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 Loves Labour's 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 Loves Labour's 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.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

A Quick Overview of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

In many ways, The Merchant of Venice is a tale of love
The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare's earliest comedies, thought to have been penned between 1596 and 1598. 

The play tells the story of Antonio, the wealthy merchant of the title, who offers to lend his friend, Bassanio, money so that he may travel to Belmont to woo the "fair Portia". 

Unfortunately, all of Antonio's current assets are at sea, but desperate and determined to help his friend, he goes to a usurer, Shylock, and asks for three thousand ducats. 

We discover, during their battering, that Shylock has been the victim of  Antonio's anti-Semitic abuse, and so he agrees to the deal on the understanding that, if Antonio cannot pay back the money within three months, Shylock will extract a pound of flesh as payment. 

Some time later, Antonio hears word that all his vessels are lost or wrecked.

Shylock can be played as a villain,
but is he really?

The Merchant of Venice as a Problem Play


Although The Merchant of Venice is classed as a comedy, and there are undoubtedly comic moments within it, it could also be described (at least in part) as a tragedy.

Therefore, it is often known as one of Shakespeare's 'problem' plays, meaning that it does not fit comfortably in one genre. 

It is worth mentioning that the word 'comedy' in Shakespearean (and earlier) terms was not necessarily used to indicate something which was funny, it simply meant that the play ended 'happily' - with one of more marriages.

The principal modern difficulty of the play is the character of Shylock, and there has been much debate about whether he is a sympathetic character, or the unmitigated villain of the piece. 

Part of the problem here is that the play is now so far out of the context of its own time. 

How do You Solve a Problem Like Shylock?


And, of course, the play was particularly sullied when it was used as Nazi propaganda. However, if we examine the context in which the play is set, it seems that Shakespeare has done something really quite extraordinary. 

Henry Goodman gave us a sympathetic Shylock
The only other theatrical representation of a Jew at that time would have been in Christopher Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, in which Marlowe offers the fairly two-dimensional character of Barabas. 

Shylock, on the other hand, is clearly complex, multi-faceted and, I'd argue, not motivated by cruelty.

The portrayal of Shylock depends greatly on the choices made by both actors and directors. But, there is evidence in the text to indicate Shakespeare's intentions. 

For example, during the conversation about the proposed bond, Shylock states, "Signior Antonio, many a time and oft/In the Rialto you have rated me/About my moneys and my usances:/Still have I borne it with a patient shrug/You call me misbeliever, cut throat dog,/And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine"(I.iii)

This clearly depicts Shylock as a man who does not act out of unmotivated malice. Antonio even says, "I am as like to call thee so again,/To spit on thee again, to spurn thee too."(I.iii) Therefore, it appears that Shylock's agreement to lend the money is, in of itself, a really rather decent gesture considering his treatment.

In addition, the 'pound of flesh' clause could simply be, as Shylock calls it, "a merry sport"(I.iii) 

Perhaps it is only after the Christians have wronged him again, by stealing his daughter and his assets, that he claims his revenge. As Shylock says, in one of the most famous Shakespearean speeches, "If you prick us do we not bleed?/If you tickle us, do we not laugh?/If you poison us, do we not die?/And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?/If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that/The villainy you teach me I will execute"(III.i)

Portia is another one of Shakespeare's
cross-dressing girls

The Women of The Merchant of Venice


Another particularly interesting part of this play is, as with almost all Shakespeare plays, the female characters.

The women of the play are not only fascinating, but also strong individuals - and, let's face it, forces to be reckoned with. 

Portia, in particular, is a woman of action and, like Antonio, leaps to Bassanio's aid when required. 

Furthermore, it could be said that she is the most intelligent character of the play, for it's she who discovers the loop-hole in Shylock's contract.

Two Worlds Collide


The Merchant of Venice is, essentially, a play of two halves and it is only towards the very end that the two worlds of Venice and Belmont converge. Belmont, where the women of the play spend most of their time, is similar to a fairy tale. For instance, we have suitors vying for Portia. And the three chests that the men have to pick from is very reminiscent of fairy tales.

Henry Goodman, Derbhle Crotty and Trevor Nunn
Furthermore, Belmont seems to be the world of romantic love. While Venice, on the other hand, occupies the world of money and commerce. 

Love and money, therefore, appear to be the main themes of the play, and it is interesting to note that they are both bartered for in a similar fashion. 

The contract of love between Bassanio and Portia is very like the bond drawn up between Shylock and Antonio, for example.

To enhance this didactic view of the play, Shakespeare gives us an odd parallel between Portia and Antonio. This is illustrated by their first lines, Antonia laments, "In sooth I know not why I am so sad."(I.i) In the meantime, over in Belmont Portia states, "By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world."(I.ii) 

Neither, has an ostensible reason for a sadness that immediately draws a connection between the two. And, of course, the other thing they have in common is a great love for Bassanio. In fact, Antonio seems to believe that he has the greater love when he tells his friend, "Say how I lov'd you/when the tale is told, bid her be judge/Whether Bassanio had not once a love."(IV.i)

The Merchant of Venice's 'Happy' Ending


The play ends on a light note, with Bassanio and Gratiano discovering that they gave up the rings, which they promised to always keep, to Portia and Nerissa in disguise.

Shylock and Portia are two of only three
characters who stick to their 'bonds'
However, there is a sense of melancholy in the final scene. Portia claims that, "Nothing is good, I see, without respect"(V.i) She's referring to the music being played in the house, but it could indicate undertones of sadness over the events that took place in court.

The Merchant of Venice is a complex play in its constant questioning of morality. It also questions a world in which money is the highest commodity. 

It's a story which tells of great loss and sadness as well as joy and love. 

More importantly, it deals with the difficult issue of human principals and whether actions always mesh with those principals. For example, the play portrays Christian men behaving in a very unchristian way.

Ultimately, it seems, Shylock, Portia and Nerissa, are the only characters who actually uphold their bonds.

If you'd like to read more about The Merchant of Venice, check out The Casket Trial and Clever Portia and The Quality of Mercy.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

What is Shakespeare's Sonnet 56 About? | Sweet Love Renew Thy Force

Shakespeare's not happy about
coming second in his fair youth's eyes
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 56 is part of the collection’s ‘Fair Youth’ sequence (sonnets 1 to 126), which is addressed to an unnamed male youth. 

The romantic nature of many of these poems has led some commentators and critics to suggest that the works are evidence of a homosexual relationship between Shakespeare and the young man. 

Others have implied that the sonnets are describing a platonic love, or affection akin to a father/son relationship.

Analysis of Shakespeare's Sonnet 56


An analysis of Sonnet 56 differs depending upon the assumptions reached about the relationship between the poet and his subject. 

However, what is clear is the relationship (whatever its nature might be), is suddenly unstable, with Shakespeare expressing deep insecurity - this is a big shift from the mood of the previous Sonnet 55.

The poem opens with an address to “Sweet love”, which seems to be a direct plea to love itself, rather than the unnamed object of affection. Shakespeare implores ‘love’ to “renew [its] force,” so it cannot be claimed that “appetite” is stronger than a deep affection.
Henry Wriothesley may have been
Shakespeare's 'Fair Youth'

He points out that appetite, which is a euphemism for the temporary state of lust, may be sated today, only to return tomorrow, “sharpen'd in his former might.” 

This implies that Shakespeare’s ‘Fair Youth’ is either promiscuous or fickle (depending on what kind of love we believe he's referring to), and it's this impulsive, lustful nature that is threatening to ruin their relationship.

The poem suggests that Shakespeare is insecure about his place in the young man’s affections. 

He accepts that the youth has his peccadilloes, but asks that he remember their friendship. “ …although to-day thou fill/Thy hungry eyes even till they wink with fullness,/To-morrow see again.”

What is the 'Sad Interim' in Sonnet 56?


In verse (line) nine, Shakespeare refers to a “sad interim,” which he likens to an ocean that separates two lovers. 

In Sonnet 56 Shakespeare asks his
friend to remember the deep bond
they share
This ‘interim’ could, of course, refer to a literal separation - when the poet’s young friend is away from London. 

However, it could also suggest an emotional separation; a period of estrangement. This part of the poem is particularly interesting, because, until this point, there has been no suggestion of absence, merely a plea for “love” to outlast “appetite.”

He goes on to paint an image of two lovers, “contracted new” who have been separated by the ocean mentioned above. The pair comes to the shore to either literally see or, more likely, gaze in the direction of their loved one. 

This section of the poem has echoes of the myth of Hero and Leander, who are separated by the Dardanelles (Hellespont). Shakespeare claims that “when they see/Return of love, more blest may be the view.” 

Which can be roughly translated as ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder.’

In the final couplet, Shakespeare likens the “sad interim” of literal or emotional separation to the long period of winter, which, being filled with “care,” makes the summer “thrice more wish’d, more rare.”

However the relationship between poet and unnamed youth is construed in the here and now, in Sonnet 56 it is clear that Shakespeare feels his friendship (love), has been neglected by the young man and the poem is an attempt to reignite his flagging affections. 

This theme is continued in Sonnet 57, as Shakespeare’s concern over the lustful nature of his ‘Fair Youth’ intensifies.

Sweet love, renew thy force; be it not said 
Thy edge should blunter be than appetite, 
Which but to-day by feeding is allay'd, 
To-morrow sharpen'd in his former might: 
So, love, be thou; although to-day thou fill 
Thy hungry eyes even till they wink with fullness,
To-morrow see again, and do not kill 
The spirit of love with a perpetual dullness.
Let this sad interim like the ocean be 
Which parts the shore, where two contracted new
Come daily to the banks, that, when they see 
Return of love, more blest may be the view; 
Else call it winter, which being full of care 
Makes summer's welcome thrice more wish'd, more rare.

If you'd like to know more about Shakespeare's Sonnets, take a look at Who Was Shakespeare's Fair Youth?