…the infernal Atë in good apparel… – MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, II i

I’m evermore intrigued by the accidental overlaps among these plays that make up our seasons. Any plays, any seasons, any company really. And it isn’t the obvious big “well clearly the girl-in-boy-clothes plot element is worth it again” or “usurpers are doomed from the get-go” overlaps. I like the tiny ones.

Atë, for example.

Atë is the Greek goddess of (depending on your sources) mischief, delusion, ruin, folly, blind folly, infatuation, rash action and reckless impulse. Her m.o.is talking people (and gods) into doing dumb things without thinking about them first, which is clearly how Mischief (not as strong a word to us as it was for Shakespeare, or even Sondheim) and Ruin work.

I’m very fond of Atë’s literal way of achieving this, according to Homer: after she was banished from Olympus for talking Zeus into doing something stupid – because he really needed her help on that front – “her feet are delicate* and they step not on the firm earth, but she walks the air above men’s heads and leads them astray”, addling their brains with her occasional footfalls on their brainpans. For the gods, she has to smooth-talk. For mortals, a noggin jostle is all she needs, though in other non-Homeric versions, there’s always smooth talk.

Atë could for this reason very well be the patron goddess of nearly every worthwhile character in Shakespeare. My constant argument for picking up the pace when acting Shakespeare, besides my trust in the human ear’s ability to get what’s going on when it’s provided with something worth hearing, is that if these people stopped to think about what they were saying/doing, they’d never do it. They spend most of their time dealing with repercussions caused by sudden, thoughtless, impulsive behavior.

The nice thing about this is that it makes them easier to forgive. When dealing with a Lear, a Leontes, several of the historical kings, anyone in a comedy, we have to like them or at least forgive them for their rashness at some point. If they go getting all pause-y and deliberate in the awful stuff they spit out during Act I (and as an actor, it can be very tempting to bite off some of these words with cold-blooded Sam-Jacksonorousness), we don’t care if they’re sad or if they’re dead in Act V. If Leonato or Lord Capulet slow down to make hateful pronouncements about their daughters, we close the iron door on them forever and label them as terrible parents and terrible human beings; if they fly off the handle in a weak moment, well, we, too, have flown off the handle now and then. We’re given some space to empathize with their regret.

The main difference, for a person hearing it all happen, is pacing. Both in the sense of speed, and in the sense of Atë walking back and forth on your head.

I bring her up at all because when preparing the summer editions, I noticed she came up twice: once when Benedicke, as quoted above, says of Beatrice (not present at the time):

          come, talke not of her, you shall find her the infernall Atë in good apparell…

And then up she pops again as Mark Antony predicts to Caesar’s corpse, that bleeding piece of former boss, that:

          Caesar’s Spirit, ranging for Revenge,

          With Atë by his side, come hot from Hell,

          Shall in these Confines, with a Monarke’s voyce,

          Cry ‘Havocke’, and let slip the Dogges of Warre,

          That this foule deede, shall smell above the earth

          With Carrion men, groaning for Buriall.

Tony is a little more vehement about things than Benedicke, which, considering the context, I’ll allow. Though I suppose since our audience this summer will have seen Much Ado a few weeks before Caesar, he could easily complete the transference and say “With Beatrice by his side, come hot from Hell”. Except she doesn’t go to Hell – just stops off there to deliver her apes.

But that’s another footnote.



*elsewhere Homer says she “is strong and sound on her feet”, which is probably because she’s so delicate with them, not touching the ground and all.

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