As to content, The Adulterer appears to borrow from or allude to a number of Shakespeare’s dramatic works, though to a lesser degree than in relation to form or style. That being said, the few allusions that may be positively identified remain significant in the manner by which they attempted to connect narrative or personal tropes common to the Shakespearean canon to the events and personalities of 1770s Massachusetts.
Take, for instance, Warren’s highly sympathetic portrayal of the character Brutus. This erstwhile Servian Patriot is in effect the protagonist of The Adulterer. The anguish he feels over the state of his country is made abundantly clear - indeed, the lament he shares with Cassius for benighted Servia is what opens the play, effectively setting the tone for what follows – and his motivations are never presented as anything less than sincere and genuine. That being said, the historical figure after whom he is named was possessed of a rather complicated legacy. Marcus Junius Brutus, as cited previously, was one of the chief conspirators in the plot to assassinate Julius Caesar and a co-commander against Caesar’s angered allies at the Battle of Philippi (42 BC). While his former friend Marc Antony (83 BC-30 BC) was quick to defend the nobility he perceived in Brutus and saw to the respectful disposal of his remains, subsequent observers were far less kind. As the Roman Republic transitioned into the Roman Empire under the authority of the slain Caesar’s adopted son Gaius Octavius (63 BC-14 BC), Brutus became an object of scorn and vilification. Not only was he considered a traitor to Caesar himself – since deified by the Roman Senate – but to the whole of Roman civilization. Later chroniclers – with the exception of essayist Plutarch (46-120) – were similarly unkind. Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), author of one of the most famous literary depictions of the historical Brutus, even went so far as to portray him in his Divina Commedia, published in 1321, as doomed to languish in the ninth circle of Hell alongside fellow assassin Cassius and Judas Iscariot.
Anyone reasonably conversant in the history of the ancient Roman civilization – i.e. those citizens of Massachusetts who had received the standard 18th century classical education – would have been aware of these characterizations of Brutus. At best he presented in most historical accounts as noble but credulous, and at worst he was portrayed as vile and disloyal. Why, then, would Warren have named her tragic hero after such a figure? What connotations did she hope to summon by granting her protagonist the name of one of history’s most famous assassins? The answer, as hinted at above, has everything to do with the works of William Shakespeare. The historical Brutus, as it happened, was the also principle character in his neoclassical tragedy Julius Caesar. Though cajoled – some might say manipulated – by Cassius into joining the conspiracy against his friend and mentor, Shakespeare’s Brutus is an exceedingly complex character who constantly grapples with dueling loyalties to the Roman state and to his former benefactor. Once the deed is done, Brutus proceeds to be haunted by Caesar’s ghost; his attempt to save Rome from the tyranny of a demagogue is turned against him by the wily Marc Antony; he becomes an enemy of the state; he loses what few of his allies remain. In spite of what he believed to be the noblest of intentions, it appears as though his actions have doomed himself and his countrymen in equal measure. And yet, at the moment of his suicide, Brutus seems to take some degree of solace in the outcome he has witnessed. “I shall have glory by this losing day,” he avows, “More than Octavius and Mark Antony / By this vile conquest shall attain unto.”
This is the version of Brutus to which Warren’s protagonist most clearly hews. Neither traitor nor dupe, the protagonist of The Adulterer is a man of integrity and conviction who nonetheless grapples with the conflicting impulses of his conscience. At times he feels in his heart a powerful need for retribution upon those who have wronged him, though he resists its urgings in favor of patience, resolution, and a respect for the rule of law. At times he feels compelled to act, to defend Servia from its enemies, by a deep and abiding sense of patriotism, yet he rarely seems to know precisely what it is he ought to do. And upon finally taking action and being met with an outcome that has all the outward appearances of victory, he too easily fails to question the depth of what he and his allies have achieved. This abiding complexity, tendency towards internal conflict, and unquestionably noble intentions are eminently Shakespearean in their basic dimensions. As with the Bard’s tragic hero, Warren’s Brutus is a creature of emotion whose honor and integrity are rooted in the love he feels for his country. His failings are plain enough, but they never detract from the quality of his character or the purity of his intentions. Thus, as with the protagonist of Julius Caesar, the heroic lead in Warren’s The Adulterer is cast as an object of compassion, admiration, pity, and regret.
Clearly, knowledge of the historical Brutus alone would not have prepared audiences in Massachusetts to identify with or feel sympathy towards his Servian namesake. Doubtless many of them were aware of the former’s role in the history of ancient Rome, perhaps even to the point of identifying him as potential symbol of anti-monarchical or pro-republican sentiment. That being said, a people familiar with Shakespeare – which, as discussed, Warren’s intended audience almost certainly was – would doubtless feel a far greater affinity for the character that Shakespeare so skillfully rendered. The Brutus of history was more an icon than a man – emblematic of treachery, conspiracy, lost causes, or noble failures. There was little warmth in the many retellings of his deeds, and little attempt to attribute moral complexity to the decisions he made. Shakespeare’s Brutus was comparatively vital and human, and Julius Caesar a far more affecting chronicle of his last days than even Plutarch’s relatively generous biography. Desirous of eliciting a particular response from her audience – outrage, grief, reflection, etc. – Warren was therefore well-disposed to settle upon Brutus as the name and the inspiration for her brooding hero. Though history had ascribed to the designation all manner of symbolic importance, Shakespeare alone had made it fit for a man who struggles against the forces of history, human weakness, and his own impulses in search of a brighter day for the country he loves.
In addition to this particularly weighty allusion to one of the great tragic figures of the Shakespearean canon, The Adulterer also contains what appear to be references to famous scenes from both Macbeth and Hamlet. As to the former, two scenes (Act I, Scene II and Act III, Scene IV) offer snatches of dialogue from Rapatio that bear a strong thematic resemblance to Lady Macbeth’s famous “Unsex Me Here” monologue from Act I, Scene V. By way of a refresher, said oration is delivered by the wife of the title character in the form of a sinister plea, by which she hopes to summon the ability to carry out whatever means are necessary to see her husband’s visions of royal succession come to pass. Even by the standards of the Bard of Avon – which are obviously quite high – it is a tremendously effective and visceral piece of writing, full of bodily imagery and hellish allusions. “Come, you spirits [,]” the lady first invokes,
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here;
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood,
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman's breasts,
And take my milk for gall, your murdering ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature's mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark
To cry, "Hold, hold!"
From within this passage, several things ought to be marked out for later comparison. First, the manner in which the character addresses herself to a vague group of “spirits,” combined with the ill deeds she seems intent on carrying out, leave a definite impression that Lady Macbeth is not seeking solace by communing with the angels. Rather, it appears that she seeks to invoke the embodied darkness to which the Christian God stands fundamentally opposed. Also worth noting is the exact nature of her plea. She does not ask for something to be done in her behalf – for an old man to die, some accident befall him, etc. Rather, she asks that her own sense of mercy and compassion be stripped away so that she can achieve the desired ends herself. Thus, by asking that some part of herself be extracted or destroyed so that she can serve a larger purpose, Lady Macbeth engages in what is essentially a very twisted act of self-abnegation.
While Warren does not quite reach this pinnacle of lyric expression in the cited passages of The Adulterer, the general circumstances thereof are notably similar. Act I, Scene II sees Rapatio alone in his home, musing upon the ills that the Patriot cause has visited upon him and girding himself to seek revenge. Working up from bitterness to passionate hatred, the Governor of Servia soon enough resolves that,
If there is any secret sympathy,
Which born and bred together, they may claim,
I give it to the winds -- out! out! vile passion,
I’ll trample down the choicest of their rights
And make them curse the hour that gave me birth;
That hung me up a meteor in the sky,
Which from its tail shook pestilence and death
Note in these verses Rapatio’s desire to be rid of that part of himself which he finds burdensome to his desired purpose. He seeks revenge for the humiliation that the Patriots have visited upon him – a reference to the real-life Governor Hutchinson’s encounters with mob violence in August, 1765 – and willingly casts “to the winds” whatever sympathy he may be made to feel for having been born and raised in the same country as his hated enemies. Look, too, at the comparison he makes between himself and a meteor, whose tail bring forth “pestilence and death.” While it may be something of a stretch, a comparison to a passage from the Bible’s book of Revelations appears to speak to Rapatio’s infernal intention. Said passage, from chapter eight, verses ten and eleven, reads, “There fell from heaven a great star burning as a torch, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters; and the name of the star is called Wormwood, and many men died of the waters [.]” Reading a falling star as a meteor and the poison wrought by Wormwood as “pestilence and death,” it would seem that Rapatio – and thus, Warren – sought to characterize his birth as equivalent to the Biblical apocalypse.
The relevant dialogue from Act III, Scene IV, while somewhat less emphatic, nonetheless seems to spring from the same core sentiment. Referring to the Patriots, whose efforts at seeking recompense for their suffering has reached the peak of its success, as “Mistaken wretches [,]” Rapatio next declares, “Come cunning be my guide, / Beleagued with hell -- Come all those hateful passions / That rouse the mind to action [.]” While in this instance the Governor of Servia seems intent on summoning the will to visit cruelty upon his countrymen, rather than dispelling whatever virtues might prevent him from doing the same, the net result is essentially unchanged from Act I, Scene II – Rapatio seeks to act against his subjects without remorse, seems to doubt his ability to do so, and attempts to summon the will. Lady Macbeth’s plea – though expressed with greater art – is very much on this same order. As she sought to shut out her sense of remorse, so Rapatio flung his feelings of fellowship to the heedless gale. As she asked to be filled, “From the crown to the toe, top-full / Of direst cruelty [,]” he bid welcome to, “All those hateful passions / That rouse the mind to action [.]” And as her invocation of nameless spirits and “Murdering Ministers,” and her plea for the cover of, “The dunnest smoke of hell [,]” evoked a decidedly demonic quality, the parallel he seemed to draw between his arrival on earth and its final ending lent a unequivocal, all-consuming darkness to the subject at hand.
Thus – with admirable subtly, if not admirable skill – Warren appeared to invoke one of the most notorious aspects of one of the notorious characters in the contemporary canon of Western literature. Rapatio did not repeat the lines first penned by Shakespeare for Lady Macbeth – which are likely too gendered to be successfully grafted onto a male character – but rather expressed the same basic sentiment in the same basic context. Lady Macbeth sought to deny the primacy of her kindness, mercy, and compassion – qualities doubtless thought to be womanly, hence the need to be “unsexed” – in order to act in a decisive manner upon the vision of her husband attaining the throne of Scotland. Duncan, King of Scotland and object of her murderous intent, was her countryman – nay, her sovereign lord – to whom she ostensibly owed love, fellowship, and fealty. Her intention to destroy him, therefore, and her consequent willingness to let the utmost darkness take possession of her body and her soul, is a truly monstrous thing. That her outsized ambition is the essence of sinfulness is made clear by her ultimate fate – driven mad by guilt, she ends her own life. Rapatio, meanwhile, endeavored to banish the sympathy he might have felt for his fellow Servians and call to himself the darkest impulses possible in order to quash the latent insurrection of the so-called “Patriots” and preserve his office thereby. As Governor of Servia, he has been bestowed a sacred trust – the fate of his countrymen is his to determine, and their rights his to protect or to deny. His declared intention to trample upon that which his fellow Servians hold dear, and his willingness to associate his existence with death and destruction, is thus cause for horror and revulsion. Granted, the audience is not shown what fate yet awaits cruel Rapatio – he goes unpunished as of the final scene. A familiarity with Shakespeare, of course, and with one of his most enduring characters in particular, would surely have furnished an answer. Only one manner of outcome could lie ahead for a character so self-consciously vile.