Masters of Chiasmus: William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

This month we take a look at chiasmus in the works of the greatest writer the world has ever known, William Shakespeare. If you enjoy this feature, please let me know what you like about it, and why. If I fail to include an essential quote, or err in some way, let me know that as well. Your comments will make this a better site for other visitors in the future.

One of the most enduring legends about Shakespeare is that he hastily moved from Stratford to London at age nineteen after having been prosecuted by Justice of the Peace Sir Thomas Lucy for poaching on the Lucy family's estate. Shakespeare didn't help his case much, for he apparently responded to the allegations by writing a derogatory verse about Lucy, chiastically punning his name with the word louse.

“A parliemente member, a justice of peace,
At home a poor scare-crowe, at London an asse,
If Lowsie is Lucy, as some Folke miscalle it,
Then Lucy is lowsie whatever befall it:
He thinks himselfe great,
Yet an asse in his state.”

Referred to as "The Lucy Ballad" by scholars, many regard it as Shakespeare's first attempt at poetry. If true, it means his first written effort included an experiment with chiasmus. As he matured, Shakespeare grew very fond of chiasmus, with hundreds of examples appearing in his works. I'll present a couple dozen of my favorites here, in general starting with the earlier works and moving forward.

Shakespeare may not have invented the technique of chiastic dialogue, but he certainly brought it to a new level. This example combines chiastic repartee with another form of wordplay he enjoyed, punning.

Chief Justice: Your means are very slender,
and your waste is great.

Falstaff: I would it were otherwise. I would my means
were greater and my waist slenderer.

King Henry IV, Part Two (1590-91)

A moment later in the same scene, the chiastic dialogue continues:

Chief Justice: God send the prince a better companion!

Falstaff: God send the companion a better prince!
I cannot rid my hands of him.

Our next example comes from The Two Gentleman Of Verona (1590-95). Early in the play, some quibbling, which is verbal word play of a one-upmanship nature, occurs between Proteus, one of the gentleman from Verona, and Speed, the servant of the other gentleman. Speed begins by denying that he's a sheep to his master, a charge just made against him by Proteus. Note the two separate examples of chiasmus as he says:

“The shepard seeks the sheep,
and not the sheep the shepard;
but I seek my master,
and my master seeks not me;
therefore I am no sheep.”

Proteus responds with a chiastic counter-charge (again, note the double chiasm):

“The sheep for fodder follow the shepard,
the shepard for food follows not the sheep;
thou for wages followest thy master,
thy master for wages follows not thee;
therefore, thou art a sheep.”

A moment later, the dialogue continues on chiastically as it degenerates into sexual innuendo. Speed, who now humorously refers to himself as a "lost mutton" (i.e., a lost sheep), is asked if he has delivered a letter to Julia, who he describes as a "lac'd mutton," an Elizabethan reference to a prostitute:

“Ay, sir;
I, a lost mutton, gave your letter to her, a lac'd mutton;
and she , a lac'd mutton, gave me, a lost mutton,
nothing for my labor.”

In Act Three, Proteus offers some good chiastic advice to Valentine, the other gentleman of Verona:

“Cease to lament for that thou canst not help;
And study help for that which thou lament'st.”

In other words, stop worrying about the things you cannot help and begin to help yourself by devising a remedy for the things you're worried about. This passage inspired me to compose a chiastic maxim I have found helpful in my own life: "Accept the things you cannot change, and change the things you cannot accept."

Our next example occurs in the same scene that gave us Shakespeare's memorable words about gilding refined gold and painting the lily:

“Oftentimes excusing of a fault
Doth make the fault the worse by th' excuse.”

King John (1591)

Here, Pembroke expresses an age-old truth: attempting to excuse or explain one's faults usually backfires, only drawing more attention to them. A similar sentiment is contained in the English proverb, "He who excuses himself, accuses himself."

King Richard III
“The world is grown so bad
That wrens make prey where eagles
dare not perch.
Since every Jack became a gentleman,
There's many a gentle person
made a Jack.”

King Richard III (1592)

The words are from Gloucester, later to become Richard III, as he complains about royal sycophants bad-mouthing him to the king. In Shakespeare's time "Jack" was used to refer to a low-bred person. Gloucester's point, I believe, is that when low-bred fools become noblemen, noblemen begin to act like low-bred fools.

“That one for all,
or all for one we gage.”

The Rape of Lucrece (1594)

The Rape of Lucrece is a long narrative poem based on Livy's original story about the rape of Lucretia by Sextus. This line, in which gage means "to pledge," probably inspired the motto of the Three Musketeers. Dumas wrote his famous novel a century and a half after Shakespeare and was undoubtedly familiar with the line.

“I wasted time,
and now doth time waste me.”

King Richard II (1595-96)

The words come from Richard himself when, near the end of the play, he finds himself imprisoned in Pomfret Castle. In his grief and despair, he does some soul-searching about his past and reflects upon the seriousness of his present situation.

“The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth,
from earth to heaven.”

A Midsummer Night's Dream (1595-96)

The words come from Theseus, but they undoubtedly reflect Shakespeare's view as well, that a great poet must be able to grasp the sublime while never losing touch with the prosaic, and vice versa.

“If he be not fellow with the best king,
thou shalt find the best king of good fellows.”

King Henry V (1598-99)

King Henry says this about himself while trying to persuade the French Princess Katherine to be his bride. His point is that he's a good catch. Here's how he'd say it in the first person if we translated it into modern language: "If I'm not fellow with (meaning equal to) the best king, I think you'll find that I'm the best king among the good fellows you might choose."

“A kind overflow of kindness.
There are no faces truer than those that are so wash'd.
How much better is it to weep at joy
than to joy at weeping!”

Much Ado About Nothing (1598-1600)

This line occurs within the first couple of minutes of the play. Leonato has just learned from a messenger that Don Pedro and Claudio are returning home from the war. When the messenger reports that he has informed Claudio's uncle of his nephew's military exploits and his imminent return home, Leonato asks, "Did he break out into tears?" When the messenger replies, "In great measure," Leonato replies with this line, meaning that tears associated with joy are the best kind of tears (no faces are truer than those washed this way), adding the truism that weeping done during times of joy is certainly preferable to feeling joy when people are weeping.

“Those wits, that think they have thee
do very oft prove fools;
and I that am sure I lack thee, may pass for a wise man.
For what says Quinapalus?
‘Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.’”

Twelfth Night (1599-1600)

Talking to himself about the importance of wit and wisdom in Twelfth Night, Feste the clown cites Quinapalus as the author of a pithy chiastic quote. You won't find Quinapalus listed in any reference books, though. He's a fictional creation of Shakespeare's, and this is the only mention of him in his works.

“[There are] Two faults, madonna,
that drink and good counsel will amend;
for give the dry fool drink, then is the fool not dry;
bid the dishonest man mend himself:
if he mend, he is no longer dishonest;
if he cannot, let the botcher mend him.
Any thing that's mended is but patch'd;
virtue that trangresses is but patch'd with sin;
and sin that amends is but patch'd with virtue.”

Twelfth Night (1599-1600)

There are three separate chiastic phrases in this passage, where Feste the Clown is responding to Lady Olivia's critical comments about him. Let me highlight them for you:

“… for give the dry fool drink,
then is the fool not dry;
bid the dishonest man mend himself:
if he mend, he is no longer dishonest
virtue that trangresses is but patch'd with sin;
and sin that amends is but patch'd with virtue.”

Here's what I think Feste is saying. He begins by identifying the conventional methods for remedying thirstiness (water) and dishonesty (good counsel). He then suggests that, when conventional methods will not lead people to mend their ways, they should be reformed by someone specially equipped to do the job, as a botcher (a cobbler or tailor) does with shoes or clothing. If I understand him correctly, he then appears to say that mended things are rarely completely fixed, and that, even if he does mend his ways, it will only be a partial fix and he'll still be imperfect.

“What would you have? Your gentleness shall force
More than your force move us to gentleness.”

As You Like It (1599-1600)

I love the sentiment embedded in this chiastic line, which I have occasionally cited in counseling sessions with some of my more literate clients. In this scene, Orlando abruptly enters with sword drawn, interrupting Duke Senior and Jacques as they're eating. The starving Orlando angrily tells them to eat no more until he takes care of his own needs. In this quote, the Duke calmly tells Orlando that his angry and forceful manner isn't necessary, and that a gentle approach will be far more effective. It works. Orlando quickly calms down.

As You Like It
“Not a whit, Touchstone.
Those that are good manners
at the court
are as ridiculous in the country
as the behavior of the country
is most mockable at the court.”

As You Like It (1599-1600)

In this scene, the shepherd Corin is sparring with Touchstone, a court clown, who a moment earlier has argued that only cultivated people can have good manners. Corin snaps back with this line, maintaining that socially appropriate behavior in one context can be absolutely inappropriate in the other. He drives his point home by contrasting the way shepherds and courtiers greet each other in their two very different worlds. A shepherd, he says, would be very concerned about exactly where another shepherd's hand has been, and wouldn't be caught dead kissing it when they meet. He says, "You told me you salute not at the court, but you kiss your hands; that courtesy would be uncleanly if courtiers were shepards."

“I do now remember a saying,
‘The fool doth think he is wise,
but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.’”

As You Like It (1599-1600)

Here, Touchstone cites an unknown sage. Even though the theme of wise men and fools has been chiastically explored by many writers before Shakespeare, I've been unable to find this particular sentiment ascribed to any other person. It's possible the original source of the saying was Shakespeare himself, and he was presenting it as a quotation to give it a cachet of intellectual respectability.

“O powerful love,
that in some respects makes a beast a man,
in some other, a man a beast.”

The Merry Wives of Windsor (c. 1600)

For centuries, this passage has been reminding audiences of the unpredictable nature of love, sometimes helping beasts rise to the stature of men, sometimes causing men to descend to the level of beasts. In this scene, Falstaff is psyching himself up for an upcoming romantic encounter. He describes how love has affected the Greek gods Jove and Jupiter, and seeks inspiration from them.

King: Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern.

Queen: Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz.

Hamlet (1600-01)

In many literary works, and I think it's true in this case, chiastic dialogue reflects nothing more than the desire of the author to engage in a little verbal word play.

“What's Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?”

Hamlet (1600-01)

I include this quote not because it's such a great example of chiasmus, but because it reminds me of an interesting anecdote about Winston Churchill, who was so fond of Shakespeare he could flawlessly recite lengthy passages from his works by memory. During a WWII meeting on internal turmoil in Iraq and the potential threat to Britain's oil supplies, Churchill became so fascinated with the Arabic pronunciation of names that he tried to add a moment of levity to an otherwise serious meeting by asking: "What's Bakuba to him, or he to Bakuba"?

“Be not too tame neither, but
let your own discretion be your tutor.
Suit the action to the word,
the word to the action.”

Hamlet (1600-01)

As they're about to begin the famous play within a play (the purpose of which is to allow Hamlet to observe the reactions of Claudius, who he suspects has killed his father), Hamlet utters these immortal words, probably the most famous acting advice ever given.

“And as my love is siz'd, my fear is so.
Where love is great, the littlest doubts are fear;
When little fears grow great, great love grows there.”

Hamlet (1600-01)

This passage occurs during dialogue between two actors playing the role of the King and Queen. The queen is pointing out that doubt and fear is such an integral component of love that the presence of doubts and fears may even be taken as evidence of love.

“This world is not for aye, nor 'tis not strange
That even our loves should with our fortunes change;
For 'tis a question left us yet to prove,
Whether love lead to fortune, or else fortune love.”

Hamlet (1600-01)

Here, the "king" in the play poses a question that, on the surface, has to do with the relationship between love and "luck" or "chance" (which we still call "good fortune"). Or does it? Maybe the saying has to do with "riches," the other meaning of the word fortune. Since Hamlet suspects Claudius of killing his father and marrying his mother Gertrude for money, it's possible he was being deliberately ambiguous in this tantalizing example of Shakespearean wordplay.

“They say all lovers swear more performance
than they are able,
and yet reserve an ability that they never perform;
vowing more than the perfection of ten,
and discharging less than the tenth part of one.”

Troilus and Cressida (c. 1601)

Talking to Troilus, Cressida makes a point that's as relevant today as it was when written nearly 400 years ago. It all starts with a phenomenon that occurs at the beginning of a relationship, when people are in what I call "Snag Mode." During this time, they engage in behavior designed to win over the object of their affection, even when that behavior is unnatural or totally out of character. In Shakespeare's language, they "swear more performance than they are able." Once the object of affection is won over, the suitor begins to let up a little and behave more naturally. In Shakespeare's words, they now keep in "reserve an ability they never perform." The result is predictable: while in Snag Mode, they create an expectation that they'll be the perfect mate (nowadays we'd say they deserve "a perfect ten" rating instead of Shakespeare's "the perfection of ten"). However, when people revert back to their normal behavior as the relationship unfolds, they often end up with ratings completely on the other end of the scale (in Shakespeare's words, "less than the tenth part of one"). The phenomenon results in the most common complaint heard when a relationship finally hits the skids: "I can't believe how much you've changed!"

“Music oft have such a charm
To make bad good, and good provoke to harm.”

Measure for Measure (1603-04)

Through the character of Duke Vincentio, Shakespeare describes the power of music to transform the bad into good, and to provoke the good into bad. The first part of the passage (transforming bad into good) is the portion poets have always liked and is reminiscent of the old proverb about music having charms to sooth a savage beast (which, by the way, was "savage breast" in the original saying).

The second part (about music provoking good to bad) is something the older generation has always worried about. In fact, the way parents complain about the potentially harmful effects of rap music today is eerily similar to the way parents complained about the Beatles and Stones in the sixties, Elvis in the fifties, swing music in the forties, jazz and the music of Charleston in the twenties, and so on ad infinitum. The English poet John Dryden may have been stimulated by this line of Shakespeare's when he wrote, "What passion cannot Music raise and quell?"

“If you'll a willing ear incline,
What's mine is yours, and what is yours is mine.”

Measure for Measure (1603-04)

This line occurs at the very end of the play, as the Duke proposes marriage to Isabella. The passage was undoubtedly inspired by a similar sentiment from the Roman writer Plautus, who wrote, "What is yours is mine, and all mine is yours."

“Fair is foul, and foul is fair,
Hover through the fog and filthy air.”

Macbeth (1606)

This famous passage occurs at the very beginning of the play as the three witches (the Weird Sisters) set a dark and gloomy tone for the play. Their refrain also serves as a portent of things to come, as the rest of the play explores the darker side of human nature, often blurring the distinction between good and evil.

“When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And, darkly bright, are bright in dark directed.”

Sonnets (Number 43)

The last line is the chiastic portion of this romantic passage, where Shakespeare says that he sees his loved one best when he dreams at night, when it is both "darkly bright" and his eyes "are bright in the dark directed." The words come from one who is clearly smitten by his loved one, and it comes as a bit of a surprise to learn that they were addressed to a man! In fact, the first 126 (out of the total of 154) sonnets are addressed to a beautiful and charming young nobleman (never formally identified). The sonnets contain some of the most romantic lines in literary history, including the famous line:

“Shall I compare thee to a summer's day
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.”

Was Shakespeare gay? Or bisexual (since he was married and a father)? This question has plagued Shakespearean scholars for centuries and was part of one of the biggest cover-ups in literary history. In The Riverside Shakespeare, Hallett Smith says that in 1640 an Englishman named John Benson published the sonnets (along with Shakespeare's other poems) and altered them so they appeared to be addressed to a woman! This fraudulent version of the sonnets was accepted as accurate for nearly 150 years, when in 1780 Edmond Malone published the original, and first widely available, accurate version! The idea of a gay Shakespeare was so repugnant to early Shakespearean scholars that they did all kinds of intellectual contortions to reject the idea. Some condemned the sonnets as inferior poetry. Others suggested they were a purely literary exercise with no biographical significance. And one, George Chalmers, even suggested they were addressed to Queen Elizabeth, since she was often "considered a man" because of her strength as a monarch!

Nowadays, most scholars would probably agree with Norrie Epstein, who says in The Friendly Shakespeare, "No other straight poet has ever written such ardent poems to a man," and concludes, "We'll probably never know Shakespeare's sexual preferences, though it's likely he was bisexual." In a similar fashion, Harold Bloom says in his monumental new book, Shakespeare, "By reading Shakespeare, I can gather that he did not like lawyers, preferred drinking to eating, and evidently lusted after both genders."

“Love is my sin, and thy dear virtue hate,
Hate of my sin, grounded on sinful loving.”

Sonnets (Number 142)

Here, Shakespeare addresses the mysterious "Dark Lady" of the sonnets, who he fears has her eyes on the young nobleman he is so fond of (she later seduces him, to Shakespeare's chagrin).

“Love is too young to know what conscience is;
Yet who knows not conscience is born of Love?”

Sonnets (Number 151)

In this passage, Shakespeare explores the relationship between love and morality. Yes, there may be problems that result from love emerging before one's conscience is fully developed, but a more fully developed conscience often grows out of love.

“Love's fire heats water,
water cools not love.”

Sonnets (Number 154)

This is the very last line of the Sonnets, capturing Shakespeare's view of the power of love. It can burn with such passion it can not only heat water, but water cannot cool it down.

William Shakespeare and Implied Chiasmus

"Implied chiasmus" occurs when the words of a popular saying are deliberately reversed. Some popular examples are "A hangover is the wrath of grapes," Mae West's "A hard man is good to find," and Kermit the Frog's "Time's fun when you're having flies." If you're not familiar with the term, you can find further information at implied chiasmus.

Over the years, I searched high and low for examples of implied chiasmus in Shakespeare's works, to no avail. Then, almost by accident, I discovered one. I was reading The Merchant of Venice in The Riverside Shakespeare when I came upon this line:

“It is a wise father that knows his own child.”

In a footnote to that line, Blakemore Evans writes, "Launcelot reverses the usual form of the proverb, 'It is a wise child that knows his own father'." The proverb, which appeared in English in the 16th century, was based on an ancient Greek saying. According to the original saying, it was extremely important for a child to be sure who his real father was. In Shakespeare's play, the line (and the sentiment) is reversed to reflect the concerns of many men at the time, who wondered whether the children born to their wives were truly their own. If you know of any other examples of implied chiasmus in the works of Shakespeare, please send them along.

This completes our look at the chiastic Shakespeare. In our next edition, we'll take a look at one of the most interesting characters in world history, Benjamin Franklin.


I Never Metaphor I Didn't Like
Viva la Repartee
Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You