. It is only when the father pretends to disinherit him that Clitipho begins to reflect with some bewilderment upon what he considers overly harsh treatment for a natural youthful disposition. Compare his painful inquiry of Menedemus with Edmund's rhetorical monologue on illegitimacy:
Clitipho: quodnam ob factum? quid ego tantum sceleris admisi miser? volgo faciunt. (Self-Tormentor, 956-957)Both young men feel wronged by the censures of the established generation. Clitipho is so bewildered by the gravity of his punishment - disinheritance - that he begins to question his own parentage. Of course Chremes is only teaching him a lesson; he will enjoy his father's bounty once again. Edmund, however, by law and custom disinherited because of his father's errors, suffers a far more helpless and thus tragic predicament.
Edmund: Why bastard? Wherefore base? When my dimensions are as well compact, My mind as generous, and my shape as true, as any honest madam's issue? (Lear, I.ii.6-9)
In Terence, two older brothers vie for the affections of their sons, a reversal of the situation in King Lear, where two sons vie for the affections of their father. Also, in both the Brothers and the Self-Tormentor, a naive father mistakes his son's folly for integrity, at the expense of the reputation of the other son in the play, who is far more respectable. In the same way, the stern and credulous Gloucester mistakenly appraises Edmund and Edgar.
Gloucester therefore, in some ways resembles both Chremes and Demea, though his credulity is decidedly more tragic than his Terentian counterparts. Paternal credulity in Terence generally limits itself to mistaking undutiful sons for obedient and honest sons. Yet in King Lear, not only does the bad son appear dutiful, but a good son is mistaken for a parricide. So, although Gloucester's inhumane treatment of his illegitimate son nearly justifies Edmund's actions, real tragedy occurs within this second reversal of order, for it marks the condemnation of an innocent and dutiful child, the very turn of fortune that destroys Lear.
Chremes, perhaps the least virtuous, and consequently most human of our Terentian fathers, owns the faults of deceitfulness, complacency and hypocrisy. Gloucester owns all but the first of these faults himself, though the other two he possesses to a degree that precludes any possibility for his redemption. His credulity is a form of tragic complacency. Because he so readily believe the news of Edgar's corruption, Gloucester demonstrates a naive unwillingness to suspect the fantastic and explore the facts. Instead, he suddenly and superstitiously ascribes Edgar's inforgivable corruption to celestial disorders. Edmund sarcastically checks his error:/5
This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune, -often the surfeit of our own behaviour, -we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon and the stars; as if we were villains by necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance, drunkards, liars, and adulterers by an enforced obedience of planetary influence. (I.ii.123-130)No one in Terence would dare explain something so natural as human error through this sort of unrealistic association. Fathers always blame their sons' loose morals on the natural disposition of youth and on their own lapses in paternal discipline. However, no one in Terence commits such grave crimes against his or her own flesh. We must remember the tragic framework of disruption in a monarchy.
If Gloucester is guilty of credulity, perhaps he is even more guilty of an inhumane hypocrisy, an unwillingness to accept the consequences of his actions. We have mentioned that he begat Edmund out of wedlock and then treated him as a source of shame and a proof of baseness. His sons are fully aware of this injustice, not only the vengeful Edmund, but also the imperiled Edgar. As Mad Tom, the elder son offers a telling description of himself to Lear and the Fool which might indeed be a censorious portrait of his father:
A servingman, proud in heart and mind; that curled my hair, wore gloves in my cap, served the lust of my mistress's heart, and did the act of darkness with her . . . Let not the creaking of shoes nor the rustling of silks betray thy poor heart to woman: keep thy foot out of brothels. (III.iv.83-85, 92-94)Even after Gloucester's death, Edgar will not exonerate him for the vice he once committed, the consequences of which led to the cruel treatment of Edmund, to Edmund's retaliation and to the ultimate destruction of the family:
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices Make instruments to plague us: The dark and vicious place where thee he got Cost him his eyes. (V.iii.171-174)Therefore, Gloucester shares with Chremes a similar miscalculation of his own sons. Furthermore, he is something of a hypocrite, treating as base the helpless fruit of his own baser vices. His youngest son schemes to steal his brother's inheritance in a gesture of retaliation for the cruel shame he has endured. All of this injury must have tragic results, for the king himself makes some of the same fatal mistakes with his own children. Of the Gloucester family, only Edgar's reputation remains untarnished. He has both loved the father who mistrusted him, and forgives the brother who plotted against him. The entire drama, with its layers of scheming and intrigue, with its counterfeit dispositions, and with its humanization of all characters (ascribing faults to the powerful and virtues to the base), strongly resembles a Terentian play. Indeed, even Edmund notices the similarity upon seeing the timely, ironic approach of his brother: "And pat he comes, like the catastrophe of the old comedy."
The themes of fathers, sons, duty and deceit also emerge in Hamlet. As in King Lear, a monarch is unlawfully usurped by a family member's treachery. Here, of course, murder, not flattery, commences the disruption of order. Claudius' fratri/regicide marks the first undutiful act in the play (to put it mildly). Next, Gertrude, the irreverent widow-queen, follows by marrying Claudius within two months of her husband's death. Finally, Hamlet neglects his duty by never avenging his father.
However, the most Terentian character in Hamlet is Polonius. He especially resembles Chremes. In the Terentian father we see a man very self-assured, so much so that he dishes out his counsel wherever he goes. He is a "busy-body," forever advising, proselytizing and arbitrating. Yet other characters in the play do not particularly relish his advice, and instead detect the old fellow's hypocrisy:
Menedemus: tene istuc loqui! nonne id flagitiumst, te aliis consilium dare, foris sapere, tibi non posse te auxiliarier? (921-923)As mentioned earlier, we can forgive Chremes' hypocrisies. They merely prove the humanness of this otherwise intelligent counsellor (he does, in fact, have some of the best lines in Terence). It is only his deceitfulness, his unwillingness to be forthright in his actions, as in his speech, that undermines his credibility. He makes the right decision in the end, however, and redeems himself in our eyes.
Polonius exhibits all of Chremes' habits, but to a far more fatal degree. He is counsellor to Claudius and to his own children. He has a strong tendency toward verbosity. His very first utterance in Act I, scene ii, lines 58-61, requires only a simple negative or affirmative answer, yet he stretches his response into four lines./6 Furthermore, just before he gives his famous advice to Laertes, Polonius urges his son to make haste while the wind fills his sail, only to detain him with a last-minute speech. We are reminded of how Chremes detained his guest, Phania, while counseling Clitipho.
Much of Polonius' advice reflects the counsel that
Chremes offers his own son. Polonius reiterates nearly the
same idea three times in his speech, spaced very evenly at the
beginning, the middle and the end:
Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue, Nor any unproportion'd thought his act . . . Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice; Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgement . . . This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow as the night the day Thou canst not then be false to any man. (I.iii.56-60, 68-69, 78-80)
Though his themes usually concern youthful incontinence or paternal discipline, Chremes nevertheless delivers similar advice to Clitipho:
de me ego facio coniecturam: nemost meorum amicorum hodie apud quem expromere omnia mea occulta, Clitipho, audeam. apud alium prohibet dignitas; apud alium ipsi facti pudet, ne ineptus, ne protervos videar: quod illum facere credito. sed nostrumst intellegere ut quomque atque ubi quomque opus sit obsequi. (574- 578)Here, Chremes claims to speak from his own example, which would imply a degree of self-knowledge. We may assume that Polonius thought the same of himself when he delivered his final words to Laertes. Furthermore, Chremes claims that, for dignity or shame, he would dare not express to any friend all his secrets. A person must be cautious when giving himself up to others (by revealing private matters, counseling, etc.). Polonius, of course, gives Laertes almost identical advice: be sparing with your own opinions, conceal your innermost thoughts, and do not dare to act without thinking. Ironically, both Chremes and Polonius freely and carelessly drop their advice and opinions upon any and all who might hear. Because their actions betray their words, both seem ludicrous and hypocritical./7 Through his advice to Menedemus, Chremes implies that he knows and trust Clitipho. Yet, no sooner has he chided the self-tormentor for failing to know Clinia ("Hoc ubi fit, ibi non vere vivitur"), than he is hiding behind a door in order to overhear his own son's conversations, thereby betraying his own claims to trust. Polonius as well sends Reynaldo off to "make inquire of [Laertes'] behaviour." The great irony is that, in the previous act, he has counselled both his children against hastily trusting others (for Laertes, his friends, and for Ophelia, her lover Hamlet). Meanwhile the father proves more untrustworthy than anyone. Next he slumps to an even more deceitful, and fatal, habit. Polonius hides behind an arras to make a "lawful espial" of Hamlet's conduct towards his daughter. Not long after, in Act III, he attempts another espial upon Hamlet and Gertrude. Hamlet kills him with great indifference however, therein proving that Polonius hardly deserves respect. Just as Chremes (and Demea for that matter) must realize the failure of their self-assured designs, so, too, must Polonius.
Duty concerns nearly everyone in Hamlet. Horatio, Polonius, Laertes, Hamlet and even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern voice some profession of dutifulness toward their superiors. Yet the two sons, Hamlet and Laertes, struggle most gravely with duty, for each of them must avenge his father's murder. Hamlet himself is the more Terentian figure. The bulk of his activity involves deceiving Claudius, rather than acting forthrightly. The only noble deed he himself performs in the play, Polonius' murder, is an accident. Laertes, on the other hand, conducts himself most dutifully to both his father and his sister. By contrast Polonius and Hamlet seem all the more negligent. Although neither of these sons displays great dissolution, their elders constantly suspect them of such. Incontinence is, in fact, a principle theme in the play, against which numerous characters offer their censures:
Polonius: OpheliaAs for Polonius' first assault on Hamlet, the father has his daughter's honor at stake, and his fears might be well taken, were it not for his own disreputable character. As for Hamlet's assault on his uncle and on the Danes in general, a King's well-being reflects the well-being of the entire state. Since we soon learn how Claudius has usurped the throne, we cannot help but beware lest his shameful debauchery imperil Danish security. The ghost of Hamlet's father hearkens upon this treacherous incontinence from beyond the grave, so disordering has it been. Finally, Polonius' instruction to Reynaldo, through which the father architects his first espial, perhaps most succintly state all the vices in which the dissolute soul can indulge. Each of these vices appears in the final scene of the play. Ironically, therefore, all the remaining characters are killed in this scene where the principle attractions are gaming, drinking, fencing and quarreling.
Do not believe [Hamlet's] vows; for they are brokers
Not of that dye which their investments show,
But mere implorators of unholy suits,
Breathing like sanctified and pious bawds
The better to beguile. (I.iii.126-131)
Hamlet: The King doth wake tonight and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail, and the swagg'ring upspring reels;
And as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge . . .
This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduc'd and tax'd of other nations-
They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition. (I.iv.8-12, 17-20)
Ghost: O horrible, most horrible!
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest. (I.v.80-83)
Polonius: Put on him
What forgeries you please - marry none so rank
As may dishonor him - take heed of that -
But, sir, such wanton, wild, and usual slips
As are companions noted and most known
To youth and liberty.
Reynaldo: As gaming, my lord?
Polonius: Ay, or drinking, fencing, swearing,
Quarreling, drabbing - you may go so far. (II.i.19-27)
There are a number of kindred speeches in Terence which both condemn incontinence and explain it away as a thing natural to youth. We have already mentioned Chremes' lecture to Clitipho in Act I of the Self-Tormentor. Toward the end of the play he, in fact, lists these very behaviors in his son. Yet remembering Clitipho's profession of his father's hypocrisy, we might suppose that Chremes' indictment is, in a way, his own confession: "gerro iners fraus helluo/ ganeo's damnosus; crede, et nostrum te esse credito" (1033-1034). Demea complains about youthful incontinence in the Brothers:
Micio: venit [Demea] ad me saepe clamans "quid agis, Micio?We may gather, therefore, that Terence and Shakespeare had many of the same human foibles in mind when they composed these plays. Both playwrights acknowledge that dissolute behavior is natural to youths, but inappropriate for adults. Nevertheless, sons are obliged to love and obey the parents who have reared them. Fathers, of course, must treat their sons humanely (with tolerance and love regardless), and in actions as well as words they should exemplify good conduct for their progeny. Fathers remiss in their duty (to conduct themselves in exemplary fashion) lose credibility, appearing hypocritical until they renounce their own errors. Yet only in comedy do characters mend their ways by the end of the play. In tragedy, persons never right their errors in time, and misery ensues. Entire situations, self- correction or self dissolution, involves some degree of disruption of the family order. When this disordering occurs on a royal scale, the results are tragic.
quor perdis adulescentem nobis? quor amat?
quor potat? quor tu his rebus sumptum suggeris,
vestitu nimio indulges? nimium ineptus es." (60-63)
Demea: hancine vitam! hoscin mores! hanc dementiam!
uxor sine dote veniet: intus psaltriast;
domus sumptuosa; adulescens luxu perditus;
senex delirans. ipsa si cupiat Salus,
servare prorsus non potest hanc familiam. (757-762)
Both Terence and Shakespeare, whether or not intended, humanize the individual. For the Roman ex-slave, whose characters are ordinary folk, humanization is always comic; authority has its imperfections, too. Yet for the Elizabethan playwright, writing under and about monarchy, humanization is tragic, as if to say, "Monarchs must be more than human." To be sure, comedy and tragedy are different genres; yet these two dramatists exploit many similar humanistic themes as the bases of their plots. Shakespeare's tragedies, therefore, are closely allied to Terence's comedies, indeed, more so than to ancient Aristotelian tragedy. Oedipus' tragic flaw, of knowing too much, makes him an exceptional individual and takes him further away from humanity. The flaws of Lear, Gloucester, Polonius and Hamlet, however, bring them closer to the rest of humanity. Like Terence's fathers and sons, they neglect their filial or paternal duties, fall prey to human weaknesses and experience the disruption of their families.
portrays the tragedies that result when a monarch is displaced
by a relative (Creon and Oedipus).
2Greece was governed by Philip II and Alexander, 359-323 B.C., Middle Comedy spanned the fourth century, from 390-303 B.C.
3During the Empire it would have been especially unwise to lampoon the demise of a father in a comedy. Because the institution of the pater familias was so well ensconced in the Roman mentality, it was not difficult for an emperor to cast himself as the father of the state. Augustus was keenly aware of this and sought to revive nostalgic sentiments for tradition in the torn patria, just as Cato had done two hundred years before. The practice of emperor worship, beginning with the apotheosis of Augustus, reflects the ancient conventions of ancestor worship among both Romans and Greeks.
4This reflects Elizabethan law. In Athens a father divided his inheritance equally among his son; in Rome property went to the oldest living male in the family. In all three cultures, illegitimate children were excluded by law from inheriting.
5When fathers' hypocrisies are checked in Terence, it is always with an effort to correct their errors before they bring pain upon themselves, as in Menedemus' warning to Chremes: "Quot incommoditates hac re accipies, nisi caves!" However, since Edmund has no wish to promote his father's well-being, sharing this shrewd insight upon Gloucester's superstitions would be fatal to his design.
6This ironic verbosity only increases in Polonius. In II.ii.85-95, within one of his most digressive speeches, he voices the famous maxim, "brevity is the soul of wit." Yet it takes him ten lines merely to tell Claudius and Gertrude that Hamlet is mad. The queen checks him: "More matter with less art."
7It would be remiss not to mention a detail in both Hamlet and the Brothers where the mirror serves as counsellor. Demea explains to Syrus: "fit sedulo:/ nil praetermitto; consuefacio; denique/ inspicere tamquam in speculum in vitas omnium/ jubeo atque ex aliis sumere exemplum sibi." Hamlet details "the purpose of playing, whose end both at the first and now, was and is to hold as 'twere the mirror up to nature" (III.ii.20-22). Later, he tells Gertrude, "You go not till I set you up a glass/ Where you may see the inmost part of you" (III.iv.18-19). Though never referring to exactly the same source of counsel (other persons, nature and the self), the speculum connection is far too neat not to be mentioned.
This is a chapter from the E-Book: Latin with Laughter: Terence through Time
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