Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Shakespeare's Measure for Measure in a Nutshell

Almost all of Shakespeare's plays have more than one plot strand, so it's difficult to sum the action up in one short sentence or two. But, with the 'In a Nutshell' series of posts, I've tried to do exactly that. 

And this time it's the turn of Measure for Measure, which, while originally categorised as a comedy, is actually quite a dark play.

A young novice nun faces a dilemma when a lecherous (and hypocritically pious) judge offers to spare the life of her brother, who awaits execution for the crime of fornication, if she relinquishes her virginity to him.

For more Shakespeare plays in a nutshell, take a look at Love's Labours Lost, The Comedy of Errors, or As You Like It.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Types of Love in Twelfth Night

How many different kinds of love are in
Shakespeare's Twelfth Night?
I received an email today asking me about the different kinds of love in Twelfth Night. As I've already mentioned in another post, there is a lot of love going on, but is all that love created equal?

Love is timeless. It is the subject of so much literature and art, because of this very fact, and because it is such a tempestuous emotion that often leads us to do things we never imagined possible. This makes it ripe for drama.

Love is something that dominates Shakespeare's plays, but it's not always simple romantic love the Bard's dealing with.

I was asked about four different kinds of love that a very nice reader of the blog identified in Twelfth Night. What was Shakespeare trying to say about love, and about the period the play was written in?

Homoerotic Love Between Antonio and Sebastian

Shakespeare claims love for his
fair youth, but it's probably not homosexual
as we know it
You could call Antonio and Sebastian's love homoerotic. 

But it's a good idea to keep in mind that love between men was very different in Shakespeare's day. Take a look, for example, at the first 126 of his sonnets, which are all addressed to the 'fair youth'. 

Sebastian is the younger, 'pretty' boy. So, you could draw comparison between Shakespeare's relationship with his fair, young patron and the one portrayed between Antonio and Sebastian.

It boils down to the fact that men had closer bonds of friendship and 'love' without it being deemed homosexual in centuries past. 

Antonio and Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice are another example of two men whose love could be deemed homosexual, but that was probably not Shakespeare's intention. I take a look at this very subject in the post: Was Shakespeare Gay?

Viola (while dressed as Cesario) and Orsino, on the other hand, do have a kind of simmering undercurrent of the homoerotic about them, though.

Love for Love Itself: Orsino's Love for Olivia

Shakespeare definitely has a penchant for poking fun at the grandiose, elevated love that you see in Petrarchan sonnets - he does it in his Sonnet 130

Woe is poor Orsino, but is it really love?
If we don't already know that Orsino's overegged 'love' for Olivia is not "hungry as the sea" as he claims, it's made plain by the very rapid transfer of his affections to Viola at the end of the play.

Why would he want to poke fun at this kind of love? Well, because it is ridiculous. 

It's not a difficult target, is it? Men (or women) who make such obviously exaggerated claims of love are funny, because we know it's not sincere. 

To borrow a phrase from another play, it's a case of protesting too much.

Interclass Love: Toby and Maria

Does Toby really marry
below his status?

Toby and Maria definitely have a cross-class relationship. 

I don't know whether Shakespeare is saying that it's always all right to marry out of your social standing, but it's definitely all right for a drunken, old layabout like Toby! 

The other thing to keep in mind when we're discussing this intersocial kind of love is that Twelfth Night (the festival) was all about misrule: turning things on their heads - the lowest were the highest and highest were the lowest. 

So, in those circumstances, your standing by birth doesn't really matter!

Feste's Love of Money

Feste does take money, but I'm not sure he's in love with it. When Orsino tries to give him money, he declines, saying "No pains, sir: I take pleasure in singing." In several instances he does take money, of course, but that's how he earns his living, so I don't see it as avarice.

And I would add one more important type of love that dominates a strand of the plot...

Malvolio's fall is all the sweeter for how far he's
come down

Self-love: Malvolio Only Has Eyes For...

Malvolio's love for himself probably is all as hungry as the sea and can digest as much. 

It's what causes him to duped; it's what allows him to be duped; and it's what ultimately makes his fall so much more catastrophic.

For more about Twelfth Night, take a look at my post on who loves whom, or an analysis of Malvolio, or a find out what Twelfth Night was and its relevance to the play.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Should We View Shakespeare's Plays Through Feminist Eyes?

Was Shakespeare a protofeminist?
I received an email today from someone who found my post on Feminism and Shakespeare. He was interested to know more about whether or not we should look at Shakespeare's work with that modern perception, and asked me a few questions on the topic. 

For what it's worth, I don't think there are any definitive answers. But here are my thoughts on the subject.

Applying feminism, or feminist ideas, to Shakespeare is always difficult - partly because feminism as we know it simply did not exist at the time, and also because Shakespeare's women were played by men. 

So, in that sense, you might say it's wrong to even attempt to look at Shakespeare from a feminist angle. 

But the question of whether we should look at Shakespeare's work under a feminist lens is, I think, a superfluous one. 

It is inevitable that our modern perceptions will apply, whether we're consciously doing it or not. We look at The Merchant of Venice through the lens of anti-Semitism; we look at Othello through the lens of racism. Those concepts didn't exist when Shakespeare was writing, but we simply cannot ignore what we know in the here and now.

Of course, we shouldn't cast judgement on the playwright using the same standards we own today. Yet, it is impossible to completely disregard our modern understanding of the world.

Shakespeare work has a lot to say
about gender roles

So, how much of our modern experience can we apply to Shakespeare? 

We're bound to do it, whether it is deliberate or not. We judge everything, including literature, art or the facts of history, by the things we've learned in the meantime. 

My personal opinion is that as long as we remember that the same 'rules' did not apply in Elizabethan and Jacobean (and even later) societies, then it is perfectly acceptable to offer a comparison.

Is it wrong to give feminist views to Shakespeare's female characters? 

I don't think so. Just because the word 'feminism' didn't exist doesn't mean questions could not be asked about a woman's role in society. And gender is such a big part of many of Shakespeare plays. 

The examination of femininity in Macbeth, for example, is fascinating. Are women capable of heinous acts? With the cross-dressing girls like Viola and Rosalind, he was quite literally playing with gender roles; and mostly that was for comic effect, but even comic effect can have something serious to say.

Is it wrong to view Shakespeare
from a modern feminist perspective?

Do you think that there is any appropriate balance between what Shakespeare intended and modern interpretations? 

As I say, to my mind, feel free to take whatever modern slant you want, but it's essential to remember the world in which the plays were created. 

The truth is though, most of Shakespeare's plays haven't aged at all badly, which is what makes them so ripe for adaptation.

The female characters are not so very different from their modern counterparts, and that is why we do tend to think of Shakespeare's work as feminist. After all, we don't expect a four-hundred-year-old play to present female characters that are recognisable and relatable. 

How does cross-dressing influence the way his female characters were intended to be presented? 

My feeling is that the cross-dressing was predominantly a comic device. It causes confusion, and it also allows us to laugh at traditional gender roles. 

In Shakespeare's own time, it was a case of double cross-dressing, of course, because only boys played female roles, which adds another layer of humour that we don't get in most modern productions.

Strong female characters is a
hallmark of Shakespeare's plays

If there is no concept of feminism in Shakespeare's time, what do his strong female roles represent? 

Just that: strong female roles. There were strong women long before 'feminism' came into being. 

What's really interesting to me is that all Shakespeare's women are strong, which may not be particularly reflective of society (although, bear in mind, there was a strong woman on the throne for much of Shakespeare's lifetime). 

But more than anything, I think he realised that strong, gutsy girls made for much more captivating and dramatic characters. 

And, in an anticlimactic way, maybe that was what was at the heart of it all. Perhaps there was no particular statement about gender, it was just making good theatre!

If you'd like to learn more about Shakespeare, and his portrayal of women, take a look at 'Are Shakespeare's Plays Sexist?'

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

What is Shakespeare's Sonnet 57 About? | Being Your Slave What Should I Do...

Shakespeare is the Fair Youth's 'slave' in Sonnet 57
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 57 is part of the 'Fair Youth' collection, which is addressed to an unknown male subject. Many of the 'Fair Youth' poems are intended to encourage marriage and procreation in order for the young man to achieve immortality. 

However, other sonnets, including 57, provide a very different tone.

The theme of Sonnet 57 leads on from the previous Sonnet 56, which speaks of the poet's concern over the youth’s flagging affections.

In 57, however, the situation seems to have become more serious and the poet is experiencing jealousy over the young man’s extended periods spent with various other people.

What is Shakespeare Saying in Sonnet 57?

What should I do but tend upon the hours
and times of your desire?

Sonnet 57 opens with Shakespeare referring to himself as the young man’s “slave”. It is often assumed that the Fair Youth was a patron of Shakespeare’s and, therefore, the poet had to make himself available when the young man called for him. 

He goes on to ask, “...what should I do but tend/Upon the hours and times of your desire?” The implication being that Shakespeare has no way to fill his time, but to wait until his patron and friend desires his company.

Given the poet’s prolific output, it’s difficult to imagine that he has “...no precious time at all to spend/Nor services to do, till you require.” Nevertheless, that's what he claims. 

Is Shakespeare Upset With the Fair Youth?

However, he refuses to become angry or frustrated by the time spent waiting. Instead, he tells the Fair Youth that, “Nor dare I chide the world-without-end hour/Nor dare I chide the world-without-end hour.” In addition, he claims to have no bitterness towards the youth or the time he spends with others, “Nor think the bitterness of absence sour/When you have bid your servant once adieu.” 

But to paraphrase one of Shakespeare’s other works, perhaps the poet doth protest too much. After all, he wouldn’t be writing the poem if he wasn't hurt by the fact his dear friend has found better ways to fill his time.

To paraphrase Gertrude, perhaps Shakespeare's
protesting too much in Sonnet 57
He goes on to admit to having “jealous thoughts,” but claims that he is able to keep these in check and so does not question the young man’s whereabouts or who he might be with.

Shakespeare as His Patron's Sad Slave

In the concluding verses, the poet returns to referring to himself as a “sad slave” who sits alone and thinks of nothing except hope that his young friend is happy in his pursuits. 

Shakespeare ends by admitting that his hours spent pining for the Fair Youth are foolishly spent, but states that, “So a fool is love that in your will/Though you do any thing, he thinks no ill.” 

In other words, one in love is incapable of feeling ill toward the object of affection regardless of where that person may go and what she, or in this case he, may do.

Being your slave, what should I do but tend 
Upon the hours and times of your desire? 
I have no precious time at all to spend, 
Nor services to do, till you require. 
Nor dare I chide the world-without-end hour
Whilst I, my sovereign, watch the clock for you,
Nor think the bitterness of absence sour 
When you have bid your servant once adieu; 
Nor dare I question with my jealous thought 
Where you may be, or your affairs suppose, 
But, like a sad slave, stay and think of nought
Save, where you are how happy you make those.
So true a fool is love that in your will,
Though you do any thing, he thinks no ill.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Shakespeare's Love's Labours Lost in a Nutshell

Try to sum one of Shakespeare's plays up in a sentence and you might find it quite tricky. After all, even a relatively simple play, like A Midsummer Night's Dream, has three strands to the plot.

However, I've set about trying to describe each of Shakespeare's works in its most simple terms.

Here is Love's Labours Lost in a nutshell.

A king and three of his noblemen make a vow to avoid the company of women for three years, but the promise becomes hard to keep when the Princess of France and her ladies seek an audience with the king.

For more of Shakespeare's plays in a nutshell, take a look at The Comedy of Errors, As You Like it and All's Well That Ends Well.

Friday, 27 June 2014

5 Interesting Facts About Hamlet

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet in 1948
Written sometime between 1599 and 1602, Shakespeare's Hamlet has proven immensely popular, and it's little wonder with a play that has it all: jealousy, revenge, power, love, murder...and even moments of comedy.

Here are five interesting facts about one of Shakespeare's best-loved and most well known plays.

1. Hamlet is Shakespeare's longest play at 4,042 lines and with a running time of around 5 hours.

For obvious reasons, the play is often edited and shortened, but when Shakespeare's original audience saw it, that was a very long stretch of sitting...on wooden seats. 

The Lion King is an adaptation of Hamlet

2. Disney's The Lion King is based on Hamlet.

Simba is Hamlet: his father is murdered by his uncle and he, eventually, seeks vengeance. But while The Lion King has the tear-jerker dad's death scene, it also has a much happier ending! 

3. Hamlet is the second most filmed story in the world...coming second to Cinderella.

There have been over fifty screen adaptations of Hamlet. One of the first filmed versions was made well over a century ago, in 1908

Since then, notable versions have included Laurence Olivier's in 1948, Kenneth Branagh's in 1996, and Michael Almereyda's 2000 adaptation, with a modern twist, starring Ethan Hawke.

Kenneth Branagh's 1996 Hamlet is just one of the many
film versions of Shakespeare's work

4. Shakespeare probably used Saxo Grammaticus' legend of Amleth as a source for the play.

The folklore legend of Amleth was immortalised
by Shakespeare's Hamlet 
Amleth (Anglicised to 'Hamlet'), Prince of Denmark's father is killed by his own brother. 

In order to put his uncle on the back foot, Amleth "...chose to feign dullness, and pretend an utter lack of wits. This cunning course not only concealed his intelligence but ensured his safety. 

"Every day he remained in his mother's house utterly listless and unclean, flinging himself on the ground and bespattering his person with foul and filthy dirt. His discoloured face and visage smutched with slime denoted foolish and grotesque madness." (Amleth, Prince of Denmark, from the Gesta Danorum of Saxo Grammaticus, edited by D. L. Ashliman).
Sound familiar?

5. Hamlet was among Shakespeare's most popular works during his own lifetime...and has remained one of his most often performed plays.

From the play's very first performances, it was a hit. Over four centuries on, it's still one of Shakespeare's most popular and frequently performed plays - that's some longevity! 

Friday, 13 June 2014

Family Relationships in Shakespeare's Plays

Who knows how Shakespeare got on with his own family,
but the relationships in his play are rarely simple 
“A little more than kin, and less than kind.” - Hamlet, I.ii 

One of the most appealing aspects of Shakespeare’s plays is that every one of his characters is intriguing, complex, contradictory and different from the ones that came before.

There is no such thing as a stock Shakespearean father, sister, uncle or wife. 

Subsequently, the portrayal of family relationships in Shakespeare’s plays is as diverse as the portrayal of the characters themselves.

Variety is The Spice of Life

Shakespeare gives his audiences warring brothers, such as Oliver and Orlando in As You Like It; ungrateful daughters, in the shape of Goneril and Regan from King Lear; devoted siblings, like Viola and Sebastian in Twelfth Night; and disobedient daughters, such as Desdemona in Othello.

Brutus and Portia should have a relatively happy marriage,
but things are complicated
However, one thing that does seem universal in Shakespeare’s plays is that there is no such thing as a completely content family relationship. 

Even fairly happy family bonds are complicated by some outside force - for example, the marriage of Brutus and Portia in Julius Caesar, which is strained by Brutus’ inability to confide in his wife about his part in the assassination plot.

Partly, this is in order to create conflict: the lifeblood of drama. However, it also adds realism to the texts, because, just as no human being is all good or all bad, no relationship can be perpetually happy. 

This is especially true of relationships between family members, because the emotions are, usually, so strong.

Shakespeare’s Sisters and Brothers

The most famous sisters in Shakespeare’s cannon are Viola (sister of Sebastian) and Olivia (sister of an unnamed, deceased brother) in Twelfth Night; Goneril, Regan and Cordelia in King Lear; and the Weird Sisters in Macbeth. 

The likelihood is that the witches use the term ‘sisters’ in reference to a sisterhood of their craft, rather than an actual familial relationship. So that leaves Viola, Olivia and Lear’s girls.
Sisters in Shakespeare's plays:
Goneril and Regan

Viola, as mentioned above, is a devoted sister, who is grieving the loss of her brother. She and Olivia have much in common in that regard. The difference, of course, being that Olivia’s brother really is dead.

Goneril, Regan and Cordelia are a fascinating threesome. It can be argued that Cordelia, despite feeling that her sisters were wrong to profess so strong and obviously disingenuous love for their father, retains an affection for them. “I know you what you are;/And like a sister am most loath to call/Your faults as they are named.”(I.i) 

The relationship between Goneril and Regan, which seems to be cordial or, at the very least, single-minded, disintegrates when Edmund comes between the pair.

Often, there is a competitiveness between Shakespeare’s brothers, which spills over into bitterness and violence, as seen with the two sets of brothers in As You Like It. However, there are also loyal brothers, such as Marcus in Titus Andronicus.

Shakespeare’s Children and Parents

As with sibling relationships, the relationships between children and their parents can vary dramatically. 

Shylock unquestionably loves Jessica
Interestingly, there are precious few mothers in Shakespeare’s plays, the most infamous being Gertrude from Hamlet

The relationship between Hamlet and his mother being a particularly interesting one, of course, was examined by Sigmund Freud.

Fathers, on the other hand, abound. Often fathers of girls are overprotective and controlling, as is the case for Jessica and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice

Subsequently, there is a theme of runaway daughters: Hermia, Juliet, Desdemona, and the aforementioned Jessica, to name a few.

Nevertheless, there are very positive father/daughter relationships, too: Cordelia and Lear, despite their rocky bond at the start of the play, and Lavinia and Titus, for example.

Shakespeare’s Marriages

There are precious few married couples portrayed in Shakespeare’s plays. The majority of the comedies end with multiple marriages, but whether these turn out to be happy unions is a matter of opinion. 

For example, it’s difficult to imagine Katharina and Petruchio in The Taming of The Shrew having a pleasant, content life together (despite her apparent change of heart at the end of the play).
Although they don't look it here, the
Macbeths are Shakespeare's happiest
married couple

Ironically, the happiest marriage in Shakespeare’s works is that of the Macbeths. 

At the beginning of the play, the pair are completely in love and devoted to one another. However, this doesn’t last, as guilt over the murder of Duncan drives a wedge between them.

Essentially, Shakespeare portrays family relationships in many, interesting, dramatic, humorous and/or dysfunctional ways. 

He presents us with a spectrum of bonds that range from loving and loyal, to bitter and hateful. 

Audiences, or readers, are shown acts of immense familial devotion and horrific betrayal. And, of course, everything in between.