Betrayal and Loyalty in William Shakespeare’s Plays
William Shakespeare is one of the most recognized playwrights in the history of man. People have analyzed every sentence of his works and have taken note of the various styles used in his writing. Ironically enough, little is known about Shakespeare’s personal life. It is assumed, however, that like other literary writers, Shakespeare relates occurrences in his life into his writing. The average person experiences varied and numerous events that affect them personally, and shape them into who they are.
Whether one expresses loyalty or betrayal to another can impact one’s life greatly and can cause numerous outcomes in a person’s life. In William Shakespeare’s two plays Antony and Cleopatra and Hamlet, the impact that betrayal and loyalty have on the protagonists Hamlet and Marc Antony, and their supporting characters is conveyed as Shakespeare articulates the relationship between selflessness and loyalty in contrast to selfishness and betrayal. Shakespeare points out that those who tend to keep others’ well being in mind are more likely to be loyal friends while those who tend to look out for their own personal well being are more likely to betray others; concepts that Shakespeare observed during his time and which are still present in contemporary society.
The themes of loyalty and betrayal play a crucial role in the development of each storyline and cause many of the dramatic scenes in the plays. In Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra, Antony experiences various acts of betrayal and loyalty. Even those whom Marc Antony holds dear to his heart commit acts of betrayal towards him. Cleopatra, the woman Marc Antony loves dearly and cares for a great deal, betrays Marc Antony multiple times throughout the play. Cleopatra proves to be a very unstable character who tends to switch her moods abruptly with her own well being in mind. During the war between Octavius Caesar and Marc Antony, Cleopatra conveniently withdraws her troops from battle, causing a victory for Octavius Caesar. Marc Antony, infuriated by such an act, cries, “This foul Egyptian hath betrayed me: / My fleet hath yielded to the foe; and yonder / They cast their caps up and carouse together / Like friends long lost. Triple-turn’d whore!” (IV.I.31-34). Cleopatra’s betrayal does not end with this act however; once again she retreats from a heated battle with no warning or logical reasoning. She abandons the man she claims to love when his well being is at stake. At this act of betrayal Antony complains: All is lost!
This foul Egyptian hath betrayèd me.
My fleet hath yielded to the foe, and yonder
They cast their caps up and carouse together
Like friends long lost. Triple-turned whore! ’Tis thou
Hast sold me to this novice, and my heart
Makes only wars on thee. Bid them all fly,
For when I am revenged upon my charm,
I have done all. Bid them all fly. Begone! (IV.XII.9-17)
Because of the acts of disloyalty enacted by Cleopatra, Marc Antony not only loses a battle against Octavius Caesar, but he embarrasses himself in front of those who had highly revered him. Ultimately, Cleopatra’s betrayal leads to Enobarbus’ betrayal. Enobarbus is another character who Marc Antony believes he can trust whole heartedly; This obviously proves to be untrue once Enobarbus believes that Marc Antony has lost sight of what is important in his life and what his duties as a leader are. Once Enobarbus comes to the conclusion that Marc Antony can no longer be dubbed a leader, he abandons him and joins Marc Antony’s enemy, Octavius Caesar. Enobarbus quickly realizes his betrayal and remorsefully cries: I am alone the villain of the earth,
And feel I am so most. O Antony,
Thou mine of bounty, how wouldst thou have paid
My better service, when my turpitude
Thou dost so crown with gold! This blows my heart.
If swift thought break it not, a swifter mean
Shall outstrike thought; but thought will do’t, I feel.
I fight against thee? No! I will go seek
Some ditch wherein to die; the foul’st best fits
My latter part of life. (IV.VI.31-40)
Enobarbus realizes his betrayal through witnessing the loyalty and humility of Marc Antony. Despite his betrayal, Enobarbus is still Marc Antony’s most loyal subject. Enobarbus stays by Marc Antony’s side for the majority of the play, even when Marc Antony makes decisions Enobarbus himself did not agree with. Through these characters acts, Shakespeare expresses the direct relationship between self-interest and loyalty. As said by Paul Yachnin in his article “Shakespeare’s Politics of Loyalty: Sovereignty and Subjectivity on Antony and Cleopatra,” “under the pressure of misfortune, many followers fall away, revealing by their betrayals of their masters the fact that men often only pretend to be loyal.” (5). Cleopatra and Enobarbus are only two of the characters who betray Marc Antony, however, they are the two character’s whose betrayal Marc Antony is effected by most and cause some of the shifts in plot within the play.
Though Cleopatra is guilty of being disloyal, she also falls victim to some acts of betrayal and loyalty throughout the play. Cleopatra in fact, feels as though Marc Antony in the beginning of the play- or at least feels has betrayed her as though Marc Antony will show minimal loyalty to her. Cleopatra expresses these feelings in a conversation with Marc Antony: So Fulvia told me.
I prithee, turn aside and weep for her.
Then bid adieu to me, and say the tears
Belong to Egypt. Good now, play one scene
Of excellent dissembling, and let it look
Like perfect honor. (I.III.78-83)
Cleopatra feels as though her relationship with Marc Antony will end similarly to Marc Antony’s relationship with Fulvia. This idea offends Cleopatra and leads her to believe that there is a lack of loyalty on Marc Antony’s part. Cleopatra soon recovers from the lack of faith in her relationship with Marc Antony as she realizes she does indeed love him, perhaps even more than she loved her previous lover, Julius Caesar. Nonetheless, this questioning of Marc Antony’s loyalty proves to be ironic later in the play, as readers see Cleopatra proves to be the one lacking in
loyalty to her lover. However, according to Edward E. Foster in his article “Antony and Cleopatra,” Cleopatra “[…] is not a coarse temptress, not a personification of evil loosed upon a helpless victim.” (2). Though Cleopatra feels as though her lover lacks loyalty for her, she is fortunate in that virtually all of her subjects remain loyal to her in the play, Charmain and Iras being the most loyal. Charmain and Iras stay by Cleopatra’s side regardless of the way she acts and treats others. In comparison to Antony’s subjects, Cleopatra’s servants are more supportive and have closer bonds than Antony and his servants. In Chapter 4 of Milinda Jay’s dissertation “Female Friendship Alliances in Shakespeare” Jay finds that Charmain and Iras “[…] save any criticism or suggestions for Cleopatra’s hearing. They feel free to both advise and berate Cleopatra. There is none of the backbiting that is obvious among Antony’s own men.” (55). Charmain and Iras are the most loyal characters in this play, evident through their honesty and dedication to their master Cleopatra. Charmain, however, is the most stern and vocally chastises Cleopatra more than Iras, in one instance commanding, “Good madam, keep yourself within yourself. / The man is innocent.” (II.V.77-78).. Rarely do readers see Antony’s subject speak to him in such a manner. This exemplifies the leniency Cleopatra gives her two subjects and shows that the relationship between Cleopatra and Charmain and Iras is more of a friendship than a “subservient” relationship (Jay 54). This is the primary reason as to why Charmain and Iras have remained loyal to Cleopatra for the entirety of the play. Friendships are often viewed as selfless relationships, relationships in which two or more people care for each other’s well being and guide each other in the right direction. This is the exact relationship Cleopatra, Iras, and Charmain have. Yet again, Shakespeare makes the connection between selflessness and loyalty. The close relationship Cleopatra had with her two subjects resulted in their unbreakable loyalty to their master and friend.
Of course Marc Antony and Cleopatra were not the only characters in the play to experience acts of loyalty or betrayal from other characters. The theme of betrayal and loyalty is present in the entirety of the play and is expressed by various characters. From the beginning of the play readers encounter the high tensions between the triumvirates. Octavius Caesar and
Marcus Aemilius Lepidus view Marc Antony’s loyalty and dedication to Cleopatra as betrayal. Both Octavius Caesar and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus feel as though Marc Antony fails to carry out his duties as one of the three leaders of the Roman Empire. Marc Antony’s betrayal of his empire can only be described as a “kind of will self-indulgence” in which he is able to do the things he desires (Yachnin 5). In an effort to dissolve the tensions among the triumvirates, a marriage between Octavia, Octavius Caesar’s sister, and Marc Antony. To hold you in perpetual amity,
To make you brothers, and to knit your hearts
With an unslipping knot, take Antony
Octavia to his wife, whose beauty claims
No worse a husband than the best of men,
Whose virtue and whose general graces speak
That which none else can utter. By this marriage,
All little jealousies, which now seem great,
And all great fears, which now import their dangers,
Would then be nothing. Truths would be tales,
Where now half-tales be truths. Her love to both
Would each to other and all loves to both
Draw after her. (II.II.133-145)
This, unfortunately, only makes matters worse as Marc Antony betrays Octavia. Marc Antony remains in the mindset of fulfilling his own personal interest, which happens to be Cleopatra. Just as Marc Antony was disloyal to Fulvia, he is disloyal to Octavia. Marc Antony’s multiple acts of betrayal against Octavia and of Rome, leads to a major shift in the play causing the war between Octavius Caesar’s and Marc Antony’s troops. The battle between the armies of Octavius Caesar and Marc Antony leads to different acts of betrayal. Octavius Caesar rarely faces acts of betrayal, primarily due to the fact that he is the victor in war. Nevertheless, betrayal found its way to Octavius Caesar through Dolabella. Dolabella went against Octavius Caesar’s command and informs Cleopatra about Octavius Caesar’s plan. The true reason as to why Dolabella acted in such a manner may never be known. It is very possible that Dolabella felt that Cleopatra was a much merciful
leader than Octavius Caesar was and desired to be one of her subjects. However, because of Cleopatra’s suicide, readers can only assume that Dolabella had intentions to become one of Cleopatra’s subjects. It is possible that Dolabella is merely “bound by contract” to Octavius Caesar, as opposed to “devoted to [his] master.” (Yachnin 6). Shakespeare expresses his themes of betrayal and loyalty even through the acts of minor characters in the play. These random acts of loyalty and betrayal among minor characters, however, are not insignificant to the plot of the play, but have the potential to alter the play completely.
Betrayal and Loyalty are themes that are closely tied to self-interest in the play Antony and Cleopatra. Similarly, Shakespeare infuses the same ideas in one of his other plays, Hamlet. As stated in Jean-François Vernay’s literary criticism, “Literary Contexts in Plays: William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, ” the play is a story of “madness, love, ambition, and disloyalty that is contrasted with sanity, hatred, submissiveness and loyalty.” (1). In the play, Prince Hamlet feels as though he is alone and has virtually nobody in which he can confide in. As a result, Prince Hamlet begins to question everybody’s loyalty, however, Prince Hamlet’s suspicious attitude proves to be crucial as Claudius turns many of Prince Hamlet’s friends against him. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern perform the most notable act of betrayal on Prince Hamlet in the play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern both feel as though they have the capability to comprehend Hamlet’s complex nature. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fail to realize Hamlet’s high intellect and impeccable judge of character. Quickly does Hamlet realize Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s malicious intentions, calling them out on the deceitful acts in the following quote: Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me!
You would play upon me. You would seem to know
my stops. You would pluck out the heart of my mystery.
You would sound me from my lowest note to the top of
my compass. And there is much music, excellent voice,
in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak?
‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a
pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can
fret me, yet you cannot play upon me. (III.II.329-337)
The characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern constantly spy on Prince Hamlet throughout the play as they pledge their loyalty to Claudius. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern abandon their friendship with Prince Hamlet, thus abandoning their loyalty to Prince Hamlet, purely out of the desire to better their social status. Becoming subjects of the Claudius, King of Denmark, can only benefit Rosencrantz and Guildenstern socially and possibly even economically. The main drive for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s disloyalty and deception is eloquently presented by Shakespeare as personal interest. In contrast to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s disloyalty is Horatio’s unquestionable loyalty to Prince Hamlet. From the beginning of the play, the reader sees Horatio support Prince Hamlet in everything he does. Horatio pledges to stand by Prince Hamlet, even as hamlet decides to put on a facade of insanity. Horatio acts purely out of the desire to help Prince Hamlet and to benefit Prince Hamlet. In Harold Bloom’s article “Bloom on Hamlet,” Bloom dubs Horatio as a man “stands apart from passion, from self-interest, from life.” (2) It is evident to readers that Horatio truly cares for Prince Hamlet and his well-being. In the following quote Horatio warns Prince Hamlet that the spirit that haunts Elsinore Castle may cause Prince Hamlet harm. What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o’er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness? Think of it.
The very place puts toys of desperation,
Without more motive, into every brain
That looks so many fathoms to the sea
And hears it roar beneath. (I.IV.72-81)
Prince Hamlet acknowledges Horatio’s loyalty and praises him in Act 3 Scene 2 in which he says to Horatio, “[…] thou art e’en as just a man / As e’er my
conversation coped withal.” (III.II.45-46). Through the high praises offered by Prince Hamlet himself and the his clear acts of loyalty, it is evident that Horatio is a selfless man, who puts others before himself. A characteristic which Shakespeare connects to loyalty.
Characters other than Prince Hamlet experience acts of betrayal and loyalty as well. King Hamlet seems to have the same betrayal Marc Antony faced in that the woman they loved acted against them. Gertrude “sees lust as her weakness” and pursues a relationship with her step brother which she soon realizes is wrong. (Jay 60). This betrayal to King Hamlet is completely due to Gertrude’s personal needs. Gertrude is a woman dependent on the support of man and cannot live her life without a man by her side (Jay 62). According to Hamlet Gertrude is a “pernicious woman” (I.IV.105) and , according to Jerilyn Fisher and Ellen S. Silber in their novel Women in Literature: Reading Through the Lens of Gender, “lacks loyalty and selflessness” (130). Another character who acts selfishly in the play is Claudius’ subject, Polonius. Polonius often does much if the spying in the play and often uses his daughter, to gather information for Claudius. Polonius acts purely out of self-interest, while his deceitful nature is partially fueled by Elsinore castle itself. Ann D Garbett writes in here critical analysis that it is the “labyrinthine layout […] in which one rooms opens into another and the passageways twist unpredictably” (2) that makes spying and betrayal tempting acts. After forbidding Ophelia from speaking to Prince Hamlet, he abruptly asks Ophelia to pry out of Hamlet the reason for his insanity. This proves that Polonius changes his ideal according to what will best benefit him. When he condemned Ophelia from Speaking to Prince Hamlet, Polonius claimed it was for his daughters better good, yet when it is convenient for him, he commands Ophelia to speak to Prince Hamlet. It is the selfish personalities of the characters in Hamlet that perform the acts of betrayal on others. Solely driven by the desire of personal gain, characters such as Gertrude and Polonius ignore their parental duties and ignore their children’s desires and need.
Through his two plays Antony and Cleopatra and Hamlet, William Shakespeare was able to make a connection between loyalty and personal interest. Through
his two plays, Shakespeare was able make the argument that those who are selfish in nature, will often do whatever it takes to get what they desire, regardless if it mean betraying others, or even the ones they love. Inversely, Shakespeare made it clear that those who are selfless in nature will often do whatever it takes to make those they care about happy, regardless if they agree with the decisions they make or the acts they commit. Shakespeare also made it clear that the amount of disloyal characters outweigh the amount of loyal characters. Only a few characters in each play remain loyal to others. It is very possible that in Shakespeare’s lifetime, he made the observation that there are only a few selfless people in society, and that the majority of the population are driven by selfish desires. As sad as it may be, Shakespeare is very accurate in his depiction of society in his two plays: the general public will always make decisions based on what they personally desire, and rarely consider others wants, needs, or feelings when making decisions
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