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Betrayal in Shakespeare

Betrayal in Shakespeare


In 1599 there appeared on the bookstalls around St Paul’s a slim volume of twenty poems entitled ‘The Passionate Pilgrim’, with the name of William Shakespeare on the cover.  In fact only five of the poems were written by Shakespeare – two were published ten years later among his sonnets, while the other three were taken from ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ – while the remaining fifteen lyrics come from a range of less distinguished authors.  At this distance it seems that Shakespeare had little or nothing to do with this collection, and he may well have experienced a sense of betrayal following its publication, a confidence misplaced and now regretted.

If he did, there is a certain irony in the choice of the sonnet ‘Two loves I have, of comfort and despair’ (later, Sonnet 144), which appears second in the collection, because this sonnet is one of a series about betrayal.  It describes the loneliness of the speaker at discovering that two lovers important to him – one male, the other female – have isolated him precisely to be with one another: he describes them as ‘being both from me both to each friend’. He blames the ‘woman coloured ill’ for his loss of the ‘man right fair’, but consoles himself with the thought that she will soon ‘fire out’ or reject him, thus bringing to an end his own sense of isolation and betrayal.

It’s appropriate that Shakespeare should have explored this theme in his sonnets, since it is among the most prominent themes in his plays.  Powerful rulers are betrayed by younger brothers while lovers are let down by friends they trusted, or thought they could trust. Meanwhile the expectations one man or woman may have of another are shown time and again to be misplaced in Shakespeare’s plays.  And where there is no motive, the betrayal (in more than one famous case) will often simply be motiveless.

The irresistible attraction of power, naturally, is a primary motive for betrayal in Shakespeare.  Putting one’s trust in family members or other dependable allies to take on the reins of power (permanently or otherwise) is often a prelude to regret: Prospero in ‘The Tempest’ engages his brother Antonio to stand in for him as Duke of Milan while he pursues his studies. But he lives to regret it, being ousted from his Dukedom and abandoned on the high seas with only his baby daughter for company; Lear, similarly, entrusts his throne and powers to his (apparently) loving daughters, two of whom betray his trust and reduce him to the status of a beggar, seeking refuge where he can find it.  Prospero survives, but Lear is lost, along with Gloucester, betrayed by his own son Edmund, and the trust he put in him.

There are numerous other examples.  Duke Frederick ousts and banishes his brother Duke Senior in ‘As You Like It’, leaving Charles to report in the opening scene ‘the old news, that is, the old Duke is banished by his younger brother the new Duke’. Later the new Duke will regret his actions and the old Duke will be restored.  In ‘Macbeth’, by contrast, there can be no question of restoration after the murder of Duncan by one who ‘should against his murderer shut the door, / Not bear the knife myself’. It’s a measure of Macbeth’s betrayal that he instantly regrets the action he cannot now reverse.

Claudius, the Danish king in ‘Hamlet’, is similarly no stranger to betrayal, having murdered his own brother while he slept and subsequently initiated at least two plots to have Hamlet murdered, the second of which (involving Laertes) succeeds all too well.  ‘Richard III’ presents a still more rapacious wicked uncle, similarly drawn to murder as a means of gaining power: representing himself as Prince Edward’s guardian, he denounces the heir to the throne as illegitimate and has him murdered on the verge of his coronation, then seizing the crown himself. 

There are numerous other cases of what we might call political or power-triggered betrayals: Julius Caesar ignores the anxieties and doubts of his wife to head for the Senate, only to be surrounded by a crowd of familiar faces (including Brutus) and stabbed to death. Henry V, by contrast, is alert to the betrayal being prepared by the traitors Scroop, Cambridge and Grey, colluding with the French on the eve of his invasion, and has them executed. Coriolanus finds himself on the other side of the dilemma, and deserts his home city Rome to join the enemy tribe the Corioli – and pays for his desertion with his life. 

Just as common in Shakespeare’s writing is the theme of betrayal for sex or love.  Once again, examples are legion.  Proteus, one of the ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’, betrays his best friend Valentine and his own lover Julia when he attempts to rape Silvia: happily he is stopped before he has the chance to carry out his plans. By contrast, Chiron and Demetrius in ‘Titus Andronicus’ succeed in implementing their planned attack on Lavinia, raping her, then mutilating her body in a gruesome sequence.  In this respect they anticipate the actions of Tarquin in the long poem ‘The Rape of Lucrece’, composed around the same time – once again a trusted male betrays the faith placed in him by the woman he covets.

Betrayal is not limited to rape, however. In ‘Cymbeline’, Imogen’s Italian visitor Iachimo betrays her trust when he conceals himself in the trunk he asks her to keep safe in her bedroom: later when she is asleep, he slips out of his hiding place to observe her half-naked body.  Such betrayals are quite innocent, however, by contrast with Richard III, who romances and marries Lady Anne specifically with the motive of destroying her.  The role of the king in ‘Edward III’ (a play now regarded as part of the canon) is not quite as disreputable, though his attempts to romance the Countess of Salisbury while her husband is in France fighting for King and country are less than admirable.

But not all those who betray their fellows in Shakespeare for sexual motives are male.  Once again there is no shortage of examples.  When Cressida is removed from the city of Troy to the camp of the besieging Greeks, her pledges of fidelity to Troilus are quickly abandoned as she makes her favours available to her new hosts.  In ‘Arden of Feversham’ (substantial parts of which may be credited to Shakespeare) Arden’s wife Alice conspires with her lover Mosbie to murder her husband, a plan that ends in a courtroom with a death sentence. Other betrayals are less gruesome.  In ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’, Diana betrays Bertram by secretly ceding her place in his bed to Helena – who was in turn betrayed by Bertram in the past – while in ‘Measure for Measure’, Isabella betrays Angelo by similarly substituting Diana for herself in his bed as revenge for his own betrayal of Diana many years before.

The motive for betrayal, then, may be power or sex – or the betrayal may simply be ‘motiveless’.  The obvious example is Iago, the character to whom that adjective instinctively attaches itself.  His attempts to explain his obsession with destroying Othello revolve around either the promotion of his rival Cassio or his apparent suspicion that the general has ‘done my office’ with his wife Emilia.  Whatever the explanation, Iago’s destruction of Othello is a classic of betrayal: first, he gains his trust, then he destroys him.  Or, as Iago puts it, ‘I follow him to serve my turn upon him’.

Needless to say, Iago is not alone in Shakespeare’s work in his compulsion for pointless destruction.  Don John in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ sets out to destroy Hero at the climax of her wedding for few discernible reasons.  Happily his plan falls apart before permanent damage has been done.  In ‘Cymbeline’ the unnamed Queen’s efforts to destroy her husband’s daughter Imogen make little rational sense: in the end it is the Queen who dies an unmourned death.  Equally, in ‘The Winter’s Tale’, Leontes’s fury with his wife Hermione and best friend Polixenes is hard to explain except in medical terms.  His punishment is limited to the death of his son as, in the end, his betrayal of his wife, family and kingdom is forgiven.

So far this essay has avoided mentioning the most practised betrayer in Shakespeare, but in an essay on human weakness, the name of Falstaff is not easy to avoid.  In the three plays in which he is inevitably the central character, he provokes and invites betrayal.  Whether he is robbing the group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury (as in ‘Henry IV Part One’) or dissing the heir to the throne, his bosom friend Hal, believing him to be elsewhere (as in Part Two), or chasing married women in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’, Falstaff is famously incapable of not letting people down.  In the end he is betrayed himself, deflated by the cruellest line in Shakespeare, delivered by the new King, his old friend Hal: ‘I know thee not, old man’.  It’s a well-deserved rebuttal, though one can’t help feeling a ghost of sympathy for the old rogue.

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