Thursday 2 May 2024

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a cautionary tale


Almost everyone we encounter in the play bears some responsibility for the ensuing multi-death tragedy.


Almost everyone in the play contributes to the tragic deaths of young people. A story not so much about love but a call to change a society where your actions, inactions or mistakes can kill you or someone else. Other named characters such as Rosaline are blameless and therefore do not appear.

A warning sign depicting abstract images of Romeo wooing Juliet, in front of walled Verona.
Warning: unauthorised wall-scaling and poetic pickup lines in progress

First, we will run through Romeo and Juliet the play and pick out relevant moments.

Then, we will analyse themes and language.

Finally, we will say what the play is not, before tendering our conclusion.

Notes on language

In this article, 'parents' is used as a shorthand for parents/guardians/primary caregivers and all comparable roles. In the play, the parents of interest are the couples: Montagues and Capulets.

Key Quotations from the Play, with Brief Notes, Scene Summaries and Questions


Here we encounter the ancient grudge that informs the rest of the play.

Act 1

A1s1 Capulet servants Sampson and Gregory exhibit bravado, belligerence and sexualised threats; they pick a fight with servants of Montague with foreknowledge that this quarrel may lead to tyrannous behaviour and harm to innocents. Sampson: Draw, if you be men Benvolio tries to keep peace.

Tybalt: “What, drawn, and talk of peace? I hate the word,
  As I hate hell, all Montagues and thee:
  Have at thee, coward.”

Tybalt especially shows wilful misinterpretation to exaggerate threats to justify violent response. Citizens seek to put down brawl with clubs while Capulet calls for long sword to match Montague. Prince threatens them with torture and death:

Three civil broils, bred of an airy word,
By thee, old Capulet and Montague,
Have thrice disturb’d the quiet of our streets;

Far from fray, Romeo tells Benvolio of his groaning unrequited love for a woman who has foresworn love.

A1s2 Paris sues Capulet for his daughter’s hand but Capulet says she is too young:

My child is yet a stranger in the world,
She hath not seen the change of fourteen years;
Let two more summers wither in their pride,
Ere we may think her ripe to be a bride.

but will see if she will become amenable. Do characters simulate more in verse? Servant cannot read list of party guests: is illiteracy a contributory factor to civil ills? Literate characters may manipulate illiterate ones. Benvolio names Rosaline as Romeo’s love.

A1s3 Nurse reckons Juliet’s age a fortnight and odd days short of 14 years, a similar age to her own dead daughter Susan. Lady Capulet tells Juliet she was married at a similar early age and other ladies are already mothers by 14 so Paris?

Juliet: “I’ll look to like, if looking liking move:
  But no more deep will I endart mine eye,
  Than your consent gives strength to make it fly.”

We discover over time that Juliet is under intense and urgent pressure to conform to her parents’ wishes, which transmit to servants.

Servant: “Madam, the guests are come, supper served up, you called,
  my young lady asked for, the nurse cursed in the pantry, and every thing in extremity.
  I must hence to wait; I beseech you, follow straight.”

A1s4 Romeo prepares to gatecrash his familial enemy’s swanky party, bolstered by banter. Mercutio’s intense and rambling speech seems sign of a disordered mind; perhaps he fears he cannot speak clearly and plainly even to his closest friends.

A1s5 Romeo sees Juliet and mentally dumps Rosaline. Tybalt, overhearing him, storms but is checked by Capulet, who is strangely well-disposed towards Romeo, or at least wants his party to go smoothly. Romeo and Juliet flirt, until Nurse reveals her to be Capulet’s heiress daughter. As Romeo leaves, Juliet learns his identity (stranger in the world, remember).

Act 2

A2s1 Romeo scales Capulet’s garden wall, ditching friends and their possibly restraining advice.

A2s2 Romeo overhears Juliet pining for him, they talk of peril, their families’ enmity, love, oaths, marriage all with unseemly precipitous haste and on very little acquaintance. This unfathomable speed and secrecy is a caution in itself: who knows what young ones are up to? Romeo seeks collaborator in Franciscan Friar Laurence.


Friar Laurence: “Be plain, good son, and homely in thy drift;
  Riddling confession finds but riddling shrift.”
Romeo: “Then plainly know, my heart’s dear love is set
  On the fair daughter of rich Capulet:”

Friar ridicules Romeo’s prior doting on Rosaline, says young men love with eyes not hearts, but because he has another motive (ending the feud) he agrees.

A2s4 Benvolio and Mercutio talk of duels and Tybalt’s fencing prowess. Romeo jests, Nurse arrives from Juliet, they arrange secret wedding for afternoon.

A2s5 Juliet is impatient that Nurse who left at 9 is not back before noon. Nurse arrives, spins out her tale of Romeo arranging wedding at Friar Laurence’s cell. Juliet: Hie to high fortune! — honest nurse, farewell.

Is the Nurse honest if she doesn’t tell her employers she is helping Juliet marry secretly in opposition to their choice?

A2s6 Friar: These violent delights have violent ends, yet marries Romeo and Juliet in secret haste; perhaps also feels they will sin if left alone.

Act 3

A3s1 Mercutio says Benvolio will attack a harmless waiter after two cups of wine and quarrel over anything. Benvolio replies Mercutio is worse. What is the cause of their distemper? Tybalt arrives and it kicks off, Romeo arriving, Benvolio attempting to calm. Mercutio thinks Romeo’s pleasant response to Tybalt’s hate is appeasement. Mercutio, dying, curses both houses. Incensed, Romeo slays Tybalt in revenge, then flees. Benvolio gives accurate account to Prince, who banishes Romeo on pain of death. Prince: Mercy but murders, pardoning those that kill.

A3s2 Juliet waits impatiently for Romeo, Nurse appears with cord ladder and news that someone (Tybalt) is dead, Romeo banished, while Juliet imagines dying, and that Romeo’s beautiful outside hides an opposite nature. They agree Nurse will bring Romeo.

A3s3 Romeo also takes news from Friar of banishment with melodrama, at length. Nurse arrives and with Friar eventually shame some sense into Romeo: to Juliet, then Mantua to await developments.

A3s4 Capulet still wants to hurry Juliet’s wedding with Paris, who can hardly wait. Fewer guests out of ‘respect’ for Tybalt.

A3s5 Juliet and Romeo, marriage consummated, tarry in her bedchamber. They part thinking on death again. Lady Capulet thinks Juliet cries too much for Tybalt, says she’ll send a poisoner to Mantua to kill Romeo in revenge. Juliet is shocked by the ‘haste’ her parents want to see her wed Paris.

Juliet: “I wonder at this haste; that I must wed
  Ere he, that should be husband, comes to woo,”
Lady Capulet: “I would, the fool were married to her grave!”
Capulet: “Out, you green sickness carrion! out, you baggage!”

Nurse stands up for Juliet:

God in heaven bless her! —
  You are to blame, my lord, to rate her so.
Capulet: “An you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend;
  An you be not, hang, beg, starve, die i’th streets,”

Juliet seeks delay or death; parents leave and she seeks comfort from Nurse… who, likely thinking on her own dead Susan, betrays Juliet by switching to back Paris and an unrealistic living make-do. Juliet pretends to relent, Nurse leaves to tell Capulets good news.

Juliet: “Ancient damnation! … Go, counsellor;
  Thou and my bosom henceforth shall be twain.”

Either the Friar will help, or Juliet considers taking the suicide option.

Act 4


Friar: “You say, you do not know the lady’s mind;
  Uneven is the course, I like it not.”

Paris claims Capulet thinks Juliet’s grief for Tybalt is dangerous, and hasty marriage a cure. Juliet arrives and easily gets the better of Paris, dismissing him and saying Friar better have a solution to Romeo’s banishment, or she’ll kill herself:

I long to die,
If what thou speak’st speak not of remedy.

Friar offers a desperate, daring, dangerous hope. Fake your death, Juliet! Juliet eagerly accepts his offered drug.

A4s2 Juliet feigns obedience to Capulet who accepts her volte-face explanation that Friar taught her obedience in one session.

Juliet: “Henceforth I am ever rul’d by you.”
Capulet: “my heart is wondrous light,
  Since this same wayward girl is so reclaim’d”

A4s3 Juliet wonders if she should call back Nurse and mother, or drink the unknown drug, or kill herself with dagger?

Juliet: “What if it be a poison, which the friar
  Subtly have minister’s to have me dead”

to avoid dishonour for Romeo marriage. What horrors might confront her in the tomb? She drinks.

A4s4 The Capulets and servants are busy with wedding preparations, the external forms of the planned relationship.

Capulet: “Go, waken Juliet, go, and trim her up;
  I’ll go and chat with Paris: — Hie, make haste,”

A4s5 Nurse tries to waken Juliet, fails. She, Capulets, Paris, household bar Friar think she’s dead. Lamentation (and some nasty blame from Paris). Friar: think of it as a promotion.

Act 5

A5s1 In Mantua, Romeo dreams of death, then learning of Juliet’s ‘death’ and burial seeks poison from desperate apothecary:

Such mortal drugs I have; but Mantua’s law
Is death, to any he that utters them.
Romeo: “I pay thy poverty, and not thy will.”
  “There is gold, worse poison to men’s souls,
  Doing more murders in this loathsome world,
  Than these poor compounds that thou may’st not sell:”

(which didn’t put Romeo off the fair daughter of rich Capulet!)

A5s2 Friar learns his letter never reached Romeo in Mantua and hastens tombward.

A5s3 Why exactly does Paris hope to gain by sneaking into Juliet’s tomb? Romeo says he is going to see Juliet’s face…

But, chiefly, to take thence from her dead finger
A precious ring; a ring that I must use
In dear employment

but servant Balthasar has his doubts and hangs about. Paris sees Romeo as Montague who partly caused Juliet’s death by killing Tybalt. They needlessly fight, Paris ignoring Romeo’s plea to leave, Romeo kills Paris, sees, speechifies to and kisses Juliet, then drinks poison and dies. [only seconds too soon…] Friar arrives too late, talks with Balthasar.

[Events appear to be taking on a dreamlike quality] Juliet awakes but Friar fails to rescue her, if secretly stuffing her into a nunnery counts. Poison failing, Juliet stabs herself to death with Romeo’s dagger. Watch apprehend Friar and everybody else turns up for a gawk. Prince holds an impromptu court; Friar and others testify, Romeo’s letter corroborates. Prince lays blame on feuding Capulets and Montagues, who say they’ll patch up quarrels, raise statues and make amends.

Prince: “And I, for winking at your discords too,
  Have lost a brace of kinsmen: — all are punish’d.”

Prince doesn’t yet specify who will be further punished or pardoned, at least implying the form of due process.

Themes and Language

Given this reading as a cautionary tale, it is essential to include language on themes such as suicidal intentions, since these are things that others should be picking up and listening to; and that Juliet’s young age (13 going on 14) be respected (or intervention be too late).

Some other warning signs or contributive factors to the play's tragedies include:

  • Secretive behaviour (both the Nurse and the Friar encourage this, perhaps such encouragement often has comedic results in plays).
  • Sexualised speech (where inappropriate and/or threatening, such as the banter which creates an atmosphere of intimidation or lewdness which is divisive).
  • Unreasonable and excessive haste (a general fault, oft-mentioned word in the play).
  • Quarrelsomeness; aggression.
  • Ulterior motives (civil peace; rich heiress).
  • Displacement, transference, confusion (Nurse’s Susan, see later).
  • Personal pride and ambition.
  • People who think both Romeo and Juliet need to be fixed (I don’t mean neutered).
  • Children who learn to tell parents what they want to hear etc. Juliet lies to father about being ruled by him, but doesn’t bother lying to Paris, instead deftly fooling him. Parents should watch for sudden obedience.
  • Frustrated competition, either banned, unsafe (like duels) or precluded (like courtship).
  • Suppression of other opportunities (to learn, to interact, to show true colours, to escape class or gendered roles).
  • Inconstant counsel (Nurse particularly).
  • Betrayal of trust (Nurse again, though very likely with Juliet's longterm wellbeing in mind).
  • Machiavellian tendencies; meddling (Friar, albeit with perhaps good and sincere intentions).
  • Both young and old can be giddy and serious at the same time — seriousness does not require deep or sustained reflection nor constancy.
  • Sole heirs (especially under dynastic societies, these are typically subject to considerable pressures).
  • Overconfidence; simplification; lack of contingency planning (particularly the Friar).
  • Feuding; grudge-keeping; avenging kin (Capulets particularly, for Tybalt).
  • Deceit.
  • Possibly undue leniency (Prince thinks so).
  • Undeservedly harsh parental treatment (Capulets on Juliet).
  • Emotional blackmail.
  • Religious injunctions on obedience.
  • Autocracy; hierarchy.
  • Lack of empathy.

Is faking your own death ever the answer?

Poverty is not vice but desperation leads people to consider lawbreaking (the Apothecary).

Puberty transforms (Juliet) while parents may sometimes be too slow or too quick to anticipate changes. It is Juliet's linguistic skill, quick wit and pure determination that lets her wrongfoot the adults about her, who all seem to underestimate her (except perhaps Romeo, hence their almost-instant connection).

I won't go through all these aspects in detail, but consider how at any point the play's actions may be changed to avoid the tragedies.

What the Play is Not

Romeo and Juliet is not a love story. Yet one of the first thing Romeo says is that these broils may have as much to do with love as hate (as factionalism and in-out group psychology shows). Without much doubt, the truest love shown in the play appears to be the Nurse's for Juliet, who she treats like a surrogate daughter, always prattling happily on about her and running errands for her. However, even this love is notably imperfect, as the Nurse may be transferring her love for her dead daughter Susan on to Juliet. Indeed, we don't know if the Nurse's anecdotes about Juliet's infancy were not actually (misremembered) incidents from Susan's childhood. And in the crucial pivot of the play, the Nurse breaks faith with Juliet, preferring a 'safer' marriage with Paris and a live surrogate daughter to a Juliet pining over banished Romeo and suicidal ideation.

The play is not a comedy (though it shares some common comedic components, the remaining cast are united in grief not marriage), nor a typical tragedy (yet undoubtedly tragic in key elements). It has action but not of epic scale. It is not the stuff of history plays, yet it could be local history.

Unlike her parents’ choice, Romeo is Juliet’s alone, just as Juliet is Romeo’s alone (call her mine); this possessiveness (a mansion, robes) combines with deathwishes and nightlonging. Capulet attempts minionisation of Juliet. Both Romeo and Juliet seek to avoid traps. At what point in play do caring adults fail to understand Juliet’s inner life? From the very start? Which is mirrored by Romeo’s interiority. Shouldn’t Romeo and Juliet be Goths? Nurse knows what a dead child looks like, as do Capulets. Romeo bespeaks Tybalt and Paris fair but kills both aggressors.

So the story is probably much closer to social realism than the common comedies, tragedies, tragicomedies, epics, histories that Shakespeare's audiences were likely more familiar with. The question is: why?


If Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet as a socially-realistic play, where audience members may have recognised characters like themselves or people they knew, acting in quite believable ways which collectively ended in tragedy, then for what reasons?

I think it is highly plausible that many Shakespeare's plays are intended in main or part to increase empathy and appreciation of the value of human lives. I've already written something about Shakespeare's blood-savers. One could argue (and I would) that many lives may have been saved over the years by plays such as Othello, which should at least make jealous husbands think before murdering their wives (likewise A Winter's Tale, and so on and on).

But in Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare's focus shifts to children and young people, in the grip of powerful emotions, trapped by circumstance, daring to look death in the eye. I think, quite simply, Shakespeare wants to make us think of them, their worlds, their ambitions, their frailties, their hopes and dreams… and not crush them. Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is a cautionary tale. For all of us.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a cautionary tale by Sleeping Dog is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Wednesday 10 April 2024

Democracy's flaws: Speciesism: Democracy 0 – Biocracy 2


One of democracy's fatal flaws is its speciesism.


As we saw in our thought experiment on the Sea-People’s Citizen Assembly Scenario, democracy can work perfectly well yet still deliver genocide, ecocide and other undesirable ends.

Illustration of sketchy Tree of Life with animal and plant and a fungi emojis lining its branches, with a small groups of humans with emoji faces gnawing its roots.
Humans gnawing on the roots of the Tree of Life


This is due to an essential flaw in democracy, that as a political system it only takes account of the expressed views (or will) of humans, or a subgroup of humans. This is not a flaw of biocracy, a political system which opposes the speciesist orientation.

More flaws of democracy will be explored later.

Democracy's flaws: Speciesism: Democracy 0 – Biocracy 2 by Sleeping Dog is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Wednesday 20 March 2024

Will and Health: two factors of governance in Shakespeare's King Lear


How health and will emerge as two interrelated components of governance (self and state) in William Shakespeare's tragic play, King Lear.


As discussed before, from the very opening of the play, Lear's Britain is a state with a projected perilous health, yet the solution (neutralising his two eldest daughters who each plot to gain the crown by bloody civil war) is perhaps too unfatherly/impious/legacy-unfriendly/precedent-setting for Lear, who instead engineers a solution to send beloved youngest daughter to safety while the other sisters (literally) duke it out. By retaining one hundred knights and doddering between them, Lear can even Yojimbo-like take the weaker side until both Albany and Cornwall are exhausted and Cordelia can return with powerful French backing.

Old King Lear in right foreground, looking down from balcony on map of Britain surrounded by his three daughters: Goneril and Regan (with husbands) gesticulating, Cordelia bandaging a dog's paw.
King Lear ruminating on the future health and division of his state

First, we will review an extensive series of quotations from the text (included partly because some are frequently omitted from productions of this very long play), with brief notes.

Then we will consider significant ways Health and Will are represented, and how they relate to Governance (both of self and of state).

Finally, we will try to understand what Shakespeare's play is really saying about the nature of Health and Will in Governance, and whether that leads us to reject some political systems in favour of others.

Key Quotations from the Play, with brief Notes and Scene Summaries

A play which takes from 3 to 3½ hours in theatre, says director Richard Eyre of his television movie of Lear, can be cut down by omitting whole or partial scenes, lose 'complicated plots' and compress dialogue, and so on. The full text is a better guide to the issues under consideration, and I cannot recommend any particular production/performance. However, the BBC's version with Michael Hordern as Lear is worth the watch, though it is not my current interpretation of the play.

Act 1

A1s1 Lear suggests his health is failing and he wants to prevent future strife. Cordelia considers love as riches. Lear speaks of The vines of France, the milk of Burgundy, which indicate the health of the states of Cordelia's two suitors.

Lear’s wilfulness (express our darker purpose) has the effect of granting Cordelia a love match and a safe haven, with Kent banished for future team-up. The sway goes to Cornwall and Albany.

Kent: Kill thy physician, and the fee bestow upon the foul disease.

Lear’s sentence overrides his nature To shield thee from diseases of the world with the kind banishments of Kent and Cordelia with those infirmities she owes.

Regan: ‘Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he has ever but slenderly known himself. Goneril: the unruly waywardness that infirm and cholerick years bring with them.

A1s2 What is a healthy relationship between parent and child to the Glosters?

Why bastard? wherefore base?
When my dimensions are as well compact,
My mind as generous, and my shape as true,
As honest madam's issue?

A1s3 Lear's knights riotous, king upbraiding.

A1s4 Steward’s contest of will with Lear. Fools whipped. Ungrateful cuckoo chick. Lear’s sterility curse on Goneril. A dotard in command of dangerous knights.

A1s5 Lear: O let me not be mad.

Act 2

A2s1 Edmund cuts himself to support his lie. Gloster: my old heart is crack’d. Regan: waste and spoil of his revenues.

A2s2 Kent: anger has a privilege.

A2s3 Edgar mortifies himself as poor Tom.

A2s4 Fool says falling leaders stink. Sickness excuse not to meet Lear.

Lear: “Infirmity doth still neglect all office,
Whereto our health is bound; we are not ourselves,
When nature, bring oppress’d, commands the mind
To suffer with the body: I’ll forbear;
And am fallen out with my more headier will,
To take the indispos’d and sickly fit
For the sound man. Death on my state!”
Regan: “If, sir, perchance,
She have restrain’d the riots of your followers,
‘Tis on such ground, and to such wholesome end,
As clears her from all blame.”

Lear wishes lameness on absent Goneril. Lear imagines Goneril both flesh-and-blood and a disease in his flesh.

Regan: “What need one?”
Lear: “O, reason not the need: our basest beggars
Are in the poorest things superfluous:
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is cheap as beast’s: thou art a lady;
If only to go warm was gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st, which scarcely keeps thee warm — But, for true need,—”

Cornwall: ‘Tis best to give him way; he leads himself. Gloster protests king lacks storm-shelter.

Regan: “O, sir, to wilful men,
The injuries, that they themselves procure,
Must be their schoolmasters: Shut up your doors;”

Act 3

A3s1 Lear reportedly contends with storm while even hungry predators cower.

A3s2 Lear calls on the will of the storm sulphurous and thought-executing fires to punish himself and others, spilling all nature’s seeds:

Lear: “let fall
Your horrible pleasure; here I stand, your slave,
A poor, infirm, weak, and despis’d old man”
Lear: “My wits begin to turn” Fool: “tiny wit… fortunes fit”

A3s3 Gloster and Edmund discuss the savage and unnatural. Excuse of illness. Gloster: “If I die for it, as no less is threatened me, the king my old master must be relieved.” Edmund: “The younger rises, when the old doth fall.”

A3s4 Kent: The tyranny of the open night’s too rough For nature to endure. Lear: When the mind’s free, The body’s delicate: the tempest in my mind. You houseless poverty Lear to Fool (another indication that the play originally intended the Fool at this point to be Cordelia in disguise).

Lear: “O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physick, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel;
That thou may’st shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.”

That is, redistributing wealth is both healthy and just. Edmund/Poor-Tom is tormented and cold, blamed on vice and the foul fiend?

Gloster: “Go in with me; my duty cannot suffer
To obey in all your daughter’s hard commands:
Though their injunction be to bar my doors,
And let this tyrannous night take hold upon you,
Yet I have ventured to come seek you out,
And bring you where both fire and food is ready.”

Gloster: The grief hath craz’d my wits.

A3s5 Cornwall: I will have my revenge.

A3s6 Lear, apparently losing touch with reality, convenes a trial of absent Goneril and Regan. Friends rally round him.

A3s7 Regan, Goneril and Cornwall mean harm to Gloster, approved by Edmund; loyal knights have taken Lear to Dover.

Cornwall: Though well we may not pass upon his life
Without the form of justice, yet our power
Shall do a courtesy to our wrath, which men
May blame, but not control. Who's there? the traitor?

Gloster: You are my guests: do me no foul play, friends. Unnamed servant of Cornwall intervenes to save Gloster’s remaining eye, fatally wounds Duke in fair combat and is fatally backstabbed by Regan. Cornwall finishes blinding Gloster. Remaining servants are appalled by the wilful acts of their ‘betters’.

It is worth noting Gloster's earlier hypocrisy in calling Cornwall 'fiery' when Edmund has so easily stoked Gloster's wrath towards Edgar.

Act 4

A4s1 Gloster: I stumbled when I saw, and As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; They kill us for our sport. wanton here is equivalent to wilful. Gloster, humbled, now sees redistribution of wealth as key to health, reducing the diseases of rich and poor alike.

Gloster: “Here, take this purse, thou whom the heavens' plagues
Have humbled to all strokes: that I am wretched
Makes thee the happier: heavens, deal so still!
Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he doth not feel, feel your power quickly;
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough.”

Gloster asks Poor Tom (son Edgar) to lead him to high Dover cliff (and leave him).

A4s2 Goneril: Conceive, and fare thee well. Edmund: Yours in the ranks of death. Albany upbraids wife for monstrosity even before hearing of Gloster’s blinding, Cornwall’s death-by-servant and Edmund’s treachery. Albany: Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile: Filths savour but themselves.

A4s3 Kent and Gentleman discuss Cordelia’s state on hearing news.

A4s4 Cordelia’s description of Lear suggests latter has been self-medicating with wild herbs. Physician prescribes rest and sedatives. Cordelia fears Lear’s ungovern’d rage dissolve the life That wants the means to lead it.

A4s5 Regan regrets letting Gloster live, as his injuries attract sympathy.

A4s6 Edgar: Why, then your other senses grow imperfect By your eyes’ anguish. (a deception). Edgar: Why I do trifle thus with his despair, Is done to cure it.

Gloster: “Is wretchedness depriv’d that benefit,
To end itself by death? ‘Twas yet some comfort
When misery could beguile the tyrant’s rage,
And frustrate his proud will.”

Lear appears wreathed in flowers. Lear: they told me I was every thing: ‘tis a lie; I am not ague-proof. Lear wants general copulation to provide him with more soldiers. Lear seems to have been energised by partial loss of wits and reconnection with nature away from toxic courts. Steward sees Gloster’s life and death merely means for own advancement.


Cordelia: “O my dear father! Restoration, hang
Thy medicine upon my lips; and let this kiss
Repair those violent harms, that my two sisters
Have in thy reverence made!”
Cordelia: “Mine enemy’s dog,
Though he had bit me, should have stood that night
Against my fire;”
Physician: “the great rage,
You see, is cur’d in him”

Dogs are mentioned a great many times with notable inconsistency in King Lear, but this comment links to a previous quip by Cordelia-Fool. In this case, even the health of biting dog of an enemy is valued. Rage here is Will-linked, ungoverned; and pacified Lear is no longer giving commands, but regaining health and sense.

Act 5

A5s1 Goneril: I had rather lose the battle, than that sister, Should loosen him and me. on Edmund, who plots his ruthless upwards path.

A5s2 Edgar tries to raise spirits of depressed father again.

A5s3 Lear tells Cordelia they can be happy enough in prison.

Edmund: “At this time
We sweat and bleed: the friend hath lost friend:
And the best quarrels, in the heat, are curs’d
By those who feel their sharpness”

Goneril poisons love-rival sister Regan. Gloster has reportedly died of joy and grief by Edgar’s nursing revelations. Goneril reportedly dies by her own knife. Edgar kills Edmund in challenge, who has just enough time to warn… Too late, Cordelia has been murdered by hanging in cell, Lear killed her murderer. Lear: And my poor fool is hang’d! Lear faints and dies.

Key Concepts


See also Weather, Tyranny, Gods, Sport, Revenge, Excess, Want (there is a double meaning in Want, which can be Need — ie Health — or Desire — more like Will).

Will is associated with emotions, but which ones in particular does the play foreground? Rage is a common theme; Lear, Cornwall, tyrants and storms rage to inflict their will; Kent claims anger has a privilege. But rage seems an enemy to good governance, and in each case threatens health: Lear's exposure, servant mortally wounds Cornwall, Kent is stocked. Lust, in the competition between Goneril and Regan for Edmund, and Edmund for land, leads to the wilful deaths of all three. Grief can also 'craze wits'. Fear (of growing old, becoming sick or injured, or mad etc) is another, linked partly in the play to aging and loss.

Wills can sometimes change like the weather.


See also Need, Nursing, Beasts, Wholesomeness, Disease, Nature, Justice, Mortification, Bastards.

How does loss of health (physical, mental) in one affect others? Edgar as Poor Tom mortifies his own flesh, copying beggars; Edmund cuts himself to support a lie; and as we have seen, Regan says Gloster's injuries attract sympathy. Yet many of the characters also wilfully injure others, or at least plot their deaths.

How does loss of health in oneself affect how you see others? Lear has apparently been oblivious to his subjects' health until the night of the storm awakens empathy. But it can also turn yourself inwards, narrow your concerns.

Cordelia-Fool also describes the political sickness of a falling leader, something which might harm followers if they stay loyal. Political sickness can be catching.

Edmund, who considers disinherited bastards like himself healthier than legitimate heirs, rails at a perceived injustice imposed by the wills of a dynastic ruling class. Although rational against convenient superstition, Edmund's will is also a source of injustice.

And what of a healthy society or political system? Gloster’s blindness during conflict shows that ill-health or impairment is multiplied by a sick society, but therefore made more comfortable by a healthy society.

Redistribution, Lack and Superfluity

It is Gloster who, when injured and humbled after willingly risking his life for Lear, attributes the cause of harmful poverty to the vices of the rich and the injustices of an inequitable political-social-economic system. This is loaves-and-fishes communism. Lear had argued that without superfluity, human lives would be worth those of beasts, but his mind changes focus during the storm towards alleviating the poverty of his subjects.


Haste can be interpreted as unhealthy or desperate will-driven speed. Gloster makes a hasty misjudgement of Edgar. When speedy action is required at the end of the play, haste is too little too late to save Cordelia.


One supposedly-requisite virtue of rulers, wisdom, is treated in various interesting ways in the play. Albany, dividing the factions and own marriage into good and evil, says wisdom is repugnant to the vile, which as much to say wisdom implies a healthy conscience. Gloster talks of the wisdom of nature in a sense of natural laws (perhaps opaque to the science of the time, more transparent nowadays).

The relation of Health and Will

Lear makes a distinction between sick in mind and sick in body, though when bodily sickness diseases the mind, we are not ourselves. Ill health can sometimes make us despair, or retreat upon ourselves; yet it can also create empathy with the misfortunes of others, and look outwards (as Lear does in the storm, recognising at last his lack of care for his subjects). Sick minds can will ill on self and others.

Health and Will in Political Systems

Hereditary Monarchy

Shakespeare's panoramic critique of hereditary monarchy suggests it may be the sickest of all political systems. Typically the throne attracts psychopaths, and even the subjects of peaceful rulers might live in terror of whimsy, incompetence, neglect, succession struggles, religious and civil wars, toxic court politics, foreign entanglements and so forth. There is no solution to the problem of succession in Lear, nor an enfeebled monarch, or plotting Dukes, or warring princesses. Shakespeare's monarchs tend to impiously disdain nature, for example in Cymbeline. Lear may fear the storm is partly nature's revenge upon his misrule. Without retirement or timely death, the subjects of hereditary monarchy might spend considerable time under gerontocracy (the current condition of many countries).

Lear’s court is full of contriving theatrical stratagem and deception, which he describes in his last speech to Cordelia. We are taken back to the start of the play, in the royal court, where we might see the opening act of Lear's great gamble, a strategm now almost played out with the ending he strove so hard to avoid, Cordelia's death. Nobody is taken in by the love-protestations of Goneril and Regan, and from that, the interpretation of the play must understand the illusory-theatrical, false-deceptive, deadly-toxic, sharp-elbowed, cunning-competitive nature of royal courts: plots and counter-plots.


Shakespeare does not tend to directly represent democracy on stage, but the theatre itself may have been a temporary mini-parliament during his time. Elections are not usually favourably represented; usually townsfolk seem content to elect idiots to official duties they cannot be bothered doing themselves. But as a Will-prioritising political system, democracy is at the mercy of the kinds of flaws of governance in Lear, such as rage and desire, grief and fear. An elderly demographic, the play suggests, may be particularly prone to fears relating to loss, decline, replacement by younger generation, injury, disease, diminishing mental capacity, dementia and death.

An unhealthy society will tend to produce unhealthy policies, regardless of how its democracy conforms to ideals. While a healthier society might be able change and improve its form organically, learning from its old people without bowing to them.


Shakespeare's plays offer some interesting views on natural governance, from the anarchistic idyll of the Tempest's Gonzalo, to Timon of Athens imagining the world better run by beasts, to the gardeners of Richard II, to the horned burgers of the Forest of Arden (As You Like It), to the (some plant-named) fairies of Midsummer-Night’s Dream, all of which have some features of biocracy. The sense is that animals and maybe plants govern themselves on the basis of naturally-defined health rather than will, as indeed in biocracy.


Wills are essentially unresolvable: there is no political solution that pleases everyone. Health is essentially resolvable: there will be a political solution that maximises the health of a population. Wills are often hidden, to better get one over on rivals. Health is usually transparent.

In a theological/hereditary monarchy, or a democracy, Will (whether divine, channeling-the-ancestors or popular) is paramount, so there can be little scope to question a culture of maldevelopment. Only under a Health-based political system like biocracy can social changes be considered maldevelopment as such. Lear eventually realises his realm has been maldeveloped (he takes personal responsibility but it is also the ruthless political system at fault), and reverts to nature, bedecking himself with wildflowers and using animals as models of behaviour.

Will and Health: two factors of governance in Shakespeare's King Lear by Sleeping Dog is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Tuesday 5 March 2024

The Sea-People’s Citizen Assembly Scenario: Democracy 0 – Biocracy 1


A thought experiment to test democracy in a non-human scenario.


Popular fiction often depicts sea-people as ruled by monarchs (Disney, Marvel, DC Comics) but suppose that our fictional sea-people have the very best form of democracy you can imagine. This could involve citizen assemblies, mandatable recallable delegates, anything you consider to be best practice.

Five various sea-people sitting around a conference table among distant other tables in an undersea chamber
The Sea-People's Citizen Assembly, diversity champions, hard at work

Now imagine a scenario whereby, perhaps in retaliation to land-people dumping waste in the sea, the global sea-people community democratically decide to dump some of their waste on land. This leads to friction, leads to war, all with ideal democratic processes followed perfectly by our sea-people, leads to annihilation of land-people civilization and many living species by weapons of mass destruction.

If you consider this a bad outcome, from an ideal form of democracy, what is wrong in this scenario? Is the problem the extension of democracy to non-humans, even if they are in many ways very similar to us? Or are there any flaws in democracy you can identify?

The Sea-People’s Citizen Assembly Scenario: Democracy 0 – Biocracy 1 by Sleeping Dog is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Friday 2 February 2024

Why did the 2023 Doctor Who Specials embrace far-right tropes on immigrants, foreigners and ethnic minorities?


Four special editions of BBC's Doctor Who primetime 'Adventures in Time and Space Drama' broadcast in 2023 exhibit far-right tropes, so what are these, and why?


First we will set the scene regarding the direction the rebooted Doctor Who has been moving in.

Then we will take each of the Specials in turn to pick out specific and common tropes, include some feedback from right-wing press reviewers, present our conclusions and speculate as to motives.

Top jackets of 14th and 15th Doctor Who with Union Jack badge in front of British House of Commons with Big Ben clock tower.
"Doctor Whos, defenders of London, home of the BBC, the Centre of the Universe"

And yes, of necessity there will be spoilers. Before we start, a brief note.

Art develops at scale

Or: more patterns emerge as a body of work grows. Stereotypes or typical traits emerge more clearly over a body of work. Silences, avoidances, distortions, favourites are easier to spot when the opus of a creator (or a country's creative industry) is considered, than in a single work. The forest emerges from the trees. So, we consider that the repetition of consistent themes in four Specials is a much more significant pattern than themes in one or two out of four.

The Direction of Travel

We have already analysed the Doctor Who reboot up until the The Return of Doctor Mysterio (2016), which provides us with some starting themes.


Instead of the BBC's own pitch of Adventures in Time and Space, we get larks in London and Cardiff (and Sheffield).


Since the reboot, Modern Who embodies the rightwing Great Man (Occasionally Woman) View of History (reminiscent of the BBC's own star system?) while Classic Who typically tried to avoid it (the Classic Doctor started off as a researcher with a malfunctioning TARDIS, and was not the locus of problem-solving). However, even more extreme valuation of select individuals have arrived with the trend towards ego-dominance politics of Modern Who.


There is a highly regressive feel about Modern Who's preoccupation with superficiality and the perceived outward attractiveness of characters, which leans towards speciesism and a narrowing of focus.

Monsters and Terrorists

Aliens are now typically monsters or terrorists, to be defeated or killed, preferably both.

No Such Thing as Society

In all the broadcast reboot, there is no alien society fairly sketched.

Child endangerment

Red flags, combined with the celebrity-importing and sexualised themes and styles.

The Star Beast

The plot of the Star Beast is essentially Donald Trump's anti-immigrant version of The Snake

claiming that the decision to allow people claiming refugee status to enter the United States would "come back to bite us", as happened to the woman who took in the snake in the song.

Now, appearances-can-be-deceptive is by itself a useful instruction, albeit one the appearance-obsessed Modern Who applies selectively. But because of the show's current Anglocentrism, aliens are mostly shown as visitors, and here an actual asylum-seeker, the Meep, who turns out to be a mass-murdering fugitive from justice.

Donna: “I would burn down the world for you” (09:39). Well, the Doctor previously would have destroyed the Universe for Clara, so perhaps this counts as progress. As in the small-minded focus on Donna’s ‘terrible price’ (she forgets the Doctor and adventures), the rightwing Self-Over-the-Collective trope manifests in various ways throughout these specials.

I was left wondering if a BBC drama about London firefighters tried to make the main characters sympathetic by having them dither over whether to tackle a city-threatening blaze or nip round to see if their own house was OK, what the viewer reaction might be. Nobody seemed all that fussed about some distant civilization or galactic council being obliterated or eaten, and even the Doctor's apology expression of regret for getting the bumbling galactic cops murdered by an entity in his own custody seemed merely for form.

Wild Blue Yonder

Wild Blue Yonder is a war song, but a USAmerican not a British one. Why the distancing?

The aliens use terror to make copying easier. Replacement is one of the far-right’s concerns, but perhaps that is just a coincidence here, and is more like Capgras syndrome, or just identity theft.

No alien/foreign society yet again. Instead a laserlike small-minded focus on characters, yet again, as with celebritising history, here fun-washing the reputation of Isaac Newton, who blew his fortune investing in slavery during the South Sea Bubble, which might have been worth a look (Modern Who similarly fun-washed the reputation of public racist Charles Dickens in a cringeworthy fanboy episode).

The Giggle

John Logie-Baird has a important historical role as a television pioneer, as do many (see Wikipedia), and his mechanical system is not the forerunner of modern electronic screens (that would be a right-wing British-invented-television myth) which the episode requires.

The concept of television is the work of many individuals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The unexplained Vlinx (robot, alien, alien-robot?) is the real hero for inventing the Zeedex inhibitor. The Doctor seems to think the Vlinx has an organic brain, since he asks if it is affected by the Giggle-Signal.

The Doctor acts as World Dictator (see 16:22) in authorising the strike against the South Korean satellite. Later (from 38:01) the Doctor peremptorially treats the Vlinx as a servant, slave even. Even it was a robot, so was K9, and the Doctor didn't treat it as a slave. So maybe more of the Modern Doctor's racism/speciesism/bigotry.

The Toymaker’s cod-Euro accents and obsession with rules marks is unmistakably a caricature of European Union bureaucracy, therefore this villain seems designed to please right-wing Brexiteers.

Donna’s lack of empathy for the bereaved Stookie family is characteristic but her violence seems particularly disproportionate to their limited threat, killing the children in front of their mother, who seemed to be a sentient lifeform, presumably capable of at least psychological pain (grief).

At least this episode had the potential to say something interesting about society, but it never materialised, along with other missed opportunities (like to say something interesting about gaming, often a bugbear with the right, despite its own right-wing cadres).

The Church on Ruby Road

One might suppose that JK Rowling's troubles with goblins might have been a lesson worth learning, but here Modern Who goes further, evoking gypsy curses, child abduction, possibly even blood libel territory. A traveller community living among us; a wainscot society whose discovery might be expected to be joyous, even if there are initial conflicts; but no, they must be mass-murdered by way of a Christian church steeple, which suggests they are infidels, pagans, non-Christians or just not High Church enough. Well, it wouldn't be the first time the Doctor was hauled before a court on a genocide charge.

In reality, it is organised religion and particularly hierarchical high churches that pose especial risk to children, something that, as another hierarchical organisation with form, the BBC should be all too aware of. But look, over there! Travelling folk! I mean, Goblins! This follows a standard right-wing pattern of denying actual abuse at home while projecting blame on others (or Others).

Petty human concerns and self-absorption fill this episode, when real humans might have other things on their mind than partying; this is a continual problem in setting Doctor Who in present-day Britain, it must to some extent ignore current affairs and make its characters appear more ignorant as a result.

Another urban setting. No (non-humanoid) animals? It’s actually quite difficult to find a children’s/family Christmas special that doesn’t have animals (often as subjects in their own right), so what’s going on here? The fate of non-human life on Earth is not an apparent concern. Nothing to gladden the heart of an environmentalist or brighten the eye of a budding biologist. Strangely for a Christmas special aimed at children, it is very much Nature-avoidant, and the only tree appears in drag, toppling towards Davina McCall.

Reviews in the right-wing press

If Doctor Who is now supposedly woke, why doesn't it cover the same issues as Al Murray's Why Does Everyone Hate the British Empire? That these areas are off-limits must be very pleasing to the reviewers in newspapers like the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. Here are a small but representative selection of their views.

Doctor Who review: Power-crazed aliens, cosmic cops... this show is back to its best, writes ROLAND WHITE for the Daily Mail ***** (five stars) for The Star Beast
Doctor Who: Wild Blue Yonder, review: a jaw-dropping injection of sheer Saturday night magic ***** (five stars, Telegraph)
Doctor Who: The Giggle, review: David Tennant hands over to Ncuti Gatwa in unprecedented regeneration **** (four stars, Telegraph)
Doctor Who review: All-swinging, all-dancing, this athletic new five-star Doctor has thankfully left the weary, wokey preaching behind, says Christopher Stevens for the Daily Mail, for The Church on Ruby Road

Further Reflections

Ditzy, clumsy, error-prone, delulu or snarky women

From Donna spilling coffee into the TARDIS console to the succession of clumsy/incompetent women in the Christmas special, Doctor Who seems to have a problem with female characters. The somewhat clunky statement of female competence in the Giggle seems like a conscious attempt at bias correction. So while there were organic misogynistic tropes in the Specials, there were also signs of mechanical editorial correction.


It is pretty clear that Modern Who is especially antagonistic to non-human life, which is curious considering that many science fiction and fantasy shows make use of computer-generated graphics to give life to them, often joyously or poignantly so. But here there is an obvious hierarchy within humankind, with the current population of London being close to the top, while further off in space and time humans dwindle into comparative insignificance, though may at least be occasionally visible/mentioned.


Mere dislike of foreigners would be right-wing, but to repeatedly cast them as terrorists, mass-murderers, vaudeville artistes and baby-eaters and joy in their defeats and destruction pushes the dial firmly to the far-right. This brief analysis has uncovered other patterns of right-wing tropes, also reflecting strict and stable worldview hierarchies. Furthermore, ego-dominance ideologies, the self over the collective, are another repeated pattern.

Additionally, it is the silences, avoidances and exclusions that really seem to be welcomed by the right-wing press. With a fully-functional TARDIS, the Doctor could take companions on research trips through the history of the British Empire (and the rest of topics of interest to the likes of Horrible Histories) so the Modern Who idea of a party-taxi TARDIS seems almost obscene by comparison. Even the fantasy elements of Modern Who seem designed to poison the well of history (although to be fair, Classic Who and Transitional Who also produced their uncomfortable this-changes-everything storylines).

There is a lack of empathy pervading the series. I have previously suggested a fix for this.

Why, then?

Is the BBC trying to placate a wing of the ruling Conservative Party and its right-wing newspaper backers to protect its licence fee? Is this a trade-off so it can also broadcast more Establishment-critical shows (like Vigil)? Is there an element of elitism, Londocentrism and institutional racism in the BBC management? Or is it a case of the personal tastes and biases of a small clique of creatives? Is there a particular kind of groupthink within the BBC given its documented demographic overrepresentations? Who knows.

Why did the 2023 Doctor Who Specials embrace far-right tropes on immigrants, foreigners and ethnic minorities? by Sleeping Dog is licensed under CC BY 4.0

Wednesday 6 September 2023

Shakespeare’s Bloodsavers


An investigation into the themes behind Shakespearean dramatic characters who move to save blood (other than their own, or close kin) from being shed, or lives being lost, typically in mass suffering or injury or killings.


In Shakespeare's plays, there are characters who sometimes intervene, or plan, to prevent bloodshed on a significant scale. The characters of interest here are generally neither peacemakers per se, nor pacifists; and generally ones who go beyond purely partisan interests.

And will, to save the blood on either side,
Try fortune with him in a single fight.
—Prince Henry, Henry IV part 1 (A5s1)

The more realistic plays offer more general insight, so The Tempest's magic-wielding Prospero (who forsakes bloody revenge) is not included. Neither here considered are As You Like It's Rosalind (who creates a kind of marital peace, but the blood feuds are settled off-stage), nor The Merchant of Venice's Portia (only a single character's blood is saved, and Portia’s victory lacks justice, fairness and mercy). Neither considered are Troilus and Cressida's Hector advocating returning Helen and sparing defeated foes (a possible yet partisan fit), nor Romeo and Juliet's Prince, Nurse, Friar and Romeo himself, all of who have some shout in bloodsaving, yet whose motives appear counterweighted, compromised or opaque. Nor will characters who appear to have consistent pacifist or bloodshed-averse views be considered here (like Virgilia in Coriolanus). These tend to be untested characters (pacifism is awkward to be absolute in).

Verona's civil broils and Milan's coup are significant here, however, in broaching Shakespeare's concerns with civil war and conflict within kin groups.

To illustrate this theme, the following characters will be examined: Edmund of Langley Duke of York (Richard II); Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Hamlet); Titus Andronicus; and Pericles. I will also explain why a few characters (like Prince Henry in the quote above) cannot reasonably be counted as bloodsavers.

One headless figure restrains another from drawing a sword.
"Draw not thy sword"

Pericles: perilous playboy or humanitarian hero?

Pericles, Prince of Tyre is a play concerned with good and bad government. Pericles endangers his own population by recklessly seeking the daughter of powerful Antiochus as a bride.

When all, for mine, if I may call offence,
Must feel war's blow, who spares not innocence:
Pericles, Pericles, Prince of Tyre (A1s2)

But in recompense, almost immediately relieves famine in Tharsus with purpose-brought grain, for which he largely wants only friendly relations and use of a port.

Pericles' attitudes to his subjects and subordinates is ambiguous. In A2s1, fishermen pity Pericles’ lost crew whose fate he seems oblivious to, though he may be half-dead with cold. While in A3s1, Pericles agrees to appease sailors’ superstitions and tosses his apparently dead queen overboard to save lives, though a fear of mutiny is also a likely motivation.

Another candidate bloodsaver in the play by vocation and practice is lordly physician Cerimon, who seems to attract honest admiration for good works (and a good work ethic).

I held it ever,
Virtue and cunning were endowments greater,
    Than nobleness and riches”
Cerimon, Pericles, Prince of Tyre (A3s2)

Pericles fears the bloodbath that could be visited on his subjects/countryfolk (by Antiochus) and takes indirect means to avoid it. Yet later, under oath to goddess Diana says he was frighted from his country. Frighted for himself, his subjects, or both?

Hamlet: Denmark in Danger

Hamlet is Shakespeare's great play about Communication. Intriguingly, for all of Prince Hamlet's soliloquies, we still have to guess about a great deal of his motivation. From early in the play, we learn of enemies without and divisions within Denmark. A sizable number of Danes appear happy that usurper-King Claudius is hosting drunken revels rather than making them go off and wage war against formidable foes in the cold shores of the Baltic. Under Hamlet's cloak of madness, he may be settling scores (Polonius) or trying to repel/entreat others to a place of safety (Ophelia).

The play's foreshadowings are a much more reliable guide to its ending than Hamlet's musings. For example, in A2s2 the player’s speech features the destruction of Troy in flames and blood. In A3s1 Claudius smells danger.

But in case you missed all this, it is spelt out by a minor character:

The cease of majesty
Does not alone; but, like a gulf, doth draw
What’s near it, with it: it is a massy wheel,
Fix’d on the summit of the highest mount,
To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things
Are mortis’d and adjoin’d; which, when it falls,
Each small annexment, petty consequence,
Attends the boist’rous ruin. Never alone
Did the king sigh, but with a general groan.
Rosencrantz, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (A3s3)

Hamlet learns that thousands may die battling over a patch of land:

I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
Hamlet, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (A4s4)

By A4s5, Queen Gertrude fears some great amiss and King Claudius fears the resentful people led by Laertes, drawn home by father’s death, as if people should choose their own king. On the other hand, in A5s2 Hamlet relates with relish how he sealed the fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and pleads diminished responsibility to Laertes.

On the balance of probabilities within the text of the play, Hamlet forsees how enacting his revenge against Claudius will lead to bloodshed. On this reading, Hamlet's struggle to hold a King to justice can be read as an attempt to take the least bloody path, the means by which Gertrude, Ophelia, Laertes and others deemed not guilty will be spared (interestingly, Hamlet seems to regard Horatio as both valuable and expendable, ironically as it transpires). Shakespeare turns our attention to systems, to question why the rule of law does not apply for regal power with royal prerogative, to effectively propose election. But… do we really believe Hamlet's protestations that he does not value his own life? And how much does Hamlet really value other lives?

Henry V: premeditated war criminal

See above quote when Henry was a Prince. In Henry V A1s1, Henry protests his care not to shed blood, but it is clearly a pretence. See his father’s advice in the previous play. We later see his manipulation of traitors and mercy. Henry’s threat to French king, and particular to Harfleur, are chilling, horrifying, indeed terrorism. While soldiers before battle tell it like it is. Henry V is not a bloodsaver, though we see him pose as one when it suits.

Titus Andronicus: oops

It might seem strange to view Titus, a blood-shedding 40-year warrior for Imperial Rome, a sacrificer of a prisoner and murderer of his own son on his return, as a bloodsaver, but consider this. The homecoming warrior is both weary of blood and power but not honour “Give me a staff of honour for mine age” (A1s1), arrives unprepared for Roman politics at a wave of civil strife which immediately threatens to settle succession by open civil war. Titus (why does Rome keep repeating the mistake of electing victorious generals in Shakespeare’s plays?) is patently unsuited for civil office, unlike his diplomatic brother Marcus, and foists the even less suitable prince Saturninus on Rome, in apparent attempt to save blood on the streets.

This shows the sometimes disastrous side of blood-saving when it fails to treat the underlying problems or address politics maturely and responsibly. The younger princely brother Bassianus, already engaged to Titus’ daughter Lavinia, was the safer choice of Emperor, but whether through haste, respect for primogeniture or another reason, Titus makes this bad choice which sets the rest of the play on a tragic course. If Saturninus failed to accept Bassianus’ ascent, then likely the combined supporters of Titus, Marcus and Bassianus would have decisively prevailed in the civil conflict without weakening Rome as much as electing Saturninus does.

Undoubtedly Titus' character changes over the course of the play, distracted by grief and horror if not true repentance. When Marcus kills a fly, Titus is enraged by this tyranny over the innocent (and may not that fly have a mother and a father?), until Marcus denies the fly’s innocence. Perhaps there is a sense of Titus, so long the enforcer of Rome's 'Might is Right' imperial policing, failing to empathise with the innocent until the atrocity inflicted upon his daughter Lavinia finally (and far too late) opens his eyes, even to the point that flies might have rights.

Edmund of Langley Duke of York: the honourable exception?

When Shakespeare's dramatic projects want to stress an attribute common in a class of people, the playwright typically inserts an exception somewhere to emphasize what is the norm. Therefore Cressida is unfaithful, even though female characters are normally faithful. Prolix characters are generally politically inept, yet Gonzalo is astute. This is a powerful way of challenging stereotypes and emphasising the individual agency of characters, but also of judging social classes (the odd good king does not detract from Shakespeare's devastating critique of hereditary monarchy).

Most peace-making attempts fail in histories and tragedies (Edmund York may be an exception, but only a postponement). So we come to Richard II, and another looming civil war.

A number of characters, including the principal contenders for the throne, King Richard II and his cousin Henry (Hereford/Lancaster) Bolingbroke, make protestations about how they deeply care to spare the blood of subjects. Some notable quotes on this theme:

And for our eyes do hate the dire aspect
Of civil wounds plough’d up with neighbours’ swords
Richard II, The Life and Death of Richard the Second (A1s3)
Why have they dar’d to march
So many miles upon her peaceful bosom;
Frighting her pale-fac’d villages with war,
And ostentation of despised arms?
York, The Life and Death of Richard the Second (A2s3)

It is noticeable that really only York uses humour in the play to defuse tension and (interspersed with more assertive passages) attempts to appear both relatively harmless and yet just.

If not, I’ll use the advantage of my power,
And lay the summer’s dust with showers of blood,
Rais’d from the wounds of slaughter’d Englishmen:
The which, how far off from the mind of Bolingbroke
It is, such crimson tempest should bedrench
The fair green lap of King Richard’s land,
My stooping duty tenderly shall show.
Henry Bolingbroke, The Life and Death of Richard the Second (A3s3)

But Richard and Henry are quite happy to make such threats:

Armies of pestilence; and they shall strike
Your children yet unborn, and unbegot…
The purple testament of bleeding war;
But ere the crown he looks for live in peace,
Ten thousand bloody crowns of mothers’ sons
Shall ill become the flower of England’s face;
Change the complexion of her maid-pale peace
To scarlet indignation, and bedew
Her pastures’ grass with faithful English blood.
Richard II, The Life and Death of Richard the Second (A3s3)

So no offer of single combat, then. A contrast is immediately provided by the gardeners (A3s4) who espouse a kind of biocracy, a view that a nation should be tended for all that live in it.

Richard II is the play which begins an arc of plays covering a bloody period in English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh and French history, a time of invasions, dynastic conflicts, political murder, civil war, massacres, various other war crimes and unnecessary infliction of mass suffering. We are given a foreshadowing of these future events:

And if you crown him, let me prophesy,—
The blood of English shall manure the ground,
And future ages groan for this foul act;
Peace shall go sleep with Turks and infidels,
And, in this seat of peace, tumultuous wars
Shall kin with kin, and kind with kind confound;
Disorder, horror, fear, and mutiny
Shall here inhabit, and this land be call’d
The field of Golgotha, and dead men’s sculls.
O, if you rear this house against this house,
It will the wofullest division prove,
That ever fell upon this cursed earth
Bishop of Carlisle, The Life and Death of Richard the Second (A4s1)

These likely effects are obvious enough to Carlisle, and indeed to York, who in striving to prevent them (for example, by remaining neutral in A2s3), perhaps only postpones them.

In the closing Act of the play, York privately states his allegiances to his wife, although the subtext is loyalty to the enduring state, rather than whoever currently sits on the throne:

To Bolingbroke are we sworn subjects now,
Whose state and honour I for aye allow.
York, The Life and Death of Richard the Second (A5s2)

and immediately has cause to demonstrate such allegiance. On discovering their son Aumerle’s plotted treachery, York immediately wants to turn him in, which his wife opposes.

Fond woman! were he twenty times my son,
I would appeach him.
York, The Life and Death of Richard the Second (A5s2)

All three ride separately to Henry Bolingbroke in haste. When all arrive begging, Bolingbroke sees ridiculous side (why is it ridiculous that a lord would put public duty before private dynasty? This is the key to the play). York passes the test.

The play ends with Henry Bolingbroke, now Henry IV, trying to draw a line under the bloodshed after rebels have reportedly burnt Cicester and the heads of leading traitors have been severally delivered to him: he spares the Bishop of Carlisle.

Production traditions, and what we can learn from them

Some of the key passages and even scenes I mention here have been edited, downplayed, ridiculed or even entirely omitted from productions I have seen. Rosencrantz's speech, the Yorks' plea to spare their traitor son. Do these puzzle directors, make them confused or uncomfortable? If York is a kind of traitor to the dynastic class, a lord who would sacrifice his own son in the public interest, and York is an extreme exception, and outlier, what does that say about the norms of the English ruling class? Norms that, whatever the background of directors, may have seeped into their conscious and unconscious minds from the conditioning of acceptance to social cheating the Anglo-British establishment specialise in.


We have looked at the phenomenon of bloodsavers in Shakespeare's theatrical works. We see mixed motives in Hector, ambivalence but also humanitarianism in Pericles, false pretence in Henry V, obscurity in Hamlet, tragic conversion to side with innocents far too late in Titus Andronicus, and a number of other characters who do not fit the template one way or another. Only the dramatic character of Edmund of Langley Duke of York (Richard II) passes the test (and only for English lives, not French or Irish) of concern to prevent general bloodshed, even at the cost of his own son's life. A character whose behaviour is so out of keeping with the rest of his social class, we are impelled to look at the character of that class. Because if all characters of a class behave alike in one respect, that behavioural attribute is more likely to go critically unexamined. An exception who, if not proving the rule of the bloodshedding elite, gives compelling evidence for it.

Creative Commons Licence
Shakespeare’s Bloodsavers by Sleeping Dog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Wednesday 19 April 2023

How to stage Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a popular uprising


Have you ever watched Macbeth and got the impression there was something else going on in this pre-revolutionary artwork, that was realistically political rather than a magical conspiracy?


Is there a case for staging Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a popular uprising, where the witches are not supernatural entities but revolutionaries pretending to be? I think the text supports such a possible reading. If so, how would you stage it? Like this, perhaps. How many changes would it need to the text? None, and possibly a more faithful production is possible and indeed indicated than many contemporary versions. What additions? Mostly dumbshow, to indicate the silent background activity of the revolutionaries, particularly messengers, coordinators, eavesdroppers and common soldiers.

During which explanation, some questions the play raises are answered in this light. I will use ‘revolutionaries’ for the witches’ faction(s), and ‘lords’ as a shorthand to describe the ruling Scottish class including the king, queen, princes, lords, ladies, gentry.


The first revolutionaries we see are the three witches, who are rehearsing for their meeting with Macbeth and Banquo. Other revolutionaries are servants, messengers/runners, old folk, camouflaged spies who monitor events. There are ample hints of class war in the text, but also class traitors in the pay of scheming lords.

Witches are (over)acting

The portrayal of the witches should show that they are acting supernatural parts (indeed, sometimes overacting) to con Macbeth (and to some extent Banquo, and indirectly Lady Macbeth) into taking part in their plot. The witches are professional revolutionaries but amateur actors. Hence they only dare appear twice to the most promising mark, Macbeth.

What motivates the witches?

Banquo appreciates this and says as much to Macbeth (enkindle you unto the crown). But what is the end? Shakespeare will have been familiar with the founding myths of republics such as Rome, whose people apparently kicked out their kings after exposing the rapaciousness of their ruling dynasty. Equally, the witches may be revolting against hierarchical Christianity. This raises the possibility of factions within the revolutionaries, with somewhat different motivations. Clearly, though, the aim is not just to kill any number of kings but to thoroughly discredit kingship amongst the people.

Internecine plot

It seems that the revolutionaries (witches etc) aim to use psychological warfare to ‘enkindle’ the lords into a mutually destructive conflict. They have done their research, but there are factors outside their control or influence (like the English).

Revolution HQ targets and dumb show

Staging the Revolution will probably require showing a Rebel Headquarters on stage in key scenes, perhaps literally underground compared with concurrent action. This HQ could feature large cards showing Duncan atop row of Malcolm, Donalbain, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, Banquo, Macduff, perhaps Lenox, Cawdor, Rosse, Menteth, Angus, Cathness or so and such, some crossed out during play, some removed or added?

Cartoonish drawing of a gloomy cave containing three hooded figures dressed in green robes with blue and brown triangles, sitting, entering at pace and crossing off cards representing the nobles in Shakespeare's play Macbeth.
Revolution Headquarters

Class War

There are a number of indications of class war in the text. The word ‘slave’ is used as a pejorative by the lords, while lords are ‘noble’. Servants live in fear of upsetting lords. Something is brewing. Were the kerns and gallowglasses foreign freedom fighters?


Where are Macbeth’s wounds?

The wounded sergeant spins a tale of Macbeth’s toe-to-toe battlefield heroics, but this is almost immediately rendered implausible. No reference to Macbeth’s wounds are ever made (though some productions choose to show them). Indeed, Macbeth rides furiously home and his wife embraces him without comment on any hurt.

We later find that Macbeth has servants in his pay throughout the lords’ households. If we look at the over-flowery speech of the wounded sergeant, we see he falters after delivering Except they meant to bathe in reeking wounds as if he realises he has over-delivered on his tale.

Lords lie, use flowery-serpent courtesy.


Malcolm delivers the most devastating critique of hereditary monarchy, so much that Macduff has difficulty processing it.

Cowardice not valour is the norm

Shakespeare mocks the lords’ pretensions to valour, not just in Macbeth (who needs promise of a charmed life to enkindle him, and sends others to do his dirty work) but in his enemies like Macduff, who flees his home and family. We may suspect that common soldiers win the lords’ battle for them (Duncan conspicuously sits out battle). Not all lords are cowards, though, especially if young and seeking martial glory like Siward's son.


A weakness of the lords’ position as a ruling class is its irrationality, so perhaps no wonder they turn to superstition. And yet dispense with it when it doesn’t suit (Macbeth: 'Twas a rough night.)


Commoners sometimes mock courtly speech. Only a small minority will be professional revolutionaries, hence their indirect approach. Many commoners will be employed directly (or indirectly, double-paid as spies) by lords. Some are apparently desperate or vicious enough to volunteer to murder children.

Act 1

Scene 1

A meeting and rehearsal of witchy roles.

Scene 2

The ‘bloody man’ (a sergeant) contrasts with apparently unscathed Macbeth and Banquo. His testimony is flowery, therefore either created by lords for lords and rehearsed, or improvised possibly to set up power struggle. The testimonies credit only lords with victories, a second thaneship is merely a prize, not an additional onerous administrative duty.

At the mention of greeting Macbeth with Thane of Cawdor title, a revolutionary runner sets off to tip off Revolution HQ and witch revolutionaries.

Scene 3

Witches improvise (and may be overheard on heath at distance) waiting for Macbeth and Banquo. A revolutionary runner whispers in their ears. The witches’ greeting now improvised with the Thane of Cawdor news. The Revolution are at times literally underground, or camouflaged. Insane root mention may give witches ideas for later meeting.

Scene 4

Nepotism rules.

Scene 5

Attendant may overhear “metaphysical aid”, revolutionary servants may overhear Lady Macbeth, and Macbeth. look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it

Scene 6

Lady Macbeth not sharing praise for hostess duties.

Scene 7

‘divers servants’ may be well placed to overhear.

Act 2

Scene 1

Servants placed to overhear, to project image of dagger.

Scene 2

Servants could produce the noises and voices.

Scene 3

Suggestions that Revolutionaries have been behind some of the night’s omens to put the wind up the lords.

Malcolm: There’s daggers in men’s smiles: the near in blood, the nearer bloody.

Scene 4

Old Man (possible Revolutionary) makes references to lowly birds of prey attacking mighty and internecine horse conflict, feeding lords’ unease.

Act 3

Scene 1

Macbeth: Masking the business from the common eye Royalty is not only private government, but murderous and deceitful.

Interestingly the Murderers do not directly agree to kill Fleance, something that a Revolution might consider sadly necessary for all claimants.

Scene 2

Again, servants could overhear Macbeths.

Macbeth lists treason’s tools: steel, poison, malice domestick, foreign levy.

Macbeth: Things, bad begun, make strong themselves by ill is royalty’s recipe. Essentially royals ride a crime wave.

Scene 3

Servant leads Banquo and Fleance, 3rd Murderer joins previous two. Only Banquo is killed by 1st Murderer. Did Servant and 3rd Murderer collude in letting Fleance escape? Is the Revolution reluctant to kill children?

Scene 4

1st Murderer reports Banquo’s killing and Fleance’s escape to Macbeth as Revolution stages a daring set-piece, the Macbeths’ own servants contriving the appearance (only to Macbeth) of the likeness of Banquo’s supposed ghost. No connection between Macbeth and 3rd Murderer is made.

Angles at the table should make it appear from Macbeth’s end that the opposite seat is taken but not from angles to each side.

The back of a servant’s headdress might give the illusion of a bloodied face some distance behind, whilst another servant has placed a cloth over the chair. The illusion should disappear as Lady Macbeth draws close to her husband’s view angle.

Reappears, disappears as obviously designed, marked, rehearsed, reacting to any changes in sightlines.

Macbeth reveals he has a paid servant as his agent and eyes in every Lord’s house, so why not the Revolution a true believer in each too? Maybe the same servant even.

Scene 5

Does Hecate represent a disgruntled self-styled leader or vanguard of the Revolution? Is this stylised magical cant put on to confuse royalist infiltrators?

Hecate: And you all know, security Is mortal’s chiefest enemy.

Scene 6

The Scottish lords appear too weak to move against an apparent regicide and tyrant, one meaning of Lenox’s Things have been strangely borne

Act 4

Scene 1

Witches prepare for, and be overheard by, Macbeth.

2nd Witch By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes is crying out to be hammily overdone and cackle-ended, inviting rolling eyes from other witches.

Revolutionaries have practised their special effects, probably throw a bit of insane root into the cauldron, and researched Macbeth’s fears, MacDuff’s birth and Dunsinane’s approaches. Ingredients may obviously be unlike their labels or incongruously packaged. The Revolutionaries plan to stir Macbeth into further outrages against lords to bring about internecine conflict. Which works.

Scene 2

Lady Macduff calls her husband’s flight unnatural and a mother wren decidedly more valorous.

He wants the natural touch: for the poor wren, The most diminutive of birds, will fight, Her young ones in her nest, against the owl.

The messenger who brings warning could be a revolutionary, but one who breaks with or keeps policy?

Scene 3

Revolutionaries will follow to the English court but keep quiet during scene. Have they, not just Macbeth, tried to work on Malcolm?

Malcolm may be testing Macduff, but is also laying bare the true nature of kingship. For example:

Malcolm: I grant him bloody, luxurious, avaricious, false, deceitful, sudden, malicious, smacking of every sin that has a name but claims he will be much worse still. The silently-watching Revolutionaries may nod in agreement.

Lenox: Would create soldiers, make our women fight this is essentially the Revolutionary plan, although to the end of removing the last lords standing.

Act 5

Scene 1

The waiting gentlewoman and doctor of physick well know that the crimes of their masters are dangerous to report on.

Doctor: Foul whisperings are abroad presumably some spread by Revolution.

Scene 2

It seems that the Revolutionaries have chosen Dunsinane for Macbeth’s downfall and planned for a host to travel through Birnam Wood, but have they miscalculated on English power? They seem to need foreign aid since Macbeth appears to have admirers even now of his 'valiant fury'. This is the problem with people who expect one monarch or another to rule over them.

Scene 3

It is a bit late for Macbeth to worry about the health of Scotland, having long had what his wife once called the sickness that should attend power.

Scene 4

Clearly, Revolutionaries amongst the soldiery are already prompting Malcolm’s order to camouflage themselves with branches. Like a Lord he wants to take all credit, of course.

Scene 5

The cry of women signify Lady Macbeth’s death. For good measure, the Messenger should be a Revolutionary to describe a moving wood rather than camouflaged troops.

Scene 6

Revolutionaries in Army are surely in contact with those in Dunsinane and are aware their ruse has worked.

Scene 7

Macbeth is now trapped and cannot fly, emerging onto plain before castle.

Macduff expresses pity: I cannot strike at wretched kernes, whose arms are hir’d to bear their staves

Maybe one of the witches was Macduff’s mother’s midwife?

Again Macbeth is exposed as a coward, relying on charmed protection, but fears humiliation by Malcolm and the rabble’s curse, although probably hasn’t realised that the rabble’s curse has brought him down already.

Malcolm is crowned king after Macduff kills Macbeth, and horror of horror, creates new earls.

Failure of the Revolution to Establish Popular Government

So, on this interpretation, where did the Revolution go wrong? Did they underestimate the Lords’ hydra-like ability to spawn new Lords to replace those killed in this engineered conflict? Or are they waiting until the English are gone? Do they have a narrative to compete with Malcolm’s? What exactly were the witches’ motives? Were the witches pagans, and was the Revolution also against Christianity, or perhaps religious differences split and weakened it? Do the Revolutionaries start wearing identical blue-brown-green triangle-patterned clothing, and end up in separate blue, brown and green factions, each represented by a different witch? The customary division of witches into Maid, Mother and Crone may help here.


The witches may make more sense in the context of the play, Macbeth, as revolutionaries rather than as supernatural beings. They do not possess more knowledge than could be gathered by eavesdroppers and relayed by messengers. Their acts are performances tried out on Macbeth and briefly Banquo. Certain aspects of the play make more sense as part of an orchestrated internecine plot by republican commoners against corrupt lords. Shakespeare’s play Macbeth can be staged as a popular uprising without changing any text, with the addition of some extras like dumbshow and stage directions for the revolutionary faction.

Creative Commons Licence
How to stage Shakespeare’s Macbeth as a popular uprising by Sleeping Dog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.