The experiences of time, from its swelling (the remove from the court in As You Like It) and contracting time (Richard II; Macbeth), of time bandying the lives of characters (early comedies), of characters clearing space in the determined march of history (Falstaff), suggests that Shakespeare’s openness to a variety of individuals and passions can be conceived as an imaginative openness and sensitivity to time, not as conditioning human experience, thought, feeling, but as constituting it. The awareness of individual life in the plays is inseparable from an awareness of how individuals think of and by means of time, and the formal dimensions of the plays are really whatever is required to accelerate, compress, stretch, or suspend time.
The progression of the plays similarly can be described in temporal terms; the grotesqueness of the tragedy in Romeo and Juliet is in part because the swirl of coincidences, the gusto of the participants, is that of the early comedies, where time batters to fortunate endings, and where awareness of time’s eddies is haphazard. And the early histories are at the mercy to a storm-surge of time, the destiny of the tudors, the inertia of resentment and bitterness in their wake. Richard III is remarkable for barely going anywhere at all; how, instead of moving forward, to any destiny, with each subsequent act of Richard’s murderous ambition, something more from the past of the characters is uncovered, so that the play is a swelling chorus of voices regretting what they were, what they did, what they have become.
In the early comedies and histories and tragedies alike, I think, it would be fair to say that Shakespeare’s characters sustain gains and losses from time, without mastering it, or thinking about how to master it; they are beholden to the world’s “kairos,” its timing and coincidence, as they are pressed forward in “chronos,” its sequence of events. This is not to say that they are unaware of the significance of timing and fortune, but they do not weigh their own actions in relation to it as character in later plays will, and this because of the terms in which they relate themselves to time.
Then something changes, and it changes where everyone knows that something changes: around 1599, not just with Hamlet but with Julius Caesar and As You Like It. It is not that Shakespeare abandons the earlier interest (there it is in 1601 or 1602 with Twelfth Night), but another interest forms, a discovery of a new possibility. The key-word, the indication of the change, and a part of it, is “patience.” When it appears in the early plays, as it often does, it does not bear great weight, and seems to make little difference at all: Romeo’s timing is wrong, but he is not unduly impatient to rush to Juliet’s tomb, since he has no reason to think she is alive; Richard so effective in his cruelties is not doomed by his failure to assess his own timing. With this word, though, Shakespeare’s characters gain a new sense of how they think and act by means of time; the plays gain a new dimension.
When the word appears in the plays of 1599, something has altered. The least conspicuous of these examples is As You Like It, but even here something new has appeared. What I (and many others) take to be a crowning moment of the play, when the illiterate shepherd speaks out with an eloquent defense of love, in a scene of comic confusion:
It is to be all made of fantasy,
All made of passion and all made of wishes,
All adoration, duty, and observance,
All humbleness, all patience and impatience,
All purity, all trial, all observance;
And so am I for Phebe.
Amidst the lines, the word stands out because it alone is compounded in a paradox: “all patience and impatience,” where love is a reconciliation of the two opposites that, in the tragedies, will prove terrible. The balance of the words shines a new light on the balance of the entire pastoral equilibrium of the play: nature and civilization, court and country, melancholy and laughter, love and revenge. With this wise shepherd’s speech, Shakespeare has conceived of wisdom as an understanding of timing as well as time, and as timing as an action as well as a consequence of fortune’s wheel or the world’s strange ways.
To jump ahead to a later great tragedy, even in Twelfth Night, returning to the temporal contingencies and coincidence of early comedies (it offers the most penetrating phrase for describing it in “whirligig of time”), the definition of human action in terms of timing, and timing in terms of patience, is central and part of what makes Viola the moral and emotional center of the play when she speaks of sitting like “patience on a monument.”
But in 1599, As You Like It is only one, and not the central, example. That would be Hamlet, where the word appears in the hero’s famous soliloquy where he scorns “that patient merit of the unworthy takes”–but where the word is much less forceful than the fact of patience and impatience on which the entire action of the play turns, where Hamlet recognizes the “time is out of joint” and struggles to set it right or else to act in accordance with it.
Just as telling as Hamlet in 1599 is Julius Caesar where the hero, Brutus, spends much of the second half of the play confronting the possibility that, like Cato, he might be forced to choose whether or not to choose the time of his own death:
Even by the rule of that philosophy
By which I did blame Cato for the death
Which he did give himself, I know not how,
But I do find it cowardly and vile,
For fear of what might fall, so to prevent
The time of life: arming myself with patience
To stay the providence of some high powers
That govern us below.
And so the tragic hero of Shakespeare sounds out clearly.
I find it plausible that Shakespeare liked Roman source material at least in part because the contemplation of suicide could be voiced there without needing to ferret in too much of a worry over Christian sin; and when Cleopatra considers her own end, she does so, as Charles William says, in a remarkable speech, all the more remarkable because she doesn’t seem to be wanting to speak poetry; if she self-dramatizes it is not as a noble tragic heroine:
No more, but e’en a woman, and commanded
By such poor passion as the maid that milks
And does the meanest chares. It were for me
To throw my sceptre at the injurious gods;
To tell them that this world did equal theirs
Till they had stol’n our jewel. All’s but naught;
Patience is scottish, and impatience does
Become a dog that’s mad: then is it sin
To rush into the secret house of death,
Ere death dare come to us? How do you, women?
What, what! good cheer! Why, how now, Charmian!
My noble girls! Ah, women, women, look,
Our lamp is spent, it’s out! Good sirs, take heart:
We’ll bury him; and then, what’s brave,
Let’s do it after the high Roman fashion,
And make death proud to take us. Come, away:
This case of that huge spirit now is cold:
Ah, women, women! come; we have no friend
But resolution, and the briefest end.
I think Williams is right to see the play as a sort of peak that Shakespeare scales, different from, and equally lofty as, those of the other tragedies. Rather than poeticize patience and impatience, she belittles them, too compromised to aspire to a compromise with time. Here are all of those little words and asides at work that made T.S. Eliot admire Shakespeare’s “Ah!” in one of Cleopatra’s speeches, and the clutter they make, Cleopatra’s freely drawing them up as she does, makes her so different from Othello who, in his final moments, becomes an actor staging his own demise, demanding the time of those around him. Here Cleopatra is, as it were, indifferent to glorying over the time she has left, coming to despise time itself, done with it as much as it is done with her.
The opposing touchstone, though, is not Othello, but Lear: “You heavens give me that patience, patience I need.” When he finds it, in the “in the cage” speech, it is too late; he does not even have the strength of self to reject time, but would retreat from it, content to observe and, simply, meekly, but not merely, enjoy the world.
I agree with most commentators that something changes again, before or after, or around Coriolanus, at least as regards Shakespeare’s interest in patience; when it fades, the tragedies fade, maybe because tragedy is the perfect form for imagining patience, but not for exploring forgiveness, reconciliation, accommodation.
With Wordsworth in mind, Geoffrey Hill writes that “endurance is one of the great words which lie directly on the active-passive divide, subject to the fluctuations and arbitrariness that Wordsworth cites.” “Patience” is related to “endurance” in more ways than etymology; it too lies on the “active-passive divide” and both patience and endurance contain statements about time. “Patience,” however, rather than endurance , is Shakespeare’s broad interest in the tragedies, because it suggests a capacity for action that must be stifled, reduced to passivity, either because action is ineffective or because it is unwise. Endurance, bare endurance, on the other hand, suggests a life lived at a lower limit for the possibility to act. Lear represents the intersection of patience and endurance in Shakespeare, but they ought not to be viewed as synonymous; Lear’s madness, his progress towards Cordelia, involves a drifting into and out of the possibility of patience. Gloucester, as a counterpoint, is impatient to die.
The saddest patience of all is Desdemona’s waiting for Othello to murder her; without claiming it as a heroic patience, it is a display of strength, an active exertion against time, an awareness of timing; and also, in the slow quiet that Shakespeare gives to the scene in which she and Emilia prepare for sleep, and sing the Willow Song, a victory against time, establishing on the stage a new pattern of time, transcending and decelerating the tragic momentum. Verdi’s beautiful, unsurpassable re-creation: