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A common theme in many of Shakespeare’s plays is the idea of loyalty. Good or evil, right or wrong, the central character in the play always has at least one person whom no matter what the circumstances never leaves their side or never denies the person what they want even if it is contrary to what they want or believe.
The play Twelfth Night portrays a very good example of loyalty and sacrifice. Viola, or Cesario as she is known through most of the play, has found herself in an interesting predicament. A rather interesting ‘love triangle’ is woven in the play and she finds herself in the middle of it as both a man and a woman. The interesting part is that she puts her own feelings aside in order to fulfill the wishes of her Lord and her love. For anyone who has been in love they can understand how difficult it must have been to pursue another woman for the man that you love. Viola is quoted as saying “I’ll do my best to woo your lady: [aside] yet a barful strife! Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife” (Twelfth Night I.iv.40), she is admitting that she loves him. This is not going to stop her from pursuing Olivia on Orsino’s behalf. In creating her character Shakespeare has in effect created someone who will put her own interests aside in order to be loyal to the Duke. This is the ultimate sacrifice. Loyalty in this case is something that is prohibiting the character from finding her own happiness. She never considers not carrying out her duties to further her gain. Her loyalty lies in two different aspects, to her Lord and to her Love.
Viola’s character is so unique because through her disguise she becomes the love interest of the very woman that she is pursing for the Duke. Obviously her interests would lie far from getting involved with Olivia but we can still observe her persistency in her loyalty to the Duke. It is at the times when Olivia is persistent in her love for Cesario that I think Viola’s loyalty shines through the most. Going against her own feelings she always has the Duke’s interests at heart. Viola, in my opinion, truly represents the loyal servant and love.
In King Lear, one of King Lear’s largest supporters is Kent. While he is only Kent in Lear’s eyes for a short while in the play, because he is disguised, it is Kent none the less who watches out for Lear and attempts to protect him. Beginning with the first line of the play we already see Kent interested and involved in King Lear’s life and well being. Kent is an interesting character because he does not stay in the good graces of King Lear past Act I, Scene i but this does not stop him from being true, loyal and faithful to his King. At the point just before Kent is banished from the kingdom he is quoted as saying
“Royal Lear, who I have ever honoured as
my king, loved as my father, as my master
followed, as my great patron thought on in
my prayers-” (King Lear I.i.140).
These are words that would only be spoken by a man that was truly loving and loyal. This quotation sets up for us that even after he is banished from the kingdom he will continue to serve and be loyal to his King. He accomplishes this is by using a disguise to hide his identity which will allow him to say by Lear’s side till the end of the play. As far as I’m concerned this is the ultimate form of loyalty because Kent’s only agenda is to keep Lear safe. As the play progresses we see Kent doing various deeds in order to protect Lear’s reputation and life. Kent’s goal is to protect Lear from his two daughters Goneril and Regan whom he feels are trying to eliminate Lear to increase their own power. Kent knows that Lear does not realize that he has made a monumental mistake by splitting his power between Goneril and Regan and he is trying to rectify the situation. In effect Kent is trying to save Lear from himself.
Shakespeare creates such a wonderful character with Kent because Kent is the ultimate servant. Although he disagrees with Lear over what has occurred with Cordelia he never abandons his loyalty to his king. Kent has fights to defend Lear, he is sent to the stocks after defending Lear, he watches out for Lear while he is ‘losing his mind’, and importantly keeps in contact with Cordelia acting as a pseudo father. He knows what is important to Lear and he will go to great lengths to uphold that. In the end of the play he refuses reinstatement of his title and we can only assume because he is doing this because he will no longer be of service to his king. In Kent we see a loyal servant and friend.
In Antony and Cleopatra Enobarbus is a character that represents the ideal follower and friend. Enobarbus is Antony’s greatest supporter. He is the only person who actually approves of Antony and Cleopatra’s relationship, in fact he is infatuated with the idea of them being together. He never doubts their love and is sure that they will always be together even after Antony’s marriage to Octavia. He is a voice of reason and completely honest with Antony, he is truly his friend. Enobarbus is always looking out for Antony and trying to give him sound advice, which will be helpful to him in battle, but Antony does not listen. When Antony says that he is going to prepare for a war against Caesar that is on the sea, Enobarbus is the one telling him that he will be defeated unless the battle is on land. It is things like that make us see how devoted Enobarbus is to Antony. He is not afraid to tell Antony how he feels if he thinks that it will help him. Enobarbus, as supportive as he is of Antony and Cleopatra’s relationship tries to help Antony see what the reality is. Cleopatra is a real distraction for Antony and many of his followers see this as a downfall and disassociate from Antony, Enobarbus is the only person who is staying loyal to Antony (against his better judgement). He knows that Antony is going down but he will not leave him. It is not until Antony decides to fight out of anger rather than reason that Enobarbus decides to abandon Antony. As far as Enobarbus is concerned, Antony has lost his mind and that is why he decides to abandon him.
After Enobarbus’ desertion he is overcome with guilt. His loyalty still lies with Antony and hates himself, he feels that he is a common traitor and must rectify the situation. Enobarbus’ true feelings, pain and regret come forth in the apostrophe that he gives just before he dies. He is filled with guilt and prays for Antony’s forgiveness. Enobarbus says,
“O Antony, nobler than my revolt is infamous,
forgive me in thine own particular, but let the
world rank me in register a master-leaver and a
fugitive. O Antony! O Antony”
(Antony and Cleopatra, IV.ix.19)
it is clear through his final words that he can never forgive himself for what he has done. In this speech he also wants to be branded a trader. He was faithful to Antony up to the very end and now as he is dying he withdraws his loyalty over a brief period of disaffiliation. Shakespeare makes this very powerful and makes us feel the pain of Enobarbus. He makes his last words a calling, a begging for Antony’s forgiveness. His loyalty stretches to the point of death, if this is not being true and devoted to someone I don’t know what is.
Every situation I have spoke about so far was the loyalty of a servant to his King but in Measure for Measure Shakespeare sets up a different kind of loyalty for us and that is family loyalty. Isabella is loyal and devoted to her brother Claudio. In the first act of the play we find out that Isabella has joined a convent and is called upon from there to help her brother Claudio. She is put into a very awkward situation when her brother seeks out her help in setting him free from prison. After rushing to his aide when she hears of his death sentence, she is forced to make a tough decision that will go against everything that she believes in. Her first decision lies in defending her brother for committing a sin that goes against all her religious beliefs, fornication. While she wishes to help her brother, what he is asking her to do goes against her moral values. While she feels he should be punished she agrees to do whatever she can do to save his life. Both Claudio and Lucio (Claudio’s friend) try to convince Isabella to use her femininity to persuade Angelo. What they do not realize is that as devoted and loving a sister Isabella may be, she is also devoted to her religious beliefs and to God. Her familial loyalty will only go so far before her loyalty to God will intervene.
After Isabella goes and pleads for her brother’s life in front of Angelo she is confronted with the choice of letting her brother die or sleeping with Angelo to set him free. Shakespeare does something very interesting in the sequence of the play because he shifts the loyalty that Isabella has for her brother totally into loyalty for God. He sets up the story she must either give up her body or give up her soul and she chooses her soul, therefore choosing God. Even thought this is the decision that she makes she still pleads with Angelo to let Claudio live and he denies her. This leaves Isabella with having to tell her brother that he will die because she will not sleep with Angelo. This in effect causes friction between Isabella and Claudio. Claudio does not understand why she will not do such a simple thing to save his life. Isabella in her defense is quoted as saying, “O, were it but my life, I’d throw it down in your deliverance as a frankly as a pin” (Measure for Measure III.i.104). This is a very bold statement that Claudio rejects and is unsatisfied with even though she said that she would die for him. This is the absolute testament to loyalty and love, she is willing to die for him. She becomes outraged that he feels this way, she cannot understand that he would compromise her body and soul to save his life. She is quoted as saying
“O, you beast! O faithless coward! O dishonest
wretch! Wilt though be made a man out of my
vice? Is’t not a kind of incest to take life out
of thine own sister’s shame?
(Measure for Measure, III.i.135).
After this encounter we never see Claudio and Isabella speak again. While she does take part in the plan that will trick Angelo and ultimately result in Claudio’s release from prison, it appears that Isabella harbors resentment toward her brother. The lengths that she was willing to go where not enough for him and his asking her to do what at the time was unthinkable to her caused her to disassociate herself from him. All in all as mad and upset as Isabella was with her brother she never stopped trying to save him therefore proving her love and loyalty to him as a sister.
Shakespeare’s interpretation of loyalty through these plays says a lot to me about what it meant to be someone follower, servant, or even sibling. It appears to me that to the people of Shakespeare’s time they would rather die than be dishonorable to the people they love. I think that these four characters are good examples of this ideal and I think that Shakespeare through the use of interesting stories makes good the point that loyalty is a true testament to love.
Shakespeare’s Twelfth NIght
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