Shakespeare’s Symmetries

The Mirrored Structure of Action in the Plays

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About the Book

The organization of Shakespeare’s plays has challenged, even baffled audiences and critics since the 17th century. Cymbeline has been dismissed as “incoherent.” Hamlet “is of no clear shape.” And Antony and Cleopatra “bewilders the mind.”
These judgments result from an incomplete understanding of Shakespeare’s constructive practice. It is not the narrative arc alone that organizes the plays but a complex structure of interwoven narrative and thematic actions. While the narrative varies from play to play, thematic actions are invariably created in mirroring pairs around the central scene: A-B-C-B-A.
This symmetrical pattern, which can be visualized as an arch with a focal keystone, is the foundation of all of Shakespeare’s mature work, as shown through an analysis of the 26 plays in this book. This arch illuminates the structure of plays that have long been puzzling, demonstrating that they are thematically organized and rigorously crafted. It also reveals subtleties otherwise invisible.

About the Author(s)

James Ryan has taught at the University of Cincinnati and Dominican College (Orangeburg, New York), and has been awarded the New Jersey State Council of the Arts Fellowship in poetry. His essays on Shakespeare have appeared in The Shakespeare Newsletter and Shakespeare Studies, the English-language journal of the Japan Shakespeare Society.

Bibliographic Details

James E. Ryan
Format: softcover (7 x 10)
Pages: 248
Bibliographic Info: appendix, notes, bibliography, index
Copyright Date: 2016
pISBN: 978-1-4766-6370-8
eISBN: 978-1-4766-2416-7
Imprint: McFarland

Table of Contents

Table of Contents


Preface 1

Part One: The Chiastic Design

1. The Chiastic Design 5

2. Isolating the Chiastic Design 20

3. Shakespeare’s Scene Division 26

4. Shakespeare in Nine Scenes 36

5. Richard II: Thematic Arch and Imagery 44

6. The Merchant of Venice: Thematic Arch, Scene Division and Imagery 52

Part Two: Reading the Chiastic Design

7. The Thematic Arch of Julius Caesar: Sacrifice 58

8. The Construction (and Catholicism) of King John 69

9. Henry IV: The Structural Similarity of Parts One and Two 84

10. The Thematic Arch of The Merry Wives of Windsor: ­Role-Playing 92

11. Instinct and Artifice in As You Like It 99

12. The Thematic Arch of Henry V 107

13. The Anomalous Arch of Hamlet 116

14. The Stories in Troilus and Cressida 125

15. The Thematic Arch of All’s Well That Ends Well: Hubris and Humiliation 135

16. Act Division and Feeding Actions in Othello 142

17. The Thematic Arch of Folio King Lear: Evidence for the Quarto as a Draft 155

18. The Thematic Arch of Macbeth: Reconsidering Hecate 164

19. The Triple Arch of Antony and Cleopatra 170

20. The Thematic Arch of Coriolanus: Action and Eloquence 178

21. The Thematic Arch of Cymbeline: Sacrifice 186

22. The Parallel Plays of The Winter’s Tale: Entertainment 195

23. The Thematic Arch of The Tempest: A Hand for Prospero 202

Appendix: Narrative Analyses 221

Chapter Notes 223

Bibliography 233

Index 237