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Shakespeare & Beyond

How do Shakespeare’s characters react when they lose family or love?

Excerpt: Second Chances: Shakespeare and Freud by Stephen Greenblatt and Adam Phillips

What happens when you lose your first chance at happiness, when something goes so wrong in life that recovery might seem impossible? In this excerpt from Second Chances: Shakespeare and Freud, Stephen Greenblatt writes about how Shakespeare’s characters respond in these circumstances, particularly in the comedies and romances.

Stephen Greenblatt is the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University and the author of – among other books – Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare and The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.


Shakespeare’s characters have to confront the fact that their first chance, whether in family or in love, is not securely in their grasp. It can be torn away by accident, stolen by design, menaced by the arbitrary dictates of authority, or buried in confusion. The question they face is what to do in the event of loss and, for that matter, what to do if, in the wake of painful or disillusioning experiences, they recover their first chance. There is no magical formula for those who search for, recover, or successfully cling to a first chance. But the comedies depict a particular range of personal qualities and responses.

At the outer edge is simple obliviousness. Antipholus of Ephesus was too young when the shipwreck split his family asunder to remember anything about the loss. He can look into his birth father’s face and claim with perfect confidence, “I never saw my father in my life.” So too Guiderius and Arviragus, kidnapped as infants, have no idea of their actual origins and call their kidnapper father. They are all in for a surprise.

Less completely in the dark are those who have hazy im- pressions of the life they once led. Such in The Tempest is Miranda’s vague recollection of having many servants attending her when she was a small child, a recollection, she says, that is “far off / And rather like a dream than an assurance.” Her father, Prospero, astonished that she has recalled even this much, goes on to inform her at length of who she was and the world she inhabited before their exile. Similarly, in The Comedy of Errors the father has recounted the story of the shipwreck to his son, leading him to set sail to find his missing mother and brother.

Antipholus of Ephesus’s search for the missing members of his birth family, seconded by his father’s search for him, is paralleled by Prospero’s decision after twelve years on his remote island of exile to seize the opportunity that fortune has provided to enable him to restore himself—and his daughter— to the life they had lost. Such direct engagement is characteristic as well of those who attempt to hold on to or regain their first chance in love: the four young lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream rush off to the forest to escape the harsh edict and pursue the object of their desire.

But active striving is not the only or even the most frequent response to the loss of the first chance. After all, Prospero waited twelve years before taking action, which was triggered by the fortuitous proximity of his enemies, and Antipholus had all but given up his search when the play begins. The mothers in both The Comedy of Errors and Pericles enter convents and evidently harbor no expectation of recovering the families they have lost. Instead of searching, they choose to withdraw from the world, to inhabit a realm that eschews family bonds altogether. At least this is a choice: in Pericles the king falls into a clinical depression caused by the “loss / Of a beloved daughter and a wife.”

Pericles has given up hope. He is a man “who for this three months hath not spoken / To anyone, nor taken sustenance / But to prorogue his grief.” His fortunes are about to change, however: chance brings him together with both his daughter and his wife. Again and again in these plays, it is luck, not striving or calculation, that functions to restore the characters to their first chances. After seven years of futile searching, Antipholus of Syracuse happens to wind up in Ephesus, where his twin, his father, and his mother have all happened to wind up as well. The lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, unbeknownst to themselves, wandering in confusion in the woods, catch the attention of the fairies, who solve their dilemmas (though not before complicating them further). Expelled from Duke Frederick’s court, Rosalind in As You Like It takes refuge in the Forest of Arden, where by chance both her lover, Orlando, and her father, the exiled Duke Senior, have also taken refuge. Duke Frederick has raised an army to destroy Duke Senior, but an unforeseen encounter with “an old religious man” converts him, and Duke Senior is restored to his rightful place. The lesson, if there is one to be drawn from any of this, is that much of life is unpredictable and out of one’s control.

In a world governed by fortune, active striving may lead only to confusion, and withdrawal to depression. The response that the comedies most prize in their characters, above all in the young heroines, is the resilience that we have noted in Viola and that is shared by Rosalind and Celia in As You Like It and by Marina in Pericles. There is in these heroines an acceptance of the way things are, even if the way things are is deeply perplexing or uncomfortable or disappointing. But their acceptance is not to be confused with passivity. These characters are all marked by an irrepressible energy that gets them through difficult circumstances and ultimately enables them to recover or to hold on to the first chance in family or in love. This resilience does not seem to be a quality one can acquire; it too is a piece of luck, a personality trait, an endowment not chosen but given.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Shakespeare’s vision of the first chance—the object of longing in these plays, whether as the all-important birth family or as the love that sweeps away all other considerations—is that it does not demand or bear much thinking about. The characters may crave it, they may strive to recover or to hold on to it, but they do not reflect on it or try to understand it. Perhaps Shakespeare thought that a certain buoyant heedlessness was a condition of the first chance, or at least of the ability to remain within it.

Going no farther—the refusal or inability to dig more deeply—extends from the characters to the audience. No one is encouraged to push too hard on the nature of these relation- ships. Like the lovers themselves, we are urged to regard what we have witnessed as a dream: “If we shadows have offended,” Puck says in the play’s epilogue,

Think but this, and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream.

It would be out of order and would threaten the celebration of the first chance to demand a full reckoning. Better to stay in the illusion.

By Stephen Greenblatt, from Second Chances: Shakespeare and Freud, a book co-authored by Stephen Greenblatt and Adam Phillips. Published by Yale University Press in May 2024. Reproduced by permission.

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